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- 12/19/16--10:48: _UN Security Council...
- 12/19/16--13:35: _Putin: Assassinatio...
- 12/20/16--06:00: _Russia says it has ...
- 12/20/16--07:08: _The Syrian army is ...
- 12/20/16--11:26: _A Christmas tree li...
- 12/20/16--13:14: _Netanyahu: Israel m...
- 12/21/16--06:29: _Thousands desperate...
- 12/21/16--06:35: _The 7-year-old Syri...
- 12/21/16--08:51: _Hezbollah is using ...
- 12/21/16--09:32: _NATO's 2nd-largest ...
- 12/21/16--13:47: _Kremlin: Almost all...
- 12/21/16--15:05: _How the assassinati...
- 12/22/16--03:21: _The evacuation of A...
- 12/22/16--06:03: _The fall of Aleppo ...
- 12/22/16--10:58: _SYRIAN ARMED FORCES...
- 12/23/16--08:29: _Putin congratulates...
- 12/23/16--08:32: _'Leave the ... quag...
- 12/23/16--09:18: _Russia and Iran are...
- 12/24/16--08:30: _Here's what we thin...
- 12/25/16--00:02: _A Russian military ...
- 12/20/16--07:08: The Syrian army is poised to enter Aleppo's last rebel enclave
- 12/20/16--11:26: A Christmas tree lighting in western Aleppo was bombed
- 12/20/16--13:14: Netanyahu: Israel may treat wounded from Aleppo in its hospitals
- 12/22/16--03:21: The evacuation of Aleppo is expected to end today
- 12/22/16--06:03: The fall of Aleppo is shining a harsh light on the UN
- 12/22/16--10:58: SYRIAN ARMED FORCES: Aleppo has returned to government control
- 12/23/16--08:29: Putin congratulates Syria's Assad on retaking Aleppo from rebels
- 12/24/16--08:30: Here's what we think is going to happen in 2017
- The Tu-154 military plane disappeared from radars at 05:20 a.m. local time (02:20 GMT).
- It was carrying 92 people — including military personnel, a band, and reporters.
- It was aiming to go to the Syrian province of Latakia.
- No survivors have been reported.
The United Nations Security Council on Monday unanimously called for U.N. officials and others to observe the evacuation of people from the last rebel-held enclave in Aleppo and monitor the safety of civilians who remain in the Syrian city.
The 15-member council overcame long-held divisions - that have pitted Syrian ally Russia and China against Western powers over the Syrian conflict - to adopt a French-drafted resolution calling for U.N. officials and others "to carry out adequate, neutral monitoring and direct observation on evacuations."
The recapture of Aleppo - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's biggest victory in the nearly six-year-old war - has left thousands of people stuck in the last rebel bastion in the city's east amid accusations by the United Nations and Western powers of atrocities against civilians by pro-government forces.
U.N. Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura announced on Monday he intended to convene peace talks in Geneva on Feb. 8.
Thousands of people were evacuated from eastern Aleppo on Monday.
The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said it was hoped the presence of monitors would deter crimes against civilians as they leave Aleppo or against those who choose to stay in the city.
"Of course the Syrian government doesn't want more monitors," Power said. "If you're doing bad things you don't want monitors around to watch you doing them."
The United Nations said it has more than 100 people - mainly Syrian national staff - ready to monitor alongside officials from the International Committee for the Red Cross.
"We stand ready to scale up our presence and efforts across the entire city ... This can be done immediately, but only if the parties live up to this resolution and their most basic legal obligations," U.N. aid chief Stephen O'Brien said.
The Security Council reached consensus on a text on Sunday after several hours of negotiations. Russia had planned to veto the original French draft over concerns about sending U.N. monitors unprepared into "the ruins of eastern Aleppo," U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said.
Russia wanted U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to arrange security for U.N. monitors to enter eastern Aleppo "in coordination" with interested parties, meaning the Syrian government. The council agreed that such arrangements would be made "in consultation" with interested parties.
"We keep contact with our Syrian colleagues here all the time ... they did not raise any serious objections to what we delivered," Churkin told reporters ahead of the vote.
Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari said the adopted resolution was already "part of our continued daily efforts," but he also described it as "just another part of the continued propaganda against Syria and its fight against terrorists" - a term it uses for all groups fighting Assad.
"The last terrorists in some districts of the eastern part of Aleppo are evacuating their strongholds and Aleppo this evening will be clean," he told reporters.
Russia, which has provided military backing to Assad's troops, has vetoed six Security Council resolutions on Syria since the conflict started in 2011. China joined Moscow in vetoing five resolutions.
Monday's resolution "demands all parties to provide these monitors with safe, immediate and unimpeded access."
Unlike previous heated Security Council meetings on Syria, no members spoke in the council chamber after the vote.
Despite the government's recapture of Aleppo, the fighting in Syria is by no means over, with large tracts of the country still under the control of insurgent and Islamist groups.
A crackdown by Assad on pro-democracy protesters in 2011 led to civil war and Islamic State militants have used the chaos to seize territory in Syria and Iraq. Half of Syria's 22 million people have been uprooted and more than 400,000 killed.
President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that the killing of Russia's ambassador to Turkey was a despicable provocation aimed at spoiling Russia-Turkey ties and derailing Moscow's attempts to find, with Iran and Turkey, a solution for the Syria crisis.
In televised comments, Putin, speaking at a special meeting in the Kremlin, ordered security at Russian embassies around the world to be stepped up and said he wanted to know who had "directed" the gunman's hand.
He heaped praise on the murdered Russian ambassador, Andrei Karlov, who was shot in the back and killed as he gave a speech at an Ankara art gallery, and made clear that Moscow's response to his assassination would be robust.
"A crime has been committed and it was without doubt a provocation aimed at spoiling the normalization of Russo-Turkish relations and spoiling the Syrian peace process which is being actively pushed by Russia, Turkey, Iran and others," said a stern-faced Putin.
"There can only be one response - stepping up the fight against terrorism. The bandits will feel this happening."
Putin, who said he personally knew the slain envoy, said he had agreed in a phone call with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan that Russian investigators would soon fly to Ankara to help the Turks with the investigation.
"We must know who directed the killer's hand," Putin told Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Sergei Naryshkin, the head of his SVR foreign intelligence service, and Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the domestic FSB security service.
Putin ordered security at Turkish diplomatic facilities in Russia to be stepped up and said he wanted guarantees from Turkey about the safety of Russian diplomatic facilities.
"I also ask you to implement the agreed proposals on strengthening security at Russian diplomatic facilities abroad," Putin told the meeting.
The foreign and defense ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey are due to discuss the future of Syria in Moscow on Tuesday.
The Interfax news agency cited Leonid Slutsky, a senior parliamentarian, as saying earlier on Monday that the talks would go ahead despite the murder.
In an odd coincidence, Putin had been planning to attend a Moscow play on Monday night written by Alexander Griboyedov, Russia's ambassador to Iran, who was murdered in 1829.
Putin canceled when he heard his Turkish envoy had been murdered.
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday that Russian experts had drawn up a "Moscow Declaration" that amounted to a roadmap for ending the Syria crisis and that he hoped that Turkey and Iran could support the document.
Shoigu, speaking at meetings in Moscow with his Iranian and Turkish counterparts, said the document was aimed at achieving a ceasefire in Syria.
"All previous attempts by the United States and its partners to agree on coordinated actions were doomed to failure. None of them wielded real influence over the situation on the ground," said Shoigu.
"The approval of the declaration at the level of defense and foreign ministers implies our readiness to guarantee and jointly address concrete questions related to resolve (the crisis in) Syria."
Foreign ministers from Russia, Iran and Turkey were also meeting in Moscow on Tuesday to discuss Syria.
BEIRUT/MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Syrian army broadcast messages into the last rebel enclave of Aleppo on Tuesday, warning that it was poised to enter the area during the day and urging insurgents to speed up their evacuation of the city.
An operation to evacuate civilians and fighters from rebel-held eastern Aleppo has brought out 37,500 people since late last week and the goal is to complete the process by Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said.
But it is hard to know if that goal is realistic, given the problems that have beset the evacuation plan so far, and the wide variation in estimates of how many had left and how many still remained. The International Committee of the Red Cross put the number evacuated since Thursday at only 25,000.
A rebel official in Turkey told Reuters that even after thousands had left on Monday, only about half of the civilians who wanted to leave had done so.
The insurgents would only leave once all the civilians who wanted to go had departed, the rebel said. The ceasefire and evacuation agreement allows them to carry personal weapons but not heavier arms.
Estimates of the number of people waiting for evacuation range from a few thousand to tens of thousands.
The United Nations said Syria had authorized the world body to send 20 more staff to east Aleppo who would monitor the evacuation.
A U.N. official said 750 people had been evacuated from the two besieged government villages of Foua and Kefraya, which government forces had insisted must be included in the deal to bring people out of Aleppo.
The evacuations are part of a ceasefire arrangement that ends four years of fighting in Aleppo, once Syria's most populous city.
Conditions for those being evacuated are grim, with evacuees waiting for convoys of buses in freezing winter temperatures. An aid worker said that some evacuees had reported children had died during the long, cold wait.
In government-held parts of Aleppo, the mood was very different.
A large crowd thronged to a sports hall in the city, waving Syrian flags and dancing to patriotic music, a large portrait of President Bashar al-Assad hanging on one wall, in a celebration of the rebels' defeat in the city that was broadcast live on state television.
The rebel withdrawal from Aleppo after a series of rapid advances by the army and allied Shi'ite militias including Hezbollah since late November has brought Assad his biggest victory of the nearly six-year-old war.
However, despite the capture of Aleppo and progress against insurgents near Damascus, the fighting is far from over, with large areas remaining in rebel control in the northwestern countryside and in the far south.
The jihadist group Islamic State also controls swathes of territory in the deserts and Euphrates river basin in eastern Syria.
The foreign minister of Iran, one of Assad's main backers, said he hoped an overall ceasefire agreement could be reached for Syria.
Speaking at a meeting with the foreign ministers of Russia and Turkey in Moscow to discuss the future of Syria, Mohammad Javad Zarif said there was no military solution for the Syrian conflict, only a political one. Russia and Iran back Assad while Turkey has backed some rebel groups.
The talks, aimed at giving fresh impetus for a solution in Aleppo, went ahead despite the killing of Russia's ambassador to Ankara by a gunman on Monday.
U.N. Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura intends to convene peace talks in Geneva on Feb. 8.
Assad is backed by Russian air power and Shi'ite militias including Lebanon's Hezbollah movement and Iraq's Harakat al-Nujaba. The mostly Sunni rebels include groups supported by Turkey, the United States and Gulf monarchies.
For four years, the city was split between a rebel-held eastern sector and the government-held western districts. During the summer, the army and its allies besieged the rebel sector before using intense bombardment and ground assaults to retake it in recent months.
(Reporting by Angus McDowall, Humeyra Pamuk, Stephanie Nebehay, writing by Giles Elgood, editing by Peter Millership)
Syrian TV says a bomb has gone off in western Aleppo where dozens of people were gathered for a Christmas tree-lighting event.
No injuries were reported from Tuesday's bomb, which went off near Azizieh square in government-controlled western Aleppo.
A reporter for the channel said celebrations resumed a few minutes after the bomb went off. Dozens of Syrians were seen dancing and waving Syrian flags and red balloons to blaring music as they rallied around a giant tree decorated with Christmas lights.
Huge posters of President Bashar Assad and the leaders of Russia and Hezbollah were put up.
The celebration in western Aleppo was taking place on the same day as the evacuation of the last rebels and residents of the former rebel-held enclave in eastern Aleppo was taking place.
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that Israel was looking into the possibility of bringing wounded refugees from the Syrian city of Aleppo to Israeli hospitals for treatment.
Many wounded in Syria's civil war have been brought discreetly across the Israeli-occupied Golan frontline to Israeli hospitals for the past three years, although Israel and its northern neighbor are formally in a state of war.
"We're prepared to take in wounded women and children, and also men if they are not combatants ... bring them to Israel, take care of them in our hospitals, as we've done with thousands of Syrian civilians," Netanyahu said at a meeting with foreign reporters in Jerusalem.
"I've asked the foreign ministry to seek ways to expand our medical assistance to the civilian casualties of the Syrian tragedy, specifically in Aleppo," he said.
In Syria, an operation to evacuate civilians and fighters from rebel-held eastern Aleppo has now brought out 37,500 people since late last week, Turkey said. The people are brought to opposition-controlled areas and should then choose where to go.
The International Committee of the Red Cross put the number evacuated since the operation began on Thursday at only 25,000.
The evacuations are part of a ceasefire arrangement that ends fighting in Aleppo, once Syria's most populous city.
(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Tom Heneghan)
BEIRUT (Reuters) - A convoy of 60 buses carrying people desperate to leave the last rebel-held enclave of Aleppo was held up in freezing temperatures on Wednesday when an evacuation deal hit a last-minute hitch.
The eventual departure of the thousands left in the insurgent zone will hand full control of the city to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the biggest prize of the nearly six-year-old civil war.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, said the bus convoy entered the last besieged pocket of the city on Tuesday in harsh weather conditions and some were loaded with people, but they had not moved since.
Eight buses en route to Aleppo from the pro-government villages of Foua and Kefraya had also been held up since Tuesday, the Observatory said. Government forces had insisted the two villages, besieged by rebels in Idlib, must be included in the deal to bring people out of east Aleppo.
State television, broadcasting live from near the Aleppo departure zone, said the rebels had presented new conditions with the aim of obstructing the evacuation deal. Rebels said the government was to blame for hindering the evacuations.
So far, about 25,000 people have been evacuated from Aleppo, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is helping with the process. A U.N. official said 750 people had so far been evacuated from Foua and Kefraya.
Behind those leaving Aleppo's rebel zone was a wasteland of flattened buildings, concrete rubble and bullet-pocked walls, where tens of thousands lived until recent days under intense bombardment even after medical and rescue services had collapsed.
Rebel-held parts of the once-flourishing economic center with its renowned ancient sites has been pulverized during the war which has killed more than 300,000 people, created the world's worst refugee crisis and allowed for the rise of Islamic State.
But in the much larger western part of the city, held throughout the war by the government, there were big street parties on Tuesday night, along with the lighting of a Christmas tree, as residents celebrated the end of fighting.
The Syrian army has used loudspeakers to broadcast warnings to rebels that it was about to enter their rapidly diminishing area and told them to speed up their evacuation.
Control of Aleppo would be a major victory for Assad, and his main allies Iran and Russia, against rebels who have defied him in Syria's most populous city for four years.
UN monitors evacuation
The United Nations had said it had sent 20 more staff to east Aleppo to monitor the evacuation.
"Some have arrived yesterday (Tuesday) and more will be arriving today and in the coming days," Jens Laerke, U.N. spokesman in Geneva told Reuters.
Both combatants blamed the other side for the delay.
Ahmad al-Dbis, a medical aid worker heading a team evacuating patients from Aleppo, also said the east Aleppo convoys had been due to head earlier towards the rebel-held countryside.
"People are waiting in the buses, and the buses are not heated, and it's very cold," he added. "Many of the evacuees told us they had been stopped for more than 20 hours in the cold and snow."
Various problems have beset the evacuation, with estimates of how many have left and how many remain varying widely.
The Observatory said nearly 3,000 people still remain in the east Aleppo enclave, including mostly rebels and some civilians.
Assad's government is backed by Russian air power and Shi'ite militias including Lebanon's Hezbollah movement and Iraq's Harakat al-Nujaba. The mostly Sunni rebels include groups supported by Turkey, the United States and Gulf monarchies.
For four years, the city was split between a rebel-held eastern sector and the government-held western districts. During the summer, the army and allies forces besieged the rebel sector before using intense bombardment and ground assaults to retake it in recent months.
Russian air strikes were the most important factor in Assad's triumph. They enabled his forces to press the siege of eastern Aleppo to devastating effect and regain control of what was Syria's biggest city and economic hub before the war.
On the ground, Shi'ite militias from as far afield as Afghanistan played an important role for Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect which is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
Victory in Aleppo leaves Assad virtually unassailable by the rebels but he still faces great challenges in restoring the power of his state. While he controls the most important cities in western Syria and the coast, armed groups including Islamic State control swathes of territory elsewhere in Syria.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis Stephanie Nebehay; Writing by Angus McDowall and Peter Millership; Editing by Giles Elgood)
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A seven-year-old Syrian girl who drew global attention with her Twitter updates from besieged Aleppo met Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan at his palace in Ankara on Wednesday.
Photographs released on Erdogan's official Twitter account showed the president hugging Bana Alabed as she sat on his lap.
Bana and her mother Fatemah were evacuated safely along with 25,000 other people from the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo this week. Turkey has supported rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"I was pleased to host @AlabedBana and her family at the Presidential Complex today. Turkey will always stand with the people of Syria," Erdogan said on his official Twitter account.
Helped by her mother, who manages the @AlabedBana account, Bana Alabed has uploaded pictures and videos of life during the nearly six-year-old Syrian war, gaining around 352,000 followers on the micro-blogging site since September.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said when Bana and her mother were evacuated from Aleppo that she would be brought to Turkey with her family.
The eventual departure of thousands left in Aleppo's insurgent zone will hand full control of the city to Assad, the biggest prize of the nearly six-year-old civil war.
(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by David Dolan and Mark Heinrich)
TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Israel has informed the United States that Lebanese Hezbollah fighters in Syria are using U.S. armored personnel carriers originally supplied to the Lebanese Army, a senior Israeli military officer said on Wednesday.
The U.S. State Department said last month that the American embassy in Beirut was working to investigate images on social media purporting to show Hezbollah, which supports President Bashar al-Assad, displaying U.S. military equipment in Syria.
Those images were widely reported to have been of U.S.-made M113 armored personnel carriers, which the State Department said were extremely common in the region.
In an intelligence briefing to foreign reporters in Tel Aviv, the senior officer showed a photograph of military vehicles, which he said included U.S.-made armored personnel carriers (APCs), along a road.
"These APCs are of the Hezbollah, while fighting in Syria, that they took from the Lebanese armed forces," he said in English, describing the guerrilla group as dominant in Lebanon.
"We shared this information with other countries, including the U.S. of course, and I can even say that we recognized these specific APCs with some specific parameters that we know ... these were given to the Lebanese armed forces. It's not an assumption," said the officer, who under the rules of the briefing could not be identified by name, rank or position.
Western diplomatic sources have said the APCs were delivered to the Lebanese Army by the United States as part of a program to equip that force.
The officer made no comment about when the APCs would have been supplied to the Lebanese Army.
The officer said Hezbollah has 8,000 fighters in Syria where more than 1,700 of the group's combatants have been killed since 2011.
Israel and Hezbollah, which the officer said has 30,000 members, half of them combatants, last fought a war in 2006.
(By Ori Lewis; editing by Jeffrey Heller)
The US was not invited to a meeting held Tuesday in Moscow between Turkish, Russian, and Iranian officials aimed at solving the crisis in Syria — and it's not the first time Washington has been left out in the cold.
The US was also shut out of negotiations between Russian officials and Syrian rebel factions hosted by Turkish officials in Ankara earlier this month. Those talks ultimately led to a fragile cease-fire and evacuation deal in Syria's largest city, Aleppo, where fighting intensified in recent weeks.
Though the two countries are on opposite sides of the war in Syria — with Turkey supporting the opposition and Russia supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad — Turkish officials reportedly signed a Russian proposal to end the conflict, titled the "Moscow Declaration," during their meeting in the Russian capital on Tuesday.
"This is Turkey bending to Russia," Aaron Stein, an expert on Turkey and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told The New York Times on Wednesday. "This is putting a fine point on Turkey's policy of 'Assad must go' no longer being the policy."
The Turkish-Russian rapprochement — which has been ongoing since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan apologized to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, for Turkey's shooting down a Russian warplane in November 2015 — is likely to continue after the assassination of Russia's ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, in Ankara on Monday.
Statements released by Russian and Turkish officials in the aftermath of Karlov's death suggested the countries were determined not to let the incident derail their renewed friendship, while Erdogan and Putin said the assassination had only strengthened their resolve to jointly fight terrorism.
Officials and lawmakers in both countries, meanwhile, have implied that the US may have played a role in Karlov's assassination, an insinuation the US State Department has vehemently denied.
In any case, analysts say, those declarations both explain and foreshadow the countries' increasing coordination in the Middle East — and their evolving hostility toward the US.
At this point, "Moscow has almost everything it wants from Ankara in Syria,"said Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Including Turkish acquiescence to Aleppo's fall."
Forces backing Assad, including Iranian-led Shia militias and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, recently took back the rebels' last enclave in eastern Aleppo amid heavy airstrikes from Russian and Syrian warplanes.
Turkey has long been staunchly opposed to Assad but has softened its calls for him to step down, and deprioritized its support for the Syrian opposition, amid its rapprochement with Russia and fears that an autonomous Kurdish zone will be established along the Turkish-Syrian border.
Given Turkey's dependence on Russian energy and tourism, moreover — and the current tensions between Turkey and the West over its poor human-rights record and censorship of the press following an attempted coup in July — it is in Ankara's interests to maintain the pace of its diplomacy with Moscow.
"I don't think we should be surprised to see Turkey moving closer to Russia given the more immediate benefits that Russia can deliver," Michael Koplow, a Middle East analyst at the Israel Policy Forum, said in early October.
'It's just a free-for-all'
As the Turkish-Russian relationship gets stronger, US-Russian relations have reached their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. The State Department formally cut off its bilateral channels with Russia over what it called "war crimes" in Syria in early October, and President Barack Obama has threatened to retaliate against Moscow for a hacking campaign during the presidential campaign that US intelligence agencies believe was designed to help President-elect Donald Trump.
Reuters reported on Wednesday, citing the Russian news agency RIA Novosti, that nearly all communication channels between the US and Russia had been frozen. But the State Department denied that there had been a break in dialogue.
"It's difficult to know exactly what is meant by this comment, but diplomatic engagement with Russia continues across a wide range of issues," State Department spokesman John Kirby told Business Insider.
"That we have significant differences with Moscow on some of these issues is well known, but there hasn't been a break in dialogue," he added. "Indeed, as we noted, Secretary Kerry spoke by phone with Foreign Minister Lavrov just yesterday about the situation in Syria."
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has continued to meet and speak regularly with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, about Syria since the State Department formally suspended negotiations with Russia over Syria in October. But the US has not been present at the two most consequential Syria meetings held in the past month in the Turkish and Russian capitals.
Russia has been quick to take advantage of the tensions between Turkey and the West.
"Russia understands that nobody gives you anything, you just have to take it, and in this environment, with the US retreating faster than the other side can advance, it's just a free-for-all," Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The New York Times.
"When the Turks, the Iranians, and the Russians all agree on a process without the US being in the room," he added, "you realize there is a problem for us."
The Kremlin said on Wednesday almost all communications channels between Russia and the United States have been frozen but the U.S. State Department disputed the statement.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia did not expect the incoming U.S. administration to quickly reject enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and that almost all communication with the United States had ceased, according to Russia's RIA news agency.
There are fears among allies that U.S. President-elect Donald Trump could withdraw funding for NATO at a time of heightened tensions with Moscow. Russia has said it would take countermeasures in response to any expansion of the 28-member military alliance.
"Almost every level of dialogue with the United States is frozen," RIA quoted Peskov as saying. "We don't communicate with one another, or (if we do) we do so minimally."
Peskov's reported comments came as tensions between Moscow and Washington are growing, a month before U.S. President Barack Obama hands over power to Trump, who has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin.
State Department spokesman John Kirby quickly rejected Peskov's statement.
"It's difficult to know exactly what is meant by this comment, but diplomatic engagement with Russia continues across a wide range of issues," Kirby said in an emailed statement. "That we have significant differences with Moscow on some of these issues is well known, but there hasn't been a break in dialogue."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by phone on Tuesday regarding the situation in Syria, Kirby said.
Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed in recent talks find a solution to the Syrian crisis. While the United States had been excluded from those talks, communications with Moscow on ending the war continued, Kirby told his daily briefing later on Wednesday.
"We weren't in the meeting in Moscow, but it's not as if we haven't had communication with them before and then right after that meeting," Kirby told reporters, adding that the United States was in touch with Moscow on concerns over Ukraine's conflict.
Pressed on what Peskov could have meant, Kirby added: "I think you should ask Mr. Peskov what he means by his comments. From our perspective there is no break in the dialogue."
Separately, the Pentagon said in a statement it had held a video conference with counterparts from the Russian defense ministry to ensure the two sides' air operations do not come into conflict with each other in Syria. Such discussions with Russia are held regularly as U.S. warplanes conduct daily air strikes against Islamic State in Syria.
RIA, citing an interview it said Peskov gave to Russia's Mir TV station, quoted him as saying he did not know whether President Vladimir Putin would seek re-election in 2018.
"Everyone's heads are aching because of work and with projects and nobody is thinking or talking about elections," Peskov said.
Most Kremlin-watchers expect Putin to run for the presidency again.
(Reporting by Peter Hobson in Moscow and Yeganeh Torbati and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Richard Chang)
The latest victim of Turkey’s climate of insecurity is Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey.
Karlov was assassinated Dec. 19 by a 22-year-old police officer. Disguised as a security guard in a black suit, the gunman stood behind Karlov as the ambassador was speaking in an art gallery just yards from the U.S. embassy.
“Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria!” he shouted as he pulled the trigger.
Karlov’s death will have consequences reaching far beyond Ankara.
Following the terrorist attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport in June 2016, I explained Turkey’s foreign policy sins and argued that Turkey’s row with Russia over Syria was one of them.
Let’s consider what the ambassador’s assassination could mean for ongoing efforts by Turkey and Russia to repair that strained relationship.
What happens in Syria
To understand the latest tensions between Turkey and Russia, look to war-torn Syria, where the two countries have clashed.
Since the start of the Syrian unrest in 2011, Turkey has supported a gamut of rebel elements ranging from the Free Syrian Army to Jabhat al-Nusra to – allegedly – the Islamic State to topple Bashar al-Assad. At that time, the Syrian president was on good terms with then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Their relations soured when Assad began to brutally repress civilian demonstrators inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings elsewhere.
Russia, on the other hand, still supports the Assad regime. So do Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah. The conflict is a sectarian clash, but it is also an opportunity for regional powerhouse Russia to assert control. With the help of Iran, Syria and the lack of a U.S. presence, Russia is exploiting the power vacuum in the neighborhood.
When Turkey downed a Russian warplane near the Syrian border in November 2015, it was not only an attempt to make space for the rebels on the ground but also a show of force to undercut Russian influence in Turkey’s backyard.
Predictably, Turkey’s belligerence backfired. Imposing bans on trade and tourism, Putin delivered a powerful punch to Turkey’s economy. Paralyzed in Syria and constrained by the economic situation at home, President Erdogan formally apologized to the Russian leader in June.
The thawing of the crisis continued in July. When factions in the Turkish military staged a coup to remove Erdogan, the Russian leader was the first to condemn the failed takeover attempt and stand beside his counterpart. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Europe were urging restraint and respect for the rights of those involved in the coup attempt. Not the best way to support Turkish democracy, Erdogan scolded. Putin did not have to lift a finger to pull Turkey closer.
The apology also cleared the way for Turkey’s ground offensive, Operation Euphrates Shield, which began in August. The operation has removed IS from Turkey’s border region with Syria. It also seeks to stop the Syrian Kurds from expanding their presence in northern Syria, where Turkey’s security interests lie.
Russia’s shadow on the operation remains undeniable, however. Erdogan said on Nov. 29 that Turkey entered Syria to “end Assad’s rule.” He revised his remarks two days later, stressing that “the aim of the Euphrates Shield operation is against terror, not against anyone or any country.” Reports suggest that it was the Kremlin’s reaction that caused the change in rhetoric.
Russia continues to tip the balance in favor of Assad. Aleppo, which was once Syria’s biggest city, has long been a haven for the rebels. The ongoing battle for the city took a new turn in November when the Russian-backed Syrian offensive began to purge the rebel forces. Turkey, a long-time supporter of the rebels, is currently part of a triad with Russia and Iran to bring the conflict to an end. Yet its role is currently limited to assisting efforts to evacuate civilians and rebels from the devastated city.
The gunman’s final words before he was shot on the scene suggest he was outraged by this Russian devastation in Syria. We may never know if he was a lone wolf influenced by the recent public outcry in Turkey regarding the carnage in Aleppo.
Andrey Karlov’s death is more than a glaring display of Turkey’s incapacitated security and intelligence apparatus. It is a diplomatic fiasco that the Russian administration will make sure to milk to the fullest. This does not mean that Putin will publicly shame and denigrate Turkey. Rather, Russia will use this fiasco to diminish Turkey’s influence in Syria, especially in the context of post-war transition. For all intents and purposes, the sun has set on Turkey’s Syria policy.
Both leaders agree that this was an act of “provocation” by forces upset about their warm relationship. Whether words are as powerful as deeds is yet to be seen.
Russia has already sent a group to Turkey to investigate Karlov’s assassination. Turkey suspects that the assailant was a Gulenist – a follower of the U.S.-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who is also believed to have orchestrated the July coup. Incidentally, Turkey has also claimed since July that it was a Gulenist officer who downed the Russian jet in November 2015.
Russia could not care less who’s who. Turkey, on the other hand, does.
If the Turkish investigation concludes that the assailant had ties to Gulen, this would be the government’s golden ticket. Since the July coup, Turkish officials have been asking the U.S. to extradite the cleric. Finding a link between Gulen and the gunman could provide Turkey with the much-needed impetus to make it happen. Considering the Putin-friendly actors in the incoming Trump administration like secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, we might be closer to seeing Gulen on an Ankara-bound flight than we have ever been.
Aleppo (Syria) (AFP) - Evacuations from rebel-held parts of Aleppo continued overnight with dozens of vehicles leaving the city and the operation likely to end on Thursday, aid workers said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is assisting in the evacuation, said dozens more buses and smaller vehicles were expected to carry rebel fighters and civilians out of the city on Thursday.
"We expect today to be the last convoys, the operation will continue all day long and during the night. If it goes smoothly the evacuation will end tonight," said Ingy Sedky, the ICRC's spokeswoman in Syria.
Around 30,000 people have left the one-time opposition stronghold of east Aleppo since Thursday, including all of the wounded and sick in critical condition, according to the ICRC.
Ahmad al-Dbis, who heads a team of doctors and volunteers coordinating evacuations, said some 400 vehicles, including trucks and cars, had arrived overnight in Khan al-Assal, the staging ground where evacuees from Aleppo arrive after leaving the city.
From there, most have headed for territory to the west of the city still under the control of Syrian rebels, who are suffering their biggest defeat in more than five years of civil war after agreeing to withdraw from Aleppo.
President Bashar al-Assad's government is waiting for the end of the evacuations so it can declare the completion of the offensive to recapture the one-time rebel stronghold.
United Nations (United States) (AFP) - The warning from the UN envoy could not have been starker: Pounded by a near-daily barrage of air strikes, Aleppo would be totally destroyed by Christmas unless the United Nations stopped the carnage.
During the weeks that followed Staffan de Mistura's distress call in early October, there was a global outcry as Syrian forces, backed by Russia, tightened their grip on the city, but little action at the United Nations.
Two Russian vetos at the Security Council blocked attempts to halt the bombing and spare civilians as UN statements professing that there can be no military solution to the devastating five-year war rang hollow.
With the fall of Aleppo, the world body founded on the post-World War II promise of "Never Again" is once again facing questions about its ability to confront conflicts.
"The fall of Aleppo is the single greatest crisis for the UN since the Iraq war," says Richard Gowan, a UN expert at the European Council on Foreign Affairs.
"It has created an enormous crisis of trust in the Security Council."
Diplomats point the finger of blame at Russia, accused of providing diplomatic cover while its Syrian ally waged an all-out assault on Aleppo.
But there are also recriminations against Western powers, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the broader UN system that has been unable to bring humanitarian aid to one million Syrians under siege.
Alarmed by UN reports that Syrian militias had executed dozens of civilians in east Aleppo, France, Britain and the United States called for observers to be dispatched to monitor the situation on the ground.
It took four days for the council to finally adopt a resolution on deploying UN observers and two days later, the teams had yet to set foot in the eastern districts of Aleppo.
Amnesty International lamented that "this important measure has come far too late", and warned: "The world is watching how the UN responds to the plight of Aleppo."
Ban, who steps down next week after 10 years as UN chief, has defended the world body's handling of the Syria crisis even though the war escalated under this watch.
In a recent interview with AFP, Ban said divisions among world powers, regional players and among Syrians themselves had created a "perfect storm" that allowed the war to rage on, killing more than 310,000 people.
"If there is any criticism, I am ready to accept this," he said. "But sometimes, a situation just develops beyond my control, beyond the control of the United Nations."
Ban has appointed three envoys to lead UN efforts to end the war, with De Mistura taking up the mission in July 2014 after former secretary-general Kofi Annan quit as did his predecessor, veteran diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi.
No sanctions, no justice
After nearly six years of conflict, there is no international investigation under way of war crimes in Syria after Russia, backed by China, used its veto in 2014 to block a request to the International Criminal Court.
Contrary to other conflicts such as South Sudan and Yemen, no UN sanctions have been imposed on those deemed responsible for the bloodshed.
Next week, France and Britain are to present a draft resolution demanding sanctions for chemical weapons use in Syria, but Russia will undoubtedly again veto the measure.
That would be the seventh Russian veto since the conflict began in 2011.
"The Syrian crisis has profoundly damaged the UN's reputation across the Arab world," said Gowan. "Many Sunni Arab governments view the Security Council as a Russian tool."
Russia fiercely defends its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Ambassador Vitaly Churkin has remarked that were it not for Moscow's military intervention, "the black flags" of the Islamic State group "would be flying over Damascus."
Antonio Guterres, who will succeed Ban on January 1, will inherit the UN failure in Syria.
The former UN refugee chief and Portuguese prime minister has said it was high time to "stop the nonsense" in Syria, though he will have to contend with the new US administration of President-elect Donald Trump.
For many diplomats, Aleppo joins Rwanda and Srebrenica on the list of UN failures, marking another low in the world body's 71-year history.
The "comparisons between Aleppo, Rwanda and Srebrenica tell you everything about the magnitude of the current catastrophe," says Martin Edwards, professor of diplomacy at Seton Hall University.
"There is nowhere to go but up."
A statement by the Syrian armed forces says the northern city of Aleppo has returned to government control, ending a four-year rebel hold over parts of the city.
The statement broadcast on Syrian TV said the army has re-established "security" in the northern city after the last rebels evacuated from their final toe-hold in the eastern parts of the city.
The Syrian government's recapture of Aleppo is a major turning point in the Syrian civil war with potentially powerful political repercussions.
It represents a momentous victory for President Bashar Assad and a crushing defeat for Syria's opposition which will struggle to forge a way forward.
The ancient city has been divided into rebel and government parts since 2012.
SEE ALSO: This is what Aleppo is
MOSCOW, Dec 23 (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on retaking Aleppo during a phone call on Friday, the Kremlin said in a statement.
Putin told Assad that the focus now should be on trying to get an agreement to resolve the Syria crisis, the Kremlin said. (Reporting by Polina Devitt; Editing by Andrew Osborn)
Paris (AFP) — The Syrian regime's all-out offensive to recapture Aleppo enabled the Islamic State group to regain territory elsewhere, including the historic city of Palmyra, and has dimmed prospects of defeating the jihadists, experts say.
"The resources deployed (by Damascus and its allies) to retake Aleppo have allowed IS to claim a series of opportunistic victories" in Syria, said Charles Lister of the US think-tank Middle East Institute.
During the assault by Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces on rebels in eastern Aleppo, IS jihadists recaptured the historic city of Palmyra on December 11 after losing it in March.
"Russia and Syria prioritised the defeat of the opposition in Aleppo city over the defence of Palmyra from IS, ultimately enhancing the threat posed by Salafi-jihadist groups in both northern and eastern Syria," Jonathan Mautner of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) wrote on the Washington-based think-tank's blog.
He said the recapture of Palmyra highlighted "the inability of pro-regime forces to establish security across the entire country without sustained support from Russia and Iran, notwithstanding their recent success in Aleppo city."
IS 'the big winner'
IS "appears the big winner from the fall of Aleppo," said Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor at the Paris School of International Affairs.
Not only did the group recapture Palmyra, its propaganda benefitted from "international passivity in the face of Aleppo's suffering," which encouraged the group's followers to launch attacks one after the other in Jordan and Germany, he said.
A shooting rampage in the Jordanian city of Karak left 10 dead on Sunday, the day before 12 people were killed in the truck attack on a Christmas market in Berlin. The main suspect, Anis Amri, was shot dead in Italy on Friday.
Still, IS controls only half the territory it seized in 2014 in Iraq and Syria, with its heaviest defeats coming this year at the hands of coalition forces.
In northern Syria, IS lost Kobane and Minbej, as well as Dabiq, a town of major symbolic importance to the jihadists because according to a Sunni prophecy, it will be the site of an apocalyptic battle between Muslim and Christian armies.
Al-Bab, its stronghold north of Aleppo, is under attack by Turkey, which launched an offensive four months ago to chase IS from its southern border.
But the jihadists still control Raqa, the Syrian capital of their self-proclaimed "caliphate." They also control the banks of the Euphrates river all the way to the border with Iraq.
After the battle of Aleppo, "there is a de-facto division of Syria in two, with the Russians in the west and the Americans in the east," a European diplomat said.
Moscow is expected to continue supporting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to recapture territory from the Syrian rebels, while Washington continues its fight against IS.
"The Russians want to recapture 'useful' Syria and leave the 'IS-land' quagmire to the West," the diplomat said.
On December 14, US Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, who commands the air campaign of the anti-IS coalition, said that if the Russians do not try to retake Palmyra, the US-led coalition would "do what we need to do".
Raqa remains a challenge
But the main challenge remains the recapture of Raqa, the base from which IS has planned attacks in Europe and Arab countries.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an Arab-Kurdish alliance backed by US ground and air forces, launched an offensive to retake Raqa in early November.
The Kurds' leading role has set alarm bells ringing in Ankara, which considers the main Syrian Kurdish YPG militia a "terrorist" group. Turkey is currently waging its own offensive inside Syria, targeting both IS and the Kurds.
Turkey worries that the SDF offensive against Raqa could allow it to put down roots in the city.
Meanwhile, with Moscow "indifferent to the fate of Raqa and the United States bogged down in the battle of Mosul"— the main IS stronghold in Iraq — Turkey could be emboldened to step up its intervention in Syria, Filiu said.
Critics pounced on President George W. Bush when he described Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and North Korea as part of an “Axis of Evil” almost 15 years ago. After all, they said, there was no evidence that the three countries worked together, so how could they be an axis?
Put aside the fact that Pyongyang and Tehran have long relations, especially on issues relating to their ballistic missile programs and perhaps nuclear work, as well. Increasingly, there it appears a real axis is developing between Russia and Iran.
Last summer, I wrote a history of Russia-Iran relations for the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth. While the relations are their warmest in perhaps 500 years, everyday Iranians remain deeply skeptical of their leaders’ apparent trust in the Kremlin. (A little-known fact is that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei studied in the Soviet Union as a young student in the 1960s).
That skepticism is not stopping the development of military ties. Russian and Iranian Special Forces trained and competed together this summer in Russia’s military Olympics. Then, there were reports that Russian jets used an Iranian air base to strike at Syria, the first time in modern history that Iran willingly allowed a foreign military power use of one of its bases. When word of that leaked, the Iranian leadership may have realized that it was a bridge too far for ordinary Iranians.
Now, however, both Russia and Iran have moved to Plan B. Despite President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s repeated declarations that Russia had withdrawn its forces from Syria, the fact of the matter is that Russia kept the air base it built in Syria after its initial deployment.
Now, it seems that both Russia and Iran are using that base. Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (the post President Hassan Rouhani held between 1988 and 2005), announced that Iran and Russia share a military base “where Iran conducts its advisory mission to help the Syrian army and [pro-regime] resistance forces with Russia’s assistance.” He added that Iran and Russia “work together to design the military aspect of the counter-terrorism fight…”
Mohsen Rezaei, head of the Expediency Council, today declared that Iran’s goal to strengthen the Russia-Iran-Turkey alliance.
Axes do not appear overnight, and it is only through willful blindness that they surprise. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were blind, however. They never understood that Russian support for the Iran nuclear deal had far less to do with Kerry’s skill as a diplomat and more with the fulfillment of Russian grand strategy to strengthen itself and Iran relative to the United States.
That both countries share an airbase in Syria—and Turkey may not be far behind—may be the true legacy of Obama’s Middle East policy and Kerry’s misplaced trust as well as the greatest challenge the United States will face as President-elect Donald Trump takes office.
As 2016 comes to an end, the tumult of the past year shows the truly unpredictable state of world affairs.
Brexit in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US showed the inherent failures of relying too heavily on public polling, while the scope and ability of ISIS attacks worldwide served as a crude wake-up call to the group's deadly reach, even as it loses ground in the Middle East.
But even as 2016 proved to be a year full of surprises, several of the predictions from Business Insider's Military & Defense team for what the year held proved to be accurate: The South China Sea has only become more militarized, the leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo has extended his rule beyond constitutional limits, and the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey has gone off the rails.
Here are 11 big geopolitical events that we think will come to pass in 2017.
Paul Szoldra's predictions: North Korea will present one of the first tests for a Trump White House.
The Hermit Kingdom has always been a wild card on the national security stage. While most experts can make predictions as to what countries would do in certain situations, the only prediction one can really ascribe to North Korea’s leadership is bluster and chest-thumping.
Whether its joint military training exercises with the US and South Korea militaries or US Navy ships being seen too close to North Korean shores, Pyongyang often has a response, and it’s usually not good.
One example that comes to mind is North Korea’s shelling of a South Korean island in 2010. Would President Trump be a hardliner toward the North, possibly increasing tensions? With Kim Jong-un inching closer to having a viable offensive nuclear weapons program, those tensions may come sooner rather than later.
Russia will make more provocative moves against Baltic states to see how Trump and the world respond.
Russia has been emboldened by its moves into Ukraine, especially when it was able to infiltrate and eventually annex Crimea — with little recourse from the international community.
Moscow’s top government hackers conducted a major cyberattack against the US electoral process, and though it was called out in public by the Obama administration, Russia’s denial of hacking brings to mind its initial denials of taking over Crimea. Only after a large portion of the world comes out against Moscow does Russia finally say, yeah, you caught us.
We expect more of Moscow’s meddling in other’s affairs, especially in the Baltic states. Russia moved nuclear-capable missiles very close to Poland and Lithuania in October. NATO has responded by putting troops and tanks in Baltic states.
Will this Cold War-like buildup continue? That’s very likely. And with President Trump in charge, it will be interesting to see whether Moscow gets the pushback it has seen in the past — or whether it encounters a new, conciliatory tack.
The Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa will be directly attacked by a large-scale ground assault.
ISIS’ power is on the trend downward, and that’s going to continue into 2017. The US and Iraq finally have their act together when it comes to confronting the terrorist group within Iraq’s borders. Although efforts to rout the group from Mosul are going slowly, it’s likely that the city will be back in the hands of the Iraqi army by early next year.
US military leaders say it could be another two to four months of tough fighting before Mosul is secured. After Mosul, it can be expected that ISIS will try to hold out in remaining Iraqi cities before most fighters fall back to its Syrian capital.
That’ll mean a much, much tougher fight once Raqqa comes under assault, but we think an attack in 2017 is likely, especially if Mosul falls and Syria’s government forces take more control back from rebels.
In the past, Syrian government forces have basically ignored ISIS and its Raqqa stronghold. If the war looks to be coming to a close against the anti-government rebels, it’s likely that Damascus will then go after ISIS — which could mean a very awkward coalition emerges between the governments of Syria, Russia, Iran, and the United States.
See the rest of the story at Business Insider
A Russian military Tu-154 plane has crashed into the Black Sea, confirmed Russia's defence ministry.
"Fragments of the Tu-154 plane of the Russian defence ministry were found 1.5km (one mile) from the Black Sea coast of the city of Sochi at a depth of 50 to 70 metres," said the statement.
Defence ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov added that the "body of a person killed as a result the crash ... was found 6km off the coast of Sochi."
The Interfax news agency, citing local rescuers, said no survivors have been found.
The military aircraft, which was carrying service personnel as well as members of the famous Alexandrov Ensemble military band as well as journalists, disappeared from a radar 20 minutes after taking off from Adler airport in Sochi for refuelling at refuelling 05:20 a.m. local time (02:20 GMT).
The plane originated from Moscow, Russia and its final destination was intended to be for the Syrian province of Latakia where Russian troops are stationed to carry out air strikes in support of Syrian government forces.
Those Syrian government forces are currently battling rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The passengers were mostly made up of the Alexandrov Ensemble band and only eight crew members because they were going to Syria to perform on New Year's Eve for Russian troops that are deployed at Russia's Hmeimim air base, near Latakia.
Nine journalists, eight soldiers, one NGO member, and two civil servants were also on board the flight.
The Russian defence ministry said that an investigation has been launched to determine whether any violations of air transport safety regulations had taken place because flying conditions were reported as favourable.
The Tu-154 aircraft is a staple for the Russian military. It is the work horse of the Soviet and Russian airlines. They were modernised in 1986 with new engines and equipment, the aircraft has seen 39 fatal accidents. Very few of the accidents were down to technical problems and instead due to weather conditions and poor air traffic control.
However, in 2001, a Russian Tu-154 aircraft was shot down over the Black Sea killing 78 people. The Ukrainian military initially denied involvement before admitting that the plane could have accidentally shot down in a military exercise.