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Lebanon has imposed stricter conditions for Syrians entering the country in a bid to slow the flow of asylum seekers trying to escape the war.
Previously, travel between Syria and Lebanon was largely unrestricted, but now Syrians will have to obtain a visa.
Lebanon hosts more than a million Syrian refugees and this is the latest step to try to stem the influx.
Millions of Syrians have been displaced by the civil war as rebel forces try to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
The uprising began with protests against Bashar al-Assad’s rule in 2011 and degenerated into civil war in 2012. The rise of Islamist groups has added to the refugee problem.
Lebanon, which shares a border with Syria, is one of the most affected country by the large numbers of refugees.
Before now, Syrians could stay in Lebanon for up to six months automatically. Under the new measure, Syrians wanting to enter Lebanon will have to fulfill certain criteria in order to be granted a visa at the border.
It is unclear what the rule will mean for the many Syrians already in the country and not registered as refugees.
Every Syrian wanting to enter Lebanon will need to state a clear purpose for their visit, and, if approved, a visa will be issued for a certain duration.
Syrians coming to work in Lebanon will also have to be sponsored by a Lebanese individual or company.
A spokesman for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Lebanon, Ron Redmond, said that over the past 6 to 8 months a number of measures had already reduced the number of people seeking registration as refugees. But the UN had worked out a system with the government to enable the most vulnerable to still gain access.
Lebanon has long been struggling to cope with the number of refugees fleeing the war in Syria.
There are currently more than 1.1 million registered refugees in Lebanon putting a huge strain on the country’s infrastructure and resources.
The Lebanese government says the actual number of refugees in the country is about 1.6 million.
Clearly the Lebanese government wants to reduce the flow, says Rami Khouri, Senior Fellow at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut.
Many refugees live in poor conditions.
In October, Lebanon’s social affairs minister announced that the country would stop accepting all refugees except emergency cases, but would still allow Syrians to enter for other purposes, such as work and tourism.
The latest UNHCR figures show a total of 3.2 million Syrians registered as refugees in Lebanon and elsewhere.
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Pope Francis has delivered his second “Urbi et Orbi” – to the city and the world – Christmas message, highlighting the plight of victims of conflict in Syria and Iraq.
The pontiff has denounced the “brutal persecution” of religious and ethnic minorities, in his traditional Christmas Day address.
“Too many people are being held hostage or massacred” in Nigeria, he added.
Pope Francis also urged dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians and condemned Taliban attacks in Pakistan.
Tens of thousands of people turned out on St Peter’s Square to hear Pope Francis deliver his annual message.
He said Christians in Iraq and Syria had endured conflict for too long, and “together with those belonging to other ethnic and religious groups, are suffering a brutal persecution”.
“May Christmas bring them hope, as indeed also to the many displaced persons, exiles and refugees, children, adults and elderly, from this region and from the whole world,” the Pope said.
In his Christmas Day address, Pope Francis also asked for peace in Ukraine, Nigeria, in Libya, South Sudan and other parts of Africa.
He called for comfort for the families of the 132 children killed in a Taliban attack in Pakistan last week – and for the victims of the Ebola epidemic.
On Christmas Eve Pope Francis made a surprise telephone call to refugees in a camp near Irbil, in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region.
“You are like Jesus on Christmas night. There was no room for him either,” Pope Francis told them.
Advances in Iraq by Islamic State (ISIS) militants have forced tens of thousands of Christians and people from other religious minorities to flee.
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The UN has appealed for a record $16 billion to fund its humanitarian operations in 2015, with almost half the total going to help victims of the Syrian conflict.
It says the money will provide aid for more than 57 million of the most vulnerable people around the world.
The UN humanitarian chief said the level of need was “unprecedented”.
The request comes as aid agencies warn they are running out of cash to fund this year’s operations in Syria.
Last week the World Food Programme announced it would have to cut food rations to Syrian refugees.
The UN is requesting $2.8 billion to help those displaced by the conflict inside Syria.
It is seeking another $4.4 billion to help more than 3,250,000 Syrian refugees registered in neighboring countries.
“The rising scale of need is outpacing our capacity to respond,” said UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos.
“The crises in Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan and Syria will remain top humanitarian priorities next year.”
Valerie Amos said those conflicts accounted for more than 70% of the funding being sought.
Other major crises covered by the appeal include Afghanistan, DR Congo, Myanmar, Palestinian territories, Somalia, Sudan, Ukraine and Yemen.
However, the UN said it did not include nine countries in Africa’s Sahel region, which will be addressed in a separate request in February.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said: “This is not business as usual in the humanitarian world. Today’s needs are at unprecedented levels, and without more support there simply is no way to respond to the humanitarian situations we’re seeing.”
Food and medical supplies for refugees have to be purchased in advance, and field hospitals have to be delivered and built.
Syria has accused Israel of carrying out two airstrikes near Damascus.
Israeli planes bombed the area near Damascus international airport and the town of Dimas, the Syrian army said in a statement carried on state television.
No casualties were reported. There has been no confirmation of the air strikes from Israel.
Israel has conducted several air strikes on Syria since 2011.
“This afternoon, the Israeli enemy targeted two safe areas in Damascus province, namely the Dimas area and the Damascus International Airport,” the military statement said.
It described the air strikes as “direct aggression” carried out to help the Syrian government’s opponents.
Some installations had been damaged, it added, without elaborating on what had been hit.
Responding to the Syrian accusation, Israel’s military said it did not comment on “foreign reports”.
The Israeli air force has conducted several air strikes on Syria since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011.
Israel generally does not comment when it carries out attacks outside its borders.
However, Israeli jets were seen constantly flying over parts of Lebanon on December 7, about 20 miles from where the alleged attacks are said to have taken place.
The Israeli military has also bombed Syrian military sites in the past in retaliation for attacks on the occupied Golan Heights.
Israel seized Golan Heights from Syria in the closing stages of the 1967 Middle East War, and thwarted a Syrian attempt to retake it in 1973.
It unilaterally annexed the area in 1981, in a move not recognized internationally.
Israel and Syria remain technically in a state of war, and UN observers are deployed to monitor a 44-mile demilitarized zone.
Thirteen people suspected of radicalizing young people and recruiting them to fight in Syria have been arrested by Austrian police, prosecutors say.
Reports in the Austrian media said 500 police were involved in searches at mosques, flats and prayer rooms in Vienna and the cities of Linz and Graz.
Authorities also seized “terrorist propaganda material”, prosecutors said.
It comes amid a European crackdown on fighters who have joined jihadist forces in Syria and Iraq.
A statement from Austria’s state prosecutor’s office said 16 people had been questioned following the searches in the early hours of November 28.
The 13 suspects had been arrested on suspicion of membership of a terrorist organization.
Local media said a Bosnian preacher, who was the main suspect, was among those held.
Along with “propaganda material”, officers seized electronic material, cash and brass knuckles, according to reports.
In recent months, the Austrian authorities have said they are investigating more than 150 people believed to have joined radical militant groups in Iraq and Syria.
Hundreds of European Muslims are known to have travelled to Syria to join jihadist groups such as Islamic State fighting in the country’s civil war.
EU member states are trying to prevent radicalization at home and are also taking measures to tackle the security threat from jihadists returning from Syria.
According to new reports, at least 553 people are said to have died in a month in the Kurdish town of Kobane, Syria, under Islamic State (ISIS) attack.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based Syrian opposition body which monitors the conflict, counted 298 IS fighters among the dead.
US aircraft have bombed ISIS positions as Kurdish fighters cling on to the town’s vital border crossing with Turkey.
However, the defenders say they are outgunned on the ground.
“The supply of fighters is very good…” Kobane official Idris Nassan told Reuters news agency.
“But fighters coming without arms, without weaponry, is not going to make a critical difference.”
Correspondents watched from just over the border in Turkey on Saturday, October 11, as fighting raged for the town.
Turkey, wary of its recent long conflict with its own large Kurdish population, has ruled out any unilateral ground intervention.
Some 200,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees have crossed the border since the ISIS advance began nearly a month ago.
At least 553 people are said to have died in a month of fighting for Kobane
Meanwhile, fighting has continued in Iraq, where ISIS overran large parts of the north during the summer.
According to the Observatory, the true figure for deaths in the siege of Kobane could be more than 1,100 since the ISIS attack began on September 16.
Of the deaths it has been able to document, 226 are of Kurdish fighters and nine are of other Syrian opposition fighters, who were fighting on their side.
Of the 20 civilian deaths recorded, 17 were victims of ISIS executions, it said.
Kobane resounded to small-arms fire and explosions on Saturday following the failure of a pre-dawn ISIS offensive to take more ground.
According to the Pentagon, US air strikes on ISIS targets at Kobane since October 10 have hit an ISIS fighting position; damaged a command and control facility; destroyed a staging building; struck two small units of fighters; and destroyed three lorries.
Idris Nassan said the air strikes had helped the Kurdish fighters regain some territory in the south of the city but they were not enough.
“A few days ago, [ISIS] attacked with a Humvee vehicle, they use mortars, cannons, tanks,” he said.
“We don’t need just Kalashnikovs and bullets. We need something effective since they captured many tanks and military vehicles in Iraq.”
In Europe, at least 20,000 Kurds living in Germany marched in the city of Duesseldorf on Saturday to highlight the threat to Kurds in Kobane.
At a smaller rally in the Austrian town of Bregenz, two people were stabbed and seriously wounded when Kurdish protesters clashed with a rival demonstration, said to involve Turks and Chechens.
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The US and Arab allies’ airstrikes have hit four makeshift oil refineries under Islamic State (ISIS) control in Syria, as well as a command centre.
Early indications were that the attacks by US, Saudi and UAE planes were successful, US Central Command said.
Explosions at a refinery at Tel Abyad, near the Turkish border, lit up the night sky, an eyewitness watching from across the frontier said.
Meanwhile further fighting was reported in the besieged border town of Kobane.
There was no repetition on Sunday of coalition airstrikes on ISIS positions in the area, where Syrian Kurd fighters have been holding out against the militants.
The ISIS advance in the area sent about 140,000 civilians fleeing towards Turkey.
US-led coalition aircraft have targeted four makeshift oil refineries under ISIS control in Syria
An initial wave of coalition air attacks on Thursday, the third day of the air campaign against ISIS in Syria, targeted 12 refineries.
According to the Pentagon, small-scale mobile refineries used by IS in Syria generate up to $2 million per day in revenue for the militants.
The US-led coalition of about 40 countries, including Arab states, has vowed to destroy IS, which controls large parts of north-eastern Syria and northern Iraq.
The group’s brutal tactics, including mass killings, beheadings and abductions of members of religious and ethnic minorities, triggered the international intervention.
Al-Nusra Front, a fellow Islamist militant group in Syria, has denounced the air strikes as “a war against Islam” and called on jihadists around the world to target Western and Arab countries involved.
“Although we continue to assess the outcome of these attacks, initial indications are that they were successful,” US Central Command said after Sunday’s strikes.
Blasts at the Tel Abyad refinery around 02:30 local time sent flames soaring 200ft into the sky, Turkish businessman Mehmet Ozer, who lives in the nearby Turkish town of Akcakale, told AP news agency.
They continued for two hours, rocking the building from which he was watching, Mehmet Ozer said.
Both the refinery and the local ISIS headquarters were bombed, Turkey’s Dogan news agency said.
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US-led airstrikes have destroyed four ISIS-held oil tanks and damaged another during a fourth night of bombardments in Syria.
The Pentagon said it also carried out seven strikes on ISIS positions in Iraq, including one on the outskirts of the capital, Baghdad.
The Danish government says it is sending seven F-16 fighter jets to join anti-IS operations – but only in Iraq.
The UK parliament is due to vote on possible air strikes in Iraq on September 26.
The Islamic State is meanwhile advancing on the Syrian border town of Kobane, pushing back Kurdish fighters, reports the Reuters news agency.
Hundreds of protesters stormed the border fence in order to cross into Syria from Turkey to help defend the town, it says.
ISIS controls much of north-eastern Syria and earlier this year seized swathes of territory in neighboring Iraq, including the second city, Mosul.
US-led airstrikes have destroyed four ISIS-held oil tanks and damaged another during a fourth night of bombardments in Syria (photo EPA)
After previous US-led air strikes, ISIS militants beheaded three Western hostages.
Some Western leaders are wary of bombing Syria, as the government there has not asked for foreign assistance against ISIS, unlike Iraq.
The tanks were destroyed in the oil-rich Deir al-Zour province, the US Department of Defense said in a statement.
It also said strikes in Iraq had destroyed nine ISIS vehicles and damaged others.
The strikes were carried out by “a mix of fighter, attack and remotely piloted aircraft”.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict in Syria, said the new strikes caused casualties but the numbers were unclear.
Recent air strikes have been targeting oil facilities under ISIS control in both countries in order to reduce its finances.
The ISIS group is earning an estimated $2 million a day from oil sales.
Earlier, Spain’s interior ministry said Spanish and Moroccan police had arrested nine people suspected of belonging to a militant cell linked to the IS group.
A statement from the ministry said the suspects belonged to a group based in the Spanish enclave of Melilla, on the northern coast of Africa, and the neighboring town of Nador, in Morocco.
One of those arrested is reported to be Spanish; the rest are Moroccan nationals.
Some 140,000 people are said to have fled the ISIS advance on Kobane in recent days, crossing into Turkey.
Earlier this week, the UN Security Council adopted a binding resolution compelling states to prevent their nationals from joining jihadists in Iraq and Syria.
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New US and coalition airstrikes have targeted ISIS-held oil refineries in Syria.
The raids killed 14 ISIS fighters and five civilians in eastern Syria, activists said.
The US military said the refineries generated as much as $2 million per day in revenue for ISIS.
President Barack Obama has vowed to dismantle the ISIS “network of death”.
ISIS has seized large areas of Syria and Iraq in recent months and controls several oilfields. Sales of smuggled crude oil have helped finance its offensive in both countries.
The US has launched nearly 200 air strikes against the militants in Iraq since August and expanded the operation against ISIS to Syria on September 22.
On September 24, the UN Security Council adopted a binding resolution compelling states to prevent their nationals joining jihadists in Iraq and Syria.
New US and coalition airstrikes have targeted ISIS-held oil refineries in Syria (photo Reuters)
President Barack Obama chaired the session and said nations must prevent the recruitment and financing of foreign fighters.
The US military said the fresh air strikes, using fighter jets and drones, hit “small-scale” refineries that were producing “between 300-500 barrels of refined petroleum per day”.
“We are still assessing the outcome of the attack on the refineries, but have initial indications that the strikes were successful,” the US Central Command said in a statement.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group that monitors the Syrian conflict, said the strikes killed 14 ISIS fighters in Deir al-Zour and five civilians in Hassakeh.
The US says more than 40 countries have offered to join the anti-ISIS coalition.
France said its fighter jets were carrying out air strikes in Iraq again on Thursday, a day after the beheading of a French hostage in Algeria by an IS-linked jihadist group.
The French military has been carrying out air strikes in Iraq since last week but has not taken part in anti-IS operations in Syria.
On September 24, the Dutch government said it was deploying six F-16 fighter to join the US-led air campaign.
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The US and five Arab allies – Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – have launched the first strikes against Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Syria.
The Pentagon said warplanes, drones and Tomahawk missiles were used in the attacks, which targeted several areas including ISIS stronghold Raqqa.
Syria’s foreign ministry said its UN envoy was informed about the strikes against IS, which controls large swathes of Syria and Iraq.
The US has already launched about 190 air strikes in Iraq since August.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm John Kirby confirmed the operation, saying “US military and partner nation forces” had undertaken military action in Syria.
US Central Command (CENTCOM) said the Sunni Arab countries “participated in or supported” the strikes.
It said a total of 14 strikes destroyed or damaged IS training compounds, command and control facilities, vehicles and storage sites.
The US military will continue to conduct air strikes against IS targets in Iraq and Syria, it added.
Separately, CENTCOM said US forces also attacked a network of al-Qaeda veterans named Khorasan who had established a safe haven west of Aleppo and were plotting imminent attacks against the West.
The Syrian government has not formally consented to the air strikes on its territory. However, it says it was informed before they took place.
The US and five Arab allies have launched the first strikes against ISIS militants in Syria
The strikes targeted Raqqa, an IS stronghold in eastern Syria the group captured in 2013, and the cities of Deir al-Zour, Hassakeh and Abu Kamal.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground, said more than 20 militants were killed in two strikes on ISIS positions in Raqqa.
It also said 30 al-Qaeda-linked fighters and 8 civilians, including three children, were killed in strikes west of Aleppo.
Jordan said its “air force jets destroyed a number of targets that belong to some terrorist groups that sought to commit terror acts inside Jordan”.
Analysts say it is significant that countries with a Sunni majority, like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, are among those supporting US efforts against IS.
ISIS members are jihadists who adhere to an extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam and consider themselves the only true believers.
The US and allies including the UK have ruled out co-operating against ISIS with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, whom they accuse of responsibility for huge numbers of civilian deaths during Syria’s civil war.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said last month that any US action would be “considered aggression” unless it was co-ordinated with Syria.
Hadi al-Bahra, president of the National Coalition, Syria’s main opposition alliance, welcomed the military action but said “strikes alone cannot defeat extremism for good.”
“The long-term solution is moderate, inclusive Syrian governance that prevents the resurgence of extremism,” he said in a statement.
Islamic State has taken control of large areas of Syria and Iraq, imposed a harsh brand of Islam, and declared a caliphate.
The group, which the CIA says could have as many as 31,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, has executed captive soldiers, aid workers and journalists, and threatened the mass killing of Iraqi religious minorities.
The ISIS advance in northern Syria has created a refugee crisis in neighboring Turkey, with about 130,000 Kurdish refugees crossing the border at the weekend.
Most refugees are from Kobane, a Syrian town close to the Turkish border that is under siege by IS militants.
Before the latest influx, there were already more than one million Syrian refugees in Turkey.
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Turkey has decided to close some of its border crossings with Syria after about 130,000 Kurdish refugees entered the country over the weekend.
On September 21, Turkish security forces clashed with Kurds protesting in solidarity with the refugees. Some protesters were reportedly trying to go to Syria to fight Islamic State (ISIS).
Most refugees are from Kobane, a town threatened by the advancing militants.
ISIS has taken over large swathes of Iraq and Syria in recent months.
Before the latest influx, there were already more than one million Syrian refugees in Turkey. They have fled since the start of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2011.
Some of the new arrivals are being sheltered in overcrowded schools, as Turkey struggles to cope with the influx.
On September 19, Turkey opened a 19-mile section of the border to Syrians fleeing the town of Kobane, also known as Ayn al-Arab.
Turkey has decided to close some of its border crossings with Syria after about 130,000 Kurdish refugees entered the country over the weekend
However, on September 22, only two out of nine border posts in the area remained open, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said.
Clashes broke out on Sunday after a demonstration by Kurds on the Turkish side of the border.
Some protesters threw stones at security forces, who responded with tear gas and water cannon. There were no reports of serious injuries.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a banned militant group that fought a civil war for autonomy within Turkey for decades, has called on Kurds to join the fight against ISIS.
The Syrian conflict has reawakened old hostilities and shaken a fragile peace between Kurds and Turkish authorities.
PKK-affiliated forces have been battling IS in northern Iraq for months.
ISIS is closing in on the predominantly Kurdish town of Kobane, having seized dozens of villages in the area in recent days.
It began the assault on Tuesday, and by Sunday militants were about 6 miles away, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Reports suggest that IS has used heavy weaponry, including tanks, in the attack.
The US has said it will attack the group in Syria as part of a strategy to destroy it, though so far it has carried out air strikes against ISIS only in Iraq.
Attacking ISIS in Syria is considered more complicated, partly because of the strength of the country’s air defense system and because foreign strikes do not have the approval of President Bashar al-Assad.
President Barack Obama has previously ruled out the involvement of US ground troops, and has instead promised to provide arms and training to local forces fighting against ISIS.
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According to Turkish officials, some 45,000 mainly Syrian Kurds have crossed into Turkey in the past 24 hours as Islamic State (ISIS) militants advance in northern Syria.
Turkey opened its border on September 19 to Syrians who had fled the Kurdish town of Kobane in fear of an IS attack.
Activists say some 300 Kurdish fighters have crossed into Syria from Turkey to help defend the strategic town.
ISIS controls large areas of Syria and Iraq and has seized dozens of villages around Kobane, also called Ayn al-Arab.
Turkey – which shares a border with Iraq and Syria – has taken in more than 847,000 refugees since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began three years ago.
Turkish Deputy PM Numan Kurtulmus confirmed on Saturday that 45,000 refugees had crossed the border within a 24-hour period.
“No country in the world can take in 45,000 refugees in one night, bring them here unharmed and find them a shelter without a problem,” he said.
Some 45,000 mainly Syrian Kurds have crossed into Turkey in the past 24 hours as ISIS militants advance in northern Syria
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 300 Kurdish fighters had joined Syrian Kurdish ranks in the Kobane area to fend off the IS advance. The activist group did not specify which Kurdish group the fighters belonged to.
“Islamic State sees Kobane like a lump in the body, they think it is in their way,” the Observatory’s Rami Abdulrahman said.
Syrian activists say IS has seized as many as 60 villages surrounding Kobane since fighting began earlier this week.
The head of Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union, Mohammed Saleh Muslim, has appealed for international assistance in the battle against the jihadists.
“Kobane is facing the fiercest and most barbaric attack in its history,” Reuters news agency quoted him as saying.
“Kobane calls on all those who defend humane and democratic values… to stand by Kobane and support it immediately. The coming hours are decisive,” he added.
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President Barack Obama’s plan to train and arm the moderate Syrian opposition fighting on Islamic State (ISIS) has been approved by the US House of Representatives.
The vote passed by a large majority in the Republican-controlled House and is expected to be adopted in the Senate.
The endorsement came after President Barack Obama repeated that he would not be committing American combat troops to ground operations in Iraq.
The US has undertaken 174 air strikes against ISIS in Iraq since mid-August.
The jihadist group controls large areas of Syria and northern Iraq.
In the most recent air strikes on September 16 and 17, US forces destroyed two ISIS armed vehicles north-west of Irbil and several units south-west of Baghdad, according to US Central Command (CENTCOM).
Barack Obama’s new strategy plans similar attacks in Syria and calls on a coalition of 40 countries to confront the militant group.
President Barack Obama repeated that he would not be committing American combat troops to ground operations in Iraq
This vote was expected to pass easily. Republicans, who control the House, generally support Barack Obama’s strategy to defeat and degrade Islamic State.
But the more hawkish among them feel the plan falls short. They argue that the president should consider sending US combat troops to Syria and Iraq – something he has said he is not prepared to do.
Some lawmakers from both parties feel skeptical that the Syrian rebels are up to the job.
At a Senate committee hearing, they pressed Secretary of State John Kerry for assurances that the Syrian fighters would be properly vetted so that, in future, American weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands.
On September 17, the House of Representatives approved his $500 million request by 273 votes to 156 to help arm and train moderate rebels in Syria.
The provision has been added to spending legislation aimed at extending federal government operations beyond the end of September.
Earlier, Barack Obama said he would not commit “to fighting another ground war in Iraq”, while visiting a military base in Florida.
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The Islamic State (ISIS) militant group may have up to 31,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria – three times as many as previously feared, the CIA announces.
A spokesman said the new estimate was based on a review of intelligence reports from May to August 2014.
ISIS has seized vast swathes of Iraq and beheaded several hostages in recent months, leading to US airstrikes.
Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting Turkey, seeking more support for action against IS.
On September 11, 10 Arab countries agreed to help the US attack the group in both Iraq and Syria.
The CIA had previously believed that ISIS had about 10,000 fighters, spokesman Ryan Trapani said.
“This new total reflects an increase in members because of stronger recruitment since June following battlefield successes and the declaration of a caliphate, greater battlefield activity, and additional intelligence,” he added.
The revision comes a day after President Barack Obama outlined a plan to “degrade and destroy” IS and to increase military support for allied forces engaged in fighting the group.
The CIA estimates that the ISIS militant group may have up to 31,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, three times as many as previously feared
For the first time, the president authorized airstrikes against the group in Syria.
In recent months ISIS has expanded from its stronghold in eastern Syria and seized control of more towns, cities, army bases and weaponry in Iraq.
The US has already carried out more than 150 air strikes against ISIS in Iraq. It has also sent hundreds of military advisers to assist Iraqi government and Kurdish forces, but has ruled out sending ground troops.
Other countries have contributed humanitarian assistance to Iraqis displaced by the group’s advance.
John Kerry secured the cooperation of several Arab countries during a meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Thursday.
NATO member Turkey, however, refused to sign a communiqué calling for countries to join the US in the fight against ISIS.
Analysts say this may be because the group currently holds 49 Turkish citizens, including diplomats.
John Kerry downplayed the move, saying the important US ally was dealing with some “sensitive issues”.
John Kerry is due to travel to Turkey on Friday, September 12, to try to secure more cooperation from the government.
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President Barack Obama has announced that the US will not hesitate to take action against Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Syria as well as Iraq.
In a nationally televised speech outlining his strategy against ISIS, Barack Obama said that any group that threatened America would “find no safe haven”.
The president also announced that 475 US military personnel would be sent to Iraq but said they would not have a combat role.
ISIS controls large parts of Syria and Iraq after a rapid military advance.
Its fighters have become notorious for their brutality, beheading enemy soldiers and Western journalists on video.
The US has launched over 150 air strikes against the group in Iraq and provided arms to Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting against IS.
In a 15-minute speech shown at peak time in the US, Barack Obama vowed that America would lead “a broad coalition to roll back” ISIS.
“Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions, so that we’re hitting ISIL [Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – the previous name for ISIS] targets as Iraqi forces go on the offense” he said.
Barack Obama has announced that the US will not hesitate to take action against Islamic State militants in Syria as well as Iraq (photo AFP)
He said he would welcome congressional approval for the fight against ISIS but said that he had the authority to act without it.
Barack Obama was elected in part because of fervent opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and presided over the US troop pullout from the country.
In 2013, the president abandoned plans to launch airstrikes in Syria against government forces after congressional opposition.
In his speech, Barack Obama ruled out working with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, despite the fact that his forces are also engaged in fighting ISIS.
“In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its people: a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost” he said.
Instead, Barack Obama said, the US would seek to strengthen the non-ISIS Syrian opposition, which fights against both ISIS and President Bashar al-Assad.
Syria’s Western-backed National Coalition welcomed Barack Obama’s plan, and urged Congress to approve it.
“The Syrian Coalition… stands ready and willing to partner with the international community not only to defeat [ISIS] but also rid the Syrian people of the tyranny of the Assad regime,” its president Hadi al-Bahra said in a statement, quoted by Reuters news agency.
Secretary of State John Kerry is already in the Middle East trying to build a coalition against IS.
John Kerry was in Iraq on Wednesday, where he praised the new government’s plans to involve more Sunnis in government and heal ties with the Kurds.
He said the president’s strategy “will succeed because doing it with allies and partners isn’t just smart, it’s strong”.
Barack Obama has already authorized $25 million in aid for the Iraqi military.
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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
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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A caliphate is an Islamic state ruled by a single political and religious leader, or Caliph.
Caliphs are regarded by their followers as successors to the Prophet Muhammad and the leader of all Muslims.
The word “caliph” comes from the Arabic khalifa, meaning “successor”. Its use means the IS claims Baghdadi as the only legitimate successor to the Prophet.
Abdulmecid II was the last Sunni Caliph of Islam from the Ottoman Dynasty (photo flickr.com)
First caliphate came into being after Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632. In the centuries which followed, caliphates had dominion in the Middle East and North Africa.
Historically, caliphates involved governance under Islamic law, with the leadership elected according to Sunni practice and selected from a group of Imams under Shia traditions.
Laws under a caliphate are traditionally defined in accordance with Islamic ethics. In the past the role of caliph has largely been symbolic, leaving the day-to-day running of government down to the devolved powers of local rulers.
The last widely accepted caliphate was abolished in 1924 by Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Abdulmecid II was the last ruler of a caliphate.
In 2014, Islamist militant group ISIS has declared caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria, appointing its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as Caliph.
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has called on Muslims to obey him, in his first video sermon.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been appointed caliph by the jihadist group, which has seized large swathes of Iraq and Syria.
The video appears to have been filmed on Friday during a sermon at the al-Nouri Mosque in Mosul, northern Iraq.
The footage surfaced on Saturday amid reports that he had been killed or wounded in an Iraqi air raid.
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has called on Muslims to obey him, in his first video sermon (photo AFP)
It was not clear when the attack was supposed to have taken place.
In the sermon, at Mosul’s most famous landmark, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi praised the establishment of the “Islamic state”, which was declared by ISIS last Sunday.
Experts say the reclusive militant leader has never appeared on video before, although there are photographs of him.
“Appointing a leader is an obligation on Muslims, and one that has been neglected for decades,” he said.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi also said that he did not seek out the position of being the caliph, or leader, calling it a “burden”.
“I am your leader, though I am not the best of you, so if you see that I am right, support me, and if you see that I am wrong, advise me,” he told worshippers.
Captions in the video referred to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as “Caliph Ibrahim”, a name he has used since the group unilaterally declared him leader of an “Islamic state” last Sunday.
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ISIS militants have announced they are establishing a caliphate, or Islamic state, on the territories the Islamist group controls in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) also proclaimed the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as caliph and “leader for Muslims everywhere”.
Setting up a caliphate ruled by the strict Islamic law has long been a goal of many jihadists.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s army continued an offensive to retake the northern city of Tikrit from the ISIS-led rebels.
Tikrit was seized by the insurgents on June 11 as they swept across large parts of northern-western Iraq.
ISIS militants have announced Islamic state on the territories the Islamist group controls in Iraq and Syria
In a separate development, Israel called for the creation of an independent Kurdish state in response to the gain made by the Sunni rebels in Iraq.
ISIS announced the establishment of the caliphate in an audio recording posted on the internet.
The group also said that from now on it would be known simply as “the Islamic State”.
The declaration harks back to the rise of Islam, when the Prophet Muhammad’s followers conquered vast territories in the Middle Ages.
The Sunni-Shia split happened because of a dispute over the succession to Muhammad, with the Sunnis following caliphs as their religious authority.
ISIS said the Islamic state would extend from Aleppo in northern Syria to Diyala province in eastern Iraq.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would become the leader of the state and would be known as “Caliph Ibrahim”.
In the recording, the rebels also demanded that all Muslims “pledge allegiance” to the new ruler and “reject democracy and other garbage from the West”.
On Sunday, Iraqi government jets struck at rebel positions and clashes broke out in various parts of Tikrit, witnesses and officials said.
Troops had reportedly pulled back to the nearby town of Dijla as Saturday’s initial offensive met stiff resistance.
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Iraq’s PM Nouri al-Maliki has confirmed that Syria carried out air strikes on ISIS militants inside Iraqi territory this week.
Nouri al-Maliki said Syrian fighter jets had bombed militant positions around the border town of Qaim on Tuesday.
Syria carried out air strikes on ISIS militants inside Iraqi territory
While Iraq did not ask for the raid, the prime minister added, it “welcomed” any such strike against the Islamist group ISIS.
ISIS and its Sunni Muslim allies have seized large parts of Iraq this month including the second city, Mosul.
The Iraqi government has struggled to hold back the militants’ advance from the north and west and has also been receiving support from Iran, with whom its Shia Muslim majority has close links.
The US, which also backs the government, has stressed that the militants can only be defeated by Iraq’s own forces.
Nouri al-Maliki will seek to form a new government in an effort to maintain national unity when parliament assembles again next week in Baghdad.
In another development, reports say that a unit of al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, the Nusra Front, pledged allegiance to Isis in the Syrian town of Albu Kamal, near the Iraqi border.
Until recently, the Nusra Front had been fighting in Syria against Isis, which it sees as harming its cause with its brutality and extremism.
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Iraq’s government has lost control of its western borders after Sunni militants reportedly captured crossings to Syria and Jordan.
Officials said the rebels took two key crossings in Anbar on Sunday, a day after seizing one at Qaim, a town in the province that borders Syria.
The strategically important airport in the northern town of Tal Afar has also reportedly fallen to the rebels.
ISIS-led militants have cut a swathe through parts of Iraq.
Iraq’s government has lost control of its western borders after Sunni militants captured crossings to Syria and Jordan (photo AP)
Since the fall of Mosul in early June, ISIS – the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – have helped win large areas in the west and north.
They have taken four strategically important towns in the predominantly Sunni Anbar province – Qaim, Rutba, Rawa and Anah – in the last two days.
Gunmen reportedly captured the border posts of al-Waleed, on the Syrian frontier, and Turaibil, on the Jordanian border, on Sunday after government forces pulled out.
The capture of frontier crossings could help Isis transport weapons and other equipment to different battlefields, analysts say.
The funeral of a senior army officer who was killed in the fighting for Qaim on Friday was targeted by a suicide and car bomb attack in Ramadi. At least six people were killed as they gathered to mourn Brig. Gen. Majid al-Fahdawi.
Earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking in Cairo, singled out ISIS whose “ideology of violence and repression”, he said, “is a threat not only to Iraq but to the entire region”.
Calling it a “critical moment”, John Kerry urged Iraq’s leaders “to rise above sectarian motivations and form a government that is united in its determination to meet the needs and speak to the demands of all of their people”.
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According to the UN refugee agency, the number of people forced to flee their homes because of war or persecution exceeded 50 million in 2013, the first time since World War Two.
The overall figure of 51.2 million is six million higher than the year before, a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says.
Conflicts in Syria, central Africa and South Sudan fuelled the sharp increase.
Of particular concern are the estimated 6.3 million people who have been refugees for years, sometimes even decades.
People living in what the UN terms “protracted” refugee situations include more than 2.5 million Afghans. Afghanistan still accounts for the world’s largest number of refugees, and neighboring Pakistan is host to more refugees than any other country, with an estimated 1.6 million.
The number of people forced to flee their homes because of war or persecution exceeded 50 million in 2013, the first time since World War Two (photo UNHCR)
Around the world, thousands of refugees from almost forgotten crises have spent the best part of their lives in camps. Along Thailand’s border with Burma, 120,000 people from Burma’s Karen minority have lived in refugee camps for more than 20 years.
Refugees should not be forcibly returned, the UN says, and should not go back unless it is safe to do so, and they have homes to return to. For many – among them the more than 300,000 mainly Somali refugees in Kenya’s Dadaab camp – that is a very distant prospect.
Some camps, the UN refugee agency admits, have become virtually permanent, with their own schools, hospitals, and businesses. But they are not, and can never be, home.
The world’s refugees are far outnumbered by the internally displaced (IDP) – people who have been forced to flee their homes, but remain inside their own countries.
In Syria alone there are thought to be 6.5 million displaced people. The conflict has uprooted many families not once but several times. Their access to food, water, shelter and medical care is often extremely limited, and because they remain inside a conflict zone, it is hard for aid agencies to reach them.
Worldwide, the UN estimates there are now 33.3 million internally displaced people.
Large numbers of refugees and IDPs fleeing to new areas inevitably put a strain on resources, and can even destabilize a host country.
Throughout the Syrian crisis, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have kept their borders open. Lebanon now hosts more than a million Syrian refugees, meaning a quarter of its total population is Syrian. The pressure on housing, education and health is causing tensions in a country which itself has a recent history of conflict.
The UN is concerned that the burden of caring for refugees is increasingly falling on the countries with the least resources. Developing countries are host to 86% of the world’s refugees, with wealthy countries caring for just 14%.
Despite the fears in Europe about growing numbers of asylum seekers and immigrants, that gap is growing. Ten years ago wealthy countries hosted 30% of refugees, and developing countries 70%.
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French authorities have arrested four people have in the Paris region and southern France on suspicion of recruiting militants to fight in Syria.
The raids came a day after it emerged a Frenchman was being held by police investigating the murder of three people at the Brussels Jewish Museum.
Mehdi Nemmouche, 29, was arrested at a station in Marseille on Friday.
Prosecutors say he has claimed responsibility for the attack and spent more than a year in Syria.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazaneuve told Europe 1 radio on Monday: “There are people who recruit jihadists. There are as I’m speaking arrests being made.”
Mehdi Nemmouche was arrested at a station in Marseille on Friday
“We are acting everywhere. There will be no respite in the fight against terrorists.”
There is no suggestion of a link between the four arrests on Monday and the detention of Mehdi Nemmouche during a random check on a coach arriving from Amsterdam in southern France on Friday.
However, Mehdi Nemmouche is said to have had links with radical Islamists and served five years in jail in France for robbery before being released in December 2012.
When he was arrested, he had with him a Kalashnikov rifle and a handgun believed to have been used in the attack, the Paris prosecutor said.
Mehdi Nemmouche was also said to have had a white sheet emblazoned with the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a jihadist group fighting in Syria, and a camera with a 40-second video showing the two guns and a voice recording, claiming responsibility for the killings.
Speaking on French radio station RTL on Monday, the head of French Jewish association CRIF, Roger Cukierman, called for more resources to be given to the foreign intelligence service, the DGSE, to track militants returning to France from Syria.
He feared “they would become 700 time bombs when they return”, referring to the estimated number of French-born jihadists in Syria.
Belgium has requested Mehdi Nemmouche’s extradition from France and police have to decide whether to extend his detention until Thursday.
Three people died when a gunman opened fire at the museum in the busy Sablon area of the Belgian capital on May 24. They were an Israeli couple in their 50s, and a French female volunteer.
A Belgian man, believed to be an employee of the museum, was critically injured.
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The US state department has confirmed that a US citizen carried out a suicide bombing against Syrian troops in Idlib on Sunday.
The rebel al-Nusra Front said the man conducted the bombing on their behalf. It was one of four attacks carried out in the northern city of Idlib that day.
The US state department has confirmed that a US citizen carried out a suicide bombing against Syrian troops in Idlib
It is thought to be the first suicide attack by a US citizen in the conflict.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in the battle between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and those opposed to his rule.
“I can confirm that this individual was a US citizen involved in a suicide bombing in Syria,” state department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said.
The man was believed to be Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, she said.
The department was “concerned about the flow of foreign fighters in and out of Syria”, Jennifer Psaki added.
The al-Nusra Front, a militant Islamist group that has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, said the man used a truck carrying explosives to conduct the attack.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said dozens of soldiers were killed by the series of bombings on Sunday, AFP news agency reported.
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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 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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