Posts Tagged ‘chemical weapons’

Is Donald Trump Ceding Syria To Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Iran? — Confusion and lack of strategic clarity

July 29, 2017
BY JONATHAN SPYER
 JULY 28, 2017 22:11

 

The CIA program, dubbed ‘Timber Sycamore,’ was created in early 2013 and was intended to support ‘moderate’ units from among the Syrian Sunni rebels.

free syrian army

A rebel fighter of the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army. (photo credit:REUTERS)

US President Donald Trump this week appeared to confirm a number of recent media reports suggesting that the US has scrapped the long-standing covert CIA program to provide weapons and training to Syria’s rebels.

.

There was much subsequent merrymaking regarding Trump’s supposed ‘revelation’ of the program via his preferred medium of Twitter. This commentary was not serious. The existence of the program, if not its details, has been an open ‘secret’ for a while.

Image may contain: one or more people and outdoor

 

 Free Syrian Army fighter collects himself after a blooby battle. Photo credit Reuters, Goran Tomasevic
.

Nevertheless, the decision to scrap the CIA program, now confirmed by General Raymond A. Thomas, head of US Special Operations Command, is a significant development.

So is the US exiting the Syrian stage, and ceding the area in its entirety as a zone of influence to Russia. What will this mean for Syria? Does it imply the eclipse in the entirety of anti-Assad forces and an overall victory for the dictator in the long civil war in Syria?

 Image result for cia, photos

Observation of the available facts suggests that it isn’t that simple. The CIA program, dubbed ‘Timber Sycamore,’ was created in early 2013 and was intended to support ‘moderate’ units from among the Syrian Sunni rebels, at a time when Islamist and jihadi forces had already become entrenched and prevalent among them.

The first groups of fighters armed by Timber Sycamore began to appear in southern Syria in September 2013. Operating out of military operations centers in Jordan and Turkey, the program involved the vetting and training of Syrian rebels by US personnel, and from 2014, the provision of sophisticated weaponry.

The first reports, for example, of TOW anti-tank missiles in the hands of the rebels, appeared in April 2014. Media reports suggested the involvement of Saudi Arabia in the project, with Riyadh providing arms and money and the Americans responsible for training.

The precise extent of weaponry provided, the list of groups supported, the type of training offered, and the affiliations of the US personnel involved in the training remain classified. However, the impact of the program can be estimated from the results on the ground.

In northern Syria, US-supported groups never managed to dislodge the dominant Salafi-jihadi groups, supported by Qatar and Turkey, most importantly the Ahrar al-Sham group and the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (subsequently renamed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, after formally ending its al-Qaida allegiance).

Instead, the US-supported groups became de facto partners with these organizations.

In southern Syria, where Salafi jihadi Islamism was weaker, the program has had a greater impact.

Image may contain: text

With US personnel responsible for training, mainly through the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army, the US-supported forces (also supported by Jordan and Israel) have succeeded in largely preventing the Assad regime and its allies from reconquering Deraa and Quneitra provinces.

Parallel to the CIA program, the Pentagon has been running its own train-and-equip operation for the war against ISIS. This project, after some initial hiccups, has been notably successful and is slowly and relentlessly driving Islamic State back in its ‘capital’ city of Raqqa.

The beginnings of success for the Pentagon program, however, coincide with the commencement of US cooperation not with the Sunni Arab rebels, but rather with the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units).

This unlikely partnership, which began in October 2014, enabled the US to work with a ready-made coherent force on the ground, rather than to try to help establish and shape one. Subsequently, the Defense Department program has surrounded this Kurdish core with a variety of additional Arab forces, creating the multi-ethnic force which is now known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.

This program has in addition offered training and support to rebel forces in southeast Syria wishing to fight Islamic State. At present, two Arab rebel militias, Maghawir al-Thawra and Shohada al-Quartayn, are receiving training and aid from the US and allied (reportedly British and Norwegian) forces in the desert of southeast Syria.

This train-and-equip program is not being wrapped up. That is, the US is not pulling out of involvement in Syria in toto. Rather, a particular project is being terminated.

So where is this likely to have an impact? For obvious reasons, in the area east of the Euphrates, where the Pentagon train-and-equip program is the relevant project, the termination of Timber Sycamore will have no impact at all.

It will also have little noticeable effect on the remaining rebel enclaves in northwest Syria.

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing and outdoor

Free Syrian Army Fighters photographed by Goran Tomasevic for Reuters

There, the US-supported groups are largely irrelevant. The growing force in Idleb

Province is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which just this week drove the rival Ahrar al-Sham from 31 villages and consolidated its control in Idleb City, the last major urban center in the hands of the rebellion.

The area where the end of Timber Sycamore may have the largest impact is in southwest Syria, in the region adjoining the Golan Heights and the border with Jordan.

Here the decision to end the program seems to follow from the cease-fire concluded on July 7, and the subsequent deployment of Russian ‘military police’ (i.e. re-designated Russian soldiers) to enforce the ‘de-escalation.’ Israel has benefited from the previously existing balance of forces in the southwest, which provided a rebel presence as a kind of buffer against the advance of the regime and its Iranian, Hezbollah and Shia militia allies.

The ending of Timber Sycamore and the de-escalation agreement might tip this balance.

However, this is not a certainty even in the southwest. Firstly, it is possible that the vacuum left by the faltering CIA program may be replaced by another US channel of support, sufficient to prevent rebel collapse in the southwest.

Secondly, Israeli, Jordanian and Gulf support for the rebels may continue to play a similar role.

Image may contain: 4 people, people sitting

U.S. Senator John McCain became the biggest U.S. advocate of the Free Syrian Army

Thus, the impact of the demise of the ill-fated ‘Timber Sycamore’ project may be somewhat less than might be immediately apparent. The main question facing Syria today is whether the regime (which really means Iran, Hezbollah and allied militias) will continue to expand its area of control under the cover of Russian support and in the face of confusion and lack of strategic clarity from other forces.

The end of the covert CIA program of support for the rebels removes one of the less consequential barriers to this, without making it inevitable.

.
.
Related:
.
.

Trump’s Syria Muddle (Surrender?) — U.S. abandons its allies to the Russia-Assad-Iran axis

July 25, 2017

Iran and Russia won’t negotiate a cease-fire until they have to.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters, prepare to move for a battle against the Islamic state militants, in Raqqa, northeast Syria.
Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters, prepare to move for a battle against the Islamic state militants, in Raqqa, northeast Syria. PHOTO: HUSSEIN MALLA/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Does the Trump Administration have a policy in Syria worth the name? If so it isn’t obvious, and its recent decisions suggest that the White House may be willing to accommodate the Russian and Iranian goal of propping up Bashar Assad for the long term.

Last week the Administration disclosed that it has stopped assisting the anti-Assad Sunni Arab fighters whom the CIA has trained, equipped and funded since 2013. U.S. Special Operations Command chief Gen. Raymond Thomas told the Aspen Security Forum Friday that the decision to pull the plug was “based on an assessment of the nature of the program and what we are trying to accomplish and the viability of it going forward.”

That might make sense if anyone knew what the U.S. is trying to accomplish beyond ousting Islamic State from Raqqa in northern Syria. In that fight the Pentagon has resisted Russia and Iran by arming the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces and shooting down the Syria aircraft threatening them. Mr. Trump also launched cruise missiles to punish Mr. Assad after the strongman used chemical weapons.

The muddle is what the U.S. wants in Syria after the looming defeat of Islamic State. On that score the Trump Administration seems to want to find some agreement with Russia to stabilize Syria even if that means entrenching Mr. Assad and the Russian and Iranian military presence.

Cutting off the Sunni Free Syrian Army has long been a Russian and Iranian goal. FSA fighters in southern Syria have helped to contain the more radical Sunni opposition formerly known as the Nusra Front and they’ve fought Islamic State, but they also want to depose Mr. Assad. Not all of the Sunni rebels are as moderate as we’d like, but they aren’t al Qaeda or Islamic State. The arms cutoff caught the rebels by surprise and will make our allies in the region further doubt American reliability.

This follows the deal Mr. Trump struck at the G-20 meeting with Vladimir Putin for a cease-fire in southern Syria near its border with Israel and Jordan. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hailed it as a potential precedent for other parts of Syria, and Administration sources advertised that Israel and Jordan were on board.

But we later learned that Israel is far more skeptical. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a recent cabinet meeting that “Israel will welcome a genuine cease-fire in Syria, but this cease-fire must not enable the establishment of a military presence by Iran and its proxies in Syria in general and in southern Syria in particular.”

Yet by this point any territory controlled by Mr. Assad will come with Iranian military tentacles. Iran’s Hezbollah footsoldiers from Lebanon helped rescue Mr. Assad’s military, and they’d love to open another frontline against the Jewish state.

President Trump and Mr. Tillerson may want to negotiate a diplomatic settlement with Mr. Putin on Syria, and no doubt the Russian is pitching his “common front” line against radical Islamists. But CIA Director Mike Pompeo told the Aspen forum on Friday that Russia has done little fighting against Islamic State. Mr. Putin also has no incentive to give ground in Syria while his side is winning.

Russia and Iran know what they want in Syria: a reunified country under Mr. Assad’s control. Iran will then get another Arab city—Damascus—under its dominion. It will have another base from which to undermine U.S. allies in Jordan and attack Israel when the next war breaks out. Russia wants to show the world that its allies always win while keeping its air base and a Mediterranean port.

None of this is in the U.S. interest. The only way to reach an acceptable diplomatic solution is if Iran and Russia feel they are paying too large a price for their Syrian sojourn. This means more support for Mr. Assad’s enemies, not cutting them off without notice. And it means building up a Middle East coalition willing to fight Islamic State and resist Iran. The U.S. should also consider enforcing “safe zones” in Syria for anti-Assad forces.

It’s hard to imagine a stable Syria as long as Mr. Assad is in power. But if he stays, then the U.S. goal should be a divided country with safe areas for Sunnis and the Kurds who have helped liberate Raqqa. Then we can perhaps tolerate an Assad government that presides over a rump Syria dominated by Alawites. But none of that will happen if the U.S. abandons its allies to the Russia-Assad-Iran axis. And if abandoning Syria to Iran is the policy, then at least own up to it in public so everyone knows the score.

Appeared in the July 24, 2017, print edition.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/trumps-syria-muddle-1500845200?mod=e2two

EU sanctions 16 more Syrians over chemical attacks

July 17, 2017

AFP

© AFP/File | US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley holds photos of victims as the UN Security Council meets in an emergency session in April about a suspected deadly chemical attack that killed civilians, including children, in Syria

BRUSSELS (AFP) – The European Union on Monday imposed sanctions against 16 more high-ranking military Syrian officials and scientists over chemical weapons attacks on civilians, a statement said.

The move by the bloc’s foreign ministers brings to 255 people now facing a travel ban and an assets freeze over President Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown on civilians during a five-year civil war.

“The EU added these 16 persons for their role in the development and use of chemical weapons against the civilian population,” an EU statement said.

The EU will release the names of those hit by the sanctions on Tuesday, it said.

The UN’s chemical watchdog, the OPCW, last month concluded that sarin was used as a chemical weapon in the April 4 attack in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun that killed at least 87 people including children.

The sanctions decision “shows the resolve of the UK and the rest of our friends in Europe in dealing with those who are responsible for chemical weapons attacks,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told reporters just before the decision was announced.

Syria is already subject to an oil embargo, restrictions on certain investments, a freeze of the assets of the Syrian central bank held in the EU, as well as export restrictions.

It also is under sanctoins on equipment and technology that might be used for internal repression as well as on equipment and technology for the monitoring or interception of internet or telephone communications.

Trump says time to work ‘constructively’ with Russia — Progress starting already in Syria and Ukraine — “Everybody knows that Russia meddled in our elections.”

July 9, 2017

AFP

© AFP/File | Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump meeting Friday in Hamburg, Germany

WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President Donald Trump pledged Sunday to work “constructively” with Russia but ruled out an immediate easing of sanctions while the countries remain at odds over the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.

.

In a series of tweets on his return from Europe, Trump said he had confronted his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin over evidence from the US intelligence agencies that Moscow meddled in the 2016 election when the two leaders met for the first time in Germany on Friday.

And while he welcomed an agreement for the start of a ceasefire in Syria, Trump said it was too early to consider any easing of US sanctions on Russia “until the Ukrainian & Syrian problems are solved.”

“I strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election,” Trump said of their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit. “He vehemently denied it. I’ve already given my opinion…..”

Trump said he and Putin had talked about the idea of setting up what he called “an impenetrable cyber security unit” to prevent hacking in future elections, without giving details.

He also said the two men had discussed the implementation of a ceasefire in Syria which began on Sunday, saying “it will save lives.”

“Now it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia!”

– Friction over Syria –

Syria has been a particular source of friction between the two countries, as Russia is a close ally of President Bashar al-Assad.

Moscow was furious when the Trump administration launched a cruise missile strike against Syrian forces in April, in retaliation for what Washington said was a chemical weapons attack by Assad’s regime against civilians.

Moscow has warned that a program of sanctions imposed by the US, which was tightened last month, threatens their whole relationship.

Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama ordered the seizure of two Russian diplomatic compounds in the US last December after accusing Russia of trying to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

And last month, the United States added 38 individuals and entities to its sanctions list targeting Russians and pro-Russian rebels it blames for the fighting in Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea.

“Sanctions were not discussed at my meeting with President Putin. Nothing will be done until the Ukrainian & Syrian problems are solved,” said Trump.

The US president has previously equivocated over whether Russia did try to tilt the outcome of last November’s election contest against Hillary Clinton in his favor, amid an investigation into whether members of Trump’s campaign team actively colluded with Moscow.

– ‘Strategic alliance’ –

So his public assessment that Russia did meddle has triggered questions over whether his administration planned to bring in more sanctions.

Asked on Sunday whether new sanctions were in the pipeline, US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told ABC television: “We have sanctions that are already on the table and we expect to enforce those sanctions.”

Mnuchin also insisted that Russia and the US could work together on cyber security, despite criticism in some quarters that the two sides had diametrically opposing goals.

“What we want to make sure is that we coordinate with Russia, that we’re focused on cybersecurity together, that we make sure that they never interfere in any democratic elections,” he said.

“This is like any other strategic alliance, whether we’re doing military exercises with our allies or anything else. This is about having capabilities to make sure we both fight cyber (crime) together which I think is a very significant accomplishment for President Trump.”

The US and Russian sides have issued sharply conflicting accounts of Friday’s meeting, with Putin saying on Saturday that Trump had been “satisfied” by his denials of any Russian interference in the polls.

Image may contain: 1 person

Nikki Haley

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said the Russian denials had been expected but cut no ice.

“This is Russia trying to save face,” she told CNN. “And they can’t. They can’t.

“Everybody knows that Russia meddled in our elections.”

Related:

France Says Watchdog’s Report on Syria Proves Sarin Gas Used in April — Russia Says Chemical Watchdog’s Report “Biased”

June 30, 2017

PARIS — France said on Friday that a report by the world’s chemical weapons watchdog that nerve agent sarin was used in an April attack in Syria was “unequivocal” and that the organization’s members should act firmly on its findings.

“The conclusions of this report are indisputable,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

“The OPCW and its members must assume their responsibilities and condemn, in the strongest terms, this intolerable violation of the non-proliferation regime.”

(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Bate Felix)

****************************************

Image result for Khan Sheikhoun, chemical weapons, photos

Russia Says Chemical Watchdog’s Report on Syria Attack Is Biased: Agencies

MOSCOW — A report by the world’s chemical weapons watchdog that the banned nerve agent sarin was used in an attack in northern Syria in April is based on “doubtful evidence”, Russian news agencies quoted Russia’s Foreign Ministry as saying on Friday.

The report, seen by Reuters on Thursday, was circulated to members of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, but was not made public.

The attack on April 4, when dozens of people were killed in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Idlib province, was the most deadly in Syria’s civil war in more than three years. It prompted a U.S. missile strike against a Syrian air base which Washington said was used to launch the strike.

“Unfortunately, after a first reading of this document we are forced to note that its conclusions are based on extremely doubtful evidence,” TASS news agency quoted Russia’s Foreign Ministry as saying.

“The contents of the report compiled by a special commission of the OPCW, are largely biased, which makes us think that the activities of this structure serve a political order,” TASS quoted the ministry as saying.

Russia and its allies in the administration of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad deny that his forces deployed chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun.

Moscow has said the attack was carried out by Assad’s opponents, who, Russian officials alleged, made it look as though it was the work of government forces.

(Reporting by Jack Stubbs; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov and Christian Lowe)

See also:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4385534/Syrian-father-watched-22-relatives-die-gas-attack.html

‘No Doubt’ Assad Government Behind Sarin Attack in Syria: UK’s Johnson

June 30, 2017

LONDON — There is “absolutely no doubt” the government of Bashar al-Assad was behind the use of chemical weapons in Syria in April, Britain’s foreign minister Boris Johnson said on Friday.

The world’s chemical weapons watchdog said the banned nerve agent sarin was used in an attack in northern Syria that killed dozens of people, a report from a fact-finding team seen by Reuters showed.

Western intelligence agencies had blamed Assad’s government for the attack, but Syrian officials have repeatedly denied using banned toxins in the conflict.

“The exact responsibility for dropping the sarin will now go to a joint investigative mechanism to be confirmed, but I’ve got absolutely no doubt that the finger points at the Assad regime,” Johnson said on Sky News.

“We will drive on with the UK campaign to impose sanctions on those responsible… People who drop chemical weapons on innocent people should be held to account.”

(Reporting by Alistair Smout, editing by Ed Osmond)

Unease in Brussels Over Trump’s Poland Visit as European Unity is Wavering — Trump Also Accepted Macron’s Invitation for Bastille Day in France

June 29, 2017

WARSAW — A trip to Poland by U.S. President Donald Trump next week may feel like a diplomatic coup for the right-wing government, but western European nations are uneasy it will encourage Warsaw’s defiance towards Brussels.

Trump visits Poland for one day – en route to a G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany – to take part in a gathering of leaders from central Europe, Baltic states and the Balkans, an event convened by Poland to bolster regional trade and infrastructure.

Brussels diplomats view the July 6 gathering, dubbed the Three Seas summit because the countries involved border the Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas, as a Polish bid to carve out influence outside the European Union with which the nationalist government has repeatedly clashed.

Trump plans to promote U.S. natural gas exports to the leaders from central and eastern Europe, a region heavily reliant on Russian supplies, his top economic adviser said. Poland received its first shipment of U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG) this month.

Most diplomats in Brussels dismiss the importance of the Three Seas project, co-hosted by Croatia, but are wary over Trump’s high-profile visit to participate in a project one senior EU official called Poland’s push towards “self-ghettoisation”.

“One cannot but feel a bit suspicious if it isn’t an attempt to break up European unity,” another EU diplomat said about the Three Seas project.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has played a major role in fuelling a deepening rift between ex-communist and Western members of the European Union, at a time when the bloc is struggling with the aftermath of Britain’s decision to leave.

Since winning a parliamentary election in 2015, the PiS has angered France over a canceled army procurement deal, brought relations with Germany to their worst in nearly a decade, and is facing EU action over what critics call its authoritarian tilt.

Poland is one of the leading voices in the region against migration, a view it shares with Trump alongside a disregard for climate change and suspicion of international bodies.

“A MADNESS OF ELITES”

Underscoring Warsaw’s mistrust towards the EU, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo recently called an EU quotas policy for relocation of refugees from the Middle East “a madness of Brussels elites”, in a speech in parliament.

In turn, EU leaders delivered a snub to Poland’s government by steamrolling its objections and reappointing former Polish premier Donald Tusk to chair summits. Szydlo, acting on orders from party boss and long-time Tusk adversary Jaroslaw Kaczynski, had vowed to stop him securing a second 30-month term.

Warsaw portrayed the issue as one of fundamental principle, in which vital national interests had been ignored by a Brussels machine dominated by “German diktat”. Its crushing defeat showed how far the biggest of the ex-communist states that joined the EU after the Cold War appears isolated, even in Eastern Europe.

Deeply distrustful of Moscow, Poland hopes Trump, who once called NATO “obsolete”, will reconfirm his commitment to the alliance’s military build-up in eastern Europe, a deterrence policy against Russia, and possibly promise more.

The United States has about 900 troops on Polish soil as part of a rotating NATO contingent in eastern Europe.

NATO AND TRUMP

But Western diplomats are wary that Trump could use his trip to Warsaw to repeat criticism of Europe’s low defense spending, which has irritated many Western leaders.

Trump denounced some NATO members’ failure to meet a joint target of two percent of economic output, at a meeting of alliance leaders in Brussels last month. Poland, alongside the United States, is one of the few members who meet the goal.

“We are not sure what Trump’s message is going to be … If he is here to reinforce Washington’s commitment to (NATO’s mutual defense principle)? Great!,” one EU diplomat said.

“What if he makes it conditional, to be based on meeting the … spending goal? This would cause a lot of damage.”

Diplomatic observers who watch Washington say Trump may want to use the trip to deliver a message that he is serious about countering threats from Russia.

“Most of the countries (at the Warsaw summit) see Russia as their main security threat and most strongly support NATO and would like a stronger U.S. force presence in their countries,” said Heather Conley, who was a State Department official in the George W. Bush administration.

“GET OUT AND TRAVEL”

Some western European officials view Trump’s nod to the Warsaw government as counter-productive at a time when European unity is wavering.

“We encourage Mr Trump to get out and travel as much as he can. He needs to understand Europe and he can do that by getting out and speaking to people, to European leaders,” said one European official, who declined to be named.

“(But) he can’t do deals with individual countries over the head of the European Union,” he said. “In Hamburg, he will hear different arguments, we can clear up anything that has been misconstrued.”

Poland has expressed hopes Trump can persuade U.S. business to invest in a network of north-south rail and road links central to the regional initiative, something U.S. diplomats and many economists dismiss as unrealistic.

Much commerce in eastern Europe is done along east-west trade routes rather than between north and south, to a large degree a reflection of German economic dominance.

Some governments in the east may also view Poland’s ambitions of regional leadership with suspicion, cautious not to damage relations with trade partners in Berlin.

“We are monitoring it,” said a Czech government source. “But we don’t put much weight on it at the moment.”

(Additional reporting by Pawel Sobczak in Warsaw, Alastair Macdonald and Robin Emmott in Brussels, Michel Rose in Paris, and Roberta Rampton in Washington, editing by Peter Millership)

**************************************

WASHINGTON — President Trump, the self-styled rebel who wants to sweep out an ancien regime, will travel to Paris on July 14 to commemorate revolutionaries who actually did it — with bloodshed and barricade-storming — 228 years ago in France.

The White House announced on Wednesday that Mr. Trump had accepted an invitation from President Emmanuel Macron of France to join him for Bastille Day. He extended the offer in a phone call the day before, when the two leaders discussed Mr. Trump’s latest warning to the Syrian government over its alleged preparation of a chemical weapons attack.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Macron are to review a traditional military parade on the Champs-Élysées, which this year will mark the 100th anniversary of the entry of the United States into World War I. American and French troops will march side by side along the avenue.

US President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron's white-knuckle handshake became infamous

US President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron’s white-knuckle handshake became infamous CREDIT: MANDEL NGAN/AFP

The White House used anodyne language to describe the president’s motives for going to Paris — “reaffirming America’s strong ties of friendship to France,” and “celebrating this important day with the French people” — which failed to even remotely capture the psychological subtext.

Ever since their death grip of a handshake in Brussels in May, the personal dynamic between Mr. Trump and Mr. Macron has seemed less like a budding friendship than a polite prizefight — a mixture of bluff and bluster by two alpha males intent on claiming an edge.

Mr. Macron told a French newspaper that the prolonged handshake was deliberate — “a moment of truth” intended to show Mr. Trump that he would not “make small concessions, even symbolic ones.”

Mr. Trump rooted openly for Mr. Macron’s far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen, in the French election this spring. At their first meeting, before a NATO gathering, Mr. Trump and Mr. Macron spoke over lunch about Article 5, the clause in the NATO treaty stipulating that alliance members will come to each other’s defense.

Read the rest:

U.S. Defense Secretary Says Syria Appears to Have Heeded U.S. Warning on Chemical Attack

June 28, 2017

BRUSSELS — Syria appears to have heeded a U.S. warning against staging any new chemical weapons attack as no such action has been launched, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Wednesday.

“It appears that they took the warning seriously,” Mattis told reporters flying with him to Brussels for a meeting of NATO defence ministers. “They didn’t do it.”

(Reporting by Phil Stewart, Ediitng by Angus MacSwan)

*************************************

BRUSSELS — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says Syria’s government has taken seriously the U.S. warning against launching another chemical weapons attack.

Mattis noted there has been no such attack since the White House issued a surprise statement Monday night that threatened President Bashar Assad’s government with “a heavy price” if it used chemical weapons.

The U.S. says it saw active preparations at Syria’s Shayrat airfield for using such weapons. Mattis wouldn’t say what specifically triggered U.S. concerns that an attack might be imminent. He said President Donald Trump has showed “how seriously we took them.”

Asked if other activity has been seen, Mattis told reporters traveling with him to Brussels: “I think that Assad’s chemical program goes far beyond one airfield.”

Macron, Trump Agree to Work Together if New Syria Chemical Attack-Elysee

June 27, 2017

PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron agreed with U.S. President Donald Trump in a phone call on Tuesday that they would work together to find a common response in case of a new chemical attack in Syria, the French presidency said in a statement.

Macron also invited Trump to attend the July 14 Bastille Day celebrations in Paris which will this year commemorate 100 years since the United States joined World War One.

The French leader has previously said that Paris could launch unilateral air strikes against targets in Syria if a chemical attack took place.

(Reporting by Marine Pennetier; writing by John Irish; editing by Michel Rose)

Related:

US suspects chem weapons ‘activity’ at Syria base used in attack — Preparations for possible use of chemical weapons

June 27, 2017

AFP

© AFP | Syrian children receive treatment in the town of Maaret al-Noman, following a suspected chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhun, a nearby rebel-held town in Syria?s northwestern Idlib province, on April 4, 2017

WASHINGTON (AFP) – The US warning that Syria may be preparing another chemical weapons attack was based on suspect activity at the launch site of the regime’s apparent chemical strike in April, the Pentagon said Tuesday.

“We have seen activity at Shayrat airfield… that indicated preparations for possible use of chemical weapons,” said Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis.

“This involved a specific aircraft, a specific hangar — both of which we know to be associated with chemical weapon use.”

The White House late Monday said the preparations were similar to those undertaken by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ahead of an apparent chemical attack on a rebel-held town in April.

Days after that strike, Washington launched a cruise missile strike on the airfield in retaliation — the first direct US attack on the Syrian regime and President Donald Trump’s most dramatic military action since he took power in January.

The White House warned Assad that he would pay a “heavy price” if his regime went ahead with another chemical weapons attack, which “would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children.”

Russia, which has supported the Syrian regime since 2015 with air strikes against what it says are Islamist extremists, voiced anger at the tough rhetoric.

“We consider such threats against the Syrian leadership to be unacceptable,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.

Moscow has consistently rejected accusations that Damascus was behind the April attack