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Hosting Syria talks in Sochi presents challenges for Russia

Moscow will have to juggle the competing interests of its coalition partners at the forthcoming meeting

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(Al-Monitor) – As Moscow prepares for its Syrian National Dialogue Congress this month, the guest list might still be in flux. Russia hopes to broker peace between the Syrian regime and its opposition while appeasing major stakeholders — who at the moment aren’t playing nicely.

On Jan. 11, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the Syrian situation. This was two days after Turkey had summoned the Russian and Iranian ambassadors over cease-fire violations in the Idlib de-escalation zone. Under the preliminary peace agreements reached in Astana, Kazakhstan, the three guarantor countries for the four Syrian de-escalation zones are Turkey, Russia and Iran.

Ankara couldn’t be more displeased with the recent offensive in Idlib by Syrian government forces with the support of pro-Iranian militias and Russian air power. Al-Monitor correspondent Amberin Zaman reported Jan. 10 that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu criticized Moscow and Tehran for failing to stop the offensive.

But Moscow had its own grievances with Ankara, whose peace-monitoring forces entered Idlib in October and chose to “coexist rather than curb” the actions of al-Qaeda-linked group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

The mutual suspicions were topped off with speculation that Turkey might have played a role in the recent attacks on Russia’s Khmeimim air base in Syria, threatening to upset the fragile balance among the Astana guarantors. Therefore, the phone call between Putin and Erdogan was an attempt to douse the flaring fire. Following the conversation, Putin dismissed the speculation, saying Jan. 11 he was positive that “neither the Turkish military nor the Turkish government had anything to do with the attacks.”

“Indeed, [the attacks on Khmeimim] came from the area that is supposed to be under Turkey’s control, but honestly we’ve also not always been able to control what we have to control over there. It’s complicated. According to our agreements, our Turkish partners were supposed to set up some checkpoints there, which they haven’t yet, but it’s difficult to do,” he said.

Putin referred to the Khmeimim attacks as “provocations.”

“We know who the provocateurs were. We know whom they paid and how much. But these were not Turks. … The attacks had two goals: one, to derail previous agreements, [and] two, to destroy our relations with our partners, Turkey and Iran. We understand this very well and will act in solidarity.”

The next day, the Russian Defense Ministry launched a precision-guided strike on what it called “the subversion group” allegedly behind the Hmeimim attacks. Therefore, even if there were objective or subjective grounds to suspect a “Turkish hand” in the incidents, the Kremlin made it clear it wasn’t going to let the rumors determine its attitude regarding Turkey and made a political decision to patch up its relations with Ankara at an early stage.

Against this background, Moscow’s relations with another Astana partner, Iran, look more stable. On the ground, Russian military and various pro-Iranian forces fight side by side with the Syrian government against opposition militants while keeping their contradictions to themselves. Russia also scored points with Iran’s leadership by taking the stance that Iran should be able to deal with its own matters regarding the recent protests there, and by taking advantage of the President Donald Trump-gifted opportunity to publicly demonstrate, yet again, its unity with Iran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Nevertheless, Russia’s disagreements with Turkey over the Syrian government offensive in Idlib couldn’t have been fixed with a phone call. Neither can Moscow’s JCPOA stance smooth over its “tacit rivalry” with Iran for influence over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syria. The Russia/Iran/Turkey trio’s lack of trust is barely news, and incidents such as the Khmeimim attack or the ongoing fight in Idlib are fueling suspicions and not-so-deeply buried grievances. Therefore, it’s of principal importance to Moscow at this point to ensure that the working coalition of the “Astana troika” continues to function at the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, set for Jan. 29-30 in Sochi, and that the trio stays more or less united on major issues and is able to produce fateful decisions around which the subsequent political process is going to evolve.

Politically, Moscow continues to play good cop to Tehran’s bad cop with the opposition at negotiation venues, including Geneva. Some rebel factions have come to think of Moscow as the lesser of two evils, while others see little difference between the two and seek to closely engage with Turkey. While Moscow is aware of these contacts, it hopes Turkey will stay the course, comply with its Astana obligations and not impede Russia’s pet project of the Sochi Congress.

Turkey and Iran have their own reservations about Russia’s true motives behind the Sochi initiative. Moscow is aware of this and finds it necessary to discuss — but not necessarily address — these concerns. Therefore, Putin and Erdogan thoroughly discussed preparations by phone, as did Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, during the latter’s visit to Moscow. Both Turkey and Iran are reviewing a list of Russia’s 1,700 proposed congress participants. On Jan. 11, Putin’s Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentyev was sent to Damascus to meet with Assad to settle the “most difficult and complex issues so that the parties could move forward.”

The original idea for the Sochi Congress was not to make it a separate process, but rather for it to serve as a booster rocket for the Geneva payload. The Geneva talks have been grounded by the uncompromising positions of the Syrian government and the opposition. As more Syrian opposition factions began opting not to participate in the meeting, Moscow saw its task as host to assemble “the right group” of Syrian representatives to legitimize their further role in the country’s future. Politically, the Kremlin hopes the congress will further establish Russia as the chief firefighter of the Syrian conflict.

Even if the congress seems detached from Geneva at the initial stage, the Sochi conference can continue to exist separately without harming the Geneva talks, simply because it doesn’t have the UN-mandated international legitimacy. Moscow, therefore, discards opposition claims that the congress threatens the Geneva process. Moscow views those claims as merely a political effort to get Europeans and Americans to counter Russian initiatives and thus save the opposition’s cause of getting rid of Assad.

Moreover, Moscow doesn’t see the Geneva effort as a failure because, first, it’s an ongoing process, and second, because the initial expectations for what it could produce were moderate if not low.

On the other hand, as the Astana talks have shown, if the UN venue — the Geneva process in this case — doesn’t produce results, Moscow will not hesitate to create its own platform, invite those willing to join it, work something out there and then make the rest of the stakeholders, including the United Nations, deal with it. That would provide the process and the subsequent results with the needed legitimacy.

In this case, getting Turkey and Iran on Russia’s side will require more hard work than countering resistance from the opposition.

A Russian diplomat with knowledge of the process told Al-Monitor, “Over the course of the civil war in Syria, some opposition groups morphed … disbanded or merged with radical terrorists. Some of those who spearheaded the anti-Assad movement are no longer around. Today, former opposition leaders are telling us that those who are now claiming to be “the opposition” barely represent 10% of the Syrians, and what once may have been a genuine Syrian anti-Assad movement has now been hijacked by outside forces. So what’s the opposition mandate, and are they truly able to implement the decisions they want to discuss?”

If this view reflects Russian thinking at the top level, it signals that Moscow is inclined to do everything in its power to see the Syrian political transition start in 2018. But engaging Turkey and Iran may be quite a challenge given the political and on-the-ground conditions.

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Russia Lures International Arms Buyers With Half-Priced, More Effective Missile System

The Russian S-400 mobile long-range surface-to-air missile system costs around $500 million, vs. the $1 billion price tag for a US-made Raytheon Patriot Pac-2 battery.

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Via Zerohedge


Russia has been pitching a rival missile platform that costs half of those made by US companies, reports CNBC, which has resulted in several countries dealing with the Kremlin “despite the potential for blowback.”

Sefa Karacan | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The Russian S-400 mobile long-range surface-to-air missile system costs around $500 million, vs. the $1 billion price tag for a US-made Raytheon Patriot Pac-2 battery, while a THAAD battery made by Lockheed Martin costs just about $3 billion, according to people with first-hand knowledge of a US intelligence assessment.

Nearly 13 countries have expressed interest in buying Russia’s S-400, a move that could trigger potential U.S. sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which President Donald Trump signed in August 2017. In September, the U.S. slapped sanctions on China  for buying fighter jets and missiles from Russia. However, the U.S. could grant sanction waivers. –CNBC

Turkey, meanwhile, may be hit with US sanctions over their decision to purchase the S-400 defense system, which the United States says poses a risk to its F-35 fifth generation stealth fighter platform.

Meanwhile, India called the United States’ bluff over sanctions in late Ocotber, standing its ground in its decision to buy the S-400.

One of the reasons Russian systems are generally considered less expensive than their American counterparts is because they don’t include pricey ongoing maintenance.

“When foreign militaries buy American, above and beyond the purchase, they are buying a partnership with the U.S. military,” Andrew Hunter, director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CNBC. “And that plus the maintenance and technical assistance is a big part of the cost difference.

The S-400 system made its debut in 2007, succeeding the S-200 and S-300 missile systems. According to CNBC, “the Russian-made S-400 is capable of engaging a wider array of targets, at longer ranges and against multiple threats simultaneously,” vs. US-made systems.

In terms of capability, one source noted that while there is no perfect weapon, the S-400 eclipses even THAAD, America’s missile defense crown jewel.

When asked why nations seek to buy the S-400 instead of America’s Patriot or THAAD systems, one of the people with knowledge of the intelligence report explained that foreign militaries aren’t willing to stick with the cumbersome process of buying weapons from the U.S. government. –CNBC

“Many of these countries do not want to wait for U.S. regulatory hurdles,” said a CNBC source with first hand knowledge of the assessment. “The S-400 has less export restrictions and the Kremlin is willing to expedite sales by skipping over any regulatory hurdles.

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Britain’s Enemy Is Not Russia But It’s Own Ruling Class, UN Report Confirms

In austerity Britain, who the enemy is has never been more clear.

The Duran

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Authored by John Wright. op-ed via RT.com:


As the UK political establishment rips itself to pieces over Brexit, a far greater crisis continues to afflict millions of victims of Tory austerity…

A devastating UN report into poverty in the UK provides incontrovertible evidence that the enemy of the British people is the very ruling class that has gone out of its way these past few years to convince them it is Russia.

Professor Philip Alston, in his capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, spent two weeks touring the United Kingdom. He did so investigating the impact of eight years of one of the most extreme austerity programs among advanced G20 economies in response to the 2008 financial crash and subsequent global recession.

What he found was evidence of a systematic, wilful, concerted and brutal economic war unleashed by the country’s right-wing Tory establishment against the poorest and most vulnerable section of British society– upending the lives of millions of people who were not responsible for the aforementioned financial crash and recession but who have been forced to pay the price.

From the report’s introduction:

“It…seems patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty. This is obvious to anyone who opens their eyes to see the immense growth in foodbanks and the queues waiting outside them, the people sleeping rough in the streets, the growth of homelessness, the sense of deep despair that leads even the Government to appoint a Minister for Suicide Prevention and civil society to report in depth on unheard of levels of loneliness and isolation.”

Though as a citizen of the UK I respectfully beg to differ with the professor’s claim that such social and economic carnage seems “contrary to British values,” (on the contrary it is entirely in keeping with the values of the country’s Tory establishment, an establishment for whom the dehumanization of the poor and working class is central to its ideology), the point he makes about it being “obvious to anyone who opens their eyes,” is well made.

For it is now the case that in every town and city centre in Britain, it is impossible to walk in any direction for more than a minute before coming across homeless people begging in the street. And the fact that some 13,000 of them are former soldiers, casualties of the country’s various military adventures in recent years, undertaken in service to Washington, exposes the pious platitudes peddled by politicians and the government as reverence for the troops and their ‘sacrifice,’ as insincere garbage.

Overall, 14 million people in the UK are now living in poverty, a figure which translates into an entire fifth of the population. Four million of them are children, while, according to Professor Alston, 1.5 million people are destitute – that is, unable to afford the basic necessities of life.

And this is what the ruling class of the fifth largest economy in the world, a country that parades itself on the world stage as a pillar of democracy and human rights, considers progress.

The values responsible for creating such a grim social landscape are compatible with the 18th not 21st century. They are proof positive that the network of elite private schools – Eton, Harrow, Fettes College et al. – where those responsible for this human carnage are inculcated with the sense of entitlement and born to rule ethos that defines them, are Britain’s hotbeds of extremism.

Professor Alston:

“British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instill discipline where it is least useful, to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping with today’s world, and elevating the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest levels of British society.”

Here, set out above in bold relief, is the barbarism that walks hand in hand with free market capitalism. It is the same barbarism that was responsible for pushing post-Soviet Russia into a decade-long economic and social abyss in the 1990s, and the values that have pushed 14 million people in the UK into the same economic and social abyss in our time.

Austerity, it bears emphasizing, is not and never has been a viable economic response to recession in a given economy.

Instead, it is an ideological club, wielded on behalf of the rich and big business to ensure that the price paid for said economic recession is borne exclusively by those least able to bear it – namely, the poor and working people. It is class war by any other name, packaged and presented as legitimate government policy.

However, in Britain’s case in 2018, this is a war like no other because, as Professor Philip Alston’s report lays bare, only one side in this war has been throwing all the punches and only one side has been taking them.

With Christmas season upon us, the scale of human suffering across the UK ensures that the elaborate ad campaigns inviting us to shop and indulge to our heart’s content – ads depicting the middle class dream of affluence and material comfort – take on the character of a provocation. In fact, they call to mind the truism that wars take place when the government tells you who the enemy is, while revolutions take place when you work it out for yourself.

In austerity Britain, who the enemy is has never been more clear.

 

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‘Iron’ Mike Pence Stares-Down Putin In APEC Showdown

Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Advisor John Bolton were seen shaking hands and chatting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Singapore.

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Via Zerohedge


Forget the All-Blacks ‘Haka’, ignore Foreman-Frasier, Drago-Balboa, and Ortiz-Liddell, the honor of the greatest (or perhaps most awkward) staredown in history now goes to US Vice President Mike Pence…

Having been blamed for everything from Trump’s election victory to USA soccer team’s loss to England last week, Russia faced accusations all weekend and was reportedly confronted by the US contingent over “meddling.”

As The Sun reports, Pence and Putin “discussed the upcoming G20 Summit and touched on the issues that will be discussed when President Trump and President Putin are both in Argentina for the summit,” according to the vice president’s press secretary, Alyssa Farah.

An NBC reporter tweeted: “New per the @VP’s Office—> The VP’s office says Vice President Pence directly addressed Russian meddling in the 2016 election in a conversation with Vladimir Putin on Thursday in Singapore.

“The conversation took place following the plenary session this afternoon at ASEAN.”

But, it was the following clash of the titans that caught most people’s attention.

As the Russian president joined the that Pence shook Putin’s ‘deadly’ hand, met his ‘steely KGB-trained’ gaze, and desperately tried not to smile or blink for 20 seconds as Putin appeared to chat amicably with the US VP…

While Putin has (if his accusers are to be believed) grappled his opponents to death with his bare hands (remember he is a sinister KGB agent and jiu-jitsu expert); we suspect the only thing VP Pence has gripped tightly in his hands is his bible.

Sadly, John Bolton then blew the tough guy act (or is he Mike Pence’s ‘good cop’) as he does his best impression of a teenage girl meeting their popstar idol for the first time…

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