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Hasakeh: A strategic prize for Syria’s regime and Kurds

Province shares borders with Turkey to north and Iraq to east

By AFP - Aug 24,2016 - Last updated at Aug 24,2016

Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units greet each other in the northeastern city of Hasakeh, Syria, on Sunday (Reuters photo)

BEIRUT — A ceasefire agreement in the flashpoint Syrian city of Hasakeh after a week of clashes has calmed soaring tensions that had drawn in major powers the United States and Russia.

The northeastern city is located in a region of geopolitical significance near the borders with Turkey and Iraq, and is seen by the Kurds as vital to their push for autonomy.

 

Who’s who in Hasakeh? 

 

Kurdish fighters in the city belong to the Asayesh police force and the powerful People’s Protection Units (YPG), which functions more like an army and has scored key victories against the Daesh terror group.

Facing off against them were fighters from the pro-government National Defence Forces (NDF) militia, as well as a small contingent of traditional army soldiers.

Analysts say few regular soldiers were involved in the battle because they are spread too thin on other fronts.

The US-led coalition bombing Daesh in Syria has backed the YPG in its operations against extremists with air support and military advisers.

After Syrian regime warplanes bombarded Kurdish-held positions in Hasakeh for the first time last week, the coalition scrambled aircraft and warned Damascus against endangering coalition advisers. 

Steadfast regime ally Russia has strengthened its relationship with Syria’s Kurds and mediated Tuesday’s ceasefire agreement.

 

What does the deal involve? 

 

Fighting erupted last Wednesday initially between the Asayesh and the NDF — before the YPG and Syria’s military, including its air force, joined the battle. 

The majority of Hasakeh’s population is Arab but Kurdish forces controlled two-thirds of the city even before the recent round of fighting broke out.

On the eve of the truce agreement, the Kurds were in control of 90 per cent of the city, with regime forces regrouping in the centre where government administrative buildings are located.

The ceasefire was reached after several days of Russian mediation, including at the coastal Hmeimim Air Base.

The deal also called for the “withdrawal of all armed forces from the city”, according to a statement distributed by a Kurdish official.

Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the truce agreement was “a defeat for the regime and a victory for the Kurds”.

Why is Hasakeh important? 

 

Hasakeh province shares borders with Turkey to the north and Iraq to the east.

It was known as Syria’s breadbasket before the war because of its fertile land and was also a major source of cotton. 

There are also oil fields in the province, and recently Kurdish authorities began refining their own supplies for consumption in areas under their control.

Most of the province is held by the Kurds, but the regime has a small presence in Hasakeh city, Qamishli to the north, and some Arab-majority villages. 

Daesh militants still hold some territory on the southern edges of the province, which borders Deir Ezzor.

“Ultimately, a strategic province of Syria bordering the Kurdish-speaking regions of Turkey and Iraq is out of government control,” said a Syrian political source close to the Damascus regime.

“This will strengthen the Kurds’ desire for autonomy if not full independence,” said the source.

Washington-based analyst Mutlu Civiroglu told AFP that Hasakeh could serve as “a hub to secure a broader Kurdish region”.

 

What next? 

 

Since Syria’s conflict broke out in March 2011, the country’s Kurds have tried to walk a fine line of neutrality, siding with neither the regime nor the uprising.

In mid-2012, government forces withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas in Syria’s north and Kurds began establishing their own autonomous administration.

In March, Kurdish parties and their allies announced a federal region that would unite the three autonomous “cantons” already in place in northern Syria.

The declaration was fiercely criticised by Syrian officials in Damascus, and tensions began to rise in Hasakeh and elsewhere.

“The regime needs to recognise the autonomous administration as a fait accompli,” said Meskin Ahmed, a Kurdish official inside Hasakeh.

Civiroglu said Hasakeh could be a good place to experiment with power-sharing arrangements particularly as Kurds lay the groundwork for a federal region.

He said Kurds see Hasakeh as “a point that the regime needs to be cleared from”.

But Civiroglu said he expected further confrontations in Qamishli further north, as well as in the city of Aleppo, where Kurds control one neighbourhood wedged between rebel and regime forces.

 

“As of now, the [ceasefire] agreement shows that the Kurds got what they wanted with minimal casualties,” Civiroglu said.

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