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Syria gas attack triggers new round of UN paralysis, U.S. posturing on Assad regime tactics

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse.

Newsletter: A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories

U.S. President Donald Trump, right, speaks during a briefing Monday from senior military leaders regarding the chemical attack in Syria. Also pictured are Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army Mark Milley, left, Vice President Mike Pence, centre, and National Security Advisor John Bolton, right. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

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  • The world's effort to punish the Assad regime in response to the gas attack in Syria is following a familiar pattern
  • Toronto police have charged alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur with a seventh count of first-degree murder
  • The U.S. military has an air accident problem, and the toll is becoming hard to ignore
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here

Stern warnings and facts on the ground

Back when he was running for president, Donald Trump brushed off questions about his promise to defeat ISIS "within 30 days" by saying it wasn't smart to "broadcast" the exact plan to your enemies.

Now that he's running the United States, his views seem to have changed.

This morning, Trump took to Twitter to deliver a warning about imminent military action against Syria.

It isn't the first time the U.S. president has shown his hand.

One year ago, when America fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat airbase near Homs to punish Bashar al-Assad's regime for a chemical attack that killed around 100 people in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, the Russians were given a discrete heads-up

"Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike using the established deconfliction line," a Pentagon spokesman admitted a couple of days after the attack. "U.S. military planners took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield."

An image from the Syrian Civil Defence While Helmets shows medical workers treating children after a suspected chemical weapons attack in Douma on April 7. (Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets via AP)
The warning didn't seem to make much difference for the Syrians, who reported that six military personnel were killed in the barrage. But it did serve its larger purpose — reducing the risk of a wider conflict between Russia and the United States.

The danger of touching off the Third World War is clearly on Trump's mind. In a follow-up tweet this morning, he made an almost plaintive plea to Vladimir Putin.

But there's also an element of theatre to the world's efforts to punish Assad for crossing a "red line" that he has already hopped across on multiple occasions.

At an emergency UN Security Council meeting yesterday, there was much bluster and no tangible result.

The Americans introduced a resolution to create an inquiry into last weekend's suspected gas attack in Douma, which killed more than 70 and sickened 500 more. Russia vetoed it.

The United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, addresses the UN Security Council Tuesday in New York City regarding the attack on civilians in Douma, Syria. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Western nations then shut down a Russian proposal for a probe under different rules. A resolution of support for a fact-finding mission by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons also failed — although that investigation will happen regardless.

The OPCW's fact-finding missions don't actually determine who perpetrated chemical attacks, just that they took place.

A joint UN-OPCW body that looked at responsibility shuttered its operations last October, when Russia and Bolivia voted against extending its Security Council mandate. Its seventh and final report blamed the Syrians for the April 2017 attack in Khan Sheikhoun, and the Islamic State for a September 2016 gasing that wounded two women in the town of Umm Hawsh.

A man is treated at a field hospital on Jan. 13, 2014, after an alleged poison gas attack by troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in the rebel-held city of Daraya. (Fadi Dirani/AFP/Getty Images)
The body had previously concluded that the Assad regime was responsible for other deadly Sarin attacks, like the 2013 gasing of Eastern Ghouta that left at least 1,000 dead.

In the wake of that attack, Russia and the U.S. joined together to force Assad to relinquish his chemical weapons. And in the fall of 2014, the United Nations reported that 96 per cent of the Syrian regime's "declared" chemical stockpile had been destroyed.

Such actions didn't change much.

Neither did America's missile strikes last April. Within hours, Syrian warplanes were again taking off from the Shayrat airfield.

In a particular act of defiance, they carried out more airstrikes in Khan Sheikhoun.

A seventh Toronto victim

Toronto police have charged alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur with a seventh count of first-degree murder.

Abdulbasir Faizi was 44 years old when he disappeared on the evening of Dec. 28, 2010, after leaving his job at a Mississauga printing company. The Afghan immigrant, who lived in Brampton, Ont., was reported missing the following day by his wife and two daughters.

Abdulbasir Faizi went missing in 2010. Faizi's disappearance along with those of Majeed Kayhan and Skandaraj Navaratnam led to the creation of Project Houston. (Toronto Police Service)
Faizi was a frequent visitor to Toronto's Gay Village, but kept that aspect of his life hidden from his family.

He joins the lengthening list of McArthur's alleged victims. Faizi and Skandaraj Navaratnam disappeared in 2010. Majeed Kayhan was last seen in the fall 2012, while Soroush Mahmudi was reported missing in the summer of 2015. Selim Esen and Andrew Kinsman were last seen in 2017.

The other identified victim, Dean Lisowick, was never reported missing. Police now believe that he died in April 2016.

Bruce McArthur is now accused of killing these seven men. Top row, from left to right, Skandaraj Navaratnam, 40, Andrew Kinsman, 49, Selim Esen, 44, and Abdulbasir Faizi, 44. Bottom row, from left to right: Dean Lisowick, 47, Soroush Mahmudi, 50, and Majeed Kayhan, 58. (CBC/Toronto Police Service)
McArthur appeared in court this morning via closed-circuit television to face the latest charge.

Dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit with his hands cuffed in front of him, he said little beyond "thank you" when the judge put his case over until his next scheduled hearing on April 25.

This afternoon, Det.-Sgt. Hank Idsinga, the lead investigator with the Toronto Police, held a news conference to provide an update on their probe of McArthur. Police are set to search 70 properties connected to McArthur, he said, and are examining 15 cold cases, dating back to the 1970s, for possible links.

A court sketch of Bruce McArthur's appearance, by video, in Toronto on Wednesday. From left to right: Defence lawyer S. Saunders, Bruce McArthur on a video screen, Justice of the Peace Wendy Agnew, and Crown Attorney Mike Cantlon. (Pam Davies)
To date, seven sets of human remains have been recovered from large planters stored at the Leaside house that McArthur ran his landscaping business out of.

In an unusual step early last month, police released a picture of a man whom they believe is an eighth victim. The close-up of his battered face appeared to have been taken post-mortem.

The image came from a cache of photos that McArthur kept on his computer.

Toronto Police are currently reviewing cold-case murders and disappearances dating back to the early 1970s.

U.S. military spending

The U.S. military has an air accident problem.

Since the middle of March, 16 service members have been killed in non-combat crashes. And April began with four wrecks in four days, resulting in seven of those deaths.

Some accidents have received a lot of attention, like the March 16 incident in Iraq where a U.S. Air Force HH-60 helicopter clipped some power lines, killing all seven aboard. On April 4, a CH-53 Super Stallion heavy transport helicopter on a training mission crashed near El Centro, Calif., killing all four onboard.

The Sikorsky HH-60 Pave Hawk Helicopter is used by the U.S. military for combat search and rescue missions. In March, an HH-60 clipped power lines and crashed near the city of Al Qaim in Iraq, killing all seven aboard. (Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)
Others, like the separate losses of a Marine Corps Harrier Jet and a CH-53 Super Stallion helicopter on the same day in Djibouti last week — everyone involved survived — have mostly passed unremarked by the press and public.

But the overall toll is becoming hard to ignore: 18 accidents and 49 deaths in one calendar year.

That far outstrips the 33 U.S. service members killed in combat all around the globe in 2017, or the 31 killed in action in Afghanistan since the beginning of 2015.

This past weekend, William "Mac" Thornberry, the Texas Republican in charge of the House Armed Services Committee, warned that America's military is "at a crisis point."

He bristled at White House suggestions that the Department of Defense budget might be raided to pay for Donald Trump's promised wall along the Mexican border.

Mac Thornberry, left, addresses a Feb. 7 news conference about troop funding in Washington. The head of the House Armed Services Committee warned this past weekend that the U.S. military is 'at a crisis point' over funding of aircraft maintenance and pilot training. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
"There can be no higher priority for the Department of Defense than ensuring that our aircraft are safe and that pilots get the training they need. Nothing should divert us from that mission," he said is a press statement.

A recent investigation by the Military Times, an independent defence-focused newspaper, used U.S. Access to Information laws to build a database of all military aviation accidents — fatal and non-fatal — since 2011. It found an almost 40 per cent increase in crashes since 2013, a rise that the paper ties to the Sequestration cuts that came online in 2013 when Republicans and Democrats couldn't reach a budget deal.

That explanation might not fly: U.S. Army helicopter accidents have actually declined since 2013 — probably because they're not flying so many risky combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A U.S. Marine Corps AV-8 Harrier fighter jet is seen on a training flight. The pilot of a similar jet suffered minor injuries when his Harrier crashed April 3 during takeoff from Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport in East Africa. (Ben Margot/Associated Press)
(Yesterday, Gen. David Goldfein, the U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, announced an investigation into his branch's less-serious, non-fatal crashes, seeking to identify the "underlying issues.")

America's total military spending has declined in recent years, that too is a function of fewer wars.

The U.S. Department of Defense had a base operating budget of $611 billion in 2016. That's nearly three times as much as China's $215 billion in military spending, and more than the combined defence expenditures of the next eight biggest spenders — a list that includes Russia, France, the U.K., Saudi Arabia and India.

President Trump has repeatedly accused Barack Obama of leaving the military "underfunded." But his new budget won't be enough to address his generals' lengthy wish lists, despite earmarking $700 billion for defence this fiscal year, and $716 billion for 2019.

The military has long been the U.S. government's single-largest expenditure. But that could soon change.

A Marine Corps CH-53 Super Stallion lifts off from the USS Kearsarge. A Super Stallion crashed in Djibouti on April 3, leaving its crew with minor injuries, while another crashed in California the following day killing all four onboard. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)
This week, the Congressional Budget Office issued projections that show interest payments on America's ballooning debt will outstrip defence spending by 2023. News that many media outlets seemed to find shocking.

That's just par for the course in Canada.

This year's federal budget devoted $25.5 billion to the Department of National Defence. Slightly less than the $26.3 billion it allocates for interest payments.

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Quote of the moment

"My thinking on cannabis has evolved."

- John Boehner, the former Republican speaker of the House, announcing via Twitter this morning that he is joining the board of a pot company. In 2009 when he was a Congressman, Boehner said he was "unalterably opposed" to legalization.

Former Speaker of the House John Boehner. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

What The National is reading

  • Algerian military plane crashes after takeoff, 257 dead (CBC)
  • Global trading system at risk of being 'torn apart,' warns IMF's Lagarde (CNBC)
  • Quebec City mosque shooter seeks right to parole after 25 years (CBC)
  • Seven Myanmar soldiers sentenced to 10 years for Rohingya massacre (Reuters)
  • Paul Ryan will not seek re-election (NY Times)
  • Parents face court over baby's vegan diet (Sydney Morning Herald)
  • Canada's 'Winterpeg' heats up (South China Morning Post)
  • World's largest brewer develops greener way to put bubbles in beer (Guardian)
  • The seismic signal of Lionel Messi (BBC)

Today in history

April 11, 1969: Acadians head south to help Cajun cousins

The CBC travels along with a group of New Brunswick Acadians who are trying to help Louisiana's Cajun population preserve their native tongue. Cajun French was "in danger of total annihilation," suppressed by state education rules and undermined by modern communications. An interesting story rendered remarkable by Mrs. Leonie Boudreau-Nelson's hat.

Acadians head south to help Cajun cousins

3 years ago
Duration 4:12
Canadian Acadians retrace their historic journey to Louisiana to promote a francophone cultural revival.

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Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.