In battle for one corner of Al-Hasakah, 30,000 displaced move south toward Islamic State territory amidst fears of SDF

AMMAN: Tens of thousands of residents in Islamic State territory in the southern Al-Hasakah countryside have fled south towards neighboring Deir e-Zor in the wake of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) lightning advances towards the former’s last stronghold in Syria’s far northeastern province.

Residents are reportedly heading south, deeper into IS-controlled areas, rather than north, east or west into territory currently controlled by the Kurdish-majority SDF because they say they are afraid of arrests, expulsions and revenge killings, Abdullah al-Ahmad, an activist in Al-Hasakah city, told Syria Direct on Monday.

“The crimes that civilians witnessed the Kurdish militias commit in neighboring villages, such as expelling them [from their homes], along with arrests, killings and pillaging, is driving them toward IS despite people’s hatred of them,” said al-Ahmad.

Last week, the SDF launched the Anger of al-Khabur campaign to take IS’s last stronghold in Al-Hasakah province, a-Shadadi. [Ed.: The campaign is named after the al-Khabur river, the largest tributary inside Syria that feeds into the Euphrates River.]

Located approximately 50km south of Al-Hasakah city, a-Shadadi is a way station on the supply route connecting IS’s de facto Syrian capital, A-Raqqa, to their Iraqi stronghold in Mosul.

Though pro-opposition and Western media reported the SDF had captured a-Shadadi last Friday, IS forces counter-attacked, and have since reportedly retaken most of the town, Ahmad Awwad, an activist from the southern Al-Hasakah countryside told Syria Direct on Monday.

The SDF then sent in “a huge number” of reinforcements to the a-Shadadi front.  Both sides are now digging in for a “vicious” battle over the town, Umr a-Shami, an activist from a-Shadadi who is on the ground near the frontline, told Syria Direct Monday.

Syria Direct could not confirm the exact position of SDF forces inside or around the town due to conflicting reports and since fighting is ongoing.

Despite IS’s counter offensive, SDF forces maintain control over most of the hundreds of oil and gas wells surrounding a-Shadadi to the east and west, including the al-Jabiseh gas field, one of the largest in Syria.

Losing these oil and gas wells means IS’s situation in Al-Hasakah is now “dire,” said a-Shami.

“IS will try and maintain control of a-Shadadi by all possible means.”

‘Between two flames’

While most residents of a-Shadadi have chosen to flee deeper into IS territory rather than take their chances living under SDF rule, an estimated 100 families fled north into areas recently captured by the Kurdish-led coalition, said Ahmad Awwad, the activist from the southern Al-Hasakah countryside.

But displaced Syrians’ fears of abuse at the hands of the Kurdish factions of the SDF grew over the weekend when SDF forces allegedly killed five civilians, including a 12-year-old girl, in one village gained over the past week after accusing them of being Islamic State sympathizers, reported local pro-opposition Al-Hasakah Youth Union on Facebook on Monday. Syria Direct could not independently verify the report.

Tensions between Kurdish YPG forces and their allies in the SDF, which include Sunni Arab rebel brigades in north and northeast Syria, manifested almost immediately after the formation of the US-backed coalition, originally formed last October with a mandate to battle the Islamic State. The SDF has made significant gains in Al-Hasakah since.

Though primarily made up of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), SDF forces also include Arab tribal militias and FSA rebel factions. 

Pre-existing tensions between some Sunni Arab brigades and tribal militias and Kurdish YPG forces in Al-Hasakah increased following the formation of the SDF and subsequent military campaigns, due to what those factions call YPG encroachment on Arab territory. In March 2015, Syria Direct reported on YPG units burning Arab homes in Al-Hasakah.

Though the SDF claims to be a multi-ethnic “national force for a future Syria,” many Arab residents in Al-Hasakah cast doubt on that narrative.

During a joint two-week campaign by YPG and rebel Arab forces in southern Al-Hasakah that began at the end of last October, thousands of residents fled farther south to escape the YPG. One reason is that the Islamic State provides certain “essential goods,” including a monetary stipend to internally displaced Syrians, Abu Jad al-Hasakawi, a citizen journalist form the southern countryside, told Syria Direct at the time.

“This has forced people to live between two flames, that of the Islamic State and the YPG,” said al-Hasakawi. “Most prefer getting burned by IS—it's less hot as far as they're concerned.”

Residents now fleeing this most recent SDF advance are following similar logic, Abdullah al-Ahmad, the activist in Al-Hasakah city, told Syria Direct Monday.

“Civilians are afraid to flee to YPG-held areas or to regime territory because they believe they will be arrested under the pretext that they are IS partisans,” said al-Ahmad, adding that this is what people have experienced “every time” the YPG assumes control of IS territory.

“They have two choices and the best one is still bad.”

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He mvoed to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Samuel Kieke

Samuel Kieke was a 2014-2015 CASA I fellow in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from the University of Texas at Austin in Arabic Language and Literature, Middle Eastern Studies, and International Relations and Global Studies.