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Kerry Arrives in Moscow, Plans to Press Russia on ‘Assad Must Go’

Next Cold War Roundup 3/21/16

John Kerry arrived in Moscow for talks tomorrow on Syria and Ukraine during which he plans to again pressure that “Assad must go” after Russia’s partial withdrawal. Ukraine has reneged on the Minsk agreement and is pushing for changes in their obligations as a decision EU renewal of sanctions approaches. An ISIS attack in Brussels killed at least 31. Two suicide bombers were identified and one suspect is at large. ISIS regained some territory from al Nusra in southern Syria and Syrian forces are within striking distance of Palmyra in central Syria. Escalation in Libya is very likely. Syria is still central to the war on ISIS and so called war on terror.

Syria

_ A July 2012 email from the Hillary Clinton email archive (forwarded by Clinton) has an email from a member of Israeli intelligence saying that a Sunni-Shia war in Syria is favorable development for Israel and for the West, saying that Iran would lose its only ally in the Middle East if the Assad regime collapses.  Also on Wikileaks, a December 2000 policy paper from sent to Hillary Clinton, “shows that US sought Syria regime change for Israel’s sake,” according to Jason Ditz at antiwar.com.  The paper described a war with armed proxies but no US troops and said Russia wouldn’t dare oppose America, and predicted that Syria would abandon Iran and turn against Hezbollah.

_ The Syrian government maintains that they will not discuss the future of Assad at the peace talks in Geneva, which UN envoy de Mistura says might derail the cessation of hostilities agreement which is ‘more or less still holding’.

 

US-Russia Relations

_ John Kerry arrived in Moscow this morning for talks withRussian president Putin and foreign minister Lavrov tomorrow. Kerry is expected to “press President Vladimir Putin on how Russia sees a future political transition in Syria and the fate of President Bashar al-Assad” and “get down to brass tacks” on the question of Assad’s future. Russia has maintained that it wants the Syrian people to decide.

ISIS Attack in Brussels

_ At least 31 people were killed in suicide attacks in Brussels. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks. Belguim’s chief prosecutor “named two brothers on Wednesday as Islamic State suicide bombers” and another suspect is still at large. The story has dominated international news and changes rapidly by the hour.

Ukraine Wants to Ditch Minsk Agreement, Escalates Shelling the East

_ Shelling from the Ukraine military into E. Ukraine continues to escalate.  Western media tends to portrays situation as separatist aggression, focusing on injured Ukraine soldiers and no reports of civilian casualties from Ukraine military shelling.

_ Britain will sign a 15-year defense pact with Ukraine, deploy British troops in Ukraine, do joint exercises and training with Ukrainian forces.

_ State Dept. spokesman John Kirby said the US will continue to urge the Kiev government to implement political reforms required under the Minsk agreement and they will not lift Russian sanctions “as they continue to violate the territorial integrity of Ukraine and until Minsk is implemented. That’s not going to change.” Crimea was not include in the Minsk agreement so it’s not clear which violations he is referring to.  The EU has been pressuring Poroshenko to implement the reforms, no elections have been held in E. Ukraine, etc. but he he can’t because ultra-right neo-Nazis who helped him overthrow Yanukovych will overthrow him too.  The Kiev government is on extremely shaky ground. At the same time Samantha Power is calling on UN member states to force Russia to “completely fulfill the Minsk Agreements.”

_ US media, including the New York Times, are beginning to give favorable propaganda to “political insurgents” who oppose the Minsk agreements. One, Oksana I. Syroyid, has blocked the passage of the Minsk mandated constitutional amendment required by the Minsk II peace accord.  Syroyid is portrayed as a feminist protege of Yulia Tymoshenko.

_ The War Party in Washington, in line with statements from NATO’s Breedlove, are calling for more money and military aid, $3 billion, to Ukraine from the US, served with a large dose of fearmongering about Russia.

_ In early March, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report on Ukraine that shows ” the conflict is severely impacting on the daily life of civilians, with a growing sense of despair and isolation affecting those living in the conflict zone” and how they are “in urgent need of greater protection and support.”

Victoria Nuland Enables Ukraine as They Renege on Minsk Agreement

_ In a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing on March 15 while reporting progress on Ukraine two years after the Maidan coup, Victoria Nuland told the committee that Ukraine is not going to implement the Minsk agreement and she is making up new rules on a sequence of events that does not exist in the actual agreement.  She claims that releasing “hostages” will improve the environment for compromise in Kiev (a very disingenuous statement given facts cited above) and then she says that Ukraine won’t implement Minsk, but finds a way to deflect blame.  (Nuland testimony PDF) Nuland says Europe is reconsidering support for Ukraine because they will not implement Minsk.

“In the meantime though, neither Moscow, nor self-appointed Donbas authorities should expect the Ukrainian Rada to take up key outstanding political provisions of Minsk, including election modalities and constitutional amendments before the Kremlin and its proxies meet their basic security obligations under Minsk.”

_ In her statement, Nuland said that “US advisors serve in almost a dozen ministries and localities.” She also said that “in recent weeks” 68 Ukraine military personnel were killed and 317 injured. That sounds more like a full blown war than ceasefire violations.  Reports of Ukraine military shelling of civilian areas or any impact on civilians of Donbass are not mentioned in her statement, just as they are ignored in western media.

 

Libya

_ PM David Cameron’s plan calls for British warships and helicopters to intercept migrants off Libyan shore and “taking measures to dispose of vessels or to make them inoperable within that remit, within the coastline of Libya rather than on the high seas.”  Cameron says he is worried about a new mass migration from Libya.  Escalation of violence in Libya is very likely as the UK, France and United States via the UN demand that a “unity government” chosen by the UN Security Council be installed quickly and experts expect the current governments and their armed militias to fight it.

Yemen

_ UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Hussein said the Saudi airstrikes on a market in Yemen last week  may be a war crime or other “international crime.” Hussein said “They have hit markets, hospitals, clinics, schools, factories, wedding parties – and hundreds of private residences […]these awful incidents continue to occur with unacceptable regularity.”  The Saudis have blocked calls for war crimes investigations.

Syria Battlefront

_ Russian air force was bombing ISIS on three “hot fronts” last Friday: Qaryateyn, Palmyra, Deir-Ezzour, and reclaimed more territory at Hameem. Russian helicopters assisted the Syrian Army and Hezbollah in regaining control of Arin Hill, northwest of Palmyra.  (Reports from Al Rai Media war correspondent, Elijah Magnier). Today a Syrian general is reporting that the Syrian forces “have regained control of historic area of Palmyra. […] ‘The Syrian army regained control of the historic town of Tadmur (Palmyra) with small weapons,’ a Syrian brigadier-general told Sputnik” Full control of the “Palmyra Triangle” was achieved around noon on Wednesday which puts them within striking distance of Palmyra itself.

_ An ISIS group, Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, gained ground in sourthern Syria from rebel forces and al Nusra. They took the towns of Tasil (Taseel), and are fighting in Tafas and Muzayrib “as the rebel line of defence seems to have utterly collapsed.”  Syrian forces are reportedly not intervening in these fights and have captured some towns in the suburbs of Daraa city in recent weeks. Some more history on the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade here. They re probably best known for their attacks on Filipino UN peacekeepers in 2013.

_ Near Aleppo, there are reports backed by video on social media that the Free Syrian army is fighting alongside al Qaeda/al Nusra in the city of Tall Rifat.  The Washington Post did a good report from Aleppo  about the contrast between the two sides, one rebel-held and one government-held part of Aleppo

Russian / American Deal on Syria, Iran’s Disagreement, Kerry to Moscow, IDF Officer’s Take

_ Alastair Crooke says more than anything Russia’s semi-withdrawal “puts the onus on the U.S. to stop its allies (Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar) from weaponizing and financing their proxies in this war.” Elijah Magnier cites a high official source who is part of the Syrian coalition about a deal between the US and Russia where the US leans on its Middle Eastern allies for a “cessation of the flow of weapons” and to bring them to the table at Geneva in exchange for Russia removing the majority of its air force at Hmaymeem airport, leaving only enough to protect the air base.  Magnier notes that Iran was not a party to this deal and has several significant disagreements with Moscow on plans for Syria, including whether or not “Assad must go.”

_ Crooke’s analysis is that “one tangible effect of the drawdown may be that the political negotiations are kicked upstairs, from the (disempowered) participants in Geneva to the external actors who sponsor and finance them.”  His analysis makes sense given that Sec. of State John Kerry plans to visit Moscow next week, March 22-25 to discuss Syria and Ukraine. Crooke notes that Putin handled Ukraine rebels in a similar way, taking things to the negotiating table right at the moment when they had the Ukraine military surrounded at Debaltseve. Crooke believes one of Putin’s main goals is to of course avoid war with NATO but also to “tease out some peer-to-peer cooperation with the U.S. as a prelude to resetting the relationship between both powers.” This drawdown and commitment to diplomacy would also give Europe less justification for maintaining sanctions at the next decision point in June.  Crooke also makes important points about the negotiations happening on the ground in Syria, town by town. The deals being made on the ground by the Russian military and the Syrian government with the cooperation of the UN are hardly reported.

_ Israel’s “number two-ranking officer” Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) deputy chief of staff, made some very significant statements last week.  He praised Russia’s military officers and America’s restraint. He said they worked well with “talented and wise” Russian officers to resolve problems and that he expected Russia to have a prolonged presence in Syria now “even after the declarations of Putin… and I don’t necessarily think it’s to our detriment.”  Golan also said that America “has started to refrain from use of force in recent years” and “it’s time, he said, that Israel adopts similar thinking.  Golan also said the IDF is on par with all first-rate militaries in the world, including the US, who he believes “are not better than us.”

Determination of ISIS Genocide May Bring More US Military Action in Middle East

_ Congress set a March 17 deadline “for deciding whether atrocities by the Islamic State against Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria should be designated genocide“. Kerry made a statement on March 17 but missed the deadline for the decision.  State Dept. spokesman John Kirby said Kerry’s decision will come soon, possibly next week. If an executive branch determination is made, it might obligate the United States “to take action to stop it” according to the 1948 UN Convention against genocide, though in 2004 lawyers decided US was not required to take action in Sudan because it was taking place outside their territory. Earlier in the week the US House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution calling ISIS actions genocide.  Some are arguing that this would require additional military action even though the US is already taking action against ISIS in Iraq, Syria and Libya.

_ During State Dept. briefing, spokesman Kirby said that Pres. Obama has announced that military action against ISIS will intensify. Kirby was asked if this means the US will detain ISIS fighters and hold them accountable for war crimes in a tribunal.  He dodged that question and would only say that the US hopes this designation will result in the international community increasing their actions against ISIS. [Author’s note: For instance, it might help British PM David Cameron get war authorizations from the House of Commons or other countries who might have a difficult time with public approval of military action, or the designation might help in situations where a UN Security Council resolution has not been passed.] Kirby also says at 22:00 that this is also about “good governance” in Iraq and Syria, including over areas which Bashar al-Assad does not currently have control.

F-35 Nightmare

_ The F-35  Joint Strike Fighter, the do everything wonder jet, is a nightmare.  Officials are admitting the damage the $400 billion program has caused to both budget and readiness. They are being built but the testing is behind schedule, software isn’t completed and the different versions of the plane aren’t as compatible as they are supposed to be. Generals are advising that with sixth generation planes, different planes should be built for the different needs of the air force and navy. In the end, the A, B and C variations of the F-35 have the same model number but only about 20-25% commonality. They are three different planes which means they failed to meet their top priority goal. The cost is so high that the air force can’t afford to equip all their squadrons with new planes meaning some jets will be 70 years old by the time they are replaced. Having seen the new Russian fighter jets in Syria, and Chinese jets in SE Asia, the taxpayer will end up coughing up a lot more money, this is clear.

 

 

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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.