ISTANBUL — A coalition of Kurdish militias and Arab rebels stormed into a strategic Syrian town on the Turkey border on Monday, seizing most of it from Islamic State fighters who had long used the area to smuggle supplies and fighters into their self-declared caliphate, according to Kurdish militia leaders and activists.
The complete loss of the town, Tal Abyad, would deal a major blow to the jihadists by cutting the primary lifeline to the Syrian city of Raqqa, which the Islamic State has ruled for more than a year and has tried to turn into a model of strict Islamic governance.
The advance was a boost to opposition fighters who have watched in dismay as the Islamic State has grown, taking over resources and waging deadly battles against their communities. Control of Tal Abyad also would help create a contiguous slice of Kurdish-held territory adjoining Turkey.
“This is a very important victory for the Kurds because it will nourish the area economically,” said Saleh Muslim, a Kurdish activist, shouting on the phone from the area near the battle to make himself heard over the chants of celebrating militiamen. “Fuel and other goods will be available for the areas that were besieged before.”
Interactive Feature | Obama’s Evolution on ISIS Some of President Obama’s statements about the American strategy to confront ISIS and its effectiveness.
The opposition’s attack, helped from heavy airstrikes by the United States-led military coalition that is bombing the Islamic State, was surprisingly swift, especially since recent victories by the jihadists in Iraq and Syria had suggested that months of airstrikes had done little to blunt the Islamic State’s military prowess.
But on Monday, The Associated Press quoted Redur Khalil, a Kurdish militia spokesman, as saying that his group had entered Tal Abyad from the east and was advancing westward against small pockets of resistance from the Islamic State.
By Monday evening, activists were posting videos online of men running through the town with Syrian opposition flags and distributing images of celebrating fighters inside the border crossing. It was not immediately clear how many of the jihadists who had ruled the town remained, had been killed or had fled elsewhere as the opposition approached. Images said to show Islamic State fighters surrendering to Turkish soldiers circulated on social media.
The airstrikes, combined with ground battles between advancing opposition fighters and the jihadists, had terrified civilians in recent days, and thousands of them streamed across the border into Turkey, ripping holes in the border fence to make way for women and children.
Graphic | How ISIS Expands The Islamic State aims to build a broad colonial empire across many countries.
The fighting near Tal Abyad illustrated the complexity of the local and international alliances that have evolved during more than four years of war in Syria.
Driving the battle on the ground were Kurdish militias that have used the weakening of the Syrian state to carve out greater autonomy for themselves in their areas along the Turkish border. Their seizure of Tal Abyad will further advance that cause by connecting Kurdish territories previously separated by the jihadists.
They were joined by Arab rebel groups that formed with the goal of ousting President Bashar al-Assad of Syria but have found themselves also fighting the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which has exploited the chaos in Iraq and Syria to seize territory for the creation of its own state.
The United States-led military coalition appeared to have created the opportunity for the advance of the opposition forces by repeatedly bombing Islamic State targets in the area in recent days.
Graphic | The Global Struggle to Respond to the Worst Refugee Crisis in Generations Eleven million people were uprooted by violence last year. Photos and maps show the international response to what has become the worst migration crisis since World War II.
But the new battle on the Turkish border once again laid bare the divisions between Turkey’s leadership and the coalition. As displaced Syrians massed near the border over the weekend, journalists captured images of armed Islamic State fighters moving among them unmolested, often within eyeshot of Turkish soldiers.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has accused the coalition of bombing Turkmens and Arabs, empowering Kurdish groups that Turkey considers terrorists near its border.
The airstrikes “could lead to the creation of a structure that threatens our borders,” Mr. Erdogan said, according to Agence France-Presse. “Everyone needs to take into account our sensitivities on this issue.”
The main Kurdish militia fighting in the area, known as the Democratic Union Party, or P.Y.D., is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., which has waged a 30-year insurgency against the Turkish state.
Mr. Erdogan repeatedly raised concerns about Kurdish advances on Tal Abyad in comments carried by Turkish media, saying that Kurdish self-rule near the Turkish border was a security threat.
Pro-government media in Turkey reported that the refugee influx was caused by coalition airstrikes and that some had caused civilian casualties.
The American Embassy in Ankara, the Turkish capital, responded on Monday, saying on Twitter, “contrary to insinuations from some in the media, the coalition works hard to ensure civilians are not hit in airstrikes.”
The embassy also said, in another Twitter message, that “civilian outflows from Tal al-Abyad are the result of people fleeing fighting brought about by #ISIL.”
The tensions were similar to those during an Islamic State offensive last fall on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, also on the Turkish border. That attack caused a humanitarian crisis, and the coalition carried out some of the most intense airstrikes of its entire campaign against the Islamic State, reportedly killing more than 1,000 Islamic State fighters before the jihadists abandoned the assault.
Turkey, meanwhile, positioned tanks on the border but did not intervene, appearing more concerned with the prospect of an autonomous Kurdish enclave on its border than with the Islamic State’s taking the town.
Turkey, which already hosts nearly two million Syrian refugees, has struggled to confront the recent flood of civilians fleeing the fighting near Tal Abyad. The border crossing has been closed periodically, and clusters of desperate refugees have gathered near the crossing, at one point breaking a hole in the border fence.
At times, the Turkish soldiers at the border have fired water cannons and warning shots to control the refugee crowds.
The Turks opened the gate on Sunday, and nearly 3,000 Syrians have since crossed, according to the semiofficial Anadolu Agency. Before Sunday, at least 15,000 Syrians fleeing the fighting in the area had entered Turkey over the last week, according to Turkish news outlets.
Throughout the war in Syria, Turkey has faced allegations that lax controls along its long border with Syria abetted the rise of extremist groups like the Nusra Front and the Islamic State.
This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service – if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.
(via NY Times)