Netanyahu, Putin meet to ‘avoid’ military mishaps over Syria


Amid tension between Israeli and Russian troops around Syria, Benjamin Netanyahu met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow to discuss ways to avoid friction.

Israel’s prime minister and Russia’s president met Thursday in Moscow to “tighten security coordination between Israel and Russia to avoid errors,” Netanyahu said in a statement. The commander of the Israel Air Force, Major General Amir Eshel and the prime minister’s military secretary, Eliezer Toledano, will have follow-up meetings with Russian top brass, the statement also said.

The meeting took place following several incidents involving Russian troops in Syria and Israeli military personnel, the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth reported. In one incident, a Russian fighter jet scrambled to meet and escorted an Israel Air Force plane carrying out intelligence missions over Syrian airspace, according to the report. A Kremlin spokesperson on Friday denied the reports, saying they were “far from the truth.”

Russia stepped up its military presence in Syria and made it public last year in a bid to bail out the Syrian government under Bashar Assad, who has lost control of large parts of the country in the course of a bloody civil war that erupted in 2011.

Israeli aircraft regularly fly over Syrian airspace, according to non-Israeli media, and have carried out dozens of strikes in that country and Lebanon to prevent certain weapons from reaching Hezbollah, an ally of Assad, and other militant groups.

During the meeting with Putin, Netanyahu reiterated statements he made earlier this week about the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and effectively annexed in 1981, remaining under Israeli control.

“We will not return to the days when our towns and children were fired upon from up in the Golan,” he was quoted by Ynet as saying in reference to frequent shelling from the Golan before 1967. “So, with an agreement or without it, the Golan will remain under Israeli sovereignty.”

Putin, Netanyahu agree in call to coordinate efforts to fight terrorism


Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed in a phone call on Tuesday to coordinate their two countries' actions to fight terrorism in the Middle East, the Kremlin said in a statement.

The two leaders discussed the Syrian crisis during their conversation.

“Vladimir Putin stressed that there is no alternative to the launch of intra-Syrian negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations, as well as to the continued and uncompromising fight against Islamic State and other extremist groups acting in Syria,” the Kremlin was quoted as saying.

Israel faces potential challenge from Russia over Syria


This article first appeared on The Media Line.

Periodically throughout the four and half years of the Syrian civil war weapon shipments destined for Hezbollah were intercepted and decimated by airstrikes inside Syria. In each instance Israel, whose air force has enjoyed unrivalled dominance of the airspace around the Jewish state’s borders, was believed responsible. But with the deployment of Russian combat aircraft to bases in Syria several weeks ago this hegemony may have ended.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Moscow underscores Israel’s uncertainty over the future in Syria. Israeli officials worry that, inadvertently or otherwise, Russian fighter jets and air defense systems may act as a screen for Hezbollah to move new arms convoys into Syria.

Several days ago Israeli artillery units fired on Syrian army positions in response to errant shells crossing the border. This represented the first time Israel has attacked Syria since Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed troops and jets into the country. Yet the incidents took place in the Golan Heights, far south of any Russian units which are stationed on the coast.

“The most immediate issue is one of having Israeli flights over Syrian territory (and) ensuring that Russia flights won’t have any confusion or accidental fire incidents (with them),” Yezid Sayigh, a Senior Associate with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told The Media Line. But, he added, “This doesn’t need Netanyahu to visit Moscow.” In a similar manner to back channel communications between the US and Syria, Israel and Russia could have cooperated quietly to ensure that both states air forces operated in the same airspace without coming into conflict. A high level visit by Netanyahu demonstrates a deeper agenda, Sayigh said.

“(Its) more a question of working out how far will Russia go in protecting the regime (of President Bashar Al-Assad) – air defenses, new high tech combat aircraft,” Sayigh explained. Of chief concern to Israel would be the delivery of the S-300 air defense system to the Syrian military, something Russia has repeatedly said it will do, Sayigh said. The Russian built anti-aircraft system is capable of targeting planes and cruise missiles and is considered one of the most capable air defense systems in the world. The Israeli government has stated in the past that it would not accept the S-300 being transferred to the Syrian army.

Although Israel has not actively sought to undermine the Assad regime during the ongoing conflict the two countries are still technically at war. Israelis debate whether Assad’s fall or his survival is better for Israel. Russia, on the other hand, has stated that it will work to ensure Assad remains in power, with Putin declaring that supporting the regime is the most effective way to both fight Islamic State and end violence in the region.

A possibility exists that Russian and Israeli jets could come into conflict over Syrian skies but such a scenario is highly unlikely, Zvi Magen, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line. “Russia is not fighting on the ground and in the air there is enough technical solutions (to ensure an accidental clash would not occur),” Magen said.

On the issue of Hizbullah, Israel retains the right to strike at weapon shipments and this will be understood and accepted by Russia, Magen said. “Russia is not looking for war,” and understands that Israel has certain requirements, the researcher explained. But this is not a disadvantage for Hizbullah however. “It’s good for them because they are part of this coalition – Russia, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah,” Magen concluded.

Israel’s freedom of action over Syria could be curtailed by the Russian deployment, Raymond Hinnebusch, the director of the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St. Andrews, told The Media Line. “To the extent a Russian air defense umbrella reaches outward from their base in the coastal areas… this would potentially limit Israeli options,” the professor said.

The boost to the beleaguered Syrian regime that Putin’s actions represent could have far reaching implications for the whole of the region if they are enough to ensure Assad’s survival. This could alter Israel’s view of the near future and reverse assessments previously made by Israeli intelligence chiefs that Assad’s demise was inevitable.

“The main strategic change is… that the Russian presence will tend to push back against those pressuring for turning the US/Western airstrikes from (targeting) ISIS to hitting Assad,” Hinnebusch said.

Putin is “hoisting the Americans on their own petard,” by lauding the US sentiment that all states must work together to combat ISIS and then including Syria in this equation, Yezid Sayigh argued. Effectively, the Russians have created a “back window” for Assad to survive by, he suggested.

Powers struggle to agree on Syria; Russia urged to strike Islamic State


France challenged Russia to back its words with deeds over fighting Islamic State militants in Syria as major powers on Tuesday struggled to resolve differences between Moscow and the West over ending the civil war in the Middle Eastern country.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has sent warplanes and tanks to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, called for a new anti-Islamic State coalition, diplomats pursued new ways to build a solid front against the militants.

Ideas suggested on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York included using the model of a small group of world powers that succeeded in negotiating the July 14 Iran nuclear deal, and breathing new life into a virtually moribund broader U.N. peace mechanism.

“What's important in the fight against Islamic State is not the media strike, it's the real strike,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in response Putin's statements Monday at the gathering of world leaders.

Fabius said the Russians “talk a lot, but as far as I can tell they haven't committed any planes against Islamic State.” He added: “If it (Russia) is against the terrorists, it's not abnormal to launch strikes against them.”

A U.S.-led coalition has been bombing Islamic State targets in Syria for about a year with a separate coalition with some of the same countries striking the militants in neighboring Iraq.

The militants control large areas in both countries, exploiting chaos created in Syria by a civil war that began more than four years ago when Assad cracked down on protests against his government.

PUTIN'S PLANS

Western officials have questioned whether Russian objectives in Syria are more to strengthen Assad and build up Moscow's presence as a power in the region than fighting the militants.

Putin told the General Assembly that Assad should be part of the coalition fighting Islamic State. Washington and its allies have indicated Assad might stay in power in the short term but a transition was essential and he had no long term role.

“Bashar has been qualified by the U.N. as a criminal against humanity. How can you imagine Syrians coming back if we tell them that their future passes through Assad?” Fabius said.

After Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama met on Monday, both powers said they were committed to destroying Islamic State and they agreed their militaries would communicate to avoid any accidental clashes between forces in the area.

“There was agreement that Syria should be a unified country, united, that it needs to be secular, that ISIL (Islamic State) needs to be taken on, and that there needs to be a managed transition,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday.

Kerry told MSNBC: “Everybody understands that Syria is at stake, and the world is looking rapidly for some kind of resolution.”   

ASSAD'S FUTURE

Assad's future role remained the biggest sticking point and Kerry told MSNBC differences remained on what the outcome of such a transition would be. He said he would have further talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov here on Wednesday.

Obama told a U.N. meeting on Tuesday: “Defeating ISIL requires, I believe, a new leader and an inclusive (Syrian) government that unites the Syrian people in the fight against terrorist groups. This is going to be a complex process.”

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said foreign ministers from Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and the United States, who met for dinner on Monday, had considered the idea of using the model of that P5+1 group to address Syria.

She said in another meeting of the 28 European Union foreign minister members explored that and other options, including using the EU's influence in the region. “I guess we will have to do a little bit of shuttle diplomacy,” she told reporters.

Russia's Lavrov said he hoped a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on counter terrorism on Wednesday would be another chance to build a solid international legal basis for whatever action might be necessary to fight Islamic State.

Russia is president of the 15-member Security Council for September and Lavrov would chair the meeting.

Western council diplomats, however, voiced doubts that the meeting would yield any significant results.

A bid by Russia for a unanimous council statement on counter terrorism failed after Washington refused to negotiate on the text, which diplomats said strayed into divisive political issues such Syria and Yemen and the Middle East peace process.

In his speech to the General Assembly on Monday Putin proposed talks on a possible Security Council resolution “aimed at coordinating the actions of all forces that confront Islamic State.”

Will Russia’s missile deal with Iran end Israel’s silence on Ukraine?


After Russia invaded Ukraine in March 2014, Israel resisted pressure to join the United States and its European allies in condemning the move — citing in particular its concern not to antagonize Russia for fear it could provide Syria with a powerful anti-aircraft missile called the S-300.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman was eager to mollify the Obama administration’s anger over Israel’s refusal to endorse sanctions on Russia or support a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea, according to an Op-Ed published last year by Israel’s former U.S. ambassador, Itamar Rabinovich, and noted concerns about the possible missile sales in a meeting with U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

But if Israeli silence was indeed designed to keep S-300s clear off its doorstep, then that policy has clearly failed.

Ignoring vociferous Israeli protests, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on April 16 that he would would sell S-300 missiles not to Syria, but to Iran — a move that defense analysts say is guaranteed to complicate any aerial strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and tip the military scales in favor of the Middle East’s Shiite axis.

“By charting its own appeasement policy on Russia, Israel under Netanyahu and Liberman further alienated the United States, our strongest ally, with little to show for it,” said Roman Bronfman, a Ukraine-born former Israeli lawmaker with the left-wing Meretz party and a television commentator on Russia-Israel relations.

Until now, Russia and the former Soviet states had been a rare foreign policy success for Israel amid its escalating crisis with the Obama administration and growing isolation in Europe.

Israel maintained relative silence on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, even as some of its closest allies were ramping up their criticism. As recently as last year, Israel pulled out of a deal to supply Ukraine with military hardware to avoid angering Russia, Israel’s Channel 2 reported at the time.

Russia reciprocated by muting its criticism of Israel’s military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, according to Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador in Kiev and Moscow, and now a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

“Both sides were careful,” Magen said. “For years Russia refrained from supplying balance-disturbing weapons like the S-300 to the region; not to Iran, Syria or Egypt.”

The arrangement now appears to be in tatters.

Within hours of Putin’s announcement, Netanyahu said that Israel “views it with utmost gravity” and several Israeli media outlets quoted unnamed defense officials threatening to sells arms to Ukraine and Georgia, which has also had a territorial dispute with Russia. Even the United States, despite its harsh criticism of Putin, has thus far held off supplying arms to Ukraine, though it has recently begun training Ukrainian military personnel.

Putin responded publicly to the Israeli threats with a message of his own, saying in an April 18interview with Rossiya 1 TV that Israeli arms sales would merely increase the death toll from the conflict without changing the outcome.

“It’s a choice for the Israeli leadership to make,” Putin said. “They can do what they see necessary.”

Russia’s silence, and its refusal to alter the military balance in the Middle East, were not the only dividends Israel drew from the rapprochement Liberman led with Russia and other Eastern bloc countries.

Under Liberman, Israel signed visa waiver agreements with nearly all the countries that once made up the Soviet Union, paving the way for improved business ties and luring hundreds of thousands of tourists to Israel. Those successes were part of a broader policy that saw Israel invest in new and lucrative partnerships — including with Japan, India and China.

But to Bronfman, the crisis in relations with Russia is proof that those efforts have their limits and that Israel overreached when it charted an independent course on Ukraine.

“Israel’s foreign policy is dependent on its best strategic partner, the United States,” Bronfman said. “Israel needs that partner if it is to exist in its problematic neighborhood, and these crises will just keep occurring as long as Israel doesn’t accept that.”

Magen, however, says the crisis with Russia is a limited one and could even offer Israel a potential silver lining.

“Putin is pushing the S-300 deal not because he wants to harm Israel, but because he is advancing Russia’s interests,” Magen said. “Putin does not want relations to be ruined, and that means that the Russians could offer some compensation for the sale of S-300s … [by] using the Russian vote at the U.N. Security Council to Israel’s advantage when it comes to the Palestinian issue.”

Russia to send Syria air defense system to deter ‘hotheads’


Russia will deliver an advanced air defense system to the Syrian government despite Western opposition because it will help deter “hotheads” who back foreign intervention, a senior Russian official said on Tuesday.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also accused the European Union of “throwing fuel on the fire” by letting its arms embargo on Syrian expire, saying it would complicate efforts to arrange an international peace conference.

His remarks toughened Russia's defiance of the United States, France and Israel over the planned sale of precision S-300 missile systems to President Bashar al-Assad's government, which is battling a Western and Gulf Arab-backed insurgency.

“We think this delivery is a stabilizing factor and that such steps in many ways restrain some hotheads … from exploring scenarios in which this conflict could be given an international character with participation of outside forces, to whom this idea is not foreign,” he told a news conference.

Western experts say the air defense system could significantly boost Syria's ability to stave off outside intervention in the more than two-year civil war that has killed more than 80,000 people.

The S-300s can intercept manned aircraft and guided missiles and their delivery would improve Assad's government's chances of holding out in Damascus. Western nations say the Russian arms deliveries could increase tension and encourage Assad.

Moscow is standing firm on the sale, despite a trip to Russia by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this month in which he pleaded with President Vladimir Putin to halt the delivery, and a veiled warning of a military response by Israel.

“I can say that the shipments are not on their way yet,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Tuesday at a conference near Tel Aviv. “I hope they will not leave, and if, God forbid, they reach Syria, we will know what to do.”

POWERFUL ALLY

Russia has sent anti-missile defense systems to Syria before, but says it has not sent offensive weapons or arms that can be used against the anti-government forces. A source close to Russia's state arms exporter said a contract to supply Syria with fighter jets had been suspended.

Ryabkov was unable to confirm whether S-300s had already been delivered but said “we will not disavow them”.

Russia has been Assad's most powerful ally during the conflict, opposing sanctions and blocking, with China, three Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions meant to pressure the government to stop fighting.

Moscow opposes military intervention or arming Syrian rebels and defends its right to deliver arms to Assad's government.

Ryabkov said the failure by the EU to renew its arms embargo on Syria at a meeting on Monday would undermine the chances for peace talks which Moscow and Washington are trying to organize.

“The European Union is essentially throwing fuel on the fire in Syria,” he said of the EU compromise decision which will allow EU states to supply arms to the rebels if they wish.

His comments were echoed by Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, who also criticised a visit to Syria on Monday by U.S. Senator John McCain, who met rebels fighting Assad's government.

Britain and France, which opposed renewing the arms embargo, have made clear they reserve the right to send arms immediately, despite an agreement by European countries to put off potential deliveries until August 1, but have made no decisions yet.

A senior French official said the S-300 was brought up at talks between French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris on Monday.

“Obviously it poses a huge problem for us because if they deliver these weapons – they are ground-to-air missiles – and if we were to set up air corridors, then you can see the contradiction between the two,” the official said.

Israel says Russian weapons sent to Syria could end up in the hands of its enemy, Iran, or the Lebanese Hezbollah group.

Israeli Strategic Affairs and Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said the S-300 could reach deep into the Jewish state and threaten flights over its main commercial airport near Tel Aviv.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Alison Williams

Assad chemical weapons plans blocked by Moscow


Increasingly under pressure by rebels intent on unseating him, Bashar al-Assad has considered using chemical weapons against his enemies but Washington and Moscow have formed an unlikely alliance to force him to abandon such plans.

Analysts and diplomats across the region and beyond do not doubt that the Assad government, recoiling from a devastating attack on its security establishment last week and struggling to contain rebel offensives across Syria, is capable of using agents such as Sarin gas if its survival is at stake.

Yet some believe that the government’s unprecedented admission that it possesses a chemical stockpile – although in safe storage and only to be deployed against “external aggressors” – is an attempt to allay international alarm that might prompt outside intervention to secure the weapons.

“They have a keen instinct for regime survival and this is an issue which didn’t play well for them, which would really bring serious consequences, not the type of stuff we have been seeing so far from the international community,” said Salman al-Shaikh of the Brookings Doha center.

“I think they wanted to move quickly to take us away from that, to reassure in many ways.

“This regime is capable of anything, but in this case it felt there may well be consequences, that they are perhaps crossing some red lines.”

There has been a barrage of warnings about Syria’s chemical arsenal this month, especially strident from the United States and Israel, but accompanied by firm but private advice from Russia, Assad’s main international ally, to put an end to speculation he might use it.

One Western diplomat in the region said: “There was talk of them using it two weeks ago, but the Russians intervened quickly to stop him.

“If you think how desperate these people are and what they have done in the past, you have to assume they would be prepared to use it. All of us think he (Assad) is capable of using it and will do it if he was pushed to the wall,” the diplomat said, referring to credible reports that Assad was preparing to use Sarin gas against Syrian rebels.

But “the Russians got hold of him and told him ‘don’t even think about it’”.

Moscow went further on Monday, publicly warning Assad not to use chemical weapons, which it said was barred by Syria’s 1968 ratification of an international protocol against using poison gas in war.

“The Russian side proceeds from the assumption that Syrian authorities will continue to strictly adhere to the undertaken international obligations,” it said.

SHARED INTEREST

The diplomat believes Syria’s statement, by foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi, was put out at Russia’s insistence.

Despite the diplomatic “debacle” over Syria at the UN Security Council, where Moscow has vetoed tougher action against Damascus, “there is a clear shared interest between Russia and the United States to control the chemical weapons”, he said.

“The Israelis are pretty serious about trying to stop it happening, and the Americans too,” the envoy said.

Diplomats said the United States, Israel and Western powers were in close contact on how to deal with the nightmarish eventuality of Assad losing control and his chemical weapons falling into the hands of militant groups – al-Qaeda style Sunni Jihadi insurgents or Assad’s pro-Iranian Shi’ite Lebanese fighters from Hezbollah.

Israel has publicly discussed military action to prevent Syrian chemical weapons or missiles from reaching Hezbollah.

Some Western intelligence sources suggested that Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, both close allies of Syria, have sent some special units to back Assad in his fight against Sunni insurgents and might get hold of the chemical weapons in the case of a total collapse of government authority.

Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, has tried to distance itself publicly from the Syrian quagmire but it believes a defeat for Syria would mean the group might be targeted next.

Asked whether Hezbollah would try to obtain Syria’s chemical weapons, one diplomat said: “If you think of this as a fight to the death, either with Sunnis or Israelis or both, you’d have an interest in trying to get your hands on chemical weapons.

“It’s one more deterrent against Israel and a big stick to wave,” he said.

President Barack Obama said on Monday that Assad would be held accountable if he made the “tragic mistake” of using his chemical weapons.

Washington said it was keeping a close eye on Syria’s chemical stockpiles and was “actively consulting with Syria’s neighbors and friends to underscore their common concern about the security of these weapons, and the Syrian government’s obligation to secure them”.

REALPOLITIK?

For the Kremlin, revelations about the chemical arsenal will add to its fears about how chaos in Syria could pose risks to Russia, but will not prompt a shift in Moscow’s stance on a crisis that is poisoning its relations with Arabs and the West.

For President Vladimir Putin, making the point that foreign interference is unacceptable trumps other concerns when it comes to Syria.

But Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, suggested Russia was working with the United States and other countries to try to safeguard chemical weapons or at least is discussing it, although the Kremlin probably believes the concerns are overblown.

“I think Russia is working with everyone, with America first of all … Putin met the Turkish prime minister, he was in Israel, and is in constant contact with the Americans. Of course, nobody wants chemical weapons to be used, let alone to get into the hands of terrorists”.

Russia has blunted Western efforts to condemn Assad and push him from power after voicing anger over NATO air strikes that helped Libyan rebels oust Gaddafi last year.

Since Putin announced in September that he intended to return to the presidency this year, Russia has vetoed three resolutions designed to step up pressure on Assad, angering Western and Arab states that say Moscow is protecting a brutal regime.

That contention will only be compounded by Syria’s acknowledgement on Monday that it has chemical and biological weapons and warning that it could use them if foreign countries intervened.

Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst, said:

“Russia’s position is not dictated by the nature or the actions of the Syrian regime. Russia’s position is very much dictated by an ideological approach – by 19th century Realpolitik, if you will: the overthrow of our ally, our son of a bitch, is a victory for our opponent. Putin still thinks in terms of a zero-sum game.”

NERVE AGENT

Damascus has not signed a 1992 convention that bans chemical weapons, but officials had in the past denied it had any.

It has officially stated that while it supports a Middle East-wide ban on weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it cannot unilaterally renounce chemical arms as long as Israel continues to pose a threat to its security.

Syria began to acquire the ability to develop and produce chemical weapons agents in 1973, including mustard gas and sarin, and possibly also VX nerve agent.

The Global Security website, which collects published intelligence reports and other data, says there are four suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria: north of Damascus, near Homs, in Hama, and near the Mediterranean port of Latakia.

Analysts have also identified the town of Cerin, on the coast, as a possible producer of biological weapons. Several other sites are monitored by foreign intelligence agencies and are listed only as suspect. Weapons Syria produces include the nerve agents VX, sarin and tabun, the website said.

Exact volumes of weapons in the Syrian stockpile are not known. However, the CIA has estimated that Syria possesses several hundred liters of chemical weapons and produces hundreds of tonnes of agents annually.

David Friedman, WMD expert at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said “for weaponisation, the material is poured into warheads, which can be anything from ballistic missiles to standard artillery shells to air-dropped munitions. The weapons can be as small as mortar bombs. Some of Syria’s chemical weapons are already in launch-ready, warhead form”.

Abdelbasset Seida, head of the Syrian National Council opposition group, said: “A regime that massacres children and rapes women could use these types of weapons.”

There are many scenarios under which Assad could fall but the worst-case scenario envisages a chaotic and messy downfall with militants and rebels seizing chemical arsenals.

While observers say the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government cannot be excluded, they believe it is not imminent.

“We cannot rule it out but we are probably some ways away from that scenario,” a diplomat said.

But another diplomat said Assad’s acknowledgment that he has nonconventional weapons was an “act of desperation by a regime on its last breath, behaving like a wounded animal who would use anything to fight back”.

Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman and Dan Williams; Editing by Giles Elgood