NOW PLAYINGOfficials: US airstrike hits pro-Assad forces in Syria
The U.S. military launched fresh air strikes against pro-Assad troops in Syria after they ignored repeated warnings from both coalition and Russian forces, officials told Fox News Thursday.
The Syrian forces, in several vehicles including at least one tank, were near the Jordanian border and deemed a threat to coalition partners on the ground, a Pentagon official said. They were repeatedly ordered to stop their advance toward a de-escalation zone, but ignored the warning, officials said.
“The coalition commander assessed the threat and after shows of force didn’t stop the regime forces and those forces refused to move out of the deconfliction zone, the commander on the ground called for the air strike as a matter of force protection,” a senior U.S. defense official told Fox News.
Another military source told The Associated Press it appeared the Syrian forces were poised to attack an area that included U.S. advisers.
“They were building a fighting position” about 55 kilometers from a U.S.-coalition base close to At Tanf, where advisers train members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Syrian Arab Coalition, the second official said.
Defense Secretary James Mattis briefly addressed the strikes Thursday during a meeting with Swedish Defense minister Peter Hultqvist.
“We’re not increasing our role in the Syrian civil war but we will defend our troops, and that is a coalition element made up of more than just U.S. troops, and so we’ll defend ourselves,” Mattis said. “If people take aggressive steps against us, and that’s been a going in, a policy of ours for a long time.”
The U.S. and Russia, which is allied with the pro-Assad forces, have established buffer zones around their separate areas of operation to avoid collateral damage. Each side has agreed to notify the other if the deploy forces within the buffer zones.
In this case, an official told The Associated Press, Russia tried multiple times to contact the Syrian forces. It was at that point that U.S. and coalition jets escalated their warnings.
“We conducted a show of force. We conducted warning shots. All to no avail,” the official said.
The American strikes were the first against Assad positions since the Pentagon rained 57 Tomahawk missiles on the Shayrat air base near Homs. But the strikes confirmed Thursday were believed to be the first targeting Syrian personnel.
The attack on forces does not reflect an escalation, the Pentagon official said.
“There is no change in policy,” the official said.
Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin contributed to this report.
Shiites in two northern Syrian towns are being evacuated in exchange for moving Sunni rebels and civilians out of two others. More than 30,000 people are expected to be evacuated under the deal.
Under a deal brokered by opposition backer Qatar and regime ally Iran, the Syrian government and the opposition on Friday began a coordinated population swap of tens of thousands of people from four besieged towns.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said buses carrying rebels began leaving the rebel-held towns Madaya and Zabadani near Damascus on Friday morning in the first phase of the deal, which will also see the evacuation of residents from two pro-government Shiite villages in northern Syria.
All 16,000 residents of the majority Shiite towns of al-Foua and Kefraya – long besieged by insurgents in the northwestern Idlib province – are expected to leave, heading to government-held Aleppo, the coastal province of Latakia or Damascus.
JUST WHO IS FIGHTING IN THE SYRIAN CONFLICT?
Syria’s army, officially known as the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) suffered mass defections in the fall of 2011 to what would become the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army. The SAA is assisted by a number of pro-Assad militias such as the National Defense Force.
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Buses carrying mostly Sunni rebel fighters and their families also simultaneously left the town of Madaya near Damascus on Friday, encircled by government forces and their allies. Civilian residents there will reportedly be allowed to remain if they choose.
According to the Observatory, the evacuation of Zabadani, also besieged by the government side, has been delayed until Friday evening or early Saturday.
‘Deliberate demographic change’
Over the past year, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government has struck numerous deals enabling rebels and their families to leave opposition-held areas, often after months or years of being besieged by government forces.
The opposition, however, says the deals amount to forced population transfer and deliberate demographic change.
The armed opposition fighting for more than half a decade to unseat Assad is mostly Sunni Muslim, like most of Syria’s population. Assad is from the Alawite religious minority, and is supported by Shiite fighters from Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah group. More than 300,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011.
WASHINGTON — In the days since President Trump ordered a cruise missile strike against Syria in retaliation for a chemical attack on civilians, his administration has spoken with multiple voices as it seeks to explain its evolving policy. But one voice has not been heard from: that of Mr. Trump himself.
As various officials have described it, the United States will intervene only when chemical weapons are used — or any time innocents are killed. It will push for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria — or pursue that only after defeating the Islamic State. America’s national interest in Syria is to fight terrorism. Or to ease the humanitarian crisis there. Or to restore stability.
The latest mixed messages were sent on Monday in both Washington and Europe. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson — during a stop in Italy on his way to Moscow for a potentially tense visit, given Russian anger at last week’s missile strike — outlined a dramatically interventionist approach. “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” he said.
Hours later, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said at his daily briefing that Mr. Trump would act against Syria not just if it resorted to chemical weapons, like the sarin nerve agent reportedly used last week, but also when it used conventional munitions. “If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president,” Mr. Spicer said.
For Mr. Trump, who came to office espousing an “America first” policy that stayed out of the affairs of other countries where the United States had no interest of its own, responding to barrel bombs in Syria or to “any and all” humanitarian abuses “anywhere” would be a far more sweeping standard for American leadership. If anything, it sounds more like the activist advisers around President Barack Obama, such as Samantha Power, his ambassador to the United Nations, who pushed for more intervention to protect civilians in various conflict zones, often to no avail.
Just as likely, analysts said, neither Mr. Tillerson nor Mr. Spicer really meant it or, possibly, fully understood the potentially far-reaching consequences of what they were saying. Unlike chemical weapons, barrel bombs — typically oil drums filled with explosives — are used with vicious regularity in the Syrian civil war. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the government dropped 495 barrel bombs in March alone, and 12,958 in 2016.
By the end of the day Monday, fearing that a new “red line” had been drawn, the White House sought to unwind Mr. Spicer’s comment. “Nothing has changed in our posture,” officials said in a statement emailed to reporters. “The president retains the option to act in Syria against the Assad regime whenever it is in the national interest, as was determined following that government’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.”
The confusion was only heightened when The Associated Press quoted an unidentified American official saying that Russia had known about Syria’s chemical attack in advance. The White House summoned reporters for a background briefing but then made the session off the record, leaving the matter unaddressed. Hours later, a senior administration official issued a brief statement saying there was no consensus within the American intelligence community that Russia had foreknowledge of the attack.
With all the murky signals, Mr. Trump has done little to clarify how he will proceed after firing Tomahawks at a Syrian air base in retaliation for the chemical attack, which killed more than 80 civilians. While his cabinet and other advisers seem to be reading from different talking points, the president has not spoken publicly about Syria at all since the missile strike last Thursday night. Even his famed Twitter feed has largely avoided the subject, beyond thanking military personnel.
The only substantive comment he has made on Twitter about the situation was to defend against critics who asked why the runway at the air base had been left untouched. “The reason you don’t generally hit runways is that they are easy and inexpensive to quickly fix (fill in and top)!” he wrote on Sunday.
The resulting vacuum has left world leaders and American lawmakers scratching their heads over how the United States will proceed now that it has taken direct action against Mr. Assad’s government for the first time in Syria’s six-year-old civil war.
Mr. Tillerson made his comment a day before arriving in Moscow to confront Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, over the Kremlin’s support for Mr. Assad. There had been some expectation that Mr. Tillerson would meet with President Vladimir V. Putin. But Russia announced on Monday that Mr. Putin would be unavailable — another sign of the Kremlin’s growing displeasure.
Although Mr. Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, has known Mr. Putin for years, he will now be the first secretary of state not to meet with the Russian president or top Soviet leader in his inaugural trip to Moscow in office, according to State Department records and news reports.
On Sunday, Mr. Tillerson called Russia “incompetent” for allowing Syria to hold on to chemical weapons, and he accused Russia of trying to influence elections in Europe using the same methods it employed in the United States.
European countries, which had been deeply uneasy with the Trump administration’s more transactional approach to foreign policy and its potential willingness to forgive Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea and continued meddling in Ukraine, welcomed the strike on Syria and Mr. Tillerson’s reference to humanitarian issues’ guiding strategy.
“There is overwhelming support in what the U.S. did,” Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, said on Monday, “signaling that we will not tolerate the barbaric use of chemical weapons.”
The foreign ministers of France and Italy have made similar remarks, with Angelino Alfano of Italy saying the American military strike had contributed to a “renewed harmony” between the United States and Europe.
Mr. Johnson said Europe also supported the Trump administration’s increasingly hard line on Russia, saying that Mr. Putin was “toxifying the reputation of Russia with his continuous association with a guy that has flagrantly poisoned his own people.”
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Still, the Europeans and others were left to puzzle out Mr. Trump’s strategy. Over the weekend, Mr. Tillerson suggested that the administration still wanted to stay out of Syria’s war. “We’re asking and calling on Bashar al-Assad to cease the use of these weapons,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Other than that, there is no change to our military posture.”
Yet Nikki R. Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations, suggested on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Mr. Assad had to go. “There is no political solution that any of us can see with Assad at the lead,” she said.
By the time Mr. Tillerson met with other foreign ministers from the Group of 7 in Italy on Monday, he seemed to be emphasizing a shift from Mr. Trump’s focus on economic nationalism to a foreign policy at least partly defined by humanitarian values. Mr. Tillerson belatedly added a visit to a memorial at Sant’Anna di Stazzema, a village near Lucca where 560 people, including children, were massacred by the Nazis during World War II.
After the blaring of trumpets and the laying of a wreath at the memorial, Mr. Tillerson approached a small news media contingent to make a three-sentence declaration that included the pledge to hold accountable “any and all who commit crimes” against innocent civilians.
But back in Washington, Mr. Spicer seemed to return to Mr. Trump’s “America first” formulation. “We’re not just going to become the world’s policeman running around the country — running around the world,” he said. “It’s our national security first and foremost.”
Asked if Syria fit within that doctrine, he said, “Absolutely.”
Correction: April 10, 2017
An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the history of secretaries of state meeting with Russian leaders. Rex W. Tillerson will be the first secretary of state ever not to meet with a Russian president or top Soviet leader on his first trip to Moscow in office, not the first since Warren Christopher in 1993.
Blasts in the center of Damascus appear to have been part of a coordinated attack on Shiite Muslims. No one has yet claimed responsibility, but Sunni extremists have carried out similar attacks in the past.
At least 40 people are reported dead and more than 100 injured from a pair of bomb blasts in the heart of Damascus, according to the monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
In what is being described as one of the bloodiest attacks on the Syrian capital, the bombs exploded Saturday morning near a cemetery in the Bab Masala section of the capital, according to SANA, Syria’s state-run news agency.
A roadside bomb detonated as a bus passed and a suicide bomber blew himself up near the Bab al-Saghir cemetery, which houses several Shiite mausoleums that draw pilgrims from around the world, according to the SOHR.
The site of twin bomb blasts in the Syrian capital, Damascus, is stained with blood
A Lebanon-based TV station, al-Mayadeen, reported the bombings had targeted buses transporting pilgrims to the cemetery. Those pilgrims, it now appears, were all Iraqis, according to Iraq’s foreign ministry.
“Preliminary statistics indicate the fall of around 40 Iraqi martyrs and 120 wounded,” ministry spokesman Ahmed Jamal said in a statement, terming it a “criminal terrorist operation.”
A short SANA report said “two terrorist bombs” near the Bab al-Saghir cemetery killed “a number of martyrs” and injured others. The cemetery is located near one of the seven gates of the Old City of Damascus.
Targets of attack
Shiite shrines are a frequent target of attack for Sunni extremists belonging to al-Qaeda and the “Islamic State” (IS) militant group, not only in Syria but also in neighboring Iraq.
The Sayeda Zeinab mausoleum to the south of the capital is Syria’s most visited Shiite pilgrimage site. It has been hit by several deadly bombings during Syria’s six-year civil war.
In January, a pair of suicide bombings in the high-security Kafr Sousa district of the capital killed 10 people, eight of them soldiers.
That attack was claimed by former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front, which said that it had targeted Russian military advisers working with the Syrian army.
Fateh al-Sham’s northwestern stronghold has been bombed repeatedly this year, not only by Syrian armed forces and their Russian ally but also by US-backed forces battling IS in both Syria and Iraq.
But attacks like the one today are rare in Damascus, a stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Russia decried Washington’s “persistent refusal” to work with the Kremlin after US airstrikes killed dozens of Syrian soldiers, apparently mistaking them for terrorists. The incident could end the peace deal on Syria.
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The Russian Foreign Ministry urged the United States to conduct a “most through investigation” and ensure that such incidents are not possible in the future, officials said in a statement on Sunday.
The Saturday night raid, which the US claims was unintentional,lasted for 40 minutes and killed at least 90 regime troops near Deir el-Zour on Saturday, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Damascus and Moscow put the death toll to 62. The Syrian regime said that several tanks and military vehicles were destroyed in the bombing, alongside with four mortars and an anti-aircraft gun.
After the attack, the US military said that the coalition sortie waslaunched against the “Islamic State” (IS) group that battles the regime forces in the area. They added that the strike was aborted as soon as Moscow raised the alarm in the Pentagon.
However, the IS militia used the airstrike to push the regime troops out of the targeted region, although Damascus has claimed it reclaimed most of the lost ground.
In the Sunday statement, Russia accused the Western pilots of acting “on the boundary between criminal negligence and direct connivance with Islamic State terrorists.”
Also on Sunday, IS announced it had shot down a regime plane above Deir el-Zour.
Diplomatic row jeopardizes truce
The strikes prompted the Kremlin to request an emergency UN Security Council meeting on Saturday evening. While the session itself was closed to the press, representatives of both sides used unusuallyharsh language when discussing the issue with reporters in New York.
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Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, spoke to the press outside the Security Council chamber while her Russian colleague Vitaly Churkin addressed the diplomats inside.
Power accused Russia of “grandstanding” and pulling a “stunt” by calling for the UN meeting. She also labeled Moscow’s actions as “uniquely cynical and hypocritical,” claiming that Russia failed to condemn the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime for “some of the most systematic atrocities we have seen in a generation.”
“Yet in the face of none of these atrocities has Russia expressed outrage, nor has it demanded investigations, nor has it ever called for a Saturday night emergency consultation in the Security Council,” she told reporters.
In turn, Russia’s ambassador Churkin also walked out before Power was due to address the Council. When asked if the bombing could end the joint peace effort by Moscow and Washington, Churkin said it was “a very big question mark.”
“I would be very interested to see how Washington is going to react,” he told reporters. “If what Ambassador Power has done today is any indication of their possible reaction then we are in serious trouble.”
Syria accuses US of intentionally sinking truce
Syria’s UN ambassador Bashar Ja’afari said on Sunday that the US-led coalition air strikes were aimed to intentionally jeopardize the ceasefire deal.
Speaking on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Venezuela, Ja’afari said: “The aim of the aggression is to make the ceasefire between Russia and the United States fail.” He said that there was no way the air strikes could have happened because of a “technical error.”
Ja’afari said that the “violation” of Syrian sovereignty would be “very costly.”
Iran, which supports Bashar al-Assad’s government , also condemned US military action and suggested that the US is colluding with terrorist factions. “Such moves indicate America supports terrorist groups in Syria,” he said.
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French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault blamed the Assad regime for undermining the ceasefire truce and said the agreement must be salvaged “at all costs.”
“We must not forget that it is first of all the (Syrian) regime, and it is always the regime, which has jeopardized the US-Russian ceasefire,” Ayrault said on the sidelines of a ceremony in New York commemorating the September 11 attacks. World leaders “must latch on to this agreement and keep it alive at all costs,” he said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also slammed US representatives for “not only being unable to provide an adequate explanation of the events but also trying to flip the issue upside down, as usual.”
The also lamented Washington’s “persistent refusal” to coordinate with Russia when it comes to fighting terror groups in Syria.
Previously, the US Defense Department spokesman Peter Cook said the Pentagon had informed Moscow of its plans to operate in the area and that “no concerns were voiced.”
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The US relayed its “regret” to Syria through the Russian government, lamenting the unintentional loss of life, a senior White House official told the Reuters news agency. Australia, whose aircraft took part in the strike, also offered “condolences to the families of any Syrian personnel killed or wounded.”
Australia would “never intentionally target a known Syrian military unit or actively support Daesh [IS]” the military said in a statement.
Syria’s army labeled the strikes as “conclusive evidence” of US support for IS, calling them “dangerous and blatant aggression.”
Politicians in Athens have passed a crucial bill to send back refugees to Turkey. The bill clears the way for the implementation of an agreement with Ankara to end the uncontrolled influx of migrants into Europe.
“The law was adopted by a majority of 169 of the 276 MPs present,” Tassos Kourakis, who presided over the session, said on Friday.
The government said it would ensure that the rights of asylum-seekers would be protected under international law.
“A blame game against our country is starting, that based on the new agreement, we will encroach on human rights” Greece’s Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas told the parliament before the vote.
“I assure you – and I believe this will relieve everyone – that we will strictly adhere to human rights procedures as stipulated by international law and the Geneva Convention,” he added.
Greek lawmakers also did not explicitly call Turkey a “safe third country” in the new document.
Rights groups criticize deal
Both Greece and Turkey were required to tweak their laws before the EU-Ankara deal was implemented. The agreement intended to assist Greece, which has been coping with 52,000 refugees stranded in the country after the Balkan states closed their borders in February.
According to the deal, any refugees who reached Greece before March 20 and did not apply for asylum or failed to qualify would be sent back to Turkey. For every refugee sent back by Ankara to Syria , one would be resettled from Turkey to the EU, with the maximum limit set to 72,000.
The pact has been widely criticized by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and rights groups, who have denounced it for lacking safeguards.
“In their desperation to seal their borders, EU leaders have willfully ignored the simplest of facts: Turkey is not a safe country for Syrian refugees and is getting less safe by the day,” Amnesty’s John Dalhuisen told dpa news agency.
EU officials have meanwhile said they are raising the issue with Ankara and trying to improve the situation in Greek reception centers. “We are aware that there are tensions, that there are capacity problems – this is precisely why we are there in the process of helping the Greece authorities to manage the situation,” an EU spokeswoman told dpa news agency.
mg/tj (AFP, Reuters, dpa)
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Police have raided, closed and banned a Muslim association and mosque in Stuttgart for supporting the “Islamic State” militant group. Several people from the region frequented the center before leaving for Syria.
Authorities in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg raided and shut down a Muslim association and mosque said to have financially supported and recruited on behalf of the “Islamic State” militant group.
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“We do not tolerate associations that advocate the use of violence to promote religious concerns and collect donations for terrorist goups,” said Baden-Württemberg’s Interior Minister Reinhold Gall.
“The association supports, in the form of the so-called ‘Islamic State,’ an Islamist group that carries out religiously-motivated attacks against persons and property,” Gall said.
The Islamic Educational and Cultural Center Mesdschid Sahabe – located in the southwestern city of Stuttgart – was often frequented by Salafist preachers and Islamist fundamentalists from the West Balkans, the minister said.
“Through the association, donations have been collected for terrorist groups and fighters recruited for the Syrian conflict. In addition, the association and its members glorify jihad and religiously motivated terrorism,” the minister added.
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At least 10 out of the 50 foreign fighters to travel to Syria from Baden-Württemberg frequented the mosque. Three of them have died fighting in Syria.
The association has now been banned and its property confiscated by authorities. Police took computers, hard drives, smartphones and other materials from the mosque, although it was unclear whether any arrests resulted from the raid.
In March, police raided the same center to gather evidence implicating the association on terrorism charges.
German authorities increased their efforts against terrorism financing and support following deadly attacks in Paris – claimed by the “Islamic State” – that left at least 130 people dead.
On Tuesday, German police arrested Sven Lau – one of Germany’s most prominent Salafist preachers known as the leader of the so-called “Sharia Police” – on suspicion of supporting a terrorist organization in Syria.