Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr — Al-Sadr is the most revered name in Shia Iraq and a friend if Iran and Russia
NAJAF (IRAQ) (AFP) – Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr on Tuesday warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that he risked suffering the same fate as slain Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi if he did not step down.
The maverick cleric had last week condemned the suspected deadly use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces against civilians, becoming a rare Shiite leader to openly challenge the Syrian president’s legitimacy.
Sadr issued a new statement on Tuesday that reiterated his position.
“I have urged him to step down to preserve the reputation of the Mumanaa and to escape a Kadhafi fate,” he said, using a word that refers to a so-called anti-Western “resistance front” that includes Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iran and Syria.
The Libyan strongman was captured and brutally killed in 2011 after 42 years in power while trying to flee Sirte, his hometown, as NATO-backed rebels closed in.
A chemical attack which has been widely blamed on Assad’s regime killed 87 civilians, including 31 children, in the rebel-held Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun on April 4.
The United States subsequently fired a barrage of 59 cruise missiles at Shayrat air base in Syria to punish Damascus, despite its denials of responsibility.
Sadr, who led a militia that fought the US occupation of Iraq, also condemned the American missile strike, urging all foreign parties involved in the Syria conflict to withdraw.
He had similar advice for two other leaders: President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi of Yemen and Bahrain’s King Hamad.
“I have not only called for the resignation of Bashar, but I had already called for Abedrabbo and the ruler of Bahrain to step down because they are still oppressing their people.
President Bashar al-Assad has no future in post-conflict Syria but his fate is ultimately up to the Syrian people, EU foreign ministers said Monday in response to an apparent shift in US policy.
The United States and the European Union have consistently demanded Assad stand down in any peace deal.
But last week Washington signalled it would no longer focus on Assad’s ouster as it concentrates on the wider fight against terror groups such as Islamic State.
Asked what this meant for EU policy, bloc foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said she believed it “would be impossible” to return to the status quo in Syria.
After nearly seven years of war, “it seems completely unrealistic to believe that the future of Syria will be exactly the same as it used to be in the past,” Mogherini said as she arrived for an EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg.
“But this is for the Syrians to decide, that is clear … any solution that can be acceptable by all Syrians, we will support it.”
Diplomatic sources said the foreign ministers are expected to endorse a statement which notes: “The EU recalls that there can be no lasting peace in Syria under the current regime.”
Mogherini on Tuesday co-hosts with the United Nations a two-day conference on Syria’s future in Brussels focused on the disastrous humanitarian situation in the country after a war which has claimed more than 320,000 lives and displaced more than half the population.
Mogherini stressed that this was part of efforts to prepare properly for the end of the war while UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva continued to search for a peace settlement and Russia and Turkey brokered talks between Damascus and the rebels on a ceasefire.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said he believed the changed United States position was certainly “more realistic”, as to insist that Assad must step down from the start would only result in deadlock.
“But there is one thing which cannot happen — that a dictator who committed horrible crimes in the region remains untouched,” Gabriel said.
The UN peace talks should continue with the aim of producing a “new constitution, elections and a new and democratic government,” he said.
“This cannot be abandoned or subordinated to the conflict against Islamic State,” he added.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault for his part said there had to be a genuine political transition to a new Syria.
“France does not believe for an instant that this new Syria can be led by Assad,” he said.
GENEVA (AFP) – The Syrian government intentionally bombed the Ain al-Fijeh spring in December, leaving more than five million people in Damascus without access to water, a UN probe said Tuesday, as it branded the strike a “war crime”.
“The information examined by the Commission confirms that the bombing of (the Ain al-Fijeh) spring was carried out by the Syrian Air Force,” the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said in a report.
The report meanwhile dismissed regime allegations that rebels had contaminated the water.
Around 5.5 million people in Damascus and its suburbs were cut off from water when fighting intensified in Wadi Barada near Damascus in late December.
A picture shows the area around the Ain al-Fijeh water pumping station, in the countryside of Damascus, on January 29, 2017, after the Syrian army entered it for the first time in four years after a deal with rebels who first seized it in 2012
The regime accused the rebels of poisoning water resources and cutting off the mains, while the armed opposition said regime bombardment had destroyed the infrastructure.
The UN experts, who have never been granted access to Syria and who base their reports on interviews and documents, said they had found no “indications that the water was contaminated” before the spring was bombed on December 23.
“On the contrary, interviewees say that Wadi Barada residents used water up until the bombing of 23 December and no one experienced any symptoms of contamination,” the report said.
Following the bombing, the water was contaminated after shrapnel damaged fuel and chlorine storage facilities, it said.
The bombing itself indicated that the “spring was purposely targeted,” the report found.
“While the presence of armed group fighters at (the Ain al-Fijeh) spring constituted a military target, … the damage caused … was grossly disproportionate to the military advantage anticipated or achieved,” it said.
“The attack amounts to the war crime of attacking objects indispensable for the survival of the civilian population, and further violated the principle of proportionality in attacks,” the report concluded.
At the end of January, Syria’s army regained control of Wadi Barada, which rebels first seized in 2012.
More than 320,000 people have been killed and millions forced to flee their homes since Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011, as protests against President Bashar al-Assad morphed into war following a government crackdown.
Syrian Military, Not Rebels, Severed Damascus Water Supply, U.N. Finds
By NICK CUMMING-BRUCEMARCH 14, 2017
A damaged classroom after shelling in the rebel-held town of Hass in Idlib Province.Credit Ammar Abdullah/Reuters.
GENEVA — Syrian military airstrikes on rebels were responsible for severing water supplies to 5.5 million people in the Damascus region for weeks starting last December, the United Nations said on Tuesday, rebutting government claims that insurgents were to blame.
In a bombing campaign to drive rebel forces from the Barada Valley north of Damascus, Syrian air force jets launched multiple strikes on their positions around the al-Feijeh spring, which supplied water to the capital, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry monitoring the conflict in Syriasaid in a report.
Source/Read the rest: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/14/world/middleeast/syrian-military-not-rebels-severed-damascus-water-supply-un-finds.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fmiddleeast&_r=0
Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party leader and candidate for French 2017 presidential election, rejects a headscarf for her meeting Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abed el-Lateef Daryan in Beirut, Lebanon February 21, 2017. REUTERS/Aziz Taher
French far-right National Front presidential candidate Marine Le Pen canceled a meeting on Tuesday with Lebanon’s grand mufti, its top cleric for Sunni Muslims, after refusing to wear a headscarf for the encounter.
Le Pen, among the frontrunners for the presidency, is using a two-day visit to Lebanon to bolster her foreign policy credentials nine weeks from the April 23 first round, and may be partly targeting potential Franco-Lebanese votes.
Many Lebanese fled to France, Lebanon’s former colonial power, during their country’s 1975-1990 civil war and became French citizens.
After meeting Christian President Michel Aoun – her first public handshake with a head of state – and Sunni Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Monday, she had been scheduled to meet the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian
He heads the Dar al-Fatwa, the top religious authority for Sunni Muslims in the multireligious country.
“I met the grand mufti of Al-Azhar,” she told reporters, referring to a visit in 2015 to Cairo’s 1,000-year-old center of Islamic learning. “The highest Sunni authority didn’t have this requirement, but it doesn’t matter.
“You can pass on my respects to the grand mufti, but I will not cover myself up,” she said.
The cleric’s press office said Le Pen’s aides had been informed beforehand that a headscarf was required for the meeting and had been “surprised by her refusal”.
But it was no surprise in the French political context.
French law bans headscarves in the public service and for high school pupils, in the name of church-state separation and equal rights for women. Le Pen wants to extend this ban to all public places, a measure that would affect Muslims most of all.
HARIRI’S VEILED MESSAGE
Buoyed by the election of President Donald Trump in the United States and by Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Le Pen’s anti-immigration, anti-EU National Front (FN) hopes for similar populist momentum in France.
Like Trump, she has said radical Islamism must be faced head on, although she has toned down her party’s rhetoric to attract more mainstream support and possibly even woo some Muslim voters disillusioned with France’s traditional parties.
After meeting Hariri on Monday, Le Pen went against current French policy in Syria by describing President Bashar al-Assad as the “only viable solution” for preventing Islamic State from taking power in Syria.
“I explained clearly that … Bashar al-Assad was obviously today a much more reassuring solution for France than Islamic State would be if it came to power in Syria,” she told reporters.
Hariri, whose family has close links to conservative former French President Jacques Chirac and still has a home in France, issued a strongly-worded statement after their meeting.
“The most serious error would be to link Islam and Muslims on the one hand and terrorism on the other,” Hariri said.
“The Lebanese and Arabs, like most of the world, considers that France is the home of human rights and the republican state makes no distinction between citizens on ethnic, religious or class grounds.”
(Additional reporting by Angus McDowall; Writing by John Irish; Editing by Tom Heneghan)
BEIRUT (AFP) – The head of Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement on Sunday urged the government to coordinate with Damascus to help refugees to return now that “large areas” of Syria are “safe”.
In a televised address, Hassan Nasrallah said Syrian refugees should not be coerced into going home, but added that a string of “victories” by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces meant it would be safe for many to return.
“Military victories in Syria, the most recent of them the victory in Aleppo… have turned large areas into safe and quiet spaces,” Nasrallah said.
He urged “cooperation to return the majority of these refugees to their towns and villages and homes, so they will no longer be refugees sitting in tents or in the streets”.
Lebanon hosts around a million registered Syrian refugees and has struggled with the consequences of the war in neighbouring Syria since it began in March 2011.
Hezbollah is a key ally of Assad’s government, and its fighters battle alongside his troops against opposition forces, including during the December recapture of second city Aleppo.
Nasrallah said the process of returning Syrian refugees should be “one of persuasion, not of coercion”.
“It is the duty of all Lebanese to deal with this issue in a humanitarian fashion, setting aside political considerations or fears,” he added.
He also urged the government in Beirut to engage with its Syrian counterpart on the issue, despite the deep antipathy between Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Damascus.
Hariri accused Damascus of involvement in the 2005 assassination of his father, former premier Rafiq al-Hariri, and backed the uprising against Assad.
“Frankly, the Lebanese government must end its obstinacy… and talk to the Syrian government: is this issue not pressing?” Nasrallah asked.
He called on the government to work with Damascus “and develop a single plan, because this cannot be addressed by Lebanon alone, and begging will not solve our problem”.
Lebanon has struggled to deal with the massive influx of refugees, who have added to the pressure on its already stretched infrastructure and economy.
Beirut has regularly called for more international assistance, and President Michel Aoun earlier this month urged the international community to facilitate the safe return of refugees.
At the end of January, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem also “renewed the invitation of the government to Syrian refugees living in neighbouring countries to return”.
He “stressed the country was ready to receive them and grant them a dignified life”, state news agency SANA reported.
More than half of Syria’s population has been displaced internally or externally by the conflict, which has killed more than 310,000 people.
U.S., European officials say the sales are providing the militant group with desperately needed cash
A video image released Nov. 23, 2015, by the Russian Defense Ministry shows show Russian airplanes carrying out an airstrike against Islamic State-run oil facilities in Syria. PHOTO: RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTRY
By BENOIT FAUCON in London and AHMED AL OMRAN in Abu Dhabi
The Wall Street Journal
Updated Jan. 19, 2017 9:26 a.m. ET
Islamic State has ramped up sales of oil and gas to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, U.S. and European officials said, providing vital fuel to the government in return for desperately needed cash.
The regime’s purchases are helping sustain Islamic State amid unprecedented military pressure on the militant group in both Syria and Iraq. It is also helping the group despite the regime’s insistence that it is dedicated to eradicating the militant group with the help of its top allies Russia and Iran.
Oil-and-gas sales to Mr. Assad’s regime are now Islamic State’s largest source of funds, replacing revenue the group once collected from tolls on the transit of goods and taxes on wages within its territory, the officials said.
“Daesh’s revenue and energy generation is being supported by the Syrian regime,” said Amos Hochstein, a U.S. State Department official, referring to Islamic State by its Arabic acronym.
Islamic State’s energy sales to the Syrian regime illustrate the shifting, sometimes confounding, alliances that have marked the country’s nearly six-year war.
In this case, although Islamic State is a regular target of Mr. Assad’s pronouncements against terrorism, his government depends on the militant group for oil and natural gas to the extent that the capital Damascus “relies on gas produced in ISIS territory in the Palmyra area for a large part of its power generation,” a European counterterrorism official said.
Western officials said the Assad regime has fallen behind on payments to Islamic State for the gas. They said they suspect Islamic State blew up a separate Syrian gas plant on Jan. 8 to send a message demanding payment.
“It shows not only the degree of trade between the two entities, the regime and Daesh, but also the brutality of these kinds of trades,” said Mr. Hochstein, who oversees U.S. efforts to cripple Islamic State’s energy business.
The energy trading between Syria and Islamic State comes ahead of the swearing-in Friday of Donald Trump as U.S. president. Mr. Trump has said that the U.S. campaign to destroy Islamic State would be a higher priority than toppling Mr. Assad and might mean joining with Russia and the Syrian government in the undertaking.
Mr. Hochstein said the Al-Akram natural-gas facility between Palmyra and Raqqa that is used by Islamic State “should be considered for termination” by the Trump administration.
Syria’s state-run gas company and oil ministry, which has previously denied that the government buys oil from Islamic State, didn’t respond to telephone calls and emails.
Islamic State captured a host of Syrian and Iraqi oil fields and gas facilities after it took over much of northern Iraq and large parts of Syria in 2014. The group continued selling oil to Iraqi and Syrian buyers, including the Assad regime, bringing in up to $1 million a day.
That amount has fallen because of sustained aerial bombing by Russia and the U.S.-led international coalition and anti-Islamic State ground operations in Iraq and Syria.
In the Baghdad government’s fight to reclaim the northern city of Mosul, now in its fourth month, government forces are nearly in control of the city’s eastern half. Islamic State has put up a stiff resistance in fighting marked by unusually high Iraqi military and civilian casualties that according to Iraqi commanders and the United Nations, have been caused by the large number of combatants in a confined area and the extremist group’s use of human shields.
Western Mosul remains under full Islamic State control, but the militants are surrounded and its supply lines from Syria have been cut, Iraqi and American officials said.
Oil trucks that once carried petroleum to Iraq from the Tanak oil field near Islamic-State-held Deir Ezzour, Syria, have been rerouted. Now they transport their cargo to the Assad regime instead, Mr. Hochstein and other Western security officials said.
The oil-smuggling routes in Syria and Iraq that Islamic State once used to transport crude to southern Turkey have been severed by Turkish military and Turkey-backed militants, a Western security official said.
Islamic State has found some relief from U.S. airstrikes targeting their oil-smuggling operations in central and western Syria, where the Russian military has a heavy air presence, a Western official said. The group is also harder to hit in Syria because the pockets of territory it controls are smaller, the official said.
Still, the battlefield has tilted against the group, and its finances are strained, according Jonathan Schanzer, a former U.S. Treasury Department counterterrorism official.
“Islamic State is under sustained pressure” and is struggling to extract taxes and sell oil, forcing it to deal with the Assad regime, said Mr. Schanzer, now vice president of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington.
Faced with a country in ruins, Mr. Assad is also under economic pressure. In recent weeks, Russia and Iran have reduced deliveries of cheap gas that normally power Syria’s electricity plants in recent weeks, Western security officials said. The cutbacks have increased the regime’s need for other sources of oil and especially natural gas.
—Tamer El-Ghobashy in Erbil, Iraq, contributed to this article.
By Barbara Plett Usher BBC State Department correspondent
13 January 2017
How did a man who took office espousing a new era of engagement with the world end up a spectator to this century’s greatest humanitarian catastrophe?
Barack Obama was not against using force to protect civilians. Yet he resisted, to the end, a military intervention to stem Syria’s six-year civil war, even as it killed or displaced half the country’s population, brutally documented in real time on social media.
Part of the answer to this vexing question has been clear from the beginning. President Obama was elected to end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by a people tired of paying the cost in blood and treasure. He was extremely reluctant to get sucked into another messy Middle East conflict.
But when the siege and bombardment of cities like Aleppo placed the violence on the genocidal scale of atrocities set by Rwanda and Srebrenica, inaction by the US and its allies mocked the international community’s vows of “never again”.
Despite the pressing moral imperative, Obama remained convinced a military intervention would be a costly failure.
He believed there was no way the US could help win the war and keep the peace without a commitment of tens of thousands of troops. The battlefield was too complex: fragmented into dozens of armed groups and supported by competing regional and international powers.
A boy pushes a wheelchair along a damaged street in the east Aleppo neighborhood of al-Mashatiyeh, Syria. Reuters photo
“It was going to be impossible to do this on the cheap,” he said in his final press conference of 2016.
But that was not the conclusion of some senior military and cabinet officials, nor did they even propose a mass ground deployment, according to former defence secretary Chuck Hagel.
They argued that a more limited engagement could have effectively tilted the balance of power against President Bashar al-Assad. Among the options: arming the rebels and setting up a safe zone from where they could operate early in the conflict, or military strikes on the Syrian air force to push Assad to the negotiating table.
Instead, the Obama administration focused on providing humanitarian aid, and on promoting a ceasefire and political negotiations aimed at Assad’s departure.
“There is no military solution” became the mantra in briefing rooms at the White House and state department, but spokespeople were unable to explain how a political solution was possible without military leverage.
“If there is to be any hope of a political settlement, a certain military and security context is required,” former CIA Director David Petraeus told a Senate committee last year. “We and our partners need to facilitate it, and…have not done so.”
Obama’s caution was reinforced by lack of support for military intervention from key allies such as the UK and Germany. That influenced his decision to back away from his famous “red line” threat of force in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
It was also part of a larger pessimism about what the US could achieve in the Middle East, sealed by a Nato intervention in Libya that was carefully planned but still left the country in a mess.
“The liberal interventionists seem to have forgotten that it is no longer the 1990s,” wrote two of Obama’s former national security officials, Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson, in October last year. “Disastrous forays in Iraq and Libya have undermined any American willingness to put values before interests.”
Indeed, to fully understand President Obama’s reticence, it is important to also understand that despite his liberal instincts and his soaring rhetoric about a more peaceful global order, he was a foreign policy realist with a keen sense of the limits to American power.
Although he campaigned to restore US moral authority after the disaster of the Iraq War, he rejected what he saw as the moralising interventionism of the president he replaced, George W Bush.
Instead, his emphasis was on measured diplomacy and progressive multilateralism.
That included a willingness to engage with repressive regimes, rather than consign them to an “Axis of Evil” – giving them “the choice of an open door”, he told the Nobel Peace Committee when accepting its prize at the end of his first year in office.
Above all, he was not willing to prevent humanitarian tragedies by expending American lives and military power unless he saw a direct security threat to the United States.
The agreement on Iran’s nuclear deal is an example of this doctrine at its most effective.
Obama ably used diplomacy to force an issue around which there was a high degree of international consensus. He marshalled broad support for crippling sanctions, and then stretched out his hand to America’s most enduring Middle East foe and negotiated an achievable deal – one that limited a threat rather than transformed a relationship.
Cuba also walked through that “open door”, propelled by an economic crisis at home and drawn by a less hostile political climate in America, as did the junta in Myanmar.
Damascus did not. And Obama decided against trying to push it through.
US administrations have tended to bridge the gap between values and interests when the moral choice is also strategic. But Obama calculated early on that the Syrian civil war did not directly endanger America’s national security.
Instead he focused US military might against the so-called Islamic State (IS), which he did eventually see as a threat to the homeland.
Again, he was able to organise an international coalition that has had considerable success in achieving a limited goal.
Rebel fighters stand with their weapons on a military vehicle as they head towards the northern Syrian town of al-Bab. Reuters
Dividing his Syria policy in two, however, meant inevitable contradictions. The White House held that the only way to stop the spread of IS was to end the rule and brutality of the Assad regime. But America’s absence from the civil conflict served to strengthen the Syrian president.
Obama did grudgingly approve some covert military aid to moderate Syrian rebels to diffuse the power of Islamist fighters. But it wasn’t enough to shape them into a force that could defeat Assad.
So the vacuum was filled by the better-supplied Islamist groups, feeding into Assad’s narrative that the world had to choose between him or terrorists.
The presence of Islamist rebels, along with the momentum of the anti-IS campaign, also began to colour views of the regime within the administration, according to a US official who worked closely with these issues.
“Everything was done through a counterterrorism lens,” he says. “This is a bunch of people who wanted Assad to stay because they were terrified of political Islamists taking over.”
Obama argued that the regime’s supporters, Russia and Iran, had more at stake in Syria than the US and would be prepared to fight harder to defend it. So any American intervention would only escalate the conflict. It’s the same calculation he made in his approach to Ukraine.
Russia did enter the war to reverse rebel gains in 2015, turning the tide. Its anti-aircraft weapons closed the door on even the remote chance of a US intervention. Its air force solidified Assad’s grip on Syria’s cities, culminating in the military victory over Aleppo and giving Moscow new leverage in the Middle East while sidelining the US.
Many in the American foreign policy establishment believe Obama erred in defining US interests too narrowly in Syria.
“Syria exploded in strategic ways,” says Vali Nasr, who’s written a book arguing that the president’s policies have diminished America’s leadership role in the world.
“It empowered Russia and Iran, produced ISIS, strengthened al-Qaeda and created the refugee crisis which became a strategic threat to Europe.”
Obama’s critics have also faulted him for a detached, analytical leadership style they say is unsuited to geopolitical jousting.
“He wasn’t good at brinkmanship, it wasn’t his inclination,” says Ian Bremmer, president of the political risk firm Eurasia Group.
Secretary of State John Kerry talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in 2013. AP photo
“I’ve always thought [George W] Bush was a leader who didn’t like to think, and Obama a thinker who didn’t like to lead.”
Obama has taken the lead on combating what he sees as one of the biggest threats, climate change. And he hasn’t hesitated from unilaterally ordering force when he felt America’s security was at stake, as shown by his prolific use of drones against terrorist suspects.
But in Syria his administration left a perception of American weakness.
Stepping back from his red line on chemical weapons damaged US credibility, shaking the confidence of allies and, some argue, emboldening its adversaries.
“Some in the administration thought that the longer we continued to engage the Russians in a facade of ceasefire and political negotiations the more we were providing political cover to the regime and Russia and Iran as they continued to pursue a military victory,” said the US official.
“It’s hard to understand why the state department is going along with it,” a European diplomat told me as the talks became about managing that victory. “It’s supporting the Russian narrative.”
Although Obama says he came to understand that very little is accomplished in international affairs without US leadership, he doesn’t talk about it as a strategic asset, says Nasr.
That sets him apart from his predecessors who “believe US leadership is important for the world and important for America’s hardnosed interests. Obama believes we can selectively lead where we have clear definable interests… but American leadership as a free-floating independent idea doesn’t have value to him”.
Despite the personality chasm between the cerebral lawyer exiting the White House and the reality TV star entering it, Barack Obama and Donald Trump are on the same page when it comes to non-interventionism.
In that sense, Trump’s “America First” foreign policy is expected to be an extension of President Obama’s.
But it would be a stripped-down version without Obama’s attachment to international law and institutions or his moral commitment to universal rights, argues Max Boot, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
And although neither would seek foreign quarrels, Trump would be more disposed to “clobber anyone who messes with” the United States.
Would that make major powers such as China and Russia less likely to mess with America?
Boot suggests Trump’s “menacing unpredictability” could be more effective than Obama’s reasonable predictability in confrontations with Beijing. The President-elect’s call with the Taiwanese president shows a penchant for brinkmanship that has certainly put China on alert.
Against these uncertain advantages, however, stand Trump’s inexperience, his intemperate nature, and his hostility to some of the building blocks of US power, such as free trade in Asia.
Crucially, his uncritical support for Moscow, along with allegations that it has compromising information about him, have put America’s Russia policy into uncharted territory.
Some of the President-elect’s key cabinet officials can be expected to try and temper his extreme impulses and outlier positions, while taking a more muscular approach than Obama.
In confirmation hearings, Trump’s choices for secretary of state and defence advocated a conventional hard power policy, that included checking Russian moves on the geopolitical chess board.
But the nominee for top diplomat, Rex Tillerson, echoed Trump’s hard line on China by proposing an unusually aggressive stance against Beijing, raising eyebrows and concerns amongst many lawmakers and diplomats.
History could very well judge Obama positively on Iran, Cuba and climate change. But the most important test of his foreign policy philosophy will be Syria, because it has been the crucible for the kind of realism he believes in.
He argues that he’s saved the US from getting trapped in another disastrous Middle East war that would sap America’s power. His critics charge he has diminished US power in a crucial region, and weakened American global leadership in the process.
The factor that shapes his legacy will be the same one that tests Trump: the extent to which either sustain, or reduce America’s role in the world.
International investigators have said for the first time that they suspect President Bashar al-Assad and his brother are responsible for the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict, according to a document seen by Reuters.
A joint inquiry for the United Nations and global watchdog the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had previously identified only military units and did not name any commanders or officials.
Now a list has been produced of individuals whom the investigators have linked to a series of chlorine bomb attacks in 2014-15 – including Assad, his younger brother Maher and other high-ranking figures – indicating the decision to use toxic weapons came from the very top, according to a source familiar with the inquiry.
The Assads could not be reached for comment but a Syrian government official said accusations that government forces had used chemical weapons had “no basis in truth”. The government has repeatedly denied using such weapons during the civil war, which is almost six years old, saying all the attacks highlighted by the inquiry were the work of rebels or the Islamic State militant group.
The list, which has been seen by Reuters but has not been made public, was based on a combination of evidence compiled by the U.N.-OPCW team in Syria and information from Western and regional intelligence agencies, according to the source, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Reuters was unable to independently review the evidence or to verify it.
The U.N.-OPCW inquiry – known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism – is led by a panel of three independent experts, supported by a team of technical and administrative staff. It is mandated by the U.N. Security Council to identify individuals and organizations responsible for chemical attacks in Syria.
Virginia Gamba, the head of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, denied any list of individual suspects had yet been compiled by the inquiry.
“There are no … identification of individuals being considered at this time,” she told Reuters by email.
The use of chemical weapons is banned under international law and could constitute a war crime.
While the inquiry has no judicial powers, any naming of suspects could lead to their prosecution. Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court, but alleged war crimes could be referred to the court by the Security Council – although splits among global powers over the war make this a distant prospect at present.
Syrian President Bashat Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, October 21, 2015. Credit: ALEXEY DRUZHININ, RIA NOVOSTI, Kremlin pool, AFP –
The list could form the basis for the inquiry team’s investigations this year, according to the source. It is unclear whether the United Nations or OPCW will publish the list separately.
The list identifies 15 people “to be scrutinized in relation to use of CW (chemical weapons) by Syrian Arab Republic Armed Forces in 2014 and 2015”. It does not specify what role they are suspected of playing, but lists their titles.
It is split into three sections. The first, titled “Inner Circle President” lists six people including Assad, his brother who commands the elite 4th Armoured Division, the defense minister and the head of military intelligence.
The second section names the air force chief as well as four commanders of air force divisions. They include the heads of the 22nd Air Force Division and the 63rd Helicopter Brigade, units that the inquiry has previously said dropped chlorine bombs.
The third part of the list – “Other relevant Senior Mil Personnel” – names two colonels and two major-generals.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, an independent specialist in biological and chemical weapons who monitors Syria, told Reuters the list reflected the military chain of command.
“The decisions would be made at the highest levels initially and then delegated down. Hence the first use would need to be authorized by Assad,” said de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of British and NATO chemical and biological defense divisions who frequently visits Syria for professional consultancy work.
The Syrian defense ministry and air force could not be reached for comment.
President Assad’s younger brother Maher-al-Assad is sometimes called “The Butcher.”
CHLORINE BARREL BOMBS
Syria joined the international Chemical Weapons Convention under a U.S.-Russian deal that followed the deaths of hundreds of civilians in a sarin gas attack in Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus in August 2013.
It was the deadliest use of chemicals in global warfare since the 1988 Halabja massacre at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, which killed at least 5,000 people in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Syrian government, which denied its forces were behind the Ghouta attack, also agreed to hand over its declared stockpile of 1,300 tonnes of toxic weaponry and dismantle its chemical weapons program under international supervision.
The United Nations and OPCW have been investigating whether Damascus is adhering to its commitments under the agreement, which averted the threat of U.S.-led military intervention.
The bodies appointed the panel of experts to conduct the inquiry, and its mandate runs until November. The panel published a report in October last year which said Syrian government forces used chemical weapons at least three times in 2014-2015 and that Islamic State used mustard gas in 2015.
The October report identified Syria’s 22nd Air Force Division and 63rd Helicopter Brigade as having dropped chlorine bombs and said people “with effective control in the military units … must be held accountable”.
The source familiar with the inquiry said the October report had clearly established the institutions responsible and that the next step was to go after the individuals.
Washington on Thursday blacklisted 18 senior Syrian officials based on the U.N.-OPCW inquiry’s October report – some of whom also appear on the list seen by but not Assad or his brother.
The issue of chemical weapons use in Syria has become a deeply political one, and the U.N.-OPCW inquiry’s allegations of chlorine bomb attacks by government forces have split the U.N. Security Council’s veto-wielding members.
The United States, Britain and France have called for sanctions against Syria, while Assad’s ally Russia has said the evidence presented is insufficient to justify such measures.
A Security Council resolution would be required to bring Assad and other senior Syrian officials before the International Criminal Court for any possible war crimes prosecution – something Russia would likely block.
French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve delivers a speech outlining his new government program at the National Assembly in Paris, France, December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer
France on Monday called on Russia to stop military action in Syria and respect a fragile ceasefire brokered by Moscow and Turkey seeking to end nearly six years of war.
“We resolutely condemn everything Russia could do in Syria that would contribute to a continuation of fighting,” Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on France Inter radio.
The truce deal, which was welcomed unanimously by the United Nations Security Council, has been repeatedly violated since it began, with warring sides trading the blame.
Rebels on Saturday warned they would abandon the truce if the government side continued to violate it, asking the Russians, who support President Bashar al-Assad, to rein in army and militia attacks in the valley by 8:00 p.m.
“We hope talks between separate Syrian forces will continue so the ceasefire can hold,” Cazeneuve said.
“We ask the Russians to stop taking part in military operations which are deadly operations,” he added, without specifying which actions in particular he was referring to.
(Reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Ingrid Melander)
Airstrikes in parts of Syria have threatened an unstable truce brokered by Russia and Turkey. Hundreds of people have also fled a mountainous region near Damascus, where government forces were battling insurgent groups.
As the fragile Syrian ceasefire entered its third day on Sunday, Syrian government warplanes carried out several air strikes and ground-level clashes.
According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, jets bombed the villages of Kafr Kar, Mintar and around the town of Banan in the southern Aleppo countryside.
Regime air strikes also hit the Wadi Barada region near Damascus, where the government says rebels last week deliberately targeted water infrastructure that supplies the capital.
‘Unlikely to lead to the ceasefire collapse’
Outside Damascus, the Observatory also reported exchanges of fire between the regime and rebels in Eastern Ghouta, where President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have waged a months-long offensive to retake an opposition bastion.
Despite the unrest, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said the air strikes and fighting were “unlikely to lead to the ceasefire collapsing, but they are violations of the deal.”
As a result of the strikes, the Syrian military said some 1,300 people have fled the Barada Valley region since Saturday.
Talks due in Damascus
The nationwide truce, between the Syrian regime and non-jihadist rebels aims to ease the path to peace talks in Kazakhstan later this month, orchestrated by Damascus’ allies Moscow and Tehran and rebel backer Ankara.
The truce excludes “Islamic State” (IS) militants, however, as well as the formerly al-Qaeda-linked Fatah al-Sham Front.
The United Nations Security Council unanimously backed the Russia and Turkey initiative on Saturday. If it holds, the ceasefire could mark a potential breakthrough in Syria’s multifaceted war, which began in 2011 with an uprising against President Assad. Hundreds of thousands people have died in the Syrian conflict, which also made way for the so-called “IS” terrorist group.