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Vladimir Putin initiates call with Erdogan amid possibility of renewed fighting in Syria

Deteriorating situation in Syria prompts urgent talks between Russian and Turkish leaders amidst suggestions of a summit with Iran

Alexander Mercouris

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As I predicted a few days ago, the rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria has prompted an urgent telephone call between Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan.

The Kremlin’s summary of the call does not make clear who initiated the call.  However most likely it was the Russian leader.

Since President Putin visited Syria in December and announced a limited withdrawal of Russian forces there, the situation in Syria has spiralled downwards.

I should say that I do not think this is a coincidence.

Though Russia’s Aerospace Forces continue to maintain a very active presence in Syria – calling into question the extent to which a withdrawal has actually taken place – the announcement of the withdrawal was inevitably interpreted by the host of other actors in the Syria war as a sign of a weakening of Russian resolve, and appears to have emboldened them to attack more aggressively.

The result has been a multiplication of attacks on Russian facilities in Syria, with mortar and drone attacks on Khmeimim air base and the shooting down by a MANPADS missile of a Russian SU-25 attack aircraft over Idlib province.

Meanwhile the announcement of US support for a 30,000 strong Kurdish border force has provoked a Turkish military offensive against the Kurdish held enclave of Afrin.

The Syrian government, which has had strained relations with the Kurds hitherto, is now actively supporting them in their fight with the Turkish army, and the Syrian Kurds have also received verbal support from Iran.

The Syrian army for its part has launched a large scale offensive against the Jihadi controlled enclave of Idlib province.  The Russian Aerospace Forces have been active in backing this offensive.  However the Turkish military has been deployed to Idlib province, apparently with the intention of blocking the Syrian advance, leading to exchanges of fire between the Syrian and Turkish militaries.

Further east ISIS is undergoing a revival in areas which it formerly controlled east of the Euphrates as US backed Kurdish militia redeploy from there to fight the Turkish military in the west.

This in turn has led to an advance by Syrian tribal fighters allied to the Syrian government into areas previously captured by the Kurds from ISIS east of the Euphrates.  This advance has in turn led to a bombing raid on these fighters by the US, leaving between 25 and 150 of them dead (accounts differ).

There are suggestions that the US bombing raid was intended to prevent these tribal fighters from taking control of Syrian oil wells from other tribal fighters who were previously allied to ISIS but who are now allied to the US backed Kurds.

That has in turn provoked an angry response from the Russian Defence Ministry, which has accused the US of trying to take control of Syrian economic assets.  Here is how TASS reports its comments

“The recent incident once again shows that the United States’ illegal military presence in Syria is actually aimed at taking control of the country’s economic assets and not at fighting against the ISIL international terror group [the former name of the Islamic State – TASS],” the statement reads.

According to the Russian Defense Ministry, on February 7, “a pro-government militia unit, conducting surveillance and research activities near the al-Isba oil refinery (17 kilometers southeast of the Salhiyah settlement) to eliminate a militant group shelling the positions of government troops, was shelled with mortars and multiple-launch rocket systems.” “The attack was followed by an air raid by the US-led coalition’s helicopters. As a result, 25 Syrian militiamen suffered wounds.”

The Russian Defense Ministry said that the reason for the incident was that the Syrian militia unit had failed to inform the Russian operational group in Salhiyah about its plans to conduct a surveillance and research operation.

To say that this is a worrying and confusing picture would be a gross understatement.

Meanwhile Russian acquiescence in the Turkish attack on Kurdish controlled Afrin has led to Kurdish charges of ‘betrayal’ by Russia, whilst support for the Kurds from the Syrian government and Iran has led to talk of a Russian-Turkish ‘alliance’ against the Kurds, Syria and Iran.

By contrast the always astute former Indian diplomat turned international affairs commentator M.K. Bhadrakumar has spoken – far more plausibly – of Russian-Turkish relations being close to ‘meltdown’ because of bad blood between Russia and Turkey over the Syrian offensive into Idlib province.

Bhadrakumar even speaks of this leading to a rapprochement between the US and Turkey, with the US encouraging the falling out between Russia and Turkey by dangling before Turkey the prospect of US support for the establishment of what looks rather like a Turkish protectorate over Syria

For Turkey, the knot is three-fold. Firstly, it cannot come to terms with the new reality that Russia (which has civilizational ties with Greece and Cyprus) has today become the dominant power in the Eastern Mediterranean. Secondly, it disapproves of ongoing Syrian military operations, supported by air power, to regain control of Idlib from opposition groups that have enjoyed Turkish support. And, above all, thirdly, Erdogan’s grand design to establish a permanent Turkish foothold in Syria (which was ruled by the Ottomans), will remain a pipedream so long as Russia underpins Syria’s unity and territorial integrity. Turkey has all along viewed Moscow’s links with the Kurds in Afrin suspiciously.

Erdogan is well aware that the US will see advantages in the developing situation to push its containment strategy against Iran more effectively in Syria and to isolate the Assad regime

Typically, therefore, Erdogan will now seek a modus vivendi with the US. Of course, it will be a dream come true for the US if the hairline crack in the Russian-Turkish axis in Syria widens and becomes a rift in the coming weeks. In their opposition to the establishment of Russian bases in Syria, Washington and Ankara are on the same page.

On the other hand, the Pentagon will expect Erdogan to give up his plans to launch any military operation to attack the Kurds in Manbij. The US simply cannot accede to the Turkish demand that it break its alliance with Syria’s Kurds. US Defence Secretary James Mattis hinted on Friday that talks are going on with Turkey to dissuade Erdogan from ordering an operation on Manbij.

For his part, Erdogan will seek a tradeoff with the Trump administration to create conditions for a broader rapprochement with the US. He is well aware that the US will see advantages in the developing situation to push its containment strategy against Iran more effectively in Syria and to isolate the Assad regime. Indeed, a rift in the Russian-Turkish axis in Syria opens an entirely new ball game in the country, one that enables the US to create new facts on the ground and negotiate harder on the terms of a future Syrian settlement. Israel is also a stakeholder here.

Erdogan all along hankered for an enhanced role for Turkey as the flag carrier in the West’s strategies in Syria, fancying himself to be the role model for the Muslim Middle East. But President Barack Obama was disinterested in any such dalliance with the mercurial Sultan in Ankara.

Bhadrakumar’s claims of an incipient realignment of Turkey with the US against Russia in Syria is not inherently implausible.

An article in Al-Monitor shows that President Erdogan remains as implacably hostile to Syrian President Assad as ever, and has categorically rejected demands which are now spreading in Turkey for a rapprochement with President Assad and with the Syrian government

Opposition parties along with retired generals and analysts [in Turkey] argue that cooperating with Damascus is the only way to ensure Turkey’s security interests along its long border with Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains adamantly opposed to talking with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, however, even though Ankara established low-level contacts with Damascus prior to launching its onslaught against the YPG in Afrin…..

Erdogan remains defiant and is angry with calls for him to make peace with Assad. He blasted Kilicdaroglu [a Turkish opposition politician who has called for a rapprochement with President Assad – AM] prior to flying to Rome on Feb. 4 on a state visit to the Vatican. “What kind of business is this?” Erdogan said in response to a question from reporters. “Here is a man who is heedlessly trying to bring us together with a man that caused the death of a million people.”

Given this attitude, it is far from impossible that Erdogan might decide to side with the US by taking further action against the Syrian government.

All this highlights the fundamental weakness of Russian strategy in Syria.  It depends far too much on the cooperation of President Erdogan, Turkey’s volatile and unpredictable President, whilst at the same time acting to thwart his regional ambitions.

The extent to which Russian diplomacy over the last two years has succeeded in keeping President Erdogan on track in light of this is remarkable, but it has required continuous and unremitting work with President Erdogan by President Putin and his diplomats.

The emerging crisis in Syria now requires President Putin to go to work with Erdogan again.  Here is the Kremlin’s summary of their conversation

The two presidents continued their discussion on the situation in Syria. Turkey’s leader expressed his condolences to the Russian President on the death of Russian military pilot Roman Filipov, who was piloting a Sukhoi Su-25 on February 3 and was attacked by militants in the Idlib de-escalation zone.

It was agreed to improve coordination of the Russian and Turkish troops and special services against terrorist groups that are violating the ceasefire.

Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan stressed the importance of strict and unfailing adherence to the Astana agreements on de-escalation zones in Syria. They reaffirmed mutual commitment to the political and diplomatic resolution of the crisis based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254, in line with the decisions of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, which took place on January 30, 2018 in Sochi.

In this context, the two leaders noted the importance of continuing cooperation between Russia, Turkey and Iran regarding Syria. They discussed future contacts in this format at various levels.

Though it is difficult to glean much from these words, the last paragraph clearly hints that a tripartite summit between the Presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran to discuss the growing crisis in Syria is in the works.

Reports from the Middle East confirm this and suggest that the summit will take place shortly in Istanbul.

Given the escalating crisis in Syria the three Presidents – assuming they meet – will have a great deal to discuss.

It is to be hoped that they are able to come to some sort of arrangement with each other, which will prevent the crisis deepening, and which will keep the Syrian process on track.

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High-ranking Ukrainian official reports on US interference in Ukraine

It is not usually the case that an American media outlet tells the truth about Ukraine, but it appears to have happened here.

Seraphim Hanisch

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The Hill committed what may well have been a random act of journalism when it reported that Ukrainian Prosecutor General, Yuriy Lutsenko, told Hill.tv’s reporter John Solomon that the American ambassador to that country, Marie Yovanovitch, gave him a “do not prosecute” list at their first meeting.

Normally, all things Russia are covered by the American press as “bad”, and all things Ukraine are covered by the same as “good.” Yet this report reveals quite a bit about the nature of the deeply embedded US interests that are involved in Ukraine, and which also attempt to control and manipulate policy in the former Soviet republic.

The Hill’s piece continues (with our added emphases):

“Unfortunately, from the first meeting with the U.S. ambassador in Kiev, [Yovanovitch] gave me a list of people whom we should not prosecute,” Lutsenko, who took his post in 2016, told Hill.TV last week.

“My response of that is it is inadmissible. Nobody in this country, neither our president nor our parliament nor our ambassador, will stop me from prosecuting whether there is a crime,” he continued.

Indeed, the Prosecutor General appears to be a man of some principles. When this report was brought to the attention of the US State Department, the response was predictable:

The State Department called Lutsenko’s claim of receiving a do not prosecute list, “an outright fabrication.” 

“We have seen reports of the allegations,” a department spokesperson told Hill.TV. “The United States is not currently providing any assistance to the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO), but did previously attempt to support fundamental justice sector reform, including in the PGO, in the aftermath of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. When the political will for genuine reform by successive Prosecutors General proved lacking, we exercised our fiduciary responsibility to the American taxpayer and redirected assistance to more productive projects.”

This is an amazing statement in itself. “Our fiduciary responsibility to the American taxpayer”? Are Americans even aware that their country is spending their tax dollars in an effort to manipulate a foreign government in what can probably well be called a low-grade proxy war with the Russian Federation? Again, this appears to be a slip, as most American media do a fair job of maintaining the narrative that Ukraine is completely independent and that its actions regarding the United States and Russia are taken in complete freedom.

Hill.TV has reached out to the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine for comment.

Lutsenko also said that he has not received funds amounting to nearly $4 million that the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine was supposed to allocate to his office, saying that “the situation was actually rather strange” and pointing to the fact that the funds were designated, but “never received.”

“At that time we had a case for the embezzlement of the U.S. government technical assistance worth 4 million U.S. dollars, and in that regard, we had this dialogue,” he said. “At that time, [Yovanovitch] thought that our interviews of Ukrainian citizens, of Ukrainian civil servants, who were frequent visitors of the U.S. Embassy put a shadow on that anti-corruption policy.”

“Actually, we got the letter from the U.S. Embassy, from the ambassador, that the money that we are speaking about [was] under full control of the U.S. Embassy, and that the U.S. Embassy did not require our legal assessment of these facts,” he said. “The situation was actually rather strange because the funds we are talking about were designated for the prosecutor general’s office also and we told [them] we have never seen those, and the U.S. Embassy replied there was no problem.”

“The portion of the funds, namely 4.4 million U.S. dollars were designated and were foreseen for the recipient Prosecutor General’s office. But we have never received it,” he said.

Yovanovitch previously served as the U.S. ambassador to Armenia under former presidents Obama and George W. Bush, as well as ambassador to Kyrgyzstan under Bush. She also served as ambassador to Ukraine under Obama.

Former Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), who was at the time House Rules Committee chairman, voiced concerns about Yovanovitch in a letter to the State Department last year in which he said he had proof the ambassador had spoken of her “disdain” for the Trump administration.

This last sentence may be a way to try to narrow the scope of American interference in Ukraine down to the shenanigans of just a single person with a personal agenda. However, many who have followed the story of Ukraine and its surge in anti-Russian rhetoric, neo-Naziism, ultra-nationalism, and the most recent events surrounding the creation of a pseudo-Orthodox “church” full of Ukrainian nationalists and atheists as a vehicle to import “Western values” into a still extremely traditional and Christian land, know that there are fingerprints of the United States “deep state” embeds all over this situation.

It is somewhat surprising that so much that reveals the problem showed up in just one report. It will be interesting to see if this gets any follow-up in the US press.

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Bercow blocks Brexit vote, May turns to EU for lifeline (Video)

The Duran Quick Take: Episode 112.

Alex Christoforou

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The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris discuss Theresa May’s latest Brexit dilemma, as House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, shocked the world by citing a 1604 precedent that now effectively blocks May’s third go around at trying to pass her treacherous Brexit deal through the parliament.

All power now rests with the Brussels, as to how, if and when the UK will be allowed to leave the European Union.

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Via Bloomberg


Theresa May claims Brexit is about taking back control. Ten days before the U.K. is due to leave the European Union, it looks like anything but.

House of Commons Speaker John Bercow’s intervention, citing precedent dating back to 1604, to rule out a repeat vote on May’s already defeated departure deal leaves the prime minister exposed ahead of Thursday’s EU summit in Brussels.

Bercow, whose cries of “Orrdurrr! Orrdurrr!’’ to calm rowdy lawmakers have gained him a devoted international following, is now the pivotal figure in the Brexit battle. May’s team privately accuse him of trying to frustrate the U.K.’s exit from the EU, while the speaker’s admirers say he’s standing up for the rights of parliament against the executive.

If just one of the 27 other states declines May’s summit appeal to extend the divorce timetable, then the no-deal cliff edge looms for Britain’s departure on March 29. If they consent, it’s unclear how May can meet Bercow’s test that only a substantially different Brexit agreement merits another vote in parliament, since the EU insists it won’t reopen negotiations.

Caught between Bercow and Brussels, May’s room for maneuver is shrinking. Amid rumblings that their patience with the U.K. is near exhaustion, EU leaders are girding for the worst.

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President Putin signs law blocking fake news, but the West makes more

Western media slams President Putin and his fake news law, accusing him of censorship, but an actual look at the law reveals some wisdom.

Seraphim Hanisch

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The TASS Russian News Agency reported on March 18th that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed off on a new law intended to block distorted or untrue information being reported as news. Promptly after he did so, Western news organizations began their attempt to “spin” this event as some sort of proof of “state censorship” in the oppressive sense of the old Soviet Union. In other words, a law designed to prevent fake news was used to create more fake news.

One of the lead publications is a news site that is itself ostensibly a “fake news” site. The Moscow Times tries to portray itself as a Russian publication that is conducted from within Russian borders. However, this site and paper is really a Western publication, run by a Dutch foundation located in the Netherlands. As such, the paper and the website associated have a distinctly pro-West slant in their reporting. Even Wikipedia noted this with this comment from their entry about the publication:

In the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis, The Moscow Times was criticized by a number of journalists including Izvestia columnist Israel Shamir, who in December 2014 called it a “militant anti-Putin paper, a digest of the Western press with extreme bias in covering events in Russia”.[3] In October 2014 The Moscow Times made the decision to suspend online comments after an increase in offensive comments. The paper said it disabled comments for two reasons—it was an inconvenience for its readers as well as being a legal liability, because under Russian law websites are liable for all content, including user-generated content like comments.[14]

This bias is still notably present in what is left of the publication, which is now an online-only news source. This is some of what The Moscow Times had to say about the new fake news legislation:

The bills amending existing information laws overwhelmingly passed both chambers of Russian parliament in less than two months. Observers and some lawmakers have criticized the legislation for its vague language and potential to stifle free speech.

The legislation will establish punishments for spreading information that “exhibits blatant disrespect for the society, government, official government symbols, constitution or governmental bodies of Russia.”

Insulting state symbols and the authorities, including Putin, will carry a fine of up to 300,000 rubles and 15 days in jail for repeat offenses.

As is the case with other Russian laws, the fines are calculated based on whether the offender is a citizen, an official or a legal entity.

More than 100 journalists and public figures, including human rights activist Zoya Svetova and popular writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya, signed a petition opposing the laws, which they labeled “direct censorship.”

This piece does give a bit of explanation from Dmitry Peskov, showing that European countries also have strict laws governing fake news distribution. However, the Times made the point of pointing out the idea of “insulting governmental bodies of Russia… including Putin” to bolster their claim that this law amounts to real censorship of the press. It developed its point of view based on a very short article from Reuters which says even less about the legislation and how it works.

However, TASS goes into rather exhaustive detail about this law, and it also gives rather precise wording on the reason for the law’s passage, as well as how it is to be enforced. We include most of this text here, with emphases added:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law on blocking untrue and distorting information (fake news). The document was posted on the government’s legal information web portal.

The document supplements the list of information, the access to which may be restricted on the demand by Russia’s Prosecutor General or his deputies. In particular, it imposes a ban on “untrue publicly significant information disseminated in the media and in the Internet under the guise of true reports, which creates a threat to the life and (or) the health of citizens, property, a threat of the mass violation of public order and (or) public security, or the threat of impeding or halting the functioning of vital infrastructural facilities, transport or social infrastructure, credit institutions, energy, industrial or communications facilities.”

Pursuant to the document, in case of finding such materials in Internet resources registered in accordance with the Russian law on the mass media as an online media resource, Russia’s Prosecutor General or his deputies will request the media watchdog Roskomnadzor to restrict access to the corresponding websites.

Based on this request, Roskomnadzor will immediately notify the editorial board of the online media resource, which is in violation of the legislation, about the need to remove untrue information and the media resource will be required to delete such materials immediately. If the editorial board fails to take the necessary measures, Roskomnadzor will send communications operators “a demand to take measures to restrict access to the online resource.”

In case of deleting such untrue information, the website owner will notify Roskomnadzor thereof, following which the media watchdog will “hold a check into the authenticity of this notice” and immediately inform the communications operator about the resumption of the access to the information resource.
The conditions for the law are very specific, as are the penalties for breaking it. TASS continued:

Liability for breaching the law

Simultaneously, the Federation Council approved the associated law with amendments to Russia’s Code of Administrative Offences, which stipulates liability in the form of penalties of up to 1.5 million rubles (around $23,000) for the spread of untrue and distorting information.

The Code’s new article, “The Abuse of the Freedom of Mass Information,” stipulates liability for disseminating “deliberately untrue publicly significant information” in the media or in the Internet. The penalty will range from 30,000 rubles ($450) to 100,000 rubles ($1,520) for citizens, from 60,000 rubles ($915) to 200,000 rubles ($3,040) for officials and from 200,000 rubles to 500,000 rubles ($7,620) for corporate entities with the possible confiscation of the subject of the administrative offence.

Another element of offence imposes tighter liability for the cases when the publication of false publicly significant information has resulted in the deaths of people, has caused damage to the health or property, prompted the mass violation of public order and security or has caused disruption to the functioning of transport or social infrastructure facilities, communications, energy and industrial facilities and banks. In such instances, the fines will range from 300,000 rubles to 400,000 rubles ($6,090) for citizens, from 600,000 rubles to 900,000 rubles ($13,720) for officials, and from 1 million rubles to 1.5 million rubles for corporate entities.

While this legislation can be spun (and is) in the West as anti-free speech, one may also consider the damage that has taken place in the American government through a relentless attack of fake news from most US news outlets against President Trump. One of the most notable effects of this barrage has been to further degrade and destroy the US’ relationship with the Russian Federation, because even the Helsinki Summit was attacked so badly that the two leaders have not been able to get a second summit together.

While it is certainly a valued right of the American press to be unfettered by Congress, and while it is also certainly vital to criticize improper practices by government officials, the American news agencies have gone far past that, to deliberately dishonest attacks, based in innuendo and everything possible that was formerly only the province of gossip tabloid publications. The effort has been to defame the President, not to give proper or due criticism to his policies, nor credit. It can be properly stated that the American press has abused its freedom of late.

This level of abuse drew a very unusual comment from the US president, who wondered on Twitter about the possibility of creating a state-run media center in the US to counter fake news:

Politically correct for US audiences? No. But an astute point?

Definitely.

Freedom in anything also presumes that those with that freedom respect it, and further, that they respect and apply the principle that slandering people and institutions for one’s own personal, business or political gain is wrong. Implied in the US Constitution’s protection of the press is the notion that the press itself, as the rest of the country, is accountable to a much Higher Authority than the State. But when that Authority is rejected, as so much present evidence suggests, then freedom becomes the freedom to misbehave and to agitate. It appears largely within this context that the Russian law exists, based on the text given.

Further, by hitting dishonest media outlets in their pocketbook, rather than prison sentences, the law appears to be very smart in its message: “Do not lie. If you do, you will suffer where it counts most.”

Considering that news media’s purpose is to make money, this may actually be a very smart piece of legislation.

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