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Russia’s ‘de-escalation zones’ in Syria: a serious proposal, a diplomatic ploy or a trap?

Russia’s proposed ‘de-escalation zones’ in Syria are obviously intended as an alternative to the US proposal for ‘safe havens’

Alexander Mercouris

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Russian President Vladimir Putin rounded off three days of non-stop diplomacy with a telephone conversation with US President Trump and a meeting with Turkish President Erdogan.  This came directly after his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.  Putin obviously discussed the Syrian conflict with all three.  Moreover it is known that over the course of the same discussions Putin mooted with all three of them – but especially with Trump and Erdogan – a new Russian proposal for something the Russians are calling ‘de-escalation zones’.

That this is so was confirmed during the joint news conference Putin and Erdogan gave after their meeting.  Here is what the two of them had to say about this proposal

Question(retranslated): I have a question about resolving the Syrian crisis and creating safe zones in Syria. Did the two leaders discuss this issue and, if so, did they reach an agreement?

Recep Tayyip Erdogan: There is a new initiative in this regard. As you may be aware, from the very outset, I have been using the term ”safe zone“. I will continue to use it. However, a new term – ”de-escalation zone“ – has gained currency recently. As you may be aware, refugees from Aleppo have found shelter in the province of Idlib. Unfortunately, problems occasionally emerge in Idlib. A ”green zone“, that is, a ”de-escalation zone“ has been created there. We hope that the de-escalation zone will be preserved.

This is critical for the Astana process. I hope that the decision on the de-escalation zone will be adopted and acted upon to further resolve this issue.

Vladimir Putin: The President and I operate on the premise – I already mentioned this – that the Syrian crisis can be resolved exclusively by political means. However, to set this political process in motion it is necessary to ensure a ceasefire. As the countries that made the greatest contribution to this formula and the practical side of ending hostilities, Russia, Turkey, and Iran have never stopped thinking about ways to bolster the ceasefire.

One way to do so is to create safe zones, or de-escalation zones, as the President just said. We have heard the US President mention de-escalation zones as well. Yesterday, I discussed this issue on the phone with Mr Trump. As far as I understand, the US administration is supportive of these ideas. Earlier, Russia held consultations with Damascus and Tehran, and we believe that we need to work toward creating mechanisms that would guarantee an end to the bloodshed and create conditions for starting a political dialogue. In this sense, I am on the same page with the President of Turkey. We proceed from the premise that the participants in the conflict who gathered in Astana today will make the final decision, because, ultimately, the future of their country depends on them. As guarantors of the ceasefire, Turkey, Iran, and Russia will do their best to ensure that these mechanisms get better and are effective. We will support this proposal.

This is all extremely vague, and does not provide any clear explanation of what these so-called ‘de-escalation zones’ are supposed to be about or what they will consist of.  However it seems from these words that Erdogan, Trump and the Syrian and Iranian leadership are all to a greater or lesser degree supportive of this proposal, which given their differences on so many other issues is an extraordinary fact in itself.

A few days ago Al-Masdar, which has reliable sources within the Syrian government, published an interesting article about how the Russians are supposedly planning to establish four zones in Syria, which are presumably the proposed ‘de-escalation zones’.  The article reads as follows

Russia proposed the creation of four zones in Syria as part of a wider plan to de-escalate the tension in the war-torn country.

The proposed zones will have safety lines along them and monitoring centers in order to avoid direct fire among the warring parties, as well as granting safe access to unarmed civilians and aid convoys.

The Russian proposal also involves the possibility of the three guarantor states (Russia, Iran and Turley) to form a working group and send troops in order to enhance the application of the proposal.

Putting this article with what Putin and Erdogan said together, it seems that what the Russians are proposing is that the Syrian authorities and the various Turkish backed Jihadi groups which are supposed to be participating in the Russian-Turkish sponsored ceasefire and in the Astana process agree between them certain zones (the Russians have apparently proposed four such zones) which are to be completely demilitarised and to which civilians can escape in order to avoid the fighting.

Putin was quite clear that the setting up of these ‘de-escalation’ zones and their boundaries had to be agreed by the Syrian government and by the Turkish backed Jihadis as part of the Astana peace process.

We proceed from the premise that the participants in the conflict who gathered in Astana today will make the final decision, because, ultimately, the future of their country depends on them

However it seems that once the boundaries are agreed the three guarantor powers – Iran, Turkey and Russia – will take steps to secure them.   Here is what Putin had to say about that

As guarantors of the ceasefire, Turkey, Iran, and Russia will do their best to ensure that these mechanisms get better and are effective

What this means in practice is unclear.  The Al-Masdar article speaks of the setting up of a ‘working group’ and of troops being sent ‘in order to enhance the application of the proposal’.  That suggests peacekeepers being sent to police the zones.

The question of whose troops those would be is the key one.

The Syrians would be deeply unhappy if Turkish troops were introduced into Syria in order to police the zones, since this would legitimise the presence of Turkish troops in Syria, which up to now has been illegal.  Given how the Syrians feel about Turkey – which has been their most relentless enemy – they would be bound to object strenuously to any proposal which legitimised the presence of Turkish troops in their country.  The Russians in light of their own difficulties with Turkey might be reluctant to pressure the Syrians to agree to it.

The US, the Israelis and the Saudis for their part would however undoubtedly strongly object to the introduction of Iranian troops into Syria for such a purpose.  All three of these countries have spoken of their determination to end any Iranian presence in Syria.  They would certainly not agree to Iranian troops entering the country to police ‘de-escalation zones’.  The Turkish backed Jihadis would be bound to object strenuously also.

That might well mean that the bulk of the troops would have to come from Russia.  A short time ago rumours circulated in the Middle East media that the Russians were considering sending ground troops to Syria.  If so then that might be as part of this proposal rather than in the active combat role the rumours claim.  Presumably if an agreement were reached it would be backed by a Resolution of the UN Security Council authorising Russia, probably with the help of troops from some other powers, to send troops to Syria to police the zones.

Any suggestion that Russian ground troops be sent to Syria, even following an international agreement and with the authority of the UN Security Council, would still however be hugely controversial in Russia.  It is far from certain the Russian government is considering it.  So far there is no confirmation of it.

Whilst the form and purpose of the proposed ‘de-escalation zones’ is still unclear, the reason for Russia proposing them is not.  They give every impression of being a Russian response to President Trump’s revived talk since the alleged Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack of ‘safe havens’.

The difference between ‘safe havens’ and ‘de-escalation zones’ is that ‘safe havens’ are supposed to be set up by the US and Turkey unilaterally, whilst ‘de-escalation zones’ are supposed to be agreed by the Syrian government as part of the ceasefire talks underway in Astana.  Moreover the Russians would have a role in monitoring and perhaps administering the ‘de-escalation zones, whilst they would have no such role in guarding the ‘safe havens’.  Setting up the ‘safe havens’ would amount to a US-Turkish invasion of Syria, which would dramatically worsen the crisis there.  “De-escalation zones’, in theory at least, would not.

From the Russian point of view (and possibly that of Damascus and Tehran) ‘de-escalation zones’ would also have the further advantage that their form and boundaries – unlike those of the ‘safe havens’ – would be agreed, at least in theory, by the Syrian government in Damascus, bringing them within the legal jurisdiction of the Syrian state.

That the ‘de-escalation zones’ are different, or are supposed to be different, from the ‘safe havens’ was implicitly admitted by President Erdogan during his joint news conference with Putin

There is a new initiative in this regard. As you may be aware, from the very outset, I have been using the term ”safe zone“. I will continue to use it. However, a new term – ”de-escalation zone“ – has gained currency recently

President Erdogan’s words however also point to the problem: even if the ‘de-escalation zones’ are supposed to be different from the ‘safe havens’, in practice they may amount to the same thing.

Ever since the Russian-Turkish ceasefire was agreed fighting has continued in Syria largely unabated, with the Turkish backed Jihadi groups which supposedly signed up to the ceasefire regularly joining Al-Qaeda in attacks against the Syrian army.  Some of these groups were for example involved in the recent offensives in northern Hama and in Damascus.

These same Jihadi groups have also repeatedly staged walk outs from the Astana talks, and they have just done so again.

Given this record there has to be a serious possibility that if ‘de-escalation zones’ are ever set up these same Jihadi groups will try to take them over and convert them into base areas from which to attack the Syrian army.  That after all is precisely what they intended that the ‘safe havens’ would be.  Needless to say in trying to do this the Jihadis would have the support of the US and the Turks, who would then have a pretext to come to the defence of the Jihadis in the ‘de-escalation zones’ if the Syrian army sought to attack them there.

The Russians and the Syrians will of course do everything they can to prevent this situation from arising.  However it is easy to see how setting up ‘de-escalation zones’ could go horribly wrong, and -more to the point – how, precisely because the Jihadi groups might try to convert the ‘de-escalation zones’ into base areas whilst the Russians and the Syrians would try to prevent them from doing so, the whole process of setting up the ‘de-escalation zones’ might become bogged down in furious argument.

Which however raises another possibility, which is that like the Russian draft for a ‘Syrian constitution’ about which so much was heard a few weeks ago, but which has since vanished without trace, this Russian proposal to set up ‘de-escalation zones’ may not be intended seriously and may be nothing more than a diplomatic stratagem.

From the Russian point of view the priority in Syria at the moment must be to prevent the various parties – the Syrians, the Turks, the US and the Kurds – from getting drawn into an all-out war with each other.  Donald Trump’s recent re-floating of the idea of ‘safe havens’ has however seriously increased that possibility. Proposing ‘de-escalation zones’ might be the Russians’ way of getting Trump off the hook – which may be why he has apparently welcomed this proposal so enthusiastically – whilst giving the parties a topic they can talk about and argue over instead of fight each other.  Meanwhile the Syrian army would be left alone to carry on the fight against Al-Qaeda and ISIS unhindered.

In that case even if actual agreement on the ‘de-escalation zones’ is never reached, floating the proposal would have served its purpose.

As I said before during my discussion of the Russian draft for a Syrian constitution, these sort of stratagems were once a commonplace of diplomacy, though they scarcely ever happen today because the US and the Western powers never use them.  The Russians however have retained a gift for them, and it may be that this whole nebulous idea of ‘de-escalation zones’ is just another example.

Whether that is so or not, and whether the proposal for ‘de-escalation zones’ is intended seriously or is in fact simply a stratagem, is something which the next few weeks should make clear. One way or the other however this proposal repays careful watching.

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Understanding the Holodomor and why Russia says nothing

A descendant of Holodomor victims takes the rest of us to school as to whether or not Russia needs to shoulder the blame.

Seraphim Hanisch

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One of the charges that nationalist Ukrainians often lodge against their Russian neighbors is that the Russian government has never acknowledged or formally apologized to Ukraine for the “Holodomor” that took place in Ukraine in 1932-1933. This was a man-made famine that killed an estimated seven to 10 million Ukrainians , though higher estimates claim 12.5 million and lower ones now claim 3.3 million.

No matter what the total was, it amounts to a lot of people that starved to death. The charge that modern-day Russia ought to apologize for this event is usually met with silence, which further enrages those Ukrainians that believe that this issue must be resolved by the Russian acknowledgement of responsibility for it. Indeed, the prime charge of these Ukrainians is that the Russians committed a genocide against the Ukrainian people. This is a claim Russia denies.

To the outside observer who does not know this history of Russia and Ukraine’s relationship, and who does not know or understand the characteristics of the Soviet Union, this charge seems as simple and laid out as that of the Native Americans or the blacks demanding some sort of recompense or restitution for the damages inflicted on these societies through conquest and / or slavery. But we discovered someone who had family connections involved in the Holodomor, and who offers her own perspective, which is instructive in why perhaps the Russian Federation does not say anything about this situation.

Scene in Kharkiv with dead from the famine 1932-33 lying along the street.

The speaker is Anna Vinogradova, a Russian Israeli-American, who answered the question through Quora of “Why doesn’t Russia recognize the Holodomor as a genocide?” She openly admits that she speaks only for herself, but her answer is still instructive. We offer it here, with some corrections for the sake of smooth and understandable English:

I can’t speak for Russia and what it does and doesn’t recognize. I can speak for myself.

I am a great-granddaughter of a “Kulak” (кулак), or well-to-do peasant, who lived close to the Russia/Ukraine border.

The word “кулак” means “fist” in Russian, and it wasn’t a good thing for a person to be called by this label. A кулак was an exploiter of peasants and a class enemy of the new state of workers and poor peasants. In other words, while under Communism, to be called a кулак was to bring a death sentence upon yourself.

At some point, every rural class enemy, every peasant who wasn’t a member of a collective farm was eliminated one way or another.

Because Ukraine has very fertile land and the Ukrainian style of agriculture often favors individual farms as opposed to villages, there is no question that many, many Ukrainian peasants were considered class enemies like my great grandfather, and eliminated in class warfare.

I have no doubt that class warfare included starvation, among other things.

The catch? My great grandfather was an ethnic Russian living in Russia. What nationality were the communists who persecuted and eventually shot him? They were of every nationality there was (in the Soviet Union), and they were led by a Ukrainian, who was taking orders from a Georgian.

Now, tell me, why I, a descendant of an unjustly killed Russian peasant, need to apologize to the descendants of the Ukrainians who killed him on the orders of a Georgian?

What about the Russian, Kazakh golodomor (Russian rendering of the same famine)? What about the butchers, who came from all ethnicities? Can someone explain why it’s only okay to talk about Ukrainian victims and Russian persecutors? Why do we need to rewrite history decades later to convert that brutal class war into an ethnic war that it wasn’t?

Ethnic warfare did not start in Russia until after WWII, when some ethnicities were accused of collaboration with the Nazis and brutal group punishments were implemented. It was all based on class up to that time.

The communists of those years were fanatically internationalist. “Working people of all countries, unite!” was their slogan and they were fanatical about it.

As for the crimes of Communism, Russia has been healing this wound for decades, and Russia’s government has made its anticommunist position very clear.

This testimony is most instructive. First, it points out information that the charge of the Holodomor as “genocide!” neatly leaves out. In identifying the internationalist aspects of the Soviet Union, Ukraine further was not a country identified as somehow worthy of genocidal actions. Such a thought makes no sense, especially given the great importance of Ukraine as the “breadbasket” of the Soviet Union, which it was.

Secondly, it shows a very western-style of “divide to conquer” with a conveniently incendiary single-word propaganda tool that is no doubt able to excite any Ukrainian who may be neutral to slightly disaffected about Russia, and then after that, all Ukrainians are now victims of the mighty evil overlords in Moscow.

How convenient is this when the evil overlords in Kyiv don’t want their citizens to know what they are doing?

We saw this on Saturday – taken to a very high peak when President Petro Poroshenko announced the new leading “Hierarch” of the “Ukrainian National Church” and said not one single word about Christ, but only:

“This day will go down in history as the day of the creation of an autocephalous Orthodox church in Ukraine… This is the day of the creation of the church as an independent structure… What is this church? It is a church without Putin. It is a church without Kirill, without prayer for the Russian authorities and the Russian army.”

But as long as Russia is made the “problem”, millions of scandalized Ukrainians will not care what this new Church actually does or teaches, which means it is likely to teach just about anything.

Russia had its own Holodomor. The history of the event shows that this was a result of several factors – imposed socialist economics on a deeply individualized form of agrarian capitalism (bad for morale and worse for food production), really inane centralized planning of cropland use, and a governmental structure that really did not exist to serve the governed, but to impose an ideology on people who really were not all that interested in it.

Personal blame might well lay with Stalin, a Georgian, but the biggest source of the famine lay in the structures imposed under communism as a way of economic strategy. This is not Russia’s fault. It is the economic model that failed.

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Mueller Finally Releases Heavily Redacted Key Flynn Memo On Eve Of Sentencing

Alex Christoforou

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Via Zerohedge


Having initially snubbed Judge Emmet Sullivan’s order to release the original 302 report from the Michael Flynn interrogation in January 2017, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has finally produced the heavily redacted document, just hours before sentencing is due to be handed down.

The memo  – in full below – details then-national security adviser Michael Flynn’s interview with FBI agents Peter Strzok and Joe Pientka, and shows Flynn was repeatedly asked about his contacts with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and in each instance, Flynn denied (or did not recall) any such conversations.

The agents had transcripts of Flynn’s phone calls to Russian Ambassador Kislyak, thus showing Flynn to be lying.

Flynn pleaded guilty guilty last December to lying to the FBI agents about those conversations with Kislyak.

The redactions in the document seem oddly placed but otherwise, there is nothing remarkable about the content…

Aside from perhaps Flynn’s incredulity at the media attention…

Flynn is set to be sentenced in that federal court on Tuesday.

Of course, as Christina Laila notes, the real crime is that Flynn was unmasked during his phone calls to Kislyak and his calls were illegally leaked by a senior Obama official to the Washington Post.

*  *  *

Full document below…

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Don’t Laugh : It’s Giving Putin What He Wants

The fact of the matter is that humorous lampooning of western establishment Russia narratives writes itself.

Caitlin Johnstone

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Authored by Caitlin Johnstone:


The BBC has published an article titled “How Putin’s Russia turned humour into a weapon” about the Kremlin’s latest addition to its horrifying deadly hybrid warfare arsenal: comedy.

The article is authored by Olga Robinson, whom the BBC, unhindered by any trace of self-awareness, has titled “Senior Journalist (Disinformation)”. Robinson demonstrates the qualifications and acumen which earned her that title by warning the BBC’s audience that the Kremlin has been using humor to dismiss and ridicule accusations that have been leveled against it by western governments, a “form of trolling” that she reports is designed to “deliberately lower the level of discussion”.

“Russia’s move towards using humour to influence its campaigns is a relatively recent phenomenon,” Robinson explains, without speculating as to why Russians might have suddenly begun laughing at their western accusers. She gives no consideration to the possibility that the tightly knit alliance of western nations who suddenly began hysterically shrieking about Russia two years ago have simply gotten much more ridiculous and easier to make fun of during that time.

Couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the emergence of a demented media environment wherein everything around the world from French protests to American culture wars to British discontent with the European Union gets blamed on Russia without any facts or evidence. Wherein BBC reporters now correct guests and caution them against voicing skepticism of anti-Russia narratives because the UK is in “an information war” with that nation. Wherein the same cable news Russiagate pundit can claim that both Rex Tillerson’s hiring and his later firing were the result of a Russian conspiracy to benefit the Kremlin. Wherein mainstream outlets can circulate blatantly false information about Julian Assange and unnamed “Russians” and then blame the falseness of that reporting on Russian disinformation. Wherein Pokemon Go, cutesy Facebook memes and $4,700 in Google ads are sincerely cited as methods by which Hillary Clinton’s $1.2 billion presidential campaign was outdone. Wherein conspiracy theories that Putin has infiltrated the highest levels of the US government have been blaring on mainstream headline news for two years with absolutely nothing to show for it to this day.

Nope, the only possibility is that the Kremlin suddenly figured out that humor is a thing.

The fact of the matter is that humorous lampooning of western establishment Russia narratives writes itself. The hypocrisy is so cartoonish, the emotions are so breathlessly over-the-top, the stories so riddled with plot holes and the agendas underlying them so glaringly obvious that they translate very easily into laughs. I myself recently authored a satire piece that a lot of people loved and which got picked up by numerous alternative media outlets, and all I did was write down all the various escalations this administration has made against Russia as though they were commands being given to Trump by Putin. It was extremely easy to write, and it was pretty damn funny if I do say so myself. And it didn’t take any Kremlin rubles or dezinformatsiya from St Petersburg to figure out how to write it.

“Ben Nimmo, an Atlantic Council researcher on Russian disinformation, told the BBC that attempts to create funny memes were part of the strategy as ‘disinformation for the information age’,” the article warns. Nimmo, ironically, is himself intimately involved with the British domestic disinformation firm Integrity Initiative, whose shady government-sponsored psyops against the Labour Party have sparked a national scandal that is likely far from reaching peak intensity.

“Most comedy programmes on Russian state television these days are anodyne affairs which either do not touch on political topics, or direct humour at the Kremlin’s perceived enemies abroad,” Robinson writes, which I found funny since I’d just recently read an excellent essay by Michael Tracey titled “Why has late night swapped laughs for lusting after Mueller?”

“If the late night ‘comedy’ of the Trump era has something resembling a ‘message,’ it’s that large segments of the nation’s liberal TV viewership are nervously tracking every Russia development with a passion that cannot be conducive to mental health – or for that matter, political efficacy,” Tracey writes, documenting numerous examples of the ways late night comedy now has audiences cheering for a US intelligence insider and Bush appointee instead of challenging power-serving media orthodoxies as programs like The Daily Show once did.

If you wanted the opposite of “anodyne affairs”, it would be comedians ridiculing the way all the establishment talking heads are manipulating their audiences into supporting the US intelligence community and FBI insiders. It would be excoriating the media environment in which unfathomably powerful world-dominating government agencies are subject to less scrutiny and criticism than a man trapped in an embassy who published inconvenient facts about those agencies. It certainly wouldn’t be the cast of Saturday Night Live singing “All I Want for Christmas Is You” to a framed portrait if Robert Mueller wearing a Santa hat. It doesn’t get much more anodyne than that.

Russia makes fun of western establishment narratives about it because those narratives are so incredibly easy to make fun of that they are essentially asking for it, and the nerdy way empire loyalists are suddenly crying victim about it is itself more comedy. When Guardian writer Carole Cadwalladr began insinuating that RT covering standard newsworthy people like Julian Assange and Nigel Farage was a conspiracy to “boost” those people for the advancement of Russian agendas instead of a news outlet doing the thing that news reporting is, RT rightly made fun of her for it. Cadwalladr reacted to RT’s mockery with a claim that she was a victim of “attacks”, instead of the recipient of perfectly justified ridicule for circulating an intensely moronic conspiracy theory.

Ah well. People are nuts and we’re hurtling toward a direct confrontation with a nuclear superpower. Sometimes there’s nothing else to do but laugh. As Wavy Gravy said, “Keep your sense of humor, my friend; if you don’t have a sense of humor it just isn’t funny anymore.”

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