The village of Tal Barak, once ruled by ISIS, was re-seized by YPG fighters, leading analysts and activists to speculate that it would feed the YPG’s campaign to re-take ISIS strongholds and expand its military presence in the northeast.
Earlier today, fighting between the two groups was also reported in the strategically-located town of Tal Maarouf, and analysts a battle soon in Tal Abyad, currently controlled by ISIS, which could give a victorious YPG control of hundreds of kilometers of smuggling routes along the Turkish border.
We asked Kadar Sheikhmous, a Kurdish analyst based in Gaziantep, and Thomas McGee, a scholar and researcher focusing on Syrian Kurds, to weigh in on the battles and on the balance of power between ISIS and the YPG.
Syria Deeply: What happened in Tal Barak, and what is the outcome of that battle?
Kadar Sheikhmous: A few days ago, after an [ISIS] attack in Tal Hamid, YPG units declared declared a military operation and took over Tal Barak. There were many activists from the region, and some from outside, claiming that a [civilian] massacre happened, and we have been asking for evidence [to support that]. It’s not true, no civilians were killed. Yet there have been other breaches — some ISIS supporters there are saying that the YPG have burned down their houses. Some civilians also say their cars were taken by the YPG during the fight.
I would say it’s a precautionary attack in order for Tal Barak not to become another base — a site ISIS uses as a place to plan attacks. Tal Barak is now entirely under YPG control.
Thomas McGee: At the same time I’m not sure how much it actually changes in terms of strategic influence. If the YPG is able to keep that road, it slows the transport between Qamishli and Hassakeh. I don’t actually think in terms of strategic control it’s that important, but as a transport link it is, because it’s the link between two cities.
I do think it is a bit of an overblown claim from the Kurdish administration in the area. When I speak to people there they say it’s an everyday win, rather than something that actually really changes the influence.
The YPG are affiliated with the PYD, they’re the main arms group associated with the PYD. And they have very uniform command, quite well organized. There are also some female fighting groups within the YPG.
SD: Earlier today, there was fighting between the two groups in Tal Maarouf…
KS: The importance of Tal Maarouf comes from the fact that it’s close to oil fields, and it’s on a strategic route. And ISIS wanted to strike back for what happened in Tal Barak. They bombed three shrines there, and it’s a small town.
One week ago before Tal Barak, there were more than 160 civilian Kurds arrested by ISIS near Hassakeh. They were just traveling, in Raqqa province, and they were kidnapped by ISIS. There are rumors on social media, even from ISIS-related accounts, saying 60 of them were beheaded. It’s ISIS using civilians as hostages in their war against the YPG. It’s happened in other places in Syria with other components.
SD: Who is stronger right now in the Kurdish areas? ISIS or the YPG?
KS: The strength [tilts towards the] YPG in the Kurdish regions, rather than ISIS. The YPG has a military background, they are experts somehow in this, and they are not afraid. They don’t surrender. This is the difference [between the YPG and less powerful groups]. The Free Syrian Army groups that face ISIS in Azaz run away and the YPG does not.
SD: What happens next in the battle between ISIS and the YPG?
KS: What will be happening soon is the battle of Tal Abyad. Previously in this town, there were civilian attacks and bombings carried out by ISIS, which controls it. The YPG now say they will start an operation there. It’s important because it’s the bridge between the Kurdish regions in Hassakeh and Kobani, and if the YPG wins, it will be controlling 500 kilometers or more of the Turkish border, right away.