White House press spokesman Sean Spicer (pictured) makes but then withdraws statement of expanded US response to Assad regime conventional bombing


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UPDATE 2015 GMT: The US has released a four-page summary of the Assad regime’s chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in northwest Syria last week, setting out an indication of its intelligence while refuting Russian propaganda and disinformation.

The summary cited signals and geospatial intelligence, including radar tracking of the Su-22 jet fighter that dropped the chemical munitions and satllite imagery of the attacked site; physiological samples from multiple victim; and “a body of credible open source reporting”.

The US analysis is that the regime launched the chemical attack in response to an opposition offensive in neighboring northern Hama Province, launched last month, that “threatened key infrastructure”. Without naming President Assad, it says “senior regime leaders were probably involved in planning the attack”.

The summary concluded that “most Russian allegations have lacked specific or credible information” and that they “have been timed to distract the international community from Syria’s ongoing use of chemical weapons”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin maintained Moscow’s campaign on Tuesday. Standing alongside Italian President Sergio Mattarella, he asserted — without providing any evidence — “We have information that a similar provocation is being prepared….in other parts of Syria including in the southern Damascus suburbs where they are planning to again plant some substance and accuse the Syrian authorities of using [chemical weapons].”

UPDATE 1245 GMT: The other G7 members have rejected a call by the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, for targeted sanctions against senior Russian and Syrian figures.

The group said there must be an investigation into last week’s chemical weapons attack in a rebel-held town before new measures could be adopted.

Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said that there was no consensus for fresh sanctions and that isolating Russia or pushing it into a corner “would be wrong”.

While Alfano said the US intervention had offered “a window of opportunity to construct a new positive condition for the political process in Syria”, he asserted that a political rather than military process was “the only solution”.

In contrast to the rejection of any further sanctions, some G7 representatives put out a tough rhetorical line. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said that there can be no peaceful resolution if President Assad retains power.

The G7 agreed that “no future in Syria is possible with Bashar al-Assad”, Ayrault said, summarizing the message to Moscow:

That’s enough now. There must be an end to hypocrisy and a very clear return to the political process.

This is not an aggressive stance towards Russia, rather a hand out-held, with clear intentions.

En route to Moscow, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said it was unclear whether Russia had failed to take seriously its obligation to rid Syria of chemical weapons, or had merely been incompetent; however, he said the distinction “doesn’t much matter to the dead”:

We cannot let this happen again.

We want to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people. Russia can be a part of that future and play an important role. Or Russia can maintain its alliance with this group, which we believe is not going to serve Russia’s interests longer term….

Is [this] a long-term alliance that serves Russia’s interest, or would Russia prefer to realign with the United States, with other Western countries and Middle East countries who are seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis?

Asked about the confusion over US statements — including his own — on the future of Assad, Tillerson

It is important to us that we undertake a political process that leads to the final conclusion of how Syria will be governed. It is our policy for a unified Syria that is governed by the people of Syria. I think it is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end; but the question of how that ends and the transition itself could be very important, in our view, to the durability, the stability inside of a unified Syria, and its stability and durability of the outcome going forward.

So that’s why we are not presupposing how that occurs, but I think it is clear that we see no further role for the Assad regime longer-term given that they have effectively given up their legitimacy with these type of attacks.

ORIGINAL ENTRY: There was further confusion from the US on Monday over its approach to the Assad regime, three days after its missiles struck a regime airbase inside Syria.

Last Friday, the US hit the Sharyat base, from which the regime launched a chemical attack that killed more than 100 people in Khan Sheikhoun in northwest Syria on April 4. However, Washington took no action as both Russia and the regime escalated conventional attacks, including the use of incendiary munitions, over the weekend. Officials indicated that attention was solely on preventing another chemical attack, and that the priority was still to confront the Islamic State.

On Monday, White House press spokesman Sean Spicer indicated that the US had revised its approach to include a response to deadly conventional assaults, “The sight of people being gassed and blown away by barrel bombs ensures that if we see this kind of action again, we hold open the possibility of future action. If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb in to innocent people…you will see a response from this president.”

Barrel bombs, oil drums or cylinders packed with explosives and shrapnel, have killed thousands of Syrian civilians.

However, the White House soon emphasized that Spicer had not meant an expansion to include US limits on Assad’s conventional bombing. Spicer said, “Nothing has changed in our posture.”

See also TrumpWatch, Day 80: Confusion Over Syria

Defense Secretary James Mattis put out a tough line, but one limited to the chemical issue: “The Syrian government would be ill-advised ever again to use chemical weapons.”

Mattis also rebutted the claims of the Assad regime and Russia that damage was limited at the airfield and that regime warplanes are again operating from the base:

The strike resulted in the damage or destruction of fuel and ammunition sites, air defense capabilities, and 20% of Syria’s operational aircraft. The Syrian government has lost the ability to refuel or rearm aircraft at Shayrat airfield and at this point, use of the runway is of idle military interest.

A pro-Assad site initially paralleled other accounts in saying up to 20 regime jets were damaged or destroyed, but this was soon overtaken by the pronouncements of Syrian State media.

The regime is believed to have more than 200 warplanes, but not all are operational.

Tillerson in Moscow

Today US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will meet high-level Russian officials in Moscow, following a Monday discussion among the G7 countries to discuss the line with Russia.

The G7 expressed general agreement that the Russians should be encouraged to withdraw support from Assad. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who cancelled his own trip to Moscow after Assad’s chemical attack, said:

What we’re trying to do is to give Rex Tillerson the clearest possible mandate from us as the West, the U.K., all our allies here, to say to the Russians, “This is your choice: stick with that guy, stick with that tyrant, or work with us to find a better solution.”

The White House and the office of British Prime Minister Theresa May said that she and Donald Trump had agreed on “a window of opportunity” exists to persuade Russia to break ties with Assad.

Johnson said he favored further sanctions on both Assad regime and Russian “military figures”. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country was ready to toughen sanctions on Moscow.

The Kremlin maintained that it would not change its policy. “Returning to pseudo-attempts to resolve the crisis by repeating mantras that Assad must step down cannot help sort things out,” spokesman Dmitri Peskov said.

US Official: Russia Knew in Advance of Assad Chemical Attack

The US has reached a preliminary conclusion that Russia knew in advance of the Assad regime’s chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, but has no proof of Moscow’s involvement, a “senior U.S. official” said Monday.

The official confirmed that a drone operated by Russians flew over a local hospital as victims were rushed to get treatment. A Russian-made fighter jet then bombed the hospital in what US officials believe was an attempt to cover up the use of chemical weapons.

Earlier this week, the officials said Russia had turned off the drone’s tracking device, trying to blind the US to its location.

Another American official cautioned that no final American determination has been made about Russia’s knowledge.

Russian troops have been present at the Shayrat airbase, where the attacking warplane was loaded with chemical munitions, since early 2016. They were reportedly evacuated last Friday after the US gave the Russians advance notice of its Tomahawk missile strike.

2 Russian Troops Killed by Mine

Russia’s Defense Ministry has confirmed that two of its soldiers have been killed and one wounded by a mine inside Syria.

The identities of the victims and location were not given.

Russia has officially acknowledged the deaths of 28 troops up to today, but the actual toll is believed to be much higher, including scores of men working for private contractors such as the Wagner Group.

Turkish Red Crescent Trains White Helmets in Chemical Protection

Following last Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack, the Turkish Red Crescent has begun training the White Helmets, the civil defense organization in Syria’s opposition-held areas, in chemical protection.

The Red Crescent has also supplied crews with 50 protection kits against incidents involving chemical weapons and leaks.

A delegation led by Red Crescent President Kerem Kınık visited Idlib Province in northwest Syria to provide the training. in one of the few safe places in the war-torn country for the training and donation of protection kits.

Kınık said:

Many people died because of this lack of knowledge and many working in the (Syrian) Civil Defense were affected by the poisonous gas during rescue work. We hope this training will make them safer if such an occasion arises again. We hope this vicious, savage attack that also constitutes a war crime will not be repeated, but unfortunately, we have witnessed such sporadic attacks since the Ghouta incident [near Damascus in August 2013].