Classified Russian-Kurdish Meeting Precedes Russian Raids Targeting Kurds

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu,

London- Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu landed in Syria’s Moscow-operated Hmeimim Air Base near Latakia after having met Syrian regime head Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus last Tuesday. Kurdish People’s Protection Units Commander Saban Hamo also landed at the airbase, in what would turn out to be the first meeting of a kind between a Russian official and a Syrian Kurdish military leader.

When meeting Assad, Shoigu congratulated pro-regime forces, which include foreign militias coming in from both Iran and Lebanon, for lifting the blockade off Deir Az-Zor. Regime forces and Iranian proxy militias receive constant Russian aerial coverage.

Shoigu also reviewed the forces’ preparedness to cross the Euphrates River and challenge the extent of US commitment to allied Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) units.

Assad was briefed on Moscow’s decision to approve the deployment of Turkish military supervisors in Idlib as part of a plan to dismantle Tahrir al-Sham, which encompasses ex-Fatah al-Sham branches.

The Russian defense minister is also believed to have informed Damascus of Moscow-Tehran talks held by Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. At the talks, a Russian-Iranian settlement agreed to expand the circle of field monitors to include Iranians, so that Russians and Iranians establish a “buffer zone” between opposition factions, supervising Turks and regime forces in Aleppo’s countryside, Hama, Latakia and Idlib.

One of the objectives of the Turkish intervention in Idlib is to prevent Kurdish reach to stretch from northern Aleppo to Latakia and the Mediterranean Sea.

Turkey has successfully prevented the establishing of a strong Kurdish base after having separated northern Kurdish zones in Syria by preventing communication between Kobani -east of the Euphrates River- and Afrin on the western riverbank.

The segregation was carried out by a Turkish military intervention in Syria, code-named by Turkey as Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Aleppo.

Shoigu’s meeting with Kurdish Commander Hamo focused on swaying SDF units away from Washington and closer to Moscow in the next battle.

It goes without saying that Washington efforts succeeded in Iraq’s Mosul and is about to defeat ISIS in its eastern Syria stronghold, Raqqa.

The US-led international coalition is making achievements against perhaps the most dangerous organization in the world. Moscow is therefore looking for a parallel victory in Deir Ezzour.

Not only is President Vladimir Putin taking credit for dislodging ISIS from Syria’s historic city of Palmyra, and is seeking a similar victory in Deir Az-Zor, but also wants to set up a role for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units.

According to Western diplomatic sources, a large part of the Shoigu- Hamo meeting, which lasted about an hour and a half, focused on the war against terrorism and the upcoming Deir Ezzour battle.

Sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that Washington has made the war on terrorism a global issue, and Moscow wants a big victory that is equivalent to American victories.

Assad Receives Russian Minister of Defense

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus

Moscow- Head of Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad received Tuesday Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at the instruction of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Syrian presidency said in a statement.

“During the meeting, the issues of military and military-technical cooperation were discussed in the context of the successful actions of the Syrian government troops with the support of the Russian Aerospace Forces aimed at the complete destruction of ISIS in Syria,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Shoigu and Assad also discussed issues of stabilization of the situation in Syria, the functioning of de-escalation zones, and humanitarian assistance.

Meanwhile, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov said Tuesday that the representatives of the Syrian armed opposition will actively participate in the upcoming sixth round of the talks on the Syrian settlement, which will be held in Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana.

“Representatives of the Syrian armed opposition have made official requests to Kazakhstan’s consulates asking for entrance visas. This means that representatives of the Syrian armed opposition will actively participate in the next round, like the last time,” the Foreign Minister told reporters.

According to Abdrakhmanov, groups that represent the Southern Front will participate in the sixth round, as well as other groups, which had been part of the Astana talks since their beginning.

“The Jordanian side will also participate as an observer and will be represented by highly placed officials from their external affairs departments,” the Minister said.

The establishment of the fourth and the last zone of de-escalation of violence in Syria, namely in its northern Idlib province, is going to be in the spotlight of the upcoming high-level international meeting on Syria in Astana.

The talks, attended by high-ranking officials from the three ceasefire guarantor states — Russia, Iran and Turkey — as well as representatives of the Syrian government and armed opposition, will be held on September 13-15.

So far, three zones of de-escalation have been established: in the south along the border with Jordan, in Eastern Ghouta and to the north of Homs. Consultations on the fourth and most problematic de-escalation zone in the Idlib province are ongoing.

In July, Russia, Turkey and Iran, with help from Jordan and the United States as observers, tried to coordinate a whole range of specifics on the establishment of the four safe zones, but could not agree on all the details and sign the package of documents as a whole.

Since July, three out of four zones were coordinated and announced outside of the Astana framework.

Moscow Supports Haftar’s Counter-Terrorism Efforts, Salama Meets Politicians in Misrata

Cairo- Russia had announced Tuesday that it supports the efforts exerted by Commander of Libyan National Army (LNA) Khalifa Haftar’s forces to combat terrorism while Haftar stressed his determination to continue the fight against terrorism until the liberation of all cities in Libya.

Haftar’s office said in a statement on Tuesday that the Russian message was received during his meeting with the Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu in the latter’s headquarter in Moscow.

The statement said that Shoigu expressed his appreciation for the great sacrifices made by the national army in the fight against terrorism and congratulated the Libyan leader and the Libyans for liberating the city of Benghazi from terrorist groups.

Shoigu stressed the Russian leadership will stand by the Libyan armed forces in their fight against terrorism in order to achieve security and stability in Libya and its regional surrounding, according to the statement.

Meanwhile, Fatou Bensouda, Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), announced the issuance of a warrant for the arrest of Mahmoud Mustafa Busayf al-Werfalli, a senior Libyan military commander allied with Khalifa Haftar.

“I filed an under seal application with Pre-Trial Chamber I of the ICC for a warrant of arrest to be issued against al-Werfalli, a Major in the al-Saiqa forces, on charges of murder as a war crime under the Rome Statute for his direct participation in seven separate rounds of executions, in which a total of 33 people were murdered in cold blood in Benghazi or surrounding areas,” Bensouda said in a statement.

“Such egregious crimes, including the cruel and dehumanizing manner by which they were perpetrated against helpless victims, must be stopped. Accountability for atrocity crimes is better suited to advance the ends of peace and stability, not more violence,” the statement said.

Bensouda added that the Pre-Trial Chamber granted her request and issued a warrant of arrest against al-Werfalli, and that her office’s pursuit of justice and the fight against impunity in Libya continues.

However, she expressed concern that the challenge now is the execution of the warrant of arrest and the surrender of al-Werfalli to the custody of the ICC.

Bensouda also appealed to the international community to cooperate and assist Libya, as needed, to ensure the arrest and surrender of al-Werfalli to the ICC without delay and equally called on the UNSC to support such efforts.

For his part, newly-appointed UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame visited Libya’s third largest city of Misrata on Tuesday and held talks with political and community leaders of the city.

Salame, the special representative of the UN Secretary-General and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, met with officials of Misrata’s Municipal Council, community leaders and Misrata University students, and he discussed the city’s needs and future vision.

He also commended Misrata’s contribution to fighting terrorism, efforts to build one united, sovereign Libya and sacrifices made by the city’s residents to achieve stability and security across Libya. He stressed that Libya can emerge from the crisis despite challenges ahead.

Addressing the students in Misrata University, Salame vowed to be unbiased and to find a new mechanism for dialogue among the Libyan conflicting parties so that they reach a consensus to amend the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA).

Russia Says Opening Humanitarian Corridors around Aleppo amid ‘Relentless’ Use of Cluster Munition

Russia said on Thursday it had launched a “large-scale humanitarian operation” together with the Syrian regime around the battered city of Aleppo to open humanitarian corridors as the regime came under criticism by a human rights organization on the use of cluster munitions.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Russian news agencies that three humanitarian corridors were being opened “to aid civilians held hostage by terrorists and for fighters wishing to lay down their arms” and one more corridor to the north of the city for rebels to flee with their weapons.

Opposition neighborhoods of Aleppo have been effectively besieged by regime forces backed up by Russian air power since July 7, when regime troops advanced to within firing range of the sole remaining supply route into the east.

Medical posts and food handouts would be provided along the three corridors intended for civilians and fighters who have put down their weapons, Shoigu said.

Human Rights Watch said in a report released Thursday that the Syrian regime’s air campaign against rebels is widely using cluster munitions, banned by more than 100 countries because of their indiscriminate nature.

The rights group said it had documented 47 cluster munitions attacks, which killed or wounded dozens of civilians in opposition-controlled territory in the last two months.

“Since Russia and Syria have renewed their joint air operations, we have seen a relentless use of cluster munitions,” said Ole Solvang, HRW’s deputy emergencies director. “The Russian government should immediately ensure that neither its forces nor Syria’s use this inherently indiscriminate weapon.”

Cluster munitions are containers that explode in the air to distribute smaller bombs over a large area.

Russia has denied using cluster munitions in Syria, HRW said, but evidence was growing that it had stockpiled the weapons and either used them or participated in attacks where they were used.

Cluster munitions were used in a July 11 attack in the northwest province of Idlib that killed at least 10 people, HRW said, and a picture taken near the site showed a bomb being dropped by an SU-34 – a jet it said only Russia uses.

Photographs of the aftermath of another attack a week later, near the al-Tanf border crossing in southern Syria, showed cluster munitions remnants, including unexploded bomblets, or sub-munitions, HRW said. Rebel fighters and the United States said the raid was carried out by Russian jets.

Russia is not a signatory to a 2008 United Nations treaty that bans use of cluster munitions because of their indiscriminate nature and the threat to civilians posed by unexploded bomblets, which remain a long-term threat.

Since mid-2012, Syrian regime forces have used both air-dropped and ground-launched cluster munitions, HRW said.

Ukraine orders troop pullout from Crimea

Members of the Crimean self defense forces guard the Crimea parliament building during Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu's visit in Simferopol, Crimea on Monday, March 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Max Vetrov)
Members of the Crimean self defense forces guard the Crimea parliament building during Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit in Simferopol, Crimea on Monday, March 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Max Vetrov)
Kiev, AP—Ukraine’s fledgling government ordered troops to retreat from Crimea on Monday, ending days of wavering as Western leaders tried to present a unified response to Russia’s increasingly firm control of the peninsula.

Russian forces have been systematically seizing Ukrainian ships and military installations in Crimea, including a naval base near the eastern Crimean port of Feodosia, where two injured servicemen were taken captive on Monday and as many as 80 were detained on-site, Ukrainian officials said.

With the storming of at least three military facilities over the past three days alone—and the decision by some to switch to the Russian side—it wasn’t clear how many Ukrainian troops remained on the peninsula. The former chief of Ukraine’s navy, who was charged with treason after he swore allegiance to the Crimean authorities and urged others to defect, was named a deputy chief of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchnynov, whose new government has struggled to maintain control and cohesion, said the Defense Ministry was ordered to withdraw all servicemen in Crimea to Ukraine’s mainland.

The situation in Ukraine is set to dominate US President Barack Obama’s agenda as he begins a week of international travel in the Netherlands, where he was to attend a nuclear security summit.

The event has been overshadowed by hurriedly scheduled talks on Ukraine among the Group of Seven industrialized economies—the US, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.

“We’re united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far,” Obama said.

Speaking to leading lawmakers in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, Turchnynov said Ukrainian troops would be evacuated with their families in response to unspecified threats from what he termed occupying Russian forces.

The interim government in Kiev has been criticized for its indecision over Ukrainian troops in Crimea, where Russian forces have steadily gained control of bases and ships. Over the weekend, Russian troops stormed the Belbek air force base near Sevastopol and detained the commander.

Tired of weeks of tension, uncertainty and Kiev’s indecision, some Ukrainian troops were leaving their bases. In the bay of Donuzlav in western Crimea, the crew of the Ukrainian navy ship Konstantin Olshanskiy were packing up and leaving Monday.

The ship’s crew was using a small boat that made several round trips to carry them to the shore.

There were hecklers on the shore when the crew arrived. One man shouted that they were “rats fleeing a ship,” while another man blasted the Russian national anthem out of his car.

“We aren’t rats, we aren’t running,” said one sailor, who only gave his first name of Yevgeny to discuss a sensitive subject. “Why should we have stayed, what would we have accomplished?”

Russia completed its annexation of Crimea last week, after its troops took control over the Ukrainian region following the ouster of a Kremlin-friendly government in Kiev.

Moscow says its absorption of Crimea has been rendered legitimate by a referendum held earlier this month in which the bulk of voters in the peninsula approved the move, but the process has come under sustained criticism from the international community.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Crimea on Monday to inspect the Black Sea Fleet, which has been stationed in Crimea under an agreement with Ukraine that allowed Moscow to have up to 25,000 troops in the peninsula. The Russian officials have remained coy about their precise number.

Shoigu met with Ukrainian servicemen, explaining the benefits and privileges they will have if they join the Russian military.

He named the former head of Ukraine’s navy, Denis Berezovsky, as deputy commander of the Black Sea Fleet. Berezovsky was appointed commander of Ukraine’s navy on March 1, only to surrender the country’s base in the port of Sevastopol to pro-Russian forces a day later. Authorities in Kiev have charged him with treason.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev chaired a meeting on providing economic aid to Crimea, promising that Crimeans will continue receiving pensions and subsidies even after the region switches to the Russian ruble.

The West has leveled a raft of sanctions against Russia for its moves in Crimea that have been hailed by some, but criticized as not going far enough by others.

In Moscow, some restaurants are mocking the sanctions the US imposed on Russia over its annexation of Crimea by posting signs saying that they have banned Obama from their premises.

Russia sends armored trucks to Syria to transport chemical arms

Members of a UN investigation team take samples in the Damascus countryside of Ain Terma, Syria. (AP Photo/United media office of Arbeen)
Members of a UN investigation team take samples in the Damascus countryside of Ain Terma, Syria. (AP Photo/United media office of Arbeen)

Moscow, Reuters—Russia has sent 25 armored trucks and 50 other vehicles to Syria to help transport toxins that are to be destroyed under an international agreement to rid the nation of its chemical arsenal, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Monday.

In a report to President Vladimir Putin, Shoigu said Russian aircraft delivered 50 Kamaz trucks and 25 Ural armored trucks to the Syrian port city of Latakia on December 18-20 along with other equipment, state-run news agency RIA reported.

“The Defence Ministry has very swiftly implemented actions to deliver to Syria equipment and materiel to provide for the removal of Syrian chemical weapons and their destruction,” Shoigu was quoted as saying.

Syria has agreed to abandon it chemical weapons under a deal proposed by Russia to avert potential US military action after a deadly August 21 sarin gas attack the United States blamed on President Bashar Al-Assad’s government.

Damascus agreed to transport the “most critical” chemicals, including around 20 tons of mustard nerve agent, out of the northern port of Latakia by Dec. 31 to be safely destroyed abroad away from the war zone.

Western powers has baulked at Syria’s request for military transport equipment to transport chemical weapons material to Latakia because of concerns it could be used to fight Assad’s opponents in the conflict or kill civilians.

Russia has been a major seller of conventional weapons to Syria and has given Assad crucial support during the conflict, blocking attempts to punish with sanctions and saying his exit must not be a precondition for a peace process.

Syrian government forces took control of a key highway connecting Damascus to the coast earlier this month, but the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has voiced concern the deadline could be missed.