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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is holding talks in Russia with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, as the US urges Moscow to stop supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Rex Tillerson’s visit comes amid tensions over last week’s suspected chemical attack in Syria and American strikes on a Syrian base.

Russia has condemned the US strikes and stands by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, its long-time ally.

President Donald Trump has said the US has no further plans there and is “not going into” that country’s civil war.

On April 11, President Trump’s defense secretary made clear the priority remained the defeat of ISIS.

Jim Matiss said: “Our military policy in Syria has not changed.”

Iamge source Times of India

Last week’s air strike has led to confusion over US policy in Syria, with some officials suggesting a more aggressive stance against President Bashar al-Assad.

As they were preparing to meet today, Sergei Lavrov told Rex Tillerson that Russia had “a lot of questions regarding very ambiguous and contradictory ideas (…) coming from Washington”.

Rex Tillerson said he looked forward to a “candid” exchange so that the two countries could better define and narrow their differences.

He has warned that Russia risks becoming irrelevant in the Middle East because of its support for Bashar al-Assad.

The White House also says Russia has been trying to deflect blame for the chemical attack that killed 89 people.

US intelligence reports say the Syrian government used chemical weapons during air strikes on the rebel-held Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun that left 89 people dead.

On April 11, the Turkish health ministry confirmed that the nerve agent Sarin had been used.

Syria denies this and Russia has instead blamed rebel forces, which it says were storing chemical weapons which were hit in the raids.


On April 12, the UN Security Council is to vote on a draft resolution by the US, UK and France requiring the Syrian government to co-operate with an investigation into the chemical attack.

President Vladimir Putin has also called for an independent UN investigation.

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President Donald Trump has ordered a missile strike against a Syrian air base in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town on April 4.

Fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from two US Navy ships in the Mediterranean. According to the Syrian army, 6 people were killed.

It is the first direct US military action against forces commanded by Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

The Kremlin, which backs President Assad, has condemned the strike.

The strike comes just two days after dozens of civilians, including many children, died in the suspected nerve gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province.

On the orders of President Trump, Navy destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross fired dozens of cruise missiles at Shayrat airfield in western Homs province at about 04:40 Syrian time.

According to the Pentagon, they targeted aircraft, aircraft shelters, storage areas, ammunition supply bunkers and air defense systems at the Syrian government-controlled facility.

Iamge source Times of India

Speaking from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, President Trump said he had acted in America’s “vital national security interest” to prevent the use of chemical weapons.

Donald Trump branded President Bashar al-Assad a “dictator” who had “launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians”.

The president said in a statement: “Tonight I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end this slaughter and bloodshed in Syria and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.”

It is not known whether the six people killed were civilian or military.

The US has led a coalition carrying out air strikes against jihadist groups in Syria since 2014 but this is the first time it has targeted government forces.

President Donald Trump has previously spoken out against US military involvement in Syria, instead calling for a greater focus on domestic interests.

Only last week US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said Washington was not prioritizing the removal of President Bashar al-Assad.

However, President Trump said “something should happen” against the Syrian leadership following the deaths in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, without giving details.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also signaled a sudden shift in policy on April 6, saying that Bashar al-Assad should have no role in a future Syria.

The Kremlin is one of President Assad’s most important allies and its military has been targeting all rebel groups in Syria, including jihadists such as ISIS, but also the more moderate opposition forces that the US and other Western nations have been supporting.

The Pentagon said the Russian military had been informed ahead of the US action.

However, Russia reacted angrily to the US strike, which the Syrian army said had caused significant damage.

At least 58 people, including 11 children, have been killed and dozens wounded in a suspected chemical attack in rebel-held Syrian town of Idlib, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.

The monitoring group reported that strikes on Khan Sheikhoun by Syrian government or Russian jets had caused many people to choke.

Later, aircraft fired rockets at local clinics treating survivors, doctors and activists said.

A Syrian military source denied the government had used any such weapons.

Russia’s defense ministry meanwhile insisted it had not carried out any air strikes in the vicinity.

If confirmed, it would be one of the deadliest chemical attacks in Syria’s civil war.

The warplanes are reported to have attacked Khan Sheikhoun, about 30 miles south of Idlib, on April 4, when many people were asleep.

UN report confirms sarin gas was used in a rocket attack in Damascus last month

Hussein Kayal, a photographer for the pro-opposition Edlib Media Center (EMC), told the Associated Press that he was awoken by the sound of an explosion at about 06:30.

When he reached the scene, there was no smell, he said. He found people lying on the floor, unable to move and with constricted pupils, he added.

The Syrian Observatory (SOHR) quoted doctors as saying that they had been treating people with symptoms including fainting, vomiting and foaming at the mouth.

An AFP journalist saw a young girl, a woman and two elderly people dead at a hospital, all with foam still visible around their mouths.

The journalist also reported that the same facility was hit by a rocket on April 4, bringing down rubble on top of doctors treating the injured.

The source of the projectile was not clear, but the EMC and the opposition Local Co-ordination Committees network said warplanes had targeted several clinics.

The SOHR put the death toll at 58, including 11 children, but the head of a charity ambulance service in Idlib, Mohammed Rasoul, said that 67 people had been killed and that 300 were injured.

The pro-opposition Step news agency meanwhile said 100 had died.

Sarin inhibits the action of an enzyme, which deactivates signals that cause human nerve cells to fire. This blockage pushes nerves into a continual “on” state. The heart and other muscles – including those involved in breathing – spasm.

Sufficient exposure to Sarin can lead to death via asphyxiation within minutes.

The substance is almost impossible to detect because it is a clear, colorless and tasteless liquid that has no odor in its purest form.

The Syrian government was accused by Western powers of firing rockets filled with Sarin at several rebel-held suburbs of the capital Damascus in August 2013, killing hundreds of people.

President Bashar al-Assad denied the charge, blaming rebel fighters, but he did subsequently agree to destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal.

Despite that, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has continued to document the use of toxic chemicals in attacks in Syria.

In January 2016, the organization said blood samples taken from the victims of one unspecified attack showed victims had been exposed to Sarin or a Sarin-like substance.

A joint investigation with the UN concluded in October that Syrian government forces had used chlorine as a weapon at least three times between 2014 and 2015.

It also found ISIS militants had used the blister agent sulphur mustard.

Human Rights Watch also recently accused government helicopters of dropping bombs containing chlorine on rebel-held areas of Aleppo on at least eight occasions between November 17 and December 13, during the final stages of the battle for the city.

Idlib province, where the air strikes took place, is almost entirely controlled by a rebel alliance and the al-Qaeda-linked jihadist group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

The region, home to 900,000 displaced people, is regularly targeted by the government and its ally Russia, as well as the US-led coalition against ISIS.

There was no immediate comment from the government, but a Syrian military source told Reuters that it “does not and has not” used chemical weapons.

Bashar al-Assad’s wife, Asma, has said she rejected a deal to offer her safe passage out of Syria in order to stay by her husband’s side.

Syria’s First Lady Asma al-Assad revealed she believed those offering her a new home were trying to undermine her husband’s presidency.

In an interview with Russian state-backed television, Asma al-Assad refused to say who made the offer.

EU foreign ministers are set to impose a travel ban and asset freeze on Syria First Lady Asma al-Assad

She also thanked Russia for its “noble efforts” supporting the regime.

Asma al-Assad, whose social media pages are filled with pictures of her meeting orphans and the injured, told Rossiya 24: “I’ve been here since the beginning and I never thought of being anywhere else at all.

“Yes I was offered the opportunity to leave Syria or rather to run from Syria. These offers included guarantees of safety and protection for my children and even financial security.

“It doesn’t take a genius to know what these people were really after. It was a deliberate attempt to shatter people’s confidence in their president.”

Asma al-Assad, a former investment banker who was born in London, has been Syria’s first lady since 2000, after Bashar al-Assad took over the presidency from his father Hafez, who had ruled since 1971.

The Syrian civil war began after pro-democracy campaigners demanding that Bashar al-Assad step aside took to the streets in March 2011, and were violently repressed by the authorities.

At least 30 people have been killed and other 94 injured in a bomb attack at an outdoor wedding party in the south Turkish city of Gaziantep, the authorities say.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said ISIS was likely to have carried it out amid reports of a suicide bomber targeting the party.

The bomb attack, in an area popular with university students, could be heard across the city.

Photo AP

Photo AP

Gaziantep, near the Syrian border, is known to have several ISIS cells.

A suicide bomber believed to have links to ISIS killed two policemen in Gaziantep in May.

According to a report by AFP news agency, the bomb went off in a part of town with a large Kurdish community and there seem to have been many Kurds at the wedding.

In a written statement published by local media, President Erdogan argued there was “no difference” between ISIS, the Kurdish militants of the PKK, and followers of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom he blames for the coup attempt last month.

“Our country and our nation have again only one message to those who attack us – you will not succeed!” the president said.

On August 20, Turkey’s government said the country would take a more active role in efforts to end the war in Syria.

PM Binali Yildirim said a future political settlement for Syria must not include President Bashar al-Assad, ISIS or Turkey’s own Kurdish separatist rebels, the PKK.

A Russian military helicopter has been shot down by rebels in Idlib, northern Syria, killing five people on board, Russia has said.

The Mi-8 chopper was carrying three crew and two officers, Russia’s defense ministry said in a statement.

The aircraft was returning from delivering humanitarian aid to the besieged city of Aleppo, the statement added.

It is not clear which group brought the helicopter down.

An alliance of rebel groups, including hardline jihadist factions, is the dominant power in Idlib.

Russia has previously, though seldom, lost aircraft since it launched operations in support of the Syrian government at the end of September 2015.

Photo Flickr

Photo Flickr

In July 2016, two Russian pilots were killed when their helicopter was shot down east of Palmyra by ISIS.

In November 2015, the pilot of a Russian Su-24 fighter plane was killed when the aircraft was shot down by Turkey on its border with Syria.

A Russian marine sent on a mission to rescue the pilot was also killed when his helicopter was shot down.

Pictures on social media purportedly of the latest Russian helicopter downing showed burning wreckage and bodies, with armed men milling around.

Footage showed at least one body being dragged away.

Russia is a key backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is supporting pro-government forces with air strikes on rebels.

Government forces cut off rebel-held eastern parts of Aleppo last month.

Russia and Syria announced the opening of what they called humanitarian corridors for civilians and rebels wanting to surrender, but few people are reported to have used them, fearing they would be targeted.

Russian troops have started to withdraw from Syria after yesterday’s surprise announcement by President Vladimir Putin.

The first planes left Hmeimim air base in Syria on March 15, the Russian defense ministry said.

Western officials cautiously welcomed the move, saying Russian troops withdrawal could pressure Syria’s government to engage in talks.

Peace talks aimed at resolving the conflict are entering a second day.

Meanwhile, a UN commission will present a report on war crimes in Syria later.

The Russian force reduction was announced during a meeting between Vladimir Putin and his defense and foreign ministers.Russian forces leave Syria

Russia is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and his office sought to reject speculation there was a rift between the two countries, saying the move was mutually agreed.

The Russian air campaign started in September 2015, tipping the balance in favor of the Syrian government and allowing it to recapture territory from rebels.

No details have been given on how many planes and troops would be withdrawn from the Hmeimim base, in Latakia province, or a deadline for completing the pullout.

“The first group of Russian planes has flown out of the Hmeimim air base for their permanent bases on the territory of the Russian Federation,” the defense ministry statement said.

Russian TV earlier showed aircraft being refueled and crates being loaded with equipment.

Aircraft from the base would make the flight to Russia – more than 3,000 miles – in small groups each led by Il-76 or Tu-154 transport planes, the ministry added.

They would then go their separate ways to their own bases after crossing the Russian border, it said.

Su-24 tactical bombers, Su-25 attack fighters, Su-34 strike fighters and helicopters were returning home, the TV said.

It is not clear how many military personnel Russia has deployed, but US estimates suggest the number ranges from 3,000 to 6,000, AP reports.

Vladimir Putin, however, said Hmeimim and Russia’s Mediterranean naval base at Tartus would continue to operate as normal.

Russia had long insisted its bombing campaign only targeted terrorist groups but Western powers had complained the raids hit political opponents of President Assad.

In a statement, the Syrian government said the plan was agreed between the two countries.

Meanwhile, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria will present its report on war crimes committed by all sides in Syria’s war to the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday in Geneva.

In a phone call, Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama discussed the situation in Syria and the “next steps required to fully implement the cessation of hostilities” agreed last month, the White House said.

The Kremlin said both “called for an intensification of the process for a political settlement” to the conflict.

The Russian move has received a guarded welcome from Western diplomats and the Syrian opposition.

An unnamed US official quoted by Reuters said Washington was encouraged by the Russian move, but it was too early to say what it means or what was behind it.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has surprisingly ordered his troops to start withdrawing the “main part” of its forces in Syria from March 15.

Vladimir Putin said the Russian intervention had largely achieved its objectives.

The comments come amid fresh peace talks in Geneva aimed at resolving the five-year Syrian conflict.

Russia is a key ally of President Bashar al-Assad and his office said in a statement he had agreed to the move.

The pullout was “in accordance with the situation on the ground”, the statement said.

Russia began its campaign of air strikes in Syria in September 15, tipping the balance in favor of the Syrian government and allowing it to recapture territory from rebels.Vladimir Putin orders Russian troops withdrawal from Syria

“I consider the mission set for the defense ministry and the armed forces on the whole has been accomplished,” Vladimir Putin said in a meeting at the Kremlin.

“I am therefore ordering the defense ministry to begin the withdrawal of the main part of our military force from the Syrian Arab Republic from tomorrow.”

Vladimir Putin said that Russia’s Hmeimim air base in Latakia province and its Mediterranean naval base at Tartus would continue to operate as normal. He said both must be protected “from land, air and sea”.

Syria’s opposition cautiously welcomed the Russian announcement.

“If there is seriousness in implementing the withdrawal, it will give the [peace] talks a positive push,” said Salim al-Muslat, spokesman for the opposition umbrella group, the High Negotiations Committee.

The US also gave a guarded response.

“We will have to see exactly what Russia’s intentions are,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

Separately, US officials quoted by Reuters said Washington had received no advance warning of Vladimir Putin’s statement.

Speaking in October 2015, Vladimir Putin said Russia aimed to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of President Bashar al-Assad by intervening and “create conditions for a political compromise”.

Russia has long insisted its bombing campaign only targets terrorist groups but Western powers have complained the raids hit political opponents of President Bashar al-Assad.

A Syrian truce has come into effect after five years of civil war.

The “cessation of hostilities” began at midnight on February 27 with early reports saying front lines were silent.

UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said fighting had “calmed down” but one breach was being investigated.

In the run-up to the deadline, President Barack Obama warned the Syrian government and its ally Russia “the world will be watching”.

The truce involves government and rebel forces, but not ISIS or the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

More than 250,000 Syrians have been killed in Syria’s civil war and millions more have been forced from their homes.

A few hours after the deadline passed, a car bomb killed two people outside the government-held town of Salamiyeh, near Hama, Syrian state media reported. It is not clear who carried out the attack.

Monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said while some gunfire was heard in the northern city of Aleppo as the deadline passed, elsewhere it was quiet.Syria truce 2016

Staffan de Mistura has said that peace talks will resume on 7 March if the truce “largely holds”, adding that he had no doubt there would be “no shortage of attempts to undermine this process”.

Russia said it would continue to bomb militant targets. Russian jets were reported to have intensified attacks on Syrian rebel positions on February 26.

In the run-up to the truce, heavy attacks around Damascus and Aleppo were blamed on Russian airstrikes, but denied by Moscow.

The cessation was brokered by the US and Russia, and is backed by a UN resolution. Previous talks in Geneva collapsed in early February after making no progress.

One of the key aims of the cessation is to allow desperately needed aid to reach people trapped in besieged areas.

The UN resolution names about 30 areas in dire need of aid, including eastern and western rural Aleppo and the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, which is under siege by ISIS jihadists.

Almost 100 rebel factions have agreed to respect the truce, Syrian opposition umbrella group the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) said.

However, the HNC warned the Syrian government and its allies not to use the “proposed text to continue the hostile operations against the opposition factions under the excuse of fighting terrorism”.

President Vladimir Putin says the Russian forces are targeting ISIS, Nusra Front and other extremist groups designated as legitimate targets by the UN Security Council.

However, Russia is widely accused of also attacking more moderate rebel groups fighting President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of the Kremlin.

Russia and the US have agreed on a Syrian ceasefire scheduled to come into effect at midnight on February 27, a draft of the plan reveals.

The timing follows US-Russian talks at the weekend.

On February 12, Russia and the US had agreed a truce to come into effect within a week, but that deadline passed and skepticism remains over the new plan.

Violence has continued unabated in Syria, with 140 killed in bombings in Homs and Damascus on February 21.

More than 250,000 Syrians have died in the conflict which began in March 2011.Syria ceasefire 2016

Some 11 million others have been forced from their homes, of whom 4 million have fled abroad – including growing numbers who are making the dangerous journey to Europe.

Reuters quoted Western diplomatic sources as saying the ceasefire would not include ISIS or the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

US officials said the plan required government forces and the other armed opposition groups to signal their agreement to the truce by February 26.

An official announcement is expected after President Barack Obama speaks with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin by phone on February 22.

The deal also sets up a communications hotline and calls for a working group to monitor ceasefire violations.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said on February 21 he and Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, had reached a provisional agreement on the terms for the truce. The two powers back opposing sides in the war, with Russia being President Bashar al-Assad’s strongest ally.

On February 20, President Bashar al-Assad had said he would be ready for a ceasefire, if what he termed “terrorists” did not take advantage of the lull in the fighting.

Government forces, backed by Russian air strikes, have been making advances against rebels around the northern city of Aleppo.

Analysts say there will be huge skepticism about the possibility of an effective ceasefire, given the current fighting and failure of the first deadline.

Even if the partial truce holds, Russia is likely to continue its air strikes, which the US coalition says are mainly targeting anti-Assad forces and are hitting civilians.

It is also unclear whether Kurdish forces, which have been making ground in the north, sparking artillery fire from Turkey, will abide by any truce.

Russia has firmly rejected accusations of war crimes over the bombing of hospitals in Syria.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “those who make such statements are not capable of backing them up with proof”.

Up to 50 people were killed in missile attacks on at least four hospitals and two schools in rebel-held areas of northern Syria on February 15.

The UN said the “deliberate” targeting of such facilities “could amount to war crimes”, according to Reuters.

Russia has been accused, by Turkey among others, of being responsible for the attacks.

Meanwhile, a Turkish official on February 16 said Turkey would back a ground operation in Syria but only “with our international allies”.

Yesterday’s strikes hit two hospitals and two schools in Azaz, near the border with Turkey, and at least two hospitals in Maarat al-Numan, further south.

One of the hospitals in Maarat al-Numan was run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which called the attack a “deliberate” strike.

Mego Terzian, president of MSF France, told Reuters “either the [Syrian] government or Russia” was responsible.

Photo AFP

Photo AFP

The Syrian ambassador to Moscow, Riad Haddad, previously said the US was to blame, a claim the Pentagon dismissed as “patently false”.

The strikes came days after world powers – including Russia – agreed to work towards a selective truce in Syria, due to begin later this week.

The UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem on February 16, and was planning to meet him again later in the day.

They were due to discuss among other things one of the key priorities of the truce – “unhindered humanitarian access to all besieged areas”. There is no word yet on when aid convoys might reach those areas.

Earlier, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cast doubt over the “cessation of hostilities” plan, saying it did not mean all the parties would put down their weapons.

“So far they say they want a ceasefire within a week,” Bashar al-Assad said in his first comments of February 12 agreement.

“Who is capable of gathering all these conditions and requirements within a week?”

Syrian government forces – backed by Russian air power – are reportedly continuing to make advances around the northern city of Aleppo, capturing the villages of Ahras and Misqan on February 16.

According to the US Department of Treasury, ISIS has made more than $500 million trading oil.

A treasury official said ISIS’ “primary customer” has been the government of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, despite its ongoing battle to overthrow the regime.

ISIS had also looted up to $1 billion from banks in territory it held, Adam Szubin told the BBC.

A US-led coalition has been bombing ISIS targets, including oil facilities, in Syria and Iraq for over a year.

ISIS’ finance chief was recently killed in one such mission, Pentagon officials announced on December 10.ISIS oil trading

“The two are trying to slaughter each other and they are still engaged in millions and millions of dollars of trade,” Adam Szubin said of Syria and ISIS, in comments reported by Reuters news agency.

The group was estimated to be making as much as $40 million a month from the oil trade, including from buyers in Turkey, he added.

ISIS’ other main source of funding comes from extorting money from people in the territory under its control, said Adam Szubin.

Cutting off the group’s cash flow was a key part of the coalition strategy to defeat ISIS, he said.

Unlike other designated terrorist groups, ISIS did not rely on funding from foreign donors, but generated money from its own operations, Adam Szubin said.

The US-led coalition has recently launched a military campaign, dubbed Tidal Wave 2, intensifying air strikes on ISIS oil fields, refineries and tankers being used by the group.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has made a surprise visit to Moscow on his first overseas trip since the civil war broke out in his country in 2011, state TV says.

During his visit, Bashar al-Assad held talks with President Vladimir Putin.

Russia launched air strikes in Syria last month against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and other militant groups battling Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Bashar al-Assad said Russia’s involvement had stopped the spread of “terrorism” becoming “more widespread and harmful”.

For his part, President Vladimir Putin said the Syrian people had been “almost alone… resisting, fighting international terrorism for several years”.

“They had suffered serious losses, but recently have been achieving serious results in this fight,” he said.

Photo AFP

Photo AFP

The visit happened on October 20, but was not announced until October 21 – after Bashar al-Assad had returned to Damascus.

In comments that were videoed and published by the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin thanked Bashar al-Assad for coming despite the “dramatic situation” back home.

Vladimir Putin said Moscow had joined the fight against “international terrorism”, not just to help the Syrian people, but to better protect Russians too.

He said some 4,000 people from the former Soviet Union were believed to be fighting in Syria right now.

“We cannot permit them – once they get fighting experience there and ideological training – to turn up here in Russia,” he said.

Bashar al-Assad thanked Russia for “standing up for the unity of Syria and its independence”, and said its intervention had “prevented the events in Syria from developing along a more tragic scenario”.

Both presidents spoke of the need for a political solution to the crisis.

Vladimir Putin said Russia stood “ready to contribute” to any political process that could bring about a peaceful resolution.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has defended his country’s military operations in Syria, saying the aim is to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Vladimir Putin told Russian state TV Rossiya-1 Moscow also wanted to “create conditions for a political compromise” in Syria.

The Kremlin leader denied that Russian air strikes were hitting moderate opposition groups rather than Islamic State militants.

Syrian forces are said to have made significant advances against rebels.

Government gains in Idlib, Hama and Latakia provinces were on October 11 reported both by Damascus and opposition activists.

Photo Kremlin.ru

Photo Kremlin.ru

The main battlefront is currently close to the key highway that links the capital with other major cities, including Aleppo, and Bashar al-Assad’s forces are believed to be seeking to cut off rebels in Idlib.

In the interview with Rossiya-1 broadcast on October 11, Vladimir Putin said Russia’s aim was to “stabilize” the government in Damascus.

He stressed that without Moscow’s support for Bashar al-Assad there was a danger that “terrorist groups” could overrun Syria.

Bashar al-Assad’s government was currently “under siege”, Vladimir Putin said, adding that militants were “at the edge of Damascus”.

The Russian president also urged other nations to “unite efforts against this evil [terrorism]”.

The US-led coalition – which has been carrying out its own air strikes in Syria – earlier said it would not be co-operating with Russia.

Russia, which began its strikes in Syria on September 30, said on October 11 its aircraft carried out more than 60 missions in the past 24 hours, and that ISIS was its main target.

Russia and US military will hold talks “as soon as possible” to avoid clashing in Syria, the countries’ top diplomats say.

Russian defense officials say their aircraft carried out about 20 missions against the so-called Islamic State group (ISIS) on September 30.

However, the US expressed fears the targets were non-ISIS opponents of Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The US is targeting ISIS with air strikes in both Syria and Iraq.

NATO said there had been little co-ordination by Russia with US-led forces against ISIS, also known as Isil. The US says it was informed of Wednesday’s air strikes only an hour before they took place.

The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal report that US-backed rebels were targeted by Russia.Russia and US talks on Syria airstrikes

Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said there was a need to “establish channels of communication to avoid any unintended incidents”. His US counterpart, John Kerry, said talks will be held “as soon as possible,” maybe as early as October 1.

John Kerry added: “It’s one thing to be targeting Isil, but the concern, obviously, is that this is not what was happening.”

France’s Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, told French lawmakers: “Curiously, they didn’t hit Islamic State. I will let you draw a certain number of conclusions yourselves.”

Syria’s civil war has raged for four years, with an array of armed groups fighting to overthrow the government.

The US and its allies have insisted that President Bashar al-Assad should leave office, while Russia has backed him remaining in power.

The Russian defense ministry said the country’s air force had targeted ISIS military equipment, communication facilities, arms depots, ammunition and fuel supplies – and did not hit civilian infrastructure or areas nearby.

Syrian opposition activists said Russian warplanes hit towns including Zafaraneh, Rastan and Talbiseh, resulting in the deaths of at least 36 civilians, a number of them children.

None of the areas targeted was controlled by ISIS, activists said.

In a TV address, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the air strikes were targeting Islamist militants – including Russian citizens – who have taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq.

“If they [militants] succeed in Syria, they will return to their home country, and they will come to Russia, too,” he said.

He added that Russia would be “supporting the Syrian army purely in its legitimate fight with terrorist groups”.

Vladimir Putin also said he expected President Bashar al-Assad to talk with the Syrian opposition about a political settlement, but clarified that he was referring to what he described as “healthy” opposition groups.

Russia has conducted the first airstrikes in Syria against opponents of President Bashar al-Assad.

The strikes reportedly hit rebel-controlled areas of Homs and Hama provinces, causing casualties.

The US says it was informed an hour before they took place.

Russian defense officials say aircraft targeted the Islamic State (ISIS) group, but an unnamed US official told Reuters that so far they did not appear to be targeting ISIS-held territory.

Syria’s civil war has raged for four years, with an array of armed groups fighting to overthrow the government.

The US and its allies have insisted that President Bashar al-Assad should leave office, while Russia has backed its ally remaining in power.

Photo CNN

Photo CNN

The upper house of the Russian parliament granted President Vladimir Putin permission to deploy the Russian air force in Syria.

The Russian defense ministry said the country’s air force had targeted ISIS military equipment, communication facilities, arms depots, ammunition and fuel supplies.

A Syrian opposition activist network, the Local Co-ordination Committees, said Russian warplanes hit five towns – Zafaraneh, Rastan, Talbiseh, Makarmia and Ghanto – resulting in the deaths of 36 people, including five children.

None of the areas targeted were controlled by ISIS, activists said.

In a TV address, President Vladimir Putin said the air strikes were targeting Islamist militants – including Russian citizens – who have taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq.

“If they [militants] succeed in Syria, they will return to their home country, and they will come to Russia, too,” he said.

Vladimir Putin added that Russia was not going to send ground troops to Syria, and that its role in Syrian army operations would be limited.

“We certainly are not going to plunge head-on into this conflict… we will be supporting the Syrian army purely in its legitimate fight with terrorist groups.”

Vladimir Putin also said he expected President Bashar al-Assad to talk with the Syrian opposition about a political settlement, but clarified that he was referring to what he described as “healthy” opposition groups.

A US defense official said: “A Russian official in Baghdad this morning informed US embassy personnel that Russian military aircraft would begin flying anti-ISIL [ISIS] missions today over Syria. He further requested that US aircraft avoid Syrian airspace during these missions.”

State department spokesman John Kirby told reporters: “The US-led coalition will continue to fly missions over Iraq and Syria as planned and in support of our international mission to degrade and destroy ISIL [ISIS].”

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President Vladimir Putin says Russia is considering whether to follow the US and its allies in conducting air strikes against Islamic State (ISIS) targets.

The Russian president spoke after meeting President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly (UNGA).

However, the meeting, and the two presidents’ speeches at the UNGA, also highlighted splits about how to end the Syrian war.

Russia said it would be an “enormous mistake” not to work with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to tackle ISIS.

On September 28, the US and France again insisted that Bashar al-Assad must go.

Photo Getty Images

Photo Getty Images

In response, Vladimir Putin said: “They aren’t citizens of Syria and so should not be involved in choosing the leadership of another country.”

Russia would conduct air strikes only if they were approved by the United Nations, Vladimir Putin said, while also ruling out Russian troops taking part in a ground operation in Syria.

Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin met for 90 minutes on the sidelines of the UNGA in talks that the Russian president called “very constructive, business-like and frank”.

It was Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin’s first face-to-face meeting in almost a year, with the Ukraine war also on the agenda.

A senior US government official said neither president was “seeking to score points” in the talks. Both sides agreed to open lines of communication to avoid accidental military conflict in the region, the official added.

In his speech to the UNGA, President Barack Obama said compromise among powers would be essential to ending the Syrian conflict, which has claimed more than 200,000 lives and forced four million people to flee abroad.

“The US is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict,” he said.

“But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the pre-war status quo.”

Vladimir Putin said it was an “enormous mistake to refuse to co-operate with the Syrian government and its armed forces who are valiantly fighting terrorism face-to-face”.

He also called for the creation of a “broad anti-terror coalition” to fight ISIS, comparing it to the international forces that fought against Nazi Germany in World War Two.

Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin have long differed on Syria: the US opposes President Assad remaining in power, while Russia has been a staunch ally of the regime in Damascus and has recently stepped up military support.

Some Western leaders have recently softened their stance towards Bashar al-Assad, conceding that he might be able to stay in power during a political transition.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is to hold rare talks with President Barack Obama to outline his proposals on the Syrian conflict which is at the centre of intense diplomatic activity in New York, where world leaders are attending the UN General Assembly.

The Russians are a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Western leaders have recently softened their stance towards him – conceding that he might be able to stay on during a political transition.

In his opening remarks at the summit, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court, saying there can be no impunity for “atrocious crimes”.

Ban Ki-moon said five countries – Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran – were key to finding a political solution, but unless they could compromise it would be “futile” to expect change on the ground.

Earlier, Moscow suggested there were plans to form an international contact group including all the countries Ban Ki-moon mentioned plus Egypt.Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama Syria talks

The morning session at the UN is hearing from Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, as well as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and French President Francois Hollande, whose country has just carried out its first air strikes against Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Syria.

The threat of ISIS extremists and the flow of Syrian refugees to Europe has added urgency to the search for a deal to end the civil war.

Vladimir Putin has reiterated his support for Bashar al-Assad, who Western countries and the Syrian opposition have said must go.

The Russian president, who has strongly reinforced Russia’s military presence in Syria, has called for a regional “coordinating structure” against ISIS, and said the Syrian president’s troops were “the only legitimate conventional army there”.

Vladimir Putin said Russia would not participate in any troop operations in Syria.

Relations between Russia and the West have been strained over Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula last year and its support for separatist rebels in Ukraine’s east.

Vladimir Putin will also meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Cuban President Raul Castro on the sidelines of the assembly, the Kremlin was quoted as saying by Reuters.

President Hassan Rouhani – a key regional ally of Bashar al-Assad – says the government in Damascus “can’t be weakened” if ISIS militants are to be defeated.

Secretary of State John Kerry, however, said the efforts were “not yet coordinate” and the US had “concerns about how we are going to go forward”.

President Barack Obama has authorized surveillance flights over Syria in order to gain intelligence on the activities of Islamic State (ISIS).

Correspondents say the move could mark the first step towards US air strikes inside Syria, where the jihadist group controls vast swathes of territory.

The US is already carrying out strikes against IS in neighboring Iraq.

On Monday, the Syrian government said it would work with the international community in the fight against IS.

Western governments have so far rejected suggestions that they collaborate with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an attempt to counter the growing regional threat posed by IS.

They have repeatedly called on Bashar al-Assad to step down since the beginning of the three-and-a-half year uprising against his rule, in which more than 191,000 people are believed to have been killed.

On Monday evening, US officials said Barack Obama had approved over the weekend reconnaissance flights by unmanned and manned aircraft, including drones and possibly U2 spy planes.

One official later told the Associated Press that they had already begun.

President Barack Obama has authorized surveillance flights over Syria in order to gain intelligence on the activities of Islamic State

President Barack Obama has authorized surveillance flights over Syria in order to gain intelligence on the activities of Islamic State

The US military has been carrying out aerial surveillance of IS – an al-Qaeda breakaway formerly known as Isis – in Iraq for months and launched air strikes on 8 August.

The president cited the threat to US diplomats and military personnel and the humanitarian crisis in the north, where hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes since June as IS fighters and allied Sunni rebels have taken control of dozens of cities, towns and villages.

Barack Obama has long resisted taking military action in Syria, but Pentagon officials are said to have advised him that the only way the threat from IS can be fully eliminated is to go after the group there.

A spokesman for General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pentagon was “preparing options to address Isis both in Iraq and Syria with a variety of military tools including air strikes”.

The options reportedly include targeting IS leaders in and around their stronghold of the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, as well as in the east near the Iraqi border.

Last week, IS published a video showing it killing the American journalist James Foley, who was abducted in Syria in 2012. The group threatened to kill other US citizens it was holding in retaliation for US air strikes.

It later emerged that US special forces had attempted to rescue the hostages earlier in July, but that they were not at the location in Syria where the military thought they were being held.

One Obama administration official told the New York Times that the US did not intend to collaborate with the Assad government or inform him in advance of any operation.

“It is not the case that the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” said Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.

“Joining forces with Assad would essentially permanently alienate the Sunni population in both Syria and Iraq, who are necessary to dislodging [IS].”

On Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said his government was “ready for co-operation and co-ordination at the regional and international level to fight terrorism”.

However, Walid Muallem warned the White House that it would view any unilateral military action as a breach of sovereignty and an “act of aggression”.

The Western-backed rebel Free Syrian Army, which is fighting IS across northern Syria, meanwhile said its commanders on the ground were ready to co-ordinate with the US.

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President Barack Obama has asked the Congress to approve $500 million to fund training and equipment for what he described as “moderate” Syrian opposition forces.

The funds would help Syrians defend against forces aligned with President Bashar al-Assad, the White House said.

The aid would also counter Islamist militants such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), it added.

ISIS’s advance in neighboring Iraq has led some in Congress to press Barack Obama to take action.

Barack Obama has asked the Congress to approve $500 million to fund training and equipment for Syrian opposition forces

Barack Obama has asked the Congress to approve $500 million to fund training and equipment for Syrian opposition forces

Tens of thousands of people have died and millions more have been displaced in three years of civil war in Syria, as rebels fight troops loyal to Bashar al-Assad.

“This funding request would build on the administration’s longstanding efforts to empower the moderate Syrian opposition, both civilian and armed,” the White House said.

It will also “enable the Department of Defense to increase our support to vetted elements of the armed opposition”.

The money will help stabilize areas under opposition control and counter terrorist threats, the White House said.

The rebels that would receive the funds would be vetted beforehand in order to alleviate concerns of equipment falling into the hands of militants hostile to the US and its allies, the White House said.

President Barack Obama has been under strong pressure from some members of Congress to increase assistance in the area, although it is unclear whether and when Congress would act on his request.

Last month Barack Obama hinted at increased help for the Syrian opposition in a speech at the military academy at West Point.

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President Bashar al-Assad has won a third term in office after securing 88.7% of votes in Syria’s presidential election, the parliamentary speaker has announced.

Earlier, Syria’s constitutional court put the vote turnout at 73.47%.

Voting took place in government-controlled areas, but not in parts of the north and east held by rebels.

Tens of thousands of people have died in three years of civil war in Syria, with millions more displaced.

Bashar al-Assad’s key challengers, Hassan al-Nouri and Maher Hajjar, received 4.3% and 3.2% of the vote respectively.

It was the first time in decades that more than one person – outside of the Assad family – had been allowed to stand as presidential candidate.

President Bashar al-Assad has won a third term in office after securing 88.7 percent of votes

President Bashar al-Assad has won a third term in office after securing 88.7 percent of votes

Bashar al-Assad’s critics and the Syrian opposition in rebel-held areas have dismissed the election as a farce, arguing that it has no credibility in the midst of a civil war.

The opposition’s allies in the West also denounced the ballot, with US Secretary of State John Kerry, on a visit to neighboring Lebanon, describing it as “meaningless”.

The results of the election were announced by parliamentary speaker Mohammad al-Laham on Wednesday.

“I declare the victory of Dr. Bashar Hafez al-Assad as president of the Syrian Arab Republic with an absolute majority of the votes cast in the election,” he announced in a televised address.

Celebratory gunfire erupted in the Syrian capital Damascus after the results, with reports of at least three people killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Syria’s constitutional court had earlier announced that some 11.63 million Syrians voted out of a total of 15.85 million eligible to cast a ballot.

The win is likely to boost Bashar al-Assad’s supporters. The government side has recently made significant military gains and rebel groups are fighting among themselves.

But the vote has faced sharp criticism from the US and its allies.

“You can’t have an election where millions of your people don’t even have an ability to vote,” Secretary of State John Kerry said.

The EU joined the US in condemning the election, saying in a statement that it could not be considered “a genuinely democratic vote”.

Also on Wednesday, a delegation of officials visiting Damascus from more than 30 countries, including Iran, Russia and Venezuela, issued a statement in support of the “transparent and free” elections, the Associated Press reports.

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Syrians are voting in the country’s presidential elections amid heightened security.

The poll takes place three years into a civil war in which tens of thousands of people have died and millions more are displaced.

President Bashar al-Assad is widely expected to win a third seven-year term in office.

However, critics of the Syrian government have denounced the election as a sham.

Analysts say Syrian officials have gone to great lengths to present the vote as a way to resolve the crisis.

It is the first time in decades that more than one name has appeared on the ballot paper.

Hassan al-Nouri and Maher Hajjar are not widely known and have been unable to campaign on an equal footing with President Bashar al-Assad

Hassan al-Nouri and Maher Hajjar are not widely known and have been unable to campaign on an equal footing with President Bashar al-Assad

Correspondents say the other two candidates – Maher Hajjar and Hassan al-Nouri – are not widely known and have been unable to campaign on an equal footing with President Bashar al-Assad.

Previous presidential terms have been called through a referendum with just one member of the Assad family on the ballot paper.

Campaigning officially ended on Monday and workers across central Damascus removed banners, posters and pictures of the candidates.

PM Wael al-Halqi said the election was a “historic day” for Syria and that a large turnout would “prove to the entire world that the Syrian people have decided and are determined to make the electoral process a success”.

He urged Syrians to elect a president who would “achieve security and stability in the country… and step up the achievement of national reconciliation”.

The interior ministry says there are 15.8 million eligible voters, both inside and outside Syria, and about 9,600 polling stations have been set up around the country.

However, voting will only take place in government-held territory, with many parts of the country either under rebel control or in areas being fought over.

Opposition fighters have warned they will try to disrupt the vote and the Syrian National Coalition – the main Western-backed opposition group – is boycotting it.

Coalition leader Ahmad al-Jarba described the election as “theatre written with the blood of Syrians”.

He accused President Bashar al-Assad of planning to bomb and shell polling stations in order to blame the opposition.

Polling stations opened at 07:00 local time and close 12 hours later, although officials said voting could be extended for five hours if there is a big turnout.

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A mortar attack on an election rally in support of President Bashar al-Assad has killed at least 20 people in southern Syria, state media and activists say.

The attack happened as Bashar al-Assad supporters gathered in a tent in the city of Daraa on Thursday evening. President Bashar al-Assad was not at the event.

At least 30 people have been injured, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports.

Syrians are due to vote on June 3 in an election branded a sham by the West.

President Bashar al-Assad is widely expected to secure a third seven-year term in office after June 3 elections

President Bashar al-Assad is widely expected to secure a third seven-year term in office after June 3 elections

President Bashar al-Assad is facing two other challengers, but he is widely expected to secure a third seven-year term in office – despite a brutal civil war now in its fourth year.

Thursday’s attack happened in the al-Matar district of Daraa, said the Observatory, which relies on reports from a network of activists on the ground.

It said the strike was carried out by an Islamist rebel brigade, and killed 11 civilians – including one child – and pro-government militiamen.

The attack “is a clear message from rebels to the regime that there is not one safe area in which to hold the election”, the Observatory’s director Rami Abdel Rahman told the AFP news agency.

This is the first time in decades that Syria is holding a multi-candidate presidential election.

Previous presidential terms have been called through a referendum with just one member of the Assad family on the ballot paper.

However, the other two candidates are not widely known and have been unable to campaign on an equal footing with the president, correspondents say.

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Two Jordanian journalists having a televised debate about the civil war in neighboring Syria literally turned — and overturned — the desk on each other during an on-air brawl.

Journalists Shaker al-Johari and Mohammad al-Jayousi were debating the conflict on Jordan’s Seven Stars program on Thursday.

Mohammad al-Jayousi accused Shaker al-Johari of supporting the revolution in Syria, and was in turn accused of backing President Bashar al-Assad in exchange for money

Mohammad al-Jayousi accused Shaker al-Johari of supporting the revolution in Syria, and was in turn accused of backing President Bashar al-Assad in exchange for money

Mohammad al-Jayousi accused Shaker al-Johari of supporting the revolution in Syria, and was in turn accused of backing President Bashar al-Assad in exchange for money.

The two men, obviously carried away by the debate, stood up and grabbed the edge of the studio table they had been seated at, and tried to fight each other.

In the scuffle, the top of the table broke off and the rest of it toppled as the moderator and studio workers tried to stop the fight and finally separated the two journalists.

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At least 12 people have been killed and dozens more wounded in a mortar attack on a technical institute in central Damascus, Syrian state media say.

Four mortar shells struck the mainly Shia Shaghour neighborhood of the city, police told the Sana news agency.

Two of the shells hit the Badr al-Din al-Hussein technical institute.

The attack comes a day after President Bashar al-Assad registered to stand for re-election defying calls to step down as a way of ending Syria’s civil war.

Four mortar shells struck the mainly Shia Shaghour neighborhood of Damascus

Four mortar shells struck the mainly Shia Shaghour neighborhood of Damascus

Bashar al-Assad’s forces have pushed back rebels from many of their strongholds around the capital, but residents say they have responded by increasing the number of rocket and mortar attacks in the centre of the city.

“Twelve citizens were killed and 50 others wounded by terrorists who targeted the Shaghour neighborhood,” Sana reported.

The word “terrorists” is used by the Syrian authorities to describe all those seeking to depose President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has also reported the mortar attack, saying that the number of fatalities is expected to rise.

It says that the Badr al-Din al-Hussein technical institute is an Islamic law studies centre, with students as young as 14.

More than 150,000 people are believed to have been killed in the three-year civil war.

Millions of people have fled their homes as fighting shows no sign of easing. The UN says that almost 3.5 million civilians are being denied vital aid, including medicine and medical care.

A group of prominent lawyers and academics has urged the UN in an open letter to deliver aid into Syria with or without the government’s consent.

The letter, signed by 35 legal experts, says permission for aid is being arbitrarily withheld.

A UN resolution adopted in February called for all sides in the conflict to allow unrestricted humanitarian access.

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