Town and nahiyah
|Subdistrict||Tell Abyad Subdistrict|
|de facto||Democratic Federation of Northern Syria|
|Elevation||350 m (1,150 ft)|
|Time zone||UTC+2 (EET)|
|• Summer (DST)||UTC+3 (EEST)|
Tell Abyad (Arabic: تل أبيض, lit. 'White Hill', Kurdish: Girê Spî, Turkish: Tellebyad, Armenian: Թել Աբյադ, Classical Syriac: ܬܠ ܐܒܝܕ) is a town and nahiya in Syria. It is the administrative center of the Tell Abyad District within the Raqqa Governorate. Located along the Balikh River, it constitutes a divided city with the bordering city of Akçakale in Turkey.
On 16 June 2015, the town was captured by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in the course of their Tell Abyad offensive, and since then has remained under their control. As a preliminary result of the ongoing Syrian Civil War, Tell Abyad today is situated in Kobanî Canton within the de facto autonomous Democratic Federation of Northern Syria framework.
In antiquity, Tell Abyad and the surrounding region was ruled by the Assyrian Empire and settled by Arameans. Tell Abyad could have been the site of the neo-Assyrian–era Aramean inhabited settlement of Baliḫu, mentioned in 814BC. Later, various other empires ruled the area, such as the Romans, Byzantines, Sassanids, Umayyads, Abbasids and finally the Ottoman Empire. Tell Abyad remained Ottoman till the end of World War I, when it was incorporated in the French mandate of Syria.
The modern town was founded by Armenian refugees from Turkey and survivors of the deportations conducted during the Armenian Genocide, with around 250 Armenian families living in the city prior to the civil war.
Syrian Civil War
After the Syrian Civil War started in 2011, diverse Islamist opposition groups controlled the town, some under the flag of the Free Syrian Army. On June 30, 2014, Tell Abyad was captured by the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who raised their flag at the border crossing with Turkey. After ISIL defeated the Kurdish forces, the YPG and Jabhat al-Akrad, ISIL fighters announced from the minarets of the local mosques that all Kurds had to leave Tell Abyad or else be killed. Thousands of civilians, including Turkmen and Arab families, fled on 21 July. ISIL fighters systematically looted and destroyed the property of Kurds and resettled displaced Arab Sunni families from the Qalamoun area (Rif Damascus), Deir ez-Zor, and Raqqa in abandoned Kurdish homes.
In the June 2015 Tell Abyad Campaign, the town was besieged and in June 2015 taken over by forces of the Euphrates Volcano, the YPG and Free Syrian Army allies. Meanwhile, many of the tens of thousands of Arab residents — namely those tribes that allegedly took part in the expulsion of the local Kurdish population in 2013 — who fled the advancing Kurdish force have not returned, for fear of retribution from the YPG.
After the capture of Tell Abyad district, Kurdish YPG fighters have been accused[by whom?] of deliberately displacing thousands of Arabs and Turkmens from the areas they captured from ISIL forces in northern Syria, including Tell Abyad district — a charge strongly denied by the Kurds. The accusation was not backed by any evidence of ethnic or sectarian killings.
The head of Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the people who had fled into Turkey were escaping fighting and there was no systematic effort to force people out. A report published by Kurdwatch, a Germany based internet portal, also claimed the accusations of displacements against PYD but stated the following:
None of KurdWatch’s Arab or Turkmen interview partners reported of ethnically motivated mass expulsions from Tall Abyad and the surrounding areas. In fact, we can assume that there have been no large-scale ethnically motivated expulsions in the region. For demographic reasons alone a »Kurdification« of the area is out of the question. The proportion of around ten percent Kurds is simply too low. At the same time, regulations such as only Kurds from ʿAyn al-ʿArab or Tall Abyad can act as a guarantor for refugees so that they can return to Tall Abyad from Turkey clearly discriminate on the basis of ethnicity.
However, many of the tens of thousands of Arab residents — namely those tribes that allegedly took part in the expulsion of the local Kurdish population in 2013 — who fled the advancing Kurdish force have not returned, for fear of retribution from the YPG. According to the Washington Post, Kurds have been kurdifying the city after capturing it from ISIL, whish is resulting in rising tensions.
The Kurds formally renamed Tal Abyad with its Kurdish name, "Gire Spi", and proclaim its new identity in signs throughout the town — written in the Latin script used by Turkish Kurds but not readily understood by Syrian Kurds or Arabs. They have also unilaterally detached it from the existing Syrian province of Raqqa and made it a part of their newly formed autonomous enclave, carved from areas traditionally inhabited by Kurds but steadily encroaching also on territories that were historically Arab.
Self-administration within Kobanî Canton
On 21 October 2015, a council including representatives of local Arab, Kurdish, Turkmen and Armenian communities declared Tell Abyad part of the de facto autonomous Rojava. As a community in Kobanê Canton, the town enjoys self-governance in the Democratic Confederalist system of Rojava. The 178-member higher council that governs Tell Abyad has elected mixed-gender co-mayors, as mandated under Rojava rules, initially ethnic Arab Mansour Seloum (later elected co-chairperson for the executive committee to organise a new constitution for Rojava, and replaced by ethnic Arab Hamdan al-Abad) and ethnic Kurd Layla Mohammed, the latter 27 years old and the first female mayor of Tell Abyad ever. While previously education was available only in Arabic language, now Arabic and Kurdish are taught in schools and there are plans to introduce Turkish in addition; one focus of the administration is to encourage women to seek higher education.
On February 27, 2016, Tell Abyad came under attack from ISIL militants. YPG militias and Asayish police forces repelled the attack and eliminated all of the ISIL attackers, but more than 40 security forces and around 20 civilians were left dead. A YPG spokesman claimed that ISIL attackers had crossed from Turkey to attack the town. Turkey quickly denied this claim. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, there was not any infiltration from Turkish borders but dormant IS sleeper cells and others entered the town on the eve of the offensive dressed YPG uniforms. There have been multiple other instances of ISIL terror attacks in Tell Abyad, for example on 29 June and 8 July 2016 two bombings that each claimed ten civilian lives.
On 15 September 2016, the flag of the United States was raised over several public institutional buildings in Tell Abyad. The United States Department of Defense confirmed that U.S. Special Operation Forces were flying U.S. flags in the town of Tell Abyad in Kobanî Canton to deter Turkish harassment shelling or attacks against Syrian Democratic Forces there. Notwithstanding, Turkish military shelled the area on 22 September.
Tell Abyad today also is a hub for Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve training of new SDF recruits in the fight against ISIL in Syria. On 27 November 2018, as a part of a deconfliction initiative with Turkish forces in the area, the US set up its first observation post in Tal Abyad. Two more were to be set up in the future, with two in Kobani as well.
The PYD formed a council of elders in Tell Abyad which has the task to administer the region and which is said to be a fair representation of the ethnic composition of the town and the Arabic majority population. It consists of 15 people, of which are ten Arabs, three Kurds and respectively one Armenian and one Turkmen.
Germany-based internet portal Kurdwatch reports that Tell Abyad is mainly populated by Arabs, and estimates that in the environs of Tell Abyad, 15% of the population is Turkmen, 10% Kurdish and the rest being Arabs. Other sources claim that Kurds make up between under 30% up to 55% of the population. Turkish Şanlıurfa governor estimated that 98% of the region is made up of Arabs and Turkmens. In addition, there are many Turkmen families residing in the city center.
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Media related to Tell Abyad at Wikimedia Commons