Middle East

Patti / Flickr

It's easy to think of borders as fixed, almost sacrosanct lines, so rooted in the natural order of things that it often doesn't occur to us to question them. But borders were not always thought of this way. In fact, the notion of well understood, and agreed upon boundaries between nations is somewhat new.

More than 50 U.S. State Department officials have signed an internal memo calling for a change in the way the United States approaches Syria — specifically, advocating military pressure on Bashar Assad's regime to push him toward the negotiating table.

The diplomats expressed their opposition to the current U.S. policy through a cable on the State Department's dissent channel — which exists for just that reason.

But NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that it's unusual for so many officials to sign on to such a cable.

An attack on an intelligence office at the Baqaa refugee camp in Jordan today was an act of terrorism, says government spokesman Mohammed Momani. Jordan says five service members were killed: a staff sergeant, two corporals, a lance corporal and a private.

The timing of the attack coincides with the first day of the holy month of Ramadan, which Momani called "a clear evidence of those terrorists' criminal behavior and extremism."

Updated 3:15 a.m. ET

David Gilkey, an NPR photojournalist who chronicled pain and beauty in war and conflict, was killed in Afghanistan on Sunday along with NPR's Afghan interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna.

Ravid Kahalani

The music industry loves to label bands in categories like folk, funk, or jazz, but Ravid Kahalani, founder of Yemen Blues, proudly calls his ensemble "just good music."

The American Green Berets were seated around a long, plywood table at their base when they spotted the Taliban counterattack on their screens.

The burly Americans were working on computers, drinking coffee and munching on chips and peanut butter cookies. Their team leader answered an ever-ringing phone, giving his superiors updates on an Afghan commando mission in the mountains just north of Afghanistan's Kandahar Airfield.

More than 2 million Syrians have fled to Turkey, driven out by the fighting that erupted in their homeland in 2011. But none can claim an odyssey quite like that of Mohammed Faris.

As Syria's first and only cosmonaut, Mohammed Faris rocketed into orbit with two Soviet colleagues in 1987. He conducted experiments and photographed his country from space. By the time he returned to Syria, most everyone in the country knew his name.

World Bank Photo Collection / Creative Commons

On Wednesday, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy and 26 other Democratic senators sent a letter to President Obama expressing their deep concern about "the slow pace of admissions for Syrian refugees" and encouraged him to step up the process. 

Kevin Bishop

Many of you around here know Kevin Bishop, a violist and Hartt School grad who has established himself as one of the region’s most enterprising musical figures.

Updated at 1 p.m. ET.

Three suicide bombings hit Baghdad on Wednesday, killing more than 85 people. The attacks — car bombings at an outdoor market and at a police checkpoint, and a checkpoint blast set off by someone on foot — have been claimed by the Islamic State, NPR's Alison Meuse reports.

In the morning's market blast alone, the death toll was at least 62, Alison says, citing Iraqi authorities.

At least 28 people have been killed and more than 320 wounded in an attack in Kabul. The assault targeted a key government security agency and included a suicide car bombing and an offensive by armed militants. The Taliban has claimed responsibility.

The attack hit at about 9 a.m. local time, during morning rush hour — one reason there are so many casualties, NPR's Philip Reeves reports. It comes about a week after the Taliban announced the start of their spring offensive.

Syria's bloody civil war has been raging for six years. At least a quarter of a million people have been killed, and half the country is displaced. Major swaths of the county are held by ISIS or opposition fighters.

But in government-held areas, citizens queued up to cast ballots Wednesday for parliamentary elections, the second since the start of the war. Syrian state media carried photos from multiple provinces showing voters tucking their ballots into boxes and dipping their fingers into ink to show their participation.

Syria's government has freed an American who was seized after entering the country in 2012, U.S. officials said Friday.

The Washington Post identified him as Kevin Patrick Dawes, 33, of San Diego. He was released after lengthy negotiations, according to the U.S. officials. There was no immediate word on where Dawes was on Friday.

Sweden has taken in more asylum seekers per capita than any other European country — 160,000 last year alone. Refugees are now part of the landscape, even in small towns. And nearly everybody, not just those working with aid groups, is encountering the newcomers.

In the southern town of Ronneby, Dagmar Nordberg is giving Swedish lessons to Waliullah Hafiz, who goes by Wali, at her kitchen table. The 60-year-old Swedish museum director met this 23-year-old migrant from Kabul on a train platform in a nearby village on a freezing cold day last November.

A week after Syrian government forces seized the ancient city of Palmyra from the Islamic State, soldiers, engineers and archaeologists are tallying up the damage done to the ancient city.

Visiting the site on Friday, journalists from The Associated Press said the modern town of Palmyra is "completely deserted," and the nearby archaeological site full of treasured monuments reduced to rubble.

The state-run SANA news agency said a mass grave had been found in a Palmyra neighborhood, with the bodies of approximately 40 people, according to multiple media reports.

Josh Hough / Creative Commons

Syrian government troops have recaptured Palmyra from Islamic State fighters. There are reports that experts are working now to clear mines left at the ancient ruins.

Cypriot authorities say they have arrested the hijacker of an EgyptAir plane after an hours-long standoff in Larnaca, Cyprus. All the passengers and crew had been released.

The man's motivations are still murky. Cypriot officials describe the suspected hijacker as "unstable" and tell NPR that he wanted to speak to his Cyprus-based ex-wife. He later requested political asylum, they say. Cyprus' Ministry of Foreign Affairs identified the man as Seif Eldin Mustafa. Earlier news reports had identified a different man.

In Syria, Russian-backed government troops have entered the ancient city of Palmyra after days of intense clashes with Islamic State militants.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict, says regime troops have pushed into the southwest corner of the city. Observatory Director Rami Abdel Rahman says advances inside the city are slow, as ISIS planted mines in areas where it retreated.

State news agency SANA reports that the army took control of Mount Altar, a strategic point west of the city's famed ruins.

The Islamic State has been steadily losing territory in its self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq, where a U.S. bombing campaign and a host of rival forces chip away at its holdings.

Yet the Brussels bombings again demonstrated the group's potency much farther afield, from terror attacks in Western Europe and North Africa to seizing control of Libya's coastal city of Sirte.

Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that the United States has determined that the Islamic State is carrying out genocide against Christians and other religious groups in the Middle East.

It was not immediately clear whether the declaration would result in any change in U.S. policy, including the American bombing campaign against the radical Islamist group.

"In my judgment, [ISIS] is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control including Yazidis, Christians and Shiite Muslims," Kerry said at the State Department.

Russian President Vladimir Putin just made another shrewd and decisive move with his surprising decision to start withdrawing forces from Syria. Or, the Russian leader was overextended abroad and short of cash at home and was looking for a quick exit.

Putin wants everyone to believe the former, claiming the Russian airstrikes and the Syrian government army have achieved a "fundamental turnaround in the fight against international terrorism."

Chion Wolf / WNPR

Iason Athanasiadis is a writer, photojournalist, and documentary filmmaker who has spent years covering the Middle East and Mediterranean Europe. He was in Hartford recently to speak to the World Affairs Council of Connecticut, and stopped by our studios to talk about journalism in conflict regions and the Syrian migrant crisis. This hour, we listen back to that conversation.

The fifth year of the Syrian conflict was the worst yet for civilians — and Russia, the U.S., France and Britain are partly to blame. That's according to a new report from 30 aid and human rights groups, including Oxfam and Care International.

It wouldn't end all the violence that's torn at Syria for years now, but two key parties — President Bashar Assad's government and a main opposition group — have agreed to a truce, according to a joint statement by the U.S. and Russia.

One day after a car bomb targeting military vehicles killed at least 28 people in Ankara, Turkey's leaders say the attacker was a Syrian man with links to Kurdish militants in both Turkey and Syria. Police have arrested 14 people over the attack; a militia leader denies any involvement.

An explosion near a group of military buildings in Turkey's capital has killed at least 28 people and wounded 61 others, according to Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş.

Reporting from Istanbul, NPR's Peter Kenyon says officials suspect it may have been a car bomb that detonated in Ankara. Here's more from Peter:

"The explosion hit near a military base in the capital, which also hosts residences for military officers. The blast occurred as a vehicle carrying military personnel was passing.

Last year, an Iranian economist named Mohammad Mehdi Behkish was extremely optimistic about prospects for a nuclear deal that would end many economic sanctions on his country.

"Personally, I would say it can't be that there would not be a deal," he told me when I met him in Tehran.

The alternative, he said, was disaster.

Behkish leads Iran's International Chamber of Commerce. When I met him again this month in his Tehran office, he sounded even more optimistic.

Just a few days ago, major world powers announced they would work on a plan to stop hostilities in Syria within a week. The proposed agreement would be temporary, and would fall short of a full cease-fire.

Instead, the nations involved have agreed "to encourage their proxies to cease hostilities in a week with an eye to a more permanent cease-fire down the road," NPR's Michele Kelemen explained Friday.

Since then, fighting on the ground has only intensified.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced late Thursday that they had agreed to push for a "nationwide cessation of hostilities" in Syria within one week.

The communiqué backed by major world powers also vowed to work toward getting humanitarian aid into hard-to-reach areas such as the city of Aleppo.

Gaida / Facebook

Syrian singer and songwriter Gaida is featured this Friday evening at Wesleyan University. Gaida performs innovative interpretations of traditional Syrian songs -- improvisations over Arabic grooves -- and she composes original music.

Pages