White House accuses Russia of Syria chemical attack ‘cover up’

UNTV News   •   April 12, 2017   •   2821


U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talks with E.U. High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini as they arrive to pose for a family photo during a G7 for foreign ministers in Lucca, Italy April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Max Rossi

President Donald Trump’s administration accused Russia on Tuesday of trying to shield Syria’s government from blame for a deadly gas attack, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson brought a Western message to Moscow condemning its support for President Bashar al-Assad.

Trump, who has faced criticism for lacking a broader strategy to deal with the Syria crisis, insisted he has no plans to “go into” the war-torn country.

Senior White House officials, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, said Assad’s government carried out the April 4 sarin nerve gas attack on civilians in Syria’s Idlib province that killed 87 people, including many children, to put pressure on rebels making advances in the area.

Russia has defended the Syrian leader against U.S. allegations that his forces carried out the attack, saying there was no evidence. Russia has blamed Syrian rebels.

“It’s clear that the Russians are trying to cover up what happened there,” one White House official said.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer later told reporters that the facts backed up the U.S. version of events. “Russia is on an island when it comes to its support of Syria or its lack of, frankly, acknowledgment of what happened,” he told reporters.

However, at the same briefing, Spicer drew criticism after he sought to underscore the ghastliness of the gas attack by saying: “You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” Nazi Germany used gas chambers to kill millions of Jews during the Holocaust.

Spicer later apologized and said he should not have made the comparison. “It was a mistake. I shouldn’t have done it and I won’t do it again,” Spicer told CNN in an interview. “It was inappropriate and insensitive.”

The White House officials said Russia has frequently offered multiple, conflicting accounts of Syrian government aggression including the incident in the village of Khan Sheikhoun to sow doubt within the international community.

The United States launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield on Thursday to retaliate after the attack. The strikes thrust Trump, who came to power in January calling for warmer ties with Russia, and his administration into confrontation with Moscow.

Chinese President Xi Jinping told Trump in a telephone call on Wednesday that “any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable” and urged a political solution for Syria, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said of the telephone exchange.

“(We) must persevere with moving towards a political solution for the Syria issue. It is very important that the United Nations Security Council maintains unity on the Syria issue. (I) hope the Security Council can speak with a single voice,” CCTV cited Xi as saying.

Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said on Tuesday she thought Russia knew about the chemical attack in advance. “They didn’t look shocked. They didn’t look surprised. They were so quick to defend. And then the evidence comes out, and we see exactly what it is and we know exactly what the environment was. Then you realize,” she said on CNN.

U.S. intelligence indicates that the chemical agent in the attack was delivered by Syrian Su-22 aircraft that took off from the Shayrat airfield, according to a White House report given to reporters.

In a four-page document, the White House sought to rebut many of Moscow’s claims about the circumstances of the attack. It said the Syrian planes were in the vicinity of Khan Sheikhoun about 20 minutes before the attack and left shortly afterward.

“Additionally, our information indicates personnel historically associated with Syria’s chemical weapons program were at Shayrat airfield in late March making preparations for an upcoming attack in northern Syria, and they were present at the airfield on the day of the attack,” the report said.

Washington wants Russia to stop supporting Assad, who has been fighting a six-year-long civil war against mostly Sunni Muslim rebels, also with the backing of Shi’ite Muslim Iran.

TILLERSON MESSAGE

Tillerson carried a message from world powers to Moscow denouncing Russian support for Assad, as the Trump administration took on America’s traditional mantle as leader of a unified West.

Tillerson earlier met foreign ministers from the Group of Seven advanced economies and Middle Eastern allies in Italy. They endorsed a joint call for Russia to abandon Assad.

“It is clear to us the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end,” Tillerson told reporters in Italy. “We hope that the Russian government concludes that they have aligned themselves with an unreliable partner in Bashar al-Assad.”

He said Russia had failed in its role as sponsor of a 2013 deal in which Assad promised to give up chemical weapons.

Russia says the chemicals that killed civilians last week belonged to rebels, not Assad’s government, and accused the United States of an illegal aggression on a false pretext.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday he believed Washington planned more missile strikes, and that rebels were planning to stage chemical weapons attacks to provoke them.

“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, Putin said.

Trump denied further plans in Syria.

“We’re not going into Syria,” he said in an interview with the New York Post. “Our policy is the same; it hasn’t changed. We’re not going into Syria.”

A senior Trump administration official called Putin’s remarks part of a Russian “disinformation campaign.”

The United States, Britain and France have proposed a revised draft resolution to the 15-member U.N. Security Council similar to a text they circulated last week pushing Syria’s government to cooperate with investigators.

TURNING POINT

The secretary of state’s role as messenger for a united G7 position is a turning point for Trump, who in the past alarmed allies by voicing skepticism about the value of U.S. support for traditional friends, while calling for closer ties with Moscow.

Tillerson is a former chairman of oil company Exxon Mobil Corp, which has gigantic projects in Russia. Putin awarded him Russia’s “Order of Friendship” in 2013.

He is due to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Wednesday. The Kremlin has said Tillerson has no meeting scheduled with Putin this trip, although some Russian media have reported such a meeting could take place.

Western countries have been calling for Assad’s departure since 2011, the start of a civil war that has killed at least 400,000 people and created the world’s worst refugee crisis.

Assad’s position on the battlefield became far stronger after Russia joined the war to support him in 2015. The United States and its allies are conducting air strikes in Syria against Islamic State, but until last week Washington had avoided targeting forces of Assad’s government directly.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday the United States’ military policy in Syria had not changed and remains focused on defeating Islamic State. —  By Steve Holland and Andrew Osborn | WASHINGTON/MOSCOW

(Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Moscow, Ayesha Rascoe, Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and Eric Beech in Washington; Writing by Peter Graff, Alistair Bell and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Yara Bayoumy, Will Dunham and Lisa Shumaker)

Russia, Turkey agree ceasefire deal for Syria’s Idlib

UNTV News   •   March 6, 2020

Turkey and Russia agreed a ceasefire deal on Thursday (March 5) in Syria’s Idlib region, their two leaders said after talks in Moscow to contain a conflict which has displaced nearly a million people in three months.

Russia and Turkey back opposing sides in Syria’s nine-year conflict, with Moscow supporting President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey backing some rebel groups. Several previous deals to end the fighting in Idlib have collapsed.

The latest offensive in Idlib by Assad’s forces, backed by Russian air strikes, sparked what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis yet in a war that has driven millions from their homes and killed hundreds of thousands.

The Russian military has, however, repeatedly played down any talk of a refugee crisis and accused Turkey of violating international law by pouring enough troops into Idlib to make up a mechanised division.

Turkey, which has the second largest army in the transatlantic NATO alliance, has funnelled troops and equipment into the region in recent weeks to resist the Syrian government advance and prevent a wave of refugees over its southern border.

Russia also raced to reinforce its troops in Syria by sea and air before the Putin-Erdogan talks.

Assad himself has vowed to recapture “every inch” of Syrian territory, but his depleted military depends heavily on Moscow’s power and Iranian-backed militias on the ground. Iran was not a party to Thursday’s deal.

Speaking on Russian TV channel Russia 24, Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad said the Russian-Syrian plan was to normalise relations with Turkey, despite their aggressive behaviour.

“Our common goal with Russia was and remains to make Turkey change its policy from the support of the terrorists and to bring our relations back to normal.” Assad said,”For us and for you (Russia), Turkey is a neighbour state, it would be natural to have normal relations with a neighbour state.

The fighting, which raised the prospect of a direct clash between Russia and Turkey, has killed around 60 Turkish troops in the region since last month. Two hours after the joint announcement Turkey’s defence ministry said two soldiers were killed after Syrian government forces opened fire in Idlib.

Putin expressed his regret to Erdogan about the recent killing of 34 Turkish troops in an air strike, saying the Syrian military had not known of their location.

Ahead of the talks, at least 16 civilians were killed when Russian air strikes hit a gathering of displaced people near the town of Maarat Misrin in Idlib, according to civil defence workers helping clear the rubble and search for survivors.

Russia denies targeting civilians.

Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot handle more. Seeking to extract more funding and support from Europe over Idlib, Ankara said last week it would no longer abide by a 2016 deal in which it stopped migrants crossing into the European Union in return for billions of euros in aid. (Reuters)

(Production: Anton Derbenev)

”Everyone wants to go to Europe”- displaced Syrians flee as fighting escalates

UNTV News   •   March 5, 2020

Thousands of displaced Syrians stranded at the border with Turkey say they have nowhere to go but Turkey and then hopefully on to Europe.

Men, women and children have fled escalating violence in Idlib to displaced persons camps in border-towns like Atmeh, where the Turkish border is blocked off by an imposing grey concrete wall topped with barbed wire.

“The only solution before us is to enter Turkey, and from Turkey to Europe – any country that we can go to,” said 33-year-old displaced Syrian, Amer al-Ahmed on Wednesday (March 4). “We have nowhere else to go.”

U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, said on Tuesday (March 3) that the number of displaced people has surged to 980,000, more than half of them children, who are now coping with inadequate shelter and a lack of sanitation facilities in areas near the Turkish border.

“Everyone wants to go to Europe because the situation is tragic here,” said Ahmed al-Khaled, 36, adding that he hopes the borders are opened.

Escalating military action by Russia and Turkey in Idlib risks a direct confrontation between the two major foreign powers in Syria’s war, days ahead of a summit of their leaders to hammer out a deal to halt the fighting.

Both countries say they hope to avoid a head-on clash, but after Turkey ramped up attacks on Russian-backed Syrian forces and Russian military police helped secure a town seized from Turkey-backed rebels, all sides acknowledge the risk.

Turkey, which has sent thousands of troops and military hardware into Idlib to confront Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, hosts 3.6 million Syrians and has closed its border saying it cannot take in more migrants. (REUTERS CONNECT)

(Production: Mahmoud Hassano, Hamuda Hassan, Nadeen Ebrahim)

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Syria’s Aleppo airport receives first scheduled flight in eight years

UNTV News   •   February 19, 2020

A SyrianAir passenger plane landed on Wednesday (February 19) at Aleppo’s civilian airport, the first scheduled flight to touch down in the country’s war-devastated economic hub for eight years.

The reopening of the airport comes days after the Russian-backed Syrian army said it had seized rural areas northwest of Aleppo, a major strategic gain in weeks of bombing of the last rebel bastion in northwestern Syria.

On an organized trip, local and international media were invited by the Syrian transportation ministry to travel on the first plane that took off from the capital Damascus, and land at the Aleppo airport.

Government officials hope the resumption of commercial flights will help revive the economic activity in the city, which was the scene of some of the most vicious fighting of the war between 2012 and 2016. Rebel-held eastern Aleppo was regained by government forces in 2016.

Transport Minister Ali Hammoud said authorities were waiting for approvals to resume international flights, with plans to reopen the route to Cairo next month.

Aleppo’s other airport Nairab is a major military base that the Syrian air force uses to strike opposition areas and has also been a target of Israeli strikes on alleged Iranian bases.

In another strategic gain for President Bashar al-Assad, Syrian government forces aided by Iranian-backed militias consolidated their control over the M5 highway linking Aleppo to Damascus, a vital trade artery in northern Syria.

The highway, the fastest route between Syria’s two biggest cities, should be ready for civilian use in the coming days for the first time in years, the authorities said. (Reuters)

(Production: Firas Makdesi, Kinda Makieh, Michael Fiorentino)

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