Fierce clashes broke out in Damascus this week after rebel fighters infiltrated the city through tunnels, breaching the regime's security perimeter. The surprise offensive marked a rare advance after months of steady losses for rebel forces across Syria. The Iraqi Shi'ite militia Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba announced that it has joined pro-regime forces in the defense of Jobar and Abbasin districts, the outlying areas that came under attack. The militia is said to be effectively led by officers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, against ponting to Tehran's critical role in support of the Bashar Assad regime.
Iraqi security forces suspended military operations to retake western Mosul from ISIS due to the increased number of civilian casualties after a series of deadly coalition air-strikes. An estimated 200 civilians were killed were killed in US-led air-raids over the past days, with the deadliest incident in al-Jadida neighborhood March 17, according to on-the-ground monitoring group Mosul Eye. Reports indicate a coalition air-strike hit three houses filled with explosives laid by ISIS where the militants had gathered large numbers of civilians as human shileds. The Pentagon says the strike on the target was called in by Iraqi commanders. If confirmed, the series of air-strikes would rank among the highest civilian death tolls in a US-led air mission since the United States went to war in Iraq in 2003. The Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights reports that more than 500 civilians have been killed in coalition air-strikes in the Mosul campaign. (Military Times, NYT, The Guardian, Rudaw, Kurdistan24, Iraqi News)
A new Qaeda affiliate in Syria has claimed responsibility for a March 11 double bomb attack targeting Shi'ite pilgrims in Damascus that killed at least 40 Iraqis and wounded 120 more. Footage broadcast by Syrian state TV showed two buses with their windows blown out, the surroundings splattered with blood and littered with lost shoes and clothing. The attack took place near Bab al-Saghir cemetery, named for one of the seven gates of the Old City of Damascus. The pilgrims had arrived to pray at the cemetery after visiting the Sayeda Zeinab shrine outside Damascus, where the grand-daughter of the Prophet Mohammad is said to be buried. In a statement claiming responsibility, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Liberation of the Levant Organization) said the attack was "a message to Iran" over its support for the Bashar Assad regime. The group is identified as a breakaway faction of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the former Nusra Front) that has maintained ties with al-Qaeda. (BBC News, Reuters)
The Pentagon is dispatching some 2,500 ground combat troops to a staging base in Kuwait, from where they are expected to be mobilized to back up forces fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The deployment includes elements of the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, based at Fort Bragg, NC. About 1,700 troops from the same unit are already overseas, spread between Iraq and Kuwait. (Army Times, March 9) The US currently has only some 500 troops authorized to operate in Syria, predominantly Special Forces, and it is unclear if this new deployment breaches that threshold. However, the US Special Forces in Syria are increasingly tasked with keeping peace between Kurdish and Turkish forces rather than actually fighting ISIS. Special Forces are currently deployed at Manbij in what the Pentagon calls a mission to "reassure and deter"—interpreted as providing a buffer between Kurdish-led and Turkish-led forces, to prevent open conflict between them. (Military Times, March 6)
Free Syrian Army militia backed by Turkish forces took the Syrian city of al-Bab from ISIS militants Feb. 23, although fighting continues in some districts. The ISIS fighters withdrew via a route left open for them by the commanders of Operation Euphrates Shield, the joint Turkish-FSA campaign. (Rudaw, Feb. 23) As US-led Iraqi and Kurdish forces close the circle on ISIS in Mosul, the Syrian Democratic Forces continue their advance on Raqqa. The US commander in Iraq predicts the imminent taking of both Mosul and Raqqa. "Within the next six months, I think we'll see both conclude," said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend outside Baghdad Feb. 8. The enemy is "overwhelmed anywhere that they are," added Col. John Dorrian, spokesperson for the US-led Combined Joint Taskforce. (Rudaw, Feb. 8)
This week's recapture of the Wadi Barada enclave outside Damascus by the Bashar Assad regime's forces points to a deft strategy by the regime and its Russian backers. The valley had been excluded from the supposed "ceasefire" because of the presence there of a small number of fighters from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—the former Nusra Front, which was officially excluded from the ceasefire. This means, effectively, the ceasefire not only doesn't apply to ex-Nusra, but also does not apply to any forces that have (often of necessity) allied with ex-Nusra—or even that just happen to be near ex-Nusra and not actively fighting them. This strategy seems to have had the desired effect. Nusra's former ally, Ahrar al-Sham, is now reported to have turned on Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, sparking an internal civil war within rebel-held areas of Idlib governorate. (Al Jazeera, Feb. 2; Al Jazeera, Jan. 29)
Three thousand internally displaced persons (IDPs) are fleeing the embattled city of Mosul on a daily basis since the second phase of military operations to liberate the ISIS stronghold began in late December, according to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). "As the war intensifies inside Mosul city and civilians run out of food, medicine, water and power, the number of refugees taking shelter in the Kurdistan Region has doubled over the past 10 days," Hoshang Mohammed, director of the KRG's Joint Crisis Coordination Center (JCC), announced on Jan. 15, "Three thousand have been displaced on a daily basis, 70 percent of whom have come to the Kurdistan Region."
Several militias operating in Iraq have been committing war crimes—using weapons manufactured in 16 different countries, including the US, Russia, China and Iran—according to a report (PDF) issued Jan. 5 by Amnesty International. The report discusses the actions of four particular militia groups—Munathamat Badr (Badr Brigades or Badr Organization), 'Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), Kata'ib Hizbullah (Hizbullah Brigades) and the Saraya al-Salem (Peace Brigades). These militias operate under the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) in Iraq, which include 40 or 50 distinct militias. Iraq's prime minister designated these PMUs as an official part of the Iraqi military in February.