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Russia launches cyberwar on UK as Macron offers to mediate Syria crisis - Gordon Rayner

Whitehall 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 that this could be a precursor to a full-scale campaign of cyber attacks by Moscow, with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson saying Britain would take "every possible precaution" to guard against it.

Russia, which backs the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, had repeatedly warned in the build-up to the cruise missile strikes that there would be consequences if they went ahead, and Johnson told the BBC's Andrew Marr 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 (NHS), the National Grid and other infrastructure, Johnson 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."

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.

"The Russian disinformation campaign has already begun. There has been a 2,000 per cent increase in Russian trolls in the last 24 hours," a Pentagon spokesman Dana White said.

British opposition Labour Leader  Corbyn will on Monday 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 airstrikes along with France and the US.

May is expected to tell the Commons,what she said last week, 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.

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

Brigadier-General Zaher al-Sakat, 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.

"Taqsis depot is what we wanted to be hit. As long as it's still functioning then they'll still have chemical weapons and the ability to produce more," he said.

The 54-year-old general, who left the Syrian army and joined the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) after he said he was ordered to carry out a number of chemical attacks on civilians, has maintained contact with officials inside Syria who share intelligence with him. He said Assad had moved equipment away from the sites that were hit because there was sufficient prior warning.

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.

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron said it was France that persuaded US President Donald Trump to stay in Syria and launch air strikes as punishment for the alleged chemical attack.
Appearing in a two-hour live broadcast on Sunday night, the 40-year-old leader said the US, Britain and France had "full international legitimacy to intervene" in order to enforce international humanitarian law.

"It was retaliation, not an act of war," Macron said in justifying the operation a day before the French Parliament was also set to debate it.

"Ten days ago President Trump wanted the United States to withdraw from Syria. We convinced him to remain," he said.

He said France now wanted to involve Western powers, Russia and Turkey in a new diplomatic initiative to find a sustainable political solution in Syria and offered to play the role of intermediary between the United States and Russia.

It emerged on Sunday 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 anti-submarine aircraft searching for the British vessel as it maneouvred to within missile range of Syria.

The UK, the United States 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.

Read  more: Russia launches cyberwar on UK as Macron offers to mediate Syria crisis

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