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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    F-16 Turkish air force

    Four Su-24Ms, four Su-25s and one Su-34 bomber of the Russian Air Force along with four F-16 and four F-4 jets belonging to the Turkish Air Force have carried out their first joint strike in Syria on January 18.

    This was an interesting mix of aircraft for a quite rare COMAO (Combined Air Operation) made of platforms able to perform CAS (Close Air Support), BAI (Battlefield Air Interdiction), S/DEAD (Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses) and Strike as well as Air Superiority and Aerial Escort.

    The raid aimed at destroying 36 ground targets was previously cleared with Syrian authorities, said Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy, the chief of the Russian General Staff Main Operational Directorate in a briefing in Moscow. Considering that Turkey is a NATO member and regularly trains with other Western air forces, and that the Russian Aerospace Force jets employ completely different procedures and standards, it would be interesting to know something more about the preparation, coordination, and execution of such joint raid.

    According to the first estimates provided by the Russian officer, the joint airstrikes near Al-Bab, in Aleppo province, “have been highly effective.”

    The raid came amid a nationwide ceasefire in Syria which came into effect on December 30, 2016. The strikes were in support of Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield, launched on August 24, 2016 to clear the Syrian border town of Jarabulus and the surrounding area from Daesh terrorist group with the support of the FSA (Free Syria Army) and US-led coalition planes.

    Al-Bab is one of Daesh’s last remaining strongholds near the Turkish border; the help of the Russians seems to be essential to prevent the Syrian Kurds from taking it.

    The crisis between Moscow and Ankara that followed the downing of the Russian Air Force Su-24 by Turkey on November 24, 2015 now seems decades away.

    SEE ALSO: Boeing has an updated F-18 in the works — here's how it's 'comparable' to the F-35

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    B 52H_static_display_arms_06

    Last evening, the US military killed more than 100 al Qaeda fighters in an airstrike on a training camp in Syria. The US has launched five attacks against al Qaeda’s network in Syria since the beginning of 2017.

    A B-52 bomber and a number of remotely piloted aircraft, more commonly known as drones, were involved in the strike, US officials told The Associate Press. It is unclear if any senior al Qaeda leaders were killed.

    The location of the training camp was not disclosed. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that last evening an “unidentified drone” targeted “Regiment 111,” a base in western Aleppo near the border of Idlib province. Regiment 111 is controlled by Jabhat Fatah al Sham, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria that is formally known as the Al Nusrah Front, and Nur al Din al Zanki, a group allied with JFS.

    The Observatory later reported that 40 JFS fighters and three Nur al Din al Zanki fighters were killed. It is unclear if the strike on the al Qaeda camp and the attack on Regiment 111 are the same incident, however, they do appear to be one in the same.

    The Pentagon has stepped up its targeting of al Qaeda and Jabhat Fatah al Sham. Last evening’s strike is the fifth against al Qaeda’s network in Syria since the beginning of the month. At the beginning of January, more than 20 al Qaeda operatives were killed in a pair of airstrikes in Syria. On Jan. 1, US warplanes hit a convoy of al Qaeda operatives as they left a headquarters near Sarmada. The Pentagon estimated that 5 fighters were killed.

    Two days later, on Jan. 3, the Pentagon estimated that it killed more than 15 al Qaeda personnel when it targeted multiple buildings and vehicles in the Sarmada headquarters. Among those reported killed were Abu Khattab al-Qahtani, another al Qaeda veteran who is said to have fought in Afghanistan and Yemen, and Abu Omar al-Turkistani, a senior member in the al Qaeda-affiliated Turkistan Islamic Party who is reported to have served as a leader in JFS. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Pentagon: Airstrikes kill 20 or more al Qaeda fighters in northern Syria.]

    Yesterday, the Pentagon announced that two al Qaeda leaders were killed in bombings in Syria on Jan. 12 and Jan. 17. Among those killed were Mohammad Habib Boussadoun al-Tunisi, who was described as an external operations leader, and Abd al-Jalil al-Muslimi, an al Qaeda veteran of Afghanistan and Syria who was trained by the Taliban and supported attacks against the West. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, US kills al Qaeda facilitator and external ops planner in Syrian airstrikes.]

    The US military has targeted al Qaeda’s cadre in Syria since September 2014, and has killed multiple high profile leaders over the past several years. However, the Islamic State has been the focus of the vast majority of the 6,647 Coalition airstrikes in Syria as of Jan. 19, 2017, according to Operation Inherent Resolve.

    With five strikes against al Qaeda in Syria over the past 20 days, the US military may be signaling that the global jihadist group will get more attention over the coming months.

    SEE ALSO: The colossal price to fly a pair of B-2 bombers to hit two ISIS camps in Libya

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    Syria Rebel Buses Aleppo

    ASTANA, Kazakhstan (AP) — Syrian rebel delegates are meeting in Kazakhstan ahead of talks with government representatives that are scheduled to begin Monday.

    The talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana, are sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey, and represent the first such negotiations between the two sides in a year. The U.N.'s Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, is participating in the talks. The new U.S. administration is not.

    The opposition delegation, which arrived in Astana on Sunday, is made up of about a dozen rebel figures led by Mohammad Alloush, of the Army of Islam rebel group. The Syrian government is sending its U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, and military delegates.

    At the top of the agenda is an effort to consolidate a cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey last month.

    SEE ALSO: Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu to speak with Trump on Sunday about Iran, Syria, and Palestinian issue

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    Syria Russia Putin Assad

    MOSCOW (AP) — The Russian Defense Ministry says its warplanes have flown first combat mission in Syria with US-led coalition aircraft.

    In a statement, the Defense Ministry also claimed that the Russian command center received targeting coordinates via a "direct line" from the US-led coalition headquarters for ISIS locations in al-Bab, Syria. 

    The idea of Russian and US jets carrying out joint air operations over Syria would mark a drastic change. The two nations have been backing opposite sides in the country's civil war, and Russian and US jets have previously come close to having confrontations in the air. 

    Samuel Oakford, a contributor to Airwars, has tweeted that a spokesperson for the US-led coalition has told him that Russia's claims of joint aerial operations in Syria were "rubbish ... propaganda." And a statement from the US Department of Defense says that it "is not coordinating airstrikes with the Russian military in Syria." 

    It is plausible that the aircraft carrying out joint-operations with the Russians belonged to coalition partner Turkey. Defense contractor Daniel Trombly has tweeted that Russian sources claim the Kremlin's jets flew with Turkish aircraft over Syria. And Russia and Turkey have previously carried out joint-operations in al-Bab outside of the US-led coalition. 

    And Michael R. Gordon, a national security correspondent at The New York Times, tweeted that this could all be Russian spin centered around the emerging joint-aerial operations between Turkey and Moscow. 

    Ankara and Moscow have moved steadily towards each other since the failed coup in Turkey in July 2016. The two nations, along with Iran, are currently sponsoring peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan between various Syrian rebel groups and the Assad government. 

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    ISIS Iraq Syria

    There are at least four separate coalitions that claim to be battling the extremist group Islamic State (IS). Three of those coalitions are reporting great success, and the failures of the fourth coalition tell us many things about the state of regional and geopolitical affairs.

    The physical "dawla," or "state," that was solidified by IS in 2014 at one point stretched from northwestern Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad in Iraq. Now it is attacked on all sides and is rapidly shrinking.

    On the eastern front, the Iraqi government, the Kurdish peshmerga, Turkish military units, Iraqi militias, U.S. Special Forces, and a broad coalition of international air support led by the United States has liberated Ramadi and Fallujah from IS control and is now rapidly retaking IS's western Iraqi stronghold, Mosul. It has been a tough fight, but progress in Mosul is now daily, or even hourly, news.

    On the western front, in Syria, the Turkish military and Syrian rebels have dealt major blows to IS. Azaz, Jarabulus, Mari, and (most importantly) Dabiq have all been liberated from IS since August. The Turkish coalition has met heavy resistance in the IS stronghold of Al-Bab, but they are making progress in cleaving IS's territory in two pieces. IS's defeat is only a matter of time -- and lives.

    At IS's center, the U.S. backed Syrian Defense Force (SDF), made up largely of Kurdish fighters, has eaten a giant crater in the northern part of IS's territory. The SDF is now threatening the IS capital, Raqqa, which is now regularly targeted by U.S. and coalition air strikes.

    Together these three coalitions are besieging all of IS's most important cities. They are threatening to capture IS's most important oil and gas resources as well. Perhaps most importantly, the United States believes that it has trapped many of the extremist group's most important leaders in this area.

    It's hard to imagine, then, that a fourth coalition, fighting for far less important outposts, would be losing ground to IS's offensives.

    This fourth group is the coalition supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It is made up of Russian soldiers, special forces, and private mercenaries (many of whom cut their teeth during Russia's invasion of Ukraine), as well as commandos from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Lebanese Hizballah extremists, and Shi'ite militiamen from Iraq. The purported mission of this coalition is to fight terrorists. And yet they have often let extremist groups like IS expand their territory while they concentrated on defeating U.S.-backed rebel groups, some of which were specifically organized to fight IS.

    During the pro-Assad coalition's campaign to capture Aleppo from anti-Assad rebels, IS launched a surprise operation to recapture the historic city of Palmyra. IS easily won a victory there because so few military units were left to guard the city.

    Even though the battle for Aleppo has ended in an Assad victory, IS been allowed to expand its territory west of Palmyra. Though heavy battles are being waged near this city today, nothing like a full-scale operation has been launched to halt the IS advance. Though Russia announced it was withdrawing from Syria, evidence suggests that the opposite is true, and the focus of Russia's military might in particular has been moderate rebel groups north of Damascus -- not Al-Qaeda-linked groups in the north, and not IS near Palmyra.

    All of this seems to confirm what evidence has told us all along -- that the Russian-led victory in Palmyra nearly one year ago had little to do with fighting terrorism, but was simply an opportunity to spread the propaganda that Russia and Assad were standing up to IS.

    Last week, new evidence emerged that Russia and Assad may have had a mutually beneficial relationship with IS rather than an adversarial one, though that relationship dynamic appears to be changing.

    The Syrian city of Deir ez-Zour has been largely controlled by IS since 2015, but an oddly shaped part of the city and its surrounding areas have remained under the control of the Syrian military. Most importantly, the military airport has never fallen to IS, allowing the Syrian regime to continue to move troops, ammunition, and supplies into and out of the city. In the last week or so, IS has launched a concerted effort to drive the Syrian military from those positions.

    Russia is now scrambling to bomb IS as the extremist group has cut Assad's position there in two.

    It is a tale told in two maps -- last week, as IS was collapsing in Mosul, it was advancing in Deir ez-Zour.

    But Deir ez-Zour is more than 250 kilometers away from the nearest Assad-held position in Syria, in the heart of IS's caliphate. If IS could have seriously threatened those positions, why did this only happen now when it is in such a weakened state?

    Russian propaganda networks and pro-Assad journalists would have us believe that the United States is allowing large numbers of IS fighters to withdraw west to Deir ez-Zour. We have not seen any evidence to support this conclusion.

    Furthermore, any IS extremists who escape Mosul could threaten U.S. Special Forces who are operating in Syria, so this strategy would make little sense. Even if it were true, why would IS wait until it was so weak to launch a new offensive, rather than send those forces to any of its more important positions that are in need of reinforcement?

    The obvious answer is that IS has allowed the Syrian military to hold those positions, and the Syrian military has given little cause for IS to change its mind. Though battles have certainly been fought between these two groups before in Syria, the situation there has been mutually beneficial for Assad and IS. By keeping its positions there, the Syrian government has been able to maintain that it is locked in a desperate struggle against IS extremists.

    IS's proximity to Syrian military positions has discouraged U.S. coalition air strikes against the extremist group. Instead, when the U.S. had intelligence on potential high-value targets within Deir ez-Zour earlier in the month it launched a risky special-forces raid on the outskirts of the city.

    IS is collapsing. It needs victories. And so it is attacking Syrian positions, in Palmyra and Deir ez-Zour, because it knows that it can probably win. Experts have repeatedly warned us from the start of this conflict that the Syrian government played a role in the creation of IS.

    We should not be surprised that the pro-Assad coalition and IS have at best taken advantage of a mutually beneficial relationship and at worst have openly colluded to create the mess in Syria and Iraq that we see today.

    If the West is to take the fight against IS seriously, it should do so with eyes open as to the motives of both the Assad government and the foreign powers, particularly Russia, that support it.

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    Syrian refugees.

    HELSINKI (AP) — As talks between Syrian factions and the government concluded in Kazakhstan, U.N. agencies and non-governmental groups at an aid conference in Finland appealed Tuesday for more than $8 billion in funding to help millions of displaced people inside Syria and those who have fled the conflict to neighboring countries.

    The U.N. refugee agency is seeking $4.63 billion in new funding to help at least 4.8 million people who have escaped the war by going abroad, mainly to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, and an estimated $3.4 billion to help an estimated 13.5 million internally displaced people.

    Opening the conference, Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila made a strong global appeal for more global help to those affected by the "devastating" war, warning that it has caused "population movements of great magnitude not seen since" World War II.

    He said that after six years of the conflict, the humanitarian crisis in Syria "is worse than ever before," with large groups of people in extreme poverty and struggling to survive.

    "Women have been subject to sexual and gender-based violence and young girls have been forced into child marriage," Sipila said. "More than half of the Syrian children are out of school across the region. Hospitals and schools have been destroyed and crucial public services have broken down."

    Speaking to reporters, Stephen O'Brien, the head of the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs, said that while Syria's war is already longer than World War II, "We fear that it will get worse."

    syrian refugees

    "We are at the critical juncture. We cannot let an erroneous perception that the crisis in Syria is somehow over," he said. "Even if the lasting peace is to break out today, this is the crisis that continues to test out shared humanity."

    The one-day meetings and panel discussions in the Finnish capital are aimed at charting humanitarian priorities for Syria in 2017 and to launch a regional refugee plan. They coincide with peace talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana, where the host country announced that Russia, Turkey and Iran had struck a deal on a mechanism to consolidate the country's nearly month-old cease-fire.

    In addition to U.N. and aid agencies, the Helsinki conference is being attended by government members from Syria's neighboring countries, where most of the refugees have fled.

    Donors from civil society and the private sector also discussed new assistance in the wake of last year's pledge of $12 billion made at a Syria aid conference in London. A follow-up to the Feb. 2016 London meeting is scheduled to be held in Brussels in April.

    ___

    Associated Press writer Aleksandar Ljubojevic contributed to this report.

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    staffan de mistura syria peace russia turkey astana

    Peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition in Kazakhstan were a coup for their international sponsors, but exposed the limits of what Russia, Turkey and Iran can achieve in their efforts to resolve the six-year-old war.

    It was the first time in nine months the two sides had come together, albeit briefly and unhappily, and the first time that Moscow, Ankara and Tehran had presided over such talks, with the United States only present as an observer.

    The fact that the talks happened at all was a diplomatic coup that underlined the three countries' growing Middle East clout and Washington's diminished influence at a time when Donald Trump is settling into the presidency.

    The head of the Russian delegation, Alexander Lavrentyev, hailed the talks, held in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, as the "birth" of a new negotiating format, and there were hopes they might make it more likely that U.N.-brokered talks could take place in Geneva next month.

    At the end of two chaotic days, Moscow, Ankara and Tehran backed a shaky Dec. 30 truce between Syria's warring parties and agreed to monitor its compliance.

    free syrian army

    Yet negotiations did not go to plan, showing that the three would-be Syria conflict brokers, in their different ways, all have credibility problems. This suggests they may have to involve Washington and the Gulf States more fully if they are to have any chance of brokering a final deal.

    That could be difficult as the talks spotlighted sharp differences between Moscow and Tehran over the possible future participation of the United States, in particular.

    State media in Iran cited Iranian officials as saying any future U.S. involvement was unacceptable, while Lavrentyev, the main Russian negotiator, said Moscow would welcome Washington joining the process.

    "They (the Russians) can now see how difficult their partners are," said one Western diplomat.

    In previous rounds of U.N. talks in Geneva, Moscow had not been able to call the shots in the way it could in Kazakhstan, the diplomat said, because the United States and the West had succeeded in diluting its role. This time, Moscow had its first taste of what it is like to be in the hot seat.

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had previously lamented the failure of U.N.-backed talks in Geneva, calling them "fruitless sitting around". Lavrentyev, Russia's chief negotiator in Astana, put a positive gloss on the Kazakh talks but did not hide the diplomatic difficulties either, complaining at different times about how tough the discussions were.

    Western envoys, who turned up informally to observe developments from the corridors of the hotel, mingled with reporters to try to ascertain what the purpose of the meeting was. There was much speculation about whether Russia wanted a follow-up meeting that would go into the details of what was in the end a vague final communiqué.

    "Frankly, we’re baffled. Why is Russia doing this now? What has changed for them that they want to disengage militarily and engage politically?" said one diplomat.

      Western envoys congregated in the lobby of the Rixos, the talks venue, as snow fell outside and could be heard debating whether to try the local horsemeat specialties in the hotel’s Irish pub, where clouds of cigarette smoked filled the air.

    At one point, on Monday evening, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry began searching for guides willing to show the rebels around local shopping malls after apparently being told that the opposition wanted to pick up some bargains.

    Revolutionary Guard IRGC BasijLegitimacy problems

    Back at the talks, rebels and Western diplomats questioned the role of Iran and its allies.

    "The Russians have moved from a stage of being a party in the fighting and are now exerting efforts to become a guarantor. They are finding a lot of obstacles from (Lebanon's Shi'ite) Hezbollah forces, Iran and the regime," said Mohammed Alloush, the head of the Syrian opposition delegation.

    Western diplomats said they too saw Iran as one of the main obstacles to progress with one saying Tehran's commitment to the ceasefire and a political transition was uncertain.

    Moscow said it had given the rebels the draft of a new constitution, drawn up by Russian specialists, to speed agreement on a political transition. It was unclear however what the document said or what the rebels thought of it.

    The talks yielded a joint communique from Russia, Turkey and Iran which pledged to create a monitoring mechanism to police Syria's patchy ceasefire, but the rebels did not endorse it.

    Instead, they submitted a separate proposal on the ceasefire and questioned Iran's legitimacy as a broker at a time when they said Iranian militias were breaching the ceasefire.

    The communique legitimized Iran's "bloodletting" in Syria, complained Alloush, and did not address the role of Shi'ite militias fighting the rebels.

    Nor did the rebels, who for the first time were represented by military rather than just political figures, show any signs of watering down their demand that President Bashar al-Assad step down as soon as possible, something Damascus won't accept.

    For some of them, Russia's broker status sat awkwardly.

    "We are not opposed to Russia because it is Russia but we had a problem when its jets were participating with the regime in killing our people," said Osama Abu Zaid, an opposition spokesman. "If this role ends then we'll have no problem."

    The Syrian government delegation had its own issues with the talks' sponsors, questioning Turkey's legitimacy as a broker at a time when it said Ankara was violating its sovereignty via an extended armed incursion into northern Syria. 

    Putin AssadNo face-to-face talks

    Neither delegation included senior figures and Washington was only represented in an observer capacity by its local ambassador. Apart from one official from the United Arab Emirates present informally, Arab envoys were absent.

    And in a major setback, Moscow failed to get the two sides to negotiate face-to-face despite Lavrentyev, the Russian negotiator, saying beforehand that face-to-face talks were "the main goal".

    The rebels baulked at that, saying they could not sit down with people responsible for so much bloodshed. Instead, Moscow had to make do with indirect talks with the two delegations relaying messages via intermediaries.

    Some diplomats said it was the opposition that had refused, but others said there were fears that Bashar Ja'afari, the head of the government delegation, who has a reputation for being curt, would add "vinegar to the water", giving indirect talks a better chance of success.

    There was quarrelling about the format and the agenda from the outset.

    The opposition demanded talks focus solely on a ceasefire that should require Iranian-backed militias to quit Syria.

    But the government, emboldened by the fact the talks were being held under the co-sponsorship of Russia, a staunch ally, and with the balance of power turning in its favor on the ground, said there was a chance to push for reconciliation with Assad remaining in power, a red line for the rebels.

    Opening statements laid bare those divisions.

    Alloush, the head of the rebel delegation, called the Syrian government "a bloody despotic regime", while Ja'afari, head of the government delegation, accused opposition negotiators of defending "war crimes" and of being rude and unprofessional.

    Ja'afari made clear too that a government offensive against Wadi Barada, which supplies most of the water for Damascus, would continue even though rebels see it as a truce violation.

    "As long as 7 million people in Damascus remain deprived of water, it will continue," said Ja'afari.

    Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Moscow-based foreign policy think-tank close to the Foreign Ministry, told Reuters the talks had been "better than nothing."

    "But there is no silver bullet," he said. 

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    Bana Alabed syria

    Seven-year-old Aleppo girl whose Twitter posts on the war-ravaged Syria made headlines across the world has written a letter to the new US President, Donald Trump, seeking his help for the Syrian children.

    Bana Alabed and her family fled from the war zone in east Aleppo during humanitarian evacuations in December 2016 and are now living in Turkey. However, in her Twitter posts, she has been urging authorities to evacuate all the children still stuck in the region.

    Her mother, Fatemah, who helped her run the Twitter account, said her daughter wrote the letter to President Trump days before his inauguration to the White House, because "she has seen Trump many times on the TV".

    "You must do something for the children of Syria because they are like your children and deserve peace like you," Alabed wrote in the letter seen by the BBC. She also wrote about how peaceful her life has become after coming to Turkey, but she feels sad about the "millions of Syrian children" back home who are continuing to live in horror.

    She told Trump that she will be his friend if he promises to help Syrian children. "I am looking forward to what you will do for the children of Syria," she wrote.

    Meanwhile, it is unclear what strategy Trump will adopt with regard to the years' long Syrian civil war between President Bashar al-Assad and rebel forces who want his ouster. The ensuing war has led to millions of Syrians leaving the country in search of safe refuge in nearby countries like Turkey, Greece and Italy.

    Russia is supporting the Assad regime in regaining control over parts of the country held by rebel groups. Assad recently announced on Twitter that his forces have won back east Aleppo from the rebels. Fighting is reportedly underway in other parts of the province and the country.

    Entire text of Bana Alabed's letter to US President Donald Trump:

    Dear Donald Trump,

    My name is Bana Alabed and I am a seven years old Syrian girl from Aleppo.

    I lived in Syria my whole life before I left from besieged East Aleppo on December last year. I am part of the Syrian children who suffered from the Syrian war.

    But right now, I am having a peace in my new home of Turkey. In Aleppo, I was in school but soon it was destroyed because of the bombing.

    Some of my friends died.

    I am very sad about them and wish they were with me because we would play together by right now. I couldn't play in Aleppo, it was the city of death.

    Right now in Turkey, I can go out and enjoy. I can go to school although I didn't yet. That is why peace is important for everyone including you.

    However, millions of Syrian children are not like me right now and suffering in different parts of Syria. They are suffering because of adult people.

    I know you will be the president of America, so can you please save the children and people of Syria? You must do something for the children of Syria because they are like your children and deserve peace like you.

    If you promise me you will do something for the children of Syria, I am already your new friend.

    I am looking forward to what you will do for the children of Syria.

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    child refugees syria

    An executive order drafted for U.S. President Donald Trump to sign would direct the secretaries of state and defense to produce a plan for safe areas for civilian refugees inside of Syria and other nearby countries, according to a document seen by Reuters.

    "The Secretary of State, in conjunction with the Secretary of Defense, is directed within 90 days of the date of this order to produce a plan to provide safe areas in Syria and in the surrounding region in which Syrian nationals displaced from their homeland can await firm settlement, such as repatriation or potential third-country resettlement," the draft order says.

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    Tulsi Gabbard Congresswoman

    A high-profile Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii said she met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a secret "fact-finding" trip she took to the country recently.

    Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, of Hawaii, told CNN on Wednesday that when she went to the country earlier this month she initially hadn't planned on meeting with Assad. But when CNN's Jake Tapper asked Gabbard if she met with the authoritarian ruler, she answered, "I did."

    "My reason for going to visit Syria was really because of the suffering of the Syrian people that has been weighing heavily on my heart," she said. "I wanted to see if there was in some small way that I could express the love and the 'aloha' and the care that the American people have for the people of Syria and to see firsthand what was happening there."

    Gabbard released a statement shortly after the CNN interview aired.

    "My visit to Syria has made it abundantly clear: Our counterproductive regime change war does not serve America's interest, and it certainly isn't in the interest of the Syrian people," she said in the statement.

    Gabbard was in Syria for four days. The nonprofit Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services (AACCESS)–Ohio sponsored the trip, according to Gabbard's statement.

    Obama administration officials have repeatedly insisted that Assad, who has been accused of massacring his own people, must step down. But the US hasn't directly intervened to bring an end to his brutal rule.

    Gabbard said in her statement that she returned to the US "with even greater resolve to end our illegal war to overthrow the Syrian government."

    Gabbard has been a vocal opponent of the Obama administration's calls for Assad to relinquish power. On December 8, she introduced to Congress the Stop Arming Terrorists Act, which would prohibit the US government from funding or arming extremist groups like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, Al Qaeda, and ISIS.

    "When the opportunity arose to meet with [Assad], I did so because I felt it's important that if we profess to truly care about the Syrian people, about their suffering, then we've got to be able to meet with anyone that we need to if there's a possibility that we could achieve peace," Gabbard said. "And that's exactly what we've talked about."

    When Tapper noted the crimes Assad has been accused of, Gabbard defended her choice to meet with him.

    "Whatever you think about President Assad, the fact is that he is the president of Syria," she said. "In order for any peace agreement, in order for any possibility of a viable peace agreement to occur, there has to be a conversation with him. The Syrian people will determine his outcome and what happens with their government and their future."

    Gabbard also repeated a line that the Assad regime has long pushed — that there are no moderate rebels left in Syria.

    "Every place that I went, every person that I spoke to, I asked this question to them [about arming moderate rebels], and without hesitation they said, 'There are no moderate rebels,' 'Who are these moderate rebels that people keep speaking of?'" Gabbard said. "Regardless of the name of these groups, the strongest fighting force on the ground in Syria is al-Nusra or Al Qaeda and ISIS. That is a fact."

    Assad often argues that his opposition is composed entirely of extremists. This is a convenient argument for his regime — Western governments won't support terrorists, so if Assad frames the Syrian civil war as a conflict between his government and terrorists who oppose him, he looks like the better option.

    Gabbard ended her statement with a plea.

    "The US must stop supporting terrorists who are destroying Syria and her people," she said. "The US and other countries fueling this war must stop immediately. We must allow the Syrian people to try to recover from this terrible war."

    Syria, which has been thoroughly ravaged by a civil war that is nearing its sixth year, is generally inaccessible to Americans. Journalists who have reported from Syria in recent years have coordinated their trips with the Assad government and have had their travels carefully monitored and controlled.

    Gabbard visited Damascus, Syria's capital, while she was inside the country. She also visited Aleppo, a major city that has been the scene of intense fighting between the regime and rebels in recent months.

    Gabbard is a member of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees. She met with President-elect Donald Trump in late November to discuss how to avoid "the drumbeats of war" that may lead to US intervention in Syria, among other national-security concerns.

    Gabbard's full statement is below:

    "My visit to Syria has made it abundantly clear: Our counterproductive regime change war does not serve America's interest, and it certainly isn't in the interest of the Syrian people."

    "As I visited with people from across the country, and heard heartbreaking stories of how this war has devastated their lives, I was asked, 'Why is the United States and its allies helping al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups try to take over Syria? Syria did not attack the United States. Al-Qaeda did.' I had no answer."

    "I return to Washington, DC with even greater resolve to end our illegal war to overthrow the Syrian government. I call upon Congress and the new Administration to answer the pleas of the Syrian people immediately and support the Stop Arming Terrorists Act. We must stop directly and indirectly supporting terrorists — directly by providing weapons, training and logistical support to rebel groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIS; and indirectly through Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Turkey, who, in turn, support these terrorist groups. We must end our war to overthrow the Syrian government and focus our attention on defeating al-Qaeda and ISIS."

    "From Iraq to Libya and now in Syria, the US has waged wars of regime change, each resulting in unimaginable suffering, devastating loss of life, and the strengthening of groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS."

    "Originally, I had no intention of meeting with Assad, but when given the opportunity, I felt it was important to take it. I think we should be ready to meet with anyone if there's a chance it can help bring about an end to this war, which is causing the Syrian people so much suffering."

    "The US must stop supporting terrorists who are destroying Syria and her people. The US and other countries fueling this war must stop immediately. We must allow the Syrian people to try to recover from this terrible war."

    Natasha Bertrand contributed to this report.

    SEE ALSO: Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard just took a secret 'fact-finding trip' to Syria

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    Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov

    MOSCOW (AP) — The Kremlin said Thursday that a U.S. plan for safe zones in Syria should be thoroughly considered.

    Asked to comment on a draft executive order that President Donald Trump is expected to sign this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said it was important to "weigh all possible consequences" of the measure.

    Dmitry Peskov said in a conference call with reporters that the U.S. hasn't consulted with Russia on the subject and noted that "it's important not to exacerbate the situation with refugees."

    While suspending visas for Syrians and others, the order directs the Pentagon and the State Department to produce a plan for safe zones in Syria and the surrounding area within 90 days. It includes no details.

    Safe zones, proposed by both Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton during the campaign, were ruled out by the Obama administration for fear it would bring the U.S. into direct conflict with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russia, which has been waging an air campaign to aid his forces since September 2015.

    In October, the Russian military specifically warned the U.S. against striking Syrian government forces, saying its air defense weapons in Syria would fend off any attack.

    A Syrian boy takes a selfie as he waits with his family at Lebanon's northern Tripoli port for a passenger ferry to Turkey,

    Russia has welcomed Trump's pledge to mend ties with Moscow and potentially partner with it against the Islamic State and other extremist groups.

    But Trump has provided few details about how he plans to approach Syria's complex conflict, and the Kremlin, which was bitterly at odds with the Obama administration, has said that rebuilding trust will take time.

    Peskov said no agreement has been reached on a Trump-Putin phone call and there have been no contacts between their administrations yet beyond routine diplomatic exchanges.

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    aleppo syria

    LONDON (Reuters) - Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said on Thursday Britain was "open-minded" about the timescale for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad relinquishing power and did not rule out joining Russia in military action against Islamic State militants.

    Speaking to British lawmakers, Johnson also questioned whether the new administration of U.S. President Donald Trump fully understood Iranian involvement in Syria and the value of a nuclear deal struck between Tehran and world powers.

    "There are no good options here (in Syria). We've been wedded for a long time to the mantra that Assad must go and we haven't been able at any stage to make that happen," Johnson told the House of Lords committee on international relations.

    "If there is a possibility of an arrangement with the Russians that simultaneously allows Assad to move towards the exit and diminishes Iranian influence in the region by getting rid of Assad and allows us to join with the Russians in attacking Daesh (IS) and wiping them off the face of the earth ... then that might be a way forward."

    Britain is part of the U.S.-led coalition involved in air attacks on IS in Syria and Iraq, and the government's position has been that no solution to the Syrian conflict is possible without the removal of Assad. British ministers have also been critical of Russia's military intervention in support of Assad.

    'Realistic'

    But Johnson said there was a need to be "realistic about the way the landscape has changed" and to think afresh, saying it was conceivable that Assad could stand in a future election.

    Boris Johnson

    "It is our view that Bashar al-Assad should go, it's been our long-standing position. But we are open-minded about how that happens and the timescale on which that happens," he said.

    Johnson said the Trump administration should recognize that any deal with Russia on ending the Syrian conflict would also involve "an accommodation with Iran", another key Assad ally.

    Johnson praised the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which Trump has called "the worst deal ever negotiated" and has threatened to renegotiate.

    "We think that trying to improve relations with Iran through this deal, and it's a pretty cautious thing, is on the whole a good thing and we regard that as one of the achievements of the (former U.S. President Barack) Obama administration."

    Johnson's comments came a day before British Prime Minister Theresa May was due to become the first leader to meet Trump following his inauguration.

     

    (Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Gareth Jones)

    SEE ALSO: Democrats and Republicans have virtually switched sides on states' rights

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    Mosul Iraq ISIS flag selfie

    The big fight for the Iraqi city of Mosul is yet another case of ISIS losing the ground it seized in its blitz across Iraq and Syria in 2014.

    Just last week, Iraqi forces reclaimed the eastern half of Mosul, and it's only a matter of time until the entire city is back in Iraqi hands. It's just the latest in a string of setbacks for the terror group, which has lost upwards of 50% of its territory so far.

    Whether ISIS fighters happen to die fighting, or flee their positions to fight another day — they often leave a treasure trove of ordnance, propaganda, and intelligence materials that can prove helpful against them.

    Here's what was left behind after ISIS took off.

    David Choi contributed to a previous version of this article.

    SEE ALSO: This story about an Iraqi refugee becoming a US Marine may be the Pentagon's 'Twitter rebellion' against Donald Trump

    In much of its territory, ISIS has its own propaganda posted to show the people who's in charge, like this billboard with Quranic verses in the historic city of Palmyra, Syria.



    And ISIS flags abound, like this one in an abandoned building.



    Tripods and a projector were left inside an ancient hammam, or steam bath, which was used by ISIS as a media center in Manbij, Syria.



    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Donald Trump

    WASHINGTON, Jan 27 (Reuters) - President Donald Trump said on Friday that Syrian Christians will be given priority when it comes to applying for refugee status in the United States.

    "If you were a Muslim you could come in, but if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible and the reason that was so unfair, everybody was persecuted in all fairness, but they were chopping off the heads of everybody but more so the Christians," Trump said in an excerpt of an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network.

    Pew Research Center said last October 38,901 Muslim refugees entered the United States in fiscal year 2016 from all countries - almost the same number of Christian refugees, 37,521.

    Trump was expected to sign an executive order on Friday that would temporarily halt refugees from some Muslim-majority nations, a White House official said.

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    Iraq

    Iraqis who say their lives are in danger because they worked with the U.S. government in Iraq fear their chances of finding refuge in the United States may vanish under a new order signed on Friday by President Donald Trump.

    The order temporarily suspends the United States' main refugee program and halts visas being issued to citizens of several predominantly Muslim countries, including Iraq.

    It is expected to affect two programs U.S. lawmakers created a few years after the 2003 invasion of Iraq to help the tens of thousands of Iraqis who risked their lives helping Americans.

    Trump says the order is necessary to prevent Islamist militants from coming to the United States posing as refugees, but refugee advocacy groups say the lengthy screening of applicants by multiple U.S. agencies makes this fear unfounded.

    Iraqis coming to the United States under the Special Immigrant Visa program for Iraqis, which stopped accepting new applications in 2014, or the ongoing Direct Access Program for U.S.-Affiliated Iraqis are losing hope of ever getting out.

    "Mr. Trump, the new president, killed our dreams," said one Baghdad man whose wife worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) as a bookkeeper.

    "I don't have any hope to go to the United States," he said in a telephone interview, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by Iraq's Sunni and Shia militant groups and also of unfavorable treatment by the Trump administration.

    More than 7,000 Iraqis, many of them interpreters for the U.S. military, have resettled in the United States under the Special Immigrant Visa program since 2008, while another 500 or so are still being processed, according to State Department figures. Another 58,000 Iraqis were awaiting interviews under the Direct Access program, according to the International Refugee Assistance Project. Tens of thousands have already arrived under the second program, but no recent total was available.

    Iraq War

    "A lot of translators were trying to get the hell out of there because they had a mark on their head for working with U.S. forces," Allen Vaught, a former U.S. Army captain who went to Fallujah in western Iraq in 2003, said in a telephone interview. "They're viewed as collaborators."

    He fears the order would endanger American troops by making it harder to recruit local support in war zones, a belief echoed by several advocacy groups working on behalf of America's Iraqi employees.

    While in Iraq, Vaught employed five local interpreters who initially earned $5 a week traveling with troops, sometimes without weapons or armor. He helped two of the interpreters come to the United States as refugees with their families, putting them up initially in his home in Dallas, Texas. Another two were executed by militia groups, he said.

    The fifth was still mired in the refugee screening process, which can last months or years even after the initial interview. Vaught had expected to also welcome him into his home this year before he had seen a draft of Trump's order.

    "This executive order is based on ignorance and fear," he said. "And you do not lead a country with ignorance and fear."

    Iraq

    Iraqis stranded

    In Baghdad, the Iraqi man waiting for a visa recalled U.S, soldiers had laughed at his concerns, telling him the United States is too big a democracy to be changed on "the decision of one person like Trump," he said. But he now wonders if the soldiers were right.

    In 2013, a USAID official encouraged his family to apply as refugees under the Direct Access program. He checked in every week or so, but is still waiting word on an appointment at the U.S. consulate for the necessary interview.

    The same year he filed his application, he was shot in the head while driving to work, hospitalizing him for a month and leaving him deaf in one ear. He connected that to the threats that had often flashed as text messages on his cellphone, sent by Islamist militants angered by his wife's work for USAID.

    Others in Iraq remained hopeful they would eventually get out.

    An Iraqi man who worked for a U.S. defense contractor and later alongside U.S. troops as a mid-ranking Iraqi Army officer, recalled his excitement at getting the phone call a few weeks ago telling him that his family had an interview appointment at the U.S. consulate after two years and four applications.

    He was hopeful it would still take place in mid-February, believing that American officials would be concerned about the threats to his family. He was unaware that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday temporarily halted trips by staff to interview applicants.

    "I believe this is politics, things you hear on the news," he told Reuters by phone from Baghad on condition of anonymity. "I don't think they would prevent Iraqis coming to America."

    (Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Mary Milliken)

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    donald trump executive order extreme vettingLawyers representing two Iraqi refugees have filed legal challenges to President Donald Trump's executive order barring citizens and refugees from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the US.

    The order took immediate effect on Friday and left refugees stranded or detained in airports across the country.

    The two Iraqi refugees, who were being held at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, were carrying valid visas and had been granted asylum for their or their families' work for the US government during the American occupation, which made them targets in their home country.

    The refugees' lawyers "filed a writ of habeas corpus early Saturday in the Eastern District of New York seeking to have their clients released,"the New York Times reported on Saturday. "At the same time, they filed a motion for class certification, in an effort to represent all refugees and immigrants who they said were being unlawfully detained at ports of entry."

    One of the Iraqis, Hameed Khalid Darweesh, had worked as an interpreter for the Army’s 101st Airborne Division in Baghdad and Mosul starting shortly after the Americans invaded in 2003, according to the Times. He was detained by customs and border patrol agents at the airport late Friday, but was released on Saturday afternoon after two New York lawmakers traveled to JFK and demanded to see him.

    refugees

    The other, Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi, was traveling to Texas to reunite with his wife and son when customs denied him entry, according to the Times. Alshawi's wife had worked as a contractor for the US government in Iraq. He is still being detained along with 11 others, according to Rep. Nydia Velazquez.

    One of the Iraqis' lawyers, Mark Doss, told CNN that he and his colleague had been at JFK "all night," and that they had not been able to meet with Darweesh or Alshawi in person.

    "They are being unlawfully detained in the airport" because they were in mid-air when Trump signed the order, Doss said. He said customs agents told him to "call Trump" when he asked who he could speak to about seeing his clients.

    “What I do for this country? They put the cuffs on,” Darweesh, the Iraqi who was released on Saturday after 19 hours of detention, told reporters outside of JFK. “You know how many soldiers I touch by this hand?”

    mark doss

    "This order is unconstitutional" and targets Muslim-majority countries, said Doss, the attorney. "We have filed an emergency motion to prevent the US government from sending our clients, and people like them, from being sent back to countries where they will be in danger." That, Doss argued, would be "a violation of international law."

    Five Iraqi passengers and one Yemeni, meanwhile, were barred from boarding an EgyptAir flight from Cairo to New York on Saturday, according to Reuters.

    refugeesSince the 2003 invasion, the US government has implemented two programs — the Special Immigrant Visa program and the Direct Access Program for US-Affiliated Iraqis— for Iraqis who had helped the US government during the occupation.

    "A lot of translators were trying to get the hell out of there because they had a mark on their head for working with U.S. forces," Allen Vaught, a former US Army captain who was stationed in Fallujah in 2003, told Reuters. "They're viewed as collaborators."

    Trump's ban on refugees and citizens arriving to the US from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen has affected, among other things, the government's asylum agreements with Iraqis who collaborated with the US during the war.

    Citizens of Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen will be banned from entering the US for 90 days, according to the order, and all refugees will be denied entry for 120 days "to ensure that those approved for refugee admission do not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States."

    The order will also block legal US residents who hail from the targeted countries, but hold American visas or green cards, from returning to the US from trips abroad. Those with dual citizenship of one of the targeted countries will be banned, too, the Wall Street Journal reported.

    "That means Iraqis seeking to enter the US on a British passport, for instance, will be barred," the Journal said.

    A Syrian refugee woman walks between tents in Nizip refugee camp, near the Turkish-Syrian border in Gaziantep province, Turkey, November 30, 2016.

    But the ban on Syrians fleeing a brutal, six-year civil war is indefinite, even as nearly 15,000 Syrian asylum-seekers had been resettled in the US as of November. The ban gives priority status, however, to minorities fleeing religious persecution. Trump said in an interview on Friday that the caveat was aimed at helping Syrian Christians.

    The American Civil Liberties Union has promised to challenge any form of Muslim ban, saying that "a policy categorically excluding members of a particular religion from the country would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by explicitly disapproving of one religion and implicitly preferring others."

    jfk

    The Council on American-Islamic Relations has also argued that the ban is unconstitutional: "Its apparent purpose and underlying motive is to ban people of the Islamic faith from Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States," the organization said, vowing to file a federal lawsuit challenging the executive order.

    Because the ban does not explicitly mention "Islam" or "Muslims," however, it may be shielded from legal challenges arguing that it violates the Constitution's guarantees of religious freedom and due process.

    The International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), which organizes law students and lawyers to protect legal and human rights for refugees and displaced persons, put out a call on its website last week for lawyers to travel to airports to offer legal advice to refugees arriving in the US who might be detained.

    A representative for the project told Business Insider last week that they received a "great response," but that they were waiting to mobilize until it was clear that the refugees with valid visas would actually be denied entry.

    The organization's website has since been updated: "Hundreds of lawyers have signed up to help. We have reached capacity and have therefore taken down the sign-up form."

    "In the coming weeks we will be advocating to show why this policy is bad for US national security, why it goes against our humanitarian responsibilities, and why it is fundamentally un-American,"Betsy Fisher, IRAP's policy director, told the Washington Post on Saturday.

    "If there is one fundamentally American value then it is welcoming those who are fleeing persecution. At our best, this is what we can do."

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    Kellyanne Conway

    Top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway took to Twitter on Saturday to praise the president's executive actions halting refugee admission to the United States. 

    "Get used to it. @POTUS is a man of action and impact," Conway tweeted, along with a link to a Fox News segment in which she talked about how Trump followed through on his campaign promise to implement "extreme vetting" of refugees and migrants from certain countries. 

    "I don't think Washington is accustomed to somebody who's just been a brilliant businessman, who's accustomed to delivering and producing results, who's accountable to, in this case, the people," Conway said during her Fox News interview

    "Promises made, promises kept," her tweet continued. "Shock to the system. And he's just getting started."

    Donald Trump signed an executive order on Friday that banned refugees from entering the US for 120 days. Syrians have been banned indefinitely, and asylum-seekers from six Muslim-majority countries — Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen — have been barred entry for at least the next three months.

    Critics of Trump's refugee ban say it is discriminatory and violates the Constitution's religious freedom guarantees.

    "Today’s executive actions dishonor our values and do not address the threat of terrorism," said a statement released by House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Friday. "Americans of all faiths must confront and reject any attempt to target for exclusion or discrimination anyone on the basis of their religion."

    Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer also slammed the president's executive actions. "Tears are running down the cheeks of the Statue of Liberty tonight as a grand tradition of America, welcoming immigrants, that has existed since America was founded has been stomped upon, taking in immigrants and refugees is not only humanitarian but has also boosted our economy and created jobs decade after decade," Schumer said. 

    He continued: "This is one of the most backward and nasty executive orders that the president has issued."

    SEE ALSO: 'Tears are running down the cheeks of the Statue of Liberty': Lawmakers unload on Trump's moves to limit refugee programs

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    Malala Yousafzai

    Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai condemned President Donald Trump on Friday for his executive order barring refugees from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the US.

    "I am heartbroken that today President Trump is closing the door on children, mothers and fathers fleeing violence and war," Yousafzai's statement began.

    "I am heartbroken that America is turning its back on a proud history of welcoming refugees and immigrants — the people who helped build your country, ready to work hard in exchange for a fair chance at a new life."

    Yousafzai rose to fame in 2012 after she was shot by members of the Taliban for arguing that women in her native country of Pakistan had a right to an education. She later started The Malala Fund to improve girls' education around the world and, at age 17, became the youngest person ever to win a Nobel prize.

    "I am heartbroken that Syrian refugee children, who have suffered through six years of war by no fault of their own, are singled-out for discrimination," Yousafzai wrote on Friday.

    She continued: "In this time of uncertainty and unrest around the world, I ask President Trump not to turn his back on the world’s most defenseless children and families."

    Trump's executive order implemented sweeping changes to the US' refugee admission program. It immediately banned all refugees from entering the US for 120 days. Syrians have been banned indefinitely, and asylum-seekers from six Muslim-majority countries — Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen — have been barred entry for at least the next three months.

    Following the executive action, refugees and asylum-seekers were stranded and detained at airports across the nation as they arrived on US soil, because many of them were in mid-air when the order was signed.

    Read Malala Yousafzai's full statement below:

     

    SEE ALSO: Kellyanne Conway on Trump executive orders: ‘Get used to it … he’s just getting started'

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    Donald Trump

    President Donald Trump said this week that he would "absolutely do safe zones in Syria" to stem the flow of refugees into other countries.

    Trump is expected to ask the Pentagon and State Department to draft a plan for establishing the safe zones, so it's currently unclear what measures specifically Trump would authorize.

    But experts warn that creating and defending safe zones inside of Syria could lead to escalation — and potentially drag the US into a global conflict.

    In the Syrian civil war, which is almost in its sixth year, the Obama administration supported Syrian rebels who opposed the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. But the primary US goal in Syria has been to eradicate terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda-affiliated factions.

    Then, in 2015, Russia entered the conflict to help the Assad regime. Iran, a major Assad ally, is also involved in the conflict. And establishing safe zones inside the country could result provoking those countries — the US would need to defend the zone from external bombardment from both terrorist groups and a regime that has been known to indiscriminately bomb civilians.

    "I do think that it presents escalation risks," Melissa Dalton, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who was formerly a country director for Syria at the Department of Defense, told Business Insider.

    "If the US decides to pursue a safe zone, it needs to do so in the broader framework that looks at what sort of levers, what sort of coercive measures can the US bring to bear on Russia, Assad, and Iran to ensure that the safe zone is not violated and to mitigate the risks of military confrontation."

    It's unclear whether a safe zone would mean imposing no-fly restrictions above the territory, but it's likely that protecting the airspace would be necessary to guard against airstrikes. And if that is the case, the US might need to be prepared to shoot down any aircraft that violates the no-fly zone — a move that could lead to war.

    "I don’t think my country is willing to risk World War III over Syria," Robert Ford, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute who was the US ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014, told Business Insider in June.

    A Syrian refugee woman walks between tents in Nizip refugee camp, near the Turkish-Syrian border in Gaziantep province, Turkey, November 30, 2016.

    Trump himself said in October that his then-political rival's plan for resolving the Syrian conflict, which included establishing no-fly zones and safe zones, would "lead to World War III." He used the same logic many experts are now using to express skepticism about his own plan.

    "What we should do is focus on ISIS. We should not be focusing on Syria," Trump told The Guardian. "You're going to end up in World War III over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton."

    He continued: "You're not fighting Syria anymore, you're fighting Syria, Russia and Iran, all right? Russia is a nuclear country, but a country where the nukes work as opposed to other countries that talk."

    Russia also issued a veiled warning to the Trump administration.

    Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in a conference call with reporters Thursday that it's important for the US to "think about the potential consequences of establishing safe zones" in Syria.

    Dalton explained that with Russia's involvement in the Syrian civil war, "any sort of military intervention by the US whether it's a no-fly zone or a safe zone would have to be coordinated with the Russians." Assad might also need to be involved in negotiations about a no-fly zone so that all parties in the conflict are in agreement about which areas are off-limits.

    "If there were terms struck with Russia and Assad such that they were supportive of the creation of this safe zone and it was far enough distance away from where extremist groups are operating such that Assad and the Russians are not going to strike in that area, perhaps the requirements for a complete no-fly zone might not be as strong," Dalton said.

    putin assad

    But the problem with this strategy is that the Assad regime considers his opposition to be comprised completely of terrorists, meaning he'd be unlikely to support a safe-zone that included rebels who oppose him.

    "Given the marbled nature of the different groups that are present in northern Syria, it's very difficult to separate the interlaced communities that the US may deem as civilians versus what Assad and the Russians deem as a threat or extremists," Dalton said.

    "That then leads to the potential of escalation, whether or not the US has a strong no-fly zone in place or not."

    Negotiating with Assad would also likely require concessions for his regime, which Syrians would not be happy with.

    Additionally, protecting the safe zone would likely require an increased presence of US troops on the ground, and that also carries potential for escalation.

    "A safe zone is more than a no-fly zone," Ford, the former ambassador to Syria, said in an email Friday. "It presumably means that not only do enemy airplanes [not] drop bombs on civilians, but there is no tank/artillery shelling into the safe zone either. That means, of course, the possibility of [the US Air Force] attacking Syria/Iran-backed forces on the ground if they fire into the zone."

    Jim Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation, told Reuters that "this essentially boils down to a willingness to go to war to protect refugees."

    SEE ALSO: Russia: US should 'thoroughly calculate all possible consequences' of setting up safe zones in Syria

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    Afghan refugee boys pose next to the EU humanitarian aid sign posted outside their school in the Bardsir settlement for Afghan refugees in Kerman province, Iran,  October 22, 2016.  Picture taken October 22, 2016.   REUTERS/Gabriela Baczynska

    In tandem with large-scale humanitarian efforts, researchers are experimenting with a simple way to help refugees escape poverty, improve their diets, boost attendance rates at school, cut down on child labor, and empower women.

    The solution: Give them cash.

    In the philanthropy research community, direct cash transfers have been shown to improve people's quality of life in the developing world. Recent evidence suggests they work just as well for people fleeing war-torn countries — in both cases, people lack the financial and social security that money provides.

    Despite the effectiveness of cash-transfer programs, current data shows only 6% of humanitarian spending is used for that purpose. Experts fear the approach is too often ignored at the expense of larger, more expensive programs that aren't necessarily as efficient in getting people the help they need.

    A new report from the Overseas Development Institute, a UK-based think tank, analyzes the impacts of cash transfers issued by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNCHR) to around 32,000 Syrian families living in Jordan (about a quarter of the country's refugee population). Under the program, the families received between $75 and $400 at regular intervals for one year. 

    The researchers found that the transfers led to many of the expected benefits: greater day-to-day wellbeing, improved financial security, and better quality of life. The report includes responses from 140 Syrians across 60 family interviews. The average respondent had been in the country for 3.5 years.

    Among the findings:

    • Almost all of the recipients used the money to pay rent, which approximately half said was their first priority, given rampant housing insecurity.
    • The security of regular payments eased people's minds about the future — roughly one-third of recipients reported lower levels of stress.
    • While the population was not representative of Jordan's refugee population, the evidence suggests cash reduced the need for "negative coping strategies," such as child labor.
    • Cash transfers didn't improve employment rates and certain measures of livelihood, such as rights for women, reflecting the social and cultural limits of cash.
    • Men and women used the money in roughly the same ways.

    If the findings get turned into meaningful policy, the authors suggest the cash should come on a regular basis, and on time. One-time emergency transfers may be helpful in the short-term, but half of all refugees worldwide have been displaced for at least 10 years, so they need longer-term benefits.

    The authors also note, however, that organizations like the UNHCR would still need to supplement cash-transfer programs with other initiatives to fill certain gaps. For example, cash likely won't help girls and women overcome the many hurdles they face in efforts to gain healthcare, education, and equality in the labor force.

    A successful cash-transfer program, the new findings suggest, must involve cooperation on both sides: sweeping interventions to make safe, legal jobs easier to get, and more passive means of assistance — such as cash transfers — to ease the daily struggles of fleeing home.

    SEE ALSO: 12 people from Kenya reveal how getting free cash is changing their lives

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