McMaster’s Influence on Trump Security Policy Seen in Syria Airstrikes

Eleven weeks into his presidency, President Donald Trump’s response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria is being seen as evidence that mature voices have taken the helm of the administration’s security decision-making.

Veteran observers who spoke to VOA said the apparently successful missile strike on the Syrian air base from which the attack was thought to have originated bore the fingerprints of Trump’s national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster.

“General McMaster, since he replaced [Lieutenant] General [Michael] Flynn, has succeeded in imposing a more regular process on national security decision-making,” said Charles Kupchan, who served on the National Security Council in the Obama and Clinton administrations.

“He has advantaged the foreign policy establishment, the mainstream, at the expense of those who represent more strident views from the far right,” Kupchan said.

McMaster, an active-duty three-star Army general who formerly commanded U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, was named national security adviser in February after the more hard-line Flynn was fired.

Earlier stance

Trump’s action in Syria surprised many, coming just a week after two top officials, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, indicated the administration was content to leave Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in power.

Critics point out that the airstrikes marked a 180-degree turnabout from Trump’s position in 2013, when he issued a series of barbed tweets advising President Barack Obama not to attack Syria after a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs killed more than 1,400 people. In one tweet, he warned, “If you do [attack], many very bad things will happen, and from that fight the U.S. gets nothing!”

This week, the president’s Twitter bursts were less provocative. “Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike …” was all he wrote. Later, he retweeted short clips of McMaster and Tillerson speaking to reporters after the airstrikes.

How events unfolded

A timeline of events leading up to Thursday night’s Tomahawk missile assault shows the evolution of the decision-making.

The president learned of the gas attack Tuesday morning at his daily intelligence briefing and asked for more information. That evening, key members of the National Security Council convened for a review of military options.

Wednesday, Trump spoke of seeing photographs of “innocent people, including women, small children and even beautiful little babies,” who had died from the gas attack. “This is unacceptable to me,” he said during a Rose Garden news conference with Jordanian King Abdullah.

Hours later, another NSC committee convened to consider three possible scenarios.

Thursday, Trump gathered his national security team on Air Force One while flying to Florida to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping. Shortly after landing, the president met McMaster, Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to make the final decision.

The next meeting was in a secure room at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort, shortly after his state dinner with the Chinese president. A photo released by the White House shows 15 top Cabinet officials and advisers around a small table for a briefing on results of the strike.

‘Professionalism’ seen taking root

James Carafano, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at Washington’s Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy research group in Washington, said the timeline indicated a textbook decision-making process. He called this “not something you’d expect from a rookie administration.”

“It appears they used the system that was in place, which is bringing together your key people — State, Defense and the national security adviser — in kind of a coordinating role,” Carafano said. “Then you’re basically having all the key operational players make a decision, and everyone is playing their roles.”

Kupchan, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan policy research group headquartered in New York, and also a professor of international affairs at Washington’s Georgetown University, said McMaster’s steadying influence was encouraging. Overall, however, he called the Trump White House decision-making “immature.”

“There are different factions within the White House that are fighting it out on a daily basis, but I think that a certain professionalism is beginning to take root,” Kupchan said. “Early on, decisions seemed to have been shot out of a cannon. Now, even though there seems to be a lot of infighting, it appears that McMaster is, day by day, attempting to implement a steadier and more purposeful process.”

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Президент України затвердив програму співпраці України з НАТО на 2017 рік

Президент України Петро Порошенко підписав указ «Про затвердження Річної національної програми під егідою Комісії Україна – НАТО на 2017 рік». Про це інформує прес-служба глави держави.

«Програма включає заходи з проведення реформ в усіх важливих сферах функціонування держави: від сектору безпеки і оборони до ключових соціально-політичних та правових реформ, боротьби з корупцією та децентралізації. Метою цих перетворень є наближення України до стандартів НАТО», – повідомляють у прес-службі.

Програма передбачає подальший розвиток політичного діалогу України з НАТО та нарощування практичної співпраці з Альянсом із залученням експертних, фінансових, матеріально-технічних та інших можливостей НАТО та держав-членів альянсу задля посилення обороноздатності України та можливостей протидіяти російській агресії.

«Програма також спрямована на виконання рішень, прийнятих за результатами засідання Комісії Україна – НАТО на рівні глав держав та урядів 9 липня 2016 року у Варшаві. Зокрема, посилення підтримки нашої країни шляхом реалізації Комплексного пакету допомоги НАТО для України, у тому числі проектів у рамках відповідних трастових фондів НАТО», – йдеться у повідомленні на сайті президента.

Координацію роботи з виконання програми покладено на Кабінет міністрів України.

З повним текстом програми можна ознайомитися на сайті президента. 

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US Judge Signs Baltimore Police Deal; Justice Department Objects

The U.S. attorney general is not pleased that the police department of the Atlantic coast city of Baltimore, Maryland, has decided to adhere to an agreement negotiated with the Obama administration.

While Jeff Sessions said the consent decree will make Baltimore “a less-safe city,” Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh disagreed, saying “I believe that it makes Baltimore safer.”

U.S. District Judge James Bredar signed the deal Friday, calling the plan “comprehensive, detailed and precise.” The Trump administration had asked Bredar to delay signing the decree to give them more time to review the plan designed to root out racist practices in Baltimore’s police department. Baltimore is 65 kilometers north of Washington.

Rampant police abuse

The consent decree was negotiated during the last days of the Obama administration after a federal investigation found rampant abuse by Baltimore police, including unlawful stops and use of excessive force against African Americans.

Consent decrees are basically contracts local police departments enter into with the U.S. Justice Department to achieve reforms under federal oversight. The contracts are usually the result of the revelation of raging corruption and rights abuses in police departments.

The Justice Department’s investigation into the Baltimore Police Department was prompted by the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American man who suffered a severed spine while being transported in a police van with his hands and feet shackled. Gray’s death ignited the worst rioting in Baltimore in decades.

Gray’s death in 2015 happened amid a wave of deaths of unarmed black men in the U.S. by police, prompting local protests and a national outcry.

Crime rate still high

Baltimore’s crime rate continued to soar after the riots and has not relented. In the first three months of 2017, the city had 79 homicides, compared with 56 for the same period last year.

Under the consent decree, Baltimore’s police officers will receive additional training and will be discouraged from arresting people for minor offenses like loitering and detaining someone for simply being in a high-crime area.


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US Rail Industry Focused on US-China Trade Relationship

March was a disappointing month for job seekers, with the U.S. Labor Department reporting that the private sector added only 98,000 jobs last month. But one industry is looking beyond the job numbers and toward distant shores as President Donald Trump meets for the first time with Chinese President Xi Jinping to talk about trade. Mil Arcega reports.

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За добу у зоні бойових дій поранено 5 українських військових – штаб

За минулу добу у зоні бойових дій на сході України поранено 5 українських військовослужбовців. Про це повідомляє штаб української воєнної операції. Упродовж доби у зоні конфлікту українська сторона зафіксувала 43 обстріли з боку проросійських бойовиків.

Як інформують у штабі, найбільше випадків порушення «режиму тиші» зафіксовано біля Маріуполя.

«З мінометів калібру 120 мм, гранатометів, великокаліберних кулеметів та озброєння БМП ворог відкривав вогонь по захисниках Новогригорівки. Міномети калібру 82 мм, гранатомети різних систем, кулемети великих калібрів та вогонь снайперів застосовував у районі Красногорівки. Опорні пункти наших військ поблизу Мар’їнки противник турбував вогнем з 82-міліметрових мінометів та стрілецької зброї», – йдеться у ранковому зведенні штабу у суботу, 8 квітня.

«З протитанкових гранатометів та великокаліберних кулеметів обстрілював позиції під Водяним, Широкиним та Березовим. Кулемети великих калібрів застосовував поблизу Чермалика, по захисниках Новотроїцького гатив БМП та ворожі снайпери. Морських піхотинців поблизу Гнутового та Талаківки підрозділи російсько-окупаційних військ обстрілювали зі стрілецької зброї», – інформують в українському штабі про обстріли на маріупольському напрямку.

Крім того, за даними штабу, бойовики стріляли і на донецькому напрямку, зокрема у бік Авдіївки, а також на луганському напрямку.

Угруповання «ДНР» натомість звинувачує українських військових в обстрілах у бік Ясинуватої, угруповання «ЛНР» – у порушенні режиму припинення вогню у бік селища Фрунзе. Українські військові, однак, заявляють, що впродовж минулої доби дотримувалися «режиму тиші».

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Greece’s Dark Age: How Austerity Turned Off the Lights

Kostas Argyros’s unpaid electricity bills are piling up, among a mountain of debt owed to Greece’s biggest power utility.

His family owe 850 euros to the Public Power Corporation (PPC), a tiny fraction of the state-controlled firm’s 2.6 billion euros ($2.8 billion) in unpaid bills.​

Argyros picks up only occasional work as an odd-job man.

“When you only work once a week, what will you pay first?” said the 35-year-old, who lives in a tiny apartment in an Athens suburb with his unemployed wife and four small children.

The Argyros family are emblematic of deepening poverty in Greece following seven years of austerity demanded by the country’s international creditors. They burn wood to heat their home in winter, food is cooked on a small gas stove, and hot water is scarce.

The only evening light is the blue glare of a TV screen, for fear of racking up more debt.

Five-watt lightbulbs provide a dim glow and Argyros worries about the effect on their eyesight. More than 40 percent of Greeks are behind on their utility bills, higher than anywhere else in Europe.

People in poor neighborhoods are also increasingly turning to energy fraud, meaning that the problem for PPC is much higher than the mountain of unpaid bills suggests.

Power theft is costing PPC around 500-600 million euros a year in lost income, an industry official said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorised to divulge the numbers.

PPC declined to comment on the figure. Public disclosures by the Hellenic Electricity Distribution Network Operator HEDNO, which checks meters, show that verified cases of theft climbed to 10,600 last year, up from 8,880 in 2013 and 4,470 in 2012.

Authorities believe theft is far higher than the cases verified by HEDNO, another official said, declining to be named.

Households in the country are equipped with analog meters, which are easy to hack. One of the most common tricks is using magnets, which slow down the rotating coils to show less consumption than the real amount, a HEDNO official said.

Some websites even offer consumers tips and tricks on power fraud.

Burden of Arrears

For households who have had their electricity cut off, a group of activists calling themselves the “I Won’t Pay” movement have taken it upon themselves to reconnect the supply. The group says it has done hundreds this year.

PPC, which has a 90 percent share of the retail market and 60 percent of the wholesale market, is supposed to reduce this dominance to less than 50 percent by 2020 under Greece’s third, 86 billion euro bailout deal.

The lenders also want PPC to sell some of its assets, but the company is toiling under the debt of unpaid bills, a problem opposition lawmakers say will force a fire-sale.

In little over a year from June 2015, overdue bills to the 51-percent state-owned firm grew by nearly a billion euros to 2.6 billion, Chief Executive Manolis Panagiotakis told lawmakers in March.

Analysts estimate PPC’s cash reserves have shrunk to about  00 million euros, forcing it to secure a 200 million euro bank loan to repay a bond due in May.

The tangle has left it with little leeway for new investments or to fund a switch to cleaner forms of energy from coal to improve environmental standards.

“It is often said that PPC is undergoing the most critical phase of its history,” Panagiotakis told lawmakers. “I will not argue with that.” He declined a Reuters request for an interview.

The burden of arrears for PPC is now “so big that some worry it will not be able to lift it for much longer”, said energy expert Constantinos Filis.

The apartment building where the Argyros family live is a testament to that. Many tenants struggle even to pay the 25 euro annual fee to light communal areas such as staircases.

Ground Zero

PPC has tried to recoup unpaid bills with phased repayment plan. A total of 625,000 customers owing a total of 1.3 billion euros had signed up to the plan by January.

The Argyros family have also entered the plan with the help of Theofilos, a local charity, which also contributes towards their monthly bills.

Meanwhile, PPC’s provisions for bad debt remain high. The plans drove the figure down to 453 million euros in the nine months to September last year from 690 million a year earlier.

Analysts expect PPC to swing back to a profit of between 63-109 million euros in 2016, with provisions of below 600 million euros.

Filis, the energy expert, said the more things stayed the same, the closer PPC was to “ground zero” and he drew comparisons with the Greek state’s brushes with near bankruptcy during the debt crisis.

“It’s reasonable to say that PPC is too big to allow it to collapse, particularly regarding energy security,” he said. “On the other hand, a few years ago some argued that no country could fail either.”

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US Officials: Military Hotline with Russia Remains Open

The United States and Russia will maintain a hotline aimed at preventing midair collisions of their warplanes in Syria, senior U.S. military officials said Friday, contradicting Moscow’s claims that it has suspended the “deconfliction” talks in protest of America’s cruise missile strikes on a Syrian air base.

The officials also said they’re looking into whether Russia participated in the chemical weapons attack in Syria earlier this week that prompted President Donald Trump’s order for a retaliation. They said Russia has failed to control the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons or to account for chemical agents that were supposed to have been eliminated under a 2013 agreement, and may have been complicit in Tuesday’s horrifying strike that involved the use of a sarin-like nerve gas.

In Moscow, the Russian government on Friday announced its own swift response to the American intervention against its Arab ally. It said it would cut the hotline that was established after Russia joined Syria’s civil war in 2015 to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government against opposition groups. The hotline’s primary intent is to ensure Russian planes conducting combat missions in Syria’s skies don’t stumble into an accident or confrontation with aircraft flown by the U.S.-led coalition fighting an Islamic State insurgency in the north of the country.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova reportedly said later Friday that Moscow would consider reactivating the memorandum with the United States on preventing air incidents in Syria.

“Today, everyone heard the statement of the Defense Ministry, which gave a clear assessment of this step and what motivated it,” she was quoted as saying on Russian television station NTV. “We will proceed from the real situation.”

But the senior U.S. military officials, who weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity, said U.S.-Russian discussions have continued since Thursday night’s attack on the Syrian military base. They said American officials asked to make sure the military talks would continue, and the Russians said they would.

Pressed on whether the Russians were actively participating in the safety calls, one official said conversations were ongoing.

Neither side had previously expressed an interest in severing the line of communication. Even when the U.S., under President Barack Obama, briefly halted talks with Russia on a Syrian peace process, both sides maintained the military communications. Eliminating the hotline could enhance the risk of an accident involving the two nuclear powers.

The U.S. officials, however, said they were also reviewing evidence to see if Russia was complicit in the attack on the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, where more than 80 people were killed.

They said a drone belonging either to Russia or Syria was seen hovering over the site of the chemical weapons attack Tuesday after it happened. The drone returned late in the day as citizens were going to a nearby hospital for treatment. The hospital was bombed shortly afterward, officials said, possibly in an effort to cover up evidence of chemical weapons usage.

The U.S. says a sarin-like nerve agent was used. Syria denies the claim. And the Kremlin says Syria’s government wasn’t responsible.

The U.S. officials also said they’re aware of Russians with chemical weapons expertise who’ve been in Syria.

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Trump: ‘Tremendous Progress’ Made with China’s Xi

U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters Friday he’s made “tremendous progress” with Chinese President Xi Jinping during talks at his Mar-a-Lago resort.

Trump said Xi and his representatives have been “really interesting” to talk to and he believes the two sides will continue to make progress in solving issues between the two sides.

“The relationship developed by President Xi and myself I think is outstanding.  We look forward to being together many times in the future and I believe lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away,” Trump said.

Xi said he received a warm reception from members of the Trump administration and the two sides came to “many understandings” after holding “in-depth and lengthy communications.”

“I believe that with the passage of time we will make efforts to bear our great historical responsibility for promoting the development of Sino-US relations, to create prosperity for both countries and their people and to uphold global peace and stability,” he said.

Trump and Xi are expected to continue discussing the North Korean nuclear threat and trade, among other things, officials said.

On Thursday, Trump and members of his administration made it clear they hope to pressure Beijing into doing more to rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons development.

In remarks to reporters aboard Air Force One, Trump said the roughly $310 billion U.S. trade deficit with China is high on the agenda.

“We have been treated unfairly and have made terrible trade deals with China for many, many years. So that’s one of the things we’re going to be talking about.”

But he also appeared to link that issue with U.S. concerns over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

“The other thing, of course, is going to be North Korea, and somehow they will mix. They really do mix. So we’re going to be talking about trade, North Korea, and many other things,” he said, without elaborating.

China supplies North Korea with almost all its fuel oil, imported foods, consumer goods and the raw materials used to construct its weapons program.

But China also has grown weary of the militaristic aspirations of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who has yet to visit Beijing during his six-year rule. A series of U.N. sanctions against North Korea have not deterred it from a string of missile tests, the latest this week.

Trump and Xi, who oversee the world’s two largest economies, met for the first time.

Several protests were held in Florida during Xi’s visit. One was organized by the Vietnamese Community of Central Florida.  The group’s president, An Chau, told VOA’s Vietnamese Service that it was one of the largest protests put on by the group, with more than 500 people taking part.

He said a smaller group of several dozen people counter protested and voiced support for Xi.

Khanh An of VOA’s Vietnamese Service contributed to this report


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