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Hosting Syria talks in Sochi presents challenges for Russia

Moscow will have to juggle the competing interests of its coalition partners at the forthcoming meeting

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(Al-Monitor) – As Moscow prepares for its Syrian National Dialogue Congress this month, the guest list might still be in flux. Russia hopes to broker peace between the Syrian regime and its opposition while appeasing major stakeholders — who at the moment aren’t playing nicely.

On Jan. 11, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the Syrian situation. This was two days after Turkey had summoned the Russian and Iranian ambassadors over cease-fire violations in the Idlib de-escalation zone. Under the preliminary peace agreements reached in Astana, Kazakhstan, the three guarantor countries for the four Syrian de-escalation zones are Turkey, Russia and Iran.

Ankara couldn’t be more displeased with the recent offensive in Idlib by Syrian government forces with the support of pro-Iranian militias and Russian air power. Al-Monitor correspondent Amberin Zaman reported Jan. 10 that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu criticized Moscow and Tehran for failing to stop the offensive.

But Moscow had its own grievances with Ankara, whose peace-monitoring forces entered Idlib in October and chose to “coexist rather than curb” the actions of al-Qaeda-linked group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

The mutual suspicions were topped off with speculation that Turkey might have played a role in the recent attacks on Russia’s Khmeimim air base in Syria, threatening to upset the fragile balance among the Astana guarantors. Therefore, the phone call between Putin and Erdogan was an attempt to douse the flaring fire. Following the conversation, Putin dismissed the speculation, saying Jan. 11 he was positive that “neither the Turkish military nor the Turkish government had anything to do with the attacks.”

“Indeed, [the attacks on Khmeimim] came from the area that is supposed to be under Turkey’s control, but honestly we’ve also not always been able to control what we have to control over there. It’s complicated. According to our agreements, our Turkish partners were supposed to set up some checkpoints there, which they haven’t yet, but it’s difficult to do,” he said.

Putin referred to the Khmeimim attacks as “provocations.”

“We know who the provocateurs were. We know whom they paid and how much. But these were not Turks. … The attacks had two goals: one, to derail previous agreements, [and] two, to destroy our relations with our partners, Turkey and Iran. We understand this very well and will act in solidarity.”

The next day, the Russian Defense Ministry launched a precision-guided strike on what it called “the subversion group” allegedly behind the Hmeimim attacks. Therefore, even if there were objective or subjective grounds to suspect a “Turkish hand” in the incidents, the Kremlin made it clear it wasn’t going to let the rumors determine its attitude regarding Turkey and made a political decision to patch up its relations with Ankara at an early stage.

Against this background, Moscow’s relations with another Astana partner, Iran, look more stable. On the ground, Russian military and various pro-Iranian forces fight side by side with the Syrian government against opposition militants while keeping their contradictions to themselves. Russia also scored points with Iran’s leadership by taking the stance that Iran should be able to deal with its own matters regarding the recent protests there, and by taking advantage of the President Donald Trump-gifted opportunity to publicly demonstrate, yet again, its unity with Iran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Nevertheless, Russia’s disagreements with Turkey over the Syrian government offensive in Idlib couldn’t have been fixed with a phone call. Neither can Moscow’s JCPOA stance smooth over its “tacit rivalry” with Iran for influence over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syria. The Russia/Iran/Turkey trio’s lack of trust is barely news, and incidents such as the Khmeimim attack or the ongoing fight in Idlib are fueling suspicions and not-so-deeply buried grievances. Therefore, it’s of principal importance to Moscow at this point to ensure that the working coalition of the “Astana troika” continues to function at the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, set for Jan. 29-30 in Sochi, and that the trio stays more or less united on major issues and is able to produce fateful decisions around which the subsequent political process is going to evolve.

Politically, Moscow continues to play good cop to Tehran’s bad cop with the opposition at negotiation venues, including Geneva. Some rebel factions have come to think of Moscow as the lesser of two evils, while others see little difference between the two and seek to closely engage with Turkey. While Moscow is aware of these contacts, it hopes Turkey will stay the course, comply with its Astana obligations and not impede Russia’s pet project of the Sochi Congress.

Turkey and Iran have their own reservations about Russia’s true motives behind the Sochi initiative. Moscow is aware of this and finds it necessary to discuss — but not necessarily address — these concerns. Therefore, Putin and Erdogan thoroughly discussed preparations by phone, as did Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, during the latter’s visit to Moscow. Both Turkey and Iran are reviewing a list of Russia’s 1,700 proposed congress participants. On Jan. 11, Putin’s Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentyev was sent to Damascus to meet with Assad to settle the “most difficult and complex issues so that the parties could move forward.”

The original idea for the Sochi Congress was not to make it a separate process, but rather for it to serve as a booster rocket for the Geneva payload. The Geneva talks have been grounded by the uncompromising positions of the Syrian government and the opposition. As more Syrian opposition factions began opting not to participate in the meeting, Moscow saw its task as host to assemble “the right group” of Syrian representatives to legitimize their further role in the country’s future. Politically, the Kremlin hopes the congress will further establish Russia as the chief firefighter of the Syrian conflict.

Even if the congress seems detached from Geneva at the initial stage, the Sochi conference can continue to exist separately without harming the Geneva talks, simply because it doesn’t have the UN-mandated international legitimacy. Moscow, therefore, discards opposition claims that the congress threatens the Geneva process. Moscow views those claims as merely a political effort to get Europeans and Americans to counter Russian initiatives and thus save the opposition’s cause of getting rid of Assad.

Moreover, Moscow doesn’t see the Geneva effort as a failure because, first, it’s an ongoing process, and second, because the initial expectations for what it could produce were moderate if not low.

On the other hand, as the Astana talks have shown, if the UN venue — the Geneva process in this case — doesn’t produce results, Moscow will not hesitate to create its own platform, invite those willing to join it, work something out there and then make the rest of the stakeholders, including the United Nations, deal with it. That would provide the process and the subsequent results with the needed legitimacy.

In this case, getting Turkey and Iran on Russia’s side will require more hard work than countering resistance from the opposition.

A Russian diplomat with knowledge of the process told Al-Monitor, “Over the course of the civil war in Syria, some opposition groups morphed … disbanded or merged with radical terrorists. Some of those who spearheaded the anti-Assad movement are no longer around. Today, former opposition leaders are telling us that those who are now claiming to be “the opposition” barely represent 10% of the Syrians, and what once may have been a genuine Syrian anti-Assad movement has now been hijacked by outside forces. So what’s the opposition mandate, and are they truly able to implement the decisions they want to discuss?”

If this view reflects Russian thinking at the top level, it signals that Moscow is inclined to do everything in its power to see the Syrian political transition start in 2018. But engaging Turkey and Iran may be quite a challenge given the political and on-the-ground conditions.

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Multipolar World Order in the Making: Qatar Dumps OPEC

Russia and Qatar’s global strategy also brings together and includes partners like Turkey.

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Authored by Federico Pieraccini via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


The decision by Qatar to abandon OPEC threatens to redefine the global energy market, especially in light of Saudi Arabia’s growing difficulties and the growing influence of the Russian Federation in the OPEC+ mechanism.

In a surprising statement, Qatari energy minister Saad al-Kaabi warned OPEC on Monday December 3 that his country had sent all the necessary documentation to start the country’s withdrawal from the oil organization in January 2019. Al-Kaabi stressed that the decision had nothing to do with recent conflicts with Riyadh but was rather a strategic choice by Doha to focus on the production of LNG, which Qatar, together with the Russian Federation, is one of the largest global exporters of. Despite an annual oil extraction rate of only 1.8% of the total of OPEC countries (about 600,000 barrels a day), Qatar is one of the founding members of the organization and has always had a strong political influence on the governance of the organization. In a global context where international relations are entering a multipolar phase, things like cooperation and development become fundamental; so it should not surprise that Doha has decide to abandon OPEC. OPEC is one of the few unipolar organizations that no longer has a meaningful purpose in 2018, given the new realities governing international relations and the importance of the Russian Federation in the oil market.

Besides that, Saudi Arabia requires the organization to maintain a high level of oil production due to pressure coming from Washington to achieve a very low cost per barrel of oil. The US energy strategy targets Iranian and Russian revenue from oil exports, but it also aims to give the US a speedy economic boost. Trump often talks about the price of oil falling as his personal victory. The US imports about 10 million barrels of oil a day, which is why Trump wrongly believes that a decrease in the cost per barrel could favor a boost to the US economy. The economic reality shows a strong correlation between the price of oil and the financial growth of a country, with low prices of crude oil often synonymous of a slowing down in the economy.

It must be remembered that to keep oil prices low, OPEC countries are required to maintain a high rate of production, doubling the damage to themselves. Firstly, they take less income than expected and, secondly, they deplete their oil reserves to favor the strategy imposed by Saudi Arabia on OPEC to please the White House. It is clearly a strategy that for a country like Qatar (and perhaps Venezuela and Iran in the near future) makes little sense, given the diplomatic and commercial rupture with Riyadh stemming from tensions between the Gulf countries.

In contrast, the OPEC+ organization, which also includes other countries like the Russian Federation, Mexico and Kazakhstan, seems to now to determine oil and its cost per barrel. At the moment, OPEC and Russia have agreed to cut production by 1.2 million barrels per day, contradicting Trump’s desire for high oil output.

With this last choice Qatar sends a clear signal to the region and to traditional allies, moving to the side of OPEC+ and bringing its interests closer in line with those of the Russian Federation and its all-encompassing oil and gas strategy, two sectors in which Qatar and Russia dominate market share.

In addition, Russia and Qatar’s global strategy also brings together and includes partners like Turkey (a future energy hub connecting east and west as well as north and south) and Venezuela. In this sense, the meeting between Maduro and Erdogan seems to be a prelude to further reorganization of OPEC and its members.

The declining leadership role of Saudi Arabia in the oil and financial market goes hand in hand with the increase of power that countries like Qatar and Russia in the energy sectors are enjoying. The realignment of energy and finance signals the evident decline of the Israel-US-Saudi Arabia partnership. Not a day goes by without corruption scandals in Israel, accusations against the Saudis over Khashoggi or Yemen, and Trump’s unsuccessful strategies in the commercial, financial or energy arenas. The path this doomed

trio is taking will only procure less influence and power, isolating them more and more from their opponents and even historical allies.

Moscow, Beijing and New Delhi, the Eurasian powerhouses, seem to have every intention, as seen at the trilateral summit in Buenos Aires, of developing the ideal multipolar frameworks to avoid continued US dominance of the oil market through shale revenues or submissive allies as Saudi Arabia, even though the latest spike in production is a clear signal from Riyadh to the USA. In this sense, Qatar’s decision to abandon OPEC and start a complex and historical discussion with Moscow on LNG in the format of an enlarged OPEC marks the definitive decline of Saudi Arabia as a global energy power, to be replaced by Moscow and Doha as the main players in the energy market.

Qatar’s decision is, officially speaking, unconnected to the feud triggered by Saudi Arabia against the small emirate. However, it is evident that a host of factors has led to this historic decision. The unsuccessful military campaign in Yemen has weakened Saudi Arabia on all fronts, especially militarily and economically. The self-inflicted fall in the price of oil is rapidly consuming Saudi currency reserves, now at a new low of less than 500 billion dollars. Events related to Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) have de-legitimized the role of Riyadh in the world as a reliable diplomatic interlocutor. The internal and external repression by the Kingdom has provoked NGOs and governments like Canada’s to issue public rebukes that have done little to help MBS’s precarious position.

In Syria, the victory of Damascus and her allies has consolidated the role of Moscow in the region, increased Iranian influence, and brought Turkey and Qatar to the multipolar side, with Tehran and Moscow now the main players in the Middle East. In terms of military dominance, there has been a clear regional shift from Washington to Moscow; and from an energy perspective, Doha and Moscow are turning out to be the winners, with Riyadh once again on the losing side.

As long as the Saudi royal family continues to please Donald Trump, who is prone to catering to Israeli interests in the region, the situation of the Kingdom will only get worse. The latest agreement on oil production between Moscow and Riyad signals that someone in the Saudi royal family has probably figured this out.

Countries like Turkey, India, China, Russia and Iran understand the advantages of belonging to a multipolar world, thereby providing a collective geopolitical ballast that is mutually beneficial. The energy alignment between Qatar and the Russian Federation seems to support this general direction, a sort of G2 of LNG gas that will only strengthen the position of Moscow on the global chessboard, while guaranteeing a formidable military umbrella for Doha in case of a further worsening of relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

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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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