The Trump administration is in talks with Baghdad on keeping US troops in Iraq after the fight against ISIS in the country is over, the Associated Press reported May 5. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, are discussing "what the long-term US presence would look like," a US official told the AP. The official said "several thousand... similar to what we have now, maybe a little more," troops would stay in the country, but added that discussions were in early stages and "nothing has been finalized."
Following last week's Turkish air-strikes on Kurdish forces in northern Syria, the autonomous administration in the region is said to have issued a call for a "no-fly zone." Tev-Dem, the self-governance structure for Syria's Kurdish autonomous zone, reportedly issued the call after Turkish raids killed at least 20 fighters of its militia force, the People's Protection Units (YPG). Because US-backed Kurdish forces are basically calling for international protection from US ally Turkey, this development further heightens the contradictions that Washington faces in northern Syria. It is telling that the Tev-Dem statement is aggressively touted by Kremlin mouthpiece Sputnik. It has also been reported by Syria Deeply and UPI.
The Turkish military carried out air-strikes overnight on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) forces both in Iraq's Sinjar mountains and in northeastern Syria, ostensibly to prevent these regions from being used as a staging ground for attacks within Turkey. "To destroy these terror hubs which threaten the security, unity and integrity of our country and our nation and as part of our rights based on international law, air-strikes have been carried out….and terrorist targets have been struck with success," the Turkish army said in a statement. (Reuters) US State Department spokesman Mark Toner responded: "We are very concerned, deeply concerned that Turkey conducted air-strikes earlier today in northern Syria as well as northern Iraq without proper co-ordination either with the United States or the broader global coalition to defeat IS.... We have expressed those concerns to the government of Turkey directly." The US continues to back the YPG Kurdish-led militia in Syria, which is allied with the PKK guerillas in Turkey—placing Washington in an increasingly contradictory position. (BBC News)
US-led air-strikes killed 20 civilians at the ISIS-held town of Albu Kamal, in Syria's eastern Deir Ezzor governorate, local media activists reported April 17. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 13 civilians, including five children, were killed in the strike, as well as three ISIS militants. Earlier that day, a US-led strike killed seven civilians, including a child, in the nearby village of Husseinyeh, the monitor said. (Middle East Online) US-led air-strikes in northern Syria and Iraq over the past weeks have killed perhaps upwards of 600 civilians.
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)