Syrian Rebels Accuse Kurds of ‘Ethnic Cleansing,’ Kurds Deny

June 15, 2015 Updated: June 15, 2015

BEIRUT—More than a dozen Syrian rebel and militant groups on Monday accused the country’s main Kurdish militia of committing “ethnic cleansing” against Arabs and Turkmen in northern Syria, a charge strongly denied by the Kurds.

The accusation, which was not backed by evidence of ethnic or sectarian killings, came as Kurdish fighters reached the outskirts of a strategic Islamic State-held town on the Turkish border.

Thousands of refugees, most of them Sunni Muslim Arabs, have fled to Turkey in the past two weeks as the main Kurdish fighting force known as the YPG has pushed to dislodge IS militants from Tal Abyad, aiming to sever a key supply line for the extremists’ nearby de facto capital.

Tal Abyad, which lies on the Turkish border, is a mixed town with a population that includes Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds. The Kurdish advance, coming under the cover of intense U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in the area, has aggravated sectarian and ethnic tensions in the region.

“YPG forces … have implemented a new sectarian and ethnic cleansing campaign against Sunni Arabs and Turkmen under the cover of coalition airstrikes which have contributed bombardment, terrorizing civilians and forcing them to flee their villages,” the statement issued by rebel and militant groups said.

The 15 groups, including the powerful ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, said the alleged “cleansing” is concentrated in the northeastern predominantly Kurdish province of Hassakeh and in Tal Abyad. They said it was caused by the Kurdish advance and U.S.-led airstrikes.

It charged that the “cleansing” was part of a plan by the Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD) to partition Syria. The YPG, or People’s Protection Units, is the armed wing of the PYD. The movement is affiliated with the Kurdish PKK, which has waged a long and bloody insurgency in southeastern Turkey.

YPG spokesman Redur Khalil strongly refuted the claims, calling the groups making them “bankrupt.”

“Preserving people’s dignity is among our priorities, and it is for that that we are offering our blood,” he wrote on his official Facebook page Monday. He said the “unjust accusations were meant to market for the Islamic State group and cover up its crimes.”

Losing Tal Abyad, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, would deprive the militant group of a direct route to bring in new foreign militants or supplies. The Kurdish advance, coming under the cover of intense U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in the area, would also link their two fronts and put even more pressure on Raqqa.

Around 16,000 people have fled the fighting in the past two weeks. On Monday, up to 3,000 more refugees arrived at the Akcakale border crossing. Thick smoke billowed across the border as U.S.-led coalition aircraft targeted IS militants in Tal Abyad.

The Islamic State extremist group, led by Sunni Arabs from Iraq and Syria, has massacred hundreds of Shiites and other opponents and boasted of the killings in online videos.

The extremist group has also kidnapped hundreds of members of the Yazidi religious minority — who are ethnic Kurds — and enslaved women and girls.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, including Sunni Arabs, have fled the IS advance over the past year and taken refuge in the largely autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq.