by Eric Bernstein
On November 3rd, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) launched an offensive to consolidate its control of the Hasaka province by pushing al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) out of the area surrounding the Turkish border city of Ras al-Ayn. The move came a week after the YPG, which serves as the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the unofficial Kurdish security force, captured the city of Yarubiya on Hasaka’s border with Iraq. Hasaka, home to the majority of Syria’s oil reserves as well as a 70% Kurdish population, serves as the primary support base for the PYD. As a buffer against ISIS positions further west, Ras al-Ayn is essential to the PYD’s efforts to create a zone of peaceful Kurdish provincial autonomy amid Syria’s ongoing civil war.
The YPG’s operation, dubbed the “Serekeniye Martyr’s Offensive,” was a quick success that resulted in the capture of 38 small villages and military positions in a 15 kilometer radius south and west of Ras al-Ayn. Assuming that the YPG fortifies these newly acquired positions, as it has dutifully done with other acquisitions throughout the conflict, these territorial gains will greatly enlarge the geographic barrier protecting against attacks from ISIS positions around Tal Abyad, in northern ar-Raqqa province.
The offensive, currently in its third phase, has targeted ISIS and JN positions that previously served as launching points for shelling campaigns and raids on YPG patrols and checkpoints in Ras al-Ayn. The first phase, which began November 3rd and ended November 4th, was a push southeast along Highway 716 towards Hasaka city. The second, which began November 4th and ended November 5th, focused on a push west along Highway 712, in the direction of Tal Abyad. The captured positions range from neighborhood-sized suburbs to outposts consisting of a few residential buildings on strategic roads or intersections. No information has yet been released on the objectives or status of the third phase.
Serekeniye Martyr’s Offensive Phases 1 and 2
The success of the Serekeniye Martyr’s Offensive is indicative of the strength, discipline, and organization that armed Kurdish groups have exhibited throughout their clashes with al-Qaeda affiliates over the last six months. In July the YPG’s general command announce a change of military posture from “defense and protection” into combat mode, yet until the Serekeniye Martyr’s Offensive, the YPG had maintained a mostly cautious posture – repelling attacks, advancing conservatively, and holding new territory firmly. It is unclear whether this offensive was an isolated YPG surge aimed solely at consolidating control of Ras al-Ayn, or if it represents a broad shift to a more aggressive and expansionary YPG strategy.
If the YPG is indeed changing its strategy, advances into Tal Abyad and further west will signal the shift. Comments by YPG spokesman Redur Xelil show that the militia plans to advance at least as far as the city outskirts. Any push further, into Tal Abyad proper, will indicate that the YPG in northeastern Syria intends to unite with its counterparts in the Aleppo border towns of Azaz and Jarablus. These cities further west are home to considerable minority Kurdish populations, but are predominantly Arab and currently controlled by ISIS and other opposition groups. Capturing and securing them would require a military operation of a scale that the YPG has not yet carried out.
Another possibility is that the success and magnitude of the offensive was exaggerated by a coinciding strategic withdrawal on the part of ISIS and JN. Facing fierce YPG resistance, a decrease in Turkish support, and the loss of access to the Iraqi border crossing at Yarubiya, the al-Qaeda affiliates may have pulled back from Hasaka in order to reinforce against the ongoing regime offensive in Aleppo and bolster other strongholds in ar-Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor provinces. Although Xelil denied any such retreat, the fact that the YPG’s recent gains around Ras al-Ayn came so rapidly and with so few casualtieson either side, suggests some degree of surrender on the part of ISIS and JN, which are renowned for their fighting ability and unlikely to have been routed so abruptly. Given the al-Qaeda-affiliates’ apparent disadvantage in Hasaka – evidenced by their loss of Ras al-Ayncity and positionsnear Yarubiya as early as this summer – abandoning the province for more promising fronts would make strategic sense. The retreat hypothesis also comports with SOHR reports, as well as various social and mainstream media statements.
Less than a week after the completion of the offensive’s second phase, on November 12th, the PYD announced the formation of an interim government in Hasaka. Initial reactions to this announcement from the Syrian opposition, Iraqi Kurds, and Turkey were overwhelmingly negative. Rebels, who have long accused the Kurds of collaborating with Assad, renewed their allegations of PYD betrayal, while foreign governments insistedthat the PYD could not unilaterally establish autonomy within a sovereign nation. Even other Kurdish groups – concerned over the concentration of power in the hands of the PYD – objected on the grounds that the announcement ran counter to Kurdish ambitions of a unified state that would comprise territories of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran. The PYD denies any relationship with the Assad regime and insists it supports the revolution and that its interim government would function as a regional body, operating parallel to a post-Assad Syrian government, and nothing more.
For the moment, it seems that this debate will remain ancillary, as no acting parties appear to possess the energy, resources, and will necessary to challenge the YPG’s eminence in Hasaka.