SDF advances in Hasakah province

Originally commissioned December 2015

  • Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) advances in Hasakah province have further weakened ISIS both financially and strategically.
  • The Kurdish-aligned SDF’s new efforts have helped the offensive manage ethnic and tribal sensitivities in north-east Syria, a tactic in which ISIS previously held a strategic advantage.
  • Despite the SDF advancing within 30 miles of Raqqa in some areas, their commanders show little interest in continuing the offensive closer to the city.

SDF fully captured ISIS-controlled Al-Hawl in Hasakah province in mid-November and are now within striking distance of ISIS’ stronghold Al-Shahadi there. The advances have already brought hundreds of villages, key roads and as many as 50 profitable oil fields under SDF control. Reports from within Al-Shahadi suggest that ISIS fighters are moving their families out of the city and that ISIS is seeking a deal with SDF commanders to allow their forces to withdraw from the city. SDF’s capture of Al-Shahadi would leave ISIS-controlled Baaj and its refinery just across the border in Iraq exposed from two fronts, after the Peshmerga recently captured Sinjar to the north.

The SDF brings together 13 armed groups under one coalition aimed at fighting ISIS in north-eastern Syria. These include Arab militias although the SDF is understood to be heavily influenced by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish armed group, which controls the distribution of weapons within the forces. YPG advances had previously suffered from a perception of being Kurdish conquests of Arab territories. There had been reports of ethnic cleansing by YPG forces of villages captured from ISIS. The inclusion of Arab militias in assaults on Arab areas under the SDF umbrella is part of a change of strategy to address this issue, although there has been scepticism as to whether much change will be seen on the ground. Another new tactic has been to place councils made up members of dominant local Arab Sunni tribes in charge of the administration of towns re-captured from ISIS, as well as leaving Arab militias behind to deal with security. Good relations with the dominant tribes in these areas is key to holding territory, something which ISIS has effectively managed and manipulated for its own strategic interests. To avoid local resistance from within captured territory, SDF forces must also manage and utilise these tribal interests.

Recent offensives by SDF have brought them within 30 miles of Raqqa. However, while pushing ISIS out of north-eastern Syria is a core SDF objective, the destruction of ISIS is not a priority. The SDF is more concerned with the YPG’s goal of creating a territorially cohesive Kurdish mini-state, running along the Syrian border with Turkey and meeting up with Kurdish territory in Iraq. To achieve this would involve capturing around 60 miles of territory that separates Kobani from what the YPG has labelled the Rojava canton in the north east corner of Syria. They will however continue to face strong opposition from Turkey in the implementation of this plan. While SDF advances continue to denigrate ISIS strategically, as well as deprive the group of the oil fields it relies on for revenue, moving on Raqqa is for now unlikely.

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