Gen. Kenneth McKenzie also could not confirm President Donald Trump’s graphic description of Baghdadi whimpering and crying as he died.
“He crawled into a hole with two small children and blew himself up while his people stayed on the ground. You can deduce what kind of person it is based on that activity,” he told a news conference at the Pentagon.
“That would be my empirical observation of what he did. I’m not able to confirm anything else about his last seconds. I just can’t confirm that one way or another.”
He said four women – who were wearing suicide vests – and one man were killed at the compound.
Gen McKenzie said an unknown number of fighters also died after opening fire on US helicopters.
He added: “I want to make it clear that despite the high-pressure and high-profile nature of this assault that every effort was made to avoid civilian casualties and to protect children we suspected would be in the compound.”
He confirmed that Baghdadi had been identified through his DNA – adding that samples had been on file since the ISIS leader’s detention in an Iraqi prison in 2004.
Gen McKenzie said Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s remains were flown back to a staging base for identification and were then buried at sea within 24 hours of his death “in accordance with the laws of armed conflict”.
Brett McGurk, the US special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, has quit over President Donald Trump’s decision to pull troops from Syria.
He brought his departure forward from February.
Before President Trump’s announcement he had insisted that the US would continue working against ISIS in Syria.
President Trump described Brett McGurk’s resignation as a “nothing event”.
The president tweeted: “Brett McGurk, who I do not know, was appointed by President Obama in 2015. Was supposed to leave in February but he just resigned prior to leaving. Grandstander? The Fake News is making such a big deal about this nothing event!”
Brett McGurk’s decision to quit follows the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on December 20.
General Jim Mattis had also opposed withdrawing troops from Syria as well as reducing the US presence in Afghanistan.
Brett McGurk, 45, is an experienced diplomat who was appointed to his current role in 2015 under the Obama administration.
In early December, the envoy told reporters: “We want to stay on the ground and make sure that stability can be maintained in these areas.”
He added: “It would be reckless if we were just to say, well, the physical caliphate is defeated, so we can just leave now. I think anyone who’s looked at a conflict like this would agree with that.”
In his resignation letter, seen by AP news agency, Brett McGurk said that ISIS militants in Syria were on the run but not yet defeated. He said that withdrawing US forces from Syria would create the conditions that gave rise to ISIS.
In an email to staff quoted by the New York Times, Brett McGurk said President Trump’s decision to pull out troops “came as a shock and was a complete reversal of policy”. It “left our coalition partners confused and our fighting partners bewildered”, he said.
Brett McGurk went on to say: “I ultimately concluded I could not carry out these new instructions and maintain my integrity.”
The Pentagon said it would not provide further details of what that next phase is “for force protection and operational security reasons”.
The White House said the US and its allies stood “ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests whenever necessary, and we will continue to work together to deny radical Islamist terrorists territory, funding, support and any means of infiltrating our borders”.
Israel said it had been told the US had “other ways to have influence in the area” but would “study the timeline [of the withdrawal], how it will be done and of course the implications for us”.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on state-controlled Channel One TV that the US decision could result in “genuine, real prospects for a political settlement” in Syria.
Pulling troops out of Syria had long been promised by President Trump.
The state department abruptly canceled its daily briefing on December 19 after the withdrawal was announced.
One of President Trump’s supporters, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who sits on the armed services committee, called it a “huge Obama-like mistake”.
In a series of tweets, Lindsey Graham said ISIS was “not defeated”, and warned withdrawing US troops puts “our allies, the Kurds, atrisk”.
This week Turkey said it was preparing to launch an operation against a Kurdish militia in northern Syria, which has been an ally of the US in its fight against ISIS.
Pope Francis’ Easter message from the Vatican has urged for an end to the “carnage” in Syria.
The pontiff also asked God to heal the wounds in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and urged dialogue on the Korean peninsula.
He said the power of the Christian message gave hope to the deprived.
Tens of thousands of people were in St Peter’s Square to hear the Pope speak from the balcony of the basilica.
He said: “Today we implore fruits of peace upon the entire world, beginning with the beloved and long suffering land of Syria whose people are worn down by an apparently endless war.
“This Easter may the light of the risen Christ illuminate the consciences of all political and military leaders, so that a swift end may be brought to the carnage in course; that humanitarian law may be respected; and that provisions be made to facilitate access to the aid so urgently needed.”
According to the Israeli military, one of its F-16 fighter jet has crashed amid Syrian anti-aircraft fire after an offensive against Iranian targets in Syria.
The two pilots parachuted to safety before the crash in northern Israel. It is believed to be the first time Israel has lost a jet in the Syrian conflict.
Israel Defense Forces (IDF) tweeted: “Moments ago, IAF aircraft, targeted the Syrian Aerial Defense System & Iranian targets in Syria. 12 targets, including 3 aerial defense batteries & 4 Iranian military targets, were attacked. Anti-aircraft missiles were fired towards Israel, triggering alarms in northern Israel.”
Red alert sirens sounded in areas of northern Israel and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights due to Syrian anti-aircraft fire.
Residents reported hearing a number of explosions and heavy aerial activity in the area near Israel’s borders with Jordan and Syria.
Israel was carrying out strikes after the launch of an Iranian drone into Israel. The drone was intercepted.
Syria accused Israel of “aggression”, as Israel then launched more strikes.
In a statement, the Israeli military said “a combat helicopter successfully intercepted an Iranian UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] that was launched from Syria and infiltrated Israel”.
It said the drone was identified quickly and was “under surveillance until the interception”.
The drone went down on Israeli territory and was “in our possession”, IDF spokesperson Brig Gen Ronen Manelis said.
The military said that in response the IDF “targeted Iranian targets in Syria”. It said the mission deep inside Syrian territory was successfully completed.
After coming under Syrian anti-aircraft fire, the F-16’s two crew ejected and were later taken to hospital. One of them was “severely injured as a result of an emergency evacuation”, the IDF said.
It was not clear whether the F-16 jet was hit by anti-aircraft fire or went down near Harduf for other reasons.
Syrian state media quoted a military source as saying that the country’s air defenses opened fire in response to an Israeli act of “aggression” against a military base on February 10, hitting “more than one plane”.
Meanwhile, Iran, Russia and the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon – key allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – dismissed as “lies” Israeli claims that an Iranian drone had entered Israeli airspace, news wires report.
President Donald Trump held a series of phone calls with world leaders, including one with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
According to the Kremlin, both sides had agreed to make fighting “international terrorism” – including ISIS and “other terrorist groups” in Syria – a top priority.
And the White House said the call was a “significant start” to improving a relationship “in need of repair”.
President Trump also spoke with leaders from Japan, Germany, France and Australia.
In a statement in English, the Kremlin provided more details of the first official call between the two leaders since Donald Trump took office.
The Kremlin said it was a “positive and constructive” conversation, during which they discussed the fight against terrorism, the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict, strategic stability, non-proliferation and Iran’s nuclear program, North and South Korea, the situation in Ukraine.
The Russian account of the call was also notable for its lack of any mention of economic sanctions against Russia by the US, which have been the subject of much speculation in recent days.
However, the statement did say both parties “stressed the importance of rebuilding mutually beneficial trade”, which, the Kremlin said, could aid the development of relations in other areas.
Russia considers all anti-Assad rebels in Syria as terrorist fighters, though the previous US administration has supported some moderate rebel groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.
The White House did not offer additional clarity on the items discussed, but rather issued a short statement saying: “Both President Trump and President Putin are hopeful that after today’s call the two sides can move quickly to tackle terrorism and other important issues of mutual concern.”
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin also agreed to arrange a face-to-face meeting for a later date – and stay in “regular personal contact”.
In his other phone calls on January 28, President Trump invited Japanese PM Shinzo Abe to the White House in a meeting scheduled for February 10, press secretary Sean Spicer said.
A Russian Tu-154 plane with 93 people on board has crashed into the Black Sea, the defense ministry has said.
The military plane disappeared from radar two minutes after taking off from the resort of Sochi at 05:25AM local time. Debris and one body have been found, with no reports of any survivors.
The Russian defense ministry said the Tu-154 was carrying soldiers, 65 members of the famed Alexandrov military music ensemble, and nine reporters.
The plane was flying to Latakia in Syria.
The flight originated in Moscow and had landed at Adler airport in Sochi for refueling.
The Russian defense ministry said in a statement: “Fragments of the Tu-154 plane of the Russian defense ministry were found 1.5km [one mile] from the Black Sea coast of the city of Sochi at a depth of 50 to 70m [165-230ft.”
Image source WIkimedia
An audio recording played on Russian media and said to be of the final conversation between air traffic controllers and the plane reveals no sign of any difficulties being faced by the crew.
Voices remain calm until the plane disappears and the controllers try in vain to re-establish contact.
Reports from the area said flying conditions were favorable.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a state commission to look into the crash and sent his condolences to the families and friends of the victims.
The defense ministry has published a passenger list, showing that 65 of those on board were from the Alexandrov Ensemble, including its director, Valery Khalilov.
There were 9 journalists, 8 soldiers, two civil servants and eight crew members.
Also on board was Elizaveta Glinka, known as Dr. Liza, the executive director of the Fair Aid charity and the inaugural winner of Russia’s state prize for achievements in human rights.
The plane was carrying passengers to a New Year’s performance for Russian troops deployed in Syria.
The performance was scheduled to take place at Russia’s Hmeimim air base, near Latakia.
Russia has been carrying out air strikes in support of Syrian government forces who are battling rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Donald Trump has said Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy plan in Syria would trigger World War Three.
The Republican also said the US should focus on defeating ISIS rather than removing Syria’s president.
Hillary Clinton has proposed a no-fly zone over Syria. The top US military chief has said that could spell conflict with Russian jets in the region.
The Clinton campaign accused Donald Trump of “playing to Americans’ fears”.
The New York billionaire also attacked Republicans for not uniting behind his candidacy.
“If we had party unity, we couldn’t lose this election to Hillary Clinton,” Donald Trump told Reuters at Trump National Doral golf resort in Miami, Florida.
He struck an apocalyptic tone when criticizing his Democratic rival’s plan to control Syrian air space.
“You’re going to end up in World War Three over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton,” he said.
“You’re not fighting Syria anymore, you’re fighting Syria, Russia and Iran, all right?
“Russia is a nuclear country, but a country where the nukes work as opposed to other countries that talk.”
Donald Trump suggested there should be a refocus away from the long-held US position of trying to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying: “What we should do is focus on IS. We should not be focusing on Syria.”
He also suggested Hillary Clinton would be unable to talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin after her sharp criticism of him.
Donald Trump questioned “how she is going to go back and negotiate with this man who she has made to be so evil” if she is elected president on November 8.
The Clinton campaign dismissed the criticism, saying both Republican and Democratic national security experts have denounced Donald Trump as unfit to be commander-in-chief.
“Once again, he is parroting Putin’s talking points and playing to Americans’ fears, all while refusing to lay out any plans of his own for defeating ISIS or alleviating humanitarian suffering in Syria,” Hillary Clinton spokesman Jesse Lehrich said in a statement.
Donald Trump’s warning of confrontation with Russia echoes concerns raised last month at a congressional hearing by the highest-ranking military officer in the US armed forces.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Marine General Joseph Dunford told lawmakers a “no-fly zone” in Syria could spell war with Russia.
“Right now, senator, for us to control all of the airspace in Syria it would require us to go to war, against Syria and Russia,” he told the Senate Arms Services Committee.
“That’s a pretty fundamental decision that certainly I’m not going to make.”
At the final presidential debate in Nevada on October 19, Hillary Clinton outlined her support for the measure.
“A no-fly zone can save lives and hasten the end of the conflict,” she said on stage.
However, in a 2013 speech to Goldman Sachs, Hillary Clinton said establishing a no-fly zone would “kill a lot of Syrians”, according to a transcript disclosed by WikiLeaks.
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.
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.
Gary Johnson, one of the third-party candidates in the presidential election, has been ridiculed after being wrong-footed by a question on a key Syrian battleground.
Asked what he would do about the Syrian city of Aleppo, if elected, Libertarian Gary Johnson answered: “What is Aleppo?”
Gary Johnson later admitted he had “blanked” but said he would “get smarter” following the gaffe.
Aleppo has been one of the major flashpoints of Syria’s five-year civil war.
Image source Flickr
Known as “Halab” in Arabic, it is one of world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, being mentioned in Egyptian texts from the 20th Century BC.
Fighting in Syria has escalated in recent weeks, with an estimated 250,000 people living in besieged rebel-held areas.
Although Gary Johnson trails far behind Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton in polls, both main party candidates are said to be unpopular among many US voters and analysts believe Johnson could play a part in deciding the result.
Gary Johnson seemed unaware of the crisis in Aleppo when asked for his solution by MSNBC panelist Mike Barnicle, saying: “And what is Aleppo?”
“You’re kidding me?” replied Mike Barnicle, before going on to describe the situation there.
“OK, got it, got it,” said Gary Johnson, before adding: “With regard to Syria, I do think it’s a mess. I think that the only way that we deal with Syria is to join hands with Russia to diplomatically bring that at an end.”
Russia and the United States have largely backed opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, with Russian aircraft providing air support to President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Gary Johnson later issued a statement saying: “Can I name every city in Syria? No. Should I have identified Aleppo? Yes. Do I understand its significance? Yes.”
Turkey has sent tanks and other vehicles across the Syrian border after heavy shelling of an area held by ISIS.
Military sources told Turkish media 70 targets in the Jarablus area had been destroyed by artillery and rocket strikes, and 12 by air strikes.
Syrian rebels who are following the advance say they have entered the town of Jarablus itself.
The operation is aimed against both ISIS and Kurdish fighters.
Turkey shelled Syrian Kurdish forces in the region this week, determined not to let them fill the vacuum if ISIS leaves.
US Vice-President Joe Biden warned Kurdish forces in Syria they would lose US support if they advanced west of the River Euphrates.
Making the highest-ranking visit to Ankara by a Western official since the failed Turkish coup on July 15, Joe Biden also sought to dispel any doubts about America’s solidarity with its NATO ally.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced in a speech in Ankara: “At 04:00 [01:00 GMT] our forces began an operation against the Daesh [ISIS] and PYD [Kurdish Democratic Union Party] terror groups.”
Operation Euphrates Shield was aimed at “putting an end” to problems on the border, he said.
Between 9 and 12 tanks crossed the border, followed by pick-up trucks believed to be carrying Turkish-backed Syrian rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The FSA said progress was slow because of mines planted by ISIS fighters in the area. There were no immediate reports of fighting on the way in.
Turkey has vowed to “completely cleanse” ISIS from its border region, blaming the group for a bomb attack on a wedding that killed at least 54 people in Gaziantep on August 20.
This is Turkey’s first known ground incursion into Syria since a brief operation to relocate the tomb of Suleyman Shah, a revered Ottoman figure, in February 2015.
The air strikes are Turkey’s first inside Syria since the downing of a Russian jet in November. Moscow and Ankara only mended ties in June after punitive Russian sanctions.
Fighters from the Syrian Kurd YPG militia – the military wing of the PYD – led the battle to drive ISIS out of the strategic crossroads town of Manbij this month.
Responding to news of the Turkish advance, PYD leader Saleh Moslem tweeted that Turkey was now in the “Syrian quagmire” and would be defeated like ISIS.
Turkey has launched new artillery strikes on ISIS targets at Jarablus, northern Syria, amid reports Syrian rebels are to launch an offensive against the Islamist group.
Some 1,500 Turkish-backed Syrian rebels are thought to be in Gaziantep waiting to attack.
A bomb attack on a Kurdish wedding there killed 54 people on August 20.
Turkey also shelled positions at Manbij held by Kurdish YPG fighters, who have been advancing against ISIS.
According to new reports, the attack in Gaziantep, blamed on ISIS, may have been spurred by reports of the imminent Syrian rebel offensive.
Meanwhile, more victims of the suicide attack are being identified.
On August 23, Turkish artillery fired at least 40 shells at ISIS positions in the Jarablus area after two mortar bombs landed in the Turkish town of Karkamis, just across the border, Turkish media report.
Nobody was hurt in the attack on Karkamis.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said ISIS should be “completely cleansed” from northern Syria.
On August 22, Turkey also shelled of ISIS positions but equally the bombardment of Kurdish YPG positions in the Manbij area.
A Turkish official quoted by Reuters said artillery had fired on the Kurds 20 times.
The YPG has been at the forefront of the recent advance against ISIS in northern Syria, leading the liberation of Manbij this month and driving the jihadists towards Jarablus.
However, Turkey links them to its own Kurdish insurgents, the PKK, and is determined to keep them away from its border with Syria.
The fighters poised to enter Syria from Gaziantep are believed to be Turkish-backed Syrian rebels.
A senior rebel official quoted by Reuters said they were fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.
It is believed that any such operation would be aimed at frustrating any further advance by the Kurds.
The Kurds themselves have non-Kurdish Syrian allies, fighting alongside the YPG under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The identity and motive of the suicide bomber who attacked the wedding party have yet to be revealed.
Soon after the attack, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said ISIS was the likely perpetrator but PM Binali Yildirim said on August 22 that investigators actually did “not have a clue”.
The prime minister downplayed earlier reports that the attacker was a teenager, saying this could not be confirmed.
What is known is that it was a Kurdish wedding and ISIS has targeted Turkish Kurds in the past.
Many of the victims were children as young as 4-year-old.
Sixty-six people are still in hospital, 14 of them in a serious condition, Turkey’s Dogan news agency reported.
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.
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.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has met his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, for the first time since the July 15 attempted coup.
Russia is ready to restore economic co-operation and other ties with Turkey, President Vladimir Putin has announced in St. Petersburg.
It is also President Erdogan’s first foreign visit since an attempted coup last month.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan thanked Vladimir Putin, saying “your call straight after the coup attempt was very welcome”.
Russian-Turkish relations soured last November when Turkey shot down a Russian bomber on the Syrian border.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit comes as Turkey’s ties with the West have cooled over criticism of the purge of alleged coup-plotters.
Before leaving Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan referred to Vladimir Putin as his “friend” and said he wanted to open a new page in relations with Russia.
“This visit strikes me as a new milestone in our bilateral relations, starting again from a clean slate,” he told Russia’s Tass news agency.
Vladimir Putin said their talks would cover “the whole range of our relations… including restoring economic ties, combating terrorism”.
After Turkey shot down the Su-24 jet Russia imposed trade sanctions and suspended Russian package tours to Turkey.
In June, the Kremlin said Recep Tayyip Erdogan had apologized for the downing of the jet and had sent a message expressing “sympathy and deep condolences” to the family of the dead pilot.
Then, after the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey, Vladimir Putin expressed support for Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He did not criticize President Erdogan’s crackdown on political opponents and purge of alleged “plotters” in state institutions.
Turkey’s ties with its NATO allies – especially the US – have been strained by disagreements over the Syrian civil war. Turkey’s priority is to weaken the Kurdish separatist forces, while the US is focusing on destroying ISIS.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan was angered by criticism from the EU and the US of the mass detentions of suspected plotters. He demanded that the US extradite cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom he accuses of organizing the coup. But the United States says Turkey must provide solid evidence before such a move can be considered.
Turkey’s Justice Minister, Bekir Bozdag, says more than 26,000 people have been detained after the attempted coup.
They back opposing sides in Syria. Turkey is furious at the scale of Russian air support for Syrian government forces, as Recep Tayyip Erdogan reviles Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia has accused Turkey of backing Islamist anti-Assad groups, including some accused of “terrorism” in Russia.
Turkey is at war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the PKK’s Syrian allies. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Russia of arming the PKK.
For centuries Russia and Turkey have been rivals for influence in the Caucasus and Black Sea region.
Turkey was also angered by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, accusing Moscow of violating the rights of Crimean Tatars. The Muslim Tatars have long had close ties to Turkey.
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.
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.
The US will send 250 additional military personnel to Syria to support local militias in the fight against ISIS, officials have said.
The goal, they say, is to encourage more Sunni Arabs to join Kurdish fighters in north-eastern Syria.
The new deployment will bring to 300 the number of US forces in non-combat roles in Syria.
Most of the additional personnel will be special operation forces, the AP reports. The group will also include medical and logistical troops, it adds.
A formal announcement is expected from President Barack Obama during his visit to Hannover on April 25, where he will discuss Syria and other foreign policy issues with leaders of the UK, Germany, France and Italy.
Barack Obama has resisted calls to send US troops into Syria, where a five-year-old conflict has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced some 11 million others.isis
Of those, four million have fled abroad, including growing numbers who are making the dangerous journey to Europe.
The crisis has put pressure on leaders there, who are struggling to halt a massive influx of migrants and refugees.
Speaking alongside Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel on April 24 urged warring parties to set up safe zones in Syria where refugees would be protected within the country.
Angela Merkel expressed hope that such a plan might eventually be agreed at peace talks taking place in Geneva.
Barack Obama, however, said it would be “very difficult” for those zones to work without a large military commitment.
ISIS has lost parts of the territory it once controlled in Syria. Most recently, they were pushed back by Russian-backed Syrian forces from the strategic city of Palmyra.
The group has also had significant setbacks in Iraq, including the loss of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.
The US has led a coalition against the militant group in both Syria and Iraq.
Syrian army has entered the ancient town of Palmyra seized by ISIS last year, state TV has said.
According to observers, the government forces have advanced into a hotel district south-west of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Officials launched an offensive to retake the city earlier this month, backed by Russian air strikes.
Palmyra is situated in a strategically important area between Damascus and the contested eastern city of Deir al-Zour.
ISIS seized the ruins of Palmyra and the adjoining modern town in May 2015. It subsequently destroyed two 2,000-year-old temples, an arch and funerary towers, provoking global outrage.
The jihadist group, which has also demolished several world-renowned pre-Islamic sites in neighboring Iraq, believes that such structures are idolatrous.
UNESCO has condemned the destruction as a war crime.
State media showed warplanes flying overhead, helicopters firing missiles, and soldiers and armored vehicles approaching Palmyra.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the government forces advanced into the hotel district and reached the start of a residential area but were moving slowly because of mines planted by ISIS.
The Syrian troops were also making incursions from the northern part of the city, the AFP reported.
There were unconfirmed reports of casualties on both sides.
The Observatory said civilians began fleeing after ISIS warned them via loudspeakers to leave the city centre as fighting was drawing closer.
The advance comes after the Syrian army and allied militia took control of several hills overlooking the city earlier this week.
Recapturing Palmyra would be a significant victory for the government and Russia, which withdrew most of its forces last week after a six-month air campaign against opponents of President Bashar al-Assad that turned the tide of the five-year civil war in his favor.
Despite the reported setbacks, ISIS claimed its fighters inflicted heavy casualties on the advancing forces, according to its weekly publication Al Naba.
On March 23, ISIS issued pictures purported to show several Syrian army vehicles destroyed by its fire. However, its daily radio news bulletins have not mentioned the fighting in Palmyra in the last few days.
Senior ISIS commander Omar Shishani died from injuries sustained in a recent US air strike in north-eastern Syria, the Pentagon has confirmed.
Earlier reports had suggested Omar Shishani, a Georgian whose real name was Tarkhan Batirashvili, may have survived the attack on a convoy.
Several of his bodyguards were killed in the same bombing.
The strike took place on March 4 near the north-eastern town of Shaddadi, where Omar Shishani had reportedly been sent to bolster local ISIS forces.
On March 13, monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the ISIS leader had been “clinically dead” for several days.
In 2015, the US offered a $5 million reward for Omar Shishani.
It said he had held numerous senior military positions within the group, including “minister of war”.
Last week, the observatory’s director, Rami Abdul Rahman, quoted sources saying that Shishani had been badly wounded and had been taken to a hospital in Raqqa province where he was treated by “a jihadist doctor of European origin”.
US officials have said they believe Omar Shishani was sent to the Shaddadi area to reinforce ISIS militants following a series of military defeats.
Shaddadi was captured last month by the Syrian Arab Coalition, an alliance of Arab rebel groups which joined forces with the Kurdish YPG militia to battle ISIS.
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.
“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.
Turkey is accusing Russia of again violating its airspace and warned it would “face consequences” if such infringements continue.
The Turkish foreign ministry said a Russian jet flew into its airspace on the border with Syria on January 29. Moscow described the claim as “baseless propaganda”.
Tensions between Turkey and Russia have been high since November, when Turkey shot down a Russian jet.
Russia has been carrying out air strikes in Syria since September.
It has been targeting forces fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, its ally.
In a statement, the Turkish foreign ministry said a Russian SU-34 jet crossed into Turkish airspace at 11:46 local time on January 29, ignoring several warnings made in Russian and English.
It said the ministry had summoned the Russian ambassador in Ankara to “strongly protest at and condemn” the incident.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned on January 30 that Russia would “have to face consequences if it keeps up such violations”.
“Such irresponsible steps do not benefit either the Russian Federation, or Russia-NATO relations, or regional and global peace,” he told reporters.
Recep Tyyip Erdogan said he had asked repeatedly for a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, without success.
On January 30, NATO – of which Turkey is a member – urged Russia “to act responsibility and to fully respect NATO airspace” and “take all necessary measures to ensure that such violations do not happen again”.
Relations between Russia and Turkey, a vocal opponent of Bashar al-Assad, plummeted after Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian SU-24 on November 24.
Turkey said the plane intruded into its airspace and ignored repeated warnings to leave.
Russia insisted the jet had never crossed over from Syrian territory and did not receive any warnings.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin embarked on a war of words and Russia introduced a raft of sanctions designed to damage Turkey’s economy.
Bashar al-Assad had declared recently that he will not be negotiating with the armed groups. Stratfor is a leading news platform breaking all kinds of news to you firsthand. The platform had reported about an agreement that was reached by the various opposition parties and rebel fighting groups in Syria. This was done mainly due to the fact that all of them want to defeat their common enemy that had invaded large parts of Iraq and Syria and is also a major threat to Russia and the west.
In an interview, the Syrian president had stated that he would not show any kind of support to the armed groups and had accused Saudi Arabia and Washington of their will to negotiate with terrorist entities. He had stated that they were only in contact with these armed groups so that they would make peace by giving up arms and either start leading normal lives or joining the government. He had also stated that everyone holding a machinegun was a terrorist to them.
There Have Been Demands For Assad To Leave
There was a statement issued by the rebel groups in Riyadh which stated that Assad needs to leave power at the transitional period’s beginning and that Syria should be a democratic and all inclusive civic state. However, such a demand has been rejected by Iran and Russia.
Talks With Opposition Groups In Syria
A minimum of 100 delegates from various rebel fractions and political opposition which included extreme Islamist groups had met up in Riyadh for two days during which talks were held in the hopes that all these divisions and opposition parties will be unified to officially put an end to the conflict in Syria. The talks had also included around 20 members from the Syrian National Council that is backed by the west along with the National Coordination Body that is based in Syria.
The Saudi is putting all of its efforts into making sure that the rebel and opposition groups in Syria can come to a mutual understanding and they can work together to form a common platform. There was also a comprehensive strategy meeting that occurred in Vienna to which none of the rebel and opposition groups were invited. The talks however could not resolve what was to be the role of Assad during the time of transition.
Most of the oppositions in Syria do not support the president at all and want him to step down. But the west as well as the United States has finally come to a realization that it will be extremely chaotic if Assad was asked to step down.
The Kurdish Group, Democratic Union Part, and People’s Protection Units in Syria was not invited for the talks. All that can be done now is to wait for Stratfor to report more news on what is to come after these meetings. For now, only this much is known.