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8/16/15

Turkey and the Kurdish Corridor: Why the Islamic State Survives - by Joseph V. Micallef

The history of Tal Abyad is a metaphor of the Syrian civil war and of the ambivalence in the larger motives of the various actors engaged in the ongoing struggle to expel Islamic State (IS) jihadists from the region. The Syrian town lies along the Turkish border with Syria, mirrored by the Turkish town of Akcakale on the opposite side of the frontier.

Its population is a mix of Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Turkmen. Historically, the town of some 50,000 people was an important border crossing between Syria and Turkey. During the Syrian Civil War its importance has been underscored by its proximity, less than 50 miles, to the Islamic State's capital, Ar Raqqah. The border crossing was an important transit point for jihadist fighters traveling from Turkey to join IS militants in Syria as well as being an important smuggling route for the Islamic State.

Islamic State jihadists captured the town on June 30, 2014. They overran the Kurdish forces, comprised of YPG (People's Protection Units) and the Kurdish Front Brigade which were defending the town. The YPG is the Syrian offshoot of the PKK (Kurdistan Worker's Party). The PKK is a militant, secular, leftist organization based in Turkey that has been waging an armed struggle against the Turkish government for self-determination of the Kurds in Turkey.

The Kurds comprise between 15% and 20% of Turkey's populace. The PKK has been implicated in hundreds of attacks against Turkish security forces and has been branded a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the United States. Both organizations are separate and distinct from the Peshmerga, the military forces of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Although the various Kurdish groups in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran share a common ethnicity and culture, politically and ideologically they are very different.

On July 21, 2014 IS militants announced that all Kurdish inhabitants had to leave Tal Abyad or they would be killed. Thousands of the town's inhabitants, including Turkmen and Sunni Arab families, promptly fled. Islamic State militants systematically looted the abandoned homes and resettled displaced Arab refugees from the surrounding region.

A year later, on June 15, 2015, the town was recaptured by a combination of YPG, Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces and a variety of Arab militias operating under the umbrella of the Burkan al-Furat (The Euphrates Volcano), the YPG-FSA "joint operations room", supported by air power from the U.S. and its coalition partners. Following the battle, U.S. officials praised YPG troops as being the most reliable of the ground forces working with the U.S. to roll back the Islamic State. The victory was seen as striking proof of how the combination of overwhelming American air power and effective and reliable boots on the ground could decisively defeat Islamic State forces.

The capture of Tal Abyad had another consequence. By combining Kurdish control of the Kobani and Jazeera cantons it created a "Kurdish corridor" extending from Iraqi Kurdistan all the way to the city of Kobani in north-central Syria. It thus linked up two of the three current autonomous Kurdish zones in Syria, in the process forming the nucleus of, what the Turkish government of President Recep Erdogan fears, will, potentially, be a Kurdish controlled zone that could someday serve as the core of an autonomous Kurdish state.

Read more: Turkey and the Kurdish Corridor: Why the Islamic State Survives | Joseph V. Micallef

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