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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    turkey syria borderIn a recent interview with The Guardian, a former ISIS fighter described how easy it was for him to cross Turkey's notoriously porous border into Syria to join the Islamic State.

    Abu Ali, who said he entered ISIS territory in mid-January 2015 from the Akçakale border crossing in Turkey, told the publication's Robert Worth that for 75 Turkish lira, he was pointed in the direction of a hole in a fence separating Turkey from Syria.

    He squeezed through and began to run, Ali recalled, until a group of ISIS militants stationed on the Syrian side of the border asked him why he was running. Ali gestured back toward the Turkish border guards.

    "Relax," one of the ISIS fighters said. "They are our friends."

    The anecdote highlights the relative ease with which foreign fighters, weapons, and cash have been able to flow across the Turkish border into ISIS-held territories of Syria. The relaxed border policies Turkey adopted between 2011 and 2014 enabled extremists who wished to travel to Syria and join the rebels in their fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

    Turkey tightened a stretch of its border with ISIS-held territory in Syria in February, increasing military patrols and building more walls. But Ankara has yet to adopt a comprehensive legal framework for how to deal with the militants who come back to Turkey after fighting with ISIS and becoming radicalized in Syria.

    Even if the militants are caught by Turkish authorities crossing the border, prosecutors generally can't keep them detained for long due to the still-unclear legal definition of ISIS in Turkey.

    syria turkey isis

    "If the individuals were identified as PKK, for example, they could be detained and convicted for being part of a legally defined terrorist organization," Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider last year.

    He was referring to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which Turkey designates as a terrorist organization.

    "But because these individuals are [Islamic State], they cannot be convicted unless lawyers can prove that they committed terrorism inside Turkey," Schanzer continued.

    The Turks apparently altered their laws as part of the EU-accession process to make it more difficult to detain foreigners for terror activity.

    “Because of legal adjustments necessary to harmonize with the European Union, the authority of our security forces to check the identity of suspects and detain them has been restricted," an officer on the Turkish-Syrian border told Al-Monitor last year. "For example, even if we know for sure that someone is an IS militant, we can’t touch him unless he has been involved in a violent crime in Turkey.”

    The Islamic State has consequently been able to establish deep networks in Turkey, particularly in Istanbul, Ankara, Konya, Adana, Izmir, ŞanlıUrfa, and Gaziantep, according to the Atlantic Council's Aaron Stein. Since January 2015, ISIS has claimed responsibility for seven attacks on Turkish soil, including October's suicide-bomb attack at a crowded rally in Ankara that killed more than 100 people.

    turkey"The perpetrators of five of these attacks are all linked to one, active Turkish Islamic State cell, previously based in the southeastern town of Adıyaman," Stein, an expert on Turkey, wrote in War On The Rocks last month.

    "This cell operated for close to a year in the city with little interference from the Turkish authorities, despite local residents complaining to police forces that the house was doubling as an ISIL recruitment center," he added.

    'An international threat'

    The Obama administration has implored Turkey to seal off the most vulnerable 60-mile stretch of its border between the Turkish city of Kilis and the Syrian city of Jarabulus, which is currently controlled by ISIS. Turkey agreed to the plan last July, but has yet to implement it.

    “The game has changed. Enough is enough. The border needs to be sealed,” a senior Obama administration official told The Wall Street Journal in November. “This is an international threat, and it’s all coming out of Syria and it’s coming through Turkish territory.”

    Attempts to seal off European borders to extremists trying to return home after fighting alongside jihadists in Syria have been complicated by the refugee crisis spawned by Syria's brutal civil war, which has dragged on for more than five years.

    But calls to tighten the borders gained a new sense of urgency on November 13, when a wave of terror attacks across Paris killed 130 people. Many of those involved in plotting and carrying out the attack were European nationals who had at one point gone to Syria to train with the Islamic State.

    Najim Laachraoui, a 24-year-old ISIS bomb maker who manufactured the suicide vests used in the Paris attacks and in last month's attack on Brussels, traveled from Syria to France last year "in order to realize his dream of returning to Europe to avenge the Muslims.”

    An  Islamic State flag flies in the northern Syrian town of Tel Abyad as it is pictured from the Turkish border town of Akcakale, in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, June 15, 2015. REUTERS/Umit Bektas Turkey officially ended its open-border policy in 2014, but not before its southern frontier became a transit point for cheap oil, weapons, foreign fighters, and pillaged antiquities. Smuggling networks all along the nation's 565-mile border with Syria managed to emerge and flourish while the policy was in place.

    The Turkish town of Akçakale, from where Abu Ali said he crossed into Syria, is a quintessential example of Turkey's still-inconsistent border policies. While some frontier cities have established a marked security presence to address the smuggling problem, with paramilitary forces patrolling the streets and manning checkpoints in armored vehicles, the town of Akçakale— separated from the ISIS-controlled Syrian town of Tel Abyad by a railway and a fence — is not one of them.

    The New York Times reported last year that large carts of ammonium nitrate (a fertilizer that can be used to make deadly explosives) were being transported at regular intervals from Akçakale to Tel Abyad — a problem that, at the time, didn't appear to faze the few policemen patrolling Akçakale's streets.

    "On the day I entered town, there was one police car at a roundabout as you entered the main drag and a policeman sitting on the ground with his back to the road drinking tea with a local," recalled Jamie Dettmer of The Daily Beast.

    A Turkish smuggler, calling himself Ahmed for the purposes of Dettmer's article, confirmed that this kind of behavior was fairly common.

    Turkish border guards "are very tough with the Kurds and the areas controlled by the Free Syrian Army, but with areas across from ISIS not so much," he said. "It isn't hard to cross into the Caliphate."

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: How ISIS makes over $1 billion a year

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    syria amputee clinic

    In what looks like an ordinary white truck, two men are helping victims who have lost limbs in the conflict in Syria to walk, play, and even herd sheep again.

    In the past four years, the two technicians have made and fitted about 5,000 prosthetic limbs for an estimated 2,500 people. Their mobile clinic has been running for about six months, and has gone some way to improve access.

    The five-year war between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and insurgents has killed at least 250,000 people and wounded many more.

    While most of the wounded are between 15 and 45, the clinic also fits children and the elderly with replacement limbs.

    "The feeling can’t be described when you put the new prosthesis on a patient, especially kids," says technician Amjad Hajj Khamis. "They love to move and play so it’s a wonderful feeling to help a child to walk again."

    Khamis, 24, was studying French literature at the University of Homs, and his colleague Abdalrahim Khlouf, 25, was training to be a school teacher. Both had to give up after just four months because of the worsening situation in the city.

    Starting work in a field hospital, the men were trained how to make and fit artificial limbs, including a stint in the Turkish border city of Rihaniyya and distance learning from Pakistan, Britain and Germany.

    Click here for a Reuters photo essay on the clinic.

    syria amputee clinicPatients come from opposition-held areas including the northwestern province of Idlib, the Douma neighborhood of Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo, which was Syria's biggest city until the conflict erupted in 2011.

    Demand from amputees far outstrips the services the clinic is able to provide. In each location the mobile clinic visits, keeping patients safe from bombing is a recurrent problem, Khamis says. The U.N. estimates there are a total 4.6 million people in Syria who are hard to reach with aid.

    Among those who have benefited from the traveling prosthesis clinic is a 9-year-old girl who stepped on a landmine when walking through a field to visit her grandfather.

    "I woke up at the hospital and didn't find my foot, it must have proceeded me to heaven," says Salma.

    "In the beginning I was depressed, but when my dad told me I was going to get a prosthesis and walk again, I was very happy."

    Qusay, 14, lost his foot and his right arm when he and his twin brother Adi found a landmine while herding sheep in February 2015. His brother dropped the mine and died immediately from the blast. Qusay still has shrapnel lodged close to the brain.

    Thanks to his prosthetic limbs, Qusay, who comes from the town of Abu Maki in Idlib province, has regained some of his former independence.

    "I always go out to play or herd the sheep," he says. "I don't like sitting at home."

    (Reporting by Khalil Ashawi; Writing by Brian McGee; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)


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    syria troops

    MOSCOW (Reuters) - A month since Vladimir Putin announced the withdrawal of most Russian forces from Syria, his military contingent there is as strong as ever, with fewer jets but many more attack helicopters able to provide closer combat support to government troops.

    A Reuters analysis of publicly available tracking data shows no letup in supply missions: the Russian military has maintained regular cargo flights to its Hmeimim airbase in western Syria since Putin's declaration on March 14.

    Supply runs have also continued via the "Syrian Express" shipping route, Russian engineering troops have been deployed to the ancient city of Palmyra and further information has surfaced about Russian special forces operating in Syria - suggesting the Kremlin is more deeply embroiled in the conflict than it previously acknowledged.

    "There hasn't been a drawdown in any meaningful way," said Nick de Larrinaga, Europe Editor of IHS Jane's Defence Weekly. "Russia's military presence in Syria is just as powerful now as it was at the end of 2015."

    Announcing a drawdown gave Putin some breathing space from Western political pressure over the operation, and an opportunity to carry out maintenance on heavily-used jets.

    But by keeping a strong military force in place, Putin is maintaining his power to influence the situation in Syria by shoring up President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow's closest ally in the Middle East.

    He will also want to secure Russia's role in efforts to broker a resolution to the conflict - a process the Kremlin has used to reassert itself as a global political power after being ostracized by the West over the Ukraine crisis.

    As recently as Thursday, photos and video footage taken by Turkish bloggers for their online project Bosphorus Naval News showed a Russian Navy landing ship - the Saratov - en route to Russia's Tartous naval facility in the western Syrian province of Latakia loaded with at least ten military trucks.

    The Saratov is a regular feature on Russia's "Syrian Express" shipping route, which Moscow has used to transport increased supplies and equipment to Syria since the military draw down was announced.

    The Russian Defence Ministry did not respond to written questions submitted by Reuters.

    putin judo

    "More formidable force"

    Russian troops and equipment have also been deployed to Syria by air in recent weeks.

    An Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane operated by the Russian Air Force under registration number RA-78830 has flown two supply trips a month to Syria since December. Its last flight to Russia's Latakia airbase was on April 9-10 according to tracking data on website

    Able to carry up to 145 people or 50 tonnes of equipment, Il-76 planes have been used to transport heavy vehicles including helicopters to Syria, a Russian Air Force colonel told Reuters, bolstering the number of gunships in the country as Russia's jet force deployment is wound down.

    "We removed some planes and added helicopters. We don’t need mass bomb drops during a ceasefire," the colonel said. "Helicopters fly lower and can observe the territory better."

    Russia now has more than 30 helicopters operating in Syria, including a fleet of around eight Mi-28N Night Hunter and Ka-52 Alligator gunships stationed at its Shayrat airbase southeast of Homs city, according to satellite images posted online by IHS Jane's analysts.

    Separate images show 22 jets and 14 helicopters stationed at the Hmeimim airbase, compared to 29 jets and 7 helicopters seen there in early February, said Justin Bronk, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

    "All that's really gone is the fixed wing close air support attack jets," he said. "On the rotary side it's a substantially more formidable force than it was."

    Russian military paratroopers

    Special forces

    The Ka-52, known for its unusual double set of top-mounted rotor blades and no tail rotor, is the Russian military's official special forces support helicopter and its appearance in Syria is testament to the growing number of Russian ground troops in direct combat roles, western officials say.

    Russia acknowledged having special forces in Syria for the first time shortly after its military drawdown was announced, saying they were conducting high-risk reconnaissance missions and "other special tasks".

    Since the announcement, Western diplomats say Russia's forces have increasingly targeted Islamic State militants and an offshoot of al Qaeda. Previously Russia focused its strikes on other Assad opponents, including some viewed by the West as moderate.

    Swapping jets for helicopters illustrates Russia's new military role in the Syrian conflict, engaging directly with fighting on the ground instead of dropping bombs from thousands of feet.

    "Russia's attack helicopters are getting much more into the thick of things than their fixed wing aircraft were previously," said de Larrinaga. "We never really saw Russian strike aircraft operating at low level like this before."

    Both the Ka-52 and Mi-28N, which is broadly equivalent to the U.S. Apache gunship, were used to provide close air cover to the Syrian army when it secured a major victory by retaking Palmyra from Islamic State militants in March.

    Bronk said the helicopter deployment was in response to the changing needs of the Syrian army.

    "They are no longer bombarding besieged cities so much, trying to dislodge rebels," he said. "Instead they are trying to assist a more mobile, maneuverable style of engagement."

    "Because that tactical role or focus of Assad's forces has changed, then the Russian support methodology needs to change along with it."


    (Writing by Jack Stubbs; editing by Peter Graff)

    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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    obama putin

    Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama agreed on Monday to continue building closer coordination on Syria, including through their intelligence services and defense ministries, the Kremlin said.

    The White House said Obama and Putin had an "intense conversation" by telephone that covered both Syria and Ukraine.

    During the call, the Kremlin said Putin stressed the need for the moderate opposition to distance itself swiftly from Islamic State and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. He also stressed the need to close Syria's border with Turkey, "from where fighters and arms supplies for the extremists make their way in", the Kremlin said.

    Russia has repeatedly raised the issue of the border, across which, according to Russia, militants are crossing from Turkey into Syria.

    Obama stressed that progress on Syria needed to be made "in parallel" to progress on political transition to end the conflict there, the White House said in a release. Syrian peace talks came close to collapse on Monday, with the mainstream opposition announcing a pause in talks being held in Geneva.

    The Kremlin said Obama thanked Putin for Russia's help in freeing American citizen Kevin Dawes, who had been in captivity in Syria. The State Department had said previously Russia played a role in his release.

    The two presidents also exchanged views on the situation in Ukraine, with Putin expressing the hope that with the new Ukrainian government "will finally start taking concrete steps towards implementing the Minsk agreements", the Kremlin said.

    Pro-Russia rebels stand on top of an armoured vehicle outside a regional government building in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine May 10, 2014. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

    Obama urged Putin to take steps to end the significant uptick in fighting in eastern Ukraine and stressed the importance of moving forward with full implementation of the agreements, the White House said in a release.

    White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in a daily press conference that the two presidents did not talk about the two Russian warplanes that the military said last week flew simulated attack passes near a guided missile destroyer in the Baltic Sea.

    SEE ALSO: US Navy official: Russia's submarine activities are at their highest since the Cold War

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    Arch of Triumph model

    A replica of the Arch of Triumph that was destroyed by ISIS in Palmyra, Syria, is now on display for three days in London's Trafalgar Square.

    The marble structure — designed by the US-based Institute of Digital Archaeology (IDA) — was installed in the British capital on April 19 during World Heritage Week as "an important gesture of friendship and solidarity,"according to a statement from the IDA's executive director Roger Michel.

    The IDA constructed the model with the help of academics from Harvard and Oxford University using 3-D machines. The design was based on photographs of the original 2,000-year-old monument, which was blown up by ISIS in October 2015.

    "We've been collecting digital images for the last 18-24 months," Michel told Business Insider over the phone. The organisation has been archiving photos of at-risk monuments and heritage sites all over the world with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa, Michel explained.

    Arch of Triumph model

    "Our aim is to highlight the potential for the triumph of human ingenuity over violence by offering innovative, technology-driven options for the stewardship of objects and architecture from our shared past,"a statement on the IDA's website reads.

    The model of the 3rd-century arch will officially be unveiled by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, in the afternoon of April 19, The Telegraph reports.

    It will stand in Trafalgar Square until April 21, when it will be taken down from around 4 p.m., according to a spokesperson for the IDA.

    The replica — which takes a few hours to assemble — will travel to Dubai later this year and to New York City in September, before being returned to Syria where it will go on public display near the historic site where the original once stood.

    Palmyra Arch of Triumph

    "It is a message of raising awareness in the world,"Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria's director of antiquities, told the BBC. "We have common heritage. Our heritage is universal — it is not just for Syrian people."

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    Bashar Jaafari

    AMMAN (Reuters) - The Syrian government's chief negotiator said President Bashar al-Assad's future was not up for discussion at peace talks, underlining the bleak prospects for reviving U.N.-led negotiations postponed by the opposition.

    Bashar Ja'afari, speaking to Lebanese TV station al Mayadeen, also said his team was pushing for an expanded government as the solution to the war - an idea rejected by the opposition fighting for five years to topple Assad.

    Ja'afari was reiterating the Syrian government's position as spelt out last month ahead of the latest round of talks, indicating no shift on the part of Damascus as it continues to enjoy firm military backing from Russia and Iran.

    "In Geneva we have one mandate only to arrive at an expanded national government only, this is our mandate ... this is the goal we strive to achieve in the Geneva peace talks," Ja'afari said in comments broadcast overnight. He added that these views were relayed to U.N. Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura.

    Ja'afari also said Assad's fate could never be raised in peace talks nor was it a matter that any U.N.-backed political process could deliberate.

    "This matter (the presidency) does not fall under the jurisdiction of Geneva ... this is a Syrian-Syrian affair, Security Council or no Security Council," he said.

    The Western-backed Syrian mainstream opposition decided on Monday to take a pause in peace talks. It said Damascus was not serious about moving towards a U.N.-backed political process they say would bring a transitional governing body with full executive powers without Assad. 

    Members of the Syrian opposition delegation of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) George Sabra (L) and delegation head Asaad Al-Zoubi arrive for a meeting with U.N. mediator on Syria Staffan de Mistura during Syria peace talks at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, April 15, 2016. REUTERS/Fabrice Coffrini/PoolA U.N. Security Council resolution in December called for the establishment of "credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance", a new constitution, and free and fair elections within 18 months.

    Ja'afari also said any ideas such as those floated recently by de Mistura that sought to bridge the gap between the two sides should not touch existing state institutions or the army.

    "We won't allow any constitutional vacuum to take place. What does that mean? It means the army stays as it is and state institutions continue to function," he added. 

    The opposition says restructuring the army and security apparatus is an essential step towards establishing a democratic Syria.

    Ja'afari accused the Western-backed opposition of seeking to bring about a collapse of the country and replicate the chaos seen in Iraq and Libya after Western military intervention brought down long severing authoritarian rulers.

    "They want to repeat the experience of Libya and Iraq ... and turn Syria into a failed state," he said.

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    Donald Trump military gun

    Defense budgets are a tricky thing. They are massive documents and involve input from hundreds of military personnel and politicians.

    Their effect is also wide-ranging from federal budget deficits to the stocks of private sector defense contractors.

    So while there is a lot that goes into them, the President of the United States' foreign policy holds serious weight when it comes time to fund the Department of Defense.

    In a note diving into the leading candidates possible impact on the defense budget, and by extension publicly traded defense contractors, RBC Capital Markets' Robert Stallard said that the "certain uncertainty" of a Donald Trump presidency could lead to a huge shift in DoD spending.

    "In fact, the more aggressive stance in both the Middle East and Far East arguably increase the chances of the US military becoming actively engaged in either region," said a note from Stallard. "And as we saw with Iraq & Afghanistan, these overseas operations can add over $100 billion to the base DoD budget in any given year."

    In recent years, the Defense budget has been cut slightly though slight increases expected over the next few years.

    Stallard said the status quo is likely to continue with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in office, but Trump's "typically erratic" stance on foreign policy creates enough uncertainty to imagine a serious jump in spending.

    Here's a quick rundown of Trump's positions that Stallard thinks could impact the DoD budget, and the bottom lines of contractors:

    • The Wall: Stallard believes the border wall with Mexico would be good for concrete and some defense companies. "The exact details of this plan have not been laid out, but we would imagine that it would be a positive development for US concrete companies, and defense companies with exposure to homeland security and C4ISR," he wrote.
    • NATO and Russia. Trump's anti-NATO stance would be bad for US contractors, but good for European-exposed defense companies since US bases in Europe would be likely to close. This would also embolden Vladimir Putin and Russia according to Stallard.
    • Israel and the Middle East: Trump's recent support of Israel and against the Iran deal would lead to more pro-Sunni alignment, said Stallard, opposing Russian and the Assad regime. "We think it fair to assume that this policy would increase the chances of US forces being actively engaged in the region, probably with boots on the ground," he said.
    • China: Trump's strong words on Chinese trade deals and encouragement of Japan gaining nuclear capabilities opens up an increased chance of an Asian conflict. "We can’t imagine that China is going to welcome such developments, and this would significantly increase tensions in the region, with a consequently higher chance of a military confrontation," wrote Stallard.

    Put all of these stances together and Stallard sees the increased chances of an armed conflict, and thus a spike in military spending.

    "We've not seen anything that points to a cut in US defense spending under Trump, and his views on some foreign countries would suggest that there is an increased chance of the US military being deployed somewhere," wrote Stallard.

    While Stallard did caution that the President does not have total control to set a Defense budget, it appears much more likely that a President Trump would lead to a spike in spending than any other candidate.

    SEE ALSO: 2016 could be a great year for defense stocks, especially if a Republican wins

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    BEIRUT (Reuters) - Air strikes in opposition-held northwest Syria killed at least 40 people and wounded around 80 on Tuesday, a rebel commander and a rescue worker said.

    The rescue worker said 38 people were killed in the town of Maarat al-Numan in the insurgent stronghold of Idlib province, and said 10 people were also killed in the nearby town of Kafr Nubl.

    Ahmed al-Seoud, head of the 13th Division, a foreign-backed faction fighting under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, told Reuters the air strikes hit the main vegetable market, killing around 40 people and wounding around 80.


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    refugee crisis

    Instability throughout large parts of the world in 2015 have furthered exacerbated a growing refugee crisis in Turkey, parts of the Middle East, and throughout Europe. 

    Coming from war zones in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and portions of sub-Saharan Africa, the refugees have been driven towards Europe with the hopes of finding a better life for themselves and their families. The scope of the crisis is almost impossible to grasp: in 2015, over 1 million refugees have entered Europe alone. 

    The following photos from staff photographers at Thomson Reuters won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News Photography. 

    SEE ALSO: Haunting portraits of Syria's child refugees that everyone should see

    A Syrian refugee holds onto his children as he struggles to walk off a dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Lesbos September 24, 2015.

    A Syrian refugee kisses his daughter as he walks through a rainstorm towards Greece's border with Macedonia, near the Greek village of Idomeni, September 10, 2015.

    Syrian migrants cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke, August 27, 2015.

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Raed Saleh

    The head of Syria's Civil Defense Units, also known as the White Helmets, said he was denied entry into the US upon arriving in Washington, DC, from Turkey to receive a humanitarian award.

    Raed Saleh, 33, said he flew from Istanbul to Dulles airport on Tuesday. He was set to receive a humanitarian award from InterAction, an NGO based in Washington, DC, for his work with the White Helmets — an organization of more than 2,800 volunteers that respond to bombings against civilian communities in Syria. 

    The group says that more than 40,000 people have been rescued by volunteers working with the Civil Defense Units. The volunteers receive a $150-per-month stipend to don their White Helmets and dig people out from beneath the rubble of barrel bombings.

    But Saleh — who was nominated for the 2016 Humanitarian Award by the non-profit Relief International and addressed the UN Security Council just last year in New York about the White Helmets' humanitarian work — said he was told by customs agents  to "go back where he came from" when he arrived in DC on Tuesday night.

    "When I arrived in Washington, DC, they told me my visa had already been canceled so I should go back to Turkey 'where I came from,'" Saleh told Business Insider in an email on Tuesday.

    Saleh, a former businessman who sold electrical equipment before the civil war erupted in 2011, said that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) called him when he arrived back in Istanbul and apologized for what had happened.

    USAID has provided the White Helmets with $20 million in monetary aid since 2013.

    syriaHowever, Saleh and his colleague Zouheir Albounni, who works for a USAID implementer that provides support to the White Helmets, told Business Insider that Saleh's visa was not set to expire until September 2016. He also had not been notified by anyone prior to boarding his flight in Istanbul that his visa had been canceled or expired, they said.

    Albounni, who was scheduled to be Saleh's translator for Tuesday's event at InterAction, said he "has no idea" why Saleh was denied entry.

    "From everything I know, Raed has a valid visa to the States, and this is not his first time here," Albounni told Business Insider. Additionally, Albounni said, "Raed was holding a letter from USAID addressing customs and immigration to facilitate his entry, given that the Syrian Civil Defense is USAID/OTI's largest partner in Syria."

    OTI is USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives.

    US government officials have not responded to requests for comment from either Relief International or InterAction, which condemned the decision to bar Saleh from entering the country.

    "InterAction has continually warned of the consequences of policies that prevent humanitarian professionals from freely traveling, as any other modern global professional must to be effective,"InterAction CEO Sam Worthington said in a statement.

    "If the US government won't allow Raed to be honored in person by the humanitarian community in Washington then InterAction leaders will travel to Raed, on the border of Syria, to ensure his work is appropriately and personally acknowledged," he continued.

    USAID representatives didn't immediately respond to a request for comment from Business Insider.

    white helmets syriaSaleh, who has two children, began organizing peaceful demonstrations in his home town of Jisr Ashughour, Syria, after protests broke out against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2011. He was forced to flee to Turkey later that year after Assad's army entered his town, but returned to Syria's Idlib province in 2012 where he has organized 20 separate teams of civil defense volunteers since June 2013.

    Though Saleh was unable to attend Tuesday's ceremony, he prepared remarks about the White Helmets' work that were read on his behalf.

    "We are the Syrian civil defense, the 'White Helmets,'" Saleh wrote. "We confirm our commitment to perform our duty and provide services without discrimination and with respect for the human rights endorsed by the humanitarian organizations in the United Nations. We have saved over 40,000 lives.  We are on the side of life."

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    netanyahu putin 4/21 israel russia

    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday labeled his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier in the day as “very successful,” adding that the two countries reached understandings over issues that had previously not been sufficiently clarified.

    “I set the goal of the meeting as strengthening coordination between Russia and Israel to prevent mishaps,” Netanyahu said. “I think we clarified some matters, and that is very important.”

    The issues of the Syrian civil war and the ownership of the Golan had been expected to top the agenda at the meeting.

    Russia has been carrying out air raids in Syria in support of embattled President Bashar Assad since September of last year. And although Moscow recently announced it would withdraw many of its troops from the war-torn country, Russian planes still regularly fly sorties there.

    Netanyahu said that Israeli and Russian military officials had also discussed coordination between their armies.

    “I think [such coordination] is crucial because we have to keep the freedom of movement for the army and the air force in the places that are important to us in terms of our security, and I think that this essential,” he said.

    Israeli airstrikes in Syria have also been the topic of previous high-level meetings between Moscow and Jerusalem. A number of airstrikes in Syria have been attributed to Israeli efforts to prevent advanced weapons from reaching Hezbollah.


    The prime minister announced he will return to Russia on June 7.

    During the meeting, Netanyahu informed Putin of his “red lines” regarding the security of Israel’s northern borders, and stressed that the Jewish state was determined to maintain its control of the Golan Heights.

    “I have come to Russia to step up coordination on security matters, to prevent mistakes, misunderstandings,” Netanyahu said as the two leaders met. “We are not going back to the days when rockets were fired at our communities and our children from the top of the Golan… and so, with an agreement or without, the Golan Heights will remain part of [Israel’s] sovereign territory.”

    Israeli soldiers Golan Heights

    The prime minister stressed that Israel would do “everything” in its power to block Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah from obtaining advanced weapons, and was working to assure that no new “terror front” appeared on the Golan Heights.

    Israel is interested in making sure that Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed terror groups are not able to use a power vacuum on the Syrian side of the Golan to set up a base near the border for attacks against Israel.

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    Brussels suspects

    PARIS (Reuters) - Brussels airport bomber Najim Laachraoui was one of the men who held four French journalists captive for months in Syria, the lawyer of two of the former hostages told Reuters on Friday.

    Najim Laachraoui, a 25 year-old Belgian, was one of the two bombers who blew themselves up at Brussels' airport on March 22, investigators have said. Thirty-two people were killed in the attacks on the airport and a metro station.

    "I can confirm that he was the jailer of my clients," Marie-Laure Ingouf, a lawyer for two French journalists freed in April 2014 after spending 10 months as hostages in Syria, told Reuters.

    An engineering sciences student who dropped out of university, Laachraoui is believed to have had the technical training that could mean he was the armorer of the operation.

    Le Parisien daily on Friday quoted intelligence sources as saying Laachraoui was in charge of interrogating the hostages and was less brutal to them than Mehdi Nemmouche, a Frenchman who in May 2014 killed four people in an attack on Brussels' Jewish Museum.

    One of the four former French hostages, Nicolas Henin, had in September 2014 said that he recognized Nemmouche as one of his Syria jailers.

     (Reporting by Gerard Bon; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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    Vladimir Putin

    As peace talks remain in a stalemate, Syria's fragile ceasefire is collapsing.

    And the regime and its allies seem ready to pick back up where they left off.

    Russia, which supports the regime of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has reportedly been moving artillery units to parts of northern Syria where regime forces have a presence, according to The Wall Street Journal. US officials worry that it signifies an impending return to full-scale fighting.

    Iranian forces are also massing near the front lines, according to The Journal. Russia and Iran have both been major backers of the Assad regime throughout Syria's five-year civil war.

    Earlier this year, Russia announced a military drawdown in Syria, but Russian forces and equipment have remained in the country to support the Assad regime.

    Meanwhile, in Geneva, peace talks have sputtered as Syrian officials refuse to negotiate a deal with the opposition that would see Assad leave power.

    This has long been a major sticking point — the opposition insists that Assad must step down, and many moderate rebels consider the regime, rather than terrorist groups, their main enemy in Syria. Assad has hung onto power as the violence in his country has ground on, and he continues to refuse to cede power to the opposition.

    And despite the ceasefire, which applies to the regime and the opposition but not terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, pro-regime forces attacked a market in the rebel-held town of Maaret al-Nouman in Idlib province.

    One opposition negotiator said this week that the ceasefire is over, according to The Journal.

    The attack on Maaret al-Nouman, a town with a strong rebel presence where residents have been protesting to repel Al Qaeda influence, serves as another example of Assad's aims in Syria.

    In an email to Business Insider, Abu Faisal, a Syrian aid worker who goes by a pseudonym and has been working with locals in Maaret al Nouman, explained the situation in Idlib:

    It's also a clear sign by the regime that they bombed Maaret Al Nouman and nearby Kafranbel (some 10 died there as well on the same day) on purpose, or singled them out specifically. Both towns are what you could consider the most 'secular' and pro-[Free Syrian Army], anti-Nusra towns in all of Idlib. Assad hit them on purpose since protests against Nusra (which have not stopped for 39 straight days) do not fit the story he's trying to tell the world, that we are all terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. 

    Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Russia's RIA new agency, in Damascus, Syria in this handout file picture provided by SANA on March 30, 2016. REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters/Files

    Assad claims to be fighting terrorism in Syria, but he has mostly targeted opposition fighters who oppose his rule.

    Analysts say his goal is to wipe out moderate rebels until there are only two groups left standing — the regime and its allies on one side, and terrorist groups on the other. Assad likely hopes that he can force the West into accepting his rule if he frames it as a choice between him and terrorists.

    Airstrikes against areas with a strong Free Syrian Army presence embolden Jabhat al-Nusra, Faisal said. The militants seek to portray themselves as protectors of civilians targeted by the Assad regime.

    "They can say, 'Look at you guys protesting against us while the regime kills you,'" Faisal said. "'We are your saviors. No one else is helping you.'"

    Still, the ceasefire quelled rebel fighting in Syria long enough to allow the Assad regime to make gains against ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh) while it better positions itself against rebel positions, according to strategic security firm The Soufan Group. This gives Assad more legitimacy with the West while also ensuring that the regime is in a good position to fight moderate rebels if the ceasefire collapses.

    The group explained in a note:

    The Assad regime reenters the fighting as the unquestioned winner of the tenuous cessation in hostilities. The lull in violence allowed Assad’s forces and allies to temporarily refocus efforts towards combating the so-called Islamic State, with some significant success. Assad’s ability to retake territory controlled by the Islamic State in Palmyra and surrounding areas demonstrated to members of the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition the effectiveness of the regime’s ability to counter the Islamic State — thus providing Assad some level of increased international legitimacy.

    And it's unlikely that negotiations between the regime and the opposition will ultimately be effective. The Soufan Group notes: "So long as Iran and Russia continue to empower the Assad regime through direct military support, any efforts at genuine reconciliation will be frivolous."

    SEE ALSO: The US is missing a huge opportunity in Syria

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    Two_F 15I_Ra'am

    Russian forces in Syria have fired at least twice on Israeli military aircraft, prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek improved operational coordination with Moscow, Israel's top-selling newspaper said on Friday.

    Asked about the alleged incidents, however, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: "In this case, Israeli press reports are far from reality."

    But Netanyahu, in remarks published by Israeli reporters whom he briefed by phone on his talks on Thursday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, said "there have been problems" regarding Israeli military freedom of operation in Syria.

    He gave no details, but said: "If you don't deal with the friction, it could develop into something more serious."

    The unsourced report in Yedioth Ahronoth made no mention of dates or locations for the two reported incidents, nor did it give any indication of whether the Israeli planes were hit.

    Russia mounted its military intervention in Syria in September to shore Damascus up amid a now 5-year-old rebellion.

    Separately, Israel's Channel 10 TV said a Russian warplane approached an Israeli warplane off the Mediterranean coast of Syria last week but that there was no contact between them.

    An Israeli military spokesman declined comment. Netanyahu's office and the Russian embassy in Israel did not immediately respond.


    Israel, which says it has carried out dozens of bombings in Syria to foil suspected arms handovers to Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, was quick to set up an operational hotline with Moscow designed to avoid accidentally trading fire with Russian interventionary forces.

    In Moscow on Thursday, Netanyahu told Putin in televised remarks: "I came here with one main goal — to strengthen the security coordination between us so as to avoid mishaps, misunderstandings and unnecessary confrontations."

    putin netanyahu

    In an apparent allusion to Syria, Putin said: "I think there are understandable reasons for these intensive contacts (with Israel), given the complicated situation in the region."

    According to Yedioth, the reported Russian fire on Israeli planes was first raised with Putin by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who visited Moscow on March 15. At the time, Putin responded that he was unaware of the incidents, Yedioth said.

    SEE ALSO: Syria's ceasefire's collapsing, and Russia looks ready to get back into the fight

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    f 18 sunset

    The latest footage from the Combined Joint Task Force's Operation Inherent Resolve shows a precision airstrike taking out an ISIS vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) while on the move near Al Hawl, Syria.

    This airstrike is just one of the nearly 12,000 airstrikes carried out in Iraq and Syria by the US and 10 other coalition nations.

    Watch the strike below:

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    Steve Warren

    The spokesman for the US military operation against ISIS made a comment in a Wednesday press briefing in Baghdad that helps justify Russia's continued attacks on Syria's largest city in the midst of a truce.

    US Army Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq, was asked whether Russian airstrikes on Aleppo, the current epicenter of the war, meant that Moscow was preparing to end the cessation of hostilities (CoH) agreement between government forces and the opposition signed on February 29.

    Warren responded that it was "complicated" because al-Nusra "holds Aleppo" and is not party to the agreement.

    Warren said of Russia:

    I'm not going to predict what their intentions are. What I do know is that we have seen, you know, regime forces with some Russian support as well begin to mass and concentrate combat power around Aleppo. ... That said, it's primarily al-Nusra who holds Aleppo, and of course, al-Nusra is not part of the cessation of hostilities. So it's complicated.

    As Middle East analyst Kyle Orton noted on Twitter, Warren came "pretty close" to saying that the coalition supports Russia's airstrikes in the city. Those strikes, however, are aimed at degrading any and all opposition to Bashar Assad — the embattled Syrian president who the Obama administration has repeatedly insisted "has to go."

    aleppo rubble assad regime air strike

    Warren, moreover, was effectively echoing Russia's own military spokesman, Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy. He said earlier this month that 8,000 Nusra militants were amassing around Aleppo and preparing to cut off the city's main road to Syria's capital, Damascus.

    Emile Hokayem, an expert on Syria and a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, seemed surprised by Warren's comments.

    "Does the US military really believe that Nusra 'holds Aleppo'?" Hokayem tweeted on Friday. "Did Warren misspeak?"

    While Nusra has indeed been building up its presence in Aleppo since February, the city is also occupied by civilians and armed opposition groups associated with the US-backed Free Syrian Army that agreed to abide by the fragile agreement.

    Civil defence members look for survivors after an airstrike on the rebel-held Old Aleppo, Syria April 16, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

    The CoH was brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva in February. Lavrov indicated that Russia would continue supporting the Assad regime's attempts to "liberate" Aleppo, which he said had been "captured by illegal insurgent groups."

    But for one of the US's top military leaders to stop short of condemning Russia's airstrikes on the city sends mixed signals about Washington's commitment to upholding the truce. Warren's comments came two days after US President Barack Obama urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to "use his influence with the Assad regime to live up to the commitments that they've made in the context of the cessation of hostilities," said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary.

    He added: "Unfortunately, we've seen that the cessation of hostilities continues to be fragile and increasingly threatened due to continued violations by the regime."

    'The worst day in Syria for over a year'

    Syria's civil defense, a neutral organization of nearly 3,000 volunteers that respond to bombings against civilian communities in Syria, said that warplanes attacked Aleppo at least 20 times on Friday in what was "the worst day in Syria for over a year."At least 14 people were killed in the attack and dozens more wounded.

    In Idlib, meanwhile, the White Helmets recorded even more attacks than in Aleppo on Friday. Nusra took over bases and seized US-supplied weapons from the Free Syrian Army's 13th Division in Idlib last month, giving Assad another bargaining chip to argue that he is the best option for preventing the spread of terrorism in Syria.

    Significantly, Nusra's takeover of rebel-held areas around Syria has been met with fierce backlash by activists and the more moderate rebel groups battling Assad's forces. Opposition groups realize that "the more territory al-Nusra controls, the more the 'us or them' narrative grows stronger and, ironically, the less support moderates get from the coalition," Abu Faisal, a Syrian aid worker who goes by a pseudonym, told Business Insider's Pamela Engel last month.

    Syria map

    But Nusra's presence in Idlib and Aleppo — and, now, Warren's hint that the US might not be wholly opposed to a Russian offensive there — has given Moscow an excuse to revamp its military presence inside Syria just over one month after announcing it planned to withdraw from the conflict.

    The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that Russia is moving heavy artillery back into the northeast, likely in preparation for a major escalation there.

    John Kerry confirmed the Russian buildup near Aleppo in a meeting with The New York Times editorial board on Friday.

    He told the Times that while Russia might be targeting Nusra in Aleppo, it has "proven harder to separate" the militant group from the more moderate opposition groups "than we thought."

    "And there's a Russian impatience and a regime impatience with the terrorists who are behaving like terrorists and laying siege to places on their side and killing people," Kerry said, according to The Times.

    Experts are skeptical, however, that Russia's singular intention is to target Nusra alone.

    "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 last week.

    And as Jeff White, a military analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Business Insider in an email, the Russians are likely taking advantage of the crumbling cessation of hostilities by blaming violations on Nusra — and everyone else who opposes Assad.

    "Even if they don't participate in a 'pitched battle' for Aleppo," White said, "the Russians can still help the regime complete the isolation of the city."

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    German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures during a joint news conference with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara, Turkey February 8, 2016.    REUTERS/Umit Bektas

    GAZIANTEP, Turkey (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in a Turkish border province on Saturday to meet Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu as she works to ease tensions in the deal to tackle the migrant crisis.

    Prior to its enforcement almost three weeks ago, Merkel lobbied European leaders to back the deal to return thousands of migrants from the Greek islands to Turkey. But as questions over its effectiveness, long-term viability and legality mount, so does the pressure on the German leader.

    The agreement, coupled with border closures in Europe that meant smugglers could not secure passage to northern European states, initially slowed the numbers of new arrivals to Greece sharply.

    But boats have been arriving with about 150 people a day, indicating the "hermetic sealing" of the route appears to be over, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said.

    Merkel, EU Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans were due to discuss the migration crisis with Davutoglu after a visit to a refugee camp in the town of Nizip, amid a ramped up security presence.

    Uniformed and plain-clothed police officers patrolled Gaziantep city, capital of the province that borders on Islamic State-controlled Syrian territory and has been hit repeatedly in recent weeks by rocket fire from the other side of the frontier.

    Live footage showed Davutoglu and local officials, as well as children holding flowers, greeting Merkel in the airport. Separately, footage showed Tusk disembarking from his official plane and being greeted by dignitaries.

    A poster depicting Merkel's face and the words "Solidarity with the migrants. We are proud of our Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu," in German was put up in the town. Another welcomed Davutoglu to Gaziantep.

    At home Merkel faces criticism for allowing a German comedian to be prosecuted for insulting Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.

    The issue is likely to come up in the meetings, but a senior Turkish government official said the main focus of the visit by Merkel, Tusk and Timmermans would be on relations with the EU and implementing the migrant deal, including how to spend a promised 3 billion euros ($3.37 billion) in funding.

    On Wednesday, Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the European Union needed to be more pragmatic in releasing the cash meant to help manage the migrant crisis, saying there were problems with the delivery of the money.

    Another side of the bargain, used to sell the migrant deal to the Turkish public, was Turks winning quicker visa-free travel to Europe, a pledge that now could go unfulfilled, at least by the June deadline he had wanted.

    While presenting an opportunity for the political leaders who made it, the deal has been fiercely criticized by United Nations refugee and rights groups, as immoral and a violation of international humanitarian law against blanket returns.

    Calling for an immediate halt to the implementation of the deal, Turkey has been blasted over detention of asylum-seekers, serious shortcomings in asylum procedures amid chaos on the ground.

    "While Turkey and Europe haggle over long standing political battles like visa free travel, refugees continue to suffer with little chance of protection in Europe and serious violations against them in Turkey," said Gauri van Gulik, deputy Europe director at Amnesty International.

    "All states have a duty to protect refugees that can't be traded away for political expediency."

    (Writing by Dasha Afanasieva; Editing by Tom Heneghan and David Evans)

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    German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during a news conference with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto (unseen) at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, April 12, 2016.  REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Saturday she was pushing for the establishment of special security zones in Syria near the border with Turkey where refugees could find shelter.

    "I have ... again demanded that we have zones where the ceasefire is particularly enforced and where a significant level of security can be guaranteed," Merkel said in the Turkish city of Gaziantep during a joint news conference with Turkish and EU officials.

    SEE ALSO: Angela Merkel has arrived in Turkey to work on deal to tackle the migrant crisis

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    U.S. President Barack Obama gestures as he makes a speach during the opening ceremony of the Hannover Messe in Hanover, Germany April 24, 2016. REUTERS/Nigel Treblin

    HANOVER, Germany / WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama plans to send as many as 250 more U.S. troops to Syria, bringing the total American presence on the ground to 300 to help fight Islamic State militants, U.S. officials said on Sunday.

    The decision, which a U.S. official said would be announced in Hanover, Germany, on Monday, was first reported by the Wall Street Journal and confirmed an April 1 Reuters report that the Obama administration was considering a significant increase in U.S. forces.

    The additional deployment aims to accelerate recent gains against Islamic State and appears to reflect growing confidence in the ability of U.S.-backed forces inside Syria and Iraq to claw back territory from the hardline Sunni Islamist group.

    Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, controls the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria and is proving a potent threat abroad, claiming credit for major attacks in Paris in November and Brussels in March.

    While Obama has resisted putting U.S. troops into Syria, where a five-year civil war has killed at least 250,000 people, he sent 50 U.S. special operations forces to Syria last year in what U.S. officials described as a "counterterrorism" mission rather than an effort to tip the scales in the war.

    "He (Obama) intends to put in more ... forces to the tune of 250 in Syria," said one U.S. official, adding he was unable to break down how many of those would be special operations forces and how many might be medical or intelligence support personnel.

    "The president has authorized a series of steps to increase support for our partners in the region, including Iraqi security forces as well as local Syrian forces who are taking the fight to ISIL," said a second Obama administration official.

    Obama will announce the latest deployment during his 11:25 a.m. (0925 GMT) remarks at the Hanover Messe fairgrounds on Monday, that official said.


    There are mounting indications the momentum in Iraq and Syria may have shifted against Islamic State.

    In Iraq, the group has been pulling back since December when it lost Ramadi, the capital of the western province of Anbar. In Syria, the jihadist fighters have been pushed from the strategic city of Palmyra by Russian-backed Syrian government forces.

    Since U.S.-backed forces recaptured the strategic Syrian town of al-Shadadi in late February, a growing number of Arab fighters in Syria have offered to join the fight against the group, U.S. officials told Reuters in early April.

    Obama is in Hanover meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel. On Monday, the two will be joined by British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to discuss Syria and other foreign policy issues.

    Obama said he was "deeply concerned" about a surge in violence in Syria, where government forces have stepped up bombing of rebel-held areas around the strategic city of Aleppo.

    But speaking at a news conference with Merkel, Obama said it would be very difficult to see how a so-called safe zone would work in Syria without a large military commitment.

    "The issue surrounding a safe zone in Syrian territory is not a matter of an ideological objection on my part," he said. "It's not a matter of me not wishing I could help and protect a whole bunch of people. It's a very practical issue about how do you do it?"

    Obama posed a number of questions about such a zone, including what country would "put a bunch of ground troops inside of Syria" after five years of civil war.

     (Reporting by Roberta Rampton in Hanover, Germany, and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Additional reporting by Joseph Nasr in Berlin; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)

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    MOSCOW- Syria and Russia have signed agreements worth 850 million euros to restore infrastructure in the Arab nation, Russia's RIA news agency quoted Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halaki as saying on Monday.

    "The Russian side were receptive to the idea of restoring infrastructure, accordingly a number of deals were signed," RIA quoted al-Halaki as saying.

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