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Turkey and Russia Find Common Ground While War in Syria Keeps Raging

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] T [/yt_dropcap]he Syrian civil war has been raging for close to six years, fueled by a tangled web of alliances, the regional ambitions of foreign powers, and an increasingly bitter power struggle between various armed rebel and Islamist groups. The conflict has claimed an estimated 400,000 lives in that time, but there are signs that the fighting may be tenuously coming to an end due—in part—to an unlikely détente between Turkey and Russia.

Turkey, like its Ottoman predecessor, has been competing with Russia for centuries in contests for influence across Eurasia. This competition continues to this day in Syria. Turkey and Russia back opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, with the fate of the Bashar al-Assad regime being a source of fierce disagreement between the two nations and the international community as a whole. Turkey’s backing of a broad coalition of Sunni anti-Assad rebels has long been a point of contention for the pro-Assad Russians. Whereas Turkey sees destabilizing forces spreading closer to its borders. Instead of de-escalation, both nations had increased tensions with their respective military interventions in the war which have resulted in several openly hostile actions between the two powers.

On November 24, 2015 a Russian Su-24 attack aircraft was shot down by Turkish fighter aircraft after allegedly briefly crossing into Turkish airspace during a bombing run in Syria’s Latakia Province. Diplomatic relations broke down following the shootdown with Russia initiating economic sanctions against the Turkish economy, particularly against the well-developed tourism sector of the economy. The sanctions were cancelled after an open apology by Turkish president Recep Erdogan in the summer of 2016. This was the first step in an unlikely reconciliation process between the two nations which has persisted despite several additional crises.

The improved relations survived the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey in Ankara and the deaths of three Turkish soldiers in a Russian airstrike this week near al-Bab, Syria. In fact, these relations have improved over the last several months with an ever evolving role for both nations in the peace settlement process in Syria. Both military and diplomatic lines of dialogue have opened as both nations have attempted a more cooperative approach to address mutual challenges in Syria.

Militarily, outright hostility has transformed into a mutual understanding through the fight against ISIS. The original disagreement over the political future of Syria has been put on the back burner for the time being after the Russian backed Syrian armed forces captured Aleppo. The Syrian government has not initiated any major offensives against the rebels to capitalize on their capture of Syria’s largest city. Instead, the Syrian forces and militias have targeted ISIS in both Aleppo and Homs governorates. For the first time in the war, Syrian forces have passively aided the Turkish backed Euphrates Shield forces in their siege of al-Bab, the last major urban center still under ISIS control before their de-facto capital, al-Raqqah. Though not directly, the Syrian forces have cut off al-Bab from ISIS supply lines in the south. Additionally, the Russian air force has started to coordinate airstrikes with the Turkish military. There have been dozens of Russian airstrikes in the al-Bab theater of war over recent weeks.

Russia and Turkey have also recently been diplomatically involved in attempting to reign in the fighting between the government and rebel forces. Several ceasefires have tried to do just that in the history of the war, but the most recent one holds the most promise. Agreed to at peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, the most recent ceasefire went in effect at the end of December, 2016. What gives most promise to this peace deal is that Turkey managed to recruit a broad coalition of rebel groups to sign on to the deal, including several Islamist groups. A lasting peace on this front would allow all forces on the ground to focus their efforts against combating ISIS and perhaps finding a diplomatic solution to end the political crisis in the country.

Despite the recent warming of relations between Turkey and Russia, the Syrian civil war is still at a deadly stalemate. In a microcosm of the conflict, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—the most powerful rebel group in northern Syria—has consolidated several rebel groups under its banner and started a conflict for supremacy over the more moderate rebel groups. The formerly al-Qaeda affiliated group has gained territory in the area at the expense of rebel groups who took part in the Astana peace talks. This is an attempt to prevent any sort of settlement to be reached among the rebels represented in Astana. An additional conflict among the rebels would only spell more suffering for the Syrian people and make a political solution to the conflict much more difficult to reach.

As the conflict in Syria progresses and hopefully draws to a close, Turkey and Russia will largely bare responsibility for Syria’s fate. With the United States likely to withdraw into itself to focus on domestic interests, the peace implementation will be largely left to the current foreign backers of the warring parties. And it is exactly these backing influences which will probably make the settlement process more difficult. For example, should ISIS collapse in the coming months, would Russia even sit with groups like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham at the negotiating table? Or, on the other hand, would Turkey reject its long held anti-Assad views and support the inclusion of the Iranians, the Kurds, or Hezbollah in any peace settlement? Though one thing is certain; both nations have the power to negotiate an end to one of the bloodiest wars in recent history.

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Coronavirus: Why Russians Are Lucky to Be Led by Putin

Eric Zuesse

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On Tuesday, March 24th, the following happened:

U.S.A. had the world’s largest number of new coronavirus-19 cases: 10,168. The prior day, there were 33,546 cases; so, this 10,168 new cases were a 30% increase from the day before. 

Russia had 71 new cases, up 19% from the prior day’s 367

Reuters bannered “U.S. has potential of becoming coronavirus epicenter, says WHO” and reported that,

The World Health Organization said on Tuesday it was seeing a “very large acceleration” in coronavirus infections in the United States which had the potential of becoming the new epicenter.

Over the past 24 hours, 85 percent of new cases were from Europe and the United States, WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told reporters. Of those, 40 percent were from the United States.

Asked whether the United States could become the new epicentre, Harris said: “We are now seeing a very large acceleration in cases in the U.S. So it does have that potential.

Right now, on Wednesday the 25th, the U.S. again has the world’s largest number of new cases reported, 11,074. That’s a 25% increase added to the 43,734 cases total on March 24th. And, within just three more days, America will have the world’s largest total number of cases, if Italy won’t. And after yet another day, the U.S. will almost certainly have the world’s largest total number of cases, because Italy has been adding only around half as many new cases per day as the U.S., though Italy’s total right now is higher than America’s, and is actually the second largest total after only China’s. China will have the world’s third-largest total number of cases by this weekend, the 28th or 29th, and America will be #1 then, not only on the number of new cases, but on the total number of cases, of this infection. That quickly, then, China will become no longer the #1 coronavirus-19 nation, but, instead, #3, behind the #1 U.S., and the #2 Italy. 

America has been in political chaos because each of its two houses of Congress, and both Parties, and the President, have been blocked from agreeing on what to do — all of them were ignoring that this is an existential emergency and thus dealt with it as if it were instead just another way for each to increase its chances of re-election at the expense of the others. Both political Parties, Republicans and Democrats, and Congress and the President, agreed on a “$500 billion fund for corporations” to reduce the negative impact on billionaires’ wealth, but Democrats demanded that limits be placed on executives’ pay, and “included reducing student debt and boosting food stability programs. Some of the ideas would be major sticking points with Republicans: The bill, for example, would invest money ‘to eliminate high-polluting aircraft’ and ‘research into sustainable aviation fuels.’” Democrats also wanted, but Republicans refused, some costly measures to continue workers’ incomes during their plague-induced period of unemployment. Agreement had been reached only on the billionaire-bailouts — protections especially of stock-values. This is the way America’s ‘democracy’ works. Rule by the billionaires is considered to be ‘democracy’. Luxuries are treated as being more important than necessities are. (Billionaires are thought to be superior people, who must be served before anyone else.) Dollars rule, people don’t. And this chaos is the result of that.

On March 23rd, the prominent progressive economist James K. Galbraith headlined “What the Government Needs to Do Next” and described in detail what a governmental policy-response would be that would subsidize the public to deal with this crisis, but not subsidize the billionaires (who already have way too much and can well afford to become merely millionaires while not actually suffering at all), and that would be of maximum benefit to the total economy by protecting the assets of the most-vulnerable (who could then continue to shop and work), but his common-sense proposal wasn’t even being considered by the legislators, nor by the President.

Only a few countries had a faster rate of increase in cases than the U.S. did on March 24th, but all of them had far fewer cases: Portugal, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda. For example, Rwanda had the world’s highest percentage-increase from the day before, almost a doubling, but that was 17 new cases, up from a total of 19 on the day before. So, America’s 30% increase was clearly the world’s worst performance, on that single day.

Russia’s performance is perhaps the world’s best.

On March 22nd, CNN headlined “Why does Russia, population 146 million, have fewer coronavirus cases than Luxembourg?” (that’s a country of 628,000 people) and reported that 

Russia’s early response measures —  such as shutting down its 2,600-mile border with China as early as January 30, and setting up quarantine zones — may have contributed to the delay of a full-blown outbreak, some experts say.

Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to criticism over the number of recorded cases.

A strong record on testing

“The director-general of WHO said ‘test, test, test,’” Dr. Melita Vujnovic, the World Health Organization’s representative in Russia, told CNN Thursday. “Well, Russia started that literally at the end of January.”

Vujnovic said Russia also took a broader set of measures in addition to testing.

“Testing and identification of cases, tracing contacts, isolation, these are all measures that WHO proposes and recommends, and they were in place all the time,” she said. “And the social distancing is the second component that really also started relatively early.”

Rospotrebnadzor, Russia’s state consumer watchdog, said Saturday that it had run more than 156,000 coronavirus tests in total. By comparison, according to CDC figures, the United States only picked up the pace in testing at the beginning of March.

On March 20th, the permanently anti-Russian U.S. organization, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (whose “Orwellian” name was perhaps one of the inspirations for George Orwell’s permanent-warfare novel, 1984) headlined “Confronting the Challenges of Coronavirus, Russia Sees Its Worldview Vindicated”, and tried to put as bad a face on Russia’s coronavirus performance as they could, such as by alleging that (alleged) dictatorships were performing no worse than ‘democracies’ at controlling the coronavirus threat:

The state has reasserted itself as the prime actor on the global scene. International institutions like the World Health Organization have become mere statisticians, and even the EU has taken a back seat to the governments of member states.

The world’s democracies are not faring better in the crisis than nondemocracies.

However, back on 27 July 2015, that organization had bannered “How Authentic is Putin’s Approval Rating?” and reviewed more than 15 years of Putin’s approval ratings from the Russian public, and reluctantly concluded that it was and had always been “Authentic,” and almost always high.

Internationally, too, Putin’s leadership of Russia is more highly regarded than is the current U.S. President’s leadership of America.

Back in 2017, the British firm of WIN/Gallup International issued “Gallup International’s 41st Annual Global End of Year Survey Opinion Poll in 55 Countries Across the Globe”, which sampled 1,000 persons in each country in order to determine in each one the percentage of the public who rated “Favorable” and who rated “Unfavorable” each of the following 12 national heads-of-state (listed here in descending order of their net favorability, or “favorable” minus “unfavorable”): Merkel, Macron, Modi, May, Xi, Putin, Saud, Netanyahu, Rouhani, Erdogan, and Trump. (Merkel globally scored highest, Trump lowest.)

Amongst Russians, the score for Putin was 79% Favorable, 11% Unfavorable, for a net score of +68%.

Though Germany’s Merkel had the highest score worldwide, her score in Germany was only 54% Favorable and 44% Unfavorable, for a net of +10.

Macron’s net score in France was -1%.

May’s net in UK was -18%

Rouhani’s in Iran was +37%

Erdogan’s in Turkey was +22%

Modi’s in India was +72% (that’s 84%-12%)

Trump’s in U.S. was -23% (35%-58%) — the worst of all.

The following leaders weren’t surveyed in their own countries: Xi, Netanyahu, and Saud.

So: Putin’s net +68% score amongst his own country’s population was second ony to Modi’s — and, whereas Modi had been in office for only 3 years and had not yet begun his controversial actively anti-Muslim campaign, Putin had led Russia for 17 years, and was a very firmly established high performer in these figures. Here are some of the reasons for this.

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Russian-Japanese dialogue in the context of amendments to the Constitution

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As Russia discusses amendments to the Constitution, an issue of particular concern has been the amendment that prohibits the alienation of Russian territories. The amendment will likely be put to vote on April 22. It is not surprising that it has evoked interest abroad, especially in Japan, where they still expect to regain control of the so-called “northern territories”. Unlike a great number of categorical alarmist comments in the Japanese press on this issue, Sankei Shimbun writes: “The amendment includes the wording “except for cases of demarcation or re-demarcation of borders with neighboring states”. Thus, negotiations on the Japanese “northern territories” can be considered not in conflict with the new Constitution. “

Are there grounds for such an interpretation of the amendment in question? “Any moves aimed at alienating territories, as well as calls for such actions, are not permitted,” – the presidential amendment says, specifying that it is not indeed about delimitation, demarcation, or re-demarcation of the state border.

Japan, claiming the southern islands of the Kuril Ridge, cites the Soviet-Japanese Declaration of October 19, 1956 “On ending the state of war between the two states and restoring diplomatic and consular relations”, according to which the USSR pledged to transfer the Shikotan and Habomai Islands. The Declaration, ratified by the parliaments of the two countries, has not been abolished. Another presidential amendment to the Constitution of the Russian Federation stipulates that Russia is the legal successor of the USSR in its territory and as a member of international organizations and international treaties.

However, the Tokyo Declaration indicated that the de facto transfer of these islands to Japan would be executed after the signing of a peace treaty between the USSR and Japan. In addition, the Soviet Union was also far from happy about the presence of American military bases on Japanese territory.

At present, what obstructs progress on the islands and the peace treaty is Japan’s unwillingness to take into account Russia’s strategic concerns about the status of the four islands of the South Kuril Ridge. In particular, Russia would like to receive guarantees about the neutral status of these territories and the non-deployment of US military bases on them.

The main thing is that while considering the issue of concluding a Peace Treaty with Japan, Russia insists that Japan recognize the results of World War II – something it has refused to do for many years. This approach is regrettably deeply rooted in the minds of the Japanese establishment and expert community. The abovementioned newspaper, for example, cites the opinion of Professor Sindzo Hakamada of Niigata University that “if Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe takes part in the celebration of Victory Day this year, it will mean acknowledgment of a blatant distortion of history by Russia and its uncompromising policy towards Japan.

From the Russian point of view, such statements are characteristic of the position of Japan. History, by the way, remembers cases when Tokyo changed this position depending on the political situation. A. Koshkin writes that in the spring of 1945, amid fears that the Soviet Union could participate in the war against Japan on the side of the Allied Powers, the Japanese leadership began to develop plans to “interest” the Soviet government by the concessions which Tokyo could make in exchange for Moscow’s neutrality and consent to mediate in armistice negotiations, including the abandoning of claims on Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands.

Some Japanese experts, for example, M. Sato, believe that even after the amendments are made, there are two ways to resolve this problem so that the transfer of Habomai and Shikotan does not contradict the Russian Constitution. “The first way: to confirm that the transfer of Japanese islands to the USSR was recorded in the Yalta agreement of February 1945 and that in accordance with the San Francisco Peace Treaty, the Kuril Islands, which Japan turned down, do not include Habomai and Shikotan. The transfer of Habomai and Shikotan is not an act of alienation of territories, but the result of demarcation of borders, so this will not run counter to the Constitution of Russia. The second way: since the Soviet-Japanese declaration is an international agreement signed long before the approval of the Russian Constitution, the provisions of the Fundamental Law of Russia should not apply to it.

In any case, the presidential amendment that delimitation, demarcation and re-marking of the state border do not fall under the alienation of territories is fairly substantial. There have been similar situations in the past, for example, how would the Russian leadership act when considering the demarcation of the Russian-Chinese border in 2005 or the Russian-Norwegian border in 2010?

However, in the case of Japan, the formality – when and if the presidential amendment is adopted – is less important than content. The Russian-Japanese dialogue on a Peace Treaty is still possible and may end to the benefit of both parties if they manage to accept the terms of the Tokyo Declaration taking into account the new realities. In my opinion, this is what the presidential amendment to the Russian Constitution is all about.

From our partner International Affairs

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Coronavirus: A blessing in disguise

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Last week, many universities and colleges in Europe and other countries canceled classes and moved to online instruction amid coronavirus fears as the authorities are trying to check the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Paradoxically, such measures can prove beneficial to the world’s leading universities that practice online training and have developed platforms for this, above all in Russia, where the oldest educational institutions have long been using digital technology in teaching.

St. Petersburg State University (SPbU), the alma mater of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, is among the institutions, which are best prepared to go on-line, and a large number of dedicated courses developed by the university can already be found on federal educational platforms such as https://openedu.ru/. The issue of digital education featured prominently on the agenda of the 4thInternational Labor Forum held in St. Petersburg in February – the last major international event held by the university before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Speaking at the forum, the university’s rector, Nikolay Kropachev, described SPbU as being at the forefront of the development of online courses and distance learning.

Nikolay Kropachev also said that the university had come a long way in promoting international cooperation, and was among the first to protect foreign students from being subjected to irrational and ill-advised measures related to the spread of coronavirus. In February, after many Russian politicians proposed isolating all students from Southeast Asia, Nikolay Kropachev appealed to common sense, questioning the need to place in quarantine for several months students who have not been in their home country since their last vacation.

Now that the entire university has gone on a kind of “antiviral” vacation, St. Petersburg State University is working out an algorithm of distance learning, including by foreign students, who come for a year or two studying in English and other languages. Thus, even if the coronavirus epidemic lingers on, students will not lose a semester or two and will be able to fully communicate with their tutors via a computer screen. Also, everyone is welcome to come aboard and join the training process. For more details, go to the University website.

Note: St. Petersburg State University is a complex of early 18th century buildings – the city’s oldest stone structures, which housed the ministries of Russia’s first emperor, Peter the Great. Nikolay Kropachev wants to move some of the classrooms out to create in their place several museums dedicated to Russian history and Russia’s greatest scientists. Just like other Russian universities, SPbU now has chance to check the effectiveness of its achievements in the field of distance learning. “A blessing in disguise” as the Russian proverb has it. 

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