US pressures Kurdish forces to allow Syrian refugees to return to Tal Abayd
Syrians carry belongings back to the city center of the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, as seen from Turkey at the Turkish crossing of Akcakale in the southeast Sanliurfa province, on June 13, 2015. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)
The Pentagon on Wednesday urged Kurdish rebels to fulfill their pledges to hand over the administration of northern Syrian cities they captured from Daesh to local committees and facilitate the return of refugees.
Thanks to intense US-led coalition airstrikes, the Kurdish rebel group – Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) military wing, People Protection Units also known as YPG – recently managed to take control of the key town of Tal Abyad bordering Turkey, as well as several other villages around al-Hassakah province.
The YPG's victory against the Daesh militant group in northeastern Syria where they pushed militants back to the outskirts of their self-declared capital of al-Raqqah was overshadowed by Kurdish fighters allegedly forcing Arabs to flee Tal Abyad during the offensive in June.
"We treat any allegations very seriously and have made clear to all actors that such behavior is unacceptable," Pentagon spokesman Elissa Smith told Anadolu Agency in an interview.
Smith welcomed the PYD's decision to allow the return of Tel Abyad residents who fled, as well as its pledge that it would leave the administration of the town to civilian committees.
"[We] urge these groups to fulfill those public pledges, and will continue to encourage all forces in Tal Abyad to help set conditions for the return of refugees," she added.
She also suggested that the liberated areas should be administered inclusively and local populations' rights should be protected to stabilize the respective territories.
During the offensive in Tal Abyad more than 20,000 civilians fled to Turkey. Some were allegedly not allowed to return to their homes, prompting concerns in the region about Kurdish rebels' political motivations.
The PYD's intention for a full autonomous or independent state in northern Syria is an open secret and the Tal Abyad offensive left doubts about the coalition's operations in that particular area as it may contribute to those aspirations.
Last year, Kurdish rebels declared three areas in northern Syria as Kurdish "cantons". They call the area around al-Afrin city in the northwest corner “Afrin Canton”; the area around the city of Ayn al-Arab, a few hundred miles east of al-Afrin as “Kobani Canton” and the area covering the cities of Tal Hamees, al-Hasakeh, al-Qamisli and Ra'sal Ayn as “Jazirah Canton”
By capturing Tal Abyad, YPG forces connected the two pieces of land they have controlled in northern Syria along the Turkish border, which they call Jazirah and Kobani “cantons”.
However, Smith defended coalition efforts saying the intense support for the YPG – with nearly 2,000 airstrikes - was because of the groups' “organization and reliability," which helped the coalition to effectively strike Daesh.
She did not specifically mention the Kurdish rebels among the groups that provide intelligence to the coalition but acknowledged that airstrikes enabled the rebels to recapture Kobani in February, and recently Tal Abyad.
"In the process, the anti-ISIL forces in northern Syria established themselves as a dependable and effective force on the ground," Smith said.
But as cooperation between the coalition and the Kurdish rebel groups develop, efforts toward building the capability of moderate Syrian opposition groups have dimed, partly due to the US’s priority of fighting Daesh.
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said Tuesday at a Senate hearing that just 60 of 7,000 Syrian volunteers have been taken into a train-and-equip program launched by the coalition as a part of the fight against Daesh.
Many of the volunteers have reportedly dropped out or have been disqualified from the program for either having connections to extremist groups or being unwilling to prioritize fighting Daesh.
"The Syria train and equip legislation directs us to screen individuals for associations with terrorist groups, Shia militias aligned with or supporting the government of Syria, and groups associated with the government of Iran. So, these are clear disqualifiers," Smith said.
On the other hand, she also implied that the course of US engagement in Syria has shifted over time from moderate opposition groups to the Kurds.
"We have been actively engaged for some time with the Syrian opposition across multiple lines of effort, “she said. "Currently, we are focused on intensifying our coordination on a broad array of strategic matters."
Strategic victories by the YPG have opened the gates of the coalition to the rebels but until now, the Pentagon spokesman said, the US has not provided any aid to the Kurds except for airpower.
Although there isn't any policy restrictions preventing the Kurds from being recruited into the train-and-equip program, Smith noted that the groups that are currently under consideration are those that coalition partners have reached a consensus.
Turkey, a coalition partner hosting the training program, considers the PYD an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) that has fought against Turkey for decades.
By Kasim Ileri