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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    us special forces raqqa syria

    The US-led coalition fighting ISIS in Syria launched its third strike in as many weeks on pro-regime forces inside a deconfliction zone around al Tanf, near a border crossing in Syria's southeast desert.

    Two US officials told CNN that Thursday's strike came after three vehicles were seen entering the deconfliction zone, and two of the vehicles were hit when they were 24 miles from the base at al Tanf.

    Following that engagement, a US aircraft downed a pro-regime drone that was dropping bombs near coalition troops.

    "The pro-regime UAV, similar in size to a U.S. MQ-1 Predator, was shot down by a U.S. aircraft after it dropped one of several weapons it was carrying near a position occupied by Coalition personnel who are training and advising partner ground forces in the fight against ISIS," US Central Command said in a statement.

    The "munition did not have an effect on coalition forces,"according to coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon.

    US and other coalition personnel are at the al Tanf garrison, near the border crossing, to train local partner forces, who captured the area earlier this year. (US personnel and local partners repulsed an intense attack by ISIS soon after.)

    The first such strike in the al Tanf area came on May 18, when coalition forces targeted pro-Assad forces "that were advancing well inside an established de-confliction zone" spreading 34 miles around al Tanf, US Central Commandsaid in a release at the time.

    The strike came after unsuccessful Russian efforts to stop the movements, a show of force by coalition aircraft, and warning shots.

    al Tanf Syria Iraq Jordan map

    Earlier this week, pro-regime and coalition aircraft both conducted strikes against opposition forces in the vicinity of al Tanf.

    On Tuesday, Iranian-backed Shia militia fighters came under attack on the ground just inside the deconfliction zone boundary, according to CNN. In response to that attack, Washington and Moscow communicated on a deconfliction line set up previously. Russia shared a request from the Syrian government to launch a strike in support of the militia, to which the US agreed.

    Hours later, pro-Assad forces were observed entering the deconfliction zone with vehicles and weaponry, including a tank and artillery, as well as over 60 fighters. The US then launched its own airstrike on those forces after they refused to withdraw from the area.

    fa18f

    The coalition said it issued several warnings before "destroying two artillery pieces, an anti-aircraft weapon, and damaging a tank."

    The US-led strike, carried out by a F/A-18 fighter, dropped four bombs and "killed an estimated 10 fighters,"according to CNN.

    Thursday's engagements add to a string of encounters that could lead to greater conflict in Syria between the US-led coalition and its local partners and pro-regime forces and their backers, Iran and Russia.

    "The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian or pro-regime forces partnered with them," CentCom said in its statement on Thursday.

    "The demonstrated hostile intent and actions of pro-regime forces near Coalition and partner forces in southern Syria, however, continue to concern us and the Coalition will take appropriate measures to protect our forces," the statement said.

    The strategic value of the al Tanf area — through which a highway connecting Damascus to Baghdad runs — as well as the direction of events elsewhere in Syria makes clashes between coalition forces and pro-regime forces a continuing possibility.

    Syria Iran

    ISIS' eroding control of territory in Syria, and the likelihood that Kurdish forces — who've signaled a willingness to negotiate with Assad for autonomy — will soon take control of the area around Raqqa in northeast Syria make territory in the southeast of the country increasingly valuable.

    Recent events in Syria indicate that "the United States [is] seemingly looking to cement a north-south 'Sunni axis' from the Gulf states and Jordan to Turkey," Fabrice Balanche, a French expert on Syria and a visiting fellow at The Washington institute for Near East Policy, wrote recently.

    "The challenge is that Iran and its proxies would very much like to establish some sort of land bridge from Iraq into Syria and they have had designs on this for quite some time,” a former Pentagon official told The Christian Science Monitor.

    A U.S military vehicle travels in the town of Amuda, northern Syria April 29, 2017. Picture taken April 29, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    Capturing al Tanf and the nearby border crossing would allow Tehran to link Iraq to the Mediterranean coast through Syria, facilitating the movement of men and material.

    But doing so would also isolate coalition-backed forces fighting ISIS and their special-forces advisers.

    Intelligence sources have told Reuters that the coalition's presence near al Tanf is meant to prevent such a route from opening.

    "Initially, the United States and the coalition had planned this unconventional warfare campaign to pressure the middle Euphrates River valley and cut off [ISIS communications lines]," the former Pentagon official said. "Now, ironically, it’s not just threatening [ISIS], it's also threatening Iran's designs for the area."

    Russia has also become involved in the confrontations around al Tanf.

    Earlier this month, coalition-backed Syrian forces attacked Shia militias that had moved down the highway toward the Iraqi border. They forced the militias, which are backed by Iran, to retreat, but Russian jets soon launched strikes against the coalition-backed fighters, forcing them back as well.

    Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based Shia militant group backed by Iran and heavily involved in the pro-regime fight in Syria, has entered the fray as well. The group's military-news unit issued a statement this week warning that the "self-restraint" it had about US-led airstrikes would end if the US crossed "red lines."

    Members of Lebanon's Hezbollah wave Hezbollah and Lebanese flags during a rally marking the ninth anniversary of the end of Hezbollah's 2006 war with Israel, in Wadi al-Hujeir, southern Lebanon August 14, 2015. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

    "America knows well that the blood of the sons of Syria, the Syrian Arab Army, and its allies is not cheap, and the capacity to strike their positions in Syria, and their surroundings, is available when circumstances will it," the statement said.

    Observers have noted that the Trump administration would likely be much less hesitant about attacking Hezbollah in Syria. Given the web of alliances that now ensnare forces in Syria, such attacks would likely have broader repercussions.

    "American unwillingness to confront Iran and its proxies in Syria, if obliged by circumstances, is a thing of the past," Frederic Hof, director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a former State Department liaison to Syrian opposition forces, told The Christian Science Monitor.

    "And Moscow would now have to anticipate with high likelihood aerial combat with US forces should it elect to provide tactical air support to Iran and its proxies on the ground," Hof added.

    “Our people are gathering in the Tanf area right now, so a clash is definitely coming,” a Hezbollah unit commander in Beirut, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Monitor.

    SEE ALSO: The US-led coalition destroyed more pro-Assad forces at a growing hotspot in the Syrian desert

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    Eiffel Tower

    Despite defeats in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State group has reorganized and is now "more focused than ever" on attacking Europe and other areas outside that conflict zone, a senior UN official said Thursday.

    "ISIL, despite continuous military pressure, continues to resist, particularly in Mosul and Raqa," said UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, using an acronym for IS.

    "At the same time, ISIL has reorganized its military structure, giving more power to local commanders and is more focused than ever before on enabling and inspiring attacks outside of conflict zones."

    Speaking before the UN Security Council, Feltman cited recent attacks in Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Sweden and Turkey.

    The group has posted fewer messages on social networks in the past 16 months, but "the threat persists as supporters outside Syria and Iraq collect and redistribute this propaganda."

    The total number of IS fighters and the group's revenues have also dropped during the same period, Feltman added.

    But IS can count on tens of millions of dollars per month from oil sales, extortion, ransom kidnapping, antiquities trafficking and mining exploitation in territories they control.

    While the number of foreign fighters recruited by IS has also decreased, "returnees and the relocation of fighters from the conflict zones to other regions now present a considerable threat to international peace," Feltman said.

    ISIS

    He called for reinforced ties between the UN system and regional actors to support Sahel G5 states -- Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger -- in their counterterrorism efforts.

    On Tuesday, France asked the UN Security Council to authorize the deployment of a five-nation African military force to fight violent extremists and drug traffickers in the Sahel.

    The Sahel G5 states agreed in March to set up the special counter-terrorism operation of 5,000 troops for the region.

    "It is important that the Security Council gets united behind this draft," French Ambassador Francois Delattre said. 

    "Again, on terrorism, there is no place for disunion. So we cannot imagine that the council doesn't bring its full support behind our draft."

    Diplomats say the United States has resisted financing this force during initial discussions.

    SEE ALSO: The US is edging ever closer to fighting ISIS, Assad, and his backers — all at the same time

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    uss george h.w. bush

    After a brief absence of US aircraft carrier presence in the eastern Mediterranean, the USS George H. W. Bush will be returning to Syria's coast to hammer ISIS forces in the region.

    This marks the first time the US Navy has had a carrier in the region since US guided-missile destroyers struck Syrian President Bashar Assad's air force after his regime carried out a deadly chemical weapon attack on civilians. 

    In the immediate aftermath of that strike on April 6, Russia, Assad's stalwart ally, sent two corvettes of their own.

    The US has dispatched the Bush and four guided-missile destroyers as part of a carrier strike group.

    The carrier arrives at a time when US and coalition forces have all but stomped out the last remaining ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria, though they increasingly find themselves under attack from new adversaries — Iranian-backed pro-Assad forces.

    Iran recently released footage of one of its drones scoping out a US drone, and the very next day the Pentagon announced a US aircraft had shot down a pro-Syrian drone.

    Increasingly, US-led coalition forces find themselves bombing pro-Syrian and Iranian-backed forces that threaten US troops in deconfliction zones.

    With the addition of the aircraft carrier, the US will have an additional few dozen F/A-18s handy to police the skies.

    SEE ALSO: The US is edging ever closer to fighting ISIS, Assad, and his backers — all at the same time

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    f15cWASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States shot down a pro-Syrian government drone that fired toward US-led coalition forces in Syria on Thursday, a US military spokesman said, in a major escalation of tensions between Washington and troops supporting Damascus.

    The armed drone "hit dirt" and there were no injuries or damage done to the coalition patrol in southern Syria.

    But US Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State, told reporters the drone meant to attack them and dismissed the possibility it had fired a warning shot.

    "This clearly showed a threat even if it were a warning shot; it was something that showed a hostile intent, a hostile action and posed a threat to our forces because this drone still had munitions that were still on it," Dillon said.

    He added that it was the first known time that pro-Syrian government forces had fired at coalition forces in the area.

    A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the munition landed a few hundred yards from coalition forces and failed to explode. The official added that a US F-15 fighter jet was used to strike the drone, which was likely Iranian-made but that further analysis was being carried out.

    Dillon said the United States had earlier in the day carried out a strike against two pro-Syrian government pick-up trucks with weapons that had moved against US-backed fighters near the southern town of At Tanf.

    It was the third such strike, and the second this week, by the Pentagon, which has sought to stay out of Syria's civil war to focus firepower instead on Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

    The concern is that such strikes could take away attention from the fight against Islamic State militants.

    "Unfortunately, there have been (these) incidents that have taken our focus away from fighting ISIS," Dillon said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

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

    The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched their assault to capture Raqqa, Islamic State's de facto Syrian capital.

    For months, air strikes and special forces from the US-led coalition have helped them encircle Raqqa, which Islamic State seized in 2014 and has used as a base to plan attacks abroad.

    On Tuesday, the United States launched an air strike against Iranian-backed fighters who it said posed a threat to US and US-backed forces in southern Syria.

    A military alliance fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad threatened on Wednesday to hit US positions in Syria, warning its "self-restraint" over US air strikes would end if Washington crossed "red lines".

    In recent days, the US military has repeatedly warned massing forces to stay away from a 'deconfliction zone' near a garrison used by American special forces and US-backed fighters around At Tanf.

    The zone was agreed with Russia, Syrian President Bashar al Assad's ally. Assad is also backed by Iran and Shi'ite militias.

    Tanf is part of a region known as the Badia, a vast, sparsely populated desert territory that stretches to the Jordanian and Iraqi borders and was declared a military priority by Syria's foreign minister in May.

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

    SEE ALSO: US aircraft shoots down large drone that dropped bombs near coalition troops in Syria

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    U.S. airmen prepare a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone as it leaves on a mission at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. Picture taken March 9, 2016. REUTERS/Josh Smith

    A U.S. aircraft shot down an unidentified drone deemed hostile toward coalition forces in At Tanf, Syria, a spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve said Thursday.

    The drone, similar in size to a U.S. MQ-1 Predator, was suspected to be "pro-regime" and was shot down Thursday by an F-15E Strike Eagle.

    Army Col. Ryan Dillon said the drone was struck down after it was observed dropping a munition near coalition personnel training partner forces in the fight against the Islamic State.

    Dillon, who replaces Air Force Col. John Dorrian as the operation spokesman, said the MQ-1-like drone "hit dirt."

    The drone released one of several munitions it was carrying — and the action clearly wasn't "just a warning shot," Dillon said.

    "It was clearly meant as an attack on coalition forces," he told reporters over video conference at the Pentagon. "They made very clear who they were trying to fire upon [but] were unsuccessful."

    The drone "showed hostile intent, had munitions on it, and we shot it down," he said. The "pilot of that drone could be considered a threat as well."

    F15E bomb

    Dillon didn't say where the drone came or took off from. There were no injuries to coalition advisers, but he didn't identify their nationality.

    The drone strike marked the first time that forces supporting the Syrian government have attacked inside a so-called "deconfliction" zone near At Tanf, close to the Jordanian border, Dillon said.

    The deconfliction zone is an area in which U.S. and Russian forces have agreed not to operate. The zone previously applied to airspace but now includes ground territory, a defense official told Military.com last month.

    Dillon said U.S.-Russia deconfliction communications are open and in use. Russia, which supports the regime of Bashar al-Assad, reportedly made attempts to reach the pro-Assad forces on the ground last month during a similar strike. Dillon could not say whether messages relayed to the Russians got across regarding Thursday's incident.

    "There is a deconfliction line," he said. "We have used that from the middle of May, when pro-regime forces first arrived."

    FILE PHOTO: Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) head a convoy of U.S military vehicles in the town of Darbasiya next to the Turkish border, Syria April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

    The drone shootdown "follows an earlier engagement in the day in which coalition forces destroyed two pro-regime armed technical vehicles that advanced toward coalition forces at At Tanf inside the established de-confliction zone threatening coalition and partner forces," U.S. Central Command said in an email release following Dillon's video conference.

    The strike against the pro-Syrian regime forces marks the third strike in recent weeks -- the second just this week -- by the coalition.

    Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said the pro-Syrian forces are backed by Iran, and have been knowingly operating "inside an established and agreed-upon deconfliction zone."

    They are believed to be a threat to coalition forces in the region, he has said.

    But CentCom stressed the coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime forces, nor the Russian and pro-regime forces partnered with them.

    "The demonstrated hostile intent and actions of pro-regime forces near coalition and partner forces in southern Syria, however, continue to concern us, and the coalition will take appropriate measures to protect our forces," the statement said.

    Dillon added, "We are very well prepared and positioned to defend ourselves. We've clearly showed we are able to do that. We do not want to continue this everyday [as it] distracts from our goal to defeat ISIS."

    SEE ALSO: The US is edging ever closer to fighting ISIS, Assad, and his backers — all at the same time

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    abrams tank in iraq

    The US Army is considering various systems to better shield tanks and armored vehicles from RPGs, antitank missiles, and other enemy fire.

    But the latest version of the RPG, a staple in the arsenals of Russia and other forces, may already be a step ahead of the active-protection systems the US may soon adopt.

    The Pentagon has purchased active-protection systems to test out on Abrams tanks and Bradley and Stryker armored vehicles, and may even mount them on lighter vehicles, like the successor to the Humvee, according to a report from Scout Warrior.

    "The Army is looking at a range of domestically produced and allied international solutions from companies participating in the Army's Modular Active Protection Systems (MAPS) program," an Army official told Scout Warrior.

    The Army intends to outfit Abrams tanks with the Israeli-made Trophy APS and Bradley vehicles with the Iron Fist system, which is also Israeli-made. It plans to put the US-made Iron Curtain system on Stryker vehicles. (The Army leased several of the Trophy systems last spring, working with the Marine Corps to test them.)

    "The one that is farthest along in terms of installing it is ... Trophy on Abrams," Lt. Gen. John Murray, the Army's deputy chief of staff, said in a statement. "We're getting some pretty ... good results. It adds to the protection level of the tank."

    active protection system tank army

    The US's look to APS comes as other countries adopt the technology.

    Israeli's Merkava comes standard with the Trophy, as does Russia's new T-14 Armata. Both Israel's and Russia's tanks, as well as the UK's Challenger 2, are considered by US officials to be close to or at parity with the US's mainstay, the Abrams tank. (Though some officials don't consider the Armata fielded.)

    As militaries have adopted active-protection systems and other means to up-armor tanks, arms makers have looked for new antitank weaponry to counter them. Whenever US vehicles equipped with APS join similarly outfitted vehicles in the field, they will face a new challenge from an old foe, the RPG.

    RPG-29 Free Syrian Army Aleppo

    Russian arms manufacturers first introduced the RPG — short for Ruchnoy Protivotankovyy Granatomet, meaning"handheld antitank grenade launcher," not "rocket-propelled grenade"— in 1949, updating it over the decades since.

    The most recent variant, the RPG-30, unveiled in 2008, has a 105 mm tandem high explosive antitank round, and features a second, smaller-caliber projectile meant to bait the active-protection systems that have become common on armored vehicles in recent years.

    A tandem HEAT round carries two explosive charges. One neutralizes a vehicle's reactive armor (which uses explosions to counter incoming projectiles), and the other is designed to penetrate the armor of the vehicle itself.

    "The novelty of the Russian rocket launcher is that two rockets are fired at the target at the same time. One is a so-called 'agent provocateur' 42 mm in caliber, followed a bit later by a primary 105-mm tandem warhead rocket," Vladimir Porkhachyov, the director general of arms manufacturer NPO Bazalt, told Russian state news agency Tass of the RPG-30 in September 2015.

    The RPG-30 reportedly cleared testing and went into active service with the Russian military sometime between 2012 and 2013. At that point, according to a 2015 report by Russian state-owned outlet Sputnik, the Pentagon put it on its list of "asymmetrical threats to the US armed forces."

    destroyed m1 abrams tank

    The effectiveness of the RPG-30 against active-protection systems, and whether those systems need be upgraded to adapt to the RPG-30 and similar munitions, remains to be seen. But the RPG — though limited by the size of its warhead — has long been potent on the battlefield, even against modern tanks.

    The previous model, the RPG-29, was introduced in 1991 and is still in service with the Russian armed forces. It fires a 105 mm tandem HEAT round and can also fire a thermobaric fuel-air round against bunkers and buildings.

    Russian RPG-29s were used by Hezbollah in the mid-2000s, deployed against Israeli tanks and personnel during the 2006 Lebanon War.

    Merkava tank israel

    According to a Haaretz report from the time, Hezbollah antitank teams using RPG-29s managed on some occasions to get through the armor of Israel's advanced Merkava tanks.

    In other cases, Hezbollah fighters used the RPG-29 to fire on buildings containing Israeli troops, penetrating the walls.

    "The majority of Israel Defense Forces ground troops casualties, both infantry and armored, were the result of special antitank units of Hezbollah," which used other antitank missiles as well, according to the Haaretz report, published in the final days of the conflict and citing intelligence sources.

    Those RPG-29s were reportedly supplied to Hezbollah by the Syrian military, which got them from Russia. Moscow disputed those origins, however, with some suggesting they were exported from former Communist bloc countries after the fall of the Soviet Union.

    In August 2006, a RPG-29 was used successfully against a British Challenger 2 tank in southern Iraq.

    During operations in Al Amarah, an RPG-29 rocket defeated the reactive armor installed on the Challenger, penetrating the driver's cabin and blowing off half of one soldier's foot and wounding several other troops.

    An Iraqi Federal Police member fires an RPG towards Islamic State militants during a battle in western Mosul, Iraq, May 28, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

    UK military officials were accused of a cover-up in 2007, after it emerged that they hadn't reported the August 2006 incident.

    Two years later, during fighting in Baghdad's Sadr City — a Shiite neighborhood in the Iraqi capital — a US M1 Abrams tank was damaged by an RPG-29. (The US has long avoided reactive armor systems but accepted them in recent years as a cheap, easy way to up-armor vulnerable parts of the Abrams, particularly against RPGs.)

    During fighting in Iraq, RPG-29s penetrated the armor on the Abrams tanks twice and the Challenger once, according to The National Interest. Other Abrams tanks in Iraq were knocked out by antitank missiles, like the Russian-made AT-14 Kornet.

    The threat goes beyond tanks. Seven of eight US Army helicopters shot down in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2009 were brought down by RPGs.

    US helicopter soldiers war in Afghanistan

    RPGs remain in service around the world, filling the arsenals of both state and non-state actors, according to the Small Arms Survey. The weapon and parts for it have popped in arms bazaars in Libya in recent years.

    The RPG-7, the RPG-29's predecessor, would be or would likely be used by forces in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Central, South, and East Asia.

    Regular and irregular forces in Latin America also have RPGs, and the weapons have made their way into the hands of criminal groups in the region. The Jalisco New Generation cartel reportedly used one to down a Mexican military helicopter in early 2015.

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    FILE PHOTO: A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi making what would have been his first public appearance, at a mosque in the centre of Iraq's second city, Mosul, according to a video recording posted on the Internet on July 5, 2014, in this still image taken from video.      REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV/File Photo

    Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is on the brink of losing the two main centers of his 'caliphate' but even though he is on the run, it may take years to capture or kill him, officials and experts said.

    Islamic State fighters are close to defeat in the twin capitals of the group's territory, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, and officials say Baghdadi is steering clear of both, hiding in thousands of square miles of desert between the two.

    "In the end, he will either be killed or captured, he will not be able to remain underground forever," said Lahur Talabany, the head of counter-terrorism at the Kurdistan Regional Government, the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. "But this is a few years away still," he told Reuters.

    One of Baghdadi's main concerns is to ensure those around him do not betray him for the $25 million reward offered by the United States to bring him "to justice", said Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises Middle East governments on Islamic State affairs.

    "With no land to rule openly, he can no longer claim the title caliph," Hashimi said. "He is a man on the run and the number of his supporters is shrinking as they lose territory."

    Iraqi forces have retaken much of Mosul, the northern Iraqi city the hardline group seized in June 2014 and from which Baghdadi declared himself "caliph" or leader of all Muslims shortly afterwards. Raqqa, his capital in Syria, is nearly surrounded by a coalition of Syrian Kurdish and Arab groups.

    The last public video footage of him shows him dressed in black clerical robes declaring his caliphate from the pulpit of Mosul's medieval Grand al-Nuri mosque back in 2014.

    Born Ibrahim al-Samarrai, Baghdadi is a 46-year-old Iraqi who broke away from al-Qaeda in 2013, two years after the capture and killing of the group's leader Osama bin Laden.

    He grew up in a religious family, studied Islamic Theology in Baghdad and joined the Salaafi jihadist insurgency in 2003, the year of the US-led invasion of Iraq. He was caught by the Americans who released him about a year later as they considered him then as a civilian rather than a military target.

    BOUNTY

    He is shy and reserved, Hashimi said, and has recently stuck to the sparsely populated Iraq-Syria border where drones and strangers are easy to spot.

    The U.S. Department of State's Counter-Terrorism Rewards Program had put the same $25 million bounty on Bin Laden and Iraqi former president Saddam Hussein and the reward is still available for Bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

    Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at a mosque in the centre of Iraq's second city, Mosul, according to a video recording posted on the Internet on July 5, 2014, in this still image taken from video.  REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV

    Neither Saddam nor Bin Laden were voluntarily betrayed, but the bounties complicated their movements and communications.

    "The reward creates worry and tension, it restricts his movements and limit the number of his guards," said Fadhel Abu Ragheef, a Baghdad-based expert on extremist groups. "He doesn't stay more than 72 hours in any one place."

    Baghdadi "has become nervous and very careful in his movements", said Talabany, whose services are directly involved in countering Islamic State plots. "His circle of trust has become even smaller."

    His last recorded speech was issued in early November, two weeks after the start of the Mosul battle, when he urged his followers to fight the "unbelievers" and "make their blood flow as rivers".

    U.S. and Iraqi officials believe he has left operational commanders behind with diehard followers to fight the battles of Mosul and Raqqa, to focus on his own survival.

    It is not possible to confirm his whereabouts.

    Baghdadi does not use phones and has a handful number of approved couriers to communicate with his two main aides, Iyad al-Obaidi, his defense minister, and Ayad al-Jumaili, in charge of security. There was no confirmation of an April 1 Iraqi state TV report that Jumaili had been killed.

    Baghdadi moves in ordinary cars, or the kind of pick-up trucks used by farmers, between hideouts on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border, with just a driver and two bodyguards, said Hashimi.

    The region is well known to his men as the hotbed of the Sunni insurgency against U.S. forces that invaded Iraq and later the Shi'ite-led governments that took over the country.

    At the height of its power two years ago, Islamic State ruled over millions of people in territory running from northern Syria through towns and villages along the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys to the outskirts of the Iraqi capital Baghdad.

    It persecuted non-Sunnis and even Sunnis who did not agree with its extreme version of Islamic law, with public executions and whippings for violating strict controls on appearance, behavior and movement.

    But the group has been retreating since in the face of a multitude of local, regional and international forces, driven into action by the scores of deadly attacks around the world that it has claimed or inspired.

    A few hundred thousand people now live in the areas under the group's control, in and around Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, in Syria's east, and in a few pockets south and west of Mosul. Hashimi said Islamic State was moving some fighters out of Raqqa before it was encircled to regroup in Deir al-Zor.

    Mosul, with pre-war population of 2 million, was at least four times the size of any other the group has held. Up to 200,000 people are still trapped in the Old City, Islamic State's besieged enclave in Mosul, lacking supplies and being used as human shields to obstruct the progress of Iraqi forces by a U.S-led international coalition.

    The Syrian Democratic Forces, made of Kurdish and Arab groups supported by the U.S.-led coalition, began to attack Raqqa last week, after a months-long campaign to cut it off.

    MIDEAST CRISIS SYRIA

    The militants are also fighting Russian and Iranian-backed forces in Syria loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, and mainly Sunni Muslim Syrian rebels backed by Turkey.

    The last official report about Baghdadi was from the Iraqi military on Feb. 13. Iraqi F-16s carried out a strike on a house where he was thought to be meeting other commanders, in western Iraq, near the Syrian border, it said.

    Overall, Islamic State has 8,000 fighters left, of which 2,000 are foreigners from other Arab states, Europe, Russia and central Asia, said Abu Ragheef.

    "A small number compared to the tens of thousands arrayed against them in both countries, but a force to be reckoned with, made up of die-hards with nothing to lose, hiding in the middle of civilians and making extensive use of booby traps, mines and explosives," he said.

    The U.S. government has a joint task force to track down Baghdadi which includes special operations forces, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies as well as spy satellites of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.

    It will take more than that to erase his influence, Talabany said. "He is still considered the leader of ISIL and many continue to fight for him; that hasn't changed drastically," he said, using one of Islamic State's acronyms.

    Even if killed or captured, he added, "his legacy and that of ISIL will endure unless radical extremism is tackled."

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    FILE PHOTO: A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi making what would have been his first public appearance, at a mosque in the centre of Iraq's second city, Mosul, according to a video recording posted on the Internet on July 5, 2014, in this still image taken from video.      REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV/File Photo

    Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is on the brink of losing the two main centers of his 'caliphate' but even though he is on the run, it may take years to capture or kill him, officials and experts said.

    Islamic State fighters are close to defeat in the twin capitals of the group's territory, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, and officials say Baghdadi is steering clear of both, hiding in thousands of square miles of desert between the two.

    "In the end, he will either be killed or captured, he will not be able to remain underground forever," said Lahur Talabany, the head of counter-terrorism at the Kurdistan Regional Government, the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. "But this is a few years away still," he told Reuters.

    One of Baghdadi's main concerns is to ensure those around him do not betray him for the $25 million reward offered by the United States to bring him "to justice", said Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises Middle East governments on Islamic State affairs.

    "With no land to rule openly, he can no longer claim the title caliph," Hashimi said. "He is a man on the run and the number of his supporters is shrinking as they lose territory."

    Iraqi forces have retaken much of Mosul, the northern Iraqi city the hardline group seized in June 2014 and from which Baghdadi declared himself "caliph" or leader of all Muslims shortly afterwards. Raqqa, his capital in Syria, is nearly surrounded by a coalition of Syrian Kurdish and Arab groups.

    The last public video footage of him shows him dressed in black clerical robes declaring his caliphate from the pulpit of Mosul's medieval Grand al-Nuri mosque back in 2014.

    isis militants

    Born Ibrahim al-Samarrai, Baghdadi is a 46-year-old Iraqi who broke away from al-Qaeda in 2013, two years after the capture and killing of the group's leader Osama bin Laden.

    He grew up in a religious family, studied Islamic Theology in Baghdad and joined the Salaafi jihadist insurgency in 2003, the year of the US-led invasion of Iraq. He was caught by the Americans who released him about a year later as they considered him then as a civilian rather than a military target.

    Bounty

    abu bakr al baghdadi family tree

    He is shy and reserved, Hashimi said, and has recently stuck to the sparsely populated Iraq-Syria border where drones and strangers are easy to spot.

    The U.S. Department of State's Counter-Terrorism Rewards Program had put the same $25 million bounty on Bin Laden and Iraqi former president Saddam Hussein and the reward is still available for Bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

    Neither Saddam nor Bin Laden were voluntarily betrayed, but the bounties complicated their movements and communications.

    "The reward creates worry and tension, it restricts his movements and limit the number of his guards," said Fadhel Abu Ragheef, a Baghdad-based expert on extremist groups. "He doesn't stay more than 72 hours in any one place."

    Baghdadi "has become nervous and very careful in his movements", said Talabany, whose services are directly involved in countering Islamic State plots. "His circle of trust has become even smaller."

    His last recorded speech was issued in early November, two weeks after the start of the Mosul battle, when he urged his followers to fight the "unbelievers" and "make their blood flow as rivers".

    U.S. and Iraqi officials believe he has left operational commanders behind with diehard followers to fight the battles of Mosul and Raqqa, to focus on his own survival.

    It is not possible to confirm his whereabouts.

    Baghdadi does not use phones and has a handful number of approved couriers to communicate with his two main aides, Iyad al-Obaidi, his defense minister, and Ayad al-Jumaili, in charge of security. There was no confirmation of an April 1 Iraqi state TV report that Jumaili had been killed.

    Baghdadi moves in ordinary cars, or the kind of pick-up trucks used by farmers, between hideouts on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border, with just a driver and two bodyguards, said Hashimi.

    The region is well known to his men as the hotbed of the Sunni insurgency against U.S. forces that invaded Iraq and later the Shi'ite-led governments that took over the country.

    At the height of its power two years ago, Islamic State ruled over millions of people in territory running from northern Syria through towns and villages along the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys to the outskirts of the Iraqi capital Baghdad.

    It persecuted non-Sunnis and even Sunnis who did not agree with its extreme version of Islamic law, with public executions and whippings for violating strict controls on appearance, behavior and movement.

    But the group has been retreating since in the face of a multitude of local, regional and international forces, driven into action by the scores of deadly attacks around the world that it has claimed or inspired.

    A few hundred thousand people now live in the areas under the group's control, in and around Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, in Syria's east, and in a few pockets south and west of Mosul. Hashimi said Islamic State was moving some fighters out of Raqqa before it was encircled to regroup in Deir al-Zor.

    Mosul, with pre-war population of 2 million, was at least four times the size of any other the group has held. Up to 200,000 people are still trapped in the Old City, Islamic State's besieged enclave in Mosul, lacking supplies and being used as human shields to obstruct the progress of Iraqi forces by a U.S-led international coalition.

    The Syrian Democratic Forces, made of Kurdish and Arab groups supported by the U.S.-led coalition, began to attack Raqqa last week, after a months-long campaign to cut it off.

    The militants are also fighting Russian and Iranian-backed forces in Syria loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, and mainly Sunni Muslim Syrian rebels backed by Turkey.

    Syria map june 2017

    The last official report about Baghdadi was from the Iraqi military on Feb. 13. Iraqi F-16s carried out a strike on a house where he was thought to be meeting other commanders, in western Iraq, near the Syrian border, it said.

    Overall, Islamic State has 8,000 fighters left, of which 2,000 are foreigners from other Arab states, Europe, Russia and central Asia, said Abu Ragheef.

    "A small number compared to the tens of thousands arrayed against them in both countries, but a force to be reckoned with, made up of die-hards with nothing to lose, hiding in the middle of civilians and making extensive use of booby traps, mines and explosives," he said.

    The U.S. government has a joint task force to track down Baghdadi which includes special operations forces, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies as well as spy satellites of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.

    It will take more than that to erase his influence, Talabany said. "He is still considered the leader of ISIL and many continue to fight for him; that hasn't changed drastically," he said, using one of Islamic State's acronyms.

    Even if killed or captured, he added, "his legacy and that of ISIL will endure unless radical extremism is tackled."

    SEE ALSO: The US is edging ever closer to fighting ISIS, Assad, and his backers — all at the same time

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    • US Syria missile strikePresident Barack Obama's options in Syria were limited by his efforts to negotiate the Iran nuclear deal.
    • US President Donald Trump doesn't have those limitations and is free to strike Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime and Iranian-backed groups.
    • Trump has called Iran's bluff but risks Iranian-backed militias striking US forces.

    As US President Donald Trump enjoyed chocolate cake with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in April, he ordered the military to do something his predecessor hadn't dared: directly strike Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.

    Trump, a political neophyte then inside his first 100 days in office, attacked an ally of Russia and Iran after intelligence services concluded that Assad's forces had used chemical weapons on Syrian civilians, many of them children.

    But Syria never fired back. Neither did Russia. And so far, Iran hasn't either. The salvo of 59 cruise missiles that took out a handful of Assad's warplanes went virtually unpunished.

    The incident typifies the difference in Trump's and President Barack Obama's Syria policy, in which Trump seems to have successfully called Iran's bluff.

    Obama was pressed by a similar situation in 2013, after evidence surfaced that Assad violated Obama's "red line" by using chemical weapons. Instead of following through on his threat to hit Assad in response, Obama agreed to let Russia step in and deal with the chemical-weapons stockpile.

    Toward the end of Obama's term, it became clear why he had shied away from striking Assad: He was focused on the Iran nuclear deal.

    "When the president announced his plans to attack [the Assad regime] and then pulled back, it was exactly the period in time when American negotiators were meeting with Iranian negotiators secretly in Oman to get the nuclear agreement," Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon told MSNBC last year.

    "US and Iranian officials have both told me that they were basically communicating that if the US starts hitting President Assad's forces, Iran's closest Arab ally ... these talks cannot conclude," Solomon continued.

    Iran nuclear deal

    But Trump has patently different ideas about Iran. He vocally opposed the Iran deal and campaigned on tearing it up. While Trump hasn't followed through, his administration has moved to put additional sanctions on Tehran, as the deal has freed up over $100 billion of Iran's funds.

    And importantly, Trump has shown he'll hit Assad if needed and even hand over power to battlefield commanders to hit Iranian-backed forces if they threaten US troops.

    Obama's refusal to enforce his red line or punish Assad militarily for a host of war crimes Assad has been accused of committing under his watch "was never about fear of World War III," said Jonathan Schanzer, an expert on the Middle East from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

    "The fear for Obama was upsetting the nuclear deal. That was what they were protecting. It wasn't about sparking some wider confrontation," said Schanzer, alluding to Russia's 2015 entrance into the conflict on Assad's behalf.

    Revolutionary Guard IRGC Basij

    So while Obama walked on eggshells with Iran to preserve his deal, apparently believing Iran would exit if he acted against it, Trump has had the benefit of entering office post-deal.

    Every review of Iran's nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency since Trump took office has shown that Iran is complying with the deal's terms. To outside observers, Iran appears in line with the letter of the deal, even after the US's April 7 strike on Assad's airfield.

    But the tension between the US and Iran hasn't resolved— it has shifted. Nick Heras, an expert on Syria with the Center for a New American Security, told Business Insider that Iran's attention had settled on eastern Syria, where a US-led coalition is getting ready to dislodge ISIS.

    "In eastern Syria, Iran is trying to box the US out," Heras said. "The Iranians don't want the US to open up shop in eastern Syria. Iranians have sent columns of militias to try to force out the US in eastern Syria. The Iranians assess that there's a threat that the Trump administration would build up a presence to try to stabilize eastern Syria."

    Syria map june 2017

    Iran has not taken kindly to the idea of increased US influence or presence in Syria. Since May, the US-led coalition has responded three times to what it perceived as attempts by pro-Assad, Iranian-backed forces to attack it. And each time, US air power has devastated Iran's proxies.

    "I believe that Trump's instincts on the Middle East are not bad," Schanzer said. "He understands that he needs to project strength to these actors, and he is. That's giving us more leverage with actors that in the past Obama was fearful of challenging, and that's positive."

    But while the US is no longer being coerced into walking an Iranian-approved path in Syria, clashes with Iran could put the about 500 US troops in Syria at risk, as the US closes in on ISIS's final strongholds and the fight for the future of Syria shapes up.

    SEE ALSO: The US is edging ever closer to fighting ISIS, Assad, and his backers — all at the same time

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    Vladimir Putin

    WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republicans and Democrats reached agreement late Monday on a new package of sanctions on Russia amid the firestorm over Russia's meddling in the presidential election and investigations into Moscow's possible collusion with members of President Donald Trump's campaign.

    Top lawmakers on two committees — Banking and Foreign Relations — announced the deal, which would require a congressional review if a president attempts to ease or end current penalties. The plan also calls for strengthening current sanctions and imposing new ones on corrupt Russian actors, those involved in human rights abuses and those supplying weapons to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

    Penalties also would be slapped on those responsible for malicious cyber activity on behalf of the Russian government.

    The batch of sanctions would be added to a bill imposing penalties on Iran that the Senate is currently debating.

    "The amendment to the underlying Iran sanctions bill maintains and substantially expands sanctions against the government of Russia in response to the violation of the territorial integrity of the Ukraine and Crimea, its brazen cyberattacks and interference in elections, and its continuing aggression in Syria," said Republicans and Democrats on the committees.

    russia

    A procedural vote on the Russia sanctions is expected Wednesday, and the measure is expected to get strong bipartisan support. The legislation was worked out by Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, of the Banking Committee, and Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Ben Cardin, D-Md., of the Foreign Relations panel.

    The legislation also allows new penalties on key elements of the Russia economy, including mining, metals, shipping and railways.

    House and Senate committees are investigating Russia's meddling and potential links to the Trump campaign, with testimony scheduled Tuesday from Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is conducting a separate probe.

    "By codifying existing sanctions and requiring congressional review of any decision to weaken or lift them, we are ensuring that the United States continues to punish President (Vladimir) Putin for his reckless and destabilizing actions," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the top Senate Democrat. "These additional sanctions will also send a powerful and bipartisan statement to Russia and any other country who might try to interfere in our elections that they will be punished."

    SEE ALSO: MATTIS: No indication Russia wants positive relationship with US

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    Syria Badia al Tanf tank Bashar Assad

    AMMAN (Reuters) - U.S. troops based in Syria's southeastern desert have expanded their footprint, rebels there say, increasing the risk of direct ground confrontation between the Americans and Iran-backed pro-government forces.

    U.S. special forces have been based since last year at Tanf, a strategic Syrian highway border crossing with Iraq, where the Americans have assisted rebels trying to recapture territory from fleeing Islamic State fighters.

    The U.S.-backed Syrian rebels in the area are in competition with pro-government forces who are also trying to recapture territory from Islamic State.

    On several occasions in recent weeks, warplanes of the U.S.-led coalition have struck pro-government forces to prevent them advancing, in what Washington has described as self defense.

    Abu al-Atheer, military spokesman for the U.S.-backed Maghawir al-Thawra rebel group, told Reuters U.S. forces had spread from their initial location at Tanf to set up a second base at Zakf, around 60-70 km (40-50 miles) to the northeast.

    Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting against Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, denied troops had set up a new base. But he said sometimes coalition forces conduct patrols and training with rebels at locations outside Tanf that could be maintained for days or weeks.

    MIDEAST CRISIS SYRIA

    "We have that garrison in al-Tanf that is a temporary base and location for us to train our partner forces to fight to defeat ISIS, but that is the only base in southern Syria or location where we have coalition forces," Dillon said.

    Abu al-Atheer said the U.S. special forces were now patrolling distances of up to 100 km from Tanf. He said more U.S. special forces were arriving at both the original base at Tanf and the new base at Zakf, and more weapons had been delivered to rebels.

    "The (new) base was being studied for months but now it's an official base. It has been built and expanded and God willing will be in the next few days like the Tanf base," he told Reuters.

    Video clips purportedly of the Zakf site, sent to Reuters by another rebel in the group, showed a convoy of military vehicles traveling on a paved road lined by long walls, a communications mast and a hut. Another showed three men in uniform next to two small military vehicles, firing a mortar in otherwise empty desert.

    U.S.-backed rebels are fighting to oust Islamic State fighters from their last two major bastions — Mosul in Iraq and the Euphrates River valley near Raqqa in Syria — in battles which Washington hopes could crush the group this year.

    Syria Hezbollah drone

    The Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, also wants to reclaim the territory in Syria. Pro-government forces have taken up positions north of Tanf, potentially cutting off the U.S.-backed rebels from advancing.

    Muzahem Saloum, a rebel official close to Maghawir al-Thawra, said the Zakf location would back up Tanf and was expected to be a "first line of defense" against any attack by Iranian-backed Syrian pro-government militias.

    Rivalry

    Tanf is located near a Syria-Iraq border crossing on the main Baghdad-Damascus highway, and the U.S.-backed rebels took it from Islamic State last year, partly to stop Iran from using it in future to send arms to the Syrian government.

    The U.S.-backed rebels also want to use it to take more territory along the border and to push towards Deir al-Zor, a large city on the Euphrates where the government has an enclave surrounded by Islamic State fighters.

    However, Syria's army has declared winning back control of the desert and relieving its besieged Deir al-Zor enclave a military priority and has advanced swiftly from Palmyra with troops and dozens of tanks.

    Syria Badia militias

    Aided by allied militias backed by Iran, it also hopes to join up with Iraqi forces advancing against Islamic State across the border to secure a land route from Damascus to Baghdad.

    Iranian news sites have published pictures of Qasem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' elite extra-territorial arm the Qods Force, visiting militia fighters at an undisclosed area on the border.

    Recent Syrian government advances to the Iraq border northeast of Tanf and Zakf mean the U.S.-backed rebels would have to fight the Syrian army in order to march on Deir al-Zor.

    Qassem Soleimani Iran Revolutionary Guard

    U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Tuesday said air strikes against pro-government forces near Tanf in recent weeks had been in self defense, to prevent them from attacking its troops at the base.

    Rebel spokesman Abu al-Atheer said the goal of the government forces was "to cut our advance towards Deir al-Zor. But we are moving towards a plan to take us to Deir al-Zor even if they enter," Abu al-Atheer said.

    "The battle is not over and we will not allow the Iranian Shi'ites to occupy our land. Our response to those who stand against us will be cruel," he added.

    (Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; additional reporting by Angus McDowall; editing by Angus McDowall and Peter Graff)

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    HIMARS us army latvia NATO

    AMMAN (Reuters) - The U.S. military has moved a new truck-mounted, long-range rocket launcher from Jordan to a U.S. base in Tanf, Syria near the Iraqi and Jordanian borders, stepping up its presence in the area, two regional intelligence sources said on Wednesday.

    They said the HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems) were now in the desert garrison that has seen a build-up in military equipment in recent weeks as tensions escalate after the U.S.-led coalition struck Iranian-backed forces to prevent them advancing toward the Tanf base.

    "They have arrived now in Tanf and they are a significant boost to the U.S. military presence there," one senior intelligence source said, without elaborating, but adding that the HIMARS had already been deployed in northern Syria with U.S. backed forces battling Islamic State militants.

     

    (Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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    Abu Bakr al Baghdadi ISIS

    MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's Defense Ministry said on Friday it was checking information that a Russian air strike near the Syrian city of Raqqa may have killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in late May.

    The air strike was launched after the Russian forces in Syria received intelligence that a meeting of Islamic State leaders was being planned, the ministry said in a statement posted on its Facebook page.

    "On May 28, after drones were used to confirm the information on the place and time of the meeting of IS leaders, between 00:35 and 00:45, Russian air forces launched a strike on the command point where the leaders were located," the statement said.

    "According to the information which is now being checked via various channels, also present at the meeting was Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was eliminated as a result of the strike," the ministry said.

    The U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State said it could not confirm the Russian report that Baghdadi may have been killed.

    The strike is believed to have killed several other senior leaders of the group, as well as around 30 field commanders and up to 300 of their personal guards, the Russian defense ministry statement said.

    The IS leaders had gathered at the command center, in a southern suburb of Raqqa, to discuss possible routes for the militants' retreat from the city, the statement said.

    The United States was informed in advance about the place and time of the strike, the Russian military said.

    Islamic State fighters are close to defeat in the twin capitals of the group's territory, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.

    Russian forces support the Syrian government which is fighting against Islamic State mainly from the west, while a U.S.-led coalition supports Iraqi government forces fighting against Islamic State from the east.

    The last public video footage of Baghdadi shows him dressed in black clerical robes declaring his caliphate from the pulpit of Mosul's medieval Grand al-Nuri mosque back in 2014.

    Born Ibrahim al-Samarrai, Baghdadi is a 46-year-old Iraqi who broke away from al Qaeda in 2013, two years after the capture and killing of the group's leader Osama bin Laden.

    Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, cast doubt on the report Baghdadi may have been killed. He said that according to his information, Baghdadi was located in another part of Syria at the end of May.

    “The information is that as of the end of last month Baghdadi was in Deir al-Zor, in the area between Deir al-Zor and Iraq, in Syrian territory,” he said by phone.

    Questioning what Baghdadi would have been doing in that location, he said: “Is it reasonable that Baghdadi would put himself between a rock and a hard place of the (U.S.-led) coalition and Russia?” 

    (Additional reporting by Polina Devitt in MOSCOW and Tom Perry in BEIRUT; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov and Christian Lowe; Editing by)

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    F/A-18E Super Hornets fighter jets Afghanistan

    An F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter jet from the US-led coalition fighting ISIS in Syria downed a Syrian SU-22 fighter over the countryside south of Raqqa on Sunday afternoon local time, according to a coalition press release.

    According to the release, on late afternoon Sunday, pro-Syrian government forces attacked the town of Ja'Din, south of Tabqah and west of Raqqa, ISIS' self-declared capital.

    Ja'Din was held by coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, and the Syrian strikes wounded some SDF fighters. Coalition aircraft stopped the initial strike through a show of force, according to the release.

    Coalition officials then contacted their Russian counterparts via a "de-confliction line" to stop the firing. However, about two hours after the first strike by pro-Syrian government forces, a Syrian SU-22 fighter dropped several bombs near SDF fighters south of Tabqah.

    "In accordance with rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of Coalition partnered forces, [the SU-22] was immediately shot down by a U.S. F/A-18E Super Hornet," the release said.

    In a statement released on Syrian state television, the Syrian army said the US-led coalition shot down a Syrian army jet during a combat mission against ISIS fighters south of Raqqa.

    The army's statement said the plane crashed and the pilot was missing.

    Syria Iraq Raqqa al Tanf Tabqah map

    The US-led coalition and its local partners have come into conflict with pro-Syrian government forces and their allies several times in recent weeks, as both sides jockey to assume control of territory given up by ISIS as the terrorist group loses strength in Syria.

    All those earlier clashes came in the area around al Tanf, in southeast Syria near the country's borders with Iraq and Jordan. US special-operations forces are on the ground near al Tanf to train local partner forces. (The US also reportedly stationed long-range rockets near al Tanf earlier this month.)

    The area is seen as strategically valuable by the Syrian government and its Iranian backers, as well as by the US-led coalition and its local partners fighting ISIS. Russia has also reportedly launched strikes against militias opposed to the Syrian government in the al Tanf area.

    As after those incidents, the US-led coalition said in a release Sunday that:

    "The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian, or pro-regime forces partnered with them, but will not hesitate to defend Coalition or partner forces from any threat ... The demonstrated hostile intent and actions of pro-regime forces toward Coalition and partner forces in Syria conducting legitimate counter-ISIS operations will not be tolerated."

    The al Tanf border crossing sits across the border from Iraq's al-Waleed border crossing, which Iraqi government forces recently recaptured from ISIS militants.

    us soldier syria

    Syrian government forces and allied militias reported meeting up with Iraqi forces near al-Waleed in what Syrian officials called"the sign of the cooperation between the brotherly Iraqi and Syrian military leadership to secure the shared borders."

    US officials said the meeting point was northeast of al Tanf and that the Iraqi recapture of al-Waleed "has no bearing on Coalition partner training operations at At Tanf."

    Iran has also fired on ISIS fighters in northern Syria in recent hours.

    Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps forces fired several surface-to-surface, medium-range missiles from western Iran at ISIS bases around Deir ez-Zur in northeast Syria.

    Semi-official Iranian news agency Tasnim said the IGRC was targeting ISIS because it held the group responsible for attacks in Tehran earlier this month that saw five ISIS-linked fighters storm the Iranian parliament building and a shrine to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The attacks left 18 people dead and wounded more than 50.

    "The spilling of any pure blood will not go unanswered," the IRGC said in a statement, according to Tasnim.

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    Russia says it will treat US-led coalition planes in Syria, west of the Euphrates, as targets after US downed Syrian jet after a US F/A-18 shot down a Syrian Su-22 that dropped bombs near US-backed forces.

    Russia's defense ministry also says it is suspending coordination with the United States in Syria over so-called "de-confliction zones" after the Americans downed a Syrian government fighter jet.

    The United States and Russia, which has been providing an air cover for Syria's President Bashar Assad since 2015 in his offensive against the Islamic State group, have a standing agreement that should prevent in-the-air incidents involving U.S. and Russia jets engaged in operations in Syria.

    The Russian defense ministry said in a statement on Monday that it was suspending the deal after the U.S. military confirmed that it downed a Syrian Air Force fighter jet on Sunday after it dropped bombs near U.S. partner forces.

    The ministry says it views the incident as Washington's "deliberate failure to make good on its commitments" under the de-confliction deal.

     

    SEE ALSO: US-led coalition aircraft shoots down Syrian fighter jet near Raqqa

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    russia military games

    MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's Defense Ministry said on Monday it would view as targets any flying objects over Syria in the areas of the country where its air forces operate, Russian news agencies reported.

    The statement followed after a U.S. warplane shot down a Syrian army jet on Sunday in the southern Raqqa countryside, with Washington saying the jet had dropped bombs near U.S.-backed forces and Damascus saying the plane was downed while flying a mission against Islamic State militants. [nL8N1JF0YG]

    The Defense Ministry also said that it was suspending its interaction with the United States on preventing air incidents over Syria from June 19, the agencies reported.

    The U.S. did not use its communication channel with Russia ahead of the downing of the Syrian government warplane, the ministry was quoted as saying.

    (Reporting by Maria Kiselyova; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov)

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    uss george h.w. bush

    A US F/A-18 took off from the USS George H. W. Bush in the Mediterranean on Sunday and shot down a Syrian Su-22 the US said had dropped bombs near US-backed forces.

    The US had not shot down a manned aircraft since 1999.

    The focus of the US's airpower in recent years has turned to providing air support against insurgencies or forces that do not have fighter jets of their own.

    f/a 18 uss george h w bush isis

    The F/A-18, the ubiquitous fighter aboard all US aircraft carriers, has seen its combat role shift almost solely to air-to-ground. In April 2016, just 3 1/2 months into a deployment, aircraft from the USS Harry Truman alone had dropped 1,118 bombs as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, then the most of any carrier during the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

    But pilots aboard the Bush could see more air-to-air.

    On Monday, Russia said it would treat all US and US-led-coalition jets operating in Syria west of the Euphrates River as targets for its air force. Russia has a few dozen fighter and bomber jets stationed in Syria, while the US has a carrier wing aboard the Bush and a few other squadrons at the nearby Udeid and Incirlik air bases.

    SEE ALSO: US-led coalition aircraft shoots down Syrian fighter jet near Raqqa

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    A handout picture provided by Iran state TV and released on June 18, 2017 shows Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps launching a missile from an undisclosed location in western Iran, towards Islamic State group bases in Syria

    Tehran (AFP) - Iran has targeted jihadists in Syria with missiles in retaliation for deadly attacks in Tehran, but the strike was also a message to its regional rivals and Washington, experts say.

    Late Sunday, the elite Revolutionary Guards launched six missiles from western Iran into Syria's mostly Islamic State group-held Deir Ezzor province, hitting an IS command base, the Guards said.

    The strike was "revenge" for twin attacks in Tehran on June 7 that killed 17 people in the first IS-claimed attacks inside the Shiite-ruled Islamic republic, a Guards spokesman added.

    As well as punishing "terrorists", it was intended to show that Iran is capable of projecting military power across the region, officials and experts said.

    iran ballistic missile reutersTehran has devoted vast military and financial resources to propping up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a six-year civil war.

    It has also sent thousands of Shiite recruits to fight in Syria and battle IS in neighbouring Iraq, according to officials.

    But Sunday's strike was the first known missile attack launched from Iran into foreign territory since the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88.

    "The missile attacks were only a small part of Iran's punitive power against terrorists and enemies," Guards spokesman General Ramezan Sharif said Monday.

    "International and regional supporters of the terrorists must realise the warning message of the missile operation."

    Iran has long accused the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia of backing "terrorists" -- a catch-all phrase for rebels and jihadist groups fighting the Assad regime.

    US President Donald Trump meanwhile accuses Iran of backing terrorism -- a charge it denies -- and has threatened to tear up a 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and major powers. 

    'Response' to Senate vote

    Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves during a ceremony marking the death anniversary of the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in Tehran, Iran, June 4, 2017. Leader.ir/Handout via REUTERS

    The US Senate last week passed tough sanctions on Iran for its alleged "continued support of terrorism".

    Iran condemned the move and vowed to respond with "reciprocal and adequate measures".

    Alaeddin Boroujerdi, chairman of a parliamentary committee on foreign affairs and national security, called Sunday's strike "an appropriate response to the US Senate vote".

    Analyst Foad Izadi said the strike was intended to convey several messages.

    "The first message is that Iran punishes terrorists," he said.

    But it was also meant to show that "Iran, in its fight against terrorism, needs missiles -- and sanctions have no influence on its defence policies."

    Iran's homemade missiles, which can hit targets up to 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) away, are a major point of tension with Washington and Israel.

    Tehran argues that in a region engulfed with conflicts and wars, its missiles are an indispensible part of its defensive power.

    Iran's weapons programme is also a major concern for its Sunni arch-rival Saudi Arabia. 

    The two regional heavyweights back opposing sides in several conflicts including in Syria and Yemen. 

    Sunday's strike came amid rising tensions between Riyadh and Tehran. Izadi said it was partly intended for a Saudi audience.

    "Riyadh must know that all of its oil regions are within the range of Iranian missiles," he said.

    Message to Netanyahu'

    Netanyahu iran

    Saudi Arabia struck a giant arms deal with Washington this month during President Donald Trump's visit to the region, which saw him clearly align his administration with Riyadh and lash out against Tehran.

    US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the $110 billion (100 billion euro) deal was aimed at helping the kingdom deal with "malign Iranian influence".

    Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said Monday that "unlike others, Iran doesn't buy security and stability". 

    "Security cannot be traded and those who think they can provide their security by dragging extra-regional countries here are making a stupid strategic mistake," he said.

    While Saudi Arabia has spent billions on American weapons, Iran has developed a range of homemade ballistic missiles -- including some that are capable of hitting Israel or American military bases in the region.

    Izadi said Sunday's strike on Deir Ezzor, halfway between Iranian and Israeli territory, was also meant as a message to Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, "who regularly threatens Iran."

    "The missiles that were fired are medium range -- Iran has long-range missiles with much greater ranges," he said.

    Boroujerdi said the strike marked "a new phase in the fight against terrorism."

    "So far, we only posted military advisors on the ground in Syria and Iraq," he said. 

    "But the attack shows we are capable of hitting terrorists hundreds of kilometres away." 

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    f-22 f22 raptor inherent resolve arabian sea

    The U.S. military said on Monday it was repositioning its aircraft over Syria to ensure the safety of American air crews targeting Islamic State, as tensions escalate following the U.S. downing of a Syrian military jet on Sunday.

    "As a result of recent encounters involving pro-Syrian Regime and Russian forces, we have taken prudent measures to re-position aircraft over Syria so as to continue targeting ISIS forces while ensuring the safety of our aircrew given known threats in the battlespace," said Lieutenant Colonel Damien Pickart, a spokesman at U.S. Air Forces Central Command.

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    A U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) in the Mediterranean Sea June 28, 2016.   U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan U. Kledzik/Handout via Reuters

    US pilots over Syria will defend themselves if attacked by Russians, a Pentagon spokesman said Monday, following a report that Russia will treat U.S. or coalition aircraft as targets if they fly over areas in western Syria controlled by Russia.

    The Russian Defense Ministry made the threat Monday after a U.S. F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 after that plane bombed US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces that are working with the US to defeat the Islamic State on Sunday.

    "Any aircraft, including planes and drones of the international coalition, detected in the operation areas west of the Euphrates River by the Russian air forces will be followed by Russian ground-based air defense and air defense aircraft as air targets," the Defense Ministry said.

    "We are aware of the Russian statements," Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said Monday morning. "We do not seek conflict with any party in Syria other than ISIS, but we will not hesitate to defend ourselves or our partners if threatened," Davis said.

    A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition said the Russian statement has had no effect on the operations in support of US-backed Syrian fighters moving against ISIS in Raqqa in western Syria.

    "Coalition aircraft continue to conduct operations throughout Syria, targeting ISIS forces and providing air support for coalition partner forces on the ground," said Col. Ryan Dillon, chief US military spokesman in Baghdad.

    He also appeared to indicate the US is avoiding the parts of Syria where Russia said US planes would be tracked as potential targets or providing additional airpower to counter threats.

    "As a result of recent encounters involving pro-Syrian regime and Russian forces, we have taken prudent measures to reposition aircraft over Syria so as to continue targeting ISIS forces while ensuring the safety of our aircrews given known threats in the battlespace," Dillon said.

    The statement was meant as a warning, said Viktor Ozerov, a member of the Russian parliament, described the Defense Ministry's statement as a warning.

    A Russian Su-24 jet

    "I'm sure that because of this neither the US nor anyone else will take any actions to threaten our aircraft," he said, according to state-owned RIA Novosti news agency. "That's why there's no threat of direct confrontation between Russia and American aircraft."

    Russia, beyond making the threat to treat US or coalition aircraft as targets, also said its "deconfliction" line with the US has been shut down. The line was established so US and Russian forces could avoid bombing each other as they fight ISIS.

    Both Davis and Dillon insisted the hotline remains the best way to avoid future shoot-downs.

    "The coalition is always available to de-conflict with the Russians to ensure the safety of coalition aircrews and operations," Davis said. "The de-confliction line has proven effective at mitigating strategic miscalculations and de-escalating tense situations."

    Said Dillon: "We used the de-confliction line yesterday and remain open to using it. It has proven its worth in the past to tap down tensions."

    SEE ALSO: Russia is going to target any 'flying objects' over Syria where its air force is active

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