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Following missile strike Tillerson and McMaster try to repair the damage

Secretary of State Tillerson and the President’s National Security Adviser General McMaster engage in damage limitation following missile strike but impression of policy chaos within the Trump administration remains.

Alexander Mercouris

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That Friday’s missile strike on Sharyat air base was an impulsive and ill-judged move ordered by an inexperienced and emotional President after seeing television pictures of dead children gained further support on Sunday when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the President’s National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster both gave television interviews which bore all the hallmarks of a damage limitation exercise.

Tillerson’s interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC News was longer and more informative, but McMaster’s interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News made essentially the same points.  Briefly these are

(1) that the missile attack on Sharyat air base is intended as a one-off;

(2) that the US will not attack Syria to achieve regime change there, and that President Assad’s position will be decided by the Syrians themselves;

(3) that the priority remains the fight against ISIS;

(4) that the missile strike was not intended as an anti-Russian move and the Trump administration still seeks better relations with Russia.

In ruling out regime change in Syria Tillerson – who has finally come into his own as Secretary of State – was the clearer.

I think our strategy in Syria, as you know, our priority is first the defeat of ISIS, remove them from access to the Caliphate because that’s where the threat to the homeland and to so many other homelands of our coalition partners is emanating from. Once we can eliminate the battle against ISIS, conclude that and it is going quite well, then we hope to turn our attention to cease fire agreements between the regime and opposition forces. And in that regard, we are hopeful that we can work with Russia and use their influence to achieve areas of stabilization throughout Syria and create the conditions for a political process through Geneva in which we can engage all of the parties on a way forward.

And it is through that political process that we believe the Syrian people will awfully be able to decide the fate of Bashar al-Assad.

McMaster in his interview said essentially the same thing.  Whilst he made it clear that the US would rather not see President Assad remain President of Syria, McMaster also said that it is not for the US to remove him

What we really need to do, and what everyone who’s involved in this conflict needs to do is to do everything they can to resolve this civil war, to halt this humanitarian catastrophe, this political catastrophe, not only in Syria, but the catastrophe is affecting the greater Middle East, it’s affecting Europe and it’s a threat to the American people as well.

And so, to do that, what’s required is some kind of a political solution to that very complex problem. And what Ambassador Haley pointed out is it’s very difficult to understand how a political solution could result from the continuation of the Assad regime.

Now, we are not saying that we are the ones who are going to affect that change.

In ruling out regime change Tillerson went further, even citing the disastrous Libyan experience

STEPHANOPOULOS: But you accept that right now, the Syrian people have no way to remove Assad. That’s going to take greater pressure, from the United States, from an international coalition, perhaps military pressure.

TILLERSON: Well, ultimately, it could, George. But, you know, we’ve seen what that looks like when you undertake a violent regime change in Libya. And the situation in Libya continues to be very chaotic. And I would argue that the life of the Libyan people is not all that well off today.

So I think we have to learn the lessons of the past and learn the lessons of what went wrong in Libya when you choose that pathway of regime change.

So we know this is going to be hard work, but we think it’s also a process that will lead to a durable and lasting stability inside of Syria. Any time you go in and have a violent change at the top, it is very difficult to create the conditions for stability longer-term.

On the missile strike itself, McMaster again said it was intended merely as a ‘signal’ and was not even intended to degrade Syria’s military capability to any measurable degree

I think what’s important to remember is, our objective — our objective was to deter the continued use, because there’s been a pattern of the abuse of chemical weapons by the Assad regime and his mass murder attacks against innocent civilians. That was the objective……

And so, what’s significant about the strike is not that it was meant to take out the Syrian regime’s capacity or ability to commit mass murder of its own people, but it was to be a very strong signal to Assad and his sponsors that the United States cannot stand idly by as he is murdering innocent civilians — what was a redline in 2013. And so, that was the important objective to keep in mind here.

Tillerson said the same thing, and confirmed that overall US policy in Syria had not been changed either by the Khan Sheikhoun attack or by the missile strike on Sharyat air base

This strike — and I think the president was very clear in his message to the American people that this strike was related solely to the most recent horrific use of chemical weapons against women, children, and, as the president said, even small babies. And so the strike was a message to Bashar al-Assad that your multiple violations of your agreements at the U.N., your agreements under the Chemical Weapons Charter back in 2013, that those would not go without a response in the future.

And we are asking Russia to fulfill its commitment and we’re asking and calling on Bashar al-Assad to cease the use of these weapons. Other than that, there is no change to our military posture.

Both Tillerson and McMaster in their different ways went out of their way to be as conciliatory towards Russia as possible.

Both made clear that they do not believe the Russians were complicit in the chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun.  Both spoke of Russia as having a potentially important role in achieving a political settlement in Syria.  McMaster made it clear that the option of a US attack on the Russian military in Syria is ruled out

WALLACE: Let me bring in — you mentioned Russia. Russia has sent, as Kristin Fisher reported, has sent a warship into the Mediterranean. And over the weekend, the prime minister of Russia, Medvedev, wrote, the U.S. is, quote, “on the verge of a military clash with Russia.”

Sir, what are we prepared to do if Russia defends its interests in Syria?

MCMASTER: Well, this is part of the problem with Syria is Russia’s sponsorship for this murderous regime.

And if we would want to appeal rationally to Russia, this is a great opportunity for the Russian leadership to reevaluate what they’re doing.

Neither Tillerson nor McMaster gave any hint that any further sanctions against Russia – such as the British are calling for – were being seriously considered.

As it happens on the question of Russia it was McMaster who was the more informative.  When asked to speak about the state of relations between the US and Russia this is what he had to say

WALLACE: General, what is our relationship with Russia and Putin today?

MCMASTER: Well, today, it can be whatever the Russians want it to be. Do they want it to be a relationship of competition and potential conflict? I don’t see how that’s in Russian interest. Or do they want it to be where a relationship in which we can find areas of cooperation that are — that are in our mutual interest?

How is it in anyone’s interest that this conflict in Syria and this catastrophe in the greater Middle East continue?

And they can be part of the solution or they can continue what has been really a very sophisticated campaign of subversion against Western interests and a campaign of subversion and intervention on behalf of a murderous regime in the Middle East.

And so, I think this is what our secretary of state will be exploring with the Russian leadership this week and the president is determined to do everything he can to advance American interests. And if that entails working with others to come to solutions in the world that enhance our security, the president will do that. And it’s really now up to the Russian leadership to reevaluate what they are doing in the Middle East.

This makes it fairly clear that the Trump administration is not seeking confrontation with Russia in Syria, and is still looking for ways to work with Russia over Syria and other issues.

Within certain limits these comments of Tillerson and McMaster are reassuring, as of course they are intended to be.  Those who fear – or hope – that the US is about to attack Syria to achieve regime change there, and is willing to go to war with Russia in order to achieve it, can rest assured that that is not going to happen.

Overall however there is nothing reassuring at all about this disastrous episode.

It turns out that the entire Syrian policy of the US can be thrown into confusion and put in jeopardy at a whim, because the President has suffered an emotional spasm at seeing pictures of dead children on television.  As a result missiles are launched, people are killed and senior officials like Tillerson and McMaster then have to do the rounds of the television studios to limit the damage.

More seriously there doesn’t seem to be anyone in the administration with the strength or confidence to restrain the President when he behaves in this way.  Normally that would be the work of General McMaster, who is his National Security Adviser.  However the impression General McMaster gives in his interview is of a technician and manager, not a strategic thinker, with the result that he appears to see his role purely as one of providing the President with a tool-kit of options to do what he wants, rather than of giving him strategic advice, or of pointing out to him how doing what he wants might contradict his own policies.

This administration does not seem to have a person with the knowledge or experience or authority to give the President strategic advice.  Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner lack the necessary experience or authority, and both seem to be engaged in a bitter feud with each other.  Tillerson is still finding his way and anyway seems too distant from the President to fulfil that role.  One senses that General Flynn for all his well-publicised managerial failings was the nearest approximation this administration had to such a person, and that with him gone the administration is all at sea.

That doubtless also explains the increasingly undisciplined behaviour of Nikki Haley.  Not only is she being allowed to wander around the television studios unchecked, firing off comments which she has clearly not coordinated either with the White House or the State Department, but she is gaining a level of prominence which is completely out of proportion to her supposed role as the US’s UN ambassador.  At the moment, instead of being obviously subordinate to Tillerson and McMaster, she appears to be their equal.

It is difficult to avoid the impression that Haley, who is a politician not a diplomat, and who was previously governor of South Carolina and was apparently seriously considered by Mitt Romney for his Vice-Presidential running mate, is running what is in effect an election campaign, with her sights ultimately on the White House.  Thus the publicity stunts, like the waving of photos of dead children during a UN Security Council session, which annoyed the veteran diplomats present, but which was clearly aimed at the US television audience.

One result of Haley’s undisciplined behaviour is that the administration either finds itself pulled along by her comments, with the result that Haley is in effect making policy for the White House, or officials like McMaster have to find some way of reconciling what she says with the administration’s actual policies, which may be completely different.  A perfect example of this was McMaster elaborate explanation during his Fox News interview explaining why despite the obvious differences between the things Haley and Tillerson are saying, on the subject of regime change in Syria they are actually saying the same thing.

WALLACE: The Trump administration seems to be sending mixed signals this weekend. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley says that getting rid of Assad is a priority. On the other hand, Secretary of State Tillerson says that first, we have to get rid of ISIS, destroy ISIS, Assad can wait.

So, which is it? How does the president see this playing out in Syria?

MCMASTER: Well, both Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Haley are right about this. What we really need to do, and what everyone who’s involved in this conflict needs to do is to do everything they can to resolve this civil war, to halt this humanitarian catastrophe, this political catastrophe, not only in Syria, but the catastrophe is affecting the greater Middle East, it’s affecting Europe and it’s a threat to the American people as well.

And so, to do that, what’s required is some kind of a political solution to that very complex problem. And what Ambassador Haley pointed out is it’s very difficult to understand how a political solution could result from the continuation of the Assad regime.

Not surprisingly, the Russians are completely unimpressed by all this, as Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s spokesman, has just made clear.

George W. Bush and Barack Obama, though committed to disastrous policies, did at least have by US standards relatively coherent administrations.  The impression this administration gives is one of chaos.

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BREAKING: Explosion in Crimea, Russia kills many, injuring dozens, terrorism suspected

According to preliminary information, the incident was caused by a gas explosion at a college facility in Kerch, Crimea.

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“We are clarifying the information at the moment. Preliminary figures are 50 injured and 10 dead. Eight ambulance crews are working at the site and air medical services are involved,” the press-service for the Crimean Ministry of Health stated.

Medics announced that at least 50 people were injured in the explosion in Kerch and 25 have already been taken to local hospital with moderate wounds, according to Sputnik.

Local news outlets reported that earlier in the day, students at the college heard a blast and windows of the building were shattered.

Putin Orders that Assistance Be Provided to Victims of Blast in Kerch – Kremlin Spokesman

“The president has instructed the Ministry of Health and the rescue services to take emergency measures to assist victims of this explosion, if necessary, to ensure the urgent transportation of seriously wounded patients to leading medical institutions of Russia, whether in Moscow or other cities,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitriy Peskov said.

The president also expressed his condolences to all those affected by the tragic incident.

Manhunt Underway in Kerch as FSB Specialists Investigate Site of Explosion – National Anti-Terrorist Committee

The site of the blast that rocked a city college in Kerch is being examined by FSB bomb disposal experts and law enforcement agencies are searching for clues that might lead to the arrest of the perpetrators, the National Anti Terrorism Committee said in a statement.

“Acting on orders from the head of the NAC’s local headquarters, FSB, Interior Ministry, Russian Guards and Emergency Ministry units have arrived at the site. The territory around the college has been cordoned off and the people inside the building evacuated… Mine-disposal experts are working at the site and law enforcement specialists are investigating,” the statement said.

Terrorist Act Considered as Possible Cause of Blast in Kerch – Kremlin Spokesman

“The tragic news that comes from Kerch. Explosion. The president was informed … The data on those killed and the number of injured is constantly updated,” Peskov told reporters.

“[The version of a terrorist attack] is being considered,” he said.

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10 percent of American F-22 fighter jets damaged by Hurricane Michael

Part of the reason the F-22’s were left in the path of the storm is that they were broken and too expensive to fix or fly.

Seraphim Hanisch

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Note to the wise: When a hurricane comes, move your planes out of the way. Especially your really expensive F-22 fighter planes. After all, those babies are $339 mil apiece. Got the message?

Apparently the US Air Force didn’t get this message. Or, did they find themselves unable to follow the message?

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The Washington Times reported Tuesday that between 17 and 20 of these top-of-the-line fighter jets were damaged, some beyond the point of repair, when Hurricane Michael slammed ashore on Mexico Beach, Florida, not far from the Tyndall Air Force Base in the same state. The Times reports that more than a dozen of the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jets were damaged after being left in the path of the extremely fierce storm:

President Trump’s tour Monday of devastation wrought by Hurricane Michael took him close to Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base, where more than a dozen F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jets were damaged after being left in the path of the powerful storm.

The pricey fighter jets — some possibly damaged beyond repair — were caught in the widespread destruction that took at least 18 lives, flattened homes, downed trees and buckled roads from Florida to Virginia.

The decision to leave roughly $7.5 billion in aircraft in the path of a hurricane raised eyebrows, including among defense analysts who say the Pentagon’s entire high-tech strategy continues to make its fighter jets vulnerable to weather and other mishaps when they are grounded for repairs.

“This becomes sort of a self-defeating cycle where we have $400 million aircraft that can’t fly precisely because they are $400 million aircraft,” said Dan Grazier, a defense fellow at Project on Government Oversight. “If we were buying simpler aircraft then it would be a whole lot easier for the base commander to get these aircraft up and in working order, at least more of them.”

This is quite a statement. The F-22 is held to be the tip of the American air defense sword. A superb airplane (when it works), it can do things no other plane in the world can do. It boasts a radar profile the size of a marble, making it virtually undetectable by enemy radars. It is highly maneuverable with thrust-vectoring built into its engines.

However, to see a report like this is simply stunning. After all, one would expect that the best military equipment ought to be the most reliable as well. 

It appears that Hurricane Michael figuratively and physically blew the lid off any efforts to conceal a problem with these planes, and indeed with the hyper-technological basis for the US air fighting forcesThe Times continues:

Reports on the number of aircraft damaged ranged from 17 to 22 or about 10 percent of the Air Force’s F-22 fleet of 187.

The Air Force stopped buying F-22s, considered the world’s most advanced fighter jets, in 2012. The aircraft is being replaced by the F-35, another high-tech but slightly less-expensive aircraft.

Later in the tour, at an emergency command center in Georgia, Mr. Trump said the damage to the F-22s couldn’t be avoided because the aircraft were grounded and the storm moved quickly.

“We’re going to have a full report. There was some damage, not nearly as bad as we first heard,” he said when asked about the F-22s, which cost about $339 million each.

“I’m always concerned about cost. I don’t like it,” Mr. Trump said.

Still, the president remains a fan of the high-tech fighter jet.

“The F-22 is one of my all-time favorites. It is the most beautiful fighter jet in the world. One of the best,” he said.

The Air Force managed to fly 33 of the F-22s to safety, but maintenance and repair issues kept 22 of the notoriously finicky aircraft on the ground when the powerful storm hit the base.

About 49 percent of the F-22s are out of action at any given time, according to an Air Force report this year.

This is a stunning statistic. This means that of the 187 planes in existence, 90 of them are not working. At their cost, that means that over thirty billion dollars worth of military equipment is sitting around, broken, just in airplanes alone.

As a point of comparison, the entire Russian military budget for 2017 was $61 billion, with that budget producing hypersonic missiles, superb fighter aircraft and tanks. Russian fighter planes are known for being able to take harsh landing and take-off conditions that would cripple the most modern American flying machines.

It would seem that Hurricane Michael exposed a serious problem with the state of readiness of American armed forces. Thankfully that problem did not arise in combat, but it is no less serious.

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Saudi Arabia trying to squirm free of Khashoggi murder (Video)

The Duran Quick Take: Episode 2.

Alex Christoforou

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RT CrossTalk host Peter Lavelle and The Duran’s Alex Christoforou take a quick look at Saudi Arabia’s possible admission to killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi…accidentally, while they were torturing the man inside the consulate in Istanbul.

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Via Zerohedge

Even before the publication of last night’s Saudi trial balloon hinting that the kingdom would soon acknowledge that the extrajudicial killing of Jamal Khashoggi – the insider-turned dissident journalist who walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week and never walked back out – was the result of a “botched” kidnapping attempt carried out by “rogue killers” (despite reports that the US intelligence community knew that Khashoggi was being “targeted”), two realities had become increasingly clear. One: That the Saudis would avoid responsibility for the killing by pinning it on some unfortunate underling, and two: that there would be few, if any, lasting diplomatic repercussions.

And as more media organizations confirmed reports about Saudi’s plans to spin Khashoggi’s murder as a botched interrogation (we can only imagine what was said in that room to justify the use of such extreme violence), CNN calculated the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Saudi King Salman in Riyadh for approximately 15 minutes early Tuesday, following his 12-hour-plus flight to the kingdom.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s meeting with King Salman of Saudi Arabia lasted no more than 15 minutes, CNN estimates based on the time the top US diplomat’s motorcade arrived at the royal court and departed.

The motorcade arrived at the royal court at 11:42 a.m. (4:42 a.m. ET) and left 26 minutes later. There is a fair distance to walk from where the motorcade dropped Pompeo off to where he met the king.

While Trump said on Monday that Pompeo would travel to Turkey “if necessary”, the Saudi’s decision to “come clean” about Khashoggi’s death pretty much rendered Pompeo’s fact-finding mission unnecessary.More important are developments in Turkey, where the joint Saudi-Turkish “investigation” is turning its attention toward the home of the Saudi consul, where a black diplomatic van that departed the Saudi consulate just under two hours after Khashoggi entered was captured on camera disappearing into a garage. Some speculate that this is where the killers finished disposing of Khashoggi’s body. This comes after a “nine-hour” search of the Saudi consulate building that, according to leaks published in Al-Jazeera, turned up “evidence of tampering” by the Saudis. On Tuesday, Turkey’s foreign minister clarified that Saudi had yet to admit its role in Khashoggi’s disappearance and probable death.

Turkish investigators will carry out a search of the Saudi Consul General’s residence on Tuesday as the probe into the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi continues, according to a Turkish diplomatic source.

CCTV footage released to the media from the day the Washington Post writer vanished show movement of vehicles from the consulate building to the Consul General’s residence nearby.

As speculation mounts that the incident could unseat the increasingly authoritarian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (who has already marginalized or incapacitated nearly every threat to his rule), it’s looking more likely that neither the US nor the rest of the Western world will do much to punish the world’s most important oil exporter, which can “weaponize” the oil market seemingly on a whim.

Any punishment for this flagrant violation of human rights will need to come, therefore, from the private sector, which, according to Bloomberg, could sabotage MbS’s grand Vision 2030 plan, which aims to remake the Saudi economy via a flood of foreign direct investment:

The economic strategy of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, known as MBS, is to make investment the main engine of economic growth instead of government spending, but the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi could frustrate these ambitions. Foreign direct investment, a key part of the plan to reinvent Saudi Arabia’s economy, declined sharply in 2017 and is unlikely to return to previous levels, leaving the government’s target for 2020 beyond reach, according to analysis by Bloomberg Economics. Increased policy uncertainty and, after the Khashoggi incident, the risk of reputational damage to foreign companies working in Saudi Arabia won’t help.

 

 

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