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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    Syrian refugees receive aid baby packages at a health center at Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, January 30, 2016. REUTERS/ Muhammad Hamed

    LONDON (Reuters) - Britain pledged on Thursday to spend an additional 1.2 billion pounds ($1.75 billion) on aid for Syrians by 2020, seeking to build momentum for a donor conference that the United Nations hopes will raise more than $7 billion for this year alone.

    With Syria's five-year-old civil war raging and UN-mediated peace talks in Geneva halted after just a few days amid acrimony between government and opposition negotiators, the one-day London conference will try to tackle dire humanitarian needs.

    The war has killed an estimated 250,000 people and driven millions from their homes, with 6 million Syrians displaced within the country and more than 4 million others having left for Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond.

    UN agencies are appealing for $7.73 billion to cope with the disaster this year, with a further $1.2 billion needed to fund national response plans by countries in the region.

    For European nations, improving the humanitarian situation in Syria and neighboring countries is seen as critical to reduce incentives for Syrians to travel to Europe, where a huge refugee crisis has put many countries under severe strain.

    "We can provide the sense of hope needed to stop people thinking they have no option but to risk their lives on a dangerous journey to Europe," British Prime Minister David Cameron said in a statement announcing the new pledge.

    U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for a strong show of solidarity at the conference, which will be attended by dozens of heads of state and government and ministers, as well as numerous humanitarian organizations.

    An aerial view shows the Zaatari refugee camp, near the Jordanian city of Mafraq July 18, 2013.Ban said in a speech on Wednesday that Syrians were being victimized several times over: at home, where life was impossible, by people smugglers during their journeys, and by harsh treatment upon arrival in countries of sanctuary.

    "Ghosts of past crises"

    "Razor-wire fences, the confiscation of assets, and the vilification of people seeking safety all summon up ghosts of past crises -- the lessons of which we are meant to have learned already," Ban told an audience at Cambridge University.

    He was referring to measures adopted by some European countries, including Denmark, which has passed a new law allowing border guards to seize assets from asylum seekers to help pay for their stay.

    Some Syrian civil society groups attending the London event have expressed concerns that the international community was focused on the plight of refugees, to the detriment of those trapped in desperate circumstances within Syria itself.

    "Of course those (refugees) need assistance, but there are more than 6 million IDPs (internally displaced persons) inside Syria, living besieged, living under shelling and bombing," said Raed Saleh, head of the White Helmets, a group of about 2,800 Syrian volunteers who carry out search and rescue after attacks.

    After U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura put the Geneva talks on hold late on Wednesday, he said he would travel to the London conference as the plight of Syrian refugees would provide an incentive to restart negotiations.

    The conference will focus particularly on the need to provide an education for displaced Syrian children and job opportunities for adults, reflecting growing recognition that the fallout from the Syrian war will be very long-term.

    SEE ALSO: Over 91,000 asylum seekers arrived in Germany in January

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    putin erdogan

    ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said Syrian peace talks in Geneva, which were suspended on Wednesday, were pointless while President Bashar al-Assad's forces and Russia continued their attacks in the country.

    UN envoy Staffan de Mistura halted his efforts to conduct the talks after the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes, advanced against rebel forces north of Aleppo, choking opposition supply lines from Turkey to the city.

    "Russia continues to kill people in Syria. Could there be such a peace gathering? Could there be such peace talks?" Erdogan said in a speech in Peru, in comments published on the presidency website.

    "In an environment where children are still being killed, such attempts do not have any function apart from making things easier for the tyrant," he said.

    De Mistura announced a three-week pause in the Geneva talks, the first attempt in two years to negotiate an end to Syria's war. Another senior UN official said the Russian escalation was the main reason.

    Turkey is a main backer of the Syrian opposition and has long argued that there can be no peace in Syria without Assad's removal. Erdogan cast doubt on whether the talks would make meaningful progress even if they resumed.

    "They always convene, get together, eat, drink and then leave. Now they are giving a date for end-February. Let’s watch. You will see that once it is February 28 they will postpone again," he said at a university in Lima, the Peruvian capital.

    EXACERBATING REFUGEE CRISIS

    refugee crisis

    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.

    Moscow says there will be no respite in its air campaign, which it says targets "terrorists".

    Turkey has warned that Russia's actions risk exacerbating a refugee crisis, just as Ankara is trying to stem the flow of migrants to Europe under an agreement with the European Union.

    EU countries on Wednesday approved €3 billion ($3.35 billion) in funding to help Turkey improve living conditions for refugees in return for its help ensuring fewer leave for Europe.

    Also on offer to Ankara, which wants to revive relations with its European neighbors after years of coolness, is a "re-energized" negotiating process on Turkish membership of the EU. But Erdogan said not enough progress had been made.

    "They agreed that Turkey is a key country in solving the migrant crisis ... Our accession process has accelerated. But we still haven’t seen the concrete steps that we have been expecting," he said, without elaborating.

    SEE ALSO: Turkey says Russia violated its airspace again — but there's not much Turkey can do about it

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    turkey syria

    MOSCOW — Russia has serious grounds to suspect Turkey of preparing for a military incursion in Syria, where Russian jets are bombing rebel and jihadi fighters, Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on Thursday.

    "The Russian Defense Ministry registers a growing number of signs of hidden preparation of the Turkish armed forces for active actions on the territory of Syria," he said in a statement.

    The ministry also hit out at Turkey's refusal to allow Russia to make an observation in early February over Turkish areas adjacent to Syria, saying "no specific explanation" was given by Ankara.

    "The Russian Defense Ministry regards these actions of the Turkish party as a dangerous precedent and an attempt to hide the illegal military activity near the Syrian border," it said.

    Turkey's Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that agreement on the observation flight over Turkey requested by Russia under the Treaty on Open Skies could not be reached on the mission plan, so it did not occur.

    In November, Turkish jets shot down a Russian plane flying in Syria, a move described by Russian President Vladimir Putin as a "dastardly stab in the back."

    Russian jets have been striking rebel and jihadi fighters for four months in Syria, including Islamic State militants as well as fighters backed by Turkey and Gulf Arab states, angering the Turkish government.

    Konashenkov said Russian aircraft had carried out 237 sorties in Syria over the past three days, hitting 875 "terrorist" targets in the provinces of Aleppo, Latakia, Homs, Hama, and Deir al-Zor, Konashenkov said.

    (Reporting by Jack Stubbs; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Christian Lowe)

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    Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu speaks during a joint news conference with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (not pictured) in Istanbul, Turkey January 23, 2016. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

    LONDON (Reuters) - The humanitarian corridor between Turkey and Aleppo in Syria has been cut off as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces seek to inflict a siege of starvation on the city, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Thursday.

    Speaking at a news conference after a Syria donor conference in London, Davutoglu said the forces were seeking to do the same to Aleppo as they did to the besieged town of Madaya, where dozens have starved to death.

    "This humanitarian logistic corridor is now under the invasion of these foreign fighters and regime forces (with) the support of Russian war planes," he said.

    "What they want to do in Aleppo today is exactly what they did in Madaya before, a siege of starvation."

    Nubl and Zahraa Syria

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    Saudi Arabian Defense Minister Mohammed Bin Salman

    Saudi Arabia said on Thursday it was ready to participate in any ground operations in Syria if the U.S.-led alliance decides to start such operations, an adviser to the Saudi defence minister said.

    "The kingdom is ready to participate in any ground operations that the coalition (against Islamic State) may agree to carry out in Syria," Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri, who is also the spokesman for the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen, told the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV in an interview.

    Asseri said Saudi Arabia had been an active member of the U.S.-led coalition that had been fighting Islamic State in Syria since 2014, and had carried out more than 190 aerial missions.

    He said Saudi Arabia, which has been leading Arab military operations against the Iran-allied Houthis in Yemen, believed that to win against Islamic State, the coalition needed to combine aerial operations with ground operations.

    "If there was a consensus from the leadership of the coalition, the kingdom is willing to participate in these efforts because we believe that aerial operations are not the ideal solution and there must be a twin mix of aerial and ground operations," Asseri said.

    Asked about the comments at a briefing, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the coalition was generally supportive of having partners contribute more in the fight against Islamic State but he had not seen the Saudi proposal. "I would not want to comment specifically on this until we've had a chance to review it," he said.

    (Reporting by Ali Abdelaty; writing by Sami Aboudi; additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington; editing by Dominic Evans and Alison Williams)

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    aleppo syria damage

    Syrian rebels battled for their survival in and around Syria's northern city of Aleppo on Thursday after a blitz of Russian airstrikes helped government loyalists sever a vital supply route and sent a new surge of refugees fleeing toward the border with Turkey.

    The Russian-backed onslaught against rebel positions in Aleppo coincided with the failure of peace talks in Geneva, and helped reinforce opposition suspicions that Russia and its Syrian government allies are more interested in securing a military victory over the rebels than negotiating a settlement.

    After two days of what rebel fighters described as the most intense airstrikes yet, government forces had succeeded on Wednesday in cutting off the rebels' main supply route from the Turkish border to the portion of Aleppo city that remains under opposition control. On Thursday, the government captured several more villages in the surrounding countryside, prompting fears among residents and rebels that the city could soon be entirely surrounded.

    The loss of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and the most significant urban center to fall, at least partially, under rebel control, would represent a potentially decisive blow to the nearly five-year-old rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The rebels have maintained control of much of Aleppo since they surged into the city in 2012, prompting U.S. intelligence assessments that they eventually would topple the government in Damascus.

    Instead, Russia and Iran stepped up their assistance to the Assad regime, helping the government stem, then steadily reverse, the losses. Most of the pro-government forces now fighting in northern Aleppo province are Shiite militias from either Iraq or Afghanistan that have been recruited by Iran to help out its ally in Damascus, according to rebels and military analysts. The intervention by the Russian air force, ostensibly intended to battle the Islamic State, has mostly targeted moderate rebels, tilting the military balance in favor of Assad and enabling the government's spurt of gains in recent weeks.

    syria aleppo siege

    With the push around Aleppo, pro-government forces were able to break a rebel siege on two predominantly Shiite villages, Nubl and Zahra, which had been surrounded by rebel forces for the past three years and sustained only by government airdrops of food.

    In its determination to see the peace talks get underway, the United States had pressured the rebels' allies, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to curtail supplies of weapons, leaving the rebels vulnerable to the new offensive, according to rebel commanders.

    This latest battle also has the potential to trigger a major new humanitarian crisis. The United Nations' inability to deliver aid to towns besieged by government forces had emerged as a major obstacle in the stalled talks. With rebel-held Aleppo almost entirely surrounded, there is a risk that hundreds of thousands of people living there soon could be cut off entirely. Aid agencies said the airstrikes have forced an almost total suspension of aid deliveries across the Turkish border.

    "Opposition forces are losing ground by the minute. We're looking at a nightmare humanitarian situation," said Rae McGrath, director of operations in northern Syria and Turkey for the aid agency Mercy Corps.

    syria airstrike

    "There are a lot of people on the move," he said. "This is certainly the worst situation we've seen since the beginning of the war."

    Rebel fighters sounded desperate as they described enduring more than 200 airstrikes in the past 24 hours alone. Commanders from a range of rebel groups, from moderates to the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, issued urgent appeals for reinforcements from other parts of the country.

    "We are fighting our most important battle yet. We are fighting to prevent a regime siege on Aleppo," said Abdul Salam Abdul Razzak, a spokesman for the Noureddin al-Zinki rebel movement, reached by telephone on the northern outskirts of Aleppo.

    "In the coming days, the battle will be fierce. We will keep fighting till the last fighter, and we hope we will not let our people down."

    Speaking in London at an international conference to secure donations to aid Syrians inside and outside the country, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that some 70,000 civilians were streaming toward Turkey's borders to escape the offensive.

    syria airstrike

    Aid agencies said at least 10,000 had gathered along Syria's northern border with Turkey. But Turkey, which is already hosting about 2.5 million refugees and has come under pressure from the international community to halt the flow of foreign fighters, has kept its borders sealed shut to new refugee arrivals for the past year. Videos posted by activists on social media showed thousands of people clutching their possessions as they walked toward the Syrian side of the border crossing of Bab al-Salameh, but they were not allowed to cross into Turkey.

    The fall of Aleppo to the government would present a major challenge to Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the rebels' staunchest supporters, but it was unclear what, if anything, they could do to prevent it.

    Turkish troops have in recent months reinforced their presence along their country's border with Syria, and Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told reporters in Moscow that Russia suspected Turkey was preparing to take military action in Syria.

    But Turkey has had limited room to maneuver in Syria since it shot down a Russian jet that had strayed briefly into Turkish airspace in December, triggering retaliatory measures by Russia.

    syria airstrike

    The talks in Geneva were suspended Wednesday by Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy for Syria, who cited the government's refusal to submit to opposition demands for the implementation of U.N. resolutions calling for a halt to the airstrikes and the delivery of aid to besieged areas.

    The talks also snagged on disputes over whom to define as a "terrorist" on the complicated Syrian battlefield. The Syrian government regards all those fighting Assad, including moderate rebels backed by the United States, as terrorists and has said it will not negotiate with the rebel groups that were represented in the opposition delegation to Geneva.

    Separately, a spokesman for Saudi Arabia's military told the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV network that his country was prepared to send troops to join the fight against the Islamic State. But it was unclear in what capacity or where the Saudi government envisaged deploying such troops.

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    aleppo syria damage

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Syrians fled an intensifying Russian assault around Aleppo on Friday, and aid workers said they feared the city which once held two million people could soon fall under a full government siege.

    Iran reported one of its generals was killed on the front line assisting government forces, direct confirmation of the role Tehran is playing along with Moscow in what appears to be one of the most ambitious offensives in five years of civil war.

    The government assault around Aleppo, and advances in the south of the country, helped to torpedo peace talks this week in Geneva. President Bashar al-Assad's forces and their allies are making a new bid to achieve victory on the battlefield after Russia's intervention ended months of stalemate.

    The last 24 hours saw government troops and their Lebanese and Iranian allies fully encircle the countryside north of Aleppo and cut off the main supply route linking the city - Syria's largest before the war - to Turkey. Ankara said it suspected the aim was to starve the population into submission.

    Aleppo would be the biggest strategic prize in years for Assad's government in a conflict that has killed at least 250,000 people and driven 11 million from their homes.

    Video footage showed thousands of people, mostly women, children and the elderly, massing at the Bab al-Salam border crossing. Men carried luggage on top of their heads, and the elderly and those unable to walk were brought in wheelchairs. Some women sat on the side of the road holding babies and awaited to be allowed into Turkey.

    "It feels like a siege of Aleppo is about to begin," said David Evans, Middle East programme director for the U.S. aid agency Mercy Corps, which said the most direct humanitarian route to Aleppo had been severed.

    syria aleppo siege

    The leader of a prominent rebel group active in northwestern Syria confirmed that government-allied forces were tightening their grip on the northern Aleppo countryside, and that heavy Russian bombing carried on unabated.

    Non-Stop Russian Airstrikes

    "The Russian (air) cover continues night and day, there were more than 250 air strikes on this area in one day," Hassan Haj Ali, head of Liwa Suqour al-Jabal, a group that fights under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, told Reuters.

    "The regime is now trying to expand the area it has taken control of ... Now the northern countryside (of Aleppo) is totally encircled, and the humanitarian situation is very difficult," he said.

    Syrian state TV and a monitoring group said the army and its allies had seized the town of Ratyan north of Aleppo, building on gains made earlier in the week. Haj Ali said the town had not yet fallen, but that there were "very heavy battles".

    The Syrian army and its allies broke a three-year rebel siege of two Shi'ite towns in Aleppo province on Wednesday, cutting off a major supply line from Turkey to Aleppo.

    Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub, has been divided for years between a section under government control and areas that are in the grip of rebels. Much of Aleppo, including a UNESCO heritage old city, is largely in ruins.

    Haj Ali said most of the fighters on the government side were "Iranian and from Hezbollah, or Afghan".

    syria airstrike

    Iran's semi-official Tasnim news agency said Revolutionary Guard Corps Brigadier-General Mohsen Ghajarian has been killed in Aleppo province, as had six Iranian volunteer militiamen.

    The five-year civil war pits a government led by Assad, a member of the Alawite sect derived from Shi'ite Islam, against a range of insurgents who are mainly Sunni Muslims, backed by Saudi Arabia, other Arab states and Turkey. Western countries have also lined up in opposition to Assad.

    The Syrian Army Is Gaining In The South

    Since 2014, the Sunni jihadist group Islamic State has run a self-proclaimed caliphate in eastern Syria and Iraq, under air assault from a U.S.-led coalition. Russia launched its own separate air campaign four months ago to aid its ally Assad, transforming the battlefield and tipping momentum his way.

    But swathes of the country are still in the hands of armed rebels, including Islamic State in the east, Kurdish militia in the north, and a mosaic of groups in the west who have been the target of many of the Russian air strikes.

    In addition to the advance in the north near Aleppo, Syria's government forces and allies made further gains in the southern province of Deraa, recapturing a town right outside Deraa city.

    That advance could provide a more direct supply line for the army from Damascus and allow it to assert control over most parts of the city.

    SyriaMapJanuary2015

    It has been backed by some of the heaviest Russian air strikes since it began its bombing campaign in September, a rebel spokesman in the area said.

    Peace talks convened this week in Geneva were the first diplomatic attempt to end the war in two years but collapsed before they began in earnest. The opposition refused to negotiate while Russia was escalating its bombing and government troops were advancing.

    NATO said Moscow's intensified bombing campaign undermined the peace efforts and warned Russia was creating tensions by violating the air space of Syria's neighbour Turkey, a NATO member which shot down a Russian warplane in November.

    Russia has accused Turkey of preparing a military incursion into northern Syria. Ankara dismissed this as propaganda intended to conceal Russia's own "crimes". Aleppo was threatened with a "siege of starvation", and Turkey had the right to take any measures to protect its security, it said.

    The Strikes Undermine The Peace Process

    Moscow says its targets in Syria are restricted to Islamic State and al Qaeda's Syrian branch, the Nusra Front, both of which were excluded from peace talks and officially anathema to the countries supporting the insurgents against Assad.

    al nusra figher US machine gun

    "Why did the opposition that left Geneva complain about the offensive in Aleppo, which is actually targeted against Jabhat al-Nusra (Nusra Front) and other radical extremist groups?" said Russia's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Alexey Borodavkin.

    "Jabhat al-Nusra is a terrorist organisation recognised by the U.N. Security Council. It’s a branch of al Qaeda. The opposition should be happy that terrorists are defeated. But, on the contrary, they were disappointed and left negotiations."

    That position is rejected by Western and Arab countries, which say most Russian strikes are against other opponents of Assad, not the banned groups.

    "The intense Russia air strikes, mainly targeting opposition groups in Syria, is undermining the efforts to find a political solution to the conflict," said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

    Russian violations of Turkish air space were "causing increased tensions and ... create risks", he added.

    Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, said it was ready to participate in separate U.S. ground operations against Islamic State. The United States welcomed the Saudi offer, although Washington so far has committed only to small scale operations by special forces units on the ground in Syria.

    (Additional reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman, Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul, Parisa Hafezi in Ankara and Tom Miles in Geneva, writing by John Davison and Peter Graff, editing by Peter Millership)

    SEE ALSO: ‘Losing ground by the minute’: Syrian rebels are losing Aleppo — and perhaps also the war

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    Russia's President Vladimir Putin arrives to attend a summit to discuss the conflict in Ukraine at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, October 2, 2015.  REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

    Vladimir Putin thinks Russian air strikes in Syria have helped turn the war's tide but the pace of the Syrian army's advance has frustrated him, some sources say.

    If Aleppo falls, he could get the military and symbolic prize he has been craving.

    More than four months of Russian air strikes have stabilized the government of President Bashar al-Assad, the Kremlin's closest Middle East ally, helping his forces find momentum on the battlefield.

    But the names and strategic significance of the towns and villages they have recaptured have failed to electrify a Russian public more worried about falling living standards.

    Nor has the Syrian army - backed by Russian air power - yet delivered a major victory that Russia can sell to the wider world as proof of its military might and growing Middle East clout.

    "There has been some frustration with the Syrian army's performance," one source close to the Russian military, who declined to be identified, told Reuters. "Particularly in the beginning they were making slow progress."

    Retaking full control of Aleppo, Syria's biggest city before the five-year war, would change the narrative, say diplomats and analysts, bringing Putin a step closer to his preferred end-game which envisages a Russia-friendly Syrian government that allows Moscow to keep its naval and air base there.

    "So far we've heard reports of government forces gaining ground here and there and there have been a few notable successes," Dmitry Trenin, a former colonel in the Russian army and director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, told Reuters.

    russianairstrikesyria feb1 2016

    "But all those successes were rather tactical and not particularly spectacular," said Trenin. "Should Aleppo be placed under full control of Damascus that would be a big psychological boost for Assad and a source of satisfaction for the Kremlin."

    Aleppo has been divided for years, with government forces controlling a section and other parts in the hands of rebels.

    Tens of thousands of Syrians fled intensifying Russian bombardment around Aleppo on Friday, and aid workers said they feared the city, which once held two million people, could soon fall under complete government siege.

    Government troops and their Lebanese and Iranian allies fully encircled the countryside north ofAleppo and cut off the main supply route linking the city to Turkey in the last 24 hours. Ankara said it suspected the aim was to starve the population into submission.

    As the Kremlin's impatience for a breakthrough has grown, it has bolstered its forces in Syria. Mostly recently, local media reported it had dispatched its most advanced military jet -- the Sukhoi-35s -- to join its strike force of around 40 fast jets.

    It has also intensified its strike rate.

    'Useful distraction'

    russia poverty

    A victory in Aleppo could help lift morale at home where an economic crisis is eroding living standards and real incomes are falling for the first time in Putin's 15 years in power.

    Boosted and protected by a loyal state media, a tightly-controlled political system and a dearth of meaningful opposition, Putin's approval rating remains over 80 percent according to opinion polls.

    But with tentative signs of social discontent bubbling up -- foreign currency mortgages holders, truckers and pensioners have all protested in recent months -- a headline-grabbing Russia-assisted victory in Syria could cheer downcast voters.

    "It would be a useful distraction and a show for people," said Stepan Goncharov, of independent pollster, the Levada Center, saying state media had in the past used Syria to stoke anti-Western feeling and to reinforce the idea that Russia is again a great power.

    "Their trick is to remove themes that stir social anxiety and replace them with ones that unite," said Goncharov. "A military victory (in Aleppo) would be a great power moment, a symbol of military might, and would be used to increase support for the authorities."

    People inspect a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo's district of al-Sukari June 16, 2014. REUTERS/Hosam Katan

    He said the last time Levada asked, in October, they found that 72 percent of Russians had a broadly positive opinion of Russian air strikes in Syria, but that the subject had since taken a back seat to stories about the economy and what the Kremlin was doing to navigate the economic crisis.

    There were some signs support for the authorities was slipping a little because of the downturn, he added.

    Carnegie's Trenin said Russians, despite the Kremlin's flashy media campaign, were not actually that interested in the Syria conflict and with memories of the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan still lingering wanted the Kremlin to limit its involvement there.

    "For most people this is a war in a distant country," said Trenin, saying voters remained nervous about any suggestion that ground forces might be sent. So far, the official Russian military body count has been just four, three of whom were killed in combat.

    Russian Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov Russia Debris Egypt Plane Crash

    However, Islamic State claimed it blew up a Russian passenger plane over Egypt in October, killing all 224 people onboard, in revenge for Russia's Syria campaign.

    For Putin, says Trenin, Syria is important but part of a wider play.

    "The ultimate goal of Mr Putin is to restore Russia to great power status," he said. "Syria is part of that. But it's also about wider Russian foreign policy and about Putin's own legacy. Syria is the place where this is being decided."

    SEE ALSO: 'Weakest position in Syria in years': Russia and Assad may have just delivered a decisive blow to Turkey

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    Aleppo rubble

    Over the past week, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seized several villages north of Aleppo, the country's largest city and one of the last remaining strongholds of Syria's non-jihadist rebels, in a development that threatens to escalate the horrors of the Syrian civil war.

    Thanks to heavy Russian air support, the regime "succeed[ed] in a few days in what it had failed to do for over three years," according to an Atlantic Council analysis by Faysal Itani and Hossam Abouzahr. It severed rebel supply lines into Turkey and threatens to encircle the remaining opposition-held territory. 

    Aleppo was always a checkerboard of military forces, divided between regime, opposition, and jihadist zones. No one camp has had the ability to fully control a city that had a pre-war population of more than 2 million.

    As it is, the Assad regime has suffered from manpower and budgetary shortages. And Assad's Iranian allies have taken substantial losses of their own, including severalhigh-ranking Revolutionary Guards Corps officers. Meanwhile, Hezbollah, Iran's proxy force in neighboring Lebanon, may have had one-third of its fighters killed or injured in Syria.

    But the regime is making progress even amid this ambiguous ground-level situation. And a humanitarian catastrophe might be in the offing:

    In recent days, thousands of people have reportedly fled Aleppo. Video posted on social media has shown civilians streaming out of the city:

    Reuters put the exodus in the "tens of thousands," citing an opposition source claiming that Russian aircraft had carried out 250 strikes around the city in the span of a single day.

    The Assad regime is now in a position where it could try to recapture the city. Itani and Abouzahr said they believe Assad could decide to "freeze the Aleppo city frontlines" and refocus on other pockets of non-jihadist resistance as part of a larger strategy of "isolating the opposition into manageable pockets and dealing with each individually."

    As Aron Lund, editor of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Syria in Crisis website, explained to Business Insider, the Assad regime isn't in immediate danger of recapturing the country's largest city — although its battlefield tactics would be highly destructive.

    "I imagine a government reconquest of Aleppo would be a slow process involving both military assaults and bombings, siege tactics and pressure on the civilian population, and, ultimately, political deals with those factions willing to bargain," Lund told Business Insider in an email, adding that it's conceivable it could take the regime "many years" to fully retake the city.

    Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is seen during an interview in Damascus with the magazine, Literarni Noviny newspaper, in this handout picture taken January 8, 2015 by Syria's national news agency SANA. REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters But Assad might not even need to conquer Aleppo to achieve its most important battlefield objective: crushing the country's non-jihadist resistance, leaving western powers without an anti-regime force they can support and cornering the international community into a de-facto alliance with his regime.

    "If the government manages to retake and secure eastern Aleppo, which is still a big if, I think the rebels are pretty much out of the game — as long as the government itself remains in the game," Lund said. A rebel defeat in the city "would presumably have a devastating effect on international and Syrian confidence in the rebels' ability to win the war or even wring real concessions from Assad," he added.

    A regime victory in Aleppo could be the final defeat to any remaining US or Western strategy of propping the country's non-jihadist opposition groups.

    "I can't imagine that anyone seeing Aleppo slip out of rebel hands after these past four horrifying years would just say, well, bad luck, let's send some more guns into Syria and have another go at it," Lund told Business Insider.

    Assad troopsThe regime's Aleppo encirclement motions toward what once seemed to be an unthinkable endgame in Syria: the permanent partition of the country between regime and jihadist-held spheres, with Assad as the country's most seemingly viable source of long-term authority and no remaining force committed to the idea of Syria as a unified or coherent national entity.

    But it would be a mistake to think of such a scenario as an "endgame." Even if Assad prevails in Aleppo, his regime will still be fundamentally weak and almost totally dependent on the direct military support of outside powers. A possible rebel defeat might also work to the advantage of jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, which are still committed to fighting the Syrian regime, and which continue to control substantial territory.

    The regime has had moments of relative strength and impending collapse throughout a now four-plus-year-long conflict — none of which have made the Syrian civil war any shorter or less deadly.

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    Assad

    Battlefield realities rather than great power politics will determine the ultimate terms of a settlement to end the Syrian Civil War.

    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies in Russia and Iran have internalized this basic principle even as Washington and other Western capitals pinned their hopes upon UN-sponsored Geneva Talks, which faltered only two days after they began on February 1, 2016.

    Russian airpower and Iranian manpower have brought President Assad within five miles of completing the encirclement of Aleppo City, the largest urban center in Syria and an opposition stronghold since 2012.

    The current campaign has already surpassed the high-water mark set by the regime’s previous failed attempt to besiege Aleppo City in early 2015.

    The full encirclement of Aleppo City would fuel a humanitarian catastrophe, shatter opposition morale, fundamentally challenge Turkish strategic ambitions, and deny the opposition its most valuable bargaining chip before the international community.

    The campaign against Aleppo City began in October 2015 and proceeded in several phases. Regime forces enabled by Russia and Iran initially mounted probing attacks along multiple fronts in Aleppo and Idlib Provinces as part of a larger campaign designed to confuse and overextend the opposition.

    Aleppoiswmap

    They conducted shaping operations in the southern, eastern, and northern countryside of Aleppo City in order to draw opposition forces out of urban terrain, relieve long-besieged pockets of regime forces, and set conditions for a future decisive operation to besiege the city, as ISW warned on December 30, 2015.

    They also secured core regime terrain along the Syrian Coast against further opposition attacks through a series of rapid offensives in Latakia Province. These gains marked a fundamental shift in battlefield momentum following dramatic losses experienced by the regime in the first half of 2015.

    Syria russian airstrike

    President Assad has used unconventional shaping operations to complement these ground offensives and further strengthen his bargaining position. The regime intensified its campaign of sieges and aerial bombardment against opposition-held pockets in Homs and Damascus Provinces in order to impose one-sided local ceasefires that would allow it to consolidate control in these two vital cities.

    These operations in some cases included the use of chlorine gas and other unidentified chemical weapons in violation of international prohibitions. The regime also escalated a campaign of targeted assassinations against key opposition commanders - most notably the Saudi-backed Damascus powerbroker Zahran Alloush - in order to weaken the political influence of its opponents.

    assad barrel bomb

    These gains strengthen the hand held by President Assad at the negotiating table and incentivize further violence among all sides in an attempt to secure additional concessions during an eventual settlement. The mounting pressure will tend to drive the opposition towards militarily reliable but politically irreconcilable Salafi-jihadist groups such as Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

    Conditions on the ground remain unsuitable for the achievement of any meaningful peace in Syria.

    SEE ALSO: Russia just helped the Assad regime accomplish 'in a few days what it had failed to do over 3 years'

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    erdogan

    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday Russia must be held accountable for the people it has killed in Syria, arguing that Moscow and Damascus were together responsible for 400,000 deaths there, Dogan News Agency reported.

    Speaking at a joint press conference with his Senegalese counterpart while on a state visit to the West African country,Erdogan also said Russia was engaged in an invasion of Syria and accused it of trying to set up a "boutique state" for its longtime ally President Bashar al-Assad.

    "Russia must be held accountable for the people it has killed within Syria's borders," Dogan quoted him as saying. "By cooperating with the regime, the number of people they have killed has reached 400,000."

    His comments are likely to further enrage Moscow. Relations between Turkey, a NATO member, and Russia hit their worst in recent memory in November after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane Ankara said had violated Turkish airspace from Syria.

    The two are on opposing sides of the five-year-old Syrian civil war, where Russia's intervention with airstrikes to help the Assad regime has tipped the war in Damascus' favor, reversing gains rebels made last year.

    Russia has accused Turkey of preparing a military incursion into northern Syria. Ankara has dismissed this as propaganda intended to conceal Russia's own "crimes".

    Turkey, which has taken in more than 2.5 million refugees fleeing the Syrian war, wants Assad out and says only his removal can bring long-term peace.

    (Reporting by Asli Kandemir; writing by David Dolan; editing by Ralph Boulton)

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    Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening ceremony of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in Beijing, China, January 16, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Schiefelbein/Pool

    There's been no shortage of major stories to break this week. 

    From China's president amassing unseen levels of power since Mao to the Syrian government's ongoing Russia-backed offensive, the news has kept on coming. 

    With that in mind, we've put together some of this week's most important stories that you may have missed:

    • A Chinese defector who went missing in California after his brother's arrest in China revealed some closely guarded secrets of the Chinese military. 
    • Based off of the FBI's tracking of violent crimes, Business Insider assembled a list of the most violent city in each state. 
    • The Pentagon unveiled some of the weapons and research it wants to pursue with its upcoming 2017 budget. 
    • The DEA broke down which powerful Mexican cartels are operating throughout the US. 
    • The F-35, the most expensive weapons program in history, is expected to miss a key deadline.

    f35b

    • Russia said there are numerous signs that Turkey could be preparing to enter Syria too.
    • According to a defense think tank, Russia could force NATO out of the Baltics in 36 hours.

    bundeswehr

    • The US is preparing to sell Saudi Arabia $1 billion worth of arms. 
    • Iraq's economy could be on the verge of falling off of a fiscal cliff with dire results.
    • Hundreds of thousands of Chinese are waiting in and around mass transit stations to get home in time for Chinese New Year. 
    • Stratfor released their chilling predictions for the next decade. 
    • South Korean special forces go through this insane knife training to prepare for duty.

    SEE ALSO: The world in photos this week

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    Assad family

    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's mother, Anisa Makhlouf, has died at the age of 86, Syrian state media said on Saturday.

    Makhlouf, who married late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad in 1957, rarely appeared in public even after al-Assad became president in 1971.

    Al-Assad ruled Syria from 1971 until his death in 2000, and shared five children with Makhlouf, Bushra, Basil, Bashar, Majed and Maher.

    Makhlouf was born in 1930 to a powerful and wealthy family from the coastal province of Latakia.

    According to the Associated Press, "She was to prove a devoted wife and mother and Assad's closest and most trusted confidante, providing him with a domestic environment of unquestioned respectability," wrote Assad's late biographer Patrick Seale in his book "Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East."

    Makhlouf is survived by her daughter Bushra and her two sons, Bashar and Maher Assad. Two other sons passed away, one of them, Basil, in a car accident in 1994, the Associated Press reports.

    Al_Assad_family

    (Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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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."

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

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

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

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    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Refugees fleeing the northern Syrian city of Aleppo arrive in Bab al-Salam, at the Turkish border crossing

    Turkey is ready "if necessary" to let in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees trapped on its border after fleeing a regime assault, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. 

    Thousands of Syrians, mostly women and children, have fled toward the Turkish border since Friday from the northern Syrian city of Aleppo to escape a major regime offensive backed by Russian air strikes. 

    "The regime has now blocked a part of Aleppo... Turkey is under threat," Erdogan told reporters on his plane returning from Senegal on Saturday.

    "If they reached our door and have no other choice, if necessary, we have to and will let our brothers in," he said.

    The governor of Turkey's Kilis border province, Suleyman Tapsiz, said Saturday that Turkey -- already home to 2-2.5 million Syrians -- was taking care of 30-35,000 refugees who had gathered around the nearby Syrian city of Azaz in the space of 48 hours.

    Another 70,000 may head for the frontier if Russian air strikes and Syrian regime military advances continued in Aleppo, he added. 

    Turkey's Oncupinar border crossing, which faces Bab al-Salama inside Syria, remained closed to thousands of refugees gathered there for a third day, an AFP reporter said. 

    "But the border keeps open for emergency situations," a Turkish offical told AFP. 

    turkey syria refugees

    "Seven injured were taken to Turkey on Friday and one on Saturday for treatment at Turkish hospitals," he said. 

    Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Saturday his country would keep its "open border policy" for Syrian refugees. 

    SEE ALSO: MINISTER: Migrants in Germany who won't integrate into society will face benefit cuts

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    Syrian pro-government forces stand on a tank they reportedly captured overlooking the town of Mahin in Homs province on November 14, 2015

    Beirut (AFP) - Syrian government troops advanced Sunday toward a rebel town near the Turkish border as they pressed a Russian-backed offensive that has prompted tens of thousands to flee, a monitor said.

    The town of Tal Rifaat is around 20 kilometres (12.5 miles) from the Turkish frontier, where Syrians who have fled fighting near Aleppo city have been gathering since the assault was launched Monday.

    It is one of the last rebel strongholds in the north of Aleppo province and government troops are just seven kilometres away, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

    Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said regime troops want to push north to the border with Turkey to prevent rebels and weapons from entering Syrian territory.

    Syrian pro-government newspaper Al-Watan said Sunday that Tal Rifaat would be a major prize for the regime.

    "If it falls, the army will be able to progress and seize control of all of the northern part of Aleppo province," the paper said.

    Regime forces backed by intense Russian air strikes have closed in on Aleppo city in their most significant advance since Moscow intervened in September in support of President Bashar al-Assad's government.

    Syria's mainstream rebels are now threatened with collapse after the regime severed their main supply line to Aleppo city.

    Opposition forces along with roughly 350,000 civilians are in rebel-held areas of the divided city of Aleppo and face the risk of a government siege.

    Punitive blockades have been employed elsewhere in the nearly five-year civil war, causing dire humanitarian situations including starvation.

    Since Saturday night government forces have surrounded the rebel bastion of Daraya in Damascus province.

    SEE ALSO: The one line the West keeps repeating about Syria that is helping Assad win the war

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    turkey syria

    After five years of war, the doctor working in a Syrian border clinic thought he had seen everything. But with last week’s Russian bombing raids, there was still worse to come.

    The latest surge in Moscow’s air campaign was causing wounds so extreme that traumatised staff were working 24 hour shifts to cope with the severity and volume of the injuries, Dr Adel said.

    “We’re not even treating wounds anymore - the bodies are just blown to pieces,” the doctor, director of a rehabilitation clinic near Turkey’s Oncupinar border crossing, said.

    His staff said that most of the injured were civilians, due to indiscriminate bombing of built up residential areas, including those in which residents were seeking shelter from bombing elsewhere.

    The casualties of Syria’s war are scattered among hospitals and backstreet clinics throughout southern Turkey.

    For more than three years, when rebels swept into the east of Aleppo many of the casualties have ended up in Kilis, nestled against the Turkish side of the border 40 miles to the north. Since Russian jets and pro-regime forces launched their latest attempt to encircle the city, the injuries have come in a flood.

    The director of an unofficial shelter, who like Dr Adel and other doctors, all Syrian, asked not to give a full name, said his staff were witnessing “extreme” injuries” and that the rate of amputation had soared.

    aleppo airstrike

    “Sometimes our nerves fall apart,” he said. “Sometimes we cry. These men are our people, and our families are the ones fleeing.”

    One of the shelter’s usual patients, a 75 year old man from Aleppo, was absent on the day of The Telegraph’s visit. Staff said he was at a condolences ceremony for the sixth of his sons to have died in the conflict.

    In interviews from their hospital beds, rebel fighters said that Russian air power had transformed the battle for Aleppo’s north, grinding down its array of opposition groups before sending in ground troops for the final push.

    “When it was just the regime that bombed us, one or two low-flying planes would set out to bomb our villages, and that was it. But the Russians, they strike us continuously,” said one man, pulling back his blanket to reveal a gaping hole in his femur. He said it had been caused by a bomb he didn’t even hear coming.

    Moscow waded into the Syrian war at the end of September, launching an air campaign that has tipped the balance in favour of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

    syrian refugees

    In Aleppo, it allowed Iranian-backed Shia fighters from the Lebanese militia Hizbollah, Afghanistan and Iraq to achieve in three days what government forces had failed to do in two years - encircle the rebels and break a longstanding sieges on two nearby Shia towns.

    That offensive forced more than 35,000 Syrians to flee, with most now camped in squalid conditions along Turkey’s closed border, waiting for it to open.

    Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Numan Kurtulmus, said last night that the country, which is already hosting more than 2.5 million Syrians, had “reached the limit of its capacity to absorb refugees”.

    But he added: "We are not in a position to tell them not to come. If we do, we would be abandoning them to their deaths."

    Mr Kurtulmus estimated that as many as one million more refugees could flee Aleppo and surrounding areas, putting huge pressure not only on his own country’s asylum policy but, down the line, that of Europe.

    syria aleppo airstrike

    In a refugee camp at the Oncupinar crossing, Syrians said their trailers were shaking each night with the force of bombs across the border. Some said their relatives on the other side of the closed crossing were preparing to return to the villages they had fled from, accepting that they would die.

    “My sons knew they wouldn’t get through, so they have gone back to their homes,” said a man who gave his name as Abu Mohamed. “I only wish that I could go with them. I am no better than them. They deserve death no more than me.”

    On the battlefield itself, pro-government forces pressed ahead with their offensive. Opposition activists said Shia fighters were engaged in heavy clashes with insurgents around the village of Ratyan, north of Aleppo.

    An official with one of the province's main rebel coalitions, the Levant Front, said the regime and Russia had also launched more than 150 strikes on three villages between the two regime enclaves it had linked up in last week’s lightening offensive.

    syrian refugee internal

    “Assad’s regime and army have been finished for more than two years - now we are fighting sectarian militias and Russia,” said Mohamed Yasser, a member of the Levant Front’s political bureau.

    The battle for north Aleppo may prove to be a turning point in the war. As well as threatening rebel positions across the province, it could put large parts of the Syrian-Turkish border under the control of pro-Assad forces within a matter of months.

    Although the war has claimed more than a quarter of a million lives, doctors in the Kilis rehabilitation shelter said no one could yet appreciate the toll it had taken on their country.

    “It’s only when we return to Syria one day that we’ll see how many amputees, how many widows, how many orphans there really are,” said one medic. “That’s when we‘ll learn what this war has done to us.”

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    ISIS Islamic State Raqqa Syria Member

    Despite a rash of global terrorist attacks either directed or inspired by ISIS, the terrorist organization is quickly finding itself caught on its back foot. 

    Between a series of battlefield defeats in Iraq and Syria, a hardening of the international coalition against it, and airstrikes that have begun to directly target the militant group's main sources of finance, ISIS is quickly reaching a point of unexpected weakness, The Washington Post reports citing experts and analysts. 

    In January, the US military announced that ISIS had lost an estimated 40% of its territory that it once controlled in Iraq.

    In Syria, gains against the group were less pronounced, but the militants are still thought to have lost about 20% of the territory it controlled. 

    These demoralizing losses are only compounded by recent US-led coalition strikes that have targeted both ISIS oil trucks and ISIS financial headquarters.

    ISIS gif strike

    These blows have significantly lowered the amount of capital ISIS has on hand — the militants announced in January that fighters in Iraq and Syria would be suffering from a 50% pay cut across the board. 

    "These issues suggest that as an entity that is determined to hold onto territory, the Islamic State is not sustainable,” Jacob Shapiro, an expert on ISIS and a Princeton University politics professor, told WaPo. 

    Indeed, the pay cuts and battlefield losses have led to higher instances of both "for-profit militants" in ISIS's ranks looking "for better deals" with other factions, as well as a decrease in the number of foreign fighters flowing into the group's ranks, Vera Mironova, an expert at Harvard University's Belfer Center, told WaPo. 

    ISIS_map_February_2016

    This decline in replenishing foreign fighters has cut the ability of ISIS to operate as effectively. ISIS is also further hampered by Turkey's decision to more tightly patrol its southern border, which has limited the ability for potential recruits to flow into Syria.

    Ankara and the US are also in talks to train a Sunni Arab paramilitary force that would function on the Syrian side of the border in an effort to fully disrupt ISIS's ability to bring in supplies and fighters. 

    Such setbacks are ripe for causing unrest amongst the various factions operating within the militant organization. ISIS already suffers from deep divisions between foreign and local fighters within its organization, and a series of continued losses is likely to only further increase tensions among the competing forces in the group. 

    However, even if ISIS does continue to lose ground in both Syria and Iraq, the organization will most likely shift to more pronounced attacks abroad in an effort to gain continued credibility and influence. Secretary of State John Kerry warned on on February 2, for instance, that ISIS was capitalizing on the ongoing chaos in Libya to further its operations there. 

    SEE ALSO: This one map shows how Russia and Iran have brought Assad within five miles of encircling Aleppo

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    Assad troops

    In July 2014, a Syrian government defector, code-named Caesar, provided international investigators with startling evidence of abuses within the Assad regime's prison system.

    Caesar reported that more than 10,000 people had died in government custody since the 2011 outbreak of the Syrian Civil War and provided photos documenting what The Wall Street Journal described as "evidence of [an] industrial-scale campaign."

    Caesar asserted that a horrifying atrocity was unfolding in Syria outside of the public's view, and that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was doing a disturbingly effective job of covering its tracks.

    Without a single, anonymous regime defector, the scope and systematization of Assad's abuses would have remained concealed. And even with Caesar's information, Assad's detention facilities remained one of Syria's dark zones, with little subsequent information about a policy that even 18 months ago had already been responsible for tens of thousands of deaths.

    A UN Human Rights Council report released on February 3 sheds much-needed light on Assad's prisons. The report, entitled "Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Deaths in Detention in the Syrian Arab Republic," is the result of a thorough investigation of the detention practices of the Assad regime, as well as antigovernment groups including ISIS and the Al Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.

    Syria map February 2016

    The section on regime abuses rests on extensive evidence. Human Rights Council investigators conducted 621 interviews. It talked to over 500 survivors of detention centers, and held over 200 interviews with "former detainees present at the deaths of cellmates." Investigators obtained government documents related to Assad's detention program, and spoke with people who had worked in the regime's prison facilities — as well as with the families of detainees who had died in custody.

    A harrowing picture emerges from the report's findings. The Assad regime maintained a squalid prison system where torture and summary executions were deliberate policies — and tried to hide its crimes from the Syrian people and the international community.

    Here are the report's major findings:

    An image of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is seen on a car parked in front of damaged buildings in the town of Rabiya, after pro-government forces recaptured the rebel-held town in coastal Latakia province, Syria January 27, 2016.  REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

    Widespread torture

    "Former detainees detailed how cellmates were killed as they were beaten to death during interrogations and in their cells, or died as a result of severe injuries sustained due to torture or ill treatment," the report states.

    The report includes the story of an elderly detainee who died after being hanged by the wrists for over three hours, and multiple accounts of detainees who died from suffering bodily mutilation under torture and being denied any subsequent medical treatment.

    The torture wasn't limited to a single prison, or to just a handful of problematic military units. Instead, it appears to be systematic and the result of general regime policies. The report lists a number of detention facilities in the Damascus area in which detainees died as the result of torture — facilities that were overseen by a number of different branches of the regime's security services, including Military Security and Air Force Intelligence.

    Of the 500 former detainees investigators interviewed, some 200 of them had been "present at the death of their cellmates," while "almost all" of them "described having been the victims of and witnesses to torture and inhuman and degrading treatment."

    Aleppo rubble

    'Inhuman' prison conditions

    Dozens of prisoners would be packed into tiny holding cells, where they would be fed infrequently, forced to drink wastewater, and subjected to frequent physical depredation. "In some detention facilities," investigators report, "guards threw cold water on the floor of cells, forcing detainees to sustain long periods of cold temperatures, further weakening their resilience to illnesses."

    Detainees were denied medical care, something that turned treatable illnesses into a protracted death sentence. "A high number of prisoners across detention facilities died of severe and continuing diarrhea, likely caused by the unhygienic conditions and the inadequate standard of food in the prisons," the report states. "The victims would often suffer for months before death occurred."

    The report includes jarring anecdotal evidence of the high death rate within individual detention facilities. An Assad regime prison is a hard place to survive: "A former prisoner recounted how, in a cell holding 60 detainees in [Military Security] Branch 227 [in Damascus], six died in the course of a week in January 2013.

    "In the same detention facility, between January and March 2014, in a cell holding 12 men, three prisoners died as a result of deteriorating health and lack of medicine, or as a consequence of torture. Between March and October 2013, in [Military Security] Branch 235 [in Damascus], around 20 detainees were observed to have passed away in a cell holding 100 prisoners."

    The victims weren't just males of fighting age or even alleged militants. Investigators found evidence that the regime essentially kidnapped civilians to terrorize the population into accepting Assad's rule: "The commission has documented cases of women and children as young as seven years old dying in the custody of State forces."

    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaks during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015.  REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

    The cover-up

    Investigators didn't just uncover systematic detention and torture. The Assad regime also made a concerted effort to ensure that the world would never find out about abuses committed at detention facilities.

    When a detainee died, the family would be issued a death certificate from the Tishreen military hospital in Damascus, showing that that family member had died of a heart attack — the report includes the story of a single family where three male relatives had died of "heart attacks."

    Families wouldn't be informed of a detainee's place of detention or death. Bodies would almost never be released back to families, although investigators found instances of families being able to recover bodies after signing a statement acknowledging that "terrorists" had been responsible for that family member's death.

    The report also contains evidence that the regime tried to cover up the mass killing of detainees. In one specific case, regime forces tried to dispose of the bodies of scores of executed detainees. The report states: "In Aleppo city, bodies started appearing in Queiq River in January 2013, reportedly after having been dumped in the Government-controlled area of the city.

    "Some of the victims were confirmed to have been detained by State forces, including the Air Force Intelligence Branch in Aleppo. Many of the more than 140 victims had their hands tied behind their backs and appeared to have been executed by gunshot."

    Aleppoiswmap

    The report helps confirm some of the most serious human-rights accusations leveled against the Assad regime. But as International Institute for Strategic Studies senior fellow Emile Hokayem noted in a February 5 article for Foreign Policy, the Assad regime has successfully shifted the terms of what the international community considered acceptable within the context of the country's civil war, winning increased freedom of action for itself with each successive atrocity.

    "Assad all along pursued a strategy of gradual escalation and desensitization that, sadly, worked well," Hokayem writes.

    The Assad regime has committed numerous human-rights atrocities in Syria, ranging from chemical warfare to the starvation of entire towns. And Assad has seen his world position improve as international actors shift their attention to the fight against ISIS and Syria's non-jihadist rebels lose ground.

    In December, the US indicated that it didn't believe a Syrian peace process needed to be conditioned on Assad's ouster. Assad's forces have now nearly encircled Aleppo, one of the last redoubts of the country's non-jihadist rebels, thanks to an infusion of Iran-backed militia forces and increased Russian airstrikes.

    The Human Rights Council report captures Assad's brutal tactics in prosecuting his country's civil war. His probable battlefield victory in Aleppo, and increasing stature, show that these atrocities are paying off.

    Read the full UN report here.

    SEE ALSO: Russia just helped the Assad regime accomplish 'in a few days what it had failed to do over 3 years'

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    Justin Trudeau

    Canada is set to cease air strikes against Isis by the end of February but will increase its humanitarian aid contributions to the region instead.

    Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was elected to office in November, said his government will end its bombing missions in the war-torn region by 22 February with six fighter jets being withdrawn. Canada will, however, keep two surveillance planes in the region and triple the number of soldiers training Kurdish troops in northern Iraq.

    "In any mission, you need to make choices. We can't do everything. In our decision, we were guided by our desire to do what we could do best to help in the region and to do it in the right way," Mr Trudeau said during a news conference in Ottawa.

    "The people terrorised by Isil every day don't need our vengeance, they need our help."

    The Conservative opposition leader Rona Ambrose accused the Liberal administration of "taking a shameful step backward" from the fight against "the greatest terror threat in the world." Canadian bombing of the region began in April 2015 while the Canadian Conservatives were in power. 

    The Liberal leader had pledged during his election campaign last year to end the air strikes against the so-called Islamic State. He described the decision on Monday to cease bombing as being good for achieving “short-term military and territorial gains” but not for “long-term stability for local communities”. 

    syria airstrikes britain

    In doing so, however, Mr Trudeau is going against public opinion. Two-thirds of Canadians polled recently supported or wanted to extend its support in the US-led bombing coalition, in the wake of extremist attacks in Jakarta and in Bukina Faso that killed seven Canadians in January. 

    The Liberal government will also contribute more than $1.6bn over three years to bolster security, stabilization and humanitarian aid to the region, including increasing counterterrorism efforts in neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan.

    The Prime Minister added: “We know Canada is stronger, much stronger, than the threat posed by a murderous gang of thugs who are terrorizing some of the most vulnerable people on Earth.

    "Call us old-fashioned, but we think that we ought to avoid doing precisely what our enemies want us to do. They want us to elevate them, to give in to fear, to indulge in hatred, to eye one another with suspicion and to take leave of our faculties.”

    President Barack Obama "welcomed Canada's current and new contributions to coalition efforts and highlighted Canada's leadership in the coalition," the White House said in a statement.

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