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Thousands flee Hasakah as Syrian government bombs Kurds for third day

Kurdish civilians lash out at the US-led coalition for not doing more to stop the escalation
Syrian Kurdish civilians board a truck as they flee reported shelling in the northeastern governorate of Hasakah toward the city of Qameshli (AFP)

HASAKAH, Syria – Syrian government warplanes were spotted over the flashpoint Syrian city of Hasakah again on Saturday, despite warnings from the US-led coalition that strikes could hit its military advisers working with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Local media reported that government jets carried out air strikes again on Saturday morning and that fighting continue to rage on the ground.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there had been no let-up in the fighting since a skirmish at a checkpoint on Wednesday escalated and that 41 people, including 15 civilians and 10 children, have been killed.

US-backed SDF, mostly made up of Syrian Kurdish forces but also with some Syrian Arab fighters, said that so far no fighters, and just civilians, had been killed in government strikes. 

Thousands of civilians have started to flee the frontlines in fear that things are set to go from bad to worse.

On Friday and Saturday, buses were busy transporting people to safer cities such as Amude and Qamishli in the north, although fears are running high that tensions here could erupt there again following heavy fighting that took place in April.

“They [the Syrian government] have burned our homes,” Fahmi Hasso, a 62-year-old Hasakah resident told MEE as he fled from the fighting.

He said that he would take up arms against the government if the situation was not immediately resolved.

“They have destroyed everything, children and women are being killed, and there are so many wounded,” Hasso said. “For two days we have been living in hell, and for two days we have been transporting the wounded people [from the city]. We can’t accept this any longer.”

For years the northeastern city of al-Hasakah has been living in an uneasy truce, with pro-Syrian government militia occupying the southern parts of the city, and the Kurdish People's Protection Units controlling the north.

Scuffles between the two have periodically broken out, but this week saw an unprecedented escalation, with government planes bombing positions held by Syrian Kurds on Thursday for the first time since the war began more than five years ago.

Heval Bahoz, an SDF fighter, told Middle East Eye that on Thursday heavy bombing by the Syrian government hit “every point we had in the city”.

The US-led coalition then scrambled jets to intercept and “Uncle Obama stopped the strikes,” but a few hours later the government planes returned. 

Following the incident, rumors began to circulate that the US was establishing a no-fly zone over the Kurdish-majority parts of Syria, something it has refused to do over other war-ravaged parts of the country.

However, this was quickly dispelled with US military spokespeople saying that the jets were scrambled to protect US personnel on the ground. 

Marine Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a spokesperson at the US Secretary of Defense, confirmed to MEE on Friday that Syrian government jets carried out air strikes against US-backed ground forces last Thursday.

“Coalition aircraft came to the area in response as a measure to protect coalition forces operating in the area. No coalition forces were impacted in the Syrian Air Force strike. Coalition forces operating on the ground in the area are safe,” he said via email. 

“We immediately contacted the Russians via the MOU channel, established for de-confliction and to ensure the safety of coalition forces and their counter-ISIL efforts,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group which the US-led coalition was set up to fight.

According to Rankine-Galloway, Russia stressed that the aircraft were not Russian but “we made clear that coalition aircraft would defend its troops on the ground if threatened".

“As we have said in the past, the Syrian regime would be well advised not to interfere with coalition forces or its partners,” he said.

The extent of US-led coalition support, however, has been widely questioned in the wake of the Syrian government strikes.

According to Nicholas Heras, a Washington-based Middle East researcher at the Centre for a New American Security, the US will only protect SDF units that are working with coalition advisers. 

“It will be a test of the Coalition-SDF relationship, but it is unlikely that the US will intervene unless it feels that the ongoing campaign against ISIS [the Islamic State group] becomes threatened and if the SDF gets angry that the coalition did not intervene to protect its forces and civilians in Hasakah,” he said.

Civilians on the ground are already complaining that the US-led coalition is not doing enough and have called on the international community to do more.

“I have fled from the Assad regime, as have all the people who are now fleeing from the Assad regime,” said Taha Abu Kawa, a 40-year-old civilian who fled the city. 

“This regime is fascistic and a dictatorship. Assad is attacking children, but he should be attacking Daash [IS] and not us. 

“All Arabs who have been displaced to Kurdish neighborhoods are now attacking us. We are calling on the European countries and the US to stop this dictator." 

SDF fighters show effect of a government air strikes (MEE / Wladimir van Wilgenburg)

Ismail Rasho, a leading member of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) office, told MEE that they haven’t received any support from the US in Hasakah, but he stressed he was thankful to the coalition if they could stop regime jets. “We would have defeated the regime in 24 hours in Hasakah if there were no jets,” he said.

“We haven’t received any support from the USA in Hasakah, and we haven’t demanded support,” he added.

The pro-government governor of Hasakah, Mohammed Ali, on Friday called on the YPG to return to the negotiation table and blamed “Arab mercenaries and traitors” for fanning tensions. The YPG rejected the call and said they will not stop fighting until the government is driven out.

“After they attacked us, we won’t stop and will continue the fight and finish the regime in Hasakah,” Rasho said.  “Every time we liberate an area, the regime is attacking us, in Hasakah or in Qamishli. After we liberated [the northern city of] Manbij [from IS] in 73 days, the regime attacked us in Hasakah.”

Several Kurdish officials told MEE that the Syrian forces attacked the US-backed Kurdish fighters because they felt emboldened by the improving relations between Turkey, Iran, and Russia, and want to prevent the Kurds from creating a federal region in northern Syria.

“There were agreements between Turkey and Iran, and they want to break our forces, but they cannot break us,” Rasho said.

The situation between the government and the Kurds has grown so tense that Turkey on Saturday said that it foresaw a new front opening up in the war where the Kurdish forces and Assad have until recently largely not fought one another.

Damascus has understood that Kurds in northern Syria have become a threat, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said, which the Kurds saw as a sign of Turkish support for the Syrian government.

"This is a new situation ... It is clear that the regime has understood that the structure [the] Kurds are trying to form in the north [of Syria] has started to become a threat for Syria too," Yildirim told foreign correspondents in Istanbul, referring to the Syrian Kurds' bid to join up regions under their control.

He added that Turkey would now take a more active role in addressing the conflict in Syria in the next six months to prevent the war-torn country being divided along ethnic lines. 

Syrian Kurdish factions are closely allied with the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), which has repeatedly clashed with the Turkish army for more than a year since fragile peace talks collapsed.

The YPG general command said in a statement on Saturday that remarks by the Syrian army saying that the YPG was linked PKK look similar to statements coming out of Turkey for years. 

Relations between Washington, which backs the SDF, and Ankara, which opposes it, have long suffered over the rift.  Often Turkey saw the Kurds as a bigger threat than IS, although the Kurds have fought the extremist group effectively.

Haji Ali Sultan, 80, who is fleeing Hasakah, told MEE he was not afraid of the government but was worried for his children.

"We are calling on [other] countries to help the Kurds,” he said. “If they help us it's good. If not, it isn’t the end of the world. We do not fear Arabs or Assad, even [if] only our women are left, they [the Kurdish forces] will kill all of them [regime forces]."