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Western and Russian airstrikes enable heavy offensives in Iraq and Syria

By Fred Lambert
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Western and Russian airstrikes enable heavy offensives in Iraq and Syria
Smoke rises after airstrikes by Syrian regime air forces in the suburb of Damascus Darya in Syria on Oct. 12. Photos by Hossam Alahamad/UPI | License Photo

BAGHDAD, Nov. 30 (UPI) -- Bombings and airstrikes continued across Syria and Iraq last week as the governments of both nations battled with insurgents for control of various regions.

On the Syrian battlefield

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Russian airstrikes continue to aid advances against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's enemies, including groups supported by the U.S.-led coalition.

Syrian state news on Sunday reported military forces loyal to Assad made advances in northwestern and southwestern portions of the country, including in mountainous areas in Latakia province, home to the country's ruling Alawite minority. Syrian military forces also reportedly captured Islamic State-controlled territory in the eastern countryside of Aleppo province as well as militant positions in Damascus province, to the south, where soldiers uncovered a rebel tunnel more than 1,000 feet long.

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The fighting occurred as Turkey handed over to Russia the body of a pilot killed when Turkish warplanes downed a Russian jet over northwestern Syria on Tuesday. Turkey says the aircraft violated its airspace, which Moscow denies. The incident caused diplomatic strains between the two nations, which are both aligned against IS but in disagreement over support for Assad.

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On Saturday, Syrian state news reported pro-Assad military forces repelled an IS assault on an air base in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, as well as attacks against residential neighborhoods in the provincial capital. The Syrian military, meanwhile, continued to conduct airstrikes against insurgents in the Idlib, Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Dara provinces.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based activist group monitoring the civil war in Syria, on Saturday reported regime forces were making gains in the Dara province, south of Damascus, while pro-Assad fighters -- including Lebanese Hezbollah militants -- continued battling against an alliance of rebel groups in Latakia province that includes the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's cell in Syria.

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According to SOHR, the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish rebel group predominant to northeastern portions of the country, was on Saturday clashing with the Nusra Front and other rebel groups in the north of Aleppo province, in northwestern Syria. The day before, an Arab rebel group called for all civilians to leave a YPG-controlled area of Aleppo before it began targeting the neighborhood with heavy weapons.

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Latakia and Aleppo provinces on Friday also saw clashes between pro-Assad forces and an array of rebel groups, including Nusra Front and the Turkistan Islamic Party, which seized parts of the southern Aleppo countryside, capturing multiple Syrian soldiers and Hezbollah fighters.

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Since late September, when Russia intervened in Syria on behalf of Assad, the Syrian military -- along with Iranian troops, Iraqi Shia paramilitaries and Hezbollah fighters -- have conducted ongoing counter-offensives across the country under cover of Russian airstrikes in a bid to regain territories lost to insurgent forces throughout the year. Iranian media has since October reported more than 60 of its soldiers have been killed during the bolstered offensives.

The U.S.-led coalition -- which has largely backed Kurdish groups such as the YPG and moderate Arab rebels on the ground in Syria -- opposes Assad but shares with the embattled leader an enemy in IS and Nusra Front. The coalition has since September 2014 conducted anti-IS airstrikes independent of Assad's forces and Russia, which it accuses of attacking mainly moderate rebel groups, rather than IS.

France, which increased the tempo of anti-IS airstrikes following Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, on Friday expressed a willingness to work with the Syrian military against IS but refused to do so as long as Assad was in power.

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Turkey, meanwhile, has since July conducted airstrikes against IS after suicide bombings killed dozens in Suruc and later in Ankara, but the Turkish government has also attacked the PKK, a Kurdish militant group based out of southeastern Turkey, and has warned Russia throughout the fall about encroachments on Turkish airspace.

Following the downing of a Russian jet by the Turkish air force on Tuesday, Moscow has increased the anti-air capabilities of its forces in Latakia province and moved a naval cruiser toward the country's west coast.

The battlefield in Iraq

An official in Iraq's interior ministry on Sunday said a bomb blast killed two people and injured nine others in a village just north of Baghdad, which experiences such attacks almost daily. A suicide bomber reportedly killed 17 soldiers northwest of the capital on Friday.

In the Anbar province, to the west, a security source told IraqiNews.com on Sunday police killed eight IS fighters east of Ramadi, the provincial capital. Iraqi security forces have been amassing in the surrounding area throughout the month for an anticipated assault on the city, which IS militants seized in May.

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On Thursday, pro-government tribal fighters reportedly shot down an IS surveillance drone west of Ramadi -- one day before a coalition aircraft was reported to have destroyed a car bomb factory south of Fallujah, killing six IS fighters and injuring another five.

In northern Iraq's Nineveh province on Sunday, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters said a coalition airstrike south of Mosul, the provincial capital, killed at least five IS militants and injured seven others.

The U.S. Department of Defense on Sunday said it conducted 19 airstrikes in Iraq, including one in Mosul that struck an IS tactical unit, destroying a heavy machine gun and a fighting position.

The day prior, a mass grave containing the bodies of at least 110 people from the country's minority Yazidi sect was discovered west of the city of Sinjar, which Peshmerga forces, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, captured from IS militants earlier this month. On Thursday, IS forces were reported to have cut off the ears of 70 of their own fighters in Nineveh province for "fleeing from the battlefield and leaving the front lines."

IS initially seized Sinjar in August 2014, murdering and enslaving hundreds of Yazidis and forcing several hundred more into retreat on Mount Sinjar. The incident prompted the beginning of an international intervention led by the United States.

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On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal reported members of the Peshmerga -- including Yazidi fighters -- were looting the homes of Sunni Arabs in Sinjar and vowing to block their return. Arab officials accuse the Kurds of using violence in Iraq -- as well as U.S. backing -- to consolidate lands previously part of Kurdistan that were subject to "Arabization" under Saddam Hussein.

In Saladin province, meanwhile, a bomb blast at a market east of Tikrit killed at least five people and injured 15 others on Sunday. The day prior, IS forces in the province's Shirqat district were reportedly utilizing dozens of donkeys in order to transport military supplies after losing several vehicles during multiple attacks in the area.

Last Sunday, IS militants counter-attacked a series of positions across Saladin province after the Iraqi army last month captured the city of Baiji, home to Iraq's largest oil refinery. The offensive was part of what Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called the "second phase" of the liberation of Saladin province, which stalled south of Shirqat. The first phase of the offensive occurred in March, when Iraqi forces began attacking the city of Tikrit, capturing it in April with help from coalition airstrikes and Iran-trained Shia militias.

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The Baghdad government has since last year been locked in a war to evict IS forces who seized large swaths of western and northern Iraq after spilling over from Syria.

Iraqi security forces launched an assault in Anbar province in mid-July but have made limited gains. The Iraqi army and the Hashid Shaabi, Shiite paramilitaries trained by Iran, have been reinforcing around Ramadi with tanks and armored vehicles for an anticipated assault. For weeks, commanders on the ground have promised the attack would be launched in a few days' time.

The Iraqi military is also embroiled in an offensive to clear IS from Saladin province, and the Peshmerga have continued to make gains against the militants in Nineveh province. However, the Shia- and Kurd-heavy forces threaten to alienate the Sunni Arab populations in each of these provinces.

In April, the Hashid Shaabi -- whom U.S. Central Command denies working with -- was withdrawn from Tikrit after reports of looting and illegal killings in the majority Sunni town. While Sunni tribal fighters are helping the Baghdad government in its fight against IS, there is a threat the actions of Shia and Kurdish forces in Anbar, Saladin and Nineveh provinces will send more Sunni Arabs into alliance with IS.

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