The Russian and U.S. governments, through rounds of talks in Geneva, are seeking to reduce hostilities and impose some degree of stability in Syria to protect each of their interests in the region.
Meanwhile, Washington has increased its special operations forces on the ground in Syria and continues to raise its troop levels in Iraq.
From April 22 through May 1 daily airstrikes, including with barrel bombs, killed more than 250 civilians in Aleppo, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. One of the targets hit overnight April 27-28 was al-Quds Hospital in an opposition-controlled area, the only one providing pediatric care in the city. At least 50 people were killed, including six medics, according to Doctors Without Borders.
Massive protests began in Syria in March 2011 demanding political rights and an end to Assad’s rule, but they were crushed by the government with bombings, arrests and killings. An assortment of armed groups formed in response and took control of territory, including areas around Aleppo, the country’s largest city. Shifting coalitions of Islamist as well as secular groups have been competing for territory and fighting government forces since then.
Over the course of the five-year war close to half a million people have been killed and more than half of the country’s population displaced. Amid this chaos and the lack of a revolutionary working-class leadership, the reactionary Islamic State was able to seize swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.
In recent months Assad’s forces backed by Russian firepower and special forces have seized key parts of Aleppo. Some 300,000 people still live in the rebel-controlled eastern parts of the city and have faced years of air and artillery bombardment by the regime.
In two villages in northwest Syria where Nusra Front, an affiliate of al-Qaeda, was driven out by rebel forces in April, “civilians took to the street in anti-Assad demonstrations,” reported the Washington Post, but were then “heavily bombed by Assad.”
U.S. military presence growsWashington is sending an additional 250 special operations forces to Syria, boosting the 50 deployed in October. Their aim is to equip, advise and expand the numbers of Sunni Arab fighters combating Islamic State, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a U.S. Senate hearing April 28.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, which is leading the fight against Islamic State in eastern and central Syria, is led by some 30,000 Kurdish fighters, and involves 6,000 Sunni Arabs, according to Dunford.
A week earlier Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced an additional 200 U.S. troops were on their way to Iraq, pushing the official Pentagon “troop cap” to 4,087. That figure doesn’t count at least 1,000 U.S. military personnel there on temporary rotations. They include Marines in northern Iraq stationed at “a satellite base positioned to protect American trainers at a nearby, larger base,” reported the Post.
President Barack Obama has also authorized U.S. commanders in Iraq to use Apache attack helicopters and established a new task force where U.S. troops will play a greater role in “advise and assist” missions.
In deepening its involvement, Washington seeks to reshape the Iraqi army into a fighting force to drive Islamic State out of Mosul, the country’s second largest city, that it has occupied for nearly two years.
But the Shia-led Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is in deep crisis, fueled by a drop in oil prices, sectarian frictions it has promoted against Sunnis and Kurds and factional divisions with other Shiite politicians. Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stormed into Iraq’s parliament April 30, scaling concrete walls surrounding the exclusive Green Zone area, where government offices and foreign embassies are located. They demanded Abadi appoint a new cabinet.
The government declared a state of emergency in Baghdad, and brought back some troops from the front lines against Islamic State in Anbar province.
“Iran-backed militia groups aligned with Iraq’s government announced late Sunday night [May 1] that they are deploying fighters in Baghdad to help secure the city,” the Wall Street Journal reported. Al-Sadr’s supporters withdrew from the Green Zone that day. The same weekend Islamic State conducted suicide attacks that left dozens dead, including in Baghdad.
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