Pistols, airstrikes and smuggled cows: a letter from Islamic State border country

While the Commons voted to bomb, we were getting over the razor wire

4 October 2014

9:00 AM

4 October 2014

9:00 AM

 Turkey, Syria

It is the early hours of the day that Parliament votes on whether to bomb the so-called ‘Islamic State’ — and we are sitting cross-legged on the floor of a Kurdish smuggler’s house. He has a picture of Mecca on his wall, a gold watch on his wrist, and an open bottle of whisky by his side. His main business is running guns — we are offered a Beretta pistol for $1,000 — but last night he smuggled 70 cows from Syria into Turkey. We want to go the other way, into Syria and the Kurdish town of Kobane, which is under siege by IS. Our plan is already in trouble, because of the cows. Turkish soldiers watching the border are usually bribed to look the other way, the smuggler explains, but this time their officers could hear something was up. The way in is closed. Loud mooing comes from the darkness outside.

Our smuggler drinks steadily and holds forth on the Kurdish tragedy. We have always been surrounded by enemies, he says. The wars in Syria and Iraq will end in another Sykes-Picot, the Anglo-French treaty that carved up the Ottoman empire after the first world war. The Kurds will get shafted again. Turkey’s ‘Kurdish problem’ certainly does not help the campaign against IS. The Kurds holding out — just — against the jihadis in Kobane are from a militia called the YPG, brothers-in-arms to the PKK, which fought the Turkish state for 30 years. The Turks are nervous about the 140,000 refugees the UN says have crossed from Kobane so far. The Kurds, for their part, accuse Turkey of fostering IS, letting volunteers, money and guns cross the border. A Turkish journalist tells me there are still IS safehouses in the country. There is also the mystery of how Turkey managed to secure freedom for 49 of its citizens held by the jihadis in Mosul. Now that the hostages are free, though, the Turkish parliament will debate military action against IS.

Despite the lack of financial arrangements, we try the border at noon. They throw a plank over the razor wire and a YPG fighter takes my arm to keep me on a narrow line of footprints in the dust. ‘Mines,’ he says. On the other side, families huddle in the desert, people turning their faces away from a sand storm. Nearby, Kobane is shuttered and empty: the Islamic State are now just three miles away. We are taken to see a stretch of road the Kurds recaptured the day before. The tension in the car is sickening as we drive away from town. A hundred yards ahead, a shell crashes down in a field next to the road, setting the grass on fire. Fighters crouching in a large, sandbagged hole wave us over. The light is fading; it’s nearly time for the nightly jihadi offensive. Bullets whine overhead. Seeing the fear on my face, an old man with a Kalashnikov puts a comforting arm around me. He looks up at the sky and points. I assume he hears American planes but he says simply: ‘God is real.’

While we’re there a text comes through that the Commons has voted to join the bombing. This is only in Iraq, so far. Syria may come later; Syria is complicated. The Syrian Kurds, though poorly armed, are a unified force capable of acting as infantry to the American planes. But further west, in Arab areas, there are hundreds of armed groups, most of them Islamist and many sympathetic to the jihadis. Syrian activists have taken to listing the civilian casualties they say resulted from the coalition’s airstrikes next to deaths from the regime’s barrel bombs, as if the two are morally equivalent. ‘This is Crusader-Arab treachery,’ said one placard at a protest against airstrikes, ‘a war on all Sunnis.’ Several rebel brigades issued a statement accusing the West of inventing a terrorist threat to carry out strikes, adding to Syrian suffering. ‘This is another example of the West’s hypocrisy,’ it said. Some of those signing the declaration were part of what used to known as the Free Syrian Army. For all practical purposes, the FSA barely exists in much of rebel-held Syria. The US-led coalition’s air campaign will struggle to find a reliable partner on the ground. No wonder the politicians warn of a long war.

We try to head back over the border after dark. But hundreds of Turkish Kurds have crossed into Kobane during the day for a solidarity march. They are trying to force their way back into Turkey and are met with volleys of tear gas, then live rounds. One man is shot dead, another wounded, another beaten unconscious with rifle butts. Admittedly, the man shot dead was wearing a camouflage jacket and might have been mistaken for a fighter by the Turkish troops. Regardless, there will be no crossing tonight. Instead, we go to edit our piece at the hospital, one of the few places with electricity. A Kurdish politician tweets that IS are less than a mile from Kobane and the town will fall by morning. We can’t hear gunfire and the politician has been accused of exaggerating in the past. Still, we’re getting reports that IS fighters are being withdrawn from other towns they hold to attack Kobane. We decide to move to a building overlooking the Turkish military checkpoint. This means swapping the hospital’s comfortable beds for a concrete floor. But we don’t want to wake to find the jihadis between us and the border.

We wake, a little stiff, to the sound of planes flying overhead, but otherwise Kobane is quiet. There were American airstrikes overnight, the first here. The Kurds held IS back at the place we had been the day before. There is more good news. Our producer on the Turkish side, doing what she calls her ‘dumb blonde act’, has managed to charm the border guards into letting us through. Later, it turns out there were only three US airstrikes — not nearly enough to save the town, say the Kurds, angry and disappointed. We stand on a Turkish hillside and watch Islamic State mortars fall on Kobane. A cloud of smoke and masonry dust hangs in the air for a minute. It is gone by the time we turn to head for the car.

Iraq-and-Syria-debate-coffee house imageThe Spectator is holding a debate ‘Iraq and Syria are lost causes: intervention can’t help’ at 7pm on Wednesday 22 October at Church House, SW1. Speakers for the motion will include John Redwood and Patrick Cockburn, and against, Douglas Murray, Ed Husain and General The Lord Dannatt. Chairing the debate will be Andrew Neil. For tickets and further information, click here.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent.

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Show comments
  • andylowings

    Cameron . Protect your people.

    • Richard

      Britain doesn’t really exist anymore, after Labour 1997-2010. What is there left to protect? It is a loony-leftie cloud-cuckoo-land of leaves blowing in the wind.

      • sevanclaig

        a loony-leftie cloud-cuckoo-land of leaves blowing in the wind – around a multiplicious crop of an invasive species growing towards a sharia canopy.

        • Richard

          Your mixing of metaphors do you credit, sirrah!

  • Roger Hudson

    The BBC doing good for a change, great.
    We need more of this type of journalism and less crap jingo pictures from Akrotiri waving on a couple of very old planes firing £110,000 missiles at Toyoto pickups .
    The whole thing is very complex and the British government have made many bad decisions in the past, are making bad ones now and we need to stop them doing so in the future.

  • AJH1968

    Turkey seems to be colluding with the IS how she remains part of NATO is beyond me (perhaps a sign of the absurd times we live in). Unable to use NATO airbases in Turkey severely hampers any air campaign against IS.

    • Roger Hudson

      Turkey was let into NATO, at a time when its human rights record was truly terrible, just so the USA could get missiles and spy bases up on the USSR border. America bullied Europe and kept Turkey in NATO when it invaded Cyprus, something totally against the Treaty of Lausanne. Their objection to the true history of 1915-1923 genocide is for all to see and condemn.
      Why some idiots want them in the EU I don’t know, they will never get past the objections of existing EU states, the UK looks stupid supporting them.
      Turkey does support IS and doesn’t want more Kurds or an independent Kurdistan, it is a part of the problem and not the solution.

  • Ashley Bcloud
  • AJ

    A tragic benefit of the Islamic state, is that the wilfully blind are becoming increasingly aware of Islam, in that real Islam, according to the Koran is not a religion of peace, but in fact incredibly brutal and intolerant. The latest thing, that you won’t read in the media, is that ISIS are sending out “suicide infected” people or rather Muslims infected deliberately with Ebola to cities all across Europe and the USA, lets wait and see what happens shall we.

    • Tox66

      How do you know this? Sounds plausible and I’d already wondered how long it would take but what’s the evidence?

  • Islamic mutant

    Islamophobia rolls off the tongue better than Christianityophobia. The language of deceit is their weapon.

    • post_x_it

      It doesn’t really. It just seems that way because we’re so used to hearing that silly word.

  • callingallcomets

    The BBC at its best…..thank you Mr Wood

  • Nuke ISIS

    • CGR

      Just wait until they get to the one civilised State in the region !!!

      • You must mean Israel, because we Arabs are uncivilized robbing raping murdering pedophile goat molesting land thieves ( and these are only our good attributes )

    • waiting to inhale

      hey you, didn’t you just love it when in Tower Hamlets they hoisted a Palestinan flag next to an ISIS one?

      they even TELL YOU, that they’re the same, stupid!
      did you also sing and dance after 7/7, like your pets, the peaceful and christian-loving Palestitians?

      • We robbing raping murdering pedophile goat molesting land thieveing Palestinian terrorist s’cumbags ( and these are only our good attributes ) accept full blame for the No vote in the Scottish referendum after we wrongly advised our friend Alex Salmond & the SNP to display the fake Palestinian flag ( my avatar is the genuine one ) from Glasgow town hall and at violent drunken SNP voter Intimidation Yes rallies

        • waiting to inhale


  • Augustus

    The Islamic State have now all but captured Kobane.They hoisted a black flag above the town yesterday, and according to Syrian human rights watch IS holds a number of buildings on the Southern side as well as an old hospital on the West side. IS is also winning other territory in Anbar province in West Iraq. The air bombing doesn’t seem to be helping the Kurdish troops and citizens in Kobane very much either. By breaking them up with air strikes they simply spread out and form a more difficult future target. Of course, if Turkey really wanted to it could easily free Kobane from IS, but Turkey doesn’t because it’s an Islamic state itself. Anyone who thinks Turkey is a dependable ally of the West is naive. They’re probably just sitting in their tanks at the border smiling.