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 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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Alien life? Bacteria ‘that had not been there’ found on ISS hull, Russian cosmonaut says

Living bacteria were found on the surface of the International Space Station (ISS), and they might have extraterrestrial origins, Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov said. The microorganisms will be studied further on Earth.

Shkaplerov, an ISS expedition flight engineer who will take his third trip to the ISS in December as part of the Expedition 54 crew, said that scientists found living bacteria while they were taking samples from the surface of the station. Speaking to TASS, he said that the microorganisms might have come from outer space.

“Bacteria that had not been there during the launch of the ISS module were found on the swabs,” Shkaplerov said. “So they have flew from somewhere in space and settled on the outside hull.” The cosmonaut added that the samples are currently being studied and seem to be safe.

 
© NASA

Shkaplerov said that some microorganisms from Earth also survived in a vacuum and differences in temperature from -150C to 150C.

These bacteria accidentally entered outer space during the ‘Test’ and ‘Biorisk’ experiments, in which special pads are installed on the ISS hull and left there for several years to determine how the material is affected by the conditions in space. 

However, traces of bacteria originating on Earth – from Madagascar – and plankton from the Barents Sea were earlier found during a ‘Test’ experiment in May. Scientists explained that they got there due to the ionosphere lift phenomenon, in which substances from our planet’s surface rise to the upper atmospheric layer. Following the discovery, Russian space agency Roscosmos along with other scientists suggested raising the upper border of the biosphere to 400 kilometers from the current altitude of 20 kilometers.

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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Iraqi militias spill blood for their country while US is playing its own game – FM

Iraqi militias have made huge sacrifices for their country and has become a legitimate force on the ground, Iraq’s FM told RT, describing as hypocritical the US demand for Iranian-backed militiamen to “go home.”

The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU/PMF) militias are sons of Iraq, whose sacrifices in the war against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) terrorists are immeasurable, and they deserve the “highest merits,” Ibrahim al-Jaafari told RT in an exclusive interview.
 
“Al-Hasd Al-Shaabi [the Arabic name for the PMU] fighters suffered huge losses, shed their precious blood for the sake of saving the Fatherland,” the official said.
 
“These fighters voluntarily went to other parts of Iraq and have been dying there. For what? What did they want to get there? They deserve the highest merits. These formations have the constitutional status and the real military presence on the ground.”
 
Recent demands by the US urging the “Iranian militias” to “go home” are a glaring example of US hypocrisy, al-Jaafari stated.
 
“The US is playing its own game, by own rules and relying on certain factions. Iraq, though, operates in its own territory within its own powers, relying on support of it sons, its political parties and movements, on support of those who sacrifice themselves for the good of their country,” the minister told RT.
 
The demands were voiced by US State Secretary Rex Tillerson last Sunday at a joint news conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir in Riyadh following a meeting with senior Saudi and Iraqi officials.
 
“Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against… ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home,” Tillerson said, referring to the PMU units, some of whom, to a certain extent, are backed by Tehran. “The foreign fighters in Iraq need to go home and allow the Iraqi people to regain control.
 
Tillerson’s demand was met by a firm rejection from Baghdad, which condemned Washington’s interference into internal affairs of their country.
 
“No party has the right to interfere in Iraqi matters,” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s said Monday, according to a Facebook statement issued by his office.
 
Tens of thousands of Iraqis joined militia units in 2014 after Iraqi Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for a national uprising against IS terrorists by issuing a non-sectarian fatwa. Though there are no official statistics, PMU units numbered up to 100,000 fighters, according to some estimates. Iran has been funding and training some of the PMU units which fought alongside the Iraqi Army in the battle of Mosul and other northern Iraqi cities.
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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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Cuban President Raul Castro Sends Message of Condolences to the King of Spain and Relatives of Victims of the Terrorist Attacks in Barcelona

The Cuban Embassy in Spain reported that president Raul Castro sent a message of condolences to King Philippe VI as well as to the relatives of the victims of the terrorist attacks in Barcelona. Such attacks left a total of 13 deaths and dozens of wounded citizens, with five Cubans among them.

Cuban ambassador in Madrid, Eugenio Martinez, also expressed his condolences before the authorities of the country.

The Embassy and its Consulate in Barcelona have been in touch with the relatives of the four Cuban injured in the terrorist attacks. A fifth Cuban was partially wounded in the Cambrils event and was immediately discharged, according to the website Cubadebate.

Translated by Sergio A. Paneque Diaz // CubaSi Translation Staff

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Up to 20,000 Mosul civilians facing ‘extreme danger’ as battle against ISIS continues – UN official

As many as 20,000 civilians are still trapped in the last remaining area of Mosul held by Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) militants, a senior UN official has confirmed, adding that they are in "extreme danger."

"Our estimate at this stage is that in the final pockets of the Old City, there could be as many as 15,000 civilians, possibly even as high as 20,000," the UN's humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Lise Grande, told AFP.

"The people that are still trapped inside of these pockets are in terrible condition," Grande said, adding that they are facing food shortages.

 
Civilians fleeing the fighting between the Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants © Alkis Konstantinidis

"They're in extreme danger from bombardment, from artillery crossfire. The (IS) fighters that are still there are still directly targeting civilians if they try and leave."

In the past eight months, IS militants have gone from fully controlling Mosul to holding only a small pocket of territory on the west bank of the Tigris River. That pocket is about 500 sq meters, AP reported.

The battle has decreased the number of IS militants fighting in Mosul from thousands to just a couple of hundred, according to the Iraqi military.

However, those military gains have come at a cost. More than 8,000 civilians have been killed or wounded, according to the UN. That estimate is somewhat rough, as it only counts people transferred to hospitals from frontline clinics.

Of the approximately 915,000 people who have been forced to flee their homes, nearly 700,000 are still displaced.

"We exceeded our worst-case scenario more than a month ago. In our very worst-case scenario, we thought that 750,000 people would flee," Grande said.

Of the 44 residential neighborhoods in the northern Iraqi city, six are nearly completely destroyed, according to Grande. Twenty-two are moderately damaged, while 16 are lightly damaged.

 
A destroyed mosque is seen in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq, June 27, 2017 © Alaa Al-Marjani

Meanwhile, the US-led coalition fighting IS in Mosul has come under international criticism for its use of white phosphorus in the city, which was confirmed by a New Zealand general last month. 

“We have utilized white phosphorus to screen areas within west Mosul to get civilians out safely,” Brig. Gen. Hugh McAslan told US broadcaster NRP.

However, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned that the use of white phosphorus can have unintended - and extremely dangerous - effects on civilians.

"Its incidental effects can cause terrible injuries – burns, smoke inhalation,” Mary Wareham, the advocacy director of HRW’s arms division, told RT last month. She urged the US to be “extremely careful and sparing” when it comes to white phosphorus.

The eventual stabilization of Mosul - which was overrun by IS in 2014 - will cost an estimated US$707 million. That figure is nearly double the amount originally estimated, because "the level of damage in western Mosul is far higher than what we feared it would be," Grande said.

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