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The Islamic State Just Lost Control of a Strategically Crucial Syrian Town

Kurdish fighters aided by Syrian rebels have reportedly retaken most of Tal Abyad, a strategically important town near the Turkish border.

by Samuel Oakford
Jun 16 2015, 8:03am

Photo par Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

After heavy fighting with Islamic State (IS) militants, Syrian Kurdish fighters allied with Syrian rebels have reportedly captured nearly all of a strategic Syrian town along the Turkish border.

Speaking with the Associated Press earlier today, a spokesperson for the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) said the group had seized much of Tal Abyad. He predicted IS would be driven out "within the next few hours."

Related: 'Soon It Will Be Too Late': The Children Lost Inside the Islamic State

The YPG have been fighting against IS in the area as part of a coalition, dubbed Burkan al-Furat, with nearly a dozen Syrian rebel groups. Rebel spokesperson Sherfan Darwish told AFP that "there are ongoing clashes, and the bodies of 19 IS fighters" lay on the outskirts of the town.

On Monday evening, a Twitter account associated with the YPG claimed that the town had been "liberated." VICE News could not independently confirm these reports.

Tal Abyad is less than 60 miles from the Islamic State's Syrian headquarters in Raqqah, and lies just across the border from the Turkish town of Akcakale. Images on social media appeared to show the Free Syrian Army flag being hoisted at the border crossing with Turkey.

Wrestling the town from the grip of IS would be a significant blow to the group, and likely cut off important northern supply routes to its fighters. It would also serve to at least partially unite forces from two Kurdish strongholds in Syria — Kobane, which lies to the northeast of Tal Abyad, and Hasaka province, which lies to its west. Kobane fell to an IS siege in the fall of 2013. This past March, IS was driven out after months of bloody battles and heavy airstrikes by the US-led coalition.

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'Shia Militias vs. the Islamic State'

In recent weeks, Kurdish forces, again aided by coalition airstrikes, have seen further success battling IS forces along the Turkish border. As fighting for Tal Abyad grew fiercer in the past week, thousands of Syrian refugees fled across the border into Turkey, while others were rebuffed by the Turkish army. Photographs taken by an AFP journalist last week appeared to show Turkish troops watching as refugees returned to areas under IS control. On Sunday, however, Turkey opened the border, and refugees streamed across.

Photos posted on social media Monday also reportedly showed IS fighters on the Turkish side of the border, seemingly in the custody of Turkish troops.

Expanded Kurdish power in both Iraq and Syria has unnerved the Turkish government, which for decades fought with the PKK, a Kurdish militant group based in Turkey (the YPG are an offshoot). Recent years have seen a tentative rapprochement between the the PKK and authorities in Ankara. On Sunday, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the YPG offensive on Tal Abyad was "not a good sign."

"This could lead to the creation of a structure that threatens our borders," Erdogan told reporters.

The PKK, despite its role in the fight against IS, remains listed as a terrorist organization by the US. 

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford 

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