Syrian civilians flee the northeastern city of Hasakeh during fighting between Kurdish fighters and Syrian regime forces. Fierce clashes with regime forces allowed the Kurds to advance mostly in the south of the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. — AFP

Hasakeh: A strategic prize for Syria regime and Kurds

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.
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 Daesh (the so-called IS) group.
Facing off against them were fighters from the pro-government National Defense 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 jihadists 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.
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 percent of the city, with regime forces regrouping in the center 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 Abdelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the truce agreement was “a defeat for the regime and a victory for the Kurds”.
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 fighters 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”.
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 neighborhood 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.