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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    Ramadi 6th infantry regiment US troops iraq patrol


    • Political and social turbulence in the Middle East will continue to foster the rise of terrorist groups, some of which will have the motivation and capability to attack US interests.
    • As the United States looks to address these threats, it will attempt to find a strategy that is both effective and sustainable.
    • To this end, the United States will continue to provide training, intelligence and logistics support to local actors fighting against terrorist groups.
    • To supplement these efforts, however, the United States will have to steadily increase direct ground combat personnel — relying heavily on special operations forces.


    anti-ISIS air strikeThe Middle East's traditional power structures are crumbling, paving the way for new groups and threats to rise from the ruins. The United States, as a result, will be forced to reconsider its strategy in the region. Just as al Qaeda's setbacks enabled the Islamic State to flourish, so, too, will other terrorist groups move to fill the void created by the Islamic State's eventual decline.

    Terrorism will pose a threat to U.S. national security for the foreseeable future, and policymakers in Washington have no choice but to pursue more sustainable ways to counter it. The United States will ultimately shift its tactics in the region, striking a balance between empowering local security forces and selectively deploying specially trained and equipped forces in its attempt to tip the scales in the war against militant Islam.

    Rebuilding a Region

    AssadThe Middle East has been shaped by the wars, colonialism and post-Cold War fragmentation of the last century into a collection of states governed by militaries and monarchies. Yet, over the past decade a wave of foreign interventions and domestic social uprisings has torn many of these political structures away. At the same time, powerful third parties such as the United States have withdrawn from their alliances in the region, undermining the balance of power that their presence often ensured between the Middle East's major state and non-state actors.

    Amid these dramatic upheavals, regional concentrations of power are emerging in Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council. But the swathes of land between them remain mired in chaos as the societies left behind grapple with the ethnic and sectarian divisions that underlie the region. Nowhere is this more evident than in Iraq and Syria.

    sectarian middle east

    As the Middle East continues to break itself apart — reassembling the pieces may take decades — militant groups will take advantage of the resulting power vacuum to grow and proliferate. And as they increasingly engage with the stronger, more coherent military forces stationed throughout the region, they will use asymmetric tactics like terrorism to level the playing field and extend their reach.

    The Global War on Terrorism

    Anti terror policeThe United States did not begin to truly understand the threat that terrorism posed to its homeland until Sept. 11, 2001. In the wake of the attacks, U.S. leaders realized that with the right intent and capability, terrorist groups could successfully target and kill large numbers of American citizens on U.S. soil. To prevent an attack on the scale of 9/11 from happening again, former US President George W. Bush launched a widespread offensive against terrorist groups around the world that he dubbed the Global War on Terrorism.

    This name is something of a misnomer. The United States does not, and cannot, attack every terrorist group in the world. It simply does not have the will or the resources to do so. Furthermore, terrorism is a tactic, which by its nature cannot be eradicated. Instead, Washington chose to target transnational groups (and their support networks) that have demonstrated the intent and capability to attack the interests of the United States or its allies through asymmetric means.

    This strategy is not tied to any single group, although one organization may pose a greater and more urgent threat than others at certain times. For example, at its inception the strategy largely centered on finding and dismantling the al Qaeda core, held responsible for coordinating the 9/11 attacks.

    Now that this goal has been largely achieved, the United State's focus has shifted to the Islamic State, where it will likely remain for the next few years as the US-led coalition works to degrade the jihadist group's capabilities.

    But even if the United States can marginalize the Islamic State, the underlying elements that enabled the group's rise will not disappear as quickly. As conflicts throughout the Middle East continue to play out, other groups will surface with similar capabilities and intentions.

    These groups will not necessarily all be Sunni or even religious in nature, like al Qaeda and the Islamic State are. For example, the Marxist Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front has already attacked US targets in Turkey, as have Shiite militias in Iraq.

    In the face of such threats to come, it is hard to ignore the suggestion that Washington simply abandon the region. But the Middle East is a strategic supplier of oil to the global market, and the critical link connecting Africa, Asia and Europe. Leaving it to its fate is not an option. Then again, neither is more of the same.

    Invasion vs. Desertion

    US Army firefight in Kunar, afghanistanIt is increasingly clear that the United States' approach to eradicating al Qaeda — launching full-fledged invasions, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq — is not sustainable in the long run. The goal of each ground incursion was to strike the jihadist group within its own safe-havens. While both invasions were successful in some ways, they also failed to decisively eliminate the threat.

    In Afghanistan, al Qaeda fighters were able to escape across unguarded borders and fade into the difficult surrounding terrain to avoid capture. From there, they adopted a blend of guerrilla tactics and terrorism to wage a protracted war against foreign troops.

    In Iraq, remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime were able to quickly reorganize into a capable insurgency, while local Shiite militias took advantage of Hussein's destruction to launch attacks of their own. In both cases, US leaders quickly, if begrudgingly, realized that a prolonged force presence would be needed to suppress new threats. While this provided some level of stability to each country, it solved neither Baghdad nor Kabul's problems entirely. Large numbers of "occupying" troops became the catalyst for increased recruitment into these militant groups, further exacerbating the problem.

    Unable to fully destroy its enemies and caught in the middle of a bloody sectarian war, the United States began to look for an exit strategy. Neither it nor its allies could afford to continue deploying huge portions of their militaries to wage wars with no end. By overcommitting in the Middle East, the United States had essentially hamstrung its military capabilities elsewhere in the world.

    us bases middle east coalition stratfor map

    At the same time, political pressure was building to draw operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to a close. In the midst of a sharp recession, US policymakers were being forced to choose between making deep budget cuts and taking on greater debt to fund conflicts overseas. Meanwhile, the body count steadily rose, and the American public became less and less willing to sacrifice its soldiers to an intangible cause.

    And so, US counterterrorism strategy changed. The new goal was to withdraw all forces belonging to the United States and its allies and replace them with assistance from afar. Financial aid, intelligence sharing and logistical support became the West's primary tools of influence.

    Yet this approach is also failing. Security in Afghanistan degraded alongside the United States' eventual drawdown to a small but sustainable footprint. And in Iraq, once all foreign personnel had departed, the absence of capable Western forces and the outbreak of civil war in neighboring Syria enabled al Qaeda in Iraq to transform: First into the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and then into the Islamic State.

    Finding the Perfect Balance

    Afghan forces prepare for battle with Taliban on the outskirts of Kunduz city, northern Afghanistan June 21, 2015. REUTERS/StringerIn light of these developments, the United States has had to adjust its approach once again. Washington and its allies have already halted further troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, expanding their mission timelines and in some cases reversing the decision to further reduce the military footprint on the ground. Meanwhile, the United States has redeployed forces to the Iraq theater — and beyond — in an effort to stabilize the region following the Islamic State's rapid spread. More recently, Washington pushed a small contingent of US special operations forces into Syria after efforts to train a local proxy force repeatedly failed.

    Still, Washington continues to search for the perfect balance between wide-scale invasion and complete disengagement. So far, the attempt to partially re-engage in Iraq and Syria with tangential combat support has either achieved limited success or failed outright. Western-backed forces have regained some territory in Iraq over the past year, but what gains have been made are gradual and costly. On a positive note, though, the strategy of limited engagement is far more sustainable than either of its predecessors.

    As the United States settles in for a lengthy battle against the terrorists that wish to attack it, it will continue looking for ways to effectively combat its enemies without outstripping or overcommitting its resources. What we are seeing is a slow tipping of the scales as small portions of direct combat power are added to supplement the combat support of local forces already in place. 

    m9 small arms handgun marines training marksmanship one armUltimately, this hybridized force structure will allow for a combination indirect and direct support across a large portion of the region. On the one hand, Washington will support its local allies with training, intelligence, logistics support and airpower; on the other, it will use small portions of units and special operations forces to shift the tempo of battle in its allies' favor. This will require SOF to work in concert with other small ground units that can conduct raids, manage the fight, and coordinate a variety of fires including precision guided munitions, artillery, and close-air support. This strategy will inevitably lead to a yearslong commitment — just to address the Islamic State.

    While this approach will eventually degrade the Islamic State, the Middle East as a whole will continue to be riven in different directions as new power structures and alliances emerge and gel. This will only incubate more militant groups with a continued goal to challenge the United States and its interest in the region. This in turn will force Washington to stay engaged in the Middle East as military planners shift to the next threat, be it similar to before or entirely different.

    To bring about an acceptable level of stability — or instability, from the US point of view — will require the commitment of tens of thousands of personnel on the ground and in the skies above the region, for many years to come.

    SEE ALSO: Senate intelligence chair looking into whether Ted Cruz revealed classified information during the debate

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    Hezbollah 2000

    The Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah has seen between 1,300 and 1,500 of its fighters killed in battles in the Syrian civil war, which means that together with the wounded it has lost as much as a third of its fighting force, according to Israeli estimates.

    Some 5,000 of the organization’s members have been injured in fighting alongside regime troops against rebel groups, including the Islamic State.

    Last weekend, Arab media published reports that Hezbollah had lost 14 fighters in battles with IS in the area of Baalbek near the border with Syria, and pictures of the fighters were published in Lebanese media. According to those reports, IS also took sustained casualties, with dozens of its members killed and many more injured.

    Recently, Hezbollah has been publishing details of its members killed in Syria and is not trying to hide its losses, in contrast to its policy during the early years of the Syrian civil war, which broke out in 2011.

    Fighters are now given official funerals and their coffins are covered with Hezbollah flags.

    Along with its operations in the vicinity of the border between Syria and Lebanon, the Hezbollah campaign is also being carried out in other regions, such as the area known as Alawistan near Latika in northwestern Syria, the stronghold of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad.

    Over the last three months Hezbollah has also battled Syrian opposition groups in the Idlib area alongside members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and regular Syrian army forces, while enjoying massive Russian air cover as part of Moscow’s efforts to prop up its ally Assad.

    Russia airstrikes Syria Dec 6

    However, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have also taken heavy loses: According to Iranian media reports 80 soldiers have killed and some were taken captive by various Syrian militia groups.

    In July, Israel Radio reported that Hezbollah had arrested 175 of its own fighters after they refused to take part in battles in the Syrian city of Zabadani, close to the border with Lebanon.

    The report also quoted the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat as saying that Hezbollah fighters dispatched to Syria to shore up the regime there had begun to show reluctance to confront the rebel groups seeking to overthrow Assad. According to the report, the hesitation began after 120 Hezbollah fighters were killed in confrontations with opposition groups and another 200 were wounded.

    Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

    SEE ALSO: These maps show how ethnic cleansing has become a weapon in Syria's civil war

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    People cycle past a Syrian Army soldier along a street during a biking tour for charity, in Damascus December 11, 2015. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

    The United States has delivered a fresh supply of ammunition to Syrian Arab fighters ahead of an expected stiff battle with Islamic State as they push toward the Syrian town of al-Shadadi, a key logistics hub for the group, U.S. officials tell Reuters.

    The munitions were shipped into Syria over land in recent days to Syrian Arab forces fighting in the northeast part of the country, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the operation.

    It appeared to be the third delivery of ammunition to the Syrian Arabs since the United States started supplying them with an airdrop in October.

    The Syrian Arabs are allied with Kurdish fighters, and the initial shipment of U.S. ammunition unnerved NATO ally Turkey, which is sensitive to any operations that could benefit Syrian Kurdish YPG militia.

    The Syrian Arabs number around 5,000 fighters. With the Kurds and others, they form the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces seeking to claw back land from Islamic State, officials say.

    The U.S. officials said the fighters were preparing eventually to move toward al-Shadadi, which is located on a strategic network of highways. Capturing it would help isolate Raqqa, Islamic State's defacto capital.

    U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, said the militants used al-Shadadi to stage weapons, equipment and personnel for distribution throughout the battlefield.

    al-Shadadi isismap

    Warren declined to comment on any specific U.S. resupply operations but noted past U.S. commitments to carry them out.

    The Pentagon also declined to comment on any specific operations but noted President Barack Obama has said the support of Syrian forces on the ground is a key part of his strategy for combating Islamic State. 

    Battlefield Advances

    Syrian Rebels training

    U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they expect Islamic State to put up a tough fight for al-Shadadi, largely because of its strategic importance.

    One official said the group was believed to be digging long trenches and berms to prepare fighting positions.

    Washington's strategy in Syria has shifted this year from trying to train thousands of vetted fighters outside the country to supplying groups headed by U.S.-vetted commanders.

    In October, Obama decided to deploy dozens of special operations forces to northern Syria to coordinate with local ground forces, acting in an advisory role away from combat.

    Speaking at the Pentagon on Monday, Obama said the special forces had already begun supporting local Syrian forces as they push south.

    The U.S. military has said it would dole out the ammunition to Syrian Arabs as the fighters showed progress on the battlefield pushing into Islamic State-held territory.

    Air Force Drop

    That began in earnest with the capture of the town of al-Hawl after the October airdrop and has been followed by the seizure of smaller villages further south this month.

    The U.S. military estimates the larger Democratic Forces of Syria has captured around 1,000 square kilometers of terrain in the past six weeks or so, bolstered by coalition air strikes.

    U.S. officials declined to estimate how long it might take for the Syrian Arabs and others who form part of the Syrian Democratic Forces to take al-Shadadi.

    The battle against Islamic State has often confounded U.S. expectations, sometimes moving slower than hoped. The Iraqi forces have fought for months to retake the city of Ramadi, which fell to Islamic State in May.

    But the coalition's Kurdish allies needed only 48 hours to claim the town of Sinjar in Iraq last month, cutting off a key Islamic State supply route.

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    putin moscow

    In his annual marathon news conference Thursday morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to Russia's intervention in the Syrian civil war as a military "exercise" for Russia's "air forces, air defense," and "intelligence."

    "We did not start the war" in Syria, Putin told reporters during his end-of-year news conference from Moscow, according to a translation by the state-sponsored news agency Russia Today.

    He added: "We are just conducting separate operations, using our air forces, air defense, intelligence. This is not a serious burden for the budget ... It's hard to imagine a better exercise [for the Russian forces]. So we can train there [in Syria] for a long time without any serious harm to our budget."

    Boris Zilberman, a Russia expert at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, said he thought the statement was an admission of one of Moscow's key intentions for the Russian military intervention in Syria.

    "I think he is basically saying that the conflict in Syria is allowing Russia to showcase their air and sea capabilities in a real conflict," Zilberman told Business Insider.

    "He doesn't say it, but I think the point he is getting at is that the conflict in Syria increases the Russians' military readiness."

    syria russia airstrike

    Russia reformed its air force, weaponry, and intelligence after a five-day war with Georgia in 2008 that exposed serious deficiencies in the Russian military's mass-mobilization capabilities, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

    The results of these reforms have been showcased in Syria, where Russia began building up its military arsenal in September — two months after Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force, visited Moscow asking for Russia's help in shoring up the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

    A Russian air campaign launched on September 30 has consequently used a mix of updated Soviet aircraft, including Su-24, Su-30SM, and Su-34 fighter jetscapable of carrying out airstrikes with a surprising level of accuracy.

    "Syria is a debut of sorts for Russia's tactical aviation," military expert Michael Kofman wrote in October for War on the Rocks. "Despite its visible limitations, watching footage from Russian drones of relatively accurate nighttime airstrikes in Syria is almost science fiction compared to what the Russian air force was capable of as recently as 2008."

    Russia is reportedly building a second base of operations for Moscow's air assets in Syria southeast of Homs, at the current Syrian military base of Shaayrat. Russia has largely been carrying out airstrikes from its base in northwestern Syria, in the Latakia province.

    Russia air bases syriaFollowing Turkey's downing of a Russian warplane near the Turkish-Syrian border late last month, Moscow ordered that all Russian fighter jets conducting airstrikes in Syria be equipped with air-to-air missiles for self-defense.

    A powerful S-400 surface-to-air missile-defense system was also reportedly deployed to the Russian air base in Latakia to deter Turkish jets from shooting down Russia's warplanes in the future.

    The Syrian civil war, now entering its fifth year, is also a chance for Russia to use its Black Sea fleet. Though admittedly outdated, the fleet wields a naval variant of the S-300 defense system — one of the most potent anti-aircraft missiles in existence.

    Indeed, as Kofman noted, "Military reforms, a large modernization effort, and a relentless exercise program have restored competence and capability to a percentage of the Russian military."

    More than 4,000 Russian military personnel are now deployed in Syria— roughly double the number who were there initially providing repair services and support to Russia's naval base at Tartus.

    Trainers and advisers are working alongside the Syrian military, and forces are guarding Russia's bases in western Syria. None of the forces are engaged in a ground-combat role, the Russian government has said.

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    syrian refugees

    A leading rights group has released new evidence that up to 7,000 Syrians who died in state detention centres were tortured, mistreated, or executed and insisted that holding officials to account should be central to peace efforts.

    Human Rights Watch has identified 19 victims from a mass collection of photographs known as the Caesar files, which were released by a military defector who chronicled deaths in Syrian regime custody for more than two years.

    Details of the deaths shed new light on the conditions endured by detainees in at least five government-run detention centres, which are thought to have held at least 117,000 people since anti-regime protests broke out in March 2011.

    The new details were released on Wednesday morning in Moscow, two days before a 17-nation meeting of the International Support Group on Syria is due to reconvene in New York to try to map a way out of the nearly five-year war that continues to ravage the region and reverberate throughout Europe.

    Russia and the US have been increasingly vocal in efforts to end the crisis. However, both sides remain poles apart over what steps needed to be taken. Moscow has consistently opposed allowing regime officials to be held to account through international justice. The US, meanwhile, has sent mixed signals on a political transition away from the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, a key demand of opposition groups fighting to oust him.

    russia bomb syriaHuman Rights Watch said some of the deaths have unambiguously been traced to five detention centres and two state hospitals around Damascus, which have been the focus of widespread claims of abuse and killing.

    They include sites that have been infamous throughout the war and during several decades of ruthless state control. One feared site, the 601 military hospital in the Damascus suburb of Mezze is where many of the bodies were taken, witnesses said.

    The existence of such locations has been seen by opposition communities as a key driver of the revolt against Assad. None of the 19 bodies identified by Human Rights Watch have been recovered and families have received death certificates in only two cases – both of which said the victim had died from heart or respiratory failure.

    Each case was studied by a forensic pathologist who examined multiple photographs of the victims. Evidence was found of starvation, blunt force trauma, wound infection, and in one case a gunshot wound to the head.

    Bashar al-Assad

    “We have no doubt that the people shown in the Caesar photographs were starved, beaten, and tortured in a systematic way, and on a massive scale,” said Human Rights Watch’s deputy Middle East director Nadim Houry.

    “These photographs represent just a fraction of people who have died while in Syrian government custody – thousands more are suffering the same fate.”

    The only woman in the files has been identified as Rehab al-Allawi, 25, an engineering student at Damascus University, who disappeared in January 2013, while working with an activist group.

    Her family said they paid $18,000 (£12,000) to Syrian officials for information about her, but received nothing. She was eventually recognised from the Caesar files and her death was confirmed by pathologists who examined photographs of her body.

    Free Syrian army fighters gesture after they took control of Tal al-Zaatar in the province of Daraa, Syria August 13, 2015. REUTERS/Alaa Al-FaqirAhmad al-Musalmani, 14, is believed to be the youngest victim in the Caesar files. His family learned that he had been detained at a regime checkpoint near Daraa in southern Syria after an anti-Assad song had been found on his phone.

    When the Caesar photographs were released, his uncle Dahi al-Musalmani searched through them and found Ahmed.

    “I went directly to the folder of the Air Force Intelligence,” he told the report’s authors. It was a shock. Oh, it was the shock of my life to see him here. I looked for him, 950 days I looked for him. I counted each day. When his mother was dying, she told me: ‘I leave him under your protection.’ What protection could I give?”

    Caesar, whose identity remains protected, has briefed US legislators on the scale of the death and suffering he was forced to chronicle. He remains in hiding. The photos have been showcased around the world as evidence of a systematic detention policy run by Syrian officials. Assad has denied that mass detention or abuses have taken place.

    Caesar’s claims were first published by the Guardian and CNN in February 2014.


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    French jet rafael Scalp-EG cruise missile

    On Dec. 15, the French Air Force conducted a raid against ISIS targets using the Scalp-EG cruise missile for the first time since the beginning of Operation Chammal.

    According to a statement from the French Ministry of Defense  the ai strike involved ten aircraft from their deployment airfields in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

    The raid targeted Daesh headquarters, training center and a logistics deposit, including some hardened buildings, in the region of al-Qaim, near the border separating Iraq from Syria.

    Scalp EG (Système de Croisière Autonome à Longue Portée – Emploi Général, General Purpose Long Range Standoff Cruise Missile) is the French designation for the MBDA Storm Shadow, a conventional, stealthy, 1.300 kg standoff weapon (over 5-mt long), designed for use against very high value targets in all-weather conditions from a safe distance of about 250 km.

    After release, the 900K Euro-a-piece air-launched cruise missile’s wings deploy and the weapon navigates its way to the target at low-level using terrain profile matching and an integrated Global Positioning System.

    Hitting the target, the 450 kg BROACH warhead uses an initial penetrating charge to enter a fortified bunker, then a variable delay fuze controls detonation of the main warhead.

    At least 15 Scalp missiles were fired by the French combat planes in Libya in 2011.

    The missile is already in service with the RAF and Italian Tornados, that have also extensively used it in combat during Libya Air War.

    SEE ALSO: Watch a French Rafale use Scalp cruise missiles against ISIS targets for the first time

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    ISIS Islamic State Palmyra

    A German man who recently returned to the country from Syria told authorities that the terrorist group ISIS is looking for volunteers to carry out attacks in Germany, the newspaper Der Spiegel reports.

    The man, whom Der Spiegel identifies as 27-year-old "Harry S.," is in custody in Germany and cooperating with authorities who are conducting an investigation. He reportedly spent three months in Syria with the terrorist group, which is also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, and Daesh.

    Harry said that in the spring, shortly after he got to Syria, ISIS asked him and another extremist from Germany whether they could "imagine perpetrating attacks in Germany." He was reportedly asked again later, and responded that he wasn't prepared to return to Germany to mount an attack.

    Harry also claimed that while he was in ISIS-held territory, he "frequently heard people talking about attacks in the West" and that "pretty much every European jihadist was approached with the same questions he had been asked," according to the newspaper.

    ISIS reportedly wants "something that happens everywhere at the same time," Harry said.

    Harry eventually left Syria after witnessing ISIS' brutal executions in Palmyra, according to Der Spiegel. He reportedly said he couldn't stand the violence any longer. He said he snuck out of ISIS territory and made his way back to Germany.

    ISIS' influence has been expanding across Europe, as the group seeks to dispatch people to Western countries to carry out attacks.

    ISIS Europe Map

    Earlier this month, the Institute for the Study of War noted that ISIS is "executing a campaign to terrorize and polarize Europe" and that the group has "inspired, resourced, and directed attempted and successful attacks in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Turkey since January 2014."

    Authorities have thwarted several alleged attack plots in the UK, France, Germany, and Turkey, according to ISW. France in particular has been on high-alert lately, after ISIS-affiliated attackers killed 130 people and injured hundreds more as they took hostages, detonated suicide vests, and shot dozens across Paris last month.

    BuzzFeed reported last year that smugglers admitted to sneaking ISIS operatives into Europe with groups of refugees. The smuggler, using the pseudonym "Hassan," told BuzzFeed that the jihadis posing as migrants were going to Europe to launch attacks in the West.

    "They are waiting for their orders," he said. "Just wait. You will see."

    In addition to sending those from ISIS territory back into Europe to carry out attacks, ISIS seeks to recruit people who are currently in Europe. Westerners — some of whom might be drawn to the propaganda ISIS distributes online showcasing both its violence and the territory it holds in the Middle East — meet ISIS recruiters online and can be radicalized over the Internet. These people might be encouraged to mount "lone wolf" attacks on targets in their home countries.

    Read the full story at Der Spiegel >

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     rtx103amAs if years of war, terrorism and oppression weren’t harrowing enough for the people of Syria, the country is experiencing an epidemic of a so-called flesh-eating disease. Outbreaks of the disease, known as leishmaniasis, have been reported repeatedly over the past year.

    More recently, the head of the Kurdish Red Crescent was reported to have said the problem was made worse by the actions of Islamic State leaving bodies to rot in the streets. But while leishmaniasis is a serious problem in Syria, this picture of a flesh-eating disease spread by terrorists isn’t entirely accurate.

    What is leishmaniasis?

    Leishmaniasis has actually been endemic to Syria for centuries and was once commonly known as “Aleppo evil”. This cutaneous (skin-affecting) form of the disease isn’t strictly “flesh eating”, although another form found in Brazil and some other parts of South America can be. It is caused by the Leishmania parasite, which is carried by sandflies. If you’re bitten by a fly, the parasites can enter your blood and invade the macrophage immune cells that normally kill bugs, causing causing horrible open sores close to the bite.

    In other places, in particular India, a different form of the parasite spreads to the liver and spleen and causes death as those vital visceral organs break down. In the Brazilian form, the parasites cause macrophages to migrate to the mucosal surfaces around the mouth and nose. Here the immune system attacks the parasites but ends up causing substantial damage to surrounding tissue, eating away the flesh in these areas, leading to gross disfigurements.

    Sandflies actually don’t eat rotting bodies on the street, they suck blood from living people, so the reports about Islamic State spreading the disease aren’t strictly true. However, the political events in Syria – including the rise of Islamic State – have caused the collapse of the country’s health systems, along with every other part of the social structure there. So inevitably, the disease has been spreading more widely.

    Can it be treated?

    SandflyToday, around 1.3m people are infected with leishmaniasis every year across the tropics and sub-tropics. Most sufferers have the cutaneous form, as found in Syria, while the visceral form can be fatal. But because it is typically found among the world’s poorest people, it receives little attention in terms of developing new drugs or vaccines and is considered a neglected tropical disease.

    However, treatments do exist and in a functioning health system drugs can be used to cure the disease. Scientists are still debating the best treatment for the cutaneous disease but at present we have four different drugs that can be used. The best medicine for visceral leishmaniasis is called amphotericin B and when injected it is very efficient at curing the disease. Just a few injections of the drug can be enough to cure the disease, but it does carry the risk of side effects such as fever, headaches and vomiting.

    Older drugs have to be given for several weeks to show an effect. For example, when TV adventurer Ben Fogle caught the cutaneous disease in Peru a few years ago he was treated with a rather toxic antimony-based drug, which made him feel very ill and lose large amounts of weight but eventually cured him.

    Could it spread more widely?

    In addition to the increasing incidence of the disease in Syria itself, some refugees fleeing the country will carry parasites with them. This could be used by those who oppose taking in refugees by suggesting they will spread disease. But countries receiving refugees need not worry about its introduction.

    It is sandflies, not people, that transmit the disease and though they are found throughout the tropics and subtropics, they can’t survive in colder climates. The visceral form of leishmaniasis is already endemic in parts of southern Europe including Spain, Italy and the south of France, but the disease tends to only manifest itself in people with weak immune systems such as those infected with HIV. This highlights the fact that people in prosperous regions where nutrition and general health are good are at limited risk.

    It is also important to understand that different species of sandfly are responsible for transmission of different Leishmania parasites. Those that transmit the cutaneous disease found in Syria are less common in southern Europe so the chances of increasing transmission of cutaneous leishmaniasis are small. Although Turkey might be at risk of increased incidence of the cutaneous disease due to the flow of refugees from Syria, again it is worth highlighting that people with access to good nutrition and in generally good health are less vulnerable.

    Concerns about imported germs, of course, are nothing new. Just last year, European airports were decorated with posters warning of Ebola, and those coming from West Africa were subjected to mandatory tests for signs of fever. But we should be careful of warnings of diseases spreading to developed countries, where healthcare systems and levels of public health are much more capable of preventing and treating infectious condition, even in instances where those diseases could spread. Plus the wider availability of treatments in Europe creates an opportunity to provide healthcare to incoming sick refugees.

    Given that leishmaniasis cannot be spread to colder countries and is limited by good healthcare, the particular suggestion that it could be carried by refugees holds no force.


    Michael Barrett, Professor of Biochemical Parasitology, University of Glasgow

    This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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    Refugees wait to cross the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, Greece December 4, 2015. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

    GENEVA (Reuters) - The number of people forcibly displaced worldwide is likely to have "far surpassed" a record 60 million this year, mainly driven by the Syrian war and other protracted conflicts, the United Nations said on Friday.

    The estimated figure includes 20.2 million refugees fleeing wars and persecution, the most since 1992, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a report.

    Nearly 2.5 million asylum seekers have requests pending, with Germany, Russia and the United States receiving the highest numbers of the nearly one million new claims lodged in the first half of the year, it said.

    "2015 is on track to see worldwide forced displacement exceeding 60 million for the first time - 1 in every 122 humans is today someone who has been forced to flee their homes," it said. The total figure at the end of 2014 was 59.5 million.

    An estimated 34 million people were internally displaced as of mid-year, about 2 million more than the same time in 2014. Yemen, where civil war erupted in March, reported the highest number of newly uprooted people at 933,500.

    "Never has there been a greater need for tolerance, compassion and solidarity with people who have lost everything," Antonio Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a statement.

    Developing countries bordering conflict zones still host the lion's share of the refugees, the report said, warning about growing "resentment" and "politicization of refugees".

    The report, based on official figures as of mid-year before the influx of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe peaked in October, extrapolates from trends to estimate the global total.

    Syria's civil war that began in 2011 has been the main driver of mass displacement, with more than 4.2 million Syrian refugees having fled abroad and 7.6 million uprooted within their shattered homeland as of mid-year, UNHCR said.

    Together, nationals of Syria and Ukraine, where a separatist rebellion in the east erupted in April 2014, accounted for half of the 839,000 people who became refugees in the first half of 2015, it said.

    Violence in Afghanistan, Somalia and South Sudan sparked large refugee movements, as well as fighting in Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq.

    Voluntary returns - a measure of how many refugees can safely go back home - are at their lowest levels in more than three decades, with only 84,000 people returning by mid-year against 107,000 at the same time a year before, the UNHCR said.

    Many refugees will live in exile for years to come, it said. "In effect, if you become a refugee today your chances of going home are lower than at any time in more than 30 years.


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    Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking at his annual end of year news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015. President Vladimir Putin said Thursday Russia is ready to improve ties with the United States and work with whomever is elected its next president. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

    WASHINGTON (AP) — As the United States and world powers gather again in an attempt to end Syria's civil war, Russia appears to be calling the shots.

    Nations meeting Friday in New York and the U.N. will essentially be negotiating a Russian plan for a "political transition," based on the Syrian government's consent and with no clear reference to President Bashar Assad's departure.

    And as they look for a way to secure and enforce a peace that has proved all too elusive since 2011, Russia's recent military intervention appears to be providing the key leverage. As President Barack Obama said earlier this month, rebels who join the process could enjoy "pockets of cease-fire" where they no longer face Syrian or Russian bombs. The implication was that those who refuse could still be targeted.

    In any event, diplomats from East and West say the chances for ending the conflict between Assad's military and moderate rebel forces are better now than they've been for a long while. All speak of seizing the momentum of several groundbreaking meetings in recent months.

    For the first time, the rise of the Islamic State group has the U.S., Russia and even sworn enemies such as Saudi Arabia and Iran committed to a blueprint for peace negotiations and a set of principles for Syria's future. These are expected to be endorsed by the U.N. Security Council on Friday, following meetings among foreign ministers in New York. The body has passed no such resolution previously.

    There are other signs of progress. The opposition is finalizing the makeup of its delegation for talks with the government that are supposed to start next month. Jordan is close to completing a list of militant groups that could join a unity government, and which, like the Islamic State and al-Qaida, would be declared terrorists and enemies of all.

    john kerry samantha power

    Still, "very real" gaps remain, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters this week.

    For one, the Russian division of "terrorist" vs. legitimate rebel forces differs significantly from that of U.S. and Arab governments, diplomats say. And no agreement can be reached if Russia isn't satisfied.

    An even bigger divide concerns Assad himself, with Washington desperate to secure a guarantee that he will eventually leave office in a transition, having abandoned Obama's previous demand that the Syrian leader step down immediately. Russia has spent the last five years blocking any international strategy or U.N. resolution that would show Assad the door.

    Matthew Rycroft, Britain's U.N. ambassador, said these issues and the mechanics of a cease-fire will all be on the table Friday. A Security Council resolution on the Syrian peace process, he said, would be a "very rare showing of unity" for world powers who've been bitterly divided even as death tolls have soared past 300,000 and migrant crises and violent attacks have engulfed Europe and beyond.

    To this day, the U.S. and its European and Arab allies are supporting anti-Assad rebels with training, equipment and funds. Russia is providing not only diplomatic and financial cover to Syria's government, but targeting Assad's moderate opponents in airstrikes, according to Western governments. Meanwhile, Iranian soldiers and proxy Hezbollah forces are dying on the battlefield alongside Assad's troops.

    Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad

    Nevertheless, top diplomats such as Secretary of State John Kerry have found cause for optimism in declarations that all are now interested in securing a broad peace that would allow the world to concentrate on defeating Islamic State extremists. The group has exploited the war's chaos to seize large parts of Syria and Iraq for its self-proclaimed caliphate.

    The shared commitment against IS has governments believing they can sidestep their disagreements on Assad and other matters to end the killing. For the U.S., that has meant increasingly vague statements on when Assad might have to relinquish authority and even declaring the opposition's demand for his immediate ouster — long America's own stance — a "non-starting position."

    In many ways, the parameters of the international mediation were framed early on in Syria's war by disagreements between Washington and Moscow. Russia prevailed in many of these disputes.

    When diplomats gathered in Geneva in June 2012 to hash out a strategy, U.N. peace envoy Kofi Annan wanted a transitional government that would exclude "those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation."

    "That was code for excluding Assad," former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who backed such language, noted in her book "Hard Choices."

    But the Russians balked, and also prevented the inclusion of any penalties for noncompliance.

    syria russia bomb

    As a compromise, Clinton said she herself put forward the idea of a new Syrian government comprised of individuals chosen by "mutual consent," believing that an accord along such lines would leave "Assad and his cronies ... stripped of their authority." The Russians took it as providing the Syrian leader a veto over any proposal for a would-be replacement.

    The plan never went anywhere. After Kerry replaced Clinton as secretary of state, the talk went from "changing Assad's calculus" to something closer to Russia's position: an acknowledgement that he wouldn't have to give up the presidency on "Day One" of a transition.

    When direct talks between the Syrian parties finally occurred in 2014, they never even got to questions of leadership. Yet as the world community now tries again, the so-called "Geneva communique" is still accepted as the basis for diplomacy.

    The United States has a lot riding on engineering a cease-fire and jumpstarting Syria's transition.

    Obama, who has ruled out any significant deployment of U.S. ground forces, has failed to build an American-trained, local fighting force or cajole Arab partners into sending their forces into Syria to defeat the Islamic State. While Kurdish Peshmerga and Arab militants have fought effectively, no one sees their numbers or strength as sufficient to achieve the mission.

    The U.S. may have greater luck if peace between Syria's government and mainstream rebel groups holds. American officials hope each would then cooperate and turn their guns on IS, with regional powers such as Saudi Arabia filling the remaining needs for a ground force.

    It's unclear if everyone would be on board, or if Russia would view such developments in its interests.


    Edith M. Lederer and Cara Anna at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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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

    Germany's spy agency is working again with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's secret service to swap information on Islamist militants, the Bild daily said, despite Berlin's opposition to Assad staying in power under any peace deal for Syria.

    Citing well-informed sources, the mass-circulation newspaper said German foreign intelligence BND agents had been traveling regularly to Damascus for some time for consultations with Syrian colleagues.

    Two weeks ago Germany's parliament approved a plan to support a U.S.-led air strike campaign against Islamic State insurgents in Syria by sending Tornado reconnaissance jets, a frigate to help protect the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, refueling aircraft and up to 1,200 military personnel.

    German media have dubbed the mission Chancellor Angela Merkel's "first war" and have highlighted the risks of German pilots crashing in Islamic State-held territory.

    The aim of renewed BND contacts with Damascus is to exchange information about militants, especially those in Islamic State, and to set up a fixed communication channel in case a German Tornado pilot is downed over Syria, Bild said.

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel  attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, December 1, 2015.     REUTERS/Fabrizio BenschA government spokeswoman neither confirmed nor declined the report. "I can't comment on operative details of the BND's work," Christiane Wirtz told a regular news conference.

    The BND did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

    Bild said the BND wants to open a station in Damascus as soon as possible to have agents permanently stationed there and is making preparations with the government's knowledge.

    Agents could potentially move into the German embassy, which is currently closed, Bild reported, and Merkel's government wanted to make a final decision at the start of next year.

    Germany's defense minister has ruled out any cooperation between German forces due to take part in the military campaign against Islamic State and Assad's forces. 

    On Wednesday, Merkel told lawmakers in the Bundestag (lower house of parliament) that diplomatic efforts to end the four-year-old conflict in Syria were striving to reach a long-term solution that does not involve Assad.

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    A selection of photos from some of this week's biggest news that you might have missed.

    SEE ALSO: 9 wars that were technically ongoing due to quirks of diplomacy

    Martin Shkreli, the former hedge fund manager under fire for buying a pharmaceutical company and ratcheting up the price of a life-saving drug, is escorted by law enforcement agents in New York Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015, after being taken into custody following a securities probe.

    President Barack Obama delivers a statement at the National Counterterrorism Center in Mclean, Virginia, December 17, 2015. Obama said that the US has entered "a new phase of terrorism."

    Pallbearers rest their hands on the casket of San Bernardino shooting victim Tin Nguyen during her funeral at Saint Barbara's Catholic Church in Santa Ana, California, December 12, 2015.

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Hagel obama

    Two years after the war in Syria had broken out, the Obama administration had still not formulated a coherent policy response to the crisis that has now claimed more than 200,000 lives.

    That is according to Obama's former secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel.

    In a blistering interview with Foreign Policy, Hagel described how the administration effectively kicked the can down the road when it came to crafting a decisive strategy to end the war.

    “For one thing, there were way too many meetings. The meetings were not productive,” Hagel, who served from 2013 to 2015, told Foreign Policy on Thursday.

    "I don’t think many times we ever actually got to where we needed to be," Hagel continued, noting that the meetings sometimes went as long as four hours. "We kept kind of deferring the tough decisions. And there were always too many people in the room."

    He added: “We seemed to veer away from the big issues. What was our political strategy on Syria?”

    Well into the war's fifth year, many are still asking that question — and many suspect there never was a political strategy. Hagel's comments are in line with accounts from other administration officials also present for those marathon meetings on Syria that never seemed to translate into lasting policy decisions.

    As The New York Times reported in 2013, Obama seemed uninterested in the subject of Syria "even as the debate about arming the [Syrian] rebels took on a new urgency."

    Syrian rebels"Obama rarely voiced strong opinions during senior staff meetings," The Times reported. "But current and former officials said his body language was telling: he often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum."

    Indeed, Hagel says he floundered when Congress grilled him on Obama's plans to arm Syrian rebels fighting against ISIS because the White House had not given him an answer to a fundamental question: If the US-backed rebels were attacked by forces loyal to Assad, would the US be expected to protect them?

    “We had never come down on an answer or a conclusion in the White House,” Hagel told FP. “Are we going to support our guys or not support our guys? It’s a damn crucial question.”

    'He never intended to remove Assad'

    One position the administration insists it has maintained throughout the nearly five-year conflict is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "must go." But even that stance has been muddled as the administration continues to soften its position on Assad's future.

    Since drawing his "red line" under Assad's use of chemical weapons to kill 1,300 civilians in 2013, Obama has accepted a "limited" role for the dictator in political negotiations over the country's future. The negotiations are due to begin in January, as long as all parties sign on to a plan brokered by Assad's biggest ally — Russia.

    "Hagel's interview reaffirms what we already knew about the Obama administration's policy in Syria," Tony Badran, a Middle East expert and researcher at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider on Friday.

    "The US' Syria policy has always been in the head of one man, and one man only: Barack Obama. No one else has ever really had a say in what happens in Syria," Badran continued. 

    "Obama has owned it since day one — and from day one, he never intended to remove Assad."


    That Obama backed away from his own red line in Syria — after announcing to the world that he sought to launch airstrikes against the regime — damaged Obama's foreign-policy credibility immensely, Hagel told Foreign Policy.

    "There’s no question in my mind that it hurt the credibility of the president’s word when this occurred," Hagel said, referring to Obama's decision to forgo military action and accept a Russia-brokered agreement to dispose of Assad's chemical weapons in 2013.

    But Obama's decision to back away from military action in Syria was less an about-face in his strategy than an indication that his established Middle East policy — which heavily favored nonintervention — had come full circle.

    Haunted by the war in Iraq and the disastrous campaign in Libya and wary of mission creep, Obama has always been deeply ambiguous on the subject of Assad's removal. Indeed, Hagel told Foreign Policy that he did not know what to tell world leaders when they sought to reaffirm the administration's commitment to removing Assad after the "red line" fiasco.

    “A president’s word is a big thing, and when the president says things, that’s a big deal."

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    putin assadThe Russian military can "train" in Syria "for a long time without any serious harm to Russia's budget," Russian President Vladimir Putin said in his annual marathon press conference Thursday morning.

    And, contrary to US President Barack Obama's view that it's only a matter of time before Russia gets bogged down in Syria, experts and military analysts tend to agree with Putin on this one.

    "The Kremlin is well-aware of the publicly perceived danger of getting bogged down in Syria," Andrei Tsygankov, a professor of Russian and post-Soviet politics at San Francisco State University, told Business Insider on Friday. 

    But, Tsygankov added, Putin's comments on Thursday only reinforced Moscow's "intention to stay the course."

    "This means that those who expected Russia to get out of Syria within a few months will be disappointed, for the Syrian army is not near to winning the war," he said.

    And to Andrew Weiss, vice president of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Russia's economic problems "don't pose a huge constraint" on the military campaign in Syria.

    "So long as Syria remains a splendid little war that's made for TV, with minimal Russian casualties, the Russian presence should be both sustainable and affordable," Weiss said, noting that the war's cost to Moscow of about $2.5 million per day — as estimated by daily newspaper RBK— is "probably manageable for the foreseeable future."

    Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert and Professor of Global Affairs at New York University, largely agreed.

    "At present, yes, I think this is an eminently sustainable deployment in financial terms," Galeotti told Business Insider in an email. "These days, the Russians have been maintaining a pretty impressive tempo of exercises, including live fire ones, so in a way Syria is just an especially bloody extension of this process."

    Syria is also the perfect place for Russia to showcase its newly revamped air and sea capabilities in a real conflict, Gaelotti said.

    Syria Russia Putin Assad"It allows Moscow to hone the skills of its pilots, ground controllers, logistics specialists and so forth, as well as test out its latest weapons and airframes in genuine but limited combat conditions," he said. "It even opens a shop window for potential arms customers."

    He added: "In that context, this is a small, colonial war well within the Kremlin's budget — so long as the economy doesn't start to decline at a much faster rate or some other more urgent calls on the state budget emerge."

    'He'll find the money'

    Military expert Jeff White, a defense fellow at The Washington Institute specializing in the military and security affairs of the Levant (the historical name for the eastern Mediterranean region) and Iran, also agreed that the campaign in Syria is "sustainable" for the Russians at the current level.

    "It definitely costs them some money and resources," White told Business Insider on Friday. "But as long as they've got less than 40 combat aircraft conducting airstrikes over Syria on a day to day basis, it doesn't seem like something they can't manage."

    He added: "When Putin decided to do this he knew what the costs would be — and if it's important to him, he'll find the money."

    Russia airstrikes Syria Dec 6

    Russia launched its air campaign in Syria on September 30, two months after Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force, visited Moscow to reportedly ask for Russia's help in shoring up the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

    The campaign has used a mix of updated Soviet aircraft, including Su-24, Su-30SM, and Su-34 fighter jets, and has only gotten more aggressive since Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in late November. 

    Obama told reporters in a press conference on Friday that it's clear Russia has failed to "really [move] the needle that much" despite the steady bombing campaign. And to be sure, significant challenges remain before Russia can declare its incursion into the war a success. 

    Forces allied with the Assad regime have not achieved any major, game-changing victories in the war since Russia intervened nearly three months ago, and Syria's army is less well-trained than Russia had expected.

    "This operation will last a year at a minimum,” Frants Klintsevich, deputy head of the Defense Committee in Russia's upper house of parliament, told Bloomberg last week. “I was expecting more from Syria’s army.”

    hezbollah syriaAll things considered, however, the Washington Institute's White doesn't think Russia is anywhere near defeat.

    "I'm not prepared to say that the Russians have failed in Syria," he said.

    Indeed, if anything is going to bog down the Russians in Syria, it will be the Syrian army's ineptitude.

    "The real challenge for Putin is the lack of significant progress on the ground to date, which is largely due to the fracturing of the Syrian army and apparent limitations on outside support from Iran and proxy Sh'ia militia forces," said Weiss, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

    "The Russian military likely would find it very difficult to expand the scope of the operation (say, by introducing significant ground forces) without provoking a backlash from the general public, which is still affected by the so-called Afghan Syndrome," Weiss added, referring to the Soviet Union's unsuccessful campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s. 

    Galeotti largely agreed, saying that Russia may be forced to change its calculation if it has to escalate its military campaign in a serious way — for example, by starting to engage on the ground.

    That being said, Galeotti noted, "the Soviets maintained fully 100,000-plus troops in Afghanistan, even in the midst of a much more serious economic crisis — and they withdrew not because they could not afford it financially, but because of wider political considerations."

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    Idlib air strike syria

    Air strikes believed to have been carried out by Russian warplanes killed scores of people in the center of the rebel-held city of Idlib in northwest Syria on Sunday, rescue workers and residents said.

    They said at least six strikes had hit a busy market place in the heart of the city, several government buildings and residential areas.

    Rescue workers said they had confirmed 43 dead but that at least 30 more bodies had been retrieved that had still to be identified.

    "There are a lot of corpses under the rubble," Yasser Hammo, a civil defense worker, said via an Internet messaging system, adding that volunteers and civil defense workers were still pulling bodies out.

    Footage on social media and the pro-opposition Orient TV station showed makeshift ambulances rushing with injured civilians through an area where people were searching for survivors among the debris of collapsed buildings.

    One local resident, Sameh al-Muazin, said he had seen mangled bodies in the main Jalaa street of the city, adding that people feared a further round of intensive bombing.

    "Everyone is afraid that this is just the beginning," he said.

    Russia began a major aerial campaign on Sept. 30 in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, its ally, who earlier in the year had suffered a series of setbacks including the loss of Idlib province and areas near the coast which are of crucial strategic importance.

    Moscow says its targets Islamic State militants but rebels and residents say they are causing hundreds of civilian casualties through indiscriminate bombing of areas well away from the frontlines.

    Russia airstrikes Syria Dec 6

    Residents say they distinguish Russian planes that fly at high altitudes in sorties from Syrian helicopters that mainly drop indiscriminate barrel bombs at much lower heights.

    A coalition of Islamist rebels took Idlib city, the capital of a northwestern province of the same name, earlier this year. It had previously been largely spared by the Russian warplanes.

    Idlib was part of a United Nations-brokered ceasefire deal reached in September by warring parties. This allowed for the eventual withdrawal of rebel fighters holed up in a border village near Lebanon in return for the evacuation of civilians from two Shi'ite villages under rebel siege in Idlib province.

    A man with his clothes stained with blood walks at a site hit by what activists said was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Kafruma village in the southern province  of Idlib, Syria September 24, 2015.  REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

    Under the deal there was a tacit understanding it fell under the ceasefire arrangements.

    Idlib has attracted thousands of ordinary Syrians displaced by the fighting in areas in northern Syria and has also become the center for a local administration run by Islamist insurgents.

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    ISIS wall

    As 2015 wraps up, here's a look at are our 12 predictions for this past year. This post was originally published on December 29, 2014. 

    If 2014 proved anything, it's that guessing at the state of the world a year down the line is a vain or even slightly embarrassing endeavor.

    Indeed, who could have expected a year ago that Russia would take over Crimea, ISIS would break out of Al Qaeda and declare a caliphate, the US would start bombing Syria and Iraq while approaching a nuclear deal with Iran,or that Ebola would ravaged three west African countries and scare the world?

    Nevertheless, we're going to do our best to predict the big geopolitical stories of 2015:

    Armin Rosen

    1. The Islamic State will lose control of Mosul. The US will continue to increase the number of "advisors" on the ground in Baghdad while upgrading "coordination" with Iran in preparation for a surprise push against the city in mid-2015.

    The US-Kurdish-Iraqi-Iranian assault will succeed in dislodging ISIS but not in totally defeating the group.

    benjamin netanyahu2. The Israeli elections end in chaos. A rejuvenated Labor party will win the most seats in the Knesset — but will fail to form a government, thanks to centrist and ultra-orthodox parties refusing to join one another in a coalition.

    Meanwhile, the insurgent Gideon Sa'ar will narrowly fail to dislodge Netanyahu as head of Likud, meaning that the Prime Minister will enter his third term in the weakest position of his political career.

    He will respond by entering into an unusual deal with Labor that makes the pro-peace process Tzipi Livni his foreign minister while committing the government to taking a superficially serious go at negotiating with the Palestinians. The Palestinians will quietly accede to a watered-down version of their pending UN resolution demanding an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and enter into proximity talks with the Israelis. To no one's shock, these negotiations will go nowhere.

    3. Tensions explode between Greece and Turkey over disputed gas deposits in the Aegean Sea. By the end of the year, the waters off of the north of Cyprus will be thoroughly militarized with a South China Sea-like face-off between two prideful and desperate countries that are also NATO allies.

    The escalation will end any discussion of constructing liquid natural gas terminals in Cyprus or pipelines in the northeastern Mediterranean. This will in turn make countries reluctant to sanction Russia's energy industry and indirectly benefit Vladimir Putin.

    4. The year will end with no nuclear agreement between the US and Iran. Ayatollah Khamenei won't go all the way on a deal, while the P5+1, which will drop its demands on the disclosure of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps role in the country's nuclear program, won't be able to stomach Iran's requirement of a 10-year sunset clause and an insistence on plutonium reprocessing rights.

    The biggest foreign policy initiative of Obama's second term will basically end in failure, leading him to spend a lot more time focusing on lower-hanging fruit like rapprochement with Cuba — which he'll visit in September, at the beginning of the Caribbean tourism season.

    ak-47 south sudan dinka

    5. Famine grips the conflict-affected parts of South Sudan. A stalled peace process, plummeting oil production, and the prospect of US and international sanctions will leave the government of the world's newest nation in its most dire position since the country gained independence in 2011.

    Meanwhile, two missed growing seasons, interrupted supply lines, and increasing food prices will lead to east Africa's worst food emergency since the Somali famine of 2011.

    6. Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika dies. The longest-serving president in Algerian history has been in ill health and has barely been seen in public since his "re-election" in April of last year. It's likely he hasn't really been running things for awhile now.

    Despite widespread protests in Algeria during the Arab Spring period the putative president's death will have little actual impact on the country, whose socialist military government has successfully insulated Algeria against much of the chaos in neighboring Mali and Libya. 

    7. Putin's Eurasian Union slinks into the background. A sinking ruble will convince Armenia to indefinitely delay its membership in the Russian president's Eurasian Customs Union. The US will dangle the possibility of sanctions relief in front of Belarus as well in the hopes that the country's authoritarian and traditionally pro-Russian government switches sides. The war in Ukraine will continue but Eurasianism as a project will die in 2015.

    8. Afghanistan goes better than expected. The social and political dividend from this year's peaceful transfer of power to new president Ashraf Ghani, alongside a backstop of over 10,000 US troops and increased Pakistani operations against Taliban forces operating from their territory will prevent the kind of precipitous backsliding that many feared would accompany the end of NATO combat operations.

    Jeremy Bender

    Sydney Pics 9. ISIS will slowly evolve into a more al Qaeda-like organization: As it loses ground in the Middle East, it'll focus on terrorism abroad.  This past year saw the proliferation of "lone wolf" attacks that may or may not be related to ISIS but were at least inspired by the group — car attacks in France and Canada, a hostage situation in Australia, and a shooting in Ottawa.

    This shift in tactics will continue as ISIS loses ground and calls on its supporters overseas to launch attacks, as it did this past September. 

    10. Countries will be compelled to intervene in Libya, again. The spread of ISIS into Libya, the collapse of any central authority, the presence of two competing governments, numerous Islamic groups, a renegade general, and the proliferation of weapons from the country to terrorist hotspots around the world will lead to foreign troops again being deployed to the country. 

    Egypt and the UAE have already carried out airstrikes against Islamist targets in Libya. As the political situation continues to deteriorate and the chaos from Libya threatens the stability of neighboring countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, and Niger, outside powers will be convinced that they have to act. 

    Most likely, Egypt and the UAE will continue carrying out aerial operations. Europe could also become involved in military efforts in Libya as any ongoing chaos in Libya is not too far removed from the shores of southern Europe.

    Pierre Bienaimé

    MalaysiaAirplane1711. Another airborne disaster ratchets up the tension between Russia and the rest of the world. The crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was uniquely horrific.

    But Russia and its proxies nearly brought down civilian aircraft at other points in 2014 and could easily do so next year.

    Last March, a Russian military plane nearly collided with a Swedish commercial jet carrying 132 passengers. Disaster "was apparently avoided thanks only to good visibility and the alertness of the passenger plane pilots," according to a European Leadership Network report on the "dangerous brinkmanship" between Russia and the West.

    Another close call came in early December, again involving a Swedish passenger plane and a Russian aircraft that had turned off its transponders — the devices by which planes announce their location in order to avoid exactly these sorts of disasters.

    On the military side, NATO member states have scrambled planes to intercept Russian incursions three times more frequently in 2014 than in the year prior. Each confrontation had its own small window for a potential disaster with wide political and security implications.

    The more confrontations like this in European skies, the greater a chance for a repeat of the MH17 disaster in the new year.

    12. Obama and Turkey collaborate to create a buffer zone in northern Syria. “My presidency is entering the fourth quarter," Obama told reporters at a year's end conference. "Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter, and I’m looking forward to it.”

    Running with the president's sports analogy, his foreign policy toward the Middle East can be summarized as overtures in the first quarter ("a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world"), selective support for some of the Arab Spring's new movements in the second, and indecision in the face of civil wars in both Syria and Iraq in the third.

    Part of the game-plan for the fourth started to emerge late this year: Iraqi special forces trained by the US would begin their push for ISIS territory in the spring, despite local forces eager to take the fight to the extremists sooner in Mosul.

    Alongside this trained force in Iraq, a no-fly zone — which Turkish officials see as a means to turn the tide against Assad — offers the Obama administration another way of addressing the deep political problems of the region with the help of its allies.    

    SEE ALSO: The 50 most unforgettable photos of 2014

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    The U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a resolution Friday demanding that "all parties immediately cease any attacks against civilians and civilian objects" as well as "any indiscriminate use of weapons, including through shelling and aerial bombardment."

    Less than 48 hours later, Russian planes carried out at least six airstrikes on civilian targets in the northern Syrian provincial capital of Idlib, killing scores of people.

    It was a blatant violation of the resolution Russia had just voted for — and an indication of how Vladimir Putin actually regards the diplomatic deals on Syria the Obama administration has been pushing.

    According to local sources cited by Reuters and The Post's Hugh Naylor, the Russian bombing struck a marketplace in the heart of Idlib as well as a courthouse. Rescue workers told Reuters they had confirmed 43 dead and that dozens more bodies had yet to be identified or pulled from the rubble. While the town is controlled by a rebel alliance composed mostly of Islamist factions, it is nowhere near territory held by the Islamic State. And few would argue that a souq was not a civilian target.

    Not just the Security Council's ambassadors should be embarrassed by this outrage. There is also Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who just last Tuesday emerged from a meeting with Mr. Putin saying that the Russian ruler would "take on board" Mr. Kerry's objections to airstrikes on Syrian targets outside Islamic State-held land. Perhaps Mr. Putin tossed the U.S. concerns back overboard once Mr. Kerry had left Moscow.

    More likely, he never had any intention of altering Russia's policy of proclaiming war against the Islamic State while focusing its fire on the forces opposed to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

    In fighting Mr. Assad's war, Russia has embraced his tactics, which include bombing not just rebel forces but also civilian installations in any area under rebel control. According to a recent U.N. report, Russian bombing has hit dozens of hospitals and bakeries in northern Syria — again, far from the Islamic State. Aid workers believe the facilities have been targeted deliberately, The Post's Liz Sly reported.

    russia airstrike syriaOn Sunday, a new report by Human Rights Watch said that Russian and Syrian forces are using cluster munitions in civilian areas, in violation of another U.N. resolution on Syria. The report said that cluster bombs were used on at least 20 occasions since Russia and Syria began a joint offensive on Sept. 30. Reporting on attacks in nine locations documented the deaths of at least 35 civilians, including 17 children.

    Mr. Kerry is touting the fact that the U.N. resolution for the first time establishes a timetable for a political transition in Syria, under which a new constitution would be written and elections held within 18 months. More realistically, it calls for an early cease-fire, which if realized could give Syrian civilians badly needed respite and allow all sides to focus on fighting the Islamic State.

    For the resolution to have any meaning, however, Russia and Iran must be willing to impose its terms on Mr. Assad and drop their campaign to destroy opposition groups backed by the West. Following Sunday's events, we'll go with the assessment of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said of the new resolution: "I'm not too optimistic about what has been achieved."

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    NOW WATCH: Putin had another epic news conference — here are all the incredible and outrageous things he said

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    Russia airstrike syria

    On Sunday, Russian airstrikes over a busy marketplace in the rebel-held city of Idlib, Syria, killed at least 70 civilians and wounded dozens more.

    “We’ve never been bombed like this," Issa Khaled, a resident of the Aleppo suburb of Ghouta, told The Guardian the day after the attack.

    "The skies above us looked like Hiroshima," he said, referring to the Japanese city targeted by an atomic bomb during World War II. "There were clouds like mushrooms everywhere we looked. The destruction was incredible."

    In retaliation for Turkey's decision to down a Russian warplane late last month, Moscow has stepped up its bombing raids across the north, near the Turkish-Syrian border.

    The raids, targeting rebel supply lines and civilian infrastructure, have created "an emerging humanitarian crisis" and exacerbated a refugee crisis that already has Europe near its breaking point.

    “We’re seeing a huge increase in the number of civilian casualties. More and more people are being hurt because the intensity of bombing is greater,” Rae McGrath, country director for Turkey and North Syria for the American aid agency Mercy Corps, told The Washington Post's Liz Sly.

    McGrath added: “It’s hard to imagine that the conditions in Syria could have become worse than they already were, but they have.”

    russia airstrike syria

    US President Barack Obama has repeatedly expressed his belief that the Russians — who began their air campaign in Syria on September 30 on behalf of the Syrian government — will get bogged down and ultimately withdraw from the conflict. But as time goes by, the Russian air campaign is becoming only more intense.

    "Expectations by each player that its foes will ultimately sink into the Syrian quagmire are perhaps sound in the grand-power game," Joseph Bahout wrote for the Carnegie Foundation's Syria in Crisis blog.

    "Nevertheless, this will mean the slow death of Syria, with disastrous spillover effects for the wider region."

    russia bomb syriaRussia's air campaign — which, with its reported strikes on marketplaces and ambulances, seems less concerned with collateral damage than the US-led coalition — has been compared to that of the Syrian government, which is known to target bakeries, schools, and hospitals using primitive barrel bombs.

    Russian bombs, however, are not as imprecise as the steel barrels packed with explosives and shrapnel dropped by the regime's helicopters. And they appear to be more relentless.

    “Where are these reasonable Russians that [US Secretary of State John] Kerry claims are starting to see the light?” a doctor in an Idlib hospital asked The Guardian on Monday.

    “Bashar’s jets never bombed us like the Russians do," the doctor said, referring to the forces that support the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. "ISIS never hunted us down like this."

    russiaairstrikessyria dec 7-17

    Moscow, for its part, denies that it is deliberately targeting anyone other than "terrorists."

    “We are talking exclusively about terrorist groups and where they are located, and in no way is civilian infrastructure a target for Russia’s air force," ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at a recent briefing, according to The Wall Street Journal.

    "Any objective observer cannot have a shadow of a doubt about the true intentions of Russia’s airstrikes."

    Putin 'gains a lot'

    At a marathon press conference last Thursday, Putin signaled Russia's intention to stay the course of the war in Syria.

    "It's hard to imagine a better exercise" for Russian forces, Putin said. "So we can train there for a long time without any serious harm to our budget."

    He may not have been bluffing: Mark Kramer, the program director for the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, told Business Insider on Saturday that a long-term Russian campaign in Syria is sustainable — for now.

    s-400 missile range

    "This sort of operation would have been unsustainable for Russia a decade ago, but Russia's military buildup since 2009 has greatly improved the readiness and deployability of Russian forces," he said.

    Hence, Kramer added, they can probably sustain the current level of operations for a while.

    "Only if the hostilities escalate and Russian ground forces are deployed to Syria in sizable numbers will it begin to pose serious problems," he said.

    Additionally, while the airstrikes are a "tremendous drain on Russian resources" and have not resulted in any game-changing regime victories on the ground, Putin ultimately "gains a lot, much more than in his previous projects," by maintaining the pace of his intervention, said Andrei Korobkov, a professor of post-Soviet relations at Middle Tennessee State University.

    "With this incursion, Putin has returned Russia to a major power status, becoming a key player in the Middle East," Korobkov told Business Insider on Saturday.

    "He brought S-400 ABM systems to Syria that effectively allow him to seal off the skies to everybody else, and now has a very effective way to advertise Russia's newest weapons on the world market — i.e., by testing them in action."

    "Judging by the events following Kerry's visit [to Moscow], he is also getting concessions from the West," Korobkov added.

    In a visit to Moscow to discuss the conflict last week, Kerry said that the US was "not seeking regime change" in Syria. And he hailed Russia for its "significant contribution" to efforts to end the war.

    SEE ALSO: The epicenter of the Syrian war is shifting — and it could mean 'a near total defeat' for Turkey's Syria policy

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    NOW WATCH: How ISIS makes over $1 billion a year

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    refugee greece

    Instability throughout large parts of the world in 2015 have furthered exacerbated a growing refugee crisis in Turkey, parts of the Middle East, and throughout Europe. 

    Coming from war zones in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and portions of sub-Saharan Africa, the refugees have been driven towards Europe with the hopes of finding a better life for themselves and their families. The scope of the crisis is almost impossible to grasp: in 2015, over 1 million refugees have entered Europe alone. 

    To give an idea of the struggles that so many have faced, we have compiled 21 of the most heartbreaking images of the ongoing refugee crisis.

    A Syrian refugee kisses his daughter as he walks through a rainstorm towards Greece's border with Macedonia, near the Greek village of Idomeni, September 10, 2015.

    A local man helps a Syrian refugee who jumped off board from a dinghy as he swims exhausted at a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos on September 17, 2015.

    A girl holds her toys as Macedonian policemen block refugees at the Greek-Macedonian borders, near the village of Idomeni, Greece November 20, 2015.

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    russia airstrike syria

    Russia's bombing of Syria may amount to a war crime because of the number of civilians its strikes have killed, Amnesty International said on Wednesday, presenting what it said was evidence that the air raids had violated humanitarian law.

    "Russian air strikes in Syria have killed hundreds of civilians and caused massive destruction in residential areas, striking homes, a mosque and a busy market, as well as medical facilities, in...attacks that show evidence of violations of international humanitarian law," Amnesty said in a new report.

    Russia started its campaign of air strikes against militants in Syria on Sept. 30, saying it wanted to help the Kremlin's main Middle East ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, defeat Islamic State and other militant groups.

    It has repeatedly and forcefully denied targeting civilians, saying it takes great care to avoid bombing residential areas.

    When asked by Reuters to comment on the Amnesty allegations, the Russian Defense Ministry said it had no immediate comment, while the Russian Foreign Ministry said it first needed to study the report before giving any official reaction.

    Amnesty, whose charges echoed those of some Syrian observers, said Russian air strikes had killed at least 200 civilians and around a dozen fighters from September to November of this year.

    It said its report, which focused on six attacks in Homs, Idlib and Aleppo, was based on interviews with witnesses and survivors, as well as on video evidence and images showing the aftermath of attacks.

    The Russian strikes "appear to have directly attacked civilians or civilian objects by striking residential areas with no evident military target and even medical facilities," Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

    "Such attacks may amount to war crimes," Luther said.

    The report can be seen here: 

    (Reporting by Katya Golubkova and Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Andrew Osborn and)

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