Flynn was warned by Trump transition officials about contacts with Russian ambassador

The Washington Post reports: Former national security adviser Michael Flynn was warned by senior members of President Trump’s transition team about the risks of his contacts with the Russian ambassador weeks before the December call that led to Flynn’s forced resignation, current and former U.S. officials said.

Flynn was told during a late November meeting that Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s conversations were almost certainly being monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies, officials said, a caution that came a month before Flynn was recorded discussing U.S. sanctions against Russia with Kislyak, suggesting that the Trump administration would reevaluate the issue.

Officials were so concerned that Flynn did not fully understand the motives of the Russian ambassador that the head of Trump’s national security council transition team asked Obama administration officials for a classified CIA profile of Kislyak, officials said. The document was delivered within days, officials said, but it is not clear that Flynn ever read it.

The previously undisclosed sequence reveals the extent to which even some Trump insiders were troubled by the still-forming administration’s entanglements with Russia and its enthusiasm for a friendly relationship with the Kremlin. [Continue reading…]

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Why Obama just endorsed Emmanuel Macron for president of France

Zack Beauchamp writes: Former President Barack Obama has endorsed his first candidate for office since leaving office — and it’s not a fellow Democrat. In fact, it’s not even an American.

“I am supporting Emmanuel Macron to lead you forward,” Obama said in English in a video addressed to the French people just days before Macron faces far-right candidate Marine Le Pen Sunday in an election that will determine the country’s next president.

Obama closes the minute-long video in French. “En Marche! Vive la France!”

The endorsement is highly, highly unusual — I can’t think of a time when a former US president explicitly endorsed a candidate in a foreign election. But it makes a lot of sense. [Continue reading…]

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EPA website removes climate science site from public view after two decades

The Washington Post reports: The Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday evening that its website would be “undergoing changes” to better represent the new direction the agency is taking, triggering the removal of several agency websites containing detailed climate data and scientific information.

One of the websites that appeared to be gone had been cited to challenge statements made by the EPA’s new administrator, Scott Pruitt. Another provided detailed information on the previous administration’s Clean Power Plan, including fact sheets about greenhouse gas emissions on the state and local levels and how different demographic groups were affected by such emissions.

The changes came less than 24 hours before thousands of protesters were set to march in Washington and around the country in support of political action to push back against the Trump administration’s rollbacks of former president Barack Obama’s climate policies. [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-China climate relations: Beyond Trump

Jackson Ewing writes: The days of cooperative climate change action in Washington and Beijing were short-lived.

After decades of friction in the climate arena, the United States and China spent the last three years of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s second term in office building a partnership that caught even close observers by surprise. In a March 2016 joint presidential statement, Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping declared climate change a “pillar of the U.S.-China bilateral relationship” and committed to ratifying the lauded Paris Agreement. The countries were by then drawing on more than two years of bilateral agreements on clean energy and emissions reduction targets, along with subnational agreements between cities, states, and provinces to bolster technical cooperation in areas ranging from carbon pricing to clean energy to sustainable urban infrastructure.

This cooperation reversed a history of recriminations and posturing that long defined the Sino-American climate change relationship. China would often emphasize its continuing poverty challenges, development needs, and relative lack of historical culpability for the climate problem, while the United States trotted out the common refrain that holding negotiations is well and good, but ultimately pointless if China fails to reduce emissions in internationally verifiable ways. For years, this divide between Beijing and Washington stubbornly persisted.

The Obama-Xi rapprochement was significant because it moved past these arguments and looked for opportunities in a nascent global climate regime based on voluntary commitments by all countries regardless of development levels. This played to the preferences of both China and the United States to chart their own paths without feeling overly constrained by international accords. It also dovetailed with China’s growing determination to solve its domestic pollution crisis, and with a realization in both capitals that clean energy was an economic growth sector.

The Trump presidency has ended this relatively brief period of national climate cooperation between the world’s two largest emitters. U.S. President Donald Trump has removed any mention of climate change from the executive branch agenda, and has moved to dismantle the U.S. Clean Power Plan (CPP), open up federal lands to fossil fuel exploration, reduce vehicle emissions standards, and broadly defund and de-emphasize environmental regulation and enforcement. Whether or not he attempts to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which is not a straightforward process, Trump is already disregarding the American commitments detailed in the pact.

Rather than sending the United States and China back to their adversarial positions of the past, Trump’s moves have taken climate change off the bilateral agenda completely. This eliminates a valuable mutual confidence-building measure and sets back global climate change efforts significantly.

In this context, climate change hopefuls can take solace in three countervailing trends. [Continue reading…]

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Obama accepts $400,000 fee for a speech

The New York Times reports: Former President Barack Obama has agreed to accept $400,000 to speak at a health care conference this year sponsored by Cantor Fitzgerald, a Wall Street investment bank.

The lucrative engagement, reported earlier by Fox, was confirmed by a person familiar with the speaking agreement. A spokesman for Mr. Obama declined to comment on the speech.

Out of office for about three months, Mr. Obama has begun the process of cashing in. In February, he and his wife, Michelle, each signed book deals worth tens of millions of dollars. And Mr. Obama’s spokesman confirmed last week that he is beginning the paid-speech circuit.

A $400,000 speaking fee for addressing the Cantor Fitzgerald conference is a sharp increase from the amounts typically paid to his predecessors. Former President Bill Clinton averaged about $200,000 per speech while former President George W. Bush is reportedly paid $100,000 to $175,000 for each appearance.

Mr. Obama, who was paid $400,000 a year as president, frequently criticized big banks and warned against what he said was a growing inequality in the country that was undermining civic life and the economic fortunes of the middle class. He also pushed for the Dodd-Frank law that regulated Wall Street. [Continue reading…]

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The continuing fallout from Trump and Nunes’s fake scandal

Ryan Lizza writes: Recently, several members and staffers on the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russia’s role in the Presidential election, visited the National Security Agency, in Fort Meade, Maryland. Inside the enormous black glass headquarters of America’s largest spy agency, the congressmen and their aides were shown a binder of two to three dozen pages of highly classified intercepts, mostly transcripts of conversations between foreign government officials that took place during the Presidential transition. These intercepts were not related to the heart of the committee’s Russia investigation. In fact, only one of the documents had anything to do with Russia, according to an official who reviewed them.

What the intercepts all had in common is that the people being spied on made references to Donald Trump or to Trump officials. That wasn’t even clear, though, from reading the transcripts. The names of any Americans were concealed, or “masked,” the intelligence community’s term for redacting references to Americans who are not the legal targets of surveillance when such intelligence reports are distributed to policy makers.

The binder of secret documents is at the center of the bizarre scandal created by what may be the most reckless lie President Trump has ever told. On March 4th, he tweeted, “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” The White House made several efforts to justify Trump’s claim, including using Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, as a conduit for the documents, which allegedly offered some substantiation. A former Nunes staffer now working for the White House dug up the transcripts and shared them with Nunes. As Bloomberg View reported, earlier this month, Susan Rice, Obama’s national-security adviser, had used a process that allowed her to request that the masked names be revealed to her. Rice had to log her unmasking requests on a White House computer, which is how Trump’s aides knew about them. Nunes and the White House presented this as a major scandal. “I think the Susan Rice thing is a massive story,” Trump told the Times, adding, while offering no evidence, that Rice may have committed a crime.

It is now clear that the scandal was not Rice’s normal review of the intelligence reports but the coördinated effort between the Trump Administration and Nunes to sift through classified information and computer logs that recorded Rice’s unmasking requests, and then leak a highly misleading characterization of those documents, all in an apparent effort to turn Rice, a longtime target of Republicans, into the face of alleged spying against Trump. It was a series of lies to manufacture a fake scandal. [Continue reading…]

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Susan Rice did nothing wrong, say both Dems and Republicans

NBC News reports: A review of the surveillance material flagged by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes shows no inappropriate action by Susan Rice or any other Obama administration official, Republican and Democratic Congressional aides who have been briefed on the matter told NBC News.

President Donald Trump told the New York Times he believed former National Security Adviser Rice broke the law by asking for the identities of Trump aides who were mentioned in transcripts of U.S. surveillance of foreign targets. Normally, the identities of Americans are blacked out in transcripts circulated by the National Security Agency, but they may be “unmasked,” if their identities are relevant to understanding the intelligence.

Rice did not dispute that she requested the identities of certain Americans in the waning days of the Obama administration, but she denied any wrongdoing in an interview with NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell. Her denial came after Nunes said he believed the names of Trump aides had been inappropriately unmasked and circulated.

Members of the House and Senate intelligence committees from both parties have traveled to NSA headquarters to review the relevant intelligence reports.

“I saw no evidence of any wrongdoing,” said one U.S. official who reviewed the documents, who would not agree to be identified further. “It was all completely normal.”

His assessment was shared by a senior Republican aide who had been briefed on the matter but declined to speak on the record. [Continue reading…]

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How Russia hacked Obama’s legacy

Hayes Brown reports: No one from the Obama administration seems to remember when they figured out they were falling victim to one of the greatest intelligence operations in history.

“This was the kind of realization that came incrementally,” a former senior State Department official told BuzzFeed News. “There wasn’t a moment where you realized that Pearl Harbor had been hit by kamikaze or that the World Trade Center has been hit.”

Now, as two congressional committees and the FBI investigate Russia’s role in the election, former Obama officials find themselves grappling with a new legacy, one that formed at the 11th hour of their time in power. As they looked toward a world where pariahs like Iran and Cuba were won over with diplomacy, they fell victim to a sneak attack by an old adversary. And they let it happen, offering up stern warnings and finger-wagging instead of adequately punishing Russia for achieving something that even the Soviet Union at the height of its power couldn’t manage: meddling in the US election and rattling Americans’ trust in their democracy.

Initially, news that Russia-backed hackers had infiltrated the email systems of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) split the Obama administration. White House staffers struggled to wrap their heads around the scale of what occurred and found themselves unsure of how to respond without appearing to give Hillary Clinton a boost. The State Department’s staff were torn over how far to press the matter with Russia, given other priorities like struggling to find an endgame for the Syrian civil war. Across the Potomac, the Defense Department was pushing for a strong response against Russia. “The White House was more in listening mode,” a former Defense Department official told BuzzFeed News.

The official described what ensued as “endless discussion after endless discussion.” [Continue reading…]

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U.S. unleashes ‘Mother of All Bombs’ — and a press release

The Daily Beast reports: U.S. Special Operations Forces dropped one of the world’s most powerful non-nuclear bombs on ISIS fighters in eastern Afghanistan on April 13, defense officials told The Daily Beast on Thursday.

The bombing could mark a shocking escalation of America’s war in Afghanistan—one that places more civilians in greater danger than ever before, though military officials insist they wouldn’t have acted if they had spotted civilians nearby.

American forces were trying to root out deeply entrenched ISIS fighters when a U.S. Air Force MC-130 commando transport dropped the Massive Ordinance Air Blast munition in Achin district in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan at 7:32 in the evening, local time.

ISIS has an estimated 600 to 800 fighters in Afghanistan, many of them in Achin, according to Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump. One U.S. commando died in a firefight in the district just a few days ago, on April 8.

But this was no act of retribution, the Pentagon insisted. “This operation was planned prior to the loss of a 7th Group Green Beret last week,” U.S. military spokesman Navy Capt. Bill Salvin explained from Kabul.

Stump said the massive bombing could hinder ISIS in Afghanistan. “It really restricts their freedom of movement.”

Pentagon officials say the generals have had the authority to whatever ordnance they had in theatre against ISIS since January last year, but President Donald Trump’s comfort level with delegating new decision-making on counterterrorism strikes surely played into their thinking. The general “ordered” the weapon for use in during the Obama Administration, according to Slavin, who said it was only delivered in January this year.

“Appropriate notifications were made. This is not a new authority. This does not reflect a new policy or authority,” U.S. Central Command spokesman Col. John Thomas emailed The Daily Beast. [Continue reading…]

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Classified docs contradict Nunes surveillance claims, GOP and Dem sources say

CNN reports: After a review of the same intelligence reports brought to light by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers and aides have so far found no evidence that Obama administration officials did anything unusual or illegal, multiple sources in both parties tell CNN.

Their private assessment contradicts President Donald Trump’s allegations that former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice broke the law by requesting the “unmasking” of US individuals’ identities. Trump had claimed the matter was a “massive story.”

However, over the last week, several members and staff of the House and Senate intelligence committees have reviewed intelligence reports related to those requests at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.

One congressional intelligence source described the requests made by Rice as “normal and appropriate” for officials who serve in that role to the president.

And another source said there’s “absolutely” no smoking gun in the reports, urging the White House to declassify them to make clear there was nothing alarming in the documents. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s Syria mistake is now Trump’s problem

Nader Hashemi writes: Two positive developments can be discerned from the Tomahawk missile attack on Syria.

First, Bashar Al-Assad will have to think twice about using chemical weapons again. Donald Trump has drawn his own red line in Syria, and there is now a price to be paid — assuming Trump keeps his word — for dropping sarin gas on civilians.

Secondly, we are now all talking about Syria. Before the missile strike, the general assumption was that Syria no longer mattered. The fall of Aleppo meant that Assad, and his Iranian/Russian allies, had won the war as a fait accompli.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said last week that a new “political reality” had emerged in Syria “that we have to accept.” But do we?

The conflict in Syria is a global problem, back at the top of the international agenda, while another American president grapples with its complexity.

President Obama’s gross miscalculation in 2013 was to wager that the conflict could be contained within Syria’s borders. Reflecting a widely held realpolitik view at the time, political scientist John Mearsheimer argued that Syria did not affect the core strategic interests of the West and was of “little importance for American security.”

Looking back, we can see how misguided this assessment was. It was arguably the biggest foreign policy miscalculation of the Obama presidency. Not only has the Syrian conflict deeply destabilized the Middle East, but its ripple effects have dramatically re-shaped politics around the world, including the domestic politics of the United States. [Continue reading…]

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Chemical attacks underline the failure of U.S. policy on Syria under Obama

The New York Times reports: When it came time to make his case for the judgment of history, President Barack Obama had a ready rebuttal to one of the most cutting critiques of his time in office.

Although friends and foes alike faulted him for not following through on his threat to retaliate when Syria gassed its own people in 2013, Mr. Obama would counter that he had actually achieved a better result through an agreement with President Bashar al-Assad to surrender all of his chemical weapons.

After last week, even former Obama aides assume that he will have to rethink that passage in his memoir. More than 80 civilians were killed in what Western analysts called a sarin attack by Syrian forces — a chilling demonstration that the agreement did not succeed. In recent days, former aides have lamented what they considered one of the worst moments of the Obama presidency and privately conceded that his legacy would suffer.

“If the Syrian government carried out the attack and the agent was sarin, then clearly the 2013 agreement didn’t succeed in its objective of eliminating Bashar’s C.W.,” or chemical weapons, said Robert Einhorn, who was the State Department special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control under Mr. Obama before the agreement. “Either he didn’t declare all his C.W. and kept some hidden in reserve, or he illegally produced some sarin after his stock was eliminated — most likely the former.”

Other former advisers to Mr. Obama questioned the wisdom of negotiating with Mr. Assad and said last week’s attack illustrated the flaws in the agreement, which was brokered by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia as a way to prevent the United States from using force.

“For me, this tragedy underscores the dangers of trying to do deals with dictators without a comprehensive, invasive and permanent inspection regime,” said Michael McFaul, who was Mr. Obama’s ambassador to Russia. “It also shows the limits of doing deals with Putin. Surely, the Russians must have known about these C.W.”

Putting the best face on it, former Obama advisers argued that it was still better to have removed 1,300 tons of chemical weapons from Syria even if Mr. Assad cheated and kept some, or later developed more. “Imagine what Syria would look like without that deal,” said Antony J. Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state. “It would be awash in chemical weapons which would fall into the hands of ISIS, Al Nusra or other groups.”

Still, the administration knew all along that it had probably not gotten all of the chemical weapons, and tried to get Russia to help press Syria, without success. “We always knew we had not gotten everything, that the Syrians had not been fully forthcoming in their declaration,” Mr. Blinken said.

Even before last week’s chemical attack, many veterans of Mr. Obama’s team considered his handling of Syria his biggest failing and expressed regret that their administration could not stop a civil war that has left more than 400,000 dead and millions displaced. [Continue reading…]

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Rattled by U.S. strike, Assad lashes out at ‘arrogant aggression’

The Washington Post reports: Just a few days ago, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad looked like he had little to fear.

After six years of war, his army had penned what remained of Syria’s armed rebellion into shrinking swaths of territory, and European leaders were preparing for a conference that could fund the reconstruction of his war-shattered country.

That sense of security appeared shaken Friday after the U.S. military launched a raft of missile strikes at a Syrian military airfield in retaliation for a chemical attack that killed scores of civilians on Tuesday. The images of lifeless bodies splayed across the ground drew international condemnation and dragged the Syrian army’s tactics back into the spotlight.

“The difference between now and one week ago is that Assad and his backers had reasonably concluded they could fight their war however they wished, with impunity, and that the United States was a nuisance but not a threat,” said Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think tank based in Washington.

The missile strikes, authorized by President Trump, marked a significant escalation of American engagement in Syria, broadening the U.S. role beyond the fight against the Islamic State militant group.

The operation contrasted sharply with the Obama administration’s policy toward Syria’s crushing war, which was characterized by strong rhetoric but little political appetite to back words with force.

“Now, we can say that when the United States takes an official position on an issue . . . in this conflict, its rivals will have to factor that into their plans,” Itani said. [Continue reading…]

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Trump just exposed the ‘moral depravity’ of the Obama administration — says former Obama administration official

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon writes: “I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria…we hope that as long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will, in the end, prevail.”

Those are the words of an American president who launched military strikes against the Syrian regime after pictures of babies gasping for air under grey medical blankets seized the world’s attention and punctured international indifference to the Syrian civil war, now entering its seventh year.

The speaker is not Barack Obama, the president who won the Nobel Prize and argued for ‘just wars,’ but his successor, Donald Trump, who tried to keep Muslims and Syrian refugees out of America.

Overnight, those who worked to convince the Obama administration to act against Assad — especially from Foggy Bottom — are watching Trump do what Obama would not: act decisively against the regime and send the message that more will not be tolerated. They sound as shocked as anyone that it was Trump who carried out the path they counseled.

“This shows the moral depravity of the last administration,” said one former Obama administration official. “I am stunned.” [Continue reading…]

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Former Obama administration officials credit Trump for doing what their boss failed to do

Antony J. Blinken, a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, writes: President Donald J. Trump was right to strike at the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using a weapon of mass destruction, the nerve agent sarin, against its own people. Mr. Trump may not want to be “president of the world” but when a tyrant blatantly violates a basic norm of international conduct — in this case, the ban on using chemical or biological weapons in armed conflict, put in place after World War I — the world looks to America to act. Mr. Trump did, and for that he should be commended.

The real test for Mr. Trump is what comes next. He has shown a total disinterest in working to end Syria’s civil war. Now, the administration has leverage it should test with the Assad regime and Russia to restrain Syria’s air force, stop any use of chemical or biological weapons, implement an effective cease-fire in Syria’s civil war and even move toward a negotiated transition of power — goals that eluded the Obama administration.

At the same time, it must prevent or mitigate the possible unintended consequences of using force, including complicating the military campaign against the Islamic State. All this will require something in which the administration has shown little interest: smart diplomacy. [Continue reading…]

Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the Obama administration, writes: Donald Trump is president; he now bears full responsibility for addressing the tragedy in Syria, and for the consequences of the response he has chosen. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reflect on America’s response to the Assad regime’s previous chemical weapons attacks—for how we interpret the difficult and debatable choice the Obama administration (in which I served) made not to use military force when Assad last used nerve gas against his people will shape our thinking about this and similar crises for a long time to come. The lesson I would draw from that experience is that when dealing with mass killing by unconventional or conventional means, deterrence is more effective than disarmament.

After Assad’s horrific 2013 sarin gas attack on civilians, President Obama settled first on deterrence—threatening a punitive military response—then changed course when Assad agreed to disclose and surrender his chemical weapons. There were many reasons for Obama’s decision to forego military action, from his own concerns about the risks of getting involved in Syria’s war to the shameful refusal of most members of Congress to back him up. In any case, the administration and many outside observers argued then that the U.S. had achieved a better outcome by threatening force and then negotiating a deal than if we had actually used force. Air and cruise missile strikes could not have eliminated Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal, but the diplomatic deal, proponents argued, did.

That argument was never persuasive to Syrians being killed by the barrel bombs and rockets that the chemical weapons deal allowed Assad to keep using. But even if one accepts that there is something uniquely awful about poison gas, the Syrian regime’s repeated use of chlorine weapons after 2013, and now its apparent reuse of sarin, shows the difficulty of relying on disarmament alone to stop a dictator from killing by all means at his disposal. No disarmament regime is foolproof, and it was always understood that Assad likely hid some elements of his chemical weapons production capacity from inspectors. A state that calculates that using a weapon or tactic of war is in its interest will generally find a way to do so.

The more effective strategy is to establish that the costs of using such a weapon or tactic will outweigh its benefits, even if a state keeps the capacity to do so. [Continue reading…]

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Inaction over Syria has exacted a terrible price

Jonathan Freedland writes: Let’s not speak of our horror. Let’s not hold emergency meetings or pass urgent resolutions expressing our outrage at the poisoning of Syrian children and adults in Idlib province through a nerve agent, probably sarin gas. Let’s have no declarations worded in the “strongest possible terms”. Let’s utter no more cliches about acts that “cannot be ignored”. Let’s not even condemn these attacks any more – because our condemnations ring so hollow.

We know what the use of this kind of chemical weapon does to people. If you have a strong enough stomach, and you make yourself look at the photos, you can see the bodies of dead children, arranged like sardines, under a threadbare quilt. You can read the accounts of how they died: “writhing, choking, gasping or foaming at the mouth,” according to the New York Times, killed by a substance so toxic that “some rescue workers grew ill and collapsed from proximity to the dead”.

We know that the poison spread after warplanes dropped bombs – and that the warplanes came again a few hours later, hitting a small clinic ministering to the victims. The injured and the dying were being treated there because the area’s larger hospital had been hit by an airstrike two days earlier.

And we almost certainly know who did it. Every sign points to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Sure, Damascus blamed the rebels who hold the town of Khan Sheikhoun, as they always do. And, yes, Assad’s enablers and accomplices in Moscow offered a variation on that theme, saying that Syrian planes had struck a rebel stockpile of nerve agents, accidentally releasing them into the atmosphere.

We know how seriously to take such pronouncements from the regime of Vladimir Putin. More credible is the word of Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, who once led the British army regiment responsible for dealing with chemical weapons and is now a director of Doctors Under Fire. He told the BBC that the Moscow explanation was “fanciful” and “unsustainable”. As he explained, “if you blow up sarin, you destroy it”.

So we know all this, and we also know that for six long, bloody years atrocities have continued in Syria – and nothing happens. Indeed, impunity may not just be the consequence of this latest crime, but also its cause. In recent days, the Trump administration has all but told Assad that he has a free hand to kill as many people as he wants, in whatever way he chooses. [Continue reading…]

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