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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    Erdogan

    Istanbul (AFP) - The Turkish army on Monday accused Islamic State (IS) jihadists of killing at least 30 civilians seeking to flee the flashpoint Syrian town of Al-Bab which Ankara and its rebel allies have been seeking to capture for weeks.

    The army said that the civilians were killed with mines and homemade bombs as they tried to make their way out of Al-Bab, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported, without giving further details.

    Turkish forces and allied Syrian rebels have been seeking to take Al-Bab as a key part of un unprecedented four month campaign that began in late August.

    But they have been facing tough opposition from the jihadists and suffered the highest casualties of the campaign so far in the fight for the town.

    Turkey at the weekend deployed more tanks and artillery to the border and also as sent 500 elite commandos to Al-Bab in readiness for a final fight for the town, reports said.

    Thirty-six Turkish soldiers have died so far in the operation -- dubbed Euphrates Shield -- after another wounded soldier lost his life in hospital in Turkey overnight, reports said.

    Sixteen Turkish soldiers were killed by IS in the battle for the town on Wednesday -- Ankara's biggest loss so far since it launched its incursion.

    A Britain-based monitoring group has accused Turkey of killing 88 civilians in air strikes on Al-Bab, including 21 children. However the army has unequivocally denied such claims.

    President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at the weekend the battle for Al-Bab is nearly finished, reiterating Turkish forces would then head to Manbij, a former bastion of IS that is now under the control of US-backed, Kurdish-led militia.

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    A man with an ISIS flag

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - One of Islamic State's top commanders in Syria was probably killed in combat as the jihadists sought to stave off an advance by U.S.-backed Syrian forces towards a strategic dam in northern Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Tuesday.

    The commander known as Abu Jandal al-Kuwaiti was killed as Islamic State fighters tried to drive the Syrian Democratic Forces from the village of Jabar captured from the jihadists on Monday, Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman said.

    The Islamic State counter attack, launched overnight, failed. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), including the powerful Kurdish YPG militia, have advanced to within 5 km (3 miles) of the dam, Abdulrahman said.

    (Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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    rebel fighter aleppo syria

    MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said on Tuesday that a U.S. decision to ease restrictions on arming Syrian rebels had opened the way for deliveries of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, a move it said would directly threaten Russian forces in Syria.

    Moscow last year launched a campaign of air strikes in Syria to help President Bashar al-Assad and his forces retake territory lost to rebels, some of whom are supported by the United States. 

    Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the policy change easing restrictions on weapons supplies had been set out in a new U.S. defence spending bill and that Moscow regarded the step as a hostile act.

    U.S. President Barack Obama, who has been sharply critical of Russia's intervention in Syria, signed the annual defence policy bill into law last week.

    "Washington has placed its bets on supplying military aid to anti-government forces who don’t differ than much from blood thirsty head choppers. Now, the possibility of supplying them with weapons, including mobile anti-aircraft complexes, has been written into this new bill," Zakharova said in a statement.

    "In the administration of B. Obama they must understand that any weapons handed over will quickly end up in the hands of jihadists," she added, saying that perhaps that was what the White House was counting on happening.

    The U.S. decision was a direct threat to the Russian air force, to other Russian military personnel, and to Russia's embassy in Damascus, said Zakharova.

    "We therefore view the step as a hostile act."

    Zakharova accused the Obama administration of trying to "put a mine" under the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump by attempting to get it to continue what she called Washington's "anti-Russian line."

    The Obama administration has in recent weeks expanded the list of Russians affected by U.S. sanctions imposed on Moscow over its actions in Ukraine.

    Trump, during his election campaign, said he was keen to try to improve relations with Moscow and spoke positively about President Vladimir Putin's leadership skills.

    A back-and-forth exchange between Trump and Putin over nuclear weapons last week tested the Republican's promises to improve relations with Russia however.

    The Obama administration and U.S. intelligence officials have accused Russia of trying to interfere with the U.S. election by hacking Democratic Party accounts.

    "The current occupants of the White House imagined that they could pressure Russia," said Zakharova. "Let's hope that those who replace them will be wiser." 

    (Additional reporting by Peter Hobson in Moscow and Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

    SEE ALSO: US relations with Russia hit rough patch, but there are signs things may soon improve

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    The US-led coalition air campaign against ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria has dragged on for months, but the US airmen mounting the raids haven't lost track of time.

    During Christmas Day airstrikes against the terrorist group, some US pilot donned Santa hats, photos of which were shared by the US Air Force, as first spotted by international monitoring group Airwars.

    F16 pilot Iraq ISIS Santa hat airstrike US Air Force

    Coalition air forces mounted 18 strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq in Syria on December 25.

    Near Raqqa, the group's de facto capital city in Syria, 11 strikes were directed at ISIS tactical units, fighting positions, vehicles, and weapons, including ISIS' apparent go-to of late: A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device.

    Near Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq and the terror group's last stronghold in that country, two strikes were directed at ISIS tactical units, fighting positions, vehicles, weapons, and infrastructure.

    According to a release from Operation Inherent Resolve, all aircraft involved in Christmas Day strikes returned to base safely.

    The US-led coalition has mounted hundreds of strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, targeting the terror group's vehicles, weapons, buildings, fighting positions, resources, and tunnel networks.

    F16 US Air Force pilot Santa hat ISIS airstrikes Iraq

    Progress against ISIS in Syria appears to have been set back by the Syrian and Russian governments' concentration on Aleppo, which fell earlier this month after years of resistance.

    Moscow and Damascus' focus on the city reportedly allowed the terrorist group to make progress elsewhere in the country, while a campaign against Raqqa in the east is still in its early stages.

    The six-week-old offensive against Mosul, led by Iraqi government forces, appears to have been paused, holding in what one US official called an "operational refit" period earlier this month.

    Progress against ISIS in Mosul has been slow, as the confines of the city and the immense number of civilians still in it make military advances hard to come by.

    Iraq forces have only retaken about one-quarter of the city since launching their offensive in mid-October.

    US special forces troops Mosul Iraq ISIS

    US forces on the ground in Iraq appear to be stepping up their involvement in the fight for Mosul.

    As a recent Reuters report quotes the commander of the main US unit on the ground in Iraq:

    "We have always had opportunities to work side-by-side, but we have never been embedded to this degree ... That was always a smaller niche mission. Well, this is our mission now and it is big and we are embedded inside their formations."

    Many civilians have found themselves in the cross-fire, especially in Iraq, where they have been caught between ISIS and Iraqi fighters on the ground as well as in the path of ongoing airstrikes.

    In the 10 days before Christmas, Airwars documented reports— some of them contested — indicating that more than 50 civilians were killed by air and ground fire from coalition and Iraqi forces.

    ISIS continues to menace civilians as well.

    The terrorist group has fired on civilian areas of Mosul, including liberated sections of the city, and a Human Rights Watch report issued on Tuesday states that the terror group executed at least 13 people — including two boys — in villages south of Mosul where locals mounted an effort to expel the group's fighters.

    SEE ALSO: Watch a US-led coalition strike destroy an ISIS vessel near the terror group's Iraqi stronghold

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    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a signing ceremony with Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk, Belarus, November 11, 2016. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

    Ankara (AFP) - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday said the West was breaking promises in Syria, accusing Ankara's partners of backing "terror groups" including IS jihadists in the country.   

    At least 37 Turkish soldiers have died in Turkey's major incursion inside Syria since it was launched in August to back pro-Ankara Syrian fighters battling IS and Kurdish militia. 

    Casualties have mounted as the military seeks to take the town of Al-Bab from IS jihadists and Ankara has become more impatient over the lack of support from the US-led coalition against the extremists for the Turkish operation.

    "The coalition forces are unfortunately not keeping their promises," Erdogan said at a news conference alongside visiting Guinean President Alpha Conde.

    "Whether they do or they don't, we will continue along this path in a determined way. There is no going back on the path we have set out on," he added.

    Turkey has met the fiercest resistance yet of the campaign in the fight for Al-Bab, some 25 kilometres (15 miles) south of the Turkish border.

    Erdogan complained that rather than supporting Turkey, the West was backing the Kurdish Peoples' Protection Units (YPG) and Democratic Union Party (PYD), who work with the United States on the ground in Syria, and also IS.

    "They are supporting all the terror groups -- the YPG, PYD but also including Daesh (IS)," Erdogan said.

    "It's quite clear, perfectly obvious," he said, adding that Turkey could provide proof in pictures and video.

    Erdogan had made a similar claim on a visit to Pakistan in November alleging that "the West stands by Daesh right now" and its weapons were Western-made.

    But the Turkish leader expressed confidence over the assault saying "we now have the Daesh terror group surrounded on four sides in Al-Bab".

    "Yes we have martyrs... but now there's no turning back," he said.

    Erdogan made no mention of a video purportedly showing two Turkish soldiers being burned to death by IS in Syria.

    Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said earlier there was no information confirming the video.

    Erdogan said that along with Russia, Turkey backed a plan to bring the parties in the conflict together with key powers for peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana.

    But he said that "terror groups" must not be included and that Turkey also wanted to see its Gulf allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar involved.

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    afp aleppo the massive task of rebuilding a shattered city

    Aleppo (Syria) (AFP) - Midnight means lights out in Syria's Aleppo: as the clock strikes 12, overworked power generators shut off across the city, plunging war-ravaged neighbourhoods and heritage sites into darkness.

    It will take many months and millions of dollars to breathe life back into Aleppo's devastated water, electricity, and transportation networks.

    Four years of fighting have transformed it from Syria's industrial and commercial powerhouse to a divided and dysfunctional city.

    "We sold our vacuum cleaner — what's the point in having one if we don't have electricity?" asked Umm Fayez, a housewife who lives in the central district of Furqan.

    "It's been two years since we used our washing machine. We wash everything by hand, but the water is too cold now and I can't take it any more," the mother-of-two told AFP, sitting in the dark amid piles of dirty laundry.

    Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad declared full control over Syria's second city last week, after a landmark evacuation deal ended years of clashes.

    Rocket fire, air strikes and shelling partly or totally destroyed more than half Aleppo's infrastructure and buildings, according to a "preliminary, optimistic evaluation" by local authorities.

    Water shortages

    The main power station at Safirah to the southeast has been off line for two years because of the fighting. Aleppo's residents are forced to rely on noisy generators that supply electricity through a web of thick cables snaking through scarred streets.

    But they are shut down at midnight to save diesel supplies. Umm Fayez's husband walks home every night from his sweetshop using a small torch to guide the way through pitch-black darkness.

    aleppo syria"We have two projects that will re-establish electricity to Aleppo," an electricity ministry official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity. He said new power lines would be laid from the neighbouring province of Hama within a year, but that it would cost more than four billion Syrian pounds, or about $8 million (7.6 million euros).

    Residents are also impatient for water shortages to end, with the main pumping station currently operating at just a third of its capacity.

    "We can only pump water to 20 percent of Aleppo. Before the crisis, it was 70 percent," said Issa Korj, chief mechanic at the Suleiman al-Halabi water plant. He said it would take "many months" to repair the facility, but even then, water provision was likely to remain a problem for residents.

    Most of the water pumped to Aleppo comes from the Euphrates Dam in the adjacent province of Raqa, which is held by the Islamic State jihadist group. "They regularly cut off the water," said Fakher Hamdo, who heads Aleppo's water administration.

    He added that global economic sanctions imposed on Syria since 2011 make spare parts nearly impossible to import.

    'Aleppo is one'

    But before any major rebuilding projects can begin, local authorities must clear away barricades and sand berms that had divided Aleppo between the rebel-controlled east and the government-held west.

    afp syria rebels call for aleppo truce civilian evacuationBulldozers can already be seen in the bombed-out streets, clearing rubble and dismantling metal barriers. "The municipality immediately mobilised to open up the main thoroughfares," said city administrator Nadim Rahmoun.

    "Opening up the roads will allow us to pump life back into the city with economic and social activity and public services," he added. Aleppo's Old City — a renowned UNESCO World Heritage site — is at the heart of this effort.

    The district witnessed some of the most brutal moments of the battle for Aleppo, and restoring its celebrated buildings will pose major challenges.

    Municipal teams are carefully sorting through the rubble, setting aside original centuries-old stonework that will be used in the restoration. In the nearby district of Aqyul, Abduljawad Najed, 32, had to negotiate heaps of sand to check on his brother's house. 

    "It took more than an hour and a half," he said. After the barricades were cleared, the same journey took Najed 10 minutes. "Things were much easier and I was able to come by car," he said, loading some household effects into his small pick-up.

    Najed's enthusiasm was shared by furniture store owner Zakariya, 42. "Thank God, all the roads are now linked together. Aleppo is one again," he said.

     

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    bashar al-assad

    ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A transition towards peace in Syria that involves President Bashar al-Assad is "impossible" as the country's opposition will not accept him, Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday.

    Cavusoglu also confirmed Turkey had prepared an agreement towards a ceasefire.

    Turkish state media earlier said Turkey and Russia had agreed on a proposal toward a general ceasefire in Syria.

    (Reporting by Tulay Karadeniz and Ece Toksabay; Writing by David Dolan; editing by John Stonestreet)

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    afp second black box from crashed russian plane found in black sea

    Moscow (AFP) - Russian rescuers trawling the Black Sea on Wednesday found the second black box from a Syria-bound military plane that crashed at the weekend with 92 people on board, authorities said.

    "The second onboard recorder from the Tu-154 plane has been found and raised from the seabed," the defence ministry said in a statement to Russian news agencies.

    The discovery of the black box comes the day after rescuers found the primary inflight recorder and should help provide vital clues as investigators try to work out what caused the fatal crash. 

    Russia's FSB security service has said it is looking into four main suspected causes: pilot error, technical failure, faulty fuel and a foreign object in the engine.

    The agency said that so far there were no indications to suggest terrorism was behind the crash, but did not rule it out entirely.

    The Soviet-era jet, whose passengers included more than 60 members of an internationally renowned Red Army troupe, was heading to Russia's military airbase in Syria on Sunday when it went down off the coast of Sochi shortly after take-off from a refuelling stop at the airport.

    The discovery of the second black box comes as searchers scramble to recover bodies and remaining debris from the aircraft in a major operation involving divers, deepwater machines, helicopters and drones.

    The defence ministry told Russian agencies that so far 15 bodies and 239 body parts from those onboard the ill-fated aircraft have been found, with some of the remains transported to Moscow for DNA identification. 

    The loss of the plane has shocked Russia at a time when the Kremlin was celebrating the recapture of Syria's Aleppo by regime forces, the biggest success since it launched its bombing campaign to support President Bashar al-Assad last year. 

    The military performers were set to perform for Russian troops at the Hmeimim airbase in Syria, Moscow's main staging post in the war-torn country.

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    Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad enter a hall during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015. Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/via REUTERS/File Photo

    MOSCOW/ANKARA (Reuters) - Syria would be divided into informal zones of regional power influence and Bashar al-Assad would remain president for at least a few years under an outline deal between Russia, Turkey and Iran, sources say.

    Such a deal, which would allow regional autonomy within a federal structure controlled by Assad's Alawite sect, is in its infancy, subject to change and would need the buy-in of Assad and the rebels and, eventually, the Gulf states and the United States, sources familiar with Russia's thinking say.

    "There has been a move toward a compromise," said Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a think tank close to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

    "A final deal will be hard, but stances have shifted."

    Assad's powers would be cut under a deal between the three nations, say several sources. Russia and Turkey would allow him to stay until the next presidential election when he would quit in favor of a less polarizing Alawite candidate.

    Iran has yet to be persuaded of that, say the sources. But either way Assad would eventually go, in a face-saving way, with guarantees for him and his family.

    "A couple of names in the leadership have been mentioned (as potential successors)," said Kortunov, declining to name names.

    assad erdogan

    Nobody thinks a wider Syrian peace deal, something that has eluded the international community for years, will be easy, quick or certain of success. What is clear is that President Vladimir Putin wants to play the lead role in trying to broker a settlement, initially with Turkey and Iran.

    That would bolster his narrative of Russia regaining its mantle as a world power and serious Middle East player.

    "It's a very big prize for them if they can show they're out there in front changing the world," Sir Tony Brenton, Britain's former ambassador to Moscow, told Reuters. "We've all grown used to the United States doing that and had rather forgotten that Russia used to play at the same level" 

    Backroom deals

    If Russia gets its way, new peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition will begin in mid-January in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, a close Russian ally.

    The talks would be distinct from intermittent U.N.-brokered negotiations and not initially involve the United States.

    That has irritated some in Washington.

    "So this country that essentially has an economy the size of Spain, that's Russia, is strutting around and acting like they know what they are doing," said one U.S. official, who declined to be named because of the subject's sensitivity.

    "I don't think the Turks and the Russians can do this (political negotiations) without us."

    putin erdogan

    Foreign and defense ministers from Russia, Turkey and Iran met in Moscow on Dec. 20 and set out the principles they thought any Syria deal should adhere to.

    Russian sources say the first step is to get a nationwide ceasefire and then to get talks underway. The idea would then be to get Gulf states involved, then the United States, and at a later stage the European Union which would be asked, maybe with the Gulf states, to pick up the bill for rebuilding.

    The three-way peace push is, at first glance, an odd one.

    Iran, Assad's staunchest backer, has provided militia fighters to help Assad, Russia has supplied air strikes, while Turkey has backed the anti-Assad rebels.

    Putin has struck a series of backroom understandings with his Turkish counterpart, Tayyip Erdogan, to ease the path to a possible deal, several sources familiar with the process say.

    Moscow got Iran to buy into the idea of a three-way peace push by getting Turkey to drop its demands for Assad to go soon, the same sources said.

    "Our priority is not to see Assad go, but for terrorism to be defeated," one senior Turkish government official, who declined to be named, said.

    "It doesn't mean we approve of Assad. But we have come to an understanding. When Islamic State is wiped out, Russia may support Turkey in Syria finishing off the PKK."

    kurdish forces ypg hasaka syria

    Turkey views the YPG militia and its PYD political wing as extensions of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has long waged an insurgency in its largely Kurdish southeast.

    "Of course we have disagreements with Iran," said the same Turkish official. "We view some issues differently, but we are coming to agreements to end mutual problems."

    Aydin Sezer, head of the Turkey and Russia Centre of Studies, an Ankara-based think tank, said Turkey had now "completely given up the issue of regime change" in Syria.

    Turkey's public position remains strongly anti-Assad however and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday a political transition with Assad was impossible.

    Brenton, Britain's former ambassador, said Moscow and Ankara had done a deal because Moscow had needed Turkey to get the opposition out of Aleppo and to come to the negotiating table.

    "The real flesh in the game the Turks have, and the fear they have, is of an autonomous Kurdistan emerging inside Syria that would have direct implications for them," he said.

    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 ensure Kurdish militias did not gain more territory in Syria. 

    Realpolitik

    The shifting positions of Moscow and Ankara are driven by realpolitik. Russia doesn't want to get bogged down in a long war and wants to hold Syria together and keep it as an ally.

    Turkey wants to informally control a swathe of northern Syria giving it a safe zone to house refugees, a base for the anti-Assad opposition, and a bulwark against Kurdish influence.

    The fate of al-Bab, an Islamic State-held city around 40 km (25 miles) northeast of Aleppo, is also a factor. Erdogan is determined that Turkish-backed rebels capture the city to prevent Kurdish militias from doing so.

    Several sources said there had been an understanding between Ankara and Moscow that rebels could leave Aleppo to help take al-Bab.

    Iran's interests are harder to discern, but Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's top adviser, said Aleppo's fall might alter a lot in the region.

    Syria Iran

    By helping Assad retake Aleppo, Tehran has secured a land corridor that connects Tehran to Beirut, allowing it to send arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

    Russian and Western diplomatic sources say Iran would insist on keeping that corridor and on Assad staying in power for now. If he did step down, Tehran would want him replaced with another Alawite, which it sees as the closest thing to Shia Islam.

    Iran may be the biggest stumbling block to a wider deal.

    Iranian Defence Minister Hossein Dehghan has said Saudi Arabia must not take part in talks because of its stance on Assad — Riyadh wants the Syrian leader to step down.

    Scepticism about the prospects for a wider deal abounds.

    Dennis Ross, an adviser to Democratic and Republican administrations, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he did not think a deal would bring peace to Syria.

    "I doubt this will end the war in Syria even after Aleppo," Ross told Reuters. "Assad's presence will remain a source of conflict with the opposition." 

    (By Andrew Osborn and Orhan Coskun; additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in Beirut, William Maclean in Dubai, Ece Toksabay, David Dolan, Arshad Mohammed, Phil Stewart and Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; editing by Janet Lawrence)

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    "We ran out of gas. We need help."

    The Greek Coast Guard official wasn't buying it when Mahmoud Alkuder, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo, called him from a Jordanian cell phone number in October 2015 asking to be rescued from the Mediterranean, about a mile from the Greek coast.

    So the official hung up. Alkhuder — who fled from Syria to Jordan in 2011 and was now trying to reach Greece from Turkey, where he'd been visiting his family — called back with the same plea.

    "I'm stranded with other refugees on a small boat coming from Turkey," he said. "We need help."

    "If you're really stranded with other people," the coast guard asked, "why is there no noise behind you? No chaos?"

    Mahmoud explained that he had asked the men, women and children crammed into the dinghy — meant to carry "a maximum of maybe thirty people," but holding about 60 — to keep their voices down while he called for help.

    He could send a photo to the officer via WhatsApp to prove it, if he wanted.

    "Send it to me, then," the officer replied.

    WhatsApp screenshot M Alkhuder

    About an hour later, Alkhuder's boat was being towed toward the Greek island of Lesvos. He didn't know that he'd be back on the same island within a year, advising asylum-seekers like him how to maximize their chances of being granted a visa and allowed into Europe.

    codebreaker_immigrationNow living in a small German city outside of Dusseldorf, where he is finishing his MBA online, Alkhuder is bringing his dependence on technology full circle by developing an app to connect Germans with asylum-seekers.

    "Refugees want to meet Germans, and vice versa," Alkhuder said. "But they rarely have the chance to connect, or to help each other. I'm trying to change that."

    'I knew I lived in a corrupt country'

    When he graduated from the University of Aleppo in 2011, Alkhuder was under no illusions that his law degree would be useful in Syria.

    "After I graduated, I knew I lived in a corrupt country," the 30-year-old from Aleppo, the epicenter of Syria's civil war that recently fell to pro-government forces after months of fierce fighting, told Business Insider in a Skype interview from Germany.

    "Imagine if, as a lawyer, you could bribe — and I'm not exaggerating — 80% of the judges in your country," Alkhuder said. "Or maybe more. That's what it's like in Syria: the role of lawyers there is to bribe your way through the legal system. That's how you win cases."

    Politically active and disillusioned with the system, Mahmoud supported Syria's protest movement "from the start."

    Free Syrian Army

    His legal education made him accutely aware of how Syrian president Bashar Assad was taking advantage of the movement to imprison dissidents indefinitely and accept huge bribes for their release. By 2012, the payments guards were demanding from families to have their relatives released were more than what most Syrians could afford.

    So Alkhuder fled to Jordan, not least to avoid the two-year military service required of all Syrian men when they turn 18 — service that, at that point, would have forced him to "kill or be killed."

    He soon found, however, that the swell of Syrian refugees flooding into Jordan — roughly 1.4 million — had resulted in a protracted housing crisis and made work permits nearly impossible to obtain.

    "Syrians in Jordan can't get a work permit," said Alkhuder, who fled to Amman in 2011. He was fortunate, he said, in that he had a friend there who owned a computer company and agreed to give him a job.

    "I participated in demonstrations, too, in front of the Syrian embassy in Amman," Alkuhder said. "They allowed us to do that. It was the first time in my life where I felt like I had freedom of speech."

    Syrian Embassy   Amman.JPG

    He'd soon realize how limited his freedom still was, though. Wanting to pursue an MBA in Edinburgh, Alkhuder applied for a student visa to the UK via the British embassy in Amman. His application was rejected because the embassy was not confident that he would return to Syria after he finished his business degree.

    "Imagine getting treated like this just because of your nationality," Alkhuder said, looking exasperated. "Did you choose to be born in the US? I didn't choose to be born in Syria. It's heartbreaking."

    Germany and Greece

    So he decided to try for a different European country; one which he thought seemed "professional, neutral, and nondiscriminatory"— Germany.

    "I chose Germany because I thought they seemed very professional," Alkhuder said. "They're perfectionists. And I'm kind of a perfectionist myself."

    He wanted to see his family first, though. So he flew from Amman to Turkey, where his family had fled a few years prior. From there, he paid a smuggler masquerading as a boat captain to take him on the small dinghy bound for Greece.

    That's when the boat broke down, forcing Alkhuder to call the Greek coast guard official who, after some persuading and a WhatsApp photo, towed them all to safety.

    turkey lesbosAlkhuder and his companions were luckier than others. The UN recently reported that 2016 was the deadliest year ever for migrants and refugees — approximately 5,000 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year alone.

    "On average, 14 people have died every single day this year in the Mediterranean trying to find safety or a better life in Europe," said William Spindler, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

    But many others make it. Roughly 360,000 migrants arrived to Italy and Greece by sea in 2016, according to official UNHCR statistics, with the majority coming from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Nigeria.

    Alkhuder arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos in October 2015, and eventually made it to Germany. 

    "Once I arrived, I turned myself in to a refugee reception camp," he recalled. "I started to translate for people to help them, and then volunteered officially to translate from English to Arabic and vice versa."

    That's when he decided he wanted to go back to Greece, "where a lot of refugees get trapped because they don't understand how to navigate the asylum process," he said.

    Advocates Abroad, an organization comprised of attorneys and human rights experts who offer free legal advice to refugees throughout Europe, was eager to accept Alkhuder's help.

    "I was a good asset because I spoke both Arabic and English," he said. 

    He did not only help fellow Syrians, however — he offered legal advice to refugees from all over, but those who needed it most, he said, came primarily from Africa.

    Moria Camp Mytilene Island 01 With Refugees

    "It would be unfair to the other refugees if I spent my time helping Syrians, just because I am Syrian," Alkhuder explained. "So I mostly helped people who had arrived from Nigeria, Eritrea, and Somalia."

    Most asylum-seekers he worked with at Lesvos' Moria refugee camp, Alkhuder said, didn't know their rights — especially when it came to the all-important asylum interview.

    "One of the most important things I advised them on was how to handle the interpreter," he said. "Many look to the interpreter as some kind of God, so they're afraid of him or her. The interpreter isn't allowed to express their opinion, but sometimes you wind up with a terrible translator who can twist a piece of information and dramatically change everything."

    Without a lawyer present — which most asylum-seekers don't realize they're entitled to — how the interpreter translates the refugees' story to the asylum officer can be decisive.

    Moria Camp Mytilene Island 06.JPG

    Another mistake the refugees often made, Alkhuder said, was referring to asylum officers as a "judge" and to the asylum interview as a "court." 

    "That's really wrong," he noted. "The officers are civil employees working for a foreign government. If the refugees think of the interview as a court, and of the officer as a judge, then they will go into the interview afraid."

    In any case, Alkhuder said, the message he heard from every refugee he advised was the same: "They don’t want clothes, food, money, they just want opportunity," he recalled.

    "They need a chance to start a new life — to live, work, to earn their own money. And some want even less — one man I spoke to from the Democratic Republic of the Congo said that all he'd dreamt about for months was cold water."

    Moria Camp Mytilene Island 02   The dreaming of water guy   I managed to get him some

    Alkhuder's own attempts at starting a new life and integrating into German society are punctuated by nightmares of torture and arrest that have plagued him almost nightly since he left Syria, he said.

    Two of his brothers, both pharmacists, were thrown into a Syrian government prison for giving medical treatment to wounded protesters shortly after the revolution erupted. Only one of them came out of the prison alive.

    "I left Syria four years ago and I still dream about it," he said. "But now, when I think of Germany, I think of it as my home country. I have basic dignity here. I feel like a human being again."


    Listen below to the compelling audio version of this story, plus how an agent uses technology to patrol the U.S. border with Mexico, and how a journalist in exile broadcasts the news with WhatsApp — on the season finale of our podcast, Codebreaker, produced with Marketplace. And find the whole series here or on iTunes

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    While fighting in western Syria seems to have turned in favor of dictator Bashar Assad and his allies in Iran and Russia, US-led coalition strikes on ISIS continue in the eastern part of the country.

    The terror group's oil infrastructure remains a prime target, and a November 25 airstrike near Abu Kamal, close to the Iraqi border, went after several oil wellheads and a pump jack, an important piece of equipment for getting oil out of the ground.

    You can see a clip of the strike below.

    The US-led coalition launched three strikes near Abu Kamal on November 25, destroying four oil wellheads and an oil pump jack.

    That same day, slightly west of Abu Kamal in Dayr Az Zawr, two strikes reportedly destroyed three pieces of oil-refinement equipment, three oil-storage tanks, and an oil wellhead.

    ISIS has relied heavily on oil revenue to finance its operations, and the US-led coalition has put special emphasis on attacking the infrastructure needed to get that oil out of the ground and to the market.

    A few weeks after the November 25 airstrikes, coalition aircraft destroyed 168 oil-tanker trucks on the ground near Palmyra, in central Syria. That destruction cost the terrorist group about $2 million in revenue, according to Operation Inherent Resolve officials.

    isis oil

    While the coalition has been able to target ISIS' oil infrastructure, fighting positions, and other resources from the air, progress against the group on the ground in eastern Syria has been somewhat halting.

    While efforts by Kurdish militants and their Arab partners in Syria to recapture Raqqa, ISIS' capital city, have been bogged down in recent weeks, the coalition announced on December 12 that Syrian Democratic Forces had liberated 700 square miles of ISIS-controlled territory, retaking dozens of villages around the city, and were starting the next phase of their operation to isolate Raqqa.

    These developments come after Syrian government forces, backed by Iran and Russia, retook the northwestern city of Aleppo, parts of which had been held by rebels for years.

    putin assad

    That victory appears to have buoyed the outlook in Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus.

    The recently reported outline of a deal being discussed by Russia, Iran, and Turkey would divide Syria into zones of influence for those countries, leaving Assad in power as president for at least a few years.

    The purported deal appears after numerous fruitless attempts by the US and other western powers to broker a peace in Syria's bloody, over five-year-long civil war — and may in part be inspired by Moscow's desire to reassert itself on the world stage.

    "It's a very big prize for them if they can show they're out there in front changing the world," Sir Tony Brenton, Britain's former ambassador to Moscow, told Reuters. "We've all grown used to the United States doing that and had rather forgotten that Russia used to play at the same level."

    SEE ALSO: Watch a US-led coalition airstrike wipe out an ISIS training camp near the terror group's capital city

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    Nearly 55,000 migrants who were not eligible for or were likely to be denied asylum left Germany voluntarily in 2016, up by 20,000 from the number who left of their own volition in 2015, according to government officials.

    Germany has toughened its stance on immigration in recent months, prompted by concerns about security and integration after admitting more than 1.1 million migrants from the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere since early 2015.

    "That's a considerable increase from last year," Harald Neymanns, interior ministry spokesman, announced on Wednesday, adding that the 2016 figure had climbed to 54,123 through December 27.

    "The increase is welcome. It's always preferable when people leave the country voluntarily instead of being deported."

    A finance ministry spokesman said the government would boost funding slightly to 150m euros in 2017 to support efforts to encourage people to leave Germany.

    Last week a failed asylum seeker who had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group killed 12 people when he drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin, prompting criticism of Chancellor Angela Merkel's immigration policy.

    Most of those leaving in 2016 returned to their homes in Albania, Serbia, Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iran, Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper said earlier.

    Those leaving are eligible for one-off support of up to 3,000 euros that is supposed to help support finding employment at home.

    Refugee

    Separately, German security officials told Reuters news agency the number of those deported after their asylum requests were rejected rose to almost 23,800 from January to November - up from almost 20,900 in all of 2015.

    There has also been a rise in the number of refugees turned away at the borders.

    A report by the Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung daily said police had turned back 19,720 refugees through the first 11 months of 2016 - up from 8,913 in all of 2015.

    Most were from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Nigeria. They had been registered in other EU countries.

    As public support for her pro-refugee policies wanes ahead of September's federal election, Merkel has said it is vital to focus resources on those fleeing war, and to keep up public support by deporting foreigners to countries where there is no persecution.

    Attacks and security alerts involving refugees and migrants have boosted the popularity of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party, whose rise above 10 percent in opinion polls could complicate Merkel's re-election hopes.

    On Tuesday, seven refugees from Syria and Iraq aged 15 to 21 were detained in Berlin on charges of attempted murder for trying to set fire to a homeless man in an underground station.

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    A man transports on a bicycle tree branches to be be placed on the graves of his relatives, on the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, in the rebel held Douma neighborhood of Damascus, Syria July 6, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

    Now that Aleppo has fallen to President Bashar Assad’s forces, people in Eastern Ghouta, a heavily populated, rebel-held Syrian suburb of regime-stronghold Damascus, are wondering if they will be next.

    A hot spot for some of the earliest and most intense anti-government protests in 2011, Eastern Ghouta became a rebel stronghold in 2013.

    That year, the city suffered a sarin gas attack by government forces that killed hundreds, infamously marking the time when U.S. President Barack Obama ignored his previously drawn “red line” on chemical weapons use. The area has been under siege ever since. 

    Home to an estimated 450,000 people and one of the strongest remaining rebel coalitions, Eastern Ghouta has endured frequent bombardment and shelling from regime forces and ally Russia, which entered the war in 2015.

    Though recent fighting has been less intense than at other times since the siege began in 2013, last week saw cluster bombs dropped on Eastern Ghouta and Civil Defense ambulances targeted, the group said. There have also been clashes on the ground, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

    “People are very afraid of obligatory evacuation, like what happened in other parts of the Damascus suburbs and now Aleppo,” said Tariq, an English teacher in Douma, the urban capital of Eastern Ghouta, who asked that his real name not be used for security reasons. 

    And experts seem to agree. Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute wrote this week that “after Aleppo it seems most likely that pro-regime forces will switch their focus to the country’s capital [Damascus], especially to Eastern Ghouta.”

    Tariq said he currently makes about $50 a month, which he uses to support 16 members of his extended family. Thankfully the shortages of a few years ago, when the siege was more severe, are not as severe right now, and “you can normally find a family’s daily needs,” he said.

    Nowadays, a kilogram of sugar costs about 550 Syrian pounds ($2.50), and a kilogram of rice costs about 600 Syrian pounds, Tariq said. In the absence of fuel, people use wood for heating and cooking, and since all the local bakeries closed down or were destroyed, people bake their own bread at home, he noted.

    Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (C) joins Syrian army soldiers for Iftar in the farms of Marj al-Sultan village, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on June 26, 2016.   SANA/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

    The only supplies coming into Eastern Ghouta must be smuggled in from regime-held territory, a system that is beneficial to both the people inside and the war profiteers outside, said Laila Kiki of advocacy group The Syria Campaign.

    “Businessmen affiliated with the regime are controlling the routes. It’s a war economy,” she said. But the routes are by no means permanent, she warned. “It’s a political or military decision that can be taken at any moment.”

    The regime employed a ruthless and unrelenting strategy in Aleppo that featured its double-pronged attack of enforced attrition, by denying humanitarian aid and supplies into the besieged area, and intensified and indiscriminate bombings of civilian and rebel-held infrastructure. These tactics, which regularly flouted international law, ultimately broke eastern Aleppo’s rebels and led to the mass evacuation last week.

    Many civilians in Eastern Ghouta worry they could soon face a similar fate.

    “The Syrian regime has been repeating the same scenario: They push people and bombard them and force them to surrender,” Kiki said. 

    Whether the siege comes to an end through an evacuation deal that allows regime opposition to flee into other rebel-held territory, or in a truce deal whereby activists and fighters have their criminal charge sheets officially wiped clean, surrender will not “happen without a lot of civilian bloodshed,” Kiki said.

    And this truce option, according to Osama Nassar, an activist from Douma, doesn’t even guarantee freedom.

    “The regime didn’t arrest people directly, but it did after a couple of weeks,” he said, referring to recent truce in Al-Tall. “But the regime is able to convince people to take these truce deals after breaking them with siege and bombardment. They want to convey the message that Bashar al-Assad is less worse than other choices. Not better, but less worse.”

    A boy runs as he rushes away from a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus, Syria August 24, 2015. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

    Taking Eastern Ghouta would be a significant win for the regime, given its proximity to the capital, its strategic location (blocking the Homs-Damascus highway) and its symbolic value, said Sam Heller, Syria expert and fellow at The Century Foundation.

    “It is the largest and most problematic opposition enclave around the capital, and it has historically been a real menace to the capital itself,” Heller said.

    Heller believes Eastern Ghouta is likely a “priority” for the government, adding that while the rebels there are reasonably strong, “once the siege is firmly in place, time is emphatically on the regime’s side.”

    Once the agricultural source that fed the country’s capital, Eastern Ghouta is largely urban now, and dominated by Jaish al-Islam, a powerful coalition of rebels that receives backing from Saudi Arabia. The“military-religious organization” was once led by Salafi Zahran Alloush before his assassination on Christmas Day 2015. 

    The Salafist rebel group is believed to be behind the kidnapping in 2013 of human rights activist Razan Zeitouneh and his colleagues, and has been accused of heinous human rights abuses in the past. They are one of the strongest remaining rebel opposition forces in the country.

    “There are no foreign fighters there,” Kiki said. “All the people there are all locals.”

    While the local rebel council is making contingency plans for a tighter and prolonged siege, Kiki said, it is precisely the strength of the opposition government and civil society groups in the Eastern Ghouta that makes it such an attractive target for the regime.

    “In the Ghouta, the local council runs things; there are coordination offices for relief, education, and shelter. They were trying to set an example of local administrative efforts. And this is something the regime has also been very good at shutting down. They want this image that it is ISIS or us.”

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    Syria Army Soldiers Flag Aleppo Mosque

    BEIRUT — Russian President Vladimir Putin says a Syrian cease-fire agreement has been reached with Turkey.

    Putin said Thursday that Russia and Turkey would guarantee the truce, which is set to begin at midnight. He says it will be followed by peace talks between Syrian President Bashar Assad's government and the opposition and that the Syrian parties would take part in talks to be held in Kazakhstan, without specifying a date.

    Syria's military said it had agreed to a nationwide cease-fire starting at midnight.

    Russia's defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, says the truce will include 62,000 opposition fighters across Syria and the Russian military has established a hotline with its Turkish counterpart to monitor compliance.

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says President-elect Donald Trump's administration will be welcome to join the Syrian peace process once he takes office.

    Russia is a key ally of Assad, while Turkey is one of the main backers of the opposition. Several previous attempts to halt the civil war have failed.

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    Lebanese Hezbollah supporters carry a replica of Hezbollah emblem during a religious procession to mark Ashura in Beirut's southern suburbs, Lebanon October 12, 2016. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

    ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey says Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group should withdraw from Syria and a nationwide cease-fire should come into effect before the end of the year.

    The Iran-backed Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to Syria to back President Bashar Assad's forces.

    Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an interview with the Turkish A Haber news channel on Thursday that Ankara and Moscow are close to reaching an agreement on a nationwide cease-fire. Turkey would serve as guarantor of rebel compliance, while Russia would guarantee adherence by the government.

    He says Iran stated during talks earlier this month in Moscow that it will act as a guarantor for the Syrian government as well as allied Shiite groups, including Hezbollah.

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    rebel fighter aleppo syria

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - Clashes, shelling and air raids in western Syria marred a Russian- and Turkish-backed ceasefire that aims to end nearly six years of war and lead to peace talks between rebels and a government emboldened by recent battlefield success.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, announced the ceasefire on Thursday after forging the agreement with Turkey, a longtime backer of the opposition.

    The truce went into force at midnight but monitors and rebels reported almost immediate clashes, and violence appeared to escalate later on Friday as warplanes bombed areas in the country's northwest, they said.

    The ceasefire is meant as a first step towards fresh peace talks, after several failed international efforts this year to halt the conflict, which began as a peaceful uprising and descended into civil war in 2011.

    It has resulted in more than 300,000 deaths, displaced more than 11 million people and drawn in the military involvement of world and regional powers, including Moscow and Ankara.

    The agreement brokered by Russia and Turkey, which said they will guarantee the truce, is the first of three ceasefire deals this year not to involve the United States or United Nations.

    Moscow is keen to push ahead with peace talks, hosted by its ally Kazakhstan. But the first challenge will be maintaining the truce, which looked increasingly shaky on Friday.

    Syrian government warplanes carried out nearly 20 raids against rebels in several towns along the provincial boundary between Idlib and Hama, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Clashes between rebel groups and government forces took place overnight in the area, the Observatory and a rebel official said.

    Warplanes and helicopters also struck northwest of Damascus in the rebel-held Wadi Barada valley, where government troops and allied forces clashed with rebels, the British-based Observatory reported.

    A military media unit run by Damascus's ally Hezbollah denied any Syrian government air strikes on the area.

    An official from the Nour al-Din al-Zinki rebel group said government forces had also tried to advance in southern Aleppo province.

    There was no immediate comment from the Syrian military on Friday's clashes.

    A number of rebel groups have signed the new agreement, Russia's Defence Ministry said on Thursday. Several rebel officials acknowledged the deal, and a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose alliance of insurgent groups, said it would abide by the truce.

    Previous collapses

    The previous two Syria ceasefires, brokered by Washington and Moscow, took effect in February and September but both collapsed within weeks as warring sides accused each other of truce violations and fighting intensified.

    Putin said the parties were prepared to start peace talks intended to take place in Astana. Syrian state media said late on Thursday those talks would take place "soon".

    The Syrian government will be negotiating from a strong position after its army and their allies, including Shi'ite militias supported by Iran, along with Russian air power, routed rebels in their last major urban stronghold of Aleppo this month.

    Moscow's air campaign since September last year has turned the civil war in Assad's favour, and the last rebels left Aleppo for areas that are still under rebel control to the west of the city, including the province of Idlib.

    burned busses syria idlib evacuation

    In another sign that the latest truce could be as challenging to maintain as its predecessors, there was confusion over which rebel groups would be covered by the ceasefire.

    The Syrian army said the agreement did not include the radical Islamist group Islamic State, fighters affiliated to al Qaeda's former branch the Nusra Front, or any factions linked to those jihadist groups.

    But several rebel officials said on Thursday that the agreement did include the former Nusra Front - now known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham - which announced in July that it was severing ties with al Qaeda.

    The powerful Islamist insurgent group Ahrar al-Sham said it had not signed the ceasefire agreement because of "reservations" but did not elaborate. 

    Russia-Turkey detente

    The deal also follows a thaw in ties between Russia and Turkey.

    In a sign of the detente, the Turkish armed forces said on Friday Russian aircraft had carried out three air strikes against Islamic State in the area of al-Bab in northern Syria.

    Ankara is backing rebels fighting against Islamic State, which has made enemies of all other sides involved in the conflict.

    erdogan putin

    While Ankara has been a big sponsor of the rebellion, Assad's removal has become a secondary concern to fighting the expansion of Kurdish influence in northern Syria. The chances of Assad's opponents forcing him from power now seem more remote than at any point in the war.

    Turkish demands that fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement leave Syria may not please Iran, another major Assad supporter. Hezbollah has been fighting alongside Syrian government forces against rebels.

    On Thursday a senior Hezbollah official said the party's military wing would remain in Syria.

    Hezbollah's mission in Syria was to "confront the terrorist project", Lebanon's National News Agency quoted the head of Hezbollah's political council, Sayyed Ibrahim Amin al-Sayyed, as saying. 

    United States sidelined

    The United States has been sidelined in recent negotiations and is not due take part in the peace talks in Kazakhstan although Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Friday the United States would be welcome to attend.

    The ceasefire, in the waning days of U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, was the first major international diplomatic initiative in the Middle East in decades not to involve the United States.

    Russia has said the United States could join a fresh peace process once President-elect Donald Trump takes office on Jan. 20. It also wants Egypt to join, together with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan and the United Nations.

    Trump has said he would cooperate more closely with Russia to fight terrorism but it was unclear what that policy would look like, given resistance from the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community to closer cooperation with Russia on Syria.

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    aleppo syria

    A nationwide Syrian cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey that went into effect at midnight held Friday despite minor violations, marking a potential breakthrough in a conflict that has disregarded high-level peace initiatives for over five years.

    The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported clashes early Friday between troops and rebels in the central province of Hama and near the capital, Damascus.

    It said that later in the day a man was killed by sniper fire in eastern suburbs of Damascus, becoming the first fatality since the truce went into effect. The group also reported an aerial attack on the rebel-held Barada Valley near Damascus.

    The Syrian army denied reports it was bombarding the Barada Valley region saying opposition claims aim to show that the army is not abiding by the truce.

    Opposition activist Mazen al-Shami, who is based in the Damascus suburb of Douma, said minor clashes nearby left one rebel wounded. Activist Ahmad al-Masalmeh, in the southern Daraa province, said government forces had opened fire on rebel-held areas.

    Several past attempts at halting the fighting have failed. As with previous agreements, the current cease-fire excludes both the al-Qaida-affiliated Fatah al-Sham Front, which fights alongside other rebel factions, and the Islamic State group.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that the cease-fire will be guaranteed by both Moscow and Turkey, and the agreement has been welcomed by Iran. Moscow and Tehran provide crucial military support to Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Turkey has long served as a rear base and source of supplies for the rebels.

    If it holds, the truce between the Syrian government and the country's mainstream rebel forces will be followed by peace talks next month in Kazakhstan, Putin said in announcing the agreement. He described it, however, as "quite fragile" and requiring "special attention and patience."

    Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the cease-fire a "major achievement" in a tweet Friday. "Let's build on it by tackling the roots of extremist terror," he added.

    Russia said the deal was signed by seven of Syria's major rebel factions, though none of them immediately confirmed it, and one denied signing it.

    putin erdogan turkey russia

    At U.N. headquarters in New York, Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin circulated a draft resolution that would endorse the cease-fire agreement and said he hoped for a vote Saturday morning. But several council members said they needed time to study the agreement and the resolution so it wasn't clear when a vote would take place.

    U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien urged the Syrian government in an interview with The Associated Press to give the green light for the United Nations to deliver aid to thousands in need in the war-ravaged country and ensure aid workers' safety.

    He called the cessation of hostilities "extremely welcome" and said "incessant and relentless contacts are going on" with the government, but so far there has been no positive response.

    Jan Egeland, Special Advisor to the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, told AP the U.N. especially wants to get aid to the 15 besieged areas where some 700,000 people live, but it needs security guarantees from all sides "and we're not given them."

    "The reports I have from the field is that there is a decrease, a marked decrease in fighting, in bombing, in violence, compared to yesterday. But certainly there's been a number of violations," he said.

    "January needs to be really different," Egeland stressed. "If not - there will be starvation, there will be untold, unnecessary deaths."

    The truce came on the heels of a Russian-Turkish agreement earlier this month to evacuate the last rebels from eastern Aleppo after they were confined to a tiny enclave by a government offensive. The retaking of all of Aleppo marked Assad's greatest victory since the start of the 2011 uprising against his family's four-decade rule.

    rebel fighter aleppo syria

    "The defeat of the terrorists in Aleppo is an important step toward ending the war," Assad said in an interview with TG5, an Italian TV station, adding that the capture of the city does not mean that the war has ended because "terrorists" are still in Syria.

    The United States was left out of both agreements, reflecting the deterioration of relations between Moscow and Washington after the failure of previous diplomatic efforts on Syria.

    Assad told TG5 "we are more optimistic, with caution," about the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, who has suggested greater cooperation with Russia against extremist groups.

    "We can say part of the optimism could be related to better relation between the United States and Russia," Assad said, speaking in English.

    "Mr. Trump, during his campaign - (said) that his priority is fighting terrorism, and we believe that this is the beginning of the solution, if he can implement what he announced," Assad said in the interview, which was apparently filmed before the cease-fire was announced.

    Asked about the possibility of the United States' participation in the peace process in Kazakhstan, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the process would "be open to everyone."

    "I hope that this cease-fire holds and turns into a lasting peace so that the deaths of more innocent people, of civilians and children is halted and 2017 brings calm," Yildirim said.

    aleppo syria

    Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency meanwhile quoted the military as saying Russia carried out three airstrikes against Islamic State targets near the northern town of al-Bab, where Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition forces have been battling the extremist group. The strikes indicated that Russia and Turkey may work together to combat IS once the fighting elsewhere in Syria has been halted.

    Turkish Foreign Mevlut Cavusoglu Minister said the U.S.-led coalition forces resumed aerial operations around al-Bab on Thursday, after Turkey complained that it was not getting support from its allies in its fight against IS there.

    The Turkish military statement quoted by Anadolu did not say when the Russian air strikes took place, but said they killed 12 IS militants.

    Separately, 26 IS militants, including some senior commanders, were killed in Turkish airstrikes on al-Bab and the Daglabash region, and some 17 IS targets were destroyed, Anadolu reported. It said a Turkish soldier was kill in a IS attack on troops south of the al-Azrak area.

    It said among those killed was an IS commander known as Abu Hussein al-Tunsi.

    Turkey sent troops and tanks into northern Syria in August to help opposition forces clear a border area of IS militants and curb the advances of U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters, who are also battling the extremist group.

    ----

    Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press video journalist Samira Becirovic in London and Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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    Rebel fighters walk near damaged buildings in al-Rai town, northern Aleppo countryside, Syria December 30, 2016. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - The United Nations Security Council on Saturday welcomed a ceasefire in the Syrian civil war, but rebel groups threatened to abandon the two-day-old truce if violations persisted.

    A resolution welcoming the ceasefire, the third truce this year seeking to end nearly six years of war, was adopted unanimously by the 15-member Council, meeting in New York.

    The deal, brokered by Russia and Turkey, which back opposing sides, reduced violence, but firefights, air strikes and shelling went on in some areas.

    Factions belonging to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) - a loose alliance of militias excluding more radical Islamist groups - said government forces and Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah fighters had been trying to push rebels back in the Wadi Barada valley, northwest of Damascus.

    "Continued violations by the regime and bombardment and attempts to attack areas under the control of the revolutionary factions will make the agreement null and void," said a statement from the rebel groups.

    The rebels and political opposition said the government side was massing forces to launch a ground attack in the area. There has been no new announcement by the military since it launched operations in the area last week.

    FSA factions said in a separate statement that they would abandon the truce deal if Russia, whose air power has helped President Bashar al-Assad to turn the tide of the war, did not use its influence to halt the Wadi Barada attacks by 8 p.m. (1 p.m. ET).

    Later, two rebel officials said air raids around Wadi Barada had stopped just before 8 p.m. and that the ceasefire therefore still held, although clashes in the area were continuing.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group confirmed that there had been fighting in the area, source of most of the capital's water, and said there had also been government shelling in the southern provinces of Quneitra and Deraa.

    Putin-Rouhani call

    putin rouhani

    Russia's Defense Ministry said on Friday that rebels had violated the truce 12 times in 24 hours. Much of Friday's violence took place along the border between Hama and Idlib provinces in northwest Syria.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani agreed in a telephone call on Saturday to work together to try to end the Syria crisis and make a success of peace talks planned for the Kazakh capital Astana, the Kremlin said in a statement.

    The British-based Observatory said the level of fighting had fallen on Saturday, and the truce was not currently at risk, although one rebel official said it was "in serious danger".

    In their statement, the FSA factions said it appeared the government and opposition had signed two different versions of the ceasefire deal, one of which was missing "a number of key and essential points that are non-negotiable", but did not say what those were.

    The ceasefire deal is the first not to involve the United States or the United Nations.

    The Security Council welcomed the truce despite being urged by the FSA factions not to endorse the deal until the Syrian government and Russia had shown they would respect it.

    The resolution also welcomed plans for the talks in Kazakhstan before a resumption of U.N.-brokered talks in Geneva in February.

    The war has killed more than 300,000 people and made more than 11 million homeless.

    Even with a successful truce between Assad and the main armed opposition, the multi-sided conflict will continue.

    In particular, Turkey is trying to push back Kurdish forces and the jihadist Islamic State, both excluded from the deal, from areas south of its border.

    The position of other Islamist groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham with respect to the ceasefire is unclear; both have criticized it.

     

    (Reporting by John Davison and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in Beirut, Polina Devitt in Moscow, Yeganeh Torbati in Washington and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Adrian Croft)

    SEE ALSO: Here's what you can do to help besieged, war-torn Aleppo, Syria

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    LONDON — Britain's Security Minister Ben Wallace has warned that ISIS could be planning a chemical attack on the UK.

    In an interview with The Sunday Times, Wallace said the terrorist group wants to build on chemical attacks in Syria by bringing the weapons to Europe.

    He pointed to a foiled plot in February 2016 in Morocco where weapons were being created by an ISIS cell to cause mass casualties.

    "Moroccan authorities dismantled a cell involving chemical weapons," Wallace explained. "They recovered toxic chemical and biological substances and a large stock of fertiliser. The substances found could have been used to produce homemade explosives and could have been transformed into a deadly toxin."

    The Security Minister added: "The ambition of IS [Islamic State] or Daesh is definitely mass-casualty attacks. They want to harm as many people as possible and terrorise as many people as possible.

    "They have no moral objection to using chemical weapons against populations and, if they could, they would in this country. The casualty figures that could be involved would everybody's worst fear. We have certainly seen reports of them using it in Syria and Iraq [and] we have certainly seen aspirations for it in Europe."

    Wallace told The Sunday Times that UK security chiefs have carried out exercises to prepare for a chemical attack, which he described as the country's "worst fear."

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    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - At least 188 civilians have been killed in U.S.-led strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria since the operation began in 2014, the U.S. military said in a statement on Monday.

    The Combined Joint Task Force, in its monthly assessment of civilian casualties from the U.S. coalition's operations against the militant group, said it was still assessing five reports of unintentional deaths from four strikes in 2016 and one from 2015.

    The military's overall estimate was far below those of other outside groups, such as Air Wars, which monitors civilian deaths from international air strikes in the region. The group has estimated about 2,100 civilians have been killed in Iraq and Syria since the coalition's campaign started.

    U.S. military officials expressed regret for the deaths.

    "Although the Coalition takes extraordinary efforts to strike military targets in a manner that minimizes the risk of civilian casualties, in some incidents casualties are unavoidable," the task force said in a statement.

    The coalition said it had received 16 new reports of possible civilian deaths in November 2016. Among those, five reports were deemed credible and had led to 15 unintended civilian deaths, it said.

    In addition to the five reports still being assessed, officials said they are investigating a Dec. 29 strike on a van of Islamic State fighters that was hit in what officials later determined to be a hospital parking lot.

    The United States and its coalition partners had conducted 17,005 strikes against Islamic State as of Dec. 30, with 10,738 in Iraq and 6,267 in Syria, according to U.S. military data.

    The operation against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has cost $10 billion since 2014, the data showed.

     

    (Additional reporting by Idrees Ali; Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

    SEE ALSO: KERRY: Not enforcing Obama's red line in Syria 'cost' the US considerably in the Middle East

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