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What Just Happened

Eric Zuesse

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What happened right after the second direct U.S.-missiles invasion of Syria, which had occurred on the night of April 13th, could turn out to have momentous implications — far bigger than the attacks themselves.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons headlined on April 14th, in the wake of this U.S.-UK-France invasion of Syria that was allegedly punishing Syria’s Government for allegedly having used chemical weapons in its bombing in the town of Douma on April 7th, “OPCW Fact-Finding Mission Continues Deployment to Syria”, and reported that:

The Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) team of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will continue its deployment to the Syrian Arab Republic to establish facts around the allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma. 

The OPCW has been working in close collaboration with the United Nations Department of Safety and Security to assess the situation and ensure the safety of the team. 

This means that the effort by the U.S. and its allies on the U.N. Security Council, to squash that investigation, has failed at the OPCW, even though the effort had been successful at blocking U.N. support for that specific investigation.

The OPCW is not part of the U.N., nor of any country; it, instead (as introduced by Wikipedia): is an intergovernmental organisation and the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention, which entered into force on 29 April 1997. The OPCW, with its 192 member states, has its seat in The Hague, Netherlands, and oversees the global endeavour for the permanent and verifiable elimination of chemical weapons.

In conformity with the unchallenged international consensus that existed during the 1990s that there was no longer any basis for war between the world’s major powers, the Convention sought and achieved a U.N. imprimatur, but this was only in order to increase its respect throughout the world. The OPCW is based not on the U.N. Charter but on that specific treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention, which was formally approved by the U.N.’s General Assembly on 30 November 1992 and was then opened for signatures in Paris on 13 January 1993. According to the Convention’s terms, it would enter into effect 180 days after 65 nations signed it, which turned out to be on 29 April 1997.

So, although the treaty itself received U.N. approval, the recent Russian-sponsored resolution at the U.N.’s Security Council to have the U.N. endorse the OPCW’s investigation of the 7 April 2018 Douma incident, did not receive U.N. approval. It was instead blocked by the U.S. and its allies. Nonetheless, though without a U.N. endorsement, the OPCW investigation into the incident will move forward, despite the invasion. This fact is momentous, because a credible international inspection, by the world’s top investigatory agency for such matters, will continue to completion, notwithstanding the effort by the U.S. and its allies on the U.N. Security Council, to block it altogether. This decision was reached by the OPCW — not by the U.N.

Among the 192 signers of the Chemical Weapons Convention are U.S., Russia, and Syria, as well as China, Iran, and Iraq, but not Israel, nor North Korea and a very few other countries. So: all of the major powers have already, in advance, approved whatever the findings by the OPCW turn out to be. Those findings are expected to determine whether a chemical attack happened in Douma on 7 April 2018, and, if so, then perhaps what the specific banned chemical(s) was(were), but not necessarily who was responsible for it if it existed. For example, if the ‘rebels’ had stored some of their chemical weapons at that building and then Syria’s Government bombed that building, the OPCW might not be able to determine who is to blame, even if they do determine that there was a chemical attack and the chemical composition of it. In other words: science cannot necessarily answer all of the questions that might be legal-forensically necessary in order to determine guilt, if a crime did, in fact, occur, there.

If the investigation does find that a banned chemical was used and did cause injuries or fatalities, then there is the possibility that its findings will be consistent with the assertions by the U.S. and its allies who participated in the April 13th invasion. That would not necessarily justify the invasion, but it would prove the possibility that there had been no lying intent on the part of the U.S.-and-allied invaders on April 13th.

However, if the investigation does not find that a banned chemical was used in the Syrian Government’s bombing of that building, then incontrovertibly the U.S.-and-allied invasion was a criminal one under international laws, though there may be no international court that possesses the authority to try the case.

So: what is at stake here from the OPCW investigation is not only the international legitimacy of Syria’s Government, but the international legitimacy of the Governments that invaded it on April 13th. These are extremely high stakes, even if no court in the world will possess the authority to adjudicate the guilt — either if the U.S. and its allies lied, or if the Syrian Government lied.

For us historians, this is very important. And, for the general public, the significance goes much farther: to specific Governments, to their alleged news media, and to the question of: What does it even mean to say that a government is a “democracy” or a “dictatorship”? The findings from this investigation will reverberate far and wide, and long (if World War III doesn’t prevent any such findings at all).

first published at strategic-culture.org

Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010

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Iran: What is in store for the JCPOA?

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The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) continues to be in the spotlight of global politics. And even though the “Iranian problems” go beyond the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it is the “dying” JCPOA that is the main cause of tensions in and around Iran, be it the financial and economic blow of the United States, which uses the “oil baton” to strike at the Iranian economy, the threat of war in the Persian Gulf and tanker conflicts, or Iran’s geostrategic and regional position in general.

Regrettably, we have to admit that because of Washington’s destructive moves on the global scene the JCPOA is coming under corrosion and may well turn into dust in the near future. Such a negative outcome runs counter to the interests of Russia, China, and the European Union. Therefore, they are making tremendous efforts to preserve these agreements, even if in a slightly different format after the withdrawal of the US.

Political analysts reveal two conflicting views on the future of the JCPOA. Some are sure that the days of the nuclear deal are numbered. Others believe that it can still be “saved”, but this requires the concerted efforts of the countries participating in it.

On July 28, members of the Joint Commission on the Implementation of the JCPOA gathered in Vienna at the level of political directors to focus on pressing issues the JCPOA is confronted with. Participating in the meeting were delegations from Russia, China, Great Britain, France, Germany and Iran. They discussed the negative effect of Iran’s measures to curtail its commitments under the agreement thereby aggravating the situation in the Persian Gulf.

Iran’s partners called on Tehran to refrain from further withdrawal from a number of obligations under the JCPOA. The Iranian leaders have announced that, starting from May 8, they introduce 60-day rounds to gradually curtail compliance with the requirements of the JCPOA . Early September will see a new, third phase of the Iranian struggle against US sanctions. The essence of such moves on the part of Iran is to force the European Union, and, first of all, Britain, France and Germany, to launch at full capacity the INSTEX settlement mechanism, which serves to guarantee the export of Iranian oil. Apparently, this presents a lot of difficulty and causes a lot of doubts among the founders of this financial mechanism.

Reporting on the Vienna consultations, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said that “the meeting in Vienna did not give us any guarantees about the future the JCPOA.” He pointed out that Iran is not sure of the effectiveness of European efforts within the framework of INSTEX and, therefore, about maintaining the JCPOA. Iran will decide on further steps after the forthcoming ministerial meeting of countries that act as guarantors of the JCPOA, the diplomat said.

The head of the Russian delegation in Vienna, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, remarked in this connection: “We urged the Iranians to refrain from this [from the phased exit from the JCPOA, V.S.] and explained why: the more measures are taken to reconsider commitments, even if voluntary ones, the higher the political temperature and the higher the chances that some of the participants in the JCPOA may lose temper and trigger aggravation. ”

The Russian diplomat went on to comment: “Certainly, you can follow this course, but it is getting ever more precarious. If we want Iran to refrain, and we also talked about this, the rest of the countries must redouble their efforts in order to provide Iran with an acceptable level of oil export despite all the odds and set the stage for at least some normalization of foreign economic activity.”

To what extent is this possible amid the unprecedented US pressure on Iran? Federica Mogherini, head of the EU for foreign affairs, has cautiously suggested the possibility of intensifying the work of INSTEX. “The question whether INSTEX will deal with oil is currently being discussed by the shareholders,”- she said.

But it is this very issue that determines Iran’s policy, and the choice of the directions of this policy clearly correlates with the following possible developments regarding the JCPOA.

The first way is possible if the authors of the JCPOA, the European Union, and other countries concerned can provide an “acceptable level of oil export”. In this case, Iran will return to the meticulous fulfillment of its nuclear deal commitments. However, there are great doubts that Iran’s partners will be able to satisfy its oil export needs.

American officials have warned European countries that they risk violating sanctions against Iran if they promote a barter system that could allow the export of Iranian oil. A senior White House administration official told Washington Examiner that the US Department of the Treasury had contacted the INSTEX Council to “signal dissatisfaction with the creation of a tool that helps to dodge sanctions and the dangers associated with it.”

No matter how much European politicians and diplomats would like to support the JCPOA, it seems that European business is not ready to take chances with the US sanctions.

The American oil embargo has created a situation which is unparalleled, even compared to the tough international sanctions of 2012-2016. In July, the export of Iranian oil fell to 100 – 120 (taking into account condensate and light oil) thousand barrels per day . In June, this indicator ranged between 300 and 500 thousand. In April 2018, Iran exported 2.5 million bpd , which is 25 times more than this July.

According to experts, to determine the exact amount of oil currently sold by Iran is difficult, since Tehran is using “gray” and other export options. However, the current estimates range within the above mentioned figures.

Thus, even if INSTEX begins to operate at its full “oil” capacity, even if oil is sold on a daily basis to China , Russia , and European countries, and even if the oil export is carried out with the use of all possible legal and semi-legal ways, it is unlikely that all this will compensate Iran’s losses in oil exports and, accordingly, in petrodollars.

However, even in the event of such a far from optimistic scenario, and even considering financial losses, Tehran will not profit from leaving the JCPOA, first of all, for political reasons.

The second option for Iranian policy, will most likely take shape in the context of the EU’s inability to circumvent US sanctions and thereby fulfill its obligations under the JCPOA. In this case, there could be two scenarios.

The first hypothetical option for Iranian policy amid INSTEX futility: Iran openly leaves the JCPOA. On July 29, the Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement in which it demanded yet again that European countries act on the conditions of the JCPOA. Otherwise, the statement said, Iran would cease to pursue its obligations under this agreement.

As part of this option, Iran terminates the implementation of the Additional Protocol to the IAEA guarantees,  puts an end to the activities of the IAEA inspectors and control by the Agency, restores its nuclear potential and activates the implementation of its nuclear program under plans which were in force before the adoption of the JCPOA. In its most radical version, Iran withdraws from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Such a policy, in its best version for the Iranians, will lead to the complete isolation of Iran and the resumption of international sanctions, possibly under the patronage of the UN Security Council. At worst, it will lead to possible air and missile strikes by the United States and / or Israel at Iran’s nuclear facilities (let’s recall the troubled year 2012). Clearly, such a development does not suit anyone, first of all, Iran.

It should be borne in mind that the European Union (Britain, France and Germany), while opposing the United States on the JCPOA, backs Donald Trump and his team on other issues concerning Iran and its policies. These are as follows: Iran’s missile program, Tehran’s military and political activities in the Middle East, Iran’s support of Hezbollah, Hamas and other Shiite groups, which are deemed terrorist in most Western countries. Therefore, in the event of the collapse of the JCPOA, the EU will concentrate all its political, diplomatic and propaganda campaigns and, possibly, military potential, on Iran.

The second possible political option of Tehran in the conditions of INSTEX incapacity is the continuation of the policy which is currently pursued by the Iranian leadership. On the one hand, there is a well-structured and well-thoughtout phasing out of obligations under the JCPOA, which does not envisage going beyond the “red lines”. On the other hand, bringing partners as close as possible and at the same time lifting tensions in relations with opponents with a view to set the stage for negotiations

On January 29, 2019, addressing a conference on defense and security in Iran, Chief Military Advisor to the Commander-in-Chief and Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Brigadier-General Yahya Rahim Safavi said that “the development of Iran’s strategic relations with global competitors of the United States, including Russia and China, is one of Iran’s major defense strategies.”

In June, China and Iran held joint naval exercises at the strategic Strait of Hormuz. In July, Iran unilaterally introduced a visa-free regime for citizens of China, as well as for residents of Hong Kong and Macau.

According to Iranian politicians and political analysts, Russia is Iran’s strategic ally in the region and elsewhere in the world. The Commander of the Iranian Navy, Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, has said that Iran and Russia intend to step up maritime cooperation. According to the admiral, a memorandum of understanding was signed in Moscow on naval cooperation and the two sides plan joint military exercises in the Indian Ocean before the end of the year. “By the Indian Ocean, we mean a vast area in the northern part of the ocean, including … the Strait of Hormuz, as well as the Persian Gulf.” Later, on July 30, the command of the Iranian Navy stated that Rear Admiral Khanzadi’s words about the location of the exercises were misinterpreted. He meant the northern part of the Indian Ocean and the Oman Sea.

On August 1, the Russian Defense Ministry did not confirm either the signing of any  document, or any plans for joint maneuvers of the Russian Navy and the Iranian Navy.

Judging by these facts, Tehran is trying to use Iran’s good relations with China and Russia for its political agenda and for an effective struggle against its antagonists.

Simultaneously, Iran is seeking to alleviate tensions with its opponents as part of its policy of moderate withdrawal from the JCPOA. A few days ago, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced his country’s readiness for a dialogue with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s most fierce rival in the Middle East. The two countries disagree on many issues and support parties that are at war with one another.

The most significant event of recent days is an appeal of the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to U.S. President Donald Trump to settle the differences between the two countries through negotiation and not succumb to the influence of advisers and allies, who, in his opinion, are pushing Washington into war with Tehran. As Mr. Zarif said “diplomacy is tantamount to common sense, not weakness.”

The Iranian diplomacy is thus demonstrating political flexibility and, at the same time, pragmatism. It seems that Tehran is playing a simultaneous game with many parties and, an all likelihood, there are two major points for Iran to gain from these games.

The first is to prolong the time it takes to make drastic decisions. In any case, it will play for time until the presidential election in the United States, due to take place in November 2020, hoping for the victory of the Democrats and, accordingly, the revival of the JCPOA and the return of Iranian-American relations to the period of 2015-2016.

The second is to score as many points as possible on playing venues around the world to create favorable conditions for undoubtedly welcome future negotiations, in the first place, with the Americans, and, preferably, with a Democratic administration.

Despite its daring and independent position, Tehran has no other pragmatic choice but negotiations. In all likelihood, the American pressure on Iran under Donald Trump will not dwindle. Given the situation, Iran’s foreign policy of the near future will move along a thorny path full of unpredictable pitfalls and unexpected turns. But obviously, all these efforts are oriented at the only option possible – negotiations. Other ways are either unrealistic, or lead to war. And this, I dare say, is something no one wants, including the United States.

From our partner International Affairs

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U.S. – Iran tensions: Position of Baku Remains the Same

Asim Suleymanov

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The situation in the Middle East is still tense. First of all, because of the aggravating relations between Iran and the United States, that resemble a roller coaster. A temporary stabilization follows the next peak, but at a level below the previous aggravation. Then a new incident takes place or another ultimatum is given by one of the parties, and everything repeats again.

Tensions with Iran have steadily increased since U.S. President Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 Iranian Nuclear Agreement and re-imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran. Rouhani and other Iranian officials accuse the United States of engaging in “economic terrorism.”

The international community now is watching the development of the conflict between the US and Iran. The regular imposition of new sanctions on Iran, the start of tanker wars, the mutual threats of Washington and Tehran become a real threat to international security. The projects exempted from US sanctions include the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) and the Arak heavy water nuclear reactor.

It seems clear the Iranians have little inclination or motivation to back down. They will probably increase the aggression toward merchant shipping, either putting mines in the Strait of Hormuz (which they did as part of the so-called “tanker wars” in the 1980s) or actually sinking a ship, probably surreptitiously using a diesel submarine.

Meanwhile, anti-Iran sanctions hit considerably Iran’s partners. They are forced to look for mechanisms of evading these sanctions and to look for new formats of interaction in order to protect existing ones.

Today, many countries reject full economic cooperation with Tehran. But the format of cooperation, aimed primarily at the implementation of global economic and transport projects, continues to exist. The next trilateral summit of the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran is clear evidence that this format of cooperation is beneficial. All the sanctions can’t hinder it.

If we imagine that the war between the USA and Iran will start, it will become an unconditional, non-compensating disaster for all its participants. That will be a war without winners. All the involved parties will lose.

As a neighboring country Azerbaijan will inevitably be drawn into the conflict. It can turn into a catastrophe, as refugee flows and extremists will head to Azerbaijan, especially from Iranian (Southern) Azerbaijan region.

So far, the President of Azerbaijan Republic Ilham Aliyev remains the most successful leader of the South Caucasus. He is confidently controlling the ship of the state. With its reasonable policy, Azerbaijan has already ensured its own place in a multipolar world. And this place does not mean that Azerbaijan will follow Russia and China instructions. The government of Baku will act in accordance with its own interests that ensures independence and a place in the future multi-polar world.

The main thing is to continue this course being afraid of nothing, but acting within the framework of international law, if some other country commits indecent acts. A real politician should not fall prey to intimidation, the psychological attack of the West countries. This politician weighs reality, facts, actions. If Azerbaijan succumbs to such an attack, the tested methods will be applied in response such as color revolutions, external pressure and etc.

For Azerbaijan, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not just an ordinary country. First of all, Iran is the Azerbaijan Republic’s southern neighbor. The 2 states share about 618 kilometers of land borders. These two countries border each other in the Caspian Sea as well. Both countries share values from their mutual past and some elements of a common culture. Azerbaijan has the second largest Shi’i population in the world, after Iran. The membership of both countries in Muslim and regional organizations like the Organization of Islamic Conference and ECO, is an indicator of the countries’ affinities in terms of geography and religion.

The history of direct relations for the last 10 years shows that such positive and binding factors as neighborhood and the same religion are not enough to create close relations between them. Other important factors, which affect current relations between Azerbaijan and Iran, exist as well.

Azerbaijan is well aware that there can be no sovereign state in a unipolar world. This simple, but very sober and very courageous calculation dictated Aliyev’s policy of supporting the Iran-Azerbaijan-Russia format of cooperation.

The Islamic Republic of Iran plays an active role in the geopolitical struggle over Caspian oil. As major hydrocarbon exporters themselves, Russia and Iran view the new oil and gas producers in the Caspian region as a threat to their own economic interests. Just like Russia, Iran is deeply concerned over growing western capital investments and the expansion of foreign interests and presence in the region. Being unable to compete with US and European technology and capital in tapping the abundant Caspian natural resources, Iran and Russia have resorted to non-economic ways of influence in the region.

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Idlib: The clock is ticking

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On August 1-2, the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan was playing host to the 13th round of inter-Syrian talks, held as part of the so-called Astana format. The Russian delegation was led by President Putin’s Special Representative for the Syrian Settlement Alexander Lavrentyev, the Iranian – by the Assistant Foreign Minister Ali Asgar Haji, and Turkey was represented by the Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal. Iraqi and Lebanese representatives were taking part in the meetings as observers. The negotiations focused on the situation in Idlib, discussing not so much “who is to blame” for what is happening there, as “what needs to be done.”

There are more than a dozen different armed groups currently holed up in Idlib, the largest being the National Liberation Front – an alliance of pro-Turkish groups – and the “Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham” radical group, banned in Russia. According to various reports, there are an estimated 30,000 militants, including foreigners, now active in the province.

Since the accords, which Russia and Turkey reached last year, the diehard radical groups have significantly expanded the area under their control in Idlib, a fact blamed by many on Turkey’s failure to fulfill its obligations under the 2018 agreement to separate the warring sides. Some, (including Russia), explain this by the complexity of the situation, while others – by Ankara’s reluctance to openly clamp down on Khayyat Tahrir al-Sham, even less so on its proxies. Observers often say that it is due to Idlib’s proximity to the Turkish border that the militants there are getting reinforcements, arms and money. As a result, the “de-escalation zone” has turned into a zone of a real escalation.

In the meantime, Damascus’ patience is running low, and with good reason too. The Syrian government is eager to liberate Idlib, which is the country’s last remaining radical enclave, while the radicals are trying to keep it as their only bridgehead in Syria. Regular militant attacks outside the “zone” are crushed by government forces, including by Russian airstrikes, which gives Ankara a reason to accuse Moscow of attacking “innocent civilians.”   Turkish military checkpoints have on several occasions come under fire by Syrian government forces, making Ankara see red. A few days ago, just before the meeting in Nur-Sultan, Turkey’s “semi-“or, rather, official Anatolian agency published an aptly-headlined article by the International Kazakh-Turkish University deputy rector, Cengiz Tomar. Titled “Russia’s position on Idlib is a threat to the Astana process,” the article accused Moscow of “failing to stop the attacks (by the Syrian army – AI) being launched against Idlib under the pretext of terrorists and radical groups allegedly present in the area.”

Mustafa Kemal Erdemol from the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet thus explains why Ankara keeps clinging on to Idlib: “Turkey’s goal in Idlib is to maintain the status quo … Because as long as it remains there it can fight Kurdish units and, ultimately, create a Syria dependent on Turkey.”

In a July 11 interview with EurAsia Daily, Muset Ozugurlu, a columnist for the Gazete Duvar, said: “The first thing we need to know is whether Turkey wants to separate terrorists from moderates? Another question is whether there really are “moderates” in Idlib.” Muset Ozugurlu believes that as soon as the militants active in the province are defeated, Turkey will lose all the territories it now controls in Syria and the “last chance to be present” in the country.

During the talks in Nur-Sultan, Russia, true to its allied commitments, offered to help Turkey and the “moderates” climch a ceasefire. According to Alexander Lavrentiev, “Turkey has obligations under the Sochi memorandum. If they can’t fulfill them themselves, we can lend them a hand. Today we discussed this with the opposition representatives, telling them that if they are interested and need help in their fight against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, then they can count on us.”

Almost simultaneously, the Syrian news agency SANA announced a ceasefire in Idlib “in keeping with the Russian-Turkish agreement signed in Sochi in September 2018.” Most of the opposition delegates backed the initiative. The chief Syrian delegate, Bashar al-Jafari, said the truce was “a test for Turkey,” which should finally prove whether it is the real guarantor of the peace process “or just plays for the opposition.”

It looks like Damascus’ offer will be hard to turn down. It also gives the “moderates” one last chance to exonerate themselves. Alexander Lavrentyev made it clear that “demarcation” with the “irreconcilables” is no longer relevant: “The question here is not about demarcation, but about prodding the moderate opposition towards liberating these territories and take them under control.” As to the radicals, they “must be destroyed, simple as that.”. The message is crystal clear. As the Syrian political scientist Ali Al-Ahmad put it, “Turkey felt that Russia really means business, so I think they will start fulfilling their Sochi obligations, because if they don’t, then this goal will be achieved through military operations.”

Before very long, however, as if to prove their inability to agree, the militants broke the ceasefire shelling the positions of the Syrian army.

It now seems that very little can possibly be done to avert a military operation in Idlib, the only question being “when.”

Apparently realizing this, the Turkish Defense Ministry announced that representatives of the US and Turkish military command would meet on August 5 to establish a “security zone” in northern Syria. Does it mean that, failing to accomplish their mission in Idlib, the Turks are now shifting their focus to the “Kurdish threat”? Or, true to their tactic, they are again telling (this time their partners in the Astana format) that they need room for maneuver and have a strategic alternative?

Let’s not jump to far-reaching conclusions though. Moscow, Ankara (and Tehran) have more than once demonstrated their ability to reach compromise solutions to difficult situations. Moreover, Turkey is a partner in the Syrian settlement process and its influence on the negotiable part of the opposition makes it valuable to Moscow. Turkey, for its part, certainly values good relations with Russia. That being said, it is still imperative to solve the problem of Idlib, and solve it quickly. Only then will it become possible to talk about building a peaceful future for Syria. By the way, Damascus has reportedly reached agreement with the UN concerning the composition of the constitutional commission.

Much will depend on the next summit of countries – guarantors of the Astana process, slated for September 11.

From our partner International Affairs

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