The US Has No Long-Term Plan In Syria, And That’s Dangerous

 

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up of an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, looks at smoke rising in the al-Meshleb neighbourhood of Raqa as they try to advance further into the Islamic State (IS) group's Syrian bastion, on June 7, 2017 two days after finally entering the northern city.

NEWS
The US Has No Long-Term Plan In Syria, And That’s Dangerous

on June 20, 2017

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On June 13, coalition warplanes from the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS rained 28 airstrikes down across eastern Syria. Along the Jordanian border, coalition forces moved a long-range artillery system into a recently declared “de-confliction zone,” the first time the weapon system has made an appearance in the country’s south. A few hours to the north, U.S. special operations forces embedded with the Syrian Democratic Forces pushed deeper into Raqqa, ISIS’s defacto capital.

That same day, nearly 6,000 miles away, Task & Purpose asked U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma, about the U.S government’s plan for Syria once ISIS is defeated. Cole, who sits on the Defense Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee and has called for a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Syria, paused. “I don’t think a plan’s been fully formulated.”

As the United States and its allies slog toward their final goal of toppling the so-called caliphate of ISIS, decision-makers in Washington have no real plan for what comes next. The results could be disastrous.

We are now nearly three years into Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led military effort to defeat ISIS initiated under President Barack Obama. The campaign’s raw numbers are staggering: More than 22,600 airstrikes, nearly 9,650 of them in Syria; more than 84,000 bombs and missiles used against the group; tens of thousands of militants killed by coalition-backed local forces and torrents of precision munitions dropped above the battlefield.

Without question, the coalition is making progress. ISIS is significantly weakened, having lost nearly a fourth of its territory and several high-profile leaders in the last year. In Iraq, the jihadists are on the verge of losing their stronghold in Mosul, the site of a grueling nine-month battle led by the Iraqi security forces. With pressure mounting, influxes of foreign recruits have slowed dramatically and vital revenue streams have begun evaporating.

The real fight for Raqqa is now underway. The U.S. military has played an enormous role in the offensive to retake the city, training and arming the Syrian Democratic Forces and hammering strategic ISIS positions in the area with repeated air and mortar strikes. The group will almost certainly lose Raqqa and, in time, be chased to the far reaches of Syria by a disparate group of coalition forces, their Arab and Kurdish partners on the ground, and forces fighting for the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad — all of whom will then have to deal with each other.

A day will come that marks the end of large-scale military operations against ISIS, but it may resemble other so-called victories in the Global War On Terror, a declaration similar to President George W. Bush’s often-derided ‘‘Mission Accomplished” speech or President Barack Obama’s premature announcement about withdrawing troops from Iraq. With no clearly defined strategy, the United States is at risk of being dragged into fighting yet another protracted insurgency, being pulled into a possible military confrontation with Iran or Russia, or some combination of all three — a scenario that will only perpetuate the ruin wrought by Syria’s civil war and provide fertile ground for ISIS to flourish once again.

The Trump administration’s position on Syria has always been murky, apart from his campaign promise to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS. In April, the White House went from tacitly accepting Assad’s rule — White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called it “a political reality” — to launching a barrage of cruise missiles at a Syrian air base in just a few days. The scramble to clarify the U.S. position following the strikes was marked by no less than five policy changes in a matter of two weeks, as The Guardian pointed out at the time, leaving observers guessing about Assad’s fate and what, if anything, might prompt future U.S. intervention in the region.

As coalition forces gird themselves for the protracted “annihilation” campaign that Secretary of Defense James Mattis outlined in May, the scope of U.S. strategy will remain crucial in determining the United States’ future involvement in Syria. Will Washington opt for a short-term outlook, working to crush ISIS militarily and then, following some arbitrary “victory” point, immediately withdraw, leaving allied militias fighting to ensure the jihadists don’t return? Or will the Pentagon find itself drawn into a long-term engagement in the country, caught between mopping up ISIS and the deeper regional rivalries at play in the war?

According to the Department of Defense, the choice might be an elementary school favorite: all of the above. The Pentagon doesn’t “currently envision maintaining a ‘permanent’ military presence in Syria after ISIS’s defeat,” DoD spokesman Eric Pahon told Task & Purpose via email. But the U.S. military will, however, “provide support as necessary to ensure vetted local partners can provide security to prevent ISIS from re-establishing its networks.” In short: We’ll work with our local partners to make sure ISIS doesn’t regroup, but don’t look for some long-time commitment — the same “should I stay or should I go” logic that’s plagued the government’s fraught efforts to extricate itself from battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. But given the complexity of Syria’s conflict, that roadmap could prove near impossible to follow.

While the collapse of the Assad regime once seemed plausible, it no longer seems likely any time soon. Crucial military support from Russia and Iran has rejuvenated the Assad war machine, and battlefield successes and sectarian population transfers have allowed the Syrian government to increase its holdings across the country. Emboldened, pro-regime forces have now turned their attention to Syria’s east, where they are steadily pushing into ISIS-held territory and openly clashed with the coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces on June 18.

This advance has serious implications for the future of ISIS and the coalition’s partners on the front lines.

A despot with a much higher death count than ISIS, Assad’s continued rule would virtually guarantee that the issues that fueled the group’s rise remain unaddressed. More than six years of brutal civil war have left the country deeply fractured along sectarian lines, and the number of people killed could now be approaching 500,000, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research. The vast majority of rebels will never accept Assad — a man whose face has become synonymous with the barrel bombs that have showered down on schools and hospitals.

And what will become of our local partners, those U.S.-armed Kurdish and Arab fighters, once the ISIS fight is over? The DoD doesn’t really seem to know or care. Pahon told Task & Purpose that “U.S. interaction with these forces is focused on the lasting defeat of ISIS,” and while they may have a role in security operations, “questions about the long-term roles of these forces would be better directed to local provisional councils.” If Assad’s forces continue to advance, who’s to say how long these local councils will exist — and in what capacity they’ll be able to focus resources on keeping ISIS at bay?

OIR’s public campaign design isn’t much help. The plan is divided into four phases, with the final stage — “Support Stabilization” — calling for the coalition to provide “security, planning, and required support to the government of Iraq and appropriate authorities [emphasis added] in Syria.” Note the ambiguity here: We don’t even know who those authorities will be.

OIR spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon couldn’t provide any real answers about future plans either. “These are largely political questions outside of what it is that we have been directed to do: defeat ISIS,” Dillon told Task & Purpose via email. “[The] future presence of U.S. forces in Syria will be a political decision made by our leadership in Washington.”

The coalition deferring to decision-makers in Washington should be reassuring, given Trump’s recent, unusual move to place Mattis in charge of setting troop levels. But with top policy jobs temporarily occupied by Obama-era fill-ins — only five of the Pentagon’s most-senior 53 jobs have been filled — who is actually making those decisions? The Department of State, where only a handful of more than 100 appointments have been confirmed, never responded to multiple inquiries from Task & Purpose.

Rep. Cole’s comments provide a stark illustration of the uncertainty in Congress about what’s happening in Syria. Cole described the idea of a military escalation with Iran as “certainly possible” adding that “removing ISIS and replacing it with Iranian-backed militias is hardly a situation we want to end up at.” But this is exactly where we could be heading: Having invested deeply in Assad, Tehran is playing a long game in Syria, gambling that the money and material it pours into the country will allow it to secure a lasting foothold there.

As part of this effort, pro-regime militias have repeatedly violated the U.S. de-confliction zone near the strategically important Tanf garrison over the past month or so. The moves, which analysts have described to Task & Purpose as a way for Iran to test the U.S. position in Syria, have been met by three coalition airstrikes against pro-regime fighters in the last month; coalition planes have also shot two armed Iranian-made drones out of the sky. The last thing Iran wants is any kind of long-term U.S. presence in Syria. According to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Washington feels the same way about Iran. If you’re not worrying about the possibility of a U.S.-Iran clash in Syria, now’s the time to start.

Escalating tensions with Russia could prove just as rocky. On June 18, a U.S. F/A-18 Super Hornet shot down a Syrian government plane that had dropped bombs close to fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces near Tabqa, a critical town located to Raqqa’s southwest. The incident, the first time a U.S. jet has downed an Assad pilot, caused Russia’s Defense Ministry to suspend air coordination with the coalition over Syria’s crowded skies. Russia also threatened to track any coalition jets or drones that stray west of the Euphrates river, significantly increasing the chances of a confrontation between coalition and pro-regime forces.

Considering the trajectory of the conflict, and the potential for escalation, you’d think Washington would have well-developed plan in place. But judging by all appearances, you’d be wrong. Speaking on June 13, days before the sudden spike in tensions across Syria, Cole said he’d “leave it to the administration to see if they’ve got an endgame,” adding that “nobody I’m aware of in Congress has a clear idea about what that endgame will be.” Given the stakes at hand, Americans should find this uncertainty deeply disturbing.

Syria Has Changed The World

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT AND THE NEW YOUR TIMES)

Syria Changed the World

Istanbul- The world seems awash in chaos and uncertainty, perhaps more so than at any point since the end of the Cold War.

Authoritarian-leaning leaders are on the rise, and liberal democracy itself seems under siege. The post-World War II order is fraying as fighting spills across borders and international institutions — built, at least in theory, to act as brakes on wanton slaughter — fail to provide solutions. Populist movements on both sides of the Atlantic are not just riding anti-establishment anger, but stoking fears of a religious “other,” this time Muslims.

These challenges have been crystallized, propelled and intensified by a conflagration once dismissed in the West as peripheral, to be filed, perhaps, under “Muslims killing Muslims”: the war in Syria.

Now in its seventh year, this war allowed to rage for so long, killing 400,000 Syrians and plunging millions more into misery, has sent shock waves around the world. Millions have fled to neighboring countries, some pushing on to Europe.

The notion that the postwar world would no longer let leaders indiscriminately kill their own citizens now seems in full retreat. The Syrian regime’s response to rebellion, continuing year after year, threatens to normalize levels of state brutality not seen in decades. All the while Bashar al-Assad invokes an excuse increasingly popular among the world’s governments since Sept. 11: He is “fighting terror.”

“Syria did not cause everything,” said the Syrian dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a secular leftist who spent nearly two decades as a political prisoner under Mr. Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez. “But yes, Syria changed the world.”

The United Nations Security Council is paralyzed. Aid agencies are overwhelmed. Even a United States missile strike on a Syrian military air base, ordered by President Trump in retaliation for a chemical attack on a rebel-held town, seems little more than a blip in the turmoil, the latest unilateral intervention in the war. Two weeks later, the Syrian regime, backed by Russia, continues its scorched-earth bombings.

There remains no consensus on what should have been or could still be done for Syria, or whether a more, or less, muscular international approach would have brought better results.

The Obama White House kept Syria at arm’s length, determined, understandably, to avoid the mistakes of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. And Western leaders surmised that unlike the 1990s civil war in Bosnia, the Syrian conflict could burn in isolation from their countries.

Moral or not, that calculation was incorrect. The crisis has crossed Europe’s doorstep and is roiling its politics.

The conflict began in 2011, with political protests. Syrian security forces cracked down, and with Western support stronger in rhetoric than reality, some of Assad’s opponents took up arms. The regime responded with mass detentions, torture, starvation sieges and bombing of rebel-held areas. Extremist jihadists arose, with ISIS eventually declaring a caliphate and fomenting violence in Europe.

More than five million Syrians have fled their country. Hundreds of thousands joined a refugee trail across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

Images of crowds of desperate refugees — and of the extreme violence they had faced at home — were used by politicians to fuel fears of Islam, and of Muslims. That lifted far-right European parties already riding on resentment of immigrants, from Finland to Hungary.

The refugee crisis has posed one of the biggest challenges in memory to the cohesion of the European Union and some of its core values: freedom of movement, common borders, pluralism. It heightened anxieties over identity and culture, feeding off economic insecurity and mistrust of governing elites that grew over decades with globalization and financial crises.

Suddenly European countries were erecting fences and internment camps to stop migrants. While Germany welcomed refugees, other countries resisted sharing the burden. The far right spoke of protecting white, Christian Europe. Even the Brexit campaign played, in part, on fears of the refugees.

In the United States, as in Europe, right-wing extremists are among those embracing authoritarian, indiscriminately violent responses to perceived “Islamist” threats. White nationalists like Richard Spencer and David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, post adoring pictures on social media of Assad, who portrays himself as a bulwark against extremism.

In my decade of covering violence against civilians in the Middle East, mass murder by states has often seemed less gripping to Western audiences than far smaller numbers of theatrically staged killings — horrific as they are — by ISIS and its Qaeda predecessors.

The United States’ own “war on terror” played a part in making violations of humanitarian and legal norms routine: detentions at Guantánamo Bay, the torture at Abu Ghraib and the continuing drone and air wars with mounting civilian tolls in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.

Then, too, Syria’s war broke out when the global stage was set for division and ineffectiveness. Russia was eager for a bigger role, the United States was retreating, Europe was consumed with internal problems. Russia and the United States saw opposite interests in Syria, deadlocking the Security Council.

The New York Times

Erdogan Says Turkey, US Can Turn Raqqa into ISIS ‘Graveyard’

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Middle East

Erdogan Says Turkey, US Can Turn Raqqa into ISIS ‘Graveyard’

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday that Ankara and Washington can join forces to turn ISIS’ de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria into a “graveyard” for the jihadists.

“The huge America, the coalition and Turkey can join hands and turn Raaqa into a graveyard for ISIS,” Erdogan told an Istanbul meeting.

“They will look for a place for themselves to hide,” he said.

Erdogan’s comments come ahead of a meeting with President Donald Trump on May 16 in Washington.

Erdogan said Friday that Washington’s support for Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria damaged “the spirit of solidarity” with Turkey, but that he believed a new page would be turned in ties under Trump.

The US believes the YPG is essential in the fight against ISIS.

But Turkey sees the YPG as a terrorist group linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging a deadly insurgency against Ankara since 1984.

Turkey this month announced that it had completed its half-year Euphrates Shield operation in northern Syria against jihadists and Kurdish militia, although it is keeping a presence to maintain security in towns now under control of pro-Ankara Syrian rebels.

Ankara is keen to join any US-led operation to clear Raqqa of ISIS jihadists, but without Syrian Kurdish militia forces.

Erdogan on Saturday said he would present Trump at their meeting next month with the “documents” proving YPG’s links to the PKK, which is designated as a terror group by Ankara and Washington.

“We are telling American friends so as not to take a terror group along with them,” the Turkish leader said.
Tension between Turkey and the YPG has been rising. Turkey conducted airstrikes against Kurds in Syria and Iraq on Tuesday, prompting clashes.

Turkey’s military said Saturday that it killed 14 PKK members in air strikes in northern Iraq.

Six fighters were killed around the area of Sinat-Haftan and eight in the countryside around Adiyaman in two separate air strikes, the military said in a statement.

Asharq Al-Awsat English

Asharq Al-Awsat English

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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Russian Ambassador Says They Do Not Wish To Have Conflict With Israel Or U.S. In Syria

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Beirut- Russian Ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Zasypkin said that his country’s involvement in Syria was aimed at confronting terrorist organizations in the country and “not clashing with any other party whether the Americans or Israelis.”

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Zasypkin denied any Russian-Iranian discord on Syria and stressed that the fate of Bashar al-Assad and the regime must be determined by the Syrians themselves.

He said previous experiences in toppling regimes in the region “did not lead to national accord. On the contrary, there are wars and countries are disintegrating.”

Asked for a briefing on the Russian stance from the current situation in Syria, Zasypkin said: “The Russian position is still the same. This might be the basic quality of the Russian methodology throughout the crisis years in Syria.”

“The key solution in Syria remains the national dialogue between the authorities and the opposition. This has been approved by the international community at the Geneva Conference,” he said.

He added: “Our primary goal was to halt the bloodshed. That’s why we took action in Astana to reach a truce. So, we are working on two tracks: the political one in Geneva and the military in Astana.”

Commenting on the battles in Daraa, Hama, west Aleppo and Lattakia countryside, the ambassador said that some might view things in a negative way because violations are taking place on a daily basis and this is true.

“But the halt of aggressive acts is still active in certain regions, though it needs to improve by foreign parties who can influence the armed groups,” he added.

Asked about any Russian decision to keep Assad in power, the diplomat wondered: “Why is the opposition’s demand for Assad’s departure considered the demand of the people? It is the demand of only a segment and the problem is that this part is armed and includes foreigners.”

Speaking about US-Russian coordination in Syria, Zasypkin said that he can’t comment on military and field logistics.

He added: “On the political level, we took an initial stance towards the unjustified US aggression on Shayrat airbase. Since the beginning, we considered some US actions in Syria unacceptable such as the lack of coordination with the regime and the vagueness of targets. We accepted some others that fell under the announced goals of fighting ISIS and terrorism.”

How The World Sees Trump, 100 Days In—(And It Isn’t Pretty)

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

How the world sees Trump, 100 days in

Updated 4:53 PM ET, Sat April 29, 2017

(CNN) The world was dumbfounded by the election of Donald Trump, and his first 100 days in office have done little to alleviate a deep sense of uncertainty and unpredictability. Indeed, as one observer put it, the last few weeks alone have caused a severe case of global geostrategic whiplash.

The number of campaign promises that have morphed into presidential U-turns is staggering. Allies and adversaries alike are trying to figure out whether a Trump Doctrine is emerging, or whether, as former CIA Director Michael Hayden recently told me, a discernible doctrine does not exist in what resembles a family-run business of policy from the White House.
National security adviser H.R. McMaster “has hired a very bright woman to write the US National Security Strategy,” he said. “It’s a tough job. I did it twice for George H.W. Bush. But I was building on precedent and historic consensus. It’s really going to be interesting to see what an America First national security strategy looks like when you’ve got to write it down.”
Long-time American allies are comforted, though, knowing McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis make up an experienced national security team. NATO partners also welcomed Trump’s declaration that he no longer considers the transatlantic military alliance obsolete.
They, along with regional allies, supported Trump enforcing the previously declared US red line in Syria against the regime’s use of chemical weapons on its own people. After such an attack that the West attributed to the Syrian government earlier in the month, Trump launched retaliatory strikes.
But Asian allies, such as South Korea and Japan, are worried about US policy on North Korea. They welcome the tougher stance against Kim Jong Un’s ramped up nuclear missile program, but they were rattled by the USS Carl Vinson debacle, when for a time it was unclear if the aircraft carrier was steaming towards North Korea or not. It raised the question of whether the administration really has its deterrence policy in order, and South Korea was said to feel utter confusion, even betrayal, when the carrier was actually found to be steaming away from, not towards, the Korean Peninsula.
On Iran, signals are slightly harder to read. On the one hand, the State Department again certified Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. Yet a day later, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson strongly hinted the US could walk away from it, or try to link it to other issues it has with Iran. So far the deal remains in place and neither the EU nor the UN would agree to reimpose international sanctions on Tehran, which helped bring the country to the negotiating table.
On the Paris Climate Accord, Trump’s closest advisers seem to be having an almighty tussle about whether he should stay or stray from the historic deal. Big US companies like ExxonMobil are urging the US to abide by the deal and thereby have more say at the table.
Trump has also hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago estate, and seems to have reversed many of his pledges to play hardball with Beijing. But on trade, just recently a Financial Times newspaper headline blared: “Trump Fires First Protectionist Warning over steel Industry,” saying this paves the way for a global showdown on steel and possible sweeping tariffs on steel imports.
In his first 100 days, President Barack Obama visited nine countries. President George W. Bush visited two. Trump has visited none. But next month he visits Brussels for a NATO summit, and Sicily, for a meeting of the G7. Whether he can convince America’s allies that they have a trust-worthy friend with a strategic worldview as their most powerful ally remains to be seen, abroad and at home.
“I think I know what the policy is,” Hayden told me. “I have more difficulty, Christiane, putting this policy into a broader global view. And I think that’s causing unease with you, with me, and with a whole bunch of other folks who are trying to see, ‘Where are the Americans going globally?'”

Afghanistan

Nick Paton Walsh
It was the mother of all statements, but he may have had nothing to do with it.
The MOAB (officially know as the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast) wiped out an ISIS tunnel complex in the volatile eastern part of the country last week, killing around 90 militants.

Why did the US use the MOAB?

Why did the US use the MOAB?
It was the largest non-nuclear bomb used by the US in combat, but whether the new commander in chief personally approved its use is unclear.
The airstrike was immediately followed up by National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster visiting Kabul and assuring President Ashraf Ghani his country had a friend in the US and a strategic review was under way.
Yet outside of the huge bomb and its message of might, little has changed — as the new White House is inheriting the exhaustion of both resolve and policy options of the last.
A massive troop surge? Talks with the Taliban? A lighter footprint training Afghan security forces to secure the country? All have been tried, and all have failed to stop the insurgency controlling or contesting over half Afghanistan, and the heavy-handed rise of ISIS. Add to that the intense and escalating in-fighting in the Kabul political elite, and there is a very messy summer ahead, with few decent options.

China

David McKenzie
It’s arguably the world’s most important bilateral relationship.
But when President Donald Trump was inaugurated back in January, several Chinese policy experts told me there was a lot of nervousness about the incoming leader.

China's delicate balance with North Korea

China’s delicate balance with North Korea
After all, during the campaign Trump said he would name China a currency manipulator on Day One of his term and threatened a trade war.
As President-elect, he spoke to Taiwan’s president on the phone and openly questioned the ‘One China’ policy, a cornerstone of Washington-Beijing relations in which the US recognizes Taiwan as part of China. And Trump accused China of not doing enough to put pressure on North Korea.
100 days on? Well, it’s a 180-degree shift.
In his first phone call with President Xi Jinping, Trump reaffirmed the One China policy. He has praised Beijing for taking some positive steps on the North Korea issue and he recently said that China is not manipulating its currency.
Trump denies these positions represent a flip-flop; the businessman-turned-president is saying it’s all part of a deal.
“I actually told him (Xi Jinping), I said, ‘You’ll make a much better deal on trade if you get rid of this menace or do something about the menace of North Korea.’ Because that’s what it is, it’s a menace right now,” Trump said last week.
Trump said he has developed a strong relationship with Xi Jinping and that their scheduled 15-minute meetings at the Mar-a-Lago summit stretched into “hours.”
But Yan Xuetong, a foreign policy expert at Tsinghua University, told me that the Chinese are skeptical. He said that if North Korea goes ahead with its nuclear program, then China will take the blame.
“Trump will use China as scapegoat to tell (the) American public that it is not his problem,” said Yan.
In Yan’s eyes, at least, the Chinese suspect more Trump policy turns.

Egypt

Ian Lee
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was the first foreign leader to congratulate President Donald Trump after he won the November 2016 presidential election. The two leaders had instantly hit it off when they met a few months earlier in New York.
Their views are more aligned than were those of President Barack Obama, which reacted coolly to the 2013 coup by Egypt’s military — led at the time by Sisi. When he became president soon afterward, he ushered in a new low between Washington and Cairo.

ISIS claims responsibility for church blasts

ISIS claims responsibility for church blasts
It was an open secret that Cairo wished for a Trump victory over Obama’s former secretary of state, Hilary Clinton. Trump was perceived by Cairo as a pragmatist who had little interest in human rights.
In his first days in office, Trump invited Sisi to visit him in Washington. The Egyptian president arrived with three main objectives: deepen military cooperation, strengthen the war against terror and revive Egypt’s economy. The invitation to the White House also gave the Egyptian president a legitimacy that the Obama administration had previously denied him.
Recently, in a gesture of good will and eagerness to cooperate, American Aya Hijazi was released from an Egyptian prison after Trump directly intervened to secure her release.
Expect relations to remain warm as long as Trump’s administration keeps the lid on any criticism of Sisi.

Germany

Nic Robertson
German Chancellor Angela Merkel took heat from Donald Trump even before he was sworn in as president.
He accused her of making a “catastrophic mistake” on migrants, only being as trustworthy as Vladimir Putin, and intentionally trying to take business from the US.

Pence reassures NATO allies in Munich speech

Pence reassures NATO allies in Munich speech
For Europeans, Trump’s attitude to Merkel is symptomatic of wider issues: his like of Brexit and his dislike of the EU’s single market and liberal trade values.
At the EU leaders summit in Malta this February, both French and German leaders said openly that Trump’s attitude was uniting Europe to stand on its own feet.
Since then, Trump has said the EU is “wonderful” and he is “totally in favor of it.” Yet he still supports Brexit and seems unaware of the instability and frustrations Europe feels because of it.
It’s not the only cross-Atlantic reversal he has had. Coming into office, he said NATO was “obsolete.” He told the alliance nations they need to pay their way, and has given them a deadline to promise they will.
In recent weeks Trump has changed his tune. NATO, he said, is “not obsolete” — but he still wants members’ money.
Merkel’s March visit to see Trump at the White House did little to quell European concerns over his attitude to Europe, and trade in particular.
That Merkel was ignored by Trump when asking for a handshake in the Oval Office, and embarrassed by him again at the news conference that followed with an awkward comment about being spied on, reveals this relationship has some way to go before it gets on an even keel.
Iran
Frederik Pleitgen
Iran’s leadership realized that Donald Trump was an unknown commodity, but many in the country’s senior leadership hoped they would be able to deal with the new man in the White House.
“We hope that he will have a pragmatic approach,” Iran’s Deputy Oil Minister, Amir Hossein Azamaninia, told me in an interview during the transition period shortly before Trump took office. He suggested that perhaps President Donald Trump would similar to the businessman Donald Trump — a shrewd dealmaker, whom the Islamic Republic with its oil wealth could possibly even strike deals with.

Iranians worried about US-Iran relationship

Iranians worried about US-Iran relationship
But Iran soon learned that the new administration was going to take a harder line towards Tehran than President Barack Obama had. When Iran tested ballistic missiles in late January — which the US believes could strike targets in Israel — then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn came down hard and fast on Tehran, announcing there would be new sanctions. He also said the US was “putting Iran on notice,” without specifying what that meant.
This harsh reaction and subsequent statements by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and America’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley have sowed further uncertainty in Tehran about America’s strategy on Iran. The tough talk and action have put a severe damper on any notion the Rouhani administration had that its fairly constructive relations with Washington during the Obama years would continue.
At the same time, the Trump team’s hard line seems to be having an effect on Iran’s behavior.
There have so far been fewer reports of incidents and close encounters between US and Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf’s narrow Strait of Hormuz than during the end of the Obama administration. And during Iran’s National Revolution Day in February, the leadership did not display ballistic missiles as it usually has.
This has led some experts to believe that Tehran — for all its harsh rhetoric — is making an effort to not further antagonize an American president and Cabinet whom the Iranians view as erratic and very hostile towards the Islamic Republic.
If this was the Trump administrations intent, it could be working.

Iraq

Ben Wedeman
“I would bomb the s**t out of them,” declared candidate Donald Trump, summarizing his strategy to defeat ISIS. “I would bomb those suckers … and I’d take the oil.” The crowds loved it.
A decisive victory over ISIS, plus a grand prize of a lot of cheap oil, sounds great, but the real world just doesn’t work that way and slowly, perhaps, the new administration has learned this in its first 100 days.

Trump's son-in-law visits Iraq

Trump’s son-in-law visits Iraq
For one thing, the battle to liberate the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, Iraq — now into its seventh month — has underscored just how hard it is to defeat the extremists. Since the push in the western part of the city began in February, both the US-led coalition and Iraqi forces have been bombarding ISIS as promised, using much heavier firepower than during the battle for west Mosul in the waning months of the Obama administration.
But the tactic has come at a high cost in terms of civilian casualties, brought home by what US officials concede was probably a US-led airstrike on March 17 that mistakenly killed almost 150 civilians. Hundreds of thousands of civilians are still in western Mosul, often exploited by ISIS as human shields.
But even with the heavy assault, the Trump administration is largely settling down and following the same slow, deliberate approach of the Obama administration.
The battle for Mosul has taken more than half a year and may take many more months. In neighboring Syria, there are nearly a thousand US boots on the ground, backing a mixed Kurdish-Arab force that aims at overrunning the city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS. When this will happen is anyone’s guess.
And then there’s that other topic Trump has toyed with: taking Iraq’s oil. That was decisively shot down by Defense Secretary James Mattis, who flew to Baghdad in February and told reporters, “We’re not in Iraq to seize anyone’s oil.”

Israel

Oren Liebermann
Donald Trump’s fiery pro-Israel rhetoric during the campaign had the right and far right in Israel salivating at the prospects of a Trump administration, while Palestinians worried about an American government adopting a more hostile stance.
Trump pledged to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, “dismantle” the Iran deal, reduce funding to the United Nations and cut aid to the Palestinians. At the same time, Trump said he wanted to close “the ultimate deal” — a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

Trump ties to Israeli settlements

Trump ties to Israeli settlements
Save for the last, Trump has moderated his stance and backed off his positions in his first 100 days in office. The Trump administration has said its still considering an embassy move, but has also called Israeli settlements in the West Bank unhelpful for peace and acknowledged that Iran is sticking by the terms of the nuclear deal. Some analysts in Israel have pointed out that Trump’s positions on the region are beginning to resemble Obama’s positions.
The Israeli right wing’s fervor over Trump has cooled somewhat, but it still expects him to be a friend in the White House. From Israel’s perspective, the big star of the Trump administration so far is US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who has repeatedly criticized the United Nations for focusing disproportionately on Israel. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly praised Trump, refusing to suggest even the slightest hint of criticism, since he entered office.
Meanwhile, a recent visit by Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, left Palestinians cautiously optimistic that prospects weren’t as grim as initially feared and that Trump was serious about attempting to restart negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to meet Trump in Washington shortly after Trump hits the 100-day mark. The meeting could be a litmus test of how the dynamic between Trump, Netanyahu and Abbas develops.

Mexico

Leyla Santiago
President Trump still has yet to meet face-to-face with Mexico’s president, Enrique Pena Nieto, after an awkward encounter during the 2016 campaign. According to Mexican government officials, no plans are in the works, signaling tensions remain between the two leaders.

Mixed messages as top U.S. diplomat visits Mexico

Mixed messages as top U.S. diplomat visits Mexico
Twitter exchanges, however, have cooled down since a public war of words in January between @EPN and @realDonaldTrump over payment for a wall along the US-Mexico border. Mexico still maintains it will not pay for Trump’s muro (wall).
Many Mexicans still fear Trump could cut off a portion of their income, if he imposes taxes on remittances as a form of payment for the wall.
The Mexican government says, though, that its No. 1 concern is human rights violations. It has invested $50 million to expand legal services at its consulates and embassies in the US in an effort to help Mexicans fearing deportation.
Major questions also loom over the fate of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Trump has called the 23-year-old deal that allows free trade between Mexico, Canada and the US a one-sided agreement.
If a good deal is not renegotiated, Mexico plans to walk away from the pact. The uncertainty in trade relations has led Mexico to strengthen ties with other countries and explore opportunities in Asian, European and South American markets instead of the US.
After Mexico featured repeatedly in the US elections, Trump himself is now playing a role in who will become Mexico’s next leader. Anti-Trump rhetoric has become a central part of Mexican campaigns heading toward the 2018 election. Leading candidates are hoping a stance against Trump will protect Mexico’s interests and win over voters.

North Korea

Will Ripley
When I ask ordinary North Koreans about the impact of President Donald Trump on their lives, they give strikingly similar answers. The response is usually something like this: “It doesn’t matter who the US president is. All that matters is that they discontinue America’s hostile policy against my country.”

North Koreans celebrate 'Army day'

North Koreans celebrate ‘Army day’
Of course, they are only repeating the same message given to them by their state-controlled media, the only media North Koreans have access to. Because US politics are not a primary focus of North Korean propaganda, the vast majority of citizens are blissfully unaware of Trump’s twitter account or the cloud of controversy that has swirled around the first 100 days of his administration.
But they are aware of a few key facts. They know that Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian regime air base, viewed by many as an indirect threat to Pyongyang. They also know that Trump dispatched the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group to the waters off the Korean Peninsula, albeit by an indirect route.
The reason North Koreans know these things is simple: The actions of the Trump administration play right into their government’s long-standing narrative that they are under the imminent threat of attack by the ‘imperialist’ United States.
People have been told for their entire lives that America could drop a nuclear bomb at anytime. Citizens always voice their unanimous support of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. Of course, in an authoritarian country where political dissent is not tolerated, there are no opposing voices.
The North Korean government uses this ‘imminent threat’ to justify its substantial investment in weapons of mass destruction, even if this means citizens must sacrifice. And government officials in Pyongyang told me the policies of the Trump administration in its first 100 days only add to their sense of urgency to accelerate development of a viable intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the mainland US.
They say such a weapon is key to their survival as a nation, even as critics fear North Korea continuing down the nuclear road will only lead to further diplomatic isolation, economic hardship or worse.
There are signs that North Korea is monitoring and responding to the unpredictable rhetoric and actions of the Trump administration. After news broke that the USS Carl Vinson strike group was headed to the Korean Peninsula, I was hand-delivered a statement in Pyongyang saying, “The DPRK is ready to react to any mode of war desired by the US.”
We’ve never seen dynamics like this before. An untested US President who tweets in real time and isn’t afraid to launch missiles to prove a point. And a North Korean leader who has consolidated his power by purging opponents (including his own uncle) and has launched more missiles than his father and grandfather combined.
This could be a recipe for disaster. Or a recipe for lasting peace. Or perhaps a recipe for the continuation of a decades-long stalemate. If Trump’s first 100 days provide any clues, it’s going to be a wild ride regardless.

Russia

Matthew Chance
President Donald Trump entered the White House on a promise of improving the strained relationship between Washington and Moscow.
He was full of praise for his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, suggesting he might recognize annexed Crimea as Russian, cooperate over international terrorism and join forces in Syria.

Lavrov to US: Respect Syrian sovereignty

Lavrov to US: Respect Syrian sovereignty
It was all music to the Kremlin’s ears and talk was of a pivotal moment, of the Trump administration transforming the way in which the United States and Russia saw each other.
But 100 days on, none of that has come to pass.
“One could say the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military level, has not improved,” said Putin on April 12, “but rather has deteriorated.”
US officials have criticized Russia for fueling conflict in Ukraine, castigated the Kremlin for its treatment of sexual minorities, even bombed Russia’s Syrian ally while implying Moscow might have been complicit in dozens of agonizing deaths there caused by chemical weapons.
Part of the reason is undoubtedly the toxic political atmosphere in Washington, where lingering allegations of Russian interference in the US presidential election are being investigated by Congress.
But there is also a growing sense that the Trump administration, at 100 days old, has finally encountered a stark reality: Russia and the United States simply have different geopolitical priorities — whether in Syria, Ukraine or elsewhere — that won’t be easily reconciled.

Syria

Clarissa Ward
When President Donald Trump first assumed office, his strategy on Syria, like much of his foreign policy, was opaque. On the campaign trail he had said that his priority was to eliminate ISIS — indeed, he promised to put together a plan to do so in his first 30 days. He attempted to place a ban on any Syrian refugees entering the US, calling them a security threat. But on the subject of Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, and the brutal civil war he has presided over that has claimed more than 400,000 lives, he was noticeably silent.

Syria, a war on children?

Syria, a war on children?
Trump’s strong admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and interesting in getting the relationship with Russia back on track led many to assume that he would do little to interfere in Syria, where Moscow is closely allied with Damascus. This was reinforced by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comment in March that it would be “up to the Syrian people” whether or not Assad would go, a demand long made by the Obama administration. Regime change, it seemed, was no longer desirable for the US.
Yet, within a few weeks, everything changed.
After seeing the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack in Idlib that killed dozens of children, Trump suddenly took action against the Assad regime. Two days later, dozens of American tomahawk missiles rained down on the regime’s Shayrat air base.
The Syrian people were stunned. Those who oppose Assad had dreamed of this moment for many years, but after President Barack Obama had chosen not to enforce his red line against Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2013, their dream had died. Suddenly, Trump was hailed as something of a hero. Some took to calling him by a new nom de guerre, Abu Ivanka al Amriki.
The strikes on Shayrat changed very little on the ground in Syria. The regime was continuing its daily bombardment within hours.
Still, after six years of standing on the sidelines, the shift in US policy (if it is a sustained shift) has given some cause for optimism. There is hope that perhaps Assad will think twice before using chemical weapons against his own people, that the US may now have more leverage at the negotiating table.
Yet the question still remains: What is the US’s policy on Syria? 100 days into the Trump presidency, we still don’t really know.

Turkey

Ian Lee
Relations with the Obama administration warmed under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when that suited him and then soured accordingly. They have yet to be really tested under President Donald Trump.
Since taking office, Trump has taken a softer tone in dealing with Turkey. Ankara responded positively to the United States’ missile strike on a Syrian air base. Trump congratulated the Turkish president for the success of his referendum, giving him significantly expanded powers, despite the process being deeply flawed according to international monitors, an opinion echoed by the State Department.

Turkish demonstrators protest vote result

Turkish demonstrators protest vote result
By the time President Barack Obama left office, US-Turkish relations had cooled. The two leaders had differing opinions regarding Syria. Where Obama wanted to focus on defeating ISIS while Erdogan wanted to oust President Bashar al-Assad. The United States saw Syrian Kurdish militants, the YPG, as an ally against ISIS, while the Turks viewed them as terrorists. And Obama criticized Turkey’s crackdown on the political opposition, intellectuals, activists and journalists and wouldn’t extradite spiritual leader Fetullah Gulen, on whom the Turkish blames July’s coup attempt. Elements of Erdogan’s party even accused the United States of supporting the failed effort.
There is optimism in Turkey among the government and its supporters that a new page can be turned, especially when both leaders plan to meet in Washington in May.
But Trump is likely to face similar tensions as Obama did. One of the toughest will be the upcoming operation against ISIS in Raqqa, Syria. Turkey wants to take part but won’t fight along side the YPG. Trump will likely have to choose between a NATO ally and a proven fighting force.

The UK

Phil Black
President Donald Trump helped create what is so far the most iconic image of Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May — the American president holding May’s hand as they walked outside the White House in January.
May later said Trump was “being a gentleman.”

Scotland calls for independence referendum

Scotland calls for independence referendum
She provided the opportunity for his gallantry by swiftly moving to be the first world leader to visit the new president.
May has unashamedly pursued a close bond with Trump, believing “the special relationship” between the UK and US is especially important as Britain prepares for a future outside the European Union.
May has pushed for a quick post-Brexit trade deal while also trying to persuade Trump to align with Britain’s traditional positions on key foreign policy issues like NATO (crucial) and Russia (deserves suspicion).
The British Prime Minister also threw in a sweetener. She invited Trump to visit the UK with full state honors. That usually means time with the Queen, banquets, parades and gilded carriages.
Such invitations are rarely offered to new presidents and it’s proved to be hugely controversial in a country where many disagree with Trump’s policies, including his attempts to block immigration from select, majority-Muslim countries.
More than 1.8 million people signed a petition opposing a state visit “because it would cause embarrassment to Her Majesty the Queen.” Thousands protested on the streets and have promised to do so again when Trump arrives. That could create some awkward moments.
May’s efforts to stay close to Trump will likely be judged by whether she secures a free trade agreement with the United States. But they can’t even begin talking about that officially until after Brexit has taken place, so that’s at least two years away.

Hezbollah And It’s Illegal Actions (According to the UN treaty) In South Lebanon

  • (THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR)
  • Correspondent

APRIL 25, 2017 The stated objective of the Hezbollah-coordinated press tour of southern Lebanon was to see new Israeli defensive installations on the border – indications, according to the powerful Shiite Lebanese militia, of Israeli fears of Hezbollah’s growing military might.

But as the convoy of vehicles carrying a large group of Lebanese and foreign reporters reached the outskirts of this village on the Mediterranean coast, around a dozen uniformed Hezbollah fighters came into view in an orange orchard on the side of the road. Clutching rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers, their faces streaked in black cream, the fighters stood still and silent, in a frozen tableau.

The unprecedented spectacle appeared to be a deliberate and calculated breach of a UN Security Council resolution that bans non-state forces from bearing arms in southern Lebanon, and it illustrated the unmatched sway Hezbollah wields, and the impunity it enjoys throughout the country. That is the culmination of more than a decade in which Iran’s key ally amassed influence and power to defend its military priority against those who wish to see the group disarmed.

Viewing Hezbollah fighters in the field is rare enough, but this brief, subtly-delivered roadside display served to signal Hezbollah’s defiance and autonomy to multiple audiences. They included Israel, the Lebanese government, and UNIFIL, the United Nations peacekeeping force deployed in south Lebanon, whose headquarters lay less than a mile away from the orchard.

The display of defiance was staged at a time of growing Hezbollah-Israel tensions. Hezbollah’s main strategic objective, analysts say, and one of its guiding principles in the complex arena of Lebanese politics, is to preserve its right to bear arms and its military prerogatives vis-à-vis Israel.

“Hezbollah wants to protect its right to fight Israel at a time of its choosing, and to secure its Shiite base’s political and economic rights in an antiquated sectarian political system,” says Randa Slim, a Hezbollah expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “To do the former, it needs a secure strategic depth in Syria, maintain and fully control its weapons arsenal in Lebanon, and a home-front that is not at war with itself.”

On the border

Opponents of Hezbollah say the border tour was another example of the party behaving above the law and holding the country hostage to its anti-Israel agenda.

“The tour … is considered an insult to the Lebanese state’s standing and a new threat to Lebanon’s relationship with the international community,” said Sami Gemayel, leader of the Kataeb Christian party.

UNIFIL was clearly unaware of the nature of the tour, although it acknowledged that shortly before it began, the Lebanese Army had informed it of a media visit to the border.

The reporters, many of them laden with cameras and video equipment, marched along a narrow path that weaved through an old Israeli minefield to reach within 100 yards of a large Israeli Army listening post bristling with antennas and containing giant golf-ball-shaped radars.

The location is usually out of bounds to the public, and the sight of dozens of reporters entering the area to film the Israeli outpost caught nearby Italian peacekeepers by surprise.

“No, no, no,” admonished an Italian UNIFIL officer, running up to the reporters with his finger wagging in the air. But a Lebanese Army officer accompanying the tour took him by the shoulder and walked him back down the path. More stony-faced Italian soldiers looked on as the reporters departed the scene shortly afterwards in their vehicles.

“This was an assault on UNIFIL’s credibility and ability to operate along the Blue Line,” says Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, referring to the UN’s name for Lebanon’s southern border.

Overture to the UN

Stung by Hezbollah’s bold display, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri hurried to Naqoura the next day to meet with UNIFIL officials and reassure them that it is Lebanon’s government that controls the southern border, not Hezbollah.

“What happened yesterday is something that we, as a government, are not concerned with and do not accept. So I came here to emphasize that our role as a government is to preserve Resolution 1701,” Mr. Hariri told reporters, referring to the UN Security Council resolution that helped end the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, in part by the ban on non-state weapons near the border.

Hariri, accompanied by the minister of defense and the commander of the Lebanese Army, added that his trip was intended “to tell the Lebanese armed forces that they and only they are the legitimate force in charge of defending our borders.”

The rare Hezbollah-arranged tour was held amid growing concerns in some quarters since January that a new war between Hezbollah and Israel may be imminent. The election of President Trump and his administration’s vow to roll back the influence of Iran, Hezbollah’s sponsor, across the Middle East has given rise to feverish speculation that the Lebanese group, which has gained invaluable battle-field experience in Syria’s civil war and amassed thousands of new surface-to-surface missiles, could come under attack by Israel.

Furthermore, Israel has repeatedly warned that the growing influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon since the two-month 2006 war means that in the next conflict the Jewish state will treat Lebanon as the enemy, rather than limit its operations to Hezbollah alone. With that threat in mind, Hariri, while at UNIFIL headquarters, called on the UN to help turn the current cessation of hostilities with Israel into a permanent cease-fire to offset the chances of another highly destructive war.

Hezbollah’s priorities

Ali Fayyad, a Hezbollah parliamentarian, nevertheless dismissed “exaggerated interpretations” of the tour and insisted in a statement that “the resistance [Hezbollah] is in a defensive position and that it is seeking to consolidate … stability in the south based on the equation of deterrence with the Israeli enemy.”

Hezbollah’s opponents say the party controls the levers of power over the Lebanese state in order to safeguard its own interests. While that is generally true, such criticism can ring hollow in a country where politicians of all political persuasions are widely seen as routinely exploiting state resources either for personal enrichment or to fund patronage networks on which their popular support rests.

And while Hezbollah’s influence within the Lebanese state today reaches into political, economic, security, and judicial spheres, analysts say its principle motive is less the acquisition of power but to defend and sustain what it calls its resistance priority – the anti-Israeli military component that lies at the heart of the party’s ideology.

Still, Hezbollah’s determination to hold onto its formidable military assets and the attempts by its opponents to de-fang the party have caused more than a decade of political divisions between the Hezbollah-led March 8 parliamentary coalition, oriented toward Iran and Syria, and the rival, pro-Western March 14 coalition, headed by Hariri. Sectarian tensions have soared and on occasions the country has come close to collapse.

When Hezbollah spent the 1990s battling Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon, its armed status was sanctioned by successive Lebanese governments and guaranteed by neighboring Syria, then the dominant force in Lebanon. After Israel withdrew its troops in May 2000, Syria continued to provide cover for Hezbollah’s military wing despite growing calls in Lebanon for its disarmament.

String of domestic victories

But that fig leaf was removed with Syria’s political disengagement from Lebanon in April 2005, two months after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the current premier’s father, for which Damascus was blamed by many.

With Syria gone, Hezbollah had to take a more proactive stance to defend its weapons even as its domestic enemies sniffed new opportunities to have it disarmed. Hezbollah struck alliances with Shiite and Christian parties, joined the government for the first time, and used its weight to block legislation that threatened its interests.

It even resorted to taboo-breaking violence in May 2008, storming the western half of Beirut in response to a government decision to shut down its private telecoms network. The action triggered several days of sectarian fighting that brought the country to the brink of civil war before the government was humiliatingly forced to rescind its earlier decision.

More recently, Hezbollah was able to secure the election of its Christian ally, Michel Aoun, as president. The previous incumbent left office in May 2014 and both sides submitted candidates. But Hezbollah and its allies refused to attend parliamentary sessions to elect a new president unless assured that Mr. Aoun would carry the vote. Hariri and his allies sought a compromise by dropping their own candidate and nominating another Christian ally of Hezbollah.

Still Hezbollah dug in its heels, insisting on Aoun. After a two-and-a-half-year deadlock, Hariri yielded to Hezbollah’s demand and Aoun was elected last November in a deal that saw Hariri appointed prime mininister. The result has effectively left the March 14 coalition shattered beyond repair, its leaders either marginalized or compelled into reluctant cooperation with Hezbollah.

That has left Hezbollah effectively the victor of the political battle that shaped post-2005 politics in Lebanon with no serious domestic challenge to its armed status.

“So far, Hezbollah’s assessment is that it can achieve its interests and the means to achieving them without ruling Lebanon – especially now that Michel Aoun is the president,” says Ms. Slim, the Hezbollah expert. “The moment any of these means are threatened, as we have seen in the case of [the anti-regime uprising in] Syria, Hezbollah will fight back.”

France ‘has proof’ Assad regime was behind Syria chemical weapon attack

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

France ‘has proof’ Assad regime was behind Syria chemical weapon attack

Story highlights

  • France finds common elements in samples from Khan Sheikhoun and a 2013 Syria attack
  • French Foreign Ministry says there’s “no doubt about the responsibility of the Syrian regime”

(CNN) France has said that it has proof that the Syrian government was behind a chemical weapons attack in Syria earlier this month that killed 89 people.

The French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said that samples taken from the attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun matched those from a previous incident.
“We have definite sources that the procedure used to make the Sarin sampled is typical of the methods developed in Syrian laboratories,” he said. “This method bears the signature of the regime, and that is what has allowed us to establish its responsibility in this attack.”
French laboratories had stored samples taken from other chemical attacks in Syria and so were able to compare them, he said.
A tweet posted by the French Foreign Ministry said: “There’s no doubt that Sarin was used. There is also no doubt about the responsibility of the Syrian regime.”
The attack has been widely blamed by Western powers on the Syrian government, which is supposed to have given up its chemical weapon stockpile in 2013 following an attack in the Ghouta area of Damascus that activists say killed 1,400 people.
International chemical weapons inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said last week they had found “incontrovertible” evidence that Sarin, or a similar substance, was used in the April 4 attack on Khan Sheikhoun, but did not apportion responsibility.
UK scientists had already found that Sarin or a similar chemical had been used in the attack, having tested samples smuggled from the site.

Assad denies chemical attack in interview

Assad denies chemical attack in interview
However, Damascus denies it had anything to do with the Khan Sheikhoun attack, instead blaming “terrorist” groups. It also denies it has any chemical weapons.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, a key Syrian ally, has suggested meanwhile that the attack was carried out by “forces” trying to frame the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Moscow also questioned the impartiality of the OPCW.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that Russia would not change its position regarding the Khan Sheikhoun attack in light of the French assessment.
“The Kremlin and President Putin still believe that conducting an impartial international investigation is the only way to find out the truth,” state-run TASS quoted Peskov as saying.

‘Common elements’

A Syrian man collects samples from the site of a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun on April 5.

The French Foreign Ministry said its independent investigation, declassified so it could be shared with the world, supported “with certainty” the conclusions also reached by the United States, United Kingdom, Turkey and the OPCW.
Analysis by French experts of samples from the April 4 attack site and the blood of one of the victims confirmed the use of Sarin, its report said. Those samples were compared with samples from an attack on the northern Syrian town of Saraqeb in April 2013, in which three grenades containing Sarin were dropped by a helicopter, one of which failed to explode, it said. According to the French army, only the Syrian regime had helicopters so it had to be behind the attack.

Syrians bury the bodies of victims of the attack in Khan Sheikhoun, in Idlib province, on April 5, 2017.

Scientists established the presence of the same chemical compounds in samples taken from Saraqeb in 2013 and from Khan Sheikhoun, the French Foreign Ministry said. “The Sarin present in the weapons used on April 4 was produced according to the same manufacturing method as that used in the Sarin attack carried out by the Syrian regime in Saraqeb.”
The report also cited the French military’s assessment that a warplane had been deployed from the Syrian regime’s Shayrat airbase on the morning of April 4 and had carried out up to six airstrikes in the Khan Sheikhoun area. “Only the regime has such air assets,” said Ayrault.

Pentagon: No doubt Syria behind gas attack

Pentagon: No doubt Syria behind gas attack
“The French intelligence services believe that only Bashar al-Assad and some of the most influential members of his entourage are empowered to give the order to use chemical weapons,” the report added.
The report also describes the claim that rebel forces in the area had Sarin as “not credible.”
It casts doubt on the Syrian regime’s promised destruction of its chemical stockpile, saying that French intelligence services believe “important doubts remain about the accuracy, completeness and sincerity of the dismantling of the Syrian chemical arsenal.”

Missile strike

The chemical attack in Syria prompted the United States to launch its first military strike on the Syrian regime in the six-year war, causing a major rift between Washington and Moscow.
On President Donald Trump’s orders, US warships launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat airbase, US officials said.
The Khan Sheikhoun incident has led to renewed calls for Assad to be forced from power, as international ceasefire and peace talks continue to end a conflict which has killed 400,000 people, according to UN data.

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