Is the U.S. weighing a tougher response to Russia over Syria crisis?

Reuters reports: Obama administration officials have begun considering tougher responses to the Russian-backed Syrian government assault on Aleppo, including military options, as rising tensions with Moscow diminish hopes for diplomatic solutions from the Middle East to Ukraine and cyberspace, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

The new discussions were being held at “staff level,” and have yet to produce any recommendations to President Barack Obama, who has resisted ordering military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s multisided civil war.

But the deliberations coincide with Secretary of State John Kerry threatening to halt diplomacy with Russia on Syria and holding Moscow responsible for dropping incendiary bombs on rebel areas of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. It was the stiffest U.S. warning to the Russians since the Sept. 19 collapse of a truce they jointly brokered.

Even administration advocates of a more muscular U.S. response said on Wednesday that it was not clear what, if anything, the president would do, and that his options “begin at tougher talk,” as one official put it.

One official said that before any action could be taken, Washington would first have “follow through on Kerry’s threat and break off talks with the Russians” on Syria.

But the heavy use of Russian airpower in Syria has compounded U.S. distrust of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical intentions, not only in the 5-1/2 year civil war, but also in the Ukraine conflict and in what U.S. officials say are Russian-backed cyber attacks on U.S. political targets.

The U.S. officials said the failure of diplomacy in Syria has left the Obama administration no choice but to consider alternatives, most of which involve some use of force and have been examined before but held in abeyance. [Continue reading…]

The basis for this reporting appears to be an exchange in Tuesday’s State Department press briefing. The suggestion that the administration is now seriously considering its military options sounds like a bit of a stretch. Much more likely is that it is merely restating every administration’s fallback position as it struggles to craft policy: we are keeping all options on the table.

Even if Kerry or Obama was to say, diplomacy has failed, they remain doctrinally wedded to the view that there is no military solution to this conflict.

So, if diplomacy has indeed reached a dead end, I don’t expect to see a tougher response from Obama, but instead, no response at all. All he’s doing now is counting the days until his departure from the Oval Office.

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Russia’s brutal bombing of Aleppo may be calculated, and it may be working

Max Fisher writes: The effects of Russia’s bombing campaign in the Syrian city of Aleppo — destroying hospitals and schools, choking off basic supplies, and killing aid workers and hundreds of civilians over just days — raise a question: What could possibly motivate such brutality?

Observers attribute Russia’s bombing to recklessness, cruelty or Moscow’s desperate thrashing in what the White House has called a “quagmire.”

But many analysts take a different view: Russia and its Syrian government allies, they say, could be massacring Aleppo’s civilians as part of a calculated strategy, aimed beyond this one city.

The strategy, more about politics than advancing the battle lines, appears to be designed to pressure rebels to ally themselves with extremists, eroding the rebels’ legitimacy; give Russia veto power over any high-level diplomacy; and exhaust Syrian civilians who might otherwise support the opposition.

This approach could succeed even if pro-government forces never retake Aleppo. A yearlong siege of the city has not brought President Bashar al-Assad’s forces closer to victory. Too weak to win outright, they appear instead to be hedging, trying to weaken the rebels so that they cannot win either, and to ensure any final settlement would be more favorable for Moscow and its allies.

Though killing civilians often backfires in war, in this case it may be all too effective. [Continue reading…]

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Russian hackers harassed journalists who were investigating Malaysia Airlines plane crash

The Washington Post reports: Russian government hackers began targeting a British citizen journalist in February 2015, eight months after he began posting evidence documenting alleged Russian government involvement in the shoot-down of a Malaysian jetliner over Ukraine.

And then in February 2016, a group that researchers suspect is a propaganda mouthpiece of the Russian government — CyberBerkut — defaced the home page of Eliot Higgins’s citizen journalism website, Bellingcat.com.

That same month, CyberBerkut hacked the email, iCloud and social media account of a Bellingcat researcher in Moscow, then posted online personal pictures, a passport scan, his girlfriend’s name and other private details.

Russia’s information operations against Bellingcat are a taste of what may be in store for other media organizations whose reports anger the Kremlin, said a cyber-research firm that has extensively documented the effort. [Continue reading…]

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Russia aims to turn Aleppo into another Grozny

David Gardner writes: It looks as though Russia, having concluded that its Syrian and Iranian allies on the ground are unable to recapture rebel Aleppo, plans to raze it to the ground.

Moscow, whose nearly half century-long relationship with the Assad clan’s dictatorship has mainly been army-to-army, has had a year to conclude that the Syrian Arab Army has all but collapsed, and given way to a network of militias and private armies. A devastating assessment of the Assad army by a Russian military expert that appeared recently on a Kremlin-friendly outlet said “the Syrian armed forces have not conducted a single successful military offensive during the past year”, and echoed opposition claims they were basically running an extortion racket through a chain of sieges and network of thousands of checkpoints.

Unable to defeat an array of Sunni rebels, Russia has decided to destroy their civilian milieu on behalf of its Syrian ward, and drive them from the urban wasteland of what will constitute the perimeter of a rump Assad state in the coastal west of the country. All this amid the sort of double talk that enables Vitaly Churkin, the Russian envoy to the UN, to praise the Assad regime for its “admirable restraint”. Or, as Tacitus had it, “they make a desert and call it peace”. Will the world stand idly by in the face of this new Grozny, an extermination that will live in the annals of infamy? [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: The two largest hospitals in the Syrian city of Aleppo were bombed Wednesday, knocking them out of service and worsening an already dire medical crisis in the besieged city, medical workers said.

Two patients were killed and three hospital staffers injured in the pre-dawn attacks, including a nurse and an ambulance driver, according to the Syrian American Medical Society, which runs hospitals in opposition-controlled areas of Syria.

Since a cease-fire collapsed last week, the rebel-held eastern portion of Aleppo has been subjected to what residents describe as the most intense bombardments yet of the five-year-old war, with waves of Syrian and Russian airstrikes sending sometimes hundreds of injured people streaming to the city’s few remaining hospitals in a day. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. believes hackers are shielded by Russia to hide its role in cyberintrusions

The Wall Street Journal reports: U.S. officials are increasingly confident that the hacker Guccifer 2.0 is part of a network of individuals and groups kept at arm’s length by Russia to mask its involvement in cyberintrusions such as the theft of thousands of Democratic Party documents, according to people familiar with the matter.

While the hacker denies working on behalf of the Russian government, U.S. officials and independent security experts say the syndicate is one of the most striking elements of what looks like an intensifying Russian campaign to target prominent American athletes, party officials and military leaders.

A fuller picture of the operation has come into focus in the past several weeks. U.S. officials believe that at least two hacking groups with ties to the Russian government, known as Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, are involved in the escalating data-theft efforts, according to people briefed on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s probe of the cyberattacks.

Following successful breaches, the stolen data are apparently transferred to three different websites for publication, these people say. The websites — WikiLeaks, DCLeaks.com and a blog run by Guccifer 2.0 — have posted batches of stolen data at least 42 times from April to last week.

WikiLeaks has published U.S. secrets for years but has recently taken an overtly adversarial tone toward Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Cybersecurity experts believe that DCLeaks.com and Guccifer 2.0 often work together and have direct ties to Russian hackers. [Continue reading…]

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The White House asked Congress to keep quiet on Russian hacking

BuzzFeed reports: The White House sought to muzzle two of Congress’s top intelligence officials when they decided to publicly accuse Russia of meddling in the US election last week, sources familiar with the matter told BuzzFeed News.

In a statement released Friday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam Schiff, the vice-chairmen of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees respectively, formally accused Russia of attempting to influence the US election. It was the first official, on-record confirmation from US government officials that the Kremlin is actively working to manipulate public confidence in the country’s election system.

But sources tell BuzzFeed News that the White House — which has stayed silent despite mounting pressure to call out its Moscow adversaries — tried to delay the statement’s release. The public accusation was of such concern to the administration that White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough was personally involved in the negotiations over releasing it, according to a congressional source.

Feinstein and Schiff, both Democrats, agreed to omit part of their original statement for security reasons, according to another congressional source. That request, which stemmed from concerns over classification, came from the CIA, a congressional source added Wednesday. [Continue reading…]

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FBI probes hacks targeting phones of Democratic Party officials

Reuters reports: The FBI is investigating suspected attempts to hack mobile phones used by Democratic Party officials as recently as the past month, four people with direct knowledge of the attack and the investigation told Reuters.

The revelation underscores the widening scope of the U.S. criminal inquiry into cyber attacks on Democratic Party organizations, including the presidential campaign of its candidate, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

U.S. officials have said they believe those attacks were orchestrated by hackers backed by the Russian government, possibly to disrupt the Nov. 8 election in which Clinton faces Republican Party candidate Donald Trump. Russia has dismissed allegations it was involved in cyber attacks on the organizations.

The more recent attempted phone hacking also appears to have been conducted by Russian-backed hackers, two people with knowledge of the situation said. [Continue reading…]

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Russia implicated in shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine

The New York Times reports: A Dutch-led investigation has concluded that the powerful surface-to-air missile system that was used to shoot down a Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine two years ago, killing all 298 on board, was trucked in from Russia at the request of Russian-backed separatists and returned to Russia the same night.

The report largely confirmed the already widely documented Russian government role not only in the deployment of the missile system, called a Buk, or SA-11, but the subsequent cover up, which continues to this day.

The report by a team of prosecutors from the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine was significant for applying standards of evidence admissible in court, while still building a case directly implicating Russia, and is likely to open a long diplomatic and legal struggle over the tragedy.

With meticulous detail, working with cellphone records, social media, witness accounts and other evidence, Dutch prosecutors traced Russia’s role in deploying the missile system into Ukraine and its attempt to cover its tracks after the disaster. The inquiry did not name individual culprits and stopped short of saying that Russian soldiers were involved. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. was warned of attack on aid workers in Syria

Michael Weiss reports: Two days prior to devastating aerial attacks, Michael Ratney, the U.S. special envoy to Syria, was told the Assad regime was planning to hit the Aleppo facilities of the Syrian Civil Defense, a volunteer rescue group.

Raed al-Saleh, the head of the organization, which is widely known as the White Helmets, was in Manhattan last week, where he told not only Ratney, but envoys from the Netherlands, Britain, and Canada. He said intercepted communications from military officers in the Assad regime signaled imminent plans to bomb several rescue centers, according to two sources who were in the room when al-Saleh transmitting this intelligence.

“We just received a message from the spotters, just an hour ago, they detected messages from the regime radio that they will attack [Syrian Civil Defense] centers in northern Aleppo,” one of those sources jotted down during the meeting, quoting al-Saleh. “First with surface to surface to missiles and, if they miss, they will use spies on the ground to adjust coordinates and come back.”

Within 48 hours, that forecast proved all too true, as three out of four of the White Helmet’s installations — one of them a makeshift firehouse, two others ambulance depots — were pulverized in Syria’s most populous city in acts that Western officials have called the deliberate and systematic targeting of civilians and humanitarian workers. [Continue reading…]

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Unrelenting assault on Aleppo is called worst yet in Syria’s civil war

The New York Times reports: Undeterred and infuriated by Western accusations of war crimes and barbarity in the aerial assault on Aleppo, the Syrian government and its ally Russia intensively bombed the city in northern Syria on Monday for the fourth consecutive day. Residents and rescuers there described the bombardment as among the worst yet in the five-year war.

Both the Kremlin and the Syrian government appeared to harden their position that the United States and its partners had caused the disintegration of a fleeting cease-fire last week. The Russians went as far as suggesting that the Western portrayal of them as war criminals in the Syria conflict risked a further alienation in relations.

Insurgent-held neighborhoods in eastern Aleppo were hit with dozens of air attacks in the predawn hours, killing and wounding many people, according to doctors, nurses and activists in the city. By some estimates the deaths totaled 100 or more for the fourth day. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. condemnations of assault on Aleppo provide no relief to the Syrians getting bombed

An editorial in the Washington Post says: “What Russia is sponsoring and doing” in the Syrian city of Aleppo “is barbarism,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said on Sunday. She’s right: For days, Russian and Syrian planes have rained bombs — including white phosphorus, cluster munitions and “bunker-busters” designed to penetrate basements — on the rebel-held side of the city. Hundreds of civilians have been killed; as many as half are children. U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura described “new heights of horror.” Ms. Power said that “instead of helping get lifesaving aid to civilians, Russia and [Syria] are bombing the humanitarian convoys, hospitals and first responders who are trying desperately to keep people alive.”

It goes without saying that this war-crimes-rich offensive, which Syria’s U.N. ambassador said is aimed at recapturing east Aleppo, has shredded the Obama administration’s attempt to win Russian and Syrian compliance with a cessation of hostilities. So naturally reporters asked senior officials as the attack was getting underway how the United States would respond. “I don’t think . . . this is the time to say where we will go from here,” one answered. Said another: “We’re waiting to see what the Russians come back with.”

In other words: Hem, haw.

By Monday, the administration’s response seemed clear: It will hotly condemn the assault on Aleppo, but do absolutely nothing to stop it. On the contrary, Secretary of State John F. Kerry insisted he will continue to go back to the regime of Vladi­mir Putin with diplomatic offers, hoping it will choose to stop bombing. “The United States makes absolutely no apology for going the extra mile to try and ease the suffering of the Syrian people,” he grandly declared after a meeting Thursday on Syria. By “extra mile,” he doesn’t mean actual U.S. steps to protect civilians — just more futile and debasing appeals to Moscow.

The Putin and Bashar al-Assad regimes are well aware that the only U.S. action President Obama has authorized is diplomatic, and that they are therefore under no pressure to alter their behavior.[Continue reading…]

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Bunker-buster bomb reports may mark new stage in Russia’s Syrian assault

Patrick Wintour writes: The recent claims by the Syrian opposition and the United Nations that Russia is using bunker-buster bombs in Aleppo would, if proven, confirm that a new, more destructive phase in the Russian assault on rebel forces is under way, and that the diplomatic track is effectively closed.

The bombs – capable of destroying underground shelters and command centres – would also suggest Russia is determined to bring the months-long siege of Aleppo to a speedy end, and that they have high-grade intelligence of the whereabouts of Syrian opposition positions.

Justin Bronk, research fellow at the defence thinktank RUSI, explained that bunker-busters are a very specific kind of destructive precision weaponry. “They show up as very different-shaped craters. They go very deep and explode deep underground so they tend to leave deeper but less wide craters than other bombs.”

He added it was very unlikely Russia would use such specific bombs at random or simply to blitz a city since they are very expensive and require specific targeting intelligence to be worth using. If they hit an underground shelter the number of deaths would be huge, but it would be much lower than other generalised heavy bombs if no specific target had been located. [Continue reading…]

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