Syrians wonder why Russia is bombing their marketplaces

Michael Weiss reports: “When I’m sitting here and we hear a plane, which is a lot now, I know from the sound. If the plane is above us—you can tell if it’s above you, because that’s when it’s the loudest—and if it’s a Russian plane, then it doesn’t attack where we are. It attacks two or three kilometers away.”

Rami Jarrah is telling me how he distinguishes which government is now bombing civilians in Syria’s Aleppo City. It’s a question that used to answer itself—but no more, given the presence of Syrian, Russian, and coalition aircraft in the skies. Syrian jets, he says, once flew so low that you could actually see the pilots in the cockpits; Russian fixed-wing aircraft fly at much higher altitudes such that they look like crosses or plus-signs in the clouds. They fire from far away, the better to evade the bullets of the Dushka (the name means “sweetie” in Russian), a Soviet-era antiaircraft machine gun, which is typically all anti-Assad rebels have to deter helicopters and attack jets, sometimes successfully.

Jarrah lives in the war-ravaged provincial capital of Syria’s industrial province, documenting the gruesomeness of multisided civil war for his open source newsgathering service ANA Press. Born in Cyprus and educated in London, he first became famous in 2011 as an English-speaking eyewitness on Western TV channels to what was then still a peaceful protest movement against a Ba’athist dictatorship. He used to call himself Alexander Page, a pseudonym he doesn’t need anymore because what good is a pseudonym against one of Putin’s jets? [Continue reading…]

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Murder in Istanbul: The latest in a series of audacious killings of enemies of the Russian state

The Guardian reports: Abdulvakhid Edelgireyev survived for years hiding in the Chechen mountains, launching attacks on Russian security forces and evading capture. He survived the battlefields of Syria, and those of east Ukraine. But in November his life came to an abrupt end in a flurry of bullets: he was shot dead in broad daylight in Istanbul as he embarked on a shopping trip with his three-year-old niece.

Edelgireyev and his niece walked out of their apartment block in Kayasehir, a far-flung suburb of nondescript new towers, shortly before 2pm on 1 November. The 32-year-old Chechen sat the girl in the passenger seat of his car, and was about to start the engine when a white car rammed into them from behind, closing him in. Pushing his niece on to the floor under the seat, Edelgireyev scrambled out and started running. One of the assassins gave chase, firing at him, and he crumpled to the ground. When paramedics arrived a few minutes later he was already dead, in a pool of blood. He had been shot five times.

The dead man’s biography, as set out by family and associates, paints a picture of a key figure in the Caucasus Emirate, the umbrella group of Chechen and other fighters in Russia’s North Caucasus that has resorted to terrorist methods, including suicide attacks on Moscow’s metro and Domodedovo airport. Edelgireyev’s experiences during his year in Syria also revealed how the Chechen resistance fight has slowly grown links to Islamic State , and the infighting and turmoil among the foreign fighters in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Russia helps shift balance against rebels in southern Syria

Financial Times reports: President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are making a new push in southern Syria with the help of Russian air cover in a move that could not only weaken one of the country’s remaining rebel strongholds, but also threaten the balance of power on a combustible border with Israel.

The growing Russian role in the south has surprised many regional diplomats who believed Moscow had an understanding with Syria’s southern neighbours, Jordan and Israel, not to extend into their sphere of influence.

Rebels from Syria’s Southern Front alliance say they too were surprised to become the target of the new campaign: their forces are directly supplied by the Military Operations Command (MOC), an operations room staffed by Arab and western military forces, including the US.

“They (MOC) should be nervous,” says Abu Ghayath al-Shami, a spokesman for the Southern Front’s Seif al-Sham Brigades. “This area was one of their last cards, the one area where there was still a functioning relationship between the rebels and the international community.” [Continue reading…]

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Why the only leader hoping to see Britain exit the EU is Vladimir Putin

Guy Verhofstadt writes: t is highly likely that David Cameron’s British referendum on membership of the European Union will take place at some point in 2016. Despite the fact that the respective “leave” and “remain” campaigns have yet to begin in earnest, a host of world leaders, including Barack Obama and those of most European and many commonwealth countries, have been privately urging David Cameron and his Conservative party against a “Brexit”.

Despite the economically illiterate central tenets of the leave campaign – that a Brexit will somehow enable Britain to “go global” – it is striking that very few countries, if any, have been campaigning for Britain to leave the EU. This is perhaps because a significant number of countries have committed time and resources to negotiating trade agreements with the EU, of which Britain is such an important part.

Thanks to the hard work of the many British civil servants in Brussels, the EU is now negotiating fully fledged free-trade agreements with Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the US. A deal with Canada is already concluded. The notion that these countries would relish the possibility of negotiating a separate trade agreement with Britain, or indeed that Britain would secure preferential trade deals by leaving the world’s largest common market, is absurd.

British people should reflect on the fact that the only leader who would stand to gain from a British withdrawal from the European Union is Vladimir Putin. There are several reasons for thinking this. [Continue reading…]

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Putin’s anti-Obama propaganda is ugly and desperate

Paula J. Dobriansky and David B. Rivkin Jr. write: Although international relations are not conducted under Marquess of Queensberry rules and political satire can be expected from one’s foes, intensely personal attacks on foreign leaders are uncommon except in wartime. While Soviet-era anti-American propaganda could be sharp, it did not employ slurs. But in recent years racist and scatological salvos against foreign leaders have become a staple of official Russian discourse.

Turkish, German and Ukrainian officials are cast as sycophantic stooges of the United States. While slamming Ankara at a December news conference for shooting down a Russian plane that violated Turkish airspace, Russian President Vladimir Putin opined that “the Turks decided to lick the Americans in a certain place.” Sergey Glaziev, a senior adviser to Putin, has called Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko “a Nazi Frankenstein,” and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin compared Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to “a rubber doll from a sex shop.”

The ugliest vilification campaign, however, has been reserved for President Obama. Anti-Obama tweets come openly from government officials. Rogozin, while commenting on Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address, compared Obama to a Tuzik, Russian slang for a pathetic small dog. Irina Rodnina , a well-known Duma member, tweeted doctored images of Barack and Michelle Obama staring longingly at a banana.

Nobody in Russia gets to freelance propaganda-wise. Thus, anti-Obama rants, even when coming from prominent individuals outside government, have Putin’s imprimatur. Russian media personalities, including Dmitry Kiselyov, the host of the widely viewed “News of the Week” TV roundup, often deliver racist slurs, as compiled by Mikhail Klikushin on the Observer Web magazine. Evgeniy Satanovskiy, a Russian academic and frequent guest on Kiselyov’s program, recently also referred to Obama as a “monkey,” prompting derisive laughter and applause from the audience. Meanwhile, the famous nationalist comedian Mikhail Zadornov regularly deploys the term “schmoe” — a slang Russian prison acronym for a person who is so debased he deserves to be defecated upon — alongside Obama’s name. “Obama schmoe” has become ubiquitous enough to be scrawled on the runway of Russia’s Latakia air base in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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The ten most important developments in Syria in 2015

Assad

Aron Lund writes at length on each of these developments:

10. The Death of Zahran Alloush.
9. The Failure of the Southern Storm Offensive.
8. Operation Decisive Quagmire.
7. Europe’s Syria Fatigue vs. Assad’s Viability
6. The Vienna Meeting, the ISSG, and Geneva III.
5. The Donald.
4. The Iran Deal.
3. The Continuing Structural Decay of the Syrian Government.
2. The American-Kurdish Alliance.
1. The Russian Intervention. [Continue reading…]

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Russia names United States among threats in new security strategy

Reuters reports: A new appraisal names the United States as one of the threats to Russia’s national security for the first time, a sign of how relations with the west have deteriorated in recent years.

The document, “About the Strategy of National Security of Russian Federation”, was signed by President Vladimir Putin on New Year’s Eve. It replaces a 2009 version, endorsed by then- President Dmitry Medvedev, the current prime minister, which mentioned neither the United States not NATO.

It says Russia has managed to heighten its role in solving global problems and international conflicts. That heightened role has caused a reaction by the West, it says.

“The strengthening of Russia happens against the background of new threats to the national security, which has complex and interrelated nature,” the document says.

Conducting an independent policy, “both international and domestic” has caused “counteraction from the USA and its allies, which are striving to retain their dominance in global affairs.” [Continue reading…]

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A Russian sentiment familiar to Americans: ‘It doesn’t concern me’

Zhanna Nemtsova writes: A public opinion survey recently asked Russians: “What was the main political event of the year?”

Events in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria featured prominently, but the most brutal political murder in modern Russia – the assassination of my father, Boris Nemtsov, a prominent opposition figure – didn’t even figure in the responses.

Another survey conducted by the independent Levada Centre in March, soon after he was shot dead on a bridge close to the Kremlin, found that one-third of the Russians polled had “no particular feelings” about his murder.

Taken together, these responses illustrate a broader problem with the current condition of Russian society, characterised by moral numbness and best illustrated by the popular Russian sentiment – “it doesn’t concern me”.

This climate has also compromised the quality of the opposition itself and made it a heroic feat to even take part in the opposition movement in Russia.

The political system that President Vladimir Putin has built relies on a lack of public thought, and on people’s reluctance to ask questions, formulate positions or remember the past. Putin’s Russia has no need of people who think for themselves. [Continue reading…]

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The invasion of Antarctica

antarctica

Simon Romero writes: On a glacier-filled island with fjords and elephant seals, Russia has built Antarctica’s first Orthodox church on a hill overlooking its research base, transporting the logs all the way from Siberia.

Less than an hour away by snowmobile, Chinese laborers have updated the Great Wall Station, a linchpin in China’s plan to operate five bases on Antarctica, complete with an indoor badminton court, domes to protect satellite stations and sleeping quarters for 150 people.

Not to be outdone, India’s futuristic new Bharathi base, built on stilts using 134 interlocking shipping containers, resembles a spaceship. Turkey and Iran have announced plans to build bases, too.

More than a century has passed since explorers raced to plant their flags at the bottom of the world, and for decades to come this continent is supposed to be protected as a scientific preserve, shielded from intrusions like military activities and mining.

But an array of countries are rushing to assert greater influence here, with an eye not just toward the day those protective treaties expire, but also for the strategic and commercial opportunities that exist right now.

“The newer players are stepping into what they view as a treasure house of resources,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a scholar at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who specializes in Antarctic politics. [Continue reading…]

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War by other means in the shadow of globalization

destruction

Peter Pomerantsev writes: perhaps this year’s most spectacular propagandists are those of ISIS, with its aggressive use of social media to recruit new combatants and slick, gruesome execution videos to provoke and frighten opponents. Though ISIS has killed roughly seven times fewer people in Syria than the Assad regime, the group has used social media (some 46,000 accounts on Twitter alone) to make itself look even more menacing than it is. Every social-media user who retweets or posts ISIS material, whether in support or censure, ultimately helps strengthen ISIS’s narrative of history-making stature and millenarian significance. The Islamic State’s terrorist attacks in Paris left 130 people dead in a spate of horrific violence, but the operation was executed in a manner that made it seem as if the organization had killed orders of magnitude more.

There is, of course, nothing new about using information as a vital instrument of war. But in the past information tended to be a handmaiden to action. Now the informational element appears to be as important as, if not more important than, the physical dimension. Take Russia’s air strikes in Syria. The Kremlin’s official rationale for the military campaign was to combat the Islamic State. But very few of its operations have actually been aimed at ISIS, with many more directed at U.S.-supported rebels fighting Syrian President, and Russian client, Bashar al-Assad. The Kremlin clearly has more in mind than defeating ISIS militarily. Russia has entered the Syrian stage in such a way as to surprise the West and ensure it will play a starring role in any narrative going forward — whether that narrative involves keeping Assad in power or a “global fight against terror.” The Russian military might be small compared to America’s, and the Russian economy may be a mess, but Vladimir Putin has cleverly undermined America’s reputation as a “global policeman” and boosted his stature as the man who is restoring Russia as a Great Global Power.

This is not “soft power” in the classic sense of projecting a positive national image through culture and public relations, but rather a case of using strategic narrative to keep your opponent intimidated, confused, and dismayed — of exploiting ubiquitous information to appear bigger, scarier, and more indispensable than reality would suggest. Russia’s bombing raids in Syria also have the positive side effects (for Moscow) of distracting from the conflict in Ukraine and helping maintain a steady torrent of refugees to Europe, which in turn strengthens right-wing parties in countries such as France and Hungary that peddle anti-refugee fears, are supported by the Kremlin, and advocate dropping Western sanctions against Russia. What matters in the information age is not so much “military escalation dominance” — the Cold War doctrine emphasizing the ability to introduce more arms than the enemy into a conflict. Rather, it’s “narrative escalation dominance” — being able to introduce more startling storylines than your opponent. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. sees key goals met for Russia with bearable costs in Syria so far

Assad

Reuters reports: Three months into his military intervention in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin has achieved his central goal of stabilizing the Assad government and, with the costs relatively low, could sustain military operations at this level for years, U.S. officials and military analysts say.

That assessment comes despite public assertions by President Barack Obama and top aides that Putin has embarked on an ill-conceived mission in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that it will struggle to afford and that will likely fail.

“I think it’s indisputable that the Assad regime, with Russian military support, is probably in a safer position than it was,” said a senior administration official, who requested anonymity. Five other U.S. officials interviewed by Reuters concurred with the view that the Russian mission has been mostly successful so far and is facing relatively low costs.

The U.S. officials stressed that Putin could face serious problems the longer his involvement in the more than four-year-old civil war drags on.

Yet since its campaign began on Sept. 30, Russia has suffered minimal casualties and, despite domestic fiscal woes, is handily covering the operation’s cost, which analysts estimate at $1-2 billion a year. The war is being funded from Russia’s regular annual defense budget of about $54 billion, a U.S. intelligence official said. [Continue reading…]

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Syria rebel group will survive leader’s death

Hassan Hassan writes: Zahran Alloush, the former leader of Jaish Al Islam who was killed by Russian air strikes on Friday evening near Damascus, was more widely mourned than any other opposition figure since the start of the Syrian conflict. He has also been condemned for having made sectarian statements alluding to the extermination of Shia in Syria.

Sectarian statements are unjustifiable because they stoke tensions in an already polarised landscape. Jaish Al Islam was guilty of playing a cynical game of religious one-upmanship against extremist groups, especially at the height of religious polarisation in late 2013, during the Hizbollah-led offensive inside Syria. But it is a mistake to equate the group with extremist organisations, especially since such statements by no means reflect the group’s intentions or actions.

People who met Alloush and members of his faction, including members of Syria’s religious minorities, challenged such perceived views. Bassam Malouf, a Christian dissident, for example, recalled a meeting he had with Alloush, in which the former warned against targeting Christian churches in the suburbs of Damascus where the faction operated. Alloush replied, according to Mr Malouf, referring to Christians, by saying: “You are part of us and we are part of you. We will not allow anybody to violate the sanctity of homes, churches or people. Even Alawites, they are not our enemies, they are victims of the regime.”

Mr Malouf added: “His religious discourse was meant to encourage young people living under siege to join Jaish Al Islam and pull them away from ISIL.”

Alloush was one of the earliest, if not the earliest, rebel leader to unequivocally and consistently combat ISIL. Unlike other forces that reluctantly or intermittently fought ISIL, Jaish Al Islam can be credited for single-handedly preventing ISIL from establishing a foothold for itself in the areas it controlled near Damascus. If ISIL is a minor player at the outskirts of Damascus, it is because of Jaish Al Islam. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian rebel leader killed in airstrike: Who was Zahran Alloush?

Aron Lund writes: Mohammed Zahran Alloush (1971-2015), also known as Abu Abdullah, was a salafi activist from Douma, a town east of Damascus in the Ghouta region. His father, Abdullah Alloush, is a salafi theologian resident in Saudi Arabia.

Alloush was arrested several times before the uprising for his religious and political activism and sent to the ”Islamist wing” of the Seidnaia prison north of Damascus. There, he formed close connections to many other Syrian Islamists, including people who now run large rebel factions like Ahrar al-Sham. He was released from jail in June 2011 and quickly joined the armed uprising, eventually emerging as the strongman of his home region in the Eastern Ghouta and one of the most powerful rebel leaders in all of Syria.

He was also one of the most controversial ones. His supporters were taken in by his forceful personality and his personal bravery, as a commander who lived with his men in the warzone and visited the frontline. They admired his knack for organization and politics and credited him with the semi-stability that reigned inside the besieged Eastern Ghouta enclave—a bombed out and starved suburban region that resembles nothing so much as a giant version of the Gaza Strip in Palestine. The Ghouta has been under constant pressure since the marginalized Sunni suburbs of Damascus, where hatred against Bashar al-Assad and his government ran strong, began to throw out the police and security servies in 2011 and 2012. Since then, the region has been under siege and functioned as a world of its own. Holding the frontline in Damascus, where Assad has concentrated so much of his army, was no small feat and it was much thanks to Alloush’s men. Coordinating the rebels there and limiting their infighting was no less of an achievement, especially considering the all-out chaos that reigned in other areas of Syria, where conditions were much better. For many supporters of the opposition, defending and stabilizing the Eastern Ghouta despite unceasing war and artillery bombardment, including with nerve gas, was enough to make Zahran Alloush a hero of the Syrian revolution. [Read more…]

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Christmas in Syria: Children’s hospital in Aleppo bombed by Russian jets

Anadolu Agency reports: At least six civilians were killed and dozens were injured Friday in airstrikes carried out by Russian warplanes in Aleppo, Syrian security sources said.

The sources added that the airstrikes, which targeted Azaz district, caused heavy damage to the hospitals’ buildings. One of the medical facilities is believed to be a children’s hospital.

Russian airstrikes have killed more than 250 civilians this week alone across Syria.

According to a report released earlier this month by Amnesty International, Russian airstrikes in Syria have killed “hundreds” of Syrian civilians over the last three months. [Continue reading…]

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Russia gives intelligence to Taliban and weapons to their enemy, the Afghan government

The Washington Post reports: A Kremlin official said Wednesday that Russia was exchanging information with the Taliban, the Islamist insurgency that the United States has been fighting in Afghanistan since 2001, as a bulwark against the spread of the Islamic State militant group in that country.

Zamir Kabulov, a Foreign Ministry department head and President Vladimir Putin’s special representative for Afghanistan, told the Interfax news agency that “the Taliban interest objectively coincides with ours” in the fight against the Islamic State, which has captured broad swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.

“I have already said earlier that we and the Taliban have channels for exchanging information,” Kabulov added, in remarks reported by Interfax and confirmed to The Washington Post by a ministry spokesman.

A limited partnership with the Taliban, which announced last week that it would send “special forces” to fight the Islamic State, is a striking, and somewhat confusing, twist in Russia’s war on terror. Although Russia plunged enthusiastically into its airstrike campaign against the Islamic State in Syria in September (critics say Russia is mainly there to prop up President Bashar al-Assad), Moscow has opposed the Taliban for more than a decade as a potential vehicle for terror and instability in the former Soviet Union. [Continue reading…]

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