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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    Refugees and migrants arrive on an overcrowded boat on the Greek island of Lesbos, November 10, 2015.

    BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian activists opposed to the Islamic State group say aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition have struck a boat carrying people fleeing fighting between the extremists and U.S.-backed fighters, killing at least seven civilians.

    Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently said a boat carrying about 40 people that was hit as it was crossing the Euphrates River in the northern province of Raqqa. It said the bodies of a woman and her six children were recovered.

    The Sound and Picture group that traces atrocities in areas held by IS also reported the same casualty estimates.

    The attack occurred in the Shuaib al-Zeker area near where U.S.-backed Syrian fighters have been on the offensive against IS under the cover of coalition airstrikes.

    SEE ALSO: Syrian forces defiantly take off from airfield hit by onslaught of US cruise missiles

    Join the conversation about this story »


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    Bashar al Assad

    Bashar al-Assad — the Syrian president who has overseen a devastating civil war and this week killed more than 70 of his own citizens in a chemical attack— was once a "geeky" eye doctor, apparently disinterested in politics.

    "He was by and large completely separate to the politics of the country," Neil Quilliam, a Middle East expert at the London-based Chatham House think tank, told NBC Newsin 2015. "He had shown no interest, had not entered the military."

    The second-eldest son of ruler Hafez al-Assad, he moved up in the order of succession after his brother, Basel, died in a car crash. When his father died in 2000, he ran unopposed and was elected president.

    That's how Bashar al-Assad rose to power. Here is how he's held onto it — in the face of rebellion and foreign leaders' calls for him to step down

    Violent crackdowns on opponents

    The Syrian civil war began after Assad forces attempted to violently quash the protests that had swept across the country as part of the Arab Spring.

    Over the next six years, as the civil war has dragged on, Assad's regime has continued to use military forces against both rebel fighters and civilians like those killed in Tuesday's gas attack.

    syria

    Killed and imprisoned journalists

    Freedom House, a government-funded nonprofit watchdog group, ranks Syria as one of the most dangerous places to practice journalism in the world.

    Journalists in the country are routinely "killed, injured, abducted or imprisoned" by Assad's government, along with opposition factions and ISIS, the group reported

    Though the country's constitution nominally grants freedom of the press, broad wording "gives the authorities leeway to crack down on journalists if they wish," according to Freedom House.

    The Syrian government has restricted news coverage of the country's civil war, censors media within the country and disseminates propaganda via state-run media.

    Aleppo Syria Air Strikes

    Help from foreign governments

    The Assad regime has received support from Iran and, in particular, Russia. 

    Assad's strongest ally, Russia has backed devastating airstrikes against rebel-held territories during the Syrian civil war going back to 2015.

    On Friday, after President Donald Trump ordered a strike on a Syrian air base in response to Assad's chemical attack, Russia said the United States had engaged in an "act of aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law" and warned that the act would harm relations between the two nations.

    SEE ALSO: A deadly chemical attack in Syria earlier this week sparked US missile strikes — here's what happened

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: This animation shows how terrifyingly powerful nuclear weapons have become


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    donald trump star wars

    In 2013, Donald Trump repeatedly urged President Barack Obama against taking action in Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack carried out by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, warning that it would "bring nothing but trouble" for the US.

    But President Trump, who recently said that he likes to be "flexible," changed course this week when he ordered a strike on Shayrat airfield and nearby Syrian military infrastructure in response to a chemical attack that killed at least 80 people in northwestern Syria on Tuesday.

    White House press secretary Sean Spicer addressed reporters wondering about Trump's evolution in thought on Friday, explaining that Trump was moved by footage of Syrians, including children, dying of symptoms related to nerve agent poisoning.

    "He was very moved and found the event extremely tragic, so I think from the get go it was very very disturbing and tragic and moving to him," Spicer said.

    Spicer outlined the timeline for the decision-making process. He said Trump asked for more information on the chemical weapons attack on Tuesday morning and was presented with military options during a Tuesday-evening meeting of National Security Council deputies. The NSC principals met on Wednesday afternoon and discussed three options for a response.

    Trump then met with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and decided to act.

    Trump made a statement after the strike and noted that "even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack."

    "No child of God should ever suffer such horror," he said.

    Earlier this week, Trump said that the attack had changed his calculus on Syria and Assad.

    "That attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me. Big impact," Trump said. "That was a horrible, horrible thing. And I've been watching it and seeing it and it doesn't get any worse than that."

    But Tillerson was careful to portray the strike as a carefully calculated move rather than an emotional reaction on behalf of the president. Spicer said at the Friday press briefing that Trump was presented with several different options earlier this week and considered each with his national security team before deciding on the strike.

    "I do not view it as an emotional reaction at all," Tillerson told The New York Times. He said Trump decided that the US "could not yet again turn away, turn a blind eye" after Obama's inaction in 2013.

    Despite Trump's "America First" campaign rhetoric and his 2013 warnings to Obama, Trump hesitates to ever appear weak, and Assad's attack on Tuesday violates a deal struck under the Obama administration in which Assad agreed to remove his stockpile of chemical weapons.

    Assad has used chemical weapons on other occasions in recent years, but this week's attack was the most egregious since the 2013 agreement.

    Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to Trump, reportedly also had a hand in Trump's decision. New York Magazine reported that Kushner argued that Trump needed to push the Assad regime.

    Trump's decision to strike angered some of his hardlines supporters, and his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was reportedly arguing against it. The New York Magazine report noted that Trump going against Bannon's opinion seems to suggest his waning influence in the White House.

    It's so far unclear where Trump goes from here. Tillerson on Thursday cautioned against interpreting the strike as "a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today." And Trump has not yet said whether he wants to take action to remove Assad from power.

    Fred Hof, the director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and former US special adviser on Syria, told Business Insider that the strike would "either be a one-time, one-off, fire-and-forget retaliation for a heinous chemical weapons assault on civilians, or it will serve as a signal to the Assad regime and its allies that the free ride for mass murder in Syria is now over."

    SEE ALSO: Trump may have just signaled that the 'free ride for mass murder in Syria' is over

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: 'Stop shaking your head again': Watch Spicer's tense exchange with a reporter over alleged White House scandals


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    alex jones

    A conspiracy alleging a chemical weapons attack carried out in northwestern Syria last week was a "false flag" operation orchestrated by "terrorists" opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad quickly made its way from a pro-Assad propaganda outlet to leading members of the far-right media in the US.

    The trail leading directly from Al-Masdar News to far-right entities like the conspiracy-trafficking site InfoWars was documented by the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research (DFR) Lab, which uses open-source information to trace patterns of disinformation and hybrid warfare. Al-Masdar is run by Assad loyalist Leith Abou Fadel, who pushed a conspiracy theory in 2015 that a refugee tripped by a Hungarian camerawoman while holding his young son was a "supporter of Al Qaeda."

    "Using 21st-century technology, we can capture the 20th-century horrors and crimes that Assad is committing," said Maks Czuperski, the director of DFR Lab and special advisor to the president at the Atlantic Council. "It is impossible to go unnoticed." 

    The Syrian government has denied dropping chemical weapons on civilians in Idlib province early last week. Russia, an Assad ally, has argued that a Syrian airstrike targeting terrorists in the area accidentally hit a warehouse controlled by rebel forces that had been stockpiling nerve agents, which dispersed and killed dozens of civilians when it was bombed.

    But US defense officials monitoring Syrian warplanes on military radar say they saw the planes take off and drop the chemical weapons, NBC News reported. And the Pentagon is now looking into whether Russia was complicit: A Russian drone was reportedly hovering above a hospital treating gas victims, and then turned off, just before it was bombed by a Russian warplane. Officials are examining whether the strike aimed to hide evidence of the chemical attack.

    President Donald Trump directly blamed Assad for the attack in explaining why he responded by launching missile strikes aimed at Syrian government targets.  

    bashar al-assad

    Assad's 'grim logic'

    Shortly after the gas attack occurred on April 4, Al-Masdar published an op-ed arguing that it "defies any logic" why Assad would drop chemical weapons on civilians and that "terrorist forces have once again created a false flag scenario" baring a "resemblance to the Ghouta chemical weapons attack in 2013."

    (The Ghouta attack left more than 1,000 civilians dead and resulted in a deal brokered by the US and Russia to destroy Assad's chemical weapons arsenal. The bulk of Assad's "declared" arsenal was shipped out of the country, but American officials "repeatedly returned to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons with intelligence reports on remaining chemical stocks," The New York Times has reported.)

    As many analysts have suggested over the past week, however, for the Assad regime to drop chemical weapons on the town of Khan Sheikhoun — which lies in rebel-held Idlib province — does not "defy logic" at all. 

    "Idlib, in general, remains the one piece of northwestern Syria that lies beyond the control of the Assad regime," Fred Hof, the director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and former US special adviser on Syria, told reporters in a conference call on Friday.

    "Idlib houses a really volatile mix of actors, including fairly heavily armed rebel militias and the former [Al Qaeda-linked] Nusra Front," Hof said.

    He continued:

    "To launch a deliberate, conventional military campaign there would be way beyond the capability of Assad's army, which is essentially broken, and would be a huge slog for the [pro-Assad] Iranian militias. So it is possible Assad calculated that a return to the use of sarin gas would allow him to shortcut this process, by introducing an element of sheer terror that he believed the West would not respond to."

    Dr. Monzer Khalil, Idlib Province’s health director, echoed that analysis in an interview with the New York Times' Anne Barnard in an article outlining "The Grim Logic Behind Syria’s Chemical Weapons Attack."

    "It makes us feel that we are defeated,” he said. “We are aware that we are in this Qaeda trap. But in Idlib we have 2.2 million people, and how many Qaeda fighters? You cannot kill the two million for their sake.”

    The attack was launched days after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said removing Assad was no longer a "priority" for the US, before the administration reversed this week and launched missile strikes at Syrian government targets.

    From Al-Masdar to InfoWars

    The Al-Masdar piece was quickly "reproduced verbatim by at least three conspiracy sites: globalresearch.ca, informationclearinghouse.info and The Lifeboat News," according to DFR Lab. 

    It was also quoted extensively in an article titled, "This is why CNN and all mainstream media must apologize for FAKE NEWS Syria chemical attack," which was published by the pro-Russia site The Duran.

    On April 5, InfoWars, a far-right site known for peddling conspiracy theories, picked it up. It ran an article claiming the gas attack was a false-flag operation funded by the liberal business magnate George Soros and carried out by the White Helmets — a civil defense organization comprised of volunteer first responders that detractors have attempted to brand as a tool of Al Qaeda-aligned rebel forces.

    The InfoWars article, DFR Lab wrote, "made the same claims, and used the same sources, as the al-Masdar story," merely "reversing their order."

    Once the theory was in the crosshairs of one of the country's most notorious conspiracy theorists — InfoWars founder Alex Jones — it got help from one of Jones' biggest fans: Mike Cernovich, the self-described "new right" commentator whose work has been praised by the Trump administration.

    " is hash tag of the day! Don't fall for !," Cernovich tweeted to his nearly 250,000 followers on April 6.

    The hashtag was retweeted approximately 3,000 times by some 40-odd Twitter accounts — including fake accounts operated by Twitter "bots" programmed to aggressively pump out propaganda. DFR Lab suggested the idea for the hashtag may have originated with a month-old, pro-Russia account with 18 followers. 

    Much of the hashtag's "initial viral appeal appears to have come from suspiciously hyperactive accounts that tweeted it dozens or hundreds of times in the space of a few hours," DFR Lab wrote.

    'I'm officially OFF the Trump train'

    That the alt-right would pick up on a hashtag aimed at villainizing forces opposed to Assad and Russia broadly aligns with its crusade against establishment politics and perception of the US as a globalist, imperialist power working on behalf of liberal elites.

    The movement's penchant for conspiracy theories about establishment politics and media, however, often goes too far. Two examples are Pizzagate, the fake story pushed by Cernovich about a pedophilia ring being run out of a pizza shop by Hillary Clinton, and the "Sandy Hook Hoax"— the fake story peddled by Alex Jones that the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, which left 20 children dead, was a hoax staged by anti-gun activists.

    Those same actors are now working overtime to characterize the American intervention in Syria as a project pushed by "deep state agents" trying to further their "globalist" agenda. 

    But ultimately, and perhaps ironically, Trump — a consumer and promoter of conspiracy theories who has praised Jones in the past — and his administration blamed the Assad regime for the attack, and ordered a response.

    On Thursday night, Trump ordered the US Navy to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a government-controlled airfield where the planes used to drop the chemicals are believed to have taken off. He then delivered a public statement placing the blame squarely on Assad.

    "My fellow Americans, on Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians," Trump said on Thursday. "Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the life of innocent men, women, and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many — even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack."

    His most fervent hardline supporters, including Cernovich and Jones, quickly lambasted his decision, while continuing to push the broader conspiracy theory that the attack was a false flag using the #SyriaHoax hashtag.

     

    Paul Joseph Watson, a blogger for InfoWars who tweeted last week that Assad had would have had "no motive" for a gas attack, was so upset with Trump's decision that he took himself "OFF the Trump train."

    "I guess Trump wasn't "Putin's puppet" after all, he was just another deep state/Neo-Con puppet," he tweeted. "I'm officially OFF the Trump train." 

    He later clarified that he was only "off the Trump train in terms of Syria."

    SEE ALSO: Some of Trump's more hardline online supporters are slamming him over striking Syria

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Watch Trump walk out of an executive-order signing ceremony without signing any orders


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    Barack Obama

    WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Obama administration officials are pushing back against criticism of the former president, saying they proposed similar airstrikes in Syria to the ones President Donald Trump ordered this week, but were stymied by a Republican-controlled Congress reluctant to go along with the Democratic president's plan.

    This comes after Trump ordered the missile strikes against Syria without getting congressional approval, determined to punish the Syrian government for the use of chemical weapons against civilians.

    Trump laid part of the blame for the chemical attack on former President Barack Obama, saying the deaths were a "consequence of the past administration's weakness and irresolution."

    Republicans, however, who controlled Congress then as they do now, were adamant that Obama should not act without their approval, Obama aides said. Trump also had called for Obama to get congressional approval before any attack on Syria.

    "Once you put it in Congress's hand, it became clear at that time that they were not ready to assume responsibility," said Dennis Ross, a former Obama administration adviser on the Middle East. "But the problem wasn't that Congress wasn't seen as lacking in responsibility, it was that the president was seen as having drawn a 'red line' and when it came time to act on it, he didn't and that had an impact on the way the U.S. was seen in the aftermath."

    Obama aides took to Twitter and the airwaves this week to point out what they called the hypocrisy from Republicans and from Trump himself.

    "Times change. In 13, Speaker asks Obama how: 'justification comports with exclusive authority of Cong authorization'" tweeted Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser under Obama.

    Tommy Vietor, former spokesman for the Obama National Security Council, sent out Trump's tweet demanding Obama get congressional approval. "What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict? Obama needs Congressional approval," the businessman tweeted in 2013.

    Donald Trump

    Now president, Trump ordered the missile strikes on Thursday without seeking approval from Congress. This followed Tuesday's chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, which killed 87 people, including 31 children. U.S. officials said they feel confident Syrian President Bashar Assad's government was responsible.

    The U.S. strikes hit the government-controlled Shayrat air base in central Syria, where U.S. officials say the Syrian military planes that dropped the chemicals had taken off.

    In a statement issued the day of the chemical weapons attack, Trump said, "President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a 'red line' against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing."

    Obama had threatened Assad with military action after an earlier chemical weapons attack killed hundreds outside Damascus. Obama had declared the use of such weapons a "red line." At the time, several American ships in the Mediterranean were poised to launch missiles, only for Obama to abruptly pull back after key U.S. ally Britain and the U.S. Congress balked at his plan.

    He opted instead for a Russian-backed plan that was supposed to lead to the removal and elimination of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles.

    Obama putin

    "We had been reckoning with this for five years and there aren't easy answers. And just to simply say, you know, 'the president put up a red line and then didn't act" is really insufficient in terms of making policy," Richard Stengel, former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."

    No matter how the United States got to its first assault against the Assad government, what Trump does next is key, said Frederic C. Hof, director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He served as special adviser for transition in Syria in the Obama administration and was the special coordinator for regional affairs in the State Department's Office of the Special Envoy for Middle East Peace.

    Assad "may think he has the same option he took in September 2013: set the chemicals to the side and return to barrel bombs, gravity bombs, artillery shells, missiles, and mortar rounds against civilians in their homes, hospitals, marketplaces, and schools," Hof said in a post on the Atlantic Council's website. "If this is what he does and if he does it unopposed the military strikes of April 6, 2017 will go down in history as a useless, empty gesture."

    SEE ALSO: http://www.businessinsider.com/how-trump-decided-to-strike-syria-2017-4

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    NOW WATCH: The disturbing reason some people turn red when they drink alcohol


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    bill maher

    Liberal talk-show host Bill Maher laid into Democrats and cable news pundits for their praise of President Trump's military strike on Syria's Shayrat airfield in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed 80 people on Tuesday. 

    The Republicans' positive response to the strike was expected, Maher said. "They got their two favorite things: [Neil Gorsuch] on the Supreme Court and Trump finally blowing some s--- up." 

    But Maher was angered by the reaction Trump's strike elicited from cable news pundits and journalists. "Even the liberals were all over this last night," he said Friday night. "Everybody loves this f------ thing. Cable news loves it when they show footage of destroyers firing cruise missiles at night. It’s America’s money shot."

    And cable news did love it. Trump was widely lauded by television media and political commentators in the aftermath of the military strike. 

    CNN's Fareed Zakaria said Friday morning that Trump "became President of the United States" when he authorized the missile launch Thursday night. 

    David Ignatius, a columnist for the Washington Post, said on MSNBC Friday morning that, "In terms of the credibility of American power, I think most traditional Washington commentators would say he’s put more umph, more credibility back into it." 

    MSNBC's Brian Williams said he was "guided by the beauty of our weapons, and they are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is, for them, a brief flight over to this [Syrian] airfield..." 

    Multiple news networks replayed footage of the cruise missiles being launched while commentary continued in the background. 

    But some took on a more measured tone, urging people to refrain from cheering on military action that could result in injury and death. 

    Veteran journalist Dan Rather said in a Facebook post after the strike, "There is a tendency to rally around the flag, and a President who takes on a war footing can see a boost of support." 

    He continued: "The number of members of the press who have lauded the actions last night as 'presidential' is concerning. War must never be considered a public relations operation. It is not a way for an Administration to gain a narrative. It is a step into a dangerous unknown and its full impact is impossible to predict, especially in the immediate wake of the first strike." 

    Trump's strike on the Shayrat airfield disabled the base for a few hours, before Syrian warplanes again started taking off from the field. 

    SEE ALSO: Syrian forces defiantly take off from airfield hit by onslaught of US cruise missiles

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    NOW WATCH: Watch Trump's budget director explain proposed cuts for after-school programs that feed children


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    donald trump

    President Trump appears to be getting impatient with the infighting between his closest advisers. 

    The White House is becoming increasingly split between Steve Bannon, who favors a more nationalist approach to domestic and foreign policy, and Jared Kushner and senior economic adviser Gary Cohn, both of whom have tried to bring the president toward the center on key issues such as immigration reform. 

    Trump has not been impervious to the strained relationship between his closest confidants, and he issued a warning to his inner circle on Thursday at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, a source with direct knowledge of the situation told Axios. "You guys are close. Knock it off. Work together," Trump said. The New York Times reported that the order was aimed at Bannon and chief of staff Reince Priebus, regarding the increased squabbling between Bannon, Kushner, and Cohn.

    Tensions between the two camps had been simmering for some time, and finally boiled over in the last week as a string of controversies engulfed the West Wing. That included rumors of a staff shake-up, Bannon's removal from the National Security Council, and reports that Bannon called Kushner a "cuck" and a "globalist" behind his back while the latter was on a trip to Iraq.  

    Trump's order to his staff came on the heels of Bannon's removal from the NSC, after which allies said Bannon had gone "full honey badger." That's in reference to the motto of Breitbart News, which Bannon once spearheaded: "Honey badger don't give a s---."

    Nevertheless, Bannon, Kushner, Ivanka Trump, and Priebus met on Friday, the day after the president ordered them to work together. The meeting was "100% focused" on pushing the president's agenda forward, a source told Axios.

    And though Bannon, a hardline isolationist, had argued against US intervention in Syria, his allies said on Saturday that incoming domestic policies would be more aligned with his views. Conversely, allies of Kushner and Cohn have said that the president will put forth an agenda that favors more centrist policies on key issues.

    SEE ALSO: Steve Bannon may be on his last legs in the White House

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    NOW WATCH: 'CALM DOWN': Watch Sean Spicer spar with reporters over Trump's wiretap claims


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    sergei lavrov rex tillerson

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke by phone on Saturday about the situation in Syria after the U.S. strikes on a Syrian air base, the Russian ministry said in a statement.

    Lavrov pointed out that "an attack on a country whose government fights terrorism only plays into the hands of extremists, creates additional threats to regional and global security," the Russian ministry said.

    He also told Tillerson that assertions that the Syrian military used chemical weapon in Idlib province on April 4 do not correspond to reality, the ministry added.

    It said Lavrov and his U.S. counterpart agreed to continue discussions on Syria in person. Tillerson is expected in Moscow for talks with Russian officials next week.

     

    (Reporting by Polina Devitt; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

    SEE ALSO: How Trump went from wanting to stay out of Syria to going further than Obama ever did

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    NOW WATCH: This animation shows how terrifyingly powerful nuclear weapons have become


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    U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley holds photographs of victims during a meeting at the United Nations Security Council on Syria at the United Nations Headquarters in New York . REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said in an interview that she sees regime change in Syria as one of the Trump administration's priorities in the country wracked by civil war.

    Defeating Islamic State, pushing Iranian influence out of Syria, and the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are priorities for Washington, Haley said in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” which will air in full on Sunday.

    "It just -- if you look at his actions, if you look at the situation, it's going to be hard to see a government that's peaceful and stable with Assad."

    AFP reported:

    "We don’t see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there," Haley said.

    "There's not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime."

    The comments represented a departure from what Haley had said before the United States hit a Syrian air base with 59 Tomahawk missiles on Thursday in retaliation for what it said was a chemical weapons attack by Assad's forces on Syrian civilians.

    President Donald Trump ordered the missile strike after watching television images of infants suffering from chemical weapons injuries.

    "You pick and choose your battles and when we're looking at this, it's about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out," Haley had told reporters on March 30, just days before dozens of Syrian civilians died from chemical weapons injuries.

    Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed to take a more patient stance in regard to Assad, saying on Saturday that Washington's first priority is the defeat of Islamic State.

    Once the threat from Islamic State has been reduced or eliminated, “I think we can turn our attention directly to stabilizing the situation in Syria,” Tillerson said in excerpts from an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” that will air in full on Sunday.

    Tillerson said the United States is hopeful it can help bring parties together to begin the process of hammering out a political solution.

    "If we can achieve ceasefires in zones of stabilization in Syria, then I believe - we hope we will have the conditions to begin a useful political process,” Tillerson said.

    Syrian forces launched further airstrikes on Saturday that killed 18 people including five children in rebel-controlled Idlib province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the civil defense rescue service reported. 

    (Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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    A man carries the body of a dead child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

    London (AFP) - British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon on Sunday accused Russia of being responsible "by proxy" for the death of 87 civilians killed last week in a suspected chemical weapons attack.

    "Assad's principal backer is Russia. By proxy Russia is responsible for every civilian death last week," Fallon wrote in  an opinion column published in The Sunday Times.  

    "If Russia wants to be absolved of responsibility for future attacks, Vladimir Putin needs to enforce commitments, to dismantle Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal for good, and to get fully engaged with the UN peacekeeping progress," he added.

    Fallon reiterated Britain's position that Assad should quit.

    "Someone who uses barrel bombs and chemicals to kill his own people simply cannot be the future leader of Syria," he wrote. 

    Assad's future role is a key sticking point -- the rebels and their international backers demand that he must step down.

    But Assad refuses to budge. His key ally in Moscow has backed him to the hilt against the rebels.

    "Today we call on all parties to get back to the table and get a deal done," the British defence minister said.

    "That deal must lead to a representative government in which Assad will play no part".

    putin assad

    He also once again offered Britain's support to the United States for its decision on Friday to fire 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the airfield located near Homs in central Syria. 

    The move was in response to the suspected chemical weapons attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun which killed 87 people according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights.

    "Given repeated Russian blocking in the UN security council, the US was determined to act," Fallon said, adding President Trump made "the right call by resorting to careful and narrowly focused military action".

    Russia has criticised the US military intervention as a "gross... violation of international law".

    It also slammed the British foreign secretary's decision to cancel a scheduled visit to Russia, claiming Britain has "no real influence" internationally.

    Boris Johnson decided to scrap his visit to Moscow on Monday, saying he deplored "Russia's continued defence of the Assad regime."

    He argued it would be best for US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to deliver a "clear and coordinated message" to the Russians during his own visit to Moscow later in the week. 

     

    SEE ALSO: UN ambassador Nikki Haley alludes to US intervention in Syria after chemical attack

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    marco rubio

    Sen. Marco Rubio said on Sunday that he was concerned about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's opposition to removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, a direct contradiction to US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley's seeming support for a regime change.

    In an interview on "This Week," Rubio said he did not intend to "pick a fight with anyone here," but that Tillerson's strategy was "based on assumptions that aren't going to work."

    "There seems to be a difference between what Ambassador Haley is saying, as she said last night, that Assad really has no future, and what I heard this morning from Secretary Tillerson," Rubio said.

    He added: "There is no such thing as 'Assad yes, but ISIS, no.' This theory that you can defeat ISIS as long as Assad is there is not true. They're two sides of the same coin."

    The Florida senator, a longtime proponent of deposing Assad, argued that there cannot be peace in Syria "as long as Bashar Assad is in power."

    "The quicker they realize that, the better our strategy is going to be," he said.

    Late last month, both Haley and Tillerson said separately that the US was not committed to removing Assad.

    But after the Syrian president used chemical sarin gas during a fight with rebels on Tuesday, Haley has taken a stronger line against Assad.

    "Getting Assad out is not the only priority," Haley told CNN on Sunday. "And so what we're trying to do is obviously defeat ISIS. Secondly, we don't see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there."

    "Regime change is something that we think is going to happen because all of the parties are going to see that Assad is not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria," she said. "So what I think you're seeing is, this isn't about policy or not, this is about thoughts. And so when you look at the thoughts, there is no political solution that any of us can see with Assad at the lead."

    Tillerson appeared to echo President Donald Trump's previous opposition to pursuing regime change, telling ABC that there was no change in US policy from last month.

    "We've seen what that looks like when you undertake a violent regime change in Libya and the situation in Libya continues to be very chaotic and I would argue that the life of the Libyan people is not all that well off today," Tillerson said. "So I think we have to learn the lessons of the past and learn the lessons of what went wrong in Libya when you choose that pathway of regime change. ... Any time you go in and have a violent change at the top, it is very difficult to create the conditions for stability longer term."

    Despite turning down reported offers to serve as Trump's secretary of state, Haley has emerged as the administration's top spokesperson on foreign policy issues.

    While Tillerson and his state department shunned the press, Haley has sat down with the major television programs, and delivered speeches to the UN that cable news stations carried live. She has also reassured key allies, and been more outspoken in criticizing Russia than her Washington counterpart, who has a longstanding relationship with Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

    Politico reported last week that Haley may be poised to inherit the job from Tillerson later in the administration.

    Watch the clip, via ABC:

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    rex tillerson donald trump

    As a candidate for president, Donald Trump toned down President Barack Obama's call for Bashar al-Assad to step down, saying the Syrian president was fighting ISIS, a mutual enemy of the United States.

    But following Assad's use of chemical weapons against Syrian rebels last week, Trump's administration appears torn over how far to go with its Syria policy — with some members of the administration explicitly calling for Assad's removal from power.

    Though the administration last month said removing Assad was not a top priority, some key figures on Sunday telegraphed their renewed support for removing the Syrian president.

    In an interview on "State of the Union," the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, didn't directly answer whether the administration supported regime change. But she said that there couldn't be a resolution to the conflict where Assad remains in power.

    "Getting Assad out is not the only priority," she said on Sunday. "And so what we're trying to do is obviously defeat ISIS. Secondly, we don't see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there.

    "Regime change is something that we think is going to happen because all of the parties are going to see that Assad is not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria. So what I think you're seeing is, this isn't about policy or not, this is about thoughts. And so when you look at the thoughts, there is no political solution that any of us can see with Assad at the lead."

    White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster told Fox News he also supported removing Assad, but said the US was "not going to be the ones who effect that change."

    "Other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions," he said on Sunday. "Russia should ask themselves, 'What are we doing here? Why are we supporting this murderous regime that is committing mass murder of its own population and using the most heinous weapons available?'"

    nikki haley

    Others were more hesitant to strike a new tone, despite Trump's decision to strike a Syrian airfield used by Assad.

    Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told ABC that there was no change in US policy from last month.

    "We've seen what that looks like when you undertake a violent regime change in Libya, and the situation in Libya continues to be very chaotic, and I would argue that the life of the Libyan people is not all that well off today," Tillerson said Sunday. "So I think we have to learn the lessons of the past and learn the lessons of what went wrong in Libya when you choose that pathway of regime change."

    "Any time you go in and have a violent change at the top, it is very difficult to create the conditions for stability longer term," he added.

    Who represents Trump's view?

    The contradictory sentiments garnered criticism from top lawmakers, who were left to infer which policymaker represented the president's thinking.

    Sen. Marco Rubio on Sunday said that Tillerson's strategy was "based on assumptions that aren't going to work."

    "There seems to be a difference between what Ambassador Haley is saying, as she said last night, that Assad really has no future, and what I heard this morning from Secretary Tillerson," Rubio said on "This Week."

    He added: "There is no such thing as 'Assad yes, but ISIS, no.' This theory that you can defeat ISIS as long as Assad is there is not true. They're two sides of the same coin."

    Democratic Sen. Edward Markey told CNN that Haley was advocating for forcefully removing Assad from power using US troops. 

    "It means doing in Syria what we did in Iraq in removing Saddam Hussein," Markey said. "I don't think there's any appetite in the United States for a massive additional military presence, with young men and women actually in combat situations being introduced."

    Differing foreign policy mindsets emerge

    FILE PHOTO -  U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with his new National Security Adviser Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster after making the announcement at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida U.S. February 20, 2017.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

    The contradictions represent the diverging foreign policy power structures that have emerged within the Trump administration.

    Despite reportedly turning down offers to serve as Trump's secretary of state, Haley has emerged as the administration's top spokesperson on foreign policy issues.

    While Tillerson and his State Department have largely shunned the press, Haley has sat down with the major television programs, and delivered speeches to the UN that cable news channels carried live. She's also reassured key allies, and been more outspoken in criticizing Russia than her Washington counterpart, who has a longstanding relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

    Politico reported last week that Haley may be poised to inherit the job from Tillerson later in the administration.

    McMaster, too, has consolidated power within the National Security Council by demoting allies of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. This week, Trump's top political strategist Steve Bannon was removed from the principals committee, while deputy national security adviser KT McFarland also appeared poised to step down.

    SEE ALSO: Some of Trump's more hardline online supporters are slamming him over striking Syria

    DON'T MISS: Rubio knocks Tillerson's opposition to regime change: 'There is no such thing as "Assad yes, but ISIS, no."'

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    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top aides to President Donald Trump demurred on Sunday over where U.S. policy on Syria was headed after last week's retaliatory missile strike, leaving open questions about whether removing Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad from power was now one of Trump's goals.

    After the United States launched cruise missile strikes on a Syrian air base alleged to have launched a deadly poison gas attack on Syrian civilians, Trump administration officials said they were prepared to take further actions if necessary.

    Trump's United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley, said the United States had "multiple priorities" in Syria and that stability there was impossible with Assad as president.

    "In no way do we see peace in that area with Assad as the head of the Syrian government," Haley told NBC's "Meet the Press."

    "And we have to make sure that we're pushing that process. The political solution has to come together for the good of the people of Syria," she said.

    Her comments appeared at odds with those of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said the U.S. missile strike was aimed solely at deterring the use of chemical weapons by Assad.

    "There is no change to our military posture" in Syria, Tillerson said on ABC's 'This Week' program.

    Tillerson said the U.S. priority in Syria was defeating Islamic State, the militant group also known as ISIS. Once ISIS is defeated, the United States could turn its attention to trying to help bring about a "political process" that could bring about stability in Syria, he said.

    "It is through that political process that we believe the Syrian people will ... be able to decide the fate of Bashar al-Assad," Tillerson said.

    A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said any difference in nuance was inadvertent and unintentional, and declined to comment further.

    During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump said defeating Islamic State was a higher priority than persuading Assad to step down. The Republican criticized calls by his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, for the establishment of a no-fly zone and "safe zones" to protect non-combatants.

    "What we should do is focus on ISIS. We should not be focusing on Syria," Trump told Reuters in an interview last October.

    syria chemical

    Tillerson on Sunday blamed Russia for enabling the poison gas attack by failing to follow through on a 2013 agreement to secure and destroy chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria.

    "The failure related to the recent strike and the recent terrible chemical weapons attack in large measure is a failure on Russia's part to achieve its commitment to the international community," he added.

    Russia swiftly condemned last week's attack. On Sunday, a joint command center comprised of Russian, Iranian and militia forces supporting Assad said it would respond to any new aggression and increase its support for its ally.

    Trump ordered the missile strikes on the Syrian air base after blaming Assad for the chemical weapons attack, which killed at least 70 people, many of them children, in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun. The Syrian government has denied it was behind the assault.

    Speaking on "Fox News Sunday," White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster said the United States was "prepared to do more" regarding military action in Syria if necessary.

    On whether Assad should be removed from power, McMaster said: "We are not saying that we are the ones who are going to effect that change.

    "What we are saying is other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions. Russia should ask themselves, 'What are we doing here?'" McMaster said.

    Lawmakers from both the Democratic and Republican parties were supportive of Trump's decision to attack the Syrian air base, but some Republican senators said they were concerned about the lack of policy clarity and Tillerson's strategy of leaving Assad's fate unresolved while concentrating on Islamic State.

    "There seem to be a difference in what Ambassador Haley is saying, that Assad has no future, and what I heard this morning from Secretary Tillerson," Republican Senator Marco Rubio told ABC, adding that Tillerson's strategy won't work.

    "There is no such thing as Assad yes, but ISIS no," Rubio said.

    Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," said removing Assad from power would require the United States to commit thousands more troops to the country to create safe-haven areas for the opposition to regroup, retrain and ultimately take control of the country.

    "You tell the Russians, 'If you continue to bomb the people we train, we'll shoot you down,' Graham said.

    (Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and David Morgan, writing by David Lawder; Editing by Caren Bohan; Editing by James Dalgleish and Jonathan Oatis)

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    US launches missile strike on Syrian air field

    LONDON — Russia has warned of a "real war" with the US if the US attempts to issue it with an ultimatum over its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

    British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson will on Monday call for Western powers to impose sanctions on Russia if it fails to cut ties with Assad following last week's chemical attack on Syrian civilians.

    Russia's embassy in London warned of a "real war" if the US and its allies imposed any such ultimatum.

    Any such threat by the G-7 nations "brings us to real war," the embassy warned, before questioning the leadership of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Johnson.

    In a joint statement, Russian, Iranian, and Assad-supporting forces said the US attack on a Syrian air base last week had crossed a "red line" and warned that any further attacks would be responded to with force.

    "What America waged in an aggression on Syria is a crossing of red lines," the statement said.

    "From now on we will respond with force to any aggressor or any breach of red lines from whoever it is and America knows our ability to respond well."

    Johnson was due to begin a visit to Moscow on Monday, but the foreign secretary cancelled the trip following a telephone conversation with Tillerson.

    The decision led to condemnation and mockery both at home and abroad.

    The Russian foreign ministry said Johnson had shown a "fundamental misunderstanding or lack of knowledge of the events in Syria, Russia's efforts to settle that crisis, and the general objectives of diplomacy."

    "The decision to call off Johnson's visit to Moscow," it added, "confirms once again doubts in the presence of added value in speaking to the UK, which does not have its own position on the majority of present-day issues, nor does it have real influence on the course of international affairs, as it remains 'in the shadow' of its strategic partners. We do not feel that we need dialogue with London any more than it does."

    Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell insisted on Sunday that Johnson should have gone ahead with the visit, while Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said he had been left looking like a "poodle" of the US.

    Former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond said the decision had left Johnson looking "daft."

    "The idea the foreign secretary can't be trusted because he might pursue his own line or have an independent thought or crossover what the Americans are going to say just makes him look like some sort of Mini-Me to the United States of America," he told 'The Andrew Marr Show."

    "That's not a position any foreign secretary would want to be in."

    In a statement issued after a telephone conversation with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, UK Prime Minister Theresa May said there needed to be a "political solution" to the Syrian crisis.

    "They agreed on their support for the US action, which we believe was an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical-weapons attack launched by the Syrian regime," a representative said.

    "And they discussed the importance of Russia using its influence to bring about a political settlement in Syria, and to work with the rest of the international community to ensure that the shocking events of the last week are never repeated.

    "They noted that the foreign secretary is working closely with his Canadian counterpart as part of diplomatic efforts to line up G-7 and like-minded support for a clear international position on the way ahead, in support of the US secretary of state's visit to Moscow.

    "And they agreed to continue this close cooperation as we build support for a political solution to end the conflict and bring lasting peace and stability to Syria."

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    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's visit to Moscow this week will be an early test of whether the Trump administration can use any momentum generated by striking a Syrian air base to craft and execute a strategy to end the Syrian war.

    Even before Trump ordered last week's strike on the air base in retaliation for a nerve gas attack, Tillerson's visit was certain to be dominated by thorny issues, including Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, an apparent violation of an important arms control treaty, and seeing what cooperation, if any, is possible in the fight against Islamic State.

    Now, Tillerson, a former oil executive with no diplomatic experience, is charged with avoiding a major U.S. confrontation with Russia while exacting some concessions from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Those include getting rid of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's remaining chemical weapons stocks and pressing Assad to negotiate Syria's future.

    Russia, along with Iran, is Assad's primary backer, and its intervention in Syria's war has been crucial to ensuring his grip on power, although no longer over the entire country.

    Tillerson said he had not seen hard evidence that Russia knew ahead of time about the chemical weapons attack but he planned to urge Moscow to rethink its support for Assad in the April 12 talks.

    "I'm hopeful that we can have constructive talks with the Russian government, with Foreign Minister (Sergei) Lavrov and have Russia be supportive of a process that will lead to a stable Syria," Tillerson told ABC's "The Week" on Sunday.

    The U.S. cruise missile strike on Thursday, meant to dissuade Assad from using chemical weapons again, gives Tillerson more credibility with Russian officials and will boost his efforts, observers and former officials said. Tillerson is due to meet with Russian officials on Wednesday, and is expected to meet with Putin and Lavrov.

    "The demonstration of the administration's willingness to use force has the potential to add some leverage to the diplomacy," said Antony Blinken, a deputy to former Secretary of State John Kerry.

    The U.S. strike - ordered less than three days after the gas attack - could make it clear to Russia that the United States will hold Moscow accountable for Assad, Blinken said.

    U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea which U.S. Defense Department said was a part of cruise missile strike against Syria on April 7, 2017.

    Tillerson ought to be "very matter of fact" in his meetings, Blinken said, sending Russia a message that: "If you don't rein him in, we will take further action."

    Tillerson said on Thursday that Russia had "failed in its responsibility" to remove Syria's chemical weapons under a 2013 agreement, which he argued showed Russia was either complicit with the gas attacks or "simply incompetent." Securing a Russian commitment on eliminating Assad's chemical weapons is likely to be first on his agenda, said Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration.

     Russian Leverage With Assad

    The Russian talks will be a major test of Tillerson's diplomatic skills. As a former chief executive at Exxon Mobil, he has experience doing business in Russia, but no background in the often public negotiations that international diplomacy requires.

    It also is unclear if Trump, who has expressed skepticism of multilateral institutions such as the European Union and United Nations, will have patience for the protracted negotiations that a comprehensive deal on Syria would require.

    Russia condemned the U.S. missile strike as illegal and Putin said it would harm U.S.-Russia ties. Moscow also said it would keep military channels of communication open with Washington, but would not exchange any information through them.

    Donald Trump

    It was an unforeseen turn of events for Trump, who praised Putin repeatedly during last year's election campaign and said he would like to work more closely with Russia to defeat Islamic State. Just a little more than a week ago, top administration officials were signaling that removing Assad is no longer a U.S. priority.

    But one senior official said it was significant that Russia suspended, and did not cancel, cooperation with the United States after the American air strike. Nor did Lavrov cancel Tillerson's visit to Moscow, suggesting that Russia may be willing to tolerate the single strike. As of this weekend, the talks were still on.

    "They're going to try to draw a line around this incident," said Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia during the George W. Bush administration. "They are still not giving up on working with the Trump administration."

    The Trump administration also wants to keep the focus in Syria on defeating Islamic State rather than opening a conflict with Russia or Syria's government.

    Syria strike map

    Another U.S. official said one hope is that Moscow will see Tillerson's visit and a discussion about how to cooperate to stop Assad's use of banned weapons as a tacit acknowledgement of Russia's great power status, one of Putin's main ambitions.

    "The strikes aren't necessarily a bad thing for Russia," said Andrew Tabler, a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Russia's had a very hard time getting President Assad to come to the negotiating table in any kind of meaningful way."

    Now, Tabler said, the Russians can point to more U.S. strikes as the price of further intransigence by Assad.

     

    (Editing by John Walcott and Bill Trott)

    SEE ALSO: A deadly chemical attack in Syria earlier this week sparked US missile strikes — here's what happened

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    U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea which U.S. Defense Department said was a part of cruise missile strike against Syria on April 7, 2017.

    WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump's national security adviser is calling on Russia to re-evaluate its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, leaving open the possibility of additional U.S. military action against Syria.

    In his first televised interview, H.R. McMaster pointed to dual U.S. goals of defeating the Islamic State group and removing Assad from power.

    As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was making the Trump administration's first official trip this week to Russia, McMaster said Russia will have to decide whether it wanted to continue backing a "murderous regime." Trump is weighing next steps after ordering airstrikes last week.

    "It's very difficult to understand how a political solution could result from the continuation of the Assad regime," McMaster said on "Fox News Sunday."

    "Now, we are not saying that we are the ones who are going to effect that change. What we are saying is, other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions. Russia should ask themselves ... Why are we supporting this murderous regime that is committing mass murder of its own population?"

    He said Russia should also be asked how it didn't know that Syria was planning a chemical attack since it had advisers at the Syrian airfield.

    "Right now, I think everyone in the world sees Russia as part of the problem," McMaster said.

    After last Tuesday's chemical attack in Syria, Trump said his attitude toward Assad "has changed very much" and Tillerson said "steps are underway" to organize a coalition to remove him from power.

    Syria strike map

    But as lawmakers called on Trump to consult with Congress, Trump administration officials sent mixed signals on the scope of future U.S. involvement. While Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, described regime change in Syria as a U.S. priority and inevitable, Tillerson suggested that last week's American airstrikes in retaliation for the chemical attack hadn't really changed U.S. priorities toward ousting Assad.

    Pressed to clarify, McMaster said the goals of fighting IS and ousting Syria's president were somewhat "simultaneous" and that the objective of the missile strike was to send a "strong political message to Assad" to stop using chemical weapons. He did not rule out additional strikes if Assad continued to engage in atrocities against rebel forces with either chemical or conventional weapons.

    "We are prepared to do more," he said. "The president will make whatever decision he thinks is in the best interest of the American people."

    Reluctant to put significant troops on the ground in Syria, the U.S. for years has struggled to prevent Assad from strengthening his hold on power.

    U.S.-backed rebels groups have long pleaded for more U.S. intervention and complained that Washington has only fought the Islamic State group. So Trump's decision to launch the strikes — an action President Barack Obama declined to take after a 2013 chemical attack — has raised optimism among rebels that Trump will more directly confront Assad.

    Bashar al Assad

    Several lawmakers said Sunday that decision shouldn't entirely be up to Trump.

    Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, praised Trump's initial missile strike for sending a message to Assad, Russia, Iran and North Korea that "there's a new administration in charge." But he said Trump now needed to work with Congress to set a future course.

    "Congress needs to work with the president to try and deal with this long-term strategy, lack of strategy, really, in Syria," he said. "We haven't had one for six years during the Obama administration, and 400,000 civilians have died and millions of people have been displaced internally and externally in Europe and elsewhere."

    Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, agreed. "What we saw was a reaction to the use of chemical weapons, something I think many of us supported," he said. "But what we did not see is a coherent policy on how we're going to deal with the civil war and also deal with ISIS."

    Still, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he believed that Trump didn't need to consult with Congress.

    "I think the president has authorization to use force," he said. "Assad signed the chemical weapons treaty ban. There's an agreement with him not to use chemical weapons."

    Their comments came as Tillerson planned to meet with Russian officials. Russia had its own military personnel at the Syrian military airport that the U.S. struck with cruise missiles. But in interviews broadcast Sunday, Tillerson said he sees no reason for retaliation from Moscow because Russia wasn't targeted.

    "We do not have any information that suggests that Russia was part of the military attack undertaken using the chemical weapons," Tillerson said. Earlier, U.S. military officials had said they were looking into whether Russia participated, possibly by using a drone to help eliminate evidence afterward.

    aleppo syria

    Tillerson said defeating the Islamic State group remains the top focus. Once that threat "has been reduced or eliminated, I think we can turn our attention directly to stabilizing the situation in Syria," he said.

    "We're hopeful that we can prevent a continuation of the civil war and that we can bring the parties to the table to begin the process of political discussions" between the Assad government and various rebel groups, he said.

    Haley said "getting Assad out is not the only priority" and that countering Iran's influence in Syria was another. Still, Haley said the U.S. didn't see a peaceful future for Syria with Assad in power.

    McMaster, Cornyn and Cardin spoke on "Fox News Sunday," Tillerson appeared on ABC's "This Week" and CBS' "Face the Nation," Haley and Graham were on NBC's "Meet the Press" and Haley also appeared on CNN's "State of the Union."

    ___

    Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report.

    SEE ALSO: A deadly chemical attack in Syria earlier this week sparked US missile strikes — here's what happened

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    US Syria missile strike

    LUCCA, Italy (AP) — Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven industrialized nations are gathering Monday for a meeting given urgency by the chemical attack in Syria and the U.S. military response, with participants aiming to pressure Russia to end its support for President Bashar Assad.

    Last week's nerve gas attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, which killed more than 80 people, stirred President Donald Trump to strike for the first time at Assad's forces. U.S. warships fired 59 cruise missiles at the Syrian air base from which the U.S. believes the attack was launched.

    U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Monday at the site of a World War II-era Nazi massacre in central Italy that the United States is rededicating itself to hold to account "any and all" who commit crimes against innocent people.

    Tillerson accompanied Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano to Santa'Anna di Stazzema, a site of Nazi atrocities where 560 civilians, including some 130 children, were killed during World War II.

    Alfano said the massacre site was a reminder that "peace is not a given. ... That is why we are here to work all together for peace and liberty."

    Over the weekend, Alfano said that Europe's broad support for the U.S. military strikes had contributed to a "renewed harmony" between the United States and its partners ahead of the first meeting of G-7 foreign ministers since Donald Trump took office in January.

    "We need to remember that not 10 years ago, but 100 or 120 days ago, the concern in Europe was that the United States and the EU were moving apart," Alfano told Sky TG24 Sunday. "I welcome this renewed harmony."

    Officials are hoping that this can be leveraged to bring a new diplomatic push to end the 6-year-old civil war in Syria.

    The meeting in the Tuscan walled city of Lucca also brings German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, along with other G-7 foreign ministers, at a moment when the United States is sending a Navy carrier strike group toward the Korean Peninsula to provide a physical presence following North Korea's persistent ballistic missile tests.

    Donald Trump

    The meeting also comes amid an ongoing terror threat that was underscored by the deadly Palm Sunday bombing of Coptic churches in Egypt claimed by the Islamic State group, and another truck attack on European soil, this time in Stockholm, on Friday.

    The United States is fighting Islamic State group militants in Syria but had previously avoided striking government forces, largely out of concern about being pulled into a military conflict with Russia.

    The chemical attack has sent a new chill through relations between the West and Moscow, which denies Syrian forces used chemical weapons.

    Russia has plans to put forward a proposal on Monday for an independent and impartial investigation of the attack, said a spokesman in Berlin for the German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel.

    The spokesman, Martin Schaefer, said German viewed it as "a good and important sign."

    Russia was kicked out of the club of industrialized nations, formerly the G-8, after its 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and assistance for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

    Britain's Johnson, who had been due to visit Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Moscow ahead of Monday's G-7 meeting, canceled the trip at the last minute, saying the chemical attack had "changed the situation fundamentally."

    He said that instead he would work with the United States and other G-7 nations "to build coordinated international support for a cease-fire on the ground and an intensified political process."

    Tillerson is due to travel to Russia after the G-7 gathering, and Johnson said he will deliver a "clear and coordinated message to the Russians."

    syria assad chemical WEAPONS

    Washington has sent mixed signals about whether it shares its allies' determination that Assad must be removed from power.

    After the chemical attack, Trump said his attitude toward Assad "has changed very much" and Tillerson said "steps are underway" to organize a coalition to remove him from power.

    In a round of television interviews that aired Sunday, though, Tillerson said the top U.S. priority in the region remains the defeat of Islamic State militants.

    Alfano was cautious on the question of whether to push Assad out, saying that decision should be up to the Syrians.

    "I have to say, the Libya experiment did not go well. We are still paying the price," Alfano said, referring to the lawlessness that has ensued since the killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi and the subsequent flow of migrants to Europe via Italy.

    _____

    Colleen Barry in Milan and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

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    US Syria missile strikeMOSCOW (Reuters) - The Kremlin said on Monday that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will not meet President Vladimir Putin when he visits Moscow on Wednesday, a move that could point to tensions over a U.S. missile attack on a Syrian air base last week.

    John Kerry, Tillerson's predecessor, often met Putin as well as the Russian foreign minister when he visited Moscow, and Putin granted several audiences to the Texan when he ran oil major Exxon Mobil before taking his current job.

    Putin even personally awarded Tillerson a top Russian state award -- the Order of Friendship -- in 2013, and it was widely expected that the former oilman would meet Putin on what is his first trip to Russia as secretary of state.

    But Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on Monday that no such meeting was planned, suggesting Tillerson will follow strict diplomatic protocol and only meet his direct counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

    "We have not announced any such meetings and right now there is no meeting with Tillerson in the president's diary," Peskov told reporters on a conference call.

    He did not say why Putin was not planning to receive Tillerson.

    U.S. President Donald Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian military base last week in retaliation for what Washington and its allies say was a poisonous gas attack in which scores of civilians were killed.

    Moscow says there is no proof that the Syrian military carried out the attack, and called the U.S. missile strike an act of aggression that violates international law.

    Tillerson's visit is being seen as an early test of whether Trump's new administration can use any momentum generated by striking the Syrian base to craft and execute a strategy to end the war there.

    rex tillerson donald trump

    Even before Trump ordered the strike in retaliation for a nerve gas attack, Tillerson's visit was certain to be dominated by thorny issues.

    Those include alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Washington's accusation that Russia is violating an important arms control treaty, and trying to bridge differences on how to conduct the fight against Islamic State.

    Syria, ironically, was one of the few areas where analysts believed Moscow and Washington might be able to find common ground.

    Peskov, Putin's spokesman, said on Monday that the U.S. strikes had shown Washington's total unwillingness to cooperate on Syria.

    Reacting to media reports that Tillerson would use his visit to press Moscow to back away from supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia's biggest Middle East ally, Peskov signaled that was a non-starter.

    "Returning to pseudo-attempts to resolve the crisis by repeating mantras that Assad must step down cannot help sort things out."

     

    (Editing by Christian Lowe)

    SEE ALSO: A deadly chemical attack in Syria earlier this week sparked US missile strikes — here's what happened

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    barack obama

    When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossed former US President Barack Obama's "red line" by using chemical weapons, instead of responding with military force, Obama made a deal — but now former Obama administrations are saying it may not have worked.

    “If the Syrian government carried out the attack and the agent was sarin, then clearly the 2013 agreement didn’t succeed" in eliminating Assad's chemical weapons, Robert Einhorn, the State Department special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control under Obama told the New York Times

    “Either he didn’t declare all his C.W. [chemical weapons] and kept some hidden in reserve, or he illegally produced some sarin after his stock was eliminated — most likely the former.”

    Obama's deal relied on the Russians to carry out inspections and remove Assad's chemical weapons in 2013, before Russian troops and warplanes officially entered the conflict in October 2015.

    “For me, this tragedy underscores the dangers of trying to do deals with dictators without a comprehensive, invasive and permanent inspection regime,” Michael McFaul, Obama’s ambassador to Russia told The Times. “It also shows the limits of doing deals with Putin. Surely, the Russians must have known about these C.W.”

    The assessment of the former diplomats under Obama fits with more recent statements from current President Donald Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said that Russia was either complicit or incompetent in removing Assad's chemical weapons. 

    While Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry have defended their move to seek a deal instead of using force against Syria by saying Congress denied them the authorization to act, Obama's administration did not seek congressional authorization for strikes in Libya and Yemen, as it is not required by the law in practice.

    SEE ALSO: Trump's strike sends a message much further than Syria

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    Rex Tillerson

    US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson used a visit Monday to a World War II memorial to declare that the United States will stand up to aggressors who harm civilians, as the Trump administration sought to rally world leaders behind a strategy to resolve Syria's protracted civil war.

    Opening his visit to Italy, Tillerson traveled up a winding mountain road to Sant'Anna di Stazzema, the Tuscan village where the Nazis massacred more than 500 civilians during World War II. As he laid a wreath at the site, Tillerson alluded to the chemical attack in Syria last week that triggered retaliatory US airstrikes.

    "We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world," Tillerson said. "This place will serve as an inspiration to us all."

    Tillerson's visit to Europe has been overshadowed from the start by President Donald Trump's decision to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons by launching cruise missiles at a Syrian air base. The US military action has renewed the world's focus on Assad's fate and on Syria's civil war, now in its seventh year.

    The secretary of state's pledge to stand up for innocents came as Assad has continued to attack civilians in Syria in the days since the US airstrikes — including in the part of Idlib province where the chemical attack occurred. And while other US airstrikes in Syria have targeted the Islamic State group, the US has acknowledged that civilian casualties sometimes occur.

    Tillerson plans to use his meetings with foreign ministers from the Group of 7 industrialized economies - normally a venue for wonky economic discussions - to try to persuade leading countries to support the US plan. The centerpiece of that diplomacy will come Tuesday morning when Tillerson takes part in a meeting of "likeminded" nations on Syria, including several Arab nations invited to attend.

    The top American diplomat began to deliver that message on Monday when he met on the sidelines of the G-7 with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. Both countries have voiced support for the US response to Assad's chemical weapons use.

    tillerson boris johnson

    The Trump administration is hoping that after defeating the Islamic State group in Syria, it can restore stability by securing local cease-fires between Assad's government and opposition groups that allow local leaders who have fled to return and by restoring basic services. The next step would be to use U.N. talks to negotiate a political transition that could include Assad leaving power.

    From Italy, Tillerson will travel to Moscow, becoming the first Trump administration official to visit Russia. That trip, too, is fraught with tension over Syria: Tillerson has blamed Russia, Assad's strongest ally, of either complicity or incompetence for allowing Assad to possess and use chemical weapons.

    SEE ALSO: Top Obama administration officials admit deal to remove chemical weapons from Syria failed

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