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Retired professor, Political Science. Author, traveler, Leica Photographer.

Information About Ukraine

Ukraine for Dummies

At Wednesday’s debut of the impeachment hearings there was one issue upon which both sides of the aisle seemed to agree, and it was a comic-book caricature of reality.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff led off the proceedings with this: “In 2014, Russia invaded a United States ally, Ukraine, to reverse that nation’s embrace of the West, and to fulfill Vladimir Putin’s desire to rebuild a Russian empire…”

Five years ago, when Ukraine first came into the news, those Americans who thought Ukraine was an island in the Pacific can perhaps be forgiven. That members of the House Intelligence Committee don’t know – or pretend not to know – more accurate information about Ukraine is a scandal, and a consequential one.

As Professor Stephen Cohen has warned, if the impeachment process does not deal in objective fact, already high tensions with Russia are likely to become even more dangerous.

So here is a kind of primer for those who might be interested in some Ukraine history:

    • Late 1700s: Catherine the Great consolidated her rule; established Russia’s first and only warm-water naval base in Crimea.
    • In 1919, after the Bolshevik Revolution, Moscow defeated resistance in Ukraine and the country becomes one of 15 Republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
    • In 1954, after Stalin’s death the year before, Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian, assumed power. Pandering to Ukrainian supporters, he unilaterally decreed that henceforth Crimea would be part of the Ukrainian SSR, not the Russian SSR. Since all 15 Republics of the USSR were under tight rule from Moscow, the switch was a distinction without much of a difference – until later, when the USSR fell apart.
Khrushchev: Gave Ukraine away.
  • Nov. 1989: Berlin wall down.
  • Dec. 2-3, 1989: President George H. W. Bush invites Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to summit talks in Malta; reassures him “the U.S. will not take advantage” of Soviet troubles in Eastern Europe. Bush had already been pushing the idea of a Europe whole and free, from Portugal to Vladivostok.

A Consequential Quid Pro Quo

    • Feb. 7-10, 1990: Secretary of State James Baker negotiates a quid pro quo; Soviet acceptance of the bitter pill of a reunited Germany (inside NATO), in return for an oral US promise not to enlarge NATO “one inch more” to the East.

  • Dec. 1991: the USSR falls apart. Suddenly it does matter that Khrushchev gave Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR; Moscow and Kyiv work out long-term arrangements for the Soviet navy to use the naval base at Sevastopol.
  • The quid pro quo began to unravel in October 1996 during the last weeks of President Bill Clinton’s campaign when he said he would welcome Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into NATO – the earlier promise to Moscow notwithstanding. Former US Ambassador to the USSR Jack Matlock, who took part in both the Bush-Gorbachev early-December 1989 summit in Malta and the Baker-Gorbachev discussions in early February 1990, has said, “The language used was absolute, including no ‘taking advantage’ by the US… I don’t see how anybody could view the subsequent expansion of NATO as anything but ‘taking advantage,’ particularly since, by then, Russia was hardly a credible threat.” (From 16 members in 1990, NATO has grown to 29 member states – the additional 13 all lie east of Germany.)
  • Feb. 1, 2008: Amid rumors of NATO planning to offer membership to Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warns US Ambassador William Burns that “Nyet Means Nyet.” Russia will react strongly to any move to bring Ukraine or Georgia into NATO. Thanks to WikiLeaks, we have Burns’s original cable from embassy in Moscow.
  • April 3, 2008: Included in Final Declaration from NATO summit in Bucharest: “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.”
  • Early September 2013: Putin helps Obama resist neocon demands to do “shock and awe” on Syria; Russians persuade President Bashar al-Assad to give up Syrian army chemical weapons for destruction on a US ship outfitted for chemical weapons destruction. Neocons are outraged over failing to mousetrap Obama into attacking Syria.

Meanwhile in Ukraine

  • Dec. 2013: In a speech to the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland says: “The United States has supported Ukraine’s European aspirations. … We have invested over $5 billion to assist Ukraine in these and other goals that will ensure a secure and prosperous and democratic Ukraine.”
  • Feb. 4, 2014: Amid rioting on the Maidan in Kiev, YouTube carries Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s last minute instructions to US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt regarding the US pick for new Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk (aka “Yats”) and other plans for the imminent coup d’etat in Kiev. (See: ) When Pyatt expresses concern about EU misgivings about mounting a coup, Nuland says “Fuck the EU.” She then apologizes to the EU a day or two later – for the profanity, not for the coup. She also says that Vice President Joe Biden will help “glue this thing together”, meaning the coup.
  • Feb. 22, 2014: Coup d’etat in Kyiv; appropriately labeled “the most blatant coup in history” by George Friedman, then President of the widely respected think-tank STRATFOR.
  • Feb. 23, 2014: The date that NATO, Western diplomats, and the corporate media have chosen – disingenuously – as the beginning of recent European history, with silence about the coup orchestrated in Kyiv the day before. President Vladimir Putin returns to Moscow from the winter Olympics in Sochi; confers with advisers about Crimea, deciding – unlike Khrushchev in 1954 – to arrange a plebiscite to let the people of Crimea, most of whom strongly opposed the coup regime, decide their own future.
  • March 16, 2014: The official result from the voters in Crimea voted overwhelmingly for independence from Ukraine and to join Russia. Following the referendum, Crimea declared independence from Ukraine and asked to join the Russian Federation. On March 18, the Russian Federal Assembly ratified the incorporation of Crimea into Russia.
  • In the following days, Putin made it immediately (and publicly) clear that Yatsenyuk’s early statement about Ukraine joining NATO and – even more important – the US/NATO plans to deploy ABM systems around Russia’s western periphery and in the Black Sea, were the prime motivating forces behind the post-referendum re-incorporation of Crimea into Russia.
  • No one with rudimentary knowledge of Russian history should have been surprised that Moscow would take no chances of letting NATO grab Crimea and Russia’s only warm-water naval base. The Nuland neocons seized on the opportunity to accuse Russia of aggression and told obedient European governments to follow suit. Washington could not persuade its European allies to impose stringent sanctions on Russia, though, until the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17 over Ukraine.

Airplane Downed; 298 Killed

  • July 17, 2014: MH17 shot down
  • July 20, 2014: Secretary of State John Kerry told NBC’s David Gregory, “We picked up the imagery of this launch. We know the trajectory. We know where it came from. We know the timing. And it was exactly at the time that this aircraft disappeared from the radar.” The US, however, has not shared any evidence of this.
  • Given the way US intelligence collectors had been focused, laser-like, on that part of the Ukrainian-Russian border at that time, it is a near certainty that the US has highly relevant intelligence regarding what actually happened and who was most likely responsible. If that intelligence supported the accusations made by Kerry, it would almost certainly have been publicized.
  • Less than two weeks after the shoot-down, the Europeans were persuaded to impose sanctions that hurt their own businesses and economies about as much as they hurt Russia’s – and far more than they hurt the US There is no sign that, in succumbing to US pressure, the Europeans mustered the courage to ask for a peek at the “intelligence” Kerry bragged about on NBC TV.
  • Oct. 27, 2016: Putin speaks at the Valdai International Discussion Club.

How did the “growing trust” that Russian President Putin wrote about in his September 11, 2013 New York Times op-ed evaporate?

How did what Putin called his close “working and personal relationship with President Obama” change into today’s deep distrust and saber-rattling? A short three years later after the close collaboration to resolve the Syrian problem peacefully, Putin spoke of the “feverish” state of international relations and lamented: “My personal agreements with the President of the United States have not produced results.” And things have gone downhill from there.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). This originally appeared at Consortium News.

Author: Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. In the Sixties he served as an infantry/intelligence officer and then became a CIA analyst for the next 27 years. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). 

Saved by the Russians

OPINION|TD ORIGINALS

Russia Isn’t Getting the Recognition It Deserves on Syria

Scott Ritter

Russia Isn't Getting the Recognition It Deserves on Syria
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Sergei Chirikov / AP)

At a time when the credibility of the United States as either an unbiased actor or reliable ally lies in tatters, Russia has emerged as the one major power whose loyalty to its allies is unquestioned, and whose ability to serve as an honest broker between seemingly intractable opponents is unmatched.

If there is to be peace in Syria, it will be largely due to the patient efforts of Moscow employing deft negotiation, backed up as needed by military force, to shape conditions conducive for a political solution to a violent problem. If ever there was a primer for the art of diplomacy, the experience of Russia in Syria from 2011 to the present is it.

Like the rest of the world, Russia was caught off guard by the so-called Arab Spring that swept through the Middle East and North Africa in 2010-2011, forced to watch from the sidelines as the old order in Tunisia and Egypt was swept aside by popular discontent. While publicly supporting the peaceful transition of power in Tunis and Cairo, in private the Russian government watched the events unfolding in Egypt and the Maghreb with trepidation, concerned that the social and political transformations underway were a continuation of the kind of Western-backed “color revolutions” that had occurred previously in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004).

When, in early 2011, the Arab Spring expanded into Libya, threatening the rule of longtime Russian client Moammar Gadhafi, Russia initially supported the creation of a U.N.-backed no-fly zone for humanitarian purposes, only to watch in frustration as the U.S. and NATO used it as a vehicle to launch a concerted air campaign in a successful bid to drive Gadhafi from power.

By the time Syria found itself confronting popular demonstrations against the rule of President Bashar Assad, Russia—still struggling to understand the root cause of the unrest—had become wary of the playbook being employed by the U.S. and NATO in response. While Russia was critical of the violence used by the Assad government in responding to the anti-government demonstrations in the spring of 2011, it blocked efforts by the U.S. and Europe to impose economic sanctions against the Syrian government, viewing them as little more than the initial salvo of a broader effort to achieve regime change in Damascus using the Libyan model.

Moscow’s refusal to help facilitate that Western-sponsored regime change, however, did not translate into unequivocal support for the continued rule of Assad. Russia supported the appointment of former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to head up a process for bringing a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis, and endorsed Annan’s six-point peace plan, put forward in March 2012, which included the possibility of a peaceful transition of power away from Assad.

At the same time Russia was promoting a diplomatic resolution to the Syrian crisis, the U.S. was spearheading a covert program to provide weapons and equipment to anti-Assad forces, funneling shipments from Libya through Turkey and into rebel-controlled areas of Syria. This CIA-run effort, which eventually morphed into a formal operation known as Timber Sycamore, helped fuel an increase in the level of violence inside Syria that made it impossible for the Assad government to fully implement the Annan plan. The inevitable collapse of the Annan initiative was used by the U.S. and its European allies to call for U.N. sanctions against Syria, which were again rejected by Russia.

While Russia continued to call for a political solution to the Syrian crisis that allowed for the potential of Assad being replaced, it insisted that this decision would be made by a process that included the Syrian government, as opposed to the U.S. demand that Assad must first step down.

The Military Solution

The failed Annan initiative was replaced by a renewed U.N.-sponsored process, known as Geneva II, headed by Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran Algerian diplomat with extensive U.N. experience. The Geneva process stalled as Brahimi sought to bridge the gap between the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition—which insisted upon Assad’s resignation as a precondition to any talks about the future of Syria—and Russia, which continued to insist that the Assad government have a voice in determining Syria’s future.

Complicating these talks was the escalation of violence inside Syria, where anti-Assad forces, building upon the massive amount of military aid received from the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states, aggressively pushed for a military victory that would moot the Geneva II process.

By June 2013 the situation had devolved to the point that the U.S., citing allegations that the Syrian government was using a nerve agent against rebel forces, was considering the establishment of no-fly zones in northern Syria and along the Jordanian border. While sold as a humanitarian move designed to create safe zones for Syrian civilians fleeing the fighting, the real purpose of these zones was to carve out large sections of Syrian territory where the opposition could organize and prepare for war under the umbrella of U.S. air power without fear of Syrian government retaliation.

The concept of Syria’s chemical weapons being used by the U.S. to justify military action against the Syrian government was not hypothetical. In 2012, President Barack Obama had declared that any use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would be considered a “red line,” forcing the U.S. to act. When, in August 2013, a major chemical weapons incident occurred in Ghouta (conclusive attribution for the attack does not exist; the U.S. and NATO contend that the Syrian government was behind the attacks, which the Russians and the Syrian government claim were carried out by anti-Assad opposition for the purpose of compelling U.S. intervention), it looked like the U.S. would step in.

Committing to a larger war in Syria was not a politically popular move in the U.S., given the recent experience in Iraq, and when Obama met with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, in September 2013, the Russians suggested a solution—the disarmament of Syrian chemical weapons under the supervision of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). When Secretary of State John Kerry opened the door to that possibility, Russia and Syria jumped on the opportunity, paving the way for one of the great disarmament achievements of modern times, an action that won the OPCW the Nobel Peace Prize for 2013.

The disarmament of Syria’s chemical weapons was a huge success, for which Russia received little recognition, despite the major role it played in conceiving and overseeing its implementation. Russia had hoped that the disarmament process could lead to the establishment of international confidence in the Assad government that would translate into a diplomatic breakthrough in Geneva. This was not to be; a major peace conference planned for 2014 collapsed, and efforts to revive the failed talks were sidelined by the escalation of violence in Syria, as the armed opposition, sensing victory, pressed its attacks on the Syrian government.

The situation in Syria was further complicated when, in 2013, the organization formerly known as al-Qaida in Iraq renamed itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and started carving out a so-called caliphate from the ungovernable expanses of eastern Syria and western Iraq. Having established its capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, Islamic State launched a dramatic offensive in early 2014, capturing large swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq, including the Iraqi city of Mosul. By 2015, the Syrian government, under pressure from anti-Assad rebels and the forces of Islamic State, was on the brink of collapse.

The consequences of the loss of Syria to forces dominated by radical Islamic ideology do not seem to have been fully considered by those in the West, such as the U.S. and its European allies, which were funneling military aid to the rebel forces. For Russia, however, which had its own experiences with Muslim separatist movements in the Caucasus region, such a result was deemed an existential threat, with thousands of Russian citizens fighting on the side of Islamic State and the anti-Assad opposition who would logically seek to return to Russia to continue the struggle once victory had been achieved in Syria. In September 2015, Putin urged the Russian Parliament to approve the intervention of the Russian military on the side of the Syrian government. The Parliament passed the resolution, thus beginning one of the most successful military interventions in modern times.

The impact of the Russian intervention was as dramatic as it was decisive. Almost immediately, the Russian air force helped turn the tide on the field of battle, allowing the Syrian army to launch attacks against both the anti-Assad opposition and Islamic State after years of losing ground. The Russian intervention helped pave the way for the commitment by Hezbollah and Iran of tens of thousands of ground troops who helped tipped the scale in favor of the Syrian government. The presence of Russian forces nipped in the bud all talk of Western military intervention and created the conditions for the Syrian government to eventually recapture much of the territory it had lost to Islamic State and the anti-Assad rebels.

Unheralded Peacemaker

The connection between military action and diplomacy is a delicate one. For some nations, like the United States, diplomacy is but a front for facilitating military action—the efforts to secure a U.N. Security Council resolution on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq stand as a prime example. For Russia, however, the decision to intervene militarily in Syria was not seen as an end unto itself, but rather as the means by which Russia could shape the political landscape in such a manner as to make a political solution realistic. From the Russian perspective, the Geneva II process was an empty shell, having been hijacked by Saudi Arabia and its anti-Assad proxies.

In January 2017, Russia took the diplomatic offensive, initiating its own peace process through a series of summits held in the Kazakh capital of Astana. This process, which brought together Turkey, the Syrian government and Iran, together with Russia, quickly supplanted the Geneva II talks as the most viable vehicle for achieving a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict. By directly linking diplomatic talks with the fighting on the ground, the Astana process had a relevance that Geneva II lacked. For its part, Russia was able to woo Turkey away from insisting that Assad must leave, to a stance that recognized the territorial integrity of the Syrian nation, and a recognition that Assad was the legitimate leader of Syria, at least for the time being. The Astana process was lengthy and experienced its share of ups and downs. But today it serves as the foundation of a peace process that, unlike any of its predecessors, has a real chance of success.

Bridging the gap between the finesse of diplomacy and the brutal violence of military action is one of the most difficult tasks imaginable. For its part, the United Nations has undertaken so-called peacekeeping operations with mixed effect. In recognition of the importance and difficulty of this kind of work, the Nobel Committee awarded the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize to the U.N. Peacekeepers. When the diplomatic solutions reached in Astana needed to be implemented in Syria, Russia turned to the most unlikely source for turning objectives into reality: the Russian military police. A relatively new entity in the Russian military establishment, formed only in 2012, the military police were tasked with a wide range of missions, including convoy protection, area security, restoring law and order and resettlement operations.

In late 2016, as the Syrian army was positioned to recapture the city of Aleppo from rebel forces, Russia deployed a battalion of military police to Syria. The mission of these troops was not to engage in frontline fighting, but rather to restore law and order and win the trust and confidence of a civilian population wary of the potential for retaliation at the hands of the victorious Syrian army.

By all accounts, the Russian military police performed admirably, and soon the Russian ministry of defense dispatched more battalions of these new peacekeepers, who quickly established a reputation of being fair arbiters of the many cease-fire agreements brokered through the Astana process. The Russian military police were ubiquitous, whether policing the no-man’s land separating warring parties, escorting convoys of rebel fighters and their families to safe zones or providing security for OPCW inspectors.

The final phases of the Syrian conflict are playing out in northern Syria today. The last vestiges of the anti-Assad opposition, having been taken over by al-Qaida, are dug in in their final bastion in Idlib Province, their ultimate defeat at the hands of the combined Russian-Syrian armed forces all but assured. The American intervention in northeastern Syria, begun in 2015 as a means of confronting and defeating Islamic State but continued and expanded in 2017 as a vehicle for destabilizing the Assad government, has imploded in the face of a geopolitical reality in transition, facilitated in large part by the combined forces of Russian diplomacy in Astana and Russian-led military action on the ground in Syria.

By successfully wooing Turkey away from the U.S., Russia has dictated the reality on the ground in Syria, greenlighting a Turkish incursion that put the American forces deployed there in an impossible situation, prompting their evacuation. While the U.S. continues to maintain a military presence in Syria, occupying a border crossing point at Tanf and a series of military positions along the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in order to secure nearby Syrian oil fields, the ability of the U.S. to logistically sustain this force is doubtful, making its eventual withdrawal from Syria inevitable.

Moreover, by compelling an American withdrawal from northeastern Syria, Russia broke the back of the U.S.-supported Kurdish autonomous entity known as Rojava, and in doing so prevented a larger war between Turkey, the Kurds and the U.S.

In greenlighting the Turkish incursion into northern Syria, the Russians invoked the 1998 Adana Treaty, which guarantees the sovereign inviolability of Syria’s borders. The processes involved in stabilizing the Turkish-Syrian border, defeating the anti-Assad forces in Idlib, evicting the Americans from Syrian soil, and integrating the Kurds into a future Syrian government are lengthy, complex and not necessarily assured of a positive outcome. One thing is certain, however: The prospects for peace in Syria are greater today than at any time since 2011. And the fact that Russia has deployed even more battalions of its military police to Syria to oversee implementation of the current cease-fire bodes well for the prospects of success.

Despite literally salvaging victory from the jaws of defeat, the scope of the Russian accomplishment in Syria is muted in the United States, thanks to rampant Russophobia that has insinuated itself into every aspect of the domestic political discourse. Under normal circumstances, the Russian accomplishment in Syria would have been deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize, if not for the Russian diplomats and leaders who oversaw the effort to forge peace from the furnace of war, then at least for the Russian military police whose actions in Syria embody the very definition of humanitarian peacekeeping.

Over time, international historians will come to appreciate what Russia accomplished in Syria, potentially ending a sectarian conflict that could easily have served as the foundation for a decades-long conflagration with regional and global consequences.

Whether American historians will ever be capable of doing the same is unknown. But this much is true: In the years to come, children will be born of parents whose lives were not terminated or otherwise destroyed by a larger Syrian conflict that almost assuredly would have transpired if not for the honest broker services provided by Russia. Intentionally or not, Russian diplomacy prevented the United States from embarking on a foreign policy disaster of its own making. While it is highly doubtful that Americans will ever muster the moral fortitude to say so publicly, those who know the truth should find the time to whisper, “Thanks, Putin,” between the barrage of anti-Russian propaganda that floods the American mainstream media today.

Like it or not, in Syria, the Russians saved us from ourselves.

Scott Ritter
Contributor
Scott Ritter spent more than a dozen years in the intelligence field, beginning in 1985 as a ground intelligence officer with the US Marine Corps, where he served with the Marine Corps component of the Rapid…

Journalists in Jail

Max Blumenthal Arrest Exposes Hypocrisy of Western Media and ‘Human Rights’ NGOs

USA v Max Blumenthal: court papers (image: Grayzone)

by Joe Emersberger

Grayzone: ‘This charge is 100% false’: Grayzone editor Max Blumenthal arrested months after reporting on Venezuelan opposition violence

Grayzone (10/28/19) reported that its editor, Max Blumenthal, had been arrested on “fabricated charge related to the siege of the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, DC.”

Grayzone editor Max Blumenthal, a prominent journalistic critic of US policy toward Venezuela,  was arrested by DC police on Friday, October 25, in connection with a protest at the Venezuelan embassy, and held incommunicado. But if you rely on corporate media, or even leading “press freedom” groups, you haven’t heard about this troubling encroachment on freedom of the press.

Blumenthal is a bestselling author whose work has appeared in such publications as the New York TimesCJRThe Nationand Salon. DC police arrested him at his home on a five-month-old arrest warrant, charging him with simple assault for his attempt to deliver food to the besieged Venezuelan embassy; he was held for two days, and for the first 36 hours was not allowed to speak with a lawyer. (In an interview with FAIR, Blumenthal noted that keeping arrestees—generally poor and African-American—from speaking with lawyers or family is par for the course in the DC criminal justice system.) As of this writing, there has been no mention of Blumenthal’s arrest in outlets like the New York TimesWashington Post and Reuters that constantly publish Venezuela-related content, or by the big “press freedom” NGOs.

When freelance US journalist Cody Weddle was detained in Venezuela for 12 hours, it made headlines in the New York Times (3/6/19), Washington Post(3/6/19),  Miami Herald (3/6/19), USA Today (3/6/19), Guardian (3/6/19), UK Telegraph(3/6/19),  NPR (3/10/19), ABC (3/9/19) and Reuters (3/7/19). That’s not exhaustive, but you get the picture.

In Weddle’s case, the human rights industry also responded immediately. Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch tweeted about Cody Weddle’s detention, as did Reporters without Borders (RSF). The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also put out a statementimmediately (3/6/19). There has been nothing from them about Blumenthal.

The two-hour detention of Univision’s Jorge Ramos in Venezuela was likewise big news. In fact, RSF was outraged that Cody Weddle’s detention happened “barely a week” after the Ramos incident.

Nobody should have a problem with Weddle’s arrest or Ramos’ detention getting the widespread attention they did. (The content in the reports about Venezuela is a separate issue.) What should anger anybody who isn’t consumed with hypocrisy is the point Ben Norton, writing in Grayzone (10/28/19), made about Blumenthal’s arrest:

If this had happened to a journalist in Venezuela, every Western human rights NGO and news wire would be howling about Maduro’s authoritarianism. It will be revealing to see how these same elements react to a clear-cut case of political repression in their own backyard.

Blumenthal’s arrest is another example of the legal harassment of US government critics, including  WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and whistleblower Chelsea Manning–whose plights have similarly been neglected by Western media and NGOs that claim to support press freedom (FAIR.org11/3/184/1/19).

Several months ago, activists invited by the Venezuela government stayed in the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, DC, for over a month until they were finally evicted by police on May 24. The presence of the activists delayed a takeover of the embassy by representatives of the Trump-appointed Venezuelan government-in-exile led by Juan Guaidó. The majority of the world’s governments do not recognize Guaidó; that was dramatically highlighted on October 17 when Venezuela’s was voted onto the UN Human Rights Council despite US “lobbying” (i.e., bribes and threats).

Nevertheless, Trump’s recognition of Guaidó in January 2019 was the excuse for intensifying economic sanctions that had already killed thousands of people by the end of 2018. (Incidentally, Jorge Ramos’ two-hour “detention” also received more Western media attention than the study showing the already-lethal impact of Trump’s sanctions—FAIR.org6/14/19).

DN: Journalist Max Blumenthal Says He Was Arrested on False Charges

Democracy Now! (10/30/19) was one of the few US outlets to report on Blumenthal’s arrest.

With the complicity of DC police, Guaidó supporters tried to block food from being delivered to the embassy during the standoff with the activists. At one point, 78-year-old Jesse Jackson Sr. had to scuffle with Guaidó supporters to deliver food. The DC police were clearly intent on doing as little as possible, even with an elderly, high-profile visitor trying to make a delivery.  Former Green Party candidate Ajamu Baraka (age 66) was forced to act as Jackson’s bodyguard, thanks to the aggression of Guaidó supporters and the inaction of DC police.

Norton reported:

Court documents indicate the false charge of simple assault stems from Blumenthal’s participation in a delivery of food and sanitary supplies to peace activists and journalists inside the Venezuelan embassy on May 8, 2019.

Others attempting to deliver food were hit with charges months ago. Activist Ben Rubenstein and Veterans for Peace president Gary Condon (age 72) were beaten by police during the standoff for trying to toss a cucumber to activists inside the embassy. In fact, the warrant against Blumenthal was months old, and apparently initially rejected. Blumenthal explained:

If the government had at least told me I had a warrant I could have voluntarily surrendered and appeared at my own arraignment…. Instead, the federal government essentially enlisted the DC police to SWAT me, ensuring that I would be subjected to an early morning raid and then languish in prison for days without even the ability to call an attorney.

The lack of coverage of his arrest “is totally consistent with media coverage of the siege of the Venezuelan embassy,” Blumenthal told FAIR. “The violence, racism, sexism of the Venezuelan opposition—none of it was reported in the mainstream US press.” Aside from alternative outlets like Democracy Now! (10/30/19) and the World Socialist Website (10/30/19), one had to turn to Russian state media to find coverage of Blumenthal’s arrest. A Sputnik article (10/30/19) about the case cited damaging exposés Grayzone has published about Guaidó inner circle, one of which recently led to the resignation of right-wing economist Ricardo Hausmann from Guaidó’s shadow administration.

Here’s an idea for media outlets and NGOs concerned about the appeal of Russian public relations efforts: start doing your jobs by holding your own authoritarian politicians and politicized police forces to account.

 

The Latest Twist in US Imperialism

The Latest Twist

The USA will not win many hearts and minds like this.

If U.S. Takes Syrian Oil, It May Violate International Laws Against Pillage

A U.S. military vehicle drives past an oil pump jack in the countryside of Syria’s northeastern city of Qamishli. President Trump is leaving some U.S. troops in Syria, with the goal of controlling Syria’s oil fields. But legal experts say exploiting the oil could amount to pillaging — a war crime.

Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

President Trump has executed a policy U-turn on Syria. He’s now tasking U.S. forces that he’d promised to withdraw from there with a new mission: securing the oil fields of southeastern Syria.

And it’s raising questions about just what he intends to do with that oil.

Trump has appeared fixated on Syria’s largely defunct oil fields in the weeks since his Oct. 9 tweet announcing he’d moved U.S. forces out of northern Syria and was bringing the troops deployed to that nation home.

“We’re keeping the oil — remember that,” Trump declared on Monday at a gathering of police chiefs in Chicago. “We want to keep the oil. Forty-five million dollars a month? Keep the oil. We’ve secured the oil.”

Trump was referring to oil fields in Syria’s Deir el-Zour province that Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces wrested from Islamic State insurgents in 2017. The area holds nearly three-quarters of Syria’s oil and gas reserves, whose production has plummeted over the past decade by more than 90%. Islamic State fighters had earlier generated substantial revenues from other oil fields farther north through smuggling operations into neighboring Turkey.

On Sunday, Trump again brought up Syria’s oil fields moments after announcing the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

“It can help us, because we should be able to take some also,” Trump said of Syria’s oil while taking reporters’ questions at the White House. “And what I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an Exxon Mobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly.”

Standing by to second Trump’s pitch for exploiting Syria’s war-blasted oil fields was Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

“This doesn’t violate any law, in my view,” Graham declared following Trump’s remarks. “This is a win-win: The SDF will get more money if we can modernize the oil fields. We’re not going over there to enrich America — we’re over there to help our allies, deny our enemy resources that will allow them to get stronger over time and finally — and this is OK — to lower the cost to us.”

Defraying the cost of U.S. operations in Syria by selling that country’s oil — which happens to be state-owned property — strikes one expert on the spoils of war as highly dubious.

“[Trump] makes no mention of who owns the oil, and that seems like a fairly key question,” says James Graham Stewart, a law professor at the University of British Columbia. “The second question is what exactly is Trump planning to do with the oil.”

It makes quite a difference, Stewart adds, whether the U.S. is securing Syria’s oil and protecting it for its true owners or taking it without the owners’ consent.
“One would probably be more acceptable,” he tells NPR. “The other would be a war crime.”

Stewart cites numerous international agreements binding the U.S., including the Fourth Geneva Convention, that define the taking of goods during wartime without the owner’s permission as pillaging — a war crime.

And he points to a chilling precedent. “One defendant at Nuremberg called Walther Funk, who was the chairperson of the Continental Oil Company, was convicted of pillaging oil from throughout occupied Europe,” says Stewart, “precisely because the German army expropriated it for the purposes of the Nazi apparatus.”

The top U.S. military officer confirmed on Monday that an unspecified number of American troops and “mechanized forces” (tanks or Bradley Fighting Vehicles) are being redeployed to the desert oil fields of Deir el-Zour. But he said nothing about seizing that oil.

“The fundamental purpose of securing those oil fields,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, told reporters at the Defense Department on Monday, “is to deny those oil fields access to ISIS in order to prevent ISIS from resurgence, because we are still committed to the counter-ISIS campaign. And we don’t want them to resurge — they get a lot of their revenues from that.”

There was an unsuccessful attempt last year to grab some of the oil-rich lands of eastern Syria. But it was Russian mercenaries allied with Syrian government forces, not ISIS, who were involved in that attack.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper was asked at Monday’s Pentagon briefing whether the new U.S. military mission in Syria includes protecting those oil fields from either the Russians, who are now the dominant military force in Syria, or Syria’s own government forces.

“The short answer is, yes, it presently does,” Esper replied. “Because in that case, we want to make sure that SDF does have access to the resources — in order to guard the prisons, in order to arm their own troops, in order to assist us with the defeat-ISIS mission.”

It remains unclear where that “defeat-ISIS mission” currently stands. Trump claimed this month that the U.S. has defeated ISIS and taken over 100% of its caliphate in Syria and Iraq. The U.S. has justified its incursion into Syria by citing the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which targets al-Qaida and its supporters.

“You have to have a consensus on the legal basis of what you’re doing,” says Brett McGurk, who quit late last year as Trump’s special envoy for the coalition fighting the Islamic State. “And the only legal basis, the only legal reason we’re there, is ISIS,” McGurk told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell this week. “I know this issue fairly well — it’ll be very difficult legally to exploit those resources, so I’m not quite sure what the president has in mind, but it doesn’t seem to make a great deal of sense.”

One expert on military ethics consulted by NPR defends Trump’s decision to guard Syria’s oil fields — and possibly exploit them. “Although it’s still controversial among some academics and others,” wrote Duke University law professor and retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap in an email, “denying a terrorist group access to economic resources that make an effective contribution to their ability to sustain hostile operations is a proper military objective.”

“As to who is entitled to the revenue that may flow from working oil fields protected by the U.S. or other partners,” Dunlap adds, “that’s especially complicated in the case of a conflict against non-state terrorists.”

The government of Syrian President Bashar Assad has neither invited nor authorized U.S. forces to operate in its territory, an omission that law professor Stewart finds striking. “It’s not as if natural resources are just the property of no one, that any armed group can just waltz into a country and decide that it’s going to expropriate natural resources in the area,” he says.

The U.S. has not declared war on the Assad regime, but University of Oklahoma Middle East scholar Joshua Landis told NPR that the occupation of the Deir el-Zour oil fields by U.S. forces is really all about keeping the government that owns that oil from having it. “The main reason for America to retain that oil is to deny it to Assad,” Landis says. “This is not about ISIS — this is about greater policy in Syria, to hurt the Assad regime and to gain and retain leverage on the part of America.”

If that’s the case, the Trump administration could possibly be getting involved in a wider war, all in the name of protecting a sizable patch of Middle Eastern oil.

Trump on War

Karl Marx said that war was equivalent to dumping a portion of the nation’s wealth into the sea. Absolutely true. Trump got it right about the waste of the USA in the wars in the Middle East.

Trump’s Antiwar Speech Deserved a Better Reception

This article originally appeared at TruthDig.

That’s right, sandwiched between Trump’s standard braggadocio about how he single-handedly secured “a better future for Syria and for the Middle East,” and his cynical pivot to decry his opponents’ supposed desire to accept “unlimited migration from war-torn regions” across the U.S. border, was one of the strongest blasts of antiwar rhetoric delivered by a sitting U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower.

If any other president—think Obama—or major liberal political figure had spoken so clearly against endless war and so poignantly diagnosed the current American disease of military hyper-interventionism, CNN and MSNBC would’ve gushed about Nobel Peace Prizes. It must be said, of course, that Trump has hardly governed according to these peacenik proclamations—he has, after all added more troops in the region, especially in Saudi Arabia, and merely reshuffled the soldiers from Syria across the border to Iraq. Nevertheless, even if the president’s actions don’t match his words, the words themselves remain important, especially from a 21st century, post-9/11 commander in chief.

No doubt, Trump’s partial withdrawal from Syria was initially clumsy, and it’s extremely difficult to parse out any sort of coherent doctrine in his muddled Mideast policy. Reducing troop levels in Syria isn’t much of an accomplishment if it’s followed, as it might be, by a shift toward drumming up or executing a Saudi/Israeli-pressured war with Iran. Still, the speech, though problematic in several areas, deserved a fairer reception from the corporate media establishment.

Beyond the intellectual dishonesty of some press outlets’ displays of reflexive anti-Trumpism, there’s the salient fact that none of the president’s critics have proposed a practical, long-term alternative strategy for the U.S. military in Northeast Syria. Crocodile tears for the Kurds are naught but a cynical cudgel with which to attack the president; there was never any established plan to permanently carve out a viable Kurdish statelet in Syria, or serious weighing of the military, diplomatic and economic costs of such an endeavor.

So, since none of the mainstream networks were willing to do it, let’s review some of the sensible things Trump said in the meat of his speech, nuggets of earthy wisdom that this forever war veteran, for one, wishes Trump would follow through on:

The same people that I watched and read – giving me and the United States advice – were the people that I have been watching and reading for many years. They are the ones that got us into the Middle East mess but never had the vision or the courage to get us out. They just talk.

This is demonstrably true. The politicians (Democrat and Republican), failed retired generals, and Bush/Obama era intelligence community retreads are the very people who crafted the failed, counterproductive interventionist policies that Trump inherited. They never had answers to the tough questions regarding why their countless military missions never stabilized the region, what the endgame of these endless wars would be, or how, exactly, the U.S. would or could extricate its troops from the Greater Middle East. Why does anyone still listen to these establishment clowns?

How many Americans must die in the Middle East in the midst of these ancient sectarian and tribal conflicts?

That’s a hell of a good question, Mr. President. If the term is, indeed, “must,” then the logical and ethical answer should be zero. And that should preclude any absurd, future war with Iran—if only Trump would follow through with his still-unfulfilled campaign promises.

Across the Middle East, we have seen anguish on a colossal scale. We have spent $8 trillion on wars in the Middle East, never really wanting to win those wars. But after all that money was spent and all of those lives lost, the young men and women gravely wounded – so many – the Middle East is less safe, less stable, and less secure than before these conflicts began.

That’s the rub, now, isn’t it? Though the $8 trillion figure might be a tad high, Trump isn’t far off. The Cost of War Project at Brown University came to the same general conclusions after an exhausting and ongoing study of the outlays and outcomes of America’s post-9/11 wars. In fact, the reality is even worse than Trump claimed in the speech. By a lowball estimate, researchers at Brown demonstrate that these region-shattering wars have killed 244,000 civilians and 6,950 U.S. soldiers, and they have created 21 million refugees. For all that, Trump is correct to note that, even by State Department global terrorism statistics, the region is less safe, less stable and infused with more Islamist “terrorists,” who’ve multiplied faster than America’s beloved troopers could ever hope to kill them.

The job of our military is not to police the world. Other nations must step up and do their fair share. That hasn’t taken place.

Also true, or at least it ought to be. Unfortunately, “policing” the world is precisely what Bush II and Obama (and Trump himself) has had me and my fellow soldiers doing since at least October 2001. And it hasn’t worked, hasn’t made America safer, hasn’t made the world a better place. Quite the opposite.

As for Syria, at least now—much to the chagrin of the bipartisan establishment elite—Russia, Turkey, the Assad regime and the Kurds are negotiating an admittedly messy settlement in their near abroad. And if it is truly a mess, as it’s all but certain to be, then what’s so bad about having Putin mired in it? All this talk of “surrendering” Syria to Putin is so much exaggerated malarkey. Syria has always been a Soviet, and then Russian, client state, home to a longstanding naval base at Tartus, and clearly in Moscow’s orbit. In that sense nothing has changed, and as before, Syria—even if ruled by an Assad and backed by a Putin——presents no tangible, let alone existential, threat to the United States, unless, that is, Islamic State does reconstitute. However, Russia and Assad, at least, have a distinct interest in avoiding that outcome.

Taken as a whole, Trump’s remarks included some profound and piercing antiwar material, along with the usual nonsense one expects from this president. As such, accompanying the quite appropriate criticism of the speech, an honest media doing its job ought to have cheered the parts of value and generated a national conversation about Trump’s appraisal of the woes of American forever war. Then, a functioning press should’ve held the president’s feet to the proverbial fire and asked him why his practical actions so rarely cohere with his, in this case, sensible words. That the media has not, and will not, take antiwar rhetoric seriously and grapple with real questions of militarist policy is further proof that it, along with Congress and the generals, was bought and sold long ago by the military-industrial complex.

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen

It’s the Oil, Stupid

US Military Envisions Broad Defense of Syrian Oilfields

Esper says US will keep Syrian government away from Syrian oil

The Pentagon intends to retain control of Syria’s oilfields going forward, and says they will repel anyone else trying to take that oil with “overwhelming force.” This has become the chief, and materially only, military goal of the US military operation in Syria.

Since President Trump announced his intention to control the oil, and conceivably to try to take some of it on behalf of the US, the Pentagon has been revising the Syria mission around controlling the oil. This has included sending more troops and tanks.

Pentagon officials have tried to build this narrative around keeping ISIS from reclaiming the oilfields, since they held them once. With ISIS barely existing anymore, that’s not a realistic threat, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper conceded on Monday that the deployments of US forces are meant to “deny access” to the oil to either Russia or the Syrian government.

Keeping Syria’s oil away from Syria is a potential problem, but Esper says the goal is to give some of the money to the Kurdish SDF to keep themselves armed, and to keep supporting the US military mission in Syria.

Giving the Kurds money to help with the US mission would sound a lot better if the US mission wasn’t to keep the oil for itself, and with the US increasingly cutting its ties to the Kurds, and Trump increasingly ripping into the Kurds on social media, it seems like that ship has already sailed.

Which doesn’t mean any necessarily substantial changes in the US plan, beyond cutting the Kurds out of the equation of who gets money out of an oil scheme, assuming one ever actually happens.

Looting Syria’s Oil

Trump always talked about “taking the oil” when the US invaded a country. Now he thinks he has a chance in Syria.

Wall Street imperialism, Smedley Butler and all that. Trump wants to leave Syria, but then thinks: “We will take the oil on the way out.” What a great image for the USA around the world!

That is a hell of a way to win hearts and minds! Washington forgot about that a long time ago. Now it is flat-out.

Trump Wants Deal With Exxon or Other Company to Take Syrian Oil

‘We should be able to take some’

Having sent growing numbers of troops into eastern Syria explicitly to control the oil, President Trump now says he is seeking a deal with Exxon Mobil or “one of our great companies” to go into occupied Syria and take the oil.

Trump has long suggested that in his view, the US should be able to just take oil from countries it is involved in militarily, as a way to recover some of the costs of his various wars. Trump said on Sunday that the oil is valuable and “we should be able to take some also.”

That Trump is sold on this idea is one thing, but convincing a US Oil and Gas Major to go along with the operation is another thing. The legal basis, particularly internationally, of taking Syrian oil without Syrian permission, and keeping US military forces there to keep Syria from stopping them, is going to be complicated, to say the least.

Trump’s conviction that legally it’s probably fine, after all, doesn’t mean the US company, whichever it turns out to be, wouldn’t get sued in the US or internationally for looting Syria’s oil.

These huge multinational companies are notoriously risk-averse about conflict, and would likely be so about joining the president in an oil-taking scheme of this sort. That means while Trump continues to war to keep the oil, he’s going to face a big job selling the idea to any company.