GAZIANTEP, Turkey (CNN) — Is a possible threat to an ancient tomb at the heart of Turkey’s debate on whether to step up its role in the fight against ISIS?
The Turkish Parliament is debating and will vote later Thursday on whether to authorize the use of military force against ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq.
Up until now, Turkey, a NATO member, has declined to join a U.S.-led coalition, offering only tacit support to some 40 nations that make up the group going after ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
But that seems to have changed in recent days, with ISIS on its doorstep, tens of thousands fleeing across its border and reports that the tomb of the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire has been surrounded.
The tomb — a white marble mausoleum — is considered a Turkish enclave, despite its location inside Syria. As part of the Treaty of Ankara in 1921, which ended the Franco-Turkish War, Turkey was allowed to keep the tomb, place guards at it and raise a Turkish flag over it.
The motive for the motion being debated by Turkish lawmakers even spells out “increasing security risks” posed to the tomb as one of the reasons, according a report by Anadolu, the semiofficial Turkish news agency.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday dismissed reports that ISIS had surrounded the site.
“In such a case, the response of Turkey would be clear and concise,” he said, according to Anadolu.
Newly appointed NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg stressed at his first news conference Wednesday that the defense alliance was committed to protecting Turkey if it comes under attack.
Special forces deployed
There have been conflicting reports in recent days about what has happened at the tomb and its guards, with some claims emerging that ISIS fighters briefly took the guards captive. It has also been widely reported that ISIS has had the tomb surrounded for months.
So valued is the tomb said to contain the remains of Suleyman Shah — the grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire — that Turkey deployed special forces soldiers in March when ISIS began to take villages and towns surrounding the tomb.
For months, ISIS has been advancing, capturing portions of northern and eastern Syria and western and northern Iraq for what it says is its new Islamic state, or caliphate.
The fighting has only intensified in the region in recent days, with ISIS advancing and nearly surrounding the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani, known in Arabic as Ayn al-Arab, just a few miles from the tomb and on the border with Turkey.
If ISIS takes Kobani, it will control a complete swath of land from its self-declared capital of Raqqa on the Euphrates River to the Turkish border, more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) away.
Residents told to evacuate
An activist in Kobani told CNN Thursday that militants have advanced from the southeastern, eastern and western fronts, seizing a number of villages just outside the city.
Leaders of the local defense force, the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), have ordered civilians to evacuate the city as ISIS is on the periphery, media activist Mustafa Abdi told CNN. His account was confirmed by two other individuals in Kobani.
Abdi said he was waiting at the border at Mursitpinar with approximately 3,000 civilians waiting to cross into Turkey.
Saroat Saeed, a university student, told CNN he had made it across the border after waiting with what he said were the last civilians to leave Kobani.
Only fighters trying to defend the city now remain, he said, but it is surrounded by ISIS and they face a dire situation.
Alan Minbic, a YPG fighter, said Kobani had now been declared a military zone by the Kurdish force’s leaders. ISIS has Kobani surrounded from three sides and its fighters are positioned very close to the city, he said.
Kurdish snipers have taken up positions on high ground around the city but can expect ISIS shelling to try to dislodge them, he said.
TheYPG is now expecting ISIS to try to enter the city itself, Minbic said, adding that guerrilla warfare is the best chance for the defenders of Kobani because they hold the city and know it well.
‘We are not afraid to die’
Another YPG fighter who gave only his first name, Botan, told CNN by phone from Kobani that the Kurdish forces were determined to fight on.
“ISIS has surrounded us but we will fight, we are keeping our morale high,” he said.
“We know, we have also seen, what ISIS is capable of, what brutality they can do. … We know what they can do but we are not afraid to die, we are not afraid to fight. We know what will happen if ISIS takes over our town and what they will do to us.”
The fighters will resist neighborhood by neighborhood, he said.
“Our fight is not just for the Kurds, it is a fight for all of humanity. When people are getting their heads chopped off and tossed aside like animals, it is a duty to fight.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group, said Thursday that clashes had been reported between YPG and ISIS fighters only a few hundred yards from the east and southeast of the city.
The ISIS militants have seized more than 350 villages in the past 16 days and displaced no fewer than 300,000 people from Kobani and the surrounding countryside, it said.
U.N. report details abuses
ISIS fighters committed “a staggering array” of human rights abuses in Iraq over a nine-week period, including executions, killings, rape and the desecration of religious sites, a new United Nations report said Thursday.
The report documents “acts of violence of an increasingly sectarian nature” by ISIS and associated armed groups and says their abuses appear to be widespread and systematic.
From women reportedly being shot in the head for refusing to treat ISIS fighters, to the execution of Sunnis who refused to swear allegiance to ISIS, to the suicide bombing of a Shia mosque, it’s a litany of horrors.
Produced jointly by the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the report covers the period from July 6 to September 10, when ISIS was advancing across a swath of northern Iraq.
The abuses “include attacks directly targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure, executions and other targeted killings of civilians, abductions, rape and other forms of sexual and physical violence perpetrated against women and children, forced recruitment of children, destruction or desecration of places of religious or cultural significance, wanton destruction and looting of property, and denial of fundamental freedoms,” the report said.
‘Cleansing’ ethnic groups
Members of Iraq’s diverse ethnic and religious communities, including Turkmen, Christians, Yazidis, Sabaeans and Shia Muslims, have been particularly affected, the U.N. report said.
“ISIL and associated armed groups intentionally and systematically targeted these communities for gross human rights abuses, at times aimed at destroying, suppressing or cleansing them from areas under their control,” the report said, using another name for ISIS.
The militants also murdered captured soldiers, police and government personnel, the report said.
The report also cites alleged violations of international humanitarian law by Iraqi security forces and the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS as they fought the Sunni extremist group during this period.
It highlights airstrikes targeting ISIS fighters — who have sometimes deliberately positioned themselves within civilian areas — in which increasing numbers of civilians have died.
Bodies taken to mortuary
Meanwhile, airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition continue to target ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq.
The mortuary of Mosul General Hospital received the bodies of 45 suspected ISIS militants Tuesday and Wednesday, health officials in Mosul told CNN.
Most were killed in strikes carried out on several areas west of Mosul, in northern Iraq, through 7 p.m. local time Wednesday, the officials said.
Two British military jets bombed an armed pickup truck overnight to help Kurdish Peshmerga forces advance on an ISIS position in northwest Iraq, the UK Ministry of Defence said Thursday.
A day earlier, UK aircraft also dropped bombs in the northwest to help out Kurdish ground forces that were being fired on by ISIS fighters, the ministry said. Initial reports indicate the strike was successful, it said.