BAGHDAD, Dec. 20 (UPI) -- Back-and-forth fighting raged in Iraq and Syria last week as the international community prepared for upcoming peace talks.
Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad captured areas of the Aleppo and Latakia provinces on Sunday, activists and state news said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported regime troops, supported by Russian airstrikes and Lebanese Hezbollah militants, captured the town of Khan Touman in the southern countryside of Aleppo. According to SANA, pro-Assad forces captured the village of Qarassi, also in Aleppo province, as well as the village of al-Kabeer and other mountainous areas in Latakia province, heartland of Assad's ruling Alawite minority.
The Syrian military has been on the offensive in northwestern provinces such as Aleppo and Latakia since Russia began supporting pro-Assad forces with airstrikes in late September. Prior to Moscow's intervention, regime forces had been pushed by an alliance of rebel groups, including al-Qaida's Nusra Front, into positions in Syria's west.
Aleppo province, in particular, has been the scene of complex fighting between pro-Assad forces, the Free Syrian Army, Kurdish YPG units, the Islamic State and an array of other Islamist rebel groups. The Russian air force has pounded the province with continual airstrikes.
On Tuesday, SOHR reported 40 regime troops were killed in an attack by Nusra Front militants around the village of Banis in Aleppo's southern countryside. An unknown number of the insurgents were also killed in the assault.
Russia's defense ministry on Dec. 16 said it conducted 59 airstrikes in the Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia, Hama, Homs, Hasakah and Raqqah provinces over the past 24 hours.
Moscow insists it is attacking IS and other "terrorists" in Syria, but activists and Western officials accuse Russia of primarily targeting Assad's opposition -- including what are considered more moderate rebel forces -- rather than IS.
On Monday, regime forces made advances in the Hama province, just to the south of the Idlib and Aleppo provinces in northwestern Syria. Pro-Assad troops captured the towns of al-Masasina and al-Bowayda, losing nine soldiers and killing 22 rebels, according to SOHR.
On the same day even farther south, regime forces captured the Marj al-Sultan air base and the nearby village of the same name, as well as adjacent farmlands in Eastern Ghouta, an agricultural area in the Damascus countryside. The move ended more than three years of insurgent control over the air base, but militants with Jaish al-Islam, the largest rebel coalition in the area, by Friday claimed to have recaptured portions of the facility as well as six adjacent farms, killing 45 Syrian troops -- including two officers -- during three days of counter-attacking.
On Friday, U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition effort in Syria and Iraq, said the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed alliance of Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian rebel groups, were gathering in the city of Hawl to prepare for a push into Shaddadi, in northeastern Syria's Hasakah province.
After announcing its formation in late October, the SDF has been on the offensive against IS forces in the province, killing more than 500 of the militants and clearing more than 380 square miles of territory with the help of U.S. air power.
As rebel groups and pro-Assad forces engaged in a game of attack and counter-attack across Syria, both sides prepared for upcoming negotiations scheduled for Jan. 1.
On Friday, the United Nations Security Council met in New York and unanimously approved a draft resolution calling for a cease-fire and peace talks between the country's warring factions.
"This council is sending a clear message to all concerned that the time is now to stop the killing in Syria," U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said, adding it was "the first time we have been able to come together at the United Nations, in the Security Council, to embrace a road forward."
The United States, which opposes Assad, and Russia, an Assad ally, have traditionally been at odds over how to resolve the conflict. The proposal called for new government elections to be held no later than June 2017.
The agreement did not specify whether Assad would be a part of the process, but Syria's major rebel coalitions, all of which oppose Assad's continued rule, met earlier this month in Saudi Arabia and agreed on a framework for the January talks. At the Riyadh conference, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Abdel Al-Jubeir called on Assad to step down or be forcibly removed.
The Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition, which featured prominently at the Riyadh conference, on Friday said the Jan. 1 start date for the talks was unrealistic and called for an end to Russian airstrikes before negotiations could begin.
Adding to the complexity of the negotiations was the fact that several rebel cells in Syria -- including Kurdish forces and Arab militant groups considered to be terrorist organizations -- have been excluded from the peace process.
Iraqi security forces, backed by Iran-trained Shiite paramilitaries and coalition airstrikes, on Sunday began clearing the Albu Ziyab district in northern Ramadi. Maj. Gen. Ismail al-Mahalawi, commander of Iraqi forces in Anbar province, told IraqiNews.com encroaching security forces were encountering no resistance by IS militants.
Iraqi troops in recent weeks have been systematically recapturing Ramadi after IS forces seized the city in May. Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi on Saturday said Iraqi troops had consolidated control over Ramadi's northern axis but noted the Shiite militias, known as Hashid Shaabi, have featured prominently in the operation due to a "deficiency" among Iraqi military forces in the area.
Security forces earlier this month captured areas of northern and western Ramadi, including the al-Aramil and al-Tameen districts, as well as the Palestine Bridge and Anbar Operations Center. Iraqi officials on Friday said security forces had cleared 70 percent of the city.
However, the gains were not without push-back from IS. In a tactic favored by the militants, IS forces used suicide car bombs in coordination with infantry attacks in an attempt to regain territory in the city.
U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren said between Monday and Tuesday, IS militants temporarily pushed Iraqi troops from the Palestine Bridge in such an attack.
Warren said security forces, armed with U.S.-supplied AT-4 rockets, were able to repel a further assault against the Anbar Operations Center before regaining the bridge under cover of coalition airstrikes.
The BBC reported at least 20 soldiers and allied Sunni tribesmen were killed in the attack, while at least 15 IS fighters were killed in the ensuing gun battle. Another 15 soldiers and tribesmen were killed in a separate car bomb attack in the city's southwest.
Warren said coalition aircraft from five nations expended some 100 munitions during the overnight battle, including against excavators and other construction vehicles used to breach Iraqi defenses.
The Palestine Bridge in northern Ramadi is a strategically important position; on Monday, Ali Dawood, head councilman in the Khalidiya district, told IraqiNews.com IS forces had blown up "all the bridges and crossings surrounding the city of Ramadi" in an attempt to stymie the advance of pro-government troops. He said security forces were "working on developing alternative military methods to cross the Euphrates River."
A Dec. 19 statement by the Department of Defense indicated the U.S.-led coalition conducted 17 airstrikes in Iraq, including four in Ramadi that hit nine IS fighting positions, a car bomb, a sniper hide and a building used by the militants. Near Fallujah, also in Anbar province, the coalition conducted two airstrikes against IS fighting positions and vehicles -- including a front end loader -- but another strike was under investigation after it reportedly killed 10 Iraqi soldiers.
Elsewhere in the Anbar province, Warren said, coalition aircraft have worked in conjunction with Iraqi forces on the ground between the cities of Hit and Haditha to isolate Ramadi, Fallujah and the entire Euphrates River Valley.
In the Saladin province, farther north, an Iraqi drone strike reportedly destroyed three IS vehicles west of an island near the city of Samarra on Sunday. On Friday, Warren said Iraqi security forces continued clearing the mountainous area north of the city of Baiji, home to the county's largest oil refinery.
Meanwhile, an official with the Kurdish Peshmerga told IraqiNews.com coalition airstrikes killed at least 14 IS militants riding four captured Humvees north of Mosul, the IS-held capital of the Nineveh province, on Saturday. The Department of Defense reported four airstrikes near Mosul the same day, including against IS vehicles and fighting positions.
The day prior, Peshmerga units and their Canadian advisers repelled an IS assault in the same area, killing at least 70 of the militants and destroying a number of vehicles. Maj. Gen. Charles Lamarre, director of Canada's Strategic Joint Staff, said he was surprised by the size of the attack, which was the largest firefight in which Canadian forces have been involved in the region.
Bomb attacks in Baghdad -- which typically occur multiple times each week -- continued on Sunday, killing one Hashid Shaabi member and injuring five others in the Dora area, south of the capital, while a separate blast killed two people and injured six others at a market in the nearby Madain district.
Violence between pro-Baghdad forces and IS coincided with reports of Turkey pulling troops out of a base near Mosul after protests by the Iraqi government. The Turkish military deployed about 150 soldiers to the base earlier this month to protect trainers that had been established there with coordination through Baghdad for more than a year. The Iraqi government protested the issue through the U.N., saying the recent deployment was a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.
On Monday, a 10- or 12-vehicle convoy had reportedly left the camp and headed north. On Friday, Turkey released a statement reiterating "support for Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity," saying it was continuing to move troops out of the Nineveh province. It characterized the dispute as a "miscommunication."
The Iraqi government and its allies in the U.S. coalition and Iran-trained Hashid Shaabi are fighting continued offensives to regain territories lost to IS forces that spilled over from Syria last year, particularly in the Anbar, Saladin and Nineveh provinces.
Since mid-July the Iraqi military, the Hashid Shaabi and allied Sunni militias have fought to recapture the Anbar province, especially Ramadi, the provincial capital. Recent thrusts by security forces into the city have produced the most significant gains, but IS still holds the center of the city behind a complex defense of improvised explosive devices and urban strongholds.
Iraqi forces have throughout the year conducted two phases of an offensive in the Saladin province, capturing the provincial capital, Tikrit, in April, and the city of Baiji and its surrounding areas in recent months. Warren said clearing operations are currently focused north of Baiji, in the Makhmour Mountains.
The most significant IS-held city in Iraq is Mosul, capital of the Nineveh province, where Iraqi Peshmerga forces have played a prominent role on the ground against IS. The Peshmerga, supported by coalition airstrikes, captured the city of Sinjar last month, cutting off a major road linking Mosul to IS territories in Syria.
"That was an important objective, and that couldn't have been accomplished without them," U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday, noting the Peshmerga was the type of indigenous fighting force needed to accelerate the defeat of IS.
However, determined IS counter-attacks in the Anbar, Saladin and Nineveh provinces led U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren on Friday to concede the militants "have still got some fight left in them."