The paper reports that Jack Letts, a 20-year-old man originally from Oxford, joined the radical Islamist group and secretly traveled to Syria two years ago.
Letts apparently converted to Islam while living in Oxford, and attended the Madina Masjid mosque in the city.
He comes from a non-Islamic background: His family is reportedly secular, his father working as an organic farmer and archaeobotanist, and his mother as a books editor. He studied at Cherwell school, supported Liverpool football club, and allegedly drank alcohol and smoked cannabis before his conversion.
Letts was reportedly nicknamed "Jihadi Jack" by his peers in Oxford.
The moniker mirrors "Jihadi John," another high-profile British Islamic State militant. The former Londoner, really named Mohammed Emwazi, became infamous after appearing in ISIS execution videos of Western journalists and aid workers including James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Emwazi was killed in a drone strike in November 2015.
Jack Letts now apparently uses the name Abu Muhammed, and married a woman from Fallujah in Iraq after he came to Syria. The Daily Mail reports he has a son, named Muhammed. He is apparently a frontline fighter, and lives in the Syrian city Raqqa.
He reportedly first traveled to Syria after telling his parents he was going to study Arabic in Kuwait. According to The Sunday Times, Letts revealed to his parents the truth in September 2014. A source to "close to his family" told the paper: "His mother and father were extremely worried for his safety after he told them that he was in Syria. The past two years have been a real nightmare for them. They just wish he can be back home with them."
The Daily Mail and The Sunday Times have both seen photos Letts posted to social media apparently showing him in Syria. A Facebook profile for a "Jack Letts" from Oxford that shows photos that The Daily Mail reports are of Letts has its profile picture set of a smoke cloud from an apparent explosion seen from a roof in what seems to be a Middle Eastern setting. In a comment from May 2015, Letts says he is "travelling."
According to The BBC, more than 700 people have traveled from Britain to Syria and Iraq to support jihadist groups — mostly ISIS, also known as Islamic State.
Akunjee told Vice that Abase had married an Australian who was killed in combat and that Sultana’s husband had also died.
He also revealed that during the last contact the teenagers had made with their families in the UK they had told them not to worry.
“They said they’re healthy, Russian bombs have gone off within 500 metres of them, and if they’re not in contact don’t worry,” Akunjee said.
The solicitor also told the BBC’s Today programme that last he knew the trio were in ISIS’ self-declared capital of Raqqa in Syria, which is regularly bombed by both US-led coalition forces as well as Russian warplanes.
“They are in Raqqa, or were there certainly up until a few weeks ago. Contact has been lost with them for some weeks now, so to be honest we have no idea what their status is at the moment.
Abase, Begum, and Sultana all attended Bethnal Green Academy in east London before disappearing last February.
BEIRUT (Reuters) - The lead negotiator in the Syrian opposition said on Sunday it was coming under pressure from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to attend peace talks in Geneva this week in order to negotiate over steps including a halt to air strikes.
The opposition's High Negotiation Committee, which groups political and armed opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, has said it will not attend negotiations until the government halts bombardments, lifts blockades, and releases detainees - steps mentioned in a United Nations Security Council resolution passed last month.
Negotiator Mohamad Alloush said Kerry, who met HNC officials on Saturday, had "come to pressure us to forgo our humanitarian rights ... and to go to negotiate for them".
"There will be a big response to these pressures," he told Reuters, without giving further details. Asked if the peace talks would go ahead this week, he said "we leave this to the coming hours".
The government has meanwhile said it is ready to attend the talks. They had been due to begin in Geneva on Monday, but a Western diplomat said earlier on Sunday that they were unlikely to begin before Wednesday.
Syrian pro-government forces recaptured a key rebel-held town in coastal Latakia province on Sunday, building on battlefield advances in the area ahead of planned peace talks this week in Geneva between Damascus and Syria's opposition.
Government troops and militiamen, supported by Moscow's air power and joined on the ground by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iranian forces, have pressed offensives in the west and northwest of the country in recent months, seeking to reverse gains made by insurgents last year.
The latest advance comes ahead of peace talks originally set for Monday but which now look likely to be delayed, partly due to a dispute over the opposition negotiating team's composition. The opposition has also said Russia must stop bombing civilian areas and Damascus must lift sieges before it will join talks.
The recapture of the town of Rabiya in Latakia province has paved the way for an advance up to the border with Turkey, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Syrian state television confirmed Rabiya's capture.
Turkey supports insurgents battling the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, who has the backing of Russia and Iran.
The Observatory described Rabiya as the "second most important base for (rebel) fighters in the northern Latakia countryside" after the town of Salma, which pro-government forces seized earlier this month in one of the most significant advances since Russia joined the fight.
Talks deadline approaching
The US has said it is confident the talks in Geneva will go ahead this week despite continued disagreements.
Lead opposition negotiator Mohamad Alloush said Kerry had put pressure on them to attend the Geneva peace talks in order to negotiate a halt to Russian bombardments, the lifting of blockades and the release of detainees - measures it has insisted must be implemented before any negotiations go ahead.
"Kerry came to pressure us to give up our humanitarian rights," Alloush, a politburo member of rebel group Jaysh al-Islam (Islam Army), told Reuters.
"There will be a big response to these pressures," he told Reuters, without elaborating.
Asked about the chances of negotiations going ahead, he said: "We leave this to the coming hours."
Earlier a Western diplomat said talks would be unlikely to begin before Wednesday, with the opposition negotiating team formed after a conference in Saudi Arabia last month taking stock in Riyadh until Tuesday.
The United Nations has said it would not issue invitations to talks until major powers reach agreement on which rebel representatives should attend. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura had been expected to issue invitations on Sunday.
Syrian armed rebel groups said on Saturday they held the Syrian government and Russia responsible for any failure of talks.
US Vice President Joe Biden said on Saturday that the US and Turkey were prepared for a military solution against Islamic State in Syria should the Syrian government and rebels fail to reach a political settlement.
Washington is waging an air campaign against the jihadists in areas they control in northern and eastern Syria.
Russia is separately striking Islamic State, including in Deir al-Zor province, where the Syrian Observatory said on Sunday raids believed to be carried out by Russian jets killed 63 people.
The Syrian conflict, which began in 2011, has killed an estimated 250,000 people and displaced a further 11 million.
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut and John Irish in Paris; Editing by Digby Lidstone and Gareth Jones)
A joint report between two Washington, D.C.-based think tanks concludes that the US is dangerously underestimating a jihadist group that could become even more of a threat to the long-term security of the country than ISIS.
The Institute for the Study of War and the American Enterprise Institute released its report last week. A group of experts, some of whom were involved in planning the 2007 surge of US troops in Iraq, met over multiple weeks to create the report.
The report said Al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, posed "one of the most significant long-term threats" of any jihadist group.
"This Al Qaeda affiliate has established an expansive network of partnerships with local opposition groups that have grown either dependent on or fiercely loyal to the organization," the report said. "Its defeat and destruction must be one of the highest priorities of any strategy to defend the United States and Europe from Al Qaeda attacks."
While the US's strategy in the Middle East is heavily focused on ISIS, which is also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra, which is also known as the Nusra Front, is spreading its influence through groups that oppose the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Fighters with whom the US partners in Syria have previously been told they must focus on battling ISIS and refrain from attack Assad's troops. But ISW and AEI pointed out that deposing Assad, a brutal leader who has been accused of massacring his own citizens, is the top priority for many rebels.
In that case, they'll align with the groups with the best funding and equipment that allow them the freedom to fight both ISIS and Assad. In many areas, that group is Jabhat al-Nusra.
"Jabhat al-Nusra has weakened the moderate opposition and penetrated other Sunni opposition groups in Syria so thoroughly that it is poised to benefit the most from the destruction of ISIS and the fall or transition of the Assad regime," the report said.
"The likeliest outcome of the current strategy in Syria, if it succeeds, is the de facto establishment and ultimate declaration of a Jabhat al-Nusra emirate in Syria that has the backing of a wide range of non-al-Qaeda fighting forces and population groups," it continued.
ISW and AEI predicted that Jabhat al-Nusra could then become a key affiliate for the global Al Qaeda terrorist network that focuses on attacking the West.
So far, it appears that Jabhat al-Nusra has been focused mostly on fighting in Syria. But that could be part of a strategy to avoid scrutiny from Western officials.
"The fact that the US is focused so exclusively on ISIS means that we are ignoring a threat that is as great," Kimberly Kagan, the founder and president of ISW and one of the authors of the report, told Business Insider.
Jabhat al-Nusra is playing a "long game," Kagan said.
"ISIS is in fact overt about its presence and Nusra is covert about its presence," she said. "Nusra's covert presence means the US hasn't focused enough on its presence."
She added: "Al Qaeda's senior leaders have had a deliberate strategy of where they host cells that are planning deliberate attacks against the West at any given moment. Because the US has deliberately targeted Al Qaeda on the basis of whether or not there are attack cells focused on the West, Al Qaeda has tried to minimize the footprint of these cells in areas where it actually wishes to see long-term success. Syria is the top priority for Al Qaeda."
Other experts, however, have characterized the potential threat from Jabhat al-Nusra in less dire terms.
Fred Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who was a special adviser for transition in Syria under Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state, agreed that Nusra's resources had attracted many anti-Assad rebels to the group's ranks. But he contended that these fighters weren't very interested in broader operations.
"Absent a specific focus on fighting the Assad regime I think it will be difficult for the Nusra Front to exist in any meaningful way in Syria, thereby making it difficult for the group to use Syria as a launching pad for global operations," Hof told Business Insider.
Hof also pointed out that the US could lure these Nusra recruits back to moderate opposition groups if the moderate groups had resources comparable to Nusra's.
Still, Kagan warns that groups like Nusra intended to attack the West "whether they're actioning that intent right now or not."
"US policymakers are underestimating Jabhat al-Nusra because Jabhat al-Nusra wishes to be underestimated," Kagan said.
"We are so focused on ISIS that we are not looking at the second threat," she added.
And defeating ISIS could unintentionally strengthen Nusra.
Both ISIS and Nusra are Sunni terrorist groups. ISIS has presented itself as a group that can protect Sunnis against the Assad regime, which is aligned with Shiites. Once ISIS is gone, Nusra could step in and assume that role.
"Defeating ISIS inside of Syria is likely to increase the capability and strength of Jabhat al-Nusra," Kagan said. "It’s waiting in the wings for ISIS' demise in order to establish itself more firmly in key terrain and to present itself as the only reliable ally for the Sunni population."
In a meeting with members of Syria's opposition in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, US Secretary of State John Kerry demanded that rebels accept a set of preconditions dictated by Russia and Iran in order to participate in peace talks, according to an explosive report by the daily pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat.
The terms Kerry reportedly asked the opposition Saudi-backed High Negotiation Committee (HNC) to accept — including a "national unity government" instead of a transitional governing body that would phase Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of power — represent "a scary retreat in the US position," opposition sources told the head of Al Hayat's Damascus bureau, Ibrahim Hamidi.
According to translations provided by multiple Middle East analysts on Twitter, Kerry told the opposition delegation that, based on an "understanding" he had reached with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Assad has the right to run for reelection and there will be no set timetable for his departure.
That stands in contrast to the White House's previous position that while Assad does not have to go immediately, the timing of his departure should be addressed during negotiations.
Kerry also signaled the Obama administration's endorsement of a four-point peace plan for Syria created by Iran, a staunch ally of Assad. The plan calls for an immediate ceasefire, the establishment of a national unity government, the anchoring of minority rights in the constitution, and internationally supervised presidential elections in Syria.
UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura pushed for the national ceasefire on Monday, saying in a press conference from Geneva that "the condition is it should be a real ceasefire and not just local."
The ceasefire would apply to all warring parties but the ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. As Al Hayat has noted, that implicitly would grant legitimacy and "an official status" to the Shiite militias Iran has built in Syria to support Assad.
Including minority rights in the constitution, meanwhile, would serve as an attempt to "anchor sectarian tensions" between Sunni and Shiite Muslims within a legal framework.
These demands are "a desperate move" by the US to make the negotiations "look like progress,"tweeted Hassan Hassan, coauthor of "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror" and resident fellow at the DC-based think tank Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
"De Mistura also echoed Russia's demands. Short-sighted of the US to think this will go well," he added.
So far, it is not going anywhere. Members of the HNC reportedly rejected Kerry's demands and have threatened to boycott the negotiations altogether. They reiterated that they will not attend the talks until the government halts air strikes and ends its sieges of rebel-held territory, in accordance with UN resolution 2254, adopted last month by the UN Security Council.
The terms of that resolution have failed to materialize, but Kerry apparently pressured the opposition into attending the talks anyway. Rebel sources told Al Hayat that Kerry went one step further and threatened to cut off US aid to rebel groups if they failed to show up at the negotiating table.
On Monday, Kerry reiterated that preconditions are a nonstarter for negotiations. But he categorically denied that he had threatened to cut off aid to the rebel groups.
"The position of the United States is and hasn't changed. We are still supporting the opposition, politically, financially and militarily," he said, according to The Associated Press. "We completely empowered them. I don't know where this is coming from."
He noted, however, that "it's up to the Syrians to decide what happens to Assad," effectively echoing Russian officials.
Nawaf Obaid, an Al Hayat columnist and visiting fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, further noted the meeting's most significant and "shocking" points in a series of tweets on Sunday:
In the following six tweets, readout of yesterday's meeting between @JohnKerry& Dr Riyad Hijab is outlined. It's shocking to say the least!
While the HNC's senior negotiator, Mohammad Aloush, promised a "strong reaction" to these demands in a press conference on Sunday, HNC spokesman Salim al-Muslat told Reuters that the meeting with Kerry had been "positive" overall.
Former Syrian opposition leader Hadi Albahra noted, too, that the reports circulating about Kerry's requests for the HNC were "not fully accurate."
On Monday, however, de Mistura announced that talks will be postponed at least four days, to January 29, while negotiators work to resolve lingering disagreements over which members of the opposition will be invited to participate.
Kerry apparently stipulated that the HNC has to include certain Moscow-friendly opposition leaders into its delegation, including Kurdish PYD leader Saleh Muslim, former Syrian deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil, and Haitham Manna, exiled leader of the non-Islamist Syrian Democratic Council.
The Saudi-backed HNC has so far refused to expand its delegation, insisting that it represents all legitimate opposition players. In response, Bloomberg reported, the US and Russia are considering inviting a separate opposition delegation to the talks made up of rebel leaders Moscow has proposed and endorsed.
Middle East analyst Kyle Orton, an associate fellow at UK-based think tank The Henry Jackson Society,tweeted a grim analysis: "With the way things have stacked up, it's hard not to see it as Obama and Kerry consciously working for the defeat of Syria's opposition."
Hassan Hassan put it bluntly: "US officials are telling Syrians what extremists have been telling them for years — the US isn't your friend."
We asked Gates for his perspective on the political impact made by President Obama's decision not to intervene militarily in Syria after Assad's regime crossed the metaphorical "red line" described by Obama in a 2012 news conference.
While Russia’s military intervention in Syria has not yielded substantial progress on the ground for the Assad government, Moscow has succeeded in propping up the embattled regime, according to a new analysis.
An IHS Conflict Monitor estimate released last week shows that between Sept. 29, when the Kremlin launched its military campaign, and Jan. 11, Damascus regained 1.3 percent of territory it had lost to rebel groups.
That marks a major reversal from the first eight months of 2015, when the regime lost 18 percent of its territory as opposition fighters worked their way towards Aleppo, the country’s largest city, and made advances in other areas.
“Russia’s immediate objective in Syria, namely to shore up the Assad government’s position and save it from military defeat at the hands of the Sunni rebels, has largely been achieved,” said Jane’s 360.
“Momentum has shifted back in favour of government forces, which are stabilizing front lines in areas that are core to the government’s survival, and making slow but steady progress as coordination between the Russian Air Force, Hizbullah and the Syrian Army appears to be improving,” it adds.
The report was released before Syrian government troops and allied militias regained control of the last major rebel-held stronghold in the western province of Latakia on Sunday.
Relations between the U.S. and Russia, already troubled following Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea Peninsula in 2014, have been at a nadir even since the Kremlin launched its campaign inside Syria. The militaries for the two countries have had to make a concerted effort not to step on each other’s toes, even though they have different targets, ISIS forces for the U.S. and other Syrian rebels for Russia.
The new ground conditions mean local ceasefires are possible, but “meaningful concessions” among between Damascus, Western governments and rebels remain unlikely. In fact, a stabilized Syrian government would be better positioned to fight ISIS forces inside the country, meaning Washington and others should consider ditching their goal of getting rid of Assad and come around to Moscow’s point of view that he should be left in place.
It’s highly doubtful that the Obama administration would abandon its long-stated policy of finding a political solution to end the Syrian civil war, but given the involvement of ISIS, Russia and likely Tehran in the war after five years of conflict, there are few choices left.
Speaking in Istanbul this weekend, Vice President Biden signaled that Washington is considering a possible new direction.
"We do know it would better if we can reach a political solution but we are prepared ... if that's not possible, to have a military solution to this operation in taking out Daesh," Biden said at a news conference after a meeting with Turkish leaders, using the Arabic acronym for the terror group.
U.S. officials later clarified that he was referring to ISIS, not Syria as a whole, but at this point it doesn’t seem possible to address one without addressing the other.
Meanwhile, Syrian peace talks that were supposed to have started in Geneva on Monday have been delayed and could be cancelled altogether.
Secretary of State John Kerry said he hoped for "clarity" within 24 to 48 hours on whether the talks would occur at all.
Should the latest round of peace talks fail to materialize, it likely would only give more credibility to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approach of using military force to resolve the conflict, or at least diminish the chance of a political fix being found before President Obama leaves office next year.
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Islamic State said it was responsible for a suicide attack in the Syrian government-controlled city of Homs on Tuesday that killed several people.
The Islamist militant group said in an online statement that one of its fighters had driven a car loaded with explosives to a security checkpoint in the Zahraa neighborhood and blown himself up, killing at least 30 people.
Syrian state media said the attack had killed 22 people and wounded more than 100.
The governor of Homs said the initial attack was a car bomb that had targeted a security checkpoint. A suicide bomber then set off an explosive belt, state media reported.
Former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Business Insider that the Obama administration's decision not to act after the regime of Syria's embattled president used chemical weapons against civilians was a "serious mistake" that hurt America's credibility in the world.
Gates, who is promoting his new book, "A Passion for Leadership," sat down with Business Insider last week and gave his perspective on today's conflicts in the Middle East.
"I used to tell presidents, you have to be very, very cautious about drawing red lines or issuing ultimatums," said Gates, the only defense secretary to hold the job under two presidents for two different political parties.
"As I put it, 'If you cock that pistol,'" he added, "'you have to be ready to fire it.'"
Gates served as the US secretary of defense from 2006 to 2011. The year after Gates left the job, President Barack Obama told White House reporters a "red line" for US intervention in Syria would come if the regime of President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons.
Civil war broke out in Syria in 2011. During the conflict, the Assad regime has been accused of committing atrocities against civilians.
At the time Obama first mentioned a red line, in 2012, Assad's soldiers had been known to shoot protesters as the regime tried to prevent a rebellion. But the use of chemical weapons hadn't yet been conclusively proved.
"We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized," Obama told reporters that year.
He added: "We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that's a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons."
Over the following year, Obama doubled down on his red line. But when evidence emerged that Assad's forces had used sarin gas in an attack that killed nearly 1,500 people in a Damascus suburb, Obama eventually backed down after threatening a military response. He sought congressional approval for military intervention in Syria, which he was not likely to get, and eventually brokered a deal with Russia that saw Assad agreeing to destroy most of the regime's arsenal of chemical weapons.
"Backing away from reacting once the red line was crossed impacted American credibility not just in the Middle East, but I think it was being watching in Moscow and Tehran and Beijing and Pyongyang and elsewhere," Gates said. "So not acting in response to crossing the red line was a serious mistake in my view."
Gates also said: "The rest of the world must know that when the president of the United States draws a red line, that it is dangerous, if not fatal, to cross it."
The secretary of defense who was in office during the sarin-gas attack largely echoed Gates' comments in a recent interview. Chuck Hagel, who served as defense secretary from February 2013 to last February, told the Atlantic Council earlier this month that backing down on the red line "hurt the credibility of the president of the United States."
But Gates' stance hasn't always been so firm.
In January 2014, before the rise of the terrorist group ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh) threw Syria into further chaos, Gates told The Wall Street Journal that he was against military intervention.
"I described it as throwing gasoline on a very complex fire," Gates said at the time. "Syria's two closest allies are Russia and Iran. Our military intervention may have brought them in in some way or another. And once you launch a military attack, and for Syria, whether it was a humanitarian zone or a no-fly zone, it begins with an act of war."
Russia and Iran ended up getting heavily involved in Syria even without being provoked by US military intervention. Iran sends Shia fighters to Syria to aid the Assad regime, and Russia started conducting airstrikes in support of Assad last year.
But Gates did acknowledge in the 2014 interview that the US could have done more to support moderate Syrian rebels who were fighting the Assad regime.
He repeated this statement in his interview with Business Insider.
"I still believe that sending large numbers of US military forces into Syria would have been a mistake, but there are other ways to accomplish our objectives," Gates said.
He subsequently suggested that the US should have begun assisting opposition groups as early as 2011, before Obama drew his red line.
"If we had been able to move with agility and quickly in the fall of 2011 and early 2012 in terms of getting weaponry and intelligence and so on to opposition groups that then were still reasonably moderate, there was a point at which Assad was really on his back foot and I think vulnerable," he said. "But I think sending regular US forces into Syria then as well as now would be a mistake."
Though it's unlikely that Obama would have sent a large force of ground troops into Syria in response to the sarin-gas attack, airstrikes on regime targets were on the table.
The US is now conducting airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria. As the civil war raged and security in the country eroded, ISIS took advantage of the power vacuum that opened up. The group seized a large swath of territory in Syria, including Raqqa, the city that has become its global base of operations.
And the agreement to get rid of chemical weapons in Syria hasn't held up. Bloomberg reported last year that an international monitoring body found traces of chemical weapons, including sarin gas, in an inspection of the Syrian government's Scientific Studies and Research Center.
Assad has blamed the chemical-weapons use on opposition fighters, but Western officials have said rebels probably wouldn't have the capability of using weapons like sarin gas.
A well-known artwork is painted on the body of this Raptor. Called “Maloney’s Pony,” the insignia was applied on the F-22 tail No. 09-0174 in honor of Maj. Thomas E. Maloney, the 27th Fighter Squadron’s highest scoring Ace of World War II.
Maloney crashed in the Mediterranean Sea while he was flying his P-38 Lightning (that he named Maloney’s Pony) during a strike mission over France in August of 1944. Presumed dead, Maloney was instead alive since he floated to shore and tried to find the French Resistance to help him get back across the line: this became a real challenge when he was badly injured after stepping on a mine. Nevertheless Maloney was able to evade enemy forces, crawling for ten days until a French farmer rescued him. Then, once in stable condition, a C-54 escorted by twelve P-38s from Maloney’s squadron, finally transported him home.
To honor him, the 27th Fighter Squadron has always named one of its aircraft as “Maloney’s Pony.”
But as Maj. David Schmitt, 411th Fighter Test Squadron assistant director of operations, explains: “When the squadron became a Raptor squadron, they did away with [Maloney’s Pony] because it’s a stealth aircraft, they didn’t want anything on the side of it, so that tradition stopped.”
Eventually, the tradition of Maloney’s Pony found its way back to the squadron in 2011, when Lt. Col. Pete Fesler, then the 27th Fighter Squadron commander, restored it and a mock-up of the nose art used in the World War II-era P-38 Lightning was applied to F-22 Raptor No. 09-0174.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia's military was hitting the right targets in Syria and pushing back "terrorists" during an annual foreign policy speech and q&a in Moscow on Tuesday.
The United States has accused Russia of missing Islamic State targets in Syria with one senior US official two weeks ago saying only a third of Russia's air strikes in Syria were targeting Islamic State and its imprecise attacks were forcing the population to flee and fuelling Europe's refugee crisis.
The official told reporters in Brussels that out of the 5,000 air strikes carried out by Russia since it began its air offensive in Syria on Sept. 30, about 70 percent hit rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, rather than supporting the efforts of the US-led coalition.
Rescue workers and rights groups say Russia's bombing in Syria has killed scores of civilians at busy market places and in residential areas. Russia denies this.
The Kremlin launched its air strikes saying it wanted to help Assad, its main Middle East ally, defeat Islamic State and other militant groups.
"The military actions of Russia's air force in response to the request of the Syrian government have drastically altered the situation in the country and have helped to narrow the area controlled by terrorists," he said.
Amnesty International said last month that Moscow's actions had violated humanitarian law. Amnesty estimates at least 200 civilians were killed by Russian air strikes between Sept. 30 and Nov. 29, which Russia denies.
Russia's Defence Ministry has repeatedly denied targeting civilians, saying it takes great care to avoid bombing residential areas.
On Ukraine Lavrov said Kiev was dragging its feet on implementing the Minsk peace plan because it wants to keep in place the Western sanctions imposed on Russia.
Saying the "West understands that today's situation is a dead end," he added Moscow would demand that Kiev adhere to Minsk to the letter:
"So we decided to continue this work (the Ukrainian peace process) in 2016. But the tasks have not changed. They are all enshrined in the Minsk agreements. We will demand their strict implementation in accordance with additional efforts made during the meetings of the Normandy four," he said.
On defence, Russian news agencies on Friday (January 22) cited senior ministry officials as saying that Russia will form four new military divisions this year to strengthen its western and central regions in response to an increase in NATO drills.
Russia's military is undergoing a multi-billion dollar overhaul.
"We are ready for constructive cooperation with our Western partners, including Europe and the United States. We are open to the gradual development of our cooperation with them but only and exclusively on the equal and mutually beneficial basis with the non-interference in the internal affairs of each other and respect for the principal interests of each side," he said.
"So far we see the continuation of an unconstructive and dangerous line of behaviour towards Russia including the enhancement of NATO potential close to our borders and the creation of the European and Asian segments of the global missile defence system of the United States, where the United States involve the European countries and North East Asian countries. We believe that these actions are destabilising and short-sighted," he added.
The Russian air campaign in Syria enabled strategic gains in the regime’s longstanding effort to buffer its coastal heartland in Latakia from January 23 - 25.
Russian strikes targeted opposition-held positions along the frontline in both Jebel al-Akrad and Jebel Turkmen mountain ranges in Northern Latakia, facilitating the regime’s seizure of the town of Rabi’ah, the last major opposition-held town in the province on January 24.
The regime’s clearing operations in northern Latakia were enabled by Russian air support and were also reportedly guided by Russian advisers on the ground who likely contributed to the operation’s success.
The Russian air campaign has prioritized the preservation of regime-held territory, especially on the coast and in the central corridor, since its inception. Russia began its military intervention shortly after opposition forces began advancing in northeastern Latakia, and the threat to the regime’s heartland likely precipitated Russia’s military effort in Syria.
Regime advances in Latakia also apply increasing pressure on opposition forces in neighboring Idlib province, an opposition stronghold. Russian airstrikes also allowed pro-regime forces to fully recapture the town of Sheikh Meskin in Dera’a province on 25 January following several weeks of clashes with opposition forces.
Russian warplanes have demonstrated a concerted effort against ISIS since the group’s advance on regime-held parts of Deir ez-Zour City on September 17; however, Russian indiscriminate targeting continues to incur high numbers of civilian casualties, and Russian operations aimed at degrading the armed opposition have continued unscathed. Russian warplanes targeted opposition-held territory in Aleppo, Idlib, and Dera’a from January 23 - 25. Russia provided military aid to Kurdish forces via helicopter in northwestern Aleppo on January 25.
Russia’s shipment of weapons to Kurdish forces northwest of Aleppo City marks a new stage in Russia’s effort to strengthen ties with Kurdish elements, and will increase pressure on opposition groups operating in the area.
Increasing Russo-Kurdish cooperation can disrupt US partnerships with Kurdish forces in other parts of Syria, introduce the potential for Turkish military reaction, and exacerbate Kurdish-Arab tensions in Aleppo province as Kurdish forces attempt to advance on Arab-dominant terrain. Although Russia attempts to present itself as a constructive actor in Syria, it continues to prioritize the preservation of the Assad regime without concern for civilian lives, ethnic tensions, or regional stability.
The following graphic depicts ISW’s assessment of Russian airstrike locations based on reports from local Syrian activist networks, Syrian state-run media, and statements by Russian and Western officials. This map represents locations targeted by Russia’s air campaign, rather than the number of individual strikes or sorties.
High-Confidence reporting: ISW places high confidence in reports corroborated both by official government statements reported through credible channels and documentation from rebel factions or activist networks on the ground in Syria deemed to be credible.
Low-Confidence reporting: ISW places low confidence in secondary sources that have not been confirmed or sources deemed likely to contain disinformation.
Two Western intelligence sources told the Financial Times last week that Russia sent an envoy to Syria late last year to ask Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, raising questions about whether Moscow's support for the embattled leader has dwindled over the past four months.
But experts are skeptical that Russian President Vladimir Putin — a staunch supporter of Assad and his regime — would seek the leader's ouster now, when pro-government forces are finally starting to win consecutive battlefield victories in Latakia and Aleppo provinces.
"I don't think that the message Moscow is telling Assad is 'go' so much as, 'You may have to go,'" Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security affairs and a professor of global affairs at New York University, told Business Insider.
At this stage, the Kremlin has nothing to gain from Assad stepping down and potentially much to lose as there would be a difficult transition. This is one of their highest value cards: They will only play it when they know they will gain something concrete in return.
Moscow was quick to deny reports that it ever asked Assad to step down. But the extent of Russia's support for the London-educated autocrat has been disputed. Some analysts insist that Putin is not as interested in preserving Assad as he is in preserving the state institutions the Assad clan has erected over the course of its nearly 45-year reign.
Those institutions and the people who control them have allowed Russia to retain its port of Tartous, the only warm-water port Russia retained after the collapse of the Soviet Union and a key foothold for Moscow to continue projecting power into the Mediterranean.
Some claim, however, that those institutions would cease to exist without Assad.
"The biggest myth out there is the existence of 'state institutions' separate from Assad," Tony Badran, a Middle East expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider in October.
To that end, many experts insist that Russia's stake in Syria is much bigger than Tartous.
"It is the perception of thwarting violent regime change — not a naval gas pump in Tartous — that is most important to Vladimir Putin," Frederic C. Hof, a former special adviser for transition in Syria under US President Barack Obama and now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, wrote in The Huffington Post on Monday.
Maintaining that perception is important, some experts say, because it helps Russia present itself to the international community as an agent of stability and bulwark against terrorism. Moscow has long considered any and all opponents to Assad's regime, including those supported by the US, to be "terrorists."
That Russia sees the only alternative to an Assad regime as a power vacuum dominated by rebels hostile to Moscow's interests means, implicitly, that Assad must keep his seat in Damascus — at least, as Putin has insisted, until Syrians vote him out of power in a national election.
"There is not the slightest evidence that Putin wants Assad to leave," Mark Kramer, the program director of the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, told Business Insider on Friday. "The whole purpose of Russia's intervention in Syria was to stabilize Assad's regime and strengthen its hold on power."
He added: "The notion that Putin designated the head of military intelligence to deliver such a momentous proposal to the head of a regime Putin wants to stabilize stretches credulity. I don't attach any credence to it."
Other experts have noted, too, that if Putin really wanted Assad out of power, attempts at a transition would have been made long ago.
"If Putin wanted to push forward a transition, he could use the large amount of leverage Russia has now as Assad's de facto air force," Boris Zilberman, a Russia expert at the Washington, DC-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider.
"These stories keep popping up, but talks continue to stagnate and Assad seems to be entrenched," he added.
Indeed, one of the opposition's central demands — that peace negotiations address, first and foremost, Assad's transition out of power — has reportedly been sidelined in favor of a joint Russian-Iranian plan. That proposal would establish a "national unity government," the composition of which would be decided by Syrian voters in an election monitored by the UN.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has reportedly been pressuring the main opposition council, the Saudi-backed High Negotiating Committee, to accept this plan before attending Friday's peace talks in Geneva.
In that sense, the US has aligned itself with Russia, to some extent — at the risk of alienating the rebels — in an effort to get everyone to the negotiating table. That risk could feasibly be alleviated, however, by hinting about Russia's supposed flexibility on Assad's future.
"I'll believe it when I see it," Zilberman, of the FDD, said. "Until then, it's messaging."
Google has announced it will donate 25,000 Chromebooks to refugees fleeing countries like Syria for the safety of Europe. The company says Chromebooks will be a good option for refugees because of the range of software available.
Google notes that Chromebooks have become popular in education because of the ability for a centralized administrator account to oversee hundreds of Chromebook devices from one place. This same quality will help when giving Chromebooks to refugees. The not-for-profit organizations and charities receiving the laptops will be able to configure them to suit the needs of the refugees, preinstalling relevant apps to make it easier to find a life in Europe.
The company suggests the web browser could be set up to have a default homepage detailing the asylum application process for the country the refugees have arrived in. Apps designed to teach languages will make it much easier for a refugee to start communicating with European support workers while simple educational games will keep children occupied and learning.
Because Chromebooks automatically update themselves and require no extra security configuration, the laptops should be relatively simple for the refugees to start using. Google will be providing a $5.3 million grant from its Google.org division to begin distributing Chromebooks to humanitarian relief groups actively supporting the refugee crisis in Europe. Known as "Project Reconnect," the program is run in partnership with NetHope with the aim of providing refugees arriving in Germany with an easier route into work and education.
"As they make it through a dangerous journey, the first thing refugees need is to find shelter, food and access to care," said Google in a blog post. "But soon enough, they have to learn the local language, acquire skills to work in a new country, and figure out a way to continue their studies - all in an effort to reclaim and reconnect with the lives they had before."
When compared with the million asylum seekers registered in Germany alone last year, 25,000 Chromebooks is still an insignificant amount. Google will be working to equip Internet cafés and educational workshop events with the computers, letting more people gain access to the Internet and online apps than if it gave them out to 25,000 lucky refugees.
German broadband provider Deutsche Telekom has agreed to offer cut-price Internet access to the organisations receiving the Chromebooks, helping the project to find its feet. Non-profit organisations working with refugees in Germany can apply for a grant now and Google will begin to supply Chromebooks from March 8.
Project Reconnect follows other efforts from Google to improve the lives of refugees arriving in Europe. In October, it appealed to the world for help with improving its German to Arabic translation service on Google Translate, noting most of the refugees come with nothing more than a mobile phone.
Google Translate is therefore an invaluable tool in helping refugees to learn the local language, communicate with support workers and read basic signs. Computers struggle with translating German to Arabic though so Google hurriedly put together a tool to crowd-source the translations from members of the public, something that could make a real difference to an Arabic-speaking refugee reliant on a smartphone to communicate with the rest of the country they are in.
One of the major opposition blocs in the Syrian war said Wednesday that it was unlikely to attend imminent Geneva peace talks, specifying it would only join negotiations if sieges in the country are lifted and other conditions are met.
The announcement cast further uncertainty on peace talks scheduled to begin in two days.
Expectations are already low for any breakthroughs during talks that U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura has described as the start of a drawn-out process of consultation between various parties to the conflict, rather than actual peace negotiations between the warring sides.
Khaled Nasser, a member of the Syrian National Coalition — one of the main opposition groups in the bloc — said on Wednesday that he believed negotiations with limited ambitions would "waste time."
"Friday was never going to be the start of negotiations," said Nasser. "De Mistura said it is for consultations and discussions.... We don't want to waste time with consultations and discussions."
The talks are intended to start a political process to end the conflict that began in 2011 as a largely peaceful uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad's rule but escalated into an all-out war after a harsh state crackdown. The plan calls for cease-fires in parallel to the talks, a new constitution and elections in a year and a half.
In a sign of the complexity of the task, de Mistura said the delegations in Geneva would be sitting in separate rooms and he would shuttle between them to begin with.
There have also been major tensions over who would be invited to the talks, and the opposition has demanded confidence-building measures from the government on humanitarian issues.
In a statement released at the end of daylong meetings in Saudi Arabia late Tuesday, the opposition coalition known as the Higher Negotiating Committee referred to the "necessity of realizing genuine improvements on the ground before starting in the negotiating process."
The Saudi-backed committee is headed by Riyad Hijab, a former prime minister who defected to the opposition in 2012. It represents a bloc that includes the Syrian National Coalition, and many of the major rebel factions fighting in Syria.
As well as the public statement released Tuesday, the bloc outlined its conditions for participating in the talks in a letter to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon. While the group left open the possibility of its eventual participation in the talks scheduled to begin Friday, it said it awaits a reply from him on its conditions.
The opposition has also accused Russia, a key backer of the Syrian government, of trying to "dictate" who from the opposition would participate.
Moscow has insisted on the participation of the main Syrian Kurdish group — the Democratic Union Party, or PYD — which plays an important role in fighting the Islamic State group and is an essential part of any political settlement in Syria.
Turkey, a major backer of the rebels, sees the PYD and its YPG militia as branches of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known as the PKK, which has waged a long insurgency against Ankara. Turkey has threatened to boycott the talks if the PYD is represented.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France-Culture radio on Wednesday that the PYD was not invited and acknowledged there are several hurdles facing the talks, including determining who will be present.
"The PYD group, the Kurdish group, was causing the most problems, and Mr. de Mistura told me he had not sent them an invitation letter," Fabius said.
He said the Riyad-backed Higher Negotiating Committee should be the primary negotiator for the rebels.
The Riyadh bloc is a broad coalition that includes several armed Islamic groups, such as the powerful Jaish al-Islam, which the Russian and Syrian governments consider as a terrorist group. It does not, however, include the Islamic State group or Nusra Front, two militant factions that control large areas of Syria and are not participating in peace talks.
(Associated Press writer Angela Charlton contributed reporting from Paris.)
Behind the successes in Ramadi and elsewhere lay the efforts of the US-led coalition to train and equip credible regional forces that can reclaim their country from the scourge of ISIS.
In addition to an impressive air campaign, Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, Finland, Hungary, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portrugal, Spain, and the UK have all contributed to the US-led effort to train and empower regional forces to defeat ISIS.
In the slides below, find out what the brave recruits go through when training with the US-led coalition to counter ISIS.
Unnervingly clear drone footage shows the Damascus suburb of Darayya in ruins nearly five years after the city served as the site of some of the earliest anti-government protests in Syria's civil war.
Darayya, one of the oldest cities in Syria,has seen some of the heaviest bombardment since the war erupted in 2011, having changed hands between al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the Syrian army repeatedly since 2012.
Largely controlled by government forces since mid-2013, Darayya was also the site of a reported massacre by pro-regime forces that killed nearly 400 people in August 2012.
Footage published on January 26 by RussiaWorks, a Russian company with ties to the Kremlin, shows how severely damaged the city is.
Business Insider cannot independently confirm the authenticity of the video. However, the footage tracks with other pro-Kremlin videos RussiaWorks has produced to bolster domestic support for Moscow's foreign incursions, from Crimea to Syria.
"RussiaWorks is part of a slick campaign by the Kremlin to sell the war at home and project Russia as a military power," Boris Zilberman, a Russia expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told BI in October.
"The videos are put together by a number of Russian war correspondents/production folks that are tied to the Kremlin and probably have a lot of time on their hands — and some good drones — to make highly edited videos."
Russia launched its air campaign in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime on September 30. This latest footage, released by RussiaWorks on Tuesday, comes three days before peace talks between the government and the opposition are due to begin negotiations in Geneva.
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Iran said on Thursday it strongly opposed moves by its regional foe Saudi Arabia to allow "terrorists in a new mask" to sit down for talks between the Syrian government and the opposition.
Preparations for Syria peace talks, due in Geneva on Friday, have been beset by difficulties, including a dispute over who should be invited to negotiate with President Bashar al-Assad's government as it claws back territory with help from Russia and Iran.
"Terrorists with a new mask should not sit down at a negotiating table with the representatives of the Syrian authorities," deputy Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian told a news conference during a visit to Russia.
"This is the most important condition."
The Syrian government, aided by Russian air strikes and allied militia including Iranian forces, is gaining ground against rebels in western Syria, this week capturing the town of Sheikh Maskin near the Jordanian border.
Amirabdollahian called on Saudi Arabia to stop its actions which he said increased tension in the Middle East.
He said that Riyadh was trying to raise its influence at the Geneva talks by including "terrorists" in the opposition lists.
"We believe that Saudi Arabia's insistence on including recognisable terrorists ... in one list or another, is certainly not a constructive action on its part," he said.