Russia’s Putin and Israel’s Netanyahu negotiate . . . about what?

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Russia's Putin and Israel's Netanyahu negotiate . . . about what?

“Russia has friendly relations with Israel, and more than a million Russian Jews emigrated to Israel, but Iran is a strategic ally of Russia.”

Last week major state and corporate news outlets reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had met and agreed on removing Iranian troops from Syria and/or Iran’s border with Syria. Then, on June 3rd, Haaretz and other outlets reported that Israel had, for the first time, participated in a NATO “exercise” near the Russian border. I spoke to Rick Sterling, an investigative journalist specializing in Syria, about what could be behind these reports.

Ann Garrison: I’d like to go through some of these disparate reports about Russia and Israel one by one, but first, what do you think of Israel’s first ever participation in NATO war games near the Russian border?

Rick Sterling: The head of NATO recently confirmed that NATO would NOT get into a war involving Israel because Israel is not a NATO member. But Israel is a “partner,” and in 2014 the US Congress designated Israel as a “major strategic partner.” So I think Israel may be participating in the war maneuvers to demonstrate that it’s a good partner. Of course, Russia sees the NATO military exercises on its border as provocative. They are countering with their own military exercises, so it’s just a continuation in the wrong direction away from peace and mutual acceptance.

AG: OK, now to these reports about negotiations between Russia and Israel. Just before the news that Israel had participated in NATO war games near Russia, Bloomberg News reported that Israel was campaigning to break the alliance between Iran and Russia. What do you think of that?

RS: It’s certainly true that Israel is playing the diplomatic game and trying to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran, but the stories are highly exaggerated. They contain both contradictory information and outright disinformation. Russia has friendly relations with Israel, and more than a million Russian Jews emigrated to Israel. But Iran is a strategic ally of Russia.

AG: On June 2nd, the Times of Israel reported that Israel denies inking a deal with Russia on Iranian withdrawal from Syria. What about that?

RS:Well, I haven’t seen any written deal. So what we’re going on are media reports, which are spun in different directions. So, number one, I don’t know if there was a written agreement. Number two, it’s certainly the case that Israel is not only saying that they don’t want Iranian militia or advisors anywhere near the border with the Israeli occupied Golan Heights, but also that they want them all out of Syria.

“Israel exaggerates the Iranian involvement in Syria for its own purposes.”

Russia and Syria may have agreed to relocate some of the Iranian advisors or Iranian militias away from the Golan Heights border. There were reports that some of those forces were headed out to eastern Syria to do combat there against ISIS, which continues to hold an important area. But even if Israel is trying to insist that no Iranian advisors or militia be in Syria, I can’t see Syria or any sovereign state agreeing to such a demand. Israel exaggerates the Iranian involvement in Syria for its own purposes.

AG: Asharq Al-Aswat reported, also on June 2nd, that Russia and Israel had agreed to keep Iran away from Syria’s South.

RS: Asharq Al-Aswat is a Saudi-owned newspaper coming out of London, so the Saudi influence and heavy anti-Iran bias is evident. The one element of this story that may be true is that the US may actually be uncomfortable with any agreement regarding the US forces that control the area around Al Tanf, a Syrian border area with Iraq. That’s the main highway from Baghdad to Damascus, and it’s currently controlled by US military and various armed militants—including former ISIS fighters—who are trained and controlled by the US. The US doesn’t want to give that up, but the Syrian foreign minister is not mincing his words. He’s saying that all the US forces must leave Syria eventually, and specifically that they should leave that area at the Syria-Iraq border soon.

Al Tanf and the highway between Iraq and Syria is a flashpoint. The US has no right to be there but seems to be digging in while Syria is getting increasingly adamant that they must leave. Things may come to a head there.

AG: Al Monitor says that Russia is “trying a new playbook to calm the escalation between Israel and Iran.” How about that?

RS: I think that’s true. What we’ve seen emerge in the last several years is that the diplomat in the room is Russia. If you look at what’s going on there, the Russian diplomacy is quite impressive and at times quite surprising. Six or eight months ago, the Saudi monarch flew to Moscow for the very first time. Russia brought Iran and Turkey together at the Astana talks, and Russia is trying to soothe the tension and danger of conflict between Israel and Iran. So that story is probably accurate.

AG: Have you seen any reports about negotiations between Russia and Israel on RT, Russia’s state- sponsored English outlet?

RS: I’ve seen some RT coverage, both stories and photographs. They certainly don’t put the spin on it that some of the Western and Israeli media do.

The fundamental fact is that Russia doesn’t want to go to war with the US. They realize how dangerous the situation in Syria currently is. They are not going to give up their long-term alliance with Syria, but at the same time, they’re doing everything they can to cool things down and avoid a head-on conflict.

AG: OK, so we’ve gone through just a sample of the wildly disparate reports and commentary about this, but after reading a lot of it, I had the feeling that this is headed toward the Balkanization of Syria, which has been much discussed for a long time. What are your thoughts about that?

RS: Well, that’s the reality on the ground right now. Turkey is occupying part of the north. Israel and Israeli-supported terrorists are occupying part of the south. The US and the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) control big swathes of eastern Syria. So Balkanization is already the informal reality on the ground.

In early 2016, John Kerry called it “plan B,” dividing up Syria and partitioning it. He didn’t say it quite that explicitly, but he was clearly suggesting that that’s where things were headed. Now, in opposition to that, you’ve got the Syrian government saying that it will not allow partition and that the US has to leave Syria. Both Assad and the Syrian foreign minister are saying that increasingly forcefully. So we’ll have to see. At the same time it’s dangerous because there’s also threatening talk coming from the United States.

“John Kerry called it “plan B,” dividing up Syria and partitioning it.”

The US, Turkey, and Israel are, of course, violating international law codified in the UN Charter by their military presence in Syria, but the Syrian government seems to be taking things step by step with the support of Russia and Iran. Hopefully, progress can be made and the conflict can be wound down. That would certainly be to the benefit of all Americans as well as Syrians and other peoples of the Middle East.

AG: Do you think that Russia is opposed to Balkanization?

RS: Oh, absolutely. They’re opposed to it. They saw what happened with the war in Yugoslavia and the split, the separation into smaller, weaker states.

Russia also has its own experience with Western and Saudi-funded terrorism. If you look at a map, Syria is not that far from Russia, so of course they are very concerned with the situation there. They have a big stake in seeing the conflict wind down and a peaceful resolution, remote as that may seem. They’re taking the lead in helping to resolve it and working toward reconciliation, which is going to require concessions on the part of Damascus. Russia has explicitly talked about an internationally supervised election in Syria, and hopefully that’s where things will end rather than in World War III.

The question is whether the US and its allies, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, will give up their goal of “regime change” in Syria. Or will they continue to finance and arm the opposition to further bleed Syria and its allies? The US and allies are prolonging the conflict behind a pretense of humanitarian concern. Meanwhile they ignore obvious travesties such as the Israeli killings at the Gaza border.

AG: And just one more point of clarification regarding the presence of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah in Syria. Their presence is legal, according to international law, because they’re there at the request of the Syrian government. Right?

RS: Yes, that’s correct. Russia, Iran, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are in Syria supporting Syrian sovereignty. The Iranian presence in the West tends to be wildly exaggerated, but they do have militia there. They also have advisors, and they’ve lent economic support to Syria. Both Lebanon and Iran know that their own governments are at risk there.

Of course, it was General Wesley Clark who said, back in 2007, that the US had a hit list of seven countries, and we’ve already seen several of them overthrown. Lebanon and Iran know they’re on that list. I’m sure they all realize that if the Syrian state is destroyed, if the government there is toppled and chaos reigns as it does in Libya, they’ll be the next targets. So they’re there for their own sake and for regional stability, not just to support their ally Syria.

By Ann Garrison/BAR

Posted by The NON-Conformist

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Are We Getting the Trump-Russia Story Right?

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  A caricature of President Donald Trump on sale in a shopping mall in Moscow. (Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP)

In the rush for daily scoops in the Donald Trump-Russia investigation, facts are hard to come by. Stories based on leaks and relying on unnamed sources can only leave the news consumer hopelessly confused.

The stories come in torrents, feeding the hunger of the 24/7-news cycle. From administration officials to those on the edge of the Trump circle, people find themselves tainted by stories linking them to Russian President Vladimir Putin, his top aides, his security police and his web of business contacts. To students of history and those of us with long memories, it’s reminiscent of the Red Scare days of post-World War II America when leaks about accused “commies” went from congressional investigators to reporters and then to newspapers and magazines.

These are the questions that should be asked by readers and viewers, no matter where they stand politically or philosophically:

Are today’s media outlets completely reliable?

Will some of their bombshells turn out to be misstated, overblown or just plain wrong?

Must we take the stories from leaks and anonymous sources by their teams of national security reporters at face value—or should we view them with the same skepticism that the reporters, themselves, are supposed to bring to their work?

I, for one, want better answers than we’ve been getting.

Our strange, secretive President Trump deserves investigation. He and his family seem entangled with Russian oligarchs tied up with Putin. The Russians could be squeezing the Trump clan, which could explain Trump’s friendliness, or at least lack of hostility, toward the Russians. It’s not a far leap to think of Trump negotiating with a tough creditor to Trump and his associates shifting the conversation to politics and policy with the Russians, welcoming their participation in the volatile American presidential election and promising to lift those sanctions.

Or perhaps the answer, as unimaginable as it seems, is that Trump is a foreign affairs visionary, as Nixon was with China, seeing his presidency as an opportunity to work with a former adversary with whom we share some interests. In that fanciful scenario, when the Trump-Russia investigation is completed, Trump and Putin will shake hands in their macho way while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.

It may take years to get answers, even if special counsel Robert Mueller and Senate and House committees do a good job. Unfortunately, the years of investigation, with their inevitable leaks to journalists, especially from Congress, will take a heavy toll on democratic institutions while providing material for a steady stream of hot stories.

Robert Parry put it this way on Consortiumnews.com on May 7:

Congressional demands for personal and business information from several of Donald Trump’s campaign advisers demonstrate how the Russia-gate investigation continues to spill over into a new breed of McCarthyism infringing on civil liberties, including freedom of speech and freedom of association. … But the reality of Official Washington is that once momentum builds up around a “scandal,” someone has to get convicted of something – or all the Important People who have weighed in on the “affair” will look stupid. In Russia-gate, however, important principles about the right to dissent, the right to privacy and the right to associate freely are getting trampled.

The right to dissent was at the heart of an investigation I did for Truthdig last December on an organization called PropOrNot, short for Propaganda Or Not. PropOrNot had combed through many websites and identified more than 200 of them as being pro-Russian or unwitting tools of the Kremlin. Truthdig made the PropOrNot blacklist, as did many other sites. They ranged from progressive, like us, to one that’s alt-right. Its purpose was to identify pro-Kremlin “fake news.” I wondered how we got on the list. When I dug into the operation, I found PropOrNot had “sparse evidence indeed” that we were Kremlin collaborators. ProOrNot had an anti-Russian slant and was aimed at the dissent that makes our site and others so valuable to democracy.

The PropOrNot blacklist, whose compilers are anonymous, illustrates the danger of many stories with anonymous sources in the Trump-Russia investigation.

I’m not denying the worth of anonymous sources. I’ve used them throughout my career. Sometimes, that’s the only way of getting valuable information from an insider who doesn’t want her or his name used. But I’ve always viewed it as a last resort. My editors didn’t like the practice. Nor did I when I became an editor. Give me a name, a real person, any time.

Anonymous sources are at the heart of some of the biggest Trump-Russia stories. There has always been intense competition among the news media to be first with the news, competition to be even a few minutes ahead of a rival. The first story dominates the internet. It’s quoted by the rest of the media pack, giving the first one clicks, publicity and the acclaim of the digital world. The volume and speed of the news—coming from respected sources such as The New York Times and Washington Post—probably convince many news consumers to accept it at face value.

The chroniclers of the Trump-Russia story have been portrayed as heroes—21st century Woodward and Bernsteins—by cable television. Let The New York Times, The Washington Post, Reuters or the others pursuing the story get a scoop, and one of the authors will be hustled onto a cable network. Once humble reporters, they have been elevated to media celebrities, with network analyst positions, lecture appearances and maybe even a new job awaiting them.

I was taught the importance of being first in my 10 years as a reporter for The Associated Press. If you weren’t first, if the opposition beat you, you’d get bawled out. But like generations of AP reporters before and after me, I was also taught to be right, to make no mistakes. It’s better to be right than to be first. Try balancing that while reporting a big story, or a small one. It’s not easy. But we knew that to be wrong was a stain that could linger for years. It was lesson I have carried with me.

At the beginning of this column, I asked readers to consider whether some of the anonymously sourced stories, produced under heavy time pressure, were misleading or even wrong.

Rachel Maddow provided a good insight into the dangers of this process on her May 25 show. The MSNBC host was talking about an important story in the Russia affair. Numerous news outlets, including NBC, had reported that, days before he was fired, FBI Director James Comey asked for more resources for the investigation, including prosecutors and other personnel, to speed things up. His request, various news media implied, was a factor in Trump firing him. If Trump were trying to interfere with the investigation, this would be a figurative nail in the president’s coffin, possible evidence of obstruction of justice.

The Justice Department and the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, denied the story.

In her broadcast, Maddow admitted the story was wrong. She said that after reporting by the MSNBC staff she concluded, “What was widely believed to have happened, actually what was widely reported to have happened in this key point of time, what we know about it, I think, is wrong, and I think we can correct this record tonight.”

She said “what went on here was something akin to a game of ‘telephone’ on Capitol Hill.” That’s a game in which something is whispered into the ear of another person, who passes it on down the line. At the end, it usually is distorted.

Maddow said MSNBC journalists had learned that Comey had conferred with Chairman Richard Burr of the Senate Intelligence Committee and Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking member. Burr and Warner, she said, relayed conversation to fellow committee members.

“From there, word started to spread,” Maddow said, “and this resulted in multiple press reports that Comey had asked for more resources just days before he was fired.” Maddow, however, said that “if a request was made it was more like a nebulous thing than a direct appeal.”

Maddow concluded that if obstruction of justice is central to the Mueller investigation, “I think it is worth being very specific about what evidence we’ve got on obstruction of justice by the White House and by the president.”

Then in words that should be heeded by all journalists, she said, “Boy, is it important we get this story right.”

By Bill Boyarsky/Truthdig

The NON-Conformist

GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham wants Congress to investigate Russian cyberattack on DNC, election

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Donald Trump may seek improved relations with Russia, but top Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham wants Vladimir Putin held responsible if the Russian government was involved in cyber-hacks to disrupt the U.S. elections.

Graham, who has sparred openly with Trump, his former rival in the presidential primary, is proposing that Congress hold a series of hearings on “Russia’s misadventures throughout the world” – including whether they were involved in “hacking into the DNC.”

“Were they involved in cyberattacks that had a political component to it in our elections?” Graham said.

If so, Graham said, “Putin should be punished.”

U.S. officials allege that Russia was involved in the hack on the Democratic National Committee that resulted in the release of sensitive emails ahead of the election.

Graham is one of the Senate’s leading foreign policy experts and his scrutiny of Putin comes as Trump’s desire for closer ties with Russia has drawn deep concern from the national security establishment.

“Here’s what I would tell Republicans: We cannot sit on the sidelines as a party and let allegations against a foreign government interfering in our election process go unanswered because it may have been beneficial to our cause,” Graham added.

The South Carolina senator acknowledged differences with Trump – “clearly, me and the Donald have issues,” he said – but he offered an olive branch to “do everything to help him, because he’ll be commander in chief in dangerous times.”

“He wants to reset with Russia. Maybe he can do it. But here’s my view about Russia: They’re a bad actor in the world and they need to be reined in,” Graham said.

“He is the president of the United States, and he is the leading diplomat for the country, but Congress has a role.”

By Lisa Mascaro/LA Times

Posted by The NON-Conformist

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