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Offensive poses problems for Turkey


A car burns as riot police use tear gas to disperse Kurdish demonstrators as thousands of Syrian refugees arrive at the border in Suruc, Turkey (AP)

A car burns as riot police use tear gas to disperse Kurdish demonstrators as thousands of Syrian refugees arrive at the border in Suruc, Turkey (AP)

A car burns as riot police use tear gas to disperse Kurdish demonstrators as thousands of Syrian refugees arrive at the border in Suruc, Turkey (AP)

The US-led air strikes and fierce fighting between the Islamic State militant group and Kurdish forces just over the border in Syria has brought the battle closer to Turkey.

Tens of thousands of refugees are seeking refuge in Turkey, raising pressure for the government to step up efforts to take on the Sunni extremists and now the United States and partner nations have launched the first air strikes in Syria against Islamic State (IS) fighters.

The IS offensive against the Syrian city of Kobani, a few miles from the border, has sent 130,000 refugees to head for Turkey in the last few days. The conflict in Syria had already led to more than one million people flooding over the border in the past three and a half years.

As the IS fighters pushed into Kurdish territory in Syria near the Turkish border, the government in Ankara is facing increasing pressure to step up efforts to battle the Islamic State extremists.

Turkey is resisting because it fears that arming Kurdish men to fight the group could complicate peace talks with Turkish insurgents within its own borders.

In addition to the refugee crisis, hundreds of Kurds in and around Kobani have clashed with Turkish police, who fired tear gas and water cannons. The Kurds say Turkey is hampering their efforts to let them cross into Syria and help their brethren.

An 18-year-old Turkish citizen in Suruc, who identified himself only by his first name of Azam for fear of reprisal from authorities, said he wanted to join the Kurdish fighters in Syria.

"The Islamic State is on the other side of the border and moving freely, slaughtering people, but they are just sitting and watching," he said of the Turkish authorities.

"If I get a chance to get a weapon, I'll go to help our brothers by end of the day. Kobani is our land, too, and people there are our people."

Syrian Kurdish fighters were crossing back and forth over the border, while other Syrian Kurds were seen selling livestock to raise money for weapons.

Not far away on the border, the black flag of IS could be seen flying in a captured Syrian village along with the smoke from mortar fire.

Spillover from the Syria poses a problem for Turkey. The only local fighters capable of resisting IS are Syrian Kurds aligned with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has fought a three-decade uprising in south-eastern Turkey.

Turkish officials have said PKK militants from Turkey are streaming to Syria to join the fight. The conflict in Syria already is inflaming tensions with Turkish Kurds and could undermine peace talks with the PKK.

Turkey's ambivalence about the fight between Kurds and IS, which could leave the PKK either drained or emboldened, could further complicate its participation in a US-led coalition against the Islamists.

While joining the coalition, Turkey had declined to take part in combat, citing the Turkish hostages held by IS in Mosul, Iraq. But even after the 46 Turks and three Iraqis were freed, Turkey has not changed its stance.

Turkish government officials have not revealed how they managed to secure the release of the captives. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denied paying a ransom but has been vague on whether there was a prisoner swap.

He indicated for the first time yesterday that his country may have traded Islamic State group prisoners it held captive in exchange for the Turkish hostages held by the militants.

Asked about it in New York, he said "such things may be possible". He said Israel released 1,500 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one Israeli hostage. "So you see, it's possible," he added.

Speaking at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York, Mr Erdogan tried to sidestep the question.

"This process that took 102 days involved an operation by the national intelligence agency ... it was a historic, very important process," he said.

US secretary of state John Kerry said Washington now expects Turkey to step up in the fight against the militants.

Mr Erdogan has said that Turkey will discuss its participation in the coalition during this month's United Nations General Assembly. The US ally and member of the Nato military alliance has made commitments of only limited help in the fight against IS, which has seized large parts of Syria and Iraq and rules by its harsh version of Islamic law.

The US is looking for major participation from nations in the region in the campaign to destroy the Islamic State group. President Barack Obama has pledged that no American troops will be involved in combat missions against the group and the US expects nations in the region to provide those.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday he remained hopeful that Turkey would participate in the coalition.

"We need Turkey, frankly," he said during a visit to Croatia, because of its military capability, regional influence and political gravitas in the Muslim world.

PA Media