US intelligence intercepted communications between Syrian military and chemical experts ahead of Khan Sheikhoun attack

The US military and intelligence community has intercepted communications featuring Syrian military and chemical experts talking about preparations for the alleged chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun on April 5, CNN reports citing an unidentified ‘senior US official’.

The intercepts were allegedly part of an immediate review of all intelligence in the hours after the attack to confirm responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in an attack in northwestern Syria, which killed at least 70 people. ‘The US did not know prior to the attack it was going to happen’, the official emphasized. The US scoops up such a large volume of communications intercepts in areas like Syria and Iraq, the material often is not processed unless there is a particular event that requires analysts to go back and look for supporting intelligence material.

So far there are no intelligence intercepts that have been found directly confirming that Russian military or intelligence officials communicated about the attack. The official said the likelihood is the Russians are more careful in their communications to avoid being intercepted.

US assesses that SAA has re-established a chemical weapons unit

The US now assesses that Syria has re-established a unit of personnel associated with chemical weapons that existed before the 2013 agreement in which the Syrian government pledged to give up its weapons inventory. And there is some indication they are getting outside help. “We know they have the expertise. And we suspect that they have help,” a US military official told reporters at a background briefing Friday. At that briefing, the official also noted, “We know the Russians have chemical expertise in-country. We cannot talk about openly any complicity between the Russians and the Syrian regime in this — in this case, but we’re carefully assessing any information that would implicate the Russians knew or assisted with the Syrian capability.” But even if there is a definitive finding of Russian complicity, it’s not clear the Pentagon or the White House would make that information public, a senior US official said. First, it would have to be ironclad proof, which could be difficult to determine. But also, the US feels right now that it has made the case that Russian support for Assad must end. For now, the official said the most specific evidence of Russian involvement remains a Russian drone that flew over the hospital that was treating people injured in the attack. The US has specific intelligence showing it was a Russian drone. While the drone operator may not have known why the aerial vehicle was flying in the area, it was a Russian-controlled asset.

Suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun kills more than 90, dozens injured

A suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun, near Idlib, has killed more than 90 people on Tuesday, while dozens were injured.

Airstrikes on the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun began just after daybreak, delivering an unidentified chemical agent that killed at least 90 people and filled clinics across the area with patients foaming at the mouth or struggling to breathe.

Three doctors said in interviews that the symptoms they saw were far more serious than they would expect from chlorine, which Syrian government forces have used as a chemical weapon in the past. The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons expressed “serious concern” and said it was investigating.

Images from the area showed the bodies of at least a dozen men, women and children splayed across the ground between two houses. It was not possible to independently verify the reports, but video footage showed lifeless bodies wrapped in blankets and packed on the back of a truck. The youngest were wearing diapers.

In another video, several children were seen slumped on hospital beds, apparently unresponsive to the medics and chaos around them. Syrian government warplanes in recent months have launched heavy attacks across northern Idlib province, where hundreds of thousands of civilians — many having fled other battle zones — are squeezed together among much of what remains of the armed opposition to Assad.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry denied involvement in Tuesday’s attack, saying the government was committed to its obligations under the international Chemical Weapons Convention. Syria joined the convention in 2013 after launching sarin attacks on several Damascus neighborhoods — strikes that killed hundreds of civilians and pushed the United States to the brink of military intervention.

The attack came as European diplomats gathered in Brussels for a flagship conference aimed at pledging billions of dollars for Syria’s reconstruction, six years into a civil conflict that has shattered much of the country and prompted refugees to pour out across the Middle East and Europe.

Photographs of lifeless bodies in Khan Sheikhoun were passed from phone to phone in the Brussels conference hall, attendees said, a stark reminder of the limitations of European power in a war now heavily driven by Iranian and Russian influence.

Men stand near dead bodies, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. [photo by Ammar Abdullah/Reuters]

Emergency U.N. Security Council meeting

The U.N. Security Council has scheduled an emergency meeting Wednesday morning on the suspected chemical attack in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province, which opposition activists say has killed dozens of people. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, the current council president, made the announcement Tuesday in response to a request from Britain and France for an emergency council session. She said council members have seen reports “of the terrible chemical weapons attack in Syria.” Haley said the council will get a briefing at an open meeting at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT) on Wednesday “and we are hoping to get as much information on the Syrian attack as we can.”

White House condemns attack

The White House has condemned what it describes as a “heinous” chemical attack against civilians by the Syrian government. Spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday’s attack in the Syrian province of Idlib is “reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world.” But Spicer says the actions of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government are a consequence of the Obama administration’s “weakness and irresolution” in addressing the Syrian civil war. Spicer says that President Barack Obama said he would draw a “red line” at chemical attacks, “then did nothing.” Spicer would not say whether the White House believes Russia played a role in the attack, saying President Donald Trump has been briefed. He says Trump is “extremely alarmed” by this “intolerable act.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Russia and Iran bear “great moral responsibility” for deaths from an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria. Tillerson called on Russia and Iran to use their influence over Syrian President Bashar Assad to prevent future chemical weapons attacks. He said they bear moral responsibility because they have declared themselves to be the guarantors of a ceasefire they helped broker in Astana, Kazakhstan. He said in a statement that Iran and Russia shouldn’t have any illusions about Assad or his intentions. Tillerson says anyone using chemical weapons to attack his own people must be held accountable for a “fundamental disregard for human decency.” He also said the chemical weapons attack makes clear that Assad operates “with brutal, unabashed barbarism” and that Syria needs a “genuine ceasefire” and that anyone supporting armed combatants there must help ensure compliance.

A senior U.S. State Department official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity said that if a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria is what it appears to be, it is “clearly a war crime.” The official said both the United States and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are currently gathering information about the attack.

The attack comes as the U.S. has been softening its stance on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s future and leaving open the possibility the U.S. could cooperate with Assad’s government on fighting the Islamic State group. But the U.S. official says that’s “highly unlikely.” He says the U.S. isn’t currently focused on that possibility. He says the Syrian government’s behavior would have to change before the U.S. would seriously consider that step.

U.N. says can’t verify use of chemical agents in attack

The United Nations says it isn’t in a position to independently verify reports of a chemical attack in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province but Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is “deeply disturbed” at the incident. U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the U.N. chief extends “his heartfelt condolences to victims of the incident and their families.” He pointed to the OPCW, the international chemical weapons watchdog, which announced that it has started gathering information to determine if chemical weapons were used. Dujarric said Gutteres recalled the U.N. Security Council determination that the use of chemical weapons threatens international peace and security, and if confirmed “constitutes a serious violation of international law.”

Russia confirms attack was carried out by Syrian airforce planes

A Russian official confirmed on Wednesday morning that the Khan Sheikhoun attack was carried out by the Syrian Arab Airforce but wouldn’t confirm use of chemical agents.

U.S. priority on Syria no longer focused on ‘getting Assad out’: Ambassador Haley

The United States’ diplomatic policy on Syria for now is no longer focused on making the war-torn country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, leave power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said on Thursday, in a departure from the Obama administration’s initial and public stance on Assad’s fate.

The view of the Trump administration is also at odds with European powers, who insist Assad must step down. The shift drew a strong rebuke from at least two Republican senators. “You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told a small group of reporters. “Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No,” she said. “What we are going to focus on is putting the pressure in there so that we can start to make a change in Syria.” “We can’t necessarily focus on Assad the way that the previous administration did,” said Haley, a former governor of South Carolina. “Our priority is to really look at how do we get things done, who do we need to work with to really make a difference for the people in Syria.” On Wednesday, Haley accused Russia, Iran and the “Assad regime” of committing war crimes. She has also said the United States supports the U.N.-led Syria peace talks, that Syria could no longer be a “safe haven for terrorists” and that it was important “we get Iran and their proxies out.”

In Ankara on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Assad’s longer-term status “will be decided by the Syrian people.”

A senior Trump administration official told Reuters that Haley’s remarks reflected “a measure of just realism, accepting the facts on the ground. … Assad is never going to have sufficient force to reassert control over the whole country. … Our focus is on defeating ISIS and al Qaeda and preventing Syria from being used as a terrorist safe haven.” But Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, in separate, strongly worded statements, denounced the shift in the U.S. stance. McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tillerson’s statement “overlooks the tragic reality that the Syrian people cannot decide the fate of Assad or the future of their country when they are being slaughtered” by Assad’s military, Russia’s air force and Iranian-backed militias. “I hope President Trump will make clear that America will not follow this self-destructive and self-defeating path,” McCain said, adding that U.S. allies could fear a bargain with Assad and Russia “sealed with an empty promise of counterterrorism cooperation.”

Graham, who like McCain is a foreign policy hawk and a member of the Armed Services Committee, said it would be a “grave mistake” to drop the removal of Assad as an objective, and would be crushing news to the Syrian opposition and U.S. allies in the region. In addition, leaving Assad in power is “a great reward for Russia and Iran,” Graham said.

Contradictory messages

Syrian opposition member Farah al-Attasi said the State Department and the White House were sending contradictory messages on Syria and should start leading and not focus exclusively on fighting Islamic State.

Britain and France reinforced their stance on Assad earlier on Thursday. French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre told reporters: “Assad is not and cannot be the future of his country.”

Robert Ford, who resigned in 2014 as U.S. ambassador to Syria over policy disagreements, said the U.S. government’s policy since late 2014 had been to focus more specifically on the fight against Islamic State as well as al Qaeda, “even if it never acknowledged that its focus on Syria had shifted.” “Ambassador Haley’s remarks just confirm that the Trump administration is following the same path,” said Ford, who is now a fellow at the Middle East Institute and senior fellow at Yale.

Iraqi forces retake Mosul’s main government building and museum

Iraqi forces said Tuesday they had seized the main government offices in Mosul and its famed museum as they made steady progress in their battle to retake the city’s west from jihadists.

News of the advances came on the third day of a renewed offensive against Daesh in west Mosul — the largest remaining urban stronghold in the “caliphate” declared by the jihadists in 2014. Supported by the US-led coalition bombing Daesh in Iraq and Syria, Iraqi forces began their push against west Mosul on February 19. The advance slowed during several days of bad weather but was renewed on Sunday. Recent advances have brought government troops and police closer to Mosul’s densely populated Old City, where hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to still be trapped under Daesh rule.

Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said in a statement that federal police and the elite Rapid Response unit had been able to “liberate” the headquarters for the Nineveh provincial government. They also seized control of the Al-Hurriyah bridgehead, it said, in a step towards potentially relinking west Mosul with the city’s east, which government forces seized from the jihadists earlier in the offensive.

Iraqi security forces advance during fighting against Daesh jihadists in western Mosul. [Photo by Khalid Mohammed/AP]

Site of artifact destruction

All the bridges crossing the Tigris in Mosul have been damaged or destroyed, and Iraqi forces would either have to repair them or install floating bridges to reconnect the two banks of the river, which divides the city.

Officers said Tuesday that security forces had also managed to recapture the Mosul museum, where the jihadists destroyed priceless artifacts, releasing a video of their rampage in February 2015. The video showed militants at the museum knocking statues off their plinths and smashing them to pieces. In another scene a jackhammer was used to deface a large Assyrian winged bull at an archaeological site in the city.

The jihadists’ attacks on ancient heritage in Iraq and Syria have sparked widespread international outrage and fears for some of the world’s most important archaeological sites. The museum was on a police list released Tuesday of sites recently recaptured from Daesh, which also included Mosul’s central bank building, which the jihadists looted along with other banks in 2014, seizing tens of millions of dollars.

Other sites recaptured during the last few days include the provincial police headquarters, the courts complex and the water and electricity directorates. The recent fighting in west Mosul has forced more than 50,000 people to flee their homes, according to the International Organization for Migration. But the number who have fled is still just a fraction of the 750,000 people who are believed to have stayed on in west Mosul under Daesh rule.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/AFP

Iraqi forces fight their way into Mosul old city center

Iraqi forces launched on Sunday a new push toward the Daesh-held old city center of Mosul, on the western bank of the Tigris river, an Iraqi military spokesman said.

Iraqi forces are fighting their way toward the old center of the city, advancing from the south and the southwest, Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool, spokesman for the joint operations command, told state-run television.

According to a Syria & Iraq News source, the Iraqi forces are in close proximity to Mosul’s main government buildings.

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Iraqi forces captured the eastern side of Mosul in January after 100 days of fighting and launched their attack on the districts that lie west of the Tigris river on Feb. 19. Their advance in western Mosul paused over the past 48 hours because of bad weather.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/Reuters

Car bomb kills at least 60 in Azaz

At least 60 people were killed and 50 others wounded in a car bomb explosion in rebel-held town of Azaz in northern Syria, according to medical sources. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor had reported, earlier, the death toll of 43 people.

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SOHR said six rebels were among the dead, but most were believed to be civilians, adding that dozens of people had also been injured in the blast in the town near the Turkish border. Dozens were also wounded in the attack which struck in front of an Islamic courthouse where a market is located, the  Observatory said. The group said the toll was likely to rise in the attack, which was the latest in a string of bombings to hit Azaz.

azaz_170107-12a

Daesh likely behind the attack

Daesh is suspected of being behind the attack but no statement has been released yet.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/SOHR/AFP

Iraq PM al-Abadi says deal reached over withdrawal of Turkish forces from Bashiqa

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Saturday an agreement had been reached with Turkey over an Iraqi demand that Turkish forces withdraw from a town near Mosul in the north of the country, Iraqi state TV reported.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and his Iraqi counterpart Haider al-Abadi are seen during a welcoming ceremony in Baghdad, Iraq, January 7, 2017. Hakan Goktepe/Prime Minister's Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and his Iraqi counterpart Haider al-Abadi are seen during a welcoming ceremony in Baghdad, Iraq, January 7, 2017. Hakan Goktepe/Prime Minister’s Press Office/Handout via REUTERS

Abadi met his Turkish counterpart Binali Yildirim who is visiting Baghdad Saturday. No further details were provided by the Iraqi state television.