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Russia has a delicate role to play in Turkey’s incursion into Syria

Turkey’s intervention into the Kurdish-held Afrin region has Moscow needing to appease both sides

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(Al-Monitor) – The Syrian civil war is far from over, and the participants aren’t shy to apply the quid pro quo principle to the ongoing fighting.

In 2016, Turkey was allowed to take control of Syria’s northern Aleppo province and the city of al-Bab in exchange for turning eastern Aleppo over to the troops of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Back then, the swap wasn’t blatantly obvious. But just days ago, on Jan. 20, the Turkish General Staff officially announced the launch of Operation Olive Branch in Afrin; later that day Syrian government forces conveniently seized the Abu al-Duhur air base in Idlib governorate — one of the largest airports and an important air base in northern Syria.

The very fact that the opposition groups surrendered the air base practically without a single shot, and that the Turkish military used its air force along with barreled and reactive artillery without any objections from Russia, proves that an agreement had been reached and that steps had been coordinated. Hours before Turkey’s Afrin operation, the Russian Defense Ministry relocated its military police and the center for reconciliation of the warring parties to the Tell Adjar area of the Tel Rifaat deconfliction zone “to prevent potential provocations, to exclude threats to the life and health of Russian servicemen.”

It appears Ankara had informed Moscow of the targets in advance, given that the Russian military was able to move 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away from Menagh air base, which Turkey bombed soon after.

Moreover, it would have been too risky for Ankara to launch a major operation in Afrin, drawing considerable opposition forces, unless it had received certain guarantees.

The first days of Operation Olive Branch have shown that the Turkish army and allied opposition forces seek to seize some areas bordering the Afrin canton by advancing from several directions — Turkey, Idlib and the Azaz district. They aim to avoid a frontal assault and to establish bridgeheads allowing them to move forward and to conceal the axis of the main thrusts.

In the summer of 2017, Ankara and Moscow pondered the possible scenarios of their engagement in the Afrin canton. It was fully conditional on the delineation of the Idlib de-escalation zone, the terms of which were worked out during the sixth round of peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. The guarantor states virtually divided the territory into several parts, one of which — east of Abu al-Duhur air base — was to become a demilitarized zone. However, given that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Islamic State militants are still operating there, it will be probably be mopped up over time.

While the motive behind Turkey’s actions in Afrin is clear — Ankara seeks to weaken the Kurds to the greatest extent possible — Russia’s standing is much more complex. Moscow, which supports Assad, has to voice its commitment to Syria’s territorial integrity and publicly urge Turkey to halt the operation. Moscow has publicly mentioned that Operation Olive Branch began virtually on the eve of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi. Vladimir Shamanov, chairman of the Russian State Duma’s Defense Committee, said such an “undesirable precedent” could affect the event, scheduled for Jan. 29-30.

Given the possible risk to its reputation, Russia resorted to the surefire strategy of shifting the blame for the Turkish operation onto the United States. The Russian Defense Ministry reported that the operation in northern Syria was triggered by “the Pentagon’s uncontrolled supply of modern weapons,” including shoulder-launched missiles, to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-Arab alliance in which the People’s Protection Units (YPG) play a large role. Turkey says both groups are Syrian branches of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which Turkey considers a terrorist group.

“The US’ provocative steps aimed at isolating the areas with the predominantly Kurdish population were the crucial factors contributing to the crisis in this part of Syria,” the Russian Defense Ministry said, emphasizing the opportunistic nature of the operation. “Ankara’s extremely negative reaction was sparked by Washington’s statements about creating ‘frontier forces’ [near the Syrian-Turkey border], as well as other steps of the US that undermine Syrian statehood and support the armed militant groups.”

The Defense Ministry piled on the accusations, adding that “the US steps derailed the peace process and the Geneva inter-Syrian talks, which the Kurds should rightfully join.” Russia’s military establishment blamed Washington for Ankara’s decadeslong and well-known position regarding the Kurds, even though Washington calls for Kurdish engagement in the political negotiations. The United States has also said it isn’t supporting the YPG, as the group is no longer part of the fight against the Islamic State.

But Moscow continues its attempts to publicly discredit American efforts in Syria and emphasize what is seen as the illegitimate US presence on the ground. It is clear Moscow seeks America’s exit from Syria, to bolster the Assad regime and create a greater rift in relations between the United States and Turkey, which are NATO allies.

Yet the main question Russian journalists and experts ask on social networks is what has compelled Russia to distance itself from the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, as the Kurds constitute a major component in resolving the Syrian conflict?

First, with its military police operating in the Tel Rifaat deconfliction zone, Moscow still stands a chance of establishing itself as a peacemaker in the conflict over Afrin. Second, the canton’s defense lines are well fortified. Despite all the forces involved in the operation and the Syrian opposition’s contribution of almost 25,000 fighters to Turkey’s troops, the outcome of the military campaign remains unclear. Third, by distancing itself, Moscow may be sending signals to Kurds in other Syrian enclaves, giving them a hint as to the price tag for taking actions inconsistent with the country’s territorial integrity.

Aldar Khalil said Russia had asked the Syrian Kurds to hand over Afrin to the Syrian regime to be “safe and far from the Turkish attacks.” However, the Kurds refused to do so. Khalil is co-president of the executive council of the Movement for a Democratic Society, the governing body of Rojava — the secular, Arab-Kurdish, autonomous but unrecognized area also known as the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria. Rojava, which sits along Turkey’s border, includes Afrin.

Some media also reported that Russia had promised to shield the Kurds from Turkish assaults in exchange for allowing the deployment of pro-regime forces along the lines of contact in Afrin, Manbij and Tabqa. According to pro-Assad Al-Masdar News, shortly before the start of Operation Olive Branch, Damascus — in response to the Kurds’ refusal to support the government’s initiative — rejected the Kurdish proposal to re-establish state institutions and raise the flag of the Syrian Arab Republic over strategic sites in the Afrin canton.

If Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan honors his threat to move on Manbij next, this might bring change to the political landscape, if not an end to the Kurdish dream in Syria. The media are reporting that Damascus has allowed Kurdish militiamen in eastern Aleppo to send reinforcements to Afrin. However, Ankara’s real intentions have yet to be seen. The country’s harsh terrain and the fierce Kurdish resistance may limit the operation and create a buffer zone or corridor from Idlib to northern Aleppo. Besides, in a bid to alleviate the plight of the besieged canton, the Syrian Democratic Forces have redeployed its Raqqa-based fighters — who are capable of attacking pro-Turkish factions from the rear — to Manbij.

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Russia’s Lukoil Halts Oil Swaps In Venezuela After U.S. Sanctions

Under the new wide-ranging U.S. sanctions, Venezuela will not be able to import U.S. naphtha which it has typically used to dilute its heavy crude grades.

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Via Oilprice.com


Litasco, the international trading arm of Russia’s second-biggest oil producer Lukoil, stopped its oil swaps deals with Venezuela immediately after the U.S. imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry and state oil firm PDVSA, Lukoil’s chief executive Vagit Alekperov said at an investment forum in Russia.

Russia, which stands by Nicolas Maduro in the ongoing Venezuelan political crisis, has vowed to defend its interests in Venezuela—including oil interests—within the international law using “all mechanisms available to us.”

Because of Moscow’s support for Maduro, the international community and market analysts are closely watching the relationship of Russian oil companies with Venezuela.

“Litasco does not work with Venezuela. Before the restrictions were imposed, Litasco had operations to deliver oil products and to sell oil. There were swap operations. Today there are none, since the sanctions were imposed,” Lukoil’s Alekperov said at the Russian Investment Forum in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Another Russian oil producer, Gazprom Neft, however, does not see major risks for its oil business in Venezuela, the company’s chief executive officer Alexander Dyukov said at the same event.

Gazprom Neft has not supplied and does not supply oil products to Venezuela needed to dilute the thick heavy Venezuelan oil, Dyukov said, noting that the Latin American country hadn’t approached Gazprom Neft for possible supply of oil products for diluents.

Under the new wide-ranging U.S. sanctions, Venezuela will not be able to import U.S. naphtha which it has typically used to dilute its heavy crude grades. Analysts expect that a shortage of diluents could accelerate beginning this month the already steadily declining Venezuelan oil production and exports.

Venezuela’s crude oil production plunged by another 59,000 bpd from December 2018 to stand at just 1.106 million bpd in January 2019, OPEC’s secondary sources figures showed in the cartel’s closely watched Monthly Oil Market Report (MOMR) this week.

By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com

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Germany Pulls Rank on Macron and American Energy Blackmail

Why France’s Macron, at the last minute, attempted to undermine the project by placing stiffer regulations is a curious question.

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Authored by Finian Cunningham via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


It was billed politely as a Franco-German “compromise” when the EU balked at adopting a Gas Directive which would have undermined the Nord Stream 2 project with Russia.

Nevertheless, diplomatic rhetoric aside, Berlin’s blocking last week of a bid by French President Emmanuel Macron to impose tougher regulations on the Nord Stream 2 gas project was without doubt a firm rebuff to Paris.

Macron wanted to give the EU administration in Brussels greater control over the new pipeline running from Russia to Germany. But in the end the so-called “compromise” was a rejection of Macron’s proposal, reaffirming Germany in the lead role of implementing the Nord Stream 2 route, along with Russia.

The $11-billion, 1,200 kilometer pipeline is due to become operational at the end of this year. Stretching from Russian mainland under the Baltic Sea, it will double the natural gas supply from Russia to Germany. The Berlin government and German industry view the project as a vital boost to the country’s ever-robust economy. Gas supplies will also be distributed from Germany to other European states. Consumers stand to gain from lower prices for heating homes and businesses.

Thus Macron’s belated bizarre meddling was rebuffed by Berlin. A rebuff was given too to the stepped-up pressure from Washington for the Nord Stream 2 project to be cancelled. Last week, US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell and two other American envoys wrote an op-ed for Deutsche Welle in which they accused Russia of trying to use “energy blackmail” over Europe’s geopolitics.

Why France’s Macron, at the last minute, attempted to undermine the project by placing stiffer regulations is a curious question. Those extra regulations if they had been imposed would have potentially made the Russian gas supply more expensive. As it turns out, the project will now go-ahead without onerous restrictions.

In short, Macron and the spoiling tactics of Washington, along with EU states hostile to Russia, Poland and the Baltic countries, have been put in their place by Germany and its assertion of national interests of securing economical and abundant gas supply from Russia. Other EU member states that backed Berlin over Nord Stream 2 were Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Greece and the Netherlands.

Washington’s claims that Nord Stream 2 would give Russia leverage of Europe’s security have been echoed by Poland and the Baltic states. Poland, and non-EU Ukraine, stand to lose out billions of dollars-worth of transit fees. Such a move, however, is the prerogative of Germany and Russia to find a more economical mode of supply. Besides, what right has Ukraine to make demands on a bilateral matter that is none of its business? Kiev’s previous bad faith over not paying gas bills to Russia disbars it from reasonable opinion.

Another factor is the inherent Russophobia of Polish and Baltic politicians who view everything concerning Russia through a prism of paranoia.

For the Americans, it is obviously a blatant case of seeking to sell their own much more expensive natural gas to Europe’s giant energy market – in place of Russia’s product. Based on objective market figures, Russia is the most competitive supplier to Europe. The Americans are therefore trying to snatch a strategic business through foul means of propaganda and political pressure. Ironically, the US German ambassador Richard Grenell and the other American envoys wrote in their recent oped: “Europe must retain control of its energy security.”

Last month, Grenell threatened German and European firms involved in the construction of Nord Stream 2 that they could face punitive American sanctions in the future. Evidently, it is the US side that is using “blackmail” to coerce others into submission, not Russia.

Back to Macron. What was he up to in his belated spoiling tactics over Nord Stream 2 and in particular the attempted problems being leveled for Germany if the extra regulations had been imposed?

It seems implausible that Macron was suddenly finding a concern for Poland and the Baltic states in their paranoia over alleged Russian invasion.

Was Macron trying to garner favors from the Trump administration? His initial obsequious rapport with Trump has since faded from the early days of Macron’s presidency in 2017. By doing Washington’s bidding to undermine the Nord Stream 2 project was Macron trying to ingratiate himself again?

The contradictions regarding Macron are replete. He is supposed to be a champion of “ecological causes”. A major factor in Germany’s desire for the Nord Stream 2 project is that the increased gas supply will reduce the European powerhouse’s dependence on dirty fuels of coal, oil and nuclear power. By throwing up regulatory barriers, Macron is making it harder for Germany and Europe to move to cleaner sources of energy that the Russian natural gas represents.

Also, if Macron had succeeded in imposing tougher regulations on the Nord Stream 2 project it would have inevitably increased the costs to consumers for gas bills. This is at a time when his government is being assailed by nationwide Yellow Vest protests over soaring living costs, in particular fuel-price hikes.

A possible factor in Macron’s sabotage bid in Germany’s Nord Stream 2 plans was his chagrin over Berlin’s rejection of his much-vaunted reform agenda for the Eurozone bloc within the EU. Despite Macron’s very public amity with Chancellor Angela Merkel, Berlin has continually knocked back the French leader’s ambitions for reform.

It’s hard to discern what are the real objectives of Macron’s reforms. But they seem to constitute a “banker’s charter”. Many eminent German economists have lambasted his plans, which they say will give more taxpayer-funded bailouts to insolvent banks. They say Macron is trying to move the EU further away from the social-market economy than the bloc already has moved.

What Macron, an ex-Rothschild banker, appears to be striving for is a replication of his pro-rich, anti-worker policies that he is imposing on France, and for these policies to be extended across the Eurozone. Berlin is not buying it, realizing such policies will further erode the social fabric. This could be the main reason why Macron tried to use the Nord Stream 2 project as leverage over Berlin.

In the end, Macron and Washington – albeit working for different objectives – were defeated in their attempts to sabotage the emerging energy trade between Germany, Europe and Russia. Nord Stream 2, as with Russia’s Turk Stream to the south of Europe, seems inevitable by sheer force of natural partnership.

On this note, the Hungarian government’s comments this week were apt. Budapest accused some European leaders and the US of “huge hypocrisy” in decrying association with Russia over energy trade. Macron has previously attended an economics forum in St Petersburg, and yet lately has sought to “blackmail” and disrupt Germany over its trade plans with Russia.

As for the Americans, their arrant hypocrisy is beyond words. As well as trying to dictate to Europe about “market principles” and “energy security”, it was reported this week that Washington is similarly demanding Iraq to end its import of natural gas from neighboring Iran.

Iraq is crippled by electricity and power shortages because of the criminal war that the US waged on that country from 2003-2011 which destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure. Iraq critically needs Iranian gas supplies to keep the lights and fans running. Yet, here we have the US now dictating to Iraq to end its lifeline import of Iranian fuel in order to comply with the Trump administration’s sanctions against Tehran. Iraq is furious at the latest bullying interference by Washington in its sovereign affairs.

The hypocrisy of Washington and elitist politicians like Emmanuel Macron has become too much to stomach. Maybe Germany and others are finally realizing who the charlatans are.

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Russia Readies Own Web To Survive Global Internet Shutdown

Russia is simultaneously building a mass censorship system similar to that seen in China.

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Via Zerohedge


Russian authorities and major telecom operators are preparing to disconnect the country from the world wide web as part of an exercise to prepare for future cyber attacks, Russian news agency RosBiznesKonsalting (RBK) reported last week.

The purpose of the exercise is to develop a threat analysis and provide feedback to a proposed law introduced in the Russian Parliament last December.

The draft law, called the Digital Economy National Program, requires Russian internet service providers (ISP) to guarantee the independence of the Russian Internet (Runet) in the event of a foreign attack to sever the country’s internet from the world wide web.

Telecom operators (MegaFon, VimpelCom (Beeline brand), MTS, Rostelecom and others) will have to introduce the “technical means” to re-route all Russian internet traffic to exchange points approved by the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor), Russia’s federal executive body responsible for censorship in media and telecommunications.

Roskomnazor will observe all internet traffic and make sure data between Russian users stays within the country’s borders, and is not re-routed abroad.

The exercise is expected to occur before April 1, as Russian authorities have not given exact dates.

The measures described in the law include Russia constructing its internet system, known as Domain Name System (DNS), so it can operate independently from the rest of the world.

Across the world, 12 companies oversee the root servers for DNS and none are located in Russia. However, there are copies of Russia’s core internet address book inside the country suggesting its internet could keep operating if the US cut it off.

Ultimately, the Russian government will require all domestic traffic to pass through government-controlled routing points. These hubs will filter traffic so that data sent between Russians internet users work seamlessly, but any data to foreign computers would be rejected.

Besides protecting its internet, Russia is simultaneously building a mass censorship system similar to that seen in China.

“What Russia wants to do is to bring those router points that handle data entering or exiting the country within its borders and under its control- so that it can then pull up the drawbridge, as it were, to external traffic if it’s under threat – or if it decides to censor what outside information people can access.

China’s firewall is probably the world’s best known censorship tool and it has become a sophisticated operation. It also polices its router points, using filters and blocks on keywords and certain websites and redirecting web traffic so that computers cannot connect to sites the state does not wish Chinese citizens to see,” said BBC.

The Russian government started preparations for creating its internet several years ago. Russian officials expect 95% of all internet traffic locally by next year.

As for Russia unplugging its internet from the rest of the world for an upcoming training exercise, well, this could potentially anger Washington because it is one less sanction that can keep Moscow contained.

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