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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    syria_texas2

    Imagine a war raging in central Texas, stretching eastward.

    San Antonio lies in the southwest of our fictional battlefield, Austin is 80 miles to the north, and Dallas sits 200 miles farther along the same highway, near the northwestern border.

    Houston does not exist as part of the conflict, lying just outside the southeastern border, and the northeastern edge of this war-torn country peeks into Louisiana and Arkansas.

    During this devastating conflict, many areas have fallen outside the government’s control. Rebel groups have seized huge swaths of territory starting a few miles east of Dallas and progressing all the way to our country’s eastern border.

    The rebels hold sway over dozens of towns, from Greenville, Texas (population: 25,557), all the way to their de facto capital in Shreveport, Louisiana (population: 200,327). With insurgents also seizing many villages to the west and south of Dallas, the government has lost control of roughly 75 percent of the country’s territory.

    Most Americans would understand intuitively how to win this war. The key is to capture the cities spread across the country’s western spine: The metropolitan areas of San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas are home to over 10 million people, dwarfing the villages in east Texas and the scrub brush hinterlands of the Deep South. Control those three cities, and you can muster the resources to beat back a rural insurgency — or hold enough leverage to negotiate an end to the conflict on your terms.

    President Bashar al-Assad has grasped this strategy and is using it to thwart those who seek to topple him.

    Our fictional battlefield is, of course, a map of Syria grafted onto an American landscape: San Antonio lies roughly where Damascus would be, Austin stands in for Homs, and Dallas is Aleppo — the three largest, most prosperous Syrian cities before the war. The war has particularly devastated Homs and Aleppo, with many of the cities’ residents fleeing abroad or to government-held areas around the capital or the coastal districts.

    A general view shows rising smoke from a Syrian regime controlled cement factory, in Aleppo, Syria  August 9, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail But these urban centers still remain vital to Syria — and Assad has made significant progress in securing them, as his opponents squabble among themselves on the country’s fringes.

    International attention on Syria — along with Western coalition airstrikes — is now focused on the struggle for a string of small cities northeast of Aleppo.

    Assad’s enemies in the region — the Islamic State, the pro-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and Turkey-backed rebels — are fighting one another on a battlefield extending from the town of al-Bab to the Euphrates River.

    Major news outlets have takentodescribing the SDF-held town of Manbij as “strategic” during this new wave of fighting. Manbij — which boasted a prewar population of 75,000, similar to Longview, Texas — had never before been described as strategic in the five-year course of the Syrian war, according to a Nexis search.

    Perhaps journalists have awoken to the town’s importance, or perhaps they have manufactured its “strategic” nature to convince readers of their article’s significance.

    If you happen to be a resident of Manbij or a neighboring village, of course, the town is indeed strategic. The area is also significant to the Islamic State due to the border with Turkey, and to the Kurds as a pathway to unite the areas under their control.

    In terms of determining who wins the larger struggle for control of Syria, however, its importance is marginal. In our American battlefield, it corresponds roughly to the area between the Texas towns of Farmersville and Cooper — a 45-mile stretch of land that traverses a few small villages, much like its Syrian counterpart.

    Syria Ethnic MapAssad long ago relinquished control over many of the Syrian equivalents of Farmersville and Cooper. Instead, he has poured his resources into shoring up his position in Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo.

    The stretch of land connecting these three cities, and running through the predominantly Alawite coastal areas that constitute Assad’s strongest base of support, forms what some analysts have termed“useful Syria.”

    It’s not only Syria’s population center, it’s the country’s economic engine. Fabrice Balanche, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, estimates that 10 million of the 16 million Syrians still in the country reside in government-controlled areas centered on this stretch of land.

    Most of the power stations that supply the country with electricity are between Damascus and Aleppo, as Chatham House analyst David Butter helpfully points out, while the refineries that supply fuel to government-controlled areas are around Homs.

    Good province-level data on the Syrian economy is hard to come by, but the Syrian Bureau of Statistics does have prewar statistics that suggest the majority of the country’s private industrial facilities also existed in this area.

    The loyalists’ most notable success has been in Damascus, where pro-government forces have combined a massive barrel-bombing campaign with starvation sieges to beat rebel groups in the capital’s suburbs into submission. Two weeks ago, the rebel-held suburb of Daraya surrendered to the government after a punishing four-year siege.

    A Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) rebel fighter fires his weapon towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad at the Tal-Kurdi frontline in the Eastern Ghouta of Damascus, May 10, 2015. REUTERS/Amer Almohibany

    In May, loyalist fighters capitalized on rebel infighting to capture key agricultural land in East Ghouta — potentially paving the way for even worse starvation when winter comes. The government also appears to have successfully contained any threat from Yarmouk Camp, a settlement for Palestinian refugees near the capital, which has been racked by the Islamic State’s infiltration and a stifling government siege.

    The trends in Syria’s other main cities are also moving in the loyalists’ direction. Pro-government forces, which long ago forced the rebels’ surrender in Homs, this week resumed their bombing of the city’s besieged suburb of al-Waer. The opposition fighters there are negotiating a deal that would see them withdraw from the area.

    The coastal governorates of Tartous and Latakia remain firmly in the government’s hands, and the rebel offensive in the south has faltered badly. The news from Aleppo is also bad for the anti-Assad fighters: On Sunday, loyalist forces re-imposed a siege on rebel-held areas of the northern city.

    None of this is to suggest that Assad should rest easy. These gains have been possible only with massive Russian and Iranian intervention, and there is every reason to believe Assad could fall if Moscow or Tehran were to dial back their support.

    Assad also risks Russia and Iran taking steps in Syria that are beneficial to their own strategic interests but harmful to his authority — as arguably just occurred when President Vladimir Putin neglected to use his air defenses in Syria to thwart Turkey’s incursion in the north.

    Assad

    Assad should also be concerned about his faltering grip over the Syrian forces fighting on his side. Tobias Schneider, in a persuasive article for War on the Rocks, details how the long war has eaten away at Syria’s state institutions.

    The armed forces have crumbled, he argues, replaced by local militias that engage in criminal enterprises, smuggling, and destructive infighting on a scale that the government is too weak to control. It is these armed thugs, Schneider argues, who truly hold sway in “government-held” Syria — not Assad himself.

    Assad faces increasing threats to his authority from his domestic and international allies, even as the constellation of “pro-Assad” forces makes progress in beating back the armed insurgency. Translated to our imaginary Texas battlefield, he has increasingly succeeded in securing San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas and transforming the conflict into a struggle for ancillary towns like Greenville or Longview.

    It is possible that Kurdish or Turkey-backed forces will hold on to these outlying towns and villages, even as their ability to threaten Assad’s grip over the rest of the country grows increasingly illusory.

    The Syrian president could well lose this war, but he is making it very difficult for rebel forces to win.

    SEE ALSO: This is what Aleppo is

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    afp syria truce to begin after bloody weekend

    Beirut (AFP) - A ceasefire in Syria brokered by Russia and the United States is due to begin at sundown Monday, after scores of civilians were killed in a bloody weekend of strikes.

    The truce, announced after marathon talks by the Russian and US foreign ministers, has been billed as the best chance yet to end Syria's five-year civil war estimated to have killed more than 290,000 people.

    As the clock ticks towards sunset when the ceasefire is expected to start, rebels battling the Syrian regime and the political opposition are still weighing whether to abide by the agreement.

    Only one rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, had given its official reaction -- a rejection of the ceasefire deal, which the influential hardline Islamists said would only serve to strengthen the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

    But even as world powers threw their support behind the deal, weekend strikes on the key opposition cities of Aleppo and Idlib killed at least 74. Regime air raids on rebel-held parts of Aleppo killed six civilians and wounded 30 on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

    "We hope there will be a ceasefire so that civilians can get a break. The shelling goes on night and day, there are targeted killings, besieged cities," said Abu Abdullah, who lives in Aleppo's rebel-held east.

    "Civilians have no hope anymore."

    Unidentified warplanes bombarded both cities on Saturday, killing 62 in Idlib alone. The strikes in Idlib hit several areas including a market full of shoppers preparing for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which begins on Monday. 

    Assad, allies welcome truce 

    State news agency SANA reported Saturday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government "approved the agreement" for a truce. Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, which has intervened militarily on behalf of Assad, also announced its support.

    Key Assad and Hezbollah backer Iran also welcomed the deal, although foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi cautioned that its success relies on creating "a comprehensive monitoring mechanism, in particular control of borders in order to stop the dispatch of fresh terrorists" to Syria.

    Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad flash victory signs as they stand at a military complex, after they recaptured areas in southwestern Aleppo on Sunday that rebels had seized last month, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on September 5, 2016. SANA/Handout via REUTERSSyria's main opposition group the High Negotiations Committee -- grouping political dissidents as well as armed rebel factions -- had yet to formally respond.

    But the hardline Ahrar al-Sham, which works closely with former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front, rejected the deal, saying it would "send all the sacrifices and gains of our people who have risen up into smoke".

    Fateh al-Sham is not covered by the truce agreement but it too dismissed the plan, with spokesman Mostafa Mahamed writing on Twitter: "Negotiations and deals which do not take account of fighters on the ground are useless."

    Syrians 'have lost faith' 

    In the capital Damascus, resident Taher Ibrahim said he did not expect any lasting respite from the fighting. "Nobody among the Syrian population accepts this agreement... (the opposition) are all the same and none of them will commit to this truce," he said. 

    But in rebel-held Douma, besieged by government forces since 2013, the local council said it backed the truce and appealed for peace, stressing: "Enough of war."

    The agreement was reached after talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva. It would see fighting and indiscriminate air attacks halt across the country, starting at sundown on Monday for 48 hours, which could then be renewed. 

    To get aid into besieged Aleppo, cut off last week by regime forces for the second time in two months, a "demilitarised zone" would be established around the Castello Road into the city.

    If the ceasefire holds for one week, the US and Russia -- which back opposing sides in the conflict -- could start joint operations against jihadists from the Islamic State group and Fateh al-Sham. Pro-government Syrian newspaper Al-Watan said on Sunday the deal would pave the way for renewed peace talks in Geneva.

    Several attempts at negotiations have failed since the conflict erupted, with talks earlier this year in the Swiss city fizzling out after the opposition walked away in protest at the humanitarian situation.

    Join the conversation about this story »

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    Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with NBC News in this handout picture provided by SANA on July 14, 2016. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

    An emboldened President Bashar al-Assad vowed on Monday to take back all of Syria, hours before the start of a ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia, which Assad's opponents described as stacked in his favor.

    In a gesture loaded with symbolism, state television showed Assad visiting Daraya, a Damascus suburb long held by rebels but recaptured last month after fighters there surrendered in the face of a crushing siege.

    The Syrian leader performed Muslim holiday prayers alongside other officials in a bare hall in a Daraya mosque.

    "The Syrian state is determined to recover every area from the terrorists," Assad said in an interview broadcast by state media, flanked by his delegation at an otherwise deserted road junction.

    He made no mention of the ceasefire agreement, but said the army would continue its work "without hesitation, regardless of any internal or external circumstances".

    The ceasefire is due to take effect at sundown, and includes improved humanitarian aid access and joint U.S. and Russian targeting of hardline Islamists. But it faces big challenges, including how to separate nationalist rebels from the jihadists.

    The rebels say the deal benefits Assad, who appears stronger than at any point since the early days of the war, with military support from Russia and Iran.

    syria

    The capture of Daraya, a few kilometers (miles) from Damascus, followed years of siege and bombardment and has helped the government secure important areas to the southwest of the capital near an air base.

    Backed by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias, the army has also completely encircled the rebel-held half of Aleppo, Syria's largest city before the war, which has been divided into government and opposition-held zones for years.

    In the footage of his visit to Daraya, Assad, 51, appeared to be driving his own vehicle, a silver SUV, as he arrived at the mosque. He smiled and waved as he entered.

    FIGHTING CONTINUES

    syria map

    Daraya was evacuated following a local agreement between the army and rebels that let fighters escape to a rebel stronghold while civilians were sent to another government-held area. The U.N.'s aid chief, Stephen O'Brien, voiced "extreme concern", emphasizing the harsh conditions that led to the surrender. The government has sought similar deals in other besieged areas.

    Russia's intervention in the Syrian war a year ago has tilted it in Assad's favor, after rebel advances had posed a growing threat to his rule. It has also given Russia decisive leverage over international diplomacy that has thus far failed to make any progress towards a political settlement.

    The Russia-U.S. deal is the second attempt to bring about a ceasefire this year, after an agreement concluded in February collapsed as each side blamed the other for violations.

    Washington, which supports some rebel factions, has been seeking to refocus the fighting in Syria on the Islamic State group, which still controls swathes of the country and has not been included in any ceasefires.

    Fighting raged on several key frontlines on Monday, including Aleppo and the southern province of Quneitra.

    "There are no signs we are going to a truce so far," said Rami Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict.

    The Syrian war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced 11 million people from their homes in the world's worst refugee crisis. The new truce has official support from countries on both sides, including both Iran, Assad's ally, and Turkey, a major sponsor of the insurgency against him.

    TRICKY

    Under the agreement, Russian-backed government forces and opposition groups, which are supported by the United States and Gulf States, would halt fighting for a while as a confidence building measure.

    During this time, opposition fighters will have the chance to separate from militant groups in areas such as Aleppo.

    But distinguishing rebels protected by the ceasefire from jihadists who are excluded from it is tricky, particularly with regards to a group formerly called the Nusra Front, which was al Qaeda's Syria branch until it changed its name in July.

    The group, which now calls itself Jabhet Fateh al-Sham, is playing a vital role in the battle for Aleppo allied with other rebel factions, but is still outside the ceasefire.

    Jabhat Fateh al-Sham Syria

    The United States has said the deal includes agreement that the government will not fly combat missions in an agreed area on the pretext of hunting fighters from the former Nusra Front. However, the opposition says a loophole would allow the government to continue air strikes for up to nine days after the ceasefire takes effect.

    Nationalist rebel groups, including factions backed by Assad's foreign enemies, wrote to Washington on Sunday to express deep concerns over the truce. The letter, seen by Reuters, said the opposition groups would "cooperate positively" with a ceasefire but believed the terms favored Assad.

    It said the ceasefire shared the flaw that allowed the government to scupper the previous truce: a lack of guarantees, monitoring mechanisms or sanctions against violators.

    It also said Jabhet Fateh al-Sham should be included in the truce, as the group had not carried out attacks outside Syria despite its previous ties to al Qaeda. Jabhet Fatah al-Sham said the deal aimed to weaken the "effective" anti-Assad forces, and to "bury" the revolution.

    The government has made no comment on the agreement, but Syrian state media quoted what it called private sources as saying the government had given its approval.

    The previous cessation of hostilities agreement resulted in a U.N.-led attempt to launch peace talks in Geneva. But these broke down before getting started in earnest.

    Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said a new round of talks between the Syrian government and opposition may be held in early October, the RIA news agency said.

    "I think that probably at the very beginning of October (U.N. Syria envoy Staffan) de Mistura should invite all the parties," Bogdanov was quoted as saying.

     

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    RTX2O6TI

    Syria's army says it has begun implementing a US-Russian cease-fire, but the country's most powerful insurgent groups have not yet said whether they will abide by it.

    The Syrian government and its main allies, Russia and Iran, say they will abide by the weeklong truce, which was set to begin at 7 p.m. (1600 GMT) on Monday.

    Half an hour before the truce went into effect, violence was reported in several areas throughout Syria.

    The deal, announced last week by Washington and Moscow, calls for a halt to fighting between the US-backed opposition and the Russian-allied Syrian government.

    If the truce holds for a week, the US and Russia would begin intelligence sharing and target coordination against the Islamic State group and al-Qaida-linked militants.

    SEE ALSO: The US and Russia reach breakthrough agreement on Syria ceasefire

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    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) shake hands at the conclusion of their news conference following their meeting in Geneva, Switzerland where they discussed the crisis in Syria September 9, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

    Two major players in Syria have signaled their intention not to cooperate just 48 hours after the US signed a ceasefire deal with Russia.

    US Secretary of State John Kerry announced the ceasefire deal with his Russian counterpart in Geneva Saturday morning. The agreement stipulates that beginning Monday morning, all parties in Syria will begin a “genuine reduction of violence,” for a period of one week. If the ceasefire holds for a week, then the US will open a joint operations center with Russia meant to target the Islamic State and al-Qaida elements in Syria.

    The largest rebel group in Syria stated unequivocally Sunday it would not cooperate with the ceasefire agreement. The rebel group maintains deep ties to al-Qaida, and said a ceasefire would only benefit the Assad regime. The lack of cooperation from one of the biggest battlefield forces in Syria will make it difficult for a “genuine reduction in violence” to occur.

    Assad’s rhetoric in the hours before the ceasefire began also calls into doubt his willingness to abide by the agreement. Assad appeared in a symbolic neighborhood Monday and vowed to “retake every inch of Syria.” Assad painted any group who opposed his rule as “terrorists” and said “After five years, some people still haven’t woken up from their fantasies.”

    Kerry and Obama’s first ceasefire deal in Syria fell apart after after Russia, Syria, and several rebel groups consistently violated the agreement. Despite this Kerry pledged at the deal’s announcement, “We believe the plan, if implemented, if followed, has the ability to provide a turning point, a change.”

    Assad’s position will pose a challenge to Russia, who under the agreement must restrain him from striking rebel targets. Restraining Assad will be especially difficult when one of his biggest battlefield foes has already signaled it will continue attacking regime targets.

    SYRIA CONTROL map

    Even if the ceasefire agreement holds for a week, US defense officials are deeply skeptical of cooperating with Russia in counter-terrorism targets. Under the deal both parties must agree that a group is a legitimate terrorist target before it can be bombed. Russia has established a consistent pattern of labeling any group that opposes Assad as “terrorists.”

    The deal also does not deal in any way with the myriad of extra-national forces fighting for the Assad regime in Syria. These forces include Iranian backed Hezbollah fighters, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps paramilitary forces, and unacknowledged Russian ground mercenaries.


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    john kerry

    Secretary of State John Kerry warned that the cease-fire deal brokered by the US and Russia "may be the last chance we have to save a united Syria,"CNN reported on Monday, hours after the truce started.

    The Obama administration believes a truce leading to negotiations "is the only realistic possible solution," Kerry told reporters at the State Department.

    Kerry acknowledged the temporary peace deal is "less than perfect" but said the situation in Syria before the deal was "worse than flawed," according to CNN.

    Kerry said it was too early to evaluate the effectiveness of the cease-fire, and cast no doubt that some violence would be reported "here and there,"according to Reuters.

    As part of the ceasefire, the Syrian army has announced a halt to military operations for seven days. The ceasefire, if it manages to remain in effect, will allow the delivery of aid and humanitarian assistance to besieged areas of the nation.

    Early reports demonstrate some reduction of violence in Syria but there's also mounting evidence showing how hard it will be to ensure that the ceasefire remains intact.

    The Free Syrian Army, according to the BBC, has said that it will "co-operate positively" with the ceasefire. However, the group also voiced concerns that the deal will ultimately benefit the Syrian government at the expense of rebel held areas.

    And Ahrar al-Sham, a major Islamist group operating in the country, initially announced via an online statement that it would not respect the ceasefire as the group “is not bound by the truce and won’t abide by it."

    Like the Free Syrian Army, the group also doubted the ceasefire and said a truce would only benefit Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces, making it difficult for a "genuine reduction in violence" to occur, according to Daily Caller.

    Ahrar al-Sham

    Ahrar al-Sham also called out the ceasefire for the provision that, should the deal hold for seven days and humanitarian aid flows unimpeded, Russia and the US would begin joint strikes against the al Qaeda Jabhat Fatah al-Sham affiliate and would share intelligence through a Joint Implementation Center (JIC).

    "We're going to measure [the situation in Syria] every single day, and we'll see where we are," Kerry said about the possible implementation of the JIC.

    A later statement from State Department Spokesperson John Kirby stated that the purpose of the (JIC) was to coordinate with Russia, and that Syria would have no role in the effort.

    "A primary purpose of this agreement, from our perspective, is to prevent the Syrian regime air force from flying or striking in any areas in which the opposition or Nusra are present. The purpose of the JIC, if and when it is established, would be to coordinate military action between the US and Russia, not for any other party," said Kirby.

    SYRIA CONTROL map

    Ahrar al-Sham said that ultimately, the  ceasefire was an "unjust agreement" that signaled the lack of seriousness on the international community's part to end the multi-year Syrian conflict.

    Another major sticking point that the opposition has with the ceasefire is the lack of an enforcement mechanism to ensure that all parties abide by the truce. However, The Washington Post reports that Kerry said the situation will be constantly closely monitored and that if the peace process is not met then the US will refuse to participate in the JIC with Russia. 

    The ceasefire is also on rocky ground due to luke warm support from the Syrian government. Hours before the start of the cease-fire, President Assad vowed to "retake every inch of Syria," adding that the army would continue its work "without hesitation, regardless of any internal or external circumstances" without mentioning the truce agreement explicitly, Reuters reported.

    Additionally, neither Assad nor the rebel groups have officially accepted the ceasefire. However, both sides have said signaled that they will comply with the agreement, The Washington post reports.

    SEE ALSO: Syrian cease-fire brokered by US and Russia goes into effect

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    afp syria truce to begin after bloody weekend

    A new “cessation of hostilities” is beginning in Syria, with the US and Russia preparing to co-ordinate air strikes against militant jihadist factions.

    If the temporary ceasefire holds for the intended ten days – and there are plenty of observers who don’t expect it to-peace-deal.aspx) – it provides a chance for the embattled government in Damascus to briefly step back from a nightmarishly complex and bloody campaign.

    One of the most worrying developments in the complex Syrian war is the apparent impunity of the Assad regime, which has continued to order repeated air attacks on hospitals and other medical centres, used barrel bombs in tightly populated cities, and has even deployed chlorineas a chemical weapon. Indeed, ever since Russia entered the air war, Bashar al-Assad’s government has felt increasingly secure and able to act as it wishes.

    Russia’s motives for helping the regime come largely from Vladimir Putin himself. He is determined to show that Russia is still a great power, especially after the contempt with which Western leaders treated it after the Soviet Union collapsed. It has proved a popular stance with most Russians, even though the military actions in Ukraine, especially Crimea, have proved costly precisely at a time of low oil and gas prices, and the sanctions imposed by the West for its behaviour have been painful indeed.

    Such problems rarely make the Russian media, but Russians themselves are all too aware of the shortages. They also see the constant attempts by the authorities to extract taxes, tariffs and other kinds of fiscal revenue, it being commonly understood that this is necessary to “pay for Crimea”.

    If the Assad regime feels safe with Russia’s backing, it has added assurance that Washington and other Western governments have little interest in bringing it down. For at least two years their priority has been to crush IS, with the US-led coalition at the centre of an incredibly intense air war.

    The long game

    A civilian removes the rubble in front of a damaged shop after an airstrike in the rebel held al-Saleheen neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria August 18, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

    The sheer intensity of the aerial conflict has simply not been adequately conveyed to audiences not following it closely. In the summer of 2016, the Pentagon suggested that 45,000 IS supporters had already been killed. The transparency project Airwars has tallied around 15,000 air strikes to date, with more than 52,000 missiles and bombs dropped. The group’s minimum assessment of civilian casualties is 1,592, but it believes the true figure is much higher.

    And while the Russians have mounted a minority of the attacks, they have been notoriously indiscriminate – almost as bad as the Assad regime’s air force – especially in the last three months of 2015.

    But if the regime is now so confident and the Americans and their partners so focused on defeating IS, why is the latest ceasefire deal even happening, and what are its chances of success?

    For Washington and its allies, a cessation of fighting elsewhere in Syria, which then allows it to concentrate its resources against IS, is not only acceptable but received with some enthusiasm. Russia, though, is another matter.

    Putin and his government want to ensure that a friendly regime survives in Damascus, and in turn provides support for an expansion of Russian influence in the region. The Middle East so far remains largely the domain of the US and its weak European allies; by challenging them, Putin can enjoy and grow the status he desires. Russia may be a weak state, its GDP a mere fraction of the US’s or China’s, but it’s not hard for Putin to portray it as a serious player on the world stage.

    For Russia, a ceasefire is also a crucial means of reducing the costs of war, offering it major-player status without the costs that would usually entail. It also makes it less likely that Russia will end up sucked into a long war in the Middle East, one that might well turn out to be as big a burden as its doomed 1980s campaign in Afghanistan.

    Shifting sands

    obama putin

    Another question altogether is why Russia has now decided to participate directly in the air war against IS, rather than concentrating as it has on the militias directly engaging Assad’s forces.

    One likely answer is that Russia’s domestic counter-terrorism people are seriously worried about an increase in radicalisation among its 16m-plus Muslims, many of them thoroughly alienated from conventional society. Aiding the destruction of IS before it attracts even more adherents, especially in the Caucasus, may therefore make political sense.

    So in the short term, will this latest ceasefire last? On recent evidence, not likely. Not only are IS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham not part of it, but some other key rebel groups are deeply suspicious, even including some that have previously received Western support.

    There is always hope, and at the very least, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov still have a good working relationship. But nonetheless, the best that can be hoped for is a temporary respite which allows aid to get into to the worst-affected areas, and that at least some local ceasefires might last even if the national cessation of hostilities collapses.

    In the longer term, we have to recognize that this is one of the most complex conflicts that the world has seen for generations.

    On both sides, it’s become what amounts to a double-layered proxy war: on the one hand, Hezbollah and Iran are backed by Russia to support Assad, and on the other, key Gulf-Arab states are backed by the West to in turn fund and equip various rebels. There are the intense complications of Turkey’s ever-shifting attitude to IS, the Kurds, and even NATO. There’s the continuing war in Iraq with its links to Syria – and to cap it all, there’s the catastrophe that might ensue if Donald Trump somehow wins the US presidential election.

    All the while, ordinary Syrians are being injured and killed in their hundreds of thousands, and millions are still fleeing the country via dangerous, even lethal routes. A new ceasefire may technically be in place, but cause for optimism is thin on the ground.

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    Smoke from explosions rises during fighting in the village of Jubata Al Khashab in Syria, as seen from the Israeli side of the border fence between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights September 11, 2016.

    Israel has denied claims by the Syrian army that it downed an Israeli plane and drone on Tuesday, Reuters reports.

    Earlier on Tuesday, Israel had struck the Syrian military after stray mortar fire hit the Golan Heights, according to Haaretz

    An Israel Defense Forces spokesman told Haaretz that two surface-to-air missiles were fired from Syria as response to the Israeli strike but that the Israeli jets were not struck.

    "At no point was the safety of (Israeli) aircraft compromised," the Israeli military said in a statement, Reuters reports.

    The strike came hours after a ceasefire brokered by the US and Russia went into effect in Syria.

    But Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had already hinted on Monday he would continue recovering "every area from the terrorists," and would continue doing so "without hesitation, regardless of any internal or external circumstances."

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    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) shake hands at the conclusion of their news conference following their meeting in Geneva, Switzerland where they discussed the crisis in Syria September 9, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday sought to diffuse criticism of a U.S.-Russian ceasefire agreement on Syria arguing that without it violence would increase significantly with many more Syrians slaughtered or forced to flee the war-torn country.

    The deal struck between Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Friday agreed to a seven-day period of reduced violence and increased humanitarian aid deliveries.

    If the truce holds, U.S. and Russian militaries would begin to coordinate air strikes against Nusra Front and Islamic State militants in an agreed area.

    The plan aims to bring together the warring Syrian sides for talks on a political transition, which would involve Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stepping aside.

    "It's a last chance to be able to hold Syria together," Kerry said in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition. "If you fail to get a cessation in place now and we cannot get to the table, then the fighting is going to increase significantly."

    He added: "What's the alternative? The alternative is to allow us to go from 450,000 people who have been slaughtered to how many thousands more? That Aleppo gets completely overrun? That the Russians and Assad simply bomb indiscriminately for days to come and we sit there and do nothing?"

    The five-year war has killed an estimated 430,000 people since the start of the conflict, with roughly 11 million people made homeless in the world's worst refugee crisis.

    Senior U.S. military and intelligence have criticized the plan saying Russia cannot be trusted. The plan envisions the U.S. military sharing targeting information for strikes against militants with Russian forces.

    Kerry said the agreement had the support of U.S. President Barack Obama, with whom he met on Tuesday.

    "Well, the president of the United States is ready and I think the military therefore will be ready," he said.

    "Nobody's asking people to abrogate our standards, but it is important for us to keep our part of the bargain," Kerry added.

    The agreement marks the biggest test yet by Washington that it can work with Moscow to end a war that President Vladimir Putin transformed a year ago when he sent warplanes to join the fight on Assad's side

    Kerry said moderate opposition fighters, backed by the United States and Gulf allies, had been losing ground to Russian-backed government forces.

    "The dynamic of Assad hammering them and Russia hammering them is going to drive them into the hands of Nusra and ISIL," said Kerry, "And you'll have a greater degree of radicalization of increased intensity."

    Twenty-four hours after the truce took effect, senior State Department officials said there had been a reduction in violence.

    U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura declared that U.N. aid access should be possible soon, including to eastern Aleppo, the rebel-held half of the city that is under blockade.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the most intense fighting since the ceasefire began took place on Tuesday night in the village of Maan in Hama province. Insurgents operating in the Hama area included jihadists and nationalist rebels fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner.

    It was not immediately clear whether the insurgents were part of the ceasefire, although the senior U.S. official said all groups except Nusra and Islamic State had to abide by the cessation of hostilities rules.

    (Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Michael Perry)

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    Activists in Syria’s besieged Aleppo protest against the United Nations for what they say is its failure to lift the siege off their rebel-held area, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016.  Dozens of protesters marched in al-Shaar neighborhood heading toward the Castello road, the area from which aid is expected to be delivered. “Hunger better than humiliation,” one banner read. “X the UN,” another read. (Modar Shekho via AP)

    BEIRUT (AP) — Russia said Wednesday that separating Syrian rebels from 'terrorists' is a "key task" to ensure that the Russia-U.S.-brokered cease-fire continues to hold in Syria, where a relative calm has prevailed since the truce went into effect two days ago.

    The cease-fire deal was reached over the weekend after marathon negotiations between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Underscoring the complexity of the new arrangement, the deal was not made public in its entirety even as it came into effect at sunset Monday.

    By midday Wednesday, there were no reports of major violations of the agreement, which calls on all parties to hold their fire, allowing only for airstrikes against the extremist Islamic State group and al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria, known currently as Jabah Fatah al-Sham.

    One of Syria's most powerful factions, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham's battlefield alliance with other insurgent groups makes it difficult for the United States to target them without the danger of inflicting harm to other opposition groups.

    The agreement is also to allow for humanitarian aid to reach besieged areas, with the rebel-held part of the northern city of Aleppo as a priority.

    However, some 20 trucks carrying U.N aid and destined for rebel-held eastern Aleppo remained Wednesday in the customs area on the border with Turkey "because of lack of de facto assurances of safe passage by all parties," Jens Laerke, deputy spokesperson for the U.N. office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs told The Associated Press in an email.

    The trucks are carrying mostly food items, and are destined for the residents of eastern Aleppo, estimated at 250,000. Details of who is to distribute the aid are also still being worked out.

    Meanwhile, Syrian state media reported violations of the cease-fire in central Homs, saying that rebels fired mortar rounds Wednesday in a rural part of the province. A day earlier, the government said rebels had targeted the Castello road, the only remaining artery by which aid reaches the eastern, rebel section of Aleppo.

    For their part, opposition forces said they had recorded some 28 various violations by government troops on Tuesday.

    The chief of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Wednesday there were no reported civilian casualties in the first 36 hours of the cease-fire.

    "The violations are negligible. Most importantly, there were no Syrian civilian deaths," Rami Abdurrahman told the AP.

    A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Kremlin is hopeful the truce deal "will create the necessary environment for political settlement."

    "The cease-fire is quite fragile and the key task now is to wait until moderate opposition stands aside from terrorist groups. It's a key task without which further progress can hardly be possible," Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow.

    Russia launched its military operation in Syria last year to support ally President Bashar Assad's forces.

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    Turkey army

    Turkish troops and special forces, backed by allied Syrian rebel groups, launched on August 24 the Euphrates Shield operation to liberate the strategic Syrian city of Jarablus on the border with Turkey from ISIS.

    Turkey's president later vowed to press ahead with the military offensive until ISIS and Syrian Kurdish militias no longer posed a security threat to Turkey.

    As a result, military clashes erupted on August 27 between the Turkish coalition and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The clashes further escalated when one Turkish soldier was killed, three were wounded and at least two Turkish tanks were targeted by SDF forces.

    Turkish artillery and jets retaliated by hitting SDF targets across several areas in Syria. There are profound concerns that this escalation could lead to an all-out confrontation between Turkey and its rebel allies against the SDF, which could further complicate the Syrian conflict and hinder the war against ISIS.

    The Turkish-backed offensive was launched to take the border town of Jarablus and hamper both SDF and ISIS aims in northern Syria. Turkey is worried that advances by Syrian Kurdish fighters will embolden Kurdish militants in their own southeast, where it has been fighting an insurgency for three decades led by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

    SDF motives were perceived with more suspicion by Turkey, Syrian rebel groups and some locals after the group turned away from previous promises to leave the liberated town of Manbij to be governed by locals after the fighting against ISIS was complete.

    The indications that the SDF also intended to continue their military advance to connect the Kurdish-controlled western canton of Afrin to the Rojava region (also known as Western or Syrian Kurdistan) played a crucial role in pushing Turkey to launch the first ground military operation in Syria. Turkish officials insist that Kurdish forces should immediately withdraw east of the Euphrates River or face more attacks by Turkish forces. 

    Tension and competition over territory resulted in military confrontations between the Turkish-led groups and the SDF around northern Syria. Syrian rebels announced on August 27 the seizing of a number of villages south of Jarablus from ISIS and the SDF. The fiercest clashes reportedly took place over the village of Amarneh, 8-kilometers south of Jarablus. The media office of Nour al-Din al-Zinki, a Syrian group backed by Turkey, claimed that Syrian rebel offensive was backed by Turkish tanks.

    The SDF also reported that they destroyed a Turkish tank and killed a number of soldiers while defending Amarneh. The Jarablus Military Council, a majority Arab group that is affiliated with the SDF, also reported that the clashes were preceded by Turkish airstrikes against the bases of Kurdish-affiliated forces and residential areas at Amarneh.

    “This creates a dangerous precedent and escalation that threatens the faith of the region and turns it into an arena for a new conflict, amid threats of the factions of the Turkish occupation,” the council said. The clashes, which continued overnight, were also reported by the Anadolu Agency, Turkey’s state news agency, without naming which group or village was targeted.

    Kurdish peshmerga

    The general command of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) went on to accuse the Turkish-led forces of attacking YPG positions in the Raju district, which lies in the de facto Kurdish-controlled canton of Afrin in northwestern Syria. The attack reportedly resulted in the death of five YPG fighters as well as one member of the Asayesh, the Kurdish internal security force. Although the situation has become cautiously calmer in Afrin, it has been reported that Turkish tanks, artillery (155 Fırtına self-propelled howitzers) and forces continue to “mass” across the border. 

    Furthermore, the YPG claimed in a statement that the Turkish army also crossed the border near Kobane, and opened fire on cars traveling the highway between the towns of Amude and Derbisiye in northeastern Syria. Kurdish civilians and officials alike have protested against the presence of the Turkish military vehicles, which have remained in the area of Kobane in newly dug defensive trenches.

    The frequency and intensity of future military confrontations between Turkish-backed forces and the SDF will likely rise as the groups come into further contact along shared front lines. The Turkish-led forces share a small front line with SDF forces close to Jarablus, where most of the clashes took place. Syrian rebels backed by Turkey have also indicated their readiness to push towards the ISIS-occupied town of Al-Bab in the northeastern countryside of Aleppo in order to prevent the SDF from connecting the western canton of Afrin to the rest of Rojava regions.

    If the Turkish-led coalition succeeds in capturing al-Bab and SDF forces maintain their presence west of the Euphrates River, then more clashes are expected to take place. The SDF withdrawing all their military strength in the region east across the Euphrates River has been a key Turkish demand during the offensive.

    The US has been able to broker a ceasefire between Turkey and the SDF, which prevented the small clashes from becoming an all-out confrontation. However, as long as there is no solid agreement between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds on how to coexist together, the threat of future clashes will remain. 

    SEE ALSO: We interviewed a Peshmerga soldier fighting ISIS on the frontlines — here's what he had to say

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    Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, in this October 20, 2015 file photo. To match Insight MIDEAST-CRISIS-SYRIA/PUTIN REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/ Files

    The cease-fire in Syria brokered by the US and Russia has temporarily put a stop to fighting in some parts of the war-torn country, but it could have unintended consequences that end up working in favor of the leader whom US-backed rebels are trying to oust.

    The cease-fire, which went into effect on Monday, will in theory allow humanitarian aid to get through to besieged areas like Aleppo, a city where civilians have lived with daily bombardments and a dire lack of food and medical supplies. The cease-fire is also meant to facilitate joint efforts between the US and Russia to target terrorists in Syria.

    The weeklong truce, however, has raised red flags for local actors who "see it as an Assad regime victory in disguise," according to a report published this week by The Soufan Group, a strategic security firm.

    The concerns are derived from skepticism about Russia's true aim in the region. The country inserted itself into the Syrian civil war last year under the pretense of fighting terrorists, but Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be more focused on bolstering the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a longtime ally.

    For instance, when a cease-fire was most recently put into place, Russia and the Syrian regime used it to regroup and eventually target moderate rebels who opposed Assad, senior Pentagon officials recently told Foreign Policy. Some anti-Assad rebel groups receive support from the US.

    Fred Hof, a former special adviser for transition in Syria under Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state, told Business Insider in an email that while it was "too early to tell who the winners and losers are" in the cease-fire, the truce could end up benefitting Assad at the expense of other interests.

    "The agreement would be an unadulterated triumph for the Assad regime if the result is one ultimately reflecting the Russian-American neutralization of the anti-Assad Nusra Front, but with no corresponding strengthening of the nonextremist Syrian armed opposition," said Hof, who is now the director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

    Basically, if the moderate rebels fighting to oust Assad don't benefit enough from the cease-fire, then the Syrian regime, which is no friend to the US or the Syrian people, will be the clear winner of the deal.

    Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (C) joins Syrian army soldiers for Iftar in the farms of Marj al-Sultan village, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on June 26, 2016.   SANA/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

    There are many players on the Syrian battlefield, and rebels encompass extremist elements — like ISIS and the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, which recently rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — as well as moderate groups that want to oust Assad but don't share the Islamist goals of the extremist groups.

    The US has called on Assad to step down but so far has declined to carry out direct military action to remove him from power, leaving that job for the rebels that have received US support.

    Once the extremist groups are gone, Assad is likely to focus on destroying any remaining moderate elements of the opposition.

    Robert Ford, a senior fellow with the Middle East Institute who was a US ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014, told Business Insider in an email that the cease-fire would benefit the Syrian government "if it is able to concentrate forces and attack against the former Nusra Front (now Fateh al-Sham), seizing strategic positions from it and setting itself up later to pivot against more moderate elements of the armed opposition."

    Further complicating the situation is that moderate rebels have become increasingly enmeshed with Islamist groups, namely Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which is not a party in the cease-fire. Because the Islamist groups tend to have more arms and money than other rebel groups, partnering with them on the battlefield became a matter of survival for the moderate rebels.

    As of right now, the moderate rebels would have to trust the US and Russia if they were to separate completely from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

    "Separating from Nusra is something the nonextremist opposition would like to do, but under current conditions it would not be easy," Hof said. "But if it somehow happens and Nusra is subsequently neutralized, what would stop Assad and his allies from pouncing on the nonextremist armed Syrian opposition?"

    A member of Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), seen with a mural of the Islamic State in the background, stands guard in front of a building in the border town of Jarablus, Syria, August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

    To earn the trust of the Syrian opposition, the Americans would have to convince Russia that the US would take action if the Assad regime were to continue to massacre civilians, as it has done throughout the civil war.

    "Nothing good will happen in Syria until civilians come off the bull's-eye," Hof said.

    "Nothing good will happen in Syria until civilians come off the bull's-eye," Hof said.

    "But the country's worst actors — the Assad regime, Russia, Iran, and ISIS — have used mass murder and terror to great advantage thus far."

    And Russia isn't exactly a reliable partner in Syria.

    "The Russians have consistently shielded the Syrian government from the repercussions of its renewed use of chemical weapons, war crimes such as indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and blocking humanitarian aid access," Ford said. "They have repeatedly lied to try to absolve the Syrian government if its crimes."

    Russia is therefore unlikely to help serve the ultimate interests of the Syrian people, which is deposing the despot whose regime has killed more Syrians than any terrorist group.

    "The Americans should be very wary of any thought that the possibility of new US-Russian military coordination in Syria will lead to any change in Russian goals or behavior," Ford said. "There is certainly no sign that Russia is prepared to push really hard on the Syrian government to make some big compromises at a political negotiation the Obama administration hopes might solve the Syrian crisis."

    Even US officials acknowledge that Russia might be less than trustworthy in this deal.

    "I think we'd have some reasons to be skeptical that the Russians are able or are willing to implement the arrangement consistent with the way it's been described," Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said during a Monday briefing. "But we'll see."

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    People gather near burning tyres during a demonstration against forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and calling for aid to reach Aleppo near Castello road in Aleppo, Syria, September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

    BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) - Syrian government forces and rebels had yet to withdraw from a road needed to deliver aid to the city of Aleppo on Thursday, threatening the most serious international peacemaking effort in months as the sides accused each other of violating a truce.

    The aid delivery to rebel-held eastern Aleppo, which is blockaded by government forces, is an important test of a U.S.-Russian deal that has brought about a significant reduction in violence since a ceasefire took effect on Monday.

    The U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said the United States and Russia were expected to manage the disengagement of forces from the road, but also criticized Damascus for failing to provide permits needed to make aid deliveries to other areas.

    France, which backs the opposition, became the first U.S. ally to publicly question the deal with Moscow, urging Washington to share details of the agreement and saying that without aid for Aleppo, it was not credible.

    Control of the Castello Road is divided between the government and rebels who have been battling to topple President Bashar al-Assad for more than five years. It has been a major frontline in the war.

    Russia, whose air force helped the Syrian government to blockade opposition-held Aleppo this summer, said on Wednesday it was preparing for the Syrian army and rebel fighters to begin a staged withdrawal from the road.

    But on Thursday morning, both Syrian government and rebel forces were still manning their positions. An official in an Aleppo-based Syrian rebel group said international parties had told him aid was now due to be delivered on Friday.

    "Today the withdrawal is supposed to happen, with aid entering tomorrow. This is what is supposed to happen, but there is nothing to give hope," Zakaria Malahifji, of the Aleppo-based rebel group Fastaqim, told Reuters.

    Malahifji said rebels were ready to withdraw but worried the government would exploit any such move to stage an advance.

    "If the regime withdraws 500 meters, east and west (of the road) ... then the guys will be able to withdraw a bit," Malahifji said. "But the regime is not responding. The guys can see its positions in front of them."

    There was no comment from state media or the army about the proposed withdrawal.

    aleppo syria

    UN waits for permits

    The U.N. humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said both the rebels and the government were responsible for delaying aid deliveries into Aleppo.

    "The reason we're not in eastern Aleppo has again been a combination of very difficult and detailed discussions around security monitoring and passage of roadblocks, which is both opposition and government," he said.

    In other areas, de Mistura was categorical about blaming the Syrian government, saying it had not yet provided the proper permits. The Syrian government has said all aid deliveries must be conducted in coordination with it.

    About 300,000 people are thought to be living in eastern Aleppo, while more than one million live in the government-controlled western half of the city.

    Two convoys of aid for Aleppo have been waiting in no-man's land to proceed to Aleppo after crossing the Turkish border.

    If a green light was given, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the first 20 trucks would move to Aleppo and if they reached the city safely, the second convoy would then also leave. The two convoys were carrying enough food for 80,000 people for a month, he said.

    The United States and Russia have backed opposing sides in the Syrian war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, forced 11 million from their homes, and created the world's worst refugee crisis since the World War Two.

    Aleppo, Syria's biggest city before the war, has been a focal point of the conflict this year. Government forces backed by militias from Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon have recently achieved their long-held objective of encircling the rebel-held east. 

    Moscow criticizes Washington

    Russia's intervention a year ago in support of Assad has given it critical leverage over the diplomatic process.

    Its ally, Assad, appears as uncompromising as ever. He vowed again on Monday to win back the entire country, which has been splintered into areas controlled by the state, an array of rebel factions, the Islamic State group, and the Kurdish YPG militia.

    Washington hopes the pact will pave the way to a resumption of political talks. But a similar agreement unraveled earlier this year, and this one also faces enormous challenges.

    Under the agreement, nationalist rebels fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army are supposed to disengage from a group that was known as the Nusra Front until it broke ties with al Qaeda in July and changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

    A Syrian military source said this was not happening. "I believe they want to obstruct the main demand of the Syrian state and leadership, and of Russia - the separation of Nusra from the rest of the organizations, and it appears that this will not happen," the source said.

    Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has played a vital role in recent fighting around Aleppo. FSA groups are suspicious of the group, which has crushed several nationalist factions. But they have also criticized its exclusion from the ceasefire agreement.

    The United States and Russia are due to start coordinating military strikes against the former Nusra Front and Islamic State if all goes to plan under the deal.

    But Russia said on Thursday the United States was using "a verbal smokescreen" to hide its reluctance to fulfill its part of the agreement, including separating what it called moderate opposition units from terrorist groups.

    The defense ministry said only government forces were observing the truce and opposition units "controlled by the U.S." had stepped up shelling of civilian residential areas.

    Rebels say Damascus has carried out numerous violations.

    While the general lines of the agreement have been made public, other parts have yet to be revealed, raising concerns among U.S. allies such as France, which is part of the coalition attacking Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

    French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called on the United States to share details of the deal saying that the information was crucial to ensure Islamist militants and not mainstream rebels were being targeted on the ground.

    (Additonal reporting by John Irish in Paris and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; Writing by Tom Perry, editing by Peter Millership)

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    Admiral Kuznetsov Russian aircraft carrier

    If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the US should be flattered that Russia plans to deploy their only aircraft carrier, the 26 year-old Admiral Kuznetsov, off Syria's coast for its first combat deployment.

    A successful deployment of a full-blown aircraft carrier represents the kind of sophisticated military task only a first-rate world power can pull off, and that seems to be exactly what Russia hopes for.

    Much like their 2015 salvo of cruise missiles fired from the Caspian sea into Syria, the event will likely serve as a commercial for Russian military exports — one of the few bright spots in Russia's ailing economy.

    The deployment will seek to present the best and brightest of Russia's resurgent military. The Kuznetsov, which has suffered from a litany of mechanical failures and often requires tow boats, will stay tight to Syria's shores due to the limited range of the carrier's air wing.

    The air wing, comprised of only 15 or so Su-33s and MiG-29s and a handful of helicopters, does not even have half of the US Nimitz class carrier's 60 plus planes

    Furthermore, the carrier lacks plane launching catapults. Instead, the carrier relies on a ski-jump platform that limits how much fuel and ordnance the Russian jets can carry.

    Even so, the Russian jets aboard will be some of the latest models in Russia's entire inventory, according to Russian state-run media. The bombs they carry will be guided, a sharp departure from Russia's usual indiscriminate use of "dumb" or unguided munitions which can drift unpredictably when dropped from altitude.

    Su33 kuznetsov

    Russian media quotes a military source as saying that with the new X-38 guided bombs, "we reinforce our aviation group and bring in completely new means of destruction to the region." The same report states the bombs are accurate to within a few meters, which isn't ideal, but an improvement.

    Indeed, the Kuznetsov's entire flight deck will function as somewhat of a showroom for Russian military goods. China operates a Soviet-designed carrier, as does India. Both of those nations have purchased Russian planes in the past. A solid performance from the jets in Syria would bode well for their prospects as exports, even as India struggles to get its current crop of Russian-made jets up to grade.

    "Despite its resemblance to the land-based version of the MiG-29, this is a completely different aircraft," Russian media quotes a defence official as saying of the MiG-29K carrier-based variant.

    MiG 29K aircraft INS Vikramaditya indian navy aircraft carrier

    "This applies to its stealth technologies, a new system of in-flight refueling, folding wings and mechanisms by which the aircraft has the ability to perform short take-offs and land at low speeds."

    But the Russian jets practice on land bases that simulate the Kuznetsov, and any US Navy pilot will tell you that landing on a bobbing airstrip sailing along at sea is an entirely different beast. 

    One thing Russia's upcoming carrier deployment does have going for it will be having the world's premier naval and carrier power, the US, at least nominally aligned with them in a recently brokered cease-fire

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    Smoke rises over a damaged site as Civil Defence members try to put out a fire after an airstrike on al-Jalaa street in the rebel held city of Idlib, Syria. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

    Aid for the divided Syrian city of Aleppo was stuck on the Turkish border on the fifth day of a fragile ceasefire on Friday with rival factions arguing over how the supplies are to be delivered and violence increasingly undermining the truce.

    The provision of aid to what was Syria's largest city before the war is a critical test of the ceasefire, brokered by the United States and Russia a week ago with the aim of reviving talks on ending the conflict.

    Humanitarian access to Aleppo hinges on control of the main road into the besieged rebel-held part of the city, divided between the government and rebels who have been battling to topple President Bashar al-Assad for more than five years. The Castello Road has become a major frontline in the war.

    Russia said the Syrian army had begun to withdraw from the road on Thursday, but insurgent groups in Aleppo said they had seen no such move and would not pull back from their own positions around the road until it did so.

    "By today this morning nothing had happened on the Castello Road ... There is nothing new in Aleppo," Zakaria Malahifji, of the Aleppo-based rebel group Fastaqim, told Reuters by phone.

    The Kremlin said it was using its influence to try to ensure the Syrian army fully implemented the ceasefire and that it hoped the United States would use its own influence with rebel groups too.

    "In general, we can still state that the (ceasefire) process is moving forward, despite some setbacks," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call.

     U.N. frustration

    People gather near burning tyres during a demonstration against forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and calling for aid to reach Aleppo near Castello road in Aleppo, Syria, September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

    Hundreds of protesters from the Shi'ite Muslim villages of Nubul and al Zahra - which lie in government-held territory - were meanwhile heading towards the Castello Road with the aim of blocking it and obstructing the passage of aid trucks, an organization that monitors the war said.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said they had come out to prevent aid entering rebel-held eastern Aleppo until there were guarantees that supplies would also be sent to the besieged Shi'ite villages of Kefraya and al-Foua which have been surrounded by insurgents since April 2015.

    The United Nations, which says it asked the Syrian government for permission to reach all besieged areas, has voiced increasing frustration in recent days at the failure of the Syrian government to allow access.

    "In order to actually initiate the actual movement of these convoys (to besieged areas) we need the facilitation letters. They have not come," Jens Laerke, spokesman for the U.N. Office of Humanitarian Affairs, told a briefing in Geneva.

    "It's highly frustrating ... and of course we urge the authorities and everyone with influence over those authorities to push for these letters to materialize as soon as possible."

    Two convoys of aid have been waiting since early on Tuesday in no-man's land at the Turkish border for permission to travel into Syria. A U.N. spokesman said the first convoy of trucks was carrying flour for more than 150,000 people, while the second was carrying food rations for 35,000 people for a month.

    About 300,000 people are thought to be living in eastern Aleppo, while more than one million live in the government-controlled western half of the city.

    Truce violations

    Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad are seen near barricades after they advanced on the southern side of the Castello road in Aleppo, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on July 28, 2016. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

    The government and rebels have accused each other of violating the ceasefire, although the U.S. State Department said on Thursday it was largely holding and that both Washington and Moscow believed it was worth continuing.

    The United States and Russia have backed opposing sides in the war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people, forced 11 million from their homes, and created the world's worst refugee crisis since World War Two.

    After three days which saw a significant decrease in violence and no deaths, the first civilians since the start of the truce were killed on Thursday.

    Three more died and 13 were injured in air strikes in rebel-held Idlib province on Friday, the Observatory said. A number of shells were also fired by insurgents into besieged al-Foua and Kefraya. 

    A building belonging to the Syrian Civil Defense, a rescue organization also known as the "White Helmets" was also hit in overnight air strikes, the group and the Observatory said.

    Violent clashes and shells hit areas east of the Syrian capital Damascus on Friday. Residents in the city center were woken up by a large explosion, a witness said, and shells fell on the eastern gate of Damascus's central Old City area.

    Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad walk past rubble after they advanced on the southern side of the Castello road in Aleppo, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on July 28, 2016. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

    The Britain-based Observatory said the violence stemmed from clashes between insurgents and Syrian government forces and their allies in the Jobar district on the eastern outskirts of the capital amid a government effort to advance in the area.

    The Syrian military said rebels had attacked military positions east of the city.

    Washington hopes the ceasefire will pave the way to a resumption of political talks. But a similar agreement unraveled earlier this year, and Russia's intervention a year ago in support of Assad has given it critical leverage over the diplomatic process.

    The United States and Russia will brief United Nations Security Council members behind closed doors on Friday, diplomats said, on the deal the pair agreed to try and put Syria's peace process back on track.

    Russia is pushing for the U.N. Security Council to adopt a draft resolution next week endorsing the deal.

    Assad, appears as uncompromising as ever. He vowed again this week to win back the entire country, which has been splintered into areas controlled by the state, a constellation of rebel factions, Islamic State jihadists, and Kurdish militia fighters.

    (Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut, Tom Miles in Geneva, Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow and Michelle Nicols; Writing by Nick Tattersall, editing by Peter Millership)

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    idf soldiers

    JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's Iron Dome rocket defense system on Saturday shot down a stray "projectile" fired during fighting in Syria's civil war, Israel's military said.

    There has been frequent spillover of fighting between the factions in Syria into the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, but, according to Israeli media, this was the first time Iron Dome was activated to intercept the errant fire.

    "A projectile fired from Syria was intercepted by the Iron Dome aerial defense system. No injuries were reported," the military said in a statement. A spokeswoman added it was most likely stray fire.

    Israel usually retaliates with air strikes against battle stations in Syria.

    The military has stationed Iron Dome batteries in areas that have been targeted by cross-border fire, which is most frequently from Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. The system usually only fires an interceptor if the enemy rocket is calculated to strike near a populated area.

    (Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

    SEE ALSO: The US and Israel will sign a record $38 billion military aid deal

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    A civil defence member carries an injured girl at a site hit by airstrikes in the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan town in Idlib province, Syria. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

    A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman says 62 Syrian soldiers have been reported killed in a U.S.-led coalition airstrike on a military base.

    The US Central Command released a statement confirming the incident on Saturday. 

    Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov says the airstrike on Saturday took place near the Deir el-Zour airport in eastern Syria and was carried out by two F-16s and two A-10s. He did not identify the planes' country affiliation, but said they were part of the international coalition.

    Konashenkov says Syrian authorities told the Russians that 62 soldiers were killed and more than 100 wounded. He says the planes came from the direction of the border with Iraq.

    Russia is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad's government and has been carrying out airstrikes on behalf of his forces since last year.

    Russia and the United States brokered a cease-fire in Syria that took effect on Monday and has largely held despite dozens of alleged violations.

    Here's the full statement from CENTCOM:

    Earlier today Coalition aircraft conducted an airstrike south of Dayr Az Zawr, Syria. Coalition forces believed they were striking a Da’esh fighting position that they had been tracking for a significant amount of time before the strike. The coalition airstrike was halted immediately when coalition officials were informed by Russian officials that it was possible the personnel and vehicles targeted were part of the Syrian military.

    The location of the strike is in an area the coalition has struck in the past, and coalition members in the Combined Air Operations Center had earlier informed Russian counterparts of the upcoming strike. It is not uncommon for the Coalition Air Operations Center to confer with Russian officials as a professional courtesy and to deconflict Coalition and Russian aircraft, although such contact is not required by the current U.S. – Russia Memorandum of Understanding on safety of flight.

    Syria is a complex situation with various military forces and militias in close proximity, but coalition forces would not intentionally strike a known Syrian military unit, officials said. The coalition will review this strike and the circumstances surrounding it to see if any lessons can be learned.

    SEE ALSO: 'This represents another example of Da'esh's blatant disregard for international law'

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    BEIRUT/MOSCOW (Reuters) - U.S.-led coalition air strikes killed dozens of Syrian soldiers on Saturday, Russia and a monitoring group said, putting a U.S.-Russian brokered ceasefire in jeopardy and prompting an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting.

    The United States military said the coalition stopped the attacks against what it had believed to be Islamic State positions in northeast Syria after Russia informed it that Syrian military personnel and vehicles may have been hit. 

    A U.S. military official said he was "pretty sure" targets mistakenly hit in the strikes were Syrian forces.

    Russia called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council after the incident, and diplomats said the 15-member body was due to meet behind closed doors at 7:30 p.m. ET.

    Moscow cited the strikes, which allowed Islamic State fighters to briefly overrun a Syrian army position near Deir al-Zor airport, as evidence that the United States was helping the jihadist militants. 

    "We are reaching a really terrifying conclusion for the whole world: That the White House is defending Islamic State. Now there can be no doubts about that," the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova as saying.

    She said the strikes threatened to undermine the ceasefire in Syria brokered by Russia, which has been aiding Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war, and the United States, which has backed some rebel groups.

    The Russian Defence Ministry said U.S. jets had killed more than 60 Syrian soldiers in four air strikes by two F-16s and two A-10s coming from the direction of Iraq. 

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group with contacts across Syria, cited a military source at Deir al-Zor airport as saying at least 80 Syrian soldiers had been killed.

    The ceasefire, which took effect on Monday, is the most significant peacemaking effort in Syria for months, but has been undermined by repeated accusations of violations on both sides and by a failure to bring humanitarian aid to besieged areas. 

    Apart from the U.S. and Russian involvement, Assad is supported by Iran and Arab Shi'ite militias, while Sunni rebels seeking to unseat him are backed by Turkey and Gulf Arab states. 

    All the warring parties are also sworn enemies of Islamic State, whose territory extends along the Euphrates valley from the Iraqi border, including around Deir al-Zor, up to land near Syria's frontier with Turkey.

    In its sixth year, the conflict has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, displaced half of Syria's pre-war population, prompted a refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe and inspired a wave of jihadist attacks across the world.

    Syria's army said the U.S.-led strikes, which took place at around 5 p.m. local time (10.00 a.m. ET) were "conclusive evidence" of U.S. support for Islamic State, calling them "dangerous and blatant aggression". 

    The U.S. military said in its statement that Syria was a "complex situation" but that "coalition forces would not intentionally strike a known Syrian military unit". 

    Islamic State said via its Amaq news channel it had taken complete control of Jebel Tharda, where the bombed position was located, which would have allowed it to overlook government-held areas of Deir al-Zor.

    The city's airport and some districts have been entirely surrounded by Islamic State since last year, with the airport providing their only external access. 

    However, Russia and Syrian state media said the Syrian army later recaptured positions it had lost. The Observatory monitoring group said at least 20 Islamic State fighters were killed in heavy Russian air strikes during that fighting. 

    The incident also threatens to undermine proposed joint targeting by the United States and Russia of Islamic State and some other jihadist groups across Syria. 

    Shaky truce

    Earlier on Saturday, Russia and Syrian rebels cast doubt over the prospects for the increasingly shaky ceasefire, with Moscow saying the situation was worsening and a senior insurgent warning that the truce "will not hold out". 

    While the ceasefire has reduced fighting, some violence has persisted across Syria. Meanwhile, there has been little movement on promised aid deliveries to besieged areas and both sides have accused the other of bad faith. 

    Russia's Defence Ministry said conditions in Syria were deteriorating, adding that it believed the ceasefire had been breached 199 times by rebels and saying the United States would be responsible if it were to collapse. 

    After the Deir al-Zor attack, it said Moscow had told the United States to rein in the Syrian opposition and make sure it did not launch a new offensive, adding that it had informed Washington about a concentration of rebels north of Hama. 

    Insurgents say they only reluctantly accepted the initial deal, which they believe is skewed against them, because it could relieve the dire humanitarian situation in besieged areas they control, and blamed Russia for undermining the truce. 

    "The truce, as we have warned, and we told the (U.S.) State Department - will not hold out," a senior rebel official in Aleppo said, pointing to the continued presence of a U.N. aid convoy at the Turkish border awaiting permission to enter. 

    Rebels have also accused Russia of using the ceasefire to give the Syrian army and allied Shi'ite militias a chance to regroup and deploy forces ready for their own offensives. 

    Overnight shelling

    Both sides have accused the other of being responsible for aid deliveries being stuck far from Aleppo, where army and rebel forces were supposed to pull back from the Castello Road which leads into besieged, insurgent-held eastern districts. 

    Russia on Friday said the Syrian army had initially withdrawn but returned to its positions after being fired on by rebels, who in turn say they saw no sign of government forces ever leaving their positions. 

    "There is no change," Zakariya Malahifji, an official for a rebel group in Aleppo, said on Saturday when asked whether there had been any move by the army to withdraw from positions along the road. 

    Syria's government said it was doing all that was necessary for the arrival of aid to those in need in all parts of the country, particularly eastern Aleppo. 

    Two convoys of aid for Aleppo have been waiting at the Turkish border for days. The U.N. has said both sides in the war are to blame for the delay of aid to Aleppo, where neither has yet withdrawn from the Castello Road. 

    The government said the road was being fired on by rebels, so it could not give convoys a guarantee of safety. The rebels deny the accusation.

    Senior U.N. officials have accused the government of failing to provide letters to allow convoys to reach other besieged areas in Syria. 

    (Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Katya Golubkova and Andrew Osborn in Moscow, Olesya Astakhova in Bishkek, Phil Stewart in Split, Croatia, Patricia Zengerle in Washington, Michelle Nichols in New York and Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul; Editing by Dominic Evans, Paul Simao and Mary Milliken)

    SEE ALSO: Officials confirm that a US-led air strike killed Syrian troops

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    Russia's Foreign Ministry is sharply criticizing the United States as being obstructive and deceptive regarding the airstrike by coalition warplanes on a Syrian military position that killed more than 60 soldiers.

    A ministry statement on Sunday said that in an emergency U.N. Security Council session called following the airstrike, the United States took "an unconstructive and indistinct position."

    The Americans "not only turned out to be unable to give an adequate explanation of what happened, but also tried, as is their custom, to turn everything upside down," the statement said.

    Russia's military said it was told by the Syrian army that at least 62 soldiers were killed in the Deir el-Zour air raid and more than 100 wounded.

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    chemical weapons

    When Syria disclosed its long-secret chemical weapons program in December 2013, it presented international weapons inspectors with a hard-to-swallow story: One of the regime’s premier chemical weapons facilities — an underground laboratory on the outskirts of Damascus that was designed to fill Scud missiles with a lethal nerve agent — had never in fact produced Sarin.

    The inspectors decided they would have to check for themselves.

    In three visits to the site, known as Ha fir 1, specialists from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons started to believe they had caught Syria lying about the extent of its secret chemical-weapons development.

    Samples collected at the site revealed the unmistakable presence of Sarin in the equipment used to mix the banned warfare agent and pour it into Soviet-era Scud or Tochka tactical ballistic missiles.

    They also betrayed traces of precursors for another, even deadlier nerve agent, VX, that Syria did not initially acknowledge using at the site. More signatures of Sarin were detected in two mobile filling units parked aboveground at the complex.

    Repeatedly pressed for answers over the last two-and-a-half years, Syrian officials have offered a series of evolving, and often contradictory, explanations that have only deepened the inspectors’ doubts. Damascus also claimed to have destroyed virtually all original records detailing its development of chemical weapons, making it all all but impossible to verify Syria’s chemical weapons claims.

    In a meeting at The Hague with Syrian government officials in April 2016, the OPCW inspectors laid their cards on the table. The samples they collected at Hafir 1 “contain indicators of Sarin and VX, which suggests that chemical weapons may have been produced and weaponized in this facility,” they told the Syrians, according to an account of the exchange in a highly confidential report by the OPCW’s Declaration Assessment Team, or DAT. Foreign Policy has exclusively reviewed the 75-page report.

    syria chemical weapons map

    The inspections at Hafir 1 — which have never been publicly detailed — are part of a wider effort by the world’s chemical weapons watchdog to determine whether Syria has really abided by a high-profile pledge it made three years ago to eliminate, under international supervision, a decades-old program designed to produce large quantities of mustard gas, Sarin, Soman, VX, and other lethal agents.

    That agreement, brokered by the United States and Russia and so far seemingly upheld, became the Obama administration’s lone bright spot in the five-odd years of Syrian carnage. In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, President Barack Obama said he was “very proud” of his decision to step back from a decision to bomb Syria and take the deal. The removal of Syria’s declared chemical weapons, added Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, constituted “the one ray of light in a very dark region.”

    But there’s growing reason to be concerned that Syria hasn’t come fully clean.

    While Syria has destroyed the vast majority of its declared weapons program, busting up laboratories and vital production equipment and incinerating more than 1,300 tons of chemical weapons precursors, U.S. and European officials fear that Syria may have retained a limited reserve.

    Syria’s repeated denials that it ever weaponized nerve agents, in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary, has only reinforced suspicions that Damascus may have retained some chemical weapons as a last line of insurance against a threat by the country’s myriad armed opposition forces and terrorists.

    Syria's president Bashar al-Assad speaks to Parliament members in Damascus, Syria in this handout picture provided by SANA on June 7, 2016. SANA/Handout

    The intensified scrutiny on Syria’s chemical weapons program comes as Syrian forces are again accused of playing dirty. After promising to give up the use of banned chemical weapons as part of the 2013 deal, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has turned to the more common — and still legal to possess — chlorine gas for its chemical arsenal. This month, a U.N.-sanctioned team of experts confirmed that Syria used chlorine in attacks on opposition towns at least twice, while the Islamic State fired artillery shells filled with mustard gas into a contested opposition town. The team is expected to rule soon on whether the Syrian government was responsible for three other chlorine attacks.

    The revelations about aspects of Syria’s undeclared chemical weapons program are coming to light as the United States is trying to rally support in the U.N. Security Council for a resolution penalizing Syria for those ongoing chlorine attacks. The United States and its allies are also weighing whether to include a provision that would compel Syria to step up cooperation with the OPCW, including being more transparent about the nature of its work at Hafir 1.

    But Western officials have cautioned that Russia, Syria’s primary military backer and a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, is expected to push back on any significant effort to punish or pressure Syria.

    The growing accumulation of physical, if not documentary, evidence of a larger-than-declared Syrian weapons program concerns weapons inspectors, because of Syria’s possible future use and what it might confirm about Syria’s alleged past use of the deadly agents.

    Early Aug. 21, 2013, Syrian regime forces allegedly launched a barrage of at least a dozen Soviet-era, Sarin-filled, 140mm and 330mm artillery rockets at the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, killing as many as 1,400 people, according to U.S. estimates, and bringing Washington to the brink of military intervention in Syria. It was the largest use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein gassed Halabja in 1988.

    There is no doubt that Sarin has been used. In Ghouta, U.N. investigators collected blood, hair, rocket fragments, and soil confirming its presence. But Syria denies having developed a line of artillery munitions capable of delivering a payload of Sarin, including the 140mm or 300mm rockets. The Syrian opposition, they claim, bears responsibility for the attack. Russia has backed that claim, as has the journalist Seymour Hersh in a highly controversial article in the London Review of Books.

    But the United States, France, and other outside observers say the evidence points directly at Syria. Damascus has used similar rockets in previous conventional  attacks on opposition forces, and it alone has the capability to produce the hundreds of liters of Sarin expended during the attack.

    “The rocket that had been used in eastern Ghouta has only been seen in the hands of the government,” said Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch. “It could not have been a backyard operation. The rocket-delivery mechanism has not ever been seen being used by any opposition forces in Syria.”

    Regime fingerprints in attacks like the one in Ghouta explain the government’s continued evasiveness about the scope of its chemical weapons program, some experts suggest.

    “Clearly they are trying to avoid responsibility for that attack,” said Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University. “Showing the OPCW that they have these munitions is kind of a smoking gun, since the presence of those munitions has been clearly associated with the delivery of [a] nerve agent on a civilian population.”

    It was concern over just that possibility of hidden munitions that prompted the OPCW to send a team to home in on the inconsistencies in Syria’s claims in the wake of the 2013 deal.

    Syria declared that it had produced enough munitions to carry about 315 tons of mustard, Sarin, and VX; they were promptly destroyed. But Syria had produced five times that much precursor — what for, if there were no missiles or shells to pour it into? Syria subsequently admitted building an additional 2,000 aerial bombs for Sarin and VX. But that still left more than 800 tons of surplus chemical weapons precursors.

    A chlorine-tinged cloud of smoke rises into the air from a bomb detonated by Iraqi army and Shi'ite fighters from Hashid Shaabi forces, in the town of al-Alam in Salahuddin province March 10, 2015. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

    In 2014, the OPCW established the Declaration Assessment Team to dig into just that. The inspectors collected samples from soil, concrete, and metal scrap in a network of some 28 military and industrial labs and research facilities throughout the country and have had some success.

    They found traces of chemical warfare agents at labs run by Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center in Barzah and Jamrayah, facilities that Syria had never declared as chemical weapons sites. The inspectors coaxed Syria into acknowledging plans to weaponize Ricin, a toxin. Damascus at first denied it had, then conceded it experimented with weaponized Ricin on rats, but says it gave up and turned it into a medical research program.

    Additionally, Syria acknowledged establishing an underground chemical weapons facility called Al Sayed, about 25 miles west of Homs. It was meant to mix the key ingredients of Sarin — methylphosphonyl difluoride, also known as DF, and isopropanol — and pour them into munitions. But, Syria said, the project was never completed.

    On March 27, 2015, international inspectors visited Al Sayed to find out. They collected soil samples and found traces of Sarin’s main ingredients, indicating that “the facility could have been used to weaponize Sarin and VX.”

    Syria chlorine gas

    Pressed, Syria offered varying accounts. One explanation: International sanctions had compelled Syria to cannibalize equipment for Al-Sayed from other chemical weapons laboratories where limited experiments on the warfare agents had been undertaken. Or, the conflict forced Syria to move equipment around the country to prevent opposition fighters and extremists from getting their hands on it. Some traces of the lethal agents may have been tracked in by truck tires transporting material from other sites, the Syrians explained. Or maybe during all the unrest some isopropanol spilled on an old DF stain, Syrians suggested.

    Syria’s claims, the report stated, “did not seem scientifically plausible,” the report stated.

    Syria then tried another tack. In May 2016, officials in Damascus told inspectors they’d just learned about a top-secret 2005 experiment to combine Sarin and VX in a single explosive. They said the head of Syria’s chemical weapons department carried out a test with a missile warhead. But all it produced was an eruption of the liquid ingredients, a large spill, and a cloud overhead. Maybe that’s where the telltale samples came from, Syria suggested.

    But the regime’s officials provided no original documentation describing the alleged test and said the warhead had been subsequently destroyed, making verification impossible.

    SEE ALSO: This is what Aleppo is

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