TBR News October 30, 2017

Oct 30 2017

The Voice of the White House

Washington, D.C., October 30, 2017: “There are questions and there are answers.

When men came down out of their caves and stood on their hind legs, questions began to form in their small minds.

Would they live forever?

Where would they go when they stopped breathing and began to smell bad?

And other men, more clever, told them what they wanted to hear so desperately. Yes, they would live forever and in a wonderful place.

Yes, they would see their dead family again who would be waiting for them, smiling.

Of course in order to get to this wonderful place and see smiling dead family members they would have to become a paying member of a certain religious group.

They would have to believe just what the leaders of this religious group told them to believe or they would go to some cold, wet and nasty place when they died and have to sleep with dead rats.

And because they wanted to believe these entertaining and entirely invented stories, they did.

Those who promised paradise got rich and those who believed were content. But when they died, they slept with the worms.

Of course they weren’t aware of anything at that point.”

Table of Contents

  • Iraq May be Coming to the End of 40 Years of War
  • Trump Betrays Trumpism: Syria in the Crosshairs
  • Puigdemont, Catalan ministers turn up in Brussels as Madrid sues them for rebellion
  • Syria: Russia sees end in sight at peace talks
  • Turkey needles NATO by buying Russian weapons
  • Russia-Trump: Who’s who in the drama to end all dramas?



From the FAS Project on Government Secrecy

Volume 2017, Issue No. 76

October 30, 2017


The effort to establish a uniform policy for Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) is meeting opposition from some executive branch agencies who see it as unnecessary and unwelcome.

CUI refers to information that is unclassified but that requires protection for reasons other than national security– such as privacy, proprietary concerns, law enforcement sensitivity, and so on. In past years, more than 100 separate and sometimes conflicting policies for such information were put in place. The CUI program, established by President Obama’s executive order 13556 in 2010, was intended to simplify, standardize and streamline that profusion of security policies for unclassified information.

Some agencies, like Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration, are moving forward to adopt the new CUI policy.

Others, however, are not.

Earlier this month, officials from several large agencies — including CIA, DOJ, DHS and DOD — raised a whole series of objections to the CUI program in a letter to the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO).

The officials contended in the undisclosed letter that there are several unresolved issues that must be addressed before CUI implementation can go forward. These are said to include inadequately defined governance of the program, financial costs thought to be in the billions of dollars, gaps in coverage affecting certain types of information, and commingling of CUI and classified information that will make proper marking of documents excessively long and complicated.

But ISOO director Mark Bradley said that these issues had either already been addressed or could be resolved. He said ISOO would prepare a formal response to the agency complaints.

Another point of contention is the impact of the CUI policy on government transparency and whether it will enhance or impede public access to unclassified information.

One of the original objectives of the CUI program was to reduce controls on unclassified information by limiting their use only to those instances where they were required by law, regulation or agency-specific policy. Arbitrary or improvised prohibitions on disclosure (such as the open-ended “for official use only”) would be not be authorized.

But in a privately circulated white paper, former CIA classification official Harry Cooper said that the CUI approach would lead to more government secrecy, not less.

Cooper noted that there were now some 129 authorized categories and subcategories that could be used to withhold information as CUI based on more than 400 laws and regulations. (Agencies had originally submitted more than 2,200 proposed CUI categories and subcategories.) As recently as September 25, a new CUI subcategory was added for “Intelligence-Internal Data” to cover various types of unclassified CIA information that is “not intended to be disseminated beyond CIA channels” including names, titles, salaries, and more.

“The full implementation of CUI will likely cause an expansion of the use of [FOIA exemption] (b)(3) and as a result information that would have been released prior to CUI will now be protected from release,” Cooper wrote. “Without CUI there is no marking to identify specific laws blocking access and government reviewers often missed those obscure laws that could potentially block access.” See Controlled Unclassified Information: Government Bureaucracy Out of Control by Harry Cooper, July 2017.

ISOO director Mark Bradley disputed Cooper’s critique. He said that the CUI categories and subcategories are not equivalent to FOIA exemptions. And the CUI implementing directive makes it clear, he said, that CUI markings are not to be used as a basis for rendering FOIA decisions.

Bradley said that the CUI program should result in an increase in transparency by excluding unauthorized controls on information and by exposing the CUI decision-making process to public scrutiny. He noted that some agencies had urged that the CUI Registry — which lists all of the CUI categories and subcategories — should not be a public document. But that view was rejected by ISOO, especially since the contents of the Registry refer to public laws and regulations.

CUI has roots in the Obama Administration’s executive order 13556, and even further back in a 2008 memorandum from President Bush. So it is conceivable that the CUI policy could be modified or abolished by the Trump Administration.

But in a September 8 memo to agency heads on unauthorized disclosures, national security advisor H.R. McMaster referred to “the importance of protecting classified and controlled unclassified information” — which was understood as a White House endorsement of the CUI construct.

In the meantime, CUI is entering the implementation phase, ISOO director Bradley said. “It’s not going to go away. It’s not going to be reversed.”

It is entirely possible that there will be unintended consequences from CUI implementation, he allowed in an interview last week, “but we will deal with them. As we find problems, we will fine-tune and adjust.”


The Department of Defense has spent more than $1.46 trillion for direct war-related costs since September 11, 2001, according to the latest Pentagon tabulation of war costs obtained by Secrecy News.

The 74-page DoD report provides extensive and detailed reporting on war-related appropriations and expenditures. See Cost of War Update as of June 30, 2017.

Some previous iterations of the cost of war report can be found here.

The current total includes $83 billion in classified spending, the new DoD report said. But it does not include “non-DoD classified programs” such as those conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency.

“War-related costs” are understood to refer to include military operational costs, support for deployed troops, and transportation of personnel and equipment. The term does not extend to indirect costs such as veterans’ benefits, long-term health care for injured personnel, reconstruction or post-conflict stabilization programs.

When such broader costs are included, the total expenditures surpassed $1.6 trillion in 2014, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service. Others put total costs much higher.

The American Revolution cost the equivalent of $2.4 billion today, according to another CRS estimate, while World War II cost around $4 trillion.


Iraq May be Coming to the End of 40 Years of War

October 28, 2017

by Patrick Cockburn

The Unz Review

There is a growing mood of self-confidence in Baghdad which I have not seen here since I first visited Iraq in 1977. The country seemed then to be heading for a peaceful and prosperous future thanks to rising oil revenues. It only became clear several years later that Saddam Hussein was a monster of cruelty with a disastrous tendency to start unwinnable wars. At the time, I was able to drive safely all around Iraq, visiting cities from Mosul to Basra which became lethally dangerous over the next 40 years.

The streets of the capital are packed with people shopping and eating in restaurants far into the night. Looking out my hotel window, I can see people for the first time in many years building things which are not military fortifications. There are no sinister smudges of black smoke on the horizon marking where bombs have gone off. Most importantly, there is a popular feeling that the twin victories of the Iraqi security forces in recapturing Mosul in July and Kirkuk on 16 October have permanently shifted the balance of power back towards stability. The Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, once criticised as weak and vacillating, is today almost universally praised for being calm, determined and successful in battling Isis and confronting the Kurds.

“I detect a certain jauntiness in Baghdad that I have not seen before,” says the Iraqi historian and former minister Ali Allawi. “Al-Abadi has hardly put a foot wrong since the start of the crisis over Kirkuk.” A recently retired senior Iraqi security official adds that “it was bit of luck for all Iraqis, that [Kurdish President Masoud] Barzani brought on a confrontation when he did”. People in the capital are beginning to sound more like victors rather than victims.

Life in Baghdad is abnormal by the standard of any other city: it remains full of blast walls made out of concrete slabs that always remind me of giant grave stones. Numerous checkpoints exacerbate appalling traffic jams. Bombings by Isis are far less frequent than they used to be, but there are memories of past atrocities, such as the truck bomb in Karada district on 3 July 2016 that killed 323 people and injured hundreds more. “Many of them were burned to death in buildings with plastic cladding on the outside that caught fire like Grenfell Tower,” observed an Iraqi observer as we drove past the site of the blast.

Violence will not entirely end: the Shia majority are about to celebrate the Arbaeen festival on 10 November when millions of pilgrims walk on foot to the shrine city of Kerbala to mourn the death of Imam Hussein in a battle in 680 AD. The road between Kerbala and the shrine city of Najaf, is already decorated with thousands of black mourning flags, interspersed with occasional green and red, ones, and there are thousands of improvised tents where the pilgrims can rest and eat.

The vast numbers involved makes it impossible to protect them all, so Isis may well bomb the vast multitude of pilgrims in a bid to show that it has not been totally eliminated. Despite this the long-expected defeat of Isis is very real, but the greatest boost to public morale comes from the unexpected crumbling, with little resistance and in a short space of time, of the Kurdish quasi-state in northern Iraq that had ruled a quarter of the country.

Iraqi history over the last 40 years has been full of what were misleadingly billed as “turning points” for the better, but which turned out to be only ushering in a new phase in Iraq’s multi-phase civil wars that have been going on since the Americans overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003. All sides have become, at different periods, the proxies of foreign backers, but this period may now be coming to an end primarily because the wars have produced winners and losers.

Communal politics are not the only determining feature in the Iraqi political landscape, but the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities are its main building blocks. The Sunni, a fifth of the population, have lost comprehensively because Isis became their main vehicle for opposition to the central government. Justly or unjustly, they share in its defeat. Their great cities like Mosul and Ramadi are in ruins. Sunni villages that line the main roads have often been levelled because they were seen as the home bases of local guerrillas planting IEDS. IDP camps are full of displaced Sunnis.

Shia-Kurdish cooperation was born in opposition to Saddam Hussein and was the basis for the post-Saddam power-sharing governments. But both sides felt that they were being short-changed by the other and Baghdad and Erbil came to see each other as the hostile capitals of separate states.

Great though their differences were, they might not have over-boiled for a few years had Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) not had the astonishingly bad idea of holding a Kurdish referendum on independence on 25 September. It was one of the great miscalculates of Iraqi, if not Middle East, history: the KDP now complains that it was the victim of Iranian machinations, but its real mistake was to confront the Iraqi government when it was politically and militarily much stronger than it had been after recapturing Mosul from Isis. Regardless of which Kurdish leader did or did not betray the cause, their Peshmerga would have lost the war.

Ironically, the Iraqi Kurds are now likely to lose a large measure of the independence they enjoyed before the referendum. They have lost not only the oil province of Kirkuk, but may also lose control of the borders of their three core provinces. Iraqi regular forces are pressing towards the crucial border town of Fishkhabour between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey. Al-Abadi last week turned down a Kurdish offer “to freeze” the referendum result, demanding its complete negation, though it now has only a symbolic value.

Iraqis in Baghdad are rightly wary of predictions of a return to normal life after 40 years of permanent crisis. There have been false dawns before, but this time round the prospects for peace are much better than before. The biggest risk is a collision between the US and Iran in which Iraq would be the political – and possibly the military – battlefield. Barzani and the KDP are promoting the idea of Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi Shia paramilitaries being at the forefront of every battle though in fact Kirkuk was taken by two regiments from Baghdad’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service and the 9th Armoured Division.

The success of the Iraqi regular forces is such that one danger is that they and the Baghdad government will become overconfident and overplay their hand, not making sure that all communities in Iraq get a reasonable cut of the national cake in terms of power, money and jobs. A golden rule of Iraqi politics is that none of the three main communities can be permanently marginalised or crushed, as Saddam Hussein discovered to his cost. The end of the era of wars in Iraq would not just be good news for Iraqis, but the rest of the world as well.


Trump Betrays Trumpism: Syria in the Crosshairs

Are we going to war based on fake intelligence?

October 30, 2017

by Justin Raimondo


Editor’s Note: Justin Raimondo is recovering after hospitalization. He will be back here soon to do battle against the War Party. In the meantime, enjoy a classic column from April 7, 2017.

President Donald Trump has launched an attack on a Syrian air base in retaliation for the alleged sarin gas attack supposedly carried out by Bashar al-Assad’s government on Islamist rebels in Idlib. The irony is this contradicts every statement he ever made about Syria in the presidential campaign. Furthermore, this attack takes place barely 72 hours after the alleged incident, with no clear evidence that Assad was responsible.

In ordering this strike – more than 50 missiles launched by US ships in the Mediterranean Sea – Trump has blown up a basic tenet of Trumpism to smithereens.

One of my vivid memories of the 2016 campaign is the look on Bill O’Reilly’s face when Donald Trump answered his question about intervening militarily in Syria and the Russian role in that country:

“O’Reilly: “Once Putin gets in and fights ISIS on behalf of Assad, Putin runs Syria. He owns it. He’ll never get out, never.

Trump: “Alright, okay, fine. I mean, you know, we can be in Syria. Do you want to run Syria? Do you want to own Syria? I want to rebuild our country.”

Here’s a tweet – in all caps, no less – from 2013, in which Trump gave vent to his views about intervening in the Syrian mess:

I could go on, but you get the picture: Trump campaigned against precisely the kind of intervention that he is now launching. At a news conference in the Rose Garden, with King Abdullah of Jordan looking on, he said:

“I now have responsibility. It crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies – babies, little babies – with a chemical gas that is so lethal … that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line…. I do change and I am flexible. That attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me. Big impact. It was a horrible, horrible thing. It’s very, very possible that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”

Twenty-four hours after the alleged incident – with the United Nations still refusing to say whether there had been a gas attack, or, if so, who is responsible – the President of the United States does a complete turnaround, ditches a campaign promise, and takes us to the brink of a greatly expanded war in Syria.

For a little extra irony, those who have been smearing him as a “Russian agent” and are trying to destroy his presidency are the very same people who have been urging him to “act presidential” and launch an attack on the government in Damascus.

Welcome to Bizarro World, where up is down, left is right, and the biggest enemy of Trumpism is … Trump.

I’ve pinned a tweet to the top of my Twitter profile, one that you might take as a sort of journalistic credo, and it says simply this: “Where’s the evidence?” So what’s the evidence that the Syrian military, on the brink of victory against both the Islamist rebels and their allies in ISIS and al-Qaeda – and days away from a conference that was to have decided Syria’s fate – used sarin gas against a village in the Idlib region?

The only such evidence is coming from the Syrian rebels, radical Islamists who are ideologically indistinguishable from ISIS and who have committed endless atrocities in their battle to overthrow Assad. They claim that dozens of children, women, and other civilians are the victims of a deliberate attack by Syrian government forces.

In a court of law, the record of a witness is a crucial matter. If it can be proved that the witness has lied, the judge can and usually does tell the jury to disregard their testimony. In the case of Syria’s Islamist rebels, their record of serial fabrications speaks for itself. I wrote about this in detail in 2013:

“Those rollicking jihadists, the Syrian rebels, love a joke: although they can be deadly serious – such as when they’re eating the internal organs of their enemies – what they enjoy more than anything is a really good prank. There was the time they claimed the Assad regime was killing babies in incubators – not very original, but hey, it worked for the Kuwaitis! Then there was the ‘massacre’ at Houla, which was alleged to have killed 32 children and over 60 adults: a photo started appearing in the mainstream media, documenting the slaughter. The state-supported BBC was first to run with it – until it was discovered the supposedly incriminating photo was taken in Iraq during the recent war. The photographer was justifiably furious, the story was withdrawn, and the Syrian rebels went back to the drawing board.

The photo was supplied to the BBC by the rebels.

This record alone is enough to condemn them out of their own mouths, but here’s a list some of the other hoaxes they’ve tried to pull off:

  • In 2013, Islamist rebels claimed the Assad government had dropped chemical weapons on civilians in the city of Aleppo. It turned out to be tear gas or a similar substance used for riot control.
  • That same year, the rebels claimed Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons in the town of Ghouta, but this was debunked by UN war crimes official Carla del Ponte, who supervised the Hague investigation into crimes committed during the Kosovo war. Del Ponte said it was the rebels, not the Syrian government, who were responsible for the gas attack. Award-winning journalist Seymour Hersh pointed his finger at the Turks and the rebel group known as al-Nusra as being behind what was a false flag attack.
  • When President Obama was about to authorize an attack on the Assad regime in response to the alleged poison gas attack on Ghouta, he was brought up short by DNI James Clapper, as Jeffrey Goldberg reported in The Atlantic:

“Obama was also unsettled by a surprise visit early in the week from James Clapper, his director of national intelligence, who interrupted the President’s Daily Brief, the threat report Obama receives each morning from Clapper’s analysts, to make clear that the intelligence on Syria’s use of sarin gas, while robust, was not a “slam dunk.” He chose the term carefully. Clapper, the chief of an intelligence community traumatized by its failures in the run-up to the Iraq War, was not going to overpromise, in the manner of the onetime CIA director George Tenet, who famously guaranteed George W. Bush a ‘slam dunk’ in Iraq.”

  • And don’t forget the case of “Syria Danny,” whose on-camera antics were exposed as he staged a Syrian army “attack” for the benefit of CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
  • Fake videos are a favorite ploy utilized by both sides in the Syrian civil war. Here’s a compilation, along with an account of how easily Western reporters were fooled.

Phil Giraldi, a former intelligence official, tells our very own Scott Horton that the “military and intelligence personnel,” “intimately familiar” with the intelligence, say that the narrative that Assad or Russia did it is a “sham,” instead endorsing the Russian narrative that Assad’s forces had bombed a rebel storage facility containing some sort of chemical weapons. Giraldi’s intelligence sources are “astonished” at the government and media narrative and are considering going public out of concern over the danger of making a bad situation even worse.

Are we really going to war based on dubious “intelligence” like this? Remember the last time we did that?

The alleged chemical attack occurred in Idlib, where “al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Turkish-backed Salafi” are in control. These are the “rebels” whose word the Trump administration is taking as gospel – the same people who took down the World Trade Center and struck the Pentagon on 9/11.

What is going on here?

Let’s look at the larger picture. US intelligence agencies have been conducting a war of attrition against the Trump administration, leaking classified information compiled by Obama era officials and spearheading an investigation into alleged “Russian influence” on the 2016 election. These same spooks have been working with the Islamist rebels for years, alongside the Saudis and the Gulf emirates, in an effort to overthrow Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. Trump’s past opposition to their efforts is undoubtedly a big factor in their campaign to discredit the President. Could Trump’s capitulation and sudden turnaround on this issue be an effort to “make a deal” with the intelligence community?

The Syrian attack also has domestic political value to Trump in that it shows him being “tough” on Russia. As the investigation into his alleged “collusion” with the Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign proceeds, he’s no doubt hoping that some of the pressure may be taken off. In my view, it’s a vain hope – but he’ll learn that lesson soon enough.

There’s no such thing as “foreign policy” – it’s all about domestic politics. Leaders make decisions based not on the facts on the ground but on their calculation of how one course will redound to their benefit while the other course will hurt them on the home front. Trump, for all his claims that he’s “not a politician,” is acting just like they all do in this case.

But will this about-face on Syria really benefit him politically?

Millions of Americans voted for him because he promised to abjure “regime change” operations like the one that backfired so badly in Libya, not to mention Iraq. Indeed, it was Trump who stood before a group of Republicans in the South Carolina presidential debate and declared that the Bush administration had lied us into the Iraq war – and then proceeded to win that state’s primary handily, going on to get the nomination and win the election.

The paradox of Trump’s November victory is that he has provided anti-interventionists with the ammunition they need to shoot down his arguments for intervening in Syria. It’s only necessary to cite his many pronouncements on the subject, all of them inveighing against the “regime change” policies favored by Hillary Clinton and her supporters, and ask: what’s changed?

Trump’s base opposes meddling in Syria to oust the Assad government. They can be mobilized to oppose this new madness – and there are millions of them. Trump has laid the basis for his own undoing. If he goes ahead and follows the advice of John McCain and Lindsey Graham, escalates the war on Assad, and saves the Syrian Islamists from defeat, his base will defect in droves. And they are already disaffected, what with the failure of the healthcare bill, the apparent demotion of chief Trumpian ideologist Steve Bannon, and the stalling of much of Trump’s agenda. Is starting another war in the Middle East supposed to be evidence that this is a President who “gets things done,” as the administration likes to boast? I don’t think so.

The danger is that what is being described as a “limited strike” will escalate into a much wider conflict. The Russians are on the ground in Syria: so are thousands of American soldiers, along with the Turks, the Iranians, the Israelis, and Hezbollah. Retaliation against American forces from either the Syrians, or the Russians – if Russians are killed or injured in the strikes – is entirely possible. We are on the brink of a regional explosion.

Now we’ll have to endure the cries of the War Party that Trump has “grown in office” and given up his “isolationist” views when faced with the “reality” of “American global leadership.” Lunatics like John McCain are calling for stopping the Syrian air force from flying, increasing sanctions on Russia, and even going to war with Russia – as McCain did, when he said “I don’t give a damn” when asked what happens if we kill Russian soldiers. “We will win a war with Russia,” said McCain, “because we’re superior.” This is certifiable craziness – but that’s the kind of world we live in now.

One more thing: the airfield that was bombed is said to be the site of Assad’s store of sarin gas. Yet you’ll remember that Syria was supposed to have surrendered the entirety of its chemical weapons, and this was certified by the United Nations, the Russians, and the Obama administration. So what chemical weapons are we talking about? Stay tuned for the next act in this drama, as demands for the inspection of this site are raised. What happens if – or when – the inspectors are let in and there’s nothing to be found?


Puigdemont, Catalan ministers turn up in Brussels as Madrid sues them for rebellion

October 30, 2017


Former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has appeared in Brussels alongside other members of his cabinet as the Spanish Attorney General Jose Manuel Maza filed a lawsuit against the secessionist leaders over their push for independence.

Puigdemont did not go to the Catalonian regional Government Palace on Monday, even though he earlier vowed to “continue working to build a free country” in defiance of Madrid’s decision to sack his government and suspend Catalonia’s independence, which he said went against the will of the people.

On Monday morning, he posted a photo of the Catalan parliamentary palace, but did not appear there. Later, the Catalan media reported that the sacked regional leader turned up in Brussels alongside with some other members of his cabinet. The Spanish authorities soon confirmed that Puigdemont had indeed traveled to the Belgian capital.

Puigdemont left Spain for Belgium at a time when the Spanish Prosecutor’s Office announced that it had filed a lawsuit against the sacked Catalan leader, other members of his cabinet and some regional MPs on rebellion, sedition and embezzlement charges with the Spanish National Court. In total, the charges have been filed against 12 people, La Vanguardia reports.

Catalonia’s El Periodico newspaper reported that Puigdemont allegedly traveled to Brussels to meet with Flemish politicians. Two days ago Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium, expressed its solidarity with the Catalans in their drive for independence.

Belgian Immigration Minister Theo Francken did not rule out granting asylum to Puigdemont if he applies. The minister called such an outcome “not unrealistic” on Sunday.

His statement, however, provoked a backlash from Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, who said that giving political asylum to Puigdemont is “absolutely not on the agenda.” He also urged Francken “not to fan the flames.”

Belgium is one of the few European countries where EU citizens can obtain political asylum. The Spanish media report that former Catalan leader Puigdemont and some of his cabinet members will give a press conference in Brussels on Tuesday.

Madrid announced the dismissal of Puigdemont and his cabinet, as well as the head of the regional police force, on Saturday as it imposed direct rule over the secessionist region. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy also dissolved the Catalan parliament and announced a snap election scheduled to be held in the region on December 21.

The move followed the Catalan parliament’s unilateral declaration of independence from Spain on Friday after 90 percent supported cutting ties with Madrid in the regional referendum on October 1.

On Saturday, Puigdemont denounced Madrid’s decision as going against the will of the people and called for peaceful resistance to the central government’s power takeover. On Sunday, however, hundreds of thousands of pro-unity demonstrators flooded the streets of the Catalan capital of Barcelona in a march aimed to defend Spain’s unity.

On Monday, Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis told AP that Catalonia’s autonomy could possibly be expanded. He added at the same time that full independence for the secessionist region is “ruled out.”

Syria: Russia sees end in sight at peace talks

Russia’s military campaign objectives “have been almost accomplished,” according to an influential lawmaker. With talks gearing up, the UN’s chief negotiator said the peace process had reached a “moment of truth.”

October 30, 2017


A senior Russian lawmaker on Monday said Russia’s military mandate in Syria could be nearing its end given the latest advancements by pro-government forces in the conflict-ridden country.

Vladimir Shamanov, who sits as chairman of Russian parliament’s defense committee, told a meeting at the Kazakh parliament that the “major tasks” of Moscow’s military campaign in Syria “have been almost accomplished,” according to Russia’s state-run news agency TASS.

We expect that by the end of this year (Syrian) government forces will restore control over the eastern border of the Syrian Arab Republic and the ‘Islamic State’ won’t exist anymore as an organized military structure,” Shamanov said.

In September 2015, Russia launched an aerial campaign in Syria in what Moscow claimed was an offensive to defeat terrorist forces in the country, including the “Islamic State” militant group and al-Qaeda. However, Russia’s move was largely viewed by the international community as a ploy to prop up the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Towards a political solution

Another round of de-escalation talks co-sponsored by Turkey, Iran and Russia kicked off in Astana on Monday with the aim of ending Syria’s conflict.

Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry confirmed that delegations from the Syrian government and rebels seeking to overthrow Assad arrived in the capital along with those from Turkey, Russia and Iran.

While UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva have focused on securing a political solution, the talks in Astana have provided concrete grounds to move forward between parties, including the establishment of de-escalation zones to minimize fighting between pro-government forces and moderate rebel factions.

Last week, the UN’s chief negotiator, Staffan de Mistura, announced the resumption of peace talks in Geneva on November 28, saying he hoped talks in Astana will “prevent further unraveling of interim de-escalation and cease-fire arrangements.”

‘Moment of truth’

In Syria, more than 330,000 people have been killed since 2011, when government forces launched a brutal crackdown against peaceful protesters calling for Damascus to release political prisoners and for Assad to step down.

However, since then, the civil war has turned into a multi-pronged conflict involving global powers, neighboring countries and non-state actors, including the US, Saudi Arabia and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups.


Turkey needles NATO by buying Russian weapons

Turkey appears to be building a military infrastructure independent of NATO – much to the annoyance of Washington. But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan might need that new S-400 missile defense system at home.

September 13, 2017


Turkey has risked the anger of the United States and its fellow NATO members by signing a contract with Russia to buy a missile defense system.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Turkish media on Tuesday that Ankara had put down a deposit on the Russian-made S-400 missile batteries, a system that can – according to the manufacturers – shoot down up to 80 targets at the same time, and has a range of 400 kilometers (248 miles).

Washington had long been warning Ankara against this purchase, and made increasingly disgruntled diplomatic noises about it. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the US Senate’s foreign relations committee, suggested that the purchase could violate US sanctions against Russia.

For its part, Moscow remained sanguine in response. Vladimir Kozhin, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, told the Russian state news agency TASS, “I can assure you that all the decisions made for this contract strictly comply with our strategic interests. In this regard, the reaction of some Western countries that are trying to put pressure on Turkey is completely understandable to us.”

Russians at the top

For NATO, the trouble with the S-400 weapons system is that it is not technologically compatible with the systems it has in place in Turkey – in other words, Erdogan seems to have decided to build a military capacity independent of NATO. “It makes sense [for the Turkish government],” explained Guney Yildiz, Turkey specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), “because if everything is integrated with NATO, NATO commanders have full control over Turkish military systems.”

On the other hand, a Russian missile system also means Russian control.

“It is a very significant development,” said Marc Pierini, former EU diplomat and analyst at Carnegie Europe. “This is a missile defense system that is going to be hosted by the Turkish air force, and the Turkish air force has no experience of anti-missile systems, therefore it is going to come with a significant number of Russian advisors, trainers, and operators and so on. So at the top of the Turkish air force defense architecture, you’re going to have Russians.”

Yildiz believes that a nationally controlled defense system has become a strategic priority for the upper echelons of the Turkish government in recent years.

They feel they might need a non-NATO air defense system in case they come under attack by some factions in their own military,” he said. “Turkey was the scene of an attempted coup last year, when Turkish fighter jets were bombing Turkish institutions.”

Yildiz pointed out that there have been signs of US jealousy about Turkey’s arms deals before. He remembered that a similar narrative played out over Ankara’s attempts to buy a Chinese missile system a few years ago, when US diplomats managed to successfully dissuade the Turks. “But since then several things have changed,” said Yildiz.

“The US left a vacuum in the Middle East and Turkey tried to fill it in Syria and elsewhere by trying to directly confront Russia and Iran, and it failed really badly.”

Tit-for-tat weapons deals

The low-point of this attempt at regional self-assertion came when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane that had encroached on its territory in late 2015 – which makes the new rapprochement more surprising.

“If you’d asked me six months ago I would’ve said that it was unthinkable that Turkey chooses to purchase S-400 batteries – so this does mark a significant change in Turkey’s approach,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund’s office in Ankara.

Since then, Ankara has changed tack, “pivoted away” from the West, as the jargon goes, and is now seeking regional allies anywhere it can – i.e. Russia. Not only that, Turkey is not exactly pleased by the way the US has been arming and training Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria.

Meanwhile, as if to give Turkey even more reason to shop elsewhere, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel confirmed this week that Germany would put all arms exports to Turkey “on hold,” because of the tensions between the two countries.

“We need to get the parties into real negotiations,” De Mistura told the UN Security Council last week, adding that after the defeat of the “Islamic State,” the Syrian peace process had reached a “moment of truth.”

The response from Ankara was prickly: “Germany should keep its security concerns out of political discussions,” said Europe Minister Omer Celik, arguing that the decision would weaken Turkey’s fight against terrorism – or against Erdogan’s enemies at home, some might say. In any case, the move has added spice to Germany’s strange, paradoxical new relationship with Turkey – a major trading partner and biggest political adversary.

This all helps Russia’s cause, according to Unluhisarcikli. “Russia has discovered that it can influence Turkish foreign policy through supporting Turkey’s military industry,” he said. “And if the United States and European Union are unwilling to do the same thing, then actually Turkey might feel compelled to move away from the western orbit and closer to Russia. Russia has a very clear strategy of driving a wedge between Turkey and the United States, and particularly between Turkey and Germany.”


Russia-Trump: Who’s who in the drama to end all dramas?

October 30, 2017

BBC News

It’s more gripping than any box set we can get our hands on right now.

The investigations into Russian interference in the US election, and whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin, continue to deliver daily developments and drama worthy of anything seen in House of Cards.

There are several ongoing investigations into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia, and reports of imminent arrests.

Who is he? Donald Trump, the billionaire candidate (who by Season Three is the 45th president of the United States). If you really need a refresher, here’s his life story.

Key plot line

As Donald Trump was busy traversing the country canvassing for votes, US intelligence officials said Russia hacked into the emails of his Democratic rivals.

Donald Trump The Boss

The question is why? Was the Kremlin trying to alter the outcome of the election, and what did Trump and his campaign know?

What, if anything, did Donald Trump do to try to cover things up in the ongoing Russia investigation?

Paul Manafort the Manager

Who is he? He was Trump’s campaign chairman before being forced to quit over his ties to Russian oligarchs and Ukraine.

Key plot line

Paul Manafort spent more than a decade as a political consultant in Ukraine. He resigned from the campaign in August 2016, after he was accused of having links to pro-Russian groups there. He also sat in on a crucial meeting with a Russian lawyer who may have been trying to feed the Trump team classified information (more on that later). He is now the first to face charges over the Russia inquiry.

We’ll meet him again in Season Three, when the FBI raids his house as part of its investigations.

Donald Trump, Jr the boss’ boy

Who is he? The president’s eldest child. The Trump who we know did meet the Russians – the big question is why.

Key plot line

The role of Donald Trump Jr in this unfolding saga all comes down to a meeting he had with a Russian lawyer, which was set up by a music publicist (the full details of which come out in Season Three). If it sounds random, then in many ways it is.

In June 2016, the publicist, Rob Goldstone, offered him a meeting with lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya promising Trump Jr dirt on Hillary Clinton. “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump,” Goldstone wrote. “I love it” Trump Jr replied, and so he invited the pair to Trump Tower, where they met Trump staff Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort

This meeting is the key to much of our plot line because it raises several key questions. Did this amount to the campaign colluding with a foreign government? Why did he agree to the meeting? Don Jr says the meeting was about Russian adoption policy, and Veselnitskaya says she’s not an agent of the Russian government. But it’s the scene investigators will be playing over and over again as they try to work out if there was any impropriety.

Season Two – The Transition

Donald Trump confounds his critics by winning the presidency. But the transition is as gripping as the season before it as Trump picks his cabinet, introducing key characters to the mix. The season ends with Trump taking the oath of office on a cold January morning – but there are more twists to come.

Michael Flynn the General

Who is he? The granite-faced former general who later became the shortest-serving member of Donald Trump’s cabinet. He was forced to resign after not being honest about his contact with a Russian official – what did he know and who did he tell?

Key plot line

Michael Flynn was appointed national security adviser just days after the election, against the advice of then-President Obama, who warned Trump not to hire him. Flynn’s starring role came in December 2016, when he spoke to the Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak.

The Washington Post and New York Times said the men discussed Russian sanctions, and that Flynn later lied to the Vice President Mike Pence about the conversation (Kislyak said the men discussed only “simple things”).

The FBI is now investigating Flynn. And here’s where the president comes in – the agency is also looking at whether Trump tried to get it to back off this inquiry.

Sergei Kislyak the ambassador

Who is he? Many roads in this drama lead back to Sergei Kislyak, the jolly and charismatic figure, who up until July 2017 was the Russian ambassador to Washington.

Key plot line

Kislyak’s role in this drama is unclear – but he makes several appearances as the man many of our cast have had meetings with. The key questions for investigators are – why were they drawn to him, and what was said? The Russian ambassador spoke to both Flynn and Sessions – meetings which both Trump officials didn’t initially acknowledge took place.

Anything else we should know? Well, Russia fiercely fought back against claims on CNN that Kislyak was a “top spy and recruiter of spies”.

Jeff Sessions America’s top lawyer

Who is he? Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III hovered in the background during Season One, when he was an Alabama senator and a trusted Trump adviser, but we really got to know him during Season Two, when he became Trump’s nominee for attorney general.

Key plot line

Sessions is one of a number of Trump’s team to meet the Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak and there are question marks over the nature of those meetings.

Since the FBI investigation focused on the Trump campaign, Sessions stood down from the inquiry. That decision led to plenty of tension, with Trump taking potshot after potshot at Sessions on Twitter.

Sessions has said any suggestion he colluded with Russia is “an appalling and detestable lie”.

Season Three – The Presidency

This is where the drama really picked up and all the plot lines came together. A lot of the background characters we saw in Season One came back with a vengeance and the infighting got nasty – and, don’t look now, but the police are circling.

Natalia Veselnitskaya  the go-between

Who is she? A Russian lawyer who has fought against US restrictions on Russia, with a fearsome reputation and a propensity for drama. But is she a Kremlin stooge? She says no.

Key plot line

Hers is a small but crucial role – she’s the one who Trump Jr, Kushner and Manafort met in June 2016, the details of which were disclosed a year later once Trump became president. She says the meeting was to discuss adoptions – but those who helped set it up said she was offering dirt on the Democrats and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. That meeting would never have happened without…

The Agalarovs  the pop star and his dad

Who are they? Emin Agalarov is Azerbaijan’s biggest pop star, of course. Have you not heard Love is a Deadly Game? Emin helped bring Donald Trump’s Miss Universe competition to Russia and the two are close enough to send each other birthday messages. His dad, Aras, is a billionaire who mixes in the highest circles of influence in Moscow.

Key plot line

Emin is the man who set the wheels in motion on that Trump Jr meeting. An email sent to Trump Jr suggests Emin was offering information on the Democrats (Emin says he didn’t). The email also says Aras Agalarov had apparently met the “crown prosecutor” of Russia – a role that weirdly doesn’t exist – and got information on Hillary Clinton. Are you keeping up?

Sally Yates the defiant lawyer

Who is she? One of those supporting characters who came from nowhere to play a massive role in the rest of the season. She was the acting attorney general, until Sessions was confirmed in his role. And then she was fired…

Key plot line

She’s the one who informed the White House that Flynn had not been truthful about his meetings with the Russians. She argued that the fact the Russians knew about these meetings, and that the White House didn’t, made Flynn vulnerable to blackmail. Her reward? Donald Trump fired her over an unrelated matter weeks later. She’s been a persistent critic of the president ever since.

Rod Rosenstein  the deputy

Who is he? He became deputy attorney general under Jeff Sessions In the TV drama of the Russia scandal, this is the sort of role that would go to a solid Broadway actor you recognise but can’t put a name to.

Key plot line

line Given Sessions stood down from leading the main investigation into the Trump-Russia ties, it fell to Rosenstein to do that job. In a major plot development, he appointed a special investigator – not a popular move with the White House. He’s also the guy who recommended in a letter that FBI chief Comey be fired. That move proved to be a bit more popular with the president.

Jared Kushner the son-in-law

Who is he? Married to Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, Kushner is the character who is seen but very rarely heard.

Key plot line

Amid cries of nepotism, he was given a plum White House job as senior adviser to the president with a wide-ranging portfolio. It’s his contacts with the Russians during the election campaign and beyond that have led to investigators circling him. In June 2016, Kushner attended THAT meeting with Donald Trump Jr and the Russian lawyer. He says he was so bored he messaged his assistant to call him so he could leave.

Kushner is also another cast member who had contact with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak – including, reportedly, phone calls (he denies this), and a December 2016 meeting, where it’s claimed he discussed setting up a secret back channel with Moscow. He denies this too – but investigators want to know why he failed to disclose these meetings initially.

Jay Sekulow the President’ lawyer

Who is he? When the White House says “we refer all your questions to Mr Trump’s lawyer”, this is the guy they mean.

Key plot line

Washington DC is a city full of lawyers, but none is as important as Jay Sekulow, the president’s personal counsel. Like many political types, he also has a talk show on the side, but is often seen on the airwaves defending the White House from the latest revelations in this ongoing investigation

Rob Goldstone the music man

Who is he? A British former tabloid journalist, with a penchant for selfies in silly hats, is perhaps an unlikely addition to the cast, but in most good dramas there’s always room for the slightly out-of-place eccentric.

Key plot line

Rob Goldstone finds his way into Donald Trump’s circle of trust thanks to his connections with Russian pop star Emin Agalarov.

Goldstone manages the pop star, and it was he who contacted Donald Trump Jr on behalf of his client to set up that now-infamous meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016. Goldstone sent an email to Trump Jr promising dirt on Hillary Clinton, in an email exchange that is a key piece of evidence in this inquiry.

Another highlight on Goldstone’s CV is his work bringing the Miss Universe contest to Russia, and it is through these connections he once met Donald Trump himself.

James Comey the FBI boss

Who is he? At 6ft 8in (just over two metres), James Comey is a towering figure, the character who gives little away about himself personally, but has a huge personal role in this story.

Key plot line

He first entered this drama in Season One, when as head of the FBI he reopened the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails – just weeks before the election. Democrats blamed him for her loss, Republicans hailed him a hero. That, we thought, was the last we’d seen of him.

Cue Season Three, when months into the Trump presidency, Comey was fired by the new president. In true television drama style, he learned of his sacking as he was watching TV news during a trip to LA. By this point, Comey was heading up an investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Was this why he was given the heave-ho?

His testimony to the Senate was one of the most gripping scenes in this drama so far, as – under oath – he told politicians he was asked to pledge loyalty to the president – but refused. He also said he was told by Trump to “let go” of the investigation into Michael Flyn. A character whose stock is still high – it’s unclear when he’ll next make an appearance.

Robert Mueller the investigator

Who is he? The man who could decide the fate of the Trump presidency.

Key plot line

Some characters wield a lot of power, but don’t have a starring role, such as Robert Mueller, the tall chiselled figure who was appointed as “special counsel” to take over the Russia investigation in the wake of the dismissal of James Comey. Mueller comes from the same stock as Comey – both are former heads of the FBI. It’s led some to accuse Mueller of not being impartial.

There have been reports that the president has considered firing Mueller – but he’s still in the job. With a team of more than 15 lawyers, and a staff of more than three dozen, he’s working quietly behind the scenes amassing evidence. There are now reports criminal charges have been filed and arrests will take place soon.

Mueller’s inquiry runs alongside similar ones being conducted by politicians in Congress – but he’s the only one who can press charges against anyone






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