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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    hezbollah syria

    BEIRUT – A Hezbollah official has discussed the recent battles southwest of Aleppo, where the party in recent days reportedly suffered its worst losses since entering the conflict.

    “The takfiri groups have been trying every day since three months ago to win the battle in Aleppo with US, Saudi and Turkish support and planning, but they failed to achieve their goals,” Sheikh Nabil Qaouk said Monday at a funeral for a Hezbollah fighter.

    He also boasted that Hezbollah managed to “inflict a historic loss” against insurgents active in the flashpoint front, even though rebels seized the villages of Khalsah and Zitan southwest of Aleppo over the weekend amid fierce battles that left a number of Hezbollah fighters dead.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights tracking developments in the war-torn country reported that Hezbollah suffered 25 casualties in the fighting; the latest clashes in the region where the Army of Conquest led by the Al-Nusra Front has pushed back the regime’s front-lines since early May.

    “It's the highest toll for Hezbollah fighters in a single battle,” the NGO’s chief told AFP.

    For its part, the pro-Hezbollah website SouthLebanon.org, which publicizes funerals of the militia's fighters killed in Syria, has publicized an unusually high number of death notices in recent days.

    However, Qaouk did not directly bring up the startling casualty count, and instead said that “the heroes of the resistance” killed 167 rebels, referring to a report circulated in pro-Hezbollah media purporting to cite a death toll provided by the Army of Conquest.

    Rebels denied that they suffered such heavy losses in the heavy Aleppo fighting.

    Qaouk also said that his party has not yet dispatched its full fighting force to back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

    “The participation of Hezbollah in the Syrian battlefield is still a small fraction of its overall forces,” the deputy chief of the party’s executive council claimed.

    “If the need arises to increase the scope our engagement there, we will not hesitate do so with full courage and will.”

    Hezbollah’s chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah is expected to speak on developments in Syria during a Friday night address.

    SEE ALSO: Russian and US jets had a worrying confrontation above Syria

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: A Russian orchestra threw a surprise concert in the ancient city of Palmyra


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    Rubble of a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) near Maaret al-Numan, in Syria's Idlib provinve on February 15, 2016

    Geneva (AFP) - Attacks on hospitals since Syria's war broke out five years ago have left more than 700 doctors and medical workers dead, many of them in air strikes, UN investigators said Tuesday.

    The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria also condemned horrific violations by jihadists and voiced concern that Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants may have recruited hundreds of children into their ranks.

    Commission chief Paulo Pinheiro told the UN Human Rights Council that widespread, targeted aerial attacks on hospitals and clinics across Syria "have resulted in scores of civilian deaths, including much-needed medical workers."

    "More than 700 doctors and medical personnel have been killed in attacks on hospitals since the beginning of the conflict," he said.

    Pinheiro, who was presenting the commission's latest report to the council, said attacks on medical facilities and the deaths of so many medical professionals had made access to health care in the violence-wracked country extremely difficult -- and in some areas completely impossible.

    "As civilian casualties mount, the number of medical facilities and staff decreases, limiting even further access to medical care," he said.

    Pinheiro also denounced frequent attacks on other infrastructure essential to civilian life, such as markets, schools and bakeries.

    "With each attack, terrorized survivors are left more vulnerable," he said, adding that "schools, hospitals, mosques, water stations ... are all being turned into rubble."

    Since March 2011, Syria's brutal conflict has left more than 280,000 people dead and forced half the population to flee their homes.

    War broke out after President Bashar al-Assad's regime unleashed a brutal crackdown against protesters demanding political change in Arab Spring-inspired protests.

    It has since become a multi-front war between regime forces, jihadists and other groups with the civilian population caught in the crossfire.

    The UN and rights groups have repeatedly called on all sides in the war to stop attacking civilian infrastructure including hospitals.

    aleppo al-quds hospital

    Pinheiro also said the commission was investigating allegations that the Al-Nusra Front "and other Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have recruited hundreds of children under 15 in Idlib" in northwestern Syria.

    The brutality of Syria's conflict is preventing millions of children from attending school, and activists have warned this is helping fuel jihadist recruitment drives.

    Pinheiro also condemned the violations committed by the Islamic State group.

    In a report published last week, the commission warned that IS jihadists were continuing to commit genocide against the Yazidi minority in Iraq and Syria.

    'Stop the genocide'

    In 2014, IS jihadists massacred members of the Kurdish-speaking minority mainly based around Sinjar mountain in northern Iraq, forcing tens of thousands to flee. 

    They also captured thousands of girls and women, subjecting them to horrific abuse as sex slaves.

    "As we speak, Yazidi women and girls are still sexually enslaved, subjected to brutal rapes and beatings. They are bought and sold in markets, passed from fighter to fighter like chattel, their dignity being ripped from them with each passing day," Pinheiro told the council Tuesday.

    "Boys are taken from their mother's care and forced into ISIS training camps once they reach the age of seven," he said, using another acronym for IS as he called on the international community to act "to stop the genocide."

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    putin assad

    UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Russia blasted senior United Nations officials on Tuesday for their criticism of the behavior of Syria's security forces during the country's five-year civil war and failure to acknowledge that those troops are fighting terrorist groups.

    Speaking at a special meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien and U.N. assistant secretary-general for human rights Ivan Simonovic criticized all warring parties, including the government, for rampant violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.

    Their assessments of the situation in Syria came after U.N. peace mediator Staffan de Mistura cited recent progress in unifying Syria's fractious opposition and in bringing aid to besieged areas, though the process was fragile. He said a new full round of peace talks was unlikely before July.

    Deputy Russian U.N. Ambassador Vladimir Safrankov took issue with the criticism of the Syrian government.

    "Today's discussion ... is being held in such a way as if there are no terrorist threats in Syria," he told the 193-nation Assembly. "Why aren't you saying that these officers, generals and soldiers are facing terrorist organizations - the Islamic State, Nusra Front, al Qaeda?"

    He said a real ceasefire was needed and that Russia and the United States were doing what they could to push for one.

    assad syria

    Russia, like Iran, is a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is using its military to provide air cover for Syrian government forces.

    O'Brien presented a number of statistics about the damage the war has done to the Syrian population: life expectancy has dropped by 20 years; half the population is forcibly displaced; 13.5 million people are in urgent need of aid; and 80 percent of Syrians now live in poverty.

    "Warring parties have displayed a brazen and brutal disregard for international humanitarian and human rights law," he said.

    O'Brien said the government was the main force behind the siege of some 590,000 civilians in Syria and that the horrors of the war make people flee abroad, hundreds of whom end up drowning in the Mediterranean at the hands of human traffickers.

    Simonovic cited "millions of human rights violations" in Syria. He said the conflict began with violations against peaceful protesters in 2011 who were calling for freedom of expression and assembly.

    "This should have led to reforms and peaceful political development instead of the violent crackdown that unleashed the unspeakable violations we see today," he said. "Terrorists gained ground in this lawless environment."

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    obama syria

    A dissent cable signed by 51 mid- to high-level State Department officials calling for US airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad is unlikely to spur a military incursion into Syria in President Barack Obama's last months in office.

    As The Washington Post's Greg Jaffe pointed out, "few things frustrate President Obama more than what he calls the 'Washington playbook' — a view that US military firepower is the solution to most of the toughest foreign policy problems."

    Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, made that point clear in a recent interview with The New York Times Magazine. He referred to Washington's foreign-policy establishment as "the blob" and described the lengths to which the administration has gone to circumvent the Beltway's agenda.

    But some experts say the cable, which the White House says Obama has not read, will at least show Syrians and US allies in the Middle East that many in the administration are deeply unhappy with Obama's Syria policy — and that they will advocate a new approach once he leaves office.

    "I think it's useful in terms of telling Syrians, their neighbors, the regime, and its supporters that there are indeed American officials who care deeply about the humanitarian abomination that's taken place and want to do something about it," Fred Hof, a former special adviser for transition in Syria at the State Department, told Business Insider in an email.

    "That said, I doubt it will have any effect at all on President Obama and his White House entourage," he added.

    obama rhodes kerry powerMost analysts agree that the cable will have no effect on Obama's current policy, which is focused on defeating the Islamic State in Syria via a US-backed coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.

    The CIA has operated a separate train-and-equip program that supports anti-Assad rebel groups largely associated with the Free Syrian Army, but those factions have at times clashed with the Pentagon-trained SDF fighters. Their divergent military objectives and ethnicities have bred mistrust and fighting that is ultimately counterproductive to the cause of the revolution.

    Still, "what these 51 signatories have done is spoken truth to power," Richard Haass, the former director of policy planning for the State Department and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in the Financial Times.

    He continued: "And even if what they have to say is rejected now, it might be welcomed by the next occupant of the White House — especially if it were to be Hillary Clinton, who, as secretary of state, showed considerable willingness to use military force in pursuit of US foreign policy aims."

    Clinton, the former secretary of state and the presumptive 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, forcefully advocated the US intervention in Libya in 2011. She has also said that she would support the implementation of a no-fly zone inside Syria.

    “I personally would be advocating now for a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridors to try to stop the carnage on the ground and from the air, to try to provide some way to take stock of what’s happening, to try to stem the flow of refugees,” Clinton said in October.

    The cable also reportedly echoed Secretary of State John Kerry's position on how the US' Syria policy should look, as well as his frustration with Obama's unwillingness to act more forcefully against Assad. Kerry met with 10 of the 51 signatories for half an hour on Tuesday, an anonymous senior State Department official told the Washington Post.

    kerry iraqThe cable does not specifically mention a no-fly zone, but it calls for "a more assertive US role to protect and preserve opposition-held communities, by defending them from Assad’s air force and artillery." It also calls for "targeted military strikes in response to egregious regime violations of the [Cessation of Hostilities]."

    That cessation, brokered by the US and Russia at the end of February, has been violated repeatedly by both the government and the rebels — Assad loyalists with airstrikes, and rebels with shelling — and is crumbling as peace talks falter in Geneva.

    "With the repeated diplomatic setbacks of the past five years, together with the Russian and Iranian governments’ cynical and destabilizing deployment of significant military power to bolster the Assad regime, we believe that the foundations are not currently in place for an enduring ceasefire and consequential negotiations," the cable read.

    Regardless of whether those foundations are ultimately established with US military intervention, however, the dissenters who signed it evidently thought participating in this kind of revolt was worth the very real risk it could pose to their careers.

    "Death by suffocation is unlikely to be the fate of the Syria memo, both because of the press attention it garnered following its leak and because the large number of signatories is so noteworthy," former diplomat Joseph Cassidy wrote recently in Foreign Policy.

    east ghouta syriaDissenting, moreover, "is a difficult and emotional decision, and fear of retaliation is widespread," Cassidy said. And "while there are formal 'whistleblower'-type protections built into the Dissent Channel regulations, the State Department personnel system is so subjective, and an unblemished reputation is so essential to promotion and good assignments, that the potential for stealthy retaliation is significant."

    Ultimately, the cable's signatories may feel it is worth having their name on something that makes explicit their frustration with the US' decision to refrain from intervening against Assad, whose brutality has fueled a civil war that has killed more than 400,000 people in just over five years and created the largest refugee crisis since World War II.

    "Fifty-one State Department officials who have loyally helped to implement a dysfunctional White House policy have finally said, 'Enough,'" Hof, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, wrote in Foreign Policy on Monday.

    He added: "Even if Obama is content to bequeath to his successor a humanitarian abomination and geopolitical catastrophe, these officials have placed before the world the proposition that the United States can and ultimately will do its duty."

    SEE ALSO: An 'embarrassing' break: Dozens of State Department officials just revolted against Obama's Syria policy

    Join the conversation about this story »

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    Taiwan military training

    The physical and psychological rigors of combat are intense, and militaries have the challenge preparing their soldiers for the worst of what they may face on the battlefield.

    The world's militaries require their personnel to go through grueling training to equip them for life in the field, and to make sure that soldiers who might not have prior combat experience are still in a state of readiness.

    Here are photos from around the world of some of the toughest training imaginable.

    SEE ALSO: These 17 photos show how the US military trains for amphibious warfare

    In mainland China, paramilitary policeman face an intense regimen. Here, the policemen take part in a training session in muddy water.



    Later in the training, the paramilitary police also have to crawl under fire obstacles ...



    ... and hone their hand-to-hand combat skills.



    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    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.

    Syria's President Bashar al-Assad tasked the country's Electricity Minister Emad Khamis with forming a new government on Wednesday, state news agency SANA reported.

    It gave no immediate reason for the formation of a new cabinet.

    The Damascus-based government controls most of the war-torn country's major population centers in the west, with the notable exceptions of Idlib, which is held by insurgents, and Aleppo, where it controls half of the city.

    Kurdish forces are in control of vast areas along the Turkish border, and Islamic State holds Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces in the east.

    Parliamentary elections were held in government-controlled areas in April, which the opposition said were meaningless.

    SEE ALSO: The State Department's Syria revolt could have an important effect in the Middle East

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: 'When does this stop?': Obama slams Trump's Muslim ban


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    A U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle from the 48th Fighter Wing lands at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, November 12, 2015. Six F-15Es are deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve and counter-ISIL missions in Iraq and Syria. Picture taken November 12, 2015. REUTERS/USAF/Airman 1st Class Cory W. Bush/Handout via Reuters

    The US military has released a video that shows the anti-ISIS coalition eliminating an ISIS weigh station near Qayyarah, Iraq.

    The strikes occurred on June 11 as part of the anti-ISIS coalition's efforts to eliminate ISIS's abilities to carry out terrorist attacks across the world and hold territory in Iraq and Syria.

    US Central Command notes that the strikes in Qayyarah were part of a larger series of attacks against the terrorist group throughout Iraq and Syria. In addition to destroying the weigh station, the coalition also hit ISIS oil-well heads and tactical fighting positions in Syria. It also struck ISIS bunkers, car-bomb factories, artillery, and tactical units throughout Iraq.

    You can watch the strike on the ISIS weigh station below:

    SEE ALSO: Hezbollah has suffered its heaviest losses yet in a critical battle in Syria

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: The US Army is sending Apache attack helicopters to fight ISIS in Iraq


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    Fighters of the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) carry their weapons as they walk in the western rural area of Manbij, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, June 13, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    A US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters has reportedly advanced into a Syrian town held by the Islamic State (IS) group.

    The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on June 23 that heavy clashes between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and IS militants were taking place on the southwestern edge of Manbij.

    An adviser to the SDF, Nasser Haj Mansour, confirmed the alliance moved into the town from its northern edge, prompting clashes with IS militants.

    Mansour said other troops entered Manbij from the west.

    The SDF launched its offensive to take Manbij and the surrounding areas late last month with the backing of US Special Forces to drive IS militants from its last stretch of the Syrian-Turkish frontier.

    Based on reporting by AFP, AP, and Reuters

    SEE ALSO: Watch US-led airstrikes cripple a strategic ISIS location

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    NOW WATCH: Here are the countries with the most recruited fighters in Iraq and Syria


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    Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters during a religious procession to mark Ashura in Beirut's suburbs November 14, 2013. REUTERS/Khalil Hassan

    BEIRUT - Hezbollah’s leader tackled the recent battles southwest of Aleppo, where the party in recent days reportedly suffered its worst losses since entering the conflict, and called the flash point front key to the defense of the Syrian regime.

    Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said Friday evening that a “new phase of the Syrian war” has started in northern Syria, claiming that foreign-backed insurgents were staging a major offensive in a bid to collapse the regime.

    “We had to be in Aleppo, and we will stay in Aleppo,” he declared defiantly, saying that thwarting the Army of Conquest coalition in the flash point front would “defend what remains of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.”

    “We have a high number of fighters in Aleppo.”

    Last weekend, Islamist rebels led by the Al-Nusra Front seized the villages of Khalsah and Zitan southwest of Aleppo in the most recent stage of their drive against regime lines that began in the beginning of April 2016.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights tracking developments in the war-torn country reported that Hezbollah suffered 25 casualties in the fighting.

    “It's the highest toll for Hezbollah fighters in a single battle,” the NGO’s chief told AFP.

    Nasrallah, however, blasted claims the party suffered heavy losses, announcing that 26 Hezbollah fighters have been killed since the beginning of June, and not just in the most recent clashes.

    Rebel groups suffered far heavier losses, he further claimed, saying that insurgents lost 617 fighters since the beginning of June, while over 800 others were injured.

    Hezbollah Member Lebanon

    Nasrallah also discussed the issue of Lebanese banks’ compliance with a recent raft of US financial sanctions against Hezbollah, which has raised the ire of the party.

    “We completely reject this law,” he reiterated, while saying that the sanctions will have no effect on Hezbollah.

    “All the banks of the world cannot stand as an obstacle to Hezbollah,” Nasrallah boasted.

    He explained that Hezbollah’s entire budget is bankrolled by Tehran, saying, “As long as there is money in Iran, we will have money.”

    Despite his claim that the sanctions would not hurt Hezbollah, Nasrallah added that his party was angry over Lebanese banks closing down accounts of charities and private individuals for their purported support for the party.

    “This is irresponsible, aggressive behavior,” Nasrallah said in a broadside aimed at the country’s banking sector.

    Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh said earlier in June that 100 Hezbollah-linked bank accounts had been shut down in the country, prompting an angry riposte from Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc later that day, which said Lebanon’s “monetary policy has lost its sovereignty.”

    hezbollah lebanon

    A US law passed on December 18, 2015 mandates the strictest sanctions yet against Hezbollah as well any individual or organization affiliated with it and any financial institution anywhere in the world that “knowingly facilitates a transaction” for it.

    In response, the Lebanese Central Bank issued Circular No. 137 on May 3, calling on Lebanese banks to abide by the US legislation, action has already been taken by banks against numerous Hezbollah officials.

    The sanction law and the Lebanese banking sectors adherence to it has enraged Hezbollah, with on of the party’s minister in the government, Hussein al-Hajj Hassan, saying in a mid-May cabinet session the sanctions “transgressed all red lines” and represented part of a “war of elimination.”

    However, Hezbollah on May 18 praised a directive by Salameh calling on banks to consult with the Central Bank before shutting accounts down.

    SEE ALSO: Hezbollah has suffered its heaviest losses yet in a critical battle in Syria

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    NOW WATCH: These US war conspiracies turned out to be true


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    Fighters of the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) stand inside a building near Manbij, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, June 17, 2016.  REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

    (Reuters) - Weapons shipped into Jordan for Syrian rebels by the Central Intelligence Agency and Saudi Arabia were stolen by Jordanian intelligence operatives and sold to arms merchants on the black market, the New York Times reported, citing American and Jordanian officials.

    Some of the stolen weapons were used in a shooting in November that killed two Americans and three others at a police training facility in Amman, according to a joint investigation by the New York Times and Al Jazeera.

    A Jordanian officer shot dead two U.S. government security contractors, a South African trainer and two Jordanians at a U.S.-funded police training facility near Amman before being killed in a shootout, Jordanian authorities had said in November.

    The training facility was set up on the outskirts of the capital, Amman, after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq to help rebuild the shattered country's postwar security forces and to train Palestinian Authority police officers.

    The weapons used in the shooting had originally arrived in Jordan for the Syrian rebel training program, the paper reported, citing American and Jordanian officials.

    Theft of the weapons, which ended months ago after complaints by the American and Saudi governments, has led to a flood of new weapons available on the arms black market, the New York Times said.

    Jordanian officers who were part of the plan "reaped a windfall" from sale of weapons, using the money to buy iPhones, SUVs and other luxury items, according to the paper, which cited Jordanian officials.

    The CIA could not be immediately reached for comment.

     (Reporting by Abinaya Vijayaraghavan in Bengaluru; Editing by Chris Reese)

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    Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum 2016 (SPIEF 2016) in St. Petersburg, Russia, June 17, 2016.   REUTERS/Grigory Dukor/File Photo

    MOSCOW (AP) — A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin says Turkey's president has apologized for the downing of a Russian military jet at the Syrian border.

    Dmitry Peskov told reporters Monday that Putin has received a message from Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressing his "sympathy and deep condolences" to the family of the killed pilot and "asked to be forgiven."

    Turkey hadn't previously apologized for the incident in November last year, which had triggered Moscow's ire.

    The Russians had responded by halting package tours to Turkey and banning most agricultural imports from Turkey.

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    putin erdogan

    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has written to Russian President Vladimir Putin to express regret about Turkey's downing of a Russian warplane and asked the family of the pilot to "excuse us", Erdogan's spokesman said on Monday.

    "The president also called on his Russian counterpart to restore the traditional friendly relations between Turkey and Russia, work together to address regional crises and jointly combat terrorism," Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said in a statement.

    "We are pleased to announce that Turkey and Russia have agreed to take necessary steps without delay to improve bilateral relations," the statement said.

    SEE ALSO: Israel and Turkey just normalized ties

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    NOW WATCH: A Russian orchestra threw a surprise concert in the ancient city of Palmyra


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    A Jordanian soldier carries a Syrian refugee child to help him board a Jordanian army vehicle with his family after they crossed into Jordanian territory, in Al Ruqban border area, near the northeastern Jordanian border with Syria, and Iraq, near the town of Ruwaished, 240 km (149 miles) east of Amman September 10, 2015. Picture taken September 10, 2015. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

    Thousands of Syrian refugees stranded on Jordan's northeastern border with Syria are running out of food after a militant suicide attack prompted the army to shut the area, international relief workers and refugees said on Monday.

    Jordan, a staunch U.S. ally, declared the area a closed military zone after a suicide bomber, believed to be an Islamic State militant, drove a vehicle last Tuesday from the Syrian side and rammed it into a military base close to Rukban camp, killing seven border guards.

    Aid workers said convoys of food which normally go to the camp were being held up for a sixth day in Ruwaished, the closest town to Rukban camp, which is far from any inhabitable place. Only water trucks were being allowed through.

    "Access continues to be denied and we are concerned because these trapped people have basic needs," said Hala Shamlawi, spokesperson for the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC).

    Relief workers said the few supplies coming into the area were from smuggler rings inside Syria.

    "We know the food rations will run out soon, probably in a few days' time ... This is a matter of concern," said Dina El Kassaby, regional spokesperson of World Food Programme (WFP).

    The authorities gave no explanation for blocking aid that affects between 60,000 to 70,000 refugees, mostly women and children, who have been stranded for months in a no-man's land at the only crossing where Jordan now receives refugees.

    Desert

    syrian refugees jordan

    Since Russia expanded its air strikes against Islamic State-held areas in central and eastern Syria, the number of refugees trekking south across the desert to the Jordanian border has risen sharply, according to U.N. aid workers.

    But Jordan, which has already accepted more than 600,000 U.N.-registered Syrian refugees, fears Islamic State militants may have infiltrated the ranks of those arriving at the border.

    Earlier waves of Syrian refugees had a much easier time entering Jordan but the kingdom sealed border crossings near population centers in 2013 in an attempt to stem the flow.

    Officials chose the sparsely populated desert area where the borders of Syria, Jordan and Iraq meet in order to discourage refugees from entering the kingdom, relief workers say.

    Rights groups such as Amnesty International have urged Jordan not to take a tough security response.

    "A total closure of the border and denial of humanitarian aid to the area would inevitably lead to extreme hardship among those unable to find refuge and put their lives at risk," said Sherif Elsayed-Ali of Amnesty International.

    Foreign Minister Nasser Joudeh told Western envoys after the attack that Jordan's security outweighed humanitarian concerns.

    SEE ALSO: Two of the most important nations in the Middle East just normalized ties

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: A Russian orchestra threw a surprise concert in the ancient city of Palmyra


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    An Islamic State flag hangs amid electric wires over a street in Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, near the port-city of Sidon, southern Lebanon January 19, 2016. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

    ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - It was barely more than a squiggle, but the mark of a single letter sprayed overnight on a wall in the heart of Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliphate was a daring act of dissent.

    The next day, ultra-hardline Islamic State fighters came and scrubbed out the "M" -- the first letter of the word for "resistance" in Arabic -- which appeared in an alley near the Grand Mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul about three weeks ago.

    A video of the single letter, scrawled about a meter long on the wall, was shared with Reuters by an activist from a group called "Resistance", whose members risk certain execution to conduct small acts of defiance in areas under Islamic State rule.

    Nearly two years since Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivered a sermon from that same mosque summoning Muslims worldwide to the "caliphate", it is fraying at the edges.

    As an array of forces make inroads into their territory spanning Iraq and Syria, the jihadis are becoming even harsher to maintain control of a population that is increasingly hostile to them, according to Iraqi officials and people who managed to escape.

    "They are harsh, but they are not strong," said Major General Najm al-Jubbouri, who is in command of the operation to recapture Mosul and the surrounding areas. "Their hosts reject them."

    Many local Sunnis initially welcomed the Sunni Muslim militants as saviors from a Shi'ite-led government they perceived as oppressive, while thousands of foreigners answered Baghdadi's call to come and wage holy war.

    For a time, the militants claimed one victory after another, thanks as much to the weakness and division of the forces arrayed against them as their own strength. They funded themselves through sales of oil from fields they overran, and plundered weapons and ammunition from those they vanquished.

    ISIS Mosul

    But two years since the declaration of the caliphate, the tide has begun to turn in favor of its many enemies: Iraqi and Syrian government troops, Kurdish forces in both countries, rival Syrian Sunni rebels, Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias, and a U.S.-led coalition which has bombed the militants while conducting special operations to take out their commanders.

    Of the 43 founders of Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, 39 have been killed, said Hisham al-Hashimi, a Baghdad-based expert who advises the Iraqi government.

    The self-proclaimed caliph, Baghdadi, is moving in a semi-desert plain that covers several thousand square kilometers west of the Tigris river and south of Mosul, avoiding Syria after two of his close aides were killed there this year: "war minister" Abu Omar al-Shishani and top civilian administrator and second-in-command Abd al-Rahman al-Qaduli, Hashimi said.

    The most senior commanders after Baghdadi are now Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the group's spokesman who took over military supervision after Shishani's death, and Abu Muhammad al-Shimali, who oversees foreign fighters and succeeded Qaduli as civilian administrator, he said.

    Kurdish and Iraqi military commanders say the group is deploying fighters who are less experienced and less ideologically committed to defend what remains of its quasi-state, which is under attack on multiple fronts.

    Iraqi forces recently entered the Islamic State bastion of Fallujah just west of Baghdad, and are pushing north towards Mosul, by far the biggest city Islamic State controls with a pre-war population of 2 million.

    iraqi forces fallujah isis

    In neighboring Syria, U.S.-backed forces are closing in on the militant stronghold of Manbij, and President Bashar al-Assad's Russian-backed army has advanced into the province surrounding the de facto Islamic State capital Raqqa.

    On a front south of Mosul, a group of women displaced by the offensive said Islamic State fighters' grip had begun to loosen as Iraqi forces advanced, to the point that they no longer punished people for not wearing the full face veil.

    The number of foreign fighters has fallen significantly, and renewed efforts by the group to recruit locals have proven largely unsuccessful, except amongst the young and destitute, according to people who recently fled, including three repentant Islamic State members.

    "When you are a young man and you don't own 250 dinars and someone comes and offers you 20,000, 15,000 or 30,000, you will do anything," said a former Islamic State militant from Iraq's northern Hawija district who recently gave himself up to Kurdish forces.

    Members of Islamic State's vice squad, the Hisba, are increasingly being sent to the frontlines as designated fighters are killed off, according to people who escaped as well as Iraqi and Kurdish military and intelligence officials.

    That means there are fewer militants to enforce the group's draconian rules and dress code. But a 28 year-old teacher who recently fled Mosul said people were so afraid of the militants they did not disobey them even when they were not around.

    "If they say black is white, you agree," said the teacher, who asked not to be identified because he still has family inside the city and feared they could be targeted.

    Kurdish Peshmerga forces gather in a village east of Mosul, Iraq, May 29, 2016.  REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

    School courses were redesigned by the militants to reflect their war-like ideology. He gave an example of a math problem given to his pupils: "The Mudjahid is carrying seven magazines for his rifle, each with 30 bullets; how many rounds can he fire at the unbelievers?"

    He said Arabic lessons were also redesigned, with pupils asked to fill in blanks in slogan-like sentences such as "The Islamic State is xxxx and xxxx". The answer is "staying and expanding".

    Asset and liability

    The Sunni population in which the militants have embedded themselves is becoming more of a liability to them but also remains one of their greatest assets.

    As living conditions deteriorate and the militants crack down, the local population is increasingly hostile to the group, which has repeatedly used civilians as human shields to slow the advance of Iraqi forces in frontline cities like Fallujah.

    Those caught trying to escape Islamic State territory are liable to be executed on the spot -- even women and children.

    Despite outnumbering the militants, the population remains weaker than them. Residents were disarmed and the security forces purged in the early days after the fighters captured Mosul. But residents are increasingly cooperating with the security forces outside the city by informing on the militants.

    Nineveh provincial council member Abdul Rahman al-Wakaa said the group had begun moving local leaders around so people could not identify them as easily and pass their location on to coalition and Iraqi forces.

    The jihadis have also cracked down on communications with the outside world, executing people for using mobile phones and confiscating satellite dishes to prevent people from seeing the progress made by Iraqi forces.

    Iraqi military leaders are hoping there will be an uprising against the insurgents as the army draws nearer to Mosul. A top Iraqi general told Reuters troops were in contact with people inside Mosul to synchronize such action with an external military assault.

    The plan is to engage the militants on several fronts around Mosul simultaneously, to draw them out of the city, giving the local population a chance to revolt.

    kurdish peshmerga forces

    Acute hardship and hunger since Baghdad cut salaries to state workers living in areas under Islamic State control around a year ago has forced more locals to work for the group.

    Islamic State, for its part, plays on the population's fears of retribution from Iraqi forces and pro-government Shi'ite militias. Despite a string of defeats, military officials say there have been few defections from the group.

    Three young men who joined Islamic State and recently surrendered to Kurdish forces in northern Iraq said the militants hunted down those who tried to abandon them.

    Ahmed Ibrahim Abdullah said he had been arrested and tortured by the militants when he left. He sold a cow to pay for his bail so he could escape.

    Twenty-six year old Ahmed Khalaf said he had surrendered to the Kurds in the hope he would be treated with more leniency than if captured by government forces, but that others were too afraid to the same: "There are people who have a certain idea that their fate is tied to the fate of Daesh."

    (Editing by Peter Graff)

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    Brett McGurk

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Brett McGurk, US President Barack Obama's special envoy in the fight against Islamic State, said on Tuesday he has seen no "significant" change in Iran's behavior in Syria under the international nuclear deal announced last July.

    "I have not seen a significant change in Iranian behavior ... They are primarily working to prop up the Assad regime," McGurk told a US Senate hearing. He said Iran is also supporting some Shi'ite militia groups that are operating in Iraq.

    (Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

    SEE ALSO: Iran isn't backing down over oil

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    The Fund for Peace has released its annual ranking of the world's least-stable countries, now known as the Fragile State Index. The rankings are based on 12 metrics, including access to public services, the prevalence of refugees and internally displaced people, human-rights conditions, and the legitimacy of the state.

    Scandinavian countries round out the bottom of the ranking as the least fragile nations. Amazingly, Syria — which has entered its sixth year of civil war — isn't the most fragile state in the world, according to the survey.

    Here are the countries Fund for Peace says are the most fragile in the world:

    SEE ALSO: These amazing pictures show what Iraq was like before the country's decades of chaos

    25. LIBYA: The North African nation continues to suffer from infighting between two competing rival governments and a growing ISIS presence along the coast. Although the rival governments have been making positive moves toward reconciliation, the country is still bitterly divided and its oil exports are down to a fraction of what they were in 2013. Libya receives near bottom scores for state legitimacy, its security apparatus, and external intervention.



    24. ETHIOPIA: Located in eastern Africa, Ethiopia has slightly worsened over the past year after a year of gradual improvement. It continues to have extreme demographic pressures, with nearly 64% of its population being under 25. It has the 33rd highest infant mortality rate in the world, and the country faces strong pressure from its own population of over 400,000 internally displaced people.



    23. UGANDA: Uganda has worsened slightly over the past year, with pressures from refugees, internally displaced people, and group grievances being the main factors in the country's fragility. It also faces major demographic pressures — almost 70% of the population is under 25, and Uganda has the 21st worst infant-mortality rate in the world. Additionally, the country continues to face the vicious insurgency of Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army.



    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, pictured together in 2014 in Ankara

    Ankara (AFP) - The leaders of Turkey and Russia agreed on Wednesday to meet in person, during their first telephone conversation since a crisis erupted over the downing of a Russian plane last year, the Turkish presidency said.

    "Reiterating their commitment to reinvigorate bilateral relations and fight terrorism together, the two leaders agreed to remain in contact and meet in person," it said in a statement said after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin spoke by phone in a conversation that followed Ankara's expression of regret over the downing of the warplane on the Syrian border by Turkish jets in November.

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    operation inherent resolve coalition air forces isis

    The US military has released a video that shows the anti-ISIS coalition eliminating an ISIS fighting position near a critical battle line near Manbij, Syria.

    Manbij has emerged as a critical front as it is one of the last areas of territory that ISIS can contest along the Turkish border. Kurdish troops have recently taken the city, and the consolidation of control over the area would effectively block ISIS from being able to move fighters and supplies over Turkey's porous border.

    The strikes occurred on June 21 as part of the anti-ISIS coalition's efforts to eliminate ISIS's abilities to carry out terrorist attacks across the world and hold territory in Iraq and Syria.

    US Central Command notes that the strikes near Manbij were part of a larger series of attacks against the terrorist group throughout Iraq and Syria. In addition to destroying the fighting position, the coalition also hit an ISIS headquarters near the group's de facto capital of Raqqa, several other tactical units near Manbij, and a tactical unit near Ma'ra, Syria. 

    In addition, in Iraq the coalition carried out strikes against ISIS tactical units and rocket systems in Mosul, rocket rails in Qayyarah, and a heavy machine gun unit in Tal Afar. 

    The strikes were carried out using a mixture of bombers, attack, fighter, and unmanned aircraft. 

    You can watch the strike against the fighting position in Manbij below.

    SEE ALSO: The world's 25 most fragile states

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    Former Secretary of Defense Dr. Robert Gates recently stopped by Business Insider to talk about his new book "A Passion For Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform From Fifty Years of Public Service."

    We asked Gates what he considers to be the main factors that led to the existence of ISIS.

    Produced by Graham Flanagan and Pamela Engel

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    ISIS Islamic State

    ISIS' "caliphate" has survived for two years.

    The terrorist group has been able to hold onto some of the territory in Iraq and Syria that it first seized in 2014, when its rampage across the Middle East shocked the world.

    But since then, ISIS' self-declared caliphate — the increasingly fractured swath of territory it controls and rules as an Islamic emirate — has shrunk. The group (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh) has attracted thousands of fighters, both local and foreign, with its message of "remaining and expanding," but it hasn't been able to make good on its promise of world domination.

    Days before ISIS' two-year anniversary of the declaration of its caliphate, the group suffered another blow. It officially lost control of the first major city it seized — Fallujah in Iraq.

    ISIS maintains control over its major bases in Syria and Iraq — Raqqa and Mosul, respectively — but local forces backed by a US-led coalition are preparing to launch offensives on those cities as well.

    "This is definitely the death knell of ISIS' territoriality as it was once known," Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism analyst and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider. "The caliphate as it was is gone. They're not going to be able to hold anything like the territory they did before."

    ISIS is now looking to project power in other ways.

    Rather than encouraging foreigners to travel to the caliphate and join ISIS' state-building project, ISIS leaders have issued public statements encouraging supporters to stay home.

    These calls to action have inspired "lone wolf" attacks in Western countries carried out by ISIS supporters who plan their own attacks without any coordination with the group itself.

    "The smallest action you do in their heartland is better and more enduring to us than what you would if you were with us," ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani said in an audio message released last month. "If one of you hoped to reach the Islamic State, we wish we were in your place to punish the Crusaders day and night."

    Switching from state-building to more traditional terrorism is one way for ISIS to survive and stay relevant, Gartenstein-Ross said.

    defund isis protest

    Lone-wolf terrorism is also more difficult to prevent, making it likely that even as ISIS continues to lose territory, the group will continue to project power through terror attacks on Western targets.

    "The FBI has a real challenge because there are individuals who could be in their home or have no interaction with other people but will be on the internet and will be shaped and influenced by what they’re seeing in terms of this narrative," CIA Director John Brennan said at a Council on Foreign Relations event on Wednesday.

    "[They] will decide on their own, maybe with a spouse or maybe with others or maybe alone, to carry out an attack. And if they get their hands on a weapon or the explosive material, they can do great damage before the signatures that are traditionally associated with traditional terrorist groups are seen."

    It doesn't appear that ISIS has given up its territorial aspirations just yet, though. The group has been looking for other opportunities for territorial expansion and has established presences in some far-flung countries, including Bangladesh, Albania, the Philippines, Kosovo, and Indonesia.

    It's unclear whether ISIS has a plan to seize territory in these countries the way it has in the Middle East. So far, ISIS' attempts to build out its caliphate have run into trouble.

    ISIS saw some initial success in Libya, where it was able to gain control of the coastal city of Sirte. The group has established several thousand fighters in the country and began to build out the infrastructure of a state in Sirte, implementing its harsh version of Islamic Sharia law and establishing "media points" to distribute its propaganda.

    Sirte was said to be ISIS' "back-up capital," a place where ISIS could base its operations if it lost Raqqa or Mosul.

    But those plans have mostly fallen apart. Libyan pro-government forces have retaken parts of Sirte, and the US has been aiding in the fight by carrying out airstrikes in the country.

    ISIS map

    The Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point noted in a report earlier this year that ISIS has struggled to expand into parts of Libya that are contested by other militias.

    Still, the decline of the caliphate doesn't necessarily spell the end of ISIS.

    Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted in his recent book "Islamic Exceptionalism" that while ISIS' territorial rule likely isn't sustainable in the long run, the group's legacy will remain with us long after the caliphate crumbles.

    He wrote: "Even if it were destroyed tomorrow morning, the Islamic State would still stand as one of the most successful and distinctly 'Islamist' state-building projects of recent decades."

    ISIS' project also transcends state-building. Amid upheaval in the Middle East, especially in Syria, where the civil war still rages and seems far from resolution, there lies fertile ground for extremist ideology to fester. Part of ISIS' success is based in the group's marketing itself as a protector of disenfranchised Sunnis, who are endangered by President Bashar al-Assad's forces in Syria and government-backed Shia militias in Iraq and Syria.

    "As the Shia militias have been advancing, they've engaged in sectarian depopulation," Gartenstein-Ross said. "The Sunni grievances are not going away."

    Cole Bunzel, a PhD candidate in near eastern studies at Princeton University who previously worked for the Department of Defense and now writes about extremist groups, noted earlier this month that the "cycle of Islamic State decline and revival" could "simply recur" as long as the ideology lives on.

    "America's victory will once again prove illusory," Bunzel wrote. "If America seeks to claim real victory, it will have to eliminate an 'entire generation' of caliphate supporters the world over."

    SEE ALSO: 'These are not allies': The most potent force fighting ISIS in Iraq has been accused of torturing and executing civilians

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