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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    Wang Yi

    BEIJING (AP) — China's foreign minister says the conflict in Syria needs to be addressed through a political settlement after Beijing abstained from a U.N. resolution condemning the reported use of chemical weapons by Syria's government.

    The resolution brought by Britain, France and the United States was vetoed by Russia on Wednesday.

    Foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters Thursday that China condemns the use of chemical weapons but revisions were needed to the U.N. Security Council resolution for it to secure international backing.

    Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Thursday that a political settlement is the "only reliable and right way" to handle Syria. He called on the U.S. and Russia to improve communication to avoid further confrontation after Russia sharply criticized last week's U.S. bombing of a Syrian air base.

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    A crater is seen at the site of an airstrike, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

    AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Samples taken from the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria last week tested positive for the nerve agent sarin, the British delegation at the world's chemical weapons watchdog said on Thursday.

    "UK scientists have analyzed samples taken from Khan Sheikhoun. These have tested positive for the nerve agent sarin, or a sarin-like substance," the delegation said during a special session at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague.

    Earlier testing by Turkish authorities had also said the chemical used on April 4 was sarin.

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    BEIRUT (AP) — The US military says a misdirected airstrike in northern Syria killed 18 allied fighters on April 11. 

    This story is developing.

    SEE ALSO: The US strike on Syria carries convenient victories for both Putin and Trump

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    NOW WATCH: Meet the MQ-25A Stingray — the US's response to threats like China's 'carrier killers'


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    Aleppo Syria Air Strikes

    THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Syrian authorities — "abetted by Russia's continuing efforts to bury the truth"— still possess and use chemical weapons, an American diplomat told the international chemical weapons watchdog on Thursday.

    The strong comments by Kenneth D. Ward, the American ambassador to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, came amid ongoing diplomatic skirmishes over last week's deadly attack in Syria.

    Ward used a hastily convened meeting of the organization's executive council to launch a withering verbal attack on Syrian President Bashar Assad and his allies in Moscow.

    The meeting was called to discuss the April 4 attack on the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun that killed nearly 90 people. The United States and other Western governments blame Assad's regime. Washington in retaliation launched missile strikes on a Syrian air base they say was the starting point for the chemical weapons attack, a move that ratcheted up tensions between the United States and Syria's ally Russia.

    Russia and Syria claim the Khan Shaykhun victims were killed by toxic agents released from a rebel chemical arsenal hit by Syrian warplanes.

    But Ward insisted it was a deliberate attack that amounted to "a direct affront to the Chemical Weapons Convention and, indeed, a direct affront to human decency, carried out by a State Party" to the OPCW, according to the text of his speech that was posted on the organization's website.

    Syria joined the OPCW in 2013 under severe international pressure following a deadly chemical attack on a Damascus suburb. Assad's government told the organization it had a 1,300-ton stockpile of chemical weapons and chemicals used to make them. That stockpile was destroyed in an operation overseen by the Nobel Peace Prize winning-group OPCW, but ever since there have been questions about whether Assad had declared all his weapons.

    "On April 4, the lifeless bodies of innocent victims, grotesquely contorted and twisted by the nerve agent sarin, tell the real story," Ward said. "Syria provided a grossly incomplete declaration to the OPCW of its chemical weapons program. Iit continues to possess and use chemical weapons."

    He added that "this outrage is abetted by Russia's continuing efforts to bury the truth and protect the Syrian regime" form consequences of using chemical weapons.

    Britain's Ambassador, Sir Geoffrey Adams, told the meeting that U.K. scientists have analyzed samples from Khan Shaykhun and they "tested positive for the nerve agent sarin, or a sarin-like substance."

    Earlier this week, Turkish doctors also said that test results conducted on victims confirmed that sarin gas was used.

    The OPCW's Fact Finding Mission for Syria is conducting an investigation and is expected to report its findings in three weeks. The organization has not revealed any details, citing the need to preserve the integrity of the probe and the safety of OPCW staff.

    US Syria missile strike

    In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Thursday that OPCW inspectors should visit both the Syrian air base, which the U.S. said served as a platform for the attack, and Khan Sheikhoun to get a full and objective picture.

    He said Russia vetoed a draft U.N. resolution Wednesday because it failed to mention the need to inspect the area of the attack.

    "We are deeply worried by our partners in the U.N. Security Council trying to evade an honest investigation into that episode," he said.

    Lavrov said he emphasized the need for a wide-ranging OPCW probe during Wednesday's talks in Moscow with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, suggesting that Western nations, Russia and some regional powers could dispatch additional experts to join the investigation.

    ____

    Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed.

    SEE ALSO: The US strike on Syria carries convenient victories for both Putin and Trump

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    A handout picture released by the Syrian presidency's press office shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during an interview with AFP in the capital Damascus on April 12, 2017

    Damascus (AFP) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said a suspected chemical weapons attack was a "fabrication" to justify a US military strike, as Moscow digs in to defend its ally despite increasing strains with Washington.

    In an exclusive interview with AFP in Damascus — his first since the alleged April 4 attack prompted a US air strike on Syrian forces — Assad said his army had given up all its chemical weapons and that Syrian military power was not affected by the US strike.

    "Definitely, 100% for us, it's fabrication," he said in the interview on Wednesday in reference to the alleged chemical weapons attack.

    "Our impression is that the West, mainly the United States, is hand-in-glove with the terrorists. They fabricated the whole story in order to have a pretext for the attack."

    Western leaders including US President Donald Trump have accused Assad of being behind last week's attack in the rebel-held town Khan Sheikhun, saying his forces unleashed a chemical weapon during an air strike.

    The suspected attack killed at least 87 people, including many children, and images of the dead and of suffering victims provoked global outrage.

    Syria denied any use of chemical weapons and Moscow said the deaths had been the result of a conventional strike hitting a rebel arms depot containing "toxic substances."

    'Fake videos'

    syria chemical attackIn the interview, Assad insisted it was "not clear" whether an attack on Khan Sheikhun had even happened.

    "You have a lot of fake videos now," he said. "We don't know whether those dead children were killed in Khan Sheikhun. Were they dead at all?"

    He insisted several times that his forces had turned over all chemical weapons stockpiles in 2013, under a deal brokered by Russia to avoid threatened US military action.

    "There was no order to make any attack, we don't have any chemical weapons, we gave up our arsenal a few years ago," Assad said.

    He said his forces had not been diminished by the US strike.

    "Our firepower, our ability to attack the terrorists hasn't been affected by this strike."

    Denouncing a "very barbaric" attack, Trump ordered a strike that saw 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles slam into the airbase in central Syria from where Washington accused Assad's forces of launching the attack.

    Trump bats aside criticism

    Donald Trump

    It was the first direct US military action against Assad's forces since the start of Syria's civil war six years ago and led to a quick downward spiral in ties between Washington and Moscow.

    Russia accused the United States of breaking international law with the strike against the Syrian regime, a key ally that Moscow has supported with air strikes since 2015.

    Trump gave such criticism short shrift on Wednesday, saying: "I felt we had to do something about it. I have absolutely no doubt we did the right thing."

    Standing alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Washington, Trump also said it was "certainly possible" that Russia was aware of the suspected attack.

    "I would like to think that they didn't know, but certainly they could have. They were there. So we'll find out," he said.

    The strains in ties were clear as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson received a frosty reception Wednesday on a visit to Moscow.

    "There is a low level of trust between our two countries. The world's two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship," Tillerson told a Moscow news conference.

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed there were many problems, but stressed that Moscow was "open to dialogue with the US in all different areas."

    Russia vetoes resolution

    Tillerson Lavrov

    The polarized positions were evident too at the UN Security Council on Wednesday, when Russia vetoed a Western-drafted resolution that would have required Syrian cooperation in an investigation into the suspected chemical attack.

    It was the eighth time that Russia has used its veto power to block action directed at Damascus. China opted to abstain, a move Trump praised.

    British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the veto "puts Russia on the wrong side of the argument," while French President Francois Hollande warned Russia it "bears a heavy responsibility" for continuing to protect Assad.

    In a show of continued support for the regime, Moscow will host Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem for talks with Lavrov on Thursday.

    On Friday the two will join a three-way meeting with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran, another key ally of the Assad regime.

    Since breaking out with mass protests in March 2011, Syria's conflict has spiraled into a devastating civil war that has left more than 320,000 people dead and forced millions from their homes.

    The war has drawn in a wide of range of global powers, from Russia and Iran in support of the regime, to Western nations, Turkey and Arab Gulf states in support of various rebel forces.

    The war also led to the emergence of the Islamic State jihadist group, which seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014 but has since lost much of the territory it once controlled.

    SEE ALSO: A deadly chemical attack in Syria earlier this week sparked US missile strikes — here's what happened

    DON'T MISS: Tillerson faces off with Russia's foreign minister in tense press conference following Syria strike

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    NOW WATCH: 'The reign of the Assad family is coming to an end': Tillerson says Russia must choose to align with the US


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    Sergei Lavrov Rex Tillerson

    MOSCOW (AP) — Russia, Syria and Iran strongly warned the United States Friday against launching new strikes on Syria and called for an international probe into last week's chemical attack there.

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who hosted his Iranian and Syrian counterparts at a trilateral meeting in Moscow, denounced last week's U.S. attack on Syria as a "flagrant violation" of international law and warned that any further such action would entail "grave consequences not only for regional but global security."

    Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said the meeting sent a "strong message" to Washington. Iran's Mohammad Javad Zarif emphasized that the participants warned that any unilateral action by the U.S. is unacceptable.

    The U.S. has blamed the Syrian government for launching a deadly chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun that killed over 80 people on April 4, and responded by striking a Syrian air base. Russia has alleged that the victims were killed by toxic agents released from a rebel chemical arsenal and warned against putting the blame on Damascus until an independent inquiry has been conducted.

    Moscow vetoed a Western draft U.N. resolution Wednesday, saying it failed to mention the need to inspect the area of the attack.

    Lavrov on Friday accused the U.S. and its allies of what he described as attempts to stymie an international probe into the attack. He expressed strong skepticism about a preliminary investigation conducted by the U.N. chemical weapons watchdog, saying that its experts have failed to visit the site and it has remained unclear to Russia where the samples have been taken and how they have been analyzed.

    In Russia's view, the probe conducted by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons should be widened to include experts from many nations, he said.

    "If our U.S. colleagues and some European nations believe that their version is right, they have no reason to fear the creation of such an independent group," Lavrov added. "The investigation into this high-profile incident must be transparent and leave no doubt that someone is trying to hide something."

    Lavrov said the U.S. strike on the Syrian base has undermined peace efforts in Syria and reflected Washington's focus on ousting Syrian President Bashar Assad's government. "Such attempts won't succeed," Lavrov said.

    The three ministers also discussed the beefing up of U.S. forces on Jordan's border with Syria. Moallem said. He added that Russia, Iran and Syria have "common procedures against any aggression," but wouldn't offer any specifics.

    Lavrov that Moscow has asked Washington about the purpose of the buildup and received assurances they were there to cut supply lines between the Islamic State group factions in Syria and Iraq.

    "We will keep monitoring the issue, since the only possible reason for using military force on the territory of Syria is to fight terrorism," Lavrov said.

    Russia has staunchly backed Assad's government throughout a civil war that has dragged into a seventh year. It has conducted an air campaign in Syria since September 2015, saving Assad from imminent collapse and helping reverse military fortunes.

    SEE ALSO: Russia is urging 'restraint' over tensions in North Korea

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    syria evacuation

    Buses evacuated thousands of people from two rebel-besieged Shi'ite villages in northwest Syria on Friday and hundreds of rebels left a town near Damascus with their families, under a deal between the government and insurgents.

    A monitoring group said government forces later entered Madaya, the town where rebels had been holed up for nearly two years, taking back control of yet more territory around the capital Damascus as Syria's conflict enters its seventh year.

    Similar agreements have been reached in recent months, with rebels leaving areas long besieged by President Bashar al-Assad's forces, sometimes in exchange for Shi'ite Muslim residents moving from the villages surrounded by the mostly Sunni insurgents.

    Damascus holds the upper hand against rebels in the west of the country, and has negotiated the deals from a position of strength thanks to Russia's intervention in support of Assad since 2015, as well as backing from Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah.

    The opposition says the deals amount to forced demographic change and deliberate displacement of Assad's enemies away from the main cities of western Syria.

    The government says the deals allow it to take back control and to restore services in the wrecked towns.

    Early on Friday, residents of the mostly Shi'ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, besieged by rebel forces in the insurgents' northwestern Idlib province stronghold, left on dozens of buses, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

    The buses arrived several hours later on the outskirts of government-held Aleppo city in northern Syria, the Observatory said.

    Syria strike map

    Meanwhile, buses carrying rebel fighters and their families left government-besieged Madaya near Damascus, the Observatory and a pro-Damascus military media unit reported.

    The evacuation of nearby Zabadani, another town surrounded by government forces and their allies and included in the deal, appeared to have been delayed. No buses had yet left the town, but that operation was expected to begin later on Friday.

    The convoys from Madaya and Zabadani are to head for Idlib.

    A member of one of the Shi'ite parties said 60 buses were moving through the town of al-Foua.

    A similar number of buses were leaving Madaya, the Observatory said. State television reported that engineering teams and Syrian forces would soon enter the town.

    Thousands evacuated

    syria evacuation bus

    About 5,000 people were being transported from the Shi'ite villages, and more than 2,000 from Madaya. The convoys included hundreds of fighters from each side, the Observatory said.

    Buses began arriving from al-Foua and Kefraya on Aleppo's outskirts later on Friday, and passengers were being searched by insurgents before they could cross into government territory, a witness said.

    Syria's population is mostly Sunni Muslim. Assad is from the Alawite religious minority, often considered an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

    Assad's forces and their allies have fought rebels for six years in the conflict that grew from a popular uprising in 2011.

    Russia's intervention around 18 months ago has helped him gain the upper hand militarily, despite diplomatic pressure and support for the rebels by Western and Gulf Arab states. Rebels and Islamist factions have fought back and achieved recent advances in some areas.

    The United States escalated its involvement in the conflict last week, striking a Syrian air base in response to what Washington said was a Syrian chemical weapons attack that killed scores of people in the northwest of the country on April 4. Assad has denied his forces were responsible.

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    Poland's Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski speaks during an interview with Reuters in Warsaw, Poland December 30, 2015. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

    Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said Friday that Russia might respond to the US strike in Syria by escalating fighting in war-torn eastern Ukraine.

    "Now everyone is waiting for the reaction from Russia. Either it will react in Syria or, as some say, unfortunately, in Ukraine,"Waszczykowski said on Polish TV.

    "There is a certain danger here, because Russia's policy is unpredictable and in some cases even unreasonable. No doubt, there will be some answer. The only question is where."

    On April 7, the US fired more than 50 cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield in response to Syrian President Bashar Assad's use of chemical weapons on civilians.

    "Despite the strength of the enemy’s army the Ukrainians do not fear Russia and are ready to defend every inch of their land," Ukrainian Minister of Defense Stepan Poltoraktold US congressmen on Thursday.

    At least two Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and 22 wounded since the US struck Syria on April 7.

    Casualties have decreased this month — compared to 30 Ukrainian soldiers killed and 198 wounded in March— because of a new ceasefire announced on April 1.

    Ukraine map

    Still, Russia has consistently attempted to exert its influence and undermine stability in Ukraine and much of eastern Europe.

    In January, Estonia arrested a Russian citizen on suspicion of spying. Two more Russians were also arrested last year and were found guilty of spying.

    Montenegro charged two Russians on Thursday with terrorism for their alleged involvement in an attempted coup last year in the country's capital, Podgorica.

    On Wednesday, President Donald Trump declared that US-Russia ties "maybe at an all-time low." After meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday in Moscow, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson struck a similar tone. Putin likewise said Wednesday that Russian-American relations have "degraded."

    vladimir putin rex tillerson

    "Until full progress is made under the Minsk Accords, the situation in Ukraine will remain an obstacle to improvement in relations between the US and Russia,"Tillerson said on Wednesday after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

    However, Tillerson also asked European diplomats on Tuesday, "Why should US taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?"

    In the last year, the US and NATO have deployed thousands of soldiers to Poland, Ukraine, and other Eastern European countries to help train Baltic soldiers and monitor NATO's eastern flank.

    And on Friday, the US Air Force said that a handful of F-35s would be sent to Europe as part of a "long-planned" deployment aimed at deterring Russian aggression.

    SEE ALSO: The US is putting tanks and troops right in Russia's backyard

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    NOW WATCH: 'The reign of the Assad family is coming to an end': Tillerson says Russia must choose to align with the US


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    Charles Krauthammer Christie

    Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer noted in a column this week for the National Review that President Donald Trump's apparent reversal of his "America First" foreign policy could signal the weakening of chief strategist Steve Bannon's influence in the White House.

    In recent weeks, Trump has gone against the isolationism he preached on the campaign trail, firing missiles into Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack launched by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

    Krauthammer called it a "head-snapping foreign-policy reversal," considering that Trump said just earlier this month that he wanted to be "president of the United States," not "president of the world."

    The Syria strike was a move the Obama administration was loathe to make after a similar chemical weapons attack in 2013 — the administration opted to strike a deal with Assad rather than take military action against him. Assad was supposed to remove his arsenal of chemical weapons, but it's now clear he didn't hold up his end of the bargain.

    "The very swiftness of [Trump's] response carried a message to the wider world," Krauthammer wrote. "Obama is gone. No more elaborate forensic investigations. No agonized presidential handwringing over the moral dilemmas of a fallen world. It took Obama 10 months to decide what to do in Afghanistan. It took Trump 63 hours to make Assad pay for his chemical-weapons duplicity."

    Krauthammer called it "renewed interventionism" and said it "effectively reset [Trump's] entire foreign policy."

    That could spell trouble for Bannon, who is already on thin ice in the White House.

    Bannon often takes credit for honing Trump's populist message, but so far that message hasn't translated very well into policy. And the chief strategist might be falling out of favor with the president — recent reports contend that Trump isn't happy with the narrative that Bannon is a "shadow president" pulling the strings behind the scenes.

    Krauthammer noted that strike on Syria might have been a big signal that "Bannonism," and its "drain the swamp" mentality, are "in eclipse."

    "Bannon may have written the come-home-America inaugural address," Krauthammer wrote. "But it was the old hands, Trump's traditionally internationalist foreign-policy team, led by Defense Secretary James Mattis and national-security adviser H. R. McMaster, who rewrote the script with the Syria strike."

    He concluded that, at least for now, "the traditionalists are in the saddle" in the White House.

    Read the full column at the National Review >

    SEE ALSO: Bannon friend likens him to 'terminally ill family member who had been moved into hospice care'

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    MOAB

    The Mother of All Bombs was a big hit on Fox News on Friday morning.

    After the Pentagon released aerial footage of the blast created by the huge, never-before-used bomb delivered to what it said was a web of tunnels being used by ISIS fighters in Afghanistan, Fox promptly set the footage to a suitably jingoistic bit of music and played it on air to the delight of its morning show hosts.

    "That is what freedom looks like," gushed Ainsley Earhardt. "That’s the red, white and blue."

    "One of my favorite things in 16 years here at Fox News is watching bombs drop on bad guys," chimed in Geraldo Rivera.

    But for all the attention given to the decision to use the Massive Ordnance Air Blast weapon, which reportedly killed three dozen terrorist fighters, the attack in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province represents only a new tactic in an existing conflict. What it stole attention from was reports of potentially major shifts in US policy in two other parts of the world: North Korea and Syria.

    North Korea

    On Thursday night, NBC News reported that the United States is prepared to launch an attack on North Korea to prevent the Kim Jong-un regime from going forward with the test of a nuclear weapon. Citing two unidentified "intelligence officials," NBC reported that the US has placed two Navy destroyers armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles on standby near North Korea and has prepared heavy bombers in Guam for possible attacks on the isolated nation.

    The US has consistently condemned North Korea’s past nuclear weapons tests, responding by tightening already crippling economic sanctions against the Kim regime. However, taking pre-emptive military action in advance of another test would be a massive and unexpected escalation that could place South Korea, a US ally, at risk of retaliation from the North. Seoul, a city of 14 million people, is less than 30 miles from parts of the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas.

    The Pentagon disputed the NBC report, calling it wrong and "very dangerous." But given the rhetoric coming from President Trump over the past week, calling North Korea a "menace" and promising to "deal with" the country, there was plenty of reason to wonder — not least of all in Pyongyang.

     The North Korean government warned that it is ready to go to war if the US attacks, and said that it is now considering a first strike itself.

    Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, according to the state news service Xinhua, spoke openly of the possibility of war resulting from the exchange of heated words.

    "We urge all sides to no longer engage in mutual provocation and threats, whether through words or deeds, and don’t push the situation to the point where it can’t be turned around and gets out of hand," he said. "No matter who it is, if they let war break out on the peninsula, they must shoulder that historical culpability and pay the corresponding price for this."

    Syria

    At the same time, Bloomberg reports that Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, is pushing colleagues on the National Security Council to reconsider their reluctance to put a substantial US troop presence on the ground in Syria, where a civil war has been raging for six years.

    The US has had a small presence in the country for several years, primarily special operations troops to help train allied fighters and to guide airstrikes. More recently, a Marine artillery unit was dispatched to the fight. Adding thousands of troops, though, would completely change the character of US involvement in a brutal war in which another major world power, Russia, is already deeply involved. Nominally, American troops would be fighting ISIS, not the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which Russia supports. However, after US officials called for Assad’s removal from power, it’s hard to see how dispatching a major ground force to his country would be seen as anything but an act of war, putting pressure on Assad’s protectors, Russia and Iran, to respond.

    While neither the posturing in North Korea nor the debate over Syria can be easily turned into a Toby Keith video, either one of them by itself is a bigger deal than a bomb with a catchy name being dropped in a war we’ve been fighting, in one form or another, for more than 15 years.

    SEE ALSO: Dropping 'the mother of all bombs' in Afghanistan sends a strong message about Trump's military strategy

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    Donald Trump

    Alex Conant took a long pause to consider the question.

    Which seemingly unthinkable shift undertaken in recent days by President Donald Trump stood out to him as the most surprising?

    "There's been so many," Conant, communications director for Sen. Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential campaign, told Business Insider.

    After some thought, he settled on Trump's change in posture toward Russia.

    "He was very consistent on the campaign trail about wanting to have a good relationship with Vladimir Putin. He knew that bombing Assad was going to hurt that relationship, and yet he went ahead with it," Conant said of Trump's decision to launch Tomahawk missiles at Syrian government targets last week.

    "What seemed like a big priority for him on the campaign trail became less of a priority once he was in office," he added.

    That statement could be made about a laundry list of issues on which Trump has altered his stance — many of which just within the past 10 days. 

    The shifts have come at a dizzying pace.

    Trump bombed an airfield in Syria as retribution for a brutal chemical weapons attack launched by Assad on Syrian civilians, a split from his promises to only go after ISIS. As a result, as Conant said, Trump angered Putin, who has tied himself closely to the Assad regime.

    Also in the last week, Trump made a hard turn on China, saying the country was not manipulating its currency less than two weeks after calling them the "world champions" of the practice. A hallmark of his campaign, Trump had promised to label China a currency manipulator on the first day of his presidency, but a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping helped to change his mind, as Trump saw an option to negotiate with the Chinese leader over North Korea.

    NATO, the transatlantic alliance that Trump famously said was "obsolete" was suddenly "no longer obsolete" on Wednesday, after a meeting with Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. The US Export-Import Bank, which Trump railed against in the campaign as "unnecessary," became "a very good thing." And Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, whom he criticized in the campaign, was now, in Trump's opinion, doing a good job.

    Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, takes part in a strategic and policy CEO discussion with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Eisenhower Execution Office Building in Washington, U.S., April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

    The moves have coincided with a shakeout in the power structure at the White House. Elevated is the centrist, Wall Street wing, headed by National Economic Council Chair Gary Cohn, son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, and Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter who recently took on a White House job as an assistant to her father. Losing out in this battle have been conservative nationalists, such as chief strategist Steve Bannon.

    As Mike Allen wrote in Axios, Wednesday was the day "Operation Normal achieved supremacy," and Thursday marked "a new phase of Trump's presidency." Advisers like Cohn and even informal ones like Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman have the president's ear, while Bannon's standing has fallen so far that one source close to the strategist likened him to a terminally ill family member in hospice care, according to The Washington Post.

    The change in approach led Trump to a modest bump in the polls, moving from a dreadful 35% approval rating in late March to 41% on Wednesday in Gallup's daily presidential tracking poll.

    "It's maybe taken three months but he realizes the gravity of what it actually means to be leader of the free world," Reed Galen, deputy campaign manager for Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2006 reelection bid, told Business Insider.

    Galen, now the owner of Jedburgh's, a political consultancy firm, said Trump may also be realizing that "managing a $14 trillion economy and however many people work for the federal government is not like running the family construction business."

    "It's a totally different animal," he continued. "The United States is not an 8 million person banana republic. It's 320 million people and the leader of the world, the liberal order of the world, and a lot of those things just don't fit with Steve Bannon's burn-it-to-the-ground kind of thing."

    U.S. President Donald Trump waves as he arrives at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S., April 9, 2017.  REUTERS/Carlos Barria

    Conant said the changes are not necessarily the result of the fallout of palace intrigue, but rather of a man who had no governing experience prior to last November's election now dealing with information to which he may have never thought he'd have the keys.

    "So with new information, it's obviously changed the way he thinks about some issues," said Conant, who added he was "a big fan" of how Trump has handled foreign policy in the past week.

    He compared the shift to one made by President George W. Bush after taking office.

    "Don't forget, when Bush ran for president in 2000, he said that he didn't think the US should be the world's policemen and that we shouldn't be involved in nation building," he said. "Obviously, once he was in office, events led him to change his mind. I think we're seeing a similar phenomenon." 

    Trump has received praise from a wide array of sources for some of these moves. There was a sense of bipartisan approval of his strike in Syria, and Republican senators such as Lindsey Graham and Ben Sasse — two of his chief critics within the party — praised him for his flips on the Export-Import Bank and NATO.

    The moves even led Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez to issue a statement countering the notion that Trump was "re-inventing" himself to be "less extreme," a signal that any Democratic support for Trump will be hard-pressed over at least the next 18 months.

    "Donald Trump’s latest 'pivot' is another farce designed by Trump to divert your attention," Perez said. "This time, he’s distracting from his reckless and extreme agenda that has hurt, not helped, countless hardworking Americans. The only plays Trump can execute are lies and fearmongering – look no further than the nationwide deportation force Trump has charged forth to create. Trump is as likely to moderate as my Buffalo Bills are to win the Super Bowl next season. It ain’t happening."

    And during Thursday's press briefing, White House press secretary Sean Spicer left the room after being peppered with questions about whether Trump's decisions related to NATO and Chinese currency manipulation were signs that his agenda was being tossed out the door.

    "I think that’s a very, very complex issue and I think the president — I’m going to leave it to the president to specifically answer that," Spicer, the top spokesman for the president, said when pressed specifically on currency manipulation.

    Donald Trump Xi Jinping

    Trump seemed to take note of the chatter, tweeting Wednesday evening: "One by one we are keeping our promises - on the border, on energy, on jobs, on regulations. Big changes are happening!"

    Speaking to MSNBC Thursday, Trump confidant and ex-political adviser Roger Stone said he wasn't "seeing the flip flops" when asked by host Chuck Todd. But if Trump decided to send boots on the ground into Syria, Stone said "that would be a violation of Trumpism."

    Trumpism's most ardent followers were already dismayed by the move to bomb Syria in the first place, and Thursday brought news that the US had dropped the "mother of all bombs" on Afghanistan and is considering sending ground troops into Syria.

    Conservative author and firebrand Ann Coulter seemed to speak for many of Trump's non-interventionist fans over the past week, tweeting, "Media THRILLED that Trump is destroying his presidency," after he ordered the missile strikes in Syria. She added: "Meddling in the Middle East has destroyed every president who’s ever tried it."

    "I expected to spend this part of the Trump presidency tweeting that it's legal to deport anchor babies not arguing agst another Mid East war,"Coulter wrote. The author expressed disappointment with a number of Trump's nominations tied to foreign policy, the infiltration of Goldman Sachs executives in his administration, and a failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

    As Galen said, the massive swings in his outlook are the product of being the "business guy" president who is not necessarily ideological but looking "for the best deal." It's also a result of his not having "a lot of firm positions on anything." 

    There was also a misguided idea, he said, that Trump could enter Washington, DC, and "change it all."

    "The inertia of the federal system and the US government and the country as a whole is a very powerful force," Galen said. "And to suddenly think you're going to go one day and, 'I'm going to change it all!' Like, you can do that on the margins probably, but it's like turning an aircraft carrier. You can't turn an aircraft carrier like you turn a PT boat." 

    The most surprising shift, for Galen, is what he perceived as an overall transition from being "America First" on national security to what he described as a "soft neocon" stance.

    "Where he's at as opposed to where he was nine days ago with full-throated 'America First' stuff — that's a pretty shocking transition," he said. "We're not talking degrees of difference. We're talking a full 180 degrees to a much more 'soft neocon' perspective on the world from where he was. I say 'soft neocon' because I don't think he's going to do nation building or anything like that. At least not yet."

    Still, the administration is missing a strategic vision for where Trump wants the country to go, Galen said.

    "'Make America Great Again' is not a strategic plan, it is a slogan on a red hat," he said. "Firing 59 missiles into Syria or dropping the 'MOAB' on Afghanistan is not a national security doctrine, those are tactical responses to something that happened. That's not a strategy."

    Donald Trump

    Friday marked the 85th day of the Trump presidency — which feels as if it's been going on for three months or three years, depending on whom you ask.

    The swings in positions signal that Trump may end up moving to the center before his first year is even half over. But as anyone who watched the nearly two-year-long campaign, the tumultuous transition period, or any of those first 85 days in office will attest to, it's too soon to make any such judgments.

    "I think it's far too soon to tell," Conant said. "We're not even at the 100-day marker yet. I think he has shown that he will not sit idly by and let foreign events happen around him without any sort of response. I think that is an important lesson in the early days of his presidency, which could end up defining it depending on how the world responds."

    For Galen, the biggest lesson is simple: "Every day is going to be different."

    "One day he could believe this and the next day he could believe that and what does it all boil down to? That instability is still the order of the day," he said. "You just don't know what you're going to get from one day to the next."

    SEE ALSO: Trump just did a backflip on 2 major campaign promises

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    NOW WATCH: Trump appears to ignore requests for a handshake with Angela Merkel during their first meeting


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    Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, Iraq, July 19, 2013. REUTERS/Karim Kadim/Pool

    TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says he does not view recent U.S. missile strikes on ally Syria as a message for Iran, which he called a "powerful country" that the U.S. cannot harm.

    The controversial former president made the remarks to The Associated Press on Saturday, three days after he stunned Iranians by registering to run for president again.

    His surprise candidacy must still be approved by authorities but has already upended a race that was widely expected to be won by incumbent moderate Hassan Rouhani.

    Ahmadinejad also voiced reluctant support for Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which saw Iran accept curbs on its nuclear program in exchange for relief from crippling international sanctions.

    SEE ALSO: North Korea: The US strike on Syria was 'unforgivable'

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    Donald TrumpThis week, Donald Trump is getting a taste of what it’s really like to be president, and his responses have bolstered what his opponents said about him in the Republican primaries and the general election—that he’s temperamentally unsuited for the job.

    Suddenly Trump is facing crises in Syria and North Korea, two of the most intractable problem countries on the planet, and he has taken the worst of all possible paths on both—threatening military action, even unilateral military action, without having a shred of a plan in his pocket.

    His words on Syria are particularly egregious. Earlier this week, his secretary of state and U.N. ambassador publicly said that it was pointless for the United States to try ousting Bashar al-Assad from power, that they would instead focus on destroying ISIS and leave the rest to the Syrian people.

    Then, on Wednesday, Trump watched TV footage of women, children, and babies suffering the horrors of a chemical attack—almost certainly launched by Assad—and told reporters, “My attitude toward Syria has changed very much.”

    Throughout his campaign, and as recently as this week, Trump castigated President Obama for drawing a “red line”—threatening, in 2012, to use force if Assad used chemical weapons—then declining to cross it when Assad did just that. Trump went so far as to say that Obama’s failure to follow through “set us back a long ways, not only in Syria but in many other parts of the world, because” his red-line warning turned out to be “a blank threat.”

    Now, though, Trump is saying that Assad’s new chemical attack “crossed many, many lines, beyond a red line—many, many lines.” As a result, he’s put himself in a spot where he now has to do something, lest he be likened not just to Obama, but to Obama at what Trump and other critics assail as his weakest moment.

    When Trump gets his Pentagon briefing on the subject, he will discover that none of the options they lay out for taking action against Assad are good ones. Will he do something anyway, to save face? And then what happens?

    This was the question that concerned Obama the most when Assad crossed the red line with a sarin gas attack in August 2013. The option that Obama was all set to put in motion, according to officials familiar with the plan, would have attacked Assad’s air force, likely destroying all his planes as they sat concentrated on a base, as well as his command-control systems. This would be done using a small number of U.S. and allied aircraft, likely resulting in no American casualties.

    Residents of Aleppo, Syria react to a bombing

    But then three things happened. British Prime Minister David Cameron, who had promised to join the attack, sent the notion to Parliament—which voted it down. Since the point of the plan was to punish Syria for violating international law, Obama felt he needed the legitimacy of international support. Absent that, he turned to Congress for authorization—and Congress voted it down, too (though that didn’t stop Republicans from subsequently criticizing Obama for not going through with the attack anyway).

    Finally, in the course of running these obstacles, Obama contemplated the larger strategic issues. Maybe the strike would succeed; some of his advisers thought it would be so potent that Assad’s regime might collapse. But what if it didn’t?

    What if Assad went ahead and launched more chemical attacks? Or what if Russia and Iran, Assad’s two allies, stepped up their support, sending in troops, planes, and more. Obama would then have had to choose between two dreadful options: backing down, which would look worse than if he hadn’t taken action in the first place, or escalating, which could suck him and the nation into a civil war that he desperately wanted to avoid.

    Russia then stepped in for the rescue, making a deal under which Assad agreed to surrender his chemical weapons—or, as we now see, most of his chemical weapons. Will some new deus ex machina save Trump from a similar dilemma—and if not, will he back off or sound the trumpets for a charge into the quagmire? The attack plan that Obama favored, at least for a while, might not be so enticing now: Assad’s planes are more dispersed, and his forces are entangled with Russian planes and advisers. An attack potent enough to have impact might also unavoidably draw in Moscow.

    This isn’t to say that Trump should do nothing, especially after his words Wednesday. The question is what should he do? And, just as one might now argue that Obama should never have uttered the words red line, why did Trump go even further than Obama—invoking “many, many lines”—without knowing how to respond? This is what happens to someone habituated to dashing off tweets at all hours.

    North Korea provides another case of Trump’s impetuousness. He is meeting Thursday with Chinese President Xi Jinping in what would be any American president’s most important summit of the year. Xi is bringing along an able crew of advisers, some of whom have closely studied American politics and Trumpian psychology. Trump comes with a foreign policy apparatus that’s staffed to a small fraction of its normal capacity, topped by appointees—Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster—who, whatever their various talents, have no experience in dealing with China.

    The question of what to do about North Korea’s nuclear program tops the summit’s jampacked agenda, particularly following the latest missile test by Kim Jong-un’s government on Wednesday. In an interview with the Financial Times, published Sunday, Trump said, “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.” Asked if he believed the United States could solve the problem without China, Trump replied, “Totally.”

    Donald Trump with Chinese President Xi Jinping

    Once again, it’s the naïve bluster—the blithe certainty, untempered by the slightest knowledge of the history and politics of the region or the conflict—that sends shivers up the spine.

    China’s interests in this subject are complicated. On the one hand, Xi is growing impatient with the antics of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. On the other hand, he has no desire to force the crumbling of Kim’s regime, leaving a humanitarian crisis on China’s remotest border and the prospect of a unified Korea controlled by the American allies in Seoul.

    Nor does Xi want to remove a threat to U.S. air and naval forces in northeast Asia, leaving them free to roam in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, where Beijing has vital interests. Trump might nudge Xi to recalculate his interests and put more pressure on Kim—Obama did that, to some extent—but he doesn’t have the leverage to push him very far.

    Meanwhile, Trump is on record: If China doesn’t solve the North Korea problem, he will—“totally.” He isn’t the first one to believe that a fierce growl and a display of arms will make the Hermit King of Pyongyang cower. Vice President Dick Cheney thought so, too.

    In 2003, the U.S. sent bombers and warships within striking range of North Korea, and for good measure the vice president bellowed, “We don’t negotiate with evil, we defeat it”—this was right after the U.S. military, with little effort and great speed, crushed the Iraqi army and sent Saddam Hussein running. Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s leader at the time (and the current Kim’s father) paid no attention.

    But Trump probably doesn’t remember that sequence of disillusionment, or if he does, he may still think, as he does in so many realms, that he has the moxie to do things that none of his predecessors could manage.

    “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” Trump moaned when his attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare went up in smoke. He’s about to discover the same thing about the world.

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    Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters shoot a drone they said belonged to Islamic State fighters on the bank of the Euphrates river, west of Raqqa city, Syria April 8, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    US forces in southern Syria came under attack by Islamic State militants around midnight local time on Saturday, joining with local partner forces to repel the assault in an hours-long fight that required multiple airstrikes and left three US-backed Syrian fighters dead.

    US special-operations advisers were on the ground near the al-Tanf border crossing when a force of 20 to 30 fighters with the Islamic State, the terrorist group also known as ISIS or ISIL, attacked in what a US Central Command spokesman called a "complex and coordinated" attempt to take the base from the coalition.

    "US and coalition forces were on the ground in the area as they normally are, and participated in repulsing the attack," said Air Force Col. John J. Thomas, a spokesman for Central Command, according to the Associated Press.

    "There was close-air support that was provided, there was ground support that was provided, and there was med-evac that was supported by the coalition," Thomas added. No Americans were killed or wounded.

    "Clearly it was planned,"Thomas told reporters at the Pentagon. "The coalition and our partner forces had the resources to repulse that attack. A lot of them wound up being killed and the garrison remains controlled by the people in control before being attacked."

    "Ultimately the attackers were killed, defeated, or chased off,"Thomas said.

    A U.S. fighter stands near a military vehicle, north of Raqqa city, Syria November 6, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    US forces at al-Tanf, on Syria's southern border with Jordan and Iraq, had initially withdrawn to avoid potential retaliatory action after the US strike on an Assad regime airfield in western Syria.

    The attack came from ISIS fighters disguised as US-backed rebels, carrying M-16 rifles and using vehicles captured from US-supported rebel groups. They struck first with a car bomb at the base entrance, which allowed some of the attackers to infiltrate the base. Many of the ISIS fighters were wearing suicide vests.

    "Around 20 ISIS fighters attacked the base, and suicide bombers blew up the main gate, and clashes took place inside the base," Tlass al-Salama, the commander of the Osoud al Sharqiya Army, part of the US-backed moderate rebel alliance, told The Wall Street Journal.

    Salama's force sent reinforcements to the base, but they came under attack from other ISIS fighters.

    Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters stand with their weapons north of Raqqa city, Syria March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    US special-operations forces and their Syrian partners who had moved out of the base quickly returned, and they initially repelled the attack on the ground in a firefight that lasted about three hours.

    Coalition pilots also carried out multiple airstrikes amid the fighting, destroying ISIS vehicles and killing many of the terrorist group's fighters.

    "It was a serious fight," a US military official said Monday. "Whether or not it was a one-off, we will have to see."

    US special-operations forces had been training vetted Syrian opposition troops at al-Tanf for more than a year. The Syrian opposition fighters in question were operating against ISIS in southern Syria and working with Jordan to maintain border security.

    The pullback from al-Tanf to safeguard against reprisals was just one step the coalition took in the aftermath of the US strike on Shayrat airfield, which was believed to be the launching point for a chemical weapons attack on a Syrian village last week.

    The coalition also reduced the number of air missions it flew, out of concern Syrian or Russian forces would attempt to shoot down US aircraft. The US presence in Syria has increased in recent months, as Marines and other units arrive to aid US-backed fighters.

    ISIS may become more active in southern Syria as US-backed forces close in on Raqqa, the terrorist group's self-proclaimed capital located in northeast Syria. Top ISIS leaders have reportedly fled the city in recent months.

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    NOW WATCH: 'The reign of the Assad family is coming to an end': Tillerson says Russia must choose to align with the US


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    afp syria evacuees bomb attack death toll rises to 112 monitor

    Beirut (AFP) - The death toll in a suicide car bomb attack on buses carrying Syrians evacuated from two besieged government-held towns has risen to at least 112, a monitoring group said Sunday.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 98 evacuees from the northern towns of Fuaa and Kafraya were killed when an explosives-laden vehicle hit their buses at a transit point west of Aleppo on Saturday.

    It said the remainder of the dead were aid workers and rebels tasked with guarding the buses.

    It warned the death toll may rise further as "hundreds" more were wounded in the blast.

    Dozens of buses carrying thousands of refugees had been stuck by the roadside in the rebel-held town of Rashidin after leaving Fuaa and Kafraya on Friday under a deal reached between the government and opposition groups.

    Fuaa and Kafraya have been under rebel siege for more than two years. As part of the deal, several hundred people including armed rebels will be transported out of Madaya and Zabadani, towns near Damascus, which are surrounded by pro-government forces.

    Syria's six-year civil war has seen several similar deals, which the government of President Bashar al-Assad says are the best way to end the violence. Rebels say they are being forced to relocate through bombardment and seige.    

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    National Security Adviser Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster listens as U.S. President Donald Trump makes the announcement at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida U.S. February 20, 2017.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - White House national security adviser H. R. McMaster said on Sunday it was time for tough talks with Russia over its support for Syria's government and its "subversive" actions in Europe.

    Speaking on ABC News' "This Week" program, McMaster said Russia's backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government has perpetuated a civil war and created a crisis that has bled over into Iraq, neighboring countries and Europe.

    "So Russia's support for that kind of horrible regime, that is a party to that kind of a conflict, is something that has to be drawn into question as well as Russia's subversive actions in Europe," McMaster said. "And so I think it's time though, now, to have those tough discussions Russia."

    The United States early this month bombed a Syrian air base in reaction to what Washington said was a nerve gas attack by the Assad government that killed at least 70 people in rebel-held territory.

    Syria denies it carried out the attack and Russia has warned that the cruise missile strikes could have "extremely serious" consequences. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Moscow last week as tensions grew.

    "Well, when relations are at the lowest point, there's nowhere to go but up. So I think the secretary's visit to Russia was perfectly timed," McMaster said.

    A January U.S. intelligence report on Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election said that Russia also has sought to influence elections across Europe.

    Current and former U.S. official and analysts say Moscow has targeted elections in France, Germany and elsewhere through a combination of propaganda, cyber hacking, funding of candidates and other means with the overall goal of weakening the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the trans-Atlantic alliance.  

    (Reporting by Lucia Mutikani and Warren Strobel; Editing by Richard Chang)

    SEE ALSO: H.R. McMaster: Russia needs to ask itself why it supports Assad's 'murderous regime'

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    trump

    President Donald Trump promised in a November 2015 press conference to "bomb the hell out of ISIS," offering a saltier version of the pledge at a rally.

    The first two months of his term appear to show that he has followed through on that promise.

    Statistics released by the Air Forces Central Command indicate that the US and its partners in Operation Inherent Resolve, targeting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, dropped more weapons in March than in any other month since the operation began in August 2014.

    Coalition aircraft dropped 3,878 weapons in March, a slight increase over the 3,440 dropped in February and nearly twice as many as the 2,052 dropped in March last year.

    Each month so far this year has seen more weapons dropped than any other month during the campaign.

    Through March, coalition forces have dropped 10,918 weapons, nearly 60% more than were dropped in the first three months of 2016, putting 2017 on pace for 43,672 weapons deployed, which would be over 40% more than the 2016 total.

    The number of sorties with at least one weapon released has also increased, from 2,781 through March last year to 3,187 so far this year.

    Iraq Mosul ISIS explosion bombing airstrike

    As noted by Air Force Times, while the number of weapons dropped is up, the number of close air support, escort, and interdiction sorties are down, from 6,080 at this point last year to 4,741 so far this year.

    Air Forces Central Command figures likely understate the total number of weapons deployed in its area of operations, as not all aircraft operating in that area are under its control. Attack helicopters and US Army-operated drones, for example, are not included in the data, according to Air Force Times.

    While Air Forces Central Command could not specify what caused the increase in weapons deployed in March, it told Air Force Times in February that Iraqi and partner forces' efforts to recapture Mosul and operations against Raqqa in Syria — both of which coalition aircraft are supporting — were responsible for part of that month's high total.

    In Iraq, efforts to recapture Mosul, ISIS' last urban stronghold in the country, have been going on since mid-October, and the spike in weapons deployed against ISIS in and around the city may have been in part driven by the operational tempo of that campaign, rather than totally by Trump's directives.

    US Air Forces Operation Inherent Resolve weapons bombings strikes Iraq Syria

    Trump has also presided over a spike in the number of civilian deaths.

    According to UK-based monitoring group Airwars, March saw the highest number of civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes since Operation Inherent Resolve began: 1,755.

    Of the three categories of certainty provided by Airwars — fair, weak, and contested — the vast majority, 1,029, of March's civilian deaths were in the "contested" category.

    But even just the number of deaths in the "fair" category, 478, was the most since Operation Inherent Resolve began.

    About 750,000 civilians remained in west Mosul when operations against ISIS there began on February 19, and while hundreds of thousands have fled the city since then, a majority are still hunkered down there, as close-quarters fighting between ISIS militants and Iraqi forces swirls around them.

    ISIS has deliberately targeted civilians in the city with artillery and gunfire, but bombs and artillery fire by the coalition and its Iraqi partners are believed to have killed civilians as well.

    A US-led strike on an ISIS-held part of Mosul in late March is believed to have been one of the most devastating US strikes on civilians since the first Gulf War, with a body count thought to be between 130 and 230.

    Last week, US forces dropped the 21,000-pound GBU-43/A Massive Ordnance Air Blast weapon, known as the "Mother of all Bombs" or "MOAB," on an ISIS outpost in northeast Afghanistan.

    The strike was met with criticism at home and abroad, but Donald Trump Jr., the president's son, touted it as "another promise kept."

    SEE ALSO: The US unleashed the 'mother of all bombs' onto an ISIS target in Afghanistan

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    Aleppo Children Syria

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - Mothers Noha, a Shi'ite, and Samira, a Sunni, were besieged for nearly two years on each side of Syria's civil war. At the weekend they finally escaped the suffocating blockades under an evacuation agreement - but their ordeal was not over.

    As they waited at two transit points miles apart outside Aleppo, a bomb attack hit Noha's bus convoy, killing more than 120 people including dozens of children. After ambulances rushed off the wounded, new buses arrived and the two convoys eventually reached their destinations - one in government territory and the other in rebel territory.

    In the hours leading up to Saturday's attacks, the two women spoke to Reuters about what they had left behind, their families being split up, and the likelihood they would never return home.

    Reuters was not allowed back past security to try to find Noha after the blast, and lost contact with Samira after speaking to her earlier on another evacuee's phone.

    "We've lost everything. We hope to go back one day, but I don't expect we will," said Noha, 45, asking not to be identified by her last name.

    Noha left al-Foua, one of two Shi'ite villages besieged by Syrian insurgents in Idlib province with her two youngest children and 5,000 other people under a deal between the Syrian government and armed opposition.

    In exchange, 2,000 Sunni residents and rebel fighters from the government-besieged town of Madaya near Damascus - Samira's hometown - were given safe passage out, and bussed to Idlib province, a rebel stronghold, via Aleppo.

    aleppo syria

    Thousands of Syrians have been evacuated from besieged areas in recent months under deals between President Bashar al-Assad's government and rebels fighting for six years to unseat him.

    The deals have mostly affected Sunni Muslims living in rebel-held areas surrounded by government forces and their allies. Damascus calls them reconciliation deals and says it allows services to be restored in the wrecked towns.

    Rebels say it amounts to forced displacement of Assad's opponents from Syria's main urban centres in the west of the country, and engenders demographic change because most of the opposition, and Syria's population, are Sunni.

    But backed militarily by Russia and Shi'ite regional allies, Assad, a member of Syria's Alawite minority, has negotiated the deals from a position of strength.

    "There was little choice. We had to leave, we were scared," said Samira, 55, who was traveling with her five adult sons.

    She had feared her sons would be arrested or forced to join the Syrian military and fight once troops and officials of the Damascus government moved into the town.

    Syria refugee

    Like Noha, Samira was relieved to have escaped a crushing siege which had caused widespread hunger - and in the case of Madaya, starvation - but had left everything behind, including family.

    "We owned three houses, farmland and three shops in Madaya town. Now, we don't have a single Syrian pound," she said.

    Her daughter, pregnant with a third child, had stayed in Madaya because her husband had vowed to "live and die" there, she said.

    Samira has not heard from her own husband for nearly four years after he was arrested by Syrian authorities.

     Nowhere To Live

    With nothing left and no place to stay in Idlib other than camps, Samira said she would try to migrate, joining the 5 million Syrian refugees who have left since the war broke out in 2011. More than 6 million are internally displaced.

    "I don't want to be in Idlib, we know no one there. Also you don't know when or where the jets might bomb," she said, referring to the heavy bombardment by Russian and Syrian warplanes of rebel-held areas in Idlib - including a recent alleged poison gas attack.

    "The plan is to try to get to Turkey, to leave Syria for good."

    Noha was also heading into the unknown.

    "I don't know where we'll live, whether they (authorities) have anything set up. At the very least, we just want to be safe. The children jump at night from the sound of rockets. We just want security, wherever they take us," she said.

    syria

    Her adult son and daughter had stayed in al-Foua but were hoping to leave in the next stage of the evacuation deal. Noha's husband had been killed, but she did not say how.

    Both women said they would never have left their hometowns but for the strangling sieges, which caused severe food and medicine shortages, and the gradual change of control in each area.

    Government forces moved into Madaya on Friday. Rebels are also due to leave nearby Zabadani as part of the deal. In al-Foua and Kefraya, hundreds of pro-government fighters were evacuated, and the agreement will pave the way for insurgents to take over.

    Russia, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have helped Assad gain the upper hand against rebels in the west of the country in the last 18 months and he now controls all of Syria's most populous cities there, although insurgents have made gains in some areas.

    But with the war that has killed hundreds of thousands far from over, those displaced in swap deals see return a long way off.

    "People have built their houses and worked their whole lives setting themselves up, and now they've left, with nothing, zero," Noha said.

     

    (Additional reporting by Ammar Abdullah; Editing by Anna Willard)

    SEE ALSO: Children have suffered the brunt of Syria's bloody civil war

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    Obama Trump

    In comments to the press and in his frequent tweets, President Donald Trump has accrued plenty of attention lambasting President Barack Obama's policies and actions.

    But since taking office in January, Trump has done many of the things he once criticized Obama for doing.

    Here are seven things Trump called Obama out for and then did once he became president.

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    Trump has posted a tweet from his @realDonaldTrump account mentioning "Obama" 1,464 times — the vast majority of them negative.

    Source: Twitter



    1. Travel: Trump often vented on Twitter about Obama's taxpayer-funded travel.



    Obama's travel cost an estimated $97 million over his eight years in office. Trump has spent $21 million on travel in about three months.

    Sources: CNN, Business Insider



    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Habak

    Throughout the developing crises in Syria, compelling photographs that depict the suffering of its people have garnered attention and prompted action from officials and private citizens alike. After a bomb blast in rebel-held territory in Syria on Saturday, however, a man ordinarily seen behind the lens was spurred to action.

    Photographer and activist Abd Alkader Habak was at the scene of the blast where 126 people, many of them children, lost their lives, CNN reported.

    "The scene was horrible — especially seeing children wailing and dying in front of you," Habak said to CNN. "So I decided along with my colleagues that we'd put our cameras aside and start rescuing injured people."

    According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the majority of the victims were evacuees from two Shiite villages, taking advantage of guarantees of safe passage from the rebel-controlled areas to areas of Aleppo under government territory. As negotiations came to a halt, however, the convoy of buses with thousands of evacuees remained parked in the rebel-controlled Aleppo city.

    As children left the buses to play out in the sun, they were approached by a man in a car who enticed them with potato chips, said one wounded girl in an Associated Press report. As children gathered around, the car detonated, killing at least 80 kids.

    syria bus bomb

    Habak, after being jarred by the blast, started helping the wounded. As he searched among the bodies, he said he found a boy who was still breathing.

    "This child was firmly holding my hand and looking at me," he said to CNN.

    A nearby photographer managed to capture images of Habak cradling a victim as he ran toward an ambulance — his camera equipment dangling from the side.

    Habak reportedly dropped the child off at the ambulance and went back to help others. As he found another lifeless child sprawled on the ground, he collapsed.

    habak

    "I was overcome with emotion," he said. "What I and my colleagues witnessed is indescribable."

    UN Secretary-General António Guterres released the following statement on Saturday following the attack:

    We condemn the attack today in Rasheedin, west Aleppo, on 5,000 evacuees traveling from the towns of Foah and Kefraya to Government-controlled areas. We express our condolences to the families of the victims of the incident and wish those injured a speedy recovery.

    The evacuations were being conducted in accordance with the agreement reached pursuant to the Four Towns agreement, covering Foah, Kefraya, Madaya and Zabadani. We call on the parties to ensure the safety and security of those waiting to be evacuated. Those responsible for today’s attack must be brought to justice.

    So far, no group has claimed responsibility.

    Rami Abdul Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that he didn't believe Syrian forces orchestrated the attack — he reasoned that government forces used different types of arms and didn't need to attack government-backers.

    The six-year Syrian conflict has so far claimed the lives of nearly 400,000 people and displaced millions.

    SEE ALSO: A photo of a Syrian father holding his twins' lifeless bodies epitomizes the devastation in the country

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