Clashes continue in northeast Syrian city
People carry their belongings as they flee Hasaka after the Syrian government deployed warplanes to bomb the Kurdish-held areas in the city, on one of the exit points of Hasaka, Syria August 20, 2016. REUTERS photoClashes between Kurdish fighters and pro-Syrian regime forces continued in the flashpoint city of Hasakeh in northeast Syria over the weekend after a U.S.-led coalition sent aircraft into the area in a “very unusual” move to protect American special operation ground forces from attacks by Syrian government jets, a Pentagon official said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a military source said the Kurds seized territory across several neighborhoods in the city’s south in violent clashes on the night of Aug. 20, as clashes have been continuing since Aug. 17.
A local journalist working for AFP said he saw members of the pro-government National Defense Forces militia retreating from Al-Nashwa, while a Russian mediation bid failed to halt clashes with pro-regime forces.
Regime aircraft flew over Hasakeh early Aug. 21, most of which is under Kurdish control, but without carrying out any bombing raids, the Observatory said.
In an escalation of Syria’s five-year war, regime planes on Aug. 17 bombarded positions held by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in the city fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The unprecedented strikes prompted the U.S.-led coalition to scramble aircraft to protect its special operations forces helping the Kurdish fighters.
Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis told reporters Aug. 19 that the coalition aircraft reached the area around the city of Hasakeh as two Syrian SU-24s were leaving, and the U.S. special operation forces were in the area where the strikes were taking place. He said the Syrian planes did not respond to efforts by ground forces to contact them.
Davis said he was not aware of any other instances where coalition aircraft had been scrambled to respond to Syrian government bombing.
“This is very unusual, we have not seen the regime take this kind of action against YPG [Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Unit] before,” Davis was quoted as saying by Reuters.
Additional combat air patrols have been sent to the area in order to protect the ground forces.
On Aug. 19, the Syrian government carried out a second day of airstrikes and artillery bombardment, causing thousands of civilians to evacuate from Kurdish areas of the city.
Fighting between a pro-government militia and Kurdish forces since Aug. 17 has left at least 43 people dead including 27 civilians, among them 11 children, according to the Observatory.
Al-Masdar News, a pro-regime website, said renewed clashes broke out Saturday after the failure of mediation efforts in the neighboring city of Qamishli by a Russian military delegation.
It said the government had rejected a Kurdish demand for pro-regime militiamen to withdraw from Hasakeh, instead proposing that both sides disarm.
A senior regime source told AFP that Russian efforts at mediation continued into Aug. 21.
The regime and Kurdish forces share a common enemy in ISIL, but there have been growing tensions between them in Hasakeh.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said the raids showed Damascus was starting to see the Kurdish attempt to consolidate territory in northern Syria as “a threat.” He also pledged to play a “more active” in the next months in putting an end to the conflict.
Meanwhile, a senior Syrian rebel told Reuters on Aug. 21 that hundreds of Syrian rebels were preparing to launch an operation to capture a town held by ISIL at the border with Turkey.
The rebels, Turkey-backed groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, are expected to assault Jarablus from inside Turkey in the next few days, said the rebel official, who is familiar with the plans but declined to be identified.
“The factions are gathering in an area near the border [inside Turkey],” the rebel said.
Jarablus, located on the western bank of the Euphrates River, is the last significant town held by ISIL on Syria’s border with Turkey. It is 54 kilometers east of al-Rai, a border town the same rebel groups recently took from ISIL.
By taking Jarablus themselves, the rebel groups would preclude an assault on the town by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group of Kurdish-dominated militias who on Aug. 6 took the city of Manbij, 30 kilometers to the south, from ISIL.