U.S. Politics

10 things you need to know today: April 9, 2017

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Mohamad Abazeed/Getty Images

THE WEEK

1. Nikki Haley says Syrian regime change is a ‘priority’
American envoy to the United Nations Nikki Haley outlined an expansive agenda, including “inevitable” regime change, for U.S. intervention in Syria in a CNN State of the Union interview airing Sunday. “Getting [Bashar al-Assad] out is not the only priority,” she said in response to host Jake Tapper’s question about whether regime change is official U.S. policy. “So what we’re trying to do is obviously defeat [the Islamic State]. Secondly, we don’t see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there. Thirdly, get the Iranian influence out. And then finally move towards a political solution … but we know that there is not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime.” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday likewise said the U.S. “can’t put up with” Assad, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson named defeating ISIS as the Trump administration’s top priority in Syria.

Source: Reuters, CNN

2. U.S. Navy strike group moves toward North Korea
A U.S. Navy carrier strike group is moving toward the Korean peninsula, the Pentagon indicated Saturday evening, in what is understood to be a show of force against North Korea. “We feel the increased presence is necessary” given Pyongyang’s recent missile test provocation, an unnamed defense official told Reuters. The group includes the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson as well as multiple missile cruisers and destroyers. A statement from the Navy’s Third Fleet did not specify the ships’ purpose in moving into the western Pacific Ocean; the group was originally destined for Australia.

Source: Reuters, The Associated Press

3. Syrian town targeted by chemical attack suffers a second airstrike
The rebel-held town in Syria’s Idlib province that was hit by a chemical weapon attack on Tuesday was targeted in a new airstrike on Saturday, local sources say. It is not yet clear who is responsible for the attack, though CNN notes only Russian and Syrian regime aircraft have been observed bombing that area in the past. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in the United Kingdom, said the strike killed one woman. Russia is meanwhile in the process of moving a frigate carrying cruise missiles to the Mediterranean, apparently in reaction to Thursday’s U.S. bombing of a Syrian government air base in response to the Tuesday attack.

Source: The Associated Press, CNN

4. Egyptian church bombings kills at least 36
A pair of bomb attacks on two Coptic Orthodox churches in Egypt on Sunday killed at least 36 people and injured about 100 more. The churches were celebrating Palm Sunday, one week before Easter. One attack took place near Cairo, killing at least 25 people. The second was in Alexandria and targeted the seat of the Coptic Church’s Pope Tawadros, who was not injured. No terrorist group has taken responsibility so far, but Islamic extremists have attacked Egypt’s Christian minority in the past. Pope Francis and Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, a leader of Sunni Islam in Egypt, both denounced the attack and expressed their condolences for the victims.

Source: Reuters, The Associated Press

5. Stockholm truck attack suspect’s asylum application was denied
Swedish police on Saturday arrested a man who is “likely” the driver responsible for killing at least four people and injuring more than a dozen in a truck attack Friday. The suspect is a 39-year-old from Uzbekistan whose application for asylum in Sweden was denied. Swedish authorities say the suspect “has been sympathetic to extremist organizations,” and they were searching for him before the attack for deportation. Investigators also found a device in the vehicle that may be an unexploded bomb, and on Sunday they arrested a second person in connection with the incident.

Source: The Washington Post, The Week

6. 1 dead, 2 injured in Florida mall shooting
A disgruntled former fitness center employee opened fire in a mall in Coral Gables, Florida, a suburb of Miami, on Saturday, killing one person and injuring two more. The shooter has been identified as Abeku Wilson, a personal trainer who was fired earlier that day from his job at a mall gym. He returned to his erstwhile workplace with a gun to target his former coworkers, killing the gym’s general manager before reportedly killing himself. Wilson’s acquaintances said they knew him as a “professional” and “sweet” guy and expressed surprise at his actions.

Source: Miami Herald, CNN

7. U.S. soldier killed in anti-ISIS operation in Afghanistan
An American Special Forces commando was killed during an operation targeting the Islamic State in Afghanistan, the Pentagon said Saturday. “The soldier was mortally wounded late Saturday during an operation in Nangarhar Province,” U.S. Navy Capt. Bill Salvin wrote in a statement on Twitter. “On behalf of all of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, I offer our deepest condolences to the family and friends of our fallen comrade,” said Gen. John Nicholson. “We will always remember our fallen comrades and commit ourselves to deliver on their sacrifice.”

Source: Stars and Stripes, USA Today

8. Alabama Supreme Court approves impeachment proceedings for state’s governor
The Alabama Supreme Court on Saturday ruled the state’s lawmakers can proceed with impeachment proceedings against embattled Gov. Robert Bentley, who has been accused of misuse of power in an effort to conceal his alleged affair with an aide. On Friday, a lower court stayed the impeachment process to allow Bentley to prepare his defense, a ruling the state supreme court reversed. The Republican governor vowed Friday he would not resign because he has not done anything illegal. He denies having an affair, though he admits to making inappropriate remarks to the aide before the end of his 50-year marriage.

Source: Fox News, NPR

9. Google denies allegation of gender pay gap
A U.S. Department of Labor official on Friday accused Google of a widespread gender pay gap among its employees, describing “systemic compensation disparities against women pretty much across the entire workforce.” Google roundly rejected the allegations. “Every year, we do a comprehensive and robust analysis of pay across genders and we have found no gender pay gap,” the company said. “Other than making an unfounded statement which we heard for the first time in court, the DoL hasn’t provided any data, or shared its methodology.”

Source: TechCrunch, The Week

10. Hacker sets off 156 emergency alarms in Dallas
Dallas city officials said Saturday a hacker was to blame for setting off all 156 emergency alarms in the city more than a dozen times over an hour and a half period around midnight. The blaring sirens normally announce emergencies like tornadoes, and their persistent sounding produced a flood of 911 calls from worried Dallas residents. “This is yet another serious example of the need for us to upgrade and better safeguard our city’s technology infrastructure,” said Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, promising the hacker responsible would be brought to justice.

Source: USA Today, Dallas News

U.S. Politics

What is “deconfliction”? Russia says it has suspended Syrian airspace agreement with US.

What is "deconfliction"? Russia says it has suspended Syrian airspace agreement with US.

Source: AP

MIC Editor’s Pick

Russia has suspended its “deconfliction” agreement with the United States in the wake of the missile strike against a Syrian air base President Donald Trump ordered in response to a devastating chemical attack that left dozens of civilians dead, the Kremlin announced Friday.

“Russia suspends the Memorandum of Understanding on Prevention of Flight Safety Incidents in the course of operations in Syria signed with the U.S.,” according to a Russian foreign ministry statement.

Despite the announcement, U.S. officials said on Friday afternoon that the so-called deconfliction line was still operational and that the two countries have remained in contact.

But the Kremlin insisted that the line would be closed, casting relations between the two countries in further uncertainty ahead of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow next week.

Russian President Vladimir Putin — Syria’s strongest ally — condemned the U.S. air raid this week as an “act of aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law.”

“This move by Washington has dealt a serious blow to Russian-U.S. relations, which are already in a poor state,” Dmitry Peskov, a Putin spokesman, said after the attack.

What is the “deconfliction” agreement?

A U.S. fighter jet takes off from an aircraft carrier. The U.S. has been conducting air raids on ISIS targets, and this week launched a direct attack on the Assad regime | Source: Bram Janssen/AP

The deconfliction line is a channel that allows the U.S. and Russia — who back different sides in the Syrian civil war — to coordinate their military actions in Syria’s busy airspace and prevent collisions and other accidents.

The memorandum of understanding was signed by the two countries in 2015, after Russia began conducting strikes in Syria.

The U.S. used it to warn Russia ahead of its strike against the Syrian air base.

What will it mean if the deconfliction line is closed?

Donald Trump announces an airstrike against the Assad regime this week | Source: JIM WATSON/Getty Images

Suspending the deconfliction agreement would further sour the relationship between the U.S. and Russia — and indicate that the Kremlin was serious when it blasted the U.S. airstrike.

It would also complicate American efforts to topple ISIS, adding concerns of collisions with Russian forces.

“It boxes in the U.S. ability to move against targets of opportunity,” Nicholas Heras of the Center for New American Security told Mother Jones. “This would have a very real impact on the U.S. strategy against ISIS in Syria.”

Eric Lutz

U.S. Politics

Twitter case shows breadth of U.S. power to probe anti-Trump statements

Twitter case shows breadth of U.S. power to probe anti-Trump statements

 

POLITICUS USA

An attempt by U.S. authorities to identify an anonymous critic of President Donald Trump on Twitter has set off alarm bells among Democratic and Republican lawmakers and civil liberties advocates fearful of a crackdown on dissent.

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An attempt by U.S. authorities to identify an anonymous critic of President Donald Trump on Twitter has set off alarm bells among Democratic and Republican lawmakers and civil liberties advocates fearful of a crackdown on dissent.

Twitter Inc on Friday succeeded in beating back a demand for records about a Twitter account called ALT Immigration (@ALT_uscis), which pokes fun at Trump’s immigration policies and appears to be run by one or more federal employees.

The U.S. government withdrew an administrative summons that customs agents had sent the company in March demanding the records.

But the government backed away only after Twitter filed a federal lawsuit accusing it of violating the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. Customs agents could still continue the investigation using some other methods, civil liberties attorneys said.

Although authorities retreated, the case has laid bare the broad power of the U.S. government to demand information from technology companies, sometimes with no oversight from the courts and often with built-in secrecy provisions that prevent the public from knowing what the government is seeking.

The summons that Twitter received came from agents who investigate corruption and misconduct within U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Even after it was withdrawn, some lawmakers had questions about the agency’s actions.

“CBP must ensure that any properly authorized investigation does not disregard the rights to free speech enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” two Republican U.S. senators, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Mike Lee of Utah, wrote in a letter on Friday to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.

The senators asked whether the agency would ever ask a private company to divulge private records about a customer based solely on “non-criminal speech.” Senate Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon called for an investigation of whether customs agents had violated a law by retaliating against an internal critic.

The Department of Homeland Security plans to respond directly to the senators, an official said on Friday.

FORMIDABLE RANGE

There are two primary ways the U.S. government can obtain information from internet companies without a judge’s approval using a law known as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, according to experts in privacy law.

Agencies with enforcement power, such as the Internal Revenue Service, can issue administrative subpoenas demanding user records. Prosecutors can also ask grand juries investigating a crime to issue a subpoena.

An aggressive agency, for example, might demand information about a Twitter account that used an agency logo on the grounds that it is deceptive, said Georgetown University law professor Paul Ohm.

Similarly, a prosecutor could ask a grand jury to issue a subpoena based on the idea that a federal employee, suspected of criticizing the administration anonymously, was misusing government resources.

“It doesn’t take a brilliant legal mind to think of hypotheticals,” Ohm said. Further, such subpoenas are usually kept secret, making them more difficult to challenge.

Some other government tools, such as a national security letter, are intended to be used for narrow purposes related to counter-terrorism investigations. But they do not require judicial approval either, instead relying on internal safeguards. Challenging such demands is difficult and often requires deep pockets, attorneys familiar with such orders said.

“It’s important to keep in mind how formidable the government’s range of investigatory powers is,” said Andrew Crocker, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for digital rights.

In the case of ALT Immigration, Twitter said it was not bound to keep the summons a secret, and the company informed the account holder of the government demand. That person then found legal representation with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Esha Bhandari, the ACLU staff attorney representing the dissident, said she thinks the speed with which the government withdrew its summons – less than a day after Twitter sued – means the customs agents will cease investigating, but she cannot be sure.

“It’s impossible to predict, of course, but I’m hopeful that this really is a recognition that people have the ability to speak online including in ways that are critical of the government,” Bhandari said.

The Department of Homeland Security has not said what its plans are for the investigation.

After Trump’s inauguration in January, anonymous Twitter feeds that borrowed the names and logos of more than a dozen U.S. government agencies appeared to challenge the president’s views on climate change and other issues. They called themselves “alt” accounts.

Twitter has declined to say if it has received any other government demands to reveal such anti-Trump critics.

By  | By Alison Frankel and Dustin Volz

U.S. Politics

The war in Syria, explained

VOX

How Syria’s civil war became America’s problem.

On the face of it, President Trump’s decision to attack Syria doesn’t make a lot of sense. Launching 59 missiles at a single airbase, as Trump did, is not going to seriously change the outcome of a years-long civil war. So what’s the point of doing it at all?

Understanding the answer to that question, and really anything the United States does and does not do in Syria, requires understanding the real nature of the country’s horrific civil war. At its heart, it is a conflict between a regime that represents a minority of its citizens and the majority who want it gone. But over time, it has spiraled into an immensely complicated international war, with some of America’s most significant enemies and closest partners on various different sides.

“It has been one of the hardest issues that I’ve faced as president,” President Barack Obama said in a December 2016 press conference. “Syria is the most complex, complicated issue I have ever had to deal with,” then-CIA Director John Brennan said during a discussion at the Brookings Institution last year.

Getting involved in this war in any serious way is immensely complicated and risky, which is why the Obama administration largely avoided doing so, and why it never struck Assad directly. Trump’s strike tried to thread the needle by punishing the Assad regime specifically for its use of chemical weapons without getting dragged into the broader conflict.

What follows is a guide to the core dynamics at work in Syria: how the civil war began, how it evolved, when US foes like Russia got involved, what two American presidents have been willing to do — and what happens next.

How Syria’s civil war began — and why America cares so much

Assad protest 2012Protesters burn images of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at a protest on April 9, 2012.(John Cantlie/Getty Images)

When Syrians rose up as part of the wave of Arab Spring protests against Middle East dictators in 2011, Assad quickly decided to emulate his father, Hafez, and try to tamp down the protests through the use of force. The goal was to turn the broad-based protest movement from a political struggle — which Assad’s unpopular regime was bound to lose — into a military one, where his control of the army meant he might be able to kill his way to victory.

“It was very much a strategic decision that the regime made, to militarize the conflict right away,” Glenn Robinson, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, told me in an interview. “I think in their mind, and correctly, if this becomes a political battle where populations matter, the regime probably only has support of a third of the country. … If this becomes a political contestation, the opposition has the numbers.”

The grim way of implementing this plan, slaughtering protestors en masse until they were forced to pick up arms in self-defense, got Assad the war he wanted. In July 2011, defectors from Assad’s regime formed an organized militia called the Free Syrian Army to protect protesters and strike back at Assad. By January 2012, the Syrian uprising had devolved into a full-blown civil war pitting the FSA and other assorted rebel groups against Assad and his supporters.

The strategic stakes of this war, both for the Middle East as a region and for the United States, are enormous — for three main reasons.

The first is Iran. Syria’s alliance with Tehran dates back to 1980 and is critical to Iran’s regional ambitions. It uses Syria to convey weapons and other goods to its proxy militias and allies, most notably Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. In return, Assad’s regime gets military and political assistance from Tehran.

Iranian leaders saw the revolt against Assad as a threat not just to him but also to them. In 2012, Iran responded by sending in Hezbollah to fight on Assad’s side, an intervention that played an important role in Assad’s campaign against the rebels.

At the same time, though, Iran’s backing made Assad into a target for some of America’s closest partners in the region. Since the Iraq War, and maybe earlier, the oil-rich Sunni Arab states along the Persian Gulf — particularly Saudi Arabia, the largest and strongest — had been embroiled in a sort of cold war with Iran, a Shiite theocracy. Both sides wish to steer the political course of the Middle East, and see the other as a fundamental threat to their security.

So when Assad began to teeter, the Gulf states saw an opportunity to unseat one of Iran’s principal allies and started sending arms to the Syrian rebels. In March 2013, the Arab League voted to give its members explicit permission to arm the Syrian opposition. In May of that year, the Financial Times reported that Qatar alone had given $3 billion in aid to the rebels. In just one shipment in 2015, Saudi Arabia provided rebels with 500 deadly TOW anti-tank missiles.

The Syrian conflict thus became more than just a civil war: It became a proxy fight between Iran and America’s Gulf allies, whose outcome was of vital significance for both sides.

It also quickly became a proxy standoff between Washington and Moscow.

Russia’s ties to Syria go all the way back to the Cold War: According to one scholar, the Soviets “essentially built” the modern Syrian military in the 1960s. Continued support for the Assad government gave the USSR its most reliable ally and proxy in the Middle East.

Today, Syria remains one of Russia’s few reliable allies outside of the former Soviet republics, a vestige of Moscow’s former superpower status and a final military toehold in the Middle East. Russia maintains a valuable naval base today at Tartus, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, and has sold a number of surplus weapons to Assad. Between 2006 and 2010, 48 percent of Syrian arms imports came from Russia. Assad’s defeat, then, would have been a major strategic blow to Vladimir Putin’s regime — which has ambitions of restoring Russia’s Cold War status as a great power with global influence.

“This matters to [the Russians] … more than it would if they had another 10 [allies to spare],” says Doug Ollivant, who oversaw Iraq policy at the National Security Council from 2008 to 2009 and is now a managing partner at Mantid International.

As a result, Russia has been backing Assad since the war began. In 2011 alone, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning Assad’s crackdown on protesters, and sold nearly $1 billion in arms to Assad’s regime.

Putin’s support for Assad has steadily escalated, with Moscow selling Assad advanced air defense systems and refurbished MI-25 attack helicopters. By September 2015, Russia was a direct participant in the war. Russian warplanes and helicopters are hitting Assad’s enemies from the air, and Moscow has artillery pieces bombarding rebels and special forces embedded with Syrian troops. Some estimates place the number of Russian soldiers in Syria today at around 10,000.

The third and final issue is terrorism. Since practically the beginning of the conflict, al-Qaeda had been sending forces into Syria, seeing a chaotic civil war as a great environment for them to use as a safe haven and a place to get recruits. By mid-2012, the Syrian al-Qaeda franchise, Jabhat al-Nusra, had allied with some relatively moderate rebels — and established themselves as one of the most effective anti-Assad fighting forces. Qatar in particular showered Nusra with cash in an effort to quickly topple Assad.

Put those three things together — Iran, Russia, and terrorism — and you get a sense of why first Obama and now Trump have to varying degrees felt the need to involve America in a brutal and seemingly intractable conflict.

The US policy under Obama: (mostly) non-intervention

President Barack Obama Meets With King Abdullah II of Jordan(Kevin Dietsch/Pool/Getty Images)

Obama was president during the bulk of the Syrian civil war, and his legacy as commander in chief will be shaped in part by what he chose to do there — and what he chose to avoid.

One of those things was to refuse to endorse any kind of large-scale effort aimed at toppling Assad — repeatedly overruling members of his administration, like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus, who wanted to provide more advanced weaponry to the rebels. Parallel CIA and Pentagon efforts to recruit, train, and arm Syrian rebels did little to shape the course of the conflict; in 2015, the Defense Department had to concede that its $250 million effort had trained a grand total of 60 fighters (that’s more than $4 million per trainee).

Perhaps the defining moment came on August 21, 2013, when Assad’s forces launched sarin gas — a horrifying and deadly chemical weapon — into the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, killing up to 1,423 people. Most of the dead were civilians.

Prior to the attack, President Obama had declared chemical weapons use to be a “red line”: If Assad used them, it would trigger an American military response. But after Ghouta, Obama didn’t seem to want to follow through. He submitted a plan for punitive airstrikes in Syria to Congress, where lawmakers from both parties signaled that it was likely to fail.

Russia offered Obama a way out of his self-made dilemma. It brokered a deal with Assad where he would agree to give up his chemical weapons and submit to international inspections if the United States agreed not to attack Assad.

The Obama team accepted this as a lifeline. As they saw it, the critical issue was never the Syrian civil war, which the president had decided was too risky to intervene in. Rather, it was the use of chemical weapons — a particularly heinous act prohibited by international law. If the threat of American military force got Assad to back down from chemical use, that would make chemical weapons use less likely in Syria and in other conflicts without putting American troops in harm’s way or risking a wider conflagration.

“I’m very proud of this moment,” Obama told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. ““The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically [but] I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”

Critics, by contrast, saw it as a cop-out. They argued that if Obama wouldn’t intervene after drawing a “red line” about chemical use, Assad and his allies would see it as proof that the US would never intervene for any reason. This, according to some experts, is the key reason Russia decided to escalate so dramatically in 2015: They came to believe that Obama wasn’t as invested in trying to push out Assad as they were in trying to keep him in power, which means the US would largely give them a free hand. In essence, Obama’s attempt to deter chemical weapons use destroyed his ability to deter Russian intervention.

“It is precisely when Obama went for the chemical weapons deal over strikes in 2013 that Moscow understood it had escalation dominance in Syria,” Emile Hokayem, a Syria expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote in April.

This is a debatable point, to be sure. But there is no question that Obama left office with a civil war that had already killed at least 470,000 Syrians grinding along with no end in sight.

Wait, wasn’t the US bombing Syria before Trump?

Operation Iraqi FreedomA US F-16 in Iraq | (Keith Brown/U.S. Air Force/Getty Images)

There was one major exception to Obama’s hands-off policy in Syria: the war on ISIS. But it was carefully limited, in ways that show why Trump’s strike was such a major shift.

After the militant group swept across northern Iraq in June 2014, and came to control a swath of territory in Syria and Iraq roughly the size of Great Britain, the scale of the terrorist threat became impossible to deny. This, together with the videotaped beheadings of two American journalists, prompted Obama to declare a plan to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS on September 10.

The linchpin of the plan was a series of American airstrikes, both in Syria and in Iraq, supporting forces on the ground that were fighting ISIS. In Iraq, that meant the official Iraqi army as well as tribal leaders and Shia militias. But it wasn’t clear, initially, who that would be in Syria.

Most rebel groups were preoccupied fighting Assad, and had no ability to really refocus on the Islamic State. The same was true, in reverse, for Assad; he had long maintained a sort of de facto ceasefire with ISIS so he could focus on fighting the moderate rebels whom he saw as a bigger threat.

The US ended up settling on fighters from the Kurdish ethnic group, based in northern Syria near the Turkish border, as their key allies. These Kurds were mostly uninvolved in the main civil war, as their chief objective was carving out a Kurdish state in majority-Kurdish areas rather than toppling Assad’s regime in Damascus. Moreover, ISIS had invaded their territory, and was besieging a Kurdish city named Kobane at the time of the US intervention.

So the thousands of missions flown by American warplanes, and hundreds of US special forces deployed to Syria, were supposed to accomplish two things: cut ISIS’s supply lines between Syria and Iraq, and back Kurdish forces in their fight against ISIS.

On this metric, they’ve more or less succeeded. American airstrikes helped break the siege of Kobane and allowed Kurdish forces to launch a counteroffensive that swept over ISIS’s holdings in north central Syria. Today, a joint Kurdish-Arab military group called the Syrian Democratic Forces is camped out within miles of ISIS’s capital city, Raqqa — and are preparing to attack the city itself, with major backing from US troops.

But note the delicacy of this strategy when it came to the main conflict in Syria.

The United States was fanatical about limiting the scope of this counter-ISIS campaign — in particular, making sure it never became a counter-Assad campaign. When the Pentagon sent weapons to some Syrian rebels whom they wanted to fight ISIS, it made them promise not to use those weapons against Assad. (The tiny number of rebels who took the US up on this weak offer were swiftly slaughtered by al-Qaeda forces.)

This only intensified after the Russian intervention began in September 2015. US and Russian forces developed a procedure for flying in the same airspace, called deconfliction, designed to ensure that there was no accidental US bombing of Russians or Assad forces. US and Russian planes managed to fly near each other, for well over a year, with no major incident — even as Russian planes were on their way to drop bombs on Syrian civilians.

This made crystal clear to both the Russians and the Syrians that the United States had no interest in intervening in their war on the rebels. They developed a sense of impunity — enabling atrocities like Tuesday’s chemical attack.

Why Trump’s strike is a major, but limited, escalation

Trump Holds Joint Press Conf. With King Abdullah II Of Jordan At White House(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

There was little reason to believe that Trump would treat Assad and Russia more harshly than Obama did. During the red line debate in 2013, he tweeted repeatedly and angrily against a strike, warning Obama to back down.

“AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA,” he tweeted at the time (all caps his). “IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!”

During the presidential campaign, Trump even suggested that Assad’s rule was better for Syria than the alternatives. “We don’t know who the rebels are,” he said in an October presidential debate. “If they ever did overthrow Assad … you may very well end up with worse than Assad.”

Trump did not return to his “partner with Russia” policy after taking office. But he did shift the US’s Syria policy, at least rhetorically, with several administration officials suggesting the US would accept Assad staying in power. (Obama wasn’t doing anything substantive to oust Assad but was at least rhetorically committed to his departure.)

The April 4 gas attack profoundly changed that calculus.

First, Trump seemed genuinely angry and horrified by the photos and videos of children killed in the chemical weapons strike, and wanted something done about it.

This isn’t as much of a surprise as it might seem: Trump has always been more of an instinctive hawk than was genuinely believed. Back in March 2011, when Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi was killing his own people in the early stages of the country’s civil war, Trump released a video calling on then-President Obama to “stop this guy” and “save these lives.”

Thomas Wright, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who has spent the past several months studying Trump’s foreign policy doctrine, thinks a similar kind of emotional reaction might be at work here.

“There [have been] very few iconic images of brutality from the Syrian civil war,” he says. “A picture of a lot of children gassed is pretty horrific for anyone to see.”

The second factor here is the nature of the attack itself.

The goal of the 2013 deal Obama made with Syria wasn’t just to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile (a goal at which it clearly failed). It was to show that chemical weapons were somehow different from normal weapons, more unacceptable. The agreement was supposed to show that rogue actors like Assad have two choices: either agree to stop using chemical weapons or face some kind of punishment.

Since 2013, this had more or less worked: Assad had not used a nerve agent prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention (though he has used chlorine gas, a chemical weapon that isn’t explicitly banned).

What’s known as the “norm” against chemical weapons use — the idea that chemical weapons were, like nuclear and biological weapons, a special kind of evil to be prohibited even in vicious wars — had been upheld, seemingly backstopped by US threat of force.

Tuesday’s attack made clear that Assad was prepared to break that norm at will, something certainly not lost on Defense Secretary Mattis or National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. They know how serious a violation of the norms around chemical weapons this attack is and how important it is to limit the use of such of weapons. They have likely told the president this, and informed him that American credibility is on the line.

“This is a kind of flagrant flouting of that agreement. … It’s physical proof that they’ve duped the international community,” Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who follows the Syria conflict, says. “It is different than other kinds of war crimes committed by the regime, and … that view is clearly going to be relayed to him by his close advisers.”

This appears to be the main reason Trump struck Syria. His goal wasn’t to intervene in any of the broader and more complicated dynamics of the war — to stop the civil war or weaken Iran. Rather, it’s a pinpoint, one-off strike designed to tell Assad that chemical weapon use will be punished. As Trump put it in his address Thursday night:

Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread of chemical weapons.

By going out of his way to emphasize that this US strike targeted the exact airbase from where the chemical attack was launched, Trump is making it clear that the strike was designed as a specific punishment for the recent chemical attack — and not a broader effort aimed at striking Assad until he stops bombing civilians or leaves power.

Meanwhile, the rebels are in trouble. The city of Aleppo, a major rebel stronghold, fell to Assad in December 2016. While he may not be on the verge of defeating the rebels outright, it’s clear that they’re in no position to topple him. Trump’s limited strike won’t change that: The damage was so contained, in fact, that Syrian warplanes were already flying missions out of the sole airbase Trump targeted by Friday afternoon.

There are two main questions going forward. First, will Trump’s strikes successfully deter Assad from using chemical weapons again — and they don’t, how will Trump respond? Second, could this limited initial attack quickly escalate into something far larger, with Trump potentially being pressured into trying to not just constrain Assad but push him out of power?

We don’t know the answers to these questions yet. But they will play a significant role in determining America’s role in Syria — and, possibly, the future course of the Syrian civil war itself.

Zack Beauchamp

U.S. Politics

Dan Rather Condemns Trump’s Reality Show Tactics In Syria, RIPS Media For Calling Act ‘Presidential’

CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 18: Dan Rather prepares to record a Facebook Live interview while in the SiriusXM radio booth at Quicken Loans Arena on July 18, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images for SiriusXM)

via Getty/Kirk Irwin

ADDICTING INFO

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, you now know that our idiot wannabe “president” just used military resources and spent god knows how many millions of taxpayer dollars just to put on a little show in Syria that, instead of making him look good, embarrassed America and pissed off most of the world. It might even have pissed off Russia, though we’re still of the belief that Putin was in on this whole scheme.

Before Trump fake-attacked Syria late Thursday night, he warned his BFF Putin, who in turn, warned his allies in Syria, who then evacuated the base and surrounding areas. Sadly, 16 innocent civilians were killed in this needless, unforgivable display. Among them, women and children from a local village. The SAME women and children that he stood at his podium Thursday, chest puffed out, promising to protect. Sorry, asshole — your little publicity stunt backfired and you will have to answer for that one day — the sooner the better.

What makes this whole f*cked up situation even more disgusting is that journalists all over have been ignoring the obvious — Trump did this as a distraction from investigations into his collusion with Russia and to gain support to boost his record low poll numbers — and they are actually praising him for this act! One of these journalists, shockingly, was CNN host Fareed Zakaria who went on CNN’s New Day and said the unthinkable:

“I think Donald Trump became president of the United States last night. I think this was actually a big moment.”

After watching his fellow journalists essentially roll over and cave to whatever mystical powers Trump seems to have over the people who support him, one famed and beloved journalist wasn’t having it. Dan Rather took to Facebook Friday with a scathing post that ripped those journalists, and especially Donald Trump, to shreds. To Trump, he had this to say:

The President of the United States is the Commander in Chief. It is an awesome responsibility. Committing the use of force and American men and women in uniform is about as serious as it gets. But the truly great presidents understand that knowing when NOT to act is as important as knowing when to act.

It is a whole lot easier starting wars than finishing them. And there are many historical examples of where a promise of limited engagement quickly metastasized into something much bigger.

There is a tendency to rally around the flag, and a president who takes on a war footing can see a boost of support. It is often transitory. There are arguments to be made that President Assad in Syria has crossed a line that demands U.S. military interference. Whether this should have been a unilateral action is something we all must consider. Whether President Trump has a plan for what comes next must be debated. Whether there is a coherence to this missile strike fitting into a larger foreign policy strategy is a question that should give us all pause.

He goes on to slay the media and puts them in their place, reminding them that it is their job to ask hard questions. Rather says:

There is ample evidence that this Administration needs to face deep scrutiny. The lies we have heard, the chaos in governance, and the looming questions about ties with Russia – itself a major player in Syria – demand that the press treat this latest action with healthy skepticism.

He concludes his post with a dire warning that we should all pay very close attention to:

The number of members of the press who have lauded the actions last night as “presidential” is concerning. War must never be considered a public relations operation. It is not a way for an administration to gain a narrative. It is a step into a dangerous unknown and its full impact is impossible to predict, especially in the immediate wake of the first strike.

What will happen next remains unknown, but one thing is for certain — we can’t forget our principles and cave to this monster, no matter how bright and shiny he makes the future sound. He’s a liar, a sexual predator, most likely a criminal, and he’s most certainly a con artist whose only real public experience was having a reality television show with a famous tagline. That is all he is. Don’t forget that.

But, we should always keep hope alive that one day soon we will get to say to him, “You’re FIRED!” That will be a glorious day!

You can read Dan Rather’s heartfelt post in its entirety here.

Allison Vincent

U.S. Politics

Sunday Talk: Conflict of Interest

anchorman

attribution: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

DAILY KOS

Boy… that escalated quickly.

This week—the “most successful13th week of any 11-week-old presidency, ever—saw tensions rising in the White House.

In the West Wing, an uncivil war is being waged between the totally unqualified and grossly inappropriate factions of @realDonaldTrump’s inner circle.

On the side of “good” is Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushnerfresh back from a tour in Iraq; on the dark side, Steve Bannon.

By all appearances and indications, Kushner is winning the battle—with his outsizedportfolio and influence growing, as Bannon’s shrinks.

But Bannon isn’t about to go down quietly; he still has a few cards left to play.

Although this all makes for good entertainment, the truth is, it doesn’t really matter who prevailswe, the people, are sure to be on the losing end.

 ______________________

Morning lineup:

Meet the Press: US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT); Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC); Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA); Roundtable: Danielle Pletka (American Enterprise Institute), Helene Cooper (New York Times), Rich Lowry (National Review) & David Brooks (New York Times).

Face The Nation: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; Sen. John McCain (R-AZ); Former Obama Chief of Staff Denis McDonough; Former CIA Acting Director Mike Morell; Former Obama National Security Advisor Tom Donilon; Former Bush Homeland Security & Counterterrorism Advisor Frances Townsend. Roundtable: Ruth Marcus (Washington Post), Ramesh Ponnuru (National Review), Ed O’Keefe (Washington Post) & Michael Duffy (TIME).

This Week: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL); Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA); Tom Friedman (New York Times) Roundtable: Republican Pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson, Democratic Pollster Cornell Belcher & “Independent” Strategist Matthew Dowd.

Fox News Sunday: National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster; Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX); Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD); Roundtable: Bill Kristol (Weekly Standard), Democratic Strategist Mo Elleithee, Republican Strategist Lisa Boothe & Juan Williams (Fox News).

State of the Union: US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley; Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI); Roundtable: Former Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), Former Obama Communications Director Jen Psaki, Former Sen. Rick Santorum & Vali Nasr (Brookings Institution).

Evening lineup:

60 Minutes will feature: an interview with Google product manager Tristan Harris about the addictiveness of smartphones (preview); an interview with Chobani Founder/CEO Hamdi Ulukaya about his decision to hire refugees (preview); and, an interview with “Japan’s Babe Ruth” Shohei Ohtani (preview).

Late night shows:

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

Monday-Friday: Reruns.

The Daily Show with Trevor Noah

Monday: Your Moment of Them: The Best of Roy Wood Jr.;  Tuesday: Your Moment of Them: The Best of Ronny Chieng;  Wednesday: Your Moment of Them: The Best of Desi Lydec;  Thursday: Your Moment of Them: The Best of Hasan Minaj.

Elsewhere…

Donald Trump Jr. nominated Pizzagate conspiracist Mike Cernovich for a Pulitzer Prize.

On Tuesday, the son of the president of the United States suggested that an alt-right blogger who promotes conspiracies like “white genocide” and PizzaGate should “win the Pulitzer.”

Donald Trump Jr. tweeted his praise of the media personality Mike Cernovich after crediting Cernovich with “breaking” the story that former President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, asked intelligence agencies to “unmask” the names of Trump transition officials caught up in foreign surveillance. Cernovich further alleged Rice then sent the unmasked names to a handful of top intelligence officials.

Observers have slammed the Trump White House for promoting Cernovich’s “story,” with Kellyanne Conway tweeting a Cernovich blog post Monday and calling his appearance on 60 Minutes a “must-see ratings bonanza.”

Meanwhile…

His brother Eric defended the siblings against charges of nepotism.

Eric Trump said that he and his siblings “might be here because of nepotism” but would not have sustained that status if they “weren’t competent.”

“We’re not still here because of nepotism,” he said.

“You know the one thing, Don, Ivanka and I never let him down really in any factor of life,” he said. “And I think it’s one of the reasons that we’re as innately close as we are.”

Eric Trump said that eight years ago, he and his brother “would have been too big of question marks” for their father to do “the presidential thing” and turn over the family company.

“I think hopefully we earned our stripes,” he said. “And I think that’s ultimately why we’re in the seat we’re in.”

And, last but certainly not least…

Ivanka Trump tried to redefine herself.

White House staffer Ivanka Trump responded to critics Tuesday by saying she did not know what they meant when they said she was “complicit” in her father’s presidency.

“You hear the phrase ‘complicit’ – that Jared and Ivanka are complicit in what is happening to the White House. Can you just weigh in how you feel about that?” CBS’ Gayle King asked Trump. “There have been articles, there have been parodies. What do you think about that accusation?”

“If being complicit is wanting to, is wanting to be a force for good and to make a positive impact, then I’m complicit,” Trump said, using a definition that does not describe the word “complicit.”

That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.

– Trix