The Gloves Come Off: Vladimir Putin Exposes G20′s Financial Ties to ISIS

At G20 summit, Putin calls out member states for supporting terrorism

putinmain-400x209In a classic Putin move, the Russian President presented evidence of G20 member states providing financial support to ISIS…during the G20 summit in Antalya. Speaking with reporters after the summit, Putin revealed:

I provided examples related to our data on the financing of Islamic State units by natural persons in various countries. The financing comes from 40 countries, as we established, including some G20 members

Putin also provided satellite images of the Islamic State’s lucrative oil smuggling operations:

I’ve demonstrated the pictures from space to our colleagues, which clearly show the true size of the illegal trade of oil and petroleum products market. Car convoys stretching for dozens of kilometers, going beyond the horizon when seen from a height of four-five thousand meters

Interestingly, immediately after the summit, the U.S. announced that its warplanes had begun to bomb ISIS truck convoys  used to “smuggle the crude oil it has been producing in Syria”. What a strange coincidence. It’s as if the U.S. knew exactly where these convoys were, but didn’t feel compelled to destroy them until now. The world is full of mysteries!

But the real story here is that Putin actually got up in front of the world’s largest economic powers and told them, right to their faces, that Russia knows exactly what they are doing.

A Clinton Story Fraught With Inaccuracies: How It Happened and What’s Next?

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Make no mistake. A Clinton presidency would be disastrous – the worst of all possible deplorable choices, none worthy of any public office, all aspirants beholden to wealth, power and privilege exclusively.

 

By Margaret Sullivan – Public Editor’s Journal

July 27, 2015 10:00 am

Updated: July 28, 2015 | The story certainly seemed like a blockbuster: A criminal investigation of Hillary Rodham Clinton by the Justice Department was being sought by two federal inspectors general over her email practices while secretary of state.

It’s hard to imagine a much more significant political story at this moment, given that she is the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for president.

The story a Times exclusive — appeared high on the home page and the mobile app late Thursday and on Friday and then was displayed with a three-column headline on the front page in Friday’s paper. The online headline read “Criminal Inquiry Sought in Hillary Clinton’s Use of Email,” very similar to the one in print.

But aspects of it began to unravel soon after it first went online. The first major change was this: It wasn’t really Mrs. Clinton directly who was the focus of the request for an investigation. It was more general: whether government information was handled improperly in connection with her use of a personal email account.

Much later, The Times backed off the startling characterization of a “criminal inquiry,” instead calling it something far tamer sounding: it was a “security” referral.

From Thursday night to Sunday morning – when a final correction appeared in print – the inaccuracies and changes in the story were handled as they came along, with little explanation to readers, other than routine corrections. The first change I mentioned above was written into the story for hours without a correction or any notice of the change, which was substantive.

And the evolving story, which began to include a new development, simply replaced the older version. That development was that several instances of classified information had been found in Mrs. Clinton’s personal email – although, in fairness, it’s doubtful whether the information was marked as classified when she sent or received those emails. Eventually, a number of corrections were appended to the online story, before appearing in print in the usual way – in small notices on Page A2.

But you can’t put stories like this back in the bottle – they ripple through the entire news system.

So it was, to put it mildly, a mess. As a result, I’ve been spending the last couple of days asking how this could happen and how something similar can be prevented in the future. I’ve spoken to the executive editor, Dean Baquet; to a top-ranking editor involved with the story, Matt Purdy; and to the two reporters, Matt Apuzzo and Michael S. Schmidt.

Meanwhile, I heard from readers, like Maria Cranor who wanted clarification and explanation on The Times’s “recent, and mystifying, coverage of the HRC emails. It appears that your reporters relied on leaks from the Gowdy committee to suggest that Clinton was involved in some kind of criminal malfeasance around the emails. The subsequent walk backs have not been effective, or encouraging. Please help us retain our wavering confidence in the Times’ political coverage!” (Her reference is to the Republican congressman, Trey Gowdy.)

Another reader, Paul Kingsley, demanded a refund for his Friday paper. “We all deserve one,” he wrote to me. And, complaining about the lack of transparency and the errors, he added:

1) please repost the original reporting;
2) provide an explanation as to how it made it to press and what was wrong.
3) what are you going to do to prevent such inaccurate bias in the future?
4) are you going to minimize using unnamed sources?

The story developed quickly on Thursday afternoon and evening, after tips from various sources, including on Capitol Hill. The reporters had what Mr. Purdy described as “multiple, reliable, highly placed sources,” including some “in law enforcement.” I think we can safely read that as the Justice Department.

The sources said not only was there indeed a referral but also that it was directed at Mrs. Clinton herself, and that it was a criminal referral. And that’s how The Times wrote it initially.

“We got it wrong because our very good sources had it wrong,” Mr. Purdy told me. “That’s an explanation, not an excuse. We have an obligation to get facts right and we work very hard to do that.”

By Friday afternoon, the Justice Department issued a terse statement, saying that there had been a referral related to the potential compromise of classified information, stating clearly that it was not a criminal referral. Mr. Purdy says he remains puzzled about why the initial inaccurate information was confirmed so clearly. (Update: Other news outlets also got confirmation of the criminal referral as they followed The Times’s story. They did not report, as an earlier version of this post suggested, that she herself was the target of the referral.)

There are at least two major journalistic problems here, in my view. Competitive pressure and the desire for a scoop led to too much speed and not enough caution. Mr. Purdy told me that the reporters, whom he described as excellent and experienced, were “sent back again and again” to seek confirmation of the key elements; but while no one would discuss the specifics of who the sources were, my sense is that final confirmation came from the same person more than once.

The reporters and editors were not able to see the referral itself, Mr. Purdy said, and that’s the norm in such cases; anything else would be highly unusual, he said. So they were relying on their sources’ interpretation of it. All at The Times emphasized that the core of the initial story – the request for an investigation – is true, and that it was major news, as was the later development.

Hindsight’s easy, but I’ll take a stab at it anyway. Here’s my take:

First, consider the elements. When you add together the lack of accountability that comes with anonymous sources, along with no ability to examine the referral itself, and then mix in the ever-faster pace of competitive reporting for the web, you’ve got a mistake waiting to happen. Or, in this case, several mistakes.

Reporting a less sensational version of the story, with a headline that did not include the word “criminal,” and continuing to develop it the next day would have been a wise play. Better yet: Waiting until the next day to publish anything at all.

Losing the story to another news outlet would have been a far, far better outcome than publishing an unfair story and damaging The Times’s reputation for accuracy.

What’s more, when mistakes inevitably happen, The Times needs to be much more transparent with readers about what is going on. Just revising the story, and figuring out the corrections later, doesn’t cut it.

Mr. Baquet, who is a former Times Washington bureau chief, told me Sunday by phone that he faults himself on this score, and he would do it differently now.

“We should have explained to our readers right away what happened here, as soon as we knew it,” he said. That could have been in an editor’s note or in a story, or in some other form, he said.

“The readers of The New York Times got whipsawed,” by all the conflicting reports and criticism, he said.

He agreed, as Mr. Purdy did, that special care has to come with the use of anonymous sources, but he believes that the errors here “may have been unavoidable.” And Mr. Purdy said that he thought The Times probably took too long to append a correction in the first instance.

But, Mr. Baquet said, he does not fault the reporters or editors directly involved.

“You had the government confirming that it was a criminal referral,” Mr. Baquet said. “I’m not sure what they could have done differently on that.”

None of this should be used to deny the importance of The Times’s reporting on the subject of Mrs. Clinton’s email practices at the State Department, a story Mr. Schmidt broke in March. Although her partisans want the focus shifted to these errors, the fact remains that her secret email system hamstrung possible inquiries into her conduct while secretary of state both by the news media and the public under the Freedom of Information Act and by Congress. And her awarding to herself the first cull of those emails will make suspicion about what they contained a permanent part of the current campaign.

Nevertheless, the most recent story is both a messy and a regrettable chapter. It brings up important issues that demand to be thought about and discussed internally with an eye to prevention in the future.

Mr. Baquet and Mr. Purdy said that would happen, especially on the issue of transparency to readers. In my view, that discussion must also include the rampant use of anonymous sources, and the need to slow down and employ what might seem an excess of caution before publishing a political blockbuster based on shadowy sources.

I’ll summarize my prescription in four words: Less speed. More transparency.

After all, readers come to The Times not for a scoop, though those can be great, but for fair, authoritative and accurate information. And when things do go wrong, readers deserve a thorough, immediate explanation from the top. None of that happened here.

(Update: An editors’ note, explaining the errors and stating that corrections should have been handled differently, was published late Monday, and appeared in Tuesday’s paper on page A2.)

On the Road in Syria, Struggle All Around

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Syrian families and fighters from a Kurdish militia attended a funeral last month in Qamishli, Syria, for fighters killed more than a year ago.

After Kurdish militias push out ISIS, people are eking out livings in a border area where state services have collapsed. Syrian families and fighters from a Kurdish militia attended a funeral last month in Qamishli, Syria, for fighters killed more than a year ago.

RMEILAN, Syria — After boiling crude oil from the ground near here all day in a metal tank to refine it into diesel, Ali Mohammed braved the fumes to bang the tank’s drain open with a shovel. He stepped back as the dregs oozed into the dirt and burst into flames.

As a column of putrid smoke rose into the sky, he pulled a cigarette from his oil-soaked shirt and explained how the Syrian civil war had turned him into a diesel bootlegger.

He had once worn clean scrubs as a nurse in a state-run hospital, but was fired after rebels took over his village, making all residents suspect, he said. Later, stretched by the war, the government had left the area, leaving its oil up for grabs.

“Before, we saw the wells but we never saw the oil,” Mr. Mohammed said. Now, although its fumes made them sick, the oil helped hundreds of families like his scrape by.

“My wife doesn’t complain about the smell as long as there’s money,” Mr. Mohammed said.

A Kurdish militia fighter rested last week on the eastern banks of the Euphrates River. Islamic State militants fire on Kurdish bases from across the river.
New U.S.-Backed Alliance to Counter ISIS in Syria Falters  NOV. 2, 2015

Displaced Syrians near an abandoned house in the province of Aleppo. Relief workers say they believe at least 50,000 people have been uprooted, mostly north of Homs and in areas around the city of Aleppo.

Violence in Syria Spurs a Huge Surge in Civilian Flight   – OCT. 26, 2015

How Syrians Are Dying  SEPT. 14, 2015

Untangling the Overlapping Conflicts in the Syrian War   OCT. 18, 2015

Such scenes dotted the map during a recent 10-day visit in northeastern Syria, along the Turkish border. Everyone here, it seems, has an angle to work, scrambling to fill the void left by the collapse of the Syrian state.

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South of al-Jawadiyah, crude oil is refined into diesel and other products. Credit Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, saw this crossroads as a prime place to expand its so-called caliphate. It was far from the major interests of the Syrian government in Damascus and along good river and road networks to allow the quick movement of fighters and contraband.

But as Kurdish fighters pushed the Islamic State jihadists out, they sought to stamp their vision of a better life onto northern Syria: an autonomous enclave built on the principles — part anarchist, part grass-roots socialist — of a Kurdish militant leader whose face now adorns arm bands and murals across the territory.

Others, like Mr. Mohammed, are just trying to get by: the farmers, herders and smugglers, or those just trying to piece their communities back together after months under the black flag and public punishments of the Islamic State.

The police are gone, and militias have flourished, snarling traffic with checkpoints and covering lampposts with pictures of dead fighters. Shuttered gas stations stand near shacks where fuel is sold in plastic jugs. And abandoned government offices house ad hoc administrations that struggle to keep the lights on.

Kurdish Utopia

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Nine months after coalition airstrikes and Kurdish fighters repelled an invasion by the Islamic State, residents of Kobani struggle with loss, failed services and widespread destruction. Credit Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

 

The Kurdish militia that grew to become the dominant power in this part of Syria over the past year — known as the People’s Protection Units — has managed to roll back the Islamic State in many areas, carving out a swath of relative security that the residents call Rojava.

The community leaders here are working to set up a new order based on the philosophies of the separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan, of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., who is serving a life sentence for treason in Turkey.

“Turn your land, your water and your energy into a commune to build a free and democratic life,” reads a common billboard featuring Mr. Ocalan’s mustachioed face. His supporters call him “president” or “uncle.”

Influenced by the American anarchist Murray Bookchin, Mr. Ocalan has called for autonomous rule by local committees unbound by national borders. The project’s proponents say they do not seek to break up Syria but are leading a long-term social revolution that will ensure gender and minority rights.

“The Syrian people can solve the Syrian crisis and find new ways to run the country,” said Hediya Yusif, a co-president of one of the area’s three self-declared cantons.

But much about the new administrations remains aspirational. No foreign power has recognized them, and Turkey looks on them with hostility, fearing that they want to declare an independent state along its border. Many of their workers are volunteers or functionaries still paid by the Syrian government.

The new order’s complexities are glaring in the strongly Kurdish town of Qamishli, where monuments to fallen militia fighters and billboards in red, green and yellow — the flag colors of the People’s Protection Units, or Y.P.G. — dominate roundabouts.

“The homeland is belonging, loyalty and sacrifice,” read one sign, showing women farming and holding Kalashnikovs.

One morning, dozens of women waved militia flags on the town’s main road, waiting for the bodies of Kurdish fighters to arrive for burial in a sprawling martyrs’ cemetery.

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The new order’s complexities are glaring in the strongly Kurdish town of Qamishli, where monuments to fallen militia fighters and billboards in red, green and yellow — the flag colors of the People’s Protection Units, or Y.P.G. — dominate roundabouts. “The homeland is belonging, loyalty and sacrifice,” read one sign, showing women farming and One morning, dozens of women waved militia flags on the town’s main road, waiting for the bodies of Kurdish fighters to arrive for burial in a sprawling martyrs’ cemetery.

 
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Relatives of Kurdish militia fighters killed more than a year ago in Kobani and being buried in their hometown, Qamishli. Credit Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

 

Renas Ghanem stood among them with a photograph of her sister, Silan, who had quit high school to join a Kurdish militia in Iraq and returned to fight the Islamic State in Syria, where she was killed.

Nearby, however, loomed a statue of the former strongman Hafez al-Assad, father of the current Syrian president, in an area of continued Syrian government control only a few blocks long, where the Syrian police, in white shirts and black caps, direct traffic.

Kurdish leaders do not hide their resentment of the Syrian government for its treatment of Kurds. But allowing the government to control the town’s airport keeps it open, they say, and its largely symbolic presence downtown has prevented the government airstrikes that have destroyed rebel areas elsewhere.

“The Y.P.G. could chase the regime out in one hour, but what would come after?” said Ahmed Moussa, a Kurdish journalist. “Barrel bombs and airstrikes.”

The territory’s main link to the outside is two rusty boats that ferry passengers across a river from Iraq and a pontoon bridge for cargo. Trucks leaving Syria on a recent day carried cows and sheep; those entering hauled soft drinks and potato chips.

Despite improved security in some places, unemployment and the threat of renewed fighting have sent many people from this area fleeing by boats to Europe.

“The situation in Rojava can’t keep people here,” said Shivan Ahmed, a butcher’s assistant in the town of Amuda who earns less than $3 a day.

His wife and 7-month-old son had recently left on a boat that sank near Turkey, he said. They were rescued, but 13 of their relatives, mostly women and children, were still missing.

Relatives of Kurdish militia fighters killed more than a year ago in Kobani and being buried in their hometown, Qamishli. Credit Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Renas Ghanem stood among them with a photograph of her sister, Silan, who had quit high school to join a Kurdish militia in Iraq and returned to fight the Islamic State in Syria, where she was killed.

Nearby, however, loomed a statue of the former strongman Hafez al-Assad, father of the current Syrian president, in an area of continued Syrian government control only a few blocks long, where the Syrian police, in white shirts and black caps, direct traffic.

Kurdish leaders do not hide their resentment of the Syrian government for its treatment of Kurds. But allowing the government to control the town’s airport keeps it open, they say, and its largely symbolic presence downtown has prevented the government airstrikes that have destroyed rebel areas elsewhere.

“The Y.P.G. could chase the regime out in one hour, but what would come after?” said Ahmed Moussa, a Kurdish journalist. “Barrel bombs and airstrikes.”

The territory’s main link to the outside is two rusty boats that ferry passengers across a river from Iraq and a pontoon bridge for cargo. Trucks leaving Syria on a recent day carried cows and sheep; those entering hauled soft drinks and potato chips.

Despite improved security in some places, unemployment and the threat of renewed fighting have sent many people from this area fleeing by boats to Europe.

“The situation in Rojava can’t keep people here,” said Shivan Ahmed, a butcher’s assistant in the town of Amuda who earns less than $3 a day.

His wife and 7-month-old son had recently left on a boat that sank near Turkey, he said. They were rescued, but 13 of their relatives, mostly women and children, were still missing.

Still, he said, his neighbors keep leaving.

 

Putin Blew the Whistle on Who Grew ISIS in 2014 (Video)

RUSSIA INSIDER
Mon, Oct 26, 2015

Putin Blew the Whistle on Who Grew ISIS in 2014 (Video)
But he can’t figure out if US did it out of stupidity or malice

This short video showing Vladimir Putin answering a question on ISIS from a US journalist was filmed at the Valdai International Discussion Club in late 2014. While millions of patriotic Americans still believe the simple narrative of ‘Russia is bad, USA is good’, Putin’s explosive comments blow that mindset right out of the water- and they also clearly explain why the Russian President has just decided to send in his military to support Assad’s fight against the Islamic State. After telling the audience that (unlike Obama’s view of him) he does not consider the USA a threat to Russia, Putin begins responding to a question about the ISIS problem.

The President begins: “Well who on earth armed them? Who armed the Syrians who were fighting with Assad? Who created the necessary political climate that facilitated this situation? Who pushed for the delivery of arms to the region?”

Yes, you guessed it: he’s talking about the USA.

Putin: US Neocons Created and Keep Supporting ISIS

Putin continues:

“Do you really not understand who is fighting in Syria? They are mercenaries, mostly. Do you understand they are paid money? Mercenaries fight for whichever side pays more. So they arm them and pay them a certain amount. I even know what these amounts are.” He explains how this insane foreign policy has backfired on the United States: the mercenaries don’t give back the arms, and when they find out they can earn more money fighting for ISIS, they swap sides- taking the USA’s weapons with them, and occupying the oil fields.But who is buying the oil from these terrorists, Putin asks, and why are sanctions not applied to those who purchase it?

“Do you think the USA doesn’t know who is buying the oil?” Putin asks his audience defiantly. “Is it not their allies that are buying oil from ISIS?” Putin then points out that the USA certainly has the power to persuade their allies to stop buying oil from the mercenaries who have deflected to the Islamic State. But, he suggests (here’s where it gets interesting) “they do not wish to influence them.”

Putin claims that in those areas of Syria where ISIS are extracting oil and paying mercenaries great rates of pay, more and more Syrian ‘rebels’ (anti-Assad fighters who were supposed to be on our side) are joining the Islamic State. “So you support them, arm them, and tomorrow they join ISIS. Can they not think a step ahead?” he says scathingly about US foreign policy. “I consider this absolutely unprofessional politics. We must support civilized, democratic opposition in Syria. We don’t stand for this kind of politics of the USA. We think it is wrong.”

If this is true- and concrete evidence suggests it is- Putin’s tirade is very difficult to argue with. Sure, the Russian President has a hell of a lot to answer for, but who is the real terrorist in this situation? Could it be that the USA was also behind the Ukrainian coup all along, supported by its minions in the corporate press who sought to lay the blame on Russia’s doorstep? After all, it was Putin, not Obama, who extended an olive branch to the American people by writing an op-ed in the New York Times in 2013 calling for peace and co-operation between the two powers.

Putin’s comments back up what many have been saying about ISIS and its strong connection to the USA since the start of this crisis. Please share this video to raise awareness of which war-mongering superpower is really to blame for the majority of the misery in this world. You might also like to check out Putin’s United Nations meeting speech late last month, where he talks more about these themes and asks the USA and its allies with reference to Syria: “Now do you realize what you have done?”

Transcript:

“Another threat that President Obama mentioned was ISIS. Well who on earth armed them?

Who armed the Syrians that are fighting Assad?

Who created the necessary political/informational climate that facilitated this situation?

Who pushed the delivery of arms to the area?

Do you really not understand as to who is fighting in Syria?

They are mercenaries mostly.

Do you understand they are paid money?

Mercenaries fight for whichever side pays more.

So they arm them and pay them a certain amount

I even know what these amounts are.

So they fight, they have the arms, you cannot get them to return the weapons of course, at the end..

Then they discover elsewhere pays a little more..

Then they occupy the oil fields wherever; in Iraq, in Syria.

They start extracting the oil-and this oil is purchased by somebody.

Where are the sanctions on the parties purchasing this oil?

Do you believe the US does not know who is buying it? Is it not their allies that are buying the oil from ISIS?

Do you not think that US has the power to influence their allies? Or is the point that they indeed do not wish to influence them?

Then why bomb ISIS?

In areas where they started extracting oil and paying mercenaries more, in those areas the rebels from ‘civilised’ Syrian opposition forces immediately joined ISIS because they are paid more.

I consider this absolutely unprofessional politics. It is not grounded in facts , in the real world.

We must support civilized democratic opposition in Syria.

So you support, arm them and then tomorrow they join ISIS.

Can they [USA] not think a step ahead?

We cannot stand for this kind of politics of the US. We consider it wrong. It harms all parties, including you [USA].”

Putin: US Neocons Created and Keep Supporting ISIS

BREAKING: Over 1,000 ISIS and Al Nusra Militants Surrender To Syrian Army In Last 24 Hours

 

 

The development came after President Bashar al-Assad in a televised address in July pardoned all soldiers who have fled the army, saying that his words served as a general decree to relevant officials.

Hundreds of gunmen have been laying down their weapons and turning themselves in to authorities in areas across the country.

This number seems to be on the rise as the army has been making steady gains in the battlefield against the terrorist groups, recapturing an increasing number of regions, including strategic sites, which helped cut off many of the militants’ supply routes and forced them to surrender or run away.

Also in the past 24 hours, the Syrian air raids destroyed concentration centers of the ISIL, al-Nusra Front and other terrorist groups in Hama and Idlib.

The Syrian warplanes conducted airstrikes against positions of ISIL and the so-called Jeish al-Fath terrorists in the countryside of Hama and Idlib.

The airstrikes hit positions of the ISIL terrorists in al-Rahjan village, 50 km to the Northeast of Hama City, destroying a number of terrorists’ vehicles with all arms, ammunition and equipment on board.

The airstrikes also hit positions of al-Nusra Front and other terrorist groups in Aqrab village in the Southwestern countryside of Hama, killing scores of terrorists.

A number of vehicles belonging to Jeish al-Fath terrorists were also destroyed in airstrikes in Abdin village in the countryside of Ma’aret al-Nu’aman in Idlib countryside.

Meantime, the Syrian fighter jets pounded hideouts of the Takfiri militants in the countryside of Homs.

The Syrian air raids destroyed Takfiri terrorists’ hideouts and vehicles in al-Qaryatain, al-Sa’an, and in the vicinity of al-Sha’er field in Homs countryside.

The Russian air group in Syria is using Kh-29L air-to-surface missiles to conduct airstrikes against the ISIL militants, the Russian military said Sunday.

“A Kh-29L surface-to-air missile is equipped with a semi-active laser guidance system. When the launch is conducted, a pilot illuminates a target with a laser sight. At the same time an aircraft can continue the flight,” Aerospace Forces Spokesman Colonel Igor Klimov said.

Also, the Syrian army conducted military operations against the foreign-backed Takfiri militants in Aleppo province, leaving hundreds of them killed and injured.

Hundreds of terrorists were killed or wounded in Aleppo City and its countryside in the past 24 hours, a military source said.

Elsewhere, at least 28 militant fighters of the ISIL terrorist group were killed during clashes with the Kurdish forces in the Northeastern Syrian province of Hasaka.

“The YPG forces besieged the ISIL militants near Mount Abdulaziz and killed dozens of terrorists and destroyed several vehicles,” a spokesman for the YPG Media Center told ARA News.

Also, gunmen from the Jeish al-Fath coalition of extremist groups are pulling out their forces from Idlib and other towns in Northwestern Syria.

The radical group started moving towards the Turkish border on Saturday after having experienced “the efficiency of the Russian aerospace forces’ strikes,” the As-Safir Arabic-language daily reported.

The coalition is led by al-Nusra terrorist group, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, which is sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. The group seized the Idlib province this spring.

The report said field commanders fear at any moment the attack of Syrian forces supported by Russian warplanes on the key town of Jisr al-Shugour, on the Lattakia-Aleppo highway.

Putin’s Plan: What Will Russia Bomb in Syria? – By Aron Lund

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Putin’s Plan: What Will Russia Bomb in Syria? – By Aron Lund

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to order his military into Syria may simply have been the gut reaction of a hard-power ruler who, for lack of tools other than a hammer, can imagine no problem other than a nail. But dispatching the Russian Air Force in support of the embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad may also have been a true political masterstroke, in which case its political impact is likely to make a far bigger crater than any of the bombs that Putin is preparing to drop on Syria.

The first indications of a Russian military deployment in Syria leaked out in late August. It gradually became clear that something big was happening at the Basil al-Assad International Airport near Latakia in government-controlled western Syria. Not only was Assad’s army getting new weapons, it was also getting new comrades-in-arms.

According to satellite imagery reviewed by the Washington Post and The Aviationist, a specialist blog, the Russian expeditionary corps has now grown to nearly thirty Sukhoi combat aircraft. Most are SU-24 and SU-25 models that fly “low and slow” in order to take out ground targets, but there are also a few SU-30 jets—a “game changer,” according to a pilot interviewed by the Post, since this multi-role fighter could pose a serious threat to American aircraft in Syria.

Apart from the Sukhoi jets, the airport has also become home to several Mi-24 attack helicopters, transport aircraft, air defense systems, and an unknown number of remotely piloted drones. In addition, there is a small but growing ground force, although it is not clear whether it could be tasked with more than guarding the air base and surrounding areas. Russian forces have been seen embedding with Syrian forces, although it is perhaps as trainers or coordinators.

Today, Wednesday, satellite imagery also revealed two more Russian outposts. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that American intelligence indicates that these bases are not so much the start of an additional deployment as defensive outposts serving to protect the initial air base.
Political Results

The deployment is military, but its first and perhaps most important effects are political. Israel, which occasionally attacks what it says are Hezbollah targets inside Syria, and the United States have already met with the Russians to “deconflict,” a military term for how to avoid accidents and unwanted clashes.

Israel couldn’t care less about public opinion in Syria, but for the United States, this is an embarrassing position to be in. There is already much ill will among Syrian rebels over U.S. strikes on al-Qaeda targets within the anti-Assad guerrillas. The White House may continue to insist that Bashar al-Assad must step down, but the U.S. Air Force will henceforth be sharing Syrian airspace with both Assad’s own air force—which is notorious for its unrelenting bombing of civilian neighborhoods and infrastructure—and with a Russian expeditionary corps sent to aid him. It won’t be popular with American allies.

By introducing Russian jets and air defense systems into the Syrian theatre, Putin has also created facts on the ground (or just above it) that will help forestall further action against Assad by the United States or its allies. American Syria policy is currently under scrutiny and if internal White House debates about Assad were indeed moving in the do-something direction as some claim, then Vladimir Putin has just served up a brand new counter-argument.

Whether by accident or design, the Latakia deployment will also draw attention to Vladimir Putin’s appearance before the United Nations General Assembly in late September, his first in ten years. The Russian leader has been trying to promote an international coalition against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, of which Assad would be a part. Having just thrown his gauntlet down in Latakia, Putin won’t necessarily gain a more sympathetic hearing from the world leaders assembled in New York, but they’re sure to listen very closely.
Military Results

Although the Russian intervention seems partly designed for political effect, those Sukhoi jets aren’t just going sit on a runway in Latakia for the benefit of satellite paparazzi. According to U.S. officials, Russian airstrikes in Syria are likely to begin “soon”—and as this article was being written, as-yet unconfirmed reports alleged that Russian jets were already backing a regime offensive in the Aleppo area.

Will the Russian Air Force be able to make a difference on the ground?

Yes, probably, says David A. Deptula—and he should know. A retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant-general and air warfare theoretician, Deptula planned the American bombing campaign against Saddam Hussein’s army in 1991, when the U.S. and its allies—including, at the time, Syria—liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Ten years later he oversaw the air war that toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

“With competent pilots and with an effective command and control process, the addition of these aircraft could prove very effective depending on the desired objectives for their use,” Deptula told the New York Times. Which begs the question, what are those objectives?

The Kremlin has couched its involvement in Syria in terms of a war against jihadi extremism. It also seeks to bring Assad out of the cold and into an international coalition against the so-called Islamic State. In other words, focusing attacks on the Islamic State seems like a given, at least initially, but there are reasons to look at other targets, too.

But where and how could Russia maximize the impact of its strikes? Let’s look at some possible scenarios for the early stages of a Russian aerial intervention.
Option One: the Islamic State in Aleppo

At the time of writing, unconfirmed reports are coming in about Russian strikes in support of a sudden regime offensive striking out from eastern Aleppo. However, until now no evidence has emerged and it is important to remember that Syrian activist media, on both sides, is full of rumors. The news about a government offensive seems to be true, however, and reports indicate that it might be intended to relieve the Kweiris Airport, a small government-held pocket of land east of Aleppo that has long been under siege by the Islamic State. When other government enclaves in Syria’s north and east have fallen to the Islamic State, the captured soldiers have been summarily murdered in grotesque video-taped massacres that have unsettled pro-Assad constituencies and provoked angry reactions within the ranks.

Saving the Kweiris defenders would therefore provide both a political and a military boost for Assad, and it would help him clean up his frontlines in a crucial area of Syria.

Interestingly, an attack on the Kweiris pocket could also knock the Islamic State off balance in the Aleppo area, just as rebels north of the city are struggling to keep open their supply lines to Turkey against an Islamic State offensive. Coincidence or not, if Russia is involved, it would be an interesting first example of the potential interplay between offensives by Russian-backed army forces and U.S.-backed rebels.

The reports of Russian strikes near Kweiris remain unconfirmed for now. If they turn out to be true, it is possible that this will be a first area of focus. The Assad-Putin alliance could then try to change the balance of power in Aleppo. If they stick to Islamic State targets, instead of straying into battle with other rebels, a main ambition would probably be to push the jihadi group away from the government supply line between Aleppo and Hama in the south. The Assad-held areas of Aleppo are currently supplied by way of a hard-to-guard desert road that runs down through Sfeira, Khanaser, and Ithriya past the Ismaili-populated Salamiyeh area east of Hama. In the Salamiyeh area itself, the Islamic State has been nibbling away at the government’s perimeter defenses, but the desert road up to Aleppo has been a relatively tranquil front. Still, for Assad, the Islamic State’s presence just next to his Aleppo artery is a lethal threat.
Option Two: The Islamic State East of Homs

Directly south of this region, there is another area where Assad is vulnerable to the Islamic State—the eastern Homs region. It is impossible to tell what Russian intentions are, but if we’re looking at likely places for Russian air support to Assad, the area between Homs and Palmyra must be close to the top of the list.

The fall of Palmyra in May this year opened up the desert fringes east of Homs to the Islamic State. This is a target-rich environment, to say the least, and Assad’s overstretched army must be distressed by the sudden emergence of a new and untenably long frontline.

The region also contains the Syrian government’s last remaining oil and gas fields, as well as the pipelines that come with them. The Syrian military air base known as T4, located in the middle of the desert west of Palmyra, has emerged as the anchoring point of government defensive positions shielding these fields against the Islamic State.

As Carnegie’s Yezid Sayigh wrote a few months ago, and as David C. Butter lays out in detail in this excellent Chatham House report, much of Syria’s power grid runs on natural gas. The state-run national electricity infrastructure still powers all Syrian government and some rebel and Islamic State territories, but 80 percent of the gas feeding its power stations comes from the fields east of Homs. If Assad lost these gas fields and installations, it would therefore have a double effect. It would be a devastating blow to the regime, which is already in a state of structural and financial disrepair, and it could seriously aggravate the economic and humanitarian crisis throughout Syria.

All this makes the Homs-Palmyra region a particularly appealing target for Russian intervention:

First, it helps Assad stave off Islamic State attacks and could even enable his forces to recapture Palmyra and shorten the eastern front.
Second, it would publicly align Russia—and by extension Assad—with the United States and Europe in a joint struggle against the Islamic State. That’s exactly where Putin and Assad want to end up.
Third, it would help keep Syrian state institutions running and prevent a deepening of the humanitarian disaster in Syria. That’s a goal widely shared among the opposition’s Western allies, even though many rebels tend to view Assad as a greater evil than the Islamic State. If an air campaign in Palmyra helps drive a wedge into the opposition camp or among its backers, so much the better from the point of view of Putin and Assad.

Could the Homs-Palmyra area be a place where Russia will focus its air support? Time will tell, but one thing is certain: no one is likely to object too loudly as long as Russian airstrikes are aimed only at the Islamic State and take place in this region. For all we know, the White House might even have quietly ushered the Russians towards Palmyra, fearing that it would otherwise have to fly those bombing runs on its own.
Option Three: al-Qaeda and Others in the Northwest

Eastern Homs isn’t the only place where Assad is in a slow and painful retreat. This spring, the Syrian president was forced out of the city of Idlib and he has been losing ground ever since. By seizing Jisr al-Shughur and other towns in the area, the rebels have now opened up two venues of attack that threaten core regime areas. To the southwest lie the Alawite-populated mountains of the Latakia Governorate, from which much of the military elite hails. Due south of Jisr al-Shughur lie the Ghab Plains, a religiously mixed agricultural flatland that functions as the “soft underbelly” of Hama. So far, the Ghab seems to be where the rebels are concentrating most of their firepower.

The groups digging their way down the Ghab are not aligned with the Islamic State. To the contrary, they are hostile to it. The centerpiece of the anti-Assad insurgency in this region is the Jaish al-Fatah (“Army of Conquest”), a coalition of Islamist groups. Its single biggest member faction is likely to be Ahrar al-Sham, a hardline group backed by Turkey and Qatar. Many of its leaders hail from villages in the Ghab Plains, giving them even more reason to prioritize that battle.

However, the other big group in the Jaish al-Fatah coalition is the Nusra Front, which is al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. That makes the Syrian northwest another very tempting target for the Russians, for both political and military reasons. Unlike the Islamic State, the Nusra Front is well embedded in the wider Sunni Islamist landscape, meaning that Russian strikes would cause rebel outrage and a political stir among opposition backers. Yet, the U.S. has been bombing select Nusra Front targets for a year now and every country on earth considers al-Qaeda to be fair game.

The alliance between the terrorist-listed Nusra Front and other rebels, which are backed by the Gulf States, Turkey, and the West, creates an opportunity for Putin to conduct strikes that would undoubtedly help Assad while also moving the target away from the Islamic State and toward more mainstream sections of the insurgency. If criticized, his enemies will be in the unenviable position of having to explain why the Russian government shouldn’t attack al-Qaeda. It is not the kind of argument that can be won in the West, at least not outside a very narrow circle of Syria wonks.

Blowing Up Your Narrative

If at some point Putin decides to target other groups than the Islamic State, he’s not likely to stop at the Nusra Front. Whether right off the bat or after a while, he could easily widen the circle of attacks from al-Qaeda and start blasting away at every rebel group in Idlib, Hama, and Latakia under the pretext that they are either “terrorists” or “terrorist allies.” On the ground, things are obviously a bit more complex and, just as obviously, Putin knows that—but he has nothing to gain from acknowledging it.

To the contrary, the Kremlin has every reason to continue blurring the already indistinct dividing line between “extremist” and “moderate” rebels upon which Western states insist. Even though this neatly black and white categorization of Syria’s murky insurgency is at least partly fiction, it remains a politically indispensable formula for Western states that wish to arm anti-Assad forces. Which is precisely why erasing this distinction by extending airstrikes against all manners of rebels as part of an ostensibly anti-jihadi intervention, may turn out to be Putin’s long-term plan.

Blanket attacks on Syrian rebels on the pretext that they are all “al-Qaeda” would lead to much outraged commentary in the Western and Arab press. But to the Russian president it doesn’t matter if you think he’s Mad Vlad or Prudent Putin. He isn’t trying to win hearts and minds, least of all those of the Syrian rebels or their backers. Rather, he is trying to change the balance of power on the ground while firing missile after missile into the West’s political narrative.

Whatever one thinks of that, it is a big and bold idea of the sort that sometimes end up working.