Iraq and Syria weekly battlefield roundup

BAGHDAD,  Scores of people were killed in bombings and clashes with Islamic State forces in Iraq on Sunday, while in Syria, fighting between IS, the Syrian military and opposition rebels continued across the country.

A Syrian man looks for survivors amid destroyed houses following what local activists say was a Russian airstrike in the rebel-held area of Kallasah, on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, on Oct. 30, 2015. Fighting between the Islamic State, the Syrian military and opposition rebels continued across the country on Nov. 22, 2015, including in the Homs, al-Hasakah, Idlib and Aleppo provinces. International forces, meanwhile, including Russia and a U.S.-led coalition, continued conducting airstrikes against IS and other opposition forces in the country. Photos by Ameer Alhalbi/ UPI | License Photo















On the Battlefield

Baghdad and its surrounding areas had a violent week:

On Sunday, at least two people were killed and eight injured in a bomb blast “near a popular restaurant in Sabaa al-Bour area north of Baghdad,” a source with Iraq’s interior ministry told, adding security forces were searching for the perpetrators.

It is the latest such incident in Iraq’s capital, which absorbs bomb attacks nearly every day. Xinhua news agency, quoting a police source, reported five people were killed and 22 others injured in a suicide bombing at a Shiite shrine in the Yusufiyah area, south of Baghdad, as Friday morning prayers concluded.

On Thursday, an Iraqi interior ministry source told a blast near shops in the al-Dawra area south of Baghdad killed one person and injured five others, while in the al-Amin area, east of the capital, a bomb killed one person and injured eight others the same day.

Last Sunday, at least seven people were killed and 15 injured in a series of bomb attacks across Baghdad.

Meanwhile, tribes allied to the central Iraqi government had some success fighting ID in the provinces:

Meanwhile, Ali Ibrahim Dbon, the commander of al-Badiya and al-Jazeera Operations, told security forces on Sunday killed 35 IS fighters and freed 210 prisoners, mostly from the Al Bu Nimr tribe, in Umm Dibs, a village in the Haditha district west of Ramadi, the capital of western Iraq’s Anbar province.

Al Bu Nimr, a Sunni tribe allied with the Baghdad government, has long suffered heavy casualties against IS forces, either through clashes or mass executions. Last month, IS militants reportedly executed at least 70 members of the tribe due to their having relatives serving in Iraqi security forces, and hundreds more were killed in 2014 after IS seized large swaths of the country. Naeem Kawood, leader of the Al Bu Nimr tribe, last Sunday said his fighters, with help from the Iraqi army’s 7th Division and other anti-IS clans, destroyed an IS headquarters in the Albu Hayat area of Haditha, killing about 250 IS fighters.

In Syria, insurgents intensified their push to fight IS under the same banner, as Russian airstrikes continued to punish anti-Assad positions:

On Sunday, regime forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad battled IS insurgents around the town of Maheen, in Homs province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. IS captured the town early this month, putting the militants up to 8 miles from the main highway linking Homs province to the Syrian capital, Damascus. SOHR reported pro-Assad forces were also clashing with IS in areas west of Palmyra, the ancient ruins in Homs province captured by IS forces in May.

Battles between rebel coalitions and IS forces, meanwhile, continued in al-Hasakah province, to the east. The Syria Revolutionaries Front, an alliance of Free Syrian Army brigades and rebels with the Islamic Front, fought IS forces in the countryside of al-Hasakah province on Sunday, SOHR reported, while the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Arab, Assyrian and Kurdish rebel groups, continued battling IS in the same region. The SDF announced its formation in mid-October before launching an anti-IS offensive in al-Hasakah province, with support from U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, early this month. Last Tuesday, an array of rebel groups in northwestern Syria’s Aleppo and Idlib provinces — including Ahrar ash-Sham, a major cell within the Islamic Front that has been scrutinized by the United States for cooperating with the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s branch in Syria — offered to fight under the banner of SDF, which has not responded.

Russian warplanes on Sunday targeted suspected rebel positions in Idlib province, including west of the town of Jisr al-Shughour, which in April was captured from the Syrian military by a rebel alliance — including the Nusra Front — depriving pro-Assad forces of their last major urban stronghold in the province.

Since Russia intervened in Syria on Sept. 30, conducting airstrikes on behalf of pro-Assad troops, the Syrian military, backed also by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iranian forces, have launched a series of counter-offensives to regain territories lost earlier in the year. SOHR reported Sunday multiple clashes between regime forces and rebel groups across Aleppo province, including at the Kuwairis air base, which the Syrian military earlier this month re-captured after years of siege by IS militants.

SOHR reported at least five civilians were killed during Russian airstrikes in Idlib province Sunday — two days after it documented 403 civilians, including 97 children and 69 women, who were killed in Moscow’s air campaign. By comparison, at least 381 rebel fighters with Nusra Front, IS and other factions were also killed by Russian warplanes, according to SOHR.

Moscow on Friday said it was intensifying airstrikes against “terrorists” in Syria. Activists and Western leaders have accused Russia of focusing attacks against moderate rebel groups, instead of IS, in a bid to prop up Assad, but the BBC quotedU.S. Central Command spokesman Col. Patrick Ryder as saying Russian airstrikes in recent days targeted more IS areas, including the group’s oil infrastructure.


In Iraq, the Baghdad government has been conducting offensives, mainly in the north and west of the country, to regain territories lost to IS last year. Since mid-July, Iraqi forces, backed by Iran-trained Shia militias and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, have been on the attack in Anbar province but with limited gains. Security forces are amassing for a counter-attack on Ramadi, which IS forces seized in May. Coalition airstrikes have been pounding IS forces in and around the city, and Maj. Gen. Ismail Mahlawi, commander of operations in Anbar, on Nov. 10 said “artillery batteries and tanks” were among the reinforcements. Mahlawi said the operation would be “launched in the next few days after the completion of all preparations.” On Sunday, however, Maj. Gen. Hadi Rziyj, police chief of Anbar province, echoed that projection, saying “liberation of the city will be very soon, within days.”

Iraqi forces are also attempting to liberate Saladin province. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi last month announced a second phase of an offensive in the region that would target, among other locations, the IS-held oil refinery in the town of Baiji. In the first phase of the offensive, security forces seized the city of Tikrit in April with help from Shia militias and U.S. airstrikes.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces have also pushed back against IS in northern Iraq’s Nineveh province, capturing the city of Sinjar earlier this month and shutting off important IS supply routes from Syria. Sinjar also lies on a major road leading east toward the town of Tal Afar and the provincial capital, Mosul, which the Iraqi government has sought to re-capture after it was seized by IS forces last year.

In Syria, the Assad government — with help from Russian air power, Iranian troops, Iran-trained Shia fighters from Iraq, and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters — is attempting to regain ground lost to rebel forces after being pushed into the far western coastal provinces of Syria earlier this year. The U.S.-led coalition, meanwhile, has bombed IS forces almost exclusively in Syria for more than a year, conducting airstrikes in support of Kurdish forces known as People’s Defense Units, or the YPG, as well as moderate Arab rebel forces — most recently in al-Hasakah province on behalf of the SDF.

France, a member of the U.S. coalition, has stepped up airstrikes against IS, specifically in the group’s self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa province, following Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris that saw at least 130 people killed in a series of coordinated suicide bombings and shootings.

Besides the deployment of a limited number of Special Forces, Russia and the U.S.-led coalition have stopped short of sending ground troops into Syria.

The Obama administration pledged to ramp up the anti-IS air campaign following the Paris attacks, on Thursday deploying thousands of U.S. Marines and sailors into the Persian Gulf to join in airstrikes against IS in Iraq.

On Friday, U.S. Central Command said the United States’ current strategy — using coalition airstrikes and advisers to support friendly indigenous forces on the ground against IS — was proving successful.

“This combination of advising and assisting well-planned ground operations and providing them with precision strike capability is working,” Col. Ryder said, adding IS has “clearly lost ground where these forces are operating.”


Speaking at a news conference in Malaysia on Sunday, U.S. President Barack Obamareiterated the United States and its allies would destroy IS, go after its leaders and plug its funding, saying this was not not only a realistic goal, but one that was also achievable.

Obama’s vow comes as British Prime Minister David Cameron prepares to lay out a plan against IS in Syria following a U.K. Foreign Affairs Committee report that said Britain should not join the coalition effort in Syria without a coherent international strategy. However, The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday the British government plans to buy 138 Lockheed Martin F-35 jet fighters and aims to have 24 in operation by 2023.

On Saturday, meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution to “redouble” efforts against IS. According to the BBC, the French-drafted document calls for member states to “take all necessary measures” to “eradicate the safe haven” used by the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria.

By Fred Lambert