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Russian media tries to sort out source of attack on Syria air base

An attack on Russia’s Khmeimim air base suffered an assault on Dec. 31st – from whom is not totally clear

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(Al-Monitor) – The last day of 2017 turned out to be one of the gloomiest for the Russian military in Syria. First, one of its helicopters crashed north of Hama due to a technical failure, killing two servicemen. Then, rumors spread that on Dec. 31 militants had shelled the Russian Khmeimim air base, which President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had visited about three weeks beforehand.

News of the attack wasn’t reported until Jan. 3, when the authoritative Kommersant newspaper published a story saying two “political diplomatic sources” confirmed the air base had suffered one of its worst attacks during Russia’s entire military campaign in Syria. According to the report, Islamist militants shelled the air base, allegedly destroying at least four Su-24 attack aircraft, two Su-35S multirole fighter aircraft and one An-72 transport aircraft, as well as an ammunition depot that detonated after it was hit by a missile. The report said that more than 10 servicemen were injured.

The Russian Defense Ministry on Jan. 4 denied that seven planes were destroyed, calling that part of the report “fake,” but acknowledged that two military personnel were killed in the attack.

During the four days it took Moscow to comment on the incident, numerous journalists found sources with differing stories, multiplying the number of theories about what happened at the key Russian military facility and sowing doubt about the accuracy of the official narrative. Moreover, subsequent days saw more reports of attacks or attempted attacks on Khmeimim air base: On Jan. 4, Russian anti-air defense systems downed two handmade drones over Latakia. That same day, an Il-76 heavy transport plane flying from Russia to Syria couldn’t land at the air base for undisclosed reasons and had to go back. On Jan. 6, the Russian air base reportedly was attacked yet again by small armed drones.

The official version from the Russian Defense Ministry reads: “On December 31, at nightfall, the [Khmeimim] airfield came under a sudden mortar fire from a mobile militant subversive group. Two military servicemen were killed in the shelling.” However, the ministry added, “Russia’s air group in Syria is combat ready and continues to accomplish all its missions in full.”

Franz Klintsevich, the deputy head of the Defense and Security Committee of the Russian Senate, argued that “foreign intelligence” was behind the Khmeimim attacks.

Some Russian military experts suggested the “mobile militant subversive group” mentioned by the Defense Ministry approached the base by car, coming as close as 2 miles carrying mobile 82 mm mortars. If that were the case, the attack should have lasted no more than a few minutes and the air defense systems wouldn’t have detected the mortar rockets due to their size (3.2 inches), which is smaller than that of unguided rockets. Others argued the attackers used 2B9 Vasilek (Cornflower) — an automatic 82 mm gun mortar. This type of weapon is easy to move as it fits into a van, can be loaded with cassettes for four shots each and used on repeat fire.

The Syrian army and different loyal militias provide security to the base. However, the base is difficult to secure because of the absence of a clear-cut front line, difficult terrain features, alleged corruption and the relative weakness of Syrian intelligence services. Besides, the attacks might not have been carried out by jihadis. As Syrian government forces, with the support of the Russian airpower, continue their offensive against the opposition in de-escalation zones, it is possible that any rebel faction could be behind the incidents.

In most cases, journalists’ theories don’t actually contradict the official narrative but rather complement it or interpret it differently.

According to Russian business news outlet RBC, militants shelled the base using mortars and multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS). RBC cites its own source in the Defense Ministry as saying, “Defense of the base was duly organized: Rockets were downed by respective air defense systems, yet mortars are almost impossible to tackle.” The source mentioned the fire came from the “zone under control of the Syrians” and said one helicopter and a Su-24 aircraft were damaged.

“You aren’t always ready when they shoot you in the back,” he added.

Hypothetically, the extended coverage range of the BM-21 Grad MLRS is able to reach Khmeimim from such settlements as Nahr al-Bared (about 22 miles away) and Qalaat al-Madiq (25 miles away) in the Hama province.

Roman Saponkov, a Russian military correspondent, posted images allegedly showing the damage at Khmeimim, suggesting six Su-24 aircraft were hit as well as one Su-35S, one An-72, one An-30 spy plane and one Mi-8 helicopter. According to him, the Russian military didn’t know the militants had “achieved a new technological level” and could reach the base, thus insinuating the attackers had “foreign backup.”

Alternative theories propelled by liberal media insinuate the base was not attacked Dec. 31 and that the ammunition depot might have been accidentally detonated by New Year’s celebrations in Latakia. This could in part explain why no group has yet claimed responsibility for the Khmeimim attacks. Opposition media outlets report the Latakia province saw some shooting on that night resulting in a number of civilian injuries and one death, yet local residents didn’t confirm any serious blasts.

On specialized online forums, some commenters — allegedly retired Russian military personnel — speculate that only two aircraft were damaged as a result of the night attack by mortar fire and homemade drones. The tail unit of one jet, according to them, was damaged not by a mortar, but by a crash with a car that happened during the confusion of the shelling.

Proponents of all theories seem to share a view that the government might have leaked some initial details of the story as Moscow wanted it presented, and chose Kommersant specifically because the paper is known for its quality and reliability, so the account wouldn’t be questioned. But once Kommersant fleshed out more details, and so many contradictions surfaced, the Defense Ministry might have turned to Sputnik to say the some of the Kommersant story was fake. The ministry’s “alternative facts,” however, didn’t strike many as being terribly credible.

It’s also possible the government simply doesn’t know what happened, so multiple sources shared various theories.

Some pro-government Russian experts insist that no opposition group claimed responsibility for the attack because they fear the Russian military will take revenge. Yet previously, the opposition hasn’t been afraid to “sign” the missiles they launched toward Syrian government forces in Latakia, saying in reference to peace talks in Russia and Kazakhstan, “Neither Astana nor Sochi, we are for Hama,” and “Sochi is yours, Hama is ours.”

The experts also deny the attacks might have been a provocation by pro-Assad forces, though the Syrian opposition suggests that might have been the case. Ayman al-Asami, a member of the delegation of the Syrian Revolutionary Forces to the Astana peace talks, said the Khmeimim base was shelled from the Bustan al-Basha settlement in Latakia by the pro-Iranian group Imam al-Murtada to block Moscow-led initiatives on the political settlement of the Syrian conflict. Another opposition media outlet shared a document — allegedly issued by Syrian intelligence — that orders an investigation of the attacks delivered from Bustan al-Basha, which is under the control of the pro-government militia the National Defense Forces.

Moscow declared that from now on the base will be better guarded. But the Russian military long ago should have taken measures such as spreading its aircraft across the base and mounting reinforced-concrete shelters that could protect the aircraft, ammunition and fuel from mortar shelling and missile and bombing raids. Most importantly, however, instead of just increasing the fighting in de-escalation zones, Russia should take the appropriate political steps to support the cease-fire and increase pressure on its allies in Damascus and Tehran.

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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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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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