The long road to Raqqa

The Raqqa offensive (codenamed Operation Wrath of Euphrates), is an ongoing military operation launched by the Syrian Democratic Forces against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the Raqqa Governorate, with the goal of isolating and eventually capturing the Islamic State’s capital city, Raqqa. Another one of the main goals is to capture the Tabqa Dam and the nearby city of Al-Thawrah. The offensive has also been dubbed the Battle to End All Battles in the War on ISIL. The offensive is concurrent with the Turkish anti-ISIL Battle of al-Bab, the Battle of Mosul in Iraq, the Battle of Sirte (2016) in Libya, the Palmyra offensive (December 2016) launched by ISIL, and a reignition of fighting in Deir ez-Zor’s siege.

The White Helmets of Syria (Syrian Civil War)

The White Helmets, officially known as Syria Civil Defence is a paid volunteer civil defense organisation that currently operates in parts of rebel-controlled Syria. The White Helmets should not be confused with the Syrian Civil Defence Forces which have been a member of the ICDO (International Civil Defence Organization) since 1972, unlike the White Helmets.
The rescue teams that later became SCD emerged in late 2012, when the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad began to lose significant amounts of territory to the Free Syrian Army in the Syrian Civil War. This led to a shift in tactics in which Syrian government forces began to target opposition-held civilian communities with systematic and indiscriminate surface-to-surface and aerial bombardment by the Syrian Army and the Syrian Arab Air Force. In response, small groups of civilian volunteers from affected communities, particularly in Aleppo and Idlib, self-formed to assist neighbors injured in bombardment or trapped under the rubble of destroyed buildings. Very quickly, training, funding and support from a broad, international array of partners – including donor governments in Europe, the US and Japan; the Turkish AKUT Search and Rescue Association; and a variety of NGOs, private individuals, public fundraising campaigns, and charities – became a key factor in the development of the organisation.
Local and provincial councils joined with ARK’s stabilisation consultant and ex-British Army Officer, James Le Mesurier, and AKUT to create the first training programme in early 2013. ARK would facilitate entry of volunteers to Turkey, where they would be trained by AKUT. Early training courses include trauma care, command and control and crisis management. Over the next two years, the number of independent civil defense teams grew to several dozen as graduates of the early trainings such as Raed Saleh established new centers; the national organisation of SCD was founded on 25 October 2014 at a conference of independent teams.
SCD has grown to be an organization of over 3,000 volunteers operating from 111 local civil defence centers across 8 provincial directorates (Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia, Hama, Homs, Damascus, Damascus Countryside, and Daraa). In October 2014, these self-organised teams came together and voted to form one national organization: Syria Civil Defence. As of January 2017, the SCD claims to have rescued over 80,000 people since they began to keep count in 2014 from the effects of the civil war. According to The Economist, approximately one in six SCD have been killed or badly wounded, “many by “double-tap” Russian and Syrian airstrikes on the same site as they search for bodies.” The SCD was nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize and was a recipient of the 2016 Right Livelihood Award, the “Alternative Nobel Prize”.
On 14 December 2016, as the Syrian Armed Forces were recapturing eastern Aleppo, Raed Saleh requested safe passage of SCD operatives to rebel controlled countryside around Aleppo. Syria Civil Defence joined the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Independent Doctors Association and the Violations Documentation Center to accuse Russian forces of war crimes in eastern Aleppo, jointly submitting a report to the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.
SCD’s stated mission is “to save the greatest number of lives in the shortest possible time and to minimize further injury to people and damage to property.” Their work covers the 15 civil defense tasks as laid out in international humanitarian law (IHL); the bulk of their activity in Syria consists of urban search and rescue in response to bombing, medical evacuation, evacuation of civilians from danger areas, and essential service delivery. The most prominent role of SCD was rescuing civilians from strikes with barrel bombs, improvised explosive devices dropped from by SAAF helicopters. Following the intervention of Russia in Syria on September 30, 2015, much of the work of SCD has been responding to attacks by Russian Air Force attack aircraft. As well as providing rescue services, SCD undertakes repair works such as securing damaged buildings and reconnecting electrical and water services, clearing roads, teaching children about unexploded ordnance hazards, as well as firefighting and winter storm relief. Sometimes described as the most dangerous job in the world, SCD operations involve risk from a wide variety of war-zone threats. 159 White Helmets have been killed since the organization’s inception. As of 2015, SCD had an annual budget of $30 million provided by a mix of state donors and public fundraising. Volunteers who work full-time receive a $150 monthly stipend.

Russian forces in Aleppo

The Russian military intervention in the Syrian Civil War began in September 2015 after an official request by the Syrian government for military help against rebel and jihadist groups. The intervention initially consisted of air strikes fired by Russian aircraft stationed in the Khmeimim base at targets primarily in north-western Syria, against militant groups opposed to the Syrian government, including Syrian National Coalition, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda in the Levant) and the Army of Conquest. Besides, Russian military advisors and special operations forces were stationed in Syria. Prior to the intervention, Russian involvement in the Syrian Civil War had mainly consisted of supplying the Syrian Army.
Shortly after the operation began, Russian officials were cited as saying that, apart from fighting terrorist organisations such as ISIL, Russia′s goals included helping the Syrian government retake territory from various anti-government groups that are labelled by the U.S. and its coalition as ″moderate opposition″, a broader geopolitical objective being to roll back U.S. influence. In his televised interview broadcast on 11 October 2015, Russian president Vladimir Putin said the military operation had been thoroughly prepared in advance; he defined Russia′s goal in Syria as “stabilising the legitimate power in Syria and creating the conditions for political compromise”  According to the U.S. State Department, the Russian government has also been concerned that “if the government fell, that there would be chaos and that would allow terrorist groups to consolidate”, a claim which the Russian government has been using to justify their intervention.
The intervention has produced significant gains for the Syrian government, including the recapture of Palmyra from ISIL in March 2016 and according to the U.S. State Department, one year after the start of their intervention the Russians “have succeeded in bolstering the [Syrian] regime.”In early January 2017, the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov said that, overall, the Russian aviation had carried out 19,160 combat missions and delivered 71,000 strikes on “the infrastructure of terrorists”.

Russian ambassador shot dead in Turkey

Russia’s ambassador to Turkey was shot dead in front of a crowd at a posh art gallery in the capital Ankara as the angry gunmen screamed “don’t forget Aleppo”. Police later killed the assailant on Monday night, Turkish station NTV reported.
The assailant was a 22-year-old off-duty police officer who worked in Turkey’s capital, said Ankara’s Mayor Melih Gokcek. After the initial shot, the attacker approached Karlov as he lay on the ground and shot him at least one more time at close range, according to an AP photographer at the scene. He also smashed several of the framed photos on exhibition, but later let the stunned guests out of the venue, according to local media. The spectacle of Karlov’s assassination by a member of the Turkish security forces at a photography exhibit meant to highlight Russian culture reinforced the sense of unease over the region’s conflict and complex web of alliances and relationships.
Several media outlets reported a gunfight later ensued after Karlov was shot. Local broadcaster NTV television said at least three people were wounded and were taken to the hospital. Mayor Gokcek told reporters outside the exhibition centre the “heinous” attack was aimed at disrupting newly re-established relations between Turkey and Russia. Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by phone about Monday’s attack. “On behalf of my country and my people I once again extend my condolences to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the friendly Russian people,” said Erdogan.
‘Don’t forget Aleppo’
The assailant referenced the situation in Aleppo after he shot the ambassador in the back. “Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria,” the attacker said in Turkish after gunning down the ambassador, as seen on a video shared by Turkish media from the scene. “Whoever took part in this cruelty will pay the price, one by one… Only death will take me from here,” the man said while holding a pistol. He then continued in Arabic, saying: “We are the descendants of those who supported the Prophet Muhammad, for jihad.” Diego Cupolo, a photojournalist in Ankara, told Al Jazeera there were about 100 armed soldiers in camouflage and police officers at the scene, along with armoured fighting vehicles.

Heartbreaking last Tweets from inside besieged Aleppo

As Syrian government forces take the last enclaves of rebel-held Aleppo, people trapped there sent their pleas for help out to the wider world.
Activist @Linashamy Lina Shamy’s last distress call from besieged Aleppo: “All those who hear me must move now to save civilians in Aleppo.” http://pic.twitter.com/26M9GAj9kG
— هادي العبدالله Hadi (@HadiAlabdallah) December 12, 2016
My dad is injured now. I am crying.-Bana #Aleppo
— Bana Alabed (@AlabedBana) December 12, 2016
this is a call and might be the last call.
Save Aleppo people. Save my daughter and other children. #StandWithAleppo
— @Mr.Alhamdo (@Mr_Alhamdo) December 12, 2016
Understand this. I can’t simply surrender and being captive. I am speaking out and this is a crime. I might then ask death and not got it.
— @Mr.Alhamdo (@Mr_Alhamdo) December 12, 2016

I can tweet now but I might not do it forever. please save my daughter’s life and others. this is a call from a father.

— @Mr.Alhamdo (@Mr_Alhamdo) December 12, 2016

Final message – people are dying since last night. I am very surprised I am tweeting right now & still alive. – Fatemah #Aleppo

— Bana Alabed (@AlabedBana) December 12, 2016

Last message from this old man in Aleppo: ‘We don’t have anything left. Oh Arabs, where are you? We are being slaughtered. Safe us.’ http://pic.twitter.com/E1sws1s2Y8

— Sakir Khader (@sakirkhader) December 12, 2016

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Syria war : Inside a burning Damascus building

Civil Defence members walk through smoke as they try to put out a fire inside a building after shelling in the rebel held besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria.

Smoke rises from a building after shelling in the rebel held besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria.

Smoke rises from inside a house after shelling in the rebel held besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria.
Civil Defence members try to put out a fire inside a building after shelling in the rebel held besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria.
A Civil Defence member breathes through a mask as he tries to put out a fire inside a building after shelling in the rebel held besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus.
A Civil Defence member walks through smoke as he tries to put out a fire inside a building after shelling in the rebel held besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria.

‘We have not choice’: Syrians forced to evacuate Damascus suburb

After four years of siege and bombardment, the evacuation is underway of civilians and rebels from embattled Daraya, southwest of Syria’s capital Damascus. Rebels agreed to hand over control of the city to the government in exchange for safe passage. Under the terms of the deal, about 4,000 civilians will be transported to temporary accommodation outside of Damascus. Approximately 700 fighters will head to rebel-held Idlib after surrendering their weapons, according to Syria’s SANA state news agency. As NPR’s Alice Fordham tells our Newscast unit, some civilians “say they’ll flee with the fighters, because they fear the regime.”

Syrian civil war: Turkish special forces enter Syria

Turkish army tanks make their way in the Syrian border town of Jarablus as it is pictured from the Turkish town of Karkamis, in the southeastern Gaziantep province, Turkey. Turkish special forces, tanks and jets backed by planes from the U.S.-led coalition launched their first co-ordinated offensive into Syria on Wednesday to try to drive Islamic State from the border and prevent further gains by Kurdish militia fighters.