Terrorists Leave Strategically Important Syrian City as Army Regains Control

On Monday, the Russian Defense Ministry reported on the organized withdrawal of more than 400 terrorists and members of their families from the northwestern suburb of Syrian Homs. The al-Wyer district remains, in fact, the last stronghold of the armed opposition in this administrative center of the country's largest province.

“Withdrawal was preceded by almost a month of tense negotiations because the terrorists put forward their conditions while the Reconciliation Center and Syrian side put forward others,” said Lieutenant General Aleksey Kim, head of the Russian Center for the Reconciliation of Warring Parties in Syria.

He added that it was necessary to come to a common denominator so that both sides were satisfied with the fulfillment of these requirements. The negotiation process was very difficult.

According to the center, the terrorists who have not yet left al-Wayer are also preparing to lay down their arms. Many of them will go to militia or replenish the ranks of the Syrian police in the framework of amnesty announced by the Syrian president.

The military experts have said that total control by Damascus over this city is a major strategic success for Bashar al-Assad and diplomatic for the Russian negotiators.

Importance of Homs

Only a glance on the map is enough to understand the geographical importance of Homs, the third largest city in Syria with a pre-war population of 900,000 people.

It occupies a strategically important intersection at the crossing of major highways. These traffic routes connect Damascus (in the south), the Hama province, Idlib and Aleppo (in the north), the Tartus and Latakia provinces (in the west), and Palmyra and Deir ez-Zor (in the east).

“Full control over Homs will significantly protect the movement of humanitarian and military convoys all along the Damascus-Aleppo road which is more than 350 kilometers from north to south,” Anatoly Tsyganok, the head of Center for Military Forecasting told Sputnik.

The militants present in al-Wayer had an opportunity to conduct sabotage activities against government troops both in the city and on the highway. The Syrian military forces going north repeatedly moved through this site and were killed in an ambush because of such improvised explosive devices.

Homs has great value not only as an important transportation hub. This city is a large industrial center. It houses an oil refinery and several oil storage facilities. From Homs to Damascus and from Aleppo to Latakia there are pipelines.

In addition, before the war the city was one of the largest agricultural centers of Syria. Corn, cotton, wheat, vegetables and fruits were grown here. Right now most of the infrastructure is destroyed but its restoration is the key to economic, food and fuel-energy security of the whole country.

City of revolution

Homs also has strong political significance. It was one of the first cities where in July 2011 clashes with government forces broke out and therefore the city received a nickname: “capital of the revolution.”

The terrorists had planned to use Homs as a main platform for attacking Damascus from the north. Full-scale fighting in this city did not cease for years and became one of the most violent during the Syrian civil war.

The city lies in ruins as the majority of its residents escaped the war zone. In particular, Christian communities left the city with more than 138,000 people. Government forces managed to take Homs under control only in May 2014 but in a number of areas (including al-Wayer) the terrorists continued to be active in the years to come.

Anatoly Tsyganok said that fighting in Homs with varying degrees of intensity has been going on for six years now and the fact that the remaining members of the armed opposition in the city voluntarily left is a great success for the negotiating group which consists of Russian officers.

“This is an achievement for our diplomats as well and it became known right after the third round of talks on the Syrian settlement in Astana in mid-March regarding the withdrawal of 400 militants from Homs. Although there was no opposition it is obvious that they reached a number of agreements with them,” Tsyganok said.

According to the head, the general situation in Syria gives cautious optimism. As the expert stressed, in recent years support of the so-called “moderate opposition” from European states has noticeably weakened.

In turn, interaction on the Syrian issue between Russia, Turkey and Iran is strengthening. The government troops that took Aleppo and regained control over Palmyra received a break and were able to free up considerable forces and resources for possible actions in other directions.

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Moscow ‘knows nothing about’ reported April visit by Tillerson

Moscow diplomats say they are not aware of any preparations for a visit by US State Secretary Rex Tillerson. Reuters said the American would arrive in Russia in April.

When asked about the reported visit on Tuesday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told Interfax: “I know nothing about it.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson © Lintao Zhang

Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, said she could not confirm Tillerson’s visit either.

“At this stage, we do not intend to neither confirm nor refute the information which emerged [in the media],” Zakharova wrote on her FB page, pointing out that the information had initially been leaked.

“It is time for US political elites to decide: have ‘the Russian hackers’ hacked the US State Department servers again or is the threat to the security of US information of an American origin?” she joked.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dodged the question about the news agency report.

“Let’s wait for the official statements on the matter rather than those of Reuters. For the State Department and the Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation to announce the visit,” he said.

Reuters originally ran the story on the alleged visit under the headline “Tillerson plans to skip NATO meeting, visit Russia in April,” it then explained that the reason was that the summit will overlap with a meeting between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump’s Florida estate on April 6-7.

While Tillerson will not be in attendance at the NATO summit on April 5-6, he is scheduled to hold a meeting with the members of the international coalition against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS, ISIL) on Wednesday this week, when all of the ministers will be present, according to a spokesman cited by RIA Novosti. The US will be represented by Tillerson’s deputy in Brussels.

READ MORE: US hosts anti-ISIS meeting of 68 nations, fails to invite Russia, Iran

“[US Undersecretary] Tom Shannon will represent the United States at the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting,” the State Department spokesman told RIA Novosti.

Before he goes to Russia, Tillerson is scheduled to take part in a meeting of G7 foreign ministers early in April, the spokesman added.

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Foreign secret services stepping up efforts to destabilize Russia – top security official

The head of Russia’s top consultative security body has said that foreign secret services have intensified their efforts to destabilize Russia, noting that Ukrainian authorities had openly confessed to planning sabotage operations.

The destructive activities of foreign special services that set their goal as destabilizing the Russian social and political situation has intensified,” Security Council chair Nikolai Patrushev told participants at a conference of the heads of security agencies of the Southern Federal District. 

Ukrainian authorities openly declare that they are organizing acts of sabotage,” he said.

The Russian security chief also told his colleagues that the terrorist threat was higher in the Southern Federal District than in other parts of the country. He outlined such threats as various radical and xenophobic groups, internet propaganda of radical ideas and the growth of xenophobia among the younger generation.

Earlier this month, Patrushev held a similar conference in the Urals Federal District in central Russia. There he prioritized the threat from cyberattacks, saying that the main goal of these attacks was the disruption of hardware - including the networks that service the Russian segment of the internet - and obtaining classified information through clandestine deployment of various means of computer surveillance.

According to the head of the Security Council, the overall number of cyberattacks on Russian state bodies and companies was over 52 million in 2016, more than three times the number registered in the previous year.

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US confirms deployment of hundreds of Marines to Syria to fight ISIS

Hundreds of US Marines have arrived in Syria to establish an outpost in support of the operation to retake the city of Raqqa, the de-facto Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) capital in the country, the US-led coalition confirmed on Thursday.

"We are talking about an additional 400 or so forces in total, and they will be there for a temporary period," coalition spokesman US Air Force Colonel John Dorrian said, as cited by Reuters.

The deployment is an addition to the existing 500 US forces already in Syria and is aimed at accelerating the defeat of IS in its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa city, Dorrian said.

According to the official, the additional forces would be working with local partners in Syria – the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian Arab Coalition. He stressed they would not have a frontline role.

Dorrian said the new forces comprised a Marines artillery unit and Army Rangers.

Reports of the new deployment first surfaced in US media on Wednesday.

The Washington Post, which was the first to break the news citing anonymous defense officials, stated that the marines will be working to establish an outpost from which they can fire artillery in support of the fight for Raqqa.

According to the newspaper, the new deployment is part of an amphibious task force of the 11th US Marine Expeditionary Unit, which left San Diego on Navy ships in October. It includes part of an artillery battery that can fire 155mm shells from M777 Howitzers.

The Washington Post said that the marines will be based within no more than 32km (20 miles) from the frontline outside Raqqa, as that is the maximum range of their artillery.

“The marines answer a problem that the [operation] has faced. [They now provide] all-weather fires considering how the weather is this time of year in northern Syria,” an official was cited as saying.

NBC on its part reported that the taskforce was pulled from Kuwait, also citing US defense officials, adding that the deployment is part of the new effort to “accelerate the fight” against the militants. 

READ MORE: 'Russia practically mediating between NATO members US & Turkey over Syria'

The news of the US deployment comes after American soldiers were spotted traveling in an armored convoy near the Syrian city of Manbij, some 100km northwest of Raqqa, over the weekend in Strykers – heavily-armed, eight-wheel armored vehicles. The US-led coalition in Syria confirmed the presence of American forces around Manbij on Saturday, with US spokesman calling it a “deliberate action” aimed at ensuring that forces within the US-led coalition “keep the focus on defeating ISIS.”

Raqqa has an estimated 3,000-4,000 IS fighters, but the group’s leaders have been rapidly fleeing the city lately - with the advance of liberation forces, the New York Times said on Wednesday citing a US defense official. The operation to liberate the city from terrorists, codenamed Operation Euphrates Rage, was launched by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on November 5, 2016.

In the most recent development, on Monday, the SDF announced that they had severed the road between Raqqa and Deir ez-Zur to the east, cutting off a supply route for the extremist group and further isolating the militants in the city, Rudaw media network reported.

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Russia Rejects Deployment of US Anti-Missile System in South Korea

Moscow, Mar 7 (Prensa Latina) The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has rejected today the deployment of elements of the THAAD U.S. anti-missile system in South Korea, after warning about the possibility of creating more tension in that area.

The presence of THAAD elements will only serve to further tensions in the Korean peninsula, a statement from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

An American C-17 Globamaster III transport plane arrived at the Osan's South Korean base with components of the U.S. anti-missile system, with an announced defensive purpose, but puts Russia's strategic deterrence at risk.

According to Washington, the measure responds to the launch on the eve of four missiles by Pyongyang to the Sea of Japan.

However, Moscow recalls that the White House has used other arguments in the past to justify its intentions to establish a joint defense zone with Japan, on that occasion, allegedly related to China's actions in the region.

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Syrian Army Enters Palmyra, Drives Back Islamic State Group

Islamic State group has razed ancient monuments during both of its periods controlling Palmyra, an act the U.N. has condemned as a war crime.

Syrian government forces and their allies fought their way into Palmyra Wednesday, driving back the Islamic State group who have held the historic city since December, the Syrian Army said.

RELATED: How Most of the U.S. Left Failed Syria

"The army's entry to the city will begin very soon," A Syrian military source told Reuters earlier Wednesday. The army said it had captured an area known as the "Palmyra triangle" a few miles west of the city after rapid advances in recent days backed by Russian air strikes.

A media outlet affiliated with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group fighting alongside the Syrian government, reported that the Syrian army and its allies had recaptured the Palmyra citadel, on the city's western outskirts, and seized a modern palatial complex to the southwest.

The Islamic State group has captured Palmyra, whose ancient ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, twice during Syria's six-year conflict. But the army recaptured the city from the ultra-hardline group in March 2016, while the Islamic State group seized it again in December.

The group has razed ancient monuments during both of its spells in control of Palmyra – destruction the United Nations has condemned as a war crime.

Photos published on an Islamic State group Telegram account Wednesday showed the group's fighters firing at the Syrian army with rockets and a tank, Reuters said.

RELATED: Who is Who in Syria's Civil War?

The Islamic State group first captured Palmyra from the government in 2015. During its first period in control of the site, the extremists destroyed monuments including a 1,800-year-old monumental arch.

Most recently, the group has razed the landmark Tetrapylon, a platform with four columns at each corner, and the facade of Palmyra's Roman Theatre. Palmyra, known in Arabic as Tadmur, stood at the crossroads of the ancient world.

The government and its allies lost Palmyra as they focused on defeating Syrian anti-government groups in eastern Aleppo. The groups were driven from eastern Aleppo in December, the government's biggest victory.

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Jeff Sessions, Trump's new attorney general dogged by controversy

President Donald Trump's choice of Senator Jeff Sessions as his attorney general was initially dogged by allegations of past racism.

The controversy has now moved on to meetings Mr Sessions had with the Russian ambassador during Mr Trump's election campaign.

Mr Sessions was one of Mr Trump's earliest supporters in his White House bid. As a key loyalist, he was a senior adviser to the New York tycoon on politics, national security and policy.

He was also a vice-chairman on the Trump presidential transition team.

'Lying under oath'

Mr Trump's campaign was dogged by allegations that some of his team had met with Russian officials and that Moscow had interfered in the election on his behalf.

Mr Sessions was revealed by the Washington Post to have met Ambassador Sergei Kislyak twice, despite telling his January confirmation hearing that he had had no contacts with the Russians during the campaign.

Democrats have accused him of "lying under oath" and say he must resign.

Russia: The scandal Trump can't shake

They have also called on him to step aside from an investigation by the FBI - which he oversees as attorney general - into the alleged Russian interference.

kislyakMr Sessions met Mr Kislyak twice during the campaign / AP 

Mr Sessions insists he "never met any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign". Mr Kislyak was one of 25 foreign ambassadors he met as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee last year.

They held a private conversation in Mr Sessions's office in September and had spoken earlier in the summer, along with several other ambassadors, the Post said.

The KKK joke

The latest controversy follows that of alleged racist remarks by Mr Sessions in the past, which proved a roadblock in his political career and put him under fresh scrutiny for the attorney general post.

A Senate committee denied Mr Sessions a federal judgeship in 1989 after lawmakers heard testimony that he had used a racial slur.

Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump during a national security meetingMr Sessions was an early supporter of Mr Trump / AP

He had also joked about the Ku Klux Klan, saying he thought they were OK until he heard they smoked marijuana.

The Alabama senator told the Senate Judiciary Committee at his confirmation testimony that allegations he had once supported the KKK were "damnably false".

Mr Sessions was also accused of calling a black assistant US attorney "boy" and telling him to be careful about how he spoke to "white folks".

He denied to the committee ever having called the lawyer "boy" and insisted he had merely advised him to be cautious about what he said to "folks".

Mr Sessions also rejected claims he had labelled the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People "un-American".

Democrats were outraged when Senator Elizabeth Warren, who opposed Mr Sessions' appointment as attorney general, was silenced by Republicans while trying to read a letter by Coretta Scott King that criticised him.

Writing in 1986, the civil rights activist alleged that he had "used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters".

Mr Sessions' supporters deny he is a racist, pointing to his votes to extend the Voting Rights Act and to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Rosa Parks.

Immigration 'hoax'

Mr Sessions has spent much of his career fighting immigration battles, ranging from amnesty bills on creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants to visa programmes for foreign workers.

Mr Sessions supports limiting legal immigration, arguing that it protects American jobs.

He also backs Mr Trump's plan to build a wall along the US-Mexican border.

In a 2005 Washington Post op-ed, he argued that, "legal immigration is the primary source of low-wage immigration into the United States".

The government, he argued, should be focused on "slowing the pace of new arrivals so that wages can rise, welfare rolls can shrink and the forces of assimilation can knit us all more closely together".

His strident views on immigration were laid out last year in his 25-page manifesto, "Immigration Handbook for the New Republican Majority". In the report, he argues immigration was responsible for job losses and welfare dependency.

He called claims by technology entrepreneurs that immigrant workers with elite skills were part of the innovation process a "hoax".

What's his background?

Born Jefferson Beauregard "Jeff" Sessions III, he became Alabama's attorney general before he joined the Senate in 1996.

He sat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Judiciary Committee and the Budget Committee.

The lawmaker, who helped Mr Trump craft his foreign policy plan, was one of the few Republicans to come to his defence after he proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the US.

A year book showing a photo of Jeff Sessions in his graduating Wilcox County High SchoolMr Sessions shown during his graduating year at Wilcox County High School / AP

When asked if he supported a temporary ban in his hearing, Mr Sessions said he did "not support the idea that Muslims as a religious group should be denied admission to the United States".

He has backed Mr Trump's amended proposal, now an executive order, banning individuals from countries with a history of terrorism, which is now being challenged in court.

Gay marriage opposition

Like many Republicans, Mr Sessions has opposed the LGBT-rights movement, and in particular the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

In 2000 and 2009 he voted against legislation which would expand the definition of a hate crime to include offences based on sexual orientation.

In 2015 after the Supreme Court voted to allow same-sex marriage across the US, he dubbed the decision an "effort to secularise, by force and intimidation".

But Mr Sessions testified in Tuesday's hearing he would follow the law of the land on gay rights.

As Alabama's attorney general in 1996, he fought vigorously to prevent an LGBT-rights conference from meeting at the University of Alabama.

He promised to prosecute school administrators under a state law passed in 1992 that made it illegal for public universities to fund a group that promotes "actions prohibited by the sodomy and sexual misconduct laws".

When the university pledged to allow the conference to meet, he sought a court order to prevent it, but ultimately the 1992 order was overturned by a federal judge.

What about Guantanamo?

Mr Sessions has challenged calls to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and he has also questioned whether terrorism suspects have the right to be tried in civilian courts.

During his confirmation hearing, Mr Sessions said he accepted the law "absolutely" prohibits waterboarding.

He also said Guantanamo Bay was a "safe place" that fits the purpose of keeping prisoners "marvellously well".

Gun crime

The National Rifle Association (NRA) applauded Mr Sessions' appointment as America's top prosecutor, saying he would "make America a safer place by prosecuting violent criminals while protecting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners".

Mr Sessions is rated A+ by the group, indicating that he has a pro-gun voting record.

He has previously voted against background checks at gun shows, and in favour of banning lawsuits against gun manufacturers, and allowing firearms in checked baggage on trains.

In a statement at his confirmation hearing he promised a crackdown on gun violence, saying: "If I am confirmed, we will systematically prosecute criminals who use guns in committing crimes."

Many in the law enforcement community have voiced support for Mr Sessions, believing he will be a strong advocate for the police.

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‘No evidence’ yet of Trump campaign contacts with Russia – House Intelligence Committee Chair

The House Intelligence Committee probe into possible improper contacts between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia has not found any evidence yet, according to the Republican committee chair.

“We still have not seen any evidence” that the Trump campaign communicated with Russia, Rep. Devin Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, told reporters on Monday.

Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who spoke with the Russian Embassy in Washington prior to the inauguration, was just doing his job, Nunes said. He added that US intelligence services eavesdropping on the call amounted to “inadvertent collection,” but was “very interested” to find out who made the decision to publish Flynn’s name.

The Logan Act’s ridiculous and you know it,” Nunes told reporters who inquired whether Flynn was acting improperly.

No one has ever been prosecuted under the early 19th-century law banning US citizens from engaging in foreign policy without government sanction.

Reports that US intelligence services were listening in on the call were leaked in papers critical of the Trump administration following the inauguration, resulting in mounting pressure on Trump to fire Flynn, who resigned on February 14.

Democrats have claimed that Russian security services, personally directed by President Vladimir Putin, interfered in the US presidential election to help Trump, and even accused the Republican of being “Putin’s puppet.”

The accusations began after Democratic National Committee emails were published by WikiLeaks on the eve of the party’s national convention, revealing collusion among senior officials and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. In October, WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of emails from the private account of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. Clinton and the DNC likewise blamed the disclosure on Moscow.

Intelligence Committee’s ranking member, Adam Schiff (D-California), has emerged as one of the loudest voices claiming Russian interference in the US elections and aid to the Trump campaign. No evidence of either claim has ever been provided to the public.

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