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DISASTER MANAGEMENT
Trump's visceral response prompts Syria strikes
By Andrew BEATTY
Palm Beach, United States (AFP) April 7, 2017


Moscow awaits 'explanations' for US Syria strike
Moscow (AFP) April 7, 2017 - Russia said Friday it expected "explanations" for the US air strike on a Syrian airbase, which Moscow furiously condemned, when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits next week.

"The visit is on the agenda," foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told NTV television. "Let him come and explain to us what they did today. We will tell him what we think about it."

"We await his explanations," Zakharova added, saying Russian diplomats had been in contact with their American counterparts on Friday about the air strike and Tillerson's visit.

Tillerson was due to make his first official visit to the country on April 11 and 12, where discussions with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will notably centre on the fight against terrorism and Syria.

Zakharova said the massive US strike, launched in the early morning in retaliation for a chemical attack the White House blamed on President Bashar al-Assad's government, was an act "without goal, foolish and dangerous".

The strike -- US President Donald Trump's biggest military decision since taking office -- followed days of outrage prompted by images of dead children and victims suffering convulsions from the suspected sarin gas attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun.

Syria's regime has denied using chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhun, where at least 86 people, including 30 children, were reported killed and more than 500 wounded.

Damascus called the US strike "foolish and irresponsible".

The Kremlin said the US strike was a "gross... violation of international law" and warned it would inflict "considerable damage" on US-Russia ties.

The country, which also demanded an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, immediately suspended a deal with the United States aimed at avoiding clashes in Syrian airspace.

The foreign ministry announced late Friday it had summoned the US military envoy to Moscow to officially hand him the notice of the accord's suspension, a deal struck in October 2015 as a US-led coalition intensified air strikes against the Islamic State group.

The Russian military also announced measures "to strengthen and improve the effectiveness of the Syrian armed forces' air defence system".

During a phone conversation with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Lavrov said the US "act of aggression" against Syria "could only impede" peace efforts there.

Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey all supported Washington, with Ankara also calling for a no-fly zone in Syria.

Russia stood by Damascus despite the global uproar, insisting the chemical weapons that caused the deaths had been stockpiled by "terrorists" and possibly released by a conventional strike.

Donald Trump's missile barrage on Syria -- the first major military gambit of his presidency -- revealed a leader fueled by instinct and emotion, and one willing to shake up strategy in an instant.

Early Tuesday, horrifying details started trickling into the White House Situation Room -- a secure suite in the bowels of the West Wing that serves as the presidency's eyes and ears on the globe.

The initial picture was sketchy, but US military and intelligence came to believe that 5,750 miles (9,250 kilometers) away in Khan Sheikhun, Syria, a fixed-wing aircraft from Bashar al-Assad's air force unleashed a deadly harvest of sarin nerve agent on villagers who oppose his regime.

At around 10:30 am Washington time, US intelligence officers took their news to Trump as part of his top-secret daily briefing.

At the same time, news agencies with reporters on the ground, like AFP, began showing the horrifying reality of those clinical facts: heart-wrenching images of convulsing toddlers, empty-eyed men and women, and panicked efforts to hose the deadly agent off those still alive.

According to White House officials, this most visually focused of presidents -- a man whose life has been defined by the power of image and television -- had an immediate and visceral response to the images, asking for more information and options.

"It crossed a lot of lines for me," Trump said in a stunningly frank Rose Garden press conference the next day.

"When you kill innocent children, innocent babies -- babies, little babies -- with a chemical gas that is so lethal -- people were shocked to hear what gas it was -- that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line."

- 'I now have responsibility' -

Before that moment, Trump had railed against his predecessors' military adventurism in the Middle East, arguing it was time to move on from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and put "America first."

Trump had variously argued that Assad's brutal actions were not really America's problem and that the Syrian dictator -- and his Russian backers -- could even be allies in fighting the Islamic State group.

This was a complete U-turn. Now Trump wanted a response.

"I now have responsibility, and I will have that responsibility and carry it very proudly," he said.

Within 24 hours, a speed that shocked allies and even some inside the administration, military and national security officials had presented the president with multiple options.

At around 2:00 pm Thursday, Trump ordered the military to launch a barrage of 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat airfield from US Navy ships in the Mediterranean.

It was an overwhelming display of power, but less risky than flying sorties in an area covered by Russia's S-400 missile defense system and less escalatory than striking Syrian military headquarters or civilian government targets.

From the relaxed atmosphere of Mar-a-Lago, there were no signs that Trump had ordered an attack that could mark his presidency and dramatically alter the geopolitical dynamic of the Middle East.

Trump, ever the CEO, was so comfortable with his decision that hours before the attack, he was cracking jokes with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who he was hosting at his Florida resort.

- Uncertain aftermath -

Top administration officials painted the decision as a display of presidential strength and resolve. The message? There was a new sheriff in town.

Under Trump, there would be none of the ignored red lines or months-long deliberations that characterized the administration of Barack Obama.

"It's decisive, and I have no doubt that he wanted that contrast with President Obama's indecisiveness on Syria," Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, told AFP.

"But part of it is also worrisome. This is a president who doesn't know what he doesn't know. We've all seen it."

Amid a myriad of questions about long-term strategy and the legality of the strike, top administration officials have struggled to explain the rationale beyond Trump's reaction.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor HR McMaster painted the strike both as a specific response to a specific breach of chemical weapons norms and as a warning to the world at large that Trump and America should not be messed with.

By dawn on Friday, capitals from London to Tokyo, from Tehran to Pyongyang were trying to figure out whether the strike was one-and-done or the opening salvo of a new Trump doctrine -- with most leaning toward the former.

Even White House officials privately admitted that while Trump means business and the Syria strike may be repeated, it is not obviously transferable to other crises.

Striking North Korea, one official admitted on condition of anonymity, would be a much more fraught piece of business.

The US is now girding for an asymmetrical response from Assad or his backers in Tehran via Hezbollah militiamen, but the White House admits an attack on Pyongyang would almost certainly prompt a much more serious direct response targeting allies in South Korea or Japan.

What is clear from the strike is that Trump trusts and acts on his own instincts.

"I'm a very instinctual person, but my instinct turns out to be right," he recently remarked.

Sabato however said "there's just one problem" with that approach.

"He's a human being and his instincts are just as flawed as anyone else's," he said.

DISASTER MANAGEMENT
New Armenian temple is beacon of hope for Yazidis
Aknalich, Armenia (AFP) April 7, 2017
A gleaming white structure topped with seven domes, set to be the world's biggest Yazidi temple, is being built in a tiny village in Armenia. Long persecuted, most recently by Islamic jihadists in Iraq, the Kurdish-speaking, religious minority hopes the new temple will prove a symbol of strength as it tries to preserve its unique blend of faiths. Yazidis, adherents of an ancient religion ... read more

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