Assad hits a wall in Syrian war as front lines harden – analysis

FILE PHOTO: A man with a gun holds the hand of a child as they walk in a souk in the city of Idlib, Syria May 25, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

By Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – President Bashar al-Assad’s assault in the northwest has been met with a painful rebel counterpunch that underlines Turkish resolve to keep the area out of his hands and shows why he will struggle to take back more of Syria by force.

More than two months of Russian-backed operations in and around Idlib province have yielded little or nothing for Assad’s side. It marks a rare case of a military campaign that has not gone his way since Russia intervened in 2015.

FILE PHOTO: Turkish soldiers stand on a watch tower at the Atmeh crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border, as seen from the Syrian side, in Idlib governorate, Syria May 31, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

FILE PHOTO: Turkish soldiers stand on a watch tower at the Atmeh crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border, as seen from the Syrian side, in Idlib governorate, Syria May 31, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

While resisting government attacks, the insurgents have managed to carve out small advances of their own, drawing on ample stocks of guided anti-tank missiles that opposition and diplomatic sources say have been supplied by Turkey.

“They’re even targeting personnel with these missiles … it means they are comfortably supplied,” a rebel source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing rebel military capabilities. Turkey’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on reports that Ankara has stepped supplies of arms to rebels.

With Turkey committed to the rebels, the battle for the northwest stands in stark contrast to a campaign in the southwest a year ago, when Western and Arab states stood by as Assad and his Russian- and Iranian-backed allies took the area.

Despite Russian backing in the latest fighting, questions have arisen over whether Assad and his allies are entirely on the same page when it comes to the northwest, where Turkey has deployed forces in agreement with Russia and Iran.

Moscow has appeared keen to preserve its ties with Ankara even as its air force bombs in support of Assad: Turkey says Russia has intervened to stop attacks on Turkish forces from Syrian government-held territory.

And this time there has been no sign of a major role for Iranian-backed Shi’ite forces that have helped Assad to victories in parts of Syria that are of greater interest to Iran, including territory near Iraq, Lebanon and Israel.

The capture of the southwest a year ago remains Assad’s last big gain. The prospects of further advances have been obstructed not only by Turkish interests in the northwest but also the presence of U.S. forces in the east and northeast.

American troops are still supporting Kurdish-led fighters following a reversal of President Donald Trump’s decision last December to pull them all out.

After more than eight years of war, this leaves Syria carved up into areas of U.S., Russian, Turkish and Iranian influence that seem unlikely to be stitched back together any time soon.

“We could see the front lines harden and remain like that for some time, where either the appetite or capability to fight through them is not there on the part of the regime or its allies,” said a Western diplomat speaking anonymously in order to offer a candid assessment.

“BONE-BREAKING BATTLE”

The Idlib area is dominated by Tahrir al-Sham, the jihadists formerly known as the Nusra Front. Proscribed as a terrorist group by the U.N. Security Council, the group has set aside past conflict with Turkish-backed rebels to defend the northwest.

Colonel Mustafa Bakour, a commander in the Jaish al-Izza rebel group, said coordination among rebels was a major factor in foiling government attacks.

“I expect the battles to continue for a time because it has become a bone-breaking battle,” he said in written answers to questions from Reuters.

The government campaign of airstrikes and barrel bombing that began in late April was followed by the capture of around 20 villages. This led to a rebel counter-attack in early June that seized ground the government has been unable to recover.

The Syrian government has described its operations as a response to militant violations of ceasefire agreements.

Russia says action was needed to stop attacks from being launched from Idlib, including drone strikes on its nearby airbase. President Vladimir Putin said in April a full-scale operation in Idlib was impractical for now.

Though the government has not declared the goals of the campaign, rebel sources believe it was to capture two highways that pass through rebel-held territory.

Some 300,000 people fleeing bombardment have moved toward the Turkish border since April, prompting the United Nations to warn that Idlib was on the brink of a “humanitarian nightmare”.

For Ankara, the Syrian opposition’s last major state sponsor, preventing another major influx of Syrian refugees is of paramount importance: Turkey already hosts 3.6 million of them.

While accusing the Syrian government of targeting civilians and its military observation posts in the Idlib area, Turkey has stopped short of blaming Russia, instead saying it would continue to cooperate with Moscow over the northwest.

The Turkish foreign ministry, in a written response to questions from Reuters, also said “necessary messages have been sent to Russian officials to end the attacks on our observation points and civilians” in the Idlib area.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed, as have many fighters on both sides, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman described the operation as “a failure on all levels” for Russia and Damascus.

A Russian private military contractor who was based near Idlib province told Reuters that rebel fighters there are far more professional and motivated than their adversary. Pro-government forces cannot win the battle for Idlib unless Moscow helps them on the ground, he said.

A second Western diplomat said the government had suffered heavy casualties for minimal gains, which was “deeply embarrassing”. “Turkey is trying to tell them ‘you cannot take this militarily. You have to negotiate’,” the diplomat said.

A regional source close to Damascus described the escalation since April as a limited confrontation, saying Russia’s ties with Turkey were the main brake on any full-scale assault to take the entire northwest.

“Of course the regime has the desire to recover Idlib by force, but … without the Russians it can’t, because there are many militants and the Russians are completely committed to the Turks,” the source said. “It is expected that the situation in Idlib will stay as it is for a long time.”

 

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun, Zeynep Arica and Ece Toksabay in Turkey, Laila Bassam in Beirut and Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Netanyahu warns Iran it is within range of Israeli air strikes, citing Iranian threats

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem July 7, 2019. Abir Sultan/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cautioned Iran on Tuesday that it is within range of Israeli airstrikes, citing what he described as Iranian threats to destroy Israel.

“Iran recently has been threatening Israel’s destruction,” Netanyahu said at an Israeli air force base, where he viewed a squadron of advanced U.S.-built F-35 warplanes.

“It should remember that these planes can reach anywhere in the Middle East, including Iran, and certainly Syria,” he said in a YouTube video clip filmed at the base, with an F-35 in the background.

Last week, a senior Iranian parliamentarian was quoted by the semi-official Mehr news agency as saying that if the United States attacked Iran, Israel would be destroyed in half an hour.

Israel has long said that every option is on the table in ensuring that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, and has backed pledges to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in Syria by carrying out airstrikes there.

Tehran denies seeking nuclear arms.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Palestinian stabs Israeli in Jerusalem; anti-Trump protest flares in Beirut

A Palestinian demonstrator shouts during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah December 11, 2017.

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A Palestinian stabbed an Israeli security guard at Jerusalem’s main bus station on Sunday, police said, and violence flared near the U.S. Embassy in Beirut over U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Four days of street protests in the Palestinian territories over Trump’s announcement on Wednesday have largely died down, but his overturning of long-standing U.S. policy on Jerusalem — a city holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians — drew more Arab warnings of potential damage to prospects for Middle East peace.

“Our hope is that everything is calming down and that we are returning to a path of normal life without riots and without violence,” Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Army Radio.

But in Jerusalem, a security guard was in critical condition after a 24-year-old Palestinian man from the occupied West Bank stabbed him after approaching a metal detector at an entrance to the city’s central bus station, police said. The alleged assailant was taken into custody after a passer-by tackled him.

In public remarks on Sunday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, a frequent critic of Israel, called it an “invader state” and a “terror state”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who spoke at a news conference in Paris alongside French President Emmanuel Macron after the two leaders met, fired back:

“I’m not used to receiving lectures about morality from a leader who bombs Kurdish villages in his native Turkey, who jails journalists, helps Iran go around international sanctions and who helps terrorists, including in Gaza, kill innocent people,” Netanyahu said.

Macron told Netanyahu that he needed to make gestures to the Palestinians to break the impasse between the two sides.

“I asked Prime Minister Netanyahu to make some courageous gestures towards the Palestinians to get out of the current impasse,” Macron said, suggesting that a freeze of construction in settlements could be a first step.

Most countries consider East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after capturing it in a 1967 war, to be occupied territory and say the status of the city should be decided at future Israeli-Palestinian talks. Israel says that all of Jerusalem is its capital, while Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state.

The Trump administration has said it is still committed to reviving Palestinian-Israeli talks that collapsed in 2014, but jettisoning old policies is necessary to break the deadlock.

Washington says it has not taken a position on Jerusalem’s final status or borders, but it is sensible to recognize that any future peace deal will have Israel’s capital in the city.

The United States was “as committed to the peace process as we’ve ever been”, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Sunday. Trump “didn’t talk about boundaries, he didn’t talk about borders… Because the final status of Jerusalem is between the Palestinians and the Israelis. It’s not for the Americans to decide.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will not meet U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during his visit to the region, Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki said on Saturday. The White House said on Sunday that decision was unfortunate and Pence looked forward to seeing Netanyahu and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

“It’s unfortunate that the Palestinian Authority is walking away again from an opportunity to discuss the future of the region,” said Jarrod Agen, a spokesman for Pence.

Netanyahu reacted to critics in a statement before talks with Macron, to be followed by a meeting with European foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday.

“I hear (from Europe) voices of condemnation over President Trump’s historic announcement, but I have not heard any condemnation for the rocket firing against Israel that has come (after the announcement) and the awful incitement against us,” Netanyahu said.

A Palestinian protester throws back a gas canister fired by Israeli forces during a protest in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, December 10, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

DEMONSTRATIONS

In Beirut, Lebanese security forces fired tear gas and water cannons at protesters, some of them waving Palestinian flags, near the U.S. Embassy.

Demonstrators set fires in the street, torched U.S. and Israeli flags and threw projectiles towards security forces that had barricaded the main road to the complex.

In the Moroccan capital, Rabat, tens of thousands of protesters marched down the city’s main thoroughfare chanting slogans including, “The people want to liberate Palestine” and “Death to Israel, enemy of the people and provoker of wars.”

Waving Palestinian flags and holding up pictures of Jerusalem, they expressed anger at the “betrayal” by Arab governments perceived to have backed Trump’s move.

In the Indonesian capital Jakarta, thousands protested outside the U.S. embassy, many waving banners saying “Palestine is in our hearts”.

Maliki has said the Palestinians will be looking for a new peace talks broker instead of the United States and would seek a United Nations Security Council resolution over Trump’s decision.

Arab foreign ministers who met in Cairo on Saturday urged the United States to abandon its decision on Jerusalem and said the move would spur violence throughout the region.

Echoing that view, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan, the de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates, said the U.S. move “could throw a lifebuoy to terrorist and armed groups, which have begun to lose ground” in the Middle East.

GAZA TUNNEL

Along Israel’s tense frontier with the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military on Sunday destroyed what it described as a “significant” cross-border attack tunnel dug by the enclave’s dominant Islamist group, Hamas.

There was no immediate comment from Hamas on the demolition, which came as Palestinian factions tried to meet Sunday’s deadline for an Egyptian-mediated handover of Gaza by Hamas to Western-backed President Abbas after a decade’s schism.

Pre-dawn Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip on Saturday killed two Palestinian gunmen after militants fired rockets from the area into Israel on Friday.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem, John Irish in Paris, Tom Perry in Beirut, Agustinus Beo Da Costa in Jakarta, Sami Aboudi in Dubai, Doina Chiacu in Washington, and Jeff Mason in West Palm Beach, Florida; Editing by Peter Graff and Mary Milliken)

Islamic State convoy in Syria appears to have turned back, U.S.-led coalition says

A convoy of Islamic State fighters and their families begin to depart from the Lebanon-Syria border zone in Qalamoun, Syria August 28, 2017.

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A convoy of Islamic State fighters appears to have turned back after U.S.-led airstrikes thwarted its attempt to reach territory held by the militant group in eastern Syria, the head of U.S.-led forces fighting Islamic State said on Thursday.

More than 300 lightly armed IS fighters and about 300 family members were evacuated from Syria’s western border with Lebanon under a ceasefire agreement involving the ultra-hardline group, the Syrian army and the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah.

On Thursday they sought to move into IS-held territory from a new location after U.S.-led strikes on Wednesday stopped them joining forces with their jihadist comrades, a commander in the pro-Syrian government military alliance said.

However, U.S. Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the commander of U.S.-led forces fighting Islamic State, told a Pentagon briefing that the convoy had turned back into Syrian government territory.

“When I walked into this conference about an hour ago, the buses were on the move. They had turned and had driven back into regime-held areas,” he told reporters via a video teleconference from Baghdad.

“We haven’t struck the convoy. But we have struck every ISIS fighter and/or vehicle that has tried to approach that convoy. And we’ll continue to do that,” he said.

The coalition opposes experienced combatants being moved to a battle zone in which it is active, and used warplanes on Wednesday to halt the convoy by damaging the road ahead. It also struck fighters on their way to meet the convoy.

A commander in the pro-Syrian government military alliance said the convoy had headed north towards the town of Sukhna on Thursday after being halted in the desert and would try to reach Deir al-Zor province, close to the border with Iraq.

Two sources familiar with U.S. policy on Syria said the airstrikes did not signal a more aggressive military approach, and were intended to prevent the IS fighters in the convoy reinforcing their comrades in Deir al-Zor.

But the standoff shows the tangled nature of a war theater divided into several overlapping conflicts, and where the engagement of local, regional and global powers is further complicated by a mosaic of alliances and enmities.

Six years into Syria’s civil war, in which Islamic State has seized swathes of land, the jihadist group is on the retreat across the region, losing ground to an array of foes.

In Syria, the government of President Bashar al-Assad has rapidly gained ground this year as the army advanced eastwards, backed by Russia and allied Iran-backed militia including Hezbollah, towards its besieged enclave in Deir al-Zor.

But in the north, the United States — which opposes Assad, Iran and Hezbollah — has led a coalition backing Kurdish and Arab militias as they assault Islamic State’s former Syrian capital of Raqqa.

 

NASRALLAH VISITED DAMASCUS

Hezbollah-affiliated media have reported that the Syrian town of Al-Bukamal, close to the border with Iraq, is the final destination for the convoy.

Hezbollah has been one of Assad’s closest allies in the war and it trumpeted the departure of Islamic State, after that of two other militant groups, from the Lebanon border as a “day of liberation”.

On Thursday, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said Assad had only reluctantly agreed to the evacuation after Nasrallah visited Damascus to request it, a rare public acknowledgement that he had traveled outside Lebanon.

Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, said it was “unacceptable” to ferry more jihadist fighters from another battlefront in Syria to the edge of Iraqi territory, prompting a statement from Hezbollah defending the move.

Iraq has formed a dedicated intelligence operations room to monitor and track the jihadists, a senior Interior Ministry official told state media, saying the convoy included “elite commanders” of Islamic State.

After it was blocked from moving eastwards on Wednesday, the convoy headed north within government territory to try to move into Islamic State land from a new location, the commander in the pro-Assad alliance said.

The commander added that the convoy would head on again after an exchange of dead combatants and prisoners. The bodies of an Iranian killed in the fighting and two other dead fighters were to be swapped for 25 wounded IS fighters traveling with the convoy, the commander said.

In Tehran, the country’s Revolutionary Guards said on their website that the dead Iranian, whom they identified as Mohsen Hojaji, would be returned at an unspecified date for a funeral and burial.

 

LIFE ON BUSES “GETTING KIND OF HARD”?

The fighters retained light weapons but left heavier arms in their enclave after being evacuated from western Lebanon following heavy fighting there.

“I would imagine life getting kind of hard on those buses after two and a half days or more, largely cooped up in those buses driving around in the desert,” Townsend said.

Such deals have increasingly been used by the Syrian army and its allies to press besieged rebels to surrender their enclaves and to relocate to insurgent-held territory elsewhere, but this is the first such deal involving Islamic State.

In the process, Islamic State revealed the fate of nine Lebanese soldiers it took captive in its border enclave in 2014, as well as surrendering a Hezbollah prisoner.

An official in the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which is helping with the exchange, has entered Islamic State territory to accompany the prisoner back to the government-held area, the commander in the pro-Assad military alliance said.

Hezbollah-aligned al Akhbar newspaper in Lebanon reported on Thursday that some IS leaders in eastern Syria did not want members of the group who had surrendered territory to be welcomed back into their self-declared caliphate.

 

 

(Reporting by Leila Bassam and Sarah Dadouch in Beirut, Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Idrees Ali, David Alexander and John Walcott in Washington, and Dubai Newsroom, Writing by Angus McDowall, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

 

U.S. allies show support for strikes on Syria

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Ross fires a tomahawk land attack missile in Mediterranean Sea, part of a cruise missile strike against Syria. Robert S. Price/Courtesy U.S. Navy

(Reuters) – U.S. allies expressed support on Friday for Washington’s missile strikes on Syria, calling them a proportionate response to Syria’s suspected use of chemical weapons.

The strikes were denounced as illegal by Syria and its allies Russia and Iran. Iraq criticized “hasty interventions” in an apparent comment on the U.S. action.

But a wide range of U.S. allies from Asia, Europe and the Middle East expressed support, if sometimes cautiously, in similar terms.

“The U.K. government fully supports the U.S. action, which we believe was an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack launched by the Syrian regime and is intended to deter further attacks,” a British government spokesman said.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters: “Many innocent people became victims from the chemical attacks.

“Japan supports the U.S. government’s determination to prevent the spread and use of chemical weapons,” he said.

Turkey viewed the strikes positively and the international community should sustain its stance against the “barbarity” of the Syrian government, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said.

In an interview with Turkish broadcaster Fox TV, Kurtulmus said Assad’s government must be punished in the international arena and the peace process in Syria needed to be accelerated.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Russia and Iran needed to understand that supporting Assad made no sense and that the escalation of the U.S. military role in Syria was a “warning” to “a criminal regime”.

“Use of chemical weapons is appalling and should be punished because it is a war crime,” Ayrault told Reuters and France Info radio.

French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued statements saying Assad was solely to blame for the air strikes.

The Dutch government said: “The United States has given a clear signal that the use of poison gas crosses a line.” It also labeled the strikes a “proportionate” response.

“U.S. strikes show needed resolve against barbaric chemical attacks. EU will work with the US to end brutality in Syria,” the chairman of the council of EU leaders, Donald Tusk, said on Twitter.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the strikes sent “a vitally important message” that the world would not tolerate the use of chemical weapons.

“The retribution has been proportionate and it has been swift,” he told reporters in Sydney. “We support the United States in that swift action.”

Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which back rebels fighting Assad, said they supported the U.S. strikes and held only the Syrian government responsible for the attacks.

Other Gulf countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait, also expressed support for the attacks.

Some countries expressed reservations about the U.S. decision to launch strikes without authorization from the U.N. Security Council.

Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria. “At the same time, Indonesia is concerned with unilateral actions by any parties, including the use of Tomahawk missiles, in responding to the chemical weapon attack tragedy in Syria,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Armanatha Nasir said in a text message.

“Military actions, undertaken without prior authorization of the U.N. Security Council, are not in line with international legal principles in the peaceful settlement of disputes, as stipulated in the U.N. Charter.”

(Additional reporting by Kanupriya Kapoor in Jakarta, Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, Guy Faulconbridge in London, Andrew Osborn and Jack Stubbs in Moscow, John Irish in Nouakchott, Mauritania, Colin Packham in Sydney, Tulay Karadeniz in Istanbul, Maher Chmaytelli in Erbil, Aziz El Yaakoubi and Sami Aboudi in Dubai and Marcin Goettig in Warsaw; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Sonya Hepinstall and Giles Elgood)

Week of renewed Aleppo strikes kills 141 in east, 16 in west

People walk near rubble of damaged buildings, in the rebel-held besieged area of Aleppo, Syria

BEIRUT, Nov 22 (Reuters) – At least 141 civilians, including 18 children, have been killed in a week of renewed bombardment on the rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo which has devastated its hospitals, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Tuesday.

The Britain-based war monitor said it had documented hundreds of injuries as a result of Russian and Syrian airstrikes and shelling by government forces and its allies on the besieged eastern half of the divided city.

The assault began last Tuesday after a weeks-long pause in airstrikes and shelling inside east Aleppo, although battles and air strikes did continue along the city’s front lines and in the surrounding countryside.

The monitor said there were another 87 deaths of rebel fighters and people of unknown identity in the eastern sector.

The Observatory also documented 16 civilian deaths, including 10 children, and dozens of injuries as a result of rebel shelling of government-held west Aleppo.

Airstrikes and shelling of east Aleppo last week knocked all the main hospitals in that part of the city out of service, the local health authority and international humanitarian agencies said.

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Dominic Evans)

Air strikes shatter Russian attempt at Syria Aleppo truce

U.S. led airstrikes on ISIS

By Lisa Barrington and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Air strikes hit rebel-held parts of Syria’s Aleppo city on Thursday just hours into a 48-hour ceasefire announced by Russia to try to curb weeks of intense fighting as government forces battle for control of the whole city.

Russia, an ally of President Bashar al-Assad, announced the brief truce in the northern Syrian city on Thursday but did not say which parties had agreed to it. There has been no public comment from Assad’s government or factions fighting his forces on the truce announcement.

However the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said aerial strikes hit neighbourhoods in the opposition-held sector and that there were reports of one death and some injuries.

Rebels had also fired rockets into government-held territory in Aleppo, the Observatory said, and fighting and air strikes continued in the surrounding countryside.

Bebars Mishal, a civil defence chief working in rebel-held Aleppo told Reuters that strikes on residential areas had caused fires and damage. “The truce was supposed to have come into effect at 12 midnight, but now there is no truce,” he said.

The international focus in Syria in recent weeks has partly shifted to the conflict with Islamic State, as government forces and their enemies have made gains at the expense of the ultra-hardline Islamist militants on several fronts.

But the separate hope of foreign powers – that the wider civil war could also be resolved – has broken down.

Hundreds of people have been killed in Aleppo since peace talks broke off, as Assad seeks to regain control of the city which was Syria’s largest before the conflict erupted in 2011 and is now split between rebel and government sectors.

Russian-backed Syrian forces have sought for months to control all supply routes into the city. An escalation in air and artillery strikes in the past two weeks on the last supply route, the Castello road, has put hundreds of thousands of people under effective siege.

Mercy Corps, which runs the largest non-governmental aid operation inside Syria, said the increased bombardment had effectively cut aid to rebel-held areas of Aleppo for the longest period since the war began, driving up food prices and choking efforts to ease the plight of residents.

AIR STRIKE SHUTS HOSPITAL

The Observatory said fierce fighting between government forces and rebels took place overnight near the road, with heavy government shelling of the area. A witness said jets and helicopters were seen continuously in the skies above the Castello road since dawn.

Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said an air strike had put one of Aleppo’s biggest hospitals out of service. It was not immediately clear if strikes had hit the 64-bed MSF-supported Omar Bin Abdulaziz hospital directly or nearby, and the extent of damage was not known.

Despite the ongoing violence, U.N. humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland described the announcement of the Aleppo truce as a “first step” in addressing humanitarian needs.

He said recent progress in getting aid to besieged towns elsewhere in Syria gave some hope for improvement, and said several countries including Russia felt a “psychological barrier has been broken” with recent aid breakthroughs.

But he said the opening for aid “could end tomorrow” and that not one siege had yet been lifted.

Fighting has flared across the country since the demise of a U.S.- and Russian-brokered February ceasefire that underpinned the peace talks.

Syrian state media said rebels in Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, had used “poisonous substances” on government troops, causing respiratory problems, on Wednesday, without specifying the type of chemical used.

The spokesman for Jaish al Islam, a dominant rebel faction in the area, said the government was lying. He said the government was the party using chemical weapons, saying it was responsible for a chemical weapons attack in the same area in 2013.

The government describes all factions fighting against it as terrorists, although only two groups — Islamic State and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front — are proscribed by the United Nations.

John Brennan, director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, said Russia and Syria had been fighting both groups, but “a large proportion of their strikes are directed against what we consider to be the legitimate Syrian opposition that are trying to save their country from Bashar al-Assad”.

Speaking at a rare public hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Brennan said Islamic State had tens of thousands of fighters around the world, far more than al Qaeda at its height, but he expected the group to rely increasingly on “guerrilla tactics” to make up for battlefield losses and constrained finances.

Islamic State militants have committed genocide against the Yazidi minority in Syria and Iraq, an independent U.N. Commission of Inquiry said.

Such a designation, rare under international law, would mark the first recognised genocide carried out by non-state actors, rather than a state or paramilitaries acting on its behalf.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Patricia Zengerle and Jonathan Landay in Washington DC, and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Writing by Tom Miles; Editing by Dominic Evans)

Syrian opposition casts doubt on peace talks after Russian bombing

PARIS (Reuters) – Syria’s opposition co-ordinator Riad Hijab accused Russia of killing dozens of children after a bombing raid on Monday and said such action meant the opposition could not negotiate with President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Earlier the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 12 Syrian school children had been killed when suspected Russian warplanes hit a classroom in the rebel-held town of Injara in Aleppo province.

Hijab, speaking after talks with French President Francois Hollande in Paris, put the death toll at 35 children and said the Russian strikes had hit three schools in total.

There was no immediate comment from Moscow, which denies any targeting of civilians in the conflict.

“We want to negotiate, but to do that the conditions have to be there,” Hijab told reporters. “We cannot negotiate with the regime when there are foreign forces bombing the Syrian people.”

Hijab is a former prime minister under Assad who defected to the opposition in 2012. He was chosen in December as coordinator of the opposition negotiating body to lead future Syria talks.

Peace talks are scheduled to be held between the government and opposition on Jan. 25 under the auspices of the United Nations. However, opposition officials have already cast doubt on whether the talks will go ahead on schedule, citing a need to see goodwill measures from the government side.

“We do not want to go to negotiations that are condemned to failure before they start. We need to create the right climate,” Hijab said. “How could we negotiate when the Syrian people are dying? Each day there are massacres.”

He said the talks had to lead to a transitional government with the president and prime minister’s full executive powers.

“INADMISSIBLE ATTACKS”

Hijab said Russia was flaunting U.N. Security Council resolutions by bombing civilians and urged the world body to ensure Russia respected its humanitarian obligations.

He also dismissed Syrian government demands that it see a list of opposition members attending the possible talks, saying the opposition would not have choices imposed on them.

Earlier on Monday French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called on Moscow and Damascus to stop “inadmissible” attacks against civilians.

Hollande and Fabius reiterated the Western view that Assad, who has strong backing from Moscow and Tehran, must relinquish power under any peace settlement.

“Bashar al-Assad has no role in the Syria of tomorrow,” Hollande said after his talks with Hijab.

Fabius said images from Madaya showing people suffering from starvation in the besieged rebel-held town underscored why the Syrian leader should step down. On Monday an aid convoy entered the town where thousands have been trapped.

(Additional reporting By Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Gareth Jones)

France, Russia strike Islamic State in Syria, EU aid invoked

By Chine Labbé and Crispian Balmer

PARIS (Reuters) – France and Russia staged air strikes on Islamic State targets in northern Syria on Tuesday, punishing the group for attacks in Paris and against a Russian airliner that together killed 353 people.

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a coordinated onslaught in Paris on Friday and the downing of a Russian charter jet over Sinai on Oct. 31, saying they were in retaliation for French and Russian air raids in Iraq and Syria.

Still reeling from the Paris carnage that killed 129, most of them young people, France formally requested European Union assistance in its fight against the militants and British Prime Minister David Cameron edged closer to extending military action against Islamic State in Syria.

Police investigating the worst atrocity in France since World War Two discovered two safe houses in Paris where they believe the militants launched their assault. Underlining the widening scope of the probe, police in Germany said they arrested five suspects, including two women.

In Moscow, the Kremlin acknowledged that a bomb had destroyed a Russian airliner last month, killing 224 people. President Vladimir Putin vowed to hunt down those responsible and intensify air strikes against Islamists in Syria.

“Our air force’s military work in Syria must not simply be continued,” he said. “It must be intensified in such a way that the criminals understand that retribution is inevitable.”

Western officials said Russia launched a “significant number” of strikes in Syria on Tuesday hitting the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa. In a separate action, apparently not coordinated, French warplanes targeted Raqqa for a second day.

French President Francois Hollande has said he will see Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama in the coming days to try to convince them to join a grand coalition against Islamic State which controls swathes of Syria and Iraq.

Russia began air strikes in Syria at the end of September. It has always said its main target is Islamic State, but most of its bombs in the past have hit territory held by other groups opposed to its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

 

MANHUNT

In Brussels, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian invoked the EU’s mutual assistance clause for the first time since the 2009 Lisbon Treaty introduced the possibility, saying he expected help with French operations in Syria, Iraq and Africa.

“This is firstly a political act,” Le Drian told a news conference after a meeting of EU defense chiefs.

The 28 EU member states accepted the French request but it was not immediately clear what assistance would be forthcoming.

A manhunt was continuing in France and Belgium on Tuesday for one of the eight attackers in the Paris assault.

French police staged 128 raids overnight in the hunt for accomplices and Islamist militant networks, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said. Police found a third Belgian-licensed car believed to have been used by the attackers and sealed off the area around it in Paris’ 18th district.

Cazeneuve told France Info radio police were making rapid progress in their investigation but declined to give details.

One top suspect, Frenchman Salah Abdeslam, 26, remains at large after escaping back to Belgium early on Saturday and eluding a police dragnet in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, where he lived with his two brothers.

One of the brothers blew himself up outside a Paris cafe on Friday, seriously injuring many bystanders.

Hollande, who has declared a state of emergency, met visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday to press his call for the U.S.-led and Russian-led coalitions to join forces.

Kerry told reporters afterwards that Islamic State was losing territory in Syria and Iraq, but said increased co-ordination with Moscow would require progress in a political drive to end the war. That process is complicated by a U.S. demand that Assad steps down as president.

 

“DON’T SCAPEGOAT REFUGEES”

The U.N. refugee agency and Germany’s police chief urged European countries not to demean or reject refugees because one of Friday’s Paris bombers was believed to have slipped into Europe among migrants registered in Greece.

“We are deeply disturbed by language that demonizes refugees as a group,” U.N. spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said after government officials in Poland, Slovakia and the German state of Bavaria cited the Paris attacks as a reason to refuse refugees.

The head of Germany’s Federal Criminal Office said there was no sign that Islamist militants had entered Germany posing as an asylum seeker to commit an attack.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Paris would spare no expense to reinforce and equip its security forces and law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism, even though that was bound to involve breaching European budget deficit limits.

“We have to face up to this, and Europe ought to understand,” he told France Inter radio.

The European Commission said it would show understanding to France if additional security spending pushed up its deficit.

As France geared up for a long war, the British prime minister said he would present a “comprehensive strategy” for tackling Islamic State to parliament. British war planes have been bombing the militants in Iraq, but not Syria.

“It is in Syria, in Raqqa, that Isil has its headquarters and it is from Raqqa that some of the main threat against this country are planned and orchestrated,” Cameron said, referring to Islamic State by one of its many acronyms.

“Raqqa, if you like, is the head of the snake.”

French prosecutors have identified five of the seven dead assailants from Friday night — four Frenchmen and a foreigner fingerprinted in Greece among refugees last month.

In addition to the suspect on the run, police believe at least four other people helped organize the mayhem.

Investigators believe the attacks may have been ordered by Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian national now living in Syria where he has become an Internet propagandist for Islamic State under the nom de guerre Abu Omar al-Belgiki — the Belgian.

Belgian media have reported that Salah Abdeslam spent time in jail for robbery five years ago alongside Abaaoud.

Police in France named two of the French attackers as Ismael Omar Mostefai, 29, from Chartres, southwest of Paris, and Samy Amimour, 28, from the Paris suburb of Drancy.

France believes Mostefai, a petty criminal who never served time in jail, visited Syria in 2013-2014. His radicalization underlined the trouble police face trying to capture an elusive enemy raised in its own cities.

 

(Additional reporting by Laurence Frost, Maya Nikolaeva, Julien Ponthus, Patrick Vignal and David Brunnstrom; Writing by Paul Taylor and Crispian Balmer; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

U.S. Officials Believe ISIS Leader “Jihadi John” Killed in U.S. Airstrikes

Multiple news agencies are reporting today that Islamic State leader “Jihadi John” was possibly killed during an airstrike in northern Syria led by the United States.

According to ABC News, a U.S. official stated that the jihadist, Mohammed Emwazi, was hit after leaving a building in Raqqa, Syria and entering a car. The official added that it was a “clean hit” where Emwazi was basically “evaporated.”

“U.S. forces conducted an airstrike in Raqqa, Syria, on Nov. 12, 2015 targeting Mohammed Emwazi, also known as ‘Jihadi John,'” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said.

“Emwazi, a British citizen, participated in the videos showing the murders of U.S. journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley, U.S. aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig, British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning, Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, and a number of other hostages,” Cook said. “We are assessing the results of tonight’s operation and will provide additional information as and where appropriate.”

In the ISIS videos, Emwazi always wore all black, covering his entire body except his eyes and the bridge of his nose. He soon became a symbol of the Islamic State’s brutality after being featured many horrific videos where he killed innocent people in various, sadistic ways.

British Prime Minister David Cameron stated that the airstrike was a combined effort between the U.S. and Britain and was an act of self-defense, according to CNN.

“We always said we will do whatever is necessary to track down Emwazi and stop him taking the lives of others,” he said.

He added, “I want to thank the United States, the United Kingdom has no better ally.”

CNN adds that while officials are confident that Emwazi is dead, the Pentagon would not officially confirm his death at this time.

In another blow to ISIS, Reuters reports that Kurdish forces were able to seize back the Iraqi town of Sinjar back from the Islamic State on Friday. The Kurdish troops were able to take several of Sinjar’s public buildings including a cement factory, hospital, and wheat silo. Officials believe this win over the terrorist organization may give the Kurds the momentum needed to take back Mosul.

“The liberation of Sinjar will have a big impact on liberating Mosul,” Iraq Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani told reporters atop Mount Sinjar, overlooking the town.

The operation has not only liberated the town, but has cut off vital trade routes that ISIS used to move weapons, oil, fighters, and other commodities.