Cold War

The Good, The Bad & The Unknown: Understanding Syria (Part 1)

Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Bashar al-Assad

Filed in: Geopolitics  Author: Brendan R Hay

Given the alarming escalation of international tensions over the Syrian conflict following the alleged chemical weapons attacks in Idlib and the United States’ subsequent missile strike on Syrian Air Force bases, it is time for a review of the situation that has now been presented to Western populations through mainstream newsmedia once again as grounds for war.

According to the narrative that we are given, it is religion – specifically, the internal divisions of Islam – that drives both pro-Assad and anti-Assad forces in Syria in what seems to be a Sunni vs Shia/Opposition vs Government ‘civil war’, and not a regional battle to get rid of an international coalition of terrorist factions decimating secular societies.

This analysis targets a narrative common to most Western media. Our Australian counterparts are similarly shallow and disaffected, and rarely research their own articles on foreign conflicts, rather importing them, for an even more homogenized mass world coverage. Because the supposed facts being paraded in this – or any – inflamed crisis imported from the Western intelligence organisations and mainstream media outlets are misleading, fallacious or wrong, any reader searching for truth or an honest interpretation based on facts regarding the conflict may find themselves more confused or, worse, completely deceived about its nature.

The leading news corporations of countries like the US, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada, Australia etc are holding to the agenda that supports the “we’re fighting ISIS,” and “Assad must go” group think. It can be outlined as follows:

  • The Syrian uprising was purely civilian, with terrorists groups entering the ongoing conflict later, taking advantage of the situation
  • The regime started the conflict by using violence against peaceful protestors, who then started “arming themselves” to fight back
  • To overthrow Assad The US and its allies fund, arm and train “moderate” Islamic rebel factions only
  • With complete disregard for international law and its institutions, the Syrian “criminal regime” must be toppled by an international coalition in its “Responsibility to Protect” civilians

Let’s take a look at these claims to see where they come from and what their intentions in terms of forming public opinion are.

What started as a peaceful civilian uprising against the Syrian president, turned into a bloody, armed civil war

This statement is the most important platform in the Western narrative regarding Syria, setting the stage for endless demonization of al-Assad and the Syrian government. The reality is that an opportunity was sought by the Sunni salafist regimes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to overthrow the secular Syrian state, which was an agenda that brought them into aligment with right-wing elements of the states of Israel and Turkey, who sought a territorial foothold in the Golan Heights and Northern Syria. This, in turn, brought the support of the US and its allies to the anti-Assad coalition, and into direct opposition to the Syrian allies of Russia and Iran.

A 2006 diplomatic report by US chargé de affaires William Roebuck shows a clear intention of State Department officials regarding the regime and its ‘vulnerabilities’:

“We believe Bashar’s weaknesses are in how he chooses to react to looming issues, both perceived and real, such as the conflict between economic reform steps (however limited) and entrenched, corrupt forces, the Kurdish question, and the potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists. This cable summarizes our assessment of this vulnerabilities and suggests that there may be actions, statements, and signals that the USG can send that will improve the likelihood of such opportunities arising”.

As Robert Naiman wrote in the WikiLeaks Files: The World According to US Empire, “In public, the US was opposed to Islamist ‘extremists’ everywhere; but in private it saw the “potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists” as an “opportunity that the US should take action to try to increase”. Along with other advice, Roebuck suggests “playing on Sunni fears of Iranian influence… thought often exaggerated”, adding that both the “Egyptian and Saudi missions in Syria are giving increased attention to the matter and we should coordinate more closely with their governments on ways to better publicize and focus regional attention on the issue”. Fanning sectarian tensions is an old ploy, especially within strategies unconcerned by their effects on civilian societies.

Other formerly classified documents also look back into the moments before the 2011 uprising, as this heavily redacted US Defense Intelligence Agency document obtained via federal lawsuit, states: “AQI (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) supported the Syrian opposition since the beginning, both ideologically and through the media. AQI declared its opposition to the Assad’s government because it considered it sectarian regime targeting Sunnis”.

Frans Van der Lugt, killed by extremists in 2014 in Homs, suggested , in a series of formerly classified cables that the beginning of the conflict was not as simple as mainstream media states:

“I have seen from the beginning armed protesters in those demonstrations … they were the first to fire on the police. Very often the violence of the security forces comes in response to the brutal violence of the armed insurgents.” There were indeed anti-Assad protests, sometimes clashing with pro-Assad protests, but they were in many cases infiltrated or even promoted by elements with very different goals, mainly not Syrian in origin, and used for violence against civilians and peaceful protestors, policemen and soldiers. “Many opposition sympathizers started to arm themselves, first as protection and later to expel government’s forces. (The conflict) soon acquired sectarian features… this dragged into the conflict other regional forces…”

Here the article refers to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, among others. These ‘other regional forces’ became increasingly involved in a more covert fashion as the ‘uprising’ took hold.

The US and its allies fund, arm and train “moderate” Islamic rebel factions only

Earlier in the Syrian war, US officials had at least maintained the pretense that weapons were being funneled only to so-called moderate opposition groups. But in 2014, in a speech at Harvard, Vice President Joe Biden confirmed that we were arming extremists once again, although he was careful to pin the blame on America´s allies in the region, whom he denounced as “our largest problem in Syria.” In response to a student’s question, he volunteered that our allies “…were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis (sic) coming from other parts of the world.”

Biden’s explanation was entirely reminiscent of official excuses for the arming of fundamentalists in Afghanistan during the 1980s, which maintained that the Pakistanis had total control of the distribution of US-supplied weapons and that the CIA was incapable of intervening when most of those weapons ended up with the likes of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

As an example, the “moderate” rebels from Nour al-Din al-Zenki are one of the groups supported by the CIA, who beheaded a Palestinian boy last July for the cameras and took ‘selfies’ of themselves while doing it. A few months later another incident, this time covered ‘Aleppo Media Center’, showed the world a wounded child by the name of Omran (Aylan in other reports), who then became the poster boy for the Syrian conflict by means of media exposition. The connection between this two apparently dissociated incidents goes by the name of Mahmoud Raslan, one of Omran’s rescuers and photographer, seen in the video footage of the rescue outside the ambulance holding a camera with members of the White Helmets (civilian rescuers). This individual is also in pictures with the ‘moderate’ beheaders of the Nour al-Din al-Zenki mentioned above, posing like friends on a weekend trip, blurring the already thin line between moderates, extremists and even the so-called non-partisan civilian rescuers (USAID-funded) White Helmets.

The US-led coalition in Syria claims divisions between the Sunni majority and the Alawite Shia have provoked both sides to commit atrocities that have caused not only an enormous loss in lives but the destruction of communities, strengthen positions and reduce hope on a political solution. However, the majority of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is Sunni, and has included in the past a few Christian generals. As Kamal Alam writes for The National Interest:

The fact remains: The moderate Syrian opposition only exists in fancy suits in Western hotel lobbies. It has little military backing on the ground. If you want to ask why Assad is still the president of Syria, the answer is not simply Russia or Iran, but the fact that his army remains resilient and pluralistic, representing a Syria in which religion alone does not determine who rises to the top.
Deir-Ezzor, an entirely Sunni city which has held out against ISIS encirclement for two years—and is commanded by the Druze General Issam Zahreddine, was attacked by the US Army, who targeted an SAA base killing 62 soldiers and wounding several more, in the first direct attack from the Pentagon on a Syrian Government facility or its forces. This incident happened on September 17th and ended the ceasefire, and not the alleged Russian attack on a UN aid convoy that allegedly took place two days later.

Taking in consideration the secular character of the Syrian society and its government, all bets on sectarian originated violence should be on the rebel side, also known for establishing Sharia law courts in controlled territories.

The Syrian ‘authoritarian regime’ must be toppled by an international coalition in its ‘Responsibility to Protect’ civilians

The often-quoted Syrian Observatory of Human Rights indicates that up to September 2016, the number of deaths is 301,000. These estimates put the numbers between 250,000 and almost 500,000 victims and several millions displaced and surviving as refugees mainly in neighbor countries and Europe.

However, the sources of this information are not without an allegiance either. The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights is a one man operation located in Coventry, England. It is run by Rami Abdulrahman, a declared member of the opposition: “I came to Britain the day Hafez al-Assad died, and I’ll return when Bashar al-Assad goes,” he told Reuters in 2012. It was also revealed by the New York Times that the SOHR is funded by subsidies from the European Union and a certain European country he won’t disclose.

As geopolitical researcher and writer Tony Cartalucci notes: “…it is beyond doubt that it is the United Kingdom itself – as Abdul Rahman has direct access to the Foreign Secretary William Hague, who he has been documented meeting in person on multiple occasions at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. The NYT in fact reveals that it was the British government that first relocated Abdul Rahman to Coventry, England after he fled Syria over a decade ago because of his anti-government activities.”

John Kerry and Samantha Power reduced themselves to advocates for terrorism by campaigning against Syria and Russia in their efforts to regain Eastern Aleppo from forces made up of 50% al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. Who are also said to dominate any other faction fighting on that side. The phrase “rebel-held Aleppo” is a mainstream media fiction fostering support for terrorism among world public opinion.

Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists. Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government. Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.

While honest, ethical news outlets would denounce the audacity of a government whose officials advocate for human rights and point fingers at Russia for alleged war crimes while at the same time supporting terrorism as a manner of proxy army against Syria, Western mainstream media instead acts as a sort of PR asset for power. It’s not surprising to find recent cases when high ranking diplomats and politicians are caught lying to the public, even about supposed war crimes, to be then whitewashed by media giants as the New York Times or the BBC, like the fallacy of going to war with Iraq over it’s weapons of mass destruction – a term resurrected in demonizing Syria. Sadly, this is the kind of news available to most people in the world. It is in the interests of all peaceful and reasonable people worldwide to seek a deeper understanding of the truth, when so much is at stake.

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Australian military action in Syria and international law

Four Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft in "echelon right" formation in the Middle East Region.

Four Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft in formation in the Middle East [image via defence.gov.au]

The decision that Australian forces were going to join the US-led bombing campaign in Syria was announced in early September 2015 and the first bombing was carried out over the weekend of 12 and 13 September 2015. No legal basis on which the decision had been made was ever given by the Australian Federal Government. There was next to no debate in Parliament, but even if there had been it is unlikely that the Labor Party (ALP) would have opposed it given their recumbent position on all matters relating to national security.

Of the few meaningful discussions that took place in the Senate, it was only Senator Richard di Natale, the Green Party (a minority party holding one House of Representatives seat and 10 Senate seats) leader, and Senator Scott Ludlum (Greens) the only ones to raise further questions over the actual legality of the proposed military action. It took two months for the Foreign Ministry to give any kind of reason at all. On 16 November 2015, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop appeared on ABC National Radio to announce that the decision to join the US bombing was made in response to a request from the Iraqi government pursuant to the collective self-defence provisions of Article 51 of the UN Charter.

The problem for the Australian government however, was that the Office of the Prime Minister of Iraq issued an official statement on 3 December 2015 renewing the Iraqi government’s “emphasis on the lack of need for foreign troops in Iraq and that the Iraqi government is committed to not allowing the presence of any ground forces on the land of Iraq, and will not ask any side, whether regional or from an international coalition to send ground troops to Iraq.” The Prime Minister of Iraq’s statement went on to repeat the Iraqi government’s position that it had asked for air support for Iraqi forces operating within Iraq. It further demanded that no activity of any kind be undertaken without the prior approval of the Iraqi government. It would appear that the Iraqi government has a firmer grasp of the limitations on military actions imposed by international law than the Australian government.

That Julie Bishop claimed the military intervention was at the request of the Iraqi government, contradicted what the government had itself said in August and then again in December 2015. According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald the government of then Prime Minister Tony Abbott had “pushed for Washington to request that Australia expand its air strikes against Islamic State from Iraq into Syria.” This was presumably to engender support for his coalition’s flagging popularity. In acknowledging in August 2015 that the “invitation” was solicited, there was no mention then of any legal considerations that the government would have to consider. The further issue of how it was legally possible, under international law, for the United States to have any basis of inviting any country to join its bombing campaign in Syria, was never mentioned.

It further exemplifies the arrogant characteristic of western foreign policymakers that continue to assume the right to bomb countries, and regularly invites other allies to follow suit.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop [image via 2gb.com]

In a radio interview of 16 November 2015 Ms Bishop never made mention of any US request for support, or that the former Prime Minister had prompted such a request. She instead claimed that the invitation had come from the Iraqi government of Haider al-Abadi. As we shall examine, this claim was spurious in nature.

The United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2249 On 20 November 2015. Although widely reported is mainstream press such The Telegraph as the UN authorisation of military action to “…eradicate ISIS safe havens in Iraq and Syria,” it was, importantly, not an all-clear to attack any Syrian territory. The resolution still commits all member states to “take all necessary measures, in compliance with international law, in particular the UN Charter……on the territory under the control of ISIL also known as Daesh, in Syria and Iraq.”

The issue for the Australian government is that, while it claims to operate within international law, Resolution 2249 did not authorise any action outside the terms of the UN Charter, and its use of military force in Syria falls outside of the conditions set forth in Article 51. That means that any action would have to be either in self-defence or by special resolution of the Security Council. So far in terms of Australia, neither condition exists. That leaves only the notion of collective self-defence. As the only semblance of legal respectability that the coalition government was able to come up with, the claim relied upon the fact that Australia was acting at the alleged request of the Iraq government.

A letter sent by the Australian government to the Security Council on 9 September 2015 confirms the Australian government’s reliance upon the purported request by the Iraqi government. Communication notifying the UN Security Council of military action against another sovereign State is required under the terms of the UN Charter. The Abbot government’s letter to the Council stated that the Syrian government was “unable or unwilling” to prevent attacks from inside its borders being launched on Iraq. A highly contentious claim, the argument seems to have no foundation in international law. The United States and the United Kingdom are the only States to have officially endorsed the “unwilling or unable” doctrine and it could be argued that their vested interests in doing so are apparent. Their bombing coalition in Syria is intervening militarily to vindicate Iraq’s self-defense interest as a case of individual or collective self-defense. The letter went on to say “in response to the request for assistance by the government of Iraq, Australia is therefore undertaking necessary and proportionate military operations against ISIL in Syria in the exercise of the collective self-defence of Iraq.”

Possible reasons for its rejection as a doctrine in international law is the precedence for the extraterritorial use of force against non-state actors. The doctrine would effectively allow a back door pathway to avoiding restrictions placed on member states by Article 51 of the UN Charter that the use of force must be employed legitimate national self-defence or with the express consent of the Security Council. It is concerning to find the doctrine in an official letter from the Australian government to the UN Security Council.

Prime Minister of Iraq Haider al-Abadi [image via news.yahoo.com]

Prime Minister of Iraq Haider al-Abadi

The Iraqi government statement of 3 December 2015 directly counters Ms Bishop’s claim of the Australian government bombing in Syria being at the behest of the Iraqis. The government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi destroyed any potential legality for Australia’s military actions. There are however, further legal problems for the Australian government’s actions in Syria. The International Court of Justice has twice in recent years declared the concept of “collective self-defence” not applicable when the “defence” is against non-State actors. ISIS, while being an organized community living under a provisional government is not a sovereign state in any true sense, so if Iraq had asked for such help against ISIS in Syria, (which as we have seen it did not) such a request would have still had no legal basis.

Predictably, the Australian mainstream media had given only small treatment of Foreign Minister Bishop’s original announcement that Australia was intending to send bombers to Syria, and some light coverage when those operations commenced in September 2015. Almost no coverage was given to the legal questions of joining the bombing campaign, and no report of the government’s Security Council letter and and its dubious claims. The statement from the Office of the Prime Minister of Iraq was ignored also, as it would have undermined the editorial support for the government’s actions.

A significant development in the story was the extent of the actual bombing runs in Syria flown by the Australian Air Force. The Department of Defence issues the activities of the Air Task Group in Iraq and Syria. These reports show that the F/A-18 fighter-bomber contingent of the Australian Air Force flew 18 sorties in Syria in September 2015 for a total of 143 operational hours. This was the month the operations commenced but was also – interestingly – the month that the initial operations abruptly ended. The DoD figures show that zero sorties were flown in Syria in October and November and just 10 in December.

This development may, however, have something to do with the Russian military intervention in the Syrian conflict. Clearly, for all parties involved in the conflict this has been nothing short of a game changer. Unlike the position of the US-led coalition, the Russians intervened at the specific request of the Syrian government. Therefore, there are no doubts about the legitimacy of such action under international laws. The Russian intervention, while on a relatively small scale, has been devastatingly effective. Not only have ISIS forces obliged to seek cover from air attacks, having enjoyed apparent immunity from the West and its allies during the preceding year, there has been a major disruption of their logistical support lines.

Through analysis of the subsequent Russian air reconnaissance and satellite imagery, it has been clearly established that ISIS had been transporting stolen Iraqi and Syrian oil across the Turkish border, that was then sold on the Middle East black market oil trade through a company with close ties to President Erdogan of Turkey. Weapons and vehicles were in turn being shipped back across the Turkish border into Iraq and Syria to support ISIS operations. Evidence also emerged that wounded ISIS fighters were being treated in Turkish and Israeli hospitals and trained in Turkish and Jordanian jihadist camps among other places. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have both pointed to the financial and material support ISIS and other jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda in Iraq receive from other countries in the region.

Russian S-400 "Triumf" anti-aircraft missile system

Russian S-400 “Triumf” anti-aircraft missile system [image via rt.com]

After the Turkish shootdown of one of their Su-24 bombers, the Russians have also since installed the sophisticated S400 air defence system in Syria. This brings anti-aircraft capabilities to their forces and the Syrian Armed Forces, giving them the capacity to shoot down any unauthorized aircraft in Syrian air space. While a purely speculative assumption, it may also be a reason why the Australian Air Force bombing of Syria ceased abruptly for two months after the Russian intervention. It is unfortunate that the Australian government at the time had neither the moral fortitude nor sufficient faith in the Australian people to either provide clear information on the origin of the request for intervention in Syria or to inform of the decision to temporarily withdraw from a war there was no business in pursuing in the first place.

Perhaps a new Australian foreign policy direction is currently being sought, as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has acknowledged that if “boots on the ground” are needed to defeat ISIS, local and regional troops are the key. This could be a signal that policy focus will shift from military action to pragmatism. In a speech at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, the Prime Minister addressed the contentious issue of ground troops directly, having just visited Australian soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The destruction of ISIL requires military action including boots on the ground but they must be the right boots on the right ground,” he said. Turnbull has also previously stated that he believes “pragmatism and compromise” are the keys to success in Syria, albeit the success referred to is still the ‘Assad must go’ goal of the US-led coalition.

Red lines and dollar signs: the business of the Syrian War

A damning report on the conflict of interests in the Syrian Crisis debate identified numerous corporate and defense industry ties of experts and think tanks who commented on potential military intervention. Much of the debate over Syria got underway in 2013, when not only were the conflicts-of-interest and military-industrial complex ties of these “consultants” and “experts” rarely disclosed, but the ideas they expressed were mere permutations of an ideologically narrow spectrum of U.S. and Western neo-conservative interventionism.

REPORT: Conflicts of interest in the Syria debate (An analysis of the defense industry ties of experts and think tanks who commented on military intervention)

REPORT: Conflicts of interest in the Syria debate (An analysis of the defense industry ties of experts and think tanks who commented on military intervention)

As US official sources are now claiming that ISIS is developing chemical weapons, and those same experts and think tanks are back with a vengeance.

The conflict-of-interest report by the Public Accountability Initiative (http://public-accountability.org) offers a new look at an issue raised by David Barstow’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times series on the role military analysts played in promoting the Bush Administration’s narrative on Iraq. In addition to exposing coordination with the Pentagon, Barstow found that many cable news analysts had industry ties that were not disclosed on air.

During the public debate around the question of whether to attack Syria, Stephen Hadley, former national security adviser to George W. Bush, made a series of high-profile media appearances. Hadley argued strenuously for military intervention in appearances on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and Bloomberg TV, and authored a Washington Post op-ed headlined “To stop Iran, Obama must enforce red lines with Assad.” The phrase “red line” has been used numerous times in reference to Syria and its President Bashar al-Assad, particularly in attempt to establish the legal intervention of Russian forces in Syria as a crossing of those lines. It was also used in 2014 by those in favor of forcible ‘regime change’ in Syria when rockets with sarin filled warheads landed in rebel-held residential areas in Ghouta, Syria, killing hundreds and injuring thousands.  Each side naturally blamed the other, with western intelligence agencies providing evidence supporting the opposition, and Russian intelligence supporting the regime. Both sides issued biased reports with cherry-picked evidence, only adding to the confusion.  An analysis of all evidence relating to the August 21st chemical attack indicate it was carried out by opposition forces. According to the most likely scenario, they used looted incendiary rockets, refilled them with sarin they manufactured themselves, and launched them from a rebel-held territory 2 km north of Zamalka.1

Stephen Hadley’s television audiences was never informed that he serves as a director of Raytheon, the weapons manufacturer that makes the Tomahawk cruise missiles that were widely cited as a weapon of choice in a potential strike against Syria. Hadley earns $128,500 in annual cash compensation from the company and chairs its public affairs committee. He also owns 11,477 shares of Raytheon stock, which traded at all-time highs during the Syria debate ($77.65 on August 23, making Hadley’s share’s worth $891,189). Despite this critically important financial stake, Hadley was presented to his audience as an experienced, independent national security expert.

Though Hadley’s undisclosed conflict is particularly egregious, it is not unique. The following report documents the industry ties of Hadley, 21 other media commentators, and seven think tanks that participated in the media debate around Syria. Like Hadley, these individuals and organizations have strong ties to defense contractors and other defense- and foreign policy-focused firms with a vested interest in the Syria debate, but they were presented to their audiences with a veneer of expertise and independence, as former military officials, retired diplomats, and independent think tanks.

A pentagonal network: think tank-defense industry ties [image via public-accountability.org]

A pentagonal network: think tank-defense industry ties [image via public-accountability.org]

If the recent debate around Syria is any guide, media outlets have done very little to address the gaps in disclosure and abuses of the public trust that Barstow exposed. Some analysts have stayed the same, others are new, and the issues and range of opinion are different. But the media continues to present former military and government officials as venerated experts without informing the public of their industry ties – the personal financial interests that may be shaping their opinions of what is in the national interest.This report details these ties, in addition to documenting the industry backing of think tanks that played a prominent role in the Syria debate. It reveals the extent to which the public discourse around Syria was corrupted by the pervasive influence of the defense industry, to the point where many of the so-called experts appearing on American television screens were actually representatives of companies that profit from heightened US military activity abroad. The threat of war with Syria may or may not have passed, but the threat that these conflicts of interest pose to public discourse – and democracy – is still very real.The Syrian crisis has indeed become a quagmire, with possible consequences far more dangerous than the European refugee crisis and the US anti-Muslim hysteria. As we have seen seen, the situation has led to increased Islamic extremist attacks in Europe, US and Asia and seen the the worsening of many international relations such as Turkey and Russia. British, German, French, US fighter jets and troops are gathered at Incirlik and Diyarbakir base. Spain has Patriot missiles in Turkey, Denmark and Germany are sending war ships to the Mediterranean Sea. These strategic deployments by NATO members are as much about protecting Turkey from Russia as they are about containing ISIS.The USA and Russia are both modernizing their nuclear arsenals. Some 200 nuclear warheads are stationed in the NATO members Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, and Turkey. 20 new B61-12 nuclear bombs were brought to the Luftwaffe’s Buchel Air Base. Th B61-12 is a dial-a-yield bomb from 0.3 to 50 kilotons with GPS aided tail kit, which can be used as a tactical nuclear weapon. In a statement that hints not only of an agenda of conflict but also of chauvinism and orientalism, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas (R) hints at the use of tactical nuclear bombs, saying: “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.” This, however, is nothing new as Dick Cheney in 1991 was considering the use of tactical nukes against Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard. Russian President Putin reminds the West, that Russia is also a nuclear power: “We know that high-precision weapons can be equipped with both conventional warheads and with special warheads, that is, with nuclear warheads. Naturally, in the fight against the terrorists, we hope that is something that will never be needed.”

The US military-industrial milieu that has surrounded the debate over the Syrian conflict has increased its propagandist stranglehold of the discussion in the US media and thereby providing a similar lens through which other Western nations and their conservative media and military institutions frame the issue and inform policy making decisions. We may yet, unfortunately, see weapons of mass destruction visited upon more civilian populations in the Middle East not at the hands of secular ‘dictators’ but from the so-called democratic nations of the West themselves.

Litvinenko inquiry: UK investigation fires political broadside at Moscow

A UK inquiry has concluded that the murder of Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was “probably” approved by President Vladimir Putin. Retired High Court Judge Sir Robert Owen wrote that he was “sure” that two former Russian officials poisoned the 44-year-old at a London hotel with highly radioactive polonium-210. “The FSB operation to kill Mr Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr Patrushev and also by President Putin,” Sir Robert Owen wrote (emphasis added). Nikolai Patrushev was head of the FSB in 2006.

Anatoly Litvinenko, Marina Litvinenko, and Ben Emmerson QC [image via thestar.com]

Anatoly Litvinenko, Marina Litvinenko, and Ben Emmerson QC [image via thestar.com]

According to the report, Mr Litvinenko was poisoned with tea in 2006, and the detailed public inquiry has found that Mr Putin is likely to have signed off on the poisoning of the former KGB agent, in part due to personal ‘antagonism’ between the pair, it said. Litvinenko had been drinking tea at the Millennium hotel with former Kremlin bodyguard Andrei Lugovoi on the day he was poisoned, but Russia refused demands by British prosecutors in 2006 to extradite him. Lugovoi is now a member of the Russian parliament, in the far-right nationalist LDPR party. Responding to the report, Lugovoi, said the accusations against him were “absurd”, the Russian news agency Interfax was quoted as saying. “As we expected, there were no surprises,” he said. “The results of the investigation made public today yet again confirm London’s anti-Russian position, its blinkeredness and the unwillingness of the English to establish the true reason of Litvinenko’s death.” Kovtun, now a businessman in Russia, said he would not comment on the report until he got more information about its contents, Interfax reported.

Open hearings for the Litvinenko Inquiry started at the end of January, investigating his mysterious polonium-210 poisoning nearly a decade ago and were scheduled to last for about 10 weeks. The major focus of the inquiry has been the incrimination of Viktor Ivanov, the Director of The Federal Narcotics Service of Russia. As the inquiry heard closing arguments, the prosecution alleged that a report provided by Litvinenko to a security firm in 2006 before his murder made serious allegations against Ivanov, which could have served as a motive for the Kremlin to murder the former KGB officer by using a rare radioactive isotope. In response to the allegations, Ivanov told RT News, “It is clear that I cannot be the main target of this attack. These stones were thrown at the president of the Russian Federation, and this points us towards those who pulled the strings, certain Western political elites and their intelligence services. This is the level where there is no room for playing by the rules or delivering justice.”

Interestingly, the major international media services generally carry the story of the release of the public inquiry’s report as “Marina Litvinenko calls for sanctions against Russia,” and “Putin ‘probably’ ordered Litvinenko murder”. Speaking to the BBC Radio 4’s World at One program Marina Litvinenko welcomed the imposition of asset freezes on Lugovoi and Kovtum. Asked if Britain’s response was adequate she said: “Yes I believe so.” However, interjecting at the January 21 press conference in London to clarify ‘technical details’ of the case, British QC Ben Emmerson delivered a politically-charged monologue taking special care to clarify that this was a Russian state-sponsored attack “on the streets of London” and called it “a mini act of nuclear terrorism.” The UK Scottish National Party’s Peter Grant went much further with the anti-Russian rhetoric. “The report I think leads to only one possible conclusion – we now have to regard the Russian government, the Russian state as an organisation actively involved in the commission, funding, supporting and directing acts of terrorism against UK citizens within the United Kingdom,” he said.

The anti-Russian rhetoric we are seeing across the UK conservative press and political parties in the wake of the release of the report disturbingly pushes the issue far further to the right of the political spectrum and tears a massive hole in Anglo-Russian relations. The Guardian has gone as far as publishing text from a part of the report carrying an unverified account from a witness claiming Putin was a pedophile. In drawing an incredibly long bow, David Davis, who was shadow home secretary at the time of the murder, said the report meant that in a civil UK court Putin would be found guilty of complicity in murder. He said: “We need to go after the financial assets of Putin in the Bahamas and in Cyprus. Eventually you get to a point when with a dictator you have to draw a line as we did in the 30s.”

The public inquiry has drawn criticism from independent and research journalists and political commentators. ‘This man was killed, was murdered in London almost 10 years ago. This latest report was set up in July 2014 – interestingly, just a couple of weeks after the MH17 disaster. So it was set up in this particular climate, this anti-Russia climate, and it has gone on now for 18 months. And what have they come up with – they’ve come up with a verdict that ‘probably’ this was the work of the Kremlin. ‘Probably’ – is not evidence,” Journalist and broadcaster Neil Clark told RT. “What is lacking – is any hard evidence, this is just conjecture; this is just a theory put forward; one of the theories is that the Kremlin was behind this. But there are other theories too to explain why this man may have been murdered,” he said. “We’ve got to look at the context of this. The fact was this man died in 2006, and we’ve got an inquiry set up in 2014 in the very month when the West was taking very anti-Russian line.”

As the official coroner’s inquest into Litvinenko’s death was suspended in July 2014 to start a public inquiry shortly thereafter, the timing is interesting. The coroner’s inquest came to an end when the Home Secretary asked the coroner to stop conducting the inquest as a criminal investigation, clearly something outside the jurisdiction of the coroner. This changed again, however, when Prime Minister David Cameron turned Owen loose on a search for Russian state culpability by appointing him as chairman of the public inquiry. This pre-determined position was obvious from Emmerson’s repeated insistence during Marina Litvinenko’s press conference that the inquiry’s conclusions were primarily about linking the murder to the Russian government in what he was calling “acts of nuclear terrorism,” during a politically charged diatribe at the January 21 conference. Emmerson also attempted to frame the alleged assassination as a large-scale state sponsored operation, affecting hundreds of UK citizens in the immediate vicinity of the radioactive contaminants. He stopped short of calling it an act of war by Russia on Britain, but that implication was most definitely the elephant in the room.

It is interesting to note that the inquiry is in no way a trial or judicial procedure, but simply a public inquiry. The term ‘public inquiry’ is actually a misnomer, because the rules in the UK allow a public inquiry to be conducted behind closed doors. Martin McCauley, former senior lecturer at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at the University of London said, “All they can do, as they said, ‘we have a prima facie case which proves that Lugovoy and Kovtun were acting as part of the FSB,’ which goes right up to Nikolai Patrushev. But prima facie only means on the face of it. Therefore, the case is not proven. In other words it is a probability, and in an English court it wouldn’t stand up, because you couldn’t convict Lugovoy and Kovtun on the evidence, which has been presented in the report… They didn’t cross-examine or interview Lugovoy or Kovtun…”

Cameron’s UK Conservative party has shown its anti-Russian stance as it shifted the coronial inquest to a public inquiry in order to allow a greater media exposure to what were clearly pre-determined findings of Russian state culpability. The call for further political action through sanctions belies the motivation for setting up such an enquiry, with the Litvinenko case a prime candidate for the task. Since 2008 Cameron has adopted a more robust, anti-Russian stance than the rest of the UK government has. He called for Russia to be suspended from membership of the G8 group of industrialised nations and for Georgia’s entry into NATO to be brought forward. Cameron’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin was initially cordial but soured over the annexation of Crimea by Russian-backed forces in early 2014. During the initial stages of the crisis, Cameron telephoned Putin to inform him that “Your relationship with us will face increasing difficulties unless you stop the aggression.” Shortly before the 2015 UK elections, even Labour candidate Ed Miliband called for tougher anti-Russian sanctions, if Russia, in his opinion, would continue its actions in aggravating the situation in eastern Ukraine. However, it is obvious that the Conservatives are toughest when it comes to evaluation of the Kremlin’s “Ukrainian policy.” In this case, these are exclusively geopolitical motives. The Russian senator noted that unlike other major European Union states, such as Germany and France, the United Kingdom has always taken a harsh approach to Russia. “In the British approach [toward Russia] there is no evidence of any further analysis, no rethink of what is happening in Europe on the whole, or with Ukraine, or the Russian Federation. The British approaches are extremely conservative and that is why I don’t expect any changes for the better from the point of view of Russian interests here,” Kosachev told RIA Novosti.

With the Conservative Party securing a majority of 330 seats in the parliament, the current harsh stance adopted by the United Kingdom toward Russia is highly likely to remain unchanged.

Heating up the New Cold War: Turkey and Russia in Syria

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Russian Sukhoi Su-24 bomber [image via rt.com]

The recent downing of the Russian Sukhoi Su-24 by Turkish air force F16s in a provocative test of alliances in the volatile Syrian War region is an indication of what is at stake not only for the West but for the other nations and interests piling into the conflict. This new meeting of eastern and western alliances in Syria bears more than a superficial resemblance to the Imperial house of cards that was on the verge of collapse in Central Europe a little over a century ago. Now, with the eyes of the world on the Syrian War, Turkish fighter jets on patrol near the Syrian border shot down the Russian warplane in November after claiming it violated Turkey’s airspace, in what has become a long-feared escalation that is straining relations between Russia and the West and bringing the spectre of NATO military action to the scenario.

Escalating Tensions

The Syrian War – for the Western anti-Assad coalition – is being waged as a multidimensional chessboard proxy war spearheaded in part by Turkey itself, amid Russia’s joint military operations with Syria against the self-proclaimed ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) and supporting terrorist factions. An escalation of tensions particularly with Russia has been expected not because the Turkish government actually fears Russian warplanes crossing parts of their borders pose a distinct threat to its security or national sovereignty, but because it has been obvious particularly since NATO’s aggressive stance toward Russia over eastern Ukraine, that once Moscow sent aircraft to Syria another shootdown shrouded in mystery would be an opportunity for geopolitical leverage to good to miss.

In addition to Turkish military having cameras rolling as the Russian Su-24 bomber went down in flames, terrorists operating in the region had allegedly rushed to the scene of the crash shortly after the incident, according to Reuters. One of the pilots was killed by ground arms fire as they tried to eject to safety, in direct violation of the Geneva Convention. Turkish President Racciyp Erdogan it then went on to demand that the NATO Council convene, although not only wasn’t Turkey attacked, but rather itself committed an act of aggression. While Turkey maintains that it was only reacting in self-defense – it was against aircraft that were not engaged in actions over Turkish airspace or against the Turkish national military.

In order to justify its actions the Turkish Army has made radar footage public, footage that was supposed to have confirmed a breach of national sovereignty. The release, however, clearly shows that the Russian jets passed over what amounts to a sliver of Turkish territory, a small Turkish strip inside the Syrian mainland. The Turkish state broadcaster Haberturk TV showed footage of the downed Russian jet, trailing a long plume of smoke trailing behind it as it crashed in a wooded part of an area apparently known as ‘Turkmen Mountain.’

Pan-Turkism in the Middle East

In Turkey, the Anatolian Agency released images of two pilots parachuting out of the jet before its crash. The Turkish media have since commenced a tirade of coverage stressing that the affected area inside Syrian territory is held by Turkmen opposition groups, and not anti-Assad terrorists. Hence, the story being sold is that the Russian campaign is not aimed at rooting out ISIS, but rather at protecting the Assad regime against its opponents, the alleged ‘moderate opposition’.

The shootdown of a Russian jet con­duct­ing oper­a­tions against Turk­men mili­tia pulls back the cur­tain on known Pan-Turkist militant ele­ments such as the Grey Wolves that con­sti­tute part of the so-called ‘mod­er­ate’ rebel forces being armed by the West and Turkey. It now seems they were the mili­tia unit responsible for the killing of the Russ­ian pilot of the SU-24. Grey Wolf ele­ments have also been active in sup­port of the Mus­lim Turkish Uighurs in resource-rich Xin­jiang Province in northwestern China which shares part of its borders with Russia. After Thai­land extra­dited some ethnic Uighurs to China to face crim­i­nal charges, the Grey Wolves demon­strated against China in Turkey by det­o­nating a bomb in Bangkok on 17 August 2015, tar­get­ing Chinese tourists.

From Turkey to Ukraine, Crimean Tatars are sup­ported by Erdo­gan, who has been attempt­ing to real­ize a neo-Ottoman agenda. Now, the Tatars are work­ing with the OUN/B heirs in Ukraine’s Pravy Sek­tor to sab­o­tage the Crimean power grid. The attack on the elec­tri­cal grid came after a Tatar/Pravy Sek­tor col­lab­o­ra­tion in block­ing over­land truck deliv­er­ies to Crimea, as well as the Crimean water supply.

Threat of use of nuclear ordnance

The type of combat scenario seen in Syria inevitably raises the prospect of the someone in the region resorting to the use of nuclear ordnance. Not only are there American nuclear weapons in Turkey, with up to fifty B61 nuclear bombs in Erdogan’s hands with limited oversight, Turkey is the other nuclear power in the Middle East along with Israel, and the two have been working closely together since the 1940s.

In the context of the Syrian conflict it is a critical consideration – these B61 bombs, dangerous as they already are, have been slated for what the nuclear non-proliferation community has termed an illegal modification. From The Guardian:

“… In non-proliferation terms however the only thing worse than a useless bomb is a ‘usable’ bomb. Apart from the stratospheric price, the most controversial element of the B61 upgrade is the replacement of the existing rigid tail with one that has moving fins that will make the bomb smarter and allow it to be guided more accurately to a target. Furthermore, the yield can be adjusted before launch, according to the target.

“The modifications are at the centre of a row between anti-proliferation advocates and the government over whether the new improved B61-12 bomb is in fact a new weapon, and therefore a violation of President Obama’s undertaking not to make new nuclear weapons. His administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review said life extension upgrades to the US arsenal would ‘not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.’

“The issue has a particular significance for Europe where a stockpile of 180 B61s is held in six bases in five countries. If there is no change in that deployment by the time the upgraded B61-12s enter the stockpile in 2024, many of them will be flown out to the bases in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey.“

In early 2015, Turkey had 117 of its F16 aircraft modified. These upgrades included avionics, electronic warfare and targeting, but also included upgrades for some of their aircraft to nuclear capability.

The United States keeps its nuclear inventory in Turkey at Incirlik Air Force Base, where specially modified NATO F16s are intended to carry these weapons against Russian cities. However, by agreement, none of America’s specially modified planes are actually stationed in Turkey.

The alternative that Erdogan and select NATO commanders found was a simple: as Turkish and Israeli pilots already trained together against the ‘common enemy’ – Iran – Israel could train Turkish crews to deliver the newly modified and much more lethal B61 guided warhead and could complete the modification on some of the upgraded Turkish aircraft to full nuclear capability.

These aircraft with targeting intelligence allegedly stolen from the US by Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, are ready to be deployed at any time or as part of a yet to be determined cabal of other ‘unannounced nuclear states,’ such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel or Germany, could prove a first strike capability.

Analysis of Russian response

In recent weeks with Russian air support, Syrian troops have retaken large swaths of territory from ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other terrorist fighters. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has even begun approaching the Euphrates River east of Aleppo, which would effectively cut off ISIS from its supply lines leading out of Turkish territory.

From there, Syrian troops could move north, into the safe zone the US and its Turkish partners have long-sought but have so far failed to establish within Syria’s borders. This ‘safe’ or ‘no-fly’ zone includes a region of northern Syrian stretching from Jarabulus near the west bank of the Euphrates to Afrin and Ad Dana approximately 100 kilometers west. Taking the Jarabulus-Afrin corridor and fortifying it against NATO incursions while simultaneously cutting off ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist factions deeper within Syria would be perhaps the most decisive of all possible actions. With Syria secured, an alternative arc of influence will exist within the Middle East, one that will inevitably work against Saudi and other GCC efforts in Yemen, and in a wider sense begin an eviction of Western military hegemony from the region.

If Syrian coalition troops retake this territory, the prospect of the West ever making an incursion into Syria, holding territory, or compromising Syria’s territorial integrity would be lost forever. Western ambitions toward regime change in Damascus would be indefinitely suspended.

For Turkey’s government – which has been consistent only in its constant failure regarding its proxy war against its neighbouring Syria and now alleged to be supporting ISIS – the prospect of Russian retaliation either directly or indirectly will leave it increasingly isolated.