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The latest news on Defense from Business Insider

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    RTR2VQX9

    Iran has threatened once again to close the Strait of Hormuz if the nation faces military action by its “enemies.”

    The Iranian army’s Deputy Chief of Staff Brigadier General Ali Shadmani said Tuesday that “If the enemy makes a small mistake, we will shut the Strait of Hormuz, kill their sedition in the bud and endanger the arrogant powers’ interests,” according to the Fars news agency.

    In May the deputy commander of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Hossein Salami, warned that Iranian forces would close the strategic gateway to the Persian Gulf to the United States and its allies if they “threaten” the Islamic Republic.

    Tehran and Washington have often clashed over the narrow strait, through which nearly a third of all oil traded by sea passes.

    The Gulf has seen a number of naval incidents between Iran and the US in the past year, including test rocket fire by the Islamic Republic and the brief capture of American sailors who strayed into its territorial waters.

    Iran has caused international concern over its frequent naval drills in the strait, seen as intimidation tactics against its rivals.

    SEE ALSO: Iran dispatched 5 military vessels to monitor a US warship hosting a top general in the Gulf

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: These US war conspiracies turned out to be true


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    Marine tracer

    The commander of Marine units across the Middle East sees opportunities for the Corps to take on more missions in the region that would typically be tasks for special operations forces.

    In a recent interview with Military.com, Lt. Gen. William Beydler, commander of Marine Corps Central Command, said there were multiple traditional special operations mission sets that competent Marines could take on, freeing up the forces for more specialized undertakings.

    "I'm not for a moment suggesting that Marine capabilities and SOF capabilities are the same, that's not my point, but I do think, and I think that SOF would agree, that some of the missions they're executing now could be executed by well-trained and disciplined general purpose forces like U.S. Marines," Beydler said.

    Marines maintain a constant presence in the Middle East between Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Central Command, a roughly 2,300-man unit that operates across six Middle Eastern countries with an emphasis on supporting the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

    They also operate consistently in the region off amphibious ships attached to Marine Expeditionary Units, or MEUs, that routinely provide presence in the Persian Gulf.

    Beydler, who assumed the command in October 2015, said these Marines could take on quick-response force operations, security missions, maritime and land raids, and ship visit-board-search-seizure operations, all of which Marines train to do as part of the MEU pre-deployment workup.

    "There's a range of things Marines are especially well trained to do -- they can offer up capabilities that might free SOF forces to do other things," Beydler said. "We're not trying to encroach on what they do, but we think that we can be better utilized at times and free them up to do even more than SOF does right now."

    us special operator

    Beydler said the Marine Corps was already stepping into some of these roles, though he demurred from specifics.

    In one instance that may illustrate this utilization of conventional troops, Reuters reported in May that "a very small number" of U.S. forces were deployed into Yemen to provide intelligence support in response to a United Arab Emirates request for aid in the country's fight against Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

    While the Defense Department did not identify the service to which these troops belonged, officials told Reuters that the amphibious assault ship Boxer -- part of the deployed 13th MEU -- had been positioned off the coast of Yemen to provide medical facilities as needed.

    In a January fragmentary order, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller emphasized his desire to see Marines operate more closely with SOF troops and develop a deeply collaborative working relationship.

    To this end, six-man special operations forces liaison elements, or SOFLEs, began to deploy with MEUs in 2015 to improve communication between Marines and SOF forces downrange and coordinate efforts. Beydler said professional rapport had increased as a result of these small liaison teams.

    "A part of this is again developing professional relationships, developing professional respect and having SOF appreciate that which Marines can do," he said.

    Currently, he said, the Marine Corps is considering creating SOFLEs for the Marines' land-based Middle East task force. While there is no timeline to test out the creation of new liaison elements, Beydler said the unit informally looks for opportunities to coordinate with special ops in this fashion.

    "I think that we've valued the SOFLEs at the MEU level," he said. "We'll continue to work with SOF to see if we can't have more of these liaisons, more of those touch points."

    SEE ALSO: US Army special forces accepts its first female candidates

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: GREEN BERET: Why our strategy against terrorism is making things worse


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    SU 30MKI india air force

    Amid a gridlock between India and Russia on the development of their fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA), India has decided to set up negotiations with Russia to upgrade 194 Sukhoi Indian Air Force Su-30MKIs to a near fifth-generation level for about $8 billion, Defense News reports.

    The improved Su-30s will feature advanced stealth technology, longer range missiles and radars, a jointly developed BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, and an advanced suite of avionics.

    "[A] major part of the upgrade [to Super Sukhoi] involves avionics and sensors. These are completely new with new systems and new software. Hence it has no relation to old problems with software. Engine issues will have to be dealt with," retired Indian Air Force Air Marshal Muthumanikam Matheswaran told Defense News.

    But even improved Su-30s won't do the job needed by the IAF, who have fallen behind with aircraft maintenance.

    Furthermore, the move to upgrade the existing aircraft while India and Russia wait for a new generation of fighters represents a kind of half-measure, and it complicates the already fraught joint venture between India and Russia to develop the FGFA.

    "Upgrade of the Su-30 will certainly slow the FGFA acquisition primarily due to financial limitations," Matheswaran said. "But upgraded Su-30 is not the same as FGFA."

    PAK FA armament graphic

    Indeed the difference between "near fifth generation" and "fifth generation" is a huge. A fifth generation jet should employ an integrated stealth design, internal electronic warfare capabilities, and super-cruise abilities. No matter how much the Su-30 is upgraded, the basics, like an airframe lacking internal weapons bays and other stealth features, cannot be tacked on at this late stage.

    In fact, the FGFA, also known as the PAK FA or the T-50, already hardly meets the requirements of the "fifth generation" aircraft as defined by planes like the F-22 and F-35. 

    SEE ALSO: Watch the Marine's F-35 test its gun pod for the first time

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Watch newly released footage of the F-35B taking off, hovering, and landing vertically


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    Mohammed al-Jolani of Jabhat al-Nusra

    The leader of the Syrian Islamist rebel group Nusra Front said on Thursday it was cutting its ties with al Qaeda to deny foreign powers including the United States and Russia a pretext to attack Syrians.

    Listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, the Nusra Front was excluded from a truce negotiated in February. Russia and the United States are discussing closer coordination to fight the militia.

    The group's leader, Abu Mohamad al-Golani, made the announcement in a video that was the first public pronouncement to show his face.

    "We have stopped operating under the name of Nusra Front and formed a new body ... This new formation has no ties with any foreign party," he said, giving the group's new name as "Jabhat Fatah al Sham".

    He said the step was being taken "to remove the excuse used by the international community -- spearheaded by America and Russia -- to bombard and displace Muslims in the Levant: that they are targeting the Nusra Front, which is associated with al Qaeda".

    Golani said the action would narrow differences with other rebel groups that are also fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

    Al Qaeda's leader, Ayman al Zawahri, had earlier given his blessing to Nusra Front to break organizational ties with the global jihadist organization in the interest of preserving its unity and continuing its fight in Syria.

    Golani thanked Zawahri for putting the interests of Muslims and the people of the Levant over organizational interests.

    syria map

    SEE ALSO: Watch US-led coalition forces level tactical ISIS positions

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    NOW WATCH: Trump said he never vowed to 'carpet bomb' ISIS — we fact-checked his claim


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    GAU 8 vw a-10 gun

    On Thursday, we saw for the first time the brand new F-35B/C variant's GAU-22 25 mm gun pod firing, and as impressive as it was, it's not even close to the best gun on the force.

    What you're looking at above is the biggest asset for, and the biggest argument against, the A-10 Warthog. You can plainly see how the massive, 4,000 pound (including ammo), almost 20-foot long GAU-8 Avenger dwarfs the classic VW bug next to it. The firepower of that gun has become the stuff of legend over the last decades.

    But that's the problem; this picture was taken in the late 1970s. As big and awesome as this gun is, much has changed in aviation, in the battle space, and in the world since it was first fielded. Case in point — you just don't see VW bugs on the road anymore.

    So while the A-10 still holds the title of best and biggest gun, the close air support of the future makes different demands on a weapons system. Even though it may still have useful days ahead, the A-10's days at the top are numbered.

    SEE ALSO: America's war machine is a mixed bag right now

    SEE ALSO: ISIS suffers near collapse in oil revenue as it loses territory in Iraq

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Why the US military's M1 Abrams tank is still the king of the battlefield


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    harvey milk

    The US Naval Institute's news service has obtained a congressional memo stating that the US Navy will name a Military Sealift Command fleet oiler after gay-rights activist Harvey Milk.

    According to the Naval Institute, Milk came from a Navy family, joined in 1951, served as a diving officer during the Korean War, and later received an honorable discharge as a lieutenant junior grade.

    After his stint in the Navy, Milk continued his public service by becoming the first openly gay elected official in California in 1977. He was assassinated a year later by another city official. At the time of his death, he was wearing his Navy diving belt buckle.

    Actor Sean Penn won an Oscar for his portrayal of Milk in a 2008 film.

    Other civil-rights leaders such as Medgar Evers and Cesar Chavez have had Navy ships named after them as well.

    The USNS Harvey Milk will be the second oiler of its class built by General Dynamics in San Diego. Oiler ships serve as support ships to other Navy vessels by replenishing them with fuel and sometimes food, ammunition, mail, and other goods while at sea.

    SEE ALSO: 5 US service members were injured while operating near ISIS in Afghanistan

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    NOW WATCH: The US Navy’s most expensive war ship ever is experiencing more setbacks


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    putin

    Russian President Vladimir Putin seemingly cannot believe his luck as he watches NATO cause near irreparable harm to itself from the sidelines. 

    NATO has been a major force in reigning in Putin's revanchist vision for Russia, with the alliance holding a series of military exercises and basing troops in vulnerable nations throughout Eastern Europe and the Baltics as a check on Russian aggression following the annexation of Crimea. 

    Now, however, that sense of unity across Europe and North America against Russian aggression is flailing, as NATO does drastic amounts of self-harm. 

    "Putin has the luck of the devil," Mark Galeotti, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Bloomberg about the fraying nature of NATO. "He can just sit back and watch this richer, more powerful and legitimate values-based bloc tear itself apart."

    At the heart of NATO's declining stature is the candidacy of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and the failed coup in Turkey. Trump suggested recently that he would not necessarily extend the security guarantee inherent in NATO's Article 5 to all 28 members of the alliance. Given a hypothetical of Russia attacking a Baltic State, Trump said that he would provide aid contingent upon whether the state had "fulfilled their obligations to us." 

    This lack of commitment to upholding NATO's cornerstone of collective defense from a US presidential candidate undermines the alliance as a whole, experts said, and could cause considerable anxiety among NATO allies — particularly in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe. 

    The failed coup in Turkey has also deeply shaken the military alliance. Turkey has the second-largest military in NATO and provides vital security to the alliance's eastern and southern flanks. However, since the failed putsch, Turkey is rapidly moving away from NATO, the US, and the West as a whole. 

    "Anti-American sentiment is rising in the Turkish government and on the Turkish street," Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Bloomberg. "The Obama administration is at its wit’s end about the Turkey issue."

    Turkish Supporters are silhouetted against a screen showing President Tayyip Erdogan during a pro-government demonstration in Ankara, Turkey, July 17, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

    Although not named specifically, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused the US general in charge of Central Command of "siding with coup plotters" on Thursday. And Turkey has formally requested the extradition of a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania that it holds responsible for executing the coup attempt. 

    These mounting divisions between NATO and Turkey will only likely increase as Putin grasps and the opportunity and uses it to further pry Ankara out of the alliance's orbit, according to Alexander Shumilin, the head of the Middle East Conflicts Center at the Institute for US and Canada Studies in Moscow.

    "Putin’s policy is to provoke a divide between Turkey and NATO and reap the benefits," Shumilin told Bloomberg.

    Ultimately, the goal would be to have Turkey no longer function as an effective NATO buffer against Russian expansion to the south and into the Mediterranean.

    Turkey and Russia are only likely to further cement their relationship in the coming weeks. Erdogan has already blamed the coup plotters for the downing of a Russian jet in November 2015, which caused a precipitous decline the relations between the two countries. 

    And on August 9, Putin and Erdogan are set to meet in St. Petersburg, Russia, to discuss a wide range of bilateral topics. For NATO, this could not look worse. 

    SEE ALSO: The only map you need to see to know that Donald Trump is wrong about NATO

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    NOW WATCH: IAN BREMMER: Turkey’s president wants to emulate Putin — but it’s not going to work


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    Super Hornet

    A Marine Corps pilot was killed Thursday when an F/A-18C Hornet went down during training near Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California, Marine officials announced today.

    The pilot and aircraft were attached to 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, out of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Marine spokesman Maj. Christian Devine said.

    The identity of the pilot has not been released, pending a 24-hour period following notification of family members.

    Officials said the cause of the crash is under investigation.

    Speaking at a think tank event in Washington, D.C., on Friday, the Corps' top aviation officer, Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, offered thoughts and prayers for the families of the pilot, adding that he didn't have all the details about the incident.

    While Marine officials have testified this year that readiness challenges have resulted in significant reductions in flight hours for Marine pilots across nearly every aviation platform, Davis said he did not believe that was a contributing factor in the tragedy.

    "I track [flight hours] each week. This particular unit was doing OK," he said. He said he did not believe that reduced flight hours had made squadrons less safe, but he said the Corps was "not as proficient as we should be" in its aviation component.

    This is the second fatal Hornet crash for the Marine Corps in the last 12 months. In October 2015, a Marine pilot was killed when a 3rd MAW F/A-18C aircraft attached to Marine Attack Fighter Squadron 232 crashed near Royal Air Force airfield Lakenheath in England during a flight from Miramar to Bahrain.

    SEE ALSO: Watch the Marines' F-35 fire an 80-round burst from its gun pod for the first time

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: This video proves the US Navy and US Marine Corps have the best diving boards and swimming pools


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    A selection of photos from some of the biggest news that you might have missed this week.

    SEE ALSO: 'Unique, strange, and terrible' — ISIS may have created a new type of bomb

    President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wave as they appear on stage together on the third day session of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.



    Senator Bernie Sanders embraces his wife Jane O'Meara Sanders after the Vermont delegation cast their votes during roll call on the second day of the Democratic National Convention.



    A member of Baton Rouge police Cpl. Montrell Jackson's unit touches his casket during his funeral service. Jackson, slain by a gunman who authorities said targeted law enforcement, is the last of the three Louisiana law enforcement officers killed in last week's ambush to be buried.



    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    ukraine grad missile launcher

    Two top U.S. diplomats working to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine have accused Russia of continuing to supply separatist fighters with fuel and weapons and creating a "deteriorating security situation" in the region that is as bad as it was a year ago.

    Ambassador Daniel Baer, head of the U.S. mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt made the statements during a July 29 telephonic press briefing from Vienna.

    The briefing came one day after the head of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, Ertugrul Apakan, and OSCE special representative on Ukraine Martin Sajdik briefed the OSCE Permanent Council on the situation.

    Baer said the United States and other OSCE members were increasingly concerned by what they see as a disconnect between Russia's words and its actions regarding the conflict.

    "We see continued resupply of weapons and fighters; we see continued provocations to keep the conflict going; we see continued restrictions of the SMM and its monitors; we see continued shoot-downs of SMM UAVs [drones] after they have seen Russian heavy weaponry in places where it shouldn't be," Baer said.

    "And so, the message that was delivered to the Russian Federation yesterday by many, many participating states in the [OSCE] Permanent Council is that it is time to match your words with action."

    Pyatt stressed the same point, saying that Russia's continued material support of separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine was "driving the conflict."

    "Rather than terminating this conflict, Russia's actions are having the effect of escalating it once again," Pyatt said.

    The ambassadors also accused Russia of failing to implement the Minsk agreement that was signed in September 2014 and which, along with a second agreement signed in February 2015, is supposed to provide a road map for resolving the crisis.

    ukraine checkpoint donetsk

    Pyatt said Russia had failed to withdraw troops and equipment, fully implement the cease-fire envisioned under the Minsk agreements, and release all hostages.

    Baer said that the Minsk accords had "all of the steps that are necessary" to end the conflict.

    "We have known what needs to be done for two years now," he said. "The problem is not in solving some sort of difficult puzzle. This is not a puzzle. The problem is political will."

    Baer added that the U.S. position on not recognizing Russia's 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula of Crimea remained unchanged.

    "A point that we have made here [at the OSCE] when Russian representatives say they want to have a conversation about the future of European security is that any conversation about the future of European security will have to start with Crimea," Baer said.

    According to the United Nations, more than 9,400 people have been killed in fighting between Ukrainian security forces and Russia-backed militants in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.

    SEE ALSO: The conflict in Ukraine is heating up again

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: A global intelligence analyst explains why Russia isn't as strong as people think


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    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends an interview with Reuters at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, July 21, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

    ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey's president slammed the United States on Friday, claiming it was not standing firmly against a failed military coup and accused it of harboring the plot's alleged mastermind, as a government crackdown in the coup's aftermath strained Turkey's ties with key allies.

    Turkey has demanded the United States extradite Fethullah Gulen, a cleric living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania whom it accuses of being behind the violent July 15 coup attempt that left 290 people dead. It is accusing Western nations of not extending sufficient support to its efforts to counter further threats from followers of the Gulen movement, which it says have infiltrated the country's state institutions.

    Turkey considers Gulen's movement a terrorist organization. Gulen has denied any prior knowledge of the plot and says his movement espouses interfaith dialogue. The United States has asked Turkey for evidence of his involvement, and said the U.S. extradition process must take its course.

    "Instead of thanking this nation that quashed the coup in the name of democracy, on the contrary, you are taking sides with the coup plotters," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in an angry speech Friday at a police special forces headquarters in Ankara. The facility was bombed and fired upon during the attempted coup, and 47 police officers were killed.

    "The putschist is already in your country," Erdogan said.

    The president also lashed out at an American military official who expressed concern that the failed coup may have longer-term effects on the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.

    Gen. Joseph Votel said Thursday the unrest could affect U.S. relations with the Turkish military, noting that some of its leaders have been jailed.

    "We've certainly had relationships with a lot of Turkish leaders, military leaders in particular. And so I'm concerned about what the impact is on those relationships as we continue to move forward," Votel said at the Aspen Security Forum.

    Erdogan criticized the comment.

    Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen is pictured at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania September 26, 2013.  REUTERS/Selahattin Sevi/Zaman Daily via Cihan News Agency

    "It's not up to you to make that decision. Who are you? Know your place," he said, and hinted the United States could be behind the failed plot.

    "My people know who is behind this scheme ... they know who the superior intelligence behind it is, and with these statements you are revealing yourselves, you are giving yourselves away," he said.

    Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also criticized the comments, saying the jailed officers are "not the only ones with the capacity to fight" the Islamic State group. Speaking to reporters in Ankara, Cavusoglu said the purge of those suspected of being involved in the coup is rendering the Turkish army more efficient.

    "When we weed out these bad apples... then our army is more trustworthy, more dynamic, cleaner and more effective," Cavusoglu said.

    The foreign minister said Turkey wanted Gulen's extradition process to conclude rapidly and has asked the United States to make sure he does not escape to another country.

    He also criticized Turkey's European and Western allies for their stance on the government's broad crackdown, which has included a purge of the civil service, military, judiciary and education sectors, and the closures of hundreds of schools and dozens of media outlets.

    "We are disturbed by our European and Western friends' approach," Cavusoglu told reporters. "Very few have given us a clear support against the coup. They started to give us lessons in democracy, to talk down to us, to warn us."

    Turkey coup uprising

    The European Union and other countries, as well as human rights groups, have voiced increasing concern about the crackdown. According to recent figures from the interior ministry, more than 18,000 people have been detained since the coup attempt. Of those, more than 3,500 have since been released, a senior government official said.

    A total of 49,211 people have had their passports revoked, according to the interior minister. The government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with his office's regulations, said the revocations were a precaution against the flight risk of possible terror suspects.

    More than 66,000 people in the wider civil service have been suspended from their jobs.

    Ankara says the crackdown targets followers of Gulen and is necessary to prevent a new threat. It has also been seeking to extend its crackdown on the network of schools and institutions abroad connected to his movement.

    In Germany, the governor of the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg said his regional government received a letter from the Turkish consul-general in Stuttgart asking it to check and "reevaluate" organizations, facilities and schools "which in the opinion of the Turkish government are, it says, 'controlled' by the Gulen movement."

    "That surprised me greatly," Winfried Kretschmann told the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "Of course we will not do that."

    Kretschmann said he has seen no evidence to back Turkey's assertion that the Gulen movement was responsible for the coup attempt or that Islamization is taking place at schools in Germany.

    Germany's foreign minister said it was good that the coup had been foiled "but now the reactions are getting far out of proportion."

    Turkish journalist Nazli Ilicak (C), also a well-known commentator and former parliamentarian, is escorted by a police officer (R) and her relatives (L and rear) after being detained and brought to a hospital for a medical check in Bodrum, Turkey, July 26, 2016. REUTERS/Kenan Gurbuz

    "When tens of thousands of civil servants, teachers and judges are dismissed, thousands of schools and education facilities shut and dozens of journalists arrested without any direct connection with the coup being discernible, we cannot simply stay silent," Frank-Walter Steinmeier was quoted as saying Friday in the Ruhr Nachrichten paper.

    Steinmeier said bringing back the death penalty would be "a major step backward" for Turkey.

    Cavusoglu, in an interview with Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung to be published Saturday, raised the possibility of a referendum on reintroducing capital punishment.

    This decision should not be taken "in the heat of the moment," he was quoted as saying. "Perhaps the decision on this will be taken in a referendum. These are very serious questions."

    He argued that officials are getting thousands of tweets and texts saying "'if you don't reintroduce the death penalty, we won't vote for your party anymore.'"

    "The EU doesn't have the right to give us lessons on this matter," Cavusoglu was quoted as saying.

    Separately, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Turkey would shut down an air base in the outskirts of Ankara that the coup plotters used as their headquarters. He said several army barracks used in the attempted coup would be moved away from Ankara and Istanbul to new locations.

    ___

    Becatoros reported from Istanbul. Lolita Baldor in Washington DC, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Cinar Kiper in Istanbul contributed.

    SEE ALSO: Putin is watching happily from the sidelines as NATO tears itself apart

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: IAN BREMMER: Turkey’s president wants to emulate Putin — but it’s not going to work


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    A selection of military photos that you might have missed this month.

    SEE ALSO: The world in photos this week

    Officer Candidate School (OCS) candidates are picked up by their sergeant instructors aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, July 8, 2016.



    An officer candidate conducts the Combat Course at Quantico, Virginia, July 13, 2016.



    A New Zealand Army soldier drags a 'wounded' enemy soldier to safety as part of Exercise Hamel, South Australia, July 9, 2016.



    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Nusra Front

    Daniel L. Davis retired from the US Army as a Lt. Col. after 21 years of active service and serves as a foreign policy fellow and military expert at Defense Priorities. He gave us permission to run this op-ed.

    Apple and Google, two of the country’s biggest employers, don’t mess around with failure. Leaders either produce or they’re gone. Major League Baseball and National Football League teams have one standard for their leaders: get us into the playoffs or you’re fired.

    The government’s foreign policy elites, however, don’t have to succeed to keep their jobs. Unlike the rest of America, when U.S. leaders in foreign policy fail, they are rewarded or promoted, while the 330 million Americans living outside the Washington beltway foot the bill.

    For a business, it’s easy to quantify success or failure by looking at the company’s financials. NFL and NBA teams either make the playoffs or they don’t. It is more difficult to assess success or failure in the foreign policy arena because results are often hidden from public view – but sometimes the failure is so spectacular that it’s impossible to hide. That’s presently the case with United States foreign policy.

    In the aftermath of 9/11 Americans understandably feared for their safety from hostile groups worldwide and demanded that the government take action to protect them. Success in that mission wouldn’t be hard to define: a reduction in the terrorist threat. No one expects perfection from the government. Americans expect their leaders to provide effective security. Instead, Washington has implemented policies that have arguable made us less safe.

    Consider the following:

    On September 10, 2001, al-Qaeda represented a marginal but real terrorist threat to the U.S. The country was at war with no nation and the threat of conventional war was limited to distant possibilities such as North Korea or Iran. The chances of war against either Russia or China were less than negligible. What is the strategic environment America faces today?

    • al-Qaeda has rebuilt most of its strength and might be stronger today than prior to 9/11. The Daily Beast reported that U.S. intelligence and defense officials “are worried that the intense focus on defeating ISIS has blinded the U.S. to the resurgence of al Qaeda, whose growing potency has become more apparent.”

    • As the Islamic State has suffered significant territorial losses in Iraq and Syria, they have decentralized, expanded into new locations around the globe, and have perpetrated major terrorist strikes in over 20 countries killing thousands. Their leadership is already preparing for the next phase of the fight.

    ISIS Islamic State Fighter Flag Mosul

    • While the U.S. has been focused on ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, has risen and might now be the most potent of all rebel groups on the ground there, representing a serious and growing terrorist threat to U.S. interests.

    • In Afghanistan, the Taliban is stronger and holds more territory than at any time since 2001 and continues to increase in strength at the expense of the Afghan troops. Additionally, not only has al-Qaeda rebuilt much of its strength there, a number of new terrorist organizations now operate there.

    It is difficult to overstate the staggering degree to which the strategy of attacking ISIS on the ground throughout the Middle East has failed. The only result of the strategy’s implementation has thus far been to expand the number and effectiveness of terrorist organizations around the world, increasing the terror threat to the American homeland. If this spiraling dynamic isn’t checked, the threat will continue to rise. Recent events, however, make it appear likely the spiral will continue.

    At the NATO Summit last month, all treaty nations vowed in the summit’s communique to increase the alliance’s support and involvement in the anti-ISIS fight. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter last Wednesday hosted the defense ministers of 30 nations in a confab designed to refine the military action plan against ISIS. The next day, Secretary of State John Kerry hosted dozens of foreign ministers to discuss increasing diplomatic cooperation among allied nations. The effect of all this diplomatic and military activity is to essentially do everything we’ve been doing, but attempting to do it harder, stronger, and better.

    Taliban fighters pose with weapons as they sit in their compound at an undisclosed location in southern Afghanistan in this May 5, 2011 file picture.  REUTERS/Stringer

    The anti-terror strategy the U.S. has implemented over the past 15 years has unequivocally failed to accomplish national objectives. Applying it more energetically will most likely deepen the failure. What Washington ought to do is first step back and conduct an honest, sober, and thorough analysis of the outcomes its strategy has produced. The key is to identify which major components of the strategy have backfired and worsened security. Those tactics must then be immediately jettisoned in favor of new ideas that have a chance to increase the security of the nation.

    Fighting against global terrorist groups that seek to kill Americans and harm U.S. interests is an extremely complex and challenging task. There are no simple solutions. But that task is made infinitely more difficult when we fail to acknowledge when good-faith efforts have failed.

    Even the best businesses and sports teams experience failure. What separates the champions from the also-rans is champions are willing to admit when strategies have failed, and are willing to find new leaders who will implement fresh, inventive plans. We can only hope that the next Administration is willing to demonstrate championship-caliber leadership.

    SEE ALSO: FBI director: The terrorism threat out of Syria is 'an order of magnitude greater than anything we’ve seen before'

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    NOW WATCH: GREEN BERET: Why our strategy against terrorism is making things worse


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    aei amanda f35

    WASHINGTON, DC — When asked on Friday if the F-35B could fly combat missions to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the US Marine Corps' head of aviation said, "We're ready to do that."

    Noting that the decision to deploy the fifth-generation jet into combat would come from higher command, Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for aviation said that the F-35B is "ready to go right now."

    "We got a jewel in our hands and we've just started to exploit that capability, and we're very excited about it," Davis said during a discussion at the American Enterprise Institute on the readiness and future trajectory of Marine aviation.

    Davis, who has flown copilot in every type of model series of tilt-rotor, rotary-winged, and tanker aircraft in the Marine inventory, said that the F-35 is an airplane he's excited about.

    "The bottom line is everybody who flies a pointy-nose airplane in the Marine Corps wants to fly this jet," Davis said.

    Last summer, then Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford declared initial operational capability (IOC) for 10 F-35B jets, the first of the sister-service branches.

    "There were a lot of people out here in the press that said, 'Hey, the Marines are just going to declare IOC because it would be politically untenable not to do that,'" Davis said.

    "IOC in the Marine Corps means we will deploy that airplane in combat. That's not a decision I was gonna take lightly, nor Gen. Dunford," he said.

    f35

    Ahead of IOC, Davis said that the Marine Corps "stacked the deck with the F-35 early on" by assigning Top Gun school graduates and weapons-tactics instructors to test the plane.

    "The guys that flew that airplane and maintained that airplane were very, very, hard graders," he said.

    Davis added that the jet proved to be "phenomenally successful" during testing: "It does best when it's out front, doing the killing."

    The Marine Corps' first F-35B squadron is scheduled to go to sea in spring 2018.

    Meanwhile, the US Air Force could declare its first F-35 squadron combat-ready as early as next week.

    SEE ALSO: Behold the most expensive weapons system ever and all of its ammunition in one photo

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    Life jacket washed up on the shore are pictured near a route frequented by migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean, near the coastal town of Zuwara, west of Tripoli, Libya, June 4, 2016. REUTERS/Hani Amara

    More than 120 bodies of migrants who died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe have washed up around Sabratha in western Libya this month, the city's mayor said on Sunday.

    Hussein Thwadi said bodies had washed up on a daily basis, with 53 found on a single day last week.

    Libya is a common departure point for migrants seeking to travel to Europe by boat, many of them fleeing violence, repression or poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

    Political turmoil and armed conflict in Libya have given smugglers the space to work with impunity, running trafficking networks that bring migrants across the Sahara desert to the coast.

    Of more than 3,000 migrants known to have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year, about three out of four perished trying to reach Italy from North Africa, mainly Libya, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

    Nearly 90,000 migrants had crossed the central Mediterranean to Italy as of this week, the IOM said, a 14 percent increase on the previous year.

    As the number of attempted crossings from Libya picked up in the spring with the arrival of calmer weather, many of the boats have been leaving from the coastline near Sabratha.

    "The whole coast of Sabratha is open," Thwadi told Reuters by phone. "There are patrols but they do not have enough capacity to tackle this crisis."

    "Illegal migration existed before, but with insecurity and the lack of state authorities the crisis has become worse and worse."

    Thwadi said most of the migrants whose bodies washed up this month were from sub-Saharan African states, though there were also 23 Tunisians. Red Crescent volunteers and local officials have been removing them for burial in a cemetery for unidentified bodies in Sabratha, he said.

    Migrants in a dinghy await rescue by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), around 20 nautical miles off the coast of Libya, June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

    A U.N.-backed government that has been trying to establish itself in Tripoli since March says tackling migration is among its priorities.

    But the government is struggling to manage complex security and economic challenges, and still faces political opposition on the ground.

    Thwadi said he had raised the issue with the new government's leadership but had not yet received any concrete response.

    SEE ALSO: This powerful series of tweets says all you need to know about the state of Turkey's democracy

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    South China Sea

    July 12, an arbitration tribunal at The Hague delivered what is widely regarded as a landmark ruling on the maritime territorial dispute between the Philippines and China.

    Among many breathtaking findings, the tribunal declared China’s so-called “nine-dash line” invalid. It also concluded that none of the Spratly Islands — not even Itu Aba (Taiping Island), the largest naturally formed feature — are capable of generating an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf of their own.

    On their face, these decisions, which rejected every argument that China made, drastically reduce China’s maritime rights in the Spratly chain of the South China Sea; international observers have almost unanimously described the ruling as an overwhelming victory for Manila, a heavy defeatfor Beijing, and a game changer for Asian maritime disputes.

    But so far, the award hasn’t changed the underlying dynamics of regional politics in the South China Sea, and ASEAN, a powerful southeast Asian body, refrained from commenting on the award following a meeting, a move widely seen as the result of arm-twisting from Beijing.

    In fact, it is becoming clear that the tribunal’s finding was so sweeping that it is paradoxically less likely to have any real-world impact.

    Perhaps the biggest paradox of the ruling is that many policy elites inside China now privately see it as a big gift to their government. That, at least, was the immediate post-ruling reaction from several leading scholars at prestigious think tanks in Beijing, who wished not to be named.

    For those who have questioned Beijing’s refusal to take part in the arbitration and who would have liked to see meaningful engagement instead, the outcome came as a personal disappointment and a blow to their cause. But for those who have opposed the arbitration process, there is more than a sigh of relief at the fact that the nature of the award makes it far easier for Beijing to delegitimize it, at least at home.

    China Southern Airlines

    Three camps — realists, hardliners, and moderates — are currently vying for influence over South China Sea policy within China’s policy-making apparatus. The award is likely to make the hardliners a winner in these internal debates. They have long maintained that the arbitration case is but an American conspiracy against China; now the outcome serves as vindication of those suspicions.

    Beijing will now have no qualms about upgrading administrative and physical control to further strengthen its positions in the South China Sea — in recent days, China’s military has already swiftly moved to begin regular patrol of the South China Sea, in addition to conducting a new round of military exercises. China’s top naval commander has affirmed Beijing’s determination to complete island construction, likely including military installations.

    The sweeping nature of the award has invited Chinese analysts and officials to try to tear it apart. Immediately after the ruling, one vice foreign minister criticized the fact that the judges were paid by the Philippines for their work. He said that the tribunal does not understand Asian culture or the South China Sea dispute, given that four of the judges come from Europe, and one from Ghana. More recently, a team of scholars from the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Party School concluded the tribunal had misunderstood China’s claims to the “nine-dash line.”

    On the diplomatic front, the tribunal decision presents more of an obstacle than an opportunity for Manila and Beijing to reach a compromise, at least in the short run. After the award, Chinese diplomats insisted it cannot be used as the basis for negotiation under any circumstances, deadlocking negotiation while China continues to build up its physical presence in the South China Sea.

    south china sea china claims

    Yet in the months leading up to the award, Chinese diplomats heard calls from many countries for China to comply with the outcome of the arbitration. The pressure was mounting. The more limited the outcome, the easier other countries would have found it to call for Chinese compliance, and the more combative Chinese resistance would have appeared. That pressure has now abated; one senior Chinese diplomat privately described the award as “stupid.” Although China expected the ruling to favor the Philippines, this diplomat said, the findings still came as a surprise.

    Chinese officials hope that the broad nature of the award helps to convince other countries that the tribunal is biased. They will no doubt find solace in the fact that thus far, only the Philippines, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, and Vietnam have openly called for Chinese compliance.

    This list surprises no one, since the Philippines initiated the arbitration, the United States is presumed to have instigated it, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Japan are key U.S. allies, and the final country, Vietnam, is itself involved in territorial disputes with China while also emerging as a security partner for the United States. ASEAN’s joint communiqué, issued almost two weeks after the ruling, mentions neither China nor the arbitration, although it expresses serious concerns over recent developments including land reclamations. The European Union, along with many other countries, have used mild language merely to acknowledge the ruling, without calling for compliance.

    xi jinping military china

    Another paradoxical effect of the award is its potential to effect Chinese attitudes toward international law. Beijing’s refusal to take part in the arbitration process has always confused Chinese scholars, particularly legal experts. (An article by an overseas Chinese scholar criticizing Beijing’s refusal to participate as damaging to China’s national interests aroused huge controversy at home.) The award, however, undermines advocates of a more proactive approach to international law by appearing to demonstrate the political nature of the arbitration process. The “anti-participation” camp is now arguing more forcefully that advocates of participation are naïve and utopian in placing hope in international law.

    Had the award been more attentive to Chinese interests, a future, more enlightened leadership in Beijing might have gradually and quietly complied with some of the rulings (whatever its public statements to the contrary), thus bringing China’s claims broadly in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. But this award doesn’t appear to give Chinese leaders such face-saving opportunities.

    One can argue that, over the long run, the award brings benefits to China. For example, the United States and Japan currently claim some of their features in the Pacific Ocean as “islands” entitled to EEZs. But under the award’s narrow definition of “islands,” the status of these features would be reduced from “island” to “rock,” and thus no longer entitled to exclusive economic rights.

    Unfortunately, to think in more creative and forward-looking terms will require a radical change of mindset among the Chinese leadership that is all but inconceivable for the foreseeable future. For a long time to come, China will be instead preoccupied with preventing and reversing losses to its interests in the South China Sea that it believes have accumulated over the past several decades as a result of Southeast Asian claimant states’ actions, rather than with making new economic or strategic gains in the high seas.

    US Navy uss lassen

    Of course, the tribunal likely based its judgments on legal grounds, not prudential considerations about the award’s possible geopolitical implications. But from Beijing’s perspective, what at first glance looks like a home run for the Philippines actually represents the best outcome from a bad case. In this sense, the Philippines has won too much.

    The many paradoxes the award presents are not all bad for regional politics. Beijing has moved proactively to prevent large-scale demonstrations against the ruling, inviting some confidence in its basic policy rationality. The ruling also makes it less likely for Southeast Asian countries to initiate new arbitrations, since the award’s reasoning also applies to and favours their EEZ claims. In addition, the United States will have less incentive to conduct its Freedom of Navigation operations in such a public manner, since the ruling makes much of the South China Sea international waters as far as American naval vessels are concerned.

    Moving forward, American restraint will reduce the likelihood of maritime incidents with China and create conditions for more effective diplomacy. It will be needed, given the uncharted territory awaiting Asia’s troubled maritime order in a post-arbitration world.

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    Stalin1943

    Between the summer of 1936 and 1938, the regime of Joseph Stalin summarily executed 750,000 Soviet citizens without trial or any legal process.

    In the same period, more than a million others were sent to the labour camps of the Gulag, from where many would not return. In the history of a murderous regime, this was a period of exceptional state violence perpetrated against its own people.

    The episode has always held a certain macabre fascination, but there are other more substantial reasons for drawing attention to it as we reach the 80th anniversary. In 1991, and then again in 2000, huge volumes of archival materials — millions of documents — were released to historians.

    It has taken years to digest this material and make sense of it, but new and striking findings have made it possible to rewrite the history of what has come to be know as the Terror, or the Great Purge. My recent book The Great Fear is one example of this. These findings help us better understand contemporary Russia, its current, authoritarian leader and the reverence many Russians continue to feel for Stalin.

    In the West, the public perception of Stalin and the Terror lingers from the period immediately after the dictator’s death in 1953. His successor, Nikita Khrushchev, wanted to limit the power of the fearsome Soviet political police. But he also wanted to communicate to the Soviet political elite that they would not be blamed for the violence of the Stalin era, though they had been deeply and directly involved. So Khrushchev blamed the Terror on Stalin and his “cult of personality”, and historians in the West followed his lead.

    They – particularly following the lead of Robert Conquest in his 1967 book The Great Terror – presented Stalin as a bloodthirsty, paranoid, political opportunist determined to secure total power over all other considerations. The Terror of 1936-1938 was therefore understood as the culmination of a drive to create a personal dictatorship.

    New perspectives

    Archival revelations have not, it must be said, established that Stalin was actually a nice guy. Quite the contrary. But they have poked rather large holes in the traditional story.

    For example, it became clear rather early on that the majority of victims of the Terror were ordinary workers and peasants — people who presented no challenge to Stalin’s power. When Stalin’s private papers were released in 2000, historians initially expected to see a gap between them and Stalin’s public self-presentation as a loyal follower of Lenin and defender of the Revolution. But it wasn’t there. In public and in private, Stalin was committed to building socialism, not to building a personal dictatorship for its own sake.

    So what was the motivation behind the Terror? The answers required a lot more digging, but it gradually became clearer that the violence of the late 1930s was driven by fear. Most Bolsheviks, Stalin among them, believed that the revolutions of 1789, 1848 and 1871 had failed because their leaders hadn’t adequately anticipated the ferocity of the counter-revolutionary reaction from the establishment. They were determined not to make the same mistake.

    So they created elaborate systems for gathering information on external and internal threats to their revolution. But those systems were far from perfect. They painted threats in far darker colours than was warranted. For example, the Bolsheviks spent much of the 1920s and 1930s anticipating invasion from coalitions of hostile capitalist states — coalitions that did not exist. Other perceived threats were also exaggerated beyond all proportion: scheming factions, disloyal officials, wreckers, saboteurs.

    Many of these “threats” were products of Stalin’s overambitious plans. He had demanded 100% fulfilment of production targets that could not be met, and he and his colleagues in the Kremlin misinterpreted the resultant dissent, resistance and breakdowns as evidence of counter-revolutionary conduct. And certain workers and peasants – who had reason to resent the regime – were viewed as dangerous potential recruits to this fictional counter-revolution.

    StalinGreat fear

    By the mid-1930s, the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the militarists in Japan, both stridently anti-communist, posed a very real threat to the USSR. War was then on the horizon, and Stalin felt he had no choice but to take preemptive action against what he saw as a potential fifth column – a group that would undermine the larger collective.

    The resultant maelstrom of violence massively weakened the USSR rather than strengthening it, but the ultimate victory of Soviet forces in World War II appeared to justify the Terror. And the emergent Cold War seemed to justify the view that the capitalist world would stop at nothing to undermine Soviet power.

    The Soviet political police, renamed the KGB in 1954, never recognised the monstrous crimes that they had contributed to under Stalin’s direction. They perceived themselves as heroes of the story, brilliantly anticipating and intercepting the evil deeds of the regime’s enemies.

    Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, rose from the ranks of the KGB in the 1970s. He was trained in its methods and steeped in its mentality. While one should not leap to the conclusion that he is a prisoner of his early career, the echoes of KGB (and Stalin’s) thinking are present in the messages delivered relentlessly by the state-controlled media.

    The population is told that the US and EU want to reduce Russia to the status of a third-rate power, to take control over her resources and subvert her values. Putin does not propose officially to rehabilitate the figure of Stalin, but he does little to challenge the public presentation of his predecessor as someone who made Russia a great power, and who stood up to the West.

    Today we better understand the exaggerated fears that sparked the paroxysm of state violence that was the Great Terror. But in Russia, the echoes of those same fears prevent an open discussion of Stalin’s crimes, and serve to reinforce Putin’s authoritarianism.

    The Conversation

    James Harris, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, University of Leeds

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    putin clinton

    To understand what the Kremlin thinks about the prospect of Hillary Clinton becoming the U.S. president, it was enough to watch Russian state television coverage of her accepting the Democratic nomination.

    Viewers were told that Clinton sees Russia as an enemy and cannot be trusted, while the Democratic Party convention was portrayed as further proof that American democracy is a sham.

    In her acceptance speech, Clinton reaffirmed a commitment to NATO, saying she was "proud to stand by our allies in NATO against any threat they face, including from Russia."

    In doing so, she was implicitly rebuking her rival, Republican nominee Donald Trump, who has questioned the need for the Western alliance and suggested that if he is elected president, the United States might not honor its NATO military commitments, in particular regarding former Soviet republics in the Baltics.

    While Trump's position on NATO has delighted the Kremlin, Clinton's statement clearly stung.

    "She mentioned Russia only once, but it was enough to see that the era of the reset is over," Channel One said in its report.

    As U.S. secretary of state, Clinton in 2009 presented her Russian counterpart with a red button intended to symbolize a "reset" in relations between the two countries, one of U.S. President Barack Obama's initiatives. In Russia, the gesture is best remembered for the misspelling of the word in Russian, while the reset itself failed in the face of Putin's return as Russian president in 2012 and Russia's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine two years later.

    Clinton once compared the annexation of Crimea to Adolf Hitler's moves into Eastern Europe at the start of World War II, a comparison that was deeply offensive in Russia, where the country's victory over Nazi Germany remains a prime source of national pride.

    Trump, on the other hand, told ABC's "This Week" in a broadcast Sunday that he wants to take a look at whether the U.S. should recognize Crimea as part of Russia. "You know, the people of Crimea, from what I've heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were," Trump said.

    This runs counter to the position of the Obama administration and the European Union, which have imposed punishing sanctions on Russia in response to the annexation.

    "And as far as the Ukraine is concerned, it's a mess. And that's under the Obama's administration with his strong ties to NATO. So with all of these strong ties to NATO, Ukraine is a mess," Trump said. "Crimea has been taken. Don't blame Donald Trump for that."

    Putin was outraged by U.S. support for Ukraine and by U.S. military intervention around the world, particularly in Libya, on Clinton's watch. But it was what he saw as interference in Russia that really rankled.

    When Clinton described Russia's 2011 parliamentary elections as rigged, Putin said she was "sending a signal" to his critics. He then accused the U.S. State Department of financially supporting the protests that drew tens of thousands of people to the streets of Moscow to demand free elections and an end to Putin's rule.

    In the years since, the Kremlin has defended Russian elections in part by implying they are no different than in the United States, a country it says promotes democracy around the world while allowing its business and political elite to determine who wins at home.

    The Democratic Convention, which ended Friday morning Moscow time, was given wide coverage throughout the day on the nearly hourly news reports on state television, the Kremlin's most powerful tool for shaping public opinion.

    Channel One began its report by introducing Clinton as "a politician who puts herself above the law, who is ready to win at any cost and who is ready to change her principles depending on the political situation." The anchorwoman couched the description by saying that was how Clinton is seen by Trump's supporters — but it was a nuance viewers could easily miss.

    The reports ran excerpts of Clinton's speech, but the camera swung repeatedly to a sullen Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, her Democratic challenger, and his disappointed supporters. The Rossiya channel also showed anti-Clinton protesters outside the convention hall who it said "felt they have been betrayed after the email leak that showed Bernie Sanders was pushed out of the race."

    Russia is a prime suspect in the hacking of Democratic National Committee computers, which led to the release of emails showing that party officials favored Clinton over Sanders for the presidential nomination.

    The Kremlin has denied interfering in the U.S. election. A columnist at Russia's best-selling newspaper, however, said it would have been a smart move.

    "I would welcome the Kremlin helping those forces in the United States that stand for peace with Russia and democracy in America," Israel Shamir wrote in Komsomolskaya Pravda.

    Trump, meanwhile, has encouraged Russia to seek and release more than 30,000 other missing emails deleted by Clinton. Democrats accused him of trying to get a foreign adversary to conduct espionage that could affect this November's election, but Trump later said he was merely being sarcastic.

    SEE ALSO: Why the US can't trust Russia in Syria

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    Fighters of the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) sit in a look out position in the western rural area of Manbij, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, June 13, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    US-backed forces have now seized control of almost 70 percent of Manbij in northern Syria from Islamic State after making rapid advances over the past two days, a spokesman said on Sunday.

    Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) have pushed back the ultra hardline Sunni militants into the old quarter after seizing most of the western, eastern and southern sectors of the city, Sharfan Darwish of the SDF-allied Manbij military council told Reuters in Beirut by telephone.

    "They are now mainly in the old quarter of the city and parts of the north-eastern part of the city," Darwish added.

    The SDF, which includes the powerful Kurdish YPG militia and Arab fighters, launched the campaign nearly two months ago with the backing of US special forces to drive Islamic State from its last stretch of the Syrian-Turkish frontier.

    Though at least 2,300 civilians have been able to escape from Manbij, thousands of residents are still trapped inside. The presence of civilians, who the militants were trying to stop from leaving, was hampering US air attacks, Kurdish sources said.

    Progress in storming the city had also been slowed by militants using snipers and planting mines, the Kurdish sources said.

    Manbij's loss would be a huge blow to the militants since it is a vital conduit for the transit of foreign jihadists and provisions from the Turkish border.

    Syria Democratic Forces fighters take positions as they await U.S.-led air strikes on Manbij's mills where Islamic State militants are positioned, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria June 16, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    "The military initiative is in our hands and the campaign is now being undertaken to liberate what is left of the city and progress is continuing until this moment," Darwish said.

    Earlier the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the SDF, with the support of air strikes, had seized much of the eastern part of the besieged city after slower advances in recent weeks mainly in the western sector.

    The monitor said they had captured a clinic, school and a roundabout in the heart of eastern Manbij after heavy fighting. There were no confirmed reports of casualties.

    Darwish estimated at least 40,000 to 50,000 civilian residents have escaped since the campaign began.

    Activists and residents say dozens of civilians have been killed this month in air strikes in the city and to the north, and rights watchdog Amnesty International said the US-led coalition must do more to prevent civilian deaths.

    Manbij is in the northern province of Aleppo, which forms a theater for several separate battles between multiple warring sides in Syria's five-year-old conflict.

    Syria iraq map manbij

    SEE ALSO: GEORGE FRIEDMAN: Turkey's failed coup puts it on the path to becoming a major world power

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    The Marine Corps is actively testing a robotic system outfitted with sensors and cameras that can be armed with an M240 machine gun. It's meant to keep Marines safe, but can do a lot more. 

    There's also another big brother to this robotic system that's even bigger and can be equipped with a powerful minigun.

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