Kurds open new front against Assad, foil IS ambitions

Kurds open new front against Assad, foil IS ambitions
Kurdish fighters in Syria battle government forces in one northern town, while continuing to thwart the Islamic State group's territorial ambitions in another.
4 min read
18 January, 2015

At least 18 people have been killed in unprecedented fighting between Kurdish forces and Syrian government troops in the northeastern city of Hasakeh, a monitoring group said Sunday.

The clashes, which erupted in the early hours of Saturday, were continuing for a second day, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

     Kobane has become a huge symbol. Everyone knows Kobane: it's where the Kurds stopped IS.

- Mutlu Civiroglu

"So far, eight Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters and security police have been killed, along with nine regime soldiers and militiamen," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

A woman civilian was also killed in the fighting on Saturday.

Elsewhere in northern Syria, Kurdish fighters' success in holding on to the town of Kobane is credited with taking the wind out of the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) group's previously billowing sails. 

The clashes in Hasakeh broke out after Kurdish fighters detained around 10 regime loyalists they accused of seizing part of a demilitarised zone.

Under a deal agreed last year, Kurdish forces control around 30 percent of the city's Kurdish and mixed Kurdish-Arab districts, with regime forces controlling most of the city's majority-Arab neighbourhoods.

Certain districts are off-limits to both sides under the deal.

The two sides have fought together to keep Islamic State group (IS, formarly known as ISIS) out of Hasakeh, a provincial capital of some 200,000 people, but Kurdish relations with government forces are complicated.

The regime withdrew from most Kurdish-majority areas of Syria in 2012, focusing its forces on fighting the rebellion against his rule.

Since then, the Kurds have worked to build autonomous local governments in the three regions where they form the majority population.

Kurdish forces have taken over most security responsibilities in those areas.

Kurdish forces halt IS take-over of Kobane 

Once poised to overrun the Syrian town of Kobane, the IS group has suffered a damaging blow to its ambitions at the hands of Kurdish fighters.

The setback in the mainly Kurdish town on the Syria-Turkey border has knocked the momentum out of the jihadists' advance and dashed their hopes of a swift expansion of their territory, analysts say.

In mid-September, IS began a seemingly relentless march towards Kobane, in a drive to consolidate its grip on a long stretch of the strategic northern border.

But Kurdish forces have recaptured most of the town in recent weeks, backed by a US-led air campaign in Syria that began on September 23.

Now IS holds just 20 percent of Kobane and faces the prospect of losing it entirely, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Around 1,600 people have been killed in the fighting, at least 1,000 of them IS fighters, but the group has continued to pour in reinforcements in a bid to win the high-profile battle for the town.

"Kobane has become a huge symbol. Everyone knows Kobane: it's where the Kurds stopped IS," said Kurdish affairs analyst Mutlu Civiroglu.

"They (IS) lost hundreds of fighters, millions of dollars of weapons, and the image that wherever IS goes no one can stop them," he told AFP.

Kurdish forces have also benefited from fighting on familiar ground.

IS has had to fight without any network of local sympathisers and informers like those who helped the group to capture Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, analysts say.

'Blow to IS expansion plans'

With the battle going their way, the Kurds "now have a clear policy of advancing bit by bit, street by street, to the east and the south," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

But despite the battlefield reverses, IS has shown no signs of abandoning the fight.

The group has committed heavily to the battle for Kobane, which it refers to as Ain al-Islam, a play on the Arabic name for the town, Ain al-Arab.

On Friday, IS supporter Abu Abdullah al-Shami tweeted that the town was "one of the most important battles" for the jihadist group since it emerged in Syria.

And other supporters have taken to social media to denounce the "lies" that the Kurds now hold most of the town.

"What strikes me is their denial," said Pierret.

"They don't recognise that they're being pushed back and they are continuing to act as though they're in control."

IS has been able to cling to territory elsewhere in Syria despite the coalition air strikes.

But with their hopes of a swift capture of Kobane dashed, further expansion has stalled.

"A part of their forces are stuck near Kobane," said Pierret, forcing the group to hold off on operations further west.

Kobane has proved "a blow to their dream of expansion," said Civiroglu.

"Instead of being a great prize for them, it's turned around on them like a boomerang."