sábado, 8 de abril de 2017

How Trump’s Syria strikes play into Putin’s hand / Trump’s airstrike: a convenient U-turn from a president who can’t be trusted /US warns Assad over using chemical weapons again

How Trump’s Syria strikes play into Putin’s hand
It’s always good news for Moscow when the U.S. gets bogged down in a military conflict far from its shores.

By           LEONID RAGOZIN            4/7/17, 7:45 PM CET Updated 4/8/17, 6:32 AM CET

The Russian reaction to U.S. airstrikes in Syria was a predictable show of disingenuous outrage that bordered on trolling. In comments that echoed the language Western governments use when referring to Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the airstrike as “an aggression against a sovereign state violating the international law.”

But the Kremlin is not making a tragedy out of being snubbed by U.S. President Donald Trump, who is often described as Putin’s admirer — even his appointee — in Western media. For Moscow, the accompanying benefits will far outweigh the loss of face.

Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad did his Russian patron a huge disservice that bordered on betrayal when he launched a chemical attack against civilians in Idlib. It was Putin who brokered the agreement on the use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2013, preventing then-President Barack Obama from doing what Trump did Friday morning.

It is always good news for the Kremlin when the U.S. gets bogged down in another military conflict far from its shores.
The Kremlin had widely touted that agreement as a huge diplomatic breakthrough. Assad grossly undermined the importance Putin places on that perceived victory. His punishment by the U.S. will certainly not be unwelcome in Moscow. In what sounded like a reprimand, Peskov told The Associated Press, hours before the American strike, Russia’s support for Assad was “not unconditional.”

It is always good news for the Kremlin when the U.S. gets bogged down in another military conflict far from its shores. It is especially useful to Russia’s propaganda machine. If Washington can intervene in wars on the other side of the globe, then why can’t Russia do the same in its immediate vicinity, say in Ukraine?

Among Russians, fear of NATO’s advancement is very real. Similarly, anti-Americanism is high among radical left- and right-wing parties in many European countries. So Russia’s argument that the U.S. is overreaching, yet again, will play well with both domestic and foreign audiences.

Whatever the Americans do in Syria — and especially if they launch a ground operation — they will have to coordinate it with the Russians, who are already on the ground. The threat of direct conflict between world’s greatest nuclear powers will trump all other considerations. That fact creates new opportunities for negotiations and trade-offs with the U.S., which was the whole point of Russia’s intervention in Syria in the first place.

Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the U.S. missile strikes “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law” launched “under a far-fetched pretext.” | Getty Images

Meddling in the Middle East, a key region in U.S. foreign policy, was the Kremlin’s way of detracting attention from its Ukrainian quagmire. Putin rightly calculated that the U.S. would prioritize Syria at the expense of Ukraine. It even hoped the U.S. would be more inclined to compromises on issues like Crimea or sanctions imposed on Russia in response to its occupation of the peninsula and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine.

This is the context in which we should interpret Russia’s decision to withdraw from the air safety agreement with the U.S. Moscow is raising the stakes in the future bargain, even though it is Russian soldiers who will be subject to greater risks because of this decision.

Dragging the U.S. into another conflict in the region is a dream scenario for the Kremlin. Brinkmanship is where Putin has always excelled. He has faced far worse dilemmas than many of his Western colleagues — home-grown terrorism or the Chechen war, for example — and is far more confident. He is also way more cynical.

Trump being paraded as the Kremlin’s friend was deeply awkward for the Kremlin. The political regime in Russia is existentially dependent on the U.S. being openly hostile to it. In the aftermath of Russia’s occupation of Crimea, Putin’s approval rating soared from just over 60 percent to almost 90 percent, but support has started to evaporate since. In recent weeks, Russians have visibly warmed to the idea of street protests and opposition leader Alexei Navalny. On the eve of presidential elections in 2018, this is a big problem for the Kremlin. This conflict could be the ideal way to shore up domestic support.

Putin desperately needs an enemy in the White House, ideally a cartoonish and hapless one; someone that fits a collection of clichés that confirm common Russians’ worst perception of the American political establishment. Where Obama refused to play the hypocritical “frenemy” game — an eight-year nightmare for Putin — Trump is bound to become an ideal partner.

Russians have historically been great at rallying together in the face of an outside threat. It’s a deeply embedded social instinct that Putin has manipulated masterfully from Day One. His response to Trump’s airstrikes will be no exception.

Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist based in Moscow.


Leonid Ragozin

Trump’s airstrike: a convenient U-turn from a president who can’t be trusted
Jonathan Freedland
The attack on Bashar al-Assad was welcome – but the US president’s own aims were more important to him than saving Syrian babies’ lives

Friday  7 April 2017 17.15 BST Last modified on Friday 7 April 2017 23.44 BST

Sometimes the right thing can be done by the wrong person. Donald Trump’s bombing of a Syrian airfield seems to belong in that category, though even that verdict depends on events yet to unfold. For one thing, we don’t yet know if the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles that rained down on the Shayrat base in the early hours of Friday morning were a one-off or the start of something more.

Antony Blinken, who served as Barack Obama’s deputy secretary of state, recalled that the US intervention in Libya, which he backed, began with a very narrow, legitimate goal – the protection of civilians from an imminent threat of slaughter – but “ended in regime change”. Blinken warned Trump of the dangers of “mission creep”, urging him “to avoid falling into an escalation trap.”

But let’s say the Shayrat strikes are not repeated. Given that the century-old prohibition on the use of chemical and biological weapons is a rare and valuable taboo, one that crumbles if not enforced, it’s hard not to welcome an act of enforcement. As Robin Niblett, the director of Chatham House, told me: “There are so few norms that are considered sacrosanct. If you don’t enforce this one, you create a sense of global anarchy, a global free-for-all.”

Reporting from the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun by the Guardian’s Kareem Shaheen allows for little doubt as to both the human calamity of the chemical attack that befell that place on 4 April and where culpability lies. Shaheen’s eye-witness account leaves the Russian claim – that sarin was released into the air accidentally when Russian jets bombed a rebel-run chemical weapons plant – in shreds. There are some who still doubt that Bashar al-Assad’s forces were behind the sarin attack: they include US-based conspiracy theorists Alex Jones and Mike Cernovich, backed in the UK by Katie Hopkins, who uses the hashtag #Syriahoax. But their numbers are dwindling. The evidence points to Assad.

That still leaves a legal question. Trump acted alone; he did not have UN authorisation or even try to get it. Which means he might have been breaking international law in order to enforce international law. But that’s not the prime source of my discomfort. What troubles me more is that this necessary act was performed by someone who, in the words of radio host James O’Brien, you wouldn’t trust with scissors.

On Syria, Donald Trump has performed a U-turn so screeching, so dizzying, you can smell the burned rubber from here. Just 72 hours before these airstrikes, his administration was all but flashing a green light at Assad, hinting that he could do what he liked. Pull back further, and the volte-face is even more stunning. For years, Trump was adamant that he would stay out of Syria. Even when chemical weapons were used in August 2013, killing an estimated 1,300 people in Ghouta, Trump was firm: “What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long-term conflict?” he tweeted. It’s the abandonment of that stance that has so disappointed Trumpists such as Hopkins, Nigel Farage and the neo-Nazi leader Richard Spencer. They thought they were getting a true isolationist in the Oval Office.

Their mistake was to think Trump had a consistent foreign policy, rather than just a series of wildly contradictory impulses that can vary from day to day. Trump might well see this unpredictability as an asset. Recall how Richard Nixon encouraged Henry Kissinger to travel to foreign capitals, whispering to foreign leaders that the US president was unhinged. Nixon believed that if he were seen as a madman, capable of anything, it could only increase his leverage. He would be feared.

It’s not reassuring to think that the American president only acts when a tragedy hits primetime
In this context, North Korea and Iran may both be adjusting their calculus of risk. Now they know that Trump is willing to strike, with little warning. That he authorised the operation while at his Florida resort, where he was hosting the Chinese president, may have been an accident of timing, but it will please Trump. Think of it as a dominance display in front of a rival.

Above all, Trump will relish the comparisons with his predecessor. In 2013, Obama hesitated and havered over Syria’s use of chemical weapons, a Hamlet on the Potomac, his hand eventually stayed, in part, by Ed Miliband’s decision to vote down UK support for military action against Assad. Again, Trump was among those urging Obama to do nothing, further insisting that Obama needed congressional approval.

That scruple, along with everything else, will be forgotten now, as Trump revels in a comparison that, in his view, makes him look more decisive, more macho and even more humane than Obama. As Niblett says: “Trump has upheld a norm which Barack Obama, the great values president, did not.”

But that cannot alter the fact that, even as you welcome the act, its author remains wholly untrustworthy. Trump wanted us to believe he had been moved to action by the pictures of dead children in Khan Sheikhun. But what of all the “beautiful babies” killed away from the TV cameras these last six years, by bombs of a different variety? When they were being slaughtered, Trump was happy to shrug off their deaths, sending his secretary of state and his UN ambassador out just days ago to give Assad the wink that he could carry on as before. It’s not reassuring to think that the American president does not listen to his intelligence briefings or even read the papers, but only acts when a tragedy hits primetime.

But what makes his newfound compassion ring all the more hollow is that while Trump is ready to bomb a runway for those beautiful babies who are dead, he still won’t let America open its doors to those who cling to life. Refugees from Syria remain on Trump’s banned list, including every “child of God” traumatised by Assad and his barrel bombs, raining fire from the sky.

And forgive me if I don’t accept that this volte-face is quite as complete as the White House would have us believe. How convenient that Trump, under fire for being Vladimir Putin’s poodle, now stands up to him in Syria. How neatly this blows away all those allegations of secret links and election hacking. Yes, there have been ample statements of condemnation from Moscow, but those don’t cost either side anything. The US appears to have given Russia sufficient warning to ensure their men weren’t hit, and Russia used none of its ample capacity to hit back. It all worked out very nicely.

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Some will believe none of this matters: the faded red line prohibiting chemical weapons has been painted scarlet once more. But intention matters, in foreign policy as much as in morality. There were those in 2003 who wanted to see the US-led invasion of Iraq as a humanitarian operation to topple an evil dictator. But humanitarianism was not what drove the architects of that mission: if human life had been the motive, they’d have heeded the warnings that they were making a terrible mistake, or at least planned for the aftermath. But they didn’t care enough to do either – and the result was catastrophe.

I didn’t trust Bush and Cheney, and I don’t trust Trump. I’m glad Assad’s ability to poison his own people has been reduced, if only a little. This deed is welcome. But I cannot applaud the man who did it.

US warns Assad over using chemical weapons again
Tensions mount with Russia as Sean Spicer says Assad must ‘abide by agreements not to use chemical weapons’ but fails to outline US objectives

Spencer Ackerman in New York and Julian Borger in Washington
Saturday 8 April 2017 09.13 BST First published on Friday 7 April 2017 17.24 BST

The US says it has put Bashar al-Assad on notice that it will act again if he repeats the use of chemical weapons, while appearing to back away from wider military involvement in Syria, less than 24 hours after launching Tomahawk missiles at a regime airbase.

“The United States will no longer wait for Assad to use chemical weapons without any consequences. Those days are over,” the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, told a special session of the UN security council

“The United States took a very measured step last night, Haley added. “We are prepared to do more, but we hope that will not be necessary. ”

However, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, refused to discuss any next steps – military or diplomatic – as the world struggled to understand Trump’s policy towards the grueling civil war.

Syrian warplanes were reported to have taken off from the airbase targeted by the US missiles, suggesting that the military impact of the overnight attack had been minimal. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said that government aircraft had bombed the outskirts of Khan Sheikhun, the town targeted in Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack

Spicer called the missile strike on the airbase “very decisive, justified and proportional” and entirely justified by “humanitarian purposes”.

But he demurred on saying whether Assad had to leave power, despite secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s insistence before the missile strike that diplomatic steps to oust Assad were already “under way”.

“At a minimum,” Spicer said, Assad had to agree “to abide by agreements not to use chemical weapons”, but he did not say what, if any, further objectives the US had in Syria, even as Trump came under renewed congressional pressure to present a comprehensive strategy for the US in the Syrian conflict.

America’s mixed signals on Assad are likely to unsettle or disappoint the Syrian opposition that initially viewed the strike as a glimmer of hope amid a relentless onslaught.

Trump’s missile barrage suggested a reversal from his previous indifference to Assad’s continued rule; the US president now faces conflicting demands from Congress to escalate militarily – and from Russia to back down.

Humanitarians, meanwhile, are demanding evidence of a strategy to end the conflict peacefully.

The first big diplomatic test comes as Tillerson is scheduled to travel to Moscow next week for talks, which will include Syria.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is attempting to revive a critical military communications hotline between the US and Russia that has become the first geopolitical casualty of Trump’s abrupt decision to attack Assad in Syria.

By shutting down the so-called deconfliction channel after the missile strike on Russia’s Syrian client, Vladimir Putin has dared Trump to choose between attacking Assad and attacking Islamic State, Trump’s priority.

The military channel is pivotal for ensuring US and Russian pilots avoid accidentally colliding, confronting one another in midair or attacking each other’s forces or proxies in north-eastern Syria. It also has a significant political component, according to former defense officials: to ensure competing air wars in Syria do not accidentally spiral into a confrontation between two nuclear powers.

The morning after ordering missile strikes, Trump held a meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Trump made no mention of his decision and ignored shouted questions on whether he would also consider military action against North Korea. Trump spoke only about the relationship with China, claiming “tremendous progress” had been made in the one-day summit.

Xi replied: “President Trump has given us a warm welcome and treated us very well.” Without referring to Syria or North Korea, he stressed the need for “peace and stability”, “partnership”, and “prosperity”.

In the aftermath of the US missile strikes, the Kremlin denounced them as an “act of aggression in violation of international law”.

At a UN security council session, Russia’s deputy envoy, Vladimir Safronkov, warned the “consequences for international stability could be extremely serious”.

“It’s not hard to imagine how much the spirits of the terrorists have been raised by this attack,” Safronkov said.

The Russian defense ministry said it was beefing up its air defenses in Syria.

A Russian defense ministry spokesman, Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov, said a “complex of measures” would be carried out shortly to “protect the most sensitive Syrian infrastructure facilities”.

The Russian navy was reported to be sending a frigate aimed with cruise missiles to Tartus, on the Syrian coast.

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Konashenkov insisted that the effectiveness of the US strike was “very low”, claiming that only 23 of the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles reached the Shayrat airbase in the province of Homs. He said the strikes had destroyed only six MiG-23 fighter jets of the Syrian airforce, which were under repair, but didn’t damage other Syrian warplanes at the base.

The US military insists all but one of the missiles reached their targets.

The US was supported by its western allies and Turkey. France’s president, François Hollande, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said Assad bore “sole responsibility” for provoking the missile strike.

The UK’s defense secretary, Michael Fallon, said the strike was “wholly appropriate”. He added that the UK would not be directly involved in any military action without parliamentary approval. Fallon said he had been in “close discussions” with his US counterpart, James Mattis, but stopped short of claiming to have been consulted on the decision.

The UN security council was convened on Friday to hear briefings on the situation in Syria and to hear arguments over the chemical weapons attacks and retaliatory missile strikes. No vote was scheduled on the competing resolutions on Syria currently before the council, and it was not expected to lead to an agreed course of action.

An opportunity for Russia and the US to stop the slide toward confrontation will come on Tuesday, when Tillerson is due to make his first trip to Moscow as secretary of state. He has signaled that the missile strikes had limited objectives – to deter the use of chemical weapons – and that the US priority remained fighting Isis first, and dealing with political transition later.

In the days before Tillerson’s visit there are expected to be urgent efforts to repair the suspended deconfliction channel.

The Pentagon would not address whether its airstrikes on Isis had already been reduced in response, nor if it had anticipated Russia’s move to abandon the channel before Mattis, the defense secretary, briefed Trump on options for the missile strike. But the Pentagon left little doubt it wanted Moscow to reopen military-to-military communications.

“The Department of Defense maintains the desire for dialogue through the flight safety channel. It is to the benefit of all parties operating in the air over Syria to avoid accidents and miscalculation, and we hope the Russian ministry of defense comes to this conclusion as well,” said Lt Col Michelle Baldanza, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

After Russian forces moved into Syria to bolster Assad’s then faltering regime, “we recognized in the fall of 2015 that the airspace over Syria was going to get much more crowded, and we didn’t want to kick off an international incident from our planes being in proximity to one another,” said Andrew Exum, the senior Pentagon official with the Middle East policy portfolio when the US established the communications channel.

Whatever the tactical military advantages of opening the deconfliction channel, it also had a substantial political component.

“We’re not talking about going head-to-head, nor locking radars at each other,” said Christopher Harmer, an ex-navy pilot and a defense analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “The fact that we’re no longer actively deconflicting is a political escalation, not a military one.”

The channel also had propaganda value: Putin has sold his intervention in Syria at home and abroad as a necessary measure to fight Isis, despite his overwhelming tactical focus on helping Assad regain territory.

Exum said: “We didn’t want to give the impression we were coordinating with the Russians. The Russians very much wanted to give impression we were working together in a great endeavor against violent extremism in Syria and that’s just not the case.”

The aftermath of the strikes saw congressional pressure, even from Democrats normally opposed to Trump, for the White House to escalate its involvement in Syria’s brutal civil war. Several legislators pressed Trump to deliver a strategy to guide future US action and welcomed a renewed debate for congressional authorization of future strikes, a measure that failed in 2013 when Barack Obama proposed it.

“I fully support a robust US role in ending the Syrian civil war as soon as possible,” said the Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein, who asked Trump for a “comprehensive strategy to end Syria’s civil war”.

However, others also insisted the military strike must be followed by the difficult and complex process of diplomacy. David Miliband, former UK foreign secretary and now president of the International Rescue Committee humanitarian aid organisation, said: “We share the fury of the president at the use of chemical weapons against civilians. The impunity of those who wage war against civilians, whether by chemical or conventional attacks, must be brought to an end.

“The question we have for all those engaged in military action in Syria concerns their plan to stop the killing and build a durable peace. That question is even more important after the events of the last 72 hours. Every Syrian is waiting for that question to be answered.”

Trump marcou pontos. Que vai acontecer a seguir?
O que estava em causa era punir Assad e, sobretudo, restaurar a credibilidade político-militar americana.

Jorge Almeida Fernandes
8 de Abril de 2017, 6:51

Depois de eleito, Donald Trump prometeu negociar com a Rússia numa posição de força. Avisou também o Irão e a Coreia do Norte de que não hesitaria em usar o poderio militar americano. A Síria era o terreno ideal para uma demonstração de força. Bashar al-Assad ofereceu o pretexto.

O Presidente sírio enganou-se no cálculo da reacção americana perante o crime de Khan Sheikoun. Apostou na impunidade. Não imaginou que estivesse a convidar Trump para uma demonstração de força com baixos riscos. Era tolerado pela Administração americana como um mal menor. Subitamente volta à condição de “pária” internacional, designado como principal culpado da tragédia síria. Devemos dar um desconto à miopia de Assad. Desde a sua eleição que Trump tem feito ziguezagues irresponsáveis nas declarações sobre política internacional.

Desta vez, mudou de estilo e obteve uma vitória política, o que os aliados apreciaram. Ele e os seus generais aproveitaram uma oportunidade dourada não apenas para punir Assad, mas sobretudo para restabelecer a credibilidade político-militar americana. Ganharam com a rapidez e a surpresa. Ser imprevisível é uma vantagem. Trump emerge na cena internacional como “comandante-chefe” dos EUA.

O tabuleiro sírio
Até que ponto o ataque marca uma viragem de fundo na sua política síria? Parece ter sido um ataque pontual. Nada indica que os Estados Unidos se pretendam lançar numa escalada. A versão oficial é que o ataque foi lançado não contra as forças sírias mas para destruir armas químicas, o que não obriga a mais acções. Seria a aplicação da “linha vermelha” sobre as armas proibidas. Washington continua a não defender uma política de “mudança de regime” nem a exigir a deposição imediata de Assad.

Primeiro, para russos e iranianos, por razões diferentes, abdicar de Assad é uma perspectiva intolerável. Têm em jogo “interesses vitais”, incomparavelmente superiores aos dos americanos. A Síria, em si mesma, não constitui um interesse vital americano. É a guerra civil, com uma projecção regional, que significa uma ameaça para os EUA. Em segundo lugar, o general David Petraeus aprendeu a lição do Iraque e explicou aos americanos que, quando se cria na região um vazio de poder, são os jihadistas quem dele beneficia.

Note-se que a mensagem americana não visou apenas Assad, mas também os seus aliados ou protectores russos e iranianos. O que acontecerá depende em larga medida da reacção deles. Os EUA têm de estar preparados para eventuais retaliações. Assad perdeu uma base. Mas seriam necessários muitos mais ataques para o debilitar militarmente. Anotam observadores que o ataque americano não o paralisará, a não ser que toda a sua aviação seja impedida de levantar voo. Para tal seria necessário impor uma zona de exclusão aérea, o que está fora de questão pelo risco de conflito aberto com a Rússia.

Aos russos, Trump envia a mensagem de que são também responsáveis pelos crimes de guerra de Assad. Foram os russos que mediaram a crise das armas químicas em 2013 e que deram a garantia da sua completa destruição. E sabem o que se passa nas bases sírias. A propósito da guerra química comentou o secretário de Estado, Rex Tillerson, que visitará Moscovo na próxima semana: “A Rússia ou foi cúmplice ou foi incompetente.”

Putin tem a noção de que os Estados Unidos continuam impotentes perante o conflito sírio. Será tentado a demonstrá-lo? De momento, é um enigma. Parece evidente que Washington assume o risco de ver congelada a perspectiva de uma rápida cooperação com a Rússia nos grandes dossiers internacionais. Ou conseguirá Tillerson obter concessões de Putin após a demonstração de força na Síria? Há as maiores dúvidas.

O futuro não está apenas nas mãos de Trump mas também nas de Moscovo e Teerão. Reacções inesperadas podem fazer resvalar os EUA para um envolvimento mais sério no campo de minas da guerra civil síria. Moscovo ou Teerão poderão ser tentadas a forçar Trump a “mostrar o jogo”.

Um recado para Kim?
O bombardeamento de Sheikoun coincidiu com a cimeira entre Trump e Xi Jinping. Um dos temas da agenda era a Coreia do Norte. É óbvio que a demonstração de poderio foi também um recado para Kim Jong-un.
Acontece que o caso norte-coreano é muito mais ameaçador que o sírio, envolvendo cenários apocalípticos. Há muito que os norte-coreanos deixaram de visar uma negociação sobre o seu programa nuclear. A lógica da sua política é prosseguir a nuclearização até às últimas consequências. A sua doutrina estratégica visa impor o seu reconhecimento como potência nuclear, como única forma de garantir a sua segurança. A Coreia do Norte já não constitui um problema de não-proliferação, mas de dissuasão nuclear. Vai ser este o dossier mais duro para Donald Trump, avisou Obama.

O analista americano Steven A. Cook, especialista do Médio Oriente, escrevia ontem a propósito de Trump: “O ataque a Khan Sheikoun foi aquilo a que se chama um ‘momento clarificador’. Mostrou uma vez mais a monstruosidade do regime de Assad e também as limitadas opções na Síria. Bem-vindo ao mundo, Presidente Trump.”

Também a Coreia do Norte o aguarda na sua aterragem na realidade.

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