Un­ease at Tur­key’s doorstep

Lead­ers worry as Kurds ex­pand con­trol of ter­ri­tory in Syria.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Laura King

AK­CAKALE, Tur­key — Through a haze of dust ob­scur­ing the fron­tier, the f lags of vic­to­ri­ous Kur­dish f ighters and their al­lies f ly over the Syr­ian bor­der town of Tal Abyad, newly wrested from Is­lamic State mili- tants.

But amid the re­joic­ing that erupted in the Kur­dish heart­lands of Syria, Tur­key and Iraq over the cap­ture of this strate­gic prize last week, there is fore­bod­ing over the prospect of a back­lash from Turk­ish lead­ers, who have made plain their con­ster­na­tion over a length­en­ing cor­ri­dor of Kur­dish­con­trolled ter­ri­tory on Tur­key’s doorstep.

As the world’s largest state­less pop­u­la­tion by some cal­cu­la­tions, Kurds have seen their as­pi­ra­tions for au­ton­omy boosted by the chaos en­velop­ing Iraq and Syria. In Tur­key, many among the large Kur­dish mi­nor­ity — about 20% of the pop­u­la­tion — are feel­ing em­pow­ered by the his­toric en­try of a pro- Kur­dish party into par­lia­ment af­ter elec­tions this month.

Some Kur­dish lead­ers, how­ever, sought to damp pan- Kur­dish na­tion­al­ist sen­ti­ment aris­ing from the mil­i­tary suc­cess in Tal

Abyad, as they did f ive months ago when U. S.backed Kur­dish fight­ers pre­vailed against Is­lamic State in the Syr­ian bor­der town of Kobani, 40 miles to the north­west.

“This vic­tory was for all the re­gion, not just for the Kurds,” said Idris Naasan, the vice min­is­ter for for­eign af­fairs in Kobani’s Kur­dish re­gional ad­min­is­tra­tion, speak­ing of Tal Abyad. “We want an area for all Syr­i­ans where they can be equal. We are part of Syria.”

But Kur­dish brethren else­where could not con­tain a sense of na­tion­al­ist pride and sol­i­dar­ity.

“Achieve­ment in any part of Kur­dis­tan is a suc­cess for our en­tire na­tion,” said Ari Mamshae, a se­nior civil ser­vant in the gov­ern­ment of Iraqi Kur­dis­tan. “We are just gain­ing back those ter­ri­to­ries which have al­ways been ours, and where our peo­ple still live.”

The vic­tory comes at a cost, how­ever. The bat­tle for Tal Abyad widened the rift be­tween NATO ally Tur­key and the Amer­i­can- led coali­tion con­fronting Is­lamic State. Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan was openly crit­i­cal of coali­tion airstrikes that paved the way for the Kurds’ and al­lied Syr­ian rebels’ suc­cess, say­ing the town’s cap­ture “could lead to the cre­ation of a struc­ture that threat­ens our borders.”

The main Kur­dish f ight­ing force in the area is linked to the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers Party, or PKK, which fought a decades- long in­sur­gency against the Turk­ish state. Tur­key con­sid­ers the PKK a ter­ror­ist group and a greater se­cu­rity threat than Is­lamic State, which had used Tal Abyad as an im­por­tant transit hub for fight­ers, sup­plies and black- mar­ket oil.

Even be­fore the town fell, Turk­ish lead­ers ex­pressed alarm over what they de­scribed as Kur­dish am­bi­tions to drive out eth­nic Arabs and Turk­mens liv­ing in Kur­dish- ad­min­is­tered ar­eas. Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Bu­lent Arinc ac­cused Kur­dish mili­tias, with the aid of coali­tion airstrikes, of car­ry­ing out eth­nic cleans­ing in Tal Abyad — a charge the f ighters adamantly de­nied.

Tur­key has also ac­cused the West of fail­ing to help it cope with the f lood of refugees f lee­ing Syria — 23,000 in June alone, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions, adding to the nearly 2 mil­lion al­ready shel­ter­ing in Tur­key. The f ight for Tal Abyad brought wrench­ing scenes of fright­ened refugees break­ing through the bor­der fence near Ak­cakale, its twin on the Turk­ish side of the fron­tier You can’t imag­ine what we suf­fered,” said Mo­hammed Bas­neh, who shep­herded his fam­ily of 10 across the bor­der. They slept in the open for two nights be­fore seiz­ing the op­por­tu­nity to rush through a gap in the fence, suf­fer­ing cuts and bruises in the crush of the crowd.

Some Is­lamic State fight­ers en­tered Tur­key amid the melee, refugees said. Turk­ish author­i­ties re­ported the ar­rests of a hand­ful of f ighters af­ter the town fell, but lo­cal peo­ple said oth­ers re­mained at large in the area. “You re­ally should keep her out of sight,” a bar­ber in Ak­cakale’s small com­mer­cial cen­ter mur­mured to a driver ac­com­pa­ny­ing a for­eign visi­tor.

Tal Abyad lies be­tween two Kur­dish- ad­min­is­tered “can­tons,” or dis­tricts, Kobani and Cezire, and fight­ers called its cap­ture a break­through be­cause it opens a sup­ply route be­tween the two ar­eas. But that bridg­ing ef­fect fu­eled Turk­ish fears of Kur­dish ex­pan­sion­ism, with Arinc, the deputy prime min­is­ter, warn­ing of a plot “to bring to­gether the can­tons.”

The town is only 50 miles north of Raqqah, the cap­i­tal of Is­lamic State’s self- de­clared caliphate, and the em­bold­ened Kur­dish f ighters and their al­lies said they would con­tinue push­ing south.

“We will keep fight­ing the Is­lamic State wher­ever we f ind them,” said Sher­van Der­wish, a spokesman for the um­brella group Euphrates Vol­cano, which in­cludes Kur­dish mili­tias and el­e­ments of the rebel Free Syr­ian Army. “Our goal now is to push them as far away as pos­si­ble from the ar­eas we con­trol.”

Although Der­wish said that all refugees were welcome to re­turn and that the mili­tias would soon hand over con­trol to a civil ad­min­is­tra­tion, some eth­nic Arabs said they felt in­tim­i­dated by the pres­ence of Kur­dish fight­ers.

Ibrahim Batawi, a 24year- old stu­dent who f led a vil­lage out­side Tal Abyad this month, said neigh­bors told him that Kur­dish mili­ti­a­men had taken over his home. Even as hun­dreds of refugees be­gan mak­ing the trek back into Syria, he said he did not feel safe re­turn­ing.

“I think some of those peo­ple who are go­ing home now will be back,” he said.

The cap­ture of Tal Abyad co­in­cides with a highly fraught mo­ment in Turk­ish pol­i­tics.

The rul­ing Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment Party, or AKP, lost its long­time par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity in this month’s elec­tions and is ex­pected to try to form a coali­tion gov­ern­ment with one of the smaller par­ties. Most ob- servers be­lieve that the like­li­est al­liance would be with a hard- line na­tion­al­ist party that has been bit­terly op­posed to any en­hance­ment of Kur­dish rights.

Another po­ten­tial sce­nario would in­volve new elec­tions, in which the AKP would make an all- out ef­fort to claw back votes from the pro- Kur­dish Peo­ples’ Demo­cratic Party, or HDP, po­ten­tially shut­ting it out of par­lia­ment again. Many be­lieve that if that hap­pened, more rad­i­cal Kur­dish el­e­ments would paint such a re­ver­sal as a sign that armed strug­gle was the only path.

Mamshae, the Iraqi Kur­dish civil ser­vant, said what­ever the fall­out, the mil­i­tary suc­cess in Tal Abyad had ad­vanced his peo­ple’s over­all cause.

“The time has ended where you could play pol­i­tics in the Mid­dle East with­out tak­ing the Kurds into con­sid­er­a­tion,” he said. “We are now one of the key pil­lars of the Mid­dle East, and no Mid­dle Eastern pol­icy can suc­ceed with­out in­clud­ing us.”

Ah­met Sik Getty I mages

A KUR­DISH FIGHTER at a check­point on the out­skirts of Kobani, Syria, near the Turk­ish bor­der. Kur­dish f ighters ousted Is­lamic State mil­i­tants from Kobani and, more re­cently, Tal Abyad, another fron­tier town.

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