Trump's "apocalyptic tweets" meet sober reports from the Mideast

The Independent (UK)
Trump's 'mission accomplished' tweet may come back to haunt him as another battle looms around Damascus
As Syrian troops move to another confrontation around the Syrian capital, what will the US president – and the British and French – do if more images of gassed civilians dying in agony appear?
Robert Fisk from Damascus
Syrian army troop reinforcements are moving up to more front lines in the suburbs of Damascus for another battle which could prove to be a carbon copy of the Douma siege.
Just as some fighters accepted Russian military mediation to leave Eastern Ghouta two weeks ago, while others stalled and held out to the end – when footage of gassed civilians went around the world and led to last week’s Anglo-American and French air strikes in Syria – Russian and Syrian government negotiations to end the battles for the Yarmouk Camp have largely succeeded.
But in an area on the edge of the old Palestinian camp district called al-Qadam, where civilians are still living, Isis and other jihadis are refusing to depart; so fresh Syrian troops and Palestinian militias from the ‘Al Quds’ Brigade are being sent to the suburb in preparation for a final battle if the talks drag on. Donald Trump’s triumphal claim at the weekend to have taught Syrian president Bashar al-Assad a lesson will look more than ironic if yet more images of choking civilians then appear on tape.
Explosions from the area were thundering across Damascus on Sunday when state radio reported that seven mortar shells fell onto government-held areas, killing one civilian and wounding nine others. But what makes this particular battleground so perilous is the anger caused by a massacre – one so dreadful that the Syrian authorities did not reveal it –  when 120 Syrian soldiers were executed during a truce agreement arranged with Isis-allied gunmen almost three weeks ago. The mass killings occurred on 27 March after 500 Syrian troops entered a ceasefire line at al-Qadam which they believed to be safe. Surrounded, many of the Syrians escaped, but 116 of them were captured.
The prisoners, both army intelligence officers and ordinary soldiers, were apparently led away to a street where all were systematically murdered, some of them shot, others beheaded. The slaughter was kept secret by state television and government newspapers because of the effect it might have on the families of the dead men. Poor but terrifying images I have watched – apparently of the massacre and briefly appearing on the Isis website Amaq – show a line of troops, most of them in battle uniform, some of them still wearing steel helmets, being led across waste ground to a street. As the killers – in black uniforms and holding Kalashnikov rifles – begin to shoot down the men, the soldiers can be heard shouting “No! No! No!” as bullets are fired into them. A pile of bodies can be seen behind them in other footage.
The Syrian Red Crescent later removed 96 of the corpses, but 30 of the dead men were unaccounted for. The story – similar to Isis killings in the Palmyra Roman theatre earlier in the war – has outraged the army and the individual families of those who were executed. I know of one man whose cousin, a soldier, was among the murdered men.
This is the area which may now be the site of the next battle for the Syrian suburbs. The Isis footage, whose date cannot be confirmed, does not contain the murder of civilians; the pictures are thus not as pitiful as the gas-choked women and children of Douma which caused such international outrage. But this is the area in which the next battle for Damascus may well be fought.
And it raises a horrible question. If the final al-Qadam ceasefire talks – in which the Russian army are deeply involved – fail, will the world see even more pictures of besieged civilian gas victims dying in agony? More to the point, what will Trump, Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron do then? Will further missile strikes have to be staged all over again?
It’s always dangerous to think a foreign nation can switch off its involvement in a war because it doesn’t wish to undertake further military operations. And it’s especially difficult when the conflict is a civil war. Western public opinion might tolerate one dangerous adventure – after not a single life was lost and individual targets were apparently hit with accuracy. But not another one.
The Syrian government insists that the rubble in Damascus was once a “centre of scientific research” with no connection to chemical weapons, although the very name has a rather Strangelove quality about it. And requests made by The Independent to visit the ruins of the building hit by missiles at Barzeh, less than two miles from the centre of the city, were officially declined on Sunday, although photographs of the building have been printed in the Damascus press. Thousands of Damascenes watched the missiles – and the Syrian anti-aircraft fire – flashing across the darkened sky of the city in the early hours of Saturday morning. The explosions lasted for around 12 minutes according to seven separate witnesses to whom I spoke. One said they counted 116 rockets.
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The Syrian military have focused on the abilities of their anti-aircraft missile crews, which are reported by both the Syrian and Russian governments to have brought down 71 missiles before they could hit their targets. The US denies such claims. The Syrian army have been collecting parts of the exploded US weapons, and little attempt is made to hide the fact that their details are being shared with their allies – obviously, Russia and Iran. They also claim unofficially that their own anti-aircraft fire prevented the Americans from shooting at another six targets which were not destroyed. This may be what one often refers to as a likely story. 


But the next battle is now beginning to dominate the thoughts of the military authorities in Damascus. The Yarmouk area and al-Qadam and the neighbouring Hajr el-Aswat have been the scene of fighting, with thousands of civilians under siege, for years – just as Eastern Ghouta, which contains Douma, was until the past two weeks. There are an estimated 2,000 fighters still under arms there, perhaps half of them Isis operatives. Two smaller Islamist groups have already agreed with the Russian army to be bussed out on the long trek to Idlib province, the dumping ground for most of the Syrian regime’s armed opponents and their families.

But if talks drag on – and Syrian and Russian leaders lose patience – then the prospect of another Douma in al-Qadam becomes more likely. At which point, Trump’s ‘mission accomplished’ could turn out to be as ironic as George W Bush’s identical and fatuous claim after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The Independent (UK)
The latest airstrikes in Syria were a geture of disapproval rather than a dent in Assad's military machine
In the event, the fears of a Russian-American clash and runaway confrontation leading to a third world war have turned out to be overblown
Patrick Cockburn
“Big noise on the stairs, but nobody comes into the room,” runs an old Chinese saying. This is an apt description of the very limited airstrikes on Syria launched by the US, Britain and France overnight, which came after apocalyptic tweets from President Trump and threats of military retaliation by Russian diplomats.
In the event, the fears of a “Russian-American clash” and runaway confrontation leading to a “third world war” have turned out to be overblown. They did not look quite so exaggerated earlier in the week when Trump tweeted about US missiles: “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart'.” 
The Russians hinted that their retaliation might include American targets.
Of all the options available, the US-led coalition chose the one involving minimal action and geared not to provoke Russia or Iran. This was a one-off attack on three suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities, one in Damascus and two west of Homs. It was more of a gesture of disapproval than an attempt to damage President Bashar al-Assad’s military machine. Hours after the missiles had struck, his supporters were understandably demonstrating their defiance in the centre of Damascus.
Trump, reportedly under pressure from his military chiefs, may have chosen the most cautious option, but in fact there were no good options. Assad has all but won the civil war. Even if it was possible to weaken him, this might present opportunities to Isis and al-Qaeda, which are battered but not entirely out of business. 
The attacks may or may not deter Assad from using poison gas in future, but they will not change the balance of power against him. Chemical weapons are only a small part of his arsenal and have played only a minor military role in the war. Out of the half million Syrians who have died in the conflict over the last seven years, just 1,900 are estimated to have been killed by chemical weapons. 
Yet the military balance of power really has changed in Syria over the last week, although the reason for this has largely passed unnoticed internationally because of the focus on the gas attack in Douma and its consequences. The big development is that Douma, the last armed opposition stronghold in Eastern Ghouta, surrendered to the Syrian armed forces on 8 April. The remaining Jaysh al-Islam fighters have been taken by bus to Turkish-held territory in northern Syria during the course of the week. This is Assad’s greatest victory of the war, surpassing in importance even the recapture of East Aleppo at the end of 2016. 
The Syrian army began its so-called Rif Dimashq offensive against the towns and villages of Eastern Ghouta on 20 February. For seven years, the survival of this opposition enclave in east Damascus had been a sign that Assad did not control all of his own country. There were rebels within mortar range of the heart of his own capital who regularly bombarded the Old City. In the past there were other such opposition enclaves, but they have fallen one by one. 
Eastern Ghouta had a population of 400,000 and was partly agricultural so could feed itself to some degree. It was at first blockaded rather than besieged, with supplies coming in through a vast tunnel network and permissive or corrupt government checkpoints.
But in the last year the government has closed entry and exit through its checkpoints and has blocked the tunnels. Inhabitants started to suffer from an acute shortage of food, fuel and medical supplies. The scarcity got worse when the government began its offensive in February. Much of the population took refuge in basements where they could only see in the dark by using small torches. Those who lived there complained of the lack of fresh water and food, the stench because of broken sewage pipes and the presence of venomous scorpions.
Possibly it was the Syrian government's frustration at the continued resistance of part of Jaysh al-Islam, the Saudi-backed jihadi movement in Douma, that led it to use chlorine gas. It had done so before without provoking an international reaction, but this time authentic-looking video was broadcast around the world showing dying children gasping for breath. The pictures provoked a wave of international fury which culminated in the US-led airstrikes on 14 April. 
If the Syrian government’s purpose in launching a chemical weapons attack was to force the final surrender of the Douma rebels, then it succeeded. Within hours of it happening, Russian military police moved into Douma to supervise the departure of rebel fighters and to suppress looting by government forces. On 12 April, the Syrian national flag was finally raised over a building in central Douma and the long siege was over
Al Jazeera
Stop the self-congratulation over Syria strikes: Marwan Bishara
Al Jazeera's senior political analyst says Western air strikes will not change the course of the Syrian war.
Just hours after the United States, France and the UK dropped more than 100 bombs against suspected chemical weapons facilities in Syria, US President Donald Trump declared victory.
He wrote "Mission Accomplished!" on Twitter, a phrase that brought immediate comparisons to President George W Bush's misplaced optimism following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
British and French officials also praised the operation, arguing Western intervention was needed to deter President Bashar al-Assad's government from using chemical weapons in the future.
Trump and European leaders had spoken of intervention earlier this week after a suspected chemical weapons attack in the former rebel stronghold of Douma last weekend, killed around 85 civilians.
But analysts question the reasons for these latest raids - which signalled that Western leaders would not let a chemical weapons attack go without punishment - but demurred about deeper involvement when barrel bombs are used.


And in a conflict where more than 465,000 people have been killed and over 12 million people - half the country's prewar population - have been displaced, what benefit would they bring?
Everyone needs to stop congratulating themselves over the air strikes in Syria, says Al Jazeera's Senior Political Analyst, Marwan Bishara.
"Everyone is celebrating and declaring victory which is bizarre since so many Syrians have suffered over the years, and the bombings have just taken place," he said.
"The Syrian regime is claiming victory, declaring a Morning of Steadfastness, while showing pictures of Assad supporters in the streets.
"You have the Iranians declaring victory over their non-changing situation, influence and presence in Syria.
"Then you have the Russians taking the high moral and legal ground against Western powers.
"Finally you have the Americans declaring 'Mission accomplished,' with the British and French saying they 'did what they had to do' without killing civilians.
"Bizarrely, everyone is declaring victory and no one seems to have learnt anything from this lesson and how to move forward."
'The strikes are limited in scope'
Bishara says the only way to stop the use of chemical weapons is by bringing an end to the war.
But in the run-up to military action against Assad's forces, the West was only focused on one thing: rolling back Iranian influence.
"There was a wish list put out by the Americans three months ago," Bishara said.
1. Free Syria from weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons.
2. Free Syria of ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS).
3. Free Syria from Iranian influence.
4. Free Syria from Bashar al-Assad.
5. Allow Syrian refugees to go back and rebuild their country.
"If you look at the list, two out of the five, getting rid of ISIL and chemical weapons are more or less accomplished, but the other three are more challenging.
"For the Americans, Saudis and Israelis, what's more important is getting rid of Iranian influence through the patronage of Russia.
"Ali Akbar Velayati, the top political adviser to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that if you bomb Syria, that does not change the situation on the ground.
"Iran, Bashar al-Assad and Russia will remain in control.
"The problem with [Saturday's] strike is that it's so limited in its scope that it consolidated the Assad regime and what is behind it - Tehran and Moscow."
The Guardian (UK)
Pressure grows on Russia to stop protecting Assad as US, UK and France press for inquiry into chemical weapons stockpiles
Patrick Wintour
Western powers are to attempt to inject diplomatic momentum behind the military strikes against Syrian government chemical weapon sites by calling for the UN to launch a broad investigation into Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
The aim is to show that the western military intervention is part of a wider political and diplomatic strategy to drive chemical weapons from Syria once and for all.
A draft resolution will call on the whole of the UN to try to reinvigorate the stalled peace talks, accept a ceasefire and restore humanitarian access to besieged areas.
The diplomatic initiative came as the US appeared to have decided to maintain a 2,000-strong US troop presence in Syria indefinitely.
The UN security council’s 15 members will meet on Monday to discuss the call for a wider push to eliminate the covert Syrian government stockpiles, placing pressure on Russia to stop protecting Bashar al-Assad’s regime from a UN inquiry into its use of chemical weapons.
The three allies, the US, UK and France, have produced a draft UN resolution that includes proposals for an independent investigation into alleged toxic gas attacks in Syria to identify perpetrators. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) would be instructed to report within 30 days whether Assad’s government had fully disclosed its chemical weapons stockpile.
The security council has been deadlocked since November over establishing an investigatory mechanism to identify responsibility for a chemical attacks, as opposed to determining whether an attack has occurred.
The draft resolution calls for medical evacuations and the safe passage for aid convoys to all areas of Syria. A ceasefire resolution that was adopted in February but never materialised should also be enforced, it adds.
The document “demands” that the Assad regime engage in peace talks “in good faith, constructively and without pre-conditions”.

The western initiative at the UN came as the US envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley, said US troops – numbering about 2,000 – would be staying in Syria until their mission was complete. Last month, Trump surprised his military by announcing they would be coming home soon.
Haley told Fox News the troops would stay until Islamic State was defeated, Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile could not be used to harm US interests, and until there was a good vantage point to watch what Iran was doing inside Syria. “We are not going to leave until we have accomplished those things,” she said.
She announced fresh US sanctions would be applied on Monday against companies linked to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.
She summed up the crisis by saying: “Assad knew that Russia had its back, Assad knew that Russia would cover for them at the United Nations, and Assad got reckless, and he used it in a way that was far more aggressive. We have to be conscious of the fact that we can’t allow even the smallest use of chemical weapons.” Haley has claimed Syria has used chemical weapons 50 times since the civil war started eight years ago.
On Sunday night French president Emmanuel Macron claimed credit for keeping the US engaged in Syria. He told French TV: “Ten days ago President Trump wanted the United States of America to withdraw from Syria. We convinced him to remain.”
Macron said France now wants to involve western powers, Russia and Turkey in a new diplomatic initiative to find a sustainable political solution for Syria.
France in particular wants to follow up the airstrikes with a fresh effort to examine whether Russia recognises that it must restrain the reckless methods of Assad’s regime. Syria’s air force was continuing to carry out air raids on Sunday using conventional weapons.
The OPCW is in Damascus to certify whether a chemical attack occurred on 7 April, which prompted Saturday’s airstrikes, but it has no wider terms of reference.
EU foreign minsters are expected to back the call at a meeting on Monday in Brussels. The proposal is also likely to be discussed at an Arab League summit hosted by Saudi Arabia.
The French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, called for urgent action to avoid a further humanitarian disaster by forestalling an expected Syrian assault on the last major opposition-held province of Idlib in north-eastern Syria. Le Drian called for the jihadist groups that dominate the area to be disarmed and for Russia to order Syria to hold back from further assaults. He said Russia “should join our efforts to promote a political process in Syria that would allow a way out of the crisis”.
The UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, said on Sunday it would be “an extra” if the airstrikes led to Russia putting pressure on Assad to negotiate, but he said the action had been designed to deter and degrade Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons rather than change the course of the civil war.

Russia and Syria both continued to denounce the air assault as an illegal act of aggression. But Russia has failed to lever any major European country into opposing the strikes; at an emergency security council meeting on Saturday, only three countries backed a Russian resolution denouncing the airstrikes as an illegal act of aggression.
Vladimir Putin said in a phone call with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani on Sunday: “If such actions, carried out in violation of the United Nations charter, are repeated, that would inevitably provoke chaos in international relations.”
The two leaders found “this illegal action seriously damaged the prospects of a political settlement in Syria,” the Kremlin said.
Haley told the security council on Saturday that US forces were “ready, locked and loaded” to mount further strikes if there were signs that Assad was planning to use chemical weapons again.
The narrowly targeted pre-dawn military operation on Saturday took aim at three alleged chemical weapons facilities. The allies believe they have a further set of targets established and a system of coordination in place that will prevent the delays in the assault that reduced the impact of Saturday morning’s strikes.