Kur­dish-Syr­ian force ad­vances on Is­lamic State town

Los­ing Tel Abyad on Turk­ish bor­der would be a blow to Is­lamists

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY LIZ SLY liz.sly@wash­post.com

beirut — A Kur­dish-Syr­ian force is ad­vanc­ing to­ward one of the Is­lamic State’s most strate­gi­cally vi­tal pos­ses­sions, cap­tur­ing ter­ri­tory in the group’s land­mark prov­ince of Raqqa and threat­en­ing to in­flict what could be the most sig­nif­i­cant de­feat yet for the mil­i­tants.

The Kur­dish-led force, backed by U.S. airstrikes, closed in from the south, east and west on Satur­day on the Syr­ian-Turk­ish bor­der town of Tel Abyad, a key Is­lamic State strong­hold on which the mil­i­tants rely for trade with the out­side world and also the flow of for­eign fighters who sus­tain their strength on the bat­tle­field.

The Kur­dish mili­tias and their al­lies are within six miles of the town and could soon be in a po­si­tion to en­cir­cle it, iso­lat­ing the Is­lamic State’s self-pro­claimed cap­i­tal in the city of Raqqa far­ther south, ac­cord­ing to state­ments from the Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units, or YPG, the main Kur­dish fight­ing force.

The ad­vance is putting the Is­lamic State on the de­fen­sive only weeks af­ter the group cel­e­brated vic­to­ries in the Iraqi city of Ra­madi and the Syr­ian city of Palmyra, af­ter the Iraqi and Syr­ian armies crum­bled in their re­spec­tive bat­tles.

The progress demon­strates that suc­cess is pos­si­ble when a well-mo­ti­vated and co­or­di­nated force is backed by U.S. airstrikes, said Abu Shu­jaa, a spokesman for Thuwar al-Raqqa, or Raqqa Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, one of the Syr­ian rebel bat­tal­ions fight­ing in the coali­tion force.

“Daesh is not as strong as it thinks, but its enemies are weak. We are suc­cess­ful be­cause we have the will to fight,” Abu Shu­jaa said, re­fer­ring to the Is­lamic State by its Ara­bic acro­nym.

“And of course, we are get­ting help from the coali­tion in the form of airstrikes,” he added.

The of­fen­sive raises the specter of an­other ma­jor battle on the Turk­ish bor­der sim­i­lar to the one that dom­i­nated head­lines last fall for the much smaller Kur­dish town of Kobane — ex­cept that, in this case, the Is­lamic State would be the force de­fend­ing a town.

The of­fen­sive to cap­ture Tel Abyad is ef­fec­tively a con­tin­u­a­tion of the Kobane battle, which was a turn­ing point for the Is­lamic State’s ex­pan­sion in north­east­ern Syria. The Is­lamic State had been poised to cap­ture the Kur­dish town un­til the United States in­ter­vened with airstrikes and halted the mil­i­tants’ ad­vance.

Since then, the Kur­dish YPG has reversed the tide of the fight, steadily push­ing the Is­lamic State back to the point where the mil­i­tants are los­ing ter­ri­tory they had held for more than 18 months in their heart­land in the prov­ince of Raqqa.

No longer can the Is­lamic State claim con­trol of an en­tire prov­ince in ei­ther Syria or Iraq.

At Fri­day prayers in the city of Raqqa, imams urged cit­i­zens to stock­pile sup­plies of flour and food in prepa­ra­tion for a po­ten­tial siege, ac­cord­ing to the ac­tivist group Raqqa Is Be­ing Slaugh­tered Silently, which re­ports from in­side the city.

A week ear­lier, the group re­ported, the Is­lamic State evac­u­ated the fam­i­lies of for­eign fighters from Tel Abyad, re­lo­cat­ing them to Raqqa.

The Kurds who dom­i­nated the battle in Kobane have been joined by sev­eral Free Syr­ian Army units. They are fight­ing as a coali­tion called Burkan al-Fu­rat, or Euphrates Vol­cano. Forces with the coali­tion also have ad­vanced from Kur­dish-held ter­ri­tory to the east of Tel Abyad. On Satur­day, they en­cir­cled the town of Su­luk, to the south of Tel Abyad, fur­ther pres­sur­ing the Is­lamic State.

The par­tic­i­pa­tion of Arab rebels from the Free Syr­ian Army is im­por­tant be­cause most of the pop­u­la­tion of Raqqa prov­ince, in­clud­ing Tel Abyad, is Arab, said Aras Xani, a fighter with the Kur­dish YPG on the eastern front of the battle.

“More and more Free Syr­ian Army fighters are tak­ing part be­cause the pop­u­la­tion of this area is mostly Arab. Arabs and the FSA must play a big role in this op­er­a­tion since it is their home­land,” he said.

Abu Mo­hanned, a com­man­der with the Free Syr­ian Army units ad­vanc­ing from the west to­ward Tel Abyad, said Is­lamic State fighters had re­treated with­out a fight from many of the vil­lages his forces have taken in their ad­vance on Tel Abyad. “When we meet re­sis­tance, we send the co­or­di­nates to the coali­tion, and they carry out airstrikes,” he said.

The Is­lamic State is ex­pected to put up a much tougher fight for Tel Abyad, given its im­por­tance. The town ad­joins Turkey, and although the of­fi­cial bor­der cross­ing has been closed since the town fell un­der Is­lamic State con­trol a year ago, smug­gling routes nearby serve as the group’s life­line to the out­side world.

“Re­sis­tance is grow­ing the closer we get to Tel Abyad,” said Xani, who pre­dicted an­other month of fight­ing be­fore the town falls.

LEFTERIS PITARAKIS/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Mourn­ers in Turkey’s southeast carry the body of Kur­dish fighter Mehmet Re­sat Ci­nar, killed in com­bat against the Is­lamic State in Syria.

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