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ANALYSIS - US airstrikes help Kurds connect ‘cantons’ in Syria

Pentagon data shows vast majority of coalition air support given to Kurdish rebels, very little to Syrian opposition groups

ANALYSIS - US airstrikes help Kurds connect ‘cantons’ in Syria

By Kasim Ileri 


Pentagon data on U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in Syria shows that of nearly 1,800 strikes, at least 1,200 have supported Kurdish rebels connect the self-declared “cantons” in northern Syria.

According to data from the U.S. Central Command in the last 10 months, the alliance has conducted a total of 4,624 airstrikes against Daesh targets – 2,850 inside Iraq while 1,774 in Syria. The U.S. has conducted 3,596 of the strikes with 1,930 in Iraq and 1,666 in Syria. 

The remaining 1,028 airstrikes have been conducted by coalition partners Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Jordan, Netherlands, UK, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. 

Coalition forces have coordinated airstrikes inside Iraq with the Iraqi government, but in Syria there is no single force contributing to intelligence sharing for Daesh targets which raises the question about how the coalition is conducting airstrikes inside the country.

Unlike in Iraq, anti-Daesh forces in Syria are diverse with different agendas that caused the U.S. to drag its foot on conducting airstrikes there. 

The strikes on Daesh targets in Syria began in September, one month after similar action in Iraq, following weeks of debate in the U.S. 

The debate about airstrikes in Syria has heated up as the Kurdish Democratic Union Party PYD's military wing – People Protection Units, known as YPG – recently captured the northern Syrian city of Tell Abyad and allegedly forced local Arabs and Turkmens from their lands while uprooting Daesh from the last piece of Syrian land bordering Turkey. 

PYD is considered by Turkey as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) that has fought against Turkey for decades. 

By capturing Tell Abyad, Kurdish forces connected the two pieces of land they have controlled in northern Syria along the Turkish border, which Kurdish rebels call Jazirah and Kobani “cantons”. 

Last year, Kurdish rebels declared three areas in northern Syria as Kurdish "cantons". They call the area around al-Afrin city in the northwest corner “Afrin Canton”; the area around the city of Ayn al-Arab, a few hundred miles east of al-Afrin as “Kobani Canton” and the area covering the cities of Tal Hamees, al-Hasakeh, al-Qamisli and Ra'sal Ayn as “Jazirah Canton”.  

It’s no secret that the success of YPG in connecting the forces in these two areas is due in part to the intense coalition airstrikes. But Syrian opposition groups that are also fighting Daesh and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, claim that Kurdish rebel groups have exploited the airstrikes for political motivations in northern Syria. 

The groups say Kurdish forces are lining up in the north to found a Kurdish state or a full autonomous region.

More than a dozen Syrian opposition groups released a statement last week accusing the PYD of ethnically cleansing Turkmens and Sunni Arabs.

"YPG forces have implemented a new sectarian and ethnic cleansing campaign against Sunni Arabs and Turkmens under the cover of coalition airstrikes, which have contributed to the bombardment, terrorizing civilians and forcing them to flee their villages," according to the statement.

The U.S., which supports PYD under the pretext of fighting Daesh, has avoided helping other Syrian opposition forces, the statement noted.

Of the 1,774 airstrikes in Syria, the coalition has conducted 1,187 in the areas where the Kurdish YPG group has been fighting. 

A Pentagon official told Anadolu Agency that the coalition had been trying to cut off supply lines to Daesh’s self-declared capital of al-Raqqah in northeastern Syria, as well as choke the group inside Syria to prevent the militants and equipment from moving into Iraq. 

As the Kurdish forces lined up in northeast Syria, they contributed to the strategy of cutting off the supply lines in the north, according to the official. 

But he noted the increasing visibility of the militant group's targets in Kurdish-controlled areas and Kurdish fighters’ willingness to battle Daesh also contributed to the coalition's decision to intensify airstrikes in these areas. 

During violent clashes between Kurdish groups and Daesh in Kobani between October and January, when Daesh suffered a heavy blow, the coalition conducted 639 airstrikes on Daesh. 

After the predominantly Kurdish town was recaptured from the militant group, the coalition conducted more than 300 airstrikes around the town, ramping up the total number of airstrikes on Kobani to 943 since October. 

Another Kurdish-controlled area where the coalition has conducted more than 250 airstrikes was the self-declared “Jazirah Canton” – an area that covers the northeastern corner of Syria around the cities of Tal-Hamees, Qamisli and Al-Hasakeh.

As Kurdish rebels moved west to connect their forces in the self-declared Jazirah and Kobani “cantons”, the coalition has followed with intensive air support. 

The coalition has conducted 244 airstrikes on al-Hasakeh and Tell Abyad with more than half of the strikes carried out in the last three months.   

U.S.-led airstrikes also put major pressure on al-Raqqah and the group’s stronghold of Deyr Zawr, south of the regions controlled by Kurdish forces. 

The number of airstrikes on the two Daesh strongholds reached as many as 191 while strikes on areas where other opposition groups have been fighting remained at 52, of which just 14 were in Aleppo where violent clashes continue between regime forces, opposition groups and Daesh. 

In areas such as Homs, where opposition groups and regime forces are clashing, no airstrikes were conducted. 

Below is a table showing some of the monthly airstrikes of the coalition inside Syria

MONTH Kobani  al-Raqqah  Haseke
 Deir-uz Zor
 Aleppo  Ebu-Kamal  Homs   Other   Total 
Sept. 14 7 5 13 2 3 0 0 44
Oct. 181 14 5 15 1 0 0 11 227
Nov. 102 4 4 20 2 0 0 7 139
Dec. 131 14 5 3 5 2 0 4 164
Jan.  211 14 13 13 1 3 0 1 256
Feb. 95 5 33 6 0 0 0 3 142
March 67 2 14 1 0 0 0 3 87
April 91 5 44   1 0 0 0 141
May 27 12 88 11 1 0 0 1 140
June 24 19 33 13 1 0 0 0 90
TOTAL 943 96 244 95 14 8 0 30 1430
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