Israel seems to be preparing for war with Iran and seeking U.S. support, officials say

NBC News reports:

An Israeli airstrike on the western Syrian city of Hama on Sunday killed two dozen Iranian soldiers and targeted arms recently delivered from Iran, said three U.S. officials, and is the latest sign that Israel and Iran are moving closer to open warfare.

“On the list of the potentials for most likely live hostility around the world, the battle between Israel and Iran in Syria is at the top of the list right now,” said one senior U.S. official.

Three U.S. officials say Israeli F-15s hit Hama after Iran delivered weapons to a base that houses Iran’s 47th Brigade, including surface-to-air missiles. In addition to killing two dozen troops, including officers, the strike wounded three dozen others.

Israel is increasingly wary of Iran’s influence in neighboring Syria, the three U.S. officials say. While Russia runs the air war for the Assad regime in Syria, Iran is now running the ground war, the officials said, with Iranian military present at every major Russian and Syrian regime base in the country.

In the past two weeks Iran has increased military cargo flights to Syria, stocked with additional weapons and supplies like small arms, ammunition and surface-to-air missiles that two U.S. officials believe are meant both to shore up Iranian ground forces and to strike at Israel. For years the U.S. has tracked arms shipments from Iran to Hezbollah fighters in Syria supporting the Assad regime, but recently Iran has been supplying Hezbollah with more material and logistical support.

The three U.S. officials said Israel now seems to be preparing for military action and is seeking U.S. help and support. [Continue reading…]

Suspected Israeli strikes hit Iran-linked targets in Syria, escalating regional tensions

The Washington Post reports:

Missile strikes at two Iran-linked bases in Syria caused huge explosions and killed dozens of pro-government fighters, a monitoring group said Monday, in an attack seen as Israel’s latest blow in a shadow war to contain Iranian influence.

Syrian state media reported major blasts in parts of Hama and Aleppo provinces about 10:30 p.m. Sunday. It did not identify the targets, but other pro-government media outlets said they were weapons depots for the Syrian regime and Iranian forces.

While the state-owned daily Tishreen said the missiles were launched from U.S. and British military bases, analysts said the most likely source was Israel, which has previously acknowledged carrying out more than 100 strikes in Syria during the civil war.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Israel carried out the attacks. The monitoring group identified the main target as an arms depot for surface-to-surface missiles at a base in northern Syria known as Brigade 47. It said the Neirab military air base, southeast of Aleppo city, also was hit.

At least 26 people were killed, four of them Syrians, the Syrian Observatory said. Representatives of a regional alliance that includes Iran, Syria and the Hezbollah paramilitary group said that Iranians were among the dead, and some cited a much higher toll. [Continue reading…]

Kim says he’ll give up nuclear weapons if U.S. promises not to invade

The New York Times reports:

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, told President Moon Jae-in of South Korea when they met that he would abandon his nuclear weapons if the United States would agree to formally end the Korean War and promise that it would not invade his country, a South Korean government spokesman said Sunday.

In a faith-building gesture ahead of a summit meeting with President Trump, Mr. Kim also said he would invite experts and journalists from South Korea and the United States to watch the shutdown next month of his country’s only known underground nuclear test site.

The comments by Mr. Kim were made on Friday when the leaders of the two Koreas met at Panmunjom, a village on their shared border, the spokesman, Yoon Young-chan, said on Sunday, providing additional details of the meeting.

“I know the Americans are inherently disposed against us, but when they talk with us, they will see that I am not the kind of person who would shoot nuclear weapons to the south, over the Pacific or at the United States,” Mr. Kim told Mr. Moon, according to Mr. Yoon’s account of the meeting.

It was another dramatically conciliatory statement by Mr. Kim, whose country threatened to do exactly those things during the height of nuclear tensions last year. [Continue reading…]

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Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ‘concessions’ were a show of strength by North Korea

Ankit Panda writes:

With less than a week to go before he sits down with his South Korean counterpart, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made an impressive set of declarations. Following a meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s Central Committee this week, Kim declared, among other things, that North Korea would shut down its nuclear testing site—known as Punggye-ri—and stop testing its intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

If there’s one thing the North Koreans are good at, it’s messaging and propaganda. Kim’s announcement was published in the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea’s state-run news media. Importantly, KCNA is intended for consumption by the world outside of North Korea’s borders.

With momentum in full-swing toward the summit with Moon Jae-in next week and an eventual, still unscheduled, historic summit planned with American President Donald Trump—the first-ever sit-down between two sitting leaders of North Korea and the United States—Kim has all the incentives in the world to make sure that these meetings come together as planned.

If the odds of a Trump-Kim summit stood at 50-50 before Friday’s announcement, they’ve now increased considerably. In fact, Kim has increased the costs considerably for Trump of backing out of a summit.

Without equivocating, it’s fair to say that both the declarations on nuclear testing and on halting the tests of ICBMs are significant concessions. Specifically, Kim announced that North Korea will “discontinue nuclear testing” and that the Punggye-ri site will be “dismantled to transparently guarantee the discontinuance of the nuclear test [sic].” On ICBMs, Kim simply said that no “inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire” would take place after April 21, 2018.

While significant, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that these concessions are being made out of a position of weakness or as a necessary show of bona fide goodwill to South Korea and the United States before the upcoming summits. Kim’s rationale for doing away with the nuclear test site was to underline that North Korea had already successfully come up with the nuclear weapons designs it needed. [Continue reading…]

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Israel celebrates but is war with Iran looming?

Simon Tisdall writes:

There were fireworks, concerts, torch processions and parties throughout the country. In Jerusalem the night sky was illuminated by 300 drones that coalesced to form images of favourite Israeli symbols, such as the national flag and a dove with an olive branch in its mouth. The celebrations included a live, televised retelling of Jewish history dating to biblical times. In one scene children with yellow stars pinned to their clothes fled marching Nazi soldiers. Another showed pioneers building the fledgling Jewish state.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, helped lead the national extravaganza, despite objections that his presence contradicted the event’s traditional, non-political character. This moment – the 70th anniversary last Wednesday of Israel’s independence, according to the Hebrew calendar – marked the country’s emergence as a rising world power, he declared.

Israel offered the hand of friendship to all, Netanyahu said. But there should be no doubt, Israel was here to stay: “In another 70 years you’ll find here a country that is 70 times stronger, because what we’ve done until today is just the beginning!” Israel’s ability to protect itself was “the essence” of independence, he said.

If Netanyahu sounded defensive, he had reason. Israel has faced many crises since its birth in 1948, including wars in 1967 and 1973, conflicts in Lebanon, and endless confrontation with the Palestinians, for whom Israel’s independence is known as the Nakba (“the catastrophe” or “cataclysm”). It was the day 700,000 people lost what they considered their homeland. Palestinians were not partying last week.

Yet according to Israeli and regional experts, the storm now gathering around Israel’s borders potentially surpasses in severity anything the country has faced throughout its short and difficult history. Whichever way you look, in any direction, trouble looms. At its heart, connecting all the geopolitical Scrabble pieces, is one four-letter word: Iran. [Continue reading…]

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Missile strikes unlikely to stop Syria’s chemical attacks, Pentagon says

The New York Times reports:

A barrage of missiles against Syria by American, French and British forces most likely will not stop President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons program, a Pentagon assessment has concluded, despite President Trump’s “Mission Accomplished!” declaration hours after last weekend’s strikes.

The military intelligence report, put out less than three days after the attack, said the allied airstrikes likely set back Mr. Assad’s production of sarin gas.

But it found that the Syrian president is expected to continue researching and developing chemical weapons for potential future use, according to an American intelligence analyst who has seen the document and described it to The New York Times on the condition of anonymity.

The military intelligence report indicated that the Barzeh research and development center in Damascus was destroyed, according to the analyst. Most of the missiles were aimed at the Barzeh facility, where the Western allies believed the Assad government was rebuilding its chemical weapons program. It has been closely monitored since the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found precursors for nerve agents there in 2014.

The other two sites — the Him Shinshar chemical weapons bunker and storage facility in Homs — were severely damaged. But the analyst said the report cited surveillance assets that watched a five-ton truck leave one of those sites, the day before it was struck, with a tarp-covered load that could have included equipment or chemical weapons. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports:

Russia’s foreign minister said Friday that the U.S. sought out and respected Moscow’s positions in Syria when it launched its air strikes last week.

Lavrov noted that despite the escalating tensions between Moscow and Washington, the U.S. made sure it didn’t harm any Russian personnel and positions during the strikes against the regime of President Bashar Assad following a suspected chemical attack on the town of Douma.

“We told them where our red lines were, including the geographical red lines,” Lavrov told Russian state television. “The results have shown that they haven’t crossed those lines.” [Continue reading…]

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U.S. diplomacy with North Korea

Robin Wright writes:

As many of us spent the weekend celebrating Easter brunch or a Passover Seder, Mike Pompeo secretly slipped into North Korea to test the prospects for President Trump’s most daring diplomatic gambit. The C.I.A. director’s covert talks with North Korea’s mercurial young leader, Kim Jong Un, apparently went well. “Meeting went very smoothly and a good relationship was formed,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning, shortly before his golf game with the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. “Details of Summit are being worked out now. Denuclearization will be a great thing for World, but also for North Korea!”

The clandestine visit was reminiscent of the former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing, in 1971, to prepare for President Nixon’s historic summit with Mao Zedong, then considered America’s primary nemesis in Asia. The Pompeo mission has generated cautious optimism that Trump’s summit with Kim, now America’s main foe in Asia, will actually happen. It’s tentatively scheduled for late May or early June. The lightning pace of the new U.S.-Korean diplomacy—sparked by Kim’s conciliatory New Year’s speech—had earlier generated concern in Washington that expectations were too high and events unfolding too fast.

“Pompeo’s visit signifies that both sides are very serious about making the summit happen,” Frank Aum, a former senior adviser on North Korea in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, who is now at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told me. “If there was any ambiguity about whether it would happen, it’s slowly dispelling. It’s encouraging.” Trump expressed optimism about the prospects of diplomacy after the Pompeo trip. “We have come a long way with North Korea,” Trump said at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “We’ve never been in a position like this with any regime, whether father, grandfather or son.” But he acknowledged the uncertainty of the initiative. “If we don’t think it will be successful, we won’t have it. If the meeting is not fruitful, I will respectfully leave the meeting.”

The U.S. goals are still daunting: they include formally ending the Korean War, sixty-five years after a truce was declared; normalizing relations with the most vilified nation in the world; ridding the regime of nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles capable of hitting the United States—and ultimately changing the strategic balance of power in East Asia. Trump will have to give in return. In the past, North Korea has sought the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula, the end of sanctions, and economic aid.

All previous U.S. diplomatic initiatives with North Korea—to end the war and stem its weapons programs—have failed. [Continue reading…]

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Objectives of Western strike in Syria not achieved, says Israeli intelligence

Ynet reports:

The US-led attack on Syria’s chemical weapons facilities did not achieve most of its objectives and will not deter President Bashar Assad, according to Israeli intelligence assessments.

“If President Trump had ordered the strike only to show that the US responded to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, then that goal has been achieved,” according to a senior defense establishment official. “But if there was another objective—such as paralyzing the ability to launch chemical weapons or deterring Assad from using it again—it’s doubtful any of these objectives have been met.”

Another intelligence official added that, “The statement of ‘Mission Accomplished’ and (the assertion) that Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons has been fatally hit has no basis.” [Continue reading…]

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America’s first reality TV war

Micah Zenko writes:

One year after launching a limited strike against the Syrian government to deter future chemical weapons attacks, U.S. President Donald Trump did the same thing again Friday night. Within 12 hours, the Pentagon judged the operation as being “very successful,” which was a given since the three above-ground facilities were assuredly monitored for years and situated in a relatively low-threat air defense environment. The ability of a $700 billion military to destroy static targets is unremarkable.

What was sensational about the missile strikes was the public spectacle of it all. From Trump’s initial pledge that the Syrian government’s suspected chemical attack “will be met, and it will be met forcefully,” to the Pentagon videos showing individual missiles being launched, this was a military operation telegraphed, scripted, and executed for a 24-hour information era.

Trump’s Twitter feed provided its typical denunciation, bluff, and guidance. He assigned his latest enemy, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the artless nickname “Gas Killing Animal,” indicated that the promised operation could commence “very soon or not so soon at all!,” and then warned Russia that the missiles “will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’” The latter tweet was an accurate prophecy, as the operation featured the combat debut of the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range. Over the coming week, all of these tweets framed the news coverage and pundit debates, and the always scrambling-to-catch-up statements by administration officials. [Continue reading…]

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Journalist who exposed Russia’s secret mercenaries in Syria mysteriously fell to his death

Vice News reports:

In February, Russian investigative journalist Maxim Borodin published a series of bombshell reports about the secret, substantial presence of Russian mercenary forces in Syria. On Sunday, he died, following a mysterious fall from his fifth-floor balcony.

Now, a journalists’ advocacy group is calling for an investigation into his “suspicious” death — even though his own editor-in-chief has said there’s not yet any hard evidence of foul play.

Local police said they’re investigating “several versions” of the death of Borodin, 32, who worked for an outlet called Novy Den in the city of Yekaterinburg. The cops said in a statement they “haven’t ruled out that it was an accident.”

“All hypotheses should be considered, including the possibility that he was murdered in connection with his investigative reporting,” Reporters Without Borders said in a press release Monday.

Borodin had helped shed light on Russia’s “shadow army,” the thousands of Russian military contractors secretly fighting on the side of President Bashar Assad in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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