Syrian refugees

The Syrian refugees in Turkey (see previous post) face a much better future than the 1,835,840 Syrian refugees  in Lebanon. Turkey’s expending economy and the country’s willingness to expend resources to educate and integrate increasing numbers of them bodes well. Is it sunrise for them?


UNHCR statistics on refugees in Turkey


Refugees Afghanistan 3,930 3,930 3,930 3,930
Iraq 25,470 25,470 37,470 37,470
Syrian Arab Rep. 1,500,000 1,500,000 1,700,000 1,700,000
Various 12,070 12,070 17,070 17,070
Asylum-seekers Afghanistan 32,330 32,330 42,330 42,330
Islamic Rep. of Iran 10,250 10,250 14,250 14,250
Iraq 43,070 43,070 67,070 67,070
Various 5,820 5,820 6,820 6,820
Stateless Stateless 330 550
Others of concern Russian Federation 310 310

Obama betrays the Syrians

Emile Hokayem writes

What a difference a year makes in Syria. And the introduction of massive Russian airpower.

Last February, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Shiite auxiliaries mounted a large-scale attempt to encircle Aleppo, the northern city divided between regime and rebels since 2012 and battered by the dictator’s barrel bombs. Islamist and non-Islamist mainstream rebels — to the surprise of those who have derided their performance, let alone their existence — repelled the offensive at the time. What followed was a string of rebel advances across the country, which weakened Assad so much that they triggered Moscow’s direct intervention in September, in concert with an Iranian surge of forces, to secure his survival.

Fast-forward a year. After a slow start — and despite wishful Western assessments that Moscow could not sustain a meaningful military effort abroad — the Russian campaign is finally delivering results for the Assad regime. This week, Russian airpower allowed Assad and his allied paramilitary forces to finally cut off the narrow, rebel-held “Azaz corridor” that links the Turkish border to the city of Aleppo. The city’s full encirclement is now a distinct possibility, with regime troops and Shiite fighters moving from the south, the west, and the north. Should the rebel-held parts of the city ultimately fall, it will be a dramatic victory for Assad and the greatest setback to the rebellion since the start of the uprising in 2011.

In parallel, Russia has put Syria’s neighbors on notice of the new rules of the game. Jordan was spooked into downgrading its help for the Southern Front, the main non-Islamist alliance in the south of the country, which has so far prevented extremist presence along its border. Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian military aircraft that crossed its airspace in November backfired: Moscow vengefully directed its firepower on Turkey’s rebel friends across Idlib and Aleppo provinces. Moscow also courted Syria’s Kurds, who found a new partner to play off the United States in their complex relations with Washington. And Russia has agreed to a temporary accommodation of Israel’s interests in southern Syria.

Inside Syria, and despite the polite wishes of Secretary of State John Kerry, the overwhelming majority of Russian strikes have hit non-Islamic State (IS) fighters. Indeed, Moscow and the Syrian regime are content to see the United States bear the lion’s share of the effort against the jihadi monster in the east, instead concentrating on mowing through the mainstream rebellion in western Syria. Their ultimate objective is to force the world to make an unconscionable choice between Assad and IS.

The regime is everywhere on the march. Early on, the rebels mounted a vigorous resistance, but the much-touted increase in anti-tank weaponry could only delay their losses as their weapons storages, command posts and fall-back positions were being pounded. Around Damascus, the unrelenting Russian pounding has bloodied rebel-held neighborhoods; in December, the strikes killed Zahran Alloush, the commander of the main Islamist militia there. In the south, Russia has fully backed the regime’s offensive in the region of Daraa, possibly debilitating the Southern Front. Rebel groups in Hama and Homs provinces have faced a vicious pounding that has largely neutralized them. Further north, a combination of Assad troops, Iranian Shiite militias, and Russian firepower dislodged the powerful Islamist rebel coalition Jaish Al-Fatah from Latakia province.

But it is the gains around Aleppo that represent the direst threat to the rebellion. One perverse consequence of cutting the Azaz corridor is that it plays into the hands of the al Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra, since weapons supplies from Turkey would have to go through Idlib, where the jihadist movement is powerful. Idlib may well become the regime’s next target. The now-plausible rebel collapse in the Aleppo region could also send thousands of fighters dejected by their apparent abandonment into the arms of Nusra or IS.

The encirclement of Aleppo would also create a humanitarian disaster of such magnitude that it would eclipse the horrific sieges of Madaya and other stricken regions that have received the world’s (short-lived) attention. Tens of thousands of Aleppo residents are already fleeing toward Kilis, the Turkish town that sits across the border from Azaz. The humanitarian crisis, lest anyone still had any doubt, is a deliberate regime and Russian strategy to clear important areas of problematic residents — while paralyzing rebels, neighboring countries, Western states, and the United Nations.

Assad all along pursued a strategy of gradual escalation and desensitization that, sadly, worked well. Syrians already compare the international outcry and response to the IS’ siege of Kobane in 2014 to the world’s indifference to the current tragedy.

To complicate the situation even more, the regime’s advances could allow the Kurdish-dominated, American-favored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to conquer the area currently held by the Free Syrian Army and Islamist militias between the Turkish border and the new regime front line north of the Shiite towns of Nubl and Zahra. This would pit the SDF against IS on two fronts: from the west, if the Kurds of Afrin canton seize Tal Rifaat, Azaz and surrounding areas, and from the east, where the YPG is toying with the idea of crossing the Euphrates River. An IS defeat there would seal the border with Turkey, meeting an important American objective.

The prospect of further Kurdish expansion has already alarmed Turkey. Over the summer, Ankara was hoping to establish a safe zone in this very area. It pressured Jabhat al-Nusra to withdraw and anointed its allies in Syria, including the prominent Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, as its enforcers. True to its record of calculated dithering, President Barack Obama’s administration let the Turkish proposal hang until it could no longer be implemented. Turkey faces now an agonizing dilemma: watch and do nothing as a storm gathers on its border, or mount a direct intervention into Syria that would inevitably inflame its own Kurdish problem and pit it against both IS and an array of Assad-allied forces, including Russia.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the rebellion’s main supporters, are now bereft of options. No amount of weaponry is likely to change the balance of power. The introduction of anti-aircraft missiles was once a viable response against Assad’s air force, but neither country — suspecting that the United States is essentially quiescent to Moscow’s approach — is willing to escalate against President Vladimir Putin without cover.

Ironically, this momentous change in battlefield dynamics is occurring just as U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura yet again pushes a diplomatic track in Geneva. But the developments on the ground threaten to derail the dapper diplomat’s peace scheme. Fairly or not, de Mistura is tainted by the fact that the United Nations is discredited in the eyes of many Syrians for the problematic entanglements of its Damascus humanitarian arm with the regime. Despite U.N. resolutions, international assistance still does not reach those who need it most; in fact, aid has become yet another instrument of Assad’s warfare. Neither Kerry nor de Mistura are willing to seriously pressure Russia and Assad for fear of jeopardizing the stillborn Geneva talks.

Seemingly unfazed by this controversy, de Mistura’s top-down approach relies this time on an apparent U.S.-Russian convergence. At the heart of this exercise is Washington’s ever-lasting hope that Russian frustration with Assad would somehow translate into a willingness to push him out. However, whether Putin likes his Syrian counterpart has always been immaterial. The Russian president certainly has reservations about Assad, but judging by the conduct of his forces in Chechnya and now in Syria, these are about performance– not humanitarian principles or Assad’s legitimacy. For the time being, Moscow understands that without Assad, there is no regime in Damascus that can legitimize its intervention.

Ever since 2011, the United States has hidden behind the hope of a Russian shift and closed its eyes to Putin’s mischief to avoid the hard choices on Syria. When the Russian onslaught started, U.S. officials like Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken predicted a quagmire to justify Washington’s passivity. If Russia’s intervention was doomed to failure, after all, the United States was not on the hook to act.

Russia, however, has been not only been able to increase the tempo of its military operations, but also to justify the mounting cost. And contrary to some pundits, who hailed the Russian intervention as the best chance to check the expansion of IS, Washington knows all too well that the result of the Russian campaign is the strengthening of the jihadist group in central Syria in the short term. This is a price Washington seems willing to pay for the sake of keeping the Geneva process alive.

The bankruptcy of U.S. policy goes deeper. The United States has already conceded key points about Assad’s future — concessions that Russia and the regime have been quick to pocket, while giving nothing in return. In the lead-up to and during the first days of the Geneva talks, it became clear that the United States is putting a lot more pressure on the opposition than it does on Russia, let alone Assad. Just as Russia escalates politically and militarily, the Obama administration is cynically de-escalating, and asking its allies to do so as well. This is weakening rebel groups that rely on supply networks that the U.S. oversees: In the south, the United States has demanded a decrease in weapons deliveries to the Southern Front, while in the north, the Turkey-based operations room is reportedly dormant.

The result is a widespread and understandable feeling of betrayal in the rebellion, whose U.S.-friendly elements are increasingly losing face within opposition circles. This could have the ironic effect of fragmenting the rebellion — after years of Western governments bemoaning the divisions between these very same groups.

It’s understandable for the United States to bank on a political process and urge the Syrian opposition to join this dialogue in good faith. But to do so while exposing the rebellion to the joint Assad-Russia-Iran onslaught and without contingency planning is simply nefarious. Washington seems oblivious to the simple truth that diplomacy has a cost, as does its failure — probably because this cost would carried by the rebellion, for which the United States has little respect or care anyway, and would be inherited by Obama’s successor.

The conditions are in place for a disastrous collapse of the Geneva talks — now delayed until late February — and a painful, bloody year in Syria. All actors understand that Obama, who has resisted any serious engagement in the country, is unlikely to change course now. And they all assume, probably rightly, that he is more interested in the appearance of a process than in spending any political capital over it. As a result, all the parties with a stake in Syria’s future are eyeing 2017, trying to position themselves for the new White House occupant. This guarantees brinksmanship, escalation, and more misery. 2016 is shaping up as the year during which Assad will lock in significant political and military gains.


Obama’s Disastrous Betrayal of the Syrian Rebels

The truth gets tortured and dies every day in Sisi’s Egypt


in Rome, Ruth Michaelson in Cairo and in London write for the Guardian:

Italian authorities are demanding a full investigation into the death of an Italian student whose body was found in Cairo bearing signs that he had been tortured.

The body of Giulio Regeni, a 28-year-old who was pursuing a PhD at Cambridge, was found in a ditch in the suburbs outside Cairo on Wednesday night, days after the Italian government announced it was growing increasingly concerned about his disappearance.

The Egyptian prosecutor leading the investigation team on the case said Regeni’s body had been found with marks on it, cuts to the ears and signs of beatings and a “slow death”. A source at the Giza public prosecutor’s office said Regeni’s body was found on the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, on an overpass close to Cairo’s 6th October district and that his body appeared to have been dragged along the ground. Responding to earlier reports, the source added that the body did not have any noticeable stab wounds, but that other marks could have been cigarette burns.

More details about Regeni’s body and possible cause of death will likely be clarified soon. An autopsy report was delivered to the Italian embassy in Cairo on Thursday evening.

Ansa is reporting that Egyptian authorities have turned Regeni’s remains over to Umberto I Italian hospital in Cairo, citing anonymous sources. The Italian news agency also reported that a team of seven investigators – from the state police, carabinieri and Interpol, would be leaving for Cairo on Friday to closely follow the investigation.

Reports in local media said he was found naked from the waist down. It is believed that he may have been killed days earlier.

The Italian foreign ministry released no new details about the murder on Thursday. It summoned the Egyptian ambassador in Rome, Amr Mostafa Kamal Helmy, to express concern about Regeni’s death. “Helmy expressed profound condolences for Regeni’s death and assured us Egypt will cooperate fully in finding those responsible for this criminal act,” the Italian foreign ministry said. Italy has asked for Regeni’s body to be repatriated as soon as possible and has demanded that Egypt open a joint investigation to ascertain the truth about his death in conjunction with Italian experts.

While Regeni was known to be an academic researcher, the Italian news agency Ansa on Thursday reported that he also wrote about his work on Egyptian labour unions for Il Manifesto, the Italian communist newspaper. Ansa reported that he used a pseudonym because he was allegedly concerned for his safety.

His work for Il Manifesto was confirmed by Simone Pieranni, the newspaper’s foreign editor, who said it would be publishing Regeni’s previous works on Friday, including a piece written shortly before his death.

Regeni, from Fiumicello, near Udine in Italy’s north-east, had been a member of Girton college, Cambridge, but had been living in Cairo since September to pursue a doctoral thesis on the Egyptian economy. He was described in Italian reports as a passionate and gifted student.

When he initially went missing on 25 January, the fifth anniversary of Egypt’s 2011 revolution, there were suspicions that Regeni could have been caught up in a police raid against demonstrators. One report said he had disappeared after leaving his home in an upper middle-class area to meet a friend.

Anne Alexander, a research fellow at the centre for arts, social science and humanities department at Cambridge and, like Regeni, a fellow specialist in Egyptian labour movements, said she was concerned about what his death could mean for the safety of other researchers on Egypt, particularly those looking at sensitive topics.

“Everyone I’ve spoken about this is shocked by the news coming out about the likely circumstances of his death. If these reports are confirmed we want to do all we can to ensure that those responsible are held accountable,” she said.

Alexander added that concern for Regeni’s welfare had been fuelled in part by reports of forced disappearances and mass arrests that took place before 25 January.

“Hundreds of Egyptian citizens have disappeared over the past few years, often turning up in police custody and frequently having experienced torture. A much smaller number are found dead,” she added.

The Italian foreign ministry declined to comment when asked whether Egyptian authorities were respecting a demand that Italy and Egypt jointly investigate Regeni’s death, citing a desire to respect the family’s wish for privacy.

Italy’s economic development minister, Federica Guidi, reportedly cut short an Italian business delegation’s trip to Cairo, in which the heads of Italian energy companies were meeting Egyptian officials.

Guidi had reportedly met Egypt’s president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, on Wednesday morning – before Regeni was found – and was told the matter would receive the president’s personal attention.

An official at the Egyptian embassy in Italy could not definitely confirm that the trip had abruptly ended.

The meeting was a sign of the important business ties between the two countries, particularly following the discovery of a major natural gas field in Egypt by Eni, the Italian state-backed energy group, which was described by the company’s chief executive last year as a “game changer” for Egypt.

Earlier, the deputy head of criminal investigations in Cairo’s twin province of Giza, Alaa Azmi, had said that an initial investigation had showed Regeni’s death to be a road accident, adding that the preliminary forensic report had not mentioned any burns.

“We have to wait for the full report by forensic experts. But what we know is that it is an accident,” Azmi had said.

Regeni’s death is not the first incident of a foreign national dying in suspicious circumstances on Egyptian soil. Frenchman Eric Lang died after being beaten by his fellow inmates while in police custody in September 2013. Egyptian security forces killed 12 people, including eight Mexican tourists who were travelling in the Western Desert in September 2015. The kidnap and beheading of Croatian national Tomislav Salopek by the Islamic State affiliate Sinai Province in August 2015 was seen as an unusual instance of kidnap of a foreign national in Egypt.

In the days following his disappearance, Regeni’s friends had tried to find information about his whereabouts on Twitter using the hashtag #whereisgiulio.

A Cambridge university spokesman said: “We’re deeply saddened to hear of the death of Giulio Regeni. Our thoughts are with his family and friends.

“The vice-chancellor and mistress of Girton college has been in contact with Giulio’s family and we are in touch with the Italian authorities.”

The US elections on the Intercept: its hotting up


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Adelson newspaper want Swedish foreign minister assassinated for questioning Israel

Margot Wallström3


The article by Zvi Zameret was posted as an op-ed in the rightist Sheldon Adelson-sponsored paper Makor Rishon (‘First Source’), under the title, “Margot Wallström’s source of inspiration,” referring to the Swedish Foreign Minister. As it is in Hebrew, I shall try to make some mention of its salient contents, without translating the whole due to time constraints.

The matter was now brought to my attention via a tweet by journalist Barak Ravid (Haaretz) and via post of journalist David Sheen and forwarded by PS Arihant.

The author first boasts about a friendship with a former member of the Stern Gang (one of  the most notorious Jewish terror groups, headed by later PM Izhak Shamir) member, Yehoshea Cohen, who lived in kibbutz Sdeh Boker (Ben Gurion’s kibbutz), and mentions that Cohen was one of Ben Gurion’s closest friends, as well as him being “one of the most ferocious fighters of the Stern Gang”. As is also stated in the article, Yehoshea was the actual murderer of Folke Bernadotte.

The article circles around the 1948 murder of Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte, UN special envoy, who was sent to mediate a resolution of the Palestinian issue in 1948, making recommendations for the withdrawal of Israeli forces and return of refugees – making him a target for elimination, executed by the Gang in Jerusalem in September 1948.

Zameret, the former director of pedagogy for the Israeli education ministry, seeks to set the focus on Bernadotte’s person, and a suggestion that he was an anti-Semite. He recalls an occurrence in 1984, when the author traveled to Copenhagen, and was “ordered” by his friend Cohen to meet with Dr. Johannes Holm, whom the author refers to as “the Danish Refugee Minister” during WW2. That is very strange, because from my search of him, I reached an article about Holm in precisely the relevant time, by the highly authoritative Danish newspaper Politiken, in which Holm is mentioned as the head of the Danish National Institute for Health Data and Disease Control.

In any case, Zameret tells that Cohen had read in a paper that Holm had written a book about the White Busses, where he claims that Count Bernadotte was an anti-Semite. The author tells how he met with Holm, and how the latter told him of a “regrettable incident” with Bernadotte from 1944: That the Count, who was vice chairman of the Swedish Red Cross, in his negotiation of the freeing of Scandinavian prisoners of Nazi Germany, “refused to include Jews within the exchange deal”.

Now I have not read the book, published in 1984, myself – but I have read a review which is written in very critical tone of Bernadotte, in the Flensborg Avis 18.6.2012, which refers to such an incident. And here it says that the issue concerned 400 Scandinavian Jews in Theresienstadt camp, and it was THE NAZIS who refused to allow the Jews to be transported together with other Scandinavians. Apparently, Bernadotte conceded unwillingly to this decree – and this was to be his cardinal sin according to the author and Cohen, marking him an anti-Semite.

Now Zameret tells of how upon return he met Cohen in Israel, when Cohen was visiting his sick wife, who was also a former Stern Gang member, in hospital at the eve of her death. He tells how Cohen did not say a word, only smiled, and how his wife Nehama responded: “Yehoshea, now it is clear that Bernadotte was an anti-Semite, the bullets that you shot him with were not [expended] in vain”.

The author continues with a long list of Bernadotte’s “chutzpah”, in his suggestions to resolve the situation by a withdrawal of Israeli forces, return of refugees and reinstatement of Jerusalem as a corpus separatum as intended by the UN Partition Plan of 1947. In Zameret’s account, Bernadotte’s chutzpah was his “annulation” of the partition plan, calling for a “confederate rule between Israel and Transjordan” involving an “economic, national and security treaty” (referring to Bernadotte’s June 1948 suggestion which he revised in September). Tarnishing Bernadotte for his ‘ignorance’, in having “no idea about the Arab dream and the Jewish mentality” the author claimed “both sides disliked him”.  He chides him for working on the behest of the British and the American State Department, who “did not believe in the possibility of the existence of the State of Israel” and ends his McCarthyite tour de force by referring to the American Secretary of State as being influenced by Yehuda Leib Magnes, prominent Reform rabbi and President of Hebrew University who had met with American officials — Magnes himself was pleased with Bernadotte’s positions.

Finally the author arrives at the summation of all the above, with a eugenics-vein, aimed at the Swedish Foreign Minister, who has suggested that Israel’s killings of many Palestinian attackers were “extra-judicial executions” and has called for an investigation of these cases.

“What do the things I have mentioned indicate about Bernadotte? [They indicate] covert anti-Semitism, ignorance and arrogance, cooperation with senior elements in the country and interests that play a decisive role. Has anything changed in the Swedish DNA [my emphasis] in the decades following Bernadotte’s death? Nothing has changed. The Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, with her characteristic covert anti-Semitism, with her arrogance, ignorance, and her interest-bound speculation regarding her future Muslim voters – she too seeks to fight the foundations of the State of Israel. I am convinced and certain that her intentions will smoulder, just as all of the undignified count’s intentions did.



Putin’s war in Syria is Chechnya revisited

David Hearst writes

Nearly four months into its intervention, Russia is an active combatant in the Syrian civil war. This is not just an assertion. It is borne out by casualty figures and the refugee flows.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirm in their latest figures that Russian air strikes have killed more Syrian opposition fighters than they have Islamic State group fighters. The figures are 1,141 to 893 respectively. Both the Observatory and the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) put the civilian death toll from Russian strikes at between 1,000 and 1,200.

A similar picture is revealed by refugee movements since 30 September when the bombing campaign began. Over a hundred thousand refugees have fled to the Turkish and Jordanian borders. Between 5 and 22 October last year the UN reported that Russian air strikes led to the displacement of 120,000 people from Aleppo, Hama and Idlib.

The number of Syrians seeking refuge on the Jordanian border was 3,000 in late September. That reached 12,000 by December and 17,000 by last week. Brigadier General Saber Taha Al-Mahayreh, who is in charge on Jordan’s Syrian and Iraqi borders told Middle East Eye that the majority of refugees at Ruqban came “[in a] short period of time, when [the Russian] attacks intensified.”

The Russian military say that if a drone detects a weapons dump under a hardened cover, it is legitimate to bomb it, no matter whom it belongs to. It could always be sold on to IS. But even on targets defined as terrorist, the civilian casualty toll is great. A Russian strike recently on a prison run by Al-Nusra Front near a popular market in Idlib province killed almost as many civilians and detainees as it did Nusra fighters –  26 of the former and 29 of the latter.

More than 20 opposition leaders have been assassinated since the Russian intervention, mostly from Ahrar al-Sham, one of the biggest groups fighting Assad. Zahran Alloush, leader of Jaish al-Islam rebel group was the most high-profile victim, and his assassination by Syrian Army was thought to have been aided by Russian surveillance.

The list includes Abu Rateb al-Homsi, an Ahrar al-Sham leader in Homs area. Homsi was one of the men Assad released from Sednaya Prison to Islamise the opposition when it was largely secular and unarmed. Homsi went on to lead the Liwa al-Haqq rebel group before it merged with Ahrar al-Sham. In Riyadh, they signed an agreement supporting negotiations with the Syrian government, despite threatening to walk out of the talks.

The bombing raids and assassinations are both ways to re-arrange the chairs at the negotiating table before one has even been convened. Far from helping the peace talks take place in Geneva, the bombing campaign is killing them.

There is no agreement between Russia and America on whom in the Syrian opposition should live and whom should die, who is a “moderate” and who is a “terrorist”, who is legitimate and who is not. Russia reserves the right to decide for itself, although it has Arab allies in Jordan and Egypt who agree with it. There is no dialogue between Russia and Turkey, and therefore no agreement on which Kurdish groups should be represented at the talks. There is no possibility of an Iranian delegation sitting at the same table with a Saudi one. And even if the outer ring of combatant states agree, they lack control over the militias they arm and finance.

It is clutching at straws to think that Putin has bought himself leverage with Bashar al-Assad or indeed with Barack Obama after the sanctions imposed after the Ukrainian conflict. When Putin attempted to persuade Assad to soften his response to the unarmed uprising in Deraa in 2011, the Syrian leader ignored him. Now that the war has become a question of life or death for Assad, his wife and mother, there is little likelihood of that lever working more effectively now, even if we rashly assume that peace is on Putin’s agenda.

Obama is relaxed about letting Syrian fires burn, as any Syrian lobbyist in Washington will unhappily relate. He is deeply sceptical about the prospect of an early solution to the war. He knows Russia will get itself deeper and deeper into this conflict but he is not bothered. It was Putin’s fundamental mistake to think that he was.

What, then, led Putin to make such a fundamental decision on 30 September? He and Assad were contemporaries as heads of state, but they were never close. Assad ignored Putin for the first five years preferring visits to Western capitals instead. It was only when Russia came to a deal on Syria debt that the first Moscow visit materialised in 2005. Similarly, Syria was not on Russia’s radar until the Arab Spring and 2011 when Assad first crushed an unarmed civilian uprising in Deraa.

At the time, Putin would have listed his main regional allies as Turkey, Israel and Iran, in that order. When the Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu flew secretly to Moscow in a private jet to persuade Putin not to supply Iran with the latest surface to air missiles, Putin sacrificed his Iranian interests for his Israeli ones. The missiles were taken off the flat bed railway trucks destined for Tehran.

What prompted such a radical and risky decision ? Was it the imminent collapse of Assad? Was it part of a grandiose geopolitical project to restore a Soviet or indeed an Imperial Russian presence?

How Putin found his voice

One clue is a personal one, and it is to be found when Putin had no voice, no public record, and no following. 1999 was a bad year in Russia. Rival oligarchs were running riot. Not for the first time since 1992, the Russian state felt as if it was being shaken apart. Enter an unknown and untested hireling from Petersburg.

Putin, often described as a creature of the KGB, owed his rapid promotion to Moscow to the Family, Yeltsin’s self-serving band of oligarchs and neoliberal economists, which were thought of by Bill Clinton as Russia’s future. The nemesis of US’s plans to reshape Russia in its image did not emerge from the communist party, but from the bowels of the regime Washington was supporting. Putin’s career very nearly foundered on a scandal in which Petersburg lost $100m of food imports as barter for Russian timber, oil and other raw materials.

Putin needed more than just sponsorship to become known in times of turmoil. He needed something bigger like a war. Chechen militant attacks in Dagestan and around Moscow provided him with one.

Russia lost its first campaign in Chechnya and it sued for peace. An uneasy one followed. Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen leader, ran out of money and the better financed and equipped Wahabi-influenced field commanders under the rival leadership of the warlord Shamil Basayev began to take over. Foreigners were kidnapped. A raid was staged in Dagestan and Russia was hit by a series of apartment bombings in which over 300 died.

In one of them, a group of FSB agents in a car with Moscow plates was caught by local police in Ryazan, a city outside Moscow, planting a device. The FSB said it was a training exercise. It was never proven, but the suspicion that the bombings could have been mounted by the FSB to justify a second war in Chechnya never went away either. The ex-Russian spy who joined MI6, Alexander Litvinenko, claimed to have more evidence on the apartment bombings. A British inquiry found that his poisoning was “probably ordered” by Putin.

Putin found his voice, which he took from the street: “We’ll get them anywhere. If we find terrorists in the shithouse, then we’ll waste them in the shithouse. That’s all there is to it.” That voice is still the one he uses today in Syria.

The Second Chechen war made the first seem restrained in comparison. The savagery was not one sided. The Nord-Ost theatre siege, the Moscow metro bombings were Chechen militant atrocities. Pure terrorism which in the case of Beslan, targeted Russian children. The savagery of Russian counter-insurgency in Chechnya was however sustained. The following is a taste of it.

The late and much missed Anna Politkovskaya described in her last book ” A Russian Diary” a video taken during a transfer of Chechen prisoners by the Special Operations Unit of the Russian Ministry of Justice. These fighters were allegedly “amnestied” after an assault on the village of Komsomolskoye in February to March 2000. Anyone interested in the fate of Syria should re-read this.

“The video is like a feature film from a fascist concentration camp. This is precisely the way the guards behave, their assault rifle at ready lined down a hill, at the bottom of which is the railway track with the waiting wagons. The men and boys (one is clearly 15 to 16 ) are flung from vans or themselves jump to the ground. They are all in bad physical shape, some being carried by their friends. All are wounded. Some are without legs, some without arms; the ear of one of them is hanging off, half-severed. The soldiers can be heard commenting: “Look they did not take that one’s ear off properly.” Many are completely naked, barefoot, covered in blood. Their clothing and footwear are tossed out of the vehicles separately. The fighters are completely exhausted. Some do not understand what is required of them and stumble about in confusion. Some are insane. On the video the soldiers beat them in a routine, automatic sort of way, as if they are doing it out of habit. There are no doctors to be seen. Some of the stronger fighters are ordered to pull from the vans the bodies of those who have died during the transfer and drag them to one side. At the end of the video there is a mountain of corpses of the amnestied prisoners by the railway track.”

Politkovskaya’s report is posthumous. She was to lose her life for reports like this, along with human rights activist Natalya Estemirova, the two members of the parliamentary commission investigating the flat bombings and a host of other honest souls. The trail of blood usually led back to the man Putin put in charge of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, the younger son of an assassinated Chechen rebel turned Moscow placeman.

Politkovskaya was the daughter of a Soviet diplomat, probably also a senior KGB man. As a child of the Soviet elite, she had the fearlessness of an insider. When she reported about abuses perpetrated by Russian servicemen, she also reported abuses on Russian soldiers, such as treatment terrified conscripts received from hazing. Politkovskaya was a Russian patriot.

George W. Bush had Putin’s back during this period, although the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg was overwhelmed with referrals. It was a marriage of convenience. Russia supported the War on Terror, as long as Bush subsumed Russia’s campaign in Chechnya into it. The same process continues to this day, although there is more reason to conflate the insurgency in the North Caucasus with IS, as this is what the militants themselves do. The Russian response to Chechnya is a textbook example of how to breed a generation of suicide bombers. Russia went out of its way to assassinate the middle ground as it, and Assad, is now seeking to do in Syria.

The war that Putin restarted in 2000 has never left him, just as the Iraq invasion three years later has never left America or Britain. Russian military intelligence today claims there are 3,000 Russian Federation nationals and 4,000 from the post-Soviet space fighting Assad in Syria. That is 7,000 fighters ready to return and fight on the streets of Moscow. When Putin sees IS or Syrian opposition forces, he sees the same enemy that Russia has been fighting in the North Caucasus and in Tajikistan in Central Asia for the past three decades.


The second driver of his calculations in Syria is Libya. Dmitry Medvedev’s career has not recovered from his decision to abstain in the vote for the UN resolution that paved the way for the NATO intervention. When Gaddafy was killed (Russians claim with French and British involvement) a hue and cry went up in Moscow. Medvedev was denounced as traitor. A high-quality film appeared on the internet saying as much. Russia’s worst fears were realised when the Libyan state fell apart and they say they are determined not to repeat the experience in Syria.

“In general the issue of regime change, toppling regimes and promoting democracy or whatever, it was what Putin was afraid of. It was regarded as a form of pressure on behalf of the West, there was a regional balance in the Middle East, and to remove Assad, to destroy this country, it was regarded as a disaster. To turn Syria into another Libya was totally unacceptable. This was the thinking.” one Russian expert said.

Putin then is set not just on keeping the Syrian state intact. With this objective many would agree. He is also fighting against the Arab Spring in all forms and with all the means at his disposal. His praise of, and support for the military coup leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt is based on nothing less.

What follows is a contest of wills, trench warfare, First World War style. The campaign will be fought as much on the economic as the military front. Putin claims he has the foreign reserves to see the current crisis created by record low oil prices out. He said in his last interview with Die Zeit, that his central bank has $350bn in gold and foreign currency reserves along with two reserve funds of $70bn each: “We believe that we will be steadily moving towards stabilisation and economic growth,” he said.

Russian economists such as Vladislav Inozemtsev and Stanislav Tkachenko are more sceptical. Tkachenko said the cost to Russia of severing ties to Turkey could exceed $30bn. “The fragile shoots of economic growth in Russia, after nearly a year of recession, would be torn out of the ground,” he added.

Saudi Arabia has bigger pockets than Russia, and several other reasons to keep the price of a barrel at records lows – squeezing shale oil out of them market and doing its best to hamper Iran’s re-entry into global markets.

All the signs point to a prolonged and protracted Russia military intervention. Look for accommodation blocks being built for the families of Russian pilots in Latakia. Six-week rotations will not do.

Each foreign intervention in Syria creates its own dynamic. Russia’s is no exception. Their bombing raids have left thousands more Syrian fighters with a score of their own to settle. They have TOW missiles and they pray for Russian tanks to come into range. The popular rage is great. Putin should not think he can re-arrange the Muslim House in Syria any more successfully than he has done so in the North Caucasus. If he were wise, he should plan his exit strategy now.

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The slow end of the Sisi régime

Amira Abo el-Fetouh writes

The coup led government in Egypt is at the peak of its weakness, even though it does not show it. The hand of oppression, brutality and oppression has extended to every component and group in society and it has kidnapped the youth from cafes and means of transportation. The latest incident was the kidnapping of five girls from a bus in Al-Matriyeh district. Others were kidnapped from their homes and places of work, including the doctor in Al-Faiyum who was killed at the hands of the police.

This is not including the cases of forced disappearance, which have exceeded 300 according to the reports of human rights organisations. They are recreating the time before the January 25 Revolution when the entire nation revolted against the tyrant Hosni Mubarak and he was deposed. However, unfortunately, they did not depose his corrupt regime and deep state. Instead, they attacked the nation and their great revolution with a bloody coup and counter-revolution organised by the intelligence agencies, funded by the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and blessed by the US, Israel and Europe. They descended upon the fruit of the democracy born from the womb of a great revolution that impressed the entire world and shook the thrones of every king and leader in the region.

I also do not forget the role played by intellectuals who are considered elites and who tired us with their demands for freedom and democracy for many long years. However, when democracy brought their archenemy, the Muslim Brotherhood to power, they disbelieved in democracy and human rights and attack it instead. They rode the tanks and favoured injustice, oppression and violence.

The military managed to steal the people’s revolution and restore its rule with an iron fist. The closer the revolution’s anniversary becomes, the more panicked and vengeful they become. They take revenge on all the symbols and icons of the revolution. They increase their arrests and torture against anyone who supported or blessed the revolution because they know that they are a weak regime founded on the bodies and ruins of their people.

The case of Hisham Genena, head of the Central Auditing Organisation (CAO), is not far from this type of revenge. This man was a symbol of the judiciary revolution in 2006, which called for the independence of the judiciary after discovering the forgery of the elections. This revolution paved the way for the January 25 Revolution.

He was appointed head of the organisation during the rule of the legitimate President Mohamed Morsi due to his honesty and integrity. However, a fierce campaign was launched against him because he stated that the corruption in Egypt reached $77 billion in 2015. This caused a great ruckus because he referred to sovereign parties such as the army, intelligence, police and judiciary. Instead of questioning these parties and holding them accountable, they prepared to hang him and called for his dismissal, putting him in prison and prosecuting him for high treason.

The corrupt state is trying to cover its corruption, protect the symbols of the state and get rid of every pure and honourable individual in the country. It is as if the state is saying to these individuals: there is no place for you here. This is the corrupt state against which the people revolted on 25 January, but regrettably, its roots were not eliminated. Only the head of the state was removed. This was the greatest mistake made by the nation and now the entire Egyptian nation is paying the price for it. The same state has returned, with all of its institutions and agencies, with a new head. Now the rebels have learned their lesson and they are planning revenge against them in their next revolution. This is where the coup-led government’s fear, panic and horror from the upcoming revolution are stemming from.

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