Syria war: Russian officers ‘could face sanctions’

Russian President Vladimir Putin
  •  As Russian Hacker Busted in Spain Latest in Global U.S. Roundup

G7 foreign ministers are to attempt to agree a common position on the Syrian conflict, before the US secretary of state flies to Russia to try to persuade it to abandon its Syrian ally.

Rex Tillerson will also meet officials from allied Middle Eastern countries before heading to Moscow.

The UK has suggested threatening tightly-focused sanctions on Russian and Syrian military officers.

The moves follow the latest apparent use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Syria has denied it carried out a chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun last week that left 89 people dead.

The Associated Press news agency quoted a senior US official as saying that the Russians knew of the chemical attack because a drone had been flying over a hospital in Khan Sheikhoun as victims sought help. Hours later a jet bombed the hospital in what the US believed was an attempt to cover up the attack, the agency said.

In response, the US says it destroyed a fifth of Syria’s operational aircraft in an air strike on the Shayrat airbase last Thursday and said further strikes could take place.

President Trump and UK Prime Minister May said during a phone call that it was no longer in Russia’s strategic interest to support President Assad.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel meanwhile agreed with President Trump that President Assad should be held accountable, the White House said.

However Washington’s Syria policy remains unclear to many, with Mr Tillerson saying that there had been “no change to our military posture” in Syria following the US airbase strike and that Washington’s “first priority” was to defeat so-called Islamic State (IS).

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said sanctions could target high-ranking Syrians and Russians who had been involved in coordinating Syrian military operations.

These would be the first sanctions against Russian figures over Syria if they were to be adopted.

The BBC’s James Robbins in the Italian town of Lucca, where the G7 ministers are meeting, says British officials recognise that more general sanctions on Russia would probably be resisted by some G7 countries, including Germany and Italy.

Russia is already subject to a raft of sanctions imposed by the US and EU in response to the annexation of Crimea and the crisis in eastern Ukraine.

Russia says the US has failed to provide evidence that Syria has chemical weapons.

Russia and Iran, President Assad’s key military backers, are also threatening retaliation if there are any further American air strikes.

In the meantime, the Russian hacker arrested in Spain this weekend is the latest suspect swept up in a global dragnet that U.S. officials hope will yield intelligence on Russian government interference in November’s presidential election.

At least six Russians have been arrested in Europe on international warrants over the past several months, according to McClatchy Newspapers. The most recent arrest was Friday in Barcelona, where a 32-year-old Russian computer programmer was nabbed.

Pyotr Levashov, 32, was arrested Friday. A tweet from the Spanish National Police said that “In cooperation with the FBI, one of the most wanted cybercriminals has been detained in Barcelona. He is accused of scamming and data theft.” The U.S. has charged that Levashov is spam kingpin Peter Severa, who is closely associated with Russia’s most active cyber criminals.

According to Russian television, quoting Levashov’s wife, armed police stormed into their apartment in Barcelona and quizzed her husband for two hours. Later in a phone conversation from a Spanish jail, Maria Levashov said her husband told her the arrest was “linked to Trump’s election win.”

However, a U.S. official familiar with the arrest said authorities have not yet determined if Levashov was part of the political hacking operation.

“It is to-be-determined whether he had anything to do with the WikiLeaks hack or the Russian role in the election. He was being looked at on other cyber issues, so he will be asked about the elections,” said the official.

A former high-ranking U.S. intelligence official said the operation and other arrests are part of a broad attack on Russian hackers, some of whom may have information on the election hacking.

U.S. intelligence officials and cyber experts have long reported that the Russian security services use “patriotic” hackers to carry out attacks on intelligence targets. The hackers have the expertise and their operations can’t be easily traced back to the security services. If hackers decline to help out, said one official, they can find themselves in trouble with Russian authorities.

BBC with additional report from NBC