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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    sally jones

    Sally Jones, a British jihadi who recruited online for the Islamic State group, has been killed in Syria by a US drone along with her 12-year-old son, The Sun newspaper reported on Thursday.

    A convert to Islam from southern England, Jones was nicknamed the “White Widow” by the British press after her jihadi husband Junaid Hussain, also an IS militant, was killed by a drone in 2015.

    Quoting a British intelligence source who had been briefed by US counterparts, The Sun reported that Jones and her son had been killed in June close to Syria’s border with Iraq, as she was attempting to flee the IS stronghold of Raqqa.

    US intelligence chiefs were quoted as saying they could not be 100 percent certain that Jones had been killed as there was no way of recovering any DNA from the ground, but they were “confident” she was dead.

    Her son JoJo was presumed to be dead too, although his presence with her was not known at the time of the drone strike and he was not an intended target, according to The Sun.

    Other IS militants have been reported dead only to reappear.

    Jones, who before her jihadi days was once a singer in a punk band, has been the subject of years of fascination by the British press.

    She was believed to have left her home in Chatham, in the southern county of Kent, in 2013 to travel to Syria, where she married Hussain whom she had met online.

    She was active as an online recruiter and sometimes posted propaganda messages on social media, including a striking photograph of herself dressed as a nun pointing a gun towards the camera.

    SEE ALSO: 9 photos of the upgraded MiG-29 that Russia just sent to Syria

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Here’s what it was like to live in a city controlled by ISIS


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    kobani

    When President Donald Trump took office in January, it was unclear whether the bombast from his campaign would translate into an aggressive new strategy against terrorism.

    At campaign rallies he pledged to “bomb the hell” out of the Islamic State. He openly mused about killing the families of terrorists, a blatant violation of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits violence against noncombatants.

    Ten months into his presidency, a clearer picture is emerging. The data indicate several alarming trends.

    According to research from the nonprofit monitoring group Airwars, the first seven months of the Trump administration have already resulted in more civilian deaths than under the entirety of the Obama administration. Airwars reports that under Obama’s leadership, the fight against IS led to approximately 2,300 to 3,400 civilian deaths. Through the first seven months of the Trump administration, they estimate that coalition air strikes have killed between 2,800 and 4,500 civilians.

    Researchers also point to another stunning trend– the “frequent killing of entire families in likely coalition airstrikes.” In May, for example, such actions led to the deaths of at least 57 women and 52 children in Iraq and Syria.

    The vast increase in civilian deaths is not limited to the anti-IS campaign. In Afghanistan, the U.N. reports a 67 percent increase in civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes in the first six months of 2017 compared to the first half of 2016.

    The key question is: Why? Are these increases due to a change in leadership?

    Jim Mattis Joseph Dunford

    Delegating war to the military

    Experts offer several explanations.

    One holds that Trump’s “total authorization” for the military to run wars in Afghanistan and against IS has loosened Obama-era restrictions and increased military commanders’ risk tolerance.

    Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations notes: “Those closer to the fight are more likely to call in lethal force and are less likely to follow a value-based approach.”

    In other words, an intense focus on destroying IS elements may be overriding the competing priority of protecting civilians. Because Trump has scaled back civilian oversight and delegated authority to colonels rather than one-star generals, the likely result is higher casualties.

    Urban battlefield?

    A second explanation points to the changing nature of the counter-IS campaign. The Pentagon contends that the rise in casualties is “attributable to the change in location” of battlefield operations towards more densely populated urban environments like Mosul and Raqqa.

    This is a partial truth. While urban warfare has increased, Trump’s team has substantially escalated air strikes and bombings. According to CENTCOM data, the military has already used 20 percent more missiles and bombs in combined air operations in 2017 than in all of 2016.

    One notable airstrike in March, for example, killed 105 Iraqi civilians when U.S. forces dropped a 500-pound bomb in order to take out two snipers in Mosul. In fact, a Human Rights Watch analysis of bomb craters in West Mosul estimates that U.S. coalition forces are routinely using larger and less precise bombs – weighing between 500 and 1,000 pounds – than in prior operations.

    Finally, the urban battlefield explanation also does not account for increased civilian deaths in Afghanistan from airstrikes, where the environment has remained static for several years.

    With Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin standing behind him, U.S. President Donald Trump smiles while listening to remarks before signing an executive order making it easier for Americans to buy bare-bones health insurance plans and circumvent Obamacare rules at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 12, 2017.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

    Pressure from the president

    A third explanation of higher civilian casualties is that aggressive rhetoric from the president is inadvertently pressuring the military to take more risks and to deprioritize protecting civilians.

    As former Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski observes: “If your leaders are emphasizing the high value of Raqqa and Mosul, while saying less about the strategic and moral risks of hurting civilians, it’s going to affect your judgment.” Words matter, especially coming from the commander-in-chief. In the face of such aggressive rhetoric, it should not come as a surprise that military officers feel encouraged – if not indirectly pressured – to take greater risks.

    Unfortunately, the increased trend of civilian casualties is unlikely to diminish. In fact, signs abound that the White House is developing a new set of policies and procedures that will authorize more sweeping discretion to the military. In September, The New York Times reported that White House officials were proposing two major rules changes. First, they would expand the scope of “kill missions” and allow for the targeting of lower-level terrorists in addition to high value targets. Second – and more notably – they would suspend high-level vetting of potential drone attacks and raids.

    These changes represent a sharp about-face. The Obama administration carefully crafted a deliberate set of rules guiding the use of force. In 2013, Obama released the Presidential Policy Guidance for Approving Direct Action Against Terrorist Targets (PPG), which created specific rules for determining when the use of force against terrorists was legally justified.

    Then, in 2016, Obama issued an executive order on civilian harm that established heightened standards to minimize civilian casualties from military actions, and required the public release of information pertaining to strikes against terrorist targets.

    US airstrikes ISIS Syria

    While the latest actions from the Trump administration stop short of reversing Obama-era restraints, they are unsettling steps in the opposite direction.

    For example, it appears for now that the White House will preserve the “near certainty” standard, which requires commanders to have near certainty that a potential strike will not impact civilians. But this could change over time.

    One senior official quoted in The New York Times article bluntly asserts that the latest changes are intended to make much of the “bureaucracy” created by the Obama administration rules “disappear.”

    As the White House dissolves the existing bureaucracy and relinquishes civilian oversight, Trump is embarking on a slippery slope that will potentially lead to major diminutions of civilian protection.

    The current battle to take the Syrian city of Raqqa is emblematic of the stakes at hand. The U.S. is leading a punishing air war to soften IS defenses. In August, U.S. forces dropped 5,775 bombs and missiles onto the city. For context, this represented 10 times more munitions than the U.S. used for the whole of Afghanistan in the same month and year.

    The resulting civilian toll has been gruesome. At least 433 civilians likely died in Raqqa due to the August bombings, more than double the previous month’s total. Since the assault on Raqqa commenced on June 6, more than 1,000 civilians have been reported killed.

    U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein cautions that the intense bombardment has left civilians caught between IS’s monstrosities and the fierce battle to defeat it. Zeid insists that “civilians must not be sacrificed for the sake of rapid military victories.”

    Trump would be wise to heed this warning. Even as U.S. forces continue to turn the tide on IS, the trail of destruction left in the campaign’s wake is unsettling. The specter of massive civilian casualties will remain a rallying point for new terrorist organizations long after anti-IS operations conclude.

    SEE ALSO: Lawmakers want the US to stop helping Saudi Arabia in its war on Yemen

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    russia

    Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved to legalize the military’s use of foreign volunteers in overseas operations, a new step in the country’s increasing engagement in wars abroad.

    A decree published Monday — though still not ratified by Parliament — would allow foreign nationals to serve in what the law calls “counterterrorism and peacekeeping missions,” including in Syria, where increasing numbers of Russian service members are currently stationed.

    “The timing of the change is quite telling,” said Alexey Khlebnikov, an analyst with the Russian International Affairs Council. “Russia’s only military operation abroad is in Syria, and only contractors [volunteers as opposed to conscripts] are serving there. This amendment provides regulation for the foreign nationals who participate in Russia’s Syria campaign.”

    Several reports have also emerged over the past three years of Russian security contractors in Syria — oftentimes to protect private facilities like oil and gas infrastructure or engage in “deniable” operations where the government has tried to distance itself from the fighting.

    According to Khlebnikov, the decree might establish a basis for these kinds of operators to work with Russian military operations. “This new version of the decree might open the door for [them] to incorporate themselves into the Russian army,” he told Foreign Policy.

    In one incident in 2013, units from a shadowy group technically based in Hong Kong known as the Slavonic Corps deployed to Syria. After failing to receive promised equipment and losing a number of members in a series of skirmishes, the corps left Syria and was immediately arrested upon returning to Russia for violating laws against mercenary service.

    Another outfit, headed by Dmitry Utkin, a former Russian special forces officer known by his call sign “Wagner,” — also the name of the group — played a more successful role in the combined Russian and Syrian drive to liberate the Syrian city of Palmyra from the Islamic State.

    By distancing the Russian public from battlefield casualties, the use of foreign volunteers in wars like the ones being fought in Syria and Ukraine might also allow Russia to maintain a longer-term presence in those conflicts.

    Russian soldiers in Crimea

    “If you look at forces in Ukraine and Syria, it’s professional soldiers who volunteered for service doing the fighting. They haven’t sent conscripts at all,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

    “It makes the issue of public support for these operations less salient. If you’re not conscripting people into a war to be killed, there’s less of a public foundation for opposition.”

    The incorporation of foreigners into the military also usefully expands the number of available recruits. “It gives them a potentially larger deployable force for expeditionary operations that might not have public support if they had to force Russian citizens to fight in them,” Mankoff told FP.

    During the Cold War, the Soviet Union made extensive use of non-Russian soldiers in foreign conflicts. During the 10-year Soviet-Afghan war, the Soviet Union deployed separate units of Central Asian fighters in some of the deadliest fighting in the conflict. Planners believed that those soldiers, coming from areas with similar dialects to those spoken in Afghanistan, could be used effectively for covert operations.

    While not Russian, those soldiers were citizens of the Soviet Union.

    Members of one of these so-called “Muslim battalions” — composed primarily of ethnic Uzbek, Tajik, and Turkmen recruits — were part of the Soviet special operations unit that stormed the Tajbeg Palace in Kabul in 1979, killing President Hafizullah Amin.

    The assassination and toppling of Amin’s government marked the start of increased Soviet military involvement in Afghanistan.

    More recently, in 2014 State Duma Deputy Roman Khudyakov proposed a Russian “foreign legion” based in Central Asia primarily designed to combat the threat of the Islamic State. The plan, in which local units would be commanded by Russian officers, never made it out of Parliament.

    SEE ALSO: A man who fought with Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine somehow enlisted in the US Army

    Join the conversation about this story »

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    kurdish ypg flag

    RAQQA, Syria — US-backed militias have taken the Syrian city of Raqqa from the Islamic State, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Tuesday.

    US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces raised a militia flag inside Raqqa stadium on Tuesday, one of the last remaining areas that were held by the Islamic State in its former capital, a Reuters witness said.

    The flag of the Kurdish YPG, the strongest of the militias in the SDF, was planted in the middle of the stadium, where fighting had ended but which had not been fully cleared of landmines, militia fighters told the witness.

    A local field commander said no Islamic State fighters remained even in their two remaining city strongholds.

    Fighting on Monday night and Tuesday has focused on Raqqa's National Hospital and the nearby city stadium, two central positions in which the group, also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh, was well entrenched.

    The fall of the city of Raqqa, where the Islamic State staged euphoric parades after its string of lightning victories in 2014, is a potent symbol of the jihadist movement's collapsing fortunes. From the city, the group planned attacks abroad.

    syria iraq isis map raqqa october 2017

    The Islamic State has lost swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq this year, including its most prized possession, Mosul, and in Syria it has been forced back into a strip of the Euphrates valley and surrounding desert.

    The SDF, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, took the National Hospital in fierce fighting overnight and early on Tuesday, the spokesman Mostafa Bali said in a statement.

    An SDF field commander who gave his name as Ager Ozalp said three militiamen had been killed on Monday by mines that have become an Islamic State trademark in its urban battles.

    Another field commander, who gave his name as Abjal al-Syriani, said SDF fighters had entered the stadium and found burned weapons and documents.

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

    The stadium in Raqqa had become the last major position held by the Islamic State after four months of battle in Raqqa and the departure of some of its fighters on Sunday, leaving only foreign jihadists to mount a last stand.

    The SDF has been supported by a US-led international coalition with airstrikes and special forces on the ground since it started the battle for Raqqa city in early June.

    The final SDF assault began Sunday after a group of Syrian jihadists quit the city under a deal with tribal elders, leaving only a hardcore of up to 300 fighters to defend the last positions, including the hospital and stadium.

    ISIS RaqqaRaqqa was the first big city the Islamic State captured in early 2014, before its rapid series of victories in Iraq and Syria brought millions of people under the rule of its self-declared caliphate, which passed laws and issued passports and money.

    It used the city as a planning and operations center for its warfare in the Middle East and its string of attacks overseas, and for a time it imprisoned Western hostages there before killing them in slickly produced films distributed online.

    The SDF advance since Sunday also brought it control over a central city roundabout where the Islamic State once displayed the severed heads of its enemies and which became one of its last lines of defense as the battle progressed.

    SEE ALSO: ISIS fighters, once bent on martyrdom, surrender en masse from last Iraqi stronghold

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Here’s what it was like to live in a city controlled by ISIS


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    Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters ride atop of military vehicles as they celebrate victory in Raqqa, Syria, October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

    BEIRUT (AP) — U.S.-backed forces fighting Islamic State militants in Syria were removing land mines and clearing main roads in Raqqa on Wednesday, a day after their commanders declared the city was under their control, a spokesman said.

    Mustafa Bali, spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said preparations were also underway for a formal declaration of the liberation of Raqqa.

    SDF announced on Tuesday that military operations in Raqqa have ended and that their troops have taken full control of the city, once the heart of IS' self-styled caliphate. The U.S.-led coalition cautioned that the clearing operations were not finished and that it estimated about 100 militants may still be hiding in the city.

    On Wednesday, the spokesman for the U.S. coalition, Col. Ryan Dillon, tweeted that 95 percent of the city is now under full control as clearing operations continue.

    The coalition stressed that the SDF had been successful in keeping captured territories from IS because of its thorough clearing procedures that prevent typical IS counterattacks.

    Brett McGurk, the top U.S. envoy for the coalition battling the Islamic State group, said he was in northern Syria to prepare for the defeat of the militants. He said the United States will help in clearing explosives as well as restoring services in the city.

    McGurk posted a photograph Wednesday of surrendering IS militants, saying: "once purported as fierce, now pathetic and a lost cause."

    The fall of Raqqa deals a major defeat to the extremist group that has seen its territory steadily shrink since summer. Militants took over Raqqa, located on the Euphrates River, in 2014 and transformed it into the epicenter of their brutal rule.

    But fighting against IS militants is not over. The group still holds territories to the south of Raqqa, along the border with Iraq in the oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour, and to the west in the central Homs province.

    syria iraq isis map raqqa october 2017

    In separate offensives, the SDF and the Russian-backed Syrian government are battling the Islamic State group in Deir el-Zour. On Wednesday, fierce clashes were reported between SDF fighters and IS militants in the group's last strip of land in Hassakeh province, to the east of Raqqa city.

    Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that monitors the war in Syria, also reported intense clashes between forces allied with the Syrian government and IS militants in an area between Homs and Deir el-Zour.

    SEE ALSO: ISIS has fallen in its last Syrian stronghold

    Join the conversation about this story »

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    Surrendering ISIS fighters

    After US-backed Kurdish and Syrian forces defeated ISIS in the terror group's final Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, tweeted a picture of its fighters surrendering en masse.

    "#ISIS lost nearly 6000 terrorists in #Raqqa, then surrendered in large numbers. Once purported as fierce, now pathetic and a lost cause,"tweeted McGurk

    McGurk's photo comes after other reports of mass surrenders of ISIS fighters as the terror group loses wide swaths of territory and changes tactics to allow surrender. Previously, ISIS had leaned heavily on its members' willingness to die for the cause.

    Today, the soldiers seem content to surrender to Kurdish forces, who take them prisoner instead of other forces, which may execute or even torture them.

    With the liberation of Raqqa, ISIS now controls only a small area of mostly desert towns along the Syrian and Iraqi border. Local militias, governments, and a US-led coalition of 67 nations have led a ground and air offensive to erode the group's territory since its inception in 2014.

    McGurk posted several other pictures of the US-led forces reclaiming schools and other vital infrastructure.

    syria iraq isis map raqqa october 2017

     

    SEE ALSO: ISIS fighters, once bent on martyrdom, surrender en masse from last Iraqi stronghold

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    Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa

    • Drone footage shows the bombed-out city of Raqqa, Syria on the cusp of liberation from ISIS earlier this week.
    • On Tuesday, US-backed forces officially claimed control of the city, the de facto Islamic State capital, which was captured by ISIS in 2014.


    Drone footage obtained by CNN earlier this week shows the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State terrorist group, barren and bombed-out on the cusp of its liberation by US-backed forces. 

    The footage exposes a city, the sixth largest in Syria prior to the civil war, devastated by years of heavy fighting, which intensified in recent months as the US-led coalition attempted to take control. 

    The video shows overheard views of Paradise Square, once used by ISIS as a public space for beheadings and crucifixions, Raqqa's National Hospital, which is believed to have been used by ISIS to hold civilians, who were used as human shields, and a stadium where foreign militants are believed to have been based. 

    While the fall of Raqqa is seen by many experts as a turning point in the fight against ISIS, Western and Middle Eastern military and intelligence officials are preparing themselves for a new incarnation of the terrorist group. 

    Experts say on-the-ground efforts to eradicate ISIS will not necessarily reduce the occurrence of ISIS-inspired lone wolf attacks, both in the Middle East and in the West.

    Watch the drone footage below: 

    SEE ALSO: US-backed forces clear up Raqqa after ISIS's crushing defeat

    SEE ALSO: US launches first-ever strikes against ISIS in Yemen

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    Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa

    • US-backed forces cleared the remaining ISIS fighters from Raqqa
    • But the fight is far from over: ISIS is transforming from a territory-controlling "quasi-state," to an insurgency
    • Its fighters will still perpetrate suicide bombings, and encourage lone-wolf style attacks in Western countries

    US-backed forces on Tuesday cleared the remaining Islamic State, or ISIS, forces from Raqqa, Syria, the group's de facto capital since it was first captured four years ago.

    Losing Raqqa, and the majority of its territory in Syria, is a major victory for the anti-IS coalition, but it's not the end of the terrorist group. It rather marks a transformation from a "quasi-state," to an insurgency, Hassan Hassan, a journalist who has covered ISIS since the group's inception, wrote in The National on Wednesday.

    At the height of its power — when it controlled both Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria — ISIS posed a much stronger, and more credible threat to the US and Western countries, Hassan wrote. Now, backed into a corner, ISIS is operating like an insurgency, relying on guerrilla tactics like sniper fire, highly-mobile ambush units, and suicide attacks.

    "Adoption of insurgency tactics increased as its territory shrank," Hassan wrote. "With the loss of Raqqa and much of Deir Ezzor, the group is now primarily an insurgent organization based in rural and desert areas."

    syria iraq isis map raqqa october 2017

    ISIS has been pushed out of Syria and Iraq's major cities, and now only controls a patchwork of villages and remote desert areas on the border between the two countries.

    Following its territory loss, ISIS' ability to recruit people to its cause has suffered.

    "ISIL does not present the same threat it presented three years ago," Hassan wrote. "It cannot threaten places like Baghdad, Erbil and neighboring countries as it once did."

    But the fight is far from over. Raqqa has been largely destroyed by sustained fighting, and ISIS will continue to inspire lone-wolf style attacks in areas well outside of its territorial control, based on propaganda materials it distributes online.

    ISIS' reversion to a guerilla force is part of a long-simmering plan from its leaders, who prepared to lose territory to US-backed Syrian and Kurdish Forces as early as last year.

    A view of a part of downtown Raqqa after it was liberated from the Islamic State militants, in Raqqa, Syria October 17, 2017. Picture taken October 17, 2017.    REUTERS/Erik De Castro

    "Islamic State is not finished," Aaron Y. Zelin, of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The New York Times. "IS has a plan, and that is to wait out their enemies locally in order to gain time to rebuild their networks while at the same time provide inspiration to followers outside to keep fighting their enemies farther away."

    Hassan, writing in The National, said US-backed forces could engender further conflict by ignoring the "local context"— including allying with groups of whom the local population is suspicious — of the regions where they're fighting.

    "The point is that victory against extremists cannot be accomplished by dropping bombs," Hassan wrote. "When the US entered Syria in 2014, it ignored the broader context and environment from which ISIL emerged."

    It's "the kind of short-sightedness," that usually brings US forces back to the region to "fight a threat they previously did not finish properly," Hassan added.

    He has a point. Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, an ISIS spokesman who was killed by a drone strike in 2016, encouraged ISIS fighters to keep fighting in a speech last year.

    "True defeat is the loss of willpower and desire to fight," he said, per The Times. "We would be defeated and you victorious only if you were able to remove the Quran from the Muslims’ hearts."

    SEE ALSO: ISIS has fallen in its last Syrian stronghold

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    ISIS convoy Syria

    BEIRUT (AP) — Over several nights in September, some 10,000 men, women and children fled areas under Islamic State control, hurrying through fields in northern Syria and risking fire from government troops to reach a province held by an al-Qaida-linked group.

    For an untold number of battle-hardened jihadis fleeing with the civilians, the escape to Idlib province marked a homecoming of sorts, an opportunity to continue waging war alongside an extremist group that shares much of the Islamic State’s ideology — and has benefited from its prolonged downfall.

    While the US-led coalition and Russian-backed Syrian troops have been focused on driving IS from the country’s east, an al-Qaida-linked insurgent coalition known as the Levant Liberation Committee has consolidated its control over Idlib, and may be looking to return to Osama bin Laden’s strategy of attacking the West.

    Syrian activists with contacts in the area say members of the Levant Liberation Committee vouched for fleeing IS fighters they had known before the two groups split four years ago and allowed them to join, while others were sent to jail. The activists spoke on condition of anonymity because they still visit the area and fear reprisals from the jihadis.

    IS has lost nearly all the territory it once controlled in Syria and Iraq, including the northern Iraqi city of Mosul — the largest it ever held — and the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, which once served as its de facto capital. Tens of thousands of its fighters have been killed on the battlefield, but an untold number have escaped. As it gradually disintegrates, theological splits have also emerged within the organization, including the rise of a faction that blames its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for the setbacks.

    “Al-Qaida will welcome ISIS members with open arms, those are battled-hardened with potent field experience,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics and the author of “ISIS: A History.”

    ISIS is an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group.

    FILE PHOTO - Syrians wait at a checkpoint at the Syrian border crossing of Bab al-Hawa on the Syrian-Turkish border in Idlib Governorate January 21, 2015. REUTERS/Abed Kontar

    The two groups both sprang from al-Qaida in Iraq, which emerged in the years after the 2003 US-led invasion, but split over ideology and leadership in 2013 and battled each other across northern Syria. Earlier this month, IS attacked the Levant Liberation Committee again, in what was seen as a revenge attack after the defections.

    While IS went on to carve out a proto-state in large parts of Syria and Iraq and declared an Islamic caliphate in 2014, the al-Qaida militants allied themselves with other Syrian insurgent groups and cultivated grass-roots support by providing aid and other services to civilians. They remained focused on the war against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, although they’ve also crushed several small US-backed rebel factions.

    But despite formally severing ties with al-Qaida last year and repeatedly changing its name, the group is still widely seen as a loyal affiliate of the global network that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks. Brett McGurk, the top US envoy for the coalition battling the Islamic State group, has said Idlib is the largest al-Qaida haven since bin Laden’s days in Afghanistan.

    “I worry that al-Qaida has taken advantage of the past three or four years to very quietly rebuild while ISIS has preoccupied our attention,” said Bruce Hoffman, head of Georgetown University’s security studies program and author of “Inside Terrorism.”

    “This is in al-Qaida’s DNA, to either absorb, wait out or forcibly deal with any of their rivals so that they’re the last man standing.” The growth of the Levant Liberation Committee in the past year “has really astonished me,” he added.

    A view of a part of downtown Raqqa after it was liberated from the Islamic State militants, in Raqqa, Syria October 17, 2017. Picture taken October 17, 2017.    REUTERS/Erik De Castro

    Two Iraqi intelligence officials told The Associated Press in Baghdad that bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahri, sent an envoy to Syria to convince IS fighters to defect and join his group. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters, said this might have been the reason behind an audiotape released by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Sept. 28, in which he ordered his fighters not to “retreat, run away, negotiate or surrender.”

    While al-Qaida may yet regain the mantle of worldwide jihad, it could also come under increasing threat in its bastion in northwestern Syria, as the forces arrayed against IS shift their focus to a new potentially worldwide threat.

    “The honeymoon period for al-Qaida, in which the so-called Islamic State absorbed most of the counterterrorism focus while al-Qaida’s affiliates grew stronger, is coming to an end,” according to an analysis by the Soufan Group security consultancy.

    Al Qaeda Nusra Front

    “It now appears Zawahiri is seeking to consolidate the terror network and return the group to its heyday as the vanguard of a global movement,” it added.

    That could place the militants in the crosshairs of the international coalition.

    Turkey launched a limited military operation in Idlib last week aimed at imposing a “de-escalation zone,” one of several set up across Syria under an agreement between Turkey, Iran and Russia.

    The Turkish troops have yet to confront al-Qaida, but that could change if it comes to be seen as a regional or international threat.

    Meanwhile, Assad’s forces, fresh from victories against IS in eastern Syria, may switch their focus to Idlib, the largest remaining insurgent bastion in the country. Russia, which has been waging an air campaign in support of Assad since 2015, struck an al-Qaida gathering in Idlib earlier this month, and claimed to have killed several militant commanders.

    The US-led coalition has targeted al-Qaida militants on several occasions in recent years, aiming to disrupt what US officials say is a secretive cell known as the Khorasan group that is planning external attacks. A US airstrike killed al-Qaida’s second in command, former bin Laden aide Abu al-Kheir al-Masri, in Syria earlier this year.

    SEE ALSO: A new Taliban tactic is racking up a huge body count in Afghanistan

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    Assad

    MOSCOW (Reuters) - A proposal to convene a congress of all Syria's ethnic groups is a joint initiative which is being promoted by Russia and others and is now being actively discussed, the Kremlin said on Friday.

    It is premature, however, to discuss the time and venue for the congress, which is seen as a mechanism to assist Syria's post-war development, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a conference call with reporters.

    Putin mentioned the idea of holding such a congress at a forum with foreign scholars on Thursday.

    SEE ALSO: Moscow wants the world to get behind a Russia-Chinese roadmap to dealing with North Korea

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    Russia navy submarine cruise missile Syria

    • Russia has worked to enhance its naval capabilities since 2000.
    • The war in Syria has given it a chance to test those new assets, and Western and Russian warships now both operate in the eastern Mediterranean.
    • Their operations there underscore how naval tactics and strategy are shifting.

    Western and Russian warships have been in close proximity in the eastern Mediterranean, where both sides are assisting partners fighting in Syria.

    Both sides have used it as an opportunity to keep tabs on each other, studying their adversary's capabilities and tactics.

    Russian attack submarine Krasnodar left the Baltic Sea in early May, heading to the eastern Mediterranean, according to The Wall Street Journal.

    Russia submarine Krasnodar navy

    It was tracked along the way by NATO ships, including by a Dutch frigate that took a photo of the sub in the North Sea.

    By the end of the month, it had arrived on station, and the Russian Defense Ministry announced the cruise missiles it fired hit ISIS targets near Palmyra in Syria.

    A few days later, the USS George H.W. Bush sailed through the Suez Canal, meant to support US-backed rebels in Syria.

    For sailors and pilots from the Bush, with little formal training in anti-sub operations, their duties now included monitoring the Krasnodar.

    "It is an indication of the changing dynamic in the world that a skill set, maybe we didn’t spend a lot of time on in the last 15 years, is coming back," Capt. Jim McCall, commander of the air wing on the USS Bush, told The Journal.

    The cat-and-mouse game continued in the eastern Mediterranean throughout the summer.

    US Navy George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier

    US helicopters ran numerous operations in search of the sub. Flight trackers also picked up US aircraft doing what seemed to be anti-submarine patrols off the Syrian coast and south of Cyprus. In mid-June, the Krasnodar fired more cruise missiles at ISIS targets in Syria, in response to the US downing a Syrian fighter jet near Raqqa.

    In Syria, an increasingly complex battlefield situation has sometimes set the US and Russian at odds. Russia has offered few details about its operations, and the US-led coalition has had to keep a closer eye on Russian subs in the eastern Mediterranean.

    The Krasnodar didn't threaten the Bush during these operations. But subs are generally hard to detect, and one like the Krasnodar attracts special attention. Its noise-reducing abilities have earned it the nickname "The Black Hole."

    "One small submarine has the ability to threaten a large capital asset like an aircraft carrier," US Navy Capt. Bill Ellis, commander of US anti-sub planes in Europe, told The Journal.

    US Navy George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier Seahawk helicopter

    Russia has beefed up its naval forces considerably since 2000, seeking to reverse the decline of the 1990s.

    The Krasnodar marked an advancement in Russian submarines, and more a new class of subs — designed to sink aircraft carriers — is now being built, according to The Journal.

    While Russia has gotten better at disguising its subs, the US and Western countries have kept pace with enhanced tracking abilities.

    "We are much better at it than we were 20 years ago," Cmdr. Edward Fossati, who oversees the Bush's anti-sub helicopters, told The Journal.

    But the Krasnodar's Mediterranean maneuvers appeared to meet Moscow's goals, striking in Syria while avoiding Western warships.

    Moscow's naval activity around Europe now exceeds what was seen during the Cold War, a NATO official said this spring, and NATO and Russian ships sometimes operate in close quarters around the continent.

    When the UK sent its new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, to sea trials in June, navy officials said they expected Russian submarines to spy on it. During US-UK naval exercises — in which the Bush participated — off the coast of Scotland in August, a Russian submarine was spotted shadowing the drills.

    SEE ALSO: The US Navy and Coast Guard are looking to play catch-up in the Arctic

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    Su-24 Russia

    The most recent satellite images of the Russian-operated Hmeimim air base in Syria show Moscow has deployed more advanced fighter jets to the region, according to The Drive.

    The satellite images, taken in mid-July, show 33 jets and a smaller number of fixed-wing aircraft.

    There could, however, be more than 33, as some jets and aircraft could have been conducting sorties or flying elsewhere when the images were taken.

    Moscow first sent fighter jets to Syria to help the Assad regime, which is a large purchaser of Russian arms, in 2015 — but that was mostly older attack aircraft, such as the Su-24 Fencer.

    Here's what Russia has in Syria now.

    SEE ALSO: Russia just got a new batch of Su-34 fighter jets — here's what they can do

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

    1. Su-24

    The satellite images from July showed 11 Su-24 Fencers, but that number might now be 10, since one Fencer crashed last week, killing both pilots. 

    The Su-24 is one of Russia's older aircraft and will eventually be replaced by the Su-34, but it can still carry air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles, as well as laser-guided bombs. 

     



    2. Su-25

    The July satellite images showed three Su-25 Frogfoots.

    The Frogfoot is another of Russia's older attack aircraft. It's designed to make low-flying attack runs and is comparable to the US's legendary A-10 Warthog. 

    Su-25s had flown more than 1,600 sorties and dropped more than 6,000 bombs by March 2016, just six months after their arrival in Syria.  

     



    This photo, taken near the Hmeimim air base in 2015, shows an Su-25 carrying OFAB-250s, which are high-explosive fragmentation bombs.

    Source: Sim Tack, chief military analyst at Force Analysis. 



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    A Syrian Democratic Forces fighter

    • Islamic State militants went on a killing spree before Syrian government forces overtook the town of Qaryatayn, activists said Monday.
    • At least 67 civilians were found dead.
    • ISIS forces have been on the run lately in Iraq and Syria as US-led coalition forces close in on their territory.


    BEIRUT (AP) — The bodies of at least 67 Syrian civilians, many summarily killed by the Islamic State group, have been discovered in a central town in Syria retaken from IS by government troops over the weekend, the Syrian government and activists said Monday.

    A senior Syrian official described the attack as a "shocking massacre," saying the search and documentation of those killed in the town of Qaryatayn, in Homs province, is still under way.

    The news of the gruesome find began to emerge first late on Sunday. The number of bodies was likely to climb.

    Some were shot in the street as IS militants retreated from the town, gunned down because they were suspected of working with the governments, according to activists. At least 35 of the casualties were found shot and their bodies dumped in a shaft.

    The apparent revenge killings underscore the Islamic State group's ability to inflict heavy losses in Syria even while its militants are on the retreat in north and eastern Syria, days after having been defeated in Raqqa, the group's one-time "capital" of its self-proclaimed caliphate. They also raise the specter of more revenge killings by the group while it fights to hang on to its last strongholds in Syria.

    An Associated Press video, filmed as Syrian government troops recaptured Qaryatayn, showed several bodies in the streets of the town. In the video, a town resident says IS "monsters" killed more than a 100 people, including soldiers and civilians.

    "These are people who don't know God, they don't know anything. They killed children and women with knives, they beat women, broke their arms," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity fearing for his own safety.

    Talal Barazi, the governor of Homs province, told The Associated Press on Monday that most of the bodies were of townspeople who were government employees or were affiliated with Syria's ruling Baath party.

    He said the killings went on for the three weeks that IS was in town and "terrorized" its residents, adding that at least 13 residents remain missing while six bodies have not been identified.

    "It is a shocking massacre," he said.

    Syrian civilian deaths

    The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had documented the killings of at least 128 people killed in Qaryatayn during the last days of IS control of the town.

    On Saturday, Syrian troops and allied militias regained control of the town, which was held by IS for three weeks. The government-run Syrian Central Military Media at the time said the Syrian army and its allies restored security and stability to Qaryatayn after clearing the town of IS fighters.

    The head of the Observatory, Rami Abdurrahman, sad that what happened in the town was a "massacre."

    The activist-run Palmyra Coordination Committee published the names of 67 civilians confirmed killed and also said the number was likely to rise. It said at least 35 were found shot and dumped into a deep shaft.

    The activist-run group said other bodies were also found in the town streets — apparently of people shot by pro-government forces and suspected of working with IS. The Observatory also said it documented at least 12 killed at the hands of pro-government troops after they regained control of the town.

    Syrian deaths

    IS militants first seized Qaryatayn in August 2015, and relied on the strategically located town to defend another of their bastions, the historic city of Palmyra. At the time, thousands of the town's Christian residents fled, fearing the extremist group's brutality.

    With Russian backing, Syrian troops regained control of the town in April 2016. But IS, facing major setbacks around Syria and Iraq, launched a new attack on the town in late September and recaptured it.

    At the time, Russia accused the United States, which is battling the Islamic State group, of looking the other way and allowing IS to attack Qaryatayn.

    Most of the IS militants who were involved in attacks on the town were local residents. Pro-government media blamed the loss of Qaryatayn for the second time on what it described as militant "sleeper cells."

    There was no immediate comment from the government in Damascus on the find of the civilian bodies in Qaryatayn.

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    SDF/YPJ celebrating

    After months of fighting, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have conquered Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State's so-called caliphate and its last major stronghold in the Middle East.

    But the victory by no means indicates that ISIS is defeated, and enormous ethnic challenges still lie ahead for the embattled country.

    Here's how the Raqqa campaign was won, and what lies on the horizon for Syria:

    SEE ALSO: Iraqi forces seize oil city Kirkuk from Kurds

    SEE ALSO: Here’s what it was like to live in a city controlled by ISIS

    The campaign to retake Raqqa from ISIS (which seized the ancient Syrian city in early 2014) officially began in November 2016, several weeks after the campaign to retake Mosul, the group's stronghold in Iraq, was announced.

    Source:The Independent

    SDF spokesman Talal Sello said the campaign would consist of"first liberating the countryside around Raqqa and isolating the city, and second taking control of the city."

    As per Sello's description, the SDF advanced south from their territory in northern Syria, capturing ISIS-held villages east and west of Raqqa all while buoyed by American airstrikes. In addition, a key target was the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River, which the SDF also seized in May. 

    Although the Syrian Democratic Front is dominated by Syrian Kurds, the units deployed to fight in the Raqqa campaign were 70% Arab, according to the SDF. This was done to foster ethnic solidarity between soldiers and the majority-Arab city and environs of Raqqa.



    The Syrian Democratic Forces that led the Raqqa campaign is a coalition of various militias, however it has always been led by the Kurds.

    The undisputed leaders of the SDF are the Popular Defense Units, or the YPG, a Kurdish militia with ties to the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) in Turkey, along with their all-female companion force, the YPJ. The YPG first gained US support during the Battle of Kobane in 2014, when the group handed ISIS its first battlefield defeat while defending the Kurdish town on the border between Syria and Turkey.



    The SDF was created in order to bring non-Kurdish groups that live in northern Syria, including Assyrian Christians and especially Sunni Arabs, into cooperation with the Kurds to create a single, moderate coalition to defeat ISIS. Yet inter-ethnic problems remain.

    Source: Channel News Asiathe YPG and the Washington Post

    Despite SDF's secular, democratic nature and US backing, the group has been accused of war crimes. Although the YPG has denied such allegations, The Nation has reported that the group has expelled Arabs from conquered villages at gunpoint. The United Nations also disputes these claims, saying that these expulsions were for civilians' safety and did not constitute ethnic cleansing.

    In addition, clashes have occurred between the YPG and Assyrians in Kurdish-held territories.



    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    jac holmes august 2017

    • A 24-year-old British man fighting ISIS in Syria has been killed clearing away landmines.
    • He used to work in IT and painting back home in Bournemouth.
    • His mother said she was hoping "he'd be home for Christmas."


    A Briton who left his job in IT to fight the Islamic State has been killed in Raqqa, one of the terrorist group's strongholds in Syria.

    Jac Holmes, 24, died while clearing away landmines in the Syrian city to make the area safe for civilians, the BBC reported on Tuesday. The news comes after US-backed forces retook Raqqa from ISIS militants.

    The former IT worker from Bournemouth left home to fight ISIS alongside the Kurdish militia, also known as the YPG, in 2015. He received no military training before joining the group.

    Holmes' friends and family learned of his death on Monday evening, the BBC said. His mother, Angie Biannin, said her son "loved being a soldier" and that she was hoping he would "be home for Christmas." She said:

    "He loved what he was doing there, he loved being a soldier. He had the courage of his convictions. He was just a boy when he left the UK, a little bit lost. He told me he didn't know what he wanted to do with his life. But by going out there, he found something that he was good at and that he loved.

    "He stuck by his convictions because he wanted to be there and he wanted to see the end of Raqqa and to see the end of the caliphate. That was a moment in history, and he wanted to be part of it.

    "We thought with any luck he'd be home for Christmas. It had been so tough since he had been away but I was always 100% behind him."

    jac holmes

    In 2015, Holmes was featured in Channel 4 documentary "Frontline Fighting: The Brits Battling Isis." He said he joined the fight because he didn't want to be "sat here fixing people's computers or painting people's walls" while ISIS, or Daesh, committed atrocities.

    "I'm just another guy down in Bournemouth," he said. "Another young 22-year-old just like everyone else. Spent some time in IT, painting and decorating.

    "It just makes you think: What the f***k am I doing, there are people over there getting blown to pieces everyday, cutting off hands, cutting off heads, forcing people to be sex slaves. I'm just sat here fixing people's computers or painting people's walls.

    "Fighting is the simplest thing you can do. I've got no issue with killing these Daesh guys who are trying to kill me."

    jac holmes 2015

    In addition to appearing in Channel 4's documentary, Holmes also regularly posted live videos of himself on the battlefield. This was his last public Facebook video:

    Ok live from raqqa. Quiet night. Ask me whatever.

    Posted by Jac Holmes on Wednesday, October 4, 2017

    The UK Foreign Office said anyone leaving Britain to fight in Syria, and who engages in activities that flout British terrorism laws, could be prosecuted upon their return.

    Holmes told the BBC in 2015 he was aware of his risk of prosecution, saying: "You just have to hope that our justice system works in the correct way."

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    NOW WATCH: Trump once won a lawsuit against the NFL — but the result was an embarrassment


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    rex tillerson donald trump

    • ISIS has recently suffered a series of major losses, including Raqqa, the group's capital in Syria.
    • The US State Department rejected the suggestion that ISIS's losses were due in part to a "multi-administration" effort.


    The State Department on Tuesday rejected the suggestion that the defeat of the Islamic State in its chief stronghold reflects a "multi-administration" effort that included former President Barack Obama's team.

    "The previous administration tried," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Tuesday. "But President Trump, and under this administration, we have doubled down on the efforts to take back all of the territory that had been taken by ISIS."

    That was a pointed repudiation of any debt to the Obama administration, days after Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson celebrated the capture of Raqqa, the capital of ISIS in Syria. The taking of that city sparked a victory lap in U.S. circles, as well as a political debate over how much credit Trump should receive.

    "I issued orders to give our commanders and troops on the ground the full authorities to achieve this mission," Trump said Saturday. "We have made, alongside our coalition partners, more progress against these evil terrorists in the past several months than in the past several years."

    Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters ride atop military vehicles as they celebrate victory in Raqqa, Syria, October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

    That was a reference to an easing of rules of engagement that allowed for more aggressive air strikes and other offensive efforts. "He directed a tactical shift from shoving ISIS out of safe locations in an attrition fight to surrounding the enemy in their strongholds so we can annihilate ISIS," Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said of Trump in May.

    Obama loyalists emphasized that Trump only changed tactics, rather than strategy. The U.S.-led coalition against ISIS is spearheaded by Brett McGurk, a special envoy who was appointed by Obama and has continued in that post under Trump.

    "The plan ... was laid out two years ago, and has been executed pretty much in the manner and the schedule that was foreseen then," former Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who led the Pentagon under Obama, told CNN.

    Nauert didn't yield that point. "Well, they were forced to, right?" she said of the Obama team's counter-ISIS efforts. "We had ISIS taking over large swathes of country that our men and women had fought alongside, not just Iraqis, but other governments. We had fought to take these lands, on the part of the Iraqi government in many of these places, and then we saw all of those successes disappear when ISIS came in with their black flags and took over Fallujah, etc., and many other places as well."

    And she echoed Trump's sentiments. "This administration has redoubled its efforts and we are having success and we are seeing that now," Nauert said.

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    donald trump

    • The Trump administration will reportedly resume processing refugee applications from all countries, but will slow the process temporarily for most applicants from 11 countries.
    • The news comes the same day President Donald Trump's 120-day refugee program suspension expires.
    • The administration has sought to crack down on refugee admissions, announcing last month it would accept just 45,000 during the 2018 fiscal year.

    The Trump administration is expected to begin accepting refugee applications from every country, but will add new rules meant to toughen the vetting process for applicants from 11 countries in particular.

    Most refugee applicants from those countries will be subject to a temporary delay in the processing of their applications, according to a memo obtained by Reuters.

    The memo, which was sent to members of Congress on Tuesday by administration officials, said citizens of 11 "high risk countries" will be subject to the delays. It's unclear which countries the administration has flagged.

    Those applicants will reportedly undergo increased scrutiny by multiple government agencies that will consider the security threats posed by the refugees, according to The Wall Street Journal, citing people familiar with the matter.

    The move is part of a broader crackdown on refugee admissions by the Trump administration, which announced in late September it would reduce the number of refugees resettled in the US in the 2018 fiscal year to 45,000.

    That figure, which is the lowest ceiling on refugee admissions since the Refugee Act was created in 1980, caused refugee advocates to balk. A global refugee crisis has left millions around the world displaced, putting pressure on western nations like the US to dramatically increase the amount of refugees annually admitted.

    trump travel ban airportThe news of the new refugee admissions rules came just as President Donald Trump's 120-day suspension of the refugee program expired. The halt was part of Trump’s broader travel ban, which was partly blocked by the courts and has since been replaced by a new ban imposing travel restrictions on eight countries.

    Two federal judges blocked the new ban before it was set to take effect on October 18.

    Refugee advocates and resettlement agencies have frequently criticized the Trump administration over its stance on refugees, arguing that the US already employs the most stringent vetting procedures possible for refugee applicants that cause years-long delays before many refugees are approved.

    "This will add months, or potentially years, to the most urgent cases — the majority of which are women and children in heinous circumstances who need the permanent and proven solution of resettlement," Jennifer Sime, the International Rescue Committee’s senior vice president of US programs, said in a statement.

    "With a myriad of actions against refugees and immigrants — and a demonstrated inclination to erect any obstacle possible — this administration provokes apprehension when regularly electing for withdrawal, over decency and resolve," Sime said.

    Refugee vetting requires an immense, multiagency effort from the federal government involving the departments of State, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and Defense, as well as the FBI and other parts of the US Intelligence Community, all of which test refugees' biographic and biometric information against multiple databases.

    Beyond that, multiple, hours-long interviews are conducted with the refugees, which include detailed and repeated questions designed to test the consistency of refugees' stories.

    The State Department has said this screening process typically takes between 18 and 24 months, but immigration attorneys have said that vastly underestimates the process — many refugees wait four to eight years before their screenings are complete.

    SEE ALSO: The Trump administration will drop the refugee cap to 45,000 — the lowest in decades

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    Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters ride atop military vehicles as they celebrate victory in Raqqa, Syria, October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

    BEIRUT (AP) — As US-allied fighters hurtle down the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, a showdown could ensue between the US and Russia, whose allies are racing to take over the same strategic oil-rich territory from the Islamic State group.

    While the two sides will likely avoid a direct confrontation, the capture of Raqqa by the US-backed forces, followed by their swift seizure of Syria's largest oil field from IS, has irked Damascus, which needs the oil to boost its flagging economy.

    As the rival international coalitions compete to defeat the militants and snap up oil and gas fields, the Russian military has issued a stream of angry statements, accusing the US of colluding with the Islamic State and other extremist groups in a bid to stymie the government's advances.

    Both the US and Russia have embedded special forces with their respective partners and are supporting their advances with aggressive airstrikes. They have so far avoided any significant confrontations by maintaining talks and a hotline intended to prevent midair and ground incidents.

    Ryan Dillan, spokesman for the US-led anti-IS coalition, said contacts with Russia were continuing to avoid friction on the ground around Syria's Al-Omar oil field, which was seized by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces on Sunday. But he indicated the coalition was prepared for any possibility.

    "We are prepared to defend our partners if they are attacked, whether by ISIS fighters or by anyone else. We certainly don't want to come to that and we will continue to de-conflict with our Russian partners," he told The Associated Press on Tuesday. He suggested the SDF would continue to march south into the town of Boukamal on the Iraqi border after consolidating their gains, fueling concerns of conflict between the two groups and their superpower sponsors.

    US soldiers Syria

    The stakes are high and the two sides have exchanged accusations of firing on one another in the past.

    As the Islamic State group sheds its hold on territory, Iranian- and Russia-backed Syrian government forces have been gaining ground on the western bank of the Euphrates River, while the US-backed SDF is advancing on the eastern bank and has already seized a major natural gas field and other smaller oil fields in addition to Al-Omar.

    The Al-Omar field, which before the war produced around 9,000 barrels a day, is a major prize for both sides, particularly the Syrian government whose coffers have been decimated by the country's war, now in its seventh year.

    The Syrian government and the Kurds have maintained a complicated relationship throughout Syria's war, mostly refraining from fighting one another while some rebels have accused the Kurds of being secretly aligned with the Syrian president. But US support in the fight against IS has emboldened Syria's Kurds, who now control nearly 25 percent of Syrian territory and have expanded into non-Kurdish, Arab-dominated areas, unsettling Damascus.

    Their capture of Raqqa, the former heart of the Islamic State group's so-called caliphate, was a highly prestigious win and has further raised their profile. Syrian state-run media ignored reports about the US-backed force's capture of Raqqa for days, and it's not clear how Syrian troops will respond to their seizure of the Al-Omar field.

    Female fighters from Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) react in Raqqa, Syria, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

    Both sides have upped the rhetoric, and have started talking about a possible confrontation.

    "We don't consider any town to be liberated before the Syrian army enters it and raises the Syrian flag over it," Syrian Information Minister Mohammad Ramiz Turjuman said in an interview with the RIA Novosti news agency on Monday.

    A prominent Damascus-based Syrian lawmaker went even further.

    "We will confront any side that stands in the way of the Syrian Arab Army and its allies recovering any area they want," said Khaled Abboud, whose views reflect government thinking.

    Ahmed Abu Khawla, commander of the Deir el-Zour military council leading the battle for the SDF, said the goal was to completely liberate the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, adding that his troops did not wish to clash with any party other than IS at this stage.

    "We were determined to get this oil field. We are expecting everything. We can see clashes and we have taken our precautions. Our project is to liberate the eastern bank — all of it," he said.

    Syria Syrian Oil Rig

    "We are ready for all solutions: political, diplomatic or military," he added.

    Some have suggested the SDF now has enough cards to bargain with the Syrian government in future negotiations.

    "I do expect the Assad regime will pressure the SDF to relinquish control of the oil field in return for some form of financial or energy support from the regime," said Jennifer Cafarella, lead researcher at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

    She said Russia, Iran, and Assad were likely preparing to cut a strategic deal with the main Kurdish militia for the future governance of eastern Syria.

    "Russia and Assad could actually demand limits on the U.S. presence in eastern Syria as a condition of a deal," she said.

    Hassan Hassan, a Syria expert who co-authored a book about the Islamic State group, said he did not think there would be a showdown.

    "We assume the SDF will continue to control the oilfield and surrounding areas if Russia sticks to the de-confliction understanding with Washington, which stipulates that they avoid attacking the other side in a certain area once the other side expels ISIS from it," he said.

    "The regime would have wanted to control the oilfields, but the SDF checkmated it," he added.

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    NOW WATCH: Here’s what it was like to live in a city controlled by ISIS


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    US soldiers Syria

    • An expert on ISIS says the lack of a political plan for the Sunni-majority regions of Iraq and Syria will undo military gains against the terrorist group.
    • Feelings of isolation and alienation remain among Sunnis in post-war Iraq and Syria.
    • Future political control in cities ISIS recently held remains an unresolved issue.


    An ISIS expert claims there is a glaring "Achilles heel" present in the US strategy in Iraq and Syria, stating that the lack of any planning for the political future of the region after the terrorist group is wiped out will nullify the military gains made against the group.

    And while the fall of ISIS's de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria might mark a significant gain against the terrorist group also known as the Islamic State, there is much work left to be done.

    "Only a fool would call this a victory," Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and the co-author of "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,"told The New Yorker. "It's only the expulsion of ISIS fighters from a wasteland. It's not a victory, not only because of the destruction. It's also not a victory because there's a shameless lack of a political track to supplement the military track. That's the Achilles heel of Operation Inherent Resolve. They don't have a political vision about what will happen after ISIS." 

    The destruction Hassan mentions is almost total in Raqqa. The activist journalism group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently claims that 90% of the city has been destroyed by the months of fighting between ISIS, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, and the US coalition.

    children in raqqa

    The group has documented more than 3,829 airstrikes and 1,873 civilian deaths throughout the urban battle, and says 450,000 people remain displaced from the city.

    Yet Hassan's main argument is that the main threat to the success of the US-led mission is that there is no political plan for what will come after ISIS's territorial defeat.

    Professor Robert Pape, the director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism at the University of Chicago, said he agrees.

    "When we invaded and conquered Iraq in 2003 we created ungoverned space for Sunni Arabs in Iraq which then spilled over in nearby Syria," Pape says. "The worry here is that as that area of Iraq and Syria now could remain ungoverned space from the perspective of the Sunni Arabs, this problem may just simply fester and continue."

    ISIS, and the war to defeat it, has inflicted enormous violence upon the Sunni Arabs of the region, and its effects will stick with the Sunni populations of Iraq and Syria for generations.

    And throughout the campaign to liberate Sunni regions previously under the the rule of ISIS, Iraq has employed Shiite militias with ties to Iran, called the Popular Mobilization Forces, which have been suspicious of Sunni villagers in conquered ISIS territory. Iraq's own security forces have also frequently resorted to brutality against civilians in places like Mosul, which was an ISIS stronghold until recently.

    Meanwhile, vast swaths of eastern Syria remain controlled by Kurdish-led militias in the form of the Syrian Democratic Forces, or by the Shiite-led Syrian government.

    An additional yet significant ethnic challenge lies in how to divide power between Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis in Syria and Iraq after the dust settles. Already, Iraq's central government is asserting itself in regions controlled by Kurds around Kirkuk and Mosul, where clashes have occurred.

    Such post-conflict realities in the Sunni regions of Iraq and Syria have led to widespread distrust between locals and the governments and militaries that now control them and have deepened the same feelings of political isolation among Sunnis that led to the rise of ISIS between 2007 and 2013.

    According to Hassan, the "Achilles heel" of the US-led coalition's strategy is that it makes no preparations to resolve these complex problems, and focuses solely on a military victory over ISIS. In his view, such a limited approach will only hasten the return of another Sunni insurgent movement in the region.

    SEE ALSO: Drone footage shows total devastation in Raqqa after its liberation from ISIS

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    Surrendering ISIS fighters

    As Iraqi forces close in on the Islamic State's final patches of territory, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has given the once-powerful terror group an ultimatum: Surrender or die.

    "Daesh members have to choose between death and surrender,"Abadi said, using a derogatory term for ISIS.

    ISIS has suffered severe territorial losses and bell weather defeats in the past month, as a US-led bombing campaign and US-backed and trained forces ground the group down to its last legs.

    At a Department of Defense briefing on Tuesday, the top US general, Joseph Dunford, said that at ISIS's height, "we saw as many as 40,000 foreign fighters from 120 different countries."

    At the same briefing, Brett McGurk the special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, said the flow of foreign fighters had nearly stopped, and the group's funding is at its "lowest level ever."

    McGurk pointed to ISIS' own propaganda, which "about a year ago" stopped advising foreign fighters to come to Syria as the group was losing badly on the ground.

    ISIS used to hold significant cities and oilfields in Iraq and Syria, but recent US-backed offensives have relegated them to a section of desert along the Iraqi-Syrian border, effectively trapping them.

    ISIS territory

    Initially, after declaring the "caliphate," or territory under ISIS' ultra-hardline Islamic control in 2014, ISIS fighters proved potent on the battlefield rolling back Iraqi security forces. But after a US-led intervention that ultimately gained support from 75 countries, the terror group has nearly imploded.

    The group carried out high profile attacks abroad, notably killing civilians in public places in London, Paris, and Brussels, but acting Department of Homeland Security chief Elaine Duke credits the US-led offensive keeping them on the run with preventing further attacks.

    But after around 70,000 ISIS fighters have been killed, the group once bent on dying for its cause has begun to surrender en masse.

    operation inherent resolve

    McGurk reported that ISIS surrendered in "large numbers" after the fall of its Syrian capital of Raqqa.

    On Thursday, the Red Cross reported that it had gained access to the families of ISIS fighters in territories they once ruled.

    SEE ALSO: America's successful campaign to defeat ISIS militarily has a glaring 'Achilles heel'

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