Wednesday, 21 February 2018

White house considers citing Russian deaths in Syria as a Sign of U.S resolve

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The Trump administration is considering citing the deaths of scores of Russian mercenaries in a Feb. 7 battle with U.S.-backed forces in Syria as evidence of the president’s tough stance toward the Kremlin, a person familiar with the matter said.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made an oblique reference to “an incident” on Tuesday, as she argued that President Donald Trump has been tougher on Russia than his predecessor Barack Obama. She was alluding to the Syria battle -- an episode that threatens to deepen tensions with Moscow.
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“He has done a number of things to put pressure on Russia and to be tough on Russia. Just last week, there was an incident that will be reported in the coming days, and another way that this president was tough on Russia,” Sanders said in a briefing for reporters.
Trump himself would like to publicly make the case that the battle shows his resolve to confront Moscow, said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He faces greater pressure to act after the indictment of 13 Russians and a St. Petersburg “troll farm” on Feb. 16 for allegedly leading a coordinated effort to influence the 2016 election. In a weekend tweet storm, Trump claimed the indictment exonerated him, but never criticized Russia.

The U.S. has not previously publicly acknowledged that Russians were among the fighters killed in the Feb. 7 battle. Sanders’ characterization of the event as evidence that the president has been “tougher on Russian in the first year than Obama was in eight years combined” could antagonize the Kremlin. Sanders declined further comment on Wednesday.
It’s unclear when the White House learned of the attack or the composition of the Russian forces. And if Trump wanted to show his resolve to confront Russia, there are easier ways: he could enact sanctions Congress has already approved in retaliation for the election meddling or publicly criticize the Russian campaign.

Syria Attack

In the Syria battle, a force comprised of Russian mercenaries and allied units fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad attacked a base held by U.S.-backed forces, mainly Kurds, in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor region, according to U.S. and Russian officials familiar with the matter. After 20 to 30 artillery and tank rounds landed near the Kurds and U.S. soldiers acting as advisers, the U.S. coalition responded with artillery and airstrikes, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said Feb. 8.
U.S. forces used a deconfliction line with the Russian military to inquire whether the attacking force was theirs. White said that U.S. officials “were in regular communication with Russian counterparts before, during and after the attack.”
The U.S. counterattack turned back the assault and may have killed more than 200 of the mercenaries and injured scores more, according to people familiar with the matter.

Both the Kremlin and the Pentagon have downplayed the incident. Russia’s military said it had nothing to do with the attack and the U.S. accepted the claim. Regardless, it was the deadliest clash between citizens of the two countries since the Cold War.
A U.S. official confirmed Tuesday that Russian casualties were in the low triple digits, and said one fighter among the U.S.-backed forces was injured. The Russian Foreign Ministry has acknowledged five Russian deaths in the incident.

Prigozhin Connection

The Russians were part of Wagner Group, a firm owned by a Kremlin-connected businessman named Yevgeny Prigozhin, according to the people familiar with the incident.
Prigozhin, known as “Vladimir Putin’s chef," was among the 13 Russians named in the 37-page criminal indictment Special Counsel Robert Mueller filed Feb. 16.
The Russian assault on the base in Syria may have been a rogue operation, underscoring the complexity of a conflict that started as a domestic crackdown on dissidents by Assad only to morph into a proxy war involving Islamic extremists, stateless Kurds and regional powers Iran, Turkey and now Israel. 
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, warned the Trump administration on Feb. 19 not to “play with fire” in Syria by supporting the autonomy-seeking Kurds, who have helped the U.S. largely eradicate the Islamic State militant group’s presence in the country.
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Author: verified_user

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