By Raed Khalil*
(Tal Abyad, Syria) – Clashes between rival militias have become the norm in the town of Tal Abyad and neighbouring villages. The battles usually pit the Kurdish faction, called the Force for the Protection of the People, against an alliance of Arab militias, composed of the Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamist militia, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Ahrar Al-Sham (Freemen of the Levant ) jihadist militia, and factions from the Free Syrian Army. The alliance between the latter three groups is exceptional, given the conflict between the ISIS and the Free Syrian Army in other parts of Syria.
Tal Abyad lies on the Turkish border approximately 100 kilometres north of the city of Raqqa. Its residents have suffered the consequences of these confrontations since they began on July 20, 2013.
The conflict began after the Force for the Protection of the People (FPF), a militia affiliated with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), captured an ISIS field commander, known as Abu Musaab. The FPF accused Abu Musaab of booby-trapping a school under the control of the PYD, and clashes between the two sides continued for two days. Factions of the Free Syrian Army supported ISIS in the clash, and eventually forced the PYD to evacuate the city.
The clashes caused many Kurdish and Arab civilians to fear for their lives. Many fled, and looters raided their property.
After much mediation, some of the city’s elders were able to bring the two sides to a compromise. A week after the fighting began, the two sides returned the bodies of fallen enemy fighters. Fifteen bodies were handed over to the ISIS and the FSA, strewn naked next to a gas station near the village of Kandar west of the city, in exchange for the bodies of five Kurdish fighters.
In Tal Abyad, the two warring factions volley accusations of treason back and forth. Some see the other as separatist, racist, and complicit with the regime, while others view their enemies as extremists fighting for a foreign agenda.
“We did not come to fight a specific sect or ethnicity. We are all brothers in this town,” said Abu Adnan, 30, an FSA leader. “Everyone knows that the FSA did not attack or ride roughshod over anyone’s areas, even the Kurds. But we were alarmed by the proliferation of snipers and armed men from the PYD in the city and their attempt to take control of it. This showed ill intention and complicity with the Assad regime on the part of these separatist groups,” he said. =
Abu Adnan added that during the clashes, all the FSA factions released a statement stressing the “sanctity of Kurdish lives and property.”
“We called on civilians who had fled to return to protect their property,” he said about the lootings of Kurdish homes. “But we cannot guard hundreds of houses and shops. This is what encouraged some to loot, despite constant patrols inside the city.”
Azad Mohammad, an activist with the PYD, responded to the accusations of complicity with the regime.
“We were some of the first people who were martyred in the regime’s prisons. Some of those who died were well known, such as the martyr Ousman Dadaly,” he said. “With all due respect to the free people in the rest of Syria, most of the opposition used to be Baathists. Now they receive instructions from the Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Erdogan and Israel. We support the brotherhood of all people in Syria and the Middle East, and we strive for a civil, democratic Syria,” he added.
Azad Mohammad’s words were challenged by media activist Mohammad Ayman.
“What are our Kurdish brothers banking on by standing with a regime that oppressed them for more than 40 years, stripping them of their rights, land, and culture?” he asked.
Ribal Mohsen, another Arab media activist from Tal Abyad, accused Kurdish fighters of aiding Syrian government forces in recent battles around Syria.
“Why aren’t they fighting the regime?” he added.
The armed clashes and political sparring have been met with an awareness campaign that aims to stop the incitement. The campaign was launched by journalists and activists in an attempt to foster peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Kurds. One part of the campaign involves the phrase “Khorzeh – Ana Akhuk, which combines the Arabic and Kurdish expressions meaning “I am your brother.”
“We found a great deal of positive reception from both sides, as well as support for the idea from residents,” said Yasir al-Khodr, 24, the campaign’s coordinator. “Even religious councils and armed factions welcomed the idea, and promised to do what they can to make the campaign successful.”
The campaign broadcasts interviews with Arab and Kurdish activists in both languages who insist on coexistence and brotherhood between the two sides. In addition, its members write slogans of peace and brotherhood on the walls of the city. They also erected a tent in a Kurdish neighbourhood playing both Kurdish and Arabic music and showing video clips of civil peace and coexistence, and offered an open invitation to a meal.
“The noble goal of the campaign is to maintain civil peace in popular areas that are not entangled in party politics,” said activist Sobhi Sukkar, who is also a member of the city’s local coordination committee.
Sukkar sees the campaign as a “corrective movement.”
“We are committed to helping the campaigners morally and through the media, and by offering ideas to enrich their work. Our efforts are at their disposal for this work,” he said.
Despite the campaigns that call for unity, mutual accusations of treason still prevail, and the fighting still claims lives – mostly civilian – on both sides.
*A pseudonym for a journalist living in Syria.