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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    Harry Sarfo screengrab

    A former London postman who joined Isis has been charged with involvement in a mass execution in Syria.

    Harry Sarfo, who is already serving three years in a German prison for terror offences, was not accused of murder until footage of the massacre emerged last year.

    The federal public prosecutor’s office said he was charged with six counts of murder and violating human rights law at a specialist state security court in Hamburg.

    Harry Sarfo New York Times

    "In mid-June 2015 the so-called Islamic State had six prisoners executed on Palmyra’s market square," a spokesperson said.

    "Sarfo belonged to the six-member squad that carried out the execution and he was armed with a pistol. 

    "Together with other members of his group, he guarded the prisoners and prevented them from escaping."

    Prosecutors said Sarfo led one of the captives to the middle of the street, where they were then shot, adding: "During the shooting, he stopped at the side of the road so as not to be hit by a bullet himself. 

    "From there, he took aim and fired at the bodies lying on the ground."

    In an interview with The Independent in January 2016, the 28-year-old said he never fought for the terror group during his three months in the "caliphate".

    While failing to mention his own involvement in the atrocity, Sarfo named his worst memory of Syria as the "execution of six men shot in the head by Kalashnikovs", identifying it as one of the events that drove him to flee the terrorist group’s "barbarity".

    But Sarfo, who grew up in the UK after moving from Germany as a child, was caught on video herding captives to be executed in the Syrian city of Palmyra.

    Footage of the massacre obtained by the Washington Post shows Sarfo with a group of Isis fighters led by Austrian Isis fighter Mohamed Mahmoud and German militant Yamin Abou-Zand.

    He had already appeared in a propaganda video that showed the pair shooting Syrian captives dead in the ancient ruins of Palmyra, while calling on Isis supporters to travel to Isis territories or "kill infidels wherever you find them" in Europe.

    In the second video cited by German prosecutors, which was not released by Isis’ propaganda agency, Sarfo is seen apparently herding one of six captives wearing combat fatigues with their hands bound into a public square in Palmyra.

    Sarfo stands immobile by a wall for opening seconds of the fusillade, but he then pulls out a pistol and aims it at the men on the ground.

    The camera is briefly obscured but Sarfo appears to fire towards unmoving victims. It is unclear whether a bullet hit and whether the captives were already dead.

    German prosecutors said five of those killed were members of the Syrian army, while the sixth was a Sunni preacher condemned by Isis, which itself claims to represent Sunni Muslims.

    Footage of the massacre was leaked by a source inside Isis, which is intensifying efforts to discredit defectors and featured Sarfo in a recent propaganda magazine decrying "fools who strayed" and spread "lies and falsehoods".

    Since being jailed he has spoken out against Isis’ ideology and said he wants to work with young men and women at risk of radicalisation.

    "I've realised that what they are claiming to be Islamic is totally un-Islamic," he told The Independent in an interview conducted via his lawyer from prison.

    "I came to the conclusion that this is not the path to paradise, it is the path to hell."

    Sarfo was sentenced to three years in prison for membership of a foreign terrorist organisation in July last year, having travelled to Syria in March 2015.

    Prosecutors have also opened a separate case into accusations of war crimes, which continues.

    Sarfo fled back to Germany in July 2015 and was immediately arrested upon his arrival at Bremen airport.

    A German citizen of Ghanaian descent, he converted to Islam aged 20 in London, where he attended Leyton Sixth Form College and Newham College of Further Education.

    He worked at Wickes and as a postman for Royal Mail before being sent back to Germany to serve a prison sentence for involvement in a 2010 armed robbery at a supermarket.

    After being jailed with a known al-Qaeda recruiter, Sarfo said he "learned the ideology of jihad" and joined an extremist mosque after being freed, later deciding to join Isis after being repeatedly searched, detained and questioned by counter-terror police.

    He said he trained in Isis' special forces in its Syrian territories but fled the group before taking part in any operations, maintaining he did not kill anyone and refused to launch terror attacks in Europe.

    Europol is among the agencies warning of increased numbers of foreign Isis fighters seeking to return to Europe as the group loses swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq.

    Join the conversation about this story »

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    US combat vehicles Syria

    Photos and video footage that surfaced on Twitter and YouTube this week appear to show a convoy of flatbed trucks loaded with U.S.-made MRAP, M-ATVs, and up-armored bulldozers in Syria, Military Times reports.

    The Kurdish activists who posted the images on social media on July 18 claim the convoy was bound for the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, in Raqqa.

    The footage was purportedly taken while the convoy was passing through Qamishli, a city in northeast Syria situated near the borders of Turkey and Iraq.

    Guardian armored trucks and U.S. up-armored Humvees are included in the coalition aid to the SFD, and according to the Defense Department’s fiscal year 2018 request for funds for train-and-equip program for Syrian partner forces, armored bulldozers are also included in aid to “vetted” Syrian groups, Military Times reports.

    “Up-armored vehicles have been delivered to the SDF and [Syrian Arab Coalition] as part of our existing authorities to enable them,” a spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve told Task & Purpose in an email. (The Syrian Arab Coalition, or SAC, is the Arab component of the SDF.) “Specifically, these vehicles will help them contend with ISIL’s IED threat in their current operation, and as they move to isolate Raqqah.”

    However, the OIR spokesperson explained that M-ATVs and MRAPs are “not part of the package that is divested to the SDF.” And, as Military Times notes, neither are the Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station, or CROWs system, which appear mounted on the M-ATVs featured in the photographs.

    “These vehicles are for use by the Coalition to protect our forces from IEDs,” the spokesperson said.

    The U.S. had been directly arming Kurdish militants in northern Syria in recent months against the objections of Turkey, and assisting the SDF now accounts for the bulk of the Pentagon’s efforts on the ground in Syria after President Donald Trump decided this week to end a covert CIA program to arm and train moderate rebel groups. Turkey perceives the possible establishment of an autonomous Kurdish state south of its border as a direct threat to its national security.

    The Syrian Kurds fighting with the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, form the backbone of the SDF, which continues to play a central role in the U.S.-led coalition’s campaign to wrest Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital, from militant control. Raqqa is seen as the last major battle in the years-long campaign to destroy ISIS under the banner of Operation Inherent Resolve.

    Given the amount of coalition firepower and its recent success in the former ISIS stronghold of Mosul, it is widely expected that Raqqa will fall. However, the images of heavily armored American combat vehicles entering Syria seem to bolster recent reports that the fight is proving more difficult than previously anticipated.

    The Military Times article cited a new report by the Institute for the Study of War, which states: “The SDF has reportedly encountered intensified resistance and ‘better-emplaced defenses’ over the past four weeks following initial rapid gains in districts on the outskirts of [Raqqa].”

    The OIR spokesperson acknowledged that SDF forces are “encountering tough ISIS resistance in Raqqa,” but claimed that the group is continuing to make progress every day. “Over the course of the last week, the SDF have cleared more than 35 [square kilometers] of ISIS-held territory, in and around Raqqa,” he added.

    Citing security concerns, the Pentagon has remained reticent about the scope and nature of U.S. military involvement in the fight against ISIS since the start of the campaign. However, citizen journalists and local reporters have kept a steady stream of information about coalition activity in Syria flowing from the battlefield.

    On July 18, the Turkish state news agency Anadolu published an article detailing the extent of U.S. military operations in northern Syria. Not only did the article and accompanying map reveal the locations of U.S. bases and outposts in the region, but also the types and number of personnel, weapons, and vehicles stationed at specific points.

    The Pentagon appears shaken by the Anadolu report. “While we cannot independently verify the sources that contributed to this story,” it said in a statement to the Ankara-based international news agency, “we would be very concerned if officials from a NATO ally would purposefully endanger our forces by releasing sensitive information.”

    us special forces raqqa syriaTurkey, a key NATO ally, appears to be closely monitoring the movement of U.S.-made weapons, equipment, and vehicles bound for the SDF, as the YPG fighters within its ranks are considered terrorists by Ankara. Turkey considers the YPG an extension of the Kurdish PKK, a separatist movement also designated a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.

    And this holds another possible use for those vehicles in the coming months. The uptick in cross-border skirmishes between Turkish government troops and YPG militants caused the U.S. to dispatch a contingent of special operations troops to the border last month to intervene — and, as Military Times notes, M-ATVs and MRAPs have been commonly used by U.S. special operations troops in Syria.

    With special operations forces increasingly on the front lines of the War on Terror, that up-armored convoy may signal that the Pentagon’s elite troops are digging in for the long haul — to help keep the peace after Raqqa falls.

    SEE ALSO: Iraqi officer admits to executing multiple ISIS fighters in Mosul and vows a 'slow death' for his family's killers

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    A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa June 29, 2014. The offshoot of al Qaeda which has captured swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria has declared itself an Islamic

    The fight against the Islamic State seems to be going well.

    Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi recently declared victory in Mosul after the city was finally retaken. The same day, the United States and Russia agreed to a cease fire in southwestern Syria

    Later, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was dead, as had been rumored a month ago.

    These are welcome developments for the enemies of the Islamic State. But the fight is far from over.

    The win in Mosul doesn’t solve anything

    Let’s take a look at each of these events, starting with the liberation of Mosul.

    It took nearly nine months to dislodge ISIS from the city despite the fact that Iraq had many more forces and was backed by the US (By comparison, it took IS only two weeks to take Mosul.) The Islamic State simply could not have lasted as long as it did without a fair amount of local support.

    For ISIS, Mosul is ultimately a symbolic but tolerable defeat.

    The city Iraq has reclaimed is broken. For the first time in history, a Shiite military force has taken over a majority Sunni city. Its population doesn’t trust the central government any more than it trusts the Iran-backed Shiite militias operating west of the city.

    And so Iraq’s core problems are unresolved.

    The Sunnis hate the Shiites, the Shiites hate the Sunnis, and Iraqi Kurds are trying to break away. Iraq’s sectarian conflict will press on, and jihadists will exploit the conflict as they see fit.

    Iraqi forces celebrate in Mosul after recapturing it from ISISIraq has no desire to resume the fight anytime soon

    Then there are the practical military issues. The battle for Mosul was so bloody that Iraq won’t rush to resume the fight in other ISIS-controlled areas. The US will also have to adjust its strategy if it wants to avoid repeating the mistakes that led to the rise of the Islamic State in the first place.

    Meanwhile, Russia and the US seem to have agreed to a cease-fire deal in southwestern Syria. The truth is that Moscow and Washington have been quietly cooperating in Syria for some time.

    The coordinated offensives of the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian army against ISIS forces a few weeks ago are a sign of their cooperation—a far more important one than a doomed-to-fail cease-fire.

    In fact, the agreement is already starting to fray amid recent reports of Syrian army advances.

    The death of al-Baghdadi is also not so important

    It’s possible that al-Baghdadi was killed in a Russian airstrike, as the initial reports claimed.

    But groups like the Islamic State are more hydra than snake: Cutting off the head doesn’t kill the body. It just creates new heads. The US forced Osama bin Laden into hiding before it killed him in Pakistan, and yet al-Qaida was largely unaffected by his absence.

    There’s no reason to think this will be any different.

    That’s because he was playing the long game. Al-Baghdadi almost certainly empowered lieutenants capable of carrying on after his death. The Islamic State has a pretty sophisticated bureaucracy, replete with tax collection, policing activities, and even a public health system.

    These institutions are no doubt buckling under the pressure of coalition attacks, but it’s difficult to ignore how organized ISIS has been and how effectively it governed a large territory in Syria and Iraq—all while fighting a multi-front war against stronger enemies.

    Many more ISIS leaders will die before the fight is truly over.

    What really matters

    All of this raises an obvious question: If recent developments are not so important, what is?

    Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that the Islamic State is not yet defeated. It still holds defensible territory stretching from Deir el-Zour to Abu Kamal. It still conducts terrorist attacks meant to hurt sectarian groups and recruit new members. It still tries to infiltrate surrounding countries, most notably Jordan and Saudi Arabia. And it still has members who, once militarily “defeated,” can blend in to society undetected.

    It’s also important to remember that, as the Islamic State weakens, the regional ethnic and sectarian conflict will worsen.

    Anbar province—in which Shiite militias, backed by Iran, are operating in Sunni-majority territory—is a disaster in the making. Syria is still a mostly Sunni Arab country that is governed by Alawites, who practice an offshoot version of Shiite Islam. They are backed by Hezbollah and Iran, which want Bashar Assad to stay in power. Saudi Arabia, a regional Sunni power, wants Assad to be overthrown, as does Turkey.

    All these groups set aside their differences to fight a common enemy. Once the common enemy is removed, they will simply be able to fight each other more directly than they once could.

    Of course, no one has yet invaded what remains for ISIS territory, and the ethnic conflict in Iraq and Syria is not as bad as it will surely get. But these developments are inevitable in the fight against the Islamic State.

    And when dealing with the inevitable, the sexier cease-fires and random deaths don’t matter as much as the mundane. Things like the status of Saudi Arabia’s political economy, the viability of Jordan’s border guards, and the relationships between Shiite militias and Sunni citizens are what really matter.

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    Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to U.S. President Donald Trump during their bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

    A U.S. decision to halt a CIA program equipping and training certain rebel groups fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was not done as a concession to Assad ally Russia, a top U.S. general said on Friday.

    "At least from what I know about that program and the decision to end it, (it was) absolutely not a sop to the Russians," U.S. Army General Raymond Thomas, head of the Special Operations Command, told the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.

    Earlier this week a U.S. official said the decision was part of an effort by the Trump administration to improve relations with Russia.


    SEE ALSO: 'Putin won in Syria': Trump is reportedly ending the CIA's covert program to arm Syrian rebels

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    U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis gestures to the media at the Pentagon in Washington, U.S., April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

    Amid ISIS' defeat in the Iraqi city of Mosul and ongoing fighting in its self-declared capital in Raqqa, Syria, the fate of its leader, Abu Bark al Baghdadi, remains unknown.

    Russia said in late June that it believed he had been killed in a bombing raid on Raqqa, but earlier this week Moscow admitted that it was unable to confirm the death and said it was getting contradictory information.

    Despite an observer group saying Baghdadi has been killed, Defense Secretary James Mattis and other US commanders are skeptical.

    "I think Baghdadi’s alive," Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday, according to Military Times. Mattis has made similar statements before, and he told reporters that absent evidence Baghdadi was still commanding ISIS, it was possible he was acting in a religious or propaganda role for the terrorist group.

    “Until I see his body, I am going to assume he is alive,” Mattis said. The US intelligence community has also seen no evidence Baghdadi is dead.

    Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the leader of the US-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, hasn't confirmed the death either, but earlier this week he said he had no "reason to believe he's alive. I don't have proof of life."

    A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State 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/Files

    While Baghdadi's whereabouts remain unclear, the group he led appears to be on the wane. Iraqi forces have recaptured Mosul — after ISIS fighters there destroyed the mosque where Baghdadi declared ISIS' "caliphate" in summer 2014 — and US-backed fighters have advanced into Raqqa, though much hard fighting remains there.

    Like Baghdadi's fate, who will succeed him is also unclear. Experts believe that two lieutenants, ISIS war minister Iyad al-Obaidi and the group's security agency chief, Ayad al-Jumaili, are the most likely candidates. Both served in the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein and then joined the Sunni Salafist insurgency in Iraq in 2003, after Hussein was deposed by the US invasion.

    Leadership questions aside, the group looks to remain present in some form. In June, US officials were quick to note that ISIS remained a threat in both Iraq and Syria after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the group was at its end. And even with ISIS eroding, the tensions that fostered or accompanied its rise and other drivers of conflict are likely to endure.

    SEE ALSO: Trump: The US is ready to leave one of its most important military bases if the Gulf crisis worsens

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    Donald Trump

    "Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him," Dwight D. Eisenhower observed in 1952.

    Managing the future's course is no small task, but in foreign policy the development and execution of sound strategy are a leader's best hope.

    In January, on the eve of Donald Trump's inauguration, we warned in Foreign Policy that Trump's approach to foreign policy was dangerously nearsighted and posed unacceptable risks to national security. Absent a course correction, a trainwreck is all but assured.

    Six months later, there is little indication that the president and his advisors have developed the kind of strategy — what academics call "grand strategy" and pundits refer to as "doctrine"— designed to impose America's will on the world, rather than vice versa.

    Indeed, it seems there will never be a Trump doctrine. In resisting the careful patience required to develop and execute a purposive course of action over time, the administration's method of policymaking is explicitly anti-strategic.

    This deficiency results from three operational and philosophical principles that orient the president's decision-making: a focus on short-term wins rather than longer-term strategic foresight; a "zero-sum" worldview where all gains are relative and reciprocity is absent; and a rejection of values-based policymaking. The shortcomings of this approach — which we dubbed "tactical transactionalism"— are already apparent in the Trump administration's foreign-policy record to date.

    First, Trump has made no secret of his desire to "win," a worldview that privileges short-term, tactical triumphs.

    Nowhere was this attitude more evident than in Trump's decision to fire off 59 cruise missiles in retaliation for a Syrian government chemical weapons attack. Although administration officials herald this decision in public and private as a signal accomplishment of Trump's foreign policy, the strike actually had little effect: The targeted airfield was operational again within days, and the attack's muddled rationale obscured any intended signal to American adversaries.

    Nonetheless, the arresting images of US Navy destroyers launching missiles remain the most vivid exemplar of the Trump administration's foreign policy in its first six months.

    This short-termism was also apparent in the initial enthusiastic response to the Gulf crisis that began on June 5, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and announced a blockade on the country. Trump, eager to claim a win from his trip to the Middle East, tweeted his support for the move.

    Even as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to take a more strategic view of the crisis — recognizing the centrality of the Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar to the US-led counter-Islamic State campaign — Trump undermined his chief diplomat with bravado, doubling down on his criticism of Qatar and asserting, "If we ever needed another military base, you have other countries that would gladly build it." Unsurprisingly, when the secretary of state attempted a well-publicized diplomatic effort to find a regional solution, US partners refused to participate.

    Rex Tillerson

    Though well suited to splashy successes — or at least the tweetable impression of them — a tactical-transactional approach blinds the president to the second- and third-order effects of his actions, making sound strategy nearly impossible.

    Second, the Trump foreign policy is characterized by a zero-sum worldview: Every win for another country is a loss for the United States, and Washington's best bet is to out-negotiate both allies and adversaries at every turn. Cooperation, according to the perspective explicitly articulated by top advisors H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, emerges only when narrow self-interests exactly align.

    In an illustration of this principle, on his fourth day in office, Trump signed an executive order that withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. He did so after expressing a series of deep misunderstandings about the TPP's likely impact on jobs and wages, its power over US decision-making, and its inability to deal with Chinese and Japanese currency manipulation. In its place, Trump has promised to "fix" America's trade relations with all of its trading partners through bilateral deals.

    "Wait till you see what we're going to do on trade," Trump boasted this week to the New York Times, without offering any supporting details (as always). Meanwhile, the TTP, the text of which overwhelmingly reflected American preferences, is now being redrafted without American participation; meanwhile, China is advancing its own trade agenda through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

    The zero-sum perspective even extends to US allies, which the president views more as competitors than enduring strategic partners. Despite Seoul's vital role in addressing the North Korean nuclear crisis — undoubtedly the national security issue atop Trump's agenda — the president has threatened to terminate the American bilateral trade agreement with South Korea and tried to renege on the US commitment to pay for the THAAD anti-missile defense system.

    By ignoring the multidimensional nature of international politics and denying the value of reciprocity, this relentless unilateralism denies the United States critical cooperative tools in countering threats and seizing opportunities.

    Finally, tactical transactionalism is devoid of moral or ethical considerations.

    President Trump has demonstrated an intuitive adoration for authoritarian leaders. In April, he praised Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a habitual human rights abuser, for doing a "fantastic job in a very difficult situation."

    Later in the month, he called Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to congratulate him, telling the man behind the deaths of thousands of his own citizens: "I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem.… Keep up good work. You are doing an amazing job." Perhaps most dramatically, he called North Korea's Kim Jong Un a "pretty smart cookie," whom he would be "honored" to meet.

    Though it may enhance the unpredictability Trump prizes, a foreign policy unmoored from values results in a foreign policy oriented exclusively — and nihilistically — around pursuit of the "best deal."

    Over the past six months, in the wake of Trump's cruise missile strikes in Syria and again with soaring speeches in Saudi Arabia and Poland, foreign-policy analysts have attempted to weave the administration's actions into a coherent strategic doctrine.

    US Syria missile strike

    Senior administration officials are in on the game as well, with various factions vying to impose their strategic vision of "America First" in a bizarre, latter-day Kennan sweepstakes. But for all the op-ed ink that's been spilled, these attempts are little more than a fool's errand.

    Even if analysts and advisors could impose intellectual coherence on Trump's constellation of instincts and predilections, tactical transactionalism all but guarantees the inconsistent translation of those preferences into policy.

    Even Trump's well-documented antipathy toward American allies is not a reliable guide to his actual conduct of foreign relations: Despite decades of bashing both Japan and Germany, over the past six months, Trump has embraced Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — who cleverly came bearing golden golf clubs to Trump Tower in New York last November — while spurning German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

    Moreover, the administration lacks the capacity to implement any strategic vision — particularly one that requires the use of non-hard-power tools. Military officials have wisely emphasized that lasting solutions to the wars in Afghanistan, Syria, and even Yemen are primarily the responsibility and role of the State Department. But the State Department itself has been gutted and demoralized.

    The White House's fiscal year 2018 budget request was a paltry $37.6 billion for the State Department and US Agency for International Development (a 33 percent decrease over the previous budget) and $639 billion for the Department of Defense (representing a 10 percent increase). Tillerson has also refused to fill an unprecedented number of senior diplomatic posts and ambassadorships, claiming that it would be pointless until the State Department had been fully reorganized.

    To some extent, the inability of the Trump administration to develop and execute grand strategy has resulted in an astounding degree of continuity with Barack Obama-era foreign policies. Despite Trump's pronouncement that Obama's "strategic patience" with North Korea is over, the "peaceful pressure" policy is not discernibly distinct. Similarly, the administration's still-secret strategy to defeat the Islamic State clearly entails tactical intensification but remains strategically similar to the Obama approach.

    While surely desirable in some instances, stability is not necessarily the best response to a dynamic world.Without a grand strategy, the United States cannot seize the initiative on the world stage and, simply by default, will cede ground to hostile powers, as the effects of a reactive foreign policy accrue exponentially over time.

    The unpredictability that Trump prizes has already injected uncertainty into America's alliances, as international partners question whether Washington can be trusted to uphold its security commitments. Around the world, public opinion is turning against the United States, and foreign capitals can be expected to reorient their foreign policies accordingly.

    Come fall, the administration will likely release a wave of strategy documents, from the overarching National Security Strategy to more specific ones like the Nuclear Posture Review. These documents may provide the fleeting illusion of strategy, but they cannot elide a fundamental truth: So long as Trump's tactical transactionalism governs the formation of US foreign policy, the United States is condemned to be the object, rather than the agent, of history.

    Rebecca Friedman Lissner is a Stanton nuclear security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

    Micah Zenko is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

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    Senior commander Sergei Rudskoi, pictured in May 2017, said Russian forces had set up checkpoints and observation posts around a zone in the south-west and in another covering Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus

    Russia has deployed military police to monitor two safe zones being established in Syria, it was announced on Monday, with officials touting it as a new era of US cooperation.

    Senior commander Sergei Rudskoi said Russian forces had set up checkpoints and observation posts around a zone in the south-west and in another covering Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus.

    The two areas are part of a broader Moscow-backed plan to create four "de-escalation zones" in rebel-held parts of Syria.

    The defence ministry's announcement marks the first deployment of foreign troops to bolster the safe zones as Moscow seeks to pacify Syria after its military intervention swung the six-year conflict in favour of President Bashar al-Assad.

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday praised the creation of the safe zones, saying it showed Russia can work with the United States under President Donald Trump.

    He was giving an interview on Monday to Kurdish Rudaw television whose transcript was posted on the ministry site

    Russia's top diplomat said the fact that President Vladimir Putin and Trump agreed on creating de-escalation zones in southern Syria at their first meeting at the G20 in Hamburg was "a concrete example that we can work together."

    Earlier this month Russia, the US and Jordan struck a deal to fix the boundaries of this zone and impose a ceasefire in the area.

    Lavrov contrasted the negotiations with Barack Obama's administration, which he said "turned out to be incapable of separating terrorists from the normal opposition" in Syria.

    "Only now through the concept of safe zones are we getting results in this area," Lavrov said.

    Rudskoi said Russian personnel on July 21 and 22 established two checkpoints and 10 observation posts along the boundaries dividing rebel forces and government troops in the southern zone.  

    Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) run across a street in Raqqa, Syria. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

    Moscow has also informed Israel of its deployment and that the nearest Russian position is 13 kilometres from the demarcation line between Israeli and Syrian troops in the Golan Heights, Rudskoi said.

    Under a second deal Moscow said it struck with "moderate" rebels over the weekend in Egypt, Russian forces on Monday also set up two checkpoints and four observation posts in the area covering conflict-ravaged Eastern Ghouta, he added. 

    The Syrian army on Saturday announced a halt in fighting for parts of Eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held region on the outskirts of the capital, but a London-based monitor said regime war planes still carried out raids. 

    Assad's forces have surrounded Eastern Ghouta for more than four years, and regime forces have regularly targeted the area.

    On the other two proposed safe zones, Rudskoi said that while boundaries have been fixed in the north of the Homs province they have still not been agreed in Idlib on the border with Turkey. 

    Further discussions on hammering out details of those two zones are set to take place at a fresh round of peace talks in Kazakhstan in late August.

    SEE ALSO: Turkey and the Kurds are on the brink of war — and the Pentagon is right in the middle of it

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    Raymond Thomas socom

    During a discussion at the Aspen Security Forum on Friday, Army Gen. Raymond Thomas, head of US Special Operations Command, cited estimates saying that the US-led fight against ISIS had killed 60,000 to 70,000 ISIS militants.

    It is not the first time US military officials have given estimates for ISIS body counts — Thomas himself cited a similar number in February — but those estimates have been made despite doubts among military leaders and government policymakers about their accuracy and usefulness.

    When asked about the whereabouts of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Thomas downplayed the ISIS leader's influence and said that while Baghdadi's fate is currently unknown, "we will get him eventually."

    To underline his point, Thomas elaborated on the damage done to ISIS' personnel network.

    "I mean, everyone who worked for him initially is dead or gone. Everybody who stepped to the plate the next time, dead or gone," Thomas said. "Down through a network where we have killed in conservative estimates 60,000 to 70,000 of his followers, his army. They declared an army, they put it on the battlefield, and we went to war with it."

    Those comments come several months after Thomas claimed that more than 60,000 ISIS fighters had been killed since the campaign against the group started in summer 2014.

    "I'm not into morbid body counts, but that matters,"he said in February, speaking at the National Defense Industrial Association's Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict conference. "So when folks ask, do you need more aggressive [measures], do you need better [rules of engagement], I would tell you that we're being pretty darn prolific."

    Iraq Mosul security forces soldiers troops killed wounded victims

    Body counts — which earned scorn during the Vietnam War — are considered a dubious metric by which to measure the success of a military campaign, particularly ones against groups like ISIS. It is typically hard to estimate how many fighters such groups have, and it is not always clear how many have been killed during military engagements.

    In 2014, an observer group estimated the terror group had 100,000 fighters. The Pentagon said in summer 2016 that it had just 15,000 to 20,000 fighters left in Iraq and Syria.

    The February number given by Thomas was not much higher than the 50,000 ISIS-dead estimate made by US officials in December. But the December number given by US officials was twice as high as the figure cited by UK Defense Minister Michael Fallon that same month.


    And the figure cited by Thomas on Friday was only slightly higher than what he said in February, despite the increased intensity of anti-ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria in the intervening months.

    Air operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria increased significantly after Trump took office in January, with military leaders emphasizing an "annihilation campaign" aimed at eliminating ISIS fighters.

    But those air operations appear to have caused a considerable increase in civilian deaths.

    The US government reversed its policy on body counts several times during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and numbers given by the government have been undercut or criticized by civilian and military personnel alike.

    "My policy has always been, don't release that kind of thing," Chuck Hagel, who served as secretary of defense from 2013 to 2015, told CNN in December 2016. "Body counts, I mean, come on, did we learn anything from Vietnam?"

    SEE ALSO: Mattis on ISIS leader Baghdadi: 'Until I see his body, I am going to assume he is alive'

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    NOW WATCH: This is the inside account of the secret battle US Marines have been fighting against ISIS

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    US Marine killed kurds syria

    A former Marine who secretly traveled to Syria earlier this year to battle the Islamic State was killed while fighting for a Kurdish militia, his father said Tuesday.

    David Taylor Sr. told The Associated Press that his 25-year-old son, David Taylor, told only a high school friend about his plans to join the Kurdish group, and he swore his friend to secrecy. Taylor’s father said he didn’t even know of his son’s plans until after he had arrived in Syria and was training with the group known as YPG.

    “I got an email and he said, ‘Pops, don’t worry. I’m with the YPG,’” David Taylor Sr. said in a telephone interview from his home in West Virginia. “He said, ‘I’m doing the right thing. It’s for their freedom.’”

    A Kurdish militia group released a video saying Taylor was killed on July 16. The U.S. State Department said in a statement that it was aware of reports of a U.S. citizen being killed while fighting in Syria but offered no further comment. Taylor Sr. said a U.S. consular chief from the Kurdistan Region in Iraq informed him of his son’s death.

    Taylor’s high school friend emailed the father after he learned of the death. The friend said Taylor told him during a visit to St. Petersburg Beach, Florida, last February that Taylor believed the Islamic State group needed to be stopped.

    “One night he got drunk and told me of the atrocities he had witnessed in the Middle East during his time in the Marine Corps,” the friend, Alex Cintron, wrote in an email to Taylor’s parents.

    Taylor’s father shared the email with AP on Tuesday.

    “He said to the effect that ‘Isis was the bane of modern existence and needed to be stopped before they destroy any more lives and priceless works of human achievement,’” Cintron said in the email.

    Cintron said in the email that Taylor died from an improvised explosive device. The YPG video offered no details on how Taylor died other than to say he “was martyred fighting ISIS’ barbarism.”

    Taylor grew up in Ocala, Florida, located about 80 miles northwest of Orlando. He attended college in Florida and West Virginia before joining the Marines. He was deployed in Afghanistan, Japan, South Korea and spent time in Jordan before he was discharged last year, said David Taylor Sr.

    After his discharge, he came to the United States and visited family and friends in West Virginia, Philadelphia and Florida.

    Last spring, he asked his father to drive him to the airport because he had decided to visit Ireland, where his family has ancestral ties.

    Taylor Sr. received periodic updates from his son about his travels in Europe until there was a period of silence for several weeks. Soon afterward, Taylor Sr. soon afterward received an email from his son, saying he had joined the Kurdish militia group.

    “He loved his country. He loved democracy,” David Taylor Sr. said. “He had a mission, to go over there and advance democracy and freedom like we have it over here. It came at a horrible price.”

    SEE ALSO: US Army vet and former Occupy Wall Street activist killed fighting ISIS with Kurdish YPG in Syria

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    NOW WATCH: What it’s like living in North Korea — according to a North Korean defector

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    U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to departing White House interns after posing for a photograph with them in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., July 24, 2017.   REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

    President Donald Trump on Tuesday blasted former President Barack Obama's handling of the Syrian civil war and Syrian President Bashar Assad in a joint press conference with Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

    "I'm not a fan of Assad," Trump said in response to a question about how the US could help Lebanon deal with the massive influx of Syrian refugees the conflict has displaced into the country. 

    "We hit ... 59 out of 59 when we launched the tomahawk missiles," said Trump, referencing the April 7 US Navy strike on Assad's air force in response to a chemical weapon attack the Syrian army perpetrated on its own people.

    "I'm not somebody who will stand by and let him get away with what he's tried to do, and he did it a number of times," said Trump.

    "When Obama drew that red line in the sand, he should have crossed that red line because some horrible acts against humanity took place including gas, and the killing through gasses," said Trump of Obama's 2013 "red line," where the former president responded to reports that Assad had used chemical weapons by saying he would meet further chemical weapons use with force.

    Later, Assad again used chemical weapons, and Obama opted to have Russia step in to remove them.

    "That was a bad day for this country," Trump said. "Had President Obama gone across that line and done what he should have done, I don't believe you'd have Russia, and I don't believe you'd have Iran to anywhere near the extent, and maybe not at all in Syria today."

    su 24 frogfoot syria

    In late September 2015, Russia deployed its air force and military advisers to bolster Assad in Syria. Iran then stepped up its support for the regime and the tide on the battlefield turned against the rebels Obama had supported with arms transfers and training.

    Today, the White House accepts Assad's sovereignty in Syria as a "political reality," despite clear issues with his leadership. 

    SEE ALSO: Trump just approved a plan for the US Navy to check Beijing in the South China Sea

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    NOW WATCH: Watch Russia’s newest fighter jet in action — the MiG-35

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    A Hezbollah fighter holds his weapon in Juroud Arsal, Syria-Lebanon border, July 25, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

    JUROUD ARSAL, Lebanon (Reuters) - The barren, rocky hilltops that form Hezbollah's new front line with jihadists at the Syrian-Lebanese border were tough to capture and supply. Hezbollah commander Hajj Abu Ali says the experience could prove useful in future battles.

    Military jeeps and four-wheel-drive trucks make a slow, bruising progress up newly bulldozed dirt tracks to the mountains near the Lebanese town of Arsal to ferry food and supplies to forces there as fighting rages in the valley below.

    "Each battle has its own difficulties," Abu Ali said, standing on a bombed-out hilltop bunker captured from Nusra Front militants in the area known as Juroud Arsal.

    This is the latest front for Hezbollah in its battle with militants to secure Lebanon's Syrian border, part of the wider role the Iran-backed group has played in support of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the six-year-long war in Syria.

    Hezbollah has made rapid advances against Nusra Front since launching the offensive jointly with the Syrian army on Friday, aiming to clear jihadists out of their last border foothold.

    Mortar fire pounded targets in the valley and jets struck on the Syrian side of the border during a media trip to the area on Tuesday. Plumes of gray smoke towered into the sky.

    Hezbollah members escort a convoy of Syrian refugees at the border town of Arsal, Lebanon July 12, 2017. REUTERS/Hassan Abdallah

    "What is tough in some battles is that areas are densely populated, with many civilians. Here you can shell more freely, it's open and there aren't many people. But the terrain is the difficult bit — it's hard to cover ground, and we have to open new roads as we go along," Abu Ali said.

    Since the operation began, Nusra Front has almost been vanquished, Hezbollah says, and the next target is a pocket of territory held by Islamic State militants.

    As Hezbollah battles jihadists in this latest offensive, the Lebanese army has adopted a defensive posture guarding the nearby town of Arsal. A big recipient of U.S. and British military support, it has not taken part.

    Hezbollah commanders believe the offensive will soon be over, and say the battle is providing valuable experience. "It could help prepare us for future battles," Abu Ali said.

    But the battle has been hard fought, mainly because of terrain that was long an ideal base for Nusra Front — al Qaeda's al Qaeda's former Syria branch and now leader of Islamist alliance, Tahrir al-Sham — as well as for Islamic State militants and other insurgents.

    FILE PHOTO: Lebanese army soldiers are seen inside a military vehicle in Labwe, at the entrance of the border town of Arsal, in eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanon July 21, 2017. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

    On this particular hilltop, militants had barricaded themselves behind sandbags and dug trenches into the hard stone ground. "It was easy for them to dig in here and shoot at whoever raised their head coming up the hill," Abu Ali said. Hezbollah had lost fighters that way, he said.

    "We dealt with it using artillery and air strikes. We found eight (insurgent) bodies here. Others fled from the area, some on motorbikes."

    A blackened stove, an upturned coffee jar and a shredded green tarpaulin roof cover were the only signs left of the Nusra militants.

    Existential battle

    Abu Ali said the fight to capture the surrounding hilltops began at dawn on the first day of the operation and lasted 11 hours. Ten Hezbollah fighters were killed, he said.

    Security sources say some two dozen Hebollah fighters have been killed overall, and nearly 150 militants.

    At a checkpoint further back from the front, Hezbollah fighters urgently waved through an ambulance with blacked out windows returning along the same bumpy dirt track, signposted "to Wadi al-Kheil," a valley recaptured on Monday.

    Tanks, tents and a field clinic sat in the shade of apricot trees nearby.

    A Syrian refugee child who fled the violence from the Syrian town of Flita, near Yabroud, poses for a photograph at the border town of Arsal, in the eastern Bekaa Valley March 20, 2014. REUTERS/Hassan Abdallah

    Hezbollah has lost hundreds of fighters including top commanders in Syria. It says the battle there is an existential one to stop extremists spreading to Lebanon. Its Lebanese critics say it has fueled militant attacks in Lebanon.

    A Shi'ite cleric dressed in combat fatigues prayed next to mortar cannon emplacements overlooking the valley on Tuesday.

    One fighter was confident of victory soon, and dismissive of the enemy. "See that mountain? That's where they were the day before yesterday. Now look where they are," he said, pointing out several kilometers (miles) of ground Hezbollah had taken.

    "They are nothing."

    (By John Davison; editing by Tom Perry and Louise Ireland)

    SEE ALSO: Mattis on ISIS leader Baghdadi: 'Until I see his body, I am going to assume he is alive'

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    NOW WATCH: Italian bank robbers stole money from dozens of ATMs while wearing Trump masks

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    President Donald Trump seemed to blow the lid on the cancellation of a covert CIA program in Syria when he tweeted about it this week. But intelligence agencies still won’t talk about it.

    The program arming Syrian rebels has long been an open secret, but for years no one was authorized to discuss it — and few would even after news reports last week that Trump had ordered the CIA to end it.

    But Trump essentially confirmed the existence of the program and its cancellation Monday night when he lashed out at The Washington Post. The president tweeted that the newspaper “fabricated the facts on my ending massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting (Syrian President Bashar) Assad.”

    Yet intelligence agencies still are mum. The CIA declined comment on Tuesday. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence also declined to discuss it. The tweet was a topic of chatter among staffers on Capitol Hill, but even there, lawmakers refused to comment publicly because in their minds, the program is still classified.

    “Technically I doubt that the tweet would constitute declassification, though it appears to be a disclosure of classified information,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the government secrecy project at the Federation of American Scientists.

    This isn’t the first instance that Trump has casually disclosed classified information. In May, Trump shared intelligence about an Islamic State threat involving laptops carried on airplanes with Russia’s foreign minister and Moscow’s ambassador to Washington in an Oval Office meeting.

    A president is authorized by law to declassify anything he wants. It’s not against the law when he does it. In January 2012, for example, former President Barack Obama officially acknowledged the classified CIA drone program to kill terror suspects.

    The Syrian program, which was started by Obama, was aimed at putting pressure on Assad to relinquish power. The CIA began the covert operation in 2013 to arm, fund and train a moderate opposition to Assad.

    kurdish forces ypg hasaka syria

    For years, the CIA effort had foundered and some lawmakers had proposed cutting its budget. Some CIA-supported rebels had been captured; others had defected to extremist groups. But in late 2015, CIA-backed groups, fighting alongside more extremist factions, had begun to make progress in south and northwest Syria.

    Last week at a conference in Colorado, Gen. Raymond Thomas, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, did acknowledge the program’s existence — and that it had ended.

    At the Aspen Security Forum, an annual gathering of intelligence, homeland security and foreign policy officials and experts, Thomas said he thought the decision to end the program was not a conciliatory gesture to Russia, which opposed it, but was based on the program’s utility.

    “It was, I think, based on assessment of the nature of the program, what we’re trying to accomplish, the viability of it going forward, and a tough, tough decision,” Thomas said.

    SEE ALSO: Former CIA Director: Trump's Boy Scout speech was like 'third world authoritarian's youth rally'

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    NOW WATCH: A hacker reveals the most secure thing you can do to your passwords

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    Russian President Vladimir Putin watches a display during the MAKS 2017 air show in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow, Russia July 18, 2017. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS

    MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin has signed a law ratifying a deal with the Syrian government allowing Russia to keep its air base in Syria for almost half a century, official documents show.

    The original deal, signed in Damascus in January, sets out the terms under which Russia can use its Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province which it has used to carry out air strikes against forces opposing President Bashar al-Assad.

    Putin approved the agreement on Wednesday, after the two chambers of the Russian parliament backed it earlier this month, according to the government's official information portal.

    The document says Russian forces will be deployed at the Hmeymim base for 49 years with the option of extending that arrangement for 25-year periods.

    The base has been at the heart of Moscow's military foray since it intervened in the conflict in September 2015, helping turn the tide in favor of Assad, one of Russia's closest Middle East allies.

    (Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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    NOW WATCH: A Navy SEAL explains what to do if you're attacked by a dog

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    FILE PHOTO: A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter stand in a balcony in Raqqa, Syria June 27, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

    RAQQA, Syria (AP) — Heavy fighting broke out Thursday as U.S.-backed Syrian fighters captured almost half of the Islamic State group’s de facto capital of Raqqa.

    But the push into the city in northern Syria slowed due to stiff resistance and large amounts of explosives planted by the extremists, a spokeswoman for the fighters and monitors said.

    The assault on Raqqa by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led fighting coalition, began June 6, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and U.S. troops advising the local forces.

    Since then, the SDF has made steady advances from the eastern and western sides of the city, reaching the walled old quarter.

    The fall of Raqqa, the extremist group’s self-proclaimed capital, would be a huge loss for IS, which earlier this month lost the Iraqi city of Mosul. But much tougher fighting still lies ahead.

    Army Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group, said 45 percent of Raqqa was under the control of the SDF.

    In a series of tweets, he said the SDF cleared about 9 square miles of terrain this past week fighting against “stiff, sporadic resistance” from IS militants entrenched in Raqqa.

    Commanders on the western Raqqa front line said there were about 800 meters left before SDF forces moving from east and west would connect — tightening the noose on IS.

    FILE PHOTO: A Kurdish fighter from the People's Protection Units (YPG) looks at a smoke after an coalition airstrike in Raqqa, Syria June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/File Photo

    The battlefield Thursday was busy with hundreds of SDF fighters taking cover inside destroyed buildings less than 500 meters from IS combatants. SDF troops lobbed dozens of mortar shells at the militants, who sent out armed drones above the SDF forces

    Meanwhile, senior U.N. humanitarian official Ursula Mueller told the U.N. Security Council by video from Jordan on Thursday that an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 people remained in Raqqa.

    She said the city was encircled and “there is no way for them to get out.”

    Since April 1, over 200,000 people have fled their homes in the area around Raqqa, she said. The figure includes more than 30,000 displaced just this month as U.S.-backed Syrian fighters try to oust the extremists.

    Nisreen Abdullah, the Kurdish spokeswoman, told The Associated Press that the pace of the advance into Raqqa had slowed because of huge amounts of explosives laid by IS fighters.

    FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from the al-Mishlab district at Raqqa's southeastern outskirts, Syria June 7, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    As the extremists become more surrounded, they have increased their suicide attacks on fighters of the SDF, she added.

    “Raqqa has become a booby-trapped city and this shows their (IS’) weakness,” said Abdullah, of the Women’s Protection Units or YPJ, speaking from northern Syria. “They are also using civilians as human shields and this is slowing the push as well.”

    She said the Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes the Kurdish YPJ women fighters, now controls 45 percent of Raqqa. She added that since the offensive began, SDF fighters have fully captured eight neighborhoods.

    Plumes of smoke could be seen behind buildings in Raqqa a day earlier as the coalition pounded IS targets in the city. Syrian children looked on as U.S. armored vehicles drove by. One American soldier on a vehicle made the victory sign.

    Mustafa Bali, who heads the SDF media center, confirmed on Thursday that the group now has half of Raqqa and said the most important areas liberated in the past four days were the Nazlet Shehadeh and Panorama Square neighborhoods — both on the southwestern part of the city.

    But he said there are IS counterattacks, militant sleeper cells and tunnels in the area. “It was not easy, we have casualties and martyrs,” he said, adding that the fighting was ongoing.

    Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) run across a street in Raqqa, Syria July 3, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

    In the eastern front, where SDF forces breached IS defenses on the edge of the old city about a month ago, fighters have now reached the old citadel, an SDF commander in charge of one sector in the front told the AP.

    “As we move forward we find a tunnel every 100 meters,” Jihad Khabat said. He said the enemy, “besieged and in distress,” hides in deep and long tunnels under the city, from where they can hit Syrian fighters in daily counterattacks.

    The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said SDF fighters control half of Raqqa. The attacks on the city have claimed many casualties among the tens of thousands of civilians who are still trapped in areas controlled by IS.

    The Observatory said 29 people, including eight children, were killed in airstrikes on the city on Wednesday. The activist-operated Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently group said 36 people were killed and more than 50 wounded in airstrikes and shelling.

    The reports could not be independently confirmed.

    FILE PHOTO: Children walk at a camp for people displaced from fighting in the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, in Ain Issa, Syria June 14, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/File Photo

    In central Syria, fighting edged closer to the IS stronghold of Sukhna, the last major town held by IS in the Homs province, according to the Observatory and the government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media.

    SCMM said Syrian troops killed and wounded a number of IS fighters in battles near a mountain that overlooks the area. The Observatory said troops are now about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Sukhna, which has been held by IS since the summer of 2015.

    Near the border with Lebanon, a cease-fire went into effect between the militant Hezbollah group and al-Qaida-linked fighters on Thursday morning as negotiations were underway to reach a deal that would eventually lead to the evacuation of Syrian fighters to the northwestern rebel-held province of Idlib.

    The truce followed a six-day offensive by Hezbollah and Syrian troops who besieged al-Qaida-linked fighters in a small border area.

    Senior Lebanese security official, Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who is leading the negotiations, told reporters in Beirut that the details of the deal will remain secret, adding that fighters and their families who decide to leave for Idlib will do it under the supervision of Lebanese authorities.

    Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV said the deal will include the release of five members of the Shiite group who are held by insurgents in Syria.


    Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

    SEE ALSO: US Special Operations Command chief claims '60,000 to 70,000' ISIS fighters have been killed

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    NOW WATCH: Two women risked their lives to capture film in a city controlled by ISIS

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    SDF Raqqa Syria

    US-backed forces in Syria announced Thursday that they have captured nearly half of ISIS' de facto capital of Raqqa, Associated Press reported

    The Syrian Democratic Forces — largely made up of Kurdish, Sunni and Christian fighters — began their assault on Raqqa on June 6, and have since taken about 45% of the city, according to Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve.

    Still, US-backed forces have faced “stiff, sporadic resistance” resistance from ISIS militants, Dillon said. 

    Here's what the fighting on the ground looks like.

    The SDF began its assault on Raqqa early last month and have made steady progress since.

    They shot dozens of mortars at ISIS militants on Thursday as they continue to make gains in the city. Coalition fighters have attacked ISIS from the east and west, and are about 800 meters away from linking up, according to AP.

    But SDF progress has been slowed by enemy snipers, as well as ISIS' continued reliance on suicide attacks and even using civilians as human shields. A Kurdish fighter is seen here firing at ISIS militants as he runs across a street.

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Smoke billows out from Syria's Raqa after a US-led coalition air strike on July 28, 2017, as US-backed forces battle the Islamic State group inside the city

    Raqa (Syria) (AFP) - As Islamic State group fighters steadily lose chunks of their Syrian bastion Raqa to a US-backed force, the jihadists are ramping up the ferocity of their counter-attacks.

    The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) first broke into Raqa in early June and have advanced in a pincer-like motion towards the heart of the city.

    The alliance's Arab and Kurdish fighters now hold half of Raqa, but as they tighten the noose around IS, the jihadist group appears to be lashing out.

    "The closer we get to the city centre, the harder IS defends itself, because it's completely besieged," said Davram Dersem, an SDF field commander.

    To defend Raqa, IS has deployed a barrage of car bombs, suicide bombers, weaponised drones, snipers, and mines scattered across the city.

    "They're cornered like a wounded animal. Raqa is their main stronghold -- they're not going to abandon it easily," Dersem added. 

    The Kurdish commander spoke to AFP in the western Raqa neighbourhood of al-Daraiya. 

    Mortar shells crashed into surrounding neighbourhoods, which were also hit by the occasional air strike.

    After IS captured Raqa in 2014, the group transformed the city into a symbol of its most macabre practices, including public beheadings.

    Raqa was also thought to have been used as a hub for planning attacks overseas. 

    Now, much of it has been destroyed by the fierce fighting and US-led air strikes. Roofs have collapsed and streets are littered with rubble, metal, and glass.  

    'Life-or-death battle'

     In the adjacent district of Massaken al-Dubbat, 24-year-old SDF fighter Talal Sharif pointed at a devastated row of two-storey homes ahead.

    "All of this destruction, it's because of their car bombs. There have been at least four in each of these streets," Sharif told AFP.

    Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) run across a street in Raqqa, Syria July 3, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic   "Little by little, they're being suffocated in Raqa. This is why they're resisting."

    Sharif spoke confidently, but his face was marked by exhaustion after weeks of street-by-street battles. 

    When his unit recently stormed an IS-held neighbourhood, they stumbled on four enemy fighters sleeping inside a home.

    "During the raid, one of the jihadists blew himself up, another two were killed, and one was taken prisoner," Sharif recalled.

    But if they don't have access to belts of explosives or car bombs, IS fighters resort to something much simpler -- grenades.

    "In close combat, they just toss grenades. For them, it's a life-or-death battle," Devrem said.

    Up to 50,000 civilians remain trapped in Raqa in increasingly dire circumstances, with little access to food, water, or life-saving medication, according to the United Nations.

    The intensifying fight for Raqa has also forced tens of thousands of its residents to flee, dodging IS sniper fire, mines, and even US-led coalition air strikes.

    On Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 21 civilians -- including eight children from a single family -- had been killed in "intensifying air strikes by the coalition" over the previous 24 hours. 

    The Britain-based monitor says more than 300 civilians including dozens of children have died since the SDF first broke into Raqa. 

    Another 467 IS jihadists and 219 SDF have also been killed in the fighting. 

    SDF advisor Nasser Hajj Mansour said the battle for Raqa is far from over. 

    "It could still be long. In the coming days, the battles will become more ferocious," Mansour said. 

    "IS jihadists will either try to hide amongst the civilians or fight until the end." 

    SEE ALSO: How ISIS wanted to turn me into a terrorist

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    NOW WATCH: A massive collection of Nazi artifacts was discovered in a secret room in Argentina

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    Boeing advanced super hornet f-18

    On June 18, a US Navy pilot shot down a Syrian fighter jet south of Tabqah after it dropped bombs near US-backed forces, also known as Syrian Democratic Forces, according to US Central Command. 

    It was the first time a US pilot made an air-to-air kill since the Kosovo conflict in 1999. 

    And now, for the first time since the incident, pilot Lt. Cmdr. Michael Tremel, explained to exactly what happened that day. 

    "The whole incident lasted about eight minutes," Tremel told the site. "I did not directly communicate with the Syrian Jet but he was given several warnings by our supporting AWACS aircraft."

    Central Command said that after pro-Syrian fighter jets bombed the SDF-held town of Ja'Din around 4:30 p.m., they called Russia on the 'de-confliction line' to get them to stop the air raids. At 6:43 p.m., a Syrian Su-22 dropped more ordnance, and in response, Tremel, flying an F/A-18E Super Hornet, shot the fighter jet down. 

    Here's the rest of Tremel's story: 

    "So yes, we released ordnance and yes it hit a target that was in the air, but it really just came back to defending those guys that were doing the hard job on the ground and taking that ground back from ISIS ... I didn’t see the pilot eject but my wingman observed his parachute ... When you think about the shoot-down, in the grand scheme of things … we [our squadron] flew over 400 missions in support of friendly forces on the ground ... [Russia] behaved with great professionalism at all times.”

    Tremel also said that he first shot at the Su-22 with an infrared guided AIM-9X Sidewinder short range air-to-air missile, but the Syrian jet released decoy flares, and the missile missed.

    He then fired a second radar-guided AIM-120 AMRAAM missile, which destroyed the Su-22.

    Tremel made the call himself to shoot down the Su-22 in accordance with the rules of engagement, according to 

    SEE ALSO: US Air Force general: US pilots made the call to shoot down Syrian aircraft

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    NOW WATCH: The US' ground defense system successfully intercepted an ICBM in a simulation — but it may not be enough against a real threat from North Korea

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    George and Amal Clooney plan to help nearly 3,000 Syrian refugee children go to school this year in Lebanon

    United Nations (United States) (AFP) - George and Amal Clooney plan to help nearly 3,000 Syrian refugee children go to school this year in Lebanon, where the United Nations says around 200,000 Syrian refugee children are out of education.

    More than one million Syrians, including over 500,000 children, are registered as refugees in Lebanon after fleeing the devastating war that has lasted more than six years in neighboring Syria.

    UNICEF said Monday that close to 200,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon are out of school. Human Rights Watch estimates the number at more than 250,000.

    The nearly 3,000 Syrian children's education will be funded through a $2.25 million partnership announced by The Clooney Foundation for Justice with Google, in addition to a $1 million technology grant from HP.

    The partnership with UNICEF will help seven public schools educate the students, who are not currently in school, and will support a pilot of technology tools in these schools for refugee and Lebanese children, the Clooneys said.

    "Thousands of young Syrian refugees are at risk, the risk of never being a productive part of society. Formal education can help change that," the couple said in a statement.

    "We don't want to lose an entire generation because they had the bad luck of being born in the wrong place at the wrong time," they added.

    More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since war broke out in March 2011 with anti-government protests that have evolved into a complex proxy war.

    The Clooneys welcomed their first children -- a twin boy and girl -- in Britain last month. Amal Clooney, a prominent British-Lebanese human rights lawyer, married her Hollywood movie star husband in 2014.

    SEE ALSO: Haunting portraits of Syria's child refugees that everyone should see

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    With little policy guidance or public attention, the Donald Trump administration has further expanded former President Barack Obama’s use of lethal counterterrorism operations in nonbattlefield countries — namely Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. During the final 193 days of Obama’s presidency, there were 21 such operations.

    Over a comparable number of days under President Trump, there have been five times as many operations: at least 92 in Yemen, four in Pakistan, and six in Somalia.

    The workhorse for these expanded missions is the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) — a sub-unified command of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). We know that JSOC, and not the CIA, is the lead executive authority for these operations because they are overt, rather than covert. Military officials have publicly explained the missions, and the Defense Department has even issued press releases about them. (The only operations undeclared were the reported four drone strikes in Pakistan — a country that the CIA has been bombing intermittently since the summer of 2004.) Operations in Yemen and Somalia — which fall under Title 10, the part of U.S. law that outlines the role and authority of the armed forces — are broadly acknowledged and even reported to Congress every six months.

    Despite that, the public knows relatively little about the organization carrying them out. We can catch glimpses inside JSOC from anecdotal reporting or from rare histories, like Sean Naylor’s masterful Relentless Strike. But the extent of America’s understanding of the primary military command responsible for “direct action” operations is best summarized by President George W. Bush’s declaration in 2008: “Listen, JSOC is awesome.”

    Special Forces

    Through a series of discussions and interviews over the past few years, I have uncovered insights into how the command has evolved, how the congressional oversight of its lethal operations is really exercised, and what the limits are to what JSOC, however “awesome” it may be, is able to accomplish.

    Headquartered at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, JSOC was stood up in 1980, as a response to the organizational and planning shortcomings of the ad hoc, failed rescue mission of 52 Americans held hostage in Iran. The operational core comprises special mission units, such as the Army’s Delta Force, the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, Army and Air Force aviation units, and other generally classified commando groups. While much of what JSOC does remains secret, former commanders and operators have described, in detail, their role in killing and capturing terrorists, rescuing hostages, collecting intelligence, doing sensitive site exploitation, and conducting before-and-after analysis to support additional missions.

    These JSOC units operate separate from “general purpose forces” — such as Army divisions, Air Force wings, and Navy carrier battle groups — but rely on their transportation, logistics, and combat search and rescue support. And although you would never know it given the disproportionate public attention they receive, especially since the beginning of the global war on terror, service members in the entire special operations community make up only 5 percent of the U.S. military.

    US Special operations

    The most important thing to keep in mind about special operations forces is that they are reticent to simply kill suspected terrorists. Instead, they express a distinct preference for capturing terrorist suspects — a dead terrorist cannot provide the intelligence that allows special operators to increase their situational awareness of a given country. Gen. Joseph Votel, who is now the head of U.S. Central Command but served as SOCOM commander from 2014 to 2016, acknowledged this in 2015. “We get a lot more of that,” he said, referring to intelligence about terrorists’ activities and intentions, “when we actually capture somebody or we capture material than we do when we kill someone.”

    In his current role, Votel recently played down the enduring utility of killing terrorists when asked about the reported death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: “We’ve been doing this long enough to know that leaders are killed and we’ve killed plenty of them. And that there’s always somebody who is going to step up into those positions.” The degradation of command and control to the Islamic State — or any of the other many targeted militant armies — may appear meaningful at the time, but over the long term special operators recognize that they are ephemeral.

    General Joseph Votel, the head of the U.S. military?s Central Command, speaks aboard the USS New Orleans, an amphibious dock ship, as it travels through the Strait of Hormuz July 11, 2016.  REUTERS/Phil Stewart

    Another facet of JSOC operations emerges from the time when Gen. Votel led JSOC, from June 2011 to July 2014. During that time, then-Lt. Gen. Votel oversaw a drone strike against a convoy of cars in Yemen (I could not confirm exactly where and when this strike occurred).

    One general officer involved in the operation told me, “We killed some bad guys, but they were the wrong bad guys.” Afterward, Votel ordered an internal organizational study to identify the root cause of this mistaken strike, as well as previous strikes that had more explicitly killed noncombatants.

    The verdict was that JSOC’s organizational culture was overwhelmingly “predisposed toward action,” according to the general officer.

    To mitigate against this systemwide bias, JSOC created an internal semi-independent review unit situated outside of the command’s routine planning, analysis, and operational processes. The unit, called the Pre-Strike Pause Cell, consists of a handful of civilian and military analysts. They are provided real-time access to all of the supporting intelligence that purportedly validates the enemy status of a targeted individual or group. At any point in the process, this cell could “throw down a red card” by, for example, requesting clarifying information about the target(s), challenging untested assumptions, or raising questions about the probability of civilian harm. I am told that the Pre-Strike Pause Cell exists to this day and various models of it have been integrated into other operational commands, to varying degrees of effectiveness.

    Congressional oversight of JSOC has also changed as the intensity and political importance of its lethal operations increased in Yemen and Somalia in the early days of the Obama administration. In 2012, Congress passed a defense bill that mandated confidential quarterly briefings from the Pentagon outlining counterterrorism operations and activities involving special operations forces. In 2017, Congress upped the frequency of these briefings to monthly (though in reality Pentagon officials were already briefing members of Congress and their staff regularly between the required quarterly briefings).

    U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 13, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

    In both the Senate and House armed services committees (known as SASC on the Senate side and HASC in the House), the briefings are given before each committee’s Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, currently chaired by Sen. Joni Ernst and Rep. Elise Stefanik, respectively. Regular attendees include the chairs and ranking members of HASC and SASC, as well as Ernst, Stefanik, and their subcommittee’s respective ranking members.

    In theory, all 27 members of the SASC and 61 members of the HASC — as well as a handful of cleared staffers — could attend each monthly briefing. In reality, far fewer show up: On average, seven to 15 representatives attend the monthly HASC hearings, depending on their travel schedules and legislative calendar. For briefings on prominent JSOC operations, however, the attendance level increases substantially. After the Jan. 29 raid in Yemen that reportedly killed dozens of civilians and resulted in the death of one Navy SEAL and the destruction of a $70 million aircraft, for example, more than 35 members showed up to the HASC briefing to question military officials and find out what happened.

    At these hearings, JSOC is generally represented by a group of civilian military officials from the office of the assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low-intensity conflict, specifically sections J-37 (special operations) and J-39 (global operations). They usually begin with a big-picture overview of the JSOC-led campaign efforts in a particular country or region. They also provide specific information about individual drone strikes or special operations raids, especially those that have received (or are anticipated to receive) media attention.

    US general Raymond Thomas special operations

    However, for both the SASC and HASC monthly briefings, members generally do not probe for details about the operations but want to know, according to staffers from both committees, “Where is this all heading?” and “How do these operations get us there?” According to one Obama-era Pentagon official who routinely led the then-quarterly JSOC briefings, briefers “always wanted to provide more information, more granular details about the way things were trending. But Congress was not interested — unless an operation went south and made the papers.”

    Indeed, the big-picture question for the specialized military units that comprise JSOC is whether and how their lethal operations support any military end state — ideally one characterized by a diplomatically brokered peace among combatants, vastly reduced political violence, and fewer combatants and potential combatants from which enemy armies could draw from.

    Of these metrics of success, the third — eliminating combatants — falls mostly in JSOC’s wheelhouse. However, as JSOC has assumed more responsibility, the U.S. military’s record in achieving this goal has been mixed, at best. Consider the three-year anti-Islamic State campaign, during which JSOC has received White House and congressional backing.

    When President Obama announced the start of the U.S.-led intervention in August 2014, the CIA estimated that the militant army held between “20,000 and 31,500 fighters." When President Obama announced the start of the U.S.-led intervention in August 2014, the CIA estimated that the militant army held between “20,000 and 31,500 fighters.”

    A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa June 29, 2014. The offshoot of al Qaeda which has captured swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria has declared itself an Islamic

    According to the State Department’s annual “Country Reports on Terrorism,” released last month, the Islamic State’s estimated strength was reduced to between “12,000 and 15,000 members” in 2016.

    In other words, using the U.S. government’s mean averages, the Islamic State has shrunk 48 percent from 25,750 fighters in 2014 to 13,500 in 2016.

    However, the current SOCOM commander, Gen. Tony Thomas, declared on July 21 that the U.S. military has killed, conservatively, “60,000 to 70,000” Islamic State fighters — more than two and a half times the size of the force that was in Iraq and Syria three years ago. This is a remarkable ability to regenerate, even in the face of an unrelenting U.S.-led “annihilation” campaign.

    In Yemen, despite more than 200 JSOC (and occasional CIA) airstrikes over the past eight years, the State Department’s estimated strength for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula grew from “several hundred members” in 2010 to 4,000 fighters now — a force size it has maintained for the past half-dozen years.

    There is no reason to doubt that Trump will turn more and more to JSOC, just as his predecessors did, in pursuit of counterterrorism objectives. But this overreliance on lethal force is not just exhausting America’s special operators; it is wholly insufficient to comprehensively confront the underlying causes of militancy and terrorism — a mantra Pentagon officials repeat when they all but beg Congress to adequately fund the State Department. But because JSOC is both “awesome” and piles up body counts, it will always remain the leading actor in the global war on terror. The natural question is whether any such war could be managed at some socially acceptable level or, indeed, will ever end.

    SEE ALSO: The military's special ops may try to develop 'super soldiers' with performance-enhancing drugs

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    USS Nimitz operation inherent resolve

    After about two months of the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier sitting off Syria's coast to support ground operations against ISIS, the USS Nimitz has arrived in the Persian Gulf to hammer whatever is left of the terror group. 

    “For the Nimitz Strike Group, today is game day,” said Rear Adm. Bill Byrne, commander of Nimitz's carrier strike group said in a US Navy statement sent to Business Insider. “When you hear the roar of the jets today it is for real; it’s game on."

    The Nimitz and its accompanying carrier strike group, which the US Naval Institute reports includes a guided-missile cruiser and four destroyers, will support the US-led effort to eliminate ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

    Though ISIS continues to coordinate attacks abroad, the terror group has suffered incredible defeats in the territory it once declared as its "caliphate." In Iraq, ISIS's foundational city, Mosul, has been liberated by Iraqi security forces with the help of carrier-launched aircraft.

    In Syria, more than half of ISIS's last remaining stronghold, Raqqa, has been liberated. In late July, Army Gen. Raymond Thomas, head of US Special Operations Command, said that the US-led fight against ISIS had killed 60,000 to 70,000 militants.

    FILE PHOTO - Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stand on their military vehicle in northern Deir al-Zor province ahead of an offensive against Islamic State militants, Syria February 21, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    "The enemy is very worn out," Maj. Gen. Najm al-Jabouri of the Iraqi Security Forces told Reuters on Monday. "I know from the intelligence reports that their morale is low," the general added.

    Meanwhile, a fresh carrier air wing aboard the Nimitz began operations against ISIS on Monday as US-backed forces on the ground continue to make progress. 

    However, the F-18 squadrons aboard the Nimitz face an increased risk, as the pilots aboard the George H.W. Bush saw the first air-to-air combat since 1999 after the US witnessed Syrian jets bombed US-backed forces.


    SEE ALSO: US-backed forces have retaken half of Raqqa from ISIS — Here's what the fighting on the ground looks like

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