Since the beginning of May, Kurdish fighters have wrested back more than 200 Kurdish and Christian towns in northeastern Syria and strategic mountains seized earlier by Islamic State group forces.
BEIRUT — In contrast to the Iraqi army’s failures, Kurdish fighters in Syria are on the march against the Islamic State group, capturing towns and villages in an oil-rich swath of Syria’s northeast under the cover of U.S.-led airstrikes.
As the Kurds close in on Tel Abyad, a major commercial center on the Turkish border, their advance highlights the importance of combining airstrikes with the presence of a cohesive and motivated ally on the ground — so clearly absent in Iraq.
In Syria, a country split mostly between al-Qaida-style militants and forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, the U.S. has found a reliable partner in the country’s main Kurdish fighting force, known as the YPG. They are moderate, mostly secular fighters, driven by revolutionary fervor.
Since the beginning of May, they have wrested back more than 200 Kurdish and Christian towns in northeastern Syria and strategic mountains seized earlier by Islamic State group forces. They have picked up ammunition, weapons and vehicles left behind by Islamic State fighters.
Most Read Nation & World Stories
- Forced to play in 'panties,' the Norwegian beach handball team decided they'd had enough
- Another coronavirus variant has reached Florida. Here's what you need to know.
- What you need to know about the CDC's new mask guidance
- Trans model makes Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover history: 'If you don't like it, you can go somewhere else'
- Sports on TV & radio: Local listings for Seattle games and events
The push has gotten them closer to Tel Abyad, a major avenue for commerce for the extremist group through which it smuggles foreign fighters and sells black-market oil to help pay for its conquests. The city is also a key link between Turkey and the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the Islamic State group’s de-facto capital in its self-declared caliphate.
“The YPG doesn’t lack a will to fight, like soldiers in the Syrian army, or soldiers in the Iraqi army who mostly fight for a salary,” said Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Middle East analyst at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington. “The YPG is much more motivated than other forces in the region, and doesn’t lack cohesion and doesn’t have coordination problems.”
The Iraqi military has struggled to make gains after its humiliating defeats last year, when it virtually crumbled in the face of the militant onslaught in northern Iraq. Poor training, corruption and sectarian politics have all been cited as reasons for the military’s shortcomings. The U.S. spent billions of dollars training Iraqi forces from 2003 to 2011, but much of that training did not reach the foot soldiers battling the Islamic State group today.
Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter criticized the Iraqi army after the fall of Ramadi, the strategic capital of the country’s largest Sunni province of Anbar, saying the Iraqi military lacked the “will to fight.”
Within days, Islamic State fighters had also dealt a major blow to Assad’s forces in Syria, seizing the historic city of Palmyra, a major crossroads linking the capital, Damascus, with territory to the east and west.
By contrast, Syria’s Kurds have shown remarkable cohesiveness. They fought ferociously to claw back territory after Islamic State militants captured the Kurdish town of Kobani and dozens of surrounding villages last fall. The Islamic State group’s descent on Kobani led the U.S. to widen its air campaign from Iraq into Syria to assist the Kurds.
Despite the fact that Islamic State forces had heavy weapons and far more fighters, the Kurds resisted the offensive on Kobani, conducting street battles until the U.S. airdropped weapons and intensified the airstrikes.
In January, the YPG liberated Kobani from the Islamic State militants and began a wide offensive in which they regained much of the territory they had lost.
On May 6, the Kurdish fighters and their allies launched an offensive from the northeastern province of Hassakeh and in less than three weeks captured the strategic Abdul-Aziz Mountain along with 221 Kurdish and Christian villages once held by the Islamic State group.
The mountain had been a key militant base for sending vehicles rigged with explosives into Kurdish areas, said Ghalia Nehme, a member of the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units.
Nasser Haj Mansour, a defense official in Syria’s Kurdish region, said the YPG is in close contact with the U.S.-led coalition and sometimes asks for airstrikes targeting Islamic State positions after its fighters locate them.
The Kurds are now closing in on Tel Abyad with fighters moving east from Kobani and west from Hassakeh — an offensive that, if successful, would open a direct line between Kurdish-controlled territory along the border with Turkey.
Such a move is likely to anger Turkey, which sees the YPG as part of the Kurdish PKK movement that has waged an anti-government insurgency in southeastern Turkey.
“Tel Abyad is going to be the next target. We want to strangle Daesh,” said Nawaf Khalil, a Kurdish official who currently heads the Europe-based Center for Kurdish Studies, using an Arabic acronym for he Islamic State group.
The latest village to fall was Mabrouka on Tuesday, bringing the Kurdish force closer to Tel Abyad. The fighting has killed 532 Islamic State militants, the YPG said.
The Kurds are backed by Arab tribesmen, Assyrian Christian gunmen and members of the rebel faction known as Burkan al-Furat, Arabic for the “Volcano of the Euphrates.”
U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have concentrated on areas around Kobani and Hassakeh, only rarely hitting Raqqa or other Islamic State-held areas in the Aleppo countryside.
“There is no doubt that the liberation of Tel Abyad will be the pass for the liberation of Raqqa,” said Idriss Naasan, a Kurdish official in Kobani.
The Islamic State group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, indicated as much in an audio message released this month.
“The battle of Raqqa will come before the battle of Mosul,” he said, referring to the Islamic State’s stronghold in Iraq, which Iraqi forces have been preparing a major offensive to try to retake.