Hasakah Province in Northeast emerges as a new battlefield in the fight against extremist group
U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds repulsed a fresh assault by Islamic State on a cluster of Christian villages in northeastern Syria, according to residents and officials in the area.
The battles in Hasakah province during the weekend have residents fearing this region, which protrudes like a thumb into neighboring Iraq and Turkey, could become the scene of a new multi-front and protracted standoff between the extremist group and the Kurds.
In echoes of the conflict in neighboring Iraq, Christians and other minorities in northeastern Syria are bearing the brunt of the widening battle between Kurds and Islamic State. Many believe they only have two choices: leave or join the Kurds in the fight.
“We are being trampled on by the warring sides,” said a 55-year-old Assyrian Christian engineer and member of a local charity in Hasakah. He asked to be identified by the nickname Abu Rami for security reasons. “We feel we are being pulled from our roots,” he added.
The attacks on Christians in the area, which started on Feb. 23, are Islamic State’s retaliation for recent battlefield setbacks, according to local residents and officials and Raidor Khalil, a spokesman for the Syrian Kurdish militia that successfully defended the border city of Kobani from an onslaught by the militant group.
“For sure it’s connected,” said Mr. Khalil, who represents the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.
In late February, YPG routed Islamic State from the strategic northeastern Syrian town of Tal Hamees near the Iraqi border. The previous month, YPG declared victory over Islamic State after four months of grinding warfare in Kobani on Syria’s northern border with Turkey.
In both instances, the U.S.-led international coalition played a pivotal role in supporting the YPG with an intensive campaign of airstrikes as well as weapons and ammunition.
The Kurds control most of the northern section of oil-rich Hasakah and have already established their own de facto self-rule zone there.
The latest attack by Islamic State came in the early hours of Saturday, according to residents and officials.
It targeted three villages on the left bank of the Khabur River where the Kurdish-led force, including some Christian fighters, was hunkered down after Islamic State’s capture two weeks ago of about a dozen Assyrian Christian villages on the river’s opposite bank.
They said skirmishes were ongoing Sunday following heavy clashes throughout Saturday, when U.S. warplanes aided the Kurdish-led force by striking Islamic State positions.
Some Christians have joined forces with the Kurdish militia, particularly after the Feb. 23 Islamic State attack on the area which surrounds the town of Tal Tamr in western Hasakah province.
Homes were set ablaze, several churches were blown up and Islamic State abducted more than 250 villagers including women and children in the initial attack.
The villages are inhabited mainly by Assyrians, descendants of one of the Middle East’s principal civilizations who later converted to Christianity.
Mr. Khalil, the YPG spokesman, said clashes are now under way on two fronts in Hasakah and Islamic State has brought significant reinforcements to both areas.
The first one is on the east side around Tal Hamees and the town of Tal Brak, close to the Iraqi border. The second one is around the Assyrian Christian villages around Tal Tamr on the west side of the province
“The U.S.-led coalition played a major and vital role in the capture of Tal Hamees and Tal Brak,” he said. “There was a high level of coordination.”
He added that the U.S.-led coalition also carried out airstrikes around Tal Tamr on Saturday.
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