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- and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default
Thick smoke from an air strike by the US-led coalition rises in Kobani, Syria (AP).
Robert Fisk reporting,
Phones were ringing through the army headquarters in central Damascus and a veteran of Syria’s 1982 war with Israel in Lebanon was explaining how all wars involved victories and defeats – that Syria’s forces also suffered setbacks in their war against “terrorism” – when the news arrived at his own desk.
A flurry of calls established that Jabhat al-Nusra rebels had stormed into the centre of Idlib, the surrounded but still government-held city west of Aleppo; that they had captured the governor’s office and were beheading senior Syrian officers. Our interview was not intended to have gone quite like this. It was a good day to see the general. Which means it was a bad day.
The leading Syrian army officer, who requested anonymity, takes a shrewd view of events – and history – and clearly had no objection to America’s air strikes on Isis targets in his country, although he viewed them dispassionately. “Our army doesn’t know where or when these strikes are going to happen,” he said.
“We see aircraft on our radar – we can see everything – but if our checkpoints (on the front) see the strikes, it is only by chance. We and the Americans are not sharing information with each other. The Americans just do it. It’s natural. They decide in the UN that they are going to do these strikes. Syria says ‘yes’. We are fighting ‘Daesh’ (Isis) and the other terrorist groups. But America never asked us about their targets.”
Isis, Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist groups are one and the same – he dismisses the Free Syrian Army (FSA) so beloved of President Barack Obama and US Republicans as more of a fantasy army than a reality – and insists that the strategy of Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra is the same wherever the Syrian army fights them. “It’s the same plan, the same orders, and we are using the same tactics in fighting them. There is a priority for the Syrian army – to know where they have to fight. I can’t say that in all the military operations that the Syrian army is taking the upper hand. War is not just about victory. There are winners and losers. That is the nature of war.”
That’s when the phones started ringing. Other officers arrived in the general’s office. He walked into another room to take a call. His right-hand fingers tapped on his desk. Was the army to announce the events in Idlib? But he returned to our interview, remembering exactly where he had broken off. “Yes, there are places where the Syrian army loses and there are some setbacks, we can’t deny that. We don’t pretend that we always have victories. But our victories are bigger than our losses. Three days ago a town called Moraq – strategic between Idlib and Aleppo was recaptured by our army – the main road from Damascus to Aleppo is now completely safe.”
But not Idlib. The phones rang again. “Nusra tried to infiltrate into the city, but we foiled them,” he said triumphantly. True. But the general didn’t mention – perhaps did not even then know – that his own comrades were being beheaded, even as the army was about to recapture the governor’s office. By chance, I had been asking the general about Raqqa province, whose last military fortress and airbase was captured by Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra this year. Videos showed hundreds of Syrian soldiers being executed beside mass graves, one even showed two fighter jets being towed through the streets by rebels. And within days, reports from outside Syria spoke of Isis being trained on Mig-21s by former Iraqi pilots.
He knew about the jets. “This is cheap propaganda – these were old, unflyable jets that stood near the airbase gates. If they could have been flown, we would have taken them away. They were very old Mig-17s, junk jets without radar or control. We couldn’t rebuild them – and nor can they. Even the Russians can’t rebuild them. We know everything that is flying over Syria – even the American planes – but these old Migs can never leave the ground.”
As for Raqqa and its citizens and the fate of his soldiers, he was visibly angry. “Isis is reactionary, trying to represent the past – the medieval era. There are executions, torture, they are telling people they are practising sharia. And they are teaching children how to behead people….” The general would not speculate on how many of Syria’s soldiers had been murdered in Raqqa. “I can’t give you exact numbers – some are still missing, videos can be doctored. We don’t take Isis’s word for anything. There are soldiers who have been captured. We don’t know how many.” Unknown to the general, up to 70 soldiers had just been beheaded in Idlib.
I was surprised, I said, that Syria does not call these executions war crimes – as Syria’s enemies always accuse Syria of war crimes. But it was clear from his reply that this is a war without any prisoners. “The Syrian Arab Army has been in open war with terrorists for four years. Of course we are feeling angry. We have setbacks and they are targeted by us every day. We are killing hundreds of them. I am not going to give Syria to these stupid people. We are fighting to the death. But we are for a political resolution.
“We are concerned that in the end there must only be a political resolution for Syria. Eliminate the terrorists – all the people in the world are against them – and anyone who carries weapons against Syrian soldiers or the Syrian government or civilian people is involved in terrorism. We will deal with them.
“America did this because a journalist was murdered – it was a pretext for America to come to Syria. But we are going to eliminate all the terrorists on Syrian soil. In my opinion, we are cooperating with the Coalition because we said ‘yes’ when they attacked Isis. The UN resolution was a sign of cooperation.”
As for the battle of Ain al-Arab, or Kobani, on the Turkish border – famous on television screens around the world – the general had some cynicism. “We must separate the military and the political. Ain al-Arab is a Syrian town, the majority of its people are Kurds and Isis attacked them, just to control it. And to base themselves there, because it’s a border town. Politically, however, there is something of a theatre about this. The Turks want to have a buffer zone and to pressure the US to give them this buffer zone. And the Americans are trying to push Turkey into the war situation. This is the ‘headline’! But they are trying to use each other, the Turks and the Americans, and Ain al-Arab’s civilians are paying the cost of this.”
As for the FSA into which the US put so much faith, he laughs. “There may be some in Idlib and near Deraa.”There were soldiers and some officers who defected from the Syrian army,” he said. “Some asked to come back and are in our army again. Others returned and we sent them home.” More Dad’s Army, it would seem to the general, than the Free Syrian Army.
Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the U.S. on Friday of endangering global security by imposing a “unilateral diktat” on the rest of the world and shifted blame for the Ukraine crisis onto the West.
In a 40-minute diatribe against the West that was reminiscent of the Cold War and underlined the depth of the rift between Moscow and the West, Putin also denied trying to rebuild the Soviet empire at the expense of Russia’s neighbors.
“We did not start this,” Putin told an informal group of experts on Russia that includes many Western specialists critical of him, warning that Washington was trying to “remake the whole world” based on its own interests.
“Statements that Russia is trying to reinstate some sort of empire, that it is encroaching on the sovereignty of its neighbors, are groundless,” the former KGB agent declared in a speech delivered standing at a podium, without a smile, in a ski resort in mountains above the Black Sea city of Sochi.
Listing a series of conflicts in which he faulted U.S. actions, including Libya, Syria and Iraq, Putin asked whether Washington’s policies had strengthened peace and democracy.
“No,” he declared. “The unilateral diktat and the imposing of schemes [on others] have exactly the opposite effect.”
Putin, 62, has stepped up anti-Western rhetoric since returning to the Kremlin as president in 2012, helping push up his popularity ratings since the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March.
Even so, the speech was one of the most hostile Putin has delivered against the West and it appeared partly intended to show Russian voters he will stand up to the rest of the world and defend their interests.
The criticisms of a world order dominated by Washington, more than two decades after the Cold War, recalled a 2007 speech in Munich in which Putin shocked the West by lambasting Washington’s “unipolar” world view. The speech prompted many Western leaders to reassess their view of Putin.
Shifting the Blame
The annual meetings of what is known as the Valdai Club have rarely featured such open, direct and tough language in their debates on Russian policy.
Critics say the meetings have become a showcase for Kremlin policy, with the session attended by Putin shown live on state television and little discussion of Russia’s record on human rights and democracy, which is criticized in the West.
Putin rejected criticism over the Ukraine crisis, in which Moscow has sided with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, and threw the West’s criticisms of Moscow back in its face.
Repeating accusations that Western governments helped pro-Western groups stage a coup d’etat that ousted a pro-Moscow president in Kiev in February, Putin said: “No one wanted to listen to us, and no one wanted to talk to us.”
“Instead of a difficult but, I underline, civilized dialogue they brought about a state coup. They pushed the country into chaos, economic and social collapse, and civil war with huge losses,” he said.
Dismissing U.S. and European Union sanctions imposed on Moscow as a mistake, he said: “Russia will not be posturing, get offended, ask someone for anything. Russia is self-sufficient.”
He made only passing references to the decline of Russia’s $2 trillion economy, which is in danger of sliding into recession as its currency tumbles along with the price of oil, its main export item.
But he said in a question and answer session after his speech that Russia would not burn though its gold and foreign currency reserves thoughtlessly to prop up the economy.
Putin has increasingly sought to shift blame for the economic crisis onto global problems, the sanctions and the oil price. He and other Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have also used increasingly tough language to blame the West for the Ukraine crisis.
A cease-fire has been in force in Ukraine since Sept. 5, but it has been violated daily and the West says Moscow continues to have troops and weapons in east Ukraine. Russia denies this.
Neil Buckley reporting,
Russian president Vladimir Putin on Friday accused the US of undermining the post-Cold War world order, warning that without efforts to establish a new system of global governance the world could collapse into anarchy and chaos.
In one of his most anti-US speeches in 15 years as Russia’s most powerful politician, Mr Putin insisted allegations that its annexation of Crimea showed that it was trying to rebuild the Soviet empire were “groundless”. Russia had no intention of encroaching on the sovereignty of its neighbours, he insisted.
Instead, the Russian leader blamed the US for triggering both Crimea’s breakaway from Ukraine and thousands of deaths in the war in the east of the country, by backing what Mr Putin called an armed coup against former president Viktor Yanukovich in February.
“We didn’t start this,” Mr Putin said. Citing a string of US-led military interventions from Kosovo to Libya, he insisted the US had declared itself victor when the Cold War ended and “decided to … reshape the world to suit their own needs and interests”.
“This is the way the nouveaux riches behave when they suddenly end up with a great fortune – in this case, in the shape of world leadership and domination. Instead of managing their wealth wisely … I think they have committed many follies,” he told a conference of foreign academics and journalists at an Olympic ski venue near Sochi.
The speech was one of Mr Putin’s most important foreign policy statements since he surprised the west in Munich in 2007 by accusing the US of “overstepping its boundaries in every way” and creating new dividing lines in Europe.
Some commentators speculated that it reflected Moscow’s fury after US President Barack Obama recently ranked Russia alongside the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, and the Ebola virus among the top three global threats. But his tone surprised even supporters.
“Very tough about the US, first time so [tough],” tweeted Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of the ardently pro-Kremlin RT television channel. “Our answer to B Obama.”
Mr Putin signalled he believed the US and Russia should draw a line under recent events and sit down with other big economies to redesign the system of global governance along “multipolar” lines.
While he conceded this could be a lengthy and gruelling task, Mr Putin warned the alternative could be serious conflicts involving major countries. He also evoked the danger of a new Cold War-type stand-off, saying existing arms control treaties risked being violated.
Any effort to bring the two countries together for talks, however, could be complicated by the west’s insistence that Russia’s annexation of Crimea is an illegal occupation, and by Moscow’s anger over resulting EU and US sanctions.
Mr Putin said the sanctions undermined world trade rules and globalisation, but said Russia was a strong country that could weather the measures, and would not “beg” to get them lifted.
The Russian president suggested the UN could be “adapted to new realities”, while regional “pillars” of a new system, such as Russia’s own planned Eurasian Union of ex-Soviet states, could help enhance security.
But he insisted such moves were only necessary since the US had ridden roughshod over existing rules – for example when it invaded Iraq without UN Security Council backing.
“If the existing system of international relations, international law and the checks and balances … got in the way of [US] aims, this system was declared worthless, outdated and in need of immediate demolition,” he said.
The strength of Mr Putin’s language also took US listeners aback. Addressing a question to the president after his speech, Toby Gati, a former White House official under President Bill Clinton, said she “did not recognise” as her own country the one the Russian president claimed to be describing.