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Following Turkey’s capture of Al-Bab, Erdogan ‘going to Moscow’

Turkish President Erdogan to meet Russian President Putin in Moscow for tough discussions about bilateral relations and the Syrian conflict following Turkish capture of Syrian town of Al-Bab.

Alexander Mercouris

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The Kremlin has confirmed that Turkish President Erdogan is travelling to Moscow on 9th and 10th March 2017 for a summit meeting with Russian President Putin and with other top officials of the Russian government.

The Turkish media in discussing news of the visit has said that the full range of Russian – Turkish relations will be discussed.  This will cover military and economic relations – doubtless including the mooted sale of advanced S-400 anti aircraft missiles by Russia to Turkey – and of course the conflict in Syria.

On the subject of sales of S-400 missiles to Turkey, given that Turkey remains a NATO country and that part of the S-400’s effectiveness is that the US knows little about it, I suspect the Russians will be very wary of selling it to Turkey less details of the system are compromised and leaked to Israel and the US.

Apart from economic relations, the focus of the talks between Putin and Erdogan will be Syria.

The two countries have jointly agreed a ceasefire between the Syrian army and the Jihadi groups that Turkey is backing, and for the greater part this has been holding.  Turkey is also a co-sponsor along with Russia of the Astana peace conference.

Discussions between the Russian and Turkish Presidents about Syria will however be far more easy.

Given Turkey’s sustained effort over the past six years to overthrow the Syrian government, it is understandable that the negotiated capture by the Turkish army of Al-Bab from ISIS is causing concern, though I personally strongly doubt that the people of Al-Bab would prefer rule by ISIS to rule by the Turkish army.

However it is worth remembering that the Russian air force actually helped the Turkish army take Al-Bab by providing air to ground support to the Turkish troops there, making the conclusion unavoidable that the Turkish army took Al-Bab with Russia’s agreement.

There is therefore clearly a measure of cooperation between the Russians and the Turks in Syria at the moment, though it is likely that the degree of agreement between them is limited, and it is easy to see how things could quickly unravel.

As to the reasons behind the cooperation between the Russians and the Turks in Syria, it is not difficult to see what they are.

For the Russians the key point is that they need the help of the Turks to keep both the ceasefire and the talks in Astana going.

The motivating factor here is the limited size of the Syrian army.  I have written about this often, most recently on 28th January 2017

Events since the Syrian army’s capture of eastern Aleppo highlight its continuing problems.

The Syrian army has been obliged to send reinforcements to repel ISIS offensives in Deir Ezzor and Palmyra regions, and to repel an attempt by ISIS to cut the Khanasser road, which connects Aleppo to the heartland areas under the Syrian government’s control in central and southern Syria.

At the same time the Syrian army has to find troops to protect Aleppo itself, whilst carrying out an advance towards the strategic ISIS held town of Al-Bab to the north of Aleppo.

The Syrian army also needs to contain a large and dangerous concentration of Al-Qaeda fighters in northern Hama province, whilst maintaining pressure on the Al-Qaeda’s main bastion, which is Idlib province.

Lastly, it has been forced to commit troops to clearing the countryside around Damascus, including taking control of Wadi Barada in order to restore the water supply to Damascus, whilst maintaining security in Damascus itself and in the various town and cities under the government’s control.

So many operations on so many widely dispersed fronts stretches the Syrian army’s limited resources, and puts intense strain on its soldiers, even despite the fact that they must now feel that they have the momentum of victory behind them.

Quite simply the Syrian army cannot be overwhelmingly strong everywhere at the same time, which is why it occasionally has to retreat, and why its advances – unlike those of its opponents when they occur – have to be incremental.

This point was recently made by – of all people -the director of Russia’s Hermitage Museum (whose museum is responsible for the restoration of Palmyra), who has explained ISIS’s recapture of Palmyra by the delay in launching the offensive to capture eastern Aleppo, which meant that there were insufficient numbers of high quality Syrian troops available in and around Palmyra to defend the town.  This is of course essentially the same point the Russian military has also made.

Criticisms of the various ceasefires in Syria that the Russians broker (including the present one), which sometimes explain them in terms of divisions within the Russian government, in my opinion fail to accord sufficient weight to this factor.

Precisely because the Syrian army’s resources are both limited and so highly extended, it is the Syrian army not its opponents which benefits most from the ceasefires, which give it the time and space it needs to rest and resupply, and to concentrate its otherwise over-stretched forces in those places where fighting continues to take place.

The Syrian war is a gruelling war of attrition.  The Syrian army’s limited resources mean it cannot be otherwise.  Ceasefires are an inseparable part of the sort of war the Syrian army has to fight.  They key point is that it is winning it.

Since the Syrian army does not have enough troops to be strong everywhere, it needs a ceasefire against the Turkish backed groups so that it can take the offensive against its two most dangerous enemies: Al-Qaeda in the west of Syria, and ISIS in the east.  That is the military reality which lies behind the Russians’ agreement of the ceasefire and the Astana talks with Erdogan and Turkey and why, since it is the Turks who are in a position to decide whether there is a ceasefire or not, the Russians have to work with the Turks and acquiesced in the Turkish capture of Al-Bab.

The Russians definitely did not give Erdogan the green light back in August to launch Operation Euphrates Shield and send his troops into Syria.  On the contrary they were taken badly by surprise when Erdogan did it.  However given the reality of the need to obtain Turkish support to preserve the ceasefire, the Russians have been obliged to hide their anger and cooperate with the Turks in Syria, though only to a limited degree, and with no formal statement of support from them for Operation Euphrates Shield or for the Turks being there.

On the subject of Al-Bab, given the extent to which President Erdogan’s personal prestige had become bound up with the Turkish army’s capture of the town, the Russians – given their need to work with Erdogan in Syria in order to preserve the ceasefire there – had no option but to help Erdogan take Al-Bab.

A Syrian army attempt to take Al-Bab would have risked a direct clash with the Turkish army, whilst the only other option would have been the intolerable one of leaving Al-Bab under ISIS control.

Either of these options would moreover have risked causing the whole edifice of Russian – Turkish cooperation in Syria to unravel, with Erdogan in either case feeling that the Russians were working against him.  It is easy to see how in that case the ceasefire might have collapsed, causing the fighting between the Syrian army and the Turkish backed Jihadi groups to resume, multiplying the Syrian army’s problems.

If the realities on the ground in Syria have obliged the Russians to work with Erdogan and to acquiesce in the Turkish capture of Al-Bab, they will nonetheless almost certainly seek to use the talks in Moscow to lay down red lines, warning Erdogan of how far they are prepared to allow him to go.  Undoubtedly they will rule out any further Turkish advance towards Aleppo, and quite possibly they will warn Erdogan against any Turkish advance on Raqqa, which might cause a clash with the Kurds.

There are objectively good reasons why President Erdogan might accept these red lines.  My colleague Adam Garrie has described the surrender of Al-Bab to the Turkish army by ISIS as the replacement of “a comparatively weak occupational force by one of the strongest forces in the world”.

I question whether the Turkish army really is “one of the strongest forces in the world”.  Though the Turkish military is numerically big and is indeed – as Adam Garrie correctly says – on paper the second biggest in NATO, the Turkish army has been repeated bested by ISIS in a string of battles in and around Al-Bab.  To some extent this may reflect the disorganisation of the Turkish army by the mass purge of Turkish officers which has been underway since the attempted coup in July.  However it is mainly the product of President Erdogan’s unwillingness to embrace the huge political risks of sending large numbers of conscript Turkish infantry into Syria.

The result is that the Turkish forces in Syria are thin on the ground and vulnerable to attack either by ISIS or by the well-organised local Kurdish militia the YPG.

So far US and Russian diplomacy has prevented a full-scale clash between the Turkish military in Syria and the YPG.  However given that the two consider each other mortal enemies, it is not difficult to see how that could happen, in which case Erdogan’s and Turkey’s problems in Syria could multiply.

Operation Euphrates Shield is in fact a good example of President Erdogan’s repeated mistakes in diplomacy.  In August, in the aftermath of the coup attempt and with efforts to patch up relations with Moscow underway, he saw an opening and used it to steal a march on the Russians by launching Operation Euphrates Shield by sending his troops into Syria.  However as always he did not calculate the risks fully, and over the last weeks has looked dangerously close to seeing his troops in Syria becoming bogged down whilst suffering heavy losses.  In order to avoid this debacle he first had to call on the Russians for help, and then was finally forced to strike a deal with ISIS to get them to withdraw from Al-Bab.

Having now taken Al-Bab – thereby preserving his prestige – the sensible thing for President Erdogan to do is to quit whilst he is ahead, and to leverage such gains as he has achieved through Operation Euphrates Shield to improve his position in the talks about Syria’s future in Astana.  If so then he should have no difficulty accepting Moscow’s red lines.

The problem with President Erdogan is that he is absolutely not the sort of person who can be relied upon to do what is sensible.  There is unfortunately a very real risk that having taken Al-Bab the “success” will go to his head and – forgetting how close he came to disaster there – he will instead forge ahead and gamble further.  Already there is delusional talk of setting up a Turkish backed ‘protectorate’ in northern Syria, a venture which over time can only involve Turkey in more conflict on the ground in Syria with the Syrian government, the Kurds, Iran and Russia, which Turkey cannot afford, and which will only drain away its resources.

President Putin and the Russians will no doubt try to explain all this to President Erdogan when he comes to Moscow in March.

There have been moments over the last year when President Erdogan has seemed to show glimmers of understanding of this and of the limitations that ought to constrain Turkey’s actions.  However he has never seemed able to do this for long and he seems temperamentally unable to put his overweening ambitions for himself and for Turkey behind him.  The success or failure of the talks in Moscow will ultimately depend on whether and if so to what extent he is able to let calculations of self-interest rule his emotions, and unfortunately no-one who has followed Erdogan’s career carefully would put any money on that.

As for the Russians, it must be frustrating for them to have to deal in Erdogan with a partner who is so volatile that he cannot be trusted.  It is a reflection both of the extent of Russia’s commitment to Syria and of the difficulty of dealing with President Erdogan that they are having to spend so much time doing so.

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BREXIT chaos, as May’s cabinet crumbles (Video)

The Duran Quick Take: Episode 18.

Alex Christoforou

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The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris take a quick look at the various scenarios now facing a crumbling May government, as the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement is forcing cabinet members to resign in rapid succession. The weekend ahead is fraught with uncertainty for the UK and its position within, or outside, the European Union.

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If Theresa May’s ill-fated Brexit Withdrawal Agreement is eventually rejected this could trigger a vote of no confidence, snap elections or even a new referendum…

Here are six possible scenarios facing Theresa May and the UK (via The Guardian)

1 Parliament blocks Theresa May’s draft withdrawal agreement and political declarations

May faces an enormous task to win parliamentary approval, given that Labour, the SNP, the DUP and 51 Tories have said they will not vote for it.

If the remaining 27 EU member states sign off the draft agreement on 25 November, the government will have to win over MPs at a crucial vote in early December.

If May loses the vote, she has 21 days to put forward a new plan. If she wins, she is safe for now.

2 May withdraws the current draft agreement

The prime minister could decide that she will not get the draft agreement through parliament and could seek to renegotiate with the EU.

This would anger Tory backbenchers and Brussels and would be seen as a humiliation for her government. It might spark a leadership contest too.

3 Extend article 50

May could ask the European council to extend article 50, giving her more time to come up with a deal that could be passed by parliament – at present, the UK will leave on 29 March 2019.

Such a request would not necessarily be granted. Some EU governments are under pressure from populist parties to get the UK out of the EU as soon as possible.

4 Conservative MPs trigger a vote of no confidence in the prime minister

If Conservative MPs believe May is no longer fit for office, they could trigger a no-confidence vote.

Members of the European Research Group claim that Graham Brady, the chair of the powerful 1922 Committee, will receive the necessary 48 letters this week.

A vote could be held as soon as early next week. All Tory MPs would be asked to vote for or against their leader. If May wins, she cannot be challenged for at least 12 months. If she loses, there would be a leadership contest to decide who will become prime minister.

5 General election – three possible routes

If May fails to get support for the current deal, she could call a snap general election.

She would table a parliamentary vote for a general election that would have to be passed by two thirds of MPs. She would then set an election date, which could be by the end of January.

This is an unlikely option. May’s political credibility was severely damaged when she called a snap election in 2017, leading to the loss of the Conservative party’s majority.

Alternatively, a general election could be called if a simple majority of MPs vote that they have no confidence in the government. Seven Tory MPs, or all of the DUP MPs, would have to turn against the government for it to lose the vote, triggering a two-week cooling-off period. May would remain in office while MPs negotiate a new government.

Another route to a general election would be for the government to repeal or amend the Fixed-term Parliaments Act which creates a five-year period between general elections. A new act would have to be passed through both the Commons and the Lords – an unlikely scenario.

6 Second referendum

May could decide it is impossible to find a possible draft deal that will be approved by parliament and go for a people’s vote.

The meaningful vote could be amended to allow MPs to vote on whether the country holds a second referendum. It is unclear whether enough MPs would back a second referendum and May has ruled it out.

 

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Brexit Withdrawal Agreement may lead to Theresa May’s downfall (Video)

The Duran – News in Review – Episode 151.

Alex Christoforou

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The Brexit Withdrawal Agreement has been published and as many predicted, including Nigel Farage, the document is leading to the collapse of Theresa May’s government.

During an interview with iTV’s Piers Morgan, remain’s Alistair Campell and leave’s Nigel Farage, were calling May’s Brexit deal a complete disaster.

Via iTV

Alastair Campbell: “This doesn’t do remotely what was offered…what is the point”

“Parliament is at an impasse”

“We have to go back to the people” …”remain has to be on the ballot paper”

Nigel Farage:

“This is the worst deal in history. We are giving away in excess of 40B pounds in return for precisely nothing. Trapped still inside the European Union’s rulebook.

“Nothing has been achieved.”

“In any negotiation in life…the other side need to know that you are serious about walking away.”

“What monsieur Barnier knew from day one, is that at no point did Theresa May intend to walk away.”

“Fundamental matter of trust to the electors of our country and those who govern us.”

The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris discuss Theresa May’s Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, and why the deal is a full on victory for the European Union and a document of subjugation for the United Kingdom.

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Coming in at 585 pages, the draft agreement will be closely scrutinized over the coming days but here are some of the highlights as outlined by Zerohedge

  • UK and EU to use the best endeavours to supersede Ireland protocol by 2020
  • UK can request extension of the transition period any time before July 1st, 2020
  • EU, UK See Level-Playing Field Measures in Future Relationship
  • Transition period may be extended once up to date yet to be specified in the text
  • EU and UK shall establish single customs territory and Northern Ireland is in same customs territory as Great Britain

The future relationship document is less than seven pages long. It says the U.K. and EU are seeking a free-trade area with cooperation on customs and rules: “Comprehensive arrangements creating a free trade area combining deep regulatory and customs cooperation, underpinned by provisions ensuring a level playing field for open and fair competition.”

The wording might raise concerns among Brexiters who don’t want regulatory cooperation and the measures on fair competition could amount to shackling the U.K. to EU rules.

As Bloomberg’s Emma Ross-Thomas writes, “There’s a clear sense in the documents that we’re heading for a customs union in all but name. Firstly via the Irish backstop, and then via the future relationship.”

Separately, a government summary of the draft agreement suggests role for parliament in deciding whether to extend the transition or to move in to the backstop.

But perhaps most importantly, regarding the controversial issue of the Irish border, the future relationship document says both sides aim to replace the so-called backstop – the thorniest issue in the negotiations – with a “subsequent agreement that establishes alternative arrangements for ensuring the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing.”

On this topic, recall that the U.K.’s fear was of being locked into the backstop arrangement indefinitely in the absence of a broader trade deal. The draft agreement includes a review process to try to give reassurance that the backstop would never be needed. Basically, the U.K. could choose to seek an extension to the transition period – where rules stay the same as they are currently – or opt to trigger the backstop conditions. In fact, as Bloomberg notes, the word “backstop,” which has been a sticking point over the Irish border for weeks, is mentioned only once in the text.

As Bloomberg further adds, the withdrawal agreement makes clear that the U.K. will remain in a single customs area with the EU until there’s a solution reached on the Irish border. It’s what Brexiteers hate, because it makes it more difficult for the U.K. to sign its own free-trade deals, which they regard as a key prize of Brexit.

Predictably, EU Commission President Juncker said decisive progress has been made in negotiations.

Meanwhile, as analysts comb over the documents, Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the European Research Group, has already written to Conservative lawmakers urging them to vote against the deal. He says:

  • May is handing over money for “little or nothing in return”
  • The agreement treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the U.K.
  • It will “lock” the U.K. into a customs union with the EU
  • It breaks the Tory election manifesto of 2017

The full document…

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4 resignations and counting: May’s government ‘falling apart before our eyes’ over Brexit deal

The beginning of the end for Theresa May’s government.

The Duran

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Via RT


Four high profile resignations have followed on the heels of Theresa May’s announcement that her cabinet has settled on a Brexit deal, with Labour claiming that the Conservative government is at risk of completely dissolving.

Shailesh Vara, the Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office was the first top official to resign after the prime minister announced that her cabinet had reached a draft EU withdrawal agreement.

An hour after his announcement, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab – the man charged with negotiating and finalizing the deal – said he was stepping down, stating that the Brexit deal in its current form suffers from deep flaws. Esther McVey, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, submitted her letter of resignation shortly afterwards. More resignations have followed.

Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister, Jon Trickett, predicted that this is the beginning of the end for May’s government.

The government is falling apart before our eyes as for a second time the Brexit secretary has refused to back the prime minister’s Brexit plan. This so-called deal has unraveled before our eyes

Shailesh Vara: UK to be stuck in ‘a half-way house with no time limit’

Kicking off Thursday’s string of resignations, Vara didn’t mince words when describing his reservations about the cabinet-stamped Brexit deal.

Theresa May’s EU withdrawal agreement leaves the UK in a “halfway house with no time limit on when we will finally become a sovereign nation,” his letter of resignation states. Vara went on to warn that the draft agreement leaves a number of critical issues undecided, predicting that it “will take years to conclude” a trade deal with the bloc.

“We will be locked in a customs arrangement indefinitely, bound by rules determined by the EU over which we have no say,” he added.

Dominic Raab: Deal can’t be ‘reconciled’ with promises made to public

Announcing his resignation on Thursday morning, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted: “I cannot in good conscience support the terms proposed for our deal with the EU.”

Raab claimed that the deal in its current form gives the EU veto power over the UK’s ability to annul the deal.

No democratic nation has ever signed up to be bound by such an extensive regime.

Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith said that Raab’s resignation as Brexit secretary is “devastating” for May.

“It sounds like he has been ignored,” he told the BBC.

Raab’s departure will undoubtedly encourage other Brexit supporters to question the deal, political commentators have observed.

Esther McVey: Deal ‘does not honor’ Brexit referendum

Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey didn’t hold back when issuing her own letter of resignation. According to McVey, the deal “does not honour” the result of the Brexit referendum, in which a majority of Brits voted to leave the European Union.

Suella Braverman: ‘Unable to sincerely support’ deal

Suella Braverman, a junior minister in Britain’s Brexit ministry, issued her resignation on Thursday, saying that she couldn’t stomach the deal.

“I now find myself unable to sincerely support the deal agreed yesterday by cabinet,” she said in a letter posted on Twitter.

Suella Braverman, MP Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for Exiting the EU © Global Look Press / Joel Goodman
Braverman said that the deal is not what the British people voted for, and threatened to tear the country apart.

“It prevents an unequivocal exit from a customs union with the EU,” she said.

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