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Analysis: Conflict over the name “Macedonia” part of larger struggle for the future of Greece

The SYRIZA-led government has denounced as “fascists” all those who oppose a solution allowing Greece’s neighbor to use the name “Macedonia,” but what is fascist about being leery of NATO intentions in the Balkans or opposing Skopje’s expansionist ambitions?




Originally published in MintPress News on January 29, 2018.
While international media outlets focused on the women’s rallies of this past weekend, in Greece a population that for several years has not participated in any large-scale protests came out in force on Sunday. Greeks gathered to oppose a deal between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) — the country’s official name as per the United Nations — that would allow Greece’s northern neighbor to officially include Macedonia in its name. The demonstration flooded the streets of downtown Thessaloniki — the capital of the Greek province of Macedonia, and Greece’s second largest city.
Official estimates for the turnout ranged from 90,000 according to the police to over 500,000 according to rally organizers. What is indeed evident is that turnout was likely far closer to the organizers’ estimates than to those of the police. Photos from the rally show the crowd of demonstrators stretching from the White Tower, Thessaloniki’s main landmark, all the way to the Thessaloniki Music Hall in one direction and to Aristotelous Square in the other, spanning almost two miles along the city’s coastline. Busloads of protesters traveled from all corners of Greece, with over 500 coach buses reportedly delivering participants to Thessaloniki just from Athens alone.
Sunday’s rally signified Greece’s biggest demonstration, by far, since the period leading up to the country’s July 2015 austerity referendum, following a long period of relative dormancy. Joining the Thessaloniki protesters in spirit, members of the overseas Greek communities — in cities such as London (outside the British Parliament), Stuttgart, and Melbourne — came out in significant numbers and participated in rallies organized locally.
For many, Sunday’s rally — and the opposition of many Greeks to the use of the name “Macedonia” by the country’s northern neighbor — reeks of nationalism and ethnocentrism. And indeed, many right-wing and even far-right elements were behind the official organization of Sunday’s rally. This nationalist and ethnocentric view, however, does not represent the ordinary public that participated in the protest, many of whom also represented those with a more left-wing political outlook (including dozens of people I personally am acquainted with).Although left-wing, however, that outlook is opposed to the government led by the neoliberal, pro-EU, pro-austerity “leftist” SYRIZA party, as well as to the Communist Party of Greece — which denounced Sunday’s rally and which, on and off, has recognized Greece’s northern neighbor as “Macedonia.”
Furthermore, this view glosses over numerous historical realities and, even more significantly, geopolitical realities in the region — and the role and ambitions of the United States and NATO in the wider Balkan region. This piece will briefly examine the historical development of the Macedonia dispute, the current negotiations and geopolitical forces at work, and the stance of the Greek government and establishment at the present time. Moreover, the efforts to downplay Sunday’s rally and to characterize an entire mass of protesters as “fascist,” will be analyzed.
Redrawing the Balkans: the birth of a “Macedonian” state
Contrary to what is often reported, the area now known as FYROM was not always officially named “Macedonia.” Indeed, it was not called Macedonia until after World War II, when it was a province of Yugoslavia and was renamed “Macedonia” by Yugoslav leader Tito, with the approval of Stalin and the Soviet Union. Previous to that, in the early 20th century, the region was successively known as South Serbia, then absorbed within Bulgaria, then known as “Vardarska,” named after the main river running through the region.
As pointed out by analyst Vasilis Viliardos, while this name change may have initially seemed to be an internal Yugoslav matter, it was anything but. Tito’s grand plan for the region was for a greater Yugoslav nation, one that would include “Macedonia” and stretch all the way to the shores of the Aegean and the city of Thessaloniki. In order to achieve these aims though, a Macedonian “nationhood” first had to be invented, one that would co-opt the ancient history of Macedonia.
The historical record provides evidence for these early efforts at revisionism. While, for instance, a 1937 map of Yugoslavia and a 1939 Yugoslav stamp illustrate modern-day FYROM as “Vardarska,” by the 1940s the Yugoslav authorities were actively promoting the region as “Macedonia.” A July 10, 1946 article appearing in The New York Times states “a ‘Federal Macedonia’ has been projected as an integral part of Tito’s plan for a federated Balkans…taking Greek Macedonia for an outlet to the Aegean Sea through Salonica.”

A Yugoslav stamp circa 1939 showing ancient Paionia labeled ‘Vardarska’. A map depicting Yugoslavia circa 1937 is pictured on the right.

Two weeks later, a July 26, 1946 article in the Times by C.L. Sulzberger stated: “The possible creation of a Macedonian free state within Greece to amalgamate with Marshal Tito’s Federated Macedonia State, with is capital in Skopje…would fulfill the Slavic objectives of re-uniting the…province of Macedonia under Slavic rule, giving access of the sea to Bulgaria and Yugoslavia.”
Such expansionist plans on the part of Tito’s Yugoslavia were also recorded in U.S. diplomatic cables of that era, including a December 26, 1944 cable that stated:

“The [State] Department has noted with considerable apprehension increasing propaganda rumors and semi-official statements in favor of an autonomous Macedonia, emanating principally from Bulgaria, but also from Yugoslav Partisan and other sources, with the implication that Greek territory would be included in the projected state. This Government considers talk of Macedonian ‘nation,’ Macedonian ‘Fatherland,’ or Macedonia ‘national consciousness’ to be unjustified demagoguery representing no ethnic nor political reality, and sees in its present revival a possible cloak for aggressive intentions against Greece. …
The approved policy of this Government is to oppose any revival of the Macedonian issue as related to Greece. The Greek section of Macedonia is largely inhabited by Greeks, and the Greek people are almost unanimously opposed to the creation of a Macedonian state. Allegations of serious Greek participation in any such agitation can be assumed to be false. This Government would regard as responsible any Government or group of Governments tolerating or encouraging menacing or aggressive acts of ‘Macedonian Forces’ against Greece.”

Tito’s grand plan for “Macedonia” indeed began to be implemented following World War II. Starting in the 1950s, theories began to develop about the ancient origins of the “Macedonian people” as direct descendants of the likes of Alexander the Great and Philip II of Macedonia — even though, anthropologically, the inhabitants of what is today FYROM are descended from peoples that settled in the area in the sixth to seventh century A.D., a near millennium after the era of Alexander the Great. This is not meant to be an ethnocentrist argument in either direction, merely a statement of fact supported by the historical record.
The discontinuity between the ancient Macedonians and those who today refer to themselves as “Macedonian” (and are attempting to co-opt this ancient history as their own) was admitted to by none other than former president of FYROM Kiro Gligorov, who stated in an interview with the Toronto Star in 1992:

“We are Macedonians but we are Slav Macedonians. That’s who we are! We have no connection to Alexander the Great and his Macedonia. The ancient Macedonians no longer exist, they had disappeared from history long time ago. Our ancestors came here in the 5th and 6th century (A.D.).”

In a similar vein, the former prime minister of FYROM, Ljubco Georgievski, has stated, in a televised interview, that the ancient Macedonian people were Greek.
Nevertheless, landmarks in what is today FYROM began to be renamed after ancient figures and symbols. Statues of Alexander the Great were constructed, and the country’s main international airport now bears his name. FYROM’s original map, following independence, bore the Vergina Sun — a popular ancient Greek symbol inscribed on ancient tombs in the Greek region of Vergina, said to be the burial site of King Philip II and possibly Alexander the Great or his brother. This symbol was later changed on FYROM’s flag to a nonspecific sun with rays emanating from it, as part of an agreement between the two countries in 1995 that also set the constitutional, temporary name of Greece’s northern neighbor as FYROM.
Nationalist zeal was fostered amongst the population of this region, based on this ancient “heritage.” And as part of this nationalist zeal, expansionist propaganda also began to appear, including maps displaying a “greater Macedonia” in place of FYROM, extending into Greek territory and up to the Aegean shoreline.
In August 2015, for instance, the then-parliamentary vice president and former foreign minister of FYROM, Antonio Milososki, appeared at an event in Ontario organized by members of FYROM’s diaspora, speaking in front of a map displaying “greater Macedonia,” which included a significant chunk of Greek territory, including Thessaloniki. FYROM’s ambassador to Canada appeared in front of this same map at an event in Toronto in 2016. Elementary school classrooms in FYROM have been painted with the map of “greater Macedonia,” while the map of “greater Macedonia” has also been used in advertisements by FYROM diaspora organizations, such as in an advertisement appearing in the Toronto Star on July 31, 2014.
But how did FYROM, as an independent state, come about and adopt the name “Macedonia”? Following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, “Macedonia” declared independence in 1991, claiming both the name “Macedonia” and the Vergina Sun as its national symbol, in the new country’s flag. And it is here where geopolitics really comes into the picture.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, second from left, accompanied by FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, left, inspects an honor guard squad upon his arrival at the Government building in Skopje, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

Another NATO-U.S. client state in the Balkans?
The breakup of the former Yugoslavia — initially achieved in the early to mid 1990s and since progressing with the formation of Montenegro and Kosovo as independent states — has been closely tied in with U.S., NATO, and European Union foreign policy and geopolitical ambitions in the area. Following the fall of the “iron curtain,” a main objective of strategists in Washington and Brussels was to wrest control of the Balkans away from Russian influence, bringing the entire region into the Western sphere.
Taking advantage of a disemboweled Russia in the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse, nationalist tensions were stoked, civil wars were fomented, and Yugoslavia dissolved into war, crisis and, eventually, a number of small, weak states. Decimated following the collapse of communism and the sufferings of civil war, states such as Croatia, Bosnia, and FYROM were the perfect clients for the West’s imperial ambitions in the Balkan region. Illustrating the region’s significance, it has been noted, for instance, that the new U.S. embassy in Skopje, the capital of FYROM, is the largest U.S. embassy in the world.
As part of such efforts, imperial powers stoked and then harnessed nationalist tendencies that had been fomented in FYROM, essentially trading diplomatic support of such ambitions for geopolitical and military cooperation. One of President George W. Bush’s first acts upon commencing his second term in office, for instance, was formal recognition of FYROM as the “Republic of Macedonia.” In all, 130 countries have recognized FYROM by this name, even as its official United Nations name remains “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” China is one such country, as well as traditional Greek allies — deriving from cultural proximity if nothing else — Russia and Serbia.
“Macedonia’s” declaration of independence led to developments in Greece as well, and arguably contributed to the downfall of the government led by the center-right New Democracy party, which was hanging on to a flimsy one-seat parliamentary majority and which was seen by many in Greece as not putting up enough diplomatic resistance to the naming issue. A rally held in Thessaloniki, on February 14, 1992 drew up to a million protesters and is arguably the largest such demonstration held in the history of post-war Greece. The government collapsed a year later, as members of New Democracy’s parliamentary faction, angered over Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis’ willingness to compromise regarding the name dispute, broke off and formed a splinter party, Political Spring, which eliminated New Democracy’s parliamentary majority and eroded its support in the snap parliamentary elections of October 1993.
The now-deceased Mitsotakis’ government may have collapsed, but one of his quotations lives on in infamy today. In February 1993, in a stunning display of arrogance, Mitsotakis, in reference to the Macedonia name dispute, predicted that the Greek people “will have forgotten about it in 10 years.” And just as Mitsotakis evidently held the Greek populace that elected him in such low esteem, today’s current “leftist” SYRIZA-led government apparently harbors similar feelings, as will be demonstrated.

Matthew Nimetz, the United Nations mediator in a name dispute between FYROM and Greece, answers journalists’ questions following his talks with FYROM officials at the government building in Skopje, Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

Matthew Nimetz: The hardly neutral mediator
Despite the collapse of the New Democracy-led government in Greece, a diplomatic stalemate ensued, and the Clinton administration, which was actively involved in the ongoing developments in the Balkans during this period, appointed Matthew Nimetz as its Special Envoy for the Macedonia name dispute in March 1994. The negotiations that followed resulted in a temporary compromise agreement in September 1995, where the name “FYROM” was established, the country’s flag was changed, and diplomatic relations between FYROM and Greece were restored while a final resolution regarding the name dispute was left for a later date. Former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance chaired continued talks regarding the dispute, with Nimetz serving as Vance’s deputy, before being appointed as the UN secretary-general’s Personal Envoy for the Macedonia dispute in December 1999 — a position that Nimetz still holds today.
Who is Matthew Nimetz? An examination of his background reveals a long and fascinating history of serving what can be described as globalist and imperialist aims. Fresh out of Harvard Law School, where he served as editor of the Harvard Law Review, Nimetz clerked for Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan II from 1965 to 1967. Harlan was, quite notably, in 1937 one of the five founders of the Pioneer Fund, an organization that promoted the practice of eugenics, of which the Nazi regime in Germany was a strong proponent. Indeed, at least two of the group’s five founders are said to have held close ties to Nazi Germany, while Harlan served on the organization’s board for several years.
Nimetz then joined the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967. While Nimetz was tasked with domestic policy, it was the Johnson administration that, in 1967, supported a coup in Greece that established a dictatorial military regime that reigned until 1973. President Johnson himself, in 1965, had been quoted as stating the following to Greece’s ambassador, when the latter rejected Johnson’s plan to divide Cyprus into Greek and Turkish parts, as a solution to the ongoing disputes between the two countries:

“Fuck your Parliament and your constitution. America is an elephant. Cyprus is a flea. Greece is a flea. If those two fleas continue itching the elephant, they may just get whacked… We pay a lot of good American dollars to the Greeks, Mr. Ambassador. If your prime minister gives me talk about democracy, parliaments, and constitutions, he, his parliament, and his constitution may not last very long… Don’t forget to tell old papa-what’s his name what I told you [referring to Greek Prime Minister Giorgos Papandreou].”

From 1975 to 1977, having returned to the private sector, Nimetz was appointed as a Commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the entity that controls the New York metro area’s three international airports, its seaports, and its main bus terminal — and that owned the World Trade Center (and owns 1WTC today). Nimetz was again appointed as a Commissioner of the Port Authority in 2007 by then-Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York, but Spitzer’s sex scandal and subsequent resignation prevented Nimetz’s nomination from proceeding.
Upon his return to government service in 1977, Nimetz worked under Cyrus Vance at the State Department and was tasked with the Greek-Turkish disputes, including the Turkish invasion and occupation of almost 40 percent of Cyprus (which continues to this day), the Micronesian status negotiations (which are said to have stymied any hopes for Micronesian independence, while essentially creating pro-U.S. dependencies in the Pacific), and, interestingly enough, Mexico-United States border issues. In 1979, Nimetz was then promoted to the position of Under Secretary for Security Assistance, Science and Technology, which included in its purview the U.S. government’s international communications activities. He also continued to supervise U.S. policy in the Eastern Mediterranean region.
Notably, during Nimetz’ tenure at the State Department, the United States’ arms embargo against Turkey — which had been imposed in February 1975, not long after Turkey’s invasion and subsequent occupation of a significant portion of Cyprus — was overturned.
Nimetz is also a member of the board of advisers of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP). In the past, the committee has seen fit to present awards to the likes of Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher, the aforementioned Cyrus Vance, former New York governor Hugh Carey (on whose campaign staff Nimetz served), and Richard Holbrooke, who was intimately involved in the Yugoslav conflict in the 1990s.
Interestingly, Nimetz, as of 2017, serves as a trustee of the George Soros-founded Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, an institution founded following the collapse of the Iron Curtain as part of Soros’ “open society” initiatives in Central and Eastern Europe. Kati Marton, wife of the late Richard Holbrooke, serves as a trustee of the CEU. Soros chaired the CEU until 2009 -– his replacement, Leon Botstein, had served as president of Bard College in New York.
It should be noted that Bard College is the home of the Levy Economics Institute, founded in 1986 by economist Dimitris B. Papadimitriou, who also served as the Institute’s longtime president and who is presently Greece’s minister of economy and development. Papadimitriou’s wife, Ourania (Rania) Antonopoulos, Greece’s alternate minister for combating unemployment, also served as a senior economist at the Levy Institute and taught at Bard College. She has also been closely affiliated with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
(Editor’s note: both Papadimitriou and Antonopoulou recently resigned following revelations that they were receiving a €100 per month rent stipend, claiming that their permanent residence is in New York. This despite the fact that they were known to be the wealthiest couple in the Greek Parliament.)
The UNDP and the CEU are, in turn, both listed as donors for an outfit known as the Centre for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeastern Europe (CDRSEE), based in Thessaloniki. Nimetz has served as a director and founding chair of this organization, which, among other initiatives, has promoted a “Joint History Project” with the support of the EU. This project is described as an effort to “change the way history is taught in schools in the Balkans,” and one might be tempted to wonder whether such a “joint history” includes, for instance, a “joint history” of Greece and “Macedonia.”
Notably, the CDRSEE counts as its donors, aside from the UNDP and CEU, entities such as the U.S. State Department, USAid, the National Endowment for Democracy, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the “Foundation Open Society Macedonia,” the European Union, the European Commission, and the municipality of Thessaloniki, under the auspices of its mayor, Yiannis Boutaris.
A darling of neoliberals worldwide, Boutaris has received glowing coverage from The Guardian, The New York Times, The Telegraph, Der Spiegel, Die Zeit, NPR, and Global Risk Insights, while he was shortlisted for World Mayor 2014. He has characterized Greece as a “Soviet-type society;” stated that he is ashamed to be Greek; called himself a “star mayor;” and repeatedly referred to FYROM as “acedonia.”
Referencing Sunday’s rally in Thessaloniki, Boutaris has stated that “in Skopje no rallies are being organized, we [Greeks] will never learn,” while describing the rally as “devoid of substance” and “harmful for negotiations” between the two countries.
Nimetz, as demonstrated above, clearly maintains strong and direct ties to a number of different organizations and figures who, it could be argued, undermine Greece’s position in its dispute with FYROM over the name “Macedonia.” And it is Nimetz who is the UN’s mediator for the dispute between the two countries.
This is not an unfounded concern for many Greeks. Nimetz, in an interview broadcast last week on Greece’s Antenna TV, essentially used the aforementioned interim agreement of 1995 — which he himself chaired as President Clinton’s Special Envoy and where the name “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” was adopted — as a negotiating position against Greece, stating:

“One has to be realistic. Right now the name of the country in the United Nations is Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. So the name Macedonia is in the name now in the United Nations and recognized by Greece with that name. Over 100 countries recognize the name as Republic as Macedonia, so it has Macedonia in the name, for most countries.”

A group of people hold banners reading “We are Macedonia” during an anti-NATO protest in front of the Parliament in Skopje, while NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addresses the lawmakers in the Parliament building, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

Redrawing the Balkan map once more?
Some actors are no longer sharing Nimetz’s enthusiasm over the recognition of FYROM as “Macedonia” by “most countries.” Earlier this month, Serbian foreign minister Iviva Dacic stated in an interview that “[w]e’ve been fools to recognize Macedonia under that name” and that Serbia “made a mistake when it recognized that country under its constitutional name (‘Republic of Macedonia’),” due to FYROM’s subsequent recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Dacic added:

“Serbia made a big mistake there. All of Europe and the world are using the name ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ (GYROM), whereas we slapped our brothers the Greek, and now expect the Greek not to recognize Kosovo, while we recognized Macedonia by insulting the Greek, and they (Macedonians) are always voting in favor of Kosovo. I must say, we’ve been the fools. There, I’ll use an undiplomatic term.”

Dacic’s comments may be more than just undiplomatic. They may reflect broader changes that may be afoot in the Balkans, which are intimately tied to the future fate of FYROM, regardless of name.
In 2015, a protracted political crisis commenced in FYROM, resulting from a corruption and wiretapping scandal that impacted the ruling nationalist, center-right VMRO-DPMNE government. Large-scale protests were organized in FYROM in both 2015 and 2016, which have been likened to “color revolutions” seen in other countries in Eastern Union and Central Asia. Snap parliamentary elections were called in 2016, but were postponed twice before being held on December 11, 2016.
The protracted political crisis continued, however, as no clear winner emerged from the polls. After months of political stalemate, the second-place “social democratic” SDSM party was given a andate to form a government, immediately after the visit of U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Hoyt Yee. Ironically, this regime change has prompted the development of a new “stop Soros” movement in FYROM, as there are some who consider the country’s new government as subservient to or controlled by the financial and geopolitical interests of George Soros.
Geopolitical analyst Andrew Korybko has, since 2016, repeatedly predicted that FYROM would fall victim to Western-induced “hybrid warfare,” of which the snap elections and formation of a SDSM government are allegedly a part. This “hybrid warfare” would have, as its end result, the split of FYROM into two, with one half joining a new Albanian federation (which Kosovo may also join, and which will surely provoke a response from Serbia), and the other half joining Bulgaria. A possible step towards the latter outcome is a treaty signed between FYROM and Bulgaria, which Korybko has argued opens the door for FYROM to be subsumed by its Eastern neighbor in the event of a “crisis.”
In the meantime, the parliament of FYROM recently passed legislation making Albanian the country’s second official language, though this legislation was later vetoed by FYROM’s president, Gjorge Ivanov. It should not be overlooked that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated in 2015 that Bulgaria and Albania want to divide FYROM between themselves.
Another possible indicator of looming instability is reflected in the actions of both Russia and China, which previously eyed FYROM for strategic projects in the region. The Russia-backed Balkan Stream natural gas pipeline and the China-backed Balkan Silk Road high-speed railway were both slated to traverse FYROM on their way to central Europe.
Korybko argues, however, that both Russia and China seem to be entertaining second thoughts about these projects, with Russia eying an alternate pipeline route through Bulgaria, while China is cosidering an alternate route for its railroad, which would still begin from the Chinese-owned port of Piraeus in Greece (privatized in 2016 by the “anti-privatization” SYRIZA-led government) but would be rerouted through Bulgaria. These changes, according to Korybko, are as a result of the risk of crisis or instability in FYROM, which both Russia and China are increasingly wary of.
Perhaps further reflecting this new geopolitical posture towards FYROM, Lavrov stated recently his belief that Greece should not make any concessions regarding the Macedonia name.
It may also be the case that the State Department, along with NATO, are seeking to put their own stamps on pending matters in the Balkans, and may consider the ongoing dispute and political uncertainty involving FYROM to increasingly be a liability for Western interests in the region. In 2008, Greece, a member of both the EU and NATO, vetoed FYROM’s bid for NATO membership, citing the unresolved name dispute. It is surmised that a similar action could be undertaken by Greece to block FYROM’s EU aspirations if the Macedonia dispute remains unsolved. This may be considered by the State Department and NATO to be more trouble than it’s worth, resulting in further developments and a possible redrawing of boundaries in the region.
Interestingly — echoing both the fall of the Mitsotakis government in 1993 following the Macedonia name crisis, and the fall of the previous center-right government in FYROM following a wiretapping and corruption scandal — the center-right government of Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis, which vetoed FYROM’s NATO candidacy and which pursued a foreign policy that was more open towards Russian interests, itself was beset by a wiretapping scandal and by what seemed like a constant stream of political and even sexual scandals, followed by the violent December 2008 riots in Athens, before collapsing in 2009.
The newly-elected government of George Papandreou, grandson of the aforementioned “Papa-what’s his name” of Lyndon B. Johnson fame, delivered Greece’s first austerity agreement and brought the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to Greece. He further has been accused of falsifying Greece’s debt and deficit figures — specifically, inflating them — in order to provide the political and economic impetus to place Greece under international financial oversight.

People walk between Greek flags ahead of a rally against the use of the term “Macedonia” for the northern neighboring country’s name, in Thessaloniki on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

Protesting more than just a name
This brings us to present-day Greece, mired in its ninth year of economic crisis — with no real end in sight, despite the cheery claims of the SYRIZA-led coalition government that Greece will exit the memorandum agreements later this year and return to a period of economic stability. Such optimism is not reflected on the ground, however, and it was perhaps a matter of time before ordinary Greeks, after a period of dormancy, started to lash out.
Sunday’s rally may have been such a moment. Despite rampant accusations that the rally represented runaway nationalism and fascism, at its heart it could actually be considered as an anti-imperialist rally, at least from the perspective of many attendees — the response of a populace that is finally tired of what it considers to be a political system that is soft on issues of national interest, and of the indignity of being a pawn in the regional chess match of great imperialist and Western powers.
More than this though, the rally also represents an expression of increasing frustration with the economic realities and struggles in Greece today. Speakers at the rally on Sunday did not restrict themselves to the Macedonia name dispute. They also addressed the privatization of national assets, of airports and harbors, by a government that had once promised to put an end to this sell-off. They addressed the economically dubious and environmentally destructive gold mining operations in Skouries (not far from Thessaloniki). And they addressed the home foreclosures and auctions — which are set to increase this year with the seizure even of households’ primary residences and with the introduction of electronic auctions, replacing courthouse auctions that have often been stymied by a well-organized movement that has sought to prevent them.
In short, speakers at Sunday’s rally addressed many of the major concerns on the minds of most Greek citizens today.
It is perhaps for this very reason that the Macedonia name dispute has suddenly returned to the forefront again, after years of being a diplomatic afterthought. As evidenced above, both Greece and FYROM are facing, each in its own way, a great deal of domestic turbulence. Returning a somewhat forgotten, culturally symbolic national issue to the fore can be seen as a great distraction from other, everyday troubles and concerns of ordinary citizens. Not surprisingly, numerous arguments against organizing the mass rally in Thessaloniki have centered on the “need for unity” at a time when the Greek government is “engaged in sensitive negotiations” on “an issue of national importance.”
Just as the Greek parliament is comprised of parties whose positions are, in fact, unrepresentative of Greeks’ attitudes towards the economic crisis and Greece’s continued membership in the Eurozone and the European Union, the same is evident with respect to Greek citizens’ views regarding the Macedonia issue. Though most public opinion polls in Greece should be taken with many grains of salt, as they are conducted by state-funded polling firms and on behalf of oligarch-owned, pro-austerity, pro-EU, and pro-NATO media outlets, several recent polls nevertheless showed wide majorities opposing any Greek compromise on the Macedonia name.
In a survey conducted by polling firm Marc, 68 percent of respondents (including, interestingly, 64 percent of SYRIZA voters) opposed a compromise. A poll conducted by online portal found 79 percent of respondents not in favor of a compromise. And a Metron Analysis poll found that between 77 and 82 percent of respondents opposed various proposed “composite names” for FYROM, such as “North Macedonia” or “New Macedonia,” while 61 percent of respondents favor a national referendum on any deal concerning the naming issue.
Of course, what major Greek and foreign media outlets instead chose to focus on was one single survey, conducted by polling firm Alco on behalf of radio station “Radiofono 24/7,” which found that 63 percent of respondents were in favor of a compromise solution on the Macedonia name dispute. It bears noting here that “Radiofono 24/7” is owned by up-and-coming oligarch Dimitris Maris, who maintains extremely close ties with SYRIZA. His media outlets — which also include online portal news247, the Greek edition of the Huffington Post, the newspaper Dimokratia, and the management of national newspapers Ethnos and Imerisia on behalf of their new owner, Russian-born oligarch Ivan Savvidis, himself close to SYRIZA — are unabashedly favorable towards the current Greek government.
(Editor’s note: Savvidis has since taken over management of the Ethnos and Imerisia newspapers)
Indeed, Maris’ outlets participated in the political and media blitz against the forthcoming rally in Thessaloniki in other ways as well, with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras providing a softball interview to Ethnos and Radiofono 24/7 a few days prior to the rally. In this interview, Tsipras warned of the dangers of not reaching an agreement swiftly, justifying this stance by claiming he is “half [Greek] Macedonian.”
In turn, main opposition party New Democracy, currently ahead of SYRIZA in all published public opinion surveys, is said to have “suggested” to members of the party not to appear at Sunday’s rally. Nevertheless, numerous members of New Democracy are said to have been present at the demonstration.
Greek Orthodox Archbishop Ieronimos joined the chorus. After meetings with Tsipras and with the president of the Hellenic Republic, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, Ieronimos stated publicly that “now is the time for national cooperation, not rallies,” while discouraging clerics from participating in Sunday’s rally. Nevertheless, this call went unheeded by many within the church: one local diocese is reported to have sent 60 busloads of parishioners to the rally.
The leader of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), Dimitris Koutsoumbas, in a radio interview prior to the rally, stated that “there is no need for nationalist rallies” at this time, while longtime member of parliament with the KKE, Liana Kanelli, warned those thinking of attending the rally that if a solution is not reached that is to NATO’s satisfaction, war will follow in the Balkans.
Even smaller, non-parliamentary and purportedly anti-imperialist and anti-austerity parties could not help revealing what may perhaps be their true sympathies. The far-left ANTARSYA, in a statement that carefully avoided any specific reference to Greece’s northern neighbor by any name, denounced the “nationalist” rallies while calling for NATO’s ouster from the Balkans. The president of the United People’s Front (EPAM), Dimitris Kazakis, in a radio interview prior to the rally, announced his position in favor of abstention from the rally — on the grounds that it did not call into question NATO and the EU, even though as it turned out, speakers at the rally did speak against and question austerity, privatizations, and other EU-imposed “measures.”

Thousands of protesters take part in a rally against the use of the term “Macedonia” for the northern neighboring country’s name, in Thessaloniki on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

Rally-goers faced concerted campaign of obstacles and discouragement
It could in fact be argued that there was a concerted effort amongst the political and media establishment to prevent the rally or to discourage people from attending. Indeed, leading up to the rally, estimates of its turnout heard on the Greek media were rather low, ranging from 10,000 to 20,000, while potential attendees were also warned of poor, rainy weather, which was forecast for Thessaloniki on Sunday (the rain never materialized).
The obstacles continued even on the day of the rally. Numerous reports on social media from ordinary attendees reported that toll booths on the main highway leading to Thessaloniki that were closest to the city — the state-owned tolls in the Malgara region — were closed early Sunday, leading to tremendous delays. Many buses reportedly reached Thessaloniki later than planned as a result, and many of these buses are said to have been stopped by authorities in Kalohori, a suburb of Thessaloniki five miles from downtown, forcing many participants, including the elderly and disabled, to walk the rest of the way. There were also several reports of cell phone networks being unavailable in downtown Thessaloniki for the duration of the protest. Notably, each of Greece’s three cellular carriers is foreign-owned.
Media coverage of the rallies was also limited. Live coverage was not provided by public broadcaster ERT — which, just a few years earlier in 2013, had organized rallies of its own when it was shuttered by the previous New Democracy-Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) government, with its Thessaloniki studios acting as a hub for such protests for two years until ERT was reopened. Private stations did not provide live coverage either — save for a local, Thessaloniki-based station, Vergina TV, and a very small number of other such local stations throughout Greece, which rebroadcast an internet stream of the rally.

Protesters take part in a rally against the use of the term “Macedonia” for the northern neighboring country’s name, in Thessaloniki on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

Writing off the rally with simplistic, pejorative labels
When all of that did not have a tangible negative impact on the rally, the political and media spin began. SYRIZA condemned the rally, characterizing it in an official statement as “a triumph of fanaticism, nationalism, and intolerance.” Government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos, in reference to the rally, said that “ethnic paternalism and exceptionalism” harm Greece’s position. Deputy Foreign Minister Yiannis Amanatidis, whose ministry is supposedly negotiating on Greece’s behalf, argued in a Skai TV interview that “140 countries recognize FYROM as ‘Macedonia,’ why not us?”
In turn, Alternate Foreign Minister George Katrougalos, a “constitutional scholar” who in 2011 was an active participant in the major protests against austerity in Greece, stated that those who disagree with a compromise that includes usage of the name “Macedonia” are “extremists and nationalists,” and that it would be a “patriotic solution” to include “Macedonia” in a compromise agreement.
Continuing the chorus, Deputy Defense Minister Dimitris Vitsas deemed the rally “an expression of ntionalism,” Transport Minister Christos Spirtzis described the participants in the rally as “crazy far-right wingers,” while Health Minister Pavlos Polakis called the demonstrators “junta nostalgists.” Deputy Minister of Agricultural Development Yiannis Tsironis characterized the rally as “relatively small” and with “no impact” on ongoing negotiations.
Such statements should not come as a surprise. In its pre-government days, numerous members of SYRIZA openly referred to Greece’s northern neighbor as “Macedonia.”
ERT journalist Stelios Nikitopoulos, one of the most prominent figures of the ERT protests, tweeted an invitation to a counter-rally against “nationalism.” Ironically, alongside his many postings decrying the protests as “fascism,” he also tweeted, unquestioningly, the police’s official figure of 90,000 attendees, comparing that figure to the one million said to have attended the 1992 demonstration. In reality though, aerial photographs of the two rallies show a crowd that is similar to or perhaps even bigger in size this year.
Going one step further, ERT and national privately-owned broadcaster Alpha TV, in their reports on the rally, claimed that it was attended by merely “dozens” of protesters. ERT later claimed this was a “mistake.”
Foreign media also got into the act. The Washington Post, quick to accuse others (including MintPress News) of serving up “fake news,” vaguely reported that “tens of thousands” attended Sunday’s rally, claiming it did not reach the magnitude of the 1992 rally. The French wire service Agence France Presse (AFP) also largely downplayed the scale of Sunday’s rally, especially compared to 1992, estimating turnout at “over 50,000,” while referring to the aforementioned Alco poll showing a majority in Greece favoring a “compromise,” but excluding other surveys contradicting this result.
AFP also tweeted a map of what it claimed to be the Greek province of Macedonia, which excluded the entire western section of the province but did include the separate province of Thrace, itself the occasional target of expansionist claims from Turkey. Despite corrections being sent or tweeted to AFP from numerous members of the public, the incorrect map remains online.

Graffiti which reads “You are not born Greek, you devolve into one,” spray painted on Thessaloniki’s historic White Tower, prior to the massive Macedonia rally on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018.

While, in all, the rally was peaceful and did not get broken up by provocateurs — as is often the case with rallies held in Athens, and particularly outside the Greek parliament — unfortunate incidents did occur. Provocateurs said to be representing far-right groups torched an anarchist squat in Thessaloniki prior to the rally, with no injuries reported. Another group, reportedly anarchists, attacked a bus delivering attendees to the rally, injuring one woman, while another similar group is said to have attacked a bus in Athens that was headed to the rally. A cyclist with Greek flags is also said to have been targeted by alleged anarchists in Thessaloniki prior to the rally. Leading up to the rally, graffiti was sprayed on Thessaloniki’s historic White Tower stating “You are not born Greek, you devolve into one.”
Momentum going forward — looking to February 4 in Athens
Despite all such challenges, turnout at Sunday’s rally was healthy and likely exceeded everyone’s expectations, and particularly those of the government, which now finds itself in a difficult position vis-à-vis the public. Despite its positive economic rhetoric, SYRIZA remains behind in the polls, while the Macedonia rally could be seen to have acted as an informal referendum against the government’s handling of the issue and its apparent willingness to accept what would be viewed as a soft compromise.
Adding to the government’s troubles, the rally’s organizers are now planning a follow-up rally, this time to be held in Athens, on February 4. At Sunday’s demonstration, it has been reported that speakers called for the Athens rally to be about more than just the name dispute, but other issues as well, including the government’s recently-passed omnibus bill which projects still further cuts and a new round of privatizations.
Furthermore, SYRIZA’s governing coalition partner, the populist-right Independent Greeks, perhaps seeking to salvage their own tarnished image, have proposed a referendum on the Macedonia issue, a position which is not shared by SYRIZA. This could potentially fracture the fragile coalition, perhaps leading to its collapse and the loss of the government’s parliamentary majority.
Many Greeks are also tired of their country being continuously threatened by its neighbors. At times, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan has made expansionist claims on the Greek region of Western Thrace, while Turkish Air Force jets routinely violate Greek airspace, including 141 such flyovers in one day last year. These are not victimless incidents. In 2006, Konstantinos Iliakis, a Greek air force pilot who was attempting to intercept Turkish fighter jets, died in an accident in the Southern Aegean sea.
Problems also exist with northwestern neighbor Albania, which in 2016 dredged up a decades-old minority-rights issue of the Cham people in Greece, an issue unrecognized by both the UN and the OSCE. Last year, Albanian authorities in the city of Himara expropriated and demolished homes belonging to the city’s Greek minority.
There is also the unresolved Turkish occupation of almost 40 percent of Cyprus, which includes the division of the island’s capital, Nicosia. It’s ironic to hear Erdoğan lashing out at the U.S. decision to relocate its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, when his own military continues to divide the capital city of a sovereign country and EU member-state.
Also ironic are the recent words of Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiades, currently facing a battle for re-election, stating “the name doesn’t matter… [FYROM] can call itself ‘Northern Greece’ if it wishes.” Notably, the occupied northern territory of Cyprus is known as “North Cyprus,” and presently recognized only by Turkey. Anastasiades, in 2004, was a supporter of the United Nations’ “Annan Plan” for “reunification” of the island, which among other things would have maintained a Turkish military presence on the island, and which was rejected by Greek Cypriots in a referendum.
Many Greeks are therefore highly suspicious of the country’s neighbors, and even more so of the intentions of the United States, EU, and NATO and their ambitions in the region. It is feared by many that any compromise allowing FYROM to officially use the term “Macedonia” will simply fuel the expansionist claims of hard-line nationalists and politicians in FYROM, who might seek to “unify” Macedonia as one territory under one flag. Such concerns are not without merit. In June 2017 for instance, chants at a nationalist rally in Skopje claimed that “Thessaloniki is ours.” Such frustrations were channeled in Sunday’s rally in Thessaloniki. Similar claims are made by nationalist Bulgarians, some of whom, in a recent demonstration, accused Greece of “usurping” the name of Macedonia.
Greek authorities and the domestic and international media may choose to brand the protesters, or at least a significant percentage of them, as “fascists,” “nationalists,” “xenophobes” or any number of other epithets, in an attempt to delegitimize them and their concerns. But what is fascist about being leery of U.S. and NATO intentions in the Balkans or opposing the nationalist, expansionist ambitions of a neighboring state?
Symbolically, and in an indication that this is much more than a “far-right” issue, famed composer and cultural icon Mikis Theodorakis — who, despite a checkered political past, is viewed as an icon of the Greek left more broadly, and who is not noted for his fascist tendencies — issued an open letter addressed to the Greek prime minister. In this letter, Theodorakis warned that allowing the usage of the name Macedonia in any form by Greece’s northern neighbor would be “disastrous.”
Following up on this, Theodorakis stated after Sunday’s rally that “we have reached the unfortunate state where we have to apologize for our patriotism.” In previous open letters, Theodorakis has spoken out against the harshness of economic austerity and SYRIZA’s betrayal of its pre-election pledges.
Further illustrating that Sunday’s demonstration — and the belief that Greece should not compromise regarding the Macedonia name — is not an exclusively right-wing issue, is its endorsement by the left-wing Popular Unity political party. Popular Unity, which has positioned itself as an anti-austerity movement and which has also been active in the protests against home foreclosures and seizures, came out in support of the rally from an “alternative and radical perspective,” via its affiliated online portal. Popular Unity leader Panagiotis Lafazanis, in turn, described the rally as “expressing broader concerns” of society.
Theodorakis reflected the sentiment of many ordinary Greeks — who are neither fascists nor supporters of far-right parties, but who are fed up with a decade of economic crisis; with the loss of Greece’s sovereignty and control over the country’s own affairs; and with governments that have rescinded their promises and implemented endless reductions to salaries and pensions, increased taxes, slashed social services, sold off the country’s valuable public assets and utilities to foreign buyers at absurdly low prices, and who are seen as being both soft in negotiations on national issues and arrogantly indifferent towards the popular will. This disregard was evidenced when the SYRIZA-led government overturned the result of the July 2015 referendum that had rejected more E
Will the rally serve as a catalyst for broader developments in Greece? February 4, the day of the planned large-scale demonstration in Athens, may provide some answers.

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Russia ranks HIGHER than Switzerland in these areas of doing business

Some curious things happened with several businesspeople who attended World Cup events in Russia.



Russian President Vladimir Putin

One of them was a distinctly renewed interest in doing business inside the country, and another was the realization to what extent perceptions have been tainted by media and political rhetoric directed against any real or imagined nastiness attributed to Russia these days.

These past few weeks have been invaluable, at the very least by affording a clear picture of Russia through which almost all anxiety-ridden preconceptions were illuminated and dispelled. More disturbing was the fact that the several businesspeople I was dealing with were furious. They were livid for being played for fools, and felt victimized by the dismally untrue picture painted about Russia and Russians in their home countries, both by their own politicians and the press.

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Most felt that they have been personally sanctioned by their own countries, betrayed through lack of clear unbiased information enabling them to participate and profit from Russia opportunities these past three growth years in spite of “sanctions”.

The door to doing good business in Russia has been and is open, and has been opening wider year after year. That is not just “highly likely”, but fact. Consistently improving structures, means and methods to conduct business in Russia sustainably, transparently and profitably are now part of the country’s DNA. It is a process, which has been worked on in the west for more than a century, and one, which Russia has only started these past 18 years.

True, there are sanctions, counter-sanctions, and regulations governing them that must be studied carefully. However if you are not a bank or doing business with those persons deemed worthy of being blacklisted by some countries “sanctions list”, in reality there are no obstacles that cannot be positively addressed and legally overcome despite the choir of political nay-sayers.

READ MORE: Russia just dumped $80 BILLION in US debt

The days of quickly turning over Russia opportunities into short-term cash are rapidly fading, they are a throwback to the 1990’s. Today the major and open opportunities are in the areas for Foreign Direct Investments. The nature of FDI is long term to make regularly recurring sustainable returns on investment.

Long term, Russia always was and increasingly confirms that it is a vibrant and attractive market. There is a significant consumer market with spending power, a well-educated workforce, a wealth of resources and the list goes on. The economic obstacles encountered have largely been imposed from without, and not from the dynamics and energies of the Russian economy itself.

Eventually sanctions will end, although the timeline is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile business continues, and any long-term engagement within Russia by establishing a working presence will yield both short and long-term investment rewards. These will only be amplified when the sanctions regimes are removed. In any event, these aspects are long-term investment decisions and one of the criteria in any risk assessment.

For some added perspective, Russia is ranked by the Financial Times as the No.2 country in Europe in terms of capital investments into Europe. It has a 2017 market share of 9% (US$ 15.9 billion) and includes 203 business projects. This is 2% higher than 2016 and better that 2014/2015 when sanctions were imposed.

Another item of perspective is the Country Risk Premium. All investors consider this when calculating the scope for long-term return on investments. What may surprise some is that Russia is no longer ranked as a very high-risk country. For comparisons sake: The risk premium for Germany is zero (no extra risk), the risk premium for Italy is 2.19%, and for Russia, it is 2.54%. When compared to politically popular investment destinations like Ukraine the risk premium is 10.4%  – food for thought. Bottom line is that the risks of investing in Russia are a smidge higher than investing in Italy.

Russia is ranked 35 among 190 economies in the ease of doing business, according to the latest World Bank annual ratings. The ranking of Russia improved to 35 in 2017 from 40 in 2016 and from 124 in 2010. It may also surprise some to learn that as concerns protecting the rights of minority investors, paying taxes, registering property and some other aspects of the World Bank comparisons, Russia comes out better than Switzerland (See: Rankings).

From operational standpoints, establishing an invested presence in Russia does not mean one must adopt Russian managerial methods or practices. The advantages for established foreign companies is that their management culture is readily applied and absorbed by a smart and willing workforce, enabling a seamless integration given the right training and tools.

The trend towards the ultimate globalization of business despite trade wars, tariffs, sanctions and counter-sanctions is clear. The internet of the planet, the blockchain and speed of information exchange makes it so whether we wish it or not. Personally, I hope that political globalization remains stillborn as geopolitics has a historical mandate to tinker with and play havoc with international trade.

Russia occupies a key strategic position between Europe and Asia. The “west” (US/Europe) have long had at times rather turbulent relationships with China. At the same time the Chinese are quite active investors in both the US and Europe, and western companies are often struggling to understand how to deal with China.

The answer to this conundrum is Russia: this is where East and West will ultimately come together with Russia playing a pivotal role in the relations between the west and China. At the end of the day, and taking the strategic long-term economic view, is what both Chinese and Western companies are investing in when they open their activities in Russia.

If long-term commitment and investment in Russia were simply a matter of transferring funds then I would not be bothering with this opinion article. Without a doubt, there are structural issues with investing in Russia. A still evolving and sometimes unclear rule of law, difficulties obtaining finance for investments directed towards Russia, the unique language and culture of business in the country. Nevertheless, companies that have an understanding and vision of global strategy will manage with these issues and have the means to mitigate them.

Money and other invested resources do not and should not play politics; any investment case when evaluated on objective financial criteria will reveal its fit, or lack of, within a company’s global strategic business objectives. The objective criteria for Russia over any long term horizon is both convincing and strong. This has been repeated by all of the businesspeople I have met with these past few weeks. Without doubt we shall see some new companies coming into the Russian market and objectively exploring the gains their playing fair business football here will yield.

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Assessing the Putin-Trump Helsinki summit: neither a breakthrough nor a damp squib but a possible start towards detente

The US and Russian Presidents took the first step towards ending the downward spiral in their countries’ relations but the obstacles ahead remain formidable.

Alexander Mercouris



The US and Russian Presidents took the first step towards ending the downward spiral in their countries' relations but the obstacles ahead remain formidable.

The summit meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin has finally taken place in Helsinki to thunderous condemnation on the part of many in the West.

Some talk luridly of the beginning of the end of the West.  Others talk hysterically of treason.

Others see the summit as a damp squib, which will change nothing and which will leave the relationship between the US and Russia and between Russia and the West essentially unchanged, with the current state of hostility continuing indefinitely unabated.

In my opinion both views are wrong (the first obviously so) and both misunderstand, and in the case of the first wilfully misrepresent, what actually happened in Helsinki.

I discussed the background to the summit in an article I wrote a month ago for The Duran at a time when first reports that the summit was in the offing were beginning to circulate.

In that article I said that there was no possibility that Putin would make unilateral concessions to Trump over the status of Crimea or over the conflict in Ukraine and that the idea that he would agree to the US and Ukrainian proposal for a peacekeeping force to be deployed to the Donbass was certainly wrong and that that idea had already been categorically ruled out by the Russians.

I was also skeptical that there would be any sort of ‘grand bargain’ between the US and the Russians over Syria.

On the subject of Syria, in the weeks leading up to the summit there were some media reports suggesting that Donald Trump was coming under pressure from Israel, the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates to agree a deal at the summit with Putin whereby Russia would be granted sanctions relief and possibly even recognition of Crimea, US troops in Syria would be withdrawn, and in return the Russians would agree that Iranian forces would be expelled from Syria.

The Russians were clearly worried by these reports.  Not only did they go out of their way to deny them, but Putin and Lavrov held talks in Moscow on 12th July 2018 with Ali Akbar Velayati, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s Special Adviser on International Relations, in order to reassure the Iranians that they were not true.

As I explained in my lengthy discussion of Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Moscow on Victory Day, it would in fact be wholly contrary to established principles of Russian foreign policy for the Russians to agree to a ‘grand bargain’ like this.

From the Russian point of view relations between Iran and Syria are relations between two sovereign nations and are none of Russia’s business.

Not only is it not Russia’s business to interfere in whatever relations Iran and Syria have with each other, but Russia lacks the means to do so anyway, with any request from Moscow to Tehran and Damascus to sever or downgrade their relations certain to be refused, and with Russia having no means to force either country to comply with such a request save through steps which would put at risk its relations with both of these countries.

All Russia would achieve were it ever to make such a request would be to damage its relations with Iran and Syria and lose face, bringing down upon itself accusations of bad faith from the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel when it inevitably failed to follow through.

Here is what I said about how Putin would respond to a demand from Netanyahu to rein in the Iranians in Syria if it were made to him during Netanyahu’s Victory Day visit, and nothing which has happened since would have caused Putin to change his position

Contrary to what some people are saying, I think it is most unlikely that Putin would have given Netanyahu any assurances that Russia would act to rein in Iranian activities in Syria.

If Netanyahu asked Putin for such assurances (which I also think unlikely) Putin would almost certainly have told him what the Russians always say when faced with requests for such assurances: Iran and Syria are sovereign states and Russia cannot interfere in arrangements two sovereign states make with each other.

I suspect that the source of some of the stories about a ‘grand bargain’ between Putin and Trump involving the role of the Iranians in Syria is the regular discussions the Russians have with the Israelis, the Iranians and the Syrians whereby the Russians routinely pass on to the Iranians and the Syrians Israeli concerns about the presence of Iranian forces in Syria in particular locations as well as Israeli concerns about specific actions which the Iranians take.

A good example of these sort of discussions was an exchange between Putin and Netanyahu during Netanyahu’s most recent trip to Moscow on 11th July 2018.  The Kremlin’s website reports Netanyahu and Putin saying the following to each other

Benjamin Netanyahu: ……….Of course, our focus is on developments in Syria, the presence of Iran. This is not new to you. Several hours ago, an unmanned aerial vehicle entered the territory of Israel from Syria and was successfully brought down. I would like to emphasise that we will counter any and all attempts to violate our air or land borders.

Cooperation between us is an essential, key factor that can stabilise the entire region. So, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to meet with you and discuss these things.

Vladimir Putin: We are aware of your concerns. Let us discuss them in detail.

(bold italics added)

The Russians are not engaged here in discussions over some sort of ‘grand bargain’ to remove all Iranian troops from Syria, which as I have said they would see as counterproductive and impossible.  Rather they are engaged in the classic diplomatic exercise of conflict prevention: keeping the Israelis, the Iranians and the Syrians informed about each other’s moves and red lines in order to prevent an uncontrolled escalation of the conflict between them, which might risk an all-out war, which nobody wants, and which the Russians are doing their best to prevent.

Recent reports of an understanding between the Israelis, the Iranians and the Syrians supposedly brokered by the Russians whereby Iranian forces agreed not to participate in the Syrian army’s ongoing military operations in south west Syria close to the Israeli occupied Golan Heights are a case in point.

The Iranians and the Syrians  agreed to this, not because the Russians forced them to but because it is in their interest to.  The Syrian army does not need Iranian help to defeat the Jihadis in southwest Syria so keeping the Iranians away from the area allows the Syrians to clear the area of the Jihadis without risking a military confrontation with Israel.

Needless to say, just as the Russians were not prepared to make concessions on Crimea and Donbass or on Syria, so they were not prepared to back Donald Trump’s ongoing campaign against Iran.

Not only are the Russians deeply committed to the JCPOA (which they partly brokered) but they are also committed to improving their relations with Iran.   In addition, given that the ongoing US campaign against Iran is clearly intended to achieve regime change there, the Russians are bound to oppose it because they oppose regime change everywhere.

If the Russians were not prepared to make unilateral concessions to Trump on Crimea, Donbass, Syria or Iran, neither was Trump despite all the pre-summit scaremongering going to make unilateral concessions to Russians.

Stories that Trump would announce a cancellation of US military exercises in Europe or even a withdrawal of US troops from Europe had no basis in reality, and needless to say nothing like that happened.  Nor did Donald Trump recognise Crimea as Russian or announce that he would lift sanctions on Russia.

The question of the sanctions and of the recognition of Crimea as Russian requires a little discussion since there is a widespread view that Trump is prevented by the Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATS) from either lifting the sanctions or from recognising Crimea as Russian

This is something of a misconception.  In reality, as I discussed last year at the time when CAATS was enacted, CAATS is unconstitutional, as Donald Trump himself carefully explained in his Signing Statement, because of the unconstitutional restrictions it places on the President’s ability to conduct foreign policy.

If and when Donald Trump decides that the time has come to lift the sanctions and to recognise Crimea as Russian, then all he has to do is apply to the US Supreme Court to have CAATS set aside.   His Signing Statement shows that he has had legal advice that it will do so.

That point has not yet been reached for political not legal reasons.  In the meantime it is an error to think of CAATS as the insuperable constraint on Donald Trump’s actions that many appear to believe it is.

Trump did not commit himself to lift the sanctions, and he did not recognise Crimea as Russian, not so much because of the legal constraints placed upon him by CAATS but because doing so would have put at risk his political position in the US in advance of November’s mid-term elections, and because – compulsive deal-maker that he is – he is hardly likely to take such radical steps anyway without first getting something back in return.

One of the fundamental problems caused by the hysterical campaign which is being waged against Donald Trump is that it causes even many of Donald Trump’s supporters to believe that he is more supportive of Russia’s positions on a variety of issues than he really is.  The result is that he is constantly suspected of being prepared to make unilateral concessions to the Russians when unilateral concessions are precisely the sort of things which as a self-professed master deal-maker he is known to most abhor.

Donald Trump is – as he repeatedly says – an America First nationalist, and his overriding priority is to make what he considers to be the best possible deal for the United States.  Unilateral concessions just don’t come into it and it is a fundamental error to think that they do.

Putin understands all this very well, as he made clear during his joint press conference with Trump in Helsinki.

VladimirPutin: Regarding whom you can believe and whom you can’t, you shouldn’t believe anyone. What makes you think President Trump trusts me and that I fully trust him? He defends the interests of the United States of America. I defend the interests of the Russian Federation. We do have converging interests, and we are seeking common ground. We have issues that we disagree on so far. We are seeking options to settle these differences and make our work more constructive.

Which brings me to the fundamental reason for the summit, and why it is also a mistake in my opinion to see it as an empty show or a damp squib.

Donald Trump sought the summit – it is clear that the initiative for the summit came from him – because as he has repeatedly said since before he was elected President, prior to the summit he did not know Putin well.

The number of times Trump has said this is in fact practically beyond count.  For example, he said it during a news conference in Miami on 27th June 2016

I don’t know who Putin is. He said one nice thing about me. … I never met Putin….

He also said it during the second Presidential debate on 9th October 2016

I don’t know Putin….

Trump has gone on to say the same thing again and again since.  He has also repeatedly said that only time would tell whether he and Putin would get on with each other and would be able to come to agreements with each other.

A fundamental prerequisite for any successful negotiation is for the two parties to the negotiation to know each other’s minds so that a modicum of trust and understanding – essential if any agreement is to be reached – can be established between them.

As a businessman Trump knows this very well.  He therefore needed to meet with Putin in a lengthy one-to-one encounter in order to get to know Putin properly so as to see whether Putin is in fact the sort of person he can negotiate and eventually do a deal with.

That is the reason why Trump insisted that his first meeting with Putin should take the form of a one-to-one encounter.

That by the way is absolutely standard practice in negotiations – both commercial negotiations and diplomatic negotiations – with leaders of negotiating teams often meeting privately in one-to-one meetings in order to get to know each other better to see whether a deal between them is even possible.  Once a proper relationship between them is established the full negotiating teams can be brought into the negotiations in what in diplomacy are called ‘plenary sessions’.  Needless to say it is during the plenary sessions – with each side’s experts present – that the details are discussed and ironed out.

Not only is this standard practice in negotiations – Putin does it all the time – but it is simply not true as some people are suggesting that there was no one else present in the room when Putin and Trump met with each other.

Both Putin and Trump obviously had interpreters present.  Trump doesn’t speak Russian and Putin speaks English badly.  The job of the interpreters – who are full time state officials – is not just to interpret what the leaders say to each other but also to prepare a written transcript (a “stenographic record”) of what they said.

Once this transcript is written up – something which normally takes no more than a few days – it is circulated to senior officials including in the US case to the US President’s two most important foreign policy advisers, Bolton and Pompeo.  By now it is highly likely that Bolton and Pompeo have already seen and read through the transcript, and that they therefore know exactly what Putin and Trump said to each other.

Since the one-to-one meeting was first and foremost a “get-to-know” you session, no binding agreements would have been reached during it, and neither Putin nor Trump – each in their own way an experienced negotiator – would ever have imagined that they would be.

In summary, the one-to-one meeting between Putin and Trump is not a sign of some secret understanding between them; far less is it a case of an “intelligence asset” meeting his “controller” as some are crazily suggesting.

On the contrary it is further proof of what each of them has repeatedly said at various times: before the summit they did not know each other well, so that the summit was called precisely in order to give each of them the opportunity to get to know the other better.

The essential point about the summit is that Putin and Trump did find that they could deal with each other and did discover areas of common concern which in time it might be possible for them to build on as they search for areas of agreement between them.  During their joint press conference Putin confirmed as much

We do have converging interests, and we are seeking common ground. We have issues that we disagree on so far. We are seeking options to settle these differences and make our work more constructive.

As for the points of possible convergence, Putin in his usual structured way set them out

I consider it important, as we discussed, to get the dialogue on strategic stability and the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction on track. We made a note with a number of concrete proposals on this matter available to our American colleagues.

We believe that continued joint efforts to fully work through the military-political and disarmament dossier is necessary. That includes the renewal of the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, the dangerous situation surrounding the development of elements of the US global missile defence system, the implementation of the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles, and the topic of deploying weapons in space.

We are in favour of continued cooperation in the sphere of combating terrorism and ensuring cybersecurity. Notably, our special services are working together quite successfully. The most recent example of that is the close operational interaction with a group of US security experts as part of the World Cup in Russia that ended yesterday. Contacts between the special services should be made systematic. I reminded the President of the United States about the proposal to reconstitute the anti-terror working group.

We covered regional crises extensively. Our positions do not coincide on all matters, but nonetheless there are many overlapping interests. We should be looking for common ground and working more closely, including at international forums.

Of course, we talked about regional crises, including Syria. With regard to Syria, restoring peace and harmony in that country could serve as an example of successful joint work.

Of course, Russia and the United States can take the lead in this matter and organise cooperation to overcome the humanitarian crisis and help refugees return to their hearths.

We have all the requisite elements for effective cooperation on Syria. Notably, Russian and American military have gained useful experience of interaction and coordination in the air and on land.

I would also like to note that after the terrorists are routed in southwest Syria, in the so-called “southern zone”, the situation in the Golan Heights should be brought into full conformity with the 1974 agreement on the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces.

This will make it possible to bring tranquillity to the Golan Heights and restore the ceasefire between the Syrian Arab Republic and the State of Israel. The President devoted special attention to this issue today…..

We paid special attention to the economy. Obviously, there is interest in cooperation in the business circles of both countries. The US delegation was one of the biggest at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in May. It consisted of over 500 US entrepreneurs.

To develop trade and investment, President Trump and I agreed to establish a high-level group that would unite captains of Russian and American business. Business people better understand how to go about mutually beneficial cooperation. Let them consider what can be done and make recommendations

The emphasis – as I discussed in my article of a month ago – is on arms control, though Putin also seems to have gone out of his way to reassure Trump that the restoration of the Syrian government’s control over southwest Syria would not put in jeopardy Israel’s position in the Golan Heights.  In addition there also seems to have been a fair amount of discussion about future economic cooperation.

The result was an agreement between Putin and Trump to reopen channels of communication between their governments and to meet regularly with each other as they feel their way towards a rapprochement.

To be clear, that rapprochement will not mean and is not intended to mean that the US and Russia will cease to be adversaries and will become friends.

Instead what is being discussed are steps to bring to a stop the downward spiral in their relations, with each side obtaining a better understanding of the other side’s moves and red lines, so that hopefully geopolitical disasters like the 2014 Maidan coup can be avoided in future.

That would be a major advance over what has existed previously given that since the USSR collapsed in 1991 the US has refused to acknowledge that Russia has any right to any opinions at all, let alone to act independently or set out red lines.

Needless to say the more often Putin and Trump meet the more ‘normalised’ relations between the US and Russia become, with each meeting provoking less controversy than the previous one, with the whole process beyond a certain point becoming routine so that it attracts ever less attention and (hopefully) eventually becomes uncontroversial.

It is because the powerful forces in the US who scorn the idea of a ‘geopolitical ceasefire’ and want ever greater confrontation between the US and Russia do not want to see relations ‘normalised’ in this way that their reaction to the summit has been so hysterical.

As of the time of writing it is these people who in the media and on twitter are making the running.  However it may be a mistake to see in the volume of the noise they are making a true reflection of their influence.

Last February’s Nuclear Posture Review suggests that there is a very powerful constituency within the US and specifically within the Pentagon which might potentially support the sort of ‘geopolitical ceasefire’ with Russia that Donald Trump appears to be gradually working towards.

The Nuclear Posture Review shows that some sections of the US military understand how dangerously overstretched the US has become as it responds simultaneously to challenges from Russia in Europe and from China in the Pacific.  Both Putin and Trump mentioned during their news conference the extent to which their respective militaries are already in contact with each other and are working well together

Donald Trump: Well, our militaries do get along. In fact, our militaries actually have gotten along probably better than our political leaders for years, but our militaries do get along very well and they do coordinate in Syria and other places. Ok? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin:……..On the whole, I really agree with the President. Our military cooperation is going quite well. I hope that they will continue to be able to come to agreements just as they have been…..

That may be a sign that there is more understanding of what Donald Trump is trying to do – at least within the US defence establishment – than the hysteria the Helsinki summit has provoked might suggest.

Overall, provided it is clearly understood that what Putin and Trump are working towards is a detente style ‘geopolitical ceasefire’ and not ‘friendship’ – and certainly not an alliance –  it can be said that their summit in Helsinki was a good start and a success.

What happens next depends on whether the forces of realism and sanity in the US can prevail over those of megalomania and hysteria.  Given how entrenched the latter have become unfortunately no one can count on this.

However some sort of process which may in time lead to detente and an easing of tensions between the nuclear superpowers has begun.  Given the circumstances in which it has been launched that is more than might have been expected even a short time ago, and for that one should be grateful.

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US media losing its mind over Trump-Putin summit

The media’s mania over Trump’s Helsinki performance and the so-called Russia-gate scandal reached new depths on Monday

Joe Lauria



The media’s mania over Trump’s Helsinki performance and the so-called Russia-gate scandal reached new depths on Monday

This article was first published by Consortium News and is republished with their permission.

The reaction of the U.S. establishment media and several political leaders to President Donald Trump’s press conference after his summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday has been stunning.

Writing in The Atlantic, James Fallows said:

“There are exactly two possible explanations for the shameful performance the world witnessed on Monday, from a serving American president.

Either Donald Trump is flat-out an agent of Russian interests—maybe witting, maybe unwitting, from fear of blackmail, in hope of future deals, out of manly respect for Vladimir Putin, out of gratitude for Russia’s help during the election, out of pathetic inability to see beyond his 306 electoral votes. Whatever the exact mixture of motives might be, it doesn’t really matter.

Or he is so profoundly ignorant, insecure, and narcissistic that he did not  realize that, at every step, he was advancing the line that Putin hoped he would advance, and the line that the American intelligence, defense, and law-enforcement agencies most dreaded.

Conscious tool. Useful idiot. Those are the choices, though both are possibly true, so that the main question is the proportions … never before have I seen an American president consistently, repeatedly, publicly, and shockingly advance the interests of another country over those of his own government and people.”

As soon as the press conference ended CNN cut to its panel with these words from TV personality Anderson Cooper: “You have been watching perhaps one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president at a summit in front of a Russian leader, surely, that I’ve ever seen.”

David Gergen, who for years has gotten away with portraying himself on TV as an impartial political sage, then told CNN viewers:

“I’ve never heard an American President talk that way buy I think it is especially true that when he’s with someone like Putin, who is a thug, a world-class thug, that he sides with him again and again against his own country’s interests of his own institutions that he runs, that he’s in charge of the federal government , he’s in charge of these intelligence agencies, and he basically dismisses them and retreats into this, we’ve heard it before, but on the international stage to talk about Hillary Clinton’s computer server …”

“It’s embarrassing,” interjected Cooper.

“It’s embarrassing,” agreed Gergen.

Cooper: “Most disgraceful performance by a US president.”

White House correspondent Jim Acosta, ostensibly an objective reporter, then gave his opinion: “I think that sums it up nicely. This is the president of the United States essentially taking the word of the Russian president…over his own intelligence community. It was astonishing, just astonishing to be in the room with the U.S. president and the Russian president on this critical question of election interference, and to retreat back to these talking points about DNC servers and Hillary Clinton’s emails when he had a chance right there in front of the world to tell Vladimir Putin to stay the HELL out of American democracy, and he didn’t do it.”

In other words Trump should just shut up and not question a questionable indictment, which Acosta, like nearly all the media, treat as a conviction.

The Media’s Handlers

The media’s handlers were even worse than their assets. Former CIA director John Brennan tweeted: “Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors,.’ It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???”

Here’s where the Republican Patriots are, Brennan: “That’s how a press conference sounds when an Asset stands next to his Handler,” former RNC Chairman Michael Steele tweeted.

Representative Liz Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president, said on Twitter: “As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, I am deeply troubled by President Trump’s defense of Putin against the intelligence agencies of the U.S. & his suggestion of moral equivalence between the U.S. and Russia. Russia poses a grave threat to our national security.”

All these were reactions to Trump expressing skepticism about the U.S. indictment on Friday of 12 Russian intelligence agents for allegedly interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election while he was standing next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the press conference following their summit meeting in Helsinki.

“I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia, Trump said. “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”

The indictments, which are only unproven accusations, formally accused 12 members of the GRU, Russian military intelligence, of stealing Democratic Party emails in a hacking operation and giving the materials to WikiLeaks to publish in order to damage the candidacy of Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. The indictments were announced on Friday, three days before the summit, with the clear intention of getting Trump to cancel it. He ignored cries from the media and Congress to do so.

Over the weekend Michael Smerconish on CNN actually said the indictments proved that Russia had committed a “terrorist attack” against the United States. This is in line with many pundits who are comparing this indictment, that will most likely never produce any evidence, to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. The danger inherent in that thinking is clear.

Putin said the allegations are “utter nonsense, just like [Trump] recently mentioned.” He added: “The final conclusion in this kind of dispute can only be delivered by a trial, by the court. Not by the executive, by the law enforcement.” He could have added not by the media.

Trump reasonably questioned why the FBI never examined the computer servers of the Democratic National Committee to see whether there was a hack and who may have done it. Instead a private company, CrowdStrike, hired by the Democratic Party studied the server and within a day blamed Russia on very dubious grounds.

“Why haven’t they taken the server?” Trump asked. “Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the Democratic National Committee? I’ve been wondering that. I’ve been asking that for months and months and I’ve been tweeting it out and calling it out on social media. Where is the server? I want to know, where is the server and what is the server saying?”

But being a poor communicator, Trump then mentioned Clinton’s missing emails, allowing the media to conflate the two different servers, and be easily dismissed as Gergen did.

At the press conference, Putin offered to allow American investigators from the team of special counsel Robert Mueller, who put the indictment together, to travel to Russia and take part in interviews with the 12 accused Russian agents. He also offered to set up a joint cyber-security group to examine the evidence and asked that in return Russia be allowed to question persons of interest to Moscow in the United States.

“Let’s discuss the specific issues and not use the Russia and U.S. relationship as a loose change for this internal political struggle,” Putin said.

On CNN, Christiane Amanpour called Putin’s clear offer “obfuscation.”

Even if Trump agreed to this reasonable proposal it seems highly unlikely that his Justice Department will go along with it. Examination of whatever evidence they have to back up the indictment is not what the DOJ is after. As I wrote about the indictments in detail on Friday:

“The extremely remote possibility of convictions were not what Mueller was apparently after, but rather the public perception of Russia’s guilt resulting from fevered media coverage of what are after all only accusations, presented as though it is established fact. Once that impression is settled into the public consciousness, Mueller’s mission would appear to be accomplished.”

Still No ‘Collusion’

The summit begins. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

The indictments did not include any members of Trump’s campaign team for “colluding” with the alleged Russian hacking effort, which has been a core allegation throughout the two years of the so-called Russia-gate scandal. Those allegations are routinely reported in U.S. media as established fact, though there is still no evidence of collusion.

Trump emphasised that point in the press conference. “There was no collusion at all,” he said forcefully. “Everybody knows it.”

On this point corporate media has been more deluded than normal as they clutch for straws to prove the collusion theory. As one example of many across the media with the same theme, a New York Times story on Friday, headlined, “Trump Invited the Russians to Hack Clinton. Were They Listening?,” said Russia may have absurdly responded to Trump’s call at 10:30 a.m. on July 27, 2016 to hack Clinton’s private email server because it was “on or about” that day that Russia allegedly first made an attempt to hack Clinton’s personal emails, according to the indictment, which makes no connection between the two events.

If Russia is indeed guilty of remotely hacking the emails it would have had no evident need of assistance from anyone on the Trump team, let alone a public call from Trump on national TV to commence the operation.

More importantly, as Twitter handle “Representative Press” pointed out: “Trump’s July 27, 2016 call to find the missing 30,000 emails could not be a ‘call to hack Clinton’s server’ because at that point it was no longer online. Long before Trump’s statement, Clinton had already turned over her email server to the U.S. Department of Justice.” Either the indictment was talking about different servers or it is being intentionally misleading when it says “on or about July 27, 2016, the Conspirators attempted after hours to spearphish for the first time email accounts at a domain hosted by a third party provider and used by Clinton’s personal office.”

This crucial fact alone, that Clinton had turned over the server in 2015 so that no hack was possible, makes it impossible that Trump’s TV call could be seen as collusion. Only a desperate person would see it otherwise.

But there is a simple explanation why establishment journalists are in unison in their dominant Russian narrative: it is career suicide to question it.

As Samuel Johnson said as far back as 1745: “The greatest part of mankind have no other reason for their opinions than that they are in fashion …since vanity and credulity cooperate in its favour.”

Importance of US-Russia Relations

Trump said the unproven allegation of collusion “as had a negative impact upon the relationship of the two largest nuclear powers in the world. We have 90 percent of nuclear power between the two countries. It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous what’s going on with the probe.”

The American president said the U.S. has been “foolish” not to attempt dialogue with Russia before, to cooperate on a range of issues.

“As president, I cannot make decisions on foreign policy in a futile effort to appease partisan critics or the media or Democrats who want to do nothing but resist and obstruct,” Trump said. “Constructive dialogue between the United States and Russia forwards the opportunity to open new pathways toward peace and stability in our world. I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace than to risk peace in pursuit of politics.”

This main reason for summits between Russian and American leaders was also ignored: to use diplomacy to reduce dangerous tensions. “I really think the world wants to see us get along,” Trump said. “We are the two great nuclear powers. We have 90 percent of the nuclear. And that’s not a good thing, it’s a bad thing.”

Preventing good relations between the two countries appears to be the heart of the matter for U.S. intelligence and their media assets. So Trump was vilified for even trying.

Ignoring the Rest of the Story

Obsessed as they are with the “interference” story, the media virtually ignored the other crucial issues that came up at the summit, such as the Middle East.

Trump sort of thanked Russia for its efforts to defeat ISIS. “When you look at all of the progress that’s been made in certain sections with the eradication of ISIS, about 98 percent, 99 percent there, and other things that have taken place that we have done and that, frankly, Russia has helped us with in certain respects,” he said.

Trump here is falsely taking credit, as he has before, for defeating ISIS with only some “help” from Russia. In Iraq the U.S. led the way against ISIS coordinating the Iraqi and Kurdish security forces. But in the separate war against ISIS in Syria, Russia, the Syrian Arab Army, Kurdish forces, Iranian troops and Hizbullah militias were almost entirely responsible for ISIS’ defeat.

A grand deal? (Photo: Sputnik)

Also on Syria, Trump appeared to endorse what is being reported as a deal between Russia and Israel in which Israel would accept Bashar al-Assad remaining as Syrian president, while Russia would work on Iran to get it to remove its forces away from the northern Golan Heights, which Israel illegally considers its border with Syria.

After a meeting in Moscow last week with Putin, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he accepted Assad remaining in power.

“President Putin also is helping Israel,” Trump said at the press conference. “We both spoke with Bibi Netanyahu. They would like to do certain things with respect to Syria, having to do with the safety of Israel. In that respect, we absolutely would like to work in order to help Israel. Israel will be working with us. So both countries would work jointly.”

Trump also said that the U.S. and Russian militaries were coordinating in Syria, but he did not go as far as saying that they had agreed to fight together there, which has been a longstanding proposal of Putin’s dating back to September 2015, just before Moscow intervened militarily in the country.

“Our militaries have gotten along probably better than our political leaders for years,” Trump said. “Our militaries do get along very well. They do coordinate in Syria and other places.”

Trump said Russia and the U.S. should cooperate in humanitarian assistance in Syria.

“If we can do something to help the people of Syria get back into some form of shelter and on a humanitarian basis…that’s what the word was, a humanitarian basis,” he said. “I think both of us would be very interested in doing that.”

Putin said he had agreed on Sunday with French President Emmanuel Macron on a joint effort with Europe to deliver humanitarian aid. “On our behalf, we will provide military cargo aircraft to deliver humanitarian cargo. Today, I brought up this issue with President Trump. I think there’s plenty of things to look into,” Putin said.

Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston GlobeSunday Times of London and numerous other newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @unjoe .

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