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Russia calls U.S. bluff on Syria, Washington rages

With the Kerry – Lavrov agreement having collapsed and the US military ruling out imposition of a no-fly zone, the US can only rage as the Syrian army closes in on the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo.

Alexander Mercouris

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Over the course of the last week, following the collapse of the Kerry – Lavrov agreement and the ceasefire, and with the Syrian army closing in on the Jihadis trapped in eastern Aleppo, the reality of pending defeat in Aleppo has finally struck home with the Western powers.   

The result is a round of frantic diplomatic and media activity to try to embarrass the Russians to bring the Syrian army’s offensive in Aleppo to a stop.

The reason for this activity is the further advance of the Syrian army in Aleppo since the breakdown of the ceasefire. 

Having defeated and driven back the Jabhat Al-Nusra led Jihadi offensive against the south west of Aleppo by the first week of September, the Syrian army since the collapse of the ceasefire has consolidated its control of the Castello road by capturing the now deserted area of the Handarat Palestinian refugee camp.  It is also, following intense artillery shelling and bombing, advancing from the area of the Aleppo citadel and from the Ramousseh district into the Jihadi controlled areas of eastern Aleppo, apparently in order to consolidate its control of the suburbs of south western Aleppo and – possibly – so as to cut Jihadi controlled eastern Aleppo in half.

Reports from Aleppo speak of the Syrian military and its allies concentrating substantial forces near or in the city to support the offensive.  The Russian marines are still at the Castello road, and there are reports that up to 8,000 Iranian commanded Iraqi Shia militia have also arrived in the city.  The main strike force however remains the Syrian army.

It appears that the Russian aerial strike force at Khmeimim air base has also been reinforced.  A video released on Saturday 24th September 2016 by Russian Ruptly TV supposedly shows Syrian troops advancing against Jihadi fighters in Lattakia province following the collapse of the ceasefire.  The video shows SU25 aircraft providing ground support. Russia deployed SU25 aircraft to Khmeimim air base in September last year.  However they were all withdrawn in March.  It seems they are now back.

The key point to understand, and which explains all the furious rhetoric of the last few days, is that the Western powers cannot stop the Syrian offensive against the Jihadis trapped in Aleppo. 

At a US Senate hearing on Thursday 22nd September 2016 US General Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained why.  Pressed by Mississippi Republican Senator Roger Wicker to say if the US could take “decisive action” by imposing a no-fly zone – something which Wicker said he had discussed with the Democrats and which might have bipartisan support – Dunford replied

“For now, for us to control all the airspace in Syria would require us to go to war with Syria and Russia. That’s a pretty fundamental decision that certainly I’m not going to make.”

Dunford’s comment provoked an intervention by Republican Senator John McCain, a perennial war hawk and interventionist who constantly presses for US military action at any and every opportunity and especially so in any conflict involving Russia.  McCain tried to get Dunford to say that a no-fly zone was not the same as  “total control of the Syrian airspace”, which would require  war with Russia and Syria.

The reality, as both McCain and Dunford know, is that the US has never imposed a no-fly zone over a country over which it did not have “total control of the airspace”.  It is inconceivable the US would try to impose a no-fly zone over Syria if it did not have “total control of the airspace”.  Dunford’s admission that “total control of the airspace” cannot be achieved in Syria without going to war with Russia for all practical purposes rules the whole idea of a no-fly zone over Syria out.

Unable to impose a no-fly zone, there is nothing in practical terms that the US can do to change the course of the fighting in Aleppo.  

It is this US awareness of its own impotence as its Jihadi proteges in Aleppo face total defeat which accounts for all the angry rhetoric and cranking up of atrocity stories we have been seeing over the last week.  These have now culminated  in some typically furious denunciations of Russia by US ambassador Samantha Power on Sunday’s 25th September 2016 at the UN Security Council, over the course of which she actually accused Russia of “barbarism”.  

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, in an unguarded comment for which he is probably already being taken to task, slipped the truth out during a television interview on Sunday 25th September 2016

“If you say to me the West is too impotent, I would have to agree. I would have to agree that, since we took those decisions in 2013, when those red lines were crossed, we have not really had a viable military response, or any kinetic response to what is going on. I don’t think there is any real appetite for such a thing.”

(bold italics added)

Johnson then went on to say that the only thing the West could do in this situation is to try to embarrass the Russians into calling a stop.  He explained this by saying that “the one thing the Russians respond to is adverse global public opinion”. 

This explains all the current talk of war crimes, encompassing charges of (the unproved) Russian guilt for the attack on the relief convoy, complaints about the deliberate cutting off of Aleppo’s water supply, charges of the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas of Aleppo, claims of the use of firebombs there etc. – all things which happen in Syria all the time, and which having been happening continuously there ever since the war started, but which are now being talked about as war crimes.  

In the same interview Johnson put it this way

“They (the Russians – AM) are in the dock of the court of international opinion. They are guilty of making the war far more protracted and far more hideous, and yes, when it comes up, the bombing of civilian targets, we should be looking … to see if the targeting is done in the knowledge they are wholly innocent civilian targets, [because] that is a war crime.”

To Western dismay the Russians however show no sign of bending. 

The key point about the events at the UN General Assembly last week was that Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov – despite coming under intense concerted pressure from the US and its allies – flatly ruled out any more unilateral ceasefires by the Syrian army.  

Instead he made it crystal clear that a ceasefire could only happen if the Syrian opposition fighters genuinely committed themselves to it and separated themselves from Jabhat Al-Nusra, as the US promised in February and in the recent Kerry – Lavrov agreement that they would do.

At the UN Security Council meeting on Sunday 25th September 2016 Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin said the same thing

“The American side de facto signed that it was unable to influence the groups it sponsors and to deliver on the deal as it promised. First of all, to separate those groups from terrorists and mark their positions on the ground accordingly.

The ceasefire can only be salvaged now on a collective basis. It’s not us that have to prove something to somebody unilaterally. We have to see proof that there is a genuine desire to separate US-allied rebel groups from the Al-Nusra Front, then destroy the Al-Nusra Front and bring the opposition into a political process. Otherwise our suspicions that this was only meant to shield the Al-Nusra Front would only grow stronger.”

(bold italics added)

Two weeks ago I said that the likely motivation of the realists in Washington who supported the Kerry -Lavrov agreement was to save the Jihadis in Aleppo and preserve them as a coherent force by evacuating them from the city, where they had become trapped and where their position had become untenable.  That was why – as I speculated on the strength of certain comments made by Russian military officials – it appeared that the Kerry – Lavrov agreement made provision for their withdrawal from Aleppo by way of the Castello road.

As it turns out the Kerry – Lavrov agreement did indeed provide for that.  This has now been confirmed by the text of the part of the Kerry – Lavrov agreement the US has disclosed (through the bizarre device of a leak to the Associated Press).  This is the specific provision in the text

“Any Syrians can leave Aleppo via Castello Road, including armed opposition forces with their weapons, with the understanding that no harm will come to them and they can choose their destination. Opposition forces leaving Aleppo with weapons must coordinate ahead of time with UN representatives as to the time they will be using Castello Road and the number of personnel and weapons and military equipment departing.”

(bold italics added)

The document the US has published is only one document of the five which together make up the Kerry – Lavrov agreement.  The other documents no doubt go into much greater detail about the separation of the fighters the US supports from Jabhat Al-Nusra.  It is likely that these documents specify which fighters were to leave Aleppo via the Castello road, and what would happen to those who remained.

In the event the intentions of the realists were defeated because the hardliners in Washington and the Jihadis on the ground in Syria rejected the Kerry – Lavrov agreement. 

The result was that instead of separating themselves from Jabhat Al-Nusra – as the Kerry-Lavrov agreement required them to do – the Jihadi fighters have remained united with Jabhat Al-Nusra, and tried to exploit the ceasefire to carry out more attacks on the Syrian army.

Following the collapse of the ceasefire, and with the forcible imposition of a no-fly zone for all practical purposes ruled out, the US has found itself left with nothing other than US Secretary of State Kerry’s absurd proposal that Russia and Syria impose a no-fly zone on themselves.  The moment the Russians rejected this proposal – as they were bound to do – the US’s bluff was effectively called. 

It is this awareness on the part of the US that its bluff has been called, and that its impotence to effect militarily the course of the battle of Aleppo has been laid bare, which is behind the furious denunciations we are now hearing from the US and its allies, as they scramble desperately to try to get the Russians to call off the battle of Aleppo so as to save their Jihadi proteges in Aleppo from total defeat, and themselves from the humiliation of the public failure of their strategy.

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It’s Official: ‘Britain’s Democracy Now At Risk’

It’s not just campaigners saying it any more: democracy is officially at risk, according to parliament’s own digital, culture, media and sport committee.

The Duran

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Via True Publica, authored by Jessica Garland – Electoral Reform Society:


Britain’s main campaign rules were drawn up in the late 1990s, before social media and online campaigning really existed. This has left the door wide open to disinformation, dodgy donations and foreign interference in elections.

There is a real need to close the loopholes when it comes to the online Wild West.

Yet in this year’s elections, it was legitimate voters who were asked to identify themselves, not those funnelling millions into political campaigns through trusts, or those spreading fake news.

The government trialled mandatory voter ID in five council areas in May. In these five pilot areas alone about 350 people were turned away from polling stations for not having their papers with them — and they didn’t return. In other words, they were denied their vote.

Yet last year, out of more than 45 million votes cast across the country, there were just 28 allegations of personation (pretending to be someone else at the polling station), the type of fraud voter ID is meant to tackle.

Despite the loss of 350 votes, the pilots were branded a success by the government. Yet the 28 allegations of fraud (and just one conviction) are considered such a dire threat that the government is willing to risk disenfranchising many more legitimate voters to try to address it. The numbers simply don’t add up.

Indeed, the fact-checking website FullFact noted that in the Gosport pilot, 0.4 per cent of voters did not vote because of ID issues. That’s a greater percentage than the winning margin in at least 14 constituencies in the last election. Putting up barriers to democratic engagement can have a big impact. In fact, it can swing an election.

In the run-up to the pilots, the Electoral Reform Society and other campaigners warned that the policy risked disenfranchising the most marginalised groups in society.

The Windrush scandal highlights exactly the sort of problems that introducing stricter forms of identity could cause: millions of people lack the required documentation. It’s one of the reasons why organisations such as the Runnymede Trust are concerned about these plans.

The Electoral Commission has now published a report on the ID trials, which concludes that “there is not yet enough evidence to fully address concerns” on this front.

The small number of pilots, and a lack of diversity, meant that sample sizes were too small to conclude anything about how the scheme would affect various demographic groups. Nor can the pilots tell us about the likely impact of voter ID in a general election, where the strain on polling staff would be far greater and a much broader cross-section of electors turns out to vote.

The Electoral Reform Society, alongside 22 organisations, campaigners and academics, has now called on the constitution minister to halt moves to impose this policy. The signatories span a huge cross-section of society, including representatives of groups that could be disproportionately impacted by voter ID, from Age UK to Liberty and from the British Youth Council to the Salvation Army and the LGBT Foundation.

Voters know what our democratic priorities should be: ensuring that elections are free from the influence of big donors. Having a secure electoral register. Providing balanced media coverage. Transparency online.

We may be little wiser as a result of the government’s voter ID trials. Yet we do know where the real dangers lie in our politics.

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Corrupt Robert Mueller’s despicable Paul Manafort trial nears end (Video)

The Duran – News in Review – Episode 79.

Alex Christoforou

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Paul Manafort’s legal team rested its case on Tuesday without calling a single witness. This sets the stage for closing arguments before the judge hands the case to jurors for a verdict.

Manafort’s defense opted to call no witnesses, choosing instead to rely on the team’s cross-examination of government witnesses including a very devious Rick Gates, Manafort’s longtime deputy, and several accountants, bookkeepers and bankers who had financial dealings with Manafort.

Closing arguments are expected on Wednesday. Jurors may begin deliberating shortly after receiving their final instructions from judge Ellis.

Manafort case has nothing to do with Mueller’s ‘Trump-Russia collusion witch-hunt’ as the former DC lobbyist is accused of defrauding banks to secure loans and hiding overseas bank accounts and income from U.S. tax authorities.

U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III denied a defense motion to acquit Manafort on the charges because prosecutors hadn’t proved their case.

The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris discuss the circus trial of Trump’s former Campaign Manager Paul Manafort, and how crooked cop Robert Mueller is using all his power to lean on Manafort, so as to conjure up something illegal against US President Donald Trump.

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Via Zerohedge

Prosecutors allege he dodged taxes on millions of dollars made from his work for a Ukrainian political party, then lied to obtain bank loans when cash stopped flowing from the project.

The courtroom was sealed for around two hours Tuesday morning for an unknown reason, reopening around 11:30 a.m. with Manafort arriving around 10 minutes later.

The decision to rest their case without calling any witnesses follows a denial by Judge T.S. Ellis III to acquit Manafort after his lawyers tried to argue that the special counsel had failed to prove its case at the federal trial.

The court session began at approximately 11:45 a.m.:

“Good afternoon,” began defense attorney Richard Westling, who corrected himself and said, “Good morning.”

“I’m as surprised as you are,” Judge Ellis responded.

Ellis then heard brief argument from both sides on the defense’s motion for acquittal, focusing primarily on four counts related to Federal Savings Bank.

Federal Savings Bank was aware of the status of Paul Manafort’s finances,” Westling argued. “They came to the loans with an intent of doing business with Mr. Manafort.”

Prosecutor Uzo Asonye fired back, saying that that even if bank chairman Steve Calk overlooked Manafort’s financial woes, it would still be a crime to submit fraudulent documents to obtain the loans.

“Steve Calk is not the bank,” Asonye argued, adding that while Caulk may have “had a different motive” — a job with the Trump administration — “I’m not really sure there’s evidence he knew the documents were false.”

Ellis sided with prosecutors.

The defense makes a significant argument about materiality, but in the end, I think materiality is an issue for the jury,” he said, adding. “That is true for all the other counts… those are all jury issues.”

Once that exchange was over, Manafort’s team was afforded the opportunity to present their case, to which lead attorney Kevin Downing replied “The defense rests.

Ellis then began to question Manafort to ensure he was aware of the ramifications of that decision, to which the former Trump aide confirmed that he did not wish to take the witness stand.

Manafort, in a dark suit and white shirt, stood at the lectern from which his attorneys have questioned witnesses, staring up at the judge. Ellis told Manafort he had a right to testify, though if he chose not to, the judge would tell jurors to draw no inference from that. – WaPo

Ellis asked Manafort four questions – his amplified voice booming through the courtroom:

Had Manafort discussed the decision with his attorney?

“I have, your honor,” Manafort responded, his voice clear.

Was he satisfied with their advice?

“I am, your honor,” Manafort replied.

Had he decided whether he would testify?

“I have decided,” Manafort said.

“Do you wish to testify?” Ellis finally asked.

“No, sir,” Manafort responded.

And with that, Manafort returned to his seat.

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One more step toward COMPLETE de-dollarization

Over the past several months, sitting here in Moscow, it has become increasingly obvious that while the US Dollar is unquestionably the world’s leading and liquid reserve currency, it comes with an ever increasing high price (of sovereignty and FX) if you are not the USA.

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I have opined and written about the trend towards de-dollarization before, but with the latest US –Turkish spat it has hit the wallets, mattresses and markets of a number of countries, be they aligned with Washington or not. One thing they all have in common was that in this recent era of low cost available money, many happily fed at the US dollar trough.

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This serves as a further albeit loud example to many nations for the need to diversify to an extent away from the greenback, or risk being caught up in its volatile, sudden and unpredictably risky increasingly politicized directions.

The Dollar and the geopolitical winds from Washington are today as never before openly being used as policy, which can be called the “carrot and stick”, a distinctly Pavlovian approach. Sadly, few if any can make out where or what the carrot is in this recent US worldview branding.

Tariffs, sanctions, pressured exchange rates, the Federal Reserve loosening or tightening, trade agreements and laws ignored or simply trashed… there is a lot going on which seems to democratically affect America’s allies as well as those on Washington’s politically popular and dramatic “poo-poo” list.

Just now from a press conference in Turkey, I watched Russia’s foreign minister Lavrov say that through the actions shown by the US, the role of the US dollar as a secure global reserve currency for free trade will diminish as more countries switch to national currencies for international trade.

He clearly spoke for many nations when he said; “It will make more and more countries that are not even affected by US sanctions go away from the dollar and rely on more reliable, contractual partners in terms of currency use.” Putting the situation in a nutshell he went on to say “I have already said this about sanctions: they are illegal, they undermine all principles of global trade and principles approved by UN decisions, under which unilateral measures of economic duress are unlawful.”

Turkey, a long-standing NATO ally and a key line of western defense during the long cold war years fully agreed with his Russian counterpart. The Turkish foreign minister Mr. Cavosoglu openly warned that US sanctions or trade embargoes can and are being unilaterally imposed against any country at any time if they do not toe DC’s political line.

He said at the same press conference; “Today, sanctions are imposed on Turkey, and tomorrow they can be used against any other European state. If the United States wants to maintain respect in the international arena, then it is necessary for it to be respectful of the interests of other countries.”

What is happening in Turkey is symptomatic of the developed and emerging markets globally. When trillions of dollars of newly issued lucre was up for grabs, thanks to several developed country central banks, it was comparatively easy for governments and companies just like Turkey’s to borrow funds denominated in dollars and not their national currencies.

Turkey has relied on foreign-currency debt more than most EM’s. Corporate, financial and other debt denominated mostly in dollars, approximates close to 70% of it’s economy. Therefore as the Turkish lira plunges, it is very costly for those companies to repay their dollar-denominated loans, and even now it is patently clear many will not.

The concern rattling around the underbelly of the global markets is what can be reasonably expected for assets and economies that were inflated by cheap debt, the United States included. All this points not so much to a banking crisis as has happened eight years ago, but a systemic financial market crisis.

This is a new one, and I doubt if any QE, QT, NIRPs, or ZIRPs will make much of a difference, despite the rocket-high equity markets the US has been displaying.

One financial trader I spoke to, whom I have known since the early 1980’s (and I thought him ancient then) muttered to me “we’re gettin’ into the ecstasy stage, nothing but the high matters, everything else including the VIX is seen as boring denial, and not the warning tool it is. Better start loading up on gold.”

Meanwhile, de-dollarization is ongoing in Russia and is carefully studied by a host of countries, especially as the Russian government has not yet finished selling off US debt; it still has just a few billion to go. The Russian Finance Minister A. Siluanov said this past Sunday that Russia would continue decreasing holdings of Treasuries in response to sanctions.

The finance minister went on to say that, Russia is also considering distancing itself from using the US dollar for international trade, calling it an unreliable, conditional and hence risky tool for payments.

Between March and May this year, Russia’s US debt holdings were sold down by $81 billion, which is 84% of its total US debt holdings, and while I don’t know the current figure it is certain to be even less.

The latest round of tightening sanctions screws against Russia were imposed by the State Department under a chemical and biological warfare law and should be going into effect on August 22. This in spite of the fact that no proof was ever shown, not under any established national or international law, or with any of several global biochemical conventions, not even in the ever entertaining court of public opinion.

Whatever Russia may continue to do in its relationship with US debt or the dollar, the fact of the matter is that Russia is not a heavyweight in this particular financial arena, and the direct effects of Russia’s responses are negligible. However, the indirect effects are huge as they reflect what many countries (allied or unallied with the US) see as Washington’s overbearing and more than slightly unipolar trade and geopolitical advantage quests, be they Mexico, Canada, the EU, or anyone else on any hemisphere of this globe.

Some of the potential indirect effects over time may be a similar sell-off or even gradual reduction of US debt exposure from China or any one of several dozens of countries deciding to reduce their exposure to US debt by reducing their purchases and waiting for existing Treasuries to mature. In either case, the trend is there and is not going away anytime soon.

When Russia clears its books of US dollarized debt, then who will be next in actively diversifying their US debt risk? Then what might be the fate of the US Dollar, and what value then will be the international infusions to finance America’s continually growing debt, or fuel the funds needed for further market growth? Value and the energy of money has no politics, it ultimately trends towards areas where there is a secure business dynamic. That being said, looks like we are now and will be living through the most interesting of disruptive times.

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