Exclusive: Putin-linked think tank drew up plan to sway 2016 U.S. election – documents

 

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

Exclusive: Putin-linked think tank drew up plan to sway 2016 U.S. election – documents

By Ned Parker, Jonathan Landay and John Walcott | WASHINGTON

A Russian government think tank controlled by Vladimir Putin developed a plan to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump and undermine voters’ faith in the American electoral system, three current and four former U.S. officials told Reuters.

They described two confidential documents from the think tank as providing the framework and rationale for what U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded was an intensive effort by Russia to interfere with the Nov. 8 election. U.S. intelligence officials acquired the documents, which were prepared by the Moscow-based Russian Institute for Strategic Studies [en.riss.ru/], after the election.

The institute is run by retired senior Russian foreign intelligence officials appointed by Putin’s office.

The first Russian institute document was a strategy paper written last June that circulated at the highest levels of the Russian government but was not addressed to any specific individuals.

It recommended the Kremlin launch a propaganda campaign on social media and Russian state-backed global news outlets to encourage U.S. voters to elect a president who would take a softer line toward Russia than the administration of then-President Barack Obama, the seven officials said.

A second institute document, drafted in October and distributed in the same way, warned that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was likely to win the election. For that reason, it argued, it was better for Russia to end its pro-Trump propaganda and instead intensify its messaging about voter fraud to undermine the U.S. electoral system’s legitimacy and damage Clinton’s reputation in an effort to undermine her presidency, the seven officials said.

The current and former U.S. officials spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the Russian documents’ classified status. They declined to discuss how the United States obtained them. U.S. intelligence agencies also declined to comment on them.

Putin has denied interfering in the U.S. election. Putin’s spokesman and the Russian institute did not respond to requests for comment.

The documents were central to the Obama administration’s conclusion that Russia mounted a “fake news” campaign and launched cyber attacks against Democratic Party groups and Clinton’s campaign, the current and former officials said.

“Putin had the objective in mind all along, and he asked the institute to draw him a road map,” said one of the sources, a former senior U.S. intelligence official.

Trump has said Russia’s activities had no impact on the outcome of the race. Ongoing congressional and FBI investigations into Russian interference have so far produced no public evidence that Trump associates colluded with the Russian effort to change the outcome of the election.

Four of the officials said the approach outlined in the June strategy paper was a broadening of an effort the Putin administration launched in March 2016. That month the Kremlin instructed state-backed media outlets, including international platforms Russia Today and Sputnik news agency, to start producing positive reports on Trump’s quest for the U.S. presidency, the officials said.

Russia Today did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Sputnik dismissed the assertions by the U.S. officials that it participated in a Kremlin campaign as an “absolute pack of lies.” “And by the way, it’s not the first pack of lies we’re hearing from ‘sources in U.S. official circles’,” the spokesperson said in an email.

PRO-KREMLIN BLOGGERS

Russia Today and Sputnik published anti-Clinton stories while pro-Kremlin bloggers prepared a Twitter campaign calling into question the fairness of an anticipated Clinton victory, according to a report by U.S. intelligence agencies on Russian interference in the election made public in January. [bit.ly/2kMiKSA]

Russia Today’s most popular Clinton video – “How 100% of the 2015 Clintons’ ‘charity’ went to … themselves” – accumulated 9 millions views on social media, according to the January report. [bit.ly/2os8wIt]

The report said Russia Today and Sputnik “consistently cast president elect-Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional media outlets.”

The report said the agencies did not assess whether Moscow’s effort had swung the outcome of the race in Trump’s favor, because American intelligence agencies do not “analyze U.S. political processes or U.S. public opinion.” [bit.ly/2kMiKSA]

CYBER ATTACKS

Neither of the Russian institute documents mentioned the release of hacked Democratic Party emails to interfere with the U.S. election, according to four of the officials. The officials said the hacking was a covert intelligence operation run separately out of the Kremlin.

The overt propaganda and covert hacking efforts reinforced each other, according to the officials. Both Russia Today and Sputnik heavily promoted the release of the hacked Democratic Party emails, which often contained embarrassing details.

Five of the U.S. officials described the institute as the Kremlin’s in-house foreign policy think tank.

The institute’s director when the documents were written, Leonid Reshetnikov, rose to the rank of lieutenant general during a 33-year-career in Russia’s foreign intelligence service, according to the institute’s website [bit.ly/2oVhiCF]. After Reshetnikov retired from the institute in January, Putin named as his replacement Mikhail Fradkov. The institute says he served as the director of Russia’s foreign intelligence service from 2007 to 2016. [bit.ly/2os4tvz]

Reuters was unable to determine if either man was directly involved in the drafting of the documents. Reshetnikov’s office referred questions to the Russian institute.

On its website, the Russian institute describes itself as providing “expert appraisals,” “recommendations,” and “analytical materials” to the Russian president’s office, cabinet, National Security Council, ministries and parliament. [bit.ly/2pCBGpR]

On Jan. 31, the websites of Putin’s office [bit.ly/2os9wMr] and the institute [bit.ly/2oLn9Kd] posted a picture and transcript of Reshetnikov and his successor Fradkov meeting with Putin in the Kremlin. Putin thanked Reshetnikov for his service and told Fradkov he wanted the institute to provide objective information and analysis.

“We did our best for nearly eight years to implement your foreign policy concept,” Reshetnikov told Putin. “The policy of Russia and the policy of the President of Russia have been the cornerstone of our operation.”

(Reporting by Ned Parker and Jonathan Landay, additional reporting by Warren Strobel and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by David Rohde and Ross Colvin)

So Far Trump And Obama Don’t Act Much Different When It Comes To Iran

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

New York (CNN) As a candidate, President Donald Trump pulled no punches in his criticism of the Obama administration’s multilateral pact with Tehran to curb the Iranian nuclear program. The deal stank, he said then.

Now his secretary of state is, for the time being, certifying it.
“I’ve been doing deals for a long time, I’ve been making lots of wonderful deals — great deals — that’s what I do. Never, ever, ever in my life have I seen any transaction so incompetently negotiated as our deal with Iran. And I mean, never.”
It was September 9, 2015, a few months into his presidential campaign, and Trump was in Washington, where he was addressing a rally against the Obama administration’s historic nuclear pact with Tehran. Trump by then had established himself as a Republican primary player. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz welcomed his rival to the event, reasoning that where Trump went, the cameras followed.

Trump: "I've been doing deals for a long time"

Trump: “I’ve been doing deals for a long time” 05:06
That much has remained the same. But when it comes to the Iran deal, Trump has, for the moment, changed. Blaring skepticism has given way to (yet another) pragmatic adjustment. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday delivered a letter to Congress confirming that Iran has kept up its end of the controversial bargain.
The letter pads what will be an unpopular conclusion among GOP hawks with word that Trump has ordered a review of plans to lift sanctions in accordance with the deal, citing the Iranian government’s ties to assorted terror groups. To follow through on the implicit threat would, ironically, put the US in defiance of the terms of the agreement.

Explore Trump’s progress on key campaign promises

Which is to say, it’s not happening. At least not yet. By fate or fancy, the Trump administration has effectively taken on the foreign policy of its predecessor. The missile attack on Syria — a one-off tactical jab — was initially celebrated (or denounced) as a departure from Obama’s caution, but the reality is that American strategic positions in multiple foreign theaters remain essentially indistinguishable from a year ago.
Democrats will, of course, use this as another example of Trump betraying his campaign promises. That’s fair enough. Candidates make outlandish claims at their own political peril. But the reality here is that reality, more than any president, rules. Who saw it coming? Former Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson, kidnapped by Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, in 1985 and held for nearly seven years, offered a pretty good preview.
“The Iranians aren’t at Trump’s beck and call, and they won’t be if he’s elected president,” Anderson told The New Yorker after the 2015 speech. “It’s so idiotic that I don’t know how to address it. One of the first things a president learns when he comes into office is that he can’t simply order things and make them happen — in our government, let alone anyone else’s.”
If he hasn’t yet learned that, then Trump has surely experienced it. Though largely true to his campaign pledges as a matter of effort, he has been repeatedly turned back by the same forces he vowed to tame. Obamacare remains, thanks to in the intransigence of his own party. NATO? “Obsolete” no more. Tax reform? That could be the most difficult feat of all.
President Trump’s reversals
before becoming president
after becoming president

NATO
March 27, 2016
“I think NATO’s obsolete. NATO was done at a time you had the Soviet Union, which was obviously larger, much larger than Russia is today. I’m not saying Russia’s not a threat. But we have other threats.”
April 12, 2017
“I complained about that a long time ago, and they made a change. Now they do fight terrorism. I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.”

China
June 28, 2016
“I’m going to instruct my treasury secretary to label China a currency manipulator.”

Attacking the Syrian government
August 29, 2013
Tweet: “What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict? Obama needs Congressional approval.”
April 6, 2017
“Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched…” Trump did not ask for nor receive congressional approval to launch his attack.

Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen
September 12, 2016
“She’s keeping (rates) artificially low to get Obama retired … I think she is very political and to a certain extent, I think she should be ashamed of herself because it is not supposed to be that way.”
April 12, 2017
I like her, I respect her … It’s very early.”

Executive orders
July 10, 2012
Tweet: “Why is @BarackObama constantly issuing executive orders that are major power grabs of authority?”
March 31, 2017
Trump has issued 23 executive orders, including his controversial travel ban, since taking office on January 20.

The unemployment rate
March 12, 2016
The numbers are phony. These are all phony numbers. Numbers given to politicians to look good. These are phony numbers.”
March 10, 2017
White House press secretary Sean Spicer: “I talked to the President prior to this and he said to quote him very clearly: ‘They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.’ “

Presidential golf
October 13, 2014
Tweet: “Can you believe that,with all of the problems and difficulties facing the U.S., President Obama spent the day playing golf.Worse than Carter”
February 11, 2017
Trump has visited his golf courses 16 times since taking office. In early February he tweeted: “Played golf today with Prime Minister Abe of Japan and @TheBig_Easy, Ernie Els, and had a great time. Japan is very well represented!”

The Export-Import Bank
August 4, 2015
“I don’t like it because I don’t think it’s necessary … It’s sort of a featherbedding for politicians and others, and a few companies. And these are companies that can do very well without it. So I don’t like it. I think it’s a lot of excess baggage. I think it’s unnecessary. And when you think about free enterprise it’s really not free enterprise. I’d be against it.”
April 12, 2017
“It turns out that, first of all, lots of small companies are really helped, the vendor companies. But also, maybe more important, other countries give [assistance]. When other countries give it we lose a tremendous amount of business.”

Federal hiring freeze
October 23, 2016
“On the first day of my term of office, my administration will immediately pursue … a hiring freeze on all federal employees to reduce the federal workforce through attrition (exempting military, public safety, and public health).”
April 12, 2017
Trump signed a presidential memorandum freezing federal hiring days after taking office. Then, on his 82nd day in office, budget director Mick Mulvaney announced this: “What we are doing tomorrow is replacing the across-the-board hiring freeze that we put into place on day one in office and replacing it with a smarter plan, a more strategic plan, a more surgical plan.”
Even China, an ever-present campaign trail piñata, has been spared in deference to existential concerns on the Korean Peninsula. “They’re not currency manipulators,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal a week ago, after more than a year of guarantees that he would order his treasury secretary to label the country a currency manipulator.
His explanation was simple. Pyongyang and its nukes were the priority.
“What, am I going to start trade war with China in the middle of (Chinese President Xi Jinping) working on a bigger problem with North Korea?” Trump said during an interview with Fox News. “I’m dealing with China with great respect. I have great respect for him. We’ll see what he can do. Maybe he won’t be able to help. That’s possible. I think he is trying. Maybe he won’t be able to help. That’s a whole different story.”
And so it goes for the Iran deal. Is Trump going to begin unraveling the dense, multinational accord in the middle of a ramped-up war on ISIS and escalating tensions with Syria (plus Russia and Iran by proxy)?
Not yet. His tactical unpredictability, for now, only stretches so far. Through nearly 100 days in office, Trump’s foreign policy has a familiar ring.

5 Things We’re About to Learn About Syria, Putin and Trump

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Opinion

5 Things We’re About to Learn About Syria, Putin and Trump

As a result of the US airstrikes against the Syrian regime forces last week, we are all about to learn a great deal. It is, surely, too soon to know precisely what impact the strikes ordered by President Donald Trump will have on the regime and where the Syrian civil war is heading. This is largely because key players including the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, Russia, Iran and the Syrian opposition — not to mention the US — are still plotting their next moves.

But it seems certain that the events of the coming weeks will help answer five crucial questions about the civil war and the various actors that are now struggling to shape the outcome of that conflict.

First, how much of a gambler is Vladimir Putin? The Russian president has gained a reputation over the past three years as a shrewd risk-taker, able to outmaneuver his opponents with the well-timed coup de main.

Now, the Trump administration has demonstrated that it is willing to use force against Putin’s ally in Damascus, and that it is prepared to risk significantly higher tensions with Moscow. During the Barack Obama presidency, in other words, Putin confronted a US that was predictably — if perhaps understandably — prudent. Now he faces a president whose risk calculus is far harder to discern.

So how will Putin respond? Will he double down on support for Assad — perhaps by helping the Syrian regime harass or target US aircraft — in hopes that he can still out-escalate the Americans? Or will he seek to reduce tensions — perhaps by shoving Assad toward renewed negotiations with the opposition — in hopes of avoiding a sharper showdown with Washington?

Second, how crafty is Assad? The Syrian leader was once seen as the mild-mannered ophthalmologist and a would-be reformer; now he is perhaps the greatest butcher of the young 21st century. Yet brutality aside, Assad’s strategic acumen has so far remained difficult to discern. He has proven a far more skillful survivor than nearly anyone would have predicted in 2011, but his heavy-handedness also helped turn what were at first peaceful protests into a zero-sum civil war; and he has now managed, through ghastly chemical attacks, to turn the initially friendly Trump administration against his remaining in power. So is Assad a shrewd if morally abhorrent statesman, or simply another dictator who substitutes savagery for strategy?

What he does next will tell us a great deal. If Assad confines himself to a symbolic and non-escalatory response, if he desists from using chemical weapons, if he at least feigns a willingness to negotiate with the opposition, he may be able to escape the noose once again — and perhaps even return to the less spectacular forms of murder that the international community has proven willing to tolerate for more than six years. If, however, he lashes out, whether by continuing to use chemical weapons or by seeking to extract revenge on the US, he may succeed in eliciting the decisive international intervention the has so far managed to avoid.

The answers to these first two questions will also bear heavily on the answer to a third: How slippery is the slope? The Obama administration’s go-to argument against military intervention was always that the options that could be executed at a tolerable cost were unlikely to alter the trajectory of the civil war in any meaningful way — and that a first step was thus likely to lead inexorably to pressures to take a second step and then a third.

Proponents of military intervention, in contrast, argued that a bold but limited American stroke could dramatically shift the psychology of the conflict and put Assad and his patrons on the defensive. No second or third step would be necessary, this argument went, because the first step — if executed with sufficient skill and resolve — would be sufficient.

We are about to find out which thesis is correct. Perhaps even the very limited American intervention undertaken to date will force Russia to rethink its support for Assad, or force Assad to accept that he cannot use the only weapons — his chemical arsenal — that might allow him to reconquer remaining rebel-held territories. Perhaps Trump’s limited engagement will thereby create a new strategic equilibrium more favorable to an acceptable political settlement or some other tolerable outcome.

Alternatively, perhaps the psychological impact of the strikes will be equivalent to their military impact — which is to say, not much. Perhaps the strikes will even cause Russia and Iran to redouble their own efforts to checkmate US intervention. In that case, Trump would soon be confronted with the question of whether to double down or risk looking the paper tiger, and the slope may come to seem slippery indeed. The first scenario would make Obama’s caution from 2011 through 2016 look excessive in retrospect; the latter would make it seem fairly wise after all.

These questions, in turn, relate to a fourth key issue: Is a negotiated settlement even possible? Over the past six years, myriad diplomatic and political processes have been launched in hopes of bringing about an end to the civil war. Every single one has failed. In the weeks preceding Assad’s latest chemical weapons attack, it did seem that the conflict was perhaps reaching a new equilibrium, with the regime largely having consolidated control over the western spine of the country, and various opposition forces controlling their own chunks of territory in other areas. But with Assad still determined — at least rhetorically — to retake the entire country, and with many opposition groups still vehemently opposed to his remaining in power, the prospects for turning that equilibrium into a sustainable settlement remain uncertain at best.

The question now is whether the strategic shock of US strike can create a new diplomatic context in which the parties — particularly the regime — are more amenable to compromise. Or, alternatively, will the aims of Assad and the opposition — not to mention the outside parties supporting them — remain so divergent and intractable that no negotiated settlement is possible?

Finally, as these issues come into sharper focus, we will also learn more about a fifth crucial question: Is the Trump administration capable of effective strategy?

Crises can be clarifying moments. They can cast new light on the contours of an ongoing conflict; they can lay bare the characteristics — and competence — of the parties involved. The Syria crisis is the acid test of the Trump administration: We are about to find out whether the president and his advisers can make the grade. Given the outsized role that the US plays not just in Syria but around the world, this may well be the most important question that the Syria crisis will help us answer.

Bloomberg View

Should The World Bank Finance A Bounty On The Heads Of All Earths Dictators?

 

I know that this is something that will never happen, so it is just a query to each of you. This post today is like almost all of the articles that I write to you, it is an attempt to get you to think out of your minds personal comfort zone, outside of ‘the box’ we wrap around ourselves. Those of you who know me know that I am a person who is anti violence, I wish that there was only kind people on this planet, but we all know that such a thing is just a unfillable dream. I believe that no one has the ‘right’ to be an aggressor toward another. But I do believe that everyone has the right and the duty to protect themselves, their families and even total strangers when they are being attacked. Attacks come in more venues than just the physical abuse they also come in the forms of psychological abuse and abuse by authorities. Also as I am rather sure of, you know that in a lot of cases aggression comes upon many of the innocent and the poor all at one time. This can come from a parent, a guardian, the police, the military or from politicians. Today’s article is about when those who have control of a government decide to make themselves ‘The Supreme Ruler/Leader’ of all the people in a country, in other words, Dictators.

 

Many countries have ‘Presidents’ who come to power in democratic elections but when it comes time for them to step down at the end of their term, they refuse to. There are many examples of this around the world of which most are in Africa or the Middle-East. I am also thinking of people whom have taken control of a country then have farce elections so that they can say they to the world that they are a democracy. There are examples like Mugabe, Assad, Saddam, Putin, Erdogan and whom ever Iran’s “Supreme Leader” decides whom he wants for president. This is just a small handful of the Earths wicked rulers, there are many more. What constitutes being a Dictator in your eyes? Are Kings and Queens all Dictators like they were 500 years ago? In today’s world I would have to say no. The reason for the no is because of examples like in England, Spain and Norway where the ‘Royal Family’ are more Figure Heads than Rulers.

 

The type of Dictators I am speaking of are ones that are also Tyrants and murderers of their own people. The reason I have thought of this article’s subject matter today is the ‘vote’ going on in the beautiful nation of Turkey. Their ‘President’ Mr. Erdogan has been taking all of the power within Turkey unto himself for a few years now but today’s election will finish giving him absolute authority within that country. Elections in countries like Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Russia have been nothing but a joke for a long time now. After today’s ‘vote’ in Turkey they will be joining this list of farces.

 

I have to put the ‘thought of’ a disclaimer regarding this issue though. I call it the George Bush disclaimer, one for the wisdom of Papa Bush and for the ignorance of Baby Bush. The example here is the nation of Iraq. A lot of people here in the U.S. were upset that in the first ‘Gulf War’ that we did not continue the march toward Baghdad and that we did not remove Saddam from power then. Old man Bush had the knowledge and the fore site about removing Dictators of Islamic countries. Baby Bush either didn’t learn anything from his daddy or the chance to show his dad up, that he could do what his dad couldn’t (wouldn’t) was to great a temptation for him. Then of course there is the situation in Syria that the whole world is suffering from because of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s belief that Assad should be removed in the ‘Arab Spring’.  Old man Bush knew a simple fact his son nor Hillary seemed to understand. In countries with mostly Islamic populations that having a strong Dictator who can control the actions of the members of the Islamic Civil War (Sunni against Shiite) then you will have situations like we have today in Libya and Syria.

 

In the title I used the example of the ‘World Bank’ because it is supposed to be independent of the worlds governments thus making them a logical choice to offer multi million dollar rewards to anyone who could/wood kill the Dictators. Plus the obvious reality that it would take a person or an organization with very large bank accounts to pay out those bounties. I realize that North Korea has nothing to do with having the people vote for their Leader but the idea that if the World Bank, or someone else with that kind of money was to put a 50 million dollar reward for the head of the little fat boy with the bad hair cut it honestly wouldn’t bother me. This whole article is just conjecture, an attempt to get people to think. Is killing anyone ever a good idea? If you could go back in time and kill Stalin before he murdered the Czars whole family back in 1917, would you? If you could have killed Hitler as a baby would you? If killing one literally could save the lives of millions, would you? This article is intended for the sole purpose of giving you fodder for the brain as even our brains need food or they will die just like the body without food will die.

UK Scientists Confirm Idlib Sarin Use, Weapons Experts in Turkey to Investigate

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

UK Scientists Confirm Idlib Sarin Use, Weapons Experts in Turkey to Investigate

The British delegation at the world’s chemical weapons watchdog said on Thursday that samples taken from the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province last week tested positive for the nerve agent sarin.

The toxic gas attack in Idlib’s Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, which killed scores of children, prompted the United States to launch missile strikes on an air base in Shayrat that lies in central Syria’s Homs and widened a rift between Washington and Moscow, a close Syrian ally.

“UK scientists have analyzed samples taken from Khan Sheikhoun. These have tested positive for the nerve agent sarin, or a sarin-like substance,” the delegation said during a special session at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague.

Earlier testing by Turkish authorities had also said the chemical used in the attack was sarin.

A fact finding mission from OPCW was sent to Turkey to gather bio-metric samples and interview survivors, sources told Reuters earlier Thursday.

The OPCW mission will determine whether chemical weapons were used, but is not mandated to assign blame. Its findings, expected in 3-4 weeks, will be passed to a joint United Nations-OPCW investigation tasked with identifying individuals or institutions responsible for using chemical weapons.

Last week’s bombing in the town of Khan Sheikhoun near the Turkish border was the most lethal since a sarin attack on Aug. 21, 2013 killed hundreds in a suburb of the capital, Damascus.

On the battlefield, US-backed forces fighting ISIS launched a new phase of their offensive on Thursday, a statement said, but they have not yet begun to attack the militant group’s stronghold of Raqqa city in an apparent delay in the operation.

The multi-phased campaign by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance made up of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighting groups, was launched in November and aims ultimately to drive the jihadists from Raqqa, their de facto Syrian capital.

Officials in the Kurdish YPG militia, a powerful component of the SDF, said last month that assaults on Raqqa city itself would start in early or mid-April.

But the fourth phase of the campaign aims to clear ISIS pockets from the countryside north of the city, the SDF statement said. It did not say when the assault on Raqqa itself would begin.

“We aim to liberate dozens of villages in the Wadi Jallab area and the northern countryside … and clear the last obstacles in front of us to pave the way for the operation to liberate Raqqa city,” it said.

The SDF have closed in on Raqqa from the north, east and west.

Asharq Al-Awsat English

Asharq Al-Awsat English

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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U.S. Rhetoric is ‘Primitive and Loutish’: Russian Deputy Foreign Minister

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF NBC NEWS)

APR 12 2017

U.S. Rhetoric is ‘Primitive and Loutish’: Russian Deputy Foreign Minister

MOSCOW — A senior Russian official lashed out at the U.S. minutes before a meeting between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday, calling recent American rhetoric “primitive and loutish.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the U.S’s position on Syria “remains a mystery” to Moscow, although he added that Russia expected to discuss the issue of no-fly zones in Syria at the talks.

Separately, Tillerson said talks with Lavrov represented “an important moment in the United States’ relationship with Russia.”

Play
‘Our hand is pretty weak’ regarding Russia and Syria, analyst says 2:55

The Secretary of State said he hoped “to further clarify areas of sharp difference so we can better understand why these differences exist and what the prospects for narrowing these differences might be.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin did not adopt Tillerson’s conciliatory tone, instead telling local media that the level of trust between the U.S. and Moscow had deteriorated further since Trump took office, according to Reuters.

On his way into the meeting with Tillerson, Lavrov said he believed the visit was timely as Russia saw what it called “troubling actions” last week in Syria, a reference to the U.S. bombing an air field in that country. American officials said the base had launched an alleged chemical weapons attack in north-western Syria which killed more than 80 civilians.

Image: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) and Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) shakes hands with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Wednesday. AP

“We believe it fundamentally important not to let these actions happen again in the future,” Lavrov added.

The high-stakes talks between Tillerson and Lavrov come less than a week after the U.S. launched the airstrikes, triggering a deterioration in ties between the two governments. The White House has accused Russia of trying to “cover up” Assad’s role in the attack.

Separately, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian newswires a meeting between Tillerson and Russian President Vladimir Putin was not on the agenda as things stand but he did not rule it out.

“There is a certain possibility,” Peskov told state-run TASS agency. “You know the talks between the Russian foreign minister and the U.S. Secretary of State are currently underway, and if they later decide to report on the results of these talks to the head of state, we will let you know.”

Syria… What about Israel?

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Opinion

Syria… What about Israel?

In response to the US missile attack against al-Shayrat airbase – controlled by Assad regime- the so-called joint command center (Russia-Iran-Assad) besides other armed groups including the terrorist “Hezbollah” announced that the US attack has crossed “red lines” and “from now on, we will respond forcefully to any aggression and any crossing of the red lines.”

The statement added that: “America is fully aware of our ability to respond.”

Alright, what about the Israeli strikes in Syria against Assad-regime and “Hezbollah”, assassinating several leaders thereof there including Samir Qantar who was killed in an Israeli raid that targeted a residential building in Jaramana, a suburb in Damascus?

What about the Israeli defense minister’s threat to Damascus criminal and butcher Bashar Assad on March 19, warning from targeting the Israeli warplanes flying in the Syrian skies? “The next time the Syrians use their air defense systems against our airplanes, we will destroy all of them without thinking twice.”

Are the Israeli strikes and involvement in the Syrian territory as well as targeting “Hezbollah” and its leaders permissible, while the US attack is considered a red line?

Certainly, the statement of the so-called joint command center is mere talk and an attempt to save the face of criminal Assad regime, Iranians and “Hezbollah”. That was why Russians did not promote the statement in media and no official Russian authority – such as Kremlin- even wrote an article about it.

On the contrary, the statement issued after the phone call between the Russian president and his Iranian counterpart demanded carrying out an objective probe on the usage of chemical weapons in Idlib. These loose statements, including the statement of the so-called joint command force, are propaganda and an attempt to save one’s face.

Israel devastated – previously – “Hezbollah” in Lebanon and Iran did not defend it not even with one bullet. Gaza was set to fire during an Israeli aggression and neither Iran nor “Hezbollah” acted to rescue it – Assad regime did not respond to all these Israeli attacks against Lebanon and Gaza not even when the Israeli warplane flew over the presidential palace years before the Syrian revolution.

Iran, Hezbollah and Assad statements are worthless after the US strike as today we are facing a new reality. Concerning Russians, everyone will know the true stance of Moscow after the anticipated meeting of the US Secretary of State and his Russian counterpart.

Certainly, the US has various tools to harm Iran and Russia in Syria — Russians are aware of that, that’s why they are calm and they have accepted the latest US blow in Syria.

Tariq Alhomayed

Tariq Alhomayed

Tariq Alhomayed is the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat. Mr. Alhomyed has been a guest analyst and commentator on numerous news and current affair programs, and during his distinguished career has held numerous positions at Asharq Al-Awsat, amongst other newspapers. Notably, he was the first journalist to interview Osama Bin Ladin’s mother. Mr. Alhomayed holds a bachelor’s degree in media studies from King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. He is based in London.

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Trump Officials Demand That Russia (Putin) Stop Supporting Mass Murderer Assad

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

Officials in the Trump administration on Sunday demanded that Russia stop supporting the Syrian government or face a further deterioration in its relations with the United States.

Signaling the focus of talks that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is set to have in Moscow this week, officials said that Russia, in propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, bears at least partial responsibility for Wednesday’s chemical attack on villagers in Idlib province.

“I hope Russia is thinking carefully about its continued alliance with Bashar al-Assad, because every time one of these horrific attacks occurs, it draws Russia closer into some level of responsibility,” Tillerson said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Although officials acknowledged that they have seen no evidence directly linking Russia to the attacks, national security adviser H.R. McMaster said that Russia should be pressed to answer what it knew ahead of the chemical attack since it has positioned warplanes and air defense systems with associated troops in Syria since 2015.

“I think what we should do is ask Russia, how could it be, if you have advisers at that airfield, that you didn’t know that the Syrian air force was preparing and executing a mass murder attack with chemical weapons?” McMaster said on Fox News.

The timing of the comments, with Tillerson heading soon to Moscow, signaled the administration’s intent to pressure Russia to step away from Assad, who is supported by the Kremlin with military aid and diplomatic cover.

The fallout from the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians, plus the U.S. missile strike that came in retaliation for it, adds strain to a rocky relationship that is at its lowest point in decades. A host of issues are responsible, topped by Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election and Moscow’s support for separatists in Ukraine, and have prompted U.S. and European sanctions. These topics have now been overshadowed by last week’s missile strike.

The Russians had hoped that relations with the United States might improve under President Trump, who expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin during the campaign. Tillerson’s nomination and ­confirmation as secretary of state also raised prospects. given the former ExxonMobil executive’s experience negotiating a major deal with Rosneft, the state-controlled oil giant.

But 11 weeks into Trump’s presidency, expectations have been substantially lowered.

“This is a big cold shower,” said Samuel Charap, a Russia analyst with the Rand Corp. “Even if behind closed doors they might engage on other issues in a more pragmatic manner, the public posture is going to be one of emphasizing how they disagree about [Syria]. Putin is not going to want to be seen as chummy with the U.S. secretary of state.”

On Sunday, both Tillerson and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, cast doubts on Assad’s legitimacy as Syria’s leader. Haley said that eventually the unrest in Syria cannot end if Assad remains in power.

“In no way do we see peace in that area with Russia covering up for Assad,” Haley said. “And in no way do we see peace in that area with Assad at the head of the Syrian government.”

Tillerson noted other instances when Syrian forces deployed chemical weapons, and other attacks on civilians involving barrel bombs and conventional weapons.

“I think the issue of how Bashar al-Assad’s leadership is sustained, or how he departs, is something that we’ll be working [on] with allies and others in the coalition,” said Tillerson, who after weeks of keeping a low profile was making his debut on the Sunday morning talk shows. “But I think with each of those actions, he really undermines his own legitimacy.”

Neither suggested that Assad’s demise was imminent.

“Once the ISIS threat has been reduced or eliminated, I think we can turn our attention directly to stabilizing the situation in Syria,” Tillerson said on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” using an acronym to refer to the Islamic State militant group.

The U.S. missile strike in Syria carries the implicit threat of a larger U.S. role in the conflict. Tillerson said Sunday that the strike functioned as a warning to any country acting outside of international norms, in an apparent reference to North Korea.

“At least in the short run, it will further complicate efforts to improve the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship, which seemed to be Tillerson’s objective in going to Moscow,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, a Russia analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “In the longer term, the threat of further U.S. intervention is a card that the U.S. can play to get the Russians to tighten the screws on Assad — on both the chemical weapons and possibly on accepting a political deal with the opposition.”

Tillerson departed around dawn Sunday for Italy to attend a meeting of the G-7 nations, a bloc of industrialized democracies. He is due to arrive late Tuesday in Russia for his first visit as secretary of state.

He and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are scheduled to meet, but it is not known if the secretary of state will also speak with Putin, who personally bestowed the Order of Friendship on Tillerson in 2012.

Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said the Russians still hold out hope for a breakthrough, but that depends on whether Putin and Trump hit it off, not on anything Tillerson and Lavrov say.

“Things will only happen as a result of direct personal, sustained contact between Putin and Trump,” McFaul said. “That’s the way things work with Putin.”

But closer ties with Russia also carry political risks for Trump. Should the Trump administration ease sanctions ­imposed over Ukraine, for instance, critics would label it payback for Russia’s ­pre-election hacks targeting Democrats.

Several analysts said that Assad has humiliated Putin by using chemical weapons despite Russia’s guarantee that Syria’s stockpiles would be whisked away. Moscow’s interest in getting sanctions eased is greater than its loyalty to Assad. And that could provide maneuvering room for Tillerson.

That appears to be Tillerson’s calculation, too.

“I do not believe that the Russians want to have worsening relationships with the U.S.,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “But it’s going to take a lot of discussion and a lot of dialogue to better understand what is the relationship that Russia wishes to have with the U.S.”

Mike DeBonis and Abby Philip contributed to this report.

Syrian Army, Opposition Confirm Nationwide Truce

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY AND THE HINDUSTAN TIMES NEWSPAPER)

Syria army, opposition confirm nationwide truce

WORLD Updated: Dec 29, 2016 21:19 IST

AFP
AFP
AFP, Damascus

Highlight Story

A boy walks his bike near stacked sandbags in al-Rai town, northern Aleppo province, Syria. (Reuters)

Syria’s army said Thursday it would halt all military operations from midnight under a truce deal brokered by Russia and Turkey and supported by a leading Syrian opposition body.The agreement was announced earlier by Russian President Vladimir Putin who said the Syrian regime and “main forces of the armed opposition” had signed on.“The general command of the armed forces announces a complete halt to all hostilities on Syrian territory from the zero hour of December 30th,” Syria’s army said in a statement carried on state television.

It said that the ceasefire excluded the Islamic State group and the former Al-Qaeda affiliate previously known as Al-Nusra Front, now rebranded the Fateh al-Sham Front.

The National Coalition, a leading Syrian political opposition group based in Turkey, confirmed its backing for the truce.

“The National Coalition expresses support for the agreement and urges all parties to abide by it,” spokesman Ahmed Ramadan told AFP.

He said key rebel groups including the powerful Ahrar al-Sham and Army of Islam factions had signed the ceasefire deal, though there was no immediate confirmation from rebel representatives.

“The agreement includes a ceasefire in all areas held by the moderate opposition, or by the moderate opposition and elements from Fateh al-Sham, such as Idlib province,” he told AFP.

Idlib, in northwest Syria, is controlled by an alliance of rebel groups led by Fateh al-Sham.

Read| Turkey, Russia to implement Syria ceasefire before New Year: Turkish minister

The group, in its previous incarnation as Al-Nusra, was designated a “terrorist” organisation by countries including the United States, as well as the United Nations.

The ceasefire agreement follows the recapture by Syria’s government of the country’s second city Aleppo from rebels, in the worst blow to opposition forces since the war began.

It will be the first nationwide halt in fighting since a week-long truce from September 12-19 that collapsed after several incidents of violence.

A previous truce was implemented in February. Both of those deals were organised by Russia and the United States.

The latest agreement is the first nationwide ceasefire brokered with the involvement of Turkey, a backer of the Syrian opposition.

Russia is a key supporter of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and began a military intervention in support of his government in September 2015.

Despite backing opposing sides in the conflict, and a souring of relations after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane last year, Ankara and Moscow have worked increasingly closely on Syria.

They jointly brokered a ceasefire for Aleppo this month that allowed the last remaining rebels and civilians in the city’s east to leave to opposition territory elsewhere.

More than 310,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with protests against Assad’s government.

Successive bids to reach a peace deal to end the conflict have failed, but Moscow has said it is planning to convene new negotiations in Kazakhstan.

And the army statement said the ceasefire was intended to “create conditions to support the political track” in resolving the conflict.

John Kerry Concerned by Rhetoric Out of Turkey And Russia Saying U.S. Involved In Ambassador Karlov Murder

 

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES)

BEIRUT — The Latest on the development in the Syrian civil war and the aftermath of the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey (all times local):

11:45 p.m.

John Kerry’s spokesman says the U.S. Secretary of State has raised concerns about “some of the rhetoric coming out of Turkey with respect to American involvement or support, tacit or otherwise, for this unspeakable assassination yesterday because of the presence of Mr. Gulen here in the United States.”

Spokesman John Kirby said called any such claims ludicrous and false.

“We need to let the investigators do their job and we need to let the facts and the evidence take them where it is before we jump to conclusions,” Kirby added. “But any notion that the United States was in any way supportive of this or behind this or even indirectly involved is absolutely ridiculous.”

A Turkish Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government rules, earlier said that Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told Kerry that both Turkey and Russia “know” that a movement led by U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen was behind the attack.

___

11:15 p.m.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken by telephone with the foreign ministers of Russia and Turkey after a meeting.

Continue reading the main story

State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters the U.S. “welcomes any effort to try to get a cease-fire in Syria that can actually have meaningful results, particularly for those people that remain in Aleppo, as well as the resumption of political talks.”

Kirby said that Kerry also “stressed the need to try to get those political talks back on track as soon as people,” adding that it was “too soon to know” if the Moscow declaration would have any impact.

“Given that the meeting just broke up today and given the fact that we have seen repeated promises to appropriately influence the Assad regime … fail, I think we really need to wait and ascertain the results over the next coming days,” he said.

___

9:45 p.m.

Israel’s prime minister says he would like to grant medical assistance to Syrians wounded in the battle over the city of Aleppo.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told members of the foreign press in Jerusalem on Tuesday that he has asked Israel’s Foreign Ministry to look into the possibility of bringing non-combatant men, women and children to Israel for medical treatment.

Israel has treated thousands of Syrians wounded in Syria’s nearly six-year civil war, offering them medical treatment in hospitals in Israel.

Netanyahu told reporters, “We see the terrible tragedy of civilians and I’ve asked the Foreign Ministry to seek ways to expand our medical assistance to the civilian casualties of the Syrian tragedy, specifically in Aleppo.”

___

8 p.m.

Syrian TV says a bomb has gone off in western Aleppo where dozens of people were gathered for a Christmas tree-lighting event.

No injuries were reported from Tuesday’s bomb, which went off near Azizieh square in government-controlled western Aleppo.

A reporter for the channel said celebrations resumed a few minutes after the bomb went off. Dozens of Syrians were seen dancing and waving Syrian flags and red balloons to blaring music as they rallied around a giant tree decorated with Christmas lights.

Huge posters of President Bashar Assad and the leaders of Russia and Hezbollah were put up.

The celebration in western Aleppo was taking place on the same day as the evacuation of the last rebels and residents of the former rebel-held enclave in eastern Aleppo was taking place.

___

4:20 p.m.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu says a cease-fire in Syria should not cover terrorist groups like the Islamic State group and the Fatah al-Sham Front, as well as Lebanon’s Hezbollah which fights on the government side.

Speaking at a Moscow news conference after talks with the foreign ministers of Russia and Iran, Cavusoglu said the global community should target not only IS and Fatah al-Sham but also “other groups including Hezbollah.”

Lebanon’s Hezbollah is allied with Russia and Iran fighting on the Syrian government’s side.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who chaired Tuesday’s talks, did not openly disagree with Cavusoglu. But he mentioned that some groups operating in Syria “were invited by the government of Bashar Assad,” implying that Hezbollah’s presence in Syria is as legitimate as Russia’s own role.

The Iranian minister said that Iran “respects” Turkey’s stance, but added that “other countries don’t accept” it.

___

4:10 p.m.

A ceremony is being held at Ankara airport for assassinated Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov, whose body was being flown home to Russia Tuesday.

Karlov’s wife Marina stood in the front row, holding two red carnations. She wept as her husband’s flag-draped coffin was carried by a Turkish honor guard.

Deputy Prime Minister Tugrul Turkes said Karlov had, “become the eternal symbol of Turkish-Russian friendship.”

Karlov was shot dead Monday evening as he delivered a speech at a photo exhibition in the Turkish capital, Ankara. His attacker, Mevlut Mert Altintas, a 22-year-old member of Ankara’s riot police squad, shouted slogans about the battered Syrian city of Aleppo during the attack. He was later killed by police.

Security was tight at the airport, with security forces’ special units securing the area.

___

3:40 p.m.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says that Russia, Iran and Turkey are ready to act as guarantors in a peace deal between the Syrian government and the opposition.

He spoke on Tuesday after a meeting of the three countries’ foreign ministers in Moscow — a day after Russia’s ambassador to Turkey was assassinated at an exhibition in Ankara by a policeman who shouted: “Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria!”

Lavrov told reporters the three ministers have signed a joint statement which says that Russia, Iran and Turkey “are expressing their willingness to help the Syrian government and the opposition draft an agreement and act as its guarantors.”

___

3:20 p.m.

Syrian activists say as few as 3,000 people are left in eastern Aleppo awaiting evacuation before the government is to resume full control of the city after nearly six years of war.

Opposition media activist Ahmad Primo said on Tuesday that the next convoy of buses that will evacuate rebels and civilians may well be the last one. Primo spoke to The Associated Press from the Rashideen crossing between government and rebel-held territory in the Aleppo countryside.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 60 buses have entered eastern Aleppo to pick up the remaining 3,000 fighters and their families from the opposition’s last foothold in the war-torn city.

The Observatory’s chief Rami Abdurrahman says the fate of 70 pro-government fighters taken prisoner by rebels over the course of four years of fighting over the rebel enclave remains unknown. He says they were supposed to be handed over to the government as part of an agreement to allow the opposition to evacuate the city

___

2:15 p.m.

The U.N. humanitarian aid agency says Syria’s government has authorized U.N. plans to send about 20 staffers to monitor evacuations of people from rebel-held parts of eastern Aleppo.

Spokesman Jens Laerke of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday that “we stand ready to increase our presence there.”

The plan comes after the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution on Monday urging the quick deployment of monitors.

Laerke said U.N. staffers “will go there as soon as they can.” He said OCHA cannot estimate how many people remain in eastern Aleppo after buses shuttled some out on Tuesday.

He said about 90 of OCHA’s 100 staffers already in Aleppo are Syrians, and the new deployment would “almost triple” the number of international staffers there.

___

12:40 p.m.

The spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin says the assassination the previous day of Moscow’s ambassador in Turkey plays into the hands of those who want to derail peace talks for Syria.

Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday that Ambassador Andrei Karlov’s murder “benefits those who want to drive a wedge between Russia and Turkey” as well as hamper “the normalization of the talks … for a Syrian political settlement.”

Peskov lauded President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to allow Russian investigators to take part in the probe and described the Russians who arrived in Ankara earlier on Tuesday as “good specialists.”

Peskov quoted Putin who had instructed Russian intelligence and Foreign Ministry officials to review security measures for Russian diplomats abroad, but said it’s ultimately up to the countries who host diplomats to ensure their safety.

___

12:30 p.m.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says he hopes that Russia, Iran and Turkey will agree on steps to bring about peaceful settlement in Syria.

Talks involving the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey were planned for Tuesday in Moscow, even before the Russian ambassador was assassinated in Ankara on Monday evening.

Lavrov said in televised comments at the start of talks with Iran’s Mohammad Javad Zarif that Moscow wants Tuesday’s talks “to determine the most effective steps that our countries could take to normalize the situation in Syria, bring about an end to violence, and ensure the supply of humanitarian aid along with persisting in the fight against terrorist groups in Syria.”

___

11:45 a.m.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says 10 more buses have arrived to the west Aleppo countryside in northern Syria evacuating residents from the opposition’s last foothold in eastern Aleppo.

Ingy Sedky, Damascus spokeswoman for the ICRC, says evacuations would continue throughout the day.

The ICRC says 25,000 people have been bused out of east Aleppo since rebels effectively surrendered the area under an Ankara- and Moscow-brokered deal. It’s unclear how many remain.

Meanwhile, Syrian state media say several more buses have arrived to the government-controlled Aleppo countryside after evacuating the sick and wounded from the rebel-besieged Shiite villages of Foua and Kfarya.

The swap evacuations are part of the Aleppo cease-fire deal — Syrian rebels besieging the two villages agreed to allow over 2,000 people to leave from there in exchange for the government allowing civilians and rebels to leave eastern Aleppo.

Pro-government Al-Ikhbariya TV broadcast live images showing buses arriving from Foua and Kfarya, escorted by International Committee of the Red Cross vehicles, on Tuesday.

The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah’s media arm says eight buses left the two villages earlier in the morning. Hezbollah is fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria.

___

11:35 a.m.

Russian state television has shown a plane landing at the Ankara airport carrying Russian investigators and Foreign Ministry employees who will take part in the probe into the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the visiting Turkish foreign minister on Tuesday that the presidents of the two countries have agreed that Russian investigators would take part in the probe.

The state-owned Rossiya 24 television broadcast footage of the plane landing in Ankara. The plane would later in the day repatriate the body of Andrei Karlov, who was fatally shot at a photo exhibition on Monday.

The spokesman for the Russian president said earlier in the day that Moscow had dispatched 18 people to help the investigation.

___

11:30 a.m.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey makes Moscow even more determined to press ahead with Syrian talks that will offer “no concessions to the terrorists.”

Lavrov is hosting the foreign ministers of Turkey and Iran in Moscow on Tuesday in what was expected to be a major meeting to discuss the Syrian crisis.

Lavrov and the visiting Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Tuesday laid flowers at the portrait of Ambassador Andrei Karlov, who was shot dead at an exhibition in Ankara.

The Russian minister said in televised comments that President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke Monday night and “agreed this tragedy makes us more decisive in fighting terrorism and makes our today’s meeting even more important.”

Lavrov says Moscow is willing to seek agreements that will improve the humanitarian situation in Syria and help political progress but “will not offer any concession to terrorists.”

Cavusolgu who told Lavrov at the start of the meeting that the attack happened when he was on his way to Moscow offered his condolences and said that “Turkish people are mourning this loss as much as Russia and the people of Russia.”

___

10:55 a.m.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says it has overseen the evacuation of 25,000 people from eastern Aleppo since the rebels effectively surrendered the Syrian rebel enclave under an Ankara- and Moscow-brokered deal.

The figure was provided by Robert Mardini, the ICRC’s Mideast regional chief, who posted it on Twitter. Ingy Sedky, the ICRC spokeswoman in Damascus, told The Associated Press that Aleppo “evacuation (are) not over yet” and that there are “still thousands remaining” in eastern Aleppo.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah says Syrian army troops are to enter the rebels’ last foothold in Aleppo later in the day, marking the return of the entire city to government control.

Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad forces, warned the remaining residents in the rebel enclave to leave “as quickly as possible.”

The warning was distributed through Hezbollah’s media arm on Tuesday.

___

9:30 a.m.

The last Syrian rebels and civilians are awaiting evacuation from the remainder of what was once a rebel enclave in eastern Aleppo, a day after the U.N. Security Council approved sending observers to monitor the exodus.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that more than 15,000 people, among them 5,000 opposition fighters, have left the enclave since the rebels effectively surrendered the area under an Ankara- and Moscow-brokered deal. It’s unclear how many remain.

In Moscow, the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran are meeting on Tuesday to discuss Syria, but the talks are likely to be overshadowed by the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey the previous night by an Ankara policeman, who after killing his victim cried out: “Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria!”

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