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In contested Syrian town, two neighbors bridge an ethnic divide

After Kurdish-led fighters routed the Islamic State from the border town of Tel Abyad, displaced Arab residents accused Kurds of ethnic cleansing. Amid rising tensions, a friendship endures between two longtime neighbors. 

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    Two Syrian families who reunited June 18 in the Turkish town of Akcakale wait to go home to Tel Abyad after a Kurdish-led coalition defeated Islamic State forces there. The couple wearing checkered clothes are Syrian Kurds who fled their home in 2013. The Syrian Arab family fled earlier this month, scared by the international air strikes that accompanied the advance of Kurdish forces.
    Dominique Soguel
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It was the first day of the holy month of Ramadan when two former neighbors reunited in this Turkish border town. Both were hot, thirsty – and impatient to return to Syria, once the border gate reopened.

The two men and their families had been displaced by fighting for control of their town, Tel Abyad, in northern Syria. Fadil Omar Rasur, an ethnic Kurd, fled in 2013 when Sunni Arab jihadists took over the town. Abu Ibrahim Barho, an Arab, returned home. But earlier this month he, too, crossed into Turkey as Kurdish-led fighters backed by US air strikes, drove out the self-styled Islamic State.

Now they were both going home.

“When I saw them again my joy was from here to the sky,” says Mr. Rasul, the Kurd. His longtime neighbor, Mr. Barho, was equally moved: “We hugged and cried and cried,” he says, cracking a smile.

At a time of heightened sectarian and ethnic tensions across the Middle East, the story of these two neighbors is one of a lasting friendship, capable of enduring the ups and downs of Syria’s civil war by turning a deaf ear to the politics of fear. But their plight also speaks to the collapse of central authority in much of Syria and uncertainty over what, if anything, will replace it.   

The capture of Tel Abyad – hailed as a victory for the Kurds and a setback for Islamic State – forced around 23,000 civilians to flee over the border into Turkey. Some displaced Arabs accused Kurdish militiamen of driving them away so that Kurds could occupy their land and homes.

Wary of Kurdish separatism, Turkey has amplified these accusations, pointing to the displacement of Arab and Turkmen villagers in the area. Kurdish leaders deny any policy of ethnic cleansing. Still, in a climate of mistrust inflamed by IS barbarity towards minorities under its control, suspicions of Kurdish nationalism persists. 

“In the same way that IS came and expelled Kurds, the Kurds have expelled Arabs,” says Abu Malik, an Arabic teacher from the village of Ayn Aroos and a former district councilor who stayed in Tel Abyad during the Kurdish offensive. “They consider most Arabs to be IS. If you pass a checkpoint and happen to be fasting or sport the slightest of beards, they accuse you of being IS."

A deadly IS attack last week on the Kurdish town of Kobane, which left more than 200 civilians dead, has only served to fan tensions and give Kurdish militias more reasons to restrict the movements of civilians. Locals complain of a stringent curfew in Tel Abyad that allows them to circulate for only a couple of hours.

Islamic State takeover

Back in July 2013, when the Islamic State established its domination over Tel Abyad, tensions also ran high. In the predominantly Kurdish neighborhood of Al-Leil, the two families packed up and left town. While the Arab family said they simply fled the fighting, the Kurdish family say they were evicted from their home by IS militants wearing black. 

Barho and his family returned days after the violence subsided, once IS had consolidated control, and watched as refugees from other areas and two families of foreign fighters occupied vacated Kurdish homes. Barho's family was not a fan of the jihadists, but as conservative Arab Muslims, they didn’t feel threatened.

Not so Rasul, the Kurdish neighbor. He left his wife with her parents in Kobane and spent the next two years roving and tilling farmland in Turkey. The couple’s house in Tel Abyad was occupied by relatives of Mrs. Barho who had been displaced from Hama, a province in central Syria.

Amid all the upheaval, the neighbors stayed in close touch. “Many of our Arab friends deleted our phone numbers after IS kicked out the Kurds from Tel Abyad but not Mr. Barho,” says Rasul swinging an arm around his old friend.

“No one is dirtier than IS,” he sputters. “We used to live wall to wall. For us, this business of Kurds against Arabs is just politics. Between neighbors it doesn’t matter.

The arrival of the YPG, the dominant Syrian Kurdish faction, in Tel Abyad means that Rasul and his wife can finally go back to check on his home. But while he’s delighted that IS has been driven out, he reserves his judgement on what comes next.   

“I am a Kurd but I still have to decide whether I like PKK rule in Tel Abyad,” he says, referring to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a banned group in Turkey. “If we don’t like the atmosphere, we will leave again.”

A diverse district to govern

Before the 2011 uprising against Syria’s dictatorship turned into all-out war, the population of Tel Abyad district was around 200,000 people, the majority of them Arabs, according to official data at the time. Kurds were the second largest ethnic group with 20,000 people, followed by 15,000 Turkmen and 385 Armenians. Some Arab tribes in the area maintained good ties with Kurds, while others gravitated towards IS as its power expanded. 

Now the question is whether Syrian Arabs are paying the price for their perceived sympathies in the aftermath of the jihadists' retreat.

“The Arabs who have returned to Tel Abyad now are no more than 1,000 to 1,500,” claims Abu Yazzen, another former councilman in Tel Abyad. “People from mixed areas or areas adjacent to Kurdish areas fled the YPG advance and now can’t come back.”

Fadil al-Khadr says his village, Suluk, was declared a military zone by the YPG. “IS basically handed the village over so there are no clashes going on,” he says. “We should be able to go back but the YPG is not letting us.”

Even with Arab allies in their ranks, Kurdish forces may struggle to administer a predominantly Arab area like Tel Abyad, warns Thomas Schmidinger, an Austria-based academic and author of “War and Revolution in Syrian Kurdistan.”

“The big question is if the YPG will really manage to integrate the tribal, Arab authorities into their administration or not,” says Mr. Schmidinger. “In areas where Arabs are a minority it might be ok for Arabs to be a minority in the power positions but if they would feel marginalized in Tel Abyad that would be a serious problem.”

Barho and Rasul are now back in their houses, among hundreds of other families testing the waters in Tel Abyad. “We were very well received,” says Abu Ibrahim’s daughter, Fatma, speaking by phone. “No one harassed us for being Arabs but the security situation is not stable yet so we are just staying indoors.”

Others are not so happy, complaining that the Arab rebel factions that helped the YPG take the town have no presence there. “We had hoped to see the flag of the Syrian revolution fly over Tel Abyad, but no,” says Abu Salim, an Arab resident. “The international coalition is helping Kurds partition Syria. In our eyes, both the PKK and IS are terrorist groups and occupiers.”

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