Rus­sia launches cy­ber war in re­tal­i­a­tion

The Southland Times - - WORLD -

BRI­TAIN: Rus­sia has launched a ‘‘dirty tricks’’ cam­paign against Bri­tain and the United States in the wake of the Syria airstrikes as For­eign Sec­re­tary Boris John­son warned of a need to be pre­pared for re­tal­ia­tory at­tacks.

White­hall sources last night con­firmed a 20-fold in­crease in ‘‘dis­in­for­ma­tion’’ be­ing spread by Krem­lin-linked so­cial me­dia ‘‘bot’’ ac­counts since the mis­sile at­tacks on Syria in the early hours of Satur­day.

There are fears this could be a pre­cur­sor to a full-scale cam­paign of cy­ber at­tacks by Moscow, and John­son said Bri­tain would take ‘‘ev­ery pos­si­ble pre­cau­tion’’ to guard against it.

It comes as Labour Jeremy Cor­byn at­tempts to force a Com­mons vote on Syria that could make it harder for Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May to mo­bilise the armed forces with­out the per­mis­sion of MPs.

Cor­byn will to­day ask the Speaker to grant an emer­gency de­bate, that is likely to lead to a vote, which will scru­ti­nise May’s judgment in au­tho­ris­ing the air strikes.

May will to­day tell the Com­mons that bomb­ing Syria was in Bri­tain’s ‘‘na­tional in­ter­est’’ to pre­vent fu­ture chem­i­cal at­tacks ‘‘within Syria, on the streets of the UK or else­where’’ as she in­vokes the Sal­is­bury poi­son­ings as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the UK’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the US-led strikes.

She will also say ‘‘it was the right thing to do’’ to avert fur­ther suf­fer­ing caused by chem­i­cal at­tacks and that ‘‘we are not alone – there is broad-based in­ter­na­tional sup­port for the ac­tion we have taken’’.

Rus­sia, which backs the As­sad regime in Syria, had re­peat­edly warned in the buildup to the cruise mis­sile strikes that there would be con­se­quences if they went ahead, and John­son said that Rus­sia ‘‘gives us ev­ery pos­si­ble sig­nal and ev­i­dence that we have to be­ware’’.

Asked if he was wor­ried about cy­ber at­tacks on the na­tional health ser­vice, the na­tional power grid and other in­fra­struc­ture, he said: ‘‘I think we have to take ev­ery pos­si­ble pre­cau­tion and when you look at what Rus­sia has done, not just in this coun­try in Sal­is­bury but the at­tacks on TV sta­tions, on the demo­cratic pro­cesses, on the crit­i­cal na­tional in­fra­struc­ture, of course we have to be very, very cau­tious in­deed.’’

In the US, the Pen­tagon said there had been a surge in Rus­sian ‘‘troll’’ ac­counts pro­mot­ing false claims about the mis­sile at­tacks, in­clud­ing that 70 per cent of the mis­siles had been shot down.

Pen­tagon spokes­woman Dana White said: ‘‘The Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign has al­ready be­gun. There has been a 2000 per cent in­crease in Rus­sian trolls in the last 24 hours.’’

In the UK, a White­hall source said Rus­sia was en­gag­ing in a ‘‘dirty tricks’’ cam­paign, while Gov­ern­ment sources said of­fi­cials would be analysing Krem­lin­linked so­cial me­dia ‘‘bot’’ ac­counts to as­sess the ex­tent to which Brit- ain had been tar­geted by them.

There were, how­ever, gen­uine ques­tions last night over whether the at­tack by 105 Amer­i­can, Bri­tish and French mis­siles had oblit­er­ated As­sad’s chem­i­cal weapons ca­pa­bil­i­ties or not.

Bri­gadier-Gen­eral Za­her al­Sakat, who served as head of chem­i­cal war­fare in the pow­er­ful 5th Di­vi­sion of the Syr­ian mil­i­tary un­til he de­fected in 2013, said the most strate­gic sites – in­clud­ing a de­pot called Taq­sis in the cen­tral prov­ince of Homs – were not hit in Satur­day’s strikes.

The Rus­sian mil­i­tary, which spoke with As­sad yes­ter­day, said he was in a ‘‘good mood’’ af­ter the strikes, pri­vately re­lieved that the three coun­tries had not tar­geted more vi­tal in­fra­struc­ture.

Cor­byn’s call to­day for an emer­gency de­bate will be coun­tered by May, who will make her own ap­pli­ca­tion for a de­bate, but with­out a mean­ing­ful vote at the end of it.

Other par­ties are also said to be con­sid­er­ing sub­mit­ting ap­pli­ca­tions. It will be down to the Speaker to de­cide what hap­pens.

If a de­bate goes ahead it will hap­pen on Tues­day af­ter­noon (lo­cal time), and Ju­lian Smith, the Tory chief whip, has is­sued a three-line whip to Con­ser­va­tive MPs in case a vote goes ahead.

The de­bate ap­pli­ca­tions will be made un­der Stand­ing Or­der 24 of the Com­mons rules and, while they do not re­sult in bind­ing votes, any de­feat for May over Syria would weaken her po­lit­i­cally and make it harder in fu­ture to take mil­i­tary ac­tion with­out the back­ing of MPs.

Sev­eral Tories have al­ready said they be­lieve May should have put the mat­ter to a vote, in­creas­ing the dan­ger of a de­feat for the Gov­ern­ment.

It emerged yes­ter­day that a Bri­tish As­tute-class sub­ma­rine, which had widely been ex­pected to take part in the cruise mis­sile strikes, did not fire any weapons af­ter it was in­volved in an un­der­sea cat and mouse game with Rus­sian sub­marines for sev­eral days.

At least one Rus­sian sub is un­der­stood to have been joined by two Rus­sian fri­gates and an an­ti­sub­ma­rine air­craft search­ing for the Bri­tish ves­sel as it ma­neou­vred to within mis­sile range of Syria.

The UK, the US and France have launched a new bid at the United Na­tions to in­ves­ti­gate chem­i­cal weapons at­tacks in Syria.

The three al­lies cir­cu­lated a joint draft res­o­lu­tion at the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil. – Tele­graph Group

PHOTO: AP

For­eign Sec­re­tary Boris John­son says that af­ter other Rus­sian ac­tions, Bri­tain has to be ‘‘very, very cau­tious in­deed’’.

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