BEIRUT – ISIS has stormed into the capital of the Hasakeh province a little over a week after the extremist suffered a serious defeat with the loss of the border town of Tel Abyad to the northwest.
At daybreak Thursday, fighters from the militant group breached the regime’s defensive lines in the southwest of the city and seized two neighborhoods as thousands of civilians began to flee from their homes.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported in the morning that ISIS had taken control of the Nashweh and Al-Shariaa quarters of Hasakeh, where the Syrian maintains one of its last two military bastions in the northeastern Syrian province that has fallen increasingly under Kurdish control in past months.
ISIS announced in a statement that it seized the two areas in a surprise operation that involved its fighters infiltrating into the southwest of the city overnight, adding that regime forces were forced to withdraw to the center of the city “in a state of shock of collapse.”
The ISIS assault came amid heightened security measures in Hasakeh after three suicide bombers from the extremist organization detonated themselves on Tuesday near a security post in the Kurdish-controlled part of the city as well as a militia barrack in the regime-controlled southern half of the provincial capital.
Hasakeh—which is populated mainly by Arabs and Kurds as well as Assyrian and Armenian minorities—is managed by an uneasy power-sharing agreement between the Syrian regime and Kurds, which control the southern and northern halves of the city respectively.
The regime-held parts of the city has come under attack by ISIS a number of times in recent weeks, however the government forces—which include not only regular army troops but as well as allied militias composed of local tribal Arabs—had successfully stopped the Islamists from entering.
The latest ISIS attack on Hasakeh comes after the group broadcast messages in its de-facto capital of Raqqa telling residents and its supporters that the recent military setbacks to advancing Kurdish and Free Syrian Army-affiliated forces in northeast Syria were not serious.
On Wednesday, the Observatory reported that ISIS had instructed residents in the city of Raqqa “not to be sad and not to fear anything.”
“God will compensate for the Islamic State’s loss of Tel Abyad with the conquest of another city,” residents of Raqqa were told in one of the city’s mosques.
“[ISIS fighters] lost Tikrit and they conquered Anbar afterward.”
The battlefield situation within Hasakeh remained fluid on Thursday amid fast moving developments as ISIS sought to press its advances in the city.
“Intense clashes raged between regime forces backed by National Defense Force troops and Baath Brigades and pro-regime gunmen on one side and ISIS on the other in the southern neighborhoods of Hasakeh,” the Observatory said Thursday morning.
The monitoring NGO cited “trusted sources” as saying that “ISIS reached the Sport City Street across from the Central Prison and Criminal Security Branch” south of the city center.
“The clashes so far have left 30 pro-regime fighters dead, while at least 20 ISIS fighters have been killed.”
“Areas in the western Nashweh neighborhood in Hasakeh have come under aerial bombardment amid continuing fierce clashes,” the SOHR said later in the day.
ISIS, meanwhile, claimed it had killed a Syrian general in the city, announcing it had beheaded him during its attack.
“The daring penetrative operation that the caliphate’s soldiers carried out yesterday evening… on the headquarters of the 5th regiment… in the city of [Hasakeh], killed and injured dozens of the Nusairi regime’s officers and soldiers, including the Nusairi Staff General Ghassan Helweh.”
The statement added that Helweh was the highest ranking officer “whose head God has enabled the caliphate’s soldiers to harvest in Wilayat al-Baraka.”
Syrian state TV acknowledged the fighting in the city, with a breaking news alert saying that fierce clashes were raging between government forces and ISIS, without going into further details.
As fighting raged in the regime-held areas of the city, Kurdish forces controlling northern Hasakeh went on high alert, but did not immediately join the fighting.
ARA News—an Erbil-based outlet that focuses on northern Syrian news—reported that Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters “have been on alert since the dawn.”
“YPG will participate in the clashes in the event they encroach on areas populated by Kurds,” an activist told the outlet.
This ISIS advance into Hasakeh sparked a mass civilian exodus not only from the afflicted neighborhoods of the city but also its Kurdish-populated quarters in the north.
The SOHR reported a mass exodus of residents from the Nashweh and Al-Shariaa quarters of Hasakeh and posted a number of pictures showing civilians fleeing the ISIS assault.
ARA News said that “a lot of the fleeing civilians suffered injuries from the bombardment [amid the clashes] during their escape on foot.”
“There are a number of residents stranded in the Al-Shariaa neighborhood amid the bombardment and clashes there,” the outlet added.
Meanwhile, Syrian Kurdish ANHA News said that thousands of residents of the Eastern and Western Nashwe areas as well as Ghoueiran fled in the direction of YPG-controlled Kurdish neighborhoods.
Just as residents escaped the clashes in the southwest of the city, Kurdish residents of northern Hasakeh began leaving en-masse for secure locations elsewhere in the province.
A large number of civilians have left Kurdish-majority areas in the direction of Darbasiyah, Amouda and Qamishli—all Kurdish-controlled cities north of Hasakeh—according to a report by ARA News.
The ISIS attack on Hasakeh comes amid heightened tension between Kurds and pro-regime forces in the city as well the town of Qamishli along the Turkish border.
In recent days, the Syrian government moved to form a new brigade aiming to combat the growing Kurdish influence in northeastern Syria.
On Thursday, the Observatory obtained a copy of the announcement of the formation of a “Jazeera Shield Brigade,” in reference to an Arabic name for the Hasakeh province.
The statement—which was replete with nationalistic pro-regime language—called on Arab tribal leaders to “to prepare a comprehensive field to [confront] the violations against the Arabs in areas under the control of Kurdish forces.”
Ashaq Alawsat reported that the new unit—which will be composed of current pro-regime militiamen—was organized during Syrian National Security Bureau chief Ali Mamlouk’s recent visit to Hasakeh.
The Saudi-owned paper added that the regime intelligence chief met with the governor of the Hasakeh as well as other top figures to discuss the formation of a united fighting force to defend against not only ISIS but the Kurds as well.
Kurdish security official Nasir Haj Mansour condemned the unit, saying its “mission will be to stir up ethnic and sectarian strife and carry out acts of sabotage in line with the regime’s policy that we are used to.”
Last week, Kurdish Asayesh security forces in Qamishli—70 kilometers northeast of Hasakeh—took on regime troops in an unusual round of fighting for the city that has been administered by a power-sharing agreement between both sides since 2012.
The de-facto autonomous Kurdish Cezire canton issued a statement on the dramatic events, blaming the fighting in Qamishli on Syrian regime “provocations.”
The Qamishli clashes come only days after Syria’s Prime Minister visited the town as part of a tour of the northeastern Hasakeh province, during which he pledged a $7 million dollar budget allocation for local governance.
The Syrian regime has kept up public appearances of maintaining control over the northeastern Syrian region, even as the Kurds have moved increasingly toward autonomy amid tense non-aggression agreements with the remaining Syrian regime forces.
In January 2014, Kurdish authorities declared the formation of three self-ruled cantons (Cezire, Afrin and Kobane) under the Democratic Self-Rule Administration of Rojava, which has been dominated by the Democratic Union party (PYD) and its YPG militia forces.
The political reorganization was not recognized by the Syrian regime; however, it has become a de-facto reality, especially since pro-government forces withdrew from most Kurdish-populated regions in 2012, with the exception of Qamishli and the provincial capital Hasakeh 75 kilometers to the south.
Syria’s Kurds have been militarily ascendant in the past few months, rolling back ISIS in the Hasakeh province as well as in the Kobane region.