Photograph by John Stanmeyer, National Geographic

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Tens of thousands of Kurds flee an Islamic State assault on Ayn al Arab (Kobane) in Syria and stream across the border into the Turkish town of Dikmetas.

Photograph by John Stanmeyer, National Geographic

Refugee Flood Heightens Long-Standing Tensions Between Turks and Kurds

The Islamic State's assault on a Kurdish area in Syria increases tensions in Turkey, but may unite rival Kurdish factions.

DAHUK, Iraq—The ongoing assault by militants with the Islamic State on Ayn al Arab (Kobane), a Kurdish city in northern Syria, has unleashed a new wave of terror in the beleaguered country and triggered a mass exodus of tens of thousands into neighboring Turkey.

But beyond the enormity of the humanitarian crisis, the dramatic influx of Kurdish refugees has heightened tensions between Turkey and the Kurds, while it appears to be easing long-standing antagonisms between Kurdish factions spread across four nations. (See "Photographer Captures Tens of Thousands Fleeing ISIS, Entering Turkey.")

The developments have dismayed Turkish authorities, who worry the refugee crisis could stir renewed efforts by its Kurdish minority and its rebel force to seek autonomy for Kurdish areas.

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Syrians are seeking safer ground within their country and outside its borders: Approximately 6.45 million residents are “internally displaced persons,” and over three million have become refugees. Some return home briefly to check on property or relatives. Others move back after finding life in a camp or host community more difficult than expected. Nonetheless, refugee numbers are soaring.

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Turkey, an important NATO member that shares Syria's entire northern border, has admitted more than 100,000 Kurdish refugees, according to the country's deputy prime minister, but it's been reluctant to allow the passage of arms to outgunned Kurdish fighters in Syria. (Related: "No Reply.")

Turkish authorities are intent on toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but they also want to prevent Syrian Kurds from carving out autonomous territory within the fractured country. They've consequently backed a number of extreme Islamist rebels who have demonstrated a willingness to take on the Kurds, while also refusing to help Kobani's embattled defenders, despite their shared disdain of Assad.

Ankara fears that significant battlefield successes by the main Syrian Kurdish rebel group, known as the YPG, could renew Kurdish separatist ambitions in Turkey. After battling the PKK, the YPG's sister organization across the border, for the better part of four decades, Turkey and its restive Kurdish minority are in a period of wary rapprochement.

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More than 5,000 Kurds have crossed into Yumurtalik, Turkey, many carrying their possessions, including carpets and bedding.

"The Turks are a problem," said one Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified, discussing the sensitive issue of military aid to Syrian rebels. "The YPG has emerged as the most reliable opponent of President Assad's regime, but there's a fear some kit [equipment] might end up with the PKK, and so we're discouraged from doing business with them."

The Islamic State, a terrorist army that originally billed itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is an outgrowth of al Qaeda in Iraq, but its refusal to answer to al Qaeda's leadership and its massacres of Muslims whose ways differ from its own have split the two terror organizations. Islamic State, based in Ar Raqqah, Syria, has declared a restoration of the ancient caliphate in the territory it has seized in Syria and Iraq.

The militants have attacked Kobani (known as Ayn al Arab in Arabic) several times in the past. Another clash over the strategically situated frontier town was not unexpected—not least because the Islamic State signaled its intent in its most recent video, Flames of War, released last week. But with the Islamic State continuing to batter surrounding villages, tens of thousands more Syrian refugees could flee across the border in the coming days.

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Aid workers on the Turkish border struggle to handle the overwhelming exodus as more than 100,000 Kurds flee the fighting in Syria.

Firepower and Desperation

It's unclear why the Islamic State has set its sights on Kobani, one of the first places to rise up against Bashar al-Assad, with such a vengeance.

Its strategic location at a border crossing is valuable, but probably not so essential to the Islamic State that it would risk fighting its enemies in the trenches the YPG has dug around the city. The area's Kurds are intent on creating their own autonomous territory, but probably not one large enough to diminish the Islamic State's dream of a pan-Muslim caliphate.

"Maybe they see [Kobani] as a threat to the roads to [Ar] Raqqah," suggested Wladimir Van Wilgenburg, an analyst at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C., who focuses on Kurdish politics.

What distinguishes this siege from previous assaults on Kobani is that the Islamic State appears to have a real chance of capturing the city. Its recent conquests in Iraq and its cache of captured American weapons have emboldened and strengthened its forces, at a time when the YPG is reeling from a lack of resources.

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A Kurdish refugee labors under his burden of mattresses and sleeping pads.

The scene at the Mosul Dam, which was recaptured by Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters early in September, vividly illustrates the Islamist group's prodigious firepower.

The causeway is dented with craters from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the approach roads are littered with high-caliber bullet casings fired from pickup truck-mounted machine guns, while abandoned American ammunition crates, which were pilfered from Iraqi army bases in Mosul, offer a reminder of the Islamic State's success in seizing big cities.

Kobani natives, a few of whom have clustered in and around Dahuk, on the northwestern fringe of Iraqi Kurdistan, are keen to broadcast their desperation.

"Help us, America. We have nothing. Nothing. They have tanks and we have this," a Syrian Kurd said earlier this week, gesturing at his shabby Kalashnikov rifle. He and two companions had mounted an earthwork berm marking the border between the Kurdistan region of Iraq and one of the pockets of Kurdish-held territory in Syria.

The three Syrian Kurds, none of whom would give their names, had left their home city to seek work in oil-rich Erbil, but anguished phone calls from their families had spurred them to begin the arduous multi-border crossing back to their besieged land.

Despite initial setbacks, however, the prospect of U.S. airstrikes on Islamic State positions has bolstered the YPG's confidence. The United States sent fighter jets and launched missiles into Syria on Monday, Pentagon officials said, but did not disclose the targets.

"Our forces are inflicting major blows," said Salih Moslem, the leader of the group's political wing. "Kobani will never fall. For Kobani to fall, everyone there must be killed."

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A Kurdish child is overcome with emotion.

Border Crossings

To understand Kobani's plight—and Turkey's anxiety about military assistance for the YPG—it's necessary to examine the bitter enmities in the region. Despite the crisis in Syria, rival Kurdish factions based in large swaths of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey have had a tough time casting aside their historic differences.

The family of Masoud Barzani, the president of semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, dominates the regional government, and its Rudaw media network—taking its cue from Turkey, critics say—is often unsympathetic to the YPG in its coverage of the crisis. Many Turkish and Syrian Kurds, in turn, revile the Iraqi Kurdish government for its expanding business ties to Turkey, including shipping oil from Kurdistan-controlled fields to Turkey.

There are signs that this deep mutual mistrust might be subsiding, however. "My brother had a much tougher time crossing when he went back last month," said the Kalashnikov-wielding Syrian Kurd, surprised by the minimal security presence near Dahuk.

Much to Turkey's chagrin, this thaw in Kurdish relations might even translate into extensive cross-border cooperation.

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Kurdish families who fled into Turkey huddle on a dusty plain.

The Kurdish PKK units from Turkey, whose stronghold lies in the Qandil Mountains along the Iraq-Turkey border, fought en masse in August to repel an Islamic State offensive into Iraqi Kurdistan. Rudaw commentators have suggested the Iraqi Kurdish special force, an elite group that answers to Barzani's son, could dispatch aid to besieged YPG fighters in Kobani.

"Relations are getting a little better, because with the events in Mosul and now this in Syria, there's an urgency to the situation," Van Wilgenburg said. "You see there's more stimulus for the Kurds to work together."

Tales of the Islamic State's terror tactics are now filtering out of the Syrian city.

Some refugees allege that militants have coated mortars in chlorine to scare the population into thinking it is under a chemical weapon attack; others say suicide bombers have hurled themselves at Kobani's defenses.

Those trudging into exile are, in some ways, among the lucky ones. They're largely out of danger (though refugees who were tear-gassed after they arrived in Turkey over the weekend might feel differently). But they will now come up against an overwhelmed aid operation.

Tom Robinson, director of the Rise Foundation, an Erbil-based charity that caters to the most deprived refugees, said, "This was already an existing humanitarian emergency with the Syrians, but now with internally displaced Iraqis, we're stretched to capacity."

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A Kurdish refugee family waits in a car after crossing into Yumurtalik in Turkey.