US sends jets to protect forces from Syrian regime

Fighting this week led to the first use of Syrian air force jets against Kurds that are a crucial ally of the US in its fight against ISIS

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The US scrambled fighter aircraft Thursday to protect American special operations forces and allies from Syrian government warplane attacks near the northeastern Syrian city of Hassakeh, the Pentagon said Friday.

Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said the US has increased combat air patrols in that area and has warned Syria that America will defend coalition troops. He also said he believes this is the first time the US has scrambled aircraft in response to an incident like this involving Syrian government bombings.

He said a small number of US commandos were in the area training and advising Syrian Democratic Forces. The strikes, he said, "did not directly impact our forces. They were nearby - close enough that it gives us great pause."

The US initially contacted the Russians, and Moscow denied responsibility for the bombings. The US relayed the warning to Syria through Russia because they are allied with the Syrian government in that country's civil war.

Saying the US will do what is needed to protect coalition forces, Davis added, "The Syrian regime would be well advised not to do things that would place them at risk."

The US aircraft arrived as the two Syrian jets were leaving, Davis said, so the US had no radio contact with them. Efforts by Kurdish forces on the ground to contact the Syrian jets were unsuccessful, he said.

The additional US combat air patrols will monitor the situation and provide assistance to coalition forces if needed, but are not enforcing any kind of no-fly zone, Davis said.

President Barack Obama has authorized the deployment of up to 300 US special operations forces to Syria to work with the Syrian Democratic Forces. Small groups have routinely been moving in and out of the country to conduct the training and advising mission.

Syrian Kurdish militia have seized several positions from government forces in the divided city of Hassakeh, a Kurdish official said on Friday, expanding their control in one of the heaviest clashes yet between Kurdish groups and the government.

The fighting this week led to the first use of Syrian air force jets against Kurdish groups that are a crucial ally of the United States in its fight against ISIS insurgents. The government has not commented on the fighting.

The Kurdish YPG militia holds wide areas of northern Syria, where its political allies have set up an autonomous government since Syria’s civil war began in 2011. The government still has a foothold in the cities of Hassakeh and Qamishli.

The Kurdish forces, which already hold most of Hassakeh city, had taken government-held buildings including an economics college, said Naser Haj Mansour, a Kurdish official in the YPG- affiliated Syria Democratic Forces alliance.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports on the war using an activist network, said Kurdish forces had gained ground in the southern part of the city.

Kurdish groups are working to develop their autonomy in northern Syria into a federal system of government - a plan opposed by President Bashar al-Assad.

Rami Abdulrahman, Observatory director, said the fighting began after pro-government militiamen detained Kurdish youths, a step that had followed advances by Kurdish security forces towards government-held areas.

It is the second major eruption of fighting between the YPG and Syrian government fighters this year. In April, the sides fought several days of lethal battles in Qamishli, north of Hassakeh city at the Turkish border. It is also mostly YPG-held.

The Observatory says at least 13 people, including children and women, have been killed as a result of shelling by the army on Kurdish-controlled areas of Hassakeh.

Fighting in Hassakeh were a result of Kurdish security forces trying to take over the city, prompting the army to respond by targeting armed groups, the army said in a statement on Friday.

The army's response was "appropriate", and any further such attacks would also be met with force, the statement said after a second day of clashes and Syrian government airstrikes against the Kurdish YPG militia in Hassakeh.

In response to the Syrian government’s attacks, the YPG said it would “not be silent” over what it called it an act of flagrant aggression. There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government.

People’s Protection Units (YPG) spokesman Redur Xelil said the air strikes had hit Kurdish districts of the city, which is mostly controlled by Kurdish groups, and positions held by a Kurdish security force known as the Asayish.

“There are martyrs and wounded,” he told Reuters.

Government forces were also bombarding Kurdish districts of Hassakeh with artillery, and there were fierce clashes in the city.

“Every hand spattered with the blood of our people will be held to account through all possible and available means,” the YPG said in a statement.

The YPG and Syrian government forces have mostly left each other to their own devices in the conflict, during which Kurdish groups have exploited the collapse of state control to establish autonomy across much of the country’s north.

The government, which routinely uses its air force against rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in western Syria, still has footholds in the cities of Qamishli and Hassakeh, both in the Hassakeh governorate.

Scores of residents of the northeastern Syrian city of Hassakeh took advantage Friday of a lull in fighting between Kurdish forces and Syrian government troops to flee to safer areas nearby, after fighting intensified the previous day with government warplanes bombing Kurdish-controlled positions in the city for the first time, Kurdish officials and activists said.

Also Friday, the Russian military said two of its ships launched cruise missiles at militant targets in Syria from the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The development came after Russia this week began using Iranian territory to launch airstrikes in Syria, with Moscow's bombers flying out of the Islamic Republic for three straight days to hit targets in the war-ravaged country.

The missiles add an extra dimension to the aerial campaign Russia has conducted since September in support of President Bashar Assad's military.

Russia's Defense Ministry said that the Serpukhov and the Zeleny Dol corvettes launched three long-range Kalibr cruise missiles on Friday at the al-Qaida-linked militant group of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front. The ministry said that the missiles destroyed a command facility and a militant camp near Daret Azzeh along with a mine-making facility and a weapons facility in the province of Aleppo.

Russian warships have in the past launched cruise missiles at targets in Syria from both the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean, a show of the navy's long-range precision strike capability. Cruise missiles launched from Russian navy ships in the Caspian in October and November struck targets in Syria while in December, a Russian submarine also launched cruise missiles at Syrian militants.

In Hassakeh, after dozens of townspeople fled, clashes broke out anew later on Friday, a Kurdish official said.

Nasser Haj Mansour of the predominantly Kurdish Syria Democratic Forces said Syrian government warplanes and helicopters launched more attacks on areas controlled by Kurdish fighters on Friday.

The fighting between the Kurdish troops and government forces could potentially open a new front in the Syrian civil war, now in its sixth year.

The area around Hassakeh had witnessed battles between the two sides in the past but this week's violence has been among the worst since Kurdish fighters took control of wide, predominantly Kurdish areas in northern Syria in 2012.

The Observatory said that Syrian warplanes struck areas under control of Kurdish fighters in Hassakeh, adding that there was no immediate word on casualties.

Mansour told The Associated Press on Friday that the YPG fighters captured several areas, including the wheat silos and the economics college, and that the Kurdish troops were advancing in the central neighborhoods of Ghweiran and Nashwa.

"We are fighting mercenaries," he said, referring to pro-government gunmen fighting alongside Assad's forces.

Recently, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif travelled to Turkey for talks with Turkish officials while Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Tehran on Thursday. Both countries pledged greater cooperation on resolving the Syria crisis, despite the fact they support opposing sides in the war - Iran is a staunch Assad ally while Ankara backs Syria's rebels and Asad's rivals.

However, Turkey and Iran have large Kurdish communities and both appear to be concerned about Syria's Kurds gaining more areas under their control on the border with Turkey. Ankara also considers the YPG a terrorist organization because of its links to Turkey's outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.

Jwan Mohammed, a former Kurdish official, said there was intense fighting overnight. A relative calm on Friday morning prompted scores to flee, mostly to nearby towns of Qamishli and Amouda. Speaking from Qamishli, he said that there were calls through mosques loudspeakers for the evacuation of civilians stuck in the areas of fighting.

The Observatory also reported residents were fleeing the city before clashes picked up again in the afternoon.

YPG spokesman Redur Khalil denounced Thursday's government air raids on Hassakeh as an act of "suicide," adding that Assad's forces would be held accountable for these "brutal, blatant attacks against our people."

The United Nations reported a breakthrough, saying the Syrian Arab Red Crescent evacuated up to 39 people for medical treatment from two Syrian towns under siege. The office of the UN Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, said several children were among those evacuated Friday from the towns of Foua and Madaya.

Rebel-held Madaya near Damascus is besieged by government forces and their allies while government-held Foua in the north is besieged by rebels. De Mistura called the evacuations, which are not common from besieged areas in Syria, a "positive step."

He regretted that aid convoys have been blocked to a number of places, including Madaya and Foua, for over 110 days amid increased fighting.

Britain's UN ambassador says Russia must follow up its announcement of support for weekly 48-hour cease-fires to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered to the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo with action to make this happen.

Matthew Rycroft told reporters at UN. headquarters in New York on Friday that Russia's new position "certainly sounds better than their old position, but the people of Syria have heard a lot of Russian commitments, not all of which have been implemented."

He expressed hope that aid will get to Aleppo and other areas but "what matters is Russian action, not Russian words."

Rycroft also expressed concern that Russia and Iran, members of an international group trying to end the Syrian war, "are deliberately prolonging this conflict rather than doing everything they can to end it and get the political transition that is so desperately needed."

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