Kurds squeeze Syria mil­i­tants

A cam­paign backed by U.S. airstrikes ad­vances to­ward a bor­der town held by Is­lamic State.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Glen John­son John­son is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent. Times staff writer Pa­trick J. McDon­nell in Latakia, Syria, con­trib­uted to this re­port.

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Kur­dish fighters on Sun­day closed in on the Is­lamic State-con­trolled bor­der town of Tal Abyad in north­ern Syria, cut­ting off roads and sup­ply lines that lead to the ex­trem­ists’ de facto cap­i­tal in the Syr­ian city of Raqqah.

The ad­vance fol­lows a determined Kur­dish sweep through a vast ex­panse of ex­trem­ist ter­ri­tory.

Backed by scores of U.S. airstrikes, the Kur­dish fighters have wrested con­trol of at least 250 towns and vil­lages from Is­lamic State in Syria’s north­east since be­gin­ning the of­fen­sive in early May.

Ad­vanc­ing from two Kur­dish-held ar­eas — east and west of Tal Abyad — the Kur­dish forces, known as the Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units, have squeezed Is­lamic State into an ever-shrink­ing patch of turf. By late Sun­day, they had re­port­edly en­tered por­tions of Tal Abyad from the east.

Is­lamic State, an Al Qaeda break­away fac­tion, holds sway in large swaths of Syria and neigh­bor­ing Iraq. It has been the tar­get of a U.S.-led aerial bomb­ing cam­paign since last sum­mer.

The group’s re­cent seizure of the cities of Ra­madi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria have demon­strated that it re­mains a po­tent force. It ap­pears to be on the back foot in its fight with Kur­dish mili­ti­a­men in north­ern Syria, how­ever.

Tal Abyad, known as Gire Sipi in Kur­dish, is a strate­gic fron­tier town that Is­lamic State has held for about 17 months. It is the clos­est bor­der town to Raqqah.

The loss of Tal Abyad would rep­re­sent a sig­nif­i­cant de­feat for Is­lamic State, which smug­gles vast quan­ti­ties of oil worth mil­lions of dol­lars into Turkey via the bor­der. Tal Abyad has also served as the pri­mary en­try point for for­eign fighters seek­ing to join Is­lamic State.

The Kur­dish ad­vance has raised the prospect of Kur­dish con­trol of a vast stretch of Syria’s bor­der with Turkey.

Since forc­ing Is­lamic State out of Kobani, an­other bor­der town, this year, Kur­dish fighters have ex­panded their zones of con­trol.

The Kur­dish ad­vance has drawn ire from Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, who ac­cuses the West of sup­port­ing “ter­ror­ist groups.” The U.S.-led coali­tion has re­peat­edly struck ex­trem­ist tac­ti­cal units and de­stroyed their fight­ing po­si­tions dur­ing the Kur­dish ad­vance.

The Syr­ian Kur­dish fac­tion ex­pand­ing its ter­ri­tory in north­ern Syria is a close ally of the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers Party, or PKK, which seeks Kur­dish au­ton­omy and has waged a three-decade war against the Turk­ish state. The PKK is re­garded as a ter­ror­ist group by Turkey and the United States.

The Kur­dish thrust in north­ern Syria seems sure to raise ten­sion in Turkey, where a Kur­dish-fo­cused po­lit­i­cal party, the Peo­ples’ Demo­cratic Party, se­cured 13% of the vote in this month’s par­lia­men­tary elec­tions. That re­sulted in a Kur­dish-linked party en­ter­ing par­lia­ment for the first time in the na­tion’s his­tory.

About 13,500 refugees, pre­dom­i­nantly eth­nic Arabs and Turks, have f led the Kur­dish ad­vance in the last 11 days and en­tered Turkey, the Turk­ish For­eign Min­istry said.

The Turks have now sealed the bor­der and re­fused en­try to sev­eral hun­dred dis­placed peo­ple on the Syr­ian side, while us­ing wa­ter can­nons and fir­ing warn­ing shots to dis­perse amassed crowds over the week­end, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal news ac­counts.

Images of gun-tot­ing Is­lamic State fighters forc­ing civil­ians back from the bor­der and into Tal Abyad spread across so­cial me­dia late Satur­day, rais­ing fear that the group is plan­ning to use res­i­dents as hu­man shields.

The Kurds, mean­while, have sought to as­suage fears of eth­nic cleans­ing of Arabs and other non-Kurds. In a state­ment posted on so­cial me­dia, the group’s spokesman, Re­dur Xelil, im­plored civil­ians to come to ar­eas un­der Kur­dish con­trol.

“We as­sure them that we will guar­an­tee their se­cu­rity,” Xelil said. “They can re­turn to their vil­lages and prop­erty when se­cu­rity re­turns.”

Lefteris Pitarakis As­so­ci­ated Press

SYR­IAN REFUGEES breach a bor­der fence to cross into Ak­cakale, Turkey. Kur­dish forces are seek­ing to cap­ture Tal Abyad, across the bor­der, in Syria. The loss of the town, an en­try point for for­eign fighters seek­ing to join Is­lamic State, would be a ma­jor de­feat for the group.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.