BEIRUT: Kurdish forces have driven ISIS from more than a dozen Assyrian Christian villages that the jihadis had captured in northeastern Syria, a monitor said Wednesday.
“Following a 10-day offensive, Kurdish fighters took control early this week of 14 Assyrian villages that ISIS had controlled since February,” said Rami Abdel-Rahman, director of the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Assyrian Christians, who are from one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, have been under increasing threat since ISIS seized control of large parts of Syria.
Thousands of Christians fled an assault by the jihadis in the northeastern province of Hassakeh in February after a spate of kidnappings by ISIS, which is still holding 210 Assyrians hostage.
Assyrians number about 30,000 among Syria’s 1.2 million Christians and mostly live in 35 villages in Hassakeh, all of which are now held by Kurdish or regime forces.
Osama Edward, head of the Sweden-based Assyrian Network for Human Rights, said that the Kurds’ recapture of the villages “was made possible by intense raids by the international coalition” led by the United States against ISIS.
He said that photos “show a lot of destruction of houses and churches.”
“Most people are afraid to return because they fear that ISIS booby-trapped their houses before fleeing,” he added.
The Observatory also reported that Kurdish militia took control of the strategic village of Al-Mabrukah, southwest of the flashpoint town of Ras al-Ain on the Syrian-Turkish border.
According to Abdel-Rahman, the Kurdish advance could also open the road toward Tal Abyad, a border town used by ISIS as a gateway from Turkey.
Over the course of 20 days, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) seized control of 4,000 square kilometers of territory from ISIS in Hassakeh province, Abdel-Rahman said.
The extremist group’s areas of control in Hassakeh are now limited to the province’s southern fringes and the border with neighboring Raqqa, he added.
Elsewhere, ISIS shot dead at least 20 men in the ruins of Syria’s ancient city Palmyra Wednesday, accusing them of fighting for the government, a monitor said.
“ISIS executed 20 men by firing on them in front of a crowd gathered in Palmyra’s Roman theater, after accusing them of fighting for the Syrian regime,” Abdel-Rahman told AFP.
“ISIS gathered a lot of people there on purpose, to show their force on the ground,” Abdel Rahman said.
ISIS has carried out a string of atrocities including videotaped beheadings and mass killings, rape and enslavement in areas it controls in Syria and Iraq.
The executions, if confirmed, could signal the start of “the group’s barbarism and savagery against the ancient monuments of Palmyra,” Syrian antiquities director Mamoun Abdulkarim told AFP.
“Using the Roman theater to execute people proves that these people are against humanity,” he added.
ISIS seized Palmyra, including its UNESCO world heritage site, on May 21, after a bloody assault that lasted nine days.
The Observatory said ISIS had since executed at least 217 people, including 67 civilians, in and around the city.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini warned last Thursday of potential war crimes in Palmyra.
Thousands of people “risk to be exposed to arbitrary violent actions and more destructions of cultural sites might be perpetrated,” she said.
ISIS “mass killings and deliberate destruction of archaeological and cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq amount to a war crime according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court,” she said.
Damascus wants more coordination with Baghdad to combat ISIS fighters who control land in both countries, Syria’s foreign minister said Wednesday.
ISIS seized Al-Tanf border crossing with Iraq last week and has taken over the desert city of Palmyra, the first time the group has captured a large population center directly from the Syrian military.
Though Damascus and Baghdad share a close relationship with Shiite Islamist Iran, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem’s comments indicated Damascus was not happy with the level of Iraqi cooperation in the fight against ISIS.
Both countries realized they had to fight together, he said.
“But the coordination has not reached the threat level we are facing,” he told a joint news conference in Damascus with his Armenian counterpart Edward Nalbandian, who also met President Bashar Assad.
Baghdad is coordinating with U.S. forces to combat ISIS. In Syria, U.S.-led warplanes are carrying out an aerial campaign which they say is not coordinated with the Syrian military and has focused on areas outside of government control.
However Syria says it has been informed of attacks ahead of time and has criticized the U.S.-led raids as ineffective, but has not opposed them. Moallem also said support from Syria’s main allies Russia and Iran remained strong and that they would not hold back on helping Syria to remain “steadfast.”
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 28, 2015, on page 8.