Did Assad launch his last chemical strike?
Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad carried out a chemical attack on April 4 that killed dozens of civilians in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria. According to Human Rights Watch, the attack killed about 92 people, 30 of whom were children. These people died vomiting, urinating and foaming at the mouth from what appeared to be the toxic nerve agent sarin. The strike is believed to have been authorized by Assad.
The Syrian regime and its chief backer, Russia, acknowledged that Syrian government forces did drop bombs on Khan Sheikhoun, but said that the bombs were conventional weapons which only targeted al Qaeda-affiliated Tahrir al-Sham terrorists. The Assad government denied using chemical weapons and said the United States worked “hand-in-glove with the terrorists” to either fabricate or actually stage the chemical attack.
U.S. President Donald Trump, however, accused “Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad” of launching “a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians.” He also told reporters that the attack “crossed a lot of lines.” He added: “When you kill innocent children, innocent babies—babies, little babies—with a chemical gas that is so lethal—people were shocked to hear what gas it was—that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line. Many, many lines.”
Two days after the chemical attack, the U.S. launched its first direct assault on Assad’s forces in the six years of the Syrian civil war by striking a government air base south of Homs with 59 cruise missiles. The target was allegedly the base Syrian forces used to strike Khan Sheikhoun.
In his speech announcing the strike, Mr. Trump called for “civilized nations” to join America “in seeking to end this slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel signed a joint statement with then French President François Hollande the following day, declaring that “Assad bears the only responsibility for this development” and warning that Assad’s gas attack “cannot remain unpunished.”
Experts say that the U.S. government will likely attempt to assemble a “coalition of the willing” in order to further isolate the Assad regime, and Europe could be a ready and willing ally.
In a September 2012 article titled “How the Syrian Crisis Will End,” Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry described a Syria we are likely to see in the near future: one without Assad and without Iran as an ally. Referencing a prophecy in Psalm 83, he said this future Syria will be confederate with Europe and certain Arab nations against the modern-day nations of biblical Israel. Assad’s alleged chemical attack and an American-led retaliation could mark the beginning of the end for the Assad regime and a future closer to Europe and further from Iran.
Iranian Army to become more offensive force
During a ceremony on Iran’s Army Day on April 18, Army commander Brig. Gen. Kiumars Heidari announced “major structural changes to Iran’s army encompassing everything from human resources to logistics to armaments in order to transform [the Army] into an ‘offensive’ force.”
Heidari announced a five-point plan to change structures and organization, human resources, combat capability, strategic planning and military engineering.
The Iranian Army was formed in 1924. In the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, Iran’s leaders formed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (irgc) to preserve the Islamic Revolution and keep the Army from switching its allegiance to the deposed shah. The revolutionaries resigned the army to a largely defensive posture, while the irgc assumed a predominantly offensive role. Heidari’s announcement signals a change to that status quo “in favor of a more strident and muscular approach to regional crisis,” in the words of the Middle East Eye. “It is a radical shift whose repercussions will fundamentally alter Iran’s relationship with regional foes Saudi Arabia and Israel as well as the United States military in the Persian Gulf” (April 21).
Paired with the potential for Iran to dramatically transform its “peaceful” nuclear program, its “defensive” ballistic missile program and its “economics driven” patrols in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb strait, refitting the Army for offensive warfare could give Iran even more power to push against its enemies.
First made-in-China aircraft carrier launched
China launched its second aircraft carrier on April 26 at the port city of Dalian. The warship, which is now in its final stages of construction and outfitting, is the first Chinese-manufactured aircraft carrier.
The People’s Liberation Army said the launch “signified a major stage of progress of our country’s indigenous design and construction of aircraft carriers.”
The as-yet-unnamed vessel is based on the design of China’s other carrier, the Liaoning, a Soviet ship that was originally launched in 1988, acquired from Ukraine in 1998 and relaunched by China in 2011. The new carrier features a few improvements,including a better radar system and a larger air-wing capacity of about 32 aircraft, eight more than the Liaoning.
To the United States and its Asian allies, the launch is a clear sign of China’s growing power and its intensifying determination to enforce its disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea and beyond.
“With each new aircraft carrier, China is sending a signal that it has no peer among its neighbors,” said Patrick M. Cronin, head of the Washington-based Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (New York Times, April 25).
Also significant is that while the Liaoning required 13 years of development and refitting, the new carrier began construction only about 3½ years ago. It still must undergo sea trials and will not be formally commissioned until 2020, but by that time it will have only taken about seven years to put a second carrier in operation.
Experts say China is planning to build up to four additional carriers, with construction already under way on at least one.
Saudi Arabia and Germany enhance military cooperation
On April 30, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Saudi Arabia and agreed to help build up the Saudi defense industry.
Saudi Deputy Minister of Economic Affairs Mohammed al-Tuwaijri told Spiegel Online that his nation “want[s] to make Germany one of [its] most important business partners.” That cooperation has previously been complicated by Germany’s strict export guidelines and Saudi Arabia’s repeated humanitarian violations.
The solution? Chancellor Merkel said, “We cannot have German soldiers anywhere in the world, but we can very well pass on our know-how.” The agreement puts a hold on German weapons exports to Saudi Arabia while authorizing the German Army to train Saudi Arabian military personnel in Germany. The German and Saudi governments also signed a joint declaration of intent for future police cooperation.
Germany’s military is still comparatively small, but it is building an international military empire in other ways. The alliance between Germany and Saudi Arabia in particular is forecast in Psalm 83.
European military spending up
Military spending in Western and Central Europe grew by 2.6 percent and 2.4 percent respectively, according to raw data published April 24 by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (sipri). The growth, according to a researcher at sipri, “can be partly attributed to the perception of Russia posing a greater threat.” Europe, it seems, is quite alarmed by its aggressive eastern neighbor.
“This is despite the fact that Russia’s spending in 2016 was only 27 percent of the combined total of European nato members,” said Siemon Wezemen, a senior researcher at sipri.
Western Europe’s spending makes up over two thirds of Europe’s total, and it has declined nearly every year since 2009. On the other hand, Eastern Europe, positioned next to the historically land-hungry Russia, has steadily increased its military spending. With the changing circumstances—an increased Russian threat, a wavering United States president and Brexit—Western Europe has decided to step it up.
At the same time, the Wall Street Journal reported April 24 that “German military spending is rising more than at any time since the Cold War.” With Poland purchasing Leopard tanks, Lithuania buying Boxer armored vehicles, and Scandinavian countries ordering upgrades of battle tanks and military trucks, weapons manufacturers’ ceos are getting excited. Rheinmetall AG, which has a near monopoly on the German arms market, posted a 63 percent jump in profit last year.
Cambodia boots U.S., takes China’s money
The Cambodian government abruptly told a United States Navy unit to leave the country on April 3, while nearly simultaneously accepting a new multimillion-dollar aid package from China. The moves indicate Cambodia is becoming the latest of several Southeast Asian nations to shift away from partnership with America and toward alignment with China.
The U.S. Embassy in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, announced, “The U.S. Navy Mobile Construction Battalion—better known as the Seabees—is departing Cambodia after a nine-year humanitarian assistance mission.”
The announcement said the Cambodian government initiated the closure, and that the decision cancels some 20 planned projects around the country to construct such facilities as school bathrooms and hospital maternity wards.
The next day, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen accepted a $157 million grant from China to build a new soccer stadium, where Cambodia plans to host the Southeast Asian Games in 2023. Since 2002, Cambodia has taken almost $3 billion in loans from China for dozens of development projects, and last October, China forgave some $89 million of Cambodia’s debts.
The shift from America to China is also under way militarily. Last year, Cambodia conducted its first-ever joint naval drills with China. This January, Cambodia canceled a major annual joint military exercise with the U.S.
Cambodia’s shift away from the U.S. and toward China comes as similar realignments are under way in the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian nations. These states see America declining and China growing more powerful and more determined to use its power, and they are altering their foreign policy accordingly.
In a December strategy report, Ross Babbage, senior fellow at U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, explained: “In effect, Beijing is pressuring regional countries into an arrangement that mirrors the contract struck with its own people: economic benefits in exchange for political compliance, with a big stick lurking in the background threatening retaliation for aberrant behavior. … Significant damage is being done to U.S. and allied credibility. In the absence of major changes in allied policy, much of Southeast Asia will likely shift into Beijing’s orbit.”
Is Russia building a spy base in Nicaragua?
Russia may have opened a new military intelligence station in Nicaragua, the Washington Post reported on April 6, citing reports from anonymous United States officials. Construction on the “mysterious new Russian compound” is almost complete, the Post said (April 8).
The Nicaraguan government claims the facility is only a tracking hub to support a Russian satellite system similar to the gps system used by the United States. “But is it also an intelligence base intended to surveil the Americans?” the Post asks.
Russia’s presence in Nicaragua goes far beyond just one possible listening post. In recent years, Moscow has sold armaments, stationed soldiers and built military training centers in the Central American country. In 2015, Nicaragua agreed to allow Russian ships to dock at its ports. Russia has been supplying Nicaragua with armored personnel carriers, rocket launchers and T-72 tanks.
“The Russian surge appears to be part of the Kremlin’s expansionist foreign policy,” the Post wrote, adding that “U.S. officials suspect that the new Russian facilities could have ‘dual use’ capabilities, particularly for electronic espionage aimed at the United States.”
The United States once fed the world, but now it is falling behind Russia and even Brazil in agricultural output. Typically, agriculture has been one industry where America exports more than it imports, helping reduce its trade deficit. However, this year’s crop numbers show that “America’s agricultural dominance has eroded,” the Wall Street Journal reported on April 20.
This year, Brazil is expected to harvest a record soybean crop, producing 43 percent of world soybean exports. Thus, Brazil “can sway global prices with a weather hiccup or transportation snarl,” the Journal continued. Brazil is also the second-largest corn producer. Last year, Russia outperformed America’s amber waves of grain, exporting more wheat than the U.S.
American farming peaked at a record $123 billion in 2013 but has since faced a three-year decline, the first such decline since the 1970s. American farming also depends heavily on federal government subsidies. From 2015 to 2027, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to spend nearly $87 billion protecting and propping up U.S. agriculture. This year, the department predicts net farm income will fall to $62 billion, half of what it was in 2013.
President Donald Trump’s pledges to restore American industry to greatness seem to exclude the farming sector. He withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was heavily supported by the agricultural community. He has also threatened the North American Free Trade Agreement, another trade deal that boosts U.S. agricultural sales.