National Security Adviser John Bolton said the United States is working with Britain and France to plan a coordinated attack against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government should he use chemical weapons during an expected offensive in Idlib province.
The U.S. hit Syrian targets with missiles in April 2017 and April 2018 after Assad was accused of using chemical weapons against civilians, and Bolton said Monday that France and the U.K. agreed that "another use of chemical weapons will result in a much stronger response." It appears that a battle is imminent, with monitoring groups saying Russia has launched 70 airstrikes in the province and the Syrian government has dropped dozens of barrel bombs.
This is the last part of Syria where rebels have control, and it's estimated that three million civilians and 70,000 opposition fighters are in the area. Charity groups have said that any kind of sustained fighting could start a humanitarian crisis, and Turkey has already said it will not let people trying to escape to safety cross its border. A U.S. official said the Trump administration has learned from intelligence sources that Assad gave the military permission to use chlorine gas during the offensive, The Wall Street Journal reports, and that's one reason why they are publicly warning the regime. Catherine Garcia
The presidents of Russia, Turkey, and Iran are meeting in Tehran on Friday to discuss Syria's future, as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies gear up for an assault on the last rebel enclave, Idlib. Russian warplanes reportedly bombed southern Idlib Friday morning, but the Russian, Turkish, and Iranian leaders may still find a way to avoid a humanitarian disaster and massive bloodshed in a province with 3 million civilians and more than 10,000 hardcore fighters.
President Trump is not at the meeting, but he has agreed to a new U.S. strategy that involves keeping America's 2,200 troops in Syria indefinitely, said James Jeffrey, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's Syrian engagement envoy. "The new policy is we're no longer pulling out by the end of the year," he said, according to The Washington Post. Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton have communicated to Russia that Trump will be very angry with any slaughter in Idlib, he added.
"Any offensive is to us objectionable as a reckless escalation," Jeffrey said. "You add to that, if you use chemical weapons, or create refugee flows, or attack innocent civilians," and "the consequences of that are that we will shift our positions and use all of our tools to make it clear that we'll have to find ways to achieve our goals that are less reliant on the goodwill of the Russians."
The U.S., which has focused its efforts on eradicating the Islamic State, now wants all Iranian forces out of Syria and a stable, broadly acceptable government in Damascus. "Much of the motivation for the change, officials said, stems from growing doubts about whether Russia, which Trump has said could be a partner, is able and willing to help eject Iran," the Post reports. Trump has been known to change his mind, but Jeffrey said he is "confident the president is on board with this" more "active" approach. Peter Weber
A series of blasts were reported late Saturday at an Assad regime military airport in Mazzeh, Syria. State-run news agencies attributed the explosions to an electrical fault and denied speculation that they could have been caused by an Israeli missile strike.
#BREAKING: Syrian opposition claim an Israeli airstrike caused explosions at Mezzeh Military Airport near #Damascus; Syrian Gov. Officials claim: 'No attack. Just a fire due to an Electric Short circuit' pic.twitter.com/bnZKcYW5je
— Amichai Stein (@AmichaiStein1) September 2, 2018
"[M]ilitary source denies the exposure of the Mazzeh Airport to any Israeli aggression," the report said, "and the sounds of explosions that were heard resulted from explosion of an ammunition depot near the airport because of electrical failure."
Eyewitnesses thought otherwise. "I assume it was from an airstrike because of the explosions afterwards and ambulances with firefighters that went to the scene," a Damascus resident told CNN. Bonnie Kristian
Syria's Idlib province is expected to be the site of the final major battle of the seven-year Syrian civil war.
The country's strongman President Bashar al-Assad has retaken most rebel-held territory across Syria, and Idlib is the last large rebel-held enclave. About 70,000 rebel fighters are in the province, driven by regime forces from other Syrian regions.
Idlib is also the temporary home of internally displaced people who have fled more intense fighting elsewhere in Syria. Now, the fighting will likely come to their doorsteps once again as a new offensive is thought to be imminent.
"We are asking God for mercy and protection from the bombing and the airstrikes," said a woman named Aisha, who lives in Idlib with her family. "If I take [my children] with me outside, I am scared. If I leave them inside the house, I'm also scared. Wherever I go, I will still be scared for their lives." Bonnie Kristian
On Saturday, a car bomb in Masyaf, Syria, killed key Syrian rocket scientist Aziz Asbar and his driver, and Syria and Hezbollah quickly pointed the finger at Israel. "In this case, the accusations were well founded," The New York Times reported Monday, citing information passed on by a senior intelligence official from an unidentified Middle Eastern nation. The official said Israel's Mossad assassinated Asbar who, as head of a top-secret weapons lab called Sector 4, was working assiduously with Iran to retrofit Syria's SM600 Tishreen rockets to create precision-guided missiles capable of accurately hitting Israeli cities.
Only an Israeli prime minister can legally authorize a Mossad "negative treatment" operation, or assassination. "Israel did not claim responsibility," the Times notes. "It never does. But the Mossad has a long history of assassinating scientists developing weaponry seen as a threat," dating back to attempts on German scientists working for Egypt in the 1950s. Iran has been the Mossad's most frequent target recently. "Since 2007 it has assassinated six Iranians, most of them scientists involved in Iran's nuclear and missile programs on their way to work in the morning," the Times reports. "An Iranian general in charge of a missile project was also blown up in his headquarters along with 17 of his men," and "Israeli operatives have also killed a number of Syrians." You can read more about Israel's assassination program and Asbar's work and death at The New York Times. Peter Weber
At least 221 people were killed Wednesday in southwestern Syria, in what local officials and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group believe were coordinated attacks.
Multiple suicide bombings were carried out in Suweida, a government-controlled town south of the capital Damascus, as well as in villages to the north and east. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the bombings, and officials said militants also forced their ways into homes and killed the people inside. "It's the bloodiest death toll in Suweida province since the start of the war [in 2011]," Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP.
ISIS has lost most of its territory in Syria, remaining in small areas of southern and eastern Syria. Catherine Garcia
Israeli troops evacuated 422 people from Syria to Jordan overnight Saturday and Sunday at the request of the United States and several European countries. The original plan was to evacuate 800, but complications including gains by the Islamic State hindered the rescue mission.
The evacuees were "White Helmet" volunteers, a civil defense group that conducts search and rescue operations, evacuations, and medical work in rebel-held areas of Syria. The group and their families were located in the Golan Heights area. Syrian government troops are advancing into the region, and the Bashar al-Assad regime considers the White Helmets a terrorist organization though they are credited with saving more than 100,000 lives.
The evacuees will be granted asylum and resettled in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Canada. "Humanity dictates that many of these brave first-aiders should now find protection and refuge, some of them in Germany," said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. The Canadian Foreign Ministry likewise expressed a "deep moral responsibility to these brave and selfless people." Bonnie Kristian
"We are seeing a massive displacement inside Syria," Panos Moumtzis, the United Nations regional coordinator for Syria, said Monday. "From January to April, there were over 920,000 newly displaced people," he continued. "This was the highest displacement in that short period of time we have seen since the conflict started."
This new wave of internal displacement brings the total refugee population inside Syria to about 6.2 million, while another 5.6 million Syrians are refugees outside their country's borders. The last widely accepted death toll estimate was 470,000 killed in the conflict as of 2016; subsequent estimates put it as high as 511,000 and as low as 188,000. Syria's total population in 2010, before the civil war began, was about 20 million.
Moumtzis highlighted recent escalation in fighting and airstrikes in and near the city of Idlib as particular cause for concern. Idlib is supposed to be a de-escalation zone, and it is already serving as a temporary home to civilians displaced from Aleppo. For those living in Idlib now, "there is no other Idlib to take them out to," Moumtzis said. "Really, this is the last location. There is no other location to further move them." Bonnie Kristian