The newest U.S.-backed offensive against the Islamic State in northern Syria suffered a devastating setback when the extremist group detonated an explosive-laden vehicle near a Kurdish-led column of armored vehicles, an Arab militia commander said Monday.
The Islamic State said the suicide bomber, with five tons of explosives, attacked a convoy of 70 vehicles Sunday, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, killed dozens of Arabs and members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG.
Bandar al Humaydi, commander of the al Sanadid Arab militia, confirmed the incident in a phone conversation Monday. He said that his militia rescued some 70 YPG fighters, many of them seriously wounded, after the attack.
The attack occurred near Al Khatuniya, a village about 25 miles east of Hasaka, the capital of the province by the same name, and about five miles west of the Iraqi border.
Al Humaydi said the explosion came after his forces had captured Al Khatuniya and cut the roads to Al Hawl, an oil-producing city outside of Hasaka.
The YPG disclosed the offensive on its website Saturday, carrying an announcement by a newly minted Kurdish-Arab coalition called the Syrian Democratic Forces. It also distributed film to TV networks showing a ceremonial reading of a statement of purpose. The YPG is widely believed to be the dominant force in the new democratic forces coalition and the only one that can call in U.S. airstrikes.
The announcement said the military campaign would “liberate rural districts to the south of the city of Hasaka” but didn’t give the actual target. Now it appears that the target is Al Hawl.
U.S.-led coalition aircraft began bombing Islamic State targets that same day in Al Hawl and continued Sunday and Monday. In four airstrikes over Saturday and Sunday, coalition aircraft hit five Islamic State tactical units, two vehicles and a firing position, according to a statement posted on the website of U.S. Central Command. On Monday, the U.S. said it destroyed another explosives-laden vehicle.
Such vehicles are a favorite tactic of the Islamic State in northeastern Syria, according to another commander in the region, Abu Issa, of the Liwa Thurwar Al-Raqqa, or Raqqa Revolutionaries. He said between mid-July and mid-October, the Islamic State had sent 45 such vehicle bombs against his force, which is based north of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s self-styled capital. Among those killed were five of the 20 men who had been trained by the U.S. in the use of TOW anti-tank missiles.
“They empty out a 10-ton armored personnel carrier. They remove the seats and everything. There’s one driver, and he comes really fast,” Abu Issa told McClatchy in an interview last month. He said a TOW missile can stop the vehicle, but he said the U.S. had not supplied his forces with those missiles.
Abu Issa’s is not the only group hoping for U.S. arms in order to take on the Islamic State. Even the Sanadid militia, which took part in the fighting near al Hawl, has yet to receive U.S. ammunition, Bandar told McClatchy on Monday.
“We got nothing yet from the Americans,” he said.
The Pentagon announced a first airdrop of 50 tons of ammunition intended for Arab militias on Oct. 11, but a senior YPG official told McClatchy that the Kurdish militia had received the shipment.
Announcing the dispatch of up to 50 special operations forces units to north Syria on Friday, the Pentagon repeated its assertion about the ammunition drop. “It was to the Syrian Arab coalition, and claims otherwise are claims and not fact unless you have information I don’t personally have,” a senior defense official told reporters at a background briefing.
Zakaria is a McClatchy special correspondent.
Roy Gutman: @roygutmanmcc