French leader Macron’s power system: never explain, never apologize

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron attends a ceremony to start the construction of the first metro line in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, November 30, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/File Photo

By Michel Rose

PARIS (Reuters) – When Emmanuel Macron was gearing up for his presidential campaign in 2016, he set out on an unprecedented “great march” – a door-to-door campaign to hear voters’ grievances in what promised to be a new, more open way of running the country.

A year after his election, things have not turned out that way, and a small but growing number of rank-and-file supporters has voiced frustration at a leadership style that is, by Macron’s own admission, not always inclusive.

Surrounded by a small coterie of close aides, Macron is pushing through a series of contentious reforms with less consultation than is usual even for France, whose 1958 constitution gives the president wide-ranging powers.

The 40-year-old, described by one adviser as a hyperactive who needs little sleep, strongly defends his methods.

“I make absolutely no apology for the verticality of power,” he told literary journal La Nouvelle Revue Française.

“I am proud of the choices that are being made, and I hate the process which means you have to constantly explain the reasoning behind a decision.”

That grates with the likes of Corinne Lepage, a former minister under conservative Jacques Chirac who was one of the first well-known politicians to join Macron’s campaign in 2016.

Initially won over by the ex-minister’s charisma and a promise of doing politics differently, she said Macron’s program was written behind closed doors by the same group of people now in charge at the Elysee.

“What I quickly found embarrassing is the contradiction between the bottom-up approach that was promised and sold to the French, and the reality,” Lepage told Reuters.

“It’s democratic centralism, the Soviet way. Completely vertical. And also very masculine.”

Many grass root supporters, who set up thousands of “En Marche” committees across France during Macron’s campaign, gave up when they realized their ideas did not filter through to Paris, she said.

While there is no sign of Macron changing tack, his popularity ratings have slipped to their lowest point since he took office, with only 40 percent of the population having a favorable opinion of him, according to a recent poll.

Among the reasons for weakening support is people’s perception of an arrogant president worried about looking after the wealthy.

“WE CAN REFORM”

Despite being France’s youngest elected leader, Macron has shown a sure-footed confidence in office so far, backed by a tight group of like-minded administrators – most of them men and dubbed the “Macron Boys”, although there are women too.

Overseen by Alexis Kohler – who like Macron is an alumnus of the elite administrative school ENA and worked in the private sector – the core group of around a dozen members is responsible for driving the reform program.

It has done so at breakneck speed.

In just a year, Macron has made hiring and firing easier, slashed a wealth tax, launched an overhaul of the education system, unveiled plans to cut the number of lawmakers and confronted unions with a reform of the debt-laden railways.

More is in the pipeline.

“It’s started like a sprint but will soon turn into a marathon,” Kohler, 45, told Reuters in his gilded office, one room away from the president’s.

“We’re making plans rather far into 2018, even beyond that. We’re working on the basis that we’ll have the capacity to reform,” he said.

That confidence – in a country where governments have long been forced to water down or scrap reforms in the face of political opposition and protests – comes from a centralization of power that is down as much to men as institutions.

Macron, who wrote his undergraduate philosophy dissertation on Renaissance Italian diplomat Machiavelli famed for his chilling guide to holding power, has ensured competing voices do not easily emerge.

He has capped the number of advisers ministers can have to 10, reducing their autonomy. When Macron was economy minister, he had 25 advisers.

Ministers also allow their press interviews to be proof-read by the Elysee – sometimes by Macron himself.

Many members of the cabinet are technocrats still widely unknown to the public. The prime minister, a former conservative mayor, has had to share advisers – often Macron loyalists – with the president.

Streamlined decision making goes hand-in-hand with tight control of the message, as an occurrence at the Elysee Palace in May last year underlined.

Kohler, Macron’s most trusted adviser, wanted to ensure that French company Alstom was not sidelined by a proposed plan by German industrial giant Siemens to merge part of its operations with Canadian rival Bombardier.

Any such merger could have left Alstom, the maker of TGV high-speed trains, isolated and weakened.

“I need three months without any leaks,” Kohler told the president’s press adviser, according to a person present.

Unusually for such high-stakes cross-border deals, nothing leaked until the day a Siemens-Alstom merger was announced by the two companies four months later.

Perhaps surprisingly for a president hailed as a savior of progressive values in Europe and elsewhere, Macron’s office also announced it would move the press room – a symbol of transparency and accountability – out of the Elysee.

Macron’s “special adviser” Ismael Emelien has developed a communications strategy using Twitter and Facebook Live to cut out the media and produce slick snippets of presidential life.

LURCH TO THE RIGHT?

Shortly after his election, Macron was given a huge parliamentary majority thanks to an electoral system specifically designed by post-war leader Charles de Gaulle to maximize presidential independence from parliament.

His lawmakers, many of them newcomers to politics, have diligently passed reforms sent their way, often via legal decrees meant to speed up debate.

For investors, the ability to deliver a modernizing program is positive for the French economy and wider euro zone.

But Macron’s controlling style is not without risk.

Rivals and a handful of allies warn that the electorate could turn to populist parties in 2022 presidential elections if they feel their voices are not being heard by the presidency.

Although Macron’s majority remains solid, some supporters, mostly hailing from the left, feel he has lurched to the right and bypassed parliament.

A particularly divisive immigration bill, which critics said was too tough and jarred with Macron’s pro-refugee stance during campaigning, showed one of the first cracks in his support.

One Macron lawmaker voted against it and 14 abstained.

The defector, former Socialist Jean-Michel Clement, said there was a risk that France was drifting toward a situation where “parliamentary control is non-existent”.

“Why was I the only one to vote against this bill when everyone thought it was a bad one? Because they’re not answering the question,” he told Reuters.

“Does that mean the executive branch has a stranglehold on the legislative branch? I think it does,” he said.

And a draft constitutional reform to cut the number of lawmakers will tip the balance of power even more toward the president and the government and weaken parliament, he added.

The stakes are high: if voters conclude that Macron is merely the latest in a line of mainstream politicians that have let them down, that could benefit more extremist forces.

“The most disappointed ones won’t give their vote to the president twice. When you have Marine Le Pen at 21 percent and Jean-Luc Melenchon at 20 percent, anything can happen tomorrow,” said Clement.

Le Pen leads the far-right Front National party and Melenchon represents the far-left.

Advisers shrug off such criticism.

“He (Macron) says Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande’s big mistake has been to try to mother the French,” one top adviser said, referring to the previous two presidents.

“You have to accept the paternal side of the office, with all the unpopularity that it implies. Because a father is also a hated figure.”

(Writing by Michel Rose; additional reporting by John Irish, Noah Barkin, Emmanuel Jarry, Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Iran says could remain in nuclear deal if its interests guaranteed: TV

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a meeting with Muslim leaders and scholars in Hyderabad, India, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui/File Photo

By Parisa Hafezi

ANKARA (Reuters) – President Hassan Rouhani hinted on Monday that Iran could remain in its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers even if the United States dropped out but Tehran would fiercely resist U.S. pressure to limit its influence in the Middle East.

U.S. President Donald Trump, a long-time critic of the deal reached between Iran and six powers in 2015 before he took office, has threatened to pull out by not extending sanctions waivers when they expire on May 12, unless European signatories of the accord fix what he calls its “flaws”.

Under the agreement with the United States, France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China, Iran strictly limited uranium enrichment capacity to satisfy the powers that it could not be used to develop atomic bombs. In exchange, Iran received relief from sanctions, most of which were rescinded in January 2016.

Rouhani said the Islamic Republic had been preparing for every possible scenario, including a deal without Washington – which would still include the other signatories that remain committed to it – or no deal at all.

“We are not worried about America’s cruel decisions … We are prepared for all scenarios and no change will occur in our lives next week,” Rouhani said in a speech broadcast live on state TV.

“If we can get what we want from a deal without America, then Iran will continue to remain committed to the deal. What Iran wants is our interests to be guaranteed by its non-American signatories … In that case, getting rid of America’s mischievous presence will be fine for Iran.”

“If they want to make sure that we are not after a nuclear bomb, we have said repeatedly that we are not and we will not be,” said Rouhani, who engineered the nuclear accord to ease Iran’s isolation.

“But if they want to weaken Iran and limit its influence whether in the region or globally, Iran will fiercely resist.”

Tehran has made repeated threats to walk away if Trump does, but several Iranian officials told Reuters last week that as long as Tehran was not excluded from the global financial and trading system, it could consider respecting the accord.

Diplomats say Tehran would rather the deal remain intact out of concern about a revival of domestic unrest over economic hardships that mounted over the years sanctions were in place.

EUROPEAN POWERS VOW TO UPHOLD DEAL

Britain, France and Germany remain committed to the accord and, in an effort to address U.S. complaints, want to open talks on Iran’s ballistic missile program, its nuclear activities beyond 2025 – when pivotal provisions of the deal expire – and its role in the wars in Syria and Yemen.

Whatever Trump decides, France, Britain and Germany will stick to the deal because it is the best way to stop Iran developing a nuclear bomb, French Foreign Minister Yean-Yves Le Drian said on Monday after meeting his German counterpart.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the deal, which is being policed by U.N. nuclear inspectors, “makes the world safer”, and would do everything possible to uphold it.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, now in Washington for talks, said the deal had weaknesses but these could be remedied. “…At this moment Britain is working alongside the Trump administration and our French and German allies to ensure that they are,” he said in a commentary in the New York Times.

“I am sure of one thing: every available alternative is worse. The wisest course would be to improve the handcuffs rather than break them.”

Even if Trump rejects a possible remedy being worked out by U.S. and European officials and decides to bring back sanctions, the most drastic U.S. measures targeting Iran’s oil sales will not immediately resume.

There are at least two avenues potentially offering more time for talks after May 12.

The agreement has a dispute resolution clause that provides at least 35 days to consider a claim that any party has violated its terms. That can be extended if all parties agree.

And if Trump restores the core U.S. sanctions, under U.S. law he must wait at least 180 days before reimposing penalties on banks of nations that do not slash purchases of Iranian oil.

Iran’s clerical rulers have repeatedly ruled out reducing its sway across the region, as demanded by the United States and its European allies. Tehran says its missile capabilities are purely defensive and nuclear ambitions only civilian in nature.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog says it is maintaining the “world’s most robust verification regime” in Iran and has repeatedly said Tehran is complying with the deal terms.

(Additional reporting by John Irish, Michelle Martin and Joseph Nasr in Berlin, Michael Holden in London; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Far-left anarchists smash windows in Paris during May Day rally

A masked protester walks near a car that burns outside a Renault automobile garage during clashes during the May Day labour union march in Paris, France, May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

PARIS (Reuters) – Hundreds of hooded protesters held up an annual May Day demonstration in eastern Paris on Tuesday, with some smashing the windows of a McDonald’s restaurant and hurling petrol bombs inside, Reuters television images showed.

French police warned on Monday of possible clashes with far-left anarchist groups, known as Black Blocs, after a call on social media for a “Revolutionary Day”.

Authorities said some 1,200 hooded and masked protesters had turned up on the sidelines of Tuesday’s planned demonstration by labor unions.

People hold a banner which reads, "Students, Employees. Everyone in the Street. General Strike" during the traditional May Day labour union march in Paris, France, May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

People hold a banner which reads, “Students, Employees. Everyone in the Street. General Strike” during the traditional May Day labour union march in Paris, France, May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Images also showed the smashed windows of a Renault garage on a road near the Austerlitz station and a construction vehicle in flames.

The protesters moved towards riot police chanting anti-fascist slogans, waving Soviet flags and anti-government banners and throwing firecrackers. Some started to build barricades. The police used water cannon against some of the protesters.

President Emmanuel Macron, elected last May on a promise to shake up France’s creaking economy and spur jobs growth, is locked in a battle with the trade unions over his plans to liberalize labor regulations.

Railway staff have begun three months of nationwide rolling strikes in a dispute over the government’s planned overhaul of state-run railway SNCF.

(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Gareth Jones)

France’s Macron visits Trump as Iran nuclear deal hangs in balance

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump meets French President Emmanuel Macron in New York, U.S., September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron arrives in Washington on Monday for a state visit likely to be dominated by differences over trade and the nuclear accord with Iran.

As Macron headed west, the Iranian government urged European leaders to convince U.S. President Donald Trump not to tear up the 2015 deal between Tehran and six world powers. Allies also spoke out in support of it.

Macron said on Sunday there was no “Plan B” for keeping a lid on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

He is on something of a rescue mission for what is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which Trump has said he will scrap unless European allies fix what he called “terrible flaws” by mid-May.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on European leaders to support it.

“It is either all or nothing. European leaders should encourage Trump not just to stay in the nuclear deal, but more important to begin implementing his part of the bargain in good faith,” Zarif wrote on his Twitter account.

The deal reached between six powers – all of whom but Germany are nuclear-armed – and Tehran put curbs on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Macron said on Fox News Sunday that it would be better to protect the deal instead of to get rid of it as there was no other plan.

“Is this agreement perfect and this JCPOA a perfect thing for our relationship with Iran?  No. But for nuclear — what do you have? As a better option? I don’t see it,” he said.

CHARM OFFENSIVE

Macron’s visit is the first time Trump has hosted a state visit since he took power in January 2017. While the French leader has tried to develop a close relationship with Trump since he took office in May, he has so far seen little tangible results on issues from Iran to climate politics.

The two men will get a sense of their two countries’ shared history during an evening meal on Monday night at Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, the first U.S. president and Revolutionary War commander whose alliance with France was critical to victory over the British.

Working meetings will be held at the White House on Tuesday before Macron addresses Congress the following day, the anniversary of the day that French General Charles de Gaulle addressed a Joint Session of Congress in 1960.

Trump and the 40-year-old French leader began their friendship a year ago in Belgium with a jaw-clenching handshake. While some other European leaders have kept a certain distance from Trump, Macron has worked hard to remain close to the U.S. president and the two leaders speak frequently by phone.

TRADE TALKS

Highlighting the difficulties Macron will face reversing Trump’s mind on Iran, U.S. non-proliferation envoy Christopher Ford said Tehran presented a very real long-term challenge.

“Iran (is) a country that for years illegally and secretly sought to develop nuclear weapons, suspended its weaponization work only when confronted by the potentially direst of consequences without ever coming clean about its illicit endeavors,” he told a non-proliferation conference in Geneva.

Iran has long maintained that its nuclear programme was for peaceful purposes.

Macron also wants to persuade Trump to exempt European nations from metal tariffs that are part of the U.S. president’s plan to reduce chronic trade deficits with countries around the world, chiefly China.

His visit comes at a time of mounting alarm in Europe over the knock-on effect that U.S. sanctions on Russia will have on their own manufacturing industries.

French officials said Paris and other European governments were coordinating efforts to persuade Trump to ease sanctions on Russia, including measures against Russian aluminum producers.

“There are concerns raised by the extraterritoriality effects of the new sets of sanctions,” a French finance ministry source said. “Europeans…have jointly warned the US Administration about the economic impact and consequences and the need to find solutions.”

The official said France, Germany, Italy and Ireland were working together on the matter. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will hold talks with Trump in Washington later in the week.

Macron and Trump are also due to discuss Syria, less than two weeks after the United States, France and Britain launched airstrikes in Syria in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack that killed dozens in Douma, Syria.

Macron said last week that he believed he had persuaded Trump to keep U.S. troops in Syria, though Trump has been insistent on bringing them home.

(Reporting By Steve Holland in Washington, Michel Rose and Richard Lough in Paris, Tom Miles in Geneva and Parisa Hafezi in Ankara; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

“We saw corpses in the street”: Syrian activist recounts Douma attack

Limar and Masa al-Qari, child survivors of the suspected poison gas attack, walk outside a tent for the displaced, in the Northern Aleppo countryside, Syria April 17, 2018. Picture taken April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano

By Dahlia Nehme

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Muayad al-Dirani was at a medical center in the Syrian town of Douma the night of April 7, when patients started flowing in.

Many of them were suffocating or having seizures, after a suspected poison gas attack struck the rebel enclave.

Doctors hurried to undress victims, douse them in water, and give atropine injections, he said. But they could not keep up. “Everyone lost their nerves, felt helpless and didn’t know what to do,” Dirani said. “The aircraft was still in the sky.”

Rasha Edlibi, a survivor of the suspected poison gas attack, sits with her two daughters inside a tent for the displaced, in the Northern Aleppo countryside, Syria April 17, 2018. Picture taken April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano

Rasha Edlibi, a survivor of the suspected poison gas attack, sits with her two daughters inside a tent for the displaced, in the Northern Aleppo countryside, Syria April 17, 2018. Picture taken April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano

Rasha Edlibi, a survivor of the attack, said the gas left her unable to breathe and made her eyes well up with tears.

“We were in the basement, around dinner time, when there was a lot of bombardment, and we felt a very, very strong chlorine smell,” she said. “Before I knew it, my husband was carrying me to a (medical) point. I woke up to them throwing water on me.”

The medics were already working at full capacity after weeks of army artillery and air strikes, said Dirani, 20, a photographer who was working to document the victims of attacks during the conflict.

He grabbed his camera, put on a face mask, and ran with emergency workers to the nearby site of the attack, he said.

“On the way, we saw corpses in the street…They had tried to flee and didn’t make it.”

Medical relief groups say dozens of men, women, and children were gassed to death in Douma that night. Damascus and its key ally Moscow have dismissed the reports of a chemical attack.

The United States, France, and Britain launched missile strikes on Saturday over the suspected chemical attack, the first coordinated direct Western military action against President Bashar al-Assad in seven years of war.

The suspected gas attack took place during the final days of a government offensive on Douma, the last town to hold out in the eastern Ghouta enclave that the army has recaptured since February.

Dirani spoke to Reuters in a telephone interview from rebel territory in northern Syria, where thousands of insurgent fighters and civilians from Douma were sent in an evacuation under a surrender deal with the government.

Dirani said when he reached the site of the attack, he found nearly 30 bodies on the ground floor, and a few others on the first. Their eyes were open and foam had come out of their mouths, he said.

“There was no place for us to walk…They looked terrifying.”

He stopped taking pictures of the victims and rushed outside to get first aid, after his eyes burnt and his breath got short. Dirani said he was also coughing and felt a pain at the bottom of his stomach.

“The scenes I saw do not leave my mind, and they will never be erased from my memory,” he said.

He recalled the sight of a child twitching on the floor, being sprayed with water and being given oxygen. We were “waiting for him to get better or die”, he said.

“Everyone was crying, the medical staff were crying and I was also, and we couldn’t do anything.”

Rescue workers went out the next morning to look for more bodies, and people buried the dead a few days later.

Douma is located in the Ghouta region near Damascus where three towns were hit in a nerve gas attack that killed hundreds of people in 2013.

Edlibi said one of her two young daughters “turned blue right away” because she already had lung problems from previous shelling. She spoke to Reuters at a camp for the displaced in rebel-held territory in northern Syria.

“I still have trouble breathing till now and the headache is not going away,” she said.

(Editing by Ellen Francis, Tom Perry and Peter Graff)

Syria chemical weapons visit postponed after gunfire: sources

The United Nation vehicle carrying the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspectors is seen in Damascus, Syria April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

By Anthony Deutsch

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – The arrival of international chemical weapons inspectors at the location of a suspected poison gas attack in the Syrian town of Douma has been delayed after gunfire at the site during a visit by a U.N. security team on Tuesday, sources told Reuters.

The U.N. security team entered Douma to assess the situation ahead of the planned visit by inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said the sources, who had been briefed on the team’s deployment.

The OPCW inspectors are in Syria to investigate an April 7 incident in which Western countries and rescue workers say scores of civilians were gassed to death by government forces, which Damascus denies.

The United States, Britain and France fired missiles at three Syrian targets on Saturday to punish President Bashar al-Assad for the suspected chemical attack, the first coordinated Western action against Assad in seven years of war.

The U.S.-led intervention has threatened to escalate confrontation between the West and Assad’s backer Russia, although it has had no impact on the fighting on the ground, in which pro-government forces have pressed on with a campaign to crush the rebellion.

Assad is now in his strongest position since the early months of a civil war that has killed more than 500,000 people and driven more than half of Syrians from their homes.

DELAY CAUSES DISPUTE

A delay in the arrival of the inspectors at the Douma site has become a source of diplomatic dispute, because Western countries accuse Damascus and Moscow of hindering the mission. The United States and France have both said they believe the delay could be used to destroy evidence of the poison attack.

Russia and Syria deny using poison gas, hindering the investigation or tampering with evidence.

One source told Reuters the advance team had “encountered a security issue” during the visit to Douma, including gunfire which led to the delay. The source could not provide additional details. Another said the advance team had left after being met by protesters who demanded aid and hearing gunfire.

An official close to the Syrian government said the U.N. security team had been met by protesters demonstrating against the U.S.-led strikes, but did not mention any shooting. “It was a message from the people,” said the official. The mission “will continue its work”, the official said.

Douma was the last town to hold out in the besieged eastern Ghouta enclave, the last big rebel bastion near the capital Damascus, which was captured by a government advance over the past two months. The last rebels abandoned the town on Saturday, hours after the U.S.-led missile strikes, leaving government forces in control of the site of the suspected chemical attack.

Syria’s U.N. ambassador said on Tuesday the fact-finding mission would begin its work in Douma on Wednesday if the U.N. security team deemed the situation there safe.

A U.N. source said the OPCW inspectors would probably not be going to Douma on Wednesday. The U.N. source did not give details of the shooting incident. The source did not say when the inspectors might visit the site, or whether a planned visit to Douma on Wednesday had been postponed.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch in The Hague, Laila Bassam, Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut; Writing by Ellen Francis/Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Raissa Kasolowsky and Peter Graff)

Chemical weapons experts enter site of attack in Syrian town

Members of Syrian police sit at a damaged building at the city of Douma, Damascus, Syria April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Ali Hashish

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Global chemical weapons inspectors finally reached the Syrian town on Tuesday where a suspected poison gas attack took place, days after the United States, Britain and France launched missile strikes to punish Damascus for it.

Syrian state television reported that the experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had entered Douma, where Western countries say scores of civilians sheltering from bombs were gassed to death on April 7.

France said it was very likely that evidence of the poison gas attack was disappearing before the inspectors could reach the site. Syria and its ally Russia deny that any chemical attack took place.

Douma is now in the hands of government forces after the last rebels withdrew just hours after U.S., French and British forces fired more than 100 missiles to hit three suspected chemical weapons development or storage sites.

Saturday’s air strikes were the first coordinated Western strikes against Assad’s government in a seven-year war that has killed more than 500,000 people and drawn in global powers and neighbouring states.

The intervention threatened to escalate confrontation between the West and Russia but has had no significant impact on the ground, where President Bashar al-Assad is now in his strongest position since the war’s early days and shows no sign of slowing down his campaign to crush the rebellion.

YARMOUK

The Syrian army began preparatory shelling on Tuesday for an assault on the last area outside its control near Damascus, a commander in the pro-government alliance said.

Recovering the Yarmouk camp and neighbouring areas south of the city would give Assad complete control over Syria’s capital. Yarmouk, Syria’s biggest camp for Palestinian refugees, has been under the control of Islamic State fighters for years. Although most residents have fled, the United Nations says several thousand remain.

Assad has benefited from Russian air power since 2015 to regain large swathes of Syria. The suspected poison gas attack creates a conundrum for Western powers, who are determined to punish Assad for using chemical weapons but have no strategy for the sort of sustained intervention that might damage him.

Damascus and Moscow have broadcast statements from hospital workers in Douma – which medical aid groups operating in rebel areas have dismissed as propaganda – saying that no chemical attack took place.

Syrian state media reported that missiles had again targeted an airbase overnight, but the commander in the regional military alliance backing the government, speaking on condition of anonymity, later told Reuters it was a false alarm.

The commander said the new offensive would target Islamic State and Nusra Front militants in Yarmouk camp and al-Hajar al-Aswad district. Rebels in the adjoining Beit Sahm area had agreed to withdraw on buses, he said.

EASTERN GHOUTA

A government media tour on Monday of Douma, the biggest town in the former rebel enclave of eastern Ghouta just outside Damascus, revealed severe destruction and the plight of residents who had survived years of siege.

The assault on eastern Ghouta began in February and ended in government victory on Saturday when rebels withdrew from the town. All the rebel groups controlling areas of eastern Ghouta eventually agreed surrender deals that involved withdrawal to opposition-held areas of northwestern Syria.

After the recapture of eastern Ghouta, Assad still has several smaller pockets of ground to recover from rebels, as well as two major areas they hold in the northwest and southwest.

Besides the pocket south of Damascus, rebels still hold besieged enclaves in the town of Dumayr northeast of Damascus, in the Eastern Qalamoun mountains nearby, and around Rastan north of Homs.

The pro-government commander said the army had prepared for military action in the Eastern Qalamoun, but that Russia was working on securing the rebels’ withdrawal without a battle. State television said on Tuesday that rebels in Dumayr had also agreed to withdraw.

In Idlib in northwest Syria, the largest area still held by rebels, a government assault could bring Damascus into confrontation with Turkey, which has set up a string of military observation posts in the area.

Ali Akbar Velayati, a top Iranian official, said during a visit to Damascus last week that he hoped the army would soon regain Idlib and areas of eastern Syria now held by an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias backed by Washington.

 

(Reporting by Laila Bassam, additional reporting by Dahlia Nehme; Editing by Kevin Liffey; Writing by Angus McDowall and Peter Graff; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Inspectors push to visit suspected Syria gas attack site after Western strikes

A man is washed following alleged chemical weapons attack, in what is said to be Douma, Syria in this still image from video obtained by Reuters on April 8, 2018. White Helmets/Reuters TV via REUTERS

By Laila Bassam

DAMASCUS (Reuters) – International inspectors were to try on Monday to visit the site of a suspected gas attack which brought U.S.-led missile strikes on Syria and heightened the diplomatic confrontation between the West and President Bashar al-Assad’s main ally Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Sunday more Western attacks on Syria would bring chaos to world affairs, and Washington prepared to increase pressure on Russia with new economic sanctions.

Moscow also condemned the Western states for refusing to wait for the findings of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspection team on the alleged attack before launching the strikes.

But the U.S. envoy to the global watchdog said on Monday Russia may have tampered with the site of the incident on April 7 in Douma outside of Damascus.

“It is long overdue that this council condemns the Syrian government for its reign of chemical terror and demands international accountability those responsible for these heinous acts,” U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Ward said in comments seen by Reuters.

In London, British Prime Minister Theresa May was facing criticism over her decision to bypass parliament and take part in the air strikes against Syria.

The United States, France and Britain launched 105 missiles targeting what the Pentagon said were three chemical weapons facilities in Syria in retaliation for the suspected poison gas attack in Douma on April 7.

The Western countries blame Assad for the Douma attack, which a Syrian medical relief group said killed dozens of people and which thrust Syria’s seven-year-old conflict into the forefront of global concern once again. The Syrian government and its Russian ally deny involvement.

Inspectors for the Hague-based OPCW met Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in the presence of Russian officers and a senior Syrian security official in Damascus for about three hours on Sunday.

The inspectors were due on Monday to attempt to visit Douma, but the British delegation to the OPCW said they had not yet been granted access, citing the agency’s director general.

Douma, which lies in the eastern Goutha district on the outskirts of the capital, was one of the last bastions near Damascus of rebels fighting to topple Assad, and the alleged attack took place amid a ferocious government offensive.

In the aftermath, the remnants of the rebel army evacuated, handing Assad one of the biggest victories in a war that has killed about half a million people and laid waste to whole cities.

The U.S.-led strikes did nothing to alter the strategic balance or dent Assad’s supremacy and the Western allies have said the aim was to prevent the further use of chemical weapons, not to intervene in the civil war or topple Assad.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson made this clear on Monday as he arrived at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg, telling reporters: “I’m afraid the Syrian war will go on in its horrible, miserable way. But it was the world saying that we’ve had enough of the use of chemical weapons.”

MORE SANCTIONS

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said on Sunday the United States would announce new economic sanctions aimed at companies dealing with equipment related to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons.

Responding to Haley’s remarks, Evgeny Serebrennikov, deputy head of a Russian parliamentary defence committee, said Moscow was ready for the penalties.

“They are hard for us, but will do more damage to the USA and Europe,” RIA news agency quoted Serebrennikov as saying.

Although U.S. President Donald Trump had declared: “Mission accomplished” after the strikes, U.S. Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie at the Pentagon acknowledged that elements of the program remained and he could not guarantee that Syria would be unable to conduct a chemical attack in the future.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, which fights alongside the Syrian army, said the U.S. military had kept its strikes limited because it knew a wider attack would spark retaliation from Damascus and its allies and inflame the region.

The Western leaders were also facing scrutiny at home over their actions.

Britain’s May will make a statement to parliament on Monday on her decision and will repeat her assertion that Assad’s forces were highly likely responsible for the attack. The allies could not wait “to alleviate further humanitarian suffering caused by chemical weapons attacks”, according to excerpts of her speech.

But she will be questioned over why she broke with a convention to seek parliamentary approval for the action, a decision that she and her ministers say was driven by the need to act quickly.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, has questioned the legal basis for Britain’s involvement.

Britain has said there are no plans for future strikes against Syria, but Johnson warned Assad that all options would be considered if chemical weapons were used against Syrians again.

(This version of the story has been refiled to add Assad title in lead)

(Reporting by Leila Bassam in Damascus, Jack Stubbs and Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow, ing by Jeff Mason, Susan Cornwell and Joel Schectman in Washington, Michelle Nichols in New York, Samia Nakhoul, Tom Perry, Ellen Francis and Angus McDowall in Beirut, Kinda Makieh in Barzeh, Syria, Elizabeth Piper, Michael Holden and Guy Faulconbridge in London, Laurence Frost, Michel Rose and Ingrid Melander in Paris, Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Russia’s Putin predicts global ‘chaos’ if West hits Syria again

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a ceremony to receive credentials from foreign ambassadors at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia April 11, 2018. Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool via REUTERS

By Jack Stubbs and Laila Bassam

MOSCOW/DAMASCUS (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin warned on Sunday that further Western attacks on Syria would bring chaos to world affairs, while signs emerged that Moscow and Washington want to pull back from the worst crisis in their relations for years.

Putin made his remarks in a telephone conversation with Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani after the United States, France and Britain launched missile strikes on Syria on Saturday over a suspected poison gas attack.

A Kremlin statement said Putin and Rouhani agreed that the Western strikes had damaged the chances of achieving a political resolution in the multi-sided, seven-year conflict that has killed at least half a million people.

“Vladimir Putin, in particular, stressed that if such actions committed in violation of the U.N. Charter continue, then it will inevitably lead to chaos in international relations,” a Kremlin statement said.

The attacks struck at the heart of Syria’s chemical weapons program, Washington said, in retaliation for a suspected poison gas attack a week ago. All three participants insisted the strikes were not aimed at toppling President Bashar al-Assad or intervening in the conflict.

The bombings, hailed by U.S. President Donald Trump as a success but denounced by Damascus and its allies as an act of aggression, marked the biggest intervention by Western countries against Assad and ally Russia, whose foreign minister Sergei Lavrov called them “unacceptable and lawless”.

Putin’s comments were published shortly after Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov struck a more conciliatory note by saying Moscow would make every effort to improve political relations with the West.

When asked whether Russia was prepared to work with the proposals of Western countries at the United Nations, Ryabkov told TASS news agency: “Now the political situation is extremely tense, the atmosphere is extremely electrified, so I will not make any predictions.

“We will work calmly, methodically and professionally, using all opportunities to remove the situation from its current extremely dangerous political peak.”

Russian Foreign Ministry official Vladimir Ermakov said Washington would want to maintain a dialogue with Moscow about strategic stability after the raids, Russian media reported.

“In the U.S. administration there are specific people who it is possible to talk with,” said Ermakov, head of the ministry’s department for non-proliferation and arms control.

In Damascus, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, met inspectors from the global chemical weapons watchdog OPCW for about three hours in the presence of Russian officers and a senior Syrian security official.

The inspectors were due to attempt to visit the site of the suspected gas attack in Douma on April 7, which medical relief organizations say killed dozens of people. Moscow condemned the Western states for refusing to wait for OPCW’s findings before attacking.

A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer and crew, being deployed to launch strike as part of the multinational response to Syria's use of chemical weapons, is seen in this image released from Al Udeid Air Base, Doha, Qatar on April 14, 2018. U.S. Air Force/Handout via REUTERS

A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer and crew, being deployed to launch strike as part of the multinational response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, is seen in this image released from Al Udeid Air Base, Doha, Qatar on April 14, 2018. U.S. Air Force/Handout via REUTERS

HYSTERIA

Mekdad declined to comment to reporters waiting outside the hotel where the meeting took place.

Russia denounced allegations of a gas attack in Douma and said it was staged by Britain to whip up anti-Russian hysteria.

In an indication that the West, too, would prefer to lower tensions, the United States and Britain both reiterated that their military action on Saturday was not aimed at Assad, Putin’s ally, only at his use of chemical weapons.

Speaking to the BBC, Britain’s Foreign Secretary (Minister) Boris Johnson said that Western powers had no plans for further missile strikes, though they would assess their options if Damascus used chemical weapons again.

“This is not about regime change … This is not about trying to turn the tide of the conflict in Syria,” he told the BBC, adding that Russia was the only country able to pressure Assad to negotiate an end to the conflict.

Asked about U.S.-Russia relations, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said ties were “very strained” but that the United States still hoped for a better relationship.

Haley said that the United States would not pull its troops out of Syria until its goals were accomplished. Speaking on Fox News Sunday, Haley listed three aims for the United States: ensuring that chemical weapons are not used in any way that poses a risk to U.S. interests, that Islamic State is defeated and that there is a good vantage point to watch what Iran is doing.

Trump has made clear he wants to withdraw the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops involved in the anti-Islamic State campaign in Syria. But he appeared to contradict that message when he said on Saturday that Western allies were prepared to “sustain” the military response if Assad does not stop using prohibited chemical weapons.

British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn said the legal basis used to support the British role was debatable, adding that he would only support action backed by the U.N. Security Council.

“I say to the foreign secretary, I say to the prime minister, where is the legal basis for this?” Corbyn said in an interview with the BBC.

“RESILIENCE”

In Damascus, Assad told a group of visiting Russian lawmakers that the Western missile strikes were an act of aggression, Russian news agencies reported.

Syria released video of the wreckage of a bombed-out research lab, but also of Assad arriving at work as usual, with the caption “morning of resilience” and there were no immediate reports of casualties.

Russian agencies quoted the lawmakers as saying that Assad was in a “good mood”, had praised the Soviet-era air defense systems Syria used to repel the Western attacks and had accepted an invitation to visit Russia at an unspecified time.

President Trump had said “mission accomplished” on Twitter after the strikes, though U.S. Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie at the Pentagon acknowledged elements of the program remain and he could not guarantee that Syria would be unable to conduct a chemical attack in the future.

Russian and Iranian military help over the past three years has allowed Assad to crush the rebel threat to topple him.

The United States, Britain and France have all participated in the Syrian conflict for years, arming rebels, bombing Islamic State fighters and deploying troops to fight the militants. But they have refrained from targeting Assad’s government, apart from a volley of U.S. missiles last year.

RED LINE BREACHED?

France, the United States and Britain plan to put forward a new draft resolution aimed at dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons program, wiping out terrorism, demanding a ceasefire across Syria and finding a political solution to the war, French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre told the council on Saturday.

Most Gulf stock markets rose on Sunday, supported by firm oil prices and relief that the weekend’s military attack on Syria was relatively limited in scope and there was no immediate retaliation.

Internationally, gold and oil are expected to extend gains on Monday, albeit modestly, when the markets open for the first time since the missile attack. Equities and bonds are unlikely to suffer big losses unless the West strikes again or Russia retaliates.

Gold has benefited in recent days as a safe-haven asset amid a U.S.-China trade dispute and the escalating conflict in Syria, which also pushed oil above $70 a barrel on concerns over a spike in Middle Eastern tensions.

The strikes suggest that Trump may have reset America’s red line for military intervention in Syria over the use of chemical weapons.

The U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey fires a Tomahawk land attack missile April 14, 2018. U.S. Navy/Lt. j.g Matthew Daniels/Handout via REUTERS.

The U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey fires a Tomahawk land attack missile April 14, 2018. U.S. Navy/Lt. j.g Matthew Daniels/Handout via REUTERS.

In Washington, a senior administration official said that “while the available information is much greater on the chlorine use, we do have significant information that also points to sarin use” in the attack.

Sarin had previously appeared to be the threshold for intervention. Chlorine, in contrast, has been used more widely in Syria’s conflict without past U.S. reprisals and is far easier to find and weaponize, experts say.

Washington described the strike targets as a center near Damascus for the research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological weapons; a chemical weapons storage site near the city of Homs; and another site near Homs that stored chemical weapons equipment and housed a command post.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the attack as a crime and the Western leaders as criminals, while U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all Security Council members to use restraint but said charges of chemical weapons use demand investigation.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis called on world leaders to renew efforts to bring peace to Syria, saying he was deeply troubled by their failure to agree on a joint plan to end the bloodshed.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper and Tom Perry; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Jeff Mason, Steve Holland, Idrees Ali, Yara Bayoumy, Matt Spetalnick and Joel Schectman in Washington; Michelle Nichols in New York; Samia Nakhoul, Tom Perry, Laila Bassam, Ellen Francis and Angus McDowall in Beirut; Kinda Makieh in Barzeh; Michael Holden and Guy Faulconbridge in London; and Jean-Baptiste Vey, Geert de Clercq and Matthias Blamont in Paris; Andrey Ostroukh and Jack Stubbs in Moscow; Alison Bevege in Sydney,; Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Adrian Croft, Alexander Smith and David Goodman)

U.S., UK, France strike Syria to punish Assad for suspected poison gas use

A missile is seen crossing over Damascus, Syria April 14, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

By Steve Holland and Tom Perry

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT (Reuters) – U.S., British and French forces struck Syria with more than 100 missiles on Saturday in the first coordinated Western strikes against the Damascus government, targeting what they called chemical weapons sites in retaliation for a poison gas attack.

U.S. President Donald Trump announced the military action from the White House, saying the three allies had “marshaled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality”.

A child is treated in a hospital in Douma, eastern Ghouta in Syria, after what a Syria medical relief group claims was a suspected chemical attack April, 7, 2018. White Helmets/Handout via REUTERS

A child is treated in a hospital in Douma, eastern Ghouta in Syria, after what a Syria medical relief group claims was a suspected chemical attack April, 7, 2018. White Helmets/Handout via REUTERS

As he spoke, explosions rocked Damascus. In the morning he tweeted: “Mission accomplished”.

The bombing represents a major escalation in the West’s confrontation with Assad’s superpower ally Russia, but is unlikely to alter the course of a multi-sided war which has killed at least half a million people in the past seven years.

That in turn raises the question of where Western countries go from here, after a volley of strikes denounced by Damascus and Moscow as at once both reckless and pointless.

By morning, the Western countries said their bombing was over for now. Syria released video of the wreckage of a bombed-out research lab, but also of President Bashar al-Assad arriving at work as usual, with the caption “morning of resilience”.

There were no immediate reports of casualties, with Damascus allies saying the buildings hit had been evacuated in advance.

British Prime Minister Theresa May described the strike as “limited and targeted”, with no intention of toppling Assad or intervening more widely in the war. She said she had authorized British action after intelligence showed Assad’s government was to blame for gassing the Damascus suburb of Douma a week ago.

In a speech she gave a vivid description of the victims of the chemical strike that killed scores, huddling in basements as gas rained down. She said Russia had thwarted diplomatic efforts to halt Assad’s use of poison gas, leaving no option but force.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the strikes had been limited so far to Syria’s chemical weapons facilities. Paris released a dossier which it said showed Damascus was to blame for the poison gas attack on Douma, the last town holding out in a rebel-held swathe of territory near Damascus which government forces have recaptured in this year’s biggest offensive.

Washington described its targets as a center near Damascus for the research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological weapons, a chemical weapons storage site near the city of Homs and another site near Homs that stored chemical weapons equipment and housed a command post.

A plane prepares to take off as part of the joint airstrike operation by the British, French and U.S. militaries in Syria, in this still image from video footage obtained on April 14, 2018 from social media. courtesy Elysee/Twitter/via REUTERS

A plane prepares to take off as part of the joint airstrike operation by the British, French and U.S. militaries in Syria, in this still image from video footage obtained on April 14, 2018 from social media. courtesy Elysee/Twitter/via REUTERS

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called the strikes a “one time shot”, although Trump raised the prospect of further strikes if Assad’s government again used chemical weapons.

“We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” the U.S. president said in a televised address.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss what Moscow decried as an unjustified attack on a sovereign state. Diplomats said the meeting would take place in New York at 11:00 am (1500 GMT).

Syrian state media called the attack a “flagrant violation of international law.” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called it a crime and the Western leaders criminals.

Inspectors from the global chemical weapons watchdog OPCW were due to try to visit Douma later on Saturday to inspect the site of the April 7 suspected gas attack. Moscow condemned the Western states for refusing to wait for their findings.

Russia, whose relations with the West have deteriorated to levels of Cold War-era hostility, has denied any gas attack took place in Douma and even accused Britain of staging it to whip up anti-Russian hysteria.

But despite responding outwardly with fury to Saturday’s attack, Damascus and its allies also made clear that they considered it a one-off, unlikely to meaningfully harm Assad.

“ABSORBED” THE ATTACKS

A senior official in a regional alliance that backs Damascus told Reuters the Syrian government and its allies had “absorbed” the attack. The sites that were targeted had been evacuated days ago thanks to a warning from Russia, the official said.

“If it is finished, and there is no second round, it will be considered limited,” the official said.

Dmitry Belik, a Russian member of parliament who was in Damascus and witnessed the strikes, told Reuters by email: “The attack was more of a psychological nature rather than practical. Luckily there are no substantial losses or damages.”

At least six loud explosions were heard in Damascus and smoke rose over the city, a Reuters witness said. A second witness said the Barzah district of Damascus was hit.

A scientific research lab in Barzah appeared to have been completely destroyed, according to footage broadcast by Syrian state TV station al-Ikhbariya. Smoke rose from piles of rubble and a heavily damaged bus was parked outside.

But the Western intervention has virtually no chance of altering the military balance of power at a time when Assad is in his strongest position since the war’s early months.

ASSAD STRONG

In Douma, site of last week’s suspected gas attack, the final buses were due on Saturday to transport out rebels and their families who agreed to surrender the town, Syrian state TV reported. That effectively ends all resistance in the suburbs of Damascus known as eastern Ghouta, marking one of the biggest victories for Assad’s government of the entire war.

Russian and Iranian military help over the past three years has let Assad crush the rebel threat to topple him.

The United States, Britain and France have all participated in the Syrian conflict for years, arming rebels, bombing Islamic State fighters and deploying troops on the ground to fight that group. But they have refrained from targeting Assad’s government apart from a volley of U.S. missiles last year.

Although the Western countries have all said for seven years that Assad must leave power, they held back in the past from striking his government, lacking a wider strategy to defeat him.

The Western powers were at pains on Saturday to avert any further escalation, including any unexpected conflict with their superpower rival Russia. French Defense Minister Florence Parly said the Russians “were warned beforehand” to avert conflict.

The combined U.S., British and French assault involved more missiles, but appears to have struck more limited targets, than a similar strike Trump ordered a year ago in retaliation for an earlier suspected chemical weapons attack. Last year’s U.S. strike, which Washington said at the time would cripple Assad’s air forces and defenses, had effectively no impact on the war.

Mattis said the United States conducted the strikes with conclusive evidence that chlorine gas had been used in the April 7 attack in Syria. Evidence that the nerve agent sarin also was used was inconclusive, he said.

Syria agreed in 2013 to give up its chemical weapons after a nerve gas attack killed hundreds of people in Douma. Damascus is still permitted to have chlorine for civilian use, although its use as a weapon is banned. Allegations of Assad’s chlorine use have been frequent during the war, although unlike nerve agents chlorine did not produce mass casualties as seen last week.

Mattis, who U.S. officials said had earlier warned in internal debates that too large an attack would risk confrontation with Russia, described the strikes as a one-off to dissuade Assad from “doing this again”.

But a U.S. official familiar with the military planning said there could be more air strikes if the intelligence indicates Assad has not stopped making, importing, storing or using chemical weapons, including chlorine. The official said this could require a more sustained U.S. air and naval presence.

EXIT SYRIA?

The U.S., British and French leaders all face domestic political issues surrounding the decision to use force in Syria.

Trump has been leery of U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, and is eager to withdraw roughly 2,000 troops in Syria taking part in the campaign against Islamic State.

“America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria, under no circumstances,” Trump said in his address.

Trump has tried to build good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A prosecutor is investigating whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow in illegal efforts to help him get elected, an investigation Trump calls a witch hunt.

In Britain, May’s decision to strike without consulting parliament overturns an arrangement in place since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Her predecessor David Cameron was politically hurt when he lost a parliamentary vote on whether to bomb Syria.

Britain has led international condemnation of Russia, persuading more than 20 countries to expel Russian diplomats, over the poisoning with a nerve agent of a former Russian spy in England last month. May made clear that case was part of her calculus in ordering retaliation for chemical weapons in Syria.

She argued on Saturday it was necessary to act quickly without waiting for parliament’s approval. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn accused her of following Trump, hugely unpopular in Britain, into battle without waiting for the evidence.

In France, Macron has long threatened to use force against Assad if he uses chemical weapons, and had faced criticism over what opponents described as an empty threat.

To view a graphic on an overview of chemical warfare, click: http://tmsnrt.rs/2pKDWOY

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Tom Perry,; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Tim Ahmann, Eric Beech, Lesley Wroughton, Lucia Mutikani, Idrees Ali, Patricia Zengerle, Matt Spetalnick and John Walcott in Washington; Samia Nakhoul, Tom Perry, Laila Bassam, Ellen Francis and Angus McDowall in Beirut; Michael Holden and Guy Faulconbridge in London; and Jean-Baptiste Vey, Geert de Clerq and Matthias Blamont in Paris; Polina Ivanova in Moscow; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Angus MacSwan)