Warplanes bomb 3 hospitals in southern Syria as Assad’s army presses offensive

Bombs fall on rebel enclave in southern Syria

A pro-opposition media outlet uploaded this footage of airstrikes on the opposition-held areas of Daraa, Syria, on June 27 by Syrian government forces. 

 Fighter jets bombed at least three medical facilities in southern Syria overnight, a war monitor and local doctors said Wednesday, as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad appeared to ramp up a battle plan that has forced rebel-held areas across the country into submission.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the bombed hospitals were near the Jordanian border in the towns of Saida, Jeeza and Musayfra. Aid groups have raised alarm in recent days as the government’s intensifying offensive has caused about 45,000 people to flee deeper into rebel-held territory, although Jordan insists it will not open its border to them.

The Russian-backed offensive aims to recapture one of the final pockets of opposition-held territory in Syria. But its location along the Jordanian and Israeli borders has effectively turned it into a geopolitical tinderbox.

A cease-fire brokered by the United States, Jordan and Russia had largely kept the peace for more than a year as the Syrian army focused on clearing opposition groups from territory closer to the capital, Damascus. But now Washington is watching ­anxiously as the displaced people flood toward closed borders
and as pro-Assad forces deploy Iranian-backed militiamen alongside the Syrian army close to the Israeli frontier.

Across Syria, Israel has stepped up airstrikes against Iranian-linked positions in recent months, fearing its arch-foe’s growing reach. Russia is also wary and is trying to broker a last-
minute solution to avert a broader war between Iran and Israel.

Hospitals and medical personnel have routinely been targeted throughout Syria’s seven-year war, usually by government ­forces. The brutal tactic has often prevented residents from accessing treatment when bombs strike their neighborhoods.

In some cases, the tactic has also hastened victory for Assad’s forces, driving up death tolls and putting rebel forces under greater pressure from the civilian populations that live among them.

“Two of my nurses left when the bombing stopped last night. Their minds were collapsing,” said Abu Mohammed, a doctor from the town of Harak, about 25 miles northeast of Daraa. He said that their facility was badly damaged in an airstrike days earlier but that a handful of staff had stayed behind to dispense medicine to the wounded.

“People are so scared here. They know the regime will pick them off one by one,” he said.

Deadly airstrikes destroy homes in southern Syria

Syrian government forces and their allies carried out strikes on opposition-held areas of Daraa, Syria, on June 25. 

On Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross implored all sides to halt the fighting, repeating a call that has been routinely ignored by the warring parties through the protracted conflict.

“We urgently call on all sides fighting in Daraa, Sweida and Quneitra to show restraint and to do their utmost to spare civilians,” said Robert Mardini, the organization’s regional director for the Near and Middle East, referring to major population centers across southwestern Syria.

Video footage and photographs from the area showed residents packed into pickup trucks with blankets, food supplies and anything else they could carry. Aid workers said the locations to which the displaced are heading are already experiencing serious shortages of bread and fuel, with rent and food prices soaring.

Journalist Maher al-Hariri, who said his house was bombed Monday, described how he had been pulled from the rubble, only to find no options left for medical treatment.

“My family, my children are in great danger, and there is no way I can get them out,” he said.

Reached by phone, Abu Mohammed, the doctor in Harak, pleaded for help, his voice shot through with panic.

“Where can we go? Tell me. Where can we go?” he asked. “Everyone has abandoned us. We are all alone here, and no one will stop the violence.”

Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul and Suzan Haidamous in Beirut contributed to this report.

After Military Push in Syria, Russia Plays Both Sides in Libya


After Military Push in Syria, Russia Plays Both Sides in Libya

Kremlin-backed businessman befriends Tripoli government while Moscow shows support for its powerful opponent

Forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, who has received Russian backing and dominates much of Libya’s east, prepare for military operations in April. ABDULLAH DOMA/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia—When Russia welcomed a Libyan warlord aboard its aircraft carrier last year, it looked like the Kremlin was throwing its weight behind a rival to the United Nations-backed government in the North African country.

But by that time a Russian businessman was already one year along on a quieter Kremlin-backed mission to court the official administration in Tripoli.

The envoy’s pursuits have confuted expectations that Moscow could give Khalifa Haftar, armed forces chief of the second of Libya’s two rival governments, the kind of decisive military clout that turned the tide in Syria in favor of leader Bashar al-Assad.

Instead, Russia has staked a foothold in Libya’s future by cultivating allies on opposing sides of the conflict.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shows the way to Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, center, during a meeting in Moscow in August.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shows the way to Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, center, during a meeting in Moscow in August. PHOTO: SERGEI KARPUKHIN/REUTERS

“We haven’t placed a bet on one player,” said Lev Dengov, the 34-year-old businessman who has spearheaded the Kremlin’s strategy in Libya. Leaders of the Tripoli government are now regular visitors to Russia, and Russian companies are exploring businesses opportunities in Libya.

Moscow’s efforts have extended its reach from the Middle East to North Africa and made it a central player in the resource-rich country.

While the U.S. is rival to Russia for influence in Syria, President Donald Trump said in April 2017 that he saw no role for the U.S. in Libya beyond combating Islamic State. Since then the U.S. has supported U.N. peace efforts and focused on counterterrorism, including airstrikes against militant groups.

Leaders of Libya’s warring political factions, including Fayez Sarraj, prime minister of the Tripoli government, and Mr. Haftar, who controls much of eastern Libya, set a path to elections later this year at a meeting in Paris on May 29. Moscow said it supports international mediation efforts.

Libya remains the main route for waves of undocumented migrants bound for Europe via the Mediterranean. Islamic State and other extremist groups that target Europe are ensconced in lawless areas throughout Libya.

Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Taher Siala said in an interview that the Tripoli government wanted Russia to take on a bigger role. “We want a balance between the external players,” he said.

Mr. Dengov’s role in Libya highlights how businessmen sometimes work to further the Kremlin’s power while advancing their own interests, goals that are often intertwined.

The Soviet Union had close ties to longtime Libyan dictator Col. Moammar Gadhafi, which Russian leader Vladimir Putin sought to rekindle on a visit in 2008 that brought billions of dollars in arms, oil and rail contracts.

Mr. Dengov said he began visiting Libya that year. Through various business projects he built relations with officials in Gadhafi’s administration, some of whom are now serving in rival governments, he said.

Lev Dengov, who has built ties for Moscow with the Libyan government in Tripoli, speaks at a May conference in St. Petersburg, where he encouraged Russian countries to invest in Libya.
Lev Dengov, who has built ties for Moscow with the Libyan government in Tripoli, speaks at a May conference in St. Petersburg, where he encouraged Russian countries to invest in Libya. PHOTO: DMITRI BELIAKOV FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

During the uprising in 2011 that took down the regime, Russia initially didn’t object to airstrikes by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization against Gadhafi’s forces. But after Gadhafi was captured and killed, Mr. Putin accused the U.S. and its allies of overstepping their mandate.

Mr. Haftar, a Soviet-trained former commander in Gadhafi’s military, had turned against the Libyan ruler and lived for two decades in exile in the U.S. before joining the uprising.

In 2014, he led a military campaign that he said was aimed at ridding the country of terrorists, bringing together disparate militias to take control of a swath of eastern Libya, including most of the country’s main oil-exporting ports.

At the end of that year, Mr. Dengov was made head of a diplomatic outreach to Libya under the supervision of the Russian Foreign Ministry and Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of the predominantly Muslim republic of Chechnya in southern Russia.

Mr. Kadyrov, an ally of Mr. Putin, is a central figure in Russia’s efforts in the Middle East, where he has myriad contacts and significant sway, Mr. Dengov said.

After Mr. Dengov arranged for a delegation led by Mr. Haftar’s son to visit Russia in 2015, Moscow started providing support. Ignoring protests from Tripoli, Russia printed Libyan currency in 2016 for the government allied with Mr. Haftar. As well as his trip on the warship, Mr. Haftar visited Moscow in 2016 and 2017.

A U.S. official said Russia had furnished Mr. Haftar’s forces with weapons and military advisers. Russia has denied this, saying it abides by a U.N. arms embargo. A spokesman for Mr. Haftar didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The Russian government sought to build international support for Mr. Haftar, including in the Trump administration. He has gained backing from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates—though both endorsed the plan to hold national elections.

Meanwhile, Mr. Dengov was working in Tripoli with a lower profile. One of his first tasks was to wrangle the release of 11 Russian sailors held over alleged oil smuggling. He succeeded, bringing them out in three groups in 2015 and 2016.

Libya’s opposing parties agreed at a meeting in Paris on May 29 to hold national elections in December. Participants included, from left: Khalifa Haftar and his ally Aguila Saleh from the leadership in eastern Libya, Fayez Sarraj, prime minister in the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli, and Khaled Mishri, the recently elected head of the High State Council, an advisory body based in Tripoli.
Libya’s opposing parties agreed at a meeting in Paris on May 29 to hold national elections in December. Participants included, from left: Khalifa Haftar and his ally Aguila Saleh from the leadership in eastern Libya, Fayez Sarraj, prime minister in the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli, and Khaled Mishri, the recently elected head of the High State Council, an advisory body based in Tripoli. PHOTO: ETIENNE LAURENT/PRESS POOL

To build trust, Mr. Dengov said, he also worked to dispel the image of Russia as siding with Mr. Haftar. “When we came to Tripoli, they said: ‘You are with Haftar,’” he said. “We offered them friendship.”

“The Russians realized they have to diversify their contacts,” said Frederic Wehrey, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They sense an opportunity to play the role of a power broker.”

Russia’s reputation in Tripoli has been burnished, Mr. Dengov said, by the success of Mr. Putin’s military backing for Mr. Assad in Syria, which Moscow portrays as support for a legitimate government.

“People see that Russia is confident in the steps it takes. In Libya, they saw that our leader was a person who could take autonomous decisions,” said Mr. Dengov.

Mr. Dengov heads the Russian-Libyan Trade House, formed in 2017 by businessmen from the two countries to increase economic links. Russia is interested in reviving old deals made under Mr. Gadhafi, including in oil exploration and the construction of a railway line, and exploring new areas, such as agriculture and information technology, he said.

Mr. Dengov uses his contacts to help Russian companies establish connections in Libya and arranging security for visiting executives.

“We can use business to build up relations,” he said.

Russian state oil giant PAO Rosneft began purchasing crude from Libya’s state oil firm last year.

A delegation of Libyan security-service officials came to Moscow to meet Russian counterparts in April, Mr. Dengov said. Mr. Siala, the foreign minister, visited Russia twice in May, most recently for an economic forum in St. Petersburg where he appeared on a panel with Mr. Dengov and encouraged Russian companies to invest.

Mr. Siala didn’t indicate concern about Russia’s relations with Mr. Haftar. “Anyhow we are happy now that Russia is giving the same footing of importance for all the Libyans and all the political players,” he said in the interview.

Mr. Dengov is also making efforts to extend Tripoli’s influence in Libya’s oil-rich south by brokering peace at a local level. In November, he said, he met with tribes in the town of Ubari in the lawless region and persuaded them to align with Mr. Sarraj’s government in return for recognition of their municipal government.

On the panel in St. Petersburg, Mr. Dengov described efforts to convince disparate local groups of the value of having a Russian company invest in an oilfield, without giving further details.

“Political and economic links are inseparable,” he said.

Write to James Marson at james.marson@wsj.com


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Plans to Meet Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang

Summit could be North Korean leader’s first meeting with a foreign head of state in his capital

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, seen here in May, is planning a visit to Pyongyang to meet leader Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s state media has reported.
Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, seen here in May, is planning a visit to Pyongyang to meet leader Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s state media has reported. PHOTO: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/TASS/ZUMA PRESS

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is planning to visit Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s state media reported Sunday, for what could be the North Korean leader’s first summit meeting with a foreign head of state in his capital, Pyongyang.

The report didn’t specify when a visit by Mr. Assad might take place, but quoted the Syrian president as saying: “I am going to visit the DPRK and meet HE Kim Jong Un,” using the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “HE” is short for “His Excellency.”

If the visit takes place, it will add to a recent burst of diplomacy between North Korea—one of the world’s most isolated countries—and its neighbors and allies.

In recent months, Mr. Kim has met twice with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the inter-Korean demilitarized zone and twice visited Chinese President Xi Jinping in China. Mr. Kim has also hosted Mike Pompeo, now the U.S. Secretary of State, in North Korea twice in recent months, and on Thursday he welcomedRussian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Pyongyang.

Mr. Kim is also slated to sit down with President Donald Trump at a summit on June 12 in Singapore.

Syria has close ties with North Korea, and Messrs. Assad and Kim are frequently quoted in North Korean state media exchanging well wishes and pleasantries on their parties’ and countries’ respective national holidays and anniversaries.

Mr. Assad’s remarks were made on May 30, according to the North Korean state media report. Mr. Assad, receiving diplomatic credentials from the new North Korean ambassador Mun Jong Nam, said that recent developments on the Korean Peninsula—a likely reference to Mr. Kim’s diplomatic meetings—were brought about “by the outstanding political caliber and wise leadership of HE Kim Jong Un.”

“I am sure that he will achieve the final victory and realize the reunification of Korea without fail,” Mr. Assad was quoted as saying.

Mr. Assad also said the Syrian government would “fully support all policies and measures of the DPRK leadership.”

Kim Jong Un and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in North Korea on May 31.
Kim Jong Un and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in North Korea on May 31. PHOTO: VALERY SHARIFULIN/TASS/ZUMA PRESS

North Korea and Syria are believed by experts to cooperate closely on chemical weapons and on other weapons of mass destruction.

In February, United Nations investigators concluded that North Korea had shipped 50 tons of supplies to Syria for use in building what is suspected to be an industrial-scale chemical weapons factory.

In April, the U.S. conducted missile strikes aimed at the Barzah Research and Development Center near Damascus, which the U.N. said has housed North Korean advisers.

Write to Jonathan Cheng at jonathan.cheng@wsj.com


Syria: US-backed SDF challenges Assad military threats

SDF says Assad’s threat of a military confrontation with the group will only bring more ‘destruction’.

Both the SDF and Russian-backed Syrian government troops are engaged in separate operations against ISIL [File: Reuters]
Both the SDF and Russian-backed Syrian government troops are engaged in separate operations against ISIL [File: Reuters]

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has said a threat by President Bashar al-Assad to use force to recover the swath of northern and eastern Syria controlled by the group would not yield any results.

Military intervention is “not a solution that can lead to results,” SDF spokesperson Kino Gabriel told Reuters News Agency on Thursday.

“Any military solution, as far as the SDF is concerned, will lead to more losses and destruction and difficulties for the Syrian people,” Kino said.

Earlier on Thursday, Assad warned in an interviewwith the broadcaster Russia Today that he would not hesitate to use force to reclaim the one-third of the country under SDF control, if negotiations fail.

He also warned that the US should learn the lesson of Iraq and remove its troops from Syria.

“The only problem left in Syria is the SDF,” Assad said.

“We’re going to deal with it by two options,” he said.

“The first one: we started now opening doors for negotiations. Because the majority of them are Syrians, supposedly, they like their country, they don’t like to be puppets to any foreigners,” Assad said in English.

“We have one option, to live with each other as Syrians. If not, we’re going to resort … to liberating those areas by force.”

Founded in 2015, the SDF says it is fighting to establish a democratic and federal Syria along the lines of the Rojava region in the north.

Its makeup largely consists of Kurdish YPG fighters and smaller groups of Arab, Turkmen and Armenian fighters.

Last year, the US began arming them before an offensive to recapture Raqqa, the former de facto capital of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).

The Kurdish YPG and its allies have carved out autonomous regions in the north, and they now control nearly a quarter of Syria.

Both the SDF and Russian-backed Syrian government troops are engaged in separate operations against ISIL in eastern Syria.

Assad said a confrontation between Russia and US forces over Syria had been narrowly avoided “by the wisdom of the Russian leadership”.


In Damascus, a Mix of Resignation and Defiance as Israel Strikes

After years of a conflict that has killed thousands and displaced millions across the country, Syria’s capital is enjoying relative calm

Many in Damascus went on with their daily lives as Israeli launched a retaliatory attack against what it said were Iranian facilities.
Many in Damascus went on with their daily lives as Israeli launched a retaliatory attack against what it said were Iranian facilities. PHOTO:REUTERS

DAMASCUS, Syria—As warplanes roared across Syria’s sky, shoppers strolled in the capital’s markets and couples chatted in outdoor bars. The explosive thumps of the war nearby could be heard over a cover band performing an enthusiastic version of the 2014 pop hit “Happy.”

Ordinary Syrians in Damascus, a government stronghold, went on with their daily lives as Israel this week launched a large-scale retaliatory attack against what it called Iranian military assets in Syria—both defiant and resigned that the violence that has dragged on for seven years won’t end any time soon.

As the regime’s war against the rebels winds down, foreign powers including Iran and Israel are seeking to safeguard their interests, risking a wider war that could cause more damage to the country.

Many in Damascus appeared to support Iran and expressed hostility to Israel, but some described frustration at how foreign powers have joined a battleground that’s not their own.

“The entire world is contributing to the chaos,” said Abo Amin, a 60-year-old tailor. “They want to parcel up Syria and take our wealth, or oil and our gas.”

Damascus itself is enjoying relative calm as the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in recent months escalated its offensive to secure the surrounding areas. Israel has watched with concern as regime backer Iran has deepened its presence, culminating in this week’s attacks, a rare direct confrontation in one of the longest rivalries in the region.

An image released on May 10 purportedly shows Syrian air defense systems intercepting Israeli missiles over Damascus's airspace.Images
An image released on May 10 purportedly shows Syrian air defense systems intercepting Israeli missiles over Damascus’s airspace.Images PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

The Syrian government claimed its air defense had intercepted “a large number” of the Israeli missiles. Residents were united against what they say is Israeli hostility.

“We wanted to cheer and clap but it was late and we did not want to wake the neighbors up,” said Jalal, 50, who was standing on a balcony watching what appeared to be missile traces later in the night. “We are used to them striking us,” said Mr. Jalal, who declined to give his full name.

Relations between Syria and Israel have been tense since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, but have worsened in recent years after Israel launched dozens of strikes against alleged Iranian assets in the country.

Many even celebrated the Syrian government’s claim that its forces carried out a rocket attack on Israel, seeing it as a welcome response to Israeli aggression they said had gone unanswered for too long. The Syrian regime has sought to project strength, but its military forces have been drained and it relies heavily on Iran and Russia for support.

Iran’s government hasn’t responded to Israeli allegations that its forces had fired the rockets, but a member of its parliament, Mohammad-Javad Nobandegani, called the allegation “completely false.”

“We hit them back, and I am very proud of that,” said Abdallah, 18, who works at a clothing store in Damascus’s old city.

In Damascus, many locals jokingly deride Syria’s United Nations representative, Bashar Jaafari, for insisting that, “We reserve the right to reply,” to Israeli attacks on its soil without actually replying.

“Before this, there were so many attacks and no response,” said Mehiar Ali, a 31-year-old sculptor who grew up in Italy and recently returned to Damascus. “Of course I’m against violence. But let’s be honest, the approach so far hasn’t improved anything.”

Most people continued their daily lives as they have while government forces and Islamist militants fight in the nearby Yarmouk suburb. Warplanes traverse the sky daily, though the traffic intensified after the Israeli attacks.

Following the attacks, coffee shops were thick with shisha smoke and markets bustled with families shopping for the upcoming Ramadan holy month. Children raced on bicycles in the old city where most of the historic architecture remains intact.

The U.S. and Israel are concerned about Iran exploiting the instability from Syria’s war to spread its influence, building up military capabilities that will help it confront Israel militarily. Some analysts and officials worry that President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the multilateral nuclear accord could be a potential trigger for more violent clashes in the Middle East.

“Iran is a friendly state that is helping us out along with Russia,” Abdallah said. “But if Israel and Iran want to fight, they shouldn’t do it on our land, but on their own.”

Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at sune.rasmussen@wsj.com


Trump, a reluctant hawk, has battled his top aides on Russia and lost

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk during an Asian economic summit in Danang, Vietnam, last year. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)
 April 15 at 8:12 PM 
President Trump seemed distracted in March as his aides briefed him at his Mar-a-Lago resort on the administration’s plan to expel 60 Russian diplomats and suspected spies.

The United States, they explained, would be ousting roughly the same number of Russians as its European allies — part of a coordinated move to punish Moscow for the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil.

“We’ll match their numbers,” Trump instructed, according to a senior administration official. “We’re not taking the lead. We’re matching.”

The next day, when the expulsions were announced publicly, Trump erupted, officials said. To his shock and dismay, France and Germany were each expelling only four Russian officials — far fewer than the 60 his administration had decided on.

The president, who seemed to believe that other individual countries would largely equal the United States, was furious that his administration was being portrayed in the media as taking by far the toughest stance on Russia.

A Russian flag flies next to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow this month. The United States and allies have expelled dozens of diplomats and alleged spies in response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

His briefers tried to reassure him that the sum total of European expulsions was roughly the same as the U.S. number.

“I don’t care about the total!” the administration official recalled Trump screaming. The official, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Growing angrier, Trump insisted that his aides had misled him about the magnitude of the expulsions. “There were curse words,” the official said, “a lot of curse words.”

The incident reflects a tension at the core of the Trump administration’s increasingly hard-nosed stance on Russia: The president instinctually opposes many of the punitive measures pushed by his Cabinet that have crippled his ability to forge a close relationship with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin.

The past month, in particular, has marked a major turning point in the administration’s stance, according to senior administration officials. There have been mass expulsions of Russian diplomats, sanctions on oligarchs that have bled billions of dollars from Russia’s already weak economy and, for the first time, a presidential tweet that criticized Putin by name for backing Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

On Friday night, the United States, acting with Britain and France, attacked Assad’s chemical weapons facilities as punishment for what they say was his use of agents on civilians. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said Sunday that the administration plans to announce additional sanctions against Russia soon.

A White House spokesman stressed that Trump’s Russia policy has been “consistent and tough” from his earliest days in office, and that the president supports the recent moves.

“While we would like to work with Russia, when faced with their malign activities on the international stage, the president will hold them accountable,” Raj Shah said.

Some close to Trump say the recent measures are the product of an ongoing pressure campaign to push the president to take a more skeptical view of the Russian leader.

“If you’re getting briefed by the CIA director on all this stuff, there’s a point where, even if you’re Donald J. Trump, you think, ‘Hmm [Putin’s] a really bad guy,’ ” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich, an informal Trump adviser.

Others note Trump’s ongoing unease with his own policy. Even as his administration has ratcheted up the pressure on Putin’s inner circle, Trump has continued in recent weeks to make overtures to the Russian leader, congratulating him on his election win and, in a move that frustrated his national security team, inviting him to visit the White House.

“I think I could have a very good relationship with Russia and with President Putin,” Trump said at a news conference just days after the largest expulsion of Russians in U.S. history. “And if I did, that would be a great thing. And there’s also a possibility that won’t happen. Who knows?”

Trump came to the White House believing that his personal relationships with other leaders would be central to solving the world’s thorniest foreign policy problems, administration officials said. In Trump’s mind, no leader was more important or powerful than Putin, they said.

A cooperative relationship with the Russian leader could help Trump find solutions to problems that bedeviled his predecessor in places such as Ukraine, Syria and North Korea.

Former president Barack Obama had a tense relationship with Putin. Trump said he could do better but felt stymied by the media, Congress and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

Any conciliatory move he made toward Putin came under heavy scrutiny. “When will all the haters and fools out there realize that having a good relationship is a good thing,” Trump tweeted in November. “They are always playing politics — bad for our country.”

Privately, he complained to aides that the media’s fixation on the Mueller probe was hobbling his effort to woo Putin. “I can’t put on the charm,” the president often said, according to one of his advisers. “I’m not able to be president because of this witch hunt.”

As the months passed, the president’s options for improving relations with Russia narrowed. In late July, Congress overwhelmingly approved new sanctions on Moscow that were widely seen as a rebuke of Trump’s efforts to reach out to Putin. It took aides four days to persuade Trump to sign the bill, which had cleared with a veto-proof majority.

Trump advisers were reluctant to even raise the topic of Russian interference in the election, which Trump equated with Democrats’ efforts to undermine his victory. “It’s just kind of its own beast,” a senior national security official said. “It’s been a constant from Day One.”

Gingrich and other Trump advisers said CIA Director Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state nominee, was one of the few advisers who could address Russia without raising the president’s ire.

In January, Pompeo told the BBC that he had “every expectation” that Russia would make an effort to disrupt the 2018 midterm elections. Privately, he pushed Trump to take a tough line on Moscow.

One area where aides worked to change Trump’s mind was on a proposal to sell antitank missiles to Ukraine. Obama had opposed the move for fear of angering Moscow and provoking a Russian escalation.

Trump initially was also hesitant to support the move, which had the backing of the Pentagon and State Department. “He would say, ‘Why is this our problem? Why not let the Europeans deal with Ukraine?” a U.S. official said.

Aides described a lobbying effort by Pompeo, Haley and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in support of the lethal aid. “I just want peace,” Trump would say when pressed on Ukraine.

His aides countered that the weapons would help achieve peace by deterring further Russian aggression.

To bring the president around, U.S. officials argued that the $47 million military aid package could be a boon to U.S. taxpayers if cash-strapped Kiev stabilized and someday became a reliable buyer of American military hardware.

To the surprise of even his closest advisers, the president agreed late last year to the weapons transfer on the condition that the move be kept quiet and made without a formal news release.

Aides tried to warn him that there was almost no way to stop the news from leaking.

When it broke, Russia hawks in Congress praised the president. “Another significant step in the right direction,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a frequent Trump critic. But Trump was still furious, an administration official said.

“For some reason, when it comes to Russia, he doesn’t hear the praise,” a senior administration official said. “Politically speaking, the best thing for him to do is to be tough. . . . On that one issue, he cannot hear the praise.”

The poisoning in Britain in early March of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, with a nerve agent upped the tension between Trump and his advisers.

Initially, the president was hesitant to believe the intelligence that Russia was behind the attack — a fact that some aides attributed to his contrarian personality and tendency to look for deeper conspiracies. To persuade him, his advisers warned that he would get hammered in the press if he was out of step with U.S. allies, officials said.

“There was a sense that we couldn’t be the only ones not to concede to reality,” the Trump adviser said.

The next task was convincing Trump that he should punish Putin in coordination with the Europeans. “Why are you asking me to do this?” Trump asked in a call with British Prime Minister Theresa May, according to a senior White House official. “What’s Germany going to do? What about France?”

He was insistent that the poisoning in the English city of Salisbury was largely a European problem and that the allies should take the lead in moving against Russia.

Trump told aides in an Oval Office session on March 23 that he was confident French President Emmanuel Macron would deliver on promises to expel Russian officials but that he was worried about German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country depends on Russian oil and gas.

The next day, at his Mar-a-Lago resort, Trump’s aides gave him the final memo with the precise number of American expulsions.

The president signed the order on the plane back to Washington.

Trump was furious as news reports described the expulsions as the largest purge in U.S. history and noted the wide gap between the United States and its allies. “If you had told me France and Germany were only doing [four], that’s what we would have done,” one official recalled him saying.

Some officials said it was a simple misunderstanding. Others blamed the president’s strained relationship with his top aides, including H.R. McMaster, his former national security adviser.

“Anytime McMaster came in with a recommendation, he always thought it was too much,” the Trump adviser said. “They were just oil and water on everything. So his natural impulse was, if this was your recommendation, it must be too far.”

In the days since the expulsions, Trump has continued to take tough new actions to punish Russia. Early this month, the administration sanctioned 17 senior Russian officials and seven oligarchs and their companies, prompting Russia’s Foreign Ministry to threaten a “harsh response.”

The sanctions were followed by an alleged chemical attack that killed dozens of Syrians in the rebel-held town of Douma, east of Syria’s capital. “President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad,” Trump tweeted in his first by-name criticism of the Russian leader. “Big price to pay.”

The relatively modest airstrikes that Trump ordered Friday were designed to deter Assad without provoking a broader military conflict with Russia.

Some European diplomats in Washington question whether the tough moves have Trump’s full support. “This wouldn’t be the policy unless Trump supports it. . . . Yes?” asked one ambassador.

Russia analysts seem just as mystified. “This is a man who if he had his druthers would be pursuing a much more open and friendly policy with Russia,” said Angela Stent, a former White House official and professor at Georgetown University. “The United States essentially has three Russia policies: the president’s, the executive branch’s and Congress’s.”

Less than a month after Trump shocked his foreign policy advisers by inviting Putin to the White House, the prospects for a visit anytime soon seem remote. No date has been set, White House officials said.

“We’re not rushing to do this meeting,” a senior administration official said. “Our team wasn’t thrilled about the idea.”

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

For residents of Syria’s capital, the attack packed a jolt but didn’t shake their resolve

For residents of Syria's capital, the attack packed a jolt but didn't shake their resolve
Syrians wave the national flag and portraits of President Bashar Assad as they gather at the Umayyad Square in Damascus after the airstrikes. (Louai Beshara / AFP/Getty Images)


For one Damascus resident, the earliest indication of the tripartite air strikes on the Syrian capital in response to the government’s alleged use of poison gas against civilians last weekend was the sound.

“These ones had a loud roar … louder than the ones we normally hear,” said Nicholas Zahr, a Damascus-based analyst contacted via Facebook early Saturday. “We’re not used to the sound of these missiles.”

Another resident, a Syrian government employee who was not authorized to speak publicly, said, “We woke up from the sound.… We thought it was thunder. We didn’t get what was happening in the beginning.

“Then we saw lights of the air defenses in the sky.”

Those air defenses, Syrian state media claimed, intercepted dozens of missiles, including 13 targeting the town of Kisweh, 10 miles south of Damascus, and another barrage near the central city of Homs. Yet many made it to their target.

The Pentagon said U.S., French and British forces unleashed about 120 missiles against a scientific center near Damascus that was used for research, development and production of chemical and biological agents; a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs; and a separate chemical agent storage site and command post near Homs. Officials would not say whether any of the missiles were intercepted.

Danny Makki@Dannymakkisyria

Sounds like WW3 here

It was soon over, Leith Aboufadel, a Damascus-based journalist, tweeted. Within an hour, the wails of air raid sirens had stopped, and “just like that, it’s quiet in Damascus now.”

Meanwhile, Syrian state television showed one of its reporters, Kenan Ahmad, walking near Umayyad Square, a major stop for drivers in the city. He interviewed some of those who had begun their morning commute as dawn came to the city.

“We’re going around in our car to prove to the whole world that Syria is fine and that everything is fine,” said one driver, before driving off.

That projected image of nonchalance continued as the day wore on.

The Syrian presidency released a video of President Bashar Assad arriving for work hours after the attack. Titled “the Morning of Steadfastness,” it shows Assad calmly walking through a large marbled hall, briefcase in hand, with the whisper of a water fountain in the background.

State and pro-government media uploaded pictures on social media depicting residents breaking out into an impromptu step dance near the Umayyad square, among other demonstrations of popular support for the government in Hama and Aleppo. Radio stations played nationalist songs on a loop, while pro-government TV channels invited a parade of analysts who delivered flowery speeches touting Damascus’ success.

“On this occasion, let me direct a salute of love and glorification and congratulations to our people first, to our army second, and to our wise leadership and the allies who stood with us,” said Samir Abu Saleh, a Damascus-based professor of political studies interviewed by the pro-government Ikhbariyah channel. “The Syrian army was able to sign the tome of victory … [and] confirmed once more that this people will not be humiliated.”

A number of residents contacted by phone and social media on Saturday morning said Damascus was already back to its usual routine, despite what one person said was “a small amount of fear” when the strike took place.

The Syrian army, meanwhile, released a statement saying its air defenses had been “highly effective” in stopping the missile barrage and had intercepted “most of them.”

It acknowledged, however, that “a few” missiles had hit what the army described as a teaching and scientific research center in the Barzeh district of Damascus. Three civilians were wounded when a rocket targeting a military site near Homs “had been diverted,” the statement said.

“Such aggressions will not stop our armed forces and their [allies] in continuing to crush what remains of the armed terrorist groupings across the expanse of Syrian territory,” the army command asserted.

Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant faction whose fighters have often served as the vanguard of government onslaughts, condemned the “treacherous” attack on “its sister Syria,” calling it a continuation of a strike by Israel on a Syrian air base this week that killed seven Iranian personnel. It dismissed the justifications given by the U.S., Britain and France as “fake” and said they don’t stand up to “reason and logic.”

For many of those who had endured the years-long siege of the rebel-held eastern suburbs of Damascus, where dozens of people were reported killed in the alleged chemical weapons attack Saturday, the U.S.-led attacks appeared to be a case of too little, too late.

“These are just media strikes more than real strikes on the ground,” said Firas Abdullah, an opposition media activist who had documented the government’s assault on eastern Ghouta before relocating to the north of the country this month under a deal with the government to empty the region of rebels and their families.

“If they really want to finish Assad, or to stop him, they know exactly where he is.”

After losing friends and relatives in weeks of punishing airstrikes that activists say killed at least 1,600 civilians in eastern Ghouta, many find the red line drawn by Western governments over a single chemical weapons attack incomprehensible.

“So it’s OK that I die from barrel bombs, bullets, rocket launchers, hunger, lack of medicine, but it’s not OK if I die from chemical weapons?” said Bayan Rehan, another activist who was recently displaced from eastern Ghouta. “What is this idiocy they are offering the Syrian people?”

An hour later, traffic was already piling up in Damascus.

Bulos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Alexandra Zavis contributed to this report.

Twitter: @nabihbulos


5:30 a.m., April 14: This article was updated with reaction from the Syrian government, the army and residents.

This article was originally posted at 8:50 p.m. on April 13.

Courtesy: Los Angeles Times

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