An enormous yellow flag with a red star in the middle hangs over the main square in Tel Abyad, the Syrian border town just seized from Islamic State extremists by a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia.
For Syrian Kurds, it’s a symbol of triumph. Other Syrians, though, fear the flag is the harbinger of expulsion and possibly the breakup of Syria.
Aided by U.S. airstrikes, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, took over the strategic town Tuesday after weeks of fighting in surrounding villages. But there was no battle of Tel Abyad, for the Islamic State forces departed without a fight, U.S. officials said.
State Department officials called the fall of the town a “significant victory.”
There’s little question that the Kurds’ advance has closed the gateway for foreign volunteers flocking to join the Islamic State, whose self-styled capital is in Raqqa, 60 miles to the south. And few Syrians, no matter their origin, will miss the black flag of the extremists or their harsh rules and brutal punishments.
But they also fear the Kurdish militia. As the YPG approached Tel Abyad, Arabs and Turkmen, who comprise 90 percent of the town’s population, fled to other Syrian villages or to Turkey, which registered 25,000 refugees in one week, adding to the estimated 2 million-plus already there.
The YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has long sought an independent Kurdish state and had been designated a terrorist group in the U.S., the European Union and Turkey.
The new arrivals in Turkey told reporters they feared that non-Kurds will be mistreated or expelled. This already has occurred in nearby Hasaka province and near Kobani, the Kurdish town 35 miles west of Tel Abyad that was saved from Islamic State capture last autumn by a massive wave of U.S. airstrikes.
With U.S. help, the Kurdish militia now controls over 90 percent of neighboring Hasaka province, U.S. officials say, and there is now a land link between Qamishli in the east, the most populous Kurdish city in northern Syria, and Kobani. Only Afrin, in northwest Syria, remains unconnected.
The YPG and its parent organization, the PKK, favor creation of a Kurdish state of Rojava, or West Kurdistan. Kurdish gains have raised tensions with the hundreds of thousands of Arabs, Turkmen and other minorities who to do not share the dream of a Kurdish state.
The Syrian opposition coalition, which groups the political forces opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad, announced Thursday in Istanbul that it is sending a fact-finding committee to look into allegations of “ethnic cleansing” in Tel Abyad and surrounding villages.
The Obama administration, which has used the YPG as its “silver bullet” for fighting the Islamic State in Syria, this week voiced public concern about the Kurdish militia’s treatment of non-Kurds.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday that forces fighting the Islamic State should make “concerted efforts to protect local populations and property and secure the human rights of all citizens.” That message is one “that we continue to deliver to all of our partners,” he said.
The U.S. Central Command, which coordinates airstrikes with the Kurdish militia, has told the group that it will not tolerate “any inhumanity, even perceived,” said a U.S. official who was not authorized to speak on the record to journalists.
Kurdish officials have acknowledged indirectly that most civilians have left Tel Abyad, saying they will be welcome to return as soon as the militia has cleared it of mines. Salih Muslim, the co-president of the Democratic Union Party, the political wing of the Kurdish militia, promised in an interview with a Turkish newspaper to set up a local parliament and then promised that all Kurdish militia forces would leave the city.
That could be a long time off. Muslim said Kobani still has not been cleared of mines, and 50 people there have been killed by mines.
The rising tensions between Kurds and other Syrians, which can be tracked on social media, already have caused a rift in the Syrian Journalists Union, set up in 2012 in opposition to the Assad regime. Kurdish journalist Massud Ikko, the deputy chairman, posted a notice this week on Facebook that he would seek a federal government in Damascus or a separate state for Kurds, and he compared the Kurds to the Palestinians, who he said deserve their own state. At least four journalists quit immediately in protest.
Still to be explained is why the Islamic State decided to conserve its forces after its dramatic takeovers of Ramadi, the capital of Sunni northern Iraq, and Tadmur and Palmyra, strategically important towns in eastern Syria.
According to the U.S. official, prior to entering Tel Abyad, the Kurdish militia sent an advance party to determine the level of resistance it would face, only to learn that the Islamic State was retreating en masse. As the Islamic State fighters moved out, the Kurdish militia moved in, said the official.
One possible reason the Islamic State abandoned Tel Abyad was to avoid turning it into a killing field for its forces, as occurred in Kobani.
Syrian observers noted that the first signs of an Islamic State pullout from Tel Abyad coincided with a deployment of its forces near Azaz, 110 miles to the west. There, in a region where the U.S. military rarely conducts airstrikes, the Islamic State mounted an offensive apparently aimed at closing off a principal border crossing for supplying northern Syria, including weapons destined for moderate rebel forces.