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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, July 24, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

    JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The fall of Aleppo to Syrian government forces backed by Russia and Iran has heightened alarm in Israel about potential threats to its borders and a wider reshaping of the region.

    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left no doubt on Wednesday about the depth of Israel's concern about Tehran, whose position and that of its proxies in Syria has been strengthened by the crushing of rebel resistance in Aleppo.

    At a meeting in Astana with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Netanyahu was asked whether he had a message for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is scheduled to visit Kazakhstan next week.

    "Don't threaten us. We are not a rabbit, we are a tiger," the Jerusalem Post newspaper quoted Netanyahu as telling Nazarbayev. "If you threaten us, you endanger yourself."

    Asked by Nazarbayev if he seriously believed Iran wanted to destroy Israel, Netanyahu replied: "Yes, I do."

    The more than five-year-old civil war in Syria has enabled Iran, whose Supreme leader has called for an end to the Jewish state, to steadily increase its influence across the region.

    Whether via its own Revolutionary Guard forces or Shi'ite Muslim proxies, especially Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, Tehran's reach extends from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea.

    As well as concerns about an increased flow of arms now Iran has access to a port on the Mediterranean at Tartus, on the southern Syrian coast, Israel worries Hezbollah, emboldened by Iran's patronage, may launch new attacks on its territory.

    Hezbollah military parade

    There have been isolated border incidents in recent months, and Israel and Hezbollah fought a war in 2006 in which more than 1,000 Lebanese and 160 Israelis were killed. Large populations in Israel and Lebanon were displaced and major infrastructure in southern Lebanon and parts of Beirut was destroyed.

    While Hezbollah's ranks have suffered in the fighting in Syria -- Israeli officials estimate 1,700 fighters have been killed and 7,000 wounded -- the group has restocked its weaponry and retains an arsenal of at least 100,000 rockets, Israeli and independent analysts say.

    In recent weeks, unclaimed airstrikes have targeted southern Syria and near Damascus. Syria has pointed the finger at Israel, which has made no comment. But Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said last week Israel was working "to prevent the smuggling of sophisticated weapons, military equipment and weapons of mass destruction from Syria to Hezbollah."

    Wary of Iran

    Avi Dichter, the chair of Israel's foreign affairs and defence committee and the former head of the Shin Bet intelligence agency, said Iran had tried several times in the past to move forces into the Syrian Golan Heights, next to territory that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

    Those moves were repelled, Dichter told Reuters. But he said that, with Iran flush with cash and confidence after last year's agreement restricting Iran's nuclear program, it was possible further attempts would be made to test Israel's responses.

    "Iran has a strategic plan," he said. "It might bring Iranian troops closer to Israel, either Revolutionary Guards, who are pure Iranians, or others, like Hezbollah or the Basij militia, which might be a very good cover for them."

    Beyond the threat from Iran and its proxies, Dichter has warned that Israel, widely thought to be the only nuclear capable state in the Middle East despite maintaining a policy of ambiguity, must not put too much confidence in Russia. The Israeli government sees Moscow as an ally but Dichter says it could shift position if its interests are threatened.

    vladimir putin

    Dichter believes Russia has long-term aspirations in the Middle East which could bring fundamental changes to the borders of the region, depending largely on how incoming U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin interact.

    "Those two leaders might not just think but act in order to create what we call a new Middle East," Dichter said.

    He called Russia the "supreme decider" in Syria but made clear the immediate concerns were Iran and Hezbollah.

    "We have no intention to allow Hezbollah to test their sophisticated weapons because there are no other targets in the Middle East except Israel when Hezbollah and Iran think about an offensive initiative," said Dichter. "By all means Israel is going to stop it, never mind whether by alerts or activities or any other tools."

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    syria artifacts isis

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government is suing to recover four ancient Syrian artifacts it believes were trafficked by Islamic State, U.S. officials said on Thursday, a tiny fraction of the plundered antiquities likely to have passed through the jihadist group's hands.

    Islamic State used the mayhem of war to establish a lucrative trade in stolen relics dug up from the territory it controlled in Syria and Iraq, which includes remnants of some of the world's oldest and most culturally rich civilizations, according to archaeological experts.

    U.S. Department of Justice officials filed a complaint in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Thursday seeking the forfeiture of the antiquities, including a gold ring with a carved gemstone, two gold coins, and a neo-Assyrian stone stela, together worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    The suit, believed to be the first of its kind, is meant to signal to art collectors, dealers, and auction houses around the world "that they're on notice, that they need to be vigilant, and that they need to take steps to ensure that their purchases aren't either knowingly or unknowingly supporting ISIL's terrorist activities," said Andrew Keller, a counter threat finance official at the State Department, using an acronym for Islamic State.

    The FBI warned last year there was evidence that collectors had been offered artifacts plundered by Islamic State.

    Unscrupulous dealers can dupe unwitting collectors who often are not antiquities experts, said Robert Wittman, who founded the Federal Bureau of Investigation's art crime team and now works as a private consultant on art security.

    “It’s not so much the collector who’s really creating a problem, it’s the unscrupulous dealer who has an artifact that doesn’t have proper provenance,” Wittman said. “And if there’s a provenance that’s created for it, how is a customs official going to know?"

    syria artifacts isis

    U.S. officials learned of the items detailed in Thursday's lawsuit through documents seized in a May 2015 U.S. raid in Syria targeting Abu Sayyaf, a top Islamic State finance official and Tunisian militant whose real name was Fathi ben Awn ben Jildi Murad al-Tunisi.

    "During the raid, there was a lot of electronic media that was recovered, and these are not the only four items that were on that media that we are going after," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Arvind Lal.

    U.S. officials on Thursday also released documents seized from the raid that depict a sophisticated system used to process and manage the trade in antiquities. They show that Abu Sayyaf, who led Islamic State's antiquities division, levied a 20 percent tariff on local merchants who brought the items to Islamic State, and the payments were documented.

    syria artifacts isisOfficials said it was difficult to know how many ancient relics have passed through Islamic State control, making it hard to assess the total cultural loss to Syria and Iraq. Syria's border with Turkey, believed to be a major stop on the smuggling route, is porous, though Turkish officials have seized thousands of antiquities over the last several years, U.S. officials said.

    At the height of its territorial reach, U.S. officials estimate, Islamic State controlled about 5,000 archaeological sites, though it has lost significant territory in the last year.

    In addition to ransacking sites for loot, Islamic State also destroyed some sites in northern Iraq and Syria, posting photos and videos of fighters destroying pre-Islamic monuments and temples they consider idolatrous.

    Islamic State recaptured the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, a 2000-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site, this month after losing it in March. The last time it had control over the city, Islamic State blew up two ancient shrines.


    (Additional reporting by Joel Schectman in Washington; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

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    A Syrian government soldier gestures a v-sign under the Syrian national flag near a general view of eastern Aleppo after they took control of al-Sakhour neigbourhood in Aleppo, Syria in this handout picture provided by SANA on November 28, 2016.

    ISTANBUL, Dec 15 (Reuters) - The recapture of Aleppo by Syrian government forces deals a humiliating blow to years of Turkish policy in Syria, leaving in ruins its efforts to force President Bashar al-Assad from power and handing a major victory to main regional rival Iran.

    But Turkey's support for the Syrian rebels withdrawing from their last major urban stronghold is far from over, as it intensifies a campaign to drive Islamic State and Kurdish militia fighters from a strip of Syria's north.

    Some of the rebel brigades from Aleppo are expected to be redeployed as part of "Operation Euphrates Shield", an offensive launched by Turkey four months ago to secure a roughly 90-km (56-mile) stretch of Syrian territory across its border.

    "The work on this is already under way," said a senior official from the Turkmen Sultan Murad brigade, one of the Turkish-backed groups pulling out of Aleppo. Fighters would initially join Turkey's effort to drive Islamic State from the city of al-Bab, around 40 km northeast of Aleppo, he said.

    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's role negotiating the safe exit from Aleppo of the largely Turkmen and Arab insurgents he has backed for the past five years was hardly the outcome he could have wanted. For years, he led calls for international intervention to force Assad from power.

    But it marks the culmination of a shift in Turkish policy which began months ago as Ankara sought to mend broken ties with Assad's ally Russia, and as the threat to its national security from Islamic State and Kurdish groups in Syria grew.

    Turkey itself pulled some of the rebel fighters it backs out of Aleppo in August to take part in Euphrates Shield, further weakening their ability to confront the onslaught from Assad's forces and their Russian and Iranian-backed allies.

    "The situation in Syria has morphed into one reality and then another since 2011 and all regional actors ... have muddled through, trying to adjust to new realities. In this respect, Turkey is no exception," said Gulnur Aybet, professor of international relations at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University.

    "Turkey's priorities with regards to the war in Syria now and for the foreseeable future are two pronged: national security and humanitarian relief."


    'Terrorist training ground'

    A chain of suicide bombings over the past two years blamed variously on Islamic State and Kurdish militants have brought into sharp focus the threat from Syria to Turkish cities hundreds of miles from the frontlines.

    "Syria has turned into a training ground for terrorist organisations," a senior government official said. "Our Syria policy is adjusting according to the realities on the ground."

    In the latest attack last weekend, Kurdish militants claimed a twin bombing outside an Istanbul soccer stadium which killed 44 people, most of them police officers.

    Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday one of the bombers was thought to have come from Syria, and officials in Ankara believe the attacks may have been in revenge for Turkey's actions against Kurdish militias in northern Syria.

    "They are not pleased with the advances of the Turkish army in Syria, and they're trying to send a message to Turkey through terrorist attacks," said a second Turkish official.

    "Our fight against terror in Turkey and the Turkish-backed rebel advance in Syria will continue."

    The official from the Sultan Murad brigade said rebel fighters withdrawing from Aleppo to Syria's Idlib province would be vetted by Turkey before being sent to join the Euphrates Shield operation as quickly as possible.

    Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said the aim was to flush out members of the Nusra Front, which is among the rebel groups fighting Assad but was until recently affiliated with al Qaeda. The Nusra Front is considered a terrorist group by both the United States and its NATO ally Turkey.

    "It won't take a lot of time, definitely not weeks. The al-Bab operation is vital for Turkey, and from there it wants to move onto Manbij," the Sultan Murad official said, referring to a town 50 km (30 miles) east of al-Bab which Erdogan has said he wants brought under control of the Turkish-backed forces.

    The Turkish army dropped leaflets on al-Bab this week urging civilians to seek shelter, as rebels backed by Turkish tanks and warplanes closed in on the city. The rebels seized at least two villages west of al-Bab last week.

    A man sweeps a street near giant portraits of Pakistan's President Mamnoon Hussain,Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif displayed ahead of a visit of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Islamabad, Pakistan, November 16, 2016.   REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

    Shifting alliances

    Turkey's shifting priorities in Syria have much to do with its rapprochement with Russia in August, after nine months of strained ties caused by Turkey's shooting down of a Russian fighter jet over Syria.

    Russia has backed up forces loyal to Assad in Aleppo by providing training, equipment, advice and air support.

    The Turkish government says the restoration in ties has not changed its position that Assad must go to restore peace in Syria, but it has been forced to work with Moscow. Erdogan has spoken repeatedly in recent weeks with Russian President Vladimir Putin to try to find a solution in Aleppo.

    There have also been contacts between Turkey's foreign minister and his Iranian counterpart in recent days, and Turkish officials have said there will be a tri-partite meeting between Turkey, Russia and Iran to discuss Syria later this month.

    Ankara's change of tack has partly been driven by its long-standing frustration with U.S. policy in Syria.

    Turkey has been angered by U.S. support for Kurdish militia groups and has shared a sense of betrayal among Syrian rebels who feel President Barack Obama encouraged their uprising by calling for Assad to go but then abandoned them, failing even to enforce his own "red line" on Syria's use of chemical weapons.

    "The fight that should have been taken on by global powers has not been assumed by them at all," the senior government official said. "If someone is looking for a scapegoat for what's happening in Syria, it is neither Erdogan nor Turkey."

    (Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun; Writing by Nick Tattersall, editing by Peter Millership)

    SEE ALSO: Russia may no longer be the most powerful actor in Syria

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    Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, in this handout picture provided by SANA on October 14, 2016. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Thursday the world would be different after what he called the "liberation of Aleppo", describing it as a historic moment.

    "What is happening today is the writing of a history written by every Syrian citizen. The writing did not start today, it started six years ago when the crisis and war started against Syria," Assad said in a video statement published on the Syrian presidency's Twitter account.

    An operation to evacuate thousands of civilians and fighters from the last rebel bastion in Aleppo began on Thursday, part of a ceasefire deal that would end years of fighting for the city and mark a major victory for Assad.

    Talking about events in Aleppo, Assad alluded to major moments in history including the birth of Jesus Christ, the revelations to the Prophet Muhammad and the fall of the Soviet Union.

    "History is not the same before and after ... I think after liberating Aleppo we will say that not only the Syrian situation, but also the regional and international situation, is different," he said.

    "This history that is being made now is bigger than the word 'congratulations'. Everybody is saying congratulations now."


    (Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

    SEE ALSO: Assad's victory in Syria's largest city will likely lead to more war

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    People get on buses to be evacuated from al-Sukkari rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo, Syria December 15, 2016.

    ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT — The evacuation of the last opposition-held areas of the Syrian city of Aleppo was suspended Friday after pro-government militias demanded that wounded people should also be brought out of two Shi'ite villages being besieged by rebel fighters.

    The second day of the operation to take fighters and civilians out of Aleppo's rebel enclave ground to a halt amid recriminations from all sides after a morning that had seen the pace of the operation pick up.

    Aleppo had been divided between government and rebel areas in the nearly six-year civil war, but a lightning advance by the Syrian army and its allies that began in mid-November deprived the insurgents of most of their territory in a matter of weeks.

    Russia said the Syrian army had established control over all districts of eastern Aleppo, though government troops were suppressing isolated areas where rebel fighters continued to resist, the defense ministry in Moscow added.

    Rebel sources accused pro-government Shi'ite militias of opening fire on buses carrying evacuees from east Aleppo. Road blocks went up and a bus convoy was forced to turn back.

    Rebels in eastern Aleppo went on high alert after pro-government forces prevented civilians from leaving and deployed heavy weaponry on the road out of the area, a Syrian rebel commander in the city said.

    A Syrian official source said the evacuation was halted because rebels had sought to take out people they had abducted with them, and they had also tried to take weapons hidden in bags. This was denied by Aleppo-based rebel groups.

    But a media outlet run by the pro-government Hezbollah group said protesters had blocked the road from the city, demanding that wounded people from the villages of Foua and Kefraya in nearby Idlib province should also be evacuated.

    The Hezbollah outlet also said rebels had bombarded a road due to be used by buses to conduct the evacuation from the Shi'ite villages. Iran, one of Syria's main allies, had demanded that the villages be included in a cease-fire deal under which people are leaving Aleppo, rebel and United Nations officials have said.

    Evacuees from rebel-held eastern Aleppo ride on pick-up trucks along the government-held area of al-Ramousah bridge, Syria December 16, 2016.A Syrian rebel source said all the groups besieging the villages except for Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as Nusra Front, had agreed to let out injured people.

    Aleppo evacuation

    Aid agencies involved in the Aleppo evacuation had been told to leave the area without explanation after the operation was aborted, the World Health Organization said.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said 8,000 people, including some 3,000 fighters and more than 300 wounded, had left the city in convoys of buses and ambulances since the evacuation began on Thursday morning.

    Photos sent by an activist waiting to leave the rebel-held sector of east Aleppo showed crowds of people in thick coats in a street lined with flattened buildings in the cold winter air.

    Private cars and minibuses with bundles strapped to their roofs filled the street, as people sat on rubble or stood next to bags of their belongings. In a message sent to journalists, the activist said children were "hungry and crying" and people were "exhausted," not knowing whether buses would arrive to take them out.

    By early Friday morning, nearly 200 evacuated patients had arrived in eight "overwhelmed" hospitals in government-held western Aleppo, Idlib, and Turkey, according to the WHO.

    The United Nations says 50,000 people remain in rebel-held Aleppo, of whom about 10,000 would be taken to Idlib province and the rest would go to government-held city districts.

    Idlib province, mostly controlled by hardline Islamist groups, is not a popular destination for fighters and civilians from east Aleppo, where nationalist rebel groups predominated.

    Idlib is already a target for Syrian and Russian airstrikes, but it is unclear whether the government will push for a ground assault or simply seek to contain rebels there for now. Turkey has said Aleppo evacuees could also be housed in a camp to be constructed near the Turkish border to the north.

    Evacuees from rebel-held eastern Aleppo react upon their arrival to an area on the western edge of Aleppo city which is held by insurgents, in Syria December 16, 2016.Two potential sites just inside Syria have been identified to set up a camp, which could host up to 80,000 people, Turkish officials said, adding that they expected up to 35,000 people to come. Turkey would continue to accept sick and wounded coming from Aleppo.

    Putin seeks cease-fire

    Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syria's most powerful ally, said he was working with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to try to start a new round of Syrian peace talks aimed at securing a nationwide ceasefire.

    Speaking in Japan, Putin said the new talks could be held in Kazakhstan and would complement UN-brokered negotiations that have been taking place intermittently in Geneva.

    "The next step is to reach an agreement on a total cease-fire across the whole of Syria," the Russian leader said. A senior Syrian opposition leader, Riyad Hijab, said he was willing to attend the talks planned if the aim was to set up transition government, something Syrian President Bashar Assad has ruled out.

    Aleppo, a once flourishing economic center with its renowned ancient sites has been pulverized during the war that has killed more than 300,000 people, created the world's worst refugee crisis, and allowed for the rise of the Islamic State.

    The US was forced to watch from the sidelines as the Syrian government and its allies, including Russia, mounted an assault to pin down the rebels in an ever-diminishing pocket of territory, culminating in a cease-fire this week.

    US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday that the Syrian government was carrying out "nothing short of a massacre" in Aleppo.

    French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the UN Security Council would meet Friday to discuss a quick deployment of UN observers to east Aleppo to ensure there were no atrocities and that humanitarian aid reached the city.

    The Syrian White Helmets civil-defense group and other rights organizations accused Russia of committing or being complicit in war crimes in Syria, saying Russian airstrikes in the Aleppo region had killed 1,207 civilians, including 380 children.

    Even with victory for Assad in Aleppo, the war will still be far from over. Insurgents retain their rural stronghold of Idlib province, and the jihadist Islamic State group holds swaths of the east and recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra this week.

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    Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, attends a working lunch with Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, not pictured, at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016.  REUTERS/Tomohiro Ohsumi/Pool

    MOSCOW/ISTANBUL (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin said he and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan are working to organize a new series of Syrian peace talks without the involvement of the United States or the United Nations.

    In a snub to Washington, Putin made clear on Friday that the initiative was the sole preserve of Moscow and Turkey and that the peace talks, if they happened, would be in addition to intermittent U.N.-brokered negotiations in Geneva.

    "The next step is to reach an agreement on a total ceasefire across the whole of Syria," Putin said in Tokyo. "We are conducting very active negotiations with representatives of the armed opposition, brokered by Turkey."

    Putin, who has leveraged Russia's role in Syria to boost his diplomatic muscle, said the talks proposal was being put to the Syrian government and the opposition. Kazakhstan, the proposed venue, is a Russian ally, and Putin said the talks could take place in Astana, the Kazakh capital.

    The surprise move underlines the growing strength of Moscow's rapprochement with Ankara, with which it fell out last year over the shooting down of a Russian plane, and reflects Russia's desire to cement its growing influence in the Middle East and more widely.

    It also shows how fed up Russia is with what it sees as long and pointless talks with the Obama administration over Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier this week dismissed those talks as "fruitless sitting around" and said Ankara might prove a more effective partner on Syria.

    Turkey, which wants to boost its global sway too, is also deeply frustrated by U.S. policy in Syria, particularly Washington's support for Kurdish militia fighters it sees as a hostile force, and by what it views as Barack Obama's failure to give enough support to the rebels.

    Putin played down the idea that the talks would sideline or overshadow similar talks brokered by the United Nations that have been held intermittently in Geneva.

    "It won’t compete with the Geneva talks, but will complement them. Wherever the conflicting sides meet, in my view it is the right thing to do to try to find a political solution," he said.

    The initiative is unlikely to go down well with U.N. envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura however. He told reporters in Paris on Thursday that it was time for all sides to return to the table, but the United Nations would have to broker any talks for them to have legitimacy.

    erdogan putinOdd couple

    Russia still hopes it can co-operate on Syria with the United States and join forces with Washington against Islamic State once President-elect Donald Trump takes office.

    But Trump will not be inaugurated until Jan. 20, leaving a power vacuum, and is likely in any case to need some time to formulate foreign policy.

    The alliance between Moscow and Ankara is at first glance an odd one. Russia is one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's closest allies, while Turkey, a NATO member, wants him removed.

    But Ankara may be ready to accept a transition in which Assad is involved, provided he ultimately relinquishes power.

    Turkey's main priority, on which it will want at least tacit Russian agreement, is to ensure that Kurdish militias are unable to gain further territory in Syria along its borders.

    Ankara launched an incursion into Syria, "Operation Euphrates Shield", in August to push Islamic State out of a 90-km (55-mile) stretch of frontier territory and prevent Kurdish groups from seizing ground in their wake.

    Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli acknowledged two weeks ago that Turkey "would not have moved so comfortably" without the rapprochement with Russia, which effectively controls parts of northern Syrian air space.

    Turkey now wants the rebels it supports to push further south into Syria and take the Islamic State-held city of al-Bab, around 40 km northeast of Aleppo.

    Erdogan is determined that the Turkish-backed rebels capture the city to prevent Kurdish militias from doing so. But that ambition could cause difficulties with Moscow, as al-Bab lies close to the front lines of Assad's allies.

    Aleppo Buses SyriaAleppo deal

    Putin had only warm words for the prospect of deeper Russo-Turkish co-operation however and said the evacuation of rebels from Aleppo was something that he and Erdogan had agreed on.

    He hoped the Syrian army would be able to consolidate its position in Aleppo and civilians return to normal life.

    The RIA agency this week quoted Andrei Kelin, a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official, as saying it had been easier to deal with Turkey on Aleppo than the United States.

    "It was much more straightforward to reach agreements with Turkey than with the Americans," he was cited as saying.

    Putin played down the Syrian government's recent loss of Palmyra to Islamic State, blaming the lack of coordination between the U.S. led coalition, the Syrian authorities, and Russia for the setback.

    “Everything that is happening in Palmyra is the result of uncoordinated action," said Putin.

    “The question of Palmyra is purely symbolic. Aleppo is much more important from a military-political point of view.”

    (Additional reporting by Katya Golubkova in Tokyo and John Irish in Paris; Editing by Giles Elgood)

    SEE ALSO: Aleppo evacuations grind to a halt

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    President-elect Donald Trump addressed the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria's largest city during a rally Thursday night, calling it "sad" and promising to set up "safe zones" so that "people will have a chance."

    “When I look at what’s going on in Syria, it’s so sad,” he told a crowd in Pennsylvania. “It’s so sad, and we’re going to help people.”

    Trump said the money for the safe zones — complicated and expensive projects that require a substantial commitment of military resources, including ground troops — would come from the Gulf states.

    "They have nothing but money," he said, likely referring to some combination of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, which have supported the Syrian revolution throughout the course of the five-plus-year civil war.

    "We don't have money," Trump said. "We owe $20 trillion. I will get the Gulf states to give us lots of money, and we'll build and help build safe zones in Syria, so people can have a chance. So they can have a chance."

    Thursday night was not the first time Trump has proposed setting up safe zones inside Syria that would be paid for by the Gulf states.

    Trump — who has said that he opposes arming Syrian rebels trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad because "we don't even know who they are"— has presented the safe zones as an alternative to accepting Syrian refugees into the US.

    Aleppo Syria

    "What they should do is, the countries should all get together, including the Gulf states, who have nothing but money, they should all get together and they should take a big swath of land in Syria and they do a safe zone for people, where they could go to live, and then ultimately go back to their country, go back to where they came from," he told CBS' "Face the Nation" in October 2015.

    Trump repeated the idea one month later, during a rally in Knoxville, Tennessee.

    “What I'd like is to build a safe zone in Syria," he said. "Build a big, beautiful safe zone, and you have whatever it is so people can live, and they’ll be happier ... So you keep them in Syria."

    Putin Assad

    Building safe zones could complicate Trump's other policy position on Syria, however, which is to work with Assad and Russia to defeat the Islamic State. Assad and his allies, Russia and Iran, would likely see the construction of safe zones by the US and its partners as a violation of Syria's territorial sovereignty.

    During the second presidential debate in October, Trump would not answer ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz when she asked him what he would do, as president, about Syria and the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, saying only that "I think Aleppo is a disaster, humanitarian-wise. ... I think that it, basically, has fallen."

    Aleppo fell to pro-government forces earlier this week, after a month of intense bombing accompanied by a ferocious ground offensive killed nearly 1,000 rebel fighters and civilians in the eastern half of the city.

    The opposition reached a deal with Russia on Wednesday for a cease-fire and the evacuation of approximately 40,000 civilians and opposition forces from the city. The evacuations were suspended on Friday, however, amid demands by Iran-backed, pro-government militias to first evacuate wounded civilians from Shi'ite villages around Aleppo that are being besieged by rebel fighters.

    SEE ALSO: 'Is there literally nothing that can shame you?': US ambassador Power attacks Russia, Assad over 'crimes' in Aleppo

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    syria aleppo evacuation

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - They fled Aleppo from different districts and at different stages of Syria's civil war, seeking refuge abroad. Now, for refugees who supported the opposition, President Bashar al-Assad's victory has dashed hopes of ever going home.

    Even as the uprising in Aleppo and cities across Syria descended into conflict, several former residents interviewed by Reuters said they had hoped there could still be change, a negotiated settlement and a chance to return.

    But as Assad reasserts control after the army and its allies routed rebels in Aleppo, these Syrians living in exile fear that a new crackdown that will include arrests and executions, and be worse than anything witnessed pre-war.

    "If I go back, I'll be executed," said Abdulhamid Zughbi, a 30-year-old who fled besieged eastern rebel-held Aleppo earlier this year for Turkey, seeking medical treatment for his wife and infant son.

    "I can't even think about returning as long as the Assad regime is still in power. It's impossible for anyone from the opposition," he said.

    Nearly 5 million Syrians have fled the country in a conflict that has killed more than 300,000 people and pitted multiple warring sides against each other, including jihadists who have come to dominate the insurgency in many areas.

    The permanent displacement of millions of Syrians is one way in which its war and others in the region are causing irreversible changes. Most refugees are in neighboring countries including Turkey and Lebanon, and hundreds of thousands have gone to Europe.

    Some will see Assad's win in Aleppo and other gains he has made with Russian and Iranian support as a chance to return and rebuild their lives - but not those involved in dissent when protests began in 2011.

    Zughbi took part, then worked for years in medical aid and rescue in rebel-held eastern Aleppo.

    "My wife was lightly wounded in shelling and my son was ill. I thought I'd take them to Turkey and come back.

    "That day, they closed the road, and I couldn't return," he said, referring to when government forces sealed off the rebel-held part of the city in August.

    They besieged it for months and then made a lightning advance to drive insurgents out of most of their areas they held in a matter of weeks. 

    aleppo syrian forces soldier'Arrests have just begun'

    As residents have poured out of rebel districts, including into areas under government control, the army has begun making arrests, Zughbi said.

    "The arrests have just begun. They detain the more prominent people (activists) on the spot ... but for others - now they (the government) have the time, they'll investigate and then arrest them at a later stage.

    "A friend of mine went to a government-held area and three days later they detained him."

    The United Nations voiced deep concern about reports of Syrian soldiers and allied Iraqi fighters summarily shooting dead 82 people in east Aleppo districts this week - accusations denied by the army and the Iraqi militia in question.

    Assad's opponents accused the government of mass arrests and forced conscription. 

    A Syrian military source denied arrests but said identities of people leaving rebel-held areas were being checked and anyone who was unknown was being put into "specific places" in areas where civilians were gathered. The army says Syrians eligible for military service must serve.

    For Abu Rakan, a 51-year-old refugee living in Lebanon, the death of his brother in law, a rebel fighter, and disappearance just days ago of his sister have underscored the danger for anyone linked to the opposition.

    "If we go back, it'll be more dangerous than before. Anyone with the opposition is in danger.

    "We've lived with this regime for 40 years. We know how it behaves, what it does," he said, referring also to Assad's father and former president Hafez al-Assad, who crushed leftist and Islamist challenges to his rule.

    Abu Rakan said he would only return to Syria under a "full national reconciliation", and if there were a freely elected government in place and a new constitution - all of which look more than distant than ever.

    Hala, an activist who left government-controlled Aleppo in 2014, said she would not trust any settlement between the government and opposition - Assad had to go.

    "There's no way I can go back while the Assad regime is there," said the 37-year-old, who now lives in Beirut and works for a Syrian citizenship organization.

    Syria Army Flag Aleppo

    Miserable exile

    "Even if there was a kind of reconciliation, we wouldn't be able to live there. The oppression that existed before the revolution will multiply.

    "When the revolution began we were able to express our views and to live more freely. Even if we weren't arrested, we can't go back, knowing it will be just like it was," she said.

    Hala, Abu Rakan and Zughbi want to go home.

    Even for them, who are among the better off refugees, life in exile is beginning to become unbearable.

    "There's no future for me in Lebanon. I work illegally because it's difficult to get residency, and I can't get medical insurance because I'm not U.N.-registered," Hala said.

    She decided not to travel onto Europe before EU countries tightened their borders because she still hoped to make it back to Syria at that stage.

    Many Syrian refugees live illegally in Lebanon because they cannot afford the renew their residency. Seventy percent live below the poverty line, the U.N. says.

    In Turkey, Zughbi is preparing for a lifetime of exile, but says conditions are not much better, as he struggles to make a living still as a medical aid worker.

    "My ambition now is to get out of Turkey, maybe try to go to Europe, or America.

    "That's my only choice."

    (Reporting by John Davison; editing by Giles Elgood)

    SEE ALSO: Trump says he wants to set up safe zones in Syria 'so people can have a chance'

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    President Barack Obama said in his final press conference of the year that he feels "responsible" for the bloodshed in Syria, and that his administration "went through every option" to try and limit the violence there.

    "I always feel responsible," the president said in response to a question about whether he felt a "moral responsibility for the carnage" in Syria's largest city, Aleppo, after failing to intervene in the Syrian civil war early on.

    "I felt responsible when kids were being shot by snipers, when millions of people were being displaced," he said. "I feel responsible for murder and slaughter that's taking place in south Sudan that's not being reported on ... there are places around the world where horrible things are happening. And because of my office, I feel responsible."

    "I ask myself every day, 'Is there something I could do that would make a difference?'" Obama said. "That's a starting point. There's not a moment during the course of this presidency where I haven't felt some responsibility."

    The president then explained that he and his advisors spent "days and weeks" worth of time meeting about Syria and trying to find a way to ease the suffering and end the civil war.

    "I have consistently taken the best course that I can to try to end the civil war, while having also to take into account the long-term national security interests of the United States," Obama said.

    aleppo syrian forces soldier

    The president noted that, in the "hours of meetings" he held with advisors and officials about Syria, it became clear that large numbers of US troops would have to be deployed to make a difference in the conflict. And with no international legal mandate, a lack of support from Congress, and a Russian and Iranian presence in Syria, Obama said, US ground troops "were going to run into problems." 

    "It was going to be impossible to do this on the cheap," Obama said. "And in that circumstance I have to make a decision as President as to what is best" for the country. 

    The president reiterated his support for the cease-fire and evacuation deal that is currently under way in Aleppo, the epicenter of the nearly six-year civil war.

    "Our biggest priority right now is to put pressure, wherever we can, to try and get [the civilians] out" of Aleppo, Obama said, and noted that he would help president-elect Donald Trump — who said on Thursday that he is in favor of establishing humanitarian safe zones in Syria — with any advice he can provide so that he can make informed decisions.

    But he contended that because the safe zones would be in Syrian territory, "some force" would be required to maintain them in the absence of consent from the Syrian government, the Russians, and the Iranians.

    "If we can get more of the tens of thousands of people that are still trapped in Aleppo out," Obama said, "as long as the world's eyes are on them, the regime and Russia can hopefully find an arrangement whereby those people are kept safe."

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    During his final press conference of 2016, President Barack Obama shared that as president of the United States, he feels a certain amount of responsibility for the terrible things happening in the world, including the current situation in Aleppo, Syria.

    Follow BI Video: On Twitter 

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    The crisis in Syria reached new, heartbreaking heights on Friday as a brokered cease-fire attempted to give tens of thousands of residents the opportunity to escape the besieged city of Aleppo.

    aleppo syria

    While watching a humanitarian disaster unfold before your eyes across the world may make you feel powerless, there are some things you can do to aid the people still in Syria, and the 4.8 million refugees who have fled since the civil war began nearly six years ago.

    Here are some actions you can take to help:

    SEE ALSO: For Syrian refugees who supported the opposition, Assad's victory in Aleppo has dashed hopes of ever going home

    DON'T MISS: OBAMA: 'I feel responsible' for Syria

    Donate to a charity

    These 13 organizations received three or four stars (out of four) from Charity Navigator, an independent non-profit that rates charities based on their financial management and accountability. Here are links to their websites, listed in alphabetical order:

    American Refugee Committee


    Catholic Relief Services

    Global Hope Network International


    Helping Hand for Relief and Development

    International Rescue Committee

    Islamic Relief USA

    Mercy-USA for Aid and Development

    Oxfam America

    Palestine Children's Relief Fund

    Save the Children

    United States Fund for UNICEF


    Your time can be even more valuable than your money.

    Instead of (or in addition to) donating to a charity helping Syrian refugees, volunteer with them.

    Contact any of the charities listed on the previous slide (plus find more from USAID here) and ask them how you can give your time.

    You can also join Doctors Without Borders and go to Syria or a European country where refugees have fled to.

    If you live in several European countries or Canada, you can also list your home as a place where Syrian refugees can stay (sort of like a free Airbnb).

    Educate yourself and others

    Learn more about the crisis from official sources, and educate your friends and family about what you discover. The more you know about the crisis, the more you can help.

    Here is more information about the situation in Syria from the United Nations Refugee Agency, the US State Department, and the USAID Center For International Disaster Information.

    Keep up with the latest news on Business Insider's Syria page.

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Abu Bakr al Baghdadi ISIS Islamic State

    The US Department of State’s Rewards for Justice program more than doubled the bounty for Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the emir of the Islamic State and its self-professed caliphate, making him one of the two most wanted men in the world.

    The $25 million reward now puts Baghdadi on par with Ayman al Zawahiri, the emir of al Qaeda who served as the jihadist group’s deputy during the 9/11 attack.

    “This represents a significant increase from the previous reward offer of $10 million announced in October 2011,” State notes in its press release announcing the new reward for Baghdadi.

    State said upping the reward for Baghdadi would increase “the means available to us to gain information on their leadership and bring them to justice.”

    Under Baghdadi’s leadership, the Islamic State “has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians in the Middle East, including the brutal murder of numerous civilian hostages from Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States,” State notes. Additionally, “the group also has conducted chemical weapons attacks in Iraq and Syria …”

    State increased the reward for Baghdadi just as the Islamic State has been pushed to the brink in Iraq. The Islamic State first began taking control of territory in Iraq’s Anbar province in January 2014, and then launched a lightning offensive in June 2014 that put it in control of large areas in northern, central and eastern Iraq, including the city of Mosul.

    ISIS Iraq

    But Iraqi forces – backed by US air power, the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iranian-backed Shiite militias – have slowly pushed back the Islamic State. They are currently on the offensive in Mosul, the last major city under Islamic State control.

    Baghdadi, who is also known as Dr. Ibrahim ‘Awwad Ibrahim ‘Ali and Abu Du’a, was added to the US list of global terrorists in Oct. 2011, when the Islamic State of Iraq was still part of al Qaeda’s network. Long before the group seized large areas of Iraq and Syria, Rewards for Justice offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his arrest and prosecution. It was the same amount offered for Mullah Omar, who at the time was the emir of the Taliban. The bounty for Zawahiri then was $25 million.

    Baghdadi became the head of al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq after Abu Omar al Baghdadi, his predecessor and the groups’ founder, was killed by Iraqi and US troops in April 2010. Also killed in that same raid was Abu Ayyub al Masri, the Egyptian-born “War Minister” of the Islamic State of Iraq.

    Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of The Long War Journal.

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    As fighting in the western Syrian city of Aleppo appears to be coming to an end in favor of Bashar Assad, US airstrikes against ISIS forces in the eastern part of the country have continued.

    In a November 28 strike, coalition bombers took out an ISIS fighting position near Ayn Isa, a town north of of Raqqa, the city that has become the terror group's capital. You can see a clip of the strike below.

    November 28 saw three coalition airstrikes near Ayn Isa. Four fighting positions were targeted, as well as three ISIS tactical units and a mortar system.

    While fighting has raged in Aleppo, operations against Raqqa have been stalled.

    Kurdish militants' efforts to retake Raqqa have largely bogged down, though days prior to the November 28 strike, coalition air forces wiped out an ISIS training camp near the city.

    US-led airstrikes continue to hit ISIS' oil infrastructure in Syria. A December 8 strike near the Palmyra in the center of the country destroyed 168 oil-tanker trucks belonging to the terror group, reportedly wiping out $2 million in revenue.

    You can see the full video of the November 28 strike below.

    SEE ALSO: Watch a US-led airstrike wipe out a major ISIS revenue source in the heart of Syria

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    NOW WATCH: Footage reveals ISIS' secret underground tunnels near Mosul

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    burned busses syria idlib evacuation

    Several buses en route to evacuate ill and injured people from the besieged Syrian villages of al-Foua and Kefraya were attacked and burned on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Syrian state television said.

    Some buses, as well as Red Crescent vehicles, reached the entrance to the villages in Idlib province, which are besieged by insurgents.

    The coalition of forces fighting for the government of President Bashar al-Assad are demanding people to be allowed to leave the two villages in exchange for allowing evacuations of rebels and civilians from east Aleppo.

    Syrian state media said "armed terrorists" - a term it uses for insurgent groups fighting against Assad's rule - attacked five buses and burned and destroyed them.

    Rebel officials said an angry crowd of people, possibly alongside pro-government forces, carried out the attack.

    A resident in the area told Reuters it was not carried out by the group formerly known as the Nusra Front, which had previously said it had not agreed to the evacuation of the two villages.

    Most of al-Foua and Kefraya's residents are Shi'ite Muslims.

    SEE ALSO: UN nuclear watchdog: Iran showing satisfactory commitment to nuclear deal

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    Aleppo has been almost completely destroyed as the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has fought to retake the eastern part of the city from rebels.

    The commercial capital of Syria, Aleppo was once a thriving city with Western chains, shopping centers, and beautiful mosques. But there's not much left standing anymore.

    Ahmed Juventus, an aid worker in east Aleppo who goes by a pseudonym, described the city as "a wasteland of rocks."

    "The regime did not win, the regime exterminated all of Aleppo and occupied an empty and destroyed city," he told Business Insider via voice messages on WhatsApp.

    Civilians are being evacuated from Aleppo under a ceasefire agreement, but thousands still remain. The bombing by the regime and its Russian allies has slowed, but 

    "It has gotten better only in the sense that the shelling stopped. The ceasefire did stop the shelling but the price was that we had to leave our homes. People's hearts are broken as they are now forced into exile from their place of birth and hometown."

    The difference between pre- and post-war Aleppo is stark.


    The Old City of Aleppo was known for its marketplaces.


    The city also had Western-looking malls with familiar chains.



    But the city is now in ruins. Some of its historic mosques have been severely damaged.



    One mall, which was one of the largest commercial shopping centers in Syria, was damaged in regime airstrikes.

    aleppo shopping mall


    The scale of destruction in Aleppo is stunning. But rebels have vowed to keep fighting the oppressive Assad regime.

    "Syria is now in a state of war which is wins and losses. This is Syria for now," Juventus said. "The revolution is still alive even though our future is unknown. As long as the regime continues to massacre people, we will continue."

    Aleppo Syria

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    A bus drives through the Syrian government-controlled crossing of Ramoussa, on the southern outskirts of Aleppo, on December 18, 2016, during an evacuation operation

    Beirut (AFP) - More than 1,000 people were evacuated from the last rebel-held pocket of Syria's Aleppo early on Monday after hours of delay, a medical official told AFP.

    "About 20 buses carrying people from Aleppo have arrived" at the staging ground west of the city, said Dr Ahmad Dbis, who heads a team of doctors and volunteers coordinating evacuations. 

    "There are about 1,200 to 1,300 people here," he said.

    More than 30 buses packed with people had waited overnight in freezing temperatures to leave Aleppo under a complex evacuation deal.

    Just 350 people were able to leave after Russia and Turkey urged the Syrian regime to allow five buses to pass its final control point, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. 

    The departure of the remaining buses had reportedly been delayed until hundreds of people could be evacuated from two villages in northwestern Syria under siege by the rebels.

    The Britain-based Observatory said an estimated 500 people were bussed out of Fuaa and Kafraya early on Monday. 

    "Ten buses carrying about 500 people have left Fuaa and Kafraya and are on their way to government-controlled territory in Aleppo," said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman. 

    The evacuation deal for Aleppo was brokered by regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey, and has been overseen by the International Committee for the Red Cross. 

    UN envoy Staffan de Mistura estimated that as of Thursday around 40,000 civilians and perhaps as many as 5,000 opposition fighters remained in Aleppo's rebel enclave.

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    afp seven year old syria war symbol evacuated from aleppo

    Cilvegözü (Turkey) (AFP) - Seven-year-old Bana al-Abed, whose Twitter account has offered a tragic account of the war in Syria, was evacuated from the divided Syrian city of Aleppo on Monday, a Turkish NGO announced on social media.

    "This morning @AlabedBana was also rescued from #Aleppo with her family. We warmly welcomed them," the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) wrote on its Twitter account, sharing an IHH aid worker's selfie picture with the girl.

    For her tens of thousands of followers, Bana is a symbol of the tragedy unfolding in Syria, although Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime has slammed her and her mother's nearly daily tweets as propaganda.

    Bana's account has posted pictures of the destruction in Aleppo including her rubble-littered street, while people have tweeted messages of support and concern, notably fearing for her life when tweets became less frequent.

    At least 15,000 children are among the more than 300,000 people who have been killed in Syria's five-year war.

    Tarakji Ahmad, president of Syrian American Medical Society, also posted a picture of Bana, with an aid worker.

    "@AlabedBana and many children arrived to #Aleppo countryside. @sams_usa@UOSSM and partners arr coordinating the response plan there," he tweeted, also announcing the evacuation.

    Bana's last tweet with her mother Fatemah before the evacuation made an appeal to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu for putting a fragile ceasefire back on track after frequent delays.

    "Dear @MevlutCavusoglu & @RT_Erdogan please please please make this ceasefire work & get us out now. We are so tired. - Fatemah #Aleppo."

    Responding in a tweet Monday, Cavusoglu wrote: "Difficulties on the ground won't deter us sister. Rest assured that we are doing all to get you and thousands of others to safety."

    An IHH spokesman confirmed to AFP that the young girl was among the first batch of evacuees Friday morning, and was at Rashidin region at the moment. "She is likely to be transferred to the camps in Idlib province," he said.

    The Islamic charity IHH is playing a large role in the transport of aid for Aleppo as well as the transfer of evacuated Syrians into camps in the Idlib province near the Turkish border. 

    Evacuation from the rebel-held areas of Aleppo has restarted after further delays, which put on hold the ceasefire agreement brokered by Turkey and Russia.

    Over 3,000 people -- in two convoys of around 20 vehicles -- left eastern sections of Aleppo on Monday, after around 350 people got out during the night, marking the first departures since Friday.


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    afp turkey border crossing becomes key hub in aleppo evacuation

    Cilvegözü (Turkey) (AFP) - Clogged daily by dozens of aid trucks, a Turkish border crossing has become a key hub in efforts to get help to those who have fled the devastation in the war-ravaged Syrian city of Aleppo.

    The Cilvegozu border crossing in Turkey's southern Hatay province just east of its main city Antakya is in a peaceful area, with little sign of the horror that lies just a few dozen kilometres beyond to the south.

    Already home to some three million mainly Syrian refugees, Turkey has in recent months focused efforts on looking after victims of the conflict inside Syria, rather than encouraging more to come in.

    But there is full mobilisation at the Cilvegozu crossing that faces Syria's Bab al-Hawa, with Turkish NGOs playing a key role in piling aid for desperate civilians from Aleppo evacuated to the neighbouring Idlib province.

    Every day, dozens of aid trucks from the Turkish Red Crescent and the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) charity head into Syria, not to Aleppo itself but to camps that are accommodating thousands of people just inside the border.

    The Turkish Red Crescent has so far dispatched 216 trucks and the IHH 381 trucks, all loaded with humanitarian aid, since the start of the month. 

    '80,000 person tent city'

    "I have come all the way from Konya" in central Anatolia, a truck driver told AFP while waiting his turn to cross into the buffer zone. "I am carrying food, baby diapers and clothes to be delivered for Syrians," he said.

    Turkey has also stepped up efforts to set up a huge "tent city" in Idlib province to accommodate up to 80,000 Syrian refugees fleeing Aleppo. According to Turkish officials, three possible sites have been identified in Idlib province. 

    "We are ready for any scenario," said a Turkish official. "Turkey in the past managed such humanitarian operations with success. There's no problem there."

    Syrians enter Turkey from the Turkish Cilvegozu border gate, located opposite the Syrian commercial crossing point Bab al-Hawa in Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey, September 15, 2016.While Turkey is clearly keen to ensure most Syrians stay on their side of the border, it is also setting up a smaller 1,000-person tent city -- the preferred official term rather than refugee camp -- in its border town of Reyhanli.

    This will house "disadvantaged Syrians" including the injured, the disabled and their families.

    'Demanding job'

    President Recep Tayyip Erdogan since the start of the Syrian civil war championed an "open door" policy to allow all Syrians inside the country. But in practice, access has now become much harder with Ankara preferring to see Syrians looked after inside Syria.

    One of the aims of Turkey's ongoing military incursion inside Syria is to create a "safe area" that could house Syrian refugees. Heavily injured are nonetheless being transferred into Turkish hospitals for treatment.

    Since the evacuations began last week, 131 injured Aleppo people -- 46 of them children -- have been taken to Turkey as of Monday morning, a Turkish official told AFP. Five of them have died in hospital. Funeral cars from Turkey have also been seen bringing the dead back to the Turkish border.

    A vocal critic of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, Turkey has championed itself as the broker with Russia of a ceasefire deal opening the way for civilians and rebel fighters to be evacuated from eastern sections of divided city of Aleppo in a stuttering but ongoing process.

    Turkish trucks cannot cross into Syria directly but load their humanitarian aid to Syrian trucks on the border, IHH's board member Izzet Sahin said. "This is a demanding job," Sahin told AFP at the NGO's logistics centre at Bab al-Hawa around 1 kilometre from the Turkish border.

    "The crossing of Turkish trucks into the Syrian territory is still considered a security problem," he said. On Saturday, thousands arrived in bus and car convoys from across the country under the slogan "Open Road to Aleppo" close to the border gate.

    The IHH, a pro-government Islamic charity, is playing a large role in the transport of aid for Aleppo and pressing for greater access.

    It gained international prominence in 2010 when a ship it had chartered to break the blockade in Gaza was stormed by Israeli commandos in a raid that left 10 Turks dead and caused a crisis in relations that has only just been healed. 

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    As heavy fighting continues in ISIS' last Iraqi stronghold in Mosul, the terrorist group's forces retook the ancient city of Palmyra in central Syria.

    The recapture of Palmyra comes just a few months after Syrian forces, aided by Russia and Hezbollah, took the city back from ISIS forces that captured the city in May 2015.

    The US-led coalition has also continued to target ISIS and its weaponry around the historic city. In 10 airstrikes on December 15, coalition bombers targeted 14 tanks, artillery systems, buildings, and vehicles northeast of the city along a highway. You can see a clip below.

    The tanks and other equipment destroyed in the strikes had been captured by ISIS when the group advanced on Tiyas military airfield near Palmyra, Operation Inherent Resolve officials said a release. The daylight operation involved 16 coalition aircraft, using 22 bombs or other munitions to go after 22 targets.

    Despite facing pressure in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, ISIS has reportedly be preparing for more offensive operations. The group's success in retaking Palmyra suggests that the forces of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad are overstretched and having difficulty holding territory.

    palmyra syria isis

    "Even with all the Russian and Iranian support, and all the foreign fighters that have joined their side, the regime still struggles to gain additional territory in opposition strongholds while maintaining what they already have," Noah Bonsey, the senior analyst for Syria at the International Crisis Group, told Time.

    Days after ISIS surged into Palmyra, the Syrian army began redeploying troops from the area around Aleppo, in northwestern Syria, including some units that retook the city from ISIS earlier this year.

    It was reported this week that Syrian government forces had halted ISIS' advance west of Palmyra.

    US air forces and the Russian forces assisting the Assad regime usually cover different areas of the country, with Russian aircraft typically scouring the skies over Palmyra, according to USA Today.

    The commander of the US-led coalition, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, said on Wednesday that the coalition would target ISIS near the city if Russians did not do so first.

    Syrian army soldiers stands on the ruins of the Temple of Bel in the historic city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria in this April 1, 2016 file photo. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/Files

    The US has also been critical of Russia and Syria for losing control of Palmyra and the weaponry and equipment around the ancient city, saying Moscow and Damascus have been focused on attacking Aleppo.

    "(Russia) has only had one operational gain on the ground inside of Syria against ISIL. It has had that — that gain rolled back," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

    "In fact, the threat that is posed by ISIL is now worse because of Russia's failed strategy inside of Syria, because ISIL didn't just retake Palmyra, they retook Palmyra and all of the military equipment that the Assad regime, backed by Russia, had moved in there."

    SEE ALSO: Watch a US-led airstrike obliterate an ISIS fighting position near the terror group's capital city

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    bana alabed

    A 7-year-old girl whose tweets from inside the besieged city of Aleppo opened a window into the heinous situation there has been safely evacuated from the city along with her family, activists on the ground have confirmed.

    Bana al-Abed, whose Twitter account offered a glimpse into the horrors unfolding on the ground in Syria's largest city, told Syrian journalist Hadi Alabdallah on Monday that she and her mother — who created and monitored the Twitter account — "came out of the rubble safely, thank God."

    Bana's mother, Fatemah, created the account to give a face to civilians' suffering, amid the fierce bombing campaign and ground offensive launched by pro-Assad forces that killed nearly 1,000 people before a cease-fire deal was struck last week between Russia and the opposition.

    The deal, which called for the evacuation of approximately 40,000 civilians and opposition forces from the city, was suspended Friday amid demands by Iran-backed, pro-government militias to first evacuate wounded civilians from Shiite villages around Aleppo that are being besieged by rebel fighters.

    The militias' demands were accommodated and the evacuations resumed on Sunday.

    Bana, described by The Washington Post as this era's Anne Frank, was the subject of smear campaigns by online users who claimed that neither she nor her tweets were real. Many wondered how she or her mother had internet access, or why they wrote in English so well. Others claimed they weren't in Syria at all.

    In an interview, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad suggested that her Twitter account was a "game" and "propaganda."

    But Bana's mother, who manages the account, speaks English — as many Syrians do, since many are required to learn it in primary school — and has studied journalism, the investigative news agency Bellingcat noted last week.

    Bellingcat, which uses open-source information to geographically tag tweets and photos, also debunked the theories surrounding Bana's location.

    "Examining videos posted on Periscope and Twitter from her roof, including footage in which she is clearly present, we can geolocate them to 36°12′16″N 37°11′09″E. While Bana was tweeting, this block was firmly inside rebel controlled East Aleppo," it said.

    As for electricity and internet, Bellingcat said, Bana and her family have access to electricity through solar panels installed on their roof, and WiFi and 3G coverage is still available— albeit sporadically — inside the city.

    afp seven year old syria war symbol evacuated from aleppo

    In any case, Bana told Alabdallah, the Syrian journalist, that before she left Aleppo, "I saw bombing everywhere ... we saw the fighter jets in the sky, too."

    "I am sad, really sad, because they're going to take over our land," Bana said, referring to the pro-Assad forces. "And we had to leave Aleppo. Aleppo is my land. My school is there, my home is there. But I have hope that one day I will go back to Aleppo."

    Watch Alabdallah's full interview with Bana below:

    SEE ALSO: OBAMA: 'I feel responsible' for Syria

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