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Syrian Refugees face White Hill Nightmare
By Abdennour Toumi
Akçakale, Turkey — Tel-Abyad, a strategically-placed town on the Syrian-Turkish border under the control of the ISO since 2013, was seized in a brief take-over operation by Kurdish brigades of Burkan el-Furat and the united forces of the YPG-YPJ. This success may well signal a decisive shift in the struggle against the ISO for control of the region.
Split by the Syrian-Turkish border Tel-Abyad is neighbor to Akçakale on the Turkish side. It lies south of Raqqa and Kobani; other key points in the area include Ayn Issa in the southwest and Suluk to the southeast, the two most important regions between Tel-Abyad and Raqqa. The population is an ethnic mix comprised of 50% Arab, 30% Kurd, 10% Turkmen and 10% Armenian. Sources of employment and income derive mainly from agriculture and stock-breeding, and to some extent from border trade until the war erupted.
Critically placed, Tel-Abyad is a focal point on the major supply route to Raqqa, ISO’s capital in the region and a gateway for the group into Turkey and beyond. As such, it serves as a distribution point for recruits and equipment and a major financial highway.
ISO took over the town in 2013, forcing the Kurds and other Syrian ethnic groups to flee. The organization has been in full control since that time, but in June, 2014, the fate of the town began to change and Tel-Abyad became a strategic stake in the course of events that unfolded.
In a concerted effort, Free Syrian Army fighters, such as Thawar el-Raqqa, Lewa e-Tahrir and others, in unison with YPG-YPJ and Burkan el-Furat forces, attacked from the east and southeast of Kobani, while YPG forces came in from west of Serakani and in their united effort were able to liberate the town.
Until the recent take-over by Burkan el-Furat and other non-state militias, Tel-Abyad has been key in facilitating the movement of ISO Jihadists to and from Turkey, serving as their prime supply line to Raqqa and vital in sustaining political and military positions for the group in the region. With ISO in control of this key point, it has been impossible to deliver humanitarian aid to the local population.
Equally important for the Kurdish opposition forces, the town serves as a foothold to maintain pressure on the ISO. Further, ISO’s occupation has also deterred the delivery of aid to Kobani, whose population had hopes of returning to their city to begin rebuilding and reconstruction. In this respect the Kobani people have been disappointed, but with the recapture of Tel-Abyad, there is renewed hope that the return process will proceed safely.
Tel-Abyad and its surrounding areas were immediately placed under the control of public order forces directed by the YPG (Burkan e-Furat). These units provided basic security in the city and militia groups comprised of Turkmen, Arabs, Armenians and Kurds were also organized for support.
All social groups in Tel-Abyad participated in establishing public order so the internal security of the city ensured equal representation of the general population. Public order forces began an intensive effort aimed at avoiding theft and looting and have continued their patrols around the clock to provide assurance for the local community.
In addition, these same forces, while safeguarding homes and businesses, also conducted inspections of vehicles and identity checks at established points throughout the town. No one was allowed use of another’s property, a car for instance, without a direct communication from the owner first.
The control of Tel-Abyad by the Burkan el-Furat forces would further the YPG’s goal to maintain its territory across northern Syria, which it has organized into three “cantons”: Afrin (northwest of Aleppo), Kobani (west of Tel-Abyad), and Jazeera (northeastern el-Hasakeh province).
If the YPG is able to hold Tel-Abyad and use it to connect Kobani to Jazeera, it will increase its strategic value to the U.S.-led anti-ISO coalition and will empower its goals for self-governance in predominately Kurdish northeastern Syria.
While Ankara has shown full support for the Western coalition, the AKP is still loudly criticized for its apparent support of the ISO in Tel-Abyad by allowing ISO members to cross freely at the Akçakale border. Furthermore, President Erdoğan openly expressed his discontent with the actions carried out by Burkan el-Furat in seizing Tel-Abyad and may continue to discredit their operations. Further criticism has been leveled at Ankara for its indecisiveness toward ISO and its concern regarding YPG-YPJ/PYD groups. Ankara sees the latter as equivalent to the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) which it treats as a “terrorist” organization.
However, the YPG forces shine as a willing and able coalition ground partner against the ISO in Syria. The group shares the PKK’s secular, leftist ideology which stands in stark contrast to the tenets of the ISO and the various shades of Islamic identity adopted by most other major Syrian opposition groups.
The YPG and its allies managed to push ISO out of Kobani in January, 2015, and its fighters, many of whom have been well trained by the PKK, have proven their ability to take on the ISO not only in in Syria, but in parts of northwestern Iraq as well.
Yet coalition countries continue at times to treat the combined forces of PYD/YPG-YPJ as a persistent pariah. With few exceptions, these countries have stopped short of openly arming the YPG, in part because of its affiliation with the PKK.
The YPG-YPJ/PYD’s rapid rise in Kurdish-dominated parts of northern Syria starting in 2011 was in part owed to a deal struck with the Syrian regime, which tolerated PYD political control of some Kurdish areas in exchange for PYD repression of Kurdish anti-government demonstrations.
While the victory of the YPG-YPJ’s forces in Kobani was symbolically significant, the recent events in Tel-Abyad (White Hill) opens a whole new agenda that awaits the newly-elected government in Ankara. Whether it chooses to make peace with the Kurds, opt for stability in the region, or continue to act indecisively with the ISO, may be either a nightmare or a dream come true for the people of the region.
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- France correspondent for The Arab Daily News.
- www.bareed-areej.com Editor-in-Chief
رئيس تحرير مجلة بريد الأريج
- Political consultant at IMPR a Think-Tank based in Ankara, Turkey.
- Member at the European Observatory for Arabic Language Teaching based in Paris, France.
- Affiliated with Sociology of Islam Journal and contributor at Middle East Studies / International Studies, Sociology of Islam and Muslim Societies Center, Portland State University in Portland, OR.
EDUCATION: Diplôme des Études Approfondies (DEA) in Political Science from Toulouse University I, France. Master’s degree in Law from Algiers University, Algeria.
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