PM has chosen which way to jump on Syria

Prime ministers don’t choose the decisions that face them. But they have to judge which way to jump.

In 2013, Theresa May’s predecessor tried and failed to get approval for military action against President Assad. There was international alarm, then as now, about his suspected use of chemical weapons.

But MPs rejected David Cameron’s plan and he didn’t try again to persuade Parliament it was necessary.

This time, she has avoided that particular obstacle by taking action alongside the US and France while MPs are away.

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    The prime minister will give a statement to MPs on Monday, and she’ll have to be prepared for irritation from many different sides.

    But part of the government’s likely attempt to limit the political fallout will be emphasising time and again that the overnight attacks were limited, both in scale and in purpose. Government sources are stressing this morning that the attacks were strictly intended to target President Assad’s ability to create and use chemical weapons.

    The government has not made a decision and has no desire to become embroiled more widely in the messy and complex Syrian civil war. Ministers clearly would rather that the Syrian leader was ousted, this military action is not part of a plan to do that.

    This is direct response to the attacks on civilians in Douma, a military reprimand for the suspected use of chemical weapons that break the international rules.

    But for all that the government hopes the attacks will be no more, and no less than that, conflict is messy, not politically clinical. If the strikes fail to take out Assad’s chemical weapons systems, do the three allies try again? That doesn’t seem to be the current plan.

    But if the logic of the strikes is to prevent more chemical attacks taking place it can’t be completely ruled out. And if chemical weapons are used again in Syria, would the UK take part in a similar punishment?

    If the government believes the principle must be upheld, then again, the logic suggests the same kind of punishment would be meted out another time. What happens if, as warned, there is some form of retaliation from Russia?

    By the government’s admission these strikes are not part of a broader effort to change the dynamic in the Syrian war, but without a wider strategy what will really change? Just because Theresa May does not want to be dragged into longer term involvement in Syria it doesn’t mean that it won’t happen.

    The decision to act was in her control. What happens next is not within her grasp.

Syria air strikes: UK confident of successful mission, says PM

The UK is “confident” that air strikes carried out by Britain, the US and France on suspected chemical weapons facilities in Syria have been successful, the PM has said.

Theresa May also said it had been “right and legal” to take action.

Military bases near the capital Damascus and the city of Homs were targeted, after an alleged chemical attack on the Syrian town of Douma.

Jeremy Corbyn called it “legally questionable” in a letter to Mrs May.

Syrian state media said there had been a “violation of international law”.

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    Speaking in Downing Street, Mrs May said the “limited and targeted strikes” had degraded Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons.

    “This collective action sends a clear message that the international community will not stand by and tolerate the use of chemical weapons,” she said.

    Drawing a link with the recent nerve agent attack in Salisbury, Mrs May added: “We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised – either within Syria, on the streets of the UK or elsewhere.”

    She also said she would make a statement to Parliament on Monday and give MPs a chance to ask questions.

    Mr Corbyn said MPs should have been consulted before the strike and called on Mrs May to “publish in full the legal justification and basis for” the action.

    The Labour leader added that weapons inspectors were on their way to verify the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.

    Analysis

    By Frank Gardner, BBC security correspondent

    Whitehall officials say the aim of launching strikes against Syria has been to deal a big enough blow to the Assad regime that it deters it from using chemical weapons again – but not so big as to alter the course of the Syrian conflict or draw retaliation from Russia.

    Planners took the view that the limited US missile strike on Shayrat airbase a year ago had failed to dissuade the Assad regime from using poison gas.

    Before the green light was given by the prime minister for RAF participation in today’s attack, the defence secretary spent time with the attorney general going over the legality of the targeting in precise detail.

    I am told that the lessons of the Chilcot Report – into the mistakes made over the Iraq invasion of 2003 – have been uppermost in people’s minds. Decisions, phone calls and sign-offs made over the last few days may one day have to be scrutinised by lawyers.

    Russia too has been a major factor in choosing which targets to attack. Planners believe that the best way to mitigate against any Russian retaliation was to warn them in advance and avoid hitting any Russian positions in Syria.

    The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said eight Storm Shadow missiles had been launched by four RAF Tornados at a former missile base, 15 miles west of Homs – where it is thought President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been stockpiling items used to make chemical weapons.

    A spokesperson said the facility was “located some distance from any known concentrations of civilian habitation”, and scientific analysis was used to “minimise any risks of contamination to the surrounding area”.

    A Nato meeting will be held on Saturday where Britain, France and the US will brief allies on the action taken in Syria.

    PM has chosen which way to jump on Syria

    By Laura Kuenssberg, BBC political editor

    Prime ministers don’t choose the decisions that face them. But they have to judge which way to jump.

    In 2013, Theresa May’s predecessor tried and failed to get approval for military action against President Assad. There was international alarm, then as now, about his suspected use of chemical weapons.

    Read the full blog here.

    Addressing a press conference on Saturday, Mrs May said she believed the strike action had been “the right thing to do” and was “absolutely in Britain’s national interest”.

    “This is not about intervening in a civil war. It is not about regime change,” she said.

    “It is about a limited and targeted strike that does not further escalate tensions in the region and that does everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.”

    She said the UK government “judged it highly likely” that Syria had been using chemical weapons, and it was “clear” the Assad regime was responsible for the “despicable and barbaric” attack on civilians on 7 April.

    Evidence suggested a barrel bomb and a regime helicopter had been used, she added. “No other group could have carried out this attack.”

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      Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said Britain, the US and France had played an important role in “degrading the ability of the Syrian regime to use chemical weapons”.

      Reporting from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, the BBC’s Jonathan Beale said the Tornados left the airbase in the early hours of Saturday.

      He added the cruise missiles had been fired “well away from Syrian airspace” and were out of the range of the regime’s air defences.

      It was assessed that the Syrian regime had been using the military base near Homs to “keep chemical weapon precursors, stockpiled in breach of Syria’s obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention,” the MoD said in a statement.

      Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin of Russia – Syria’s key ally – said he “condemns the attack in the most serious way”.

      And Syria’s official Sana news agency called the Western action “a flagrant violation of international law”.

      “The American, French and British aggression against Syria will fail,” it said.

      ‘Erratic president’

      In the UK, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Mrs May had not answered how the action, “taken without parliamentary approval, will halt their [Syria’s] use” of chemical weapons, “or bring long term peace”.

      Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable also said MPs should have had a vote on the action, adding: “Riding the coat-tails of an erratic US president is no substitute for a mandate from the House of Commons.”

      But Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party said Mrs May had “the full authority” to order the air strikes and it rejected “any suggestion that she was not entitled to do so”.

      What did the UK use?

      The RAF sent four Tornado GR4 aircraft from Cyprus each armed with two Storm Shadow Cruise Missiles.

      The Tornado has been one of the mainstays of the RAF since first entering service in 1980 and the aircraft were used to enforce no-fly zones in Iraq.

      Weighing in at 2,866lb (1,300kg), measuring 16.7ft (5.1m) in length and with a range in excess of 150 miles (240km), the “bunker busting” Storm Shadow has been described by the air force as “arguably the most advanced weapon of its kind in the world”.

      The range means that none of the GR4s would have been required to cross into Syrian airspace to launch the assault.

Iranian drone was sent to Israel ‘to attack’

Israel has said the Iranian drone it shot down in February was loaded with explosives and “tasked to attack”.

On Friday, Israel’s military said that it came to the conclusion after “flight path analysis” and an “intelligence-based investigation” of the remnants.

Israel said its “combat helicopters prevented the attack Iran had hoped to carry out in Israeli territory”.

The drone was launched from an airbase in Syria, against which Israel later carried out air strikes.

Israel lost one of its F-16 planes in the counter-offensive – a rare loss for the Israeli air force, though both crew members survived after ejecting.

Iran and Israel are long-standing enemies, and Iran has been accused of deliberately building up a force inside Syria, Israel’s north-eastern neighbour.

Iran is the major regional ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

It has also been accused of supplying weaponry to Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah, an enemy of Israel which has a strong force in Syria.

In late 2017, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Iran wants to establish itself militarily in Syria, right next to Israel.”

He added: “Israel will not let that happen.”

Syria: What can Western military intervention achieve?

As the US and UK governments continue to discuss their potential response to the suspected chemical weapons attack in Douma in Syria, what could military intervention achieve?

The critical military virtue of surprise has long since disappeared for the United States and its allies in the strikes it is planning against Syrian military facilities.

Indeed, Syrian forces have had more than two days to move their aircraft and other military assets into Russian bases at Latakia, Tartus and Khmeimim, where they will be within the protective bubbles of Russia’s highly capable S-400 surface-to-air missiles.

The Syrians have emptied their infantry bases and dispersed as much of their armed forces as possible, in anticipation of incoming Western missiles.

The Russians will undoubtedly try to protect their bases, if attacked, so the situation is fraught with superpower brinkmanship and the danger of accidental conflict.

For Western military planners the two greatest questions are what can they achieve militarily in this situation, and what strategic difference can it make?

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    With Syrian forces forewarned, dispersed and under Russian protection, Western strikes will have to concentrate on Syria’s fixed military facilities – bombing runways, destroying buildings and capital equipment where it remains in place.

    Western attacks will probably try to destroy Syria’s military command and control system, possibly with bunker-busting bombs and deep penetration warheads. They are likely to try to dismantle the military infrastructure that Syria has effectively rebuilt since 2015.

    More ambitiously, and also more risky, the United States might declare a longer-term policy of revisiting these targets to keep them out of use and have Syrian aircraft bottled up inside their Russian bases – in effect trying to operate a quasi “no-fly zone” in Syria, at least for a while.

    Last year when the US struck President Assad’s Shayrat airbase in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, the Syrian air force made sure it was seen to be back in action within a day. The US will be determined that this does not happen again, which is why we can expect this to be a more prolonged air campaign with repeated attacks on key sites.

    What strategic purpose can be served by this?

    It certainly won’t make any immediate difference to the civil population of Syria, who have suffered so much at the hands of their own government, and the multitude of rebel, terrorist and guerrilla groups, some of whom have intimidated, as much as they have represented, them.

    And President Assad is unlikely to relent in his determination to consolidate his hold on the country.

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      So why take all the risks of escalation with Russia and the prospects of unintended consequences that normally follow?

      On its own, military force is meaningless. It has to be part of a political strategy and in this case the strategy is about bigger issues than Syria itself and only offers a long-shot hope for the Syrian population.

      The first objective is to push back against the increasing “normalisation” of chemical weapons being used in wars of any kind.

      The taboo against them has been surprisingly strong since the end of World War One. The Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 has been one of the most effective disarmament measures in modern history. Syria is a signatory to it.

      In 2013 President Obama claimed he would uphold that taboo as a “red line”, but then didn’t. And despite firm denials from the Assad government, there is an abundance of evidence that Syrian forces, with Russian connivance, have been using chemical weapons against their own people on a regular basis ever since.

      Many Western politicians feel that – with all the moral grey areas of this situation – they cannot sell the pass on this issue yet again. It has become a test case for the international rule of law, which is under severe pressure on many fronts.

      Beyond that, some argue effective military action would represent an acceptance that Western powers have got to get back into the game of Middle East politics at a time when the region is melting down.

      The campaign against so-called Islamic State (IS) was always a geopolitical sideshow, and Western influence on what has been happening from Lebanon to the Yemen has been in steep decline.

      Of course, it is tempting, and understandable, for Western leaders to want to leave it all alone. But while they took their eye off the ball fighting IS, the future of the area was being determined by Iran, Russia and partly also by Turkey.

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        The calculation is whether long-term Western interests are served better by involvement than indifference to a constellation of powers that is sliding out of control.

        And the hope for the Syrian population is that an effective military campaign could possibly push President Assad back into negotiations so that the war might end with something more humane than a vicious victory.

        Using military force is never easy, but it can only be effective if it is part of a coherent and realistic political strategy.


        About this piece

        This analysis piece was commissioned by the BBC from an expert working for an outside organisation.

        Professor Michael Clarke is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (Rusi), and associate director of the Strategic Studies Institute.


        Edited by Jennifer Clarke.

Syria air strikes: Were they legal?

The justifications put forward by the US, UK and France for the air strikes in Syria have focused on the need to maintain the international prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, to degrade President Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal and to deter further chemical attacks against civilians in Syria.

Prime Minister Theresa May argued that the UK has always stood up for the defence of global rules and standards in the national interest of the UK and of the organised international community as a whole.

Legally, this position returns the world to the era before the advent of the UN Charter. The Charter allows states to use force in self-defence and, arguably, for the protection of populations threatened by extermination at the hands of their own government. The use of force for broader purposes of maintaining international security is also possible. However, such action is subject to the requirement of a mandate from the UN Security Council.

This arrangement tries to balance the need of states to preserve their security in the face of an actual or imminent attack through self-defence when strictly necessary with the need to ensure that force cannot be used as a routine tool of international politics. Hence, international law since 1945 precludes military strikes in retaliation – to teach other states a lesson, as it were – or by way of reprisal. Reprisals are acts that are in principle unlawful, but they can be excused because they aim to force a state back into compliance with its international obligations.

Hence, in 1981 Israel was condemned by the UN Security Council when it attacked the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq. Israel had argued that it might contribute to the production of weapons of mass destruction in the future. A US attack against an alleged chemical weapons facility in Sudan in 1998 in response to US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania was also criticised.

In this instance, the three states mounting the air strikes have taken it upon themselves to force Syria into compliance with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention. Syria joined the Convention in 2013 as part of the diplomatic settlement that followed the failure of the UK, and the US, to go through with threatened air attacks after gruesome chemical attacks in Eastern Ghouta. The Convention prohibits the production, possession and use of chemical weapons. No fewer than 192 states have signed.

Syria was also subjected to additional duties contained in mandatory Security Council resolution 2118, reinforcing these obligations and providing for the destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile. In an impressive example of international co-operation, also involving Russia, this was largely achieved a year later, by September 2014.

Russian veto

However, since then, there have been some 40 recorded instances of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has the ability to dispatch fact-finding missions to determine whether such weapons have actually been used.

A special joint mechanism was set up by the OPCW and the Security Council with a mandate to assign responsibility for such uses. However, after the mechanism pointed the finger at the Assad government last year, Russia vetoed its renewal.

An attempt to establish a new mechanism empowered to determine responsibility for the latest use of chemical weapons in Douma failed this week, again due to a Russian veto in the Security Council. Russia’s own proposed investigatory mechanism, which was opposed by the Western states and others, would have lacked that power.

The three states intervening in Syria now argue that there was no prospect of obtaining a mandate from the Council to confront chemical weapons use by Syria. In striking Syria, they claim to have fulfilled an international public order function of defending the credibility of the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons in general terms, and enforcing Syria’s obligations in particular.

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      This argument is somewhat reminiscent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, supposedly to enforce Baghdad’s disarmament obligations imposed by the Security Council in the absence of clear Security Council authorisation. Moreover, in April of last year, President Trump launched 59 cruise missiles against the Syrian air-base at Shayrat. It was claimed that the installation had been involved in a chemical attack in the town of Khan Sheikhun, again to restrain further chemical weapons use.

      The blockage in the Security Council on Syria opens up space for this kind of argument. The Chemical Weapons Convention provides for referral of grave instances such as the Douma attack to the Security Council for enforcement action. But the Council could not even agree on a mechanism to establish responsibility, not to speak of more decisive action to repress future uses of such weapons.

      The claim of the three states involved to act instead of the Council, as the world’s enforcement agent of a highly important international rule, is of course being resisted by some. Russia has already asserted that the attacks flagrantly violate the prohibition of the use of force. The UN secretary general has also emphasised the need to respect the primacy of the Security Council.

      Humanitarian suffering

      The arrogation of the functions of the Council by a group of states claiming to act in the common interest therefore reflects the reality of the present, little Cold War between Russia and the West. The breakdown of the consensus that facilitates the operation of collective security necessarily results in unilateral acts.

      In addition to the general interest in maintaining the obligation to refrain from chemical weapons use, Mrs May also referred to the protection of civilians from further chemical attacks to alleviate further humanitarian suffering. This, in fact, is a stronger and more persuasive legal argument in favour of the strikes.

      In 2013, when the use of force was expected after the Ghouta attack, the UK expressly invoked the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. A good argument has been made that states can act in cases of overwhelming humanitarian necessity that cannot be addressed by any other means to protect populations in danger of imminent destruction. The application of this doctrine is not restricted to uses of chemical weapons against civilian populations. However, given the uncontrollable and indiscriminate effect of chemical weapons, their use against civilians offers perhaps the clearest trigger for the application of this doctrine.

      PM has chosen which way to jump on Syria

      Syria ‘chemical attack’: What we know

      It could also be argued that the attacks aim to preserve the national security of the states involved in the attacks, by way of an extensive right to self-defence.

      Every state may defend itself, under some circumstances even before an armed attack aimed at it has landed on its territory. But the attack must be imminent, leaving no choice of means and the response must be proportionate to the attack.

      In the run-up to the Iraq war of 2003, there was the famous 45-minute claim concerning Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. Laying the ground for an argument of anticipatory self-defence against a strike that might come in the future, the UK argued that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction might reach UK military bases in Cyprus with minimum warning.

      But there was no evidence that Baghdad was contemplating such an attack and the argument was abandoned. Similarly, there is no suggestion in this instance that Syria was preparing to launch an attack against the US, UK or France.

      Marc Weller is Professor of International Law in the University of Cambridge and the editor of the Oxford University Press Handbook on the Use of Force in International Law.

Syria air strikes: Will West’s attack sway Syria’s Assad?

This was a heavier strike than a year ago – three targets rather than one.

Then, the US acted alone; this time it was joined by its French and British allies.

More than double the number of weapons were fired against Syrian targets than last year – a little more than 120 in all.

But the fundamental question remains the same.

Was this enough to achieve what the Americans say was their goal – to deter President Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons again?

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    Assad’s effective victory

    Since April a year ago Syria’s torment has not ended. But two fundamental things have changed.

    Firstly, the Assad regime has effectively won its war and terrorising civilians has played a key part in its strategy.

    President Assad may not control all of Syrian territory. But backed by Russia and Iran, there is nobody that can really stand against him. It is shortages of manpower, equipment and capacity that prevent him re-establishing wider control.

    Secondly, relations between Washington and Moscow – and between Russia and the West more generally – have deteriorated significantly, to the extent that senior international officials are now talking of a new Cold War.

    This was the context in which President Trump determined to send his punitive message to the Assad regime. And this is the context in which they will have received it.

    Will they be cowed or defiant? Will public bluster conceal a more fundamental re-think on the part of Mr Assad? Might Russia, whatever its spokesmen say, have a stern word with the Syrian leader? And if they did, would it have any effect?

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      Trump’s distraction

      Watching this crisis unfold from the United States, I found it both perplexing and in many ways worrying.

      There seemed to be a lack of focus and clarity on the part of the Trump administration. Hardly surprising, perhaps, when the president himself was increasingly bogged down in his own domestic difficulties as allegations and recriminations about alleged past affairs and misbehaviour returned to haunt him.

      At times he seemed more likely to strike out at the US justice system than at President Assad. Indeed over the past week, while much of the rest of the world worried about what Mr Trump might do about Syria, the media here has been dominated, absorbed and fascinated, in equal measure, by Mr Trump’s difficulties almost to the exclusion of all else.

      President Trump’s rhetoric suggested a major military strike against the Assad regime. In the event what has taken place falls far short of that. So what conclusion might Moscow and Damascus draw?

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        Soft targets

        The Pentagon seems to have gone out of its way to avoid both civilian and “foreign” casualties – for that read “Russians”.

        The three targets hit were chosen both for their central role in the chemical weapons programme but also because the risk of collateral damage was smallest.

        The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff noted at a subsequent briefing that the US had a list of other targets which it did not choose to strike this time. The clear message is that if the Assad regime resorts to chemical weapons again then more strikes will follow.

        But again, since last April there have been a number of other alleged chemical weapons attacks, generally using chlorine gas. But until now the US did not strike again. So what message did this send?

        Now the hope is that Mr Assad will change his behaviour. But what about the wider Syrian conflict? This brutal war shows no sign of ending. Many have pointed out that it is barrel bombs, artillery and bullets that are responsible for the overwhelming bulk of the deaths and mutilations in Syria, not chemical weapons, and yet it is these that prompt Western action.

        There is a good measure of truth in this sentiment, though for historical and cultural reasons chemical weapons have a particular horror in the West in the wake of their use in World War One. The treaty banning them is an important disarmament agreement and its weakening threatens to unwind years of progress.

        But the wider question is to what extent these latest strikes change the picture in Syria? Do they bring the conflict any closer to an end? Sadly the answer is almost certainly no.

        Only a short while ago – much to his generals’ horror – Mr Trump spoke about pulling all US troops out of Syria. Only days later he seemed to be threatening a major military intervention. There has been no consistency in the Trump administration’s position.

        There is simply no clear strategy to help bring the war to an end. Indeed one of the arguments for keeping US troops in Syria to bolster their local allies like the Kurds, was in fact to keep the Assad regime and its Iranian backers off-balance.

        Constraining Iran is about the only unifying theme in the Trump administration’s approach, but even this has not been raised to the level of a coherent strategy. In his statement after the strikes the President again asserted that the US was not seeking an indefinite presence in Syria.

        His hope was clearly that as others shouldered the burden (who?) the US might walk away. But this was followed by a catch-all statement about the intractability of the region and its problems, which hardly suggests a desire for a long-term engagement.

        If these are the signals coming from Washington, then why should Russia worry?

        Russia’s rise

        It has, through its military, and political support for the Assad regime, re-established itself as a significant diplomatic actor in the region. Russia, of course warned the US and its allies not to strike Syria. So in the wake of this attack what might Russia do?

        In Syria itself, it might seek to further undermine Washington’s already weak position but it is not going to war with the Americans – such fears, barring some extraordinary disaster, were always, probably, far-fetched.

        US Defence Secretary James Mattis has already hinted at Russia’s likely response noting that “we fully expect a significant disinformation campaign over the coming days by those who have aligned themselves with the Assad regime”.

        Indeed this campaign has in many ways already begun, with the Russians – who now have forces in the area where the recent chemical attack is alleged to have occurred – insisting first that there was no sign of a chemical attack and then, more recently, that the whole thing was staged by foreign agents to discredit Mr Assad and Moscow.

        This is the same Russia that is accepted by most Western governments to have been behind the attempted assassination of a former Russian intelligence officer and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury, using a nerve agent. It is the same Russia that has tried to influence the US and other recent elections. It is President Putin’s Russia that has seized part of Ukraine. One could go on. The misinformation battle has already been joined.

        The new Cold War

        There is indeed a new sort of Cold War developing. It may not risk nuclear annihilation, but because of that it is in many ways more direct and unpredictable, with Moscow taking much greater risks than it might have done in the past.

        Russia is not a global superpower like the Soviet Union. It no longer has an ideology that gathers support from liberation movements around the world. It is fundamental a middle-ranking regional power with a significant nuclear arsenal and a relatively weak economy. But it knows how to wield influence and how to conduct information warfare. And Mr Putin is determined to defend Russia’s interests – as he sees them – wherever he is able.

        Mostly this means in Russia’s near-abroad, that is countries close to its borders that have been traditional Russian spheres of interest – such as Georgia or Ukraine. Syria is almost an honorary member of the near-abroad, affording Russia an entry point to regain its influence in a region that still matters. Russia’s star is rising and Washington’s influence is in many ways on the wane.

        And this matters. For instability in the region is growing. The ripples from a previous US administration’s decision to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq are still spreading. Iran was the principle benefactor of that decision. It has become a formidable regional player.

        Its growing influence in Syria risks a major conflict with Israel. Recently, Israel is believed to have struck at a Syrian base which was home to an Iranian facility.

        Tensions are rising. The region’s many fault-lines risk merging.

        And the US, British and French attacks over-night have inevitably thrown another pebble into the pool.

Syria war: What we know about Douma ‘chemical attack’

Syrian opposition activists, rescue workers and medics say more than 40 people were killed on 7 April in a suspected chemical attack on Douma, which was the last rebel-held town in the Eastern Ghouta region.

France has said it has “proof” that “chemical weapons were used – at least chlorine – and that they were used by Bashar al-Assad’s regime”.

The Syrian government denies the allegation, and its key ally Russia says it has “irrefutable evidence” that the incident was “staged” with the help of the UK.

Why was Douma being bombed?

In February, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad launched an assault on the Eastern Ghouta that has reportedly left more than 1,700 civilians dead.

In March, troops split the region into three pockets – the largest of which was around Douma, home to between 80,000 and 150,000 people. Facing defeat, rebel groups in the other two pockets agreed to be evacuated to northern Syria.

But the group controlling Douma, Jaysh al-Islam, continued to hold out. On 6 April, after negotiations with the government stalled, air strikes resumed.

What happened on 7 April?

The bombardment continued for a second day, with dozens of people reportedly killed or injured by conventional munitions before the suspected chemical attack.

Activists from the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), which records alleged violations of international law in Syria, reported two separate incidents of bombs believed to contain toxic substances being dropped by the Syrian Air Force.

The first occurred at approximately 16:00 (13:00 GMT) and saw the Saada bakery on Omar Ibn Al-Khattab street in north-western Douma targeted, the VDC said.

It cited a rescue worker from the Syria Civil Defence as saying he smelt chlorine in the air after the strike, but that he could not determine its source.

“We later discovered the bodies of people who had suffocated from toxic gases. They were in closed spaces, sheltering from the barrel bombs, which may have caused their quick death as no-one heard their screams,” he added.

The VDC said the second incident took place not far to the east, near Martyrs’ Square, at approximately 19:30.

At 19:45, more than 500 patients – most of them women and children – were brought to medical facilities with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent, according to the Syria Civil Defence and the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a relief organisation that supports hospitals in rebel-held areas.

The patients showed signs of “respiratory distress, central cyanosis (blue skin or lips), excessive oral foaming, corneal burns, and the emission of chlorine-like odour”, a joint statement issued on Sunday said. One woman who died had convulsions and pinpoint pupils.

Rescue workers searching homes in the affected area also found the bodies of people with oral foaming, cyanosis, and corneal burns, the statement added.

The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), which supports hospitals in rebel-held Syria, also said it received reports of two incidents.

People were treated for breathing difficulties and irritation of the eyes following the first, the UOSSM said. After the second, patients were brought to hospital smelling strongly of a chlorine-like substance and presenting symptoms that included cyanosis, foaming of the mouth, and cornea irritation, it added.

A medical student working at a hospital told the BBC he had treated a man who died. “His pupils were dilated and he had foam in his mouth. His heart was very slow. Then he coughed blood into his mouth as well,” he said.

Two videos circulated by the opposition activist group Douma Revolution showed what it said were the bodies of children, women and men found in one building, which is believed to be located south-west of Martyrs’ Square. Some had foam coming out of their mouths and noses.

How many people died?

The World Health Organization said it had received reports from its local “health cluster partners” of 43 deaths related to symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals”.

The Syria Civil Defence and SAMS said rescue workers found 42 people dead in their homes. One person was declared dead on arrival at a hospital, and another six died while receiving treatment, they added. An earlier, now deleted tweet by the Syria Civil Defence put the number dead at more than 150.

The UOSSM initially reported that 70 people were confirmed dead. On Monday, it revised down the figure to at least 42, but said it was expected to rise.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said air strikes on 6 and 7 April killed almost 100 people. It said they included 21 who died as a result of suffocation, but that it was unable to identify the cause.

The British investigative journalism website, Bellingcat, said it had counted at least 34 bodies in the two videos circulated by Douma Revolution.

Bellingcat also assessed that the building near Martyrs’ Square where the bodies were filmed was visited by Russian military personnel on 9 April.

What could they have been exposed to?

Experts say it is impossible to know whether a person has been exposed to a chemical agent from looking at a video or photo. The only way to confirm contamination is to take samples and analyse them in a laboratory. However, the UN and other international humanitarian organisations were unable to get into Douma because of the government’s siege.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) says a fact-finding mission has been “gathering information from all available sources and analysing it”. The global watchdog has sent a team to Syria that will start its work on 14 April.

The Syria Civil Defence and SAMS believe those who died suffocated as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals, most likely an organophosphate – a compound grouping associated with pesticides and nerve agents.

The UOSSM also concluded that the symptoms of the casualties were consistent with exposure to a nerve agent, possibly one mixed with chlorine. Dr Raphal Pitti of UOSSM France said he thought “chlorine was used to conceal the use of Sarin”, a nerve agent.

On 14 April, France released a document based on “open source information and declassified intelligence” which it said pointed “with a high degree of confidence” to Syrian regime involvement.

The United States said the reported symptoms were “consistent with an asphyxiation agent and of a nerve agent of some type”.

Two unnamed US officials also told NBC News on 12 April that tests of blood and urine samples suggested the presence of chlorine and a nerve agent.

What does the Syrian government say?

The Syrian government, which has repeatedly denied ever using chemical weapons, accused rebels of “fabricating” the reports.

Syria’s permanent representative to the UN, Bashar al-Jaafari, accused Western powers of falsely accusing the government “to prepare the ground for an aggression against my country, just as the United States and the United Kingdom did in Iraq in 2003”.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on 13 April that it had “irrefutable evidence that this was yet another attack, staged with the participation of special services of one state that is striving to be at the forefront of the Russophobic campaign”.

Mr Lavrov avoided naming that country, but Russian defence ministry spokesman Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov later said the UK was “directly involved in the provocation”. He did not provide any evidence and a British diplomat called the allegation “bizarre” and a “blatant lie”.

Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, told the Security Council on 9 April that Russian military specialists had visited Douma and taken soil samples that showed no presence of nerve agents or substances containing chlorine.

“At the local hospital, no-one with symptoms of sarin or chlorine poisoning had been admitted,” he added. “No bodies of people who had died from being poisoned were found, and the medical staff and residents had no information about where they might have been buried.

He also noted that an opposition activist had posted a video purportedly showing a chemical bomb made out of yellow gas canister that had landed in a bedroom in a building in Douma. Mr Nebenzia said the video was staged, adding: “The trajectory of the alleged bomb is entirely unnatural. It fell through the roof and landed gently on a wooden bed without damaging it in any way and was clearly placed there.”

How has the international community reacted?

US President Donald Trump has been convinced since 9 April that there was a “heinous attack on innocent Syrians with banned chemical weapons”.

The US, backed by Britain and France, followed up with air strikes on 14 April on targets near Homs and in Damascus designed, in Mr Trump’s words, “to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread, and use of chemical weapons”. Some reports speak of targets hit elsewhere.

About 100 missiles appear to have been used – double the number fired into Syria in 2017 in response to a chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed more than 80 people.

United Nations Secretary General Ant├│nio Guterres said he was outraged by the reports from Douma and warned that “any confirmed use of chemical weapons, by any party to the conflict and under any circumstances, is abhorrent and a clear violation of international law”.

When were chemical weapons used before?

In August 2013, rockets containing Sarin were fired at several opposition-held suburbs in the Eastern and Western Ghouta, killing hundreds of people. UN experts confirmed that Sarin was used in the attack, but they were not asked to ascribe any blame.

Western powers said only Syrian government forces could have carried out the attack. President Assad denied the allegation, but he did agree to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and destroy Syria’s declared chemical arsenal.

Experts from a joint UN-OPCW mission also said they were confident that government forces used Sarin in an attack in April 2017 on the rebel-held Khan Sheikhoun, which reportedly killed more than 80 people.

President Assad dismissed the attack as a fabrication, but the US carried a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airbase in retaliation.

The UN-OPCW mission also found that government forces used chlorine as a weapon on at least three occasions during the civil war.

Syria air strikes: Trump hails ‘perfect’ mission

US President Donald Trump has hailed an overnight military strike on Syria as “perfectly executed”, adding “Mission Accomplished”.

The US, UK and France bombed three government sites, targeting what they said were chemical weapons facilities.

The strikes were in response to a suspected deadly chemical attack on the town of Douma last week.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he condemned the Western strikes “in the most serious way”.

Russia, Syria’s main ally, had threatened military retaliation if any Russian forces had been hit.

He added: “So proud of our great military”, saying that after extra funding it would be “the finest our country has ever had”.

In a Friday evening address to the nation from the White House, he had said: “The nations of Britain, France, and the United States of America have marshalled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality.

“The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread, and use of chemical weapons.”

The wave of strikes is the most significant attack against President Bashar al-Assad’s government by Western powers in seven years of Syria’s civil war.

Syria man ‘stranded at Malaysia airport for weeks’

A Syrian man says he has spent over a month stranded in the transit section of a Malaysian airport, partly as a consequence of his country’s civil war.

Hassan al-Kontar’s plight emerged when he began posting videos of himself at Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2.

He says he was deported from the UAE to Malaysia in 2016, after losing his work permit when war broke out in Syria.

He says he is unable to enter Malaysia, and that his attempts to reach Cambodia and Ecuador were also in vain.

The airport and Malaysia’s Immigration Department did not immediately respond to journalists’ requests for comment.

Speaking on a call over WhatsApp, a worried and distressed Mr al-Kontar told the BBC that he has “lost count” over the number of days he has spent stuck in limbo.

“I’m desperate for help. I can’t live in this airport any longer, the uncertainty is driving me crazy. It feels like my life hit a new low,” he said, adding that he hadn’t had a proper shower and had run out of clean clothes.

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“I flew to the UAE to find work but because of the conflict, I lost both my work permit and my job there and have been on the run since.”

Mr al-Kontar said he was deported by the UAE to a holding centre in Malaysia in 2017 because “it is one of the very few countries in the world which offers visas upon arrival to Syrians like me”.

He was given a three-month tourist visa and he sought a better solution.

“I decided that I wanted to try to go to Ecuador so I saved up enough money to buy a plane ticket on Turkish Airways. But for some reason, they did not allow me on the flight and I found myself back at square one,” he said.

He says he also had to pay a fine for “overstaying” and has been “blacklisted” in Malaysia, and that he is now unable to leave the airport and re-enter the country.

At the risk of overstaying his welcome in Malaysia a second time, Mr al-Kontar travelled to Cambodia but was prohibited from entering. “I was deemed illegal in Malaysia so I chose to fly to Cambodia but they confiscated my passport upon arrival,” he explained.

Officials from Cambodian’s immigration ministry told the Phnom Penh Post that Syrians could get visas on arrival but would be turned back if they failed to meet government “requirements”.

“We need to check what their purpose [of their visit] is,” said director Sok Veasna.

Mr al-Kontar said he was sent back to Kuala Lumpur on 7 March, and has been stuck at the airport since.

At the time of writing, Mr al-Kontar told BBC News that airport customer service officials as well as local UN officials had been in touch.

“The authorities here are interviewing me and I have filled out some reports,” he said. But he remains unsure about what will come next.

“I don’t know what to do. I have no-one to advise me on where I can go. I really need help because I believe the worst is yet to come,” he sighed.

He says he originally left Syria in 2006 to avoid military service, going home once to see his family in 2008. He says he is still subject to an arrest warrant there.

“I am a human being and I don’t consider it right to participate in war. It was not my decision,” he said.

“I’m not a killing machine and I don’t want any part in destroying Syria. I don’t want blood on my hands. War is never the solution but unfortunately, even from where I am now, I am paying the price of its actions.”

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement that the refugee agency was “aware of this case” and had “reached out to the individual and the authorities”.

Additional reporting by Woon King Chai in Kuala Lumpur and the BBC’s Andreas Illmer in Singapore.

Syria war: Rebel evacuations from Eastern Ghouta gather pace

Syrian rebel groups have pulled out of more towns in the Eastern Ghouta, as the government tightens it grip on the enclave outside Damascus.

Buses carrying fighters, their families and others left the area late on Saturday, leaving the city of Douma as the last rebel-held stronghold.

The evacuations followed a deal between government forces and a local rebel group, Faylaq al-Rahman.

About 70% of the Eastern Ghouta is now under government control.

Hundreds of people have been killed since Syrian government forces, supported by the Russian military, launched an offensive on the rebel-held territory last month.

In recent weeks, they have cut the Eastern Ghouta into three separate pockets, forcing rebels to negotiate withdrawals.

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    Saturday’s evacuations from the towns of Zamalka, Arbin and Ain Tarma had been due to start in the morning but buses only arrived in the afternoon.

    Footage showed the buses queuing at a crossing point into the enclave before travelling along a route cleared of wreckage and unexploded shells and mines.

    Under the agreement between government forces and Faylaq al-Rahman, some 7,000 people in total will be driven to opposition-held territory in north-western Idlib province.

    On Sunday, residents in Arbin were packing in preparation for more evacuations – although it was unclear when buses would arrive.

    Negotiations with another rebel group, Jaish al-Islam, about the surrender of Douma are understood to be continuing.

    Syrian state TV broadcast pictures of troops moving into towns abandoned by rebels, highlighting trenches and other fortifications left behind.

    It also showed prisoners released by the rebels being loaded into minibuses.

    Another deal struck last week saw thousands of people evacuated from the town of Harasta on Friday.

    The rebels in the Eastern Ghouta encompass multiple factions, including jihadists, and in-fighting between them has led to losses of ground to the Syrian government.

    Jaish al-Islam and its rival Faylaq al-Rahman are the largest groups.

    The Eastern Ghouta is so close to Damascus that rebels have been able to fire mortars into the heart of the capital, leading to scores of civilian deaths.

    Rebel rocket fire reportedly killed a young Syrian footballer and wounded seven others as they were training in Damascus on Saturday.