Trash litters the dusty streets of Tal Abyad just across the border from Turkey, and the fountains that form the centerpieces on the traffic islands are dry.
For the current rulers of Tal Abyad, who seized the city from Islamic State extremists in June, restoring services has not been a top priority.
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units militia, or YPG by its Kurdish initials, which took control with the help of U.S. airstrikes, has a different agenda: to remake Tal Abyad into a Kurdish city.
Just across from the traffic circle where the Islamic State staged public beheadings, a brightly painted banner on the outer wall of the municipal building proclaims the town’s Kurdish name and its new order.
“Gire Spi,” it says in Kurdish, “is the living symbol of coexistence between Kurds, Arabs, Armenians and Turkmans.” The slogan is repeated in Arabic and uses the town’s Arabic name. But the meaning is clear: Tal Abyad is under YPG control, and “coexistence” is whatever the YPG deems it to be.
The hoary term from the Soviet-era lexicon points to the close ties the YPG’s parent organization, the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, had with the now defunct Soviet Union and continues to have with Russia.
This was originally a Kurdish town. The regime brought in the Arabs.
Khalid Ali, chief coordinator
But it has an Orwellian ring in light of what happened here – allegations that the YPG forced much of the Arab and Turkman population to leave. The human rights advocacy group Amnesty International labeled the displacement a war crime in mid-October.
“Coexistence” isn’t the only case of the YPG rewriting the meaning of words.
There is the “People’s Protection Units,” which stand accused of responsibility for the expulsions, the “Autonomous Administration,” or overall government, whose functioning remains a mystery, and the “House of the People,” a new institution that reputedly speaks for all the agencies of the city but consists of appointees who acknowledge they have no power.
At its down-at-the-heels “House of the People” headquarters, reached through an overgrown yard near the town center, chief coordinator Khalid Ali told McClatchy that Tal Abyad “will be a city of brotherhood.” As for the name change, “this was originally a Kurdish town. The regime brought in the Arabs here,” he said.
Asked about the Amnesty International report, Ali declared: “The guy who wrote it is a member of the Islamic State.” But he acknowledged he hadn’t read it.
The name change also doesn’t bother Mansour al Salloum, an Arab school teacher who serves as co-president of the city council, who joined a meeting of leaders of the “House of the People.” “Names are not a problem. It’s not a big deal,” said Salloum, who had no prior political experience when he was appointed.
The allegations of ethnic cleansing have put a question mark over the collaboration between the YPG and the United States.
Certainly, there were Kurds in the town before the Islamic State captured it in the summer of 2013, though how much of the population they were is disputed. According to testimony collected by the United Nations and published in September 2014, the Islamic State forced thousands of Kurds to flee the city in July 2013.
Once under Islamic State control, Tal Abyad became the transit hub for foreign jihadis heading into Syria to join the Islamic State in Raqqa, 50 miles to the south. It was through Tal Abyad that the wife of one of the gunmen in the Paris attacks of January is believed to have entered the Islamic State.
Now Gire Spi is the key link in the YPG’s ambitious plan to create a Kurdish belt across northern Syria. Its conquest connected two non-contiguous Kurdish “cantons,” Jazera to the east, consisting of much of Hasaka province, and Kobani to the west, the northern sector of Aleppo province. And it opened the prospect for the YPG of extending what it calls Rojava or “West Kurdistan” beyond Kobani to Afrin, another predominantly Kurdish zone still further west.
The YPG’s civilian wing has just proclaimed Tal Abyad-Gire Spi to be Rojava’s fourth Kurdish “canton,” suggesting that it intends is to make it a majority Kurdish region like the other three cantons.
Turkish leaders say they will intervene militarily to stop Rojava’s further expansion, and that the country’s military already has attacked the YPG on two occasions.
We are continuing to look more closely at these allegations of forced displacement, demolition of homes, and the seizure and destruction of property.
Shops and sidewalks were deserted on three successive days in mid-October when a McClatchy reporter visited Tal Abyad. Just where the townspeople and villagers from nearby have gone is at the heart of the issue.
After ousting Islamic State militants practically without a fight in June, YPG forces, according to international human rights monitors, went door to door in Tal Abyad and nearby villages and ordered non-Kurds to leave.
Turkey’s president, Tayyip Recep Erdogan, has charged the YPG with “ethnic cleansing” of Arabs and Turkmans. Officials say that 24,000 Arabs and Turkmans fled across the border after the YPG takeover, and the YPG has allowed only 4,000 to return.
Amnesty International quoted witnesses holding the YPG responsible for completely destroying two Arab villages – Asaylem, south of Tal Abyad, where more than 100 homes were destroyed in June, and Husseiniya, south of Qamishli, in Hasaka province, to the west of Tal Abyad, where more than 200 buildings were destroyed, most of them in February. Amnesty also quoted witnesses from six other villages near Tal Abyad who said the YPG expelled them at gunpoint in June.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights, a rights monitor that opposes the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and whose information the State Department often cites, documented the destruction of 11 towns and villages in Hasaka province and the partial destruction of another 20, and the displacement of mostly Arabs from a total of 45 towns, totaling “tens of thousands of the governorate’s residents.” Its report, issued Thursday, charted the destruction of homes from February through July, and the burning or looting of crops in May and June.
The U.S. State Department says it takes such charges seriously. “We are continuing to look more closely at these allegations of forced displacement, demolition of homes, and the seizure and destruction of property,” a department official who asked not to be named because of an internal department rule told McClatchy. “We treat any such allegations quite seriously and have made clear to all actors that such behavior is unacceptable.”
The YPG rejects the Amnesty report as “a far cry from the truth and reality of war and its complexity.” It charged the report was “arbitrary, non-neutral and non-professional,” as well as politically biased and criticized the content of several interviews.
In portraying a sectarian war between Kurds and Arabs the report was “very dangerous and immoral and not worthy of Amnesty International,” the YPG’s general command said in a statement Oct. 16.
But it did not dispute the assertions that two villages were completely destroyed and that thousands of people were forced to abandon their homes and property.
Inside Rojava, officials dismiss the criticism out of hand. The political arm of the YPG, the Democratic Union Party, even held a news conference with minor Arab sheikhs taking part.
“We denounce the A.I. report, because it is politicized and intended to make problems,” said Hamad al Yasemen.
“We know they issued the report under pressure from a neighboring country,” Farhad Shami, the head of the media center in the town of Amudah, told McClatchy, a reference to Turkey.
But the allegations have had an impact, putting a question mark over what had become a very public collaboration between the YPG and the United States, whose airstrikes paved the way not only for the seizure of Tal Abyad but for the expulsion of the Islamic State from, U.S. officials have said, 6,800 square miles of northern Syria that the radicals once held.
The biggest bone of contention now is Suluk, a mostly Arab town of 35,000 southeast of Tal Abyad that YPG emptied of all its inhabitants. It allowed 10,000 to return, but has refused to allow the Liwa Thurwar Al-Raqqa, the Raqqa Revolutionary Force, the biggest single Arab militia in this region, to set up a military position in Suluk.
“If they don’t allow Arabs to come back, Arabs will not help or coordinate with them,” said the force commander, who goes by the nom-de-guerre Abu Issa. “If people think they are being marginalized, they will not be cooperative.”
Abu Muhammad, 39, who’s from the nearby village of Al Ghbein, said YPG fighters showed up in mid-June, lined up the residents and told them to leave immediately. “They told us ‘you came from the desert, and you have to go back there,’ ” he told McClatchy in a telephone conversation from Akcakale, the Turkish town across the border from Tal Abyad.
McClatchy asked the Asayish, the Kurdish-led police force in Tal Abyad, for permission to visit Suluk. An Asayish official told McClatchy that the only body that could assist was the “House of the People.”
“We can’t let you go to Suluk because it is mined and there are IEDs (Improvised explosive devices),” said Khalid Ali, whose title designated him as coordinator. “We have been working on de-mining.”
The YPG has allowed Amnesty International to send an investigator into Suluk, and it has allowed other prominent Arab leaders to visit, among them Sheikh Humaydi Daham al Hadi, an Arab closely allied with the YPG whom the militia's political wing named co-president of the neighboring Jazera canton.
“I went to Tal Abyad and passed by Suluk. I didn’t find their population,” he told McClatchy during an interview in his palace, nestled amid the wheat fields in eastern Hasaka province. “I asked the military commander traveling in my car why was no one there.” The commander responded: “All of them are Islamic State, and they fled to Turkey,” he said.
Humaydi said some Suluk residents had been with the Islamic State and fled to Raqqa, the de facto Islamic State capital, and said they’d return if they were granted amnesty, he said. Humaydi was careful to avoid criticizing the YPG.
The Asayish has set up roadblocks around Suluk, where McClatchy was turned back in an attempt to visit the town.
“It’s a military zone, and you can’t go there,” said an armed guard at a key crossroads outside Tal Abyad. “It’s for your own safety.”
Special correspondent Zakaria Zakaria contributed from Tal Abyad.
Roy Gutman: @roygutmanmcc