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U.S.-backed rebels make gains in Syria, IS re-directs attacks after fall of Ramadi

By Fred Lambert Contact the Author   |   Jan. 11, 2016 at 5:00 AM
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BAGHDAD, Jan. 10 (UPI) -- Last week, regime forces and a U.S.-backed rebel group made gains in Syria, while in Iraq, the Islamic State re-postured its forces following the fall of Ramadi.

Syria

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On Sunday, IS militants attacked positions held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-supported group of Kurdish, Assyrian and Arab rebels, in the southwestern countryside of al-Hasakah province, according to activists with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The clashes are occurring in and around the villages of al-Abed and al-Sawda and follow reports the SDF took territory in the province last Monday, including the village of al-Nofaliya.

The SDF, which enjoys support from U.S. air power, announced its formation in October and shortly afterward initiated an offensive to clear IS forces from al-Hasakah province.

In the Aleppo province, to the northwest, the SDF on Wednesday repelled an IS attack on the Tishreen Dam, located on the Euphrates River. SOHR reported IS militants attempted to infiltrate the position using boats but were driven back by SDF forces backed by coalition airstrikes. A similar attack the following day was also foiled, but only after the SDF, once again backed by coalition airstrikes, counter-attacked and regained three points seized by IS fighters. At least 14 IS militants were killed in the Thursday battle, according to SOHR. On Friday, sources in the SDF denied reports that American forces helped secure the dam on Dec. 26.

Last week the SDF also enjoyed successes in the Raqqa province, where the self-declared capital of the IS caliphate is located, killing at least 23 IS fighters near the town of Ain Issa on Monday following two days of fighting. SOHR reported the SDF captured six villages and farms in the countryside around the town, which is located on a strategically important intersection 30 miles north of IS-held Raqqa, the provincial capital. On Wednesday, SOHR said fighting in the area continued near the village of Shoran. The U.S. Department of Defense said on Friday the U.S.-led coalition conducted two airstrikes in the vicinity of Ain Issa, destroying three IS fighting positions.

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, meanwhile, continued conducting offensives across the country.

Backed by Russian airstrikes and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, the Syrian military on Thursday captured six villages and a farm in northern portions of Latakia province, home to Assad's ruling Alawite minority, state news reported.

The same day in Aleppo province, the Syrian military reportedly seized the village of al-Najara and a hill north of the Kuwairis air base, which regime troops recaptured in November after years of siege by IS fighters and other militants.

On Tuesday, SANA reported government troops captured two towns in the southern countryside of Hama province, as well as 60 percent of the city of Sheikh Miskeen, in Daraa province, the day prior.

In the city of Maarat al-Numan, in Idlib province, at least 39 people -- including militants, civilians and prisoners -- were killed Saturday after four missiles struck, among other locations, a prison facility run by the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's branch in Syria. SOHR said the attack was an "aerial bombardment" but did not clarify whether it was conducted by Syrian or Russian warplanes.

The Assad government on Thursday reportedly agreed to allow United Nations aid workers to enter Madaya, a rebel-held village 15 miles northwest of Damascus. The Syrian military and Hezbollah, using landmines and barbed wire, have held the city under siege since July. SOHR on Monday published photographs of severely emaciated Syrians and said the city's 40,000 residents were at risk of starving to death. The first U.N. aid trucks could enter Madaya as early as Monday.

Strategy

Rebel and government forces -- as well as their international backers -- are trying to gain strategically important positions in the run-up to peace talks scheduled later this month in Geneva.

The Syrian military is in a much better position than it was prior to Russia's intervention on Sept. 30. In April, an alliance of rebel groups captured the city of Jisr al-Shughour, consolidating control over all remaining major urban strongholds held by the Syrian military in Idlib province, and by August, pro-Assad forces had been pushed into the western edge of Latakia province. The Syrian military is now making gains throughout various portions of the country, especially in the northwestern provinces of Aleppo and Latakia. In Latakia in particular, according to state news, pro-Assad forces are trying to cut off rebel supply lines to Turkey and a road linking Jisr al-Shughour, in Idlib province, from Rabiaa, in Latakia province.

On Saturday the Syrian government said it was prepared to attend the Geneva talks but wanted to know in advance whether "terrorist groups" would be attending. The Assad regime and its Russian counterparts have repeatedly dismissed the entirety of the Syrian opposition as "terrorists," however, and previous attempts at negotiation have collapsed due to the Syrian government's inflexibility on rebel participation.

All the while, airstrikes and siege tactics like those seen in Madaya continue taking a toll. The BBC reported there are about 400,000 Syrians living in at least 15 besieged locations, including the government-held towns of Kefraya and Foah, which are under siege by rebel groups.

The U.S.-backed SDF is meanwhile gaining ground in familiar territory in Raqqa province. One of the SDF's main groups, the Kurdish YPG, first captured the IS-held town of Ain Issa in June but lost it to an IS counter-attack the following month. The town lies on a strategic intersection linking roads toward al-Hasakah province in the east, Aleppo province in the west, and the city of Raqqa -- the IS capital -- a couple dozen miles to the south. Earlier in June, the YPG captured the city of Tell Abiad, north of Ain Issa, cutting off a vital IS supply point on the Turkish border.

The SDF was not among a group of major Syrian rebel organizations that met last month in Saudi Arabia to outline a unified negotiation stance for the Geneva talks, but it announced the formation of a political wing known as the Syrian Democratic Council during a separate conference in al-Hasakah province on Dec. 11.

On Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren praised the SDF, saying the anti-IS rebel coalition had killed 140 IS fighters, captured dozens of IS-held villages and cleared nearly 120 square miles of territory around the Tishreen Dam in Aleppo province over the past 10 days. Warren noted IS militants were "shaving their beards and trying to hide among the civilian population as they continue to lose ground in Syria and run back to Raqqa" and other locations still under their control.

Iraq

While Iraqi security forces seized the center of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, last month, government troops and allied Sunni tribal fighters have continued clearing IS-held neighborhoods in the city's east, killing at least 22 militants in the Soufiyah district on Sunday. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a security source told Xinhua news agency nine security personnel were killed the same day in an IS suicide bombing near the government complex in the city center, while another 10 were killed when a booby-trapped house detonated during search operations in the al-Mal'ab district.

The Department of Defense said the U.S.-led coalition conducted six airstrikes against IS positions in Ramadi on Sunday -- while the security source told Xinhua at least 13 militants were killed by Iraqi and U.S. warplanes in the Mudhiej area, east of the city.

Airstrikes were also directed Sunday against IS positions around the Anbar province cities of Haditha and Barwana, where IS militants have redirected efforts after losing most of Ramadi in late December. IS launched a series of failed assaults on both cities throughout last week, coordinating attacks with a combination of infantry, indirect fire and suicide car bombs. On Friday, at least 18 Iraqi security personnel were killed when IS militants, supported by car bombers, attacked the eastern outskirts of Haditha. On Thursday, six security personnel and 18 IS fighters were killed when the militants, under cover of heavy mortar and artillery barrages, attacked the adjacent city of Barwana, where the day prior, Dohan al-Rawi, the IS war minister, was reportedly killed in an airstrike by the Iraqi air force. The city had been secured by the Iraqi military and Sunni tribal fighters earlier in the week, IraqiNews.com reported on Tuesday.

Col. Steve Warren on Tuesday said more than 100 IS militants had been killed when twice that number attacked Haditha but were repelled by Iraqi security forces and coalition airstrikes. The same day, Naeem Gaood, leader of the Albu Nimr tribe, a Sunni group that has long opposed IS, said the extremists had sent reinforcements from western Anbar cities such as Hit -- as well as from Mosul, in northern Iraq, and from Syria -- for a multi-directional attack on Haditha and Barwana.

Elsewhere in Anbar province, the Iraqi military reportedly killed 17 militants, dismantled two booby-trapped houses and destroyed a vehicle during clearing operations south of Fallujah on Monday.

Meanwhile, to the north in Nineveh province, Turkish troops manning a base near Mosul repelled an IS assault on Wednesday, killing at least 17 militants. Hürriyet Daily News reported it was the third such attack against the camp, which is located in Bashiqa. Two other IS assaults were repelled last month.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces and IS militants also clashes in northern and eastern portions of Nineveh province on Tuesday, according to media and security sources, with one IS assault ending after 18 militants were killed attacking the village of Safiya. IraqiNews.com reported the assault lasted four hours and was broken with help from coalition warplanes.

Strategy

The goals in Iraq are much clearer than in Syria: The Iraqi government wants IS out, and IS is attempting to retain lands captured last summer as part of its self-declared caliphate. Since mid-July the Iraqi government has been embroiled in an offensive in Anbar province that is now bearing fruit. After losing Ramadi to IS in May, Iraqi security forces have re-consolidated control over most of the city with help from Sunni tribal fighters and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes -- adding Anbar's provincial capital to a list of modest victories in places such as Tikrit, in Saladin province, and Sinjar, in Nineveh province.

On Wednesday, Col. Steve Warren noted IS has lost 40 percent of its territory in Iraq as the coalition continues to increase the pace and intensity of airstrikes against the group.

"When our airstrikes are coupled with local ground operations, we see [IS] having to react and move around the battlefield. This just makes it easier for us to strike them," Warren said. "We believe that [IS] is now in a defensive crouch. ... May is when they reached their culminating point of offensive operations. Since then, all they've really managed to do is lose ground."

Yet to be captured, however, are cities such as Fallujah -- as well as the crown jewel of IS holdings in Iraq, Mosul. Shadowing the prospect of an assault there is the high cost of securing Ramadi's government complex on Dec. 27; according to Warren, the Iraqi army suffered more than 1,000 casualities, including 100 troops killed, in the assault, and small groups of IS fighters, armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, have further delayed the complete capture of the city.

Meanwhile, operations in Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, are complicated by friction between Baghdad and Ankara over the presence of Turkish troops at a base in Bashiqa. While Turkey says its troops have successfully repelled multiple IS assaults there, killing dozens of the militants, the Iraqi government says the unauthorized deployment of 150 Turkish soldiers to the base is a violation of Iraq's sovereignty. Turkey, which is a member of the U.S.-led coalition against IS, said the troops were sent to the camp under an earlier agreement to train local forces and characterized the issue as a "miscommunication."

Last month Turkey said it began withdrawing troops from the Bashiqa camp, but a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said more would have to depart before Baghdad was satisfied.

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