BEIRUT: Militants from the Al-Qaeda splinter group ISIS have announced an offensive against the autonomous “Kobani” Kurdish region in northern Syria along the border with Turkey, while pressing ahead with their gruesome series of public executions in their stronghold, the province of Raqqa.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sunday that ISIS carried out the severing of a man’s hand in the city of Raqqa, on the grounds that he was guilty of theft.
It followed the news that ISIS militants executed a young man accused of premeditated murder, also in Raqqa over the weekend, by crucifying him in a public square, shooting him in the head, and leaving the body for public display.
Photos of the man’s corpse quickly spread on social media, as the group placed above his head a small placard stating: “This man’s crime: He killed a Muslim deliberately [to take his money].”
In recent months, the ultraconservative version of Islam espoused by ISIS has sparked a violent reaction to its actions. Since the beginning of the year, the group has clashed with its Al-Qaeda rival, the Nusra Front, a range of Islamist militias, and the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army, in a half a dozen provinces of Syria.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish PYD party has declared three areas of self-rule across northern Syria – the Observatory said ISIS used the occasion of Friday prayers in a number of towns in rural Raqqa to declare that it was mounting a campaign against Kobani, the western-most region, centered on the town of Ain Arab on the Turkish border and stretching across both rural Aleppo and Raqqa.
It said ISIS announced its intention to “annex” Kobani to the territory under its control.
The Observatory reported fierce clashes between PYD fighters and ISIS in a number of villages west of Tal Abyad, a town in Raqqa province on the border with Turkey. The fighting sent hundreds of residents fleeing in the direction of Turkey and neighboring areas, it added.
PYD media outlets have said around 60 ISIS militants were killed in clashes in recent days in Tal Abyad.
Ten ISIS fighters were taken prisoner, while Kurdish fighters also destroyed a tank used by ISIS, the media reports said, adding that nine Kurdish fighters were killed in the clashes. The Observatory also reported that a tank used by ISIS had been disabled by the Kurdish fighters.
Some analysts have described the campaign pitting ISIS versus the Kurdish fighters as a virtual stalemate, as each side tries to win the trust of wary populations in the areas it controls – some Arab residents have preferred to side with their fellow Arabs against the Kurds, while others have preferred the Kurds to the ultraconservative ISIS.
The Observatory said that in Hassakeh province, the YPG, the militia affiliated with the PYD, denied reports that its fighters had burned the homes of residents in several villages it recently seized – the YPG invited the media to tour the area and disprove the claims.
The political side of the military campaigns emerged in the middle of February, when the YPG said it was halting its military operations because of a wave of alleged human rights violations against Kurdish fighters.
The YPG said it wanted to avoid stoking tensions between Kurds and Arabs, which were heightened when the Kurdish fighters seized the town of Tal Brak in Hassakeh province from ISIS last month.
It said it killed 30 ISIS members and took 40 others prisoner, but was accused of sweeping up innocents in the campaign.
Separately, the Observatory said that a seemingly trivial act was partly responsible for a massacre by ISIS militants of 25 people, among them 14 rebel fighters and two minors, earlier this month in the Shuyukh region of rural Aleppo.
It said that among the dead, according to Kurdish sources, were members of a family who opened up water supplies for the town of Ain Arab, contrary to the instructions of ISIS, which had severed the water supplies.