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Now, as we move to a train and advise mission in Afghanistan, our reduced presence there will allow us to more effectively address emerging threats in the Middle East and North Africa. Earlier this year, I asked my national security team to develop a plan for a network of partnerships from South Asia to the Sahel. Today, as part of this effort, I am calling on Congress to support a new Counter-Terrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5 billion, which will allow us to train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines. These resources will give us flexibility to fulfill different missions, including training security forces in Yemen who have gone on the offensive against al Qaeda; supporting a multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia; working with European allies to train a functioning security force and border patrol in Libya; and facilitating French operations in Mali.
A critical focus of this effort will be the ongoing crisis in Syria. As frustrating as it is, there are no easy answers – no military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime soon. As President, I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war, and I believe that is the right decision. But that does not mean we shouldn’t help the Syrian people stand up against a dictator who bombs and starves his people. And in helping those who fight for the right of all Syrians to choose their own future, we also push back against the growing number of extremists who find safe-haven in the chaos.
With the additional resources I’m announcing today, we will step up our efforts to support Syria’s neighbors – Jordan and Lebanon; Turkey and Iraq – as they host refugees, and confront terrorists working across Syrian borders. I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and a brutal dictator. And we will continue to coordinate with our friends and allies in Europe and the Arab World – to push for a political resolution of this crisis, and make sure that those countries, and not just the United States, are contributing their fair share of support to the Syrian people.
The team comprising experts and officials of the OPCW and the United Nations which came under attack yesterday has arrived back in Damascus. All members of the team are safe and well, although one driver has sustained minor injuries.
The team was en route to Kafr Zita as part of its mission to establish the facts surrounding allegations of use of chlorine in Syria. The visit was subject to a rigorous security assessment and a local ceasefire had been carefully negotiated for the day with the Government of Syria as well as with armed opposition groups in the area.
Shortly after leaving government-controlled territory, the lead vehicle in the convoy was struck by an improvised explosive device (IED) sustaining severe damage. The team members were rescued and shifted to two other vehicles in the convoy which turned back to move to a safer location. While entering a built-up area the convoy was ambushed; the first vehicle was shot at from close range with automatic weapons hitting the body, windows and tires.
The occupants of the two remaining vehicles, who were briefly detained by some gunmen, were later released upon the intervention of the main opposition group with whom the ceasefire and security arrangements had been negotiated. The reunited team then returned to Damascus via Homs under Syrian Government escort.
While the situation is assessed, the OPCW fact-finding mission will continue its work by closely monitoring the situation and using all possible means to gather information and data in order to establish the facts surrounding allegations of the use of chlorine in Syria.
OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü spoke to the Head of the Mission and the Team Leader in Damascus and praised the dedication and commitment of the OPCW and UN personnel, who showed great courage in undertaking such a high-risk mission. The Director-General has strongly condemned yesterday’s attack and said that it was a sad day for the people of Syria, and for the international community, because of a blatant attempt to prevent the facts being brought to light. This will not, however, prevent the OPCW from raising its voice against the cruelty of use of toxic chemicals to kill and harm indiscriminately.
A convoy of OPCW inspectors and United Nations staff that was travelling to a site of an alleged chlorine gas attack in Syria came under attack this morning. All team members are safe and well and are travelling back to the operating base.
The OPCW Director-General, Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, expressed his personal concern for the OPCW and UN staff members and repeated his call to all parties for cooperation with the mission.
"Our inspectors are in Syria to establish the facts in relation to persistent allegations of chlorine gas attacks," he said. "Their safety is our primary concern, and it is imperative that all parties to the conflict grant them safe and secure access."
Syria's presidential election is just a fortnight away and Damascenes fear rebels will mark it with fierce mortar bombardment on the capital, or even a devastating tunnel bomb similar to attacks in northern Syria.
The government has launched its "Together, We Rebuild" campaign that now peppers the capital's streets with posters that feature hands clasped together.
But some residents of the capital anticipate more destruction and say talk of rebuilding is premature. Daily, they hear blasts of government bombardment onto rebellious suburbs and the booms of warplanes in the sky on bombing runs.
To retaliate, rebels use mortars and car bombs to hit the centre of the capital, an area a few miles wide that is firmly in government hands. Earlier this month, 27 mortar and rocket attacks hit on a single day and Damascenes fear rebels will rain hell on the capital on election day to protest the event.
"If that day is the rebels' new benchmark for showing their wrath, and I think it is, then God help us with these elections," said Mahmoud, 37, a merchant by day and chauffeur by night.
A new fear is that rebels are digging tunnels into Damascus, either to smuggle themselves and weapons into the heart of Assad's stronghold or to pack explosives under the capital.
Syrian government and opposition forces have systematically attacked healthcare professionals and facilities in the country over the past three years, a report by the US-based group, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), has alleged.
The report released by the human rights group on Wednesday said the attacks had killed more than 460 health professionals and caused widespread damage to hospitals and clinics.
PHR accused the Syrian government of 90 percent of the confirmed 150 attacks on 124 facilities between March 2011 and March 2014.
The organisation has launched an interactive map tracking the violations.
“The systematic nature of these attacks reflects the government’s indifference to the health and life of civilians, which has created a public health crisis that will haunt Syria for years,” Erin Gallagher, PHR's director of emergency investigations and response, said.
“Doctors and nurses who are committed to caring for everyone, regardless of political beliefs, are being killed while trying to save lives under gruelling circumstances.”
Of the more than 460 civilian health professionals killed during Syria's civil war, approximately 41 percent of the deaths were caused by shelling and bombings, 31 percent as the result of shootings, and 13 percent due to torture, according to the report.