Russia bombs U.S.-backed Syrian rebels near Jordan border

CNN reports: Russian warplanes bombed U.S. backed Syrian rebels near the Jordanian border, Pentagon officials say, causing the U.S. to divert armed aircraft to the scene of the strike.

The strikes, which the U.S. says killed some New Syrian Army troops, occurred about six miles from the Jordanian border, according to a U.S. defense official. The U.S. diverted armed FA-18s to the area after the first round of two strikes, and the pilots then tried to call the Russians on a previously agreed-upon pilot-to-pilot communications channel but did not receive an answer.
As soon as the U.S. jets left the area to refuel, the Russians came back for another round of bombing, the defense official said.
“Russian aircraft conducted a series of airstrikes near al-Tanf against Syrian counter-ISIL forces that included individuals who have received U.S. support. Russian aircraft have not been active in this area of Southern Syria for some time, and there were no Syrian regime or Russian ground forces in the vicinity,” a senior defense official said. “Russia’s latest actions raise serious concern about Russian intentions. We will seek an explanation from Russia on why it took this action and assurances this will not happen again.” [Continue reading…]

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Some people think Trump asked Putin to hack the DNC

The Washington Post reports: Russian government hackers penetrated the computer network of the Democratic National Committee and gained access to the entire database of opposition research on GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, according to committee officials and security experts who responded to the breach.

The intruders so thoroughly compromised the DNC’s system that they also were able to read all email and chat traffic, said DNC officials and the security experts.

The intrusion into the DNC was one of several targeting American political organizations. The networks of presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were also targeted by Russian spies, as were the computers of some GOP political action committees, U.S. officials said. But details on those cases were not available. [Continue reading…]

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Russia is recruiting the U.S.’s rebel allies in Syria

Mike Giglio reports: The rebel commander was nervous. He had changed phone numbers and been difficult to reach before finally agreeing to meet in Antakya, a city near the border with war-torn Syria that has long swarmed with rebels, refugees, and spies. On the road to an out-of-the-way hotel, he told the driver to avoid the main route through town. “It’s better not to drive among all the people,” he said.

It was an open secret that the commander had once received cash and weapons from the CIA, part of a covert U.S. program that backs rebel groups against both ISIS and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

When his battalion was eventually driven from Syria by its jihadi rivals, like a number of U.S.-backed groups, he pleaded with his U.S. handlers for better support, but it wasn’t enough. So he was, he said, “out of the game.”

Now, he said, sitting at a quiet table at the hotel, he had received an offer that could bring him back in — and potentially make him even stronger than before.

He was being recruited, he said, to work for the U.S.’s rival in Syria: Russia.

“They told me, ‘We will support you forever. We won’t leave you on your own like your old friends did,’” he said. “Honestly, I’m still thinking about it.”

The commander said that five years into a war that has killed some 400,000 people and created nearly 5 million refugees, Russia is recruiting current and former U.S. allies to its side. His revelation was confirmed by four people who said they, too, had been approached with offers from Russia and by two Syrian middlemen who said they delivered them.

The moves come as Russia ratchets up its involvement in Syria with troops and airstrikes. Russia says its military campaign is designed to target ISIS — in reality it has targeted all rebels, including some who are still backed by the U.S., while also wreaking havoc on civilians.

The secret outreach shows that as it works to muscle the U.S. out of Syria, Russia isn’t just bombing the U.S.’s current and former rebel allies — it’s also working to co-opt them, launching a shadowy campaign that seeks to highlight U.S. weakness in Syria. Ultimately, Russia could be hoping to help Assad win the war by dividing the opposition, driving a wedge between rebel groups and their traditional backers, and getting them to turn their guns on his enemies. [Continue reading…]

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Bashar Assad’s defiance points to a Syrian peace effort in tatters

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Michele Kelemen reports: Syrian President Bashar Assad is sounding rather confident these days. In his first major address in the past two months, he promised that his troops will reclaim “every inch” of Syrian territory.

“We have no other choice but to be victorious,” Assad told Syria’s parliament on Tuesday. He also lashed out at rebels, blaming them for the failure of peace talks backed by the United Nations.

Assad’s speech is calling into question international diplomacy on Syria. One Syria-watcher at the Atlantic Council in Washington, Faysal Itani, says it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

“It is safe to say [the peace effort] has failed,” Itani tells NPR, saying he never thought the prospects for diplomacy were good.

The diplomatic plan relied on Russia and Iran using their influence with Assad to encourage him to agree on a transitional government and make peace with more moderate rebels.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, one of the key architects of this approach, was “trying to pull a rabbit out of his hat,” according to Itani. While Kerry was seeking concessions from Assad, the military balance of power was turning in favor of the Syrian regime.

“The Russians are quite committed to ensuring it stays that way. No one has any incentive to give John Kerry what he’s asking for,” Itani says. [Continue reading…]

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Within three hours, three hospitals in Aleppo bombed by Assad-allied forces

The New York Times reports: Bombs from airstrikes hit three hospitals on Wednesday in the rebel-held side of Aleppo, Syria, including a pediatrics center supported by the United Nations, in what aid providers and opposition activists called a new atrocity in the fighting that has ravaged the city.

The Middle East regional office of Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, said in a statement that the attacks happened within a space of three hours on al-Bayan and al-Hakeem hospitals and the Abdulhadi Fares clinic.

Unicef provided no details on casualties, damage or who was responsible, but it said the attack was the second on al-Hakeem hospital, which it helps operate.

Others said that at least 10 civilians were killed in the bombings, including children, and that many others were wounded. Activist groups blamed Syrian military forces. Insurgents have no aircraft, which are used to conduct such bombings.

“This devastating pattern of warfare in Syria seems to have no checks and balances,” the Unicef regional director, Dr. Peter Salama, said in a statement posted on Twitter. “Surely this should shake the moral compass of the world. How long will we allow the children of Syria to suffer like this?” [Continue reading…]

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CIA and Pentagon bicker while Russia wipes out U.S.-backed rebels

The Daily Beast reports: U.S.-backed opposition forces in Syria’s largest city are facing a ferocious Russian-led assault, raising fears that the rebels could be eliminated in a matter of weeks.
So how are the Pentagon and the intelligence community responding?

By catfighting among themselves.

Two Department of Defense officials told The Daily Beast that they are not eager to support the rebels in the city of Aleppo because they’re seen as being affiliated with al Qaeda in Syria, or Jabhat al Nusra. The CIA, which supports those rebel groups, rejects that claim, saying alliances of convenience in the face of a mounting Russian-led offensive have created marriages of battlefield necessity, not ideology.

“It is a strange thing that DoD hall chatter mimics Russian propaganda,” one U.S. official, who supports the intelligence community position, wryly noted to Pentagon claims that the opposition and Nusra are one in the same.

But even if the rebels were completely separated from Nusra, there would still be something of a strategic conflict with U.S. military goals. The rebels in Aleppo, these Pentagon officials note, are fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime; the American military effort, on the other hand, is primarily about defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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Defiant Bashar al-Assad vows to retake ‘every inch’ of Syria

The New York Times reports: Syria’s president promised to retake “every inch” of the country from his foes on Tuesday in a defiant speech that appeared to reject the humanitarian relief effort and peaceful transition of power that the United States, Russia and more than a dozen other nations have pressed for since last fall.

The speech by President Bashar al-Assad was his first major address since the effort to mediate an end to the civil war broke down in Geneva in April. It reflected his sense that Russian intervention in the war has bolstered his position — and his ability to remain in power for the foreseeable future — as the war enters its sixth year.

Mr. Assad’s defiance was notable partly because of efforts in recent months by Secretary of State John Kerry and other leaders of a 17-nation collaboration, known as the International Syria Support Group, to set a series of deadlines and limits that Syria could not violate.

Every one of the directives has been broken. A cease-fire devised in Munich in February collapsed. Mr. Kerry’s demand at that time — that humanitarian access had to begin within weeks — was briefly observed in a few towns before access was again largely blocked. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian advance raises fear of race for Raqqa

Financial Times reports: An advance by Syrian troops into Raqqa province has raised the prospect of a race to the Isis stronghold between the US-backed opposition and regime forces supported by Moscow.

Supported by Russian air power, Syrian government troops have moved to within 65km to the south-west of the city after clashes with Isis fighters that began over the weekend, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The fighting comes two weeks after US-backed opposition forces, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), began an offensive north of Raqqa, the de facto capital of Isis in Syria, which has also been the centre of its self-styled caliphate since 2014.

Isis now finds itself battling on four different fronts at once: to the north and south-west of Raqqa; around Manbij near the Turkish border with Syria; and in Fallujah in Iraq, where government forces and allied militia are attempting to retake the city. [Continue reading…]

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Mocking Putin got me sent to Twitter gulag

@DarthPutinKGB writes: I run the @DarthPutinKGB “parody” account. The inverted commas are over the word parody for a reason. An account parodying any part of the Kremlin will, by definition, sound almost identical to a verified Kremlin account. From passing homophobic laws while posing for homoerotic photo shoots, to putting dead people on trial for crimes they got murdered for exposing, to denying and then later admitting the presence of their armed forces in numerous conflicts, when it comes to the Kremlin, it can be hard to tell reality from parody.

The account portrays Putin as a maniacal, sinister villain bent on world domination who thinks nothing of murdering those who irritate him while he drops vodka (and real) bombs. He also thinks he is God’s gift to women but is in fact that drunk you can find in any bar on a Friday night who makes women’s skin crawl as he desperately tries to get laid.

Darth Putin is also a pathological liar who would deny it snows in Russia with a straight face if he needed to. Beneath it all, deep down he knows he’s just an emperor currently in the late stages of a massive wardrobe malfunction that he prays no one will eventually notice. Maybe this is why some struggle to tell if it’s parody or not. [Continue reading…]

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Effort to expose Russia’s ‘troll army’ draws vicious retaliation

The New York Times reports: Seeking to shine some light into the dark world of Internet trolls, a journalist with Finland’s national broadcaster asked members of her audience to share their experience of encounters with Russia’s “troll army,” a raucous and often venomous force of online agitators.

The response was overwhelming, though not in the direction that the journalist, Jessikka Aro, had hoped.

As she expected, she received some feedback from people who had clashed with aggressively pro-Russian voices online. But she was taken aback, and shaken, by a vicious retaliatory campaign of harassment and insults against her and her work by those same pro-Russian voices.

“Everything in my life went to hell thanks to the trolls,” said Ms. Aro, a 35-year-old investigative reporter with the social media division of Finland’s state broadcaster, Yle Kioski.

Abusive online harassment is hardly limited to pro-Russian Internet trolls. Ukraine and other countries at odds with the Kremlin also have legions of aggressive avengers on social media.

But pro-Russian voices have become such a noisy and disruptive presence that both NATO and the European Union have set up special units to combat what they see as a growing threat not only to civil discourse but to the well-being of Europe’s democratic order and even to its security.

This “information war,” said Rastislav Kacer, a veteran diplomat who served as Slovakia’s ambassador to Washington and at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, “is just part of a bigger struggle.” While not involving bloodshed, he added, it “is equally as dangerous as more conventional hostile action.” [Continue reading…]

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Germany considers easing of Russia sanctions

Der Spiegel reports: With the Wednesday evening sun shining in his face, German Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel is standing at the entrance to the HanseMesse convention center in the northern German city of Rostock. He’s surrounded by cardboard sandwich boards displaying the center’s motto: “Where the world comes together.” Today, the sentence is half true at best: The world isn’t coming together in Rostock, rather German and Russian business leaders are converging here. It is the second “Russia Day” and Gabriel is the keynote speaker.

The focus of the gathering is on business, but when Russia is involved, politics are never far away. Even Gabriel’s appearance sends a political message, as is his demonstratively friendly treatment of Russia’s industry minister — not to mention the first sentence he speaks into the microphone: “Isolation is not at all helpful.”

Later in his speech, Gabriel expands on that sentiment, saying isolation is not a tenable policy and that only continued dialogue is helpful. He says that Russia has recently shown that it can be a reliable partner and mentions the nuclear deal with Iran as an example. He says that Russia and the world are dependent on each other — and that the time has come for a step-by-step easing of sanctions.

Gabriel voiced a similar message prior to the most recent extension of the sanctions against Russia. Nothing came of it then, but things could be different this time.

As expected, G-7 leaders reiterated their hardline approach to Moscow in the Japan summit’s closing statement. Chancellor Angela Merkel complained last Thursday that there still isn’t a stable cease-fire in Ukraine and the law pertaining to local elections in eastern Ukraine, as called for by the Minsk Protocol, still hasn’t been passed. That, she said, is why “it is not to be expected” that the West will change its approach to Russia.

What Merkel didn’t say, though, is that behind the scenes, her government has long since developed concrete plans for a step-by-step easing of the sanctions against Russia and that the process could begin as early as this year. [Continue reading…]

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Russia’s draft constitution: End of Syria’s Baath era?

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Al Jazeera reports: Last Tuesday, Lebanese daily newspaper, Al-Akhbar, reported that Russia had finished drafting a constitution for Syria that would remove many of the Syrian president’s powers and set up a more decentralised government, both possible concessions to rebel groups fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

According to the Al-Akhbar report, the new constitution, done with the blessing of the United States, would be put to referendum before the end of the year. This would put the countries on pace to meet their self-imposed deadline to draft a Syrian constitution by August 2016.

The Syrian presidency quickly dismissed the report, describing it as “untrue”.

“No draft constitution has been shown to the Syrian Arab Republic. Everything which has been said in the media about this subject is totally untrue,” a statement on the Syrian Presidency’s official Facebook page said.

Barely six weeks after their military intervention began, Russian officials put forth an eight-point plan called: “Approach to the Settlement of the Syrian Crisis” that provided the basic contours of Russia’s vision for ending the conflict.

This vision was rather narrow, however, as the first five points dealt specifically with the fight against the Islamic State group (ISIL, also known as ISIS), and the remaining three carried vague commitments to a political process carried out under international auspices.

For most observers, the plan represented little more than the fulfilment of the regime’s wish-list and carried with it no substantive political concessions. [Continue reading…]

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On nuclear weapons, nations must cooperate to avoid catastrophe

Sam Nunn writes: President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima comes almost 71 years after the conclusion of a world war that was fought and ended with tremendous sacrifice, huge casualties and immense devastation. Today, global nuclear arsenals are capable of destroying not only cities but also civilization itself. Albert Einstein’s prophesy bears repeating: “I do not know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth — rocks!”

Since the end of World War II, the United States and our allies have relied on the ultimate threat of mutual assured destruction for our security, as the Soviet Union did and Russia does now. Today, with nine nations possessing nuclear arms and terrorists seeking them, this strategy has become increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.

Warren Buffett, a man who knows how to calculate risk, has reminded us that if the chance of an event occurring is 10 percent in a given year, and that same risk persists over 50 years, there is a 99.5 percent probability that it will happen during those 50 years. For more than 70 years, the United States and Russia have beaten the odds, avoiding a number of near-disasters. The recent deterioration in relations between the United States and Russia has greatly increased these risks.

The two nations still deploy thousands of nuclear weapons ready to fire on a moment’s notice, risking a catastrophic accident or miscalculation based on a false warning. Cold War dangers compelled dialogue between Washington and Moscow on nuclear security and strategic stability. This dialogue is dangerously absent now, even as our planes and ships have close encounters in Europe and the Middle East. [Continue reading…]

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Assad’s allies in the West

Shawn Carrié writes: If there’s one thing everyone can agree on about Syria, it’s that nobody can agree on anything.

After five years of constantly evolving strife, the world still looks on in occasional waves of horror, pity, outrage and apathy – before returning to the stoic conclusion that the conflict is just too complicated to understand.

The laws of war, human rights and geopolitics have gone out the window. With them, regrettably, the rules of responsible journalism seem to have gone, too.

At one time, open-source activists and “Facebook revolutionaries” made the Arab Spring history’s most documented tectonic societal shift. Today, Syria’s war is a dangerously polarised nebula of partisans, as much in the media as on the battlegrounds.

Few non-aligned journalists remain to report unbiased and trustworthy news. Without credible information, it’s hard to understand anything that happens in Syria, contributing to a political and public consensus of apathy. What’s left is a news landscape driven less by actual events than by a narrow set of available perspectives.

“The Syrian conflict involves a public relations war with a level of sophistication we’ve never seen before,” American writer Patrick Henningsen said in an report published by Russia Today. Ironically, it’s an accurate assessment of a reality which Russia had a primary role in fostering.

In areas where Russian intervention hasn’t decisively turned the tide militarily in favour of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the allies’ powerful public relations machine has been working to pick up the slack.

The alliance with Putin has availed Assad of the full gauntlet of Moscow’s superior state-controlled media apparatus. The result: a highly efficient and centralised narrative spread throughout the international press. For every report, a favourable counter-narrative filters down from the regime megaphone to a wide network of smaller websites and blogs. [Continue reading…]

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The wars of Vladimir Putin

Timothy Snyder writes: 1989, the year that the Polish war reporter Paweł Pieniążek was born, was understood by some in the West as an end to history. After the peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe, what alternative was there to liberal democracy? The rule of law had won the day. European integration would help the weaker states reform and support the sovereignty of all. Peter Pomerantsev, the son of Soviet dissidents who emigrated to Britain in 1978, could “return” to Russia to work as an artist. Karl Schlögel, a distinguished German historian of Russian émigrés, could go straight to the sources in Moscow.

But was the West coming to the East, or the East to the West? By 2014, a quarter-century after the revolutions of 1989, Russia proposed a coherent alternative: faked elections, institutionalized oligarchy, national populism, and European disintegration. When Ukrainians that year made a revolution in the name of Europe, Russian media proclaimed the “decadence” of the EU, and Russian forces invaded Ukraine in the name of a “Eurasian” alternative. [Continue reading…]

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