Russian forces remain heavily involved in Syria, despite appearances

The New York Times reports: Russia’s war in Syria is slowly fading from view here, even as events on the ground give every indication that Russian forces remain heavily engaged.

President Vladimir V. Putin, when he talks about it at all, tends to refer to Syria as an accomplished victory, yet hedges a bit. “We did indeed withdraw a substantial portion of our forces,” Mr. Putin said in response to a question on his live national call-in show on Thursday. “But we made sure that after our withdrawal, the Syrian Army would be in a fit state to carry out serious offensives itself, with our remaining forces’ support.”

That support, according to numerous military analysts and diplomatic sources, amounts to virtually the same level of engagement since Russia first deployed in Syria in September. The tenor has changed, however. Syria is gradually becoming another more secretive, hybrid war of the sort that fits into Mr. Putin’s comfort zone, they said.

Russia’s agenda in Syria at the moment is a tightrope act. It wants to keep enough forces engaged in Syria to ensure it can influence any political transition, so that Damascus remains a client. Yet, it does not want to become visibly mired in a messy, prolonged war, as American officials predicted it would.

“The level of Russian involvement in Syria is relatively high, and includes a wide range of assistance to the Syrian government forces,” said Mikhail Barabanov, a senior research fellow at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.

He and others suggested that Russia was providing close air support, including attack helicopters on the battlefield; high-precision strikes with missiles like the short-range Iskander; artillery support; special forces backup; intelligence; targeting; electronic warfare and, as seen recently in Palmyra, mine clearance.

Although the bulk of the fighter jets flew home to great fanfare, they were replaced by attack helicopters that are less susceptible to the sandstorms that blow this time of year. [Continue reading…]

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Iranian army boots on the ground in Syria

Alex Rowell writes: The first deployment of foreign regular army ground troops to the front lines of the five-year-long battle between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad came with rather less fanfare and controversy than might have been expected.

On April 4, less than two months after US Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress Iran was winding down its direct presence in Syria, Iranian Brigadier General Ali Arasteh declared the Islamic Republic was in fact sending its official armed forces, known as the Artesh, onto the Syrian battlefield for the first time, naming the 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade in particular as one among “other units” joining the fray. The occasion marked the army’s first deployment outside Iranian territory since the 1980-88 war with Iraq.

While there have been Iranian ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria since as early as 2012, these had hitherto all belonged to the irregular Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), the parallel military organization established after the 1979 Revolution in part as an ultra-Islamist counterweight to the Artesh, viewed suspiciously at the time for its roots in the secular ancien régime. A contingent of several hundred IRGC militants fighting in Syria surged to an estimated 3,000 last October, coinciding with the Russian air campaign masterminded in the summer of 2015 by the IRGC’s external operations commander Qassem Soleimani. In strictly literal terms, what Secretary Kerry said in February was true: the IRGC itself had by then withdrawn most if not all of the reinforcements added in October. However, those withdrawals have now been offset by the dispatch of the Artesh. [Continue reading…]

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Fighting surges in Syria amid apparent collapse of truce backed by U.S., Russia

The Washington Post reports: A surge in fighting across Syria on Thursday signaled the apparent collapse of a landmark cease-fire that has been under mounting stress in recent days because of intensifying assaults by government forces and rebels.

The partial truce, which took effect in late February, represented a rare moment of agreement over the Syrian conflict between its most powerful outside players: Russia and the United States.

Although Moscow backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Washington supports his opposition, the powers cajoled their Syrian allies into an agreement to cease hostilities to promote peace talks in Geneva that resumed Wednesday. The burst of fighting will almost certainly complicate those talks — now in their second round — and prolong a civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced millions.

“The more breaches of the truce we see, the more it shows that Assad does not want a political solution,” said the head of the opposition delegation in Geneva, Mohammed Alloush.

The opposition insists that a political solution requires Assad’s exit from power, but the Syrian leader and his allies have firmly rejected this. [Continue reading…]

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Russia almost delivers S-300 missiles to Iran soon really perhaps

Sputnik News reports: Russia has delivered the first batch of the S-300 air defense systems to Iran, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said Monday. [Continue reading…]

Mehr News Agency reports: Foreign Ministry Spokesman Jaberi Ansari who was speaking in his weekly press conference announced the implementation of first phase of S-300 missile contract between Iran and Russia.

Hossein Jaberi Ansari also reaffirmed the upcoming visit of EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini who is scheduled to arrive in Tehran on Sarturday. Mogherini will head a 7-member delegation of High-ranking EU officials.

In response to a question on delivery of Russian advanced defense missile system S-300, of which the first part is reportedly delivered to Iran through Caspian Sea, Jaberi Ansari confirmed that the first phase of the Iran-Russia contract on the systems is implemented; “we had already announced that despite several times of change in time of delivery, the deal is on its path of implementation and today I should announce that the first phase of the agreement is implemented and the process will continue.” [Continue reading…]

Sputnik News reports: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday declined to comment on reports that deliveries of Russian S-300 air defense systems to Iran have begun. [Continue reading…]

Tasnim News Agency reports: The head of Russia’s industrial conglomerate Rostec had said last month that Iran would take delivery of the first shipment of S-300 missile defense system in August or September this year.

“I think we will deliver the S-300 by the end of the year,” Sergei Chemezov said on March 11. “The first delivery will be in September or August.” [Continue reading…]

The Times of Israel reports: The incident sowed confusion in both English and Persian media. [Continue reading…]

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Russia’s best hope of survival is to ensure the EU collapses first

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Eerik-Niiles Kross writes: In modern 21st-century warfare, non-military approaches — propaganda, and economic, cultural and humanitarian sabotage — will play a greater role than purely military methods, Russian Armed Forces chief Valery Gerasimov argued, a year before the Russian occupation of Crimea.

“In a couple of months, even days, a well-functioning state can be turned into a theater of fierce armed conflict, can be made a victim of invasion from outside, or can drown in a net of chaos, humanitarian disaster and civil war,” he wrote.

The purpose of war today is not the physical destruction of the enemy, but the internal eroding of our readiness, will, and values.

Through the lens of Russia’s aggression in Crimea, the invasion of eastern Ukraine, the destabilization of Moldova, the escalating war in Syria and the refugee crisis, Gerasimov’s doctrine shows Russian activities over the past two years — both overt and covert, across the Middle East and Europe — to be part of a single, unified war against the (partially imagined) “hegemony of the West.”

Gerasimov’s doctrine draws on “reflexive control theory” — a favorite among Soviet military theorists — and asserts that control can be established through reflexive, unconscious responses from a target group. This group is systematically supplied with (dis)information designed to provoke reactions that are predictable and, to Russia, politically and strategically desirable. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian PM says Russia to back new Aleppo attack; opposition says truce near collapse

Reuters reports: The Russian air force and Syrian military are preparing a joint operation to take Aleppo from rebels, the Syrian prime minister was quoted saying on Sunday, and an opposition official said a ceasefire was on the verge of collapse.

With a U.N. envoy due in Damascus in a bid to advance struggling diplomatic efforts, the “cessation of hostilities agreement” brokered by Russia and the United States came under new strain as government and rebel forces fought near Aleppo.

The ceasefire came into effect in February with the aim of paving the way for a resumption of talks to end the five-year-long war. But it has been widely violated, with each side blaming the other for breaches. The fighting south of Aleppo marks the most significant challenge yet to the deal.

Diplomacy has meanwhile made little progress with no compromise over the future of President Bashar al-Assad, his position strengthened by Iranian and Russian military support. [Continue reading…]

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Syrian regime, emboldened by battlefield victories, is pushing a political solution to end the war that keeps President Bashar al-Assad in power, in defiance of the agenda supported by Russia, his vital ally.

The plan will begin to unfold with Syrian parliamentary elections on Wednesday; the following day, Mr. Assad’s representatives will travel to peace talks in Geneva, where they are expected to push for a resolution to the conflict on Mr. Assad’s terms. [Continue reading…]

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These days, the worst multinational corporations have names you’ve never heard

Michael Hobbes describes how Joyce Chachengwa, a farmer in Zimbabwe, lost the land upon which she, her daughters and grandchildren depended, after a corporate takeover turning the land over to sugarcane for ethanol production. He writes: You know where I’m going with this, right? I’m about to tell you that the company behind all this is Monsanto, or Shell, or Coca-Cola. That your car is running on the ethanol this plant is producing. That the U.S. government is funding or facilitating or failing to prevent what is taking place here.

But none of that is true. The company responsible for all this is called Green Fuel. It is headquartered in Zimbabwe, it isn’t listed on any stock exchange, it doesn’t sell any products in the United States, and it has no Western investors.

And it is, increasingly, the rule rather than the exception. When you think of the worst abuses in poor countries — land grabs, sweatshops, cash-filled envelopes passed to politicians — you probably think they’re committed by companies based in rich ones: Nike in Indonesia, Shell in Nigeria, Dow in Bhopal, India.

These are the cases you’re most likely to hear about, but they are no longer representative of how these abuses actually take place — or who commits them. These days, the worst multinational corporations have names you’ve never heard. They come from places like China and South Africa and Russia. The countries where they are headquartered are unable to regulate them, and the countries where they operate are unwilling to.

For the last 10 years, I’ve worked at an NGO dedicated to preventing multinational corporations from violating human rights. Here’s why every actor in the West that could have prevented what happened in Chisumbanje — the media, the international agencies, my own NGO — is becoming increasingly powerless to do so. [Continue reading…]

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Where are the Syrians in Assad’s Syrian Arab Army?

Richard Spencer writes: The video shows the attack on Palmyra, the historic Syrian city reclaimed from Isil for the Assad regime, and as a column of troops heads across the desert behind him a soldier is giving a commentary.

“Despite many casualties, they are moving forward in the advance,” he says.

The oddity is that he is not speaking Arabic, but Persian. The man himself is Afghan, a member of a 10-20,000-strong Afghan army recruited in Iran to fight the war in Syria.

The reconquest of Palmyra was presented to the world as a victory for President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army.

As Islamic State jihadists fled, regime troops forced their way into the town, known for its celebrated Roman ruins. Everyone from Russian apparatchiks to British conservative politicians congratulated Mr Assad for reclaiming the town for civilisation.

The role of the Russian air force in preparing the way for the ground advance was noted: this was the anti-Isil alliance promised at the start of Russian military intervention in Syria but which in practice seemed slow to make gains.

In fact, it is now clear it was an eccentric multinational force that took Palmyra. Analysis of photographs, social media posts and Iranian, Russian and even Syrian media has shown that the path was led by the Russians, with much of the “grunt” work done by Afghan Shia and Iraqi militiamen under generals from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. [Continue reading…]

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Russian gunships replace jets in Syria

Al Jazeera reports: Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised the world by abruptly declaring on March 15 that Russia was withdrawing its forces from Syria in the wake of a partial ceasefire deal between regime forces and certain moderate opposition groups.

For the next few days the global media was treated to impressive footage of Su-25 attack jets, Su-24 bombers and powerful Su-34 fighter bombers steaming out of their Syrian base of operations at Latakia and returning to Russia to a rapturous reception from families of the crews and the public.

Lumbering Antonov transport aircraft flew repeated sorties back and forth between Russia and Latakia at the same time, extracting material and personnel associated with the fighter bomber squadrons.

However, as has become abundantly clear, far from being a true withdrawal or drawdown, more equipment and personnel were brought back to Syria from Russia on the return leg of these transport flights than were taken out.

What has changed is the force mix and capabilities Russia is now deploying to support President Bashar al-Assad’s war effort. The combat-proven Mi-35 Hind helicopter gunship detachment has seen its numbers increased, while the more modern Mi-28 Havoc and state-of-the-art Ka-52 Alligator have joined the fight for the first time. [Continue reading…]

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U.S., Russia said to team up to draft new Syria constitution

Bloomberg reports: Russia and the U.S are working on drafting a new constitution for Syria, according to three Western and Russian diplomats, in the clearest sign yet of the two powers’ determination to broker a solution to a five-year civil war that has sent a wave of refugees toward Europe.

The joint efforts are at an early stage, and Russia’s current proposals are closer to the Syrian government’s position, said one Western diplomat. The two countries are continuing to exchange ideas, a Russian diplomat said. All three envoys spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are confidential.

The U.S agreed with Russia on a target of August to create a framework for a political transition and a draft constitution for Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry said after talks in the Kremlin on March 24. The United Nations is leading peace talks in Geneva where the government and opposition are negotiating a settlement. [Continue reading…]

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A new all-out Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the stuff of nightmares

Thomas de Waal writes: For almost three decades, the most dangerous unresolved conflict in wider Europe has lain in the mountains of the South Caucasus, in a small territory known as Nagorno-Karabakh. In the late 1980s, the region confounded the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev. In the early 1990s, the conflict there created more than a million refugees and killed around 20,000 people. In 1994, after Armenia defeated Azerbaijan in a fight over the territory, the two countries signed a truce — but no peace agreement.

Nagorno-Karabakh erupted again last weekend. It seems one of the players — most likely Azerbaijan — decided to change the facts on the ground. Dozens of soldiers from both sides were killed before a cease-fire was proclaimed on Tuesday. It could fall apart at any moment. The situation is volatile, and there is a danger that the conflict could escalate further unless the international community stops it.

A new all-out Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the stuff of nightmares. Given the sophisticated weaponry both sides now possess, tens of thousands of young men would most likely lose their lives. Russia and Turkey, already at loggerheads and with military obligations to Armenia and Azerbaijan, respectively, could be sucked into a proxy war. Fighting in the area would also destabilize Georgia, Iran and the Russian North Caucasus. Oil and gas pipeline routes from the Caspian Sea could be threatened, too. [Continue reading…]

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Vladimir Putin says allegations in Panama Papers are an American plot

The New York Times reports: President Vladimir V. Putin dismissed on Thursday reports based on leaked legal documents that some of his close associates had shoveled around $2 billion through offshore accounts in the Caribbean, calling the allegations an American plot to try to undermine Russian unity.

The Russian president, making his first public remarks on the subject, also defended the cellist Sergei P. Roldugin, an old and close friend who was named in reports about the leaked documents, known as the Panama Papers. The cellist was at the center of a scheme to hide money from Russian state banks offshore, the reports said.

Mr. Putin said that Mr. Roldugin, like many Russians, had tried his hand at business, in his case to support his love of music by getting the money to buy expensive instruments.

“Almost all the money he earned he spent on musical instruments that he bought abroad,” Mr. Putin said at a public forum for regional journalists in St. Petersburg, broadcast live by state-run television. The musician had then donated the instruments to government institutions.

On paper, Mr. Roldugin’s shares in various enterprises linked to friends of Mr. Putin, especially Bank Rossiya, give him a net worth of hundreds of millions of dollars. Mr. Roldugin is the artistic director of the House of Music, which trains classical musicians in St. Petersburg. [Continue reading…]

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Distract, deceive, destroy: Putin at war in Syria

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Atlantic Council: A new Atlantic Council report uses open-source data to debunk Russian claims that its military mostly struck Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) targets, and links Russia to attacks on civilian facilities and the use of cluster bombs in Syria. So why haven’t Western governments that have more sophisticated intelligence capabilities employed similar technologies and techniques to counter Russian propaganda?

“Just as we saw an abuse of intelligence under the [George W.] Bush administration to make a case for specific action [in Iraq], I think you are seeing not as large an abuse but not proper use of intelligence right now because if they were to put this stuff out this would push their policy in a direction in which I don’t think they want to go,” said John E. Herbst, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center.

Eliot Higgins, a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Council’s Future Europe Initiative, said he didn’t think that the US government is using open-source data as much as one would assume. “In any bureaucratic establishment, it is going to take a long time for the wheels to turn and for this to be actually something that they do on a regular basis,” he said.

Herbst and Higgins are co-authors of the Atlantic Council report “Distract, Deceive, Destroy: Putin at War in Syria,” which was launched in Washington on April 5. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi Arabia passes Russia as world’s third biggest military spender

The Washington Post reports: Global military spending reached almost $1.7 trillion in 2015, marking a year-on-year increase for the first time since 2011, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks arms expenditure around the world.

The United States remained far and away the top spender, which despite a dip from 2014, accounted for more than a third of total global spending. It was followed by China and then, perhaps surprisingly, Saudi Arabia, which supplanted Russia in third place. [Continue reading…]

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Why Vladimir Putin will hardly flinch at Panama paper cut

By Anastasia Nesvetailova, City University London

The world remains gripped by the revelations made in the papers leaked from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. But Moscow has greeted the coverage with what might be characterised as calm indifference.

Aware that president Vladimir Putin would be linked to offshore schemes, the people around him began their PR manoeuvres ahead of time. The week before the papers were released, the Kremlin was forewarning the public about an imminent “information attack aimed at destabilising Russia in light of its success in Syria”.

The reaction of the Russian individuals mentioned in the Panama Papers – at least those who have gone on record so far – has also been calm. Some have denied knowledge of ownership of any offshore accounts. Considering the way offshore structures operate and set up, is not an implausible proposition.

Others queried the authenticity of the documents (which is easy, as not all of the original documents have been presented). Some have admitted an earlier relationship with an offshore business but have said the company in question had been sold or shut down. Again, that’s not an odd claim considering that many offshore shells survive as empty, or fossil corporations after their corporate parents have no further use for them and don’t want to go to the expense of shutting them down.

[Read more…]

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