Kurds Advance against ISIS as Damascus Slams Turkish “Flagrant Aggression”

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Turkish army vehicles drive in a street of the Syrian town of Kobane (aka Ain al-Arab) on February 22, 2015, during an operation to relieve the garrison guarding the Suleiman Shah mausoleum in northern Syria. AFP/Mursel Coban

Published Monday, February 23, 2015

Syrian Kurdish forces advanced against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters in two separate attacks in northeastern Syria near the Iraqi border on Sunday, an organization tracking the war reported, compounding recent losses for the militant group in Syria.

The Kurdish YPG militia has been one of ISIS toughest enemies in Syria and flushed the group out of the flashpoint town of Kobane last month.

Hasaka province in the northeastern corner of Syria is strategically important in the fight against ISIS because it borders areas controlled by the group in Iraq.

The YPG advanced to within five kilometers (three miles) of Tel Hamis, an ISIS-controlled town 35 kilometers (22 miles) southeast of the city of Qamishli, Kurdish official Nasser Hajj Mansour said.

The YPG had decided to launch the attack after ISIS reinforced its positions in the area with foreign fighters.

"Twenty-three farms and villages, big and small, have been liberated," Mansour told Reuters by telephone.

The Kurdish fighters gave the coordinates of ISIS targets to the US-led coalition — the same method used to call in airstrikes in the battle for Kobane, he said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 12 ISIS fighters were killed in the fighting and confirmed the advance by the YPG.

Mansour, however, said 20 ISIS fighters had been killed.

In the second advance in the northeast, Kurdish fighters took two villages from ISIS at the Iraqi border, helped by heavy shelling by Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces on the other side of the frontier, the Observatory said.

It said the shelling killed eight people, five of them children.

A source on the Iraqi side of the frontline in the Sinjar area said the Kurdish peshmerga forces in Iraq had shelled ISIS positions across the border in Syria in coordination with the YPG.

The hardline jihadist militant group has shown signs of strain in Syria since it was driven out of Kobane.

Syrian government forces have also made gains in the provinces of Hasaka and Deir Ezzor recently.

Since driving ISIS from Kobane, the Kurdish forces backed by other Syrian armed groups have pursued ISIS fighters as far their provincial stronghold of Raqqa.

Hasaka province in the northeast is one of three areas where the Syrian Kurds have set up their own government since Syria descended into war in 2011.

Turkish troops incursion “flagrant aggression”

The Kurdish advances in northeastern Syria come a day after Turkish tanks backed by drones and reconnaissance planes entered Syria Saturday night to evacuate several dozen Turkish soldiers guarding a tomb considered sovereign territory by Ankara and surrounded by ISIS jihadists.

The Turkish troops, reportedly numbering around 40, were guarding the mausoleum complex of Suleiman Shah, grandfather of the Ottoman empire's founder Osman I, which under a 1920s treaty is considered sovereign Turkish territory.

The Syrian government said Sunday that an overnight incursion by Turkish troops to evacuate the historic tomb and the soldiers guarding it was an act of "flagrant aggression" and that it would hold Ankara responsible for its repercussions.

"Turkey is not satisfied with merely giving all kinds of support to its puppets Daesh (ISIS), (al-Qaeda affiliate) al-Nusra Front and other terrorist groups," said a foreign ministry statement carried by the state-run news agency SANA.

"It even carried out... a flagrant aggression against Syrian territory," the statement read.

Syria said the operation was a violation of an agreement signed in 1921.

The foreign ministry said its consulate in Istanbul had been informed by Ankara on Saturday evening of its plans to mount the operation deep inside Syria to evacuate soldiers guarding the tomb of Suleiman Shah.

"But as usual (Turkey) did not wait for Syria's consent," the ministry added.

The Syrian government statement said the fact that ISIS had not attacked the tomb "confirmed the depth of the ties between the Turkish government and this terrorist organization."

In line with its hardline Salafi vision of Islam, ISIS has blown up many tombs in areas under its control, singling out the Suleiman Shah tomb, as it forbids the worship of graves.

The Syrian government has consistently accused the NATO member of harboring, financing, training, and arming militants since violence erupted in March 2011, saying it played a role in the formation and expansion of extremist groups like ISIS.

In mid January, social media sites Twitter and Facebook, along with many other websites, were blocked in Turkey after anonymous accounts published new evidence in an ongoing case accusing Turkey of illegally shipping weapons to Islamist militants in Syria.

Damascus has also repeatedly accused Ankara of playing a major role in fueling the armed crisis in Syria by opening its borders and allowing free access to foreign jihadists into Syria.

According to a UN report published in November, Turkey has been singled out as a major transit point for ISIS’ oil deliveries, with trucks often returning to Iraq or Syria with refined products.

Moreover, the operation at the mausoleum also drew criticism from Turkish opposition parties.

"For the first time in the history of the Turkish Republic, we lost part of our homeland without even fighting," the main opposition Republican People's Party's deputy chairman, Gursel Tekin, said in a press conference Sunday.

The Nationalist Movement Party's deputy chairman, Cemal Adan, also slammed the government for "making Turkey seem weak in the region."

The original burial place of Suleiman Shah had been rendered unusable on security grounds, and the Turkish Special Forces unit protecting the area were brought back to Turkey, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Sunday.

Another site, near the border inside Syria, was fenced to become the new location of the tomb and a Turkish flag was raised over it — a clear violation of Syria’s sovereignty.

Disagreeing with the opposition's comments, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said that Turkey had not lost any territory since the tomb was only relocated, an occurrence which has taken place a few times in the past, he told journalists in Bursa on Sunday.

(Reuters, AFP, Anadolu, Al-Akhbar)

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