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Vladimir Putin to meet Erdogan in Istanbul despite continued Syria differences

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forthcoming trip to Istanbul continues the pattern of a gradual repairing of relations between Russian and Turkey despite continuing deep differences over the conflict in Syria.

Alexander Mercouris

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News that Russian President Vladimir Putin is planning to travel to Turkey on 10th October 2016 re-opens the question of how well the Russian – Turkish rapprochement is going.

Many of the hoped for predictions made shortly after the Turkish coup attempt in July have failed to happen.

NATO and the US are still firmly ensconced at Incirlik air base.  The US continues to conduct missions in Syria from there.  Talk of Russia being granted use of the air base has ended.

There is no sign of Turkey quitting NATO or giving up its application for EU membership or joining the Eurasian institutions.

Erdogan’s much anticipated visit to Tehran has failed to happen.  The Iranian news media, which was far more enthusiastic in talking up the possibility of a Turkish realignment than the Russian media was, has quietly dropped the subject.

Meanwhile Erdogan continues to support the Ukrainian position on Crimea, and assured Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko of this when the two men met at the recent session of the UN General Assembly in New York.

Turkey is also pressing ahead with Operation Euphrates Shield in Syria. 

There is a persistent myth that there is a secret Russian-Turkish understanding whereby the Turks have supposedly agreed to cease assisting the Jihadi fighters battling in and around Aleppo in return for Russian acquiescence to Operation Euphrates Shield, which supposedly is directed against the Kurds.

The Russians have in fact publicly criticised Operation Euphrates Shield, and have made it perfectly clear that they oppose it.

As for the talk of a secret Russian-Turkish understanding about Turkey ceasing to help Jihadi fighters fighting in and around Aleppo, there is no evidence that such an agreement exists, and what is actually happening on the ground in Syria proves that it does not. 

Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin recently complained to the UN Security Council that the Jihadis fighting in and around Aleppo are continuing to receive heavy weapons.  This is what he said

 “They are armed by tanks, APCs, field artillery, multiple rocket launchers… dozens and dozens of units, including heavy weaponry… Of course, they couldn’t have made this equipment themselves. All of this has been received by them and is still being shipped to them by generous Western backers, with the US, presumably, turning a blind eye”.

The only route through which such equipment could reach the Jihadis fighting near or in Aleppo is across the Turkish border by way of the Jarablus corridor.  This is the supply route to the Jihadis in northern Syria, and Churkin’s comments show that it is still operating.

It was in order to keep this corridor open when it was threatened by closure because of the advance of the Kurdish militia the YPG that the Turks occupied Jarablus and launched Operation Euphrates Shield.

In passing, I find it surprising that people continue to believe in the existence of this supposed secret Russian-Turkish agreement – for which there is no evidence – when the very public US support for the Turkish move on Jarablus (shown by the fact the US provided air support for it) makes its purpose perfectly clear.

It is an entirely different matter that Operation Euphrates Shield does not seem to be going well. 

As predicted, it is running into opposition from the Kurdish YPG, whilst the Jihadi “Free Syrian Army’ fighters upon whom Turkey relies have turned out to be poor fighters incapable of taking on either ISIS or the YPG even when backed by Turkish tanks. 

An anonymous source (likely either Turkish or American) speaking to Al-Monitor derisively spoke of them in this way

“The war in Syria is a war of ideologies. A Shiite militiaman dies for Twelver imams; a YPG man dies for [imprisoned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) Abdullah] Ocalan and Kurdish nationalism. Who will the FSA militant sacrifice himself for? Without jihadi motivation, the majority of the FSA looks more like a mercenary gang fighting for money.”

The result is that Operation Euphrates Shield is far from achieving its objectives.  Most importantly the key town of Al-Bab has not been secured and is still in ISIS’s hands, and there now seems to be a race underway between the Turkish military, the Syrian military, and the YPG over who will be the first to capture it.

However reports suggest that Erdogan – as is to be expected – far from pulling back, is instead doubling down on Operation Euphrates Shield, and is now planning to support the Turkish tanks and ‘Free Syrian Army’ fighters who are carrying out the operation by sending Turkish infantry into Syria to back the Turkish tanks there.

This opens up the very real possibility that the eventual result of Operation Euphrates Shield will be that it is Turkey not Russia that becomes bogged down in Syria.

As for the Russians, whilst it is true is that the Russians have been relatively restrained in what they have publicly said about Operation Euphrates Shield, that should not be taken as any sort of sign that they are happy about it, or that there is some sort of secret understanding in existence between them and the Turks.

Rather it is consistent with the way the Russians conduct their diplomacy.  They cannot stop Operation Euphrates Shield so they see no sense in advertising the fact by making a great fuss about it.

Not for the first time the Russians are misjudged because they do not behave like Americans.  Where the Americans increase the volume of their complaints whenever they feel powerless to do something effective (the fighting in Aleppo being a case in point) the Russians do the opposite.  Generally speaking it is the Russians rather than the Americans who like to talk soft and carry a big stick.

In this the Turks are more like the Russians.  Turkey’s reticence about the fighting in Aleppo is not because the Turks are happy about what is going on there or because they have some sort of secret understanding about it with the Russians. 

It is because the Turks know they cannot stop the fighting in Aleppo and do not want to humiliate themselves and risk the improvement of their relations with Russia by acting as if they can.

The one important Syria related contact between the Russians and the Turks which has taken place is the one which happened on 15th September 2016 – several weeks after Operation Euphrates Shield began – when General Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the Russian military’s General Staff, finally followed through with his previously postponed trip to Turkey and met there with General Hulusi Akar, the Chief of the Turkish military’s General Staff. 

The purpose of this meeting was not to agree that Turkish supplies to Jihadis fighting in and around Aleppo would be stopped.  It was to agree rules of engagement between the Russian and Turkish militaries in Syria to prevent accidental clashes between them.  A necessary consequence of this agreement is that the Turkish military will stay away from Aleppo.

If there is no real understanding between Russia and Turkey over Syria, and if the Turks are showing no sign of a strategic realignment away from the West and towards Russia, what is the point of Putin’s visit?

The short answer is that it is to continue work on re-establishing the political and economic ties between Turkey and Russia, which disintegrated following the Turkish shooting down of the Russian SU24 fighter bomber last November, and which have yet to be fully restored. 

In a sign of the residual distrust the Russians still feel towards Erdogan and Turkey – reflecting Russian anger about Operation Euphrates Shield – these ties are taking much longer to restore than anyone anticipated.

By way of example, it took a direct order from Putin – following a complaint to Putin from Erdogan on 26th August 2016 – for the ban on Russian charter flights to Turkey to be lifted on 28th August 2016.

This happened at the very end of August, just before the end of the school holidays in Russia, so that the benefit to Turkey of direct charter flight from Russia for this year’s tourist season was lost.

The Russians and the Turks nonetheless still have reasons to talk to each other despite their differences over Syria and their residual distrust of each other.

From the Russian point of view there is nothing to be gained from having Turkey an enemy.  The economic ties, whilst more valuable to Turkey than Russia, still benefit Russia, especially the Turk Stream pipeline, which is useful insurance for Russia in case North Stream 2 runs into problems.

Beyond that at a time when relations with the US over Syria are becoming increasingly fraught the Russians will be seeking reassurances from the Turks that they will not support any dramatic action by the US in Syria, for example a no-fly zone over the whole of Syria, or covert attacks by the US from Turkish territory on Russian military positions in Syria.

As for the Turks, with their economy precariously balanced as they struggle with large deficits, rising inflation, growing debt, and the demotion of their credit rating to junk status, maintaining a good economic relationship with Russia – their biggest trading partner after the EU – is becoming of critical importance.

Beyond that Turkey’s relations with the US remain fraught. 

No evidence has come to light that the US was involved in the July coup attempt and the US ambassador to Turkey has insisted that (as I have previously speculated) he would have immediately warned the Turkish government if he had been tipped off about it. 

However the US and Turkey remain in dispute over a wide range of issues, including the extradition of  Fethullah Gulen – whom the Turks continue to blame for the attempted coup – and especially over the YPG, which the US still cannot decide whether to commit to or drop. 

If only for that reason – in order to remind the US not to take Turkey for granted – the limited Russian-Turkish rapprochement remains just about on track, and Putin can expect a warm reception when he arrives on 10th October 2016 in Istanbul.

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US-China trade war heats up as surplus hits record $34 Billion (Video)

The Duran – News in Review – Episode 136.

Alex Christoforou

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According to a report by the AFP, China’s trade surplus with the United States ballooned to a record $34.1 billion in September, despite a raft of US tariffs, official data showed Friday, adding fuel to the fire of a worsening trade war.

Relations between the world’s two largest economies have soured sharply this year, with US President Donald Trump vowing on Thursday to inflict economic pain on China if it does not blink.
The two countries imposed new tariffs on a massive amount of each other’s goods mid-September, with the US targeting $200 billion in Chinese imports and Beijing firing back at $60 billion worth of US goods.

“China-US trade friction has caused trouble and pounded our foreign trade development,” customs spokesman Li Kuiwen told reporters Friday.

But China’s trade surplus with the US grew 10 percent in September from a record $31 billion in August, according to China’s customs administration. It was a 22 percent jump from the same month last year.

China’s exports to the US rose to $46.7 billion while imports slumped to $12.6 billion.

China’s overall trade — what it buys and sells with all countries including the US — logged a $31.7 billion surplus, as exports rose faster than imports.

Exports jumped 14.5 percent for September on-year, beating forecasts from analysts polled by Bloomberg News, while imports rose 14.3 percent on-year.

While the data showed China’s trade remained strong for the month, analysts forecast the trade war will start to hurt in coming months.

China’s export jump for the month suggests exporters were shipping goods early to beat the latest tariffs, said ANZ’s China economist Betty Wang, citing the bounce in electrical machinery exports, much of which faced the looming duties.

“We will watch for downside risks to China’s exports” in the fourth quarter, Wang said.

Analysts say a sharp depreciation of the yuan has also helped China weather the tariffs by making its exports cheaper.

“The big picture is the Chinese exports have so far held up well in the face of escalating trade tensions and cooling global growth, most likely thanks to the competitiveness boost provided by a weaker renminbi (yuan),” said Julian Evans-Pritchard, China economist at Capital Economics.

“With global growth likely to cool further in the coming quarters and US tariffs set to become more punishing, the recent resilience of exports is unlikely to be sustained,” he said.

According to Bloomberg US President Donald Trump’s new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement isn’t that different from the North American Free Trade Agreement that it replaced. But hidden in the bowels of the new trade deal is a clause, Article 32.10, that could have a far-reaching impact. The new agreement requires member states to get approval from the other members if they initiate trade negotiations with a so-called non-market economy. In practice, “non-market” almost certainly means China. If, for example, Canada begins trade talks with China, it has to show the full text of the proposed agreement to the U.S. and Mexico — and if either the U.S. or Mexico doesn’t like what it sees, it can unilaterally kick Canada out of the USMCA.

Although it seems unlikely that the clause would be invoked, it will almost certainly exert a chilling effect on Canada and Mexico’s trade relations with China. Forced to choose between a gargantuan economy across the Pacific and another one next door, both of the U.S.’s neighbors are almost certain to pick the latter.

This is just another part of Trump’s general trade waragainst China. It’s a good sign that Trump realizes that unilateral U.S. efforts alone won’t be enough to force China to make concessions on issues like currency valuation, intellectual-property protection and industrial subsidies. China’s export markets are much too diverse:

If Trump cuts the U.S. off from trade with China, the likeliest outcome is that China simply steps up its exports to other markets. That would bind the rest of the world more closely to China and weaken the global influence of the U.S. China’s economy would take a small but temporary hit, while the U.S. would see its position as the economic center of the world slip into memory.

Instead, to take on China, Trump needs a gang. And that gang has to be much bigger than just North America. But most countries in Europe and East Asia probably can’t be bullied into choosing between the U.S. and China. — their ties to the U.S. are not as strong as those of Mexico and Canada. Countries such as South Korea, Germany, India and Japan will need carrots as well as sticks if they’re going to join a U.S.-led united trade front against China.

The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris discuss the escalating trade war between the United States and China, and the record trade surplus that positions China with a bit more leverage than Trump anticipated.

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Via Zerohedge Trump Threatens China With More Tariffs, Does Not Seek Economic “Depression”

US equity futures dipped in the red after President Trump threatened to impose a third round of tariffs on China and warned that Chinese meddling in U.S. politics was a “bigger problem” than Russian involvement in the 2016 election.

During the same interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes”, in which Trump threatened to impose sanctions against Saudi Arabia if the Saudis are found to have killed WaPo reported Khashoggi, and which sent Saudi stock plunging, Trump said he “might,” impose a new round of tariffs on China, adding that while he has “great chemistry” with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and noting that Xi “wants to negotiate”, he doesn’t “know that that’s necessarily going to continue.” Asked if American products have become more expensive due to tariffs on China, Trump said that “so far, that hasn’t turned out to be the case.”

“They can retaliate, but they can’t, they don’t have enough ammunition to retaliate,” Trump says, “We do $100 billion with them. They do $531 billion with us.”

Trump was also asked if he wants to push China’s economy into a depression to which the US president said “no” before comparing the country’s stock-market losses since the tariffs first launched to those in 1929, the start of the Great Depression in the U.S.

“I want them to negotiate a fair deal with us. I want them to open their markets like our markets are open,” Trump said in the interview that aired Sunday. So far, the U.S. has imposed three rounds of tariffs on Chinese imports totaling $250 billion, prompting China to retaliate against U.S. products. The president previously has threatened to hit virtually all Chinese imports with duties.

Asked about his relationship with Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin’s alleged efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, Trump quickly turned back to China. “They meddled,” he said of Russia, “but I think China meddled too.”

“I think China meddled also. And I think, frankly, China … is a bigger problem,” Trump said, as interviewer Lesley Stahl interrupted him for “diverting” from a discussion of Russia.

Shortly before an audacious speech by Mike Pence last weekend, in which the US vice president effectively declared a new cold war on Beijing (see “Russell Napier: Mike Pence Announces Cold War II”), Trump made similar accusations during a speech at the United Nations last month, which his aides substantiated by pointing to long-term Chinese influence campaigns and an advertising section in the Des Moines Register warning farmers about the potential effects of Trump’s tariffs.

Meanwhile, in a rare U.S. television appearance, China’s ambassador to the U.S. said Beijing has no choice but to respond to what he described as a trade war started by the U.S.

“We never wanted a trade war, but if somebody started a trade war against us, we have to respond and defend our own interests,” said China’s Ambassador Cui Tiankai.

Cui also dismissed as “groundless” the abovementioned suggestion by Vice President Mike Pence that China has orchestrated an effort to meddle in U.S. domestic affairs. Pence escalated the rhetoric in a speech Oct. 4, saying Beijing has created a “a whole-of-government approach” to sway American public opinion, including spies, tariffs, coercive measures and a propaganda campaign.

Pence’s comments were some of the most critical about China by a high-ranking U.S. official in recent memory. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo got a lecture when he visited Beijing days later, about U.S. actions that were termed “completely out of line.” The tough words followed months of increases tit-for-tat tariffs imposed by Washington and Beijing that have ballooned to cover hundreds of billions of dollars in bilateral trade.

During a recent interview with National Public Radio, Cui said the U.S. has “not sufficiently” dealt in good faith with the Chinese on trade matters, saying “the U.S. position keeps changing all the time so we don’t know exactly what the U.S. would want as priorities.”

Meanwhile, White House economic director Larry Kudlow said on “Fox News Sunday” that President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will “probably meet” at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires in late November. “There’s plans and discussions and agendas” being discussed, he said. So far, talks with China on trade have been “unsatisfactory,” Kudlow said. “We’ve made our asks” on allegations of intellectual property theft and forced technology transfers, he added. “We have to have reciprocity.”

Addressing the upcoming meeting, Cui said he was present at two previous meetings of Xi and Trump, and that top-level communication “played a key role, an irreplaceable role, in guiding the relationship forward.” Despite current tensions the two have a “good working relationship,” he said.

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BREAKING: Explosion in Crimea, Russia kills many, injuring dozens, terrorism suspected

According to preliminary information, the incident was caused by a gas explosion at a college facility in Kerch, Crimea.

The Duran

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“We are clarifying the information at the moment. Preliminary figures are 50 injured and 10 dead. Eight ambulance crews are working at the site and air medical services are involved,” the press-service for the Crimean Ministry of Health stated.

Medics announced that at least 50 people were injured in the explosion in Kerch and 25 have already been taken to local hospital with moderate wounds, according to Sputnik.

Local news outlets reported that earlier in the day, students at the college heard a blast and windows of the building were shattered.

Putin Orders that Assistance Be Provided to Victims of Blast in Kerch – Kremlin Spokesman

“The president has instructed the Ministry of Health and the rescue services to take emergency measures to assist victims of this explosion, if necessary, to ensure the urgent transportation of seriously wounded patients to leading medical institutions of Russia, whether in Moscow or other cities,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitriy Peskov said.

The president also expressed his condolences to all those affected by the tragic incident.

Manhunt Underway in Kerch as FSB Specialists Investigate Site of Explosion – National Anti-Terrorist Committee

The site of the blast that rocked a city college in Kerch is being examined by FSB bomb disposal experts and law enforcement agencies are searching for clues that might lead to the arrest of the perpetrators, the National Anti Terrorism Committee said in a statement.

“Acting on orders from the head of the NAC’s local headquarters, FSB, Interior Ministry, Russian Guards and Emergency Ministry units have arrived at the site. The territory around the college has been cordoned off and the people inside the building evacuated… Mine-disposal experts are working at the site and law enforcement specialists are investigating,” the statement said.

Terrorist Act Considered as Possible Cause of Blast in Kerch – Kremlin Spokesman

“The tragic news that comes from Kerch. Explosion. The president was informed … The data on those killed and the number of injured is constantly updated,” Peskov told reporters.

“[The version of a terrorist attack] is being considered,” he said.

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10 percent of American F-22 fighter jets damaged by Hurricane Michael

Part of the reason the F-22’s were left in the path of the storm is that they were broken and too expensive to fix or fly.

Seraphim Hanisch

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Note to the wise: When a hurricane comes, move your planes out of the way. Especially your really expensive F-22 fighter planes. After all, those babies are $339 mil apiece. Got the message?

Apparently the US Air Force didn’t get this message. Or, did they find themselves unable to follow the message?

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The Washington Times reported Tuesday that between 17 and 20 of these top-of-the-line fighter jets were damaged, some beyond the point of repair, when Hurricane Michael slammed ashore on Mexico Beach, Florida, not far from the Tyndall Air Force Base in the same state. The Times reports that more than a dozen of the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jets were damaged after being left in the path of the extremely fierce storm:

President Trump’s tour Monday of devastation wrought by Hurricane Michael took him close to Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base, where more than a dozen F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jets were damaged after being left in the path of the powerful storm.

The pricey fighter jets — some possibly damaged beyond repair — were caught in the widespread destruction that took at least 18 lives, flattened homes, downed trees and buckled roads from Florida to Virginia.

The decision to leave roughly $7.5 billion in aircraft in the path of a hurricane raised eyebrows, including among defense analysts who say the Pentagon’s entire high-tech strategy continues to make its fighter jets vulnerable to weather and other mishaps when they are grounded for repairs.

“This becomes sort of a self-defeating cycle where we have $400 million aircraft that can’t fly precisely because they are $400 million aircraft,” said Dan Grazier, a defense fellow at Project on Government Oversight. “If we were buying simpler aircraft then it would be a whole lot easier for the base commander to get these aircraft up and in working order, at least more of them.”

This is quite a statement. The F-22 is held to be the tip of the American air defense sword. A superb airplane (when it works), it can do things no other plane in the world can do. It boasts a radar profile the size of a marble, making it virtually undetectable by enemy radars. It is highly maneuverable with thrust-vectoring built into its engines.

However, to see a report like this is simply stunning. After all, one would expect that the best military equipment ought to be the most reliable as well. 

It appears that Hurricane Michael figuratively and physically blew the lid off any efforts to conceal a problem with these planes, and indeed with the hyper-technological basis for the US air fighting forcesThe Times continues:

Reports on the number of aircraft damaged ranged from 17 to 22 or about 10 percent of the Air Force’s F-22 fleet of 187.

The Air Force stopped buying F-22s, considered the world’s most advanced fighter jets, in 2012. The aircraft is being replaced by the F-35, another high-tech but slightly less-expensive aircraft.

Later in the tour, at an emergency command center in Georgia, Mr. Trump said the damage to the F-22s couldn’t be avoided because the aircraft were grounded and the storm moved quickly.

“We’re going to have a full report. There was some damage, not nearly as bad as we first heard,” he said when asked about the F-22s, which cost about $339 million each.

“I’m always concerned about cost. I don’t like it,” Mr. Trump said.

Still, the president remains a fan of the high-tech fighter jet.

“The F-22 is one of my all-time favorites. It is the most beautiful fighter jet in the world. One of the best,” he said.

The Air Force managed to fly 33 of the F-22s to safety, but maintenance and repair issues kept 22 of the notoriously finicky aircraft on the ground when the powerful storm hit the base.

About 49 percent of the F-22s are out of action at any given time, according to an Air Force report this year.

This is a stunning statistic. This means that of the 187 planes in existence, 90 of them are not working. At their cost, that means that over thirty billion dollars worth of military equipment is sitting around, broken, just in airplanes alone.

As a point of comparison, the entire Russian military budget for 2017 was $61 billion, with that budget producing hypersonic missiles, superb fighter aircraft and tanks. Russian fighter planes are known for being able to take harsh landing and take-off conditions that would cripple the most modern American flying machines.

It would seem that Hurricane Michael exposed a serious problem with the state of readiness of American armed forces. Thankfully that problem did not arise in combat, but it is no less serious.

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