Mueller seeks White House documents on Flynn

The New York Times reports: Investigators working for the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, recently asked the White House for documents related to the former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn, and have questioned witnesses about whether he was secretly paid by the Turkish government during the final months of the presidential campaign, according to people close to the investigation.

Though not a formal subpoena, the document request is the first known instance of Mr. Mueller’s team asking the White House to hand over records.

In interviews with potential witnesses in recent weeks, prosecutors and F.B.I. agents have spent hours poring over the details of Mr. Flynn’s business dealings with a Turkish-American businessman who worked last year with Mr. Flynn and his consulting business, the Flynn Intel Group.

The company was paid $530,000 to run a campaign to discredit an opponent of the Turkish government who has been accused of orchestrating last year’s failed coup in the country.

Investigators want to know if the Turkish government was behind those payments — and if the Flynn Intel Group made kickbacks to the businessman, Ekim Alptekin, for helping conceal the source of the money.

The line of questioning shows that Mr. Mueller’s inquiry has expanded into a full-fledged examination of Mr. Flynn’s financial dealings, beyond the relatively narrow question of whether he failed to register as a foreign agent or lied about his conversations and business arrangements with Russian officials. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s war against ISIS in Syria: Why Putin, Assad, and Iran are winning

Robin Yassin-Kassab writes: In his inaugural address, U.S. President Donald Trump promised to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.”

To be fair, he’s had only about six months, but already the project is proving a little more complicated than he hoped. First, ISIS has been putting up a surprisingly hard fight against its myriad enemies (some of whom are also radical Islamic terrorists). The battle for Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, has concluded, but at enormous cost to Mosul’s civilians and the Iraqi army. Second, and more importantly, there is no agreement as to what will follow ISIS, particularly in eastern Syria. There, a new great game for post-ISIS control is taking place with increasing violence between the United States and Iran. Russia and a Kurdish-led militia are also key players. If Iran and Russia win out (and at this point they are far more committed than the U.S.), President Bashar al-Assad, whose repression and scorched earth paved the way for the ISIS takeover in the first place, may be handed back the territories he lost, now burnt and depopulated. The Syrian people, who rose in democratic revolution six years ago, are not being consulted.

The battle to drive ISIS from Raqqa—its Syrian stronghold—is underway. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by American advisers, are leading the fight. Civilians are paying the price. United Nations investigators lament a “staggering loss of life” caused by U.S.-led airstrikes on the city.

Though it’s a multiethnic force, the SDF is dominated by the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, whose parent organization is the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States (but of the leftist-nationalist rather than Islamist variety) and is currently at war with Turkey, America’s NATO ally. The United States has nevertheless made the SDF its preferred local partner, supplying weapons and providing air cover, much to the chagrin of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Now add another layer of complexity. Russia also provides air cover to the SDF, not to fight ISIS, but when the mainly Kurdish force is seizing Arab-majority towns from the non-jihadi anti-Assad opposition. The SDF capture of Tel Rifaat and other opposition-held towns in 2016 helped Russia and the Assad regime to impose the final siege on Aleppo.

Eighty percent of Assad’s ground troops encircling Aleppo last December were not Syrian, but Shiite militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, all armed, funded and trained by Iran. That put the American-backed SDF and Iran in undeclared alliance.

But those who are allies one year may be enemies the next. Emboldened by a series of Russian-granted victories in the west of the country, Iran and Assad are racing east, seeking to dominate the post-ISIS order on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Iran has almost achieved its aim of projecting its influence regionally and globally through a land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In this new context, Assad and his backers are turning on the SDF. On June 18, pro-Assad forces attacked the SDF near Tabqa, west of Raqqa. When a regime warplane joined the attack, American forces shot it down. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey chooses Russia over NATO for missile defense

Bloomberg reports: Turkey has agreed to pay $2.5 billion to acquire Russia’s most advanced missile defense system, a senior Turkish official said, in a deal that signals a turn away from the NATO military alliance that has anchored Turkey to the West for more than six decades.

The preliminary agreement sees Turkey receiving two S-400 missile batteries from Russia within the next year, and then producing another two inside Turkey, according to the Turkish official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter. A spokesman for Russia’s arms-export company Rosoboronexport OJSC said he couldn’t immediately comment on details of a deal with Turkey.

Turkey has reached the point of an agreement on a missile defense system before, only to scupper the deal later amid protests and condemnation from NATO. Under pressure from the U.S., Turkey gave up an earlier plan to buy a similar missile-defense system from a state-run Chinese company, which had been sanctioned by the U.S. for alleged missile sales to Iran. [Continue reading…]

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The Kremlin’s contradictory behavior in Syria

Anton Mardasov writes: The Kremlin is seeking to flesh out the idea of creating four de-escalation (“safe”) zones in western war-torn Syria while trying to help President Bashar al-Assad regain control of lost territories in the east. When it comes to the west, Moscow is talking about the de facto end of the civil war and aims to covertly weaken the Syrian opposition. As for eastern Syria, Russia is trying hard, though discreetly, to distance itself from the US-Iranian confrontation and preserve communication channels with Washington. It is also advocating decreasing the influence of both the United States and Kurds and urging pro-Kremlin oligarchs to help fix the economy.

Russia’s policy in Syria seems successful, and that appearance is meant to impress the Russian population ahead of the 2018 presidential election. In reality, however, Moscow is confronted with a range of problems as it proceeds with its purely tactical plans. Syrian government troops continue fighting in Daraa province, and the Southern Front — the rebel alliance that until recently had hardly opposed the regime — boycotted the fifth round of negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan, which resumed July 4.

Some Russian analysts, referencing their sources in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense, argue that Russian military and political leaders are well aware that Iran and Assad intend to prevent the UN’s peace plan from succeeding. (The UN Security Council unanimously adopted the plan, Resolution 2254, in late 2015.) The analysts worry that Tehran and Damascus might try to convince Moscow to not cooperate as well. [Continue reading…]

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Amid Turkey’s purge, a renewed attack on Kurdish culture

The New York Times reports: Gosto’s kebab shop is not the only diner on its block, let alone on its street. It is, however, the one that perhaps reveals most about the threat to Kurdish culture.

Its owner and manager — the cheery, chubby Vural Tantekin — turned to the kebab trade only in January, after the city authorities sacked most members of his municipally run theater troupe.

“The reason,” said Mr. Tantekin, during an interview squeezed between kebab orders, “was to stop us from performing in Kurdish.”

For people like Mr. Tantekin, the fate of Diyarbakir’s theater troupe is emblematic of an ongoing assault on Kurdish culture at large.

Since the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923, which enshrined a monocultural national identity, the country’s sizable Kurdish minority — around 20 percent of the population — has often been banned from expressing its own culture or, at times, from speaking the Kurdish language. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey drops evolution from curriculum, angering secularists

The New York Times reports: Turkey has removed the concept of evolution from its high school curriculum, in what critics fear is the latest attempt by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government to erode the country’s secular character.

Starting in September, a chapter on evolution will no longer appear in ninth graders’ textbooks because it is considered too “controversial” an idea, an official announced this week.

“Our students don’t have the necessary scientific background and information-based context needed to comprehend” the debate about evolution, said the official, Alpaslan Durmus, the chairman of the Education Ministry’s Education and Discipline Board, which decides the curriculum, in a video posted on the ministry’s website.

The news has deepened concerns among Mr. Erdogan’s critics that the president, a conservative Muslim, wants to radically change the identity of a country that was founded in 1923 along staunchly secular lines. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi and allied autocrats demand Qatar shuts down Al Jazeera

Reuters reports: Four Arab states boycotting Qatar over alleged support for terrorism have sent Doha a list of 13 demands including closing Al Jazeera television and reducing ties to their regional adversary Iran, an official of one of the four countries said.

The demands aimed at ending the worst Gulf Arab crisis in years appear designed to quash a two decade-old foreign policy in which Qatar has punched well above its weight, striding the stage as a peace broker, often in conflicts in Muslim lands.

Doha’s independent-minded approach, including a dovish line on Iran and support for Islamist groups, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, has incensed some of its neighbors who see political Islamism as a threat to their dynastic rule.

The list, compiled by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bahrain, which cut economic, diplomatic and travel ties to Doha on June 5, also demands the closing of a Turkish military base in Qatar, the official told Reuters.

Turkey’s Defense Minister Fikri Isik rejected the demand, saying any call for the base to be shut would represent interference in Ankara’s relations with Doha. He suggested instead that Turkey might bolster its presence.

“Strengthening the Turkish base would be a positive step in terms of the Gulf’s security,” he said. “Re-evaluating the base agreement with Qatar is not on our agenda.” [Continue reading…]

In an editorial, the New York Times says: [B]y attacking Al Jazeera, the Saudis and their neighbors are trying to eliminate a voice that could lead citizens to question their rulers. Al Jazeera was the prime source of news as the Arab Spring rocked the Middle East in 2011.

That uprising ousted the military-backed autocrat Hosni Mubarak and led to Egypt’s first free election, which brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power. A loose political network founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has renounced violence. The real reason it’s been labeled a terrorist group is that autocratic regimes see it as a populist threat. [Continue reading…]

For CNBC, Abid Ali writes: Al-Jazeera has been a constant thorn in the side of its neighbors. The news network was the first independent media network in the Middle East winning plaudits with more than 20 years of broadcasting. But after the Arab Spring, Doha was forced to tone down coverage to maintain stability in neighboring countries, especially in Bahrain.

Qatar has been forging an independent foreign policy since the discovery of gas and a palace coup where the former Emir ousted his pro-Saudi leaning father. Since 1995 the country has been on a tear with a construction boom reshaping the desert state. While Qataris are the world’s richest per capita ($130,000), in neighboring Saudi Arabia more than 35 percent live under the national poverty line.

“The State of Qatar recognizes that a decision to close Al-Jazeera will infringe on their sovereignty,” Wadah Khanfar, the former director general of Al-Jazeera, told CNBC in a phone interview. “The independence of the state is at risk. If they move against Al-Jazeera what next? They will stand firm.” [Continue reading…]

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Turkish guards will be charged in embassy protest, officials say

The New York Times reports: Law enforcement officials plan to announce charges Thursday against a dozen members of the Turkish president’s security detail for their involvement in a brutal attack on protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence here last month, two American officials said on Wednesday.

The authorities have already charged several others, including two Americans and two Canadians, with taking part in the violent skirmish.

The Washington police have been investigating the May 16 attack along with the State Department and the Secret Service. The police planned to announce the charges at a news conference on Thursday morning, according to the two officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the charges before they were made public. [Continue reading…]

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Terrorist attacks inflame Saudi-Iranian rivalry and Gulf tensions

The New York Times reports: If the Islamic State did carry out the twin terrorist attacks on Wednesday in Iran, as the militant group claims, it struck at an opportune time to further the cause of chaos.

Iran rushed to blame Saudi Arabia, its chief rival in a contest for power playing out in proxy wars in at least two other countries in the region, Syria and Yemen.

Saudi Arabia, however, seemed too preoccupied to respond. Its state-run news media was dominated by criticism of its neighbor and ostensible ally, Qatar, after the Saudis and other Arab allies cut off ties to Qatar as part of a different struggle for power within the Persian Gulf.

The attacks in Tehran threatened to escalate the broader regional conflict between the two heavyweight powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, at a time when the Western-allied gulf bloc is divided against itself. And Saudi Arabia, under the two-year-old reign of King Salman and his powerful son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is demonstrating an unexpected willingness to plunge into risky multifront battles.

Turkey has long been a partner to the gulf monarchs in their proxy war against Iran in Syria. But in Ankara, the Turkish capital, on Wednesday, Parliament voted to authorize sending troops to Turkey’s base in Qatar — presumably to help defend against the Saudis.

What’s more, the Saudis may actually risk driving Qatar — the world’s largest producer of natural gas, and home to the largest American air base in the region — even closer to Iran.

Tehran has eagerly offered to provide Qatar with food and other supplies to make up for a closing of the vital overland shipping routes from Saudi Arabia.

Qatar has so far rebuffed the Iranian offer, saying it prefers to rely on supplies delivered by air from Turkey. But Qatari diplomats have also quietly stepped up dialogue with their Iranian counterparts, officials close to the Qatari foreign minister say. [Continue reading…]

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Special counsel Mueller to probe ex-Trump aide Flynn’s Turkey ties

Reuters reports: Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating possible ties between the Trump election campaign and Russia, is expanding his probe to include a grand jury investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, three sources told Reuters.

The move means Mueller’s politically charged inquiry will now look into Flynn’s paid work as a lobbyist for a Turkish businessman in 2016, in addition to contacts between Russian officials and Flynn and other Trump associates during and after the Nov. 8 presidential election.

Federal prosecutors in Virginia are investigating a deal between Flynn and Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin as part of a grand jury criminal probe, according to a subpoena seen by Reuters.

Alptekin’s company, Netherlands-based Inovo BV, paid Flynn’s consultancy $530,000 between September and November to produce a documentary and research on Fethullah Gulen, an exiled Turkish cleric living in the United States. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan blames Gulen for a failed coup last July. [Continue reading…]

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If Trump wants to fight Iran, he’ll soon get the chance in Syria

Bloomberg reports: Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in eastern Syria is surrounded by some of the world’s strongest military powers. Their forces are advancing on several fronts. The battlefield odds aren’t even close.

That’s why the commanders of those armies — in Washington, Moscow and Tehran, as well as Damascus and Ankara — are looking beyond the coming showdown with the jihadists. When they’re killed or driven out, who’ll take over? It’s an especially sharp dilemma for President Donald Trump. Because for the second time this century, the U.S. risks defeating one Middle Eastern enemy only to see another one, Iran, emerge as the big winner.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 toppled Iran’s bitter rival Saddam Hussein and replaced him with a sympathetic Shiite-led government. In Syria today, Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad has survived six years of civil war during which U.S. leaders repeatedly insisted that he had to go. His army, fighting alongside militias loyal to Tehran, is driving into Islamic State-held territory, setting up a race with U.S.-backed forces to liberate it. Even the areas where the Americans arrive first may eventually revert to Assad’s control.

That might not have been a problem for Trump the candidate. Before the election, he vowed to smash Islamic State without getting sucked into a wider war, and said he’d work with Russia, Assad’s other key backer. It could be a problem for the President Trump who told America’s regional allies last week that he’ll help roll back Iranian power — a promise that, in Syria at least, won’t be easy to keep. [Continue reading…]

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Abedi flew from Istanbul to Manchester 4 days before bombing; UK security services tackle large-scale threat

The Telegraph reports: The security services have foiled five attacks in the past two months since the Westminster attack, a senior Whitehall source has said.

Defending against accusations that MI5 had been repeatedly warned the Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, was dangerous, the source outlined the scale of the job facing counter-terrorism officials.

The source said MI5 is currently managing 500 active investigations, involving 3,000 subjects of interest at any one time. [Continue reading…]

In February, The Guardian reported: In the small pocket of Manchester where the suicide bomber who killed himself in Iraq this week grew up, many before him had trodden the same path.

The handful of streets in Moss Side within a mile of the childhood home of Ronald Fiddler, also known as Jamal al-Harith, have been home to nine who are known to have joined terrorist organisations and have either been jailed, have disappeared or have killed themselves in the name of Islamic State.

A Guardian investigation has found that 16 convicted or dead terrorists have lived within 2.5 miles of al-Harith’s home address. It is understood that they were part of a radical network and some of them prayed at the same mosque.

In a nearby gym a group of young men are sweating and sparring through a Friday afternoon boxing session. The scene could easily be one of those glossy local authority propaganda pictures that tells the story of a community trying to shed its guns-and-gangs reputation.

Former champion boxer Maurice Core has trained young men there for decades and acknowledges that terrorism is stalking the area’s disaffected youth.

One of those who is understood to be dead after joining Isis is Raphael Hostey. The 24-year-old was a member of Core’s gym and knew al-Harith. He died last year after leaving Moss Side in 2013. [Continue reading…]

Sky News reports: Abedi and Hostey hung around on the same estates and worshipped in the same Didsbury mosque, before they became disaffected with life in the West.

Counter-terrorism sources have told Sky News they have established a “significant” connection between the two men as they investigate the murder of 22 concertgoers and search for possible accomplices. [Continue reading…]

Financial Times reports: [Abedi] flew from Istanbul to the UK via Dusseldorf’s international airport, a German intelligence official said. A senior Turkish official said the Turkish government sent a file on Abedi to British authorities on Wednesday morning, but declined to discuss the details of the communication. [Continue reading…]

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Michael Flynn misled Pentagon about his Russia ties, letter says

The New York Times reports: Michael T. Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, misled Pentagon investigators about his income from companies in Russia and contacts with officials there when he applied for a renewal of his top-secret security clearance last year, according to a letter released Monday by the top Democrat on the House oversight committee.

Mr. Flynn, who resigned 24 days into the Trump administration, told investigators in February 2016 that he had received no income from foreign companies and had only “insubstantial contact” with foreign nationals, according to the letter. In fact, Mr. Flynn had sat two months earlier beside President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia at a Moscow gala for RT, the Kremlin-financed television network, which paid Mr. Flynn more than $45,000 to attend the event and give a separate speech.

His failure to make those disclosures and his apparent attempt to mislead the Pentagon could put Mr. Flynn in further legal jeopardy. Intentionally lying to federal investigators is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Separately, he also faces legal questions over failing to properly register as a foreign agent for lobbying he did last year on behalf of Turkey while advising the Trump campaign, which is also a felony.

The House letter, written by Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, was made public hours after Mr. Flynn formally rejected a subpoena from senators investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and chose to instead invoke his right against self-incrimination, a person familiar with his decision said. [Continue reading…]

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Flynn’s Turkey connection is the case worth pursuing

Noah Feldman writes: What’s been missing so far in the scandals surrounding the Trump White House is a concrete act taken at the behest of foreign powers. Now there’s strong evidence of one: Michael Flynn reportedly stopped an attack on the Islamic State capital of Raqqa by Syrian Kurds, a military action strongly opposed by Turkey, after receiving more than $500,000 in payments from a Turkish source. The Kurds’ offensive had been greenlighted by Barack Obama’s administration, and is now back on track, reapproved by President Donald Trump sometime after Flynn was fired.

If this story proves accurate then it’s a game changer for special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. It demonstrates that, at least while Flynn was national security adviser-designate and until he was fired after 24 days in office, U.S. government policy on a core matter of national security was open to the highest foreign bidder. That’s a form of bribery that could land Flynn in prison and, potentially, give Mueller leverage to get Flynn to testify about whatever else he knows. [Continue reading…]

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Video shows Erdogan watching his security guards beating up peaceful protesters in Washington

 

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State Dept condemns ‘brutal attack’ carried out by Turkish officials against peaceful protesters in Washington

 

The New York Times reports: Supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, including his government security forces and several armed individuals, violently charged a group of protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence here on Tuesday night in what the police characterized as “a brutal attack.”

Eleven people were injured, including a police officer, and nine were taken to a hospital, the Metropolitan Police chief, Peter Newsham, said at a news conference on Wednesday. Two Secret Service agents were also assaulted in the melee, according to a federal law enforcement official.

The State Department condemned the attack as an assault on free speech and warned Turkey that the action would not be tolerated. “We are communicating our concern to the Turkish government in the strongest possible terms,” said Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman.

A group of Republican lawmakers went a step further, calling the episode an “affront to the United States” and calling for Turkey to apologize. [Continue reading…]

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Flynn stopped military plan Turkey opposed – after being paid as its agent

McClatchy reports: One of the Trump administration’s first decisions about the fight against the Islamic State was made by Michael Flynn weeks before he was fired – and it conformed to the wishes of Turkey, whose interests, unbeknownst to anyone in Washington, he’d been paid more than $500,000 to represent.

The decision came 10 days before Donald Trump had been sworn in as president, in a conversation with President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, who had explained the Pentagon’s plan to retake the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa with Syrian Kurdish forces whom the Pentagon considered the U.S.’s most effective military partners. Obama’s national security team had decided to ask for Trump’s sign-off, since the plan would all but certainly be executed after Trump had become president.

Flynn didn’t hesitate. According to timelines distributed by members of Congress in the weeks since, Flynn told Rice to hold off, a move that would delay the military operation for months.

If Flynn explained his answer, that’s not recorded, and it’s not known whether he consulted anyone else on the transition team before rendering his verdict. But his position was consistent with the wishes of Turkey, which had long opposed the United States partnering with the Kurdish forces – and which was his undeclared client. [Continue reading…]

To refer to Flynn’s representation of Turkish interests as being “unbeknownst to anyone in Washington,” seems a bit premature. Trump’s unwillingness to fire Flynn, rather than being an expression of loyalty — not something Trump is famous for — may be an indication that whenever Flynn finally tells his own story, it’s going to destroy Trump.

So far, Trump’s ties to Flynn have largely been portrayed as an error in judgement. The real story, however, may reveal Trump’s complicity in Flynn’s corruption — that Flynn was far more transparent than we thus far know and that Trump and Pence with the hubris of victors thought they were immune from facing any repercussions.

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