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Robert Burns — Associated Press April 27, 2018

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, left, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and Defense Under Secretary and Chief Financial Office David Norquist, testify on the Department of Defense budget posture, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Thursday April 26, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Click to enlarge

The U.S.-led coalition is about to accelerate its fight against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday.

The battle slowed in recent months after Syrian Kurdish fighters, who have been the main American proxy in eastern Syria, switched their attention to fighting Turkish forces in western Syria. Mattis’ comments appeared to suggest that this pause is coming to an end, although he did not discuss specifics.

The Pentagon chief was responding to a question from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who asked whether President Donald Trump’s recent comments about withdrawing from Syria meant the U.S. would leave before finishing off IS.

“Right now, senator, we are not withdrawing,” Mattis said. “In the days ahead,” he added, “you’ll see a re-energized effort” in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, where remnants of IS are holding out. He said “you’ll see increased operations on the Iraq side of the border,” without elaborating.

It is unusual for Mattis to talk publicly about future military operations.

Mattis also said France sent an unspecified number of special forces in the past two weeks to reinforce the coalition effort in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked Mattis whether conditions on the battlefield would determine the timing of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria, or whether Trump is talking about a withdrawal because he’s just tired of Syria.

Mattis said a withdrawal would be based on conditions.

“As you know, neither the last administration nor this administration sees itself occupying Syria,” Mattis said.

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French special forces sent to reinforce U.S. troops in Syria

The Daily Star — April 27, 2018

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday that French special operations forces arrived in Syria over the past two weeks to help boost U.S.-led efforts against Daesh (ISIS). Speaking to senior lawmakers in Washington, Mattis responded to a question about whether the United States was planning on pulling out of Syria – something President Donald Trump has said would happen “very soon.”

Right now, “we are not withdrawing,” Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“You’ll see a re-energized effort … You’ll see increased operations on the Iraqi side of the border, and the French just reinforced us in Syria with special forces here in the last two weeks. This is an ongoing fight right now,” he said.

Trump Tuesday appeared to walk back his vow to yank U.S. troops from Syria, saying the United States wanted to “leave a strong and lasting footprint “ in the country. Currently, about 2,000 U.S. troops are in Syria, most of them commandos.

France is a longstanding member of the international coalition fighting Daesh in Iraq and Syria and helped bombard the militants in the Mosul area during the Iraqi operation to recapture the city.

France, along with the U.S. and Britain, also took part in the April 14 cruise missile strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons-related facilities.

Meanwhile, Russian diplomats brought alleged “witnesses” from Syria, including an 11-year-old child, to the headquarters of the global chemical weapons watchdog in the Netherlands to disprove allegations of a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government.

The group of Syrians then held a news conference where they denied any poison gas attack took place in the town of Douma this month and said that some of them were filmed in “staged videos” in the aftermath of the April 7 suspected attack.

Russian diplomat Alexander Shulgin said the aim of the briefing was to present further “evidence” that those allegations of a chemical attack in Douma are “completely null and void.”

“Today we can prove that the footage of the White Helmets is a crude staged action,” he said, in reference to the Syrian opposition’s Civil Defense group of first responders. Shulgin is Russia’s ambassador to the Netherlands and representative to the global chemical weapons watchdog.

At the presser, the witnesses claimed there was no smell of chemicals, and said people who were choking had inhaled smoke and dust from a bombardment.

The news conference included a testimony by an 11-year-old Syrian boy, Hassan Diab, who was seen in the aftermath of the April 7 attack being doused with fresh water by first responders.

The boy later appeared in reports on Russian state media, in which he and his father tell Russian correspondent, Evgeny Poddubnyy, that the entire attack was staged.

The report was heavily promoted by Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, who screened it in front of the U.N. Security Council.

In the report, Diab is seen with his father speaking at what appears to be a Syrian government facility where Russian military personnel could be seen emerging from a building.

Russia had organized Thursday’s briefing at the OPCW headquarters ahead of time for about 15 Syrians, including three young children.

The United States, France and Britain denounced the news conference as a stunt and an “obscene masquerade” by Russia.

On the ground in Syria Thursday, government forces pushed into a Damascus neighborhood held by Daesh from different directions, capturing buildings on several street blocks and also tunnels used by the extremists, state media said.

State news agency SANA said dozens of Daesh militants were killed in battles in the southern Damascus neighborhood of Hajar al-Aswad during which ground forces closely coordinated with the air force in bombarding the area.

The weeklong fighting in Hajar al-Aswad and the nearby Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk has killed dozens of people.

The area is the last district out of government control in Damascus and its capture would boost security in Assad’s seat of power.

The opposition’s Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian authorities ordered rebel groups in the southern Damascus suburbs of Babila, Beit Sahm and Yalda to give up their positions along fronts lines with Daesh in the area or face government bombardment.

The Observatory said the fighting that started last Thursday has killed around 68 Syrian troops and pro-government fighters as well as 52 Daesh gunmen.

Separately, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will meet with his Turkish and Iranian counterparts in Moscow Saturday to discuss Syria and the Iran nuclear deal, news agencies cited Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova as saying.

“Naturally, there will be an exchange of views on current regional and international issues, including the increasingly acute situation around the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iran nuclear program,” Interfax news agency cited Zakharova as saying.

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