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Kurds Close to Control of Northeast Syria Province, Portending a Shift in the War

Kurdish militias took a major step toward full control of a northeast Syrian province on Tuesday, signing a cease-fire with the government that gave them all but a few blocks of the provincial capital.

The cease-fire, reached after days of deadly fighting with government forces in the province of Hasaka, brings the province closer to becoming the third to slip from the grasp of President Bashar al-Assad in the country's five-year-old war.

The neighboring province of Raqqa has been under the control of the Islamic State militant group for the past few years. Idlib, a northwestern province, fell to other insurgents last year.

The battle for Hasaka was the first time the Syrian government had used airstrikes on Kurdish areas. It signaled a new, volatile period in the northeast, where fighting had mainly been between Kurdish-led, American-backed forces and the Islamic State.

Kurdish control of the province and its capital, also named Hasaka, could shift some important allegiances in the conflict. Neighboring Turkey, which opposes Mr. Assad, could make an about-face and seek a partial reconciliation with him if it sees him as less of a threat than a Kurdish attempt to build a semiautonomous region along the Turkish border.

Early on Wednesday, the Turkish prime minister's office said that Turkish and American-led coalition forces had begun an operation to clear Islamic State forces from the border town of Jarabulus, in Aleppo Province. The operation seemed intended, in part, to prevent Kurdish forces from reaching the town first.

The fighting in Hasaka also further muddled the American role in the conflict. American warplanes were scrambled to stop Syrian airstrikes on the Kurds, raising questions about why the United States has resisted calls by anti-Assad fighters in heavily bombarded cities like Aleppo to protect civilians with a no-fly zone. The Obama administration has called such an effort too risky, especially with Russian warplanes assisting the Syrian government.

Kurdish groups and the Syrian government maintained a de facto nonaggression pact for much of the war. The government considered the Kurds, focused on self-government in the northeast, less of a threat than the insurgents — most of them from Syria's Arab majority — trying to unseat Mr. Assad, and gradually ceded territory to the Kurds to focus on fighting elsewhere.

While the amount of territory changing hands in the Hasaka cease-fire is not large, it appears to be an important step toward total Kurdish control.

The Kurdish militias took over several key areas of the city of Hasaka, including a stadium, a prison and small military bases. They had already occupied much of the city and province.

The government now occupies only a small area of the city that houses security and ministry headquarters, which, under the cease-fire terms, must be patrolled only by civilian police. But it still controls two important pieces of territory outside the city: an army base, where scores of soldiers were said to have defected or been captured, and an airport, which Kurdish leaders want to leave operational because they are otherwise hemmed in by the Islamic State.

The government sought to play down the importance of the cease-fire, asserting in the state-owned news media that it retained security forces in the province.

But the fighting — which left scores dead, including Kurdish and government fighters and civilians — embittered many Kurds, awakening memories of repression over the decades and lessening the prospects of reconciliation with the government.

Video clips of the fighting showed the kind of chaos and violence that has more often been suffered elsewhere in the country: parents screaming after children were wounded in government airstrikes, smoke rising over bombed streets. Political prisoners cheered in jubilation as Kurdish militiamen liberated a government prison.

"God save you," one prisoner said in a video showing the forces from the People's Protection Units, or Y.P.G., entering the prison, as a fighter posed by the cell where he said he had spent four years. Kurdish activists said that several hundred people were in the prison, notorious for torture and a deadly 1993 fire.

The events show that the government, despite making gains in some areas with Russian and Iranian support, is still too stretched to take back full control of the country.

But the government's willingness to battle the Kurds also showed that it may have its eye on a bigger prize: rapprochement with Turkey, which has been one of its most powerful foes and a strong backer of opposition fighters, including radicals. Turkey long gave the Islamic State freedom to slip fighters across its border into Syria.

But now, Turkey is reeling from an attempted coup, three million Syrian refugees, a renewed Kurdish insurgency in the southeast, and Islamic State attacks increasingly hitting its own soil.

To Turkey, the biggest threat is Syria's increasingly assertive Kurds, who control parts of the countries' border. Now, with American air support and advisers on the ground, the Turks fear that the Kurds could strengthen their hold on the border area.

The Syrian government shares Turkey's antipathy for Kurdish autonomy. A shift in both Syrian and Turkish rhetoric could be seen in recent days as the Hasaka battle unfolded.

Hours after government airstrikes rained on Hasaka, Turkey's prime minister declared that Mr. Assad could stay in power during a transitional period, something Turkey had long opposed. His reversal brings Turkey closer to the Syrian government's position on a political deal to end the war.

At the same time, Syrian officials, who once commended the Kurds for "fighting terrorism," started calling them members of the P.K.K.: the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which Turkey considers a terrorist group and which has ties to the strongest Syrian Kurdish militia.

And it was Russia, which maintains friendly relations with the Kurds and is trying to agree on common goals in Syria with the United States, that helped broker the cease-fire in Hasaka.

To some extent, all of the parties are still hedging their bets, awaiting the outcome of talks between Russia and the United States and a new American administration in January.

"There is an attempt by the regime to please the Turks and the Americans at the same time," said Himbervan Koussa, a Kurdish activist reached by phone.

More tensions are inevitable, though, Mr. Koussa said, as Kurds try to establish self-rule.

"You can't have self-management power unless you have at least one area empty of the regime or shrink its power," he said.

[Source: By Anne Barnard, International New York Times, Beirut, 23Aug16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 25Aug16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.