A city in northeastern Syria has become a flashpoint in the country's civil war as Syrian warplanes attacked Kurdish forces Thursday, and the United States responded by sending in its own aircraft to protect U.S. coalition forces in the area.
Thousands of civilians have been fleeing the Kurdish-majority city, Hasaka, since the Syrian airstrikes started on Thursday, which witnesses said have killed dozens of people. The airstrikes mark the first time since the start of the country's civil war in 2011 that Syrian government warplanes targeted a majority Kurdish enclave. They also appear to mark a break between Syrian government troops and Kurdish forces that had been working loosely together against Islamic State fighters in the city since 2014.
Witnesses said three Syrian government fighter jets targeted military positions belonging to a Kurdish group, according the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that has researchers on the ground. VOA video shows Syrian military planes circling over the city as residents sought cover on Friday.
"They [warplanes] are targeting specific areas to weaken the local Kurdish forces," Hasaka resident Aziz Abe told VOA.
Pentagon spokesman Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway said the Syrian Air Force conducted strikes against "ground forces in the vicinity of Hasaka" on Thursday, however the strikes did not threaten coalition forces who are operating in the area.
In response, the U.S. scrambled aircraft to protect coalition forces, and the Pentagon contacted the Russian government, which has been carrying out airstrikes in Syria in support of the Assad government. The spokesman said Russia indicated that Russian aircraft were not involved in the strikes in Hasaka, and "we made clear that coalition aircraft would defend its troops on the ground if threatened."
Reached by the VOA, the Kurdish YPG refused to comment on the involvement of U.S. warplanes in Hasaka. But a commander with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) told VOA that the fighting is ongoing.
“Our people are expecting the anti-IS international coalition to stop Syrian warplanes from bombing them in Hasaka, because this is part of that war on terrorism,” said Nasir Hajji Mansur, a comannder with the SDF.
In addition to airstrikes, Syrian government forces used heavy artillery in the city, killing at least 14 people and wounding dozens more, local news reports said.
The Syrian military or the pro-regime press did not comment on the strikes.
A spokesperson for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main armed Kurdish group in Syria, said that clashes have occurred in the past between the two sides but this is the first time the government has used warplanes against the Kurds.
“The use of warplanes (by the Syrian government) comes as the (U.S.-backed) YPG and Syrian Democratic Forces made achieved overwhelming victories against (IS) in Manbij,” said Redur Xelil, YPG’s spokesman, in an official statement.
He said that the Syrian government was not pleased with Kurdish-led forces making advances on IS in Manbij, “because it went against their interest.”
Since 2012, the Kurdish region has been administrated by local Kurdish forces after government troops largely withdrew to focus on fighting rebels elsewhere. In major cities like Hasaka and Qamishli, however, government and Kurdish groups have been tacitly sharing control.
Analysts believe that some regional powers oppose Kurdish gains in Syria, further complicating the entangled conflict in the country.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech Thursday that Ankara was "ready to move against the Kurds if they represent a threat to Turkey."
Gulf-based Middle East analyst Theodore Karasik told VOA that the “attack on Kurdish militia targets in Hasaka is directly connected to Russia’s (new and stronger ties) with Iran.” Russia recently began using an Iranian airbase in Hamedan to attack Syria.
Karasik said Russia, Iran and Turkey have concluded that “the empowerment of Kurdish factions, especially those (trained and supported) by the U.S.,” is a threat, and that those Kurdish militias “must be put in check” with some deterrence of their on-the-ground support systems.
Edward Yeranian contributed to this report from Cairo and Sirwan Kajjo, Carla Babb and Jeff Seldin reported from Washington