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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    jeremy corbyn

    Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said in an interview on "The Andrew Marr Show" on Sunday morning that he has no plans to step down, and remained defiant in face of opposition from his own ministers over a vote on British air strikes in Syria.

    Corbyn has publicly opposed the option of British military action in Syria, and released a letter explaining his viewpoint. That has angered some of his MPs, and Labour MP Paul Flynn told BBC Radio 4 that "it's a terrible, terrible mess and it can't go on."

    Andrew Marr asked Corbyn whether his heart was set against bombing Syria, and Corbyn replied "there is nothing wrong with my heart except for wanting a peaceful world."

    The Labour Party leader remained defiant throughout the interview. When asked whether he would resign over the issue, he told Marr that "I'm not going anywhere. I'm enjoying every moment of it." Marr followed up and asked whether he was looking at the next Prime Minister. "I hope you are," Corbyn said.

    The Sun has reported that Labour MPs have urged Corbyn to quit as they plan to defy him and vote for British strikes in Syria. But Corbyn dismissed rumours of a coup, and told Marr that "there are some people who haven't got used to the party being in a different place."

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    Michael Fallon and Theresa May

    LONDON (Reuters) - Britain is not certain to hold a parliamentary vote on taking military action against Islamic State forces in Syria, defense minister Michael Fallon said, as it would become "difficult" if opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn orders his MPs to oppose it.

    Fallon, in an interview published in the Sunday Telegraph, said he hoped lawmakers from all parties would consider the arguments, with Labour deeply split on the issue.

    Labour leader Corbyn wants his lawmakers to vote against air strikes. But many of his MPs, including some in his top team, are demanding a free vote rather than one in which they are directed to vote against the strikes.

    With a slender majority, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron wants MPs outside his party to back extending air strikes to hit Islamic State in Syria. Britain has already carried out air strikes targeting Islamic State in Iraq.

    Cameron's drive to win support in parliament has taken on fresh urgency after the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris in which 130 people were killed. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks.

    Asked if a vote on action in Syria was certain to go ahead, Fallon said: "No. We are committed to building a consensus, seeing whether there is a majority there."

    Fallon added that it would "certainly make it more difficult" if Corbyn directed his MPs to vote against action in Syria.

    Cameron lost a 2013 vote in parliament on carrying out air strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces. On that occasion, Labour did not give its lawmakers a free vote and ordered them to vote against the government.

    Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to join the U.S.-led Iraq war in 2003, in which 179 British service personnel were killed, remains contentious in Britain after questions were raised over intelligence that was used to justify the invasion.

    Corbyn came under further pressure this weekend to allow his MPs to vote freely on military action after his deputy leader Tom Watson told the Independent he favored a free vote. Finance spokesman John McDonnell, one of Corbyn's closest allies, has also backed a free vote.

    Most Labour lawmakers did not support Corbyn's leadership bid but he was backed by an overwhelming majority of grassroots party members.

    An opinion poll released on Friday indicated 48 percent of British voters supported extending air strikes to hit Islamic State in Syria, with 30 percent opposed.

    The poll, conducted by polling firm Survation for the Daily Mirror newspaper, also showed 49 percent favored diplomatic and non-military options before committing Britain to anything more than air strikes.

     

    (Reporting by Andy Bruce; Editing by Will Dunham)

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    Syrian Migrants Refugees Greece

    The security risks involved in managing the flow of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria has become, understandably, the subject of renewed focus for governments around the world following the terrorist atrocities in Paris on November 13th.

    The complexity and scale of the Paris attacks immediately raised concerns that the terrorists had been trained in a military theatre. Investigations since have revealed extensive links between those terrorists and the ISIS (also known as ISIL or Islamic State) training grounds in Syria.

    Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected mastermind of the attacks, is believed to have been in Syria as recently as this year. Several others among the attackers are reported to have spent time in Syria before the cell assembled in Paris.

    Abdelhamid Abaaoud ISIS FlagThe US, Canada, Australia, and European governments were already grappling with managing the flow of more than four million refugees out of Syria, but the concern that even tiny groups of ISIS fanatics are concealing themselves within the transcontinental movements of people from the conflict zone has intensified the political fallout around the world.

    Earlier this month, the Obama administration was dealt a severe setback when the House of Representatives passed a bill that will require senior security officials to vouch to Congress for the character of every Syrian refugee resettled in the US. German chancellor Angela Merkel, who opened German borders to asylum seekers in September, has reportedly started to tighten her position on acceptance of asylum applications over recent days. In the view of one analyst, Merkel had “seemingly committed political suicide” with her accommodating policy, as opposition has mounted among the German public to the refugee inflows to the point where there is now contemplation of a possible party coup against the chancellor.

    In Australia, conservative elements within the government have been raising objections to the government’s plan to resettle just 12,000 Syrian refugees, on security grounds. In Britain, meanwhile, public support for accepting Syrian refugees has plummeted, and the Cameron government is reportedly preparing to join in the airstrikes against ISIS in the Middle East.

    This additional complexity and uncertainty that the attacks have brought to political environments in developed nations comes at a time when, according to Citi, the world is already dealing with “the most fluid global political outlook in decades”, when “geopolitical risks [are] at a 25-year high”.

    In a research presentation this month, Citi’s chief global political analyst, Tina Fordham, noted a combination of political and economic factors are combining to produce a highly complex risk environment. Just as decade-long uncertainty over one of the key risks to global security stability – the question of Iran’s nuclear programme – appears to have been resolved, a range of other tensions have surfaced which threaten to boil over into bigger, more complex problems. They’re summarised in this single slide that finishes by posing an ominous question:

    global_risk

    The lacklustre nature of the global economic recovery further complicates the picture. Although the US economy now appears to be in recovery and the stage is set for a normalisation of Fed monetary policy, investors continue to be unsure about what’s really going on in China. To underline the point, last week began with a huge sell-off in commodities in the Asian trading session which led to copper tumbling to post-GFC lows and other metals following suit, as markets continue to signal they are unconvinced that the fall-off in demand as the world’s second-largest economy slows is yet to be fully reflected in prices for the goods that drove its spectacular boom of the past two decades. The fall in oil prices, as well, leads to other questions about the future of energy markets and stability in the Middle East beyond Iraq and Syria.

    Fordham, who before joining Citi worked in the British Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit and was Director of Global Political Risk at the international consultancy Eurasia Group, identifies a changing political dynamic in developed countries which she refers to as “Vox Populi” (“voice of the people”) Risk, a catch-all for the increased might of small but vocal political movements that are influencing political dynamics in developed countries. This chart sums up its effects on political systems:

    vpr

    While the impacts on the Australian political system have by no means been catastrophic, the influence of smaller political parties (the PUP, the Greens, and the ever-evolving nature of the Senate cross-bench) on the positions of major parties has been one of the defining features of national politics since the return of the minority Gillard government five years ago. What is also clear is the relevance of the phrase “limited reform potential or policy momentum”, which could well serve as a political epitaph for Tony Abbott’s time as prime minister.

    EU cohesion

    In Europe, the vast influx of refugees could pose a problem for EU cohesion, potentially more of an existential threat to the European project than the Greek debt crisis. The refugee flows are coming as Britain is preparing to hold a referendum on its future in the EU, and the trend, and there has been a rise across Europe in the popularity of anti-immigration parties.

    Another trend that Fordham notes is that perhaps the conventional wisdom of “the economy, stupid” – the phrase strategist James Carville coined during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign to summarise what motivates voters – may no longer apply. After analysing the results of 15 “systemically significant elections (by size of economy and/or geopolitical risk potential)”, Fordham notes that ” [correlation] between growth and re-election has broken down. Counterintuitively, 7/8 countries reelecting incumbents did so despite worsening economies”.

    And then there is the vast complexity of the Syrian problem itself, summarised here:

    syria

    Fordham does point to some very bright spots in the global political environment, including: the conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership; the Chinese-US relationship, “arguably the most important bi-lateral relationship in the world” being “on a solid footing”; and “some progress on climate change, though a long way to go”.

    The report concludes, however, that political risks over recent years “have thus far been masked by cheap and abundant liquidity from central banks and shale. Meanwhile, declining institutional capacity and trust in elites is helping local grievances gather momentum, suggesting that political fragmentation will continue and regional political risks could yet become systemic”. And while the global economy is growing, however slowly, “a global downturn would further exacerbate political risks”.

    The presentation concludes by asking (emphasis added): “Is this the Start of the Breakdown? Or just more muddling through?”

    With France intensifying its airstrikes and now Britain looking likely to join in the fray, the stakes in Syria increase again. At this point, with the Obama administration approaching lame-duck territory as it heads into its final year power and ISIS exerting its influence beyond its key territories, there’s nothing yet that resembles a resolution to the grotesquely tangled Syrian web which is just one part of the complicated global picture right now.

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    Syria Bashar Assad Idlib

    The terrorist group ISIS — aka the Islamic State — frequently twists Islamic scripture to fit its needs.

    But justification for the militants' brutality doesn't stop with the Quran.

    The New York Times spoke to three ISIS defectors from Raqqa, Syria, who worked for a female "morality police" brigade before they fled to Turkey. After they joined ISIS, they were married to fighters, who provided them with some insight into how the group defends its violence.

    Here's what the women's husbands told them, according to The Times:

    They had to be savage when taking a town to minimize casualties later, the men insisted. [Syrian President Bashar] Assad's forces were targeting civilians, sweeping into homes in the middle of the night and brutalizing men in front of their wives; the fighters had no choice but to respond with equal brutality, they said.

    This likely isn't surprising to experts, who have said that the atrocities the Assad regime has committed against Syrians are the most effective recruiting tool for ISIS — even better than the slick online propaganda the group pumps out to lure in foreign fighters and brainwash the populace it controls.

    The strategic security firm The Soufan Group noted earlier this year that the Assad regime's brutal treatment of civilians encourages people inside and outside Syria to support alternate groups that are fighting for power in the country, including ISIS.

    The Syrian regime has been credibly accused of carrying out mass torture, deploying sarin nerve gas, dropping explosive steel barrels full of shrapnel and chlorine out of helicopters, encouraging starvation through sieges, and committing mass rape since the uprising against Assad's rule began in March 2011.

    "There is no justifying the actions of a group like the Islamic State or al-Nusra ... but the Assad regime's wholesale slaughter of civilians provides the groups with radicalized supporters far faster than Assad's military can then fight them," The Soufan Group said.

    Assad's atrocities also give power to ISIS's message that it can protect Syrians from the regime.

    Many are also motivated to join ISIS for protection from the group itself. When ISIS took Raqqa last year, "those who resisted, or whose family or friends had the wrong connections, were detained, tortured or killed," according to The Times.

    The women who talked to The Times said that they joined ISIS to survive and "keep life tolerable." Marrying fighters kept their families in good standing with ISIS. And joining the morality police — known as the Khansaa Brigade — allowed them some freedom of movement after ISIS implemented rules that said women could not leave their homes without a male relative to escort them.

    ISIS also offers a better quality of life for those who join the group.

    "For me, it was about power and money, mostly power," said Asma, a pseudonym for one of the women who spoke to The Times. "Since my relatives had all joined, it didn't change a great deal to join. I just had more authority."

    Read the full story at The New York Times.

    SEE ALSO: Inside the app that's become ISIS's biggest propaganda machine

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    Kirsan Ilyum

    The conflict in Syria is taking on worrying new international dimensions after Turkey's shoot-down of a Russian warplane that allegedly strayed into its airspace on November 24.

    But Syria's civil war hasn't just been fought in the air and on the ground. There's an international financial dimension to the conflict, as well.

    Countries around the world — including the US — have been applying a dragnet of sanctions to cut off combatants' access to the global economy. The end goal is to wear down that party's ability to continue the war and create an incentive for a peace deal. 

    The US once again entered Syria's economic battlefield on November 25, sanctioning a Syrian businessman accused of facilitating oil transactions between ISIS and the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

    At the same time, the US sanctioned people who helped the Assad regime evade existing sanctions through shell companies or laundering operations in places like Belize and Russia.

    Those sanctioned include one of Russia's strangest and most compelling political figures — a loyalist of President Vladimir Putin whose career arc gives a particularly vivid sense of the kind of people who have thrived under the former KGB agent's system.

    According to his US Treasury Department designationKirsan Ilyumzhinov, who was first elected president of Russia's Kalmyk Republic in 1993 at the age of 31, is being put on the sanctions list for "materially assisting and acting for or on behalf of the Government of Syria" and the Central Bank of Syria. He's also had ties to a known Assad regime-connected financier since 1998, according to Treasury.

    Ilyumzhinov's personal history makes it less than surprising that he wound up under US sanctions. He's always been in close proximity to some controversial or morally dubious figures, albeit in ways that sometimes had a strange whiff of idealism about them.

    President of the World Chess Federation since 1995, Ilyumzhinov, who is an accomplished player himself, has tried to spread the game's reach and appeal in some questionable ways. He attempted to broker the holding of a championship match in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. According to The Independent, the late Iraqi dictator was a personal friend (as is the American actor Chuck Norris).

    And here's Ilyumzhinov playing chess with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011:

    Gaddafi playing ChessIlyumzhinov was also president of the Kalmyk Republic, a predominantly Buddhist region along Russia's Caspian Sea coastline, from 1993 to 2010. According to a 2006 New Yorker profile, Ilyumzhinov ruled the obscure Russian republic as a kind of absolute monarch, with billboards in the area depicting him "on horseback or next to various people he regards as peers — Vladimir Putin, the Dalai Lama, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II."

    "Everything here comes from my image," Ilyumzhinov told The New Yorker's Michael Specter, who noted the leader's distaste for democratic norms and his near-total indifference towards corruption.

    Ilyumzhinov's career combines megalomania and financial chicanery, neither of which are unusual traits in Russian politics. As Specter notes, Ilyumzhinov made most of his money through a series of mysterious investments amid the chaos immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It's unknown exactly how much the presumed multimillionaire actually has.

    KalmykiaIf there's one thing that really sets Ilyumzhinov apart, it's his belief in extraterrestrials, and their impact on both his own life and human civilization more generally.

    Ilyumzhinov has often claimed that he was abducted by aliens in 1997, at which point he had already been president of the Kalmyk Republic for four years. This claim, which only pertains to Ilyumzinov's personal experiences, looks modest compared to his assertion during a 2011 interview with The Independent that aliens had a role in the invention of the very game of chess.

    Ilyumzhinov is flamboyant, but he isn't crazy. As Specter recounts in the New Yorker, Ilyumzhinov had often clashed with the government in Moscow throughout the 1990s: The Kalmyk Republic is geographically close to separatist-minded Chechnya, and Ilyumzhinov had once flirted with the idea of turning the republic into an international tax haven. But Ilyumzhinov got on Putin's good side relatively quickly, allying with the Russian president in the early 2000s. Putin had banned the direct election of regional political leaders, fearing that regional autonomy could lead to Russia's fracturing. Ilyumzhinov realized that Putin's support meant Moscow would continue to renominate him for the Kalmyk presidency.

    In return, the partnership won Putin the obedience of a wealthy international sports bureaucrat with political influence in a restive part of the country and an apparent willingness to transact with suspect regimes.

    It's the latter trait that's landed Ilyumzhinov on the US sanctions list. People like him have allowed both Putin and Assad to thrive, and to implement policies that have destabilized large sections of both the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

    Not all of Putin and Assad's cronies are chess-master alien conspiracy theorists — but Ilyumzhinov is a less unusual figure than he might appear. On November 25, the US Treasury also designated nine other entities and individuals accused of using the international financial system to exacerbate Syria's devastating civil war, which has killed an estimated 250,000 people and displaced around 12 million more.

    SEE ALSO: A journalist who was held prisoner in Iran explains why the regime fears people like Jason Rezaian

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    NOW WATCH: Here's footage of a Russian warplane crashing after Turkey shot it down


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    erdogan putinRussian warplanes have been conducting airstrikes over Syria since late September, sometimes causing tension with Turkey when its planes come too close to the Turkish border.

    These tensions finally came to a head on Tuesday, when a Russian warplane allegedly violated Turkish airspace and was shot down by Turkish F-16s.

    It was an escalation of the conflict that was "not entirely unexpected," said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of the Washington, DC-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

    Nevertheless, it complicates an already-muddled situation in Syria, adding layers of unpredictability to the scene.

    "Syria is a very crowded military theater. Putin knew that he was making it more crowded — and complicated — when he entered Russia," Schanzer told Business Insider by email.

    Boris Zilberman, a Russia expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, echoed this sentiment in an email: "It was only a matter of time this sort of incident occurred."

    The incident — in which Turkey said a Russian warplane violated Turkish airspace for roughly 17 seconds — comes four days after Turkey accused Russia of bombing villages in northern Syria inhabited by Syrian Turkmen and called for an immediate end to Russia's military operation close to the border.

    And in a separate affair last month, Turkey complained that at least one Russian warplane had violated Turkish airspace and that another Russian jet had locked its targeting radar on Turkish planes, The Wall Street Journal reported. It led US Secretary of State John Kerry to warn Russia about the threat of escalation.

    Russian Airstrikes 9 19 NOV fixed 01

    In a joint press conference with French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday, US President Barack Obama said that the incident "points to an ongoing problem with Russian operations" in and around Syria.

    Multiple countries are striking targets around Syria right now — including the US, Turkey, France, and Russia. A US-led coalition striking ISIS-held targets near central and eastern Syria was launched in September 2014. France, Turkey, and Russia entered the fray later for different reasons.

    A massive terror attack in Paris carried out by militants associated with the Islamic State earlier this month prompted France to ramp up its campaign against the group in Syria and enlist the US's help in identifying ISIS targets on the ground in Syria. Russia, meanwhile, has stepped up its airstrikes against ISIS targets in the jihadists' de-facto capital of Raqqa at France's request.

    Russia had, since September, been primarily targeting rebels in Syria unaffiliated with ISIS and supported by Turkey and other countries, including the US.

    'Huge egos'

    Still, experts are divided on how far Russia will go to retaliate.

    "I would be concerned that Russia could take a tit for tat approach and down a Turkish fighter jet at some at point in the future, but an incident in 2012 when Syria shot down a Turkish fighter jet shows that perhaps cooler heads will prevail, as that incident did not further escalate," Zilberman told Business Insider.

    Geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, noted that the "huge egos" of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Putin "doesn't help" matters. But he argued that Russia would benefit more from a measured response.

    "Putin's initial reaction — calling the incident 'a stab in the back by the terrorists' accomplices' — is about as bellicose as could be imagined. But Putin is no stranger to harsh rhetoric, and he has broader interests to play for," Bremmer said.

    putin erdogan

    Not least of those interests is to keep exporting gas to Turkey, which remains Russia's second-largest buyer. Russia also accounted for approximately 12% of all tourists to Turkey last year.

    "There's a very significant economic relationship between the two sides — tourism, trade, and most importantly energy — that neither Putin nor Erdogan want to interfere with," Bremmer said.

    Moreover, Putin has important geopolitical considerations to keep in mind.

    "Putin doesn't want to create more antagonism with NATO just as he's making progress with the Europeans — France in particular — in turning back the US-led Western 'isolation' of the Russians," Bremmer added.

    hollande Putin

    France, the US, and Russia were in talks to further coordinate their activities on the ground in Syria to form a joint anti-ISIS coalition. But Tuesday's events might complicate the US's and France's efforts to get Russia to cooperate further in the anti-ISIS fight.

    As Schanzer said, "The fact that it was a Russian plane obviously complicates recent efforts to pull Moscow into the global anti-ISIS coalition."

    Tit for tat

    Notably, there are some subtle ways Russia could get back at the Turks — the Russian Defense Ministry has already announced that it will suspend military contact with Turkey. But it is unlikely Russia would risk a significant military escalation with NATO by doing anything more aggressive.

    "Putin's immediate response has been mordant and tough, accusing Turkey of stabbing Russia in the back, of in effect protecting ISIS, and running to its NATO powers as if it has been one of its own aircraft that had been shot down," Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security affairs and professor of global affairs at New York University, wrote on Tuesday.

    "We can expect some kind of retaliation on the political-economic front (maybe stopping Turkish airliners coming to Russian airports?) and maybe also some unloading of additional serious ordinance on Turkish-backed elements in Syria," Galeotti wrote on his blog, In Moscow's Shadows.

    "However," he added, "I suspect neither Moscow nor, at the very least, the other European NATO powers will want to let this go too far."

    Obama and Putin

    Zilberman largely agreed.

    "Beyond a tit for tat approach, Putin could use Turkey's dependency on Russian gas to his advantage but there are economic ramifications for Russia in that sort of response as well," Zilberman said. "Additionally, Russia could go all in on arming the Kurds as well as a response."

    Still, Schanzer said, it is still too soon to say with certainty how Russia — long a fairly unpredictable actor — will respond in the coming days and weeks.

    "We must now await Russia's reaction," Schanzer said. "If Russia considers this a hostile act rather than an error, we could see a crisis that invokes the charter of NATO, given Turkey's status in the multilateral organization."

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    U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) (C) speaks with a reporter after the weekly Republican caucus luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, September 29, 2015.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

    BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Two senior U.S. senators called on Sunday for Washington to nearly triple military force levels in Iraq to 10,000 and send an equal number of troops to Syria as part of a multinational ground force to counter Islamic State in both countries.

    Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham criticized President Barack Obama's incremental Islamic State strategy, which relies on air strikes and modest support to local ground forces in Iraq and Syria, and said the need for greater U.S. involvement was underlined by this month's Paris attacks.

    "The only way you can destroy the caliphate is with a ground component," said Graham who is seeking his party's presidential nomination. "The aerial campaign is not turning the tide of battle."

    McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, recently proposed intervention in Syria by a European and Arab ground force backed by 10,000 U.S. military advisers and trainers.

    On Sunday he and Graham told reporters during a visit to Baghdad that U.S. personnel could provide logistical and intelligence support to a proposed 100,000-strong force from Sunni Arab countries like Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

    Graham said special forces would also be included.

    Obama last month ordered the deployment of dozens of special operations troops to northern Syria to advise opposition forces in their fight against Islamic State, adding to an increasingly volatile conflict in Syria.

    Russia and Iran have ramped up their military support for President Bashar al-Assad's fight against rebels in Syria's four-and-a-half year civil war, while the Paris attacks showed how Islamic State has extended its reach to Western cities.

    U.S. counter-terrorism experts have warned that deploying ground troops risks backfiring by feeding Islamic State's apocalyptic narrative that it is defending Islam against an assault by the West and its authoritarian Arab allies.

    The U.S.-led coalition which has been bombing Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq for more than a year relies heavily on American resources despite including some 60 nations.

    McCain said it would be possible but not easy to rally Arab allies to contribute to the proposed ground force in Syria.

    "The question... is being asked all over the capitals of the West right now," he said. "(Arab) countries for a long time have not seen what's happening as a direct threat to them. Now I believe that they do."

    The senators said removing Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran, was key to getting Arab Sunni states to back the proposed ground force.

    IRAQ

    U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to U.S. and Filipino troops at the Fort Bonifacio Gymnasium in Manila, April 29, 2014. REUTERS/Al Falcon

    In neighboring Iraq, where about 3,500 U.S. troops are currently advising and assisting Iraqi forces, Graham said an increased American presence would include forward air controllers and aviation assets as well as special forces to carry out raids like one last month which resulted in the first U.S. combat death in Iraq since 2011.

    The senators met earlier with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi who they said had welcomed the idea of more U.S. troops.

    "If you went up to 10,000, you're not getting pushback from the Iraqis," said Graham. "The difference between 3,500 and 10,000 is meaningless politically inside the country (but) militarily significant."

    However, government spokesman Saad Hadithi said Abadi had not requested U.S. combat troops on the ground but rather asked for more arms and advisers to increase air support for Iraqi forces. Hadithi declined to speculate about the number of additional personnel under discussion.

    Leading Iraqi politicians have repeatedly voiced opposition to a greater role for U.S. forces, which withdrew in 2011 after a nearly nine-year war that left tens of thousands of Iraqis dead.

    Iranian-backed Shi'ite Muslim militias seen as a critical bulwark in the fight against Islamic State have also resisted U.S. involvement.

    "One reason I'd want to have more American troops is it neutralizes the Shia militia advantage to some extent," said Graham. 

    (Editing by Ros Russell)

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    Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) and his French counterpart Francois Hollande speak after a news conference at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, November 26, 2015. REUTERS/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool

    PARIS (Reuters) - Russian air strikes in Syria must clearly target only Islamic State, France's foreign ministry said on Monday in response to questions over recent raids by Moscow on opposition groups in the north of the country.

    After traveling to the Russian capital on Thursday, French President Francois Hollande said he had agreed with his counterpart Vladimir Putin that these attacks would only hit Islamic State and similar jihadi groups in Syria.

    The West has accused Moscow of mostly targeting Western-backed rebel groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

    Asked about strikes since Friday on ethnic Turkmen areas near the Syrian-Turkish border, foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said: "There can be no possible ambiguity on the objectives being pursued, which must only target the destruction of Daesh (Islamic State)."

    Since Hollande's visit, tensions between Russia and Turkey over a downed Russian fighter jet have increased. Russian air strikes in northwest Syria have heavily targeted ethnic Turkmen areas, according to a Reuters data analysis of Russian defense ministry data.

    Ankara has traditionally expressed solidarity with the Syrian Turkmen, who are Syrians of Turkish descent.

    France has launched dozens of military strikes against Islamic State following the Paris terror attacks.

    A Russian warplane takes off at Hmeymim air base in Syria

    The group's self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa in northern Syria has been bombarded by coalition warplanes for a sustained period.

    "To all of you, I solemnly promise that France will do everything to destroy the army of fanatics who committed these crimes," the French president said in the wake of the Paris atrocities, which killed 130 people and left hundreds more wounded.

    SEE ALSO: The US is attacking ISIS oil trucks in Syria for the first time

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    A war plane crashing in flames in a mountainous area in northern Syria after it was shot down by Turkish fighter jets near the Turkish-Syrian border, is seen in this still image taken from video November 24, 2015.  REUTERS/Reuters TV/Haberturk TV

    On Nov. 24, a Russian Air Force Su-24M that allegedly violated Turkish airspace was shot down by an AIM-120C air-to-air missile that a Turkish Air Force (TUAF) F-16 fired while on combat air patrol.

    Although the details of the incident are controversial, with the Russians claiming that no violation occurred and that their aircraft had not been warned by the TuAF, it is safe to say that airspace violations occur every now and then. Rarely do they end up with the downing of the intruder, though.

    Indeed, violations of Turkish airspace were reported shortly after a Russian Air Force contingent deployed to Latakia, in northwestern Syria, began pounding FSA and IS targets across the country.

    On Oct. 3 and 4, NATO said a Russian Air Force Su-30SM and Su-24 aircraft violated Ankara’s sovereign airspace in the Hatay region in spite of “clear, timely and repeated warnings.” In that case, the RuAF admitted the violations, claiming they were due to “navigation errors.”

    TuAF F-16s in QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) were scrambled to identify the intruder, after which the Russian planes departed Turkish airspace. During the Oct. 3 incident, the Russian Su-30SM maintained a radar lock on one or both the F-16s for a full 5 minutes and 40 seconds — unusual and provocative conduct on the part of the Russian pilots.

    Following the first incidents, Ankara said it would shoot down any aircraft violating their sovereign airspace as done in the past with a Syrian Mig-23, a Mi-17 and an Iranian-made Mohajer 4 UAV.

    russia map turkeyThe alleged violation of the Turkey-Syria is far from unexpected considering the intrusions reported since the beginning of October. Far more surprising is the news that Russia has also violated Israeli airspace more than once in recent weeks.

    “Russian pilots occasionally cross into Israeli airspace, but due to excellent defense coordination that began with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s meeting with Putin in which limits were set, the Israel Defense Forces and the Russian military agreed on security arrangements,” said General (res.) Amos Gilad, head of the Israeli Defense Ministry’s political-security division, according to Israeli media.

    The security protocol established between Israel and Russia should prevent incident like the one of Nov. 24 and the subsequent diplomatic crisis.

    Gilad added, added, “In the understandings with the Russians, we retain freedom of action in our attempts to prevent weapons getting through from Iran to Hezbollah.”

    aegean seaThere are other areas where violations regularly occur as well. The skies over the Aegean Sea are often violated by Turkish Air Force F-16s and F-4s.

    Greece claims 10 miles of airspace around a chain of Greek islands lined up along Turkey's western coast in very close proximity to the Turkish mainland. Turkey recognizes only six miles.

    Many of the incidents take place within the four-mile radius, which Athens considers its sovereign airspace and Ankara considers international territory. But according to several reports, there are a number of unauthorized Turkish military flights directly over Greek islands themselves.

    An article published by Politico last summer cited figures from research at the University of Thessaly that reported 2,244 incursions of Turkish fighter jets and helicopters in 2014 alone.

    Although it’s unclear how many of those occurred within the disputed airspace (nor do we know the number of Greek violations logged by the Turkish Air Force, aside from this data from 2012), it’s quite clear that there's potential for a border incident similar to the Russian Su-24 shoot-down. In 2006, an aerial standoff led to a dogfight and subsequent a mid-air collision that killed a Greek pilot.

    Although they were clearly upset by the Russian violation on Nov. 24, the Turkish authorities should already be used to such incursions, from both the intruder's and the intruded's standpoint.

    SEE ALSO: The US embassy in Afghanistan is warning about an 'imminent attack' in the next 2 days

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    ben carson jordan

    Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson visited a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan last weekend and described what he learned there in a Sunday interview and a Facebook video published Monday.

    The Republican presidential candidate announced the trip amid several foreign-policy-related stumbles and misstatements.

    But he said Sunday on ABC's "This Week" that he went because he simply likes to see first-hand what he talks about in the campaign.

    "Last month we spent $3 billion on Halloween candy," Carson said, speaking from Amman, Jordan. "That's the amount of money that was needed to bridge the shortfall for a year that they're having in Jordan with the refugees. We should think about things like that."

    Carson said the experience had not caused him to waver from his strong opposition to Syrian refugees coming to the US. However, he argued that he learned that there is much more the US could do to support the refugees.

    "I was very pleasantly surprised to see how welcoming they are," Carson recalled. "I had the opportunity to talk to many of the Syrian refugees and ask them, 'What is your supreme desire?' And it was pretty pretty uniform: They want to go back home, obviously."

    He continued, "We're hearing that they all want to come here to the United States. And that's not what they want. They want to go back home. But they said the United States and other nations could be much more supportive of the herculean efforts manifested by the Jordanians, in taking in people at a lot of expense to themselves."

    Carson further argued that the US bringing 10,000 or 25,000 people would not "solve the problem," given the millions of people have fled the violence there.

    He had a similar message in the Facebook video that his campaign shared Monday.

    "Hello friends. We're here in Jordan today, you can see behind me the refugee camp," he said. "The Jordanians have done a spectacular job of opening up their country to try to take in many of the Syrians. But they need a lot more help."

    Watch below:

    From my trip over the weekend to Jordan.

    Posted by Dr. Ben Carson on Monday, November 30, 2015

    SEE ALSO: Ben Carson used a 'rabid dog' comparison to explain the need to screen Syrian refugees

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    Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani (L) stands at the frontline during offensive operations against Islamic State militants in the town of Tal Ksaiba in Salahuddin province March 8, 2015. Picture taken March 8, 2015.  REUTERS/Stringer

    The commander of foreign operations by Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards has shrugged off reports of his death or injury in fighting in Syria, an Iranian news agency said on Monday.

    Suggestions that General Qassem Soleimani had been hurt or killed were widespread in recent weeks. The Guards denied them repeatedly and said they were part of a "psychological war".

    "This (martyrdom) is something that I have been seeking in the plains and the mountains," the general was quoted as saying by Tasnim news agency in comments he reportedly made at his Tehran office on Monday.

    Exiled Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e-Khalq said on Saturday he had suffered severe shrapnel wounds on Aleppo's southern front in Syria two weeks ago and had been hospitalized in Tehran.

    As commander of the Quds Force, which plays a leading role in fighting in Iraq and Syria, the general reports directly to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

    Once a reclusive figure directing covert operations abroad, Soleimani now enjoys almost celebrity status among Shi'ites, with Iraqi fighters and Syrian soldiers posting selfies with him from the battlefield on social media.

    He played a role in organizing Iraqi militias to fight Islamic State after the group captured large swathes of the country last year.

    He is also credited with delivering the strategy that has helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turn the tide against rebel forces.

    SyriaMapNovember2015Iran is the main regional ally of Assad and has provided strong military and economic support to him during Syria's four-year-old civil war.

    Soleimani's visit to Moscow in July was widely seen as the first step in planning for a Russian military intervention that has reshaped the war and forged a new Iranian-Russian alliance in support of Assad.

     (Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; editing by Andrew Roche)

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    s-400 s 400 russia russian military missile defense system kremlin army

    Simply stated, of all the surface-to-air threats that coalition airpower over Syria is facing, the Russian S-400 SAM, known as the “Triumf” within Russia and better known to NATO as the SA-21 “Growler,” is the most capable and lethal long-range air defense missile system on the planet.

    In response to the downing of a Russian Su-24M by a Turkish F-16C on 24 November, the Russians announced a few changes to their Air Tasking Order in Syria: 1) ALL surface attack sorties would have fighter escorts and, 2) air defense batteries would be standing up the S-400, with orders to engage *all* aircraft deemed hostile to Russian air operations.

    Developed by Almaz-Antey Central Design Bureau, the SA-21 has been in service with the Russian military since 2007. The system is capable of destroying airborne targets as far as 250 miles away moving at very high speeds. An excellent write-up on the system and its various components can be found here, courtesy of Airpower Australia.

    So what does all of that mean for coalition airpower? Our good friend Tyson Wetzel, a graduate of and former instructor at the US Air Force Weapons School, has broken down the tactical and strategic implications of the Russian S-400 deployment in Syria. The bottom line? It’s a pretty scary prospect, considering the SA-21 from its current position around Hmeymim Air Base near Latakia can cover all by the eastern-most points in Syria.

    That also means a sizable amount of Operation Inherent Resolve air assets belonging to both the US and the coalition are underneath the Growler’s coverage at their forward-deployed locations. That fact is, as one US pilot said, “not even remotely” awesome for anyone flying over Syria.

    s 400While other news outlets have reported no US warplanes have flown since the SA-21s have been deployed, we know this simply is not the case.

    “SA-21’s haven’t changed our fly rates or the areas we operate in,” says one American pilot. “We’ve been flying in SA-5 MEZs for a year now and they have known we have been there the entire time.”

    SEE ALSO: The US embassy in Afghanistan is warning about an 'imminent attack' in the next 2 days

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    NOW WATCH: Here's footage of a Russian warplane crashing after Turkey shot it down


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    Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Air Force Viktor Bondarev (C) watch an air show dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Air Force at Zhukovsky outside Moscow August 11, 2012.  REUTERS/Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

    Russia has reportedly equipped its warplanes flying in Syria with air-to-air missiles for self-defense for the first time, Reuters reported on Monday, citing Russian news agencies.

    The move comes one week after a Russian Su-24 fighter bomber was shot down by Turkish F-16 jets — an incident that has heightened tensions between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan.

    The missiles, reportedly capable of hitting targets at a distance of up to 37 miles, will supplement the state-of-the-art S-400 missile systems Russia says it has deployed to the Russian Hemeimeem air base near Latakia, Syria — about 30 miles south of the Turkish border.

    The air-to-air missiles and the S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, if deployed, are evidently meant as a message to deter Turkish jets from shooting down Russian planes in the future.

    "They are following through on Putin's orders from last week that all sorties will be escorted with air-to-air capable jets," said Boris Zilberman, a Russia expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, DC-based think tank.

    "The message remains as it was last week from Putin: We won't let it happen again," Zilberman told Business Insider.

    A Russian Su-24 jet

    Turkey has defended its decision to down the plane, contending it was in Turkish airspace and had been warned repeatedly before it was shot down by Turkish F-16 jets. But Putin said the plane was destroyed by a Turkish missile while flying in Syrian airspace, roughly a mile from the Turkish border. Putin has wasted no time in retaliating.

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced on Friday that Russia would be suspending its visa-free-travel agreement with Turkey. On Saturday, Putin approved a decree that would place wide-ranging sanctions on Turkish imports and services in Russia, Reuters reported.

    The sanctions — which also ban charter flights from Russia to Turkey and halt certain business activities of Turkish firms in Russia — could bite into more than $30 billion in trade ties between the two countries.

    'High-risk players'

    On Saturday, Erdogan said he was "saddened" over the incident, which some experts perceived as an olive branch. But the Turkish leader has maintained that his country was within its rights to shoot down a plane that had violated its airspace.

    "I think if there is a party that needs to apologize, it is not us," he told CNN in an interview from Ankara on Friday.

    Putin's aides say he is furious over the incident and Erdogan's unwillingness to apologize, Reuters reported. But as experts point out, Putin's options for retaliation are limited if he wishes to avoid a larger confrontation with NATO.

    putin erdogan

    "Putin's options are limited ... [which is why he is] taking action on the margins/asymmetrically," Zilberman said in an email.

    "That being said ... the Russian-Turkish relationship is a tinderbox. The deterioration in the relationship is a loss for both Moscow and Ankara," he added.

    Indeed, the countries share important bilateral economic ties. Turkey is the second largest buyer of Russian gas, and Russians account for about 12% of Turkey's annual tourists.

    "There's a very significant economic relationship between the two sides — tourism, trade, and most importantly energy — that neither Putin nor Erdogan want to interfere with," geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, told Business Insider last week.

    Moreover, Putin has important geopolitical considerations to keep in mind.

    "Putin doesn't want to create more antagonism with NATO just as he's making progress with the Europeans — France in particular — in turning back the US-led Western 'isolation' of the Russians," Bremmer added.

    Obama and Putin

    On Saturday, Putin said that Russia was "ready to cooperate" with the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. "But of course incidents like the destruction of our aircraft and the deaths of our servicemen," he added, "are absolutely unacceptable."

    As experts have pointed out, Putin and Erdogan are strongmen leaders with big egos and a desire to please their nationalist supporters at home.

    "The problem is that you have two presidents who are both highly status conscious and both high-risk players," political scientist Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, told The New York Times on Monday.

    He added: "Not looking weak is something very important for both Putin and Erdogan. Neither knows how to retreat, nor apologize. In that way they are like twins."

    And with that in mind, Putin has made his latest move in retaliation. By adding surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles into the mix, he avoids looking weak — and appeases his supporters — but he also significantly increases the stakes of any future incident.

    Zilberman added, "The egos of Putin and Erdogan may spin any future incident beyond control."

    Russian Airstrikes 9 19 NOV fixed 01

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    Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi, Russia November 24, 2015. REUTERS/Maxim Shipenkov/Pool - RTX1VLTJ

    President Vladimir Putin is actively misinforming his domestic audience and the international community about Russia’s first military intervention outside the former Soviet Union since its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.

    Putin has created a false narrative about the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) to disguise the true objectives behind Russia’s intervention Syria and is using this narrative to manipulate the international community.

    Putin encapsulated this false narrative in his UN speech calling for an alternate international coalition against ISIS on September 28, two days before the start of Russia’s air campaign in Syria. 

    Russia intervened in Syria on September 30 not to defeat ISIS, but rather to curb US influence in the Middle East and to project Russian military power into the region to a historically unprecedented degree.

    Russia’s air campaign is focused on targeting Syrian armed opposition groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, rather than on ISIS. Russia has grounded the rhetoric surrounding its military intervention in Syria in the immediate domestic terror threat that ISIS poses.

    ISIS includes an estimated 7,000 foreign fighters from the former Soviet Union and declared its own governorate in Russia’s restive North Caucasus region. Moscow does view ISIS as a legitimate security concern, but the dissonance between Russia’s claimed objectives and its actual behavior reveals that Russia uses anti-ISIS rhetoric as a pretext to pursue its larger strategic objectives.

    Russia seeks to preserve the Syrian regime and diminish the influence wielded by the US and its regional allies, which support the Syrian opposition. Regime preservation in Damascus is a core Russian objective that enables Moscow to cement its foothold in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean Sea while simultaneously expanding its influence through partnerships with Iran and the Iranian network of regional proxies.

    ISIS Islamic StatePutin is leveraging disinformation in order to obfuscate his true objectives in Syria and thereby manipulate the US and regional actors into inadvertently helping Russia achieve its goals.

    Russia has the opportunity to draw an increasingly assertive France, a major US ally, into its proposed alternative coalition in the wake of ISIS’s attacks in Paris on November 13. The US is also considering accepting Russian proposals for military coordination against ISIS, and has already embraced a Russian-led political framework to end the Syrian Civil War.

    Deconstructing the myths that Russia is propagating in the effort to legitimize these options is key to recognizing the risks associated with accepting them.

    The following sections examine five of the most prominent Russian myths and demonstrate why adherence to them in the West produces dangerous policy options.

    Myth 1: Russia intervened in order to defeat ISIS.

    russia jetsThe Kremlin framed its intervention in Syria as a response to the growing ISIS threat, recognizing that the terrorist group posed a joint threat to Russia and the West. This false yet plausible narrative allowed Russia to curtail the West’s ability to unite against its efforts to bolster President Assad in Syria and project military force in the Middle East.

    The narrative also created the opportunity for Russia to shed the international isolation and pariah status that followed its aggression in Ukraine despite its continued pursuit of cynical political objectives through violent means.

    Moscow’s decision to disguise its intervention in Syria as a response to ISIS is an example of the Russian doctrine of reflexive control: the use of disinformation to alter an opponent’s perception of events and lead the adversary to respond in a manner that ultimately favors Russia.

    Russia reinforced its narrative of events through its own legal structures. Putin received permission from the upper house of the Russian Parliament on September 30 to provide “exclusively air support for Syrian government forces in their operation against ISIS.” This parliamentary mandate serves in tandem with an alleged official request for assistance from President Assad to give the veneer of a legal foundation for Russia's intervention.

    Russia’s reliance on legal rubber-stamping is designed to mimic Western legalism. It enables Russia to deflect criticism for its violations of international norms back onto its adversaries. 

    Russia has tailored its air campaign to address the immediate vulnerabilities of the Syrian regime and to pursue President Assad’s most urgent priorities. Russia launched its air campaign in Syria on September 30 targeting rebel-held territory in Northwestern Syria, over 30 miles from core ISIS-held terrain. 

    Russian Russia Air Strike SyriaThe geographic dispersion of Russia’s initial airstrikes reflected the immediate threat that these rebel groups posed to the regime’s heartland in the Alawite-majority Syrian coast. Russian aircraft also provided critical support to a major ground offensive against Syrian opposition groups south of Aleppo City which included heavy participation from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iranian proxy forces. As the situation stabilized in Northwestern Syria, Russia increased the volume of its airstrikes targeting emergent ISIS threats.

    Russia forward-deployed helicopters and artillery to bolster pro-regime forces in Eastern Homs Province following an ISIS advance into the area, which forced Russia to play a more active role in defending regime terrain. Russian helicopters and artillery units based in Homs and Hama Provinces also provide support to pro-regime forces against both Syrian rebels and ISIS north of Damascus. Meanwhile, Russian warplanes supported a pro-regime offensive to secure the besieged Kuweires Airbase from ISIS in mid-November.

    Russia will likely continue its reactive targeting of ISIS in areas where the terrorist group poses an immediate threat to the Syrian regime while maintaining a high tempo of operations in support of pro-regime offensives against the Syrian opposition. 

    syriamapnovember19The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) regularly releases disinformation in order to portray itself as an effective anti-ISIS actor in Syria. The Russian MoD claimed to strike ISIS in 45 discrete locations across Syria from September 30 to November 19. Credible local reporting confirmed that airstrikes occurred in 36 of the reported locations, although ISW assessed that 25 of these airstrikes targeted Syrian rebel groups rather than ISIS. 

    Russia also leverages its air campaign in order to advance its strategic objective to challenge and undermine NATO. Russia’s establishment of its first airbase on the Mediterranean Sea represents a direct threat to NATO’s southern flank. Russia continues to increase its force projection capabilities in the region by deploying advanced hardware that provides little value in the direct fight against ISIS, including air superiority fighters, its most advanced long-range surface-to-air missile system, and its flagship guided missile cruiser.

    Russian warplanes nominally tasked with targeting terrorists have violated the airspace of Turkey, NATO’s southernmost member, on multiple occasions in order to assert Russia’s freedom of action in and around Syria. Turkey’s downing of a Russian bomber on November 24 represented a direct challenge to these force projection efforts. Moscow has nonetheless used the incident in order to cast Turkey and NATO as obstacles to the destruction of ISIS.

    Myth 2: Russian airstrikes target terrorist groups.

    tu 22 bomber bombsRussia is using disinformation to blur the distinction between terrorists and rebel groups in Syria in order to legitimize Assad’s war. Assad has often falsely characterized the Syrian armed opposition as terrorists in order to justify his indiscriminate tactics against populated areas. Russia also seeks to deflect Western criticism that it is not targeting ISIS by claiming that it is targeting other terrorist groups in addition to ISIS as part of a larger counterterrorism effort inside Syria.

    Russia has even invented radical groups that it claims to have targeted to further obfuscate its strikes against the Syrian armed opposition, including a claimed strike against  a fictitious group named  Sham Taliban” (Syrian Taliban) near the Syrian coast. The Russian Ministry of Defense revealed its own control of terrain map (see below) on October 16, depicting rebel-held territory in Northwestern Syria as controlled exclusively by Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, demonstrating Russia’s effort to delegitimize a large segment of the Syrian opposition.

    syriamaprussiaairstrikeRussia’s claims are untrue. Although Jabhat al-Nusra does control territory in Idlib Province, Russian air and cruise missile strikes have consistently targeted terrain in Northwestern Syria controlled by other rebel groups including at least five US-backed rebel factions.

    The US State Department reported that 90 percent of Russian airstrikes targeted Syrian rebel positions rather than ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra during the first week of the Russian air campaign. Analysis of Russian airstrikes by ISW confirms that this trend persists, although the exact proportions have changed marginally. Russia repeated this strategy when it expanded its air campaign into Southern Syria.

    Russia’s general staff claimed that Russia had not targeted Southwestern Syria because it was under the control of the moderate rebel “Free Syrian Army,” an attempt to prove Russia’s claimed focus on terrorists in Syria. The Russian MoD later claimed its first strike targeting ISIS in the Southwestern province of Dera’a on November 13, although local sources reported Russian airstrikes against rebel-held territory in Dera’a as early as October 28.

    Referring to the map, deputy chief of staff of the Russian military Andrey Kartapolov said, “As I hope you can see, we are striking only the facilities of internationally recognized terrorist organizations such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.” 

    syriamaprussiaairstrikenusra

    This map shows a large concentration of Russian airstrikes (circles) against rebel-held territory in Northwestern Syria falsely portrayed as under the control of Jabhat al-Nusra (green). The map also displays the Free Syrian Army (blue) in Southwestern Syria, the only Syrian rebel group portrayed as a non-terrorist group.

    The characterization of the rebels in the northwest as al-Qaeda affiliates suggests Russia will continue to target these groups, while the distinction made for the Free Syrian Army serves to deflect criticism that Russia does not discriminate between armed opposition groups.

    Myth 3: Russia wants to work with the Syrian armed opposition.

    Syria Rebels Training Free Syrian ArmyRussia insists it seeks to coordinate with Syria’s armed opposition and incorporate “moderate” and “patriotic” opposition groups into a political settlement with Assad regime. This component of Russia’s disinformation campaign aims to cast Russia as a cooperative actor and further disguise its targeting of rebel groups.

    President Putin claimed on November 13 that Russia’s air force had acted on target intelligence provided by the moderate Free Syrian Army, an allegation he said “proved” Russia was not targeting the “so-called moderate opposition or the civilian population.”

    Russian state media continues to report on visits to Moscow from leading members of the Free Syrian Army, although the Syrian opposition consistently denies these claims. Those members of the opposition that do admit to having open contact with Moscow have little or no control over either the armed or political opposition. Russia’s claimed contact with the FSA is designed to present the US and its allies as perpetuating the Syrian Civil War by refusing to cooperate with the Assad regime.

    Russia seeks to undermine the international legitimacy of Syrian opposition groups in tandem with its military efforts in order to preserve the regime. Russia claimed to support the participation of the “whole spectrum of opposition forces” in a peace dialogue with the Syrian regime after international talks in Vienna on November 14. Despite this claim, Russia has pushed global and regional powers to agree on two lists that categorize non-state armed actors in Syria as: 1) terrorists, who can be targeted after an eventual ceasefire; or 2) legitimate opposition groups, who can participate in any future peace dialogue.

    Russia’s false characterization of all opposition groups in Northwestern Syria as Al-Qaeda suggests that it is all too willing to sweep most opposition groups under the targeting mantle regardless of their actual affiliation.

    Russia’s air campaign against Syrian rebels has accelerated the depletion and delegitimization of Syria’s moderate opposition, a trend that Bashar al-Assad began at the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Indeed, three rebel groups pledged to al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra beginning on September 23, 2015 amidst reports of increased Russian presence in Syria.

    free syrian fightersRussia’s targeting of Syrian rebels diminishes the value of remaining distinct from terrorist groups. Terrorist groups may now provide resiliency to other anti-regime rebels, but but prior to the Russian air campaign such partnerships carried the risk that the groups would be targeted or lose support from the US. More groups are likely to join the al-Qaeda affiliate if they continue to be bombarded. Russia’s involvement not only accelerates the radicalization of the armed opposition, but strengthens al-Qaeda in Syria.

    If left unchecked, Russia may eventually make true its narrative that terrorists are the only significant opponents to Assad and succeed in destroying one of the US’s most powerful levers in the Syrian Civil War.

    Myth 4: Russia’s coalition-building efforts are about fighting terrorism.

    Russia has called for an international coalition to combat ISIS since September 2015 but Russia’s efforts to build such a coalition suggest that it intends to drive a wedge between the US and its allies and give broader legitimacy to its axis with Iran and Assad.

    Putin called for international military coordination against ISIS and terrorism in the Middle East “similar to the anti-Hitler coalition” during his UN speech on September 28. Russia’s proposed coalition would rival rather than reinforce the existing US-led anti-ISIS coalition. The Kremlin claims the legitimacy of its intervention in Syria from its alliance with the Assad regime, which it refers to as the country’s “lawful authority.” Russia insists that Western anti-ISIS efforts are illegitimate because Assad has not given the West permission to operate in Syrian airspace.

    Russia’s campaign to pull regional actors such as Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Israel into its counterterrorism axis is part of a larger effort to weaken Washington’s ties with traditional US partners in the Middle East. Russia’s decision to establish a joint Iranian-Syrian-Iraqi information coordination center in Baghdad in the buildup to its air campaign demonstrated its intent to threaten U.S. partnerships and bolster the international legitimacy of the Assad regime under the guise of building a counterterrorism coalition.

    Russia has frequently expressed its willingness to conduct airstrikes in Iraq if requested by the Iraqi government, an escalatory step that would curtail US operations in the country. Russia may eventually use the pretext of anti-ISIS efforts to expand its regional military footprint to Iraq or Egypt. 

    putin rouhani russia iranISIS’s attacks in Paris on November 13 have provided the opportunity for Russia to pull a NATO ally into its alternative coalition. Russia’s lower house of parliament issued a statement on November 17 echoing the Kremlin’s call for an counterterrorism coalition while simultaneously blaming the US for the “permanent destabilization of the Middle East” and for indirectly causing the Paris attacks through its “short-sighted and selfish” regional policy.

    Russia has attempted to align itself with France since November 13 by accelerating its air campaign in Syria in tandem with France’s expanding anti-ISIS air operations and evoking comparisons between the Paris attacks and the downing of the October 31 downing of Metrojet flight 9268 over the Sinai Peninsula, which it previously refused to call a terrorist attack.

    The Kremlin maintains close ties with former French President and opposition leader Nicolas Sarkozy and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, both of whom have gained momentum in the wake of the Paris attacks. Russia supports opposition factions in France as part of its larger effort to support far-right and Euroskeptic parties across Europe to foster a weaker EU that is less aligned with Washington.

    France’s possible military coordination with Russia in Syria would be a major achievement for Moscow that would deepen divides in NATO and possibly even diminish the EU’s united opposition to continued Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine.

    Myth 5: Western cooperation with Russia will defeat ISIS and end the Syrian Civil War.

    Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) and his French counterpart Francois Hollande speak after a news conference at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, November 26, 2015. REUTERS/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool  The current conduct of Russia’s military campaign in Syria demonstrates that debilitating ISIS does not constitute a priority objective for Putin. Western efforts to align with Russia are thus unlikely to add significant momentum to the anti-ISIS fight. Moscow continues to prioritize the preservation of the Syrian regime above its counterterrorism interests despite the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13 and its subsequent public assessment that a bomb planted by ISIS had downed a Russian airliner in Egypt on October 31.

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asserted on November 18 that that the attacks in Paris and Sinai rendered Western demands for Assad’s departure “unacceptable” as a “precondition for joining forces in the fight against terror.” Russia desires Western military coordination against ISIS in Syria in order to grant Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime the cover of international legitimacy in their campaign to destroy the Syrian armed opposition. Western support for a nominal Russian-led peace settlement would likewise add legitimacy to the position of Assad and his backers.

    Russia has attempted to feign neutrality in the Syrian Civil War by insisting that it does not care if Assad remains in power. Russian calls for the Syrian people to decide the fate of Assad through new elections nonetheless constitute support for an illegitimate electoral process that the Syrian regime has employed in the past to grant itself a veneer of democratic legitimacy. 

    French air strikesFrance has opened the door for military coordination with Russia in Syria despite their continued divergence on the future of Assad. French President Francois Hollande agreed to share information with Russia on the disposition of terrorist and armed opposition groups in Syria and indicated his intent to coordinate strikes against ISIS with Russia after a November 26 meeting with Putin.

    Putin vowed to “avoid targeting” the “healthy” opposition groups but there is no indication that he will subordinate the air campaign’s strategic objective of regime preservation to anti-ISIS efforts.

    Putin has previously characterized Syria’s “healthy” opposition as political and armed opposition groups that he claims could partner with Assad. Syrian rebels will continue prioritizing their four-year fight with the regime before countering ISIS, however, ensuring they remain the focus of Russia’s air campaign. French coordination with Russia would add the appearance of legitimacy to Putin’s false anti-ISIS narrative even as he continues to target the Syrian armed opposition.

    Amidst Russia’s disinformation about targeting ISIS, Putin has admitted that Russia’s military intervention in Syria seeks to “stabilize” the Assad regime in order to “set the conditions to seek a political compromise.” Putin intervened on Assad’s behalf to force the US and its allies to yield to a “compromise” wherein the US and its partners accept the preservation of Russia’s client regime.

    putin assadLike the failed “Minsk” ceasefire agreements in eastern Ukraine, a Russian-led settlement would likely change little on the ground and Russia would likely continue to target the large majority of Syrian rebels unwilling to agree to a deal that preserves the Assad regime.

    US alignment with a resolution rooted in the narrow interests of Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime would drive a further wedge between Washington and its allies in the Middle East, further diminishing the US’s ability to affect positive change in the region.

    The author is a Russia and Ukraine analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

    SEE ALSO: Russia just dealt a huge blow to Turkey over its downing of a Russian warplane

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    U.S. President Barack Obama addresses a joint news conference with French President Francois Hollande in the East Room of the White House in Washington November 24, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

    WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House is proposing to offer governors individualized reports about refugees in their states.

    White House chief of staff Denis McDonough says in letters to all 50 governors that upon receiving a governor's request, the State Department would send back a "tailored report" on refugees resettled in the last month and throughout the year so far.

    A copy of the letter sent to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was obtained by The Associated Press.

    McDonough says the State Department would update the information monthly on a password-protected website. He says it would break down refugees by nationality, gender and age range.

    The new system comes as governors have sought to block Obama from placing Syrian refugees in their states following the Paris attacks linked to the Islamic State group.

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    german defense minister Ursula von der Leyen

    BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's defense minister ruled out on Tuesday any cooperation between German forces due to take part in the military campaign against Islamic State in Syria and President Bashar al-Assad or his troops.

    Speaking shortly before Germany's cabinet meets to approve the deployment of Tornado reconnaissance jets, refueling aircraft, a frigate and up to 1,200 military personnel to the region, Ursula von der Leyen defended the plans.

    "The top line is: there will be no cooperation with Assad and no cooperation with troops under his command," von der Leyen told ARD television.

    However, that did not exclude the possibility of including some of those currently on Assad's side in a long-term solution for the country, she said.

    "We must avoid the collapse of the state of Syria," she said, adding that mistakes made in Iraq, when groups who had been loyal to Saddam Hussein were excluded from joining the political system after his defeat, should not be repeated.

    "But let me be clear - there will be no future with Assad," she stressed.

    Syria airstrike

    The decision to commit to the military campaign in Syria, in a gesture of solidarity with France after the Nov. 13 Islamist attacks in Paris which killed 130 people, is a big step for Chancellor Angela Merkel's right-left government.

    Since World War Two, Germans have only reluctantly joined military missions overseas and had previously resisted a direct involvement in Syria. Germany's Bundestag lower house of parliament is expected to vote on the deployment on Wednesday.

    Britain's parliament will also vote this week on joining air strikes on Syria.

    German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told Bild daily that Berlin had looked at the military requirements and taken its own political responsibility into account in deciding on the scale of the deployment.

    He said the mandate to send 1,200 soldiers provided a buffer.

    "We are talking about an upper limit, with a buffer zone. I do not think that we will have that many soldiers deployed abroad at the same time," he told Bild, adding only the pilots of Tornado reconnaissance aircraft would be over areas controlled by Islamic State.

    (Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Noah Barkin)

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    Jeremy Corbyn

    Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is on the brink of losing the support of his shadow cabinet, after being forced into a U-turn on Syrian airstrikes, and the details of how it happened are pretty wild.

    At 2 p.m. on Monday afternoon, Corbyn called a shadow cabinet meeting to discuss the party’s position on Syrian airstrikes, and tell shadow ministers that while they would be allowed a free vote, the Labour party’s official position would be that it opposes any aerial attacks on the so-called Islamic State.

    By 4 p.m., Corbyn had been forced to change that official line. Labour MPs would allow an unqualified free vote. The reversal means Corbyn has failed in his bid to persuade MPs to vote against action in Syria, by all but guaranteeing PM David Cameron the majority he wants for military action. Only a few Conservative MPs are expected to vote against the government's pro-bombing line. 

    Accounts from inside the meeting, published by the Daily Telegraph, New Statesman, and the Guardian shed light on how Corbyn’s colleagues almost staged a full-scale revolt over his treatment of the Syrian issue.

    Corbyn apparently started the meeting by reading a prepared statement about the party’s position on Syria, which would have essentially meant that the vote would be free in name only — MPs voting against it might have it counted against them.

    Seven minutes into the meeting, while Corbyn was trying to explain the new position, some shadow cabinet members got push notifications from the Guardian on their phones, telling them exactly what Corbyn was reading out.

    “Hang on — that’s already on Twitter” one MP apparently shouted at Corbyn. In one of the most embarrassing moments of the meeting, Corbyn apparently told his shadow ministers to “stop tweeting” details of the meeting, before being told that the info the Guardian had was actually given to them by Corbyn’s advisers.

    The “farcical” moment sparked “one of the most heated shadow cabinet meetings in Labour’s history,” according to the Daily Telegraph.

    Over the course of a chaotic two hours, Corbyn was subject to scathing criticism from all directions, and a threat from the shadow cabinet that they “would not leave the room” until allowed a totally free vote, and a changing of the party’s official position.

    Below are a selection of the things that happened in the meeting, which almost sparked a full-scale revolt in the upper echelons of the Labour party.

    • Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn threatened to resign from cabinet if he was not allowed to close the debate on airstrikes, as is traditional for shadow foreign secretaries. When Corbyn said that he planned to be Labour’s last speaker, Benn said, “If you do that I will do it from the backbenches.”
    • Andy Burnham also threatened to resign, saying he wouldn’t be part of a “sham shadow cabinet”.
    • Burnham then accused Corbyn of “throwing people to the wolves” by allowing a free vote in name only.
    • Corbyn was accused of showing his shadow ministers a “lack of respect.”
    • His actions were described as “embarrassing”, “deplorable”, and “disgraceful” by various members of the shadow cabinet.
    • One MP said they had “never been so ashamed” of the Labour Party.

    If you want to know all of what went on in the shadow cabinet meeting, you can read full accounts in the Daily Telegraph, Guardian, and the New Statesman.

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    corbyn cameron blair major

    Britain is about to come to a monumental decision — it will decide tomorrow whether it will bomb ISIS (also known as Islamic State) in Syria, and the exact wording of what MPs will be asked in parliament has now been agreed.

    In a meeting on Tuesday morning, the cabinet agreed on a 12-point motion that will be presented to MPs tomorrow morning. 

    The motion says that there is a "clear legal basis to defend the UK and our allies in accordance with the UN Charter" but also notes that "military action against ISIL is only one component of a broader strategy to bring peace and stability to Syria."

    • You can read the whole motion here.

    Along with agreeing the motion, the cabinet also agreed to clear the entire schedule of the House of Commons for the day, meaning there will be no Prime Minister's Questions. This is because prime minister David Cameron wanted to make sure there is time for a full day's debate on the potential military action on Syria.

    The debate is set to begin at 11.30 a.m. and continue until 10 p.m. tomorrow, when Defence Secretary Michael Fallon will call a vote.

    "We will take the action necessary to make sure we have, in many ways, the equivalent number of questions we would often have across a two-day debate in one day," said Cameron in a speech outside Downing Street. "I want MPs to be able to have full consideration, to make speeches, to make points, to ask me questions, to examine the government's case."

    He added that there was "growing" parliamentary support for bombing Syria and that it is "the right thing to do."

    The cabinet's confirmation of a time and date for the vote could signal that it's almost certain that air strikes in Syria are going to happen. This is because Cameron said he will only hold a vote but only if he has obvious and clear support from the House of Commons. He said that if the vote failed, it would give ISIS a propaganda victory.

    According to the BBC's political editor Laura Kuenssberg,"informed guesses in Westminster suggest around 380 MPs might be ready to vote for action, with only around 260 or so opposing - a comfortable majority by any stretch."

    Meanwhile, the leader of the Labour party Jeremy Corbyn only just confirmed that he will give his party's politicians a free vote over whether they are for or against the bombing. This is significant as usually a leader of a political party will whip round and try and get all MPs on the same page.

    Prior to Cameron's pledge to get a one day debate and vote underway as soon as possible, Corbyn criticised the Prime Minister for not holding a two day debate and that he should "stop the rush to war."

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    Syria

    The US seems to be shouldering most of the burden in the fight against ISIS, according to new statistics from the Pentagon.

    The US-led coalition of 65 countries fighting the terrorist group also known as the Islamic State has carried out 8,289 airstrikes total as of November 19. Of those strikes, the US has conducted 6,471, as The New York Times pointed out.

    And of the 65 countries that are part of the coalition, only 12 countries have participated in the air campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Just 24 of those countries participate in the coalition's quarterly meetings, according to The Times.

    Some countries are included in the coalition simply because of their anti-terrorism policies, the publication noted.

    The UK is currently only bombing targets in Iraq, but Prime Minister David Cameron is planning to ask parliament this week for permission to launch airstrikes in Syria. France stepped up airstrikes in Syria after ISIS-linked terrorists carried out attacks in Paris earlier this month, and Russia (which is not part of the coalition) entered the fray in September.

    From the start of operations in August of last year until October 31 of this year, the coalition has spent $5 billion on the fight against ISIS.

    State Department spokesman John Kirby defended the coalition at a press briefing earlier this month, according to The Times.

    "It’s a coalition of the willing, which means every nation has to be willing to contribute what they can," he said. He added that while not every country can conduct airstrikes, "that doesn’t mean that other nations’ contributions aren’t important."

    The new Pentagon figures also showed the extent of the damage to Iraq and Syria since operations began:

    Operation Inherent Resolve

    Airstrikes and ground fights between jihadists and regional forces have damaged some cities to the point of being nearly uninhabitable.

    The coalition is now ramping up airstrikes on the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, Syria, in an effort to oust the jihadists from their de-facto capital.

    SEE ALSO: ISIS is preparing a 'backup' capital in case its major center in Syria falls

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    Members of al Qaeda's Nusra Front walk along a street in the northwestern city of Ariha, after a coalition of insurgent groups seized the area in Idlib province May 29, 2015. REUTERS/Abed Kontar

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - Al Qaeda's Syrian wing freed 16 Lebanese soldiers and policemen on Tuesday in exchange for the release of jailed Islamists including the ex-wife of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

    The Nusra Front seized the Lebanese 16 months ago during an attack on the Lebanese border town of Arsal mounted together with the Islamic State jihadist group which is still believed to be holding nine soldiers captured in the incursion.

    The exchange, brokered by Qatar, cast new light on the Gulf state's channels to the Nusra Front, a powerful player in the Syrian civil war that has been designated a terrorist group by the United Nations and United States.

    Live TV footage from an area between Lebanon and Syria showed the Lebanese captives in vehicles accompanied by masked men armed with assault rifles and waving the Nusra Front flag before they were released to the Red Cross.

    Thirteen Islamists in Lebanese jails, including Saja al-Dulaimi, the ex-wife of Baghdadi, were also released. Dulaimi, fully veiled, was shown in live TV footage from the area with her three children who were with her in prison.

    Nusra Front fighters were shown kissing and hugging the sons of Dulaimi, who was arrested by the Lebanese authorities a year ago. Speaking to Al Jazeera, she said her wish was to return to Beirut and then to leave to Turkey.

    "We accomplished the entire agreement with Nusra. We received our heroic soldiers and we are on our way back to Beirut," top Lebanese security official Abbas Ibrahim, who oversaw the swap, told Reuters by telephone.

    A member of al Qaeda's Nusra Front climbs on a pole to hang the Nusra flag as others celebrate around a central square in the northwestern city of Ariha, after a coalition of insurgent groups seized the area in Idlib province May 29, 2015.REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi     "This joy not complete until the return of those kidnapped by Daesh. We are ready to negotiate with Daesh if we find someone to negotiate with," he said. Daesh is an Arabic name for Islamic State.

    The Nusra Front fighters chanted "God is great" as they arrived with the captives in preparation for the swap. One of the captives, interviewed by Al Jazeera, said the group had treated them well.

    Nusra has killed four of the captives.

    "Praise be to God. The joy cannot be described," another of the captives told Al Jazeera.

    The Arsal incursion was a dramatic and bloody example of spillover from the 4-1/2 year old Syrian conflict. The army fought several days of lethal battles to drive the militants from the town not far from where Tuesday's swap took place. 

    The exchange began with the Nusra Front releasing the body of one of the Lebanese soldiers it had killed in captivity, Mohamed Hamieh.

    Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri (R) chats with Lebanese Christian politician and leader of the Marada movement Suleiman Franjieh (L) as Head of Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc Mohamed Raad (2nd L), MP Assaad Hardan (C) and Lebanon's Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri listen to them during a new session of the national dialogue between political leaders at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, near Beirut April 15, 2010. REUTERS/Dalati Nohra/HandoutThe freed soldiers and policemen were carried aloft during celebrations in the town of Labweh near the Lebanese border where they briefly stopped on their way to Beirut. Politicians from across the political spectrum congratulated the men on their release.

    Relatives of the captives celebrated at a tented sit-in they have held near the government headquarters in Beirut since last year to press for negotiations. There was dancing and sweets were offered to visitors who went to congratulate them.

    "I was born again today, this is a re-birth for me and my brother. It has been a year and five months of agony for the soldiers’ parents, my parents and me," Marie Khoury, the sister of freed soldier George Khoury told Reuters at the sit-in.

    Qatar has been involved in efforts to mediate the release of the captives for a year or more. A previous effort to secure their release broke down a year ago after one of the captives was killed. The Qatar National News Agency said the successful mediation followed a request from the Lebanese government.

    While the Nusra Front and Islamic State attacked Arsal together, the groups are enemies in the Syrian war, now in its fifth year.

    Qatar has been a major sponsor of the insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad, supporting rebels including groups deemed moderate by the United States. It has denied backing the Nusra Front or Islamic State. 

    Qatar's foreign minister told Reuters in June the country did not deal with either group, but said the door should be kept open for Syrians with the Nusra Front if they decided to leave al Qaeda.

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