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Dec 28, 2015 | 21:34 GMT

Retaking Ramadi Is Only a Small Victory

A Small Victory in Ramadi
(Stratfor)

Editor's Note: Stratfor closely monitors conflict zones from a geopolitical perspective. What is perhaps the most volatile conflict today can be found in the territories of Iraq and Syria that are controlled by the Islamic State. Though these areas are cartographically distinct, they are functionally linked: Sunni tribal structures, rebel operations, Kurdish interests, external influences and the suzerainty of the Islamic State bind them together as a single, coherent theater.

The Islamic State capitalized on the chaos of the Syrian civil war and the inadequacy of Iraqi security forces to take over a large swath of the Middle East. After making some impressive gains, including the taking of the Iraqi city of Mosul, the Islamic State has lost some momentum, and an array of opponents have aligned against it. Nonetheless, the group is uniquely resilient and remains extremely dangerous and unpredictable.

In addition to examining the combatants inside the Syria-Iraq battlespace, Stratfor also tracks the political machinations, negotiations and goals of those outside the battlespace, including Iran, Russia, the Gulf monarchies and the United States. For the first time, in one place, Stratfor is providing routine updates covering the gains, losses and extent of the Islamic State's so-called caliphate.

Dec. 28

Iraq

The Iraqi army declared victory over Islamic State fighters in the city of Ramadi. The declaration comes after security forces encircled the city and launched a final offensive slightly over a week ago to seize the central administration complex. The next step is to clear pockets of fighters still entrenched in various positions throughout the city, a military spokesman said. An unnamed U.S. defense official said the Pentagon could not yet confirm whether militants had indeed been cleared from the government complex. Similar to Tikrit, the Iraqi security forces will also have to spend significant time and resources to clear out the remaining improvised explosive devices that infest Islamic State defensive strongholds.

Anbar Province

Anbar Province

Though Ramadi is the capital of Anbar province, its strategic value is repeatedly overestimated when evaluating the entire Islamic State battle picture. While Ramadi absolutely has value, it is still just one location in a large and contested province that directly adjoins Syria to the west. Nearby Islamic State locations in Fallujah, Hit and areas west of Haditha could be equally difficult and time-consuming to clear, and that is just in the Euphrates River Valley.

Any talk of the fall of Ramadi directly leading to the operation to retake the city of Mosul is premature: There are many more potential hurdles to negotiate. When dealing with an enemy such as the Islamic State, Baghdad cannot afford to rest on its laurels. The Islamic State has proved itself agile and dangerous, even when driven back — Ramadi was previously taken by Iraqi security forces only to be lost again to the Islamic State. Practicing aggressive, mobile defense when required, the militant group will likely have repositioned some forces it could use to stage a counterattack.

The Iraqis will have no choice but to consolidate and hold their position, clearing out remaining pockets of resistance. And then there are the remaining Islamic State strongholds that need uprooting to increase the protective buffer around Baghdad, deny the Islamic State terrain and resources, and protect the subsequent advance on the push north to Mosul. All the while, the Iraqis are wary of overstretching themselves and leaving vulnerable gaps in their rear or poorly defended captured areas exposed to counterattack.

Syria

At least 32 people were killed and another 90 wounded by a pair of bomb blasts in the Syrian city of Homs, monitors with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The explosions, one reportedly from a car bomb and the other a suicide device, took place in the Zahra district. The incident was the second major attack since a cease-fire deal involving the city took effect earlier in December, enabling Syrian loyalist forces to take over the last areas of the city still controlled by rebels.

A complicated U.N.-backed truce led fighters and civilians to evacuate from two different parts of Syria. More than 120 rebels and wounded people from the border town of Zabadani crossed into Lebanon and will fly from Beirut to Turkey and then enter into rebel-held territory in Syria. At the same time, around 335 people, including civilians, left two government-controlled villages in northwestern Syria, crossing into Turkey with plans to fly to Beirut and then drive to Damascus. The next stage of the deal reportedly includes the provision of humanitarian aid to the areas involved. The truce is the most elaborate agreement yet between government and rebel troops in Syria's increasingly complicated conflict.

Dec. 27

Iraqi forces entered a former government compound in Ramadi to drive out final pockets of Islamic State resistance to the military offensive to retake the city. Sources said troops had entered one building and were planning to push cautiously through the rest of the compound. Islamic State militants are believed to have fled to the northeast of the city. If the offensive in Ramadi succeeds, it will be the second major city to be retaken by the Iraqi government after Tikrit. Officials said Ramadi would be handed over to the local police and to a Sunni tribal force once secured, and that the city of Mosul would be the next target for Iraqi security forces, Reuters reported.

Dec. 26

Syria

Syrian rebel group Army of Islam appointed Essam al-Buwaydhani as its new top leader to replace founder and former head Zahran Allouch. The bombing that killed Allouch also killed leaders of the rebel groups Ahrar al-Sham and the Faylaq al-Rahman. Peace talks between rebel delegates and representatives of the government of President Bashar al Assad are set to take place in Geneva in late January. The Army of Islam was among those that met in Saudi Arabia earlier in December to choose a delegation.

Iraq

Iraqi troops in Ramadi advanced deep into the Islamic State-held Hoz neighborhood, according to a government representative. Hoz is the only district still held by Islamic State militants and houses the provincial government compound.

Dec. 25

Iraq

Iraq's armed forces will move to retake the major northern city of Mosul from the Islamic State once they capture the western city of Ramadi, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Capturing Mosul would deprive the militant group of its biggest population center, a major source of funding and influence. The capture of Ramadi would also give the army a major boost in its move toward Mosul, which the Islamic State took in 2014. The cities are about 420 kilometers (260 miles) apart by road. Iraqi forces started an attack Dec. 22 to dislodge Islamic State militants from the center of Ramadi.

Syria

Two thousand Syrian Islamist rebel fighters are expected to leave besieged areas of southern Damascus in a deal brokered by the United Nations. The deal marks a success for President Bashar al Assad's government, increasing its chances of reasserting control over a strategic area south of the center of the capital. It also highlights the increasing efforts of the international community to bring about local cease-fires and agreements as steps toward ending Syria's civil war. The militants include fighters of the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Army of Islam leader Zahran Alloush was killed in an aerial raid that targeted his group's headquarters in Syria, rebel sources said. They also said the rebel group was targeted by what they described as Russian planes. Alloush was an important rebel leader in the conflict, leading the powerful Army of Islam in the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus. His death will likely complicate rebel plans for negotiations with the Syrian government to end the civil war.

Dec. 24

Iraq

Iraqi government troops, aided by coalition air strikes, continue to slowly retake the city of Ramadi, held by Islamic State militants since last May. Fighting is now centered around the former government headquarters in the center of the city, which Islamic State fighters are fiercely defending against a government advance slowed by improvised explosive devices, snipers, suicide attacks and the possible presence of civilians.

Syria, United States

The Obama administration pursued secret communications with Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s administration over several years in a failed attempt to resolve the Syrian conflict and get the Syrian leader to relinquish power, unnamed Arab and U.S. officials said, according to the Wall Street Journal. Senior officials occasionally spoke directly to each other, sources said, and at other times they sent messages through intermediaries such as Russia and Iran. However, unlike backchannel communications between the White House and Iran, the Syrian effort reportedly never gained momentum, and communication remained limited.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, speaking during a visit to Beijing, said that his government is ready to participate in peace talks in Geneva early next year. Al-Moallem added that he hoped the dialogue could bring about a unity government, which could then focus on writing a new constitution and eventually hold parliamentary elections after about 18 months. He went on to say that the Syrian delegation is waiting for a list of opposition leaders who will participate in the talks.

Syria: New Faces in an Old Conflict

Dec. 24: An end to the Syrian conflict is nowhere in sight, and more countries are being drawn into the fray. Responding to U.S. pressure and keen to have more influence on the direction of the Syrian civil war, the Saudis are attempting to coordinate a deployment of troops on the ground in Syria alongside their allies.

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced the creation of an Islamic military coalition during a surprise news conference in the early hours of Dec. 15 in Riyadh. The coalition, consisting of 34 countries, seeks to coordinate anti-terrorism operations against groups like the Islamic State. Later that day, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said the deployment of ground troops, especially special operations forces, to fight the Islamic State is still a possibility. These announcements follow a Nov. 30 statement from the United Arab Emirates, which said it is willing to participate in any international effort demanding a ground intervention to fight terrorism. Read the full analysis here.

Dec. 23

Iraq, Turkey

Around 160 Turkish troops accompanied by armored vehicles and protected by air cover withdrew from an area east of Mosul and returned to Turkey, according to unconfirmed reports by security sources. Ankara has been under international pressure to withdraw the troops, who it said were in Iraq to protect advisers training militias to fight the Islamic State. 

Dec. 22

Dec. 19

Iraq

The Iraqi government confirmed the accidental deaths of 10 Iraqi soldiers in a U.S. airstrike near Fallujah. The Pentagon has said that the incident was due to mistakes on both sides. The friendly fire incident killed one officer and nine soldiers, although initial reports had only mentioned one death. The U.S. aircraft were part of airstrikes to support Iraqi troops near Amiriyat al-Fallujah against an Islamic State tactical unit. The United States has indicated it will launch an official investigation into the incident with the cooperation of Baghdad.

Dec. 18

Syria

Decisions on a Syrian unity government must come within one to two months, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said at a news conference. Kerry spoke after U.N. Security Council members unanimously approved a resolution endorsing a peace process for Syria. The process would involve cease-fire talks between the government in Damascus and the Syrian opposition, though it does not mention the future role of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

Dec. 17

Syria

The U.S. Air Force has temporarily halted manned aerial missions inside a section of northern Syria where U.S. aircraft had been supporting rebel groups combating the Islamic State. U.S. drones continue to fly in the area, which is west of the Euphrates River along the Turkish border and commonly known as the Azaz corridor. The Pentagon made the decision following Russia's deployment of an SA-17 advanced air defense system that has been locking onto U.S. aircraft in the area. U.S. officials called this practice a dangerous provocation. Russia may be trying to determine whether the planes are U.S. or Turkish aircraft. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly discussed the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a Dec. 15 meeting.

Russia Forces a U.S. Shift in Northern Syria

Dec. 17: Moscow's assertive stance since a Turkish fighter downed a Russian Su-24 in late November has started to affect Washington and Ankara's air operations over Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a Dec. 17 interview that he sees no prospect of improving ties with Turkey. Putin then dared Turkey to fly over Syrian airspace in the wake of Russian deployments of air defense assets in the country. Earlier Dec. 17, Bloomberg reported leaks from unnamed White House officials indicating that the U.S. Air Force had temporarily halted manned aerial missions inside an area the U.S. military designates "Box 4," also known as the Azaz corridor, which is west of the Euphrates River along the Turkish border. U.S. and Turkish aircraft had been supporting rebel groups combating the Islamic State in the region. The Pentagon was forced to suspend aerial operations here for all but drones when Russia deployed SA-17 surface-to-air missile systems to the area. These systems are backed up by long-range strategic surface-to-air missile systems based in Latakia province, northwest Syria. Russia also ramped up air operations near the Turkish border, interfering with U.S. and allied support for rebels in the area. Read the full analysis here.

A permanent Russian military base in Syria will not be necessary, Russian President Vladimir Putin said during a lengthy news conference. A temporary base is possible, Putin said, but Russia is unlikely to put down roots in the country. Putin also said that Russia would continue airstrikes in Syria, support the Syrian army’s efforts and seek contacts among Syrian rebel groups. Moscow will never agree to outside attempts to force a new leader upon Syria, he said.

The newly formed 34-nation military coalition to combat terrorism elected former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab as the coordinator of peace talks. Hijab, who defected from President Bashar al Assad's government in 2012, won the election 24-10 during a meeting in Riyadh. The formation of the Saudi-led coalition was announced Dec. 15 as a means to coordinate anti-terrorism efforts in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan.

Dec. 16

Iraq

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter arrived in Baghdad for talks with U.S. military commanders on intensifying the fight against the Islamic State. The visit is seen as the latest in a series of signs that the Pentagon is preparing to escalate its campaign in the region. On Dec. 15, Carter spoke to U.S. troops at Incirlik air base in Turkey, which the United States and its allies use for the air campaign in Syria.

Italy will send 450 troops to Iraq to defend the strategic Mosul Dam from Islamic State militants, according to an announcement by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The dam was built by a German-Italian consortium in the 1980s and provides water and power to more than one million people. Trevi, an Italian construction and energy group, has reportedly secured a $2 billion contract to repair the dam. Any significant damage to the dam could cause major flooding in Mosul, home to nearly two million people and the site of a long-anticipated battle between Western-backed Iraqi forces and the Islamic State. Islamic State militants briefly took control of the Mosul Dam in August 2014 and currently occupy the city of Mosul.

Islamic State militants conducted a prolonged mortar attack against a military training base in northern Iraq, where Turkish advisors are training militia forces. According to authorities, two trainees died and several more were wounded in the three-hour attack. Reports about Turkish casualties remain unclear.

Turkey, Qatar

Turkey will establish a military base in Qatar as part of a 2014 mutual defense agreement aimed at combatting "common enemies," Turkey’s envoy to the Gulf state said. The envoy said that some 3,000 ground troops, plus air and naval units, will be stationed at the base — Turkey’s first overseas military installation. The two countries have shared positions on several notable regional issues recently, including condemning Russian action in Syria and backing particular rebel groups fighting in the country.

Dec. 15

Turkey

Coalition airstrikes and Iraqi ground troops repelled 15 Islamic State car bombs aimed at Iraqi security forces east of Ramadi. Iraqi officials said that militants drove the explosive-laden vehicles from central Ramadi toward Iraqi military positions in Husaybah, which destroyed the vehicles with the aid of coalition airstrikes. The retaking of Ramadi is a major objective for the Iraqi government and its international partners because, while Western-backed forces have regained some territory in Iraq over the past year, these gains have been gradual and costly.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia announced the formation of a 34-nation Islamic military coalition to combat terrorism, according to a joint statement published on Saudi state media. According to Saudi Arabia’s defense minister, the campaign will coordinate anti-terrorism efforts to in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan, but he provided few details about what future military efforts will entail. Notable coalition members include Arab countries such as Egypt, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as other Islamic countries such as Turkey, Malaysia, Pakistan and a number of African states. Notably, Iran was absent from the list. 

Syria

Syrian President Bashar al Assad is expected to visit Tehran on Jan. 10. In October, the embattled president made an unannounced visit to Moscow in his first overseas trip in more than four years. For Iran, the future of Syria is considered a core national interest.

United States, Turkey

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter pushed Turkey to do more in the fight against the Islamic State. Carter said Ankara needed to manage its border with Syria better, particularly along insecure portions used by militants for illicit trade and for the movement of foreign fighters. The Islamic State has been able to take advantage of infighting among the various rebel factions to expand its territorial holdings in Syria, but the newly cohesive rebel force has already managed to reverse most of these gains, taking back the bulk of positions it had previously lost. This may at least partially ease some of the concerns of the rebels' foreign patrons, especially those of Turkey and the United States, which understand that their attempts to help the Syrian rebels will achieve scant results if the factions cannot maintain a unified front.

Why the U.S. Cannot Leave the Middle East

Dec, 15: The Middle East's traditional power structures are crumbling, paving the way for new groups and threats to rise from the ruins. The United States, as a result, will be forced to reconsider its strategy in the region. Just as al Qaeda's setbacks enabled the Islamic State to flourish, so, too, will other terrorist groups move to fill the void created by the Islamic State's eventual decline. Terrorism will pose a threat to U.S. national security for the foreseeable future, and policymakers in Washington have no choice but to pursue more sustainable ways to counter it. The United States will ultimately shift its tactics in the region, striking a balance between empowering local security forces and selectively deploying specially trained and equipped forces in its attempt to tip the scales in the war against militant Islam. Read the full analysis here.

Dec. 14

Iraq, Turkey

Turkey withdrew some of its troops deployed to a training camp near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, an unnamed Turkish military source said. The troops, whose presence since Dec. 4 has strained relations between Baghdad and Ankara, left the camp in a convoy of 10-12 vehicles, along with an unspecified number of tanks, the source said. Another unnamed Turkish source said that Baghdad and Ankara have agreed to limit the number of Turkish troops at the camp to 50. The move comes as Turkish Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz is visiting Baghdad, with talks on the deployment issue scheduled for Dec. 15.

Dec. 12

Iraq

Demonstrations broke out in the Iraqi cities of Baghdad and Basra protesting the deployment of 130 Turkish troops near Mosul on Dec. 3. The Iraqi government has condemned Ankara's troop movements as a violation of sovereignty and called on the U.N. Security Council to push for their withdrawal. The Turkish personnel are stationed at Nargizliya camp (also known as al-Shekhan camp), a militia base in Shekhan District where the Turkish military has been training Sunni volunteer forces.

Russia Boosts Its Air Assets in Syria

Dec. 12: Satellite imagery obtained through our partners at AllSource Analysis show the continued hectic Russian presence at Bassel al Assad air base. An Su-24 can be seen on the runway ready for take off, while what appears to be an Il-20 Coot spy plane is taxiing around the air base. In addition to the Su-25, Su-24, Su-30 and Su-34 aircraft previously deployed to Bassel al Assad, we see more Su-34 aircraft that have recently arrived as reinforcements from Russia. The Su-34 is a more capable strike aircraft than the Su-24, the type that the Turkish air force recently shot down. The Su-34, with a more expansive air-to-air capability, is therefore better able to defend itself relative to the Su-24. Read the full Focal Point analysis here

Dec. 11

Iraq

Jan Kubis, U.N. Special Representative for Iraq and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, said that the entry of Turkish troops into the Iraqi province of Nineveh was a violation of Iraq's sovereignty. Kubis said that he had spoken with the Turkish ambassador to Iraq and said the issue should be resolved with Baghdad. Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said that international help was needed to support the fight against the Islamic State but stressed that such support should be given only with the consent of the Iraqi government.

Syrian Opposition Groups Finally Form a Negotiation Team

Dec. 11: Despite the considerable differences and number of viewpoints within the wider opposition, the Syrian opposition groups gathered in Riyadh have settled on a negotiation group. The agreement, forged under pressure from the Saudis, will allow the groups to present a more united front ahead of the Vienna peace talks between the opposition and the Syrian government slated to begin Jan. 1, 2016. However, divisions persist among the opposition groups, and the prospects for a successful negotiated resolution to the Syrian conflict are still slim. Read the full analysis here.

Dec. 10

Iraq

The White House said that President Barack Obama has not approved the use of attack helicopters in Iraq, as suggested during a congressional session by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter — Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi has to ask for such support, a White House spokesman said. During the hearing, Carter said that the United States is ready to deploy consultants and attack helicopters if Iraq requests help in its efforts to retake the city of Ramadi from the Islamic State.

Syria

Syrian opposition and rebel groups meeting in Riyadh are expected to discuss forming a delegation for future peace talks, one of trickiest aspects of the attempt to forge a unified position against Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s government. The goal is to choose a delegation of 42 people to select the negotiators, participants in the meetings said. On Dec. 9, the talks produced a broad agreement among the groups that al Assad and his top officials should play no part in a transition to democracy, delegates said. The groups also agreed that foreign forces must leave Syria.

According to Dubai-based Al-Arabiya news, all parties involved in the Syrian opposition meeting in Riyadh now agree that any new Syrian government should be more inclusive and should better represent all sectors of the Syrian population. The new government will include women and will not discriminate on religious or sectarian grounds, the report said. One of Syria's main rebel groups, Ahrar al-Sham, pulled out of the talks, saying it would not agree to the terms of the platform if rejecting sectarianism was not a priority.

A Kurdish-Arab coalition fighting the Islamic State in northern Syria announced the formation of a political arm. Representatives presented the Syrian Democratic Council at a conference in the town of al-Malikiyah as the new political wing of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition made up of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and smaller Arab and Christian militias. Participants at the conference said the group's goals include a new constitution and a decentralized political system for Syria. The group also emphasized the importance of working with Syria's government to end the conflict, a course of action strongly rejected by another collection of opposition and rebel groups currently meeting in Riyadh.

Turkey

Germany deployed 40 soldiers, two Tornado reconnaissance jets with surveillance technology and an A310 MRT aerial refueling jet to Incirlik air base in Turkey. After the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, lawmakers in Berlin pledged a total of 1,200 troops to aid in the international battle against the Islamic State in Syria. German assistance will also include a naval frigate to be stationed in the eastern Mediterranean to guard the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.

Dec. 9

Iraq

The United States is prepared to deploy advisers and attack helicopters in the battle to retake the city of Ramadi from the Islamic State, according to U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. Carter's announcement came as news emerged that Iraqi troops, backed by U.S. airstrikes, retook the key neighborhood of al-Tameem in southwest Ramadi on Dec. 8. Reports have surfaced that Islamic State militants are keeping civilians from leaving the city and are using them as human shields. Local sources estimate that up to 1,700 families are trapped in the city.

Turkey

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu accused Russia of ethnic cleansing in parts of Syria, another example of how far Turkish-Russian relations have declined since Turkey's downing of a Russian jet on Nov. 24. Davutoglu, speaking in English to foreign reporters in Istanbul, said that Russia was using airpower to force Sunni and Turkmen populations away from Syrian President Bashar al Assad's stronghold of Latakia. Davutoglu also accused Russia of inadvertantly helping the Islamic State, a charge Moscow has also leveled at Ankara.

Dec. 8

Syria

Pieces are moving on the Syrian chessboard, but the game is far from decided — on any front. In southern Aleppo province, loyalist forces are amassed in preparation for President Bashar al Assad's primary offensive. Syria's Fourth Armored Division, equipped with brand new tanks, is poised to support the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah, and foreign Shiite militias as they continue to press westward, toward rebel-held Idlib. At the same time, loyalist troops in the region are pushing eastward toward several Islamic State positions along the Euphrates River. Given their concentrated effort, the loyalist troops will likely make territorial gains throughout the region in the coming weeks, further stressing rebel forces and potentially shifting the provincial balance of power, albeit incrementally.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State will have another threat to contend with in northern Aleppo province. As a cease-fire between the Syrian government and rebels takes effect in Marea, the Free Syrian Army backed by Ahrar al-Sham will have room to refocus its efforts, addressing the Islamic State's recent offensive against rebel-held positions in the area. In the past week, the Islamic State has been able to take advantage of infighting among the various rebel factions to expand its territorial holdings, but the newly cohesive rebel force has already managed to reverse most of these gains, taking back the bulk of positions it had previously lost. This may at least partially ease some of the concerns of the rebels' foreign patrons, especially those of Turkey and the United States, which understand that their attempts to help the Syrian rebels will achieve scant results if the factions cannot maintain a unified front.

To the south, in Homs province, rumors indicate that the rebels may be on the verge of striking a cease-fire deal with the Syrian government in the city of Homs. To that end, Damascus released 35 prisoners Dec. 7 ahead of the expected agreement, which centers on Waer, the last rebel-held part of the city. If successful, the deal would likely enable rebels to evacuate their injured fighters and funnel food and medical supplies into the embattled neighborhood. Such deals are not necessarily unusual; throughout the country's civil war, the rebels have shown a similar willingness to cooperate in certain circumstances with al Assad's forces on a very tactical level.

What is perhaps more unusual, though, is the Syrian government's recent accusations against the U.S.-led coalition of having hit the loyalist 104th Republican Brigade in Deir el-Zour during one of its many airstrikes. The coalition, for its part, has denied the accusations. In the past, credible reports have described Russian and Syrian airstrikes inadvertently hitting loyalist positions on the ground; it is possible that the latest assault on troops in Deir el-Zour is yet another case of friendly fire. If true, the working relationship between Russia and Syria could degrade as incidents of friendly fire ratchet up the body count among Syrian troops. This could give the Syrian government an incentive to publicly place the blame for the latest airstrike on someone other than its Russian partners.

Iraq

In Iraq, Turkish forces — along with their reasons for being in the country — are causing a major stir in the media. Reports were rife with speculation that a sizable Turkish presence had entered Iraq to spearhead an offensive against the Islamic State-held city of Mosul. But in reality, these claims were wildly exaggerated: While it is true that Turkey increased its security presence, deploying some armored vehicles and troops in support of the pre-existing advisers conducting training in Iraq, the addition only amounted to about 100-300 personnel — hardly a notable increase.

What is notable, however, is that Ankara failed to notify Baghdad of its plans, putting Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in an uncomfortable position. The presence of foreign troops in Iraq can be a touchy subject for the Iraqi government, which views it as a breach of national sovereignty, and al-Abadi can scarcely allow foreign combat forces to enter his country at will without appearing weak to his constituents. Baghdad has demanded that Ankara withdraw its combat forces, no matter how few there actually are, though it has allowed the advisers to stay. The dispute, such as it is, will die down in time as both sides seek to find a diplomatic solution to the incident. Indeed, Ankara has already pledged to avoid further troop increases in an attempt to assuage Baghdad's fears.

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