ON SYRIA: THANK YOU RUSSIA!

Isis destruction of Syria antiquities

Russians Ride Fast. Russia’s Victory in Syria

The area around the Central Moscow tube stations looks like Aleppo after an air raid. Ruins, destroyed buildings, bulldozers gathering the shambles. No, Moscow was not hit by terrorists: this is a planned demolition of hundreds of small and not-too-small shacks erected (in defiance of planning law) in the vicinity of tube stations in the notorious Nineties, when the Law was vague and easily bought for ready money. The biggest of them, the Pyramid on top of Pushkinskaya Station, went down this week. The municipal workers promptly removed the vestiges of the collapsed constructions, while the erstwhile owners stared in disbelief.

They were surprised by the city hall offensive against illegally built shantytowns; some of them kept trading till the last moment. They received a warning and a demolition order a few months ago, but they did not believe the city would actually apply the order. They were sure the last moment it will be rescinded. It was not. Hundreds of buildings went down in one night.

This was a shocking reminder that Russian authorities can act, after so much ostensibly empty talk. The Russians take their time to saddle up, but they ride exceedingly fast, said the German Chancellor Bismarck quoting a Russian proverb (he served at the Russian court and knew a thing or two about Russians). So many rulers and rebels did not believe the Russian warnings, lulled by their long saddling up, and they usually lived to regret it.

The Muscovites were pleased by the demolitions: the uncouth structures looked ugly and were on the way for people rushing to and from the underground trains. What’s worse, they reminded everyone of Yeltsin’s lawless time, when the shacks were erected. Denuded of these vestiges stations built by the best architects of Stalin’s era in classical style looked so much better now!

Not many people gave a thought to an additional, non-advertised reason for the prompt removal. Moscow tube stations doubled as air raid shelters in wartime. The illegally built shacks would interfere with this purpose. After their demolition, hundreds of tube stations were readied to receive civilian population in case of an attack.

In the same time, the Russian army and Air Force carried out sudden manoeuvres in the south of the country. The TV news covered the army moves with relish. Though Russia still hopes peace will prevail, its leaders do not take chances. There is a risk of general conflagration started by the Syria proxy war.

Cessation of hostilities

The Russians accepted the US proposal to cease fire in Syria (or rather to end hostilities). They had made a similar proposal a few weeks ago, so this is in line with their thinking. Russians have made huge successes in Syria; they achieved an astonishing and unexpected victory with very few losses.

It was a reputational victory it was as well as a military one. Russia entered the Syrian war at a low point internationally. The EU and the US waged severe trade, finance and diplomatic war (“sanctions”) against the Bear; it was isolated from the West and the South. The ruble was crumbling, society was grim and dissatisfied with Putin’s prudent decision to keep away from Ukrainian turmoil (apart from very limited support of the Russian separatists) instead of forcefully interfering, as Russia had been anyway condemned as the aggressor.

Entry into the Syrian war has been met with disbelief and doubts. Will the Russian army succeed so far away from home? Will the Russian planes fly, will the tanks roll, or, devastated by post-Soviet negligence, will they collapse? Domestic and overseas Cassandras prophesied “quagmire”, “Vietnam”, “Afghanistan” for them, and plenty of coffins for their soldiers. But instead, there were roses all the way. The military performed splendidly. The planes, missiles and tanks proved their worth. The Bashar Assad regime was saved, the rebels are on the run. For the Russians, the end of hostilities would allow them to consolidate their victory.

In every war, as a ceasefire is negotiated, there are voices for “war till complete victory”. I remember myself, as a young Israeli soldier in 1973 war, when Kissinger brought the ceasefire, military observers were upset we weren’t allowed to destroy the entrapped Third Egyptian Army on the East Bank of Suez Canal. Who knew how many of us would die if such an attack were to take place?

The Syrian war is not an exception. The Syrian army stands at the door of resounding victory, bellicose military experts say; the rebels are surrounded at Aleppo, their lifeline to Turkey has been cut, now is the time to eliminate the threat and cleanse Syria from the jihadists. However, elimination of enemy pockets can be a very expensive operation in terms of human lives, especially as we speak of a fanatical and well-entrenched enemy. Terrible suicide bombings in Damascus and Homs proved the rebels are as murderous as their predecessors the Assassins. Only Genghis Khan’s Mongols could (and did) destroy such an enemy. Anyway, Russians preferred to negotiate and create a coalition government including some moderate rebels, thus enlarging the base for Assad.

The last few days before the cessation of hostilities will allow Assad’s army to gain some ground in Aleppo area and to switch to the Southern front. I’d expect them to take Palmyra in the course of next few days (consider it a tip).

However, the ceasefire turned out to be an elusive goal, at this stage.

The rebels hesitantly agreed to “cessation of hostilities” but with so many preconditions that it just made no sense. The government forces were not keen to stop the fighting as well, while the wind of success filled their sails. The Russians have no intention of stopping operations against the “terrorists”; the US agreed with them, but who are the ‘terrorists’ and who are the “moderates” has to be hammered out in the negotiations. The UN SC declared Daesh (ISIS) and al Nusra (the Syrian offshoot of al Qaeda, the Nusra Front) “terrorists”, so far, so good, but it is not so simple as it seems. There are hundreds of small organisations affiliated with them, from Abdullah Azzam Brigades to Jamaat Abu Banat (this last one “operates on the outskirts of Syrian cities Aleppo and Idlib, extorting funds from and carrying out kidnappings and public executions of local Syrians” says the UN terrorist list). Should they be protected under ceasefire terms?

The “moderate” (or Saudi-endorsed) rebels say yes. They want to include the Nusra affiliates in the ceasefire arrangements, for without al Nusra, they would be lost. This is not acceptable for the Syrian government and for its Russian allies. Reluctantly, the Americans attempted to include al Nusra in the scheme, at least in Aleppo. We shall see soon how this puzzle will be resolved, if at all.

The Moscow clearance of access to tube stations had more to do with a danger of war with Turkey. Turkey entered the war, albeit in a limited way, by shelling Syrian Kurds. The Russians braced themselves for an armed confrontation with Turkey, but only as a response in case of a full-scale Turkish invasion. This military preparedness (which included airlift of heavy weapons to the Russian air base in Armenia) and NATO statement (saying they will not fight if Turkey were to initiate belligerency) helped to undermine the Turkish resolve. The Russians went to the UN SC asking to censure the Turks; so they did, but in a statement, not by a resolution, as the Russians wanted. Still, this statement cooled off Turkish minds, and it seems their desire to invade and to take a stand at Aleppo evaporated. The Saudi troops did not materialise yet, as I expected (see my previous report).

So, the Syrian war is far from over, but there is a good chance that by March 1st some ceasefire arrangements will take place on the ground. If the rebels grasp the chance and enter serious negotiations for a coalition government, peace is possible. If they come to Geneva armed with the old mantra “Assad must go”, this opportunity will be wasted. Even if (and it’s extremely unlikely) Russia would agree to sacrifice Assad for the sake of peace, it has no means to deliver. Assad is a strong man and a powerful leader. Russians can’t possibly depose him. So Assad is a given, like it or not. In my view, he is a good leader for this time.

There are two notable changes on the scene: one, more realistic view of Syrian conflict had made its way into American mainstream media. Publication of two pieces by Stephen Kinzer in the Boston Globe called On Syria: Thank you, Russia! and The Media are misleading the Public on Syria was a revolutionary event of first magnitude. For the first time ever, the mainstream American reader learned that “For three years, violent militants have run Aleppo. Their rule began with a wave of repression. They posted notices warning residents: “Don’t send your children to school. If you do, we will get the backpack and you will get the coffin.” Then they destroyed factories, hoping that unemployed workers would have no recourse other than to become fighters. They trucked looted machinery to Turkey and sold it.” Kinzer came to a powerful conclusion: “We would have been more secure as a nation, and might have contributed to a more stable world, if we had followed Russia’s foreign policy lead in the past”, namely, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Indeed the world would look different. Perhaps we may connect these publications to a new American mood that manifested itself in primaries’ vote for Trump and Sanders.

The second notable change is the clear position of Israel against a ceasefire in Syria, against Assad and for Daesh and the Nusra. For long time this position had been obscured by Israeli observers and politicians. Israel has been pleased with Arabs killing each other. Now, as the end of war is seen on the horizon, Israel spoke up. Amos Harel, a leading Israeli military observer with high-grade access, made it clear:

“the war in Syria has largely served Israel’s interests. The ongoing fighting has worn down the Syrian army to a shadow of its former capabilities. And Hezbollah, Israel’s main adversary in the north, is losing dozens of fighters every month in battle. Israel has been quietly wishing success to both sides and would not have been against the bloodletting continuing for a few more years without a clear victor” Now, after successful Russian intervention, Israel states openly that “an Assad victory would be bad for Israel” and it calls upon the West “to send real military aid to the less extreme Sunni rebels”.

Thus, the will of Israel, and of Israel Lobby in the US, directly contradicts the will of people as it was lucidly expressed by Stephen Kinzer. You can follow the lead of your Israeli Lobby, or you can have peace and security, but you can’t have both, it is that simple.

Israel Shamir can be reached at israel.shamir@gmail.com

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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.)

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.