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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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

    SEE ALSO: 7 charts that show why the tit for tat over crumbs in the South China Sea isn't for nothing



    Cars of emergency services arrive after an explosion in Ankara, Turkey, February 17, 2016.



    Harper Lee, author of "To Kill A Mockingbird" passed away on February 19. In this photo, US President George W. Bush (L) awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Lee (C) in the East Room of the White House, November 5, 2007.



    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    In this photo taken on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016, soldiers from the Syrian army fire a rocket at Islamic State group positions in the province of Raqqa, Syria. In recent weeks, Syrian government forces captured dozens of villages and towns across the country. (Alexander Kots/Komsomolskaya Pravda via AP)

    The main Syrian opposition group said Saturday it would be ready "in principle" to implement a provisional truce, slamming Russia and the Syrian government after a deadline set for a temporary cessation of hostilities passed.

    The Saudi-backed group, known as the High Negotiations Committee, said any potential truce would require the Syrian government to first lift blockades from rebel-held communities and release thousands of detainees.

    The statement followed a meeting among opposition groups held in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on Saturday to discuss the situation after the passing of a deadline set by world powers, including Russia and the US

    A Feb. 12 meeting in Munich of 18 nations supporting opposing sides in Syria's five-year civil war agreed to bring about a cessation of hostilities within a week to allow for peace talks to resume in Geneva. But the truce never took hold amid intense fighting, including a massive Russian-backed government offensive near the Turkish border.

    U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura told the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet on Friday that he cannot "realistically" get the parties in the Syrian conflict back to the table by Feb. 25 as he had hoped.

    The HNC said any truce must include all parties to the conflict, notably Russia and Iran, key supporters of President Bashar Assad's government. Russia has said that it would continue to strike at "terrorists" in Syria even during a cease-fire.

    russian airstrikes 29 jan 07 feb (1)

    "The deadline set in Munich for a cessation of hostilities has passed without response from Russia or the regime, who show disdain for the international community and disregard for the lives of Syrians," said HNC spokesman Salem Al Meslet in a statement.

    He said Assad and Russia have spent "yet another week annihilating defenseless Syrians" and called on the international community to implement a new approach that holds the two to account.

    Saudi Arabia's foreign minister meanwhile said he favors equipping Syrian rebels with surface-to-air missiles.

    "We believe that introducing surface-to-air missiles in Syria is going to change the balance of power on the ground," Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir was quoted as telling the German weekly Der Spiegel in an interview published Saturday.

    He said the moderate opposition could "neutralize" helicopters and aircraft that have been bombing them, adding that the move would have to be studied carefully, "because you don't want such weapons to fall into the wrong hands."

    The US has long opposed equipping rebels with such weapons, fearing they would fall into the hands of extremist groups. Al-Jubeir said it's a decision that the international coalition will have to make. "This is not Saudi Arabia's decision."

    Saudi Arabian Defense Minister Mohammed Bin Salman

    Meanwhile, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Kremlin is disappointed by the rejection of a proposed United Nations resolution aimed at stopping cross-border shelling and foreign ground intervention in the Syrian conflict.

    The draft resolution was put forth by Russia on Friday at an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council and was immediately turned down by France.

    It did not name Turkey but it was clearly aimed at the Turkish government, which has threatened ground action and is shelling US-backed Kurdish militia positions in Syria.

    On Saturday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said "Russia views such trans-border strikes by Turkish artillery and artillery strikes at Syrian territory as unacceptable," according to the state news agency Tass.

    "We can only express our regret that this draft resolution was not supported," he said.

    Syria's government described the Turkish artillery shelling inside Syria as an "outrageous violation" of international law.

    Turkey has been shelling Kurdish militia positions in Syria in recent days, saying it is exercising its right to self-defense and responding to fire from Syrian soil. It has also threatened to send in ground forces.

    The main Kurdish group in Syria, the People's Protection Units, or YPG, has denied firing at Turkey from Syria. The group has been on the offensive near the Turkish border, seizing territory from Turkey-backed Syrian rebels as well as the extremist Islamic State group.

    A Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighter walks near residents who had fled Tel Abyad, as they re-enter Syria from Turkey after the YPG took control of the area, at Tel Abyad town, Raqqa governorate, Syria, June 23, 2015. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency against Ankara.

    The YPG dominates a military alliance made up of Kurdish, Arab and Christian fighters known as the Syria Democratic Forces, which on Friday captured the town of Shaddadeh in northeastern Syria after three days of battles with IS militants. The town was one of the biggest strongholds of the extremist group in Syria.

    The capture of Shaddadeh was reported by the SDF as well as by Syrian activist groups opposed to President Bashar Assad on Friday.

    A militant website affiliated with IS disputed the reports, saying the militants were still in control of the town. A statement published by the Aamaq news agency said fighting was still raging around the town with Kurdish units trying to advance under US air cover.

     

    SEE ALSO: Turkey just received a huge 'political gift' — but its opponents are warning it could lead to a ‘big war'

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    Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during a meeting with members of the Central Bar Association in Damascus, in this handout picture provided by SANA on February 15, 2016.  REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters

    BEIRUT/MADRID (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Saturday he was ready for a ceasefire, on condition "terrorists" did not use a lull in fighting to their advantage and that countries backing insurgents halted support for them.

    His comments were made as the Syrian opposition said it had agreed to the "possibility" of a temporary truce, provided there were guarantees Damascus's allies including Russia would cease fire, sieges were lifted and aid deliveries were allowed country-wide.

    "We have said that we are ready to stop military operations, but the issue relates to more important factors ... such as preventing terrorists from using it to improve their positions," Assad told Spanish newspaper El Pais in an interview.

    He also said any truce must ensure that "other countries, especially Turkey, are prevented from sending more terrorists and weapons, or any kind of logistical support".

    Damascus refers to all insurgents fighting against the Syrian army and its allies as terrorists.

    Turkey, other Sunni regional powers and Western countries have supported insurgents fighting against Assad, whose forces are bolstered by Iran, Russia and Lebanese Hezbollah.

    Asked about the possibility of Turkey and Saudi Arabia sending ground forces into Syria, Assad said: "We're going to deal with them like we deal with the terrorists. We're going to defend our country. This is aggression."

    Attempts to negotiate a truce in recent months have failed. The latest round of talks at the United Nations in Geneva is being jointly chaired by Russia and the United States.

    World powers agreed in Munich on Feb. 12 to a cessation of hostilities that would let humanitarian aid be delivered in Syria.

    The ceasefire was scheduled to start a week later, but did not take effect. Syrian army offensives continue unabated across the country, backed by Russian air strikes.

    Assad said last week he would keep "fighting terrorism" while peace talks took place, vowing to retake the whole country.

    He told El Pais his troops were now close to fully controlling the northern city of Aleppo and were advancing towards the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa province.

    Once he has control of the country, Assad also said in the interview, the next step would be to form a national unity government that would lay the groundwork for a new constitution and general elections.

    (Reporting by John Davison in Beirut, Julien Toyer in Madrid and Ali Abdelatti in Cairo; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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    People carry medical supplies found under the rubble of a destroyed Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) supported hospital hit by missiles in Marat Numan, Idlib province, Syria, February 16, 2016.

    The Syrian envoy to the United Nations has accused French charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) of being a front for French intelligence operating in Syria, French newspaper Le Monde reports.

    Bashar Jaafari made the comments after a missile strike destroyed an MSF-operated hospital in the Idlib province of Syria on Monday, an attack in which at least 11 people died.

    "The so-called hospital was installed without any prior consultation with the Syrian government by the so-called French network called MSF which is a branch of the French intelligence operating in Syria," Bashar Jaafari said, according to AFP.

    A MSF spokesperson told Business Insider in an email that the organisation retained "absolute independence from all political, military and religious entities and powers," and that its medical operations in Syria were completely funded by private donations. "The medical humanitarian organisation always acts with total impartiality, on the basis of its own assessment of the medical needs of a population. This is the case in Syria, as in all places where MSF works."

    Both Russia and the US-led coalition have been blamed for the strike with both denying any involvement.

    Jaafari repeated claims that the US was responsible for the attack and asserted that the Syrian government had "credible information" backing those accusations.

    French Ambassador to the UN, Francois Delattre, immediately condemned the Syrian ambassador's "revolting remarks... which showed once again his true face," AFP reported.

    MSF's Head of Mission Massimiliano Rebaudengo said that destruction of the hospital left around 40,000 people without access to medical services in a conflict zone.

    Still image taken from video shows heavy smoke rising from a location said to be a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) supported hospital in Marat al Numan, Idlib, Syria

    "The destruction on the MSF supported facility appears to be a deliberate attack on a health structure," Rebaudengo said.

    MSF was founded in Paris in 1971 and now consists worldwide of 24 associations, bound together as MSF International, which is based in Switzerland.

    The organisation describes itself as "an international, independent, medical humanitarian organisation that delivers emergency aid to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, natural disasters and exclusion from healthcare."

    "[MSF] assume the full consequences of the act because they did not consult with the Syrian government," Jaafari told reporters following a UN Security Council meeting. "They did not operate with the Syrian government's permission."

    According to MSF, they maintain a dialogue with all parties involved in the conflict and have been requesting official permission to work in Syria.

    "In opposition-controlled areas... undertaking any assistance or rescue activities, particularly medical, is considered illegal by the Syrian government," MSF said in a statement, "This has been the case since the early days of the conflict. Aid organisations and aid workers are officially considered as guilty of "supporting terrorism." Mr Jaafari’s statement is entirely in line with this policy of criminalising humanitarian aid.">

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    putin assad

    Nothing is sacred in Syria's brutal civil war.

    Even hospitals have become fair game for airstrikes and bombings. Trying to get treated for wounds sustained elsewhere could turn into a death sentence.

    The hospital attacks have been described as brutal. Secondary strikes often follow the initial hit. Bombers will lay in wait for rescuers to arrive. Then, they will strike again in an attempt to wipe out the medical personnel trying to help the injured.

    "Today in Syria, the abnormal is now normal. The unacceptable is accepted," Joanne Liu, the international president of Doctors Without Borders, said in a statement this week. "... Deliberate attacks against civilian infrastructure, including hospitals struggling to provide lifesaving assistance, are routine. Healthcare in Syria is in the crosshair of bombs and missiles. It has collapsed."

    It's gotten so bad that people in Syria are now "too afraid to go to hospitals," the statement said.

    Syria's civil war has been dragging on since 2011, when President Bashar al-Assad's forces started brutally quashing anti-regime protests.

    Russia, an ally of Assad, became involved in the conflict last year, running airstrikes in support the Assad regime. While Russia claims to be fighting the terrorist group ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh) in Syria, it most often targets moderate rebels who oppose Assad.

    The US has pointed a finger at Russia for the hospital attacks. Lt. Gen. Charles Brown, commander of the US Air Forces Central Command, told reporters during a Thursday briefing that if he were "putting money on it," he would bet that Russia was responsible for some of the strikes.

    Michael Kofman, a Russia expert and public-policy fellow at the Wilson Center, told Business Insider that Syria and Russia are likely both to blame for the hospital attacks.

    The Russians carry out "very high-intensity bombing and they’re taking a lot of chances," Kofman said.

    "Most of what [Russians] use are unguided bombs, which is not indiscriminate bombing, it's just that you're bombing with much lower … accuracy," he said. "So you're going to hit civilian targets."

    And Russia hitting civilian targets in Syria might not be accidental. If Russia is indeed responsible for some of the hospital attacks, it would likely be a part of its broader strategy to defeat the rebels who challenge Assad's rule, experts say.

    Syria hospital

    "The targeting of hospitals and aid convoys has become a pattern for the Russian airstrikes in Syria," Hassan Hassan, an expert on Syria and fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told Business Insider in an email.

    "The goal is clear. ... The regime and its allies want to destroy the underground networks that are helping these areas survive and endure," he added. "Starvation and siege are not enough to force these populations to surrender. The idea is to force these areas controlled by the rebels into a standstill."

    Fred Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former special adviser for transition in Syria under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, described Russia's gruesome endgame in Syria.

    "This is all part of a military campaign that ultimately is designed to eliminate all of the alternatives to Assad and ISIS," he told Business Insider. "I think what the Russian goal at the end of the day here is is to force the United States into an embrace of Bashar al-Assad."

    Assad has been pushing this narrative for years, complaining that his opposition is filled with terrorists and positioning himself as the last bulwark against a total jihadist takeover of Syria. But Assad is known to be a harsh dictator who commits atrocities against civilians, and the US previously called for him to step down before softening that position more recently.

    "I think this would be an extraordinarily large and bitter pill for any president of the United States to swallow," Hof said. "I don't know how the US would react to this dilemma."

    Rebel fighters from the Democratic Forces of Syria, gather around a fire near al-Hawl area in the southeastern city of Hasaka, Syria November 10, 2015. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    Russia's endgame in Syria

    US and Russian interests ultimately diverge in Syria — Russia is focusing on propping up the Assad regime, while the US (which is carrying out airstrikes in the country and recently sent special forces there for other missions) is focusing on defeating ISIS.

    And while the US wants to see a political transition away from Assad in Syria, if Assad's plan to crush the moderate rebels until only ISIS and Al Qaeda Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra are left, the US will be faced with a difficult choice.

    "Degrading and destroying ISIS is the stated objective of the United States. If the Russians succeed in Syria ... at the end of the day with only Assad and al-Baghdadi left standing, what does the United States do?" Hof said, referring to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

    And Russia's motives go deeper than just supporting an ally. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been trying to build up his country's power and extend its influence into the Middle East.

    "For Putin, this is all about reasserting the position of Russia as a great power," Hof said. "Putin has been telling the world … that the United States and the West have been on this democratization crusade for years now and it includes changing regimes, and look at the chaos it's cause all over the place."

    He continued: "Now what he is saying in essence is that, 'I'm going to stop it cold in Syria. I'm going to stop it by trying to eliminate all the alternatives to Assad and ISIS so I can force the president of the US … to embrace Assad as the only alternative to ISIS.' That way it's a tremendous diplomatic triumph for Putin."

    And Putin is so determined to bolster Russia's standing in the world, Hof said, that he's willing to invest significant financial resources in the conflict in Syria.

    "Even as their economy deteriorates … he can tell [Russians], 'We're a great power again,'" Hof said.

    But there's a limit to what Russia will be willing to do in Syria — though it will contribute to the destruction of the country, it likely won't contribute to the reconstruction. And if Russia achieves its end goal, Putin will have less use for Assad.

    "If [Putin] succeeds in this, from that point on, Assad becomes expendable," Hof said. "Assad has served his grand purpose in the Russian scheme of things by then. That doesn’t mean the Russians will dispose of him, but it sure doesn’t mean they will put so much of a ruble into the reconstruction of this place."

    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.

    'Today, Syria is a kill box'

    There are no easy or obvious solutions to Syria's civil war. And once it is over, it's unclear where the money will come from to rebuild.

    "Life in Syria is shattered," Liu said in the Doctors Without Borders statement. "There is no safety or sanctuary from the unrelenting attacks. Schools, hospitals and homes are destroyed."

    It continued: "Today, Syria is a kill box. We are witness to a collective global failure."

    The US-led anti-ISIS coalition that is carrying out strikes in Syria has so far avoided tangling with Russian or Syrian forces. As the West avoids interfering with Assad's continued rule, civilians are bearing the brunt of his brutality.

    Hospitals are far from the only civilian targets in Syria. Aid has been cut off in some areas, and thousands of people in the country are starving.

    "Aid convoys coming from Turkey into Syria have come under Russian fire since the campaign started to focus on the northern parts of the country and on the disruption of rebel supply lines from there," Hassan, of theTahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told Business Insider. "It is incredible how such acts seem to receive little international outcry, especially from the US and the EU."

    And Assad doesn't make much of an effort to avoid killing civilians.

    Said the Wilson Center's Kofman: "Syrian [forces] just don’t care. This is what they do on purpose."

    SEE ALSO: The US just told Russia where some of its troops are in Syria — but there’s a chance things could now get 'messy'

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    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry listens to opening remarks during the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California February 15, 2016.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

    AMMAN (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday he and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov had reached a provisional agreement on terms of a cessation of hostilities in Syria and the sides were closer to a ceasefire than ever before.

    But he indicated there were still issues to be resolved and he did not expect any immediate change on the ground. In Syria's Homs, twin car bombs killed at least 46 people on Sunday, and explosions hit parts of Damascus.

    Russian air strikes launched in September against rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad have exacerbated suffering and destruction in Syria, where a five-year-old civil war has killed more than a quarter of a million people.

    Assad said on Saturday he was ready for a ceasefire on condition "terrorists" did not use a lull in fighting to their advantage and that countries backing insurgents stopped supporting them.

    The Syrian opposition had earlier said it had agreed to the "possibility" of a temporary truce, provided there were guarantees Damascus's allies including Russia would cease fire, sieges were lifted and aid deliveries were allowed country-wide.

    "We have reached a provisional agreement in principle on the terms of a cessation of hostilities that could begin in the coming days," Kerry told a news conference in Amman with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.

    kerry lavrov

    "The modalities for a cessation of hostilities are now being completed. In fact, we are closer to a ceasefire today than we have been," said Kerry, who was also to meet King Abdullah.

    He declined to go into detail about the unresolved issues, saying the two sides were "filling out the details" of the agreement.

    But he repeated the U.S. position that Assad had to step down. "With Assad there this war cannot and will not end," he said.

    Assad's fate has been one of the main points of difference between Washington and Russia, the Syrian leader's main international backer. Russia recently has begun to say Syrians should decide on whether Assad should stay or not, but it continues to support Damascus with air strikes. 

    OBAMA AND PUTIN TO TALK

    Kerry said he had spoken to Lavrov on several occasions, including earlier on Sunday, and that he anticipated U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin would talk in the coming days to complete the provisional agreement in principle.

    Obama and Putin

    The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed Lavrov and Kerry had spoken by phone on Sunday about conditions for a ceasefire. It said discussions were on ceasefire conditions which would exclude operations against organizations "recognized as terrorist by U.N. Security Council".

    These are groups including Islamic State and the al Qaeda- linked Nusra Front.

    Despite the provisional agreement, Kerry did not see an imminent change in fighting on the ground.

    "I do not believe that in the next few days, during which time we try to bring this into effect, there is somehow going to be a tipping point with respect to what is happening on the ground ... The opposition has made clear their determination to fight back," he said.

    In Homs at least 46 people were killed and 100 people wounded by the car bombs, one of the deadliest attacks in the city in five years of civil war, a monitoring group said.

    Residents look for survivors at a site hit by what activists said were three consecutive air strikes carried out by the Russian air force, the last which hit an ambulance, in the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan town in Idlib province, Syria January 12, 2016. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi There were several explosions too in a southern district of Damascus, state television and witnesses said. The monitoring group reported casualties.

    Kerry said any deal would take a few days to come together, while the two sides consulted with other countries and the Syrian opposition. Russia had to speak to the Syrian government and Iran, and the United States had to speak to the Syrian opposition and its partners, Kerry said.

    Russia's RIA news agency said on Sunday that Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu had arrived in Tehran, quoting a source in the Russian Embassy in Iran. It did not give a reason for the visit.

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    A man rides a bicycle near damaged buildings in Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, Syria October 27, 2015. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - Twin car bomb blasts killed at least 57 people in Syria's Homs on Sunday, a monitoring group said, in an attack claimed by Islamic State.

    At least 100 others were injured in the attack in the central Zahra district of the western city, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

    Footage from pro-Damascus television channels showed charred corpses buried by rubble, damage to shop fronts and debris littering a wide area. Plumes of smoke rose from burning cars and wounded people walked around dazed.

    State television said at least 32 people had been killed.

    Islamic State claimed responsibility for the two car bombs through Amaq, a news agency that supports the militant group.

    A bomb attack claimed by Islamic State last month in Homs killed at least 24 people as government forces took back some Islamic State-held villages in Aleppo province in the north.

    Sunday's attacks also came a day after government advances against Islamic State.

    A bomb attack killed 32 people in Homs in December after a ceasefire deal paved the way for the government to take over the last rebel-controlled area of the city, which was a center of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

    Violence rages on unabated across the country as world powers and the United Nations push to end the five-year-old conflict, meeting in Geneva to try to broker a ceasefire.

    Peace talks were suspended almost immediately earlier this month as Syrian government forces and their allies, backed by Russian air strikes, intensified assaults against insurgents in Aleppo province.

    The latest fighting in the north of the country has displaced tens of thousands of people, many of whom headed for the Turkish border. The exodus added to more than 11 million already displaced by the conflict, which has claimed 250,000 lives

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    erdogan ankara

    ISTANBUL — Turkey is confronting what amounts to a strategic nightmare as bombs explode in its cities, its enemies encroach on its borders and its allies seemingly snub its demands.

    As recently as four years ago, Turkey appeared poised to become one of the biggest winners of the Arab Spring, an ascendant power hailed by the West as a model and embraced by a region seeking new patrons and new forms of governance.

    All that has evaporated since the failure of the Arab revolts, shifts in the geopolitical landscape and the trajectory of the Syrian war.

    Russia, Turkey's oldest and nearest rival, is expanding its presence around Turkey's borders — in Syria to the south, in Crimea and Ukraine to the north, and in Armenia to the east. On Saturday, Russia's Defense Ministry announced the deployment of a new batch of fighter jets and combat helicopters to an air base outside the Armenian capital, Yerevan, 25 miles from the Turkish border.

    Blowback from the Syrian war in the form of a string of suicide bombings in Istanbul and Ankara, most recently on Wednesday, has brought fear to Turkish streets and dampened the vital tourist industry.

    The collapse of a peace process with Turkey's Kurds has plunged the southeast of the country into war between Kurds and the Turkish military just as Syrian Kurds carve out their own proto-state in territories adjacent to Turkey's border.

    The economy is in the doldrums, hit by fears of instability and by sanctions from Moscow targeting such goods and revenue sources as Turkish tomatoes and tourism in retaliation for the downing of a Russian plane in November.

    Turkey syria

    Worries that the tensions could escalate further are spreading, both in Turkey and in the international community, prompting French President François Hollande to warn on Friday that "there is a risk of war between Turkey and Russia."

    "Turkey is facing a multifaceted catastrophe," said Gokhan Bacik, professor of international relations at Ankara's Ipek University. "This is a country that has often had problems in the past, but the scale of what is happening now is beyond Turkey's capacity for digestion."

    A rift with the United States, Turkey's closest and most vital ally, over the status of the main Syrian Kurdish militia, the People's Protection Units (YPG), has further exposed Turkey's vulnerability. A demand by President Recep Tayyep Erdogan that Washington choose between NATO ally Turkey and the YPG, its main Syrian ally in the fight against the Islamic State, was rebuffed by the State Department this month, despite Turkish allegations that the YPG had carried out the bombing in Ankara.

    On Saturday, Turkey dug in, demanding unconditional support from the United States. "The only thing we expect from our U.S. ally is to support Turkey with no ifs or buts," Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told journalists in Ankara.

    Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (C) prays during his visit to the site of Wednesday's suicide bomb attack in Ankara, Turkey February 19, 2016, as he is flanked by Interior Minister Efkan Ala (L), Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz (R) and Governor of Ankara Mehmet Kiliclar (2nd R).  REUTERS/Umit Bektas  Turkey now stands completely isolated, trapped in a maze of quandaries that are partly of its own making, said Soli Ozel, professor of international relations at Istanbul's Kadir Has University.

    "It has so alienated everyone it cannot convince anyone to do anything," he said. "It is a country whose words no longer carry any weight. It bluffs but does not deliver. It cannot protect its vital interests, and it is at odds with everyone, including its allies.

    "For a country that was until very recently seen as a consequential regional power, these facts strike me as quite disastrous," he added.

    Most immediately, Turkey is agonizing over the fast-changing dynamics along its southern border with Syria, where Russia is bombing, Kurds are advancing and the rebels it has supported against President Bashar al-Assad for the past five years are facing defeat.

    Sending troops into Syria, as Ankara has hinted it might, would risk a confrontation with Russia that Turkey would almost certainly lose. The downing of a Russian plane in November was, in retrospect, a major miscalculation, analysts say, one that has hamstrung Turkey's ability to project its influence into Syria and prevented it from flying missions there, even in support of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State.

    A Turkish soldier stands guard near the site of an explosion in Ankara, Turkey February 17, 2016.

    Not to intervene would mean bowing to the inevitability of an autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Syria bordering Turkey's own restive Kurdish region, as well as the defeat of the rebels Turkey had hoped would topple Assad and project Turkish influence into the Arab world.

    For now, Turkey has confined its response in Syria to artillery shelling against the advancing Kurdish forces and efforts to reinforce the rebels. A rebel fighter in the border town of Azaz, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive, confirmed multiple reports that Turkey has facilitated the deployment of several hundred rebel fighters from the province of Idlib into Aleppo, via Turkish territory.

    At the same time, Erdogan has sought, without success, to revive pressure on the United States to agree to long-standing Turkish proposals for the creation of a safe zone in northern Syria that would protect Syrian civilians who have sought refuge from the fighting along Turkey's border.

    Most observers think direct Turkish intervention unlikely, at least for now. There is no public support for a war and no support for one within the Turkish armed forces. A group of more than 200 academics signed a petition this past week urging Turkey not to go to war in Syria, and the military has publicly stated that it is not willing to send troops across the border without U.N. Security Council approval.

    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends the opening session of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, November 30, 2015.   REUTERS/Christian Hartmann But that has not deterred Erdogan from continuing to threaten action, drawing supposed red lines and seemingly digging Turkish policymakers deeper into a hole from which there is no obvious escape. He recently said the fall of rebel-held Azaz to the advancing Kurds would be a "red line" and vowed that Turkey would not allow the creation of a refuge for militant Kurds in Syria.

    Turkey's predicament is not entirely self-inflicted. Some of the broader global trends — such as Russia's increasing assertiveness and the United States' waning interest in the Middle East — could not readily have been foreseen when Turkey set about crafting its ambitious foreign policy earlier in the decade, analysts say.

    But Erdogan appears to have misjudged the extent to which the shifting parameters have constrained Turkey's room to maneuver, according to Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at the Wilson Center in Washington.

    "Erdogan has mismanaged foreign policy because of hubris," Barkey said. "He was overconfident in 2010 that Turkey was the darling of the world, and that went to his head. There are setbacks that are not of his doing, but how he managed those setbacks are his doing."

    When Erdogan is also confronting unforeseen challenges to his domestic ambitions, notably his plans to amend Turkey's constitution to enhance his presidential powers, further Turkish missteps cannot be ruled out, said Bacik, the professor in Ankara.

    "I'm not saying that Turkey has lost its mind and is poised for war, but the posture in Ankara is very strange and could lead to surprises," he said. "What's happening in Syria is a question of survival for Erdogan, so it is not possible to rule anything out.

    "For Turkey," he added, "there is no good scenario from now on."

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    A wounded girl receives treatment after multiple bomb blasts in Damascus

    ISIS has claimed responsibility for attacks in the Syrian cities of Damascus and Homs that claimed at least 140 lives, the BBC reports.

    Four blasts in Syria's capital city killed at least 80 people on Sunday, while a double car bombing claimed 57 lives in the western city of Homs, according to state media and monitoring groups.

    Syrian state television reported that over 200 people were injured in this latest wave of attacks in the war-torn country, according to Sky News.

    The attacks appeared to target areas heavily populated by minorities.

    Syria's holiest Shia Muslim shrine in Sayydia Zeinab was hit in the Damascus attacks, while in Homs, blasts affected a predominantly Alawite district.

    Only last month, the Sayydia Zeinab district was hit by suicide attacks that left over 70 people dead, which ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL or Daesh) fighters claimed to have carried out.

    The attack in Homs was one of the biggest blasts in the city since the civil war broke out five years ago, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

    Syrian army soldiers inspect the site of a two bomb blasts in the government-controlled city of Homs, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on February 21, 2016.Situated 100 miles north of Damascus, Homs was once perceived as the capital of the revolution but is now controlled by pro-government forces.

    The attacks came just hours after at least 50 IS fighters were killed by a government advance on the city of Aleppo over the weekend.

    Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry claims that negotiators have arrived at a "provisional agreement in principle" on a Syrian ceasefire.

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    syria glass

    On February 19, an important deadline in Syria's Civil War was missed. 

    A week prior, the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), a group of countries with interests in the outcome of the Syria conflict that includes the US, and Russia, announced that a "cessation of hostilities" would begin within one week.

    On Monday, the US-Russian plan calling for a cessation of hostilities in Syria is set to begin on Feb. 27.

    The ceasefire will exclude Islamic State and al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front militants, two Western diplomatic sources told Reuters.

    Secretary of State John Kerry continues to broker the deal and spoke of the ceasefire in Syria on Feb. 19.

    "Working out modalities for a cessation of hostilities in a situation like Syria is a highly technical and detailed process; and that's why our teams are still at it," Kerry said Friday, according to Reuters.

    "We want this process to be sustainable, and should all participants prove willing to really sit down and work this out, we can get to a cessation of hostilities."

    The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed a report by the Al Jazeera television network, which also reported that the draft calls on Syrian parties to agree to the cessation of hostilities by midday on Feb. 26. One of the sources said this was accurate, but the second was unable to confirm it. 

    To date, Syria's Civil War, which began in 2011, has killed a staggering 470,000 people, according to a Syrian Center for Policy Research report.

    (Tom Miles in Geneva, Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Yara Bayoumy in Dubai; Editing by Eric Walsh)

    SEE ALSO: That proposed halt in fighting in Syria is now looking like a complete failure

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    An Islamic State fighter gestures while being held prisoner with fellow fighters under Democratic Forces of Syria fighters as they ride a pick-up truck near al-Shadadi town, Hasaka countryside, Syria, February 18, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    LONDON (Reuters) - U.S. estimates of the number of Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria have been reduced while cuts in their pay are evidence they are on the defensive, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting the group said on Monday.

    But the task of defeating Islamic State is complicated by Russian air strikes in Syria which are 90 percent targeted at opposition fighters and not at the jihadist group, U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren said.

    Warren said increases in forced conscription, the recruitment of child soldiers and the use of elite fighters in common units were all evidence that Islamic State was seeing a slowing in the influx of foreign fighters.

    "We believe that Daesh is now beginning to lose. We see them in a defensive crouch," Warren told reporters in London, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

    U.S. intelligence estimates of the number of Islamic State fighters, which for the first 17 months of coalition operations ranged from 19,000 to 31,000, had been revised to 20,000 to 25,000 - a level he said the group would struggle to maintain.

    "They have been able to replenish their forces at roughly the same rate as we've been able to kill their forces. That's hard to sustain," he said.

    Warren said that until recently the average local Islamic State fighter was paid about $400 a month, while foreign fighters, who tended to be "better" because they were more committed and fanatical, were on $600 to $800 a month.

    However, recent announcements by the group and other evidence suggested that common fighters' pay had been cut by half, while it had also reduced pay for the foreign recruits, though perhaps not by such a large proportion, he said. 

    Russians "reckless and irresponsible"

    Warren said the group had lost 40 percent of the territory it once controlled in Iraq, and 10 percent in Syria, where the coalition's job was much harder, partly due to the Russian air strikes.

    "The Russians have said they're here to fight terrorists, they're here to fight Daesh. We've seen very little evidence to support that. About 90 percent of Russian air strikes have been against the opposition, not against Daesh," he said.

    A man carries an injured woman in a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force in the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan town in Idlib province, Syria, January 9, 2016.

    "The Russians conduct their air strikes using imprecise methods. I find them reckless and irresponsible. They simply drop dumb bombs out of the back their aircraft," he said, adding that the coalition believed the Russians had used cluster bombs.

    Asked about efforts to build up Syrian forces on the ground to fight Islamic State, Warren contrasted the fighting in the northwest corner of the country with the conflict further east, near the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa.

    In the northwest, he said the large number of groups operating made it harder for the coalition to generate a "meaningful ground force" there.

    But in the strip of land from the town of Kobani to the Iraqi border, the coalition-backed Kurdish YPG group and allies were in control and beginning to drive south toward Raqqa city.

    In Syria's northeastern province of Hasaka he highlighted the battle for al-Shadadi, a crossroads town east of Raqqa controlled by 400 to 600 Islamic State fighters, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Friday had been captured by forces including the YPG.

    "When we're able to seize that it's yet another piece of the supply lines into Raqqa that becomes seized," he said.

    (Editing by Dominic Evans)

    SEE ALSO: Watch coalition airstrikes obliterate 2 ISIS financial-storage centers holding hundreds of millions of dollars

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    Migrants walk along Hungary's border fence on the Serbian side of the border near Morahalom, Hungary, February 22, 2016, REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

    THE HAGUE (Reuters) - People-smuggling gangs netted up to 6 billion euros ($6.6 billion, £4.6 billion) last year, most of it from the traffic of migrants into Europe, the European Union's police agency Europol said in a report issued on Monday.

    Labeling people-smuggling as the "fastest growing criminal market in Europe", the report said: "This turnover (of 6 billion euros) is set to double or triple if the scale of the current migration crisis persists in the upcoming year."

    Europol and police forces in countries in Europe and beyond have identified more than 12,000 suspects active in gangs involved in smuggling in migrants since 2015.

    Gangs, whose members come from countries including Bulgaria, Egypt, Hungary, Iraq and Kosovo, are engaged in a huge range of criminal activities including document forgery and official bribery, the report said.

    So-called "hotspots" where gang activities is concentrated include cities along the Balkan route from the Middle East, such as Istanbul, Izmir, Athens and Budapest, as well as major continental hubs like Berlin, Calais, Zeebrugge and Frankfurt.

    But Europol said there was little evidence that "terrorist suspects" were making use of migrant smuggling networks to enter the continent on a significant scale.

    "Far less than 0.01 percent of terrorist suspects have had migrant links," said Europol director Rob Wainwright at a news conference.

    About one million migrants reached Europe last year, most of them fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, the agency said in a report issued as it set up a new center to coordinate the Europe-wide fight against the smugglers.

    The European Migrant Smuggling Centre, which will be based at Europol's headquarters in The Hague, will help police forces in and outside Europe share intelligence and will help with rapid deployment of emergency police forces as new migrant routes emerge.

    (Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

    SEE ALSO: There's a little-known connection between Islamic terrorism and drug money

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    People and Civil Defense members remove rubble while looking for survivors in the ruins of a destroyed Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) supported hospital hit by missiles in Marat Numan, Idlib province, Syria, February 16, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

    Following the earlier attacks on medical facilities in Syria run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) the Russian Defence Ministry has published a statement explaining why it’s not responsible for the attacks. 

    Much of the statement is a mess of barely coherent claims, and reads closer to a conspiracy theory than a statement from a serious organization. The Russian Defence Ministry attacks MSF, questioning whether or not the facilities actually had anything to do with MSF in the first place;

    First of all, it is to be claimed that only Turkish authorities new about the fact that there had been hospitals of the “Doctors Without Borders” organization in Idlib and Azaz by the previous day. There is no information concerning these establishments anywhere including the website of the “Doctors Without Borders”.

    In a Foreign Policy article dated February 16th, Syrian MSF Hospital Kept Location Secret to Avoid Being Bombed, the reason for this is quite clear. Those running the medical facility in Idlib were concerned that sharing the location would more likely make them a target, having seen many other medical facilities attacked in Syria.

    aleppo msf hospital bombing airstrike syria

    The Russian Defence Ministry then moves onto slightly more bizarre accusations:

    Moreover, messages concerning the allegedly destroyed hospitals and schools in Azaz dated February 10 can be simply found on the website.

    In other words, this fabrication had been prepared but not realized the day before the meeting of the heads of foreign ministries of Russia and the USA in Munich, the results of which, as the Russian Defence Ministry assumes, are so opposed by Turkey.

    This appears to refer to articles on the MSF website published on February 10th, Syria: Health system close to collapse in war-torn Azaz district and Syria: Escalation of Conflict in Azaz District Could Have Dire Consequences, which refer to the situation in the Azaz district:

    Meanwhile, the fighting continues to put extreme pressure on the already devastated healthcare system. This includes several hospitals and smaller health facilities in Azaz and the rural areas around Aleppo city, having been hit by airstrikes in the last two weeks, including at least three MSF-supported hospitals.

    “Azaz district has seen some of the heaviest tolls of this brutal war, and yet again we are seeing healthcare under siege,” said Muskilda Zancada, MSF head of mission, Syria. “We are extremely concerned about the situation in the south of the district, where medical staff, fearing for their lives, have been forced to flee and hospitals have either been completely closed, or can only offer limited emergency services.”

    To claim, as the Russian Defence Ministry does, that these reports are fabrications some how accidentally published ahead of time, is frankly bizarre, something you’d expect to see on a badly written conspiracy blog rather than an official statement from any Defence Ministry. Next the Russian Defence Ministry claims:

    In the message dated February 15 concerning the allegedly destroyed hospital in Idlib, there is no photo or video of this building: neither undamaged nor destroyed.

    Two article on the MSF website were posted on February 15th about the attacks, At Least Seven Killed and Eight Missing in Attack on MSF-Supported Hospital in Northern Syria and MSF-Supported Hospital in Northern Syria Destroyed in Attack, both of which carry photographs of the building destroyed in Idlib:

    MSF hospital bombed ruissa

    Next, the Russian Defence Ministry raises where the stories are being reported from:

    It is to be emphasized one more time: neither Syria, nor Idlib or Aleppo; it was the Turkish city of Gaziantep near the border with Syria.

    By the way, that was the city where, by a strange coincidence, the largest training camps had been organized under the aegis of the Turkish secret services for militants arriving into the country from other countries including CIS who were then sent to Syria to fight within terrorist groupings.

    If anybody in the Turkish Republic thinks that the Russian party does not guess that, they should not indulge in illusions.

    Both messages concerning the allegedly destroyed hospitals and schools in Azaz dated February 10 and Idlib dated February 15 have the same origin – “Gaziantep. Turkey”.

    This seems to refer to location the MSF articles are filed from, which seems to have confused the Russian Defence Ministry. As with many articles, the location of where the story is filed from is reported, in fact on one of the February 15th articles the location is Gaziantep/Paris. To imagine this is indicative of some sort of conspiracy is yet another bizarre statement by the Russian Defence Ministry. The Russian Defence Ministry finishes with:

    The information concerning the place where these fabrications had been made has been published, apparently due to negligence of authors or editors of the website.

    It’s unclear whether or not the Russian Defence Ministry actually believes this absolute nonsense, or have reached the point of being so desperate to deflect criticism that they make up any rubbish to defend themselves, even if it’s laughable conspiracy theories about MSF and Turkey plotting against them.

    SEE ALSO: Russia wants to fly over the US with advanced digital cameras

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    Blood covers the hands of an injured boy lying in a field hospital after what activists said were air strikes by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus February 6, 2015.  REUTERS/ Mohammed Badra

    War crimes in Syria's five-year-old conflict are widespread and Syrian government forces and Islamic State militants continue to commit crimes against humanity in the face of inaction by the international community, a U.N.-backed panel said on Monday.

    "Flagrant violations of human rights and international humanitarian law continue unabated, aggravated by blatant impunity," the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry said in its latest report.

    "The stipulations of relevant Security Council resolutions ... remain largely unheeded and unimplemented," it said. "Crimes against humanity continue to becommitted by government forces and by ISIS (Islamic State). War crimes are rampant."

    The U.N. inquiry, composed of independent experts, has long denounced the use of starvation by both sides in the Syrian conflict as a weapon of war, and has a confidential list of suspected war criminals and military units from all sides which is kept in a U.N. safe in Geneva.

    Syria hospital

    The commission's chairman, Paulo Pinheiro, told reporters at U.N. headquarters that no warring party respects international humanitarian law.

    "The fractured Syrian State is on the brink of collapse," the commission said in its 31-page report. "Indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on the civilian population must be brought to an end."

    "Government forces, anti-government armed groups and terrorist organizations employ sieges and consequent starvation, denial of humanitarian access and other forms of deprivation as instruments of war to force surrender or to extract political concessions," it said.

    "Civilians, who bear the brunt, serve as little more than pawns. Their suffering has been compounded by an absence of civilian protection," it added.

    aleppo syria

    The commission urged the 15-nation Security Council to refer the conflict in Syria to the International Criminal Court in The Hague or an ad hoc war crimes tribunal to ensure justice. Russia and China previously blocked a Western attempt to refer the conflict to the ICC.

    Syria is not an ICC member so the only way the court could take it up is with a Security Council referral.

    It said that all parties should distinguish between military and civilian targets, halt indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, end sieges and guarantee unhindered access to humanitarian aid.

    A draft U.S.-Russian plan calls for a cessation of hostilities in Syria to begin on Feb. 27 but to exclude Islamic State and al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front militants, two Western diplomatic sources said on Monday.

    (Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and W Simon)

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    US-led coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh) on February 15 destroyed a weapons storage facility near Abu Kamal, Syria.

    The strike was just one of 30 carried out by the Combined Joint Task Force's Operation Inherent Resolve

    Recently, the coalition's airstrikes have wrecked havoc on ISIS' ability to fund their operations and pay their workers, as multiple strikes earlier this month destroyed cash storage and tax collection facilities.

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

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

    SEE ALSO: The US military believes ISIS is 'in a defensive crouch'

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    ISIS Islamic State

    Islamic State militants in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul are manipulating the exchange rate between US dollars and Iraqi dinars to squeeze money out of local people as coalition bombers attack the group's finances.

    The US-led coalition has said that in addition to attacking Islamic State's fighters and leaders it will go after financial infrastructure too.

    Air strikes have reduced Islamic State's ability to extract, refine and transport oil, a major source of revenue that is already suffering from the fall in world prices. Since October the coalition says it has destroyed at least 10 "cash collection points" estimated to contain hundreds of millions of dollars.

    US military officials say reports of Islamic State cutting fighters' wages by up to half are proof that the coalition is putting pressure on the group.

    Average pay has been cut from $400 to $200 a month. While wages for foreign fighters, which were between $600 to $800, have also been cut, it is not clear by how much, said US Army Colonel Steve Warren, spokesman for the international coalition.

    Yet the militants, who have near total control of the local economy, appear to have adapted to these setbacks in Mosul by introducing a new revenue stream.

    MIDEAST CRISIS IRAQ MOSUL

     

    The group earns dollars by selling basic commodities produced in factories under its control to local distributors, but pays monthly salaries in dinars to thousands of fighters and public employees, currency traders in Mosul told Reuters.

    It earns profits of up to 20 percent under preferential currency rates it imposed last month that strengthen the dollar when exchanged for smaller denominations of dinars, they said.

    "Daesh sells (the products) to traders in dollars, but it pays salaries in small denominations of dinars," said an exchange bureau employee in Mosul, using an Arabic acronym to refer to Islamic State.

    At the official rate set by the Iraqi government, $100 is currently valued at around 118,000 dinars.

    In Mosul, the same amount costs 127,500 dinars when purchased with 25,000-dinar notes, the largest bill in circulation, according to the owner of a currency exchange bureau. The rate rise to 155,000 dinars when purchased with 250-dinar notes - the smallest bill available. Islamic State prefers the larger bills as they are easier to transport.

    'NOBODY WOULD RISK IT'

    Three other currency traders confirmed those details. They all spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity for fear of being punished by Islamic State. Security restrictions in areas the group controls prevented Reuters from independently verifying their accounts.

    It was not possible to determine how much money Islamic State is making by controlling the currency market. It was also unclear if these practices extended beyond Mosul, the largest city under Islamic State control, to other territories in Iraq and Syria.

    Parallel trading at more competitive rates is very limited, traders said, because Islamic State has threatened to confiscate the money of anyone who breaks the rules. If it happens, it is in complete secrecy.

    "Nobody would risk it," one of the traders told Reuters.

    mosul air strikes isis

    Islamic State, which is frozen out of traditional financial institutions by international sanctions, operates a cash economy and controls most means of production, including factories producing cement, flour and textiles.

    US officials have described it as the world's wealthiest terrorist group. The group looted nearly half a billion dollars from banks in areas it seized in 2014, and besides smuggling oil has derived millions of dollars from taxes and ransoms.

    In January, the coalition said air strikes against Islamic State oil facilities had cut the group's oil revenues by about 30 percent since October, when US defense officials estimate the group was earning about $47 million per month.

    Iraqi authorities want to retake Mosul this year from Islamic State, which poses the largest threat to the country's security since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. That is also part of the US strategy for defeating the group.

    Warren said air strikes against Islamic State's financial infrastructure were "body blows like a shot to the gut".

    "(It) may not knock you out today but over time begins to weaken your knees and cause you to not be able to function the way you'd like to," he told reporters last week.

    Eyewitnesses said the latest target was the central bank building in Mosul, destroyed in an air strike this month.

    A photo published by Amaq, a news agency that supports Islamic State, showed the collapsed building surrounded by other destroyed structures; no obvious sign remained of its former role in regulating Iraq's financial system.

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    A Syria Democratic Forces fighter walks under contrails made by U.S. alliance air forces on the outskirts of al-Shadadi town, Hasaka countryside, Syria, February 19, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    DAMASCUS (Reuters) - The Syrian government said on Tuesday it accepted a halt to "combat operations" that does not include the Islamic State group, the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, or groups connected to it, in line with a US-Russian plan.

    It said it would coordinate with Russia to decide which groups and areas would be included in the "cessation of hostilities" plan which is due to take effect on Saturday according to the US-Russian plan.

    In a statement, the government stressed the importance of sealing the borders and halting foreign support to armed groups and "preventing these organizations from strengthening their capabilities or changing their positions, in order to avoid what may lead to wrecking this agreement".

    The Syrian government announced "its acceptance of a halt to combat operations on the basis of continuing military efforts to combat terrorism against Daesh, the Nusra Front, and the other terrorist organizations linked to it and to the al Qaeda organization, according to the Russian-American announcement".

    Daesh is an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

    The Syrian military reserved the right to "respond to any breach by these groups against Syrian citizens or against its armed forces", the statement added.

    SEE ALSO: ISIS is resorting to a desperate financial measure to squeeze more money from Iraqis

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    aleppo syria

    Islamic State fighters were reported to have tightened their grip on a Syrian government supply route to Aleppo on Tuesday as the army battled to retake the road, which is important to its campaign to retake the city.

    As Damascus accepted a U.S.-Russian plan for a "cessation of hostilities" between the government and rebels due to take effect on Saturday, heavy Russian air strikes were also said to be targeting one of the last roads into opposition-held parts of Aleppo.

    The plan announced by the United States and Russia on Monday is the result of intensive diplomacy to end the five-year-long war. But rebels say the exclusion of Islamic State and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front will give the government a pretext to keep attacking them because its fighters are widely spread in opposition-held areas.

    The Syrian government, backed by Russian air strikes since September, said it would coordinate with Russia to define which groups and areas would be included in what it called a "halt to combat operations". Damascus also warned that continued foreign support for the rebels could wreck the agreement.

    The Russian intervention has turned the momentum President Bashar al-Assad's way in a conflict that has splintered Syria and mostly reduced his control to the big cities of the west and the coast.

    aleppo syria

    Damascus, backed by ground forces including Lebanon's Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards, is making significant advances, including near the city of Aleppo which is split between rebel- and government-control.

    The Islamic State assault has targeted a desert road which the government has been forced to use to reach Aleppo because insurgents still control the main highway further west.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports the war using a network of sources on the ground, said the road remained cut for a second day. A Syrian military source told Reuters army operations were continuing to repel the attack.

    Syria map

    Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman told Reuters: "The clashes are ongoing, the regime recovered four of seven (lost positions). It is still cut." It later reported IS had seized control of the village of Khanaser on the road.

    Islamic State, which controls swathes of eastern and central Syria, differs from rebels fighting Assad in western Syria because its priority is expanding its own "caliphate" rather than reforming Syria through Assad's removal from power.

    The group has escalated attacks on government targets in recent days. On Sunday, it staged some of the deadliest suicide bomb attacks of the war, killing around 150 people in government-controlled Damascus and Homs.

    A U.S.-Russian statement said the two countries and others would work together to delineate the territory held by IS, Nusra Front, and other militant groups excluded from the truce.

    In Geneva, U.N. spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said: "This is a cessation of hostilities that we hope will take force very quickly and hope provide breathing space for intra-Syrian talks to resume."

    Right to respond

    Damascus stressed the importance of sealing the borders and halting foreign support for armed groups and "preventing these organizations from strengthening their capabilities or changing their positions, in order to avoid what may lead to wrecking this agreement".

    The Syrian military reserved the right to "respond to any breach by these groups against Syrian citizens or against its armed forces", a government statement added.

    The main, Saudi-backed Syrian opposition body said late on Monday it "consented to" the international efforts, but said acceptance of a truce was conditional on an end to blockades of rebel-held areas, free access for humanitarian aid, a release of detainees, and a halt to air strikes against civilians.

    The opposition High Negotiations Committee also said it did not expect Assad, Russia, or Iran to cease hostilities.

    YPG

    The powerful Kurdish YPG militia, which is currently fighting both Islamic State and rebels near Aleppo, is "seriously examining" the U.S.-Russian plan to decide whether to take part, a YPG official told Reuters. "There is so far no decision," said the official, declining to be identified because he is not an official YPG spokesman.

    The YPG, an ally of the United States in the fight against Islamic State in Syria, has recently received Russian air support during an offensive against rebels near Aleppo.

    Britain said on Tuesday it had seen disturbing evidence that Syrian Kurdish forces were coordinating with the Syrian government and the Russian air force.

    Turkey, a major sponsor of the insurgency against Assad, said it welcomed plans for the halt to fighting but was not optimistic about a positive outcome to talks on a political transition.

    turkey syria

    Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said Ankara had reservations about actions that Russian forces could take against Syria's moderate opposition and civilians. Turkey is worried about the expansion of YPG influence in Syria, fearing it could fuel separatism among its own Kurdish population.

    A rebel fighter in the Aleppo area said he did not expect the ceasefire plan to work.

    "The Russian jets will not stop bombing on the pretext of Nusra and the Islamic State organization, and will keep bombing civilians and the rest of the factions with this pretext," said Abu al-Baraa al-Hamawi, a fighter with the Ajnad al-Sham group.

    "Everything that is happening is pressure to extend the life of the regime," he told Reuters from the Aleppo area.

    (Additional reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus, Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Guy Faulconbridge in London and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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    erdogan

    ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday accused Russia of continuing to violate Turkish airspace, three months after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border.

    Erdogan, who was speaking to a group of local officials in Ankara in a speech broadcast live, also said the Syrian Kurdish YPG and its political arm, the PYD, should be excluded from the Syrian ceasefire process.

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    US-led coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh) on February 15 destroyed a barracks and vehicle checkpoint near Abu Kamal, Syria.

    The strike was just one of 30 carried out by the Combined Joint Task Force's Operation Inherent Resolve on February 15, 2016. The double-tap bombing with precision munitions is typical of OIR strikes.

    Recently, the coalition's airstrikes have wreaked havoc on ISIS' ability to fund their operations and pay their workers, as multiple strikes earlier this month destroyed cash storage and tax collection facilities.

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

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

    SEE ALSO: Watch a US-led coalition airstrike decimate an ISIS weapons facility

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    NOW WATCH: EX-PENTAGON CHIEF: These are the 2 main reasons ISIS was born


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