Without Committed Air Support, Kurdish Forces cannot go on the Offensive against ISIS

Despite repeated attempts to take the towns of al-Shaddadi and al-Hool, located fifty kilometers south and forty kilometers east of Hasaka, respectively, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have been unable to advance towards either of these strategically important locations. Notwithstanding sustained air support from the international coalition to combat missions in and around Hasaka, both al-Shaddadi and al-Hool will remain in the Islamic State’s (ISIS) hands.

ISIS depends heavily on the oil and gas trade from the more than one thousand oil and gas wells in al-Shaddadi to finance its operations and fund the social services it provides to civilians residing in and around Hasaka—services that have proved crucial for ISIS to garner popular support. In fact, ISIS considers the city so important to its interests that, according to recent reports, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself visited al-Shaddadi over the summer, during which he personally decided to launch the most recent attacks on Hasaka this past June and July. According to news widely disseminated on ISIS-affiliated websites and social media accounts, ISIS holds sessions on Sharia in al-Shaddadi to spread its version of Islamic law and meetings with elders representing local tribes.

Al-Hool serves as the primary conduit through which ISIS links its operations in Iraq and Syria for transporting fighters and military and non-military supplies. Al-Hool served as the main staging area for ISIS’s attacks on Mosul in June 2014, which resulted in ISIS capturing the Iraqi city, and later attacks throughout the Sinjar region in northwestern Iraq. ISIS further uses al-Hool to funnel foreign fighters coming from the Syria-Turkey border to its main headquarters in Raqqa and Mosul. It is also a battle front with the Kurdish forces controlling al-Ramelan oil fields.

ISIS’s strategy has been to attack Hasaka at regular intervals to deny Kurdish forces sufficient time to regroup and replenish supplies and prevent them from progressing toward al-Shaddadi and al-Hool. Meanwhile, ISIS had been unable to capture all of Hasaka, since it is the Kurdish forces’ first line of defense against ISIS efforts to take Kurdish towns along Syria’s northern border including al-Qamishili, Amuda, Derbassiyeh, and Derek. 

The YPG battle for Hasaka in June marked the first time that Kurdish forces adopted an offensive strategy, forcing ISIS out of the city’s southern and western neighborhoods. The YPG took advantage of heavy coalition air support to bring their forces from eastern regions such as Mount Abdul-Aziz, Aziziya, and Villat Humr in the city’s southeast, to inflict substantial damage upon ISIS and its strongholds in the al-Nashwa district, located in the city’s west.

With coalition air strikes, ISIS’s control of the southern neighborhoods (Ghwayrran, western and eastern al-Nashwa, Layali, and al-Zuhur) only lasted three weeks before a broad YPG counterattack succeeded in expelling ISIS outside of Hasaka proper. Civilians recently liberated from under ISIS control called on the YPG to capitalize on its success and retake the Kurdish cities al-Shaddadi and al-Hool and secure an anti-ISIS buffer zone. But after the summer’s quick advances, the YPG has found itself in a holding pattern.

Discussing ISIS’s activities in and around the region, Dr. Salah Jamil, from the YPG’s Public Relation’s Office in Hasaka, stated that, “We do not underestimate ISIS’s strength, nor the amount and variety of weapons it has seized from the Iraqi army. Though the YPG only enjoys limited coalition air support and it does not tie its movements and defense of the region to the international airstrikes, it is in both parties’ mutual interest to eradicate terror.” Dr. Jamil added, “The coalition is fully aware that the YPG is the most organized and experienced force in the region, and the only such body capable of defeating ISIS.”

Seeking to expound upon Dr. Jamil’s comments, an anonymous commander in People’s Protection Units clarified that the YPG, “Welcomes the important role played by coalition aircraft in recent battles against ISIS, especially along the front extending some 700 km from the Iraqi border towards Afrin, in northern reaches of Aleppo.”

During the month of August, YPG forces arriving from the towns of Tal Hamis and Tel Barak were able to reach advanced positions on the outskirts of al-Hool, though they quickly retreated after suffering repeated ISIS suicide attacks and receiving only limited coalition air support. Although the YPG failed to give any official explanation for its retreat, the YPG representatives say the air cover from international coalition was clearly reduced, as compared with the international coalition’s support during the spring and summer 2015 campaigns to regain territories along the border region. In light of recent YPG battlefield reports detailing the size and scope of ISIS’s defensive fortifications, including a significant system of trenches in and around al-Hool, along with the decline of coalition air support in the area, it is likely that the battle for the city will drag on for weeks or even months to come.

Now, in its latest attempt to draw Kurdish troops away from al-Shaddadi’s southern countryside, ISIS has engaged YPG forces in a series of fierce battles along Hasaka’s western front near Mount Abdulaziz. Coalition airstrikes have been reduced to about eleven per day across all of Syria, and in Hasaka they mainly target Abyad junction and the mountain villages ten miles west of Hasaka. An emboldened ISIS has sent hundreds of fighters from Raqqa and al-Shaddadi to engage YPG fighters in a series of light weapon attacks.

The YPG desperately needs steady air support from the international community to eradicate ISIS from Hasaka and the surrounding countryside. Such support will allow Kurdish forces to pursue the same type of offensive strategy in Hasaka that it did with great success in Tel Abyad and Tel Timr earlier this year, where it defeated ISIS in less than two months’ time. However, should broad-based coalition air support remain lacking in the area, the YPG will be forced to revert to the type of defensive strategy it previously employed to prevent further, more harmful losses of territory to ISIS.

Mecid Mohamed works as a reporter.