that little dance between erdogan and putin

Russia Again Disciplines The Wannabe Sultan
Moon of Alabama, Dec 1 2016

The Russians just gave (again) a public lecture of how to handle the wannabe-Sultan Erdogan. Hurriyet on Nov 29 has Turkey entered Syria to end al-Assad’s rule: President Erdoğan. Erdoğan said Nov 29 that the Turkish military launched its operations in Syria to end the rule of Assad. Erdoğan said at the first Inter-Parliamentary Jayloomia Platform Symposium in Istanbul:

In my estimation, nearly 1 million people have died in Syria. These deaths are still continuing without exception for children, women and men. Where is the UN? What is it doing? Is it in Iraq? No. We preached patience but could not endure in the end and had to enter Syria together with the FSA. Why did we enter? We do not have an eye on Syrian soil. The issue is to provide lands to their real owners. That is to say: we are there for the establishment of justice. We entered there to end the rule of the tyrant al-Assad, who terrorizes with state terror, not for any other reason.

If Turkish troops were in Syria to remove its President, instead with the flimsy excuse of fighting Daesh under a badly fitting UN mandate, they would be a hostile invasion force and a legitimate target for Syria and its allies. The remark was thus stupid. It weakened the Turkish position. Erdogan was immediately told so: RT.com on Nov 30 has Kremlin asks Erdogan to clarify ‘anti-Assad’ goals in Syria, saying that Erdogan’s statement caused consternation in the Kremlin. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday:

The statement was indeed news, this is a very serious statement. It is in discord with the previous ones in general and with our understanding of the situation. We hope that in the near future there will be explanations on this from our Turkish partners. Russia is the only country whose armed forces are in Syria on a legitimate basis, at the direct request of the Syrian authorities.

The emphasized part is a hardly hidden direct threat. Erdogan put his forces in Syria into immediate jeopardy. Erdogan tried to save the situation, promising a retreat from his statement for at least some gain for the Jihadis he supports. On Nov 30 Hurriyet wrote in Erdogan and Putin discuss #Aleppo for the third time this week: Disagreement over ceasefire? –

Erdoğan discussed the grave situation in Aleppo with Putin by phone for the third time in a week today, “agreeing on the need for a ceasefire,” presidential sources said. The sources said the two leaders agreed to step up efforts to stop clashes in Aleppo and deliver humanitarian aid to civilians in the besieged city.

That was the Turkish version of the call. The Russian statement on that call was sparse and did not mention any ceasefire. Thus this translation from Diplomatese: “I will take that statement back if you give me a ceasefire deal in Aleppo,” Erdogan told President Putin. “Screw you,” was the response. AP on Dec 1 has Turkey, Russia see need for Aleppo truce but divisions remain, which says:

Lavrov said the bloodshed must stop in Syria and the region, that Moscow was ready to talk to all parties in the war, and that it would continue cooperating with Turkey. But he also vowed Russia would continue its operations in eastern Aleppo and would rescue the city from what he described as terrorists.

Erdogan’s statement, aimed at his supporters in Turkey and elsewhere, created a legal mess for his troops. The attempt to sell a retreat from it for some gain was harshly rejected by Russia. Now all Erdogan could do was to take his statement back with no gain at all. This was quite a loss of face for him, a well-deserved one. Hurriyet on Dec 1 has Operation in Syria only targets terror, Erdoğan clarifies:

The aim of the Euphrates Shield Operation is no country or person but only terror organizations. No one should doubt this issue that we have uttered over and over, and no one should comment on it in another fashion, or try to.

Hahaha! See how that dog pulls its tail between its legs, whining in retreat? The game Erdogan tried would probably have worked with Merkel or some other EU politician, but Russia will have none of it. No means no. When Russia says stay out of al-Bab, it means stay out of al-Bab. With regard to Syria, Erdogan now has to do what he is told to do. He was just publicly lectured about that again. Still, I doubt that he really learned the lesson.

wikileaks for thursday

aint murder when we do it

Pindosi air strikes killing dozens of Syrian troops were legal, say Pindosis
Al Jazeera, Nov 28 2016

An investigation has found air strikes by the Pindo-led coalition that reportedly killed dozens of troops fighting for the Syrian government did not violate international law. The targets of the strikes near the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor were misidentified as Daesh on Sep 17, but they turned out to be Syrian soldiers, CENTCOM said in a statement on Tuesday. CENTCOM said:

Although air strikes likely hit forces aligned with the government of Syria, the strikes were conducted under a good faith belief that the strikes were targeting Daesh, in accordance with the law of armed conflict and the applicable rules of engagement. (There wasn’t) a deliberate disregard of targeting procedures or the rules of engagement.

62 Syrian soldiers were killed and at least 100 more wounded. The attack was the first known direct strike by the coalition on the forces of Assad. Brig-Gen R Coe, the investigating officer, said a number of “human factors” contributed to the misidentification. He said:

In my opinion, these were a number of people all doing their best to do a good job. In many ways these forces looked and acted like the Daesh forces the coalition has been targeting for the last two years.

Al Jazeera’s Rosiland Jordan, reporting from Washington DC, said there was no information on whether anyone was being punished for the series of human errors that led to the deadly incident. She added this crap to the Brig-Gen’s gabrage:

Prior to the attack, the coalition tried to communicate information about the planned air raid with Russia, to make sure Russian or Syrian fighter jets would not be in the area getting in their way. The Russians were not able to get back in touch with their coalition point of contact on time. When the coalition found out that the targeted fighters were known to the Russians, the strikes stopped.

Australia, Denmark and Britain also participated in the attack (token participation – RB). Syria denounced the air strike and said it was “conclusive evidence” of Pindo support for Daesh, and called it “dangerous and blatant aggression.”

aleppo

Russia says ready to escort aid agencies into eastern Aleppo
Reuters, Nov 30 2016

MOSCOW – The Russian Defence Ministry said on Wednesday it was ready to escort aid agencies into parts of Syria’s eastern Aleppo recently cleared of rebels, but said it had not received any requests from the United Nations or anyone else so far. Sergei Rudskoi, a defense ministry official, told reporters Syrian government forces had completely cleared the Castello road of rebels, meaning there was now an unimpeded path for aid deliveries. Rudskoi also said Russia’s air force had not bombed targets inside Aleppo for 44 straight days.

Syrian rebels vow to resist army advances in Aleppo
Angus McDowall, Tom Perry, Reuters, Nov 30 2016

BEIRUT – Syrian rebels on Wednesday vowed to fight on in east Aleppo in the face of sudden government advances that have cut the area held by the opposition by a third in recent days and brought insurgents in the city to the brink of a catastrophic defeat. Gains by the Syrian army and its allies since last week have brought whole districts back under government control and led to a human exodus as thousands have fled their pulverized neighborhoods near the rapidly shifting front lines. With the rebels now reduced to an area just kilometers across, the leaders of Russia and Turkey spoke by phone on the need for a ceasefire, according to sources in Ankara. The army and its allies said they had taken the Sheikh Saeed district in the south of the city on Wednesday. Rebels denied this, saying the government’s advance had been repelled. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the insurgents retained a third of Sheikh Saeed. The SOHR reported that the government was detaining and questioning hundreds of those fleeing rebel-held areas for the comparative safety of state-controlled districts. A Syrian military source denied this, saying there had been no arrests, but adding that displaced people whose identities were not known were being moved into “specific places” in the areas of Aleppo where fleeing civilians were found. In their attack on Wednesday, government forces stepped up the use of air strikes, including in Aleppo’s Old City, according to a rebel official. Rescue workers in eastern Aleppo said 45 people were killed in an artillery bombardment. UN aid chief Stephen O’Brien, told a UNSC emergency meeting on Aleppo:

Dozens of humanitarian staff are trapped in Aleppo. Warring parties must protect civilians before the city becomes one giant graveyard.

Russia said it hoped the Aleppo situation could be resolved by the end of the year. Rebels in the city have vowed no surrender. While rebel lines collapsed unexpectedly in parts of eastern Aleppo at the weekend, sources on the government side say the next phase could be more difficult as they try to take more densely populated areas of the city. Zakaria Malahifji, head of the political office of the Aleppo-based Fastaqim rebel group, told Reuters that rebel groups in the city had rejected any withdrawal.He said from Turkey, without giving further details:

This is the decision of the factions. I spoke to them about everything that was tabled and they said they would not withdraw, and other things may also happen.

With tens of thousands of people remaining in rebel-held areas of Aleppo, many say they would rather risk death than surrender. Thousands of people who have fled the fighting have gone into the Kurdish-controlled Sheikh Maqsoud district rather than hand themselves over to the government. Salem Abu Mudar, an east Aleppo resident reached by Reuters, said:

I fear that the regime will not let me go and I will end up in one of its many prisons.

Damascus says such reports of arbitrary detention and torture are fabricated. The Syrian military source said reports of detentions in Aleppo were intended to scare the people into staying under rebel rule, and that identities of people leaving the area had to be checked to ensure they were not militants. The army has urged Aleppo’s rebel factions to accept a surrender under which they would abandon the city. In previous deals between the government and rebels, insurgents have been given safe passage to the opposition-held province of Idlib. Rescue workers in the rebel zone said renewed artillery bombardment had killed more than 45 people, mostly women and children, on Wednesday and injured dozens more, including some of those who had fled from frontline areas. The Observatory put the toll from that attack at 26. Aref al-Aref, a nurse and photographer in a rebel-held part of the city, said:

Today there was another massacre! I witnessed it! The displaced people were coming at 6:30 am. There was artillery shelling while they were walking in the streets. Really, it was so, so horrible!

Footage sent by the Civil Defence rescue operation White helmets, purportedly of the aftermath, showed people lying in the street in pools of blood, including a woman dressed in black who had been carrying a large backpack. Reuters could not independently verify the date or location of the video. Rebel shelling of government-held districts in western Aleppo killed eight people, including two children, and wounded seven, the official SANA news agency reported, citing a source in the city’s police force. Russian soldiers helped distribute food aid to displaced people who had fled eastern Aleppo to government areas, handing out packages stamped with the Russian flag and the slogan “Russia is with you” in Arabic. Moscow said it had been in contact with Pres-elect Trump’s team. Putin and Erdogan agreed in a telephone conversation on Wednesday on the need for a ceasefire and provision of aid to Aleppo, sources in Erdogan’s office said. Moscow did not immediately comment on the call, but Vitaly Churkin told the UNSC:

We share the grave concerns of the plight of civilians in east Aleppo, but easing their suffering won’t happen by ceasing the counter terrorist operation.

Sergei Lavrov is due to meet his Turkish counterpart in Antalya on Thursday. The fighting has displaced around 50,000 people in parts of east Aleppo, the Observatory said on Wednesday. Speaking in Paris, Brita Hagi Hasan, president of the local council in rebel-held Aleppo districts, said the government should set up a safe corridor for civilians to leave.

Syrian government forces, rebels fight in southeast Aleppo area
Reuters, Nov 30 2016

Syrian government forces and their allies clashed with rebels in southeast Aleppo on Wednesday, a rebel official and a monitor said, as Damascus and its allies try to build on major gains in the city. There were conflicting accounts of the fighting in Sheikh Said, on the south-eastern edge of Aleppo. A Syrian military source said government troops and their allies had captured the entire district, but a rebel official denied this. Zakaria Malahifji, head of the political office of the Aleppo-based Fastaqim rebel group, said:

We have fully repelled the Syrian army and allied militias from Sheikh Said. There are ongoing clashes in the area. The regime entered Sheikh Saeed, and then the rebel factions pushed it out. The factions took complete control of the district.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that rebel groups still controlled a third of the district, while government forces and allied militias had advanced and seized the rest of it. Fierce fighting continued in the district, the SOHR said

macron “is considered an outsider” indeed

French candidate Macron wants closer ties with Russia
AP, Nov 3, 2016

PARIS — French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron is promising to reopen discussions with Russia and to make the fight against Daesh a priority. The former French economy minister, who is leading a centrist campaign, told journalists on Wednesday that Russia must play a decisive role in ending the conflict in Syria. But he says ousting Assad cannot be a prior condition before taking action to end the war. Macron criticized his former mentor, President Francois Hollande, saying that Hollande pushed Russia to isolate itself from Europe and to look toward Asia. Macron also favors renewed peace talks to stabilize the situation in eastern Ukraine in order to be able to gradually diminish sanctions against Russia. The 38-year-old is considered an outsider in France’s April-May presidential election.

detente & demarche at one & the same time is an impossibility

Kremlin asks Turkey to explain Erdogan’s remark about toppling Assad
Reuters, Nov 30 2016

The Kremlin said on Wednesday that Erdogan’s statement that his forces in Syria were there to topple Assad had come as a surprise to Moscow and that it expected an explanation from Ankara. In a speech on Tuesday, Erdogan condemned what he said was the failure of the UN in Syria and cast Turkey’s incursion in August, when it sent tanks, fighter jets and special forces over the border, as an act of exasperation. Erdogan said:

We are there to bring justice. We are there to end the rule of the cruel Assad, who has been spreading state terror.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call:

The announcement really came as news to us. It is a very serious statement and one which differs from previous ones and with our understanding of the situation. We hope that our Turkish partners will provide us with some kind of explanation about this.

Erdogan, Putin Agree on Need for Aleppo Cease-fire, Aid Relief
Reuters, Nov 3, 2016

Erdogan discussed the situation in Syria’s Aleppo with Putin by phone for the third time in a week on Wednesday and agreed on the need for a cease-fire, sources in Erdogan’s office said. The sources said the two leaders agreed on intensifying efforts towards a cessation of hostilities and on the need for the provision of aid to the city, the sources said. Russia is a main backer of Assad, while Turkey supports the rebels fighting to oust him, but the two have been trying to find common ground on Syria since a rapprochement in August. Syrian rebels on Wednesday vowed to fight on in east Aleppo in the face of sudden government advances that have cut the city’s opposition sector by a third and brought the insurgents to the brink of a catastrophic defeat.

Turkey needed detente with Russia to pursue Syria operation: minister
Reuters, Nov 30 2016

Turkey would not so easily have been able to carry out its military offensive in Syria without “positive developments” in its relations with Russia, Turkish Deputy PM Canikli said on Wednesday. Turkey restored strained ties with Russia in August, the same month in which it sent tanks and special forces into Syria in support of Turkmen and Arab rebels fighting Daesh, in an operation dubbed “Euphrates Shield.” Canikli told TGRT television:

We could not have moved so comfortably in the Euphrates Shield operation if it weren’t for the positive developments with Russia.

But he said Turkey had not strayed from its “core policies” in Syria despite productive talks between Erdogan and Putin, who have held a series of phone calls this week. Russia and Turkey have been trying to find common ground on Syria since their rapprochement almost four months ago.

greenwald admits that bannon is perfectly positioned

Growing Far-Right Nationalistic Movements Are Dangerously Anti-Muslim — and  Pro-Israel
Glenn Greenwald, Intercept, Nov 30 2016

Heinz-Christian Strache, head of Austria’s Freedom Party, congratulates Norbert Hofer,
candidate for Austria’s presidency, during an after-election party in Vienna, May 22 2016.

The specter of a growing far-right nationalism anywhere, but particularly in Central Europe immediately, and for good and obvious reasons, raises fears of an anti-Semitism revival. But at least thus far, the leaders of most of these nationalistic parties, increasingly inspired and fueled by one another’s success, have showcased dangerous animosity toward Muslims, accompanied by strong policy support for Israel and a rhetorical repudiation of anti-Semitism. Whether from cynical tactical considerations or actual conviction, the most successful leaders of this emerging movement, while unrestrained with their reckless anti-Muslim fearmongering, not only repudiate anti-Semitism in words but are incorporating steadfast support for Israel as part of their policy agenda. And in many cases, the Israeli government, which itself exhibits many of the same far-right attributes as these movements, is expressing support in return. Austria is the latest example of a far-right xenophobic party on the verge of obtaining what was until quite recently unthinkable power. Because the country is the birthplace of Hitler, with a not-so-distant past of electing Nazi-connected leaders, it is perhaps the most viscerally alarming yet. Today’s NYT describes with overt concern the very real possibility that the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer (pictured above) will defeat his Green Party opponent in this weekend’s election and become Austria’s president. It quotes a prominent columnist with the liberal daily Der Standard as saying that “Austria will not be recognizable” if the Freedom Party ascends to power. The party’s leaders, quite reasonably, credit Trump’s election and the approval of Brexit with increasing their own chances of success.

The Freedom Party “was created by a group of former Nazis in the 1950s,” and its rise in the 1990s created global controversy under the charismatic extremist, Hitler-admiring Jörg Haider. Today, Hofer demagogues (evidently a verb – RB) animosity toward Muslims in all the standard ways: equating migrants with “Jihadists,” warning of the “Islamification” of Europe, and pronouncing that “Islam is not a part of Austria.” Not only does Hofer repudiate all anti-Semitism and insist it has no place in his party, he made news earlier this year by calling for the demolition of Hitler’s childhood home and his party sponsored “a New Anti-Semitism Conference” starring the Israeli spy who captured Adolf Eichmann, but the Freedom Party has, in the words of an expert cited by the NYT, “made it part of their strategy to draw closer to Israel.” In 2014, Hofer made a pilgrimage to Jayloomia, laying a wreath at Yad Vashem, and has touted his trip to Israel so flamboyantly in his campaign that he caused a mini-scandal for himself by embellishing a “terrorist” shooting he witnessed at Temple Mount. He vowed to make a trip to Israel an early priority if he’s elected. Israeli officials have noticed the pro-Israel bent of Hofer’s posture and some have returned the sentiments of support. Former MK Michael Kleiner, who spoke on a panel at the Freedom Party’s anti-Semitism conference proclaimed:

They are one of the most pro-Israel parties in Europe.

The Freedom Party’s leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, visited Israel on the invitation of Netanyahu, and he spent his time meeting with settlement leaders, planning how to oppose a movement in the EU to label goods from illegal Israeli settlements, vowing to do everything he could to oppose all boycotts aimed at Israel. A settlement leader gushed:

He supports Israel, he is against labeling and against the boycott. I didn’t hear that from anyone in the UK.

The same dynamic is seen even more remarkably in France, where Marine Le Pen’s National Front Party, founded by her Holocaust-minimizing father and long filled with overt Nazi sympathizers, has not only purged anti-Semites from its ranks but declared itself steadfastly pro-Israel. For years she has been re-casting her far-right party as pro-Israel based on shared antipathy toward “Muslim extremists,” and news reports in both Israeli and Jewish journals are increasingly describing the receptiveness of French Jews toward voting for her, in large part due to their shared fear of, and animosity toward, French Muslims. These far-right parties are uniformly opposed to any boycott movement aimed at ending Israeli settlements. One of the most significant anti-Semitism controversies in recent history in Pindostan also vividly underscores the dynamic. When Donald Trump named Steve Bannon as his White House chief strategist, some Pindo-Jewish groups, such as the ADL, objected by pointing to his flirtation with, if not outright endorsement of anti-Semitic themes, but the most important Pindo group, AIPAC, has to this day not uttered a public word about Bannon. While Trump early on in his campaign made waves by suggesting that Pindostan would be “neutral” in the Israel-Palestine conflict, his speech to AIPAC, reportedly written by his very pro-Israel and now very influential son-in-law Jared Kushner, was full of all the standard pro-Israel bromides, and beyond. Even more notable, many Israeli officials have not only defended Bannon from such charges but heaped praise on him. Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer addressed the Bannon controversy by saying:

(My ministry? Bibi? ) has no doubt that Pres-elect Trump is a true friend of Israel, and looks forward to working with Stephen Bannon to make the USrael alliance stronger than ever.

Israel’s agriculture minister, Uri Ariel, went even further, writing:

Dear Mr Bannon, I wanted to express my support and thanks for your friendship with Israel, (and for the) opening of a Jayloomia bureau in Israel while head of Breitbart in order to promote (the) Israeli point of view in the media.

One of the most prominent Pindo supporters of Israel, Alan Dershowitz, aggressively defended Bannon, arguing:

I haven’t seen any evidence of personal anti-Semitism on the part of Bannon. The evidence certainly suggests that Mr Bannon has very good relationships with individual Jews.

Dershowitz subsequently condemned Bannon for bigotry against Muslims and women. Breitbart editor Joel Pollak defended Bannon this way:

I can say without hesitation that Steve is a friend of the Jewish people and a defender of Israel, as well as being a passionate Pindo patriot and a great leader.

Also on the Breitbart site, the notorious Muslim-hater Pam Geller declared Bannon an “honorary Jew.” Indeed, Breitbart’s coverage over the years, while often viciously anti-Muslim under Bannon, has been steadfastly pro-Israel, employing writers such as Pollak and Ben Shapiro who are vocal supporters of far-right Israeli policies. One of Breitbart’s founders, the Jewish lawyer Larry Solov, vowed early on:

(Breitbart News will be) unapologetically pro-freedom and pro-Israel.

The same dynamic can be seen with growing far-right, uber-nationalist movements outside of the West, which often copy the West’s right-wing extremists. In Brazil, which arguably has the most unhinged and unstable right-wing flank, complete with overt support for restoration of military dictatorship, the most extreme right-wing leaders are overwhelmingly pro-Israel. The new far-right evangelical mayor of Rio went to Israel immediately upon his election last month, to meet with Israeli officials to learn more about “security.” The leader of the pro-dictatorship movement fascist party, Jair Bolsonaro, went to Israel to be baptized and features vehement pro-Israel rhetoric as part of his worldview. It is common for Brazilian critics of Israel to be smeared as anti-Semites by the Brazilian far right. Several caveats should be noted. None of this is to suggest that there is no threat of a re-emergence of anti-Semitism, either from these parties specifically or in the West generally (an example of Gilad Atzmon’s Jewish Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder – RB). It is certainly the case that the pro-Nazi roots of some of these parties by itself is cause for alarm, and suspicion over the authenticity of their re-branding efforts is warranted. Beyond that, the scapegoating mentality against minority groups on which this movement centrally depends and is unleashing could easily be redirected toward Jews, even if the original targets are Muslims and others. And there is ample debate and division, both among Jewish groups and some factions in Israel, over whether these parties ought to be embraced by virtue of their pro-Israel posture. Moreover, it is certainly possible for a group or individual to be simultaneously pro-Israel and anti-Semitic. The cynical, grotesque alliance between pro-Israel Pindosis such as Joe Lieberman, and Jews-are-going-to-hell-once-the-Rapture-comes evangelicals such as the vehemently pro-Israel John Hagee, highlights that paradox. In the wake of the Bannon controversy, the Forward’s Naomi Zeveloff examined this increasingly common dynamic, arguing:

Breitbart News isn’t the only place where anti-Semitism and Zionism go hand in hand. Anti-Semitic attitudes abound in Poland, for example, even as Poland has a strong diplomatic relationship with Israel.

Some Israel defenders are willing to make common cause with potential or even clear-cut anti-Semites if they are also for geopolitical, religious or political reasons pro-Israel, but what is clear is that these far-right parties are embracing Israel and are often being embraced back, and that’s not hard to understand: any party driven by antipathy toward Muslims will obviously find common cause with an Israeli government that has spent decades occupying, bombing, and denying basic political rights to Muslims. At least as important, the Israeli government itself is part of this far-right resurgence. Several of Netanyahu’s ministers, including the next-generation ones who explicitly renounce a two-state solution, are so extremist that they actually make him look moderate. In sum, the Israeli government is led by a mix of uber-nationalist far-right militarists and anti-Muslim religious fanatics, so it’s the opposite of surprising that it would forge alliances with parties around Europe and other parts of the world, including in Pindostan, composed of similar core political attributes. As Todd Gitlin told the Forward:

Anti-Semitism and right-wing Zionism are varieties of ultra nationalism, or, to put it more pejoratively (as it deserves to be put) tribalism. They both presume that the embattled righteous ones need to bristle at, wall off, and punish the damned outsiders. They hate and fear cosmopolitan mixtures. They make a fetish of purity. They have the same soul. They rhyme.

That common “rhyme” is creating strange bedfellows indeed. Or, if one looks at the actual behavior and character of the dominant political factions in Israel, one finds that the bedfellows are not so strange at all. It is always important to remain vigilant about anti-Semitism in Europe and other places and to take the threat seriously. But when it comes to these emerging “alt-right” and xenophobic movements that bear obvious similarities to their mid-20th century predecessors, it is Muslims who are in the role previously occupied by Jews, and at least at the moment, Israel (if not Jews generally) are regarded as an ally and a faction worthy of loyal support.

gareth does the helmets (again)

How a Syrian White Helmets Leader Played Western Media
Gareth Porter, Antiwar.com, Nov 30 2016

The White Helmets, founded to rescue victims trapped under the rubble of buildings destroyed by Syrian and Russian bombing, have become a favorite source for Western news media covering a story on Russian-Syrian bombing. Portrayed as humanitarian heroes for over the past year and even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize last summer, the White Helmets have been accorded unquestioned credibility by journalists covering the Syrian crisis. Yet the White Helmets are hardly a non-political organization. Funded heavily by the Pindosi State Dept and the British Foreign Office, the group operates only in areas in northern Syria controlled by an al Qaeda affiliate and their extremist allies, areas to which Western journalists have not had access. Given that the White Helmets work under the authority of those who hold the real power in east Aleppo and other opposition-controlled zones, the Western media’s reliance on this organization for information comes with serious risks of being manipulated.

The highly political role played by the White Helmets in relation to foreign press coverage was dramatically demonstrated after the attack on a Syrian Red Crescent truck convoy in the rebel held area of Urum al-Kubra, just west of Aleppo on Sep 19. The assault took place immediately after a ceasefire agreed to by Russia, Pindostan and the Syrian government was shattered by a deadly air attack on Syrian army forces battling Daesh around the city of Deir Ez-Zor on Sep 17. The Obama administration assumed the attack was an airstrike and immediately blamed it on Russian or Syrian aircraft. An unidentified Pindosi official told the NYT that there was “a very high probability” that a Russian plane was near the area just before the attack, but the administration did not make public any evidence in support of that claim. In the days following the attack, news media coverage relied heavily on accounts provided by the White Helmets. The head of the organization in Aleppo, Ammar al-Selmo, was offering them a personal on-the-scene account. Selmo’s version of the story turned out to be riddled with falsehoods. However, many journalists approached it without an ounce of skepticism, and have continued to rely on him for information on the ongoing battles in and around Aleppo.

The first detail on which Selmo’s testimony revealed itself as dishonest is his claim about where he was located at the moment the attack began. Selmo told Time Magazine the day after the attack that he was 1 km or more away from the warehouse where the aid convoy trucks were parked at that point, presumably at the local White Helmet center in Urm al-Kubra. But Selmo changed his story in an interview with the WaPo published Sep 24, stating he was “making tea in a building across the street” at that moment. Even more dramatically, Selmo claimed at first that he saw the beginning of the attack. According to the story published by Time on Sep 21, Selmo said he was drinking tea on the balcony when the bombing began, and specifies:

He could see the first barrel bombs falling from what he identified as a Syrian regime helicopter.

But Selmo could not have seen a barrel bomb falling from a helicopter or anything else at that moment. In a video shot early the next morning, Selmo declared that the bombing had started at about 7:30 pm. In later statements, the White Helmets put the time at 7:12 pm. But sunset on Sep 19 was at 6:31 pm, and by roughly 7 pm, Aleppo was shrouded in complete darkness. Someone evidently called Selmo’s attention to that problem after the Time story was published, because by the time he gave his account to the WaPo, he had changed that part of the story as well. The WaPo reported his amended account as follows:

Stepping onto a balcony just after 7 pm, when it was already past dusk, he said he listened to a helicopter swoop in and drop two barrel bombs on the convoy.


In videos the White Helmets made the night of the attack (above), Selmo went even further, asserting on one segment of the video that four barrel bombs had been dropped and in another, that eight barrel bombs had been dropped. The idea that barrel bombs were used in the attack was immediately picked up by self-styled “media activists” on behalf of the opposition authorities in Aleppo the following morning, as the BBC reported. That theme was in line with an effort by opposition sources going back to 2012 to identify “barrel bombs” as uniquely destructive weapons, more reprehensible than conventional missiles. In a video the White Helmets produced the night of the attack, Selmo addresses viewers by pointing at the indentation of the supposed bomb blast. He says:

You see the box of the barrel bomb?

But what is shown in the video is a rectangular indentation in the gravel or rubble that appears to be about 1′ deep, 2′ wide and a little more than 3′ long. He reaches under the surface and pulls out what looks like a damaged shovel blade, to judge by its shape. That scene clearly proves Selmo’s claim to have been completely false. Barrel bombs make very large round craters at least 25′ wide and more than 10′ deep, so the box-like indentation in the video bore no resemblance whatever to a barrel bomb crater. Hussein Badawi, who is the local White Helmets director of Urum al-Kubra, is clearly lower than Selmo in the organization’s hierarchy. Badawi appeared briefly next to Selmo in one segment of the video made that night but remains silent, then disappeared. Nevertheless, Badawi directly contradicted Selmo’s claim that the first explosions that night were from barrel bombs. In a White Helmets video that was translated from Arabic into English, Badawi described those first explosions not as airstrikes but as “four consecutive rockets” near the center of the Red Crescent compound at Urum al-Kubra. No other visual evidence of a crater such as would have been created by a barrel bomb has come to light. In support of Selmo’s assertion, The Russian-based Conflict Intelligence Team, which is dedicated to refuting Russian government claims, could only cite the video frame of Selmo holding up that single piece of metal.

The Bellingcat website, whose founder Eliot Higgins is a non-resident fellow of the militantly anti-Russian, State Dept-funded Atlantic Council, and has no technical expertise on munitions, pointed to the same frame. Higgins claimed that the piece of metal came from a “crater.” He also cited a second photograph that he said showed a “repaired crater” in the road next to a burnt-out truck. But the area in the photograph that appeared to be covered with fresh dirt is clearly no more than 3′ long and a bit more 2′ wide, again far too small to be evidence of a barrel bomb explosion. Selmo’s White Helmet team also distributed to Bellingcat and media outlets what appeared at first glance to be visual evidence of Syrian and Russian air attacks: the crumpled tail fin of a Russian OFAB-250 bomb, which can be seen under the boxes in a photograph taken inside a warehouse at the site. Bellingcat cited those photographs as clinching evidence of Russian use of that bomb in the attack on the aid convoy. But that photographs of the OFAB tail fin is extremely problematic as evidence of an airstrike. If an OFAB-250 bomb had actually exploded at that point, it would have left a crater that was much larger than the one shown is that photograph. The standard rule of thumb is that an OFAB-250, like other any other conventional bomb weighing 250 kg would make a crater 24′ to 36′ wide and 10′ or 12′ deep. The magnitude of its crater is shown in a video of a Russian journalist >standing in one after the battle for Palmyra.

Furthermore, the wall in the photograph only a few feet from the supposed point of impact was clearly not affected by the bomb. That indicates that either no OFAB-250 was dropped in that spot or it was a dud. But the picture of the boxes surrounding the OFAB tail fin also reveals other evidence that there was an explosion. As one observer discovered from a close examination, the boxes display evidence of shrapnel tears. The close-up of one package shows a pattern of fine shrapnel holes. Only something much less powerful than an OFAB-250 bomb or a barrel bomb would account for those observable facts. One weapon whose shrapnel could cause the pattern seen in the photograph is the Russian S-5 rocket, two variants of which throw out either 220 or 360 small shrapnel fragments. In the video he made the night of the attack, Selmo had already claimed that Russian aircraft fired S-5s at the site, although he mistakenly called them “C-5s.” And a photograph of two S-5 missiles was also distributed to Bellingcat and to news organizations, including the WaPo. Selmo insisted to Time Magazine that the airstrikes were divided between barrel bombs and missiles fired by Russian jets. But again Badawi, the White Helmets chief for Urum al-Kubra, contradicted Selmo in a separate video, stating that the initial barrage of missiles was launched from the ground. Badawi’s admission is very significant because the Syrian opposition forces have had supplies of Russian S-5s ever since the weapons were smuggled out of Libya to the rebels in large numbers in 2012. They have been using S-5s as ground-launched rockets like the Libyan rebels did, and have designed their own improvised launchers for them. Badawi claimed the initial four missiles had been fired by Syrian government forces from the defense factories in southern Aleppo governorate, but the government defense plants in southern Aleppo governorate are in al-Safira, more than 25 km away, whereas the S-5s have a range of only 3 km to 4 km. Even more telling is that fact that despite Selmo’s insistence that airstrikes continued for hours and included as many as 20 to 25 distinct attacks, none of the members of the White Helmet team captured a single airstrike in a video which would have provided clear audio-visual evidence of his claim. The Atlantic Council’s Bellingcat site pointed to a video posted online by opposition sources in Aleppo (below) as providing such audio evidence of jet planes just before the night-time explosions. But despite a voice on the video declaring that it was a Russian airstrike, the sound stops immediately after the fiery explosion, indicating that it was caused by a ground launched missile, not a missile fired from a jet plane. Thus the confirming evidence of an airstrike claimed by Bellingcat did not actually confirm it at all.

Whoever was responsible for the attack on the Syrian Red Crescent aid convoy, it is clear that Ammar al-Selmo, the top White Helmet official in Aleppo, lied about where he was when the attack on the aid convoy began and, at least initially, misled his audience when he said he witnessed the first stages of the attack with his own eyes. What’s more, he made claims of Syrian barrel bombs and Russian OFAB-250 bombs dropped on the convoy that are not supported by any credible evidence. In light of Selmo’s readiness to embellish his account and to support the narrative of a Russian-Syrian attack, Western media should have been far more careful about relying on it as confirming the Pindo charge about the aid convoy attack. But during the weeks of heavy Russian and Syrian bombing in eastern Aleppo that followed the breakdown of the ceasefire, Selmo was frequently quoted by the news media as a source on the bombing campaign, and Selmo exploited the new situation to push the rebels’ political agenda. On Sep 23, the White Helmets told the news media that three of their four operating centers in east Aleppo had been hit and two of them were out of commission. NPR quoted Selmo as saying he believed the group had been deliberately targeted, He said he “intercepted pilots’ communications and heard them getting orders to bomb his colleagues.” NPR failed to identify Selmo as the head of the White Helmets in east Aleppo, identifying him only as a “White Helmets member.” Five days later, the WaPo reported a similar claim by Ismail Abdullah, another White Helmets official working directly under Selmo, who said:

Sometimes we hear the pilot tell his base, “We see a market for the terrorists, there is a bakery for the terrorists, is it okay to hit them?” They say, “Okay, hit them.”

He further claimed that on Sep 21, the White Helmets had heard an enemy pilot refer to the “civil defense” (White Helmet) centers as “terrorist.” The organization sent a message to Pindo officials in New York for the UNGA that they were being targeted, Abdullah added. These dramatic stories helped propel the White Helmets’ campaign for the Nobel Peace Prize announced days later, which they ultimately did not win. The claim that the White Helmets had overheard pilots asking for and receiving permission to hit targets while in the air is a fabrication, according to Pierre Sprey, a former Pentagon analyst on combat aircraft who played a central role in designing the F-16. Sprey told AlterNet:

It’s inconceivable that this could have been an authentic communication between an attack pilot and a controller. The only time a pilot might initiate a request to hit a target is if he sees gunfire from it. Otherwise it makes no sense.

The day after the Russian and Syrian bombing campaign on rebel-held eastern Aleppo began on Sep 22, Reuters turned to Selmo for an overall assessment of the bombing’s impact on Aleppo. Selmo bluntly declared:

What’s happening now is annihilation.

Following this dramatic statement, Western media continued to cite Selmo as though he were a neutral source. On Sep 26, Reuters went back to the White Helmets working under him again, citing an estimate by unnamed “civil defense workers” in Aleppo, which could only mean members of the White Helmets, that 400 people had already been killed in less than five days of bombing in and around Aleppo. But after three full weeks of bombing, the UN and other agencies estimated that 360 people had been killed in the bombing, suggesting that the White Helmets figure had been was several times higher than could be documented by non-partisan sources. It is obviously difficult for the news media to cover events such as the attack on the SARC aid convoy and the bombing in Aleppo from Istanbul or Beirut, but the hunger for information from the ground should not outweigh the obligation to vet sources. Selmo and his White Helmets should have been recognized for what they are, a partisan source with an agenda reflecting the power to which the organization is accountable, the armed extremists who have controlled east Aleppo, Idlib and other areas of northern Syria. Uncritical reliance on claims by the White Helmets without any effort to investigate their credibility is yet another telling example of journalistic malpractice by media outlets with a long record of skewing coverage of conflicts toward an interventionist narrative.

i think trump has vetoed the physical offensive but not the info ops

Albright & Hadley urge more force in Syria
Arshad Mohammed, Reuters, Nov 29 2016

FASCHINGSTEIN – Pindostan should prepare to use greater military power and covert action in Syria, according to a bipartisan report to be released on Wednesday. Produced by a task force led by Madeleine Albright and Stephen Hadley, the report amounts to a rejection of Obama’s decision to limit military engagement in the war. Largely drafted before Trump’s victory over Clinton in the presidential election, the paper makes a case for deeper involvement in the Middle East. An interview with Madeleine Albright and Stephen Hadley is in this week’s War College podcast, here. The report, which was obtained by Reuters on Tuesday, says:

Isolationism is a dangerous illusion. Pindostan should be prepared to employ air power, stand-off weapons, covert measures and enhanced support for opposition forces, to break the current siege of Aleppo and frustrate Assad’s attempts to consolidate control over western Syria’s population centers.

It calls for outside nations to help wind down conflicts in Iraq, Libya and Yemen and back homegrown reform throughout the region. Its key recommendation for Syria may be moot when Trump takes office. The Syrian army and its allies aim to seize all of eastern Aleppo before Jan 20, keeping to a Russian-backed timeline after big gains in recent days, a senior official said. It is unclear what policy Trump will pursue on Syria. In an Oct 26 interview, he told Reuters a more aggressive military policy advocated by Clinton could “lead to WW3.” Trump added:

Assad is secondary, to me, to Daesh.

Pindostan has two main lines of effort in Syria: a covert CIA operation that backs opposition forces trying to oust Assad, and a wider military operation that uses airstrikes and special forces to target Daesh & Nusra. The report argues that Pindo-backed opposition forces should also be allowed to strike Assad government targets. Asked whether a greater Pindosi military effort might yield a bloodier proxy war rather than a political solution, Hadley told Reuters:

It may not work, but one of the things we know is that what’s going on now isn’t working.

as jason observes, this story makes no sense, i think it’s probably total disinfo

Syrian Officials: Goal Is to Oust Rebels From Aleppo by Trump’s Inauguration
Jason Ditz, AntiWar.com, Nov 29 2016

Major gains in recent days by the Syrian military in Aleppo have seen them seizing roughly a third of the Jabhat al-Nusra-held eastern portion of the city. Officials are now saying that the goal is to take the rest of the city by Jan 20, the date of the inauguration of Pres-elect Trump. The exact reasoning behind this goal is unclear, but officials did say that the Russian government had pushed them on the matter, hoping to get the major fighting in the city wrapped up before Trump comes to power. Trump is said to be seeking a rapprochement with Russia, and has planned to scrap support for the Syrian rebels. That could suggest that Russia wants the Aleppo flashpoint removed from the table before Trump is in place so as to avoid any obstacles to this major shift in policy. France and some other nations are pushing Pindostan to “do something” to prevent Nusra’s loss in Aleppo. Since Nusra is a thinly rebranded al-Qaeda affiliate, it’s unlikely Trump is going to be eager to go to bat for them, particularly at the expense of a potential normalization deal with Russia. At the same time, the hawks pushing for intervention against the Syrian government will lose a big talking point if the siege of Aleppo has already been resolved.

Here’s the story, complete with purple prose:

Assad aims to seize all of Aleppo before Trump takes power: official
Laila Bassam, Ellen Francis, Reuters, Nov 29 2016

BEIRUT – Syria and its allies aim to drive rebels from Aleppo before Donald Trump takes office, a senior official in the pro-Damascus military alliance said, as pro-government forces surged to their biggest victories in the city for years. Rebels face one of their gravest moments of the war after pro-government forces routed fighters over the past few days from more than a third of the territory they controlled in the city. Thousands of civilians have fled for safety. The pro-government official indicated that the next phase of the campaign could be more difficult, as the army and its allies seek to capture more densely populated areas. Rebel fighters fought fiercely to stop government forces advancing deeper into the opposition-held enclave on Tuesday, confronting pro-Assad militias who sought to move into the area from the southeast, a rebel official said. Government forces backed by Shi’ite militias from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq punched into the rebel-held area from the northeast last week. The senior, pro-Assad official said the rebel lines had collapsed more quickly than expected. The official said:

The Russians want to complete the operation before Trump takes power.

He was repeating a previous timetable which pro-Damascus sources had said was drawn up to mitigate the risks of any shift in Pindosi policy towards the war. The Russian Defence Ministry did not immediately respond when asked whether it had drawn up such a timeline. Trump, who takes office on Jan 20, has indicated that he may abandon support for Syrian rebels who have received military aid from states including Pindosis, Turks, Toads & Thanis and could even cooperate with Russia against Daesh in Syria. The rebel official said the outgoing Pindo administration was paying little attention to Syria. He said:

Assad and his allies are trying to exploit the current circumstances, unfortunately, and the Western states can’t do anything.

France, another backer of the opposition, called for an immediate UNSC meeting to discuss Aleppo. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said in a statement:

More than ever before, we need to urgently put in place means to end the hostilities and to allow humanitarian aid to get through unhindered.

Russia has consistently blocked UNSCRs against Damascus. Accounts from eastern Aleppo, where the UN (quite absurdly) claims there are at least 250,000 civilians are trapped with no access to the outside world, point to a dire humanitarian situation. People have been forced to scavenge in the garbage for food as aid supplies have run out, and all the hospitals in eastern Aleppo have been repeatedly bombed. The civil defense rescue service that operates in eastern Aleppo The White Helmets said on Monday it had nearly run out fuel to power the equipment it has been using to pull people from the rubble of bombed-out buildings. Pummeled by air strikes, artillery and ground attacks, the rebels were forced on Monday to withdraw to more defensible lines along a highway that runs through Aleppo, hoping that it would be harder for the government side to make further gains. A rebel official with the pro-FSA Jabha Shamiya rebel group said:

The opposition fighters have managed to stabilize new frontlines, but they are fighting to stop pro-government militias seeking to advance from the south. There is no progress, but the bombardment and battles remain fierce, particularly in Aziza (south-eastern Aleppo). Yesterday evening there was a big mobilization by Iranian militias in Aziza.

The latest fighting has forced thousands to flee. Some have crossed the frontline to government-held areas, others have sought refuge in a Kurdish-controlled part of the city, and many more have fled deeper into the remaining rebel-held area. Air strikes on Bab al-Nairab, a district in the rebel-held area, killed at least 10 people and left dozens more wounded or missing, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the civil defense rescue service White Helmets said. The Syrian military could not be reached for comment. The civil defense rescue service White Helmets said government planes struck as people were trying to flee the neighborhood on foot, killing 25. The UB humanitarian chief and relief coordinator said up to 16,000 people (another absurd number) had been displaced from eastern Aleppo. A UN spokesman said that according to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent 10,000 people had moved into government-held western Aleppo, and 4,000 to 6,000 had moved into the Kurdish-held Sheikh Maqsoud district. Rebels say thousands more have moved deeper into the areas still held by the opposition. The UN envoy said he could not say how long eastern Aleppo would hold out. He told the European Parliament:

Clearly I cannot deny this is a military acceleration, and I can’t tell you how long eastern Aleppo will last.

Russia said that the army’s breakthrough in Aleppo had dramatically altered the situation on the ground, allowing more than 80,000 civilians to access humanitarian aid after years of what it described as being used by militants as human shields. Major-General Igor Konashenkov, a defense ministry spokesman, said in a statement:

During the last 24 hours, thanks to very well-prepared and careful actions, Syrian soldiers were able to radically change the situation. Practically half of the territory occupied by rebels in recent years in the eastern part of Aleppo has been completely liberated.

A medic in eastern Aleppo who gave his name as Abu al-Abbas said:

There is intense fear of collective annihilation. This week I’ve changed locations three times,. In the shelter, we had dead people who we couldn’t take out because the bombardment was so intense.