Last week, the Syrian Kurdish fighters of the YPG (People’s Protection Units, the paramilitary wing of the Democratic Union of Kurdistan or PYD) captured the strategic town of Tal Abyad, on the Syrian-Turkish border, which lies 30 miles East of Kobani, and 65 miles north of Raqqa, ISIS’s Syrian capital.
This is a significant, as Tal Abyad sits at the center of the previously non-contiguous PYD controlled territory in Syria—known as Rojava. Rojava had been split into three cantons: Afrin (an area north-west of Aleppo), Kobani (west of Tal Abyad) and Al Jazira (in the north-east of Hasakeh Province). If the YPG keeps control of Tal Abyad, this will create a route from Kobani to al Jazira, facilitating Coalition efforts as well as laying the groundwork for Syrian-Kurdish self-governance in northeastern Syria. The loss of Tal Abyad deals a heavy blow to ISIS, as this town was used as a smuggling route for the group, as well as an entrance for foreign fighters.
Amidst these recent Kurdish gains, Turkey has been weighing the option of creating a buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border, in order to thwart the ambitions of the Syrian Kurds as well as provide a safe haven for Syrians. This is not the first time such buffer zones have been proposed; yet now the proposition has taken on a new attraction. Kurdish gains in Syria pose more of a threat to Turkey than ISIS.
The Kurds have a difficult history with Turkey. The PYD’s mother organization, the PKK (Kurdistan’s Workers Party), has been engaged for decades fighting against the Turkish state. Yet, the creation of such a buffer zone would require a major ground incursions of Turkish military forces—an unpopular and extremely dangerous scheme, as it would mean fighting both ISIS and Kurds.
Erdogan reiterated his position towards the formation of a possible Kurdish state on Turkey’s southern border last week, with a resounding “no.” A recent article in Yeni Safak, a pro-Erdogan newspaper, suggests that Kurdish gains in northern Syria represent a plot by the West to destroy Turkey.
The Kurdish gains have complicated the US-Turkish relationship. The United States has increased its support for the Syrian Kurds since the January liberation of Kobani, where American airstrikes helped dislodge ISIS from the besieged city and cost the jihadi group thousands of fighters. The YPG’s victory at Tal Abyad would not have been possible without US-led, anti-ISIS Coalition airstrikes. America has given increased attention and support to the Kurdish fighters, as they are one of the only truly capable fighting forces more interested in fighting ISIS than Assad.
The question of whether Kurdish forces will continue the push towards Raqqa remains open. Some speculate that the Kurds are unlikely to take such a gamble. In Iraq, Kurdish peshmerga forces have successfully defended their region, but are unlikely to lead the effort to recapture Arab lands, such as Mosul or Anbar.
ISIS has responded to the recent Kurdish success with retaliation attacks on Kobani—purportedly entering from the Turkish border dressed in Free Syrian Aarmy and YPG uniforms. The ISIS attacks have left around 200 citizens dead.
The pictures below are from the Barzani Charity Foundation’s recent trip to Tal Abyad to deliver diesel and food aid.