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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    Free Syrian Army

    Syrian rebel forces closed in on a town near the Turkish border held by Islamic State militants on Tuesday after seizing numerous villages from the group in the area, rebels and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

    The rebels involved in the offensive include factions fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army that have been supplied with weapons via Turkey. They are advancing towards the IS-held town of al-Rai.

    A sustained rebel advance near the Turkish border would erode Islamic State's last foothold in an area identified by the United States as a priority in the fight against IS.

    Rebels who have previously struggled to make sustained gains against IS in the area have mobilized several thousand fighters for the attack, rebel sources said. An alliance of rebel groups formed for the offensive includes the Turkish-backed Sultan Murad and Failaq al Sham groups.

    "The battles are continuing ... we have been able to liberate several villages very quickly from the Daesh (IS) gangs and God willing will cleanse northern Aleppo," Abu Yasser, a commander with Failaq al Sham group, speaking to Reuters.

    The Observatory said the rebel groups had seized at least 16 villages in an area held by IS for nearly two years.

    Islamic State's foothold at the Turkish border was significantly loosened last year by U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters of the YPG, which gained territory from the group further east. 

    The YPG and rebels are however locked in their own conflict, notably near the city of Aleppo. Turkey, a major sponsor of groups fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad, has been alarmed by YPG gains near the frontier with Syria.

    Clashes that broke out at dawn on Tuesday when Islamist rebels launched attacks on the Kurdish-held Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood in northern Aleppo city still raged later in the day, the Observatory said.

    Dozens of mortars fired by the rebels killed 10 people and injured some 30 more. Four YPG fighters and a number of rebels were killed in the clashes, according to the Observatory.

    During the fighting, rockets were launched after Kurdish YPG units were able to make gains from Sheikh Maqsoud and disrupt the Castello highway, the main route for civilians and rebels into rebel-held parts of the city.


    SEE ALSO: 19 photos of the life of Free Syrian Army fighters

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    syrian first lady asma al-assad bashir

    BEIRUT – A shadowy rebel group operating in Damascus has claimed the assassination of one of Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad’s top bodyguards. 

    Liwa al-Adiyat announced Wednesday that it killed Colonel Hussam Abboud Shalish, who they called "a criminal responsible for the protection of Asma al-Assad," and two of his own bodyguards “in the heart of the capital.”

    The group—which has claimed a series of assassinations in Damascus—said it conducted the operation alongside the “Secret Tasks Brigade” of the Damascus Operations Room, a small faction affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.

    Liwa al-Adiyat did not go details on the assassination its statement, as it has for the previous killings it claimed to have conducted in and around the Syrian capital.

    The rebel faction started targeting regime security officers—most of them Alawite—in the beginning of the year, announcing on January 29 that it killed Firdous Ismail, a Lieutenant in the military security apparatus.

    The following day, Liwa al-Adiyat claimed the assassination of Naseem Taref Nayyas, who the group identified as an officer in the “special forces.”

    On February 9, the rebels claimed the killing of Lieutenant Ahmad Jamaa, saying they stabbed him in the neck as he was walking through the city in the night with a bottle of wine while accompanied by a prostitute.

    Liwa al-Adiyat said it struck again four days later, with its assassins shooting to death Captain Ali Allouch—an Air Force pilot—while he was in his car in a parking lot.

    On February 19, Liwa al-Adiyat claimed its members stabbed Lieutenant Hussein Dalaos in his own home in the capital. The group also posted a gruesome video on its Facebook page showing the slain officer’s body covered in his own blood. 

    “We will remain a sword that dismembers the joints of the regime and shakes its [presence] in the heart of the capital,” the rebel group warned in a mid-February statement.

    Amin Nasr translated Arabic-language source material.

    SEE ALSO: Syrian rebels have reportedly seized one of ISIS’ main supply routes with Turkey

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    ERBIL – The Syrian Kurds are preparing to take town of Manbij in Aleppo province, a move that would put further pressure on the Islamic State and its 98-kilometers pocket of territory in northern Syria.

    The Kurdish offensive comes in the wake of ISIS’s attack in the Belgium capital of Brussels on March 22, which killed at least 32 people. “Especially after terrorist attacks, clearing out this 98-kilometer zone is more crucial,” Mutlu Çiviroğlu, a Kurdish affairs specialist told NOW.

    “These people that attacked Brussels most likely traveled from Turkey to Syria, and used the Manbij corridor to exit and enter Syria. So for the security for Europe, it is the best to clear out the corridor,” he added.

    “As to why the Manbij pocket is important, it represents a major border crossing point where foreign fighters can cross into Syria from Turkey,” Colonel Christopher Garver, a spokesperson for the US-led coalition against ISIS, told the news agency ARA news.

    “In regards to a plan to retake Manbij, I don’t want to speak about potential future operations for obvious security reasons, but if there is a pocket of the ISIS out there on the battlefield, we of course want to attack it to root them out,” Col. Garver added.

    “The formation of the councils indicates two things about a Manbij [offensive]: that it’s imminent and that it forms part of the larger federal strategy of the Kurdish led forces in northeast Syria,” Dr Jonathan Spyer, the director of the Rubin Center in Israel, said.

    The Syrian Kurds last Tuesday set up a civilian council in the town of Sarrin and selected an Arab man and a Kurdish woman as co-leaders. “Today 43 people from Manbij, mostly social leaders, met in the cultural center of Sarrin, some 45 km south of Kobane, to form a constituent assembly for Manbij,” Idris Nassan, a former official from the Kurdish town of Kobani, told NOW on Tuesday.


    “The meeting discussed some very important points on to how administer Manbij after she has been liberated from ISIS control. Generally, they agreed on a non-central administration for Syria and a democratic one for Manbij,” Nassan added.

    US analysts say the multi-ethnic administration proposed for Manbij comes from the model of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a joint Arab and Kurdish force that was established with US encouragement in October 2015.

    “The blueprint for building up a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian security and governance structure for northern Syria has been in place by the groups that would become the Syrian Democratic Forces for several years now,” Nicholas Heras, a Washington-based Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security, told NOW.

    “This forward-thinking and pragmatic strategy [by the Kurds] toward encouraging pluralism in northern Syria was and is appealing to the United States, and it is one of the reasons why the US has put a significant amount of energy into supporting the development of the Syrian Democratic Forces and continues to support it as a necessary part of the anti-ISIS campaign.”

    However, the move is most likely to be opposed by Turkey, which does not want the Kurds to link up the Kurdish administrations of Kobane and Afrin, and previously told the Kurds and the United States that the Jarablus-Azaz line is a ‘red line’ for Turkey that the Kurds must not cross.

    isis militants

    "We are the sons of Manbij and Turkey has no right to oppose our choice to liberate our town,” Sharvan Darwish, a senior commander of a Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) attached to the SDF, told NOW. "A joint leadership has been elected and deputies with representation of all components, including Circassians. For security reasons we have not announced some of the names."

    On Monday, US officials arrived in Turkey to discuss the urgent need to close the Manbij corridor. “Turkey has two conditions over Manbij operation. First Turkey asked the US to encourage Syrian Arab Forces, who are among the SDF, to work with Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army troops to clean ISIS from the north of Syria,” Ragıp Soylu, a Turkish journalist from the Daily Sabah, told NOW.

    “Those Arab Forces who want to join Turkish-backed FSA groups need to go through a vetting process. Turkey also required better air cover for these FSA forces for their operation in Manbij-Marea line,” he added, in reference to the strip of territory along the Syrian-Turkish border where Ankara previously proposed setting up a safe zone to prevent Kurdish expansion.

    Recently, rebel groups backed and armed by Turkey advanced from Azaz and captured the border crossing in Al-Rai.

    “There are some movements in northern Aleppo [province] controlled by Turkey. They are launching attacks against ISIS. This is all a game to prevent the US going to Manbij,” Çiviroğlu, the Kurdish affairs official added. “Once the area is cleared of ISIS, Turkey believes there will be no reason for the US to go ahead with an operation that will give leverage to the YPG,” he said.


    Therefore, it looks like there is now a rat race between US-backed rebels and Turkish-backed rebels to take the territory from ISIS in northern Syria. US officials have been pushing Turkey for over two years to do more to close the corridor.

    “If the operation does not come through, it would enable the YPG to reach Afrin and end the two year military and economic embargo on the area,” Çiviroğlu told NOW.

    According Çiviroğlu, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could not convince the US administration to cease their support to the YPG. “Erdoğan obviously could not convince them to stop the Manbij operation, because the US is making moves toward the area,” he added.

    However, the US will also back Turkish-backed rebels in their advance towards Jarablus, with rebels in the area reportedly receiving weaponry from the US.

    “Turkey wants to build a safe zone from Azaz to Jarablus, which I think Europe and German will also support, as long the Syrian people [in the area] will stay there,” Çiviroğlu said.

    Germany recently changed its position on a Turkish safe-zone plan, fearing the mass wave of refugees moving towards Europe. Turkish officials used the Syrian refugee crisis to gain more influence over European countries, while the US has given a cold shoulder to Turkey on its Syrian policy.

    US officials now hope that the competition between Turkish and Kurdish backed rebels will finally lead to the closing the Turkish border, which ISIS militants have exploited for years to move in and out of Syria.

    SEE ALSO: A Syrian rebel group claims it has assassinated a top bodyguard of the Assad family

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    Residents sit on a couch on a balcony of a damaged building in Aleppo's al-Shaar neighboirhood, Syria, August 1, 2015. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

    Aleppo Province stands to become the focal point of a new round of violence in the Syrian Civil War even as the Geneva III Talks to end the conflict are scheduled to resume on April 13.

    Continued violations of an ongoing ‘cessation of hostilities’ by both pro-regime and opposition factions have fueled the largest outbreak of violence in northern Syria since the agreement went into effect on February 27, threatening to drive a wider breakdown of the tenuous ceasefire.

    Additional violence can also be expected in northern Aleppo Province over the coming weeks as Turkey and the US vie over the course and composition of coalition-led efforts to sever the ground lines of communication between Ar-Raqqa City and the Syrian-Turkish Border. 

    Turkey has worked to empower opposition groups in Aleppo Province in order to foil the territorial gains made by the Syrian Kurdish YPG, which the US relies upon in the counter-ISIS fight.

    The regime and its allies also retain positions at the Kuweires Airbase from which to contest ISIS-held portions of Aleppo Province. This local competition for control over Aleppo Province – and the larger geopolitical struggle between the US, Russia, Iran, and Turkey that it reflects – will reach a critical boiling point in the coming months. 

    Aleppo raqqa syria isis map 4/7/16

    1. Hostilities Resume in Southern Aleppo Province: Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and a coalition of other opposition groups – including several US-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated factions – seized the strategic town of Al-Eis in southern Aleppo Province on April 1 following clashes that involved at least three SVBIED detonations.

    The Syrian Arab Army released a statement condemning the offensive as a major violation of the ‘cessation of hostilities’ and vowing to recapture the town, while opposition groups presented the attack as a justified counterattack in response to persistent ceasefire violations by pro-regime forces throughout the country. Pro-regime forces have mobilized for a counteroffensive amidst reports that Russia resumed its air campaign in Aleppo Province. Iran also announced thedeployment of ‘advisors’ from its conventional armed forces in a significant inflection of its own intervention in Syria.

    The mounting military escalation in southern Aleppo Province heightened further on April 5 after prominent Salafi-Jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham downed a regime warplane over Al-Eis. The incident comes amidst persistent rumors that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other foreign actors may intend to provide the opposition with a small number of man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) as a counter the air campaign being conducted by Russia in Syria.

    syria plane pilot captured

    2. Kurds and Opposition Skirmish in Aleppo City: The Syrian Democratic Forces – a coalition composed of the Syrian Kurdish YPG and allied opposition factions – clashed with Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and other opposition groups in the Sheikh Maqsoud District of Aleppo City on April 5. Activist groups accused the Syrian Democratic Forces of cooperating with the regime in order to sever the key Castello Highway that supplies opposition-held Aleppo City.

    Long-standing tensions with the Syrian Kurds have flared into open violence in the past few months after the Syrian Democratic Forces assisted the regime in severing the primary ground line of communication between Aleppo City and Turkey in February 2016.

    Peshmerga training operation inherent resolve

    3. Turkish-Backed Opposition Advances on Syrian-Turkish Border: The Hawar Kilis Operations Room – a coalition of opposition groups backed by the US and Turkey – seized the ISIS-held town of Al-Rai in northern Aleppo Province on April 7. Al-Rai serves as a key route for illegal cross-border smuggling of foreign fighters and supplies to ISIS in Syria.

    The advance comes as part of an ongoing offensive along the Syrian – Turkish Border that seized at least sixteen villages from ISIS since March 31. Turkey has intensified its provision of weapons, cross-border artillery fire, and other forms of support to opposition forces in northern Aleppo Province in recent months in a likely attempt to preclude further gains in the border region by the Syrian Kurdish YPG.

    syrian kurds ypg

    4. The US and Turkey Spar Over Counter-ISIS Operations: The Syrian Democratic Forces – a coalition composed of the Syrian Kurdish YPG and allied opposition factions – announced preparations for an upcoming military operation to seize the ISIS-held city of Manbij in eastern Aleppo Province. Manbij is a major hub for foreign fighters and supplies transiting the Syrian-Turkish Border, thus representing a key objective for the US-led coalition in its efforts to isolate Ar-Raqqa City.

    The operation nonetheless faces significant hurdles. Local Arab and Turkmen tribes have reportedly resisted overtures to participate in the operation due to the alleged mistreatment of civilians in regions previously-cleared by the Syrian Kurdish YPG. Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Erdogan reportedly linked his support for the operation to demands for participating Sunni Arab factions to disavow their ties with the Syrian Democratic Forces as well as calls for the US to provide additional air support to Turkish-backed opposition groups in northern Aleppo Province.

    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during his meeting with mukhtars at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, March 16, 2016.

    The US and Turkey held a technical meeting on April 4 in order to discuss the operation but the issue remains contentious given the links between the Syrian Kurdish YPG and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist group currently waging an active insurgency in southern Turkey.

    SEE ALSO: Kurds and Syrian rebels are racing to seize territory from ISIS

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    kevin dawes

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Russia played a role in the release of a U.S. citizen held by Syria and the United States had "periodic contact" with the Syrian government, the U.S. State Department said on Friday.

    "We are appreciative of efforts on the part of the Russian government that it undertook on behalf of this U.S. citizen in Syria," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters at a briefing. 

    The U.S. State Department on Friday welcomed the release of an American citizen held by Syrian authorities and said it was working to get more information on another who went missing there in 2012.

    The Washington Post, citing two U.S. officials, reported earlier Friday that Syria's government had released Kevin Dawes, who was abducted after traveling to the civil war-ravaged nation in 2012.

    Dawes, described by the newspaper as a freelance photographer, was recently allowed to call family and receive care packages, signaling to officials that the Syrian government was moving toward his release, the Post reported.

    The newspaper said Dawes' release was seen as a positive sign for American reporter Austin Tice, who also went missing in Syria in 2012.

    The State Department is continuing to work through Czech officials in Syria to get information on Tice as well as on other U.S. citizens missing in Syria.

    Tice's family declined to comment.

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    Nusra FrontBEIRUT (AP) — A senior Egyptian al-Qaida figure fighting in Syria was killed in a U.S. drone strike this week, the latest to be killed in such attacks in Syria, a Syrian opposition monitoring group and relatives said Friday.

    The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Rifai Ahmad Taha was killed in a strike Tuesday in the northwestern Idlib province.

    Before joining al-Qaida, Taha was a top figure in Egypt's notorious militant group Gamaa Islamiya, which massacred 58 foreign tourists in the ancient Egyptian city of Luxor in 1997. He was also allied with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

    The Observatory's chief Rami Abdurrahman said several al-Qaida members, including Taha, were killed in Tuesday's strike. He said one of the dead was identified as Abu Omar al-Masri — which is Arabic for Abu Omar the Egyptian — but that it was not clear if Taha was using that name. Taha was believed to be in his 60s.

    In Egypt, a relative said that Taha's wife and brother have received confirmation about his death. The relative spoke on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals.

    In Washington, Department of Defense spokesman Matthew Allen said the U.S. struck a vehicle killing several al-Qaida militants. He added that officials are still assessing the strike.

    "I can confirm that the US struck a vehicle killing several AQ militants," said Allen, using an acronym to refer to al-Qaida. "The results of this strike are still being assessed."

    On Wednesday, Syria's al-Qaida branch known as the Nusra Front confirmed the death of Abu Firas al-Souri, a senior figure in the group, in a U.S. airstrike that also took place in Idlib province. Al-Souri was killed on Sunday, the group said.


    Taha's relative said dozens of members of Islamic groups were paying condolences Friday to the family at the home of his brother, Gharib, in the southern Egyptian village of Nagaa Dunqal. According to the relative, Taha had told his family he believes he is being followed and just three days before his death he called his brother from Syria to tell him that the Americans are monitoring his movements.

    Taha was jailed in 2001 in Egypt under the rule of then-President Hosni Mubarak after being detained in Syria and handed over to Cairo. He was released after the long-serving leader was removed from power in 2011.

    Before that he spent nearly three decades outside Egypt, including stints in Afghanistan and Sudan where bin Laden lived, and was also in Pakistan.

    Taha was also involved in plotting the assassination attempt against Mubarak during a visit to Ethiopia in 1995. The former Egyptian president was not harmed when his convoy was hit with bullets.

    In the early 1980s Taha, spent five years in jail after the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat by Muslim extremists.

    In other developments, Syrian government forces fought fierce battles Friday against militants near the city of Aleppo, the country's largest and once commercial center, the Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees said.

    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

    Meanwhile, the fate of dozens of cement workers and contractors abducted from their workplace northeast of Damascus on Thursday by the Islamic State group remained unknown.

    There were conflicting reports.

    The Observatory said around 170 workers were expected to be released after successful mediation with elders from Dumeir, the area northeast of Damascus from where they were kidnapped. The activist group said some of the other employees, including guards and armed government loyalists, would not be released.

    In Lebanon, media belonging to the Hezbollah group, which is fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops, said most of the 260 employees who were at the factory have been released already. It added that six workers were slain in front of their colleagues during interrogation, while 30 others remain unaccounted for.


    Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Haggag Salama in Luxor, Egypt, contributed to this report.

    SEE ALSO: Kurds and Syrian rebels are racing to seize territory from ISIS

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    The US Air Force deployed B-52 bombers to Qatar on Saturday to join the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the first time they have been based in the Middle East since the end of the Gulf War in 1991.

    US Air Forces Central Command said it last flew the long-range bombers operationally in the region in May 2006 as part of the war in Afghanistan, and during a US-led military exercise in Jordan in May 2015.

    "The B-52 demonstrates our continued resolve to apply persistent pressure on Daesh and defend the region in any future contingency," said Air Force Lieutenant General Charles Brown, commander of US Air Forces Central Command.

    Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State militant movement.

    Lieutenant Colonel Chris Karns, spokesman for the Central Command, said he could not provide the exact number of B-52 bombers to be based at Al Udeid Air Basein Qatar due to "operational security reasons."

    Washington's decision to deploy its powerful B-52 bombers to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar came as the US military stepped up the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

    Brown said the bombers would be able to deliver precision weapons and carry out a range of missions, including strategic attack, close-air support, air interdiction, and maritime operations.

    Karns said the bombers would enable US forces to drop one or two munitions in an area, rather than use carpet bombing.

    b-52d b 52 d stratofortress bomber

    "Accuracy is critically important in this war," he said. "Carpet-bombing would not be effective for the operation we're in because Daesh doesn't mass as large groups. Often, they blend into population centers. We always look to minimize civilian casualties."

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    hassan alkhdar pharmacy

    Only one of Rabe Alkhdar's brothers came back alive from a Syrian prison.

    "My mother was wailing by that time," Rabe, a Syrian refugee now living in the US, recalled in an interview with Business Insider late last month.

    "She asked Hassan how he could be sure that his brother had died."

    He was describing the moment he said his brother, Hassan, emerged from one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's most infamous prisons, Tadmor, and told his mother that her other son, Hameed, had been killed inside.

    "He told her that after he was beaten and hung, the guards returned the body and threw it on top of Yunus. They left both bodies there for two days. Hassan had to watch his brother lay there dead for two days. We only got Hassan back, and Hameed's death certificate. It's now been three years since we lost him."

    Years later, Rabe finds himself 6,000 miles away. After months of harrowing experiences, he sought and found refuge. But in a story typical of the destruction and displacement of the Syrian civil war, Rabe is still waiting to be reunited with his family.

    'His name was Yunus'

    Two of Rabe's brothers, Hassan and Hameed, were arrested in 2012 for helping to treat protesters injured while demonstrating against the Assad regime, Rabe said. Both had gone to pharmacy school, and had their own shop in Aleppo where they sold medicine.

    Rabe said they were detained for two months in the regime's notorious Tadmor prison in Palmyra, the city that was recently liberated from the Islamic State by Assad's Syrian Arab Army.

    Tadmor"One day my brothers were called to treat a victim at his home," Rabe explained. "They went to the given address and were trying to do it quietly. They knocked on the door but nobody answered, and they felt that something was wrong. Suddenly they were surrounded by Assad's intelligence forces and were captured."

    He continued: "As detainees, they were beaten with batons and cables. The interrogators used braided electrical cords to beat them across their backs and neck, and batons to beat them on the bottom of their feet in Tadmor. The agents promised to released them if my family paid them a ransom, so we paid $9,000 to get both of them back. But Hassan was also forced to make a deal. He had to promise to collect information for the regime about doctors and pharmacists working in Syria's medical aid networks."

    Hassan betrayed his captors and fled to Turkey after he was released, Rabe said. But his other brother, Hameed, was killed inside the prison.

    "We gave them all the money and only one of my brothers walked out of Tadmor," Rabe said. "We waited and waited for my other brother. No one came. We looked at Hassan and he could not speak. My mom hurried to hug him and she begged him to tell her about her other son. Hassan just cried uncontrollably. She insisted for him to tell her right then."

    tadmorHe began to explain.

    "He told us that while he was in prison, there was a young boy being detained in their cell along with six others. His name was Yunus. Yunus was sick all the time. One day, he suddenly fell to the ground. He got up and stumbled across the cell and fell to the floor again. He lay there on the ground curled in a ball.  Yunus seem epileptic."

    After his release, Hassan explained that Yunus had been in the prison for a month because his family was poor and couldn't pay for his release. He was not allowed any medication for his condition, and, Hassan recalled, "on that day his health seemed to fail him all together."

    "Hassan ran over to the boy. He found him huddled against a stone wall. His face was buried in his arms, which were resting on drawn-up knees. Hameed tried to hold Yunus' head up because he knew that he was about to have another seizure. At first he did not understand anything Yunus was saying. It was as if he were speaking some unknown language. Yunus continued to make his plea, but nothing but gibberish came out."

    palmyra recapture

    By Hassan's recollection, Hameed sat down on the cement floor with Yunus and held him while he had a seizure.

    "Yunus shook so violently that my brother was barely able to protect his body from banging into the cement wall," he said. "His eyes rolled back into his head. Then the guards came."

    The guards, Hassan explained, demanded that Hameed let Yunus go and leave him on the ground. But Hameed refused to leave him by himself. A few moments later Yunus completely collapsed and lost consciousness.

    "The guards grabbed my brother and left this child to suffer alone from his seizure. Within a few long moments Yunus was dead."

    Not long after, Hameed was dead, too. After trying to get out of the guards' grip to reach Yunus after he collapsed, Hameed was dragged out of the cell and hung.

    'You will go behind the sun'

    "There's a saying in Syria that if you do something wrong, if you defy the government, you will 'go behind the sun,'" Rabe said. "In other words, you will be arrested and then just disappear. No one goes to Assad's prisons without being tortured."

    More than half of Syria's population has either fled or been killed since the war erupted in March 2011. The vast majority have died simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time: barrel bombs dropped by regime helicopters on civilian targets in rebel-held areas have killed over 20,000 people, mostly civilians, in five years.

    Thousands more have been tortured and killed in the regime's prisons, a practice the United Nations deemed"extermination as a crime against humanity."

    The Islamic State and Al Qaeda's affiliate group in Syria, known as Jabhat al-Nusra, have also ruled parts of Syria with an iron fist, but far fewer have been killed by the jihadist groups than by the government and its allies.

    Members of Rabe's family, scattered across Syria, often found themselves in the crosshairs of the militant groups. His father and his brother, Mazen, were captured and detained by al-Nusra in November of 2013 and released unharmed shortly thereafter, he said. They now live in a village on the Turkish-Syrian border.


    Rabe said his uncle, Ahmad, was killed by the Islamic State in March 2013, along with his cousin, Hasan. They were charged with treason "for helping infidels move from one area of Aleppo to another" in 2013, Rabe said.

    The Free Syrian Army, an umbrella organization comprised of mostly moderate rebel groups backed by Western countries, kicked ISIS out of Aleppo later that year, Rabe explained. But before the jihadists fled, they killed all of their prisoners.

    Still, when asked who his own family had suffered from more, Rabe was unequivocal.

    "Both [ISIS and Assad] are hideous," Rabe said. "But my family suffered most from the regime side."

    'I don't know what freedom is'

    Rabe's entire family left Syria in the revolution's earlier days, before the refugee crisis began in earnest and it was easier to seek and be granted asylum in neighboring countries.

    "By January 2014, my whole family had left Syria. Now they are scattered across Turkey, Jordan, Germany, and the UAE."

    Months after the war erupted, Rabe, his wife, and their two young boys fled to Saudi Arabia where Rabe, a trained pharmacist, found work with a company that sent some of its employees to a conference hosted in a different country every year. 


    "I've been to Spain, Austria, South Africa, and Australia for this conference. Last year it was supposed to be in the US, so I got a tourist visa,"Rabe said, after providing Business Insider with the relevant documents as proof of his legal status. 

    The conference was canceled, but he kept his tourist visa — which proved useful when, in January 2015, he lost his job in Saudi Arabia and was unable to renew his pharmacy license. 

    "My manager in Saudi Arabia was an Assad supporter from Latakia," Rabe said, referring to the hometown of the embattled Syrian president at the center of the war. "And he knew my history — I left Syria in 2011 after participating in a demonstration against the regime, and I continued to protest in front of the Syrian consulate in Jeddah" in Saudi Arabia.

    With few options, then, Rabe said he left his family in Saudi Arabia and came to the US using his tourist visa.

    "I didn't have any place else to go," Rabe said. "I came here in February [2015], and my only choice was to apply or asylum and try to get my wife and kids here."

    Syrian refugee children play near their families residence at Al Zaatari refugee camp, in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, November 29, 2015. REUTERS/ Muhammad Hamed In November, President Barack Obama committed to taking in 10,000 refugees from Syria over the course of 2016. It was five times more than the US has permitted in the five years since the war broke out, creating the biggest refugee crisis the world has seen since World War II.

    Rabe moved to Washington, D.C. As of this article's publishing, he was still waiting for his and his family's asylum claims to be processed.

    He keeps in touch with his family and friends via Whatsapp, and Skype, and Facebook. His Facebook page offers a glimpse into his life before the war — photos of him and his brothers at soccer games, his trips to Sydney and Cape Town, his boys playing with iPads.

    Now he uses it to post videos of the war's atrocities and photos of his sons draped in the revolution's flag. 


    He is under no illusion that his family will ever be reunited in Aleppo. The war will rage on, he believes, as long as Assad remains in power. 

    "I can’t see an end to this war, and no one is helping to solve the root of the problem, which is Assad," Rabe said. "Assad is the head of the snake."

    The embattled president recently said in an interview that he didn't think it would be difficult to form a coalition government with members of the opposition, and that he would call for new elections if that is what the Syrian people wanted. 

    Rabe laughed at the notion, saying that he had never voted because there is no use in it.

    "I don’t know what voting is. I don’t know what freedom is," he said.

    Then, he began to cry.

    "Since moving to the US, I've met many Americans who ask me what it was like growing up under that dictatorship. They then say they 'can't imagine' what it must have been like, that they were born free and will die free."

    "I've never experienced that," he said, with a sad smile. "I will never experience that."

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    Syria Syrians Palmyra

    Paris (AFP) - The ceasefire in Syria "is about to collapse," an official from the opposition said in an interview published Sunday, just days before the resumption of peace talks in Geneva.

    "Over the last 10 days we have seen a very serious deterioration and the ceasefire is about to collapse," Bassma Kodmani, a member of the High Negotiations Committee of the Syrian opposition, told Journal du Dimanche, saying "the use of barrel bombs has resumed".

    "The US-Russian mission monitoring the ceasefire is powerless," she told the French newspaper.

    A fragile ceasefire between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime forces supported by Russian air strikes and the rebels brokered by the United States and Russia has largely held since February 27. 

    The truce does not include areas where the Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda's local affiliate Al-Nusra Front are present.

    "A blow was dealt to the opposition, for sure," Kodmani admitted, adding Russia had "attacked the supply lines of the brigades of the moderate opposition on the ground until the cessation of hostilities intervened in February". 

    She said the withdrawal of Russian forces announced mid-March "indicates to those who support Bashar that this assistance will not be unlimited and unconditional." 

    "The challenge is whether Russia will be able to dictate the terms of negotiations with Damascus," she said.

    The Geneva talks aimed at ending the Syrian war are scheduled to resume on April 13. 

    More than 270,000 people have been killed and millions have fled their homes since the conflict erupted in March 2011. 

    The UN Security Council passed a resolution in December which paved the way for the Geneva talks and called for elections in Syria to be held 18 months after a transitional government is agreed.

    The fate of President Assad is a major sticking point in the talks.

    "We maintain that we must decide on a transitional authority with full powers, including those of President Assad, while the regime mentions a government of national unity with a few opponents and independents," Kodmani said. 

    "Nobody sees how to reconcile these two visions."

    She said US President Barack Obama had "let the Russians take all the cards in the game, he has no political will, so the United States could afford to be more involved".

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    A member of al Qaeda's Nusra Front climbs a pole where a Nusra flag was raised at 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

    Some analysts regard Al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate as a greater long-term threat to Western security than ISIS.

    And the US might be missing out on a golden opportunity to move against the group.

    Over the past month, residents of Syria's Idlib province have taken to the streets to protest not only the authoritarian regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad but also Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda's branch in Syria also known as the Nusra Front.

    A partial cease-fire among regime forces, Syria's allies, and rebel groups (but not ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra) led to a break in violence that allowed civilians more leeway than they previously enjoyed.

    The protests could provide a crucial opening for the US to support the moderate Syrian opposition and push for a political solution that includes Assad leaving power, but experts doubt that the US will make use of it.

    Ahmad al-Soud, the commander and founder of the US-backed Free Syrian Army group known as Division 13, told Business Insider that residents of Maaret al-Nouman in Idlib wanted to send a message with these protests that they were opposed to Assad as well as to terrorist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, which is also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh.

    "Protesters wanted to show the world that they are against Al Qaeda's ideology, that they are … moderates and that as Syrians we reject Al Qaeda's ideology and support the FSA because they want a simple, secular state," al-Soud told Business Insider last month through a translator.

    "[Protests were] all across Syria. It was all revolution flags," he said.

    And since Jabhat al-Nusra is trying to lay deep roots in Syrian society by gaining popular support before cracking down on the population, it has been reluctant to treat protesters too harshly.

    Jabhat al-Nusra has been gaining support in Syria partly by helping moderate opposition groups fight the Assad regime, which these groups consider their main enemy even as the US and other Western powers focus on beating back ISIS.

    But there's a big problem with Jabhat al-Nusra's strategy: It depends on continued fighting in Syria. Without a civil war, and without Assad in power, Jabhat al-Nusra would have a harder time gaining support and aligning with moderates.

    Jabhat al-Nusra Nusra Front Assad

    "What's been fascinating from the cessation of hostilities is that it's revealed for the first time the biggest weakness in Al Qaeda's strategy in Syria," Charles Lister, a fellow at the Middle East Institute who has written a book on the insurgency in Syria, said at an event in Washington, D.C., on Friday. "And that is that it is inherently dependent on a continued level of intense conflict in Syria."

    He continued:

    That intense conflict over the last five years has provided Al Qaeda with an opportunity to demonstrate its worth on the battlefield to the Syrian opposition and to the civilian support base. Without an intense level of conflict, the people came back to the streets and started chanting things, which fundamentally object or fundamentally contradict Al Qaeda's stated objectives in Syria.

    Al Qaeda opposes any flag other than its own, but in Maaret al-Nouman, protesters were carrying the flag of the revolution.

    "Everywhere people were protesting, they had the revolution flag," al-Soud said of the early days of the protests. "The revolution flag is something Nusra is against. They say any flag but 'there is no God but God' and their Al Qaeda trademark below it, that's the only flag you're allowed to fly in Idlib, according to Nusra."

    This brought tensions between Jabhat al-Nusra and the moderate opposition to a head — the group reportedly made some illicit arrests and attacked FSA headquarters — but their attempt at a crackdown ended up backfiring.

    The crackdown "has now sparked 20 days in a row of protests by women, children, the elderly, and young men against Jabhat al-Nusra's control of Idlib," Lister said. "This is something we've never seen before, and it's a huge opportunity to undermine Al Qaeda's long-term future in Syria. Unfortunately, as of now, there's very little that we as the West have done to take advantage of this."

    Free Syrian Army Idlib

    'Our options down the road are going to be significantly less'

    The West has a small window to act, experts say.

    "This is the first time this opportunity has arisen, and it won't be there for very long," Lister said. "Al Qaeda has taken a step back and it has refused to subjugate these protests so far. If it does, and it will one day choose to do so, those protests will end like that, and they'll probably never come back again."

    Genevieve Casagrande, a Syria research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said that as the Syrian conflict dragged on, extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra would weaken the moderate opposition.

    "The US is at large risk of losing potential partners in Syria," Casagrande told Business Insider. "Jabhat al-Nusra is eating away at these moderate groups, and they will one day succeed. It's only going to fuel further radicalization, and the spectrum is going to start inching farther and farther toward Salaafi-jihadi groups."

    The best way to achieve a solution to Syria's civil war is through these moderate opposition groups, but if Jabhat al-Nusra moves to target these groups and remove them from the battlefield, "our options down the road are going to be significantly less," Casagrande said.

    And as long as Assad stays in power, moderate rebels will be spread too thin to make a significant dent in the extremist groups on the Syrian battlefield.

    "Right now the opposition is most threatened by the Assad regime, and at the end of the day, the opposition seeks to bring about the overthrow of the Assad regime, and so it is very difficult for any opposition group to justify attacking any group like Jabhat al-Nusra," Casagrande said.

    Syria control map

    Jabhat al-Nusra and its Islamist allies, however, in many cases outgun moderate opposition groups and could attack both them and the Assad regime.

    "Jabhat al-Nusra is a stronger opposition group than any of these FSA-affiliated factions currently," Casagrande said.

    "And if the US isn't willing to put incentives on the table" for these groups to fight Jabhat al-Nusra, she continued, "It's almost impossible to ask a group to go ahead and turn on Jabhat al-Nusra, especially with Jabhat al-Nusra's large number of allies in Syria, which include Ahrar al-Sham, which is one of the largest and most influential groups on the battlefield."

    Al-Soud confirmed this line of thinking. He said the Syrian people "reluctantly allowed Nusra into Syria because our main enemy is the regime."

    "After the regime is gone, we will continue to fight anybody who tries to implement their will against the people," he said.

    While civilians in Maaret al-Nouman continue to resist jihadist influence, it will "become increasingly difficult" for groups like Division 13 to keep Jabhat al-Nusra out of its territory, Casagrande said.

    Bloodstains are seen at a site hit by what activists said were three consecutive air strikes carried out by the Russian air force, the last which hit an ambulance, in the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan town in Idlib province, Syria January 12, 2016. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi  Casagrande said that to turn the tide against the extremists, the US would have to take a firmer stance on overthrowing the Assad regime. It would also have to provide more support to the moderate rebels fighting the regime.

    "If the US isn't willing to match what Jabhat al-Nusra is currently bringing to the opposition" in terms of fighting the Assad regime, "I don't see any other incentive that would be worth it or acceptable," Casagrande said.

    There has been some discussion within the US government about how to support groups like Division 13 in undermining Jabhat al-Nusra, Lister said.

    "Certainly this is an issue seen as urgent within administration circles," Lister told Business Insider. "My skepticism, though, lies in the fact that we’ve seen people talking about these things before and nothing very much ever happens."

    He said that if the US didn't take advantage of the opportunity presented by the protests and the cease-fire in the short term, the government should start looking toward a long-term political solution to the civil war.

    "I fear for the future unless we continue to take advantage of the fact that the moderate opposition still is there," Lister said. 

    "If we don't take advantage of that, those people will become so disillusioned with Syria and the future, but also ... with the international community," he continued. "We'll see more displacement, more refugees. They'll choose to leave the country because they've given up hope, and who will fill that vacuum? Groups like Nusra."

    SEE ALSO: Al Qaeda is revealing its long game in Syria

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    AMMAN (Reuters) - Islamic State militants took back a stronghold in Syria near the border with Turkey on Monday, four days after losing it to a grouping of rebels, a monitoring group said.

    The ultra-hardline Islamist group seized the town of al-Rai from factions fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, part of months of back-and-forth fighting in northern Aleppo province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

    Islamic State has declared a cross-border Islamic caliphate in Syria and neighboring Iraq and is also battling other insurgent groups caught up in Syria's civil war, some of them backed by Turkey and Western powers.

    It has made steady gains near the Azaz border crossing with Turkey since last May, but has been pushed back in a number of areas in recent months by rival rebels and Syrian government forces supported by Russian air strikes.

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    Syrian rebel TOW missile

    The Syrian Civil War is continuing to grind on, with both Russia and the US-led West aiding various sides of the conflict.

    Part of US support to various Syrian rebel groups includes sending arms and armaments through Turkey. 

    And, according to IHS Jane's based on documents released by the US's Federal Business Opportunities website, the US passed an exceedingly large amount of munitions into Syria in December 2015.

    Here is a sampling of what the US sent to the Syrian rebels. 

    SEE ALSO: Here's who'd win in a dogfight between Russia's and the US's top fighter jets

    7.62x39 mm

    Total weight: 134,188 kg (295, 833 pounds)

    The US sent close to 300,000 pounds of 7.62x39 mm ammunition to the Syrian rebels.

    These rifle cartridges can be used for older models of the AK-47.

    Source: IHS Jane's

    7.62x54 mm

    Total weight: 67,404 kg (148,600 pounds)

    The 7.62x54 mm cartridge is an older variety of ammunition that was first created by the Russian Empire. It has since been adapted multiple times, and can be used in a variety of weapons. 

    Most likely, based on the other items the US is sending to the Syrian rebels, the ammunition is intended to be used with the PK machine gun, which the US is also sending to the rebels.

    Source: IHS Jane's


    Total weight: 369,681 kg (815,007 pounds)

    The 14.55 mm cartridge is a Soviet ammunition that is primarily used for heavy machine guns. The ammunition can also be used for anti-aircraft fire and for taking both armored and unarmored vehicles. 

    Source: IHS Jane's

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Al Qaeda Nusra Front

    Syrian President Bashar Assad is growing only more defiant as negotiators prepare to descend on Geneva once again in an attempt to broker the terms of a political transition and end the five-year civil war.

    The opposition's central demand heading into the negotiations is that the embattled Assad relinquish his hold on power and cease bombing rebel-held territory.

    On the contrary, the regime will hold parliamentary elections on Wednesday and is evidently preparing a major new offensive to retake Syria's largest city, Aleppo, from opposition forces.

    As such, it appears that Russia's attempt last month to force Assad into a corner — by announcing a partial withdrawal of advisers and warplanes — has backfired. Assad appears to have realized that Russia's reputation as a leader in the Middle East depends, at least for now, on maintaining the status quo and keeping the regime intact.

    Russia's intervention in the war on Assad's behalf in late September was followed by a regime offensive to recapture Aleppo from the rebels throughout the end of 2015. But that task was largely left unfinished by the time Russia decided to "withdraw" last month, even after pro-government forces won a major victory in January by breaking a rebel siege on two villages northwest of Aleppo that served as Turkey's supply line to rebels there.

    The fact that Putin ordered Russia to de-escalate at such a pivotal moment for Assad may have been part of a broader Russian strategy to maintain Moscow's leverage at the forthcoming peace talks in Geneva — over Assad as much as over the US. But the embattled president now seems prepared to call Russian President Vladimir Putin's bluff.

    Russia is "afraid if somebody else removes him or they remove him, the whole state will collapse," Paul Salem, the vice president of policy and research at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, told The Wall Street Journal last weekend.

    "They are hostage to his continued survival," Salem added. "He [Assad] can withstand Russian displeasure and irritation. He feels under no compulsion to make major concessions."

    'Some of the worst this war has seen'

    Russia denied reports on Monday that it was planning any kind of joint operation with regime forces to retake Aleppo. Ultimately, however, "Moscow is unlikely to forgo its interests in Syria,"Charles Lister, a resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, tweeted.

    It may force Russia to reescalate its presence in the northeast to help Assad, Lister said.

    Aleppo raqqa syria isis map 4/7/16

    Boris Zilberman, a Russia expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), told Business Insider that "if an offensive on Aleppo is in the works, there is no reason to believe that Russia could not add the man- and air-power to help conduct such an operation."

    He continued:

    It was clear, at least to me, that Russia was scaling down but maintaining the capabilities to keep the status quo and pivot to a higher-tempo operation. The Russians have shown time and again complete and utter disregard for mass civilian casualties and collateral damage as part of their aerial operations. I expect that if Putin and Assad do as they say, those in Aleppo might yet experience some of the worst this war has seen.

    Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security affairs and professor of global affairs at New York University, told Business Insider that "if the Russians and Syrians do commit themselves to retaking Aleppo, they will prioritize military expediency over civilian safety."

    He added, however, that "there is no evidence that Russia would seek to be destructive for its own sake," and that it remains unclear whether Russia will partake in a new offensive.


    Even if Russia doesn't participate in a "pitched battle" for Aleppo, however, "helping the regime complete the isolation of the city is something else," said Jeff White, a military analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

    "The Russians may take advantage of a crumbling CoH [cessation of hostilities] to do this, blaming everything on 'Nusra' and terrorists," White told Business Insider in an email, referring to Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

    Russia already seems to be making that case. The Russian military said on Monday that 8,000 Nusra militants were amassing around the city and preparing to cut off the main road from Aleppo to Syria's capital, Damascus.

    Sergei Rudskoi Russia

    If true, that would mark a dramatic escalation of Nusra's activities in southern Aleppo. And it would give Russia an excuse to help the regime isolate the city from the rebels while maintaining — at least on paper — the "cessation of hostilities" agreement, to which Nusra is not a party.

    "If Russia is signaling an offensive against Nusra, you can be sure other rebel groups will be targeted," Nadav Pollak, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, tweeted on Monday.

    Zilberman, of the FDD, added that the threat of an impending offensive also gives Assad and Putin valuable leverage over the US at Geneva, where a new round of peace talks is set to begin on Friday.

    Lister, of the Middle East Institute, noted that while Assad "is playing games with Geneva, Russia, and the UN, Putin is ultimately unlikely to abandon Assad and thus lose [Russia's] influence in Syria."

    To that extent, Putin remains a "hostage" of the regime — even if it means getting sucked back into the war at its most brutal, and critical, stage.

    "If Russia joins a major regime offensive on Aleppo, there'll be little going back," Lister wrote. "The city will be besieged, and only death and destruction will result."

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    Syrian President Bashar Assad personally signed off on a brutal regime crackdown on dissidents that has led to the systematic torture of thousands of Syrians throughout the five-year civil war, according to an explosive new report in The New Yorker.

    Documents linking Assad to the mass torture and killings are being examined by the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), an organization founded in 2012 in response to reports that the regime and its security apparatus were committing crimes against humanity.

    The commission, which receives funding of about $8 million per year from various Western governments, is building a case against the Assad regime that it hopes will establish various government officials' "individual criminal culpability" in the documented war crimes.

    Bill Wiley, a Canadian war-crimes investigator who founded the CIJA, told The New Yorker's Ben Taub that more than 600,000 government documents — known as the "Assad Files"— have been smuggled out of Syria by activists and regime defectors since 2012. Those documents have headed toward the group's headquarters "in a nondescript office building in Western Europe."


    One of CIJA's most important witnesses, though it would not confirm as much to Taub, has been Abdelmajid Barakat. He was hired by the regime in 2011 to work for its Central Crisis Management Cell, a central security committee that collected reports of protests from intelligence agents across the country and drafted responses to them.

    Barakat began leaking the documents, which revealed the cell's techniques, shortly after he began working there, according to Taub.

    As Taub told PBS in an interview, the policy of systematically suppressing the protests itself, "while repressive, is not inherently criminal, necessarily. But in the course of its implantation, tens of thousands of Syrians were detained for months or even years, tortured into false confessions."

    The regime, for its part, told the UN in 2011 that "we have no detainees unlawfully arrested with regards to peaceful demonstrations. If your question concerns individuals who have used weapons or terrorist acts against the state, it is an entirely different matter."

    'Extermination as a crime against humanity'

    More than half of Syria's population has fled or been killed since the war erupted in March 2011. The vast majority have died simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Barrel bombs dropped by regime helicopters on civilian targets in rebel-held areas have killed more than 20,000 people, mostly civilians, in five years.

    Thousands more have been tortured and killed in the regime's prisons, a practice the UN deemed"extermination as a crime against humanity."


    "There's a saying in Syria that if you do something wrong, if you defy the government, you will 'go behind the sun,'"Rabe Alkhdar, a Syrian refugee now living in Washington, DC, told Business Insider in an interview last month. Two of his brothers were detained by regime security officials while delivering medicine to an injured protester's home, but only one of them came back alive.

    "In other words, you will be arrested and then just disappear," Rabe said. "No one goes to Assad's prisons without being tortured."

    Rabe's depiction of the torture his brothers endured at the regime's notorious Tadmor Prison was eerily similar to that experienced by Syrian activist Mazen al-Hamada, as described in Taub's New Yorker story.


    That reports of the torture — which often involved beatings with braided electrical cords and batons — tend to corroborate each other has helped CIJA establish "consistent patterns in interrogation practices across all branches of the security agencies."

    Hamada, 38, told Taub that he was detained by the regime's security apparatus in March 2012 and taken to a detention facility at Mezzeh Military Airport. Interrogators tortured him, he said, until he could not stop screaming. In response, "they shoved a military boot in my mouth and said, 'Bite on this so you don't scream.'"

    "The torture escalated until Hamada confessed to everything they asked," Taub wrote.

    Read the full investigation at The New Yorker >>

    SEE ALSO: A refugee describes being persecuted by ISIS and Al Qaeda — and what it was like 'to go behind the sun' in Assad's Syria

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    romain nadal france

    PARIS (Reuters) - Syria's parliamentary elections on Wednesday are a "sham" organized by "an oppressive regime," France's foreign ministry said, adding that viable elections could only take place after a political transition and new constitution. 

    "France denounces this sham of an election organized by the regime," foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said in a daily briefing on Wednesday. "They are being held without campaigning, under the auspices of an oppressive regime and without international observation." 

    Nadal said only elections as part of a U.N. resolution that paves the way for a transition in the country would be valid.

    In a separate statement, Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the context for the next round of intra-Syria peace talks beginning later on Wednesday was difficult especially for the Western-backed opposition after provocations by the government.

    "France continues to be extremely concerned by the increasing and deliberate violations of the cessation of hostilities, for which the regime is mainly responsible, and the ongoing obstacles to provide humanitarian access," he said.

    Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (C) casts his vote next to his wife Asma (centre left) inside a polling station during parliamentary elections in Damascus, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on April 13, 2016. REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters The already widely violated "cessation of hostilities" agreement brokered by Russia and the United States has been strained to breaking point by an upsurge in fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels near Aleppo.

    The chairman of a U.N. humanitarian taskforce has also said aid access has slowed down, largely because of blockages by government-backed forces. 

    "These actions of the Syrian regime, which are putting the Geneva negotiations in peril, must end," Ayrault said.

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    Syria's army backed by Russian jets launched a fierce new assault on areas north of Aleppo on Thursday, rebels and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said, threatening to block rebels' access to opposition-held areas of the city.

    Battle for Aleppo"The escalation started at night. The area is of great importance. If the regime advances, this will tighten the grip on Aleppo," Abdullah Othman, head of the politburo of the Levant Front rebel group, told Reuters, describing the fighting as "to-and-fro".

    There was no word of the army's attack on state media, which earlier on Thursday cited a military source as saying the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front had bombarded residential areas of Aleppo, wounding a large number of civilians.

    Rami Abdulrahman, director of the SOHR, a Britain-based group that tracks the war, said Handarat Camp, perched on a hilltop over a main road, was strategically important.

    "Today the regime tried to go forward, they tried to take some areas ... from this area you can stop any rebel fighter from going outside Aleppo or inside it," he said. 

    (Reporting By Tom Perry and Angus McDowall; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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    kerry iran

    The Obama administration is weighing a "plan B" for Syria should the cessation of hostilities currently in place between rebels and the regime begin to unravel, The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday.

    Plans to supply the moderate-opposition forces with more powerful weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, are apparently being drafted by the CIA, along with a proposal to send an additional 250 US special-operations forces into Syria to advise the rebels.

    "There has been a big debate inside the administration on how much to do to help turn the tide of the Syrian war," geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, told Business Insider on Wednesday.

    He continued: "So part of this is a bunch of frustrated people inside the administration — and John Kerry is one ... floating their preferred option to get the rebels some support."

    US Secretary of State John Kerry has pestered US President Barack Obama "so many times to ramp up the military mission" in Syria that "the president stipulated that only the secretary of defense could bring him military proposals," Bloomberg View's Josh Rogin reported on Wednesday.

    Surface-to-air missiles are not new in Syria — Qatar has reportedly sent them to various opposition factions, and the Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham and Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra claim to have them.

    But Obama has so far refused to supply US-backed rebels with these weapons directly, and experts are skeptical that he would follow through on such a dramatic policy shift in the remaining months of his tenure.

    "The White House doesn't mind a little tough talk to keep opponents guessing," Bremmer said. "But ultimately, Obama has already recognized that he's handing off the Syria war to the next president. He's not happy about it. But he's not going to significantly escalate in his closing months."

    'Let's not hold our breath'

    Andrew Tabler, a Syria and US policy expert at The Washington Institute, was also bearish at the possibility of escalation from the US.

    "We have heard such things before, so let's not hold our breath," Tabler told Business Insider on Wednesday.

    As many analysts have noted, it is not the first time Obama-administration officials have floated the idea of ramping up support for Syria's more moderate rebel groups. And according to Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle East politics and international relations at the London School of Economics, this new plan B is neither novel nor a secret.

    "There is nothing mysterious about it," Gerges told Business Insider in an email. "US officials have publicly made it clear that if Geneva fails they would revert to plan B, which means providing qualitative weapons, including MANPADS to the Syrian rebels."

    "MANPADS" stands for "man-portable air-defense systems."

    FSA fighters

    The fact that certain details of the plan were leaked, however, "serves a two-pronged purpose," Gerges said: "to exert pressure on the Russians and to reassure critics at home and in the region that the Obama administration has not outsourced the Syrian problem to Russia."

    But Russia has yet to prove that it is not completely beholden to the embattled Syrian president, Bashar Assad, who — fresh off of his victory over the terrorist group ISIS at Palmyra — has grown only more defiant leading up to the latest round of peace talks.

    "Such plans are the result of the difficulties diplomats are trying to overcome in Geneva," said Tabler of The Washington Institute.

    He continued:

    President Assad has become extremely rigid in his negotiating stance, and is attempting to impose a political solution without a "transition." This is on the back of substantial military support from Russia, who wants a transition of sorts with Bashar al-Assad as president.

    assad putin

    That makes it unlikely that the threat of introducing MANPADS into the conflict will affect Moscow's tactics there. And some analysts say that doing so might give Russia and Assad more leverage to argue that the US is hindering, rather than promoting, peace.

    "It's hard to distance the US from a rebel shoot-down of a Russian jet when the administration is floating introducing MANPADS to the battlefield,"said Michael Pregent, a terrorism analyst and former US Army intelligence officer in Iraq."It gives Russia, Iran, and Assad more leverage."

    But it could also give Kerry important leverage of his own at Geneva, said Fred Hof, a former special adviser for transition in Syria under then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

    "As a practical matter, unless Syrian civilians are taken off the bull's-eye, there can be no progress toward a political settlement in Syria," Hof told Business Insider. Surface-to-air missiles "or MANPADS would not turn the tide of battle decisively in Syria, but what they could do is make it more difficult for the Assad regime and Russian pilots to commit war crimes every time they take off."

    SEE ALSO: 'Bite on this so you don't scream': The 'Assad Files' offer a new glimpse into systematic torture in Syria

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    Salim al-Muslat, spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), attends an interview with Reuters aside from the Syria peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland, March 18, 2016. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

    GENEVA (Reuters) - Syria's main opposition group is willing to share membership of a transitional governing body with current members of the government of President Bashar al-Assad, but not with Assad himself, the group's spokesman told Reuters in Geneva.

    "There are many people on the other side who we can really deal with," Salim al-Muslat, the spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee, said on the second day of a round of U.N.-mediated peace talks in Geneva.

    "We will have no veto, as long as they don't send us criminals, as long as they don't send us people involved in the killing of Syrians."

    U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura has said the political transition would be the main focus of the current round of the peace talks, which aim to end Syria's five year war in which at least 250,000 have died.

    A U.N. resolution governing the talks says the transitional governing body will have full executive powers, and Muslat said the body would call for a national conference which would in turn form a constitutional committee.

    The HNC was willing to take less than half of the seats on the transitional body, as long as it satisfied Syrians and brought a political solution, he said.

    "Even if we only take 25 percent, believe me, 100 percent would be the Syrian people."

    If Syria's ally Russia was willing to put pressure on the Syrian government, and if the government delegation was serious about negotiation, then a deal could be done in the current round of talks, he said.

    The HNC has always insisted that there can be no place for Assad in a transitional governing body, but Muslat said there was room for negotiation on how to handle Assad's departure.

    "For a solution, to really help Syria to get relief, then let them suggest what they want for Assad and we discuss it. There is a table here in the United Nations building and we can sit and discuss all these things, we are ready to discuss these things."

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    ISIS is not only one of the most threatening terrorist organizations in the world -- but also one of the richest, raising hundreds of millions of dollars a year. A report from the UK Treasury outlines just how terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda are funded.

    Produced by Jenner Deal. Original Reporting by Oscar Williams-Grut.

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    syria plane pilot captured

    AMMAN (Reuters) - A Syrian jet plane was probably shot down on Thursday by Islamic State militants near a military airport in southern Syria but the pilot appears to have been rescued, a monitor said.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had received information that the hardline group had hit and may have brought down a Syrian plane near Khalkhala airport, north east of the city of Sweida.

    Earlier Amaq, a news agency close to the militants, said in a newsflash it had downed a Syrian army plane in the vicinity of the same airport.

    (Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Toby Chopra)

    SEE ALSO: 'Bite on this so you don't scream': The 'Assad Files' offer a new glimpse into systematic torture in Syria

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