An Open Letter to Australia’s Politicians in Opposition to the Proposed Metadata Retention Laws March 17, 2015 – Written by: Rob Marsh

An Open Letter to Australia’s Politicians in Opposition to the Proposed Metadata Retention Laws

I recently wrote a rather long article on the potential dangers of new metadata retention laws to the fabric of our society and the functioning of our democracy. There is no issue I feel more passionate about in our society today, as it affects literally every one of us. We are witnessing the creation of the greatest weapon of oppression in the history of man, to quote Edward Snowden, and as individuals, citizens of a democracy, and human beings, we owe it to ourselves and each other to do what little we can to stall and hopefully stop this legislation from passing into law.

To that end, I’ve prepared an open letter to the politicians of this country outlining the failings of the legislation and other relevant information around metadata collection and the relation thereof to human rights.

Please send this to as many members of parliament as you can, and please share this template on your social media walls and any political groups you may be a part of. The more people that know that this is happening and that recognise that they are personally implicated in it, the more chance we have of stopping this draconian imposition on the freedoms of all Australians, rich and poor, powerless and powerful, male and female, old and young.

With your help, I sincerely believe we can make a positive difference.

An Open Letter to the Politicians of Australia on the Potential Adverse Effects of Proposed Metadata Retention Legislation on Human Rights and the Functioning of Our Democracy

This letter contains many references to the Report of the Inquiry into Potential Reforms of Australia’s National Security Legislation, where there is a number or text enclosed in brackets like so: (5.17), refer to the appropriate section of the report.

[Politician’s name],

I am writing to you to express my deep and sincere concern with regards to the proposed Metadata Retention legislation that the government wishes to pass by the 27th of March 2015.

This legislation represents, contrary to the claims of those with vested interests in seeing the legislation pass, a grave threat to the right to privacy, freedom of speech and association that is fundamental to a well-functioning democracy.

You may not be aware of what the legislation addresses, or what the “telecommunications data” it refers to actually entails.

Nicola Roxon, in a statement to the Attorney General, describes telecommunications data as: “Telecommunications data is information about the process of communication, as distinct from its content. It includes information about the identity of the sending and receiving parties and related subscriber details, account identifying information collected by the telecommunications carrier or ISP to establish the account, and information such as the time and date of the communication, its duration, location and type of communication. (5.7)

The proposed legislation, based on the definitions above, would give the Australian government unprecedented access to nearly every aspect of the online activity of it’s citizens, and the ability to infer a disturbingly accurate “pattern of life” from the collected data.

For example, you may have your cellphone’s GPS services enabled to use Google Maps. That data, in conjunction with your phone records and timestamps on the above data could clue in a security agency as to your most likely whereabouts on any given day. This poses an enormous risk to freedom of the press, as governments could use these capabilities to track journalists and their sources to frequented meeting places, limiting concerned parties’ abilities to bring sensitive information to the public for democratic review.

“The database will contain every page they accessed – every article they’ve read on a newspaper site, any online political activity, any purchases on ebay, books bought from amazon, Facebook pages visited etc.” – Ian Quick

In the words of former NSA/CIA Director Michael Hayden:

“We kill people based on metadata.”

Fears about the above stated powers and the implications thereof have been echoed by several EU countries.

The Romanian Court, with regards to local metadata retention, held that a “continuous legal obligation” to retain all traffic data for six months was incompatible with the rights to privacy and freedom of expression. (5.26)

In Germany, the Constitutional Court described metadata retention as a “serious restriction of the right to privacy” and stated that a “retention period of six months [was] at the upper limit of what should be considered proportionate”. (5.27)

The Czech Constitutional Court, in analogous statements, described misgivings about the potential abuses of these powers: “Individual citizens had insufficient guarantees against possible abuses of power by public authorities.” (5.28)

The EU Court of Justice found that the 2006 European Data Retention Directive violated citizens “fundamental rights to respect for private life and to the protection of personal data”.

With such strident international condemnation, it seems to go without saying that any committee responsible for review of similar legislation would be given express access to details of the proposed changes and sufficient resources to complete a sincere and detailed examination of the material. Oddly enough, these criteria were not met: “Having commenced the inquiry at the beginning of July 2012, the Committee was asked to report if at all possible by the end of the calendar year. This afforded the Committee a highly compressed and unachievable time frame of less than six months to examine what is an extensive list of potential reforms, some of which are far reaching.” (Introduction, Page 3)

It seems that the government also failed to provide the committee with the relevant draft legislation, leaving those involved to rely on speculation and inference rather than an appraisal of the raw data: “The Government sought the Committee’s views on a mandatory data retention regime. The Committee did not have access to draft legislation. Furthermore, the inadequate description of data retention in the terms of reference and discussion paper also impaired both the public discussion and the Committee’s consideration of the data retention issue.” (1.29)

The question of how efficacious metadata retention is in solving and preventing crime is a raging debate.

Electronic Freedom Australia noted that it was “highly questionable” whether data retention would aid in the investigation of terrorism, organised crime or other serious illegal activities:

“It is worth noting that determined criminals will have little difficulty disguising or anonymising their communications. There are many relatively simple and effective tools available that allow for the protection of communications from surveillance.” (5.167)

This is an excellent point. The proposed legislation is no secret. Those in the criminal world will have no doubt heard of the potential for their activities to be monitored and have likely already taken steps to anonymise their online behaviour. Even in the event that the scope of the metadata retention reforms is so broad that it includes tools for opening encrypted chats and messaging services, it is not unlikely that tech savvy individuals on the wrong side of the law will be developing tools to combat this unwanted intrusion, rendering the legislation effectively useless in dealing with its raison d’être: combating terrorism and serious crime.

An unintended consequence of the introduction of metadata retention could be the opposite of what it is designed to achieve: a progressive opacification of the internet, with more and more users turning to encrypted browsing and communication, thereby shrinking the usable pool of data.

“Why do we imagine that the criminals of the greatest concern to our security agencies will not be able to use any of numerous available means to anonymise their communications or indeed choose new services that are not captured by legislated data retention rules?”

This quote from Communications Minister Macolm Turnbull, in addition to his recently revealed use of the messaging app Wickr, which provides a platform for anyone to send and receive self-deleting encrypted messages, seems to indicate that the reforms are likely to bring about little change in the positive ability of law enforcement agencies to stop criminal activity.

Add to this comments made by Blueprints for Free Speech, indicating that “there is no evidence to suggest data retention would assist with the prevention of crime or terrorism. A 2011 study of Germany’s Data Retention Directive found it had no impact on either the effectiveness of criminal investigation or the crime rate. Further, the study specifically found that countries without data retention laws are not more vulnerable to crime.”

Make no bones about it, metadata retention is mass surveillance. It can be used to form a dataset, a pattern of life indicating your movements, interests, affiliations and beliefs. You will be paying for this intrusion of privacy through rises in service bills, a kind of “tele screen tax” if you will. You will be at a higher risk of identity theft through the creation of ‘honeypots’ of data, irresistible to organised criminals and foreign actors. Your basic rights to privacy, to freedom of speech, to live as a dignified human person, are being infringed upon in ways that do not preclude a broadening of the scope of these abuses.

Even the supporters of the legislation don’t buy into their own rhetoric, with members of the Liberal party using Wickr on a daily basis, showing the world that privacy is of the utmost importance even to those who adamantly maintain that it isn’t.

With unanimous condemnation from leading human rights groups around the world, with a public backlash on a scale almost never witnessed, with the potential for so much to go horribly wrong, we simply must put a stop to this.

Tony Abbott has made statements that he wants a parliamentary inquiry into the legislation to be scrapped. I think it’s our responsibility as members of our democracy to ask why anyone would want a piece of legislation with so many potential avenues for abuse to pass without appropriate scrutiny.

I implore you, with the utmost sincerity and urgency, to do whatever is within your power to oppose this legislation at the very least until it is put before an independent NGO and reviewed in depth, with all the aspects of the legislation made available for public review and scrutiny.

Thank you for your time and your consideration, I hope that we, together, can make history and bring our society forward into an age of social egalitarianism, where the ideals of freedom of speech and thought, freedom of association and transparency of government are enshrined as they once were, as the foundations of a working democracy.



For more information on the legislation you can refer to the Report of the Inquiry into Potential Reforms of Australia’s National Security Legislation, which you can find here: http://www.aph.gov.au/parliamentary_business/committees/house_of_representatives_committees?url=pjcis/nsl2012/report.htm

An independent summary/opinion piece on the legislation can be found here: https://wideeyedandhopefullywild.wordpress.com/2015/03/05/metadata-and-you/


For the sender of this email: you can find the contact addresses of your parliamentarians at these links:



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Putin gives fiery election victory speech in Moscow (Video) – Russia Insider / Youtube (SOTT)

Putin speech reelection

Sounds like he has big plans for the next 6 years.

Syrian Army seizes most of Ayn Tarma Valley in East Ghouta, pushes to outskirts of suburb – By Leith Aboufadel


BEIRUT, LEBANON (1:50 P.M.) – In response to the militant counter-offensive in the Harasta suburb, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) launched a big assault at the nearby ‘Ayn Tarma Valley.

According to an Al-Masdar field correspondent in Damascus, the Syrian Army seized most of the ‘Ayn Tarma Valley, following a short battle with the militants in the area.

The correspondent added that the Syrian Army’s 4th Division has now reached the southeastern outskirts of the ‘Ayn Tarma suburb.

‘Ayn Tarma is a heavily-fortified East Ghouta suburb that neighbors Jobar; it is currently under the control of Faylaq Al-Rahman and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham.

The Syrian Army has attempted to capture ‘Ayn Tarma on a number of occasions in the past; however, all of their attacks were ultimately repelled by the militants.

Syrian Army Advances in Its Operations against Terrorists in Ein Tarma Valley

March 20, 2018

Syrian army in Eastern Gouta

Syrian Army units continued their operations to liberate Eastern Gouta of the remaining Nusra Front terrorists and the groups affiliated to them.

SANA’s correspondent in Eastern Gouta said that army units began at dawn on Tuesday precise operations in Ein Tarma valley, employing tactics and weapons that suit the nature of the area in order to protect civilians’ lives and preserve the properties and farmlands in it, achieving new advances in the area after inflicting losses upon terrorists.

The correspondent said that this advance is achieved in parallel with military operations against terrorists in the towns of Hazza, Zamalka, and Erbin after fortifying army positions in the towns of Saqba and Kafr Batna, securing the citizens in those towns, and delivering aid to them in cooperation with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

The army also repelled infiltration attempts by terrorists coming from the direction of Douma towards the outskirts of Mesraba, clashing with them and leaving many terrorists dead or injured, while the remaining ones fled towards Douma.

The correspondent said that the army is continuing to secure corridors to allow citizens to exit Gouta.

Source: SANA

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Toxic nothingburger: Cambridge Analytica exposé is dangerous political attack posing as journalism – By RT

Toxic nothingburger: Cambridge Analytica exposé is dangerous political attack posing as journalism
Seeing Donald Trump’s media and political critics, who for years feted “big data,” suddenly pretend it’s a crime, is hard to stomach. And the feigned outrage is being used as a weapon of establishment control over social media.

READ MORE: US Federal Trade Commission to probe Facebook for use of personal data – Bloomberg

Before being repackaged by two leading liberal-leaning outlets to produce a media firestorm that has wiped tens of billions off Facebook’s valuation and could usher in a new wave of investigations and regulation, the actual facts of Cambridge Analytica’s data collection had been known since 2015. What has changed is the language: what the Guardian called “psychological profiling” and “behavioral microtargeting” before Donald Trump was elected, in the latest reports from the same newspaper becomes “psyops,” the sinister-sounding “harvesting,” the alarming “data breach,” and most gloriously “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindf**k tool.”

Behind the grand claims, the germ of the story remains – by tech standards – almost disappointingly quotidian. In 2014, the upstart data analysis company Cambridge Analytica developed a psychological quiz app that over 270,000 users of the world’s biggest social network downloaded and completed. As well as passing their own data to the UK-headquartered firm, the test-takers agreed to share limited information about their friends – age, location and likes – as in line with Facebook’s policy at the time, producing the much-cited but unverified figure of 50 million users that were profiled.

Whether and to what extent this constituted legal wrongdoing or a violation of service terms is still to be ruled on. Facebook says that users “knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked” and that Cambridge Analytica merely used the data beyond its original purpose, and was told to delete it, and has suspended it from its platform. Cambridge Analytica counters that it was misled and got rid of the data as it was instructed. Facebook argues that it did not violate its users’ self-selected privacy settings when it gave away their data, though regulators may argue otherwise.

But despite the lengths of text expended, none of this is a “gotcha” moment. Thousands of apps, including those with a wider user base, such as Tinder or Farmville, also collected the same data from Facebook through the same consent protocols, until the company changed its policy in April 2015, and similar information is still being directly gathered from users who decide to download apps today, or even simply log into a website using Facebook. Just check your own list of apps on the network and see how many firms you are letting “scrape” your personal info – all voluntarily.

It is also unclear if the data swayed any key election. In the 2016 cycle it was first employed by Ted Cruz, whose campaign barely dented frontrunner Trump’s popularity, and then by Trump himself. The work it did for the winning candidate, as described by both their CEO Alexander Nix and the New York Times piece, also seems standard-issue rather than ingenious or devious – designing who to target with fund-raising and voting appeals, research modeling, and data-driven campaigning, such as deciding where Trump and Pence should canvass. The much-vaunted psychographics – which contentiously claim to be able to understand people through their personal preferences and other indirect data – were not even used in 2016, according to Nix, as there wasn’t enough time. In fact, while he says that Cambridge Analytica played a “pivotal” role in helping to get a lackadaisical campaign moving, the company insists it did not deploy the 2014 Facebook data at all in Trump’s march to the White House.

It used to be cool once

The more interesting part of the story – and, ironically, the real “psychological warfare mindf**k tool” – is how the concerning but dry, old and not particularly secret revelations have been pitched up into a hysteria.

The secret ingredient is persistence – growing allegations delivered in an ever more shrill tone.

The Guardian, in particular, has repeatedly tried to pin down Cambridge Analytica, particularly with its piece in May last year, headlined“The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked,” which earned it a defamation lawsuit from the data company. Though Cambridge Analytica has been culpable itself, happy to play up to its shadowy all-powerful puppet master image, as long as it got them notoriety and clients, and now left furiously tweeting denials when it may be too late.

Last month, the New York Times was wondering if firms like Cambridge Analytica made a difference; now it declares the “operation at the heart of Trump’s campaign was ethically nihilistic and quite possibly criminal in ways that even its harshest critics hadn’t suspected.”

“Has the rise of micro-targeting become a threat to democracy?”inquires the Guardian, adding in its claims against Facebook that “Frankenstein’s monster is not under any human’s control.”

The concern seems somewhat new-found.

Here is another article from the same newspaper, from 2012 under the headline “Obama, Facebook and the power of friendship” – which even social media fans would find a little Orwellian.

Enthusiastically, it describes as “consciously or otherwise, the individual [Obama campaign] volunteer will be injecting all the information they store publicly on their Facebook page – home location, date of birth, interests and, crucially, network of friends – directly into the central Obama database.” Sound familiar?

There are dozens of perfectly accessible articles across most mainstream media, detailing with enthusiasm, Barack Obama becoming the first Twitter president, his campaign using people’s DVR histories to determine which voters to target (doesn’t seem to be much consent there) or his “audacious adventure in persuasion” that selected potentially pliable voters, who would then be persistently called and doorstepped by campaigners. Evidently, micro-targeting wasn’t as much of a threat to democracy from him (or Hillary Clinton).

Shadows of other recent partisan campaigns lurk everywhere.

The Guardian has published an article highlighting the links between Aleksandr Kogan, the data scientist at the heart of the to-and-fro between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, and St. Petersburg University, Vladimir Putin’s alma mater.

Adam Schiff, the Democrat House representative, has asked Christopher Wylie, the former Cambridge Analytica employee who fleshed out the weekend’s exposés with his colorful personal tales, to testify in Congress as part of the Russia meddling allegations, though there appears to be no tangible link.

First they came for Cambridge Analytica

Yet, however sexed up the news value of the story, or murky its motivations, it has broken through. Theresa May is “very concerned,” UK MPs want Mark Zuckerberg to testify, Cambridge Analytica’s offices will be searched, the US Federal Trade Commission is investigating Facebook, the EU has labeled the allegations “horrifying.” Facebook security officer Alex Stamos is already the first head to roll, leaving the company, and Nix has also offered to resign.

Of course, many will relish a blow to Facebook, a platform vocally disliked even by many of its avid users, regardless of who is delivering it. The issues of data security and privacy still remain uncharted and important for the future, and the California giant has always skirted as close to the line as the law and its users have let it. As for Cambridge Analytica, no one will shed a tear, particularly after the Channel 4 hitpiece on the company, which even if it used entrapment, made its staff look criminal or amateur.

But schadenfreude comes at a price. US social media giants have been under increasing pressure to exert greater control over the content their users see. Whether it is through claims of Russian bots, excessive exposure to RT, pro-AFD groups on Facebook, or Steve Bannon’s banner ads, the establishment, both ruling and media, senses a loss of control over the narrative and the width of the political spectrum. With a single change in its algorithm – either enforced from above to stave off further regulation, and self-inflicted as it tries to save its skin – Facebook could cut off not just a post you don’t want to click, but those you also do. And media-fueled public outrage has always been as good a pathway to censorship as any.

Igor Ogorodnev for RT

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Does Australia Believe in International Law: The Case of Syria – By James ONeill (New Eastern Outlook)

Author: James ONeill




One of the most common phrases heard from senior Australian government officials including the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister is Australia’s belief in what it is pleased to call the “rules based international order.” This phrase is usually used in the context of implied or explicit criticism of another nation with whom Australia is in disagreement. For example, Australia is very prone to criticizing Russia’s “annexation” of Crimea, or China’s assertion of its claimed rights in the South China Sea.

The inference one is expected to draw is that other countries may breach international law but Australia is a model of probity by comparison. This claim looks slightly tattered in the light of Australia’s manifest breaches of international instruments that it is a signatory to in its treatment of refugees, or the bullying of East Timor over the development of maritime resources.

As serious as these matters are they pale in comparison with the waging of a war against another sovereign nation. The history of Australia’s involvement in the waging of a war against the sovereign government of Syria is a case in point.

On 16 September 2014 the then Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave an interview to the ABC. In the interview he expressed as reservations about Australia becoming involved in a war that was being conducted by the United States, mainly through its support of proxy terrorist groups who it was financing and arming in conjunction with its allies Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The legalities” he said, “of operating inside Syria are quite different from the legalities of operating in Iraq at the request and in support of the Iraqi government.”

Two weeks after that interview the Australian government received legal advice dated 30 September 2014 that it failed to disclose or even indicate that it had received such advice. Abbott was overthrown in an internal coup by Malcolm Turnbull on 15 September 2015.

One week prior to the coup Australia had written a letter to the United Nations Security Council on 9 September 2015. In that letter Australia claimed that the United States was justified in making military strikes against Syria on the basis that Syria was “unwilling and unable” to prevent the use of its territory to conduct terrorist attacks against Iraq.

Curiously, the United States made the same claim in its letter to the Security Council justifying its actions on Syrian sovereign territory, but their letter was dated 23 September 2014. In other words, it took a whole year and a change of prime minister to persuade Australia that its actions could be justified in terms of the “unwilling and unable” doctrine. We do not know why the Australian government changed its mind, particularly as it had been sitting on legal advice about the advisability or otherwise of joining the Syrian war for nearly a year.

We do not know because the matter has never been debated in the Australian parliament and neither has the Australian government released the legal advice, which it had received in September 2014. Rather, its public statements on the matter have being misleading. For example, in August 2015 the Foreign Minister said that no decision would be made on whether to join the American assault upon Syria until it had received legal advice. She did not disclose that the Australian government had in fact received the legal advice nearly a year earlier.

As the government has refused to release the legal advice we do not know whether or not that advice relied upon the “unwilling or unable doctrine.” It is not a minor matter as the status of such a doctrine can best be described as dubious in international law, and without that fig leaf of legal respectability, there is no other basis upon which Australia could claim any entitlement to wage war in Syria.

Interestingly, when the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was interviewed on ABC radio after the publication of an article by this writer criticizing the illegality of the decision, she claimed that the decision to join the war in Syria was made “pursuant to the collective self defence provisions of the article 51 of the UN Charter, and at the request of the Iraqi government”. No mention at all was made of the reliance upon the “unwilling or unable” doctrine.

There were a number of problems with the Foreign Minister’s explanation. First, the Office of the Prime Minister of Iraq issued a statement saying that it had made no such request of the Australian government. No written evidence of any such request has ever been produced by the Australian government. Furthermore, in their own letter to the Security Council dated 20 September 2014 the Iraq government had only asked for help within its own territorial boundaries to enable it to regain control of its own borders.

Specifically, Iraq did not invoke article 51 of the UN charter. The linking of an explicit request for help in the exercise of collective self-defence is legally significant as it is a precondition for the involvement of third nations, as has been recognised international law since the Nicaragua Case in 1986.

Equally curiously, neither the United States nor Australia that reportedly rely upon the “unwilling or unable” doctrine mentioned collective self defence in the numerous debates that took place in the Security Council before 30 September 2015, more than one year after strikes against Syria began.

The Syrian government has consistently protested in formal letters to the Security Council against the involvement of Australia and others on their territory. In their letter of 21 September 2015 to the Security Council Syria again complained that the actions of Australia and others did not follow any consultation with the Syrian government and that Australia (and others) had distorted both the provisions of international law and the UN Charter.

A similar complaint has been made by the Russian government, who unlike the United States and it’s so called coalition allies, is in Syria at the specific request of the sovereign Syrian government. Iranian, Iraqi and Hezbollah troops operating in Syria are similarly there at the request of the Syrian government.

Neither did Australia call upon the numerous relevant resolutions of both the United Nations Security Council and the General Assembly is providing legitimacy for its position. Not a single one of those resolutions makes any reference to either article 51 or the unwilling or unable argument.

On the contrary, United Nations Security Council resolution 2178 (2014) specifically called upon “member states to cooperate and consistently support each other’s efforts to counter violent extremism”. On the 19th of September 2014 the Security Council reaffirmed “it’s respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of all states in accordance with the UN Charter.”

On 18 December 2014 the General Assembly reaffirmed “it’s strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic and to the principles of the Charter.” There is no single document emanating from either the Security Council or the General Assembly that approves any unilateral military action, much less one relying upon the dubious doctrine of “unwilling or unable.”

This is hardly surprising. To adopt such a doctrine would significantly lower the thresholds contained in both Article 2.4 (the general prohibition on the use of force) and Article 51 (self defence) of the Charter. The Armed Activities decision of the International Court of Justice (2005) reinforces this view. The court expressly stated that the inability to put an end to irregular military activities does not justify a violation of Article 2.4.

Applied to the Syrian situation, the fact that as of 2015 Syria and it’s Russian, Iraqi, and Hezbollah allies had not then succeeded in defeating the ISIS terrorists did not justify third party intervention. Bishop’s statement and Australia’s letter to the Security Council is based on the assumption that Article 51 could be applied two non-state actors such as ISIS.

There is absolutely no support for this view, neither in international law texts nor any judgement all the International Court of Justice. Even if Iraq had asked for Australia’s help, as claimed by Bishop but refuted by the Iraqi Government, it would still be insufficient to justify Australia attacking Syrian territory. Under Article 39 of the UN Charter it is the Security Council that is the competent body to determine any threats to peace and to make the appropriate recommendations to restore International peace and security.

It is increasingly clear that the Syrian government with the assistance of its legitimate allies has succeeded in almost completely liberating its major cities from the terrorist occupation they have suffered for many years. This is despite the blatant obstruction by the United States that continues to support its proxy terrorist allies, and has openly attacked Syrian government forces, as well as occupying Syrian territory and setting up military bases. It has declared its intention to remain in Syria, despite the complete absence of any legal justification for doing so.

The Australian government for its part has made a token reduction in its military operations in Syria, but typically refuses to disclose details; continues to criticize the Syrian government; and remains unwavering in its support for the continuing illegal actions of the United States in Syria. It also seems incapable of acknowledging the critical role played by Russia in helping the sovereign Syrian government rid its territory of the terrorist menace.

Given that the fig leaf of legal respectability that the Australian government claimed for itself in respect of Syria has been demolished both in the legal and practical terms the time is now long past for the Australian government to withdraw completely for all military operations in Syria, and take some steps to match its rhetoric about its compliance with, and adherence to, the rules based international order with its actions.

James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

Commentaries in Guardian and Financial Times say that Russia can be declared guilty without being given chance to defend itself – By Alexander Mercouris (THE DURAN)

Now British media admits it in Skripal case: due process ‘does not apply’ to Russia

It is becoming increasingly difficult for the British authorities and for the British media to deny that ‘due process‘ – ie. the well-established system of rules for conducting fair and impartial trials and investigations in order to determine questions of guilt or innocence – are not being followed by the British authorities in the Skripal case.

Here are some of the violations of due process the British authorities which in my opinion the British authorities are committing:

(1) The British government is interfering in the conduct of a criminal investigation, with Prime Minister Theresa May and especially Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson pointing fingers at who they say is the guilty party (Russia) whilst the criminal investigation is still underway;

(2) The British government has said that unless Russia proves itself innocent within a specific time the British government will conclude that it is guilty.  As I have explained previously this reverses the burden of proof: in a criminal case it is the prosecution which is supposed to prove the defendant’s guilt, not the defendant who must prove his innocence;

(3) The British government refuses to share with Russia – the party it says is guilty – the ‘evidence’ upon which it says it has concluded that Russia is guilty, the evidence in this case being a sample of the chemical with which it says Sergey and Yulia Skripal was poisoned.  This violates the fundamental principle that the defendant must be provided with all the evidence against him so that he can properly prepare his defence;

(4) The British government is not following the procedure set out in Article IX (2) of the Chemical Weapons Convention to which both Britain and Russia are parties.  This reads as follows

States Parties should, whenever possible, first make every effort to clarify and resolve, through exchange of information and consultations among themselves, any matter which may cause doubt about compliance with this Convention, or which gives rise to concerns about a related matter which may be considered ambiguous. A State Party which receives a request from another State Party for clarification of any matter which the requesting State Party believes causes such a doubt or concern shall provide the requesting State Party as soon as possible, but in any case not later than ten days after the request, with information sufficient to answer the doubt or concern raised along with an explanation of how the information provided resolves the matter.

This says clearly that in a case like the Skripal case the British authorities should have sent a request for information to the Russian authorities, who would then have had up to ten days in which to respond.

Instead the British demanded a Russian reply within 36 hours, and said they would assume Russian guilt unless one was provided which they were satisfied with.

There has been an attempt to argue that the British disregard of the procedure set out in Article IX (2) does not breach the Chemical Weapons Convention, and I will set it out the British position as it appears in an article in The Conversation

The process set out in Article IX(2) cannot be the exclusive remedy in all cases where doubts arise surrounding compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. For example, it would be absurd to suggest that a state which has suffered an armed attack involving chemical weapons may not defend itself against that attack, but instead must issue a request for information to the attacking state and then patiently await its response within ten days.

In fact, on a closer reading, it’s clear that the obligation set out in Article IX(2) is not of an absolute character. It requires state parties to “make every effort” to clarify and resolve doubts. This duty is framed in the language of “should”, rather than “shall”, and is engaged only “whenever possible”. The terms of the clause therefore enable a state to adopt alternative measures should the circumstances so warrant.

After the Salisbury incident, one of the UK’s responses was to call a meeting of the UN Security Council. While Russia vehemently opposed this move as being contrary to the Chemical Weapons Convention, none of the other members of the Security Council, all of which are also signatories of that treaty, shared this view.

It is also important to be clear about the scope of Article IX(2). The provision deals with the clarification of doubts surrounding compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. However, the British government had already concluded that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the incident. Based on the identification of the nerve agent involved, named as Novichok, the fact that Russia has produced the agent in the past and in the light of Russia’s past conduct and current intent, it was not unreasonable for the UK government to come to this conclusion, in line with the standards of proof applicable in international law in similar circumstances.

I find this wholly unconvincing and I am sure the vast majority of international lawyers would do so also.

What this argument essentially says is that the British are entitled to disregard the procedure set out in Article IX (2) because they had already concluded in advance of their enquiry to the Russians on the basis of evidence which they are not prepared to share with the Russians that Russia is ‘highly likely’ to have been guilty of carrying out the attack on Skripal.

That effectively admits that the ‘request for information’ – ie. Theresa May’s ultimatum to Russia – was not made in good faith and it was not really a genuine ‘request for information’ at all, but was rather a rhetorical device intended to make it easier for the British government to say without providing further proof that Russia is guilty.

Far from providing a justification for ignoring the procedure set out in Article IX (2), this looks to me more like an admission that the British have not been acting in good faith, which of course is not merely a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention but of due process.

(5) The British authorities are denying the Russians consular access to Yulia Skripal, though she is a Russian citizen who the British authorities say was subjected to a criminal assault on their territory.

This is a potentially serious matter since by preventing consular access to Yulia Skripal the British authorities are not only violating the interstate consular arrangements which exist between Britain and Russia, but they are preventing the Russian authorities from learning more about the condition of one of their citizens who has been hospitalised following a violent criminal assault, and are preventing the Russian authorities from carrying out their own investigation into the assault on one of their citizens which the British authorities say has taken place.

I would add that this obstruction of Russian consular access to Yulia Skripal has gone almost entirely unreported in the British and Western media.

Needless to say, if the situation were reversed and it was the Russian authorities who were denying the British consular access to a British citizen who had been hospitalised following a criminal assault in Russia, I have no doubt that the British and Western media would be far less reticent about it.

In truth the violations of due process are so egregious that sections of the British media have been in effect forced to admit that they are happening, and are now trying to justify them.

Here for example is what Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian has said

On the face of it, Jeremy Corbyn’s position, as set out in the Guardian yesterday, seems eminently reasonable. Anxious to learn the lessons of the Iraq catastrophe of 2003, he suggested we exercise patience: let’s wait and see where the investigation leads, let’s not “rush way ahead of the evidence”. After all, said his spokesman, the intelligence agencies had been wrong before……

But those pleas to delay judgment point to a wider error: a misreading of the nature of the contemporary Russian state…..

The error here is to assume that Moscow’s attitude to evidence and due process is the same as that of nations still governed by the rule of law. But in Putin’s Russia, lying has long been a routine and integral part of statecraft. No matter how copious the evidence, Putin will think nothing of denying it….

What meaning does “due process” have when dealing with such a regime? Moscow would not cooperate in good faith with an investigation by the international chemical weapons watchdog, offering up evidence that might be incriminating. They would see such an inquiry instead as a useful delaying tactic, one that would allow them to issue yet more denials, wild counter-accusations (“Salisbury was an MI5 plot to distract from Brexit”) and obfuscation – disseminated either through their RT propaganda TV station or by their army of bots and online enablers. That way they could generate yet more of the fog of doubt and confusion that they believe undermines the west’s confidence and strengthens them. This is the Putin modus operandi: spread doubt until the public grows exhausted and concludes that the truth is unknowable.

(bold italics added)

More pithily an editorial the Financial Times says the same thing

President Vladimir Putin’s government uses a well-worn playbook after it commits an international outrage. The first Russian response is denial mixed with the propagation of a variety of implausible alternative explanations….

The Kremlin then tries to blunt the response by wrapping its accusers up in procedure. The game is to confuse the narrative, delay the international response — and demonstrate to the Russian people and the wider world that the Kremlin can act with impunity.

(bold italics added)

The first thing to say about these articles is that they are an admission that in the Skripal case due process – ie. proper procedure in a case like this – is not being followed.

The second thing to say is that they show a startling failure to understand the purpose of due process.

Due process in a criminal investigation is not a favour to the defendant.  It is the way to arrive at the truth.

That is why in England in criminal appeals judges say that convictions in cases where due process has not been followed are ‘unsafe’.  What they mean is that because due process was not followed the court cannot be sure that the case which has been made against the defendant has been made out.

It follows that defendant’s alleged lack of good faith (the reason Jonathan Freedland and the Financial Times are giving for disapplying due process in cases involving Russia) is not a reason for disapplying due process since using due process.

It is in fact ridiculous to say – as Jonathan Freedland and the Financial Times are in effect saying – that due process should be disapplied because they believe the defendant in this case – ie. Russia –  is lying and is never going to admit its guilt.

Defendants often lie when cases are brought against them.  If they did not there would be no reason to have trials.  Defendants very often go on denying their guilt even when courts have convicted them after trials.  That is not a reason for not having trials.

Stripped of their bogus arguments, what Jonathan Freedland and the Guardian are saying is that when Russia is accused of something it has no right to defend itself.

That is an astonishing and deeply troubling thing to say.

It also looks to me rather like an admission that in the Skripal case the British authorities do not have the evidence to prove that their accusation against Russia is true.

That does not surprise me because the British authorities have apparently been unable to provide even their closest allies with evidence which proves that their accusation against Russia is true.

Here is what Der Spiegel says the British have told the Germans about the evidence – or lack of evidence – they have in the case

The key to the Skripal case is to be found in the toxin that was used. When the British briefed their German colleagues this week, they didn’t go into great detail, according to sources in German security circles. Intelligence services suspect that could be because the British no longer completely trust the Americans and are particularly wary of Donald Trump.

The British didn’t even tell their German counterparts which variation of the nerve agent they believe was used. Western intelligence experts suspect that it was Novichok of the A-232 variety, which is fluid enough to be used as a spray.

The vocabulary used by the UK and its allies indicates that British intelligence officials are highly confident in their assessment. Yet although it is clear which substance was used and that it very likely came from Russian stockpiles, there is no definitive proof that the Russian state was behind the attack, according to a senior German official on Thursday evening. The official has read through all of the documents that have thus far been presented. He said that intelligence officials are viewing the evidence laid out in those documents — several tightly printed pages — as a “compelling chain of clues.”

(bold italics added)

In other words the British case against Russia in the Skripal case is no more than surmise (a “compelling chain of clues”).

It is not based on evidence because as of Thursday 15th March 2018 (when the Germans were given the facts) there was none.

What of the argument Jonathan Freedland and the Financial Times both make – echoing things the British government has said – that concrete ‘proof’ of Russian guilt in the Skripal case is not needed because Russia’s guilt can be presumed from Russia’s previous conduct.

Putting aside that there are conflicting opinions about Russia’s previous conduct, it is actually a further breach of due process to declare someone guilty not on evidence but on the basis of their previous conduct.

Putting that aside there have been at least three cases since The Duran was founded in May 2016 when declarations of Russian guilt which were confidently asserted proved on proper examination of the evidence to be untrue.

(1) On 19th September 2016 an attack on a humanitarian convoy in Syria was widely blamed by Western governments and by the Western media on Russia.  Yet a UN inquiry headed by an Indian military officer effectively cleared Russia of responsibility for the attack.

(2) In a succession of reports Professor Richard McLaren has claimed to have found proof of a gigantic government organised state sponsored doping conspiracy amongst athletes in Russia.

These claims have been enthusiastically repeated by the Western media, and led to partial bans on Russian participation in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, on the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, and to a complete ban on Russian participation in the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

However the Schmid Commission, which on behalf of the International Olympic Committee, carried out a thorough review of Professor McLaren’s claims of a government organised state sponsored doping conspiracy in Russia, concluded that those claims had not been proved to be true.

(3) The third case is more controversial, but I personally have no doubt that the same applies.

Since at least the summer of 2016 it has been repeatedly and confidently claimed that there was a vast conspiracy between Russia and Donald Trump’s campaign to steal the US Presidential election from Hillary Clinton and to swing it to Donald Trump.

The House Intelligence Committee, having investigated this claim in detail, now says it is untrue.

Though the Mueller investigation, which is also looking in this claim, has yet to report, none of the indictments it has issued suggest that this claim is true, whilst it seems the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is also investigating the claim, is also going to report that the claim is untrue.

Here we have three examples of claims of wrongful activity confidently made against Russia proving to be untrue.  Why then assume that the claim of wrongful activity made against Russia in the Skripal case is true?

Obviously presumptions of guilt based on claims of previous Russian misconduct are wrong and unsafe, and that whole approach must be abandoned as both flawed and ethically wrong.

I would finish by repeating a point I have before.

Underpinning the regular allegations made in the West about Russian misconduct including the ones now being made in connection with the Skripal case is the intense Western prejudice against Russia and against all things Russian.

I discussed this Western prejudice against Russia and Russians in detail in a long article The Duran published on 12th October 2016, and I discussed it again more recently in articles I have written about a recent report by a group of US Democratic Party Senators targeting Russia, and about the Hollywood film Red Sparrow which is currently on general release.

Now we see further examples of this prejudice with the demand in the Skripal case that Russia be denied the right to defend itself, a right which every other defendant accused of a crime has.

Personally I cannot see a more straightforward example of prejudice against Russia than that.

The Duran



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Australia & China on Pacific Ocean collision course & no one’s talking about it – By RT

Australia & China on Pacific Ocean collision course & no one’s talking about it
Australia has ramped up anti-Chinese rhetoric, challenging Beijing over its growing influence in the Pacific. Trump’s pick for ambassador to Australia, stalwart anti-Chinese Adm. Harris, paints a clear picture of what’s to come.

In 1900, then-Senator Albert Beveridge famously said to lawmakers in Washington that “the power that rules the Pacific, is therefore the power that rules the world.

As recent developments will demonstrate, this imperialist sentiment continues over 100 years later to the present day. The battle for control over the Pacific is taking place right before our very eyes and is placing both Australia and China in a precariously confrontational position, though the mainstream media refuses to pay due focus to the issue.

Australia’s recent attacks on China

It all went downhill at the end of last year when Australia went out of its way to accuse China of “foreign interference,” with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stating that Australia would “stand up” to China against meddling in its national affairs. 

Later, Australia strained its relationship with China even further, after Australia’s Minister of International Development Concetta Fierravanti-Wells accused China of building “roads to nowhere” in the Pacific. She also claimed that China was constructing “useless buildings” throughout the region, and berated it for allegedly loading Pacific Island countries with mounting debt that they cannot afford to pay.

Not surprisingly, these verbal attacks were not necessarily received well by the countries that matter the most. Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele found Australia’s critical remarks against China “insulting,” saying he did “not really know that Australia is able to finance the kind of assistance provided by China.

At the end of last year, China signed a series  of infrastructure deals with Papua New Guinea (PNG), as part of China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. Australia immediately responded negatively to this development, with opposition MPs voicing their concern that Australia had lost its “leadership role” throughout the Pacific – whatever that means.

In a pre-emptive attempt to stifle China’s relationship with PNG, Australia agreed to sponsor PNG’s ambitious plan to host the APEC summit set to take place this year. In other words, Australia’s only real desire to involve itself further in the region is to combat China’s expanding influence in the region. As of right now, Australia still maintains its position as the region’s largest donor.

China’s growing friendships in the Pacific has rattled Australia in more ways than one. In September 2016, Fiji’s Prime Minister Bainimarama called for New Zealand and Australia to be kicked out of the Pacific Islands Forum as “they are not Pacific Islanders,” with strong indications that Fiji would rather they be replaced by China instead.

Australia’s close friend and ally, New Zealand, for its part, just this past week went on a tour of the Pacific as well, pledging money left, right and center. As noted by the Samoan Observer, it was no secret that New Zealand, too, is equally concerned by China’s growing role in the region.

Prior to their arrival on Sunday evening, the New Zealand government had been talking about re-sharpening their focus on the Pacific amidst concerns about China’s growing dominance,” the paper said.

China’s Belt-Road initiative

The US has long had a containment strategy specifically targeting China, famously dubbed the ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy under the Obama administration. As a key ally of Washington, it makes sense that Australia holds similar views as to the perceived threat of China’s rise on the global stage.

Make no mistake, however, that Washington’s issue with China’s mounting influence in the region is purely economic. In fact, the Transpacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) was undoubtedly an attempt for the US to unite its transpacific allies against China, so it makes little sense that Trump wanted to discontinue it, given his known animosity towards China prior to his election.

Right now, China is in the process of uniting much of the world under its One Belt, One Road initiative, a monumental project which will endeavor to connect China, Asia, Africa, Europe and the Pacific and largely leave the United States out of its profit-sharing completely.

As it stands, all that is left blocking China from injecting itself into the rest of the global sphere is a chain of islands known as the ‘first island chain’, a term that refers to the Kuril Islands of Russia, the Japanese archipelago, Taiwan, the northern Philippines and Borneo. China has traditionally been blocked from injecting its military influence eastward into the Pacific Ocean by America’s strong control of this chain, but this control is already being challenged.

Just recently, China flew an intelligence aircraft near these southern outlying islands of Japan. Russia is also reportedly looking to build a naval base in the area, which will further complicate Washington’s ability to exert its control over the islands.

China has also allegedly been exercising its air force around Taiwan at least 16 times in the last year or so, demonstrating its intent to one day bring Taiwan to heel and bring it under the control of the “motherland.”

Role of the US

The extent of America’s direct role in this particular debacle is less obvious. Writing in the Asia-Pacific Journal, Andre Vitchek explains that the reason America’s role is less forceful in some Pacific Island nations is because New Zealand, Australia and the US have divided the Pacific between themselves, with New Zealand controlling Polynesia, Australia in charge of Melanesia and the US charged with maintaining Micronesia.

However, in early February, US President Donald Trump said he planned to nominate Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., the commander of the US Pacific Command and an outspoken critic of China, as ambassador to Australia. This is a man who described China’s artificial island project as “a Great Wall of sand,” and has repeatedly called China’s policy in the South China Sea “provocative and expansionist.” He also openly stated in 2014 that he believes the most volatile and dangerous threat facing the world to be North Korea, a current ally of China. According to the New York Times, Chinese media has already labeled Harris a US hawk.

Unsurprisingly, Harris celebrated Trump’s nomination by immediately advising the United States Congress that Washington should prepare for the possibility of a war with China in the South China Sea, adding that “China’s impressive military build-up could soon challenge the United States across almost every domain.

“Australia is one of the keys to a rules-based international order,” Harris also said. “I look to my Australian counterparts for their assistance, I admire their leadership in the battlefield and in the corridors of power in the world… a key ally of the United States and they have been with us in every major conflict since World War I.

Just over a week ago, Harris met with Australia’s defense minister in Canberra to discuss the two countries’ “amazing alliance.”

Australia “sleep-walking into confrontation with China”

Speaking in regard to Harris’ appointment, Euan Graham, director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute said what Harris “needs to be aware of is the sensitivity around looking like Australia is doing America’s bidding.” 

Unsurprisingly, Australia is viewed as the “right hand of the United States” in the part of the Pacific region under discussion, and it seems overtly likely that Australia is acting in its capacity as an American client state, carrying out America’s interests by vehemently confronting China’s expanding influence.

Perhaps Australia’s recent demeaning remarks towards China are a mark of a change in posture in the Asia-Pacific region and go far beyond that of mere verbal saber-rattling. Former colonial overlord Britain will send a warship from Australia through the South China Sea this month, a direct attempt to provoke and let China know that Australia and its allies will not go down without a fight.

She’ll be sailing through the South China Sea … and making it clear our navy has a right to do that,” British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson reportedly told the Australian.

Whether or not the mainstream media pays this issue the respect it so desperately demands, the reality is that Australia is “sleepwalking into a confrontation with China,” as acclaimed journalist John Pilger described the current conundrum. There’s a reason Australia is playing an increasingly militaristic role in the region, joining in navy and military drills with the United States and its close Asia-Pacific allies. Aside from the fact that Australia has joined in almost every US-led military adventure from Vietnam to Iraq; in 2016, Australian warplanes assisted the US-led coalition in Syria to strike and kill over 60 Syrian troops in direct contravention of international law. Australia is far from a passive player in US-led conflicts, and the pending appointment of the hawkish Harris as ambassador to Australia should be a horrifying sign of things to come.

Darius Shahtahmasebi for RT

Darius Shahtahmasebi is a New Zealand based legal and political analyst. Follow him on Twitter @TVsLeaking

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

Trump’s Latest “Deal”: Sell Syria to Saudi Arabia for $4 Billion – By Whitney Webb (MINT PRESS)

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis stands in front of a map of Syria and Iraq ISIS, during an update to the media, Friday, May 19, 2017, at the Pentagon. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON DC – This week, as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) meets with top White House officials, reports have surfaced that Syria will be a key part of foreign policy discussions between the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.

According to the Washington Post, President Trump – in a bid to remove the estimated 4,000 U.S. soldiers illegally stationed in Syria – has offered to remove U.S. troops from Syria’s occupied northeast if Saudi Arabia agrees to pay $4 billion to “rebuild” and “stabilize” the areas the U.S. coalition and its proxies took from Daesh (ISIS) last year.

As the Post noted, the plan is meant to allow Trump to minimize an overt U.S. military presence in the region while accomplishing his postwar goal “to prevent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian partners from claiming the areas, or the Islamic State from regrouping.”

The Trump administration’s stated goals for America’s presence in Syria betrays the fact that the mission originally professed by the U.S. was the defeat of Daesh. As the threat posed by Daesh has all but passed, administration officials “have convinced Trump that the U.S. military cannot remove its troops from northern Syria in part because of Iran,” suggesting that the U.S. presence in Syria is now relegated to containing Iran as well as the long-standing goal of removing Syria’s president from power. The strategy of Iran containment through occupying Syria has been clear for some time and has been stated openly by U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and the now former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Last September, Haley remarked, “the [U.S.] efforts in Syria have been remarkable. And I can tell you, Iran is not going to be in charge, and Iran is not going to have any sort of leadership in that situation to where they could do more harm.” She also stated that the U.S. is not “going to be satisfied until we see a strong and stable Syria. And that is not with Assad in place.”

Then, in January, Tillerson told an audience at Stanford University that only “the departure of Assad through the UN-led Geneva process will create the conditions for a durable peace within Syria and security along the borders” and that “US disengagement from Syria would provide Iran with the opportunity to further strengthen its own position in Syria.”

Given past statements of top officials in his administration and his often-stated desire to share the burden of nation-building with U.S. allies, Trump is now offering Saudi Arabia control of the Syrian territories the U.S. has illegally occupied, but at a hefty price.

According to U.S. officials cited by the Post, when Trump first floated this deal to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, it was positively received, leading the president to believe that “he had a deal” with the monarch which would keep Syria’s oil-rich northeast in the hands of U.S. allies and out of the hands of the Syrian government his administration seeks to topple.

However, Saudi officials have reportedly sought to lower the price and have questioned the $4 billion price tag, but not the deal itself. MBS’ meetings in Washington this week will likely reveal if Trump’s latest “deal” is a success.


Endgame: partition Syria

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Jamie Jarrard left, thanks Manbij Military Council commander Muhammed Abu Adeel near the town of Manbij, in northern Syria, Feb. 7, 2018. (AP/Susannah George)

Though the U.S. attempts to involve Saudi Arabia in the “reconstruction” of Northeastern Syria are now getting public attention, they are not new. Last October, MintPress reported that Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL – a project launched by the State Department in 2014 to ‘degrade and defeat ISIS’ – was negotiating with controversial Saudi minister Thamer al-Sabhan over Saudi funding for the reconstruction of Raqqa. Now, the plan for the city of Raqqa is now being touted as a solution for “reconstructing” the entire territory that the U.S. is occupying in Syria.

Furthermore, if the Saudis agree to the president’s latest deal, Raqqa, which was all but destroyed by the U.S.-backed effort to “liberate” it from Daesh, and the rest of U.S. occupied Syria will – perhaps ironically – be rebuilt by the very country that has long funded Daesh and is home to the extremist politically funded ideology of Wahhabism it was dedicated to spreading.

Indeed, as leaked emails show, the U.S. government has known for years that the Saudis, along with other Gulf monarchies, have consistently provided “clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL [Daesh] and other radical Sunni groups in the region” as these groups seek to establish an “Islamic state” modeled after Wahhabi ideology, much like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia itself – a theocracy known for its persecution of religious minorities and its penchant for public beheadings.

The Saudi monarchy’s practice of persecuting religious minorities could spell disaster for those groups in Northeastern Syria that have already suffered greatly after Daesh. Though many of these minorities are no longer in the region as most were forced into refugee status or killed, it bodes a particularly unpleasant future for the Kurds, who are religiously diverse and are relatively supportive of gender equality in great contrast to Saudi Arabia. The Kurds’ alliance with the U.S. military is unlikely to aid them if Northeastern Syria comes under Saudi control as this alliance has done little to help the Kurds elsewhere in Syria, particularly in Afrin.

However, the U.S.’ goal in the region is not to ensure stability, democracy or any of the other humanitarian buzzwords frequently used to justify its military adventurism. Instead, passing the baton to the Saudis in Syria would further the goal of partitioning Syria along sectarian lines and would serve as a fountainhead of Wahhabi extremism in the future, key to destabilizing the Assad-led government and allies of the Syrian state, namely Lebanon’s resistance group Hezbollah and Iran.

Top Photo | Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis stands in front of a map of Syria and Iraq ISIS, during an update to the media, Friday, May 19, 2017, at the Pentagon. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Whitney Webb is a staff writer for MintPress News who has written for several news organizations in both English and Spanish; her stories have been featured on ZeroHedge, the Anti-Media, and 21st Century Wire among others. She currently lives in Southern Chile.

Republish our stories! MintPress News is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 International License.

Skripal case: EU demands ‘disclosure of Novichok program,’ Russia says it has ‘nothing to disclose’ – By RT

Skripal case: EU demands ‘disclosure of Novichok program,’ Russia says it has 'nothing to disclose’
Moscow says it is “miffed” at the European Union’s “hasty, speculative, and evidence-free” judgment on the Sergei Skripal incident, and maintains that it has no stocks of Novichok, the nerve agent purportedly used to poison him.

On Monday, the European Council, which represents the heads of governments of the EU states, issued a statement that it “takes extremely seriously the UK Government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible” for the March 4 attack.

The Council went on to say that it was “shocked at the offensive use of any military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, for the first time on European soil in over 70 years” and it called on Moscow “to address urgently the questions raised by the UK and the international community and to provide immediate, full and complete disclosure of its Novichok programme to the OPCW.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry expressed regret “the European Union has ignored obvious facts…and has let its decisions be driven by misconstrued notions of European solidarity, and its anti-Russian reflexes,” it said in a press release published on Monday evening.

Moscow then accused Brussels of “ignoring” the OPCW, the international chemical weapons watchdog, which officially declared that Russia had finished destroying its store of similar weapons last year.

“We have nothing to ‘disclose’ as is demanded by the European Union, as no agents under the name of Novichok are produced or stockpiled in Russia. Perhaps it should redirect its queries to the UK or other member states where such substances are evidently still being developed,” said the Foreign Ministry.

Over the weekend, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson accused Moscow of “stockpiling” Novichok, a Soviet invention from the 1970s, while OPCW officials have arrived in Salisbury to investigate the sites where Skripal, 66, was poisoned. Both the former double agent and his daughter, Yulia, remain in hospital in critical condition.

The Kremlin has demanded proof of the allegations that it was involved in the attack or an apology from the UK over the incident, which has resulted in London and Moscow to each expelling 23 diplomats.

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US smooths Israel’s path to annexing West Bank Israel/Palestine – By Jonathan Cook (MONDOWEISS)

Seemingly unrelated events all point to a tectonic shift in which Israel has begun preparing the ground to annex the occupied Palestinian territories.

Last week, during an address to students in New York, Israel’s education minister Naftali Bennett publicly disavowed even the notion of a Palestinian state. “We are done with that,” he said. “They have a Palestinian state in Gaza.”

Later in Washington, Bennett, who heads Israel’s settler movement, said Israel would manage the fallout from annexing the West Bank, just as it had with its annexation of the Syrian Golan in 1980.

International opposition would dissipate, he said. “After two months it fades away and 20 years later and 40 years later, [the territory is] still ours.”

Back home, Israel has proven such words are not hollow.

The parliament passed a law last month that brings three academic institutions, including Ariel University, all located in illegal West Bank settlements, under the authority of Israel’s Higher Education Council. Until now, they were overseen by a military body.

The move marks a symbolic and legal sea change. Israel has effectively expanded its civilian sovereignty into the West Bank. It is a covert but tangible first step towards annexation.

In a sign of how the idea of annexation is now entirely mainstream, Israeli university heads mutely accepted the change, even though it exposes them both to intensified action from the growing international boycott (BDS) movement and potentially to European sanctions on scientific co-operation.

Additional bills extending Israeli law to the settlements are in the pipeline. In fact, far-right justice minister Ayelet Shaked has insisted that those drafting new legislation indicate how it can also be applied in the West Bank.

According to Peace Now, she and Israeli law chiefs are devising new pretexts to seize Palestinian territory. She has called the separation between Israel and the occupied territories required by international law “an injustice that has lasted 50 years”.

After the higher education law passed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his party Israel would “act intelligently” to extend unnoticed its sovereignty into the West Bank. “This is a process with historic consequences,” he said.

That accords with a vote by his Likud party’s central committee in December that unanimously backed annexation.

The government is already working on legislation to bring some West Bank settlements under Jerusalem municipal control – annexation via the back door. This month officials gave themselves additional powers to expel Palestinians from Jerusalem for “disloyalty”.

Yousef Jabareen, a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, warned that Israel had accelerated its annexation programme from “creeping to running”.

Notably, Netanyahu has said the government’s plans are being co-ordinated with the Trump administration. It was a statement he later retracted under pressure.

But all evidence suggests that Washington is fully on board, so long as annexation is done by stealth.

The US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a long-time donor to the settlements, told Israel’s Channel 10 TV recently: “The settlers aren’t going anywhere”.

Settler leader Yaakov Katz, meanwhile, thanked Donald Trump for a dramatic surge in settlement growth over the past year. Figures show one in 10 Israeli Jews is now a settler. He called the White House team “people who really like us, love us”, adding that the settlers were “changing the map”.

The US is preparing to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May, not only pre-empting a final-status issue but tearing out the beating heart from a Palestinian state.

The thrust of US strategy is so well-known to Palestinian leaders – and in lockstep with Israel – that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is said to have refused to even look at the peace plan recently submitted to him.

Reports suggest it will award Israel all of Jerusalem as its capital. The Palestinians will be forced to accept outlying villages as their own capital, as well as a land “corridor” to let them pray at Al Aqsa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

As the stronger side, Israel will be left to determine the fate of the settlements and its borders – a recipe for it to carry on with slow-motion annexation.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has warned that Trump’s “ultimate deal” will limit a Palestinian state to Gaza and scraps of the West Bank – much as Bennett prophesied in New York.

Which explains why last week the White House hosted a meeting of European and Arab states to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

US officials have warned the Palestinian leadership, who stayed away, that a final deal will be settled over their heads if necessary. This time the US peace plan is not up for negotiation; it is primed for implementation.

With a Palestinian “state” effectively restricted to Gaza, the humanitarian catastrophe there – one the United Nations has warned will make the enclave uninhabitable in a few years – needs to be urgently addressed.

But the White House summit also sidelined the UN refugee agency UNRWA, which deals with Gaza’s humanitarian situation. The Israeli right hates UNRWA because its presence complicates annexation of the West Bank. And with Fatah and Hamas still at loggerheads, it alone serves to unify the West Bank and Gaza.

That is why the Trump administration recently cut US funding to UNRWA – the bulk of its budget. The White House’s implicit goal is to find a new means to manage Gaza’s misery.

What is needed now is someone to arm-twist the Palestinians. Mike Pompeo’s move from the CIA to State Department, Trump may hope, will produce the strongman needed to bulldoze the Palestinians into submission.

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi.

About Jonathan Cook

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His new website is jonathan-cook.net.

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Look Inside Novorossiysk, the Russian Navy’s Super-Quiet Attack Sub – By Sputnik

The B-261 Novorossiysk submarine. File photo

dvantages over their nuclear counterparts as well, being more compact, which allows them to operate in shallow water, approach close to shore, transport diver saboteurs, lie down on the sea floor, and lay mines in narrow channels. Modern life-support systems allow them to remain submerged for up to five days, and to remain at sea for up to a month and a half.

The Novorossiysk is a sort of “world record holder” for silent propulsion, according to his captain. His sub is regularly followed by an “honorary escort” of NATO corvettes and frigates, but as soon as it dives and performs a deviation maneuver, the NATO ships fall off like so many barnacles. During one mission in the Mediterranean, a US destroyer searched for the Novorossiysk in vain for three days straight, before the sub surfaced nearby.

“There is a belief that during this kind of ‘hide and seek’, one cannot speak loudly, but that’s not the case,” Stanavov emphasized. “Conversations from inside the thick-walled rubberized hull can’t be picked up even by the adversary’s most sensitive sonar systems. The noise from numerous onboard systems can be heard, however; therefore, the crew turns them off, leaving only the essential systems.”

Crew member of the Novorossiysk moving between compartments.
© Sputnik/ Andrei Stanavov
Crew member of the Novorossiysk moving between compartments.

Living quarters aboard the Novorossiysk are compact, with cabin meeting rooms comparable in size to the interior of an SUV. Here, officers hold meetings, eat meals, etc. One bulkhead is decorated with a large picture of St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress, signed by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Another wall features a plaque with the names of the sub’s first crew, a folded, framed St. Andrew’s Flag, and an Orthodox icon. Sleeping quarters are reminiscent of those inside a rail car, except shorter and narrower. This is where off-duty sailors spend the majority of their time, so as not to trip up others in the corridors.

According to Captain Tabachny, on submarines everyone understands their heightened responsibilities. Iron subordination to command, mutual respect and readiness to help one’s comrades are the three pillars holding things together. Those who do not understand this do not last on the sub for long.

“Every sailor knows that I am the commander and that my actions are not up for discussion,” Tabachny said. “A sailor should not even think about why this or that order has to be carried out. If I say turn the valve, it must be turned. Democracy has no place on a submarine. Still, we manage to maintain humane and friendly relations. We do not have separate gangways and galleys. Everything is shared, like in a big family.”

29-year-old Petty Officer I Class Nikolai Sonin came to the Novorossiysk from the marines and has no regrets. “On the ship, I’m responsible for the torpedoes. The food here is exotic; there’s more work, less physical preparation. I don’t even notice the confined spaces; I just don’t have the time,” he admitted. The vessel has two cooks, and the menu is indeed exotic, including 50 grams of red wine and red caviar daily while at sea.

Tabachny admits that while he isn’t really superstitious, he does prefer to go to sea in an old wool sweater of his. Furthermore, he doesn’t like going out to sea on Mondays. The latter is easy to explain and comes down to the fact that sailors are less focused following the weekend.

“Soon, the Novorossiysk will cast away its mooring lines and quietly depart for another mission. Despite difficult work conditions, submariners are cheerful people who sincerely love their work. Jokes and smiles on faces here shouldn’t be perceived as something trivial. Any experienced sailor knows that being in a sub without a portion of good humor is like being without a breath of air – one cannot live without it,” Stanavov concluded.

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