Two fresh offenses against Islamic State-held (IS) cities in Syria and Iraq are progressing this week. The Iraq Security Forces (ISF), which was in the middle of an extended operation to clear Ramadi of IS, have turned its attention to Fallujah – about 70 kilometres from Baghdad. Government forces have encircled the city and are preparing for the second stage of an assault on Fallujah’s urban areas.
US commanders in Iraq responded to the Fallujah assault saying there is “no military reason” to conduct the mission at this time. The city is an important symbol for both IS and Iraq’s Shia population, however, so the prioritisation over liberating the northern city of Mosul fits within this logic. Nevertheless, the Fallujah’s Sunni majority are suspicious of Shiite intentions – and by extension Iran’s intention – but Iraq’s prime minister Haider al-Abadi will attempt to limit the involvement of Shia proxies to avoid internecine fighting during the operation.
In Syria, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a mix of Arab and Kurdish fighters, are advancing on the IS de facto capital of Raqqa in the east of the country. It is unclear how far Kurdish fighters will advance into historically Arab territory, but with assistance from US warplanes and special operations troops, a slow advance on the city is likely – although, so are vicious IS counterattacks.
The inclusion of US special forces is an important detail in the Raqqa assault. Already ground forces have captured outlying villages, helped by US airstrikes. A criticism of the US-led coalition effort in Syria is that the US has been reticent to send its own troops into combat. Yet among the 200 US servicemen in Syria appear to be are Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) which provide pinpoint targeting for airstrikes, greatly boosting the power of the SDF main force.
In Russia, prime minister Dmitri Medvedev is expected to submit a proposal to the Kremlin to extend countersanctions on the EU, US and other countries until the end of 2017. The measure was set in place in 2014 as a response to EU/US sanctions on Russia, which itself was a response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support of separatism in eastern Ukraine. New Zealand was not directly listed on the countersanction list, but its trade with Russia has been affected by the sanction war.
For its part, the EU is approaching its own renewal window for sanctions against Russia in July, but there is no indication the bloc will remove its sanctions let alone ease them. However, Russia has recently shown interest in friendly diplomacy with EU member states and is slowing its force build-up near Ukraine’s borders. A series of high-level talks between Washington and Moscow in recent weeks also suggest the two major players could be inching towards a resolution.