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Russia is playing a powerful role in Syria, but it has competition

Putin needs help from other neighboring powers to resolve the conflict once and for all

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(Al-Monitor) – Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared “a complete victory” over the Islamic State (IS) on both banks of the Euphrates River in Syria. He announced Dec. 6 that the military operation in the area is now finished, and focus will switch to a political process in Syria that will eventually involve presidential and parliamentary elections, Putin added.

His announcement, as well as his bid for a fourth term as president, were sidelined in the media by US President Donald Trump’s controversial same-day statement recognizing Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel. Yet there’s no shortage of stories describing the multiple challenges Moscow now faces in Syria, from setting up the Syrian National Dialogue Congress (which is supposed to be held this month) and handling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to ensuring an “Iran-free” post-war Syria or granting broader autonomy to the Kurds.

Some observers are concerned Russia might further “hijack” Syria’s settlement process. Others, including Russia itself, argue that Moscow’s role will gradually diminish now that other parties with a lot more at stake — Turkey and Iran in particular — will be coming to the forefront.

Ironically, those aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive scenarios. Even though Russia’s current role in the process is still controversial, it’s objectively necessary. Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the United States — each due to their own reasons and motives — simply cannot do what Russia is doing: coming up with different ideas to move the political process forward, and working with all sorts of local and regional players opposed to one another. Some are forced to work with Moscow, not having other viable alternatives. Others genuinely see Russia as their go-to representative. Whether accurately or erroneously, they believe Russia can deliver whatever they’re asking for.

Even though Russia’s current role in the process is still controversial, it’s objectively necessary.

Moscow is partly to blame for setting the bar high for their perceptions. In recent years, Putin has convinced much of the world of Russia’s omnipotence in Syria and across the Middle East, elbowing his way to lead the process. Many in the region now have a rather inaccurate view of Russia’s situation in Syria.

One of these “perception traps” is the belief that Moscow is in control of the Assad government. In the absence of other leverage over Assad, Western and regional governments continue to appeal to Russia to work its influence, which it has been doing with random successes. The truth is, two years into Russia’s direct involvement in the Syria conflict, it’s still impossible to assess to what degree Assad is under Moscow’s control. Russia has palpable influence in some major areas, such as the military and intelligence. Russian military instructors are training the Syrian army, Russian officers have planned major offenses for government forces and in private chats, and Russian diplomats would say Assad is listening to what the Kremlin has to say. At the same time, Moscow has no illusions about Assad’s personal loyalty or his ambitions to keep his power, despite Russian efforts for a political settlement and talks with the opposition.

Moscow still doesn’t regret its decision to prop up Assad, simply because it never changed its mind about how Syria might have looked now, if Assad had been forced out of power six years ago. But, at times, Russia arguably does seem to wish it was the sole decision-maker on Syria in its dealings with the opposition camp — including external actors — for it would have been a much more streamlined process.

But the reality is, while Russia is a principal actor, it cannot resolve the situation all alone, and the much-rumored divergence of interests in the coalition meetings in Astana, Kazakhstan, does indeed exist.

This leads to the second-biggest faulty perception, which is reflected in the positions of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States. They keep pushing Moscow to convince Tehran to abandon its goal of ensuring a stronghold for itself in Syria. The presumption that Russia has major influence over Iran probably stems from three things: the “alliance” the two have forged over the course of the war; their growing cooperation on important economic, infrastructural and regional issues; and their seemingly shared opposition to the United States.

Russia and Iran are “strategic singles” in the international and regional arenas, and each ultimately has a strong sense of self. But they share an affinity for the way things are shaping up in the Mideast, and they intend to have each other as partners rather than adversaries.

There’s not as much space between those two poles as some might think, however, and there’s a delicate balance that could be upset easily with a careless move by either party. Neither side wants to find out what the result of such a move might look like. That’s why Russia’s not willing to put pressure on Iran to leave Syria.

In the meantime, Russia and Iran are carefully approaching one another on other sensitive matters — in Syria and elsewhere — with each party learning and making important choices for itself through the lens of its own interests.

Moscow is very likely aware of Iran’s activities that Tehran’s opponents deem subversive and toxic. But as long as these activities don’t target Russian interests, Moscow doesn’t see a need to react harshly.

For example, Moscow no doubt is mulling Iran’s desire for a “Shiite corridor” stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria, all the way to Lebanon. Israel and Saudi Arabia see the idea as dangerous. But before reacting, Moscow will deconstruct this concept to distinguish Iran’s interests and determine its potential effects on Russia. Does Iran need a physical land corridor? If so, would that pose a threat to Russian military forces or its control over economic assets it has acquired in Syria? Perhaps Iran is only seeking a “virtual corridor” where its goal is political influence — in which case Moscow will also examine the idea with respect to its own opportunities.

Iran’s grip on political forces across the region and what appears to be the construction of a military facility in Syria — a site Israel recently targeted — suggest Tehran seeks both a physical and political corridor. Russia must determine what level of Iranian presence on the ground is acceptable. But even before that, Moscow needs a clear vision of what it wants for itself in Syria — what kind of presence it needs and how many commitments it’s willing to make.

Until Moscow has clear answers to these questions, it will continue to compartmentalize the issues and its relationships with regional players.

But then, getting too close with Iran could also jeopardize the relationship’s balance. When the United States or Israel has a beef with Tehran, they assume Russian will jump to Iran’s side. Yet Russia wants to avoid complicating its relations with the United States and Israel over Iran.

This highlights what is possibly the biggest problem of the Russian-Iranian partnership: lack of trust. There’s barely any trust between any set of players in the Middle East to begin with, and often even less with outsiders. Russia and Iran have a bad history with each other that shapes their perceptions and defines their political discourse. A retired Russian diplomat once remarked to Al-Monitor, “Putin enjoys good personal chemistry with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and seems to trust him more than he does the Iranians.”

So trust isn’t a given. It’s a political resource to be accumulated over a long period of time, patiently built through concrete actions. Russia and Iran have gained some of this through a number of joint economic initiatives and military interactions in Syria. The experiences weren’t always successful, so trust is still minimal, but at least now Moscow and Tehran have something on which to base their future work. They will try to maintain their balance, swaying on certain issues that won’t necessarily favor the other party. But the expectations of what Moscow can and cannot do regarding Iran should also be kept balanced.

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Ukraine’s President Says “High” Threat Of Russian Invasion, Urges NATO Entry In Next 5 Years

Poroshenko is trying desperately to hold on to power, even if it means provoking Russia.

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Via Zerohedge


Perhaps still seeking to justify imposing martial law over broad swathes of his country, and attempting to keep international pressure and media focus on a narrative of “Russian aggression,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko denounced what he called the high “threat of Russian invasion” during a press conference on Sunday, according to Bloomberg.

Though what some analysts expected would be a rapid flair up of tit-for-tat incidents following the late November Kerch Strait seizure of three Ukrainian vessels and their crew by the Russian Navy has gone somewhat quiet, with no further major incident to follow, Poroshenko has continued to signal to the West that Russia could invade at any moment.

“The lion’s share of Russian troops remain” along the Russian border with Ukraine, Poroshenko told journalists at a press conference in the capital, Kiev. “Unfortunately, less than 10 percent were withdrawn,” he said, and added: “As of now, the threat of Russian troops invading remains. We have to be ready for this, we won’t allow a repeat of 2014.”

Poroshenko, who declared martial law on Nov. 26, citing at the time possible imminent “full-scale war with Russia” and Russian tank and troop build-up, on Sunday noted that he will end martial law on Dec. 26 and the temporarily suspended presidential campaign will kick off should there be no Russian invasion. He also previously banned all Russian males ages 16-60 from entering Ukraine as part of implementation of 30 days of martial law over ten provinces, though it’s unclear if this policy will be rescinded.

During his remarks, the Ukrainian president said his country should push to join NATO and the EU within the next five years, per Bloomberg:

While declining to announce whether he will seek a second term in the office, Poroshenko said that Ukraine should achieve peace, overcome the consequences of its economic crisis and to meet criteria to join the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during next five years.

But concerning both his retaining power and his ongoing “threat exaggeration” — there’s even widespread domestic acknowledgement that the two are clearly linked.

According to The Globe and Mail:

While Mr. Poroshenko’s domestic rivals accuse him of exaggerating the threat in order to boost his own flagging political fortunes — polls suggest Mr. Poroshenko is on track to lose his job in a March election — military experts say there are reasons to take the Ukrainian president’s warning seriously.

As we observed previously, while European officials have urged both sides to exercise restraint, the incident shows just how easily Russia and the West could be drawn into a military conflict over Ukraine.

Certainly Poroshenko’s words appear designed to telegraph just such an outcome, which would keep him in power as a war-time president, hasten more and massive western military support and aid, and quicken his country’s entry into NATO — the latter which is already treating Ukraine as a de facto strategic outpost.

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The Stampede of the Gadarene Swine: US Leaders Allowing Ukraine to Pull Them into Global War

There is no way in any sane assessment that the Ukrainian forces – and certainly not the neo-Nazi militias recruited in the west of the country to terrorize the east – can be regarded as “brothers” of the US armed forces.

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Authored by Martin Sieff via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


George Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel was right – Again: The only thing the human race learns from history is that it learns nothing from history.

In 1914,the British Empire, largest in human history and one of the longest-lasting, charged into World War I to defend “gallant little Belgium” whose King Leopold over the previous 30 years had carried out one of the longest, largest genocides of all time, killing 10 million people in the Congo.

Germany, wealthiest, most prosperous nation in Europe, blundered into the same needless war when feckless Kaiser Wilhelm II causally gave sweeping approval to Austria-Hungary to annihilate the tiny nation of Serbia. Millions of brave and idealistic Russians eagerly volunteered to fight in the war to protect “gallant little Serbia.” Most of them died too. There is no record that any of the Serbian leaders after the war visited any of their mass graves.

Now it is the United States’ turn.

Since the end of the Cold War US policymakers, presidents and their congresses have carried out virtually every stupidity and folly imaginable for any major power. The only one they have so far avoided has been the danger of stumbling into a full scale world war.

However, now, with the escalating and increasingly hysterical US support for the shady and risk-taking junta in Kiev, President Donald Trump risks committing that most dire and unforgivable of all horrors.

Trump today is no more than putty in the hands of his national security adviser John Bolton, one of the masterminds of the catastrophe that was the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Bolton is just like his hero Winston Churchill a century ago during World War I. He always gets his way, always gets the wars and battles he wants and bungles them embarrassingly every time. And like the young Churchill, Bolton never learns, never mellows and he never changes. It is always everybody else’s fault.

Churchill finally did grow and learn. His famous activities of the 1930s were not meant to start a new world war with Germany under the far worse leadership of Adolf Hitler: He wanted to avert such a war.

The invaluable diaries of Ivan Maisky, the Soviet Union’s ambassador to Britain through the 1930s make clear that even then Churchill was eager – alone in the British ruling classes – to establish a serious close defensive alliance with Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union. He recognized that would be the only way to box in Hitler and prevent a global catastrophe.

But Bolton has not learned from his hero – Quite the reverse. He is now impelling Trump on a reckless course of empowering the dangerous adventurers who with US support have seized Ukraine and have spent the past nearly five years wrecking it.

Even worse, the same kind of absurd sentimentalizing of an obscure, tiny or unstable ally that doomed Britain, Russia and Germany to unimaginable suffering and loss in 1914 now permeates US decision-makers, strategists and their pontificating pundits about Ukraine. On March 1, 2016, US General Philip Breedlove, then NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) memorably referred to “our Ukrainian brothers and sisters” in a Pentagon press briefing

There is no way in any sane assessment that the ramshackle Ukrainian forces – and certainly not the neo-Nazi militias recruited in the west of the country to terrorize the east – can be regarded as “brothers” of the US armed forces. The US and Soviet troops who met on the River Elbe on April 25, 1945 after advancing a combined more than 2,000 miles to liberate Europe from the darkest tyranny in its history could truly be called “brothers.”

However, the US military today and the Ukrainian forces they are being drawn in to protect certainly are not “brothers and sisters.” No poll has been taken since then across the United States, as far as I am aware as to whether the American people would be willing to risk full-scale nuclear war to defend a government in Ukraine that is demonstrably unpopular among its own people.

Trump was elected president in November 2016 precisely because he was the only candidate in that shock election who unambiguously called for the United States to end its 70-year fixation with getting pulled into one endless war and confrontation after another around the world. It would be the darkest of ironies if instead he took America into its last and most catastrophic conflict – a nuclear confrontation from which there could be no recovery, no escape and no survival.

Britain, Russia and Germany in 1914 were all destroyed by the deliberate plotting and manipulations of vastly smaller or weaker allies run by psychopathic gamblers. The rulers of Kiev today, in their entirely reckless disregard for the dangers of global thermonuclear war clearly fit into that category.

Policymakers in Moscow recognize this dire reality. Their counterparts in Washington remain amazingly totally blind to it. Their only idea of strategy is the suicidal stampede of the Gadarene Swine in the Gospels off the end of a cliff. And they are taking the entire human race with them.

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France in Turmoil… Blame Russia!

Russia did it!

Strategic Culture Foundation

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Via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


Well, what d’you know, regular as clockwork, Russia is being blamed – again – for “sowing social division” in Western states. This time, it’s the ongoing nationwide public protests in France against economic austerity which some Western media outlets have claimed are being “amplified” by Russian influence.

One of the media outlets carrying such claims is British newspaper, the Times of London. Last month, this same supposedly serious paper published claims that a popular Russian cartoon series, Masha and The Bear, was trying to “subvert” Western children with “pro-Russia” sentiments. After that ridiculous piece of garbage journalism, what credibility has the Times got to now push claims that Russia is behind the social protests engulfing France? Exactly, enough said.

France has been roiled by nearly five weeks of anti-government demonstrations, popularly referred to as the Yellow Vest movement. Protesters are planning to stage rallies in the capital Paris and other major cities this weekend for the fifth consecutive week. Clashes with riot police and burning vehicles in the Champs Élysées and other iconic public venues across France certainly speak to the gravity of the social anger being expressed by millions of French people.

The French public are incensed by mounting economic hardship under the government of President Emmanuel Macron, the former investment banker who wants to gut workers’ rights and social benefits under the euphemism of “reforms”. That’s after he and his wife recently redecorated the gilded Élysée Palace with ornate furnishings, wallpaper and carpets to the tune of €600,000. Many French workers are struggling to even heat their homes, such is prevalence of poverty.

This week, Macron made a nationwide televised address from this same gilded palace in which he appealed for calm and stated that the authorities would belatedly make concessions in an attempt to alleviate anger over tax and other economic issues that the French public say have hit them hard with deprivation.

Nevertheless, many French citizens say that Macron’s concessions are not nearly enough to appease their grievances. They have vowed to continue protesting, despite a terror incident this week in the eastern city of Strasbourg in which a gunman apparently killed three people. French authorities have urged protests to be called off in the aftermath of the tight security situation. The protesters have so far refused to call off their nationwide demonstrations.

It seems significant that as the Macron government is increasing its pressure on protests to subside – no doubt out of alarm that the authorities are losing control over the populace – then this week the media are lately reporting on claims that Russia is “amplifying” the unrest.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, the foreign minister, told French media that his government was launching a probe into allegations of Russian incitement of the Yellow Vest movement. It seems like a cynical distraction to undermine the legitimacy of public fury.

What are the allegations of Russian interference based on? Apparently, the Times of London and other Western media outlets reported that “Russian-linked” social media posts are commenting on the protests. So too, it is claimed, Russian news media have devoted undue coverage to the French demonstrations.

So, let’s get this straight. Russian social media users and Russian news media are to blame for “amplifying” French unrest because they happen to report or discuss such unrest. The logic is absurd. No doubt millions of people in countries around the world as well as their news media are commenting on these momentous events in Europe. Just because Russians are doing that, then this is cited as “evidence” of Russian interference. What underlies that ludicrous conclusion is the most fatuous prejudice of Russophobia.

Western states are living in denial. Deep social problems from poverty under their failed economic policies and from disenfranchisement under failed political governance are inherent causes. Yet in spite of the systemic failure, Russia is cast as the scapegoat, rather than looking inward at the inherent causes.

We saw this in the US after the election of maverick outsider Donald Trump as president and with Britain’s Brexit referendum to leave the European Union. Those events were the result of discontent within those societies with regard to the status quo. Rather than dealing with their inherent social, economic and political problems, certain elements within the ruling class in the US and Britain sought to explain away the failing by pointing the blame on Russia.

The same tawdry thinking is being invoked with regard to the French protests.

Admittedly, however, the tedious narrative of blaming Russia is wearing thin, and so the latest claims about Russia stirring up the French are not being too widely played in Western media, no doubt because of a realization even by the Western media that such claims are idiotic. Again, after the Masha and the Bear farcical “report”, the Russian “red-baiting” in Western media has lost any potency it may once have had.

Western states are indeed confronting huge challenges from their own populaces. Poverty, social injustice, unemployment, crumbling public services, rampant alienation from state institutions, disgust with criminal militarism, among other grievances, are all motivating popular discontent and anger. The French protests are symptomatic of an international revolt against injustice of a failing capitalist order.

Western ruling establishments are only stoking even more popular uprising by refusing to take the societal malaise seriously. They are postponing a day of reckoning which will come sooner or later with greater force. Blaming Russia is part of their futile charade to postpone the day of reckoning. Telling French people they are being manipulated by Kremlin agents is laughable, contemptible and fueling the calamity of political collapse. Out of collapse, it may be hoped that some progressive, democratic new polity might emerge.

In an absurdist twist of the Marie Antoinette fable, French and Western authorities are saying, “The people want bread – but the Russians are telling them they should eat cake”. The travesty of their own elitist irrelevance is what’s making Western societies revolt against their establishments.

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