Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal discharged from UK hospital

FILE PHOTO: The forensic tent, covering the bench where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found, is repositioned by officials in protective suits in the centre of Salisbury, Britain, March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls/File Photo

By Alistair Smout and Sarah Young

LONDON (Reuters) – Sergei Skripal, the Russian former spy who was left in critical condition by a nerve agent attack in Britain more than two months ago, has been discharged from hospital, national health authorities said on Friday.

Skripal, 66, a former colonel in Russia’s military intelligence who betrayed dozens of agents to Britain, and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a bench in the southern English city of Salisbury on March 4.

Britain’s accusations that Russia was behind the nerve agent attack led to a Russia-West crisis in which Western governments, including the United States, have expelled more than 100 Russian diplomats. Russia has denied any involvement in the poisoning and retaliated in kind.

The Skripals were in a critical condition for weeks and doctors at one point feared that, even if they survived, they might have suffered brain damage. But their health began to improve rapidly, and Yulia was discharged last month.

“It is fantastic news that Sergei Skripal is well enough to leave Salisbury District Hospital,” the hospital’s Chief Executive Cara Charles-Barks said in a statement.

Police have said they will not give any details of the Skripals’ new security arrangements in the interests of their safety, and neither they nor the hospital gave any details of Sergei’s new whereabouts. Yulia was taken to a secure location after her release, the BBC reported at the time.

Britain and international chemicals weapons inspectors say the Skripals were poisoned with Novichok, a deadly group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet military in the 1970s and 1980s. Foreign minister Boris Johnson called on Friday for a meeting of parties to the international Chemical Weapons Convention to find ways to strengthen the agreement.

A spokeswoman for British Prime Minister Theresa May, who called the Salisbury attack a “reckless and despicable act”, welcomed news of Skripal’s discharge.

Moscow has denied involvement in the first known offensive use of such a nerve agent on European soil since World War Two. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that had a weapons-grade nerve agent been used on Skripal, he would be dead.

Russia has suggested Britain carried out the attack itself to stoke anti-Russian hysteria, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last month that the agent used in the attack may have never been made in Russia.

Putin on Friday welcomed Skripal’s progress, and Russia’s ambassador to London reiterated Russia’s desire to see the pair, saying that currently Britain was not fulfilling its obligations under international law.

“We’re happy that he’s alright,” Alexander Yakovenko told reporters.

“We’re still demanding the access to these people. We want just to understand how they feel and we want them to say personally what they want. If they don’t want our assistance it’s fine. We want to see them physically.”

Britain has said previously that Yulia, a Russian citizen, has chosen not to take up Russia’s offer of help.

Salisbury Hospital said that patient confidentiality limited the information they could give, but that the “acutely unwell” Skripals had been stabilized and kept alive until their bodies could replace poisoned enzymes with new ones.

(Additional reporting Michael Holden and Ana de Liz; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Catherine Evans)

Russia, after Netanyahu visit, backs off Syria S-300 missile supplies

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia May 9, 2018. Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool/File Photo via REUTERS

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia is not in talks with the Syrian government about supplying advanced S-300 ground-to-air missiles and does not think they are needed, the Izvestia daily cited a top Kremlin aide as saying on Friday, in an apparent U-turn by Moscow.

The comments, by Vladimir Kozhin, an aide to President Vladimir Putin who oversees Russian military assistance to other countries, follow a visit to Moscow by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, who has been lobbying Putin hard not to transfer the missiles.

FILE PHOTO: An S-300 air defense missile system launches a missile during the Keys to the Sky competition at the International Army Games 2017 at the Ashuluk shooting range outside Astrakhan, Russia August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: An S-300 air defense missile system launches a missile during the Keys to the Sky competition at the International Army Games 2017 at the Ashuluk shooting range outside Astrakhan, Russia August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

Russia last month hinted it would supply the weapons to President Bashar al-Assad, over Israeli objections, after Western military strikes on Syria. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the strikes had removed any moral obligation Russia had to withhold the missiles and Russia’s Kommersant daily cited unnamed military sources as saying deliveries might begin imminently.

But Kozhin’s comments, released so soon after Netanyahu’s Moscow talks with Putin, suggest the Israeli leader’s lobbying efforts have, for the time being, paid off.

“For now, we’re not talking about any deliveries of new modern (air defense) systems,” Izvestia cited Kozhin as saying when asked about the possibility of supplying Syria with S-300s.

The Syrian military already had “everything it needed,” Kozhin added.

The Kremlin played down the idea that it had performed a U-turn on the missile question or that any decision was linked to Netanyahu’s visit.

“Deliveries (of the S-300s) were never announced as such,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call, when asked about the matter.

“But we did say after the (Western) strikes (on Syria) that of course Russia reserved the right to do anything it considered necessary.”

The possibility of missile supplies to Assad along with its military foray into Syria itself has helped Moscow boost its Middle East clout. with Putin hosting everyone from Netanyahu to the presidents of Turkey and Iran and the Saudi king.

ISRAELI LOBBYING

Israel has made repeated efforts to persuade Moscow not to sell the S-300s to Syria, as it fears this would hinder its aerial capabilities against arms shipments to Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah. Israel has carried out scores of air strikes against suspected shipments.

On Thursday, Israel said it had attacked nearly all of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria after Iranian forces fired rockets at Israeli-held territory. S-300s could have significantly complicated the Israeli strikes.

The missile system, originally developed by the Soviet military, but since modernized and available in several versions with significantly different capabilities, fires missiles from trucks and is designed to shoot down military aircraft and short and medium-range ballistic missiles.

Though since been superseded by the more modern S-400 system, the S-300s are still regarded as highly potent and outstrip anything that the Syrian government currently has.

Syria currently relies on a mixture of less advanced Russian-made anti-aircraft systems to defend its air space.

Russian media on Friday were actively circulating a video released by the Israeli military which showed an Israeli missile destroying one such system — a Russian-made Pantsir S-1 air defense battery — on Thursday in Syria.

(Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Israeli minister threatens Assad over any Iranian attacks from Syria

Israel's Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz is seen during a quadrilateral Ministerial Summit in Nicosia, Cyprus December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel could respond to any Iranian attack on it from Syria by toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, an Israeli security cabinet minister said on Monday, hinting that Assad himself may be targeted for assassination.

Israel and Iran have traded blows over Syria since February, stirring concern that major escalation could be looming ahead of next week’s review decision by U.S. President Donald Trump on the 2015 international nuclear deal with Tehran.

On April 9, an air strike killed seven Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps members at the Syrian base. Tehran blamed Israel and vowed unspecified retaliation, drawing Israeli counter-threats to broaden attacks on Iranian military assets in Syria.

Sharpening these warnings, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Monday that Assad may find himself in Israel’s sights.

“If Assad allows Iran to turn Syria into a military vanguard against us, to attack us from Syrian territory, he should know that would be the end of him, the end of his regime,” Steinitz told the Ynet news site.

Asked if that meant Israel might assassinate Assad, Steinitz said: “His blood would be forfeit.” He also appeared to suggest that his remarks did not reflect Israeli government policy, saying: “I’m not talking about any concrete proposal.”

There was no immediate response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office or from Israel’s Defence Ministry.

A Ynet text story had quoted Steinitz as saying explicitly that Israel would kill Assad, but this was not borne out by a video clip of the interview.

Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and Russia have been reinforcing Damascus against a 7-year-old Syrian rebellion. The Israelis worry that Iran’s garrison will remain, linking with Hezbollah to form a broad Syrian-Lebanese front against them.

On Sunday, Israeli media carried what they described as an alert by Israel’s intelligence services that Iran was planning a missile salvo against Israeli military bases from within Syria.

Some analysts interpreted the publication as a warning to Iran that its plans were known, lest it try to carry out the missile strike without explicitly claiming responsibility.

On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to discuss Syria, where Moscow wants to see Assad’s rule restored.

“Whoever is interested in Assad’s survival should do the honor of telling Assad to prevent attacks on Israel,” Steinitz said, alluding to Putin.

(Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Hugh Lawson, William Maclean)

Russia: our response to U.S. sanctions will be precise and painful

FILE PHOTO: A view shows a tower of the Kremlin (R) and the Foreign Ministry headquarters (back) in Moscow, Russia March 16, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of the Russian upper house of parliament, said on Wednesday that Moscow’s response to U.S. sanctions will be targeted and painful, Russian news agencies reported.

The United States this month added several Russian firms and officials to a sanctions blacklist in response to what it said were the Kremlin’s “malign activities”. Moscow says those sanctions are unlawful and has warned that it will retaliate.

“No one should be under any illusions,” Matvienko, who is closely aligned with the Kremlin, was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

“Russia’s response to the sanctions, our so-called counter-sanctions, will be precise, painful, and without question sensitive for exactly those countries that imposed them (the sanctions) on Russia,” she was quoted as saying.

“Sanctions are a double-edged sword and those who impose them should understand that sanctions against countries, especially those like Russia, will carry with them risks of serious consequences for those who impose them.”

Lawmakers in the lower house of the Russian parliament have drawn up legislation that would give the government powers to ban or restrict imports of U.S. goods and services ranging from medicines to software and rocket engines. However, the Kremlin has not yet said if it backs such measures.

A senior U.S. administration official said on Monday President Donald Trump has delayed imposing additional sanctions on Russia and is unlikely to approve them unless Moscow carries out a new cyber attack or some other provocation.

(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Catherine Evans)

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)

British ministers back action to deter Syrian chemical weapon use

Britain's Home Secretary Amber Rudd leaves 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, April 12, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

By David Milliken and Alistair Smout

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May won backing from her senior ministers to take unspecified action with the United States and France to deter further use of chemical weapons by Syria after a suspected poison gas attack on civilians.

The prospect of a confrontation between Russia, the Syrian government’s ally, and the West has loomed since Trump said on Wednesday that missiles “will be coming” in response to the attack in the Syrian town of Douma on April 7.

Trump has since tempered those remarks and the White House said no final decisions on possible actions had been taken.

Russia has warned the West against attacking its Syrian ally President Bashar al-Assad, who is also supported by Iran, and says there is no evidence of a chemical attack in Douma, a town near Damascus which had been rebel-held until this month.

May has said “all indications” point to Syrian responsibility for the attack. She told her senior ministers on Thursday the Douma events showed a “deeply concerning” erosion of international legal norms barring the use of chemical weapons.

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. Pcture taken 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. Pcture taken April 7, 2018. White Helmets/Handout via REUTERS

“Cabinet agreed on the need to take action to alleviate humanitarian distress and to deter the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime,” a spokeswoman for the prime minister said in a statement after the meeting.

Ministers agreed that May should continue to work with the United States and France to come up with the right response. The statement made no specific reference to military action.

Later, May’s office said she had spoken with Trump by telephone, and the two had agreed it was vital to challenge Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and that they would continue to work closely together to do so.

Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran anti-war campaigner, said Britain should press for a U.N.-led investigation rather than follow the lead of the United States.

May has said that Russia’s veto at the Security Council of a vote to create a new inquiry on chemical attacks meant the U.N. could have no role in investigations.

“The government appears to be waiting for instructions from President Donald Trump on how to proceed,” Corbyn said in a statement.

“Britain should press for an independent U.N.-led investigation of last weekend’s horrific chemical weapons attack so that those responsible can be held to account.”

Corbyn has said any action in Syria should be put to a parliamentary vote. A YouGov poll showed just one in five members of the public support a strike on Syria.

The BBC said May was ready to give the go-ahead for Britain to take part in action led by the U.S. without seeking prior approval from parliament, and the Financial Times said the cabinet had agreed to this. The Downing Street statement did not mention parliament, and a spokeswoman did not comment on those reports.

May is not obliged to win parliament’s approval, but a non-binding constitutional convention to do so has been established since a 2003 vote on joining the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Britain has launched air strikes against Islamic State militants in Syria, but not against the country’s government.

Parliament voted down British military action against Assad’s government in 2013, in an embarrassment for May’s predecessor, David Cameron. That then deterred the U.S. administration of Barack Obama from similar action.

(This story corrects wording of paragraph two)

(Reporting by David Milliken, Kate Holton and Guy Faulconbridge; writing by Alistair Smout; editing by Andrew Roche)

Threat of U.S.-Russia clash hangs over Syria

Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vassily Nebenzia (L) and Bolivia's Ambassador to the United Nations Sacha Sergio Llorenty Soliz speak to the media outside Security Council chambers at the U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., April 12, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The prospect of Western military action in Syria that could lead to confrontation with Russia hung over the Middle East on Friday but there was no clear sign that a U.S.-led attack was imminent.

International chemical weapons experts were traveling to Syria to investigate an alleged gas attack by government forces on the town of Douma which killed dozens of people. Two days ago U.S. President Donald Trump warned that missiles “will be coming” in response to that attack.

The allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were eager on Friday to lay blame for the crisis not with him but with Trump.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said international relations should not depend on one person’s morning mood, in apparent reference to Trump’s tweets.

“We cannot depend on what someone on the other side of the ocean takes into his head in the morning. We cannot take such risks,” said Dvorkovich, speaking at a forum.

Russia has warned the West against attacking Assad, who is also supported by Iran, and says there is no evidence of a chemical attack in Douma, a town near Damascus which had been held by rebels until this month.

Vassily Nebenzia, Moscow’s ambassador to the United Nations, said he “cannot exclude” war between the United States and Russia.

“The immediate priority is to avert the danger of war,” he told reporters. “We hope there will be no point of no return.”

Sheikh Naim Qassem, deputy leader of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, told Lebanese daily al-Joumhouria: “The conditions do not point to a total war happening…unless Trump and (Israeli leader Benjamin) Netanyahu completely lose their minds.”

U.S. allies have offered strong words of support for Washington but no clear military plans have yet emerged.

British Prime Minister Theresa May won backing from her senior ministers on Thursday to take unspecified action with the United States and France to deter further use of chemical weapons by Syria.

Trump was also expected to speak with French President Emmanuel Macron, who said on Thursday France had proof the Syrian government carried out the Douma attack and would decide whether to strike back when all necessary information had been gathered.

ASSAD TIGHTENS GRIP

Trump himself appeared on Thursday to cast doubt on at least the timing of any U.S.-led military action, tweeting: “Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”

He met his national security team on the situation in Syria later in the day and “no final decision has been made,” the White House said in a statement.

“We are continuing to assess intelligence and are engaged in conversations with our partners and allies,” it said.

A team of experts from the global chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, was traveling to Syria and will start its investigations into the Douma incident on Saturday, the Netherlands-based agency said.

The capture of Douma has clinched a major victory for Assad, crushing what was once a center of the insurgency near Damascus, and underlines his unassailable position in the war.

He has cemented his control over most of the western, more heavily populated, part of the country, with rebels and jihadist insurgents largely contained to two areas on Syria’s northern and southern borders.

They still control the northwestern province of Idlib, near Turkey, and a southern region around Deraa, on the border with Jordan. Turkish forces and rebel allies control territory in northern Syria, while U.S.-backed Kurdish forces hold wide areas of the northeast, and pockets of Islamic State fighters remain.

But none of those any longer directly threaten Assad’s grip on power, which has been reinforced by Russian air power and Iran-backed fighters on the ground.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout, Tom Perry, Ellen Francis and Maria Tsvetkova; Writing by Andrew Roche; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Skripals poisoned with nerve agent, chemical arms watchdog confirms

FILE PHOTO: Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) arrive to begin work at the scene of the nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury, Britain, March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls/File Photo

By Anthony Deutsch and Guy Faulconbridge

THE HAGUE/LONDON (Reuters) – The lethal poison that struck down a former Russian spy and his daughter last month in England was a highly pure type of Novichok nerve agent, the global chemical weapons watchdog concluded on Thursday, backing Britain’s findings.

Sergei Skripal, a former colonel in Russian military intelligence who betrayed dozens of agents to Britain’s MI6 foreign spy service, and his daughter were found unconscious on a bench in the English cathedral city of Salisbury on March 4.

Britain blamed Russia for the poisoning and Prime Minister Theresa May said that the Skripals had been attacked with a military-grade nerve agent from the Novichok group of poisons, developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s.

Moscow denied any involvement and suggested Britain had carried out the attack to stoke anti-Russian hysteria, but Britain asked the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to check samples from Salisbury.

Testing by four laboratories affiliated with the global chemical weapons watchdog confirmed Britain’s findings and showed that the toxic chemical was “of high purity.”

The chemical weapons watchdog did not explicitly name Novichok in its published summary, say where the poison may have come from or assign blame for the attack. But it did confirm Britain’s analysis about the substance that had been used.

“The results of analysis by OPCW-designated laboratories of environmental and biomedical samples collected by the OPCW team confirm the findings of the United Kingdom relating to the identity of the toxic chemical,” the published summary said.

Testing by OPCW laboratories, the details of which were kept confidential, also found the substance used in Salisbury to be of “a high purity”, which supports the British government’s assertion that a state was involved.

The attack prompted the biggest Western expulsion of Russian diplomats since the Cold War as allies in Europe and the United States sided with May’s view that Moscow was either responsible or had lost control of the nerve agent.

Moscow has hit back by expelling Western diplomats, questioning how Britain knows that Russia was responsible and offering its rival interpretations, including that it amounted to a plot by British secret services.

NOVICHOK ATTACK

Russia has said it does not have such nerve agents and President Vladimir Putin said it was nonsense to think that Moscow would have poisoned Skripal and his daughter. A British police officer was also taken ill after attending the scene.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson hailed the chemical watchdog’s findings.

“There can be no doubt what was used and there remains no alternative explanation about who was responsible – only Russia has the means, motive and record,” Johnson said.

The poisoning of Skripal, a former double agent who settled in Britain in 2010 after being released by Moscow in a spy swap, shows “how reckless Russia is prepared to be”, the head of Britain’s GCHQ spy agency said on Thursday.

Yulia Skripal, who was released from hospital on Monday, said in a statement she was suffering from the effects of the poisoning, while her father remained seriously ill. She said she was declining an offer of assistance from the Russian Embassy. [L8N1RO6G7]

There are several variants of Novichok, a binary weapon containing two less-toxic chemicals that, when mixed, react to produce a poison several times more lethal than sarin or VX.

Russia’s ambassador to Britain, Alexander Yakovenko, has identified the alleged poison as Novichok A-234, derived from an earlier version known as A-232.

Britain has said the use of such an obscure poison indicates Moscow was either to blame or had lost control over its nerve agents.

“The high purity of the substance will strengthen the UK’s position that the agent was made by a highly proficient team and in a well refined process,” said Alastair Hay, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Toxicology at Britain’s University of Leeds.

The laboratory results, which came in on Wednesday night, were to be circulated to OPCW member states on Thursday. The results will be debated at an emergency OPCW session next Wednesday, to be convened at Britain’s request.

It is unclear how the OPCW will respond. Its executive council has been unable to take decisions due to splits between the Western powers and Russia that have also prevented it from acting in the wake of ongoing use of chemical weapons in Syria.

(Additional reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Missiles ‘will be coming’ to Syria, Trump warns Russia

A man walks with his bicycle at a damaged site in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

By Susan Heavey, Makini Brice and Tom Perry

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump warned Russia on Wednesday of imminent military action in Syria over a suspected poison gas attack, declaring that missiles “will be coming” and lambasting Moscow for standing by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Trump was reacting to a warning from Russia on Tuesday that any U.S. missiles fired at Syria over the deadly assault on a rebel enclave would be shot down and the launch sites targeted.

“Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’,” Trump wrote in a post on Twitter.

“You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!” Trump tweeted, referring to Moscow’s alliance with Assad.

In response, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a Facebook post that “smart missiles should fly towards terrorists, not towards the lawful government”.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said any U.S. missile strike could be an attempt to destroy evidence of the reported gas attack in the Syrian town of Douma, for which Damascus and Moscow have denied any responsibility.

In Damascus, the foreign ministry accused the United States, which has supported some rebel groups in the Syrian civil war, of using “fabrications and lies” as an excuse to hit its territory.

“We are not surprised by such a thoughtless escalation by a regime like the United States regime, which sponsored terrorism in Syria and still does,” the state news agency SANA cited an official source in the ministry as saying.

After the Douma attack, the insurgent group dug in there – Jaish al-Islam – finally agreed to withdraw. That sealed a major victory for Assad in the war, crushing a protracted rebellion in the eastern Ghouta region near the capital Damascus.

White House officials did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for more detail about Trump’s remarks. The U.S. Defense Department said it “does not comment on potential future military actions”.

Trump’s decision to disclose his decision to strike as well as the kind of weaponry to be used in a future military operation is likely to frustrate military planners, who hold such information closely.

He had repeatedly said he would not telegraph military moves toward foes, including North Korea and Islamic State. On Monday Trump said he would make a decision within 48 hours on a strong, forceful response to the attack in Syria, later telling reporters: “When I will not say, because I don’t like talking about timing.”

43 DEAD FROM CHEMICAL WEAPONS EXPOSURE -WHO

The World Health Organization said on Wednesday that 43 people had died in Saturday’s attack on Douma from “symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals”, and more than 500 in all had been treated.

Moscow’s threat to down U.S. missiles came from its ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, who said he was referring to a statement by President Vladimir Putin and the Russian armed forces chief of staff.

Zasypkin also said that any hostilities with Washington should be avoided and Moscow was ready for negotiations.

But his remarks could raise fears of direct conflict for the first time between major powers backing opposing sides in Syria’s protracted civil war.

Oil prices hit their highest level in more than three years on Wednesday after Trump’s threat to unleash missiles, and U.S. stock index futures fell sharply over rising concern about possible Russian-U.S. conflict over Syria.

The Kremlin said earlier on Wednesday it hoped all sides involved in Syria would avoid doing anything to destabilize an already volatile situation in the Middle East, and made clear it strongly opposed any U.S. strike on Damascus.

STANDOFF

Moscow and Washington stymied attempts by each other at the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday to set up international investigations into chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

Trump canceled on Tuesday a planned trip to Latin America later this week to focus instead on talks with Western allies about possible military action to punish Assad.

Zasypkin, the Russian ambassador, made his comments to Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV. “If there is a strike by the Americans, then … the missiles will be downed and even the sources from which the missiles were fired,” he said in Arabic.

The Russian military said on March 13 that it would respond to any U.S. strike on Syria by targeting any missiles and launchers involved. Russia is Assad’s most powerful ally and its devastating air power has helped him wrest back large areas of territory from rebels since 2015.

Zasypkin also said a clash between Russia and the United States over Syria “should be ruled out and therefore we are ready to hold negotiations”.

MISSILE SALVO FROM MEDITERRANEAN?

Any U.S. strike is likely to involve the navy, given the risk to aircraft from Russian and Syrian air defence systems. A U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, is in the Mediterranean.

With tensions growing, pan-European air traffic control agency Eurocontrol warned airlines to exercise caution in the eastern Mediterranean due to the possible launch of air strikes into Syria over the next 72 hours.

Eurocontrol said that air-to-ground and cruise missiles could be used within that period and there could be intermittent disruptions of radio navigation equipment.

Aviation regulators have been stepping up monitoring of conflict zones since Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was downed by a surface-to-air missile over Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 people on board. Recent warnings have tended to be after military action has started, so Eurocontrol’s pre-emptive notice suggests a heightening of regulatory scrutiny.

Both Russia and Iran, Assad’s other main ally, have warned his enemies against military action in recent days, underlining their commitment to the Syrian government they have armed and supported through years of conflict.

Ali Akbar Velayati, the top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said during a visit to Damascus on Tuesday that an Israeli attack on an air base in Syria earlier this week would “not remain without response”.

Members of Syrian forces of President Bashar al Assad stand guard near destroyed buildings in Jobar, eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo

Members of Syrian forces of President Bashar al Assad stand guard near destroyed buildings in Jobar, eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo

RISK OF “UNCONTROLLABLE ESCALATION”

On Monday, U.N. Syria peace envoy Staffan de Mistura cited the air base strike along with other recent events in Syria in a briefing to the Security Council, cautioning against a “situation of uncontrollable escalation”.

Syria’s Russian-supplied air defences shot down an Israeli F-16 jet in February during a previous bombing run against what Israel described as Iranian-backed positions in Syria.

Last year, the United States carried out strikes from two Navy destroyers against a Syrian air base after another toxic gas attack on a rebel-controlled pocket.

The U.S. and Russian militaries have sought to avoid conflict in Syria, notably last year in the Euphrates River Valley where they supported rival sides in the campaign against Islamic State militants.

However, U.S. forces in February killed or injured hundreds of Russian contractors fighting on Assad’s side during a confrontation in Deir al-Zor province.

SYMPTOMS OF POISON GAS ATTACK

The WHO said that among the more than 500 people treated for symptoms of gas poisoning in Douma, “there were signs of severe irritation of mucous membranes, respiratory failure and disruption to central nervous systems of those exposed”.

France and Britain discussed with the Trump administration how to respond to the Douma attack. Both stressed that the culprit still needed to be confirmed.

The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Assad’s government had been asked to make necessary arrangements for an OPCW investigation team to visit shortly.

The mission will aim to determine whether banned munitions were used but not assign blame.

Despite the international revulsion over chemical weapons attacks, the death toll from such incidents in Syria is only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians killed since the war erupted in 2011.

(Additional reporting by Dahlia Nehme in Beirut, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Andrew Osborn and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, Steve Holland, Idrees Ali, Mark Hosenball and Patricia Zengerle in Washington, Jamie Freed in Singapore, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by David Stamp)