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Russia’s role in Afrin depends on Turkey’s true intentions

The embattled Syrian province has become a thorny issue as Turkey and the Kurds struggle for control

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(Al-Monitor) – Turkey’s offensive into the northern Syrian province of Afrin has been underway more than a week, raising concerns that Ankara will open a new full-fledged front in Syria with potential implications for the region’s overall security. During a Russian Foreign Ministry briefing Jan. 25, ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova defended Russia against the Kurdish assertion that Moscow is siding with Turkey in Afrin.

“Does Russia have to bear responsibility for Turkey’s actions?” Zakharova asked. “We have [our own] foreign policy, and a clear attitude toward engaging Kurds into the political process [in Syria].”

A Kurdish reporter said it’s hard to believe a resolution to the Syria crisis can be near, when Turkey just “launched a long-term operation.” The reporter said, “Could you ask your partner, Turkey, to address these issues differently with the Kurds?”

In response, Zakharova alluded to the challenging nature of discussions between Moscow and Ankara on the issue. “You know we’ve just climbed out of the crisis [with Turkey],” she said, referring to recently thawed relations after Turkey shot down a Russian jet in November 2015. “You don’t need to tell us how difficult a partner Turkey is. It’s a country with its own interests, which don’t always coincide with ours. … Our goal, however, is to find areas of common interest with any partner regardless of how difficult they are. It’s not easy to do even at the bilateral level, let alone in the Syrian settlement.”

For Russia, the issue of Kurds in Syria has at least three facets: relations with Turkey, with the Kurds themselves and with the United States. At this point, all three areas have to be squared with what Moscow now sees as its primary task: convening the Syrian National Dialogue Congress this week in Sochi, which Moscow hopes will jump-start negotiations toward a political settlement that can then be turned over to Geneva.

Moscow’s stance on Afrin is in line with its stance on all of Syria and with its broad Middle East policies: Steer away from crises where Russia’s own security interests are not directly at stake. With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it’s a very fine line to tread, but as long as Turkey and Russia continue to maintain military, intelligence and presidential channels, Moscow is unlikely to meddle in what’s seen as a bigger security concern for Turkey than for Russia.

Besides, as an Al-Monitor article reported earlier this month, after the Syrian National Dialogue Congress from Jan. 29-30, it will be of principal importance to Russia to maintain the support of Iran and Turkey and to keep the trio more or less united on major issues. Turkey has recently been pivotal to Russia in hosting the Sochi congress and letting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces take control of parts of Idlib. By and large, Ankara has been constructive regarding Russia’s “go-to” role as a contact to important Syrian opposition groups. Moscow has no reason to upset the fragile balancing act with Ankara at this critical moment.

Yet Turkey’s military solution for Afrin is an option Moscow has sought to dodge. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) rejected Russia’s proposal to let Syrian government forces take control of Afrin. The plan was designed to address Ankara’s concerns about the Kurds controlling a corridor of land along Turkey’s border and to give Assad control of more Syrian terrain. But that idea didn’t sit well with Kurdish demands of autonomous rule. Russia was first to propose the concept of including Kurdish autonomy in a new Syrian constitution, which, back in the day, perturbed Turkey and excited the Kurds. Russia believes the issue of Kurdish autonomy should also be negotiated.

Therefore, the popular line of criticism about “Russia betraying the Kurds” doesn’t seem to bother Moscow on its merits. Some of the Kurdish groups have been in contact with Russian authorities at the Khmeimim-based Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria. Russia had no formal commitments to the Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has long played its own game between Ankara and Damascus and has ultimately opted to work with the United States rather than Russia. Turkey considers the PYD to be associated with terrorist groups.

“The Kurdish factor, of course, has been played out by our Western partners for several years, but not in the interests of the Kurds,” said Zakharova at the briefing. “[Russia] was at the basis of political involvement of Kurds into the Syrian settlement process. … [Russia] was urging Western and regional colleagues to include [the Kurds] into different negotiations formats. When we all had a chance to stop the bloodshed and form a broad coalition to unite Syrian opposition, the West was telling the Kurds to ignore it. Ask yourselves whose interests were being served by this. And then see how consistent our own position [on Kurds] was.”

Moscow has repeatedly called Washington’s move to set up a border force with militants from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) an attempt to “insulate Kurdish-dominated regions,” which would flare tensions. Russian criticism, however, has a dual purpose: Pin the blame for any breakout of hostilities in Afrin on the United States and send a signal to the Kurds for failing to have chosen the “right” partner.

Once Washington encountered a harsh response from Turkey and faced the potential implications of a broader regional crisis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson backpedaled on the decision a few days later, saying Jan. 17: “The entire situation has been misportrayed. … We are not creating a border security force at all.” The statement didn’t stop Turkey from proceeding with its Afrin offensive Jan. 19 or change Russia’s belief that the United States plans to divide Syria using the SDF and its affiliates.

Yevgeny Satanovsky, who heads the Moscow-based Institute for the Middle East and is known for his ties with Russian security, argued that Russia’s stance in Afrin ultimately plays well with both Ankara and Washington. “The US has been training SDF forces for an offensive on Idlib and hoped to make it there before the Russian-supported Syrian government forces. Given the radical Sunni Arab composition of the Idlib area, all Arab tribes and groups would have risen against the Kurds. … The Arabs already suspect that the Americans want to create in Syria an analog of the Iraqi Kurdish semi-state enclave, thus warming up the mood of the Kurds in favor of the “Great Kurdistan.”

He added, “The Americans probably hoped Russia would impede Turkey from the military operation. But the offensive may also drag Erdogan into a long-haul conflict. Even if Turkish forces eventually occupy Afrin, they will get a protracted guerrilla resistance and further complicate their relationship with Kurds. This, in turn, will distract much of both SDF and Ankara’s combat force.”

The “failed expectations” the Kurds may have had regarding Russia’s position on the Afrin offense stem first from the PYD leadership miscalculating its own resources on the ground; second, from overestimating the scale of American support and commitment to their force and political cause; and third, underestimating the importance of the Sochi congress in Russia’s game plan for the Syrian settlement.

The Kurdish forces have proved to be skillful fighters and have contributed immensely to the defeat of various radical forces, including the Islamic State, but their leadership’s strategic hopscotching — be it in Iraq or Syria — so far has served their cause poorly. Major regional and international powers have figured this out, some sooner than others, and have learned to exploit these gaps to push their own interests.

Russia’s relations with the PYD are likely to be sour, at least in the short term. The Kurds are disappointed with Moscow. The Kurds’ emotional decisions — such as blaming Russia for the trade-off, threatening to review their Russia policies and declining to attend the Sochi conference — won’t alter Russia’s agenda.

Moscow believes that without influential Kurdish groups attending the congress at Sochi, deals can still be made there, but might not hold. For the short term, Russia is savvy enough to figure out a way to get some Kurds to attend and package whatever decisions are made as representing Kurdish interests. As for not having the PYD in attendance, Moscow doesn’t see that as its own failure, but rather expects the PYD’s absence to create a long-term problem for itself.

“We sent our invitation to the Kurdish representatives. The ball is now on their side not only to accept it but to play an active role in this format,” Zakharova stressed at the briefing.

Early on the first day of the Sochi meeting, some Kurds were present, but it was difficult to tell how many or what groups they represented.

Moscow also still believes there are options for settling the Afrin crisis. One such option echoes the initial Russian proposal and involves Syrian government forces entering the Kurdish-controlled area and creating joint local governance institutions. This ups the ante of risking the Syrian and Turkish armies confronting each other in direct fighting. But it may also be a way to end the fighting in Afrin and adjacent areas, as long as Turkey receives guarantees of a 20-mile-deep “secure zone.” In this case, Turkey would want to have the United States end its military support to the YPG. Russia, in turn, would want to see the United States not impede the Kurds from joining the Moscow-led political settlement.

Recently, Kurdish authorities in Afrin issued a letter urging the Syrian government “to undertake its sovereign obligations to protect its borders [from the Turkish offensive].” Though the letter doesn’t mention whether Kurdish officials see passing Afrin to Damascus control as an option, it might be a sign that a reality check is pushing the Kurds to consider options they previously resisted.

If, however, the crisis continues and the operation takes longer than originally planned, the Turkish military might continue to expand its presence and never agree to leave. Even if it would agree, it would be more of a “Russian-style departure,” where significant combat forces remain. This would create more political and on-the-ground challenges for Russia’s Syria policies.

In the meantime, Moscow will move cautiously in Afrin, keeping an equal distance from what it sees as “radical demands” of Turkish and Kurdish parties.

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Ariel Cohen exposes Washington’s latest twist in anti-Russia strategy [Video]

Excellent interview Ariel Cohen and Vladimir Solovyov reveals the forces at work in and behind American foreign policy.

Seraphim Hanisch

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While the American people and press are pretty much complicit in reassuring the masses that America is the only “right” superpower on earth, and that Russia and China represent “enemy threats” for doing nothing more than existing and being successfully competitive in world markets, Russia Channel One got a stunner of a video interview with Ariel Cohen.

Who is Ariel Cohen? Wikipedia offers this information about him:

Ariel Cohen (born April 3, 1959 in Crimea in YaltaUSSR) is a political scientist focusing on political risk, international security and energy policy, and the rule of law.[1] Cohen currently serves as the Director of The Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics (CENRG) at the Institute for Analysis of Global Security (IAGS). CENRG focuses on the nexus between energy, geopolitics and security, and natural resources and growth. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, within the Global Energy Center and the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center.[2] Until July 2014, Dr. Cohen was a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. He specializes in Russia/Eurasia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.

Cohen has testified before committees of the U.S. Congress, including the Senate and House Foreign Relations Committees, the House Armed Services Committee, the House Judiciary Committee and the Helsinki Commission.[4] He also served as a Policy Adviser with the National Institute for Public Policy’s Center for Deterrence Analysis.[5] In addition, Cohen has consulted for USAID, the World Bank and the Pentagon.[6][7]

Cohen is a frequent writer and commentator in the American and international media. He has appeared on CNN, NBC, CBS, FOX, C-SPAN, BBC-TV and Al Jazeera English, as well as Russian and Ukrainian national TV networks. He was a commentator on a Voice of America weekly radio and TV show for eight years. Currently, he is a Contributing Editor to the National Interest and a blogger for Voice of America. He has written guest columns for the New York TimesInternational Herald TribuneChristian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, EurasiaNet, Valdai Discussion Club,[8] and National Review Online. In Europe, Cohen’s analyses have appeared in Kommersant, Izvestiya, Hurriyet, the popular Russian website Ezhenedelny Zhurnal, and many others.[9][10]

Mr. Cohen came on Russian TV for a lengthy interview running about 17 minutes. This interview, shown in full below, is extremely instructive in illustrating the nature of the American foreign policy directives such as they are at this time.

We have seen evidence of this in recent statements by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo regarding Russia’s “invasion” of Ukraine, and an honestly unabashed bit of fear mongering about China’s company Huawei and its forthcoming 5G networks, which we will investigate in more detail in another piece. Both bits of rhetoric reflect a re-polished narrative that, paraphrased, says to the other world powers,

Either you do as we tell you, or you are our enemy. You are not even permitted to out-compete with us in business, let alone foreign relations. The world is ours and if you try to step out of place, you will be dealt with as an enemy power.

This is probably justified paranoia, because it is losing its place. Where the United Stated used to stand for opposition against tyranny in the world, it now acts as the tyrant, and even as a bully. Russia and China’s reaction might be seen as ignoring the bully and his bluster and just going about doing their own thing. It isn’t a fight, but it is treating the bully with contempt, as bullies indeed deserve.

Ariel Cohen rightly points out that there is a great deal of political inertia in the matter of allowing Russia and China to just do their own thing. The US appears to be acting paranoid about losing its place. His explanations appear very sound and very reasonable and factual. Far from some of the snark Vesti is often infamous for, this interview is so clear it is tragic that most Americans will never see it.

The tragedy for the US leadership that buys this strategy is that they appear to be blinded so much by their own passion that they cannot break free of it to save themselves.

This is not the first time that such events have happened to an empire. It happened in Rome; it happened for England; and it happened for the shorter-lived empires of Nazi Germany and ISIS. It happens every time that someone in power becomes afraid to lose it, and when the forces that propelled that rise to power no longer are present. The US is a superpower without a reason to be a superpower.

That can be very dangerous.

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Even a Vacuous Mueller Report Won’t End ‘Russiagate’

Too many reputations and other interests are vested in the legend for it to vanish from American politics anytime soon.

Stephen Cohen

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Authored by Stephen Cohen via The Nation:


Russiagate allegations that the Kremlin has a subversive hold over President Trump, and even put him in the White House, have poisoned American political life for almost three years. Among other afflictions, it has inspired an array of media malpractices, virtually criminalized anti–Cold War thinking about Russia, and distorted the priorities of the Democratic Party. And this leaves aside the woeful impact Russiagate has had in Moscow—on its policymakers’ perception of the US as a reliable partner on mutually vital strategic issues and on Russian democrats who once looked to the American political system as one to be emulated, a loss of “illusions” I previously reported.

Contrary to many expectations, even if the Mueller report, said to be impending, finds, as did a Senate committee recently, “no direct evidence of conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia,” Russiagate allegations are unlikely to dissipate in the near future and certainly not before the 2020 presidential election.

There are several reasons this is so, foremost among them the following:

  1. The story of a “Kremlin puppet” in the White House is so fabulous and unprecedented it is certain to become a tenacious political legend, as have others in American history despite the absence of any supporting evidence.
  2. The careers of many previously semi-obscure Democratic members of Congress have been greatly enhanced—if that is the right word—by their aggressive promotion of Russiagate. (Think, for example, of the ubiquitous media coverage and cable-television appearances awarded to Representatives Adam Schiff, Eric Swalwell, and Maxine Walters, and to Senators Mark Warner and Richard Blumenthal.) If Mueller fails to report “collusion” of real political substance, these and other Russiagate zealots, as well as their supporters in the media, will need to reinterpret run-of-the-mill (and bipartisan) financial corruption and mundane “contacts with Russia” as somehow treasonous. (The financial-corruption convictions of Paul Manafort, Mueller’s single “big win” to date, did not charge “collusion” and had to do mainly with Ukraine, not Russia.) Having done so already, there is every reason to think Democrats will politicize these charges again, if only for the sake of their own careers. Witness, for example, the scores of summonses promised by Jerrold Nadler, the new Democratic chair of the House Judiciary Committee.
  3. Still worse, the top Democratic congressional leadership evidently has concluded that promoting the new Cold War, of which Russiagate has become an integral part, is a winning issue in 2020. How else to explain Nancy Pelosi’s proposal—subsequently endorsed by the equally unstatesmanlike Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, and adopted—to invite the secretary general of NATO, a not-very-distinguished Norwegian politician named Jens Stoltenberg, to address a joint session of Congress? The honor was once bestowed on figures such as Winston Churchill and at the very least leaders of actual countries. Trump has reasonably questioned NATO’s mission and costs nearly 30 years after the Soviet Union disappeared, as did many Washington think tanks and pundits back in the 1990s. But for Pelosi and other Democratic leaders, there can be no such discussion, only valorization of NATO, even though the military alliance’s eastward expansion has brought the West to the brink of war with nuclear Russia. Anything Trump suggests must be opposed, regardless of the cost to US national security. Will the Democrats go to the country in 2020 as the party of investigations, subpoenas, Russophobia, and escalating cold war—and win?

Readers of my new book War With Russia?, which argues that there are no facts to support the foundational political allegations of Russiagate, may wonder how, then, Russiagate can continue to be such a major factor in our politics. As someone has recently pointed out, the Democrats and their media are now operating on the Liberty Valance principle: When the facts are murky or nonexistent, “print the legend.”

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Patriarch Bartholomew slaps down effort to solve Ukrainian Church crisis

Seraphim Hanisch

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Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I has a problem.

In October last year, by his order, two schismatic churches and their leaders were “rehabilitated” and the schismatic churches were combined and relaunched as a new national church, ostensibly for the people of Ukraine.

However, everything about this action was wrong.

The Patriarch attempted to reinterpret Church history and assumed the power to take over the situation in Ukraine, when Orthodox Christian ecclesiology says that no bishop (even a Patriarch) is permitted to impose his will outside his own See. Ukraine was not the territory of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, nor has it been for hundreds of years.

The people he lifted into power – Filaret Denisenko and Makary Maletich, both were formerly out of communion with canonical Orthodoxy, and Filaret is notable for having a terrible record with his priests, a common-law wife (forbidden for a bishop) and most notably, Filaret was also anathematized by the Russian Church for his actions.

Thirdly, the new church has yet to go on record with any statement at all about how its formation serves the will of God. This is because it cannot do so. The Orthodox Church in Ukraine exists as an ultranationalist thumb in the eye of Russia, even to the point some people in the new community said “now we have our own God. We don’t need the Russian God.”

This is a very bad sentiment because in the Orthodox Church there is only one God, and he does not pick between nations because of national identity.

To date, none of the other fourteen universally recognized Local Orthodox Churches has accepted the new Church and none of the local Churches are in communion with the OCU (Orthodox Church in Ukraine). Everyone who has said anything at all about this matter has rejected communion with schismatics, though a few monasteries on Athos did allow services with these people.

In essence, at this time the Patriarch has a new church on his back that no one wants but him. His statements that the other local Churches, namely Russia, will have no choice but to accept the OCU have not been proven right so far.

In fact, the pressure is running in the opposite direction.

Patriarch John X of Antioch, the oldest Christian Church in continuous existence, received a letter from Patriarch Bartholomew in response to the request by many leaders of local Churches to hold a pan-Orthodox discussion to resolve the dispute in Ukraine. According to the Union of Orthodox Journalists, the letter amounted to a slap in the face, borne of Patriarch Bartholomew’s own petulance, arrogance, and pettiness (We have added emphasis):

In a letter to the Primate of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, Patriarch John X, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople declared that “he has good reasons” to refrain from a general Orthodox meeting on the Ukrainian church issue, reports the official website of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Patriarch Bartholomew called the discussion of the religious situation in Ukraine “useless” and reminded the Primate of the Antiochian Church of his refusal to participate in the Crete Council of 2016, which Constantinople had been prepar[ing] for a long time.

“After the four Orthodox Churches, from a church and theological point of view without a reason, refused to be present at the Ecumenical Sacred Council, for which there are no excuses, and your ancient Church was one of them, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has good reasons to refrain from such a meeting at the pan-Orthodox a level that will be useless since it will only lead to the agreement that the participants will disagree with each other,” wrote the Patriarch of Constantinople.

According to him, the autocephalous nature of the OCU became a reward for the Church of Ukraine, and the Phanar returned “to the fold of the canonical Church” the members of the UOC KP and the UAOC who were “unfairly” outside it. At the same time, Patriarch Bartholomew assures that he returned the schismatics to the bosom of Orthodoxy exclusively “following church traditions and canons.”

In other words, the Patriarch appears to be digging in. This situation is entirely wrong according to Church canons. The Patriarch is acting as though he has jurisdiction over all other Orthodox Churches, which is a position remarkably similar to that perceived by the Bishop of Rome prior to the Great Schism of 1054 which split the Roman Catholic Church apart from the other ancient Orthodox Patriarchates.

The result of that split was a slow disintegration of Christian integrity in the Roman Church, the eventual development of Protestantism and the present result of a severely degraded form of Christianity in the West, where the law of God is not considered at all, and one can essentially believe or act however they want and find a “church” that will back them up, or they will start their own.

The current actions of the Ecumenical Patriarch have caused concerns, even fears, of a new split in the Orthodox Church, and with the present geopolitical climate being strongly anti-Russian, there is a lot of thought that the United States is influencing and encouraging the split in order to isolate both Russia and its Orthodox Church, which is the largest and strongest in the world at this time.

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