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Syrian Kurds and Allies Retake Islamic State-Held Border Town

The capture of Tal Abyad is a major blow to the Islamic State, cutting off a key supply line — but Turkey is getting worried about the growing strength of the Kurds in the border region.
Photo by Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Syrian Kurdish forces and allied rebel fighters have completely ousted Islamic State (IS) militants from the border town of Tal Abyad, according to a monitoring group, dealing a major blow to the jihadists.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported on Tuesday that Tal Abyad, on the Syrian-Turkish border, was now fully under control of Kurdish fighters known as the People's Protection Units (YPG), and an alliance of rebel groups. Fighting continued until dawn on Tuesday before IS pulled back to villages to the west and south, SOHR said in a statement. YPG commander Haqi Kobane told the Associated Press that they were now starting to deal with booby traps and mines planted by IS.


"Daesh has been broken at the hands of the YPG. … It is a victory for all Syrians," he said by telephone from northern Syria.

Sherfan Darwish, a spokesman for the Burkan al-Furat coalition of rebel and YPG fighters, said that large quantities of explosives left behind by IS would be cleared before civilians were allowed to return to Tal Abyad. "There are mines and car bombs everywhere, and bodies of IS fighters lying in the streets," he said, in remarks carried by AFP.

Related: Syrian Kurds Ally With Rebel Groups To Fight The Islamic State

YPG units moved in on Tal Abyad from the east and west on Sunday after days of heavy clashes in surrounding villages, then on Monday took control of the road to Raqqa, the capital of IS's self-proclaimed caliphate. The recent fighting had caused more than 16,000 people to attempt to flee into Turkey, reported the BBC.

Footage released on Tuesday by a Syrian Kurdish news agency showed fighters unfurling a YPG flag in Tal Abyad.

Tal Abyad is less than 60 miles from Raqqa,  and directly across the border from the Turkish town of Akcakale, from where the jihadists had brought in fighters, ammunition and supplies through official and unofficial crossings. Losing the town will deprive IS of an important supply route — its next closest alternative is likely the city of Jarablus in Aleppo province.

Securing Tal Abyad will also allow Kurdish forces to unite different Syrian areas under their control; Kobane, to the east and Hasaka province to the west. Kobane was the subject of a massive IS offensive in late 2013 and almost fell to the militants before the YPG pushed back with the help of heavy airstrikes carried out by the American-led anti-IS coalition.


But neighboring Turkey is wary of a strong Kurdish presence on its southern border. Ankara views the YPG as the Syrian branch of Turkey's banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a more than 30 year insurgency on Turkish troops.

Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc accused Kurdish fighters in northern Syria of "ethnic-cleansing" non-Kurds at a Monday night briefing, AFP reported.

Arinc said he was was concerned the Kurds would attempt to unite their different Syrian enclaves into one large Kurdish region. He added that most of those who fled the fighting were Arab and Turkmen and that there were signs that the Kurds were working to "exile" them. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also voiced concerns about the Kurdish advance, and has consistently labeled the YPG as "terrorists" in the past.

Related: Meet the PKK 'Terrorists' Battling the Islamic State on the Frontlines of Iraq

Arinc's allegations were echoed by a group of mostly Islamist Syrian rebels, who said in a joint statement that the YPG had pushed Sunni Arabs and Turkmen out of their villages west of Hasaka and Tal Abyad in a "campaign of ethnic and sectarian cleansing" backed by "US- led coalition air cover", according to SOHR.

The statement went on to request that Syria's Kurds preserve the country's borders and stress that they share a common religion. A YPG statement in response said their recent victories had worried IS sympathizers and blamed these parties and a concurrent a media campaign for accusing it of violations.

Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck