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Furious Russian military blames U.S. ‘humanitarian pause’ for fall of Palmyra

Russian military blames US failure to press home attack on Raqqa for ISIS capture of Palmyra, but also implicitly criticises Russian government’s ‘humanitarian pauses’ in Aleppo for prolonging siege and preventing Syrian troops from being redeployed to Palmyra to defend the city.

Alexander Mercouris

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The fall of Palmyra is causing angry recriminations in Russia.

Officially the Russian military is blaming the US.  

In comments today General Igor Konashenkov, the Russian military’s chief spokesman, blamed the fall of Palmyra on the US failure to apply pressure on ISIS in Raqqa, which enabled ISIS to send its fighters from Raqqa to attack Palmyra.

“Over the past two days militants of the terrorist organization Islamic State (outlawed in Russia) launched several attacks on the positions of Syrian troops in the area of Palmyra. The terrorists were pushing ahead from the North, the East and the South. The attackers numbered more than 5,000.  Apparently, the IS militants had gathered around Palmyra, being very certain that combat operations in Raqqa would not resume.”

I made the identical point yesterday

“There is in fact no sign of a serious US led offensive against Raqqa, whilst the offensive against Mosul has stalled.  I said this some weeks ago on 19th November 2016, and recent reports in the Western media have confirmed it.

Obviously if ISIS really were under serious pressure in Raqqa it would not be able to send fighters from there to attack Palmyra.  ISIS’s latest offensive against Palmyra is therefore proof that the US led offensive against Raqqa is a fiction, whilst the fact ISIS has sent fighters from Iraq to Palmyra shows it is still a formidable force in Iraq as well.”

Whilst this is no doubt true, the Russian and Syrian militaries could hardly have been unaware before ISIS attacked Palmyra that the US led offensive against Raqqa was a fiction.  Saying that the US led offensive against Raqqa is a fiction does not therefore explain why the Russians and the Syrians failed to take adequate precautions to ensure Palmyra’s defence.

The Russian military has in fact made perfectly clear that it places the major blame for the fall of Palmyra on something quite different: the prolongation of the siege of Aleppo as a result of the repeated ‘humanitarian pauses’, which left the Syrian army defending Palmyra dangerously short of troops, and with those who were there of lesser quality.

Since the ‘humanitarian pauses’ in Aleppo were imposed on the Syrian and Russian militaries as a result of Russia’s diplomatic strategy, blaming them for the fall of Palmyra is an implicit criticism by the Russian military of the political strategy of Russia’s political leadership.

General Konashenkov all but said as much, though as a serving officer he chose his words very carefully when he did so

“This attack has once again demonstrated that terrorists should not have the smallest chance to take a break, for they always take advantage of such respites to regroup and then carry out a sudden attack.”

(bold italics added)

Konashenkov of course knows that ISIS has never been given a “break’, whether by the Russians or by the Syrians or indeed by the US.  His words about “terrorists not being given the smallest chance to take a break” – though supposedly referring to the failure of the US to press home its offensive against Raqqa – therefore look to be intended to refer to the repeated ‘humanitarian pauses’ in the fighting in Aleppo.

Where Konashenkov as a serving soldier has been forced to be diplomatic, General Yury Baluyevsky, a former Chief of Staff who is now retired, and who is by all accounts someone who is very much a soldiers’ soldier, was a great deal more forthright

“I understand it is necessary to ensure the safety of the population… But when these pauses last three weeks, and these militants – who are up to their elbows in blood – can restore their strength and are allowed to keep their personal weapons – well, that I don’t understand.”

(bold italics added)

This obviously refers to the ‘humanitarian pauses’ which have repeatedly taken place in Aleppo, and specifically the very prolonged one that took place in October and November.

This is not the first time that the Russian military has made know its disagreement with the political and diplomatic strategy President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov have been following in Aleppo.  Back at the end of October there was a curious public spat between the Russian military and Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, during which it emerged that President Putin had refused the Russian military’s public request to resume bombing in Aleppo, which he had put on hold in order to allow for a ‘humanitarian pause’.

Here is what I wrote about it then

“….this episode clearly shows one thing: the persistent Western claim that Putin is a dictator and an autocrat and that he is Russia’s hardliner is a myth.

On the contrary it is clear that Putin is now coming under intense pressure from the Russian military to call off the bombing halt in Aleppo, and that the military feel sufficiently strongly about this to go public, to the point where they made public a “request” to Putin to allow them to resume bombing in a way that clearly showed that this is what they want to do. 

The fact that Putin is resisting the military’s public request is a clear sign that he did not prompt it, and that the request was not welcome to him, and was made to him by the military as a form of pressure.

What that of course shows is that the military is becoming increasingly impatient with Putin’s Aleppo strategy, which they obviously interpret as foot-dragging, and that they are no longer bothering to conceal the fact.”

(bold italics added)

Baluyevsky’s reference to “pauses lasting three weeks” clearly refers to this episode, and shows how angry about this pause the military were.

To my knowledge The Duran was the only news site to report this episode in October correctly as a “furious row”, in which the military by going public sought to pressure Putin to end the ‘humanitarian pause’ to allow the bombing to resume.  

Every other media and news site I know of claimed instead that it was all a public relations show intended to make Putin seem reasonable and moderate.  

The reality is that no government – and certainly not the Russian government – publicises its disagreements for such a purpose.  

The Western media’s inability to report this incident properly shows again its poor understanding of Russia based on its complete misconception that President Putin is Russia’s absolute ruler, and that whatever happens in Russia is determined solely by him.  

The reality on the contrary is that though the Russian government is indeed in most respects highly disciplined, angry disagreements do take place, and sometimes as on this occasion they spill over and become public.

Putting all this aside, is it really true that it was the prolongation of the siege of Aleppo which resulted in the fall of Palmyra?

Undoubtedly if eastern Aleppo had fallen sooner, the Syrian military would have had more and better troops available to defend Palmyra.  However it is not certain it would have sent them there. 

The Syrian army’s priority is not to save Palmyra.  It is to win the war.  The war is not being won in Palmyra, which is far from the core areas of western Syria where most of the Syrian population lives. 

In view of this it is more likely that if the Syrian army had been able to end the siege of Aleppo more quickly, it would have redeployed its troops to retake Idlib or possibly Al-Bab in north western Syria,  or to consolidate the Syrian army’s recent gains in the countryside near Damascus.  It is far less likely that the Syrian army would have sent many of its best troops to garrison Palmyra, where they would have been idle with nothing obviously useful to do.

This episode in fact highlights the different approaches to the war between the Russians and the Syrians.

For the Russians retaining Palmyra, which is a critically important cultural monument, is a fundamental objective, so that its loss to ISIS was – as General Baluyevsky has said – a blow to their “prestige”. 

For the Syrians, the very existence of whose state is at stake, Palmyra is a sideshow, and a distraction from the real war, in which they are fighting for their lives and for their country in western Syria.

This is why the Syrians left only 1,000 second line troops to guard Palmyra, who quickly withdrew from the city apparently in a state of some confusion as shown by the large amount of expensive equipment they left behind when they were attacked by an ISIS force which outnumbered them five to one.

Notwithstanding these differences, it is undoubtedly the Russian view about Palmyra which is now going to prevail.  Though the very latest reports confirm that ISIS is still gaining ground near Palmyra, and though the number of reinforcements which the Syrian army has so far sent to Palmyra is small, there is no doubt that a major counter-offensive to recapture the city will be organised in the next few weeks.

Though the Russians continue to rule out sending ground troops to Syria, they have pointedly made known that they do not consider their Special Forces (“Spetsnaz”) to be ground troops.  Undoubtedly some of them are heading to Palmyra now.

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US continues to try to corner Russia with silence on Nukes

Moscow continues to be patient in what appears to be an ever more lopsided, intentional stonewalling situation provoked by the Americans.

Seraphim Hanisch

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TASS reported on March 17th that despite Russian readiness to discuss the present problem of strategic weapons deployments and disarmament with its counterparts in the United States, the Americans have not offered Russia any proposals to conduct such talks.

The Kremlin has not yet received any particular proposals on the talks over issues of strategic stability and disarmament from Washington, Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told TASS on Sunday when commenting on the statement made by US National Security Adviser John Bolton who did not rule out that such talks could be held with Russia and China.

“No intelligible proposals has been received [from the US] so far,” Peskov said.

Earlier Bolton said in an interview with radio host John Catsimatidis aired on Sunday that he considers it reasonable to include China in the negotiation on those issues with Russia as well.

“China is building up its nuclear capacity now. It’s one of the reasons why we’re looking at strengthening our national missile defense system here in the United States. And it’s one reason why, if we’re going to have another arms control negotiation, for example, with the Russians, it may make sense to include China in that discussion as well,” he said.

Mr. Bolton’s sense about this particular aspect of any arms discussions is correct, as China was not formerly a player in geopolitical affairs the way it is now. The now all-but-scrapped Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, was a treaty concluded by the US and the USSR leaders Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, back in 1987. However, for in succeeding decades, most notably since the fall of the Soviet Union, the US has been gradually building up weaponry in what appears to be an attempt to create a ring around the Russian Federation, a situation which is understandably increasingly untenable to the Russian government.

Both sides have accused one another of violating this treaty, and the mutual violations and recriminations on top of a host of other (largely fabricated) allegations against the Russian government’s activities led US President Donald Trump to announce his nation’s withdrawal from the treaty, formally suspending it on 1 February. Russian President Vladimir Putin followed suit by suspending it the very next day.

The INF eliminated all of both nations’ land based ballistic and cruise missiles that had a range between 500 and 1000 kilometers (310-620 miles) and also those that had ranges between 1000 and 5500 km (620-3420 miles) and their launchers.

This meant that basically all the missiles on both sides were withdrawn from Europe’s eastern regions – in fact, much, if not most, of Europe was missile-free as the result of this treaty. That is no longer the case today, and both nations’ accusations have provoked re-development of much more advanced systems than ever before, especially true considering the Russian progress into hypersonic and nuclear powered weapons that offer unlimited range.

This situation generates great concern in Europe, such that the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on both Moscow and Washington to salvage the INF and extend the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, or the New START as it is known.

“I call on the parties to the INF Treaty to use the time remaining to engage in sincere dialogue on the various issues that have been raised. It is very important that this treaty is preserved,” Guterres said at a session of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on Monday.

He stressed that the demise of that accord would make the world more insecure and unstable, which “will be keenly felt in Europe.” “We simply cannot afford to return to the unrestrained nuclear competition of the darkest days of the Cold War,” he said.

Guterres also urged the US and Russia to extend the START Treaty, which expires in 2021, and explore the possibility of further reducing their nuclear arsenals. “I also call on the United States and the Russian Federation to extend the so-called New START Treaty before it expires in 2021,” he said.

The UN chief recalled that the treaty “is the only international legal instrument limiting the size of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals” and that its inspection provisions “represent important confidence-building measures that benefit the entire world.”

Guterres recalled that the bilateral arms control process between Russia and the US “has been one of the hallmarks of international security for fifty years.”

“Thanks to their efforts, global stockpiles of nuclear weapons are now less than one-sixth of what they were in 1985,” the UN secretary-general pointed out.

The Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (the New START Treaty) entered into force on February 5, 2011. The document stipulates that seven years after its entry into effect each party should have no more than a total of 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) and strategic bombers, as well as no more than 1,550 warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs and strategic bombers, and a total of 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers and strategic bombers. The new START Treaty obliges the parties to exchange information on the number of warheads and carriers twice a year.

The new START Treaty will remain in force during 10 years until 2021, unless superseded by a subsequent agreement. It may be extended for a period of no more than five years (that is, until 2026) upon the parties’ mutual consent. Moscow has repeatedly called on Washington not to delay the issue of extending the Treaty.

 

 

 

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Trump witch hunt dots connected: CNN to Steele to John McCain (Video)

The Duran Quick Take: Episode 110.

Alex Christoforou

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The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris discuss documents released which show that Christopher Steele admitted to using posts by ‘random individuals’ on the CNN community website ‘iReport’ in order to back up his fabricated Trump dossier.

President Trump took note of Steele’s use of CNN citizen journalist posts, in a twitter tirade that blasted the British ex-spy for running with unverified community generated content from a now now-defunct ‘iReports’ website as part of his research.

Trump the proceeded to rip into late neocon Arizona Senator John McCain, tweeting that it was “just proven in court papers” that “last in his class” McCain sent the Steele’s dossier to media outlets in the hopes that they would print it prior to the 2016 US election.

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Via The Daily Caller

A federal court unsealed 43 pages Thursday of a deposition that former British spy Christopher Steele gave as part of a lawsuit over his infamous anti-Trump dossier.

To the disappointment of many observers, the full deposition was not unsealed in Thursday’s motion. Instead, portions of Steele’s interview, which he gave in London on July 13, 2018, were unsealed in separate court filings submitted in the lawsuit.

Steele’s full deposition totaled 145 pages. The portions published Thursday focus mainly on questions about the dossier’s claims about Aleksej Gubarev, a tech executive who Steele alleges took part in the hacking of Democrats’ computer systems.

Gubarev has vehemently denied the claim and sued Steele and BuzzFeed News, which published the dossier on Jan. 10, 2017.

U.S. District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro, who handled the lawsuit, ordered a slew of previously sealed documents to be made public Thursday. Ungaro dismissed the lawsuit on Dec. 19 but did not weigh in on whether the dossier’s claims about Gubarev were accurate.

It is unclear whether Steele’s entire deposition will be released. A source familiar with Steele’s interview tempered expectations of any bombshells in the document, saying that Steele avoided going into detail about his efforts to create the dossier and his sources.

A deposition given by former State Department official David Kramer was perhaps the most enlightening document contained in the dump.

Kramer, a longtime associate of late Arizona Sen. John McCain, was BuzzFeed’s source for the dossier. Kramer shared the dossier with at least 11 other reporters, including CNN’s Carl Bernstein. (RELATED: John McCain Associate Gave Dossier To A Dozen Reporters)

Kramer obtained the dossier in late November 2016 after visiting Steele in London. Steele acknowledged that Kramer and McCain were picked as conduits to pass the dossier to then-FBI Director James Comey. McCain met with Comey on Dec. 9, 2016 and provided all of the dossier’s memos that had been written up to that point.

“I think they felt a senior Republican was better to be the recipient of this rather than a Democrat because if it were a Democrat, I think that the view was that it would have been dismissed as a political attack,” Kramer said in the deposition when asked why Steele and his business partners at Fusion GPS wanted McCain to meet with Comey.

Via Washington Examiner

Former British spy Christopher Steele admitted that he relied on an unverified report on a CNN website for part of the “Trump dossier,” which was used as a basis for the FBI’s investigation into Trump.

According to deposition transcripts released this week, Steele said last year he used a 2009 report he found on CNN’s iReport website and said he wasn’t aware that submissions to that site are posted by members of the public and are not checked for accuracy.

web archive from July 29, 2009 shows that CNN described the site in this manner: “iReport.com is a user-generated site. That means the stories submitted by users are not edited, fact-checked, or screened before they post.”

In the dossier, Steele, a Cambridge-educated former MI6 officer, wrote about extensive allegations against Donald Trump, associates of his campaign, various Russians and other foreign nationals, and a variety of companies — including one called Webzilla. Those allegations would become part of an FBI investigation and would be used to apply for warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

During his deposition, Steele was pressed on the methods he used to verify allegations made about Webzilla, which was thought to be used by Russia to hack into Democratic emails.

When asked if he discovered “anything of relevance concerning Webzilla” during the verification process, Steele replied: “We did. It was an article I have got here which was posted on July 28, 2009, on something called CNN iReport.”

“I do not have any particular knowledge of that,” Steele said when asked what was his understanding of how the iReport website worked.

When asked if he understood that content on the site was not generated by CNN reporters, he said, “I do not.” He was then asked: “Do you understand that they have no connection to any CNN reporters?” Steele replied, “I do not.”

He was pressed on this further: “Do you understand that CNN iReports are or were nothing more than any random individuals’ assertions on the Internet?” Steele replied: “No, I obviously presume that if it is on a CNN site that it may has some kind of CNN status. Albeit that it may be an independent person posting on the site.”

When asked about his methodology for searching for this information, Steele described it as “what we could call an open source search,” which he defined as “where you go into the Internet and you access material that is available on the Internet that is of relevance or reference to the issue at hand or the person under consideration.”

Steele said his dossier contained “raw intelligence” that he admitted could contain untrue or even “deliberately false information.”

Steele was hired by the opposition research firm Fusion GPS to investigate then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016. Fusion GPS was receiving funding at the time from the Clinton campaign and the DNC through the Perkins Coie law firm.

The series of memos that Steele would eventually compile became known as the “Trump Dossier.” The dossier was used in FISA applications to surveil Trump campaign associate Carter Page.

When asked whether he warned Fusion GPS that the information in the dossier might be “Russian disinformation,” Steele admitted that “a general understanding existed between us and Fusion … that all material contained this risk.”

Steele also described his interactions with Sen. John McCain’s aide, David Kramer, whose own deposition showed that he provided BuzzFeed with a copy of the dossier and had spoken with more than a dozen journalists about it.

“I provided copies of the December memo to Fusion GPS for onward passage to David Kramer at the request of Sen. John McCain,” Steele said. “Sen. McCain nominated him as the intermediary. I did not choose him as the intermediary.”

When asked if he told Kramer that he couldn’t “vouch for everything that was produced in the memos,” Steele replied, “Yes, with an emphasis on ‘everything.'”

When asked why he believed it was so important to provide the dossier to Sen. McCain, Steele said: “Because I judged it had national security implications for the United States and the West as a whole.”

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Trudeau’s Top Bureaucrat Unexpectedly Quits Amid Growing Corruption Scandal

In a scathing letter to Trudeau, Wernick said that “recent events” led him to conclude he couldn’t hold his post during the election campaign this fall.

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Via Zerohedge


Since it was exposed by a report in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper earlier this month, the scandal that’s become known as the SNC-Lavalin affair has already led to the firing of several of Trudeau’s close advisors and raised serious questions about whether the prime minister was complicit in pressuring the attorney general to offer a deferred prosecution agreement with a large, Quebec-based engineering firm.

And according to the first round of polls released since the affair exploded into public view…

…it could cost Trudeau his position as prime minister and return control to the conservatives, according to the CBC.

Campaign Research showed the Conservatives ahead with 37% to 32% for the Liberals, while both Ipsos and Léger put the margin at 36% to 34% in the Conservatives’ favour.Since December, when both polling firms were last in the field, the Liberals have lost one point in Campaign Research’s polling and four percentage points in the Ipsos poll, while the party is down five points since November in the Léger poll.

Meanwhile, as the noose tightens around Trudeau, on Monday another of the key Canadian government officials at the center of the SNC-Lavalin scandal has quit his post.

Michael Wernick, clerk of the privy council, the highest-ranking position in Canada’s civil service and a key aide to Justin Trudeau, announced his retirement Monday. Trudeau named Ian Shugart, currently deputy minister of foreign affairs, to replace him.

In a scathing letter to Trudeau, Wernick said that “recent events” led him to conclude he couldn’t hold his post during the election campaign this fall.

“It is now apparent that there is no path for me to have a relationship of mutual trust and respect with the leaders of the opposition parties,” he said, citing the need for impartiality on the issue of potential foreign interference. According to Bloomberg, the exact date of his departure is unclear.

As we reported in February, Canada’s former justice minister and attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, quit following allegations that several key Trudeau government figures pressured her to intervene to end a criminal prosecution against Montreal-based construction giant SNC. Wernick was among those she named in saying the prime minister’s office wanted her to pursue a negotiated settlement.

Wernick has since twice spoken to a committee of lawmakers investigating the case, and during that testimony both defended his actions on the SNC file and warned about the risk of foreign election interference, as “blame Putin” has become traditional Plan B plan for most politicians seeing their careers go up in flames.

“I’m deeply concerned about my country right now, its politics and where it’s headed. I worry about foreign interference in the upcoming election,” he said in his first appearance before the House of Commons justice committee, before repeating the warning a second time this month. “If that was seen as alarmist, so be it. I was pulling the alarm. We need a public debate about foreign interference.”

Because somehow foreign interference has something to do with Wenick’s alleged corruption.

Incidentally, as we wonder what the real reason is behind Wernick’s swift departure, we are confident we will know soon enough.

Anyway, back to the now former clerk, who is meant to be non-partisan in service of the government of the day, also criticized comments by a Conservative senator and praised one of Trudeau’s cabinet ministers.

Wernick’s testimony was criticized as overly cozy with the ruling Liberals. Murray Rankin, a New Democratic Party lawmaker, asked the clerk how lawmakers could “do anything but conclude that you have in fact crossed the line into partisan activity?” Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said he seemed “willing to interfere in partisan fashion for whoever is in power.”

Whatever Wernick’s true motives, he is the latest but not last in what will be a long line of cabinet departures as the SNC scandal exposes even more corruption in Trudeau’s cabinet (some have ironically pointed out that Canada’s “beloved” prime minister could be gone for actual corruption long before Trump). Trudeau had already lost a top political aide, Gerald Butts, to the scandal. A second minister, Jane Philpott, followed Wilson-Raybould in quitting cabinet.

Separately, on Monday, Trudeau appointed a former deputy prime minister in a Liberal government, Anne McLellan, as a special adviser to investigate some of the legal questions raised by the controversy. They include how governments should interact with the attorney general and whether that role should continue to be held by the justice minister.

As Bloomberg notes, the increasingly shaky Liberal government hasn’t ruled out helping SNC by ordering a deferred prosecution agreement in the corruption and bribery case, which centers around the company’s work in Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya. Doing so would allow the company to pay a fine and avoid any ban on receiving government contracts. That decision is up to the current attorney general, David Lametti; of course, such an action would only raise tensions amid speculation that the government is pushing for a specific political, and favorable for Trudeau, outcome.

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