The capture of Tel Abyad by Syrian Kurdish forces and their Free Syrian Army allies on June 15 is arguably the biggest blow dealt to the Islamic State, or ISIS, since the militants were ousted from Tikrit by Iraqi troops in April this year.
Tel Abyad functioned as an ISIS gateway to Turkey – and to the rest of the world. As such, a fierce battle was expected when the Kurds started closing in on the town earlier this month. To the surprise of many, not in the least the Kurds themselves, Tel Abyad fell in a matter of hours.
For the first time since the start of the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS the two biggest cantons of Rojava were connected and the jihadists' access to the Turkish border was cut off.
Kurdish gains in northern Syria
The Kurdish capture of the key border town was part of an extensive operation by the YPG/J (Peoples'/Women's Defense Forces) and their Syrian Arab allies. The operation commenced in early May and aimed to clear large swaths of northern Syria from ISIS' presence and (re-)establish control over the liberated areas.
With the help of US-led coalition air strikes targeting ISIS positions, the Kurds and their rebel allies managed to claim a series of important victories – liberating hundreds of villages, conquering the strategically important Abd al-Aziz mountain and capturing the town of Suluk which lies just 80 kilometers north of the Islamic State's de-facto capital Raqqa.
After the capture of Suluk on June 13, thousands of locals of the region fled the heavy fighting towards the border. They were closely followed by ISIS troops who prepared themselves to make a last stance in Tel Abyad. Footage of the refugees amassing at the border, separated from Turkey only by a barbed-wire fence was circulated via social media the same day.
At the time, the refugees were denied entry into Turkey. When a number of them pushed towards the border fence in a desperate attempt to convince the Turkish border guards to allow them access, they were attacked with water cannon and tear gas from the Turkish side. The video also showed a number of ISIS fighters openly carrying their arms mere meters away from the Turkish soldiers, forcing the people back into town – presumably to be used as human shields for when the YPG/J launched its attack on the town.
A massacre was feared as soon as the battle for Tel Abyad began. Fortunately, it never came to that. The refugees were allowed to cross the border, joining the nearly two million of their fellow countrymen and -women who had already sought refuge in Turkey, and the Kurdish forces were able to declare victory in a matter of hours after ISIS' troops realized they were trapped between a rock and a hard place. With their supply line to Raqqa cut off by coalition air strikes they quickly surrendered or fled to Turkey, mingling with the stream of refugees after cutting off their beards and changing their combat gear for civilian clothes.
Rojava's cantons united
The capture of Tel Abyad was completed by Kurdish forces who attacked from both the east and the west. The troops arriving from the east came from Rojava's Cezire canton, the largest of the three Kurdish-dominated regions in northern Syria. The troops arriving from the west stemmed from Rojava's Kobane canton, which only five months earlier had made headlines across the world when it was about to be run over by ISIS, a potential tragedy that was only averted cue to the fierce resistance of Kurdish fighters in the town.
In the course of the fighting in Kobane the town had been reduced to rubble. With Turkey refusing to open its borders to facilitate the reconstruction of the ruined town a corridor that connected Kobane with Cezire, and then on to Iraqi Kurdistan, was much needed to bring in the necessary supplies.
The creation of a connection between the two cantons, the victory over ISIS and cutting of the Islamic State's lifeline to the Turkish border – which had been one of the key routes for aspiring jihadists to enter Syria and where the militants had made millions of dollars by smuggling oil across the border into Turkey – was hailed as a potentially game-changing victory across the globe. The Turkish authorities, however, seemed less taken away by the changing of the guard at their gates.
“This is not a good sign,” AFP quoted the Turkish president Erdogan, while he commented on the Kurdish advances a day prior to Tel Abyad's capture."This could lead to the creation of a structure that threatens our borders," he said. "Everyone needs to take into account our sensitivities on this issue."
The Turkish “sensitivities on the issue” concern its belief that the Kurdish forces in Syria – the YPG and the YPJ – and their political counterpart, the Peoples' Democratic Party (PYD), are allied to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been waging a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state and is listed as a terrorist organization by the US, EU and Turkey.
In July 2012 three regions in northern Syria with a predominantly Kurdish population declared their autonomy from the central government. Since then the Kurds in these so-called 'cantons' – soon joined by other ethnic groups that are living in the same area – have been engaged in a process of radically reorganizing the local government and society, based upon the core principles of horizontal democracy, gender equality and environmental sustainability.
Inspiration for this reorganization of society was drawn from the ideas and writings of the imprisoned PKK-leader Abdullah Öcalan – one of the main reasons for the Turkish state to draw the conclusion that the PYD and the PKK are in fact the same organization, simply going by different names in different places.
It is true that elements of the PKK have been fighting alongside their Syrian comrades, both in the siege of Kobane and elsewhere, but on an organizational level the two parties remain autonomous. Nonetheless, the similar ideological backgrounds of both parties and their obvious ethnic unity have been enough reason for the Turkish State to label the Syrian Kurds as terrorists. The PYD is perceived as a bigger to the national security of Turkey than ISIS.
Who's the real terrorist?
Turkey has been accused on many occasions of providing aid to the Islamic State, in terms of helping ISIS fighters to cross the border into Syria, providing medical aid to injured militants, and sending arms to areas under ISIS control. The New York Times recently reported that huge quantities of fertilizer – a key ingredient for producing home-made explosives – were allowed to cross the border into Tel Abyad.
A curious fact in and of itself, but even more remarkable when set off against Turkey's policy to keep the border crossings with regions under Kurdish control sealed, in many cases not even allowing much needed humanitarian aid to cross.
Turkish government officials have been trying to shape the public opinion at the expense of the Kurdish forces. Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınçevent went so far as to accuse the PYD of “ethnic cleansing”, a claim that was categorically denied in a press statement by the YPG in which “all groups and individuals who want to observe the truth” were invited to “come to the region” and observe the situation for themselves rather than citing biased media outlets.
A day after the capture of Tel Abyad the governor of Şanlıurfa province in Turkey paid a visit to Akçale, Tel Abyad's Turkish sister town, and publicly claimed that the Syrian refugees who had crossed the border in the previous days were on the run from the YPG/J and coalition air strikes. When journalists on the scene remarked that none of the refugees actually claimed this, and started asking questions about ISIS' presence in the border town, they were quickly rounded up by security agents and detained for several hours.
Claims of ethnic cleansings directed at the region's Arab population by the YPG/J have been doing their rounds on a regular basis, and not exclusively by pro-Turkish media. But so far, hard evidence is lacking to back up these claims. On the contrary, many videos are circulating on social media that purportedly show Arab villagers welcoming the Kurdish fighters, thanking them for liberating them from ISIS' repression.
That said, not everybody is equally happy with the recent Kurdish advances into areas that have a dominantly Arab population. As there are local Arabs that welcome the YPG/J forces, there are others who fear that they will suffer collective punishment for the crimes ISIS committed. As stated above, no cases have been documented yet of Kurdish forces retaliating against Arab people indiscriminately, but time will tell how the relations between the two ethnic groups will take shape after the shifting power balance.
The capture of Tel Abyad was the grand finale of a string of military victories against ISIS that started with the liberation of Kobane. Aided by coalition air strikes they have proven to be the Western coalition's most reliable ally on the ground in the battle against ISIS.
Turkey fears that an empowered Kurdish population across the border in Syria might make it harder for the state to continue to subdue the Kurds at home. However,if it doesn't wants to loose face in the eyes of it's NATO-partners and the international community, it has to get its priorities straight and decide who the real terrorist is.
Joris Leverink is an Istanbul-based freelance journalist with an MSc in Political Economy, and editor for ROAR Magazine.