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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US & Saudi Arabia say it's necessary to maintain Syria whole & united – White House

The Syrian conflict must be solved through political means with the country’s unity and territorial integrity maintained, the US and Saudi Arabia has said in a joint statement released by the White House on Tuesday.

Washington and Riyadh “emphasized the importance of reaching a permanent solution to the conflict in Syria based on the Geneva declaration and Security Council resolution 2254, in order to maintain the unity and integrity of Syrian territory,” the statement read.

 
U.S. President Donald Trump, Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and arab leaders pose for a photo during Arab-Islamic-American Summit in Riyadh © Jonathan Ernst

The announcement, which summed up the discussions of US President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia last weekend, said that after the end of hostilities, Syria must become “a country that represents the entire spectrum of the Syrian community and free from sectarian discrimination.”

The Geneva II Communique (2014) and UNSC resolution 2254 (2015) envisages a roadmap for a political solution of the Syrian conflict, urging a ceasefire, transitional government and free elections in the country.

Saudi Arabia has also backed “President Trump’s decision to launch missiles at Shayrat Airbase” Tuesday's statement said further.

The US President ordered a barrage of Tomahawk missiles fired at Syria’s Shayrat airbase in response to an alleged chemical attack in the town of Khan Shaykhun in the country’s Idlib province on April 4. Washington immediately labeled Bashar Assad’s government as the perpetrators of the attack despite Russia calling for an impartial investigation and Syria denying the charge.

“The two sides emphasized the importance that the Syrian regime adhere to the 2013 agreement to eliminate its entire stockpile of chemical weapons,” the statement read.

During Trump’s visit to the Gulf kingdom, the US President and King Salman ”agreed to boost cooperation in order to to eliminate Daesh, al-Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations,” the statement also said.

“The two leaders also reaffirmed their commitment to curb the flow of foreign fighters and cutting off funding supplies for terrorist organizations.”

Saudi Arabia had previously been blamed for backing extremists in Syria, with Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails saying the Saudis are “providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups.”

READ MORE: Trump strikes arms deal with Saudis worth $350bn, $110bn to take effect immediately

The US has provided weapons to the so-called “moderate” rebels fighting the Syrian government with the arms often ending up in the hands of Islamic State or the al-Qaeda offshoot, Jabhat al-Nusra.

Washington and Riyadh also supported the Iraqi government’s efforts to tackle the Islamic State (IS, Daesh, formerly ISIS/ISIL) terrorist group while underlining the importance of “preserving the unity and integrity of Iraqi territory.”

Trump and the Saudi monarch then turned on Iran, saying they need to “contain Iran’s malign interference in the internal affairs of other states, instigation of sectarian strife, support of terrorism and armed proxies, and efforts to destabilize the countries in the region.”

READ MORE: US changes tactics against ISIS, working on plan with 'enthusiastic' Russians

They also said “the nuclear agreement with Iran (signed under the Obama administration) needs to be re-examined in some of its clauses,” the statement read.

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‘Arab NATO’ reserve force to fight terrorism is ‘myth & propaganda’

The Saudis and the Emiratis would never dare put their troops onto a battlefield in Syria or Iraq for fear the troops would mutiny and join ISIS, says Peter Ford, the former UK ambassador to Syria and Bahrain.

US President Donald Trump on Sunday addressed leaders of 55 Muslim-majority countries who gathered for the Arab-Islamic American Summit in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh.

& 55 Muslim-majority states sign pact pledging 34,000 troops to fight in Iraq & Syria

Washington and Middle East countries signed a new pact that promises to provide extra troops to fight terrorists. The so-called Riyadh declaration says leaders of those Islamic countries are ready to provide a reserve force of 34,000 troops when needed.

RT asked analysts where this "reserve force" of 34,000 troops will be used?

Peter Ford said he thinks “it’s a myth.” In his opinion, the Saudis and Emiratis “cannot count on the loyalty of their own troops.”

Saudi Night Fever: Trump steps out with traditional Arabian sword dance

“It is a symbolic gesture so Trump can look good in the eyes of the American and the wider Western media. Let’s be realistic here: this whole visit was not about advancing the fight against terrorism, or advancing Middle East peace – it was about Trump trying to recover some prestige after his battering back home in Washington. So these symbolic gestures and these pictures of him doing Saudi dancing in Riyadh,” Ford said.

This entire Saudi trip “was designed to restore Trump’s image,” the former ambassador added. “If he were serious, then in his big speech yesterday we would have heard some acknowledgment of the two countries, which are doing most to resist ISIS. That is the government of Iraq and the government of Syria. But Trump did not make any acknowledgment whatsoever of these countries, and he also tried to portray Iran, as the biggest threat in terms of terrorism, while this is a blatant distortion that has not been one single instance that Trump could point to of Iranian-inspired terrorism in the West,” he said.

Independent journalists Rania Khalek said it was specifically said this “reserve force” would be used in Iraq and Syria. She says it is interesting because many of the countries at the gathering on Sunday, “especially Saudi Arabia, have been investing a lot of money in extremist groups operating in Iraq and Syria.”

So, she added, “they are actually responsible for the extremism problem that they are now being tasked with combating.”

Khalek also did not rule out a possibility that this force could be the basis for some kind of an action against Iran, which was not only excluded but also repeatedly bashed at this summit.

“This entire summit was based on not just selling weapons, but on also isolating Iran. When you have a summit based on American-Arab-Islamic understanding, and you exclude Iran, which is a state that’s majority Shia. And you have an audience full of the Sunni leaders from Arab countries, it sends a message. So it is about isolating Iran, as well as it has been sending a message to Iran that 'we’re all against you',” she told RT.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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Trump & 55 Muslim-majority states sign pact pledging 34,000 troops to fight ISIS in Iraq & Syria

The US and Middle Eastern countries have backed a new pact that promises to provide extra troops for defeating Islamic State, singles out Iran for destabilizing the region, and says that Riyadh is to become the heart of the region’s counter-terrorism operations.

Described as the Riyadh Declaration, the document was signed following US President Donald Trump’s visit to the Saudi capital for a summit that brought in Islamic representatives from 55 countries, and vowed “to combat terrorism in all its forms, address its intellectual roots, dry up its sources of funding and to take all necessary measures to prevent and combat terrorist crimes in close cooperation among their states.”

 
U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) May 21, 2017. © Jonathan Ernst

“The leaders welcomed the establishment of a global center for countering extremist thought to take base in Riyadh, and praised the center's strategic objectives of combating intellectual, media and digital extremism and promoting coexistence and tolerance among peoples,” said the text of the document, published by the Saudi Press Agency.

The exact membership of what the communique called the Middle East Strategic Alliance will be decided next year, but putative members have committed to assembling “a reserve force of 34,000 troops to support operations against terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria when needed.”

Currently the burden of anti-IS combat in both states is being shouldered mostly by local troops and Kurdish forces, with the international coalition providing air support, equipment and funding.

Despite a stated desire for inclusivity and tolerance – the declaration advocates “a rejection of any attempt to draw a link between terrorism and any religion, culture or race, affirming their determination to protect and promote a culture of tolerance, coexistence and constructive cooperation among different countries, religions and cultures” – an entire third of the resolution was aimed specifically against Iran, a Shia-majority state, and its “sectarian agendas.”

READ MORE: ‘Encouraging’: Ivanka & Melania Trump praise Saudi Arabia’s progress on women’s rights

“The leaders confirmed their absolute rejection of the practices of the Iranian regime designed to destabilize the security and stability of the region and the world at large and for its continuing support for terrorism and extremism,” said the final communique, which also accused the Islamic Republic of running a “dangerous ballistic missiles program” and “continuing interference in the domestic affairs of other countries.”

While rich in specific epithets, the declaration broadly followed the agenda of Sunday’s Sunni-dominated Riyadh summit, and the speech delivered by Trump, which mentioned Iran a dozen times, and accused it of “spreading destruction and chaos across the region.”

‘Drive them out’

Trump’s speech called on the leaders of the Muslim world to join their efforts in fighting terrorism and extremist ideologies, and pledged unconditional support to the US’s old and new allies in the region.

“Our goal is a coalition of nations who share the aim of stamping out extremism and providing our children a hopeful future that does honor to God,” Trump said.

“This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it. This is a battle between good and evil,” Trump adding, stressing that the Muslim countries should take an active role in this battle and make a choice that no one else can make for them.

“A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists… Drive them out of your places of worship. Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your holy land, and drive them out of this Earth,” Trump said.

Israeli ministers concerned over ‘troubling’ US arms deal with ‘hostile’ Saudi Arabia

 
© Global Look Press

He then announced establishment of several international anti-terrorism centers, including two Riyadh-based groups joined by Gulf Cooperation Council members and co-chaired by the US that will be tasked with preventing the financing of terrorism.

Trump then went on to accuse Iran of providing terrorists with “safe harbor, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment” as well as of being “responsible for so much instability in the [Middle East].”

He blamed Tehran for aggravating the Syrian crisis through what he called a “destabilizing intervention,” before calling on “all nations of conscience” to “work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism.”

Trump separately thanked King Salman, the leader of the Saudi Arabia, for his “massive investment in America, its industry and its jobs” as well as for “for investing in the future” of the Middle East, as he spoke about a recent arms deal signed by the US and Saudi Arabia, which is worth $350 billion over 10 years, with nearly $110 billion to take effect immediately.

READ MORE: Trump strikes arms deal with Saudis worth $350bn, $110bn to take effect immediately

While news agencies of the Gulf States presented the news on the signing of the alliance as a milestone event, critics were not impressed with the facade, saying it all boiled down to pragmatic interests, notably those of the US military-industrial complex.

Trump’s speech was “all about defense procurement,” Martin Jay, a Beirut-based journalist and a Middle East expert, told RT, adding that Trump basically told all the Muslim leaders who attended the summit that the US would support them as long as they bought US weapons.

READ MORE: America’s cash cow: ‘Trump does not value the Saudis, only their money’

“What [Trump] was basically saying to all of these [leaders], some of whom had poor human rights records in their own countries, is that the [US] does not care about their human rights records and does not care about what they do to their own people and would even help them stay in power… if they buy American guns,” Jay said. 

Tehran’s initial reaction to the Riyadh declaration and Trump’s speech was sarcastic, with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeting: “Iran – fresh from real elections – attacked by @POTUS in that bastion of democracy & moderation.”

Zarif then wondered if the anti-Iran text could be explained by: “Foreign Policy or simply milking KSA of $480[billion]?”

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Lavrov to meet Trump in Washington, Kremlin confirms

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will meet with Donald Trump in Washington during his two-day trip to the US, the Kremlin confirmed on Wednesday. The minister is currently holding talks with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

 
© Sputnik

Lavrov will discuss cooperation between the two countries in combating terrorism, as well as the issues touched on by President Vladimir Putin and Trump during their recent telephone conversation, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday.

The closed door meeting will take place at 10:30am in the Oval Office, according to the White House. Lavrov arrived in the US late Tuesday on a two-day working visit which include talks with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Lavrov and Tillerson shook hands in front of reporters before the start of their meeting.

“I want to welcome Foreign Minister Lavrov to the State Department and express my appreciation for him making the trip to Washington so we could continue our dialogue and our exchange of views that began in Moscow on a very broad range of topics,” Tillerson said.

One reporter asked the Russian foreign minister to comment on the firing of FBI Director James Comey.

“Was he fired? You’re kidding!” Lavrov said, leaving the room.

@RT_com 'Was he fired? You're kidding! You're kidding!': Lavrov is asked if Comey's firing casts a shadow over his visit https://on.rt.com/8b8i

The encounter will be one of the highest-level contacts between Trump and the Russian government since the Republican took office in January. Earlier, a senior US official speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that the agenda of the Trump-Lavrov meeting would entail Syria as well as US-Russian relations and other global issues.

Tillerson visited Russia on April 12 and held talks with both Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin, with Trump saying the Secretary of State had done “tremendous work” in Moscow.

In late April, Putin noted that Trump had so far failed to make good on his campaign promises to seek better relations with Russia, adding that the level of trust between Moscow and Washington has even “degraded” since Obama left office.

READ MORE: Lavrov to meet Tillerson in Washington DC to talk Syria & Ukraine on May 10

However, last week, Trump and Putin spoke by phone where among other things they discussed the ongoing Syrian conflict.

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US-led coalition warplanes banned from Syria safe zones – Russian envoy

The four safe zones to be established in Syria will be closed for flights by US-led coalition warplanes, said the Russian envoy to the Astana peace talks, where the zones were agreed upon.

“As for [the coalition] actions in the de-escalation zones, starting from now those zones are closed for their flights,” Aleksandr Levrentyev told journalists in the Kazakh capital.

He added that the flight ban was not part of the memorandum establishing the safe zones, but assured the coalition would not fly over them.

“As guarantors we will be tracking all actions in that direction,” he remarked. “Absolutely no flights, especially by the international coalition, are allowed. With or without prior notification. The issue is closed.”

He added that the US-led coalition would continue airstrikes near Raqqa, the Syrian stronghold of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), near some towns near the Euphrates River and close to the city of Deir ez-Zor.

The Russian Foreign Ministry was less definitive on the alleged ban of US warplanes, stating that “these issues are being discussed at the military level.”

On Thursday, a memorandum was signed in Astana establishing four “safe zones” in Syria, where so-called “moderate opposition” fighters are expected to stay safe from airstrikes and keep jihadist groups out. The zones are set in provinces of Idlib, Latakia and Homs, as well as parts of Aleppo.

Russia, Iran and Turkey serve as guarantors of the arrangement, which carries hopes of deescalating violence in the war-torn country.

READ MORE: UN chief welcomes Syria de-escalation zones brokered by Russia, Turkey & Iran

The move was cheered by the United Nations and welcomed with reservations by Washington.

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