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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    BEIRUT (Reuters) - The powerful Syrian Kurdish YPG militia and its local allies have drawn up plans for a major attack to seize the final stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border held by Islamic State fighters, a YPG source familiar with the plan said on Thursday.

    Such an offensive could deprive Islamic State fighters of a logistical route that has been used by the group to bring in supplies and foreign recruits.

    But it could lead to confrontation with Turkey, which is fighting against its own Kurdish insurgents and sees the Syrian Kurds as an enemy. 

    After a year of military gains aided by U.S.-led air strikes, the Kurds and their allies already control the entire length of Syria's northeastern Turkish frontier from Iraq to the banks of the Euphrates river, which crosses the border west of the town of Kobani.

    Other Syrian insurgent groups control the frontier further west, leaving only around 100 km (60 miles) of border in the hands of Islamic State fighters, running from the town of Jarablus on the bank of the Euphrates west to near the town of Azaz.

    But Turkey says it will not allow the Syrian Kurds to move west of the Euphrates.

    alepposyriamap isis kurds turkeyThe source confirmed a report on Kurdish news website Xeber24 which cited a senior YPG leader saying the plan includes crossing the Euphrates to attack the Islamic State-held towns of Jarablus and Manbij, in addition to Azaz, which is held by other insurgent groups.

    The source did not give a planned date, but said a Jan. 29 date mentioned in the Xeber24 report might not be accurate.

    The YPG has been the most important partner on the ground of a U.S.-led air campaign against Islamic State, and is a major component of an alliance formed last year called the Syria Democratic Forces, which also includes Arab and other armed groups. The alliance is quietly backed by Washington, even as its NATO ally in the region, Turkey, is hostile.

    The political party affiliated with the YPG, the PYD, has been excluded from Syria peace talks the United Nations plans to hold in Geneva on Friday. The PYD and its allies say their exclusion undermines the process and have blamed Turkey.

    Ankara fears further expansion by the YPG will fuel separatist sentiment among its own Kurdish minority. It views the Syrian Kurdish PYD as a terrorist group because of its affiliation to Turkish Kurdish militants.

    The United States and Turkey have for months been discussing a joint military plan to drive Islamic State from the border, but there has been little sign of it on the ground.

    An Islamic State flag flies over the custom office of Syria's Jarablus border gate as it is pictured from the Turkish town of Karkamis, in Gaziantep province, Turkey August 1, 2015.  REUTERS/Murad Sezer

    The border area is being fought over by several sides in the complex, multi-sided civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people and driven more than 10 million from their homes.

    At the western end of the Islamic State-held stretch of frontier, Syrian insurgents backed by Turkey have been fighting Islamic State near Azaz in a to-and-fro battle that has not yielded major shifts, said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory Human Rights. 

    Tensions between the YPG and its allies on one hand and other insurgent groups backed by Turkey on the other have spilled into conflict near Azaz in the last three months.

    Separately, the Syrian army and allied militia, supported by Russian air strikes, are meanwhile edging closer to the Islamic State-held town of al-Bab, some 50 km (30 miles) southwest of Manbij in the Aleppo area.

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    In 2014, Amal Alkhalaf and her three kids fled Syria, finding a new home in Canada after a group from Ontario raised $20,000 to help them transition.

    Recently, they went on a sledding adventure, which was one of the family's first encounters with snow.

    Click here to donate to the New Canadians Centre, a non-profit charitable organization dedicated to supporting immigrants, refugees and other newcomers in the Peterborough and Northumberland regions.

    Story and editing by Jeremy Dreyfuss

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    putin kiss

    Syria's main opposition delegation, the Saudi-backed High Negotiating Council (HNC), has said it will not be attending peace talks over the country's future on Friday in Geneva, Switzerland, Reuters reported on Thursday.

    The council will apparently continue to deliberate in the coming days and weeks over whether it will attend at all — a development that is in line with Russia's strategy for winning the war on behalf of the regime.

    "The bickering over the opposition delegation for Geneva III is the ideal opposition the Russians wish to present—leaderless, aimless and weak,"Antoun Issa, a senior editor at the Middle East Institute, wrote on Thursday.

    He continued:

    It all leads to the fulfillment of the regime's and Russia's strategy: a Syria divided between terrorist jihadists and the Assad regime. Such a portrayal leaves the West with no option but to legitimize the Assad regime in the fight against terror, and certify Russia as the primary power in Syria.

    The delegation's decision to skip the talks comes after its final calls for Syria's government to end its aerial bombardments on civilians and lift its sieges on rebel-held areas went unheeded by the UN's Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura.

    De Mistura had insisted at a press conference on Monday that "our line ... is clear: no preconditions, at least to start the talks."

    The HNC sent a letter to de Mistura and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reiterating its demands on Wednesday. It convened in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to await clarification from de Mistura over whether its preconditions would be met before Friday.

    "There is a problem we would like to clarify with de Mistura," Riyadh Naasan Agha, a member of the HNC, told ABC. "Is the main aim of these negotiations for them to be held or to succeed?"

    bashar al-assad assad Staffan de Mistura

    For Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers, "there is no peace short of victory," Issa, of the Middle East Institute, writes. In that sense, pro-government forces would benefit most from the talks being delayed indefinitely or derailed entirely.

    That is increasingly becoming a reality. The UN, so far, has not reconsidered its position, and neither has the opposition.

    "There must be a halt to the bombardment of civilians by Russian planes, and sieges of blockaded areas must be lifted" in order for conditions to be "appropriate" for meaningful negotiations, George Sabra, deputy head of the opposition delegation, told Reuters on Thursday.

    The rebels claim that US Secretary of State John Kerry pressured them to attend the talks and threatened to cut off support to the rebels entirely if they did not show up in Geneva — a charge that Kerry has denied.

    "The position of the United States is and hasn't changed. We are still supporting the opposition, politically, financially and militarily," he told reporters at a roundtable event on Tuesday.

    Jaysh al-Islam, one of the largest groups in the HNC, was quick to point out that the rebels have other sources of support besides the US.

    "We do not forget that there are sisterly states that support us and help us overcome these pressures, particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey," the group's spokesman, Islam Alloush, told Reuters in an email.


    Russia has been preparing for this impasse, however — and arguably helped to create it. In December, a Russian airstrike killed Zahran Alloush, leader of Jaysh al-Islam, in what experts say was part of a larger strategy employed by Russia and the regime to turn military victories into diplomatic leverage ahead of this week's negotiations.

    "It's all part of the rules of engagement Russia wants to set up," Tony Badran, a Middle East expert and researcher at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider in December.

    He continued

    Russia hits Jaysh al-Islam, forcing the group to decide between removing itself from the political process altogether — at which point it will be labeled a terrorist group — or coming to the table, emasculated, to talk to Assad. All while Russia reserves the right to strike the group.

    Russia has reserved this right because Washington waffled in negotiating a definitive list of terrorist groups in Syria — a contentious process that Kerry delayed in order to ensure, ironically, that talks were not derailed before they began.

    Jaysh al-Islam

    "Russia wants to establish a precedent to kiss a nationwide ceasefire goodbye," Badran said last month. "So it is putting pressure on these rebel groups to get them to say, 'The hell with this — if I'm going to get killed anyway, I'm not going to do it while negotiating with Assad.'"

    Significantly, opposition sources told the daily pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat that the US had made "a scary retreat" in its position that the rebels would be unable to accept — namely, that Assad could run for reelection and there would 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.

    SEE ALSO: Russia holds the 'highest value card' in Syria, but is nowhere near ready to play it

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    Each day, in the summer of 2015, 10-15 boats packed with men, women and children fleeing Syria floated ashore on the Greek island of Lesbos. For the locals, this became so routine that a rescue system was created to help facilitate the mass influx of refugees. Mary Snell, an American who has been spending time in Greece since 1973, used her iPhone to shoot video of one of these rescues. She calls it "an example of ordinary Greeks doing extraordinary things in this time of crisis."

    Produced by Jenner Deal. Narration by Sara Silverstein. Special thanks to Mary Snell.

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    More than 260,000 people have been killed in Syria's war

    Geneva (AFP) - UN-mediated peace talks aimed at ending Syria's conflict are scheduled to kick off Friday, but the absence of key opposition members threatens to derail the biggest diplomatic push yet to resolve the nearly five-year-old civil war.

    The Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, which met in Riyadh on Thursday, said the opposition group would not attend the negotiations in Geneva until an agreement is reached on aid entering besieged towns.

    The Committee was formed in December when the main Syrian political opposition and armed factions came together in the Saudi Arabian capital for an unprecedented bid at unity, after months of Saudi efforts.

    UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, in a video message to the Syrian people on Thursday, said the talks could be their country's last chance for peace after a civil war that has seen more than 260,000 people killed and forced millions from their homes.

    He said that after several stalled peace processes, the Geneva talks "cannot fail".

    Riad Hijab, coordinator of the High Negotiations Committee, said that aid access was a precondition of the group attending.

    Democratic Forces Syria Fighters"Tomorrow we won't be in Geneva. We could go there, but we will not enter the negotiating room if our demands aren't met," he told Al-Arabiya television.

    A senior delegate of the High Negotiations Committee told AFP that a decision was expected on Friday on whether to attend the UN-brokered talks.

    A spokeswoman for the UN talks, Khawla Mattar, said that no postponement was planned.

    Western diplomats have piled pressure on the opposition to participate in the negotiations, which would be only the second dialogue between Syrians since the start of the conflict.

    The Committee has asked for "clarifications" after the UN issued invitations to other opposition figures, and wants assurances from the international community that it will move to end regime attacks on civilians and allow humanitarian aid.

    France-based Middle East analyst Agnes Levallois said the opposition was growing increasingly frustrated that the question of President Bashar al-Assad's fate, a key stumbling block in previous talks, was being put off.

    "Assad is feeling stronger and stronger so is being inflexible," she said. 

    Government forces have made major inroads into opposition-held territory since Russia starting backing Assad with air strikes in September.

    A general view shows the town of Madaya, Syria, January 14, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki Haytham Manna, a longstanding opposition figure who is co-chair of the political wing of a Kurdish-Arab alliance, told AFP in Geneva he did not expect talks to begin until Monday.

    The talks are part of a UN-backed plan, agreed by top diplomats last year in Vienna, that envisages negotiations followed by a transitional government, a new constitution and elections within 18 months.

    French President Francois Hollande called for negotiations to start as soon as possible.

    "We urgently need to put in place humanitarian measures and negotiate a political transition," Hollande said at a joint press conference with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

    The United States, while expressing sympathy for the rebel demands for aid, also urged the Syrian opposition to attend the talks. 

    Russia said Thursday it wanted another meeting of world powers on Syria in Munich on February 11, when the first round of the Geneva talks could still be taking place.

    SEE ALSO: Ted Cruz doubles down on vow to 'carpet-bomb' ISIS

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    syria mosque bombThe first Syria peace talks for two years were a "complete failure" before they started on Friday, a Western diplomat said, after the United Nations announced it would press ahead with them despite an opposition boycott.

    Opponents of President Bashar al-Assad said they were far more concerned with fending off a Russian-backed military onslaught, with civilians reported to be fleeing as the Syrian army and allied militia tried to capture a suburb of Damascus and finish off rebels defending it.

    U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura has invited the Syrian government and an opposition umbrella group to Geneva for "proximity talks", in which they would meet in separate rooms.

    But so far the main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) has refused to attend, insisting it wanted an end to air strikes and sieges of towns before talks can start. The boycott defies Washington, which has urged the opposition to take up the "historic opportunity" for the talks, without preconditions.

    A U.N. statement said de Mistura would open the talks as scheduled on Friday by meeting the government delegation headed by Syria's ambassador to the United Nations. Meetings with "other participants" would take place "subsequently" it said, without giving details.

    "It is a complete failure," said a Western diplomat, on condition of anonymity, describing the event as a boon for Assad's government.

    Syria Bashar Assad Idlib

    "They are completely off the hook. With whom are they going to talk? If you want to engage in negotiations, you have to have a partner. It's a wonderful occasion for the regime to show they are willing."

    If opposition members do attend "they will be telling you they are coming in their personal capacity," the diplomat said.

    On Thursday the opposition HNC, which groups both armed and political opponents of Assad and has been meeting in Riyadh this week, said it would not attend the start of talks on Friday because it had not received convincing answers over its demand for goodwill steps such as a ceasefire.

    Another major force, the Kurds who control much of northeast Syria and have proven one of the few groups capable of winning territory from Islamic State fighters, were excluded from the talks after Turkey demanded they be kept away. The Kurds say their absence means the talks are doomed to fail.

    Government momentum

    Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad drive a vehicle mounted with an anti-aircraft weapon in the town of Rabiya after they recaptured the rebel-held town in coastal Latakia province, Syria January 27, 2016.  REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki International diplomacy has so far seen only failures in a 5-year-old multi-sided ethno-sectarian civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people and driven more than 10 million from their homes while drawing in regional states and global powers.

    De Mistura's two predecessors both quit in apparent frustration after staging failed peace conferences.

    Since the last talks collapsed in 2014, Islamic State fighters surged across Syria and Iraq declaring a "caliphate", the United States and its European and Arab allies launched air strikes against them, and Russia joined in last year with a separate air campaign to support Assad.

    Moscow's intervention in particular has altered the balance of power on the ground, giving strong momentum to government forces and reversing months of rebel gains.

    The Syrian military and allied militia are seeking to build on gains in western Syria, and have turned their focus to opposition-held suburbs southwest of Damascus.

    A girl carrying a baby inspects damage in a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force in the town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria January 10, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

    The aim is to crush rebels in the district of Daraya to secure the nearby military airport at Mezzeh, said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict with sources on the ground.

    Civilians were leaving the nearby opposition-held district of Mouadamiya al-Sham in large numbers, fearing a bigger attack, he said.

    "The regime is trying to separate Mouadamiya al-Sham from Daraya so it can finish off the fighters there, because Daraya is a threat to Mezzeh military airport," he said.

    "There is now an almost complete separation between Mouadamiya al-Sham and Daraya," he said.

    Rebels say the fighting on the ground is of more concern to them than the fate of the negotiations.

    turkmen rebels syria

    Asked about the future of the talks, Abu Ghiath al-Sham, spokesman for the rebel Alwiyat Seif al-Sham group, which is part of the HNC, told Reuters: “It seems very complicated. But frankly, I am a bit busy with the situation in Mouadamiya al-Sham, and the field situation in Deraa.”

    Haitham al-Maleh, a prominent Syrian opposition politician, to Al Jazeera: "We cannot hold negotiations while the United Nations and the international community is incapable of (implementing) confidence building steps."

    "I personally believe that the negotiations in this situation are futile and will not produce anything," he said. "We cannot hold negotiations with murderers and criminals as they cling to power."

    (Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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    Dutch F-16

    The Dutch government on Friday agreed to extend its role in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State to include the bombing of targets in Syria, it said in a statement.

    A Dutch squadron of six F-16 warplanes is already stationed in the region, but has been limited to striking Islamic State positions in Iraq.

    The aircraft will now also target sites in eastern Syria, it said.

    "The progress that has been made in Iraq won't stand if IS remains in a position to support the fight in Iraq from eastern Syria," Defence Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert said.

    The Netherlands is also considering sending more military equipment to support to Iraqi fighters battling the militants.

    Extending the operation was made possible after the Dutch Labour Party, the junior partner in the coalition government, said this week it was open to the idea, creating a parliamentary majority.

    The attacks in Paris in November, in which Islamic State claimed responsibility for 130 deaths, had already led France and Britain to increase their bombing campaigns in the region.

    Foreign military interventions are especially sensitive in the Netherlands, which led a disastrous peacekeeping mission in Bosnia in 1995, when 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by Bosnian Serb forces.

    A previous Dutch government collapsed in 2010 over participation in military operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan, where 2,000 troops were active.

    (Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Writing by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Alison Williams)

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

    People sled down the snow on the hill below the U.S. Capitol in Washington January 24, 2016.

    Health workers walk while fumigating in an attempt to eradicate the mosquito which transmits the Zika virus on January 28, 2016 in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil.

    Refugees walk through thick mud as they cross the Macedonia / Serbia border in the southern Serbian village of Miratovac on January 27, 2016 in Miratovac, Serbia.

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Free Syrian Army

    As Syria's bloody civil war enters into its fifth year, the conflict shows no signs of abating.

    The FSA, led by Colonel Riad al-Asaad, was founded in 2011 and is composed of former military defectors, and touts itself as a more moderate alternative to the various jihadist factions operating across Syria, reports the BBC.

    Reuters photographers give us a firsthand look of what it's like to be a soldier in the Free Syrian Army (FSA).


    SEE ALSO: Unnervingly clear drone footage shows the toll Syria's war has taken on one of its oldest cities

    An FSA fighter stands at a lookout point in the northern Aleppo countryside.

    An FSA fighter fires a shell towards Islamic State fighters in the northern Aleppo countryside.

    FSA fighters party during a wedding ceremony in the town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus.

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Al Qaeda Nusra Front

    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."

    ISIS Islamic State Raqqa Syria Member

    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."

    SEE ALSO: Former US defense secretary describes the 2 main factors that led to the rise of ISIS

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    al nusra protest aleppo

    BEIRUT - The leader of al Qaeda's Syrian wing tried unsuccessfully at a recent meeting to convince rival Islamist factions to merge into one unit, several insurgency sources have told Reuters.

    Abu Mohamad al-Golani, head of the Nusra Front, even suggested he was willing to change the name of his group if the others, including the powerful Ahrar al-Sham organization, agreed to the deal, the sources said.

    But he made clear that Nusra would not cut its ties with al Qaeda, and its allegiance would remain to Ayman al-Zawahri, who took over as leader after U.S. Navy SEALS killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.

    Much was riding on the outcome of the meeting, which the sources said took place about 10 days ago.

    Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham are the most powerful groups in northern Syria: when they briefly teamed up with other Islamists last year in an alliance called the Fatah Army, the rebels scored one of their biggest victories by seizing the city of Idlib.

    Some rebels believed a merger would create a stronger rival to Islamic State and might attract much-needed military support and recognition from regional and international powers.

    But the leaders left without an agreement, and the sources said the atmosphere was tense, with Nusra blaming Ahrar al-Sham for the failure.

    A few days later, members of the two groups clashed in the towns of Salqin and Harem in Idlib province, near the border with Turkey. Several fighters were killed on both sides, but other insurgent groups brokered a quick ceasefire.

    Rebel fighters from the Ahrar al-Sham Movement take Koran lessons inside a camp during the holy month of Ramadan in Idlib countryside, Syria July 7, 2015. REUTERS/Ammar AbdullahJihadi sources, including some from Ahrar al-Sham, say it is only a matter of time before another battle between the two erupts. They say the rift between them is getting deeper, although mediation continues. One restraining factor has been an imminent assault by the Syrian army and its allied forces in northwestern Syria.

    "The situation is charged, the failure of initiatives could cause an explosion," said a jihadi in Idlib who is close to the two groups. "What happened just avoided all-out conflict, all-out battle. But it will be hard to tell what will happen in the future."

    Outright war between Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham would still further complicate the five-year Syrian conflict, in which rebel groups are mushrooming under different slogans and sometimes fighting each other.

    A delegation from Syria's main opposition group, the Saudi-backed Higher Negotiation Committee (HNC), arrived in Geneva on Saturday to join United Nations-mediated peace talks, demanding President Bashar al-Assad's government be made to comply with a U.N. resolution on humanitarian aid and human rights.

    Nusra and Islamic State - designated as terrorists by the U.N. - have been excluded from the Geneva talks, the first attempt in two years to end a war that has killed a quarter of a million people. Ahrar al-Sham, which presents itself as a Syrian nationalist force in contrast to al Qaeda's global jihadist ideology, recently joined the HNC but Russia opposes its participation in the talks.


    Distrust between Nusra and Ahrar is mutual. Nusra accuses its Islamist rival of being a front for Turkey, addressing not the "interests of Muslims" but the agenda of Ankara in order to be part of a future political deal to rule Syria. 

    Ahrar and other groups are pushing Nusra to cut its ties with al Qaeda as a step towards becoming more fully engaged in the struggle against Assad.

    "The problem is with the Qaeda link and its ideological implications. Nusra insists on its agenda, it doesn't want to maneuver at all," said a frustrated Ahrar commander, accusing it of "damaging the revolution".

    In the first few weeks after last year's capture of Idlib, the two groups divided responsibilities and territory without problems. But gradually divisions began to surface, as Ahrar and other insurgents became wary of Nusra and accused it of trying to seize power and sidelining them.

    al nusra figher US machine gun"Nusra cannot work with others, they have a dominating project, they do not accept the others," said a fighter from Ahrar al-Sham in Idlib via the Internet.

    Some insurgents are suspicious of Nusra's long-term agenda in the region and globally, distrusting its declaration that it has no ambitions outside Lebanon and Syria.

    "This declared goal is an interim one. After it wins and establishes itself in Syria, they will move to the next step, which objects to the goal of the revolution," said an Islamist rebel who is allied with Ahrar al-Sham.

    "They will join the global jihad and this is against our revolution. Our revolution is limited to Syria." 


    On the ground, Nusra imposes strict Islamic rules in villages and towns where it shares power. It has banned women from wearing make-up, showing their hair or wearing tight clothes like jeans, and applied a policy of segregation between the sexes. All these moves have served to assert its dominance, while provoking other groups.

    "There is no group on the ground that actually objects to having an Islamic government but the implementation and methods are different," said another Islamist fighter from a group that is allied with Ahrar.

    Highlighting the dilemma facing Syrian rebels, a local commander of an Islamist brigade that works closely with Ahrar al-Sham said: "It will be difficult for Nusra to disengage from Qaeda and it will be difficult for us to work with them. The situation is really difficult. Things are complicated and interlocked all together."

    Asked how long the groups could avoid hostilities, an Ahrar al-Sham military commander said: "We can avoid fighting with Nusra for now. For how long? That is a difficult question. Only God knows."

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    Lady_zaynab_mosqueBEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) - At least 60 people were killed, including 25 Shi'ite fighters, and dozens wounded on Sunday by a car bomb and two suicide bombers in a district of Damascus where Syria's holiest Shi'ite shrine is located, a monitor said.

    Sunni fundamentalist Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, according to Amaq, a news agency that supports the group. It said two operations "hit the most important stronghold of Shi'ite militias in Damascus". 

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the casualties were expected to rise from the suicide attacks in Sayeda Zeinaba, a district of southern Damascus where the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and other Iraqi and Iranian militias have a strong presence.

    Rami Abdulrahman, head of the British-based Observatory, said the suicide bombers had targeted a military bus carrying Shi'ite militias who were changing guard there.

    The explosions occurred as representatives of Syria's government and its divided opposition began convening in Geneva for the first U.N.-mediated peace talks in two years.

    Syrian Ambassador Bashar Jaafari, head of the government delegation at Geneva, said the blasts in Damascus just confirmed the link between what the government says are a Saudi-led and funded Islamist "opposition" and terrorism.

    hezbollah syriaState television showed footage of burning buildings and wrecked cars in the neighborhood. 

    Syrian state news agency SANA, quoting an interior ministry source, said a group of militants had detonated a car bomb near a public transport garage in the neighborhood's Koua Sudan area.

    Two suicide bombers then blew themselves up nearby as people were being rescued. The authorities put the dead at 45 people.

    "Bodies were still being pulled from the wreckage," a witness told state news channel Ikhbariyah.

    The heavily populated area in the south of the city is a site of pilgrimage for Shi'ites from Iran, Lebanon and other parts of the Muslim world. 

    Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halaki was quoted as saying the attacks were prompted by "terror groups" who sought to "raise their morale after a string of defeats" by the army.

    U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura shakes hands with Syria's Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar al Jaafari (L) during the Syria peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland, January 29, 2016. REUTERS/Jean-Marc Ferre/United Nations/Handout via ReutersThe United Nations has said it is aiming for six months of talks, first seeking a ceasefire and later working toward a political settlement for Syria. The nearly five-year conflict has killed more than 250,000 people, driven more than 10 million from their homes and drawn in global powers. 

    The Sayeda Zeinab shrine area witnessed heavy clashes in the first few years of the war but has since been secured by the Syrian army and Shi'ite militias led by Hezbollah, which has set up protective roadblocks around it.

    The shrine houses the grave of the daughter of Ali ibn Abi Taleb, the cousin of Prophet Mohammed, whom Shi'ites consider the rightful successor to the prophet. The dispute over the succession led to the major Sunni-Shi'ite schism in Islam.

    Iraqi and Iranian Shi'ite militia groups that have volunteered to fight Sunni Islamist radicals in Syria in a conflict that has heavy sectarian overtones often say they are coming to Syria to defend the shrine.

    Rebels says the area is the first destination of thousands of Shi'ite militias drawn from Iran to Afghanistan alongside neighboring Iraq where they are based before heading to fight in battlefields across the country.

    Shi'ite militias from the region led by Hezbollah have played a crucial role in covering the shortfall in manpower faced by Syrian President Assad's overstretched army during nearly five years of conflict.

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    danish training operation inherent resolve iraqi army

    Earlier this month, a spokesman from the Combined Joint Task Force's Operation Inherent Resolve said that ISIS lost 40% of their territory in Iraq and 20% in Syria. In December, Iraq's armed forces recaptured the western city of Ramadi, paving the way for an expected assault on Mosul, ISIS' de facto capital in Iraq.

    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.

    SEE ALSO: Here's how the US is leading the fight against ISIS

    Here is a quick overview of Operation Inherent Resolve's members and initiatives.

    Before the training started, the coalition had to move in with supplies. The coalition arms and equips Iraqi national forces and other regional groups like the Kurds.

    A large part of the coalition's efforts in training local forces is to build their confidence and capacity with thorough hands-on training.

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    Malala Yousefzai (R) listens to 17 year old Syrian refugee Muzoon Almellehan speak to journalists at the City Library in Newcastle Upon Tyne, Britain December 22, 2015.  REUTERS/Darren Staples

    Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai will seek to inspire world leaders at a conference in London on Thursday to commit $1.4 billion this year to give Syrian refugee children access to education, she told Reuters on Sunday.

    Heads of state and government and ministers from countries around the world will converge on London for the "Supporting Syria and the region" conference, which aims to raise funds for humanitarian crises caused by the Syrian war.

    Some 700,000 Syrian children living in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon and in other Middle Eastern countries are out of school, according to a report issued by the Malala Fund, which campaigns and fundraises for educational causes.

    "I have met so many Syrian refugee children, they are still in my mind. I can't forget them. The thought that they won't be able to go to school in their whole life is completely shocking and I cannot accept it," Malala said in a telephone interview.

    "We can still help them, we can still protect them. They are not lost yet. They need schools. They need books. They need teachers. This is the way we can protect the future of Syria."

    A Pakistani teenage education activist who came to prominence when a Taliban gunman shot her in the head on her school bus in 2012, Malala continued campaigning on the world stage and in 2014 became the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner.

    Now 18, she lives in Britain but devotes much of her time and energy to the cause of education for Syrian refugee children. An accomplished public speaker who brought a United Nations audience to its feet in a celebrated speech in 2013, she hopes to make a powerful impact at the London event.

    Refugees and migrants walk after disembarking from the passenger ferry Blue Star1 at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, January 31, 2016. REUTERS/Michalis Karagiannis

    "We can't wait"

    "I'm hoping to encourage and inspire world leaders to take action. I'm not going to wait. We can't wait. It needs to happen."

    She will appear at the London conference alongside 17-year-old schoolgirl Muzoon Almellehan, who will be the only young Syrian refugee to address world leaders at the event.

    "Without education we cannot do anything," Muzoon said on the same call as Malala.

    She said she was working hard on improving her English so she could complete her schooling in Britain and go to university, but also wanted to dedicate herself with "my sister" Malala to the cause of education for fellow Syrian refugees.

    The pair first met in 2014 at the sprawling Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian desert, and were reunited in December last year when Muzoon was resettled in northern England.

    Syrian refugee children play near their families residence at Al Zaatari refugee camp, in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, November 29, 2015. REUTERS/ Muhammad Hamed

    "She is the one that I want people to listen to. Her story is so powerful, it's so inspiring. She's going to tell world leaders that these children have a right to an education and they must not ignore it," said Malala.

    Co-hosted by the United Nations and the governments of Britain, Germany, Norway and Kuwait, the London conference is not limited to education but aims to obtain pledges from countries to meet a range of Syrian humanitarian needs.

    U.N. agencies are appealing for a total of $7.73 billion to cope with Syria's needs this year and an additional $1.2 billion are required by regional governments for their own plans to deal with the impact of Syria's conflict.

    In previous years, donor funding has fallen short of U.N. appeals.


    SEE ALSO: Here’s what we saw when we visited the Calais refugee camp known as the ‘Jungle’

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    A girl pushes a boy on a bicycle past damaged buildings in Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, Syria January 23, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

    A triple bombing claimed by the extremist Islamic State group killed at least 45 people near the Syrian capital of Damascus on Sunday, overshadowing an already shaky start to what are meant to be indirect Syria peace talks.

    Syria's state news agency SANA said that the blasts went off in Sayyda Zeinab, a predominantly Shiite Muslim suburb of the Syrian capital, wounding more than 100 people.

    SANA said attackers detonated a car bomb at a bus stop and that two suicide bombers set off more explosives as rescuers rushed to the area.

    The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group that monitors both sides of the conflict through a network of activists inside Syria, said at least 63 people were killed in the explosions, including 25 pro-government Shiite fighters. It said the dead fighters included Syrians and foreigners.

    The Sayyda Zeinab suburb, home to one of the holiest shrines for Shiite Muslims, was one of the first areas where Lebanon's Hezbollah group sent fighters in 2012 to protect it from possible attacks by Sunni extremists who vowed to blow up the tomb. Hezbollah and Shiite groups from Iraq are known to have fighters in the area.

    The blasts caused widespread damage. State TV footage showed several burning cars and a torched bus, as well as blown out windows and large holes in the facade of a nearby apartment tower.

    An IS-affiliated website said the attacks were carried out by members of the extremist group, which controls large areas in both Syria and Iraq.


    U.N.-hosted peace talks in Geneva are part of a process outlined in last month's U.N. resolution that envisions an 18-month timetable for a political transition in Syria, including the drafting of a new constitution and elections.

    The talks got off to a rocky start Friday, with U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura meeting only with a Syrian government delegation.

    A delegation of the main opposition group said it will not take part in the indirect talks until its demands are met, including lifting the siege imposed on rebel-held areas and an end to Russian and Syrian bombardment of regions controlled by opposition fighters.

    In Washington, US Secretary of State John Kerry called the nearly five-year conflict that killed 250,000, wounded more than a million and displaced millions as an "unfolding humanitarian catastrophe unmatched since World War II."

    Speaking about the talks in Geneva, Kerry said: "I appeal to both sides to make the most of this moment, to seize the opportunity for serious negotiations, to negotiate in good faith with the goal of making concrete measurable progress in the days immediately ahead."

    The head of the Syrian government delegation told reporters in Geneva on Sunday that the opposition is not serious about what are meant to be U.N.-hosted indirect peace talks and is trying to derail them with preconditions.

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to staff of the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 24, 2016, before leaving Saudi Arabia.  REUTERS/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool

    "Those who speak about preconditions are coming to this meeting in order to derail it and is not concerned about a Syrian-Syrian dialogue," Bashar Jaafari said. "With the opposition's delegation not showing up, it shows that they are not serious and irresponsible at a time when Syrians are being killed."

    The head of the opposition's High Negotiations Committee Riad Hijab warned after meeting Turkey's prime minister in Saudi Arabia on Sunday that the opposition might have to pull out its delegation from Geneva at a time when "the United Nations and international community are not able to stop the violations." His comments were made in a statement obtained by The Associated Press.

    Earlier in the day, de Mistura paid a courtesy visit to the opposition's delegation in Geneva saying he is "optimistic and determined," describing indirect peace talks between the government and the opposition as "a historic occasion" to end the country's civil war.

    An opposition official said they came to Geneva to make the talks successful, but added that violence must stop first.

    "It's the duty of the responsibility of members of the Security Council to put the pressure on Russia to stop these crimes in Syria," opposition spokesman Salem al-Mislet told The Associated Press on Sunday.

    "It's enough killing our children, killing civilians. They pretend to fight terrorism. In fact they don't fight terrorism because they bring terrorism there and ISIS is spreading in many areas in Syria more than before because of these Russian strikes," al-Mislet said, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group.

    The opposition delegation is to meet with de Mistura later Sunday, al-Mislet said.

    Meanwhile, a senior Syrian official said President Bashar Assad's government will "never accept" the inclusion in the peace talks of two militant groups it considers terrorists.

    Switzerland Syria Talks Bashar Ja'afar

    Ahrar al-Sham and the Army of Islam, two Islamic groups fighting to overthrow Assad, agreed to take part in the Geneva talks. The ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham is not part of the team sent to Geneva, but the delegation has named Army of Islam official Mohammed Alloush as its chief negotiator.

    Assad's government has long referred to all those fighting to overthrow him as terrorists, but has agreed to negotiations with some armed groups in the latest talks.

    A U.N. Security Council resolution adopted last month tasked Jordan with compiling an agreed list of terrorist organizations that would be excluded from the talks. Work on the list is still underway.

    While virtually all parties agree that both IS and the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front should be excluded, the two sides are divided over Ahrar al-Sham and the Army of Islam. The mainstream opposition views both groups as fellow rebels, despite their ideological differences, while the Syrian government and its close ally Russia view them as extremists.

    "We will neither sit down directly with terrorists, nor have dialogue with them," Syrian Information Minister Omar al-Zoubi told state TV Saturday evening.

    SEE ALSO: Russia's 'ideal' situation in Syria is closer than ever to becoming a reality

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    Residents and soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad inspect damage after a suicide attack in Sayeda Zeinab, a district of southern Damascus, Syria January 31, 2016.  REUTERS/Stringer

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - The death toll from a suicide attack in Damascus on Sunday that was claimed by the Islamic State militant group has risen to more than 70, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

    A car bomb and two suicide bombers attacked the Sayeda Zeinab district, home to Syria's holiest Shi'ite shrine, as representatives of Syria's government and its divided opposition began convening in Geneva in an attempt to start the first peace talks in two years.

    The Syrian state news agency SANA has put the death toll from the attack at more than 50.

    The British-based Observatory, which monitors the war using contacts on the ground, said the attack had targeted a military bus carrying Shi'ite militiamen who were changing guard, and that 42 of the dead were fighters allied to the government.

    The Lebanese Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah and other Iraqi and Iranian militias have a strong presence in Sayeda Zeinab, which is a site of pilgrimage for Shi'ites from Iran, Lebanon and other parts of the Muslim world.

    While much of the Syrian leadership is drawn from an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, Islamic State espouses a radical version of Sunni Islam and considers other sects to be heretical.

    The area witnessed heavy clashes in the first few years of the war, prompting the army and allied Shi'ite militias to tighten security, notably with roadblocks.

    (Reporting by John Davison)

    SEE ALSO: Al-Qaeda in Syria tried to merge with a major rival faction — but it completely backfired

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    Brett McGurk

    GENEVA — A top U.S. official has made a rare visit to Syria, crossing into the Kurdish-held north of the country over the weekend to meet with Kurdish officials and fighters who are battling the Islamic State, U.S. and Kurdish officials said Sunday.

    The visit by President Obama's special envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, Brett McGurk, was the first by a senior U.S. official to the Syrian war zone and came as the U.S. military increasingly directs the focus of its fight against Islamic militants toward the front line in Syria and the Islamic State's self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa.

    It also coincides with growing regional and global tensions over the status of Syria's Kurds, who have been carving out an autonomous enclave of their own in the process of battling the Islamic State.

    Russia has been competing with United States for influence over the Syrian Kurds, who have made most of their recent territorial gains with the help of U.S. airstrikes. Turkey has meanwhile expressed mounting alarm at the growing muscle of the Syrian Kurds, dispatching tanks and troops to reinforce its border and threatening military action to prevent the emergence of a new Kurdish entity.

    A State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject said McGurk spent two days in the self-proclaimed northern Kurdish enclave of Rojava.


    "This visit and the discussions he had are in keeping with the special envoy's efforts to continue looking for ways to increase coalition pressure on ISIL," the official said, using a common abbreviation for the Islamic State.

    It was the first known visit to Syria by a senior U.S. official since the ambassador, Robert Ford, departed the capital, Damascus, in 2012 amid the turmoil of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. and Syrian governments have had no direct communications, though they have on occasion interacted through intermediaries.

    Among the places McGurk visited, the State Department official said, was the small town of Kobane, which captured world headlines a little over a year ago for its battle against Islamic State forces.

    The ferocity of the battle prompted the first intervention by U.S. warplanes on behalf of the Kurds, opening the door to a deepening relationship with the main Kurdish fighting force, the People's Protection Units, or YPG, which is central to the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.

    A girl pushes a boy on a bicycle past damaged buildings in Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, Syria January 23, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam KhabiehRelations between the YPG and the United States have nonetheless been tempered by the disapproval of Turkey and by the complexities of the wider Syria war. McGurk's visit may have been intended, at least in part, to mollify Kurdish anger that Saleh Muslim, the leader of the Democratic Union Party, the YPG's political wing, was not invited to participate in the fraught Syrian peace talks underway in Geneva.

    Muslim had shown up in Geneva anyway, but was discreetly asked to leave Saturday by U.S. officials after Turkey threatened to disrupt the talks if he was allowed to remain in town, according to Western diplomats attending the talks.

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    A Syrian refugee child looks on, moments after arriving on a raft with other Syrian refugees on a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos, January 4, 2016. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

    ISTANBUL (Reuters) - More than 3,000 Turkmens and Arabs fleeing advances by pro-government Syrian forces in the north of Latakia province have crossed into Turkey over the past three days, Turkish disaster agency AFAD said on Monday.

    A Turkmen official said several thousand more migrants were expected as a camp mostly sheltering Turkmens in the Syrian village of Yamadi was being evacuated after the pro-government forces backed by Russian air strikes advanced.

    "After the attacks have spilled over to Yamadi camp, the first group of 731 migrants, mostly babies, children, women and the elderly, have entered our country," AFAD said in a statement.

    A total of 3,120 people have already crossed through Pulluyazi, a village near the border town of Yayladagi in Turkey's southern Hatay province.

    The influx has accelerated since Jan. 24, when Rabiya, a rebel-held town in Latakia province, was captured by pro-government forces. The displacement occurred as U.N.-backed peace talks, the first for two years, struggled to get off the ground in Geneva.

    A Turkish Coast Guard fast rigid-hulled inflatable boats tow refugees and migrants in a dinghy on the Turkish territorial waters of the North Eagean Sea, following a failed attempt of crossing to the Greek island of Lesbos, off the shores of Canakkale, Turkey, November 9, 2015. REUTERS/Umit Bektas Representatives of the Saudi-backed High Negotiation Committee (HNC), which includes political and militant opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, are seeking a halt to attacks on civilian areas, the release of detainees and a lifting of blockades.

    Russian air strikes have killed nearly 1,400 civilians since Moscow started its aerial campaign in support of Assad nearly four months ago, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said on Saturday. An opposition delegate said bombings intensified before the peace talks.


    "There was an attack by Russians over the weekend on the camp," a Turkmen official at Yayladagi said. "Thankfully it did not fall right at the heart of the camp, but still 40 people were wounded," he said.

    "A lot of towns, villages in the north of Latakia have already been emptied. But there's still another 3,000-4,000 civilians there who haven't left," he said.

    AFAD said more than 150 migrants have been placed at a new camp in Guvecci, on the Turkish side of the border, while others have been sent to refugee camps in the border provinces of Gaziantep and Sanliurfa. Some found refugee with relatives.

    The Turkmens are ethnic kin of the Turks and Turkey has been particularly angered by what it says is Russian targeting of them in Syria. It has said that Russia's actions in Syria risk exacerbating a refugee crisis soon after it struck a deal with the EU to stem the flow of migrants to Europe.

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    syrian refugee in lebanonIn a Middle East torn apart by war and conflict, fighters are increasingly using food as a weapon.

    Millions of people across countries like Syria, Yemen and Iraq are gripped by hunger, struggling to survive with little help from the outside world. Children suffer from severe malnutrition, their parents often having to beg or sell possessions to get basic commodities including water, medicine and fuel.

    The biggest humanitarian catastrophe by far is Syria, where a ruinous five-year civil war has killed a quarter of a million people and displaced half the population. All sides in the conflict have used punishing blockades to force submission and surrender from the other side — a tactic that has proved effective particularly for government forces seeking to pacify opposition-held areas around the capital Damascus.

    Since October, Russian airstrikes and the start of yet another winter have exacerbated a humanitarian crisis and led to deaths from starvation in some places.

    Humanitarian teams who recently entered a besieged Syrian town witnessed scenes that "haunt the soul," said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He accused both the government of President Bashar Assad and the rebels fighting to oust him of using starvation as a weapon, calling it a war crime.

    Although sieges are an accepted military practice that are often carried out by forces seeking to avoid intense urban conflict, the conduct of forces carrying them out and their behavior toward civilian populations are regulated by international humanitarian law.

    Past cases include the sieges of Gorazde and Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. The Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, home to 1.8 million people, has also been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade, restricting the flow of many goods into the war-torn Palestinian territory.


    The U.N. and aid agencies have struggled with funding shortages and growing impediments to the delivery of humanitarian assistance despite Security Council resolutions insisting on the unconditional delivery of aid acrossfront lines.

    In Yemen, the Arab world's most impoverished nation, nearly half of the country's 22 provinces are ranked as one step away from famine conditions.

    Here's a look at major areas in the Middle East under siege or suffering starvation:


    The United Nations estimates more than 400,000 people are besieged in 15 communities across Syria, roughly half of them in areas controlled by the Islamic State group. In 2014, the U.N. was able to deliver food to about five percent of people in besieged areas, while today estimates show the organization is reaching less than one percent.

    In 2015, the World Food Program was forced to reduce the size of the food rations it provides to families inside Syria by up to 25 percent because of a funding shortfall. The agency says it has to raise $25 million every week to meet the basic food needs of people affected by the Syrian conflict.

    Some of the hardest hit blockaded areas in Syria are:

    Madaya: A town northeast of Damascus with a population of 40,000. The town has been besieged by government and allied militiamen for months and gained international attention after harrowing pictures emerged showing emaciated children. Doctors Without Borders says 28 people have died of starvation in Madaya since September. Two convoys of humanitarian aid were delivered to the town last week. Aid workers who entered described seeing skeletal figures; children who could barely talk or walk, and parents who gave their kids sleeping pills to calm their hunger.

    madaya syria starving

    Fouaa and Kfarya: Two Shiite villages in the northern province of Idlib with a combined population of around 20,000. The villages have been blockaded by rebels for more than a year. Pro-government fighters recently evacuated from the villages describe desperate conditions there with scarce food and medicine, saying some residents are eating grass to survive and undergoing surgery without anesthesia. Aid convoys entered the villages simultaneously with the aid to Madaya after months-long negotiations between the government and armed groups.

    Deir el-Zour: An estimated 200,000 people living in government-held parts of this city in eastern Syria are besieged by the Islamic State group. The U.N. says most of the residents are women and children facing sharply deteriorating conditions due to the ban on all commercial or humanitarian access, as well as the inability of residents to move outside of the city. While government stocks continue to provide bread, there are severe shortages of food, medicine and basic commodities. Opposition activists say they have documented the death of 27 people from malnutrition. Water is available only once a week for few hours.


    yemen malnourish child starvation

    The humanitarian situation has dramatically deteriorated, nearly 300 days after the Saudi-led coalition began its air campaign aimed at driving Yemen's Shiite rebels from cities under their control. Coalition naval ships are blockading traffic in Yemen's ports and rebels are besieging several areas, particularly the southern city of Taiz.

    Some 14.4 million Yemenis, more than half of the population, are food insecure, an increase of 12 percent in the last eight months, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization said Thursday. In late December, the WFP said 7.8 million of Yemen's 24 million people are in even more dire condition, "facing life-threatening rates of acute malnutrition," up by more than 3 million in less than a year. It said 10 of the country's 22 provinces are in "thegrip of severe food insecurity" at the "emergency" level, one step short of famine on the agency's 5-level scale of food security.

    In Taiz, with a population of about 250,000, residents have been going hungry for weeks, the WFP said. The United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Yemen Jamie McGoldrick said recently that basic services in Taiz are scarce, including access to water and fuel.

    yemen taiz rubble

    The severe shortage of food, fuel and medicine across Yemen led to an increase in the number of children suffering from malnutrition while the destruction of health facilities treating them led to deaths.

    Some 3 million children under five years require services to treat or prevent malnutrition, according to a UNICEF report on Jan. 13.

    A new report by a U.N. panel of experts, obtained this week by the AP, said civilians in the Arab world's poorest country are suffering under tactics in the conflict that "constitute the prohibited use of starvation as a method of warfare."


    Massive population shifts in Iraq due to violence has made it more difficult for millions of people to access food, medicine and safe drinking water. More than 3 million Iraqis are displaced within the country by violence and instability. "They've lost their livelihoods, their jobs, and hunger and the inability to purchase food is a reality in their everyday life," said Marwa Awad, with the World Food Program. In total 8.2 million Iraqis are in need of humanitarian assistance: food, water, shelter or medicine, she said.

    iraq refugee camp kawergosk

    Ongoing violence in many of Iraq's provinces that are also home to people who have been uprooted by conflict is of the greatest concern, Awad said. In Anbar, Ninevah and Salahuddin the price of food has risen by as much as 38 percent in the last month, and in some cases the Iraqi government has had to airlift families out of towns and villages besieged by fighting between Iraqi government forces and Islamic State group fighters.

    In Ramadi, families who had been held by IS fighters as human shields said they survived for days on just rice and flour.

    While conflict in Iraq hasn't led to cases of starvation, Awad said WFP has seen an increase in cases of malnutrition as people eat less to conserve the little food they do have.

    Syrian refugees in neighboring countries

    According to the U.N. children's agency, malnutrition is a major threat among millions of refugees. A UNICEF report last year showed that almost 2,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon are suffering from severe acute malnutrition, and need immediate treatment to survive. It warned that situation could deteriorate even further as malnutrition is linked to such factors as poor hygiene, unsafe drinking water, lack of immunization, diseases and improper infant and young child feeding practices.

    (Associated Press writers Susannah George in Baghdad, Maggie Michael in Cairo and Cara Anna at the United Nations contributed to this report.)

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    Experts are saying that Russia's military is more advanced than everyone thought, and that Syria has allowed it to showcase its progress to the world.

    Story by Allan Smith and editing by Chelsea Pineda

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