Undeterred by Hasakah defeat, ISIS tries a comeback
DAMASCUS - Undeterred by a painful defeat at the hands of Kurdish fighters and regime troops who joined forces to evict it from the Kurdish city of Hasakah in north-eastern Syria, the Islamic State (ISIS) retaliated by opening new fronts in the conflict.
Backed by reinforcements from its Syrian bastion of Raqqa, ISIS waged a major assault on Jebel Abdel Aziz, south-west of Hasakah, inflicting heavy losses on Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), according to sources who spoke to The Arab Weekly on condition of anonymity.
ISIS also repelled an attack by the YPG and allied Iraqi peshmerga fighters who attempted to seize El Hol region on the Syrian-Iraqi border, the sources added.
The battle for Hasakah was considered the biggest defeat to date suffered by ISIS. During more than 33 days of fighting, government forces and YPG fighters put their feud on hold and turned their guns towards ISIS.
The battle ended when ISIS withdrew from Hasakah after losses totalling 1,200 dead and hundreds wounded. Those were the biggest losses sustained by ISIS in a battle, sources inside the militant group said.
“It was the harshest assault ever waged against any city during Syria’s war,” commented Hasakah Governor Muhammad Ali.
ISIS fighters attacked positions of the army and the shabiha, the pro-government militia, with suicide and car bomb attacks, seizing neighbourhoods in the southern part of the city.
“The second day after the start of the assault was the most apocalyptic, with ISIS fighters advancing in the city, residents fleeing and many civilians getting killed and their bodies littering the streets,” Ali said.
“The duty of defending the city against ISIS was shouldered by all parties, including the army, which brought in commandoes and weapons, and the inhabitants, who had played a big role in repelling the offensive and suffered several casualties.”
Ali said he gathered army commanders and the YPG military chief in his office in the early days of the assault to ensure the defence of the city. “I told them clearly that anyone who wants to protect the city unconditionally is welcome and that the residents were more than willing to give a hand,” Ali said.
According to sources inside Hasakah, the YPG did not want to enter the battle until it thought the army would be defeated by ISIS. “They would then have repelled the jihadists with the backing of US-led coalition air raids and seized control of the quarters which were previously controlled by the regime forces,” the sources said.
“But their calculations proved to be totally wrong, largely due to the diehard resistance put up by the residents in their bid to defend their city.”
Residents-turned-fighters were regrouped in units under the banner of the National Defence Forces.
The ISIS offensive forced some 100,000 people to flee to safer neighbourhoods in Hasakah and to the nearby towns of Derbassiya and Amouda. YPG spokesman Salah Jamil argued that Kurdish forces intervened at the right time to prevent the city from falling into ISIS hands. “It is true that we did not interfere in the first 15 days but, when we did, it was because the government troops had suffered big losses and the city was about to fall,” Jamil said. “We became almost face to face with ISIS and tribal leaders asked for our assistance.”
YPG fighters cut off ISIS’s main supply route from Shadadi to the south and from Raqqa to the south-west. Jamil denied “any kind of alliance” between the regime forces and the YPG, stressing that “each operated independently”.
“We have no relations whatsoever with the regime,” he said, though at one point they were fighting on the same side against a common enemy. “As far as we are concerned, the battle was a matter of to be or not to be (life or death),” commented Amira Ghanem, a member of Syria’s parliament.
“The army showed great steadfastness but the biggest resistance was demonstrated by the residents of the province. After 20 days of confrontations, ISIS was compelled to bring in huge reinforcements,” said Ghanem, who leads a 400- man fighting unit made up of local residents, including former army members and civilians who were trained for 20 days on the use of weapons and fighting techniques.
The month-long assault on Hasakah was a “major blow” for ISIS, which lost many military commanders in the fight. Sources inside ISIS territory said the group executed more than 100 members as punishment for acting in a “cowardly” way.
The YPG controls around 75% of Hasakah after it seized several neighbourhoods. This has placed it in direct contact with government forces, increasing fears of friction that could enflame the region once again. When government forces withdrew from Kurdish areas in the north and north-east, Kurdish authorities established autonomous local administrations to fill the void.
The Syrian opposition claims that the Kurdish YPG and the regime reached an agreement under which the two sides would fight against ISIS in return for reducing the regime’s presence in Hasakah province.