The tiny coffin was wrapped in the blood-red Turkish flag and carried from the mosque on the shoulders of mourners. Inside was the body of Mohammed Omar, a nine-month-old Syrian boy.
The baby was killed by Kurdish shelling in the border town of Akçakale, Turkish authorities said, one of the first civilians to die inside Turkey since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ordered a military assault on northeast Syria.
In the mosque courtyard, mourners chanted curses against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish militant group Turkey considers a mortal foe. But their anger quickly turned to another target. “Damn the PKK,” the crowd shouted in unison. “Damn America.”
This week’s events reflect how drastically America’s balancing act in Syria has collapsed since the Turkish offensive began.
Over four days of bloody fighting a showdown that some have seen as inevitable has at last come to pass. The Kurdish fighters who helped the US defeat the Islamic State (Isil) are locked in all-out struggle with the Turkish state that Washington helps arm and is treaty-bound to defend.
Turkey claims to have killed as many as 277 Kurdish fighters since Wednesday while losing only two of its own soldiers. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said the Kurds had only lost 24 men. At least 11 civilians were reportedly killed in Kurdish areas.
Meanwhile, the Kurds have faced daily attacks from Isil sleeper cells who appear emboldened by the chaos of the Turkish offensive. Four people were said to have been killed in a suspected jihadist car bomb in the centre of the northern Syrian city of Qamishli.
Five Isil suspects escaped from a prison in Qamishli as a result of Turkish shelling nearby, Kurdish forces said Friday.
The roots of this week’s conflict are in 2015, when the US-led coalition turned to the Kurds as a partner force to mount a ground campaign against Isil inside Syria with the support of Western airpower and special forces. The Kurds were seen as a natural choice because of their combat prowess and because, unlike Turkey, they could be cast a local Syrian fighting force rather than a foreign invader.
But a horrified Ankara pointed out that the bulk of America’s new Kurdish allies came from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a force known to have links to the PKK. The PKK, which seeks an independent Kurdish state in Turkish territory, is considered a terrorist group by Britain and the US as well as Turkey.
“It isn’t that US officials didn’t know about Turkey’s concerns regarding the YPG/PKK,” said Howard Eissenstat, associate professor of history at St Lawrence University. “It is that they decided that the immediate benefits of cooperating with the YPG outweighed the longterm concerns of Turkey.”
The new units were coaxed into taking the non-sectarian title of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Western officials went to great lengths to stress that Arab and Assyrian fighters were serving alongside the Kurds.
The US made unsuccessful efforts to try to assuage Turkey. At one point the Pentagon told Ankara it would collect the weapons it had supplied to the SDF to use against Isil to ensure they could never be turned on Turkey. The Turks were unmoved.
Officially, the SDF denies any connection to the PKK. Yet even brief visits to SDF bases in northern Syria make clear the group’s ideology is never far away.
The walls are decorated with portraits of Abdullah Öcalan, the charismatic PKK leader who has spent the last 30 years in a Turkish prison on a remote island. SDF officers include Turkish Kurds who do not speak Arabic, despite claiming to fight for Syria.
Trump administration officials, trying to defend the president’s decision to abandon the Kurds to a Turkish onslaught, have suddenly become explicit about the SDF-PKK link in a way the Obama White House always avoided.
Turkey – Syria map
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, a senior official stated as fact that the SDF included “the Syrian offshoot of the PKK”, a claim the SDF disputes. “That, of course, is the problem for Turkey, which has been suffering horrific terrorist attacks from the PKK for now 35 years,” the official added for emphasis.
Yet whatever its ideological origins, the SDF has not acted on the PKK’s historic mission to break Kurdish areas of Turkey away from the rest of the country. Instead, it has studiously followed US instructions to defeat Isil and avoid confrontation with the Turks.
Kurdish forces refrained from attacking Turkish positions and, at the request of the American military, dismantled many of their fortifications to show Turkey they posed no threat.
Four years of trying to simultaneously manage Turkish and Kurdish interests finally fell apart on Sunday, when Donald Trump told Mr Erdoğan he was removing US forces from northern Syria and opening the way for a Turkish assault.
Key Republican allies of Mr Trump called the decision “a betrayal” of America’s Kurdish allies. But to mourners at the funeral in Akçakale, it was seen as too little, too late to reverse America’s earlier betrayal of Turkey.
“We always feel sorry when there are terror attacks in the US but the US government doesn’t feel sorry when there are terror attacks here,” said one man watching Mohammed’s coffin outside the mosque. He shook his head. “Funerals look the same everywhere.”
Additional reporting: Josie Ensor