BAGHDAD, Government forces in Syria and Iraq, backed by Russian and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, continued offensive operations against insurgents in various locations across both countries throughout last week.
The Syrian military on Sunday clashed with Islamic State militants around the Kuwairis air base in the Aleppo province, in northwestern Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Last month regime forces broke through to the base, which IS militants had besieged for years.
Syrian state news on Saturday reported regime troops seized a village where IS forces were gathering northeast of the facility.
Recent fighting around the air base — and in areas throughout Aleppo province — has been ongoing since forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad went on the offensive in October with support from Russian airstrikes.
SOHR said regime troops, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and pro-Assad militiamen, on Saturday battled allied rebel forces — including al-Qaida’s Nusra Front — across the southern countryside of the province, while U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters with the YPG fought with Islamist rebels north of Aleppo city, the provincial capital.
The Syrian military also captured villages and forested areas in Latakia province, east and northeast of the provincial capital, SANA reported on Saturday.
The same day, activists and state news both confirmed pro-Assad troops gained control of the village of Marhatan, west of Palmyra, in Homs province.
In May, IS militants seized Palmyra from the Syrian military, which has fought to regain the city ever since. The militants have demolished several artifacts within the ancient ruins and executed hundreds of people there, including on Tuesday when IS fighters publicly executed at least 18 people suspected of either cooperating with the Syrian military or serving in its ranks.
Russian and Syrian airstrikes, meanwhile, targeted rebel forces throughout various provinces in the country.
At least 32 IS fighters were killed and another 40 injured during airstrikes in and around the group’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa on Sunday. SOHR said the U.S.-led coalition, which has since September 2014 bombed IS forces in Syria, was behind the strikes, but the BBC quoted other activist groups as saying Russian warplanes were behind the attack.
The IS losses came one day after Syrian state news reported a Jordanian-born Nusra Front commander was killed in a roadside bombing in the eastern countryside of Dara province.
Following Russia’s intervention on behalf of Assad on Sept. 30, the Syrian military — backed by Russian airstrikes, Hezbollah fighters, Iranian troops, Iraqi Shia paramilitaries and other allied militiamen — has since October launched offensives across Syria in an attempt to regain territories captured by insurgents throughout the year, particularly in the northwestern provinces.
Russia conducts airstrikes from a base in Latakia province, home to Assad’s ruling minority Alawite sect. Previous to Moscow’s intervention, the Syrian military had lost all of its urban strongholds in Idlib province and had been pushed into Latakia, on Syria’s west coast, by an alliance of rebel groups that included Nusra Front.
Russia and Syria say a majority of their airstrikes target IS forces, but that assertion has been challenged by the United States, activists and other Western powers, who accuse the Russia-Syria coalition of mainly bombing moderate rebel groups.
On Wednesday, the BBC quoted Assad as saying IS has expanded since the U.S.-led operation began and that Russian airstrikes had been more successful at reducing the group.
The Russian defense ministry said it conducted 431 airstrikes against rebel positions across Syria between Nov. 26 and Dec. 4.
Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov on Wednesday said Turkey — which shot down a Russian fighter jet that it accused of violating Turkish airspace earlier this month — was complicit in the IS oil trade.
Antonov said family members of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan bought and re-sold oil seized by the group in Syria and Iraq, and that Turkey shot down the jet because Russian sorties had been directed at IS oil infrastructure. Erdogan denied the charges and volunteered to resign if Moscow could prove the claims.
On Thursday, British parliament voted to join coalition airstrikes against IS in Syriaafter a lengthy debate. Later that night, Royal Air Force Typhoon jets began targetingan oil field held by IS fighters.
Britain’s commitment came one day before German parliament followed suit and voted to lend forces to the anti-IS coalition in a non-combat support role.
Prime Minister David Cameron, making the case for joining the coalition effort in Syria, had earlier said there were up to 70,000 fighters in Syria who opposed Assad and did not belong to extremist groups, and that the U.S.-led coalition — which opposes both Assad and IS — could work with these groups to reach a diplomatic settlement for Syria’s future.
On Tuesday, Salah Jamil, the spokesman of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, told Xinhua news agency his group’s main goal was to evict IS fighters from northern Syria.
The YPG is part of a U.S.-backed rebel alliance in eastern Syria known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian rebel groups. Since October the SDF has made gains against IS in the al-Hasakah province with help from coalition airstrikes, but Turkey and some Arab groups have expressed concern the Kurds are attempting to consolidate territories into the greater Kurdish area in northeastern Syria.
Six police officers were injured in a bomb attack against a patrol in western Baghdad on Sunday — one day after seven civilians were injured in a similar attack near a fruit and vegetable shop in a northern district of the capital. On Friday, two people were killed and eight injured when an improvised explosive device detonated near a cafesouth of Baghdad, where such attacks are a near daily occurrence.
In Iraq’s western Anbar province on Saturday, Iraqi security forces said they repelled a coordinated IS assault against the Palestine Bridge, north of Ramadi, the provincial capital. Maj. Gen. Ismail al-Mahalawi, commander of Iraqi forces in Anbar, told IraqiNews.com security forces, backed by coalition air power, killed 10 of the militants and destroyed an incoming car bomb. Iraqi security forces seized the Palestine Bridge on Nov. 25 in what is seen as the initial thrust in a much-anticipated assault on Ramadi, which IS militants captured in May.
Elsewhere in Anbar, Iraqi jets on Saturday destroyed at least 16 tanks operated by IS forces near the Syrian border, where the militants were reportedly attempting to use the vehicles to smuggle oil.
The same day, Iraqi security forces killed 30 IS fighters and disarmed more than 40 explosive devices east of Ramadi, a commander in the area told IraqiNews.com.
The U.S.-led coalition, meanwhile, continued bombing IS forces across the country. The U.S. Department of Defense on Sunday reported conducting 17 airstrikes in Iraq, with most being carried out near Mosul and Ramadi.
The Iraqi government and its allies in the U.S.-led coalition are working to push IS militants out of western and northern Iraq, most recently through offensives in the Nineveh, Saladin and Anbar provinces.
Since mid-July, Baghdad has directed an offensive in Anbar province after Iraqi troops fled from attacking IS militants in Ramadi earlier in the summer. The operation has yielded limited gains, and Iraqi forces have moved slow in their attempt to re-capture the city, building up armor and troops in the surrounding areas and seizing a bridge north of Ramadi late last month.
Iraqi ground forces are supported by coalition airstrikes but also by Iran-trained Shia militias known as the Hashid Shaabi. U.S. officials deny working with the Tehran-linked paramilitaries, though both entities have been instrumental in Iraqi military success in places such as Tikrit, the provincial capital of Saladin province, which was captured from IS in April.
In the Nineveh province, in northern Iraq, Kurdish forces, with aid from coalition air power, last month captured the city of Sinjar, cutting off a vital IS supply road running from Mosul, the provincial capital, to Syria.
On Friday, however, officials with the United Nations expressed concern about abuses by Kurds against local Sunni Arabs accused of supporting IS. The BBC quoted U.N. spokeswoman Cecile Pouilly as saying “Iraqi security forces and Kurdish security forces and their respected affiliated militias have been responsible for looting and destruction of property belonging to Sunni Arab communities, forced evictions, abductions, illegal detention and, in some cases, extrajudicial killings.”
In April, similar accusations were leveled at the Hashid Shaabi following the re-capture of Tikrit, stirring concerns about Sunni Arabs being enticed toward alliance with IS.
On Saturday, meanwhile, Iraq’s foreign ministry called for Turkey to withdraw 150 troops deployed around Mosul. The Turkish military has since July conducted attacks inside Iraqi soil against militants with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK — which is considered a terrorist group by the European Union and United States, unlike other Kurdish groups, such as the Iraqi Pesherga and the Syrian YPG, which have been key allies on the ground against IS.
However, 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.
“This camp was established as a training camp for a force of local volunteers fighting terrorism,” the BBC quoted Davutoglu as saying.
The office of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi released a statement calling the troops deployment a “serious breach of Iraqi sovereignty” and demanded Turkey “respect good neighborly relations and to withdraw immediately from the Iraqi territory.”
Turkey is a member of the U.S.-led coalition against IS but only conducts airstrikes against the group in Syria.
The coalition has since August 2014 conducted an air campaign against IS forces in Iraq. As of Dec. 1, DOD tallied 5,639 strikes against the group inside Iraqi borders, 3,916 of which were conducted by U.S. warplanes.
“We’re expending munitions faster than we can replenish them,” Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh said on Saturday. “We need the funding in place to ensure we’re prepared for the long fight. This is a critical need.”
Air Force officials noted Congress recently approved $400 million to replenish stockpiles of Hellfire missiles and other munitions used against IS.
The announcement came four days after U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said additional Special Operations forces would be deployed to Iraq as part of a “specialized expeditionary targeting force” that would assist indigenous forces against IS.
By Fred Lambert