Fighting broke out between Kurdish forces and Syrian government troops in the northeastern city of Hassakeh, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Jan. 18. The clashes reportedly began after Kurdish fighters of the People's Protection Units (YPG) detained around 10 regime loyalists they accused of seizing part of a demilitarized zone. Under a deal made last year, YPG forces control around 30% of the city, with regime forces controlling most of the city's Arab-majority neighborhoods, and a buffer zone off-limits to both sides. The deal was arranged as both sides fought to keep ISIS out of Hassakeh, a provincial capital of some 200,000 people. The new fighting is being portrayed as opening a Kurdish front against the regime. (Daily Star, Lebanon, Today's Zaman, Turkey, Jan. 18)
With more than a thousand militants killed and territory slipping away, ISIS is losing its grip on the Syrian border town of Kobani in the face of stiff resistance by Kurdish fighters backed by US-led air-strikes, says an optimistic account in AP Jan. 14. The "stunning reversal" for ISIS, which in September seemed poised to take Kobani, could be a critical turning point. "An IS defeat in Kobani would quite visibly undermine the perception of unstoppable momentum and inevitable victory that IS managed to project, particularly after it captured Mosul," said Faysal Itani, a fellow at the DC-based Atlantic Council.
Kurdish forces made further gains against ISIS at Kobani in the final days of 2014, advancing higher on the Mshta Nur hills overlooking the besieged town in northern Syria. The local People's Protection Units (YPG) made advances with the help of Iraqi Peshmerga units, which brought heavy artillery to the fight, and US air-strikes on ISIS positions. US-led forces bombed ISIS positions around Kobani almost every day in December. Kobani has been under siege for over 100 days, but upwards of 70% of the town has now been liberated. (Al Arabiya, Dec. 31; Rudaw, Dec. 25)
In an operation coordinated with US air-strikes, a force of some 8,000 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters has taken the last remaining ISIS position that was besieging Mount Sinjar, allowing hundreds of displaced Yazidis who remained trapped there to escape. "Peshmerga forces have reached Mount Sinjar, the siege on the mountain has been lifted," announced Masrour Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Region Security Council. "All those Yazidis that were trapped on the mountain are now free." But Barzani added that the Peshmerga had not yet begun to evacuate them. The town of Sinjar remains in ISIS hands, and thousands of other Yazidis who had already been able to escape the mountain remain in displaced persons camps. (Al Jazeera, Bas News, Kurd Press, Dec. 19; Daily Sabah, Turkey, Dec. 17; France24, Dec. 1)
US ground forces fought their first direct battle against ISIS militants, Iraq's Shafaq news agency reported Dec. 16. The battle came when ISIS forces launched an attack on Ain al-Assad base, 90 kilometers from Ramadi, capital of Anbar governorate. Sheikh Mahmud Nimrawi, a local tribal leader, said that "US forces intervened because...ISIS started to come near the base." He added that he welcomed the US intervention, saying he hoped it will "not be the last." The US troops seem to have been backing up a mixed force of Iraqi government soliders and local tribal fighters. Nimrawi said that the "US promised to provide tribal fighters who are in that region...with weapons." (Shafaq News, Dec. 16)
Despite—or perhaps partly because of—threats from ISIS militants, a record 15.5 million Shi'ite pilgrams have converged on Karbala for Arbaeen. The holy day marks the end of the 40-day period of mourning after the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein in 680 CE, and has been punctuated by sectarian terror in Iraq in recent years. One was killed and four wounded in mortar attack on the outskirts of the city Dec. 12. Earlier this week, three were killed and four wounded in a bomb attack on a Baghdad encampment of pilgrims headed for Karbala. Another three were in a stampede as they crossed the border from Iran.
The Great Power convergence against ISIS continues to show ever greater signs of political schizophrenia. The Pentagon acknowledged Dec. 2 that (former?) Axis of Evil member Iran has carried out air-strikes against ISIS targets in eastern Iraq. Rear Adm. John Kirby insisted the US is not co-ordinating with Iran. "We are flying missions over Iraq, we co-ordinate with the Iraqi government as we conduct those," he said. "It's up to the Iraqi government to deconflict that airspace." As if the US had no influence over its client state. A senior Iranian military official also dismissed talk of co-operation between the two countries. Yet some astute observers noted that Iran may have been sending a coded political message by using F-4 Phantoms in the strikes—warplanes purchased from the US under the Shah's reign, before the Iranian revolution of 1979. (IBT, BBC News, Dec. 2)
November is usually a busy month for farmers in the Iraqi town of Jurf al-Sakhar as they sow their seeds ahead of the bitter winter months. Yet this year fields lie unplanted and untethered goats and cows wander aimlessly among slayed palm trees. Months of fighting have taken a heavy toll on the town, 60 kilometers south of Baghdad in Babil governorate, leaving buildings in ruin and fields flooded or scorched—in many cases both. The area has a ghostly emptiness. Although it was reclaimed from Islamist militants by Iraqi security forces in late October, many displaced residents have stayed away due to fears of landmines and other explosive remnants of war. "I have lost everything," Salih Al-Janabi, 56, a farmer from the area now based in neighbouring Musayib District, told IRIN. "I grew up on my farm, it is a part of my family. My palm trees were my children and now I don't know when I can even go back."