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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    US general Raymond Thomas special operations

    Gen. Raymond Thomas, head of US Special Operations command, said on Tuesday that the US and its allies in the fight against ISIS had killed more than 60,000 of the terrorist group's fighters.

    That estimate was considerably higher than the 50,000 ISIS-dead estimate given by US officials in December.

    Thomas, whose command includes Navy SEALs and the Army Special Forces, was cautious in his remarks but held up the total as a sign of the anti-ISIS campaign's impact.

    "I'm not into morbid body counts, but that matters," he said, speaking at the National Defense Industrial Association's Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict conference outside Washington, DC.

    "So when folks ask, do you need more aggressive [measures], do you need better [rules of engagement], I would tell you that we're being pretty darn prolific," he added.

    The increase between December and now may be attributable to stepped-up campaigns in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, but body counts are generally considered a dubious metric for a number of reasons.

    In the case of ISIS, it's difficult to first assess just how many fighters the terrorist group has.

    According to, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in 2014 that ISIS had 100,000 militants in Iraq and Syria, while the Pentagon said in summer 2016 that there were just 15,000 to 20,000 fighters left in those two countries.


    Complicating matters is the UK Defense Minister Michael Fallon's estimate of the number of ISIS slain. "More than 25,000 Daesh fighters have now been killed,"Fallon said in December.

    Differing assessments of ISIS' manpower are likely to make it more difficult for the Trump administration and its allies to develop an effective strategy to counter the terrorist group.

    Body-count assessments also have a bad reputation as a relic of the Vietnam War, when rosy estimates, often made by officers angling for promotions, earned scorn.

    During the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US government reversed its policy on body counts more than once.

    chuck hagel

    A body-count figure released by the Obama administration in mid-2015 was undercut several times.

    "These are the types of numbers that novices apply," a US military adviser told The Daily Beast at the time.

    Chuck Hagel — who served as US defense secretary prior to Ash Carter — has also recently dismissed the policy of keeping body counts.

    "My policy has always been, don't release that kind of thing,"he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer in December. "Body counts, I mean, come on, did we learn anything from Vietnam?"

    "References to enemy killed are estimates, not precise figures," Christopher Sherwood, a spokesman for the Defense Department, told CNN. "While the number of enemy killed is one measure of military success, the coalition does not use this as a measure of effectiveness in the campaign to defeat ISIS."

    SEE ALSO: Defense Secretary Mattis doesn't seem to care all that much about Flynn’s resignation

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    The Defense Department is considering recommending the US send ground troops into Syria to fight the terrorist group ISIS, according to a source who spoke to CNN.

    "It's possible that you may see conventional forces hit the ground in Syria for some period of time," a defense official told CNN.

    There are currently hundreds of US troops in Syria offering training and assistance to US-backed local forces there. But conventional forces would likely be on the ground in larger numbers, according to CNN.

    CNN reported last month that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was taking control of a Pentagon review to determine which options the Defense Department would present to President Donald Trump on the fight against ISIS.

    The defense official CNN cites in Wednesday's report stressed that any decision on Syria would ultimately be up to Trump.

    Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and an expert on Syria, said he's "not surprised" to see that the US is considering ground troops in Syria to fight ISIS.

    "Fits Trump desire for a rapid victory + withdrawal," he tweeted.

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    CFSA fighterIA-coordinated military aid for rebels in northwest Syria has been frozen since they came under major Islamist attack last month, rebel sources said, raising doubts about foreign support key to their war against President Bashar al-Assad.

    Rebel officials said that no official explanation had been given for the move this month following the jihadist assault, though several said they believed the main objective was to prevent arms and cash falling into Islamist militant hands. But they said they expected the aid freeze to be temporary.

    The halt in assistance, which has included salaries, training, ammunition and in some cases guided anti-tank missiles, is a response to jihadist attacks and has nothing to do with U.S. President Donald Trump replacing Barack Obama in January, two U.S. officials familiar with the CIA-led program said.

    The freeze reflects the troubles facing Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels in the almost six-year-old revolt against Assad, who now appears militarily unassailable in his core western region largely thanks to direct intervention on his side by Russia and Iran.

    "The reality is that you have changes in the area, and these changes inevitably have repercussions," said an official with one of the affected FSA rebel groups. He said no military assistance could "enter at present until matters are organized. There is a new arrangement but nothing has crystallized yet".

    The support funneled to vetted FSA factions has included contributions from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia - states that have opposed Assad. It is one of several foreign aid channels to rebels. Others still function.

    The CIA declined comment on the reported freeze in support. A Qatari official said his government had nothing to say on the matter. Turkish officials said only they could not discuss "operational details". There was no word from Saudi Arabia.


    Reuters confirmed the freeze with officials from five of the FSA groups that have been recipients of financial and military support from the so-called "MOM operations room". It was also confirmed by two other senior FSA figures briefed on the matter.

    They spoke on condition of anonymity given the covert nature of the CIA-backed program and the sensitivity of the subject.

    Several rebels believed the aid halt was temporary, with new arrangements expected, but there was no clarity yet. Confirming the freeze, two senior FSA sources said donor states were aiming to send the aid to one, unified fighting force - a coherence that has eluded rebels throughout Syria's civil war.

    One of the FSA officials said he did not expect the rebels to be abandoned as they represent the best hope for blocking a further expansion of Sunni jihadist influence in Syria, and to fight back against the growing role of Iran there.

    Declining rebel fortunes

    syria map 2017

    Idlib and nearby areas of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces are among the last footholds of the anti-Assad insurgency in western Syria - the part of the country where he has shored up his rule by holding onto the main cities and the coast.

    Islamists have long been seen as the more formidable insurgent force in the northwestern Idlib area though a dozen or more U.S.-vetted FSA groups have also operated there and nearby.

    Last month's militant assault on the FSA groups was launched by a group formerly known as the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's official affiliate in the war until last year when it formally cut ties and renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

    The jihadist onslaught led several FSA groups to merge with the powerful Islamist faction Ahrar al-Sham, widely believed to be backed by Assad's foreign adversaries in the region.

    That will likely give pause to foreign donors: Ahrar al-Sham is set apart from the FSA factions by a strongly Sunni Islamist ideology and it has previously fought alongside the Nusra Front.

    Military aid to rebel groups has ebbed and flowed throughout the life of the program, U.S. officials said, as Washington and its allies have kept a close eye on any leakage to more militant factions, something one official called "a constant problem".

    Trump's Syria policy not yet clear

    A Turkish soldier on armoured military vehicle patrols the border between Turkey and Syria, near the southeastern village of Besarslan, in Hatay province, Turkey, November 1, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

    Before assuming office, Trump suggested he could end support for FSA groups and give priority to the fight against Islamic State (IS), whose well-armed jihadists hold large tracts of eastern and central Syria.

    But Trump's administration has yet to declare a firm policy towards Syria and Iraq, despite his repeated vows to eradicate IS, so it has been "business as usual" with covert and overt training and military support programs, one U.S. official said.

    Some FSA groups hope Trump's animosity towards Iran could yet result in enhanced U.S. support.

    Jihadist forces attacked while FSA envoys attended Russian-backed Syria peace talks in Kazakhstan, accusing the rebels of conspiring with Moscow and Washington against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The United States has carried out a deadly series of air strikes against Fateh al-Sham in Idlib this year.

    MOM-backed rebels had suffered a heavy blow in December when Syrian government forces ousted them from eastern Aleppo with decisive help from the Russian air force and Iranian-backed militias. Eastern Aleppo had been seen as an FSA stronghold.

    An official with an FSA group that has received MOM aid said none came this month "and there are no signals". Another said a regular meeting of the MOM had been canceled this month.

    "I expect a reorganization," he said, adding that there were still around 15,000 combatants with FSA groups in the northwest.

    The CIA-backed program has regulated aid to the rebels after a period of unchecked support early in the war - especially from Gulf states - helped give rise to an array of insurgent groups, many of them strongly Islamist in ideology.

    A similar program continues to operate in southern Syria with Jordanian backing. Some of the FSA groups backed through the MOM in the north continue to receive Turkish support as they participate in the Turkey-led Euphrates Shield offensive against IS and Kurdish groups to the northeast of Aleppo.

    aleppo syria

    FSA groups have long complained that the aid provided falls far short of what they need to confront the better armed Syrian army. Their demands for anti-aircraft missiles have been consistently rebuffed.

    U.S. intelligence and military officials said the leakage, sale and capture of U.S.-supplied and other weapons from units of the FSA to Islamic State, the Nusra Front, and other splinter militant groups have been a concern since the CIA and U.S. military began arming and training a limited number of rebels.

    From the start, said one of the officials, some U.S.-backed rebels have migrated from groups that were battered by Syrian government forces to others such as IS that were seizing and holding territory at the time. Aid has slowed or stopped in Idlib and nearby areas, officials said, amid fears the pattern may be continuing after rebels lost ground there.

    Another U.S. official said FSA groups continue to mount significant challenges to Assad. "Despite the setbacks and no assistance in fighting back against a brutal Russian onslaught, the fact is they remain a viable fighting force," the official said.

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    putin in a jet

    MOSCOW (AP) — The Russian military received a sweeping array of new weapons last year, including 41 intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the wide-ranging military modernization will continue this year, the defense minister said Wednesday.

    Minister Sergei Shoigu told lawmakers the air force will receive 170 new aircraft, the army will receive 905 tanks and other armored vehicles while the navy will receive 17 new ships this year.

    Amid tensions with the West, the Kremlin has continued to spend big on new weapons despite Russia's economic downturn.

    Also this year, three regiments of Russia's strategic nuclear forces will receive new intercontinental ballistic missiles, Shoigu said. Each regiment has up to 10 launchers.

    The rising number of new weapons has raised demands for new personnel. Shoigu said the military currently needs 1,300 more pilots and will recruit them by 2018.

    A severe money crunch after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union left the military in tatters, with most of its planes grounded and ships left rusting at harbor for lack of funds. As part of President Vladimir Putin's military reforms, the armed forces have received new weapons and now engage in regular large-scale drills.

    Russia has used its revived military capability in Syria, where it has launched an air campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad and used the conflict to test its new weapons for the first time in combat.

    su 24 frogfoot syria

    The weapons modernization effort has seen the 1-million Russian military narrow the technological gap in some areas where Russia had fallen behind the West, such as long-range conventional weapons, communications and drone technologies.

    Shoigu said the military now has 2,000 drones compared to just 180 in 2011. He also noted that Russia has now deployed new long-range early warning radars to survey the airspace along the entire length of its borders.

    Chukotka kuril islandsThe minister said the military will complete the formation of three new divisions in the nation's west and southwest, and also deploy a new division on the Pacific Islands, which have been claimed by Japan.

    The dispute over the Kuril Islands just north of Japan, which the former Soviet Union seized in the closing days of World War II, has prevented the two countries from signing a peace treaty.

    Russia previously has deployed new long-range anti-ship missiles on the Kurils to protect the coast.

    The deployment of a full-fledged Russian army division there appears intended to stake Moscow's claim to the islands, which have strategic importance and are surrounded by fertile fishing grounds.

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    Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov delivers his speech during the 53rd Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, February 18, 2017.    REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

    MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia waits for the United States to come up with proposals on a possible cooperation in Syria, Interfax news agency quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying on Wednesday.

    At a news conference in Moscow, Lavrov also said that the U.S. proposal about creation of the so-called safe areas in Syria must be first agreed with the Syrian government.

    (Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Andrey Ostroukh)

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    U.N. mediator for Syria Staffan de Mistura attends a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

    Opposing sides in the Syrian war came face-to-face in U.N. peace talks for the first time in three years on Thursday, to hear mediator Staffan de Mistura implore them to cooperate to find a way out of almost six years of war.

    "I ask you to work together. I know it's not going to be easy to end this horrible conflict and lay the foundation for a country at peace with itself, sovereign and unified," Mistura told the delegates sitting opposite each other on the stage of the U.N. assembly hall in Geneva.

    Mistura will hold meetings with the delegations on Friday to establish a procedure for the talks, he told reporters after the opening session, adding it would be his "dream" to bring them back together for direct talks, but there was work to be done before that could happen.

    At the last Geneva talks, 10 months ago, de Mistura had to shuttle between the parties who never met in the same room.

    De Mistura told the representatives of President Bashar al-Assad's government and his opponents that they had a joint responsibility to end a conflict that had killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions.

    "The Syrian people desperately all want an end to this conflict and you all know it," he said.

    "You are the first ones to tell us it. They are waiting for a relief from their own suffering and dream of a new road out of this nightmare to a new and normal future in dignity."

    syria map 2017

    Describing the negotiations as an uphill task, he said they would center on U.N. Security Council resolution 2254 which calls for a new constitution, U.N.-supervised elections and transparent and accountable governance.

    He said a shaky ceasefire brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran had opened a window of opportunity.

    "The effort has jump-started the process ... to see if there is a political road forward and we don't want to miss this opportunity."

    Neither delegation clapped the speech by de Mistura, who went to shake hands with both sides after his opening remarks. Even as he warmly embraced the opposition delegates, the government group were walking out of the room and did not turn back.

    "We need direct talks to create empathy and trust in both sides. We still don't know if it will be direct or proximity talks, but the government has given no indication it wants to talk directly which inevitably shows how little they are committed to this process," a Western diplomat said.


    staffan de mistura syria peace russia turkey astana

    The ceasefire - which excludes hardline jihadists such as Islamic State - was implemented after separate talks in Kazakhstan's capital Astana, brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran.

    But fighting continued even as the peace talks resumed, with Syrian jets bombing rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Deraa and Hama provinces and insurgents firing rockets at government targets.

    The lead negotiator for the opposition - which is still fractured and does not have a completely unified delegation - said the Geneva talks should prioritize finding a political transition, something he said Assad's side did not want.

    "If Staffan is serious he has to stick to the first subject in the agenda which is a political transition that is acceptable to the Syrian people," Nasr al-Hariri told reporters.

    But Russia's envoy to the United Nations in Geneva, Alexei Borodavkin, said demands from rebels and their Western and Arab backers for Assad to step down were "absurd".


    Hariri criticized the role played by Iran and Iranian-backed militias, which - with Russia - are vital Assad allies.

    "Iran is the main obstacle to any kind of political deal," Hariri said, accusing Tehran of being responsible for violations of the ceasefire.

    A Gulf Arab diplomat said of the talks: "I'm not optimistic."

    De Mistura said the biggest challenge was lack of trust.

    "We do know what will happen if we fail once again - more deaths more suffering, more terrorism, more refugees."

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    afp suicide bomber kills 29 near syria town taken from is monitor

    A suicide bomber killed 29 people, most of them rebels, on Friday near the Syrian town of Al-Bab, which they had taken from the Islamic State group just hours earlier, a monitor said.

    The bomber blew up a vehicle packed with explosives in Susian, eight kilometres (five miles) northeast of the strategic town which the Turkish-backed rebels overran on Thursday after weeks of fighting, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

    The blast devastated two adjacent rebel command posts and also seriously wounded a large number of fighters, the Observatory said.

    Al-Bab, just 25 kilometres (15 miles) south of the Turkish border, was the last IS stronghold in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo.

    Rebels launched an offensive to capture the town last year with the support of Turkish ground troops, artillery and air strikes.

    Turkey sent troops into Syria last August in an operation it said targeted not only IS but also US-backed Kurdish fighters whom it regards as terrorists.

    The battle for Al-Bab has been the bloodiest of the campaign with at least 69 Turkish soldiers killed there.

    Turkish Defence Minister Fikri Isik said on Thursday that its rebel allies had "near complete control" of the town.


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    A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters sits on a vehicle in the north of Raqqa city, Syria February 3, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) — U.S. President Donald Trump's push against Islamic State in Syria could present him with an unenviable choice: Alienate NATO ally Turkey by relying on Kurdish fighters or adopt a plan that may slow the assault and require many more U.S. combat forces.

    The objective of the coming U.S.-backed offensive is the city of Raqqa, Islamic State's de facto capital, which U.S. officials think the hardline group has been using as a hub to hatch plots against the West.

    Despite months of U.S. efforts to allay Turkish concerns, Ankara is insisting the offensive be carried out by local Arab fighters with support from Turkish troops, as opposed to the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, which in addition to Arabs includes Kurdish fighters who Turkey considers a threat.

    As Ankara warns of a major rupture in ties if its concerns are ignored, U.S. and Turkish military officials have been reviewing Turkish proposals for the Raqqa campaign in recent days, one U.S. official said. No decision has been reached, officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

    A senior Turkish official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, estimated that as many as 10,000 fighters could be made available for the Raqqa campaign, in addition to Turkish and any U.S. forces backing them.

    A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter walks near vehicles carrying people fleeing clashes in Tweila'a village and Haydarat area, north of Raqqa city, Syria November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    U.S. officials, however, have questioned whether the Turkish-backed forces are up to the job, at least anytime soon, noting the difficulty Turkish-backed rebels had this week driving Islamic State from the town of al-Bab, which is a significantly smaller and easier target than Raqqa.

    In a reminder of the threat, even after al Bab was seized on Thursday, an Islamic State car bomb killed more than 50 people in a nearby Syrian village on Friday.

    It is also unclear how Turkish forces would get to Raqqa, perhaps by carving a path through Syrian-government-held or Kurdish-held territory. A U.S. intelligence official also noted that Turkey might want to clear the town of Manbij of Kurds before going to Raqqa.

    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

    Turkish-backed forces still may need to be trained and, potentially, supplemented by a far larger number of American troops than the 500 special operations forces in Syria now — all factors that could slow and complicate the Raqqa campaign.

    "To the extent that President Trump has expressed a desire to take Raqqa as quickly and forcibly as possible, the only force that's poised to do that is the SDF," said Blaise Misztal, the director of the national security program at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

    More U.S. troops?

    The SDF, on the other hand, is far larger than Turkey's proposed force.

    The Arab component of the SDF that would aid the Raqqa operation is estimated at around 27,000, U.S. officials say, but U.S. intelligence officials say it remains disorganized and unevenly trained and requires support from Kurdish forces that are the alliance's best local fighters.

    Even if the United States supports the SDF in the assault, U.S. military officers hint that more U.S. troops might be needed.

    CBS News quoted U.S. General Joseph Votel, the head of the Central Command, who visited Syria on Friday, saying earlier this week that the forces the United States is backing "don't have as good mobility; they don't have as much firepower.

    U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, commander, U.S. Central Command, briefs the media at the Pentagon in Washington, U.S. April 29, 2016 about the investigation of the airstrike on the Doctors Without Borders trauma center in Kunduz, Afghanistan on October 3, 2015. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

    "So we have to be prepared to fill in some of those gaps for them," he said.

    A decision to go with the SDF could create logistical hurdles for the United States because Turkey would likely oppose allowing U.S. troops to deploy on its border to provide close air support and long-range rocket artillery fire for the operation, said an adviser to the U.S. military.

    Turkish ire also could complicate the flow of supplies to the front lines, the adviser added.

    "More would come through Iraq, and it goes a bit slower and you get protests and consternation from the Turks," the adviser said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the discussions

    Who would hold Raqqa after Islamic State is expelled is a factor in Syria's long-term stability. Misztal questioned whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would let Turkish forces hold the city. Turkey has warned that any Kurdish-dominated force could trigger a backlash by the city's mostly Sunni population.

    Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged the challenges in Syria during a forum in Washington on Thursday.

    "When we provide (Trump) options, we'll talk about the importance of our Turkish ally and making sure that our plans are consistent with maintaining a strong alliance with Turkey," Dunford said, listing other factors the president will have to consider, including the role of the Kurds.

    He did not discuss specific options before the completion of a draft plan for combating Islamic militants, which is due by Monday.

    (Reporting by Phil Stewart and Jonathan Landay; additional reporting by Nick Tattersall; editing by John Walcott and Leslie Adler)

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    Rex Tillerson

    Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is under pressure to chronicle war crimes committed by Russia and Syria, from a bipartisan group of lawmakers that is pushing for "accountability" at the end of the Syrian civil war.

    "We respectfully request that you work to ensure [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, Russia, and Iran are made to answer for the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria," Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and 13 other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote to Tillerson on Friday.

    The senators renewed their call for designating Assad as a war criminal in light of an Amnesty International report that said between 5,000 and 13,000 people have been tortured and executed in a Syrian prison.

    "Sufficient documentation exists to charge Bashar al-Assad with war crimes and crimes against humanity," the senators wrote. "He has lost legitimacy as Syria's leader."

    Amnesty International published a report this month on "a hidden, monstrous campaign" to kill civilians "authorized at the highest levels of the Syrian government." The report was based on interviews with 84 people, including 34 men formerly detained at Saydnaya Military Prison and "four prison officials or guards" who worked there.

    "The guard would ask everyone to take off all their clothes and go to the bathroom one by one," the report quoted one witness. "As we walked to the bathroom, they would select one of the boys, someone petite or young or fair. They would ask him to stand with his face to the door and close his eyes. They would then ask a bigger prisoner to rape him... No one will admit this happened to them, but it happened so often... Sometimes psychological pain is worse than physical pain, and the people who were forced to do this were never the same again."

    aleppo syria

    The senators also accused Russian forces of committing war crimes "such as the bombing of a humanitarian convoy on September 19, 2016" in support of Assad. They want Tillerson to make the case for the withdrawal of Russian and Iranian forces from Syria as well.

    suleimani soleimani aleppo iran syria general"Russia and Iran's ongoing military operations in support of Assad make Russian and Iranian leaders complicit in Assad's war crimes and crimes against humanity," they wrote. "As you review U.S. policy toward Russia and participate in the Administration's planning to defeat ISIS, Russia's role in the tragic deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians must be considered. Russia must join the international community in seeking to hold Assad accountable, stop enabling the slaughter of the Syrian people, and undertake efforts to remove Iran-affiliated fighters from Syria."

    That last step would help alleviate a growing worry among U.S. policymakers that, following the defeat of ISIS as a terror-state by American-led coalition forces, Russia and Iran might mobilize to destroy other U.S.-backed forces in the country.

    "[Iran will] immediately begin the push to take away all of our influence and try to push us out of there, and probably use their Shia allies to threaten our troops and other personnel on the ground," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who signed the letter to Tillerson, predicted in a recent interview with the Washington Examiner.

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    UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura gives a press conference on the first day of a fourth round of UN-sponsored Syria peace talks in Geneva on February 23, 2017

    Geneva (AFP) - A ban on mobile phones, recording devices and "offensive language": the ground rules handed out at Syrian talks reflect the high tension in the corridors of Geneva, where peace is a long way from anyone's lips.

    UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura issued the orders to Syrian government and opposition negotiators gathered for talks which are showing little sign of progress, overshadowed by more slaughter on the ground.

    "Respect the others who are present in these proceedings. No-one has the right to question the legitimacy of others," he wrote in the one-page ground rules, obtained by AFP.

    "Use appropriate language and behaviour, and avoid making offensive, degrading, inflammatory or personal attacks, in and out of meetings," he added.

    The fact that such obvious rules have to be spelled out shows the deep personal animosity and bitterness between the two sides, after six years of bloody conflict and several previous rounds of UN talks which went nowhere.

    The tension was palpable at the opening of the talks last Thursday evening at the UN offices in Geneva.

    The regime's chief negotiator, Syria's envoy to the UN Bashar al-Jaafari, sat with his delegation across the room from the opposition team, led by cardiologist Nasr al-Hariri.

    Between the two of them, the usually smiling de Mistura called solemnly on both sides to show "historical responsibility" and seize the opportunity to bring peace to their war-scarred country.

    "Jaafari looked defiant, his arms crossed, he was staring us down, literally," said a western diplomat. The regime delegation left the room immediately at the end of the ceremony.

    On the opposition side, a diplomatic incident was only narrowly avoided.

    Furious that de Mistura had invited the so-called Moscow and Cairo delegations, members of the main opposition group the High Negotiating Committee (HNC) threatened to boycott the ceremony.

    "There was strong pressure from the special envoys of the countries which back the opposition. British, Germans, French, Emiratis, the Danes, Swedes and Turks... they pushed them to take part in the ceremony," said an opposition source.

    afp suicide bomber kills 29 near syria town taken from is monitor


    - Pressure, 'chaotic'-

    Because in the corridors of the UN's Palais des Nations in Geneva, diplomats from all countries involved are watching closely, and advising their respective protegees.

    On the opposition side are most western and Arab countries. For the Damascus regime, their powerful Russian and Iranian allies.

    In the first camp, US special envoy Michael Ratney, named by the Obama administration, is still here. But most of his colleagues are wondering what new President Donald Trump's stance on Syria is going to be.

    Apart from anything else, advising the opposition "is not always simple -- it's all a bit chaotic," said one of the foreign diplomats.

    The HNC, the main opposition which represents both political and armed groups, is often divided over how to respond to a Damascus side which gives no ground.

    For the regime, its big ally Moscow spoke on the day the talks opened. 

    Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed that Moscow's aim was to "stabilise the legitimate authority" and strike a "decisive blow" against terrorism.

    Putin's special envoy in Geneva said that wanting to force Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from office, as demanded by the opposition, was "absurd".

    And after Saturday's suicide attacks in Syria's third city Homs which targeted the regime's intelligence services, the Damascus delegation repeated that the Geneva talks had to give priority to fighting terrorism.

    syrian refugee camp

    The opposition immediately accused the regime of "stalling" the talks, using the Homs attack to avoid talking about political transition.

    "We always come back to the same pattern," said a western diplomat, referring to previous rounds of talks early last year which failed due to the same problems.

    It is against this grim background that veteran UN envoy de Mistura, under intense pressure, is trying to nudge both sides towards substantial discussions.

    "He is trying to avoid emotional dramas. He is constantly trying to balance everything, while everyone is getting on his back. It is very difficult," conceded the diplomat.


    SEE ALSO: Syrian civil activists demand talks on transition, ceasefire monitoring

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    US Central Command on Tuesday tweeted out photos of Syrian women fighters who have joined the campaign against ISIS in the country.

    "Those photos were taken by CENTCOM's spokesman who travelled to Syria with Gen. Votel recently to visit with senior leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces," a CentCom spokesman told Business Insider in an email.

    While Central Command did not elaborate on which faction the women pictured belonged to in the tweets or in its email to Business Insider, one of the most prominent groups of women fighters in Syria are Kurdish rebels (though there are Kurdish women fighters in Iraq, as well).

    The Kurdish militia known as the People's Protection Units, or YPG in its Kurmanji initials, has an all-women fighting unit called the Women's Protection Units, or YPJ.

    The YPG is loosely organized with an egalitarian leadership and embraces radical leftist politics. Members of the organization use a gender-neutral moniker for each other — hevale— elects leaders directly, and "command positions are jointly occupied by a man from the YPG and a woman from the YPJ," Seth Harp reported for Rolling Stone in mid-February.

    Syria Kurdish YPG YPJ Syrian Democratic Forces

    "[YPG] troops are lightly armed and go into battle without body armor or helmets or even boots, just sneakers and Kalashnikovs, wearing the black flowery headscarves typical of Rojava, which the men took up wearing in solidarity with the women," Harp writes.

    The presence of women fighters on the front line against ISIS — whose horrific treatment of women is well-known — has, at times, attracted coverage that focused on the fact that they are women.

    One story in late 2016 referred to a slain Kurdish fighter as "the Angelina Jolie of Kurdistan."

    Some of those fighters, however, seem to have little interest in anything but the mission at hand.

    "I like that when we kill them they lose their heaven," a 22-year-old figher named Haveen told The New York Times last spring. "I don't know how many of them I've killed. It's not enough. I won't be happy until they're all dead."

    SEE ALSO: Watch a US-led airstrike pound a building in Syria days before ISIS was forced out of the area

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    As Iraqi forces advance on ISIS' last urban stronghold in the country, the US-led coalition continues to strike the terrorist group in Syria to support its various allies in the fight there.

    In a Feb. 17 strike, seen below in footage provided by the US Defense Department, coalition aircraft struck an ISIS-held building near Al Bab, a town in northwest Syria.

    The strike was one of 15 in Syria that day, but it was the only one near Al Bab. According to an Operation Inherent Resolve release issued the next day, the strike near the city targeted an ISIS tactical unit and destroyed a fighting position.

    Days later, on Feb. 23, Turkish-backed forces retook the town from ISIS fighters after a long and bloody fight that led to the deaths of dozens of fighters and hundreds of civilians, requiring Turkey to triple the size of its original detachment.

    The Turkish victory in Al Bab is likely to further strain US-Turkey cooperation in Syria, according to The Washington Post. The US had, at first, backed a Kurdish-led force to retake the town, which sits 15 miles south of the Syria-Turkey border. The government in Ankara views those Kurdish fighters as terrorists.

    afp suicide bomber kills 29 near syria town taken from is monitor

    Turkey's advance on Al Bab is also intended to prevent Kurds in Syria from linking the territories they hold east and west of the town and creating an autonomous zone in northern Syria.

    Turkey's grip on Al Bab and the area around it may be tenuous, however. An ISIS suicide attack nearby on Friday killed 29 people, leaving a large number wounded and destroying two rebel command posts.

    Efforts to reach a peaceful end of the fighting in Syria have been bogged down for some time.

    Amid the ongoing killing in Syria itself, a UN envoy at talks in Geneva issued orders banning mobile phones, recording devices, and "offensive language" to government and opposition negotiators in an effort to ease the fractious environment at peace talks.

    Al Qaeda's former Syria branch, Fateh al-Sham, claimed on Friday that suicide bombings in Homs over the weekend were a message to opposition representatives in Geneva to "step aside."

    assad putin russia syria

    Fateh al-Sham has been excluded from the opposition committee in Switzerland and said the bombings in Homs were "just one episode in a series that will follow."

    Russia, a stalwart ally of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, has also thwarted resolutions against the Syrian government at the UN.

    Vladimir Putin said a draft resolution issued by Western powers meant to sanction Syrian government leaders over their alleged use of chemical weapons was "inappropriate" and that Russia would not support it.

    While the US presence in Syria has been limited, demands by President Donald Trump for a new strategy to "obliterate" ISIS may ultimately require more US troops on the ground in the war-torn country.

    US military officials have stressed that any new US initiative against the terrorist group and others like it would not be solely a military one.

    "This is a political-military plan," Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Thursday. "It is not a military plan."

    SEE ALSO: Watch a US-led airstrike destroy an ISIS headquarters building near the group's urban stronghold in Iraq

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    Members of the civil defense rescue children after what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo. REUTERS/Sultan Kitaz

    GENEVA(Reuters) - Both sides in the battle for Aleppo committed war crimes, including Syrian government aircraft that "deliberately" bombed and strafed a humanitarian convoy, killing 14 aid workers and halting relief operations, U.N. investigators said on Wednesday.

    Syrian and Russian forces conducted "daily air strikes" on rebel-held eastern Aleppo between July and its fall on December 22, killing hundreds and destroying hospitals, they said in their latest report.

    Cluster munitions were "pervasively used" and air-dropped into densely-populated areas, it said, amounting to the war crime of indiscriminate attacks.

    But investigators could not say whether both Syrian and Russian forces had used them in Aleppo or only one had. They also did not attribute any specific war crime investigated to Russian forces.

    "Throughout the period under review, the skies over Aleppo city and its environs were jointly controlled by Syrian and Russian air forces ... (They) use predominantly the same aircraft and weapons, thus rendering attribution impossible in many cases," the report said.

    The U.N. Commission of Inquiry's report - released as Syrian peace talks continue in Geneva - covers the July-December period and is based on 291 interviews with victims and witnesses, as well as analysis of forensic evidence and satellite imagery.

    Syrian helicopters unleashed toxic chlorine bombs "throughout 2016" on Aleppo, a banned weapon that caused hundreds of civilian casualties there, the report said.

    At least 5,000 pro-government forces also encircled eastern Aleppo in a "surrender or starve" tactic, it said.

    Opposition groups shelled government-controlled western Aleppo, killing and injuring dozens, the report said. They prevented civilians from fleeing eastern Aleppo, using them as "human shields", and attacked the residential Kurdish district of Sheikh Maqsoud, both war crimes.

    The U.S.-led coalition did not conduct any offensive air missions over Aleppo in the second half of the year, they said.

    aleppo syria

    "Dumb bombs"

    Syrian and Russian warplanes dropped unguided munitions, known as indiscriminate "dumb bombs" rather than smart bombs that have electronic sensors to find their targets, the report said.

    These included aerial bombs, air-to-surface rockets, cluster munitions, incendiary bombs, barrel bombs, and weapons delivering toxic industrial chemicals.

    The investigators accused the Syrian government of a "meticulously planned and ruthlessly carried out" air strike on a U.N. and Syrian Red Crescent convoy at Orum al-Kubra, in rural western Aleppo on Sept 19 that killed 14 aid workers.

    A previous U.N. inquiry had been unable to determine who conducted the strike.

    "By using air-delivered munitions with the knowledge that humanitarian workers were operating in the location, Syrian forces committed the war crimes of deliberately attacking humanitarian relief personnel, denial of humanitarian aid, and attacking civilians," the report said.

    Survivors "consistently described" three stages of attack.

    "First helicopters dropped barrel bombs, which struck the warehouse and a family home nearby ... Subsequently, planes, described by several witnesses as Sukhoi jets, carried out attacks, killing several aid workers. Lastly the aircraft fired machine guns at survivors."

    During the recapture of eastern Aleppo, pro-government forces arrested doctors and aid workers and committed reprisal executions, the report said. 

    (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Gareth Jones)

    SEE ALSO: This is what Aleppo is

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    Russian airstrike syria bomber

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Russian and Syrian aircraft bombed positions held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Arab Coalition near the Syrian town of Al Bab on Tuesday, inflicting casualties, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said on Wednesday.

    "Yesterday, we had some Russian aircraft and (Syrian) regime aircraft bomb some villages that I believe they thought were held by ISIS, yet they were actually — on the ground — were some of our Syrian Arab coalition forces," Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend told a Pentagon news briefing, using an acronym for the Islamic State militant group.

    Townsend added that US commandos were less than three miles from the site of the strikes, and that the bombing stopped when US personnel contacted the Russians on a special hotline.

    Turkish-backed forces recaptured Al Bab, which is about 15 miles from the Turkish border in northwest Syria, on February 23, after a longer-than-expected operation that resulted in numerous combat deaths and killed hundreds of civilians. The original Turkish force had to be tripled in size by the end of the operation.

    An ISIS suicide bombing near Al Bab days after the town fell killed 29 people and destroyed two rebel command posts.

    (Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; editing by James Dalgleish)

    SEE ALSO: Watch a US-led airstrike pound a building in Syria days before ISIS was forced out of the area

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    FILE PHOTO: Syrian army soldiers stand on the ruins of the Temple of Bel in the historic city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - Russian-backed Syrian government forces will enter the Islamic State-held city of Palmyra "very soon", a Syrian military source said on Wednesday, as government forces seek to win back the city from the group for the second time in a year.

    The army said on Wednesday it had captured an area known as the "Palmyra triangle" a few miles west of the city.

    Backed by Russian air strikes, the Syrian army has advanced to the outskirts of Palmyra in the last few days. "The army's entry to the city will begin very soon," the military source told Reuters.

    The Syrian government lost control of Palmyra to Islamic State in December, having first recaptured it with Russian air support last March. The group has razed ancient monuments during both of its spells in control of the UNESCO World Heritage Site - destruction the United Nations has condemned as a war crime.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based organization that reports on the war, said government forces were expected to storm Palmyra at "any moment". Russia has said its aircraft are supporting the army offensive in Palmyra.

    Photos published on an Islamic State Telegram account on Wednesday showed the group's fighters firing at the Syrian army with rockets and a tank. Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the photos.

    Islamic State first captured Palmyra from the government in 2015. During its first period in control of the site, the jihadists destroyed monuments including a 1,800-year-old monumental arch.

    Most recently, Islamic State has razed the landmark Tetrapylon and the facade of Palmyra's Roman Theater. Palmyra, known in Arabic as Tadmur, stood at the crossroads of the ancient world.

    The government and its allies lost Palmyra as they focused on defeating Syrian rebel groups in eastern Aleppo. The rebel groups were driven from eastern Aleppo in December, the government's biggest victory of the war.

    (Reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut and Andrew Osborn in Moscow and Ali Abdelaty in Cairo; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Louise Ireland)

    SEE ALSO: Trump's new immigration ban will reportedly remove Iraq from the list

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    US special forces troops Mosul Iraq ISIS

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The top U.S. commander in Iraq on Wednesday downplayed the chances that the United States would deploy a large number of additional coalition forces to battle Islamic State, even as President Donald Trump weighs options to speed the campaign.

    Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend also appeared to deliver a robust defense of Kurdish fighters that have been America's strongest allies on the ground in Syria and signaled some role for them in an upcoming offensive for the city of Raqqa, even though Turkey has expressed concerns that they pose a threat.

    Townsend declined to openly discuss his recommendations for accelerating the fight against Islamic State but his comments represent one of the strongest signals yet that the U.S. military will not advocate any fundamental shift in a key strategy that relies on local ground forces.

    The United States now fields less than 6,000 troops in both Iraq and Syria, a far cry from a peak of about 170,000 to Iraq under President George W. Bush.

    Iraq Iraqi security forces troops soldiers Mosul ISIS combat

    "I don't foresee us bringing in large numbers of coalition troops, mainly because what we're doing is, in fact, working," Townsend told a Pentagon news briefing, speaking via video conference from Baghdad.

    "But in that event that we bring in any additional troops, we'll work that with our local partners, both here in Iraq and Syria, to make sure that they understand the reasons why we're doing that and to get their buy-in of that."

    Trump has made defeating Islamic State — which has claimed responsibility for attacks on American soil, in Europe and elsewhere — one of the key themes of his presidency, and his administration received a draft Pentagon plan on Monday to accelerate the campaign.

    Iraq troops security forces ISIS Mosul combat fighting shootout

    Details of that plan have not been disclosed, but Townsend said he still believed that fighting "by, with and through our local partners" was succeeding.

    "That is still the right way to go. It is working and our local partners are fully invested, they are leading the fight," he said.

    YPG role in Raqqa

    Trump's push against Islamic State in Syria could soon present him with an unenviable choice of potentially alienating NATO ally Turkey by relying on the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which in addition to Arabs includes Kurdish YPG fighters who Turkey considers a threat.

    Turkey is strongly opposed to YPG involvement in the operation to liberate Raqqa, not only because it sees the force as an extension of the PKK militant group, but also because it says Raqqa is an Arab-dominated city.

    Townsend, however, stressed they would have some role in the campaign.

    Syria Kurdish YPG YPJ Syrian Democratic Forces

    "There are going to be Kurds assaulting Raqqa for sure. The number, the size of them, and how many Kurdish units are participating in that, I can't really say right now," he said.

    Townsend also delivered a robust defense of the YPG fighters who receive U.S. support, saying he had seen no evidence linking them to attacks on Turkey from Northern Syria in the past two years.

    "I've talked to their leaders and we've watched them operate and they continually reassure us that they have no desire to attack Turkey, that they are not a threat to Turkey, in fact that they desire to have a good working relationship with Turkey," Townsend said.

    (Reporting by Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and Nick Tattersall; editing by James Dalgleish)

    SEE ALSO: Watch British airstrikes blast ISIS vehicles off the road near the group's last stronghold in the country

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    Fighters patrol a citadel on the edge of Lake Assad, behind the Tabqa dam west of Raqa, northern Syria, in a screengrab captured on March 5, 2017 from an AFPTV video filmed on February 26, 2017

    Tuwayhina (Syria) (AFP) - Syrian farmers near the Euphrates river are terrified the Islamic State group will literally open the floodgates to defend its stronghold Raqa, drowning their tiny villages in the process.

    Water levels of the Euphrates, which snakes down through northern Syria and east into Iraq, have shot up over the past month near the jihadist group's de facto capital, Raqa city. 

    Residents of the modest farming villages scattered on the river's eastern bank say they are afraid the jihadists will destroy the Tabqa dam, Syria's largest, to slow advancing anti-IS forces. 

    "If IS goes through with its threat of blowing up the Tabqa dam, then all areas around the southern part of the river could be under water," said Abu Hussein, 67.

    He spoke to AFP in Tuwayhina, a small village that was recently recaptured by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces east of the river and around 10 kilometres (six miles) from the dam.

    Abu Hussein said "hundreds of villages and fields" could be submerged if IS opens the gates of the dam, which lies around 50 kilometres upstream from Raqa city.

    "They don't even fear God. And if someone doesn't fear God, then I'm afraid of him."

    The Tabqa dam sits 500 metres (yards) from the eponymous town, an IS stronghold since 2014 where many of its most senior commanders are based.

    Tabqa is a key target of the SDF's months-long drive for Raqa, and its fighters have already advanced to just five kilometres from the town.  

    "We're hearing that Daesh is planning on blowing up the Tabqa dam," said Raheel Hassan Mahmoud, 58, in the arid village of Bir Hamad, using an Arabic acronym for IS. 

    "If this happens, it means most of Raqa and Deir Ezzor will drown, while other towns die of thirst and crops and livestock die," he told AFP.  

    'Catastrophic implications' 

     Hassan, a 35-year-old in nearby Bir Hassan, said he expected IS would flood the villages as a last resort. 

    "It could open up the dam's gates to cover itself as it withdraws, in case it's no longer able to resist in the area," he said.

    The UN's humanitarian coordination agency (OCHA) says water levels of the Euphrates have risen 10 metres (33 feet) since late January. 

    The UN said the increase was "partly due to heavy rainfall and snow". 

    But it also pointed the finger at air strikes near the dam, "which, if further damaged, could lead to massive scale flooding across Raqa and as far away as Deir Ezzor" province to the southeast.

    Any further rises in the water level or damage to the Tabqa dam "would have catastrophic humanitarian implications in all areas downstream", the UN warned. 

    The SDF's drive for Raqa is backed by air strikes from the US-led coalition bombing jihadists in Iraq and Syria. 

    A member of the Syrian team still working at the dam warned that "the battle, if it lasts much longer, will have serious repercussions on the dam".

    The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals by IS, said the dam was at risk of damage as the fighting draws near -- but so was his team. 

    "The technicians will be forced to flee in order to escape death. This is another danger, because the dam cannot be left without someone controlling it," the source warned.

    Before Syria's conflict erupted in 2011, about 40,000 people lived in Tabqa, according to geography expert Fabrice Balanche. 

    Another 20,000 lived in the smaller city of Thawrah, just south of the dam. 

    Construction of the Tabqa dam was completed in 1973 with help from the Soviet Union.

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    An Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter walks with his weapon in northern Raqqa province, Syria February 6, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian militias backed by the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State cut the road between the jihadist-held city of Raqqa and Deir al-Zor province in Syria on Monday, a Kurdish military source and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

    The advance by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) means all land routes out of Raqqa are now cut, and the only remaining way out is south across the Euphrates River, the Kurdish military source said. "It is a big victory but there is still a lot to accomplish," the source said.

    The SDF includes the Kurdish YPG militia and allied Arab groups. The spokesman for the SDF could not immediately be reached for comment.

    (Reporting by Tom Perry; Editing by Toby Chopra)

    SEE ALSO: Kurdish-led fighters launch offensive toward Syria's Raqqa

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    US navy brunei south china sea

    Access to and control over water is a strategic imperative for all countries. As such, it has been a source of conflict throughout history.

    Water access can impact a country’s geopolitics in many ways. The first (and one of the most obvious) is sea access. Access to the world’s oceans enables a country to use major maritime shipping routes. It also opens an additional route by which a country could project force by having a navy.

    The need to gain and maintain ocean access can lead to war. One major factor in the War of the Pacific in South America (1879-1883) was control over access to the southern Pacific. Bolivia lost its ocean access as a result of this war, and to this day, continues to seek ways to recover it.

    A more current example is Russia's invasion of Crimea. The goal here was to create a larger buffer around Russian naval facilities in Sevastopol.

    The Mighty Mississippi

    Screen Shot 2017 03 06 at 12.23.04 PM

    Access to waterways also clearly impacts trade. Rivers provide cheaper means of shipping goods to port for export. This makes a country’s exports more competitive.

    I’ve written extensively about US strategy as it applies to water access in This Week in Geopolitics. One of the most strategic riverways in the world is the Mississippi River system in the US.

    Two great rivers, the Missouri and the Ohio, flow into the Mississippi. This river system is navigable and empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

    This waterway allows virtually any part of the land between the Rockies and Appalachians to ship goods inexpensively through this river system and on to other countries.

    In this case, the US acquired these lands primarily through the Louisiana Purchase. That was followed by a war with Mexico and the annexation of Texas. This led to the expansion of a buffer zone to the west of the Mississippi River.

    The Nile

    Screen Shot 2017 03 06 at 12.24.03 PM

    Rivers can also be sources of power in terms of relations between states. This is the case with the Nile River.

    Approximately 85% of all water reaching the Nile River in Egypt originates in Ethiopia from the Blue Nile, Atbara, and Sobat rivers. Of these rivers, the most important is the Blue Nile. It accounts for nearly 60% of the Nile’s water in Egypt.

    Given that Egypt is mostly a desert climate, the country depends on the river for water and agriculture. At present, Egypt has concerns over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (which should be operational this year). Any moves made by Ethiopia that affect water flow or quality could jeopardize water access downstream.

    So far, this concern has been dealt with through diplomacy. But in the mid-1870s, the Khedevite of Egypt invaded Ethiopia via Eritrea in an attempt to gain control of the Nile River. This war lasted for two years.

    Syria’s Droughts Screen Shot 2017 03 06 at 12.25.34 PM

    The absence of water can indirectly lead to conflict. This map shows areas in Syria where there were six or more years of drought from 2000 to 2010. Prolonged droughts can destroy a region’s agriculture and livestock, exposing local food supplies to great risk.

    The Islamic State took control of some of this territory only a few years after the drought. The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction published a study in 2011 that looked at this drought. The report implies that social and economic ruin caused by drought contributed to the rise of IS.

    Historians have also noted a correlation between major famine due to drought in Ethiopia and the fall of regimes, such as the Derg.

    While drought in these cases did not serve as a direct trigger for observed violence, there is a strong correlation between the absence of water and social and economic instability.

    The Importance of Access

    Water has an underlying geopolitical importance. Access and control over this feature can provide strategic standing to a country. In some cases, it can even enhance this standing in terms of military projection, trade, domestic stability, and leverage over other countries. For this reason, water can be a great source of conflict among nations… conflict that has the potential to rise to the level of warfare.

    Watch George Friedman's Ground-breaking Documentary, Crisis & Chaos: Are We Moving Toward World War III?

    Russian adventurism. An ailing EU. Devastation in the Middle East. These are just three symptoms of a systemic instability engulfing a region that’s home to 5 billion of the planet’s 7 billion people.

    In this provocative documentary from Mauldin Economics and Geopolitical Futures, George Friedman uncovers the crises convulsing Europe, the Middle East, and Asia… and reveals the geopolitical chess moves that could trigger global conflict. Register to watch the documentary now.

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    The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is a US-backed alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters

    Manbij (Syria) (AFP) - US-backed Syrian fighters have turned over several villages in the country's north to government forces under a deal to avoid conflict with Turkey, a spokesman told AFP on Tuesday.

    The Manbij Military Council, part of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, announced the planned handover last week.

    "Some villages and points on the western side of the town of Al-Areima have been handed over to the border guards of the Syrian regime," Manbij Military Council spokesman Sherfan Darwish told AFP.

    He said the handover was carried out "with the goal of curbing Turkey's expansion and its occupation of Syrian territory, and to ... prevent the shedding of civilian blood."

    He declined to give further details but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of the war, said the handover had happened on Monday and involved fewer than 10 villages.

    Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman described the handover as "for show."

    "Members of the Manbij Military Council simply put on army clothes and raised the Syrian flag to avoid friction with the Turks," he told AFP.

    There was no mention in Syrian state media of the handover to government forces.

    Syria Kurdish YPG YPJ Syrian Democratic Forces

    The Manbij Military Council, part of the Kurdish-Arab SDF, first announced the handover last week, marking the first time that US-supported fighters had proposed ceding territory to regime forces.

    The Council said the deal had been agreed with Russia to "protect the line dividing the Manbij Military Council and the areas under the control of the Turkish army and Euphrates Shield."

    Euphrates Shield is the name of the operation Turkey launched inside Syria last August targeting the Islamic State group and the SDF, which is dominated by Kurdish fighters that Ankara sees as "terrorists." 

    The handover plan was announced after Euphrates Shield forces attacked several villages under SDF control east of the town of Al-Bab last week.

    Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week that  the operation's next target would be Manbij — a former IS bastion that is now under SDF control.

    A Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter inspects a room, which according to the SDF was used by Islamic State militants to prepare explosives, in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    But on Monday, Ankara stepped back from that threat, saying it would not act without cooperation from Russia and the United States.

    The profusion of forces operating in Syria has led to a deeply complex battlefield and tensions between different parties.

    Washington said on Monday it had sent additional troops into Manbij to deter rival powers from targeting each other rather than IS.

    "This is obviously a really complicated situation," said Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis.

    "We have made visible actions in deploying US forces as part of the coalition in and around Manbij to reassure and deter — that's to deter parties from attacking any other parties other than ISIS itself," he said, using another acronym for IS.

    More than 310,000 people have been killed in Syria since the war began with anti-government protests in March 2011.

    SEE ALSO: Watch a US-led airstrike pound a building in Syria days before ISIS was forced out of the area

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