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Iraq and Syria: Multi-sided clashes rage in Aleppo, Sunnis turn against IS in Fallujah

By Fred Lambert Contact the Author   |   Feb. 22, 2016 at 5:00 AM
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BAGHDAD, Feb. 22 (UPI) -- Complex multi-sided fighting raged on in Syria last week, particularly in the northwestern Aleppo province, while in Iraq, Sunni Arab gunmen revolted against Islamic State fighters in the city of Fallujah.

Syria

An ongoing Russian-backed Syrian military offensive continued making gains Sunday in northwestern parts of the country.

According to Syria's state news agency, SANA, government troops and their allies seized control of 19 towns in the eastern Aleppo province, where IS has a heavy presence.

One day prior, SANA reported forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad captured a thermal power plant in the province, as well as several villages in the Latakia province to the west, where a majority of the country's ruling Alawite sect resides -- and where on Thursday regime forces captured the rebel-held town of Kinsabba, bringing them nearly two miles within the administrative borders of Idlib province, to the east, for the first time in four years.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based activist group monitoring the conflict, said Sunday regime forces captured at least 20 Aleppo province villages over the past 24 hours.

Al-Masdar News reported the villages were lightly defended by a handful of IS suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices, which technicians are working to dismantle. Seizure of the areas reportedly allows the Syrian military to link supplies from Aleppo city to the Kuwairis air base -- which fell to government troops who broke an IS siege of the facility in November.

Several IS fighters retreated to the town of al-Bab before government troops encircled the villages. If IS forces lose the strongholds of Deir Hafer or al-Bab, they will be forced to retreat east toward Raqqa, their self-declared capital.

The Syrian army gains came alongside advances in the Aleppo province by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed coalition of Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen, Yazidi and Assyrian rebels.

On Sunday, SOHR reported Kurdish militants with the People's Protection Units, or YPG -- one of the main units within the SDF -- were fighting Islamist rebels in the al-Ashrafia and Bani Zaid neighborhoods of Aleppo city, the provincial capital.

The day prior, the monitoring group said some YPG fighters had been killed in the city fighting militants with the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's branch in Syria.

Four days earlier, Al-Masdar News said the YPG and Jaish Al-Thuwwar, an allied Arab rebel group in the SDF, assaulted forces with the Nusra Front and other Arab rebel groups, including the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, in the al-Hillak district of Aleppo city.

The same day, SOHR said the SDF seized control of the village of Sheikh Issa, located just west of the city of Mare' -- a stronghold for Islamist rebels in Aleppo's northern countryside and the only city now separating the SDF from IS-controlled territory in the province.

The monitoring group quoted sources as saying Arab rebels in Mare' rejected suggestions by the SDF to withdraw peacefully to Azaz, on the Turkish border.

During overnight fighting on Monday into Tuesday, the SDF captured Tell Rifaat, a strategic town overlooking the junction of two main roads leading to Aleppo city.

Turkey -- which considers the YPG and its political arm, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, to be terrorist organizations -- has responded to Kurdish advances along its southern border with alarm. Turkish artillery shells have rained on SDF and YPG positions for more than a week.

The Turkish attacks reportedly forced the YPG from previously captured parts of Azaz on Monday, and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu promised the "harshest reaction" if the Kurds approached the town again.

The same day, SOHR said shelling by Turkish forces killed two children in Deir Jamal -- one of two towns occupied by the SDF earlier this month at the request of Arab residents looking to avoid Russian airstrikes.

Turkey and Arab rebel commanders accuse the SDF of colluding with the Syrian military and Russia, but the group denied the charge and pointed to its assistance of Arab civilians and moves it undertook to work against Assad's Russian-backed offensive.

Strategy

The complicated fighting in Aleppo province has proved a Gordian Knot for the international community in its efforts to end the five-year conflict in Syria.

Assad's Russian-backed offensive caused the collapse of peace talks in Geneva earlier this month as government troops -- supported by Russian airstrikes, Shia militias from Afghanistan and Iraq, Iranian troops and Hezbollah fighters -- cut off major rebel supply lines from the Turkish border to Aleppo city.

On Sunday -- as IS suicide bombers killed more than 100 people in Shia and Alawite neighborhoods of Homs and Damascus -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced a "provisional agreement in principal" with Russia for a temporary cease-fire that would allow humanitarian aid to be delivered into besieged areas.

Kerry noted, however, that Moscow must enlist the support of the Assad government to implement the deal, while U.S. officials must persuade major opposition groups toward the same course.

Opposition delegates with the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee said a temporary truce is only possible if Russia halts airstrikes against rebel forces -- a stipulation Moscow has rejected.

Likewise, Assad said he would only implement such a truce with guarantees that "terrorists" would not use the pause to improve their positions.

The deal came nearly a week after medical aid organization Doctors Without Borders said one of its hospitals was hit by a Russian airstrike in Idlib province. United Nations officials said the strike was one of many to target hospitals in northwestern Syria.

Rebels and relief organizations say the Syrian military begins offensives by deliberately attacking medical facilities and civilian areas in order to cause civilian flight and lower morale among rebels, who refocus on getting their families to safety.

Analysts say Moscow and Damascus are attempting to gain more ground ahead of the restart of peace talks in Geneva on Feb. 25 -- and that any settlement based on the current balance of power on the ground, specifically in Aleppo province, will benefit the Assad government.

The advances of the SDF, meanwhile, have caused friction between Turkey and the United States.

Turkey is a NATO ally and member of the U.S.-led coalition against IS, but since July 2015, Turkish warplanes have attacked Kurdish YPG forces in northern Syria and militants with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, in camps located in northern Iraq at a much higher frequency than against IS forces in Syria.

Last year, after a U.S. program to arm moderate Arab rebel groups failed, the United States found a reliable ally in the YPG, which, along with the wider SDF, has enjoyed U.S. airstrike support against IS forces across northern Syria, particularly in the al-Hasakah and Raqqa provinces, and more recently in parts of Aleppo province.

On Saturday, SOHR said SDF forces killed 18 IS militants near the Tishreen Dam in northeastern Aleppo province. Four days earlier, SOHR said coalition airstrikes supporting SDF forces over the prior three days in al-Hasakah province killed 35 IS fighters -- as well as 38 civilians.

However, in the recent clashes between the Kurds and Turkey in Aleppo province, U.S. officials have called on both Ankara and the YPG to show restraint and refocus efforts against IS.

The United States and the European Union consider the PKK -- a Turkey-based group that has fought an autonomy-seeking insurgency against Turkish security forces for decades -- to be a terrorist group; they do not see the YPG or PYD in the same light.

Earlier this month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced the United States for its failure to make that distinction -- and on Sunday, Davutoğlu called for unconditional U.S. backing in the fight against the YPG.

"The only thing we expect from our U.S. ally is to support Turkey with no 'ifs' or 'buts,'" Al-Masdar News quoted Davutoğlu as saying.

Turkey accused the YPG, with support from the PKK, of conducting a bomb attack that killed 28 people in Ankara on Wednesday, but both Kurdish groups denied involvement, and U.S. officials expressed skepticism, saying they had not yet determined who was responsible for the attack.

Turkey previously opposed PYD participation in the Geneva talks and threatened to derail the negotiations when the group's chief showed up unannounced. On the other hand, Russia, the United States and the Syrian government have advocated for the PYD being a part of the process.

Turkey began shelling the YPG in Aleppo province earlier this month, saying the Kurdish militants opened fire on Turkish troops. The Ankara government previously said it would attack threats on its southern border and warned the YPG last year not to cross west of the Euphrates River.

Turkey, which is being pressured by the international community to allow in tens of thousands of refugees displaced by recent fighting, says the YPG is purposefully forcing Sunni Arab families out of the northern Aleppo countryside in order to add to Kurdish territories in Syria.

However, tensions between Ankara and Washington, D.C., have also been stoked by accusations of Turkish involvement in IS black market oil sales, as well as Turkey allowing Islamist extremists to infiltrate into Syria through its southern border.

SOHR said Thursday hundreds of rebels and Islamist fighters moved via Turkish territory from Idlib province to reinforce Azaz in Aleppo province.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, an analyst with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank, told Voice of America the situation in Aleppo province is "a complete wreck."

"There are literally U.S.-backed groups fighting other U.S.-backed groups right now," he said. "Specifically, the U.S.-backed opposition in northern Aleppo is fighting the U.S.-backed YPG. I have never seen a situation where one CIA-backed group is fighting another with this kind of intensity. It illustrates why so many people have trouble trusting the United States. It's hard for people to believe our government is this incompetent, so they search for some hidden conspiracy."

Amid the complexities in Aleppo, Turkey has entertained the idea of sending ground troops into Syria alongside Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab allies backing the Syrian opposition, but only under a U.S.-led coalition effort.

"Bashar al-Assad will leave -- have no doubt about it," Saudi Arabia's foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir told CNN earlier this month. "He will either leave by a political process or he will be removed by force. We will push as much as we can to ensure that the political process works. But if it doesn't work, it will be because of the obstinance of the Syrian regime and that of its allies. And should that prove to be the case, then it becomes clear that there is no option to remove Bashar al-Assad except by force."

Iraq

Sunni Arab tribes in the city of Fallujah, located in western Iraq's Anbar province, took up arms against IS forces on Thursday.

The revolt stemmed from deteriorating conditions in the city, which has been under siege by the Iraqi military since the formerly IS-held provincial capital, Ramadi, fell to a U.S.-backed assault by government troops earlier this year.

Basic necessities such as food and medical supplies are running low, and a resident trapped in the city said earlier this month a 110-pound bag of wheat costs about $900, and that some people were selling their cars to feed their families.

Throughout the humanitarian crisis, IS militants have hoarded food supplies and refused to let residents leave.

Sunni Arabs from the Juraisat, Halabsa and Mohamda tribes are leading the revolt. The tribesmen reportedly overran and burned an IS headquarters in Fallujah on Friday, killing 10 IS fighters within. The following day, IS snipers took positions on rooftops in the city in an attempt to quell the insurrection.

Five tribesmen were killed in the fighting, some of which was reportedly taking place in the Nazzal and Askali neighborhoods. Issa al-Issawi, the exiled mayor of Fallujah, told the BBC that more tribesmen were joining the fight.

Rageh Barakat, a member of Anbar provincial council's security committee, told The Washington Post the dispute began after IS militants known as "hisbah" -- enforcers of the group's moral code on the street -- "humiliated" two elderly men who complained about the food shortage.

He said rather than through traditional tribal structures, the revolt was being organized by disaffected "young people rising up."

While some reports suggested the tribesmen were able to control a northern sector of Fallujah, IS forces eventually beat them back.

Sheikh Majeed al-Juraisi, a leader in the al-Juraisat tribe, called on security forces to assist the revolt. The Washington Post quoted a statement by the Iraqi military as saying civilians were waiting for the security forces to enter to "carry out a revolution."

"It's impossible to control any area, but there's huge tension right now," Issawi reportedly said, adding that Fallujah could "fall very quickly" if government forces took advantage of the momentum in local support.

The clashes had fizzled by Saturday as IS snipers limited the movement of the attacking tribesmen and the jihadists conducted mass arrests.

Juraisi reportedly said some tribal fighters were still pinned down in the Jolan neighborhood, and warned there would be a massacre if Iraqi and U.S. forces did not react soon.

Elsewhere in the Anbar province, militiamen with the Hashid Shaabi, an Iran-supported umbrella group of Shia militias, began an operation Monday to clear IS forces from the Karma district, east of Fallujah, killing a reported 16 IS fighters and destroying four car bombs.

The day prior, IraqiNews.com quoted Maj Gen. Isamil al-Mahalawi as saying the Iraqi army's 10th Brigade repelled an IS attack in the Albu Ziab area north of Ramadi -- three days after Iraqi troops reportedly arrested a group of IS militants attempting to escape the city wearing women's clothing.

Iraqi troops fully recaptured Ramadi earlier this month after weeks of mopping up IS militants in areas to the east of the city. Government forces had previously seized Ramadi's city center in late December.

"The militants who remained in the city are now trying to escape at any cost in order to avoid falling in the hands of the government forces," local media activist Fouad Al-Saddi told ARA News.

Meanwhile, in northern Iraq, the Kurdish Peshmerga said IS militants launched shells filled with mustard gas, a burn agent that causes blisters upon contact with the skin, at their forces near Makhmour, in the Erbil province.

At least four Kurds were injured in the attack -- which followed reports IS forces used mustard gas during fighting with the Peshmerga in the same area August of last year.

Military Times reported Thursday U.S. troops were setting up in Makhmour as part of a train-advise-and-assist team.

Likewise, security sources reportedly said last Sunday, U.S. forces -- armed with heavy weaponry including Apache gunships -- were also arriving at the Ein al-Assad air base in the al-Baghdadi area in western Anbar province.

IraqiNews.com quoted the source as saying the U.S. force would conduct "ground and aerial military operations in the western regions, including Qaim, Husaybah and [Hit]."

The developments come as the United Nations says hundreds of Sunni Arabs are trapped in no-man's land between Peshmerga and IS positions near Sinjar. Officials say the group has been living under deteriorating conditions for three months, enduring repeated shelling from IS forces and has lacked food and water since Feb. 4.

Strategy

Following the capture of Ramadi, the Iraqi government and its allies have their sights set on the IS-held cities of Mosul and Fallujah.

Siege tactics -- which call for an attacking force to surround, starve and deteriorate a defending force that is holding an objective deemed too costly to capture by direct assault -- have played a prominent role. The Ramadi assault had been preceded by security forces surrounding the town as U.S. airstrikes pounded militant positions.

While the capture of Ramadi led to the isolation of Fallujah, the Iraqi government might elect a different approach now that Sunni Arabs are rebelling against the jihadists.

The loss of neighboring Ramadi has significantly weakened IS forces in Anbar province; Juraisi told the Washington Post if IS forces in Fallujah "were the same strength that they were six months ago, they would have controlled the [revolt of Sunni tribesmen] within hours."

An alliance between Baghdad and revolting Sunni Arabs in Anbar province would be indicative of former coalition successes in the area -- notably the 2006 Sunni Awakening, when U.S. forces won the support of Sunni tribes against forces from al-Qaida in Iraq.

Iraqi troop casualties were heavy attacking Ramadi (at least 100 soldiers were killed in the assault on the city center alone), and support from internal Sunnis could help Iraqi security forces avoid an even bloodier outcome, like those seen during two U.S. troop assaults on Fallujah in 2004.

However, the bigger fish is seen as Mosul, the most significant of IS holdings in the country. After spilling over from Syria in 2014, a small force of about 800 IS militants sent tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers fleeing from the Nineveh province capital, and large amounts of U.S. weaponry and equipment were apprehended by the jihadists.

Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition have targeted IS profit centers in the the city, and U.S. officials have previously indicated a strategy calling for a pincer movement on Mosul with Iraqi forces attacking from the south and the Peshmerga attacking from the north and east.

U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, a U.S. Defense Department spokesman in Baghdad, told Military Times the train-advise-and-assist team in Makhmour "will begin the process of generating the combat power that's necessary to ... progress this campaign with an eventual goal of Mosul."

However, Jabar Yawar, chief of staff of the Peshmerga Ministry, reportedly said no time-frame had been set for the Mosul battle, and added the Iraqi military was not prepared for such a fight with so much territory in Anbar province still in IS hands.

"There are areas on the outskirts of Ramadi, Fallujah, Hit and Haditha that are part of the Anbar province that have not been recaptured yet," Yawar told Kurdish news agency Rudaw. "Unless these areas are liberated, the Iraqi government cannot wage war against the group in Mosul, as it is expected to be a tough battle."

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