AKCAKALE, Turkey: After receiving a crush of 13,000 Syrian refugees in less than a week, Turkey on Saturday closed a key border crossing to Syria and complained that a combined U.S.-Kurdish offensive against the Islamic State group was driving Arabs and Turkmens out of Syria.
With Kurdish forces reported closing in on Islamic State-controlled Tal Abyad, the Syrian town across from Akcakale, the apparently successful offensive against the extremists has laid bare the clash of interests that have vexed the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State in Syria.
On Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in one of first public appearances since his party lost its majority in parliamentary elections, accused “the West” of killing Arabs and Turkmens in Syria, and replacing them with Kurdish militia affiliated with the banned Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK by its initials in Kurdish.
“The West, which has shot Arabs and Turkmens, is unfortunately placing the PYD and PKK in lieu of them,” Erdogan said.
The PYD, or Democratic Union Party, is a Syrian Kurdish political party affiliated with the PKK, which has been declared a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States. The PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Unit, or YPG, is credited, with an intensive U.S. bombing campaign, with holding off Islamic State at Kobani after a four-month siege.
Arabs and Turkmen who have fled Syria use more caustic terms to condemn the Kurdish offensive, which also is backed by U.S. airstrikes. They charge that YPG militias have stolen their homes and livestock, burned their personal documents and claimed the land as theirs.
“They forced us from our village and said to us ‘this is Rojava,’” the term the YPG uses to describe territory it claims across northern Syria, said Jomah Ahmed, 35, a member of the al Baggara tribe. He arrived from the village of al Fwaida with dozens of members of his extended family before Turkey closed the border.
“They said ‘Go to the al Badiya desert, go to Tadmur, where you belong.’” Tadmur, captured last month by Islamic State, is more than 100 miles southeast of Tal Abyad.
Tal Abyad is one of the most important crossing between Turkey and Islamic State-controlled territory.
It was at Tal Abyad that Hayat Boumedienne, the wife of the gunman who killed four Jews in a Paris grocery in January, disappeared after fleeing France. It was also the place where Islamic State delivered 46 Turkish diplomats and three Iraqi employees that its fighters had taken hostage during the capture of Mosul a year ago.
Akcakale and the surrounding area has become a key transit point for those seeking to join Islamic State, despite claims by Turkish officials that they are trying to stanch the flow.
But the push on Tal Abyad by Kurdish forces with U.S. assistance is exacerbating longtime ethnic resentments. Kurdish residents of northern Syria have long accused the government in Damascus of taking their land to accommodate Arab settlers. As long as two years ago, Kurdish activists who took power when the government of President Bashar Assad withdrew vowed to push the Arabs out.
Non-Kurdish Syrians say that campaign is now underway. They say the Kurds are trying to create an autonomous state in northern Syria and that the United States is helping.