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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    Sergei Lavrov Russia Foreign Minister John Kerry US Secretary State John Kerry Staffan de Mistura

    Major world powers taking part in a meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) agreed to implement a "cessation of hostilities" in Syria, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced from Munich on Thursday.

    The ISSG agreed that a cessation would be more "apt," as it does not carry the same "legal prerogatives" as a ceasefire, Kerry said.

    "A ceasefire, in the minds of many participants, connotes something far more permanent," Kerry said in a news conference following the group's meeting. "A ceasefire signals an end of conflict. This plan is distinctly not that — rather, it is a pause that will be dependent on the process going forward."

    But Kerry noted that, like a ceasefire, the plan aims to end hostile activities, while acts of self-defense are allowed. He added that the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad and the opposition "need to make their decision this week" about how they wish to proceed with negotiations.

    "The International Syria Support Group took a different step this time from what has happened previously," Kerry said. "In Vienna and in New York we called for a ceasefire. Today we decided on a process, and a timeframe, and we all agreed to do everything we can to meet that."

    Russian Airstrikes 29 JAN 07 FEB (1)

    When asked whether he thought a cessation of hostilities would cement Assad in power — given the recent battlefield gains the regime had made near Syria's largest city, Aleppo, with the help of Russian airstrikes — Kerry was candid.

    "Yes, it is true that the bombing of the last few weeks, and the aggressive actions of the Assad regime — together with forces of other places and countries that have helped them — has made a difference for Assad," Kerry said.

    "But that difference doesn't end the war," he added. "It doesn't mean Assad is safe or secure in the long term. ... Our belief is there will never be peace in Syria while President Assad is there. Others think differently."

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did not take kindly to Kerry's implication that Russia's actions on behalf of the Assad regime had been "aggressive."

    "Liberating a city captured by illegal insurgent groups — is that an aggressive move? Well, maybe," Lavrov said. "But it's important to have offensives against forces that are occupying your country."

    Aleppo Syria Bombing

    And when a reporter asked Lavrov to respond to accusations that Russia had been bombing civilian targets in a major offensive to help the regime retake Aleppo, Lavrov insisted that such claims were "purely propaganda."

    "The mainstream media has been trying to divert attention away from the thing that is most important to all of us," Lavrov said. "And that is the task of preventing ISIS from achieving its goals in Syria."

    He added: "Some countries are trying to bring attention back to regime change in Syria, as if we didn't have the experiences of Libya and Iraq."

    Russia has criticized the US's role in toppling the regimes of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The White House, meanwhile, has blasted Russian President Vladimir Putin for bombing moderate-rebel groups opposed to the Assad regime, saying that the indiscriminate attacks have been instrumental in fueling recruiting for terrorist groups, including ISIS.

    The cessation of hostilities in Syria will be implemented with the help of two task forces focused on providing humanitarian aid to besieged cities and creating modalities to end the violence. Sustained delivery of humanitarian aid, in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, will be delivered to besieged cities this week.

    The longer-term objective of the cessation, Kerry said, is a "durable, long-term ceasefire."

    Join the conversation about this story »

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    Free Syrian Army

    The Syrian Civil War has reached a turning point.

    Over the past two weeks, 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.

    The advance cut off Aleppo's anti-regime groups from their last remaining supply lines into Turkey, and put Assad in a position to retake a fiercely contested city that had a pre-war population of over 2 million.

    The regime's advances, backed through an infusion of Iranian manpower and heavy Russian airstrikes around the city, come as efforts to resolve the conflict through diplomatic means have stalled in Geneva. And a recent quote from an unnamed western diplomat shows how facile the current diplomacy really is.

    "It'll be easy to get a ceasefire soon because the opposition will all be dead,"Reuters quoted the diplomat as saying. "That's a very effective ceasefire."

    It's an astonishing statement that speaks volumes on the current realities in Syria. In mid-2012, opposition forces were claiming high-level defections from the government's Syrian Arab Army, sweeping through major cities, and gaining ground in Damascus.

    Now, they've been so decimated that representatives of western governments are comfortable publicly discussing the rebel movement's extermination. 

    Screen Shot 2016 02 11 at 11.40.20 AMThe quote also reflects a shift in official western perceptions of the rebel movements' capabilities.

    President Barack Obama famously dismissed the Syrian rebels as "former farmers or teachers or pharmacists" in 2014, in spite of groups like the Free Syrian Army's success in holding strategic territory and counterbalancing the influence of jihadist groups in the country.

    Western policy decisions told a more complex story.

    Suspected CIA assistance for the Syrian rebels, matched with occasionally strong US rhetoric on the need for Assad's removal, suggested that the US and its partners wanted to support anti-Assad groups enough to keep the rebellion from collapsing entirely — and enough to sustain a viable non-Assad, non-jihadist alternative in case an opening for a negotiated solution to the conflict ever emerged.

    The diplomat's quote all but declares that policy a failure.

    In the diplomat's view, the key to peace isn't sustaining the rebel movement. It's letting Assad and his partners win.

    SyrianArmyStrategy2016The quote also reflects the west's exhaustion with the Syria conflict, which has dragged on for over four years and killed an estimated 470,000 people.

    The war's threat to western democracies has increased even as the prospects for Assad's ouster wane: on February 5th, French ambassador to the US Gerard Araud tweeted that "The Syrian Civil War is becoming an existential threat to the EU," presumably because of the strain that refugees from the conflict have put on the Union's internal border control system and relations among the union's member states.

    It could be considered flippant to characterize the death of Syria's non-jihadist rebel movement — which is, after all, fighting a regime accused of serial human rights abuses— as a prerequisite for "an effective ceasefire." But it might also be an accurate reflection of the current mood in the US and Europe.

    Assad troopsIn any case, the "ceasefire" the diplomat describes wouldn't come close to ending the Syrian Civil War.

    Jihadist groups like ISIS and the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra are still among the more powerful fighting forces on the ground. It could be years before Assad fully consolidates control over Syria's populated areas, and even the reconquest of Aleppo could take the regime months or years

    As the past four years in Syria demonstrate, turns in battlefield momentum can say surprisingly little about where the conflict is actually going. A ceasefire with even a totally decimated rebel movement might not be enough to end the country's conflict.

    SEE ALSO: US intelligence chief just acknowledged a major failure of the Syria chemical-weapons deal

    Join the conversation about this story »

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    CIA director John Brennan testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats to America and its allies, in Washington, DC on February 9, 2016

    Washington (AFP) - CIA director John Brennan has said that Islamic State fighters have used chemical weapons and have the capability to make small quantities of chlorine and mustard gas, CBS News reported.

    "We have a number of instances where ISIL has used chemical munitions on the battlefield," Brennan told CBS News, which released excerpts of an interview to air in full on the "60 Minutes" news program on Sunday.

    The network added that he told "60 Minutes" the CIA believes that the IS group has the ability to make small amounts of mustard or chlorine gas for weapons.

    "There are reports that ISIS has access to chemical precursors and munitions that they can use," Brennan said.

    Brennan also warned of the possibility that the Islamic State group could seek to export the weapons to the West for financial gain.

    "I think there's always the potential for that. This is why it's so important to cut off the various transportation routes and smuggling routes that they have used," he said.

    When asked if there were "American assets on the ground" searching for possible chemical weapons caches or labs, Brennan replied: "US intelligence is actively involved in being a part of the efforts to destroy ISIL and to get as much insight into what they have on the ground inside of Syria and Iraq."

    'Toxic chemicals in Iraq, Syria'

    The release of the interview excerpts comes two days after similar comments from spy chief James Clapper before a congressional committee.

    ISIS Flag Iraq Security Forces Soldiers"ISIL has also used toxic chemicals in Iraq and Syria, including the blister agent sulfur mustard," Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told lawmakers on Tuesday.

    He said it was the first time an extremist group had produced and used a chemical warfare agent in an attack since Japan's Aum Supreme Truth cult carried out a deadly sarin attack during rush hour in the Tokyo subway in 1995.

    President Bashar al-Assad's regime and rebel forces have accused each other of using chemical agents in the nearly five-year war that has killed more than 250,000 people.

    After an August 2013 sarin attack outside Damascus that much of the international community blamed on Assad's government, the regime agreed to turn over its chemical arsenal.

    The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) -- which oversaw the dangerous removal and elimination of Syria's avowed stockpile -- now says that declared arsenal has been completely destroyed.

    But the global arms watchdog has still warned of the continued use of mustard, sarin and chlorine gas in the conflict, without blaming the regime, the rebels or the IS group for use of the weapons, which are banned under international law.

    Last year, officials in the autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan said blood tests had shown that IS fighters used mustard agent in an attack on Kurdish peshmerga forces in August.

    Thirty-five peshmerga fighters were exposed and some taken abroad for treatment, officials said.

    At the time of the attack, The Wall Street Journal cited US officials as saying they believed IS had used mustard agent.

    SEE ALSO: Watch a precision airstrike annihilate an ISIS position in Syria

    Join the conversation about this story »

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    U.S. Foreign Secretary John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) go for a handshake before their bilateral talks in Munich, Germany, February 11, 2016, ahead of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) meeting.

    World powers said on Thursday that a plan for a "cessation of hostilities" to be implemented next week in Syria had been agreed upon. 

    The members of the International Syria Support Group also announced that the delivery of humanitarian aid would be accelerated throughout the country.

    The 17 countries agreed "to implement a nationwide cessation of hostilities to begin in a target of one week's time," US Secretary of State John Kerry said after a joint conference with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. 

    Julien Barnes-Dacey, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Business Insider that the recent push on Aleppo, the refugee crisis and the collapse of the Syria peace talks in Geneva redirected international focus to find a solution to the 5-year-conflict.

    Recent events "...really showed there was another impending humanitarian crisis in Syria... and made everyone realise that [the conflict] could completely spiral out of control,"Barnes-Dacey said. 

    The onslaught by Russian-backed government forces on Aleppo forced an estimated 50,000 people to flee the city and has reportedly killed 500 people since the start of the offensive on February 1. 

    Kerry said that peace talks between Syrian rebels and the Assad government would eventually resume but that "What we need to see in the next few days are actions on the ground,"according to AFP.

    "There are huge obstacles that stand in the way of a permanent ceasefire in Syria, but this is the first step," Barnes-Dacey said. 

    A view shows a damaged clinic after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel held al-Ghariyah al-Gharbiyah town, in Deraa province, Syria February 11, 2016. Picture taken February 11, 2016.The"cessation of hostilities" agreement comes a day after Saudi Arabia announced it had made a "final decision" to send troops into Syria to help fight ISIS, which prompted Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to say that further foreign intervention in Syria could lead to "a new world war."

    "A broader ceasefire is still a far off hope" 

    The deal secures the temporary "cessation of hostilities", which according to AP appears to be the result of a compromise between the United States and Russia, although "efforts to secure a lasting cease-fire fell short." 

    Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia group told Business Insider in an email, that a ceasefire was "still a far off hope."

    "There have been so many atrocities committed by Assad's regime, by the rebels, and by ISIS; and international actors are very far apart on what could be an acceptable starting point, never mind end point, on a political settlement," Bremmer said. 

    All in all, the international community remains skeptical that a ceasefire will be implemented anytime soon. “There is going to be a lot more fighting on the ground before some serious ceasefire can be implemented," Barnes-Dacey said.

    The main takeaway from the deal sealed by the foreign ministers from the International Syria Support Group is that more help will be delivered more quickly to besieged cities and regions in Syria. The Syrian government is besieging a number of rebel strongholds throughout the country, leaving thousands on the brink of starvation. 

    Russian Airstrikes 29 JAN 07 FEB (1)"At the very least, I think there's a good chance that fighting is limited sufficiently to allow humanitarian supplies into areas under siege, reducing the prospects of widespread famine and disease," Bremmer told Business Insider. 

    The Syrian government which, aided by Russian forces, has made major gains in the last few weeks, encircled and has now almost entirely cut off supply routes to Aleppo, one of the major rebel strongholds in Syria.

    The offensive prompted the United Nations to warn that 300,000 people were at risk of being left without food. The water keeps getting cut off in the city and there are electricity and fuel shortages.

    David Butter, an associate fellow at the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Programme, told Business Insider in an email that "Russia seems to be driving the show at the moment, and it appears that it wants to give the impression that it is being helpful on the humanitarian side."

    The "cessation of hostilities" agreement however does not include strikes against ISIS. ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL and Daesh) is currently being bombed by a US-led coalition, as well as by Russia. 

    "IS not really a priority for Russia at the moment, but all of the external actors seem to sense that IS is weakening in Iraq and Syria, and they are jockeying for position so as to take credit for its ultimate defeat," Butter said. 

    The civil war in Syria has claimed over 250,000 lives so far, internally displaced over 7 million people and sent almost 4 million people fleeing to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Europe. 

    SEE ALSO: Western diplomat on Syria conflict: 'It'll be easy to get a ceasefire soon because the opposition will all be dead'

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: FMR. DEFENSE SECRETARY: Obama hurt US credibility after Syria crossed his ‘red line'

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    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

    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the AFP on Friday that he vows to regain control over the entire country, even if it takes "a long time."

    "It makes no sense for us to say that we will give up any part" of Syria, he said.

    Assad spoke to AFP from Damascus one day after major world powers took part in a meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Munich and agreed to implement a "cessation of hostilities" in Syria. 

    The "cessation" plan laid out by US Secretary of State John Kerry in a press conference following the ISSG meeting allows for the regime's self-defense but is aimed at halting all "hostilities" in the war-torn country. But the embattled Syrian president evidently believes the plan still allows him to continue the war.

    The Syrian Arab Army, Assad told AFP, will try to retake all of Syria "without any hesitation"— even though the involvement of regional players "means that the solution will take a long time and will incur a heavy price."

    Assad was referring to Saudi Arabia's announcement that it was prepared to send ground troops into Syria if asked, and Turkish president Recep Erdogan's recent statement that Turkey "will show patience up to a point and then will do what's necessary" to help end the crisis in Syria.

    Assad's comments indicate that, even with a cessation of hostilities plan in place, the regime will continue its efforts to regain the territory it has lost to anti-Assad forces over the past four years. Already, with the help of Russian airstrikes, Assad is closer than ever to regaining control over Syria's largest city, Aleppo.

    AleppoiswmapAt Thursday night's press conference, the issue of whether a cessation of hostilities might cement Assad's hold on power further — and allow him to continue attacks on rebel-held areas — was brought up more than once.

    "Yes, it is true that the bombing of the last few weeks, and the aggressive actions of the Assad regime — together with forces of other places and countries that have helped them — has made a difference for Assad," Kerry said, in response to a question from the New York Times' David Sanger.

    "But that difference doesn't end the war," he added. "It doesn't mean Assad is safe or secure in the long term. ... Our belief is there will never be peace in Syria while President Assad is there. Others think differently."

    Kerry noted that the cessation of hostilities does not carry the legal prerogatives of a ceasefire. The purpose of the "cessation" is to provide an opening for negotiating a more binding ceasefire. The regime and the opposition, Kerry added, "need to make their decision this week" about how they wish to proceed with negotiations.

    Sergei Lavrov Russia Foreign Minister John Kerry US Secretary State John Kerry Staffan de MisturaAssad has evidently already made up his mind about he hopes to proceed — specifically, by pursuing his own "political-military objective" for winning the war, Fred Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and former adviser on Syria under the Obama administration, wrote last week for the Atlantic.

    By neutralizing the armed nationalist opposition, Hof noted, Assad and his allies "create for the West — [and] for Washington in particular — the horror of a binary choice between Bashar the Barrel Bomber and Baghdadi the False Caliph."

    Indeed, Assad told AFP that if the regime attends negotiations, "it does not mean that we stop fighting terrorism. The two tracks are inevitable in Syria."


    Analysts generally agree that any attempt to pursue a political solution while the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran pursue a military campaign is doomed for failure.

    But Obama administration pressure has so far failed to convince the Syrian government to stop its aerial bombardments and sieges of opposition-held areas. 

    Judging by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov's comments on Thursday, a plan for the cessation of hostilities may not be enough to spur Russia to end its bombing campaign in and around Aleppo. 

    "Liberating a city captured by illegal insurgent groups — is that an aggressive move? Well, maybe," Lavrov said. "But it's important to have offensives against forces that are occupying your country."

    Join the conversation about this story »

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    A boy carries two children as he evacuates them from 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 al-Fardous district April 2, 2015. REUTERS/Rami Zayat

    The United States has an Aleppo dilemma.

    Russian forces, sensing an opportunity to rout the rebels, are bombarding Aleppo from the air and with artillery. The city is close to encirclement and a siege.

    Over 70,000 of its inhabitants have already left, worsening the refugee crisis that threatens stability not just in the region but also in Europe.

    Washington has condemned Russia’s actions but has no idea how to stop it.

    Some experts have advocated a no-fly zone and action to prevent the shelling.

    Critics argue that this could mean shooting down Russian planes or killing Russian troops, which would increase the risk of war between two nuclear armed powers. They also say that Russia would respond to any escalation with an escalation of its own. 

    On the other hand, solely relying on rhetoric and calling for negotiations gives Putin and Assad a free hand to do as they wish.

    The administration’s prediction that Russia’s intervention would fail or be ineffective has proven to be well wide of the mark. Moscow has no incentive to change course. Aleppo could quickly become Syria’s Srebrenica. 

    To persuade the Russians, the United States needs to find a way of generating real leverage over Putin without killing Russian forces. There is such a way. 

    Civilians fleeing the recent fightings in their area sit at the back of a pickup truck with their belongings in the southern countryside of Aleppo, Syria October 21, 2015.  REUTERS/Hosam Katan

    The United States and the EU must link financial sanctions on Russia to its actions in Syria. Until now, the U.S.-EU sanctions have only been about Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Russian compliance with the Minsk agreements.

    When Russia intervened in Syria, it was under the auspices of fighting ISIS. When it targeted other rebel groups instead, it was just one of several protagonists in the Syrian civil war.

    But, now, it has crossed a line by deliberately targeting a civilian center. The mask has dropped.

    Russian Airstrikes 29 JAN 07 FEB (1)

    There is a compelling case for action. There is no moral difference between Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its assault on Aleppo. If anything, the assault on Aleppo is worse.

    Strategically, both are also a direct threat to the European security order—Crimea broke the norm against territorial expansion and Aleppo is worsening the refugee crisis that is testing Europe’s institutions and governments to their limit.

    The United States and EU member states are also bound to uphold the Responsibility to Protect, which requires the international community to protect civilians if their government is unwilling or unable to do so.

    The United States and EU could give Russia and Assad an ultimatum to cease and desist by a certain date or face additional sanctions. Linking the sanctions to Russia’s actions in Syria would represent a major setback for Vladimir Putin. He has been counting on Europe lifting the Ukraine sanctions this summer.

    This would now not happen until Russia changes its behavior in both Ukraine and Syria.

    aleppo rubble assad regime air strike

    Putin could avoid linkage and new sanctions by allowing aid into Aleppo and by ceasing the assault. This leverage could also provide some much-needed political space for negotiations and may also encourage Russia to look again at proposals involving power sharing or confederations in Syria. 

    If he does not comply, the United States and the EU could consider increasing the sanctions that are currently in place.

    They could put Russian participation in the SWIFT payment system, on which its banking system relies, on the table. SWIFT sanctions were correctly deemed too escalatory in Ukraine but it would be a justifiable last resort to prevent mass killing and ethnic cleansing in Aleppo.

    EU members have mixed feelings about the sanctions on Russia but the refugee crisis poses a more immediate existential threat to the EU than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

    European governments are desperate to stem the flow of refugees and any such initiative must start with curbing Assad’s offensive, which is the main driver of the crisis. To do that, Europe needs leverage on Russia. 

    Putin Assad

    Sanctions also have the crucial advantage of being politically acceptable to President Obama. He has repeatedly signaled that he will not authorize any military action that directly involves the United States in a war with Assad or his allies.

    But he has already backed sanctions on Russia, Iran, and other states. And leverage is a necessary component of an effective diplomatic strategy.

    Financial power is Obama’s tool of choice. It is time to use it again.

    SEE ALSO: Assad just made a promise that effectively turns John Kerry's new plan for Syria on its head

    Join the conversation about this story »

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    Aleppo rubbleWith ample Russian and Iranian help, regime forces have cut the rebels' main lifeline in the north, and they will likely steer their relentless steamroller to the west unless outside powers take action.

    On February 2, the Syrian army and its allies succeeded in cutting the northern road between Aleppo city and Turkey, known as the Azaz corridor. Although the battle was a local affair involving a relatively small number of fighters, it may prove to be a turning point in the war.

    In addition to threatening the rebel presence in Aleppo province, the development could put the entire Turkey-Syria border under the control of pro-Assad forces within a matter of months, or spur Kurdish forces there to choose coexistence with Assad.

    Cutting the Northern Corridor

    The offensive against the corridor was launched from Bashkuy (on the northern outskirts of Aleppo) and from the pro-regime Shiite enclave in the villages of Nubl and Zahra. Hezbollah and two other Iranian-supported Shiite militias (the Iraqi brigade al-Badr and the enclave's local "National Defense" militia) are the main ground units participating to the battle, pitted against rebel forces led by al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which had previously sent hundreds of reinforcements from the Idlib area.

    For Shiite fighters, the purpose of the battle is highly symbolic: to defend their fellow Shiites against Sunni Islamists who want to expel them. The small Nubl-Zahra enclave has resisted rebel assaults for three years, with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) protecting its western flank and allowing food deliveries to enter.aleppo map

    In exchange, the Syrian army has protected Aleppo's Kurdish neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsoud against rebel attacks. Passive cooperation between the PYD and the Syrian army is now becoming active as both forces are on the offensive against rebels in the Azaz corridor.

    A February 2015 attempt to join the Nubl-Zahra enclave with the government zone failed dramatically due to lack of preparation and insufficient forces. Afterward, a heavy rebel counteroffensive took Idlib, then threatened Aleppo and even Latakia. Bashar al-Assad was obliged to ask for Russian intervention without any conditions. In contrast, the latest offensive was preceded by weeks of heavy aerial bombardment against rebel defenses, particularly at the Bab al-Salam border post with Turkey, through which the rebels receive many of their supplies.

    The opposition-controlled corridor between Aleppo and Turkey is only five to fifteen kilometers wide, wedged between Islamic State (IS) forces to the east and the Kurdish canton of Afrin to the west. The main rebel groups in this area are Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki, and the Sultan Murad brigade (a Turkmen group very close to Turkey).

    These groups are formally members of the rebel umbrella organization Jaish al-Fatah, which is supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Since their victorious campaign of spring 2015, however, significant internal divisions have emerged. Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra have recently fought each other, while Nour al-Zinki has withdrawn from the outskirts of Aleppo, and Sultan Murad is only fighting IS forces, not Assad.

    syria aleppo siege

    The Azaz corridor grew particularly weak after the Democratic Forces of Syria (DFS) -- an alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces under the PYD umbrella -- gained the upper hand against the rebels and began to advance westward in recent weeks, approaching the Aleppo-Azaz road. The DFS has benefitted from Russian shelling against rebel lines, as well as direct Russian weapons deliveries.

    On February 4, the group announced the capture of two villages north of the Nubl-Zahra enclave, Ziyarah and al-Kharba. In light of this situation, the Syrian army's latest victory would seem to benefit the Kurds, who can advance in the northern part of Azaz corridor while regime and allied forces content themselves with solidifying their position around Aleppo instead of heading to Azaz.

    Closing the Western Border

    Now that the northern road is cut, the next target is likely the road from Aleppo to the rebel-controlled western border crossing of Bab al-Hawa. In parallel with the Azaz offensive, Hezbollah launched attacks in the northern suburbs of Aleppo to cut the road called "Castello," by which the eastern rebel neighborhoods are supplied.

    This offensive has been less brutal than the one in the north because the terrain is more difficult to conquer: the high density of residential buildings prevents tanks from progressing. The regime and its allies will not try to retake this area quickly, since the risk of heavy losses from urban warfare is too great.

    aleppo syria damage

    The best solution is to surround it and wait, which will allow time for tens of thousands of civilians who remain in eastern Aleppo to flee. Many fighters are fleeing as well, perhaps because they fear they will not be able to withdraw once the area is fully besieged, as happened in Homs in spring 2014.

    Meanwhile, Syrian and Russian efforts will likely focus on the countryside west of Aleppo. From Zahra, it is now possible to attack the rebels northwest of Aleppo and support similar actions from the southwest, where the army has progressed a great deal since October.

    Again, Assad's forces are unlikely to tackle dense urban areas, instead moving in the open field and cutting rebel lines of communication. In the coming months, the army and its allies will probably aim to seize a sizable section of the western border between Bab al-Hawa and Jabal Turkmen in northern Latakia province.


     At the same time, the PYD might attack the ninety-kilometer border area between Azaz and Jarabulus in the north, currently held by IS. This would be in keeping with the group's strategy of linking the Kurdish enclaves of Afrin and Kobane.

    Unlike the United States, Russia does not want to antagonize the Kurds by prohibiting their deeply held goal of territorial unification. Moreover, Vladimir Putin wants to put pressure on Turkey's entire frontier with Syria: it is one of the main regional goals of the Russian intervention.

    If the PYD and pro-Assad forces succeed in their separate offensives, the whole border will be under their control, with no window into Turkey for anti-Assad forces, be they rebels or IS.

    Launch a Counteroffensive or Open a New Front?

    Moscow's strategy since September has been shaped by three goals. The first is to protect the coastal Alawite area where Russia has installed its logistics bases. The second is to strengthen Assad, pushing the rebels far from the large cities of Homs, Hama, Latakia, Aleppo, and Damascus. The third is to cut the rebels' foreign supply lines.

    The first two objectives have largely been met: there have been no attacks on Latakia or Tartus that could interfere with the Russian bases there, and no large city has fallen to the rebels. To the contrary, the rebels evacuated the Homs neighborhood of al-Waar in December because they were desperate, not seeing any help coming.

    A Free Syrian Army fighter carries his weapon as he walks along the fence of the Menagh airport which, according to the FSA, is partially controlled by Syrian regime forces in Aleppo's countryside, July 26, 2013. REUTERS/Hamid Khatib

    Now that the Azaz road has been cut, the third goal is halfway reached. Russia and its allies seem to have the means to meet their ambitions, with Assad's manpower weakness offset by complete air superiority and Shiite militia reinforcements.

    Yet Turkey and Saudi Arabia may not remain passive in the face of major Russian-Iranian progress in Syria. For example, they could set up a new rebel umbrella group similar to Jaish al-Fatah, and/or send antiaircraft missiles to certain brigades. Another option is to open a new front in northern Lebanon, where local Salafist groups and thousands of desperate Syrian refugees could be engaged in the fight.

    Such a move would directly threaten Assad's Alawite heartland in Tartus and Homs, as well as the main road to Damascus. Regime forces would be outflanked, and Hezbollah's lines of communication, reinforcement, and supply between Lebanon and Syria could be cut off. The question is, do Riyadh and Ankara have the means and willingness to conduct such a bold, dangerous action?

    Whatever the case, without that or another black-swan development, it is difficult to see how the rebels can resist the Russian-Syrian-Iranian steamroller. The latest successes in Aleppo place Putin at the center of the Syrian chessboard, contrary to forecasts that Russian intervention would make little difference or trap Moscow in another quagmire.

    Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor and research director at the University of Lyon 2, is a visiting fellow at The Washington Institute.

    SEE ALSO: ISIS 'is not sustainable' — here's the latest sign the group is losing

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    Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad

    The announcement of a timeline for "cessations of hostilities" in Syria on Thursday might actually allow the Assad regime and its allies to continue the Syrian Civil War on their own brutal terms.

    Syrian president Bashar al-Assad told AFP on Friday that he expects to reclaim control of the entire country even if it takes a "long time."

    And he can continue waging war as the partial result of yesterday's diplomatic development.

    On Thursday, the International Syria Support Group, a group of countries with interests in the outcome of the Syria conflict that includes the US, and Russia, issued a statement outlining an imminent halt in fighting.

    The agreement is being hailed as a potential diplomatic breakthrough after four years of war in the country.

    But the "Statement of the International Syria Support Group" issued on Thursday contains several loopholes that could work to the Assad regime's advantage and that allow him to continue some of the most destructive aspects of his campaign even with a "cessation of hostilities" in place. 

    Here are five reasons to be deeply skeptical of yesterday's development.

    The timeline. The cessation of hostilities begins in one week, followed by an undefined period of negotiation over a more formal halt in the conflict.

    aleppo rubble assad regime air strikeThat 2-3 week window could end up being a long time, in light of what's currently unfolding on the battlefield Assad's forces are closing in on Aleppo, Syria's largest city and an anti-regime stronghold, with the help of Russian airstrikes. Tens of thousands of refugees have already fled the city, and the opposition has had their supply lines to Turkey severed.

    According to Nadim Shehadi, director of the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University, the timeline envisioned in the Munich statement gives Russia a free hand to continue and even intensify its bombardment of Aleppo.

    "This looks like a ceasefire proposal," Shehadi told Business Insider. "But it's in effect a license to kill."

    AleppoiswmapThe "terrorism" exception. Per the Munich statement, the cessation "should apply to any party currently engaged in military or paramilitary hostilities against any other parties other than Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra, or other groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United Nations Security Council."

    Under such conditions, non-jihadist rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army would be violating the cessation in attacking Assad regime forces. But it's unclear if the opposite is true.

    Sergei Lavrov Russia Foreign MinisterBoth Assad has repeatedly stated that he considers all anti-regime forces to be "terrorists," while Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has claimed a notably elastic definition of which Syrian militants his government considers to be "terrorists."

    And given the degree of pragmatic cooperation between extremist and non-extremist anti-regime groups, Russia and Assad will have a built-in justification for continuing their war against the opposition. 

    One "US-backed rebel commander" told Mike Giglio of Buzzfeed that the agreement "is very dangerous for us."

    The fact that the "cessation" even allows Assad to continue fighting gives him international sanction for continuing the fight against anti-regime forces.

    So far, Russia has paid no apparent penalty for using an anti-ISIS operation as cover for airstrikes against non-jihadist rebels.

    There's little reason to believe the "cessation" would change these dynamics, given that the agreement it was reached at a time when Assad and Russia are operating from a position of the strength, and are on the verge of achieving one of their most important battlefield objectives.

    Syrians wait for an aid convoy in the besieged town of Madaya in the countryside of Damascus, Syria on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016 as part of a UN-sponsored aid operation in this war-torn country. (AP Photo)Slight of hand on humanitarian access. The agreement calls for the delivery of aid to a number of cities that are either besieged or outside the reach of humanitarian organizations: "In order to accelerate the urgent delivery of humanitarian aid, sustained delivery of assistance shall begin this week by air to Deir Ez Zour and simultaneously to Fouah, Kafrayah, the besieged areas of Rural Damascus, Madaya, Mouadhimiyeh, and Kafr Batna by land, and continue as long as humanitarian needs persist," the statement reads. "Humanitarian access to these most urgent areas will be a first step toward full, sustained, and unimpeded access throughout the country."

    The Munich statement vaguely motions towards some future agreement on full humanitarian access — while explicitly stopping short of requiring it.

    The agreement doesn't require the Assad regime to lift its siege on cities like Madaya. It doesn't even mention Aleppo, the source of a humanitarian calamity so severe that the resulting refugee stream could turn the Syrian Civil War into an event that "is becoming an existential threat to the EU," in the words of French ambassador to the US Gerard Araud.

    The agreement allows Assad to continue the war, without imposing particularly stringent humanitarian requirements on his regime.

    It helps Russia. The agreement makes it appear that Russia agreed to a fair solution to the conflict — when in reality that "solution" allows Assad to consolidate his gains with Russian assistance.

    As Ulrich Speck, a senior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy wrote, "The goal of the 'ceasefire' is very likely to confuse the west about Russia's actions and intentions in Syria, to break western unity, and by doing so, to attack the west's political will and ability to resist and counter Russian actions."

    Shehadi believes the entire agreement is timed to free make Russia appear a constructive actor in Syria — while giving it a temporary free hand in aiding the Assad regime in Aleppo and elsewhere.

    "Russia is facing a lot of problems, a lot of pressure because of what's happening in Aleppo, and to divert attention from that pressure they have put this proposal forward," Shehadi told Business Insider.

    syriaJust what is a "cessation of hostilities," anyway?  The phrase "cessation of active hostilities" appears in the Geneva Conventions in reference to requirements for repatriating prisoners of war.

    As University of Texas legal scholar Derek Jinks wrote in a 2003 paper, "It is important to note that many commentators have suggested that the 'general close of military operations' standard is distinct from the 'cessation of active hostilities standard.

    The latter refers to the termination of hostilities — the silencing of the guns — whereas the former refers to the complete cessation of all aggressive military maneuvers."

    Here's how another recent peace agreement, the January 2014 Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities in South Sudan's civil war, defined the phrase's requirements:

    Screen Shot 2016 02 12 at 12.39.24 PM

    A "cessation" could mean anything from a freezing of the conflict's frontlines (the Geneva Conversions definition, more or less) to a total halt in all armed activity.

    The Munich statement says that the "ISSG task force will within one week elaborate modalities for a nationwide cessation of hostilities."

    The agreement seeks to impose an as-yet undefined set of rules on the combatants. It creates an open-ended period in which it's unclear what the various sides' obligations really are — one that Assad and Russia will undoubtedly exploit as they continue their assault on Aleppo.

    "Look at what they're doing on the ground," Shehadi says of Assad and Russia's offensive against the city. "They're not looking for modalities. "They're going full blast."


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    Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks at Chatham House in London, Britain February 4, 2016. REUTERS/Neil Hall

    MUNICH (Reuters) - Iran and Saudi Arabia must overcome strained relations and work for stability in Syria and the Middle East, Iran's foreign minister said on Friday, a day after Syrian peace talks brought the rivals to the same table for the first time in months.

    Speaking at the Munich Security Conference hours after his Saudi counterpart addressed the event, Mohammed Javad Zarif said he wanted to stop the bickering and had a simple message: "We need to work together."

    "Iran and Saudi Arabia cannot exclude each other from the region," he said, referring to Riyadh as "our Saudi brothers". "We are prepared to work with Saudi Arabia ... I believe Iran and Saudi Arabia can have shared interests in Syria."

    Arch-rivals for regional hegemony, the two oil producers are on opposite sides in Syria's war and increasingly bad-tempered exchanges between the conservative Sunni-ruled kingdom and the revolutionary Shi'ite theocracy bode ill for the region.

    Ties have worsened since the kingdom's execution in January of prominent Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr prompted attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Saudi Arabia subsequently cut all ties with Iran.

    Iranian protesters chant slogans during a rally against the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia, after Friday prayers in Tehran January 8, 2016. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/ Zarif said he took inspiration from Iran's historic nuclear deal with world powers last July, saying that agreement and the lifting of sanctions that have followed showed how deep-seated problems can be resolved through diplomacy.

    "We have a common opportunity, common challenges, common threats," Zarif said, adding that it was time to "set aside the past and have a new narrative, a new paradigm for the future."

    Iran and Saudi Arabia were at the same table during six hours of talks in Munich among world and regional powers on Thursday to discuss Syria's civil war, agreeing a "cessation of hostilities" to take effect in a week's time.

    There was no consensus on the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who Iran and Russia are backing in a military assault to take back territory from rebels seeking to oust him.

    Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, who spoke in Munich before Zarif, made no references to Iran and underscored the differences over Assad's future, telling EU ministers and diplomats that the Syrian leader would be removed. "That's our objective and we will achieve it," he said.

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

    Beyonce performs during halftime at Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California on February 7, 2016.

    Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (L) and Pope Francis embrace in Havana, February 12, 2016.

    A man stands in the rubble of a Saudi-led air strike in Sanaa, Yemen's capital, on February 10, 2016.

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attends the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, February 13, 2016.       REUTERS/Michael Dalder

    MUNICH (Reuters) - Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev rejected accusations on Saturday that his country's forces have bombed civilians in Syria, saying this was "just not true".

    "There is no evidence of our bombing civilians, even though everyone is accusing us of this," Medvedev told a security conference in Munich, moments after French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Russian bombing of civilians must stop.

    "Russia is not trying to achieve some secret goals in Syria. We are simply trying to protect our national interests," he said, adding that Moscow wanted to prevent militant extremists getting to Russia. 

    (Writing by Paul Carrel and Shadia Nasralla; Editing by Noah Barkin)

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    U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at the United Nations General Assembly in New York September 28,  2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

    President Barack Obama discussed the Syria crisis, including the importance of rushing humanitarian aid to that country and containing air strikes, with Russian leader Vladimir Putin by telephone, the White House said on Sunday.

    "In particular, President Obama emphasized the importance now of Russia playing a constructive role by ceasing its air campaign against moderate opposition forces in Syria," the White House said in a statement.

    Initially, Russia claimed to be targeting ISIS with an air campaign in Syria, but almost immediately it became clear that the country's true intention was to bomb groups in opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

    In fact, Russia's bombing of rebel groups who fight both Assad and ISIS in Syria may have even helped ISIS gain territory.

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

    SEE ALSO: Top US military official: Russia has made it 'very clear' that it's not really in Syria to fight ISIS

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    Civil defence members search for survivors after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel held al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria February 14, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

    PARIS (Reuters) - A hospital supported by medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in the Idlib province of northern Syria was "deliberately" hit by air strikes on Monday and eight people are missing, MSF said in a statement.

    "This is a deliberate attack against a health establishment," said Massimiliano Rebaudengo, MSF head of mission. "The destruction of this hospital deprives about 40,000 people of healthcare in this conflict zone."

    MSF said the hospital was destroyed after being hit by four missiles following two attacks within a few minutes interval. At least eight people are unaccounted for.

    It did not identify the origin of the air strike.

    The hospital, which has 54 staff and holds 30 beds, is financed by the medical charity. MSF also supplies medicines and equipment to the facility.

    SEE ALSO: Obama to Putin: Stop bombing moderate Syrian opposition

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    Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev smiles as he attends at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, February 13, 2016.

    Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has said that Russia is not intending on staying in Syria indefinitely. 

    In an interview with Time, Medvedev said that although the Russian military was in Syria following the demands of President Bashar al-Assad, it was not up to him to determine the exposure of the Russian army in Syria.

    "We are there to fulfill a limited, specific mission that is related to protecting our national interests," Medvedev explained, according to a transcript of the interview released by the Russian government.

    As the Russian president and my colleagues have already said, and I reiterate, Russia doesn’t intend to stay in Syria forever," he said. 

    Russia, which launched its first airstrikes in Syria in September last year, says it is targetting ISIS and other rebel groups opposed to Assad's regime, which Russia regards as terrorists. 

    The US considers some of the rebel groups to be part of a moderate Syrian opposition and according to a White House statement, President Barack Obama asked Vladimir Putin during a phone call on Sunday to stop bombing the moderate groups

    Russia is also facing mounting pressure from the international community over the number of civilians killed during the airstrikes. Medvedev though, completely rejected those accusations on Saturday, saying it was "just not true." 

    "There is no evidence of our bombing civilians, even though everyone is accusing us of this," Medvedev told a security conference in Munich."Russia is not trying to achieve some secret goals in Syria. We are simply trying to protect our national interests." 

    One observer group estimates the number of civilians killed by Russian air strikes to be above 1,000

    russian airstrikes 29 jan 07 feb (1)

    Asked whether a point could be reached in which Russia would consider a longer presence in Syria, Medvedev said""We don’t need a permanent war, and Russia would not want to become involved in anything of the kind." 

    Alluding to comments he had made to German newspaper Handelsblatt, in which he said that ground operations often led to "permanent wars," Medvedev took another jab at the US military as he mention ned the US intervention in Afghanistan, giving it as an example of how once the US starts a ground operation they "can't pull out." 

    In the interview, Medvedev also acknowledged that Russia had "a lot of economic problems to deal with," and that the country needed to channel its resources and did not want "any confrontation anywhere." 

    The civil war in Syria, which started in 2011, has claimed over 250,000 lives so far, internally displaced over seven million people and sent almost four million fleeing to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Europe. 

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    russia airstrike syria

    PARIS (Reuters) - Seven people were killed in air strikes in Syria on a hospital supported by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the charity's France president said on Monday, adding that he believed Russia or Syrian government forces were behind the attack.

    "There were at least seven deaths among the personnel and the patients, and at least eight MSF personnel have disappeared, and we don't know if they are alive," Mego Terzian told Reuters.

    The hospital near Murat al-Numan in the northern Syrian province of Idlib was struck earlier on Monday by four missiles.

    "The author of the strike is clearly ... either the government or Russia," he said, adding that it was not the first time MSF facilities had been targeted in the country.

    The hospital, which has 54 staff and 30 beds, is financed by the medical charity. MSF also supplies medicine and equipment to the facility.

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    ypgTurkey's prime minister said on Monday that Ankara will not allow the strategic city of Azaz in northern Syria to fall to Kurdish YPG forces, promising the"harshest reaction" if the Kurds did not retreat.

    His comments come two days after Turkish artillery began firing on YPG positions in northern Syria from Turkey's southern border, targeting Menagh airbase near Azaz that the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had reportedly captured from Islamist rebel groups days earlier.

    "The YPG will immediately withdraw from Azaz and the surrounding area and will not go close to it again," Turkey's prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, told reporters on Saturday. He added that Turkey would make Menagh "unusable" if the SDF did not withdraw.

    Syrian Kurdish members of the SDF are allegedly affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a Kurdish political party deemed a terrorist organization by Turkey.

    In assaulting Menagh — which lies 6 miles south of Azaz — the Kurds defied previous US requests to not coordinate with the Russians, who have been targeting rebels in the area in an effort to retake Aleppo.

    azaz, aleppo syria

    "US has previously put pressure on YPG to not cooperate with RuAF east of Efrin," Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Saturday on Twitter. "They did not listen."

    Even so, Washington apparently asked Turkey to hold its fire against the US-backed Kurdish forces on Monday. The request was reportedly met with "astonishment" by Turkish officials ''because they put US ally Turkey and a terrorist organization in the same equation," Tanju Bilgic, the Turkish foreign-ministry spokesman, told reporters on Monday.

    Though the Afrin division of the YPG does not have as much contact with the US as YPG forces in Kobani and Jazira, YPG forces further west now appear to be actively coordinating with the Russians to recapture territory taken by Syrian rebels fighting forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. That complicates Washington's insistence that supporting the YPG-dominated SDF is key to defeating ISIS.

    It also means that the gamble the US has made to support the Kurdish-dominated SDF at the cost of alienating Turkey — a NATO ally — is backfiring in a big way. Turkey is shelling Kurdish-held positions in the north, and SDF fighters are attacking Syrian rebel groups backed by the US.


    "Totally bizarre seeing US-vetted & supported [rebel groups] Jabhat al-Shamiya & Faylaq al-Sham being attacked by US vetted & supported SDF" in northern Syria, said Syria expert Charles Lister, a resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, on Twitter.

    He added:

    It really cannot be said enough how catastrophic the policy disconnect between (1) CIA (2) CENTCOM & (3) Obama Admin has been on Syria. The CIA & CENTCOM have each empowered armed groups that directly oppose the other's reasons for being on the ground.

    The CIA has quietly been working with Saudi Arabia to vet and supply "moderate" rebel groups battling government forces in Syria — including Jabhat al-Shamiya and Faylaq al-Sham — with TOW antitank missiles. The Pentagon, meanwhile, was tasked with empowering the SDF after its first attempt at building a rebel force to combat ISIS in Syria failed.

    The government offensive near Azaz, aimed at severing Turkey's supply line to rebels near Aleppo, has brought pro-regime forces to within 15 miles of the Turkish border, Reuters reported on Monday.

    Democratic Forces Syria Fighters

    "Absent a ground incursion, or deft diplomacy, I don't see how Turkey can prevent [the] YPG from taking control of Azaz corridor," Stein wrote on Twitter.

    "If YPG takes Tel Rifat, can then put pressure on Azaz from West and South. Turkey will be forced to respond. May move fighters from Idlib," Stein added.

    By Monday morning, the YPG-dominated SDF had reportedly seized 70% of Tel Rifaat, which lies just south of Azaz and north of Aleppo.

    Significantly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — a staunch opponent of the Russia-backed Assad — signaled last week that Turkey would be prepared to intervene in Syria if asked by its coalition partners.

    "We don't want to fall into the same mistake in Syria as in Iraq," Erdogan told reporters on Sunday, according to the Turkish daily newspaper Hurriyet. "If ... Turkey was present in Iraq, the country would have never have fallen into its current situation."

    He added: "It's important to see the horizon. What's going on in Syria can only go on for so long. At some point it has to change."

    SEE ALSO: Assad just made a promise that effectively turns John Kerry's new plan for Syria on its head

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    A Russian SU-33 naval fighter plane flies during a drill at the Nitka training complex in the village of Novofedorovka, west of the Crimean city of Simferopol, August 27, 2015.   REUTERS/Pavel Rebrov

    Public support in Russia for the country's air strikes in Syria has slipped since the Kremlin launched its air campaign more than four months ago, a poll showed on Monday, but a comfortable majority still back the bombing.

    The survey, by the independent Levada Center, showed that 59 percent of Russians backed a continuation of Moscow's air campaign in Syria, which began on Sept. 30, compared to 27 percent who were opposed.

    Approval levels were slightly higher than a Nov. 15 Levada poll which found 55 percent of Russians broadly supportive.

    However both surveys suggest support has fallen since the start of the bombing campaign when Levada found that 72 percent of Russians were broadly supportive of the strikes when asked at the start of October.

    That may reflect fears, expressed in earlier surveys, that Russia could get sucked into a protracted Afghanistan-style conflict and follows the downing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt in October, an episode described as a terrorist act by the Kremlin in which 224 people were killed.

    Islamic State militants claimed responsibility for the plane bombing, saying it was revenge for Russia's Syria intervention.

    Monday's survey also found Russians were not following events in Syria as closely as they were at the end of last year.

    Pollsters say people are more preoccupied with Russia's economic crisis, which has prompted the steepest fall in real incomes since President Vladimir Putin came to power 15 years ago.

    russian airstrikes 29 jan 07 feb (1)

    Levada said its results were based on interviews it had conducted with 1,600 adults across Russia from Jan. 22-25. It said the margin of error did not exceed 3.4 percent.



    SEE ALSO: At least 23 dead from suspected Russian airstrikes on hospitals and a school in rebel-held Syria

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    Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, speaks at the donors Conference for Syria in London, Britain February 4, 2016. REUTERS/Toby Melville

    The European Union's senior diplomat said on Monday there was no Cold War climate between Moscow and the West as they agreed to a pause in the fighting in Syria, although Russia's prime minister said tension was growing.

    At a security conference in Munich on Friday, world powers agreed to a "cessation of hostilities" that would let humanitarian aid be delivered in Syria and was envisaged to start this week.

    But a day later Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told the gathering that Moscow and the West had "fallen into a new Cold War".

    "I have not seen the climate of Cold War in these last days," EU foreign policy head Federica Mogherini said when asked to comment on the Russian warning. She urged all the parties to the Syria agreement to stick to their commitments.

    But Russia, Damascus' main foreign ally, has yet to stop its air strikes, which support the advance of government troops and allied militias on Syria's largest city, Aleppo.

    Speaking in Brussels on Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif denied that backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- which include Teheran -- were using the revived diplomacy around Syria as a cover to pushing for more military advances on the ground.

    "We're not trying to use diplomacy to gain anything, but at the same time people cannot use diplomacy in order to provide human shield for al-Nusra and Islamic State working as a leverage," Zarif told a news conference with Mogherini, referring to the radical Islamist militias.

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and U.S. Foreign Secretary John Kerry (2L) attend the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) meeting in Munich, Germany, February 11, 2016, together with members of the Syrian opposition and other officials. REUTERS/Michael Dalder

    "What we agreed in Munich is a cessation of hostilities, not a pause to allow the allies of certain regional players to regroup," he said in criticism of Iran's foe Saudi Arabia.

    Sunni power Saudi Arabia opposes Assad, as well as Islamic State. Riyadh has said it was ready to participate in a ground operation in Syria if the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State there decides to start one.

    New hostilities have also broken out between Turkey and the Kurdish YPG militia since Munich, prompting Berlin to urge restraint.

    "As part of the Munich Agreement...all sides are called on - even before the start of a ceasefire - to contribute to an immediate reduction in violence," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.

    Russian airstrike Syria

    "That goes for Russia and the Syrian regime's military operations around Aleppo and the latest attacks by PYD militias in northern Syria. In view of the tense situation, Turkey too must show restraint."

    The war in Syria has killed at least 250,000 people as Assad, the rebels seeking to oust him, and the foreign backers of the rival sides have failed to agree on ways to end the conflict, which created a breeding ground for radical Islamists.

    SEE ALSO: At least 23 dead from suspected Russian airstrikes on hospitals and a school in rebel-held Syria

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    aleppo msf bombing airstrike syrian syria

    Close to 50 civilians were killed and more wounded when missiles hit three hospitals and a school in rebel-held Syrian towns on Monday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, as Russian-backed Syrian troops intensified their push toward the rebel stronghold of Aleppo.

    According to UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq, Ban said the attacks were "blatant violations of international laws" that "are further degrading an already devastated health care system and preventing access to education in Syria."

    Fourteen people were killed in the town of Azaz near the Turkish border when missiles slammed into a school sheltering families fleeing the offensive and the children's hospital, two residents and a medic said.

    Bombs also hit another refugee shelter south of the town and a convoy of trucks, another resident said.

    "We have been moving scores of screaming children from the hospital," medic Juma Rahal said. At least two children were killed and scores of people injured, according to him.

    Activists posted video online purporting to show the damaged hospital. Three crying babies lay in incubators in a ward littered with broken medical equipment. Reuters could not independently verify the video.

    In a separate incident, missiles hit another hospital in the town of Marat Numan in Idlib province, in north western Syria, said the French president of the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) charity, which was supporting the hospital.

    "There were at least seven deaths among the personnel and the patients, and at least eight MSF personnel have disappeared, and we don't know if they are alive," Mego Terzian told Reuters.

    aleppo msf hospital bombing airstrike syria

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks violence across the country, said one male nurse was killed and five female nurses, a doctor and one male nurse are believed to be under the rubble in the MSF hospital.

    "The destruction of the hospital leaves the local population of around 40,000 people without access to medical services in an active zone of conflict," MSF mission chief Massimiliano Rebaudengo said, the Associated Press notes.

    Also in Marat Numan, another strike hit the National Hospital on the north edge of town, killing two nurses, the Observatory said.

    Residents in both towns blamed Russian strikes, saying the planes deployed were more numerous and the munitions more powerful than the Syrian military typically used.

    aleppo msf hospital bombing airstrike syria

    "The author of the strike is clearly ... either the government or Russia," he said, adding that it was not the first time MSF facilities in Syria had been attacked.

    "We think it is Russia because the photos of the missiles have Russian language (and) because we haven't seen this kind (of missile) before the Russian intervention," Abdulrahman Al-Hassan, chief liaison officer at the Syrian Civil Defense, told the Associated Press.

    The attack on the civilian targets come just one day after US President Barack Obama called Russian President Vladimir Putin and asked him to stop bombing moderate opposition targets in Syria.

    The US Department of State has called Russia's motives in Syria into question with a statement that read in part:

    "That the Assad regime and its supporters would continue these attacks, without cause and without sufficient regard for international obligations to safeguard innocent lives, flies in the face of the unanimous calls by the ISSG (International Syria Security Group), including in Munich, to avoid attacks on civilians and casts doubt on Russia's willingness and/or ability to help bring to a stop the continued brutality of the Assad regime against its own people."

    Col. Steve Warren, the Pentagon's spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve, which includes the US air campaign in Syria, took to Twitter soon after to confirm that US-led coalitions had not bombed anywhere near the hospital on Monday.

    aleppo msf hospital bombing airstrike syria

    Rescue workers and rights groups say Russian bombing has killed scores of civilians at market places, hospitals, schools and residential areas in Syria. Western countries also say Russia has been attacking mostly Western-backed insurgent groups.

    But Moscow has said it is targeting "terrorist groups" and dismissed any suggestion it has killed civilians since beginning its air campaign in support of President Bashar al-Assad's forces in September.

    The town of Azaz has been the scene of fierce fighting as Kurdish anti-government forces advance from the west. They have reached the edge of town, only a few kilometers away from the main Bab al Salam border crossing. The Syrian army is advancing from the south.

    aleppo map

    Both the Kurds and the army want to wrest control of that stretch of border with Turkey from the insurgents that currently hold Azaz.

    Russian bombing raids on rebel fighters are helping the Syrian army to advance toward Aleppo, the country's largest city and commercial center before the conflict. If the army takes the city, it will by the Syrian government's biggest victory of the war.

    The Daily Mail posted the following video reportedly showing a Russian airstrike using clusterbombs, an internationally banned munition, in Aleppo:

    SEE ALSO: Obama to Putin: Stop bombing moderate Syrian opposition

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    isis Tel Abyad, Raqqa

    Activists in Raqqa, the self-declared capital of ISIS, have established a clever system for countering the spread of Islamic State propaganda, a Sky News documentary uncovered.

    Members of the group Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered (RBSS) are leaving copies of their anti-ISIS magazine across the city. However each copy is disguised by being printed with the front cover of Islamic State's own propaganda publication. 

    The trick has been so successful that the magazines have been able to spread across Raqqa under the noses of Islamic State fighters.

    Abdulaziz Alhamza, co-founder of RBSS, told Sky News in an interview: "We have a magazine that we spread through the city.

    "Our magazine cover is the same as the Islamic State magazine cover so when we spread it in the streets even ISIS fighters and members think it's their own magazine.

    "When they open it they find our ideas and our material. By this magazine we are trying to focus on children because right now we are not only fighting ISIS but the ideology of extremism."

    RBSS is a small group of citizen journalists dedicated to exposing the realities of life in Raqqa under the rule of Islamic State.

    The activists use YouTube and social media to reach a global audience but on the ground are coming up with bold means of resisting ISIS, also known as IS, ISIL, and Daesh.

    RBSS members also put up posters and spray graffiti on city walls in an attempt to spread an anti-ISIS message and protect the city's children from indoctrination. 


    Children as young as eight are thought to be on the front line fighting for ISIS and RBSS activists say that future generations of Syrians must be protected if the terrorist group is to be defeated.

    "There are a lot of suicide bombers that Daesh (IS) have orchestrated — as well as brainwashing the children," fellow co-founder Sarmad al Jilane told Sky.

    "They place them in the front line of battles and if they are killed then they are considered to be protecting Daesh lives."

    "Those kids are a whole generation that's lost."

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