BEIRUT (AP) — Syria's Kurds have expanded their semi-autonomous region in northern Syria, announcing Wednesday a new administration in a majority Sunni-Arab town they seized from the Islamic State group this summer.
The announcement falls short of declaring Tal Abyad a separate region, but prepares it for such a step if the current experiment is successful, said Kurdish official Omar Alloush, who is part of the umbrella group administering the Kurdish semi-autonomous region.
Syria's Kurds, the country's largest ethnic minority group long ostracized under the central government, declared a semi-autonomous administration in 2013 made up of three largely Kurdish regions, or cantons, in Afrin, Jazeera and Kobani. They refer to their overall autonomous region as Rojava, meaning "west" in Kurdish.
The Arab majority town Tal Abyad was captured by the Kurdish fighters in June, expelling the Islamic State group. The expulsion dealt a major blow to the IS group's abilities, cutting off a vital supply line to its self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa and depriving it of a strategic avenue for cross-border smuggling.
But many, including rights groups, accused the Kurds of displacing the town's majority Arab population. The U.N. refugee agency at the time said the Kurdish advance caused the displacement of about 23,000 people who fled the fighting to Turkey. Amnesty International accused the Kurdish authorities of intentionally displacing thousands of Arab residents later, some in retaliation for perceived support to IS — charges that the Kurds denied.
Alloush said the new administration of Tal Abyad is largely made up of Arabs; the ruling council will consist of six Arabs, two Kurds and one Turkman. Tal Abyad will fall under the Kobani administrative region for now, but Alloush said if the experiment was successful, it could become its own fourth semi-autonomous region.
"The importance of this step is that Tal Abyad has agreed to be part of the project of self-administration, the political project in Rojava," Alloush told The Associated Press. He said the area doesn't yet qualify as a separate fourth region because it lacks the resources and an independent police force.
The most powerful political force among Syria's Kurds is the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which is deeply secular and is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey and maintains bases in remote parts of northern Iraq. Any expansion in the autonomous area of the Kurds in Syria is likely to produce tension with neighboring Turkey.
In an example of the contradictions in Syria's complex conflict, the U.S., a close Turkey ally, is coordinating closely with the Kurdish fighters and has relied on them as the most dependable ground force to combat the expansion of IS. US officials have recently said they will equip and support joint Arab and Kurdish forces to pursue its anti-IS efforts in Syria.
Alloush said for now the Kurdish security forces in Kobani will be in charge of securing Tal Abyad. The budget too will be from Kobani. "If there are enough police and security forces (volunteering), then we can move into a canton," he said.