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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    SDF Raqqa

    The battle to oust Islamic State from its stronghold in the Syrian city of Raqqa should end within two months, a top-ranking Kurdish commander told Reuters, but said she expects the fighting to intensify.

    Nowruz Ahmed sits on the military council of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and as one of a small number of members of its Raqqa general command is one of the most senior commanders in the offensive.

    Islamic State has lost swathes of territory since 2015 in both Syria and Iraq, including the Iraqi city of Mosul. In Syria, under separate attacks from a U.S.-led coalition and from the Russian-backed Syrian army, it is falling back on its strongholds along the Euphrates valley east of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the caliphate it declared in 2014.

    “We cannot determine the time period in which the battle of Raqqa will end precisely because war has its conditions. But we do not expect it to last long, and according to our plans the battle will not take longer than two months from now,” Ahmed said.

    The SDF alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias is fighting inside Raqqa’s city center, with the help of air strikes and special forces from the U.S.-led coalition. They pushed into the city in June after battling for months to encircle it.

    Ahmed said the SDF was focused on the Raqqa battle for now and had not yet set plans to launch an assault in Deir al-Zor province, which is further down the Euphrates towards the Iraqi frontier and remains almost entirely under IS control.

    Ahmed, a women’s rights activist before Syria’s civil war began in 2011, heads the all female counterpart to the Kurdish YPG militia. The YPG is the most powerful component of the SDF, and the female unit has played a leading frontline role on the battlefield during the Raqqa campaign. She spoke to Reuters in Raqqa in what she said was her first interview with the media.

    Female Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) sit in a house in Raqqa, Syria, June 15, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

    She estimated Islamic State had between 700 and 1,000 fighters left in Raqqa, mainly at the center of the city. The SDF has encircled the militants and captured around 60 percent of the city.

    The SDF had a solid core of about 15,000 fighters in the Raqqa offensive, Ahmed said. Before the fighting began late last year, it had over 50,000 forces and has continuously enrolled new ones, she added.

    The presence of an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 civilians besieged in Raqqa, including families of IS fighters from outside the city, has hampered the advance, said Ahmed.

    “During our incursions, we try to open safe passages for them so they would not be a target of our attacks, but there are also many mines that led to the deaths of civilians,” she said.

    Islamic State will fight until the end, and many of its remaining militants in Raqqa are foreign fighters who will carry out suicide attacks, Ahmed said.

    The SDF and its allies have set up a civilian council to run Raqqa after Islamic State is defeated in the city. Ahmed said the SDF “has no plans to stay inside Raqqa after it is freed unless we are asked”.

    The major role of the Kurdish YPG in the battle for Raqqa, a mostly Arab city, is a point of sensitivity for many of the city’s former residents, according to activists from Raqqa. It is also sensitive for Turkey, a U.S. ally which fears expanded Kurdish influence along its border with Syria.

    Ahmed said 60 percent of the SDF’s 50,000 fighters were Arab, 30 percent Kurdish, and 10 percent from other ethnic groups. The spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition backing the SDF said earlier this month that there are 24,000 Arabs and 31,000 Kurds in the alliance.

    Syria Raqqa ISIS

    Last week, the head of the Deir al-Zor military council, a part of the SDF, said an offensive to capture the eastern province of Deir al-Zor from Islamic State would start soon.

    However, Ahmed said the SDF has no plans now to advance into the province because of the focus on Raqqa, and that a Deir al-Zor campaign had not been discussed with the U.S.-led coalition.

    "There are demands for us to free Deir al-Zor and we are currently studying this," she said, adding that the SDF had enough forces to capture the province.

    The Syrian army and its allies are advancing eastwards through central Syria along several fronts in their own offensive towards Deir al-Zor, where a government enclave has been besieged by Islamic State for years.

    "If the regime doesn't attack us and make a target of us, we will not attack it," Ahmed said.

    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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    US soldiers Syria

    US troops fighting in the coalition against ISIS came under direct attack near Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army soldiers in Northern Syria.

    Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesman told Business Insider that "unknown groups" have engaged with US forces on "multiple occasions over the past week or so Northwest of Manbij," a town in Syria formerly held by ISIS.

    "Our forces did receive fire and return fire and then moved to a secure location," US Army Col. Ryan Dillon told Reuters. "The coalition has told Turkey to tell the rebels it backs there that firing on US-led coalition forces is not acceptable." 

    Sources told CNN that no casualties occurred on either side.

    Turkey backs a number of forces that oppose Syrian President Bashar Assad and has made efforts to keep its border area clear of ISIS and other militants. 

    The US supports several Syrian militias that also oppose Assad, though the US now only supports them in their fight against ISIS. However it seems that the Turkish-allied forces likely knew they were exchanging fire with US soldiers.

    Manbij

    "These patrols are overt. Our forces are clearly marked and we have been operating in that area for some time," said Dillon. "It should not be news to anyone that we are doing this, operating in that particular area."

    "We're there to monitor and to deter hostilities and make sure everyone remains focused on ISIS," said Pahon. "We're going to have to continue our patrols but we have had to move to some protected positions."

    SEE ALSO: Animated map shows the countries where the most US troops are stationed

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    ISIS Syria

    The Latest on the Syrian conflict and the war against the Islamic State group (all times local):

    4:45 p.m.

    A U.S. official says the coalition is monitoring a convoy of Islamic State fighters who were evacuated from the Lebanon-Syria border toward an area near Iraq under a controversial agreement and may strike the militants.

    Col. Ryan Dillan, a spokesman for the U.S.-led alliance against the militants, says “we are monitoring their location in real time.” He says the coalition “will not rule out strikes against IS fighters being moved.”

    He says the coalition has already bombed a small bridge to obstruct the convoy.

    Syrian opposition activists say the convoy, which left the Lebanon-Syria border on Tuesday, is still in government-controlled territory in eastern Syria.

    The IS militants were allowed to evacuate in buses following a Hezbollah-negotiated deal that allows them to go to IS-held territory near the Iraqi border.

    Dillan said “we are not party to any agreements that were made by the Lebanese Hezbollah and ISIS or the (Syrian) regime.” ISIS is another acronym for the Islamic State group.

    12:45 p.m.

    A U.S. official has blasted a deal that led to the evacuation of hundreds of Islamic State group fighters and civilians from the Lebanon-Syria border to areas close to Iraq, saying the extremists should be killed on the battlefield.

    The evacuation agreement, the first such publicized deal, had already angered many Iraqis who accused Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah of dumping the militants on the Iraqi border rather than eradicating them.

    The top U.S. envoy for the international coalition against IS, Brett McGurk, tweeted on Wednesday that it is “irreconcilable” that IS “terrorists should be killed on the battlefield, not bused across #Syria to the Iraqi border without #Iraq’s consent.”

    McGurk added that the anti-IS coalition will help ensure that “these terrorists can never” enter Iraq.

    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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    ISIS tunnel Raqqa

    The Kurdish YPG, contingent of the US-backed forces fighting ISIS in Syria, released a video on Tuesday showing the underground tunnels that ISIS digs to launch sneak attacks. 

    The video shows two rather large tunnels inside a captured, bombed-out mosque, from which the YPG claim that ISIS had been using.

    "The barbaric group, aware of the YPG's sensitivity towards people's places of worship, and other historic sites, has been using [mosques] as bases to delay the liberation of Raqqa," text in the YPG video reads.  

    ISIS has been known to use such tunnels in Iraq and Syria not only for sneak attacks, which the militants reportedly paid civilians $2 per day to dig, are also used for moving supplies, housing ISIS fighters and laying booby traps. 

    Former ISIS fighters have reportedly said that some of the tunnels are extremely complex, some even containing rooms, toilets and medical facilities. 

    A YPG commander recently said there are about 700 to 1,000 ISIS fighters left in Raqqa, and that the battle should be over in about 2 months. 

    This older Fox News video shows how intricate the tunnels can get: 

    SEE ALSO: ISIS posts video of what appears to be an American child threatening Trump

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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

    WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. commander of forces fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria believes the militants' top leader is still alive. That's contrary to Russia's claims that it probably killed him in an airstrike.

    Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend tells reporters he's seen "some indicators in intelligence channels" that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is alive. He did not elaborate.

    Russian officials claimed in June there was a "high probability" that al-Baghdadi had died in a Russian airstrike on the outskirts of Raqqa, Syria, in May.

    Townsend spoke to reporters at the Pentagon from his headquarters in Baghdad. He says U.S. forces are actively searching for Baghdadi. He says if they find him, they probably will kill him rather than capture him.

    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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    FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises after an air strike during fighting between members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Raqqa, Syria, August 20, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State militants said on Friday it had confirmed another 61 likely civilian deaths caused by its strikes in Iraq and Syria, raising to 685 the number of civilians it has acknowledged killing since the conflict began.

    The coalition said in a statement that during July, it had investigated 37 reports of civilian casualties. It found that only 13 of the reports were credible and there were an estimated 61 unintentional civilian deaths.

    The coalition is investigating another 455 reports of civilian casualties caused by its artillery or air strikes, the statement said. It has now acknowledged at least 685 civilian deaths due to its air and artillery strikes since the conflict began in August 2014.

    The deadliest incident investigated in July was a March 14 strike near Mosul, in which the coalition attacked an Islamic State position where fighters were firing at coalition allies. That strike is believed to have killed 27 civilians in an adjacent structure, the statement said.

    (Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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    FILE PHOTO: The Russian Navy's frigate Admiral Essen sets sail in the Bosphorus, on its way to the Mediterranean Sea, in Istanbul, Turkey, July 10, 2017. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

    MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Russian frigate Admiral Essen fired Kalibr cruise missiles at Islamic State targets near the Syrian city of Deir al-Zor on Tuesday to help a Syrian army offensive in the area, the Russian Defence Ministry said.

    The strike, which was launched from the Mediterranean, destroyed command and communications posts, as well as ammunition depots, a facility to repair armored vehicles, and a large group of militants, the ministry said.

    The strike had targeted Islamic State fighters from Russia and the former Soviet Union, it added.

    Footage from the Russia Defense Ministry published by government-backed media outlet RT shows the Admiral Essen firing the missiles on Tuesday.

    The city of Deir al-Zor, in eastern Syria, has been surrounded by ISIS militants for years, but an effort by the Syrian military and allied militias, supported by Syrian and Russian air forces, broke the siege on Tuesday, according to state media cited by the BBC.

    UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that Syrian troops had met up with those defending the city, but the group said other areas of the city held by Syrian government forces were still encircled by ISIS militants.

    The estimated 93,000 civilians trapped in the city since 2015 have relied on military relief flights and aid from the UN dropped by air.

    The province surrounding Deir al-Zor is ISIS' last stronghold in the country. In Raqqa, which neighbors Dier al-Zor province, the militant group's self-declared capital city is currently under siege by a US-backed force of Kurdish and Arab fighters.

    (Reporting for Reuters by Polina Devitt; writing by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Andrew Osborn)

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    Great Mosque Raqqa Syria

    In a long fight punctuated by moral victories, this may be the biggest yet: The US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria announced Monday morning that it had secured the historic Grand Mosque of Raqqa, a "milestone" in the multiyear struggle to rout the Islamic State and take back its de facto capital.

    A spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve credited the US's motley crew of ground allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces, with clearing the mosque on Saturday.

    "The liberation of this historic landmark is a testimony to the dedication and courage of the SDF as they fight to defeat ISIS in Raqqa," Col. Ryan Dillon said in a press release Monday. "The SDF have made consistent incremental gains in the urban terrain of the city, fighting block by block, and applying increasing pressure on ISIS each day while evacuating civilians along the way."

    Since the US-led campaign against the makeshift Islamic State capital began, members of the terrorist group also known as ISIS have left Raqqa in droves. The coalition has dumped historic levels of ordnance in its struggle against ISIS fighters and now faces a difficult struggle to find and wipe out remaining resisters, who have resorted to tunnels, among other tactics, to avoid the onslaught.

    Dillon said advancing forces this weekend had evacuated "thousands of civilians" and took measures to limit damage to the mosque itself, which ISIS had captured in 2014, after making Raqqa its beachhead for a global Islamic caliphate that never was.

    SEE ALSO: ISIS posts video of what appears to be an American child threatening Trump

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    isis convoy bus

    A convoy of buses and other vehicles has been stuck in the middle of the desert between Syria and Iraq for more than week, fearing US airstrikes if they move.

    In a statement released Monday, US Central Command said the convoy of 11 buses has been sitting in the same spot east of As Sukhnah, after US airstrikes took out a bridge and cratered the road ahead of the convoy last week.

    The buses, loaded with about 300 fighters and 300 family members, were headed to Iraq after ISIS brokered a safe-passage deal with Lebanese Hezbollah, The New York Times reported.

    The US-led coalition, however, does not recognize that agreement as valid, since it was not party to the deal. The coalition will not "allow these experienced fighters to transit territory under Syrian regime control to the Iraqi border. The Coalition has been clear, that in support of our Iraqi partners, we will not allow the movement of ISIS fighters near the border or onto sovereign Iraqi soil," the statement said.

    CentCom said it has not directly struck the convoy, and has allowed food and water to be brought to the convoy. Meanwhile, of the original convoy of 17, six have been allowed to turn back toward Palmyra without incident.

    The statement said the coalition had suggested, through contact with Russia, that the Syrian regime evacuate women and children from the convoy.

    "The Syrian regime is letting women and children suffer in the desert," said Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve. "This situation is completely on them," 

    Join the conversation about this story »

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    isis convoy bus

    US aircraft operating over Syria have been taking out stranded ISIS fighters one or two at a time in recent days, as a convoy of the group's militants remains stranded in the desert, according to a Foreign Policy report.

    Eight days ago, a convoy of 17 buses carrying 300 to 500 fighters and their families left the eastern side of the country after a truce was reached between surrendering ISIS fighters and Syrian government forces, which are backed by Hezbollah.

    The US has objected to the truce, and in the days since the convoy departed, US aircraft have targeted 40 vehicles and any members of the convoy who stray too far from the main group.

    "Whether it's to evade by foot or to relieve themselves, if they make it far enough out there for us to strike, then we will," US Army Col. Ryan Dillon told Foreign Policy.

    Last week, US airstrikes destroyed a bridge and made a road impassable, and the convoy has since been stuck between the Syrian cities of As Sukhnah and Abu Kamal, the latter of which is on the border with Iraq.

    Six of the buses have turned back toward territory held by the Syrian government; the rest have been resupplied by trucks coming from Syrian government territory.

    Syria Iraq ISIS

    US aircraft have blocked what's left of the convoy from reaching Deir ez-Zur, an ISIS stronghold. (Syrian government forces recently broke a years-long ISIS siege around Dier ez-Zur, but the terrorist group still has positions in the area.)

    ISIS has suffered a number of defeats in Iraq in recent months but maintains control in a rural area between Mosul and Baghdad as well as around the Qaim border crossing with Syria, which sits opposite the city of Abu Kamal.

    ISIS convoy Syria

    US Central Command said it has allowed the convoy to be resupplied with food and water and has not struck it directly

    Central Command has also sent a message to the Syrian government, via Russia, warning that the US would not allow Damascus to drive ISIS fighters east to Iraq.

    "Irreconcilable ISIS terrorist should be killed on the battlefield, not bused across Syria to the Iraqi border without Iraq's consent," Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the international coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, tweeted on August 30.

    "The Syrian regime is letting women and children suffer in the desert," Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force — Operation Inherent Resolve, said in a statement on Monday. "This situation is completely on them."

    SEE ALSO: Watch a Russian warship fire cruise missiles at ISIS targets in eastern Syria

    Join the conversation about this story »

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


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    syrian refugees

    U.N.-mandated investigators say they have solid evidence a Russian-built plane used by Syrian President Bashar Assad's air force conducted a sarin-gas attack in the spring that killed at least 83 civilians and sparked a retaliatory U.S. strike.

    The latest report by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria also says U.S. forces failed to take "all feasible precautions" to protect civilians in attacking alleged terrorists in Aleppo in March, destroying part of a mosque complex.

    The report offers some of the strongest evidence yet of allegations that Assad's forces conducted the April 4 attack on Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib province.

    The U.S. quickly launched a punitive strike on Shayrat air base, where the report says the Sukhoi-22 plane took off.

    The report issued Wednesday covers a span from March to early July.

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    syria chemical attack khan sheikhoun

    GENEVA (Reuters) - Syrian forces have used chemical weapons more than two dozen times during the country's civil war, including in April's deadly attack on Khan Sheikhoun, UN war crimes investigators said on Wednesday.

    A government warplane dropped sarin on the town in Idlib province, killing more than 80 civilians, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said, in the most conclusive findings to date from investigations into chemical weapons attacks during the conflict.

    The Commission also said US air strikes on a mosque in the village of Al-Jina in rural Aleppo in March that killed 38 people, including children, failed to take precautions in violation of international law.

    The weapons used on Khan Sheikhoun were previously identified as containing sarin, an odorless nerve agent. But that conclusion, reached by a fact-finding mission of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), did not say who was responsible.

    "Government forces continued the pattern of using chemical weapons against civilians in opposition-held areas. In the gravest incident, the Syrian air force used sarin in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib, killing dozens, the majority of whom were women and children," the UN report said, declaring the attack a war crime.

    In their 14th report since 2011, UN investigators said they had in all documented 33 chemical weapons attacks to date.

    Twenty seven were by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, including seven between March 1 to July 7. Perpetrators had not been identified yet in six early attacks, they said.

    The Assad government has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons. It said its strikes in Khan Sheikhoun hit a weapons depot belonging to rebel forces, a claim dismissed by the UN investigators.

    That attack led US President Donald Trump to launch the first US air strikes on a Syrian air base.

    A separate joint inquiry by the UN and OPCW aims to report by October on who was to blame for Khan Sheikhoun.

    The UN investigators interviewed 43 witnesses, victims, and first responders linked to the attack. Satellite imagery, photos of bomb remnants and early warning reports were used.

    'Gravely concerned' about coalition strikes

    Bashar AssadThe independent investigators, led by Paulo Pinheiro, also said they were "gravely concerned about the impact of international coalition strikes on civilians".

    "In al-Jina, Aleppo, forces of the United States of America failed to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians and civilian objects when attacking a mosque, in violation of international humanitarian law," the report said.

    A US military investigator said in June that the air strike was a valid and legal attack on a meeting of al Qaeda fighters. It was believed to have killed about two dozen men attending the group's meeting and caused just one civilian casualty.

    The American F-15s hit the building adjacent to the prayer hall with 10 bombs, followed by a Reaper drone that fired two Hellfire missiles at people fleeing, the UN report said.

    "Most of the residents of al-Jina, relatives of victims and first responders interviewed by the Commission stated on that on the evening in question, a religious gathering was being hosted in the mosque's service building. This was a regular occurrence."

    "The United States targeting team lacked an understanding of the actual target, including that it was part of a mosque where worshippers gathered to pray every Thursday," it said.

     

     

    (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by John Stonestreet)

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    Syrian Army Loyal To Assad

    Regime forces fought their way into Deir e-Zor city on Tuesday, “breaking through” a three-year Islamic State siege of regime-held holdout districts of the provincial capital after sweeping across Syria’s eastern desert, a regime army source on the ground told Syria Direct.

    Syrian Arab Army forces initially pushed through Islamic State defenses over the course of Tuesday morning, reaching allied soldiers in Brigade 137—a regime military base on the outskirts of Deir e-Zor city encircled by the Islamic State since 2014, the SAA source said.

    The base is adjacent to one of the two besieged regime-held pockets in the city proper, where thousands of civilians have been trapped behind an IS encirclement since the group’s sweeping advances in 2014.

    Tuesday’s breakthrough was a “huge victory” for Syrian regime forces in Deir e-Zor, now poised to battle the Islamic State for the remainder of the group’s second-largest city in Syria, the source added. “This is a major accomplishment for our forces in the fighting to liberate all of Syria.”  

    “Soldiers and civilians alike are celebrating today.”

    But after a lightning offensive across the largely barren, open desert to Deir a-Zor, regime forces likely “do not retain the capability” to sustain urban advances, Chris Kozak, a researcher at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War told Syria Direct on Tuesday. Instead, “the pro-regime coalition will likely focus on…reinforcing its remaining regime-held districts” rather than street-by-street battles similar to those taking place 100km northwest in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital.

    Islamic State forces encircled most of the city of Deir e-Zor, 100km west of the border with Iraq, in the summer of 2014. Two pockets remained under regime control—one in the city’s west, fortified by the SAA’s Brigade 137 garrison, and the second to the south, home to a regime airbase.

    Syria Syrian Army Troops Soldiers Bashar Assad

    In January 2017, an IS offensive cut the highway connecting the two halves of the northeastern provincial capital, leaving the two districts both besieged and severed from one another, Syria Direct reported at the time.

    The end of the siege of Brigade 137 was a long time coming. For years, regime helicopters have dropped food, ammunition and supplies to sustain the thousands of soldiers, officers and civilians trapped inside an airtight encirclement. Countless previous offensives to drive the Islamic State away from the airbase had, for the most part, failed, inducing a stalemate. For the tens of thousands of civilians living in regime-held neighborhoods adjacent to the airport, their fates have been similar, living in a state of privation and almost totally reliant on airdrops just to survive.

    Some residents inside Deir e-Zor’s regime-held neighborhoods say that Tuesday’s advance brought a sense of renewed—if not cautious—hope for a return to normal life.  

    “Yes, we are at the hands of the regime,” Khoula, a woman living in the Qasour neighborhood, told Syria Direct. “But three years of [IS-enforced] siege were enough to exhaust us.”

    Residents in her neighborhood “prefer the regime over Daesh,” she said, using the Islamic State’s Arabic acronym. “We’re just hoping that the breakage of this siege can mean the gradual return of life to Deir e-Zor, so basic supplies can come in.”

    She described scenes of celebration on Tuesday afternoon, as weary neighbors exchanged congratulations and fired celebratory gunshots into the air.

    assad

    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called the advances on Tuesday “a resounding victory over takfiri terrorist thinking” in a phone call with regime soldiers and officers, state media outlet SANA reported.

    The SAA’s entrance into Deir e-Zor represents a “major point for expanding military operations in the area…and eliminating remaining IS strongholds in the area,” the general commander of Syria’s armed forces said in a statement broadcast on state television.

    The advance comes as part of a months-long military push toward Deir a-Zor. The SAA and allied militias captured thousands of square kilometers west of the city from the Islamic State last month, driving the group’s fighters from their easternmost holdings in the central Syrian desert. 

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    Two_F 15I_Ra'am

    BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian army says that an Israeli raid hit a military position in western Syria and has killed two soldiers and caused material damage.

    The army says in a statement that the attack occurred early Thursday and hit a facility near the western town of Masyaf, close to the Mediterranean coast.

    The army said the Israeli warplanes fired several missiles while in Lebanese air space.

    It warned of the "dangerous repercussion of such hostile acts on the security and stability of the region."

    The Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV, which has reporters throughout Syria, said the airstrike hit a "target" in Qutaifah, about 35 kilometers (22 miles) northeast of Damascus.

    Al-Mayadeen said Israeli warplanes broke the sound barrier over Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley overnight. Qutaifah is about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the border with Lebanon.

    Al-Mayadeen gave no further details in its Thursday morning report. There was no comment from Israel.

    Israeli officials say Lebanon's Hezbollah has significantly upgraded its capabilities with a more sophisticated arsenal in recent years. While largely staying out of the Syrian civil war, Israel has carried out a number of airstrikes against suspected arms shipments believed to be headed to Hezbollah.

    SEE ALSO: Israel's F-35s may have already flown a combat mission against Russian air defenses in Syria

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    Yazidi thumbnail photo

    Three years ago, Liza, Nisren, Hanan, and Jamila were enslaved by ISIS. At the time, Nisren was nine, the others in their twenties.

    Like thousands of other Yazidi women, they watched as black-clad figures stormed their homes, shot their husbands and fathers, separated them from their children and took them as property.

    Their village, Telezair, is not far from Mount Sinjar, a holy site where the Yazidi people were surrounded and killed en masse in what has since been recognised as a genocide.

    As ISIS's caliphate began to falter and crumble, all four escaped. They are alive, but in limbo, trying to figure out how to recover. One way to do this is by taking back control of their own stories — which, in part, they are doing by learning to paint.

    Hannah Thomas, a British artist and linguist who works with the One Young World charity, is helping the women re-assert themselves. She ran a two-week painting workshop hosted by the Jinda Centre in Dohuk, Iraq, as part of international aid efforts.

    Thomas shared the self-portraits with Business Insider and helped explain their significance. None of the women had ever painted before.

    She said: "They were very keen that their paintings were shown to the rest of the world, I think because they want that restoration of dignity and humanity, particularly after the dehumanisation they faced by ISIS."

    (Editor's note: Liza, Nisren, Hanan and Jamila are pseudonyms used at the request of the women)

    Liza, 31

    Liza Yazidi painting ISIS Hannah Thomas

    Liza_artist_crop with label

    Liza is the eldest of the group. Thomas told Business Insider she is a "very motherly figure."

    She has four children — two sons aged 11 and 8, a daughter aged 10, and another infant daughter. All but the youngest are still in ISIS captivity. Her husband was killed in the invasion. She was held in an underground prison for two years before escaping.

    Like the rest of the women, Liza has painted herself in a variant of the white Yazidi ceremonial dress (she is wearing a version of it in the photograph above).

    Around her neck, Liza has shown herself with a necklace in the shape of Kurdish letters, which spell "to God."

    Describing the paintings as a group, Thomas said: "They convey such dignity. Some of them didn't want to paint tears and some did want to paint tears, and some of them brought in other parts of their culture, like the Yazidi flag.

    "All of them wanted to paint themselves in the white, traditional dress. Which none of them had when they left because they were all in black and brown headscarves."

    The Jinda Centre provided the white fabric Liza is wearing above.

    Nisren, 13

    Nisren Yazidi painting painting crop Hannah Thomas

    Nisren painting Yazidi Hannah Thomas ISIS

    Nisren is the youngest of the group, as was just nine years old when she was taken captive.

    She managed to escape after seven months, but was separated from her mother, who she has not seen in years. She has been informally adopted by other Yazidi women in the groups. She has only fragmentary memories of her time with ISIS.

    Thomas said: "This image feels very much separated from what she's experienced — she was painting an idealised image of herself as well, as one who's older. She also wanted flowers in her hair."

    Older Yazidi women wear a headscarf, but for those Nisren's age and a few years older, it is normal to have uncovered hair.

    Hanan, 25

    Hana Yazidi ISIS painting Hannah ThomasHanan Yazidi ISIS painting Hannah Thomas

    Hanan is also a mother, but has not seen her six-year-old daughter since the two were separated from ISIS.

    Unlike the other women, she showed ISIS in her portrait, depicting the moment she was separated from her child.

    "I can never forget the day ISIS took her hands out of my hands," Thomas recalls her saying.

    Hanan is the taller figure on the right, her daughter is on the left. The ISIS figure, bearded and in black, looms much larger.

    Thomas said: "Hanan chose red for the background because it's symbolic of the blood of the martyrs — the many Yazidi men killed when the women and children were taken into captivity.

    "There are tears coming from her eyes, and her child's. The figure of ISIS is much bigger and domineering. I think there is a strange kind of pathos in the image of ISIS with these staring eyes, which look very distressing.

    "It's got this kind of deep anguish in those eyes, which is very disturbing. Most of the other women didn't want to do images which showed ISIS, which showed that side of it, death or the horrors that they'd witnessed."

    Jamila, 27

    Jamila ISIS Yazidi painting Hannah Thomas

    Jamila ISIS painting Yazidi Hannah Thomas

    Thomas said: "Jamila's in the white veil too, and she's got those tears because she wanted to paint an image of her sorrow.

    "There's a silent sorrow there, with the mouth closed, and almost unspeakable grief — the way she's painted the eyes. They feel almost alive, they draw you right in and are filled with that grief. She wanted to paint the tears gold as well — it's showing that her tears haven't been forgotten as well, that they're precious and have value."

    Referring to all of the pictures, Thomas concluded: "They are all standing so tall and straight, but silent as well, with great beauty and dignity. There's a sense that they haven't been broken by ISIS — they have deep sorrow but they're still standing and dignified and strong."

    Join the conversation about this story »

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    israeli air force f-15 plane

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon will file a complaint to the United Nations against Israel for violating the country's airspace and causing damage by breaking the sound barrier in the south of the country, its foreign minister said on Monday.

    Israeli jets flew low over the southern city of Saida on Sunday, causing sonic booms that broke windows and shook buildings for the first time in years, Lebanese security sources and residents said.

    "We have started preparing to file a complaint to the (U.N.) Security Council against Israel for flying its planes at low altitude... causing material, moral and sovereign damage," Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said in a tweet.

    Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said Lebanon would issue its complaint "against Israel for planting spy devices on Lebanese land and continuously breaching" its airspace, his office said.

    Israeli warplanes regularly enter Lebanon's airspace, the Lebanese army says, but rarely fly so low. The Israeli military gave no immediate comment.

    Tensions have risen recently between Lebanon's Hezbollah and Israel, which fought a month-long war in 2006.

    The 2006 war killed around 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 160 Israelis, most of them troops.

    Israel has targeted Iran-backed Hezbollah inside Syria in recent years, including military leaders in several deadly strikes, but there has been no major direct confrontation.

    SEE ALSO: Israel's air force reportedly carried out airstrike near Syria's capital killing 2

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    President Donald Trump holds a joint news conference with Emir of Kuwait Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., September 7, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump is weighing a strategy that could allow more aggressive US responses to Iran's forces, its Shi'ite Muslim proxies in Iraq and Syria, and its support for militant groups, according to six current and former US officials.

    The proposal was prepared by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other top officials, and presented to Trump at a National Security Council meeting on Friday, the sources said.

    It could be agreed and made public before the end of September, two of the sources said. All of the sources are familiar with the draft and requested anonymity because Trump has yet to act on it.

    In contrast to detailed instructions handed down by President Barack Obama and some of his predecessors, Trump is expected to set broad strategic objectives and goals for US policy but leave it to US military commanders, diplomats and other US officials to implement the plan, said a senior administration official.

    "Whatever we end up with, we want to implement with allies to the greatest extent possible," the official added.

    The White House declined to comment.

    The plan is intended to increase the pressure on Tehran to curb its ballistic missile programs and support for militants, several sources said.

    "I would call it a broad strategy for the range of Iranian malign activities: financial materials, support for terror, destabilization in the region, especially Syria and Iraq and Yemen," said another senior administration official.

    The proposal also targets cyber espionage and other activity and potentially nuclear proliferation, the official said.

    The administration is still debating a new stance on a 2015 agreement, sealed by Obama, to curb Iran's nuclear weapons program. The draft urges consideration of tougher economic sanctions if Iran violates the 2015 agreement.

    The proposal includes more aggressive US interceptions of Iranian arms shipments such as those to Houthi rebels in Yemen and Palestinian groups in Gaza and Egypt's Sinai, a current official and a knowledgeable former US official said.

    iran navy uss thunderbolt

    The plan also recommends the United States react more aggressively in Bahrain, whose Sunni Muslim monarchy has been suppressing majority Shi'ites, who are demanding reforms, the sources said.

    In addition, US naval forces could react more forcefully when harassed by armed speed boats operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran's paramilitary and espionage contingent, three of the sources said.

    US ships have fired flares and warning shots to drive off IRGC boats that made what were viewed as threatening approaches after refusing to heed radio warnings in the passageway for 35 percent of the world's seaborne petroleum exports.

    US commanders now are permitted to open fire only when they think their vessels and the lives of their crews are endangered. The sources offered no details of the proposed changes in the rules, which are classified.

    Islamic State first

    The plan does not include an escalation of US military activity in Syria and Iraq. Trump's national security aides argued that a more muscular military response to Iranian proxies in Syria and Iraq would complicate the US-led fight against Islamic State, which they argued should remain the top priority, four of the sources said.

    Mattis and McMaster, as well as the heads of the US Central Command and US Special Forces Command, have opposed allowing US commanders in Syria and Iraq to react more forcefully to provocations by the IRGC, Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias, the four sources said.

    The advisers are concerned that more permissive rules of engagement would divert US forces from defeating the remnants of Islamic State, they said.

    Moreover, looser rules could embroil the United States in a conflict with Iran while US forces remain overstretched, and Trump has authorized a small troop increase for Afghanistan, said one senior administration official.

    isis convoy bus

    A former US official said Hezbollah and Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias in Iraq have been "very helpful" in recapturing vast swaths of the caliphate that Islamic State declared in Syria and Iran in 2014.

    US troops supporting Kurdish and Sunni Arab fighters battling Islamic State in Syria have been wrestling with how to respond to hostile actions by Iranian-backed forces.

    In some of the most notable cases, US aircraft shot down two Iranian-made drones in June. Both were justified as defensive acts narrowly tailored to halt an imminent threat on the ground.

    Trump's opposition to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), poses a dilemma for policymakers.

    Most of his national security aides favor remaining in the pact, as do US allies Israel and Saudi Arabia despite their reservations about Iran's adherence to the agreement, said US officials involved in the discussions.

    "The main issue for us was to get the president not to discard the JCPOA. But he had very strong feelings, backed by (US Ambassador to the United Nations) Nikki Haley, that they should be more aggressive with Iran," one of the two US officials said. "Almost all the strategies presented to him were ones that tried to preserve the JCPOA but lean forward on these other (issues.)"

    (Writing by Jonathan Landay; Reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Jonathan Landay, and Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and John Walcott; Editing by Howard Goller)

    SEE ALSO: CIA director suggests North Korea may be working another angle with its nuclear ambitions

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    EXPLOSION FOAB russia father of all bombs thermobaric detonation

    Just days before U.S.-backed forces launched an offensive to expel ISIS militants from Deir ez-Zor, the largest city in eastern Syria and heart of the country’s sprawling oil fields, an unusual rumor began to circulate among civilians and activists operating around the city: Russian aircraft had allegedly dropped the “father of all bombs,” the largest non-nuclear in the military’s arsenal, on ISIS fighters.

    The rumor, which first surfaced on social media and was reported by The War Zone on Sept. 7, claimed that Russia “has bombed positions in Deir Ezzor [sic]” with the so-called Aviation Thermobaric Bomb of Increased Power (ATBIP), the thermobaric weapon developed in 2007 that, at 14,000 pounds and with a yield comparable to 44 tons of TNT, is more powerful than the GBU-43/B “Mother of All Bombs” that the U.S. Air Force deployed against ISIS forces in Afghanistan back in April. If these claims are true, the alleged sortie represents the first time the FOAB has been deployed since the weapon came into existence.

    Unlike its American counterpart, the FOAB’s unique destructive power comes from its status as a thermobaric weapon, designed to create a punishing high-temperature explosion and subsequent blast wave that, apart from sucking your lungs out of your mouth, doles out most of the bomb’s destruction. “Test results of the new airborne weapon have shown that its efficiency and power is commensurate with a nuclear weapon,” then-Russian Deputy Chief Of Staff Alexander Rukshin told state media following the FOAB’s first successful test on Sept. 11, 2007, according to Reuters. “The main destruction is inflicted by an ultrasonic shock wave and an incredibly high temperature. All that is alive merely evaporates.”

    Russia was happy to tout its powerful new weapon a decade ago, but the country’s government has remained mum on, well, whether the FOAB actually made it downrange. While the ministry confirmed to state media on Sept. 8 that the Russian air force had broken the ISIS siege on a crucial airfield southeast of Deir ez-Zor — allegedly killing ISIS “emir” Abu-Muhammad al-Shimali, who was linked to the 2015 Paris terror attacks — neither the Russian government or state media has substantiated the FOAB rumors in the week since they first emerged.

    The Department of Defense was also unable to confirm the rumors propagated on social media by witnesses on the ground in Deir ez-Zor “at this time,” despite explicitly mounting a “clearing operation” on Sept. 9 and, more generally, increased communication between the Russian military and the coalition forces regarding air operations to “ensure the safety of flight in the region” and alleviate tensions. A spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve told Task & Purpose that CENTCOM “will not speculate” on social-media rumors, adding that the details of any communication between the two militaries are “a matter between the Coalition and the Russians.”

    father of all bombs

    So how likely is it that the Russian dropped the “father of all bombs”? As of now, there’s no tangible evidence apart from eyewitness claims. After all, the War Zone points out that “almost no official pictures or video of the bomb” exist (the photos used in tweets appear to be mockups of the ‘Tsar Bomba’ hydrogen bomb, and even the “official” video of the 2007 test showing a supersonic Tu-160 Blackjack heavy bomber deploying the FOAB appears heavily edited. And though the War Zone speculates that the Il-76 and An-124 strategic airlifters likely have the capacity to deploy such a weapon, it’s deeply unlikely that a random set of naked eyes could recognize a plane from the ground, let alone the munition deployed and resulting shock wave, no matter how unique to the FOAB.

    That said, it’s not totally outside the realm of possibility. The use of the FOAB to pave the way for the expulsion of ISIS fighters from the strategically important city of Deir ez-Zor makes tactical sense. The deployment of the MOAB that killed more than 90 militants in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province in April, though derided by some political observers as a shallow political and diplomatic ploy by the Trump administration, preceded the uptick in U.S. special operations forces missions against ISIS-K at the start of the fighting season. Perhaps the Russian government deemed it appropriate to clear a path for “legitimate Syrian government forces,” as state-run RT put it, to work alongside Operation Inherent Resolve’s own clearing operation to secure the city. After all, it’s not like coalition and Russian forces haven’t crossed paths in a Syrian town before — and whoever clears the region first gets to take de facto control of the province’s oil fields.

    Then again, it’s not like the Russian military needs an explicit enduring mission against the pockets of ISIS militants spread across the country to deploy advanced weaponry in Syria. As The War Zone pointed out in November 2016, the Russian defense ministry has increasingly used the war-torn country as a testing ground for new weaponry, such the Bastion-P coastal defense system, delivered to the Assad regime in 2011 and used to fire off supersonic P-800 antiship missiles at “defenseless land targets.”

    “Syria has become a great operational testing range, weapons marketing platform and propaganda tool for Russia above all else,” Tyler Rogoway wrote at the time. “The military operations there don’t have to make tactical sense … Russia will cycle every weapon system it has through the theatre before the war comes to an end, in part to test it operationally, to show other nations that it works and to fear it or to purchase it for their own militaries.”

    MOAB mother of all bombs

    There’s also the possibility that the news of the FOAB is designed to serve the same alternative function as the April MOAB: to not just hit ISIS with the “shock and awe” of a fabled munition in a “psychological operations effort,” but to reinvigorate perceptions of its military strength to observers and critics both at home and abroad, an extremely loud and extremely expensive piece of domestic propaganda. Indeed, the primary coverage of the alleged FOAB deployment in Syria among multiple state-run media outlets was that that Western governments and journalists are “scared” of the reports bubbling up from Deir ez-Zor on social media.

    In that light, perhaps the FOAB’s real target was Putin supporters at home — and unlike the Air Force’s much-hyped MOAB moment back in April, it would seem they succeeded without actually firing a shot.

    SEE ALSO: Here's the father of all bombs: Russia's answer to the MOAB

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    An Iraqi Army helicopter launches decoy flares over western Mosul, Iraq June 17, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

    The US-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Afghanistan dropped 5,075 bombs during close-air-support, escort, or interdiction operations in August, according to US Air Forces Central Command data.

    The August total was the highest of any month during the three-year campaign against the terrorist group.

    The previous monthly high was 4,848 in June. Each of first eight months of 2017 has exceeded the amount of bombs dropped in any other month of the campaign.

    The number of weapons released through the first eight months of 2017 is 32,801, surpassing the 30,743 dropped all last year, which was the previous annual high for the campaign.

    The 13,109 sorties so far this year is on pace to fall short of the total in 2016 and 2015 — both of which exceeded 21,100. The 8,249 sorties with at least one weapon deployed so far this year are set to top last year's 11,825, however.

    ISIS bombing

    Both Iraq and Syria have seen intense urban fighting this year, which often requires more active air support.

    The battle to retake Mosul in Iraq began in October 2016 and formally ended in July, while the final stage of fighting for Raqqa, ISIS' self-declared capital in Syria, began in June and is ongoing.

    Not all aircraft active over Iraq and Syria are under Air Forces Central Command's control, so the figures likely understate the total number of weapons deployed.

    Defense Secretary Jim Mattis also intervened to request more money for bombs in response to concerns about expenditures in the US Central Command area of operations, which includes the Middle East.

    Mattis asked for about $3.5 billion more for "preferred munitions," including 7,664 Hellfire missiles and 34,529 Joint Direct Attack Munitions.

    During his campaign, President Donald Trump promised to "bomb the hell out of ISIS," and he appears to have keep that pledge.

    Bombing during Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS in Iraq and Syria — the recent stages of which US commanders have referred to as an "annihilation campaign"— has reached "unprecedented levels" under Trump, according to Micah Zenko and Jennifer Wilson of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the increase has extended to other areas, like Yemen and Somalia, as well.

    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 intensified bombing appears to have yielded a higher civilian death toll. There were at least 2,300 civilians killed by coalition strikes during the Obama administration, and between Trump's January 20 inauguration and mid-July, there had been over 2,200 civilian casualties, according to monitoring group Airwars.

    Other estimates put the number of civilian deaths much higher, and there is similar uncertainty about the number of ISIS fighters who have been killed. Coalition officials have made several estimates about the total slain, despite doubts about the utility and reliability of body counts.

    Army Gen. Raymond Thomas, head of US Special Operations Command, said in July that "conservative estimates" put the number of ISIS dead between 60,000 and 70,000, echoing an statement he made in February.

    The Pentagon said in summer 2016 that there were 15,000 to 20,000 ISIS militants left in Iraq and Syria, and US officials said in December that 50,000 of the terrorist group's fighters had been killed — twice as many as the UK defense minister claimed had been killed that same month.

    SEE ALSO: The Air Force got parts from its 'boneyard' to put its biggest plane back into service

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    MiG-29SMT in Syria

    The Russian Air Force has deployed some MiG-29SMT multirole combat aircraft to Hmeymim airbase, near Latakia, in western Syria, the Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed on Sept. 13, 2017.

    It’s the first time the modernized version of the baseline Fulcrum jet is deployed to take part in the Syrian Air War.

    The MiG-29SMT is an upgraded variant of the MiG-29 featuring a big 950-litre spine CFT (Conformal Fuel Tank) and an in-flight refueling system on the left hand side of the cockpit: it is equipped with a “glass cockpit” with two MFI-10-6M displays and IKSh-1M HUD (Head-Up Display). With a maximum range of 1,800 km (3,000 with three drop tanks), it can carry guided air-to-surface weapons.

    According to “Russia’s Warplanes, Volume 1” by Piotr Butowski published by Harpia Publishing, one of the most authoritative sources on Russian  military aircraft and helicopters today, besides the baseline Fulcrum loadout, the MiG-29SMT can carry two R-27T medium-range IR-guided air-to-air missiles or two extended-range R-27ER/ET AAMs, or up to six RVV-AE AAMs. Air-to-ground weapons include two Kh-29T/L, up to four Kh-25M, or two Kh-31A7P missiles, or up to four KAB-500 guided bombs. The first images emerging from Syria show at least one aircraft with two such bombs.

    The Russian Air Force plans to operate a fleet of 44 MIG-29SMT fighters: 28 were returned from Algeria (that ordered the aircraft in February 2006 and broke the contract after 16 were delivered because they claimed that the airframes were not brand new – these, according to Butowski were acquired by the Russian MoD and delivered to a fighter regiment in Kursk-Khalino beginning in February 2009)  and another batch (whose complete delivery status is not known) of 16 aircraft ordered in 2014 and due to delivery by the end of 2016.

    The video below shows the MiG-29SMTs in Syria for the very first time.

    SEE ALSO: 15 photos of the MiG-31, the Russian fighter jet that can chase away SR-71 Blackbirds

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