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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    putin assad

    Months after Russia spectacularly entered the Syrian conflict, Islamic State (IS) is still thumbing its nose at both Moscow and the Assad regime in murderous fashion.

    On May 23, the group detonated between seven and nine car and suicide bombs in the coastal cities of Jableh and Tartous, killing about 150 people and wounding more than 225.

    The targets included bus stations, electricity stations, and a national hospital.

    The co-ordinated attacks, the first of their kind in Assad’s heartland provinces on the Mediterranean, conveyed a deadly message: despite the loss of Palmyra in central Syria in late March, despite the offensive threatening the IS-held city of Fallujah in Iraq, IS can still strike at the core of the Assad regime.

    That message has far wider implications. Since Russia began its aerial intervention in September 2015, the Assad regime and Moscow — along with Iran and Hezbollah — have been trying to present strength against their principal opponents, the rebel factions who have challenged Damascus since 2011, long before IS became one of their main enemies.

    Yet despite thousands of bombings and ground offensives across the country, the Assad-Russia-Iran-Hezbollah campaign has yet to make a significant breakthrough.

    And now the IS bombings have revived the fear that prompted the Russian intervention in the first place: that Assad and the Syrian military can’t even protect what remains of the Syrian population in regime-controlled areas.

    A dilemma for Russia

    Only two months before these stunning attacks, the Assad regime and Russia appeared to have turned a corner in Syria’s five-year conflict. While the rebels had not been defeated, their advances had been contained, and some territory had been reclaimed from them. The Syrian military, alongside Hezbollah and Iranian-led units, had won a symbolic victory with the recapture of Palmyra and its Roman ruins from IS.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin sought an endgame. With the defence line apparently secured from Damascus to Homs to Latakia, Putin announced a withdrawal of some warplanes. Moscow would concentrate on a political settlement that would secure the regime, if not Assad himelf, through talks in Geneva. Meanwhile, its remaining forces could attack IS and the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra, both of which were excluded from a February 27 “cessation of hostilities” brokered by Russia and the US.

    But Moscow soon faced an unexpected challenge. Perhaps buoyed by the propaganda around “victory” in Palmyra, Assad said he would not leave power in the foreseeable future. Even before the Geneva talks reconvened, he rejected a transitional governing authority, the centrepiece of international proposals since 2012.

    Syria Tartous Explosion

    Assad’s rejection, which effectively consigned the Geneva process to oblivion, was soon followed by worse news from the battlefield. Citing continued attacks by the regime, rebels and Jabhat al-Nusra struck back near Aleppo city. Throughout April, they seized much of the territorylost since September, including towns on the Aleppo-to-Damascus highway. Equally important, they inflicted significant casualties on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Iranian-led Iraqi and Afghan militia, who had taken over the fight from Assad around Syria’s largest city.

    Russian and Syrian warplanes responded with intense bombing, reducing the “cessation of hostilities” to a diplomatic farce. They killed hundreds of civilians in and near Aleppo and destroyed hospitals and other vital facilities, but failed to regain the initiative on the ground. While the pro-Assad forces, including the Iranians, suffered more losses, the rebels and Jabhat al-Nusra captured villages in Hama and northern Homs Provinces.

    Meanwhile, IS was causing further trouble elsewhere. Striking back near Palmyra, it took two major gas fields, tightening its grip on Syria’s energy production. In the east of the country, it attacked Assad forces in Deir ez-Zor city, briefly holding key positions as both sides suffered heavy casualties.

    The pro-Assad forces finally got their first good news since Palmyra when the Syrian military and Hezbollah seized part of the East Ghouta area near Damascus. Yet paradoxically, even this victory laid bare the steep obstacles in the way of Moscow and the Assad regime. The East Ghouta advance was only possible because the rebels' defenses were weakened by in-fighting, and because Hezbollah redeployed all its fighters from fronts in northern and central Syria.

    While Assad’s supporters celebrated, the lesson was clear: the best hope for the regime is to secure its core area, pushing back the rebels near Damascus and maintaining the line to Homs and the Mediterranean. Any idea that it can regain control of all of Syria, or even most of it, is an illusion.

    Burnt vehicles are pictured in front of the damaged the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF)-backed al-Quds hospital after it was hit by airstrikes, in a rebel-held area of Syria's Aleppo, April 28, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

    War of attrition

    Now even that best hope has been shaken by the IS bombings. The reaction on the ground was telling: angry residents reportedly attacked some of the more than 500,000 displaced Syrians near Jableh and Tartous, and tents were burned in a camp, injuring refugees.

    The governor of Tartous Province pleaded for calm: “Please do not attack our guests … Terrorists are not among them.”

    The Assad regime clumsily tried to leverage the attacks for political advantage, blaming the leading rebel faction Ahrar al-Sham for the attacks, only for IS to claim responsibility. The Kremlin cautiously saidthe bombings showed the need for “vigorous steps to continue the negotiation process” – even though that process is currently dormant.

    IS is not going to take over Latakia and Tartous Provinces, and nor are Syria’s rebels. But that’s not the point. This conflict is no longer about different sides trying to take over each other’s strongholds; it’s a war of attrition, with opponents wearing each other down until they give up proclamations of legitimacy and hopes of eventual victory.

    The massive intervention by Russia, Iran, and Hezbzollah was meant to speed up that attrition, forcing the Syrian opposition and rebels into a capitulation at the negotiating table. Yet despite the deaths of thousands of civilians, their offensive has failed, both on the battlefield and in the diplomatic arena.

    All the while, Assad continues his metamorphosis into a ghostly Wizard of Oz-like figure. His military is now dependent on foreign forces, and his stay in office is sustained by the grudging acceptance of Russia and the more forthright backing of Iran.

    And with IS now targeting sites a short distance from his ancestral home in Latakia Province, he will struggle to maintain his self-professed image of protector of “his” Syrian people.

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    east ghouta syria

    More than half a million people in rebel-held suburbs to the east of Damascus are facing imminent starvation, after the Syrian army broke through rebel lines last week, separating people from the agricultural land that was the area's breadbasket.

    The people of East Ghouta have survived a three-year siege thanks to produce grown in fields near their homes — and now that they have lost that territory they face a grim fate, similar to other besieged, and starving, parts of Syria.

    President Bashar al-Assad's army and its allies capitalized on infighting between rebel groups in East Ghouta to break through their weakened defensive lines, on May 18. Advancing forces captured six villages and hundreds of acres of farmland in the southern sector of East Ghouta that had been the suburbs' lifeline, a local opposition official said.

    The land, known for its wheat and barley harvests and fruit-bearing trees, is "East Ghouta's breadbasket" and "was the most important factor in softening the siege" that the Syrian regime has imposed on the suburbs since late 2012, a member of the local council in Marj, adjacent to the farmland, said. 

    If rebels prove unable to reverse the Syrian army's advance, "it will turn into a massive humanitarian disaster," added the council member, who requested anonymity for safety reasons and spoke via WhatsApp.

    Rural East Ghouta, a picnic destination for Damascenes before the war, became a major center of armed opposition power in 2012. Rebel fighters control territory there uncomfortably close to the Assad government's headquarters, including the neighborhood of Jobar that abuts Damascus proper. 

    East Ghouta is down to 600,000 inhabitants from a pre-war population of more than 2 million. Those who remained are already familiar with scarcity, after living through years of encirclement by the regime's troops and allied militias. Soldiers stationed at checkpoints along the suburb's entrances prevent the movement of goods and people.

    Regime forces use similar siege-and-starve tactics across the country to lower residents' morale and encourage rebels to surrender. The encircled town of Madaya, also near Damascus, made headlines in December 2015 when photos of emaciated residents—more than three dozen of whom have died of starvation since—circulated widely in the international media.

    In East Ghouta's case, smugglers use a network of tunnels to sneak in limited quantities of food, which is then sold at inflated prices. The Syrian regime also occasionally allows UN-sponsored humanitarian convoys to enter the suburbs. 

    east ghouta syria

    But the on-again, off-again humanitarian deliveries and limited smuggling activity do little to meet residents' needs. So East Ghoutans have fallen back on the green stretch of suburbs they inhabit, known for its agriculture long before the war, to ward off hunger. 

    "Here in East Ghouta, we rely on local agricultural harvests for our daily food," said Mohammed al-Abdullah, a resident of the town of Saqba. "If not for these harvests, people would have died of hunger" under the siege.

    Most East Ghoutans eat two meals a day, and the less fortunate eat just one. Whatever is in season is on the table.

    "During zucchini season, people eat zucchini for breakfast and lunch," said Douma resident Rawan al-Sheikh, who was speaking over a messaging app like other local people interviewed for this story. 

    In many cases, local produce has taken the place of traditional carbohydrates—which are scarce and expensive—as a dietary staple. Residents substituted barley and cabbage for bread when siege conditions became particularly dire in 2014, said al-Sheikh.

    Recognizing agriculture's value in keeping East Ghoutans alive, opposition officials in exile have supported farming projects to provide them some measure of self-sufficiency. The Syrian National Coalition, a collection of opposition groups that claims to represent the revolution on the international stage, backed a 2014 initiative through its Support Coordination Unit that helped farmers grow eggplant, tomatoes and zucchini, pro-opposition newspaper Enab Baladi reported in 2014. 

    east ghouta syria

    While the resulting production did not cover residents' nutritional requirements, it did "keep them alive" under siege, an official with the Support Coordination Unit was quoted by Enab Baladi as saying.

    Now, East Ghoutans fear a coming famine after the Syrian army and its allies, mainly the Lebanon-based Shia militia Hezbollah, took large parts of the southern sector — an area "rich in summer crops that did a great deal to lighten the siege's intensity," Abdul Haq Hamam, a citizen journalist from Douma, said. 

    "If rebels don't retake the area, the encirclement is about to get much more difficult," he added.

    Or, in the words of Douma city resident Rawan al-Sheikh, absent a successful rebel counter-attack "there's a humanitarian catastrophe coming, maybe in weeks and maybe months." 

    The armed opposition's loss of large swathes of land in southern East Ghouta last week is one of its biggest military defeats in the Damascus suburbs since 2012. And that is largely due to factional infighting that has weakened the rebels. 

    East Ghouta's largest opposition group is Jaish al-Islam or JAI, which espouses Salafism, a fundamentalist approach to Islam. The second largest is Feilaq al-Rahman or FAR, affiliated with the more moderate Free Syrian Army.

    Together with a third, smaller group, they formed the United Command in 2013 to coordinate military and judicial activities in East Ghouta. But FAR has accused JAI of carrying out a secret assassination campaign targeting their religious and military figures, and of trying to take unilateral control over the administration of East Ghouta; JAI heads the United Command, and other rebels accuse it of eliminating rivals without consulting its nominal allies. 

    The rival factions engaged in low-level skirmishes and traded mutual accusations throughout April, until tensions exploded into large-scale armed confrontation on April 28, when FAR and allied Jaish al-Fustat attacked JAI's bases across the suburbs. Dozens of fighters and civilians have been killed since then.

    Each side says its rival is trying to "partition" East Ghouta by capturing new land and consolidating areas it controls with trenches, land mines, and other fortifications. 

    east ghouta syria

    From the time the infighting began in April until the Syrian army's successful campaign last week, popular protests demanding reconciliation, and high-level mediation efforts by local notables, repeatedly failed. The brigades escalated their violence and rhetoric even as they put forward two short-lived truce initiatives.

    The result was that rivals JAI and FAR pulled hundreds of soldiers away from the front lines and sent them instead to fight in their internal squabble, leaving civilians to fend for themselves as Assad's army attacked, an unnamed rebel commander was quoted by pro-opposition Orient News as saying. His account was consistent with what civilians in Ghouta said over messaging apps, and with other media reports

    "The brigades pulled out before civilians did, who picked up weapons to stop the regime's attacks," said a resident of Deir al-Asafir, south of Ghouta, who gave his name as Abu Ali. 

    Routed by Assad's army and faced with popular discontent, the feuding rebels announced a prisoner exchange over the weekend as a good faith de-escalation gesture. Residents took matters into their own hands last Friday and organized protests demanding that local rebels unite and turn their attention towards advancing Syrian army forces, according to Enab Baladi. 

    "The brigades are responsible for the loss of the latest areas," said Abu Ali. "I guarantee that if they returned to cooperative military work, they could recapture what they lost."

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    Photos of US soldiers wearing patches from the Kurdish People's Protection Unit, or YPG, as they fight the Islamic State alongside Kurds in Syria have reignited the debate over Washington's support for the group, with some calling the patches "politically tone deaf" and others insisting it is "perfectly normal."

    The YPG has proved to be the most effective ground force fighting the Islamic State, the militant group also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh, in northern Syria. But the territorial expansion the YPG's victories have afforded it is vehemently opposed by Turkey, an important US ally and NATO member.

    Ankara views Kurdish demands for autonomy as a threat to Turkey's sovereignty and backs many of the rebel groups that have clashed with the YPG. Turkey has also linked the YPG to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a designated terrorist organization that is waging an insurgency in Turkey's southeast.

    As such, some analysts wonder whether the Americans' show of solidarity with the Kurds will further inflame tensions between the US and Turkey.

    As one Kurdish activist asked on Twitter, "How will Erdogan react?"

    Charles Lister, a Syria expert and senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said it was "absolutely remarkable seeing US special forces personnel wearing YPG patches in the northern Raqqa operation."

    "The US National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) labeled the YPG the Syria wing of the 'designated' PKK in 2014," he added.

    Michael Weiss, a Middle East analyst and coauthor of "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror," noted on Twitter that the image on the YPG patch appeared to derive from the original PKK flag.

    Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, tweeted that the photos were "politically tone-deaf and counterproductive in this context." He was most likely referring not only to the US-Turkey relationship but also to the tension between Kurdish forces and Syrian Arab rebel groups associated with the Free Syrian Army.

    syrian kurds ypgMutual distrust continues to cast a shadow over the Kurdish-Arab relationship in northern Syria, even as the Obama administration has tried to bring Arab and Kurdish forces together via the Syrian Democratic Forces to fight the Islamic State.

    FSA rebels were reportedly enraged, for example, when they learned that the US's top military commander, Gen. Joseph Votel, visited Kurdish commanders in northern Syria last weekend to discuss the Kurdish-dominated SDF's plans to retake territory from ISIS.

    Many FSA groups don't trust the Kurds, who wish to carve out an autonomous region in northern Syria known as Rojava, and are wary of US support for them.

    “The Arab fighters [in the SDF] are just camouflage,"Gen. Salim Idris, the former FSA chief of staff, told Voice of America on Monday. "The SDF is the YPG, which collaborates with anyone — Assad, the Russians, the Americans — when it suits its purposes."

    He added: "I really don't think the Obama administration has thought this through. Will the Kurds give up Arab towns they capture?"

    Kurdish members of the Self-Defense Forces stand near the Syrian-Turkish border in the Syrian city of al-Derbasiyah during a protest against the operations launched in Turkey by government security forces against the Kurds, February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said Some analysts worry that photos of US soldiers showing solidarity with the Kurds by wearing YPG patches will infuriate FSA rebels — and Turkey — even further.

    But Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a field researcher for the Iraqi Institute for Strategic Studies and a journalist based in the region, said the practice was "quite normal."

    "They do it out of respect for the local forces they are working with," van Wilgenburg told Business Insider on Thursday. "It's the same with coalition soldiers in Iraqi Kurdistan. I have seen them with Kurdish flags, or patches of different peshmerga forces (like the Zerevani)."

    He added: "It has nothing to do with politics. They are fighting together as a 'band of brothers' against the Islamic state, so it's quite normal."

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    A video released by the Italian navy's official website appears to show the moment a migrant boat carrying hundreds of people capsized off the coast of Libya.

    At least 20 people are believed to have died as a result, according to the Associated Press, while 88 others have been rescued. More than 7,000 migrants have been rescued by the Italian coastguard since Monday, Reuters reported, with around 900 rescued in seven different coastguard operations on Thursday alone. 

    "Capsizing scary & deadly," Christopher Miller, a former Mashable reporter, said on Twitter. "As the [Migrant Offshore Aid Station] put it when I was embedded: 'When those boats flip, you can kiss anyone below deck goodbye.'"

    Europe's refugee crisis

    Syria's brutal, five-year civil war has spawned the largest refugee crisis Europe has seen since World War II. This year alone, as many as 37,700 refugees have made the dangerous journey across across the Mediterranean from the Middle East and North Africa to Italy. In 2015200,000 refugees landed in Greece and 110,000 more arrived in Italy.

    The Mediterranean Sea continues to be the deadliest route for refugees and migrants, according to the UN's refugee agency. As of December 2015, more than 3,770 people had drowned trying to cross. 

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    iraq

    GENEVA (Reuters) - More than 4,200 Iraqis from Mosul fled to Syria in May, the United Nations refugee agency said on Friday, adding it is gearing up for up to 50,000 people to leave the Islamic State-held city and cross the border.

    Driving the exodus appear to be reports that IS militants have stepped up executions of men and boys in Falluja since Iraqi government forces launched an offensive to re-take the city, where people are also dying of starvation, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.

    The Iraqi army launched an offensive on Monday to dislodge the ultra-hardline Sunni militants from Falluja, 50 km (32 miles) west of Baghdad. Falluja was the first Iraqi city to fall under Islamic State control, in January 2014, and has been under a tight siege for about six months. Iraqi forces, with help from a U.S.-led coalition, are expected to push later this year to retake Mosul, Islamic State's de facto capital in Iraq.

    "We’ve seen actually a spike in the numbers of Iraqi refugees who are risking the dangerous crossing into Syria in a desperate bid. Just picture this, we have refugees fleeing to Syria. So it’s a desperate bid to escape (IS)-held Mosul," UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said.

    "The reasons for that are the pending battle to re-take it (Mosul). They, I’m sure, hear what’s going on in Falluja and want to leave before they too are trapped. But also there is fighting in the surrounding areas that is driving people to leave."

    iraqThe 4,266 Iraqi refugees from Mosul, who walked for several days through extremist-held territory into Kurdish-held Hasaka province, "are living now in relative safety, if you can say that for Syria", in al-Hol camp about 14 kms from the Iraqi border, Fleming said.

    "Right now it’s a bit over 4,000 but it is in anticipation of 50,000. There are contingencies for potential numbers who could be coming in ... They don’t have many other options of places to flee in that region, so we’re getting ready."

    The UNHCR has begun a five-day air lift to bring aid supplies from Jordan to Qamishly, where it will be loaded on trucks for distribution to Iraqi refugees and internally displaced Syrians.

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    ypg flagPhotos of US troops wearing patches from the Kurdish People's Protection Unit, known as the YPG, while fighting the Islamic State alongside Kurds in Syria have raised questions about how close US soldiers are to the war's frontlines.

    The photos, taken by Delil Souleiman for Agence France-Presse, have also enraged Turkey and reignited the debate over Washington's support for the YPG, with some calling the patches "politically tone deaf" and others insisting it is "perfectly normal."

    In a blog post for AFP, Souleiman described the photos as the product of a "chance encounter"in the northern Syrian village of Fatisah, which had just been captured from ISIS by the US-backed, YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

    "Armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, the strangers pulled up in pick-up trucks," Souleiman wrote. "They stood out right away. Most didn’t look like they came from the region and they spoke English between them, with that distinctive Yankee drawl. A dead giveaway."

    About 250 US special-operations troops were sent to northern Syria earlier this year to advise Kurdish and Arab forces battling ISIS there. The US has insisted that the forces are not on the frontlines, but Souleiman's photos and recollection of the incident seem to contradict that assertion.

    The US soldiers have "never been photographed in Syria before," Souleiman wrote. "And here I was, actually seeing them in the flesh and near the frontline."

    He continued:

    They don’t prevent me from taking pictures. They don’t seem to think that a photographer here is something bizarre. Some have a patch of them American flag on their sleeves. Others have the patch of a Kurdish People’s Defence Units (YPG). Still others of a women’s unit within the YPG. I wonder why, but don’t dare to go up and ask.

    ypj patch

    Souleiman went on to describe how comfortable the US soldiers seemed to be with having their photos taken, though they requested that the photos not show their faces. He recalled passing another group of US forces on his way to a training camp outside Fatisah, which is about 30 miles north of ISIS' de facto capital, Raqqa.

    The SDF began its offensive on Raqqa earlier this week, evidently with the close help of US special-operations forces.

    The YPG has proved to be the most effective ground force fighting ISIS, but the territorial expansion the YPG's victories have afforded it is vehemently opposed by Turkey, an important US ally and NATO member.

    Indeed, the photos have enraged Turkey's foreign minister, who on Friday called them "unacceptable."

    "It is unacceptable that an ally country is using the YPG insignia," the foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said, according to the Turkish daily newspaper Hurriyet. "We reacted to it. It is impossible to accept it. This is a double standard and hypocrisy."

    Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters in a press briefing on Thursday that the "special-operations forces, when they operate in certain areas, do what they can to blend in with the community to enhance their own protection, their own security."

    He would not comment on the specific photos but added that the troops were most likely just being "supportive of that local force [YPG] in their advice and assist role."

    But in a press conference on Friday, the spokesman for the US-led anti-ISIS Operation Inherent Resolve told reporters that the soldiers had been instructed to take the patches off. 

    "Wearing those YPG patches was unauthorized and was inappropriate. Corrective action has been taken," Colonel Steve Warren said from Baghdad, adding that it was important for US forces to consider the "larger strategic context" and "political sensitivities" with NATO ally Turkey.

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    Syria

    BEIRUT (AP) — Militants of the Islamic State group on Friday seized a string of villages from Syrian rebels near the Turkish border in rapid advances that forced the evacuation of a hospital and trapped tens of thousands of people amid heavy fighting, Syrian opposition activists and an international medical organization said.

    The advances in the northern Aleppo province brought the militants to within three 3 kilometers (2 miles) of the rebel-held town of Azaz and cut off supplies to Marea further south, another rebel stronghold north of Aleppo city.

    They also demonstrated the Islamic State group's ability to stage major offensives and capture new areas, despite a string of recent losses in Syria and Iraq.

    The IS offensive began Thursday night. By Friday, the group had captured six villages east of Azaz including Kaljibrin, cutting off rebels in Marea from the Azaz pocket.

    The rebels in the area — which include mainstream opposition fighters known as the Free Syrian Army along with some ultraconservative Islamic insurgent factions — have been squeezed between IS to the east and predominantly Kurdish forces to the west and south, while Turkey restricts the flow of goods and people through the border.

    The IS news agency, Aamaq, also reported the advance, saying the Islamic State group seized six villages from the rebels.

    The humanitarian medical organization Doctors Without Borders said its team is currently evacuating patients and staff from the Al Salama hospital, which it runs in Azaz, after the frontline shifted to within three kilometers (2 miles) from the facility.

    The group, known by its French acronym MSF, said a small skeleton team will remain behind to stabilize and refer patients to other health facilities in the area.

    "MSF has had to evacuate most patients and staff from our hospital as front lines have come too close," said Pablo Marco, MSF operations manager for the Middle East. "We are terribly concerned about the fate of our hospital and our patients, and about the estimated 100,000 people trapped between the Turkish border and active front lines.

    "There is nowhere for people to flee to as the fighting gets closer," he said.

    syria azazAzaz, which hosts tens of thousands of internally displaced people, lies north of Aleppo city, which has been divided between a rebel-held east and government-held west.

    A route known as the Azaz corridor links rebel-held eastern Aleppo with Turkey. That has been a lifeline for the rebels since 2012, but a government offensive backed by Russian air power and regional militias earlier this year dislodged rebels from parts of Azaz and severed their corridor between the Turkish border and Aleppo.

    The predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who are fighting for their autonomy in the multilayered conflict, also gained ground against the rebels.

    In recent months, Syrian rebel factions in Azaz have separately come under fire from the extremist IS group, pro-government forces and the SDF.

    Democratic Forces Syria FightersMSF and other aid organizations warned earlier this month that the humanitarian situation for over 100,000 people trapped in the Azaz rebel-held pocket was critical.

    On Thursday, Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. envoy for Syria, said he plans for a resumption of peace talks "as soon as feasible" between the government and opposition but that he set no new date and expects that it will "certainly not" come within the next two to three weeks, his office said.

    The lack of a firm date for negotiations testifies to continued violence in Syria and difficulties for U.N. efforts to ship humanitarian aid to beleaguered Syrians as fighting rages between President Bashar Assad's troops and their allies and rebel fighters. The talks were suspended last month with little to no progress

    Also Friday, the U.N. refugee agency reported a "spike" in the number of Iraqis trying to flee into Syria to escape the Iraqi city of Mosul, which is controlled by the Islamic State group.

    UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said: "Just picture this: we have refugees fleeing to Syria"— now in its sixth year of civil war.

    The agency says that nearly 4,300 people arrived at al-Hol camp in Syria's northeastern Hasakah governorate in May.

    UNHCR on Thursday began airlifting tents, blankets, mattresses and other items to the Hasakah city of Qamishli in hopes of helping up to 50,000 people.

    The Iraqi government in March announced a highly publicized plan to retake Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. But only a handful of nearby villages have been captured since then.

    ___

    Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.

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    This undated photo provided by the U.S. Attorney's Office shows Mohamed Roble. According to court testimony in a federal terrorism trial, Roble, who was one of 52 passengers that survived when the school bus they were on plummeted more than 30 feet after the Aug. 1, 2007, Minneapolis bridge collapse, is now believed to be in Syria with the Islamic State group. U.S. Attorney's Office via AP)

    Mohamed Roble was weeks shy of his 11th birthday when the school bus he was on plummeted more than 30 feet as the bridge beneath gave way.

    Now, according to court testimony in a federal terrorism trial, Roble — one of the 145 people injured in the Minneapolis bridge collapse that killed 13 people — is believed to be in Syria with the Islamic State group.

    Roble and four of his siblings were on the bus that was carrying 52 students and several adults when the Interstate 35W span collapsed on Aug. 1, 2007, sending shockwaves nationwide about the safety of the country's infrastructure. All of the occupants of their bus survived.

    His injuries included headaches, arm, neck and back pain, nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder, records show. One letter from a therapist said Roble "seems the most traumatized of all the siblings" and "he worked on his spiritual belief that 'God had saved him for a purpose.'"

    For his injuries, a 2009 state court order says, Roble was due to receive a lump sum payment of $65,431.22 on his 18th birthday — roughly a month and a half before federal prosecutors say he left the U.S. for Istanbul, Turkey.

    Roble's name surfaced in federal court last week during the trial of three Minnesota men accused of conspiring to travel to Syria to join the IS group. Testimony has suggested that at least some of the men in the group knew Roble had money and asked him to fund their own trips. One man believed Roble had gone to Syria with thousands of dollars and used it to pay for weddings for fighters and cars.

    The bridge collapse was not mentioned during the trial. The Associated Press made the connection using state court records to trace the bridge collapse victim to a Minneapolis high school, then matched the victim's yearbook picture to a photo the government has provided of the young man believed to be in Syria. A handful of people who knew the family also confirmed the match.

    Working phone numbers and current addresses for Roble's family members were not available and they could not be reached for comment. The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment beyond what was said in court.

    According to evidence presented in federal court last week, Roble flew to Istanbul in October 2014 as part of an itinerary that included a trip to China. He was due to return to the U.S. in June 2015, but never did, FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force Officer Joel Pajak testified.

    "We received information that Mr. Roble ended up in Syria with his uncle, Abdi Nur," Pajak testified.

    Nur is among 10 men charged in the case and is believed to be fighting with the Islamic State group; six others have pleaded guilty, and testimony in the trial of the other three wrapped up on Friday.

    Prosecutors say the men were part of a group of friends who recruited and inspired each other to join the Islamic State group. Roble has not been charged, but prosecutors included his picture in a court exhibit that contains the photos of 16 men who authorities say joined or conspired to join militant groups in Syria and Somalia.

    The FBI has said that roughly a dozen young men have left Minnesota to join militant groups in Syria in recent years.

    Little has been revealed about Roble, but testimony suggests at least some of the men knew he had money. One witness, FBI informant Abdirahman Bashir, testified that in the fall of 2014 some group members asked Roble if he could finance their own trips.

    "We all knew that he had money, and we were asking him if he could give us some money for travel and he said yes," Bashir testified. Under questioning from Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Winter, Bashir added that Roble "had a lot of money from an accident before, and got a settlement."

    "Some kind of insurance settlement?" Winter asked.

    "Yes," Bashir said.

    minneapolis bridge collapseIt isn't clear whether Roble actually funded trips for potential travelers, and evidence so far suggests he did not. Bashir's testimony showed the men struggled to find ways to finance their own travel.

    But in one secretly recorded conversation played for jurors, defendant Guled Omar told Bashir that Roble took thousands of dollars to Syria and was passing out money like "candy." In that conversation, Omar said Roble used the money in Syria to finance weddings and cars for fighters.

    The men also used a Skype account to communicate with Roble and Nur abroad, according to testimony.

    Another witness in the case testified that Roble's social media accounts contained images of guns, other fighters and posts about how Roble felt blessed to be in "sham"— a term for a territory that includes Syria.

    Wilbur Fluegel, the attorney who represented Roble in the bridge collapse litigation, said he doesn't know what Roble has been doing, saying he last worked with him in 2009. Fluegel could not reveal how much money Roble has received, citing confidentiality clauses.

    But in that 2009 order, a judge approved a $53,500 settlement from the state of Minnesota to be invested in an annuity to pay Roble a lump sum of $65,431.22 on his 18th birthday. It was unclear if Roble collected all of the money, but he would have had access to the account and control of the funds. Roble was also listed as a plaintiff in two other lawsuits stemming from the bridge collapse, but the outcomes of those are confidential.

    Records show Roble's parents believed he was having a hard time dealing with the disaster, and that he did not follow through with counseling. Records from an initial session show Roble met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder and "believes he is a jinx, and that there is something wrong with him."

    ___

    Associated Press Writer Steve Karnowski contributed to this report from Minneapolis.

     

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    Japanese journalist Jumpei Yasuda, who is seen in this photo sent by e-mail to a Kyodo News photographer on June 23, 2015 before Yasuda's departure to Syria, with the message reading,

    TOKYO (Reuters) - The Japanese government said on Monday it was doing all it could to secure the release of a Japanese journalist being held hostage by an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, after an apparent photograph of the man was posted on the internet.

    The photograph, apparently uploaded to the Internet late on Sunday, showed a bearded man dressed in orange holding a hand-written sign in Japanese.

    "Please help me. This is my last chance," said the sign, written in shaky characters and signed "Jumpei Yasuda."

    Yasuda's plight came to attention in March, when a video surfaced showing him reading a message to his country and his family. Japanese media said he was capture by a group called Nusra Front after entering Syria from Turkey last June.

    Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said the government was analyzing the new photo and believed it was Yasuda, while Chief Cabinet Spokesman Yoshihide Suga said the government was doing what it could.

    "Since preserving the safety of Japanese citizens is our most important duty, we are making use of a broad net of information and doing everything we can to respond," Suga told a news conference.

    Asked if this meant contacting the Nusra Front, Suga said "that sort of thing was included" but declined to give further details.

    Early in 2015, the Islamic State militant group beheaded two Japanese nationals - a self-styled security consultant and a veteran war reporter. The gruesome executions captured the attention of Japan but the government said at the time it would not negotiate with the militants for their release.

    Yasuda, a freelance journalist since 2003, was held in Baghdad in 2004 and drew criticism for drawing the Japanese government into negotiations for his release.

    In December, media freedom organization Reporters Without Borders retracted and apologized for a report it had issued that said Yasuda had been threatened with execution in Syria. The government said at the time it was seeking information.

    (Reporting by Kaori Kaneko, writing by Elaine Lies; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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    fallujah iraq isis

    The Iraqi army stormed to the southern edge of Fallujah under US air support on Monday and captured a police station inside the city limits, launching a direct assault to retake one of the main strongholds of Islamic State militants.

    A Reuters TV crew about a mile (about 1.5 km) from the city's edge said explosions and gunfire were ripping through Naimiya, a largely rural district of Fallujah on its southern outskirts.

    An elite military unit, the Rapid Response Team, seized the district's police station at midday, state TV reported.

    The unit advanced another mile northward, stopping about 500 meters (yards) from the al-Shuhada district, the southeastern part of city's main built-up area, army officers said.

    The battle for Fallujah is shaping up to be one of the biggest ever fought against Islamic State, in the city where US forces waged the heaviest battles of their 2003-2011 occupation against the Sunni Muslim militant group's precursors.

    Fallujah is Islamic State's closest bastion to Baghdad, and believed to be the base from which the group has plotted an escalating campaign of suicide bombings against Shi'ite civilians and government targets inside the capital.

    As government forces pressed their onslaught, suicide bombers driving a car and a motorcycle blew themselves up in the capital. Along with another bomb planted in a car, they killed more than 20 people and injured more than 50 in three districts of Baghdad, police and medical sources said.

    Separately, Kurdish security forces announced advances against Islamic State in northernIraq, capturing villages from militants outside Mosul, the biggest city under militant control.

    isis syria iraq map

    The Iraqi army launched its operation to recover Fallujah a week ago, first by tightening a six-month-old siege around the city 50 km (30 miles) west of Baghdad.

    Fallujah, in the heartland of Sunni Muslim tribes who resent the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad, was the first Iraqi city to fall to Islamic State in January 2014. Months later, the group overran wide areas of the north and west of Iraq, declaring a caliphate including parts of neighboring Syria.

    On Monday, army units were "steadily advancing" to Fallujah's southern outskirts under air cover from a US-led coalition helping to fight against the militants, according to a military statement read out on state TV.

    A Shi'ite militia coalition known as Popular Mobilisation, or Hashid Shaabi, was seeking to consolidate the siege by dislodging militants from Saqlawiya, a village just to the north of Fallujah.

    The militias, who took the lead in assaults against Islamic State in other parts of Iraq last year, have pledged not to take part in the assault on the mainly Sunni Muslim city itself to avoid aggravating sectarian strife.

    Between 500 and 700 militants are in Fallujah, according to a US military estimate. The US-led coalition conducted three air strikes near Fallujah over the past 24 hours, destroying fighting positions, vehicles, tunnel entrances and denying the militants access to terrain, it said in a statement. 

    ISLAMIST MILITANT STRONGHOLD

    Members of Iraq's Shi'ite paramilitaries launch a rocket towards Islamic State militants in the outskirts of the city of Falluja, in the province of Anbar, Iraq July 12, 2015.  REUTERS/Stringer

    Fallujah has been a bastion of the Sunni insurgency that fought both the US occupation ofIraq and the Shi'ite-led Baghdad government that took over after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, in 2003.

    American troops suffered some of their worst losses of the war in two battles in 2004 to wrest Fallujah back from Al Qaeda in Iraq, the insurgent group now known as Islamic State.

    The latest offensive is causing alarm among international aid organizations over the humanitarian situation in the city, where more than 50,000 civilians remain trapped with limited access to water, food and health care.

    Fallujah is the second-largest Iraqi city still under control of the militants, after Mosul, their de facto capital in the north that had a pre-war population of about 2 million.

    It would be the third major city in Iraq recaptured by the government after Saddam's home town Tikrit and Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's vast western Anbar province.

    Iraq Ramadi ISIS Islamic State

    Fallujah is also in Anbar, located between Ramadi and Baghdad, and capturing it would give the government control of the major population centers of the Euphrates River valley west of the capital for the first time in more than two years.

    On the northern front, the security forces of the autonomous Kurdish region launched an attack on Sunday to oust Islamist militants from villages about 20 km (13 miles) east of Mosul so as to increase the pressure on Islamic State and pave the way for storming that city.

    The Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, have retaken six villages in total since attacking Islamic State positions on Sunday with the support of the US-led coalition, the Kurdistan Region Security Council said on Monday. That represents most of the targets of their latest advance.

    Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi hopes to recapture Mosul later this year to deal a decisive defeat to Islamic State.

    Abadi announced the onslaught on Fallujah on May 22 after a spate of bombings that killed more than 150 people in one week in Baghdad, the worst death toll so far this year. The worsening security in the capital has added to political pressure on Abadi, struggling to maintain the support of a Shi'ite coalition amid popular protests against an entrenched political class.

    Monday's bombings targeted two densely populated Shi'ite districts, Shaab and Sadr City, and a government building in one predominantly Sunni suburb, Tarmiya, north of Baghdad.

    Baghdad, Iraq

    A car bomb in Shaab killed 12 people and injured more than 20, while in Tarmiya eight were killed and 21 injured by a suicide bomber who pulled up in a car outside a government building guarded by police. In Sadr City, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle killed three people and injured nine.

    The battle of Fallujah is helping Abadi refocus the attention of Iraq's unruly political parties on the war against Islamic State, so as to defuse popular unrest prompted by delays in a planned reshuffle of the cabinet to help root out corruption.

    In a speech to parliament on Sunday, he called on political groups to "put on hold their differences until the military operations are over."

    Washington says Islamic State's territory is steadily being rolled back both in Iraq and in Syria, where it has lost ground to US-backed, mainly Kurdish insurgents in the north and to the Russian-backed forces of President Bashar al-Assad.

     

    (Additional reporting by Saif Hameed and Kareem Raheem in Baghdad; Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Peter Graff)

    SEE ALSO: Japan has put its military on alert for a possible North Korea missile launch

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    Idlib Syria Air Strike

    MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia on Tuesday denied its planes had conducted air strikes overnight against the Syrian rebel-held city of Idlib, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said had killed 23 people.

    "Russian planes did not carry out any combat missions, to say nothing of any air strikes, in the province of Idlib," Igor Konashenkov, a Russian Defence Ministry spokesman, said in a statement.

    The Observatory had earlier said the air strikes targeted a number of positions in the city, one of them next to a hospital. Seven children were among the dead, Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman said.

    The Turkish foreign ministry said the strikes had killed more than 60 civilians and complained in a statement about what it said were the "indefensible" crimes of the Russian and Syrian governments.

    Konashenkov called the Observatory's allegations "a horror story" of the kind he said it had disseminated in the past and said such pronouncements should be regarded with greater scepticism.

    Idlib is a stronghold of rebel groups including the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

    (Reporting by Maria Kiselyova; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov/Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe)

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    crimea annexed russian vehicle

    Since Russia's illegal seizure and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine on March 18, 2014, six countries have come out in support of Moscow.

    And in any other circumstance, the support Russia has received would be enough to make politicians blush.

    The following map from the spokesman for the US Embassy in Russia shows the six nations, in addition to Russia, that have supported the Crimean annexation.

    Those countries are Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria, Afghanistan, and North Korea. Each nation is generally considered a rogue or a teetering state with deep historical roots connecting it to Russia and the former Soviet Union.

    Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela have maintained close military and economic ties to Moscow.

    Gen. John Kelly, former head of the US Southern Command, said on March 12, 2015:

    Russia is using power projection in an attempt to erode U.S. leadership and challenge U.S. influence in the Western Hemisphere ... Russia has courted Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua to gain access to air bases and ports for resupply of Russian naval assets and strategic bombers operating in the Western Hemisphere.

    Syria, meanwhile, has been in a state of civil war since 2011. The regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has stayed in power in large part because of arms transfers and joint military operations with Russia.

    Russia, likewise, has played a role in shielding North Korea from the international community. Earlier in May, Moscow blocked a statement from the UN Security Council against North Korea over its missile tests. The relationship between Moscow and Pyongyang is likely to continue to grow as Russia seeks to challenge US policy abroad and as China increasingly grows frustrated with the rogue nation.

    Afghanistan's support of the annexation is the most surprising. Only a generation ago, the Soviet Union was brutally occupying Afghanistan, and the US military and NATO are still present in the country now. But Afghanistan announced its support of the Crimean annexation in 2014 under then President Hamid Karzai.

    Karzai, toward the end of his presidency, increasingly sought to distance Afghanistan from the West. His support of the Crimean annexation was likely an attempt to differentiate Kabul from Washington.

    SEE ALSO: Putin just made a major change to Russian law enforcement

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    As the current presidential nominees jockey to take the reins of America's highest office, the current commander in chief passed a somber milestone earlier this month.

    Since President Barack Obama's ascension to office, his administration has been at war longer than that of any other US president.

    The milestone comes after Obama, from the time he entered office, had pledged to end what has become America's longest war.

    The conflict in Afghanistan has been ongoing since 2001.

    The Vietnam War lasted a little more than 10 years, while the Iraq War took nearly eight years.

    Perhaps pointing a rebuking finger toward Obama's policies would be impetuous: The US's asymmetric wars are no longer fought in glorified Hollywood fashion with a readily identifiable enemy.

    Instead, they can be more "difficult," in that it has become a game of patience and strategy.

    As technology has advanced the capabilities of US forces, so has the ability of enemy forces to meet these upgrades with effective, cheap, and readily available weapons of destruction.

    It can also be debated that because Obama inherited a war on such a massive scale, it would have been difficult to fully withdraw and successfully close out such a war during his administration, if at all. Compared with the 200,000 troops who were stationed in the two countries, the 13,000 who are now in the area represents a figure that can be used as a measurement of success.

    On the other side of the aisle, critics say he has failed to effectively curb the conflicts, perhaps even damaging the nation's ability to fight. The definition of "war" can also be fluid and easily manipulated, as in the case of the current campaigns: As Operation Enduring Freedom officially came to an end, the ongoing Operation Freedom's Sentinel took the helm the very next day. In addition, as the Pentagon has withdrawn its forces over the years, it has actually agreed to increase the use of nontraditional fighting tools, such as drones.

    With plans on sending an additional 250 Special Operations troops to Syria, Obama may be fanning the flames of his legacy or in fact adding fuel for his critics.

    SEE ALSO: 44 iconic images of Barack Obama's tenure as president

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    SDF

    Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, the anti-ISIS citizen-journalist organization, said last week that the US's strategy to drive the Islamic State out of its de facto capital using a Kurdish-dominated brigade risks pushing "a lot of people" inside Raqqa to join the Sunni militant group.

    The US-backed, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been taking back villages within Syria's Raqqa Province as it pushes toward the city of Raqqa, which fell to ISIS in mid-2014.

    The SDF's Kurdish fighters have said that they don't plan on entering the city itself. But Washington's support for the SDF — led by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) — has still unnerved some Syrian Arabs who are suspicious of the Kurds' territorial ambitions and wary of their ties to Russia.

    "The Arab fighters are just camouflage," Gen. Salim Idris, the former Free Syrian Army chief of staff, told Voice of America earlier this month. "The SDF is the YPG, which collaborates with anyone — Assad, the Russians, the Americans — when it suits its purposes."

    He added: "I really don't think the Obama administration has thought this through. Will the Kurds give up Arab towns they capture?"

    Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RSS), a citizen-journalist organization founded in 2014 to expose ISIS's brutality and human-rights abuses, went even further by claiming that a Kurdish-led offensive on Sunni-dominated Raqqa would push citizens there to join ISIS, a Sunni extremist group.

    "The fact that a US-backed group is criticising the role of the Pentagon-backed YPG against a group that killed some of its colleagues is remarkable," Syrian journalist Hassan Hassan, coauthor of "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,"wrote in the Financial Times.

    Several members of RSS have been executed by ISIS militants inside Syria and Turkey since 2014.

    RSS did not provide any evidence to back up its claim that an SDF offensive might lead Sunnis in Raqqa to join ISIS to defend the city. But the ethnic tensions that do exist between Syria's Sunni Arabs and Kurds at least offer ISIS "an opportunity to present itself as a custodian" of Sunnis in the cities the group has conquered.

    The US faces a similar dilemma in Iraq, where ISIS has positioned itself — however disingenuously — as a Sunni alternative to Shiite rule.

    sdf

    Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters have a long history of mutual distrust that peaked between 2012 and 2013, when the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) battled FSA-aligned rebel groups for control over the Syrian city of Ras al-Ayn.

    Those tensions have reemerged over the past eight months. The YPG-controlled neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsood has come under siege by Syrian-government forces and the rebels, with reports emerging that the rebels have committed war crimes against the neighborhood's Kurds, and rebels further north alleging that the Kurds have terrorized Arab civilians and forced them out of their homes.

    The rivalry has put the US in a difficult position. The YPG has proved to be the most effective force fighting ISIS on the ground in northern Syria, but the territorial expansion their victories have afforded them has fostered resentment among the country's Arab population — and, in northwestern Syria, has left the rebels caught between the SDF and ISIS.

    syria

    Americans "just don't trust the Arabs," a Syrian Arab figure told the Financial Times last week. "They say, 'we will look into it, we will do our best.' A lot of 'we wills.' But their actions show that the core they are creating will always be Kurdish."

    Washington has struggled to recruit enough Arab soldiers willing to fight alongside the Kurds to liberate cities from ISIS.

    Most are either too distrustful of the Kurds to work with them or want to focus on battling forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Photos that emerged last week of US troops wearing YPG patches while fighting ISIS in northern Syria — and a visit by the US's top military commander to Kurdish troops earlier this month — have not helped, either.

    "People here understand that America wants the area to fall to Daesh, so it can then destroy Azaz on top of Daesh and these terrorist PKK can advance and take the area," Yasser Abu Omar, a cleric based in the Syrian border city of Azaz, told Vice News last week.

    The PKK is a Kurdish militant group with ties to the YPG.

    Syria

    Other groups, meanwhile, "would probably like to rise up against the Islamic State, but they don't see that as a viable option," Syria expert Aron Lund, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Military Times in January. "If the US is able to bring a force to the region of Arabs and Kurds and others, with an air of inevitability, then maybe that calculus would change."

    Hassan, for his part, was not as optimistic about the US's ability to foment unity within a conflict he and others have characterized as "nakedly sectarian."

    "With this campaign, backed by groups abhorred by residents of the two cities"— Raqqa and Mosul — the US "seems to have privileged a tactical victory against ISIS over a strategic one," Hassan wrote.

    He added: "It looks likely to provide ISIS with a gift it has long wanted, especially in Syria: creating for ordinary people the perception that their choice is between its own jihadis and militias they see as invaders."

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    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Thousands of U.S.-backed fighters in Syria are launching an offensive to capture from Islamic State a crucial swathe of northern Syria known as the Manbij pocket following weeks of quiet preparations, U.S. officials disclosed to Reuters.

    The operation, which only just started to get underway on Tuesday and could take weeks to complete, aims to choke off Islamic State's access to Syrian territory along the Turkish border that militants have long used as a logistics base for moving foreign fighters back and forth to Europe.

    "It's significant in that it's their last remaining funnel" to Europe, a U.S. military official said.

    U.S.-backed Syrian fighters advanced against Islamic State in the last tract of territory the group holds near the Turkish border on Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

    A small number of U.S. special operations forces will support the offensive on the ground, acting as advisors and staying some distance back from the front lines, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss military planning.

    "They'll be as close as they need to be for the (Syrian fighters) to complete the operation. But they will not engage in direct combat," the official said.

    The operation will also count on support from U.S.-led coalition air strikes as well as from ground-based firing positions across the border in Turkey.

    Perhaps essential for NATO ally Turkey, the operation will be overwhelmingly comprised of Syrian Arabs instead of forces with the Kurdish YPG militia, who will only represent about a fifth or a sixth of the overall force, the officials said.

    Ankara considers the Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters to be terrorists and has been enraged by U.S. backing for the militia in its battle with Islamic State in Syria.

    The British-based Observatory said the Kurdish YPG militia made up the majority of forces involved in the attack, contradicting U.S. officials who said the operation would be mostly comprised of Syrian Arab fighters.

    "The majority are from (YPG), and the operation is basically a YPG operation," Abdulrahman told Reuters.

    The Observatory said the assault was being carried out by the Syria Democratic Forces, an alliance that includes the Kurdish YPG and Arab fighting groups.

    Washington supports the SDF, which was formed in October, has been fighting Islamic State in neighboring Raqqa province and farther east in Hasaka.

    The YPG has been the most effective ally on the ground for U.S.-led air strikes against IS, and last year captured large areas from it in Hasaka province.

    ISIS map

    YPG to withdraw

    Turkey has been alarmed by advances by Kurdish forces along its border and opposed the idea of YPG fighters taking control of the Manbij pocket. The Kurdish YPG militia already controls an uninterrupted 400 km (250 mile) stretch the border.

    The officials told Reuters, however, the YPG will only fight to help clear Islamic State from the area around Manbij. Syrian Arab fighters would be the ones to stabilize and secure it once Islamic State is gone, according to the operational plans.

    "After they take Manbij, the agreement is the YPG will not be staying ... So you'll have Syrian Arabs occupying traditional Syrian Arab land," the official said, adding Turkey supported the offensive.

    The operation comes ahead of an eventual push by the U.S.-backed Syrian forces toward the city of Raqqa, the Islamic State's defacto capital in Syria and the prime objective in Syria for U.S. military planners.

    The U.S. military official said depriving Islamic State of the Manbij pocket would help further isolate the militants and further undermine their ability to funnel supplies to Raqqa.

    U.S. President Barack Obama has authorized about 300 U.S. special operations forces to operate on the ground from secret locations inside Syria to help coordinate with local forces to battle Islamic State there.

    In a reminder of the risks, one U.S. servicemember was injured north of Raqqa over the weekend, the Pentagon said.

    (Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Diane Craft, Reporting by Tom Perry and John Davison; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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    YPG

    WASHINGTON/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Thousands of U.S.-backed fighters opened a major new front in Syria's war, launching an offensive to drive Islamic State out of a swathe of northern Syria it uses as a logistics base, and were reported on Wednesday to be making rapid progress.

    The operation, which began on Tuesday after weeks of quiet preparations, aims to choke off the group's access to Syrian land along the Turkish border that the militants have long used to move foreign fighters back and forth to Europe.

    "It's significant in that it's their last remaining funnel" to Europe, a U.S. military official told Reuters.

    A small number of U.S. special operations forces will support the push on the ground, acting as advisers and staying some distance back from the front lines, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss military planning.

    "They'll be as close as they need to be for the (Syrian fighters) to complete the operation. But they will not engage in direct combat," the official said.

    The operation will also count on support from U.S.-led coalition air strikes as well as from ground-based firing positions across the border in Turkey.

    syriaAssault

    Driving Islamic State from its last remaining foothold at the Turkish border has been a top priority of the U.S.-led campaign against the group. The group controls around 80 km (50 miles) of the frontier stretching west from Jarablus.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said U.S.-led air strikes in support of the ground operation killed 15 civilians including three children near Manbij in the last 24 hours. The Observatory's reporting is based on an activist network in Syria.

    It said the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance, the force that is conducting the assault to capture the tract of land known as the Manbij pocket, had taken 16 villages and were at a distance of 15 km (9 miles) from Manbij town itself.

    The U.S. officials said the operation would be overwhelmingly comprised of Syrian Arabs instead of forces with the Kurdish YPG militia, who will only represent about a fifth or a sixth of the overall force.

    This is seen as important to NATO member Turkey, which has opposed any further expansion of Syrian Kurdish sway at the frontier.

    ISIS mapAnkara sees the Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters -- who already control an uninterrupted 400 km (250 mile) stretch of the border -- to be terrorists and has been enraged by U.S. backing for the militia in its battle with Islamic State in Syria.

    However, the Observatory said the Kurdish YPG militia made up the majority of the fighters taking part in the SDF assault.

    A U.S. official said Turkey supported the offensive. SDF and YPG officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

    The U.S. officials told Reuters the YPG would only fight to help clear Islamic State from the area around Manbij. Syrian Arab fighters would be the ones to stabilize and secure it once Islamic State is gone, according to the operational plans.

    Agreement

    "After they take Manbij, the agreement is the YPG will not be staying ... So you'll have Syrian Arabs occupying traditional Syrian Arab land," the official said.

    In Ankara, a Turkish military source said Turkey was not contributing to the operation. Ankara had been told by Washington about the push but could not back it because of the involvement of Kurdish YPG fighters and because it was beyond the range of artillery stationed in Turkey, the source said.

    Fighters of the Syria Democratic Forces fire a mortar shell towards positions held by Islamic State fighters in northern province of Raqqa, Syria May 27, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    The operation is happening ahead of an eventual push by the U.S.-backed Syrian forces toward the city of Raqqa, the Islamic State's defacto capital in Syria and the prime objective in Syria for U.S. military planners.

    The U.S. military official said depriving Islamic State of the Manbij pocket would help further isolate the militants and further undermine their ability to funnel supplies to Raqqa.

    U.S. President Barack Obama has authorized about 300 U.S. special operations forces to operate on the ground from secret locations inside Syria to help coordinate with local forces to battle Islamic State there.

    Risks

    In a reminder of the risks, one U.S. service member was injured north of Raqqa over the weekend, the Pentagon said.

    Syrian Kurdish groups have established their own government in northeastern Syria since 2011. Capturing the last remaining Islamic State foothold at the Turkish border would help them to link up with the area of Afrin, which is controlled by the same Kurdish groups in northwestern Syria.

    The YPG has been the most effective ally on the ground for U.S.-led air strikes against IS, and last year captured large areas from it in Hasaka province.

    The SDF alliance, including some Arab militias, was formed in October, since when it has led the campaign against IS with U.S. support.

    The SDF last week began attacks against Islamic State in areas north of Raqqa, but says the city was not a target of that operation.

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    Kurdish People's Protection Units syria

    US-backed forces are finally moving toward Raqqa, ISIS' de facto capital in Syria.

    But the plan to retake the city and surrounding areas from the militants is burdened by a potentially fatal flaw: The alliance that is leading the effort on the ground, the Syrian Democratic Forces, is dominated by Kurdish fighters with the People's Protection Units, also known as the YPG.

    Raqqa's population is mostly Arab, and residents of the city are wary of a Kurdish force potentially moving in to control it.

    "People don't want the SDF to control the city because in general most of the people of Raqqa are not welcoming the YPG," Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, an activist with the group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, told Business Insider.

    "They say, 'At least if we stay under ISIS control and we keep our mouths closed and don't do anything bad, at least we can stay in our homes.' If the YPG controls our city, we cannot go back," said Raqqawi, who uses a pseudonym.

    Raqqawi noted that the YPG had been accused of exiling Arabs from their homes in towns the Kurdish fighters had liberated from ISIS, which is also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh.

    But others say these concerns are overblown.

    "I was in Tal Abyad (part of Raqqa province) today and yesterday, and Arabs tell me a different story," Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an analyst with The Jamestown Foundation who has been traveling with Kurdish forces, told Business Insider.

    "According to people I spoke to," he added, "people of Raqqa don't care so much who liberates the city. As long as the city is not controlled by ISIS, and they'd rather have it as fast as possible."

    So far, the SDF is focusing on territory surrounding Raqqa rather than on the city itself.

    Before the alliance can move in on the city, however, it will need a proper contingent of Arab fighters. It's unclear where the appropriate number of fighters will come from or how long it will take to amass them, but the US recently dispatched special-operations forces to the area to recruit and train Arab fighters.

    But the SDF might be Kurdish-dominated by design, as Sam Heller, a writer and analyst on Syria, said on Twitter. He pointed out that the "Arab, Raqqa-native component of the SDF seems to be too small and fragmented" to retake the city and that the YPG wants to keep that Arab force small and under its tutelage.

    Raqqawi said Raqqa residents wanted fighters associated with the Free Syrian Army, a coalition group of rebels that aims to topple to government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

    "Most of the FSA is from the Syrian revolution," Raqqawi said.

    Raqqa residents want the FSA "to be part of this — they don't want foreigners to control them," he continued, adding that Raqqa residents wouldn't consider the city "liberated" if it were done at the hands of Kurdish fighters.

    "We can say 'controlling the city,'" Raqqawi said. "So people are saying, 'ISIS is controlling us,' or 'SDF is controlling us.' They are all foreigners, they are not from the city. People of Raqqa get tired of this."

    syria

    Ryan Crocker, a career US ambassador who has worked across the Middle East including as the ambassador to Syria, told Business Insider that involving Kurdish forces in an offensive against Raqqa would be "dangerously counterproductive."

    "Your average Sunni Arab would find it hard to choose between domination by Islamic State and domination by the Kurds," Crocker said. "The only way forward, in my view, is to increase a coherent, multifaceted effort to reach out to and work with the Sunni Arab forces that are not affiliated with Islamic State or with [Jabhat] al-Nusra," Al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria.

    He later added: "Islamic State isn't going to be defeated by the Kurds. As a matter of fact, the Kurds will be a pretty good recruiting tool for them."

    A Kurdish offensive on Raqqa could encourage some Sunni Arabs in the city to align with ISIS, which markets itself as a protector of Sunnis.

    "People are going to the side of ISIS because they are thinking, 'At least they are Sunni Arabs,'" Raqqawi said.

    Regardless of the ethnic and sectarian dynamics at play, the YPG have proved to be one of the most effective fighting forces against ISIS, and the US is short on other options for partnerships.

    Crocker suggested groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, but both have been associated with extremism.

    Still, "we need to rethink" working with them, Crocker said.

    "Neither of those two groups are going for a caliphate," he said, referring to the territory ISIS holds in Iraq and Syria. "Neither of them have a terror track record. Basically, I think the litmus test should be, if they'll work with us, we'll work with them."

    Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and an expert on Al Qaeda and its affiliates, cautioned against this kind of litmus test.

    "Both Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam are extremist organizations," he told Business Insider in an email. "Ahrar al-Sham's propaganda is openly jihadist. No one could possibly think it is anything but an extremist group."

    Joscelyn noted that Jaish al-Islam had cooperated with Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra at times as well.

    And regardless of whether it's officially affiliated with either group, Joscelyn said, "Jaish al-Islam advocates an extremist version of Sunni Islam and is not moderate in any reasonable sense of the word."

    SEE ALSO: The world's 2 biggest terror groups are gearing up to battle each other in Syria

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    F-15 Eagle

    Recent footage released by the Combined Joint Task Force's Operation Inherent Resolve shows a US-led coalition warplane destroying an ISIS weapons cache near the group's Syrian capital of Al-Raqqah on May 20.

    The footage shows a careful strike that waits for a vehicle to clear the area before leveling the building. Secondary explosions after the precision bomb hits indicate that the building was being used to store explosives.

    Syria map

    Currently, the US is backing the Syrian Democratic Forces to take back the Manbij pocket in northwestern Syria, and then to continue southwest toward Raqqah, where ISIS is most established.

    Watch the strike footage below:

    SEE ALSO: A new US plan against ISIS might be 'dangerously counterproductive'

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    Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad drive a vehicle mounted with an anti-aircraft weapon in the town of Rabiya after they recaptured the rebel-held town in coastal Latakia province, Syria January 27, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - A suicide bomber detonated his explosives near a mosque in the Syrian coastal city of Latakia on Thursday, killing and wounding several people, a monitoring group and state media reported.

    The explosion took place near the city center as people were leaving prayers, state TV reported, describing it as a terrorist attack.

    The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the conflict using sources on the ground, confirmed the blast took place in a northern area of Latakia.

    The Observatory said the blast killed at least three people. State media reported at least one dead and several wounded.

    State-run Ikhbariya news channel showed patches of blood on the ground and rescue workers and security personnel carrying wounded people toward ambulances.

    Last week a series of bombings killed nearly 150 people in Jableh, just south of Latakia, and Tartous, the first such attacks of their kind in those cities.

    Bomb attacks have previously hit Latakia city, which is in President Bashar al-Assad's heartland along the Mediterranean coast.

    Islamic State claimed last week's attacks, and similarly deadly blasts in the Syrian capital Damascus and western city Homs earlier this year.

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    Vladimir Putin

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters Monday that Russia would provide "the most active" support to the Syrian army to keep the strategic city of Aleppo and the surrounding area from falling into the hands of "terrorists."

    "What is happening in and around Aleppo now is what we had warned the Americans about beforehand — and they know it: that we will in the most active way support the Syrian army from the air not to allow the seizure of this territory by terrorists," Lavrov said.

    Lavrov's comments, which come one day after Russia's deputy defense minister announced that there was still "much to be done to support the Syrian army"— have added to speculation that Russia is preparing to revamp its military operations in Syria three months after announcing it had begun to withdraw.

    Moscow intervened on behalf of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad in September, turning the tide of the war in Assad's favor with relentless airstrikes targeting anti-Assad rebels near Turkey's border and Aleppo, which is now the war's epicenter.

    Putin shocked the world when he announced in March that Russia would begin to withdraw "the main part" of its military presence in Syria four months after intervening. Jeff White, a defense fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Business Insider at the time that Putin had "left some important military tasks unfinished," including the encirclement of Aleppo.

    Perhaps for that reason, Russia left many of its military resources in Syria intact in the event it would need to re-escalate.

    "The notion that Russia needs to 'return' to Syria is fallacious," Mark Kramer, the program director for the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, told Business Insider on Monday.

    "Even after Putin announced that Russia was ending its military operation a few months ago, Russian planes continued to provide bombing support for Syrian forces, albeit much less frequently than before," he added.

    Experts say it now appears Moscow is setting the stage for a large-scale offensive against Syria's more mainstream opposition, considered terrorists by forces loyal to Assad, by ramping up its antiterrorist rhetoric, reinforcing its ground role via military advisers and private contractors, and escalating the rate and breadth of airstrikes around Aleppo's frontlines and in Idlib province.

    Syria Russia airstrikesOn Saturday, the former chief of the general staff for the Russian armed forces said Russia "should act more forcefully" against Syria's "terrorists," who were given time to prepare for an offensive by the cessation-of-hostilities agreement brokered between the US and Russia in late February.

    The French daily newspaper Le Figaro reported in early May that Russia had contracted private "mercenaries" to fight for Assad, and Al-Monitor reported last week that ground forces and paratroopers had been deployed to Russia's port on Syria's western coast "to support more than 3,000 Russian volunteers dispatched to the region in the last few weeks, in a bid to revive coordination with the Syrian Arab Army."

    The rate and breadth of Russian airstrikes in Aleppo and opposition-held territory in Idlib province tripled over the course of three days last week, according to the Institute for the Study of War, marking what it called "a dangerous shift in the Russian airstrike pattern to levels only seen prior to the brokering of the cessation of hostilities agreement in late February 2016."

    nusraZeina Khodr, a correspondent for Al Jazeera based out of Doha, put it bluntly: "Moscow may be justifying and paving the way for a large-scale offensive against [Al Qaeda affiliate] Jabhat al-Nusra."

    In that way, however, Russia is evidently also preparing for a large-scale offensive against Syria's mainstream rebels — many of whom have continued to coexist with Nusra in the name of survival.

    "I have an impression, which is supported by yet unconfirmed facts, that these [moderate] groups intentionally occupy al-Nusra front positions in order to prevent al-Nusra from being attacked," Lavrovtold Sputnik News last month.

    That Nusra is not protected by the terms of the cease-fire has created a loophole for the Russians to attack mainstream rebel groups in the midst of the cease-fire. Many of these groups are backed by the West, and that some have reportedly chosen to coordinate with Nusra against forces loyal to Assad "has exposed the Achilles' heel of the American strategy in Syria: the line between terrorist and 'moderate rebel' is pencil-thin."

    That is according to The Daily Beast's Nancy Youssef, who was told last week by a US intelligence official that Lavrov's recent proposal that the US and Russia coordinate their airstrikes in Syria to target Nusra militants "was a blatant attempt to deflect attention from the targeting of moderate opposition" forces in Syria.

    Free Syrian Army Idlib"Despite claims they are focusing on" Al Qaeda in Syria and ISIS, the official said, "Russia and Assad have primarily targeted the moderate opposition."

    Lavrov offered to halt airstrikes long enough to allow the rebels to back away from Nusra positions, but the US refused the proposal.

    The rebels did not back away despite urging from US Secretary of State John Kerry, and Moscow is evidently now taking advantage of a lack of "cooperation" from Washington and stalled peace talks in Geneva — Mohammad Alloush resigned from his position as the opposition's chief negotiator last month — to re-escalate its military presence.

    "It can be said that for the first time the military and the diplomatic positions have converged on the need to restrengthen [Russia's] credibility,"Mohammad Ballout wrote in Al-Monitor on Friday. "This might pave the way for a partial re-adoption of the military option."

    Kramer, of Harvard, noted that Russia "may well escalate its operations back up to something close to their October through March levels."

    "But if so," he added, "that would represent a fairly embarrassing admission that the Syrian regime is unable to sustain progress on its own."

    SEE ALSO: Jake Tapper scorches State Department on edited video: 'We have a right to know who lied'

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