BAGHDAD, Dec. 13 (UPI) -- Despite ongoing military offensives, Iraq and Syria saw both positive and negative developments on the diplomatic front last week.
More than 30 people were killed Sunday in the eastern Damascus countryside as rebels and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad targeted each other with indirect fire. Syrian state news reported at least six people were killed and more than 40 injured during rebel mortar and rocket attacks on government-held neighborhoods, while activists say at least 28 people were killed in airstrikes on the rebel-held outskirts of the capital.
The BBC quoted Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, as saying it was not clear whether Russian or Syrian warplanes carried out the strikes.
Russia has conducted air attacks in Syria since Sept. 30 on behalf of Assad, its regional ally, enabling government forces to conduct ongoing counter-offensives across the country. A medley of rebel groups, including al-Qaida's Nusra Front, had earlier in the year pushed pro-Assad forces largely into Syria's western provinces.
At least 13 fighters from Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which has backed Assad since the civil war broke out in 2011, were reportedly killed Sunday during clashes with rebels in the southern countryside of Aleppo province, in northwestern Syria.
The casualties came a day after state news reported pro-Assad forces captured a string of villages in Aleppo's southern countryside -- as well as mountainous territory in northern Latakia province, heartland of Assad's ruling Alawite minority.
The Russian defense ministry on Dec. 9 said it conducted 82 combat sorties in Syria over the past 24 hours, engaging 204 rebel positions in the Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia, Hama and Homs provinces. The day prior, a Russian submarine in the Mediterranean launched missiles against insurgent positions inside Syria for the first time.
U.S.-led coalition forces, which have conducted airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria since September 2014, struck seven IS positions across the country on Sunday, the U.S. Department of Defense reported.
Three days prior, U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the coalition effort, announced the killing in November of three IS leaders, including the group's finance minister, Abu Salah.
Warren also said the Syrian Democratic Forces -- a U.S.-backed alliance of Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian rebel groups -- captured the villages of Kan and Suwy on Monday as they advanced on the city of Shadaddi in northeastern Syria's al-Hasakah province. The SDF announced its formation in late October before launching an offensive to clear IS militants from the province.
During the five-week campaign, Warren said, the SDF has seized more than 380 square miles and coordinated with coalition forces for 142 airstrikes that killed an estimated 500 IS fighters and destroyed 143 fighting positions, 43 vehicles and one checkpoint used by the militants.
Two days later, a local cease-fire agreement between rebels and government forces in the besieged Waer neighborhood of Homs city took effect, and at least 800 people -- including Nusra Front militants and IS supporters who did not agree to the truce -- were relocated or allowed safe passage into Hama and Idlib provinces as much-needed relief materials, such as food and medical supplies, were brought in.
On Saturday, SOHR activists reported a truck loaded with humanitarian aid was observed entering the neighborhood -- but a suicide bomber killed eight people and injured at least 38 in an Alawite neighborhood elsewhere in the city.
As Russian and Iranian intervention has bolstered the might of pro-Assad forces, major rebel groups in Syria are seeking a unified front for upcoming negotiations with the government.
Representatives from the main rebel groups -- including the moderate Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition and other conservative Islamist groups, such as Jaish al-Islam -- met in Saudi Arabia's capital Tuesday to agree on a framework for the January talks.
On Thursday, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Abdel Al-Jubeir called on Assad to step down or be forcibly removed.
The same day, the groups reached agreement on the guiding principles of the talks, calling for a "pluralistic regime that represents all sectors." Conservative Islamic group Ahrar al-Sham -- part of Jaish al-Fatah, an alliance that includes Nusra Front -- was reported to have backed out of the conference, but other reports suggested the group signed off on the statement after the two-day meeting.
The Nusra Front and Syrian Kurdish rebel groups were not invited to the conference, but the SDF announced the formation of a political wing known as the Syrian Democratic Council during a separate conference in al-Hasakah province on Thursday.
Abu Mohammed al-Goulani, the Nusra Front's leader, reportedly called the Riyadh conference a "conspiracy" to revive Assad's regime.
Many world powers involved in recent talks in Vienna -- including Assad's allies, Russia and Iran -- want to see peace negotiations between rebels and the Syrian government begin by at least Jan. 1.
World leaders are hoping to replicate local cease-fires such as the Waer agreement across Syria in a bid to end the four-year civil war, which has claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people.
Iraqi security forces, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, are conducting an ongoing offensive to recapture the city of Ramadi, which IS fighters seized in May.
On Saturday Iraqi troops reportedly cleared the al-Aramil neighborhood, killing 22 militants.
"The security forces are working to dismantle the explosive devices and booby-trapped houses in al-Aramil neighborhood to ensure progress to the depth of the other regions in Ramadi," Ali Dawood, head councilman of the Khalidiya district, told IraqiNews.com.
On Friday, about 500 Iran-trained Shiite paramilitaries, known as Hashid Shaabi, joined with the Iraqi military to begin assaulting an island on the Euphrates River in northern Ramadi.
The thrusts come after security forces captured the al-Tameen district in western Ramadi on Tuesday. The same day, Iraqi forces pressed south from the Palestine Bridge -- which they captured late last month -- and seized the Anbar operations center in the city's north, U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren said.
The assault on Ramadi has been months in the making. In mid-July, Baghdad announced an offensive to clear IS forces from western Iraq's Anbar province, of which Ramadi is the capital, but until recently the effort produced only limited gains.
The Iraqi military on Tuesday said it had consolidated control of up to 60 percent of Ramadi.
Elsewhere in Anbar province, coalition aircraft on Sunday reportedly killed 12 IS fighters after conducting an airstrike on a car bomb factory in the town of Hit, Xinhua news agency quoted a security source as saying.
The Department of Defense on Dec. 13 reported the coalition conducted 15 airstrikes in Iraq, including near the Anbar province cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, but did not make mention of IS forces being targeted near Hit.
Meanwhile, two people were killed and six injured in a bomb attack at a market northeast of Baghdad on Friday -- two days after a suicide bomber killed 11 people and injured 20 at a Shiite mosque in the capital's al-Obeidi district.
Amid violence between IS and the Baghdad government, Turkish warplanes attacked positions held by militants with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, near the Turkish border in northern Iraq on Saturday.
The Iraqi government -- along with its allies in the U.S.-led coalition, the Hashid Shaabi and Kurdish Peshmerga -- are attempting to push IS out of territories it consolidated after spilling over from Syria last year.
Developments in the assault on Ramadi have occurred in rapid fire in recent weeks after Iraqi security forces slowly built up armor and troops in the surrounding area. Other offensive efforts in the past weeks have been focused in the Saladin and Nineveh provinces, north of Anbar.
Tensions have meanwhile been rising between the Baghdad government and Turkey over the presence of Turkish troops near Mosul, in northern Iraq. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the troops in question were sent on a routine deployment rotation that was coordinated with Baghdad a year ago, noting the "camp was established as a training camp for a force of local volunteers fighting terrorism," but Iraqi officials made formal complaints to the United Nations over the issue.
"Iraq has the right to resort to the U.N. Security Council and demand the withdrawal of the Turkish troops from Iraqi territory," Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq's foreign minister, said in a statement.
IraqiNews.com quoted Jan Kubis, representative of the U.N. secretary general, as saying the U.N. "is considering what has been done by Turkey as a violation of sovereignty." Kubis reportedly spoke with the Turkish ambassador in Baghdad on the need to resolve the issue.
The Turkish military has since July conducted attacks inside Iraqi soil against the PKK, which is considered a terrorist group by the European Union and United States, unlike other Kurdish groups, such as the Iraqi Peshmerga and the Syrian YPG, which have been key allies on the ground against IS.
Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- who led a militant group known as the "Mahdi Army" against U.S. troops during the American occupation -- on Saturday threatened to intervene if Baghdad did not do something about the presence of Turkish troops in the country.
"Everyone knows that we fought the U.S. occupation and its allies," IraqiNews.com quoted Sadr as saying. "The Turkish occupation is on the doors and there are some parties that confront them ... the Sadrist movement is watching what these parties do, and if they fail their duty, we will intervene."