US still unsure who directed Syria attack, despite Russian dead

A picture taken on February 17, 2018 shows people walking down a rain-soaked street past damaged and destroyed buildings in the Syrian rebel-held enclave of Arbin in the Eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus. (Abdulmonam Eassa/AFP)
Updated 18 February 2018
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US still unsure who directed Syria attack, despite Russian dead

WASHINGTON: The United States is still unsure who directed a Feb. 7 attack on US and US-backed forces in Syria, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Saturday, even as he acknowledged accounts that Russian civilian contractors were involved.
Reuters has reported that about 300 men working for a Kremlin-linked Russian private military firm were either killed or injured in Syria.
The US has estimated about 100 pro-Syrian government forces were killed by US strikes to repel the Feb. 7 attack.
Russian military officers told the United States during the incident that Moscow was not involved. The Pentagon has declined to comment on the exact makeup of the attacking forces and Mattis appeared at a loss to explain the incident 10 days later.
“I still cannot give you any more information on why they would do this. But they took direction from someone,” Mattis told reporters flying back to Washington with him from a trip to Europe, according to a Pentagon transcript.
“Was it local direction? Was it from external sources? Don’t ask me. I don’t know.”
Mattis said he “understood” that Moscow had acknowledged contractors were involved, without elaborating on whether that understanding came from press reports. Russian officials have told reporters that five Russian citizens may have been killed in clashes with US-led coalition forces.
Still, Russian officials deny they deploy private military contractors in Syria, saying Moscow’s only military presence is a campaign of air strikes, a naval base, military instructors training Syrian forces, and limited numbers of special forces troops.
But according to people familiar with the deployment, Russia is using large numbers of the contractors in Syria because that allows Moscow to put more boots on the ground without risking regular soldiers whose deaths have to be accounted for.
The contractors, mostly ex-military, carry out missions assigned to them by the Russian military, the people familiar with the deployment said. Most are Russian citizens, though some have Ukrainian and Serbian passports.
The United States and Russia, while backing opposite sides in the Syria conflict, have taken pains to make sure that their forces do not accidentally collide. But the presence of the Russian contractors adds an element of unpredictability.
The US military has said that in its effort to repel the attack on Feb. 7, US forces on the ground called in coalition strikes for more than three hours, involving F-15E fighter jets, MQ-9 drones, B-52 bombers, AC-130 gunships and AH-64 Apache helicopters.
The US military has said the attacking forces were aligned with the Syrian government and were backed by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars.
“I doubt that 257 people all just decided on their individual own selves to suddenly cross the river into enemy territory and start shelling a location and maneuvering tanks against it,” Mattis said.
“So whatever happened, we’ll try to figure it out. We’ll work with, obviously, anyone who can answer that question, but I cannot, at this time.”


Tunisia’s premier unlikely to push reform as polls loom

Chahed has gathered enough support in Parliament to stave off a possible vote of no confidence. (Reuters)
Updated 1 min 24 sec ago
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Tunisia’s premier unlikely to push reform as polls loom

  • By surviving for more than two years, Chahed has become the longest-serving of Tunisia’s nine prime ministers since the Arab Spring in 2011
  • Western partners see him as the best guarantee of stability in an infant democracy that they are desperate to shore up

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed has survived attempts by his own party and unions to force him out but, with elections looming, looks less and less able to enact the economic reforms that have so far secured IMF support for an ailing economy.

Last week, the Nidaa Tounes party suspended Chahed after a campaign by the party chairman, who is the son of President Beji Caid Essebsi.

Chahed has gathered enough support in Parliament to stave off a possible vote of no confidence by working with the co-ruling Islamist Ennahda party and a number of other lawmakers including 10 Nidaa Tounes rebels. But his political capital is now badly depleted.

By surviving for more than two years, Chahed has become the longest-serving of Tunisia’s nine prime ministers since the Arab Spring in 2011.

In that time, he has pushed through austerity measures and structural reforms such as cutting fuel subsidies that have helped to underpin a $2.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other financial support.

Western partners see him as the best guarantee of stability in an infant democracy that they are desperate to shore up, not least as a bulwark against extremism.

Yet the economy, and living standards, continue to suffer: inflation and unemployment are at record levels, and goods such as medicines or even staples such as milk are often in short supply, or simply unaffordable to many.

And in recent months, the 43-year old former agronomist’s main focus has been to hold on to his job as his party starts to look to its ratings ahead of presidential and parliamentary polls in a year’s time.

The breathing space he has won is at best temporary; while propping him up for now, Ennahda says it will not back him to be prime minister again after the elections.

And, more pressingly, the powerful UGTT labor union on Thursday called a public sector strike for Oct. 24 to protest against Chahed’s privatization plans.

This month, the government once more raised petrol and electricity prices to secure the next tranche of loans, worth $250 million, which the IMF is expected to approve next week.

But the IMF also wants it to cut a public wage bill that takes up 15 percent of GDP, one of the world’s highest rates.