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Kurdish gains over militants at Syrian border spur warnings from Turkey

Kurdish victories over Islamic State in Syrian border towns spur worries of a backlash from Turkey

Through a haze of dust obscuring the frontier, the flags of victorious Kurdish fighters and their allies fly over the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad, newly wrested from Islamic State militants.

But amid the rejoicing that erupted in the Kurdish heartlands of Syria, Turkey and Iraq over the capture of this strategic prize last week, there is foreboding over the prospect of a backlash from Turkish leaders, who have made plain their consternation over a lengthening corridor of Kurdish-controlled territory on Turkey's doorstep.

As the world's largest stateless population by some calculations, Kurds have seen their aspirations for autonomy boosted by the chaos enveloping Iraq and Syria. In Turkey, many among the large Kurdish minority — about 20% of the population — are feeling empowered by the historic entry of a pro-Kurdish party into parliament after elections this month.

Some Kurdish leaders, however, sought to damp pan-Kurdish nationalist sentiment arising from the military success in Tal Abyad, as they did five months ago when U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters prevailed against Islamic State in the Syrian border town of Kobani, 40 miles to the northwest.

"This victory was for all the region, not just for the Kurds," said Idris Naasan, the vice minister for foreign affairs in Kobani's Kurdish regional administration, speaking of Tal Abyad. "We want an area for all Syrians where they can be equal. We are part of Syria."

But Kurdish brethren elsewhere could not contain a sense of nationalist pride and solidarity.

"Achievement in any part of Kurdistan is a success for our entire nation," said Ari Mamshae, a senior civil servant in the government of Iraqi Kurdistan. "We are just gaining back those territories which have always been ours, and where our people still live."

The victory comes at a cost, however. The battle for Tal Abyad widened the rift between NATO ally Turkey and the American-led coalition confronting Islamic State. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was openly critical of coalition airstrikes that paved the way for the Kurds' and allied Syrian rebels' success, saying the town's capture "could lead to the creation of a structure that threatens our borders."

The main Kurdish fighting force in the area is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which fought a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state. Turkey considers the PKK a terrorist group and a greater security threat than Islamic State, which had used Tal Abyad as an important transit hub for fighters, supplies and black-market oil.

Even before the town fell, Turkish leaders expressed alarm over what they described as Kurdish ambitions to drive out ethnic Arabs and Turkmens living in Kurdish-administered areas. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc accused Kurdish militias, with the aid of coalition airstrikes, of carrying out ethnic cleansing in Tal Abyad — a charge the fighters adamantly denied.

Turkey has also accused the West of failing to help it cope with the flood of refugees fleeing Syria — 23,000 in June alone, according to the United Nations, adding to the nearly 2 million already sheltering in Turkey. The fight for Tal Abyad brought wrenching scenes of frightened refugees breaking through the border fence near Akcakale, its twin on the Turkish side of the frontier.

"You can't imagine what we suffered," said Mohammed Basneh, who shepherded his family of 10 across the border. They slept in the open for two nights before seizing the opportunity to rush through a gap in the fence, suffering cuts and bruises in the crush of the crowd.

Some Islamic State fighters entered Turkey amid the melee, refugees said. Turkish authorities reported the arrests of a handful of fighters after the town fell, but local people said others remained at large in the area. "You really should keep her out of sight," a barber in Akcakale's small commercial center murmured to a driver accompanying a foreign visitor.

Tal Abyad lies between two Kurdish-administered "cantons," or districts, Kobani and Cezire, and fighters called its capture a breakthrough because it opens a supply route between the two areas. But that bridging effect fueled Turkish fears of Kurdish expansionism, with Arinc, the deputy prime minister, warning of a plot "to bring together the cantons."

The town is only 50 miles north of Raqqah, the capital of Islamic State's self-declared caliphate, and the emboldened Kurdish fighters and their allies said they would continue pushing south.

"We will keep fighting the Islamic State wherever we find them," said Shervan Derwish, a spokesman for the umbrella group Euphrates Volcano, which includes Kurdish militias and elements of the rebel Free Syrian Army. "Our goal now is to push them as far away as possible from the areas we control."

Although Derwish said that all refugees were welcome to return and that the militias would soon hand over control to a civil administration, some ethnic Arabs said they felt intimidated by the presence of Kurdish fighters.

Ibrahim Batawi, a 24-year-old student who fled a village outside Tal Abyad this month, said neighbors told him that Kurdish militiamen had taken over his home. Even as hundreds of refugees began making the trek back into Syria, he said he did not feel safe returning.

"I think some of those people who are going home now will be back," he said.

The capture of Tal Abyad coincides with a highly fraught moment in Turkish politics. The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, lost its longtime parliamentary majority in this month's elections and is expected to try to form a coalition government with one of the smaller parties. Most observers believe that the likeliest alliance would be with a hard-line nationalist party that has been bitterly opposed to any enhancement of Kurdish rights.

Another potential scenario would involve new elections, in which the AKP would make an all-out effort to claw back votes from the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, or HDP, potentially shutting it out of parliament again. Many believe that if that happened, more radical Kurdish elements would paint such a reversal as a sign that armed struggle was the only path.

Mamshae, the Iraqi Kurdish civil servant, said whatever the fallout, the military success in Tal Abyad had advanced his people's overall cause.

"The time has ended where you could play politics in the Middle East without taking the Kurds into consideration," he said. "We are now one of the key pillars of the Middle East, and no Middle Eastern policy can succeed without including us."


Twitter: @laurakingLAT

Special correspondents Nabih Bulos in Beirut and Glen Johnson in Gaziantep, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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