Syria Kurds under fire

ISIS has launched a major surprise attack on an area west of Ras al-Ayn.

YPG fighters outside Tel Hamis. (AFP/Delil Souleiman)

BEIRUT – Following weeks of lightning advances in Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh province, Syria’s Kurds were pushed back on the defensive in the border town of Ras al-Ayn (Sere Kaniye in Kurdish) by a major ISIS assault.


Late Tuesday, ISIS fighters backed with armor support launched their offensive on the outskirts of Ras al-Ayn, a border town adjacent to Turkey’s Ceylanpinar.


“Hundreds of ISIS fighters launched an assault on the [Ras al-Ayn] area with tanks,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Wednesday.


The monitoring group added that ISIS fighters engaged Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) fighters in fierce clashes in Tel Khanzir, 25 kilometers west of Ras al-Ayn, as well as Al-Manajir, which lies 20 kilometers south of the town.


“The attacking forces managed to advance in the area, taking control of Tel Khanzir, with dozens of fighters dying on both sides,” the Observatory said.


Meanwhile, Syrian ARA news agency—an independent outlet close to the country’s Kurds—reported that YPG units had withdrawn from Tel Khanzir


“After hours of fighting, [ISIS] announced its control over the village and the withdrawal of YPG fighters to the nearby village of Khirbet al-Banat (2.5 km east of Tel Khanzir),” the outlet cited local activists as saying.


Despite the reported YPG withdrawal, an official in the group told ARA News that “clashes continued in the vicinity of the village until Tuesday evening and that the YPG was still in control of the area.”


Strategic dimensions


Ras al-Ayn had been contested between YPG fighters and Syrian Arab rebels after the Free Syrian Army backed by Al-Nusra Front fighters seized the town from the regime in November 2012.


The Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD), which controls the YPG, established an armed presence in the town—which is populated by Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians and Chechens—following the rebel takeover.


Rounds of armed clashes and ceasefires ensued before the YPG took complete control of the town after routing the Al-Nusra Front on July 17, 2013, killing nine of the Islamist group’s fighters.


PYD co-president Saleh Muslim has emphasized the importance of the border town, telling Rudaw News that Ras al-Ayn occupies a strategic position between Kurdish front lines in western and eastern Syria.  


“Controlling it would give the Arabs more leverage over the Kurds, because the Arabs can separate [the central and western Kurdish cantons of] Kobani and Afreen from Jazira [Hasakeh],” he told the Kurdish news outlet in a 2013 interview when Syrian Arab rebels were fighting to take the town.


Meanwhile, ARA news reported that the village of Tel Khanzir outside Ras al-Ayn also occupies a key geographical position.


“Tel Khanzir has a strategic hill that overlooks two major roads linking Tel Khanzir with the towns of Mabrouka Hanadi and Tel Abyad in Raqqa province,” civil rights activist Aziz Dawoud told the outlet.


He added that if ISIS seized the town, it would be able to “cut off the road leading to the eastern side of the city of Tel Abyad,” an ISIS-held border town between the Kurdish-controlled areas in Hasakeh and Kobane, which the YPG has aimed to seize in a bid to link Kurdish frontlines.


YPG’s Hasakeh campaign


The ISIS push on Ras al-Ayn came the same day the YPG touted its success in seizing the ISIS stronghold Tel Hamis in the center of the Hasakeh province.


In a statement issued Tuesday, the YPG general command “Command confirmed the [successful completion] of its campaign… to liberate the towns of Tel Brak and Tel Hamis, and the surrounding villages from ISIS.”


“The danger that was threatening the area has ended and the Cizire canton is now safe,” the Kurdish paramilitary group added.


The YPG seized Tel Hamis and most of the surrounding areas in late February, bolstering the PYD’s position in the northeastern Syrian region, which the party declared as an autonomous Kurdish canton known as Cizire (Jazira in Arabic) in 2014.


Despite its military successes, the YPG and ISIS continue to engage in clashes in the Hasakeh province, with ISIS pressing the offensive it launched in February 22 on the Assyrian-populated Tel Tamr region, 35 kilometers southeast of Ras al-Ayn.


The SOHR said Wednesday that “fighting was underway in the area to the southwest of Tel Tamr between the YPG, the Khabur Guard Forces and the Syriac Military Council on one side, and ISIS on the other.”


Meanwhile, Al-Akhbar reported that ISIS was aiming to “occupy the YPG on more than one front and stop its march towards the strategic village of Al-Houl, near the Iraqi border, which is seen as the group’s main supply line between Syria and Iraq.”

YPG fighters outside Tel Hamis. (AFP/Delil Souleiman)

Hundreds of ISIS fighters launched an assault on the [Ras al-Ayn] area with tanks and heavy weapon systems.