Category: Russia


Months after Russia spectacularly entered the Syrian conflict, Islamic State (IS) is still thumbing its nose at both Moscow and the Assad regime in murderous fashion.

On May 23, the group detonated between seven and nine car and suicide bombs in the coastal cities of Jableh and Tartous, killing about 150 people and wounding more than 225.

The targets included bus stations, electricity stations, and a national hospital.

The co-ordinated attacks, the first of their kind in Assad’s heartland provinces on the Mediterranean, conveyed a deadly message: despite the loss of Palmyra in central Syria in late March, despite the offensive threatening the IS-held city of Fallujah in Iraq, IS can still strike at the core of the Assad regime.

That message has far wider implications. Since Russia began its aerial intervention in September 2015, the Assad regime and Moscow — along with Iran and Hezbollah — have been trying to present strength against their principal opponents, the rebel factions who have challenged Damascus since 2011, long before IS became one of their main enemies.

Yet despite thousands of bombings and ground offensives across the country, the Assad-Russia-Iran-Hezbollah campaign has yet to make a significant breakthrough.

And now the IS bombings have revived the fear that prompted the Russian intervention in the first place: that Assad and the Syrian military can’t even protect what remains of the Syrian population in regime-controlled areas.

A dilemma for Russia

Only two months before these stunning attacks, the Assad regime and Russia appeared to have turned a corner in Syria’s five-year conflict. While the rebels had not been defeated, their advances had been contained, and some territory had been reclaimed from them. The Syrian military, alongside Hezbollah and Iranian-led units, had won a symbolic victory with the recapture of Palmyra and its Roman ruins from IS.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sought an endgame. With the defence line apparently secured from Damascus to Homs to Latakia, Putin announced a withdrawal of some warplanes. Moscow would concentrate on a political settlement that would secure the regime, if not Assad himelf, through talks in Geneva. Meanwhile, its remaining forces could attack IS and the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra, both of which were excluded from a February 27 “cessation of hostilities” brokered by Russia and the US.

But Moscow soon faced an unexpected challenge. Perhaps buoyed by the propaganda around “victory” in Palmyra, Assad said he would not leave power in the foreseeable future. Even before the Geneva talks reconvened, he rejected a transitional governing authority, the centrepiece of international proposals since 2012.

Assad’s rejection, which effectively consigned the Geneva process to oblivion, was soon followed by worse news from the battlefield. Citing continued attacks by the regime, rebels and Jabhat al-Nusra struck back near Aleppo city. Throughout April, they seized much of the territorylost since September, including towns on the Aleppo-to-Damascus highway. Equally important, they inflicted significant casualties on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Iranian-led Iraqi and Afghan militia, who had taken over the fight from Assad around Syria’s largest city.

Russian and Syrian warplanes responded with intense bombing, reducing the “cessation of hostilities” to a diplomatic farce. They killed hundreds of civilians in and near Aleppo and destroyed hospitals and other vital facilities, but failed to regain the initiative on the ground. While the pro-Assad forces, including the Iranians, suffered more losses, the rebels and Jabhat al-Nusra captured villages in Hama and northern Homs Provinces.

Meanwhile, IS was causing further trouble elsewhere. Striking back near Palmyra, it took two major gas fields, tightening its grip on Syria’s energy production. In the east of the country, it attacked Assad forces in Deir ez-Zor city, briefly holding key positions as both sides suffered heavy casualties.

The pro-Assad forces finally got their first good news since Palmyra when the Syrian military and Hezbollah seized part of the East Ghouta area near Damascus. Yet paradoxically, even this victory laid bare the steep obstacles in the way of Moscow and the Assad regime. The East Ghouta advance was only possible because the rebels’ defenses were weakened by in-fighting, and because Hezbollah redeployed all its fighters from fronts in northern and central Syria.

While Assad’s supporters celebrated, the lesson was clear: the best hope for the regime is to secure its core area, pushing back the rebels near Damascus and maintaining the line to Homs and the Mediterranean. Any idea that it can regain control of all of Syria, or even most of it, is an illusion.

Source: ISIS strikes in Assad territory are exposing Syria and Russia’s weaknesses – Business Insider

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States said it was not discussing joint air strikes with Russia on Monday and called on Moscow to press Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government to cease air strikes against opposition forces in Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs.

“We’re not looking at joint operations,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner. “We’re discussing with them proposals for sustainable mechanisms to better monitor and enforce the cessation of hostilities – we’re not talking about joint operations.”

Toner said the United States was concerned about an uptick in violence in Syria – by both Islamic State and Assad’s forces – and said Russia had a special responsibility to press the Syrian leader to end attacks and strikes that kill civilians.

The Syrian government needs to recognise that “if this keeps up, we may be looking at a complete breakdown” of the cessation of hostilities, Toner said. A truce brokered by the United States and Russia in February has been unravelling for weeks.

Washington urged the Assad regime to end its escalating attacks on Aleppo and Daraya, as well as besieging towns and obstructing humanitarian access, the department said.

“Secretary Kerry raised these concerns in a call with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov earlier today and urged him to press the regime to cease at once airstrikes against opposition forces and innocent civilians in Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs,” the State Department said in a statement.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for bombs that killed nearly 150 people and wounded at least 200 in Jableh and Tartous on Syria’s Mediterranean coast on Monday in the government-controlled territory that hosts a Russian military base.

(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chris Reese and Alan Crosby)

Source: Russia has special responsibility to push Syria to stop attacks – U.S.

An Australian law firm has filed a compensation claim against Russia and President Vladimir Putin in the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of families of victims of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, shot down in 2014, media reported.

The jetliner crashed in Ukraine in pro-Russian rebel-held territory on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 people on board, including 28 Australians.

The aircraft, which was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile, the Dutch Safety Board concluded in its final report late last year.

Fighting was raging in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces when the aircraft was downed and many Western experts and governments blamed the rebels.

Australia’s Fairfax media reported on Saturday that 33 next of kin were of victims named in an application by Sydney law firm LHD Lawyers, representing people from Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia.

The application was filed on May 9 and names the Russian Federation and Putin as respondents and seeks $10 million in compensation per passenger, the report said.

The Dutch Safety Board, which was not empowered to address questions of responsibility, did not point the finger at any group or party for launching the missile.

“So far we don’t have (such information)” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Interfax news agency when asked to comment on reports of the compensation claim.

Malaysia, the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium and Ukraine have been exploring alternative options, including trials in international and national courts, after Russia vetoed a United Nations bid in July 2015 to form a tribunal.

Reuters could not immediately reach LHD Lawyers for comment.

Source: Australian firm names Russia, Putin in MH17 compensation claim – report | Reuters

A United Nations Security Council condemnation of North Korea’s latest missile tests has been delayed by Russian amendments to a statement that had been agreed by the remaining 14 members, including Pyongyang’s ally China, diplomats said on Tuesday.

North Korea test-fired what appeared to be two intermediate-range ballistic missiles on Thursday, but both failed. China’s U.N. Ambassador Liu Jieyi, president of the U.N. Security Council last month, said the body was working on a response.

“The Security Council needs to respond swiftly; so we don’t understand why Russia is blocking while all other council members, including China, which borders DPRK (North Korea), can agree,” Britain’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador Peter Wilson said.

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said on Monday that Moscow had added “some very valuable input” to the draft council statement that the United States was considering “unhappily.”

“We need to call a spade a spade and we think that asking for the interested parties to scale down their military activity in the region is very important,” Churkin said, referring to moves by the United States and South Korea.

Russia and China on Friday called on the United States not to install a new anti-missile system in South Korea, after Washington said it was in talks with Seoul following North Korea’s nuclear arms and missile tests.

The North routinely threatens to destroy South Korea and the United States.

Source: Russia delays U.N. council condemnation of North Korea missile tests | Reuters

gen-curtis-scaparrotti

The NATO alliance is getting a new supreme commander this week, a former top-ranking U.S. military officer in Korea who has been described by Defense Secretary Ash Carter as a proven warrior-diplomat and “a soldiers’ general.”

U.S. Army Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti was installed Tuesday as head of U.S. European Command, and will become NATO’s supreme allied commander Europe following a separate ceremony Wednesday at alliance military headquarters in southern Belgium.

Scaparrotti, 60, will become the 18th U.S. officer to hold the post since Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first NATO SACEUR in 1951. The commander is responsible for the overall direction and conduct of global military operations for the 28-nation NATO alliance, which now faces multiple security challenges ranging from a resurgent Russia to armed Islamic extremism.

Source: NATO Alliance Getting New Supreme Commander – ABC News

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