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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    Abdelhamid Abaaoud ISIS FlagOn Sunday night, four days after a shooting in San Bernardino, California, left 14 dead and 21 injured, President Barack Obama used a major Oval Office speech to talk about threats facing the US.

    One of the shooters was suspected of pledging her allegiance to the terrorist group ISIS on Facebook as the attack was unfolding.

    Obama addressed the ongoing threat from ISIS and attempted to explain the US' current strategy to counteract the group's influence in the Middle East and across the world, including deploying special operations forces to Iraq and Syria, bombing ISIS targets, boosting intelligence-sharing with allies, supporting Iraqi and Syrian forces on the ground, and pursuing a political settlement to end the Syrian civil war.

    One thing Obama was adamant about, however, was that US not commit to a"long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria." His reasoning: That's what ISIS wants.

    Shortly after the speech, New York Times foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi tweetstormed a response that further elucidated Obama's point: a ground war is what ISIS wants because it plays into the group's apocalyptic rhetoric.

    Here's Callimachi's explanation of the situation in Syria and Iraq:

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: The coolest phrases only people in the military use


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    Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters take up positions inside a damaged building in al-Vilat al-Homor neighborhood in Hasaka city, as they monitor the movements of Islamic State fighters who are stationed in Ghwayran neighborhood in Hasaka city, Syria July 22, 2015. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    Groups that have received support from the United States or its allies have turned their guns on each other in a northern corner of Syria, highlighting the difficulties of mobilizing forces on the ground against Islamic State.

    As they fought among themselves before reaching a tenuous ceasefire on Thursday, Islamic State meanwhile edged closer to the town of Azaz that was the focal point of the clashes near the border with Turkey.

    Combatants on one side are part of a new U.S.-backed alliance that includes a powerful Kurdish militia, and to which Washington recently sent military aid to fight Islamic State.

    Their opponents in the flare-up include rebels who are widely seen as backed by Turkey and who have also received support in a U.S.-backed aid program.

    Despite the ceasefire, reached after at least a week of fighting in which neither side appeared to have made big gains, trust remains low: each side blamed the other for the start of fighting and said it expected to be attacked again. A monitoring group reported there had still been some firing.

    The fighting is likely to increase concern in Turkey about growing Kurdish sway near its border.

    It also poses a new challenge for the U.S.-led coalition which, after more than a year of bombing Islamic State in Syria, is trying to draw on Syrian groups to fight on the ground but finding many have little more in common than a mutual enemy.

    Syria Bashar Assad IdlibAzaz controls access to the city of Aleppo from the nearby border with Turkey. It also lies in an area coveted by Islamic State, which advanced to within 10 km (six miles) of the town on Tuesday and took another nearby village later in the week.

    The fighting pitched factions of the Free Syrian Army, supported by Turkey and known collectively as the Levant Front, against the YPG and Jaysh al-Thuwwar - both part of the Democratic Forces of Syria alliance backed by Washington.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors the conflict in Syria, said Levant Front was supported in the fighting by the Ahrar al-Sham Islamist group and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

    Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said the rebels had received "new support, which is coming in continuously" from Turkey, a U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic State.

    "Turkish groups against U.S. groups -- it's odd," he said.

    Although the YPG has been the most effective partner on the ground for the United States in the fight against Islamic State, Turkey does not want to see its influence expand further, even if the group is fighting Islamic State.

    Militant Islamist fighters wave flags as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014.  REUTERS/StringerThe United States and Turkey have for months been talking of a joint effort to clear Islamic State from the remaining part of the frontier, but there has been no sign of progress.

    Long-standing suspicion

    The clashes were in villages between predominantly Arab Azaz and the majority-Kurdish town of Afrin further southwest. A few dozen people were killed, including 13 civilians, and small tracts of territory have changed hands.

    The insurgents blamed the Kurdish forces and their allies for trying to advance. But a Democratic Forces of Syria spokesman said Islamist groups had attacked first under the pretext that his group was a front for the Kurds.

    In Aleppo city, insurgents shelled a Kurdish-inhabited area, and the YPG fired from there at the rebel supply route that leads from Aleppo to Azaz and Turkey, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

    The rivalry is stoked by long-standing rebel suspicion of the Kurdish agenda.

    "The Levant Front and the others are in dispute over who should control the Azaz area, and so you have this fighting between them, and the Jaysh al-Thuwwar and the (YPG)," said a rebel leader familiar with the situation. "This is strife between Jaysh al-Thuwwar and the Kurds, with the FSA factions."

    Levant Front commander Abu Ahmad al Jazrawi said he hoped Thursday's ceasefire would hold. But if the YPG and their allies "try another time to raid our areas we will not hesitate to attack them again," he warned.

    turkmen rebels syriaThe spokesman for the Democratic Forces of Syria said most of the fighting on its side was being done by non-Kurdish forces, though YPG fighters were reinforcing them from nearby Afrin.

    A Levant Front fighter told Reuters the fighting began when the YPG and Jaysh al-Thuwwar seized three villages in the Azaz area. "They cut our main supply route," he said. "We then succeeded in evicting these forces."

    Rebels say the YPG has been emboldened by Russian air strikes in Syria that have mostly hit groups fighting President Bashar al-Assad, and are not targeting the Kurds, whose fight with Islamic State has been praised by President Vladimir Putin.

    The Syrian Kurds, who have established their own government in areas of northern Syria they control, have been accused by President Bashar al-Assad's opponents of cooperating with him during the 4-1/2-year-old conflict - a charge they deny.

    The spokesman for the Democratic Forces of Syria blamed the flare-up on Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front, which he said had initiated hostilities against Jaysh al-Thuwwar positions on the pretext that it was a front for the Kurds.

    "Ahrar al-Sham and the Levant Front were dragged behind the lie of the Nusra Front," said Talal Ali Selo, the spokesman, an ethnic Turkmen who is a member of Jaysh al-Thuwwar. The YPG were involved in the fighting on their side, he said.

    Selo said he did not trust those groups to keep the peace.

    "In my personal opinion, they will not remain committed" to the ceasefire, he said.

    The Observatory reported even after it was signed that there was firing in the area, and one rebel group that had been involved in fighting said it was not party to the truce.

     

    New US strategy

    Syrian rebelsThe Democratic Forces of Syria alliance, unveiled on Oct. 12, comprises the YPG, Arabs and groups representing other ethnicities. The United States promptly air dropped ammunition to members of the alliance to press the war against Islamic State in northern and eastern Syria, an overhaul of U.S. policy after it abandoned a program to train and equip rebels to fight IS.

    The YPG is the strongest element of the coalition, having cleared IS from swathes of eastern Syria with the help of U.S.-led air strikes earlier this year.

    The Syrian Kurds already control an uninterrupted 400 km (250 mile) stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border. Turkey's fear is that they aim to link that territory with Afrin by seizing the territory north of Aleppo. Ankara is fighting an insurgency against Kurdish PKK fighters in its southeast.

    The border territory on the Syrian side is currently controlled by a mix of rebels and Islamic State, and was the area where Turkey and the United States had been working on plans to crush IS.

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Nov. 17 the United States was starting an operation with Turkey to finish securing the northern Syrian border - an apparent reference to the area north of Aleppo.

    In Aleppo, insurgents shelled the YPG-controlled Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood, and the YPG opened fire from there on the main road that runs north of the city towards Azaz, the Observatory said.

    Abdulrahman said there was no definitive death toll for all the clashes, but that at least 15 rebel fighters and eight on the Kurdish side had died a few days ago, as well as several civilians in Sheikh Maqsoud.

    SEE ALSO: The Middle East's 2 great powers are heading for a showdown over oil prices

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    assad syriaWith the growth of the Islamic State have come voices for the United States and Western countries to engage with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The fact is, however, that a strategy for defeating the terrorist group is far more complex than cozying up to Assad.

    Assad is held up as "the lesser of two evils" in Syria and now backed by the Russian military. American foreign policy pundits are rumored to be lining up appointments with Assad in Damascus to determine if he might be a partner in fighting terrorism. It's natural when attempting to "degrade and eventually destroy" the Islamic State to invoke that most overused Middle East cliche: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." But doing so would be a mistake.

    The problem does not lie just in the optics and ethics of Americans engaging with murderous dictators who have tried (and in Assad's case, failed) to torture, gas and Scud missile their people into submission.

    The Assad regime in its current form is politically rigid, and as a result lacks manpower to hold anything between a quarter and a third of its territory.

    Unless we quickly decide on a mechanism and timetable for Assad's departure and maintain what is salvageable of the Syrian state, the Islamic State and groups like it will remain — and America will never be able to leave the Middle East in peace.

    Syria Syrian Army Troops Soldiers Bashar AssadAmerican policymakers often say Washington faces an "evil symbiosis" in Syria, where the Islamic States thrives off the chaos created by the Assad regime. On the one hand, the Islamic State must be physically destroyed to protect Americans against the burgeoning threats it poses.

    This has led President Obama to carry out thousands of airstrikes in Syria and Iraq over the past 15 months and send 3,500 soldiers to Iraq and 50 Special Operations forces to Syria .

    On the other hand, we have Assad's minority Alawite-based regime, which lost control of the country when it decided to shoot, gas and torture its way out of the country's largest uprising, picking a fight with the region's majority Sunni population and giving radical groups space to flourish and grow.

    The longer that political situation remains in place, the longer the the Islamic State will continue to exist, and the more blood and treasure America will expend in the Middle East.

    To destroy the group and help ensure it doesn't come back, the United States must act responsibly and selectively in Syria by supporting local and regional actors in military operations.

    At the same time, it must attempt to untie what is referred to in diplomatic circles as the "Assad knot" and find a political settlement that would see members of the Assad, Makhlouf and Shalish families — who are at the core of the regime and are responsible for its response to the uprising — to leave power in favor of a different form of government.

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the media in Vienna, Austria, November 14, 2015. REUTERS/Leonhard FoegerThe biggest problem with this settlement is not its intention but its difficulty. The Assad regime has run roughshod over the Syrian state for decades — trying to detangle what is the regime and what is the Syrian state will be difficult to say the least.

    On its current trajectory, Syria is to be divided much more for years to come, with some parts perhaps in confederation with others on a temporary basis.

    A Syrian journalist once told me that for the Assad regime, there is no black or white — only shades of gray. This theme has also held true for much of the Syrian war.

    Waging a just war in such an environment and hoping to come out with an acceptable and legal answer has been a major challenge for the Obama administration — one that has been used to delay key decisions until the situation worsened and policy prescriptions were no longer relevant.

    If the United States is to help bring peace to Syria and defeat the Islamic State, we might find more clarity in focusing on individual areas where the battlefield is a bit clearer. Washington has already done so with the Kurdish YPG in northeast Syria, despite the fact it is widely regarded as being connected to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.

    Another area of promise is a buffer or safe area in southern Syria, which once established could protect civilians. Finding a practical and legal way to support such projects is vital for the United States to both wage a just war and sustain a just peace in the country that once was Syria.

     

    Andrew J. Tabler is the Martin J. Gross Fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of"Syria's Collapse and How Washington Can Stop It" in Foreign Affairs and the book "In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle With Syria." 

    SEE ALSO: Russia is engaging in 'elite-level trolling' in Syria — and the West is falling for it

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    iran assad Khamenei

    A top advisor to Iran's Supreme Leader on Sunday said the future of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad could only be determined by the Syrian people and this was a "red line" for Tehran.

    Assad's fate is a sticking point in talks between world powers aimed at finding a political solution to the crisis in Syria.

    Iran and Russia want him to stay in power until elections are held, while Western and Arab powers say he must go.

    "Bashar al-Assad is the Islamic Republic of Iran's red line because he was elected president by the Syrian people," said Ali Akbar Velayati, the top foreign policy advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

    "The Syrian people must decide their own fate, and nobody outside Syria's borders can choose for the Syrian people," he added.

    Velayati also said Iran would try to ease tensions between Turkey and Russia. Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet last month that it said had violated Turkish airspace while flying a mission in Syria.

    "There is no benefit to tensions mounting up in the region. We must not take the side of either party, and have a duty to reduce tensions between these two countries," he said.

     

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

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    French President Francois Hollande flew to the Mediterranean Friday to visit the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier.

    The aircraft carrier, which is the largest in the European Union, was dispatched to the region last month, after the Paris terrorist attacks. It is leading France's air campaign against the Islamic State.

    Hollande has asked for more European nations to join the fight. Britain voted to start bombing ISIS in Syria, while Germany voted to send up to 1,200 troops to the Middle East to assist in the effort, but will not be carrying out airstrikes on Islamic State targets.

    Story by Allan Smith and editing by Chelsea Pineda

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    SEE ALSO: Here's the gargantuan aircraft carrier France sent to fight ISIS

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    Smoke rises from the site of U.S.-led air strikes in the town of Sinjar, November 12, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

    Kurdish forces backed by U.S. air strikes declared a major victory last month over Islamic State after cutting access to a key supply route in northern Iraq. Yet days later the militants were back in business, underscoring their resilience in the face of defeat.

    The insurgents found an alternate, partly unpaved, route further south and trucked in gravel and dirt to reinforce it with the help of local workers, truckers and residents told Reuters.

    The detour takes longer to traverse than Highway 47 and could still wash out in heavy winter rains, they said.

    But for now it is enough to keep food, fuel, weapons and fighters flowing between Mosul and Raqqa, the group's main strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

    The vast battlefield in those two countries, combined with Islamic State's nimbleness in responding to logistical setbacks, helps explain the slow pace of U.S.-led coalition operations.

    Cutting off Highway 47 was "as important as targeting a very senior ISIS (Islamic State) leader. The coalition had to do it," said Ahmed Ali, researcher at American University of Iraq.

    "But the fact that now you have this new route means the coalition will be easily discredited or seen as not serious by the population."

    Iraq Sinjar Map Kurds

    That has been a persistent criticism over the past year in which the international coalition, which includes more than 60 countries but relies heavily on American resources, has been striking Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria.

    It took the coalition's Kurdish allies only 48 hours to seize the road by capturing the town of Sinjar through which it passes, though it had taken months of bombing to weaken the militants sufficiently to enable that feat.

    U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said having control of the road meant the Kurds could now facilitate the passage of humanitarian and civilian goods while preventing the transport of weapons and fighters.

    "There are plenty of rat lines and back roads and smuggling routes, but... there's much less civilian traffic on those routes so they're easier for us to monitor and strike and they're more difficult for Daesh to use," said Warren, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

    Civilian traffic

    Displaced families from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjarl west of Mosul, arrive at Dohuk province, August 4, 2014.  REUTERS/Ari Jala

    A source in the Kurdistan regional security council, however, said while it was now impossible for Islamic State to use Highway 47, there was no longer any civilian traffic on the road either.

    The Kurds have blocked the road in at least five places between Sinjar and Kirkuk, about 250 km (155 miles) to the southeast, he said, confirming that Islamic State was using an alternative route through southern areas that took longer.

    "If a convoy of vehicles come out of an ISIS territory or staging ground towards one of the Peshmerga positions on Highway 47 then they're just going to bomb it," said the Kurdish security council source, referring to coalition aircraft.

    A local resident said civilians now felt it was much too dangerous to use the road.

    Kurdish peshmerga forces stand in the street after Yazidi people loot houses in the town of Sinjar, Iraq November 16, 2015.

    Yet with civilian and commercial traffic forced off Highway 47 and onto the same back roads used by Islamic State, the coalition will likely face the familiar challenge of striking the militants without killing bystanders.

    One driver, who like the others spoke on condition of anonymity, said he had seen four or five trucks carrying fruit and vegetables destroyed by an air strike last week before entering Iraqi territory en route from Raqqa in Syria.

    Warren said he was not aware of the alleged strike, but added it was not uncommon for Islamic State to use civilians as human shields. Reuters was not able to independently verify the alleged attack.

    The coalition says it uses stringent rules of engagement, which some have criticized for slowing the pace of battle. British-based monitoring group Airwars estimates between 332 and 498 civilians have been killed in Iraq nevertheless, citing publicly available sources and cautioning that the security situation makes the numbers hard to verify.

    Unpaved roads

    A general view of Mosul Dam

    Prices of food and fuel doubled in Mosul, a city of around 1.5 million, after Highway 47 was cut, but it took less than a week before new routes restored stability to the market, a merchant in the northern city said.

    There are fears that cutting off ordinary supplies to Mosul would threaten the civilian population. Islamic State could use price increases or shortages of food or fuel to turn residents against the coalition, say analysts.

    Truck drivers told Reuters the new route sets out from the southwest of Mosul, turning sharply south to the town of Tel Abta.

    From there, the paved road turns into a series of dirt paths stretching about 60 km to Kirwan town in a sprawling desert area about 20 km from Kurdish frontlines in Sinjar.

    The dirt roads are unfit for large trucks when it rains, and with winter underway the rains could start at any time. A driver and a local farmer said militants had begun laying heavier stones to try and guard against flooding.

    ISIS Islamic State Millitants Convoy Flag

    From Kirwan to the Syrian border, the road is paved again, the drivers said.

    While the new roughly 350-km (220-mile) route is not much longer than the old one running through Tel Afar and Sinjar, the drivers said poor road conditions have nearly doubled the time it takes to traverse to at least 12 hours.

    One driver said he is also worried the new route will be cut if the Kurds extend their anti-IS offensive south from Sinjar toward Kirwan and Ba'aj. Any other alternative would take even longer.

     

    SEE ALSO: Syria is claiming warplanes from the US-led coalition killed three army soldiers in an 'act of aggression'

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    vladimir putin reuters

    Russia is showing no signs that it intends to forgive and forget Turkey's decision to down a Russian warplane two weeks ago.

    Moscow has chosen to retaliate for the incident asymmetrically, hitting Turkish economic and military interests instead of engaging in a direct conflict with Ankara that might lead to a military confrontation with NATO.

    But the Russians appear to have "gone ballistic" in their determination to wipe out Turkish influence in northern Syria and help regime forces reach Aleppo, a UN official told McClatchy on Monday.

    A stepped-up Russian bombing campaign in the Bayirbucak region of northwest Syria, near the strategically important city of Azaz, has primarily targeted the Turkey-backed Turkmen rebels and civilians — and the Turkish aid convoys that supply them.

    The strikes are in-line with an objective Russia has had since the beginning of its air campaign in Syria — namely, to undermine Turkey's Syria policy of bolstering rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and to prevent the Turks from establishing a "safe zone" for displaced Syrians that might hinder the regime's efforts to take Aleppo.

    That city is the second-largest in Syria and divided between government and rebel forces. The Assad regime launched a large-scale offensive to retake the city in mid-October with help from Russia and Iran.

    Syria map

    "There has been an uptick in bombing in northern Syria as part of the reaction to the downing of the Su-24," Boris Zilberman, a Russia expert with the Washington, DC-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider in an email.

    He continued: "Providing an opening for Assad to advance to Aleppo or any other advances is consistent with Russia's strategy all along. The situation with Turkey is an excuse to double down."

    Indeed, the increased airstrikes on Turkish interests and allies in northern Syria is as much about hastening a vital win for the Russia-backed Syrian regime as it is about getting back at Ankara.

    "If there is going to be a partition in Syria, and Assad is going to build his own state in Latakia, Bayirbucak is a strategic point and the Turkmen will have to be driven out," Abdurrahman Mustafa, president of the Syrian Turkmen Assembly, told the Independent last week.

    Syria airstrikes Dec 3 2015

    Russia, for its part, insists that its planes have only ever targeted "terrorists." But Turkey had complained previously about Russia bombing villages in northwestern Syria that are predominantly inhabited by civilians and Turkmen rebel brigades battling Assad — not members of al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS.

    "Putin's larger immediate goal is to shut down Turkey's link to Aleppo, thereby preparing the way for Assad (perhaps even in coordination with the PKK-affiliated Kurds) to besiege and eventually recapture the city," Middle East expert Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote last week in Tablet.

    Metin Gurcan, a Turkish military expert, expressed a similar sentiment in Al-Monitor late last month. He noted that the Russian operation near the border helps Russian and Syrian troops clear northern Latakia of opposition fighters — a necessary prerequisite to "further Syrian regime and Russian moves toward Idlib and Aleppo."

    Additionally, Gurcan wrote, the bombing campaign helps the Assad regime "secure more defensible, expanded territory before an eventual cease-fire, as recommended in the Vienna meetings, goes into effect."

    There is little Turkey can do about Russia's bombing campaign near its border without provoking a situation in which NATO would be forced to come to its defense.

    In moves evidently meant as a message to deter Turkish jets from shooting down Russian planes in the future, Russia reportedly equipped its jets flying in Syria with air-to-air missiles for self-defense. It also sent a state-of-the-art S-400 missile system to the Russian Hemeimeem air base near Latakia — about 30 miles south of the Turkish border.

    A Russian S-400 defense missile system drives out of a cargo plane at Hmeymim airbase in Syria. REUTERS/Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

    The US-led anti-ISIS coalition — of which Turkey is a part — may intervene, however, if it sees that the Russian airstrikes have created an opening for ISIS to make significant gains near Azaz and advance toward Aleppo.

    "Everyone knows that any wrong move creates a vacuum, and the Islamic State will capitalize on it," the UN official told McClatchy. "In fact IS has taken quite a bit of ground" near Azaz.

    In Tablet, Badran argued that this consequence was deliberate on Russia's part.

    "By creating an opening for ISIS to make a push toward Azaz, Putin will leverage the US and Europe to pressure Turkey to shut down this section of its border. If ISIS actually makes it to Azaz, Russia can then invite the US and the Europeans to join it in strikes against ISIS, and in support of the Kurds," he wrote.

    Zilberman said it would be in the anti-ISIS coalition's interest to shut down this vulnerable section of Turkey's border anyway.

    "The United States should be pushing the Turks to close the border and stem the flow of fighters and terror financing crossing the border," Zilberman told Business Insider in an email. "That is in the interest of US and EU national security."

    SEE ALSO: Russia is already exacting its revenge on Turkey for downing a Russian warplane

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    Abdul Halim al-Attar runs a restaurant, two bakeries, and a kebab shop in Beirut, Lebanon.

    But the Syrian refugee wasn't as fortunate earlier this year.

    He was photographed a couple months ago trying to sell pens while carrying his sleeping daughter. The picture went viral and sparked a fundraising campaign for al-Attar's family. The goal was to raise $5,000, but people donated more than $191,000.

    "It changed my life and I am thankful for whoever helped me and donated money and supported me," he said, according to the Associated Press. "Not only did my life change, but also the lives of my children and the lives of Syrian people whom I helped."

    Although al-Attar has received only 40% — more than $75,000 — of the donations so far, he's been able to start multiple businesses. He employs 16 people, and he's breaking even.

    "Living conditions are different now," he said. "The place we live in is different. Education is different now. My children are in school. I am working and I have two shops of my own and I am happy. I wish every Syrian refugee could have the same opportunity."

    Story by Allan Smith and editing by Chelsea Pineda

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    SEE ALSO: The Canadian model fighting ISIS in Syria tells us that they're easier to defeat than you'd think

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    isis militants

    A leaked internal Islamic State manual shows how the terrorist group has set about building a state in Iraq and Syria complete with government departments, a treasury and an economic programme for self-sufficiency, the Guardian can reveal.

    The 24-page document, obtained by the Guardian, sets out a blueprint for establishing foreign relations, a fully fledged propaganda operation, and centralised control over oil, gas and the other vital parts of the economy.

    The manual, written last year and entitled Principles in the administration of the Islamic State, lays bare Isis’s state-building aspirations and the ways in which it has managed to set itself apart as the richest and most destabilising jihadi group of the past 50 years.

    Together with other documents obtained by the Guardian, it builds up a picture of a group that, although sworn to a founding principle of brutal violence, is equally set on more mundane matters such as health, education, commerce, communications and jobs. In short, it is building a state.

    As western aircraft step up their aerial war on Isis targets in Syria, the implication is that the military task is not simply one of battlefield arithmetic. Isis is already far more than the sum of its fighters.

    The document – written as a foundation text to train “cadres of administrators” in the months after Isis’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared a “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria on 28 June 2014 – sketches out how to organise government departments including education, natural resources, industry, foreign relations, public relations and military camps.

    Dated some time between July and October 2014, it details how Isis will build separate training camps for regular troops and veteran fighters. Veterans, it says, should go on a fortnight’s refresher course each year to receive instruction in the “latest arts of using weapons, military planning and military technologies”.

    It says they will also be given a “detailed commentary on the technologies” of the enemy and “how the soldiers of the state can take advantage of them”. 

    The statecraft manual recommends a department for administering the military camps, a complex arrangement that, as described, goes well beyond the capabilities of al-Qaida in Afghanistan during the time it plotted the 9/11 attacks.

    The document reveals for the first time that Isis always intended to train children in the arts of war. Isis propaganda from this year has clearly shown children being drilled, and even made to shoot captives.

    But the text, authored by an Egyptian called Abu Abdullah, is explicit about the intention to do so from mid- to late 2014. Children, it says, will be receive “training on bearing light arms” and “outstanding individuals” will be “selected from them for security portfolio assignments, including checkpoints, patrols”.

    The text highlights the need for Isis to achieve a unified culture encompassing foreigners and natives and sets out the need for self-sufficiency by establishing its own independent “factories for local military and food production” and creating “isolated safe zones” for providing for local needs.

    The document came from a businessman working within Isis via the academic researcher Aymenn al-Tamimi, who has worked over the past year to compile the most thorough log of Isis documents available to the public.

    isisFor safety reasons, the Guardian cannot reveal further information about the businessman but he has leaked nearly 30 documents in all, including a financial statement from one of Isis’s largest provinces.

    Isis has suffered military setbacks in recent weeks, and some Sunni Arabs from Raqqa have indicated that its statecraft might be better on paper than it is in practice.

    But Tamimi said the playbook, along with a further 300 Isis documents he has obtained over the past year, showed that building a viable country rooted in fundamentalist theology was the central aim. “[Isis] is a project that strives to govern. It’s not just a case of their sole end being endless battle.”

    Gen Stanley McChrystal (retired), who led the military units that helped destroy Isis’s predecessor organisation (ISI) in Iraq from 2006 to 2008, said: “If it is indeed genuine, it is fascinating and should be read by everyone – particularly policymakers in the west.

    “If the west sees Isis as an almost stereotypical band of psychopathic killers, we risk dramatically underestimating them.

    “In the Principles in the administration of the Islamic State, you see a focus on education (really indoctrination) beginning with children but progressing through their ranks, a recognition that effective governance is essential, thoughts on their use of technology to master information (propaganda), and a willingness to learn from the mistakes of earlier movements.

    ISIS Islamic State Millitants Convoy Flag“It’s not a big departure from the works of Mao, the practices of the Viet Minh in Indochina, or other movements for whom high-profile actions were really just the tip of a far more nuanced iceberg of organising activity.

    Charlie Winter, a senior researcher for Georgia State University who has seen the document, said it demonstrated Isis’s high capacity for premeditation.

    “Far from being an army of irrational, bloodthirsty fanatics, IS [Isis] is a deeply calculating political organisation with an extremely complex, well-planned infrastructure behind it.”

    Lt Gen Graeme Lamb, former head of UK special forces, said the playbook carried a warning for current military strategy.

    Referring to sections of the statecraft text in which Isis repeatedly claims it is the only true representatives of Sunni Arab Muslims in the region, Lamb said it was all the more important to ensure wider Sunni leadership in the fight with Isis, or risk “fuelling this monster”.

    “Seeing Daesh [Isis] and the caliphate as simply a target to be systematically broken by forces other than Middle Eastern Sunnis … is to fail to understand this fight.

    “It must be led by the Sunni Arab leadership and its many tribes across the region, with us in the west and the other religious factions in the Middle East acting in support.

    “It is not currently how we are shaping the present counter-Isis campaign, thereby setting ourselves up for potential failure.” 

    SEE ALSO: Sometimes the enemy of your enemy is still the enemy

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    U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign stop in Spencer, Iowa December 5, 2015. REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich

    Donald Trump's proposal to bar all Muslims from entering the United States violates U.S. and international law and would never be allowed by the courts, legal scholars said late Monday.

    "Oh, for the love of God," said Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law expert at George Washington University. "This would not only violate international law, but do so by embracing open discrimination against one religion. It would make the United States a virtual pariah among nations.''

    The GOP presidential candidate on Monday called for a "total and complete shutdown" of Muslims entering the United States, including immigrants, tourists and even Muslims who are U.S. citizens and travel abroad. His plan to bar U.S. citizens drew particular ire from legal experts, some of whom fumbled for words as they tried to explain its illegality, since none had considered the matter before.

    "That's blatantly unconstitutional if it excludes U.S. citizens because they are Muslims. It's ridiculous," said Richard Friedman, a law professor at the University of Michigan. He cited the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause and the First Amendment's doctrine of freedom of religion.

    Barring Muslims who are not U.S. citizens from entering the country may not violate U.S. law in the same way, the experts said, because the Constitution's protections generally do not apply to people outside the nation's borders. But that's irrelevant, they said, because Trump's plan would break many principles of international law and agreements the U.S. has signed with other nations.

    "We have treaties, all sorts of relationships with other countries,'' said Palma Yanni, a D.C. immigration lawyer and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "I'm sure it would violate innumerable treaties if we suddenly started banning citizens of NATO countries, of Southeast Asian countries.''

    The closest parallel in American history to what Trump is proposing appears to be the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which "effectively halted Chinese immigration for ten years,'' according to a Harvard University Library Open Collections Program called Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930.

    Muslim-American Islam

    The first major anti-immigration statute, it was not fully overturned until Congress passed a new immigration law in 1965, and it was never ruled on by the Supreme Court.

    But the experts said that Trump's proposal would go much further because it targets religion, not a nationality or region. "A nation could argue that national security provides a rationale for barring immigrants from particular countries engaged in civil wars," Turley said. "But those rationales fall by the wayside when you are using an arbitrary criteria like religion."

    Beyond the legal problems, Trump's plan would also likely be doomed by practical factors, such as the difficulty and intrusiveness of questioning potential immigrants based on factors such as their surname. And religion "is not on any passport that I've ever seen,'' said Yanni, who labeled the plan "impossible."

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    ISISDriving the Islamic State –ISIS – out of Syria and Iraq isn’t necessarily going to defeat the terrorist organization unless its influence in cyberspace is substantially reduced as well.

    What the U.S. and its allies need to do is mount a digital counterinsurgency to combat ISIS, says Jared Cohen, founder and director of Google Ideas. But if such an effort is to succeed online, it will need to be far more comprehensive and effective than it has been to date. Writing in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, Cohen laid out his plan for a ramped-up war in cyberspace. “Instead of resorting to a single tool, opponents should treat this fight as they would a military confrontation.” 

    A digital conflict of the kind he envisions is unprecedented, but on the other hand, so is the threat: this is the first time that a terrorist organization has managed to occupy such a large swath of physical terrain while simultaneously establishing such an influential digital presence. It’s “a harbinger of things to come.” 

    Initially, efforts to marginalize ISIS online were limited to taking down social media accounts used by its followers. In 2014, for instance, British authorities, in coordination with companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, removed more than 46,000 incendiary pieces of ISIS propaganda. That same year, YouTube took down approximately 14 million videos. In April 2015, Twitter announced it had suspended 10,000 accounts linked to ISIS on a single day. But it was a Sisyphean task, especially because little was done to deter ISIS supporters from using popular encrypted messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Kik, Wickr, Zello, and Telegram. At the same time digital media production houses like the Al-Hayat Media Center continued to turn out polished videos and promotional material on behalf of the organization. 

    Like any major corporation, ISIS has its own PR department — the central command for digital operations — that determines the messaging and media strategy. At first, the messages it decides on are sent only to a select group of ISIS leaders — think of them as middle management — who may operate as many 12-50 separate accounts under different names. They in turn are responsible for implementing the agenda set by the central command. The message is then disseminated to the rank and file, using what Cohen calls “guerrilla-marketing tactics.” 

    In June 2014, for example, Isis supporters barraged soccer fans with propaganda by seizing trending hashtags related to the World Cup. ISIS’ digital warriors run the risk of having their accounts taken down, of course, but it’s a small price to pay — literally: it’s easy to set up another account under a new identity and purchase thousands of fake followers from social media marketing firms for a mere $10. ISIS can also rely on the support of a large number of sympathizers around the world with no formal links to the organization, but who “once drawn into ISIS' echo chamber by the rank and file… spend their time helping the group disseminate its radical message and convert people to its cause.”

    isis cyberWestern intelligence analysts still can’t figure out who in the organization is responsible for what. Its organizational hierarchy is too opaque. After the Paris attacks, for instance, ISIS released a video taking credit, more or less saying: We did it and we’re proud of it. But there were anomalies about the video that struck Graeme Wood, a writer and contributing editor at Atlantic Monthly who has done extensive research on the militant group. 

    The ISIS claim of responsibility for Paris, he notes, was less florid and lacked the polish of videos that it released after earlier attacks; moreover, it contained grammatical errors in both the Arabic and French versions, raising the possibility that the attacks weren’t ordered by the central command at all. That may explain why the ISIS propaganda machine was caught unprepared and did such a slapdash job. Graeme notes that just after ISIS took credit for the carnage in Paris it released a video about how easy it was to do laundry in Raqqa, its de facto capital in Syria, as if to drive home the message that potential recruits could expect to enjoy the same amenities in the self-styled caliphate that they have at home. 

    To supplement its human propagandists, ISIS has taken a lesson from spammers and opened thousands of fake accounts that automatically generate messages, using Twitter bots to multiply tweets exponentially and monopolizing comment sections of social media sites like Facebook and YouTube.

    The good news is that the very tools that ISIS is using online to get its message across can be used against it. “We’re already doing most of the things with spammers, cyberbullies, Russian troll bombs,” Cohen says. LinkedIn offers a promising precedent; after its site was bombarded by spammers, the company set up a false account to divert them so that “spammers ended up spamming other spammers.” 

    ISIS control Syria iraq territory map

    One way to retaliate against ISIS is by mobilizing “a nonhuman digital army” against ISIS using machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence based on algorithms that can learn and make predictions from data. Moderators in chatrooms will rely on machine learning to filter out vitriolic comments from users. Advertisers use it when they target a particular demographic of consumers based on their income, interests and history of previous purchases. The same technology can “identify, map and deactivate accounts of terrorist supporters” with greater precision and on a greater scale than what could be achieved by humans trying to accomplish the same thing. 

    “Drive a wedge between people who operate the accounts and automated accounts,” Cohen urges, noting that private companies are incentivized to eliminate false accounts. The suspension of terrorist accounts, however, has to be targeted — more like kill-or-capture raids than carpet bombing — than by imposing blanket suspensions; the objective is to eliminate the accounts of the leadership rather than wasting resources shutting down those of their followers. 

    But there’s a risk of forcing terrorist commanders to operate exclusively in the Dark Web — the part of the Internet that because it isn’t indexed by search engines like Google is a favorite playing ground for drug dealers and sex traffickers. Exiling ISIS leaders might splinter the group, making it more difficult for intelligence officials to track, and risk creating rogue groups that could launch "doxxing" attacks — publically disclosing sensitive information about their enemies — or taking down websites with distributed denial-of-service campaigns.

    Taking the offensive against Isis to cyberspace will require the cooperation of a number of actors just as it does on the physical battleground. Optimally, such a coalition would include intelligence officials, computer engineers, tech companies, nonprofits and international organizations. But Cohen takes issue with FBI Director James Comey when it comes to encryption. 

    Comey argues that by encrypting their services, companies like Google and Apple are in effect making it easier for terrorists to communicate while denying U.S. intelligence agencies the ability — via a digital ‘backdoor’ in the encryption software — to find out what they’re up to. Cohen says that there’s little evidence that adoption of advanced encryption techniques has allowed terrorists to plan or carry out any attacks. If government searches are too broad, he adds, it’s difficult for companies to respond and not terribly useful as a means of finding actionable intelligence. (Of course, he’s a Google guy.)

    “ISIS will be neutered as a digital threat when its online presence becomes barely noticeable,” Cohen wrote in Foreign Affairs. “The group would find it either too risky or tactically impossible to commandeer control of social media platforms and public chat rooms, and its digital content would be hard to discover.” Success, he cautions, will only be achieved incrementally, not in one fell swoop. 

    And greater challenges may lie ahead, Cohen recently told guests attending a panel discussion in Washington sponsored by the magazine. Though it’s doing a masterful job of exploiting social media, ISIS hasn’t shown itself to be very tech savvy when it comes to launching damaging cyberattacks against its adversaries. But that could change. Like any corporation, ISIS wouldn’t have to search ‘in-house’ to find the technical know-how; it could emulate Google or Facebook and acquire talent with the capability. There are plenty of brilliant hackers who are ready to work for the highest bidder; if necessary, ISIS could hide its identity so that the hackers wouldn’t have to know who was paying them. 

    ISIS airstrikes map

    For the immediate future, though, the priority of law enforcement should be to try to head off would-be recruits before they can get on a plane to Syria. One way to do this is to scare the hell out of them. “Governments can inject risk into the ecosystem,” Cohen says. Anyone who went online to look up a flight itinerary to Syria, for instance, would be presented with news stories about others who made the attempt, only to be arrested at the airport. 

    Because ISIS is far from monolithic and counts among its followers disaffected Iraqi Sunnis, devout Islamic scholars, lonely teenagers and young men and women who are looking for romance and adventure, any counternarrative has to be tailored so that it can reach a variety of followers and sympathizers with very different motivations. As a model of such a strategy Cohen points to suicide-prevention and anti-bullying campaigns. One example that shows some promise in this regard is a cartoon series marketed through YouTube called Abdullah-X, which promotes an anti-extremist message. Most YouTube users were drawn to it because of targeted ads, not because they found it on their own. 

    Cohen concedes that there’s little chance that any counternarrative to ISIS can win the hearts and minds of Muslims who support the caliphate. But there may be alternatives, he says, adding that they may consist of “things we don’t like,” but which at least may divert potential recruits from committing violence. What these ‘things’ would be, though, he doesn’t say. 

    Cohen acknowledges that a digital counterinsurgency campaign “represents uncharted territory,” but in contrast to combat on the real battlefield, the costs of failure are low because “those who fight digitally face no risk of injury or death.” But fighters in the real world are still going to be injured and killed. As Cohen says, “You can’t fall into the trap of believing that the battle can be won by technology.”

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    Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is seen during an interview in Damascus with the magazine, Literarni Noviny newspaper, in this handout picture taken January 8, 2015 by Syria's national news agency SANA. REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters

    Syria's divided rebel and opposition groups are trying to forge a common stance to oust President Bashar al-Assad but the absence of prominent activists and a main Kurdish force from their talks in Riyadh shows that unity remains elusive.

    Saudi Arabia, a strong supporter of rebels fighting for four years to topple Assad, is hosting the opposition this week in the most ambitious attempt yet to find an agreed platform ahead of talks with the government to end Syria's conflict.

    Bringing the fragmented opposition together is seen by its backers as a crucial step to end a civil war which started with protests against Assad in 2011 and quickly drew in rival Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim powers across the Middle East.

    Shi'ite Iran, Assad's main regional supporter, has criticized the meeting in the Sunni Muslim kingdom, saying it is designed to harm efforts to reach a peaceful solution to a war which has killed 250,000 people and displaced 12 million.

    At a Riyadh hotel where the talks will start on Wednesday, security was stepped up and journalists were ejected as fighters and opposition leaders gathered. Special forces soldiers with body armor and assault rifles manned checkpoints.

    An initial list of 65 invitees to the Riyadh talks has grown substantially, but critics say it still falls short of a fully inclusive meeting.

    The Kurdish administration that runs swathes of north Syria was not invited. Rebels in western Syria do not trust the main Kurdish militia, the YPG, because they say it cooperates with Damascus rather than fighting it.

    Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan (R) shakes hands with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz during a luncheon ahead of the G20 summit in Belek in the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya, Turkey, November 14, 2015. REUTERS/Kayhan Ozer/Pool

    "Saudi-Turkish wish-list"

    "It is not all-encompassing. It is not the consolidated, overall opposition platform," a Western diplomat following Syria said of the Saudi meeting. "I do not expect Riyadh to be a constructive step ... The whole thing has been very acrimonious, and it looks like a Saudi-Turkish wish-list."

    Alongside Saudi Arabia, Turkey is one of the main foreign backers of the rebellion against Assad.

    Syrian Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen groups held their own opposition conference in the Kurdish-controlled town of al-Malikiya at the Syrian-Iraqi border on Tuesday.

    Haytham Manna, an activist in exile, said he would not attend the Riyadh meeting because it included "people who support an Islamic emirate".

    With Iran decrying the meeting as harmful to peace prospects and Western countries concerned by the role that Islamists will play, Saudi Arabia may struggle to unite the enemies of Assad.

    For Saudi Arabia, Syria has been secondary to Yemen this year as the main cockpit in an overarching struggle for regional influence with Iran, but the ruling Al Saud continue to regard the Syrian civil war as a pivotal battlefield in the rivalry.

    Fighting has escalated in Syria in recent weeks and Russian warplanes have intervened to support Damascus while a U.S.-led coalition has stepped up strikes against Islamic State targets from the crowded skies over the country.

    Bloodshed, Refugees and attacks

    Syrian Rebels trainingIncreased bloodshed, an influx of Syrian refugees into Europe, and a wave of international attacks claimed by Islamic State revived international efforts to contain the violence.

    "This is the first meeting where we have all the opposition, the politicians and the armed groups," said Hadi al-Bahra, a member of the Turkey-based SNC opposition coalition.

    Those talks should start by Jan. 1, under the terms of an agreement reached by world powers and regional states at a meeting in Vienna a month ago.

    Participants invited to the Riyadh meeting include Islamist factions Islam Army and Ahrar al-Sham, a group whose founders had links to al Qaeda. Ahrar al-Sham fights alongside the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's Syrian wing, while espousing a nationalist agenda.

    A dozen rebel groups who fight under the banner of the Free Syrian Army are also due to attend, including groups vetted by the United States that have received foreign military aid.

    Of the two most powerful armed groups in Syria, Islamic State has not been invited and the al Qaeda offshoot Nusra Front is also not expected.

    National Coalition member Nagham al-Ghadri said the two-day meeting aimed to agree on a document to take to any talks with the Damascus government, as well as an agreed negotiating team.

    She said the opposition would not back down from its demand that Assad step down as soon as a transitional ruling body - which an international meeting on Syria called for three years ago - is established.

    "The minute the transitional period should start, he should leave. We don't agree that he could stay during the transitional period," Ghadri said.

    The Syrian government has dismissed any talk of a transitional body being imposed in Syria, saying any change in power in Damascus must be decided by the Syrian people.

    Some Western countries which called for Assad to step aside in 2011 have softened their demands, suggesting he could at least remain for an interim period.

    Ghadri said the outside world was sending mixed messages over Syria, showing that international divisions ran even deeper than any splits in the Syrian opposition. "It's not just us. We know what we want," she said. "Some countries don't know what they want from Syria."

    SEE ALSO: There may be an even bigger threat after ISIS is defeated

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    syrian refugees

    Between refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), more than half of the Syrian population has left their homes since the war began in 2011. To understand why this has happened and what can be done to reverse it, one must examine the country's demographics in detail.

    syriamap30november

    A population shortfall

    Syria currently has around 16 million residents — a far cry from the 2010 UN projection that the population would reach 22.6 million by the end of 2015. The birth deficit and excess mortality (violent and natural) have reduced the natural population growth by half since 2011. Even if refugees are added to the current population figure, the total would be only 21.3 million, or 1.3 million less than the prewar projection.

    The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered 4.2 million Syrians thus far, but that figure undervalues the actual number of refugees by at least 20%. Some refugees refuse to register for fear of being arrested and taken back to Syria (as is happening in Lebanon), while many wealthy refugees do not see the point of registering. So a more realistic estimate of total refugees is 5.3 million.

    That number is expected to increase sharply.

    syriapopulation In Aleppo province alone, escalating hostilities have spurred another 200,000 people to leave their homes in the past two months. The Russian offensive and the lack of short-term hope for peace have convinced many living in relatively calm areas to leave as well, and more may follow suit if the recent German-led plan to welcome more refugees is implemented.

    Areas of control

    Although it is difficult to give an exact number for IDPs, the available data suggests that 6.5 million Syrians have fled violent areas for safer parts of the country. This includes about 2 million who have fled to the current government-controlled zone from areas controlled by other factions, as well as millions of others who fled one regime-controlled area for another due to intense fighting.

    The areas held by rebels (the northwest, the south, and other small pockets such as Ghouta) have lost the most people because they are the least secure — Russian and regime airstrikes impede normal life there, and the presence of numerous different rebel factions creates persistent insecurity. The area held by the self-styled Islamic State (IS) seems safer, in part because it has a central authority.

    Although religious minorities and secular Sunnis fled Raqqa and Deir al-Zour, they were replaced by foreign jihadists and Syrians displaced from Aleppo. In general, people tend to seek refuge where they have relatives, and where there is no fighting; the identity of the faction that controls the area does not necessarily matter to them as much.

    The Kurdish area attracts displaced Kurds but few Arabs — no surprise given that the faction in control, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), aims to make the area ethnically homogeneous.

    Mainstream media reports often highlight the fact that the Syrian army controls less than 17% of the country, and IS over 50%.

    Yet these seemingly shocking figures do not factor in Syria's geography — namely that 47% of the country is sparsely inhabited steppes. Of course, extending control over some of the steppes may hold ​​strategic interest for IS; Palmyra is a traffic hub with important gas and oil resources, for example, and it borders Iraq and Jordan. In any case, the Assad regime controls the largest share of Syria's residential areas, and also the most populated area.

    Around 10.1 million inhabitants live in the government zone, or 63% of the total resident population. The areas controlled by the other three main factions (Kurds, IS, and rebels) are roughly equal, with about 2 million each. In short, the regime has gone from controlling about 20 million Syrians prewar to about 10 million now. 

    syriaareapopulation

    Local ethnic cleansing

    The large-scale population movements have not been a simple byproduct of war. Rather, they represent conscious strategies of ethnic cleansing by each faction.

    syriamapsectarianTo be sure, the ethno-sectarian composition of the country as a whole has not changed much, despite the departure of disproportionately Christian and Sunni Arab refugees. Christians have traditionally been scattered throughout the country and do not have their own area of refuge like the Alawites and Druze, spurring many of them to flee abroad.

    As for Sunni Arabs, because the insurgency took root in their ranks, they have been the first target of regime repression and airstrikes (though some Sunni clans support Bashar al-Assad and have remained safe in the government zone). Overall, Syria's current population is 22% religious minorities, 16% Kurds, and 61% Sunni Arabs — in other words, not that different from the prewar composition.

    syriamigrationThese figures could change in the coming months, of course, particularly if the PYD creates a continuous zone of Kurdish control along the border with Turkey by seizing territories between Azaz and Jarabulus.

    Any such move to connect the northwestern Kurdish enclave of Afrin with the rest of the PYD's territory in the northeast (known as Rojava) could spur hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arabs to flee.

    Meanwhile, expanded efforts to eliminate IS will likely produce an internal Sunni war between tribes supporting the terrorist group and other factions, creating further refugee flows. 

    syrianrefugeebysectFor now, Syria's overall population figures hide the rampant ethnic separation already occurring within territories controlled by each faction.

    Acutely aware that its Alawite base is a shrinking minority, the regime has created a zone of control with 41% religious minorities, compared to the national figure of 22%. The army consistently prioritizes asserting its grip over Christian, Alawite, Druze, Ismaili, and Shiite localities.

    syriapopulationsectIn contrast, rebel victories often spur local religious and ethnic minorities to depart. Only the Druze area of Jabal al-Summaq in northwestern Idlib province remains in the rebel zone, enjoying special Saudi protection in connection with Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt — it is the fragile exception that proves the rule. Rebel groups dominate a Sunni Arab territory; the main minority there is Sunni Turkmen, which is probably the most anti-Assad group.

    Similarly, all religious minorities tend to flee IS-held areas. Some Kurds have remained behind; IS does not seem to distinguish them from local Sunni Arabs, probably because they are Sunni believers as well. That said, many secular Kurds have fled to PYD territory.

    In the Kurdish zone of Rojava, Arabs must agree to live as minorities — as the Kurds did during centuries under Arab rule — or leave. This reversal of power is intolerable for many Sunni Arabs accustomed to dominating the northeast, leading some to support IS.

    The fact that the regime-controlled zone is the most diverse does not mean that Assad is more benevolent than the rebels, Kurds, or IS. Rather, it reflects his political strategy.

    He knows he must expel millions of Sunni Arabs to make the balance of power more favorable to minorities who support him. He also needs to divide the Sunnis by redistributing land and housing that belonged to refugees, making loyalist Sunnis who remain behind even more beholden to him and pitting them against any who decide to return.

    In sum, the Syrian conflict is a sectarian war, and ethnic cleansing is an integral part of the strategy used by various actors, even if they claim otherwise.

    What ethnic cleansing means for Syria's future

    A man rides a bicycle near damaged buildings in Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, Syria October 27, 2015. REUTERS/Bassam KhabiehAlthough many refugees and IDPs will want to return home once peace is established, they will be unable to do so because of their ethnicity and/or political affiliation.

    Resettling displaced people will become a strategic question for each player. Their efforts at local ethnic cleansing are already making Syria's de facto partition more and more irremediable. Sectarian diversity is disappearing in many areas of the country, and this process of regional homogenization is drawing internal borders.

    Yet formal partition is not necessarily a good solution. It could generate new conflicts, as seen when Sudan split and then the new country of South Sudan dissolved into civil war.

    Therefore, the international community may need to work toward a Syrian agreement that lies somewhere between the Taif Accord, which imposed a kind of unity on Lebanon, and the Dayton Agreement, which imposed a difficult partition on Bosnia under intense foreign supervision. Syria's various communities will accept living in a new, united Syrian Republic, but not the Syrian Arab Republic as it existed prewar.

    A federal system would be the best political regime because the previous centralization cannot be reestablished, whatever the ruling group.

    Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor and research director at the University of Lyon 2, is a visiting fellow at The Washington Institute.

    SEE ALSO: Assad Regime bombardment in Syria kills 56 civilians

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    Donald Trump is catching fire on all sides of the political spectrum after calling on for a "complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States."

    Some have called the comments incredibly divisive, while others have gone as far as comparing the presidential candidate to Adolf Hitler.

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    Heavy smoke rises following an airstrike by the US-led coalition aircraft in Kobani, Syria, during fighting between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, as seen from the outskirts of Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border, October 18, 2014.

    At least 26 Syrian civilians have been killed in an airstrike suspected to have been launched by the US-led coalition against the so-called Islamic State, piling pressure on the alliance after allegations another bombing raid left regime soldiers dead.

    The coalition has been bombarding the Islamic State group for more than a year in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, where the jihadists have declared a self-styled caliphate.

    But according to a monitoring group, strikes on Monday on the village of Al-Khan in north-eastern Syria only left civilians dead.

    Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Isis is in control of Al-Khan but is only on its outskirts, “which is why all of the deaths were civilians”.

    The death toll included at least seven children and four women, he said, adding that it was likely to rise as more than a dozen civilians were still missing under rubble.

    A spokesman for US Central Command said the military was investigating the allegations. “We take all such allegations seriously and conduct credibility assessments of all information we receive regarding civilian casualties. If the information is deemed credible we will investigate and publicly release the results of the investigation,” the spokesman said.

    Last month, the US said four civilians were “likely” to have been killed in strikes against Isis in Iraq. And in November 2014, it admitted accidentally killing two children in a strike in Syria.

    The Al-Khan strike came with the coalition already under pressure over allegations it carried out a raid the previous day that killed Syrian soldiers, in the first such case.

    In a letter to the UN security council and secretary general Ban Ki-moon, Syria accused the coalition of targeting an army camp in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor on Sunday, killing three soldiers and wounding 13.

    ISIS

    The foreign ministry letter condemned the attack as “a flagrant aggression”.

    The Observatory said four soldiers died in the first incident of US-led strikes killing Syrian troops.

    A Syrian military source gave the same toll, and said the attack late Sunday hit several buildings used as weapons depots and an army training camp, damaging two tanks.

    But the US denied the claim, saying four alliance airstrikes in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour all hit oil wells about 55km (34 miles) south-east of Ayyash.

    “We did not strike any vehicles or personnel targets in this area. We have no indication any Syrian soldiers were even near our strikes,” the coalition statement said, adding that it takes allegations of potential collateral damage seriously and investigates them.

    Much of Deir Ezzor is under Isis control, but the regime still has a presence in small areas, including in the provincial capital.

    The province’s oil has been a major source of Isis funding, but on Monday analysis firm IHS said the group was having trouble making ends meet due to airstrikes on its oil infrastructure.

    IHS estimated Isis’s overall monthly income to be about $80m as of late 2015, around half of it from levies and confiscations.

    But it noted the group also had significant costs because it administers large swathes of territory.

    The Syrian government has regularly criticised the US-led strikes as ineffective and illegal because they are not coordinated with regime forces.

    isisstrike1

    “The US coalition lacks the seriousness and credibility to effectively combat terrorism,” the foreign ministry said.

    Staunch regime ally Moscow began its own aerial campaign in Syria on 30 September and coordinates its strikes with Damascus.

    On Sunday, Barack Obama vowed to destroy Isis and hunt down its followers at home and abroad.

    It followed a shooting rampage in California last week that saw an apparently radicalised couple kill 14 people.

    While pledging to “hunt down terrorist plotters in any country”, Obama also said he would not be “drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq and Syria”.

    “They know they can’t defeat us on the battlefield ... but they also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops and draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits,” he said.

    Elsewhere, Syrian media said four people were killed in rebel rocket fire near the now-closed Russian consulate in Aleppo city.

    This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk

    This article was written by Staff and Agencies from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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    Trump Monmouth thumb

    Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump made the rounds on the morning shows on Tuesday, facing backlash over his proposal to bar Muslim immigrants and tourists from the US for the time being.

    "Morning Joe" host Joe Scarborough asked Trump whether the US should send more ground troops to the Middle East to take territory away from the terrorist group ISIS (also known as the Islamic State and ISIL), Trump said "you'd need some ground troops" to knock out the group's de-facto capital of Raqqa, Syria.

    "Here's what I'd do," Trump said. "I'd knock out the capital and I'd knock it out big and strong. I'd take over the oil and I'd keep the oil. ... You'll need some ground troops, yeah."

    Trump then talked about the importance of cutting off ISIS' sources of wealth.

    "The only way you're going to beat ISIS, Joe, is to take their financing away, to take their money away, and the way you're going to do that is by banking and by knocking out their oil," he said.

    Scarborough then said that the US is not going to win the fight against ISIS by "carpet bombing," a partial reference to a statement made by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). and asked Trump specifically whether he would support calls for 10,000 ground troops as part of an international force to fight the jihadists.

    Trump danced around the question a bit as he continued to talk about taking ISIS' oil and making money from it.

    "I want to knock out their capital and I want to knock out the oil. And I want to take over the oil, and I want to ring it so that the oil is safe. And we're going to take the oil. We're going to give some of the profits of the oil to our wounded warriors and to our veterans and to the families of the people whose family and sons and daughters died in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria," Trump said.

    He then said he would support sending 10,000 ground troops to the Middle East to defeat ISIS and would encourage working with other countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia.

    "I think it's wonderful. If Russia wants to drop bombs on ISIS, anybody wants to drop bombs on ISIS, I'm all for them," Trump said.

    donald trump

    Earlier on in the show, Trump suggested that if he had been president before the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, the World Trade Center might still be standing today.

    "I was the one that called Osama bin Laden," Trump said. "... I would have had Osama bin Laden knocked out, and maybe the World Trade Center, as it was, would have been standing right now."

    Other candidates who are seeking the Republican nomination for president in 2016 have also come out in favor of sending more troops to the Middle East to defeat ISIS, while some have stopped short of calling for proverbial boots on the ground.

    Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania), and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) have come out in support of sending some ground troops to combat the militant group.

    Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) haven't gone so far as to say they'd put more boots on the ground.

    A recent CNN poll showed that 53% of Americans say the US should send ground troops to Iraq or Syria to combat ISIS.

    President Barack Obama has deployed some special forces to Iraq and Syria, but has been reluctant to drastically scale up the number of US troops in those countries.

    SEE ALSO: Republican rival goes nuclear: 'Trump's a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot'

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    ISIS is not only one of the most threatening terrorist organizations in the world -- but also one of the richest, raising hundreds of millions of dollars a year. A recent report from the UK Treasury outlines just how terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda are funded.

    Produced by Jenner Deal. Original Reporting by Oscar Williams-Grut.

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    isis militant

    The international effort to stem the flow of would-be extremists to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS appears to be a bust.

    According to a new private intelligence report, the number of foreign fighters in the region has doubled since 2014.

    The estimate by the Soufan Group is the latest indication that efforts to stem the flow of jihadists rallying to the terror group’s black banner have failed.

    Somewhere between 27,000 and 31,000 fighters from 86 countries have entered the conflict in the last year, according to the New York-based firm, compared to roughly 12,000 in Syria in June 2014.

    While the Middle East and North Africa produced the most recruits -- around 8,000 each – upwards of 5,000 came from Western Europe. Another 2,400 came from Russia, quadruple the number since the last time the study was published and an indication that President Vladimir Putin faces an increasing problem with radicalization on his soil.

    By contrast, the flow of recruits to Syria and Iraq from North American has been stable and relatively small. As of September 2015, about 150 Americans had successfully traveled to the region, with another 130 travelling from Canada.

    Of those international fighters who travel to join ISIS, 20 to 30 percent return to their home countries, representing a new threat in the countries of origin.

    "The foreign fighter phenomenon in Iraq and Syria is truly global,” the report states.

    “The Islamic State has seen success beyond the dreams of other terrorist groups that now appear conventional and even old-fashioned, such as Al-Qaeda,” the document adds.

    President Obama has targeted the terror network’s worldwide influence, convening a summit in Washington earlier this year aimed at countering violent extremism as well as chairing a United Nations summit on the topic.

    San Bernardino shooting suspectsYet the push was widely fallen flat, with ISIS using social media to inspire followers around the globe, the latest example being last week’s terror attack in San Bernardino, California, that killed 14.

    The suspects, a man and wife, allegedly had been radicalized for “quite some time,” according to FBI officials, and the couple was reportedly inspired by ISIS.

    Tuesday’s report could influence the swirling Capitol Hill debate over Syrian refugees.

    The president wants to resettle 10,000 migrants in the U.S. but after the ISIS attacks in Paris last month, in which some of the shooters used fake passports to enter France, the GOP-controlled Congress voted to “pause” the effort. Lawmakers are now weighing a number of other ways to tackle what many view as a serious security threat to the country.

    It’s unclear what steps Washington can take to lower the number of would-be acolytes. In September the House Homeland Security Committee’s bipartisan foreign fighter task force concluded the U.S. had failed to reverse the tide of foreign fighters. But solutions have been slow in coming as Capitol Hill has been occupied with other political fights.

    In a primetime address to the nation on Sunday, Obama suggested the best was to prevent ISIS from gaining more recruits is to refrain from deploying U.S. ground troops to the region.

    “We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria. That’s what groups like ISIL want. They know they can’t defeat us on the battlefield. ISIL fighters were part of the insurgency that we faced in Iraq,” the president said.

    “But they also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops, draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits.”

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    France French Paris Bataclan Police Officers Gun

    PARIS (Reuters) - A third man who attacked the Bataclan concert hall in Paris on Nov. 13 has been identified as a 23-year-old from Strasbourg who went to Syria with a group of other young people at the end of 2013, a judicial source and other officials said on Wednesday.

    Sources close to the situation named the attacker, who died in the assault, as Foued Mohamed-Aggad. Prime Minister Manuel Valls confirmed on BFMTV that the man had finally been identified.

    Other members of the group that went to Syria were arrested and imprisoned in May 2014 after their return, the sources said.

    Mohammed-Aggad's older brother Karim, who also visited Syria, is in jail in France, the judicial source said.

    The Bataclan shootings were part of a co-ordinated attack around Paris that killed 130 people. Islamic State, the militant group that now controls large parts of Syria and Iraq, claimed responsibility.

    The other two attackers at the Bataclan, among seven in all who died in the assaults around the city, have been named as Samy Amimour, 28, from Drancy, north east of Paris, and Ismail Omar Mostefai, 29, who lived in Chartres, south west of Paris.

    Amimour also spent time in Syria, as did the presumed ringleader of the Nov. 13 attackers, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 28, a Belgian of Moroccan origin who was killed the following week in a police raid near Paris.

    Another attacker, Salah Abdeslam, 26, French and born in Brussels, is still on the run.

    (Writing by Marine Pennetier and Andrew Callus; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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    ISIS Mosul

    Turkey's decision to deploy a limited number of troops to a military base near the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, Iraq, last weekend was quickly condemned by leading Iraqi officials who called the incursion a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.

    Iran-backed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi led calls for Turkish troops to be withdrawn immediately, which were echoed by Iraq's main Shia political parties — some of whom called for Iraq to launch airstrikes on Turkish soil if Ankara did not comply.

    Among Turkey's harshest critics was Russia, who called the move "illegal" and asked the UN Security Council to hold a meeting on Turkish military action in both Iraq and Syria on Tuesday.

    Turkey and Russia are in the midst of a showdown over Turkey's decision to down a Russian warplane that allegedly violated its airspace two weeks ago. But that is only one reason why Russia's condemnation of the Turkish incursion into Iraq was to be expected.

    Russia has been sharing"security and intelligence" information about the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) with Iraq since September — when Russian, Syrian, and Iranian military advisers began building a coordination cell in Baghdad in an effort to bolster the Iranian-backed Shia militias fighting ISIS in northern Iraq.

    Iraq ISIS Mosul MapWith Iran's implicit blessing, Russian president Vladimir Putin has therefore taken on a greater role in Iraq — a role that comes with certain political and military expectations.

    "The presence of the Turkish troops near Mosul certainly further complicates the situation between Russia and Turkey," Boris Zilberman, a Russia expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider in an email.

    "Not long ago there was buzz about Russia potentially deploying forces to Iraq. In light of current developments, the possibility of such a deployment may gain steam once again."

    He added: "If Turkey continues the deployment in Iraq, I would expect more bellicose language from Iraqi, Russian, and Iranian leaders. This only continues to raise the tensions and stakes in the regional conflict."

    'Setting up cards' for a dangerous new game

    Iraq has not taken kindly to overtures by members of NATO to deploy troops on Iraqi soil — even if it is in the name of fighting ISIS in the north.

    Earlier this month, the US announced that it intended to send a team of around 200 special-operations forces to conduct raids against ISIS militants operating in northern and western Iraq.

    Iraq's ruling alliance and powerful Shi'ite militias responded in force. A lawmaker from the Iran-backed Badr Organization announced that"if Abadi makes a unilateral decision to approve the deployment of American special forces, we will question him in parliament."

    He added: "He is aware that a questioning could lead to a vote of no confidence."

    The amount of influence Iran and its proxy militias wield over Iraqi politics cannot be understated, and its opposition to foreign intervention in Iraq is in line with Tehran's overarching objective to roll back US influence and expand its own power in the region.

    shia fighters iraq

    Russia, moreover, is an important Iranian ally. It was Qassem Soleimani, leader of the powerful Quds Force brigade — the military wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp. — who traveled to Moscow in late July to reportedly ask Russia for help in bolstering the Iranian proxy militias in Syria fighting on behalf of the regime.

    To that end, Abadi "could face further pressure to accept Russian assistance, an outcome that has become popular among Iranian proxies and the Sadrist Trend since Russia began launching airstrikes in Syria on September 30," the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) noted on its blog last weekend.

    Indeed, that “a Russian force” could intervene to expel Turkish troops has already been floated by at least one Iraqi politician, according to the ISW.

    Screen Shot 2015 12 08 at 3.41.32 PM

    It is unlikely, however, that Russia would risk a military confrontation with NATO to expel 100 Turkish troops from Iraqi soil.

    "I don’t think Russia will get directly involved in trying to expel the troops," Paul Stronski, a senior associate in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Business Insider in an email. "I think Russia is stretched thin — but they mightn’t object to Iran doing it."

    In any case, Turkey is keenly aware of the power that comes from being a member of NATO, which may explain its boldness in deploying troops to a Russian sphere of influence in the midst of a showdown with Moscow.

    "That Turkey sent military reinforcement to the temporary training camp in Bashiqa, effectively turning Bashiqa into a permanent military base, can be considered Turkey's answer" to Russia's aggressive military build-up along the Turkish-Syrian border, Metin Gurcan, a Turkish military expert who served as an adviser in Afghanistan between 2002-2008, told Business Insider.

    He added: "It looks like Turkey is setting up cards for a new game by changing the space of its crisis with Russia."

    A Sunni 'boutique power center'

    Turkey's desire to maintain a military presence in Iraq is also fundamentally motivated by Ankara's desire to "balance the increasing Russia-led Baghdad-Tehran-Damascus alliance that is Shia in nature," Gurcan said.

    Turkey, whose citizens are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims, has "been trying to form a sort of Sunni 'boutique power center' using three specific entities: the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG] in northern Iraq, Iraqi Sunni Arabs near Mosul, and Syrian Sunni Arabs," Gurcan said.

    turkey ataturkWladimir van Wilgenburg, a freelance journalist and expert on Kurdish affairs embedded in Iraqi Kurdistan, agreed that the desire to bolster Sunni Arabs in the region was an important motivation for Turkey's incursion into Iraq.

    "Turkey just wants to empower Sunni Arabs and Kurdish Peshmerga forces to counterbalance Iran and Baghdad," van Wilgenburg told Business Insider on Monday. "Turkey used to have a lot of influence among Sunni Arabs in Mosul, but they lost everything when ISIS took over all the Sunni Arab areas. That's why they are trying to work to empower Sunni Arab police forces around Mosul."

    He added: "Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi is under pressure from [former Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki and Iranian-backed Shia militias, that's why they are making a lot of noise."

    Merve Tahiroglu, a Turkey expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argued that Turkey was using the Peshmerga less as a counterweight to Iran than to its longtime enemy, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is headquartered in northern Iraq.

    "This could be Turkey’s way of showing the anti-IS coalition that it is helping the fight by working with the Kurds — just the group of Kurds it prefers," Tahiroglu said in an email.

    turkey peshmergaIn any case, Turkey seemed surprise by the uproar, and alleged that it had sent the troops at the request of the Iraqi defense minister to train Iraqi soldiers and the Kurdish peshmerga to fight the Islamic State.

    Still, Ankara has refused to withdraw its troops — and shows no signs of doing so anytime soon.

    "Turkey's moves in Iraq are, at least in part, a message to Russia that it too can act unilaterally or boldly in the region — but sometimes bold is not terribly helpful in defusing such a difficult diplomatic issue," Stronski said, noting that the incursion "adds one more layer of complication to the entire Russia-Turkey showdown and further muddles the fight against ISIS."

    Gurcan largely agreed.

    "For the first time, Turkey — which was once a giant talking too much but unable to bite — is trying to create de facto realities on the ground," he said.

    "This is a new thing for Russia, so we'll see how Moscow responds — and how the US manages the emergence of the new power center Turkey is seemingly trying to create. But at the end of the day, the winner is ISIS."

    SEE ALSO: Russia appears to have 'gone ballistic' in Syria — and it may be helping ISIS

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