Damascus takes defensive steps as Trump considers strikes

US President Donald Trump delivers remarks on the U.S. opioid crisis, at Manchester Community College in Manchester, New Hampshire, US, on Monday. (REUTERS)
Updated 20 March 2018
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Damascus takes defensive steps as Trump considers strikes

LONDON: Washington is debating whether to strike militarily against Damascus following multiple reports it has used chemical weapons against civilians, according to US officials.
US President Donald Trump launched airstrikes in Syria last April against the Shayrat air base after Damascus killed more than 80 people in the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhun using sarin or a sarin-like substance, according to a subsequent UN report.
The Trump administration has drawn a “red line” over the use of sarin gas. Damascus is reported to have intensified defensive measures including the deployment of Russian army units in key locations in anticipation of a US attack.
But US officials have referred to the “lack of evidence” that Damascus has used sarin since the Khan Sheikhun attack “therefore, striking Syria for using chlorine will lead to lowering the red line and will force Washington to respond on several occasions.”
“In addition to that, it will lead to a strategic change in the military balance and Damascus may use this to justify carrying out more operations against the opposition,” the official said.
Damascus and Moscow have repeatedly denied the use of chemical weapons and accused the opposition of doing so.
There have been several reports of chemical weapons including chlorine and sarin being used by Damascus this year, including in the besieged enclave of eastern Ghouta. Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, told the Security Council on March 12 that if the 15-member body failed to act on Syria, then Washington “remains prepared to act if we must.”
• This article appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat on March 19


New Palestinian deaths bring toll from Israel clashes to 40

Updated 40 min 17 sec ago
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New Palestinian deaths bring toll from Israel clashes to 40

GAZA CITY: Two Palestinians wounded in clashes with Israel were pronounced dead Monday, a Gaza official said, bringing the toll from Israeli fire since March 30 to 40.
A spokesman for the Hamas-controlled territory’s health ministry named the latest fatalities as Tahrir Wahba, 18, and Abdullah Shamali, 20.
Wahba, who was deaf, was shot in the head in a clash east of Khan Yunis on April 6, and Shamali died of “bullet wounds to his belly” sustained on Friday, said spokesman Ashraf Al-Qudra.
Most of the 40 Palestinians killed by Israel since the start of “March of Return” protests on March 30 were shot by snipers on the border, while a few others were killed by Israeli artillery or air strikes.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians in the coastal enclave, wedged between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean, have gathered at the border on consecutive Fridays to call for Palestinian refugees to be allowed to return to their former homes now inside Israel.
Some protesters have launched stones or burning tires at Israeli soldiers.
Israeli forces have responded with live ammunition, wounding hundreds in addition to those killed.
The Israeli army says its troops only opened fire in self-defense or to stop protesters attempting to breach the barrier separating the territory from Israel.
More than 440 demonstrators suffered bullet wounds or gas inhalation on Friday, rescuers said.
Israel has drawn harsh criticism from rights groups along with calls for investigations by the United Nations or the European Union.
Israel has for more than a decade imposed a crippling blockade on Gaza, fighting three wars with Hamas since 2008.
Also on Monday, Hamas’s military wing said one of its men died in an explosion.
It said in a statement that Mohammed Al-Maqadma, 55, was killed by an “explosive projectile” fired by an unnamed group which it described as hostile to Hamas.
It did not elaborate further.
The Gaza health ministry said a child was wounded in the same blast, in the northern part of the strip.