Isis in Syria: Aided by US air strikes, Kurds cut terrorists' supply line linking Syria and Iraq

Now for the first time there is evidence that this military cooperation between the Syrian Kurds and the US is continuing in offensive operations

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The Independent Online

Syrian Kurdish fighters have cut an important Isis supply line from Syria to Iraq as they expand an offensive launched in north-east Syria at the weekend that is receiving heavy support from American air strikes. The seizure of at least 90 Christian hostages from Assyrian villages by Isis may be its response to the Kurdish attack.

An important aspect of the Kurdish offensive by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) is that it is receiving air cover with US Central |Command recording 21 airstrikes in two days against Isis ground positions and vehicles. This means that the US is now cooperating militarily with the YPG, whom it once viewed as part of a terrorist movement, as a major ally in the war against Islamic State in Syria. The US only started intense bombing in support of the YPG in mid-October when it appeared that the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani was about to fall to an Isis offensive.

Now for the first time there is evidence that this military cooperation between the Syrian Kurds and the US is continuing in offensive operations. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that Isis  has lost 132 fighters killed in this area in Hasaka province since 21 February while only seven YPG fighters have been killed, including one foreigner. The disparity in casualties can only be explained by the extensive use of US airpower.

“This is an important development,” says veteran Syrian Kurdish leader Omar Sheikhmous. “It means that the PYD [the political arm of YPG] has reached an understanding with the US about cooperation.” Joint action already appears to be showing dividends in fighting around the Islamic State stronghold of Tal Hamis east of Hasaka in which Isis is being driven back and has lost control of the road leading to the village of al-Houl [PC1] and the Iraqi border.

The PYD and the YPG are the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party of Turkey (PKK) which Turkey and the US denigrate as a terrorist organisation. Mr Sheikhmous says that the US may have a tactical deal with the PYD “but it deals indirectly with it through the Iraqi Kurdish political parties.” An alliance with the militarily formidable Syrian Kurds solves some difficulties with the US which in theory is planning to build up a force of “moderate” Syrian rebels to fight both the Islamic State and the Syrian government. The 2.2 million Kurds make up 10 per cent of Syria’s population. 

The YPG is the toughest fighting force confronting Isis and its  advances in north-east Syria will cause problems for the self-declared Caliphate. Its ability to move forces between Syria and Iraq is disrupted and, in the longer term, Mr Sheikhmous says its control of important oil wells in Deir Ezzor province and positions on the Turkish border are under threat. From the US point of view their cooperation with the YPG enables them to act in concert with a well-disciplined ground force in Syria. The US air force has eschewed tactical cooperation with the Syrian Army because this would mean the US openly reversing its policy to displace Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Isis has a track record of responding to military setbacks by acts of violence against civilians – such as beheading western journalists or burning a Jordanian pilot alive – to show they are still a power to be feared and to dominate the news agenda. This may explain why early on Monday morning its fighters swept into Assyrian Christin villages and kidnapped the inhabitants, the precise number being uncertain, but said to be between 90 and 200.

George Oshana, a 23-year-old university student, speaking to the Independent by phone from the partly Assyrian Christian town of Tal Tamir close to the villages where the abductions took place, says that “some of the captured are my relatives who were living in the villages between Hasaka city and Tal Tamir. They [Isis] burnt churches, considered the most ancient in Syria, as well as houses.” He put the number of people taken by Isis at more than 200, most of them women and children.

“I am still worried about the captured people,” he said. “It is said there might be a genocide. Isis considers Assyrians pagans even though they are Christians.” The Assyrian living in a string of 36 villages on the Khabour River are the descendants of the survivors of the Turkish Genocide of 1915 – 1918 and a further massacre in northern Iraq in 1933. Mr Oshana explains that information was difficult to get out because the Syrian mobile phone network had been working until last week, but when Isis captured the villages they blew up the mobile phone masts. Isis has always been fearful that people will use mobile phones to give away their location and enable US drones and aircraft to attack them.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of the Rise of Islamic State: Isis and the New Sunni Revolution