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Russia holds the key to a negotiated settlement in Syria, but Iran’s worried

Moscow’s the only player participating in both the Geneva and Astana negotiating tracks, but Tehran is suspicious

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(Al-Monitor) – The Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi, widely known for its tourist attractions, has recently turned into a diplomatic hub, with dialogue over the Syrian crisis now serving as its main international attraction. On Nov. 22, the presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey attended a trilateral summit in Sochi to coordinate their efforts on the future of Syria. Just a day before, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad in the resort, with his warm welcome catching the eyes of the media. Moscow has also declared its plans to host a national Syrian congress in Sochi, consisting of different Syrian factions, to discuss the political process as well as a new constitution for the country.

In a broader perspective, it could be said that with an eye to post-war Syria, the Russians are trying to play the main role on the Syrian stage.

First and foremost, by initiating various meetings with their partners in the Astana process, namely Iran and Turkey, and at the same time underlining the importance of Iran and Russia’s military support for the Syrian government in shaping developments on the ground, the Russians want to be recognized as the main pillar of military success over the Islamic State (IS) and other terrorists. Moscow’s frequent criticism of the US-led anti-IS coalition, accusing it of not being serious in fighting terrorism, could be interpreted in the same vein. In other words, Russia is trying to say that without its efforts there would be no end in sight to the rule of the United States, nor would it be possible to forge a compromise between Iran and Turkey’s military plans in Syria.

Second, Moscow has frequently insisted that it sees the Astana track as complementary to the UN-mediated Geneva peace process and not as an alternative. As the Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council Andrey Kortunov puts it, “If in Astana there was a team that extinguished the fire of the Syrian war, then in Geneva there will be designers and engineers to restore the building of the Syrian state.” The delicate point here, however, is that by continuing to be active in both the Geneva and the Astana tracks, Moscow is effectively the only link between the two different sets of actors involved in the Syrian conflict.

Third, by proposing its initiative for the national Syrian congress, Moscow is also seeking to have final say in the domestic equations in Syria during the transitional period ahead. While some hurdles, such as Turkey’s objection to the inclusion of Syrian Kurdish groups in the political process as well as the hard-line stances of some opposition groups regarding the role of Assad and his government in the future of Syria, have forced Moscow to delay the congress, Russia’s actions show a willingness to act as a mediator between different Syrian factions.

The key question here is, how do Moscow’s partners in the Astana process see their current multilayered Syrian policy?

As far as Iran is concerned, it seems that the final joint statement of the Sochi summit addresses some of its main concerns regarding the future of Syria. The statement underlines the necessity of preserving Syria’s unity and territorial integrity, without raising any preconditions for the start of the transitional period. The fact that Turkey was a signatory to the declaration without any further insistence on Assad’s removal was another success for Iran.

But this does not mean that Iran feels wholly safe in the face of Russia’s plans. First of all, Tehran sees Moscow’s desire to consider the Geneva track as an integral part of the political process as a challenge to its long-term interests in Syria. In fact, from an Iranian point of view, the Geneva process was primarily designed to sideline the role of Iran and its allied forces in Syria, and it was solely Iran’s active fight against terrorism in Syria that forced other actors to accept its role and interests, at least temporarily. So, any revalidation of the goals of the Geneva track could pose a direct threat against Iran’s interests. In fact, during the recent trilateral presidential summit in Sochi, it was only Putin who clearly spoke of the necessity of following up the Geneva process, while Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani’s main emphasis was on the need for Syria’s future to be decided by the Syrian people.

Iran’s second concern is related to Russia’s policy of working with everyone involved in the Syrian crisis. For instance, after his meeting with Assad, Putin held separate phone calls with US President Donald Trump, Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to brief them on the results of the Sochi summit. There is no doubt that Iran sees the American, Saudi and Israeli plans for Syria as opposed to its core interests and, therefore, is worried about the substance of any Russian agreement with these actors.

The joint statement issued by the presidents of Russia and the United States on the sidelines of the recent APEC summit in Vietnam, which entailed some hints about the exit of foreign troops in Syria, is a good example in this regard. Although it’s highly unlikely that Russia will put direct pressure on Iran to force it out of Syria, Moscow may not find particular issues with defining Lebanese Hezbollah or other pro-Iran forces in Syria as “foreign troops,” which could, in turn, weaken Iran’s position in the country.

Finally, although the three presidents in Sochi insisted on the necessity of holding the national Syrian congress, it is, in fact, Moscow that will have the main role in the endeavor. In this vein, what Russia sees as legitimate opposition forces, invited to attend the congress, may not necessarily match Iran’s viewpoint. In fact, during the six years of the Syrian conflict, Russia has tried to establish ties with various Syrian groups and factions, some of which Iran deems radicals or even terrorists. The case of Ahrar al-Sham is an example of such a difference of opinion.

Thus, although the Sochi summit was widely interpreted as a sign of the three countries’ willingness to coordinate their efforts on post-war Syria, Moscow’s attempt to centralize the political process around its own role could potentially alienate Iran down the road, thereby challenging their so-far-successful partnership in Syria.

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Constantinople: Ukrainian Church leader is now uncanonical

October 12 letter proclaims Metropolitan Onuphry as uncanonical and tries to strong-arm him into acquiescing through bribery and force.

Seraphim Hanisch

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The pressure in Ukraine kept ratcheting up over the last few days, with a big revelation today that Patriarch Bartholomew now considers Metropolitan Onuphy “uncanonical.” This news was published on 6 December by a hierarch of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church (running under the Moscow Patriarchate).

This assessment marks a complete 180-degree turn by the leader of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople, and it further embitters the split that has developed to quite a major row between this church’s leadership and the Moscow Patriarchate.

OrthoChristian reported this today (we have added emphasis):

A letter of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev and All Ukraine was published yesterday by a hierarch of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, in which the Patriarch informed the Metropolitan that his title and position is, in fact, uncanonical.

This assertion represents a negation of the position held by Pat. Bartholomew himself until April of this year, when the latest stage in the Ukrainian crisis began…

The same letter was independently published by the Greek news agency Romfea today as well.

It is dated October 12, meaning it was written just one day after Constantinople made its historic decision to rehabilitate the Ukrainian schismatics and rescind the 1686 document whereby the Kiev Metropolitanate was transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church, thereby, in Constantinople’s view, taking full control of Ukraine.

In the letter, Pat. Bartholomew informs Met. Onuphry that after the council, currently scheduled for December 15, he will no longer be able to carry his current title of “Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine.”

The Patriarch immediately opens his letter with Constantinople’s newly-developed historical claim about the jurisdictional alignment of Kiev: “You know from history and from indisputable archival documents that the holy Metropolitanate of Kiev has always belonged to the jurisdiction of the Mother Church of Constantinople…”

Constantinople has done an about-face on its position regarding Ukraine in recent months, given that it had previously always recognized the Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate as the sole canonical primate in Ukraine.

…The bulk of the Patriarch’s letter is a rehash of Constantinople’s historical and canonical arguments, which have already been laid out and discussed elsewhere. (See also here and here). Pat. Bartholomew also writes that Constantinople stepped into the Ukrainian ecclesiastical sphere as the Russian Church had not managed to overcome the schisms that have persisted for 30 years.

It should be noted that the schisms began and have persisted precisely as anti-Russian movements and thus the relevant groups refused to accept union with the Russian Church.

Continuing, Pat. Bartholomew informs Met. Onuphry that his position and title are uncanonical:

Addressing you as ‘Your Eminence the Metropolitan of Kiev’ as a form of economia [indulgence/condescension—OC] and mercy, we inform you that after the elections for the primate of the Ukrainian Church by a body that will consist of clergy and laity, you will not be able ecclesiologically and canonically to bear the title of Metropolitan of Kiev, which, in any case, you now bear in violation of the described conditions of the official documents of 1686.

He also entreats Met. Onuphry to “promptly and in a spirit of harmony and unity” participate, with the other hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, in the founding council of the new Ukrainian church that Constantinople is planning to create, and in the election of its primate.

The Constantinople head also writes that he “allows” Met. Onuphry to be a candidate for the position of primate.

He further implores Met. Onuphry and the UOC hierarchy to communicate with Philaret Denisenko, the former Metropolitan of Kiev, and Makary Maletich, the heads of the schismatic “Kiev Patriarchate” and the schismatic “Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church” respectively—both of which have been subsumed into Constantinople—but whose canonical condemnations remain in force for the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

The hierarchs of the Serbian and Polish Churches have also officially rejected the rehabilitation of the Ukrainian schismatics.

Pat. Bartholomew concludes expressing his confidence that Met. Onuphry will decide to heal the schism through the creation of a new church in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church under Metropolitan Onuphry’s leadership is recognized as the sole canonical Orthodox jurisdiction in Ukraine by just about every other canonical Orthodox Jurisdiction besides Constantinople. Even NATO member Albania, whose expressed reaction was “both sides are wrong for recent actions” still does not accept the canonicity of the “restored hierarchs.”

In fact, about the only people in this dispute that seem to be in support of the “restored” hierarchs, Filaret and Makary, are President Poroshenko, Patriarch Bartholomew, Filaret and Makary… and NATO.

While this letter was released to the public eye yesterday, the nearly two months that Metropolitan Onuphry has had to comply with it have not been helped in any way by the actions of both the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Ukrainian government.

Priests of the Canonical Church in Ukraine awaiting interrogation by the State authorities

For example, in parallel reports released on December 6th, the government is reportedly accusing canonical priests in Ukraine of treason because they are carrying and distributing a brochure entitled (in English): The Ukrainian Orthodox Church: Relations with the State. The Attitude Towards the Conflict in Donbass and to the Church Schism. Questions and Answers.

In a manner that would do any American liberal proud, these priests are being accused of inciting religious hatred, though really all they are doing is offering an explanation for the situation in Ukraine as it exists.

A further piece also released yesterday notes that the Ukrainian government rehabilitated an old Soviet-style technique of performing “inspections of church artifacts” at the Pochaev Lavra. This move appears to be both intended to intimidate the monastics who are living there now, who are members of the canonical Church, as well as preparation for an expected forcible takeover by the new “united Church” that is under creation. The brotherhood characterized the inspections in this way:

The brotherhood of the Pochaev Lavra previously characterized the state’s actions as communist methods of putting pressure on the monastery and aimed at destroying monasticism.

Commenting on the situation with the Pochaev Lavra, His Eminence Archbishop Clement of Nizhyn and Prilusk, the head of the Ukrainian Church’s Information-Education Department, noted:

This is a formal raiding, because no reserve ever built the Pochaev Lavra, and no Ministry of Culture ever invested a single penny to restoring the Lavra, and the state has done nothing to preserve the Lavra in its modern form. The state destroyed the Lavra, turned it into a psychiatric hospital, a hospital for infectious diseases, and so on—the state has done nothing more. And now it just declares that it all belongs to the state. No one asked the Church, the people that built it. When did the Lavra and the land become state property? They belonged to the Church from time immemorial.

With the massive pressure both geopolitically and ecclesiastically building in Ukraine almost by the day, it is anyone’s guess what will happen next.

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Ukrainian leadership is a party of war, and it will continue as long as they’re in power – Putin

“We care about Ukraine because Ukraine is our neighbor,” Putin said.

RT

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Via RT…


Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has branded the Ukrainian leadership a “party of war” which would continue fueling conflicts while they stay in power, giving the recent Kerch Strait incident as an example.

“When I look at this latest incident in the Black Sea, all what’s happening in Donbass – everything indicates that the current Ukrainian leadership is not interested in resolving this situation at all, especially in a peaceful way,” Putin told reporters during a media conference in the aftermath of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

This is a party of war and as long as they stay in power, all such tragedies, all this war will go on.

The Kiev authorities are craving war primarily for two reasons – to rip profits from it, and to blame all their own domestic failures on it and actions of some sort of “aggressors.”

“As they say, for one it’s war, for other – it’s mother. That’s reason number one why the Ukrainian government is not interested in a peaceful resolution of the conflict,” Putin stated.

Second, you can always use war to justify your failures in economy, social policy. You can always blame things on an aggressor.

This approach to statecraft by the Ukrainian authorities deeply concerns Russia’s President. “We care about Ukraine because Ukraine is our neighbor,” Putin said.

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have been soaring after the incident in the Kerch Strait. Last weekend three Ukrainian Navy ships tried to break through the strait without seeking the proper permission from Russia. Following a tense stand-off and altercation with Russia’s border guard, the vessels were seized and their crews detained over their violation of the country’s border.

While Kiev branded the incident an act of “aggression” on Moscow’s part, Russia believes the whole Kerch affair to be a deliberate “provocation” which allowed Kiev to declare a so-called “partial” martial law ahead of Ukraine’s presidential election.

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When Putin Met Bin Sally

Another G20 handshake for the history books.

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Via Zerohedge


In the annals of handshake photo-ops, we just may have a new winner (much to the delight of oil bulls who are looking at oil treading $50 and contemplating jumping out of the window).

Nothing but sheer joy, delight and friendship…

…but something is missing…

Meanwhile, earlier…

Zoomed in…

And again.

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