Syrian Army, Kurdish Fighters Battle ISIS in Hasaka

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A People's Protection Units (YPG) fighter takes a photo on February 26, 2015, after they retook parts of the town of Tal Hamis, southeast of the city of Qamishli, after six days of clashes with Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group jihadists in Syria's Hasaka province. Tal Hamis has been under ISIS control for more than a year and according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights the town was "one of the most important strongholds" of the group in the region. AFP/Delil Souleiman

Published Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Syrian army and Kurdish fighters fought separate battles with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group on Monday in a strategic area near the Iraqi and Turkish borders, a monitoring group said.

The battles took place as the US reiterated on Monday its readiness to give the necessary help to back “moderate” Syrian rebels.

The Syrian army backed by supporting fighters and the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) launched uncoordinated offensives against ISIS in the northeastern province of Hasaka, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Observatory head Rami Abdel-Rahman told AFP that after three days of clashes, the Syrian army bolstered by tribal fighters had secured control over 23 villages in the center of the province from ISIS. Syria's official news agency SANA put the number at 31 villages.

State television said the army offensive would continue until it controlled the main road linking the provincial capital Hasaka and the city of Qamishli.

"ISIS has launched counter-attacks on regime checkpoints, while the regime fortifies its positions with support from local Arab tribes," Abdel-Rahman added.

He said YPG fighters were meanwhile also battling ISIS alongside Arab tribes outside the village of Tal Tamer in Hasaka's southwest.

"The YPG fighters in Tal Tamer are shelling ISIS around the area to lure ISIS to respond, so they can identify their positions" and call for strikes by the US-led coalition waging an air campaign against ISIS, he said. "But ISIS is avoiding any response in order not to give away its positions."

YPG spokesman Redur Khalil confirmed to AFP that the Kurdish fighters were conducting "attack-and-retreat operations with ISIS on two fronts.”

"The first is around Tal Tamer, in order to retake Assyrian towns in the area, and the second is around Tal Burak," a town between Hasaka and Qamishli, he said.

ISIS launched an attack last week on the areas around Kurdish-controlled Tal Tamer and kidnapped at least 220 Assyrian Christians from 11 villages. Nineteen of them were freed Sunday after ransoms were paid.

Control of the strategic Hasaka province bordering Turkey and Iraq is split between ISIS, Syrian army and Kurdish fighters, with overlap at a number of points.

The army withdrew from most of the province in the first few months after the start of Syria's uprising in March 2011, granting greater autonomy to the Kurds.

A UN fact-finding mission meanwhile deployed to Syria's second city Aleppo on Monday, despite the rejection by opposition forces of a partial ceasefire there proposed by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura.

"The mission will aim to assess the situation on the ground and to ensure that, once the freeze is announced, humanitarian aid can significantly increase, and to prepare arrangements to follow up on violations of the freeze," his office said in a statement.

The Italian-Swedish diplomat has made the Aleppo freeze the centerpiece of his mediation efforts since he was named as special envoy on the Syrian conflict in July.

The conflict in Syrian began in March 2011 with anti-government protests and spiraled into a multi-sided war as armed rebellion hijacked the Syrian uprising and diverted it, drawing foreign jihadists, killing about 220,000 and displacing half the population.

In attempt to contain the growing threat of jihadist groups like ISIS, a US-led coalition of around 60 mainly Western and Arab states was formed several months after ISIS swept across northern Iraq, seizing swathes of territory and proclaiming a caliphate in parts of the country as well as regions in neighboring Syria.

However, critics opposed to US involvement in the conflict with ISIS have pointed out that Washington in partnership with its Gulf allies played a role in the formation and expansion of extremist groups by arming, financing and politically empowering armed opposition groups in Syria.

US will 'protect' Syrian rebels when time comes

The United States will be ready to "protect moderate” Syrian rebels possibly with air power once they enter into combat, a top US official said Monday.

Retired US general John Allen, President Barack Obama's envoy to the international coalition fighting ISIS group, insisted that once “moderate” Syrian rebels were vetted, trained and armed, they would not be abandoned on the battlefield.

"It is clearly part of our plan, that not only we will train them, and we will equip them with the latest weapons systems, but we will also protect them when the time comes," Allen said at an event organized by the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.

Asked if the Syrian rebels would be asked to fight without air cover or a no-fly zone, Allen said "all of those things are under consideration… So it's important that you not believe that we would not support these fighters.”

He also said the coalition was "pleasantly surprised at the numbers" of Syrians ready to sign up for the fight against ISIS.

Apart from screening and training the “moderate” rebel force, the coalition would be "successfully protecting that force so that it does have operational capability," he added. "It's certainly something that we are constantly watching."

Washington has clashed with other coalition members about its approach to Syria, preferring to focus for the moment on battling ISIS, while putting off any potential confrontation with the regime in Damascus.

Some foreign governments and US lawmakers have urged the Obama administration to take more decisive action against President Bashar al-Assad's regime and to carry out airstrikes in support of rebels fighting both Damascus and the ISIS jihadists.

On February 19, the US signed a deal with Turkey to train and equip thousands of Syrian rebel forces after a couple months of difficult negotiations between the NATO allies.

The US government hopes the program can begin by late March, so the first trained rebel forces can be operational by year's end, according to the Pentagon.

About 1,500 Syrians have been identified to take part and of those, about 100 had been screened, officials said.

Their goal is to train more than 5,000 Syrian rebels in the first year of the program and a total of 15,000 over a three-year period. The training will reportedly take place in the Turkish town of Kirsehir in central Anatolia. Training will also take place in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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