Kurds vs. Islamists and FSA in Syrian Town
Clashes between rival militias have become the norm in the northern Syrian town of Tal Abyad and neighbouring villages.
The battles pit a Kurdish faction called the People’s Protection Force against a coalition of Arab militias consisting of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS); Ahrar al-Sham, another jihadist militia; and units from the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The alliance between these latter groups is extraordinary given the conflict between ISIS and the FSA in other parts of Syria.
Tal Abyad sits on the border with Turkey about 100 kilometres north of the city of Raqqa. Its residents have suffered the consequences of fighting which began on July 20 this year.
The conflict began when the People’s Protection Force, affiliated with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), captured an ISIS field commander called Abu Musab. It accused him of setting a booby-trap at a school controlled by the PYD.
Clashes between the two sides continued for two days. FSA elements sided with ISIS, and eventually forced the PYD to withdraw from the town.
Both Kurdish and Arab civilians feared for their lives. Many fled the town, and looters then raided their properties.
After mediation, elders in the town were able to bring the two sides to a compromise. A week after the fighting began, the two sides exchanged the bodies of fallen fighters. Fifteen bodies were handed over to the ISIS and the FSA in return for the bodies of five Kurdish fighters.
The warring factions are now trading accusations of treason back and forth. One accuses the other of being separatist, racist and complicit with the regime; the other accuses its opponents of being extremists fighting for a foreign agenda.
“We did not come here to fight a specific sect or ethnicity. We are all brothers in this town,” said Abu Adnan, 30, an FSA leader. “Everyone knows the FSA did not attack or ride roughshod over anyone’s areas, including Kurdish ones. But we were alarmed by the proliferation of PYD snipers and armed men in the town, and by their attempt to take control. That showed ill-will and complicity with the Assad regime on the part of these separatist groups.”
Abu Adnan said that even during the fighting, the FSA units released a statement stressing the “sanctity of Kurdish lives and property”.
On the looting of Kurdish homes, he said, “We called on civilians who had fled to return and protect their property. But we cannot guard hundreds of houses and shops. That’s what encouraged some to engage in looting, despite constant patrols in the town.”
Azad Mohammad, a PYD activist, rejected accusations that the Kurds supported the Syrian government.
“We were some of the first to be martyred in regime prisons. Some of those who died were well-known figures like the martyr Osman Dadali,” he said. “With all due respect to the free people in the rest of Syria, most of the opposition used to be Baathists. Now they take instructions from the Saudi Arabia, Qatar, [Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan and Israel. We support brotherhood for all people in Syria and the Middle East, and we are striving for a civic, democratic Syria.”
Mohammad Ayman, an Arab media activist, disputes that.
“What are our Kurdish brothers banking on, standing by a regime that oppressed them for more than 40 years and stripped them of their rights, land and culture?” he asked.
Ribal Mohsen, another media activist from Tal Abyad, accused Kurdish fighters of aiding Syrian government forces in recent battles.
“Why aren’t they fighting the regime?” he asked.
To counter the armed clashes and political sparring, journalists and activists have launched an awareness campaign intended to curb incitement and foster peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Kurds. The campaign uses the phrase “Khorzeh – Ana Akhuk” as its slogan, combining the Arabic and Kurdish expressions for “I am your brother”.
According to campaign coordinator Yasir al-Khodr, “We’ve had a positive reception from both sides, as well as support for the idea among local residents. Even religious councils and armed factions have welcomed the idea and promised to do what they can to make the campaign a success.”
The campaign broadcasts interviews with Arab and Kurdish activists, in both languages, calling for coexistence and brotherhood between the two sides. Participants also write slogans calling for peace and brotherhood on the walls of the town, and have put up a tent in a Kurdish neighbourhood where they play both Kurdish and Arabic music, showing video clips encouraging coexistence, and offer an open invitation to a meal.
“The noble aim of this campaign is to maintain civil peace in areas that are not entangled in party politics,” said activist Sobhi Sukkar, who is also a member of the town’s Local Coordination Committee. “We are committed to helping the campaigners with moral support, through the media, and by offering ideas to enrich their work. Our efforts are at their disposal for this work.”
Despite the campaign for unity, the mutual recriminations continue, and the fighting is still claiming lives – most of them civilian – on both sides.
Raed Khalil is a pseudonym for a journalist living in Syria.
This story was produced by the Damascus Bureau, IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists.