Syrian Army Close to Liberating Entire Country, Diplomatic Negotiations Ongoing; Russia-Turkey Relations on Upswing; Two Russia Experts Counter Myth of Putin “Rehabilitating Stalin”

US-backed forces on collision course with Syrian Army in ‘race for Deir ez-Zor oilfields’

Iran’s Press TV has reported that, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is now in control of 85% of the country and operations are underway to liberate the remaining 15% from jihadist terrorists.  With respect to the ongoing battle to free the eastern city of Dayr al-Zawr (aka Deir ez-Zor), the Russian Ministry of Defense spokesman, Lieutenant General Aleksandr Lapin stated:

“Currently the operation to free the city is ongoing. The Syrian military will soon finish off” Daesh terrorists, who “used to occupy the city’s neighborhoods,” he added.

Lapin stated that Kalibr cruise missiles, launched from the Black Sea escort vessel, Admiral Essen, had destroyed Daesh’s command posts and communication networks; an effective move that disrupted control of the terror group’s units in Dayr al-Zawr province.

“Over 450 terrorists, five tanks and 42 pickups, with heavy machine guns, were liquidated during the operation,” he said.

The province in which Deir ez-Zor is located happens to be oil-rich and RT reports that there is a race between the SAA and US-backed forces of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to liberate the area:

Last Tuesday, the Syrian military backed by the Russian air force finally broke the IS (Islamic State, formerly ISIS/ISIL) siege of Deir ez-Zor from the west following a cruise missile strike on terrorist positions.

The advance to clear the remaining terrorists progressed at a steady pace, and by Saturday, Syrian government forces smashed the IS blockade of the military airport which for three years had served as the only lifeline to the city.

Following Damascus’ strategic victory, and while its forces continue to squash pockets of IS resistance in the west of the city, the US backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) swiftly announced on Saturday a separate offensive east of Deir ez-Zor. SDF forces raced to Deir ez-Zor which lies only 140 km south-east of Raqqa, where the US-led coalition is conducting its main offensive against ISIS.

Elaborating on the competitive nature of the two groups in capturing the city near the Iraqi border, the RT report continues:

According to Almasdar, both forces are apparently aiming to block each other’s path to the city of Albukamal on the Euphrates river which lies near the border with Iraq.

“As we get closer to Deir ez-Zor and you have these forces converge upon one another, the importance of [communication] between the Russians and the coalition, SDF and the regime becomes more important,” [Army Colonel Ryan] Dillon was quoted as saying by Foreign Policy magazine.

….The SDF has meanwhile promised not to attack Syrian government forces.

“We have clear instructions that after Daesh is eliminated, we should not act against the forces of the [Bashar Assad] regime or against the Russian, Iranian forces or the Hezbollah movement, which are allied with it,” SDF spokesman Talal Silo told Sputnik Monday.

As the SDF military offensive to expel IS and secure parts oil rich province continues, tribal figures aligned with SDF have already proposed measures to form their own form of government. Tribal figures on Monday called for “establishing a preparatory committee that will discuss the basis and starting points for a Civil Council for Deir ez-Zor.”

This sounds like it could serve as a staging ground for a future attempt at a partition of the country, which would be the next best thing for Washington in light of the fact that its attempt at regime change has failed.  As discussed further down in this post, control of the oil fields would provide a carved out autonomous region (most likely a Kurdish one) with economic viability.

However, much of the armed opposition seems to begrudgingly acknowledge that they have lost the war as they have agreed to participate in the next round of peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran.

A recent article in Asia Times explains how Washington has also been forced to yield to Russia on the issue of southern Syria, which is sensitive for Jordan and Israel:

Southern Syria is a sensitive topic for all players in the Syrian conflict, in part because it impacts directly on Israeli national security. This explains why none of them has been willing to grasp it at either the Astana or Geneva talks, leaving Trump and Putin do the high politics.

At the G20, they agreed on the principle of the new zone, and that it would encompass the border city of Daraa, along with al-Quneitra, the principle town in the occupied Golan Heights, and extend all the way up to al-Suwaida in the Druze Mountains, 100 kilometers south of Damascus.

The zone’s objective is multi-faceted. First and foremost, it would free the Syrian-Jordanian border from all “non-state players” – in other words Hezbollah troops and southern Syria branch of ISIS, known as the Khalid Ibn Al Waleed Army.

Secondly, it would provide ample space to relocate millions of Syrian refugees who have been living in Jordan since 2011. And thirdly, it would satisfy the demands of President Trump, who has insisted on a safe zone to protect civilians, even if it is not named as such.

The de-conflict zone would also be off-limits to the Syrian Army. No tanks, warplanes, or soldiers will be allowed to enter.

The zone’s sovereignty would still be in the hands of the Syrian state, but it would be under the supervision of a civilian authority, rather than a military one. Members of the armed opposition would, in theory, be pardoned, and allowed to keep their light arms for use against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria.

Damascus would, meanwhile, be entitled to hoist its official flag, and to re-open state-run schools and police stations. It would also get full control of Syria’s borders with Jordan, which will be vital for bilateral trade.

Read the full article here.

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If one were to have tried to predict the future of Russia-Turkey relations a year ago, one would have been hard-pressed to come up with the present state of affairs between the two nations.   Diplomatic and economic cooperation are going in a positive direction as both nations, along with Iran, are acting as guarantors of the peace being hammered out in Astana (one of several channels of talks but the most publicly prominent one).  As retired diplomat MK Bhadrakumar has written on his website, Indian Punchline:

The geopolitics of the Middle East is witnessing a tectonic shift with the emergence of a Turkish-Iranian axis that would have seemed unbelievable until recently. The 3-day visit by Iran’s chief of general staff General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri to Turkey last week was the first such event in Iran-Turkey relations since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. During Bagheri’s visit, the two countries signed a military agreement on August 17. Turkish President Recep Erdogan disclosed on Monday that he held discussions with Bagheri on possible joint Turkish-Iranian military actions against Kurdish militants.

“Joint action against terrorist groups that have become a threat is always on the agenda. This issue has been discussed between the two military chiefs, and I discussed (with Bagheri) more broadly how this should be carried out,” Erdogan said. Turkey and Iran have strong convergence in preventing the emergence of an independent Kurdish entity in the region in Iraq or Syria. Both countries are battling Kurdish separatist groups within their own borders.

What lends urgency for the two countries to cooperate is their shared suspicion that the US and Israel are possibly stepping up their longstanding project to establish an independent Kurdistan in the region, with an ulterior agenda to create for the long-term an exclusive preserve for pushing their interests on the regional map. The US has refused to pay heed to Turkey’s concerns and has armed and equipped the Kurdish militants in northern Syria. The US Special Forces and Kurdish militia are jointly conducting the on-going offensive on Raqqa, which used to be the capital of the ISIS. Washington spurned a Turkish offer to undertake the operations on Raqqa, an Arab Sunni region, and instead preferred the non-Arab Kurdish militia as its ally.

The US objective seems to be to seize control of the oil fields in the region adjacent to Raqqa, which would ensure the economic viability of a Kurdistan entity in northern Syria. Turkey fears that the next step by the US would be to launch operations in northern Syria along Turkey’s borders with a view to carve out a contiguous Kurdistan, which would have access to the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey rightly apprehends that a Kurdistan as next-door neighbour would put intolerable strain on its integrity and stability.

….However, the emergent Turkish-Iranian axis has a much bigger backdrop. For a start, implicit in it is a hint by Turkey that it is conclusively ending its support for the Syrian rebel groups. Turkey and Iran have been working together on the Russian initiative to create de-escalation zones in Syria. Again, Russia has been steadily strengthening its bilateral cooperation with Turkey and Iran respectively in the recent years. Thus, the Turkish-Iranian military cooperation is crystallising under an overarching Russian umbrella, so to speak, that aims at the stabilization of the Syrian situation. In effect, therefore, one could say that a Russian-Turkish-Iranian triangle is in the making to end the Syrian conflict and bring about a Syrian settlement.

This has far-reaching implications because the Russian-Turkish-Iranian triangle is also showing signs of spreading its wings beyond the Syrian problem to encompass a broad-based regional cooperation that has potential to impact the power dynamic in the Middle East as a whole. Thus, a week ago, Russian, Turkish and Iranian companies signed a $7 billion deal to drill for oil in Iran. Similarly, after much delay, Iran and Russia are moving toward the implementation of their swap arrangement whereby Iran is expected to supply from next month 100000 barrels of oil per day to Russia and in return Russia will be exporting to Iran goods worth $45 billion annually. On the other hand, Russian-Turkish economic cooperation is expanding rapidly. Indeed, the finalization of the $2 billion deal last month for acquiring the S-400 Triumf anti-ballistic missile system from Russia signifies a strategic shift in Turkish foreign policy, Turkey being a NATO power and an ally of the US.

Bhadrakumar goes on to discuss the unpredictable and often thorny history of relations among the three countries.  Continue reading here.

In late August Sputnik published two articles on the progress of negotiations on the Turkstream natural gas pipeline project.  Russia is discussing overland passage with Bulgaria, Greece and Italy to connect the pipeline from Russia to Turkey.  Additionally, Russia’s state-owned gas giant, Gazprom, is in negotiations with the Turkish government to finalize plans for the Turkish portion of the pipeline.

And last but not least, Russia and Turkey seem close to finalizing a deal for Turkey to purchase the S-400 anti-missile system.   As Nikolai Pakhomov writes over at the Lobelog:

If any single arms deal can capture the shifting nature of Russian cooperation in the post-Cold War era, it is the pending sale of S-400 air defense systems to Turkey that now looks increasingly likely to happen.

The S-400 is an advanced integrated system capable of simultaneously tracking 300 targets and striking them from up to 250 miles away. The fact that Russia would consider shipping them to Turkey—a longtime member of NATO, and once considered to be the alliance’s southeastern bulwark against the Soviet Union—would have been unthinkable even two decades ago.

Yet today the two countries are on the verge of completing a $2.5 billion deal that would pass two Russian-made S-400 systems to Turkey, along with Moscow’s promise to help Ankara build two more at home using Russian technology. On August 25, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News that the last hurdle to finalizing the deal was approval by the executive committee of Turkey’s defense industry.

If indeed finalized, the sale would signal new realities for Russia, Turkey, and Europe in several crucial ways. For one, it would confirm Turkey’s drift away from the West, which Russia has deftly used for its benefit. More broadly, it would underscore just how much the essence of Russian strategic partnerships has evolved from the Cold War period, changing the very nature of its confrontation with the West.

Full article here.

I’m pretty sure it’s safe to assume that Russia will be providing a modified version that cannot be reverse-engineered or otherwise endanger their own security interests with the S-400 system.

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Readers are probably all too familiar with the claims repeatedly made that Putin is an aspiring Stalin or, at the very least, is rehabilitating the image of Stalin in Russia.  I myself saw no indication of this on either of my visits to Russia, which included Moscow, St. Petersburg, Krasnodar, and three cities in Crimea.  In that time, I saw one hand-painted plate with Stalin’s image in the gift shop of the lobby of the Cosmos hotel.  And one lone Stalin impersonator on a street corner in Krasnodar.  No one was flocking to him.

During my recent trip to Russia, as part of my research on the centennial of the Russian Revolution, I asked a cross-section of Russians I encountered what their views of Stalin were.  A few condemned him unequivocally, a couple thought his contribution to the Soviet Union was largely positive, but most gave him kudos for leading the country to victory over the Nazis in WWII (known in Russia as The Great Patriotic War) while acknowledging and disliking his excessive political repression.   I also have written about how Putin played a major role in getting the Monument to the Victims of Repression approved, which will be unveiled later this year in Moscow.

On a recent trip to Moscow, British Russia expert, Paul Robinson, discussed his conclusions about this myth of Putin rehabilitating Stalin:

Last week, a few colleagues and I had the opportunity to assess how true this may be. On Sunday morning we visited the Sretenskii Monastery in downtown Moscow. Like many other institutions of the Orthodox Church, it was destroyed during the Soviet era. In November 2013, a decision was made to rebuild it, and just a little over three years later, in May 2017, the new church in the centre of the monastery was consecrated.

sretensky
Sretenskii Monastery, Moscow

When we tried to go into the main church building, we found that only the basement chapel was open; the bulk of the church was closed as they were still working on the marble and one of the staircases. Fortunately, one of my colleagues was able to persuade somebody to let us in anyway and give us a guided tour. What we heard was quite remarkable.

The land on which the Sretenskii monastery stands used to belong to the Soviet secret services (known successively as the Cheka, OGPU, NKVD, MGB, and KGB), whose headquarters, the Lubyanka, is not far away. During the Great Terror, executions took place on the monastery grounds, our guide told us. Even today, all the buildings around the monastery remain in the possession of the post-Soviet security service, the FSB. The monastery is, therefore, surrounded by the organization which in a previous guise once tried to destroy Christianity in Russia.

The resurrected Sretenskii monastery is devoted to the New Martyrs – those thousands of Christians murdered by communists following the 1917 revolution. The new church’s decoration reflects this. Around the dome, for instance, are depictions of key saints of the Russian Orthodox Church, among whom are Emperor Nicholas II and his family, symbols of suffering at the hands of Bolshevism.

….In May of this year, Vladimir Putin attended the service at which the church was consecrated. Our guide spoke of Putin as the former head of the FSB, the successor organization to the Soviet secret services who executed the New Martyrs. Our guide implied that by coming to the service, Putin in effect repented on behalf of those secret services and asked for forgiveness. There is little doubt in my mind that Putin understood perfectly what his presence symbolized and what message he was sending.

Read the full post and see the beautiful accompanying photos of the monastery here.

Russia expert Gordon Hahn further discusses the conflict between the positions (often taken by the same pundits who decry both Stalin and the influence of the conservative Russian Orthodox Church) that Putin wants to revive Stalinism and is also a supporter of the Church:

The Russian Orthodox Church, which the same sources who charge the Putin administration with supporting and privileging in relation to other of Russia’s religions, carries out a permanent campaign against Stalin.

….The above demonstrates that a political battle between various forces is ongoing in Russia, as in other countries, over the country’s past and present. This is not just a battle that the soft authoritarian Putin allows to rage, it is a reflection of political pluralism and free, limited albeit, speech. Just as the Putin administration lets communists rehabilitate Stalin, so too he allows both the Church as well as liberals to criticize the dictator and engage in the country’s politics within limits that protect his own rule. At the same time, the Putin regime has undertaken a campaign of de-Stalinization itself, while avoiding the extremes of historical revisionism and political whitewashing. Part of the policy is informed by foreign states, including Western states, use of Stalinism to demean Russia and Russians.

Full article here.

 

2 thoughts on “Syrian Army Close to Liberating Entire Country, Diplomatic Negotiations Ongoing; Russia-Turkey Relations on Upswing; Two Russia Experts Counter Myth of Putin “Rehabilitating Stalin””

  1. “I’m pretty sure it’s safe to assume that Russia will be providing a modified version that cannot be reverse-engineered or otherwise endanger their own security interests with the S-400 system.”

    My understanding is you buy the system and it comes with Russian techs who control it. This was true with the S-300 in Syria. The Syrians have been given control of the systems to use as they please but asked by the Russian to please do not use it to shot down planes on the other side of the borders. Iran has reversed engineered S-300 but might of had permission. China might be the only country that buys the system and are trained on how to use it.

    It’s getting closer to a win for the Syrian military and friends and Syrian citizens.

  2. Yes, the light seems to be visible at the end of the tunnel. I wish the Syrians all the best in getting their country back together. They didn’t deserve the horrors that Washington, GCC, etc. unleashed on their country.

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