Iraqi soldiers sit atop an armored vehicle during fighting with Islamic State militants in Tikrit, Iraq, on April 1, 2015. Photo by Alaa Mohamed/UPI | License Photo
BAGHDAD, Jan. 24 (UPI) -- Last week, fighting between security forces and Islamic State militants in Iraq's Anbar province continued alongside clashes across the border in neighboring Syria -- where the United States and Russia could be setting up new air bases.
Russia is reportedly establishing a presence in more air bases across Syria besides the currently used Hmeimim air base in Latakia province.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group monitoring the civil war, on Friday reported the Russian military was evaluating another facility in the neighboring Aleppo province. The Syrian military broke through to the besieged Kuwairis air base in November, ending months of militant assaults against the position. A 15-man team of experts is now reportedly evaluating the facility, which was damaged in the battle, to see if it can be used to launch future air sorties.
Russian forces are also expanding the al-Shayrat air base, located in the countryside southeast of the capital of Homs province, according to SOHR. The facility will reportedly by used by Russian warplanes in operations around the IS-held city of Palmyra.
Another Russian team is inspecting a regime-held airfield in the city of Qamishli, located in the northern part of al-Hasakah province, CNN quoted two unnamed U.S. officials as saying on Thursday. SOHR confirmed the report.
"We don't know what their intent is, but it is something we are watching closely," one official said.
Al-Hasakah province is an area mainly controlled by a U.S.-backed coalition of Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian rebel groups known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, which has since last fall fought under cover of U.S. airstrikes to clear IS forces from the province.
According to reports citing local sources, U.S. troops are making expansions of their own at the Rmeilan air base, also located in al-Hasakah province. SOHR, quoting multiple source in the province, reported Tuesday that workers had for weeks been using vehicles to increase the size of the runway, where U.S. helicopters could be seen taking off and landing. SOHR said the airfield will be a launching point for further air operations against IS and would headquarter U.S. military advisers who entered Syria last year.
An SDF spokesman told Al Jazeera the Kurdish rebel group known as the People's Protection Units, or YPG, handed U.S. forces control of the air base.
"The purpose of this deal is to back up the SDF, by providing weapons and an air base for U.S. warplanes," Taj Kordsh said on Tuesday. "This airport was previously controlled by the YPG for over two years now. This strategic airport is close to several oil bases -- one of the biggest in this area."
But, U.S. Central Command denied U.S. forces had taken control of any air bases in Syria.
"Our location and troop strength remains small and in keeping with what was previously briefed by the secretary of defense," a CENTCOM spokesman told CNN on Friday. "That said, U.S. forces in Syria are consistently looking for ways to increase efficiency for logistics and personnel recovery support, but there has been no change to the size or mission."
Meanwhile, fighting between insurgents and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad continued across Syria throughout the week.
The Syrian military, backed by Hezbollah fighters and Russian officers, recaptured the town of Rabiaa on Sunday. The town, located near the Turkish border in Latakia province, had been a retreat point for rebels fleeing from Salma, a nearby town captured by pro-Assad forces earlier this month.
Regime troops backed by Russian airstrikes on Friday were reportedly pushing back and making gains against counter-attacks by rebels -- including Nusra Front, al-Qaida's Syria affiliate -- in the Jabal al-Akrad mountains, much of which can be controlled by fire from Salma, according to SOHR.
On Thursday, Syrian state news reported pro-Assad forces targeted IS militants in a village near the southwestern city of Sweida and was fighting rebel groups, including Nusra Front, Jaish al-Fatah and Ahrar al-Sham, in the Daraa, Idlib and Hama provinces.
On Wednesday, SOHR reported three-way fighting continued in Aleppo province among pro-government forces, IS and other rebel groups. Regime troops battled rebel forces north of the provincial capital and near Khan Toman, which the rebels captured earlier this month. IS also clashed with the Syrian military in the town of Shekh Ahmad, nearby the Kuwairis air base. Fighting was also reported between pro-Assad troops and IS near Tadmur, which is adjacent to the ancient ruins of Palmyra in Homs province, and between the U.S.-backed SDF and IS forces in the southern countryside of al-Hasakah province.
On Monday, IS forces continued taking regime-held positions -- including a supply road -- in and around the besieged city of Deir Ezzor, where the militants reportedly took hundreds of civilians prisoner earlier this month. On Wednesday, IS reportedly released 270 of the detainees, including women, children and men older than 55. The remaining military age males will be investigated and dealt with in Sharia courts if it is found they collaborated with the Syrian government. The following day, SOHR reported more than 400 people on both sides had been killed in Deir Ezzor over the prior five-day period.
The Syrian military, with support from Iran and especially Russia, continues to strengthen its position ahead of peace talks scheduled in Geneva this week.
Recent battlefield gains in Latakia province have represented a deep contrast to the position of the Syrian military one year ago, when it had been pushed into Syria's western coastal provinces by a series of rebel offensives. In capturing Salma earlier this month, pro-Assad forces gained a strategically important vantage point over the surrounding Jabal al-Akrad mountains and a launch point for Monday's attack into Rabiaa. The Jabal al-Akrad is inhabited by Sunni Muslims in a province which is mainly populated by Assad's ruling minority Alawite sect.
Further consolidation over Latakia province -- which is also home to a major Russian air base -- could allow the Syrian military to attempt regaining control over the neighboring Idlib province, where a rebel coalition seized all major Syrian government strongholds early in 2015.
Much of the Syrian government's recent success is due to Russian air support. Likewise, since its inception last fall, the SDF has enjoyed a slew of battlefield successes against IS in al-Hasakah province and in areas north of the militants' capital of Raqqa, largely with help from airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition. If U.S. and Russian air power does expand into other air bases in Syria, both powers will be in a better position to provide airstrikes, medical evacuations and supply drops for their chosen proxies.
Disagreements at the UN -- namely between the United States and Russia -- over which rebel groups would be represented at the Geneva talks delayed the Jan. 25 start date, but U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed optimism the negotiations would commence this week.
Saudi Arabia held a conference last month in which major rebel groups devised a unified front for the negotiations, but Kurdish rebel cells and Islamic extremist groups such as the Nusra Front were not invited. The Syrian government previously said it would join the talks but wanted to know if the summit would be attended by "terrorists" -- a blanket term used by Damascus and Moscow in referring to all of Syria's opposition. Previous attempts at negotiations have failed over what has been seen as obstinance on behalf of the Assad government in allowing rebel groups a seat at the table.
On Wednesday, Mohammed Alloush, leader of rebel group Jaish al-Islam -- which differs little from IS, Moscow has argued -- was named as the chief rebel negotiator. The group previously said it wanted the Assad government out and an Islamic state in its place, but its former leader -- who was killed in a Russian airstrike last month -- later softened his stance, saying the Syrian people should decide their future.
Earlier this month, Syrian rebel groups reportedly said they would reject the Geneva talks if Articles 12 and 13 of a recent U.N. resolution, which call for all sides in Syria's conflict to allow humanitarian access to besieged cities, were not fully implemented. On Thursday, Syria's foreign minister expressed the government's willingness to work with the UN on humanitarian issues but warned against such items being used to serve "special political agendas far from the humanitarian purpose."
Iraqi security forces battled with IS militants east and west of the city of Ramadi on Sunday, officials said. Police repelled a coordinated IS infantry and car bomb assault southwest of the city and conducted preemptive attacks against IS positions in the Husaibyah area, east of Ramadi, federal police Chief Raed Shakir Jawdat told IraqiNews.com. Additionally, police on Sunday apprehended at least 190 local residents suspected of having links to IS. Anbar police chief Maj. Gen. Hadi Rezeig told IraqiNews.com investigators are determining whether the suspects helped IS target civilians and security forces in Ramadi.
Security forces have engaged small pockets of the insurgents after seizing most of the city late last month.
On Thursday, at least 31 IS fighters were reportedly killed in coalition airstrikes and ground clashes north and west of Ramadi. The same day, police said they killed 13 of the militants during a raid in the Husaibyah area to the east, including four mortar teams, and destroyed a nearby tunnel containing dead militants and explosive materials.
Violence in Ramadi on Sunday coincided with a remote bomb attack that killed one person and injured six others in southern Baghdad. Three days prior, a similar attack killed three people and injured seven others north of the capital.
Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition in and around the IS-held city of Mosul, in the Nineveh province, killed at least 18 IS militants, Kurdish officials said on Saturday. Another coalition airstrike reportedly killed 25 of the militants in the same area on Thursday. The U.S. Defense Department confirmed it conducted three airstrikes near Mosul on Sunday, and U.S. Central Command said three were launched against IS positions in the same area Thursday.
U.S. officials said satellite photos released Wednesday showed IS had destroyed a 1,400-year-old Christian monastery near Mosul, adding to a growing list of ancient sites demolished by the group under the charge of idolatry.
Officials in Baghdad, meanwhile, said Iraqi aircraft conducted an airstrike that killed 21 IS militants -- including the commander of a suicide bomber unit -- near Tikrit, in the Saladin province, on Sunday.
The Iraqi government and its allies in the U.S.-led coalition have their sites set on Mosul, the capital of the Nineveh province and the most significant of IS holdings in the country.
A recent string of battlefield victories for the Baghdad government have been hard won and not without outside assistance. The Ramadi operation saw a high degree of coalition air power being utilized against the insurgents, and the Kurdish Peshmerga was the main ground force in the fight to retake Sinjar in November.
Additionally, Iran-supported Shia militias known as Hashid Shaabi proved more effective than regular Iraqi military forces in the operation to recapture Tikrit in March and April 2015. These boosts have been double-sided: More than 60 percent of Ramadi was destroyed, Kurdish forces have been accused of systematically destroying the homes of Arabs suspected of collaborating with IS, and Baghdad pulled the Hashid Shaabi from Tikrit after reports of looting, arson and illegal killings in the majority Sunni town.
Reprisals against Sunnis by Shia militias in Diyala province earlier this month following an IS bomb attack has added to the sectarian tensions. Such incidents have stoked anxiety about Iraq's Sunni populace being pushed into alliance with IS.
Still, plans for the upcoming push on Mosul are being laid out. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said earlier this month that the "campaign plan's map has got big arrows pointing to both Mosul and Raqqa."
The strategy calls for the Kurds -- who isolated a key supply road linking Mosul to Syria last year -- to push in from the north, while the Iraqi military assaults from the south. Coalition aircraft will meanwhile continue to target IS positions and the militants' financial infrastructure, including oil convoys and reserves.
On Friday, U.S. military officials said they were considering deploying U.S. troops to bases north of Baghdad to assist local forces in the upcoming battle for Mosul. A day later, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi reportedly asked Carter for additional U.S. support in training Iraqi police forces to maintain control over cities captured from IS.