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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    syria assad

    At first glance, the Mediterranean port of Latakia doesn't look like a city at war. Its streets are jammed with traffic, stylish women chat under palm trees, and idyllic orange groves stretch for miles.

    But the signs become apparent on closer inspection: a man in camouflage shopping with a Kalashnikov slung on his shoulder, the occasional military checkpoint, and rows of unfinished cottages and apartment buildings whose construction was interrupted by Syria's 5-year-old civil war.

    For a group of international reporters on a five-day trip to Syria organized by the Russian Foreign and Defense ministries, the contrasts were stark.

    From our military-escorted bus, we rode through a relaxed and sun-splashed Latakia, located in the heart of President Bashar Assad's Alawite homeland.

    We passed burned-out tanks, armored personnel carriers and a shattered bus in areas of recent battles.

    And we came under fire in a mountain village, with shells falling around us as we scrambled up a street to an armored truck and safety.

    syria assad

    Portraits of Assad and his father, Hafez, looked down from billboards, walls and windows on Latakia's busy streets, packed shops and cafes serving kebabs and humus.

    But the front lines of the civil war that since 2011 has killed a quarter-million people and displaced half of Syria's population were only about 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) away.

    As our group approached those lines, half-finished construction projects gave way to houses damaged by fighting. Many had walls riddled by shrapnel, a missing balcony or a roof blown off. In some places, cardboard replaced missing walls, and clothes hung out to dry across empty sections — signs of life amid the devastation.

    Troops at checkpoints appeared increasingly tense as we got closer to the fighting, their look purposeful and fingers on triggers.

    Our bus was escorted across central Hama province by a pickup truck with a heavy machine gun mounted on top, with a soldier in a black bandanna scouring the surrounding landscape.

    syria latakiaAt an intersection outside Hama, we transferred to armored trucks of the Russian military — a clear indication of the danger ahead. Reporters clumsily climbed up the ladders, and we continued under Russian army escort.

    We were greeted in the village of Maarzaf, about 15 kilometers (9 miles) west of the city of Hama, by scores of heavily armed men from the private militia of Sheikh Ahmad Mubarak, an influential leader in the province. We saw him sign a deal pledging to respect the cease-fire that began Feb. 27.

    Some of his troops were in their early teens, and they looked proud of their weapons and fatigues.

    When a Russian truck unloaded humanitarian aid, the sheikh's troops mixed with the residents reaching for candy, and one half-seriously loaded his rifle to fend off some particularly pushy boys.

    But there was more curiosity than danger. A female press officer from the Russian Defense Ministry instantly became the focus of attention, with Syrian men elbowing each other to get a photo taken with her.

    A visit to mountain villages near the border with Turkey was more harrowing.

    Most of the homes in Ghunaymiyah, recently seized by the Syrian army from militants, were empty shells, their windows and doors missing and walls riddled by shrapnel. Residents who returned to inspect the damage reacted with shock.

    A few knelt to pray at a Christian church, its walls half-ruined and the floor covered with rubble and broken glass. The devastation seemed incongruous with the blossoming trees and bright blue sky.

    We then went to nearby Kinsibba, which sits on a steep hill overlooking a strategic road leading to Idlib and Aleppo, Syria's onetime commercial capital that has been the focus of a recent government offensive backed by intense Russian airstrikes.

    syria latakia

    An indifferent-looking Syrian general said the cease-fire was largely holding despite some shelling by militants of the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's branch in Syria, which is excluded from the cease-fire. The Russian officers weren't so calm, and they nervously urged reporters not to stand at the edge of a cliff overlooking the hills controlled by the militants.

    Reporters paid little attention, snapping pictures of the idyllic landscape and later moving down a street to chat with residents.

    Suddenly, an explosion and a puff of gray smoke rose from the mountain slope about 200 meters (yards) below. At first, I didn't understand what had happened, but a Russian officer next to me immediately yelled: "All down! We are under fire!"

    As I tried to hide behind a nearby low concrete barrier on the street, I saw another puff of smoke from a nearby explosion and reached for my camera. That's when another blast forced me to get down.

    More shells fell, and I realized the next one might land on us.

    A Russian APC rushed forward to shield us from shrapnel. Under its cover, we ran up the steep hill and around a corner to where our armored trucks were parked.

    I felt I was losing my breath after running in my heavy flak jacket, and others stumbled and fell, with the Russian troops helping them up.

    We frantically climbed aboard, the nervous Russian officers shouted our names to make sure all were safe, and the trucks sped away over a bumpy road. We could see little through the small armored windows, and the feeling of danger was intense.

    But the trucks soon reached a spot where our bus was waiting for us — a sign the immediate peril had eased. Medics treated those who scraped their arms and legs after falling on the asphalt.

    maaloula syria

    On another day, a Russian military plane flew us to the capital of Damascus, where we saw entire neighborhoods wiped out by fighting, with barely a single apartment building intact. Just a few miles away, however, other neighborhoods bore no sign of damage, with streets filled with traffic and busy shops.

    We were taken to al-Tall, on the northern outskirts, where hundreds of people gathered on the streets. Children chanted "Bashar!" Portraits of Assad and army heroes were everywhere. The atmosphere seemed relaxed, but Syrian military snipers patrolled the rooftops.

    We went farther north to the Christian hamlet of Maaloula, which has changed hands several times in the war. Set into a mountainside with breathtaking views, the town is overlooked by the Catholic monastery of St. Sergius, locally known as Mar Sarkis and dating back to Byzantine times. A narrow gorge leads to the Greek Orthodox convent of St. Takla, a place of worship since the early days of Christianity.

    Some people in Maaloula and other nearby towns still speak a version of Aramaic, the language Jesus is believed to have used.

    The sites were badly damaged by jihadi militants. Their walls were blackened by fire and the frescoes damaged by bullets and shrapnel. Ancient icons were stolen.

    maaloula  syria

    At Hemeimeem Air Base, the facility used by the Russians in western Syria near Latakia, the military said its warplanes mostly have been grounded since the cease-fire, except for a few missions to the northeastern province of Raqqa, controlled by the Islamic State group. The relative calm contrasted sharply to a previous visit to the base in January, when Russian jets were taking off and landing around the clock.

    Since Moscow began its air campaign at the end of September to help its longtime ally Assad, there have been more than 6,000 missions. The bombardment has allowed the Syrian army to reclaim ground in several key areas, most recently around Aleppo.

    Our last trip was to Al-Issawiyah, a village 15 kilometers south of the border with Turkey, for a delivery of humanitarian aid. Most of the residents are Turkmen, an ethnic minority that Turkey sees as its kin.

    The village has been spared fighting, and unlike other we were taken, there were few portraits of Assad and no chants of support.

    The Syrian security agents who accompanied our group seemed nervous and urged us to stay together to avoid being abducted.

    Still, residents said the Syrian army was protecting them, and some expressed sympathy for the Russian pilot killed by militants while parachuting from his plane that was shot down by a Turkish jet in November.

    SEE ALSO: Watch US-led airstrikes level an ISIS weapons cache

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    lloyd austin

    A top U.S. general has asked for permission to resurrect an effort to train Syrian opposition fighters for battles against Islamic State militants, but on a smaller scale than a previous program that failed and was scrapped last year.

    General Lloyd Austin, the head of Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East, told a Senate hearing on Tuesday that unlike the previous effort, which sought to recruit and train entire units of fighters outside the country to redeploy into Syria, the new program would focus on shorter-term training of smaller groups.

    "As we reintroduce those people back into the fight, they will be able to enable the larger groups that they’re a part of," Austin said.

    The failure of the original program, which sought to train thousands of fighters, was an embarrassment for President Barack Obama, whose strategy depends on local partners combating Islamic State militants in both Syria and Iraq.

    But the program was troubled from the start, with some of the first class of Syrian fighters coming under attack from al Qaeda's Syria wing, Nusra Front, in their battlefield debut. At one point, a group of U.S.-trained rebels even handed over ammunition and equipment to Nusra Front.

    "I've asked for permission to restart the effort using a different approach," Austin said.

    The U.S. strategy against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the home of the Sunni militant group's self-declared caliphate, aims to eventually force the collapse of its two major power centers of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.

    Austin told the Senate hearing that he made recommendations, now being reviewed at the Pentagon, about the types of additional U.S. capabilities that would be needed to accelerate operations "as we look towards Raqqa and Mosul."

    Although he did not explicitly say he asked for more U.S. troops, Austin acknowledged that would allow him to obtain better intelligence, offer greater assistance to local forces and to "increase some elements of the special operations footprint."

    nusra front

    The United States has deployed a small number of special operations forces to Iraq with a mission to carry out raids against Islamic State there and in Syria.

    In Syria, dozens of U.S. special operations forces are helping enable forces on the ground with the Syrian Democratic Forces. U.S. General Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, estimated that group was about 80 percent Kurdish.

    That could limit their ability to capture and hold predominantly Arab or other non-Kurdish communities in Syria.

    The timing of both the Mosul and Raqqa operations are also unclear. Mosul may not be recaptured this year, officials say.

    Votel acknowledged at the hearing that while the United States had a plan for local forces to isolate Raqqa, allowing it to choke off Islamic State's de facto capital, there was no plan yet in place to capture or hold the city.

    "I would say there’s not a plan to hold Raqqa," Votel said.

    (Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Grant McCool)


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    Artist Saint Hoax visited a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon and threw a costume party for the children there. As he photographed them dressed up as Disney princesses, they discussed their dreams and plans for the future. The photos are part of his Instagram-based campaign #OnceUponAWar, and aim to bring awareness to their plight.

    Story by Jacob Shamsian and editing by Stephen Parkhurst

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    al shishani isis chechen

    An Islamic State commander described by the Pentagon as the group's "minister of war" was likely killed in a US air strike in Syria, US officials said on Tuesday, in what would be a major victory in the United States' efforts to strike the militant group's leadership.

    Abu Omar al-Shishani, also known as Omar the Chechen, ranked among America's most wanted militants under a U.S. program that offered up to $5 million for information to help remove him from the battlefield.

    Born in 1986 in Georgia, which was then still part of the Soviet Union, the red-bearded Shishanihad a reputation as a close military adviser to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was said by followers to have relied heavily on Shishani.

    The strike itself involved multiple waves of manned and unmanned aircraft, targeting Shishaninear the town of al-Shadadi in Syria, a US official said.

    The Pentagon believes Shishani was sent there to bolster Islamic State troops after they suffered a series of setbacks at the hands of US-backed forces from the Syrian Arab Coalition, which captured al-Shadadi from the militants last month.

    Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said the US military was still assessing the results of the strike, but acknowledged its potential significance.

    Shishani "was a Syrian-based Georgian national who held numerous top military positions within ISIL, including minister of war," Cook said, using an acronym for the group. Cook said Shishani's death would undermine the group's ability to coordinate attacks and defend its strongholds.

    It would also hurt Islamic State's ability to recruit foreign fighters, especially those from Chechnya and the Caucus regions, he said.

    Several US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed optimism that the strike was successful, although none were prepared to declare Shishani dead with certainty.

    The first official said initial assessments indicated Shishani was likely killed along with an additional 12 Islamic State fighters.

    An official in the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which has been fighting Islamic State in the al-Shadadi area, said it had received information that Shishani was killed but had no details and had been unable to confirm the death. The official declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

    kobani air strike


    Born with the name Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili, Shishani once fought in military operations as a rebel in Chechnya before joining Georgia's military in 2006 and even fighting against Russian troops before being discharged two years later for medical reasons, the first U.S. official said.

    He was arrested in 2010 for weapons possession and spent more than a year in jail, before leaving Georgia in 2012 for Istanbul and then later to Syria, the official said.

    He decided to join Islamic State the following year and pledged his allegiance to Baghdadi. The State Department said Shishani was identified as Islamic State's military commander in a video distributed by the group in 2014.

    The strike would be one of the most successful operations to take out Islamic State's leadership in Iraq and Syria since May, when U.S. special operations forces killed the man who directed the group's oil, gas and financial operations.

    In November, a US air strike killed Islamic State's senior leader in Libya, known as Abu Nabil.

    (Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay in Washington and Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Bill Trott and Leslie Adler)

    SEE ALSO: One of ISIS' top commanders was a 'star pupil' of US-special forces training in the country of Georgia

    SEE ALSO: Russian advisers in Syria have been drawing up plans to secure Damascus — Assad’s seat of power

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    Syria ceasefire

    Sick children dying as lifesaving medicine waits at checkpoints, youngsters forced to survive on animal feed and leaves, and families burning their mattresses just to find something to keep them warm.

    Schools moving underground for shelter from barrel bombs, the crude, explosive-filled and indiscriminate crates that fall from the sky and are so inaccurate that some observers have said their use is a de facto war crime.

    The wounded left to die for lack of medical supplies, anaesthetics, painkillers and chronic medicine; children dying of malnutrition and even rabies due to the absence of vaccines, while landmines and snipers await anyone trying to escape.

    The scenes are not from second world war death camps or Soviet gulags. They are the reality of life for more than a million Syrians living in besieged areas across the war-torn nation, according to a report by Save the Children.

    Tanya Steele, the charity’s chief executive, said: “Children are dying from lack of food and medicines in parts of Syria just a few kilometres from warehouses that are piled high with aid. They are paying the price for the world’s inaction.”

    At least a quarter of a million children are living in besieged areas across Syria, Save the Children estimates, in conditions that the charity describes as living in an open-air prison.

    The report is based on a series of extensive interviews and discussions with parents, children, doctors and aid workers on the ground in besieged zones.


    It illustrates with startling clarity the brutality with which the conflict in Syria is being conducted, five years into a revolution-turned-civil-war that has displaced half the country and killed more than 400,000 people.

    The suffering of people in besieged areas in Syria is also an indictment of the failure of the international community to bring an end to the crisis. Less than 1% of them were given food assistance in 2015 and less than 3% received healthcare.

    Rihab, a woman living in eastern Ghouta near Damascus, which has been besieged by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, was quoted as saying: “Fear has taken control. Children now wait for their turn to be killed. Even adults live only to wait for their turn to die.”

    A truce negotiated last month by major powers was supposed to bring relief and aid into the besieged areas, but humanitarian workers and activists say the Assad government, which is conducting the vast majority of siege warfare in the country, has repeatedly delayed access, potentially in violation of the truce agreement.

    syrian refugees macedonia

    The halting ceasefire has therefore brought scarce relief to what agencies including Médecins Sans Frontières estimate are 1.9 million people living in besieged and hard to reach areas.

    Nearly all those surveyed by Save the Children reported that children had died in their communities due to a lack of medication caused by the siege. Many had cut down their meals and some did not have enough for even one meal a day, while 25% reported that local children had died from a lack of food.

    The report documents other tragedies of life under siege: an increase in sexual violence, child labour, petty crime, violence and school closures as a consequence of airstrikes and material shortages.

    Syrian refugees wait on a roadside after Turkish police prevented them from sailing off to the Greek island of Farmakonisi by dinghies, near a beach in the western Turkish coastal town of Didim, Turkey, March 9, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

    Ahmed, a boy living in the besieged Damascus suburb of Douma, told interviewers: “When I hear the sound of a shell or a plane then I get very afraid and I hurry to escape and hide under my bed.”

    Rihab said: “Here there are no children any more. Only small adults.”

    SEE ALSO: From calm to chaos: A look inside a reporter's escorted visit to Syria

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    NOW WATCH: Watch this heartbreaking eyewitness account of the Syrian refugee crisis in Greece

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    obama netanyahu

    President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are in the midst of yet another public conflict.

    Earlier this week, the Israeli prime minister announced that he was canceling a planned trip to the US because of the limited window in which it would have been possible for him to meet with Obama.

    Netanyahu was supposed to address the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Meanwhile, Obama leaves for a historic visit to Cuba on March 18.

    Neither side disputes that a meeting could have taken place before Obama's departure to Cuba. Instead, the Israeli side apparently decided that it wasn't interested in a meeting.

    In past disputes, each side at least had a clear motivation for not wanting to talk. Obama didn't meet with Netanyahu during the latter's trip to the US.

    That included the prime minister's controversial March 2015 speech to a joint session of Congress urging opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. It was perhaps an obvious decision, given Netanyahu's use of a Republican-controlled legislature to speak out against one of the president's top priorities.

    Netanyahu's relationship with Obama has soured over a range of issues. There is the Iran deal. There is Israeli settlement activity beyond the ceasefire lines determined after the 1948 Middle East war. And there is Netanyahu's alleged use of racially divisive rhetoric during Israel's 2015 election campaign.

    At the same time, the relationship has shown recent evidence of stabilizing — perhaps even recovering.

    Netanyahu and Obama met at the White House last November, in what was seen as a successful attempt to publicly patch up the sides' differences after a protracted debate over the Iran deal. And there are some relatively urgent reasons Netanyahu should want to meet Obama in the coming weeks.

    Israel and the US are currently negotiating a memorandum of understanding that will help determine the next decade of US military assistance to the country.

    Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama wants to take one more shot at advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process before he leaves office, an effort that The Journal reported could include the US endorsement of a UN Security Council resolution outlining a final-status outcome to the conflict.

    From Israel's perspective, such a move would unacceptably coerce concessions outside the context of direct negotiations with the Palestinians. A meeting with Obama later this month would have been a crucial first step in staving off such a worst-case scenario.

    Instead, the sides are mired in one of the strangest episodes of the entire Obama-Netanyahu saga — one that has no apparent precedent.

    "There is no public record of an Israeli prime minister ever previously rejecting an invite to meet a president at the White House,"writes Raphael Ahren of The Times of Israel. "And it is so bizarre as to leave even veteran analysts of the often-fraught bilateral relationship flabbergasted."

    Israel syria border

    It's entirely possible that the meeting was canceled over something as innocent as a scheduling conflict — albeit one that played out in unfortunately public fashion.

    During a Tuesday press conference, White House press secretary Josh Earnest emphasized that the meeting's cancellation would have no effect on the state of relations between the two allies. But he said that it would have been "just good manners" for the Israelis to have informed the White House of Netanyahu's change in plans rather than airing them in the media first.

    Netanyahu hasn't proven quite this tactless in his recent diplomatic outreach.

    In September, Israel reached an understanding with Russia that de-conflicted the country's aircraft over Syria while granting Israel continued freedom of operation over its northern neighbor — something that allowed for the December bombing in Damascus that killed high-level Hezbollah operative Samir Kuntar.

    ISIS and its aligned forces have been largely kept away from the Syrian-Israeli border, arguably the result of careful Israeli policy regarding the Syrian civil war. And in December, Israel reached a "preliminary agreement" with Turkey that paves the way for the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the two countries.

    Netanyahu's inattention in Israel's relations with the US might show that Israel's priorities simply lie elsewhere at the moment. After years of regional turmoil and the possible changes brought on by the Iran nuclear deal, the Israeli prime minister perhaps just can't be bothered to manage his relationship with the country's top foreign ally.

    SEE ALSO: Russia's military budget exposes some of Putin's biggest contradictions

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    NOW WATCH: Israel banned a book featuring an Arab-Jew romance, so Arabs and Jews responded by kissing on camera

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    U.S. President Barack Obama discusses administration plans to close the Guantanamo military prison while delivering a statement at the White House in Washington February 23, 2016.  REUTERS/Carlos Barria

    A definitive detailing of US President Barack Obama's foreign policy shows how much the president's thinking has changed from the hope-centric rhetoric of his early days in office.

    In an interview with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, the president contended that while the US should still promote democracy and human rights, it's hamstrung by the fact that the world is "complicated,""messy," and "mean."

    Goldberg's story offers an intimate glimpse into Obama's foreign-policy worldview. The president talked through how he approaches major international challenges with a remarkable degree of candor.

    But some of the most revealing parts of Goldberg's story have to do with Obama's outlook on the state of the world and humanity in general.

    It's unusual for a sitting president to give such a raw blow-by-blow assessment of his time in office, as Obama does in the course of discussing his decision not to go after the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad after an August 2013 chemical-weapons attack. But Obama's willingness to delve into the nature of reality and human existence is perhaps even more disarming.

    At one point, Obama explained his view on what he believes American power is incapable of accomplishing, despite its world-spanning reach and unmatched military and economic scope. The president described himself as an "internationalist" and an "idealist," while identifying aspects of the human experience that inherently limit any nation's success in reshaping the world.

    "I am very much the internationalist, and I am also an idealist insofar as I believe that we should be promoting values, like democracy and human rights and norms and values," Obama told Goldberg.

    "I also believe that the world is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy," the president continued, explaining that "in order to advance both our security interests and those ideals and values that we care about, we've got to be hardheaded at the same time as we're bighearted."

    Obama and Putin

    The statement is a far cry from the optimism of Obama's 2008 campaign, the ambitious rhetoric of his 2009 speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, or, more recently, his soaring 2013 eulogy for former South African President Nelson Mandela.

    After two terms in office — a period that's seen the rise of one of history's most vicious terrorist groups in ISIS, the return of Cold War-era power dynamics in Eastern Europe, and the Syria conflagration — Obama has a foreign-policy outlook grounded in a sense of what's possible in spite of the essentially complicated and messy nature of the world.

    Throughout Goldberg's article, based on hours of interviews with the president, Obama offered little of the rhetoric of transformation that characterized the outset of his presidency. In 2016, Obama defers to what he sees as the inherent limitations of his position.

    At the same time, Obama did not give off the image of being totally disillusioned by reality. The world may be "full of hardship and tragedy," as he said. But Obama still appeared to hold an inevitably positive perception of human nature.

    "Look, I am not of the view that human beings are inherently evil," Obama told Goldberg. "I believe that there's more good than bad in humanity. And if you look at the trajectory of history, I am optimistic."

    SEE ALSO: The US and Israel are now in one of their most baffling disputes yet

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    ISIS minister of war

    The Pentagon is reporting that it may have killed Abu Omar al-Shishani, a foreign fighter that the US government says served as the Islamic State's "minister of war."

    A Chechen militant, who may have received some training from the US Special Forces nearly a decade ago, al-Shishani emerged as one of the Islamic State's most recognizable faces over the past two years, and his death has been falsely reported by the Islamic State's enemies multiple times.

    The Pentagon said on Tuesday that Shishani was "likely killed" near the Syrian town of al-Shaddadi last Friday in a strike that involved multiple hits by both manned and unmanned aircraft. Briefing reporters on Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook spoke in hypotheticals, and refereed to Shishani's "potential removal from the battlefield."

    Al-Shishani — whose birth name is Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili — was born in 1986 in then Soviet-era Georgia. He arrived in Syria sometime after 2012, and served as the commander of the Muhajireen Brigade, an independent jihadist group made up of foreign fighters. Though the group eventually threw in its lot with the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, Shishani himself pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2013.

    The Pentagon's Cook said that Shishani held "numerous top military positions" within the Islamic State, and that his death would represent a significant blow to the group.

    isisHis death has been erroneously reported a number of times over the last two years. The Kurdish militia YPG claimed it killed him in October 2014, but al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, had by then already said it had killed him, in May. Then in November the president of Russia's Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, shared a picture on Instagram that he said showed Shishani's corpse. He later retracted the claim. The next month the Islamic State put a $5 million bounty on Kadryov's head.

    Al-Shishani, also known as Omar the Chechen ("al-Shishani" in Arabic), ranked among America's most wanted militants and the US has pledged a $5 million reward for any information that helps remove him from the battlefield. 

    He spent years fighting the Russians as an insurgent in his youth. He also did a four-year tour in the Georgian military, where he was likely trained by American special forces. An investigation by McClatchy unearthed Shishani's former commander in the Georgian military, who said he was a skilled tactician and standout in a US special forces training program. "He was a perfect soldier from his first days, and everyone knew he was a star," the commander said. "We were well trained by American special forces units, and he was the star pupil."

    Senior Islamic State leader, Abu Omar al-Shishani, also known as Omar the Chechen.    REUTERS/US. Department of StateWhen contacted by VICE News, the Pentagon would not confirm or deny that Shishani received training from US Special Forces. 

    According to McClatchy, when the Russians invaded Georgia in 2008, Shishani put his special forces training to good use. Former Georgian soldiers recounted to McClatchy how he was able to infiltrate enemy positions and helped stage a daring ambush that wounded a high -ranking Russian commander.

    Shishani was eventually discharged from the Georgian military, and arrested on a weapons possession charge. He was released in 2012, and immediately fled the country. 

    He emerged in Syria later that year, where he quickly made a name for himself as a skilled battlefield commander. After joining the Islamic State, he helped professionalize the group's insurgent military tactics. He also appeared in multiple propaganda spots, and worked to recruit other foreign fighters from Muslim communities in the Caucasus.

    The US strike on Friday that may have killed Shishani took place near the Syrian town of al-Shaddadi, where the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of mostly Kurdish fighters, has been pushing the Islamic State back with the help of US air support. 

    Tuesday, several US officials told Reuters that they were optimistic that the strike against Shishani was successful, although none were prepared to declare him dead with certainty. An official in the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which has been fighting Islamic State in the al-Shadadi area, told Reuters it had received information that Shishani was killed but had no details and had been unable to confirm the death.

    The strike would be one of the most successful operations to take out Islamic State's leadership in Iraq and Syria since May, when US Special Forces forces killed the man who directed the group's oil, gas and financial operations.

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    Justin Welby

    It is "outrageous" to label people who have fears about migration to the UK as racists, says Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. 

    In an interview with Parliament's The House magazine, Welby said there is a "genuine fear" among some British people about the impacts of mass-migration on housing, employment and the NHS. 

    The Archbishop, who hasn't shied away from voicing strong political opinions in the past, said:

    There is a tendency to say ‘those people are racist’, which is just outrageous, absolutely outrageous. Fear is a valid emotion at a time of such colossal crisis. This is one of the greatest movements of people in human history. Just enormous. And to be anxious about that is very reasonable. 

    Welby also praised Britain's "superb" humanitarian effort in response to the Middle East refugee crisis but urged the government to accept its fair of Syrian people fleeing from the war-torn region. 

    "I was in Berlin, and the churches there are doing the most extraordinary things, as are the German people," the archbishop said. "They took 1.1 million last year. And it does make 20,000 over several years sound really very thin."

    The Archbishop, who was appointed to the Church of England's highest position in 2012, also spoke about the upcoming EU referendum. 

    Welby said the debate has failed to address key issues such as what the country would look like if it were to leave the 28-nation bloc and how would Britain would make the union more effective if it voted to remain. 

    He added that Christians are not expected to vote in a particular way on June 23, explaining: "I don't think there is one correct Christian view, one way or the other. You can't say 'God says you must vote this way or that way'."

    Secretary for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith, who is one of many high-profile ministers pushing for Brexit, welcomed Mr Welby's remarks on migration.

    Duncan Smith told the BBC:

    These are rational comments from the archbishop - they're to be welcomed - but you wonder just how late they've come from various people in institutions, so I congratulate him. If you think back, for far too many years what's happened is that in a sense the elites have all said 'It's terrible to talk about immigration and if you do you're racist', so they've shut down the debate for many, many years.

    Duncan Smith accused Prime Minister David Cameron of having a "low opinion" of British people and said the country would flourish as a non-EU member.   

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: How Marshawn Lynch — who hasn't spent a penny of his NFL salary — makes and spends his money

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    ISIS airstrike vbied

    The US military has released a video that showcases the US-led anti-ISIS coalition obliterating an ISIS car bomb in Manbij, Syria. 

    The airstrike were conducted on February 29 and was part of a larger operation by the anti-ISIS coalition on that day. Altogether, on that day, the anti-ISIS coalition conducted 12 strikes in Syria and 15 in Iraq against the militant group. 

    US Central Command notes that in addition to the strike against the ISIS car bomb, known officially as a vehicle borne improvised explosive device (VBIED), the anti-ISIS coalition also struck an ISIS mortar system in Manbij. The strikes were aimed at disrupting terrorist operations in the area.

    VBIEDs are among the most dangerous weapons in ISIS's inventory. In general, they are advanced enough to produce even macabre amazement in their potential victims. One Baghdad police officer told Der Spiegel that these car bombs "were so sophisticated that they destroyed everything; there was nothing left of the car and nothing to investigate how the explosive charge was assembled."

    Aside from smaller car bombs, ISIS has also perfected the use of multiton truck and Humvee bombs as military weapons. Among the group's favorite tactics is filling stolen armored US Humvees with explosives to decimate static defenses of the Iraqi Security Forces.

    The following GIF shows the airstrike that destroyed ISIS's VBIED in Manbij:

    via GIPHY

    You can watch the entirety of the strike below. 

    SEE ALSO: Watch US-led airstrikes level an ISIS weapons cache

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

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    Obama Kerry podium, Feb 2016

    There's an interesting subplot running through Jeffrey Goldberg's landmark Atlantic magazine report on US President Barack Obama's foreign policy: the constant and apparently continuing tension between the president and the man charged with implementing his foreign-policy vision.

    Throughout his article, Goldberg reported of several instances in which Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have been at odds.

    For one, Kerry was not at the August 30, 2013, meeting in which Obama opted not to order a military strike on the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

    That came in the aftermath of the regime's use of chemical weapons outside Damascus. Kerry gave a speech advocating a strike earlier that day, but was not informed of the president's decision until the night of the meeting.

    "'I just got f----- over,' [Kerry] told a friend shortly after talking to the president that night," Goldberg wrote.

    But the more notable source of disagreement is the secretary of state's continued advocacy for strikes against Assad regime targets. Goldberg reported that "over the past year, John Kerry has visited the White House regularly to ask Obama to violate Syria's sovereignty. On several occasions, Kerry has asked Obama to launch missiles at specific regime targets, under cover of night, to 'send a message' to the regime."

    Kerry believes that US military strikes would convince Assad to take peace negotiations in the country more seriously, according to Goldberg.

    "A few cruise missiles, Kerry has argued, might concentrate the attention of Assad and his backers," Goldberg reported.

    Kerry's efforts have put him at odds with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, according to the reporter.

    "Obama has steadfastly resisted Kerry's requests, and seems to have grown impatient with his lobbying," Goldberg wrote. "Recently, when Kerry handed Obama a written outline of new steps to bring more pressure to bear on Assad, Obama said, 'Oh, another proposal?'"

    Meanwhile, Obama has "announced that no one except the secretary of defense should bring him proposals for military action," something understood within the Defense Department as "a brushback pitch directed at Kerry."

    This is more than just a standard policy disagreement. For the past several months, Kerry has been charged with leading a somewhat quixotic international attempt at reaching a negotiated solution to Syria's 5-year-old civil war, an effort that's so far yielded a fragile and loophole-riddled "cessation of hostilities."

    As Goldberg detailed, Kerry doesn't believe that his effort can be successful without some added pressure on the Assad regime, which has had its position strengthened through Russia's late 2015 military intervention on the regime's behalf.

    It isn't just that Kerry believes the US has some kind of moral or strategic imperative to weaken Assad's government. He also appears to think that one of his primary objectives as secretary of state is all but unachievable without a greater US willingness to confront Assad, even if it's through direct military force.

    Assad Hezbollah

    As secretary of state, Kerry negotiated the nuclear agreement with Iran and spearheaded an unsuccessful effort to reach a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    Kerry has been at the forefront of Obama's riskiest and most controversial moves on the international stage. If Iran tests a nuclear weapon or the Assad regime remains in power a decade from now, those developments will reflect back on Kerry's legacy as well as Obama's.

    But on one of the most crucial questions of the Syrian civil war, Kerry's impressive record of carrying out some of the administration's biggest gambles hasn't won him all that much trust or goodwill.

    SEE ALSO: 'The world is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place': Obama explains his foreign policy

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    ISIS schools

    At first glance, the children in ISIS propaganda videos look just like those you'd find in any elementary school across the world. They're smiling and happy, toting bright backpacks, and running around playing kickball outside.

    But it's hard to miss the sign that these aren't normal students — the black cloth tied around some of their heads that bears the Islamic State's symbol.

    The terrorist group (which is also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh) has released a barrage of propaganda in recent months touting the schools in the territory ISIS refers to as its "caliphate," located in parts of Iraq and Syria.

    Business Insider viewed several propaganda videos featuring children and saw dozens of photos of kids posted on ISIS' social media channels.

    Photos show students sitting attentively in class, always segregated by gender, and solving math problems on a chalkboard. They display textbooks with math problems that mix weapons and tanks in with objects like fruit and flowers.

    ISIS is "trying to establish its deep roots for itself ... by creating many classrooms worth of heavily indoctrinated, heavily committed children who are being brought up only understanding the world through Islamic State’s binary view of jihad, which is dangerous,"Charlie Winter, an expert on ISIS propaganda and senior researcher for Georgia State University, told Business Insider.

    ISIS targets children specifically, aiming to create a generation of loyal followers who are indoctrinated from an early age and therefore might be less likely to dissent. It's an issue that worries experts like Winter.

    "It is instilling very young children with … Islamism, jihadism, and it’s something that’s going to stick around for a long, long time," Winter said. "It’s an elephant in the room that isn’t being given enough scrutiny."

    In Raqqa, ISIS' de-facto capital in Syria, ISIS throws parties for children and hands out toys and prizes for answering questions correctly, Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, a Syrian activist with the group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, told Business Insider late last year.

    "Boys it's affecting a lot," said Raqqawi, who goes by a pseudonym. "They see all the time guns and calls for jihad. So they love to go. Sometimes they think it's a game, so they love to go and do these things."

    ISIS targets children because it's easier to recruit them than adult men, Raqqawi said. Experts have said that such regular exposure to violence normalizes it in children's minds.

    "It's very familiar to see a lot of children carrying a AK-47s," Raqqawi said. "Sometimes the gun is taller than the kid."

    ISIS van


    ISIS has made violence commonplace in the "caliphate," the swath of territory it controls in Iraq and Syria, meaning that a new generation of children living in those areas are in danger of being socialized to believe that such brutality is normal.

    "If violence is being broadcast in the open, children would see it and believe that it's normal and accepted because it's in public and it's not publicly condemned, which would lead children to commit similar violent acts,"Rachel Bryson, a researcher who studies ISIS propaganda at the Quilliam Foundation, told Business Insider late last year.

    She added: "They're aiming to control a lot of the curriculum to indoctrinate children, and so that is just a way to do it. Nazi Germany was a similar situation."

    ISIS has been known to leave headless bodies in the streets, lock people in cages in public squares for infractions as petty as smoking, and carry out public executions. The group has also set up "media points" around its territory to broadcast its propaganda videos in open-air theaters.

    As children are immersed in this public violence, they are also targeted by ISIS members who lure them with various techniques.

    "Sometimes they make parties for children, so if you answer the right question they will give you a present or a mobile phone. ... They recruit a lot of young boys" this way, Raqqawi said.

    A Syrian man from Deir Ezzor, who goes by the name Fikram, told Business Insider last month that the ISIS "advocacy" office "distributes biscuits and juice to passerby children while they showcase publications."

    ISIS sends some of its child recruits to military camps to train them in how to handle weapons and fight. Militants provide an incentive to poor families by offering to pay parents hundreds of dollars per month for each child they send, according to Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently. ISIS calls these children, who have been featured in many ISIS propaganda releases, "Cubs of the Caliphate." 

    ISIS kids


    Even the children who resist recruitment to ISIS' military training camps are now apparently being indoctrinated in schools in some ISIS-controlled cities.

    "The military camps are for military training in particular, so they don’t necessarily educate in things like geography and history and the humanities," Winter said. "... To be a Caliphate Cub is different from being a kid living in the caliphate."

    ISIS shut down many schools in its caliphate, but some have been reopened after militants indoctrinated teachers with their radical ideology and developed a curriculum that supports its mission.

    "They are making these books for propaganda, sending the message to foreign fighters that we have books, we have schools, that your kids will have education," Raqqawi told Business Insider in January.

    Like most aspects of life in the caliphate, its schools are supposedly run by a bureaucratic agency set up by the militants to mimic the operations of a legitimate state.

    A report from MosulEye, an Iraqi historian who reports on daily life in ISIS-controlled Mosul, Iraq under a pseudonym, details how ISIS attempted to build up an infrastructure for education after the terrorists took over the city:

    [The education emir] sees that the age a child must start his education at is the age of 4 years. At this age, the child learns how to read and write, and by the age of 5 years, the child starts to learn the alphabets of monotheism, then teach the child the Arabic language more heavily to be able to understand the Quran correctly and accurately. Then, at the age of 10, the child starts his Shar'i[a] education until the age of 15 years old. At the age of 15, the young student then starts to learn how to use weaponry and electronic technology and then it is determined which field the young student must be directed to complete his studies after presenting the student before an evaluation committee to evaluate the student's capabilities and qualifications and the field under ISIL's rule Soft Resistance and Civil Disobedience the student will excel at.

    ISIS has also reportedly included weapons training in its elementary-school curriculum. There are dress codes as well — girls as young as 6 years old are reportedly forced to wear niqab face coverings.

    Rasha Al Aqeedi, a researcher from Mosul, said the report matches what she's been hearing from her sources in Iraq, although she couldn't confirm that all schools include military training.

    "Until last February schools were pretty much the same apart from eliminating some topics considered non-Islamic," Aqeedi told Business Insider via email.

    In recent months, ISIS has released propaganda photos showing these textbooks being printed, and the books can also be found online.

    Business Insider viewed one textbook that was circulated by ISIS-affiliated channels on the secure-messaging app Telegram late last year.

    At first glance, the document looks similar to any math workbook you'd find in a typical grade school. But the equations are filled with illustrations of guns, tanks, and bombs alongside normal, everyday items.

    Winter has seen similar books.

    "There was one [math problem] that said, 'If the caliphate has 283,000 lions and the crusaders have 277,000 soldiers, how many heroes make the difference?'" Winter said. "Ludicrous things like that."

    ISIS textbook math problem

    ISIS textbooks

    ISIS textbooks

    MosulEye's report also mentions the textbooks. ISIS reportedly forced teachers in Mosul to show up to a center to rewrite school curriculum to suit the group's needs.

    "ISIL imposed harsh conditions with regards to attendance; every professor writes down his name on the attendance sheet daily, and for those who violate their attendance, a punishment awaits them," the report notes.

    "ISIL has invested heavily on reconstructing the educational curricula, and spent a long time to reconstruct them all over. They revised the curricula three times because [the head of ISIS' education council] did not approve them."

    Raqqawi confirmed the existence of the textbooks in an interview with Business Insider in January.

    ISIS seems to be teaching chemistry, physics, mathematics, and English, all tailored to the group's message and purposes.

    "For the chemistry, they teach kids how to make bombs," Raqqawi told Business Insider in January. "Same thing with the physics. For geography, they are telling the kids that there is only the territories of Islam and the territories of Kufar [infidels]."

    The territories of Islam are depicted as light, while the territories of the infidels are dark, Raqqawi said.

    Liz Sly, a reporter for The Washington Post in the Middle East, toured the town of Tal Abyad in Syria late last year after it was liberated from ISIS. She documented the classrooms she came across in photos on her Instagram account.

    They show bomb-making tutorials and illustrations instructing students how to bring down helicopters:

    How to build a bomb. Another ISIS classroom found in Tal Abyad, #Syria

    A photo posted by Liz Sly (@lizslywp) on

    From the ISIS classroom in Tal Abyad: how to shoot down a helicopter #Syria #ISIS

    A photo posted by Liz Sly (@lizslywp) on

    Western journalists aren't able operate in ISIS territory, so it's difficult to know how these textbooks are actually being used in the caliphate. But experts believe the militants are actually educating young kids with this material.

    "Based on the evidence that we have, and also the documents that have emerged and been translated, as well as conversations I’ve had with people in Iraq, yes, I think that they are administering schools," Winter said.

    Children also study ISIS ideology in mosques.

    "Most of the children go to the mosques for Sharia courses," Raqqawi said. "... Some people don't like ISIS at all but when they force them to go to these Sharia courses they change a lot. … It's really shocking how they're playing with people's minds."

    ISIS governs its caliphate according to a strict interpretation of Sharia law. ISIS' version of Sharia allows for amputations for crimes like stealing.

    "ISIS is recruiting children and teaching them the extreme curriculum, which is based on fighting and religion," Ali Leili, who runs the Syrian activist group DeirEzzor24, told Business Insider last month.

    ISIS schools

    Leili said the militants are raising kids "to hate the rest of the communities living in Syria" and noted that an entire generation of children in ISIS-held territory is at risk of growing up without proper education. They would know only ISIS' radical curriculum.

    Raqqawi echoed this belief.

    "It’s like these kids are a time bomb," he said. "It’s not just a problem for Syria, it’s a problem for the whole region. We don’t know where these kids will go, what they will do."

    Communities in Iraq and Syria are already seeing the effects of this indoctrination — Raqqawi said that children as young as 12 years old are being used for suicide attacks.

    "They want to make [it seem] like everything in their life is about weapons and explosions and war and fighting for Islam," Raqqawi said. "Their main idea is to recruit these children and make them into what they want. Small children, you can control them, you can shape them how you want."

    Classrooms and camps

    PBS Frontline went inside ISIS-controlled territory in Afghanistan, where the group has been gaining influence, and got a firsthand look at how ISIS is running schools.

    The ISIS flag is prominent at the front of this classroom:

    ISIS classroom 1

    ISIS classroom 2

    The instructor tells the children: "We must implement God's religion over all people. God says do jihad until intrigue, idolatry, and infidelity are gone from the world."

    In this school, ISIS also conducts hands-on lessons with weapons:

    ISIS classroom 3

    The ISIS instructor asks a child what Kalashnikovs (a type of automatic rifle) are used for, and the child replies, "to defend the faith." When the instructor asks who they'll hit with the weapon, the child replies, "infidels."

    The children are also given weapons to practice with. They appear to be unloaded.

    ISIS classroom 4

    ISIS classroom 5

    The instructor justifies teaching children such gruesome skills.

    "Sharia law tells us that children should be given all essential skills," he tells PBS. "So we teach them and give them military training to prepare them in mind and body so they are set on the right path and each generation will learn and teach in turn."

    These ISIS-run schools seem to exist in addition to the military camps for the "Cubs of the Caliphate."


    Education seems to vary widely in ISIS territory. Some parents refuse to send their kids to ISIS schools, and many schools remain shut down, despite ISIS claims that they are educating children across the caliphate, activists said.

    Aqeedi, the researcher from Mosul, said her friends and family who remain there "have stopped sending their kids to education institutions and have opted for homeschooling."

    MosulEye's report confirms that many inside the city refuse to send their children to ISIS-led schools, even though on October 27 ISIS declared that anyone who doesn't send their children to school will be punished and their assets confiscated.

    ISIS has issued similar decrees in Syria. Fikram, the man from Deir Ezzor, pointed to a September report from Good Morning Syria stating that some teachers started holding classes in secret after ISIS moved in so that students could continue their education free from ISIS propaganda.

    A private teacher who owns a fuel station told the news outlet: "I have a family to feed every day and knowledge to pass down to the next generations. I sell fuel to feed my family and give private lessons in secret to share my knowledge with the next generations. But — like any other teacher working in secret — I fear that, if the Islamic State found out about us, our families would have no one to feed them, and the students no one to teach them."

    SEE ALSO: 'It's similar to North Korea': Inside ISIS's sophisticated strategy to brainwash people in the 'caliphate'

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    john kerry jean-marc ayrault

    The United States and France accused the Syrian government of trying to disrupt a new round of peace talks set to begin on Monday and said Russia and Iran would need to show the Syrian government was "living up to" what had been agreed.

    Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on Saturday that his government would not discuss presidential elections at peace talks in Geneva this week or hold talks with any party wishing to discuss the question of the presidency.

    "It's a provocation ... a bad sign and doesn't correspond to the spirit of the ceasefire," French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told a news conference with his British, German, Italian, U.S. and EU counterparts.

    Calling Moallem's comments a clear attempt to "disrupt the process", U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the Syrian government and its backers were mistaken if they thought they could continue to test the boundaries of a fragile truce.

    Accusing Syria of carrying out the most violations of the truce, Kerry said Russian President Vladimir Putin needed to look at how Assad was acting.

    "So President Putin, who is invested in supporting Assad, with an enormous commitment - and it has made a difference obviously on the battlefield - should be somewhat concerned about the fact that President Assad sent his foreign minister out yesterday to try and act as a spoiler, to take off the table something that President Putin and Iran had committed to," Kerry said. "This is a moment of truth, a moment where all of us have to be responsible."

    He was referring to agreements over the last few months between the International Syrian Support Group - a mix of international and regional powers - who have pushed for a peace roadmap.

    walid al-moualem

    Monday's talks will coincide with next week's fifth anniversary of a war that has killed more than 250,000 people, created the world's worst refugee crisis, and allowed for the expansion of the Islamic State militant group.

    They are part of the first diplomatic push since the Russian air force intervened in September to support Assad, tilting the war the Syrian government's way and helping Damascus reclaim significant territory in the west.

    "It's important now for those who support President Assad to make sure that he is living up to this agreement," Kerry said. "And therefore, as a result that they are living up to this agreement too." 

    SEE ALSO: We spent a day with the world’s most advanced missile system that has China and North Korea spooked

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    staffan de mistura

    Dismissed by critics as a diplomatic dandy, hailed by allies as a creative consensus-builder, Staffan de Mistura takes the hot seat in Geneva on Monday as the man in charge of forging peace in Syria.

    In an impeccable suit and pince-nez spectacles, the Swedish-Italian diplomat looks as though he'd be more comfortable strolling through Geneva's quaint Old Town rather than refereeing a war that has killed more than 250,000 people.

    But de Mistura, whose other roles include being Swedish consul on the Italian isle of Capri, has come closer than anyone else to negotiating an end to the Syrian civil war.

    The peace talks he mediates resume on Monday, and if they eventually bring an end to the war, it will not be because he forced an agreement, but perhaps because he recognized it was not in his power to do so.

    De Mistura took over the job in mid-2014 after the spectacular failure of his two predecessors, Kofi Annan, a former U.N. secretary general, and Lakhdar Brahimi, one of the Arab world's most accomplished diplomats. Each had quit after holding a peace conference in the Swiss city of Geneva that failed to stop the war.

    In contrast to their ambition, he adopted a "minimalistic" approach, removing any expectation that the U.N. could impose peace. He did not summon the warring parties to negotiate, nor order the big powers of the U.N. Security Council to end the war.

    That left a leadership vacuum that, late last year, was filled by the United States and Russia. Moscow and Washington used their influence to bring Syria's warring sides to de Mistura's table, but it will be up to him to get them talking.

    "My mother would not be delighted"

    staffan de mistura

    In a four-decade diplomatic career that included war zone assignments across Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East and Afghanistan, de Mistura developed a reputation for quietly building trust with warring parties hostile to outsiders.

    "I cannot list to you how many people who my mother would not be delighted to know I shook hands with," he once said.

    U.N. spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said de Mistura's logical approach helps him cut to the thrust of complex issues, and his sense of humor provides relief at difficult moments.

    "He has a wonderful way of connecting with people, whether it's the media or his interlocutors in a difficult political process like this one," Fawzi said. "When he approaches people it's with great respect, whoever they are, wherever they are on the hierarchy ladder."

    People who have worked with him cite his creativity, evident when he pioneered airdrops to relieve Ethiopia's famine in the 1980s. Described by the Washington Post as "a loquacious Italian in a safari suit", he dared the Sudanese People's Liberation Army to shoot down his rainbow-painted plane.

    staffan de misturaHe was almost shot down again two decades later, as U.N. envoy in Iraq. His plane from Baghdad ran into Iranian war games, and was given 20 seconds to turn around or be destroyed.

    He later became the top U.N. man in Afghanistan, and was one of the United Nations' most experienced diplomats by the time he took on the Syria role, prompting the Guardian newspaper to call him "the man with the toughest job in the world".

    De Mistura, 69, likes to joke that he has a chronic condition, being an incurable optimist. But he also suffers from occasional gaffes. And his start with Syria was not smooth.

    "Too much time sunbathing"

    Rumors abounded that his heart wasn't in the job and he wanted to do it part-time from Brussels.

    He gave an interview to the New York Times, which said he was "more widely known for his dapper style than for any diplomatic coups" and cited a former Lebanese minister as saying he spent too much time sunbathing at a private club.

    "I thought it was a little unfair, didn't you?" de Mistura told Reuters at the time, lining up at the U.N. salad bar.

    He angered Syria's opposition by sounding more open to the views of Damascus than his predecessors had. There followed an almost fatal error, when he told reporters in Vienna that President Bashar al-Assad was "part of the solution".

    He immediately clarified his comments, saying Assad bore part of the responsibility for ending the war. But the mis-step dogged De Mistura for many months and caused deep mistrust.

    An early ceasefire plan misfired too, with misplaced hope that a "freeze" in fighting in Aleppo would trigger local truces across the country. When that failed, De Mistura launched open-ended "consultations" with Syrians of all stripes over several months, although opposition armed groups refused to attend.

    Residents and Civil Defense members inspect damage after an air strike on the rebel held al-Saliheen district in Aleppo, Syria, March 11, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

    A political adviser, Mouin Rabbani, quit De Mistura's team within weeks of arriving, and emerged as a vocal critic, saying he was "out of his depth" and "wasn't up to the task".

    "The cronyism, dodgy personnel decisions, and resultant amateurism I witnessed were simply breathtaking," Rabbani wrote of his U.N. experience.

    De Mistura's apparent lack of ambition looked weak but also reflected reality. With Washington and Moscow falling out over Ukraine and Iranian-Saudi tensions in Yemen, any U.N. peace effort would surely have been futile.

    Suddenly, by the end of last year, Islamic State's advance and Europe's refugee crisis provided stronger motives, a nuclear deal between Western powers and Iran provided an opportunity, and Russia's entry into the war provided a catalyst. "Geneva 3" was born.

    De Mistura, who had been preparing a soft series of "working groups" to debate post-war Syria, was told by the United States and Russia to junk his plans in favor of a legally binding peace negotiation.

    He looked in danger of falling into the same trap as Brahimi, whose "Geneva 2" peace talks drowned in a swamp of side-arguments: "Are the opposition terrorists?", "Can Assad stay in power?", "Where is the justice for war crimes?"

    He dodged nimbly, referring the terrorist question back to the U.N. Security Council, leaving Assad's fate up to the Syrian people, and saying human rights were not negotiatiable. And with no early progress, he halted initial talks last month and told the United States and Russia they needed to do more.

    The result was a temporary cessation of hostilities, sponsored by Washington and Moscow and accepted by both Assad's government and most of his foes.

    While far from perfect, the agreement has already quieted the guns in Syria for the first time in five years, providing what could be the first opportunity yet for the warring parties to discuss peace. Perhaps de Mistura's doubters have indeed been "a little unfair".

    SEE ALSO: 'Do not fear failure': The best pieces of life advice from General George S. Patton

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    NOW WATCH: IAN BREMMER: Greece is headed for a humanitarian disaster

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    Two Syrian women donned hidden cameras and risked their lives to shine light on what life is like inside Raqqa, the ISIS capital. 

    The footage is a reminder of the horrifying conditions women are forced to live in, in the city and the wider "caliphate". If the pair had been found to be secretly filming inside the city, they would have faced public flogging or even execution. 

    In the video, which we first spotted on Swedish newspaper Expressen's site, the two women have had their voices distorted and have been given the names Om Omran and Om Mohammad in order to protect their identity. 

    "I want to live the way I want. I want to buy what I want. I want to go out alone, free and without having a guardian with me", says Om Mohammad.

    ISIS (also known as Islamic State, ISIL, Daesh) occupied Raqqa in 2013 and have ruled over the city ever since they took full control in 2014. The city acts as the terrorist group's stronghold, where propaganda seeps into the cracks of everyday life. In the video, the women ride in a taxi while an anthem praising Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State's most senior figure, plays in the background.

    "Oh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, you instill fear into the enemy," it says.

    Strict Sharia laws prevents women from going out on their own. They must be accompanied by another woman or male guardian at all times. They're not allowed to work or go to school. 

    According to Expressen's video, female police officers patrol the streets enforcing a strict dress code as laws dictate that women must hide all skin and cover up by wearing black veils, gloves, and abayas (a sort of long black cloak) at all times.

    in January, a 21-year-old woman was reportedly executed for violating these rules, while other reports suggest militants use a metal tool called 'the Biter' to clip the flesh of women who disobey the rules.

    The newly-released footage shows the two women shopping for hair dye — even the model's faces on the packaging have been scribbled out with black marker. The shop owner says she is "wearing a niqab."

    isis hair dye

    The footage is a rare glimpse of life inside the ISIS stronghold. Much of the previously released footage is doctored propaganda material distributed by the terrorist organisation. This new footage shows the reality of its brutal regime.

    They have succeeded in wiping any trace of Christianity from the city — the city's largest church is now ISIS headquarters and other religious structures have been completely destroyed. 

    Public floggings and executions are also a common occurrence. Women particularly live in fear of being stoned to death. 

    "They don't say what the woman's crime is. If they're going to stone her to death, they ask people to come to the roundabout to witness the execution," one of the women explains. "They let people come here and bring stones."


    After they have been stoned, many victims are then laid out on the road and driven over by cars until "the body becomes like a rag" and "only the clothes are left."

    Children also watch these executions, which often involve gay people being thrown from rooftops to their death as hundreds gather to watch.

    The women planned to flee the ISIS-controlled city but stayed when their friend got pregnant by a man who wasn't her husband — an act punishable by death in the caliphate. 

    Abortions are also illegal, meaning Om Omran and Om Mohammad had to carry out a home abortion on their friend.

    "I long to be able to dress as I want, like I used to do before," says Om Mohammad. "I long to walk down streets without being scared and without seeing weapons or foreigners who scare us."

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    Syria's five-year-old conflict has created 2.4 million child refugees, killed many and led to the recruitment of children as fighters, some as young as seven, U.N. children's fund UNICEF said on Monday.  Its report Five years of conflict in Syria has left much of the country in ruins and robbed millions of their childhood.

    The conflict has helped trigger a worldwide refugee crisis with over 2.4 million Syrian children living as refugees outside of the country, with a further 306,000 being born as refugees,a UNICEF report that came out on Monday states.

    Within Syria a further 200,000 children are currently living under siege as battles continue to wage between various factions, including forces loyal to the Assad regime, Islamic State, and many other rebel groups.

    "Twice as many people now live under siege or in hard-to-reach areas compared with 2013. At least two million of those cut off from assistance are children, including more than 200,000 in areas under siege," the report said, adding that UNICEF workers have witnessed children suffering from extreme malnutrition and even death from starvation.

    Dr. David Nott, a trauma surgeon who worked in Syria, says the psychological consequences of life in such horrifying surroundings can be just as devastating. "Children living under siege almost have to re-learn what it’s like to be a human being," he says.

    Since the conflict began, 3.7 million Syrians have been born, 2.9 million children inside Syria and at least 811,000 in neighbouring countries. At least 400 Syrian children died in 2015 and 500 more were maimed in cases verified by UNICEF. The conflict in Syria has now led to the deaths of over 250,000 people.

    The "No Place for Children" report highlights that almost seven million children live in poverty inside of Syria today and that a whole generation is at risk as there is no end to the conflict in sight.

    "No place is safe for children in Syria. Violence has become commonplace, reaching family homes, playgrounds, schools, parks, and places of worship," UNICEF said, adding that thousands of school had been destroyed.

    UN agencies and NGO partners of the “No Lost Generation Initiative” have appealed for $1.4 billion (£980 million) this year to enable four million children and young people inside Syria and in neighbouring countries to get access to formal and non-formal education opportunities.

    On 29 October 2015 in East Ghouta, rural Damascus, an internally displaced boy sits with items he will sell.

    "A trend of particular concern is the increase in child recruitment," the report said, saying some of the children recruited to fight were now as young as seven. All parties to the conflict have been kidnapping and trying to lure children into joining the war, offering them gifts and rewards.

    "Children are now receiving military training and participating in combat, or taking up life-threatening roles at the battle-front," the report states. Children have also been used to kill and are often being indoctrinated. Islamic State has been particularly eager to release propaganda videos of its child soldiers, which it calls the "Cubs of the Caliphate."

    In 2014, the UN verified more than 460 children abducted by parties to the conflict, and children who had been released reported being beaten, indoctrinated, and forced to commit violence. Over 100 children were killed or injured while fighting in the war in 2015, according to UNICEF.

    And boys are not the only ones being recruited. Huda, who now lives in a refugee camp in Jordan, was just 14 years old when she found herself in her first battle facing armed men, with a weapon she barely knew how to use. "I was scared," she said. "The commander gave me a gun and said get ready for the battle."

    "For the 3.7 million Syrian children born since the conflict began, five years is literally a lifetime. A lifetime in which they have known little but violence, deprivation, and uncertainty," Anthony Lake, the UNICEF Executive Director said. 

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    Vladimir Putin

    Russian President Vladimir Putin said he's pulling his troops out of Syria as the country's civil war drags into its fifth year, Reuters reported Monday.

    Putin reportedly called Syrian President Bashar Assad on Monday to inform him that a troop withdrawal would take place the next day, declaring that Russia's military intervention in the Syrian war had largely achieved objectives.

    "The task assigned to the Ministry of Defense and the Armed Forces as a whole has been largely accomplished, so I order the minister of defense to begin withdrawing the main part of our military factions of the Syrian Arab Republic tomorrow," Putin said, according to Russian news agency Interfax.

    The Kremlin announced that in order to monitor the two-week-old ceasefire between the regime and opposition forces on the ground, some Russian forces will remain behind. It's not clear whether Russia will stop carrying out airstrikes in Syria.

    Russia's bombing campaign has mostly focused on rebels that oppose the Assad regime. While Putin has said that Russia is in Syria to fight terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh), the country's airstrikes and advisers have mostly focused on bolstering the Assad regime.

    Analysts were quick to point out that Russia's statement leaves room for the country to continue its mission in Syria in some capacity.

    Hassan Hassan, a Syria expert who coauthored "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,"noted on Twitter that a "big caveat" is that the Kremlin's statement mentions withdrawing only "main forces."

    Michael Kofman, a Russia expert and public-policy fellow at the Wilson Center, said Russia's air campaign in Syria is likely to continue.

    "They’re obviously not going to pick up everything and leave," Kofman told Business Insider. "They’re going to keep an air presence there for sure. … It’ll be quite important to maintain a presence in the region and their negotiating positions with Syria."

    Russian airstrikes Syria

    The Russian drawdown isn't likely to significantly change the picture on the ground in Syria, but it could give Russia more bargaining power in the ongoing peace talks between the regime and the opposition in Geneva, Switzerland.

    Russia is "trying to signal to the regime that they need to accept anything they come up at the peace talks," Kofman says. "Russia is quite intent on seriously negotiating and they don’t want Syria to sabotage that. They don’t want them to think that Russia is going to be on the hook" in Syria.

    The move could also be meant to help Russia's political standing in Europe.

    "From day one, Putin saw the Syria intervention as bolstering Russia's position in the region and with Europe," Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group and author of the book "Superpower," told Business Insider via email.

    "Presiding over a worsening conflict and Western perceptions of Putin "weaponizing" refugees undermined this strategy and made it harder for Russia to secure a European rollback of sanctions. The pullback, while still maintaining military bases, makes sense to support the broader international goals."

    Putin has been accused of "weaponizing" the migrant crisis to "break" Europe, which has been overwhelmed by the number of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war.

    Aside from helping Russia's standing in Europe, the move to pull back troops could give momentum to peace talks, Bremmer said.

    "But the question will be does this do enough to create another 'frozen conflict' of the type the Russians are so fond?" Bremmer said. "In other words, will Assad and his forces be satisfied with their present military position and limited recent territorial gains?"

    Since the Assad regime is also supported by Iran and its Hezbollah allies from Lebanon, Assad is likely to push ahead in his mission to quash the rebels, and a Russian pullback won't necessarily lead to a sustainable ceasefire.

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    Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to a statement from his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko after a session of the Supreme State Council of Russia-Belarus Union State in Minsk, Belarus, February 25, 2016. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin

    Russian President Vladimir Putin announced March 14 that Russia had sufficiently achieved its goals in Syria since beginning airstrikes in September, and that it will gradually withdraw the bulk of its forces from the country, starting March 15.

    According to Putin, the process could take as long as five months. However, Russia's air base in Latakia will continue to operate, as will its naval facility in Tartus.

    Russia's involvement in Syria has been guided by a number of key priorities.

    The first is ensuring the stability of the allied Syrian government and by extension Russian interests in Syria.

    The second is demonstrating and testing its armed forces, which are undergoing a significant force modernization.

    The third is weakening the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations, especially given the large number of Russian nationals fighting in Syria among extremist factions.

    The fourth, and the most important, is for Russia to link its actions in Syria to other issues — including the conflict in Ukraine, disputes with the European Union and U.S. sanctions on Russia.

    The support that the Russians and other external actors such as Iran and Hezbollah have given the Syrian government has largely reversed the rebels' momentum, and currently loyalist forces have the advantage. However, rebel troops have not been defeated, and a significant drawdown of Russian forces could weaken loyalist efforts.

    However, it is important to remember that Russia alone did not reverse the loyalist fortunes; Iranian support for the Syrian government could go a long way in maintaining their advantage.

    russia iran

    With their actions in Syria thus far, the Russians have showcased their improved combat capabilities and some new, previously unused weapons, which will likely contribute to important arms sales, including some to Iran.

    Russia has also largely achieved its goal of weakening the Islamic State, though the Russian contribution against the terrorist group is just a part of a much broader, multilateral effort that includes the U.S.-led coalition, rebel forces and the majority Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces.

    All in all, the Islamic State may not be entirely defeated, but its forces in Syria and Iraq are much weaker than they were five months ago. 


    Still, progress on Russia's primary goal is still uncertain.

    Moscow intervened in Syria to gain concessions on issues in other regions; whether or not it has been successful may depend in part on the terms of any peace deal. The March 15 drawdown, which is coming just as U.N. peace talks begin in Geneva, could be a sign of a breakthrough in the negotiations.

    It will be important to keep an eye on any signs of a deal emerging from Geneva and for indications coming out of Europe that could allude to a potential grand bargain.

    Of course, it could be that Putin is greatly exaggerating the significance of the drawdown, which may not significantly alter Russian actions in Syria.

    Though it is highly unlikely, the Russians may even be pulling out in defeat, having realized they cannot achieve their hoped-for grand bargain in Syria after all.

    SEE ALSO: Putin says he's pulling Russian troops out of Syria

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    Senior Islamic State leader, Abu Omar al-Shishani, also known as Omar the Chechen.    REUTERS/US. Department of State

    The US now believes that it successfully killed one of ISIS's most successful military masterminds in a March 4 airstrike in Syria.

    The attack in northeastern Syria was aimed against ISIS's "minister of war," Omar al-Shishani, aka Omar the Chechen. It was carried out with multiple waves of manned and unmanned aircraft. The strike flattened an area that the US now believes was holding Shishani.

    His death will likely function as a major setback for ISIS. Aside from the group's "caliph," Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Georgian ex-commando Shishani was the most recognizable and popular of the powerful terrorist group's leaders.

    And Shishani's status, combined with his ethnicity, helped to draw a number of foreign fighters from the Caucasus region into Syria to help fight alongside ISIS. As such, his death will also function as a major moral loss.

    But not everyone agrees with the US's assessment that the airstrikes managed to kill Shishani. A monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reports that the airstrike did not kill Shishani but instead left him severely injured and "clinically dead."

    "Shishani is not able to breathe on his own and is using machines. He has been clinically dead for several days," Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the monitoring group, told the AFP.

    Even if this were the case, it would still be a blow to ISIS. Although Shishani did not hold a political role within the group, he had managed to carry out some of its most successful military operations. It was Shishani who posed with the stolen US Humvees that ISIS had seized from Mosul, Iraq, and brought back into Syria.

    And it was Shishani who led successful ISIS military campaigns throughout Syria as well as a blitz through western Iraq that put the group within 100 miles of Baghdad.

    SEE ALSO: One of ISIS's top commanders the US likely just killed was a 'star pupil' of US special-forces training

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    Obama Putin

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama spoke by phone on Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the crisis in Syria and Putin's announcement of a partial withdrawal of Russian forces, the White House said in a statement.

    Obama welcomed the reduction in violence since the beginning of the cessation of hostilities, but he stressed that continuing offensive actions by Syrian government forces risk undermining peace efforts, the statement said.

    Obama also noted some progress on humanitarian assistance efforts in Syria and emphasized the need for Syrian government forces to allow unimpeded access for humanitarian assistance, the White House said.


    (Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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