Posts Tagged ‘chemical weapons’

To Thwart Iran, Save Idlib

September 14, 2018

Why is the administration so reluctant to block Tehran’s most dangerous regional gambit?

The Trump administration has made clear that its top priority in the Middle East is to thwart Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions. So why is it so reluctant to lift a finger against Tehran’s most audacious gambit in Syria?

That gambit is the reconquest, by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies, of Idlib Province, the last major rebel holdout in western Syria and home to about three million people. A humanitarian catastrophe is expected to follow, entailing mass casualties and another tidal wave of refugees.

By Bret Stephens
The New York Times

A Syrian rebel fighter training for combat in Idlib Province. Credit Aaref Watad/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By now, the strategic consequences should also be obvious. Iran will have succeeded in consolidating a Shiite crescent stretching from Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. Russia will have succeeded in reasserting itself as a Mideast military victor and diplomatic power broker. Hezbollah, already the dominant political player in Lebanon, will further extend its influence in Syria.

As for Assad, he will have shown that the community of civilized nations will, in fact, let you get away with murder. And with using prohibited chemical weapons. And with decimating your own people by means of barrel bombsmass torture and food blockades.

The losers in this equation: Turkey, already groaning under the pressure of millions of Syrian refugees and a crumbling economy; Israel, whose repeated strikes against Iranian targets in Syria have dented but not denied Tehran’s ambitions; Europe, which could face yet another refugee crisis even as the effects of the last are felt in the resurgence of the far right; and the Syrian people, terrorized witnesses to the marriage of wickedness and indifference.

And then there’s the United States, where two administrations have now allowed the Syrian crisis to become depressing testimony to the worthlessness of our word, the fickleness of our friendship and hollowness of our values. Donald Trump, loudly billing himself as Barack Obama’s opposite in every respect, has effectively adopted his predecessor’s worst foreign policy mistake.

At least the Obama administration could privately justify a weak Syria policy as being consonant with their desire to strike a nuclear deal with Iran. Trump’s Syria policy lacks that dubious coherence: It seems to have no broader rationale other than the president’s knee-jerk isolationism, his deference to Vladimir Putin, his apparent belief that the only vital U.S. interest in Syria is the defeat of ISIS, and his occasional need to look tough by ordering minimally effective airstrikes.

Even John Bolton’s latest threat to hit Assad harder if he uses chemical weapons in Idlib doesn’t rise to the level of meaningful policy. Punishing the use of chemical weapons without exacting a devastating price on the user is just the sort of feckless gesture the national security adviser would gleefully have mocked when he was out of government.

What would be a serious policy? Trump warned — in a tweet! — that Assad “must not recklessly attack Idlib Province.” Such an attack should be the administration’s red line, regardless of whether the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons. If Assad crosses it, the U.S. can destroy everything that remains of the Syrian Air Force and crater the runways Iran uses to supply its own forces in Syria. If Assad continues to move, his presidential palaces should be next.

Read the rest:

NYT:https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/13/opinion/trump-syria-idlib-assad.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

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After Balkanizing Syria; Will Xinjiang be Destabilized?

September 14, 2018

The US policy of permanently balkanizing Syria appears to be a foregone conclusion, even as the Syrian Arab Army and Russian forces proceed with their last major counter-terrorism operation in Idlib.

According to Wolfgang Mühlberger, senior fellow for EU-Mideast relations at the Finnish Institute for International Affairs, “Idlib is the very Arab Kandahar with potentially more than 100,000 experienced, battle-hardened Sunni jihadi fighters hiding between the civilians.”

The number is due to the amalgamation of all the militants from de-confliction zones or reconquered battle zones (e.g., Aleppo, Ghouta, Deraa, etc.) throughout Syria that have been shipped to Idlib over the past couple of years, as well as remnants of the Free Syrian Army.

However, despite Washington acknowledging that the governorate is an Al Qaeda safe haven for militants from over 100 countries, the tripartite powers of the UK, US and France are now asking Germany to join planned airstrikes against Syria – as soon as President Bashar al-Assad gives them the green light by using chemical weapons.

By  CHRISTINA LIN
Commentary
Asia Times

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Turkish military vehicles in Syria. AFP photo

It is not entirely clear why the US believes the Syrian president would deliberately provoke western airstrikes on Syrian forces when they are on a winning streak in their war with the terrorists, but it does seem apparent that Washington intends to prevent Syria from regaining sovereignty over Idlib.

As discussed in a previous Asia Times article, RAND Corporation drew up a Syria partition plan wherein the US would occupy the northeast, Turkey the northwest, Russia and Iran the coastal area and large parts of the Syrian desert, and Israel and Jordan the southwest.

The US zone would contain oil fields where 90% of Syria’s pre-war oil production took place, while Israel would control the newly discovered oil reserves in the Golan Heights. Turkey’s control of Idlib as a safe haven for militants would put continued pressure on the Syrian government, and a balkanized Syria would be weak and less likely to provide a viable base for Iran and Hezbollah to attack Israel.

However, the partition of Idlib as a jihadi sanctuary has important implications for another actor – China. Back in August, there were reports that Beijing would participate in the Battle for Idlib due to the presence of Chinese Uyghur jihadi colonies. If Turkey controls Idlib, China fears Ankara and the West would exploit Uyghur militants as proxies to destabilize Xinjiang.

Idlib proxies to destabilize Xinjiang?

There are historical reasons for this concern, given that the CIA tried to destabilize Xinjiang and supported separatists in Tibet during the Cold War. As Israeli sinologist Yizhak Shichor pointed out, in the 1950s Washington tried to exploit Muslim grievances against China and the Soviet Union, by attempting to form a Middle Eastern Islamic pact to organize fifth columns in these countries.

Brian Fishman, a counter-terrorism expert at the New America Foundation, also noted that in the 1990s Osama Bin Laden accused the US and CIA of inciting conflict between Chinese and Muslims. After a series of 1997 bombings in Xinjiang that Beijing ascribes to Uyghur separatists, bin Laden blamed the CIA in an interview, saying, “The United States wants to incite conflict between China and the Muslims. The Muslims of Xinjiang are blamed for the bomb blasts in Beijing. But I think these explosions were sponsored by the American CIA.”

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Free Uyghur group. Getty Images

Interestingly at the time, Al Qaeda had its eyes on the West and largely ignored Uyghur separatism as a Chinese domestic issue. But as Fishman assessed, over time the transnational problem of al Qaeda and its allies, and the increasing prominence of Uyghurs in jihadi propaganda, meant that China could no longer avoid them.

Currently, China seems to be steering clear of direct military involvement and instead relies on Syria and Russia, but it would be concerned should Western powers block Damascus and Moscow’s campaign to reclaim Idlib and continue to partition a safe zone for Uyghur militants

Indeed, given that the 2016 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan was a joint operation between Al Nusra and its Uyghur affiliate Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP); the continual supply of advanced weaponry and tacit Western support for TIP due to its intermingling with the “rebel” opposition; professional military training by the private security company Malhama Tactical to improve TIP’s warfighting capabilities; and TIPs ultimate goal to attack China, James Dorsey at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore argued that Beijing mulling military intervention in Idlib underscores the gravity of this threat to China’s core interests.

Currently, China seems to be steering clear of direct military involvement and instead relies on Syria and Russia, but it would be concerned should Western powers block Damascus and Moscow’s campaign to reclaim Idlib and continue to partition a safe zone for Uyghur militants.

Moreover, as Jacob Zenn from the Jamestown Foundation pointed out, China is also concerned by “the prospect of re-shaping the borders in the Middle East that could lead to new conceptions of sovereignty and statehood – not only in the region but elsewhere throughout the Islamic world, including Central Asia and Xinjiang.’

Xinjiang at heart of Belt and Road Initiative

Now it appears that a Western united front is emerging to confront China on human rights issues, using various tools of media coverage, economic sanctions, political activism by NGOs and think tanks to internationalize the Uyghur issue in Xinjiang.  Similar to Israel’s dilemma over the internationalization of the Palestinian issue, China is bracing itself for a destabilization campaign and possible call for secession and partition of the province from Chinese sovereignty.

This perception is due to US backing of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, which aspires to revert Xinjiang to an independent East Turkistan. The first president of the Congress was Erkin Alptekin, son of Isa Alptekin, who headed the short-lived First East Turkestan Republic in Kashgar (November 12, 1933 to February 6, 1934), and also served as an advisor to the CIA while working at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich.

The Alptekin family and Xinjiang secession enjoy strong support from Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who while being mayor of Istanbul in 1995, named a section of the Blue Mosque park after Isa Alptekin and built a memorial to commemorate Eastern Turkistani martyrs who lost their lives in the “struggle for independence.”

Given resource-rich Xinjiang is at the heart of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), destabilizing the province would not only spoil the plan for Eurasian integration and development, but also weaken China’s economy by cutting off its overland energy supply from Central Asia and the Middle East, hamper its market access, and keep Beijing bogged down in an ethnoreligious conflict.

While this may augment current Washington’s trade war against the Middle Kingdom and weaken the Pentagon’s “peer competitor,” by deliberately stoking Chinese fears about Xinjiang destabilization and increasing radicalization, thereby egging Beijing to clamp down on Uyghurs, is in effect exploiting the ethnic Uyghur’s plight for narrow geopolitical agenda.

And as Yizhack Shichor perceived, “Vocal criticism of China related to its Uyghur persecution comes primarily, in fact almost entirely from outside the Middle East, from Western non-Muslim countries…[which] may have little do to with loving the Uyghurs, and much more to do with opposing China.”

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http://www.atimes.com/after-syrias-partition-will-xinjiang-be-destabilized/

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See also:
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Xinjiang is the Weak Link in China’s Belt and Road
https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-08-07/xinjiang-is-key-weakness-in-china-s-belt-and-road-plan

UN: Major Idlib offensive could spark worst catastrophe of 21st century

September 11, 2018

The UN’s new humanitarian chief warned Monday that a large-scale military operation against the opposition-held Syrian province of Idlib could create “the worst humanitarian catastrophe” of this century. “There needs to be ways of dealing with this problem that don’t turn the next few months in Idlib into the worst humanitarian catastrophe with the biggest loss of life in the 21st century,” Mark Lowcock said in Geneva.

Image result for Mark Lowcock, photos

Mark Lowcock

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His remarks came as Syrian troops, backed by Russia and Iran, massed around the northwestern province ahead of an expected onslaught against the largest opposition-held zone left in the country.

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Since 2015, Idlib has been home to a complex array of anti-regime forces: Secular fighters, radicals, Syrian terrorists with ties to Al-Qaeda — and their foreign counterparts.

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It is home to some 3 million people — around half of them displaced from other parts of the country, according to the UN.

Residents of the Idlib province flee toward the Syrian Turkish border on September 10, 2018. (AFP)

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Foreign terrorists now face a fight to the last to hold onto Idlib, their final bastion.

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Lowcock acknowledged that “there is a large number of fighters there, including terrorists from proscribed organizations.”

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But he stressed that “there are 100 civilians, most of them women and children, for every fighter in Idlib.”

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“We are extremely alarmed at the situation, because of the number of people and the vulnerability of the people,” he said, warning that “civilians are severely at risk.”

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Detailed planning

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A major military operation in Idlib is expected to pose a humanitarian nightmare because there is no nearby opposition territory left in Syria where people could be evacuated to.

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While appealing to the warring sides in Syria to avoid a catastrophe, Lowcock said the UN and other aid organizations were all doing “very detailed planning” to be able to respond quickly in the case of a major assault on the province.

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“We very actively preparing for the possibility that civilians move in huge numbers in multiple directions,” he said.

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He said that the UN had plans to reach up to 800,000 people who might be displaced, and were bracing for around 100,000 people to move into regime-held areas and some 700,000 to initially flee within Idlib.

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The UN’s World Food Programme, he said had already prepositioned food stocks for some 850,000 people for the first week or so of any large-scale operation.

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“It is a very major preoccupation for us,” he said.

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The non-Syrian combatants in Idlib include fighters from Uzbekistan, Chechnya and China’s ethnic Uighur minority who cut their teeth in other wars but then swarmed to Syria to take up the cause.

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The threatened assault by the regime could deprive the few thousand left of their last stronghold in their adopted homeland.

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“These are people who cannot be integrated into Syria really, under any circumstances, who have nowhere to go and who may just be ready to die in any case,” says Sam Heller, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.

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“So they’re a real stumbling block to any solution,” said Heller.

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In a bid to avert an assault, the top three power brokers in Syria’s war — Russia, Iran, and Turkey — agreed on Friday to work together on “stabilizing” Idlib. But they revealed few details.

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A major obstacle to a substantive agreement, observers say, is the fate of terrorists in the province, including foreign hard-liners.

AFP

Germany’s Bundeswehr could soon take part in US, UK and French airstrikes on Syria

September 10, 2018

A report suggests Germany’s Bundeswehr could soon take part in US, UK and French airstrikes on Syria if another chemical attack should occur. The controversial move faces resistance in the government.

    
Bundeswehr tornado jet (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler)

The German Defense Ministry is reportedly in talks with its US counterpart to hammer out details for the Bundeswehr to join possible airstrikes by US, British and French forces on Syrian targets, Germany’s mass-circulation Bild newspaper reported on Monday.

The report suggests Germany’s conservative defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, has responded to a US request, which was followed by a meeting of high-ranking ministry and military officials from both countries.

German tornado jets could take part in combat missions alongside their US, UK and French counterparts, according to the article. It would be the first time for German forces to drop bombs since the war in the Balkans in the 1990s, Bild says.

Only in case of a chemical attack

The Bundeswehr would only join air strikes in case of another chemical attack. In April, President Bashar Assad was blamed by Western powers for using chemical weapons in an attack on Douma,which killed more than 70 people.

In response, US, UK and French forces bombed three government sites in Syria ins response to the chemical attack in Douma. Russia rejected Western allegations that Assad’s regime was behind the attacks. The US-led airstrikes were seen as the most significant attack of the Allied powers in Syria’s civil war.

If Germany joined the alliance, it would risk direct confrontation with Russia, which supports Assad.

The move, which would have to be approved by the chancellery, would be an about-face for conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has previously said Germany would not take part in “military missions” in Syria.

Read moreIran, Russia, Turkey fail to agree on ceasefire for Syria’s Idlib

The report goes on to say that Bundeswehr forces could also join reconnaissance flights after a possible attack, also known as “battle damage assessment.”

The Bundeswehr is already active in Syria, but does not engage in combat missions.

Germans skeptical about combat missions

Many Germans are skeptical about theirarmed forces engaging in combat missions for historical reasons.

The Social Democrats’ (SPD) chair, Andrea Nahles, reacted to the report by saying that “the SPD will not approve Germany joining the war in Syria, neither in parliament nor in the government,” according to news agency dpa. The Social Democrats are in a grand coalition with Merkel’s CDU party.

The foreign and defense ministries would not comment on the report, but told Bild that they were “in close contact with our US ally.” They also pointed out that it was important to avoid further escalation in Syria, particularly with regard to “the use of chemical weapons, which the Assad regime has used in the past.”

Germany in talks with allies on possible military deployment in Syria

September 10, 2018

Germany is in talks with its allies about a possible military deployment in Syria if the Syrian government used chemical weapons in Idlib but a German deployment is very hypothetical, a government spokesman said on Monday.

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“We are in talks with our American and European partners about this situation. There has not been a situation where a decision has had to be made,” German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told a regular press conference.

Bild newspaper reported earlier that Germany’s conservative-led defense ministry was examining possible options for joining U.S., British and French forces in any future military action if the Syrian government again used chemical weapons.

Seibert said the principle of German parliamentary involvement in any such decision would be stuck to in any case.

Reuters

Reporting by Riham Alkousaa; Editing by Michelle Martin

U.S. Says Syria Plans Gas Attack in Rebel Stronghold

September 10, 2018

Chlorine assault would target Idlib in what could be a decisive battle in seven-year war, raising prospects for new retaliatory strike as thousands flee

Syrians fleeing attacks approach a camp in Kafr Lusin near the Turkish border in the northern part of rebel-held Idlib province on Sept. 9.
Syrians fleeing attacks approach a camp in Kafr Lusin near the Turkish border in the northern part of rebel-held Idlib province on Sept. 9.PHOTO: AAREF WATAD/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
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WASHINGTON—President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has approved the use of chlorine gas in an offensive against the country’s last major rebel stronghold, U.S. officials said, raising the prospects for another retaliatory U.S. military strike as thousands try to escape what could be a decisive battle in the seven-year-old war.

In a recent discussion about Syria, people familiar with the exchange said, President Trump threatened to conduct a massive attack against Mr. Assad if he carries out a massacre in Idlib, the northwestern province that has become the last refuge for more than three million people and as many as 70,000 opposition fighters that the regime considers to be terrorists.

International efforts to avert an offensive have failed to dissuade Syria, Russia and Iran as they try to deliver a crippling blow to rebels who appear to be on the verge of defeat after trying for seven years to force Mr. Assad from power. Russia and Syria have stepped up their airstrikes, while thousands of civilians have been evacuated to government-controlled parts of Syria. Mr. Assad has rebuffed appeals from the United Nations, Turkey, the U.S. and others who have warned that an attack could trigger a new humanitarian crisis.

A man inspects the wreckage after Syrian government airstrikes targeted the civilian hospital in the town of Hass in Idlib province on Sept. 8.
A man inspects the wreckage after Syrian government airstrikes targeted the civilian hospital in the town of Hass in Idlib province on Sept. 8. PHOTO: ANAS ALKHARBOUTLI/DPA/ZUMA PRESS
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“Syria is once again at the edge of an abyss,” Francois Delattre, the French ambassador to the United Nations, said last week during a U.N. Security Council meeting on Idlib.

The Pentagon is crafting military options, but Mr. Trump hasn’t decided what exactly would trigger a military response or whether the U.S. would target Russian or Iranian military forces aiding Mr. Assad in Syria, U.S. officials said.

The U.S. could also use things like targeted economic sanctions against Syrian officials instead of military strikes.

“We haven’t said that the U.S. would use the military in response to an offensive,” one senior administration official said. “We have political tools at our disposal, we have economic tools at our disposal. There are a number of different ways we could respond if Assad were to take that reckless, dangerous step.”

Fears of a massacre have been fueled by new U.S. intelligence indicating Mr. Assad has cleared the way for the military to use chlorine gas in any offensive, U.S. officials said. It wasn’t clear from the latest intelligence if Mr. Assad also had given the military permission to use sarin gas, the deadly nerve agent used several times in previous regime attacks on rebel-held areas. It is banned under international law.

U.S. officials wouldn’t say on Sunday whether use of chlorine gas would trigger new U.S. airstrikes against the Assad regime.

“I will not comment on U.S. military plans, but Assad’s use of chemical weapons, sarin and chlorine, and disregard for civilian lives is well documented and contrary to regional stability,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said.

Two US Air Force F-22 Raptors fly above Syria in support of Operation Inherent Resolve in February.
Two US Air Force F-22 Raptors fly above Syria in support of Operation Inherent Resolve in February. PHOTO: COLTON ELLIOTT/U.S. AIR FORCE/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK
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Mr. Trump launched airstrikes against Mr. Assad twice in the past two years after accusing the Syrian leader of using sarin gas in attacks that killed scores of civilians, including women and children.

This time, the Trump administration initially set a new red line by warning Mr. Assad that the U.S. would respond if he used chemical weapons. But the administration stance has hardened in recent days, as Mr. Trump has publicly warned Mr. Assad that he risks another U.S. military strike if he tries to retake Idlib.

“By my putting out that message I think maybe it’s going to send a signal,” Mr. Trump said last week in an interview with The Daily Caller, the conservative news website. “I mean we’re going to see, but it’s a terrible thing.”

U.S. officials have been trying for weeks to stave off the offensive. National security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked their Russian counterparts to ensure that no chemical weapons were used in Idlib, U.S. officials said.

On Sunday, there appeared to be few signs that the U.S. threats were having a major impact. Russian and Syrian airstrikes in parts of Idlib and Hama provinces killed nearly two dozen civilians.

Regime helicopters dropped at least 55 barrel bombs—highly destructive oil drums filled with explosives—while Russian warplanes carried out other airstrikes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, prompting thousands in Hama and southern Idlib province to flee their homes.

Since Friday, regime and Russian attacks have struck three hospitals, two first responder centers and one ambulance system, leaving thousands with no access to medical care, according to the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, a France-based charity that supports health care in opposition-held parts of Syria.

Russia and Iran, which provide Mr. Assad with the military firepower he has used to recapture most rebel-held parts of Syria, rejected an appeal last week by Turkey, which has forces operating in the Syrian province along its border, to avert an attack on the rebel haven.

Russia has also rebuffed U.S. warnings and suggested that opposition fighters in Syria might use chemical weapons on civilians in an effort to trigger a U.S. military response. U.S. officials said there is no evidence that Syrian rebels have the ability to carry out such attacks.

Mr. Trump’s first military strike on the Assad regime came in April 2017, when the U.S. military fired nearly 60 cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield in Idlib Province used as the launchpad for a sarin attack that killed at least 83 people.

Mr. Trump ultimately approved a one-time strike on the Syrian airfield, which failed to deter Mr. Assad from using chemical weapons again.

At the time, Mr. Trump said he was moved to act by graphic footage and photographs of young Syrian boys and girls choking for breath. Mr. Trump called Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to express his disgust and call for an American response.

“Let’s f—king kill him!” Mr. Trump told Mr. Mattis, according to Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear,” which comes out this week. “Let’s kill the f—king lot of them.”

Mr. Mattis said he would develop options for the president, but then dismissed Mr. Trump’s approach when he got off the call, according to the book.

“We’re not going to do any of that,” Mr. Mattis told an aide, according to the book. “We’re going to be much more measured.”

Messrs. Trump and Mattis have both characterized the book as fiction.

The second Western response came five months ago, when the U.S., France and the U.K. fired more than 100 missiles at three Syrian targets in an effort to cripple Mr. Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons after he was accused of again using sarin in a deadly attack on a Damascus suburb. The Assad regime denied using sarin.

During the debate this year over how to respond to the second attack, Mr. Trump’s national-security team weighed the idea of hitting Russian or Iranian targets in Syria, people familiar with the discussions said. But the Pentagon pushed for a more measured response, U.S. officials said, and the idea was eventually rejected as too risky.

A third U.S. strike likely would be more expansive than the first two, and Mr. Trump would again have to consider whether or not to hit targets like Russian air defenses in an effort to deliver a more punishing blow to Mr. Assad’s military.

Write to Dion Nissenbaum at dion.nissenbaum@wsj.com

Appeared in the September 10, 2018, print edition as ‘Assad Is Planning Chlorine Attack, U.S. Says.’

https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-says-syria-plans-gas-attack-in-rebel-stronghold-1536535853?mod=hp_lead_pos2

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has approved the use of chlorine gas in Idlib Offensive — Reports

September 10, 2018

At this point there’s not even so much as feigning surprise or suspense in the now sadly all-too-familiar Syria script out of Washington.

The Wall Street Journal has just published a bombshell on Sunday evening as Russian and Syrian warplanes continue bombing raids over al-Qaeda held Idlib, citing unnamed US officials who claim President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has approved the use of chlorine gas in an offensive against the country’s last major rebel stronghold.”

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Syria children exposed to chemical weapons in the past

And perhaps more alarming is that the report details that Trump is undecided over whether new retaliatory strikes could entail expanding the attack to hit Assad allies Russia and Iran this time around.

That’s right, unnamed US officials are now claiming to be in possession of intelligence which they say shows Assad has already given the order in an absolutely unprecedented level of “pre-crime” telegraphing of events on the battlefield.

And supposedly these officials have even identified the type of chemical weapon to be used: chlorine gas.

The anonymous officials told the WSJ of “new U.S. intelligence” in what appears an eerily familiar repeat of precisely how the 2003 invasion of Iraq was sold to the American public(namely, “anonymous officials” and vague assurances of unseen intelligence)  albeit posturing over Idlib is now unfolding at an intensely more rapid pace:

Fears of a massacre have been fueled by new U.S. intelligence indicating Mr. Assad has cleared the way for the military to use chlorine gas in any offensive, U.S. officials said. It wasn’t clear from the latest intelligence if Mr. Assad also had given the military permission to use sarin gas, the deadly nerve agent used several times in previous regime attacks on rebel-held areas. It is banned under international law.

It appears Washington is now saying an American attack on Syrian government forces and locations is all but inevitable.

And according to the report, President Trump may actually give the order to attack even if there’s no claim of a chemical attack, per the WSJ:

In a recent discussion about Syria, people familiar with the exchange said, President Trump threatened to conduct a massive attack against Mr. Assad if he carries out a massacre in Idlib, the northwestern province that has become the last refuge for more than three million people and as many as 70,000 opposition fighters that the regime considers to be terrorists.

And further:

The Pentagon is crafting military options, but Mr. Trump hasn’t decided what exactly would trigger a military response or whether the U.S. would target Russian or Iranian military forces aiding Mr. Assad in Syria, U.S. officials said.

Crucially, this is the first such indication of the possibility that White House and defense officials are mulling over hitting “Russian or Iranian military forces” in what would be a monumental escalation that would take the world to the brink of World War 3.

Read the rest:

https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2018-09-09/us-says-assad-has-approved-gas-attack-idlib-setting-stage-major-military-conflict

With little leverage, US mostly powerless as bloody Idlib offensive looms

September 9, 2018

Washington has threatened to respond militarily to a chemical attack, but fate of last rebel-held enclave is in hands of Damascus, Moscow and Tehran

This picture taken in Kafr Ain on September 7, 2018, shows smoke rising as government forces target the city, 4 kilometers east of Khan Shaykhun in the southern countryside of Idlib province. (AFP/ Anas AL-DYAB)

This picture taken in Kafr Ain on September 7, 2018, shows smoke rising as government forces target the city, 4 kilometers east of Khan Shaykhun in the southern countryside of Idlib province. (AFP/ Anas AL-DYAB)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Despite dire US warnings and fears of a humanitarian disaster, the Trump administration has little leverage to stop Russia, Iran and Syria pressing ahead with a massive military assault against Syria’s northwest Idlib province.

Washington has threatened military action in case of a chemical weapons attack but its mixed messaging on retaining a US presence in Syria and a cut in aid has diminished its already limited influence over the seven-year conflict.

So the administration, which has criticized former President Barack Obama for his inaction on Syria after the war started in 2011, risks appearing powerless to prevent the three nations’ plan to retake Syria’s last rebel-held area. It’s an operation that many warn will cause major bloodshed among a vulnerable population of 3 million people.

And on Saturday, Syrian government and Russian warplanes targeted the province’s southern edge in what activists described as the most intense airstrikes in weeks. More than 60 air raids killed at least four civilians in southern Idlib, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and rescue workers.

While the new US special envoy for Syria said this week that America will stay in Syria until the complete eradication of the Islamic State group, there’s little assurance that President Donald Trump won’t again seek the withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 US troops in the country. And in a sign of the administration’s shrinking commitment to Syria, it has pulled more than $200 million in stabilization funding for liberated areas, telling other nations they should step up to pay.

Syrian and Russian forces stand guard as civilians enter the Abu Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Idlib province, on August 20, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / George OURFALIAN)

A summit in Tehran on Friday between Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was seen as a chance for a diplomatic solution before a full-scale assault on Idlib. The three nations are all tacitly allied against IS and in support of a unified, stable Syria, but have differing views of how to achieve those ends.

After Friday’s talks, the UN envoy for Syria told the UN Security Council there were indications that the three leaders intend to continue talking to avoid a catastrophe. But above all, the summit highlighted the stark differences among these allies of convenience, with Putin and Rouhani opposing Erdogan’s call for a cease-fire.

Syrian protesters wave the flag of the opposition as they demonstrate against the regime and its ally Russia, in the rebel-held city of Idlib on September 7, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / OMAR HAJ KADOUR)

As they discussed the fate of Idlib, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was talking tough in New York, telling the Security Council that the United States would consider any assault on the province as a “dangerous escalation” of the conflict that has already claimed more than 400,000 lives and forced more than 5 million Syrians to flee the country.

“If (Syrian President Bashar) Assad, Russia, and Iran continue, the consequences will be dire,” said Haley, who was chairing the council meeting. “The Assad regime must halt its offensive … Russia and Iran, as countries with influence over the regime, must stop this catastrophe. It is in their power to do so.”

A handout picture taken and released on September 7, 2018, by the Turkish Presidential Press service shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) , Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (C) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) joining hands during a trilateral summit in Tehran. (AFP/Turkish Presidency Press Office)

Those remarks capped a week of rising US rhetoric opposing the Idlib operation.

On Monday, Trump tweeted: “President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province. The Russians and Iranians would be making a grave humanitarian mistake to take part in this potential human tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. Don’t let that happen!”

A day later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expanded on the tweet, and renewed calls for the conflict to be resolved through the UN-led Geneva Process, which has been stalled for years. And on Thursday, the man Pompeo chose to be his point-man on getting the Geneva process back on track, veteran diplomat James Jeffrey, reiterated Trump’s message, saying the US would use all the “tools” it has to respond to a chemical attack.

Another “tool” in the US arsenal is economic pressure. The US Treasury Department slapped sanctions on nine people and companies for assisting weapons or fuel transfers to the Assad regime on Thursday. But sanctions have been ineffectual since they first began to be applied during the Obama administration.

A Syrian man walks past a stall in the rebel-held northern Syrian city of Idlib’s central Clock Square on September 6, 2018. (AFP/ Zein Al RIFAI)

Even American airstrikes launched against the Assad government have had limited impact in the past.

Twice before the US has resorted to missile strikes in response to chemical weapons attacks, only to see them used again. As Syrian forces prepare for the assault on Idlib, US and UN officials again see signs that those internationally prescribed weapons are being readied for the battlefield.

In this April 14, 2018 file photo, Damascus skies erupt with surface to air missile fire as the U.S. launches an attack on Syria targeting different parts of the Syrian capital Damascus, Syria. (AP/Hassan Ammar)

“There’s lots of evidence that chemical weapons are being prepared,” Jeffrey told reporters Thursday.

Officials and analysts will be watching Idlib closely over the next week ahead of UN-led talks on Syria in Geneva on September 14.

“The Trump administration is really at a Hail Mary moment,” said Nicholas Heras, a Syria analyst and fellow at the Center for New American Security. Idlib is the last opportunity for the US to increase leverage in Syria, he said, and if the province falls before the Geneva talks, Trump administration efforts to re-engage with peace talks will likely fail.

Heras warned that the Trump team is late to formulate a coherent Syria policy.

“It’s like trying to save the house as it’s burning down,” he said.

https://www.timesofisrael.com/with-little-leverage-us-mostly-powerless-as-bloody-idlib-offensive-looms/

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U.S. military drawing up options should Syria use chemical weapons

September 8, 2018

The presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia on Friday failed to agree on a ceasefire that would forestall an offensive on Idlib.

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Presidents Hassan Rouhani of Iran, Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia pose before their meeting in Ankara, Turkey April 4, 2018. Tolga Bozoglu/Reuters

America’s top general on Saturday said he was involved in “routine dialogue” with the White House about military options should Syria ignore U.S. warnings against using chemical weapons in an expected assault on the enclave of Idlib.

Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said no decision had been made by the United States to employ military force in response to a future chemical attack in Syria.

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General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

“But we are in a dialogue, a routine dialogue, with the president to make sure he knows where we are with regard to planning in the event that chemical weapons are used,” he told a small group of reporters during a trip to India. Dunford later added: “He expects us to have military options and we have provided updates to him on the development of those military options.”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has massed his army and allied forces on the front lines in the northwest, and Russian planes have joined his bombardment of rebels there, in a prelude to a widely expected assault despite objections from Turkey.

This week, a top U.S. envoy said there was “lots of evidence” that chemical weapons were being prepared by Syrian government forces in Idlib.

The White House has warned that the United States and its allies would respond “swiftly and vigorously” if government forces used chemical weapons in Idlib. President Donald Trump has twice bombed Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons, in April 2017 and April 2018.

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File Photo: Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin and and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Credit: Mikhail Klimentyev, Kremlin

Dunford did not say, one way or the other, what he expected Trump to do should Syria use chemical weapons again.

France’s top military official also said last week his forces were prepared to carry out strikes on Syrian targets if chemical weapons were used in Idlib.

Dunford declined to comment on U.S. intelligence about the possible Syrian preparations of chemical agents.

“I wouldn’t comment on intelligence at all, in terms of what we have, what we don’t have,” he said.

‘DISAPPOINTING’

Idlib is the insurgents’ only remaining major stronghold and a government offensive could be the last decisive battle in a war that has killed more than half a million people and forced 11 million to flee their homes.

The presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia on Friday failed to agree on a ceasefire that would forestall an offensive.

Asked whether there was still a chance the assault on Idlib could be averted, Dunford said: “I don’t know if there’s anything that can stop it.”

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Chemical weapons have been used in the past in Syria

“It’s certainly disappointing but perhaps not (surprising) that the Russians, the Turks and the Iranians weren’t able to come up with a solution yesterday,” he said.

Tehran and Moscow have helped Assad turn the course of the war against an array of opponents ranging from Western-backed rebels to the Islamist militants, while Turkey is a leading opposition supporter and has troops in the country.

Turkey says it fears a massacre and it can not accommodate any more refugees flooding over its border.

But Russia’s Vladimir Putin said on Friday a ceasefire would be pointless as it would not involve Islamist militant groups it deems terrorists.

Dunford has warned about the potential for a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib and instead has recommended more narrowly tailored operations against militants there. “There’s a more effective way to do counterterrorism operations than major conventional operations in Idlib,” he said.

Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Robert Birsel

Reuters

See also:

Presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran Meet to Plot Future of Syria Ahead of Battle for Last Rebel Stronghold

Time:http://time.com/5389823/putin-erdogan-rouhani-meet-syria/

UK names two Russians for attempted murder of Skripals with nerve agent Novichok

September 5, 2018

British prosecutors on Wednesday identified two Russians who they accused of trying to murder former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with a military-grade nerve agent in England.

Skripal, a former colonel in Russian military intelligence who betrayed dozens of agents to Britain’s MI6 foreign spy service, and his daughter Yulia, were found unconscious on a public bench in the southern city of Salisbury on March 4.

Britain has blamed Russia for the poisonings and identified the poison as Novichok, a deadly group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet military in the 1970s and 1980s. Russia has repeatedly denied any involvement in the attack.

British prosecutors named the two suspects as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, who police said arrived in Britain from Moscow on March 2 at London’s Gatwick airport on an Aeroflot flight and left on March 4. Police released images of the two men.

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Neil Basu, Head of UK Counter Terrorism policing, said the two suspects were traveling under aliases but were around 40 years old and had genuine Russian passports.

“We would like to hear from anyone who knows them,” Basu said. Russia’s foreign ministry said the names given by Britain did not mean anything to them.

Basu said Novichok was sprayed on the front door of Skripal’s house in Salisbury, where the two men were sighted on CCTV nearby. Basu said traces of Novichok contamination were found in the London hotel room where the two men had stayed.

“Tests were carried out in the hotel room where the suspects had stayed. Two swabs showed contamination of Novichok of levels below that which would cause concern for public health,” Basu said.

NOVICHOK PERFUME

A European arrest warrant has been issued for the two Russians, the prosecutors said.

The Russians are charged with conspiracy to murder Sergei Skripal and the attempted murder of Skripal, his daughter and Nick Bailey, a police officer who was taken ill while attending to the Skripals.

They are also charged with use and possession of Novichok, contrary to the Chemical Weapons Act.

“We will not be applying to Russia for the extradition of these men as the Russian constitution does not permit extradition of its own nationals,” said Sue Hemming, director of Legal Services at the Crown Prosecution Service.

A British woman, Dawn Sturgess, died in July after coming across a small bottle containing Novichok near Salisbury where the Skripals were struck down. Her partner, Charlie Rowley, was also stricken.

Police said Rowley and Sturgess had found a counterfeit Nina Ricci Premier Jour perfume bottle which tests later showed had contained Novichok.

(Reporting by Michael Holden, Writing by William Schomberg and Kate Holton, editing by Stephen Addison)

Reuters