The fall of the strategic Syrian border town of Tel Abyad represents a significant blow to the self-described Islamic State, for which the town was a key transit point for its men and materiel.
The capture of Tel Abyad also marked the second major victory over IS forces for the US-backed Kurdish forces and their allies, prompting much celebration Tuesday.
The ethnically mixed city, which forms a divided city with Turkey’s Akcakale, also fits into Kurdish ambitions for a regional homeland.
“This is a major victory for the Kurds,” says Kani Xulam, director of the American Kurdish Information Network. “Historically, we have always lost to our neighbors – the Turks, the Arabs, and the Persians. Now we know, if needed, we can take the war to them as well.
“The loss of Tel Abyad means no access to Turkey for the Islamic State,” he adds. “Many of its fighters are treated in the Turkish hospitals. Many of its foreign fighters have their families in Turkey. So it is a big loss for the Islamic State.”
Tel Abyad was the first Syrian port of call for IS-bound foreign fighters and a hub of illicit trade that helped supply and finance the expansionist jihadist group. Smugglers based there focused on trafficking people, oil, weapons, and more basic goods like cigarettes.
“IS lost its access point to the outside world,” says Mutlu Civiroglu, a Washington-based analyst focused on Syrian and Kurdish affairs. “They are demoralized. They are getting a second huge blow after Kobane, and they are getting a second huge defeat against Kurds.”
US green light on Tel Abyad
The operation to take Tel Abyad built on success in Kobane, a Kurdish enclave in northern Syrian that would have fallen to the jihadists had the US-led coalition not intervened last year. Kurdish male and female fighting units known as the YPG and YPJ continued to advance against IS, benefiting from coalition air strikes.
“The relationship between the US and YPG improved and made this operation possible,” adds Mr. Civiroglu. “The green light came from the US to take Tel Abyad because it is a very significant city for IS in Syria.”
Scenes of jubilation circulated on social media Tuesday – some showing Kurdish women fighters dancing at night with their arms linked as Tel Abyad residents looked on. A video circulated by the YPG Monday showed a column of fighters calmly strolling past a black and white road sign that read: “Islamic State, a caliphate based on prophecy, province of Raqqa, northern sector, area of Tel Abyad.”
Polan Can, a well-known YPG commander, tweeted, in Kurdish and Arabic, “Girespi [the Kurdish name for Tel Abyad] is completely liberated. … The flags of YPG, Euphrates Volcano, FSA are waving on the buildings of the city. Happy for all supporters of freedom.”
Euphrates Volcano is a joint operation command established in 2014 by Kurdish units and Free Syrian Army rebels, including Arabs, who share the goal of expelling IS from Raqqa Governorate.
Ramadan in Raqqa
On Tuesday, a Raqqa City resident contacted by social media predicted further IS losses.
“The talk here is Abu Issa wants to celebrate the end of Ramadan in Raqqa,” the resident said. Abu Issa, a prominent rebel leader who survived an assassination attempt in Turkey last year, fought alongside the Kurds in Kobane and is said to have taken part in the battle of Tel Abyad.
The analysts, however, said they doubted that the Kurds would attempt to push into the self-styled capital of IS, even though they had advanced along the road connecting Tel Abyad to Raqqa.
“The Kurds would be reluctant to take on Raqqa. It is an Arab city. But I suspect they would help with logistics,” noted Mr. Xulam.
By contrast, Tel Abyad had a pre-conflict population of about 50,000, with Arabs and Kurds living in relative peace alongside each other prior to the arrival of jihadist groups Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.
Kurds consider Tel Abyad to be part of Rojava, the Western province of their dream ethnic homeland, which straddles Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq.