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As Merkel Weakens, EU Sanctions Unity Cracks

As EU sanctions against Russia come up for renewal opposition against them builds both in Europe and Germany.

Alexander Mercouris

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The details are extremely murky but with Merkel’s position coming under increasing pressure and with growing dissatisfaction with the sanctions in France and southern Europe it is clear a battle of some kind over their pending renewal is underway.

The country at the centre – as always – is Germany.  Here there are visible signs of a split.

Merkel herself stated publicly on Tuesday through her spokesman that she wants to see the sanctions renewed unaltered. 

The fact Merkel felt obliged to make her stance public is itself a sign of conflict.  On every previous occasion when the question of renewing the sanctions has come up she has maintained her preferred Sphinx-like stance of silence.  She was able to do that previously because there was no pressure on her to change it.  The fact that on this occasion she has been forced to go public shows that disagreement with her sanctions policy is growing and that she has therefore felt the need to go public to hold the line.

As to where the disagreement with the sanctions policy in Germany is coming from, the signs of that are everywhere. 

The German business community is known to have been upset by the way the sanctions were renewed without discussion last January.  Meanwhile prominent members of Merkel’s own coalition are now making their disagreement with the policy increasingly clear.  Both leaders of the two parties who form Merkel’s coalition – Sigmar Gabriel of the SPD and Horst Seehofer of the CDU’s Bavarian sister-party the CSU – have in recent months travelled to Moscow where they have met with Putin and made known their desire to renew ties.  Gabriel moreover recently attended a “Russia Day” trade fair in the former East German town of Rostock where he met with representatives of the Russian business community and spoke for renewed ties .  As for Seehofer, his personal relationship with Merkel appears to have completely broken down.  Not only has he publicly criticised Merkel’s immigration policy but he is openly manoeuvring to become Chancellor-designate of the CDU/CSU coalition in place of Merkel in the forthcoming parliamentary elections which are due in 2018.  Seehofer in turn has become the target of public attacks from Merkel’s allies, such as Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble.

That there is an international political dimension to the public battle between Merkel and Seehofer – with relations with Russia at centre-stage – became obvious at the Munich Security Conference held back in February 2016.  Though most attention was given to Russian Prime Minister Medvedev’s speech warning of a renewed Cold War, the single most interesting event at the conference was actually the US delegation’s decision to boycott a public dinner hosted by Seehofer and the Bavarian government.  This very public snub was clearly intended to show US anger with Seehofer for his meeting with Putin in Moscow.

As Merkel publicly battles it out with Seehofer – with Gabriel lurking in the shadows – Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has been busy making a pitch of his own.  He is signalling that he wants the sanctions relaxed.

What Steinmeier appears to be proposing – at least according to this article in Der Spiegel – is that individual travel bans and asset freezes imposed on certain Russian businessmen and officials be lifted in return for Moscow’s help in organising local elections in the Donbass.

Nothing in this sort of diplomacy is ever straightforward and Steinmeier’s proposal – if it is being reported properly – is a case in point.

As Steinmeier certainly knows, it is Kiev not Moscow that is actually obstructing the holding of the local elections in the Donbass, just as it is Kiev not Moscow which has failed to implement any of the key political provisions of the Minsk II agreement.

Steinmeier undoubtedly also knows that the Russian government is completely indifferent to whether individual travel bans and asset freezes are lifted or not.

Steinmeier also probably knows that some at least of these travel bans and asset freezes will at some point almost certainly be declared illegal by the European Court of Justice on the grounds that the individuals involved have no discernible role or influence in the making of policy by the Russian government.

On the face of it what Steinmeier is therefore proposing is a deal whereby the Russians help with something they have always wanted – and which they actually demanded in Minsk – the holding of elections in the Donbass – in return for the lifting of sanctions they don’t care about and which the European Court of Justice is likely to declare illegal anyway.

That hardly looks like a serious offer and not surprisingly the Russians have shown no interest in it.  Der Spiegel effectively admits as much:

“The Russian side has already indicated that talking is not sufficient, a message consistent with Moscow’s extreme self-confidence since the beginning of Putin’s intervention in Syria…… As such, Berlin’s new approach to Russia is not without risk. Indeed, even if the EU agrees collectively to pursue such a course in relation to Moscow, there is a danger that Russia will simply reject it as being too little, too late.”

It is difficult to avoid the impression that Steinmeier’s proposal – if Der Spiegel is reporting it correctly – is really just a tactic intended to hold the EU sanctions coalition together by giving the doubters the impression that Germany is willing to show flexibility when in reality it is showing none. 

That Merkel and Steinmeier are struggling to hold the EU sanctions coalition together is admitted by Der Spiegel:

“More and more EU member states have begun questioning the strict penalty regime, particularly given that it hasn’t always been the Russians who have blocked the Minsk process……. Indications are mounting that getting all 28 EU members to approve the extension of the sanctions at the end of June might not be quite so simple.  Berlin has received calls from concerned government officials whose governments have become increasingly skeptical of the penalties against Russia but have thus far declined to take a public stance against them.”

Der Spiegel then follows up with a long list of European countries which are making clear their growing exasperation with the sanctions policy: Austria, Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal, Hungary, the Czech Republic and France.

That there is a growing revolt across Europe against the sanctions policy has in fact become obvious over the last few weeks.  The Italians, the Slovaks and the Greeks have made public their insistence that there be no automatic renewal of the sanctions in June such as happened in January.  In Italy the local council in Veneto has voted to recognise Crimea’s unification with Russia.  In France the National Assembly recently voted to lift the sanctions, though with only a small number of deputies voting. The powerful French farming lobby is known to be very unhappy with the sanctions and at a time of growing unrest in France with Presidential elections pending opposition to the sanctions in France is hardening.

That it is this growing anger across Europe with the sanctions that lies behind Steinmeier’s proposal is again confirmed by Der Spiegel.  It explains it this way:

“Berlin’s argument is that, in a Europe where those in favour of sanctions and those opposed to sanctions are drifting ever further apart, it is necessary to find a way to keep the EU on the same page. Two weeks ago, Steinmeier warned that, with Brussels set to vote on an extension of the penalties soon, resistance to doing so is growing within Europe. It is becoming more difficult, he said, to arrive at a uniform EU position on the issue, which is necessary since the sanctions extension must be passed unanimously. The German line is that Putin must not be given the impression that he can divide the EU.  “The highest priority is that of preserving the EU consensus,” says Gernot Erler of the SPD, who is the German government’s special coordinator for Russia policy. “If we have to pay a price for that, we should be prepared to do so. The worst outcome would be the disintegration of European unity and the EU losing its role.””

Why Steinmeier should be taking this approach is an interesting question.  Like Gabriel he is a member of the SPD.  He is said to have once been close to the SPD’s former leader and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder who is a known friend of Putin’s and of Russia’s.  Until the start of the Ukrainian crisis it was widely assumed Steinmeier shared Schroder’s views.

There have been claims that Steinmeier’s views on Russia have hardened over the course of the Ukrainian crisis and that he is now – like Merkel – a hardliner.  It was for example widely reported that he had a difficult meeting with Putin in Moscow shortly after the G20 summit in Brisbane in the autumn of 2014, when supposedly to his dismay (and Merkel’s) he found Putin and the Russians completely immoveable.

Against that Steinmeier has spoken for Russia’s eventual readmission to the G7 – another proposal the Russians are completely uninterested in – and his latest proposal for relaxing the sanctions puts him publicly at odds with Merkel – who has come out strongly against any relaxation of the sanctions – and the US – which also strongly opposes any relaxation of the sanctions.

It could be that Merkel and Steinmeier are playing a game of hard cop/soft cop.  However the merest hint of a relaxation of the sanctions of the sort that Steinmeier is proposing is enough to enrage the US, which begs the question of why – if Merkel and Steinmeier are in agreement – Steinmeier is agreeing to take the heat for her in this way.  Already neocon attacks on Steinmeier are appearing, such as this recent one in an article published by The Atlantic Council which all but accuses him in amazingly intemperate language of colluding in a Russian hybrid war campaign to destabilise Germany, weaken Merkel and split the Western alliance:

“Even in the face of these subversive actions, Germany has made it a matter of policy to minimize Russia’s negative approach to the West. For example, at the 2016 Munich Security Conference, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev made the disturbing declaration that the world is “rapidly rolling into a period of a new Cold War.” German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier refused to acknowledge Moscow’s belief that we are once again in a Cold War, and took upon himself to clarify the Russian position in order to downplay Medvedev’s adversarial language: “What Medvedev meant to say is that we need to avoid a new Cold War.” Despite such belligerent statements by Moscow, Germany continues to work very hard to avoid provoking Putin while also encouraging other Western countries to compromise with Russia.

Current German policy continues to seek compromises that cater to Russian interests despite Moscow’s blatantly harmful behaviour. This year, the NATO-Russia Council convened for the first time since April 2014. NATO had suspended the meetings two years ago as a consequence of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. However, despite Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine, the NATO-Russia Council was held again last month because it was a priority for Germany. Steinmeier also recently declared his support to bring Russia back to the G8 grouping of states. Such policies not only cater to Russian interests, but also drastically weaken the overall European response to the Ukraine crisis.

Although the German government is aware of subversive Russian actions in its country, it continues to pursue policies in Russia’s favor. Germany’s policies of avoiding criticism and catering to Moscow are inconsistent with German national interests. Russia is actively seeking to harm Germany, destabilize the country, and weaken Chancellor Merkel. By downplaying Russia’s deliberately harmful actions, by apologizing for belligerent Russian rhetoric, and by emphasizing compromises despite Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine, Germany is ignoring a major threat to its own security.”

Possibly Steinmeier is trying to take an intermediate position between Merkel on the one hand and people like Gabriel and Seehofer on the other.  Steinmeier and Gabriel are old rivals and with the SPD slumping in the opinion polls it may be that Steinmeier is positioning himself to take over from Gabriel by pitching himself as someone who though willing to be flexible with the Russians is not prepared to sell out to them.  The furious attack on him in the article published by The Atlantic Council shows how difficult he may find that to be.

Regardless of what Steinmeier’s personal motives are, it is surely no coincidence that Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU Commission President who is known to be close to Steinmeier, has suddenly announced that he is travelling to Russia to attend the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, which Western officials and businesspeople had previously boycotted in 2014 at the time of the Crimean crisis.  No doubt whilst there Juncker will use the opportunity to talk to the Russian leadership who will all be there.  No doubt his task – given him by Steinmeier and by others – is to explore ways with the Russians to help the Europeans get themselves out of the hole they have dug themselves into.

Despite all the intrigues in Germany and the protests against the sanctions across Europe, it remains overwhelmingly likely the sanctions will be renewed in June without being softened. 

Merkel’s authority has become bound up with the sanctions to an extent she undoubtedly never imagined when she forced the EU to impose them in July 2014.  Were they to be relaxed or lifted now, with the Ukrainian conflict still unresolved and against her publicly stated opposition, her authority in Europe and in Germany would be shattered. 

Despite the recent slump in Merkel’s popularity (concerning which see the recent article by my colleague Alex Christoforou) it is likely she remains politically strong enough for the moment to ensure that the sanctions line holds and that this June the sanctions are renewed.

As for the intrigues that are swirling around Merkel – both in Germany and in Europe – it is impossible for an outsider who is not party to them to know all that is going on.  However it is not necessary to do so.  The fact that the intrigues are taking place at all tells its own story. 

Though Merkel’s hard line on the sanctions for the moment is just about holding, it is cracking – and not just in Europe but in Germany too.

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Vladimir Putin calls new Ukrainian church ‘dangerous politicking’

President Putin said creation of the “Orthodox Church in Ukraine” is against Church canon and that the West drove Constantinople to do it.

Seraphim Hanisch

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In an interview with the Serbian newspapers Politika and Vecernje Novosti ahead of his visit to Serbia, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted the creation of the “Orthodox Church of Ukraine”, a schismatic agglomeration headed by Ukrainian ultra-nationalists was “dangerous politicking.” He further noted that:

The establishment of the new religious entity in Ukraine is nothing but an attempt “to legalize the schismatic communities that exist in Ukraine under the jurisdiction of Istanbul, which is a major violation of Orthodox canons.”

“Yet, hardly anyone in the U.S. or in the Ukrainian leadership worries about this,” Putin said.

“Once again, this has nothing to do with spiritual life; we are dealing here with dangerous and irresponsible politicking,” he said.

President Putin had more things to say in the interview, and we present what he said in full here (emphasis ours), as reported on the Kremlin.ru website:

Question: The Serbian Orthodox Church has taken the side of the Russian Orthodox Church in the context of the ecclesiastical crisis in Ukraine. At the same time, a number of countries are exerting pressure on Patriarch Bartholomew and seek to ensure recognition of Ukrainian ”schismatics“ by Local Orthodox Churches. How do you think the situation will evolve?

Vladimir Putin: I would like to remind your readers, who are greatly concerned about the information regarding the split in the Orthodox community but are probably not fully aware of the situation in Ukraine, what it is all about.

On December 15, 2018, the Ukrainian leaders, actively supported by the USA and the Constantinople Patriarchate, held a so-called “unifying synod”. This synod declared the creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, with Patriarch Bartholomew signing the tomos (decree) granting it autocephaly on January 6, 2019. Thus, it was attempted to legalize the schismatic communities that exist in Ukraine under the jurisdiction of Istanbul, which is a major violation of Orthodox canons.

Yet, hardly anyone in the US or in the Ukrainian leadership worries about this, as the new church entity is an entirely political, secular project. Its main aim is to divide the peoples of Russia and Ukraine, sowing seeds of ethnic as well as religious discord. No wonder Kiev has already declared ”obtaining complete independence from Moscow.”

Once again, this has nothing to do with spiritual life; we are dealing here with dangerous and irresponsible politicking. Likewise, we do not speak about the independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. It is de-facto fully controlled by Istanbul. Whereas Ukraine’s largest canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has never requested autocephaly from Patriarch Bartholomew, is absolutely independent in its actions. Its connection with the Russian Orthodox Church is purely canonical – but even this causes undisguised irritation of the current Kiev regime.

Because of this, clergymen and laymen of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church are being persecuted and deprived of churches and monasteries, and attempts are made to deny the Church its legitimate name, which raises tensions and only leads to further discord in Ukrainian society.

Evidently, Ukraine’s leaders have to understand that any attempts to force the faithful into a different church are fraught with grave consequences. Yet, they are eager to put interconfessional concord in the country at stake in order to conduct the election campaign of the current Ukrainian President based on a search for enemies, and to retain power by all means.

All of this does not go unnoticed by Orthodox Christians.

Naturally, Russia does not intend to interfere in ecclesiastical processes, especially those happening on the territory of a neighboring sovereign state. However, we are aware of the danger posed by such experiments and blatant interference of the state in religious affairs.

The situation continues to degrade in Ukraine, and though the Orthodox faithful of the Autonomous but Moscow-based Ukrainian Orthodox Church are the hardest hit, worry over Ukrainian lawlessless-made-law has the Jewish community in that country nervous as well. This is perhaps to be expected as the Azov Brigade, a neo-Nazi aligned group that is hypernationalist, is a good representation of the character of the “hate Russia at all costs” Ukrainian nationalists. A parallel piece in Interfax made note of this in a piece dated January 17th 2019:

[A] bill passed by the Verkhovna Rada introducing a procedure by which parishes can join the new Ukrainian church makes it easier to seize places of worship, and supporters of autocephaly have already started doing this across the country, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church said.

“They need this law to seize our churches. You can’t just come with a crowbar to someone else’s barn, but now the law allows you to do so. They aren’t creating something of their own, but are trying to steal what’s ours,” Ukrainian Orthodox Church spokesperson Vasyl Anisimov told Interfax on Thursday.

The religious entity set up in December with Constantinople’s involvement and called the Orthodox Church of Ukraine “in fact doesn’t yet exist in nature. It’s fake. It doesn’t have any parishes of its own or government registration,” he said.

However, “the supporters of autocephaly don’t have plans to create anything of their own at all, so they have chosen the path of takeover, and the authorities are helping them in that,” Anisimov said.

“Hence, the legislation passed by the Verkhovna Rada today is in fact absolute lawlessness,” he said.

“If you pass legislation affecting an industry, you should talk to industrialists, and if it’s legislation on the agricultural sector, talk to farmers. And here legislation on a church is passed, and moreover, this legislation is aimed against this church, it is protesting, and Jews are protesting, too, because this legislation may affect them as well – but nobody is listening, and they change the law for the sake of an absolutely absurd and unconstitutional gimmick. But, of course, it’s the people who will ultimately suffer,” Anisimov said.

 

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May survives ‘no confidence’ vote as UK moves towards March 29 deadline or Article 50 extension (Video)

The Duran – News in Review – Episode 168.

Alex Christoforou

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The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris discuss the ‘no confidence’ vote that UK Prime Minister May won with the a slim margin…meaning that though few MPs have confidence in her ‘Brexit withdrawal’ negotiating skills, they appear to have no problem allowing May to lead the country towards its Brexit deadline in March, which coincidently may be delayed and eventually scrapped altogether.

Meanwhile Tony Blair is cozying up to Brussels’ oligarchs, working his evil magic to derail the will of the British people, and keep the integrationist ambitions for the UK and Europe on track.

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Via RT


The UK government led by Theresa May, has survived to fight another day, after winning a no-confidence vote, tabled by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, following parliament rejecting the PM’s Brexit deal, earlier on Tuesday evening.

The no-confidence vote was defeated by 19 votes – the government winning by 325 to 306. It’s a rare positive note for May’s Tory cabinet after the humiliating Brexit defeat.

Speaking immediately after the vote, a victorious May said she was “pleased” that the House expressed its confidence in her government. May said she will “continue to work” to deliver on the result of the Brexit referendum and leave the EU.

May invited the leaders of parliamentary parties to meet with her individually, beginning on Wednesday evening.

“I stand ready to work with any member of this House to deliver on Brexit,” she said.

Responding to the vote, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that the House had “emphatically” rejected May’s deal on Tuesday. The government, he said, must now remove “clearly once and for all the prospect of the catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit from the EU and all the chaos that would result from that.”

Labour will now have to consider what move to make next. Their official Brexit policy, decided by members at conference in September, states that if a general election cannot be forced, then all options should be left on the table, including calling for a second referendum.

Liberal Democrats MP Ed Davey also called on May to rule out a no deal Brexit.

The way forward for Brexit is not yet clear and May’s options are now limited, given that the Brexit deal she was offering was voted down so dramatically on Tuesday.

Gavin Barrett, a professor at the UCD Sutherland School of Law in Dublin, told RT that May will now have to decide if her second preference is a no-deal Brexit or a second referendum. Her preference will likely be a no-deal Brexit, Barrett said, adding that “since no other option commands a majority in the House” a no-deal exit is now “the default option.”

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Final Steps in Syria’s Successful Struggle for Peace and Sovereignty

The war of aggression against Syria is winding up, and this can be observed by the opening of a series of new embassies in Damascus.

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Authored by Federico Pieraccini via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


The situation in Syria evolves daily and sees two situations very closely linked to each other, with the US withdrawal from Syria and the consequent expansionist ambitions of Erdogan in Syria and the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) takeover in Idlib that frees the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Russian aviation to liberate the de-escalation zone.

Trump has promised to destroy Turkey economically if he attacks the Kurds, reinforcing his claim that Erdogan will not target the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) once the US withdraws from the area. One of the strongest accusations made against Trump’s withdrawal by his opponents is that no Middle Eastern force will ever trust the US again if they abandon the SDF to its fate, that is, to its annihilation at the hands of the Turkish army and its FSA proxies. This, however, is not possible; not so much because of Trump’s economic threats, but because of Damascus and Moscow being strongly opposed to any Turkish military action in the northeast of Syria.

This is a red line drawn by Putin and Assad, and the Turkish president likely understands the consequences of any wrong moves. It is no coincidence that he stated several times that he had no problems with the “Syrians or Syrian-Kurdish brothers”, and repeated that if the area under the SDF were to come under the control of Damascus, Turkey would have no need to intervene in Syria. Trump’s request that Ankara have a buffer zone of 20 kilometers separating the Kurdish and Turkish forces seems to complement the desire of Damascus and Moscow to avoid a clash between the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) and the SDF.

The only party that seems to be secretly encouraging a clash between the SDF and Turkish forces is Israel, criticizing Ankara and singing the praises of the SDF, in order to try and accentuate the tensions between the two sides, though naturally without success. Israel’s continued raids in Syria, though almost constantly failing due to Syrian air defense, and the divide-and-rule policy used against Turkey and the SDF, show that Tel Aviv is now weakened and mostly irrelevant in the Syrian conflict.

In Idlib, the situation seems to be becoming less complicated and difficult to decipher. Russia, Iran and Syria had asked Erdogan to take control of the province through its “moderate jihadists”, sit down at the negotiating table, and resolve the matter through a diplomatic solution. Exactly the opposite happened. The HTS (formerly al-Nusra/al-Qaeda in Syria) has in recent weeks conquered practically the whole province of Idlib, with numerous forces linked to Turkey (Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zenki) dissolving and merging into HTS. This development puts even more pressure on Erdogan, who is likely to see his influence in Idlib fade away permanently. Moreover, this evolution represents a unique opportunity for Damascus and Moscow to start operations in Idlib with the genuine justification of combating terrorism. It is a repeat of what happened in other de-escalation areas. Moscow and Damascus have repeatedly requested the moderates be separated from the terrorists, so as to approach the situation with a diplomatic negotiation.

In the absence of an effective division of combatants, all are considered terrorists, with the military option replacing the diplomatic. This remains the only feasible option to free the area from terrorists who are not willing to give back territory to the legitimate government in Damascus and are keeping civilians hostages. The Idlib province seems to have experienced the same playbook applied in other de-escalation zones, this time with a clear contrast between Turkey and Saudi Arabia that shows how the struggle between the two countries is much deeper than it appears. The reasons behind the Khashoggi case and the diplomatic confrontation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia were laid bare in the actions of the HTS in Idlib, which has taken control of all the areas previously held by Ankara’s proxies.

It remains to be seen whether Moscow and Damascus would like to encourage Erdogan to recover Idlib through its proxies, trying to encourage jihadists to fight each other as much as possible in order to lighten the task of the SAA, or whether they would prefer to press the advantage themselves and attack while the terrorist front is experiencing internal confusion.

In terms of occupied territory and accounts to be settled, two areas of great importance for the future of Syria remain unresolved, namely al-Tanf, occupied by US forces on the Syrian-Jordanian border, and the area in the north of Syria occupied by Turkish forces and their FSA proxies. It is too early to approach a solution militarily, it being easier for Damascus and Moscow to complete the work to free Syria from the remaining terrorists. Once this has been done, the presence of US or Turkish forces in Syria, whether directly or indirectly, would become all the more difficult to justify. Driving away the US and, above all, Turkey from Syrian territory will be the natural next step in the Syrian conflict.

This is an unequivocal sign that the war of aggression against Syria is winding up, and this can be observed by the opening of a series of new embassies in Damascus. Several countries — including Italy in the near future — will reopen their embassies in Syria to demonstrate that the war, even if not completely over, is effectively won by Damascus and her allies.

For this reason, several countries that were previously opposed to Damascus, like the United Arab Emirates, are understood to have some kind of contact with the government of Damascus. If they intend to become involved in the reconstruction process and any future investment, they will quite naturally need to re-establish diplomatic relations with Damascus. The Arab League is also looking to welcome Syria back into the fold.

Such are signs that Syria is returning to normality, without forgetting which and how many countries have conspired and acted directly against the Syrians for over seven years. An invitation to the Arab League or some embassy being reopened will not be enough to compensate for the damage done over years, but Assad does not preclude any option, and is in the meantime demonstrating to the Israelis, Saudis and the US Deep State that their war has failed and that even their most loyal allies are resuming diplomatic relations with Damascus, a double whammy against the neocons, Wahhabis and Zionists.

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