Red faces as Russia’s Kalashnikov monument shows Nazi gun

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE TIMES OF ISRAEL)

 

Red faces as Russia’s Kalashnikov monument shows Nazi gun

Erroneous drawing on statue was of an StG44 — for Sturmgewehr (Storm Rifle), a name reputedly conferred by Hitler himself

A sketch allegedly featuring the German StG44 rifle at a fragment of the newly unveiled monument to Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47 assault rifle, in downtown Moscow on September 22, 2017. (AFP/Mladen Antonov)

A sketch allegedly featuring the German StG44 rifle at a fragment of the newly unveiled monument to Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47 assault rifle, in downtown Moscow on September 22, 2017. (AFP/Mladen Antonov)

MOSCOW, Russia — Workers in Moscow on Friday erased the illustration of a gun from a freshly inaugurated monument of Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the legendary AK-47 assault rifle, after it was found that the drawing was of a Nazi weapon.

“We have checked the information about a mistake. It is confirmed. The sculptor, Salavat Shtsherbakoff, has acknowledged his mistake,” the state-supported Russian Military History Society, which backed the monument, told TASS news agency.

The erroneous drawing was of an StG44 — for Sturmgewehr (Storm Rifle), a name reputedly conferred by Hitler himself. It became the Nazis’ frontline weapon on the bloody Eastern Front.

A worker used an angle grinder to obliterate the offending depiction of the StG44, an AFP photographer saw.

A general view of the newly unveiled monument to Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47 assault rifle, in downtown Moscow on September 22, 2017. (AFP/Mladen Antonov)

Kalashnikov was elevated to hero status in the Soviet Union for inventing a simple, rugged, reliable and easy-to-manufacture automatic weapon for the Red Army.

It entered service after World War II — the AK-47 comes from the Russian “Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947” — to became a standard weapon for Soviet forces and revolutionary movements around the world. Its image has also become notoriously intertwined with terrorism and massacres.

Acclaim of Kalashnikov continued after the fall of the Soviet Union, culminating with a project to erect a statue in his honor after he died in 2013.

The seven-meter (23-feet) -high statue, located in a central thoroughfare was unveiled to great pomp on Tuesday, with goose-stepping troops and Russian officials in attendance. Orthodox priests sprinkled it with holy water.

A man uses an angle grinder as he removes a sketch allegedly featuring the German StG44 rifle from a fragment of the newly unveiled monument to Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47 assault rifle, in downtown Moscow on September 22, 2017. (AFP/Mladen Antonov)

Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky praised the inventor and called the rifle — which has been reproduced an estimated 100 million times worldwide — a “cultural brand for Russia.”

The statue itself accurately features Kalashnikov clutching his invention. The StG44 was featured in an engineer’s drawing, located on part of the memorial that traces the history of the AK47.

The change to the statue coincided with the public unveiling in Moscow on Friday of a bronze bust of Stalin, fuelling concerns that the authorities are seeking to whitewash the Soviet dictator’s bloody history.

Honor guards march during the unveiling ceremony of a statue of Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian inventor of the fabled AK-47 assault rifle, in downtown Moscow on September 19, 2017. (AFP/Maxim Zmeyev)

Stalin’s bust was one of seven sculptures spanning the history of the Soviet Union from Lenin to Mikhail Gorbachev.

They are the latest addition to a recently-opened “Alley of Rulers” that already features 33 Russian rulers.

The force behind the sculptures is the Russian Military History Society, founded by President Vladimir Putin and whose current president is Medinsky, known for fiercely nationalist views.

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Putin orders cut of 755 personnel at U.S. missions

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

 

Putin orders cut of 755 personnel at U.S. missions

Why Russia is demanding the U.S. cut diplomatic staff
The Post’s Andrew Roth explains a statement the Russian Foreign Ministry issued July 28, seizing U.S. diplomatic properties and demanding the State Department reduce its staff in Russia. (Andrew Roth, Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)
 July 30 at 4:41 PM
 Russian President Vladimir Putin said Sunday that the U.S. diplomatic missions in Moscow and elsewhere in the country will have to reduce their staffs by 755 people, signaling a significant escalation in the Russian response to American sanctions over the Kremlin’s intervention in the 2016 presidential election.The United States and Russia have expelled dozens of each other’s diplomats before – but Sunday’s statement, made by Putin in an interview with the Rossiya-1 television channel, indicated the single largest forced reduction in embassy staff, comparable only to the closing of the American diplomatic presence in the months following the Communist revolution in 1917.

In the interview, Putin said that the number of American diplomatic and technical personnel will be capped at 455 — equivalent to the number of their Russian counterparts working in the United States. Currently, close to 1,200 employees work at the United States’ embassy and consulates in Russia, according to U.S. and Russian data.

“More than a thousand employees — diplomats and technical employees — have worked and are still working in Russia these days,” Putin told journalist Vladimir Solovyov on a nationally televised news show Sunday evening. “Some 755 of them will have to terminate their activity.”

Putin’s remarks came during a three-and-half-day trip by Vice President Pence to Eastern Europe to show U.S. support for countries that have chafed at interference from Moscow – Estonia, Georgia, and Montenegro.

Russian President Vladimir Putin watched a parade on the Neva River, followed by a short air show and gun salute to celebrate Navy Day on July 30. (Reuters)

“The president has made it very clear that Russia’s destabilizing activities, its support for rogue regimes, its activities in Ukraine, are unacceptable,” Pence said, when asked by reporters in Tallinn, Estonia, whether he expects Trump to sign the sanctions. “The president made very clear that very soon he will sign the sanctions from the Congress of the United States to reinforce that.”

“As we make our intentions clear, we expect Russian behavior to change,” Pence continued.

The Kremlin had said Friday, as the Senate voted to strengthen sanctions on Russia, that some American diplomats would be expelled, but the size of the reduction is dramatic. It covers the main embassy in Moscow, as well as missions in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok.

The U.S. Embassy in Russia has been unable to provide exact numbers on the number of staff it employs in Russia. But a 2013 review by the Department of State said that the American mission in Russia “employs 1,279 staff, including 301 U.S. direct-hire positions and 934 locally employed staff positions from 35 U.S. government agencies.” (A good breakdown of the numbers was posted on the blog Diplopundit).

“This is a landmark moment,” Andrei Kolesnikov, a journalist for the newspaper Kommersant who regularly travels with Putin and has interviewed him extensively over the past 17 years, told the Post in an interview on Friday. “His patience has seriously run out, and everything that he’s been putting off in this conflict, he’s now going to do.”

The Russian government is also seizing two diplomatic properties — a dacha, or country house, in a leafy neighborhood in Moscow, and a warehouse — following the decision by the Obama administration in December to take possession of two Russian mansions in the United States.

The move comes as it has become apparent that Russia has abandoned its hopes for better relations with the United States under a Trump administration.

“I think retaliation is long, long overdue,” deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

“We have a very rich toolbox at our disposal,” Ryabkov said. “After the Senate . . . voted so overwhelmingly on a completely weird and unacceptable piece of legislation, it was the last drop.”

Hours later, Putin said during his evening interview that he expected relations between the United States and Russia to worsen, and that Russia would likely come up with other measures to counter American financial sanctions, which were passed by the House and Senate last week and which President Trump has said he will sign.

The reduction in U.S. diplomatic and technical staff is a response to President Obama’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats in December in response to the alleged Russian hacking of the mail servers of the Democratic National Committee. The United States also revoked access to two Russian diplomatic compounds on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and on Long Island. American officials said they were used for intelligence collection.

It is not yet clear how the State Department will reduce its staff in Russia. Some of the local staff were hired to help with a significant expansion of the U.S. embassy compound in Moscow.

The move increases the likelihood of new, perhaps asymmetrical reprisals by the United States in coming days.

Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Russia, tweeted Sunday: “If these cuts are real, Russians should expect to wait weeks if not months to get visas to come to US.”

Ashley Parker , in Tallinn, Estonia, and Madhumita Murgia, in Washington, contributed.

Putin says Russia ready for constructive dialogue with USA

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS)

Putin says Russia ready for constructive dialogue with USA

(Commentary: the issue, the problem, is not the people of Russia or the U.S. it is and has been the Leaders of the two countries who have caused all of the current issues that separate our nations. There is no excuse for the people and the leaders of our two nations not to be best of friends, both countries would benefit greatly if our leaders would quit acting so ignorantly toward each other.)(TRS)

President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday Russia was ready for a constructive dialogue with the United States.

“We do not view USA as our enemy,” Putin said during his annual question-and-answer session with Russian citizens. Moscow and Washington can cooperate on issues including the non-proliferation of weapons and the Syria crisis, he added.

(Reporting by Polina Nikolskaya and Maria Tsvetkova; writing by Polina Devitt; editing by Maria Kiselyova)

Montenegro joins NATO as Russia turns furious

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SHANGHAI DAILY NEWS)

Montenegro joins NATO as Russia turns furious

ONCE the Balkan stronghold of pro-Russian sentiments, tiny Montenegro was yesterday silently celebrating its entry into NATO in a historic turn that has made the Kremlin furious.

Despite the Russian anger and a deep split within the nation of some 620,000 people over the issue, Montenegro is formally becoming the 29th member of the Western military alliance at a ceremony in Washington yesterday.

To get there, Montenegro has stood up against its former ally Russia, which has sought to maintain strong historic, political and cultural influence in the Slavic country it considers a special zone of interest.

The US State Department said Montenegro’s membership “will support greater integration, democratic reform, trade, security, and stability with all of its neighbors.”

Russia has threatened economic and political retaliation, including a campaign to undermine the Montenegrin tourism industry, which relies heavily on Russian visitors. An estimated 200,000 Russians visit Montenegro a year and 80,000 Russians own property in the country.

Russia has also banned imports of Montenegrin wine and recently deported a ranking official from a Moscow airport.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova recently warned potential Russian tourists that “there is an anti-Russian hysteria in Montenegro.”

“We do not rule out the possibility of provocations, arrests for suspicious reasons or extradition to third countries” of Russians, Zakharova said.

Montenegro says Moscow was behind a foiled coup attempt in October that allegedly targeted former Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who was the driving force behind the country’s NATO bid. Russia denies involvement.

“One of the reasons we are joining NATO is to create greater stability, not only for Montenegrin citizens, but also for foreign investors and tourists,” Djukanovic said. “Therefore, our goal is to bring even more Russian tourists.”

Moscow is Trying to Influence Iran’s Presidential Contest

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

Moscow is Trying to Influence Iran’s Presidential Contest

For four decades Tehranis have heard so many weird slogans chanted in their streets that almost nothing comes as a surprise to them. And, yet, last week many Tehranis were surprised to hear a group of youths, all adorned with suitable beards, shouting: “Russian Embassy is a Nest of Spies!”

“Nest of Spies” was first launched in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini as a label for the US Embassy which had been raided and which diplomats were held hostage by the so-called “Students Following the Lead of Imam”. The operation that provoked a 444-day long stand-off between Tehran and Washington had been quietly encouraged by KGB elements in Tehran working through the Tudeh (Communist) Party and its smaller left-wing affiliates as a means of driving the US out of Iran.

At the time no one could imagine that one-day it would be the Russian Embassy’s turn to be thus labelled. True, Iran already has a history of raiding the Russian Embassy. In 1829, a mob, led by mullahs, attacked the Tsarist Embassy ostensibly to release two Georgian slave girls who had sought refuge there. Alexander Griboidev, the Embassy’s ambassador was seized, sentenced to death with a fatwa and beheaded. (Griboidev was more than a diplomat and had made a name as a poet and playwright.)

It is, of course, unlikely that the regime would allow anyone today to raid the Russian Embassy and seize its diplomats as hostages. Nevertheless, the anger expressed by the small bunch of demonstrators is real.

But why has the Russian Embassy become a target for militant anger some four decades later?

The question is all the more pertinent as the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei has launched what he calls a “Looking East” strategy based on an alliance between Tehran and Moscow. That strategy is in direct violation of Khomeini’s famous: “Neither East nor West” slogan (Na sharqi, na gharbi!) Khomeini insisted that unless Russia converted to Islam it should not expect to be treated any differently than other “Infidel” powers. (The ayatollah sent a formal letter to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev inviting him to embrace Shiism.)

However, two years ago, in a four-hour long summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Khamenei agreed that his Islamic Republic would take no position on major international issues without “coordinating” with Moscow. That historic accord was quickly put into effect in Syria where Putin provided air cover for an alliance of forces assembled by Iran around the beleaguered President Bashar al-Assad.

Putin played a key role in exempting Iran from cuts in its oil production under an agreement between OPEC and non-OPEC producers to stabilize prices.

Putin also lifted the ban on sale of advanced surface-to-air missile systems that Iran says it needs to face any US air attack. At the same time, Moscow has done quite a lot to shield the Islamic Republic against further concessions on the thorny issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Putin went even further by tacitly acknowledging Iran’s lead in shaping policy towards Iraq and Afghanistan.

Working in favor of strategic alliance with Moscow are several elements within the Islamic regime. These include the remnants of the Tudeh, the People Fedayeen Militia and assorted groups of anti-West activists. However, the proposed alliance also enjoys support from powerful clerics who believe they need Russian support to face any future clash with the US.

“By courageously defending the Syrian government, Russia has proved it is a true friend,” says Ayatollah Muhammadi Golpayegani who heads Khamenei’s personal cabinet.

However, to sweeten the bitter pill of alliance with Russia, a power which has a 200-year long history of enmity and war with Iran, the mullahs also claim they could seize the opportunity to spread their brand of Islam in the Russian Federation where Shi’ite account for less than three per cent of the estimated 30 million Muslims. (The only place where Shi’ites are in a majority is Darband in Dagestan.)

In his typically sly way, Putin has encouraged such illusions. He has promised to let Qom set up seminaries in both Darband and Moscow to train Russian Shi’ite mullahs. Putin has also set up something called Strategic Committee for the Spread of Islam led by Tatarstan’s President Rustam Minikhanov.(Tatarstan is the largest Muslim majority republic in the Russian federation.)

Having allegedly tried to influence the latest presidential election in the US and the current presidential election in France, Putin is also accused of trying to do the same in Iran. Last week he sent a 60-man delegation, led by Minikhanov, to Mash’had, Iran’s largest “holy” city to meet Ayatollah Ibrahim Raisi, the man regarded as one of the two candidates most likely to win the presidency. Minikhanov was accompanied by Tatarstan’s Grand Mufti Kamil Sami Gulen who told reporters that Putin wants Iran and Russia to work together to “present the true face of Islam to young people” and “counter propaganda by terrorist circles.”

Kremlin-controlled satellite TV channels have played up the meetings, casting Raisi as a statesman of international standing.

However, to hedge his bets, Putin had already received the incumbent president Hassan Rouhani during a hastily arrange visit to Moscow last month. However, some observers claim that Putin regards Rouhani and his faction as “too close to the Americans.”

Some senior members of Rouhani’s administration who are rumored to be US citizens or holders of “Green Cards”, may cast doubt on their sincerity to embrace a strategic alliance with Moscow.

There are signs that not everyone in the regime is happy about tying Iran’s future to that of the Putin regime. The slogan “Russian Embassy is Nest of Spies” is just one small example of that unhappiness. Other examples include a series of features published by the official media, including IRNA, about Russian historic aggression against in Iran.

One curious feature published by IRNA even claimed that US President Harry S Truman helped Iran recover two of its provinces occupied by Russian despot Stalin in 1946. Another feature, published by a news agency close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard narrates the “shameful” history of pro-Russian factions in Iran from the 19th century onwards.

An old Persian saying claims Russia is a big bear to admire from afar; if he embraces you he will crush you.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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Iranian Defense Minister Believes Israel Should Be ‘Completely Disarmed’

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF RUSSIA’S OFFICIAL NEWS AGENCY SPUTNIK)

Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan

Iranian Defense Minister Believes Israel Should Be ‘Completely Disarmed’

© Photo: Russian Defense Ministry

MIDDLE EAST

18:52 27.04.2017(updated 19:00 27.04.2017) Get short URL
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The Israeli government should be disarmed for the sake of restoring peace and security in the region, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan said Thursday.

MOSCOW (Sputnik) – Earlier in the day, Syrian SANA news service reported that  Israel launched missile strikes targeting a site near Damascus International Airport. Commenting on the reports, Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz said that the strike was compatible with Israel’s policy of targeting streams of Lebanon-based Hezbollah’s Iranian arms deliveries through Syria.

“Given the history of the Israeli regime, we see that they had [pursued] nothing but war and bloodshed. Therefore, this regime must be completely disarmed. And only after this regime would be completely eliminated, we can restore security and peace,” Dehghan told Rossiya 24 broadcaster.

Hostilities between Israel and Syria regularly escalate, with Israeli Defense Force (IDF) planes hitting targets in Syria in response to cross-border fire incidents while also attacking groups Israel deems hostile inside the country. Meanwhile, Syrian forces have several times claimed to have shot down IDF aircraft which were violating the country’s airspace. Israel has annexed the Golan Heights in 1981 following the 1967 Six-Day War with Syria.

The relations between Israel and Iran have been strained since the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s. The ties are overshadowed by a number of issues, including Tehran’s nuclear and missile programs accompanied by controversial anti-Israeli statements made by high-ranking Iranian officials, such as former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Hezbollah, considered by Israel a terrorist organization, was established in the 1980s in Lebanon. Both Tehran and Hezbollah have been supporting the Syrian government in its fight against multiple armed groups inside the country.

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.”

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‘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.”

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.

U.S. Missile Attack On Syrian Shayrat Airfield Was Significant But Insufficient

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

Opinion

Shayrat Attack… Significant but Insufficient

Last week’s morning was a turning point in the US dealing with the Syrian crisis. When 59 missiles Tomahawk were launched towards Shayrat airport, this was the first direct attack by the |United States on Bashar Al-Assad regime since the beginning of the revolution six years ago.

The attack has stopped a US clinical sleep towards complications of a war that has resulted in the worst humanitarian crisis in recent history. Surely, speaking about whether the US has started practically correcting its stance is early. This might be a sole step and reaction for a massacre that was one among many committed by Assad’s regime – but it is at least a sign that the world is facing a new US administration that has done in less than four months what has not been done by the former administration in eight years.

The attack on Shayrat airbase, although it was surprising and important, is a small step in changing the field condition and ending the Syrian tragedy. Maybe, if the attack happened when Barack Obama threatened with the “red line” in 2013 and before the Russian military intervention then its influence might have been bigger – it might have contributed to supporting the opposition and putting huge pressure on Assad’s regime.

One strike will not change the horrible way Assad treats civilians and will not affect his power, even if it prevents him from using chemical weapons soon. Nonetheless, Washington believes that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapon in Khan Sheikhoun massacre and, thus, it should be punished.

During the Iranian-Iraqi war, the US supported Iraq against Iran, but soon after that it turned against Saddam Hussein regime after it used chemical weapons in Kurdistan. Also, Shayrat attack might be viewed as a warning to Moscow that their might be consequences for the acts of its ally, Assad.

Russians deceived the international community in 2013 agreement that admitted Assad has submitted his ammunition of chemical weapons, although Moscow knew that Assad kept some storage that was used later on without facing any real consequences by the international community.

Throughout the past years, the regime has carried out airstrikes that killed hundred thousands of innocent Syrians – it used the tactics of starving and bombing hospitals as well as chemical attacks. Despite that, Assad did not face any real consequences, not even once, for his barbarism. However, this time, the Trump administration saw that it has to destroy one of Assad’s airbases to prevent warplanes from striking innocent people and dropping Sarin gas on them.

It is true that the US attack is a huge symbolic step but it will be considered a limited tactic if compared to the facts on ground. If Trump’s slogan was “America first” then this does not necessarily mean acting indifferently towards the world matters but means that America stays strong and leads the world.

The US is not Switzerland to act impartially towards international conflicts and 50 Tomahawk missiles alone will not trigger a huge change. If the US chooses the relatively low-cost option represented in limited military response such as Cruise missiles, then it can also take an international efficient step against Assad’s regime through exerting pressure to implement the international resolutions – establishing safe zones.

As much as striking Shayrat airbase has achieved several goals, its influence will be limited with time if it remained a sole step and not a new strategy. Six years of war have proven that only Russia, Iran and “Hezbollah” are messing in the Syrian territories to support a practically collapsed regime.

The military strike at Assad’s regime might be a first step towards regaining respect to the international resolutions and pushing the international community, US in the lead, to play its role in putting an end to the Syrian tragedy.

Salman Al-dossary

Salman Al-dossary

Salman Aldosary is the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

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