BEIRUT (Reuters) - A Syrian Kurdish militia said on Monday it was in near full control of the northeastern city of Hasaka, expanding its sway at the expense of the Damascus government in the wake of an Islamic State attack in the area.
Full control of Hasaka - which was split between the Kurds and Damascus until last month - would be a major gain for the autonomous Kurdish administration that is fighting Islamic State in Syria in partnership with Washington.
Islamic State launched a major attack on the city on June 25, focusing initially on government-held southern Hasaka. The ensuing battle drew in the YPG, which held northern Hasaka, resulting in the U.S.-backed Kurds fighting Islamic State in close proximity to government forces shunned by Washington.
YPG spokesman Redur Xelil said the city’s defense was now entirely in his group’s hands. “The regime has collapsed. It could not protect the city and its continuation has become symbolic in limited positions only,” he told Reuters.
The statement was at odds with state media reports indicating a strong performance by the Syrian army in the battle for Hasaka. State TV on Monday said the army had made progress against Islamic State to the southeast of the city, encircling its fighters and killing a large number of them.
The YPG’s Xelil said his group had deployed in the southern outskirts of Hasaka, meaning it controlled all routes in and out of the city and had encircled Islamic State fighters inside.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group that reports on the war using sources on the ground, echoed that assessment, saying the YPG had besieged Islamic State forces from the south and were positioned to advance into the city.
Xelil said the YPG had also taken areas from Islamic State within the city itself in the last two days. The advances were ongoing. While the YPG held half the city before the Islamic State attack, it now held “the overwhelming majority”, he said.
With the Syrian government seeking to shore up its control over the main population centers of western Syria, including Damascus, Hasaka city is one of five outlying areas where Assad has sought to preserve control in recent fighting.
Hasaka is the capital of surrounding province by the same name. Assad has lost control of two other provincial capitals - Raqqa and Idlib. The army and allied militia are fighting two rebel offensives aimed at capturing two more: Aleppo and Deraa.
The YPG and the Syrian government have mostly coexisted in predominantly Kurdish areas of Syria where a Kurdish administration has emerged since the uprising against Assad erupted in 2011.
The sides still share control of the city of Qamishli to the north of Hasaka, where the government controls an airport, though tensions have flared in the last few months. The YPG has denied claims it cooperates with government forces.
Hasaka is important in the fight against Islamic State because it borders territory held by the group in Iraq.
Growing Kurdish sway in northern Syria has alarmed neighboring Turkey, which is worried about separatist sentiment among its own Kurdish minority.
The YPG, backed by U.S.-led air strikes, has seized wide areas of territory from Islamic State this year, including the town of Tel Abyad at the border with Turkey.
Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Observatory, said the YPG was advancing at the expense of the government and Islamic State in Hasaka, where he said the military’s role was restricted to aerial bombardment and long-range artillery attacks: “The coming attack (against Islamic State in Hasaka) will be by the YPG.”
Hasaka city was one of two areas where the YPG says Islamic State used poison gas against YPG-held areas in late June.
Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Dominic Evans