The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) launched twin assaults Thursday after Kurdish-led forces, supported by U.S.-led airstrikes, advanced to within 30 miles of Raqqa city, the de facto capital of ISIL's self-declared “caliphate.“
ISIL fighters have launched attacks on two fronts in northern Syria, re-entering the Kurdish town of Kobane and seizing parts of the city of Hasakah.
In both cases, ISIL has picked targets where it is difficult for the U.S.-led alliance to provide air support. In Kobane, also known as Ayn al-Arab, aerial bombardment of residential areas risks civilian casualties.
Meanwhile the U.S.-led alliance has avoided bombing ISIL targets in areas controlled by President Bashar al-Assad, such as government-held Hasaka — one of his last footholds in the northeast.
The United States and its European and Arab allies have been carrying out airstrikes on ISIL since last year in an effort to roll back the group, which has seized wide swaths of Syria and Iraq.
The attack on the predominantly Kurdish town of Kobane and the nearby village of Brakh Bootan left at least 120 civilians dead, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The assault is the single biggest massacre of civilians by ISIL since it killed hundreds of members of the Sunni Sheitaat tribe in eastern Syria last year, the Observatory's Rami Abdel Rahman said.
The attack involved at least three suicide car bombs, and the dead included the elderly, women and children, Rahman said.
ISIL fighters were reported to number in the low dozens and entered the town in five cars disguised as members of the Kurdish fighting group YPG and Syrian rebel groups.
Fighting was ongoing inside the town, Rahman said.
Kobane was the site of one of the biggest battles against ISIL in 2014. The Kurdish forces eventually drove ISIL out in January with the help of U.S. airstrikes and Iraqi Kurdish fighters after months of fighting.
ISIL advanced rapidly last month, seizing cities in Syria and Iraq. But recent Kurdish advances in Syria shifted the momentum once more. ISIL fighters have often adopted a tactic of attacking elsewhere when they lose ground.
The armed group wrested control of at least one district of Hasaka city in its raid there on Thursday. The city is divided into zones run separately by the Syrian government and the Kurdish administration that controls the YPG.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said an estimated 50,000 people had been displaced within Hasaka city while 10,000 had left northward toward Amuda town, close to the Turkish border.
Speaking to Syrian state TV, the governor of Hasaka said the city was “safe and secure.” He urged people to return home.
But the Observatory said fighting continued in the city. Government forces were carrying out airstrikes targeting areas south of Hasaka controlled by ISIL, it added.
Assad has since late March lost areas of northwestern, southern and central Syria to a patchwork of armed groups.
Al Jazeera with Reuters