Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani Has Registered To Run For A Second 4 yr Term

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES)

ANKARA, Turkey — Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, who helped end the country’s diplomatic and economic isolation with a landmark nuclear deal with major powers, registered on Friday to seek a second four-year term in the May 19 election.

Despite remaining faithful to Iran’s theocratic system, Mr. Rouhani has angered hard-liners with his calls for improved relations with the West, more freedom of expression and an easing of strict Islamic rules.

“Once again, I am here for Iran, for Islam, for freedom and for more stability in this country,” Mr. Rouhani told reporters on Friday as he announced his bid.

Mr. Rouhani’s more conservative critics accuse him of having encouraged moral corruption by advocating social tolerance. Some erstwhile supporters who had hoped for radical social changes under his presidency are also critical, saying he has failed to stand up to Iran’s religious establishment.

The president’s constitutional powers are limited. Ultimate authority rests with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Political analysts said they expected Iranian voters to rally around Mr. Rouhani even though many complain that they have seen few economic benefits from the lifting of sanctions.

“Rouhani is still very popular, and he is in a very strong position,” said one analyst, Saeed Leylaz. “People will vote for him to prevent a hard-liner from winning the election.”

Born into a religious family in 1948, Mr. Rouhani, a Shiite cleric, played an active role in the opposition that overthrew the shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, in 1979. He has held several sensitive jobs in the Islamic republic of Iran, including representing Ayatollah Khamenei for 25 years at the Supreme National Security Council.

Mr. Rouhani is also a member of the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts, two influential advisory bodies in Iran’s multitiered power structure. The latter will choose the country’s next supreme leader.

Russia’s President Putin Cautions Iran and Syria’s Assad

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

Putin Cautions Iran and Assad

When asked by a reporter if he expected more US missile strikes on Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin replied: “We have information that a similar provocation is being prepared … in other parts of Syria, including in the southern Damascus suburbs where they are planning to again plant some substance and accuse the Syrian authorities of using (chemical weapons).”

According to Reuters, Putin said Russia would be urgently asking the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the global chemical weapons watchdog, to investigate the incident in Idlib.

Putin said that he realized that Russia will receive criticism for its role in Syria, but he hoped that eventually positions will be eased.

So, what do these statements mean with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson due to arrive at Moscow for direct talks?

Surely, no one in his right mind would believe that the US is “planning to plant some substance and accuse the Syrian authorities of using (chemical weapons).”

As Putin said, if the US wanted to strike Damascus criminal Bashar al-Assad, there are simply several and logical justifications for it. This has been the case since the presidency of Obama and the US does not need to wait for Assad to use chemical weapons to launch strikes.

Therefore, the only reasonable analysis of Putin’s statement is that he is warning Assad and Iran against doing anything that could lead to more US strikes against the regime which would embarrass Russia, who will in turn not take any action that could lead to a military confrontation with the US.

No matter what Russia’s interest in Syria may be, Moscow will not go all the way to defend Assad because its real interests are in Europe. It has now become evident that President Trump is not the ally Russia was hoping for, but he is rather the president who launched a military strike against Assad.

The Russian president sought to assure the West that his country welcomes criticism of its role in Syria because he wants to convince the West that he is still in the political game. In addition, Russia’s position in Syria is not ideological or a matter of life and death, like it is with Iran and the terrorist “Hezbollah” organization, but it is negotiable.

As it stands, Putin will not allow any more embarrassments in Syria. We say “embarrassment” because Russia did not respond militarily to the Turkish downing of the Russian fighter jet, so how will it respond to US strikes against Assad after he used chemical weapons which Moscow pledged to remove in 2013?

Russia is in a tight spot and that is why Putin’s statement is more of a warning to Iran and Assad against doing anything reckless than being an accusation against the US. If Washington is colluding like that, it is better if Moscow halts the negotiations or not be so eager to welcome the Secretary of State.

It seems that Putin’s announcement is directed at Iran and Assad more than it is at the US.

Tariq Alhomayed

Tariq Alhomayed

Tariq Alhomayed is the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat. Mr. Alhomyed has been a guest analyst and commentator on numerous news and current affair programs, and during his distinguished career has held numerous positions at Asharq Al-Awsat, amongst other newspapers. Notably, he was the first journalist to interview Osama Bin Ladin’s mother. Mr. Alhomayed holds a bachelor’s degree in media studies from King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. He is based in London.

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U.S. Rhetoric is ‘Primitive and Loutish’: Russian Deputy Foreign Minister

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF NBC NEWS)

APR 12 2017

U.S. Rhetoric is ‘Primitive and Loutish’: Russian Deputy Foreign Minister

MOSCOW — A senior Russian official lashed out at the U.S. minutes before a meeting between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday, calling recent American rhetoric “primitive and loutish.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the U.S’s position on Syria “remains a mystery” to Moscow, although he added that Russia expected to discuss the issue of no-fly zones in Syria at the talks.

Separately, Tillerson said talks with Lavrov represented “an important moment in the United States’ relationship with Russia.”

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‘Our hand is pretty weak’ regarding Russia and Syria, analyst says 2:55

The Secretary of State said he hoped “to further clarify areas of sharp difference so we can better understand why these differences exist and what the prospects for narrowing these differences might be.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin did not adopt Tillerson’s conciliatory tone, instead telling local media that the level of trust between the U.S. and Moscow had deteriorated further since Trump took office, according to Reuters.

On his way into the meeting with Tillerson, Lavrov said he believed the visit was timely as Russia saw what it called “troubling actions” last week in Syria, a reference to the U.S. bombing an air field in that country. American officials said the base had launched an alleged chemical weapons attack in north-western Syria which killed more than 80 civilians.

Image: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) and Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) shakes hands with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Wednesday. AP

“We believe it fundamentally important not to let these actions happen again in the future,” Lavrov added.

The high-stakes talks between Tillerson and Lavrov come less than a week after the U.S. launched the airstrikes, triggering a deterioration in ties between the two governments. The White House has accused Russia of trying to “cover up” Assad’s role in the attack.

Separately, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian newswires a meeting between Tillerson and Russian President Vladimir Putin was not on the agenda as things stand but he did not rule it out.

“There is a certain possibility,” Peskov told state-run TASS agency. “You know the talks between the Russian foreign minister and the U.S. Secretary of State are currently underway, and if they later decide to report on the results of these talks to the head of state, we will let you know.”

Trump Was Right to Strike Syria

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

Opinion

Trump Was Right to Strike Syria

President Trump’s air strikes against Syria were of dubious legality. They were hypocritical. They may have had political motivations.

But most of all, they were right.

I’m deeply suspicious of Trump’s policies and competence, but this is a case where he is right and Barack Obama was wrong. Indeed, many of us believe that Obama’s worst foreign policy mistake was his passivity in Syria.

But Trump changed US policy 180 degrees after compelling photos emerged of children gassed in Syria. Should a president’s decisions about war really depend on the photos taken?

Here’s why I believe he was right.

Since the horrors of mustard gas during World War I a century ago, one of the world’s more successful international norms has been a taboo on the use of chemical weapons. We all have an interest in reinforcing that norm, so this is not just about Syria but also about deterring the next dictator from turning to sarin.

For an overstretched military, poison gas is a convenient way to terrify and subdue a population. That’s why Saddam Hussein used gas on Kurds in 1988, and why Bashar al-Assad has used gas against his own people in Syria. The best way for the world to change the calculus is to show that use of chemical weapons carries a special price — such as a military strike on an airbase.

Paradoxically, Assad may have used chemical weapons because he perceived a green light from the Trump administration. In recent days, Rex Tillerson, Sean Spicer and Nikki Haley all suggested that it was no longer American policy to push for the removal of Assad, and that may have emboldened him to open the chemical weapons toolbox. That mistake made it doubly important for Trump to show that neither Assad nor any leader can get away with using weapons of mass destruction.

Look, for a Syrian child, it doesn’t matter much whether death comes from a barrel bomb, a mortar shell, a bullet, or a nerve agent. I hope Trump will also show more interest in stopping all slaughter of Syrians — but it’s still important to defend the norm against chemical weapons (the United States undermined that norm after Saddam’s gas attack by falsely suggesting that Iran was to blame).

Critics note that Trump’s air strikes don’t have clear legal grounding. But Bill Clinton’s 1999 intervention to prevent genocide in Kosovo was also of uncertain legality, and thank God for it. Clinton has said that his greatest foreign policy mistake was not intervening in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide; any such intervention also would have been of unclear legality — and the right thing to do.

There are risks ahead, of Russia or Syria targeting American aircraft or of Iran seeking revenge against Americans in Iraq. War plans rarely survive the first shot, and military interventions are easier to begin than to end. But as long as we don’t seek to topple Assad militarily, everybody has an interest in avoiding an escalation.

Many of my fellow progressives viscerally oppose any use of force, but I think that’s a mistake. I was against the Iraq war, but some military interventions save lives. The no fly zone over northern Iraq in the 1990s is one example, and so are the British intervention in Sierra Leone and French intervention in Mali. It’s prudent to be suspicious of military interventions, but imprudent to reject any use of force categorically.

Want proof that military interventions in the Middle East can work? In 2014, Obama ordered air strikes near the Syria-Iraq border against ISIS as it was attacking members of the Yazidi minority. Those US strikes saved many thousands of Yazidi lives, although they came too late to save thousands more who were killed or kidnapped as slaves.

In Syria, the crucial question is what comes next.

There’s some bold talk among politicians about ousting Assad from Syria. Really? People have been counting on Assad’s fall for six years now, and he’s as entrenched as ever.

Moreover, if this was a one-time strike then the larger slaughter in Syria will continue indefinitely. But I’m hoping that the administration may use it as a tool to push for a ceasefire.

The New York Times

Syria… What about Israel?

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

Opinion

Syria… What about Israel?

In response to the US missile attack against al-Shayrat airbase – controlled by Assad regime- the so-called joint command center (Russia-Iran-Assad) besides other armed groups including the terrorist “Hezbollah” announced that the US attack has crossed “red lines” and “from now on, we will respond forcefully to any aggression and any crossing of the red lines.”

The statement added that: “America is fully aware of our ability to respond.”

Alright, what about the Israeli strikes in Syria against Assad-regime and “Hezbollah”, assassinating several leaders thereof there including Samir Qantar who was killed in an Israeli raid that targeted a residential building in Jaramana, a suburb in Damascus?

What about the Israeli defense minister’s threat to Damascus criminal and butcher Bashar Assad on March 19, warning from targeting the Israeli warplanes flying in the Syrian skies? “The next time the Syrians use their air defense systems against our airplanes, we will destroy all of them without thinking twice.”

Are the Israeli strikes and involvement in the Syrian territory as well as targeting “Hezbollah” and its leaders permissible, while the US attack is considered a red line?

Certainly, the statement of the so-called joint command center is mere talk and an attempt to save the face of criminal Assad regime, Iranians and “Hezbollah”. That was why Russians did not promote the statement in media and no official Russian authority – such as Kremlin- even wrote an article about it.

On the contrary, the statement issued after the phone call between the Russian president and his Iranian counterpart demanded carrying out an objective probe on the usage of chemical weapons in Idlib. These loose statements, including the statement of the so-called joint command force, are propaganda and an attempt to save one’s face.

Israel devastated – previously – “Hezbollah” in Lebanon and Iran did not defend it not even with one bullet. Gaza was set to fire during an Israeli aggression and neither Iran nor “Hezbollah” acted to rescue it – Assad regime did not respond to all these Israeli attacks against Lebanon and Gaza not even when the Israeli warplane flew over the presidential palace years before the Syrian revolution.

Iran, Hezbollah and Assad statements are worthless after the US strike as today we are facing a new reality. Concerning Russians, everyone will know the true stance of Moscow after the anticipated meeting of the US Secretary of State and his Russian counterpart.

Certainly, the US has various tools to harm Iran and Russia in Syria — Russians are aware of that, that’s why they are calm and they have accepted the latest US blow in Syria.

Tariq Alhomayed

Tariq Alhomayed

Tariq Alhomayed is the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat. Mr. Alhomyed has been a guest analyst and commentator on numerous news and current affair programs, and during his distinguished career has held numerous positions at Asharq Al-Awsat, amongst other newspapers. Notably, he was the first journalist to interview Osama Bin Ladin’s mother. Mr. Alhomayed holds a bachelor’s degree in media studies from King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. He is based in London.

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Iran’s Master Butcher Ali Khamenei Says U.S. Missile Strike On Syria ‘Strategic Mistake’

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE HINDUSTAN TIMES)

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Sunday said the recent US missile attack on a Syrian air base was a “strategic mistake”.“The Americans’ action is a strategic mistake, as they are repeating the mistakes of their predecessors,” Khamenei’s official website quoted him as saying.

As Europe is now facing the threat of terrorists, the US will not stay away from this threat as well, he added.

The US fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat air base in central Syria at dawn on Friday, saying the strike was intended to deter the Syrian government from using chemical weapons.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem on Thursday said the recent Syrian air strike on a rebel-held town in Idlib Province in northwestern Syria struck a rebel depot containing chemical materials, and denied that the air force used toxic gas during the attack.

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U.S. Missile Attack On Syrian Shayrat Airfield Was Significant But Insufficient

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

Opinion

Shayrat Attack… Significant but Insufficient

Last week’s morning was a turning point in the US dealing with the Syrian crisis. When 59 missiles Tomahawk were launched towards Shayrat airport, this was the first direct attack by the |United States on Bashar Al-Assad regime since the beginning of the revolution six years ago.

The attack has stopped a US clinical sleep towards complications of a war that has resulted in the worst humanitarian crisis in recent history. Surely, speaking about whether the US has started practically correcting its stance is early. This might be a sole step and reaction for a massacre that was one among many committed by Assad’s regime – but it is at least a sign that the world is facing a new US administration that has done in less than four months what has not been done by the former administration in eight years.

The attack on Shayrat airbase, although it was surprising and important, is a small step in changing the field condition and ending the Syrian tragedy. Maybe, if the attack happened when Barack Obama threatened with the “red line” in 2013 and before the Russian military intervention then its influence might have been bigger – it might have contributed to supporting the opposition and putting huge pressure on Assad’s regime.

One strike will not change the horrible way Assad treats civilians and will not affect his power, even if it prevents him from using chemical weapons soon. Nonetheless, Washington believes that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapon in Khan Sheikhoun massacre and, thus, it should be punished.

During the Iranian-Iraqi war, the US supported Iraq against Iran, but soon after that it turned against Saddam Hussein regime after it used chemical weapons in Kurdistan. Also, Shayrat attack might be viewed as a warning to Moscow that their might be consequences for the acts of its ally, Assad.

Russians deceived the international community in 2013 agreement that admitted Assad has submitted his ammunition of chemical weapons, although Moscow knew that Assad kept some storage that was used later on without facing any real consequences by the international community.

Throughout the past years, the regime has carried out airstrikes that killed hundred thousands of innocent Syrians – it used the tactics of starving and bombing hospitals as well as chemical attacks. Despite that, Assad did not face any real consequences, not even once, for his barbarism. However, this time, the Trump administration saw that it has to destroy one of Assad’s airbases to prevent warplanes from striking innocent people and dropping Sarin gas on them.

It is true that the US attack is a huge symbolic step but it will be considered a limited tactic if compared to the facts on ground. If Trump’s slogan was “America first” then this does not necessarily mean acting indifferently towards the world matters but means that America stays strong and leads the world.

The US is not Switzerland to act impartially towards international conflicts and 50 Tomahawk missiles alone will not trigger a huge change. If the US chooses the relatively low-cost option represented in limited military response such as Cruise missiles, then it can also take an international efficient step against Assad’s regime through exerting pressure to implement the international resolutions – establishing safe zones.

As much as striking Shayrat airbase has achieved several goals, its influence will be limited with time if it remained a sole step and not a new strategy. Six years of war have proven that only Russia, Iran and “Hezbollah” are messing in the Syrian territories to support a practically collapsed regime.

The military strike at Assad’s regime might be a first step towards regaining respect to the international resolutions and pushing the international community, US in the lead, to play its role in putting an end to the Syrian tragedy.

Salman Al-dossary

Salman Al-dossary

Salman Aldosary is the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

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With Strike Aimed at Halting More Gas Attacks, U.S. Tries to Send Syrians Message

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES)

Photo

A satellite image of the damage assessment of Al Shayrat airfield in Syria after an American missile attack. Credit U.S. Department of Defense

WASHINGTON — The American cruise-missile strike that destroyed at least 20 warplanes in Syria on Friday was devised by American war planners as a one-time operation to deter President Bashar al-Assad from using his secret stockpile of chemicals ever again.

Military officials said it was never intended to be the leading edge of a broader campaign to dislodge Mr. Assad from power, or force a political settlement in a country that has been ripped apart by six years of a bloody civil war.

The question for the Pentagon, however, is whether this 21st-century equivalent of a shot across the bow will ensure that poisonous gas will no longer be among the many scourges that plague Syria, or whether it will gradually draw the United States in a multisided military tug of war over the future of the Syrian state.

If there is one description that summed up the plan, which was developed at the headquarters of the United States Central Command in Tampa, Fla., it is “proportional.” Details of the plan were described to reporters at a briefing on Friday by senior military officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity in accordance with Pentagon protocol.

Continue reading the main story

The Americans wanted to send a specific signal by striking only the airfield that a Syrian Su-22 warplane had used for its mission on Tuesday to drop a chemical bomb in the middle of the town of Khan Sheikhoun, in southern Idlib Province.

Before the American attack could go forward, however, American intelligence officials had to satisfy senior commanders — and, presumably, President Trump — that it had the culprit. The evidence was abundant, and American intelligence analysts concluded they had “high confidence” in their assessments.

The Americans had tracked the Syrian jet as it took off from the Al Shayrat airfield and dropped a bomb in the middle of a street. The time of the chemical attack, just before 7 a.m., correlated with reports that residents were exhibiting signs of having been subjected to nerve agent. The crater from the bomb showed staining that experts associated with a shell filled with chemical agents.

American intelligence officials also suspect that an attempt might have been made to frustrate efforts to gather evidence of a chemical assault. After victims were rushed to a hospital, a small drone appeared overhead before disappearing. About five hours later, the drone returned and another airstrike hit the medical center; American officials do not know if the drone or the second strike was launched by Syria or Russia.

The shifting fortunes on the battlefield may explain why the Assad government mounted its largest chemical weapons attack since August 2013. In recent weeks, rebel forces have pushed to connect the areas they controlled in Hama and Idlib Provinces. The Syrian government’s control of the Hama airfield was at risk; it was being used by the Assad government as a helicopter base and, it is suspected, as a factory for some of the barrel bombs Syria’s forces had used to deadly effect.

American military officials say they do not believe the strike on Tuesday, which they said was carried out with a nerve agent, was necessarily unique. On March 30, panicky Syrian forces may have used a similar nerve agent in Hama Province, though American officials said they lacked forensic evidence to prove it. On March 25, the Syrians also mounted an attack using chlorine; its use in war is illegal under an international convention banning chemical weapons.

Having concluded that chemical weapons were used by Syrian forces, the next challenge for the Trump administration was to settle on a response. The military options were developed on Wednesday, and when they were narrowed down, the Al Shayrat airfield was in the cross hairs.

Equipped with bunkers for storing chemical munitions, the airfield had been built as a potential launching pad for attacks with chemical weapons — weapons that Mr. Assad was supposed to have given up as part of an agreement that was worked out by the United States and Russia.

Surveying the airfield, American war planners developed a list of 59 targets: aircraft, hardened plane shelters, radars, an air defense system, ammunition bunkers and petroleum storage sites. One Tomahawk cruise missile was fired at each of the 59 targets, and the Pentagon asserted that each hit its mark. An additional missile aborted after launch and fell into the Mediterranean.

One American official who spoke separately from the briefing estimated that 20 to 25 Syrian warplanes were destroyed in the attack, at 3:40 a.m. local time, four hours after President Trump’s order to go ahead was relayed to the Central Command. The runway was not a target.

The strike was aimed at avoiding the 12 to 100 Russian pilots, maintenance and other military personnel who manned a helicopter unit at different parts of the base, and to avoid striking Russian aircraft. American officials said they had no independent information on possible casualties but were confident that Russians were not among them.

The presence of the Russians is just one factor that is leading American intelligence officials to investigate if Moscow was complicit, disinterested or ignorant of the Syrian government’s use of a covert chemical arsenal.

As long as Syrian forces do not use chemical weapons again, American officials have signaled that Mr. Trump’s first use of force against Mr. Assad’s military is likely to have been a shot heard around the world — but also a riposte that will not be repeated.

Limiting the effect of even a narrow operation, however, may be difficult. One potential danger is that Shiite militias backed by Iran, including Shiite fighters in Iraq, might try to retaliate against American troops.

Another is that Russian and American relations may deteriorate to the point that the procedures the two nations use to notify each other about air operations in Syria will be suspended, raising the risk of an inadvertent confrontation.

A more fundamental question is whether the Trump administration will now pursue a diplomatic strategy to quell the fighting in Syria, which has attracted thousands of militants, including many of the volunteers who have joined the Islamic State.

Cliff Kupchan and Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, predicted that Mr. Assad would avoid a direct confrontation with the United States in the near term, calculating that he has enough aircraft, barrel bombs, missiles and troops to continue his fight against the rebels without resorting to poison gas.

Mr. Assad and his aides, they wrote in an assessment, “will probably steer away from any escalation that would lead the international community to recommit itself to a regime change policy.”

Mr. Trump’s intervention against the Assad government may be over for now, but the Syrian war appears certain to go on.

Mr Comey said the investigation was “very complex” and he could not give a timetable for its completion

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE BBC)

Trump Russia claims: FBI’s Comey confirms investigation of election ‘interference’
Media caption What FBI Director Comey said on Trump, Russia and wiretaps

FBI director James Comey has confirmed for the first time that the FBI is investigating alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.

However, Mr Comey said his agency had seen no evidence to back up President Trump’s claim that his phones had been tapped by the Obama administration.

He was giving evidence to the congressional intelligence committee.

The Trump administration said nothing had changed and there was “no evidence of Trump-Russia collusion”.

Russia has always denied attempting to influence the US presidential election.

The FBI investigation would examine possible links between individuals in the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was co-ordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, Mr Comey said.

The FBI would also assess whether crimes were committed, he said.

Mr Comey said the investigation was “very complex” and he could not give a timetable for its completion.

“We will follow the facts wherever they lead,” he said.

putinImage copyright REUTERS
Image caption Mr Putin “hated Mrs Clinton so much” that he had a strong preference for her rival, Mr Comey said

National Security Agency (NSA) chief Admiral Mike Rogers also appeared before the committee.

He said the NSA stood by an intelligence community report published in January, which said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered a campaign to harm the campaign of Mr Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton.

‘No wiretap on Trump Tower’

Mr Comey said he had no information on unsubstantiated claims tweeted by Mr Trump earlier this month that former president Barack Obama had ordered a wiretap on Trump Tower.

This was despite looking carefully for such evidence, he said. The Department of Justice also had no information, he said.


Analysis – BBC North America reporter Anthony Zurcher

FBI Director James Comey (L) and National Security Agency Director Mike RogersImage copyrightAFP

What FBI Director James Comey didn’t say during intelligence hearings today on possible Russian meddling in the 2016 US election was as important as what he did say.

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who had ties to pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians? No comment. Long-time Trump adviser Roger Stone, who reportedly had communications with individuals who hacked the Democratic National Committee emails? No comment. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign after leaked evidence surfaced that he had communicated with a Russian ambassador about US sanctions? No comment.

“I don’t want to answer any questions about a US person,” Mr Comey said.

All of this is evidence that the investigation isn’t just ongoing, it’s substantive and far-reaching.

While Democrats will likely be encouraged by this, it was telling that Republicans pursued the White House line that the topic of greatest concern was the intelligence leaks that put this story in the headlines.

If Mr Trump can consolidate his party’s support, it will go a long way towards insulating the president against any fallout from this investigation.


Meanwhile, Admiral Rogers strongly denied that the NSA had asked Britain’s GCHQ intelligence agency to spy on Mr Trump – a claim that had been repeated by Mr Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer.

The allegation “clearly frustrates a key ally of ours”, he added.

GCHQ has described the claim as “utterly ridiculous”.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Donald Trump at a press conferenceImage copyrightREUTERS
Image caption Mr Trump raised eyebrows after he suggested both he and Mrs Merkel had been wiretapped by Mr Obama

Mr Trump’s recent joke about how Mr Obama had wiretapped both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and him “complicates things” with an ally, Admiral Rogers added.

However, Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said it was still possible that other surveillance activities had been used against Mr Trump and his associates.

What are the allegations?

In January, US intelligence agencies said Kremlin-backed hackers had broken into the email accounts of senior Democrats and released embarrassing messages in order to help Mr Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.

“That was a fairly easy judgement for the community,” Mr Comey said. “Putin hated Secretary Clinton so much that the flipside of that coin was he had a clear preference for the person running against the person he hated so much.”

However, late last summer the Russians concluded that Mr Trump had no chance of winning, based on polls at the time, and so focused on undermining Mrs Clinton, Mr Comey said.

Media caption Trump’s wiretap saga explained in two minutes

Both intelligence chiefs said that Russia had made its intervention in last year’s election campaign unusually obvious, perhaps to further its aim of undermining US democracy.

Mr Comey said Russia had succeeded in this goal, by sowing chaos, division and discord.

Mr Trump has since faced allegations that his campaign team had links to Russian officials.

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has said he saw no evidence of any collusion, up until the time he left his post in January.

Which campaign members have been accused of deception?

Two senior officials in the Trump administration have been caught up in the allegations – former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and Attorney-General Jeff Sessions.

Mr Flynn was fired last month after he misled the White House about his conversations with the Russian ambassador before he was appointed national security adviser.

Michael FlynnImage copyright AP
Image caption Michael Flynn encouraged a softer policy on Russia and a harder line on Iran

He allegedly discussed US sanctions with ambassador Sergei Kislyak. It is illegal for private citizens to conduct US diplomacy.

Meanwhile, Mr Sessions was accused by Democrats of lying under oath during his confirmation hearing in January.

He said he had “no communications with the Russians”, but it later emerged that he had met Mr Kislyak during the campaign.

Mr Sessions denied any wrongdoing, but removed himself from an FBI inquiry into Russia’s alleged interference in the election.

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Israeli Jets Strike Inside Syria; Military Site Near Palmyra Reportedly Targeted

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

Israeli jets strike inside Syria; military site near Palmyra reportedly targeted

An Israeli fighter jet takes off from the Ramat David ar base, southeast of Haifa, in June.

Story highlights

  • Syria says strikes targeted military site near Palmyra
  • Israeli jets make incursions inside Syria, but IDF rarely confirms it

Jerusalem (CNN) In the most serious clash between Israeli and Syrian forces since the start of the Syrian conflict six-years ago, Israeli aircraft struck several targets in Syria overnight, the Israeli military said Friday.

Israel targeted a military site near the ancient city of Palmyra, the Syrian military said, in what would be one of its deepest airstrikes inside Syrian territory since the civil war began there.
Palmyra, once held by ISIS and retaken by the Syrian government, is strategically important to both the regime and its opponents.
Most of Israel’s reported strikes have been around the capital of Damascus, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
In response, Syrian forces fired anti-aircraft missiles at the Israeli jets, saying they downed one aircraft and hit another. Israeli vehemently denied the assertions, calling them “absolutely not true.”
“At no point was the safety of Israeli civilians or the IAF aircraft compromised,” a statement from the Israel Defense Forces said. The statement is unusual in that Israel rarely comments on airstrikes in Syria.
The intercept triggered alarm sirens in the Jordan Valley. Shrapnel from the explosion, which was heard as far south as Jerusalem, landed in western Jordan, the Jordanian military said.

Israel denies Syrian claim it downed Israeli plane

Israel denies Syrian claim it downed an Israeli plane
Syria’s latest claims are reminiscent of its statement in September about downing an Israeli aircraft near Quneitra, close to the Golan Heights. Israel seized parts of that region from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War.
The Israeli military said then that Syria fired two anti-aircraft missiles at its jets targeting artillery positions, but both missiles missed. They were fired long after Israeli jets left the area, the military added.

Arrow missile defense

One of the missiles overnight was intercepted by Israel’s Arrow missile defense system, marking its first operational use. Arrow, Israel’s ballistic missile defense system and the long-range version of its Iron Dome, is designed to intercept missiles outside the atmosphere.
The use came more than a year after the first successful Arrow-3 intercept test was carried out in December 2015. At that time, Israeli officials would not say when the missile would become operational.
The Israeli military would not explain why Arrow was used against an anti-aircraft missile, fueling speculation that Israel was either testing the Arrow missile or that its Iron Dome missile defense system wasn’t within range of downing the anti-aircraft missile.

Taking aim at weapons smuggling

Israel has long focused on stopping the transfer of weapons from Syria to terror groups.
In December, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman told a delegation of European Union envoys that Israel will “prevent the smuggling of sophisticated weapons, military equipment and weapons of mass destruction from Syria to Hezbollah.”
It was another acknowledgement of Israel’s ongoing operations in Syria. Last April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed that Israel has struck Syria “dozens of times,” breaking with the policy of remaining quiet about involvement in its war-torn northern neighbor.
Netanyahu returned last week from Moscow, where he reaffirmed Israel’s military coordination with Russia in the skies over Syria. The two countries established the coordination last year to avoid conflicts in Syrian airspace, ostensibly to allow both countries to operate freely. Netanyahu also expressed his concerns about a growing Iranian presence in Syria.

Repeated incursions

Israel has attempted to stay out of Syria’s civil war but has reportedly struck the country multiple times in the past, often taking aim at weapons shipments intended for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
As recently as late February, Syrian media reported that Israeli jets hit military positions and weapons convoys near Damascus.
In November 2012, Israel fired warning shots toward Syria after a mortar shell hit an Israeli military post, the first time Israel had fired on Syria across the Golan Heights since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Israeli jets have been hitting targets in Syria since at least 2013, when US officials told CNN they believed IDF jets had struck nside Syrian territory.
In 2014, the Syrian government and an opposition group both said an IDF strike had hit Damascus’ suburbs and airport.

Israel wary of Russian military buildup in Syria

 Israel wary of Russian military buildup in Syria
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency characterized those strikes as “a flagrant attack on Syria, targeting two safe areas in (the) Damascus countryside in Dimas and near Damascus International Airport.”
Israeli strikes have also gone after ISIS fighters inside Syria. Late last year, IDF troops operating in the disputed Golan region came under fire from militants of the ISIS affiliate Khalid ibn al-Walid Army, Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said.
The soldiers fired back, triggering an exchange of gunfire. A subsequent Israeli airstrike destroyed a vehicle carrying four militants, Lerner said.

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