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by John Helmer, Moscow

Political fog and the fog of war are different. The first is a way of believing first, seeing afterwards. The second is what happens when the weapons of camouflage and deception  combine with confusion and fear to make seeing clearly impossible.

Follow last week’s events as they happened in Damascus, Istanbul and Tehran.

On January 7, President Vladimir Putin flew to Damascus where he hosted Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad at the Russian military headquarters, along with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, a General Staff group and Russian field commanders.  

Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/

Thereafter, according to the Kremlin communiqué,   “the Presidents visited the Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus, one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world. Vladimir Putin presented the mosque with a 17th century Quran as a memory of his visit. Afterwards, the President of Russia visited the Mariamite Cathedral of Damascus, where he spoke with Patriarch John X of Antioch and All the East.”

The intended Russian meaning of the meetings was subtle for the Arab, Islamic and Arab Christian world, but blunt for the US – solidarity in defence of Arab sovereignty; a warning that after the US assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani on January 3, the Russians understand that assassination attempts by the US against Russians and other state leaders in the Middle East are a new source of predictability in US government behaviour, and a new security risk for US-declared enemies.

After Soleimani’s death, the Kremlin announced that during a telephone call later that day between Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron, “both sides expressed concern over the death of Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, who was killed as a result of a US strike on Baghdad’s airport. It was stated that this attack could escalate tensions in the region.”

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was blunter towards the US in a telephone call with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif. Lavrov “offered his condolences in the wake of the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, Commander of the special-task Quds Force of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, who was killed by the US military near Baghdad. The ministers stressed that this US action was a grave violation of the fundamental standards of international law and does not contribute to resolving the complicated issues in the Middle East. Instead, it will trigger a new round of escalation in the region.”

The timing of Putin’s visit to Damascus last Tuesday was a sign that Putin’s long-planned meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not signal that Putin or the Russian General Staff have lowered the priority of Russian backing for Syrian control over the territories which the Turks have taken, with their proxies,  along the northern Syrian border. Putin flew from Damascus to Istanbul on the evening of January 7. But the next day, in the joint policy statement Putin and Erdogan signed, Iran and Soleimani came first. “We evaluate”, they said, “the U.S. air operation targeting the Commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Qassem Soleimani and his entourage in Baghdad on 3 January 2020 as an act undermining security and stability in the region.” This fell short of calling the assassination illegal, as Lavrov had done.

The Kremlin picture evidence is that Putin and Erdogan were uneasy and uncomfortable with each other throughout their bilateral session, and also during the meetings with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov (lower left) and Serbian President Alexandar Vucic (right) to inaugurate the new TurkStream gas pipeline. See http://en.kremlin.ru/and http://en.kremlin.ru/

Syria came next, followed by Libya, in the Putin-Erdogan statement. In response to Turkish failures to implement the Sochi agreements of last autumn, the two presidents agreed to  “reaffirm… the importance of the full implementation of the Memorandum of 17 September 2018 and the Memorandum of 22 October 2019. We underscore the necessity to establish calm in the Idlib de-escalation area by fully implementing all agreements on Idlib.”

For analysis of these agreements and the fate of Idlib, read this.

On Libya, despite Erdogan’s public threats to add Turkish arms, Turkish forces and Turkish proxies to his support for one of the sides in the Libyan civil war,  he and Putin agreed “to take the initiative and, as intermediaries, call on all parties in Libya to stop hostilities as of 00.00 hours on 12 January, declare a sustainable ceasefire, supported by the necessary measures to be taken for stabilizing the situation on the ground and normalizing daily life in Tripoli and other cities, and immediately come together around a negotiating table.” Although the two presidents don’t say so, and Putin may have been uncertain he could pull it off, the official ceasefire agreement is to be signed by the leading Libyan faction leaders, Fayez al-Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar, in Moscow this Monday. Enroute on Sunday, Al-Sarraj stopped in Istanbul to meet Erdogan first.

For background on the divergence of Russian and Turkish strategy in Libya, click to read.  

 In Putin’s speech at the opening of TurkStream, he tried to demonstrate that the new source of gas supply — up to 16 billion cubic metres for each of the two new pipelines — is significantly shorter in delivery time and larger in volume than is proposed in the alternative US plan to pipe eastern Mediterranean seabed gas from Israel and Cyprus to Greece. The first line of TurkStream, Putin said, “will deliver gas from the fields in western Siberia directly to our Turkish partners. The second one will cross Turkey to the Balkans, carrying fuel to Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece. Again, the supply of Russian gas through TurkStream will undoubtedly be of great importance for not only the Turkish economy and the Black Sea region, but will also have a positive impact on the development of many south European countries, and will contribute to improving Europe’s overall energy security.”

Can Cyprus, Greece, and Israel compete, and will European energy supply and cost be any more secure in the future US alternative compared to the current Russian one? The anti-Russian  Cyprus newspaper, Cyprus Mail, has editorialized that President Nikos Anastasiades and his successor in waiting, Foreign Minister Christos Christodoulides, can’t play both sides. “Is there any compelling reason for Anastasiades to go to Moscow and meet Putin while his government is seeking stronger ties with the US? It is as if the government is going out of its way to undermine its own foreign policy planning by creating the impression in Washington it is at the beck and call of Moscow. We are not saying that it should end relations with Russia, but it must accept that it cannot have it both ways. Much as it would like to, it cannot be a reliable ally of the US and of Russia at the same time. If it refuses to choose a side it will be trusted by neither.”

The Greek Government refused to attend the TurkStream ceremony in Istanbul. Instead, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his foreign minister went to Washington.  The pro-government Greek press judged that “the American president’s unwillingness to appear critical of Turkey limits the likelihood of a US intervention at the highest level that would be in Greece’s favor in the East Mediterranean geopolitical equation.”

Cypriot officials and analysts also noted that at the White House Mitsotakis had failed to defend Cyprus in his pitch for US backing for defence of the eastern Mediterranean and its seabed gas. The Cypriot case for self-defence has been building,  but has yet to find party political support in the country; the next presidential election, in which Anastasiades cannot run, is not due until 2023. 

A Cyprus source comments that Cypriot politicians have underestimated “what a game-changer the new Russian pipeline is. Turkey is now a European gas supplier. Nordstream is on track and [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel fully endorsed it yesterday in Moscow. So Germany, Scandinavia and even the Baltics aren’t going to buckle under to the Americans; they are going for Russian gas now. The Ukrainians have also made their deal for the same. The only country now that is outside of this Russian sphere is Cyprus. By choosing to go against Russian gas supply to Europe, Cyprus has put itself in a terrible position. Its gas finds are not big enough and not accessible enough for Americans to adopt the island. They are just enough to become competition to Russia in southern Europe. Now Russia is in Europe with Turkey in the south and that is how it will stay for 25 years. So the strategic blunder has been committed on the gas front by Cyprus going against the Russians.”

Listen to the Gorilla Radio discussion starting at Minute 32:28.

Click: http://www.gorilla-radio.com/

As the interview went live, western media had begun reversing the earlier US intelligence briefings on the cause of the crash of Ukrainian International Airlines UIA 752 after take-off from Tehran in the early morning of last Wednesday, January 8. The last minutes of the interview focused on the record of earlier crashes and the misinformation and official deception which had followed – Iran Air 655 in July 1988; Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988; and Malaysia Airlines MH17 in eastern Ukraine, July 2014.

An official announcement by the Iranian General Staff followed twenty-fours later. This accepted responsibility for the shooting-down of UIA 752 by an air-defence missile battery of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). A press briefing by the IRGC commander in charge of air defence, Brigadier-General Amir-Ali Hajizadeh,  followed shortly after. The text can be read here.

Press briefing on Saturday in Tehran by the commander of the Aerospace Force of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), Amir-Ali Hajizadeh.

His account indicates at the time of crash on Wednesday morning, he “was in the country’s west following the missile attacks operation against the US bases.” The Iranian missile attacks on the US base west of Baghdad and near Irbil, in northern Iraq, occurred in the evening hours of Tuesday and Wednesday. UIA 752 took off from Tehran hours later, just after six on Wednesday morning, at a time the Iranians were on high alert in anticipation of a US counter-strike.

UIA 752 was hit by a missile fired from an IRGC battery of short-range Tor missiles from the Bidganeh military base, west of the city, Hajizadeh said. The base is well-known from a series of explosions of ordnance at the base in 2011.   The firing position was not the one identified by the NATO propaganda broadcaster Bellingcat; it claimed to have located the ground source of a video clip of the missile strike filmed from a residence in Parand; Parand is 20 kilometres due south of the Bidganeh base. The missile fragment also broadcast by Bellingcat was not the one which struck the Ukrainian aircraft.

“The plane has been hit at a low altitude by a short-range missile with a small warhead and proximity fuze,” Hajizadeh reported. “It has exploded at the proximity [of the aircraft]; so the plane has found the chance to fly for a while; it hasn’t exploded in the air. After hitting the ground, it has collapsed. So no one at the [Iran Civil] Aviation Organisation knew about it, and I should defend my dear brothers there.”

After determining from his subordinates what had happened, Hajizadeh said he informed the General Staff later on Wednesday morning and flew to Tehran. There the likelihood of an accidental missile strike on the civilian aircraft was the prevailing military assessment at that time. This was not disclosed to the head of the Iran Civil Aviation Organisation or other Iranian civilian officials. The military investigation then “carried out the investigation in 48 hours”, according to Hajizadeh,  before the high-level confirmations were issued. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s announcement was made at 0705 on Saturday morning, Iran time. President Hassan Rouhani followed at 0740.  

The General Staff investigation examined whether there was electronic jamming or spoofing of the IRGC’s missile radars, and decided this had not occurred. A US military analyst has published this assessment, concluding: “Under these circumstances – highest possible alarm level, current warnings of hostile cruise missiles, unknown target flying towards a presumably military objective, lack of communication, little decision time – the operator of the Tor system did what he was trained to do. As a former military officer I cannot see any fault in what the man did.”

Gorilla Radio is broadcast every Thursday on CFUV 101.9 FM from the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.  The radio station can be heard here.  The Gorilla Radio transcripts are also published by the Pacific Free Press and on the blog .  For Chris Cook’s broadcast archive, click to open.

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