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Syria update: Syrian army advances in East Ghouta; Turkish army advances in Afrin

Syrian and Turkish army advances strengthen the positions in the conflict of both Damascus and Ankara

Alexander Mercouris

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In the last few days the pattern the Syrian conflict has been taking is one of continuing advances by the Syrian army against the Jihadi fighters in East Ghouta, and by the Turkish army against the Kurdish militia in Afrin.

Reports from East Ghouta suggest that 40% of the former Jihadi enclave has now been recaptured by the Syrian army, up from the 30% of the enclave which the Syrian controlled just two days ago.

It seems that Jihadi resistance in the enclave is crumbling even faster than most expected, with the Jihadi fighters in the enclave unable despite their desperate resistance to stop or slow down the advance of the Syrian army.

Latest reports from the normally reliable Al-Masdar news agency speak of further planned advances by the Syrian army in the enclave, with the Syrian army now preparing to storm the strategically important Jihadi controlled town of Mesraba within the enclave.

These rapid Syrian army advances in East Ghouta are taking place despite the daily five hour bombing halts which have been insisted on – much I suspect to the Syrian leadership’s frustration – by Russian President Putin.

This is despite the fact that the daily bombing halts are failing to achieve their stated purpose, as the Jihadi fighters refuse to leave and refuse to allow the civilians trapped in the enclave to leave.

The main effect of the bombing halts is therefore to give the Jihadi fighters in East Ghouta a daily respite from the bombing, and to force the Syrian army to carry out many of its operations at night.

Nonetheless, despite these obstacles, the Syrian army continues its advance, and as I said previously there appears to be nothing that the Jihadi fighters can do to slow it down or stop it.

Simultaneously with the advance of the Syrian army in East Ghouta, the Turkish army has been pressing ahead with its offensive against the Kurdish controlled enclave of Afrin.

Despite the Kurdish militia sending strong reinforcements to Afrin, and despite the arrival of pro-Syrian government militia there, latest reports speak of the Turkish army and its Jihadi allies advancing to within seven kilometres of the town of Afrin.

The Kurdish militia’s response to this Turkish advance in Afrin appears however to be to double down.  Instead of withdrawing from Afrin and handing over what remains of the canton to the Syrian government, it seems that the Kurdish militia is redeploying 1,700 Kurdish fighters from the Euphrates river valley to Afrin, and is also redeploying other fighters from Raqqa province to Afrin.

That risks creating a vacuum in the Euphrates river valley, which if it is not filled quickly by the Syrian army risks being filled by ISIS instead, which Al-Masdar already reports is preparing to launch a major offensive in the area.

In fact reports that a pro Syrian government militia unit is being formed for operations in Raqqa province may suggest that the Syrian government is already preparing to fill the gaps caused by Kurdish withdrawals from the Euphrates river valley and Raqqa.

As I have discussed previously, neither the Syrian government nor the Russians welcome the Turkish operation in Afrin.

President Erdogan’s barely concealed plan to link up Afrin, the Jarablus corridor which he already controls, and Jihadi controlled Idlib province, in a large zone of Turkish controlled territory, taken together with the Turkish military’s ongoing work to build up a 25,000 strong Turkish trained Jihadi force in this zone, represents a major ongoing threat to the Syrian government.

The advance of pro-Syrian government militia fighters into Afrin was intended to forestall that move, and President Putin’s repeated conversations with Turkish President Erdogan (another took place yesterday) are at least in part intended to dissuade Erdogan from continuing with it.

However the reality is that with President Erdogan seemingly determined to press ahead, and with the Kurds showing no willingness to retreat or to make concessions even as their military position deteriorates, there is little that Russian diplomacy can for the moment do.

Needless to say the option of a direct clash between the Syrian and Turkish militaries, with the Russians providing air support to the Syrian military, is one which the Russians are extremely anxious to avoid, and they will be acting to prevent it taking place.  Here is how I discussed Russian thinking about that two weeks ago

The Russians will however be anxious to prevent an open clash between the Turkish and Syrian militaries from taking place in Afrin.

The Russians and the Syrian government are of course fully aware that in any one to one clash between the Turkish and Syrian militaries the advantage lies with the Turkish army.  The Russians would be loathe to see such a clash happen not just because it is likely that the Syrian military would be defeated, but because were it to happen they would come under immense pressure from Syria and Iran to come to the Syrian army’s aid.

Were they to do so their relationship with President Erdogan and Turkey would however be damaged probably beyond repair, thereby ending any prospect of their securing President Erdogan’s help to end the conflict in Syria.

This explains the understated nature of Russia’s moves.

It is known that the Russians tried to preempt Turkey’s Afrin operation by trying to persuade the Kurds to hand over Afrin to the Syrian government.  The Kurds however refused, so when the Turks attacked the Russians gave them the green light.

Now that the Kurds in Afrin are coming under pressure they have been forced to turn to the Syrian government.  The Russians have therefore given the Syrian government the green light to deploy its forces there.  At the same time they have almost certainly brokered an agreement whereby the Kurds in return for Syrian help will surrender districts they control in Aleppo and the town of Manbij to the Syrian government.

At the same time the Russians – anxious to maintain a dialogue with President Erdogan and to help him save face – have ensured that the Syrian deployment to Afrin is of a limited nature, being made up exclusively of pro-government militia forces, with no involvement by the Syrian army

The Al-Masdar news agency has confirmed that no Syrian troops are actually present in Afrin, showing that the deployment of pro-government militia forces to Afrin is intended first and foremost as a piece of positioning in advance of negotiations

If the Russians cannot for the moment broker a deal between the Turks, the Syrian government and the Kurds to end the fighting in Afrin – which is undoubtedly their preferred course – they can nonetheless use the crisis in Afrin to improve the position of the Syrian government in other ways.

The Kremlin’s summary of the latest conversation between Putin and Erdogan shows that the Russians are using Turkey’s focus on Afrin to get Turkey to accept the Syrian army’s ongoing offensive in East Ghouta, and to get the Turks to persuade their Jihadi allies to quit East Ghouta

The situation in Eastern Ghouta in the context of implementation of UN Security Council’s resolution 2401 was discussed. The importance of settling the humanitarian problems and the necessity of further uncompromising fight against the terrorist groups in this region was underlined.

The Russians have made it repeatedly clear that they see the removal of “terrorist groups” (ie. the Jihadi fighters fighting the Syrian army in East Ghouta) as the precondition for the imposition of the 30 day ceasefire that UN Security Council Resolution 2401/18 requires.

The Kremlin’s summary of Putin’s latest conversation with Erdogan suggests that this is what Putin told Erdogan, and that Erdogan accepted this logic.

The fact that once the Jihadi fighters had left East Ghouta there would be no one there for the Syrian government to agree a ceasefire with – enabling the Syrian government to take over complete control of the whole enclave – is of course something that all the parties to the conflict – the Syrians, the Russians, the US and the Turks – are fully aware.

That of course is precisely what happened in December 2016 in Aleppo, and as I predicted previously, we are now seeing a rerun of it now in East Ghouta.

Moreover just as happened during the final stages of the fighting in Aleppo, so now in East Ghouta it is becoming increasingly clear that some at least of the civilians trapped in East Ghouta actually want to see the Syrian government return there (see these two reports from Al-Masdar; here and here).

In all this diplomacy with the Turks the Russians have been handed a gift by the West in the form of Western insistence to the Turks that UN Security Council Resolution 2401/18 covers the fighting in Afrin as well as the fighting in East Ghouta, and that the Turks must therefore cease fighting the Kurds in Afrin and observe a 30 day ceasefire in Afrin, just as the Syrian army should cease fighting and observe a 30 day ceasefire in East Ghouta.

Here is how the US based Al-Monitor describes this

Turkey may have to pay a steep diplomatic price for ignoring a UN-ordered cease-fire in Syria. UN Security Council Resolution 2401, passed Feb. 24, calls on parties in Syria to observe a 30-day cease-fire. Ankara initially supported the decision, until realizing the resolution applies to it as well.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had said, “All the actors in Syria must comply with the 30-day cease-fire call of the UN all over the country.” But now Ankara is pretending the call wasn’t meant for Turkey.

The cease-fire aims to permit humanitarian aid to reach civilians. However, the resolution does allow for continued combat against the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and their affiliates. Turkey is seeking to drive out of Afrin the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which it considers a terrorist-affiliated group.

But the United States, France and Germany soon made it clear that the cease-fire indeed includes Afrin. As the disagreement with its Western partners continued, Turkey deployed its special operations teams for the second phase of the operation.

On Feb. 26, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke by phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to a statement from Macron, he told Erdogan that the “humanitarian agreement covers all of Syria, including Afrin, and has to be implemented all over without delay.”

The next day, US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert also said the resolution applies to all of Syria and called on Turkey to read the text again. This was followed by the German Foreign Ministry calling on Turkey to respect the resolution. Statements from the European Union also called on Turkey to stop its Afrin operations.

The Western claim that Resolution 2401/18 covers Afrin as well as East Ghouta is strictly speaking true based on a narrow reading of its text.  However it is difficult to imagine saying anything more likely to infuriate President Erdogan than saying this.  Not surprisingly, as Al-Monitor says, his response has been harsh

Turkey’s response to all these warnings was equally harsh: Its Foreign Ministry said Afrin was not mentioned in the conversation with Macron and accused France of lying. Ankara also said Nauert’s remarks had no basis and that she either didn’t understand the resolution or was being intentionally misleading in her interpretation.

Erdogan said Turkey will struggle against anyone confronting it. He pointed out that cement-mixing machinery from Paris-based company Lafarge can be seen in Afrin — insinuating that France supports the YPG. France has investigated Lafarge’s role in financing IS and other extremist groups in Syria.

As it happens President Erdogan has a right to be angry.  In the run up to the vote in the UN Security Council for Resolution 2401/18 nothing at all was said about Afrin, with the all the discussion being about East Ghouta.

President Erdogan – who supported the Resolution – therefore has a right to feel that the Western powers tricked him, getting him to support a Resolution which he thought was about East Ghouta whereas the way it was drafted has made it possible for the Western powers to argue that it is also about Afrin.

The Western powers are of course acting in this way because in accordance with the US’s Plan C the US wants to keep the Kurdish militia intact in order to further its objective of undermining the Syrian government.

However President Erdogan cannot fail to contrast this further example of Western duplicity (as he is bound to see it) with the careful respect and consideration he always gets from the Russians.

That inevitably is going to predispose him to listen more carefully to what the Russians are telling him, not just about Afrin but about East Ghouta.

That presumably explains his muted response to the fighting in East Ghouta and – according to the Kremlin’s summary of their conversation – his agreement with Putin as to “the necessity of further uncompromising fight against the terrorist groups in this region”.

In summary, it seems that over the next few days or weeks both the Syrian government and the Turkish government will achieve their immediate objectives in Syria.

It is now only a question of time before the Syrian government achieves total control over East Ghouta, and it is likely though still not absolutely certain that the Turkish government will also shortly achieve total control over Afrin.

Both the Syrian and the Turkish governments will have moved closer to fulfilment of their medium term objectives in Syria.

The Syrian government will have finally secured the countryside around the Syrian capital of Damascus and will have increased its leverage over the Kurds.

The Turkish government will have prevented the continued growth of Kurdish power in northern Syria, and will have strengthened the zone under its control, in which it is continuing to build up a Jihadi force loyal to itself.

The struggle for Syria continues, with the two strongest players in the game – Turkey and the Syrian government backed by Russia – having improved their positions.

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Peace on Korean Peninsula within reach, if only Trump can remove Pompeo & Bolton (Video)

The Duran Quick Take: Episode 152.

Alex Christoforou

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RT CrossTalk host Peter Lavelle and The Duran’s Alex Christoforou discuss the results of the Putin-Kim summit in Vladivostok, Russia, aimed at boosting bilateral ties between the two neighboring countries, as well as working to contribute to a final peace settlement on the Korean peninsula.

Putin’s meeting with Kim may prove to be a pivotal diplomatic moment, as North Korea continues to work towards normalizing ties with the U.S. amidst ongoing denuclearization talks with the Trump White House.

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Via the BBC…

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un needs international security guarantees if he is to end his nuclear programme.

Such guarantees would need to be offered within a multinational framework, he added, following talks near Vladivostok in Russia’s far east.

Mr Kim praised the summit as a “very meaningful one-on-one exchange”.

Mr Putin said North Korea’s leader was “fairly open” and had “talked freely on all issues that were on the agenda”.

The meeting followed the breakdown of talks between the US and North Korea in February, when Mr Kim met US President Donald Trump in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi.

Those talks reportedly stalled over North Korea’s demand for full economic sanctions relief in return for some denuclearisation commitments – a deal the US was not willing to make.

Speaking after the talks on Thursday, Mr Putin said he wanted to see full denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula.

But he said this could only be achieved through respect for international law.

“We need to restore the power of international law, to return to a state where international law, not the law of the strongest, determines the situation in the world,” he said.

Mr Kim greeted Russian officials warmly when he arrived in Russia on Wednesday.

The North Korean leader was entertained by a brass band in Vladivostok before he got inside a car flanked by bodyguards, who – in now familiar scenes – jogged alongside the vehicle as it departed.

What do we know about the summit?

According to the Russian presidential spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin believes the six-party talks on North Korea, which are currently stalled, are the only efficient way of addressing the issue of nuclear weapons on the peninsula.

Those talks, which began in 2003, involve the two Koreas as well as China, Japan, Russia and the US.

“There are no other efficient international mechanisms at the moment,” Mr Peskov told reporters on Wednesday.

“But, on the other hand, efforts are being made by other countries. Here all efforts merit support as long as they really aim at de-nuclearisation and resolving the problem of the two Koreas.”

What do both sides want?

This visit is being widely viewed as an opportunity for North Korea to show it has powerful allies following the breakdown of the talks with the US in February.

The country has blamed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for the collapse of the Hanoi summit. Earlier this month North Korea demanded that Mr Pompeo be removed from nuclear talks, accusing him of “talking nonsense” and asking for someone “more careful” to replace him.

The summit is also an opportunity for Pyongyang to show that its economic future does not depend solely on the US. Mr Kim may try to put pressure on Moscow to ease sanctions.

Analysts say the summit is an opportunity for Russia to show that it is an important player on the Korean peninsula.

President Putin has been eager to meet the North Korean leader for quite some time. Yet amid the two Trump-Kim summits, the Kremlin has been somewhat sidelined.

Russia, like the US and China, is uncomfortable with North Korea being a nuclear state.

How close are Russia and North Korea?

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union (of which Russia is the main successor state) maintained close military and trade links with its communist ally, North Korea, for ideological and strategic reasons.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, trade links with post-communist Russia shrank and North Korea leaned towards China as its main ally.

Under President Putin, Russia recovered economically and in 2014 he wrote off most of North Korea’s Soviet-era debt in a major goodwill gesture.

While it is arguable how much leverage Russia has with the North today, the communist state still regards it as one of the least hostile foreign powers.

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Putin meets Kim for the first time (Video)

The Duran Quick Take: Episode 151.

Alex Christoforou

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The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris take a look at the historic meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the city of Vladivostok in the Russian Far East.

The meeting marks the first ever summit between the two leaders.

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Via RT…

Leaders of Russia and North Korea sat down for a historic summit in Vladivostok, expressing hope it will revive the peace process in the Korean Peninsula and talks on normalizing relations with the US.

The summit on Russky Island, just off Vladivostok, started a little late because President Vladimir Putin’s flight was delayed. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had made the trip by train, arriving on Wednesday.

In brief public remarks before the talks, the two leaders expressed hope the summit will help move forward the reconciliation process in the Korean Peninsula. Putin welcomed Kim’s contributions to “normalizing relations” with the US and opening a dialogue with South Korea.

Kim said he hoped the Vladivostok summit would be a “milestone” in the talks about denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, but also build upon “traditionally friendly ties” between Russia and North Korea.

The North Korean leader also made a point of thanking Putin for flying all the way to Vladivostok for the meeting. The Far East Russian city is only 129 kilometers from the border with North Korea.

The historic summit takes place less than two months after Kim’s second summit with US President Donald Trump in Hanoi fell apart without a breakthrough on denuclearization. The US rejected North Korea’s request for partial sanctions relief in return for moves to dismantle nuclear and missile programs; Washington insists on full disarmament before any sanctions are removed.

Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is the main subject of the Kim-Putin summit, but there will also be talks about bilateral relations, trade, and humanitarian aid. The first one-on-one meeting is scheduled to last about an hour, followed by further consultations involving other government officials.

Following the summit, Putin is scheduled to visit China.

 

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Kim And Putin: Changing The State Of The Board In Korea

The future of Korea could be decided by these two men today.

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Authored by Tom Luongo:


Today is a big day for Korea. The first face-to-face summit of Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un takes place.

At the same time the 2nd annual Belt and Road Forum kicks off in Beijing.

This meeting between Putin and Kim has been in the works for a while but rumors of it only surfaced last week. But don’t let the idea that this was put together at the last minute fool you.

It wasn’t.

The future of Korea could be decided by these two men today.

I know that sounds bold. But hear me out.

And while no one seems to think this meeting is important or that anything of substance will come from it I do. It is exactly the kind of surprise that Putin loves to spring on the world without notice and by doing so change the board state of geopolitics.

  • Russia’s entrance into Syria in 2015, two days after Putin’s historic speech at the U.N. General Assembly
  • 2018’s State of the Union address where he announced hypersonic missiles, embarrassing the U.S. Militiary-Industrial Complex which accelerated the Bolton Doctrine of subjugating the world
  • Flying 2 TU-160 nuclear-armed bombers to Venezuela, creating panic in D.C. leading to the ham-fisted regime change operations there.
  • Nationalization of Yukos.
  • The operation to secure Crimea from U.S. invasion by marines aboard the U.S.S Donald Cook during the Ukrainian uprising against Viktor Yanukovich.

Both Putin and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping are angry at the breakdown of the talks in Hanoi back in February. It was clear that everyone expected that meeting to be a rubber stamp on a deal already agreed to by all parties involved.

In fact the two meetings between Kim and Trump were only possible because Trump convinced them of his sincerity to resolve the ‘denuclearization’ of North Korea which would clear a path to rapid reunification.

It’s why they went along with the U.S.’s increased sanctions on North Korea as administered through the U.N. in 2017.

That John Bolton and Mike Pompeo destroyed those talks and Trump was unwilling or unable (who cares at this point, frankly, useless piece of crap that he is) to stop them embarrassed and betrayed them.

They are now done with Trump.

He’ll get nothing from either of them or Kim until Trump can prove he’s in charge of his administration, which he, clearly, is not.

And they will be moving forward with their own agenda for security and Asian economic integration. So I don’t think the timing of this meeting with that of the Belt and Road Forum is an accident.

And that means moving forward on solving the Korea problem without Trump.

It is clear from the rhetoric of Putin’s top diplomat, the irreplaceable Sergei Lavrov, that Russia’s patience is over. They are no longer interested in what Trump wants and they will now treat the U.S. as a threat, having upped their military stance towards the U.S. to that of “Threat.”

If Bolton wants anything from Russia at this point he best be prepared to start a war or piss off.

This is also why Russia took the gloves off with Ukraine in the run up to the Presidential elections, cutting off energy and machinery exports with Ukraine.

To put paid Putin’s growing impatience with U.S. policies, he just issued the order to allow residents of Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics to apply for Russian passports.

This will send Bolton into apoplexy. Angela Merkel of Germany will be none too pleased either. Putin is now playing hardball after years of unfailing politeness.

It’s also why Lavrov finalized arms and port deals all over the Middle East in recent weeks, including those with Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey and India.

Bolton, Pompeo and Pence are ideologues. Trump is a typical Baby Boomer, who lives in a bubble of his own design and believes in an America that never existed.

None of them truly understand the fires they are stoking and simply believe in the Manifest Destiny of the U.S. to rule the world over a dim and barbaric world.

Putin, Xi, Rouhani in Iran and Kim in North Korea are pragmatic men. They understand the realities they live in. This is why I see Putin willing tomorrow to sit down with Kim and flaunt the U.N. sanctions and begin the investment process into North Korea that should have begun last year.

Putin would not be making these moves if he didn’t feel that Bolton was all bark and no bite when it came to actual war with Russia. He also knows that Germany needs him more than he needs Germany so despite the feet-dragging and rhetoric Nordstream 2 will go forward.

Trade is expanding between them despite the continued sanctions.

Putin may be willing to cut a deal with President-elect Zelensky on gas transit later in the year but only if the shelling of the LPR and DPR stops and he guarantees no more incidents in the Sea of Azov. This would also mollify Merkel a bit and make it easier for her politically to get Nordstream 2 over the finish line.

There are moments in history when people go too far. Bolton and Pompeo went too far in Hanoi. He will pay the price now. Putin and Kim will likely agree to something in Vladivostok that no one is expecting and won’t look like much at first.

But the reality is this summit itself marks a turning point in this story that will end with the U.S. being, in Trump’s transactional parlance, a “price taker” since it has so thoroughly failed at being a “price maker.”

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