Kurdish militia oust jihadists from strategic town

Syrian Kurds gain control of frontier as Ankara speaks of ethnic cleansing

Syrian Kurdish fighters celebrate on Monday after wresting Tal Abyad from Islamic State. Photograph: Rodi Said/Reuters

Syrian Kurdish fighters celebrate on Monday after wresting Tal Abyad from Islamic State. Photograph: Rodi Said/Reuters

 

Islamic State fighters have been expelled from the strategic town of Tal Abyad by a Syrian Kurdish militia bolstered by US air cover.

Commander Huseyin Kocher of the Kurdish People’s Defence Units said his forces had full control of the town on the Turkish border. He pledged to “clean all the remnants of [Islamic State] in northern Syria”.

Tal Abyad, located just across the frontier from the Turkish town of Akcakale, lies on the main route for foreign fighters, weapons and money to enter northern Syria and make their way to Raqqa, the capital of Islamic State.

Tal Abyad also lies between Kurdish-held Kobani and Qamishli in Hassakeh province. Since January, the Kurdish militia has liberated Kobani and several hundred Kurdish and Christian villages in northeastern Syria.

Tal Abyad’s fall means the Kurds control the Syrian-Turkish frontier from the centre to the east, depriving the jihadists from accessing Turkey. Islamic State’s (IS) declared rival al-Nusra occupies the northwestern province of Idlib and holds that border with Turkey.

However, IS can shift its cross-border operations several hundred kilometres westward to Aleppo province, located between Kurdish militia- and al-Nusra-held territory.

Ethnic cleansing

Ahrar al-Sham

They say the aim is the creation of a Kurdish state.

These allegations have been denied by the Kurdish militia and its parent organisation, the Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD).

From the outset of the Syrian conflict, Turkey has warned against the PYD due to its ties to Turkey’s Kurdish Workers Party, which has fought for three decades for Kurdish cultural and political autonomy in southeastern Turkey.

Last week Druze militiamen from Syria’s Druze-majority town of Sweida joined forces with the Syrian army to retake a disused airbase in the Deraa province, which had briefly fallen to the fundamentalist-dominated Southern Front Alliance.

The decision of the Kurds to side with the Syrian regime may have been influenced by the massacre by al-Nusra, which has connections with the Southern Front Alliance, of 20 Kurds from the Idlib province.

Cemeteries and shrines

While Syria’s Kurds have made major gains, the Iraqi army and Shia militias have failed to mount their promised offensive against IS in Ramadi, the capital of Sunni-majority Anbar province.

Washington has sent 3,100 troops and 6,300 civilian contractors to train Iraqi troops. It has promised another 450. The US has also committed to establishing a new military base at Raqaddum in Anbar, between Ramadi and nearby Falluja. Falluja has been occupied by the jihadists for 18 months.

This will be the latest US mini-base to be established in Iraq and it is not clear how long Baghdad – which depends on Tehran’s political support as well as the firepower of pro-Iranian Shia militias – will tolerate US activities at these bases, dubbed “lily pads” by chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, Gen Martin Dempsey.

Gen Dempsey appears to have little faith in the Iraqi National Army, refuses to co-operate with Shia militias and has prepared for an open-ended deployment.

US strategists have, reportedly, put off the battles for Mosul until 2016 and Raqqa until 2017 – unless the Kurds do the job before then.