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Russian Semi-Withdrawal, US and Allies Prepare New Anti-Assad Offensive

Next Cold War Roundup 3/16/16

Geneva talks are on. Russia does a surprise semi-withdrawal from Syria, leaving a well equipped Syrian coalition but increasing pressure on Assad to compromise. The US brings to the table a weakened position on the ground but a threat of a Turkish invasion and the new anti-Assad coalition they are building, which includes other regional countries like Saudi Arabia’s military. Many believe a “grand bargain” was made before the talks began on Monday. Turkey and Ukraine publicly agree to military cooperation.

Russian Semi-Withdrawal From Syria

_ Germany’s foreign minister Steinmeier said Russia’s semi-withdrawal will force Assad to compromise. The Syrian opposition said Russian support “prolonged the regime” and “matters will change significantly” with this withdrawal.

_ A senior State Dept official told a UN reporter that the US had no advance notice of Russia’s withdrawal decision

_ DefenseOne editor says withdrawal is not all that unexpected but he’s not sure exactly what will change.  “Still, Putin said, operations at Russia’s Hmeimim airbase and its Mediterranean port at Tartus will continue, the BBC reported. It was not immediately clear just what would change.”

_ On Tuesday, Russian war planes begin started leaving Syria. Upon arrival in Russia, the “first pilot to emerge was repeatedly carried aloft by fellow soldiers on the ground.” Russian airstrikes on Palmyra continued as the battle to retake that strategic territory continues.  The al Qaeda group, al Nusra, said it would begin a new offensive within 48 hours after they heard the news of the withdrawal. They are not included in the ceasefire and have also been clashing with Syrian rebels in the Idlib province.

_ Southfront’s source close to the Russian foreign ministry says that Russia is trying to show a “fundamentally different approach than the US and the West” in international relations. They don’t want to gain a “colonial resource-rich territory or create puppet regimes” but instead want to provide the amount of assistance necessary to “fight against terrorism and extremism” without escalation and minimizing civilian casualties.” This partial withdrawal “clearly shows the commitment of the Russian leadership to the sequence of actions aimed at a comprehensive settlement of the crisis by peaceful means.

Turkey Advances on Syria

_ Russian FM Lavrov reports that Russia has evidence of a “creeping expansion” of Turkish troops on Syrian soil. “Turkey has started to declare it has a sovereign right to create some safety zones on Syrian territory.” Lavrov also said that Russia is willing to cooperate with the US to take back Raqqa. He said the Americans suggested a “division of labor” where Russia’s air force focuses on freeing Palmyra and the US, with assistance from Russia, focuses on freeing Raqqa.

_ With Turkey’s military encroaching on the Syrian border and the Turkish military ready to invade, Saudi military reportedly ready to join that coalition, this is the “threat” leverage the US brings to the negotiating table in Geneva to force the “Assad must go” position, much like the “Plan B” that Kerry described in Congressional hearings in recent weeks and that Israel and Saudi Arabia demand.

New Anti-Assad Offensive

_ In a radio interview with Greg Copley on the John Batchelor show Tuesday night, Copley said the US is building up a new anti-Assad “moderate” opposition army and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar continue backing ISIS.  Turkey plans to invade and has been delaying this operation for a couple of weeks.  Drone surveillance flights over Kurdish areas have increased in the past few days. Turkey has begun advancing on Syria but the much larger invasion awaits the green light from the US, who want to achieve some objectives at the negotiating table first. The Turkish economy is in bad shape, propped up by subsidies from Saudi Arabia, US and now some financial assistance from the EU related to migration.

_ According to Copley, Pres. Obama tried to force rapprochement between Israel and Turkey so that Turkey can be a partner in the Israeli business of harvesting the gas field in the Eastern Mediterranean, supplying gas to Europe. Israel has somewhat agreed for the moment.

_ Copley: Kurds realize they can’t depend on Washington for their independent state or autonomous region. They also don’t trust Russia who has historically taken a position against an independent Kurdish state but their position has softened on an autonomous region and the Kurds trust them enough to make sure they don’t “fall off a cliff”.  Batchelor says based on reports from people who just returned from the region, YPG realize they have momentum and this is the best chance they’ve had in past 100 years.

_ In a different segment on the John Batchelor show, Stephen Cohen and Batchelor spoke of a meeting in Ankara “in these last hours” where the anti-Assad coalition met to plan a new offensive.

Analysis on Russian Withdrawal From Syria

_ The New York Times Anne Barnard (not at all reliable for reporting on Syria, more reliable as propagandist) says there is “fevered speculation” about the decision and talks about “growing signs of differences between Russia and the Syrian government over the Geneva talks” but also says it might be a sign that Putin is confident of Assad’s position until elections are held.

_ The Saker’s analysis recalls an interview with Putin where he said their goal in Syria was to “stabilize the legitimate authority and create conditions for a political compromise.” The Saker (a Putin fan) believes Russia “set goals fully commensurate with their real capabilities” and they achieved them.  Saker also notes that partitioning Syria is a long term goal of Israel and the chances of the US trying to do it are “immense” and if the Saudis and Turks invade after Russian troops are no longer on the ground it would result in a major escalation threatening the entire region, goes against the UN resolution the UN Security Council signed (unity of Syria). His interpretation of Putin’s language is that Russia is keeping its options open, that Putin is a “hardcore realist” who realizes Russia is still weak compared to the US empire and a “single misstep can have catastrophic consequences.”

_ War correspondent Sasha Kots answers some questions about the withdrawal.  she believes a few dozen planes and helicopters will return home and the logistics centers will remain i place during the peace talks, and there will be enough forces for bases to be well protected. She also thinks the anti-aircraft defense systems will remain in place for intelligence, ceasefire monitoring and some planes and helos will stay.  Putin said the air base will be protected but they will only strike in an emergency. She says we can assume that “the Americans agreed to strengthen their aviation in the fight against ISIS.” If necessary it would take only a few days to deploy planes back to the base and the cruise missles from the Caspian Sea are an option as well as ships off the coast of Syria but overall Russia “prefers a diplomatic victory in which no one loses.”

_ “What’s the Matter With John Kerry?” The young Kerry was a much wiser man than Kerry in his old age, a “hawkish diplomat” who is “behaving much like the older generation of Cold Warriors did in the 1960s.”

Phone Calls Between Putin, Assad and Obama

_ Kremlin web site reports a phone call between Putin and Assad on March 14:

“Mr Putin said that Russia’s Armed Forces have fulfilled their main mission in Syria and a timetable for the withdrawal of the Aerospace Forces’ main air grouping has been agreed. Russia will maintain an aviation support centre in Syria in order to monitor compliance with the ceasefire.”

_ And a phone call between Putin and Obama on March 15 which included a mention of continuing to work to settle issues in Ukraine as well:

“The President of Russia told the President of the United States that after fulfilling the primary objectives set before the Russian Armed Forces in the fight against international terrorism, a decision was made to withdraw the main part of the Russian Aerospace Forces troops. This will certainly serve as a good signal to all conflicting sides and create conditions for the start of a true peace process.”

Turkey and Ukraine

_ Newsweek reports that the Turkish and Ukraine defense officials have agreed that it is important to “unite the capabilities of their countries.” The Ukraine and Turkish navies “launched a joint military exercise on on Monday, as Kiev and Ankara continue to grow closer in the face of their respective stand-offs with Russia.” Discussions about Ukraine receiving arms from NATO member Turkey began last month.

_ Stratfor comes right out and says Ukraine and Turkey are aligning against Russia, their “common rival,” and they signed “a number of political, economic and military deals during Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s visit to Ankara on March 8-9.” Stratfor notes that Ukraine and Turkey “intend to strengthen security in the Black Sea” and “steps would be taken to end the occupation of Crimea” and they intend on the “joint production of weapons systems.”  Ukraine was an important part of the USSR’s military-industrial complex and they continued that role with the Russian Federation to some extent.

_ Another common thread between Ukraine and Turkey is the Crimean Tatars.  This would not be the first time the Tatars cooperated with Turkish intelligence. Tatar groups in Crimea backed by Turkish intelligence attacked the electrical grid in 2015  and  attempted a coup in Crimea in 2014 just days after the Euromaidan coup in Kiev but the coup had been monitored by and was repelled by a Russian anti-coup move.  So this alliance is not really new, it’s just more public now.

Geneva Peace Talks

_ Russia Backs Federalization of Syria if Syrian People Favor it

_ Damascus has rejected the preconditions of the Syrian opposition for a political transition eliminating Assad up front.

_ Political analyst Hafsa Kara-Mustapha, via this podcast, thinks the international community is moving toward removing Assad even though his popularity has increased among Syrian citizens.  “With peace talks set to begin in Geneva again today, could proposals for a federal structure ultimately lead to a partition of the country into mini states?” There has been a lot of talk about the partition of Syria.

Biden’s Press Conference With Netanyahu in Israel — “Russia has seen the Lord”

_ VP Joe Biden in Israel last week in a press conference with Netanyahu (Transcript, video at 16:44) :

Biden, referring to Arab states: “And as we Catholics say, these folks have had an epiphany. They’ve realized that they’d rather be in your orbit than in the orbit of Daesh and ISIS and terrorism, and al-Nusra, et cetera […] it’s good we’re cooperating with Russia in Syria. Right? I mean, that would not have come out of either one of our mouths – at least mine – four or five years ago, but the truth is Russia has seen the Lord on some of these issues as well.” [Emphasis added]

Netanyahu: “Are you sure you want to use that phrase?”

Biden: “Well I wasn’t going to use that other phrase.”

_ Two days after Biden said the Arab states had an “epiphany” and decided to become part of Israel’s “orbit”, Arab foreign ministers “rejected all Israeli occupation authorities’ policies that aimed at changing the legal and demographic status of the Syrian Golan Heights.” They said Arab countries “should support Syria in its quest to regain the Golan Heights” to the 1967 lines based on the 1991 Madrid peace conference. They called on the UN Security Council to help people living in Golan to use the Qunaitera crossing to visit relatives in Syria and expressed support for Syria and Lebanon “in the face of the repeated Israeli aggression as well as occupation of their territories.”


_ Britain is sending more troops to Iraq to provide training “in logistics and bridge-building, as well as specialist medical staff.” They are expected to be deployed to “raining camps at Bismayah and Taji outside Baghdad.”

Israeli Defense Minister Wants Aid Package “Sooner Rather Than Later”

_ While in the US, Moshe Ya’alon said he was meeting with Ash Carter about keeping ” our qualitative military dge in the region, and hopefully we will be able to sign the MOU sooner rather than later.” Ya’alon also said there is no chance for Syria to remain intact.


_ Alexander Mercouris at Russia Insider thinks the Europeans are “staring at total failure in Ukraine” and thinks the “frantic diplomatic efforts” show desperation because the Ukraine is in crisis and the Russian sanctions are not going to hold, nor did they achieve what they set out to do.

_ “Why Are the Children of Donbass Not Nadia Savchenko?”  A good question for a travesty of a “global democratic community.”

_ Ukraine’s parliament speaker said they are running out of time “to resolve its political crisis, reiterating calls for a government shake-up to end months of infighting that’s jeopardizing the flow of international aid.”

Horrific Saudi Airstrike Attack on Market in Yemen

_ “Blood and body parts everywhere” in Hajja province, a Houthi-held area in Yemen. Many of the dead were children who worked at stalls or carried goods. At least 41 civilians were killed, dozens more injured and the numbers may rise. “Witnesses said at least two missiles hit a busy market in the Mustaba district of Hajja province at midday.” Witnesses also said “there were no military targets nearby.” One witness, Mazahem Khedr, said survivors who were hurt were screaming for help and “Mohammed Mustafa said people were afraid to help the wounded, fearing a third airstrike.” Double tap airstrikes that target first responders are well known in Yemen and in recent months there have also been “triple tap” strikes by the US-backed, Saudi-led coaltion air force.

Chuck Hagel Joins East-West Accord

_ Chuck Hagel, the former Secretary of Defense under Pres. Obama and former US senator from Nebraska, joined the East-West Accord committee, an organization dominated by a realist, non-interventionist foreign policy who oppose a new Cold War, favor rapprochement with Russia and solutions that prioritize US interests. Others who joined the organization are Donald McHenry, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt and David Speedie.

Omar the Chechen Dead

_ A top ISIS commander, Omar al-Shishani, died Monday night “of wounds suffered in a U.S. airstrike in Syria, a senior Iraqi intelligence official and the head of a Syrian activist group said Tuesday.” The airstrike near Raqqa was reported earlier this month. As we reported last week, “Omar the Chechen had ties to the US umbrella group, the Free Syrian Army, as late as 2013” and we provided references to this analysis by Brad Hoff, two of his interviews on the subject here and here and a detailed article about him by Mitch Prothero. Omar al-Shishani has been reported dead at least four times before. This time he has reportedly been buried in Deir Ez-Zour and his Wikipedia status is deceased.  The Pentagon (and many others) say his death “would negatively impact ISIL’s ability to recruit foreign fighters—especially those from Chechnya and the Caucasus regions.”

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Joanne Leon

Joanne Leon

Joanne is a blogger with focus on issues of war and peace, a mom, engineer, software developer and amateur photographer.