- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2018

President Trump on Monday ordered a hold on new economic sanctions against Russia over its support for Syria and said he remain committed to pulling U.S. troops out of the war-torn nation, despite what was widely seen as a successful strike with allies on President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons infrastructure over the weekend.

The reversal announced by the White House on Monday seemed to underscore Mr. Trump’s continued ambivalence over the way forward in Syria, where he has clashed with his own civilian and military advisers over the wisdom and necessity of keeping U.S. troops stationed on the chaotic Syrian battlefield where fighters from Russia, Iran, Turkey and terror groups like Islamic State are all jockeying to territory and influence.

A day after U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said new economic penalties on Russia for its support of Syria’s chemical weapons program were imminent, Mr. Trump said, essentially, not so fast.

“We’re evaluating, but nothing to announce right now,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters of possible sanctions.

Those favoring a tougher line Russia got fresh ammunition late Monday when the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and Britain’s National Cyber Security Center issued an extraordinary “joint technical alert” containing some of the most detailed warnings to date of “malicious cyber activity carried out by the Russian government.”

The hacks, targeting routers, switches, firewalls and other vulnerable nodes, belonged to “primarily government and private-sector organizations, critical infrastructure providers, and the internet service providers (ISPs) supporting these sectors.”

“Russian state-sponsored actors are using compromised routers to conduct spoofing ‘man-in-the-middle’ attacks to support espionage, extract intellectual property, maintain persistent access to victim networks, and potentially lay a foundation for future offensive operations,” the three-page alert said.

“The activity highlighted today is part of a repeated pattern of disruptive and harmful malicious cyber action carried out by the Russian government,” Howard Marshall, FBI deputy assistant director, said in a statement.

The alert comes as the U.S. and its allies and Syria and its allies try to assess the altered strategic landscape after the large but limited strikes carrier out in the early hours of Saturday morning by U.S., British and French forces.

Russia’s military is supporting the Syrian government, and the Trump administration said Moscow bears responsibility for failing to restrain the chemical-weapons attack by its ally on April 7 that killed dozens of civilians in Douma area near Damascus. After the attack, the last anti-government rebel forces in the region around the capital agreed to leave their enclave.

Haley and Trump

On Sunday, Ms. Haley, who has emerged as one of Mr. Trump’s more hawkish advisers when dealing with Russia, said the administration was ready to follow up the airstrikes with economic sanctions to punish Moscow for its support of the Assad chemical weapons programs.

“You will see that Russian sanctions will be coming down,” she said on CBS. “[Treasury] Secretary [Steven] Mnuchin will be announcing those on Monday, if he hasn’t already. And they will go directly to any sort of companies that were dealing with equipment related to Assad and chemical weapons used.”

But Mr. Trump, who has never given up a hope that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin could forge a better bilateral relationship, reportedly was angered by Ms. Haley’s comments and told national security officials he wasn’t ready to roll out new sanctions yet.

After Ms. Haley’s comments, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov said the proposed sanctions were a U.S. ploy to meddle with the Russian economy with “undisguised attempts of unfair competition.”

“The sanction campaign against Russia is truly assuming the nature of an obsessive idea,” Mr. Peskov said. “We still do not see these sanctions as lawful. Certainly, this cannot have any relation to and cannot be motivated by considerations of the situation in Syria or any other country.”

Separately, a team of experts from the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said it had run into problems reaching the site in Douma where the suspected chemical weapons attack had been launched — despite promises from Syrian and Russian officials of unimpeded access for the team’s investigation. It was not clear what was preventing the OPCW team, which had been in the country more than two days, from making the trip.

But Mr. Trump’s Russia decision was already reverberating across Capitol Hill.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said he was “outraged” that the president was pulling back from sanctions on Russia for its support of the Assad government.

“This sends a message to governments around the world that they can support brutal, criminal behavior without serious consequences,” Mr. Engel said. “We must exact a cost if Assad’s allies continue their support. President Trump is out of step with the American people, American values — and as this situation has made clear, his own administration.”

Getting out

The White House said Monday that the dramatic events of recent days have not changed Mr. Trump’s determination to avoid a long-term U.S. military presence in Syria, despite a claim by French President Emmanuel Macron that he persuaded Mr. Trump to keep American forces on the conflict.

“We still have troops on the ground, but the president wants to bring those people home and that hasn’t shifted,” Mrs. Sanders said, adding, “We don’t have a time frame on it.”

Mr. Macron said after the missile strikes last weekend that he persuaded Mr. Trump to station U.S. troops there for the long run. Mr. Trump had announced two weeks ago that he wants to withdraw about 2,000 U.S. troops as soon as possible from Syria, where they have been fighting the Islamic State. In a TV interview Sunday night, Mr. Macron took the credit for the strike in Syria, saying he worked out a list of targets with Mr. Trump and persuaded him to limit action to chemical-weapons facilities.

Mrs. Sanders said U.S. policy in Syria “hasn’t changed.”

“We’re still committed to defeating ISIS. We wanted to see that happen,” she said. “The president also wants the people in the region, our Gulf partners, to step up and do more.”

Mr. Trump wasn’t the only Western leader facing heat for the Syria mission.

In London, British Prime Minister Theresa May told restive lawmakers Monday that military airstrikes on Syria were right both legally and morally, accusing Ms. Assad and the Kremlin of attempting to cover up evidence of a deadly chemical weapons attack.

Mrs. May faced down her domestic critics in Parliament as European Union foreign ministers united to say they understood the need for the airstrikes and called for a new push for a political solution to the war in Syria, The Associated Press reported.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labor Party, called the airstrikes “legally questionable” and accused Mrs. May of “following Donald Trump’s lead.” Mr. Corbyn said the Conservative prime minister should remember she “is accountable to this Parliament, not to the whims of the U.S. president.

Mr. Trump on Monday hailed the success of the missiles strikes on Syria, boasting that Syrian and Russian air defense systems were unable to shoot down even one of the allies’ missiles last weekend.

“With way over 100 missiles shot in, they didn’t shoot one down,” Mr. Trump said to cheers at an event on the economy in Hialeah, Florida. “The equipment didn’t work too well, their equipment.”

The president scoffed at reports that Syrian and Russian forces had shot down dozens of the U.S. missiles.

“You heard, ‘Oh, they shot 40 down. Then they shot 50 down,’” Mr. Trump said. He insisted, “Every single one hit their target.”

The president told the crowd, “We just had a big successful hit. Did our generals do a great job?”

Mr. Trump also introduced his new national security adviser, John R. Bolton, who received a standing ovation from the crowd.

“John, that’s pretty good, I didn’t expect that,” Mr. Trump joked. “I’m a little jealous.”

Mr. Trump asked the crowd, “Are you giving him all the credit? You know that means the end of his job.”


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