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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    A Syrian army soldier stands guard as a poster depicting Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is seen in the background in the Old City of Aleppo, Syria January 31, 2017. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

    BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The next round of United Nations-based peace talks on Syria have been scheduled for February 20, British ambassador to the United Nations Matthew Rycroft said on Tuesday.

    The talks had been planned to begin in Geneva on February 8 but Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week that they had been postponed.

    Last week, Russia, Iran and Turkey presided over peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition in Astan, Kazakhstan. The Kazakhstan talks ended with Moscow, Ankara and Tehran agreeing to monitor Syrian government and opposition compliance with a Dec. 30 truce.

    (Reporting By Ned Parker)

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    A woman passes a billboard showing a pictures of US president-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Danilovgrad, Montenegro, November 16, 2016. REUTERS/Stevo Vasiljevic

    MOSCOW (Reuters) - In his book, "Art of the Deal," Donald Trump said the best deals were ones where both sides got something they wanted.

    His credo, applied to a potential U.S.-Russia deal, flags an awkward truth for Vladimir Putin: He wants more from Trump than vice versa.

    As aides try to set up a first meeting between the two presidents, the mismatched nature of their respective wish lists gives Trump the edge, and means that a deal, if one is done, may be more limited and longer in the making than the Kremlin hopes.

    "What the two countries can offer each another is strikingly different," said Konstantin von Eggert, a commentator for TV Rain, a Moscow TV station sometimes critical of the Kremlin.

    "The U.S. has a stronger hand. In biblical terms, the U.S. is the three kings bearing gold, while Russia is the shepherds with little apart from their good faith."

    Appetite for a deal in Moscow, where parliament applauded Trump's election win, is palpable. The Kremlin blames Barack Obama for wrecking U.S.-Russia ties, which slid to a post-Cold War low on his watch, and with the economy struggling to emerge from two years of recession, craves a new start.

    Trump's intentions toward Moscow are harder to discern, but seem to be more about what he does not want -- having Russia as a time-consuming geopolitical foe — than his so far vague desire to team up with the Kremlin to fight Islamic State.

    Trump has hinted he may also push for a nuclear arms deal.

    Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Reince Priebus,  Peter Navarro, Jared Kushner

    Putin's wish list, by contrast, is detailed, long and the items on it, such as getting U.S. sanctions imposed over Moscow's actions in Ukraine eased, are potentially significant for his own political future.

    He is looking to be given a free hand in the post-Soviet space, which he regards as Russia's back yard.

    Specifically, he would like Trump to formally or tacitly recognize Crimea, annexed from Ukraine in 2014, as Russian territory, and pressure Kiev into implementing a deal over eastern Ukraine which many Ukrainians view as unpalatable.

    The icing on the cake for him would be for Trump to back a Moscow-brokered Syrian peace deal allowing President Bashar al-Assad, a staunch Moscow ally, to stay in power for now, while crushing Islamic State and delivering regional autonomy.

    For Putin, described in leaked U.S. diplomatic cables as an "alpha-dog," the wider prize would be respect. In his eyes, a deal would confer legitimacy and show Russia was a great power.

    But, like a couple where one side is more interested than the other, the expectational imbalance is starting to show.

    Donald Trump Vladimir Putin

    Trump spoke by phone to five world leaders before talking to Putin on Jan. 28 as part of a bundle of calls. The White House readout of the Putin call was vague and four sentences long; the Kremlin's was effusive and fifteen sentences long.

    Nor does Trump seem to be in a rush to meet. Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, said the two might only meet before a G20 summit due to take place in July.

    Trump has good reason not to rush.

    'A huge bonus'

    With U.S. intelligence agencies accusing Moscow of having sponsored computer hacking to help Trump win office, a deal would hand fresh political ammunition to Trump's opponents, who say he has long been too complimentary to the Russian leader.

    A delay would have the added advantage of postponing a chorus of disapproval from foreign allies and Congress, where there is bipartisan determination to block sanctions relief.

    For Putin though, in his 17th year of dominating the Russian political landscape, a deal, or even an early symbolic concession such as easing minor sanctions, matters.

    Vladimir Putin

    Expected to contest a presidential election next year that could extend his time in the Kremlin to 2024, he needs sanctions relief to help lift the economy out of recession.

    U.S. and EU financial sector sanctions have cut Russia's access to Western capital markets and know-how, scared off foreign investors, and -- coupled with low global oil prices -- have exacerbated an economic crisis that has cut real incomes and fueled inflation, making life harder for millions.

    Since Putin's 2012 election, consumer prices have risen by 50 percent, while a fall in the value of the rouble against the dollar after the annexation of Crimea means average salaries fell by 36 percent from 2012-2016 in dollar terms.

    Official data puts inflation at 5.4 percent, but consumers say the real figure is much higher, and fear of inflation regularly ranks among Russians' greatest worries in surveys.

    An easing of U.S. sanctions could spur more foreign investment, helping create a feel-good factor.

    "It would be a huge bonus if it happened," said Chris Weafer, senior partner at economic and political consultancy Macro-Advisory Ltd, who said he thought Putin wanted to put rebuilding the economy at the heart of his next term.

    The economy matters to Putin because, in the absence of any more land grabs like Crimea, greater prosperity is one of the few levers he has to get voters to come out and support him.

    Russian marines parade during the Navy Day celebrations in Sevastopol, Crimea, July 31, 2016.

    With state TV affording him blanket and favorable coverage and with the liberal opposition still weak, few doubt Putin would genuinely win another presidential term if, as expected, he decided to run.

    But for the win to be politically durable and for Putin to be able to confidently contemplate serving out another full six-year term, he would need to win big on a respectable turnout.

    That, an election showed last year, is not a given.

    Around 4 million fewer Russians voted for the pro-Putin United Russia party in a September parliamentary vote compared to 2011, the last time a similar election was held.

    Although the economic benefits of a Trump deal might take a while to trickle down to voters, its symbolism could boost turnout, helping Putin prolong a system based on himself.

    "It would be presented to the Russian people as a huge victory by Putin," said von Eggert. "It would be described as a validation of his strategy to go to war in Ukraine regardless of the consequences and to turn the country into Fortress Russia."

    (By Andrew Osborn; additional reporting by Andrey Ostroukh; editing by Peter Graff)

    SEE ALSO: Fighting between Ukraine and Russia is heating up again

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    Syrian refugee

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - The head of the United Nations refugee agency said on Friday that safezones would not work inside Syria for people fleeing the country's nearly six-year-old war.

    U.S. President Donald Trump said last week he would "absolutely do safe zones in Syria" for refugees escaping violence and that Europe had made a mistake by admitting millions of refugees.

    "Frankly, I don't see in Syria the conditions" to create successful safe zones, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said at a news conference in Beirut.

    "With the fragmentation, the number of actors, the presence of terrorist groups, it's not the right place to think of that solution," he added.

    In a meeting with Grandi on Friday, Lebanese President Michel Aoun said earlier that world powers must work with the Damascus government to create safe zones in Syria so refugees can return to their country.

    At least a million Syrians have fled since 2011 into Lebanon, which has an estimated total population of less than six million.

    The war has divided Syria into a patchwork of areas controlled by President Bashar al-Assad, various rebel groups fighting to unseat him, Kurdish militia and Islamic State militants.

    According to a document seen by Reuters, Trump is expected to order the Pentagon and the State Department to craft a plan for the safe zones, a move that could ratchet up U.S. military involvement in Syria.

    Trump has not provided details about the proposed zones, except to say he would have the Gulf states pay for them. Policing them could prove difficult in a war zone dotted with armed groups.

    The U.N. refugee chief, who had just completed a visit to Syria, said his agency had not been approached about the plans and there were no details on what would constitute a safe zone or how it would be enforced.

    "Let's not waste time planning safe zones that will not be set up because they will not be safeenough for people to go back," Grandi said. "Let's concentrate on making peace so that everything becomes safe. That should be the investment."

    The Syrian government said on Monday that any attempt to create so-called safe zones for refugees without coordinating with Damascus would be "unsafe" and violate Syria's sovereignty.

    Rebel backers including Qatar have welcomed Trump's support for safe zones, and Turkey says it is waiting to see the outcome of the U.S. president's pledge.

    The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people, made more than half of Syrians homeless and created the world's worst refugee crisis.

    Trump also signed an executive order last week that halted refugee arrivals for four months, barred Syrian refugees indefinitely and temporarily banned citizens from seven mainly Muslim countries, including Syria.

    The UNHCR estimates that around 20,000 refugees worldwide would be affected by the hold on the U.S. resettlement program, Grandi said.

    "We are taking exception to discrimination," he said. "All people that are vulnerable, irrespective of their ethnic or religious affiliations, should be given a chance to benefit from this program."

    (Reporting by Ellen Francis ; Editing by Dominic Evans)

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    syria

    BEIRUT (AP) — Syrians living in besieged towns are stripping their homes of doors, frames and other wood to burn for warmth as they endure yet another winter being blockaded in the civil war.

    In the mountain resort town of Madaya — one of 16 areas where combatants are refusing to allow in regular supplies of international aid — residents are cutting the struts of their homes and raiding abandoned houses for any materials to use for fuel.

    Wafiqa Hashem sent photos of the tinder frames she'd cleaved from her ceiling. "We cut every other one so that the roof doesn't fall in," she said by text message from the town.

    The bitter and unremitting sieges have trapped nearly 1 million people despite an internationally brokered cease-fire reached Dec. 30 and subsequent high-level peace talks in Kazakhstan between the government and opposition.

    No movement to end the suffering

    aleppo syria

    The government is suffocating international relief efforts in a thicket of bureaucracy, U.N. Undersecretary-General Stephen O'Brien told the Security Council in January. Access by aid groups in December and January was the worst in a year, added U.N. humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland.

    Following last month's talks that were sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran, those nations said they were pledging to work together to consolidate the cease-fire and ensure unhindered humanitarian access swiftly and smoothly.

    Since then, there has been no movement to end the suffering that is killing civilians.

    Hospitals and clinics are losing ground to normally preventable diseases, as government forces pick medical supplies off the few relief convoys they let through, Egeland has said.

    In Madaya, 26 kilometers (16 miles) from the capital of Damascus, doctors are recording elevated rates of kidney failure; in Talbiseh, in the Homs countryside, which has been under siege by government forces since late 2012, there's an outbreak of tuberculosis, doctors and media activists say.

    The U.N.'s 2017 Humanitarian Needs report said men, women and children in the 16 besieged areas "are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition and waterborne and communicable diseases."

    "Throughout Syria, parties to the conflict, particularly the government of Syria, continue to use siege as a military tactic, inflicting indiscriminate and direct suffering on the civilian population," it said.

    The Islamic State group has trapped about 94,000 civilians in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, the U.N. estimated. Rebels have blockaded several thousand more in the twin northern villages of Foua and Kefraya. The U.N. estimates that the rest — from 700,000 to 974,000 people — are being besieged by government troops.

    The blockades are accompanied by a constant application of violence, which the besieging parties dial up or down depending on the urgency of their desired outcome.

    Osama Abou Zeid, who is trapped in the al-Waer neighborhood of the central city of Homs, says he is accustomed to a certain level of mortar, artillery, and heavy machine gun fire from encircling government forces. Al-Waer is the holdout.

    "When they use napalm and threaten to bomb us by air, that's when we say there is an escalation," he said.

    Online video and local opposition members indicate that Syrian or Russian warplanes used incendiary bombs last year against besieged Daraya, outside the capital, and al-Waer. Human Rights Watch also said the joint Syrian-Russian military operation used those weapons.

    Shortly thereafter, Daraya's 2,700 remaining residents, out of an original population of about 250,000, surrendered to the government and agreed to leave the Damascus suburb.

    The U.N. likened the outcome to "forced displacement"— a crime under international law — but there is no end in sight to the tactic because it has worked all over Syria.

    After Daraya, several other besieged areas around the capital fell to government control: Moadamiyeh, Qudsaya, Hammah, and Wadi Barada. In the north, the government recaptured the eastern part of Aleppo, Syria's former industrial capital.

    Those who are still trapped in other sieges are largely demoralized. Some say privately they are ready to surrender if forced to endure one more battering assault.

    "If defeat is on the horizon, then there won't be any solution but to give up. I'm just speaking realistically, I don't have any illusions," said an engineer in Talbiseh. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he fears reprisal from the rebels who have outlawed such defeatist talk.

    Trapped under siege

    aleppo syria

    After last year's escalation in al-Waer, representatives abandoned an established condition for peace talks: information on nearly 7,000 residents who have disappeared in government prisons.

    "We've nearly forgotten about the detainees," said Abou Zeid. "The regime tore up the old agreement and restarted negotiations from scratch."

    There are constant shortages of food, according to those trapped in the sieges.

    Rebels in eastern Ghouta, also outside Damascus, are gearing up for a battle for the control of the al-Marj farms, a steady and essential supply of food since the government largely cut off access to the outside world in 2013.

    "There are 10 villages out of 26 still under (rebel) control," said Mazen al-Shami, the chief press officer for the rebels' military council and director of the opposition-run Qassioun News Agency.

    A Red Crescent volunteer in Talbiseh, north of Homs, said bread was only available once every 7-10 days, and it costs 400 Syrian Liras (66 cents) for a family ration of three flat pita loaves. The volunteer spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the relief organization, which coordinates closely with the government.

    For fuel, they burn the rinds of the olives that have been pressed for oil, he said.

    "It's a very unpleasant smell, but it's what we have," he said.

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

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    Sergei Lavrov

    MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said on Sunday that it supports the continuation of Syria peace talks under United Nations auspices, long-running negotiations which had been thrown into doubt by separate, Moscow-backed peace talks launched last month.

    The latest round of U.N. talks had been planned to begin in Geneva on Feb. 8 but Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week that they had been postponed.

    They have now been rescheduled for February 20, diplomats have told Reuters. The UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said he had decided to delay them to take advantage of negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition in Astana, Kazakhstan, hosted by Moscow, Ankara and Tehran.

    The Astana talks last month ended with Russia, Turkey and Iran agreeing to monitor Syrian government and opposition compliance with a Dec. 30 truce brokered by Moscow and Ankara.

    Lavrov said on Sunday the Astana talks between representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and opposition groups were a "breakthrough step" in efforts to resolve the crisis but were not instead of the U.N.-led talks.

    “We are not planning to replace Geneva with the Astana format,” he said in an interview published on the ministry's web site on Sunday.

    The Astana talks were a diplomatic coup that underlined the growing Middle East clout of Russia, Iran and Turkey and Washington's diminished influence at a time when Donald Trump is settling into the presidency.

    staffan de mistura syria peace russia turkey astana

    But the talks spotlighted sharp differences between Moscow and Tehran over the possible future participation of the United States and also excluded Gulf states, despite their major role in the proxy war in Syria that has drawn in the entire region.

    Iran, whose relations with Washington have nosedived since Trump became president, opposes any U.S. involvement.

    Lavrov reiterated on Sunday that the United States and Moscow were in a position to solve bilateral issues, improve ties and coordinate efforts to fight "international terrorism", but said it had to be on the basis of mutual respect.

    The secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, also praised the Astana talks in a meeting with Russia's special envoy on Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, in Tehran on Sunday, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

    But he said peace was not achievable while Islamic State, which he labelled Daesh, as well as the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front, which has renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other unnamed groups he said were linked to them were present.

    “As long as Daesh and al-Nusra and groups linked to them are present in Syria - and they are being protected and supported by some countries in the region - a political solution and peace for Syria and the region will not be achievable.”

    The Syrian opposition have objected to Iran's role in the Astana talks, blaming Shi'ite militias backed by Tehran for violations of the fragile ceasefire agreement by launching military assaults in rebel-held suburbs of the capital.

    De Mistura said the United Nations would be attending a follow up technical meeting in Astana on Feb. 6 of the talks on the implementation and monitoring of the Syria ceasefire. 

    (Additional reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh and Suleiman Al-Khalidi, editing by John Stonestreet and Philippa Fletcher)

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    Screenshot from a Reuters video showing a computerised areal image of the Sednaya prison.

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian government has executed thousands of prisoners in mass hangings and carried out systematic torture at a military jail near Damascus, rights watchdog Amnesty International said on Tuesday.

    Amnesty said the executions took place between 2011 and 2015, but were probably still being carried out and amounted to war crimes. It called for a U.N. investigation.

    Syria's government and President Bashar al-Assad have rejected similar reports in the past of torture and extrajudicial killings in a civil war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

    The Amnesty report said an average of 20-50 people were hanged each week at the Sednaya military prison north of Damascus. Between 5,000 and 13,000 people were executed at Sednaya in the four years after Syria's popular uprising descended into civil war, it said.

    "The victims are overwhelmingly civilians who are thought to oppose the government," the report said.

    "Many other detainees at Sednaya Military Prison have been killed after being repeatedly tortured and systematically deprived of food, water, medicine and medical care."

    The prisoners, who included former military personnel suspected of disloyalty and people involved in unrest, underwent sham trials before military courts and were sometimes forced to make confessions under torture, Amnesty said.

    The executions were carried out secretly and those killed were buried at mass graves outside the capital, with families not informed of their fate, it said.

    The report was based on interviews with 84 witnesses including former guards and officials, detainees, judges and lawyers, as well as experts on detention in Syria.

    "The Syrian state's backers, in particular Russia, with its permanent seat on the Security Council, and Iran, must condemn the extrajudicial executions and extermination policies of the Syrian state and do what is in their power to bring them to an end," Amnesty said.

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    afp assad says trump a natural ally if he fights terror

    The Syrian government executed up to 13,000 prisoners in mass hangings and carried out systematic torture at a military jail near Damascus, rights watchdog Amnesty International said on Tuesday.

    Amnesty said the executions took place between 2011 and 2015, but were probably still being carried out and amounted to war crimes. It called for a further investigation by the United Nations, which produced a report last year with similar accusations also based on extensive witness testimonies.

    Syria's government and President Bashar al-Assad have rejected similar reports in the past of torture and extrajudicial killings in a civil war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

    The Amnesty report said an average of 20-50 people were hanged each week at the Sednaya military prison north of Damascus. Between 5,000 and 13,000 people were executed at Sednaya in the four years after a popular uprising descended into civil war, it said.

    "The victims are overwhelmingly civilians who are thought to oppose the government," the report said.

    "Many other detainees at Sednaya Military Prison have been killed after being repeatedly tortured and systematically deprived of food, water, medicine and medical care."

    The prisoners, who included former military personnel suspected of disloyalty and people involved in unrest, underwent sham trials before military courts and were sometimes forced to make confessions under torture, Amnesty said. 

    Secrecy

    syria

    The executions were carried out secretly and those killed were buried in mass graves outside the capital, with families not informed of their fate, it said.

    The report was based on interviews with 84 witnesses including former guards and officials, detainees, judges and lawyers, as well as experts.

    It followed a report issued a year ago by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria, whose war crimes investigators said they had documented a high number of deaths in Sednaya military prison.

    "Amnesty's findings are almost completely in-line with our 'Death in Detention' paper," Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the U.N. panel, told Reuters.

    "We mentioned the executions in Sednaya and have extensive details on the systematic details of the regular ceremonies they have to conduct hangings in front of an audience of public officials. It is one of the clearest instances of a systematic practice that we had and based some of the key findings upon."

    The foreign ministers of Britain and France decried Amnesty's findings. Boris Johnson tweeted: "Sickened by reports from Amnesty International on executions in Syria. Assad responsible for so many deaths and has no future as leader."

    Syria Torture

    "@Amnesty has documented the horror in the prisons of the Syrian regime. This barbarity cannot be the future of Syria," said France's Jean-Marc Ayrault.

    The International Committee of the Red Cross has visited selected government-run detention facilities since 2011, but its confidential findings are only shared with Syrian authorities.

    "We only visit central prisons, which are under the Ministry of Interior," ICRC spokeswoman Iolanda Jaquemet said.

    The ICRC has systematically requested "access to all detainees arrested by all parties to the conflict", she added.

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    Bashar al Assad

    BEIRUT (AP) — Syria's justice ministry is rejecting an Amnesty International report of mass hangings of as many as 13,000 people in a prison near Damascus, calling the allegations "totally untrue" and part of a smear campaign.

    The ministry's statement was published by Syria's state-run news agency on Wednesday, a day after Amnesty released its report.

    It says "misleading and inciting" media outlets carried the Amnesty report with the intention to smear the Syrian government's reputation on the world stage — particularly after recent "military victories against terrorists groups."

    The government refers to all armed opposition as "terrorists."

    It also says the allegations are "baseless" because executions in Syria follow due process and various stages of litigations.

    Amnesty's report says the mostly civilian victims were hanged after military trials that lasted minutes.

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    ISIS Islamic State Fighter Flag Mosul

    ISIS documents found by Iraqi forces in Mosul show the terrorist group had troubles with foreign "problem" fighters, the Washington Post reports.

    The files show that some fighters simply refused to fight in Iraq, while others were more creative. A Belgian man brought in a medical note saying he could not fight because of back pain. Another man said he could not fight because he had a headache.

    A 24-year-old French militant of Algerian descent said he did not want to fight and wanted to leave the country to go back home to carry a suicide attack. He also said he was ill but did not have a "medical report."

    The file shows that rebellion seemed to have been brewing within a unit made up mostly of foreigners and documented 14 "problem" fighters. The documents were discovered in a Mosul neighbourhood used for administrative purposed by the Tariq Bin Ziyad battalion, whose fighters are described in the files.

    Although thousands of foreign fighters joined ISIS' ranks over the past few years, the group's appeal has greatly diminished as it has lost much of its territory and revenues in Iraq and Syria.

    "Several countries such as France, Belgium and the United States have indicated that the number of Foreign terrorist fighters travelling to Syria and Iraq has dropped significantly, with other countries expecting the number to drop in the foreseeable future,"the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) reported in December 2016.

    The Islamic State's losses have caused authorities to warn that with foreign fighters coming home, more attacks were to be expected in Europe. The ICCT estimates that there are 15,000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq and that the number of returning fighters, especially to the EU and North Africa, will rise.

    Mosul Iraq ISIS flag selfieThe Washington Post writes it could not verify all the personal information found in the files uncovered in Mosul, but writes that the Iraqi forces who found them believed them to be genuine. The documents seemed to have been initially marked with "2015" but filled out later as the dates in the files stretched to 2016.

    The documents contain pictures of the militants, their names, date of birth, country of origin and residency. They also list their weapons specialities, and the number of wives, children and "slave girls" each fighter had.

    Foreign fighters were a big part of the ISIS militants with up to 4,000 joining the group from the EU alone, they were also often described as their most vicious fighters. The ICCT also reported that most foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria were from North Africa the Middle East and Central Asia but that "significant numbers" were also from Europe and South-East Asia.

    "Those foreign fighters are the most furious fighters we ever fought against," Lt. Col. Muhanad al-Tamimi told the Washington Post. "When those fighters refuse to fight, it means that they’ve realised this organisation is fake Islam and not the one they came for."

    Read the full Washington Post report here.

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    US special forces troops Mosul Iraq ISIS

    CAMP TAJI, Iraq (AP) — Forces fighting the Islamic State group should be able to retake the IS-held cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria within the next six months, according to the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

    On a tour north of Baghdad on Wednesday, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said "within the next six months I think we'll see both (the Mosul and Raqqa campaigns) conclude."

    Townsend also said he expected the fight for Mosul's western half to begin in days.

    Iraqi forces have retaken about half of Mosul — the country's second largest city — since the operation was officially launched in October, following more than two years of coalition-led anti-IS operations around Iraq clearing supply lines and partially isolating the city.

    Last month Iraqi forces declared Mosul's east "fully liberated" and have since largely paused the fight.

    Townsend, who heads the U.S.-led coalition against IS, said Iraq's military is still in the process of putting forces into place ahead of the push into western Mosul, but predicted operations would begin "in the next few days."

    Closely backed by U.S.-led coalition airpower, Iraqi ground forces faced months of grueling urban combat in Mosul that at times brought the front lines to a standstill for weeks. But the pace of operations increased as Iraqi forces closed in on the Tigris River which roughly divides the city.

    Mosul Iraq ISIS bridge

    Townsend credited the quicker progress with better coordination and "lessons learned" on the part of Iraqi forces. But on the ground inside Mosul, Iraqi troops said as they neared the Tigris, IS fighters launched fewer car bombs and largely fled their advances — unlike the heavy resistance they faced in the first few weeks of combat inside the city.

    Townsend said he expects that the fight for western Mosul will pose a particular challenge for Iraqi forces due to the older neighborhoods and narrower streets.

    "It will be a more difficult fight, more constricted," he said.

    At times during the Mosul fight, Iraqi forces experienced relatively high casualty rates among some of their most elite and well-trained fighters.

    A member of Iraqi security forces take his position during a battle with Islamic State militants in Wahda district of eastern Mosul, Iraq, January 6, 2017.

    Iraqi medics inside Mosul said during some of the heaviest fighting, Iraq's special forces were suffering around 20 casualties— both deaths and serious injuries — a day.

    Townsend said these high attrition rates were "a concern," but he didn't believe they would hamper the forces moving forward.

    In Raqqa, significant ground military operations against IS have barely begun.

    The coalition has been targeting IS in the area for more than two years and U.S.-backed Kurdish-led fighters have been on the offensive in nearby areas, mostly north of the city, retaking just a cluster of surrounding villages over the past few months.

    On Saturday, the fighters known as the Syria Democratic Forces announced the launch of the "third phase" of the Raqqa operation, which aims at isolating the city from the rest of IS-held territories before attacking the city itself. The announcement came a day after aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition destroyed two bridges on the southern edge of Raqqa, the de facto capital of IS' self-declared caliphate.

    Iraqi and coalition officials have warned that the extremist group is still expected to pose a security threat in Iraq and beyond, even after it is defeated territorially. Townsend said he hopes U.S. forces can remain inside Iraq even after the Islamic State group is territorially defeated, unlike the withdrawal of forces that occurred in 2011.

    Islamic State fighters wave flags as they take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province, Syria June 30, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

    "ISIL morphing into an insurgent threat, that's the future," Townsend said using an alternative acronym for the group. On a helicopter ride back to his Baghdad base Wednesday afternoon, he pointed to streets in the Iraqi capital below where he fought the predecessor to IS — al-Qaida in Iraq — and the landmarks targeted by the group with insurgent bombings.

    When asked if he thought Iraqi forces would be capable of fighting IS when the group returns to its insurgent roots, he replied: "I don't know. We would have to refocus training in those areas."

    U.S.-led coalition spokesman Col. John Dorrian, speaking to reporters from Baghdad during a weekly teleconference said he had not seen Townsend's remarks and declined to comment on the timing of the anti-IS operations.

    Regarding the looming battle for Raqqa, Dorrian said, "What we would expect is that within the next few weeks the city will be nearly completely isolated, and then there will be a decision point" to launch an assault to retake the city itself.

    ___

    Associated Press writer Ali Abdul-Hassan in Camp Taji, Iraq; Zeina Karam in Beirut and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

    SEE ALSO: Watch a US-led airstrike level an ISIS-held building near the terror group's last Iraqi stronghold

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


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    ISIS

    There's a term US soldiers give to one of their own who tries to shirk duty by making constant medical appointments: Sick call commando.

    It looks like ISIS has the same problem.

    Documents seized last month by Iraqi forces at a former ISIS base in Mosul, Iraq reveal that, despite its ability to recruit religious fanatics to the ranks, the so-called Islamic State has its fair share of "problem" fighters who don't actually want to fight, The Washington Post reports.

    The Post found 14 fighters trying to skate their way out of combat, to include a Belgian offering a note about having back pain, and a Kosovar with "head pain" who wanted to be transferred to Syria.

    Another, a recruit of Algerian descent from France, told his superiors he wanted to return home and offered two suspicious claims: I'm sick, and if you send me home, I'll continue to work remotely.

    "He doesn’t want to fight, wants to return to France. Claims his will is a martyrdom operation in France. Claims sick but doesn’t have a medical report," one note reads, according to The Post.

    Of course, there are plenty within the ranks of ISIS who are still fighting on the front lines. But to see that at least some are trying to get out while they still can seems to suggest that the US and Iraqi military is doing something right.

    Iraqi forces captured all of eastern Mosul late last month, and preparations are currently being made to start hitting the western side of the city. The top US general in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, is confident that both Mosul and the ISIS capital of Raqqa will fall "within the next six months."

    SEE ALSO: A drunken, half-naked German man tried to drive a bus onto a US military base

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    F16 US Air Force pilot Santa hat ISIS airstrikes Iraq

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - US forces killed 11 al Qaeda operatives in two airstrikes near Idlib, Syria, this month, including a member with links to the late Osama bin Laden and other top leaders of the group, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.

    It said a Feb. 4 strike killed Abu Hani al-Masri, who it said oversaw the creation and operation of many al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s, where he "recruited, indoctrinated, trained and equipped thousands of terrorists."

    Al-Masri had ties to bin Laden and al Qaeda's current leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, the Pentagon said in a statement.

    Ten al Qaeda members were killed in an airstrike on a building used as a meeting place on Feb. 3, it said.

    (Reporting by Idrees Ali; Writing by Washington Newsroom; Editing by Eric Walsh)

    SEE ALSO: US Marine captain writes stinging op-ed: 'We lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan'

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    dutch prison asylum

    Tens of thousands of refugees from all over the Middle East — including countries like Syria, Iraq, Morocco, and Libya — have found an unlikely haven in the Netherlands.

    Crime there has been declining for the last decade, and 19 of nearly 60 prisons have closed in the last three years. Others have taken in inmates from Belgium or Norway.

    Now the Dutch government agency responsible for securing housing for asylum seekers has opened prisons in 12 locations around the country to refugees. As the AP reports, the spaces are currently serving hundreds of people in need.

    At one such facility, De Koepel, the open space and array of amenities make the prison uniquely suited to serve as a temporary home. Here's what life is like on the inside.

    SEE ALSO: Photos of maximum-security prisons in Norway and the US reveal the extremes of prison life

    In 2015, the Netherlands saw approximately 60,000 migrants enter the country. While most were given traditional shelter, the Dutch government called on its prison system to offer its vacant facilities.

    Source: The New York Times



    In Haarlem, De Koepel features layers of cells on the perimeters of a main courtyard. The cells are tight, but can accommodate families of three or four with bunk beds.



    Female refugees are given the option to stay in the all-women section of the prison.



    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters walk with their weapons during an offensive against Islamic State militants in northern Raqqa province, Syria February 8, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Western-backed Syrian forces should isolate Islamic State's de facto capital in Syria "by the spring" before an offensive on the city itself, British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said on Saturday.

    The Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes the powerful Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, launched the campaign on Raqqa in November.

    It announced this month the start of a new phase in the offensive, aiming to complete its encirclement of the city and cut off the road to the militants' stronghold in Deir al-Zor, southeast of Raqqa.

    "I hope that isolation will be completed by the spring and then operations to liberate Raqqa itself can begin thereafter," Fallon told reporters in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq.

    Islamic State is fighting hard to preserve its foothold in Syria as it loses ground in Iraq.

    U.S.-backed Iraqi and Kurdish forces last month dislodged the militants from the eastern side of Mosul, their last city stronghold in Iraq, and are preparing an offensive on the parts of the city that lie west of the Tigris river.

    A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa June 29, 2014.  REUTERS/Stringer

    "Raqqa is a much smaller city than Mosul but will clearly be defended very vigorously by Daesh and that means the operation to liberate Raqqa has to be very carefully prepared, as the operation for Mosul was," Fallon said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State."Once Raqqa is liberated after Mosul, we will see the beginning of the end of this terrible caliphate," he said. Islamic State declared the caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014.

    Britain is part of the U.S-led coalition supporting forces battling Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria.

    U.S. officials have also said Raqqa and Mosul would soon be freed from Islamic State control.

    U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, a top commander on the ground in Iraq, told the AP in early February that "within the next six months I think we'll see both (the Mosul and Raqqa campaigns) conclude."

    Townsend also said at the time that operations in western Mosul should start "in the next few days."

    (Reporting by Stephen Kalin; Writing by Maher Chmaytelli in Baghdad; Editing by Alison Williams)

    SEE ALSO: Watch a US-led airstrike destroy one of ISIS's favorite weapons in western Iraq

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    NOW WATCH: UK's prime minister just described ISIS by a name it wants no one to use


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    Riad Hijab, chief coordinator of the Syrian opposition's High Negotiations Committee (HNC), attends a joint statement with French President Francois Hollande (not seen) following their meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, December 12, 2016.  REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen

    AMMAN (Reuters) - Syria's main opposition body on Sunday approved a new delegation to take part in Geneva peace talks later this month, which include Russian-backed blocs that have been critical of the armed insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad.

    The High Negotiation Committee, (HNC) the main umbrella group, said in a statement after two-days of meetings in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, that the new 21-member negotiating team included members of two dissident alliances with which it has previously been at odds.

    Those two alliances -- the so-called Moscow and Cairo groups -- have long disavowed the armed rebellion and insisted that political change can only come through peaceful activism. Their members include a former Syrian government minister with close ties to Moscow.

    Mohammad Sabra, who was appointed as chief negotiator, told Saudi-owned Al-Hadath news channel that the delegation brought together various groups. He also accused unnamed foreign powers of trying to impose their views on the composition of the delegation, an apparent reference to Russia.

    The body also chose a new head of the negotiating team, Nasr al Hariri, a veteran opposition figure from southern Syria.

    The next round of U.N.-sponsored talks on the conflict, now in its sixth year, have been scheduled for Feb. 20.

    aleppo syria

    The HNC said in the statement the goal of the negotiations was a political transition under U.N. auspices in which Assad had no role in the future of the country. But it steered away from its previous insistence the Syrian president should leave at the start of a transitional phase.

    The HNC also said foreign powers had no right to present a vision of Syria's future political system without the consent of Syrians. Russian last month tabled the draft of a proposed new constitution for Syria, though it insisted the document had been circulated for the purposes of discussion only.

    syria map

    The HNC represented the opposition in Geneva talks last year. But it was not invited to recently convened talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana. The indirect talks between government and rebel delegates in Astana were held with the aim of shoring up a ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia.

     

    (Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Tom Perry, editing by Larry King)

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    Russia Drone Footage ISIS Destruction Palmyra Syria

    Moscow (AFP) - Russia's military on Monday released drone footage showing more destruction of treasured monuments by the Islamic State in Syria's Palmyra since jihadists recaptured the UNESCO World Heritage Site late last year.

    The black-and-white video dated February 5 shows part of the Roman amphitheatre reduced to rubble and the tetrapylon, a 16-columned structure that marked one end of the ancient city's colonnade, wiped out.

    "The pictures clearly show that the terrorists blew up the proscenium -- the central part of the ancient Roman theatre -- and the columns of the tetrapylon," the Russian defence ministry said in a statement.

    The new wave of destruction was first announced last month by Syria's antiquities chief, with the UN's cultural agency blasting it as a "war crime" and "cultural cleansing". 

    IS fighters scored a major propaganda coup by recapturing Palmyra from the Syrian government in December, some nine months after they were ousted from the historic site.   

    Before being forced out of Palmyra in a Russian-backed offensive in March, IS razed world-famous temples and tower tombs at the site.

    The tetrapylon, built during the rule of the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the 3rd Century AD, consisted of four sets of four pillars each supporting massive stone cornices.

    The monument had suffered considerable damage over the centuries and only one of the 16 pillars was still standing in its original Egyptian pink granite. The rest were cement replicas erected by the antiquities department in 1963.

    The Roman amphitheatre dates back to the 1st Century AD and was used by IS for public executions during its occupation of the city between May 2015 and March last year.

    The loss of Palmyra came as regime forces and their Russian backers were focusing on the fierce fighting for rebel-held eastern Aleppo, which the government finally retook in December. 

    Russia has been flying a bombing campaign in support of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad since September 2015. 

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    NOW WATCH: 1,500 happily-married people say the key to lasting relationships isn’t communication — it’s respect


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    afp un warns of looming catastrophe in 4 besieged syria towns

    Damascus (AFP) - The top UN official in Damascus has warned of a "looming humanitarian catastrophe" in four besieged towns in Syria, calling for immediate access to deliver aid to some 60,000 residents.

    In a statement late Monday, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Ali al-Za'atari, warned of dire conditions in the towns of Zabadani, Madaya, Fua and Kafraya.

    Zabadani and Madaya, in Damascus province, are besieged by government troops and their allies, while Fua and Kafraya are under siege by the rebels.

    "Sixty thousand innocent people are trapped there in a cycle of daily violence and deprivation, where malnutrition and lack of proper medical care prevail," the statement said.

    "The situation is a looming humanitarian catastrophe. The principle of free access to people in need must be implemented now and without repeated requests," it added.

    Za'atari said the situation was complicated by the "tit-for-tat arrangement" between the towns, whereby no aid can be provided to Madaya and Zabadani without similar access to Fua and Kafraya, and vice versa.

    The linkage "makes humanitarian access prone to painstaking negotiations that are not based on humanitarian principles," he said. "This has prevented medical cases from receiving proper treatment and evacuation. People are in need, and they cannot wait any longer. We need to act now."

    The UN's last humanitarian access to the four towns was in November, the statement said, without directing blame for the lack of access at one side or the other.

    Earlier this month, the UN said it had been able to deliver aid to just 40,000 people in besieged and hard-to-reach areas in January, despite requesting access to more than 900,000 people.

    That made January the worst month for humanitarian deliveries in nearly a year, with approval received for just one of 21 humanitarian convoys proposed by the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

    The UN says 4.72 million Syrians are in so-called hard-to-reach areas, including 600,000 people under siege, mostly by the Syrian army, but also by rebel groups or the Islamic State group. 

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    A view of the Euphrates river during sunset in Raqqa province, Syria May 15, 2013. REUTERS/Hamid Khatib/File Photo

    GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations is warning of catastrophic flooding in Syria from the Tabqa dam, which is at risk from high water levels, deliberate sabotage by Islamic State (IS) and further damage from air strikes by the U.S.-led coalition.

    The earth-filled dam holds back the Euphrates River 40 km (25 miles) upstream of the IS stronghold of Raqqa and has been controlled by IS since 2014.

    Water levels on the river have risen by about 10 meters since Jan. 24, due partly to heavy rainfall and snow and partly to IS opening three turbines of the dam, flooding riverside areas downstream, according to a U.N. report seen by Reuters on Wednesday.

    "As per local experts, any further rise of the water level would submerge huge swathes of agricultural land along the river and could potentially damage the Tabqa Dam, which would have catastrophic humanitarian implications in all areas downstream," it said.

    The entrance to the dam was already damaged by airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition, it said.

    "For example, on 16 January 2017, airstrikes on the western countryside of Ar-Raqqa impacted the entrance of the Euphrates Dam, which, if further damaged, could lead to massive scale flooding across Ar-Raqqa and as far away as Deir-ez-Zor."

    The town of Deir-ez-Zor, or Deir al-Zor, is a further 140 km downstream from Raqqa, and is besieged by IS. The U.N. estimates that 93,500 civilians are trapped in the town, and it has been airdropping food to them for a year.

    The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are undertaking a multiphased operation to encircle Raqqa, and have advanced to within a few kilometers of the dam. The SDF has previously said air strikes are not being used against IS near the dam to avoid damaging it.

    As IS, also known as ISIL, retreats, its fighters have deliberately destroyed vital infrastructure, including three water stations and five water towers in the first three weeks of January, the U.N. report said.

    "ISIL has reportedly mined water pumping stations on the Euphrates River which hinders the pumping of water and residents are resorting to untreated water from the Euphrates River."

    The U.N. has also warned of the danger of a collapse of the Mosul dam on the Tigris River in Iraq, which could affect 20 million people. The dam was briefly captured by IS in 2014, but remains at risk, with constant repairs needed to avoid disaster.

    Last month Lise Grande, the top U.N. humanitarian official in Iraq and a trained hydrologist who is an expert on the Mosul dam, said a catastrophic burst could have "Biblical" consequences. The U.N. is preparing an international response in case the Mosul dam collapses. 

    (Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Toby Chopra)

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    Over the past 200 years, successive American presidents have placed restrictions on the immigration of certain groups. Here are six occasions when laws have been passed to restrict some people from entering the country.

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