Refugees flee border town as military operation looms

The town of Akçakale was split in two when the border of Turkey and Syria was drawn up after World War One. But after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan renewed his pledge last week to seize the Syrian half, Tel Abyad, from Kurdish forces, civilians and refugees on both sides of the frontier are on the move, fearing the clashes to come.

Erdoğan said last week that Turkey would launch a military campaign in Syria against the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that control most of northeast Syria, including the northern border. The operation is set to target the towns of Tel Abyad and Serekaniye, both held by the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish force that has, with U.S. air power and artillery backing, all but crushed the Islamic State in Syria.

Turkey sees the YPG as a terrorist group and says it is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been fighting inside Turkey for more than three decades.

The Pentagon issued a sharp rebuke in response to the Turkish threat, saying any unilateral military action into northeast Syria would be unacceptable. U.S. forces set up three military observation posts near the border after shelling from Turkey into Kurdish-controlled territory two months ago.

Since the start of the war, the population of Akçakale has nearly doubled to 150,000 with the arrival of Syrian refugees. But refugee families on both sides of the border are gathering their belongings to move once again as Turkish authorities clear the camps ahead of the planned cross-border military operation.

“The only reason I came to this city was because of the war that broke out in my country,” said Hamad El Shaykh, a father of nine from just across the border in Tel Abyad. “This was the first city I arrived in after leaving Syria, and now, having to move once again is a daunting task.”

Many locals use the Turkish, Arabic and Kurdish names for the town divided by the border - Akçakale, Tel Abyad and Gıre Sipi - interchangeably. One reason Syrian refugees favoured Akçakale was the similarity in culture and traditions on the Turkish side despite years of political and physical division.

Many refugees in Akçakale have already fled multiple cities during the course of the war. A teacher in Syria, El Shaykh has been running a café in Akçakale. He has lost two brothers to the war and three of his children were born in Turkey.

“It feels like our lives are spent picking up and moving,’’ he said.