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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    Russian frigate ‘Admiral Grigorovich’  cruise missile

    On Tuesday, the Russian Ministry of Defense released a handful of videos glorifying its Mediterranean naval campaign to support Syrian President Bashar Assad.

    Cruise missiles were seen launching vertically from destroyers, tipping sideways, and then rocketing toward the Syrian city of Aleppo. The videos also showed operations aboard Russia's sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov.

    But according to experts, as flashy as this naval show of force may be, it added nothing toward the completion of Russia's military objectives.

    "It’s mostly for show,"Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior research scientist at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian studies, told Business Insider.

    According to Gorenburg, hauling an aircraft carrier, a nuclear-powered battle cruiser, two destroyers, a tanker, and the tug boat that accompanies the aircraft carrier in case of a breakdown "didn't add anything" to Russia's military capability in Syria but was instead meant to have "caught everyone's attention."

    "There's been an effort over the last few years to show that Russia has some of the same capabilities as the US," Gorenburg said. "One prominent example was those cruise-missile strikes from the Caspian Sea, to show that they have the standoff cruise-missile capability."

    And so the first combat deployment of the Kuznetsov aircraft carrier represents another attempt to mimic the US's military power. "They have one aircraft carrier — it's not the most reliable," Gorenburg said of the Kuznetsov, which had to be towed almost 3,000 miles back to Russia after breaking down near France and Spain in 2012.

    Gorenburg pointed out that the Kuznetsov approached Syria bearing new aircraft: MiG-29Ks. But these naval variants, suited for the type of strike missions necessary in Syria, haven't yet been put to combat use. Additionally, one of the MiG-29Ks crashed Monday when returning to the ship.

    mig 29k

    In part, Gorenburg said, the naval deployment to Syria could be seen as a sales pitch, as Russia hopes to export cruise missiles and aircraft: "They've used the Syria conflict for showing off their arms for customers, but that's more with regular [not naval] aircraft."

    The real purpose behind the deployment, however, he said, is "more to demonstrate to NATO and the US that they have this capability, and it's something else you have to keep in mind."

    kuznetsov su 33

    Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, echoed Gorenburg's statements to the Washington Examiner: "There's not a kinetic effect that they bring that can't already be brought with the forces that they have there."

    "From a pure military perspective, Russia already has significant capabilities inside Syria," Davis said. "They have nearly two dozen strike aircraft that are based there."

    SEE ALSO: Obama admits his strategy in Syria 'has not worked'

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Watch 2 Ukrainian politicians brawl after one is accused of working with Russia

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    boko haram

    In 2015, worldwide deaths from terrorism fell 10% from the previous year, despite an increase in the impact of terrorism around the globe, according to the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) released by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP).

    The 29,376 terrorism-related deaths recorded in 2015 were a 10% decrease over 2014, marking the end of a four-year upward trend. 

    But terrorism-related violence spread, with 23 countries having their highest number of deaths from terrorism last year, over the previous high of 17 registered in 2014.

    Among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, deaths from terrorism increased 650%, with 21 of 34 member-states recording at least one terrorist attack. The majority of terrorism deaths among OECD countries took place in Turkey and France.

    Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria accounted for 72% of all terrorism deaths in 2015. The Islamic State group (ISIS), Boko Haram, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda — operating within those five countries — were responsible for 74% of all terrorism-related deaths.

    The spread of terrorism's influence was driven by the expanded activities of ISIS and Boko Haram, which has pledged allegiance to ISIS.

    Jakarta ISIS attack

    ISIS, with attacks in 252 cities resulting in 6,141 deaths, passed Boko Haram as the most lethal terrorist group last year.

    ISIS increased its activity from 13 countries in 2014 to 28 last year, many of which were in Europe. Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden, and Turkey all saw the most deaths from terrorism in a year since 2000, and more than half the 577 deaths were related to ISIS, which orchestrated deadly attacks in Paris, Brussels, and Ankara.

    Boko Haram, a terrorist group that originated in Nigeria, spread into Niger, Cameroon, and Chad, driving the number of people killed in those countries up by 157%. 

    Both groups seemed to welcome the recent election of Donald Trump as US president. 

    boko haram

    Abu Omar Khorasani, a top ISIS leader in Afghanistan, called the president-elect "a complete maniac," saying Trump's "utter hate towards Muslims will make our job much easier because we can recruit thousands."

    Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau exhorted followers to "not be overwhelmed by people like Donald Trump and the global coalition fighting our brethren in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and everywhere." 

    Boko Haram's seven-year conflict against the Nigerian state has taken more than 20,000 lives. 

    "We remain steadfast on our faith and we will not stop," Shekau said in the hour-long message. "To us, the war has just begun."

    "While on the one hand the reduction in deaths is positive, the continued intensification of terrorism in some countries and its spread to new ones is a cause for serious concern and underscores the fluid nature of modern terrorist activity," Steve Killelea, executive chairman of IEP, said in a release.

    ISIS attack ruins

    The GTI report found issues like youth unemployment, accessibility of weapons, and lack of trust in electoral processes as some of the "most statistically significant factors correlating with terrorism" in OECD countries, according to a release.

    In developing countries, the history of conflict, corruption levels, and inequality correlated most significantly to terrorism.

    Overall, the cost of terrorism rose to $89.6 billion in 2015, with Iraq suffering the highest economic impact, equal to 17% of its GDP.

    SEE ALSO: Despite 15 years of occupation, Afghanistan’s opium production has only risen

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    NOW WATCH: 'He's the founder of ISIS': Watch Trump and Obama trade insults throughout the years

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    john negroponteIn August, 50 top national security officials from Republican administrations published a withering statement rejecting Donald Trump’s ability to serve as Commander-in-Chief.

    “Mr. Trump has demonstrated repeatedly that he has little understanding of America’s vital national interests, its complex diplomatic challenges, its indispensable alliances, and the democratic values on which US foreign policy must be based,” the statement reads.

    “We are convinced that in the Oval Office, he would be the most reckless President in American history.”

    Now, with two months before President-elect Trump’s inauguration, Syria Direct asks one of those 50 signatories whether he stands by that assessment. Ambassador John Negroponte was the first Director of National Intelligence appointed by then-President George W. Bush in 2005, where he served as the principal advisor to the president on intelligence. Negroponte also served as a Deputy Secretary of State and Ambassador to Iraq under the same administration.

    This conversation is the second in a series of interviews with analysts, academics and diplomats examining the implications of a Trump presidency for US policy in the Middle East. [The first, Syria Direct’s conversation with Dr. Joshua Landis, is here.]

    Will Donald Trump in fact “weaken U.S. moral authority as the leader of the free world,” as the August letter posited? Are we in a new Cold War? Is Russia an enemy? Why is the United States so heavily involved in the Middle East? Does a post-Soviet Moscow deserve the attention of being treated as an equal adversary for Washington?

    Ambassador Negroponte, a Cold War veteran of the State Department, makes the case for finding points of common interest between the two global powers. 

    “Always leave yourself the room for pursuing some kind of a positive-sum game even with countries that are competitors or adversaries,” Ambassador Negroponte tells Syria Direct’s Justin Schuster. “There are areas where we can actually cooperate with each other.”

    Russia is “a nuclear weapons state. I think we better treat them accordingly.”

    Q: The United States has invested trillions of dollars over the past decade and a half in the Middle East. Why is it in our nation’s best interests to have such a heavy footprint in this part of the world?

    US Soldiers Iraq

    I don’t think it’s necessary to have the size of footprint that was developed by George W. Bush in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. I do think there are interests that compel us to be involved in the Middle East. We have an interest in stability. Even though we’ve become more independent in energy, we have an interest in oil. And, of course, we are a close friend of Israel. Let’s not forget that our Middle East policy for many years—decades even—has been shaped by our support for and our friendship with the country of Israel.

    There are reasons for a robust American presence in the Middle East, but that doesn’t mean that you have to have 150,000 or 200,000 troops on the ground. If we’re going to have any military presence, it probably ought to be fairly modest.

    Q: This past August, you were a signatory to a letter along with 50 national security officials from Republican administrations asserting that Donald Trump “would put at risk our country’s national security” and “would be the most reckless president in American history.” Do you still stand just as strongly by that statement today?

    I would stand by that letter in the context of what was going on at that time. For example, what he said about cutting countries like Japan and Korea loose from our nuclear umbrella, I think that would be very destabilizing and dangerous. Likewise, I had serious problems with his policies towards Mexico, NAFTA and our trading partners in North America where we have this very important three-way trading relationship that generates hundreds of billions of dollars worth of trade. He seemed prepared to put that at risk.


    Finally, and on a personal note, I have five adopted Central American children who are from Honduras, and I had great difficulty with what he was saying about the Latino community. I found that most objectionable.

    But I think we are now in the phase where Mr. Trump has been elected. He presumably said some of these things to enhance his chances of getting elected, but now it remains to be seen to what extent he goes forward with some of these campaign statements. It’s not unheard of for candidates to say one thing before an election and modify their positions subsequently. We have to see what shape his policies take now that he actually won the election and has to be president of all Americans.

    Q: Do you believe that there is hope for more maturity in his foreign policy? As an American citizen, do you feel comfortable with Mr. Trump in control of our national security?

    I’m not sure that’s the right question. He’s won the election, and the American people have spoken. Somebody asked me the other day if he should have security clearance, access to the nuclear codes. My opinion on that subject is no longer relevant. The American people have decided.

    The issue we now confront—an issue before all Americans—is what can we do to ensure that he has the best possible support to carry forward the national security policy of the United States and the best possible advice and advisors.

    Q: In recent years, many analysts have posited that the United States is engaged in a new Cold War with Russia. As a former Cold War diplomat and national security official, do you believe this is a fair characterization of current US-Russian relations?

    Obama Putin

    There are elements that are reminiscent of that. Whereas Russia was quite weak in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Empire, it has now reasserted itself and has developed its military in a pretty robust way. They’re flying their bombers again and are flexing their muscles. They certainly want to be a player on the global scene. This includes dealing with us as a peer rather than as a defeated power, which is what they felt the relationship became in the 1990’s.

    Is it really a Cold War? Is Russia an enemy? We need to use these words carefully, especially now that there seems to be a president who may have some ideas on how to improve the relationship with Russia. I think the Europeans are probably concerned that whatever we do to improve our relations with Russia is not at the expense of their security.

    Q: Is Russia an enemy?

    Always leave yourself the room for pursuing some kind of a positive-sum game even with countries that are competitors or adversaries. I think enemy is too strong a word because there are areas where we can actually cooperate with each other: counterterrorism, arms control and various other transnational issues.

    Russia is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. They’re a nuclear weapons state. I think we better treat them accordingly.

    Q: Moving to Syria, plenty of observers fault the Obama administration for failing to put forth a coherent American strategy. What do you see as America’s top interests pertaining to Syria?

    One might equally importantly ask what I think the new administration’s Syria policy is going to be because it will be dispositive. Mr. Trump seemed to be saying that he felt the priority in Syria ought to be defeating the Islamic State as distinct from both fighting it and supporting the opposition to Bashar al-Assad.

    bashar al-assad

    I think that what to do about Syria is going to end up being one of the important internal guides for the new administration.

    Q: On the campaign trail, the topic of the Islamic State took center stage. Mr. Trump repeatedly praised President Putin for his effectiveness in fighting the Islamic State. He has said “Russia wants to get rid of ISIS…letem get rid of ISIS. What the hell do we care?” Do you think it is prudent to hand the fight against the Islamic State over to Russia as Mr. Trump seemed to suggest?

    I cannot visualize the United States abandoning its global role in fighting international terrorism. Mr. Trump said we would deal with them fast, but he certainly didn’t say that we would stop dealing with the problem.

    isis wooden tank fake decoy

    Q: I want to go back to one more question about your tenure when you were US Ambassador to Iraq from 2004–2005, particularly as it relates to the Kurds. The Kurds have historically been one of our strongest partners in the region and yet Washington has demonstrated at the same time a reluctance to show strong diplomatic support for Kurdish sovereignty. Could you talk about that and the difficulties in balancing our cooperation and relationship with our Kurdish partners in the region?

    Well, they’ve been good friends. There’s no doubt about it, particularly the Kurdish elements in northern Iraq. Certainly, when I was there, our approach was to deal with them as a part of Iraq, not as a separate nation, even though we understood that they had considerable autonomy and largely owed it to the fact that we established a no-fly zone after the first Gulf War. We played a significant role in that.

    There are some issues as to how viable a Kurdistan would be as an independent state if that were to come to pass because they do have some arrangements with the government of Iraq in Baghdad that actually provide significant resources. They get the 17 percent share of the overall national revenues, so I think one has to always think very carefully about redrawing the map.

    SEE ALSO: NSA CHIEF: A nation-state made a 'conscious effort' to sway the US presidential election

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    NOW WATCH: It’s surreal to watch this 2011 video of Obama and Seth Meyers taunting Trump about a presidential run

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    Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump

    The Syrian government seems pleased with US President-elect Donald Trump's stunning victory last week.

    The government last week signaled its relief that Hillary Clinton lost, saying it was "happy" she did not win because "she's the one who considered all these terrorist, Islamist, jihadist groups as moderate rebels."

    And Syrian President Bashar Assad followed up Tuesday by saying Trump will be a "natural ally" if he keeps his promise to fight "terrorists" in Syria.

    "We cannot tell anything about what he's going to do, but if ... he is going to fight the terrorists, of course we are going to be ally, natural ally in that regard with the Russian, with the Iranian, with many other countries," Assad told Portugal's RTP state television.

    Zakaria Malahifji, head of the political office of an Aleppo-based rebel group, told Reuters last week that he fears that things for Syria's opposition "will become difficult because of Trump's statements and his relationship with Putin and Russia."

    "I imagine this is not good for the Syrian issue," he added.

    A source close to the Syrian-American community, who wished to remain anonymous, put it bluntly.

    "This is the most dreadful turn of events imaginable, I think," the source, whose family is from Damascus, told Business Insider.

    "We're scared for our lives," he added. "But we're afraid if we criticize Trump he will be more likely to let Russia bomb the opposition into oblivion."

    Hmeymim base russia syria

    Trump has said he wants to try to work with Russia and Assad to fight the Islamic State, and he has indicated that he could pull back US support to Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime.

    "I don't like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS," Trump said during the second presidential debate.

    And in an interview with The Wall Street Journal last week, the president-elect said "we have no idea" who the rebels really are.

    Early ramifications

    On Monday, Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone in their first postelection interaction. The day after, Putin ordered the first airstrikes on Syria in more than three weeks.

    In a heartening sign for the opposition, however, Congress on Tuesday overwhelmingly voted to pass a bill — titled the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act— to place sanctions on the Assad regime, as well as Russian and Iranian actors close to it, for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

    The bipartisan legislation was proposed by New York Rep. Eliot Engel, a ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He said Tuesday that "under this legislation, if you're acting as a lifeline to the Assad regime, you risk getting caught up in the net of our sanctions."

    afp assad says trump a natural ally if he fights terror

    Rep. Ed Royce, a Republican from California and chairman of the committee, said "America has been sitting back and watching these atrocities for far too long."

    "Vital US national security interests are at stake," he said. "For there to be peace in Syria, the parties must come together. And as long as Assad and his backers can slaughter the people of Syria with no consequences, there is no hope for peace."

    It is unclear what steps the president-elect would take with regard to Syria once he is inaugurated. He is reportedly considering a range of options for his secretary of state, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former UN Ambassador John Bolton, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Both Giuliani and Bolton are foreign policy hawks, and all three have little diplomatic experience.

    Giuliani has implied that he would support a no-fly zone in Syria to stem the flow of refugees trying to enter the US and Europe.

    "You pour them back into Syria, and you put them in a no-fly zone in Syria," Giuliani told MSNBC last year. "Send them back to Syria. That's where they belong."

    A civil defence member runs at a market hit by air strikes in Aleppo's rebel-held al-Fardous district, Syria October 12, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

    Bolton, meanwhile, has called for the US to take on a more aggressive role in challenging Assad's power, both with the creation of an independent Sunni state in northeastern Syria and western Iraq and by "moving beyond sanctions and diplomacy, and toward regime change" in Iran, an Assad ally.

    In any case, some rebels and opposition leaders — frustrated with what they perceive as a lack of support from the US — don't think Trump's Syria policy would differ dramatically from that of President Barack Obama. They remain steadfastly committed to ousting Assad.

    "We are like cockroaches — nothing can kill us," one opposition leader said during a meeting in Stockholm last week as news broke of Trump's victory.

    Still, a European official told The Guardian that the EU expects Trump "will defer to Putin on many things."

    "This one is actually rather simple for him," the official said. "He will outsource it and concentrate on ISIS."

    SEE ALSO: It looks like Trump may pay the price for alienating dozens of national security elites

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    NOW WATCH: Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte congratulates Trump on a 'well-deserved victory'

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    vladimir putin

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senior Democratic and Republican U.S. lawmakers want Washington to respond to Russia's alleged interference in the U.S. election and actions in Ukraine and Syria, despite Republican President-elect Donald Trump's calls to improve relations.

    Senator Ben Cardin said on Wednesday he was working on what he described as "comprehensive" legislation to respond to Russian actions contrary to U.S. interests in Europe and Syria, as well as cyber attacks blamed on Moscow during the campaign.

    "Russia presents a very serious challenge for America. They're not our partner. They're a bully," Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters.

    "Whether you attack us by MiG (fighter jet) or by mouse, it's an attack. It requires a response. It's clear that they were responsible for the cyber attack on our country in this past election," Cardin said.

    Other lawmakers have also called for action against Russia as they returned to Washington this week for the first time since Trump won the Nov. 8 U.S. election.

    On Tuesday, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, one of his party's senior foreign policy voices, told reporters he wanted Senate hearings on whether Russian President Vladimir Putin interfered in the election.

    "We can't sit on the sidelines," Graham said.

    During the campaign, Trump's Democratic rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, criticized him for praising Putin as a strong leader and saying ties with Russia should be improved at a time when Moscow and Washington are at odds over Syria and Ukraine.

    Trump also worried U.S. allies with comments questioning NATO's mutual self-defense pledge and suggesting he might recognize Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.

    Cardin declined to provide specifics about his legislation ahead of a planned speech on Thursday on Russia policy. When asked if it would include additional sanctions, he said, "It will be comprehensive."

    He said he thought it would be difficult to pass a bill before the current Congress wraps up next month, but that he hoped to lay the groundwork for future action.

    Cardin also said he wanted Obama to act before he leaves office on Jan. 20. Congress has already passed legislation giving the president the authority to take actions including imposing additional sanctions or sending more arms to Ukraine.


    (Additional reporting by Richrd Cowan; Editing by James Dalgleish)

    SEE ALSO: 'We're scared for our lives': Some Syrians view Trump's win as the 'most dreadful turn of events imaginable'

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    Hezbollah military parade

    It was Hezbollah's first ever military parade on foreign soil. And they showed off.

    Images of the parade, which was held last week in the Syrian city of Qusayr, showed a wide array of the militant group's artillery: Soviet-made T-72 tanks, Russian Kornet anti-tank missiles armored personnel carriers, rapid response motorcycles and KS-12A anti-aircraft weapons.

    But the most significant and worrisome vehicles on display were the American-made M113 armored personnel carriers (APCs), the type provided to the Lebanese army (LAF) by the United States, prompting many analysts to speculate that the group may have received them from the LAF.

    Hezbollah is one of the most prominent terror organizations in the world, and while the group has become bogged down fighting in Syria for President Bashar Assad, they have gained immeasurable fighting experience, as well as new advanced weaponry.

    The group continues to provide financial and military support from their patron Iran, according to some estimates to the tune of  at least $200 million a year. But, this past summer the LAF received 50 armored vehicles, 40 artillery pieces and 50 grenade launchers from the United States.

    The arms were part of an aid package to bolster the Middle Eastern country from the threats posed by militant groups, and both the LAF and the US State Department have denied that the M113s seen in the parade were taken from them, adding that they are looking into how Hezbollah acquired the vehicles.

    And while the mystery surrounding the procurement of these tanks remain, the parade itself has raised eyebrows.

    The images of the parade is a first for group, which has in the past never permitted these types of pictures to be shared, trying to keep their weaponry a high guarded secret.

    hezbollah military parade

    However, Hezbollah, is said to be in its worst financial shape in decades and has lost at least four prominent figures since January 2015, killed either fighting Syrian insurgents or in Israeli attacks.

    Nonetheless, Hezbollah continues to significantly build up its power, both in terms of its ability to mobilize fighters, but also its arsenal; some estimates say the group has 100,000 short-range rockets and several thousand more missiles that can reach central Israel, including Tel Aviv.

    According to some Israeli analysts, the next war with Hezbollah might see 1,500-2,000 rockets shot into Israel per day, compared to the 150-180 per day during the Second Lebanon war 10 years ago.

    According to Hezbollah Deputy Secretary General Naim Qassem as published in the Lebanese daily Al Safir, Hezbollah “now has a heavily armed and well-trained army and the resistance does not need to rely on guerrilla tactics. We have acquired well-developed expertise to protect Lebanon and the interest of Lebanon.”

    "This military parade is a clear and visible message to everyone and there is no need for clarification or interpretation of the meaning of that message," Qassem added.

    Hezbollah denied Qassem’s statements, releasing a statement reading that “Hezbollah’s press bureau wishes to clarify that what was published Wednesday in the Al-Safir newspaper did not appear in the text delivered by the deputy secretary-general of Hezbollah,” the group said in a statement.

    Since the last war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, the border has seen relative quiet. Nonetheless, the IDF sees this border as the most explosive.

    While the IDF and the LAF have relative good relations in order to prevent confrontations, a senior IDF officer told The Jerusalem Post that the next war with Hezbollah “will be a real war,” no longer against a militant group, but a full fledged and powerful army, with varying levels of fighting capabilities that include both guerrilla and conventional tactics.

    SEE ALSO: Why Russia sailed its navy thousands of miles to Syria when doing so brings 'nothing' to the battle

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    Free Syrian Army fighters launch a Grad rocket from Halfaya town in Hama province, towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad stationed in Zein al-Abidin mountain, Syria September 4, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah/File Photo

    BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) - On the eve of Donald Trump's election victory, members of a Western-backed Syrian rebel group met U.S. officials to ask about the outlook for arms shipments they have received to fight President Bashar al-Assad.

    They were told the program would continue until the end of the year, but anything more would depend on the next U.S. administration, a rebel official at the meeting said. When Trump takes office in January, it may stop altogether.

    The president-elect has signaled opposition to U.S. support for the rebels, and an overhaul of policy on Syria.

    The military aid program overseen by the Central Intelligence Agency has given arms and training to moderate rebels in coordination with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and others.

    It helped to support these rebels, fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner, as jihadist groups linked to al Qaeda emerged as a major force in a war approaching its sixth anniversary.

    U.S. officials declined to comment on any meetings with rebel groups, and previously have not commented on the CIA program given its covert nature.

    But Trump has indicated he could abandon the rebels to focus on fighting Islamic State which control territory in eastern and central Syria. He might even cooperate against IS with Russia, Assad's most powerful ally, which has been bombing the rebels for over a year in western Syria.

    Assad, in an interview published on Tuesday, said Trump would be a "natural ally" if he decides to "fight the terrorists".

    The rebels are looking on the bright side. They say support via the U.S.-backed program has been inadequate and Washington has stopped Saudi Arabia from giving them more powerful weapons.

    So the rebels hope a more isolationist United States will give regional states a free hand, allowing Saudi Arabia to provide the anti-aircraft missiles President Barack Obama has vetoed.

    The rebel official said there had been no contact with U.S. officials since Trump's win. But were U.S. support to end and "this veto lifted", that would be a good outcome, he said.

    "Everybody is analyzing, there are positive expectations, there are negative expectations - but nothing is yet clear," the official said.

    free syrian armyDark days for rebellion

    The prospect of a shift in U.S. policy comes at a dark time for the rebellion. Russia on Tuesday escalated its military campaign in support of Assad, drawing for the first time on an aircraft carrier it has sent to the region.

    Assad and his allies are tightening their grip on rebel-held eastern Aleppo, where heavy air strikes have resumed and insurgents have failed to break the siege.

    Longstanding tensions among rebels have turned into fighting twice in the Aleppo area this month.

    But analysts also say it is too early to tell what Trump will do in Syria since his views could be reshaped by establishment thinking in Washington.

    Republicans in his administration will not want to cooperate with Russia, or bow to the huge influence wielded by Iran in Syria, where thousands of Shi'ite militiamen including Lebanon's Hezbollah are fighting on Assad's side.

    And to many in Washington, Assad remains anathema.

    Yet since his election win, Trump has reiterated his misgivings about U.S. policy, telling the Wall Street Journal he "had an opposite view of many people regarding Syria" and "we have no idea" who the rebels are.

    His comments cheered Damascus and its allies, which view his win as positive for their war effort.

    "International commitment"?

    "It is true that he doesn't know us, but the American state knows us and will tell him," said a second rebel leader whose group has been a recipient of military support. "There is an international commitment to us," he said. The rebels' other state backers were seeking to explain this to Trump, he said.

    Western policy towards Syria has been built around the idea that there can be no sustainable peace with Assad in power.

    Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, is dependent on military support from Russia, Iran and Shi'ite Islamist militias in the fight with the Sunni Muslim insurgency.

    Western policymakers believe the nationalist Sunni rebels are needed to build a stable Syria.

    But their policy has long been hampered by splits in the opposition and the prominent role jihadists have played in the insurgency. A Western diplomat said jihadist influence would increase were Trump to abandon the FSA rebels.

    In western Syria, FSA rebels have often fought in close proximity to jihadists against the army and its allies.

    free syrian army

    Concerns about weapons ending up in jihadist hands still appear to act as a brake on military support to the rebels.

    With the collapse of a ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia in September, U.S. officials considered military options including direct U.S. military action such as air strikes on Syrian military installations.

    But rebels say there has been no big shift since then.

    Were the United States to abandon the rebels, their military fortunes would hinge on Saudi, Qatari and Turkish support. Officials from those countries could not immediately be reached for comment on the subject of their backing for the rebels.

    The rebels believe Turkey for one remains a steadfast backer. But its recent rapprochement with Russia has raised questions over Turkish aims in Syria. Ankara appears more set on rolling back Kurdish influence and Islamic State than getting more deeply involved in the war for Aleppo, for example.

    The Syria conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people, and divided Syria into areas controlled by the government, insurgent groups, Kurdish militia, and Islamic State.

    The Kurdish YPG militia is at the center of U.S. strategy for fighting Islamic State in Syria, despite opposition from U.S. ally Turkey, which fears Kurdish influence in northern Syria will fuel separatism among its Kurdish minority.

    The Pentagon also backs some Syrian Arab rebels fighting Islamic State, despite the failure of a program last year which only trained a few dozen fighters.

    The spokesman for one such group, the New Syria Army, forecast reduced U.S. support for the rebels as Trump sought to "understand the picture more and to separate the jihadist groups from the moderate groups".

    But in the end, U.S. policy will be forced to "support the FSA groups that have a nationalist complexion", said the spokesman, Muzahim Saloum.

    Mohamad Aboud, an ex-rebel commander and a member of the main opposition political body, the High Negotiations Council, said Turkish influence would help shape a more supportive U.S. policy towards the rebels.

    Unlike with Obama, there would "be clarity in the new Trump administration", he said.

    (Writing by Tom Perry; editing by Giles Elgood)

    SEE ALSO: Trump reportedly taps conservative congressman Mike Pompeo to be CIA director

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    GENEVA (Reuters) - The besieged population of eastern Aleppo faces a "very bleak moment" with no food or medical supplies, winter approaching, and an increasingly fierce attack by Syrian and allied forces, U.N. humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said on Friday.

    Although Russia and rebel groups both sounded positive about a U.N. humanitarian plan to get supplies in and the sick and wounded out of eastern Aleppo, neither has yet given final approval, he said.

    The United Nations planned convoys with aid for 1 million Syrians in besieged or hard-to-reach areas this month, but so far not one convoy has reached its destination. Syrian troops turned back aid for the town of Douma on Thursday, Egeland said.

    (Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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    aleppo syria school bombing

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - A barrel bomb killed a family of six in rebel-held eastern Aleppo early on Sunday, a war monitor, a rebel and two medics said, while rebel shelling killed seven children at a school in the government-held sector, state television reported.

    The medics said the al-Baytounji family had suffocated to death because the barrel bomb, which fell in the Sakhour district at about midnight, had been laced with chlorine gas. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, could not confirm that chlorine gas was used.

    Rebel shelling killed at least seven children among 10 deaths in the Saria Hasoun school in al-Farqan district, Syrian state television and the Observatory reported.

    Hundreds of people have been killed since Tuesday in one of the heaviest bombardments of the country's civil war, now in its sixth year, as the government and its allies attempt to quash resistance in Aleppo's rebel-held eastern zone.

    Syria's military and Russia's air force had observed a unilateral pause in the bombardment of eastern Aleppo, except for on the frontlines, after a month-long offensive from late September to late October, but recommenced strikes on Tuesday.

    An inquiry by the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has found that Syrian government forces have used chlorine gas in barrel bombs at least three times during the war, though Damascus denies it.

    Syria also denies using barrel bombs - improvised ordnance made by oil drums filled with high explosive and shrapnel and dropped from helicopters. Their use has been condemned by the United Nations for causing unnecessary suffering.

    aleppo syria school bombing

    Staffan De Mistura, the envoy of the United Nations secretary general, arrived in Damascus for talks with Syrian Foreign Ministry officials on Sunday with Aleppo on the agenda.

    Air strikes continued to hit several districts of eastern Aleppo early on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor said, after at least 54 people were killed in bombing on Saturday.

    The two medics identified the family in a film distributed online. It showed the corpses of its four children stretched out on a floor, their lips blue and dark marks around their open eyes.

    One of the medics, Abu al-Abbas, has a colleague who lives on the same street, he said. Another was the manager of a hospital and said doctors had confirmed the cause of their death as gas poisoning. A rebel official, Zakaria al-Malahifji, from the Fastaqim group, also said they had been killed by gas.

    aleppo syria bombing

    The civil war pits President Bashar al-Assad backed by Russia's air force, Iran and Shi'ite militias against mostly Sunni rebels including groups supported by the United States, Turkey and Gulf monarchies.

    Aleppo has become the focal point for fighting, as the army and its allies attempt to end insurgent resistance there, alternating intense bombardment and ground attacks with offers to rebels to quit the city during periods of reduced bombing.

    The use of siege and bombardment tactics has previously forced rebels to surrender other encircled areas such as the large town of Daraya southeast of Damascus, seen for years as a stronghold of the rising against Assad.

    (Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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    A man gestures near a damaged hospital after an airstrike on the rebel-held town of Atareb, in the countryside west of Aleppo, Syria November 15, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - All hospitals in Syria's besieged rebel-held eastern Aleppo are out of service after days of heavy air strikes, its health directorate and the World Health Organization (WHO) said, though a war monitor said some were still functioning.

    White House national security adviser Susan Rice said the United States condemned "in the strongest terms" the latest air strikes against hospitals and urged Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to take steps to halt the violence.

    Intense air strikes have battered the eastern part of the city since Tuesday, when the Syrian army and its allies resumed operations after a pause lasting weeks. They launched ground attacks against insurgent positions on Friday.

    The war monitor, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said 48 people, including at least five children, had been killed in eastern Aleppo on Saturday by dozens of air strikes and barrel bombs and dozens of artillery rounds.

    That brings the number of people killed by the increased bombardment of Aleppo and the surrounding countryside over the past five days to about 180, including 97 in the city's besieged eastern sector, the observatory added.

    Warplanes, artillery and helicopters continued bombarding eastern Aleppo on Saturday, hitting many of its densely populated residential districts, the Observatory said. There were intense clashes in the Bustan al-Basha district, it added.

    "This destruction of infrastructure essential to life leaves the besieged, resolute people, including all children and elderly men and women, without any health facilities offering life-saving treatment ... leaving them to die," said Aleppo's health directorate in a statement sent to Reuters late on Friday by an opposition official.

    Elizabeth Hoff, the WHO representative in Syria, said on Saturday that a U.N.-led group of aid agencies based over the border in Turkey "confirmed today that all hospitals in eastern Aleppo are out of service".

    aleppo syria school bombing


    The monitoring group said some hospitals were still operating in besieged parts of Aleppo but said many residents were frightened to use them because of the heavy shelling.

    Medical sources, residents and rebels in eastern Aleppo say hospitals have been damaged by air strikes and helicopter barrel bombs in recent days, including direct hits on the buildings.

    "The United States again joins our partners ... in demanding the immediate cessation of these bombardments and calling on Russia to immediately deescalate violence and facilitate humanitarian aid and access for the Syrian people," Rice said in a statement.

    British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson tweeted that reports of air strikes hitting civilians and hospitals in east Aleppo were "sickening" and called for a return to diplomacy.

    However, with the United States awaiting the inauguration in late January of President-elect Donald Trump, who has been critical of Washington's Syria policy without laying out detailed plans himself, diplomatic efforts appear stalled.

    Staffan De Mistura, the special envoy of the U.N. secretary general, is likely to meet Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moalem in Damascus on Sunday after recent talks in Turkey and Iran, another diplomat said.

    "He will push on Aleppo, perhaps on a ceasefire, but on the political file there won't be anything until (U.N. Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon's successor Antonio) Guterres is in office, the diplomat said.

    Aleppo Syria Airstrike


    Both Russia and Assad's government have denied deliberately targeting hospitals and other civilian infrastructure during the war, which began in 2011 and was joined by Russia's air force in September 2015.

    Russia unilaterally called a ceasefire in late October and said on Saturday it was now only striking against groups that are not also observing it. Rebel groups in Aleppo have all said they do not recognize the Russian ceasefire.

    The charity Doctors Without Borders said in a message there had been more than 30 hits on hospitals in eastern Aleppo since early July. "Doctors are few and medical supplies are depleted, with no possibility of sending more supplies in," it said.

    Health and rescue workers have previously been able to bring damaged hospitals back into operation but a lack of supplies is making that harder.

    The Syrian war pits Assad and his allies Russia, Iran and Shi'ite militias against Sunni rebels including groups supported by the United States, Turkey and the Gulf monarchies and also jihadist groups.

    Aleppo, for years split between a rebel-held east and government-held western sector, has become the fiercest front.

    An army offensive backed by a major aerial bombardment from late September to late October killed hundreds, according to the United Nations, and tightened the siege, leaving eastern Aleppo with little food, medicine or fuel.

    A rebel counter-attack early this month involved shelling that killed dozens of civilians, the U.N. said, but it quickly petered out and the army and its allies, including Hezbollah and Iraqi militias, reversed all insurgent gains in about two weeks.

    Syrian state television said on Tuesday the air force had targeted "terrorist strongholds and supply depots" in Aleppo. Russia has said its air force is only conducting air strikes in other parts of Syria. The Damascus government describes all the rebels fighting it as terrorists.


    (Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebahay in Geneva, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow and Kathryn Dorrian in London; Editing by Gareth Jones)

    SEE ALSO: Battle for Aleppo escalates, U.N. sees 'bleak moment'

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    Obama Putin

    LIMA (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin spoke for about four minutes on Sunday at the APEC summit about Syria and Ukraine, a White House official said.

    "The president urged President Putin to uphold Russia's commitments under the Minsk agreements, underscoring the U.S. and our partners' commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty," the official said.

    The summit is taking place in Peru's capital, Lima.

    Obama also emphasized the need for their two countries' foreign ministers "to continue pursuing initiatives, together with the broader international community, to diminish the violence and alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people," the official said.


    (Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Alan Crosby)

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    A wounded man sits on the floor in a crowded makeshift hospital in eastern Aleppo as regime aircraft and artillery pounded neighbourhoods in the rebel-held sector of Syria's second city on November 18, 2016

    Geneva (AFP) - There are no more functioning hospitals in the rebel-held eastern part of Syria's Aleppo, where more than 250,000 people are living under siege and many need urgent medical care, the UN has said. 

    Health facilities have repeatedly been targeted during the country's brutal civil war, a pattern that has continued in a ferocious government assault launched last Tuesday to recapture eastern Aleppo. 

    "There are currently no hospitals functioning in the besieged area of the city," the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement on Sunday, citing reports from its partners in the area. 

    "More than 250,000 men, women and children living in eastern Aleppo are now without access to hospital care," the United Nations agency added. 

    WHO noted that some health services in the devastated area "are still available through small clinics," but that trauma care, major surgeries and other responses to serious conditions have stopped. 

    UN agencies, including WHO, have been barred from entering eastern Aleppo since July when regime troops seized the last access route, leaving the area cut off from food and medical aid for more than four months. 

    UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, whose efforts to negotiate aid access to eastern Aleppo have repeatedly fallen flat, warned Sunday that time was running out to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.

    Civilians in the city's government-controlled west have also been hit in deadly rebel attacks, but the area has continued to receive humanitarian supplies. 

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    The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, will fly to Moscow, Washington and Tehran in the coming days in a bid to secure access to civilians in Aleppo.

    Hundreds of people have been killed since Tuesday in a concerted push by the government and its allies to quash resistance in the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo and re-establish control over what was once Syria's biggest city.

    "The ICRC is trying hard to engage with all parties to this conflict to find a solution to have access to all those people," Maurer told a press conference in Dublin on Monday. "We haven't seen any humanitarian assistance in a month. This is a question of urgency."

    Maurer said he would meet Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday, then fly on to Washington and Tehran.

    "We are ready to deploy within record time if we have access," Maurer said.

    "If we do not bring food, medicines and baby food to occupied Syrian cities, then those goods will not be available, especially to the most vulnerable people. There is no Plan B."

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    Russian military jets are seen at Hmeymim air base in Syria, June 18, 2016. REUTERS/Vadim Savitsky/Russian Defense Ministry via Reuters/File Photo

    LONDON (Reuters) - Russian tankers have smuggled jet fuel to Syria through EU waters, bolstering military supplies to a war-torn country where Moscow is carrying out air strikes in support of the government, according to sources with knowledge of the matter.

    At least two Russian-flagged ships made deliveries - which contravene EU sanctions - via Cyprus, an intelligence source with a European Union government told Reuters. There was a sharp increase in shipments in October, said the source who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

    A separate shipping source familiar with the movements of the Russian-flagged vessels said the ships visited Cypriot and Greek ports before delivering fuel to Syria.

    The Russian defense and transport ministries did not respond to requests for comment.

    A spokeswoman for EU foreign affairs and security policy said the implementation of EU restrictions lay with member states. "We trust that competent authorities are complying with their obligation to ensure respect of the restrictive measures in place and to pursue any circumvention attempts," she added.

    Greece's foreign ministry declined to comment. The Cypriot government said its authorities had not approved the docking of any Russian tankers carrying jet fuel bound for Syria. "We would welcome any information that may be provided to us on any activity that contravenes U.N. or EU restrictive measures," the Cypriot foreign ministry added.

    Syria's civil war, which began in 2011, has become a theater for competing global powers, with Russia and Iran supporting President Bashar al-Assad, and the United States, Gulf Arab and European powers backing rebels who want to depose him.

    Russia changed the course of the conflict in favor of Assad's government last year when it intervened with air strikes. Moscow says it targets only Islamic State militants and other jihadist fighters.

    EU Council Regulation 1323/2014, introduced two years ago, bans any supply of jet fuel to Syria from the EU territories, whether or not the fuel originated in the European Union.

    Over one two-week period in October, Russian tankers delivered 20,000 metric tonnes of jet fuel to Syria - worth around $9 million at today's world prices - via the European Union, according to the EU government intelligence source.

    "The jet fuel shipments from these vessels have played a vital role in maintaining Russian air strikes in the region," said the source. "This points to a sustained Russian build-up of resources needed to support their military operation and ambitions in Syria."

    Some of the shipped fuel also went to the Syrian military, helping to "keep Assad's air assets operational", the source added.

    The shipping source and a third person, an intelligence consultant specializing in the Mediterranean area, also said the fuel was likely intended for Russian and Syrian military use.

    russian flagged oil tanker

    Transponders off

    Publicly available ship-tracking data confirms that at least two Russian tankers, the Yaz and Mukhalatka, made one trip each between September and October, stopping in Greece and Limassol in Cyprus. In Greece, the Yaz stopped at Agioi Theodoroi port but it is unclear where the Mukhalatka stopped.

    From Cyprus, they sailed towards Syria and Lebanon. Their tracking transponders were switched off near the coasts of those countries, according to the data.

    The EU intelligence source said the Mukhalatka went on to deliver jet fuel to Syria, while the other two sources said the Yaz almost certainly carried fuel to the country. All the people declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.

    It was unclear where the fuel might have originated.

    Alexander Yaroshenko, general director of the owner of the Yaz and Mukhalatka ships, St Petersburg-based Transpetrochart, declined to comment when asked by Reuters about the shipments. Transpetrochart asked for written questions, which were supplied, but did not provide an immediate response.

    Transpetrochart says on its website that it was founded in 2002 and specializes in shipping crude oil, fuel oil, diesel oil, gasoline and other oil products. It operates seven oil tankers.

    The intelligence consultant said the Yaz was investigated by Greek authorities for possible EU sanctions violations during its stay in the port of Agioi Theodoroi in September, but that it was allowed to leave bound for Turkey.

    The Greek coastguard service said in September that it had investigated the Yaz for possible breaches of EU regulations regarding Syria and had pressed charges against the ship's captain. A spokesman did not give further details about the investigation when contacted by Reuters.

    One coastguard official said separately the captain was charged and released pending trial.

    The EU government intelligence source said Russia was also using ships flying the flags of other countries to carry jet fuel to Syria. Reuters was unable to corroborate that allegation with other sources, or with ship-tracking data.

    (Additional reporting by Michele Kambas and Renee Maltezou in Athens and Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow; Editing by Pravin Char)

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    A man gestures near a damaged hospital after an airstrike on the rebel-held town of Atareb, in the countryside west of Aleppo, Syria November 15, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

    Beirut (AFP) - The Syrian army's advances against rebels in east Aleppo have sparked international concern, but the world appears powerless to prevent the symbolic city from being recaptured by the government. 

    Is east Aleppo's fall inevitable?

    Many experts and observers now think so.

    "At this point, operationally, there's very little you can do to avert the fall of Aleppo," said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

    "You can't send weaponry in any more, all the supply roads are cut, and you won't intervene from the air because of the costs and the risks," he told AFP.

    Syrian soldiers, backed by Iranian and Russian forces and Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah militia, renewed an operation to retake east Aleppo last week.

    The city has been divided since mid-2012, when rebels seized the eastern neighborhoods a year into the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

    After seven days of ferocious bombardment, the army has advanced quickly, seeking to slice up the rebel-held neighborhoods where 250,000 people live.

    US Pentagon officials decline to be drawn on how soon the rebels might collapse, having suggested months earlier that the city's east was on the verge of being recaptured.

    The "resilience" of the rebels and the population, despite a four-month government siege, appears to have surprised them.

    And they see the government's targeting of hospitals and civilian infrastructure as a reflection of its military weakness on the ground.

    Even if the army effectively seizes east Aleppo, "that doesn't mean the pacification of east Aleppo", Hokayem said.

    There would continue to be "lots of pockets of resistance", he added.

    aleppo syria bombing

    Why no Western intervention?

    Despite expressions of outrage, there has been little sign of intervention from the international community, which has behaved as "a powerless bystander", said Karim Bitar, a researcher at the Institute for International and Strategic Affairs.

    Despite opposing Assad's government, the West now appears impotent in the face of its advances.

    "There was a time to do something about Aleppo... but now it's too late," added Hokayem.

    "The key actors and key governments keep delaying the difficult decisions until there are no options left," he said.

    Hokayem said backers of the opposition had misjudged how important Russia's decision to intervene militarily last year would prove in bolstering the regime.

    Washington is now paralyzed by the transition to president-elect Donald Trump's incoming administration.

    "In the absence of a leading American role, the French or the Brits can't do much and won't do much," said Hokayem.

    Barack Obama Syria airstrikes

    Does the US care about Aleppo?

    For US military officials, the fall of east Aleppo is regarded as a non-event, with little operational consequence for them.

    They say their sole focus in Syria is the fight against the Islamic State group, the only military task to which President Barack Obama has committed troops.

    With just weeks before he leaves the White House, there is little sign that Obama will change his policy on Syria now.

    And a Trump administration is likely to pursue a policy significantly less hostile to Assad's government and its backer Moscow.

    "Indeed, discussions on Syria policy between Moscow and Trump have already begun," according to Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank.

    Meanwhile, Syrian regime forces "have been emboldened by Donald Trump's victory and the prospect of a US-Russian rapprochement which would focus solely on fighting IS", said Bitar.

    What can be done for civilians?

    The UN's Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura has warned that the ongoing military operation in east Aleppo could lead to a humanitarian "catastrophe".

    But the world body has made no headway in securing a truce in the fighting, or even delivering aid to east Aleppo where residents face food and fuel shortages.

    The latest assault has hit hospitals and rescue worker facilities, worsening the misery in the east and contributing to the sense that the east will fall sooner rather than later.

    "There is nothing to eat, no more hospitals and the bombardment is non-stop," one European diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

    "They are under very strong pressure and we could see a repeat of the scenario in Daraya, where after five years they were finally forced to accept evacuation."

    SEE ALSO: This is what Aleppo is

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    Containers of a chemical suspected to be chlorine were dropped by helicopters on rebel-held east Aleppo on Tuesday, causing breathing difficulties in some people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the local health authority said.

    The Britain-based war monitor said its network of sources had reported seeing at least four barrel bombs dropped on the al-Qaterji and Dahrat Awad neighborhoods, with the smell of chlorine filling the area. Medical sources told the Observatory they thought the gas was chlorine.

    The Aleppo Health Directorate for east Aleppo said there were a number of cases of breathing difficulties reported.

    Earlier on Tuesday the Syrian army advised civilians in besieged east Aleppo to avoid going into the streets and to steer clear of militant positions, and urged rebels to stop firing into government-held western Aleppo.

    On Nov. 11, the executive body of the global chemical weapons watchdog OPCW condemned the alleged use of banned toxic agents by the Syrian government and by militant group Islamic State.

    A 13-month international inquiry by the OPCW and United Nations concluded in a series of reports that Syrian government forces, including helicopter squadrons, were responsible for the use of chlorine barrel bombs against civilians.

    Syrian authorities deny having used chemical weapons in the conflict. Islamic State has not commented.

    SEE ALSO: US Ambassador Power: 'Russian Terror' is brutalizing Syria, and 'they will face judgment for their crimes'

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    Samantha Power

    US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power sternly rebuked "Russian terror" in Syria in remarks made to the UN on Monday.

    Power gave a comprehensive review of Russia's activities in Syria bolstering the Assad regime. Power began her speech by condemning Russia and Assad's "shocking, inhuman barrage on civilian neighborhoods," before slamming Russia for twisting the facts and trying to portray themselves as a humane force fighting terrorists.

    The US has continually tried to engage Russia diplomatically to bring about an end to suffering in Syria, but the most recent attempt at a ceasefire failed when Syrian or Russian warplanes bombed a UN humanitarian aide convoy heading to relieve the people of Aleppo.

    Power firmly rejected that Russia's brief pause in bombing Aleppo "was some kind of humanitarian gesture."

    "The reality is that the Assad regime and Russia are continuing their 'starve, get bombed, or surrender' strategy in eastern Aleppo," said Power.

    Power said that Russia paused bombing in Aleppo in a unilateral way so that the UN couldn't coordinate getting aide to the 275,000 Syrians languishing in Aleppo. "During this pause in strikes, Russia and the Assad regime never gave the UN permission to deliver a single parcel of food or medicine to eastern Aleppo. Not one," said Power.

    Power extended her chiding to the terrorist organizations like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS who also act inhumanely, but went as far as to describe Russia's involvement in the conflict as "Russian terror."

    ISW Syria map

    She went into gritty detail backing up her claim that Russia and Assad have engaged in terror:

    "Between November 13 and 15, five hospitals in Syria were struck. Five hospitals in two days. After airstrikes hit another hospital in eastern Aleppo on November 18, every hospital in that city is now reportedly out of service due to attacks by Russia and the Assad regime. Every single hospital serving a population of 275,000 civilians, out of commission. On November 6, an attack by the Assad regime on a Damascus suburb reportedly killed at least six children in a kindergarten. A kindergarten."

    Power specifically named a handful of officials in the Syrian regime, saying "know too that the international community is watching, and that you, too, will one day be held accountable." Power compared these individuals, who now feel "impunity" due to Russia's dominance in the region, to Charles Taylor, a convicted Liberian war criminal, and Slobodan Milosevic, who died awaiting trial on war crime charges.


    Power pointed out Russia's refusal to condemn a single airstrike carried out by its own planes, or Syrian planes under its advisement, even though clear evidence shows that civilian sites have been bombed time and time again. She also detailed harrowing reports of torture under the Assad regime, which she compared to ISIS's acts of torture.

    "Attacks on civilians fuel terrorism; they don’t defeat terrorism. The perpetrators must also know that, like their ignominious predecessors through history, they will face judgment for their crimes," concluded Power.

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    An air strike carried out by the United States last week killed Abu Afghan Al-Masri, a "senior al Qaeda leader," near Sarmada, Syria, on Nov. 18, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said on Tuesday.

    Cook, speaking during a press briefing, told reporters that Al-Masri, an Egyptian, originally joined al Qaeda in Afghanistan and later moved to it's Syrian affiliate.

    "He had ties to terrorist groups operating throughout Southwest Asia including groups responsible for attacking U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan and those plotting to attack the West," Cook said.


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    PARIS (Reuters) - France accused Syria and its allies on Wednesday of using political uncertainty in the United States to launch "total war" against rebel-held areas in the country and said states opposed to President Bashar al-Assad would meet in Paris soon.

    U.S. President-elect Donald Trump is only inaugurated on Jan. 20 and the outgoing administration is not expected to take an active role in Syria so close to leaving office. European diplomats have expressed concern that Assad may feel emboldened by Trump's vow to build closer ties with Russia, Syria's ally.

    "Today one million people are besieged. Not just in Aleppo, but in Homs, Ghouta and Idlib, and that's the reality of the situation in Syria," Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told reporters after a weekly cabinet session.

    He did not say what the planned meeting might achieve to tackle five years of conflict which have killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced half of Syria's population, but said protecting Syrian civilians was an urgent priority.

    "France is taking the initiative to confront this strategy of total war by the regime and its allies, who are taking advantage of the current uncertainty in the United States."

    A meeting of countries opposed to Assad, including the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, will take place in the coming days in Paris, Ayrault said. A diplomat said the ministerial talks would happen in early December.

    The U.N. Special Envoy for Syria also expressed concern on Tuesday that Assad could launch a new offensive to crush eastern Aleppo before Trump takes office. Intense bombardment of east Aleppo, including of hospitals, has left residents even more deprived of medicines, food and fuel in recent weeks.

    Accusing Syria and its Russian and Iranian backers of "cynicism", German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told parliament that the renewed strikes would merely add momentum to the cycle of violence.

    "Far too many people right now believe they can profit from the power vacuum after the U.S. elections and play the military card," he said. "We have to break through this logic. The talks on ceasefires and humanitarian aid must not stop during this period of transition in Washington."

    A man gestures near a damaged hospital after an airstrike on the rebel-held town of Atareb, in the countryside west of Aleppo, Syria November 15, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

    Chemical weapons

    A Western diplomat in Geneva also expressed concern over Trump's pledge to fight Islamic State alongside Russia.

    "Today with few exceptions we see Russia fighting the opposition, or rather civilians in besieged opposition areas, not Islamic State," he told Reuters. "If this is the fight Trump would want to join, it would destroy any prospects of a political solution."

    "But if it means Washington would get Russia to start seriously fighting Islamic State, rather than the opposition, that is good."

    France, a staunch backer of the anti-Assad opposition, is now actively pushing for a U.N. Security Council resolution to sanction Syria for the use of chemical weapons, Ayrault said.

    An inquiry by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has already found that government forces were responsible for three chlorine gas attacks and that Islamic State militants had used mustard gas.

    "It's been proved that the regime and Islamic State have used chemical weapons so we now need sanctions and that's the resolution we want at the U.N. The international community must stop turning a blind eye," Ayrault said.

    "We aren't going to sit and do nothing," he added.

    Russia has said the inquiry's findings cannot be used to take action at the Security Council and that the Syrian government, which denies using chemical weapons, should investigate the accusations.

    SEE ALSO: This is what Aleppo is

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    Members of the Shi'ite Badr Organisation fighters take cover behind a berm during a battle with Islamic State militants at the airport of Tal Afar west of Mosul, Iraq, November 20, 2016. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily

    ERBIL/BAGHDAD, Iraq (Reuters) — Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have fled Tal Afar as Shi'ite paramilitary groups close in the Islamic State-held town on the road between Mosul and Raqqa, the main cities of the militant group's self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

    The exodus from Tal Afar, 60 km (40 miles) west of Mosul, is causing concern among humanitarian organizations as some of the fleeing civilians are heading deeper into insurgents' territory, where aid cannot be sent to them, provincial officials said.

    Popular Mobilisation units, a coalition of mostly Iranian-trained and backed militias, are trying to encircle Tal Afar, a mostly ethnic Turkmen town, as part of the offensive to capture Mosul, the last major city stronghold of Islamic State in Iraq.

    About 3,000 families have left the town, with about half heading southwest, toward Syria, and half northward, into Kurdish-held territory, said Nuraldin Qablan, a Tal Afar representative in the Nineveh provincial council, now based in the Kurdish capital Erbil.

    "We ask Kurdish authorities to open a safe passage for them," he told Reuters.

    He said Islamic State started on Sunday night to allow people to leave after it fired mortars at Popular Mobilisation positions at the airport, south of the city, and Popular Mobilisation forces responded.

    Tal Afar Mosul Iraq ISIS

    The offensive started on Oct. 17 with air and ground support from a U.S.-led coalition. It is turning into the most complex campaign in Iraq since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and empowered the nation's Shi'ite majority.

    The people fleeing Tal Afar are from the Sunni community, which makes up a majority in the Nineveh province in and around Mosul. The town also had a Shi'ite community, which fled in 2014 when the hardline Sunni group swept through the region.

    Turkey is alarmed that regional rival Iran could extend its power through proxy groups to an area close to the Turkish and Syrian borders, where Ankara is backing rebels opposed to the Russian and Iranian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

    Citing its close ties to Tal Afar's Turkmen's population, Turkey has threatened to intervene to prevent revenge killings should Popular Mobilisation forces, known in Arabic as Hashid Shaabi, storm the town.

    tal afar

    "People are fleeing due to the Hashid's advance, there are great fears among the civilians," said Qablan, who is also the deputy head of Nineveh's provincial council.

    Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi tried to allay fears of ethnic and sectarian killings in Tal Afar, saying any force sent to recapture it would reflect the city's diversity.

    Cutting the road to Tal Afar would seal off Mosul as the city is already surrounded to the north, south and east by Iraqi government and Kurdish peshmerga forces.

    Iraq's U.S.-trained Counter Terrorism Service unit breached Islamic State's defenses in east Mosul at the end of October and is fighting to expand a foothold it gained there.

    Airstrikes on Mosul

    Iraqi military estimates put the number of insurgents in Mosul at 5,000 to 6,000, facing a 100,000-strong coalition of Iraqi government units, peshmerga fighters and Shi'ite militias.

    iraqi special forces isis mosul

    Mosul's capture is seen as crucial towards dismantling the caliphate, and Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, believed to have withdrawn to a remote area near the Syrian border, has told his fighters there can be no retreat.

    A Mosul resident said air strikes have intensified on the western part of the city, which is divided by the Tigris river running through its center.

    The strikes targeted an industrial area where Islamic State is thought to be making booby traps and transforming vehicles into car bombs, he said.

    The militants are dug in among more than a million civilians as a defense tactic to hamper the strikes. They are moving around the city through tunnels, driving suicide car bombs into advancing troops and hitting them with sniper and mortar fire.

    Peshmerga forces inspect a tunnel used by Islamic State militants in the town of Bashiqa, after it was recaptured from the Islamic State, east of Mosul, Iraq, November 12, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

    The Iraqi authorities did not release an overall estimate of the casualties, but the United Nations warned on Saturday that growing numbers of wounded civilians and military are overwhelming the capacity of the government and international aid groups.

    More than 68,000 people are registered as displaced because of the fighting, moving from villages and towns around the city to government-held areas, according to U.N. estimates.

    The figure does not include the thousands of people rounded up in villages around Mosul and forced to accompany Islamic State fighters to cover their retreat towards the city as human shields. It also does not included the 3,000 families which have fled Tal Afar.

    In some cases, men of fighting age were separated from those groups and summarily killed, according to residents and rights groups.

    (By Isabel Coles and Saif Hameed; writing by Maher Chmaytelli; editing by Dominic Evans)

    SEE ALSO: Watch a US-led airstrike knock out a facility producing ISIS' favorite weapon in Iraq

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