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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    The US attack on an airfield believed to have been used by Syrian President Bashar Assad's military to launch a deadly chemical-weapons attack early last week has given Russia a renewed purpose for staying mired in a war that remains popular at home while allowing Moscow to paint itself as a foil to US "aggression."

    It has also allowed US President Donald Trump to deflect criticism that he is overly beholden to Russia and insensitive to Assad's brutal, scorched-earth campaign against Syrian civilians and rebel groups.

    Both Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, and prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, have doubled down on their support for Assad — condemning US "aggression" against what they view as Assad's "legitimate" government — since the US targeted Shayrat airfield with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles last week.

    Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, told reporters last week that it was "indisputable" that the US strike on Syria "was carried out for the benefit of ISIS and other terrorist organizations." Medvedev said on Facebook that Trump "proved" he would "fiercely fight the legitimate Syrian government" instead of against "the biggest enemy, ISIS."

    The strike has provided fodder for Moscow, which has been given a clean slate to continue to paint the Syrian conflict as a binary and two-dimensional fight between a legitimate government, supported by Russia, and "terrorists," supported by the US.

    (Moscow and Damascus have long used the word "terrorists" to describe a range of actors opposed to Assad, from moderate rebel groups fighting for regime change to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, whose goal is to establish a pan-Islamist caliphate.)

    That narrative, which had been fueled by the Obama administration's limited but overt support for various rebel groups opposed to Assad, has allowed Putin to garner popular domestic support for the war effort. Less than 20% of Russians think the war doesn't make sense, according to The New York Times. And it has provided a distraction from the country's protracted economic stagnation.

    putin assad

    As the Associated Press reported last year, Russia's intervention in Syria "at little cost" had "demonstrated Russia's might, turned the course of the war, and made sure that Russia is once again treated as a world power on a par with the United States." Russia's help in winning back Syria's largest city, Aleppo, from the opposition added to Russians' perception of the intervention as one worth their time and money.

    Whereas the US was meddling in the affairs of a sovereign state to bolster extremists, the messaging went, Russia was fighting terrorists with Assad's blessing.

    As The Guardian's Martin Chulov wrote on Monday, there is still "no mood in Moscow to concede any ground on Syria to the US – and a calculation that Rex Tillerson," the US secretary of state, "won't be pushing too hard anyway."

    Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — also a staunch Assad ally — agreed on "the inadmissibility of aggressive US actions against a sovereign state in violation of international law" in a call Sunday.

    The joint command operation center of Syrian allies, a group that includes Russia and Iran, characterized the US as an "occupying force" in a separate statement later that day.

    "Rest assured that we will liberate Syria from all kinds of occupying forces, it does not matter from where they came to the occupied part of Syria," the group warned in a statement. "Russia and Iran will not allow the United States to be the only superpower in world."

    The use of the US as a Russian (and Iranian) foil hung in the balance as Trump campaigned on increased cooperation with both Assad and Russia against ISIS. The reality of Trump's presidency, moreover, meant the loss of a known, and convenient, Kremlin adversary in Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

    But in launching a military response that would have been unthinkable under Obama, Trump has both renewed and emboldened Putin's sense of purpose in defending Assad and painting the US as the aggressor. It has also allowed Russia to revert to its best-rehearsed, and most well-received, talking point: The US is an imperialistic actor with an impulsive leader whose loyalty lies not to his people but with "the establishment."

    "This military action is a clear indication of the US president's extreme dependency on the opinion of the Washington establishment, the one that the new president strongly criticized in his inauguration speech," Medvedev wrote on Facebook.

    "Soon after his victory, I noted that everything would depend on how soon Trump's election promises would be broken by the existing power machine. It took only two and a half months," he added.

    The attack was ordered as investigations by the FBI and the House and Senate intelligence committees into Trump's ties to Russia were reaching a boiling point in the media. Those who had been frustrated by the continuing investigations felt vindicated by the strike, which they saw as evidence that Trump was not beholden to Putin or Moscow.

    Trump, meanwhile, was heaped with bipartisan praise for standing up to Assad. Syrians, too, rejoiced that Assad was finally being held accountable for six years of barrel bombings and gas attacks against his own people.

    While the strike has put Assad and Putin on notice, however, analysts say expectations that the US will wage a longer-term challenge to Russia's influence in Syria is premature.

    Trump "has taken an important first step in repairing the damage, but this will not be the end of the story," Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former State Department official, wrote last week.

    "America's adversaries are not going to be convinced by one missile strike that the United States is back in the business of projecting power to defend its interests and the world order," Kagan added. "The Russians, by suspending an agreement with the United States to coordinate air operations over Syria, are already implicitly threatening to escalate in Syria."

    Vladimir Frolov, a foreign-affairs analyst, told The New York Times last week that while "there will be many screams on the Russian television with people condemning the strikes ... everybody understands that this is just a symbolic act meant for Trump to look different from Obama."

    "There won't be any tangible reaction," he added. "This was a one-off strike."

    SEE ALSO: From Al-Masdar to InfoWars: How a pro-Assad conspiracy theory got picked up by the far-right

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    NOW WATCH: Trump appears to ignore requests for a handshake with Angela Merkel during their first meeting

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    james mattis

    Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says the Syrian regime would be "ill-advised" to use chemical weapons in the future, foreshadowing a potentially greater US response than the cruise missile strike that was carried out last week.

    Mattis said in a statement that the strike, which consisted of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles targeting the Shayrat air field on April 6, was a "measured response" to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons.

    In a break from his predecessor, President Donald Trump quickly authorized strikes against the Syrian government —a first for the US. According to Mattis, it was meant to deter future chemical weapons use, while showing the world that the US would "not passively stand by" when such atrocities are carried out. 

    Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said there could be "no doubt" that Assad's troops carried out the attack, and autopsies have showed that sarin gas was used. The Syrian government and Russia, its ally, have vigorously denied responsibility.

    Russia said that instead, the Syrian air force perhaps carried out a conventional attack that hit a chemical weapons cache controlled by the rebels. However, as chemical weapons expert Dan Kaszeta explained to Bellingcat, sarin in storage consists of unmixed components, and dropping a bomb on them would not turn them into a nerve agent.

    "It is an infantile argument,"he wrote.

    Meanwhile, Mattis' statement revealed some details of a damage assessment at the air field. It said the Tomahawk strikes destroyed or damaged fuel and ammunition sites, air defenses, and 20% of Syria's operational aircraft.

    "The Syrian government would be ill-advised ever again to use chemical weapons," Mattis concluded.

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    Sean Spicer

    White House press secretary Sean Spicer made clear Monday that defeating the terrorist group ISIS — not ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — is the top priority for the Trump administration.

    President Donald Trump's strike on Syria last week had people wondering whether the move signaled a shift in US policy toward Assad, the authoritarian ruler who has committed atrocities against his own people. The strike on Shayrat airfield and nearby Syrian military infrastructure was in response to a chemical attack attributed to the Assad regime that killed at least 80 people in northwestern Syria on Tuesday.

    But Spicer said at Monday's press briefing that defeating ISIS remains the administration's first priority in Syria.

    "You can't imagine a stable and peaceful Syria with Assad in charge," Spicer said. "I don't think that's a scenario that is possible. But I think that the first step in that has to be that the region, and Syria in particular, are stable. You can't have ISIS marching through Syria and worry mostly about who's in charge right now."

    Spicer said the US must make sure that "our national security is the first and foremost reason that we have to act."

    "As ISIS is proliferating and chemicals of mass destruction are on the rise there, we've got to contain that," he said. "Then once that's done I think we can apply political, economic, and diplomatic pressure for regime change. ... The first priority is still the containment of ISIS and the conflicts that are occurring."

    When asked whether Trump would be spurred to act in response to conventional warfare from the Assad regime, rather than just chemical warfare, Spicer said, "If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb in to innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president. That is unacceptable."

    This policy is at odds with what Middle East experts say is necessary to defeat ISIS, whose presence in Syria is fostered by Assad's continued hold on power.

    "The connection between Assad's atrocities against mainly Sunni Arab civilians and the ability of ISIS and other Islamist extremists to recruit and prosper is well-established," 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 earlier this year. 

    "What's been lacking is a strategy that recognizes and acts upon the linkage — the symbiotic relationship — between a murderous Assad regime and the extremist groups it has helped spawn."

    Hof noted that "a strategy that separates Assad and ISIS would be doomed to failure."

    "Assad and ISIS are joined at the hip," he said.

    As long as Assad is attacking his own people, ISIS, which fights the Assad regime, will use these atrocities to grow its ranks further and further. And Assad will be reluctant to wipe out ISIS because the real threat to his authority comes from moderate rebels who could work with the West to overthrow him.

    The civil war in Syria has been raging on for almost six years as rebels — some of whom are Islamist terrorists — fight to oust Assad, whose regime has been responsible for more civilian deaths than any terror group in the country.

    SEE ALSO: Trump's secretary of state pick has a plan for fighting ISIS that has the same fatal flaw as Obama's strategy

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    assad putin

    The US has concluded that Russia knew in advance about the chemical attack in Syria last week that killed dozens of civilians and is believed to have been carried out by Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces, a senior US official told The Associated Press on Monday.

    Both Moscow and Damascus have denied that Assad's forces dropped the chemicals, claiming that the gas was released accidentally when a Syrian airstrike hit a "terrorist warehouse" containing "toxic substances."

    Experts quickly cast doubt on Russia's explanation for Syria's worst chemical attack since 2013, when Assad, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is believed to have used sarin gas to kill as many as 1,400 people in the outskirts of Damascus, Syria's capital. Assad still denies responsibility for that attack.

    The US determined shortly after the attack last week that Syrian warplanes had dropped the chemicals, which caused injuries and deaths that the World Health Organization said were "consistent with exposure to organophosphorus chemicals, a category of chemicals that includes nerve agents."

    The Pentagon had been looking into whether Russia was complicit in the attack. A Russian drone was reportedly hovering above a hospital treating victims and then turned off just before the hospital was bombed. US officials believe the hospital was targeted in an attempt to hide evidence of the chemical attack.

    Those officials have now concluded that the drone that was hovering above the hospital was operated by Russia, and the warplane that attacked the hospital was Russian-made. But they have not determined whether the plane was operated by a Russian or Syrian pilot.

    "The official said the presence of the drone couldn't have been a coincidence, and that Russia must have known the chemical weapons attack was coming and that victims were seeking treatment," the AP reported.

    The US retaliated against Syria for the gas attack on Thursday night, launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the airfield where Assad's warplanes are believed to have taken off, loaded with the chemicals.

    US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Thursday that Russia, which helped broker the deal in 2013 to destroy Assad's chemical-weapons stockpile, had been "complicit" or "simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement."

    It is unclear how the US will respond now that officials have concluded that Russia knew of the attack in advance. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Monday that the Assad regime would be "ill-advised" to use chemical weapons in the future, foreshadowing a potentially greater US response than last week's strike.

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    NOW WATCH: ADMIRAL McRAVEN: Attacking Syria was 'the exact right thing to do'

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    putin shoigu fsb

    The US on Monday accused Russia of having known about and trying to cover up the April 7 chemical attack in Syria, while Russia threatened "real war" with the US and its allies if the US sanctioned it over its ties to Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, which is believed to be responsible for the attack.

    The Associated Press reported on Monday that US officials said a Russian-made fighter jet bombed a hospital where victims of the attack, which killed 87 people, sought treatment. The officials believe it was an attempt to cover up the use of chemical weapons.

    It's unclear what actions the US may take toward Russia if it believes Russia was complicit in the regime's use of chemical weapons.

    Earlier Monday, Russia suggested that if G-7 nations — which include France, Canada, the UK, and Japan — delivered an "ultimatum" involving increasing sanctions, it could result in "real war" between the US and its allies and Russia.

    Experts have told Business Insider that while the US and EU have sanctions on the books punishing Moscow for its actions in Ukraine, additional sanctions targeting Russia's energy exports could cripple the military powerhouse.

    Russia also warned that more US strikes on Syria would be met with force. The US last week fired 59 cruise missiles at the airfield in Syria where the chemical attack is believed to have been launched.

    The US's ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has said that the US is "prepared to do more" in Syria, though she also said, "We hope that will not be necessary."

    "What America waged in an aggression on Syria is a crossing of red lines," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement. "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."

    FILE PHOTO: 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.  Ford Williams/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

    Russia and Syria have both denied culpability in the chemical attack on April 4, saying their jets bombed a rebel base that contained the "toxic substances" that killed nearby civilians.

    But experts say the components of sarin gas, which they believe was used in the attack, are stored separately and that the nations' explanation does not stand up to scrutiny.

    After the US's strike, Russia reportedly suspended key military agreements with the US that were meant to reduce the risk of war by coordinating air traffic in Syria's congested airspace and keeping open a deconflicting channel, where incidents can be discussed before militaries escalate the situation.

    Syria strike map

    However, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday, "As far as I know, the line of communication continues to be open, and the battlefield commanders are able to communicate with one another."

    Airstrikes and traffic over Syria have also continued at a regular pace, with US-backed forces bombing ISIS targets near Raqqa and Syrian warplanes taking off less than 24 hours after the US hit the Sharyat airfield.

    SEE ALSO: US official: Russia knew in advance that Syria would launch chemical weapons attack

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    Sean Spicer

    White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Monday signaled a significant shift in US policy toward Syria, saying the Trump administration would respond to the Syrian regime barrel bombing civilians.

    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has for years used barrel bombs against civilians with impunity, but the new White House administration seems prepared to respond to such attacks.

    "The sight of people being gassed and blown away by barrel bombs ensures that if we see this kind of action again, we hold open the possibility of future action," Spicer said at Monday's press briefing.

    The shifting US stance on Syria comes a week after President Donald Trump ordered a strike on Shayrat airfield and nearby Syrian military infrastructure in response to a chemical attack attributed to the Assad regime that killed at least 80 people in northwestern Syria.

    Sarin gas was thought to have been used in that attack, but the White House has now suggested that lesser weapons might also provoke military action from the US.

    When asked whether Trump would be spurred to act in response to conventional warfare from the Assad regime, rather than just chemical warfare, Spicer said, "If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb in to innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president. That is unacceptable."

    Spicer said in a statement to Business Insider that "nothing has changed" in the administration's posture on the Assad regime.

    "The President retains the option to act in Syria against the Assad regime whenever it is in the national interest, as was determined following THAT government's use of chemical weapons against its own citizens," Spicer said in the statement. "And as the President has repeatedly made clear, he will not be telegraphing his military responses."

    But still, AFP White House correspondent Andrew Beatty tweeted Monday afternoon that "Spicer's barrel bomb red line referred to barrel bombs containing industrial chemicals like chlorine."

    This still represents a shift from the Obama administration's policy.

    The Assad regime reportedly used barrel bombs filled with chemical weapons during the years Barack Obama was president, and his administration never launched a military strike against the regime. On the contrary, Obama backed off a red line he drew in 2012 on chemical weapons use in Syria, opting instead to cut a deal that was supposed to see Assad removing his arsenal of chemical weapons. That deal seems not to have been effective in light of last week's attack.

    Middle East analyst Aron Lund noted on Twitter that Spicer's comments Monday were "still a very red line compared to under Obama."

    "Opposition claimed ~130 chlorine bombs 2014-2016, got no US response," he said.

    A UN resolution on chemical weapons in Syria did not stipulate that the regime had to get rid of chlorine as a chemical substance, but it did prohibit the Assad regime from using it as a weapon, which it has done repeatedly in recent years. It now appears that the Trump administration might be willing to act on violations of that resolution.

    SEE ALSO: Spicer: 'You can't have ISIS marching through Syria and worry most about who is in charge right now'

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    FILE PHOTO: The Russian Navy's frigate Admiral Grigorovich sails in the Bosphorus on its way to the Mediterranean Sea, in Istanbul, Turkey, November 4, 2016. REUTERS/Murad Sezer/File Photo

    Russia sent two corvettes, an oiler, and a tug boat to the Eastern Mediterranean off the coast of Syria days after two US Navy ships fired 59 cruise missiles at an airfield controlled by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a defense official told the US Naval Institute.

    The ships should reach the area within the next several days. 

    Tensions between the US and Russia have peaked since the US struck Russia's stalwart ally, Assad, over what the US believes was a chemical weapons attack orchestrated by Syrian and Russian forces.

    Russia has warned of "extremely serious" consequences for the US strike and reportedly suspended key military agreements with the US that heighten the risk of war.

    The Russian ships will join the Admiral Grigorovich, which was the first Russian ship to respond after the strike. The Russian ships field very long range land attack cruise missiles, which Russian forces debuted from the Caspian Sea against targets in Syria in 2015. 

    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.

    Navy Admiral Michelle Howard, who heads NATO's Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, Italy, recently told Reuters that Russia's worldwide naval activity now exceeds Cold-war levels.

    "They're a global navy," Howard said of the activity and potency of Russia's military ships. 

    SEE ALSO: Russia and the US seem to be edging closer to war over the Syrian chemical-weapons attack

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    NOW WATCH: Former State Department official: Here's the biggest mistake the US made with Syria

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    Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, in this handout picture provided by SANA on October 14, 2016. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

    The Trump administration has done an abrupt about-face on Syria, contradicting its own nascent foreign policy.

    Within 24 hours, it went from calling out the Assad regime for using chemical weapons to launching missiles at military targets. As limited as the strikes were, there are also statements that plans are in the works to target Syrian President Bashar Assad: It "would seem there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people," US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said of Assad on Thursday.

    As costly as inaction has been in the six years since the Arab Spring uprisings first took hold in Syria, recent history suggests that removing Assad in a hurry would be an even bigger mistake. In 16 years studying and working with complex conflicts like Syria, I have yet to see an exception to this rule.

    We know where this goes next

    Targeting Assad would most likely give birth to the same kind of catastrophe we saw in Libya after Muammar Gaddafi's fall. In Libya, with no true civil governance to hold the structure together, tribal alliances collapsed and a four-way fight for power emerged. It continues even now, accented by a growing presence of the Islamic State. The power vacuum that would follow the sudden and unwise removal of Assad could be worse than the current warfare and nourish the already fertile growing conditions for violent extremist and paramilitary actors.

    Assad shouldn't remain in power — he's been proving that for six years. The recent sarin-gas attack is only the most recent on a long list of other human-rights violations. But he should be part of a political and legal process that removes him. That process must come from the Syrians themselves, not from the outside. His departure should be negotiated with Syrian civil society leadership to legitimize the claim to power of a civilian government. Justice for his crimes should be served by Syrian courts.

    U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Ross (DDG 71) fires a tomahawk

    Here's why

    Nature abhors a vacuum: Unlike in a game of chess, in war removing the king is not the end but only another beginning. The idea that Syria still exists as it looks on the map is a fantasy. Part of its territory is held by the government, part is lost to the Islamic State, part of it is in rebel hands. It won't come cleanly back together should the fighting suddenly end tomorrow. Tensions among rebel groups – which are already high– and between pro- and anti-ISIS forces will only increase with one combatant removed from the field. We can only attempt to predict where Assad's loyalist forces will go with their leader removed.

    For Assad's withdrawal to be beneficial, it needs to come in the context of a sound Syrian-driven plan to move from immediate containment of violence to a return of civilian Syrian leadership and security. That plan currently doesn't exist.

    Outside solutions never work: In the international development world, it's been repeatedly shown that solutions to complicated problems can't be imposed from outside. They won't be sustainable and often do harm. Solutions have to come from inside a country's own civil society. Otherwise, the result is to undermine the legitimacy of the same systems of politics and justice that are necessary to hold a population together in the long term. At present there is little left of Syrian civil society, but local councils continue to provide the connective tissue that holds the country together in areas not held by Assad. These organizations can jump-start efforts to create new democratic institutions.

    What's the endgame? The classic underpinnings of our own strategic doctrine stress that military action should never be taken without a clear goal for a desired end-state. Of all the possible actions the US could take, regime change is the most deceptively simple — but it doesn't qualify as an end-state. In fact, it would usher in a more chaotic and violent environment that would be hard to contain even by several countries working together militarily.

    Libya and Iraq both demonstrated this all too clearly. They fell into chaos despite the efforts — or perhaps because of the efforts — of multinational coalitions. Thursday's strikes only increased the sense of crisis and confusion, as everyone from the Syrians to the Russians to America itself wonders what the next move will be. Most worrisome, it's unclear whether Trump himself has a firm grasp on what he's doing next or why.

    Whither the ship of state? Most of America's high-level diplomatic positions are still unfilled. These are positions that manage complex State Department processes, and which have the political heft to hold their own with the Department of Defense in fights over direction and leadership. They coordinate with international partners to ensure there are no miscommunications and that missteps are minimized. They provide much-needed analysis about dynamics and changes in conflict zones. They also help to mitigate the heightened probability of accidental clashes with international actors such as Russia in the confusion and increased tension that follows military action.

    The infrastructure through which Assad mounts his offensives cannot be decisively destroyed by anything limited and quick. They are too dispersed and numerous. Unless the United States is willing to commit to a sustained and substantial campaign or to throw its weight behind a political end to the war, Thursday's strikes are an empty gesture. At the same time, it's also true that even a sustained and substantial military campaign would not bring about peace and security, and would put American troops on a battlefield that's essentially one big crossfire. It's a Catch-22.

    The fact that the US has now literally fired its opening salvo limits the American government's options — but the political process is a sustainable path that offers a way out of the catch, and there's still time to put our weight behind that. It does neither the Syrian people nor our own security any good to find urgency overnight, only to make a bad situation worse.

    SEE ALSO: US official: Russia knew in advance that Syria would launch chemical weapons attack

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    NOW WATCH: ADMIRAL McRAVEN: Attacking Syria was 'the exact right thing to do'

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    Rex Tillerson

    LUCCA, Italy — Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) major industrialized nations met in Italy on Monday, looking to put pressure on Russia to break its ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

    In a shift in Washington's strategy, US missiles hit a Syrian air base last week in retaliation for what the United States and its allies say was a poison gas attack by Syria's military in which scores of civilians died. The Syrian government has denied it was behind the assault.

    US President Donald Trump had previously appeared disinclined to intervene against the Syrian leader and the attack raised expectations that he might now be ready to adopt a tougher-than-expected stance with Russia, Assad's main backer.

    Calling the strike a "game changer," British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said support for the Syrian president "was toxifying the reputation of Russia" and suggested sanctions could be imposed on Moscow if it refused to change course.

    US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is due to travel to Moscow on Tuesday at the end of the two-day gathering in the Tuscan city of Lucca with his Italian, German, French, British, Japanese and Canadian counterparts.

    "What we're trying to do is to give Rex Tillerson the clearest possible mandate from us as the West, the UK, all our allies here, to say to the Russians 'this is your choice: stick with that guy, stick with that tyrant, or work with us to find a better solution'," Johnson said after meeting Tillerson.


    Russia has rejected accusations that Assad used chemical arms against his own people and has said it will not cut its ties with Assad, who has been locked in a six-year-old civil war that has devastated Syria and displaced half its population.

    "Returning to pseudo-attempts to resolve the crisis by repeating mantras that Assad must step down cannot help sort things out," Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said on Monday.

    Johnson said he was keen to seen further sanctions imposed on both Syrian and Russian "military figures". Speaking to reporters in France, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country was also ready to stiffen sanctions on Moscow.

    "Crimes against innocents"

    Tillerson said at the weekend the main priority for the United States was the defeat of one of Assad's main foes, the Islamic State militant movement, and it is unclear how far he will want to push the Russians on Tuesday.

    On Monday, the former oilman-turned-diplomat visited the site of a World War Two Nazi massacre in Italy and said the United States would never let such abuses go unchallenged.

    "We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world," he said in Sant'Anna di Stazzema before heading to Lucca.

    As the talks began, a few dozen anti-G7 protesters clashed with baton-wielding riot police on the edges of the walled city.

    Looking to build their case against Assad, Italy has invited the foreign ministers from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Qatar to sit down with the G7 group on Tuesday to discuss Syria. All oppose Assad's rule.

    bashar al-assad

    Before the meeting started, the foreign minister of Iran, which supports Assad, asked to speak to Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano to discuss Syria, Italian diplomats said. Details of their conversation were not disclosed.

    The foreign ministers' discussions will prepare the way for a G7 leaders' summit in Sicily at the end of May, which looks set to be Trump's first overseas trip since becoming president.

    The ministers will also talk about growing tensions with North Korea, with the United States moving a navy strike group near the Korean peninsula amid concerns over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

    They will also debate Libya. Italy is hoping for vocal support for a United Nations-backed government in Tripoli which has struggled to establish its authority even in the city, let alone in the rest of the country.

    The Trump administration has not yet defined a clear policy and Rome fears Washington may fall into step with Egypt and Russia, which both support general Khalifa Haftar, a powerful figure in eastern Libya.

    The struggle against terrorism, relations with Iran and instability in Ukraine are also on the agenda, with the meeting expected to finish by midday on Tuesday.

    (Reporting by Crispian Balmer and Steve Scherer; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

    SEE ALSO: US official: Russia knew in advance that Syria would launch chemical weapons attack

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    Mevlut CavusogluISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday that Ankara's findings showed the Syrian government still possessed chemical weapons capacity and urged for measures to prevent its potential usage.

    Speaking to state-run broadcaster TRT Haber in Italy, Cavusoglu also said a transition government was urgently needed in Syria and that risks of chemical weapons would continue as long as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remained in power.

    (Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Daren Butler; Editing by David Dolan)

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    Jeremy Corbyn

    LONDON — Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn refused to answer questions on Syria in a press conference on Tuesday morning, despite his press team telling journalists that he would be happy to do so just minutes before.

    In a speech to The Federation of Small Businesses on Tuesday morning, Corbyn said he would not be taking questions on subjects other than small businesses, but later answered questions on the Great Repeal Bill and opinion polls.

    The Labour leader was at the FSB to launch a host of new business policies.

    However, the press conference took a bizarre turn when some members of the audience jeered as BBC journalist Mark Lobel asked Corbyn for his views on the Syrian conflict.

    The Labour leader has previously stated his opposition to the recent attacks by the US on Assad's forces.

    Corbyn's team had given journalists permission to ask about what action UK government should take against Russia just minutes before the press conference got underway. 

    In an unusual move, journalists were told that they could only ask one question each on individual topics, with the BBC claiming Syria.

    However, the Labour leader left his podium and moved to the front of the stage to tell Lobel that he would not answer any questions on the matter and journalists would instead have to wait until after the press conference.

    Some members of the audience booed Lobel as he asked the question, with an FSB member heard saying "f--- off" as he spoke.

    Watch Corbyn refuses to answer Syria question.

    The Labour leader went on to reluctantly answer a question about opinion polls that show Labour trailing the Conservatives by large margins. An audience member said "f-----g hell" as the Mirror's Ben Glaze asked the question.

    Speaking to Business Insider afterwards, a spokesperson for Corbyn said that the Labour leader took the decision to not answer the question on Syria as "the mood of the audience" was against it.

    "They wanted to hear more detail about our offer for small businesses. In response, we focused the questions on those topics. We did multiple questions on Syria in broadcast interviews afterwards," they said.

    During the press conference, Corbyn announced a series of measures that he would implement as prime minister to protect small businesses.

    These include going to "war" with big companies that make late payments to smaller suppliers and scrapping the government plans to make small to medium-sized companies produced quarterly reports.

    These pledges were "received well" by FSB members in attendance, a spokesperson for the organisation told us.

    Corbyn's spokesperson added that "lots more" policies will be announced in the coming weeks.

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    NOW WATCH: Donald Tusk to UK: 'we already miss you'

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    Rex Tillerson Angelino Alfano

    LUCCA, Italy — US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued an ultimatum to Russia on Tuesday: Side with the US and like-minded countries on Syria, or embrace Iran, the militant group Hezbollah, and embattled Syrian leader Bashar Assad.

    As he embarked on a trip to Moscow following urgent meetings in Italy with top diplomats, Tillerson said it was unclear whether Russia had failed to take seriously its obligation to rid Syria of chemical weapons, or had merely been incompetent. But he said the distinction "doesn't much matter to the dead."

    "We cannot let this happen again," the secretary of state said.

    "We want to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people," Tillerson added in remarks to reporters. "Russia can be a part of that future and play an important role. Or Russia can maintain its alliance with this group, which we believe is not going to serve Russia's interests longer term."

    Since the US launched airstrikes against Assad's forces in retaliation for a chemical attack on civilians last week, Trump administration officials have offered mixed messages about whether Washington believes Assad definitely must surrender power — and when. Tillerson said it was clear the US saw no role for Assad in Syria's future, given that he had lost legitimacy.

    "It is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end," he said. "But the question of how that ends and the transition itself could be very important in our view to the durability, the stability inside of a unified Syria."

    "That's why we are not presupposing how that occurs," Tillerson added.

    He said the cease-fire talks that Russia and Iran had helped broker in the Kazakh capital, Astana, could generate momentum toward broader talks about a political transition — if the Astana talks succeed in creating a durable cease-fire. The resulting political talks would take place under the auspices of the United Nations process in Geneva.

    "To date, Astana has not achieved much progress," Tillerson said.

    Tillerson spoke after a meeting of the "like-minded" countries was hastily arranged on the sidelines of the summit of the Group of Seven industrialized economies in Italy, days after the US for the first time launched strikes against Assad's forces.

    A key focus since the chemical attack has been on increasing pressure on Russia, Assad's strongest ally, which has used its own military to keep Assad in power. The US and others have said Russia bears responsibility for the deaths of civilians at the hands of Assad given Moscow's role in guaranteeing the 2013 deal in which Assad was supposed to have given up his chemical weapons arsenal.

    rex tillerson donald trump

    The US raised the stakes significantly Monday when a senior US official said Washington had made a preliminary conclusion that Russia knew in advance of Syria's chemical weapons attack. Yet the US has no proof of Moscow's involvement, said the official, who wasn't authorized to speak publicly on intelligence matters and demanded anonymity.

    That accusation will hang over Tillerson's visit to Moscow, where he plans with meet with Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and possibly with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin declined to say whether Putin would meet with Tillerson, in line with its usual practice of not announcing such meetings ahead of time.

    The US has sought to minimize expectations for the trip or the likelihood that the US will leave with any concessions from Russia regarding its support for Assad. Instead, the US is hoping to use the visit — the first by a Trump Cabinet official to Russia — to convey its expectations to Moscow and then allow the Russians a period of time to respond.

    Though intended to punish Assad for a chemical weapons attack, the US strikes last week served to refocus the world's attention on the bloody war in Syria, now in its seventh year. Diplomats gathered in Italy as US officials in Washington floated the possibility of new sanctions on the Syrian and Russian military, plus the threat of additional US military action if Assad's government continues attacking civilians.

    At Tuesday's meeting in the walled Tuscan city of Lucca, the G-7 countries were joined by diplomats from Muslim-majority nations including Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The inclusion of those countries is important because the US strategy for Syria involves enlisting help from Mideast nations to ensure security and stability in Syria after the Islamic State group is vanquished.

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    Vladimir Putin

    Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters on Tuesday that he had information to suggest that the US was planning to frame Syrian President Bashar Assad for a "false flag" chemical attack on a suburb of Damascus, Syria's capital.

    Putin, who made the comments during a joint press conference with Italian President Sergio Mattarella, has slammed the US over President Donald Trump's decision to target an airfield believed to have been used by Assad's military to launch a deadly chemical attack early last week.

    Putin was asked specifically about US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's comments on Tuesday morning. Tillerson had said Russia was either incompetent or had failed to hold up its end of the deal to destroy Assad's chemical weapons, and it needed to choose whether to abandon or "maintain its alliance" with Assad.

    Tillerson is expected to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow later Tuesday.

    "President Mattarella and I discussed it, and I told him that this reminds me strongly of the events in 2003, when the US representatives demonstrated at the UN Security Council session the presumed chemical weapons found in Iraq," Putin told reporters.

    He added that Western nations that used to criticize Trump were now supporting his strike on Assad because they were "searching for a common enemy personified by Russia and Syria in order to restore their relations with Washington."

    Putin further said that the chemical attack carried out in Idlib province last week was a "false flag" and that he had information that a "similar provocation is being prepared" in a suburb of Damascus.

    "We have reports from multiple sources that false flags like this one — and I cannot call it otherwise — are being prepared in other parts of Syria, including the southern suburbs of Damascus," he said. "They plan to plant some chemical there and accuse the Syrian government of an attack."


    The "false flag" conspiracy theory echoes an op-ed published by the pro-Assad outlet Al-Masdar News last week arguing that Assad dropping chemicals on civilians "defies any logic" and that "terrorist forces have once again created a false-flag scenario" bearing a "resemblance to the Ghouta chemical weapons attack in 2013."

    The attack in Ghouta, Syria, left more than 1,000 civilians dead and resulted in a deal, brokered by the US and Russia, to destroy Assad's arsenal of chemical weapons. 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 reported.

    The Syrian government has denied dropping chemical weapons on civilians, and 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. The gases dispersed and killed dozens of civilians when it was bombed, Russia has claimed.

    Experts quickly cast doubt on that explanation. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, an expert on chemical weapons, told the BBC last week that Russia's claim was "fanciful" and that it would be "unsustainable" for a nerve agent like sarin gas to spread as the result of a bombing.

    Turkey's health minister said on Tuesday that test results confirmed sarin gas was used in last week's attack.

    Dan Kaszeta, a veteran of the US Army Reserve's Chemical Corps — the branch of the Army responsible for protection against chemical, biological, and nuclear threats — said an airstrike of the kind described by Russia would "not cause the production of large quantities of sarin."

    "Dropping a bomb on the binary components does not actually provide the correct mechanism for making the nerve agent,"Kaszeta said. "It is an infantile argument."

    US defense officials monitoring Syrian warplanes on military radar say they saw the planes take off and drop the chemicals, according to NBC. And a US official told The Associated Press on Monday that the US had concluded Russia knew in advance about the chemical attack.

    Putin told reporters on Tuesday that Russia was "planning to address the corresponding UN structure in The Hague and call on the international community to thoroughly investigate all those reports and take appropriate action based on the results of such a probe."

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    NOW WATCH: ADMIRAL McRAVEN: Attacking Syria was 'the exact right thing to do'

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    US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says Russia must choose between aligning itself with the US and its allies or Syrian President Bashar Assad and his regime, Iran, and Hezbollah. Following is a transcript of the video.

    It is our policy for a unified Syria that is governed by the people of Syria. I think it is, it’s clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end. But the question of how that ends and the transition itself could be very important, in our view, to the durability, the stability inside of a unified Syria, and its stability and durability of the outcome going forward. And so that’s why we are not presupposing how that occurs. But I think it is clear that we see no further role for the Assad regime longer term given that they have effectively given up their legitimacy with these type of attacks.

    I think it’s also worth thinking about Russia has really aligned itself with the Assad regime, the Iranians, and Hezbollah. Is that a long-term alliance that serves Russia’s interest? Or would Russia prefer to realign with the United States, with other Western countries, and Middle East countries who are seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis? We want to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people. We want to create a future for Syria that is stable and secure. And so Russia can be a part of that future and play an important role. Or Russia can maintain its alliance with this group which we believe is not going to serve Russia’s interest longer term. But only Russia can answer that question.

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    Russian President Vladimir Putin says he has "intelligence" that the US was planning false-flag attacks in Syria to frame Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime of using chemical weapons. He also announced that Russia will ask the UN to investigate the chemical attack that took place in the Idlib province of Syria. The Russians deny that the Syrian government is responsible for the attacks. Following is a transcript:

    PUTIN:We have intelligence from various sources that similar provocations are being prepared in other regions of Syria, including southern suburbs of Damascus, where they are planning to plant chemicals and blame the Syrian government for using them. But we believe that any displays of this kind deserve to be thoroughly investigated. We are going to officially turn to the corresponding UN structure in the Hague and to call on the international community to thoroughly investigate these actions.

    Of course, we could not skip the discussion on the current relationship between Russia and the European Union. We believe that it would be in our common interest to reinstate the Russia-EU trade ties, based on the principles of equality and mutual respect.

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    Donald and Ivanka Trump

    Eric Trump, President Donald Trump's 33-year-old son, told The Daily Telegraph on Monday that his sister Ivanka told their father to strike Syria following a chemical weapons attack on civilians last week believed to be carried out by the Syrian military.

    Trump said his sister was "heartbroken and outraged" by the chemical attack, which killed dozens of people, including children.

    "Ivanka is a mother of three kids and she has influence," Trump said. "I'm sure she said, 'Listen, this is horrible stuff.' My father will act in times like that."

    Ivanka Trump recently took an official position in the White House as an assistant to her father.

    Eric Trump, who spoke with The Daily Telegraph during a visit to the Trump Turnberry golf resort in Ayrshire, Scotland, said his father was "deeply affected" by the images and video footage he saw of children being "sprayed down by hoses to keep their skin from burning." Trump added that he believed his father had a moral obligation to act against the Syrian government.

    "It was horrible," he said. "These guys are savages and I'm glad he responded the way he responded. I'm proud he took that action, and believe me he thinks things through."

    He added that his father's views on the US's involvement in Syria had changed because of the brutality of last week's attack.

    "And by the way, he was anti doing anything with Syria two years ago," Trump said. "Then a leader gasses their own people, women and children, at some point America is the global leader and the world's superpower has to come forward and act and they did with a lot of support of our allies and I think that's a great thing."

    Following the Syrian government's chemical attack on civilians in 2013, Donald Trump repeatedly implored President Barack Obama not to take action against the Syrian regime, arguing that a US attack would "bring nothing but trouble" for the US.

    In contrast to his statements in 2013, Trump as president argued that last week's chemical attack was a result of the Obama administration's "weakness and irresolution" following the Syrian regime's 2013 chemical attack.

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    NOW WATCH: ADMIRAL McRAVEN: Attacking Syria was 'the exact right thing to do'

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    Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters shoot a drone they said belonged to Islamic State fighters on the bank of the Euphrates river, west of Raqqa city, Syria April 8, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    US forces in southern Syria came under attack by Islamic State militants around midnight local time on Saturday, joining with local partner forces to repel the assault in an hours-long fight that required multiple airstrikes and left three US-backed Syrian fighters dead.

    US special-operations advisers were on the ground near the al-Tanf border crossing when a force of 20 to 30 fighters with the Islamic State, the terrorist group also known as ISIS or ISIL, attacked in what a US Central Command spokesman called a "complex and coordinated" attempt to take the base from the coalition.

    "US and coalition forces were on the ground in the area as they normally are, and participated in repulsing the attack," said Air Force Col. John J. Thomas, a spokesman for Central Command, according to the Associated Press.

    "There was close-air support that was provided, there was ground support that was provided, and there was med-evac that was supported by the coalition," Thomas added. No Americans were killed or wounded.

    "Clearly it was planned,"Thomas told reporters at the Pentagon. "The coalition and our partner forces had the resources to repulse that attack. A lot of them wound up being killed and the garrison remains controlled by the people in control before being attacked."

    "Ultimately the attackers were killed, defeated, or chased off,"Thomas said.

    A U.S. fighter stands near a military vehicle, north of Raqqa city, Syria November 6, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    US forces at al-Tanf, on Syria's southern border with Jordan and Iraq, had initially withdrawn to avoid potential retaliatory action after the US strike on an Assad regime airfield in western Syria.

    The attack came from ISIS fighters disguised as US-backed rebels, carrying M-16 rifles and using vehicles captured from US-supported rebel groups. They struck first with a car bomb at the base entrance, which allowed some of the attackers to infiltrate the base. Many of the ISIS fighters were wearing suicide vests.

    "Around 20 ISIS fighters attacked the base, and suicide bombers blew up the main gate, and clashes took place inside the base," Tlass al-Salama, the commander of the Osoud al Sharqiya Army, part of the US-backed moderate rebel alliance, told The Wall Street Journal.

    Salama's force sent reinforcements to the base, but they came under attack from other ISIS fighters.

    Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters stand with their weapons north of Raqqa city, Syria March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    US special-operations forces and their Syrian partners who had moved out of the base quickly returned, and they initially repelled the attack on the ground in a firefight that lasted about three hours.

    Coalition pilots also carried out multiple airstrikes amid the fighting, destroying ISIS vehicles and killing many of the terrorist group's fighters.

    "It was a serious fight," a US military official said Monday. "Whether or not it was a one-off, we will have to see."

    US special-operations forces had been training vetted Syrian opposition troops at al-Tanf for more than a year. The Syrian opposition fighters in question were operating against ISIS in southern Syria and working with Jordan to maintain border security.

    The pullback from al-Tanf to safeguard against reprisals was just one step the coalition took in the aftermath of the US strike on Shayrat airfield, which was believed to be the launching point for a chemical weapons attack on a Syrian village last week.

    The coalition also reduced the number of air missions it flew, out of concern Syrian or Russian forces would attempt to shoot down US aircraft. The US presence in Syria has increased in recent months, as Marines and other units arrive to aid US-backed fighters.

    ISIS may become more active in southern Syria as US-backed forces close in on Raqqa, the terrorist group's self-proclaimed capital located in northeast Syria. Top ISIS leaders have reportedly fled the city in recent months.

    SEE ALSO: Top military commanders say they can't keep up with the amount of drugs flowing into the US

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    NOW WATCH: 'The reign of the Assad family is coming to an end': Tillerson says Russia must choose to align with the US

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    Eric and Donald Trump

    Eric Trump, President Donald Trump's 33-year-old son, told The Daily Telegraph on Monday that his father's cruise missile attack on Syria last week proves that the Trump administration will not be "pushed around" by Russia. 

    The US attack on a Syrian government airfield was launched in response to a chemical attack allegedly carried out by the Syrian government, which killed dozens of civilians, including children. 

    "If there was anything that Syria did, it was to validate the fact that there is no Russia tie," Eric Trump said, referring to the US strike.

    Both the Russian government, led by President Vladimir Putin, and the Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, have denied that Assad's forces dropped the chemicals, claiming that the gas was released accidentally when a Syrian airstrike hit a "terrorist warehouse" containing "toxic substances."

    Eric Trump said his father will not be intimidated by Russian military escalation.

    “If they disrespect us and if they cross us, fine. There will be no one harder – he has got more backbone than anybody. We’re no worse off than we were before. Maybe we’re finding that we can’t be,” he said. “He is not a guy who gets intimidated. I can tell you he is tough and he won’t be pushed around. The cards will shake out the way they do but he’s tough.”

    Russia has doubled down on its support for Assad— condemning US "aggression" against what they view as Assad's "legitimate" government — since the US targeted Shayrat airfield with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles last week.

    Trump added that his father is "deeply committed" to expanding the US's military capabilities and is a "big believer in Ronald Reagan's philosophy of achieving peace through strength."

    Trump, who spoke with The Daily Telegraph during a visit to the Trump Turnberry golf resort in Ayrshire, Scotland, defended his father against accusations that he acted impulsively in response to the disturbing footage of the attack on civilians. 

    “I’m proud he took that action and believe me he thinks things through,” he said, adding that the president is “a great thinker, practical not impulsive.”

    The US attack on Syria comes as investigations by the FBI and the House and Senate intelligence committees into Trump's ties to Russia are reaching a boiling point in the media. 

    Natasha Bertrand contributed to this report. 

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

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    Senior national security officials at the White House said on Tuesday that "it is clear the Russians are trying to cover up what happened" in Syria via a "disinformation campaign" following a chemical weapons attack the US believes was carried out by Syrian President Bashar Assad early last week.

    Russia's government has said that the toxic gas that killed 83 people and wounded at least 150 in northern Syria last week was released accidentally when a Syrian air strike hit a "terrorist warehouse" containing "toxic substances."

    Putin slightly altered that explanation on Tuesday, telling reporters during a joint press conference with Italian President Sergio Mattarella that the attack was a "false flag" carried out by rebel groups.

    He added that he had "information" to suggest that the US was planning to frame Assad for a new chemical attack on a suburb of Syria's capital, Damascus, and said US statements on the attack reminded him "strongly of the events in 2003, when the US representatives demonstrated at the UN Security Council session the presumed chemical weapons found in Iraq."

    But senior White House officials told reporters in a conference call on Tuesday that they understand what happened last week "with a high degree of confidence," and have assessed that neither terror groups nor rebels operating on the ground in Syria have access to sarin gas.

    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

    The officials said they had not yet determined whether or not Russia had foreknowledge of the chemical weapons attack before it was carried out. But they said that Russia is following a "clear pattern of deflecting blame" from Assad to the rebel groups in order to cover up the regime's culpability. 

    "ISIS has used sulfur mustard gas, but we assessed that, in this case, this attack was not the result of a terrorist holding of sarin or terrorist use of sarin," one official said. "We understand what happened there with a very high degree of confidence, and this is an opportunity for the Russians to end their disinformation campaign and commit to eliminating the use of chemical weapons forever." 

    During Tuesday's press conference, Putin also slammed President Donald Trump's decision to target an airfield believed to have been used by Assad's military to launch the attack last week.

    While Assad's defenders have argued that it "defies any logic" why he would drop chemical weapons on civilians, the White House officials explained that the attack was planned as rebel forces closed in on an air base crucial for the regime to project power from Aleppo, Syria's largest city, and further to the east to support its operations in Palmyra.

    "The opposition had penetrated to within a couple miles of that airbase and threatened the Hama population center," a senior White House official said. "The regime then calculated that with its airpower spread thin, chemical weapons would be necessary to make up for a manpower deficiency."

    Fred Hof, the director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and former US special adviser on Syria, made a similar point last week.

    "Idlib, in general, remains the one piece of northwestern Syria that lies beyond the control of the Assad regime," Hof said. He noted that the province "houses a really volatile mix of actors, including fairly heavily armed rebel militias and the former [Al Qaeda-linked] Nusra Front," and to launch a "deliberate, conventional military campaign there would be way beyond the capability of Assad's army, which is essentially broken."

    "So it is possible Assad calculated that a return to the use of sarin gas would allow him to shortcut this process," Hof said, "by introducing an element of sheer terror that he believed the West would not respond to." 

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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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    Sean Spicer

    The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, made the bizarre claim on Tuesday that unlike Syrian President Bashar Assad, Adolf Hitler never stooped to the level of using chemical weapons.

    When asked whether Spicer thought there was any reason to think Russia would pull back its support of Syria, its decades-long ally, Spicer seemed to muddle some facts regarding World War II history.

    "We didn't use chemical weapons in World War II," he said. "You had someone as despicable as Hitler didn't even sink to using chemical weapons. If you're Russia, you have to ask yourself if this is a country and regime that you want to align yourself with."

    The World War II-era German dictator, however, famously did use chemical weapons in gas chambers to exterminate millions of Jewish people, LGBTQ people, and others in Eastern Europe.

    "They are now getting on the wrong side of history in a really bad way," Spicer said of Russia.

    Moments later, Spicer was asked to clarify his comments on Hitler. "When it comes to sarin gas, he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing," Spicer said.

    "In the way that Assad used them where he went into towns and dropped him down on innocents in the middle of town was not the same. I appreciate the clarification — that was not the intent," Spicer said, presumably referring to the implication that Hitler did not use chemical weapons.

    But Spicer's clarification remains murky. Hitler gassed his own people, many of whom were German Jews or others found undesirable to the Nazi movement, though it's true that Hitler did not order airstrikes with chemical weapons on civilian populations.

    After the conference, Spicer offered additional clarification, telling an NBC reporter, “In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust, however, I was trying to draw a contrast of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on innocent people.”

    The Trump administration found itself in hot water in January after omitting any reference to the plight of the Jewish people during World War II in an official statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

    SEE ALSO: Navy SEAL's book on the bin Laden killing shows the real reason photos of the body were never released

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    NOW WATCH: 7 things the CIA looks for when recruiting people

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