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Syria

Russian mercenaries fighting and dying in Syria

Tuesday, 27 February, 2018 0 Comments

If you live near Yekaterinburg in Russia and want to fight with pro-Assad forces in Syria, the go-to guy is a paramilitary boss who advises Russians looking to work for the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-linked military contractor. “Each week I receive five or six new requests,” he told FRANCE 24. He said that interest has only increased since the Russian foreign ministry reported that five Russians died in a US bombing raid on pro-regime troops attacking opposition forces in Deir Ezzor province on 7 February.

“Now, it’s more about getting revenge than it is about money,” he said, but he warned that revenge-seekers don’t know the full story. He says it wasn’t just five Russians killed in the American raid — it was 218. US officials have said about 100 pro-regime fighters were killed, without specifying whether they were Syrian army, Russian mercenaries or other forces.


It is 2022 and the votes are being counted in France

Tuesday, 17 November, 2015 0 Comments

On the day that Michel Houellebecq’s Submission was published in France, two Islamist terrorists stormed into the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and murdered 12 people, including eight journalists. Among the dead was the economist Bernard Maris, one of Houellebecq’s closest friends. The tragedy and the coincidence were interpreted as a portent, but nobody could agree as to its significance. Conspiracy theorists wondered if Houellebecq had not somehow provoked the attack. The fact that the publication date of the book had been signaled long in advance did nothing to deter them.

Submission transports readers to the year 2022 as the votes are being counted after the French general election. Marine Le Pen and her Front National are neck-and-neck with the Muslim Brotherhood, led by a charismatic grocer’s son, Mohammed Ben Abbes. The Socialists, under Manuel Valls, decide to form a coalition with the Brotherhood to keep Le Pen out of the Élysée Palace, but negotiations are tricky. One evening during the talks, François, the narrator, meets a friend whose husband works for the DGSI intelligence service, and the three discuss politics with the aid of port. Snippet:

“But what do they want?”
“They want every French child to have the option of a Muslim education, at every level of schooling. Now, however you look at it, a Muslim education is very different from a secular one. First off, no co-education. And women would be allowed to study only certain things. What the Muslim Brotherhood really wants is for most women to study Home Economics, once they finish junior school, then get married as soon as possible, with a small minority studying art or literature first. Sottomissioni That’s their vision of an ideal society. Also, every teacher would have to be Muslim. No exceptions. Schools would observe Muslim dietary laws and the five daily prayers; above all, the curriculum itself would have to reflect the teachings of the Koran.”
“You think the Socialists will give in?”
“The haven’t got much of a choice. If they don’t reach an agreement, they don’t have a chance against the National Front. Even if they do reach an agreement, the National Front could still win. You’ve seen the polls…”

“Are your sure? That sounds so drastic…”
“Quite sure. It’s all been settled. And it is exactly in line with the theory of minority sharia, which the Muslim Brotherhood has always embraced. So they could something similar with education. Public education would still be available to everyone though with vastly reduced funding. The national budget would be slashed by two-thirds at least, and this time the teachers wouldn’t be able to stop it. In the current economic climate, any budget cut is bound to play well at the polls.”

All of this bores François, who Houellebecq depicts as a caricature of the Western middle class: smug, agnostic, narcissistic, alcohol-addicted and sex-preoccupied. But there’s no smoke without fire. The question at the core of the story is how will he manage when his world is engulfed by the approaching wave of zealotry. Sink or swim? If ever there was a book for our times, Submission is it.


Putin: Sicilian mobster, European darling

Thursday, 22 October, 2015 0 Comments

Andrei Illarionow was an economics adviser to Vladimir Putin from 2000 to 2005. Today, he’s a senior fellow at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC. In an interview with New Eastern Europe Illarionow explains why Putin has such an astonishing number of friends in Europe: from Marine Le Pen to Gerhard Schröder:

“Unlike communism, which was rather alien to European culture even if it had some roots in European history, Putin’s Sicilian way of rule is much more familiar to Europe and closer to the European heart. It is also a reason why it is so hard to fight it.

The Sicilian mafia has not yet been taken down. It is very much alive in Italy. We see very similar types of behaviour in many other European states like Greece, Bulgaria or Hungary. Even in the Baltic states there are elements of this attitude. This type of behaviour is associated not only Russians or the Russian psyche. Yes, some Russians behave this way, but it is not exclusively a Russian problem. Look at Croats or Serbs. It is in fact deeply rooted in European human nature.”

And what can we say so far about Putin’s operations in Syria? In the north of the country, Russia has fired rockets at four of the five areas controlled by anti-Assad rebels and avoided hitting the nearby positons of the Islamic State. This has allowed the Damascus regime and the Islamists to advance further towards Aleppo. In fact, what Russia is doing is equipping IS with an air force of its own. In this way, it is advancing the goals of Assad, whose planes are bombing the very places that are being attacked by IS terrorists. “Four-fifths of Russia’s Syria strikes don’t target Islamic State: Reuters analysis.”

Now is hardly the time for the West to kowtow to Putin or ease up on IS, but this is exactly what Justin Trudeau, the prime minister-designate of Canada, is doing. What an awful signal to send to those who have to endure the wrath of the new Sicilians.


Watching Assad, thinking of Auden

Thursday, 19 September, 2013 2 Comments

When asked whether he would be willing to hand over chemical weapons to the US, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, speaking to Fox News, said: “It needs about one billion. It is very detrimental to the environment. If the American administration is ready to pay this money and take the responsibility of bringing toxic materials to the United States, why don’t they do it?”

He murders thousands, he exiles millions and now he wants to make a killing on the deadly weapons he once denied possessing. It’s time to read some Auden. In Time of War was composed in 1937 against the backdrop of the Sino-Japanese war, the occasion of many atrocities, and it holds up a mirror to human nature, especially its tyrannical aspect. Auden characterized the 1930s as “the age of anxiety” and his work deserves re-reading, given the the anxieties of our age.

In Time of War

Songs came no more: he had to make them.
With what precision was each strophe planned.
He hugged his sorrow like a plot of land,
And walked like an assassin through the town,
And looked at men and did not like them,
But trembled if one passed him with a frown.

W.H Auden (1907 — 1973)


That Syrian, er, surrender. Whose idea was it?

Monday, 16 September, 2013 0 Comments

“This is a victory for Syria won thanks to our Russian friends.” Who speaks there? None other than Ali Haidar, leader of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, whose business card is embossed with the surreal title of “Minister of State for National Reconciliation Affairs”.

Speaking about the Kerry-Obama diplomatic triumph in Geneva, Haidar told the Russian state news agency Ria Novosti that it was “the achievement of the Russian diplomacy and the Russian leadership.” Given that Syria is now a Russian protectorate, he would say that, wouldn’t he? But a less partisan observer might be disinclined to agree. Rainy Day has identified three non-Russian contenders for the “Syrian surrender” prize. Let’s start with US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Last Monday in London, Kerry was asked by a reporter whether there was anything the Assad regime could do to avoid a US military strike. “Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting [of it], but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done,” said Kerry.

“If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, gleefully running with the Kerry remark, and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem toadfully piped up that his government “agreed to the Russian initiative,” adding that Syria did so to “uproot US aggression.”

Clearly, the Russians were playing opportunist here and Kerry was speaking off-the-cuff so the prize goes to neither. Step up, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and cue Twitter:

Sikorski told reporters that he had “proposed the ultimatum” to John Kerry after getting the support of the European People’s Party during a meeting in Vilnius, and he had also tweeted at the end of August that “Russia can possibly prevent war be declaring that she will secure Syria’s chemical arsenal, which the USSR created.”

Our final contender for the Syrian-surrender prize is The Economist. In its leader of 31 August, Hit him hard, it concluded: “Mr Obama must give Mr Assad one last chance: a clear ultimatum to hand over his chemical weapons entirely within a very short period. The time for inspections is over.” This was read, no doubt, by Kerry, Lavrov, Sikorski, Mr al-Moallem and Mrs al-Assad. The result was a carefully planted “gaffe” in London, an instant follow-up in Moscow, pre-programmed agreement in Damascus and a “breakthrough” in Geneva. Coincidence? Unlikely.

Finally, let’s return to Ali Haidar, the Syrian “Minister of State for National Reconciliation Affairs”. How’s that working out? In today’s Washington Post, Liz Sly writes, “At close of a week hailed as diplomatic triumph, more than 1,000 die in Syria.”


Romney got it right on Putin and Obama

Friday, 13 September, 2013 0 Comments

Mr Putin on the smile “Two decades after the end of the cold war, Mitt Romney still considers Russia to be America’s ‘No. 1 geopolitical foe.’ His comments display either a shocking lack of knowledge about international affairs or just craven politics. Either way, they are reckless and unworthy of a major presidential contender.” So thundered the New York Times on 28 March last year. The cause of its outrage was a piece that the Republican presidential candidate had written for Foreign Policy magazine titled Bowing to the Kremlin. Romney’s summation of Obama’s Russia strategy was devastating:

“Unfortunately, what they are getting is a sad replay of Jimmy Carter’s bungling at a moment when the United States needs the backbone and courage of a Ronald Reagan. In his dealings with the Kremlin, as in his dealings with the rest of the world, President Obama has demonstrated breathtaking weakness — and given the word ‘flexibility’ a new and ominous meaning.”

And so it has come to pass. “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” says Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. President Obama now finds himself in a position where he must depend on the kindness of strangers, like Vladimir Putin. But that strategy didn’t work out very well for Blanche DuBois.


Obama and that Chamberlain feeling

Thursday, 12 September, 2013 1 Comment

Sir Henry “Chips” Channon was an American-born British Conservative politician, author and chronicler. Here’s his diary entry from 12 September 1938:

Chamberlain “Towards the end of the Banquet came the news, the great world-stirring news, that Neville [Chamberlain], on his own initiative, seeing war coming closer and closer, had telegrapher to Hitler that he wanted to see him, and asked him to name an immediate rendezvous. The German Government, surprised and flattered, had instantly accepted and so Neville, at the age of 69, for the first time in his life, gets into an aeroplane tomorrow morning and flies to Berchtesgaden! It is one of the finest, most inspiring acts of all history. The company rose to their feet electrified, as all the world must be, and drank his health. History must be ransacked to find a parallel.

Of course a way out will now be found. Neville by his imagination and practical good sense, has saved the world. I am staggered.”

A year later, the situation was very different. No way out had been found, the world had not been saved and the name of Neville Chamberlain became eternally synonymous with that dreadful term, appeasement.

“I believe it is peace for our time,” said the hapless Chamberlain upon his return from the despot’s Alpine eyrie, and one could not but feel a shiver of déjà vu while listening to the awful speech delivered by President Obama on Tuesday night. Here was a leader who casually drew a red line in the sand, and then found he had to do something about it. Faced with a humiliating defeat in Congress, he has now decided to let the Russians, steadfast allies of Assad, set the agenda on the international stage. And he admitted all this with an air of boredom. “It is hard to believe such a chill man has such warm feelings about the sad end of strangers far away,” wrote Peggy Noonan. “I think this has been one of his big unspoken problems in the selling of his Syria policy.” With her “sad end of strangers far away,” Noonan was deliberately echoing Chamberlain, who said: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

Knowing that the US president will grasp at any straw to avoid taking military action against Damascus, Vladimir Putin, now writing op-eds for the New York Times, is thrashing Obama in this global PR game. Having presented Obama with the meaningless option of weapons inspection, Russia has saved Syria from immediate attack and ensured that Assad can continue merrily upon his murderous way. It’s all very Chamberlain like.


The Unknown Known

Saturday, 7 September, 2013 0 Comments

“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns — there are things we do not know we don’t know.” Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary Of Defense, speaking at a press briefing in February 2002 about weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and Iraq.

The great American documentary film maker, Errol Morris, picked Donald Rumsfeld as the subject for his latest work, The Unknown Known. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Morris revealed how the film came to be made.

The Daily Beast: How the hell did you get Rumsfeld to agree to do this? Were you chasing him down?

Errol Morris: No, not at all. I wrote him a letter, enclosed a copy of The Fog of War, heard back from him very quickly, went to Washington, and spent a good part of the day with him. We started it under the premise that he would do two days of interviews, I would edit it, and if he liked it, we’d sign a contract and continue. If he didn’t, I’d put the footage in a closet and it would never see the light of day.