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.
March 20, 2018
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.
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”.
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.
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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.
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
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.
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.
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.
“The main thing that we will be working on is of course the internal agenda. First of all we must ensure the growth rate for the economy and make it an innovative one. We must develop healthcare, education, industrial production, infrastructure and other branches that are crucial for moving our country forward and increasing the living standards of our citizens,” Putin said in a Monday meeting with people in senior positions at his election headquarters.
“Workforce productivity is a key issue. Let us work on this agenda together!” he said.
“Of course, there are also issues connected with the national defense and security, we cannot do without them, but still the internal agenda is of primary importance today,” the president added.
Putin also promised that those who worked in his election HQ would take an active part in discussions of Russia’s future development.
“As for the defense expenditures, we have slated their decrease for this year and for the next year. This will not cause any problems for our defense capability, because the main investments into the development of the newest weapons systems have been made over the previous years,” Putin told his key supporters. “We just need to bring some things to their logical conclusion, to continue the research and development that I have not spoken about yet,” he added.
“There will be no increase in spending, no arms race. We have everything, we have secure reserves in this field,” the president concluded.
In the early hours of Monday, Putin met with journalists in his election headquarters and was asked about his plans concerning the government and its chairman, Dmitry Medvedev. He answered that he did not plan to make any announcements before his inauguration, which should take place 30 days after the official election results are announced.
“As for the chairman of the government and the government as a whole, of course I am thinking about it, but I will be weighing all exact details starting today, because I had to wait for the poll results to arrive,” he said. “All changes will be announced after the inauguration.”
The 36-page report is divided into three sections; one focusing on Russia, one on China and the third on North Korea. The first page of the strangely selective report features a photograph of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Throughout the report, there are no significant mentions of the other six nuclear powers: Israel, the United Kingdom, the United States, India, France and Pakistan. The glaring omission was noticed by Hans Kristensen, Federation of American Scientists (FAS) researcher and director of the Nuclear Information Project.
Kristensen tweeted a link to a report by FAS, which provides a more thorough overview of the activities of the world’s nine nuclear-armed powers.
The DIA report also makes mention of Iran, Libya and Syria and their nuclear programs and capabilities, while noting that none of those countries currently possesses nuclear weapons.
The report states that since the end of the Cold War and the reductions of Russian and American stockpiles, the number of nuclear-armed states has increased, that their stockpiles have grown and that new weapons have been built while older ones have been improved. The “threshold for use” has also potentially lowered, it said.
Any future use of nuclear weapons would likely bring “significant geopolitical changes” as states sought to reinforce their security alliances while others would push more strongly for global nuclear disarmament.