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The war in Syria has been raging for nearly four years and it's been challenging for diplomats to get warring sides to agree on even temporary truces.

The U.N. envoy is pressing ahead on that front, while Russia tries to play peacemaker. Russia is inviting the parties to Moscow this month, but some opposition groups won't go to a country that has been backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

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The Palestinian decision to join the International Criminal Court this month comes at a challenging time for the world's only permanent war crimes tribunal.

The ICC is just over a decade old and has had to back off from some controversial cases, including one in Kenya, where an investigation collapsed into the country's president for election violence. The Hague-based court may have to walk an especially fine line in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah is ill, the kingdom is facing the lowest oil prices in years (partly by choice) and it remains locked in a regional rivalry with Iran.

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The United Nations Children's Fund calls 2014 a devastating year for children, reporting that as many as 15 million young people are caught in conflicts in the Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Ukraine.

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. David Roeder spent more than a year as one of 52 American hostages held by Iranian revolutionaries who took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.

"I spent 14 months of my life and getting beaten around and tortured and threats against my family and all those sorts of things," he says.

For many, he adds, the ordeal never ended.

"Quite frankly, I was one of the lucky ones," he says. "I think I'm ok. But there's an awful lot ... who are really hurting. Everything from post traumatic disorder-type depression, to age, of course."

As tensions mounted between Russia and the West over Ukraine back in March, a routine commercial flight had a close encounter with a Russian spy plane. The Scandinavian airliner had just taken off from Copenhagen on a flight to Rome when the pilots saw the Russian military aircraft in their path and had to maneuver around it.

This is one of the most dramatic examples of a growing number of close calls documented in a new report, "Dangerous Brinkmanship: Close Military Encounters Between Russia and the West in 2014."

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When the Islamic State took over large parts of northern Iraq this summer, including the areas where the minority Yazidi community lives, the U.S. carried out air strikes and halted the advance of the extremists.

Still, thousands of Yazidi women and girls have gone missing over the past few months and there are now reports they are being sold by the Islamic State as sex slaves.

American Ryan Boyette knows there are many crises that compete for world's attention, but he's determined not to let a conflict in his adopted home of Sudan go unnoticed.

The young Florida man moved to the Nuba Mountains, a remote part of Sudan, in 2003, to join the Evangelical Christian aid group, Samaritan's Purse.

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President Obama said Wednesday that the Islamic State is a cancer that threatens all governments in the Middle East. But that raises the question of what the U.S. could or should do.

Two former U.S. ambassadors to Syria, Robert Ford and Ryan Crocker, have advocated different approaches to a conflict where there are many different options. But none is appealing and there's no guarantee, or even a likelihood that U.S. action would ultimately determine the outcome.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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The U.S. and Russia seem to have fallen into a pattern over the crisis in Ukraine. When Washington ratchets up the pressure on Moscow, Russia doubles down on its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

That has been the case even after a Malaysian airliner was shot down over a separatist held region, and many wonder if it's time for a new approach to Vladimir Putin's Russia.

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