Kurdish militia advanced Sunday to the gates of a strategic jihadist-held town on Syria’s northern border with Turkey amid fierce fighting with the Islamic State group, a local commander told AFP. “The clashes are ongoing now on the eastern edges of Tal Abyad, 50 metres (yards) from the town. We are fighting for control of the first checkpoint,” said Hussein Khojer, a commander with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Tal Abyad lies on the Syrian-Turkish border and is used by IS as a gateway from Turkey into its bastion province of Raqa. “This advance comes after three days of very fierce fighting in the area,” Khojer said, adding that several Syrian rebel factions were fighting alongside the YPG.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the advance, telling AFP that the YPG had reached the town’s southeastern edges. “They have reached the southeastern entrance of Tal Abyad, but they have not entered the town yet,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman. Both Khojer and Abdel Rahman said that IS fighters had attempted to halt the Kurdish offensive by blowing up two bridges just outside Tal Abyad. “IS blew up the al-Jallab bridge southeast of Tal Abyad, but the water isn’t deep — so the Kurdish fighters just waded across,” Abdel Rahman said.
He said anti-IS forces had yet to push further southwest of the town. Kurdish militia have been backed by air strikes by the US-led coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria. Kurdish sources say the goal is to cut off a crucial supply line for the jihadists, who have been accused of bringing in foreign fighters and supplies across the Turkish border.
Many from the area’s mixed population of Arabs and Kurds were fleeing in anticipation of a major battle, and thousands were gathered behind barbed wire fences around the Turkish border crossing of Akcakale, an AFP photographer reported. As they had on Saturday, Turkish troops were preventing anyone from crossing, sporadically firing water cannons to ensure the Syrians stayed back from the fence. The Syrians — who had spent the night at the fence sleeping in the open — could be heard asking in Arabic for help.
Many held up empty bottles, pleading for water in scorching early summer temperatures. The black flag of IS could still be seen flying over Tal Abyad. Late on Saturday, several figures — apparently IS fighters — dressed in battle clothing fence on the Syrian side of the border, as Turkish soldiers eyed them nervously. Sounds of fighting could be heard from across the border and at around 1000 GMT a loud explosion sent a huge plume of white smoke rising several kilometres (miles) to the east of Tal Abyad.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday said he was troubled by the advance of Kurdish forces in the Tal Abyad region of northern Syria, saying they could in the future threaten Turkey. Turkey has in the last days firmly shut its borders to thousands of Syrians trying to flee fighting between Kurdish forces and Islamic State (IS) jihadists who currently control Tal Abyad, which lies just over the Turkish border.
Erdogan alleged that ethnic Arabs and Turkmen were being targeted in the advance and confirmed that Turkey had already taken in around 15,000 of them last week before closing the frontier. He said the places they had vacated were being occupied by the Syrian Kurdish group the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). “This is not a good sign,” he told reporters from selected Turkish media aboard his presidential plane while returning from a trip to Azerbaijan. “This could lead to the creation of a structure that threatens our borders,” he said. “Everyone needs to take into account our sensitivities on this issue.” He did not comment directly on the closure of the border.
Turkey, along with its Western allies, considers the PKK to be a terrorist group. Ankara also accuses the PYD of being the Syrian wing of the PKK. Erdogan has repeatedly expressed concern about the West’s backing for Kurdish forces in Syria, saying it could lead to PKK domination of northern Syria. The PKK fought a decades-long insurgency for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey’s southeast that claimed tens of thousands of lives on both sides .
Turkey has said that the priority for solving the war in Syria should be the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad. The West, however, prefers to concentrate on defeating IS jihadists and has in turn accused Turkey of in the past aiding the Islamist militants. Turkey denies the charges, emphasising that it too defines IS as a terrorist group.
A 17-year old who left northern England to join Islamic State was reported to have become Britain’s youngest suicide bomber when he blew himself up in a car in northern Iraq, British media said after the militants posted pictures on social media. The young man, who was named as Abu Yusuf al-Britani, was shown standing next to a black vehicle in photographs posted on Islamic State-affiliated social media accounts, the Guardian newspaper reported. The posts said he then took part in a suicide attack in Iraq’s Salahuddin province.
He is believed to be Talha Asmal, a teenager who left West Yorkshire in March, and was thought to have joined Islamic State, according to a statement from his family. “Although the information within these reports has not been confirmed and the relevant UK authorities are working hard to verify the facts, we can confirm that the photographs shown of a youth purportedly named Abu Yusuf al-Britani appears to show our 17-year-old son Talha,” the family of Talha Asmal said in a statement issued by West Yorkshire police on Sunday. “We are all naturally utterly devastated and heartbroken by the unspeakable tragedy that now appears to have befallen us.” Security services have estimated that at least 600 Britons have gone to Syria or Iraq to join militant groups, including the man known as “Jihadi John” who has appeared in several Islamic State beheading videos.
Hundreds of other Europeans have also joined the fight. The family said Asmal came from a close knit, hardworking, peace loving and law abiding British Muslim family, and the entire family unreservedly condemned and abhorred all acts of violence wherever they were perpetrated. West Yorkshire police said they were aware of the reports, but were unable to comment further as the person’s identity had not been confirmed.