Bashar al-Assad – the useful tyrant?

President Bashar al-Assad remains at the center of the Syrian conflict. Fighting between troops, rebels and IS has claimed countless lives and the situation is still volatile. How has Assad stayed in power for so long in times of such instability?

Watch video42:31

According to UN estimates, the balance sheet after seven years of war in Syria is devastating: 500,000 dead or missing, 12 million people uprooted, besieged cities, air raids on the civilian population and endless suffering. Bashar al-Assad remains at the center of the conflict. He has been President of Syria since 2000. He succeeded his father Hafiz al-Assad, who ruled the country from 1971 to 2000. The son started as a reformer, initially courted by heads of state in the West. After all, he was considered a guarantor of stability and a partner in the fight against Islamic terrorism. But the “Damascus Spring” ended abruptly after the people’s demands for more freedom outstripped the Syrian leadership’s will to reform. Assad violently repressed the protests that began in Syria in the course of the Arab Spring in 2011. In the subsequent civil war, he stands accused of using chemical weapons against opposition fighters and civilians. Bashar al-Assad maintained his grip on power through a mixture of brute force, skillful tactics and above all through international aid, especially from his allies Russia and Iran. At the beginning of 2017, Syrian troops controlled 19 percent of the country: Now it’s more than half, including the four largest cities, access to the Mediterranean, ten out of 14 provincial capitals and 85 percent of the population. IS has largely been defeated and the area held by the last remaining rebels is shrinking steadily. So who is Bashar al-Assad? How could his clan hold on to power for so long? The film examines how the Assads have repeatedly managed to politically survive through changing international alliances. How does the dictator exploit the geostrategic interests of global players? We talk to close companions and opponents as well as other people who have met him.

Courtesy: DW

German intelligence part of secret anti-terror unit targeting returning IS fighters – report

Germany’s secret service has reportedly joined a US-led unit targeting jihadis returning to Europe from Iraq and Syria. Officials have warned that many families of “Islamic State” fighters have already returned home.

Fighters from rebel factions in Damascus prepare their ammunition (Getty Images/A.Almohibany)

Germany’s intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND),  has been taking part in a secretive US-led anti-terror operation known as “Gallant Phoenix,” which targets European jihadis returning home from Syria and Iraq.

According to a report in German weekly Der Spiegel on Saturday, the BND joined the secret operation back in October.

Read more: Germany’s domestic intelligence agency warns of IS sympathizers

Led by a US Joint Special Operations Command center in Jordan, Gallant Phoenix collects intelligence on fighters who fought for the likes of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) and other Islamist militia groups. Relevant information includes documents, data, DNA traces and fingerprints that have been retrieved from former IS strongholds.

Watch video03:55

Steinberg: About 1,000 IS fighters have returned to Europe

Twenty-one countries are reportedly part of the operation.

Der Spiegel said it had received information on the BND’s role in Gallant Phoenix from a source in the German Left party. Both the German government and BND refused to comment on the report.

German fears over returning jihadis

Back in 2016, the BND initially declined a US offer to join Operation Gallant Phoenix out of fear that Washington would use the information to strike against German jihadis in the Middle East.

However, Berlin’s alleged change of heart coincides with concerns expressed by senior officials over the wives and children of IS fighters who were back in Germany or slated to return soon.

Read more: German intel chief warns of potential threat posed by wives, children of German jihadis

In December, Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), warned that many of the women repatriated to Germany from former IS bastions “had become so radicalized and identify so deeply with IS ideology that, by all accounts, they must also be identified as jihadis.”

Listen to audio04:35

Inside Europe: The threat from IS in Belgium

Maassen also warned that children had been “brainwashed” in IS schools and could grow up in Germany as second-generation jihadis. “It’s a problem for us because many of these kids and teenagers can sometimes be dangerous,” he said.

Around 950 German jihadi-sympathizers are thought to have traveled to Syria and Iraq since 2014 to fight or serve on behalf of IS. Around 20 percent of them are reportedly female.

However, with the Sunni militant group suffering heavy losses in resources and territory, the German government expects to see an imminent increase in the number of radical Islamists returning home.

So far, around one-third of German jihadis who traveled to the Middle East have already returned.

The BND has said it has identified 705 living in Germany who are considered to be at risk of committing a terrorist attack on German soil — more than five times as many as in 2013.

Watch video03:32

“Islamic State” recruits return to Europe – Q&A with Maxim Bratersky

COURTESY: DW

Suicide bomber kills cadets in Afghanistan

Fifteen cadets have died in the second deadly suicide bomb attack in the capital, Kabul, within 24 hours. An attack on a mosque on Friday evening claimed at least 56 lives and injured some 55 more.

Firefighters and soldiers near the scene of Saturday's attack (Getty Images/AFP/W. Kohsar)

A suicide car bomber killed 15 Afghan army cadets as they left their military base in Kabul on Saturday, in the second deadly attack in the capital within 24 hours.

“This afternoon, when a minibus carrying army cadets was coming out of the military academy, a suicide bomber on foot targeted them, martyring 15 and wounding four,” said Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri.

It was not immediately clear who carried out Saturday’s attack, but a resurgent Taliban has been attacking military posts and installations with devastating effect, while Islamic State (IS) militants have stepped up attacks against Shiite mosques.

Watch video00:38

Suicide bomber attacks Shiite mosque in Kabul

IS claimed responsibility for Friday evening’s suicide bomb attack inside a Shiite mosque, which left 56 deadand another 55 injured.

Over the past five days there have been seven major attacks that have left more than 200 dead.

The barrage of deadly assaults underscores the deteriorating security situation across the country.

NATO’s Resolute Support mission tweeted that the latest strike was an “attack on the future” of Afghanistan and its security forces.

“This attack in #Kabul shows the insurgents are desperate and cannot win” against Afghanistan’s security and defense forces, it said.

This attack in  shows the insurgents are desperate and cannot win against  on the battlefield (2/2)

Attacks on the rise

But among the recent attacks, one of the deadliest — claimed by the Taliban — killed about 50 Afghan soldiers during an assault on a military base in the southern province of Kandahar on Thursday.

The militants blasted their way into the military base using two Humvees packed with explosives. It was one of three such attacks this week, according to officials.

The base, in the Chashmo area of Maiwand district, was razed to the ground, according to the Defense Ministry.

Afghan security forces secure the site of a Shiite mosque after a suicide bomb attack.More than 50 people were killed in Friday’s attack on the Imam-e-Zaman mosque in Kabul

On the same day, Taliban militants surrounded a police headquarters in the province of Ghazni, attacking it for the second time in a week.

Afghan security forces have endured soaring casualties as they struggle to hold back the insurgents. Their casualty rate has accelerated since NATO withdrew its combat forces from the country at the end of 2014.

The number of casualties jumped 35 percent in 2016, with some 6,800 soldiers and police officers killed, according to SIGAR, a US watchdog.

Insurgent attacks against security forces have become more sophisticated over the past year. SIGAR described Afghan casualty rates in the early part of the year as “shockingly high.”

People inspect the aftermath of a suicide bomb attack inside a Shiite mosque in Kabul.Friday’s mosque attack underscores the fragile security situation in Afghanistan

An attack on a military base in Mazar-i-Sharif in April was devastating, killing 144 people. Similarly, an attack on a military hospital in Kabul in March killed as many as 100.

People are growing increasingly angry at the government’s inability to protect them, particularly in Kabul, where nearly 20 percent of the country’s civilian deaths in the first half of the year occurred.

“If our government officials cannot protect us, they have to resign and let other competent officials take charge,” said an eyewitness to the mosque bombing Friday night.

bik/tj (AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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‘Islamic State’ (IS) fighters evacuate as battle for Raqqa nears end

A US-backed alliance of militias said “Islamic State” (IS) fighters have evacuated the city of Raqqa under an agreement to release captive civilians. US-backed forces have almost completely captured Raqqa.

Syrian SDF soldiers in Raqqa (Reuters/R. Said)

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, on Sunday launched their final assault against the remaining “Islamic State” (IS) fighters in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa .

More than 3,000 civilians fled the city as part of the evacuation agreement, said SDF spokesman Talal Silo.

On Saturday, the SDF had agreed to a proposal that allowed Syrian IS jihadists to leave the city in exchange for the release of civilians held by the militants. However, IS’ foreign fighters were excluded from the evacuation deal.

Read more: ‘Islamic State’ facing imminent collapse in Syria’s Raqqa

“Last night, the final batch of fighters (who agreed to leave) left the city,” said SDF spokesman Mostafa Bali, adding that no foreign fighters had left the city. The SDF later said in a statement that around 275 local fighters and their families had left as part of the deal.

“The final battle will continue until the entire city is cleansed of terrorists, who have refused to surrender,” the SDF said.

However, Omar Alloush, an official in the Raqqa Civilian Council, disputed the SDF’s claim and said a batch of foreign jihadists had also departed with the convoy of local militants.

Map showing where main cities in Syria are located

‘Our aim is liberation’

The US had earlier protested a safe exit for the extremist group. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday the US would accept the surrender of IS militants who would be interrogated for intelligence purposes.

The tribal leaders said they appealed to the coalition and the SDF to allow IS fighters to leave the city to stem further violence.

“Because our aim is liberation, not killing, we appealed to the SDF to arrange for the local fighters and secure their exit to outside of the city with our guarantees,” the tribal chiefs said in a statement.

IS had seized Raqqa as part of a broad offensive in Syria and Iraq in early 2014, and the city has since served as the jihadists’ primary Syrian stronghold.

But IS has lost much of its territory after US and Russian-backed forces began separate offensives against the militant group. In July, US-backed Iraqi forces retook Mosul, the jihadists’ de facto capital in Iraq.

Watch video06:36

Syria: The Battle for Raqqa

‘Liberation within days’

Raqqa has practically fallen to the US-led coalition, but it is unclear how many militants are still in the city. There have been reports of continued fighting between SDF fighters and IS jihadists in some parts of the city.

Read more: Raqqa: US-backed forces declare end in sight for ‘Islamic State’ (IS)

A spokesman for the US-led coalition, Colonel Ryan Dillon, said Saturday that around a hundred IS militants had already surrendered and been “removed” from the city since Friday.

“We still expect difficult fighting in the days ahead and will not set a time for when we think ‘Islamic State’ will be completely defeated in Raqqa,” he said.

 Civil Council/local Arab tribal elders work to minimize civilian casualties as SDF & @CJTFOIR prepare for major defeat in Raqqa

But the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG told Reuters that coalition forces could clear the city of IS forces within days.

“The battles are continuing in Raqqa city. Daesh (IS) is on the verge of being finished. Today or tomorrow the city may be liberated,” YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud said.

More defeats for IS

Separately, the Syrian government and allied Shiite militia retook the town of Mayadeen from IS after intense fighting and Russian airstrikes, the Syrian military said Saturday.

Read more: Syria: Civilians trapped in Raqqa as ‘Islamic State’ makes last stand

Located along the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border, Mayadeen had been a strategic IS stronghold as the group lost territory in Syria and Iraq.

Pro-Syrian regime forces have been trying to secure the Iraqi border and push IS out of a small pocket in the provincial capital, Deir al-Zor.

ls,shs/jm (AP, Reuters)

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Libya recovers remains of 21 beheaded Coptic Christians

“Islamic State” militants reportedly carried out the execution-style killings in early 2015. A detained IS militant who witnessed the mass murder clued in authorities to the site.

IS militant Jihadi John, dressed in all black with his face masked, except for his eyes, and pointing a knife at the camera.

Libyan authorities have recovered the remains of 21 Coptic Christians who were beheaded by so-called “Islamic State” (IS) militants more than two years ago, the anti-IS organization al-Bonyan al-Marsous announced Saturday .

The gruesome discovery was made in the seaside city of Sirte — the home town of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was toppled in 2011.

A statement said officials were led to the site by an IS militant who had witnessed the attack in early 2015.

The witness, who was under arrest, gave authorities details about the mass execution and identified the militants involved.

A could of black smoke rises on the horizon over Sirte.A cloud of black smoke rises on the Sirte horizon during the 2016 battle for the city

Found with hands cuffed

The beheaded bodies were found with their hands cuffed behind their backs. Twenty of the victims were from Egypt and one was of an unknown African nationality.

The remains were being moved to Libya’s western city of Misrata for forensic examinations, according to a statement from the state’s Combat Crime Department.

IS militants released a video in February 2015 claiming to show the beheadings of the men, who were expatriate workers from Egypt’s minority Christian sect.

Egypt responded to the news of the mass execution by launching airstrikes against suspected militant positions in Libya.

Libya’s UN-backed government regained control of Sirte last December.

Libya descended into anarchy after Gadhafi was overthrown. The IS jihadis seized on the anarchy to carve out a niche for themselves in the oil-rich country.

bik/cmb (AP, dpa)

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Iraq army recaptures Hawija from ‘Islamic State’

Iraqi forces have cleared out fighters from the “Islamic State” from their last stronghold in the country. IS now holds just a narrow slither in the country’s west.

Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and Iraqi army members gather on the outskirts of Hawija, Iraq

US-backed Iraqi forces recaptured the town of Hawija on Thursday, forcing Islamic State (IS) fighters out of their last stronghold, Iraq’s prime minister announced.

The recapture now means that the only IS territory in Iraq is a narrow strip along the Syrian border.

Read more: UN creates team to investigate IS war crimes in Iraq as ‘caliphate’ crumbles

Infografik Syrien Irak IS Entwicklung Juli bis Oktober 2017 animierte GIF ENG

Troops, police and paramilitary forces “liberated the whole of the center of Hawija and are continuing their advance,” operation commander Lieutenant General Abdel Amir Yarallah said in a statement.

The offensive was led by Iraqi government troops and Iranian-trained and armed Shi’ite paramilitary groups known as Popular Mobilisation.

The United Nations estimated that 12,500 people had fled the town since the launch of the offensive last month. It said on Tuesday there could have been as many as 78,000 people left in the town.

Hawija, 230 kilometres (140 miles) north of Baghdad, had remained an insurgent bastion since soon after the US-led invasion of 2003. It was labeled “Kandahar in Iraq” for its similarities to the Taliban militia’s citadel in Afghanistan.

Journalists on the ground shared images of dozens of IS fighters surrendering.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi confirmed the recapture after talks with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris. “Only the outskirts remain to be recaptured,” he said.

“This victory is not just a victory for the Iraqis, but for the whole world.”

He his forces would now focus on the border zone with Syria in their fight against IS.

The Sunni Arab town of Hawaji was complicated to take given its hostility to both to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and to the neighboring Kurds. It comes under the Kirkuk governorate, which is disputed between Baghdad and the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region.

aw/rt (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)

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IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi ‘resurfaces’ in audio clip

News of Baghdadi’s death would seem to have been greatly exaggerated, if a new recording proves genuine. A purported recording of IS leader issues renewed calls for violence from his followers.

 This July 5, 2014 photo shows an image grab taken from a propaganda video released by al-Furqan Media allegedly showing the leader of the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, aka Caliph Ibrahim, adressing Muslim worshippers at a mosque in the militant-held northern Iraqi city of Mosul. (Getty Images/AFP)

An outlet of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) on Thursday released an audio recording purportedly of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

In June Russia had claimed that Baghdadi was most likely dead following an aistrike outside Raqqa. That was one of several claims that the preacher had died.

In the new 46-minute recording Baghdadi calls on his followers around the world to wage attacks against the West and to keep fighting in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

Read more: Who is the ‘Islamic State’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?

“Beware of retreat, or the feeling of defeat, beware of negotiations or surrender. Do not lay down your arms,” Baghdadi said, referring to followers in Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, North Africa and elsewhere in Africa.

Baghdadi reminded his followers of the rewards of martyrdom, which he said include “72 wives” in paradise and told them to fight against the “Crusaders and the apostates.”

The recording date was not entirely clear, but Baghdadi seems to reference recent events such as North Korea’s threats against Japan and the US and the recapture of Mosul by US-backed Iraqi forces two months ago.

Read more: ‘Islamic State’: Will it survive a post-caliphate future?

US working to verify recording

The recording was released by the extremist group’s al-Furqan outlet, which has published his messages before.

The US State Department said it was still trying to verify the recording, but suggested it could be real.

“We are aware of the audio tape purported to be of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and are taking steps to examine it,” an intelligence community source said in a statement to AFP news agency.

“While we have no reason to doubt its authenticity, we do not have verification at this point.”

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told AFP: “I have no information about this recording.”

The US increased its bounty for the IS leader in December to $25 million (€€21 million) from $10 million.

A senior US general said earlier this month that Baghdadi was probably hiding in the Euphrates River valley that stretches from Syria to Iraq.

Read more: ‘Islamic State’ chief al-Baghdadi probably still alive: US general

Russian-backed and US-backed forces are waging battle against IS on both sides of the river in Syria.

On Thursday, the US conducted its first airstrikes in Libya since President Donald Trump took over,targeting IS forces camped out in the desert near Sirte. Some militants were wounded and others were arrested and some “materials” seized, Sadiq Al-Sour, head of investigations for the Libyan Attorney General’s office, told a news conference in Tripoli.

In Egypt’s northern Sinai, an IS affiliate group is still fighting Egyptian military forces.

aw/rc (AP, Reuters, dpa, AFP)

Watch video05:42

Germany: A Syrian on the trail of IS

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