Tel Abyad, Syria (openDemocracy) – The struggle against ISIS continues to be a topsy-turvy affair. Recent setbacks include ISIS’ capture of historic Palmyra in eastern Syria and the important Iraqi city of Ramadi. In northern Syria, along the Turkish border, however, the situation is entirely different.
On 16 June, the Kurdish militia of the YPG (People’s Protection Units) and YPJ (Women’s Protection Units), accompanied by allied Arab military units and supported by US-led airstrikes, captured the ISIS stronghold of Tel Abyad (Girê Sipî in Kurdish).
Tel Abyad was of pivotal importance to ISIS as a gateway to the Turkish border post of Akçakale, through which foreign fighters had allegedly come, and as a supply route to ISIS’ self-declared capital of Raqqa.
In recent months, Kurdish forces have moved rapidly to reclaim large swathes of territory from ISIS in northern Syria. The capture of Tel Abyad came after a pincer movement of Kurdish militia and their allies from the east and west.
Prior to the capture of Tel Abyad, units from the separate Kurdish-run cantons of Kobanê and Cizîrê made contact for the first time. With Tel Abyad in YPG/YPJ hands, two of the three autonomous cantons of the Syrian Kurds’ self-declared Rojava territory are now linked and Kurdish control extends almost 400 km along the Syria/Turkey border, from the Iraq frontier in the east to the Euphrates in the west.
This represents a remarkable reversal of fortune for Syria’s Kurds and their allies. Late last year, ISIS appeared all but unstoppable in Syria. Equipped with heavy weapons abandoned by retreating Iraqi troops, it swallowed up territory and pushed the lightly armed Kurds into a corner.
In October, ISIS was poised to capture the Kurdish city of Kobanê and extinguish one of the fledgling Kurdish cantons. It was only the determined resistance of the YPG and YPJ and the commencement of a US-led air campaign against ISIS that saw the city saved.
Kobanê became a rallying point for the Kurdish cause. Kurds in Turkey who I spoke to at the time of the siege remarked that it had brought together Kurdish communities spread across the borders of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. “We have thousands of years of history,” one man remarked, “now, for the first time all our hearts are beating together.”
The siege also saw greater coordination between the Kurdish YPG and the US military. On January 26, after a siege that had lasted 134 days, Kurdish forces broke ISIS’ stranglehold on Kobanê. Since then, the Kurds and allied forces have made rapid gains.
In the course of their brave fight against ISIS, the Kurdish militias of Syria (and Iraq) have won considerable international attention and sympathy. They have also attracted western recruits to the cause. In February, Australian Ashley Johnston was the first westerner to be “martyred” fighting alongside the YPG militia. An American, Keith Broomfield, was also killed earlier this month.
Kurdish advances in northern Syria have not been without controversy, however. Social media users and some ethnic Arab and Turkmen refugees have accused Kurdish forces of ethnically cleansing areas they have captured. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has echoed these allegations.
In a battlefield rife with conspiracy theories and misinformation it is difficult to determine the veracity of such claims. Kurdish activists, for instance, often allege that Turkey has supported ISIS against the Kurds.
The YPG, for its part, denies that it has ethnically cleansed the areas that it has recently captured. In fact, it has issued an appeal to refugees fleeing combat zones, regardless of their ethnicity, to come to “safe areas” under its control, an appeal that many have eagerly taken up.
It is also clear that the Kurdish YPG and YPJ militias are not acting alone in the campaign against ISIS. The recent battle for Tel Abyad included ethnic Arab brigades of the Free Syrian Army, participating under a joint operations command known in Arabic as Burkān al-Furāt (the Euphrates Volcano). It seems implausible that Arab militia would allow the ethnic cleansing of their kin by the Kurdish forces they are fighting alongside.
The Turkish president, meanwhile, has also expressed his displeasure at US air support for the Kurdish campaign. Citing the YPG’s affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), he argues that it amounts to western backing for terrorist forces.
Turkey’s misgivings about the Syrian Kurds’ advances have been evident for some time. Notably, the day after the siege of Kobanê was lifted, Erdoğan stated that Turkey would not tolerate an Iraq-style Kurdish entity on its border with Syria.
Turkey, the US and the EU classify the PKK as a terror group. Erdoğan’s scolding is a reflection of Turkey’s refusal to view the PKK as anything other than a terrorist vehicle, despite the significant role it has played in pushing back the jihadi forces of ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. It is also evidence of a deep-seated Turkish mistrust of Kurdish intentions.
Turkish concerns notwithstanding, the Kurds’ recent victories have changed the complexion of the region. By linking two of their cantons, the Syrian Kurds will now find themselves on a much stronger strategic footing.
Despite (as yet unsubstantiated) claims of ethnic cleansing, the Kurds in Rojava have established a political entity run according to a post-nation-state model of democracy and accepting of diverse ethnic groups. On the battlefield they have proven reliable and highly effective.
It beggars belief that western governments, looking upon the chaos of the region with dismay, have not established formal alliances with the PYD, the political entity administering the Syrian Kurdish cantons.
Perhaps most importantly, the Syrian Kurds have demonstrated that ISIS is not the military powerhouse it was once envisaged as, but is in fact eminently beatable.