Moscow slams ‘illegal’ US presence in Syria as Pentagon reserves right for ‘defensive’ attacks

Russia has reminded the US that its presence in Syria is illegal after the coalition struck pro-government militias. Washington however reserved the right for “defensive” attacks to achieve peace “from a position of strength.”

The US presence in Syria is “actually illegal,” the Russian Ambassador to the UN reminded his Western counterparts on Thursday at a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council. “Nobody invited them there,” Vasily Nebenzya stated, emphasizing that a hard fought for stability in Syria is being jeopardized by US actions.

On Wednesday, the US-led coalition said it carried out several “defensive” airstrikes on Syrian forces in Deir Ez-Zor province in retaliation for what they described as an “unprovoked” attack on the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and foreign military “advisers.”

 
FILE PHOTO. Oil well on the outskirts of the city of Deir ez-Zor. © Mikhail Voskresenskiy

According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the Syrian militia unit was advancing against a “sleeper cell” of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) terrorists near the former oil processing plant of al-Isba, when it suddenly came under massive air strikes. At least 25 militiamen were injured in the attack, the Russian MoD noted, clarifying that pro-government troops targeted by the coalition did not coordinate their operation with the Russian command.

The US, however, maintains that the militia attacked the SDF. The Pentagon said Syrian forces moved “in a battalion-sized unit formation, supported by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars.” The battle which lasted over three hours, the US claims, began after 30 artillery tank rounds landed within 500 meters of the SDF unit’s location.

“At the start of the unprovoked attack on Syrian Democratic Forces and coalition advisers, coalition aircraft, including F-22A Raptors and MQ-9B Reapers, were overhead providing protective overwatch, defensive counter air and [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] support as they have 24/7 throughout the fight to defeat ISIS,” Air Forces Central Command spokesman Lt. Col. Damien Pickart told Military.com.

“Following a call for support from Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, a variety of joint aircraft and ground-based artillery responded in defense of our SDF partners, including F-15E Strike Eagles,” he said in a statement Thursday. “These aircraft released multiple precision-fire munitions and conducted strafing runs against the advancing aggressor force, stopping their advance and destroying multiple artillery pieces and tanks.”

@RT_com 'Actions of the US coalition do not comply with legal norms. Beyond all doubt, it is aggression' https://on.rt.com/8yo4

Damascus called the attack a “war crime,” while the Russian military asserted that Washington’s true goal is to capture “economic assets” in Syria. The Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova affirmed that the US military presence in Syria poses a dangerous threat to the political process and territorial integrity of the country, while Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the strike another violation of Syria’s sovereignty by the US.

The US, however, remained unmoved, promising to continue to support the US-allied forces in Syria at any cost. “We continue to support SDF with respect to defeating ISIS... ISIS is still there, and our mission is still to defeat ISIS,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said Thursday. “We will continue to support them. Our goal is to ensure that our diplomats can negotiate from a position of strength, with respect to the Geneva process.”

@RT_com 'What right does the US have to defend illegal formations in Syria?' - former US diplomat @JimJatras https://on.rt.com/8yow

“They [US] constantly assert that they are fighting international terrorism there, but we see that they go beyond this framework,” Nebenzya told the UNSC. He warned the US-led coalition members that it is “criminal” to engage the only forces “who actually fight” international terrorism in Syria.

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‘US Stinger or Soviet Strela’: Heat-seeking missile that downed Su-25 jet probed by Moscow

A Russian Su-25 warplane was likely shot down by a heat-seeking missile, senior official Vladimir Shamanov said. As Syrian forces try to reach the crash site, Moscow has launched a probe into the origins of the fatal weapon.

The existing evidence clearly indicates that the Russian Su-25 plane, shot down over Syria on Saturday, was hit by a heat-seeking missile, the head of the Russian lower house Defense Committee and former chief of airborne troops said. The exact type of man-portable air-defense (MANPAD) system used, however, could be only determined upon examining the remains of the plane, which crashed in a militant-controlled area.

 

A still from a video uploaded to the YouTube channel

“It’s impossible to determine which MANPAD it was until the crash site is secured – an old ‘Strela’, a newer ‘Igla’, or an American ‘Stinger’,” Shamanov told reporters on Monday. “It’s only clear, looking at the trajectory of the plane’s fall, that its right engine was burning. It means that a heat-seeking missile hit the engine.”

The Syrian military has been trying to reach the crash site, according to Shamanov.

“Syrian special forces are trying to get there for the third day straight. Regular Syrian troops are also conducting their operation in the area,” the official said. Russia, meanwhile, has launched its own investigation into the incident.

The Su-25 was downed over a territory in Syria’s Idlib governorate, controlled by the terrorist group Tahrir al-Sham, previously known as Al-Nusra Front, according to Russia’s Defense Ministry. The pilot, Major Roman Filipov, managed to eject safely, but landed in the terrorist-controlled territory. The pilot engaged in a gun battle with the militants and detonated a grenade when surrounded.

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US anti-ISIS Coalition Claims to Have Killed 800 Civilians

The coalition, which has been operating in Syria in breach of international law, has claimed responsibility for around 800 civilian deaths.

The U.S.-led international anti-Islamic State coalition acknowledged that its attacks in Syria and Iraq against the so-called Islamic State group have killed 801 civilians since 2014.

ANALYSIS: Raqqa Offensive Highlights US Human Rights Hypocrisy

A coalition report found that at least 801 civilians were killed inadvertently during operations in the two countries. The coalition is allegedly investigating the deaths of 695 more civilians.

The U.S.-led coalition includes more than 70 members and has been operating against the Islamic State group since 2014 without the approval of the Syrian government.

Along with this, the coalition operates a military base in the Syrian city of al-Tanf near the Jordanian border to “fight the terrorists.” The coalition also holds positions in Iraq to assists in operations in the country, which borders Syria.

On November 19, the United Nations (UN) coordinator for Syrian humanitarian affairs, Ali al-Zaatari, asked the participants in the conflict to stop bombings in residential areas where civilians have seen massive casualties.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has loosened the rules of engagement, making bombings less discriminate in both Iraq and Syria, with many blaming his administration for a spike in civilian casualties, particularly in Raqqa and Mosul.

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No more ‘fighting ISIS?’ US to stay in Syria to prevent ‘win’ for Assad and Iran – report

The US plans to keep its troops in Syria long after the defeat of ISIS – the goal used to justify their illegal presence in the first place – because the Syrian government and its ally Iran would “win” if they were withdrawn, the Washington Post reported.

The Trump administration is “expanding its goals” in Syria to include a “potentially open-ended commitment” to support the Kurd-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the newspaper reported on Wednesday, citing several anonymous US officials. The change comes as the defeat of the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) terrorist group in Syria seems imminent.

 
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis © Aaron P. Bernstein 

Washington has been justifying its deployment of ground troops in Syria, which violates the embattled nation’s sovereignty, by citing the need to fight IS. US Defense Secretary James Mattis last week went so far as to erroneously claim that the US had been given a mandate to be in Syria, stating: “You know, the UN said that … basically we can go after ISIS. And we're there to take them out.”

While Washington has a history of skipping UN approval for its military interventions, be it in Syria or in other sovereign states, it appears that the semblance of legitimacy for keeping hundreds of troops in Syria is about to be dispelled. WaPo sources say that Washington actually sees its boots on the ground as a source of leverage in dealing with the government of President Bashar Assad and his allies.

“An abrupt US withdrawal could complete Assad’s sweep of Syrian territory and help guarantee his political survival – an outcome that would constitute a win for Iran, his close ally. To avoid that outcome, US officials say they plan to maintain a US troop presence in northern Syria… and establish new local governance, apart from the Assad government, in those areas,” the newspaper said.

If true, it means Washington will be actively promoting Kurdish separatism to spite Damascus and Tehran, while paying lip service to preserving Syria’s territorial integrity.

“The conditions are there for the counter-ISIS campaign to morph into a counter-Iran campaign,” Nicholas Heras of the Washington-based Center for a New American Security told WaPo. “By placing no timeline on the end of the US mission… the Pentagon is creating a framework for keeping the US engaged in Syria for years to come.”

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US-led coalition violated intl law in Syria by failing to protect civilians – UN report

The UN Syria Commission released a report saying it is “gravely concerned” about the impact of international airstrikes in the war-torn country, adding that US-led forces failed to take proper precautions to protect civilians during an attack in Aleppo.

 
© RT

“The Commission is gravely concerned about the impact of international coalition airstrikes on civilians,” the report states.

It goes on to cite the March 2017 incident in Al-Jinah, Aleppo, in which “forces of the United States of America failed to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians and civilian objects when attacking a mosque, in violation of international humanitarian law.”

It also mentions the situation in Raqqa, in which the “ongoing Syrian Democratic Forces and international coalition offensive to repel [Islamic State or IS, formerly ISIS] has displaced over 190,000 persons, and coalition airstrikes have reportedly resulted in significant numbers of civilians killed and injured.” It added that investigations are ongoing.

Raqqa, the last stronghold of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), is under “intense artillery shelling” and “limited airstrikes by the coalition forces,” Amnesty International stated last month.

Some 20,000 civilians are currently trapped in Raqqa, unable to escape from the terrorist stronghold, according to the UN, which urged the US-led coalition last month to stop the bombings to allow people to safely leave the city.

READ MORE: ‘Worst place on earth’: UN urges US-led coalition to pause airstrikes to spare Raqqa civilians

The trapped civilians have virtually no access to basic services, including safe water and food, and are surviving on food they stored up earlier, David Swanson, public information officer from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told RT.

The US-led coalition began an offensive in Raqqa in June, aiming to recapture the city. Hundreds of civilians have been killed and injured since that offensive began, according to Amnesty.

The UN Syria Commission's Wednesday document also suggests that Syrian government forces were responsible for a chemical attack that took place in April.

 
ARCHIVE: Russian military inspect suspected chemical weapons workshop in Aleppo © Ruptly

“All evidence available leads the Commission to conclude that there are reasonable grounds to believe Syrian forces dropped an aerial bomb dispersing sarin in Khan Shaykhun at around 6:45am on 4 April,” it states, adding that such attacks constitute war crimes.

However, the Russian Defense Ministry reported at the time that the chemicals were a result of the Syrian air force destroying a warehouse where chemical weapons were being produced and stockpiled before being shipped to Iraq.

The warehouse was used to both produce and store shells containing toxic gas, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov said at the time.

Colonel General Sergey Rudskoy, the chief of the Russian General Staff’s Operations Department demanded a “thorough investigation” of the Khan Sheikhoun incident in April, noting that US and Western claims accusing the Syrian government of being behind the chemical attack were “highly questionable.”

READ MORE: Syrian govt has no chemical weapons, ‘absolutely no need to use it’ – Russian MoD

He added that Russia was ready to provide experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) with access to the Syrian Army airbase from which the attack was allegedly launched.

“The experts are aware that it is impossible to conceal the traces of the chemical weapons,” he said, adding that the Syrian government was also ready to grant access to the base to experts.

However, no such expert investigation has taken place at the site.

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Moscow warns Washington against ‘incendiary, provocative action’ in Syria

Moscow has warned the US against taking unilateral action in Syria, as there is no threat from the Syrian military, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said. The statement comes after the US accused Syria of preparing for a chemical attack, without giving any evidence.

Asked if Russia had warned the US administration against any unilateral action in Syria, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, replied that Russian officials have “always spoken about that, including in relation to their [US] latest strikes on Syrian armed forces.”

“We believe that it’s unacceptable and breaches Syria’s sovereignty, isn’t caused by any military need, and there is no threat to the US specialists from the Syrian Army. So it’s incendiary, provocative action,” Gatilov said, as cited by RIA Novosti.

 

US Defense Secretary James Mattis © Aaron P. Bernstein

On Monday evening, the White House claimed that Syrian President Bashar Assad was preparing a chemical attack and warned that the Syrian government would “pay a heavy price” if the attack was carried out, as cited by AP.

Hours later, the Pentagon said it had detected activity by the Syrian authorities in preparation for the attack. Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis said that the US had seen “activity” at Shayrat airfield that showed “active preparations for chemical weapons use.”

The US government failed to provide any further details or proof of such claims, while the State Department’s spokesperson, Heather Nauert, said it was “an intelligence matter.”

When confronted by a journalist that Washington uses the phrase to justify anything that suits it, Nauert answered: “I’m not going to get into that one with you, but this is a very serious and great matter.”

On Wednesday, though, the US suggested that the Syrian leadership had swiftly changed its mind about planning an alleged attack. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, as cited by Reuters, said: “it appears that they [Syria’s authorities] took the warning seriously. They didn’t do it.”

The Syrian government, as well as Russian authorities, have denied any allegations against them, with Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying that "such threats to Syria's legitimate leaders are unacceptable."

In the latest statement, Deputy Foreign Minister Gatilov said that Russia doesn’t rule out that “there may be provocations” following the announcement from Washington.

 

 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson © Sergey Guneev

The statements by the US administration complicate the [peace] negotiations in Astana and Geneva, and Moscow believes such attempts to boost the tensions around Syria are unacceptable.

"The statements on Syrian armed forces getting ready to use chemical weapons is complete nonsense… These assumptions aren’t based on anything, no one provides any facts," the Russian diplomat said.

"If the aim is to ramp up the spiral of tension, we think it’s unacceptable. It complicates the process of negotiations undertaken in Astana and Geneva," Gatilov underlined.

“We’ve seen this in the past. Of course there are many ill-wishers, who want to undermine the process [of negotiations]. So any provocations are possible,” the deputy foreign minister added.

Earlier, Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued another official statement, saying: “We consider all these insinuations about chemical weapons which are being carried out in the worst traditions of the 2003 NATO intervention in Iraq as an ‘invitation’ for terrorists, extremists, and the armed opposition in Syria to carry out another large-scale provocation, which will result in the ‘unavoidable punishment’ of President Assad, according to Washington’s plans.”

In April, US President Donald Trump launched an attack on Syria with 59 Tomahawk missiles, which targeted Shayrat Airbase near the city of Homs. The strike was in response to what the US claimed was a chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun, orchestrated by Syria’s government – something Damascus repeatedly denied.

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Time to assassinate Syrian President Assad & get to his allies in Iran – Israeli minister

An Israeli minister has bluntly called for Syrian leader Bashar Assad to be assassinated after unsourced media reports claimed Damascus was using a “crematorium” to cover-up mass killings. He said the “serpent’s head” in Tehran should be dealt with next.

“The reality whereby Syria executes people, intentionally uses chemical weapons to hurt them and, now, in the most recent move of extremism, is burning their bodies – this has not been seen in the world in 70 years,” said Israeli Housing Minister Yoav Galant, as cited by Haaretz. 

 
© Kacper Pempel

“We are crossing a red line and, in my view, the time has come to assassinate Assad,” he continued.

“And when we finish with the tail of the serpent, we will reach the head of the serpent, which can be found in Tehran, and we will deal with it, too,” he said.

What appears to be the first recorded Israeli threat to assassinate Syrian President Bashar Assad came after the US Department of State alleged, without presenting any hard evidence, that the Syrian government is using “a crematorium” outside Damascus to burn the bodies of people killed by the government.

Earlier on Tuesday, Galant told Israeli Army Radio that Assad’s rule has been the worst since Nazi Germany. “What is happening in Syria is defined as genocide, under all its classifications,” he said on Army Radio, according to Jerusalem Post.

Galant, a retired IDF general, added that Israel wants to see Assad and his Alawite government ousted from power and replaced by a “moderate Sunni ruler.”

READ MORE: More Arabs view Israel positively than Jews, poll reveals

Some previous attempts to compare Assad’s government to the Nazi regime have been met with public outcry. White House spokesman Sean Spicer, who claimed that Hitler’s death squads hadn’t used chemical agents during the Holocaust “in the way that Assad used them” sparked outrage in the US and beyond.

Certain journalists have used the Assad-Hitler comparison when covering claims that Syrian forces have used chemical weapons, but those remarks were dismissed by the public.

Assad, a UK-educated doctor, has been in power since the 1999 passing of his father, Syria’s long-time president, Hafez Assad. Syria is one of the few Arab countries where the president is elected through a nationwide vote.

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At least 35 civilians killed in US-led coalition airstrikes in Syria – state media

At least 35 civilians were killed by US-led airstrikes in Syria on Thursday evening, according to state media. The UN’s human rights chief has called on all sides to take greater care to protect civilian lives in the war-torn country.

The airstrikes in Deir-ez-Zor province hit the market in the city of Mayadeen, as well as a four-story building that was completely destroyed, Sana news agency reported

According to the news agency, at least 35 civilians were killed, most of whom were women and children. Injuries have also been reported.

 
© Rodi Said

However, a spokesman for the US-led coalition denied that its forces had conducted airstrikes near Mayadeen on Thursday and Friday, while telling Reuters that they are in the process of assessing the results.

Meanwhile, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights has called on all forces operating in Syria to be more careful to correctly distinguish between legitimate military targets and civilians when conducting airstrikes against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL).

“The rising toll of civilian deaths and injuries already caused by airstrikes in Deir-ez-Zor and Al-Raqqa suggests that insufficient precautions may have been taken in the attacks,” Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said in a Friday statement, as quoted by Reuters.

Hussein was referring to airstrikes carried out in mid-May that he said killed nearly two dozen farmworkers – most women – in a village in eastern Raqqa, as well as at least 59 civilians in residential areas of Deir al-Zor.

The UN human rights chief went on to describe some of the atrocities committed by IS in the region, noting that “scant attention is being paid by the outside world to the appalling predicament of the civilians trapped in these areas.”

 
US Defense Secretary James Mattis (L) and Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford © Yuri Gripas

Hussein’s comments came just one day after a Pentagon investigation admitted that more than 100 civilians had been killed in a US airstrike in Iraq in March, but largely placed the blame on IS. 

According to the probe, the airstrike on a building in Mosul’s al-Jadida neighborhood triggered secondary explosions from devices planted by IS fighters.

The investigation also states that the episode began when two IS snipers began firing at troops from Iraq’s Counterterrorism Service, prompting the US-led coalition to respond with the airstrike.

The US-led coalition has increased the number of bombs dropped on IS by about 50 percent this year, according to statistics from the US Air Forces Central Command.

The figures show that a total of 14,192 rockets, bombs, and other munitions were dropped in the first four months of 2017, up from 9,442 during the same period in 2016.

The increased number of airstrikes “can be attributed to the increased pace of operations in both Iraq and Syria as we target and destroy ISIS,” Lieutenant Colonel Damien Pickart, a spokesman for Air Force Central Command said on Tuesday, as quoted by USA Today.

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