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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    Iraq Soldier Mosul Iraqi ISIS

    Most military analysts believe it’s only a matter of time before Mosul falls.

    Mosul is Iraq’s third largest city. The Islamic State captured it in June 2014 during a campaign that left it in control of territory the size of the United Kingdom. But on Oct. 16, 2016, a coalition of the Iraqi army, military forces from Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region and paramilitary units, began an attack to recapture the city.

    Military prowess does not explain IS’ initial success in Iraq. Rather, it depended on the collapse of the Iraqi army and Sunni disaffection with the Shi’i-dominated Iraqi government.

    But, then, between 2015 and 2016, IS territory in Iraq shrank by an estimated 50 percent. IS has lost major population centers, including the cities of Tikrit, Ramadi, Kobani, Fallujah and Palmyra.

    The next target on the coalition’s agenda is Raqqa, Syria, the capital of IS. It may only be a matter of time before IS’ territorial “caliphate” is no more.

    What then will be the fate of IS? Can the group survive without controlling any territory? Will it rebound? Or will it disappear?

    Five possible scenarios

    Iraqi special forces soldiers wave to a group of newly trained police formed from people displaced by Islamic State militants, as the group sits on a truck bound for the frontline of the Mosul offensive against Islamic State, near Bazgirtan, Iraq, October 26, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

    Scenario #1: IS goes underground, only to emerge in the future.

    This scenario is not very likely. It ignores the unique circumstances that gave rise to IS and enabled it to win victory after victory in 2014: the political and military vacuum created by the Syrian civil war, the dysfunction of the Iraqi government of Nuri al-Maliki, the collapse of the Iraqi army and the indifference of much of the world to the group’s ambitions until it was too late. A similar set of circumstances is unlikely in the future.

    Scenario #2: IS will simply set up shop elsewhere.

    Over the years, IS has established franchises in West and North Africa, Libya, Yemen, the Sinai and other locations. In some places, such as Libya, IS deployed fighters from Syria and Iraq to establish its franchises. In others, preexisting groups pledged allegiance to the caliphate. Boko Haram in West Africa is one such group.

    IS assumed that each of its franchises would expand the territory under its control until it met up with other franchises and, eventually, with the caliphate based in Syria and Iraq. Observers call this an “ink spot” strategy because each affiliate would widen like an ink spot on blotting paper.

    This scenario, too, is unlikely. None of IS’ franchises is doing well, and those that have not already failed are on the verge of failing. Internal conflicts tore some apart, including those in Yemen and West Africa. External enemies have rolled back others, such as those in Libya and Algeria.

    IS franchises have not been able to forge alliances with similar-minded groups because IS doesn’t play well with others. Rather than building partnerships, IS insists on unconditional loyalty to its caliphate project and organizational uniformity. It has thus turned potential collaborators into enemies.

    Iraqi special forces soldiers look at Christian religious books inside a church damaged by Islamic States fighters in Bartella, east of Mosul, Iraq October 21, 2016.  REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

    Scenario #3: IS fighters continue to wage an insurgency in Syria or Iraq, or both.

    This is exactly what the Taliban did in Afghanistan after the American invasion in 2001. Indeed, after the American invasion in Iraq, al-Qaida in Iraq – a precursor of IS – and members of the disbanded Iraqi army who joined IS did the same.

    This is a more likely scenario than the first two. However, fighting an insurgency is quite a step down from establishing, defending and expanding a territorial caliphate – what IS devotees consider an epochal event. And establishing, defending and expanding a territorial caliphate is precisely what differentiated IS from al-Qaida and similar groups. IS true believers deem a territorial caliphate cleansed of non-Islamic influences necessary for the survival of true Islam.

    IS fighters might continue the struggle. Revenge is a powerful motivator. But IS would no longer be IS were its fighters to limit their vision to waging a guerilla-style campaign. It would be indistinguishable from Jabhat al-Nusra, for example, the former al-Qaida affiliate and IS spin-off fighting the Syrian government. Jabhat al-Nusra’s goal of overthrowing the government of Syria – less grandiose than reestablishing a territorial caliphate that would unite all Muslims – was one of the reasons the split between the two groups occurred.

    Scenario #4: IS disappears.

    What if IS fighters just give up, or move on to other criminal enterprises? For true believers, the defeat of their caliphate might persuade them that their goal is unobtainable. It might therefore be extraordinarily dispiriting. Those who signed on for the thrill might find their kicks elsewhere, or merely fade back into the woodwork.

    This too is a strong possibility, particularly if other nations besides Denmark offer their citizens who have joined IS incentives for returning home. Similar groups, such as al-Qaida, have experienced defections in their ranks as members became disillusioned or discouraged or isolated.

    Scenario #5: Former fighters and freelancers continue their attacks globally with or without organizational backing.

    This too is a possibility, if only for a while. After all, a number of attacks outside of IS-held territory – including the attack in San Bernardino, California – occurred without the knowledge and assistance of IS.

    The destruction of IS’ caliphate could reduce its capacity to produce and disseminate propaganda. This would diminish IS’ ability to capture the imagination of would-be followers in the future. Nevertheless, in the short term, the world is not lacking in gullible and disturbed individuals.

    Short shelf-life

    An Iraqi soldier stands next to a detained man accused of being an Islamic State fighter, at a check point in Qayyara, south of Mosul, Iraq October 27, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

    Whatever the case, history provides lessons on how to effectively deal with movements and individuals who wage war against the international order.

    During the 19th and early 20th centuries, anarchists struck out at rulers and symbols of capitalism throughout the world. Anarchists assassinated the presidents of France and the United States, an empress of Austria, a king of Italy and numerous government ministers in Russia. They also bombed symbols of oppression, from the haunts of the bourgeoisie to Wall Street itself.

    Then, suddenly, the wave of anarchist violence ceased. By the onset of the Great Depression, anarchist activity was limited to a few isolated pockets. Historians point to a number of reasons the anarchist moment passed. Anarchism competed for hearts and minds with other dissident groups. Nations undertook political and social reforms that addressed the grievances of potential anarchists. They adopted new methods of policing and surveillance. Police agencies cooperated across borders.

    But perhaps most important was the fact that high-risk movements that attempt to realize the unrealizable have a short shelf life. Such might be the case for IS.

    James L. Gelvin, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, University of California, Los Angeles

    This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

    Join the conversation about this story »

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    refugees greece

    Athens (AFP) - Greece condemned the European Union on Monday for failing to fulfil its commitments to help ease pressure on Athens over migrants, a year after a burden-sharing agreement came into force. 

    "We are angry with Europe (because) it must finally meet its obligations," both in terms of transferring migrants and in terms of helping implement an EU-Turkey deal, migration minister Yannis Mouzalas told the Ert1 public TV channel.

    He was commenting as a group of 111 Syrian refugees left Greece for Finland, under a program of redistributing migrants across the EU to share the burden of Europe's biggest migrant crisis since World War II.

    "Today, a year after this program was launched," Athens' EU partners "have only taken charge of 5,000 refugees from Greece, while it promised to take in 33,000 of them" over the first year, and as many again between now and the end of 2017, he added.

    Specifically he condemned the "sabotage" of the EU plan by the so-called Visegrad group of countries -- Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia -- who are fiercely opposed to it, and against whom Athens is seeking EU sanctions.

    The European Commission initially suggested that countries which fail to meet their obligations under the EU scheme could face financial penalties, but has not followed through on that warning.

    European Refugees

    Mouzalas blasted the lack of European support to implement the EU-Turkey deal, under which migrants who arrived in the Greek islands after March 20, including Syrian refugees, could be sent back to Turkey.

    "The EU must support this agreement. It's not a question of showing solidarity with Greece. It's an obligation," he said.

    Under the deal, the EU promised to provide experts to help Greece organise the return of migrants in line with asylum rules. But these reinforcements "are absent," he said.

    Greek services are overwhelmed because most of the migrants have filed asylum requests in a bid to delay or block their return to Turkey, producing an "excessive concentration" in the Aegean islands, he said.

    The presence of nearly 16,000 migrants there has prompted repeated spikes in tension, he said.

    Athens wants to transfer some of these migrants to centres on the Greek mainland, but faces opposition from its EU partners who fear a mass resurgence of unregulated migrants heading north, he said.

    SEE ALSO: Syrian refugee’s wait for asylum in Greece is ‘like death’

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    RTX2R6YY

    The Lebanese parliament elected former army commander Michel Aoun as incoming president on Monday, ending a 29-month presidential vacuum as part of a political deal that is expected to make Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri prime minister.

    Here are some facts about Lebanon's new head of state, an ally of the powerful Iran-backed Shi'ite Muslim group Hezbollah.

    - Aoun, who is in his 80s, was prime minister of one of two rival Lebanese governments at the end of the 1975-90 civil war, appointed by outgoing President Amin Gemayel in 1988. He is remembered for fighting two ruinous wars in that period, one against Syrian forces in Lebanon, and another against a powerful Christian militia, the Lebanese Forces.

    - The Syrian army drove Aoun from the presidential palace in 1990. He headed to the French Embassy in an armored vehicle before going into exile in France. Aoun was a fierce opponent of the 1989 peace deal, the Taif Agreement, that ended the war. The accord reduced the political powers of Lebanon's once dominant Maronite Christians, including the authority of the presidency, which was reserved for a Maronite. It increased the powers of the Sunni Muslim prime minister.

    - From exile, Aoun lobbied against Syrian domination of Lebanon as Damascus kept troops stationed throughout the country. The head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon was viewed as the country's de facto ruler. Aoun supported Western moves to end Syria's dominance, including the 2003 U.S. Syria Accountability Act, and U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 passed in 2004, which called for free and fair presidential elections, the withdrawal of foreign forces, and the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon.

    Christian politician and FPM founder Michel Aoun talks during a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon October 20, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

    - Aoun returned to Lebanon after Syrian armed forces withdrew in 2005 following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Addressing supporters in Beirut's Martyrs' Square, Aoun declared Lebanon free and independent. But he did not join the "March 14" coalition that grouped other opponents of Syria's role in Lebanon, many of whom were his adversaries from the civil war.

    - In February 2006, Aoun appeared alongside Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah at a Beirut church to declare an alliance between his Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the Shi'ite movement.

    The alliance has continued to this day. Aoun supported Hezbollah in its war with Israel the following summer. His party then mobilized with Hezbollah in an attempt to bring down Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government, which was backed by the West and Saudi Arabia. Hezbollah maintained its support for Aoun's candidacy, even after Hariri nominated another of its allies, Suleiman Franjieh, for the post a year ago.

    - Aoun's election will mark the first time one of Lebanon's main Maronite politicians has been elected to the presidency since the end of the civil war. Michel Suleiman, his predecessor, was a compromise candidate who came to office in 2008 as a result of a regional deal. The two presidents before Suleiman were installed by Syria. The FPM is the biggest Christian party in the Lebanese parliament.

     

    SEE ALSO: 3 men linked to Hezbollah have been accused of laundering money in Miami banks

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    RTX2Q11P

    Syria's political opposition hopes Hillary Clinton wins the U.S. presidential election next week because she has a better understanding of the conflict than Donald Trump, according to members of a delegation holding talks at the United Nations.

    Khaled Khoja and Hind Kabawat, in Geneva on Monday to press for U.N.-led negotiations on the release of Syrian detainees, said they trusted Clinton, a former U.S. Secretary of State, to deliver on the opposition's top priority - protecting civilians.

    Clinton has called for the establishment of a no-fly zone and "safe zones" on the ground in Syria to protect non-combatants. Trump says this could "lead to World War Three" due to the potential for conflict with Russia, which is providing military support to President Bashar al-Assad.

    Kabawat said Trump, who has never held public office and has no foreign policy experience, saw Islamic State, also known as ISIS, as the only alternative to Assad in Syria.

    "For us a woman's leadership at this time would be a good thing. Also for many, like Trump and others, they think that the Syrian conflict is comparing Assad with ISIS and they have to take one side or the other, and of course for them Assad will look more prominent than ISIS," said Kabawat.

    "She (Clinton) knows that is wrong. She knows that there is this moderate opposition that believes in democracy and freedom. This is what we are aiming for, to have a president of the U.S. with good experience who knows the difference between the different oppositions."

    Assad, whose forces have regained much territory against their opponents with the help of Russian warplanes, has branded all those opposed to his rule as "terrorists".

    RTSPQ1J

    Islamic State

    Trump has said defeating Islamic State should be a higher priority than trying to persuade Assad to step aside, a departure from a long-held U.S. policy objective.

    Khoja, leading the Syrian opposition delegation in Geneva, disagreed with this viewpoint.

    "Dealing with only the ISIS issue will not help with solving the crisis in Syria or the region because the root cause of the crisis is the (Assad) regime itself," he said.

    Kabawat, an attorney and a member of the opposition High Negotiations Committee, added that the Syrian political opposition wanted to see women playing an equal role to men in the nation's politics.

    The opposition delegation, which has links to the Free Syrian Army but not with Islamic State or al Qaeda-linked groups, is in Geneva this week to revive the issue of prisoner releases, sidelined during months of fruitless peace talks.

    Khoja said more than 100 armed groups had shown their willingness to cooperate but there had been no sign of cooperation from Assad's government or Russia, adding that the United Nations should form a committee on the matter.

    "If it's needed, if there is a response from the regime side to release the detainees and stop killings inside Syria, then we can have the representative of the military groups also in this committee, and if the regime wants to send someone to this committee, we can discuss it," Khoja said.

    The Syrian Network of Human Rights has documented more than 90,000 detainees held by the Syrian government, 6,000 held by Islamic State and 2,400 held by the rest of the opposition, but estimates the real numbers are twice as high.

    SEE ALSO: Trump: Hillary Clinton's Syria policy would 'lead to World War Three'

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    Moscow's air strikes have negatively affected the way Russia is perceived internationally, 32 percent of poll respondents said, up from 16 percent in November

    Moscow (AFP) - Nearly half of Russians fear that Moscow's bombing campaign in Syria could spark World War III, a poll showed Monday.

    Moscow, an ally of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad,  has been staging bombing raids in Syria since September 2015.

    Forty-eight percent of Russians were concerned that "heightened tensions in relations between Russia and the West could grow into World War III," according to a poll conducted by independent pollster Levada Centre last week.

    That figure was up from 29 percent in July this year.

    Moscow's air strikes have negatively affected the way Russia is perceived internationally, 32 percent said, up from 16 percent in November.

    Nevertheless, 52 percent of Russians said they back Moscow's air strikes, while 26 percent said they opposed them.

    Asked whether Russia should continue "intervening in what is going on in Syria," 49 percent said yes, while 28 percent said no.

    Western powers and rights groups have accused Syrian and Russian forces of carrying out indiscriminate attacks on civilian infrastructure in the country, particularly around the former economic powerhouse Aleppo, parts of which have been reduced to rubble.

    Moscow announced on October 18 it was halting strikes on Aleppo in a moratorium that has so far lasted 14 days. 

    SEE ALSO: 'Trickery wins every time': Russia is using an old kind of military deception

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    Vladimir Putin Sergei Shoigu Nursultan Nazarbayev

    MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday a Western failure to rein in violent Islamists in Syria had indefinitely delayed the resumption of peace talks.

    Shoigu said that rebels backed by Western governments had been attacking civilians in the Syrian city of Aleppo, despite a pause in Russian and Syrian air attacks.

    "As a result, the prospects for the start of a negotiation process and the return to peaceful life in Syria are postponed for an indefinite period," Shoigu said.

    Russia backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's civil war, and its military operation in Syria, now in its second year, has shored up Assad's position. That has put Moscow on a collision course with Washington and its allies who want Assad removed from office.

    Since Oct. 18, Russia and its Syrian allies say they have halted air attacks in Aleppo. Western governments had alleged that the strikes had been killing civilians in large numbers, an allegation Moscow denied.

    But the pause in the air attacks on Aleppo is fragile: Russian President Vladimir Putin said last month its continuation depended on the behavior of moderate rebel groups in Aleppo and their Western backers.

    Shoigu, who was addressing a meeting of Russian military officials, railed against those rebels and their backers, saying they had squandered a chance for peace talks.

    "It is time for our Western colleagues to determine who they are fighting against: terrorists or Russia," Shoigu said, in remarks broadcast on Russian television.

    "Maybe they have forgotten at whose hands innocent people died in Belgium, in France, in Egypt and elsewhere?"

    Listing attacks he said had been carried out by Western-backed rebels inside Aleppo, he said: "Is this an opposition with which we can achieve agreements?"

    "In order to destroy terrorists in Syria it is necessary to act together, and not put a spanner in the works of partners. Because the rebels exploit that in their own interests."

    Shoigu said he was also surprised that some European governments had refused to allow Russian navy vessels bound for Syria to dock in their Mediterranean ports to refuel or take on supplies.

    But he said those refusals had not affected the naval mission, or interfered with supplies reaching the Russian military operation in Syria.

    (Reporting by Katya Golubkova; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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    erdogan turkeyThe US and Turkey rarely see eye to eye these days.

    On Monday, Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told reporters that Ankara wants the US-led anti-ISIS coalition to wait to move on Raqqa, the jihadist group's de-facto capital in Syria, until after the operation to dislodge the group from its Iraqi stronghold, Mosul, is completed.

    The announcement came as the US prepares for an imminent move on Raqqa, which defense officials feel would be more successful if it overlapped with the Mosul offensive that began two weeks ago. It also highlights the growing disconnect between US and Turkish interests in Syria, where Ankara has been working to halt the advances of Kurdish anti-ISIS militias that are being actively empowered by Washington.

    Turkey's request to hold off on Raqqa likely has to do with the resources it has committed to the Mosul fight and its opposition to seeing the Syrian city liberated by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces — an overwhelmingly Kurdish opposition alliance that includes Arabs, Assyrians, and Turkmen fighters.

    The US appears ready to move forward with the offensive on Raqqa, anyway — Defense Secretary Ash Carter told NBC last week that the battle will begin "within the next few weeks." The administration claims, however, that it still doesn't know who will lead the fight.

    Defense officials told The Daily Beast last week that the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) — which makes up the majority of SDF fighters — will help isolate Raqqa but will not enter the city itself. 

    Another official told The Washington Post that "this is one of the situations in which we have contacts and influence over all the actors. But we’re not in perfect control."

    But Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of US-led operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, told reporters last week that "the only force that is capable" of taking Raqqa in the short term "are the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG are a significant portion."

    syria map

    The US and Turkey have reportedly begun training Arab opposition fighters to take part in the Raqqa battle, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called on the US to drop "terrorist organizations like the PYD and YPG" from the operation altogether.

    Turkish warplanes carried out 26 airstrikes on SDF positions in northern Syria on October 20 that killed dozens of Kurds, and Turkey has indicated that it will not hesitate in attacking them as they continue to consolidate territory and influence.

    The Kurds, however, are the most capable forces fighting ISIS on the ground in Syria, and abandoning them now would likely be detrimental to the overall campaign to defeat the jihadists.

    It would also be politically risky.

    Syrian Kurdish priorities, which center around consolidating an autonomous enclave called Rojava in northern Syria, don't wholly align with the US' goals in the country. As such, the Kurds' allegiances are somewhat of a wild card. Russia, attempting to woo the Kurds, proposed to recognize Rojava last year, a Syrian Kurdish delegation told Washington at the time.

    Months later, the Kurds coordinated with the Syrian army and Moscow in February to isolate the strategically important city of Azaz from Turkey-backed rebels.

    On the other hand, it is unclear how committed the Kurds are to liberating Raqqa, an ethnically Arab city that has never been part of any Kurdish-controlled emirate. The longer Raqqa is under ISIS control, moreover, the longer the PYD has "a strategic annuity to further its goal of establishing a unified Rojava," the Washington Institute's Fabrice Balanche noted earlier this month.

    Townsend, the US general, said last week that the battle for Raqqa can't be delayed much longer due to unspecified threats to the West being planned among ISIS fighters inside the city.

    kurdish forces ypg hasaka syriaTurkey's prime minister, Binali Yildirim, said recently that Turkish troops won't participate in the Raqqa battle if Kurdish forces are given any role there. But Erdogan insisted in a separate phone call with President Barack Obama last week that Turkey will advance toward Manbij — which the SDF captured from ISIS in August — and Raqqa, where the Kurds have, according to one local report, already begun to establish a military presence.

    Obama administration officials, meanwhile, said the president firmly told Erdogan that the US would go ahead with the Raqqa operation, led by the Kurds, with or without Turkey's help.

    The conflicting messages and ongoing fighting between the SDF and Turkey-backed rebels in northern Syria do not bode well for the kind of coordinated and well-planned operation that will be needed to drive ISIS from Raqqa — a high-stakes battle comparable to the fight for Mosul that required more than a year of planning before it was finally launched earlier this month.

    Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the commander of American forces in the Middle East, seemed less ambitious than Carter or Townsend about plans to move on Raqqa imminently, saying earlier this month that one of the administration's goals right now for the city is just "to keep everyone moving in the right direction."

    U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, commander, U.S. Central Command, briefs the media at the Pentagon in Washington, U.S. April 29, 2016 about the investigation of the airstrike on the Doctors Without Borders trauma center in Kunduz, Afghanistan on October 3, 2015. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

    Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, recently summed up the "dire" challenges facing the anti-ISIS coalition in Syria in The Washington Post.

    "Kurdish militias, Syrian rebels (some supported by Ankara, others by Washington), Turkey and the United States are competing to seize Islamic State territory before figuring out the right apportionment," Hokayem wrote. "Nearby, Russia and Assad are mounting a savage siege of eastern Aleppo, wondering if the Turkish-backed rebels will soon move south to relieve the city or if Turkey will satisfy itself with a zone of influence and restrain them."

    In Raqqa, as in Mosul, Hokayem argued, regional and sectarian tensions among those fighting ISIS have "set the scene for multiple low- and high-intensity sub-conflicts."

    "This won’t be the Islamic State’s promised apocalypse," Hokayem wrote. "But for the average Middle Easterner, it will be bad enough, just enough to allow the Islamic State’s next incarnation to lurk in the back."

    Join the conversation about this story »

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    Refugees and migrants line up for food distribution at the Moria migrant camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece October 6, 2016.   REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis/File Photo

    ATHENS (Reuters) - Seven months after the European Union and Turkey struck an agreement to turn back the tide of Syrians fleeing west, not a single refugee has been sent back from Greece, and Brussels is losing its patience as overcrowded camps grow violent.

    The agreement reached in March was designed to reduce the number of migrants crossing into Europe from Turkey, after more than a million people arrived in Europe last year, most reaching Greek islands by boat and continuing by land to Germany.

    Under the deal, the European Union declared Turkey "a safe third country", meaning those who make the crossing can be returned there, even if found to have fled Syria or other countries as refugees deserving protection. Turkey agreed to take them back, in return for a range of EU concessions.

    At around the same time, Balkan countries along the land route north closed their borders, so that migrants who once poured across Greece to reach other parts of Europe are now trapped there and prevented from pressing on.

    For the most part, the goal of stemming the tide has been achieved so far. Only 17,000 people, around half of them Syrians, have made the hazardous sea crossing from Turkey since the deal was signed, a tiny fraction of hundreds of thousands that arrived the previous year to pass through Greece.

    But for the deal to continue to work for the longer term, European officials and experts say refugees will have to be sent back to Turkey. As long as those crossing are still able to stay in Greece, there is a risk that more will decide to come.

    "There's the deterrence effect. If it's proven that people are being turned back, it can force people to think twice about even trying," said James Ker-Lindsay, an expert on southern Europe at the London School of Economics.

    Only about 700 people who arrived since the deal was signed - just four percent of the total - have gone back to Turkey, and none was ordered back after being recognized as a refugee.

    Of those who returned, most were economic migrants from countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh who left without seeking asylum in Greece. Around 70 people who did claim asylum in Greece gave up on the process and asked to leave before it was over. The rest are still in Greece, prey for smugglers who offer to take them to northern Europe.

    Some 61,000 migrants are still scattered across Greece, including 15,900 in overcrowded island camps that have grown violent as the delays mount, with around 2,500 more arriving each month. The camps are now holding three times as many people as they held when the deal was signed, and twice as many as they were built for.

    refugees greece

    The EU blames the delays on Greek inefficiency.

    "The goal of ensuring returns ... has mostly been hampered by the slow pace of processing of asylum applications at first instance by the Greek Asylum Service and of processing of appeals by the newly-established Greek Appeals Authority," the EU Commission said in a progress report.

    "Further efforts are urgently needed by the Greek administration to build a substantially increased and sustained capacity to return arriving migrants, which is considered to be the key deterrent factor for irregular migrants and smugglers."

    Athens says it is simply overwhelmed and cannot speed up the painstaking process of evaluating claims. It has asked the EU to send more staff, but European officials say that would not help without more effort from Greece to improve its system.

    Interviews with asylum-seekers and officials involved in the process suggest Greek staff are indeed stretched, but red tape, inefficiency, the lack of a unified plan across refugee camps and a lengthy appeals process are also to blame.

    refugee camp greeceUnlucky

    Amir, Walaa and their two young children fled from the Syrian city of Homs to Turkey and reached a beach on the Greek island of Chios in March. They say they came ashore the day before the deal with Turkey, but their arrival was not recorded by police until the next day, exposing them to the new rules.

    "We were unlucky," Walaa said, smiling weakly. Her two brothers had taken just two weeks to reach Germany from Greece before the land border was shut. Her husband Amir added: "We were in the boat and (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel and Turkey were finishing the deal."

    Their asylum case should be easier to process than many: they have their passports and do not need to prove their identity. But they are still months from an answer.

    In their first weeks in Greece they were given a number: 10,624. Each day, they rose from their tent in the dusty remains of a castle moat, and walked to a notice board, looking anxiously for it.

    If posted, it meant they should walk or catch a bus to the island's main camp, a few miles (km) away, and queue there at the processing center, a few prefabricated containers arranged inside an abandoned aluminum factory.

    They spent four months in the tent before their number finally was posted the first time, summoning them to a meeting to establish their identity, where authorities finally sat them down to ask for their names and fingerprints.

    Six months after they arrived, they were finally told the date of their first actual interview: Dec. 6. They were finally given the right to leave the camp and relocate to Athens while they wait for their case to be heard. Now they live at a grimy, abandoned Athens school where smugglers roam, offering passage to northern Europe for $1,000.

    "We wait. Every day we just wait. Why, I don't know," Walaa said, gazing at the floor. She and her husband asked that their surnames not be published to protect relatives back in Syria.

    refugees greece

    Humanitarian groups on the ground say poor coordination slows things down on the islands, a conclusion backed up by the EU Commission report, which urged Greece to develop unified management for the camps.

    The camps are typically run by local municipalities or the central government, while screening and interviews are carried out primarily by officials from EU border agency Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO).

    Asylum-seekers say they receive contradictory information and are confounded by a lack of interpreters. One camp used a loud-hailer to call people to appointments; if they didn't hear it, they missed their turn.

    Frontex and EASO officials go to unusual lengths to confirm an identity or check an asylum seeker's story. Someone who has no documentation and professes to be from Syria, for example, will be asked to name streets, identify landmarks or pick out Syrian coins from a handful of different currencies.

    A cruel bureaucracy

    The long waits and squalor of some camps have turned frustration into violence. On Chios and the island of Lesbos in recent days, asylum-seekers attacked EASO's offices to protest against delays. Interviews there have yet to resume.

    EASO has deployed 202 staff in Greece and has called for 100 more, but EU member states have yet to respond, EASO spokesman Jean-Pierre Schembri said. Greece has repeatedly asked for more.

    The Greek legal system allows for an elaborate appeals process, which the EU says is too slow. Greece responded in June by sending more judges to replace civil servants and staff of either the U.N. refugee agency or Greek human rights commission, who had previously sat on appeals panels.

    The new boards appear to be moving only slightly faster: they made 35 decisions in their first month, compared with 72 made by the old boards in the first three months of the deal, the EU Commission report said. The report did not specify what decisions had been reached.

    refugees greece

    The most contentious part of the process is determining whether those with valid asylum cases can safely be returned to Turkey, the heart of the March deal. The new appeals boards have dealt with at least three such cases as of Sept. 18, and at least one is challenging the decision at Greece's highest court, according to the EU report.

    Reuters could not find a board member willing to comment publicly on the process.

    "A wrong decision might send someone back to serious harm," said Giorgos Kosmopoulos, an Amnesty International researcher and former Greece director. "It's about quality not quantity."

    (Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; editing by Peter Graff)

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    Smoke rises near a damaged road in Dahiyet al-Assad, west Aleppo city, Syria October 30, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

    MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's Defence Ministry said on Wednesday it would extend a moratorium on air strikes on the Syrian city of Aleppo until 1900 on Nov. 4 by order of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

    Kremlin spokesman said on Tuesday that a temporary pause in Russian and Syrian government air strikes on Aleppo was still in force, but could not be extended if the rebels in the city did not halt their attacks.

    SEE ALSO: Russia is actively militarizing Crimea

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    German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a meeting of the Christian Democratic Seniors Union in Magdeburg, Germany, October 7, 2016.     REUTERS/Axel Schmidt

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday accused Syrian government troops of committing "crimes against humanity" that could not be overlooked.

    Human rights groups and Western countries have previously accused Syria's army, backed by Russia's air force, of targeting hospitals, bakeries and other civilian areas when bombarding rebel areas, including eastern Aleppo.

    "The use of barrel bombs and incendiary bombs, and even chemical weapons, is not being shied away from," Merkel said as she received the Seoul Peace Prize in Berlin.

    "The civilian population is being starved, medical institutes are being attacked, doctors are dying and hospitals are being destroyed," she said, adding that not even United Nations aid convoys were safe from bombardment.

    "These are serious crimes against humanity. We mustn't overlook that," Merkel said.

    On Tuesday, a U.N. human rights spokeswoman said all sides fighting over the Syrian city of Aleppo may be committing war crimes through indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas.

    The U.N. Human Rights Council said late last month it would identify the perpetrators of war crimes in Aleppo, and it launched a special inquiry into the use of starvation and air strikes there.

    Merkel also urged Europeans to think about crises further afield. On North Korea's nuclear program and tensions in the East and South China Sea, she said: "Everyone involved has a duty to stick to the internationally agreed rules and to cooperate."

    A member of the Civil Defence, also known as the 'White Helmets', who have been nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, reacts after the announcemenet of the winner, in a rebel held area of Aleppo, Syria October 7, 2016.

    SEE ALSO: Watch a US-led airstrike wipe out an ISIS fighting position near its last stronghold in Iraq

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    kerry lavrov

    The State Department slammed Moscow's recent comparison of the US-backed anti-ISIS offensive in Mosul with Russia's scorched-earth campaign in the Syrian city of Aleppo on Monday, calling the claim "ludicrous" and "insulting."

    "It's absolutely not the same, and to compare the two is frankly insulting,"State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Monday, noting that Secretary of State John Kerry "feels exactly the same way."

    "I mean, in Aleppo you’ve got the regime laying siege to a city with the support of their biggest backer, Russia. In Mosul you have an entire coalition of some 66 nations who have planned for months, so with the vast support and legitimacy of the international community, to retake a city from Daesh over a period of months in support of Iraqi Security Forces," Kirby said.

    Russia insists that its airstrikes on eastern Aleppo have only targeted "terrorists" associated with former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra — now known as Jabhat Fateh al Sham — and has argued that the strikes are justified because civilians in government-controlled western Aleppo are being attacked by militant groups. 

    Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman Igor Konashenkov, moreover, claimed on Tuesday that while Russian and Syrian warplanes "have performed no flights in Aleppo for more than two weeks," Mosul is being "bombed daily" by American warplanes.

    Russia halted its airstrikes on Aleppo in early October, Moscow said, to allow civilians to leave the city through six humanitarian corridors established by the Syrian government. But many civilians have chosen not to leave the city, according to reports, out of fear that the corridors are a trap by the government and/or by militants. 

    The US formally suspended its negotiations with Russia over the cease-fire in Syria on October 3, stating that "Russia and the Syrian regime have chosen to pursue a military course, inconsistent with the Cessation of Hostilities, as demonstrated by their intensified attacks against civilian areas, targeting of critical infrastructure such as hospitals, and preventing humanitarian aid from reaching civilians in need."

    john kirbyKirby invoked that statement as he pushed back on Russia's claim that targeting Nusra in Aleppo is the same as targeting ISIS in Mosul, noting that the US has been actively trying to avoid collateral damage while Russia has been deliberately attacking civilan infrastructure.

    "In Aleppo, you have the specific targeting of innocent civilians, first responders, and infrastructure – hospitals – that are specifically being targeted and destroyed, whereas in Mosul the air power that’s being used by the coalition is very precise, very discriminate," Kirby said.

    "Great care is taken to avoid civilian casualties, and certainly there is going to be no concerted effort, as there is in Aleppo, to destroy civilian infrastructure."

    Iraq has not been without collateral damage however. An airstrike reportedly hit a funeral processionabout 50 miles south of Kirkuk, Iraq last week, killing 17 people, prompting Konashenkov to accuse the US of committing a "war crime." It is still unclear whether the airstrike came from an American warplane, and the US has not commented on the incident.

    The two operations

    Moscow intervened in Syria in late September 2015 under the guise of battling the Islamic State. But the vast majority of Russian airstrikes throughout the country have targeted areas held by rebel groups opposed to Syrian president Bashar Assad, a Russian ally. Some of the opposition groups Russia has targeted, including various elements of the Free Syrian Army, have received weapons and funding by the US and Turkey.

    There are roughly 275,000 civilians in Aleppo, the UN's Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said last month. About 8,000 fighters live among them, nearly 1,000 of whom are members of al-Nusra.

    russian airstrikes Syria

    The Mosul operation, meanwhile — officially launched on October 16— is the largest deployment of Iraqi soldiers since the US invasion in 2003. It is being bolstered by airpower from a 60-country US-led coalition opposed to the Islamic State.

    An estimated 5,000 ISIS fighters are inside Mosul, which is home to about 200,000 to 300,000 civilians. Military operations there, according to Kirby, "are being done in such a way that if they don’t feel threatened, civilians can stay."

    "They can stay because there’s going to be – there’s going to be procedures put in place to try to protect them if they decide to stay," he continued. "Now, obviously, if they feel threatened and they want to leave, they can leave, but there’s a place to go to. There’ll be some camps that will be prepared to receive them and their families with food, water, medicine."

    A man who just fled Bazwaia village carries a white flag as he arrives at a special forces checkpoint, east of Mosul, Iraq, November 1, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

    The UN's Refugee Agency (UNHCR) alone runs five camps for internally displaced people in northern Iraq and a further six are under construction, NBC News has reported. Other organizations are reportedly constructing more camps to prepare for the wave of civilians expected to arrive from Mosul as the battle looms.

    Aid workers and convoys attempting to provide to relief to civilians in Syria, meanwhile, have been prevented from entering cities besieged by the government. Late last month, a Turkish aid convoy was bombed trying to cross the border into Syria, ostensibly by Russia.

    Moscow has denied targeting the aid convoys, but US officials said two Russian Sukhoi SU-24 warplanes were in the skies above the aid convoy at the exact time it was struck.

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    Saad Hariri

    BEIRUT (AFP) - Lebanon's new prime minister Saad Hariri, the son of former billionaire premier Rafik Hariri, is a vociferous critic of Hezbollah and the Syrian regime which he blames for his father's assassination.

    The 46-year-old was nominated Thursday to form a cabinet by his one-time political adversary, President Michel Aoun, who took office this week after receiving the surprise support of his old foe.

    Hariri, who has already served as prime minister once before, has a political career marked by his opposition to the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah, which is allied with Aoun.

    The movement is a key backer of the government in neighbouring Syria, which Hariri accuses of having planned his father's murder.

    He was a leading proponent of the departure of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005, after mass demonstrations following the assassination.

    Hariri, who now sports a beard along with his trademark slicked-back locks, returns to the office in a bid to restore the standing of Lebanon's Sunni community and counterbalance Hezbollah's influence.

    Born in Saudi Arabia, where his father made his fortune, he was running the family's Oger construction firm when Rafik Hariri was assassinated in February 2005.

    At his family's urging, he returned to Lebanon to enter politics, heading an anti-Syrian bloc to victory in the 2005 legislative elections.

    Michel Aoun Saad al Hariri

    Confrontations with Hezbollah 

    In August 2007, he formed the Future Movement party, a majority-Sunni bloc, which came out ahead in the 2009 legislative elections, winning 33 of the parliament's 128 seats.

    In November that year, he became prime minister for the first time, forming a unity government with Hezbollah and its allies after marathon negotiations.

    But the government only lasted until January 2011, when Hezbollah and its allies pulled their ministers from the cabinet, forcing its collapse.

    Tensions had already nearly boiled over in May 2008, when Hezbollah fighters seized parts of Beirut after pitched battles with Future Movement supporters.

    The crisis raised fears of a new conflict in the country, still scarred by its 1975-1990 civil war.

    Hariri was also locked in a standoff with Hezbollah over funding for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is prosecuting his father's murder.

    The tribunal has implicated Hezbollah members in the assassination, but the group dismisses the body as a US-Israeli conspiracy.

    Hariri's differences with Hezbollah have only deepened with the war in neighbouring Syria, where the powerful Shiite group has dispatched fighters to bolster President Bashar al-Assad's government.

    Hariri by contrast has backed the uprising against Assad, and led the calls for Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon -- 30 years after their arrival -- in 2005.

    Hezbollah is backed by Iran while Hariri enjoys the support of Tehran's regional rival Saudi Arabia.

    Saad al Hariri

    Dwindling fortune, influence? 

    Hariri has Saudi citizenship and has tirelessly praised the kingdom, to which he returned after the collapse of his government, citing security concerns.

    His wife Lama Bashir-Azm, who is of Syrian origin, and their three children have stayed in Saudi Arabia, even as Hariri began spending time in Lebanon again from 2014.

    In June 2016, he announced his permanent return to Lebanon, though he continues to spend periods in Saudi Arabia, where the Hariri business empire has struggled of late.

    Hariri's influence with the Saudi royal family also appears to have dwindled since the death of King Abdullah, and in Lebanon he has faced criticism within his Sunni constituency for his lengthy absence and failure to bolster the community.

    Former justice minister Ashraf Rifi launched a major challenge to his position as presumptive leader of Lebanon's Sunnis in June 2016, running a rival list in municipal elections in the Sunni stronghold of Tripoli.

    A business graduate from Georgetown University in Washington DC, Hariri was virtually unknown before his arrival on the political scene after his father's death.

    A polyglot, he was nonetheless mocked for his poor public speaking skills, and initially derided as a political naif.

    But his decision to back former rival Aoun for the presidency, ending a vacuum of more than two years, illustrated his comfort with the shifting sands of Lebanon's treacherous political landscape. 

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    An honor guard opens the door as Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) enters a hall to attend a meeting with members of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 1, 2015.  REUTERS/Yuri Kochetkov/Pool/File Photo

    In his masterful account Strategy: A History, Sir Lawrence Freedman defines strategy as “the art of creating power.” This is a useful lens through which to consider one of this year’s key geopolitical trends: Russia’s return to the Middle East.

    Apart from its close ties to the Syrian regime, which date back to the 1970s, Moscow has had no substantial role in the Middle East since 1972, when President Anwar Sadat kicked Soviet advisors out of Egypt.

    Why return now? At a general level, it’s clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to challenge the notion of a U.S.-led world order and encourage the return to a multipolar one, though there are certain self-imposed constraints on his ambitions.

    Although he has intervened in Georgia and Ukraine, he doesn’t seem willing to start a wider war by attacking any Eastern European states that are already members of NATO. In the Middle East, however, Putin has a theater to undermine Western influence, and to create power for himself, without the risk of triggering a war with the West.

    As any demagogue knows, one way to create power out of nothing is to find a division and then exploit it. In the Middle East, the fundamental division Russia has exploited is the one between the West’s aversion to Islamists, on the one hand, and human rights abuses on the other. The conflict between these aims often produces equivocation in Western foreign policy. It also opens up political space where Russia can operate by investing in repression and discounting democracy.

    Moscow unequivocally supports the current authoritarian regimes in Damascus, Cairo, and Tobruk, which it portrays as bulwarks against the spread of radical Islam. In Egypt, Putin has consistently backed President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s actions against the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, in the face of widespread evidence of repressive tactics by his military government.

    vladimir putin fattah al sisi egypt russia

    Since 2013, Russia has stepped in to provide arms to the Egyptian government, exploiting U.S. reluctance to provide military hardware that could be used for domestic political repression. Although Egypt continues to depend on much greater levels of financial support from Washington than from Moscow, this action exemplifies Russia’s strategy for exploiting any seam between the United States and its regional allies when Washington equivocates between security and human rights.

    We see the same thing in Libya and Syria, where Russia does not contend with an established U.S. partner. In Syria, despite human rights atrocities by the Syrian government that have attracted Western scorn, the West has not been able to explain how getting rid of Bashar al-Assad’s regime would improve the country’s security, since that could lead to a rise in Islamist anarchy.

    Putin has exploited this gap by unreservedly backing Assad, leaving the West arguing for a gradual “transition” away from the Syrian president. And that further boosts the influence of Russia and Iran, the only countries with the leverage to initiate any such transition.

    As for Libya, the United States is invested in the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord, based out of Tripoli, which seeks to unify a divided country. The problem is that the separatist government in Tobruk in eastern Libya, which is supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, has not agreed to this merger.

    Sensing an opportunity to get between the United States and two traditional allies (Egypt and the UAE), while nominally supporting the official U.N. process, Russia has funneled arms, likely via Serbia and Belarus, to the forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who supports the Tobruk government.

    Then-General Khalifa Haftar speaks during a news conference at a sports club in Abyar, east of Benghazi May 21, 2014.  REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

    And following Haftar’s successful takeover of the oil terminals in Libya’s Sirte basin over the last two months, and his hard line against Islamist groups in Benghazi, the West currently appears to have accepted the reality — and, to an extent, the necessity — of his power and, by extension, Russia’s influence in Libya.

    Much the same could be said about Putin’s surprise diplomatic volte-face toward Turkey. Again sensing an opportunity to chip away at the NATO alliance, after the attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July, Putin invited the Turkish leader to Moscow.

    Russian sanctions imposed after the downing of a Russian fighter jet in Syria last year were lifted, and the West now has to deal with the tricky situation of a NATO member whose president’s political philosophy has more in common with Putin’s than the democratic values NATO is supposed to protect.

    Though Putin has tried to insert himself into several other areas of Middle Eastern politics this year, we should not exaggerate his influence. Recall for example that the propaganda value the Russians attached to a Syria bombing raid from an Iranian base in August irritated Tehran, and the Russians were kicked off the base three days later.

    putin erdogan

    Likewise, Putin’s attempt to carve out a role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process this year, which appears primarily designed to challenge the United States as the key broker, is not likely to result in any breakthrough.

    So is Putin a strategic mastermind or a reckless gambler? The reality is more prosaic. Yes, Russia has made diplomatic gains this year, notably in eastern Libya and Turkey, and has propped up Assad, but this has come at serious long-term economic cost to Russia.

    As any demagogue knows, the only way to maintain power generated out of nothing through division is to keep stoking the flames of perpetual conflict upon which these divisions depend. But when you make a perpetual enemy out of the West, you can’t be surprised when you seem to be perpetually on the receiving end of economic sanctions and a general wariness by Western firms to invest in your country.

    It’s possible that Putin believed his actions in the Middle East would give him leverage to bargain sanctions away, despite the fact that Ukrainian and Syrian sanctions are not formally linked. But it’s more realistic to assume that Putin’s encouragement of a state of perpetual conflict with the West makes a relaxation of sanctions unlikely in the near term, especially if Hillary Clinton enters the White House.

    If anything, Putin has boxed Russia into a position where it must increasingly orient its economy toward China, and away from the West, which gives Beijing considerable leverage over Moscow.

    It’s also important to note the role of deception and bluff in Russian strategy. This is a way of generating power out of nothing, but it’s a duplicitous kind of power that in the long run destroys one’s credibility.

    Take for example Russia’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Despite being on different sides of the Syrian civil war, Putin has managed to bring Riyadh into its diplomatic orbit through cooperation on oil policy, given how both Saudi-led OPEC states and Russia need substantially higher prices for government budgets to break even.

    saudi arabia russia putin

    Moscow has voiced commitment to such cooperation, and the Saudis appear to have bought into this assurance — for without it, Russia could simply gobble up much of any market share conceded by a Saudi production cut. But Riyadh will almost certainly lose out in any such deal. Last month, Igor Sechin, the CEO of Russian state-controlled oil company Rosneft, said his company would not take part in any such cut, implicitly contradicting Putin.

    Russia seems to want to get the Saudis to sign on to a deal Moscow has no real intention of supporting. But it’s hard to see how long Putin can trick them into doing the heavy lifting. In the short term, the official announcement of an OPEC-Russia oil production deal, which is expected to come this month, will temporarily lift prices. But in the long term, when the deal breaks down, as it must, it will erode Putin’s credibility with Riyadh and OPEC.

    Gauging the success of Putin’s strategy really depends on the time frame: In 2016, Russia is up in the Middle East; in the longer term, the damage he has done to the Russian economy by breaking with the West will outweigh the value of an alliance with the likes of eastern Libya or even perhaps Turkey. Already battered by low oil prices, the Russian economy can hardly afford to be unplugged from Western capital markets and investment.

    But maybe Russian international success is entirely the wrong way of thinking about what Putin gains from a strategy of perpetual conflict. Strategy might be the art of creating power, but the power the strategist is most interested in might be at home. Perpetual conflict abroad clearly helps rally popular support among Russians to keep Putin entrenched in the Kremlin, even as his country rots around him.

    SEE ALSO: Russia is preparing for nuclear war

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    IRGC

    Iran now commands a force of around 25,000 Shi'ite Muslim militants in Syria, mostly made up of recruits from Afghanistan and Pakistan, the former head of Israel's domestic intelligence agency has told a visiting Swiss delegation.

    Avi Dichter, chair of Israel's foreign affairs and defense committee, told members of the Swiss parliament the Iranian-backed force was focused on fighting Sunni rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, not Islamic State.

    "This is a foreign legion of some 25,000 militants, most of whom have come from Afghanistan and Pakistan," Dichter told the delegation during the briefing on Wednesday, according to details provided by his office. "They are fighting in Syria only against the rebels and not against ISIS."

    It was not clear what the source of Dichter's information was, but he receives intelligence briefings in his role.

    In Syria, Iran also has the support of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which has long experience in the region, particularly against Israel. It is not clear how many Hezbollah fighters are in Syria, but Dichter said 1,600 had been killed.

    "The Iranians enlisted Hezbollah ... to fight in Syria because the Iranian army is better suited to fight as an army against another army, while the Hezbollah militants are adept at fighting against terror groups," he said.

    "The fighting has made (Hezbollah) a better fighting force and more adept in conventional military warfare."

    The briefing covered the fallout from the conflict, including the flow of migrants and refugees to Europe. Dichter cautioned that European states should not be naive about who was attempting to enter their borders.

    syria map

    Israel has long seen Iran as its greatest threat and campaigned hard against U.S.-led efforts to strike a nuclear deal with Tehran. At the same time, Israel frequently plays up the improving relations it has with some Sunni Arab states in the region, including Egypt and, to an extent, Saudi Arabia.

    Dichter told the delegation that Iran's "dream" was to rule the Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

    "Everybody should ask themselves why the Iranians are building missiles with a range of 2,000 km, twice the distance (from their territory) to Israel," he said.

    "Egypt is also within their range, as is Saudi Arabia. Two thousands years ago, Iran was an empire and now it wants to recreate that."

    Echoing a common refrain from center- and right-wing Israeli lawmakers, Dichter said that was why Israel was convinced Iran had not abandoned its nuclear aspirations but only put them on hold, playing a long game against the West.

    SEE ALSO: Video shows ISIS destroying a US-made tank, and why the US must up its game

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    World peace index

    According to this year's edition of an annual report from the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), Botswana, Kuwait, Morocco, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Angola, and Burkina Faso all have one surprising thing in common: They are more peaceful than the US.

    The Global Peace Index from the IEP compiles yearly rankings of peacefulness in 162 nations based on 23 different types of data.

    The IEP attempts to answer a simple question: Is the world getting more or less peaceful?

    While the most peaceful nations in the world are growing more peaceful, with some reaching historic highs, the least peaceful countries are descending further into chaos and war.

    The report also includes an analysis of the economic impact of containing and dealing with the consequences of global violence. Last year violence containment was estimated to cost $13.6 trillion, which is approximately 13.3% of the world's gross domestic product.

    Here's a look at the highlights of the report (and here's the full report):

    SEE ALSO: What North Koreans really think of their supreme leader

    Europe holds a virtual monopoly on the world's most peaceful countries.



    Nations like Vietnam and Kosovo that were mired in ugly conflicts decades ago have bounced back and have become relatively peaceful.



    The US ranked 113 out of 163 nations.



    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    russian mercenary funeral

    TOGLIATTI, Russia (Reuters) - The start of this year proved deadly for one unit of about 100 Russian fighters supporting President Bashar al-Assad's troops in northern Syria.

    On Feb. 3, 38-year-old Maxim Kolganov was killed in a firefight with rebels near Aleppo when a bullet pierced his body armor and heart. Then, on March 9, the same unit came under shell-fire near Palmyra, and Sergei Morozov, also 38, was hit and died on the way to hospital.

    Back in southern Russia, medals were delivered to their families: the order of bravery, with certificates signed by President Vladimir Putin. The medals, seen by Reuters, were intended to honor the sacrifice they had made for their country.

    Except Kolganov and Morozov were not employed by the Russian state. They were in Syria as private contractors, a small part of an army of such people who are being deployed secretly by the Kremlin in Syria.

    The deaths of Kolganov and Morozov, and others like them, have not been made public. Families say they were given little information and told not discuss the cases. In at least one case that Reuters uncovered, the family of a fighter killed in Syria received a payout of around $100,000 in compensation.

    Officially, Russia is participating only in an air war over Syria with a small number of special forces on the ground. Moscow denies that its troops are involved in regular ground combat operations.

    However, in interviews with more than a dozen people with direct knowledge of these deployments, Reuters has established that Russian fighters are playing a more substantial role in ground combat than that the role the Kremlin says is being played by the regular Russian military.

    The sources described the Russian fighters as contractors or mercenaries, hired by a private company, rather than regular troops. But despite their unofficial status, according to these accounts, they operate in coordination with the Russian military and are given privileges back home normally available only to serving soldiers.

    russian mercenary funeral

    They fly to Syria on board Russian military aircraft which land at Russian bases. When they are injured, they are treated in hospitals reserved for the Russian military and get state medals, people interviewed by Reuters said.

    Reuters was not able to determine the precise number of such Russian mercenaries fighting in Syria, nor the total number of casualties they have sustained, but three people familiar with the deployments said there were many units of a similar size to the one that included Kolganov and Morozov.

    Neither the Kremlin nor the defense ministry responded to questions from Reuters. Reuters was unable to obtain comment from Syrian officials on the question of Russian mercenaries.

    Reuters was not able to identify the company or companies that hired the fighters, or the source of any payments to the fighters or their families.

    THE KREMLIN'S BIDDING

    Under Russian law, it is illegal to work as a private military contractor in another country. However, Russian citizens have participated in wars across the former Soviet Union throughout the 25 years since it broke up in 1991.

    Pro-Russia activist Ukraine

    In 2014, large numbers of Russians fought openly on behalf of pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine. Western countries say those rebel units were organized, paid and armed by Moscow; the Kremlin says any Russians there were independent volunteers.

    Last year, Russia joined the war in Syria, its first conflict outside the borders of the former Soviet Union since the Cold War. Word got out among veterans of the Ukraine conflict that mercenaries were needed.

    According to three people who knew Morozov and Kolganov, both had fought in Ukraine as part of the same unit that would eventually take them to Syria. It was led by a man who goes by the nomme de guerre "Vagner", who has become a leader of Russian mercenary forces in Syria, one of the sources said.

    Little is known of his real identity. Two of Vagner's comrades say he had already traveled to Syria as a mercenary in 2013, before commanding his group of Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine. He then headed back to Syria, where Russia began its intervention in Sept. 2015.

    A Russian-language website, Fontanka, has published what it says is the only known photo of him, a picture of a bald man in military fatigues striding near a helicopter. The website said his name was Dmitry Utkin. Reuters could not verify the image or the name.

    One Ukrainian rebel commander who was close to the Vagner group in eastern Ukraine said many of the fighters there were tempted to fight in Syria because they had found it difficult to return to civilian life.

    "I meet them now and see how much they have changed. I simply have nothing to discuss with them. They can't imagine any other life but war. That's why they go fight in Syria."

    Morozov, the fighter who was killed near Palmyra, had returned from Ukraine to his home in southern Russia and dabbled in local politics.

    Hmeymim base russia syria

    He served as an aide to a member of parliament originally from his native city of Samara, Mikhail Degtyaryov. Degtyaryov told Reuters Morozov was a friend and confirmed that he had died in combat during the battle for Palmyra.

    "Kapa", a former Russian officer and volunteer in the Ukraine conflict who asked to be identified only by a nomme de guerre, was friends with Morozov and also knew Kolganov and several other Russians who fought in Ukraine and went on to fight in Syria with the Vagner group. He is still in contact with some of them.

    He said Morozov became frustrated when he attended a meeting of the far-right LDPR party, and no one listened to him. Morozov gave up lucrative business ventures to rejoin his Vagner comrades in Syria, Kapa said.

    According to Kapa, Russian veterans of the Ukraine fighting were recruited for ground combat in Syria when it became clear that Syrians would not be able to hold ground without help, despite Russian air support.

    "The Arabs are not warriors by nature, but are thrown together and told to storm high ground. They don't know how to storm it let alone conquer their instincts and move towards the bullets. How can you make them do it? Only by setting yourself as an example," Kapa said. "That's why our guys reinforced their units."

    Asked if fighters in the group coordinated with the Russian defense ministry, Kapa said: "Of course".

    According to two people who knew different fighters, they arrive in Syria via ships that land in the port of Tartous, leased by the Russian navy, or in military aircraft that land at Russia's Hmeymim air base in western Syria.

    A doctor at a Russian military hospital told Reuters the wounded are evacuated to Russiaon board military cargo planes and then treated in military hospitals.

    The doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared losing his job, said he had personally treated contractors injured in Syria, whose role there was clear from their conversations.

    His hospital is officially meant to admit only serving military personnel, their family members or veterans who have served long careers in the military, a category his patients were too young to fit, the doctor said.

    Syria Russia Putin Assad

    When Morozov and Kolganov were killed, their bodies were flown to Russia aboard military aircraft and delivered to a morgue used by the military in the southern city of Rostov, according to relatives and Morozov's friend Kapa.

    A Reuters reporter saw the Order of Courage which was given posthumously to Kolganov. It was delivered to his family home in Togliatti, a city on the Volga river, by someone in civilian clothes who did not identify himself, according to relatives. Reuters has also seen a photograph of Morozov's Order of Courage, dated Sept. 7, 2016.

    SECRECY

    Kolganov never told his relatives where he was deployed, but pictures he sent contained clues. One of them, in which he posed under an orange tree, is now on the wall of his parents' house.

    The family got proof he was in Syria only after his death, when they saw his passport with a Syrian stamp in it.

    The people who informed the family by phone of his death, and the people who turned over the body in the Rostov morgue, did not explain where he was killed or who he had been working for, the relatives said. The people they interacted with did not identify themselves and told the family not to talk to reporters, the relatives said.

    In another case, a 55-year-old Russian woman said her husband was killed this year while working as a military contractor in Syria. She did not want her name, or her husband's, to be published because she feared reprisals.

    "They only told me about it after his death. A young man ... phoned and told me. And he also threatened me, so I would never tell anyone about it," she said. "They are scary people."

    By contrast, Russian authorities do acknowledge some combat deaths among serving military personnel, though often with a delay and without keeping an official tally.

    Reuters was unable to determine how many Russians have died in Syria. According to Kapa, the small unit that included Kolganov and Morozov has lost four fighters since the start of the Russian campaign in Syria, including its commander, killed in the same firefight as Morozov. Dozens have been wounded.

    Reuters earlier reported that Russian major Sergei Chupov was killed in Syria on Feb. 8 He also belonged to the Vagner group, a person who knew him told Reuters.

    The doctor at the military hospital who spoke to Reuters said that the surgical department where he works had treated six or seven Russian fighters back from Syria with combat injuries who were not serving Russian servicemen.

    The overall number of wounded contractors treated at his hospital could be a few times higher, the doctor said. He also says he knows of at least two more hospitals in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg where contractors are treated.

    (Writing by Christian Lowe and Maria Tsvetkova; editing by Andrew Osborn and Peter Graff)

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    A gas flame is seen in the desert near the Khurais oilfield, Saudi Arabia June 23, 2008. REUTERS/Ali Jarekji/File Photo

    DUBAI/LONDON (Reuters) - Old disputes between Saudi Arabia and rival Iran resurfaced at a meeting of OPEC experts last week, with Riyadh threatening to raise oil output steeply to bring prices down if Tehran refuses to limit its supply, OPEC sources say.

    Clashes between the two OPEC heavyweights, which are fighting proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, have become frequent in recent years.

    Tensions subsided, however, in recent months after Saudi Arabia agreed to support a global oil supply limiting pact, thus raising the prospect that OPEC would take steps to boost oil prices.

    But a meeting of OPEC experts last week, designed to work out details of cuts for the next OPEC ministerial gathering on Nov. 30, saw Saudis and Iranian clashing again, according to four OPEC sources who were present at the meeting and spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

    "The Saudis have threatened to raise their production to 11 million barrels per day and even 12 million bpd, bringing oil prices down, and to withdraw from the meeting," one OPEC source who attended the meeting told Reuters.

    OPEC headquarters declined to comment on discussions during the closed-door meetings last week. Saudi and Iranian OPEC delegates also declined official comments.

    Saudi Arabia has increased output since 2014 to record highs of around 10.5 million-10.7 million barrels per day and adding extra supply would only worsen the global glut, which has already seen prices more than halving from $115 a barrel since mid 2014.

    The Saudi threat followed objections by Iran, which said it was unwilling to freeze its output, the same OPEC sources said. Iran has argued it should be exempt from such limits as its production recovers after the lifting of EU sanctions.

    The Saudi threat will revive memories of a pump war that Riyadh embarked on at the end of 2014 to claw market share back from higher-cost producers. Iran along with other OPEC price hawks have severely criticized the Saudi strategy.

    Riyadh has softened its stance since the appointment of Khalid al-Falih as energy minister in May this year.

    In September, OPEC agreed at a meeting in Algeria on modest preliminary oil output cuts in the first such deal since 2008, with special conditions given to Libya, Nigeria and Iran, whose output has been hit by wars and sanctions.

    A new rise in tensions observed during the meeting of experts last week highlights the fragile nature of OPEC agreements. The group has a long way to go before it turns its preliminary Algerian accord into a real deal.

    The Saudi threat to raise output came as a surprise even to Riyadh's Gulf OPEC allies, sources who attended the meeting of experts on Oct. 28 said.

    One source said the Saudi OPEC delegation has asked to call off the next day's meeting with non-OPEC producers, including Russia, on Oct. 29 since Iran was objecting to a deal. But they were convinced by other members to attend it in order not to embarrass the group.

    "We felt as if they (the Saudis) wanted the meeting to fail," said a third, non-Iranian OPEC source.

    "WAR FRONT"

    Saudi Arabia's Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi gestures as he attends a news conference in Doha, Qatar February 16, 2016.  REUTERS/Naseem Zeitoon/File Photo

    The Saudi OPEC delegation told their Iranian counterparts that Tehran should freeze output at 3.66 million bpd - the latest estimates of Iranian output by OPEC experts, known as secondary sources.

    Iran has reported its output at 3.85 million bpd in September and said it would only cap its output at 12.7 percent of OPEC's total ceiling - or 4.2 million bpd.

    Iran's counter-argument at the meeting was that Saudi Arabia has raised its output by almost 1 million bpd since 2014, and is now trying to convince others it would cut output by 400,000 bpd to get a deal, though in reality Riyadh has already won extra production and revenue, according to OPEC sources.

    Iranian comments after meeting to domestic media indicated tensions were high.

    "Working in oil industry is like operating at war fronts and we have to preserve our trenches by raising our production capacity as much as we can," Ali Kardor, managing director of the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), told the oil ministry's news agency Shana.

    "The next OPEC meeting is near and we will never cease to recapture our quota in the organization," he said on Monday, adding that Iran's crude oil output was nearing 4 million bpd.

    OPEC sources have said Saudi Arabia offered to reduce its output from summer peaks of 10.7 million bpd to about 10.2 million if Iran agreed to freeze production at around levels of 3.6 million-3.7 million bpd.

    The Saturday meeting with non-OPEC producers went ahead though they made no specific commitment.

    The High Level Committee of experts will meet again in Vienna on Nov. 25 to finalize the details ahead of the next meeting of OPEC ministers on Nov. 30.

    OPEC Secretary-General Mohammed Barkindo has said he is "optimistic" a final agreement will be reached.

    An OPEC delegate, who attended Friday's meeting, said he still hoped for a deal in November.

    "People can look at it from different angles. The fact that discussions are still going on is a positive one. They are going to work on it, close to the ministers’ meeting," the delegate said. 

    (Writing by Dmitry Zhdannikov, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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    Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaks during Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, August 31, 2016.     AAP/Mick Tsikas/via REUTERS

    MELBOURNE (Reuters) - A United Nations official said Australia would probably be in breach of the Refugee Convention if it enacted a proposal for a permanent visa-ban for asylum seekers who attempted to reach the country by boat, Fairfax media reported on Saturday.

    Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull proposed last Sunday that asylum seekers sent to the county's offshore processing center's would be prevented for applying for any visa to Australia, even if they had been classified as refugees or resettled in another country.

    The United Nations High Commission for Refugees regional representative Thomas Albrecht said such a move would likely breach the convention's article prohibiting the punishment of those seeking asylum.

    The proposed permanent visa-ban would be applied to anyone transferred to a regional processing center after 2013, including some 1,400 people currently held offshore.

    The leader of the center-left opposition party, Bill Shorten has criticized the plan, but his party hasn't stated whether they will attempt to block the bill in the Senate, where the government doesn't have a majority.

    The current policy of sending asylum seekers who arrive Australian waters by boat to countries like Papua New Guinea and Nauru where their status as refugees is confirmed or rejected has bipartisan support in the Australian parliament.

    "While solutions for refugees currently on Nauru and Papua New Guinea are critical, third-country settlement for them would not alter Australia's fundamental obligations to provide asylum to those who need and seek its protection, including by sea," Albrecht said, according to Fairfax media.

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    UK based Superdrug Online Doctor hired female graphic designers in 18 countries to retouch the same portrait of a woman to become more attractive to their culture. The shocking responses show the dramatic differences in how different countries perceive beauty.

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    Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attends the East Asia Summit in Vientiane, Laos September 8, 2016.  REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo

    Thousands of Russians have been fighting in Syria in anti-government ranks, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview published on Saturday, issuing a warning of possible attacks by them on their return home.

    Last year, Moscow launched an air campaign to hit the targets of militants who have waged a war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. There are also numerous jihadists from Russia who filled the ranks of anti-government forces.

    "You probably know that thousands of Russian citizens and individuals from other post-Soviet republics are fighting in Syria," Medvedev told Channel 2 Israel ahead of a visit to Israel next week, according to the interview transcript.

    "These completely brainwashed people return home as professional murderers and terrorists. And we don't want them to stage something similar in Russia after their Syrian stints expire."

    "We have already experienced this, including in the context of the Caucasus war in the 1990s. First of all, we want them to stay there. Second, the Syrian Government asked Russian leaders to help them reinstate law and order," Medvedev said about the wars Moscow waged in Chechnya.

    By December 2015, some 2,900 Russians had left to fight in the Middle East, Alexander Bortnikov, director of the FSB, the Russian security service, said at a sitting of the National Anti-terrorist Committee late last year.

    According to official data, more than 90 percent of them left Russia after mid-2013.

    Moscow is now fighting Islamic State and other militant groups in Syria that the Kremlin says pose a threat to the security of Russia and the world. The Kremlin has justified its campaign of air strikes in Syria by saying its main objective was to crush Islamic State.

    Medvedev reiterated that Syrian people should decide their political future and system of the country themselves.

    "We don't know whether this system would have any place for Bashar al-Assad or someone else, this is not our business, and it must be decided by the people of Syria. But we don’t want Syria to disintegrate into a number of enclaves and sectors (in line with a Libyan-style scenario), where each sector would be controlled by separate terrorist groups," Medvedev said.

     

    (Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; Editing by Stephen Powell)

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