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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    douma syria civilians

    • After Syrian forces bombed the town of Douma earlier this month in an attack the United States says involved chlorine gas, Washington and its allies launched missile strikes as punishment.
    • But Syrian forces had already taken the town where the alleged gas attack took place by the time the strike happened. 
    • "The threat came: 'You saw what happened in Douma. Now you can only sign, or there will be more strikes and nobody left in the town'," a top official in Jaish al-Islam, an Islamist rebel group in Syria said. 
    • Before the chemical weapons attack in Douma, the rebels had apparently angered Russia.

    AMMAN (Reuters) - After Syrian forces bombed the town of Douma earlier this month in an attack the United States says involved chlorine gas, Washington and its allies launched missile strikes as punishment.

    The retribution has changed little in the course of the seven-year civil war, but the alleged poison gas attack did.

    Rebels had held the stronghold of Douma, near the capital Damascus, for years despite repeated offensives. Within hours of the April 7 attack they were in retreat.

    Under pressure from beleaguered residents and facing Russian threats of further such attacks, the rebel group Jaish al-Islam finally agreed to surrender Douma and leave for the Turkish border, Mohammad Alloush, a top official in the movement, said.

    By the time the West struck back just under a week later, armed resistance in the areas around the Syrian government's seat of power had all but collapsed, further strengthening the hand of President Bashar al-Assad.

    Syria and Russia condemned the Western military intervention early on Saturday, and deny the use of chemical weapons in Douma.

    Moscow branded it a lie concocted with the help of Britain, while the British government said a significant body of information, including intelligence, indicated the Syrian government was responsible.

    Whatever happened on that day, it prompted a dramatic shift on the ground.

    Medical relief groups said dozens of civilians were killed, and one video circulated by activists showed the bodies of around a dozen men, women and children lifeless on the floor, some of them with foam at the mouth.

    A couple of hours later, according to Alloush, mediators from the rebel group held talks with a team led by a senior officer from the Russian defense ministry.

    "The threat came: 'You saw what happened in Douma. Now you can only sign, or there will be more strikes and nobody left in the town'," Alloush, who is based in Istanbul, told Reuters.

    He blamed Russia for helping the Syrian army carry out the attack in order to end the rebellion.

    "They bombed and bombed and we weren't defeated by conventional weapons so they found the only way was to use chemical (weapons)."

    The Russian defense ministry did not respond to detailed questions about Alloush's comments sent by Reuters.

    After talking with the Russians, Jaish al-Islam members then met a civilian council representing Douma residents: tens of thousands have stayed on despite the fighting that has reduced much of the town to rubble.

    The residents' message to the rebels was clear: "They said 'we can no longer hold on. If you don't leave, we are going over to the regime'," said Alloush. "Civilian morale collapsed with the scenes of death."

    A council member who declined to be named told Reuters that civilians said they could no longer resist, given the threat of further attacks.

    Dozens of people had been killed under intense bombardment the day before poison gas was allegedly deployed, but there was a difference, Alloush said.

    "Chemical weapons create more terror."

    Escalating tensions 

    Syria air strikes 18 map reuters

    Syria's civil war has been going Assad's way since Russia intervened on his side in 2015.

    After the key capture of eastern Aleppo in late 2016, Assad and his allies have taken back one area after another from rebels who face Russian air power and lack sufficient aid from foreign states that back them only half-heartedly.

    Significant areas of Syria still remain beyond the president's grasp, including nearly all of the north, much of the east, and a chunk of the southwest, areas where foreign interests will complicate further gains.

    But in the region around the capital he has made big gains. Eastern Ghouta fell last month, leaving Douma as the last major rebel bastion.

    Its fall - insurgent fighters have been bussed toward the Turkish border over the past few days - marks another milestone.

    The Ghouta offensive was directed from the start by Russia and waged on the ground by elite Syrian forces, according to a commander in the regional military alliance that backs Assad.

    When the assault got underway in February, the besieged area was pounded from the ground and air before troops thrust in. So far, the Ghouta offensive has killed more than 1,700 civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

    Hamstrung by rivalries and weakened by the "scorched earth" bombardment, the handful of eastern Ghouta rebel groups were steadily defeated and forced to accept safe passage to opposition-held territory at the Turkish border.

    Jaish al-Islam, however, believed it could avoid the same fate even as Syrian troops encircled Douma, saying it wanted to protect the town and its people from forced displacement imposed by the Assad government.

    Civilians flee 

    A handicapped man rides a bicycle past damaged buildings in the besieged town of Douma in eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, March 1, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

    Once the biggest rebel group in eastern Ghouta, Jaish al-Islam claimed to have fortified Douma extensively, meaning government forces could face a costly battle to capture it.

    The group also said it could have held out thanks to weapons factories it built up during the war and enough supplies to feed people for a year.

    Hundreds of thousands of residents had already fled the area in the years and months preceding April 7, but tens of thousands stayed.

    In negotiations with Russian military personnel, Jaish al-Islam pressed for a deal that would let in Russian military police, keep out the Syrian military and allow its fighters to stay as a local security force.

    Alloush said the talks appeared to be going well two days before the suspected chemical attack, with the Russians having promised to study fresh proposals.

    But, he said, Russia's response the following day was a threat: face chemical attacks or leave to northern Syria.

    That afternoon the most ferocious bombardment yet was unleashed on Douma. Thick clouds of dark smoke rose from the town in a live state TV broadcast.

    The government accused Jaish al-Islam of shelling residential areas of Damascus and reneging on promises to release abducted soldiers and civilians held by the group.

    The rebels denied opening fire.

    "We were fighting the Russians. We were not fighting the regime," Alloush said.

    "The Russians got angry"

    Barrel bomb being dropped by helicopter

    The pro-Assad commander who declined to be named said the army had been mobilized on April 6 in preparation for a possible assault, after Jaish al-Islam reneged on an agreement to leave the town and introduced unacceptable demands.

    These included its legalization as a political party, and a requirement that the Syrian army stay out of Douma. The Russians were furious, according to the pro-Assad commander.

    "The Russians got very angry with them ... and asked them 'what are these impossible conditions'?"

    The Syrian government's position was clear, the commander said. The rebels must go "to Jarablus", a town at the Turkish border.

    Sources in the rebel group, however, said that talks with the Russians had been about the terms of them staying in Douma, not about conditions of a withdrawal.

    The ensuing onslaught smashed Jaish al-Islam's defensive lines, according to both Alloush and the pro-Assad commander.

    As the air strikes continued, Alloush reiterated Jaish al-Islam's demand that it be allowed to stay in Douma to protect its people.

    The next evening, more than 500 people, mostly women and children, began arriving at medical centers in Douma showing symptoms consistent with exposure to a chemical agent, according to Syrian American Medical Society, a relief organization.

    "Following the chemical attack, the target site and the surrounding area of the hospital receiving the injured were attacked with barrel bombs, which hindered the ability of the ambulances to reach the victims," it said.

    Hours later, the rebels began to withdraw.

    SEE ALSO: Trump's Syria strikes might have been illegal — and it shows Congress has limited power to stop him from going to war

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    tomahawk uss laboon syria strike

    • President Donald Trump's administration over the weekend carried out its second military strike on the Syrian government without even asking for permission from Congress.
    • Congress has the sole constitutional authority to declare war, but most US military action since 2001 has been covered by a sweeping Authorization of Use of Military Force that covers actions against terror organizations linked to the 9/11 attacks.
    • But the US attacked Syria's actual government, not a terror group, on Friday, which legal experts say stretches the framework of the law.
    • Few congressional checks remain on Trump's ability to start wars, and a congressman told Business Insider the legislature is "derelict in its duty" for allowing this.

    President Donald Trump's administration over the weekend carried out its second military strike on the Syrian government without asking for permission from Congress, and it could indicate the legislature has lost its ability to stop the president from going to war. 

    The US constitution, in Article I, Section 8, clearly states that the power to declare war lies with Congress, but since 2001, successive US presidents have used military force in conflicts around the world with increasingly tenuous legality.

    Today, most US military activity falls under a broad congressional Authorization of Military Force that passed in 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that allows the US to "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons."

    This has essentially become a carte blanche for the US president to fight terrorism wherever it rears its head.

    But on Friday night, and one year previous in April 2017, the Trump administration attacked Syria's actual government. 

    At Harvard's Lawfare blog, law professors Jack Goldsmith and Oona A. Hathaway both summed up all of the Trump administration's possible arguments for the legality of the Syria strikes in an article named "Bad Legal Arguments for the Syria Airstrikes."

    The article concludes that the US's stated legal justification, that Article II of the constitution allows the US to protect itself from attacks, falls short, and that other legal arguments are a stretch at best.

    California Rep. John Garamendi, a House Democrat on the Armed Services Committee who spoke with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis hours before the strike, told Business Insider the strikes were probably illegal.

    "The bottom line is I do not believe he has legal authority to conduct those strikes," Garamendi said.

    Congress 'derelict in its duty' as Trump doesn't even try to get approval 

    uss laboon tomahawk syria strike

    Trump "could have and should have come to Congress and said these facilities and the use of poisonous gas is horrific, it is illegal based upon the international conventions, and I want to take military action," Garamendi said. "I believe that a limited authorization to do that would have passed Congress in one day," if it had been written in a concise, limited way, said Garamendi.

    But Trump did not ask for permission, and it shows the incredible power of US presidents to start wars.

    "I think that Congress was derelict in its duty," said Garamendi. "Congress clearly has abdicated one of its most crucial functions, and that is the power to take the US into a war. The Constitution is absolutely clear, and it's for a very important reason."

    Fred Hof, former US ambassador to Syria and Atlantic Council expert, pointed out that while there is some reason for Congress to allow the president leverage in where and when he strikes, the two branches of government still need to coordinate.

    "Most, maybe all, in Congress would concede there are circumstances in which the commander-in-chief must act quickly and unilaterally," Hof wrote to Business Insider. "But there are reasons why the Constitution enumerates the duties of the Congress in Article One, as opposed to subsequent Articles. I really do believe it's incumbent on the executive branch to consult fully with the Congress and take the initiative in getting on the same page with the people's representatives."

    Lawrence Brennan, a former US Navy Captain and an expert on maritime law, told Business Insider that "the last declaration of war was in the course of World War II," and that Congress has "absolutely" given the president increased powers to wage war unilaterally.

    Possibly illegal strikes create a 'window' for the US's enemies

    trump putin

    Trump's Syria strike had questionable legality, but it wasn't even the first time he struck Syria's government, as a salvo of 59 cruise missiles hit the regime in April 2017.

    Before that, the US had attacked Libya's government in 2011. Now the US has stretched the 2001 congressional Authorization of Use of Military Force to attack Islamist militants in the Philippines, among other countries. 

    By neglecting to request congressional approval, thereby cementing the strikes as legal, Trump has "given Syria, Russia, and Iran an argument that never should have happened," according to Garamendi. By opening an internal US argument over whether the strike was legal or not, Garamendi says Trump has committed a "very serious error," and "opened a diplomatic attack that could easily have been avoided."

    Trump certainly did not start the trend of presidents conducting the military without congressional approval, and he enjoyed wide support for his action against chemical weapons use, but the move indicates a jarring reality — the US president can go to war with thin legal justification and not even bothering to ask the legislature.

    SEE ALSO: Trump's Syria strike was a loud public spanking of the Assad government — but not much else

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Why Russia is so involved in the Syrian Civil War

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    Syria Air Strike Damascus

    • A false alarm led to Syrian air defense missiles being fired overnight and no new attack on Syria took place, Syrian state media and a military commander said on Tuesday.
    • Syrian and Hezbollah media had previously said Syria had thwarted missile attacks on two airfields.
    • The incident underscored fears of a further escalation in the Syrian conflict after a U.S., British and French attack on Syrian targets on Saturday and an air strike on an air base the previous week that Damascus blamed on Israel.

    AMMAN (Reuters) - A false alarm led to Syrian air defense missiles being fired overnight and no new attack on Syria took place, Syrian state media and a military commander said on Tuesday.

    Syrian state TV reported overnight that anti-aircraft defenses had shot down missiles fired at an air base in the Homs area, and a media unit run by the Lebanese group Hezbollah said missiles had also targeted an air base near Damascus.

    The incident underscored fears of a further escalation in the Syrian conflict after a U.S., British and French attack on Syrian targets on Saturday and an air strike on an air base the previous week that Damascus blamed on Israel.

    Syrian state news agency SANA cited a military source as saying a number of air defense missiles had been fired but no foreign attack had taken place.

    Separately, a commander in the regional military alliance backing the government attributed the malfunction to "a joint electronic attack" by Israel and the United States targeting the Syrian radar system.

    The issue had been dealt with by Russian experts, said the commander, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

    State television had showed pictures of a missile it said was shot in the air above the air base.

    A Pentagon spokesman said there was no U.S. military activity in that area at this time. Asked about reports of the missile attack, an Israeli military spokesman said: "We don't comment on such reports."

    Saturday's strikes by the U.S., Britain and France were in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack by the Syrian military in eastern Ghouta. Both Damascus and its ally Russia have denied using any such weapons.

    SEE ALSO: Trump's Syria strikes might have been illegal — and it shows Congress has limited power to stop him from going to war

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    • The Trump administration is reportedly lobbying for an Arab army to replace US troops in Syria.
    • Officials are said to have spoken to Egypt, Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia about it.
    • President Trump has asked several Gulf states to pay up to stabilize the region in the wake of ISIS's defeat.
    • In April, the US reportedly began drafting plans to increase its military presence in Syria.
    • This is despite President Trump pledging that the US would "be coming out of Syria like very soon." 

    The Trump administration reportedly wants to build an Arab army to replace US troops in Syria. 

    US officials told the Wall Street Journal that the Arab personnel will help stabilize the northeastern parts of Syria once Islamic State militants are defeated. 

    According to the Journal, administration officials have spoken to Egypt about the plan, and have considered involving Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

    Officials told the Journal the president's new national security advisor, John Bolton, recently called his Egyptian counterpart to see whether Egypt would back the initiative. 

    A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to comment on reports of the call, according to the report.

    However other officials told the Journal that "Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have all been approached with respect to financial support and more broadly to contribute." 

    Last month, President Trump reportedly called Saudi Arabia's King Salman to ask for $4 billion to help rebuild and maintain order in parts of Syria recently freed from Islamic State control.

    According to the Washington Post, the US's goal is to prevent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies from creeping into newly-liberated areas and establishing control while the US continues to battle the remaining dissidents. 

    The US announced in February that it had pledged $200 million to stabilize the region.

    President Trump has previously criticized the amount US allies were prepared to spend on regional security efforts.

    He previously said he was prepared to walk away from supporting the conflict in Syria if countries like Japan, Saudi Arabia and Germany don't increase their financial contribution.

    The request follows US-led "precision strikes" on Syria in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Douma earlier this month.

    President Trump hinted at global efforts in Syria in his Friday announcement, saying: "We have asked our partners to take greater responsibility for securing their home region, including contributing larger amounts of money."

    In April, CNN reported that the US was drafting plans to increase its military units in Syria, despite President Trump pledging that the US would "be coming out of Syria like very soon."

    SEE ALSO: US, Britain, and France hammer Syria with missile strikes in response to suspected chemical weapons attack

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Why Russia is so involved in the Syrian Civil War

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    USS Michigan loading Tomahawk

    • Israeli officials cited in a Ynetnews report characterized the missile strike on Friday by the US, the UK, and France on suspected chemical weapons facilities in Syria as a failure.
    • Multiple Israeli government and military sources suggested the strike was not effective in hurting Syria's ability to conduct chemical attacks.
    • These officials also criticized President Donald Trump's talking about the strike beforehand.
    • The latest strike most likely didn't change anything on the battlefield in Syria, and it's hard to know how much of the chemical weapons stockpile it hit.

    The strike by the US, the UK, and France in Syria on Friday involved 105 missiles fired from air and sea to rain down thousands of pounds of explosives on three targets suspected of being chemical weapons facilities— but Israeli officials cited in a recent news report characterized it as a failure.

    "If President Trump had ordered the strike only to show that the US responded to [Syrian President Bashar] Assad's use of chemical weapons, then that goal has been achieved,"Israel's Ynetnews quoted a senior defense official as saying. "But if there was another objective — such as paralyzing the ability to launch chemical weapons or deterring Assad from using it again — it's doubtful any of these objectives have been met."

    An intelligence official who talked to Ynetnews wasn't as forgiving.

    "The statement of 'Mission Accomplished' and (the assertion) that Assad's ability to use chemical weapons has been fatally hit has no basis," the official said, most likely referring to a recent tweet from President Donald Trump.

    Unlike the US's strike in April 2017, the latest one did not target Syrian jets or airfields — though the earlier attack apparently had little impact, as Syrian jets took off from the damaged airfield within 24 hours and reports of chemical warfare persisted.

    Israel is apparently not impressed with Trump's tough talk

    t4 air base homs

    The Israeli officials seemed to take issue with Trump's talking about plans to strike before doing so.

    Israel is suspected of carrying out a silent but lethal air war against Iranian-aligned militias in Syria, though Israel seldom comments on whether it took part in specific strikes, and if it does, it's always after the fact.

    "If you want to shoot — shoot, don't talk," Ynetnews quoted an Israeli diplomatic source as saying. "In the American case, this is mostly talk. They themselves show actions are not going to follow."

    After Trump tweeted a warning last week to "get ready" for incoming missiles, it appears Russia and Syria moved assets to more protected locations in an attempt to limit the available targets for a strike.

    Nobody knows how many chemical weapons Assad has left

    Syria Chemical

    The US said the strikes hit the "heart" of Syria's chemical weapons infrastructure but acknowledged that some "residual" capabilities remained. The strike did not deal any damage to Syria's air force, which the US suspects of deploying the weapons.

    While Ynetnews' sources estimated that the strikes didn't take out the bulk of Syria's chemical weapons, it's hard to know the extent of its current stockpile or exactly where all the stores could be.

    International inspectors certified in 2013 that Syria had destroyed its chemical weapons facilities as a result of a deal brokered by Russia. But reports of chemical attacks have surfaced regularly since then, and Islamist rebels fighting in the town of Douma — the site of the suspected chemical attack earlier this month that sparked the US and allies' strike on Friday — say Assad is using the terrifying weapons to win on the battlefield.

    "They bombed and bombed, and we weren't defeated by conventional weapons, so they found the only way was to use chemical [weapons],"an official in the rebel group Jaysh Al Islam told Reuters.

    Despite the US and allies' latest missile strike, the Syrian government has strengthened and fortified its position by clearing out more rebel strongholds.

    The UK has acknowledged that the intention of the strikes was not to turn the overall tide in the war and was essentially meant as a punitive action to compel Assad not to use chemical weapons.

    SEE ALSO: Trump's Syria strikes might have been illegal — and it shows Congress has limited power to stop him from going to war

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Why Russia is so involved in the Syrian Civil War

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    • An incident in a military base in Syria earlier this year resulted in the death of an estimated 100 Russian private armed forces.
    • Russia denied involvement in the deployment of these private combat providers.
    • The continued use of PMSCs (private military and security contractors) in the current Syrian conflict threatens to exacerbate interstate rivalries and potentially start a war between major powers.

    The Conversation

    Russian and Syrian troops carried out a ground assault on a military base in Deir ez-Zor, Syria, on February 7. However the base was occupied by US soldiers, and the attackers were beaten back by a US air strike. Around 100 Russians were ultimately killed. And yet, diplomatically speaking, almost nothing happened: no threats, no sanctions, no war of words.

    What prevented the situation from escalating was the fact that the attackers were not in fact members of the Russian armed forces, but private military and security contractors (PMSCs). This gave both sides the benefit of plausible deniability. Russia pretended not to know about Russians in the area, while the US denied any knowledge of Russian involvement.

    But while the encounter didn't escalate, one thing is clear: private combat providers are back in business, and are not only deployed in domestic conflicts against rebels. They are also starting to take part in interstate rivalries. The former practice might be controversial, yet it is unlikely to escalate into interstate war. The latter, however, risks further inflaming interstate rivalries.

    Before the 19th century, rulers used mercenaries and privateers on a regular basis to exploit as much leeway as they could with a minimum of responsibility. This meant major powers could deploy force against their rivals while plausibly denying any involvement; the specific association between an adversary and the attacking force would be unclear.

    This is still a useful advantage today. Unlike regular armed forces, private actors can be hired and fired quickly, and their authorisation to use violence issued and withdrawn swiftly. But while the resulting uncertainty provides cover for adventurous policies, it also increases the risk that conflicts will escalate and that major powers will be dragged into wars.

    This was a crucial reason why the international community resisted a resurgence of combat providers for hire in the first decade of the 2000s. The services on the market for force were intentionally limited to armed security services, and specific rules for contracting were drafted, as were guidelines for PMSCs' conduct. Since then, the overwhelming majority of the industry has usually refrained from combat services.

    But in recent years, a small number of commercial organisations have been providing exactly these services to governments. In 2013, the Nigerian government employed a PMSCto support its combat operations against Boko Haram, while the United Arab Emirates hired a private company to build up a 800-member battalion of foreign troops to conduct “urban combat” or “destroy enemy equipment and personnel”.

    Although controversial, PMSCs are either deployed alongside or integrated into states' armed forces. That doesn't entail the same risk of escalation as the practices of combat in international rivalries prior to the 19th century. But Russia has taken things further: it has deployed combat PMSCs to fight against other states.

    Into the fray

    Since 2014, the Russian government has used several PMSCs in both Ukraine and Syria. In the first case, it employed PMSCs alongside regular forces in Crimea, disarming Ukrainian forces, seizing military installations and preventing the Ukrainians from entering Crimea. Although used in an offensive posture in an interstate conflict, Crimea was annexed without large-scale violence.

    The situation was somewhat different in Eastern Ukraine, where PMSCs were deployed in support of pro-Russian forces. This time, PMSCs engaged Ukrainian forces in combat.

    In Syria, PMSCs have been deployed on a large scale alongside regular Russian and Syrian forces, and participated in several battles against violent non-state actors. While they most certainly had an impact on the internal conflict dynamic, it did not directly affect interstate rivalry.

    Superficially speaking, the 2018 Deir ez-Zor attack smacked of the same strategy Russia followed in Ukraine. But whereas the Ukrainian conflict triggered a major international diplomatic dispute, there was relatively little risk that the PSMCs' actions there would trigger a major interstate war. By contrast, the attack on US soldiers in Syria means that PMSCs have been used to directly engage a powerful international rival in an extremely volatile arena. And there could be more to come.

    Clean hands

    Interstate rivalries always have at least some potential to escalate. Diplomatic transgressions, accidental encounters, or violent incidents can prompt different sides to take tough stances and refuse to budge for fear of looking weak in front of domestic and international audiences. And these incidents are difficult to manage at the best of times, never mind during a conflict as complicated as the one in Syria.

    Paradoxically, a way out of this conundrum could be the same means the attacker uses to conceal its involvement: plausible deniability, which allows both parties to avoid looking weak. This requires the tacit collusion of all involved. Since each side knows the other is involved, it's not about true concealment; the point is to defuse the situation. By accepting the attacker's claim not to have been involved, the target can avoid looking weak for not taking countermeasures.

    This practice was common during the Cold War, and it took the heat out of various potentially lethal encounters. During the Korean war, Russian pilots fought with North Korea — but while the US and its allies were aware, both sides kept quiet about it to avoid escalation beyond the Korean peninsula.

    But relying on plausible deniability can also be very risky. For a start, it relies on the assent of both parties, which in turn means they must agree on what kind of transgressions are actually acceptable. And while the Cold War's two opposing blocs understood each other reasonably well, the boundaries that govern today's conflicts are far more blurred. Were Russian-hired contractors to kill 100 US soldiers, for instance, it's not clear that the two sides would know each other's minds well enough to agree on what the consequences should be.

    That brings us back to the hiring of private actors. During the Cold War, these sorts of actions were not outsourced to the private sector, meaning they were clearly associated with one party or another. When PMSCs are deployed, they might work for one of two interstate rivals, but they can also work for a third party. Unclear associations increase the likelihood of dangerous misperceptions and misattributions.

    To see combat PMSCs being introduced into interstate rivalry is therefore more than a little disturbing. This is a watershed moment in the way states deploy private forces. And by crossing this line, Russia and others could bring major powers to the brink of direct conflict.

    SEE ALSO: Russia is desperately trying to save its only aircraft carrier — that's outdated and plagued with problems

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    James Mattis and Donald Trump

    • US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reportedly pushed President Donald Trump to get congressional approval before launching new military strikes on Syria.
    • Mattis feared an escalated conflict with Russia, Syria's ally.
    • Trump shook off the suggestion and reportedly wanted a fast and dramatic action against the Syrian regime for a suspected chemical weapons attack there earlier this month.

    US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reportedly had reservations about President Donald Trump's unilateral decision to strike at Syria last week, in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of people there earlier in April.

    Mattis tried persuading Trump to seek congressional approval before launching the US-led airstrikes, but ultimately failed, military and White House officials said to The New York Times. Mattis reportedly feared escalating a conflict with Russia, Syria's ally — a possibility he likely considered, due to the Russian troops staged at military bases throughout the country.

    Mattis had reportedly advocated for acquiring congressional approval in meetings leading up to the airstrike, partly because he viewed the public's support of military operations as an essential component, according to people familiar with the situation.

    Despite Mattis' efforts, the officials said Trump wanted a fast and dramatic action against the Syrian regime — a response that echoed the same tone from the president's previous tweets on the issue.

    "Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria," Trump said in a tweet. "Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and 'smart!' You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!"

    Trump's decision to narrowly hit three targets — a scientific research center, chemical weapons storage facility, and a chemical equipment storage facility — was considered a compromise. Of the 105 missiles that were launched in the less than two-minute attack, none endangered Russian troops or hit military assets believed to be responsible for Syria's latest suspected chemical attack, The Times said.

    "They will lose years of research and development data," Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford said in a press conference shortly after the strikes on Friday.

    Following the attack, Russia lashed out and said "the worst apprehensions have come true."

    "Our warnings have been left unheard," Russian ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov said in a statement, making it clear that Russia viewed the US action as a direct threat.

    Trump hailed the US-UK-France airstrikes as a success, but foreign intelligence officials gave a bleaker assessment.

    "If President Trump had ordered the strike only to show that the US responded to [Syrian President Bashar] Assad's use of chemical weapons, then that goal has been achieved," a senior defense official said in a report published by the Israeli news website, Ynetnews.

    "But if there was another objective — such as paralyzing the ability to launch chemical weapons or deterring Assad from using it again — it's doubtful any of these objectives have been met," the official said.

    SEE ALSO: 'We are being threatened': Russia seethes over US-led military strikes in Syria

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    F 15 Israel Air Force

    • Israel is letting on that it sees an Iranian air force forming in Syria, and that it may destroy the force if it seeks to harm Israel.
    • Israel stands accused of killing Iranian soldiers in Syria, which it had previously not done directly.
    • Iran has announced plans to retaliate.
    • But Iran's forces in Syria are completely exposed to Israel's air force, and has now been warned they could be knocked out if they cross the line. 

    Israel's military on Tuesday apparently let leak a series of stories indicating that it sees an Iranian air force taking place in Syria, and hinting that it may be willing to deal them a knockout blow.

    Iran and Israel have clashed in the air recently, with Israel downing an Iranian drone it said flew over its territory with explosives in February, and a long-running campaign of suspected Israeli airstrikes punishing Iranian forces in Syria. 

    In April, Russia, Syria, and Iran accused Israel of a strike on an airbase in Syria known as Tayfur or T-4 that left as many as 14 dead, and Israel made no effort to deny it. A senior Israeli official told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that Iran had opened up a new front in the long-simmering conflict by trying a direct drone attack on Israel.

    Friedman reported that the strike in April killed the Iranian colonel who led the drone unit. Iran threatened to retaliate after the strike, but has yet to make good on that.

    Iran's growing forces in Syria

    Iranian revolutionary guard irgc

    On Tuesday, an Israeli security official told Reuters, "The Israeli defense establishment sees" Iranian aircraft in Syria "as the entity that will try to attack Israel, based on Iranian threats to respond to the strike on T-4."

    Though Israel doesn't comment on its air incursions into Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear the Jewish state is willing to do whatever necessary to stop Iran's anti-Israel forces creeping closer to its borders, or linking to its aligned forces in Lebanon to potentially arm them.

    "The Iranians have been exploiting the chaos of the Syrian civil war to build up military assets there that target Israel, all the while sending advanced weaponry to Lebanon by way of Damascus, also under the fog of war," Tony Badran and Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies wrote in the Wall Street Journal after the February air war between Iran and Israel. 

    But while Iran has used "the fog of war" in Syria to cover moving as many as 70,000 fighters and tons of military equipment through the country, Israel could crush their forces under that same fog. 

    Israel positioned to knock out exposed Iranian forces

    israeli air force blue flag israel formation

    Roni Daniel, military editor for Israeli TV station Mako, said Israel was signal ling to Iran that its forces in Syria "are totally exposed to us, and if you take action against us to avenge (the T-4 strike) these targets will be very severely harmed," according to Reuters.

    "It's vulnerable,"Badran previously told Business Insider of Iran's military presence in Syria. "It's exposed to direct US fire, just like it's exposed to direct Israeli fire."

    If Israel entered Iranian airspace to strike its military, it would cause a massive international incident and meet backlash from the UN and Arab countries alike.

    But, with Iranian forces far from home and in Syria, where greater than 70 countries have either bombed or contributed towards fighting, an Israeli strike can get lost in the noise. 

    "Israel is headed for escalation," Yaacov Amidror, Netanyahu's former national security adviser, told Tel Aviv radio station 103 FM, according to Reuters. "There could be a very big belligerent incident with Iran and Hezbollah."

    As a testament to how big the fighting between Iran and Israel may get, instead of sending its F-15 air superiority fighters to the US' Red Flag, one of the world's best jet fighter training programs, Israel chose to keep them home and on alert.

    With Syria's air defenses a push-over target for Israel, and exposed Iranian forces openly wishing death to the Jewish state, it seems a small retaliation from Iran could launch a much bigger conflict. 

    SEE ALSO: Israeli intelligence reportedly says Trump's Syria strike failed, didn't take out much of anything

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    syria missile strike

    • Syrian air defenses activated and fired interceptor missiles during the US, UK, France's strike, but reportedly only a couple had a chance of hitting their targets.
    • Syria fired only two missiles during the strike and the remaining 38 after the attack had already concluded, US government sources said.
    • Syria may have fired the missiles to make it look like it was intercepting US missiles. 

    Syrian air defenses activated and fired interceptor missiles during the US, UK, and France's missile strike on the country's suspected chemical weapons sites, but only two of those reportedly had a chance of hitting their targets.

    US government sources tell Ankit Panda writing at The Daily Beast that only two missiles fired from Syria's air defenses took off during the actual strike, and they both failed. Another 38 launched after the strike took place, and obviously found no target, according to Panda's sources.

    The report from Panda matches pictures taken on the night of the strike that show missile defense sites firing on ballistic trajectories that don't resemble the paths they'd take to actually intercept a missile.

    "The trajectory that I've seen from footage of reported Syrian SAMs don't match up with what I'd expect to see for intercept attempts against low-flying cruise missiles," Justin Bronk, an air-combat expert at the Royal United Services Institute, told Business Insider. "I don't believe the Russian/Syrian intercept claims."

    Nonetheless, Russia and Syria claimed their missile defenses had downed 71 of the 105 US and allied missiles fired, a bold claim considering they're only known to have fired 40 interceptors. 

    "Most of the launches occurred after our strike was over," US Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the Joint Staff director, said of Syria's interceptor fires. "When you shoot iron into the air without guidance, it has to come down somewhere."

    But Syria is also home to advanced Russian missile defense systems treated with a healthy respect by NATO and the US, but the US says those launchers remained silent throughout the strike.

    Days later, Syrian air defenses again fired off interceptors at nothing, this time claiming the US and Israel had hit them with a cyber attack.

    Why Syria fired missiles blindly with no targets in sight remains a mystery, as they had no chance of hitting anything, but it's possible the attempted intercepts were staged as theater. 

    SEE ALSO: Trump had some oddly kind words for Kim Jong Un at a press conference with Japan's PM

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    WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 13: Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill February 13, 2018 in Washington, DC. The intelligence chiefs were called to testify to the committee about 'world wide threats.' (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

    • CIA Director Mike Pompeo, President Donald Trump's nominee to be his next secretary of state, might not receive a positive recommendation from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Monday.
    • Pompeo would still get a vote in the entire Senate, but failing to get the blessing from the committee would be an unprecedented rebuke for a cabinet-level nominee.
    • Republicans are concerned that attempts to block Pompeo are particularly damaging to upcoming negotiations he would undertake as chief diplomat.

    WASHINGTON — There is a growing concern among Republicans that Mike Pompeo will not receive a nod from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to serve as the next secretary of state, an unprecedented rebuke for such a high level position.

    Pompeo, currently serving as director of the CIA, has faced an uphill battle throughout his confirmation process. Several Democrats who voted to confirm Pompeo to head the CIA have reversed their positions for him to be secretary of state.

    Republicans have dismissed the reversals as political flip-flopping, while Democrats maintain there are stark differences between the characteristics required for chief spy and chief diplomat.

    Pompeo himself made a visit to North Korea over Easter weekend, where he met with the reclusive nation's supreme leader Kim Jong Un. Democrats putting barriers in the the way of Pompeo becoming secretary of state could put a damper on those upcoming negotiations, according to Republicans.

    "[Pompeo] is already invested deeply in the upcoming summit between the president and Kim Jong Un," Sen. Tom Cotton told reporters on phone call on Wednesday. "It would send a very bad sign and I believe would set back the preparations and perhaps even the results of that upcoming summit for the Senate Democrats to oppose as a block Mike Pompeo's nomination to be secretary of state."

    If Pompeo's nomination fails in the committee on Monday, he will still get a vote on the floor later in the week. But Republicans are concerned that an inability to shepherd him through the committee could signal weakness and lack of confidence as denuclearization negotiations with North Korea come into full swing.

    "You wanna have your nominees come out of committee," said Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner. "The hyper-partisanship that is blinding people to a good quality nominee is hurting this institution."

    Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn told Business Insider that snubbing Pompeo "undercuts the country at a time when we need that leadership" and that the White House is "engaging in the most dangerous and fragile geopolitical negotiations in recent memory."

    "I've told [Pompeo] the only thing that matters is 50 votes," said Sen. Bob Corker, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee and is retiring from his Tennessee seat at the end of the year. "Then the next day you're secretary of state so who cares."

    "It doesn't look promising as far as an affirmative vote," Corker added. "But there's still steps the committee can take and I think that will be the case."

    But Democrats, Corker said, "In their heart of hearts, surely they'd rather have Pompeo sitting down with Mattis talking to the president about things like leaving Syria immediately or whatever than they would him not having a secretary of state."

    Rand Paul is the lone Republican holding out on Pompeo

    WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 12: Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo (R), greets Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), during his confirmation hearing before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill, on April 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. President Trump nominated Pompeo to replace Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

    One reason Pompeo could fail to receive a nod from the committee is opposition from Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Paul has been adamantly against Pompeo, but will be taking a meeting with him at the request of President Donald Trump.

    "I’m glad he's talking to him but I find it unseemly he's doing this," said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham of Paul meeting with Pompeo. "This guy's a qualified Republican. Rand Paul says he's a Republican."

    Graham added that Paul needs to come to terms with the fact that Trump is "never gonna pick a libertarian" to serve as secretary of state.

    Paul is likely to remain a "no" on Pompeo regardless of any meeting, according to the Republicans who work with him on the committee.

    "I'll leave that to the president," Corker said of Paul's ongoing negotiations. "I doubt anything changes there."

    SEE ALSO: Koch-backed groups are reigniting a push for a permanent DACA solution

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    Jabhat al-Nusra, Nusra Front

    • Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham is a union of five Islamist organizations based primarily in the northwestern region of Syria that wants to overthrow Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and replace him with Sharia law.
    • The group has fought ISIS and the Syrian government, and has flourished as the focus of the US-led coalition and the Syrian and Russian governments is focused elsewhere in the country.
    • There are fears that the group could become the next ISIS, as well as become the only rebel faction against al-Assad's rule.

    With up to 90% of its territory lost, ISIS appears effectively defeated as a conventional foe. But while the black flag of ISIS is being lowered, another may soon take its place — the white flag of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham.

    A new report in the Wall Street Journal details HTS' rise as it consolidates power in northwest Syria. Led by a former Al-Qaeda militant, HTS is mostly based in Syria's Idlib Governorate and has taken advantage of the US-led coalition's focus on ISIS in the East, as well as the Syrian government and Russia's focus on other parts of the country.

    HTS came into existence roughly a year ago, when Jabhat Fath al Sham, previously known as the Al Nusrah Front and Al-Qaeda's branch in Syria until its re-branding in July of 2016, announced a merger with four other islamist groups operating in Syria.

    Combined with the other groups, HTS — or the Assembly for Liberation of the Levant — was created.

    The reason for its existence, according to its propaganda, is "to unite our banners and to preserve the fruits and the jihad" of the revolution against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, so that it can "be the seed of unifying the capacities and strength of this revolution."

    The group's leader, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, has said that he wants his followers to engage in "a war of ideas, a war of minds, a war of wills, a war of perseverance," according to the Wall Street Journal, and that he will conquer Damascus — Syria's capital — and implement Sharia law.

    Thr group announced in February that it had defeated the remnants of ISIS militants in Idlib, and a month later said that they had taken control of  up to 25 villages in Aleppo and Idlib provinces.

    It has created a religious police force in its territory, similar to ISIS' Hisbah. They enforce Sharia law, control services like electricity and water, and collect taxes from citizens. 

    The group has also been fighting forces from the Syrian government in Homs, Hama, and Aleppo. But while the terror group continues to grow and solidify its control, the Syrian government and US-led coalition have their attention elsewhere. 

    "The area seems to be out of focus for Western powers," Hassan Hassan, an analyst with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told the Wall Street Journal. "The jihadis are having a honeymoon there."

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    benjamin netanyahu donald trump

    • There's an urgent need for a coherent approach to the relationship between Israel and Iran.
    • Israel's downing of an armed drone, its loss of an F-16 fighter jet, and its strike on Iranian targets in Syria are all challenges confronting the US.
    • The US could find itself not only once again rushing to the aid of Israel, but fully engaged in yet another war in the Middle East, this time with both Russia and Iran on the other side.

    The ongoing debate among experts as to whether Washington has a strategy for dealing with the Syrian civil war in the wake of missile strikes by US, British, and French forces on alleged Syrian chemical weapons facilities masks a far more urgent strategic need: a coherent approach to the increasingly volatile confrontation between Israel and Iran.

    Israel's downing of an armed drone, its loss of an F-16 fighter jet — the first such loss in years — and its strike on Iranian targets in Syria are only part of the challenge that confronts the United States in particular.

    The Israeli-Russian relationship is becoming increasingly tense. The possibility that Iran might establish one or more bases in Syria, as Russia already has done, poses as much of a threat to Jordan as it does to Israel.

    And the possibility that Israel might face a three-front war with Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which receive Iranian support, and Syrian-based Iranian forces could well result in the United States being called in to Israel's rescue, as it was during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

    Ever since the civil war began seven years ago, Israel has pursued a policy of what might be termed cautious intervention.

    It has only launched operations into Syria when it determined that Iran was shipping increasingly sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah, when it was responding to artillery attacks by one or another jihadi militias based in Syria, or, as was recently the case, when it attacked Iranian forces on a Syrian air base in retaliation for the launching of an armed drone into Israeli territory.

    benjamin netanyahu vladimir putin

    Iran is not departing Syria anytime soon

    Israel has never taken sides in the civil war itself — indeed, for several years, the Israelis appeared to prefer that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad survive in power, fearing that any alternative would be far worse. Israel therefore avoided appearing to be at odds with Russia, Assad's great-power backer.

    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a regular visitor to Moscow, while his defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, whose native language is Russian, had an even longer-standing relationship with the Kremlin leadership. Moreover, despite the overt hostility between it and Iran, Israel did not attempt to undermine the Iranians in Syria as long as they confined themselves to supporting Assad.

    All that has now changed. Iran has increasingly entrenched itself inside Syria and is not about to depart anytime soon. On the contrary, Iran may already be laying the groundwork for a permanent presence on its Syrian client's territory. Moreover, the Israelis are increasingly concerned that the Russians, whom Israel previously — and perhaps quixotically — hoped would counterbalance and restrain Tehran, now appear either unwilling or unable to do so.

    Israel's public position remains that Moscow understands its predicament and will not interfere with Israeli operations, whose objective is to secure its own territory. The Israelis have also signaled to Russia, however, that they will not allow it to constrain their operations. As Lieberman has asserted, "We will not allow Iranian consolidation in Syria. We won't allow any restriction when it comes to Israel's security interests."

    These are brave words. In fact, the Israelis fear both "Iranian consolidation," as Lieberman puts it, and Russian interference in their operations. Coupled with Hezbollah's growing strength, and the weekly Hamas-inspired protests in Gaza, Israel faces the specter of a three-front war for the first time since 1967.

    Moreover, the immediate Iranian threat may not affect Israel at all. A powerful and permanent Iranian presence in Syria would actually be a far greater threat to Jordan. If an Iranian-inspired insurrection, along the lines of what Tehran has been attempting in Bahrain for some years, were to topple Jordan's King Abdullah, Israel could then face a threat on four fronts.

    Yet another war in the Middle East

    donald trump john bolton mike pence jim mattisWhere might Washington fit into this picture? In one sense, it does not. Russia and Iran are increasingly becoming the arbiters of the Middle East, while US President Donald Trump, by pushing for the withdrawal of all US forces in Syria, is on the verge of repeating in that country the very same mistake his predecessor committed in Iraq.

    Yet the consequences of a US withdrawal from Syria would be far greater than those of former President Barack Obama's withdrawal, because Russia was not a factor in Iraq and the Israelis did not see Iran's heavy presence there as a direct threat to their security.

    A complete US withdrawal from Syria could result in two outcomes: one bad, the other worse. The bad outcome would be an Israeli preemptive strike on all Iranian forces in Syria. Hezbollah would certainly retaliate on behalf of Iran, and the Iranians would certainly fire a missile barrage at Israel as well.

    Whether Israel's vaunted missile defense system could cope with missile attacks on two fronts is open to question. America's own missile defenses would be called in to assist Israel. Since the most likely anti-missile systems would be sea-based, US naval forces would run the risk of themselves becoming a target for Iranian or Hezbollah missiles.

    An even worse outcome would be a preemptive strike on Israel by Hezbollah and the Iranians, in coordination with Hamas, with Moscow's support. In this case, the possibility of a great-power confrontation, along the lines of the US-Soviet standoff in 1973, would be very real. Yet another possibility could be the above-noted Iranian-inspired coup against King Abdullah, which would itself be a preliminary to an all-out conflict with Israel.

    Trump's senior defense and military advisors no doubt have thought through these and other bad scenarios. They are the ones arguing for a residual US presence in Syria. Trump, on the other hand, would not recognize a strategy if it ran him over — he is completely transactional.

    All he sees is an American presence in Syria that he wants to bring to an end, come what may. Unless his Defense Department advisors can bring him around, the United States may well come to rue the day that it found itself not only once again rushing to the aid of Israel but fully engaged in yet another war in the Middle East, this time with both Russia and Iran on the other side.

    SEE ALSO: Israel sees an Iranian 'air force' assembling in Syria — and looks ready to deal it a knockout blow

    DON'T MISS: Israeli intelligence reportedly says Trump's Syria strike failed, didn't take out much of anything

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    S 300

    • Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said that if Russia planned to give the Syrian military S-300 air defense systems, then Israel "will destroy them"
    • The response comes after a news report in the Russian news outlet Kommersant, which reported that Moscow would soon come to a decision to give S-300s to the Syrian military.
    • Israel's air force is one of the most advanced in the world, and it has already struck targets in Syria over 100 times.

    Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Tuesday downplayed Israeli concerns over Russia’s purported plans to outfit the Syrian military with its powerful S-300 air defense system, but stressed that Israel would retaliate if such a battery were used against its aircraft.

    “What’s important is that defense systems being supplied by Russia to Syria aren’t used against us,” Liberman said during a live interview with the Ynet news site.

    “One thing needs to be clear: If someone shoots at our planes, we will destroy them. It doesn’t matter if it’s an S-300 or an S-700,” he said.

    On Monday, the Russian daily Kommersant reported that Moscow was getting closer to delivering the S-300 missile defense system to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, despite Israel’s efforts to prevent it.

    The Russian Foreign Ministry later denied parts of the article, saying that a decision about the transfer of the S-300 had yet to be made.

    S-400 Syria

    Liberman said he had seen the reports, but that “they don’t have a grip on reality.”

    The defense minister reiterated Israel’s stated policy as it relates to Syria, namely that Israel will not get involved in the country’s civil war, but will take military action to prevent advanced weaponry from reaching the Hezbollah terrorist group and to halt Iranian entrenchment in Syria.

    Israel’s focus is on ensuring that “Iran does not bring in a flood of advanced weapons systems aimed at Israel,” he said.

    Liberman denied that Israel’s relationship with Russia was in peril following an airstrike against Iranian facilities on a Syrian air base earlier this month, which Moscow claimed Israel had conducted. Israeli officials refuse to comment on the strike.

    “For several years, we have been coordinating with each other and succeeding in preventing direct conflict with the Russians,” Liberman said.

    “They understand that we won’t get involved in internal Syrian matters and that we won’t allow Iran to entrench itself [in Syria],” he said.

    The defense minister noted that Russia already has its own S-300 air defense system in Syria, along with the more advanced S-400 system, and that “hasn’t limited our operations.”

    Israeli Air Force.

    However, defense analysts have questioned whether an S-300 system in Syrian, not Russian, hands could threaten Israel’s air power in the region and prevent it from being able to conduct strikes against targets in Syria.

    Israel’s former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, who currently heads the influential Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said he assumed the air force would work quickly to destroy the S-300, if it were indeed handed over to Syria.

    “If I know the air force well, we have already made proper plans to deal with this threat. After you remove the threat, which is basically what will be done, we’re back to square one,” Yadlin told Bloomberg news last week.

    Russian military sources told Kommersant that if Israel tried to destroy the anti-aircraft batteries, it would be “catastrophic for all sides.”

    Moscow first announced that it was considering reversing its longtime policy against supplying the S-300 system to the regime following a series of airstrikes against Syrian targets by the United States, United Kingdom and France earlier this month in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack by Assad.

    The apparent chemical attack against the then-rebel-held city of Douma in central Syria killed at least 40 people, including children. Western powers blame the attack on Assad’s regime.

    “A few years ago at the request of our partners, we decided not to supply S-300s to Syria,” Lavrov told the BBC last week. “Now that this outrageous act of aggression was undertaken by the US, France and UK, we might think how to make sure that the Syrian state is protected.”

    Russia had originally agreed to sell the system to Syria in 2010, but scrapped the plan at Israel’s behest.

    Lavrov’s comments to the BBC indicated that the impetus for Russia to reverse its decision and give Assad the S-300 was not the airstrike allegedly conducted by Israel on April 9, but the American-French-British attack on April 13.

    According to Kommersant’s report, Russia will not be selling Assad the S-300 system, but rather providing it at no cost as part of a military aid package in order to hasten the delivery.

    The Russian-made system, made up of radar arrays and missile launchers, offers long-range protection against both fighter jets and missiles. The system has been supplied by Moscow to Tehran, and deployed by the Russian army in Syria, alongside its more advanced iteration: the S-400.

    It was not immediately clear if Russia would bring in new S-300 systems to Syria or if it would simply give over control of the batteries already in the country.

    The Kommersant report noted that in any case it would take at least several months from its reception before Syrian soldiers would be fully trained on the system and capable of using it.

    Israeli Air Force

    In what many saw as a direct reaction to the looming proliferation of the S-300 and other missile defense systems throughout the Middle East — but especially in Iran — Israel purchased a fleet of F-35 stealth fighter jets from the American Lockheed-Martin defense contractor.

    The state-of-the-art planes are meant to offer a solution to the challenges posed by the S-300, whose radar systems can detect aircraft from some 300 kilometers (186 miles) away.

    Israel also worked diplomatically to attempt to stop Russia’s sale of the S-300 system to Iran, which after being halted for nearly a decade went through in 2016. Last year, Tehran announced that the system was fully functional and connected to the rest of the country’s air defenses.

    In addition to the American-led coalition’s strikes against Assad targets, Israel has increasingly carried out air raids in Syria, which it says are meant to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry to the Hezbollah terrorist group and halt the military entrenchment of Iran in the country.

    While Israeli officials acknowledge that these strikes are carried out in general, Jerusalem rarely takes responsibility for specific attacks.

    On April 9, Israel allegedly struck the T-4 air base in central Syria where Iran has reportedly been operating a fully functional air base of its own and where it has centered its attack drone operations. At least seven members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps were killed in the strike. The base was reportedly protected by surface-to-air missile defense systems.

    Satellite photographs of the base published on Sunday showed the strikes were carried out with a high degree of precision, hitting two hangars, but causing little damage to the surrounding area.

    While refusing to comment on whether it carried out the strike, a few days later Israel revealed for the first time that an Iranian drone dispatched from T-4 in February was an attack drone that carried explosives and was headed to an unspecified location in Israel when it was shot down 30 seconds after entering Israeli airspace.

    Israel lost an F-16 in retaliatory raids hours after the drone was downed on February 10, the first loss of a fighter jet in action in 35 years. The Israeli plane was hit by Syrian anti-aircraft fire, and crashed in Israel; the two pilots ejected to safety.

    Following the downing of the F-16, Israeli aircraft targeted Syria’s air defenses, destroying between one-third and one-half of them, according to Israeli military estimates.

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    Russia civilians syria

    • Russian civilian military contractors appear to be helping train the Syrian military, an investigation finds. 
    • More than 2,000 Russian contractors are fighting to help Syrian forces recapture land from their opponents, several sources, including one contractor, have said.

    MOLKINO, Russia (Reuters) - The Kremlin says it has nothing to do with Russian civilians fighting in Syria but on three recent occasions groups of men flying in from Damascus headed straight to a defense ministry base in Molkino, Reuters reporters witnessed.

    Molkino in southwestern Russia is where the Russian 10th Special Forces Brigade is based, according to information on the Kremlin website.

    The destination of the Russians arriving from Syria provides rare evidence of a covert Russian mission in Syria beyond the air strikes, training of Syrian forces and small numbers of special forces troops acknowledged by Moscow.

    Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Feb. 14 Russians may be in Syria but "they are not part of the armed forces of the Russian Federation". He referred Reuters to the defense ministry when asked why civilians fighting in Syria return to a military base. The ministry did not immediately respond.

    A duty officer at the 10th special forces brigade, asked why non-military people were entering the military base, said: "Nobody enters it, as far as I am aware ... You’ve seen them, okay. But you should not believe everything ... You can maybe. But how can we comment on what other organizations do?"

    More than 2,000 Russian contractors are fighting to help Syrian forces recapture land from their opponents, several sources, including one contractor, have said.

    The contractors are transferred by Syrian airline Cham Wings, the sources said.

    Reuters reporters saw a Syrian Cham Wings charter flight from Damascus land at the civilian airport in Rostov-on-Don on April 17 and watched groups of men leave the terminal through an exit separate from the one used by ordinary passengers.

    They boarded three buses, which took them to an area mainly used by airport staff. A luggage carrier brought numerous oversized bags and the men, dressed in civilian clothes, got off the buses, loaded the bags and got back on.

    The three buses then left the airport in convoy and headed south; two made stops near cafes along the way and one on the roadside. All three reached the village of Molkino, 350 km (220 miles) south, shortly before midnight.

    In the village, each bus paused for a minute or two at a checkpoint manned by at least two servicemen, before driving on. About 15-20 minutes later the buses drove back through the checkpoint empty. Publicly available satellite maps show the road leads to the military facility.


    Russia civilians syria

    The buses took men along the same route from the airport to Molkino on Mar. 25 and Apr. 6, a Reuters reporter saw.

    Several relatives, friends and recruiters of fighters told Reuters Russian private contractors have had a training camp in Molkino since the time they fought in eastern Ukraine alongside pro-Russian separatists.

    The military facility is known for its recently renovated firing range, where the military trains for counter terrorist operations, tank battles and sniper shooting, the Russian defense ministry website says.

    Reuters contacted the owners of some of the buses transporting the groups of men from the airport. They said they rent out their buses but declined to say who to: one said a trip to Molkino could have been an excursion.

    One of the buses, a white 33-year-old Neoplan with a slogan of a tourist company on its boards, was imported into Russia in 2007 and initially registered in the town of Pechory. Dmitry Utkin, identified by three sources as leader of the contractors, previously commanded a special forces unit based in Pechory.

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    USS Michigan loading Tomahawk

    • Russia claimed Syria captured a US Tomahawk cruise missile from the strike that took place on April 14, but it's unclear how they would have or why it's mentioning it now.
    • Russia says it will study the missile to advance their own munitions, but an expert says it's unlikely Russia can learn anything from whatever it found.
    • Instead, the expert says Russia's claim is likely an effort to "embarrass" the US.

    Russian state media said on Wednesday that Syria had "captured" a US Tomahawk cruise missile from the strike on suspected Syrian chemical weapons sites on April 14 — and they will study it to advance their own missiles.

    The Russian claim comes after Syria said it knocked down 71 out of 105 US, UK, and French missiles fired in the strike — a claim that no solid evidence has backed up yet.

    In fact, photos from the strike show Syrian air defenses likely fired blindly, at nothing. The Pentagon maintains that no Syrian missiles intercepted any US or allied missiles, and that most of Syria's air defenses fired after the strike took place.

    Also, the Pentagon says Syria fired 40 interceptors, meaning it's virtually impossible 71 missiles were downed, as it takes at least one interceptor to down a missile. 

    syria missile strike

    Justin Bronk, an air combat expert at the Royal United Services Institute told Business Insider that Russia and Syria likely only have fragments of detonated Tomahawks, and that they wouldn't be much use.

    "I don’t know whether Russia or Syria have 'captured' at Tomahawk although I’m sure they have plenty of fragments to study from weapons which hit their targets," Bronk told Business Insider.

    Unlike other areas of technology where Russia lags far behind the US, Russia's cruise missiles are actually pretty capable, according to Bronk. Russia has used cruise missiles fired from navy ships and submarines to strike targets in Syria before, and they displayed a similar range and ability in doing so.

    Cruise missiles are "not exactly an area where Moscow desperately needs access to Western technology," said Bronk, though Russia would "would love to examine an intact Block 4 Tomahawk to have a look at the sensor and guidance package nonetheless."

    Russia navy submarine cruise missile Syria

    Overall, if Russia or Syria had actually found an intact Tomahawk missile, that flew at hundreds of miles an hour armed with a large explosive and yet somehow managed to land on the ground without breaking up, they could have shown it off by now to back up their claims that the US strike partly failed.

    Bronk concluded that Russia's claim was "probably just posturing in this case to try and embarrass the US."

    SEE ALSO: Russia is reportedly close to giving Syria a new missile defense system — and Israel just vowed to destroy it if attacked

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    Syria Air Strike Damascus

    • A Russian general said the US only successfully hit targets with 22 of the 105 missiles it fired, and that Syria shot down the rest with old air defenses.
    • He also claimed that US missiles were captured and sent to Moscow so they could improve Russia's own weapons systems.
    • The Pentagon forcefully pushed back on those claims, and pointed to a total lack of evidence on Russia's side. 

    Russian General Sergei Rudskoi on Wednesday made a number of bold claims about the April strike on suspected Syrian chemical weapons sites, essentially saying the US was all but totally defeated by Syrian defenses. 

    Rudskoi claimed that two missiles, including a Tomahawk, the US Navy's cruise missile of choice, failed to reach their targets and have been sent to Moscow to help the Russians improve their weapons, according to NPR's Moscow correspondent, Lucian Kim. 

    He went on to revise Russia's initial claim that 71 of 105 missiles fired were blocked in the strike — carried out jointly by the US, UK, and France — saying instead that 83 missiles went down, and only 22 hit their targets. 

    Finally, he said Russia would send S-300 missile defenses into Syria in the "near future," something that would bolster the country's defenses.

    At the Pentagon, Maj. Josh T. Jacques responded to Russia sending in additional missile defenses, telling Business Insider that Russia "should move humanitarian aid into Syria, not more weaponry."

    Responding to Russia's claims of US missiles failing in the Syria strike and the capture of downed missiles, something the Pentagon has denied, Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon told Business Insider "both claims are completely and totally untrue. "

    Pahon said Russia has yet to produce credible photographic evidence of downed Tomahawk missiles in Syria.

    Omar Lamrani, a military analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical consulting company, told Business Insider that he has seen "no evidence whatsoever that those missiles were shot down" or captured.

    Photos from the strike show Syrian air defenses likely fired blindly at nothing. The Pentagon maintains that no Syrian missiles intercepted any US or allied missiles, and that most of Syria's air defenses fired after the strike took place.

    Also, the Pentagon says Syria fired 40 interceptors, meaning it's virtually impossible that 71 missiles were downed, as it takes at least one interceptor to down a missile.

    Justin Bronk, an air combat expert at the Royal United Services Institute, said he doubted Russia's claims, and that the remarks were "probably just posturing in this case to try and embarrass the US."

    SEE ALSO: Russia says Syria 'captured' a US missile from the strike — and it could be trying to 'embarrass' the US

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    Angry Putin

    • Russia has ratcheted up military tensions in Syria by announcing it would send the advanced S-300 missile defense system to Syria, and the US military had a savage response. 
    • A spokesman for the Pentagon's CENTCOM said Russia "should move humanitarian aid into Syria, not more weaponry."
    • Russia stands accused of bombing humanitarian aid convoys on their way into besieged Syrian towns. 

    Russia has ratcheted up military tensions in Syria by announcing it would send the advanced S-300 missile defense system to Syria, and the US military had a savage response. 

    Asked for comment on the announced movement of the missile defense batteries to Syria, Maj. Josh T. Jacques of the US Military's Central Command, which covers the Middle East, said Russia "should move humanitarian aid into Syria, not more weaponry."

    Another Pentagon official similarly had words for Russia, responding to Russian claims that Soviet-era Syrian defenses blocked 83 missiles from a US-led strike earlier this month.

    "This is another example of the Russian disinformation campaign to distract attention from their moral complicity to the Assad regime's atrocities," Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon told Business Insider, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

    Russia stands accused by international observers of bombing humanitarian aid convoys on their way into besieged Syrian towns and stifling efforts to ease suffering in the country while they support Assad and allegedly cover him while he conducts chemical warfare against his own citizens. 

    Experts tell Business Insider that the S-300 likely could not stop another US strike like the one on April 14, where 105 missiles hit three suspected chemical weapons sites in the country. Russia claims its defenses can down "any" US missile. 

    Syria has been mired in a brutal civil war since March 2011. Russia, Syria's ally, has provided air support and training for Assad's military since late 2015, during which time it has been linked to several war crimes involving the death of civilians. 

    SEE ALSO: Russia says Syria 'captured' a US missile from the strike — and it could be trying to 'embarrass' the US

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    S 300

    • Russia said Wednesday it would send the S-300 advanced missile defense systems to Syria in an effort to bolster defenses after repeated US missile strikes.
    • Russia says the S-300 can stop US missile attacks, but its own military deployments seem to indicate it's not true.
    • In reality, nothing would stop the US from striking Syria if it needed to, and an expert tells Business Insider the missile defenses won't change much at all.

    Russia said on Wednesday that it would give the S-300 advanced missile defense systems to Syria in an effort to bolster defenses as the US continues to pressure the country to stop using chemical weapons.

    Russia has previously said its S-300 system can shoot down US cruise missiles, and also maintains that Soviet-era missile defenses downed 83 of 105 missiles fired by the US and its allies in the strike on Syria earlier this month.

    The Pentagon maintains that's not true, that Russia has presented no evidence, and that all 105 missiles hit. 

    And an expert told Business Insider that the S-300 "wouldn’t change much at all."

    "The S-300 is a fairly misunderstood strategic long-range air defense that's very capable," Omar Lamrani, a military analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical consulting firm, told Business Insider, adding that the system has a "general capability against all kinds of targets, but cruise missiles are not its core strength."

    The US has favored cruise missile strikes in recent years because they're unmanned aircraft that can fly over 1,000 miles to a target and hit it with incredible precision. This allows US platforms like bombers and Navy ships to stay out of harm's way while punishing targets from range. 

    The problem with cruise missiles

    Syria Air Strikes Damascus

    The Tomahawk cruise missile, the US Navy's munition of choice for these strikes, is just 20 inches in diameter. Without a pilot, it's an incredibly small aircraft that can hug the terrain, weave in and out of mountains, and blow up within feet of its target. All of this makes it a nightmare to detect and track. 

    "The problem with cruise missiles is that they fly very low and you won’t be able to see them until they come very close," said Lamrani, who noted that the S-300 is best at defending against high-flying aircraft. 

    In fact, the missile defenses Russia would use against US cruise missiles, according to Lamrani, were already deployed and used in Syria, and according to the Pentagon, failed spectacularly. 

    According to Lamrani, Russia deploys point defenses to S-300 batteries to defend against cruise missiles, as it knows the S-300 has limited capability in that arena. But the point defenses, called Pantsirs, were already in use in Syria, and there's no evidence so far they did anything but fire blindly at the sky after much of the attack had already taken place. 

    Days after the US's strike, Syrian missile defenses again fired blindly at nothing, this time claiming they were the victim of an electronic attack.

    But even if Syria's air defenses had been operated competently against incoming cruise missiles, "the US would oversaturate these systems with Tomahawks," Lamrani said.

    If the US wants to strike, it will

    Syria Air Strike Damascus

    The US has single submarines that can carry 150 or more Tomahawks, and it can throw down huge numbers of the missiles from ships all over the region. If Syria has 100 interceptors, the US can throw 200 missiles, and so on. 

    "A huge strike with dozens and dozens of cruise missiles will hit and do its damage," said Lamrani. 

    In the end, while Russia and its Syrian ally may try to talk tough about its ability to keep back the US, the US has now hit Syria twice, and both times went unpunished. 

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    EC 130

    • The commander of US Special Operations Command said that Syria has become "the most aggressive electronic warfare environment on the planet from our adversaries."
    • General Raymond Thomas stated that US communications are brought down and that aircraft, specifically the EC-130, have been disabled.
    • The revelations come after a report from NBC News showed that Russian military jamming is affecting smaller US drones operating in Syria.

    General Raymond Thomas, the commander of US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), revealed that Syria has become the frontline of electronic warfare and US planes are being disabled.

    "Right now in Syria we are operating in the most aggressive EW environment on the planet from our adversaries," Thomas told a crowd of some 2,000 "intelligence professionals" at the GEOINT Symposium on Tuesday, according to Breaking Defense.

    "They are testing us everyday, knocking our communications down, disabling our EC-130s, etcetera," he added.

    While Thomas did not say which country is responsible for the attacks, Russian jamming and electronic warfare capabilities in Syria have long been noticed. Earlier this month, reports surfaced that Russian jamming was affecting small US surveillance drones.

    Those efforts were, according to NBC News, not affecting larger armed drones like the MQ-1 Predator or the MQ-9 Reaper. A Defense Department official told NBC News that the jamming was having an operational impact on operations in Syria.

    It's not clear what exactly Thomas meant by "disabling," but Lori Moe Buckhout, a former Army colonel and expert on electronic warfare, told Breaking Defense that the attacks could possibly have targeted a EC-130's Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT) or communications.

    That would force the pilots to use traditional methods of navigation like maps and line of sight, which could make flying the aircraft more difficult.

    Iran, Russia's ally in Syria, claimed that it hacked into a US RQ-170 Sentinel and forced it to land after it gained access to its GPS in 2011.

    The EC-130 is designed for electronic warfare and is intended to disrupt enemy communications, radars, and command and control communications, as well as suppress air defenses. 

    Buckhout said that Russia invested heavily in electronic warfare capabilities after its five-day long war with Georgia in 200.

    "The Russians put in millions on upgrades after Georgia. They’ve ended up with killer capabilities, jamming in a multitude of frequencies for hundreds of kilometers,” she said, adding that the Russians “know all of our vulnerabilities.”

    He statements echo similar ones made by other military officials. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, then the commanding general for US Army Europe, said in 2016 that he has seen Russian "electronic warfare capability at a tactical level that we absolutely don't have."

    Syria has proven to become, as STRATFOR notes, "the ultimate testing ground" for the Russian military.

    "Moscow's forces employed new sea- and air-launched land-attack cruise missiles, deployed new types of air defense systems and battlefield drones, and extensively relied on next-generation electronic warfare systems," a report from the geopolitical intelligence platform said.

    SEE ALSO: These are the most powerful militaries in Asia

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    Jim Mattis

    • Direct conflict between Israeli and Iranian forces is increasingly likely in Syria, according to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
    • Mattis met with his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Liberman, at the Pentagon.
    • Mattis said he saw no reason for Iran to ship advanced missiles to Hezbollah through Syria except to threaten Israel.

    WASHINGTON —  Direct conflict between Israeli and Iranian forces is increasingly likely in Syria as Tehran pursues a permanent military presence there, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned on Thursday.

    Addressing a congressional panel before hosting his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Liberman, at the Pentagon, Mattis said it was “very likely” from his perspective, “because Iran continues to do its proxy work there through Hezbollah.”

    Receiving Liberman, Mattis told reporters that he saw no reason for Iran to ship advanced missiles to Hezbollah through Syria except to threaten Israel.

    “I can see how it might start, but I am not sure when or where,” the secretary told lawmakers. Mattis then echoed Liberman’s warning from earlier in the day, issued through a Saudi newspaper, in which he said Israeli forces would strike Tehran if Iranian missiles ever hit Tel Aviv.

    The two met at the Pentagon after Liberman met with US President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton; his special representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt; and his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, at the White House.

    Iran was the focus of conversation there, as well, according to a statement issued by Israel’s embassy in Washington.

    At the hearing, Mattis seemed to question the wisdom of hastily withdrawing from the Iran nuclear accord, just two weeks shy of a May 12 deadline set by Trump for US and European diplomats to come up with "fixes" to its most controversial provisions.

    Should they fail, Trump is threatening to withdraw the US from the agreement by reimposing nuclear-related sanctions on Iran lifted by the 2015 deal.

    Mattis said that criticisms of the agreement are "valid," but that, " obviously, aspects of the agreement that can be improved upon." The position appeared in sync with that of French President Emmanuel Macron, who at the White House on Tuesday proposed expanding on the existing nuclear deal rather than attempting to start from scratch.

    ​"​I will say it is written almost with an assumption that Iran would try to cheat,​"​ ​Mattis ​told the Senate panel.​ He said he had read the agreement in full several times, including its classified annexes.​

    ​"​T​he verification, what is in there, is actually pretty robust as far as our intrusive ability to get in​.​"

    Trump says he wants new terms imposed onto the deal by France, Britain, Germany and the US that will grant international inspectors greater access to Iran's military sites. He also hopes to impose new restrictions on Iran's ballistic missile work – inextricably linked to the nuclear warheads they are built to deliver, his administration says– and to scrap "sunset clauses" in the deal that will allow Tehran to resume much of its nuclear enrichment work.

    SEE ALSO: These are the most powerful militaries in Asia

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