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Russia is playing a powerful role in Syria, but it has competition

Putin needs help from other neighboring powers to resolve the conflict once and for all

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(Al-Monitor) – Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared “a complete victory” over the Islamic State (IS) on both banks of the Euphrates River in Syria. He announced Dec. 6 that the military operation in the area is now finished, and focus will switch to a political process in Syria that will eventually involve presidential and parliamentary elections, Putin added.

His announcement, as well as his bid for a fourth term as president, were sidelined in the media by US President Donald Trump’s controversial same-day statement recognizing Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel. Yet there’s no shortage of stories describing the multiple challenges Moscow now faces in Syria, from setting up the Syrian National Dialogue Congress (which is supposed to be held this month) and handling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to ensuring an “Iran-free” post-war Syria or granting broader autonomy to the Kurds.

Some observers are concerned Russia might further “hijack” Syria’s settlement process. Others, including Russia itself, argue that Moscow’s role will gradually diminish now that other parties with a lot more at stake — Turkey and Iran in particular — will be coming to the forefront.

Ironically, those aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive scenarios. Even though Russia’s current role in the process is still controversial, it’s objectively necessary. Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the United States — each due to their own reasons and motives — simply cannot do what Russia is doing: coming up with different ideas to move the political process forward, and working with all sorts of local and regional players opposed to one another. Some are forced to work with Moscow, not having other viable alternatives. Others genuinely see Russia as their go-to representative. Whether accurately or erroneously, they believe Russia can deliver whatever they’re asking for.

Even though Russia’s current role in the process is still controversial, it’s objectively necessary.

Moscow is partly to blame for setting the bar high for their perceptions. In recent years, Putin has convinced much of the world of Russia’s omnipotence in Syria and across the Middle East, elbowing his way to lead the process. Many in the region now have a rather inaccurate view of Russia’s situation in Syria.

One of these “perception traps” is the belief that Moscow is in control of the Assad government. In the absence of other leverage over Assad, Western and regional governments continue to appeal to Russia to work its influence, which it has been doing with random successes. The truth is, two years into Russia’s direct involvement in the Syria conflict, it’s still impossible to assess to what degree Assad is under Moscow’s control. Russia has palpable influence in some major areas, such as the military and intelligence. Russian military instructors are training the Syrian army, Russian officers have planned major offenses for government forces and in private chats, and Russian diplomats would say Assad is listening to what the Kremlin has to say. At the same time, Moscow has no illusions about Assad’s personal loyalty or his ambitions to keep his power, despite Russian efforts for a political settlement and talks with the opposition.

Moscow still doesn’t regret its decision to prop up Assad, simply because it never changed its mind about how Syria might have looked now, if Assad had been forced out of power six years ago. But, at times, Russia arguably does seem to wish it was the sole decision-maker on Syria in its dealings with the opposition camp — including external actors — for it would have been a much more streamlined process.

But the reality is, while Russia is a principal actor, it cannot resolve the situation all alone, and the much-rumored divergence of interests in the coalition meetings in Astana, Kazakhstan, does indeed exist.

This leads to the second-biggest faulty perception, which is reflected in the positions of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States. They keep pushing Moscow to convince Tehran to abandon its goal of ensuring a stronghold for itself in Syria. The presumption that Russia has major influence over Iran probably stems from three things: the “alliance” the two have forged over the course of the war; their growing cooperation on important economic, infrastructural and regional issues; and their seemingly shared opposition to the United States.

Russia and Iran are “strategic singles” in the international and regional arenas, and each ultimately has a strong sense of self. But they share an affinity for the way things are shaping up in the Mideast, and they intend to have each other as partners rather than adversaries.

There’s not as much space between those two poles as some might think, however, and there’s a delicate balance that could be upset easily with a careless move by either party. Neither side wants to find out what the result of such a move might look like. That’s why Russia’s not willing to put pressure on Iran to leave Syria.

In the meantime, Russia and Iran are carefully approaching one another on other sensitive matters — in Syria and elsewhere — with each party learning and making important choices for itself through the lens of its own interests.

Moscow is very likely aware of Iran’s activities that Tehran’s opponents deem subversive and toxic. But as long as these activities don’t target Russian interests, Moscow doesn’t see a need to react harshly.

For example, Moscow no doubt is mulling Iran’s desire for a “Shiite corridor” stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria, all the way to Lebanon. Israel and Saudi Arabia see the idea as dangerous. But before reacting, Moscow will deconstruct this concept to distinguish Iran’s interests and determine its potential effects on Russia. Does Iran need a physical land corridor? If so, would that pose a threat to Russian military forces or its control over economic assets it has acquired in Syria? Perhaps Iran is only seeking a “virtual corridor” where its goal is political influence — in which case Moscow will also examine the idea with respect to its own opportunities.

Iran’s grip on political forces across the region and what appears to be the construction of a military facility in Syria — a site Israel recently targeted — suggest Tehran seeks both a physical and political corridor. Russia must determine what level of Iranian presence on the ground is acceptable. But even before that, Moscow needs a clear vision of what it wants for itself in Syria — what kind of presence it needs and how many commitments it’s willing to make.

Until Moscow has clear answers to these questions, it will continue to compartmentalize the issues and its relationships with regional players.

But then, getting too close with Iran could also jeopardize the relationship’s balance. When the United States or Israel has a beef with Tehran, they assume Russian will jump to Iran’s side. Yet Russia wants to avoid complicating its relations with the United States and Israel over Iran.

This highlights what is possibly the biggest problem of the Russian-Iranian partnership: lack of trust. There’s barely any trust between any set of players in the Middle East to begin with, and often even less with outsiders. Russia and Iran have a bad history with each other that shapes their perceptions and defines their political discourse. A retired Russian diplomat once remarked to Al-Monitor, “Putin enjoys good personal chemistry with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and seems to trust him more than he does the Iranians.”

So trust isn’t a given. It’s a political resource to be accumulated over a long period of time, patiently built through concrete actions. Russia and Iran have gained some of this through a number of joint economic initiatives and military interactions in Syria. The experiences weren’t always successful, so trust is still minimal, but at least now Moscow and Tehran have something on which to base their future work. They will try to maintain their balance, swaying on certain issues that won’t necessarily favor the other party. But the expectations of what Moscow can and cannot do regarding Iran should also be kept balanced.

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Trump Demands Tribute from NATO Vassals

The one thing that we should all understand, and which Trump perfectly and clearly understands, is that the members of NATO are a captive audience.

Strategic Culture Foundation

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Authored by Tim Kirby via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


Regardless of whether one loves or hates President Trump at least we can say that his presidency has a unique flavor and is full of surprises. Bush and Obama were horribly dull by comparison. Trump as a non-politician from the world of big (real estate) business and media has a different take on many issues including NATO.

Many, especially in Russia were hoping that “The Donald’s” campaign criticism of NATO would move towards finally putting an end to this anti-Russian alliance, which, after the fall of Communism really has no purpose, as any real traditional military threats to Europe have faded into history. However, Trump as President of the United States has to engage in the “realpolitik” of 21st century America and try to survive and since Trump seems rather willing to lie to get what he wants, who can really say which promises from his campaign were a shoot and which were a work.

So as it stands now Trump’s recent decision to maintain and build US/NATO bases across the world “and make country X pay for it” could mean anything from him trying to keep his campaign promises in some sort of skewed way, to an utter abandonment of them and submission to the swamp. Perhaps it could simply be his business instincts taking over in the face of “wasteful spending”. Making allies have to pay to have US/NATO forces on their territory is a massive policy shift that one could only predict coming from the unpredictable 45th President.

The one thing that we should all understand, and which Trump perfectly and clearly understands, is that the members of NATO (and other “allies”) are a captive audience, especially Germany, Japan and South Korea, which “coincidentally” are the first set of countries that will have to pay the “cost + 50%” to keep bases and US soldiers on their soil. Japan’s constitution, written primarily by American occupation forces forbids them from having a real military which is convenient for Trump’s plan. South Korea, although a very advanced and wealthy nation has no choice but to hide behind the US might because if it were to disappear overnight, then Gangnam would be filled with pictures of the Kim family within a few weeks.

In the past with regard to these three countries NATO has had to keep up the illusion of wanting to “help” them and work as “partners” for common defense as if nuclear and economic titan America needs countries like them to protect itself. Trump whether consciously or not is changing the dynamic of US/NATO occupation of these territories to be much more honest. His attitude seems to be that the US has the possibility to earn a lot of money from a worldwide mafia-style protection scam. Vassals have no choice but to pay the lord so Trump wants to drop the illusions and make the military industrial complex profitable again and God bless him for it. This level of honesty in politics is refreshing and it reflects the Orange Man’s pro-business and “America will never be a socialist country” attitude. It is blunt and ideologically consistent with his worldview.

On the other hand, one could look at this development as a possible move not to turn NATO into a profitable protection scam but as a means to covertly destroy it. Lies and illusion in politics are very important, people who believe they are free will not rebel even if they have no freedom whatsoever. If people are sure their local leaders are responsible for their nation they will blame them for its failings rather than any foreign influence that may actually be pulling the real strings.

Even if everyone in Germany, Japan and South Korea in their subconscious knows they are basically occupied by US forces it is much harder to take action, than if the “lord” directly demands yearly tribute. The fact that up to this point US maintains its bases on its own dime sure adds to the illusion of help and friendship. This illusion is strong enough for local politicians to just let the status quo slide on further and further into the future. Nothing is burning at their feet to make them act… having to pay cost + 50% could light that fire.

Forcing the locals to pay for these bases changes the dynamic in the subconscious and may force people’s brains to contemplate why after multiple-generations the former Axis nations still have to be occupied. Once occupation becomes expensive and uncomfortable, this drops the illusion of friendship and cooperation making said occupation much harder to maintain.

South Korea knows it needs the US to keep out the North but when being forced to pay for it this may push them towards developing the ability to actually defend themselves. Trump’s intellectual “honesty” in regards to NATO could very well plant the necessary intellectual seeds to not just change public opinion but make public action against US/NATO bases in foreign countries. Japan has had many protests over the years against US bases surging into the tens of thousands. This new open vassal status for the proud Japanese could be the straw to break the camel’s back.

Predicting the future is impossible. But it is clear that, changing the fundamental dynamic by which the US maintains foreign bases in a way that will make locals financially motivated to have them removed, shall significantly affect the operations of US forces outside the borders of the 50 States and make maintaining a global presence even more difficult, but perhaps this is exactly what the Orange Man wants or is just too blind to see.

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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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President Putin’s anti-fake news law is brilliant, 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. This law is brilliant, for it hits the would-be slanderer right where it counts – in the pocketbook.

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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