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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    obama saudi

    Saudi Arabia warned its citizens against traveling to Lebanon on Tuesday after one of its biggest allies, the United Arab Emirates, banned travel to Lebanon altogether.

    The move, which followed the Kingdom's decision last week to halt $4 billion in funding for Lebanese security forces, shows that the Saudis "appear to have had enough," said Tony Badran, a researcher at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies specializing in the military and political affairs of the Levant.

    "Saudi Arabia is signaling that they're not going to bankroll an effective Iranian satrapy that's actively aligned against them," Badran told Business Insider on Tuesday.

    That satrapy is Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant organization sending fighters to Syria to support Iran-backed Shi'ite militias battling Saudi-backed Sunni rebel groups that oppose Syrian President Bashar Assad. One of Hezbollah's staunchest allies is the right-wing Christian Free Patriotic Movement, headed by Lebanon Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil.

    Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir

    Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran earlier this year, after the Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked by protestors decrying Riyadh's decision to execute a prominent Shi'ite cleric.

    Lebanon has long had a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia, but Bassil apparently took Iran's side in the most recent spat between Tehran and Riyadh. 

    Elie Fawaz, writing for the Lebanese news outlet NOW, notes that the Saudis have withdrawn aid because of how state institutions are, "one way or another, support[ing] Hezbollah's military effort in Syria."

    The Saudis, then, are now "showing their seriousness about confronting Iran" and warning Lebanon that they won't underwrite an Iranian vassal, Badran said.

    "The talk is that the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] might take tough action against Hezbollah's allies, especially the Christian ones, who support Hezbollah's domination of Lebanon," Badran said. "And some believe that these allies are the weakest link."

    'Obama is a big hurdle'

    The Saudis' determination to take on Iran and its proxies is clearly growing.

    Earlier this month, the spokesman of the Saudi-led coalition force in Yemen told reporters that the Kingdom had made a "final" decision to send ground troops into Syria.

    And last week, Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir called for sending surface-to-air missiles to rebel groups in Syria "to change the balance of power on the ground."

    The Saudis have since walked back somewhat on both announcements. But they clearly have remained eager to counter Iran's expanding influence in the region.

    "The question now for the Saudis is about how to align that determination with means and actual steps," Badran said. "Obama is a big hurdle."

    obama kerryThe Saudis have shown no signs of abandoning their proxy war with Iran in Syria, especially since doing so would effectively guarantee Assad's indefinite hold on power and, by extension, a bridge to Hezbollah for Iran. Though it has softened its position on Assad's ouster, the White House has reiterated that it believes the war cannot end as long as Assad in power.

    But the Kingdom is still waiting for reciprocity and readiness from the Obama administration to more aggressively support anti-Assad rebels, who are rapidly losing ground to pro-regime forces as Russian airstrikes clear the way for them to advance in the north.

    Indeed, as the Saudis continue to balk at the US' decision to lift nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, Washington has shown few, if any, signs that it intends to prevent Syria from becoming a Russian-Iranian sphere of influence. And that may be intentional.

    "The Iranians hold the Obama legacy in their hands,"Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator and now the vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said in a January interview with Bloomberg View."We are constrained and we are acquiescing to a certain degree to ensure we maintain a functional relationship with the Iranians."

    Badran largely agreed.

    "The Saudis are pressed for time given the situation in northern Syria," Badran said, referring to rebels' recent defeats around Syria's largest city, Aleppo. "But, as long as Obama is in office, I don't think the odds are good" that they'll significantly escalate the stakes there, he added.

    "For now," he added, "the Saudis are drawing lines in the sand."

    SEE ALSO: One of the Obama administration's biggest gambles in Syria is completely backfiring

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    ISIS is scared of girls — specifically, the Kurdish women that are coming to fight them.

    The Women's Protection Units (YPJ), the female branch of the People's Protection Units, a rebel militia fighting ISIS in Syria, told CNN that ISIS is scared of them because, "they believe that if someone from Daesh is killed by a girl, a Kurdish girl, they won't go to heaven."

    Story and editing by Adam Banicki

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    Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev (L) looks at President Vladimir Putin during a meeting with the BRICS countries' senior officials in charge of security matters at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, May 26, 2015. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters on Thursday that there was no and would not be a"plan B" on Syria's cease-fire agreement, according to Reuters.

    His comments echoed those of Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who said at a conference in Moscowthat Russian officials were "perplexed by our Western partners, the US included, mentioning the existence of some kind of 'plan B.'"

    "Nothing is known on that one," he continued. "We are considering no alternative plans."

    The Russian officials' comments come two days after US Secretary of State John Kerry said the US was considering alternative options should "plan A"— a cessation of hostilities — fail to materialize.

    "It may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria if we wait much longer," Kerry told the US Senate's Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.

    Some analysts saw Kerry's comments as a subtle endorsement of partitioning Syria among Syrian President Bashar Assad, Sunni rebels, and Syrian Kurds (and the terrorist group ISIS, if the international coalition is unable to defeat the militants in the country's east.)

    Kerry did not explicitly advocate this solution, and Russian officials said Moscow would not accept anything other than a political settlement.

    But some experts said that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be content with a partition — and that Russia's pattern of airstrikes in Syria indicated it was already preparing a "plan B" should the regime fail to restore a central Syrian state and be forced to retreat to a fragment of government-held territory along the Mediterranean.

    "A second option [for Russia] is to fall back to the defensible parts of useful Syria after guaranteeing the safety of the Alawi canton," Joseph Bahout, a visiting scholar in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in December in Carnegie's "Syria in Crisis" blog.

    "This is perhaps already a consideration, as the majority of Russian airstrikes concentrate on the contours of this area," he added.

    russianairstrikessyria

    Bahout's observation was true in December. And, though the slopes of some battlefields — most notably in Syria's second-largest city of Aleppo — have shifted over the past two months, it is true now.

    Since intervening on behalf of Assad in late September, Russia has used airstrikes to create a buffer zone between rebel-held territory in the southern Idlib province and the traditional homeland of Assad's Alawite sect in the Latakia governorate.

    The airstrikes have also targeted rebel-controlled territory just north of Homs that borders this so-called Alawi canton.

    An "Assadland" or "Alawistan" has arguably always been the Assad regime's "final card to play."

    Tony Badran, a researcher at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies focusing on the military and political affairs of the Levant, predicted as much back in 2012, one year after the war erupted in earnest.

    To be sure, Assad's Syrian Arab Army — supported by Iran-backed Shi'ite militias, Hezbollah fighters, and Russian air cover — is still battling to retain control over the two most symbolically and strategically important cities in Syria. Those are Damascus, the capital, which has been long viewed by rebel forces as the key to winning the war, and Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city and main urban center in the north.

    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 IsmailBut even if the regime were to drive the rebels out of Aleppo and Damascus, holding the cities would require a significant commitment of funding and manpower. It remains unlikely, moreover, that Assad will ever be able to reassert his authority on the predominantly Sunni country. That is at least one reason experts and analysts say the war cannot end as long as Assad is in power.

    That said, Russia has yet to signal that it will accept a Syria devoid of Assad's influence — doing so would be akin to accepting defeat by US-backed rebels and Western proxies, whose influence Moscow is eager to supplant in the region.

    Solidifying a Russian protectorate in western Syria that is already held by the regime and dominated by a sect of Shia Islam loyal to Assad, then, would give "a tangible reality to Moscow's concept of a new international order."

    That's according to Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and a former European Union ambassador, who wrote in Turkey's English-language newspaper Hurriyetin September.

    "To its snap annexation of Crimea and dominance of eastern Ukraine, Russia is now adding 'Assadland,'" Pierini wrote. "In doing so, it is showing the rest of the world that it has the capacity to redefine the international order, or at least the guts to act as spoiler in chief."

    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 LamarqueMark Galeotti, a Russia expert and professor of global affairs at New York University, agreed that while an Assadland or Alawistan would not be the Kremlin's first choice, it was "an acceptable lesser of many evils" for Russia.

    "It is not that Moscow would be happy with an Alawite statelet, but it is obviously and inevitably thinking of fallback options should it not get its ideal, which is an outright victory for Damascus," Galeotti told Business Insider in December.

    "A defensible, economically viable and politically more homogeneous 'Alawistan' would both ensure they retain a client-ally in the region and yet also be a much more manageable unit to have to support and project."

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    Despite progress from US-led coalition forces and regional armies, ISIS still maintains a major presence in Iraq and Syria, and is even strengthening in parts of Africa.

    George Friedman, the founder of STRATFOR and Geopolitical Futures, explains ISIS' greatest strength and why he believes the terror group is the strongest military force in the modern Arab world.

    Produced by Lamar Salter

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    ISIS attack

    The number 562 is relatively meaningless to most people.

    But not to those who marked the 562nd anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottoman Turks last May.

    Hundreds of thousands reportedly gathered in a field outside the city where a parade of jets painted the sky with red and white smoke—the colors of the Turkish flag.

    Bands played, flags flew, and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, declared, “Resurrection again, rising again.”

    The celebration was great theater. But this was no act by the new Turkish president. His desire to return the country to its glory days resulted in a massive power grab in the name of Islam, followed by charges of corruption in his administration amounting to $100 billion.

    In 2014, when he was prime minister, Erdogan was accused of high treason for supplying weapons to al-Qaeda and ISIS that included 1,000 mortar shells, 1,000 rifled artillery shells, 50,000 machine gun rounds and 30,000 rifle bullets.

    It’s no surprise, then, that Turkey is currently playing a dangerous game of poker with Russia, the United States, and its neighbors in the region.

    Two crucial battles against ISIS in the Middle East could change the balance of power in the region. Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, are both at risk. Exploiting the situation is America’s ally, Turkey, which is jeopardizing the US-led coalition in its fight against ISIS and creating further trouble between the West and Russia.

    There is so much at stake for the US and the West in this evolving drama. Defeating ISIS is an expensive undertaking, both militarily and politically. But if America’s allies lose faith in the coalition, ISIS will gain more than territory — it will gain stature, and therefore more recruits from around the world.

    Aleppo: Since the spring of 2013, Syria’s largest city in the north has been divided between the Syrian Alawite government forces that control the western parts of the city and the Sunni rebels who control the eastern parts.

    Supported by direct Russian intervention in Syria, the Syrian government decided to launch a major assault on the city to weaken the rebels and claim their territory. In the last few days, Islamic State fighters have cut off the supply route to government-controlled areas.

    The Syrian Kurds, who fought against ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria, decided to take advantage of the government campaign to expand their area of control in order to connect a Kurdish pocket in northwest Syria with the rest of the Kurdish territories in northern Syria by the Turkish border. The Syrian Kurds tried to control a strategic town called Azaz last summer, located 25 miles to the north on the supply line to Aleppo. 

    Turkey considers the Kurds (whether Turkish Kurds or Syrian Kurds) the main threat to the Turkish national security.

    The Kurdish aspiration to autonomy and independence is viewed as endangering Turkey’s sovereign unity. Turkey has anxiously observed the gains Syrian Kurds achieved over the last few years. For Turkey, ISIS is the lesser of two evils when compared with Kurds. 

    As a result, Turkey bombed the Syrian Kurds to prevent them from capturing the city. Turkey’s shelling of the Syrian Kurds was condemned by most of the world, including the United States and the United Nations’ Security Council. Even so, Turkey has not backed down.

    Instead, Turkey arranged for hundreds of Syrian Sunni Arab fighters to cross its border to Turkey then come back to Syria from another border center, to the town of Azaz, to join the fight against the Kurds.

    Battle for Aleppo

    The Syrian Kurds are America’s most reliable ally on the ground in Syria in the fight against ISIS. The more the Turks bomb them, the more likely they will ask for support. But with the U.S. still withholding support, took advantage of Russian air strikes.

    If as a result the Kurds align themselves with the Russia and the Syrian government, the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS in Syria could be jeopardized. 

    As if Turkey’s military involvement is not enough, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain announced their readiness to deploy ground forces in Syria to fight ISIS.

    They were alarmed by the Syrian government’s recent successes and wanted a Sunni Arab army in Syria to stand against the Alawite regime. For them, ISIS is also the lesser of two evils compared with an Iranian backed Syrian regime.

    Turkey is supportive of the Saudi move. Egypt is not. The Syrian foreign Minister has said that those who dare to step into Syria will return home in coffins, and histrionic headlines shout, “World War III Could Start This Month: 350,000 Soldiers in Saudi Arabia Stand Ready to Invade Syria.” 

    A US-Russia brokered temporary ceasefire is scheduled to take place this weekend. However, the deal doesn't include ISIS that controls close to half of the country, or al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's arm in Syria. Al-Nusra is one of the strongest rebel group in the country.

    It is hard to imagine how this agreement will be implemented without the support of these groups. Importantly, Turkey says the Syria ceasefire is not binding if it threatens their security.

    Mosul: ISIS captured Iraq’s second largest city in June 2014 in the north and much of the Sunni territories in the war-torn country. However, Iraqi government forces, the Shiite militias and the Iraqi Kurds have achieved several victories lately. The cities of Ramadi to the west of Baghdad, Baiji, and Sinjar to the north were liberated.

    To liberate Mosul, several other cities and towns must be taken to the east and south of the city.

    They were trained and equipped recently with the help of the US-led coalition against ISIS. Kurdish forces have been fighting alongside the coalition and recently regained ground around Mosul with the help of US air strikes.

    The speaker of Iraqi parliament, Salim al-Jubouri, said in a message broadcast from an Iraqi army radio station that the liberation of the city will begin within days. The US forces in Iraq said that the operation has already started.

    All that sounds like great news. Yet, Turkey is proving to be as problematic in Iraq as it is in Syria. Last December, a Turkish army battalion deployed to the north of Mosul over the protests of the Iraqi government, the United States, and the United Nations.

    Iraq also threatened to fight the Turkish invaders. The Americans said that the Turkish deployment was not part of the US-led coalition against ISIS. None of that could persuade the Turks to back off.

    Turkey claimed that its forces in northern Iraq protected the Iraqi Sunni forces from attacks launched by ISIS. But Turkey’s interests in Iraq are similar to its interests in Syria. They want to make sure that the Kurds will not expand their territories in the Arab Sunni regions or the Turkmen areas. Turkey also wants assurance that it will have a say in Mosul’s political structure after the liberation.

    In addition, the Shiite militias are still pushing to participate in the coming operation. Iraq’s Sunnis reject that demand because it would inflame sectarian tensions. The U.S. has made it clear to the Iraqis that this would mean the end of U.S. air support.

    Turkey’s ambitions in Syria and Iraq -- as suggested by its military involvement in both Iraq and Syria -- could reawaken memories of four centuries of Ottoman occupation that were ended during World War I by British and French allied forces.

    It is no secret that the Turkish president Erdogan has Ottoman ambitions. It is more disturbing that he seems willing to enable ISIS if that will help contain the Kurds and further his dreams of empire.

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    Men sell produce on their carts in the rebel held besieged city of Douma, a suburb of Damascus, Syria February 23, 2016. Picture taken February 23, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - Heavy air strikes were reported to have hit rebel-held areas to the east of Damascus as fighting continued across much of western Syria on Friday, hours before a U.S.-Russian plan aimed at halting the fighting is due to take effect.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring organization reported at least 10 air raids and artillery shelling targeting the town of Douma in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.

    Rescue workers in the opposition-held area, reporting on their Twitter feed, said there were confirmed civilian casualties but did not say how many. Syrian military officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

    The "cessation of hostilities" agreement is due to take effect at midnight (5 p.m. ET on Friday).

    The government has agreed to the plan. The main opposition alliance, which has deep reservations about the terms, has said it is ready for a two-week truce to test the intentions of the government and its Russian and Iranian backers.

    Damascus has made clear it will continue to target Islamic State and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front which are not included in the agreement.

    The opposition fears the government will continue targeting rebels on the pretext they are jihadists. The government says the agreement could fail if foreign states supply rebels with weapons or insurgents use the truce to rearm.

    Eastern Ghouta is regularly targeted by the Syrian army and its allies. It is a stronghold of the Jaish al-Islam rebel group, which is represented in the main opposition alliance, and has been used as a launchpad for rocket and mortar attacks on Damascus.

    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.The Observatory also reported artillery bombardment by government forces and air strikes overnight in Hama province, and artillery bombardment by government forces in Homs province.

    Fighting also resumed at dawn between rebels and government forces in the northwestern province of Latakia, where the Syrian army and its allies are trying to take back more territory from insurgents at the border with Turkey.

    U.S. President Barack Obama said on Thursday the United States was resolved to try to make the deal work but that "there are plenty of reasons for scepticism".

     

    SEE ALSO: These two ISIS battles could change everything in the Middle East

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    Souvenir mugs featuring Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah are seen among other items for sale in old Damascus, Syria, February 8, 2016.  REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

    Last July, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seemed to be losing his battle against rebel forces. Speaking to supporters in Damascus, he acknowledged his army's heavy losses.

    Western officials said the Syrian leader’s days were numbered and predicted he would soon be forced to the negotiating table.

    It did not turn out that way. Secret preparations were already underway for a major deployment of Russian and Iranian forces in support of Assad.

    The military intervention, taking many in the West by surprise, would roll back rebel gains. It would also accelerate two shifts in U.S. diplomacy: Washington would welcome Iran to the negotiating table over Syria, and it would no longer insist that Assad step down immediately.

    "That involved swallowing some pride, to be honest, in acknowledging that this process would go nowhere unless you got Russia and Iran at the table," a U.S. official said.

    At the heart of the diplomacy shift – which essentially brought Washington closer to Moscow's position – was a slow-footed realization of the Russian military build-up in Syria and, ultimately, a refusal to intervene militarily.

    Russia, Iran and Syria struck their agreement to deploy military forces in June, several weeks before Assad's July 26 speech, according to a senior official in the Middle East who was familiar with the details.

    putin assad

    And Russian sources say large amounts of equipment, and hundreds of troops, were being dispatched over a series of weeks, making it hard to hide the pending operation.

    Yet a senior U.S. administration official said it took until mid-September for Western powers to fully recognize Russia's intentions. One of the final pieces of the puzzle was when Moscow deployed aircraft flown only by the Russian military, eliminating the possibility they were intended for Assad, the official said.

    An earlier understanding of Russia’s military plans is unlikely to have changed U.S. military policy. President Barack Obama had made clear early on that he did not want Washington embroiled in a proxy war with Russia. And when the West did wake up to Russian President Vladimir Putin's intentions, it was short of ideas about how to respond.

    As in Ukraine in 2014, the West seemed helpless.

    French President Francois Hollande summed up the mood among America's European allies: "I would prefer the United States to be more active. But since the United States has stepped back, who should take over, who should act?" 

    Signposts

    suleimani soleimani aleppo iran syria general

    In July last year, one of Iran's top generals, Qassem Soleimani, went to Moscow on a visit that was widely reported. The senior Middle Eastern official told Reuters that Soleimani had also met Putin twice several weeks before that.

    "They defined zero hour for the Russian planes and equipment, and the Russian and Iranian crews," he said.

    Russia began sending supply ships through the Bosphorus in August, Reuters reported at the time. There was no attempt to hide the voyages and on Sept. 9 Reuters reported that Moscow had begun participating in military operations in Syria.

    A Russian Air Force colonel, who took part in preparations and provided fresh details of the build-up, said hundreds of Russian pilots and ground staff were selected for the Syria mission in mid-August. 

    Warplanes sent to Syria included the Sukhoi-25 and Sukhoi-24 offensive aircraft, U.S. officials said. In all, according to U.S. officials, Russia by Sept. 21 had 28 fixed-wing aircraft, 16 helicopters, advanced T-90 tanks and other armored vehicles, artillery, anti-aircraft batteries and hundreds of marines at its base near Latakia.

    Despite this public build-up, the West either played down the risks or failed to recognize them.

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sept. 22 that Russian aircraft were in Syria to defend the Russians' base - "force protection" in the view of U.S. military experts.

    At the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 28, the French announced their own first air strikes in Syria.

    "The international community is hitting Daesh (Islamic State). France is hitting Daesh. The Russians, for now, are not doing anything," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius Fabius said at the time.

    The next day Russia announced its strikes in Syria.

    Warnings

    syria russia caspian airstrike

    One former U.S. official, who was in government at the time, told Reuters that some U.S. officials had begun voicing concern that Russia would intervene militarily in Syria two weeks before the bombing began.

    Their concerns, however, were disregarded by officials in the White House and those dealing with the Middle East because of a lack of hard intelligence, the former U.S. official said.

    "There was this tendency to say, 'We don't know. Let's see,'" recounted the former U.S. official.

    Yet between October and December, American perceptions shifted, as reported by Reuters at the time.

    By December, U.S. officials had concluded that Russia had achieved its main goal of stabilizing Assad’s government and could maintain its operations in Syria for years.

    "I think it’s indisputable that the Assad regime, with Russian military support, is probably in a safer position than it was," a senior administration official said. 

    Diplomatic U-turn

    putin kerry

    At that point, the U.S. pivoted to the negotiating table with Russia and Iran. Officials say they had few other options with Obama unwilling to commit American ground troops to Syria, aside from small deployments of Special Operations forces, or provide U.S.-backed opposition fighters with anti-aircraft missiles.

    In Munich on Feb 12, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced an agreement for humanitarian access and a "cessation of hostilities" in Syria, far short of a ceasefire.

    "Putin has taken the measure of the West... He has basically concluded, I can push and push and push and push and I am never going to hit steel anywhere," said Fred Hof, a former State Department and Pentagon Syria expert now at the Atlantic Council think tank.

    Today, U.S. officials sound a far different note than in the early days of the uprising against Assad when they said his exit must be immediate. Now, with the war entering its sixth year, they say they must push the diplomatic possibilities as far as possible and insist Kerry is fully aware of what Russia is doing to change facts on the ground.

    In congressional testimony on Wednesday, Kerry acknowledged there was no guarantee the "cessation of hostilities" would work, adding: "But I know this: If it doesn’t work, the potential is there that Syria will be utterly destroyed. The fact is that we need to make certain that we are exploring and exhausting every option of diplomatic resolution."

    For the rebels, the reality is bleak.

    aleppo syriaGovernment forces have closed in on the city of Aleppo, a major symbol of the uprising. Their supply routes from Turkey cut, rebels in the Aleppo area now say it may only be a matter of time before they are crushed altogether.

    "We are heading toward being liquidated I think," said a former official in a rebel group from the city.

    Other fighters remain determinedly upbeat, saying Assad is only gaining ground because of Russian air power and he will not be able to sustain the advances.

    For Syrians living under government rule in Damascus, Moscow's intervention has inspired a degree of confidence. They credit one of the calmest periods since the start of the war to the death of rebel leader Zahran Alloush, killed in a Russian air strike on Christmas Day.

    There are few foreign visitors these days. Bashar al-Seyala, who owns a souvenir shop in the Old City, said most of his foreign customers are Russians. His shop had just sold out of mugs printed with Putin's face.

    (Additional reporting by John Irish, Arshad Mohammed, Lesley Wroughton, Warren Strobel, Lou Charbonneau and Mark Hosenball; Writing by Giles Elgood; editing by Janet McBride)

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    Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is seen during the filming of an interview with the BBC, in Damascus February 9, 2015.  REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian opposition said on Friday armed groups fighting President Bashar al-Assad would respect a two-week week truce beginning at midnight, but said the government and its allies must not launch attacks on the pretext of fighting terrorism.

    "The High Negotiations Committee confirms the agreement of the Free Syrian Army factions and the armed opposition to a temporary truce from midnight Saturday," an HNC statement said.

    The HNC said the government and its allies must not use the "proposed text to continue the hostile operations against the opposition factions under the excuse of fighting terrorism."

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    Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks to the media during a news conference at the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan, New York, December 18, 2015. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

    MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia expects the U.N. Security Council to back a resolution endorsing the planned 'cessation of hostilities' in Syria, but nobody can give a 100 percent guarantee that the ceasefire plan will be implemented, Russia's foreign minister said on Friday.

    Sergei Lavrov also used a news briefing to call on the Unites States and its allies to avoid "ambiguity" about any "Plan B" for Syria and to give up any idea of conducting a land operation there.

     

    SEE ALSO: War continues to rage in Syria just hours before a deal to halt fighting

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    Al Qaeda Nusra Front

    BEIRUT/MOSCOW (Reuters) - Syria's branch of al Qaeda, one of its most powerful Islamist rebel groups, called for an escalation in fighting against the government and its allies, adding to the dangers facing an agreement to halt fighting set to start on Saturday.

    The government and rebel groups have agreed to take part in a U.S.-Russian "cessation of hostilities" accord that is due to begin at midnight (2200 GMT on Friday). Warring parties had been required to accept by noon.

    Under the measure, which has not been signed by the Syrian warring parties themselves and is less binding than a formal ceasefire, the government and its enemies are expected to stop shooting so aid can reach civilians and peace talks begin.

    The truce does not apply to jihadist groups such as Islamic State and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, and the Damascus government and its Russian allies say they will not halt combat against those militants. Other rebels seen as moderates by the West say they fear this will be used to justify attacks on them.

    The Nusra Front on Friday urged insurgent groups to intensify their attacks against President Bashar al-Assad and his allies.

    Nusra's leader, Abu Mohamad al-Golani, said in an audio message on Orient News TV that insurgents should "strengthen your resolve and intensify your strikes, and do not let their planes and great numbers (of troops) scare you".

    A member of al Qaeda's Nusra Front climbs on a pole to hang the Nusra flag as others celebrate around a central square in the northwestern city of Ariha, after a coalition of insurgent groups seized the area in Idlib province May 29, 2015.REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi     Unlike Islamic State, which controls defined areas of territory in central and eastern Syria, the Nusra Front is widely dispersed in opposition-held areas in the west, and any escalation would add to the risks of the truce collapsing.

    Nusra is bigger than nearly all the factions taking part in the cessation, with fighters across western Syria.

    As the deadline for the cessation of hostilities approached, heavy air strikes were reported to have hit rebel-held areas near Damascus while fighting raged across much of western Syria.

    The Syrian government has agreed to the cessation plan. The main opposition alliance, which has deep reservations, said it would accept it for two weeks but feared the government and its allies would use it to attack opposition factions under the pretext that they were terrorists.

    President Vladimir Putin said Russia had received information that all parties expected to take part in the cessation of hostilities had said they were ready to do so, Russian news agencies reported.

    Putin stressed that combat actions against Islamic State, the Nusra Front and other groups which the Syrian government regards as terrorists would continue.

    "I would like to express the hope that our American partners will also bear this in mind ... and that nobody will forget that there are other terrorist organizations apart from Islamic State," he said in Moscow.

    BREATHING SPACE

    The United Nations hopes the pause in fighting will provide a breathing space to resume peace talks in Geneva, which collapsed this month before they began.

    A Russian Foreign Ministry official said the Geneva talks could resume on March 7. In New York, diplomats said the U.N. Security Council would vote on Friday on a resolution endorsing the planned pause in fighting.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring organization, on Friday reported at least 26 air raids and artillery shelling targeting the town of Douma in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.

    A boy carries an opposition flag as rebel fighters and civilians gather during the arrival of an aid convoy of Syrian Arab Red Crescent and United Nation (UN) to the rebel held besieged town of Kafr Batna, on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria February 23, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh   Rescue workers said five people were killed in Douma. Syrian military officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

    Eastern Ghouta is regularly targeted by the Syrian army and its allies. It is a stronghold of the Jaish al-Islam rebel group, which is represented in the main opposition alliance, the High Negotiations Committee. The area has been used as a launch pad for rocket and mortar attacks on Damascus.

    The HNC groups political and armed opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, and many groups fighting in northern and southern Syria have authorized it to negotiate on their behalf.

    The Observatory also reported artillery bombardment by government forces and air strikes overnight in Hama province, and artillery fire by government forces in Homs province.

    Damascus, SyriaFighting also resumed at dawn between rebels and government forces in the northwestern province of Latakia, where the Syrian army and its allies are trying to take back more territory from insurgents at the border with Turkey.

    A spokesman for President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey has serious worries about the plan to halt violence in Syria because of the continued fighting on the ground.

    Turkey's role in the ceasefire has been complicated by its deep distrust of the Washington-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG. Ankara sees the group as a terrorist organization and has shelled YPG positions in northern Syria in recent weeks in retaliation, it says, for cross-border fire.

    Washington has supported the YPG in the fight against Islamic State in Syria.

    U.S. President Barack Obama said on Thursday the United States was resolved to try to make the cessation of hostilities deal work but that "there are plenty of reasons for scepticism".

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    US airstrikes and gains on the ground by Syrian rebels and Iraqi Security Forces have made major progress in isolating Islamic State strongholds in Iraq and Syria, the top US civilian and uniformed defense officials said Thursday.

    Defense Secretary Ashton Carter pointed to the recent offensive by the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces backed by the US with airstrikes and US Special Forces in advisory roles on the ground to take back the northeastern Syrian town of Shaddadi.

    The fall of Shaddadi would "sever the last major northern artery between Raqqa and Mosul," both power centers of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Carter said.

    Raqqa is the self-proclaimed capital of the "caliphate" in northeastern Syria, and Mosul 200 miles to the east is the largest city controlled by ISIS in Iraq.

    "This is just the most recent example of how we're effectively enabling and partnering with local forces to help deal ISIL a lasting defeat," Carter added, using another acronym for ISIS.

    Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said Syrian Democratic Forces were "going down now to isolate" Raqqa after the success around Shaddadi.

    "Four months ago, we did not have momentum" in Iraq and Syria against ISIS, Dunford said. "Today, I can tell you with authority we do have momentum. There's a lot of work left to be done, but the enemy is under great pressure. My assessment is the trajectory is in the right direction," he said.

    Dunford and Carter made the remarks in testimony before the House Appropriations Committee on President Obama's proposed Fiscal Year 2017 defense budget of $583 billion. Carter said the $583 billion included $7.5 billion to defeat ISIS, which he said was a 50 percent increase over last year.

    Republican committee members said the $583 billion was not enough to meet current threats and boost military readiness but did not specify how much more they wanted to spend on defense.

    SyriaMapFebruary

    "This administration claims to provide robust funding" for defense, but "we have a shrinking Army and Navy. China is building whole islands in the South China Sea," said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Republican and a senior committee member.

    "Syria is a living hell on earth and devolving further every day" while "ISIS has a major franchise in Libya. This budget does not do enough to halt its spread," he said.

    In his 33-page prepared statement, Carter went into detail on a range of budget matters from cyber warfare and the rebalance to the Pacific, to the buildup in Europe and personnel changes, but much of the hearing was devoted to other issues.

    From the start, Frelinghuysen and Rep. Harold Rogers, a Kentucky Republican and the committee's chairman, sought assurances from Carter that Obama would not use his upcoming trip to Cuba to change the status of the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay or its detention facility.

    Frelinghuysen said he had heard "speculation" that something was about to happen on the status of Guantanamo. He asked: "Can you assure us there's no plan for any change of our operations and historic role there?" Carter responded that "I know of no such plans."

    The Pentagon has maintained that the status of the naval base was separate from Obama's plan announced earlier this week for the closing of the Guantanamo detention facility, which would require sending some prisoners to the US The plan would need the approval of Congress.

    SEE ALSO: These two ISIS battles could change everything in the Middle East

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    BEIRUT (AP) — A cease-fire brokered by the United States and Russia went into effect across Syria on Saturday, marking the biggest international push to reduce violence in the country's devastating conflict, but the Islamic State group and al-Qaida's branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, were excluded.

    The cease-fire aims to bring representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition back to the negotiating table in Geneva for talks on a political transition. The U.N.'s envoy, Staffan de Mistura, announced that peace talks would resume on March 7 if the cessation of hostilities "largely holds."

    If it does, it would be the first time international negotiations have brought any degree of quiet in Syria's five-year civil war. But success requires adherence by multiple armed factions — and the truce is made more fragile because it allows fighting to continue against the Islamic State group and Nusra Front, which could easily re-ignite broader warfare.

    The Syrian government and the opposition, including nearly 100 rebel groups, have said they will abide by the cease-fire despite serious skepticism about chances for success.

    Speaking to reporters in Geneva after the truce took hold at midnight, de Mistura said initial reports indicated that within minutes both Damascus and the nearby rebel-held town of Daraya suddenly "had calmed down." He said there was a report of one "incident" that his team was investigating but did not give details.

    Opposition activists on the ground also reported early adherence to the truce.

    Mazen al-Shami, an activist near Damascus, said an opposition-held eastern suburb of the capital known as Eastern Ghouta was "quiet for the first time in years." The Ghouta region, which includes the sprawling suburb of Douma, has been the scene of intense fighting during Syria's conflict.

    Syria map

    An Associated Press crew in Damascus said the sounds of explosions stopped three minutes before midnight. An Aleppo-based opposition media collective, Aleppo24, said Russian warplanes left Aleppo skies at 12:19 a.m.

    There were also some reports of violations, which could not be independently confirmed, but they appeared to be relatively limited.

    Opposition activist Mohammed al-Sibai, who is based in the central province of Homs, told the AP that the cease-fire was violated 15 minutes after it went into effect in the town of Talbiseh, which was being subjected to shelling by government artillery based around the town. However, he said things later quieted down.

    Significantly, there were no immediate reports of any airstrikes.

    Ahmad al-Masalmeh, an opposition activist in Daraa in the country's south said intense fighting suddenly stopped at midnight when the cease-fire went into effect.

    "In the first half hour of the cease-fire the situation is relatively calm but tense," al-Masalmeh said via Skype. He later said Syrian troops fired tank shells at the village of Lajat in Daraa province, wounding two people.

    "This is a regime that cannot be trusted," al-Masalmeh said.

    The Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella opposition activist group, also reported that Syrian troops violated the truce in Daraa.

    SyriaLess than an hour before the truce was set to begin, the 15-member Security Council unanimously endorsed the agreement worked out between the United States and Russia.

    De Mistura told the Security Council via video conference from Geneva that he hoped the cease-fire would provide a chance for humanitarian aid to reach those battered by Syria's brutal war and allow for a political solution.

    He later told a news conference that operation centers in Moscow, Washington, Amman, Geneva and the northwestern Syrian city of Latakia were collecting information on any truce violations and would share them with the United States and Russia, which are responsible for addressing the incidents.

    White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. didn't expect to be able to judge the cease-fire's success or failure within the first days or even weeks.

    "We do anticipate we're going to encounter some speed bumps along the way," Earnest said. "There will be violations."

    On Friday, hours before the cease-fire came into effect, warplanes unleashed airstrikes against rebel-held positions in the suburbs of the Syrian capital and near the northern city of Aleppo.

    The last barrages came as the main Syrian opposition and rebel umbrella group said dozens of factions — 97 groups in all — had agreed to abide by the truce. The High Negotiations Committee, or HNC, said a military committee has been formed to follow up on adherence.

    The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the warplanes in Friday's strikes were believed to be Russian. The Kremlin did not comment on that report but denied allegations that the Russian air force bombed civilian positions east of Damascus the previous day.

    SyriaThe rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma was hit 40 times on Friday, the Observatory said, along with other areas east of the capital, killing at least eight people, including three women and four children.

    Al-Shami, the activist based in the area, said the warplanes were Russian, adding that they carried out some 60 air raids. He said 25 strikes targeted Douma. "The air raids intensified after the revolutionary factions said they will abide by the cease-fire," al-Shami said via Skype.

    Stephane Dujarric, the spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, told reporters in New York that the increase of military activity was "tragic but unfortunately not surprising."

    Late Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama expressed hope that the cease-fire would lead to a political settlement to end the civil war and allow a more intense focus on battling the Islamic State group. He said he doesn't expect the truce to immediately end hostilities after years of bloodshed between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and rebels who want to end his reign.

    Announced just this week, the cease-fire is a "test" of whether the parties are committed to broader negotiations over a political transition, a new constitution and holding free elections, Obama said. He said Syria's future cannot include Assad as president, which is a chief point of contention with Russia and Iran, who support the Syrian leader.

    "We are certain that there will continue to be fighting," Obama said, noting that IS, the Nusra Front and other militant groups are not part of the negotiations and the truce.

    Obama put the onus on Russia and its allies — including the Assad government — to live up to their commitments under the agreement. The elusive cease-fire deal was reached only after a monthslong Russian air campaign that the U.S. says strengthened Assad's hand and allowed his forces to retake territory, altering the balance of power in the Syrian civil war.

    "The world will be watching," Obama said.

    Speaking to reporters in Washington on Friday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner called it "put up or shut up" time for Russia to prove its seriousness about ending the fighting and starting a political transition by adhering to its pledge not to target "groups that we consider the moderate opposition."

    In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country will keep hitting "terrorist organizations" in Syria even after the truce is implemented.

    The opposition umbrella, HNC, said in a statement that the Syrian "regime and its allies should not exploit the (truce) and continue with their hostilities against opposition factions under the pretext of fighting terrorists."

    Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Kevin Freking and Bradley Klapper in Washington, Michael Astor in New York and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.

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    A Syrian boy holds a toy gun as he plays soccer with others between destroyed buildings with graffiti that reads

    As a fragile ceasefire began in Syria on Saturday, scattered violence and clashes continued throughout the country. 

    The Syrian government and 97 rebel and militant groups said they would abide by the ceasefire. 

    The ceasefire excludes the ISIS and al-Qaida's branch in Syria, the Nusra Front.

    But only a few hours after the ceasefire began, a Syrian rebel commander already said his fighters had registered numerous government ceasefire violations and warns they could lead to the collapse of the agreement.

    The Syrian state-run news agency also reports that armed groups have fired several shells on residential areas in the capital in what it reports was the first breach of the ceasefire.

    SANA says the shells were fired Saturday by "terrorist groups" entrenched in Jobar and Douma, both opposition-held suburbs of Damascus. 

    Lt. Col. Fares al-Bayoush, commander of the 1,300-strong Fursan al-Haq Brigade, a US-backed rebel faction, tells The Associated Press that his group and others affiliated with the mainstream Free Syrian Army are so far abiding by the truce.

    He says continued government breaches, however, will force rebel factions to retaliate. Still, he adds that the ceasefire has sharply reduced government attacks across northern Syria where his group is based.

    A top military official says Russia has grounded its warplanes in Syria to help secure the cease-fire. "The Russian Federation has completely stopped attacks in the 'green zone', that is to say those areas and armed units that have sent to us requests for cease-fire," Maj. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy said Saturday at a briefing in Moscow.

    He said 17 opposition units have contacted the Russian military to adhere to the truce that became effective at midnight on Friday.

    Syria

    ISIS attacks throughout the country

    ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide truck bombing in central Syria, which killed at least two people. The blast rocked the area only hours after the start of the ceasefire engineered by Russia and the US.

    The ISIS-affiliated Amaq news agency says the suicide bomber targeted a military post near the town of Salamiyeh. Syrian state media said two people were killed in the blast, while an opposition group that monitors the conflict said three were killed. 

    ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL or Daesh) has also stormed a northern border town that was captured months ago by Kurdish fighters, according to a Syrian rebel official.

    Talal Sillo, a spokesman for the predominantly Kurdish Syria Democratic Forces, said Saturday that the ISIS fighters have attacked the town of Tal Abyad. The fighting began after midnight Friday and was still ongoing, Sillo said. Tal Abyad that has been held by Kurdish fighters since July.

    The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also confirmed the fighting in Tal Abyad.

    Overall, opposition activists in different parts of Syria said the situation has been "cautiously calm" since the truce went into effect at midnight Friday.

    SEE ALSO: The UN kicked out one of its most dogged journalists — and he spent part of this week reporting out of a park across the street

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

    SEE ALSO: 21 stunning photos prove the US Navy and US Marine Corps have the best diving boards and swimming pools

    Rebel fighters inspect a piece of a rocket that landed in an area that connects the northern countryside of Deraa and the Quneitra countryside in southern Syria on February 22.



    Syria Democratic Forces fighters look through a scope and a pair of binoculars on the outskirts of al-Shadadi town, in Syria's Hasaka countryside.



    Macedonian policemen stand in front of a gate over rail tracks as migrants wait at the Greek-Macedonian border. Additional passage restrictions imposed by Macedonian authorities left hundreds of them stranded near the village of Idomeni, Greece, on February 23.



    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    A toddler is held up to the camera in this still image taken from video said to be shot in Madaya on January 5, 2016. Handout via Social Media Website

    The United Nations and partner aid organizations plan to deliver life-saving aid to 154,000 Syrians in besieged areas in the next five days, the U.N. Resident Coordinator in Damascus Yacoub El Hillo said in a statement on Sunday.

    Pending approval from parties to the conflict, the U.N. is ready to deliver aid to about 1.7 million people in hard-to-reach areas in the first quarter of 2016, he said.

    The U.N. estimates there are almost 500,000 people living under siege, out of a total 4.6 million who are hard to reach with aid, but it hopes that a cessation of hostilities that began on Friday night will bring an end to the 15 sieges.

    "It is the best opportunity that the Syrian people have had over the last five years for lasting peace and stability," El Hillo said.

    "But we all know that without a meaningful political process and a political solution, both cessation of hostilities and entry of humanitarian assistance will not be enough to end the crisis in Syria."

    The U.N. hopes to deliver aid to Moadamiya on Monday, the "four towns" of Zabadani, Kufreya, Foua and Madaya on Wednesday, and Kafr Batna on Friday.

    But the biggest single siege, of about 200,000 people in Deir al-Zor, is not affected by the cessation of hostilities because the besieging Islamic State forces are excluded from the agreement.

    The U.N. attempted an air drop there last week but high winds meant all 21 tonnes of food went off target or went missing or their parachutes failed to open and they were destroyed.

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    Amnesty International activists protest against the ongoing migrant crisis with a boat filled with mannequins wearing life vests outside the Maritime Museum, rear, during an informal meeting of EU Justice and Home Affairs ministers at the Maritime Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Monday, Jan. 25, 2016.

    Dutch authorities identified about 30 war crimes suspects, a third of them Syrians, among the 59,000 people who applied for asylum last year, the immigration minister said on Monday.

    Klaas Dijkhoff released the data in a letter amid an increasingly heated debate over immigration, stoked by an increase in arrivals from war zones across the Middle East.

    He was responding to questions from members of parliament, many of whom have been calling on the government to start sending back migrants who are suspected of atrocities, or break Dutch laws.

    Ten of the suspects were from Syria and the rest from Eritrea, Sudan, Nigeria, Georgia and other countries, he added, without going into further details.

    Dutch news site AD reported that the Ministry of Security and Justice could not disclose what groups the suspects were part of while in Syria, so they could have been working either for the Assad regime or the opposition.

    AD also wrote that it was not likely the suspects had been part of ISIS and that Dijkhoff had reported that so far, one person had been arrested for allegedly belonging to the terrorist group. The kinds of war crimes the Syrians are suspected of could not be disclosed either due to privacy concerns.

    Dijkhoff said the Syrians could not be sent home because international treaties prohibit forced repatriation to a country where there is ongoing conflict.

    A backlash against immigration has boosted the Netherlands' far-right anti-Islam Freedom party, whose leader Geert Wilders is regularly rated the country's most popular politician.

     

    SEE ALSO: Minister warns that up to 70,000 migrants could be trapped in Greece next month

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    ISIS Islamic State Fighter Flag Mosul

    Despite bombings and financial sanctions the Islamic State is still coming up with ways to bring in cash. The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times just documented IS’s deals with Iraqi money exchangers and Syrian oil traders to keep money flowing into the caliphate.

    It’s yet to be seen whether that’s enough to sustain itself, but it shows that it will still take a lot more to cut off the group’s sources of funding.

    Erika Solomon from the Financial Times reported on how the Islamic State is offering bulk oil deals in an attempt to avoid coalition air strikes. IS is issuing 1,000 barrel petroleum licenses to oil traders in Syria. A Syrian trucker said that three businesses had been given these offerings that involve the al-Omar field.

    This was in direct response to coalition air strikes that have been hitting tanker trucks at oil fields and IS’s storage facilities. By making these large deals IS can be assured of sales and arrange times and places for deliveries to avoid a large number of trucks cuing up at the Omar field, which might invite an air strike.

    It also keeps their oil flowing to local markets in Syria and Iraq, which the group has come to rely upon. For the traders they can buy a large quantity of oil from IS instead of waiting for small purchases with everyone else.

    The Wall Street Journal added another piece on money exchangers who continue to operate in IS controlled territory. These businesses play a crucial role in sustaining the caliphate as they deliver cash. At the center of this network is allegedly Abu Omar, a Mosul based businessman who also operates in Irbil, Sulaymaniya and Hit. After Mosul was taken in June 2014 he agreed to handle the organization’s money affairs.

    He and other exchanges reportedly bring in cash into the caliphate through three main routes. One is from Istanbul through Kurdistan to Mosul. Another is from Amman to Anbar and Baghdad, and the third is from Turkey’s Gaziantep to Raqqa, Syria. Allegedly Peshmerga and Hashd accept bribes to allow these businesses to delivery cash into IS areas. At the end of 2014, the U.S. warned the Central Bank of Iraq about these companies and how they were buying U.S. dollars at the Bank’s auctions to support IS.

    Kurds Kurdish Peshmerga Fighters Mosul Iraq

    The Central Bank responded by handing out fines to banks and then banned 142 money exchangers in December 2014 from the auctions. The problem was that Iraq has no real regulators so all these businesses had to do was set up a front company and they could get right back into buying dollars. Baghdad cannot crackdown on the money exchanges or auctions for two main reasons.

    First, many of Iraq’s traders rely upon exchanges rather than banks to provide cash for their transactions, so they can’t be shut down without crippling the economy. Second, Iran, Syria, Iraqi organized crime rings, and the nation’s ruling parties are all involved in buying dollars from the Central Bank to either gain access to hard currency or to sell on the open market for a profit.

    That is a powerful group of actors, which banking officials do not want to confront. That means there will be no real reform of the auctions or effective measures taken against the exchanges to limit the Islamic State’s access to dollars and cash.

    One of the defining features of the Islamic State is its resilience. Faced with powerful enemies the group is still working on counter moves. It is attempting to create new oil contracts to deal with air strikes. It has also continued to bring in cash through money exchangers, which keeps its economy going.

    Western reports have IS struggling. It has allegedly cut the salaries of its fighters, imposed fuel rationing, and is facing rising prices. As one of its key phrases says however, the group is enduring these setbacks and attempting to find ways to overcome them. They highlight the fact that the caliphate is being hurt, but there is still a long way to go before it is defeated.

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

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    tow anti tank missile free syrian army t-90

    In a video posted to YouTube Friday, Syrian rebels appear to have filmed themselves firing for the first time a US-made TOW anti-tank missile at a Russian T-90 tank.

    According to the video's caption, the TOW strike occurred in the Syrian town of Sheikh Aqil, a suburb just northwest of Aleppo.

    The BGM-71 TOW is an aging wire-guided anti-tank missile system that the United States has been supplying to CIA-vetted Syrian rebels.

    Since their first appearance in 2014, the missiles have popped up throughout the war-torn country, often in videos showing rebels attacking Syrian troops and government-backed militias.

    Friday's video is significant because there is very little footage, if any, of a US TOW going up against one of Russia's most modern battle tanks. In this case, it is unclear if the T-90 in the video was crewed by Russian or Syrian troops.

    When Russia first began pumping equipment and personnel into northern Syria in September 2015, there were confirmed reports of the T-90s at Russia's airfield in Latakia, though they were likely only there to defend the airfield.

    Russia has supplied various other types of tanks to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's military. However, the arrival of the T-90s in September was the first shipment of its kind in the almost five year-old war.

    In November 2015, the tanks appeared well to the east of Latakia, near Aleppo. Around the same time, a report from Al-Masdar Al-'Arabi news indicated that a small detachment of T-90s was given to a Syrian Army mechanized unit to help with current offensive operations in the region. In recent weeks, the advanced battle tanks were filmed during a CNN segment on the outskirts of Raqqa.

    In the video, the missile appears to strike the turret of the tank. As mentioned on other blogs, the T-90 appears to be equipped with a Shtora—a device designed to disrupt incoming wired-guided and infrared guided missiles, much like the TOW. In this case, it appears the system failed or wasn't active. Though the video shows the tank's crew member bailing out, it looks like the strike did not penetrate the turret and potentially glanced off. T-90 tanks are covered in what is called "reactive armor."

    The armor serves an outer shell to the tank's hull that, when struck, counter-detonates to disrupt the flight of the incoming enemy missile. Reactive armor can be mounted on various other tanks and is not unique to the T-90. However, the T-90's reactive armor is likely a more advanced version of the types found on older Russian and Syrian tanks.

    Watch the full video below:

    SEE ALSO: US Naval engineer with access to US secrets indicted over Iranian passports and false identities

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    A boy looks on while residents inspect a damaged building in the rebel held besieged city of Douma, a suburb of Damascus, Syria February 27, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

    Syrian armed forces took territory east of Damascus on Monday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, on the third day of a fragile international attempt to halt nearly five years of fighting.

    A Syrian rebel spokesman said this was a violation of the truce deal in place.

    The Observatory said that Syrian government forces took control of a strategically important piece of land between two neighborhoods in the eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus.

    The capture of the land between Beit Nayim and Harasta al-Qantara came after Syrian and allied forces fought Islamist factions and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front for around 24 hours, the Observatory said.

    A fragile truce came into force in Syria early on Saturday, but the main opposition group has said that the deal could collapse because of continuing attacks by government forces.

    Abu Ghiath al-Shami, spokesman for the Alwiyat Seif al-Sham group, part of a rebel alliance in the south, said government forces had been trying to storm the area in eastern Ghouta since the first day of the truce.

    "This is a clear violation of the ceasefire," Shami said.

    The cessation of hostilities, drawn up by Washington and Moscow, is a less formal arrangement than a ceasefire and is meant to allow peace talks to resume and aid to reach besieged communities.

    The agreement does not include jihadist groups, such as Islamic State and the Nusra Front, and Russia --which is supporting Syrian forces with air attacks -- has made clear it intends to keep bombing them.

    russianairstrikessyria

    Eastern Ghouta is regularly targeted by the Syrian army and its allies. It is a stronghold of the Jaish al-Islam (Islam Army) rebel group, which is an influential member of the main opposition alliance, the High Negotiations Committee, and has been used as a launch pad for rocket and mortar attacks on Damascus.

    SEE ALSO: Watch the US-led coalition's precision airstrikes shred ISIS positions in Syria

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    operation inherent resolve. al hasakah

    On February 27 at 5 p.m. Damascus time, a US- and Russia-brokered cease-fire took effect in Syria between government forces and the opposition.

    But the US-led coalition's efforts against ISIS — aka ISIL, Daesh, and the Islamic State — and Al Qaeda targets in Syria and Iraq will carry on undaunted. This is evident by recent videos released from the Combined Joint Task Force's Operation Inherent Resolve.

    "I want to make totally clear that there will be absolutely no cease-fire with respect to ISIL," US President Barack Obama said in a statement. "We remain relentless in going after them."

    Obama's statement came after a very busy week of bombing through Operation Inherent Resolve, which released videos of airstrikes destroying ISIS infrastructure, fighting positions, and oil wellheads. These videos show just a few of the 175 strikes OIR carried out between February 20 and 26.

    These videos were taken before the cease-fire, but they will continue uninterrupted until top leadership determines that OIR's mission of degrading and destroying ISIS has been achieved.

    Here a coalition airstrike obliterates a Daesh fighting position near Al Hasakah, Syria, on February 20:

    Here we see another ISIS fighting position in Al Hasakah destroyed in a precision daytime airstrike on February 21:

    Here, a range of ISIS bridges and culverts are razed near Dayr Az Zawr, Syria, on February 21 and 22:

    Here we see a coalition airstrike annihilate an ISIS-controlled oil wellhead near Dayr Az Zawr:

    SEE ALSO: The UN plans to get direly needed aid to 154,000 besieged Syrians in the next 5 days

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    NOW WATCH: ISIS is afraid of girls — here's why


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