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Tenuous cease-fire holding in Syria, IS attacks civilians amid losses in Iraq

By Fred Lambert Contact the Author   |   Feb. 29, 2016 at 5:00 AM
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BAGHDAD, Feb. 29 (UPI) -- Responding to enemy assaults from multiple sides, the Islamic State lashed out with suicide attacks as more evidence emerged last week of the group using chemical weapons against Kurds in northern Iraq.

Meanwhile, a cease-fire between the government and main opposition in Syria appears to be holding despite reported violations.

Syria

The Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed coalition of Arab, Assyrian, Turkmen and Kurdish rebels, captured the strategically important town of Shadadi in northeastern Syria on Monday.

The town in al-Hasakah province lies on a direct route linking IS strongholds in Raqqa, the group's self-declared capital, and Mosul, Iraq.

The SDF, backed by U.S. Special Forces advisers and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, captured Shadadi's city center after a six-day operation.

The IS loss came alongside other reversals for the jihadist group, including in Aleppo province, where forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian airstrikes, captured the IS-held town of Khanaser on Thursday.

Activists with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 35 pro-Assad troops were killed taking the town, which lies on a strategic road linking middle Syria to the western provinces.

Syrian troops captured the nearby IS-held village of al-Muqayrat the following day.

Elsewhere in Aleppo province, IS forces were reportedly clashing with the SDF around the Tishreen Dam on Tuesday, and in the Raqqa province, to the east, more than 70 IS fighters were killed in a failed bid to retake the Syria-Turkey border town of Tell Abiad from the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG.

The YPG, a key member of the SDF, lost 30 fighters, but with help from coalition airstrikes it was able to hold the strategic supply point, which it captured last year.

IS forces were further pressed during clashes with rival rebels on Thursday in southwestern Syria's Reef Dimashq province.

The mainly Sunni Muslim jihadists of IS -- along with militants in the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's branch in Syria -- have not been included in a temporary cease-fire that went into effect on Saturday.

On Tuesday, the Assad government and main opposition delegation agreed to the truce, which had been brokered earlier this month by officials from Russia and the United States.

The finite "cessation of hostilities" is intended to allow humanitarian aid to reach besieged cities -- and indeed, on Wednesday, the United Nations confirmed several convoys carrying food and other aid had been dispatched to multiple besieged areas, while an attempt was underway to air-drop supplies into parts of the city of Deir Ezzor that are under siege by IS forces.

However, the following day the BBC reported the air drop had failed, with all 21 pallets going missing, becoming damaged or landing between opposing lines.

As well, members of the Syrian opposition and Russian officials accused each other of multiple violations just one day into the start of the truce, despite an overall reduction of fighting across the country.

Strategy

Syria's temporary truce is complicated by a system of indirect alliances between rebel groups after five years of war.

Several so-called moderate rebel cells, particularly in northwestern Syria, have found themselves at different points accepting help from militants with the Nusra Front (which is not subject to the recent "cessation of hostilities") when battling the Syrian military and its foreign backers, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

As well, Syria's blurry territorial lines raise the likelihood of attacks being directed against other rebel groups located in the same general area as Nusra Front and IS, either on purpose or by accident.

Some analysts speculate Russia and the Assad government have used recent delays in the peace process to reduce as much of Syria's moderate opposition as possible, leaving Assad as the only clear choice against extremist groups such as IS and Nusra Front.

Others have pointed to the personal involvement of Russian President Vladimir Putin in making the recent truce a reality -- ordering a reduction in Russian airstrikes and making phone calls to leaders in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Syria to garner support -- as evidence of his realization that Syria's civil war can not be won militarily, and that he is wagering recent gains by the Syrian military in places such as Aleppo province are enough to strengthen Assad's negotiating position when U.N. peace talks resume.

Formal negotiations are scheduled to restart on March 7 if the current cease-fire holds.

Delegates with the main Syrian opposition complained of 15 Russian violations of the truce -- including two in areas where designated terrorist groups were not operating -- while Russian officials accused the opposition of nine.

However, the BBC quoted the Syrian opposition umbrella group known as the High Negotiations Committee as saying while it plans to send the U.N. a formal letter of complaint, the violations were only occurring "here and there," and it was "positive to see people getting relief ... to be safe, and free from fear."

Iraq

IS forces launched two attacks in and around the Iraqi capital Sunday, killing at least 31 people in a double suicide bombing in the Shia neighborhood of Sadr City and killing 30 Iraqi troops during a coordinated attack by suicide car bombers and gunmen near the town of Abu Ghraib, 15 miles west of downtown Baghdad.

The attacks coincided with reports of IS militants attempting to infiltrate western portions of the capital.

Sunni tribal fighters told IraqiNews.com they killed at least nine IS suicide bombers on Saturday in a similar attack near Ramadi, the capital of western Iraq's Anbar province.

The same day, a commander in the Hashid Shaabi, an umbrella group of Shia militias supported by Iran, reportedly said at least 600 IS fighters had ex-filtrated from the city of Fallujah (which is under siege by the Iraqi military) in a bid to reinforce the IS-held city of Mosul in northern Iraq.

Elsewhere in Anbar, Iraqi security forces on Sunday announced they were preparing to assault the IS-held towns of Hit and Kubaysah and reportedly gave residents 48 hours to evacuate the area.

To the north, in Nineveh province, Kurdish Peshmerga forces announced Tuesday they recovered a Swedish girl being held by IS militants near Mosul the week prior. The 16-year-old girl was reportedly "misled" into traveling to the Middle East with her 19-year-old boyfriend, whom is said to have joined an extremist group.

Two days later, The Telegraph reported an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 Turkish troops are fighting IS forces in a covert war northeast of Mosul -- despite repeated protests from the Baghdad government.

Following a dispute last year over the unauthorized deployment of about 150 Turkish troops to the Bashiqa military base, Ankara reportedly began convoying troops back to Turkey, characterizing the episode as a "miscommunication."

However, the Turks, backing Peshmerga forces in the area, are now reportedly using tanks to shell IS positions inside Mosul, the provincial capital and the most significant IS-held city in Iraq.

The report came as the Kurds said IS forces used chemical weapons on their fighters near Sinjar on Thursday. If confirmed, the attack would be the eighth of its kind against Peshmerga fighters in recent months -- including an alleged IS mustard gas attack last week near Makhmour, in the Erbil province.

Strategy

As IS forces continue losing ground in both Syria and Iraq, the jihadists appear to be lashing out with unconventional attacks -- namely suicide bombings designed to kill large amounts of civilians. Likewise, reports of the group using chemical weapons could indicate it is becoming desperate in the face of losses in northern Iraq.

While security forces continue making progress in the Anbar province, the Iraqi government and its allies in the U.S.-led coalition have their sights set on Mosul.

The plan to capture the city appears to follow a similar set of guidelines from other recent victories in places such as Ramadi in Iraq and Shadadi in Syria: Cut off all supply lines and bombard the insurgents before sending in a massive ground force.

That strategy is currently playing out in Fallujah, whose residents have for weeks fallen under siege, lacking vital food and medical supplies.

Some Sunni Arab tribesmen conducted an armed revolt against IS forces in the city earlier this month, but the jihadists managed to quell much of the uprising after deploying snipers on rooftops.

Col. Juma Fazaa Jumaili, a commander in the Hashid Shaabi, reportedly said the escape of about 600 IS militants from Fallujah -- and their re-orientation to Mosul -- came based on an order from Ayad Hamid, the deputy commander of IS.

"Few members of [IS] remain in the city of Fallujah," he told IraqiNews.com.

This could mean IS is putting most of its chips into the defense of Mosul, the group's main stronghold in Iraq.

An assault on Mosul is expected to be costly, and Iraqi security forces prepared for months before attacking Ramadi.

After at least 100 Iraqi troops were killed seizing Ramadi's city center late last year, security forces faced several more weeks of clearing militants from areas east of the city. On Saturday, officials said at least 15 Iraqi soldiers had been killed in the last two months of dismantling improvised explosive devices left behind by IS.

After the Syrian town of Shadadi fell to U.S.-backed SDF fighters last week, more chips fell into place. The city, like Sinjar, which the Peshmerga captured late last year, lies on a road linking Mosul to Raqqa.

The loss of a main road between the IS strongholds means the militants will not be able to reinforce either location without traveling on unpaved areas in more circuitous routes.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter previously said an assault on Mosul would be a joint affair between the Iraqi military and the Peshmerga, with both forces moving on the city in a pincer movement as coalition warplanes provide support.

This equation is complicated by the presence of Turkish troops near the city, with some analysts saying Ankara may be attempting to form a hedge against rising Iranian influence in Iraq.

"Turkey's actions suggest that it wants to be a key actor in the settlement of a [post-IS] Mosul," The Telegraph quoted Aaron Stein, a senior resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, as saying.

Gen. Bahram Yasin, a Peshmerga commander, reportedly welcomed the Turkish assistance, saying, "If the United States was doing more, the Turks wouldn't have had to come in."

Still, U.S. military officials said in January IS forces were "now in a defensive crouch" and have been unable to do much since last May except lose ground.

"[IS] has now lost a series of key Iraqi towns and cities -- more than 40 percent of the areas it once controlled in Iraq," President Barack Obama said on Friday, adding the next phase of the campaign would be directed at the city of Hit -- before moving toward the ultimate goal of recapturing Mosul.

Such a blow, however, would not prevent IS from conducting attacks like those seen in and around Baghdad on Sunday.

"The Islamic State insurgency will not end if or when all territory is recaptured in Iraq and Syria," The Jerusalem Post quoted Matthew Henman, head of IHS Jane's Terrorism & Insurgency Center, as saying Thursday. "The group will return to its pre-January 2015 operational model of destabilizing mass-casualty attacks in urban centers alongside low-level insurgent operations, ensuring that if it cannot fully control these cities, then neither will Baghdad or Damascus."

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