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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    Salim al-Muslat, spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the main Syrian opposition group at the Geneva peace talks, attends a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland, January 31, 2016. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

    GENEVA/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels fought back against an offensive by government forces near a supply route into the city of Aleppo on Monday and said there had been no letup in Russian air strikes, despite a promise of goodwill moves by Damascus to spur peace talks.

    U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura was due later on Monday to meet Syrian opposition groups in Geneva, hoping to launch indirect peace talks after five years of war that has killed 250,000 people. A meeting with the government delegation was postponed because de Mistura had first to meet the opposition. 

    De Mistura pressed on with peace efforts as the death toll from an Islamic State suicide attack near Damascus climbed to more than 70 people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The attack targeted a government-held neighborhood that is home to Syria's holiest Shi'ite shrine. 

    The Geneva peace talks mark the first attempt in two years to hold negotiations over Syria, whose war has drawn in regional and international powers and forced millions from their homes and into neighboring states and Europe.

    The opposition to President Bashar al-Assad agreed late on Friday to travel to Geneva after saying they had received guarantees to improve the situation on the ground, such as a detainee release and a halt to attacks on civilian areas.

    Switzerland Syria Talks Bashar Ja'afarBut the opposition says there has been no easing of the conflict since then, with government and allied forces including Iranian militias pressing offensives across important areas of western Syria, most recently north of Aleppo.

    It is the first big government offensive for nearly a year in the Aleppo area, which controls access to opposition-held areas of the city from Turkey, a sponsor of the insurgency.

    "The attack started at 2 a.m., with air strikes and missiles," said rebel commander Ahmed al-Seoud, describing the situation near Aleppo, parts of which are controlled by the government and parts are in opposition hands.

    Seoud told Reuters his Free Syrian Army group had sent reinforcements to the area near the village of Bashkoy.

    "We took guarantees from America and Saudi to enter the negotiations ... (but) the regime has no goodwill and has not shown us any goodwill," he said from nearby Idlib province.

    The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government forces were gaining ground in the area, and had captured most of the village of Duweir al-Zeitun near Bashkoy. It reported dozens of air strikes on Monday morning and Syrian state television said government forces were advancing. 

    NEGOTIATION "UNDER ESCALATION"

    The opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) has indicated it will leave Geneva unless steps set out in a Dec. 18 Security Council resolution, endorsing peace moves including a lifting of sieges of blockaded areas, are implemented.

    Bashar al-Jaafari, head of the government delegation, said on Sunday Damascus was considering options such as ceasefires, humanitarian corridors and prisoner releases. But he suggested they might come about as a result of the talks, not before them.

    Opposition delegate Farrah Atassi said government forces were escalating their military campaign, making it hard to justify the opposition's presence in Geneva. Another opposition official highlighted heavy Russian bombardment of the northern Homs area on Sunday as one sign that nothing had changed.

    "Today, we are going to Mr De Mistura to demand again and again, for a thousand times, that the Syrian opposition is keen to end the suffering of the Syrian people," Atassi said. "However, we cannot ask the Syrian opposition to engage in any negotiation with the regime under this escalation."

    syria mosque bomb

    A senior Western diplomat said the opposition had shown up so as not to play "directly into the hands of the regime".

    "They want tangible and visible things straight away, but there are things that realistically can't be done now such as ending the bombing. It's obvious that that is too difficult. The easiest compromises are releasing civilians and children." 

    The HNC was due to meet De Mistura at 5 p.m. (1600 GMT) at the U.N. headquarters in Geneva. 

    It also met him at a hotel on Sunday where a diplomatic source said they discussed a proposal by De Mistura to help meet their humanitarian concerns.

    The diplomatic efforts have been beset by difficulties, including a dispute over who should be invited to negotiate with the government. Beyond that, the challenges are enormous and include lingering divisions over Assad's future.

    TYPE OF GOVERNMENT

    The Kurdish PYD party which controls large areas of northern Syria has been excluded in line with the wishes of Turkey, which considers it a terrorist group.

    The HNC includes some of the foreign-backed rebel groups fighting Assad in western Syria. Islamic State is at war with both Assad and the rebels, and is fighting for its its own "caliphate" rather than a reformed Syria. 

    The United Nations is aiming for six months of talks that would focus on achieving a broad ceasefire, while also working toward a political settlement. The United States, which backs the opposition to Assad, has been urging the HNC to attend.

    The Syrian government views all the groups fighting it as terrorists and instruments of foreign powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

    Another complication is the type of government that will run Syria in any peace settlement. Jaafari said on Sunday Damascus favored an "enlarged national government", while the opposition want a transitional governing body.

    Join the conversation about this story »

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    You might know Milana Vayntrub as Lily from AT&T commercials. A refugee herself, Vayntrub is now using her fame to help Syrian refugees. She recently traveled to the Greek island of Lesbos where she made a video of her trip and started the Can't Do Nothing movement to bring money and attention to the refugee crisis.

    Story by Jacob Shamsian and editing by Adam Banicki

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    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 Reuters

    The United Nations' envoy to Syria admitted in a confidential memo that the UN would be unable to monitor or enforce any kind of ceasefire that comes out of negotiations in Geneva, Foreign Policy's Colum Lynch reported last weekend.

    The memo, entitled the "Draft Ceasefire Modalities Concept Paper," asserted that Syria will still be far too dangerous following the talks for UN peacekeeping forces to monitor a ceasefire without significant risk to their own lives.

    "The current international and national political context and the current operational environment strongly suggest that a U.N. peacekeeping response relying on international troops or military observers would be an unsuitable modality for ceasefire monitoring," a team working with Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy, wrote in the paper.

    “There will be a direct trade-off between a desire for the highest level of credibility in a ceasefire monitoring process … and tolerance for physical risk," the paper said.

    An immediate ceasefire is step one of a a four-point peace plan for Syria created by Iran, a staunch ally of Assad. The proposal also calls for the establishment of a national unity government, the anchoring of minority rights in the constitution, and internationally supervised presidential elections in Syria.

    But the concept paper drafted by de Mistura's team seemed to imply that Syria's government and its allies — rather than an independent monitoring body traditionally deployed to war zones by the UN — will be expected to enforce the ceasefire.

    Syria will "remain highly fragmented, volatile, and militarized" for the foreseeable future, the memo said. "In such a situation, it would be extremely challenging to deploy international monitors to conduct observation tasks on the ground."

    RussianAirstrikesjan20-25The situation is further complicated by the presence of Iran-backed Shiite militias fighting on behalf of the Assad regime — and Russian warplanes continuously targeting rebel groups backed by the US, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.

    As such, the UN memo called for a more "realistic" approach to fomenting peace instead — one that would involve "national counterparts" and "local forces."

    The former US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, warned against this strategy in an open letter to US Secretary of State John Kerry just last month.

    "A ceasefire without an impartial force to enforce it will not succeed in Syria," Ford, now a researcher at the Middle East Institute, wrote in December.

    He continued:

    The US and other states need to agree about (1) a force that would robustly monitor a ceasefire, if one can be secured; (2) how to improve local security, and (3) what the UN Security Council will countenance when the ceasefire is violated and an international force identifies the responsible party(ies).

    The revelations in the de Mistura memo come as analysts question how effective the negotiations between Syria's regime and the opposition will be in ending nearly five years of civil war — especially as doubts remain over whether the opposition will participate in the talks at all.

    Salim al-Muslat, spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the main Syrian opposition group at the Geneva peace talks, attends a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland, January 31, 2016. REUTERS/Denis BalibouseBefore talks began on Friday, Syria's main opposition council — the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC) — said it would be boycotting the Geneva conference until Syrian president Bashar al-Assad halted airstrikes and lifted sieges on rebel-held territories in accordance with a UN resolution to which the government agreed in December.

    Members of the HNC ended up traveling to Geneva on Saturday in an effort to pressure the regime's delegation — led by Damascus' chief negotiator, Bashar al-Jaafari — to make good on its promises. But an ISIS-linked suicide bombing just outside of the Syrian capital on Saturday threatened to derail the talks even further, as the government and the opposition bickered over who was to blame for the attack that killed more than 70 people.

    In any case, it is now clear that the UN's top official charged with steering the conflict towards a resolution seems less than optimistic about his ability to do so.

    "There is … a risk of mission creep," the UN paper stated. "As such, it is imperative to clearly articulate those roles which a monitoring mission would not be capable of doing."

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

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    Brett McGurk, the president's special envoy for the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, took a trip to a city in Syria that was liberated from the terrorist group about a year ago, and photos show that the place is still in bad shape.

    Kobani, Syria was devastated in the fight to drive ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, and Daesh) from the city. It's unclear how the city will rebuild — the rest of the country is still in turmoil as the civil war drags on in its fifth year.

    McGurk's visit to Syria is the first for a high-level US official since ambassador Robert Ford left Damascus in 2012, according to The Washington Post.

    The envoy met with local anti-ISIS fighters in northern Syria and tweeted photos of his visit. The pictures show a city full of rubble and collapsed buildings:

    McGurk also visited Iraq to meet with senior officials and discuss the fight against ISIS.

    The US is carrying out a campaign of airstrikes on ISIS targets in Syria, with the hope of moving in on the terrorist group's de-facto capital of Raqqa. During a Pentagon press briefing on Monday, commander of the anti-ISIS coalition Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland told reporters that taking Raqqa back would be the "the beginning of the end" for ISIS.

    SEE ALSO: The commander of the anti-ISIS war just denounced Ted Cruz's strategy for fighting the group

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    A Hezbollah member reacts while Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah talks on a screen during a televised speech at a festival celebrating Resistance and Liberation Day, in Nabatiyeh May 24, 2015.  REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

    Members of the Hezbollah militant group were arrested on charges they used millions of dollars from the sale of cocaine in the United States and Europe to purchase weapons in Syria, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said on Monday.

    Hezbollah has sent fighters to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country's almost five-year-old civil war. It is designated a terrorist organization by the United States.

    Those arrested include leaders of the network's European cell, who were taken into custody last week, the DEA statement said. Among them was Mohamad Noureddine, who the DEA accuses of being a Lebanese money launderer for Hezbollah's financial arm.

    The United States has labeled Noureddine a specially designated global terrorist, it said.

    The DEA did not give the total number of those arrested or say where they were apprehended.

    The investigation "once again highlights the dangerous global nexus between drug trafficking and terrorism," the statement said.

    Seven countries, including France, Germany, Italy and Belgium, were involved in the investigation that began in February 2015 and is ongoing.

    The U.S. Treasury Department last week imposed sanctions against Noureddine and Hamdi Zaher El Dine, another alleged Hezbollah money launderer. Noureddine's Trade Point International also was placed under sanctions. 

    (Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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    Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond speaks during a joint news conference with Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh at the Foreign Ministry in Amman, Jordan, February 1, 2016. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

    ZAATARI, Jordan — Russian President Vladimir Putin is undermining international efforts to end the Syrian civil war by bombing opponents of Islamic State in an attempt to bolster Bashar Assad, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said on Monday.

    In a clear sign of frustration with the Kremlin, Hammond scolded Putin for paying lip service to a political process aimed at ending the civil war while also bombing opponents of Assad whom the West hopes could shape Syria once the Syrian president is gone.

    Putin tilted the war in Assad's favor when Russia began airstrikes in September. Major setbacks earlier in 2015 had brought rebel groups close to the coastal heartland of Assad's Alawite sect.

    "It's a source of constant grief to me that everything we are doing is being undermined by the Russians," Hammond told Reuters at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, about 6 miles south of the border with Syria.

    "The Russians say let's talk, and then they talk and they talk and they talk," Hammond said. "The problem with the Russians is while they are talking they are bombing, and they are supporting Assad."

    Russia acknowledges that it targets a range of militants in Syria, though it insists it focuses on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh. Russian officials say the West is playing with fire by trying to topple Assad.

    On Monday, Russia's Defense Ministry said it had conducted 468 airstrikes in Syria in the past week and hit more than 1,300 "terrorist" targets, Russian news agencies reported. The ministry also said it had delivered more than 200 tonnes of aid to the besieged Syrian town of Deir al-Zor in January.

    But rebels and residents say the Russian airstrikes are causing hundreds of civilian casualties in indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas away from the frontline.

    "Since the Russian intervention in Syria, the dribble of people who were perhaps going back from these camps to Syria has stopped dead, and there is a new flow coming in because of the actions the Russians are taking — particularly in southern Syria along the border just a few kilometers from here," Hammond said.

    Putin's mind

    Russian President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to Germany's Bild newspaper at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi, Russia, January 5, 2016. REUTERS/Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin

    Russia's intervention had been a major setback for international efforts to find a political solution to the crisis, Hammond said. The effect of the intervention was to strengthen Islamic State, he said.

    "The Russians say they want to destroy Daesh, but they are not bombing Daesh," Hammond said. "They are bombing the moderate opposition."

    "Less than 30% of Russian strikes are against Daesh targets," Hammond added. "Their intervention is strengthening Daesh on the ground — doing the very opposite of what they claim to be wanting to achieve."

    But he said it was difficult to discern whether the Kremlin's support for Assad was changing, because Putin was impossible to read.

    "The thing I have learned, watching Putin first as defense secretary and now as foreign secretary, is that it doesn't matter how much you watch, you cannot see anything — completely inscrutable," he said.

    assad putin

    "We have no idea what the game plan in the Kremlin is. We don't know. There are no councils discussing these things. It is what is going on Mr Putin's head."

    Asked whether the Iranians were being more helpful than the Russians, he said: "I don't think either of them is being particularly helpful to the peace process."

    "The Russians and the Iranians are working hand in glove with the Syrian regime," he added, "and the Iranians are at least as hard-line as the Russians about seeking to ensure the preservation of the Syrian regime."

    SEE ALSO: A top US official made a rare trip to Syria, and he tweeted all about it

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    Obama and Putin

    The US will devote a substantial portion of its defense spending to building up its military presence in Eastern Europe in an effort to deter Russian aggression in the region, Obama administration officials told The New York Times.

    Countries belonging to the NATO alliance in Central and Eastern Europe will apparently receive heavy weaponry, tanks, and other equipment from the US, which quadrupled its budget from $789 million to more than $3.4 billion for military spending in Europe through 2017.

    "This is a really big deal, and the Russians are going to have a cow," Evelyn N. Farkas, the Pentagon's top policy official on Russia and Ukraine until October, told The Times on Tuesday. "It's a huge sign of commitment to deterring Russia, and to strengthening our alliance and our partnership with countries like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia."

    The move comes four months after Russia launched an air campaign in Syria to prop up embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a move widely seen as an attempt by Russian President Vladimir Putin to secure and expand Russia's influence in the Middle East.

    Russia's presence in Syria, however, has "undermined" virtually everything the West is trying to accomplish there and beyond, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in an interview with Reuters from a refugee camp in Jordan on Monday.

    That includes the US's attempts to bolster "moderate" Syrian rebel groups, which have been targeted by Russian airstrikes, and the US-led anti-ISIS coalition's attempts to wipe out the Islamic State in Syria, which has largely been spared the brunt of Russia's punishing air campaign.

    As such, the new funding being allocated to fortify Eastern Europe against Russian aggression "is not a response to something that happened last Tuesday," a senior administration official told The Times.

    "This is a longer-term response to a changed security environment in Europe. This reflects a new situation, where Russia has become a more difficult actor," the official added.

    Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (centre R), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) and foreign ministers attend a meeting in Vienna, Austria, November 14, 2015.   REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

    Russia is unlikely to react kindly to an expanded NATO military presence along its western flank. In an interview with the German daily newspaper Bild in January, Putin asserted that Russia's tensions with the West largely resulted from NATO's eastward expansion after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    Putin said:

    Of course every state has the right to organize its security the way it deems appropriate. But the states that were already in NATO, the member states, could also have followed their own interests — and abstained from an expansion to the east.

    He added: "NATO and the USA wanted a complete victory over the Soviet Union. They wanted to sit on the throne in Europe alone."

    Incidentally, Russia is now trying to dethrone NATO and position itself as an alternative to US influence in the Middle East, as evidenced by its alliance with Iran, Syria, and Iraq under the guise of fighting ISIS.

    Putin Abadi

    "Russia is of course trying to leverage the entire intervention [in Syria] as a way to lap up as much real estate in the Middle East as possible," Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider in September. "It's classic Putin."

    In pushing himself to the forefront of an "anti-ISIS coalition" and creating a distraction from Ukraine, Putin has tried to coerce the US into accepting — and potentially embracing — Russia's role in the conflict.

    But Obama's new funding plan to bolster NATO's presence in Eastern Europe shows that his administration is trying to put a damper on Putin's plans to dislodge the West from the Middle East entirely by reasserting the US's role in the region.

    From The Times:

    Administration officials said the new investments were not just about deterring Russia. The weapons and equipment could also be deployed along NATO's southern flank, where they could help in the fight against the Islamic State or in dealing with the influx of migrants from Syria.

    Another anonymous administration official speaking to The Times put it bluntly: "This is a message that we see what they're capable of, and what their political leadership is willing to do."

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

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    Su-35 Super Flanker

    Yet another Russian modern weapon system has joined the Syrian Air War.

    Previously exposed by images appeared on some Russian aerospace forums (that allegedly showed the aircraft during trailing a Tu-154 during the deployment), super maneuverable Su-35S fighters have started “to carry out military tasks last week”, as confirmed by Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov.

    The (four) aircraft will provide cover to the Russian warplanes conducting raids in Syria, that are already being covered by both RuAF and Syrian jets as well as the S-400 Triumf battery installed at Hmeymim airbase, near Latakia.

    According to the Interfax News Agency, the aircraft belong to the first batch delivered in October-November last year “that were initially attached to the 23rd fighter aircraft regiment of the 303rd guard combined aviation division of the 11th Air Force and Air Defense Army of the Eastern Military district stationed at the Dzengi airfield and relocated to the Privolzhsky airfield in Astrakhan in a later period.”

    The aircraft deployed to Syria following the usual route over the Caspian Sea, Iran and Iraq.

    The 4++ generation Su-35 is characterized by super maneuverability. Although it’s not stealth (even if some sources say it can detect stealth planes like the F-35 at a distance of over 90 kilometers…), once engaged in a WVR (Within Visual Range) air-to-air engagement, it can freely maneuver to point the nose and weapons in any direction, to achieve the proper position for a kill.

    The deployment will give the Russians an opportunity to test their new combat plane in a real war environment.

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    Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond speaks during a joint news conference with Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh at the Foreign Ministry in Amman, Jordan, February 1, 2016. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

    Britain said on Tuesday Russia could be trying to carve out an Alawite mini-state in Syria for its ally President Bashar al-Assad by bombing his opponents instead of fighting Islamic State militants.

    Russia and Britain have been trading barbs after British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told Reuters he believed President Vladimir Putin was fanning the flames of the Syrian civil war by bombing opponents of Islamic State.

    Hammond dismissed Russian criticism that he was spreading "dangerous disinformation", saying there was a limit to how long Russia could pose as a promoter of the peace process while bombing Assad's opponents, who the West hopes can shape Syria once the president is gone.

    "Is Russia really committed to a peace process or is it using the peace process as a fig leaf to try to deliver some kind of military victory for Assad that creates an Alawite mini state in the northwest of Syria?" Hammond told reporters in Rome.

    Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

    Asked if he thought Russia was guilty of war crimes in Syria, Hammond said: "On the face of it, and you have to investigate these things very carefully, there is indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas going on and, on the face of it, that would represent a breach of international humanitarian law." 

    (Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Gareth Jones)

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    Coalition airstrike mar'a syria isisUS-led coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh) on January 25 destroyed an ISIS headquarters building near Mar'a, Syria.

    The strike was just one of 18 carried out that day.

    Taking out ISIS' organizational posts remains a key part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the name of the Combined Joint Task Force'smission to eliminate the terrorist group. 

    Coalition airstrikes on January 15 and January 18 near Mosul targeted an ISIS command center as well as a cash-distribution center.

    "The destruction of ISIL targets in Syria and Iraq further limits the group's ability to project terror and conduct operations," the Combined Joint Task Force wrote about the video.

    The footage below shows just one of more than 9,000 air strikes the coalition has carried out since beginning the operation in October of 2014.

     

    SEE ALSO: Watch US-led coalition airstrikes obliterate an ISIS command center

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    Syria's textile industry was once one of the country's economic bright spots, with its products coveted throughout the region and beyond

    Beirut (AFP) - At a stall in a Beirut exhibition hall, Syrian businesswoman Reem Abu Dahab displays her workshop's lacy pink and white nightgowns, hoping to attract increasingly elusive buyers.

    Syria's textile industry was once one of the country's economic bright spots, with its products coveted throughout the region and beyond.

    But the sector, like the economy in general, has been devastated by the war that erupted in March 2011, with factories destroyed, workers displaced and sanctions hampering trade.

    The migrant crisis and outflow to Europe have also depleted its workforce.

    "Buyers used to come from all around the world but the war has scared them and now very few come to Syria," said Abu Dahab, surrounded by products made in a small workshop in Damascus.

    Abu Dahab's family once owned a factory in Harasta, a Damascus suburb ravaged by fighting between rebels and the regime.

    But it was completely destroyed in the war, and now the business is run out of a small workshop in the capital.

    "We had 100 employees, today only 30 of them are still working for us," said Abu Dahab, who was one of around 100 Syrian textile manufacturers at a trade fair set up in Beirut.

    Before Syria's conflict began, textiles represented some 63 percent of the industrial sector's total production.

    The sector was worth 12 percent of GDP, employed a fifth of the workforce and exports netted around $3.3 billion (3 billion euros) a year, according to the Syrian Economic Forum think-tank.

    A man rides a motorcycle past damaged buildings in al-Myassar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria January 31, 2016. Picture taken January 31, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman IsmailBut by 2014, private sector textile exports had fallen by half, with the industry particularly affected by fighting in Aleppo city, the country's former commercial hub and home to many textile factories.

    Factories destroyed, workers gone 

    "Seventy percent of (textile) factories were closed or destroyed by the war," said Feras Taki Eddine, president of the Syrian Textile Exporters Association, next to a mannequin in black underwear and stockings.

    In addition, many businesses lost machines and employees.

    "Some of the machines were destroyed and some were stolen. Thieves took them to Turkey. I had 220 machines before, now I only have 10," said Alaa Aldeen Maki, owner of Dream Girl Lingerie, an Aleppo-based business.

    "Most of my employees emigrated because of the situation and some because they were forced to join the army for military service," he said.

    When the war arrived in Aleppo in mid-2012, eventually dividing the city between government control in the west and rebel control in the east, some businesses relocated to small workshops in the city's safer areas.

    Others, based in the relative safety of Damascus, have done whatever they can to survive.

    Muhanad Daadush owns the country’s biggest lingerie and pyjama factory, located in the capital.

    He still employs 450 people, many of who sleep in the factory during upticks in violence.

    "I had 72 workers sleeping at the factory" at one point, he told AFP at his stall, surrounded by bras of all hues and comfortable cotton sleepwear.

    Women sew while working in a garment factory in Idlib city, Syria July 26, 2015. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah"They started at six in the morning, worked until 11, then slept. They would only go home to their families from Thursday night to Saturday morning."

    'Still alive' 

    For all its challenges, Syria's textile industry continues to enjoy a reputation of quality in the region, and the Beirut fair attracted some 500 buyers, mostly from the Middle East.

    Fadi Baha was in town from Egypt, where he owns a chain of stores.

    "I buy Syrian textiles because of their quality. It's better than Turkish or Chinese merchandise and almost competitive price-wise," he told AFP.

    "I like how Syrian manufacturers create a unique mix between Eastern and European styles."

    But while regional buyers continue to purchase Syrian textiles, clients from further afield were nowhere to be seen.

    Daadush Lingerie once exported 70 percent of its products to Europe, but its owner said only 10 percent now goes there.

    And the rising costs of production, difficult trading environment and shrinking workforce, all mean competitors from Turkey and China are increasingly able to pinch clients from Syria's textile industry.

    Manufacturers blame shrinking exports in part on sanctions slapped on Syria after the government began its crackdown on dissent following anti-government protests five years ago.

    The conflict that followed has killed over 260,000 people and displaced more than half of Syria's population, with many joining a wave of refugees seeking safety in Europe since last year.

    Taki Eddine said Europe should be bolstering trade with Syria to keep citizens at work in their home country.

    "It should be in Europe's interest to facilitate trade, because Syrian workers without jobs now want to leave to Europe," he said.

    Several vendors said they were committed to staying open, ensuring jobs for Syrians and the industry's survival.

    "It's important for us to show that Syrian industry is still alive," said Taki Eddine.

     

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    Sergei Lavrov Russia Foreign Minister

    MUSCAT (Reuters) - Russia will not stop its air strikes on Syria until armed groups, such as al Qaeda's wing there, are defeated, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday.

    "Russian strikes will not cease until we really defeat terrorist organizations like Jabhat al-Nusra. And I don't see why these air strikes should be stopped," he said at a news conference in Oman's capital Muscat.

    On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Russia should stop bombing opposition forces in Syria now that U.N.-led peace talks aimed at ending the war have started.

    (Reporting by Fatima Al Arimi; Writing by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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    syria refugeesMore than 4 million people have fled Syria since the start of its civil war in 2011. Many of them are living in refugee camps around Europe and the Middle East as conflict ravages the home they left behind. 

    Umit Bektas, a Turkey-based photographer for Reuters, has spent years documenting the lives of those who have been pushed into exile. His most recent project saw him visit refugee camps and ask children to draw their memories of home and their hopes for the future. 

    He visited the Yayladagi camp, which is home to 2,400 refugees and sits on the Turkish side of the border with Syria. It's a growing community and has a school, a rehabilitation centre for kids, and a small clinic.

    Bektas told Business Insider that while he was photographing the children, explosions from Russian airstrikes could be heard just miles away on the other side of the border.  

    This is 11-year-old Islem Halife posing with a drawing of her home in Syria. Bektas says that the children are often happy, but the civil war is a perpetually underlying concern.



    Even children as young as 6-year-old Gays Cardak have a lot to say about the conflict, but, according to Bektas, they remain hopeful that one day they'll return to Syria.



    Thousands of people live in Yayladagi Refugee Camp, and an increasing number of them are children.



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    Russian President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to Germany's Bild newspaper at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi, Russia, January 5, 2016. REUTERS/Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin

    Four months after launching airstrikes in Syria, the Kremlin is confident that Moscow's largest overseas campaign since the Soviet Union is paying off.

    Under the banner of fighting international terrorism, President Vladimir Putin has reversed the fortunes of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which were rapidly losing ground last year to moderate and Islamist rebel forces in the country's five-year-old crisis.

    Government forces are now on the offensive, and on Tuesday, they scored their most significant victory yet, seizing the strategic town of Sheikh Miskeen from rebels who are backed by a U.S.-led coalition.

    According to analysts and officials here, the Russian government believes it has won those dividends at a relatively low cost to the country's budget, with minimal loss of life to its soldiers and with largely supportive public opinion of the war effort.

    "The operation is considered here to be quite successful," said Evgeny Buzhinsky, a retired lieutenant general and senior vice president of the Russian Center for Policy Studies in Moscow. It could probably continue for one year or longer, he said, "but it will depend on the success on the ground."

    Whether the benefits of Russia's gambit to put soldiers on the ground in Syria will continue long-term remains to be seen. President Obama warned last year that Russia was entering a "quagmire" reminiscent of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and it is unclear when Moscow could declare victory and whether it has an exit strategy.

    Syria russian airstrike

    But as Assad's forces push forward and as diplomatic talks got off to a rocky start in Geneva on Friday, there is little pressure right now on the Kremlin to pull back.

    "Putin can afford to play geopolitical chess in the Middle East because it does not cost much," said Konstantin von Eggert, an independent political analyst based in Moscow.

    Entering the conflict in Syria has allowed Putin to combat what he sees as a U.S. policy of regime change, show off his military muscle and reassure allies in the region that Moscow is a loyal partner, von Eggert said.

    But Russia's endgame remains unclear, he and others said.

    "No one asks what Putin is doing in Ukraine because it's obvious," he said. "In the Middle East, not so much."

    There have been some clear costs to Russia's campaign, including the October bombing of a charter jet filled with Russian vacationers returning from Egypt that left 224 dead. The Sinai Peninsula affiliate of the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.

    Russian plane

    There was also the downing of a Russian strike fighter by Turkish F-16s that ended with the death of one pilot and another marine killed, probably by U.S.-backed rebels, during a rescue attempt.

    Yet those incidents have not prompted the kind of round-the-clock television coverage like the conflict in Ukraine, in which Russia said it had no formal role.

    "This is a limited war that doesn't really have an effect in Russia," said Maxim Shevchenko, a Russian journalist who has been supportive of the Russian intervention in Syria and traveled after New Year's to Syria, where he embedded with Hezbollah fighters.

    "There is no stream of coffins," he said. "There is nothing comparable even to Donetsk," he added, referring to Russian deaths in Ukraine, including some believed to be active servicemen.

    Russian officials, including Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, also have batted away accusations that Russian bombers have focused their firepower on more moderate opponents of the Assad regime instead of the Islamic State.

    Russian Airstrikes 23 28 JAN 01

    The Russian intervention has upended the Obama administration's version of a negotiated settlement to the war, including an abdication by Assad. The opposition was hesitant to join talks this week in Geneva because of perceived backtracking from the United States on Assad's future.

    In many ways, Putin's intervention may be more important as a diplomatic tool than on the battlefield. Analysts in Moscow said that Assad had retaken only about 2 percent of the country's territory in the four months since the Russian intervention.

    "The Russian intervention already accomplished the biggest thing it could, which was ensuring the cohesion and stability of the Syrian regime," said Steven Simon, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, who was the senior director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council from 2011 to 2012.

    Although questions remained about the potential of the Syrian army and its ability to take back land, the intervention has had an outsize influence on negotiations.

    syria rebels tank

    "The Washington officials who work on his issue are scarcely oblivious to the impact of Russia's intervention on the course of the war," he said. "I think they understand at this point that the options and the ambitions of the opposition at this point are necessarily truncated."

    Alexander Aksenyonok, a veteran Soviet diplomat and former charge d'affaires at the Soviet embassy in Syria, said that he thought Russia's focus would move toward diplomacy in the coming months.

    But the military operation has played an important role, and will continue to do so, he said.

    "I think that if this military pressure had not been applied, we would not be seeing the diplomatic activity we are seeing now," he said. "When I say that Russia has gained more than it has lost, I have this in mind, too."

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    iran foreign minister

    Lord Maginnis of Drumglass is an independent member of the UK House of Lords and prominent member of the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom (BPCIF), www.iran-freedom.org

    On Thursday, Chatham House will be hosting an event in London entitled “Overcoming Regional Challenges in the Middle East” but, perversely, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, is scheduled to address that conference. Worse still, it is further planned that he will address the UK Parliament earlier that day. Conspicuously, this comes just one week after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Rome and Paris for high-level trade talks, and subsequent to the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that effectively allows Iran the means to further extend its influence across the Middle East and the globe.

    It is all but unfathomable that we are encouraging this trend by welcoming Zarif into London. Considering what we know about the impact that Tehran has already had on the Syrian crisis, surely the last thing we need is to encourage further input or even to listen to what the Iranian regime has to say about a crisis where it has been an active contributor.

    It was not very long ago that the United Kingdom, the United States, and their allies seemed to generally understand what had to be done. It was not long ago that we were rightly pushing for the ousting of Syria’s dictatorial President Bashar al-Assad. But since then, the leadership in London and Washington has began to court Iran’s input. Over the past couple of months, they appear to have abdicated their moral position.

    The inclusion of Iranian delegates in a Geneva security conference led to the determination that the Assad regime could be allowed to remain in power - at least until a negotiated solution ended the civil war in the south of the country.

    rouhani rome iran italy

    It certainly cannot be prudent policy to accept any Iranian influence in Syria, given that Iran’s all-out support for Assad has only served to make the Syrian Civil War, longer, bloodier, and a greater source of the instability that is plaguing the region and now enveloping Europe, through the ensuing refugee crisis. Assad’s crimes and the support of Iran-backed Shiite militias has only intensified the sectarian conflict. Furthermore, it is in large part because of this that Daesh has been so successful in spreading its propaganda among Sunnis who are living in Tehran’s shadow.

    It should go without saying that by lengthening that shadow, by encouraging it to reach as far as London and Washington, the Western powers will only be contributing to the worsening resentments of Sunnis who are marginalised within Iran’s sphere of influence and being radicalised by Daesh.

    And yet the visit of Rouhani to Italy and France, and of Zarif to the UK indicates that the European governments still need to be reminded of these realities. Such conciliatory, unconditional outreach to the Islamic Republic goes to show that much of Europe is being blinded by greed for Iranian oil and a desire for economic ties in the Middle East irrespective of any moral or humanitarian cost.

    In fact, the apparent embrace of an Iranian role in Syria is only one example of this. Zarif’s visit to London will highlight this, but it will also serve as a reminder of the much broader set of problems that were emphasised by Iranian dissidents and European human rights activists who protested against Rouhani’s four-day European tour.

    holland rouhani

    His stop in Paris was met by thousands of demonstrators, supporters of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), the principal Iranian opposition and by key members of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) led by Maryam Rajavi, who sought to call attention to the Iranian President’s ongoing and active contribution to repression, escalating executions, and political imprisonment in his country over the past three years.

    Their protest reiterated a recommendation that human rights defenders have made many times in the past several months: to revive relations with the Islamic Republic had to be dependent on more than just a tiny set of changes written into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

    In embracing Rouhani or Zarif or any other representative of the clerical government ruling Iran, Western officials appear to be labouring under the misapprehension that that agreement alone represents a trend toward moderation that should have a beneficial impact upon the lives of the Iranian people and the future of the Middle East in general.

    But nothing could be further from the truth. The ongoing human rights abuses, regional intrusions, and anti-Western rhetoric that pours out of Tehran make it clear that Iran has no more place in global affairs today than it did during the last 37 years, when the Islamic fundamentalists seized control of the capital and installed a government that has sought to export political upheaval.

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    Russia bombing syria iran russia

    Months into Russia's campaign of air strikes in Syria, it's become clear that ISIS isn't the Russian military's true target.

    Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said at a briefing on Wednesday that at most, only 10% of Russian strikes are hitting the terrorist group ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, and Daesh) in Syria.

    The vast majority of the strikes hit other groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has be known to drop barrel bombs on civilian areas.

    "The Russians at this point have made it very clear that their offensive operations … are in support of Bashar al-Assad and his regime," Warren said. "So when the regime is fighting, whoever the regime is fighting, that’s who gets struck."

    Russia only seems to hit ISIS when ISIS comes into contact with Syrian forces.

    "Occasionally, the Syrian regime forces will find themselves in contact with ISIL," Warren said. "And in those cases, we see the Russians striking ISIL. But it’s very limited. A fraction."

    While ISIS and Assad are on opposite sides of the fight for control in Syria, they've largely avoided each other on the battlefield so far. 

    Assad has something to gain from allowing ISIS to operate in certain areas because he's portrayed those who are opposed to his regime as "terrorists." ISIS' strong presence in Syria bolsters Assad's argument, and assisting ISIS in its fight against rebel forces helps get rid of the more moderate opposition fighters who threaten Assad's power.

    And Assad's fight against non-terrorist rebel forces has had severe consequences for the people of Syria. Russia now appears to be aiding that fight.

    Dozens of people starved to death in Madaya, Syria, after the government enacted a blockade in July to cut off access to nearby Damascus. Russia has supported Syrian denials of the humanitarian crisis in Madaya, saying that reports from the town contain "fake pictures" and "phony news,"according to the website Syria Deeply. The siege is ongoing.

    Russian airstrikes have also reportedly hit hospitals, according to aid groups. Russia denies the claims.

    SEE ALSO: A top US official made a rare trip to Syria, and he tweeted all about it

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    Syria Homs RussiaWorks

    Chilling drone footage shows the terrible impact the devastating Syrian civil war has had on the city of Homs.

    Located in western Syria, Homs was a stronghold for groups opposed to the Assad regime and years of fierce fighting has left the city in ruins.

    Map of HomsNearly 13,000 people have been killed in Homs since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, according to the Centre for Documenting Violations in Syria.

    The footage was uploaded to YouTube on February 2 by RussiaWorks, a Russian company with ties to the Kremlin.

    The video has not been independently verified but is similar to previous RussiaWorks productions, such as a video from January shot in the Damascus suburb of Darayya.

    Speaking to Business Insider in October Boris Silberman, a Russia expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said: “RussiaWorks is part of a slick campaign by the Kremlin to sell the war at home and project Russia as a military power.

    "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."

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

    As the video begins, the lack of life and ruined state of Homs becomes clear.

    RAW Embed

     



    Before the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Homs was a major industrial center of the country.

    RAW Embed

     



    Three children, who wander the empty streets, wave at the drone as it flies past.

    RAW Embed



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    erdogan

    Pro-government forces in Syria have reportedly broken a rebel siege of two villages northwest of Aleppo, effectively cutting off Turkey's supply line to opposition groups operating in and around Syria's largest city.

    Government troops, accompanied by Iran-backed Shiite militias and Hezbollah forces, apparently reached the cities of Nubl and Zahraa with the help of heavy Russian airstrikes on Wednesday.

    The opposition had held these cities since 2012, according to the Institute for the Study of War.

    Russian airstrikes across northern Syria had been steadily shifting the epicenter of the war toward the corridor north of Aleppo since late November, in retaliation for Turkey's decision to shoot down a Russian warplane that it said violated its airspace.

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

    As a result, Turkey's policy in Syria of bolstering rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime — and establishing a "safe zone" for displaced Syrians that might hinder the regime's efforts to take Aleppo — has been unraveling for months, and now appears to have been defeated entirely.

    Nubl and Zahraa Syria

    "It cuts Turkey off from Aleppo via Azaz," Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert and nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Business Insider on Wednesday.

    "Ankara can still access Aleppo via Reyhanli, through Idlib," Stein said in an email. But "Turkey is on the back foot in Syria and is at a disadvantage now that Russia is deterring them from flying strike missions," he added.

    Indeed, Turkey's ability to retaliate against the Russian bombing campaign in northern Syria was severely limited by the de facto no-fly zone Russia created in the north following Turkey's downing of the Russian warplane in November.

    "This has to be Turkey's weakest position in Syria in years," David Kenner, Foreign Policy magazine's Middle East editor, noted on Twitter. "Shooting down of that Russian jet was a pivot point — backfired in a major way."

    Russian Airstrikes 23 28 JAN 01

    After the incident, Russia reportedly equipped its jets flying in Syria with air-to-air missiles for self-defense and sent a state-of-the-art S-400 missile system to the Russian Hemeimeem air base near Latakia — about 30 miles south of the Turkish border.

    "Turkey lost its capacity to change the strategic situation both on the ground and in Syrian airspace as an independent actor" following the incident, Metin Gurcan, a Turkish military expert, told Business Insider at the time.

    Paul Stronski, a senior associate in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment, agreed that the close proximity of Russia's airstrikes to the Turkish border — a "matter of minutes" for fighter jets — has made it much more difficult for Turkey to defend its airspace and retain northwestern Syria as a Turkish sphere of influence.

    On Twitter, Stein noted that another aspect of Turkey's Syria policy is on the brink of total collapse — namely, restricting the movements of the Kurdish YPG, with whom Turkey has clashed, to east of the Syrian city of Marea.

    "Weapons and aid now must be sent through Bab al Hawa via Idlib," Stein wrote. "Turkish efforts to secure Marea line in trouble. Huge implications."

    To Turkey's chagrin, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to help the Kurds consolidate their territorial gains in northern Syria by linking the Kurdish-held town of Kobani with Afrin in September. He apparently began to make good on his after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane, offering to arm and support the Kurdish YPG in the name of cutting Turkey's rebel supply line to Aleppo.

    Syria kurds afrin

    In December, "Moscow delivered weapons to the 5,000 Kurdish fighters in Afrin, while Russian aircraft bombed a convoy of trucks that crossed the Turkish border into Syria at Bab al-Salam," the Washington Institute's Fabrice Balanche wrote in an analysis of the Azaz corridor's strategic importance.

    As Stein noted on Twitter, "A viable way for Kurds to connect Efrin with territory East of the Euphrates now in play. Route is out of range of TR [Turkish] artillery."

    Efrin is an alternative spelling for the Kurdish-held Syrian city.

    Aykan Erdemir, a nonresident fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and a former member of Turkish parliament, told Business Insider in December that Turkey trying to intervene to stop the Kurds' expansion westward would "undoubtedly have serious drawbacks."

    Any intervention, Erdemir said, "could further escalate the Turkish-Russian crisis, prompting heavier sanctions, and even new episodes of clashes between the two armies."

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    syria aleppo un staffan mistura

    A United Nations envoy halted his attempts to launch Syrian peace talks on Wednesday after the army, backed by Russian air strikes, made a major advance against rebel forces north of Aleppo, choking opposition supply lines from Turkey to the city.

    In what rebels called a punishing assault, the government forces ended a three and a half year siege of the Shi’ite towns of Nubul and al-Zahraa, a key step in a wider campaign to recapture all of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city before the war.

    The government's territorial breakthrough came after hundreds of bombing raids by Russian warplanes. The U.N. said it had been told hundreds of families had been uprooted following "an unprecedented frequency of air strikes in the past two days". Three aid workers were among the dead.

    U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura announced a three-week pause in the Geneva talks, the first attempt to negotiate an end to Syria's war in two years. He had formally opened them on Friday but both sides denied they had ever begun.

    "I have indicated from the first day that I won't talk for the sake of talking," the envoy told reporters, saying he needed immediate help from international backers led by the United States and Russia, which are supporting opposite sides of a war that has also drawn in regional powers.

    Aleppo factions, reeling from the assault, told the opposition delegation late on Tuesday they would bring down the negotiations within three days unless the offensive ended, a source close to the talks said.

    De Mistura has described this attempt to negotiate an end to a war that has killed 250,000 people, driven millions from their homes and empowered Islamic State, as Syria's last hope.

    "I have concluded frankly that after the first week of preparatory talks there is more work to be done, not only by us but by the stakeholders," he said after meeting the opposition delegation led by newly-arrived coordinator Riad Hijab, who diplomats say is a unifying figure for the disparate rebel side.

    No end to Russian strikes

    People inspect a site hit by what residents said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force in the town of Turmanin, in Idlib Governorate near the Syrian-Turkish border, January 25, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

    Aleppo, 50 km south of the Turkish border, was Syria's most populous city before the country's descent into civil war. It has been partitioned into zones of government and insurgent control since 2012.

    If the government regains control, it would be a big blow to insurgent's hopes of toppling President Bashar al-Assad after nearly five years of bloody conflict that has seen a de facto partition between western areas still governed from Damascus and the rest of the country run by a patchwork of rebels.

    The Levant Front rebel group said the breaking of the sieges of the Aleppo villages of Nubul and Zahraa came only after "more than 500 raids by Russian airplanes".

    One commander said opposition-held areas of the divided city were at risk of being encircled entirely by the government and allied militia, and appealed to foreign states that back the rebels to send more weapons.

    "How can you ... enter negotiations when you have unprecedented military pressure?" a senior Western diplomat said. "The Russians and regime want to push the opposition out of Geneva so the opposition bears the responsibility for the failure."

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country had no intention of ending its campaign.

    Sergei Lavrov Russia Foreign Minister

    "Russian strikes will not cease until we really defeat terrorist organisations like (The al Qaeda-linked) Jabhat al-Nusra. And I don't see why these air strikes should be stopped," he said at a news conference in Oman's capital Muscat.

    Diplomats and opposition members said they were taken by surprise when de Mistura called for immediate efforts to begin ceasefire negotiations despite there being no official talks or goodwill measures from the Syrian government.

    The opposition has said it will not negotiate unless the government stops bombarding civilian areas, lifts blockades on besieged towns and releases detainees.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the violence in the country, said Russian and Syrian warplanes launched dozens of strikes on the rebel towns of Hayan and Hreitan in northern Aleppo on Wednesday.

    "Less than 3 km separate the regime from cutting all routes to opposition-held Aleppo," Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Observatory, said. "It did in three days what it failed to do in 3-1/2 years."

    A U.S. official in Geneva called for an end to "the daily bombing of civilians by Russian and regime aircraft".

    "We’re appalled that the regime seems to view humanitarian access as a topic for debate at the talks in Geneva," the official said, stressing that UN Security Council Resolution 2254 already called for an immediate end to attacks on civilians. 

    Sieges

    2016 02 03T190250Z_2_LYNXNPEC1211Q_RTROPTP_4_MIDEAST CRISIS SYRIA ALEPPO.JPG

    Government delegation chief Bashar al-Ja'afari told Reuters earlier that the government was still unclear on who it would be negotiating with from the fragmented opposition.

    "I couldn't tell you much about what's going on because we are waiting for Godot, and Godot hasn't come yet," he said, referring to Samuel Beckett's never-resolved play "Waiting for Godot".

    When asked about opposition demands for the government to lift sieges and allow humanitarian convoys into cities, including the rebel-held town of Mouadamiya, Ja'afari said the government had regularly sent convoys to it and other cities.

    On Sunday, the United Nations said Mouadamiya, a town of 45,000 on the southwest edge of Damascus, faced a new siege by government forces.

    Senior Syrian opposition negotiator Mohamed Alloush, representing the major rebel group Jaish al-Islam (Islam Army), told Reuters it would be insufficient for the government to allow a convoy into the town.

    "It’s a good step but it’s not enough and the problem is not in Mouadamiya. The problem is in 22 besieged cities," he said.

    (Additional reporting by Firas Makdesi and Cecile Mantovani in Geneva, Mariam Karouny and Tom Perry in Beirut and Fatma Al Arini in Muscat; editing by Andrew Roche and Philippa Fletcher)

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    Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu  in Moscow, Russia, November 17, 2015. REUTERS/Alexei Nikolskyi/SPUTNIK/Kremlin  A Russian military adviser has been killed by mortar fire in Syria, the Russian Defense Ministry said Wednesday.

    The ministry said the officer was fatally wounded Monday by mortar shelling from the Islamic State group. Its statement, carried by Russian news agencies, said the officer was helping train the Syrian military in using Russian weapons. It said the officer will be posthumously awarded with a medal, but didn't identify him or specify where he died.

    The officer's death is the third combat casualty the Russian military has suffered since it launched its air campaign in Syria four months ago.

    A Russian pilot whose warplane was downed by a Turkish fighter at the Syrian border was shot dead by militants as he descended by parachute on Nov. 24. His crewmate survived and was evacuated to safety, but a Russian marine was killed in action during the rescue mission. 

    Moscow says its air campaign has targeted the IS and other extremists and rejects claims by the U.S. and its allies that moderate opposition groups also have been hit by Russian strikes.

    Russia's air blitz has helped the Syrian military launch offensives and regain ground in several areas, strengthening the government's hand in peace talks launched in Geneva.

    Speaking during a trip to Oman Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed the Syrian opposition demand to halt airstrikes, saying they will continue until the IS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups are defeated.

    isis militants in syriaRussian President Vladimir Putin has ruled out Russian troops' involvement in ground action in Syria. However, Russia has sent an unknown number of military advisers to Syria and also deployed ground troops guarding the Russian air base in Syria's coastal province of Latakia, the main stronghold of President Bashar Assad's minority Alawite sect.

    Moscow says that Russian military advisers are in Syria to help its army master weapons provided by Russia and insists that they haven't joined combat.

    However, speaking in December at a meeting honoring Russian military officers for their action in Syria, Putin said that "positive things have happened there thanks to you and your comrades, who have been working in the air, and, in fact, have been leading the Syrian military units."

    The statement signaled a high degree of Russian military involvement in coordinating Syrian army action.

    Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said then that the president's statement didn't mean that Russian military officers have been put in charge of some Syrian army units but referred to a "coordination of Syrian army's offensive operations with air support." 

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