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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    In 2015 alone, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported the deaths of 55,219 people, including 13,249 civilians, among whom were 2,574 children

    More than 55,000 people were killed in Syria in 2015, the country's fifth year of war, including over 2,500 children, a monitor said Thursday.

    The total number of dead since the beginning of the conflict had reached more than 260,000, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, though the number of those killed in 2015 was lower than the 76,021 people who died in 2014.

    In 2015 alone, the monitor documented the deaths of 55,219 people, including 13,249 civilians. Among them were 2,574 children, it said.

    As in previous years the dead were mostly combatants, including 7,798 rebels and more than 16,000 jihadists from the Islamic State group, Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front and associated organisations.

    The group also documented the deaths of 17,686 regime forces, among them over 8,800 army troops, more than 7,000 Syrian pro-regime militiamen, and 378 members of Lebanon's Hezbollah movement.

    A total of 1,214 foreign fighters from other countries, including Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, died fighting for the regime, the Observatory said.

    The group said it had recorded the deaths of an additional 274 people whose identities could not be established.

    Since the war began in March 2011, the Observatory has documented the deaths of 260,758 people, including more than 76,000 civilians.

    Syrian refugees struggle to enter Macedonia through a narrow border crossing as Macedonian policemen try to shut a metal gate near to the Greek village of Idomeni December 4, 2015. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

    Over 45,000 rebels and more than 95,000 regime forces have been killed.

    Another 40,121 jihadists have also been killed in fighting and air strikes including by a US-led coalition and Russian warplanes.

    Syria's conflict began with peaceful anti-government protests but descended into a brutal civil war after a regime crackdown on dissent. 

    SEE ALSO: The Obama administration is playing a 'game of whack-a-mole' with Iran

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    turkeyIn 2014, when Business Insider's Military & Defense team got together to guess the state of the world a year down the line, we thought we were embarking on a slightly embarrassing endeavor.

    It turns out several of our predictions were correct.

    ISIS proved it could strike beyond its "caliphate" by bombing a Russian passenger jet and carrying out multiple attacks inside a European capital as well as inspiring several "lone wolf" attacks.

    Meanwhile, Iran signed a landmark nuclear deal in July that has the potential to reshape the Middle East and the larger issue of global nuclear-arms control.

    Here are 15 big geopolitical events that we think are in store for 2016.

    SEE ALSO: 12 big geopolitical events we think will happen in 2015

    Iran will mildly cheat on the nuclear deal.

    Iran spent the second half of 2015 pushing the limits of the landmark July nuclear agreement it reached with a US-led group of countries.

    Since the deal, Iran has conducted multiple illegal tests of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, arrested and imprisoned US citizens, and failed to fully cooperate with an international probe into its past nuclear-weapons program.

    Because of that, the Obama administration announced its plans to issue new sanctions that will target nearly a dozen companies and individuals in Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and Hong Kong for their suspected role in helping develop Iran's missile program and supporting human-rights abuses and international terrorism.

    As tensions mount, expect Tehran to continue to push limits by running uranium through an advanced centrifuge (as it did in late 2014 in apparent violation of the 2013 interim nuclear agreement) and by stalling to reduce its uranium stockpiles to the agreement-mandated 300 kilograms.

    At this point, Iran will cheat around the deal's margins in 2016 — and for the international community do little to counter them.

    Syria will get much worse.

    The ongoing US-backed push for a political resolution in Syria will fail for the simple reason that various combatants don't seem to want a peaceful resolution at this point in the war.

    In the coming year, the US' triangulation on whether Bashar al-Assad should stay as the result of a peace negotiation will backfire, alienating the more hardline groups in the Syrian opposition that actually present the greatest threat to the Assad regime's survival.

    The failure to reach a shared negotiating platform on terms that the Assad regime will also accept will not just nix the latest round of peace talks. It will also give Assad and his backers an excuse to sit out any future peace push (unless the regime appears to be in imminent danger of collapse).

    There are plenty of other reasons to be pessimistic about Syria in the coming year. Russia has expanded its military operation aimed at defending the Assad regime.

    The Israeli bombing in Syria that killed child-murdering Hezbollah terrorist Samir Kuntar on December 20 risks an escalation between Israel and the Iranian proxy group. Turkey is mired in a dangerous entanglement of interests along its border with Syria, too.

    Few if any of the problems surrounding the Syria war will be solved in 2016, and the world's most destructive conflict will enter its sixth year in early 2017 with no end in sight.

    Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman will not be captured.

    Despite the intensifying hunt for fugitive Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán, who escaped from Altiplano prison using a sophisticated custom-built labyrinth in July, authorities will not capture Guzmán alive.

    David Shirk, a University of San Diego professor who leads USD’s Justice in Mexico project, provided Business Insider with some insight on the suspicions of why this is the case: "People think that somehow there's been a pact or a negotiation between the [President Enrique] Peña Nieto administration and certain cartel organizations," Shirk said.

    And that's not a difficult conclusion to reach as more Mexican officials are charged for their suspected roles in Guzmán's escape.

    Amid these charges, Mexico's interior ministry has been accused of hiding a video with sounds of power tools and digging, proving that Guzmán's planned escape was a dead giveaway to prison guards.

    "The video exists and is crucial in identifying the level of complicity in [El] Chapo's escape," Sen. Alejandro Encinas, the secretary of the Mexican Congress' Bicameral Committee on National Security,told EFE Agencia.

    Furthermore, Guzmán has proven he can elude capture, as he did in early October when Mexican Marines chased him off a small cliff and Guzmán still got away after breaking his leg.  

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Free Syrian Army Fighters

    Syria's opposition wants to see confidence-building steps from Damascus including a prisoner release before negotiations due this month, officials said on Monday, a demand that could complicate efforts to start the talks.

    Opposition leaders including rebels plan to deliver that message to the U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, when they meet him in Riyadh on Tuesday, three opposition officials familiar with preparations for the meeting told Reuters.

    The United Nations said last month it aimed to bring together the warring parties on Jan. 25 in Geneva to begin talks aimed at ending nearly five years of conflict that has killed an estimated 250,000 people.

    The effort aims to build on a U.N. Security Council unanimously approved on Dec. 18 endorsing an international road map for a Syria peace process with peace talks due to start in early January.

    The opposition body meeting in Riyadh groups political and armed opponents of President Bashar al-Assad. It was formed last month as part of a Saudi-backed effort to get the opposition ready for talks. Riyadh is a major backer of the opposition to Assad, who is in turn an ally of its regional rival Iran.

    George Sabra, a member of the political opposition, said the talks must be preceded by "real steps on the ground that express not only good will but also confidence-building measures such as releasing political detainees and stopping the bombardment of towns and cities by heavy artillery and jets".

    A second official said the opposition leaders would tell de Mistura "they can't go to negotiations without Assad doing something serious such as a ceasefire or releasing detainees".

    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

    The third said: "There will be no negotiations before the issuance of implementation of good-will measures". He said they must include a halt to bombardments and lifting of blockades imposed by the government on rebel-held areas.

    The officials said their demands were in line with the Security Council resolution, specifically articles calling for the release of arbitrarily detained people, an immediate halt to attacks on civilians and unhindered humanitarian access.

    The U.N. Security Council resolution appeared to mark a rare show of international unity over a crisis that has divided major powers. The United States says Assad must leave power, while Russia has sent its air force to Syria to help shore up his government's control over western Syria.

    A fighter from a coalition of rebel groups called The outlook for diplomacy on the Syrian conflict has been further complicated by an escalation in tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran following the execution of a Shi'ite cleric in Saudi Arabia.

    The European Union's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini warned Iran's foreign minister on Sunday that renewed tension between Shi'ite Iran and Saudi Arabia's Sunni monarchy could wreck efforts to find a political solution for the crisis in Syria.

    Sabra, speaking to Reuters from Riyadh, added that the political process could not move ahead in isolation from the war still raging on the ground.

    "We don't want to get into negotiations for the sake of negotiations we want to get into negotiations to reach a real political solution," he said.

    (Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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    A view of Zamalka area, in what activists say chemical weapons have been used by forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad in the eastern suburbs of Damascus August 22, 2013. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

    UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A fact-finding mission of the global anti-chemical weapons watchdog has found indications that some people in Syria were exposed to deadly sarin gas, or a compound like it, according to a report the United Nations released on Monday.

    The findings come in the latest monthly report on Syria from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) chief Ahmet Uzumcu. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon attached it in a Dec. 29 letter to the 15-nation Security Council.

    Uzumcu's report said his agency's fact-finding mission in Syria was looking into charges by the Syrian government that chemical weapons were used in 11 instances. The report did not specify when the alleged toxic gas attacks occurred.

    "In one instance, analysis of some blood samples indicates that individuals were at some point exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance," Uzumcu said. "Further investigation would be necessary to determine when or under what circumstances such exposure might have occurred."

    The Syrian government has long accused opposition fighters, who have been seeking for nearly five years to oust the country's president, of using chemical weapons. Western-backed rebels in Syria have repeatedly denied using chemical weapons.

    Western officials say it is unlikely rebels would have the capability to deploy sarin gas.

    Uzumcu said the source of the sarin or sarin-like compound was unclear, adding that the OPCW fact-finding mission "did not come across evidence that would shed more light on the specific nature or source of the exposure."

    Syria agreed in September 2013 to destroy its entire chemical weapons program under a deal negotiated with the United States and Russia after hundreds of people were killed in a sarin gas attack in the outskirts of the capital, Damascus.

    At the time, Washington was threatening the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with air strikes.

    The OPCW had previously determined that mustard gas was used in a Syrian town where Islamic State insurgents were battling another group.

    The last of 1,300 tons of chemical weapons declared to the OPCW was handed over in June 2014, but several Western governments have expressed doubt that Assad's government declared its entire arsenal.

    The OPCW has reported previously that chlorine has also been used illegally in systematic attacks against civilians in Syria.

    Several international investigations have determined that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, though none has so far assigned blame. A U.N.-OPCW joint investigative mission has been given the task of determining who was behind those attacks.

    (Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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    Iran Iranian Protesters Burn US American Israeli Flag

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Beneath this weekend's rupture in Iranian-Saudi relations lies a deeper fault line between the United States and Saudi Arabia that may hamper U.S. President Barack Obama's efforts to end Syria's civil war, current and former U.S. officials said.

    The Saudi government's decision to execute Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday, despite U.S. warnings, illustrated the limits of U.S. influence over the kingdom.

    And the Saudi decision to cut diplomatic ties to Iran after outraged Iranian protesters entered, and set fire to, the Saudi embassy in Tehran, runs directly counter to U.S. efforts to promote contact between the two nations, particularly on Syria.

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's longshot effort to bring the nearly five-year Syria civil war to an end may be the first casualty of the latest tensions.

    The Saudi ambassador to the United Nations, Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, on Monday said the Saudis will attend UN-sanctioned talks set to begin in Geneva Jan. 25, but held out little optimism for their success.

    U.S. officials acknowledged the Saudi-Iran diplomatic rift diminishes chances for the peace process. "It's going to make it a lot harder," said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

    "It's obviously very fragile," said a second senior U.S. official.

    US President Barack Obama Saudi Arabia King Salman

    Arm sales moving forward

    Current and former U.S. officials said they believed Riyadh and Washington have too many shared interests, from ensuring the flow of oil, to fighting al Qaeda and Islamic State militants and completing huge arms contracts, to permit a fundamental breach.

    U.S. and Saudi officials are continuing to work on a $1.29-billion sale of U.S. precision munitions approved in November, according to military and industry sources. The deal, which seeks in part to replenish bombs and missiles used in the Saudi battle against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, should be finalized in coming months.

    A separate, $11.25-billion Saudi purchase of four Lockheed Martin Corp surface warships, approved in October, also is expected to move forward on its years-long schedule, the sources said.

    "The Saudi-U.S. defense relationship is a juggernaut," said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank. "It survives endless presidents and kings and it just keeps rolling and that's what's going to happen this time."

    Iran Protest Saudi Arabia

    Looking past Obama?

    Despite the Saudis' ultimate reliance on U.S. security guarantees, the kingdom in the last year repeatedly has signaled a willingness to act independently of the U.S. on national security matters. Saudi Arabia gave the U.S. scant notice last March when, with Arab allies, it launched air strikes in Yemen against Houthi rebels it said are supported by Iran.

    And last month, the kingdom announced the formation of a 34-nation Islamic military coalition to combat terrorism. The United States is not among the members.

    Riyadh has also made little secret of its opposition to Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, a hallmark of the U.S. president's foreign policy.

    With Obama in his last year as president, Saudi Arabia seems to be looking past Obama, toward the next U.S. president, said one analyst with deep ties to Saudi officials.

    "There are no expectations left with this administration," said Nawaf Obaid, a visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. "Things will start from zero once he (Obama) leaves."

    (Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Andrea Shalal, Matt Spetalnick, Warren Strobel, Yeganeh Torbati, Lesley Wroughton and Mohammad Zargham; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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    NOW WATCH: Why '5+5+5=15' is wrong under Common Core

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    adel al-jubier

    GENEVA (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia signaled on Tuesday its breach in relations with Iran would not affect talks on Syria, another round of which is scheduled in Geneva this month.

    Riyadh and Tehran have attended previous talks and support opposing sides in the war. There is concern the rift between them could set back diplomatic efforts to bring peace. 

    Speaking after talks in Riyadh with U.N. special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir was quoted as saying by the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA):

    "The recent tensions that impacted the region negatively will not affect ... the operations that the United Nations carries out alongside the international community to achieve a political solution in Geneva soon."

    Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Sudan broke all ties with Iran, and the United Arab Emirates downgraded its relations on Monday after the Saudi embassy in Tehran was stormed by protesters. Kuwait recalled its ambassador to Iran on Tuesday.

    Restating the kingdom's position on Syria, Jubeir said Riyadh sought a solution based on the Geneva 1 communique, a 2012 document setting out guidelines for a path to peace including a transitional governing authority, SPA said. 

    He reiterated President Bashar Al Assad would have no role in the future of Syria, SPA said.

    The United Nations has set a target date of Jan. 25 for the talks. But Damascus has dismissed a new opposition body formed to oversee negotiations, and the opposition wants to see confidence-building steps from President Bashar al-Assad, a demand that could complicate efforts to start talks.

    De Mistura, speaking after he met Jubeir and the Syrian opposition in Riyadh, said there was a clear determination on the Saudi side that current regional tensions would not have a negative impact on the momentum of the talks and on the continuation of the political process in Geneva.

    De Mistura did not characterize the position of the Syrian opposition at the meeting, but said: "We cannot afford to lose this momentum despite what is going on in the region."

    Syria's opposition has said it wants to see confidence-building steps from Damascus including a prisoner release, a halt to bombardments of towns and cities, and the lifting of blockades imposed by the government on rebel-held areas.

    Britain's Special Representative for Syria on Tuesday urged the government to lift sieges as a step towards ending the nearly five-year-old conflict.

    "Starving civilians is an inhuman tactic used by the Assad regime and their allies," Gareth Bayley said in a statement, referring to a months-long blockade in the town of Madaya, near Damascus.

    "Sieges must be lifted to save civilian lives and to bring Syria closer to peace ... this human tragedy underscores the need for an end to this conflict."

    The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said many of Madaya's 40,000 residents are starving.

    SEE ALSO: BREMMER: 'Saudi Arabia is in serious trouble, and they know it'

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    NOW WATCH: Why '5+5+5=15' is wrong under Common Core

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    Iraq soldiers ISIS Ramadi

    The Islamic State's territory in 2015 shrank by 40% from its maximum expansion in Iraq and by 20% in Syria as international forces pushed its militants out of several cities, a spokesman of the US-led coalition said on Tuesday, according to Reuters.

    The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh, swept through a third of Iraq in 2014, seizing Mosul, the largest city in the north, and reaching the vicinity of Baghdad.

    ISIS has lost ground since its mid-2014 height. But the US-led coalition's numbers elide a more complex reality on the ground. ISIS lost only 14% of its territory in 2015, according to the New York Times. And those territorial losses occurred amid expansion into strategically vital territory in Syria.

    As these maps from the Institute for the Study of War indicate, ISIS lost many of its "control zones" along hte Syrian-Turkish border in 2015, territory that came at the expense of the region's highly capable Kurdish militant groups. In Iraq, ISIS was also expelled from Mount Sinjar in the country's north, cutting off the group's supply line between Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish areas. ISIS also lost territory around Tikrit and Kirkuk, two crucial cities in eastern Iraq.

    At the same time, ISIS moved westward within Syria. It seized territory along the Jordanian and Lebanese borders, and moved into villages surrounding Damascus, the capital. ISIS also seized Palmyra, a former regime stronghold in central Syria:


    Screen Shot 2016 01 05 at 3.37.05 PMISIS's ability to make strategic gains even while losing vital territory demonstrate the group's alarming resilience in the face of a US-led multi-national military coalition. It also shows how ISIS might be adapting to a ground-level situation where it's losing the strategic initiative in certain areas.

    Counteroffensives by Iraqi and Kurdish armed forces supported by the US-led coalition, and by Iran-backed Shiite militias, have forced ISIS militants out of several cities, including Tikrit, north of Baghdad, and Ramadi, to the west.

    In Syria, ISIS is fighting the army of President Bashar Assad and other rebel groups opposed to his rule.

    ISIS is facing airstrikes by the US-led coalition and by Russia, which has sent warplanes to support the Syrian government. Iraq's armed forces recaptured the western city of Ramadi in December, paving the way for an expected assault on Mosul, ISIS' de facto capital in Iraq. ISIS has also seen its remaining oil export routes closed off, denying the group of a crucial source of income and foreign currency.

    The group's future in its self-proclaimed "caliphate" over the next year might depend on whether it can repeat its strategy from 2015 of moving westward into regime-controlled areas in Syria as it loses momentum in Iraq and in areas bordering Kurdish domains. This strategy also raises the possibility that ISIS will look to gain a foothold in Lebanon — a perennially unstable country with a weak state and no majority religious group — to compensate for losses in Iraq.

    ISIS MosulISIS also continues to hold onto its prize possession: Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.

    Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said, "The liberation of dear Mosul will be achieved with the cooperation and unity of all Iraqis after the victory in Ramadi," according to Reuters. The battle to retake Mosul, which fell dramatically to ISIS in June 2014, is not expected to take place for several months.

    SEE ALSO: Iraq's next target after Ramadi is Mosul

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    NOW WATCH: Muslims hilariously trolled the leader of ISIS after his call to arms

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    In this picture taken Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, pro-government Syrian fighters Hussein Mahdi Kazem, 16, right, and Moamen Haj Ali, 20, who were evacuated from the villages of Foua and Kfarya, speak during an interview with the Associated Press as they lay in beds in a hospital south of Beirut run by the militant Hezbollah group. Pro-government Syrian fighters who were recently evacuated from two besieged Shiite villages in northern Syria say residents there live under harsh human conditions where people can hardly find medicine or even food to eat making some rely on grass in order to survive. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

    Pro-government fighters recently evacuated from two besieged villages in northern Syria described harsh conditions there with scarce food and medicine, saying some residents are eating grass to survive and undergoing surgery without anesthesia.

    The villages of Foua and Kfarya in Idlib province have been under siege for more than a year, but the situation has worsened since September. That's when insurgents captured a nearby air base where helicopters used to take off and drop canned food, vegetables, rice and bread to about 30,000 people in the mostly Shiite area.

    "Our life was catastrophic in Foua and Kfarya," said Hussein Mahdi Kazem, a 16-year-old wounded fighter. He spoke from a bed in Hezbollah's Rasoul al-Azam Hospital south of Beirut, where he was evacuated last month from Kfarya.

    But the two Shiite villages are not alone in their suffering. Both sides in Syria's nearly 5-year-old conflict have used siege tactics on towns or villages as a way of getting an area under control.

    In retaliation for the siege of the Shiite villages, opposition activists say Syrian troops and members of Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group have taken harsh measures against a Sunni area of Syria of about 40,000 people near the Lebanese border.

    The mountain border town of Madaya has been besieged since early July, and conditions have worsened with colder weather and dwindling supplies. A snowstorm hit early in the new year, and there has been no electricity or diesel fuel.

    Syria girl ceasefirePeople have taken to removing interior doors in their homes and burning them for heat, said a local official who identified himself as Samir Ali. He told The Associated Press via Skype that the cost of goods has soared, with a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of crushed wheat selling for about $250 and 900 grams (31 ounces) of powdered milk for infants going for about $300. A group of people recently killed a dog and ate it, he said.

    Of 23 deaths in Madaya in recent weeks, 10 were attributed to a lack of food and the rest were either shot to death or blown up by mines planted by pro-government and Hezbollah forces, said Rami Abdurrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group. At least 25 checkpoints prevent people from leaving, Ali said.

    A Facebook page describing conditions in Madaya posted photos of several older men who it said had starved to death. The photos could not be independently confirmed.

    It's not known how many people died in Foua and Kfarya. The evacuated fighters described how people who need medication in the two villages often must take drugs that are expired, and that mothers must crush grains of rice — when available — and boil the mixture to make baby food.

    Pawl Krzysiek, a Syria-based spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the situation in the villages of Foua, Kfarya and Madaya "is extremely dire, and winter is making things even more difficult for them."

    "For far too long, people were left without basic necessities such as food and medicine," Krzysiek said. "It is the ICRC's utmost priority to deliver in the coming days to people there."

    A man walks near a damaged truck at a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force in Karf Naseh town, Aleppo countryside, Syria December 26, 2015. REUTERS/Ammar AbdullahHe said ICRC is coordinating the aid to the villages but refused to give further details.

    The main Western-backed Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, called on the U.N. and the international community to allow aid into Madaya, warning that any delay "will lead to more deaths among innocent civilians."

    "Children, women and elderly are dying as a result of hunger and cold," said coalition member Salah Hamawi.

    But U.N. efforts to take in food often get disrupted by either insurgents or pro-government fighters, the Observatory said.

    A U.N.-backed deal led to the Dec. 28 evacuation of more than 450 people from two war zones in Syria, including 338 people from the two northern villages and 125 people from the Zabadani area near the border with Lebanon.

    Madaya, which is near Zabadani, was not part of the evacuation deal, but food was supposed to go in.

    In October, the U.N. said it had mistakenly sent hundreds of boxes of expired nutrition biscuits to besieged civilians in Zabadani and Madaya.

    Yacoub El Hillo, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Syria, said in a statement that human error during the loading process caused the mistake.

    Ali, the local official in Madaya, said some people got sick after eating the biscuits. He added that residents were promised more supplies, but nothing has been delivered since then.

    In all three besieged areas, residents used to rely on troops or insurgents to bring them food at inflated prices, but the smuggling has recently dropped sharply.

    Moamen Haj Ali, another wounded Shiite fighter being treated in Beirut, said water is running out in Foua and Kfarya because of a lack of diesel fuel for pumping stations.

    "Life is miserable. People cannot find a pill of aspirin or painkillers," said Mohsen Darwish, a Shiite cleric from Kfarya who lives in Lebanon but is in contact with residents of both. "Their dream is to eat vegetables.

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    Bashar al Assad Assad Syria President

    WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration's best-case scenario for political transition in Syria does not foresee Bashar Assad stepping down as the country's leader before March 2017, outlasting Barack Obama's presidency by at least two months, according to a document obtained by The Associated Press.

    An internal timeline prepared for U.S. officials dealing with the Syria crisis sets an unspecified date in March 2017 for Assad to "relinquish" his position as president and for his "inner circle" to depart. That would be more than five years after Obama first called for Assad to leave.

    The timeline is based on a broad U.N.-endorsed plan that was initially laid out at an international conference in Vienna in November. Syria, according to that strategy, would hold elections for a new president and parliament in August 2017 — some 19 months from now. In the interim, Syria would be run by a transitional governing body.

    Countless hurdles lie ahead for implementation of this latest blueprint for ending five years of conflict that has killed more than a quarter-million people, created the worst European refugee crisis since World War II and allowed the Islamic State group to carve out a would-be caliphate across parts of Iraq and Syria.

    Not the least of those hurdles is the growing rift between Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Shiite-ruled Iran, which back opposite sides in the Syria conflict and had to be lobbied heavily to agree to meet in Vienna to craft a way forward for the war-torn country. Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shiite cleric and then severed diplomatic relations with Iran this week after its embassy in Tehran was stormed by a mob protesting the death.

    It is not yet clear what impact those developments might have on the Syria negotiations.

    If Saudi-Iranian tensions can be overcome, if peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition go ahead later this month as planned and if they are successful, the biggest challenge to the U.S. timeline is still that no one else has yet agreed to its specifics, particularly those related to Assad's departure.

    barack obama

    Assad has steadfastly refused to step down while his nation's terrorist threat, as he sees it, persists. The timeline offers no explanation for exactly how Assad would leave or what his post-presidential future might hold.

    And his chief backers, Russia and Iran, have resisted all efforts by outside powers to determine Syria's future leadership, insisting that is a decision for the Syrian people. Russia and Iran may object to the U.S. timeline's call for Assad to leave six months before elections would be held.

    In addition, the Syrian opposition wants Assad out as soon as possible. The opposition along with U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey could view the American concept as a betrayal.

    The United States is balancing numerous considerations as it seeks to quell Syria's violence and advance several strategic objectives. Its top priority now is rooting out the Islamic State from its headquarters in northern Syria.

    Still, Obama and other U.S. officials promised for years to end the Assad family's 45-year-grip on Syria, arguing that a leader who uses barrel bombs and poison gas on his own people has lost legitimacy. Ridding Syria of Assadcould also strip Iran of its foothold in the heart of the Arab world and dramatically change the security equation for neighbors such as Israel, Lebanon and Turkey.

    In recent months, Washington and its allies in European capitals have retreated from demands that Assad leave power immediately as the Islamic State gained territory in the region and the priority shifted to defeating the militant group.

    The timeline, however aspirational, shows how U.S. diplomats and policymakers are determined to outline an exit plan for Assad and not let concerns over the Islamic State and other extremist groups allow him to cling to power indefinitely.

    Syria map

    The document obtained by the AP starts Syria's new political process next month. An 18-month transition period would be initiated, consistent with the plan endorsed by the U.N. Security Council last month. The U.N.'s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has set a Jan. 25 date for government-opposition peace talks to begin in Geneva.

    The U.S. timeline envisions the Security Council signing off on a framework for negotiations between Assad'srepresentatives and the opposition, leading to the formation of a security committee in April. That would be accompanied by an amnesty for some government and military members, and moderate opposition leaders and fighters. The transitional governing body would then be created.

    In May, the Syrian parliament would dissolve, according to the timeline. The Security Council would recognize the new transitional authority and lay out the transition's next steps. These include major political reforms, the nomination of an interim legislature and an international donors' conference to fund Syria's transition and reconstruction.

    The next six months, through November 2016 — when Obama's successor is elected — would be devoted to the sides drafting a new constitution. The Syrian people would get a chance to vote on that document in a popular referendum in January 2017, according to the timeline.

    Only then would the process lead to what Washington calls the root cause of the entire conflict and the growing extremist threat across the Middle East and beyond: the end of Assad's rule of Syria.

    In March 2017, the timeline reads: "Asad relinquishes presidency; inner circle departs." The document uses the U.S. government's preferred spelling of Assad.

    Syria's new government would assume full powers from the transitional body after the parliamentary and presidential elections in August. 

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    Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian speaks during a news conference in Moscow, Russia, September 22, 2015. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev

    DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran's diplomatic row with Saudi Arabia will affect the Syrian peace talks, Tehran's Deputy Foreign Minister said on Wednesday, adding his government would remain committed to the talks.

    "Saudi Arabia's wrong decision will have an effect on (Syria) talks in Vienna and New York, but Tehran will stay committed," Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was quoted as saying by Iranian state news agency IRNA.

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    Syrian children carry placards as they call for the lifting of the siege off Madaya and Zabadani towns in Syria, in front of the offices of the U.N. headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon December 26, 2015.  REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

    In the early hours of Sunday morning, a pregnant woman and her daughter tried to sneak out of Madaya, a mountain village perched in the snow-capped peaks of southwestern Syria.

    As they reached the southern edge of town, someone tripped over a landmine, and the loud blast alerted a nearby Hezbollah checkpoint of their escape. The fighters opened fire, and between the explosion and the barrage, both mother and daughter died. 

    Desperate escape attempts like this one — which was reported by the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and confirmed to VICE News by local residents — have become more and more common in Madaya, a village of 40,000 that's been under siege since July by a combination of Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and his ally, the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. 

    In the past month alone, 31 residents have died from starvation, or in attempts to run the Hezbollah-manned blockade that encircles the town. A report compiled by the Syrian-American Medical Society and made available to VICE News found that a kilogram (two pounds)of flour now retails for around $100, while the average Syrian makes less than $200 each month.

    "I had strawberry leaves for dinner today," Rajai, a 26-year old English and math teacher in Madaya, told VICE News by phone, asking that his name be withheld for security reasons. "I haven't had a real meal in three months." Since the siege began in July, he's lost 50 pounds. "Kids are eating leaves off the trees, and the very old and very young are dying," he said.

    As the death toll mounted in December, residents of Madaya began posting desperate pleas on social media, along with disturbing images, reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps.

    In a picture dated January 3, a group of young men hold a poster in English pleading with the UN and the Pope to do something to lift the siege. 

    According to Rajai, the Assad regime is punishing his hometown for its participation in the Syrian uprising in 2011. When peaceful protesters took to the streets in the nearby city of Zabadani in April 2011, Rajai joined in. "We wanted to clean this country of Assad," he said. He was arrested and tortured. Now, after five years of civil war, his outlook is bleak. 

    "In the early days of the revolution, we used to say no one could be made to feel hungry or afraid," he said. "But now we know we were wrong."

    syria madaya map syriamap madayamapMadaya lies on a strategically key line in Syria's ballooning multi-front, multi-party civil war. The town is nestled within the Qalamoun mountain range, alongside the Lebanese border, less than 30 miles (50 km) from the capital Damascus. Stamping out unrest in Qalamoun, said Joshua Landis, the head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and editor of the blog Syria Comment, is key to the regime's survival. "If rebels there broke out, they'd have a straight corridor to Damascus," he said.

    In the early years of the revolution, many of the mountain villages along the Lebanese border sided against the Assad regime, throwing in their lot with the expanding constellation of rebels who took up arms across the country.

    A man walks near a damaged truck at a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force in Karf Naseh town, Aleppo countryside, Syria December 26, 2015. REUTERS/Ammar AbdullahAs the revolution grew more violent, the Syrian-Lebanese border became a key route for arms smugglers, who were funneling weapons dangerously close to the Syrian capital. Assad and his Iranian, Russian, and Lebanese allies made securing that border zone a top priority — more pressing even than retaking northern territory from groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda's Nusra Front. 

    So with the help of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, Assad has been brutally crushing restive zones along the mountain range by setting sieges reminiscent of medieval warfare. Besides checkpoints and minefields, the regime and its allies employ brutal blockades that prevent food or water from reaching the isolated towns.  "They are starving people into submission," Landis said. "It's a very old tactic."

    In September, Hezbollah moved into the town of Zabadani, just two miles (three km) north of Madaya, and the town's only real lifeline to the outside world. A few beleaguered rebel fighters were allowed safe passage out thanks to a deal brokered by Turkey and Iran.

    As Hezbollah stormed the city, it forced people it considered hostile to move to Madaya, a tactic residents say was designed to separate out pro-regime and anti-regime civilians. Loay, a 28-year old student in Zabadani, was forced to relocate to Madaya with his mother when Hezbollah took over his town. "They said: go to Madaya," he told VICE News by phone. "There you will die, from starvation."

    In Madaya, he said, it's like "another world.""Everyone," he added, "is starving."

    Loay's mother Umm Mohamad, 52, also hasn't had a meal in months. "My only dream is to have a piece of bread," she said.

    Syrian human rights groups are watching Madaya with horror. "They are making it into a big prison and suffocating the area," Dr. Ammar Ghanem, a Syrian physician who grew up in the area, told VICE News. A member of the Syrian-American Medical Society's board, Ghanem still has family stuck inside, and has been monitoring the humanitarian situation from afar. "The regime want people to die there," he said.

    Bomb Damascus Syria
    Medical services in the town are meager. "They have no supplies, and no training — one of their only doctors is a veterinarian who is now operating on humans," Ghanem said. "We would like to send in supplies, but of course, we cannot get through the blockade."

    The United Nations has struggled to get any aid into the besieged town. In October, it managed to secure safe passage for a shipment of biscuits to Madaya and Zabadani. But the food turned out to be expired.

    Over the past three months, the Assad regime has prevented any additional shipments, essentially signing death warrants for dozens of children and elderly civilians in the coldest months of the winter. 

    But there are also very practical reasons for the siege. Hezbollah is trying to trade the civilians in Madaya for the well-being of Shiite civilians under siege by rebel forces in the northern cities of Kafrayya and Fua. "It's a negotiating ploy," Landis said. "Basically Hezbollah is taking hostages." Indeed, in September, members of Ahrar al-Sham, the militant Sunni group that's blockading the Shiite villages, began negotiating with the Syrian regime to simultaneously lift both sieges. Though the negotiators were able to arrange for the safe passage of some fighters from Zabadani, so far, the deal has yet to bear fruit for the embattled civilians.

    Though the siege undoubtedly takes a humanitarian toll, multiple residents in Madaya told VICE News that fighters with Ahrar al-Sham are present in the town. The group fights with Al-Qaeda in the north of Syria. But Landis, the Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, stresses that the men who joined Ahrar in Madaya are most likely not ideologues. "They are fighting for their lives," he said. "They'll make alliances with whoever they think will save them."

    As the siege grinds on, civilians are increasingly losing hope, and fear their plight will always be in the shadow of the war up north against the Islamic State. "Sure, people may read about us if you write something," Rajaai, the teacher, told VICE News. "But when they finish reading, they'll forget us."

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    Although the latest Kurdish offensive runs the risk of spurring direct Turkish intervention, it could also help isolate Islamic State forces in the area from their capital, with significant implications for the rest of the combatants in Syria.

    Since October, Islamic State (IS) forces in the eastern part of Syria's Aleppo province have been under pressure and compelled to fight on several fronts: against the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its Arab allies near the large Tishrin Dam; against the Syrian army and Russian aircraft around Kuwaires military airport and al-Jaboul Lake; against the rebel umbrella group Jaish al-Fatah (dominated by Ahrar al-Sham and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra) in the Azaz corridor between Aleppo and the Turkish border; and against the local population in Manbij, toward which the PYD and its allies are advancing.

    With the PYD seizing the only intact bridge across the Euphrates River for several hundred miles and the Syrian army potentially advancing further north or west, a large group of IS fighters in the Aleppo area could be left without land access to their capital in Raqqa. This prospect raises the question of who would benefit from eliminating IS on this front, and how.

    alepposyriamap isis kurds turkey


    A multiethnic area with powerful tribal solidarity

    Although the current population of eastern Aleppo province is almost entirely Sunni, it is divided between various ethnic groups and further subdivided into tribes and clans that form the basic solidarity network in the countryside and cities. Arabs are the majority population, but large Kurdish and Turkmen minorities have resisted Arabization.

    The Circassians, however, are now assimilated: their identity has been progressively diluted since they were brought to the area by the Ottomans more than 150 years ago. Christians were numerous in the border towns of Jarabulus, Kobane, and Azaz until the 1950s, but they gradually left for Aleppo city and Damascus.

    The area is also deeply rural, with the country's second-lowest human development indicators after the Euphrates Valley. It has seen strong population growth over the years, reaching an annual rate of more than 3 percent before the civil war. The area is dominated by agriculture and polarized by three urban centers almost devoid of industries: al-Bab, Manbij, and Jarabulus. The only industrial project is a cement plant built in 2008-2010 by the European company Lafarge.

    'Historically Kurdish'

    turkey kurds

    Kurds consider large parts of this area as their own, including the long zone along the Turkish border -- not only the Kurdish-held cantons of Afrin to the west and Kobane to the east, but also the sections in between that are currently held by rebel groups or IS. The Kurds have similar views on Manbij, which lies well south of the border. Even if the population in some of these areas is mostly Arab, the PYD still considers them "historically Kurdish," seemingly basing their argument on notions from the Middle Ages and Salah al-Din.

    Accordingly, the PYD aims to ensure territorial continuity between its Afrin canton and the rest of its self-proclaimed Kurdish region (called Rojava). The group has already annexed the predominantly Arab district of Tal Abyad further to the east, but it will be difficult to replicate that feat in more heavily populated districts -- as of 2010, more than a million people resided in the contested districts of Azaz, al-Bab, Manbij, and Jarabulus, compared to around 130,000 in Tal Abyad.

    Of course, hundreds of thousands of civilians have since fled to Turkey, but the Kurds would still face the challenge of integrating a large Arab population into Rojava -- not to mention the local Turkmen minority, which is under Ankara's protection.

    Indeed, Turkey refuses to let the Kurds control the entire border and has warned several times that it will attack them if they cross the Euphrates, as it did in July when it shelled a PYD position near Jarabulus. On December 26, the Democratic Forces of Syria (an umbrella group for the PYD and its Arab allies) seized Tishrin Dam, then took the village of Abu Qilqil on the other side of the river three days later, bringing them only twelve kilometers from Manbij.

    Kurdish YPG ISIS fight

    Although that town is out of Turkish artillery range, Ankara could hit PYD forces there with other weapons. Doing so might be politically difficult at a time when the Kurds are fighting IS on Turkey's southern frontier, and when the border area that the PYD is trying to control is the main conduit for IS terrorists transiting north to Europe and volunteers coming south to join the group in Syria.

    Yet Ankara could still try to justify strikes against the Kurds given the PYD's close connections to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Indeed, short of a ceasefire with Ankara, Turkey will likely act to undermine any Kurdish gains in Syria. 

    Even so, the main impediment to the PYD's goals is the challenge of conquering and holding such a large Arab and Turkmen area. Would the local population accept the arrival of Kurdish fighters? The situation between Arabs and Kurds in eastern Aleppo province is certainly less confrontational than in northeastern Syria; the populations are more intermingled in the former area, and intermarriages are frequent.

    In addition, the PYD has formed a coalition with Arab militias, so local tribes may be more willing to pledge allegiance to the dominant political actor, just as they pledged allegiance to IS in the interests of the tribe.

    Will the Islamic state become trapped?

    Abdelhamid Abaaoud ISIS Flag

    As the PYD and its allies seized Abu Qilqil, several sources indicated that IS might abandon Manbij, mainly because it faces major local hostility there and would be unable to defend the town against a Kurdish advance. On November 12, Manbij civilians protested the forced recruitment of young men to fight with IS on the Azaz front line. And on December 19, the group executed fourteen civilians out of fear that an uprising might be brewing.

    Meanwhile, the PYD offensive has been supported by coalition airstrikes, indicating that the move was at least partly coordinated with the United States and was not a unilateral PYD decision. From that perspective, the advance toward Manbij could be part of a strategy to win back Raqqa. If Manbij falls, the capital of the "caliphate" could eventually become isolated from the rest of IS territory in Syria.

    All of the Euphrates bridges from the Turkish border south to Assad Lake have been destroyed or are controlled by the Kurds. If the PYD moves further south and the Syrian army launches an offensive toward al-Bab or Assad Lake, many IS personnel would be trapped in east Aleppo province.

    Who would benefit most?

    rouhani khamenei khomenei assad putin

    To the west, the rebel groups controlling the Azaz corridor are currently on the defensive against IS, which has seized several villages in the area since September and is slowly progressing toward Azaz. The priority of the Saudi/Turkish-backed Jaish al-Fatah is to defend the supply road to eastern Aleppo against the Kurds in the west and the Syrian army in the south.

    Yet Russian aircraft are multiplying their raids on the corridor and weakening the rebel defenses, especially near the border crossing of Bab al-Salam, and losing this road would leave rebel units in the eastern districts almost completely surrounded by regime forces. Some assistance would still flow from the western Bab al-Hawa border crossing, but the Syrian army's progress around Aleppo threatens that route as well.

    Therefore, the rebels would not be the main beneficiaries of an IS retreat in Aleppo province unless they were permitted to conduct attacks from Turkey. Ankara does not want to intervene directly in Syria, but it might allow rebel proxies to use Turkish territory as a launchpad for operations against IS in Jarabulus, for instance, with the implicit goal of preventing the Kurds from seizing the entire border. Of course, any such strategy would depend on whether the rebels are willing to fight IS, and able to do so effectively.

    Meanwhile, the Syrian army's recent offensive on Kuwaires military airport was meant to save the garrison from the type of IS massacre that occurred at Tabqa, and to secure the Aleppo-Salamiya road that has been threatened by IS raids. Up until now, however, the army has had no intention of embarking on a wider campaign to recover lost territories in the east anytime soon -- its priority has been to eliminate rebel groups in and around Aleppo city. Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin understood that they should not compete with the Kurds in conquering other areas, at least temporarily. Instead, they have facilitated Kurdish efforts by bombarding rebels in the Azaz corridor.

    But if the latest Kurdish offensive succeeds, it could change the Syrian, Russian, and Iranian strategy in this area. By reaching Manbij, the Kurds could spur the Syrian army to launch an offensive against al-Bab northeast of Aleppo. The two forces could eventually meet up, trapping IS forces as described above. Although neither Assad nor the rebels seem well positioned to regain any ground lost by IS east of Aleppo, the local Arab population could be more receptive to them than to the Kurds.

    Few options for the West

    F 16 deliberate force

    Since the November terrorist attack in Paris, Europeans have insisted that the Islamic State's two-way route through Turkey be closed for good. In the absence of a moderate Arab Sunni force able to meet this demand, the West would prefer that the corridor be closed by Kurds rather than al-Qaeda-linked groups such as Ahrar al-Sham or Jabhat al-Nusra.

    The Kurds are eager to fulfill their dream of a united Rojava along the entire northern border, and to deny them at least some progress toward that goal would be to stop the only effective ally against IS in northern Syria. If the West does not work with them on this objective, it will push them into the arms of Moscow, which has made clear to the PYD that it is quite willing to help; in fact, there is already clear Kurdish coordination with Russian forces in northern Aleppo province.

    At the same time, allowing the PYD to seize the entire border is unacceptable to Turkey, and the West needs Ankara's assistance on several fronts, including the refugee issue and the fight against IS. Therefore, if the PYD offensive continues toward Manbij and perhaps even further beyond Turkey's Euphrates redline, the United States and its coalition partners will need to be careful in determining whether, where, and how to support the advance -- and what to say in response to Turkish protests.

    For its part, Ankara will need to decide how far it is willing to go in enforcing that redline given the political and diplomatic risks of deeper intervention, especially against the only ground force making progress against IS in Syria. In that sense, the PYD's offensive is as clear a signal as Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon: the die is cast.

    SEE ALSO: Iran: 'Saudi Arabia's wrong decision will have an effect' on Syria talks

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    ISIS Flag Iraq Iraqi SoldiersWill McCants: As we wind down another year in the so-called Long War and begin another, it’s a good time to reflect on where we are in the fight against al-Qaida and its bête noire, the Islamic State.

    Both organizations have benefited from the chaos unleashed by the Arab Spring uprisings but they have taken different paths. Will those paths converge again or will the two organizations continue to remain at odds? Who has the best strategy at the moment?

    And what political changes might happen in the coming year that will reconfigure their rivalry for leadership of the global jihad?

    To answer these questions, I’ve asked some of the leading experts on the two organizations to weigh in over. The first is Barak Mendelsohn, an associate professor of political science at Haverford College and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). He is author of the brand new The al-Qaeda Franchise: The Expansion of al-Qaeda and Its Consequences. 

    Barak Mendelsohn: Al-Qaida attacked the US homeland on 9/11, unprepared for what would follow. There was a strong disconnect between al-Qaida’s meager capabilities and its strategic objectives of crippling the United States and of bringing about change in the Middle East.

    To bridge that gap, Osama bin Laden conveniently and unrealistically assumed that the attack on the United States would lead the Muslim masses and all other armed Islamist forces to join his cause. The collapse of the Taliban regime and the decimation of al-Qaida’s ranks quickly proved him wrong.

    Yet over fourteen years later al-Qaida is still around. Despite its unrealistic political vision and considerable setbacks—above all the rise of the Islamic State that upstaged al-Qaida and threatened its survival—it has branches in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, Central Asia, and the Horn of Africa.

    Down, but not out

    marjah afghansitan

    Two factors explain al-Qaida’s resilience: changes in the environment due to the Arab revolutions and the group’s ability to take advantage of new opportunities by learning from past mistakes. The Arab awakening initially undercut al-Qaida’s original claims that change in Muslim countries cannot come peacefully or without first weakening the United States.

    Yet, the violence of regimes against their people in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere created new opportunities for al-Qaida to demonstrate its relevance. Furthermore, involved citizens determined to shape their own future presented al-Qaida with a new opportunity to recruit. 

    But favorable conditions would be insufficient to explain al-Qaida’s resilience without changes in the way al-Qaida operates. Learning from its bitter experience in Iraq, al-Qaida opted to act with some moderation. It embedded itself among rebel movements in Syria and Yemen, thus showing it could be a constructive actor, attentive to the needs of the people and willing to cooperate with a wide array of groups.

    As part of a broader movement, al-Qaida’s affiliates in these countries also gained a measure of protection from external enemies reluctant to alienate the group’s new allies.  

    At present, the greatest threat to al-Qaida is not the United States or the Arab regimes; it’s the group’s former affiliate in Iraq, the Islamic State. ISIS is pressuring al-Qaida’s affiliates to defect—while it has failed so far to shift their allegiance, it has deepened cracks within the branches and persuaded small groups of al-Qaida members to change sides.

    Even if al-Qaida manages to survive the Islamic State’s challenge, in the long term it still faces a fundamental problem that is unlikely to change: even after showing some moderation, al-Qaida’s project is still too extreme for the overwhelming majority of Muslims.

    Up, but not forever


    With the United States seeking retrenchment and Middle Eastern regimes weakening, the Islamic State came to prominence under more convenient conditions and pursued a different strategy. Instead of wasting its energy on fighting the United States first, ISIS opted to establish a caliphate on the ruins of disintegrating Middle Eastern states. It has thrived on the chaos of the Arab rebellions.

    But in contrast to al-Qaida, it went beyond offering protection to oppressed Sunni Muslims by promoting a positive message of hope and pride. It does not merely empower Muslims to fend off attacks on their lives, property, and honor; the Islamic State offers its enthusiastic followers an historic chance to build a utopian order and restore the early Islamic empire or caliphate.

    ISIS opted to establish a caliphate on the ruins of disintegrating Middle Eastern states. It has thrived on the chaos of the Arab rebellions.

    The Islamic State’s leaders gambled that their impressive warfighting skills, the weakness of their opponents, and the reluctance of the United States to fight another war in the Middle East would allow the group to conquer and then govern territory. The gamble paid off.

    Not only did ISIS succeed in controlling vast territory, including the cities of Raqqa and Mosul; the slow response to its rise allowed the Islamic State’s propaganda machine to construct a narrative of invincibility and inevitability, which has, in turn, increased its appeal to new recruits and facilitated further expansion.

    syraqmap december 21 syria iraq map isis

    And yet, the Islamic State’s prospects of success are low. Its miscalculations are threatening to undo much of its success. It prematurely and unnecessarily provoked an American intervention that, through a combination of bombings from the air and skilled Kurdish proxies on the ground, is limiting the Islamic State’s ability to expand and even reversing some of the group’s gains. 

    ISIS could settle for consolidating its caliphate in the territories it currently controls, but its hubris and messianic zeal do not allow for such limited goals. It is committed to pursuing military expansion alongside its state-building project. This rigid commitment to two incompatible objectives is perhaps the Islamic State’s biggest weakness. 

    Rather than pursue an economic plan that would guarantee the caliphate’s survival, the Islamic State has linked its economic viability to its military expansion.

    At present, ISIS relies on taxing its population and oil sales to support its flailing economy. But these financial resources cannot sustain a state, particularly one bent on simultaneously fighting multiple enemies on numerous fronts. Ironically, rather than taming its aspirations, the Islamic State sees conquest as the way to promote its state-building goals.

    isis oil

    Its plan for growing the economy is based on the extraction of resources through military expansion. While this plan worked well at first—when the Islamic State faced weak enemies—it is not a viable solution any longer, as the self-declared caliphate can no longer expand fast enough to meet its needs. Consequently, this strategy is undermining ISIS rather than strengthening it. 

    Unfortunately, even if the Islamic State is bound to fail over the long run, it has had enough time to wreak havoc on other states in the neighborhood. And while its ability to govern is likely to continue diminishing, the terror attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Sinai suggest that the Islamic State will remain capable of causing much pain for a long time.

    SEE ALSO: A French man returning from Syria reportedly warned police in August that terrorists wanted to attack France

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    US President Barack Obama decided to delay launching airstrikes against the Syrian government in 2013 during a walk in the White House garden with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, according to an in-depth profile of McDonough from Politico Magazine's Glenn Thrush.

    After Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces killed more than 1,300 Syrians in a 2013 chemical-weapons attack which crossed Obama's self-imposed "red line," Obama considered launching an air campaign in an attempt to depose Assad.

    That campaign was delayed when Obama decided to put it to a vote in Congress. It was thrown out altogether when Russia — Assad's ally — offered to dispose of Assad's chemical-weapons arsenal if the US refrained from launching airstrikes.

    That fateful delay, as it turns out, was the result of a one-on-one meeting Obama had with McDonough as the two strolled around the White House grounds during their daily afternoon "wrap."

    From Politico: 

    In fact, the moment that will likely define McDonough’s tenure took place during just such a walk, in August 2013, when Obama was debating airstrikes on Syria in response to President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Most observers expected him to launch the strikes—until he came back from the walk, that is.

    Then, Obama surprised nearly everyone by deciding to force a vote in Congress on whether to do so, effectively putting the military action on hold.

    According to Thrush, neither Secretary of State John Kerry nor then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel were consulted before Obama made his decision to delay military action in Syria. US National Security Adviser Susan Rice was also kept out of the loop.

    "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," Middle East expert Tony Badran, a researcher at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider last month.

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

    obama mcdonoughEven if Obama owned the policy, he and McDonough were "philosophically in tune" in a way that Obama and Hagel were not — which was useful when Obama needed someone to execute his vision for the Middle East.

    "Both men were allergic to military intervention," Thrush wrote. "And McDonough was an enthusiastic executor of Obama’s plan for running foreign policy: concentrating as much decision-making power in the West Wing national security staff as possible, at the expense of the harder-to-control Defense and State departments."

    He added: "This aggravated the big-time principals Obama had recruited to run those departments."

    Indeed, in an interview with Foreign Policy last month, Hagel — who resigned as defense secretary in November 2014 — voiced his frustrations with the administration's sluggish response to the crisis in Syria. 

    “For one thing, there were way too many meetings. The meetings were not productive,” Hagel said in December.

    Hagel obama

    "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."

    Thrush corroborated both Rice's penchant for seemingly endless National Security Council meetings and Hagel's annoyance with them, relaying a telling anecdote:

    At one point Hagel, who was quickly losing patience with the whole Obama crew, simply stood up and left in the middle of an especially tedious meeting late in his tenure, announcing, “I’ll give you two hours, Susan, but I’m not going to sit through four hours of this bullshit.”

    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. 

    Since drawing his "red line" in 2013, Obama has accepted a "limited" role for the ruler in political negotiations over the country's future. Those negotiations are due to begin in January, as long as all parties sign on to a plan brokered by Assad's biggest ally — Russia.

    Read the full profile of McDonough at Politico Magazine >>

    SEE ALSO: 'Provoke at your peril': The Obama administration is sending a 'message' to Saudi Arabia

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    The Syrian government has agreed to allow humanitarian assistance into three beleaguered villages following reports of deaths from malnutrition in that part of the country, a U.N. official said Thursday.

    Meanwhile, the aid group Doctors Without Borders said 23 patients have died of starvation at an MSF-supported health center in one of the three villages since Dec. 1 — including six infants under 1 years of age and five adults over the age of 60.

    A statement from Yacoub El Hillo, U.N.'s Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria, said aid will begin entering the villages in the coming days.

    Two of the villages in question are the adjacent Shiite villages of Foua and Kfarya in the country's north, which have been besieged by anti-government militants for more than a year. The third is the village of Madaya near the border with Lebanon, which has been under siege by government forces since early July.

    "The UN welcomes today's approval from the government of Syria to access Madaya, Foua and Kfarya and is preparing to deliver humanitarian assistance in the coming days," said El Hillo.

    Activists have said that several people have died over the past weeks in both areas because of malnutrition. There are currently some 30,000 people in the two Shiite villages and an even higher number in Madaya.

    "Almost 42,000 people remaining in Madaya are at risk of further hunger and starvation," El Hillo warned.

    El Hillo said the U.N. is particularly concerned about the plight of nearly 400,000 people besieged by parties to the conflict in areas including the eastern city of Deir el-Zour as well as the Damascus suburbs known as eastern Ghoua.

    Syrian children carry placards as they call for the lifting of the siege off Madaya and Zabadani towns in Syria, in front of the offices of the U.N. headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon December 26, 2015.  REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

    In the meantime, Syrian President Bashar Assad's government has repeatedly denied U.N. requests to deliver aid to specific areas.

    "In the last year, only 10 percent of all requests for U.N. inter-agency convoys to hard-to-reach and besieged areas were approved and delivered," the statement said.

    He added that up to 4.5 million people in Syria live in hard-to-reach areas, including nearly 400,000 people in 15 besieged locations who do not have access to the life-saving aid they urgently need.

    syria madaya map syriamap madayamapThe conflict that began in March 2011 has killed more than 250,000 people and wounded more than a million. The crisis has also displaces half of Syria's pre-war 23 million people.

    From Brussels, Doctors Without Borders also called for an immediate delivery of lifesaving medicine and medical evacuations, in addition to food supplies to Madaya, where it reported the 23 deaths from starvation.

    After the last, single food delivery in October, the siege of the village had tightened into a complete stranglehold, MSF said.

    "Madaya is now effectively an open-air prison for an estimated 20,000 people, including infants, children and elderly," said Brice de le Vingne, MSF director of operations.

    "This is a clear example of the consequences of using siege as a military strategy," de le Vingne added.

    (Associated Press writer Cara Anna contributed to this report from the United Nations.)

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    ISIS Islamic State Raqqa Syria Member

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - An Islamic State militant executed his mother in public in the Syrian city of Raqqa because she had encouraged him to leave the group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Friday.

    The woman in her 40s had warned her son that a U.S.-backed alliance would wipe out Islamic State and had encouraged him to leave the city with her.

    She was detained after he informed the group of her comments, according to the British-based Observatory, which monitors the war through a network of sources on the ground.

    Citing local sources, the Observatory said the 20-year-old man executed his mother on Wednesday near the post office building where she worked in front of hundreds of people in Raqqa, a main base of operations for the group in Syria.

    The Islamic State group, which controls wide areas of Syria and Iraq, has executed hundreds of people it has accused of working with its enemies or breaching of its ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam.

    The Observatory reported on Dec. 29 that Islamic State had executed more than 2,000 Syrian civilians in the 18 months since it declared its "caliphate" over the territory it controls in Syria and Iraq. They included people killed on the grounds of homosexuality, practicing magic and apostasy.

    It was not possible to independently verify the latest report.

    (Writing by Tom Perry; editing by Giles Elgood)

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    Activists say a member of ISIS executed his own mother in front of hundreds of people in Syria after she was accused of being an apostate, or someone who renounces the terrorist group's brand of Islam.

    The militant, whom the activists identified as 21-year-old Ali Saqr, reportedly shot and killed his mother, Leena al-Qasem.

    The public execution occurred outside a post office in Raqqa, ISIS' de facto capital in Syria, according to the activist groups Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently and the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights.

    Qasem had reportedly been an employee at the post office near where she was executed, according to a member of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.

    The New York Times called the killing"the latest in a chain of brutal and bizarre killings" that ISIS, which is also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh, "uses, and often widely publicizes, in efforts to tamp down dissent and to attract recruits."

    The Times reported that Saqr's mother was trying to persuade him to leave ISIS, but Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently said that was not the reason for the killing.

    Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently tweeted out these photos that they say show Saqr:

    This type of killing isn't inconsistent with ISIS ideology.

    Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan interviewed an ISIS fighter for the book "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror" and asked what he would do if his father fought for a rival jihadist group in Syria. The fighter didn't hesitate:

    Asked what he would do if his father were a member of Jabhat al-Nusra and the two met in battle, Abdelaziz replied promptly: 'I would kill him. Abu Obeida [one of the companions of the Prophet] killed his father in battle. Anyone who extends his hand to harm al-Dawla will have his hand chopped off.' Abdelaziz also called his relatives in the Bahraini army or security forces 'apostates' because his adoptive country's military was by then involved in a multinational coalition bombing campaign against ISIS led by the United States.

    And ISIS has reportedly ordered fighters to kill family members before — The Times noted that last year, a Lebanese man went to Raqqa to try to persuade his son, who had become an ISIS fighter, to leave with others the son had convinced to go there. Family members said the father was then detained and killed.

    SEE ALSO: Rebuilding cities reclaimed from ISIS will cost an exorbitant amount of money

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    aleppo putin

    Analysts largely agree that Russia's entry into the Syrian civil war on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not yet turned the tide of the war in Assad's favor.

    But in the nearly four months since Russia launched its air campaign there to bolster pro-Assad forces, Russia has slowly but surely "changed the slope of certain battlefields in favor of the regime."

    That's according to Jeff White, a defense fellow at The Washington Institute specializing in the military and security affairs of the Levant and Iran.

    "Not dramatically, but perceptively," White told Business Insider of the effect of Russian involvement.

    "These include northern Latakia, Aleppo, perhaps eastern Homs and maybe Daraa, although Daraa is shakier," White said. "The Russians have also allowed the regime to go on the offensive and to increase pressure on rebels generally, likely increasing attrition of rebel forces, commanders and equipment and making rebel logistics activity more difficult."

    Aleppo, Syria's largest city and its main urban center in the north, is arguably the most strategically important frontline of the war. The city is currently enveloped in a four-way battle among regime forces, rebel groups, the Islamic State and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — an alliance of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and Turkmen militias supported by the US.

    Russia's intervention in late September was followed by a regime offensive to recapture Aleppo from opposition forces, who control roughly half of the city's eastern flank. The offensive did not result in any significant gains for the regime.

    "The city is surrounded by Jabhat al-Nusra in the west and IS in the east," Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor and research director at the University of Lyon 2, and visiting fellow at The Washington Institute, told Al-Monitor at the time. He was referring, respectively, to the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate and an alternate acronym for ISIS.

    "The city is also located only 50 kilometers [31 miles] from Turkey, from which rebels receive substantial logistical support," Balanche added. "One can hardly imagine that the Syrian army can retake Aleppo completely without control of the Turkish-Syrian border."

    Kweiras air base AleppoThree months later, however, the regime is closer to controlling that area, owing to an intense Russian bombing campaign along the Turkish-Syrian border that began in late November after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane.

    "Russian aircraft are multiplying their raids on the corridor and weakening the rebel defenses, especially near the border crossing of Bab al-Salam, and losing this road would leave rebel units in the eastern districts almost completely surrounded by regime forces,"Balanche wrote for the Washington Institute last week. 

    Indeed, the airstrikes have shifted the epicenter of the war toward a corridor north of Aleppo, through which Turkey smuggles aid and supplies to the rebel groups it supports. That aid, flowing through Azaz to the northern capital, has been all but cut off.

    That development, combined with the steady tempo of Russian airstrikes in Aleppo province more broadly, have allowed regime forces to approach the city from the southeast and put substantial pressure on the rebel forces stationed there.

    Russia airstrikes Syria up to Dec 27Indeed, in an analysis of the Azaz corridor's strategic importance last month, Balanche wrote that Russia's airstrikes in the area could allow the regime to "lock other Turkish crossing points between Bab al-Hawa and Jisr al-Shughour, effectively putting the entire province of Idlib in a net."

    White said, however, that it was too soon to say whether Russia's intervention had definitively turned the tide of the war in Assad's favor.

    "The problem with tides is that they run both ways," White said. "That has been the pattern of the Syrian war."

    Assad regime efforts to recapture Aleppo have ebbed and flowed over the past four years, depending on how much manpower the government could devote to retaking the northern capital.  


    It ebbed when the regime wanted to focus more of its efforts on regaining territory in the south, for example, around October. But Russia seems to be pulling its weight there, too: Russian airstrikes around the Syrian capital of Damascus killed one of the southern front's most important rebel leaders, Zahran Alloush, on Christmas day.

    A recent Financial Times article, moreover, highlighted how Russia's growing role in the south may be shifting the balance against the rebels operating there. It's part of a larger strategyemployed by Moscow and the regime, some experts say, to turn military victories into diplomatic leverage ahead of negotiations over Syria's future.

    The rebels, for the most part, have remained resolute in their demands. Opposition leaders told the UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura last week that they will only participate in talks if the regime stops bombing civilians, releases some detainees, and lifts blockades on rebel-held areas.

    Zahran Alloush (C), commander of Jaysh al Islam, talks during a conference in the town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria August 27, 2014. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh/Files

    "Can the international community achieve the implementation of this pre-negotiation stage in the few remaining days? If it can, there is no problem," Riyad Naasan Agha, a member of the opposition council, told Reuters on Saturday. "But I doubt they can."

    Russia and the regime, meanwhile, are likely reveling in the notion that some opposition groups will refuse to come to the table. Russia retains the ability to strike rebels that sit out of the talks — on the grounds that they are impeding the peace process.

    “The regime is not going to compromise on talks," Syria analyst Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told the Financial Times last week. "They now think they’re going to win on the battlefield, and that Russia is taking them to the finish line."

    SEE ALSO: PUTIN: The deterioration of Russia's relationship with the West is the result of many 'mistakes'

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    Democratic Forces Syria Fighters

    Islamic State ran a sophisticated immigration operation through a Syrian border town with Turkey until its defeat in the area by Kurds this summer, documents obtained by the Guardian suggest.

    Passenger manifests dated between December 2014 and March 2015, which were seized by Kurdish commanders in Tel Abyad, carry the stamps of Isis’s “department of immigration” and “department of transport”. They show that buses passed through the town having submitted the names, dates of births, ID numbers and even birthplace of scores of travellers.

    Most of the registered passengers were travelling from within Isis-held territory. One manifest shows a group of five male and female Tunisians aged 23-36 entering the area.

    They are registered as coming from Kairouan, a city south of the Tunisian capital, Tunis, known to be a hotbed of radicalism. Kairouan is where gunman Seifeddine Rezgui, who massacred 30 British tourists on a Sousse beach in June, was studying.

    Tunisia is the biggest source of foreign fighters entering Syria. In October, the Tunisian government estimated that 6,000 fighters had left Tunisia headed for the conflict.

    Turkey has long said that it is unable to secure its 500-mile border with Syria. In January, as Isis was logging people passing in and out of Tel Abyad, the Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, told the Independent that sealing the border would be impossible.

    “We cannot put soldiers everywhere on the border. In any case, there isn’t any state on the other side [of the frontier].” he said.

    A Turkish diplomat speaking to the Guardian last month re-emphasised how difficult it was to stop fighters sneaking across the border at night.

    The seven passenger manifests, countersigned by travel agents in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, suggest there was a period of formalised passage on the Syrian side of the border.

    The manifests were sent to the Guardian by Syrian Kurdish forces spokesman, Redur Xelil, and bear the same stamp marks and logos as other Isis documents the newspaper has been able to verify. Spanning four months, they meticulously record 70 passengers, 28 of whom were under 18, including seven babies.

    Isis passenger manifests

    ISIS Islamic State Raqqa Syria Member

    Some buses were detailed as heading to the Isis stronghold of Raqqa, about 40 miles south of Tel Abyad, while others were full of families from Mosul, which Isis conquered last year.

    The border crossing remained open until Kurdish forces took control of the town in June, at which point Turkey promptly sealed it. The crossing remains closed, a government official confirmed.

    Turkey, a member of Nato, has been under international pressure because of its border with Syria, as concerns mounted over the ease with which Isis fighters appeared to be able to enter and leave territory held by the group.

    In July, Davutoğlu vowed to increase border security after an Isis bombing killed more than 30 youth activists. The pressure to further increase security has mounted since the Paris attack.

    Speaking in France shortly after the attacks in November, Barack Obama said he had had “repeated conversations” with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan about border security, adding: “We’ve seen some serious progress on that front, but there are still some gaps.” The US president mentioned a 60-mile stretch that he said continued to serve as a transit point for fighters and Isis fuel exports.

    David Phillips, an academic at Columbia University and author of two recent research papers into links between Turkey and Isis, alleges that the country “knows the movements of all persons and can control the flow across the border if it chooses”.

    He said there was “a steady stream of vehicles, individuals, weapons, financing, oil going back and forth”, adding: “It’s not like people are putting on their hiking boots and crossing over rough terrain. There’s an extensive surface transport network which is highly regulated and controlled ... on both sides of the border.”

    Academic researcher Aymenn al-Tamimi, an expert on examining Isis documents, said he had no doubt about the authenticity of the manifests.

    “The documents ... coincide with other documents illustrating daily bus routes within Islamic State territory. Though private companies provide the actual transportation, the Islamic State bureaucracy is responsible for authorising and overseeing the routes,” he said.

    Responding to the Guardian’s claims, a senior Turkish government official said Turkey regarded any Tunisian entering Isis-controlled territory as a “foreign fighter”. But he questioned whether the documents proved whether those arriving in Tel Abyad had done so using the legal road crossing or through other means.

    The official said Turkey was doing everything it could to stop the influx of foreign fighters, including cracking down on recruitment and logistic networks such as travel agents mentioned in the documents.

    Turkey arrested 207,437 people for illegally crossing the border between 1 January 2014 and 1 November 2015, he said, adding that the country hosts more than 2 million Syrian refugees as part of its “open door” policy.

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