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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) holds an ISIL flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul, Iraq June 23, 2014. To match Insight MIDEAST-CRISIS/MOSUL-ISLAMIC STATE  REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

    The Syrian army and its allies see a risk that Islamic State will regroup in eastern Syria as it is forced from the Iraqi city of Mosul in a U.S.-backed operation, posing new risks for President Bashar al-Assad.

    Both the Syrian army and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah have warned of what they have called a U.S. plan to open a path of retreat for Islamic State from Iraq into Syria. A Pentagon spokesman called the claim "ludicrous".

    The Iraqi government launched the campaign to drive the jihadist group from its last stronghold in Iraq this week. Iraqi government and Kurdish forces on Tuesday announced progress in the first 24 hours of the offensive, backed by air and ground support from the U.S.-led coalition.

    A senior official in the alliance fighting in support of Assad told Reuters the arrival of large numbers of extra IS fighters in Syria from Iraq would present new dangers to Syrian government-held pockets of territory in Deir al-Zor, to the ancient city of Palmyra, and to other areas further west.

    IS would also be able to reinforce the Syrian city of Raqqa, its main other urban centre after Mosul.

    "There is a danger that Iraq will witness a victory and Syria a crisis - a victory in Iraq will be a the expense of a new crisis in Syria," said the official, a non-Syrian, speaking on condition of anonymity.

    Though it has lost ground in Syria, Islamic State still controls parts of the country's east, including nearly all of Deir al-Zor province, which borders Iraq, and links the Iraqi and Syrian halves of its self-declared "caliphate".

    France sees likely retreat to Raqqa

    The jihadist group is being fought in Syria separately by the U.S.-backed coalition and the Russian-backed Syrian army and its allies, which are also battling other armed groups in western Syria including rebel forces in eastern Aleppo.

    Islamic State has lost swathes of territory in Syria to U.S.-backed Syrian forces including the Kurdish YPG over the last year, and more recently to Turkey-backed Syrian Arab 'Free Syrian Army' rebel groups near the Turkish border.

    The Syrian government and their allies, while focusing much of their firepower on rebels battling to topple Assad, have also fought IS, driving it from Palmyra earlier this year.

    The Syrian government has also fought to maintain a precarious foothold in Deir al-Zor city, besieged by IS.

    In a statement on Tuesday, the Syrian army command in Damascus said Washington and Riyadh had drawn up a plan whereby roads would be secured to allow the militants to create "new battleground realities" in eastern Syria.

    ISW Syria map

    Both Saudi Arabia and the United States support rebels fighting Assad.

    "Any attempt to cross the border is an attack on the sovereignty of Syria... and would be dealt with all forces available," the army statement said.

    The Pentagon spokesman, Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, said the assertion was not correct. "These claims are ludicrous," he said.

    The assault on Mosul has been in preparation since July, and at stake for U.S. President Barack Obama is his hoped-for legacy of seizing back as much territory as he can from the jihadists before he leaves office in January.

    French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said that with militants likely to retreat to their Syrian bastion Raqqa, it was vital to seriously consider how to also retake that city.

    "We can't let Islamic State reconstitute itself or strengthen to create an even more dangerous hub. We have to prepare ourselves," he said.

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Former Navy SEAL Jesse Ventura says 'American Sniper' Chris Kyle shouldn't be remembered as a hero

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    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during his meeting with mukhtars at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, October 19, 2016. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

    Smarting over exclusion from an Iraqi-led offensive against Islamic State in Mosul and Kurdish militia gains in Syria, President Tayyip Erdogan warned Turkey "will not wait until the blade is against our bone" but could act alone in rooting out enemies.

    In a speech at his palace, Erdogan conjured up an image of Turkey constrained by foreign powers who "aim to make us forget our Ottoman and Selcuk history", when Turkey's forefathers held territory stretching across central Asia and the Middle East.

    "From now on we will not wait for problems to come knocking on our door, we will not wait until the blade is against our bone and skin, we will not wait for terrorist organizations to come and attack us," he told hundreds of "muhtars", local administrators generally loyal to the government.

    "Whoever supports the divisive terrorist organization, we will dig up their roots," he said, referring to Kurdish PKK militants who have waged a three-decade insurgency against Turkey and have bases in northern Iraq and affiliates in Syria.

    "Let them go wherever until we find and destroy them. I am saying this very clearly: they will not have a single place to find peace abroad."

    Erdogan has struck an increasingly belligerent tone in his speeches in recent days, frustrated that NATO member Turkey has not been more involved in the U.S.-backed assault on Mosul, and angered by Washington's support for Kurdish militia fighters battling Islamic State in Syria.

    He is riding a wave of patriotism since a coup attempt failed to oust him in July, his message of a strong Turkey playing well with his fervent supporters.

    Ankara has been locked in a row with Iraq over the presence of Turkish troops at the Bashiqa camp near Mosul, as well as over who should take part in the offensive in the largely Sunni Muslim city, once part of the Ottoman empire and still seen by Turkey as firmly within its sphere of influence.

    Erdogan has warned of sectarian bloodshed if the Iraqi army relies on Shi'ite militia fighters.

    He said agreement had been reached with the U.S. military on Turkish jets joining the Mosul operation, although Washington has said it is up to the Iraqi government on who takes part.

    "They thought they could keep us out of Mosul by bothering us with the PKK and Daesh (Islamic State) ... They think they can shape our future with the hands of terrorist organizations," he said. "We know that the terrorists' weapons will blow up in their hands soon."

    "You are foreigners here"

    turkey pkk

    Turkey has felt increasingly powerless to control events across its borders as the U.S.-led coalition focuses on fighting Islamic State in Syria rather than on removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the root cause of the war in Ankara's view.

    It has been particularly angered by U.S. support for Kurdish militia fighters in Syria. Washington views the Kurdish YPG as useful allies in the fight against the jihadists, but Turkey sees them as a hostile force and an extension of the PKK.

    "We know this business in this region. You are foreigners here. You do not know," Erdogan said, to loud applause, in a speech on Tuesday to mark the opening of the academic year.

    While criticizing the West, the Turkish leader has restored ties with Moscow in recent weeks, vowing to seek common ground on Syria after a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, despite Moscow's backing of Assad.

    Putin ErdoganErdogan said he discussed with Putin by phone an agreement on Tuesday night on removing from Aleppo the group formally known as the Nusra Front, and now called Jabhat Fatah al Sham. He gave no details.

    Erdogan has made repeated references in his speeches this week to the term "Misak-i Milli" or National Pact, referring to decisions made by the Ottoman parliament in 1920 setting out the borders of the Ottoman Empire.

    He often laments the concessions made by Turkish leaders after World War One, with the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne that brought modern Turkey into being in 1923. Pro-government media this week published maps depicting Ottoman borders encompassing an area including Mosul.

    He warned of efforts to "restructure the region" and said Turkey would not sit by.

    "I'm warning the terrorist organizations, the sectarian fanatic Baghdad government, and the Assad government that kills its own people: you are on the wrong path. The fire you are trying to start will burn you more than us," Erdogan said.

    "We are not obliged to abide by the role anyone has set for us in that sense. We have started carrying out our own plan."

    SEE ALSO: Iranian-backed militants in Yemen have steadily increased their missile attacks

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    NOW WATCH: IAN BREMMER: Turkey’s president wants to emulate Putin — but it’s not going to work

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    Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov addresses a news conference in Damascus June 28, 2014. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/FilesRussian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow may take "asymmetrical" and "painful" measures if the US makes good on its talk of imposing tougher sanctions on Russia, Radio Free Europe reports.

    Sanctions, which the European Union vowed to impose on Monday and the US backs, would be tied to Russia's actions in Syria, where numerous and credible reports have tied Moscow to war crimes in its efforts to reinforce Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime during the six-year-long Syrian conflict. 

    Ryabkov made these statements to Russia's State Duma, or the lower house of parliament, which just today unanimously approved Russian President Vladimir Putin's proposal to unilaterally drop out of a nuclear disarmament agreement with the US.

    It's unclear what "asymmetrical" actions Russia could take to cause "pain" to the US, but the Department of Homeland Security formally accused Russian state actors of hacking the DNC and top staffers of Hillary Clinton to "interfere with the US election process." 

    Additionally, Russia has established dominance on the battlefield in Syria, unilaterally implementing a brief ceasefire on Wednesday and then ending it without input from the international community.

    Of the brief pause in bombing, Mark Kramer, program director of the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, told Business Insider, "I wish this step could be seen as a humanitarian gesture, but that seems implausible."

    Instead, Kramer said that the proposal is likely a "cynical step" designed to keep EU foreign ministers from agreeing on new sanctions against Russia in connection with its "merciless bombardment" of Aleppo.

    SEE ALSO: Russia has muscled the US out of Syria

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

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    A fleet of Russian warships sailing off the coast of Norway were spotted by the Norwegian military Monday and are reportedly heading toward Syria, according to newly released photographs.

    The eight vessels photographed by Norwegian surveillance aircraft included its flagship aircraft carrier the Admiral Kuznetsov and the Pyotr Velikiy battle cruiser, Reuters reported Tuesday.

    “We have been informed that they are en route to the Mediterranean,” Major Elisabeth Eikeland, spokeswoman of the National Joint Headquarters in the Norwegian army, told AFP. “It’s not every day that so many ships sail together off Norway.”

    General Morten Haga Lunde, head of the Norwegian military intelligence service, told a local news outlet that the eight ships pictured “will probably play a role in the deciding battle for Aleppo.”

    An anonymous senior NATO diplomat, citing Western intelligence, was more certain that the Russian ships were carrying fighter bombers to likely bolster Moscow’s joint assault with Syrian forces on the rebel-held city of Aleppo.

    “They are deploying all of the Northern fleet and much of the Baltic fleet in the largest surface deployment since the end of the Cold War,” the diplomat toldReuters. “This is not a friendly port call. In two weeks, we will see a crescendo of air attacks on Aleppo as part of Russia’s strategy to declare victory there.”

    Russia announced on Saturday that its Soviet-era Admiral Kuznetsov would join Moscow’s military forces in the eastern Mediterranean, where its troops are launching a bombing campaign against Syrian rebels.

    The siting by Norwegian forces came a day after Syria’s government-affiliated telecommunications company announced that 60 percent of the country’s Internet will be down for ten days beginning Wednesday. The anticipated outage would come just days after U.S. intelligence and military officials reported a Russian ship equipped with cable-cutting technology near the coast of Syria.

    Moscow, which has allied itself with the Bashar al Assad regime in Syria’s civil war, briefly paused its air bombing in Aleppo on Tuesday as an act of “goodwill” to allow civilians to evacuate from the rebel-held city.

    SEE ALSO: Russia threatens US with 'asymmetrical' and 'painful' retaliation if tougher sanctions imposed

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    NOW WATCH: Here's the high-tech military equipment Russia could use against the world

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    Admiral Kuznetsov Russian aircraft carrier

    After successfully replacing the US as the best-connected player in the Syrian conflict, Russia's deployment of their sole aircraft carrier and entire Northern Fleet to Syria represents its latest attempt to unseat the US as the premier naval power in the Middle East. 

    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

    SEE ALSO: Russia is sending its largest naval surface deployment 'since the end of the Cold War' to Syria

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    NOW WATCH: Watch Russian warplanes fly dangerously close by a US Navy ship

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    Donald Trump

    Donald Trump said during the final presidential debate on Wednesday that Syrian President Bashar Assad is "much tougher and much smarter" than President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

    The international community widely considers Assad to be a brutal dictator who barrel bombs and starves civilians in his country.

    "Take a look at Aleppo," the Republican presidential nominee said in response to a question about the besieged city in Syria. "It is so sad when you see what's happened. And a lot of this is because of Hillary Clinton. Because what's happened is by fighting Assad, who turned out to be a lot tougher than she thought, and now she's gonna say, 'Oh, he loves Assad.'"

    Trump continued: "He's just much tougher and much smarter than her and Obama. And everyone thought he was gone two years ago, three years ago. He aligned with Russia, he now also aligned with Iran, who we made very powerful."

    Trump did later concede that Assad is a "bad guy."

    "If they ever did overthrow Assad, you might end up with as bad as Assad is, and he's a bad guy," he said. "But you may very well end up with worse than Assad."

    Trump then pivoted to the refugee crisis, which the Syrian civil war has contributed greatly to.

    "She's taking in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who probably, in many cases, not probably, who are definitely, in many cases, ISIS-aligned, and we now have them in our country, and wait 'til you see, this is going to be the great Trojan horse, and wait 'til you see what happens in the coming years," he said. "Lots of luck, Hillary, thanks a lot for doing a great job."

    Later on, Trump said the US is "so outplayed" by Russian President Putin and Assad and that "nobody can believe how stupid our leadership is."

    SEE ALSO: Clinton calls Trump a Putin 'puppet' in fiery debate exchange

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    NOW WATCH: Watch the brutal Hillary Clinton ad that pits Trump against himself

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    Russia said a

    Aleppo (Syria) (AFP) - A "humanitarian pause" announced by Russia went into effect on Thursday in the Syrian army's devastating Moscow-backed assault on rebel-held areas of Aleppo to allow civilians and fighters who want to leave, to leave.

    Russia has said the pause will continue until at least 1600 GMT and could be extended. The Syrian army has said it will last three days.

    Syrian and Russian warplanes already halted strikes on rebel districts from 0700 GMT on Tuesday.



    SEE ALSO: This is what Aleppo is

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    NOW WATCH: This Syrian refugee makes a special candy to remind him of home

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    syrian refugees

    EL CAJON, Calif. (AP) — Seated at his desk at a suburban San Diego middle school, 12-year-old Abdulhamid Ashehneh tries not to let his mind wander to the painful memories of his life in civil war-torn Syria.

    His father disappeared suddenly four years ago and, the family believes, was killed. Months later, Abdulhamid's mother boarded a bus with her six children, the youngest 2, and fled to Jordan, the sound of bombs ringing in the distance.

    "I think about my Dad a lot," Abdulhamid said recently after practicing English at Cajon Valley Middle School, which has received an influx of Syrian children. "I wish he would come back."

    Abdulhamid is like many of the Syrian refugees arriving today in the U.S.: According to the U.S. State Department, nearly 80 percent of the more than 11,000 Syrian arrivals over the past year were children.

    That's a larger percentage than most refugee groups, in part because Syrians tend to have larger families and many have managed to stay together despite displacement, according to resettlement agencies helping the families acclimate to the U.S.

    Many of those children are enrolling in public schools around the country, including Chicago; Austin, Texas; New Haven, Connecticut; and El Cajon, which received 76 new Syrian students the first week of school.

    Syrian children face many of the same challenges as other young refugees — limited English, an interrupted education — but they are somewhat distinct in the level of trauma they have experienced, school leaders and resettlement workers said.

    syrian refugees jordan

    "The truth is, a lot of them have seen some pretty nasty stuff," said Eyal Bergman, a family and community engagement officer for the Cajon Valley Union School District. "But I also see incredible resilience."

    In response to the influx, school districts are beefing up English instruction and making extra efforts to reach out to parents unfamiliar with the U.S. school system. In El Cajon, one-on-one orientations introduce families to the school's teachers and staff and show them basics like how to read the district's academic-year calendar.

    Some refugee students are enrolled in "newcomer" classes where they are provided intense English instruction before being placed in mainstream classrooms. Others go directly into classes with English-fluent peers but are assigned to smaller groups for individual instruction. Teachers are trained in identifying trauma, and on-site counselors help students who need extra attention.

    "I've had students tell me that maybe some of their family members passed away," said Juanita Chavez, a second-grade teacher. "But I think a lot of them just want to focus on here, on learning. A lot of them don't focus on the negative things that have happened to them."

    At night, Arabic-speaking staff and teachers hold a "parent academy" where newly arrived moms and dads are given bilingual children's books in English and Arabic and guided on how to help improve literacy at home.

    The rising number of Syrian refugee students comes amid a heated presidential campaign. During the second debate, Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton's plan to expand the Obama administration's refugee program and accept 65,000 Syrian refugees the "great Trojan horse of all time."

    Syrian Refugees Last November, in response to the deadly Paris attack believed carried out by operatives who fought and trained in Syria, nearly 30 states vowed to deny entry to Syrian refugees.

    Resettlement agencies and school staff worry inflamed rhetoric about Muslims and Syrian refugees will trickle into the classroom. A report last year by the California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations found 50 percent of Muslim students surveyed were subjected to mean comments or rumors because of their religion.

    "This is a concern of ours, to be watching that they do not feel shunned or stigmatized because of their national origin," said Ellen Beattie, a senior director with the International Rescue Committee.

    El Cajon, a city of roughly 104,000 people 15 miles east of San Diego, has become a melting pot of refugees from Uganda to Afghanistan. The first Middle Eastern immigrants were Chaldean Christians fleeing persecution in Iraq in the 1970s. Those earlier, now established waves of migrants are playing a role in helping settle the new arrivals from Syria.

    "Most of them tell us the only reason they accepted the whole immigration process is really for their kids," said Anas Kayal, who emigrated to the U.S. from Syria in 2001 and is a physician in San Diego. "They are OK with their own lives being disrupted by the war and crisis, but they are hoping their kids can have a better life."

    Watching her children learn English and adapt to U.S. schools has been redeeming for Abdulhamid's mother after two years in Jordan, where she often struggled to feed them and at one point lived in a feeble tent that would blow apart in the wind.

    "We're still trying to cope with this emotionally," Amena Alshehneh, 37, said. "But it's the reality. We have to face the reality and get on our feet."

    As Abdulhamid assimilates, he still pines for his homeland and the life he left behind.

    He remembers the Damascus home where he wrestled and practiced reading with his father. He remembers playing soccer and hide-and-seek with his best friend, and wonders what happened to him.

    He also thinks about his computer and a remote-control car — cherished toys his father gave him and that he had to abandon.

    "I feel so sad I left Syria," said Abdulhamid, whose expression quickly shifts from joy to grief. "Because it's my country. My home."


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    lebanon soldier syria

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon has detained eight Syrians accused of plotting suicide bomb attacks at popular tourist spots and on Lebanon's United Nations peacekeeping force, Lebanon's intelligence agency said on Thursday.

    A series of bomb attacks have struck Lebanon since the beginning of neighboring Syria's civil war in 2011, some of them linked by security forces to militant groups based in Syria.

    The eight men were arrested on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization and communicating with extremist groups, Lebanon's General Security directorate said in a statement carried by state news agency NNA.

    The group was planning attacks on restaurants and cafes in tourist areas and on UNIFIL, the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon which patrols the southern border with Israel.

    By carrying out attacks in Lebanon, jihadist groups might seek to spark a new civil war that would allow them to expand while undermining the country's Shi'ite Hezbollah movement, which they are fighting in Syria.

    General Security said it is investigating others connected with the case.

    Lebanese security forces regularly say they thwart attacks. In June, eight suicide bombers attacked a Lebanese Christian village near the Syrian border, killing five people and wounding dozens more.

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    Despite progress from US-led coalition forces and regional armies, ISIS still maintains a major presence in Iraq and Syria, and is even strengthening in parts of Africa.

    George Friedman, the founder of STRATFOR and Geopolitical Futures, explains ISIS' greatest strength and why he believes the terror group is the strongest military force in the modern Arab world.

    Follow BI Video On Twitter

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    Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Denmark's TV 2, in this handout picture provided by SANA on October 6, 2016. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian military said on Thursday that it would bring down any Turkish war planes entering Syrian air space, a response to air strikes carried out by Turkey overnight in northern Syria.

    "Any attempt to once again breach Syrian airspace by Turkish war planes will be dealt with and they will be brought down by all means available," the Syrian army general command said in a statement.

    Turkish air strikes hit a group of Kurdish fighters allied to U.S.-backed militia late on Wednesday, which the Syrian statement called an act of "blatant aggression".

    Northern Syria is an increasingly complex battlefield and Wednesday's air strikes highlighted the conflicting agendas of NATO members Turkey and the United States.

    Turkey supports rebels opposed to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and is also trying to push Islamic State away from Syria's Turkish border.

    At the same time, the United States has backed Kurdish-led forces in their own fight against Islamic State, infuriating Ankara, which sees the YPG as an extension of Kurdish PKK militants who have waged a three-decade insurgency in southeastern Turkey.

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    NOW WATCH: Animated map shows where your bottled water actually comes from

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    Five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, with bloodied face, sits inside an ambulance after he was rescued following an airstrike in the rebel-held al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria August 17, 2016.  REUTERS/Mahmoud Rslan

    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claimed in an interview with Swiss media that the photo of Omran Daqneesh was "manipulated."

    "May I show you a picture?" the Swiss broadcaster asked, producing the photo of Daqneesh, the 5 year old Syrian boy whose photo went viral as a human face to the ongoing tragedy in Aleppo.

    "Do you know this picture? His name is Omran, 5 years old, covered in blood, scared, traumatized, is there anything you'd like to say to Omran and his family?"

    "I have something to say to you first of all," said Assad. "Go to the internet to see the same picture with the same child with his sister."

    Assad goes on to say that both children were rescued by the "White Helmets," Syrian volunteers who work to search for survivors following airstrikes. Currently, the White Helmets are overwhelmed by the widespread suffering caused by Syria and Russia's vicious air campaign on Aleppo. Recently, either Syrian or Russian warplanes bombed a UN humanitarian aid convoy directly.

    But Assad's direct quote is that these volunteers are "a facelift of al Nusra," which is to say that they're covert al Qaeda agents. Assad claims that the White Helmets rescued the children twice as part of a publicity campaign. 

    "It is manipulated," Assad said of the photo.

    However, the photo is only a still from a longer video released by the Aleppo Media Center. The video shows rescuers pulling Daqneesh from the rubble of an airstrike and placing him in an ambulance. Later photos show the boy cleaned up and bandaged.

    "This is a forged picture, not a real one," said Assad.

    In interviews, Assad consistently sticks to his talking points and the same narrative he's held since the beginning of the war in Syria. In an earlier interview with the Associated Press, Assad claimed he was virtually blameless for six years of death and devastation in Syria that started when he used excessive violent force against his own people to crush largely peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations.

    For the world at large the photo of dejected Daqneesh, born after the start of the brutal conflict, was a heartbreaking reminder about the suffering going on in Aleppo.

    For Assad, during this interview, it was an opportunity to sink to a new low in both denying the legitimacy of the young boy's unimaginable suffering and of slandering the White Helmets.

    SEE ALSO: Russia has muscled the US out of Syria

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    A man sits on the balcony of his damaged house in the rebel held besieged al-Sukkari neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria's army and Russia's air force halted their bombardment of rebel-held eastern Aleppo on Friday, a monitoring group said, on the second of four consecutive daytime unilateral ceasefires in the city that have been rejected by insurgents.

    Heavy clashes took place in Aleppo during the night, outside the 11-hour periods during which the ceasefire is in place, Zakaria Malahifji, a rebel official with the Fastaqim group which is present in the city, said. He added that the bombardment overnight was lighter than it had been recently.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there had been clashes overnight along frontline neighborhoods of rebel-held east Aleppo: in Jab al-Jalabi in the Old City, in al-Ithaa and in Salah al-Din. There were also clashes in Jamiat al-Zahraa in the government-held west of the city, the Observatory said.

    Syria's army and Russia have called on residents and rebels in besieged eastern Aleppo to quit the city and depart for other insurgent-held districts under a promise of safe travel.

    The U.N. had hoped that the ceasefires would allow medical evacuations from the city, but said a lack of security guarantees and "facilitation" were preventing aid workers taking advantage of the pause in bombing.

    Rebels have said they cannot accept the ceasefire, which they say does nothing to alleviate the situation of those who choose to remain in rebel-held Aleppo, and believe it is part of a government policy to purge cities of political opponents.

    "The initiative came at the same time as forced displacement operations are being carried out by the Assad regime in (the Damascus suburbs) of al-Mouadamiya, Qudsiya and al-Hama, and before that in Daraya," a joint statement by rebel groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, and the Syrian National Coalition, an opposition political body, said.

    A man walks past damaged buildings in the rebel held besieged al-Sukkari neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail


    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used siege and bombardment to force rebels from areas they control around Syria's main cities, letting them leave with their families and light weapons and surrendering territory to the government.

    Assad has said that local agreements of that kind are preferable to continued fighting.

    On Wednesday hundreds of insurgents and their families left the besieged Syrian town of Mouadamiya near Damascus for Idlib province, the largest area under control of the myriad insurgent groups seeking to oust Assad.

    In the last two months, while attention has focused on the battle for Aleppo further north, rebels pulled out of Daraya, west of Damascus, and the two suburbs of Qudsiya and al-Hama to the north. It allowed Assad to consolidate control around the capital which his opponents came close to encircling at one stage in the five-year conflict.

    A number of rebels were also evacuated from their last foothold in the city of Homs in September.

    For a second day, Syrian state television broadcast footage of green city buses and ambulances waiting to transport people who opt to leave eastern Aleppo after they dropped leaflets there advertising safe corridors through the front lines.

    However, very few rebels or civilians appear to have left, sources say.

    Pro-government media has accused the rebels of stopping people from leaving, saying they are using civilians as human shields, and say that rebels have been shelling the corridors out of eastern Aleppo to prevent departures.

    (Reporting By Angus McDowall and Lisa Barrington; editing by Ralph Boulton)

    SEE ALSO: The top UN human rights official denounced the air strikes on Aleppo as war crimes

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    BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government has opened a corridor for rebels and civilians who want to leave the besieged eastern neighborhoods of the city of Aleppo.

    Residents in the besieged area have said many won't go since there are no guarantees that evacuees won't be arrested by government forces.

    The pan-Arab Al-Mayadeen TV aired live footage on Friday from the Castello Road in Aleppo. It shows bulldozers have opened the road and buses and ambulances are parked on the roadside to take evacuees.

    The pause in Aleppo fighting was announced by Russia to allow for the evacuation of civilians and fighters, as well as the wounded. Rebels have rejected the offer, saying it isn't serious.

    Before the pause, Aleppo's besieged districts were subjected to relentless Syrian and Russian airstrikes for weeks.

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    A Civil Defence member stands as a front loader removes debris after an air strike Sunday in the rebel-held besieged al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

    BEIRUT (AP) -- The Syrian government on Friday opened a new corridor for rebels and civilians who want to leave the besieged eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo, but the U.N. said planned medical evacuations haven't begun as planned because of a lack of security assurances from the warring sides.

    The evacuations, part of a Russia-announced pause in fighting, were announced a day earlier with great hopes by U.N. officials.

    But the spokesman for the U.N's humanitarian aid agency, Jens Laerke, described an "astronomically difficult situation," although he declined to specify who was responsible for the breakdown in the plans on Friday.

    Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Laerke said that the evacuations couldn't begin "because the necessary conditions were not in place to ensure safe, secure and voluntary" movement of people.

    A U.N. official, however, told The Associated Press that Syrian opposition fighters were blocking medical evacuations because the government and Russia were impeding deliveries of medical and humanitarian supplies into the city.

    The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the United Nations was expected to make an official statement about the hold-up in medical evacuations later on Friday, said intense efforts were under way in Damascus, Aleppo, Geneva and Gaziantep, Turkey, to try to move forward on the evacuations.

    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

    Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said al-Qaida-linked militants in Aleppo were refusing to leave the city along the corridors created by the Russians and Syrian forces. He told reporters in Moscow that Russia is "seriously concerned that, despite the gestures of goodwill from Moscow and Damascus," the fighters from the al-Qaida affiliate previously known as the Nusra Front are "refusing to leave the city."

    Aleppo's civilians are also being prevented from leaving the eastern, rebel-held part of the city through the corridors, Lavrov added.

    The pan-Arab Al-Mayadeen TV aired live footage from the Castello Road showing bulldozers that had opened the road. Buses and ambulances were parked by the roadside, waiting to take evacuees.

    But residents in eastern Aleppo have said many won't take advantage of the corridors because there are no guarantees that the evacuees won't be arrested by government forces.

    By midday Friday, no evacuations were seen along the Aleppo corridor.

    "No one has left the city so far," said Mohammed Abu Rajab, who works at an eastern Aleppo hospital that was repeatedly hit over the past weeks, knocking it out of service. "People are worried they might be detained. There are no guarantees."

    Speaking by telephone, he said any evacuations should be coordinated with the United Nations in order for people to feel they can leave safely.

    syriaThe pause in Aleppo fighting was announced by Russia to allow for the evacuation of civilians and fighters, as well as the wounded. Rebels have rejected the offer, saying it isn't serious.

    Before the pause, Aleppo's besieged districts were subjected to relentless Syrian and Russian airstrikes for weeks.

    The U.N. human rights chief, meanwhile, said Aleppo is "a slaughterhouse" and urged the Human Rights Council to set aside "political disagreements" to focus on suffering civilians.

    Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein delivered the stark remarks in an address by videoconference to the 47-member U.N.-backed rights body on Friday as it opened a special session on Aleppo called by Britain and others over the crisis in the city.

    Zeid, a Jordanian prince, said rights violations and abuses in Syria, in rebel-held eastern Aleppo and beyond "constitute crimes of historic proportions."

    He said the "collective failure of the international community to protect civilians and halt this bloodshed should haunt every one of us."

    The council was expected to vote later in the day on a resolution that would call for increased monitoring of crimes in Aleppo.

    U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that situation in Syria, particularly in Aleppo, was "one of the most complicated situations we see on earth."

    Even with the humanitarian pause, he said, the Syrian government has refused to give permission for humanitarian assistance to get into to east Aleppo and many other besieged communities. He spoke to the AP Thursday in Paris, on the sidelines of a ministerial summit.

    U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told an emergency meeting of the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday that nearly 500 people have been killed and almost 2,000 injured since the Syrian government launched its offensive in eastern Aleppo on Sept. 23.

    Even as the corridor opened along Aleppo's main artery to the north, the Castello Road, intense clashes and shelling erupted in the Jobar neighborhood in Damascus, activists and residents said. The sound of gunfire and shelling reverberated in the Syrian capital.

    The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there were casualties both among the rebels and the government forces.

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    Germany   Dusseldorf

    Obtaining a visa to enter Europe legally is becoming more difficult every day as Syria's brutal civil war — and the refugee crisis it has created — continues to escalate with no end in sight.

    More than 500,000 Syrians fled to Europe in 2015 alone, with Germany, Serbia, Kosovo, and Sweden receiving the bulk of asylum applications. Since the war erupted in 2011, Turkey and Lebanon have settled more than 3 million Syrian refugees combined, according to the human rights organization Amnesty International.

    Mahmoud Alkhuder, a 30-year-old lawyer from Aleppo, left Syria months after the revolution began. He had been living and working in Amman, Jordan, when he decided he wanted to pursue a business degree in the UK, where he thought he might face less discrimination for his refugee status than he had faced in Jordan.

    "Syrians in Jordan can't get a work permit," Alkhuder told Business Insider last month in an interview from Germany, where he was able to get asylum in 2015.

    "So there are thousands of people living in Jordan who are not allowed to work, but have no other source of income," he continued. "By 2013, you couldn't even open a bank account in Jordan if you were Syrian. Even with a Jordanian driver's license, police officers could tell I was Syrian and would ask for my passport to verify my identity. It was just open discrimination."

    To his surprise, however, his nationality was evidently an issue for the UK as well.

    In 2015, Alkhuder said, he applied twice for a six-month student visa to pursue an MBA at Edinburgh Business School. He was rejected both times, and received a striking letter from the British embassy in Amman informing him of the "severe civil unrest in Syria" that made them skeptical of Alkhuder's plans to leave the UK after completing his degree.

    A man waves a European Union flag outside the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh, Scotland, Britain June 28, 2016.  REUTERS/Scott Heppell

    Notably, 70% international students in the UK in 2015 came from non-EU countries, or roughly 131,000 students. Of those 131,000, an estimated 93,000 did not return home after completing their studies, according to the Office for National Statistics. "Students from Asia make up the largest group of international students, over five times as many as the next largest group from the Middle East," according to Oxford's Migration Observatory.

    This is not a new trend, however, and international students applying from relatively stable and wealthy countries who are granted visas seem to be given the benefit of the doubt by the British government that they will leave once their studies end in a way that prospective students from more unstable countries may not.

    Put differently, whereas some applicants will be granted a visa based on a holistic reading of their application — which includes their merits and intentions — the nationality of other applicants may preclude them from being granted a student visa in Britain.

    "I am ... aware of the spike in the numbers of Syrians fleeing the country and claiming refugee status in neighboring countries since the date of your application," the embassy officer wrote in an unclassified letter to Alkhuder, which he provided to Business Insider, rejecting his student visa application.

    Alkhuder said he told the embassy in both of his student visa applications that he had a home in Jordan that he planned on returning to after he received his MBA in Britain.

    "I note you have only lived at your address in Amman since the conflict in Syria began and it is not clear if your residence in Jordan will be extended," the officer replied.

    Here is the full letter:

    british embassy amman

    Colin Yeo, a lawyer based in the UK specializing in immigration law who founded the Free Movement blog on immigration and asylum law, said in an interview that he was struck by the disconnect between the letter's first and second paragraphs.

    Yeo said the first paragraph — which expresses doubts about the student's "genuineness" and "the potential cost of such a venture"— implies that the applicant's intentions are being judged, which is fairly standard practice during the visa review process.

    (Alkhuder, for his part, said he provided bank statements to the embassy that proved he had enough money to sustain himself in the UK without public funds and to purchase a return ticket to Amman after the course.)

    But the second paragraph, which focuses exclusively on the conflict in Syria, makes it clear that it doesn't matter what the applicant's intentions are — the applicant is going to be rejected no matter what, Yeo said.

    "It doesn't seem reasonable or moral to give one reason for rejection when actually the real reason is something else," Yeo said. "It's not true that they will be judged on individual merits. In the end, the UK doesn't want Syrians to come here because if they do, they can claim asylum."

    A man sits on the balcony of his damaged house in the rebel held besieged al-Sukkari neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

    In that second paragraph, moreover, the officer included links to BBC articles and EU fact sheets in an attempt to "explain" to Alkhuder what was happening in Syria — his birthplace and home for 25 years.

    Yeo said that while that information may seem "fairly obvious" to those on the receiving end of the rejection letter, "the officers feel they have to justify their refusal, so it's not unusual for them to refer to objective evidence."

    The British embassy in Amman did not respond to a request for comment.

    The letter Alkhuder received was not one of a kind. Another Syrian refugee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, received the same rejection letter when he applied for a student visa to the UK from the United Arab Emirates. A man who says he applied for a visa to accompany his sick daughter to the UK for medical treatment apparently received the letter, too, according to an Arabic-language website focusing on victims of the Syrian crisis.

    "Imagine that you get treated like this just because of your nationality," Alkhuder said from his apartment near Dusseldorf. He is registered as a long-distance student at Edinburgh Business School, where he's finishing his MBA online and has developed an app aimed at facilitating refugees' integration by connecting them with natives.

    He said he's disappointed by his experience with the UK.

    "I mean, did you choose to be born in the US? I didn't choose to be born in Syria. It's heartbreaking," he said.

    But he gushes about the new life he's been given in Germany.

    "I think of Germany as my home country," he said. "I feel like a human being again."

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    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

    Learning how to survive on practically no food, with no electricity, while surrounded by snipers and targeted in airstrikes, has become a necessary part of daily life for those still inside the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo.

    In an op-ed for The Washington Post, former University of Aleppo student Omair Shaaban described the measures residents have to take just to survive day-to-day in the city they've lived in their entire lives.

    Those include living on the lower floors of buildings to survive "the many different kinds of airstrikes, shells, rockets, phosphorus bombs and cluster bombs"; stay off the street as much as possible; drive without headlights to avoid being targeted (if you own a car); sell any extra pasta and bread you may be given by aid organizations ("there is no meat, no milk, no yogurt"); and, above all, try to stay calm.

    "Hearing bombs going off all the time is hard," Shaaban wrote. "They’re so noisy — the sound alone could drive you crazy. So now I try to ignore it. If bombs detonate nearby, try to forget them, try to be calm. Go save your neighbors instead of panicking. If you aren’t calm, you will really go mad."

    Late last month, the Syrian government — backed by Russian warplanes — launched its most devastating bombing campaign on Aleppo since the civil war began more than five years ago.

    "The destruction is so complete that it obliterates even a sense of time," Michael Kimmelmanwrote in The New York Times recently.

    A still image from video taken October 12, 2016 of a general view of the bomb damaged Old City area of Aleppo, Syria.    REUTERS/via ReutersTV

    Earlier this month, argued in The Guardian that Russia's current tactics in Aleppo can be understood by studying what Moscow did to the Chechen capital of Grozny 16 years ago.

    Much like Aleppo is today, Grozny was encircled by pro-government forces before being obliterated. In Grozny, though, an estimated 50,000 people were trapped as bombs rained down on them. Four times as many people, roughly 250,000, are under siege in rebel-held eastern Aleppo today, according to reports.

    "It’s so easy to lose your mind here," Shabaan wrote. He noted that going out to look for food, which is scarce and expensive, is risky because "you might come back to find that your building has been destroyed and your family killed.""I’ve seen people standing in front of bombed-out buildings, screaming and crying in disbelief...Even people who still have their homes struggle to cope. A friend of mine killed himself with a machine gun after another friend of ours died. I think it is more common in Western society for people to commit suicide, but here in Syria, it is very rare. In Islam, it’s a terrible sin."

    syria aleppo US Secretary of State John Kerry has called for Russia and the Syrian government to be investigated for war crimes over reports that their warplanes are targeting hospitals and rescue workers inside the city — reports that the Kremlin and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad continue to deny.

    "We look forward today to a very frank discussion about what potential next steps are,"Kerry said. "We intend to jointly figure out how best to be able to deliver the strongest message possible about the actions that might be taken to deal with this bombing of Aleppo, this siege, in the 21st century, of innocent people."

    Russia temporarily halted its airstrikes on Aleppo on Thursday and Friday, but has not specified how long the temporary ceasefire will last.

    "This past week, the regime and the Russians announced a cease-fire," Shabaan wrote. "But that has made everyone afraid — we don’t know what’s going to come next. Maybe the attacks will be worse than before, when they start again. That’s what happened last time."

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    rebel fighters aleppo syria

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - Fierce fighting and air strikes broke the third day of a four-day unilateral Russian ceasefire in the divided Syrian city of Aleppo on Saturday, a monitor said.

    The first Syrian or Russian air strikes on Aleppo since Russia began the pause in hostilities on Thursday hit a key front line in the city's southwest, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

    Clashes and shelling which had continued throughout the day on front lines intensified late in the day, a witness and the Observatory said.

    Air strikes had continued to target areas outside the city throughout the ceasefire.

    Russia has been announcing daily that it will abide by the next day of the series of daytime ceasefires, which it said it called to allow civilians and rebels to leave the besieged city, but no announcement was made on Saturday.

    There have been night-time clashes as each day of the ceasefire has ended, but Saturday saw much fiercer fighting plus the first air strikes. 

    Aleppo was Syria's most populous city before the war, but is now divided into government- and rebel-held areas. Intense bombardment has reduced the rebel-held east of the city to ruins.

    Once again, no medical evacuations or aid deliveries to rebel-held areas were possible on Saturday, the United Nations said.

    Rebels did not accept the ceasefire, which they say does nothing to alleviate the situation of those who choose to remain in rebel-held eastern Aleppo, and believe it is part of a government policy to purge cities of political opponents.

    The Syrian army and Russia had called on residents and rebels in eastern Aleppo to leave through designated corridors and depart for other insurgent-held districts under a promise of safe travel, but very few rebels or civilians appeared to have left.

    "Nobody has left through the corridors. The small number of people which who tried to leave were faced with shelling around the (corridor area) and could not leave," said Zakaria Malahifji, a rebel official with the Fastaqim group, which is present in the city.

    Syrian state media says rebels have been preventing civilians from leaving east Aleppo. Pro-government channels broadcast footage of ambulances and green buses parked at empty reception points in government-held Aleppo, said to be waiting for civilians and fighters from the city's east. 

    air strikes syria aleppo

    Besieged east Aleppo has not received United Nations assistance since early July and rebel groups have said they are preparing an attack to try to break through the government siege.

    The United Nations had hoped that the ceasefires would allow medical evacuations and aid deliveries, but said a lack of security guarantees had prevented aid workers from taking advantage of the pause in bombing.

    "The U.N. remains hopeful that parties will provide all necessary guarantees and is actively working to that end," U.N. humanitarian spokesman Jens Laerke said. He said humanitarian workers were ready to proceed as soon as conditions allowed. 

    "The situation on the ground remains volatile as exchanges of fire and clashes continue. Just today bullets struck the hotel where the U.N. hub is based and critically injured one hotel staff," Laerke said. 

    Sporadic clashes between insurgents and Syrian government and allied forces had been reported earlier on Saturday along frontlines, with some shells falling on both the government-held western side of the city and the rebel-held east, the Observatory said. 

    Aleppo has been a major battleground in the Syrian conflict, now in its sixth year. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by the Russian military, Iran's Revolutionary Guards and an array of Shi'ite Muslim militias, wants to take full control of the city.

    Syrian and Russian forces say they are targeting fighters linked to al-Qaeda from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front, in eastern Aleppo. Insurgents say Syria and Russia are indiscriminately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure to take over rebel-held eastern Aleppo. 

    Diplomatic negotiations between Russia and the United States have in recent weeks focused on whether there is a way to separate al Qaeda-linked fighters in eastern Aleppo from more moderate rebels, thereby depriving Syrian and Russian forces of their main targets.

    rebel fighters syria aleppo

    Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Saturday Russia remains committed to removing what it calls terrorist organizations from Syria and preventing the disintegration of the country.

    "We need to liberate and do everything possible to prevent the division of the country," Peskov said in a television interview, adding that he did not see an end to the Syria conflict in the foreseeable future.

    Asked if further extensions of the Aleppo pause were under discussion, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted by RIA news agency earlier on Saturday as saying it depends on the actions of other parties. 

    "We'll see how today goes. At the highest level it's already been said that (extending the pause) depends not on our possibilities but it largely depends on whether there is a proper movement from the opposite direction," he said.

    (Additional reporting by Maria Kiselyova in Moscow and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Adrian Croft)

    SEE ALSO: 'It's easy to lose your mind here': A Syrian from Aleppo explains how he survives amid food shortages and airstrikes

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    Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov sits near the Syrian national flag as he addresses a news conference in Damascus in this file photo dated June 28, 2014. Ryabkov, on a trip to Damascus, calls for a united effort with the U.S. and Europe to combat militancy in the Middle East. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

    MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said an "humanitarian pause" in air strikes on Syria's Aleppo had ended on Saturday and Moscow was not currently considering a return to the ceasefire, Russian news agencies reported.

    Ryabkov said further extensions of the ceasefire would depend on the actions of opposition fighters on the ground.


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