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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    Fighters of the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) sit in a look out position in the western rural area of Manbij, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, June 13, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    US-backed forces have now seized control of almost 70 percent of Manbij in northern Syria from Islamic State after making rapid advances over the past two days, a spokesman said on Sunday.

    Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) have pushed back the ultra hardline Sunni militants into the old quarter after seizing most of the western, eastern and southern sectors of the city, Sharfan Darwish of the SDF-allied Manbij military council told Reuters in Beirut by telephone.

    "They are now mainly in the old quarter of the city and parts of the north-eastern part of the city," Darwish added.

    The SDF, which includes the powerful Kurdish YPG militia and Arab fighters, launched the campaign nearly two months ago with the backing of US special forces to drive Islamic State from its last stretch of the Syrian-Turkish frontier.

    Though at least 2,300 civilians have been able to escape from Manbij, thousands of residents are still trapped inside. The presence of civilians, who the militants were trying to stop from leaving, was hampering US air attacks, Kurdish sources said.

    Progress in storming the city had also been slowed by militants using snipers and planting mines, the Kurdish sources said.

    Manbij's loss would be a huge blow to the militants since it is a vital conduit for the transit of foreign jihadists and provisions from the Turkish border.

    Syria Democratic Forces fighters take positions as they await U.S.-led air strikes on Manbij's mills where Islamic State militants are positioned, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria June 16, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    "The military initiative is in our hands and the campaign is now being undertaken to liberate what is left of the city and progress is continuing until this moment," Darwish said.

    Earlier the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the SDF, with the support of air strikes, had seized much of the eastern part of the besieged city after slower advances in recent weeks mainly in the western sector.

    The monitor said they had captured a clinic, school and a roundabout in the heart of eastern Manbij after heavy fighting. There were no confirmed reports of casualties.

    Darwish estimated at least 40,000 to 50,000 civilian residents have escaped since the campaign began.

    Activists and residents say dozens of civilians have been killed this month in air strikes in the city and to the north, and rights watchdog Amnesty International said the US-led coalition must do more to prevent civilian deaths.

    Manbij is in the northern province of Aleppo, which forms a theater for several separate battles between multiple warring sides in Syria's five-year-old conflict.

    Syria iraq map manbij

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    Mi 8 Helicopter Gunship Rockets

    MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Kremlin on Monday said that Russian military personnel on board a helicopter shot down in Syria on Monday were dead, citing the Russian Defense Ministry.

    The helicopter, with five people on board, was shot down in Idlib Province, Russian news agencies quoted the Defense Ministry as saying.

    They died a "heroic death" on a humanitarian mission, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a conference call with reporters. He said the helicopter had tried to veer away from inhabited areas to avoid civilian deaths.

    Peskov also said that Moscow would continue fighting international terrorism "on all fronts" despite threats from Islamic State.

    On Sunday, Islamic State posted a nine-minute video message on YouTube, calling on its members to carry out jihad or holy war in Russia.

    (Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

     

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    aleppo

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebel fighters have launched a major assault on government-held southwestern parts of Aleppo to try to reopen supply lines after the army and its allies tightened their siege of opposition-held parts of the city last week.

    The rebels are trying to break through the strip of government-controlled territory in the hope of reconnecting their encircled sector of eastern Aleppo with a swathe of insurgent territory in the west of Syria.

    A rebel military command center that includes the newly formed Islamist group Jabhat Fatah al Sham, formerly the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, and Ahrar al Sham said they had seized army positions in the first few hours of the assault, which began on Sunday night.

    The army confirmed on state media that rebels had begun an offensive but said its fighters had pushed them back from an air force artillery base.

    Syria mapA quarter of a million civilians still live in Aleppo's opposition-controlled eastern neighborhoods, effectively under siege since the army, aided by Iranian-backed militias, cut off the last road into rebel districts in early July.

    The army last week took significant ground on the northern edge of the city, around the Castello road, which leads north toward Turkey.

    The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebel assault was their biggest for several months.

    The monitoring group, which tracks violence across Syria, said pro-government jets had bombed rebel-held Khan Touman in the southern countryside of Aleppo, and rebels had shelled government-held parts of central Aleppo overnight.

    Syria rebels aleppoAleppo, Syria's biggest city before the outbreak of the conflict five years ago, has been divided between government forces and rebels since the summer of 2012.

    Seizing full control would be the biggest victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in five years of fighting, and demonstrate the dramatic shift of fortunes in his favor since Moscow joined the war on his side last year.

    Assad's government and its Russian allies declared a joint humanitarian operation for the besieged area on Thursday, bombarding it with leaflets telling fighters to surrender and civilians to leave.

    But the United Nations raised misgivings about the plan and U.S. officials suggested it might be an attempt to depopulate the city so that the army can seize it.

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    ISIS

    CAIRO (Reuters) - Islamic State called on its group members to carry out jihad in Russia in a nine-minute YouTube video on Sunday.

    "Listen Putin, we will come to Russia and will kill you at your homes ... Oh Brothers, carry out jihad and kill and fight them," a masked man driving a car in the desert yelled while wagging his finger in the last couple of minutes of the video.

    The video with subtitles showed footage of armed men attacking armored vehicles and tents and collecting arms in the desert. "Breaking into a barrack of the Rejectionist military on the international road south Akashat," read one subtitle.

    It was not immediately possible to independently verify the video but the link to the footage was published on a Telegram messaging account used by the militant group.

    It was not immediately clear why Russia would be a target, but Russia and the U.S. are talking about boosting military and intelligence cooperation against Islamic State and al Qaeda in Syria.

    Islamic State has called on its supporters to take action with any available weapons targeting countries it has been fighting.

    There has been a string of deadly attacks claimed by Islamic state in Europe over the past weeks. Last week, assailants loyal to Islamic State forced an elderly Catholic priest in France to his knees before slitting his throat. Since the mass killing in Nice, southern France on July 14, there have been four incidents in Germany, including the most recent suicide bombing at a concert in Ansbach.

    (Reporting by Ali Abdelatti writing by Amina Ismail; Writing by Amina Ismail; Editing by Alison Williams and Marguerita Choy)

    SEE ALSO: 'Unique, strange, and terrible' — ISIS may have created a new type of bomb

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    qusai abtini

    The sitcom is a little like "I Love Lucy," starring a comic housewife who gets into shenanigans and bickers with her husband. Except children play all the roles. And it all takes place in one of the historic stone houses in the old city of Aleppo, besieged by government forces in one of the worst battlegrounds of Syria's civil war.

    "Umm Abdou the Aleppan" is a small curiosity of the 5-year-old war, the first sitcom produced out of rebel-held parts of Syria.

    Aired in 2014 on a local Aleppo station, it was a light-hearted look at life in the war-ravaged city, finding comedy as it showed residents dealing with everything from cut-offs in electricity and water, to factionalism among rebels, to bombardments and violence. The child actors, even as they spot-on mimic characters of a traditional Aleppo neighborhood, provide a tone of innocence.

    The tragic reality intruded on that innocence this month.

    Qusai Abtini, the 14-year-old boy who played the husband, was killed when a missile struck the car he was in as he tried to escape Aleppo. Fresh-faced with a toothy grin and thick black hair, Abtini had become a local celebrity.

    His life and death underscored the suffering of Aleppans, whose city was once the commercial center of Syria with a thriving, unique culture but has now been torn to pieces by fighting, with whole neighborhoods left in ruin. Tens of thousands in the city have been killed since the summer of 2012, when Aleppo split into rebel- and government-held districts and the two sides turned on each other.

    In recent weeks, government forces have completely besieged the rebel-held sections, cutting off the last escape routes. Days after Abtini's death, several dozen men marched through his home district in a symbolic funeral, waving opposition flags and chanting "Qusai has gone to heaven. Bashar is the killer of my people."

    "Umm Abdou the Aleppan" aired nearly 30 episodes, each about 10 minutes long, on the opposition station Halab Today TV. It was filmed in Aleppo, even as it was subjected almost daily to bombardment. In one outtake, three girls performing a scene jump at the sound of an explosion, then go on with their lines.

    aleppo

    Bashar Sakka, the director, said he cast kids because children are the witnesses to "the massacres committed by Assad against childhood."

    The show is steeped in the atmosphere of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, taking place in the stone alleyways of one of its old neighborhoods, with the dialogue in the city's distinct accent of Arabic. The title character, Umm Abdou, was played by a young girl named Rasha, while Abtini played her husband, Abu Abdou.

    Both show a talent for comic timing, playing a stereotypical traditional husband and wife. He's domineering and patriarchal. She's clever, ambitious and a bit ditzy, dealing with neighboring families living on top of each other in close quarters.

    In one episode, the mother of a rebel fighter visits, looking to marry her son to Umm Abdou's daughter. Over tea, Umm Abou tells her all her daughters are married to members of the Free Syrian Army, the comparatively secular rebel umbrella group. When she learns that the prospective groom is a "mujahid"— an Islamic militant fighter — she slyly demands a high dowry to intentionally foil the negotiations.

    In another episode, Umm Abdou decides with her girlfriends to form an all-female rebel faction. Abu Abdou teases her, saying, "You want to go to the front lines when you're afraid of cockroaches." Then he tells her there's a mouse under the couch and laughs as she jumps up and screams.

    Another scene has Abu Abdou going with rebels on a raid, but Umm Abdou gossips about it to all her neighbors — and her husband comes back wounded from an ambush by government forces who learned of the planned attack. "I wonder how everyone found out!" Umm Abdou muses.

    Smoke and flame rise after what fighters of the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) said were U.S.-led air strikes on the mills of Manbij where Islamic State militants are positioned,  in Aleppo Governorate, Syria June 16, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    "Qusai was a very talented boy," Sakka told The Associated Press. "We were looking for an intelligent boy," he said from southern Turkey via Skype. "We wanted him to be free with ideas, and without fear of Bashar Assad's regime and its ruthlessness."

    Abtini was 10 years old when mass protests first erupted against the rule of President Bashar Assad erupted in March 2011. He became quickly entangled in the uprising, taking part in anti-Assad demonstrations, often sitting on his older brother's shoulders. He spoke in opposition videos, criticizing Assad's government and describing Aleppo's destruction.

    At the same time, he acted in school plays. Afraa Hashem, his school's director, saw his talent and introduced him to Sakka.

    "He was very ambitious. Once he moved from acting in plays to TV, his dreams broadened and worked on transforming what he was living through" into his performances, she said, speaking from Aleppo via Skype.

    After the TV series, Abtini had roles in local theater. Last summer, he played a rebel killed in fighting. As his mother weeps over his body, a man tells her: "Be happy for him. He wanted martyrdom and got it."

    During recent shelling, Abtini's home was hit and his father was wounded, left bound to a wheelchair. On July 8, Abtini's father decided to send his children out of Aleppo.

    But as the car Abtini was in made a run down the one road out of rebel-held parts of Aleppo, a missile struck it. It was impossible to tell whether it was a targeted or random attack.

    In a video of the symbolic funeral a few days later, his father in his wheelchair watches the marchers go by, holding a placard reading, "Qusai, Abu Abdu the Aleppan. You are a little hero. You scared the regime with your giant acts so they killed you."

    SEE ALSO: Syria's civil war has spawned a mental health catastrophe

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    San Bernardino shooting

    Attacks across the Western world—including most recently in Nice, but also of course in Brussels, Paris, San Bernardino, and elsewhere—highlight the growing threat from extremism, with Syria as its home base. It’s time to recognize, therefore, that containment of the Syria crisis (which I think is essentially President Obama’s policy and which many in the scholarly community continue to support) is not working.

    Although ISIS has hideouts around the world, Syria is really its epicenter, as my colleague Will McCants has written in his book “The ISIS Apocalypse.” It’s the epicenter not only in terms of operational hold on territory, but also in terms of the group’s narrative: that of waging an apocalyptic fight against the infidels, through which it will “liberate” the Middle East and turn it into a broader ISIS-controlled caliphate.

    But current U.S. policy on Syria appears to try to pull off a far-fetched three-cushion pool shot, in the words of The Washington Post’s David Ignatius: try to get joint U.S.-Russian operations against Nusra and ISIS, and reduce Bashar Assad’s attacks on moderate rebel forces so they can gain ground. (And in the meantime, I’ll add, get support from Jordan’s King Hussein and all of our allies to put pressure on different groups at different times.)

    But will all that actually come together? I applaud Secretary of State John Kerry, with his seemingly boundless energy, for trying to find some way forward. But with only 300 U.S. personnel on the ground and no advantage in structural forces, this approach is not going to work.

    It won’t work because fundamentally the United States and its allies are weak on the ground militarily—and we don’t have a serious strategy for changing that.

    We need to think about solving this problem, and soon. I would propose the following changes in our Syria policy:

    A man carries an injured girl after an airstrike on Aleppo's rebel held Kadi Askar area, Syria July 8, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

    • On the diplomatic front, I think we need to envision some kind of a confederation model as our political goal. There is no other realistic way to square the fact that the United States doesn’t have major allies on the ground, except the Kurds, with real military potential. And yet, we are still hoping to simultaneously defeat ISIS, defeat the Nusra Front, and replace Assad. That approach just doesn’t make sense.
    • Secondly, in terms of military assets on the ground, there are several things we should do differently. For one, we need to be somewhat more willing to work with groups that are tainted by past association with the Nusra Front, as long as we can vouch for the fact that they are not themselves Nusra members. 
      We should give them anti-tank missiles—though not anti-aircraft missiles—and much more help in terms of ammunition, logistics assistance, and food, to help them build up their forces. We must also be clever about employing various options for no-fly zones: We cannot shoot down an airplane without knowing if it’s Russian or Syrian, but we can identify those aircraft after the fact and destroy Syrian planes on the ground if they were found to have barrel-bombed a neighborhood, for example.
      These kinds of operations are complicated, no doubt, and especially with Russian aircraft in the area—but I think we have made a mistake in tying ourselves in knots over the issue, since there are options we can pursue.
    • Finally, we should push the debate about what creating safe havens really means. I don’t think we should start declaring safe havens, but rather try to help them emerge. The Kurds are making gains in Syria’s northeast, for instance, as are some forces on the southern front—so, if the United States, in cooperation with its allies, accelerates and intensifies its involvement on the ground in those areas, safe havens can essentially emerge. An important advantage of this approach is that it doesn’t require putting American credibility on the line, but does help local allies build up and reinforces successes on the ground.

    None of these proposals would be a panacea, and each would come with challenges. But we are in need of a more realistic Syria policy, recognizing that the current three-cushion-shot approach is not working, nor will it ever work if current conditions continue.

    SEE ALSO: One factor may be stopping ISIS and al Qaeda from uniting — and the US should encourage it

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    Syria gas

    BEIRUT — A Syrian rescue service operating in rebel-held territory said on Tuesday that a helicopter dropped containers of toxic gas overnight on a town close to where a Russian military helicopter was shot down hours earlier.

    The opposition Syrian National Coalition accused President Bashar Assad of being behind the attack. Assad has denied previous accusations of using chemical weapons.

    A spokesman for the Syria Civil Defense said 33 people, mostly women and children, were affected by the gas, which they suspect was chlorine, in Saraqeb, in the rebel-held Idlib province.

    The group, which describes itself as a neutral band of search-and-rescue volunteers, posted a video on YouTube apparently showing numerous men struggling to breathe and being given oxygen masks by people in civil-defense uniforms.

    "Medium-sized barrels fell containing toxic gasses," the spokesman said. "The Syrian Civil Defense was not able to determine the type of the gas."

    The Syrian government and its Russian allies were not immediately available for comment.

    The SNC said in a statement: "After shelling, besieging, and killing civilians and perpetrating war crimes on them, the Assad regime has resorted once again, and in breach of UN resolutions 2118 and 2235, to using chemical substances and toxic gasses.

    "The daily reality confirms that all the international agreements and previous security-council decisions, be they about chemical weapons or otherwise, are meaningless for the Assad regime."

    russia syriaThe Civil Defense spokesman said it was the second time Saraqeb had been hit by toxic gas. The group was aware of about nine suspected chlorine gas incidents across Idlib province since the conflict began, he said.

    Monitors at the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks violence on all sides in the civil war, said barrel bombs fell on Saraqeb late on Monday, wounding a large number of citizens.

    Russia's defense ministry said a Russian helicopter was shot down near Saraqeb during the day on Monday, killing all five people on board, in the biggest officially acknowledged loss of life for Russian forces since they started operations in Syria.

    Denials

    The helicopter came down roughly midway between Aleppo and Russia's main air base at Khmeimim in the western province of Latakia, near the Mediterranean coast.

    Russian airpower began supporting Assad late last year, an intervention that tipped the balance of the war in Assad's favor, eroding gains the rebels had made that year.

    The Russian defense ministry said the Mi-8 military transport helicopter was shot down after delivering humanitarian aid to Aleppo as it made its way back to Khmeimim.

    No group has claimed responsibility for downing the helicopter.

    Rebel fighters and civilians inspect the wreckage of a Russian helicopter that had been shot down in the north of Syria's rebel-held Idlib province, Syria August 1, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar AbdullahBoth government and opposition forces have denied using chemical weapons during the five-year-old civil war. Western powers say the government has been responsible for chlorine and other chemical attacks. The government and Russia have accused rebels of using poison gas.

    UN investigators established that sarin gas was used in eastern Ghouta in 2013. The US accused Damascus of that attack, which it estimates killed 1,429 people, including at least 426 children. Damascus denied responsibility and blamed rebels.

    Later that year the UN and the Syrian government agreed to destroy the state's declared stockpile of chemical weapons, a process completed in January.

    The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed in late 2015 that sulfur mustard, commonly known as mustard gas, had been used for the first time in the conflict, without saying which party in the many-sided conflict it thought had used it.

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    Syria street

    ROME (Reuters) - Italian police arrested a Syrian man in the northern city of Genoa on Wednesday on suspicion he was planning to travel to his home country to join Islamist militants.

    Police said in a statement their anti-terrorism unit had arrested an unemployed man, 23, who they said was planning to return to Syria to join the rebel group Nusra Front. He was arrested on suspicion of supporting international terrorism.

    The Syrian Islamist rebel group, which emerged at the start of the Syrian conflict, re-branded itself last week as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and cut ties with international jihadist network al Qaeda.

    Nusra Front and Islamic State are enemies in Syria, but both were excluded from a U.S.- and Russian-backed ceasefire this year.

    Police said they were investigating the arrested man's relationship with other foreigners in the Genoa area to determine whether they were trying to recruit fighters.

    They said there was no indication that attacks in Italy were being planned.

    On Tuesday, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said Italy had expelled a 26-year-old Pakistani man who they said supported Islamic State and was planning to go to Syria to join Islamist militants.

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    aleppo al-quds hospital

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian government forces launched air strikes against six hospitals in the Aleppo area within a week in attacks that amounted to war crimes, a U.S.-based rights group said on Wednesday.

    Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said it was the worst week for attacks on medical facilities in the Aleppo region since the beginning of Syria's five-year conflict, which has killed more than 250,000 people.

    The medical facilities were hit between July 23 and 31, the New York-based group said.

    The city and province of Aleppo have been among the areas hardest hit by intensifying violence as peace efforts earlier this year failed and a fragile ceasefire crumbled.

    "Since June, we've seen increasing reports of attacks on civilians in Aleppo and strikes on the region's remaining medical infrastructure," PHR's director of programs Widney Brown said in a statement.

    "Each of these assaults constitutes a war crime," Brown said.

    Government forces and their allies, with Russian backing, have advanced in recent months and imposed a siege on the rebel-held sector of Aleppo since early July, when they closed the main road from opposition areas out of the city.

    "The bombings, the lack of humanitarian aid and the failure of the United Nations to deliver any kind of assistance means the death toll may soon be catastrophic," Brown said.

    aleppo

    PHR said it has documented more than 370 attacks on 265 medical facilities during the war, and the deaths of 750 medical personnel.

    Many hospitals have been hit or damaged during the five-year conflict. In April, an air strike on a hospital in rebel-held Aleppo killed dozens of people. Rebel rockets hit a hospital on the government side of the city a few days later.

    SEE ALSO: Russia and Syria may be deliberately targeting hospitals in Syria

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    Smoke rises after an airstrike on the rebel held al-Rashideen neighbourhood, Western Aleppo province, Syria July 31, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

    MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Russian military informed the United States that rebels in the Syrian city of Aleppo launched an attack using toxic substances at 19:05 on Aug. 2, Interfax news agency reported on Wednesday, citing a Russian general.

    As a result of the attack, seven people died and more than 20 people were sent to hospital, Interfax reported.

     

    SEE ALSO: US official says use of chemical weapons is routine in Syria

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    ISIS Fallujah

    A detained Islamic State recruit unveiled the existence of an internal intelligence unit tasked with identifying terrorists who can be deployed abroad to carry out the group’s jihadist attacks across the world, the New York Timesreported Wednesday.

    Harry Sarfo, a German prisoner who joined ISIS last year, said when he first arrived in Syria to train with the group, a masked secret service official quickly told him they no longer wanted European fighters traveling to the region. Instead, Sarfo said, ISIS needed ground assistance for operations in the West.

    “He was speaking openly about the situation, saying that they have loads of people living in European countries and waiting for commands to attack the European people,” Sarfo told the Times from a maximum-security prison in northern Germany. “And that was before the Brussels attacks, before the Paris attacks.”

    The secret service official, part of an ISIS intelligence unit called the Emni, said while the group had a solid presence in some European countries, the group needed more terrorists in Germany and Britain.

    Emni is made up of an internal police force and an external operations branch that is charged with coordinating terrorist attacks abroad, the Times reported, citing thousands of pages of European intelligence and interrogation documents.

    The Timesreported:

    Reinforcing the idea that the Emni is a core part of the Islamic State’s operations, the interviews and documents indicate that the unit has carte blanche to recruit and reroute operatives from all parts of the organization–from new arrivals to seasoned battlefield fighters, and from the group’s special forces and its elite commando units. Taken together, the interrogation records show that operatives are selected by nationality and grouped by language into small, discrete units whose members sometimes only meet one another on the eve of their departure abroad.

    isis

    Emni trainees spearheaded the November attacks in Paris that killed at least 130 people and built the suicide bombs deployed at a Brussels airport and subway station, which killed 32 people in March.

    “They always said they wanted to have something that is occurring in the same time: They want to have loads of attacks at the same time in England and Germany and France,” Sarfo said.

    Emni has also exported ISIS foot soldiers to Austria, Germany, Spain, Lebanon, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Malaysia, according to investigative records. Intelligence and defense officials told the Times that ISIS has sent “hundreds of operatives” back to the European Union with “hundreds more in Turkey alone.”

    Sarfo confirmed the US assessment was accurate, saying that “hundreds” have “definitely” returned to their home countries.

    Emni members told Sarfo that the group has struggled infiltrating the US with operatives who have traveled to Syria, and instead turned to social media to recruit Americans.

    Sarfo began planning his escape from ISIS soon after he discovered the group’s propaganda videos were largely staged. He was arrested at Bremen Airport in July 2015, where he voluntarily confessed to terrorism charges. He is expected to serve three years in prison.

    SEE ALSO: FBI director: The terrorism threat out of Syria is 'an order of magnitude greater than anything we’ve seen before'

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    People inspect a site hit by airstrikes in the rebel held town of Atareb in Aleppo province, Syria, July 25, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

    The Syrian civil war is as confusing and opaque as it is sadistic and bloody. On one side stands Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a barbarous tyrant backed by Iran and Russia, Hizbullah, and Shi'ite militias from Iraq, the remnants of the Syrian army, and the odd Kurdish splinter group.

    Against him are arrayed multiple rebel groups including the Islamic State extremist group, Al-Qaeda, and a host of more moderate rebel factions. It is often hard for the observer to make sense of events, let alone understand their true importance. But one thing is clear: the insurgent offensive under way right now in Aleppo aimed at breaking the government siege of rebel-held areas in the east of the city may reshape the direction of the entire war.

    On the weekend of July 30-31, the surrounded rebels who held the center of Aleppo city and a larger body of rebel groups to the west of the city tried to reconnect their battle lines, striking at a position in the strategic Ramouseh district. But, as ever, outgunned, the regime fought back: using Russian airstrikes to try to halt the advance. 

    Syria's revolution is now unequivocally in the balance. As Kyle Orton,  a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, points out in an e-mail interview with RFE/RL, Aleppo is the last major urban holding of the mainstream armed opposition in Syria. If the political process is to amount to anything other than a regime victory in all but name, the rebels have to hold Aleppo City.

    For its part, the regime, with Russian and Iranian help, has severely lessened the strategic threat from the insurgency already -- for them to retake Aleppo City would kill it. Orton is blunt: "In short, the course of the entire war is in the balance with the fate of Aleppo."

    If the rebels succeed in breaking the siege then the pro-regime coalition will suffer a serious strategic setback. As Orton further notes, "the pro-Assad forces [are holding] out in northwestern Syria by some relatively tenuous supply lines through Hama and southern Aleppo." If the rebel positions in Idlib Province and southwestern Aleppo are expanded to include areas of Aleppo City, Assad's bases in the north come under serious threat, and with it Assad's chance of crushing the rebellion entirely. 

    Detoxifying The Islamist Brand

    But there is another more complex and disturbing possibility that encapsulates the problems of Syria in a microcosm. The main rebel players in the offensive are Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front), Ahrar al-Sham, and Free Syrian Army brigades. Al-Qaeda in Syria's renaming of itself as Fatah al-Sham -- officially for the sake of "rebel unity" -- is, in reality, little more than a move to publicly detoxify its brand. 

    Mohammed al-Jolani of Jabhat al-Nusra

    And this is where a major question about the timing of the offensive comes in. Endless rounds of failed peace talks have yielded nothing for the rebels. Discussions of talks scheduled for late August are likely to yield nothing once again. With Iran and now Russia behind it, the regime is now so strong it has little incentive to compromise. Meanwhile, Russian support is not merely confined to the battlefield. Its diplomatic efforts have deftly changed the conversation from one centering on Assad's removal to the conditions under which he will stay in power.

    As each cease-fire inevitably failed (almost invariably broken by pro-Assad forces), Al-Qaeda was eventually able to claim, back in December 2015, that the entire peace process was a "conspiracy" against the revolution. And its absurd claims gained traction among an increasingly desperate population who saw little reaction from the onlooking global community.

    More than this, after each cease-fire ended, Al-Qaeda was the mainstay of much of the rebel fight back -- it was even able to make significant gains in southern Aleppo. In essence, the rebels allowed Al-Qaeda back into the mainstream opposition by their own adherence to previous cease-fire agreements.

    Under its new Jabhat Fatah al-Sham banner, the group can now use the Aleppo offensive as a means by which to further integrate into the mainstream rebel alliance. As Orton states, it presents the group with its best chance yet of using "the rebellion as a shield against external attack, annexing what is an objectively good cause -- breaking the nascent terror-siege of Aleppo City…[to] show its utility as the military tip of the spear to act as a kind of special forces for the insurgency -- and…make connections and alliances that can facilitate its vanguardist program."

    Jabhat al-Nusra, Nusra Front

    Short Supplies

    Meanwhile, the possibility of (yet another) humanitarian catastrophe becomes increasingly distinct. The UN estimates that some 300,000 people are trapped inside the city with rapidly shrinking medical supplies and, critically, declining stocks of food. The regime is clearly going all-out to capture Aleppo and crush the rebellion once and for all.Thus far, however, it has been slow to respond to the rebel counterattack. This state of affairs will not last. It will rain down destruction from the air and the ground. 

    So far reports are sketchy due to an insurgency media blackout in the area, but it does appear that the rebels are making significant steps toward breaking the siege. According to some reports, on August 1, they captured the strategic Al-Mishrefah area, south of the Ramousah air force artillery base. But they still needed to advance another 2.5 kilometers to take the city's artillery base, one of the biggest in all of Syria and a base that has been the linchpin of Assad's defenses in the city.

    Achieving this would allow them to reach their fellow rebels on the Aleppo side. Now, according to Orton, "fragmentary reports [say] there has been intense fighting and very rapid and significant gains for the insurgency…coming within several hundred yards of breaking the siege on eastern Aleppo City."

    If these reports are true -- or if the rebels are able to make minor gains or at least maintain the status quo in the city -- then once again it will be Jabhat Fatah al-Sham that benefits the most. In leading the charge to rescue the besieged population while the world looks on, it will have irretrievably bound itself to the armed opposition in Northern Syria. 

    And that is a scenario that benefits no one -- not the mainstream rebels and most of all, not Syria's long-suffering people.

    SEE ALSO: Russia claims Syrian rebels used chemical weapons in Aleppo

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    Idlib air strike syria

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - Air strikes believed carried out by Russian warplanes hit two displaced persons' camps west of Aleppo and near the Turkish border on Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported.

    It said the strikes killed at least two children and wounded 30 people near the town of Atareb, which is in rebel-held territory. A number of tents were damaged or burned in the strikes, it added.

    Russia has waged an air campaign against insurgents in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since September.

    The British-based Observatory, which tracks the violence using a network of contacts on the ground, said the jets were believed to be Russian because of their color and the fact there were several planes flying in formation.

    SEE ALSO: RUSSIA: It's hard to figure out who is who in Syria when we're targeting air strikes

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    aleppo

    Syria's Aleppo province has long been the seat of intense fighting between Syrian rebels, some of whom the US back, and the Syrian regime backed by Russia.

    Numerous reports of egregious bombings on hospitals and civilian areas by Syrian and Russian warplanes have come out of the area, where fighting has been the norm for much of Syria's 5-year-long civil war.

    But on August 1, when the rebels and Syrian government forces were staging an especially hard battle, which resulted in a helicopter getting shot down and reports of chemical weapon use, the Syrian rebels took a dramatic step to try to halt the feverish pace of airstrikes on the besieged town — they took to the streets and burned tires.

    Numerous videos have popped up on social media showing Syrians rolling out and setting tires ablaze. The thick black smoke rising off the tires can be seen stretching across the city, darkening the horizon and greatly decreasing visibility from the sky.

    While burning tires is hardly a longterm air-defense strategy that any military commander would approve, it certainly could complicate Russian and Syrian bombing runs as they fly low and drop unguided munitions. With poor visibility, the planes would have no idea what, or who, they were bombing.

    Watch a compilation of the scenes below:

    Here a Syrian even goes as far to apologize to environmentalists for burning rubber, but specifically mentions Syrian and Russian airstrikes as his cause:

    These photos purport to show children participating in the tire-burning effort:

    SEE ALSO: Air strikes believed to be Russian hit two displaced persons' camps in Syria

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    putin erdogan

    Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to again be embracing his old friend Russian President Vladimir Putin as he continues to consolidate power after last month's failed military uprising.

    Efforts to reset the Turkish-Russian relationship after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane over eight months ago have been underway since before July's attempted coup. Erdogan reportedly wrote a letter to Putin in late June with the apology Moscow had been demanding since November.

    "I once again express my sympathy and profound condolences to the family of the Russian pilot who was killed, and I apologize to them," Erdogan wrote, according to the Kremlin.

    But the stakes of reviving the relationship may now be significantly higher, as anti-American sentiment peaks within Turkey and Erdogan draws condemnation from the West for his decidedly undemocratic crackdown on those suspected of plotting or sympathizing with the coup.

    Putin, too, has much to gain from strengthening his relationship with Erdogan at such a politically sensitive moment — specifically, the opportunity to undermine the unity of both the European Union and NATO and absorb Turkey into Russia's sphere of influence.

    That may be why Russia was one of the first countries to issue an official condemnation of the coup on July 15 — a gesture that Turkey noticed and evidently appreciated.

    "We thank the Russian authorities, particularly President Putin. We have received unconditional support from Russia, unlike other countries," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglutold Haberturk TV late last month.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) gestures after greeting Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in Moscow's Kremlin July 18, 2012. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

    "Russia may go for a long-term game-changing move and lure Turkey away from the West as part of a broader geopolitical reconfiguration," Middle East expert Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, wrote on Thursday.

    He continued:

    "Unlike Western capitals, Moscow has not bothered much with rule-of-law considerations. A trend toward a more authoritarian leadership in Turkey, one with fewer checks and balances than in any Western democracy, is not something to worry Russian President Vladimir Putin much. On the contrary, it helps him demonstrate that the Russian style of muscular governance is useful to Turkey, at a time when the EU and the United States keep reminding Ankara of their own brand of liberal democracy."

    As such, "an opportunistic convergence of minds might therefore emerge between the two leaders, with each having his own reasons," when they meet next week in St. Petersburg, Pierini said.

    The clearest wrinkle in this potentially game-changing rapport between Russia and Turkey is their support for opposing sides in the Syrian civil war. Russia intervened in the conflict on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad in late September, whereas Turkey has been arming various Syrian opposition groups since 2011 and formally severed ties with the Assad regime in March 2012.

    Syria rebels aleppo

    But as The Wall Street Journal's Yaroslav Trofimov wrote Thursday, even Erdogan's determination to overthrow the Assad regime — which has reportedly been steadily waning — is likely to take a backseat as he restructures the Turkish military and focuses on purging his own country of suspected traitors.

    Gonul Tol, the director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told The Journal that "the generals who were leading the Turkey-Syria policy and the Turkish policy on Syrian Kurds are all in jail now." And Mohamed Hineidi, a senior analyst at the Delma Institute think tank in Abu Dhabi, said the shift in Erdogan's priorities since the uprising was "undermining any future offensives that the rebels could launch."

    'Our greatest and irrevocable goal'

    That shift may have been in the works since well before the uprising even occurred, however, as evidence mounted that Ankara — in the wake of 14 terrorist attacks on Turkish soil in just more than a year — was looking to move away from ideology and toward security as the foundation of its foreign-policy objectives.

    Perhaps most indicative of this policy reset were comments made by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim about Ankara's relationship with Damascus just two days before the attempted coup.

    "It is our greatest and irrevocable goal: Developing good relations with Syria and Iraq, and all our neighbors that surround the Mediterranean and the Black Sea," Yildirim said on July 13. "We normalized relations with Russia and Israel. I'm sure we will normalize our relations with Syria as well. For the fight against terrorism to succeed, stability needs to return to Syria and Iraq."

    Syria map

    As Carnegie's Pierini noted, normalizing relations with Assad might actually be a way for Erdogan to shore up domestic support at a time when he most needs it.

    "An evolution of Ankara's policy toward overt acceptance of the Assad regime might usefully ease up some tensions at home, as Turkey's main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), has long viewed the Assad regime as a guarantor of Turkey's security," Pierini wrote.

    "For Erdogan, this is simply a survival strategy," Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said in an interview last month. "This is like a barter. He gives up the AKP's foreign-policy priorities in exchange for his personal survival in domestic politics."

    People shout slogans and wave Turkish national flags as they have gathered in solidarity night after night since the July 15 coup attempt in central Ankara, Turkey, July 27, 2016. The banner on the right reads

    His best chance of doing that, Erdemir said, is to "back-step from his Islamist stance" and relinquish "neo-Ottoman adventurism" in favor of a more pragmatic and realpolitik approach as he faces threats from ISIS, the insurgent Kurdistan Workers' Party, and, now, from parts of his own military.

    It is little wonder, then, that Moscow would choose now to try to reset its relationship with Ankara.

    "Now that Turkey is moving away from NATO and Washington, Russia has an enormous interest in bringing Turkey into its fold," Lebanese Parliament member Basem Shabb told The Journal.

    He added: "If Syria is important, Turkey is infinitely more important, and Russia isn't going to sacrifice Turkey to please Assad, Hezbollah, or Iran."

    SEE ALSO: 'A critical watershed': The US is underestimating the one thing that could ultimately destroy its relationship with Turkey

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    mosul iraq us airstrikes

    On July 16, coalition military forces in support of Operation Inherent Resolve continued their hunt against ISIS militants with seven airstrikes near Manbij, Syria.

    A press release from US Central Command says five separate ISIS tactical units, nine fighting positions, a tactical vehicle, and a house-borne improvised explosive device were eliminated during this joint assault.

    In addition to the strikes in Manbij, coalition forces also struck other ISIS targets in Iraq — destroying mortar systems, numerous oil tankers, a supply cache, and assembly areas.

    In total, 17 airstrikes using bombers, attack fighters, and remotely piloted aircraft were coordinated against ISIS, the militant group also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh.

    Here's what the strike against fighting positions near Manbij, Syria, looked like:

    Watch the entire video from CJTF Operation Inherent Resolve:

    SEE ALSO: Watch British forces drop 2 2,000-pound bombs on an ISIS camp in one of Saddam Hussein's old palaces

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    A Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter walks in the silos and mills of Manbij after the SDF took control of it, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, July 1, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    BEIRUT — U.S.-backed forces trying to oust Islamic State militants from the Syrian city of Manbij took "almost complete control" of the city on Saturday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

    The Syria Democratic Forces, which includes the powerful Kurdish YPG militia and Arab fighters, launched its campaign two months ago with the backing of U.S. special forces to drive Islamic State from a last stretch of the Syrian-Turkish frontier.

    The official spokesman of the SDF-allied Manbij military council, Sharfan Darwish, told Reuters that battles were continuing but that around 90 percent of the city had now been cleared of Islamic State.

    Pockets of Islamic State militants are still present in the center of the city, the Britain-based Observatory said.

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    Different cultures span the globe — and with that comes different sentiments about fear.

    To determine what global fears are, the World Economic Forum conducted a survey in fall 2015 to determine what the threats and risks for the next decade. This survey included over 700 experts and stakeholders from a variety of fields, including banking, government, and academia.

    Top global risks

    The top global risk in the next 10 years was determined to be "large-scale involuntary migration"— a divisive topic during the time the survey was conducted.

    According to the Pew Research Center, the refugee crisis in the Middle East, particularly the influx of refugees from Syria, gave rise to polarizing news reports — from claims of sexual harassment in Germany, to the potential risk of terrorist infiltration in the incoming wave of refugees.

    The risk that could have the greatest global impact was deemed the "failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation."

    In 2015, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll in which the majorities in all 40 countries it surveyed considered it a serious problem — the publics in 19 countries even deemed it the leading global threat. The fact that leaders from 195 nations attended a UN conference in December to discuss the rising global temperature may have played a role in the worried responses.

    Greatest threats around the world

    Western countries, including the US and parts of Europe, said the threat of ISIS was its top concern. After a series of terrorist attacks throughout the past year, fears of further attacks have spread — even the current political campaigns, both home and abroad, have centered on the problem.

    In other parts of the world, including South America and parts of Asia, climate change is at the top of the list. Given China's and India's smog blanketing large portions of the country, it comes as no surprise that many respondents agreed that climate change is a persistent threat.

    These global risks and threats appear to have dramatically shifted from the worrying state of the economy in 2007. Then, panic of a looming stock market crash and social movements addressing income inequality took precedence over the threat of ISIS.

    dollar euro ruble

    Russia, however, seems to be one of the few exceptions — economic instability remains its top concern. And although the global economy may not have been the overall highest concern among survey respondents, a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of 1,300 top executives suggests that only 27% of them see the global economy improving in 2016.

    Events across the world will no doubt bear some influence in this survey for the future. In particular, the failed coup in Turkey and the terrorist attacks in France suggests that the threat of ISIS may spread across Europe and remain a top threat for Western cultures. Additionally, increasing evidence of climate change and the actions of world leaders may satiate its effect.

    Check out the full report from the Pew Research Center.

    SEE ALSO: It has not been a good year for global-warming skeptics

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    aleppo

    A nearly monthlong government siege of Syria's largest city is on the verge of collapse after a week of heavy fighting in northern and eastern Aleppo led to the defeat of pro-regime forces by a coalition of Syrian opposition groups.

    The siege has not been completely broken, and the situation remains unstable, said Syrian journalist Hadi Alabdallah, who was in Aleppo while the battle unfolded.

    Fights are still erupting sporadically across the city, he said, and airstrikes continue to puncture any aura of calm.

    But the Free Syrian Army, aided by a military alliance of several rebel brigades known as Jaysh al Fateh, or the Army of Conquest, has regained control over a significant portion of Aleppo, including a government supply line leading into the city from the south and a major regime artillery academy.

    "There was initially significant resistance from the pro-regime forces," Alabdallah told Business Insider in an interview from Turkey, where he is receiving medical treatment for an injury he suffered while in Syria. Foreign fighters, including Iran-backed militias and Hezbollah, dominated the pro-regime forces, he said.

    "But after parts of the frontline were recaptured by the rebels, the regime-allied forces deteriorated very quickly," Alabdallah said.

    "It was very surprising, and much faster than anyone had expected," he added. "Officers from those [pro-regime] militias fled and left their soldiers out on the field, so they started to flee as well. That's why the artillery academy was so easy to overrun — it was captured within two hours."

    'A much more cohesive operation'

    Alabdallah's account lines up with what one alleged Hezbollah fighter said in a tape recorded during last week's heavy fighting, which was later leaked on social media.

    The pro-regime fighters "all left us," the combatant said in the message, according to NOW Lebanon. "The Iranian, Afghans and Syrians … all of them left us. We are like dummies — we don't know anything. We are fighting alone."

    "I went to the academy in the afternoon … and only the Lebanese were still there," he added of the artillery academy rebels say they overran.

    Syrian government officials denied reports that the artillery base had fallen to the rebels, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said parts of the base had indeed been taken by the rebel alliance.

    rebels aleppo

    The regime also claimed that insurgents had suffered heavy losses throughout the battles — a claim Alabdallah disputed.

    "Given the scale of the battle and the gains made, the number of lost [rebel] fighters has been very limited," Alabdallah said. He estimated that the opposition was able to recapture 35 square kilometers, or roughly 21 miles, of territory, including strategic infrastructure, from pro-regime forces.

    He cautioned, too, against characterizing the battle as an offensive launched and won by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, an Islamist rebel brigade that until late last month was known as Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria.

    Aleppo

    "There have been many different players all playing a critical role — the forces fighting the regime from inside Aleppo have been almost exclusively FSA," Alabdallah said, using an abbreviation for the Free Syrian Army. "When it comes to operations in southwest Aleppo, Ahrar al-Sham probably played a bigger role than Jabhat Fatah al-Sham."

    Ahrar al-Sham is an Islamist rebel group characterized by Russia and the Syrian government as a terrorist organization. It is backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Both Ahrar al Sham and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham are members of the broader Islamist rebel coalition Jaysh al Fateh.

    Still, Alabdallah said, it remains difficult to say whether any of the rebel groups played an outsize role in the fight to break the siege.

    "Jaysh al Fateh used to fight in a way where each group would take a different front, so that they were essentially divided on battlefield," Alabdallah said. "They would attack together but their resources would be divided. The policy now — in this battle at least — is that all the groups are intermixed in battle. It's a much more cohesive operation."

    'Swings of momentum'

    As the strategic security firm The Soufan Group noted in its daily briefing Monday, the offensive to break the siege "was one of the largest coordinated rebel campaigns of the war to date." But the group cautioned against characterizing the rebel gains as any kind of a decisive blow to the regime.

    "The rebel gains in Aleppo are undeniable and significant, and could possibly trigger some negotiated resolution to the civil war," the note read. "They could also lead to a period of increased fighting and suffering, followed by increased foreign support and swings of momentum, as has every other turning point up to now."

    Alabdallah stressed that the cohesiveness of the operation did not necessarily indicate that the former Al Qaeda affiliate was winning over hearts and minds. The group still "differs too much ideologically" with the more mainstream groups, he said. Rather, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is just one component of a much broader military alliance of groups that each brings its own strengths to the table.

    "Some smaller groups might explore merging in with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham," Alabdallah said. "But I don't expect the dynamics to change that much — the ideological differences are still there."

    aleppoBoth the regime-controlled pockets of Aleppo and those under rebel control reportedly received much-needed aid over the weekend and into Monday.

    Syrian government forces said they had delivered food and fuel to neighborhoods under their control, while photos of an aid convoy carrying food into the rebel-held east from Idlib prompted civilians to take to the streets in celebration — even as the threat of intensified airstrikes loomed over them.

    "The civilians are so happy," Alabdallah said. "They will continue to be bombed, and they will continue taking whatever precautions they need to avoid being killed in the airstrikes. But at least now they won't be starving."

    SEE ALSO: Russia may be preparing a 'long-term, game-changing move' with Turkey

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    Hezbollah Member Lebanon

    BEIRUT – Hezbollah has deployed its elite fighting unit to southwestern Aleppo after rebel forces over the weekend broke the regime’s siege on the opposition-held eastern quarters of Syria’s divided second city, according to Iranian media.

    The semi-official Fars News Agency reported on Sunday that the troops from Hezbollah’s Radwan Forces, one of the party’s special operations unit, were dispatched to Aleppo Hamdaniyah quarter amid the intensified fighting in the city.

    Rebel forces on Saturday pierced through regime lines in the Ramouseh area just south of Hamdaniyah, taking a major artillery base while connecting with their cohorts in eastern Aleppo, who had been under siege of pro-government troops seized control over the Castello road in the north of the city in July.

    Fars News claimed that the Radwan Forces were sent to Hamdaniyah “in preparation for the retaking of the areas in southwest Aleppo from the hands of terrorist groups,” adding that a counteroffensive in the flashpoint front “will be carried out jointly by resistance forces.”

    The report added that despite opposition advances, the Hamdaniyah quarter “enjoys full security,” further claiming that “there is no danger to the residents of the area.”

    However, the Army of Conquest coalition that broke the regime siege on eastern Aleppo announced a highly-ambitious offensive to retake all regime-held areas in the city, which has been divided in half since opposition forces first stormed into the city in the summer of 2012.

    NOW's English news desk editor Albin Szakola (@AlbinSzakola) wrote this report. Amin Nasr translated Arabic-language material. 

    SEE ALSO: Syria's opposition is on the verge of one of the most 'surprising' victories of the revolution

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