US-backed forces battle Islamic State for control of Hajin, Syria

Fighters in the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continue to battle against the Islamic State in and around Hajin, a town in eastern Syria that has become a hub for the jihadists. The fighting has been intense, with civilian facilities coming in the crosshairs.

On Dec. 7, the so-called caliphate’s media team claimed that an “international coalition airplane bombed the Hajin city hospital” in the countryside of Deir Ezzor. The US-led coalition, Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), has responded with a video purportedly showing an Islamic State member firing at targets from inside the hospital.

The Islamic State (ISIS) “used the Hajin Hospital as a platform to engage CJTF-OIR partner forces on Dec. 9” and therefore “caused the hospital to lose its protected status afforded by the Law of Armed Conflict,” the US-led coalition said in a statement.

“ISIS has no regard for human life. As we close in on them, they are getting more and more desperate and are hiding behind the safety of mosques, hospitals, and other protected sites,” Maj. Gen. Patrick Roberson, the Commanding General of Special Operations JTF-OIR, was quoted as saying.

It is not clear why the Islamic State reported that the hospital was struck on Dec. 7, whereas CJTF-OIR says the incident occurred two days later.

The current battle in and around Hajin began in late November, when the jihadists mounted a massive assault against the SDF in Deir Ezzor province. The US-led coalition was forced to respond and the two sides have continued to clash since then.

Amaq claims a SDF attack was thwarted and 15 men were killed.

The Islamic State has produced a steady stream of reports from the fighting. Its reports have been disseminated by Nashir News Agency, which uses Telegram to communicate with the self-declared caliphate’s supporters and others. Telegram has moved to take down dozens of Nashir channels in recent days. But the propagandists quickly replaced them and the information flow from eastern Syria was barely interrupted.

The jihadists’ claims cover not only the fighting inside Hajin, but also in the surrounding villages and towns. The Islamic State alleges that the SDF has suffered dozens of casualties in recent days. The group consistently refers to the SDF as the PKK, or Kurdistan Worker’s Party, a US-designated terrorist organization. The Kurdish YPG (or People’s Defense Units) is a large contingent within the SDF and is also affiliated with the PKK.

On Dec. 9, the Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency claimed that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s men had thwarted “an attack by the PKK militia on Hajin town,” killing 15 of the fighters and wounding others. The SDF’s men tried to enter Hajin “from the northern axis as they” approached from the village of al-Bahra, but they were “lured…into a minefield” and forced to fight it out. According to Amaq’s account, snipers picked off other SDF members.

The SDF and the Islamic State fought in al-Bahra earlier this year, and the SDF reportedly made firm gains at the time. But the village is still contested. A set of photos released on Dec. 8 purportedly showed the jihadists targeting a “gathering of PKK apostates” east of Bahra.

According to Amaq, the SDF has suffered casualties in the villages of Dhiban and Suwaydan. And earlier today, Amaq produced an infographic claiming that the US-led coalition has launched at least 230 airstrikes as part of the campaign in eastern Syria over the past 10 days. The infographic can be seen below.

Elsewhere in Deir Ezzor, the Sunni jihadists continue to clash with Bashar al Assad’s loyalists and their allies. The Islamic State claims to have targeted “Nusayri Army positions” (Assad’s military) with 8 120-mm artillery shells in a village northwest of Albu Kamal city.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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