Once again, unfortunate civilians are trapped in the “hell on earth” that the Syrian civil war has become. This time it is the turn of the 400,000 residents of Eastern Ghouta, ten kilometres east of the capital Damascus. Latest reports put civilian casualties at 520 and thousands wounded under the heavy assault launched by President Bashar al-Assad’s ground forces supported by Russian air strikes.
It seems conditions in Syria are getting worse, and there is no end to the conflict.
The end to any violent conflict comes when either the warring sides realise the devastation they cause and make peace; outside intervention sways the warring parties to end the conflict; or there are clear winners delivering a crushing defeat to their enemies.
None of the warring factions seem to care about the devastation of the seven-year civil war. Almost the entire country is rubble – more than 400,000 people have died, there are 5 million Syrian refugees and more than 6 million displaced. Unfortunately, the peace option seems highly unlikely.
There had been international intervention through peace initiatives since 2013, when the then US secretary of state, John Kerry, lamented that Syria “heads closer to an abyss, if not over the abyss and into chaos”. It was a chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta that prompted the United Nations to pass a resolution in 2013 demanding the destruction of chemical stockpiles and giving impetus to peace talks in Geneva. All efforts to make progress on these talks were continually stalled. The parties failed to meet even as late as 2017, painfully expediting Kerry’s apocalyptic prediction.
The Geneva talks were paralleled by a Russian-led peace initiative in Kazakhstan and later in Sochi. These talks could not have been expected to succeed, given that Russia’s unconditional and active support of the Assad regime hampered any attempt at brokering a peace deal.
Apart from the vested interests and insincerity, the biggest stumbling block has been disagreement over who to include in the peace process. The US does not want Assad or Iran involved; Turkey does not want the Kurdish People’s Defence Unit (YPG); and Russia does not want any of the jihadist rebel groups.
The sheer number of rebel groups is another issue. In the relatively small area of Eastern Ghouta alone, there are three rebel groups, which often bicker with one another.
Since the conflict began in 2011, nearly 200 separate rebel groups have sporadically emerged. Although most of these later merged into larger entities, there are still too many groups. Their inclusion in any peace process has been problematic, because it is unclear who actually represents the Syrian opposition, not to mention the groups’ refusal to sit at the same table.
Then there is the thorny issue of ideological and religious differences. Shiite Syrians and a segment of secular Sunni Muslims support the Assad regime, whereas the largest chunk of the rebel groups are Salafi jihadists. The exceptions are the Kurdish YPG and the largely weakened Free Syrian Army.
All along, Assad’s regime has been claiming it is fighting IS, Al-Qaeda and other Salafi jihadist groups to keep Syria a modern secular state. Putin is pushing Assad to wipe out these groups, spurred by the deep fear they could mobilise radical Muslim groups within Russia’s borders.
The US and Europe are in the cognitive dissonance of wanting neither Assad nor jihadist groups to gain control in Syria. They don’t want Assad, but they like his argument of protecting a modern secular Syria. The unspoken preference is for Assad over any Jihadi rebel group.
So, the lack of an effective peace intervention and the impossibility of parties sitting down to negotiate leaves only the option of fighting it out until clear victors emerge.
This leaves the Assad regime with a free run to assert itself as the only feasible and legitimate government in Syria, a possibility that may indeed eventuate.
This is the strategic line the Assad regime has drawn thick on the ground. It explains why Assad forces have ignored the UN’s 30-day ceasefire resolution. Putin’s disregard for the resolution, by reducing it to a farcical five-hour window, shows that neither Assad nor Putin wants the rebels to regroup and gain strength. They want a quick and absolute victory, even if it is a bloodbath.
Just as it is almost certain that the rebels of Eastern Ghouta will fall, it is equally certain Assad forces will next intensify the siege of Idlib, a northeastern city held by the Salafi jihadist rebel group Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). This pattern will continue until all rebel groups are wiped out.
It is unlikely there will be any fighting between Assad forces and the Kurdish YPG, as that would mean an open confrontation between Russia and the US. After the US supported the YPG, it successfully ended Islamic State’s presence in eastern Syria. The US has made it clear it is there to stay, establishing a 30,000-strong border security force as a deterrent against IS regrouping, but more importantly to stop Assad attacking Kurdish regions once he clears the ground of rebel groups in his territory.
The wild card in Syria is Turkey’s unpredictable president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He aims to establish Turkey in northeastern Syria as a third major player along with Russia and the US, by fighting alongside elements of the Free Syrian Army to capture the Kurdish-controlled district of Afrin.
Whether Russia and the US will allow Erdogan to realise his objectives remains to be seen. He may find he is out of his league when things get tough on the ground, forcing him out of Syria.
The Syrian conflict will end only if the Russian-supported Assad regime wipes out all Salafi jihadist rebel groups and regains control of western Syria and its most important cities. This may be before the end of 2018. In the meantime, the international community should be prepared to lament more civilian casualties.
A Soviet-designed “Novichok” chemical is the nerve agent responsible for poisoning a former spy and his daughter, British Prime Minister Theresa May said today.
Sergei and Julia Skripal were found collapsed on a park bench on Sunday March 4 in the English town of Salisbury, a few hours after eating lunch and spending time at a restaurant and pub nearby.
As reported by the BBC, May said the UK must stand ready to take “extensive measures” if Russia does not provide an adequate explanation for the use of this agent on British soil.
What are the origins of Novichok?
The Novichok group of molecules are nerve agents developed by the Soviets from the late 1970’s – but never produced on a large scale, at least to the best of public knowledge. They are referred to as third generation nerve agents to indicate their production as a follow-on to the G-series agents such as sarin (also referred to as “GB”) developed in Germany prior to WWII, and the V-series agents (such as VX gas) first developed by the UK in the 1950’s.
The name “Novichok” translates colloquially from Russian as “newbies”.
Scientists who worked on the Novichok project disclosed details from 1992 onwards. They stated that the project goals included developing weapons that:
could not be detected by the then standard NATO chemical weapons detection sensors
have potential to circumvent the Chemical Weapons Convention
would be easier to produce using methods and materials prevalent in pesticides industries
were designed from the outset to be “binary” chemical weapons (where two relatively non-toxic materials are mixed together just before dispersal to minimise the danger to the personnel delivering the weapons).
How would Novichok use be confirmed?
Members of the public said that Julie Skripal appeared passed out on the park bench in Salisbury, and her father was making strange movements with his hand. The two remain in a critical condition in hospital.
Symptoms are given the mnemonic “SLUGEM”:
Salivation – the famous “foaming at the mouth”
Lacrimation – “crying”, or tears pouring from the eyes
Emesis (vomiting) – as the body loses control over muscles, particularly those of the sphincters
Miosis – one of the key diagnostics; the muscles that cause the pupil to constrict become fully activated and the pupils become pinpoints in the iris.
The final “‘M” is sometimes given as “muscle spasms”. The type of spasms associated with organophosphate poisoning are somewhat diagnostic.
Although some of these symptoms are common with other nervous system disruptions, doctors are taught to look for these symptoms together as a sign of exposure to organophosphates.
Apart from the physical signs and symptoms, to confirm identity of the agent, police and doctors take blood or other fluid samples, or wipe the patient’s skin with a gauze to pick up any residue of the agent. Those samples are reasonably stable and could be sent to an analytical chemistry laboratory for identification.
The UK has an Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) designated laboratory run by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Chemical and Biological Systems. The lab is located at Porton Down, around 10 miles from the scene of the attack.
In Australia, the equivalent OPCW designated laboratory is operated by the Defence Science and Technology Group.
The Handbook of Recommended Operating Procedures for Analysis in the Verification of Chemical Disarmament (also known as “the Blue Book”) does not have a specific method for detecting Novichok agents. However, it would be reasonable to assume that they would be detectable by the methods available to a well equipped defence science laboratory.
How could Novichok have been administered?
Nerve agents such as sarin are typically used in the form of a gas or vapour. But Novichok agents can be made in a solid form, most likely a powder. This would make them a relatively simple agent to be used on a battlefield (as may have been the original design motivation), or to add to food or to be left in a home as may be the case with the Skripals.
Nerve agents are bioavailable from the gut – that is, they can absorb into the body after being eaten. That route of delivery isn’t well studied, but is consistent with the slightly slower onset of symptoms in Sergei and Julia Skripal.
Novichok agents are said to be particularly effective at penetrating the central nervous system (that is, the brain and spinal column) and causing more severe neurological symptoms than is typical for other nerve agents.
As well as Sergei and Julia Skripal, a policeman has become seriously ill as a result of this incident – it’s not clear whether this was through attending to the sick pair on the bench, or visiting Sergei Skripal’s house.
Furthermore, the UK government has issued a public health advisory notice for people who were in the pub and/or the restaurant at which the Skripals may have been poisoned. For people who may have been exposed to very small amounts of Novichok, the advised washing of clothing would act to dilute or deactivate the compounds.
Will the ex-spy and his daughter survive?
A reported case of accidental exposure of a Russian physicist to Novichok in 1987 described the following events:
He staggered out of the room, his vision seared by brilliant colors and hallucinations. He collapsed, and the KGB took him to a hospital.
By the time he arrived his breathing was labored. In another hour, his heart would have stopped. His entire nervous system was gradually ceasing to function.
The physicist was lucky. The hospital he was taken to, the Sklifosovsky Institute, includes the nation’s top center for poison treatment.
There, Dr. Yevgeny Vedernikov saved his life.
But the scientist was at the edge of death, unaware of his surroundings, for 10 days. He couldn’t walk for six months. He was dogged by depression and an inability to concentrate. He found it difficult even to read. To this day his arms are still weak, and he has never been able to return to work.
Although he survived, the gas left him with permanent disabilities.
This previous incident suggests that while the Skripals could theoretically recover, they may not be in a fit state to act as reliable witnesses to their own attempted murders.
The question of who was responsible will remain – although British Prime Minister May has come to the conclusion that,
Either this was a direct action by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of its potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.
We’re waiting for an official Russian response.
Russia keeps posing a massive intelligence puzzle to the West: it is never as weak as we may want it to be, nor is it as strong as we fear it may be.
So, how can we classify Russia as an international power? It is not the Soviet Union reincarnated, so it is not a reborn counterpoint to US global supremacy. Nor does it intend to be. But it remains a major strategic spoiler of the US’ ambitions to retain its rules-based global order.
Moscow is trying to strengthen its relationship with like-minded major powers. China is one of Russia’s comrades-in-arms, although not a formal ally. China and Russia are not forming any sort of anti-Western/anti-US alliance; both great powers have their own national agendas.
Over the past ten years, Russia and China have developed very close military ties, but their economic relationship remains uneven and quite low on the common strategic agenda. They are de facto engaged in soft competition across Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific.
But their intention to change the status quo in support of their ambitions aligns with their security and strategic agendas, at least for now. Just like China, Russia seeks to maximise its strategic autonomy by aggressively fending off any perceived challenges to its national interests or sovereignty.
The time cannot be better. US President Donald Trump keeps puzzling allies by reversing major political decisions of previous administrations, while prioritising an inward-looking approach to running his country. And he is no match for Vladimir Putin in terms of experience, charisma, domestic popularity and global influence.
Try a simple experiment: search any publication about Russia published by the Australian media and try to find an article on anything Russia-related that does not have a reference to Putin. We see in Putin a manifestation of Russia’s ambitions; its political, military, economic and even sport successes and failures; defence of traditional values and criticisms of the Western way of life.
Putin wants for Russia a “place under the sun”: that is, dominance over the immediate neighbourhood combined with Russia’s recognised right to have interests in other parts of the world. The big question is: does modern Russia have what it takes to be a global superpower? The reality is there is no definitive answer to that.
On the one hand, Russia possesses key elements of a superpower: it is self-sufficient when it comes to natural resources and it is an energy superpower; it is a space power with a developed sovereign capability; it has a world-class scientific capability; it is the second-biggest military superpower in the world behind the US. Finally, it has global ambitions and a global agenda.
On the other hand, like China, Russia does not have a civilisational agenda – a competitive political model that could be an alternative to Western liberalism based on a free-market economy. After all, the Cold War was a clash of competitive socioeconomic systems supported by geopolitical and military-strategic competition. There is none of that today.
Second, Russia does not have the economic might of China and its intertwined economic interaction with the US. The Russian economy has suffered a great deal from the tight sanctions regime implemented after the Ukraine crisis, and is only beginning now to show signs of recovery.
That is not to say Russia has lost the economic means to support itself and its global ambitions. Over the past two years, it has achieved a major breakthrough in exporting grain and other agricultural produce, making it one of the top-three foreign currency earners. In 2017 alone, Russia earned some US$20.5 billion by exporting agricultural produce.
Russia’s energy exports also remain high. In 2017, Russian energy giant Gazprom generated total revenue of US$103.6 billion. This year’s revenue is expected to reach US$108 billion. In Europe alone, Gazprom controls 34.7% of its energy market, thus making it an important element of Russia’s regional geoeconomics.
The Russian defence sector plays its traditional role of both earning much-needed cash and furthering Russia’s geopolitical agenda. In 2017, Russian arms exports were worth US$17 billion, while the total portfolio of foreign orders of Russian armaments and military equipment is about US$45 billion, effectively retaining the number-two position in global arms sales.
Still, Russia has no means of global economic expansionism. It is desperately seeking new economic opportunities and partnerships with other countries that do not want all the power focused on the US. This gives China a strategic lead because of its diversified extensive economic partnerships with the US, Europe and Asia.
Yet it would be premature to crown China as the sole superpower rival to the US. Unlike Russia, China clearly lacks political and diplomatic experience – the ability to play complex games on a global chessboard.
As an incoming superpower with global ambitions but limited experience in great power politics, China studies carefully the Soviet and Russian experiences and leaves Russia to fight all the major fights at international forums. North Korea and the South China Sea are among the few exceptions where the Chinese show strategic activism.
Apart from its extensive diplomatic experience, China also needs Russia’s strategic nuclear and conventional military might.
Under Putin, the Russian military managed to close the capability gap with the most advanced Western militaries and transformed itself from a large, under-equipped and understaffed army into an effective, highly motivated and battle-hardened force. Putin has given the once-cash-strapped military machine a massive financial boost – and, more importantly, full political support.
Between 2013 and 2017, Russia landed in the world’s top-three nations on defence expenditure, just behind the US and China. In Europe, Russia has remained the single largest defence spender and buyer of major combat systems.
From 2012 until early 2017, the Russian military received 30,000 new and upgraded armaments and items of heavy military equipment. The Syria campaign and Russia’s ability to exercise strategic reach has once again made the military factor supported by active diplomacy one of the key determinants of successful realising its national strategic agenda.
In short, Russia is a major global power in outlook and reach, locked in a values-based confrontation with the West. But it still lacks all elements of a developed superpower.
But what it does most effectively is play the role of a strategic spoiler in times when the world is gradually accepting a new international configuration with a suite of established and emerging great powers that would dominate a future world order.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller has issued an indictment outlining charges against the Internet Research Agency LLC (and two related entities which had “various Russian government contracts”) and 13 Russian individuals. The defendants are charged with:
knowingly and intentionally conspiring with each other (and with persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury) to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the US political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.
The defendants, posing as activists, allegedly created “false personas” and fake accounts to operate social media accounts and pages on divisive social issues. The indictment does not specifically state that the individual defendants were connected to the Russian government, although at least one of them is known to be close to Putin. Specific to the 2016 election, the defendants’ goal was “supporting” the campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and “disparaging” Hillary Clinton.
Their activities were not merely online. They gathered intelligence, staged rallies posing as Americans (in New York, Pennsylvania, Florida) and “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign.”
Some of their efforts were effective. For instance, the fake Twitter account “Tennessee GOP”, which falsely claimed to be operated by the Republican Party in that state, attracted 100,000 followers.
The indictment lists political advertisements taken out by the defendants. These included such messages as “Donald wants to defeat terrorism … Hillary wants to sponsor it”, “Ohio Wants Hillary 4 Prison”, and “Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is.”
Their tactics were insidious. They targeted vulnerable groups such as African-Americans and Muslims to sow hate and reduce Clinton’s turnout.
The indictment provides rich detail about the Russian agency: it was incorporated in 2013, based in St Petersburg, employed hundreds of people for its online work, and had a budget of millions. It described its work as “information warfare” against the US and wanted to “spread distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general” during the 2016 election. Again, no direct link to the Russian government or Putin is mentioned in relation to these actions.
It is alleged the company and the named individuals conspired to violate the Foreign Agent Registration Act, which stipulates certain informational requirements for agents of foreign principals who attempt to influence US public opinion, policy and legislation. They also violated the Federal Election Campaign Act, which prohibits foreigners from making contributions etc relating to electioneering communications. The indictment also alleges identity theft, bank and wire fraud, and violations of visa laws.
Crucially, the indictment does not state that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians. It clearly notes that any contact with the campaign was “unwitting”.
Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein also clarified there was no allegation of collusion in the indictment and he stated that the Russians did not affect the outcome of the 2016 election. Following the indictment, President Trump has tweeted that his campaign “did nothing wrong – no collusion!”
The president has also tweeted:
This marks an important step for Trump. He is now apparently dismissing Russian influence after repeatedly refusing to condemn them, seeking to downplay their involvement in the election, and labelling it a hoax.
He has since pointed out that the indictment shows Russian involvement began in 2014 – before he entered the campaign. Moreover, the evidence shows that the Russians did not support only Trump. They also supported Bernie Sanders (who has blamed the Obama Administration for not doing more to tackle it), although this fact has not been adequately covered in the media. Further, the goal of the Russians was to sow distrust in the political system and undermine the electoral process – not specifically to help Trump.
Does the indictment mean that the president and members of his campaign are in the clear? The answer is difficult to determine at this stage. The indictment leaves open the question as to whether other US individuals might have aided the defendants.
Subsequent actions by Mueller might bring forward additional charges against Trump or his team. Further, the indictment does nothing in relation to the potential obstruction-of-justice case against Trump, although the evidence on this is likely to be weak.
Finally, from a purely political standpoint, it is hard to see from the evidence outlined that the Russian involvement was decisive. To be sure, they propped up fringe groups and spread discord, which local groups were fully capable of doing and did throughout the election. In addition, the sums of money documented in the indictment are small change in the context of the gargantuan amounts both campaigns spent during the 2016 campaign.
As the Syrian conflict enters its seventh year, the main players are fighting to carve the country into regions of control and influence.
A pivotal turn came in January, when Turkish forces launched the “Olive Branch” military operation targeting Afrin, a 300,000-strong Kurdish city in northeast Syria.
Three key developments in 2017 led to the Turkish operation in Syria.
The first was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gaining the upper hand in the conflict. In a major victory over the resistance, Assad forces backed by Russia and Iran captured the Syrian economic powerhouse of Aleppo – with the tacit agreement of Turkey.
Subsequently, Assad forces, and Russia, continued to expand their control over western Syria. In December 2017, they launched an intense attack on Idlib – a city neighbouring Afrin and the last stronghold of Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance led by the Nusra Front and supported by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkish government. Even though HTS launched a counteroffensive, the Assad forces continued to make advances in Idlib.
Second was the bold move for Kurdish independence in northern Iraq, which accelerated after the Kurdish and central Iraqi forces recaptured the largest northern Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State. In September 2017, northern Iraq’s Kurdish government staged a referendum for independence, with a whopping 93% of Iraqi Kurds voting “yes”. Although the referendum backfired spectacularly, it sent a clear signal to Turkey and others on Kurdish ambitions for independence.
Third was the rise in the prominence of Syrian Kurds. In October 2017, the US launched a successful military effort to depose IS from its stronghold, the capital Raqqa, ending IS as a political force. The main proxy army on the ground was the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Despite Turkey’s protests, the US supplied SDF with heavy arms, justifying the move as a necessity in deposing the common enemy, IS. Even after the fall of IS, the return of heavy weapons became the focus of a diplomatic crisis between the US and Turkey.
The last straw for Turkey was the announcement of a 30,000-strong border security force to protect the Syrian Kurdish enclave. Even though the US soon backtracked, it caused outrage in Turkey. This is because the border in question was the Turkey-Syria border, and implied the security force was aimed at Turkey.
This move came at the same time as a break-up of the uneasy alliance between Turkey, Russia and the Assad regime, as well as the US, over the future of Syria. Erdogan signalled this in late December, when he accused Assad of “state terrorism”.
What America wants
For the US, Turkey’s presence in Syria complicates things, and harms its plans resting on the territory controlled by Kurdish forces. Just as there was no need for Turkey during the offensive against IS, there is no need for Turkey in the future of Syria.
The US sees the UN-led Geneva talks as the solution to the Syrian crisis and insists that Assad is not part of the solution. This goal is becoming increasingly unlikely. Realising this after Assad’s Aleppo victory, the US has shifted its objectives to eliminating IS and supporting an increased Kurdish prominence in Syria.
According to Defence Secretary James Mattis, the US will continue its presence in Syria, but as a “stabilising force”. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed this, adding that the continued US presence aimed to prevent Iran and Assad forces regaining territory “liberated with help from the United States”.
This is a major policy shift by the US administration and has infuriated Erdogan. It means US protection for the Kurdish enclave is permanent, and the US will try to neutralise Russian influence by controlling regions lying east of the Euphrates River. It will also use Kurdish forces and populations as a bargaining chip in any discussion of Syria’s future.
What Russia wants
Turkey’s Afrin operation would not have been possible without Russian approval, as Russia controls the air space in northwestern Syria.
Russia has allowed the operation to go ahead so that it can maintain the fragile alliance that President Vladimir Putin formed with Iran and Turkey, and continue the recent talks Russia led with Syrian factions in Sochi. Russia wants to preserve the hard-won influence it garnered over the past two years and avoid tarnishing its world power status. More importantly, Putin does not want anything to overshadow his bid to win the looming presidential elections on March 18.
Putin has seen Erdogan as an important ally in his strategy to divide the NATO alliance from within, and so would prefer he stayed in power. This is why Putin gave Erdogan a political hand in allowing the Turkish operation to go ahead. In a sense, Putin can tolerate the Afrin operation for as long as it is contained to a small region.
What Turkey wants
Erdogan’s main aim with the operation is to thwart any US and Russian plans to carve up Syria after the IS defeat.
Turkey insists on being involved in every key negotiation on the future of Syria, to prevent the establishment of a semi-autonomous Kurdish region, which it sees as an existential threat. Having its own 8-10 million Kurdish population in the southeast of the country, Turkey feels it is next on the list of destabilised countries and fears it is only a matter of time before its Kurdish region is excised for a greater Kurdish state.
Turkey wants to establish itself as the third major player after Russia and the US by supporting the Free Syrian Army, the least-powerful Syrian faction composed of Sunni Arab forces. In doing so, it wants to establish a Turkish-controlled corridor north of the Euphrates so that it can move 2.8 million increasingly unpopular Syrian refugees out of Turkey. The speed of the military operation suggests pre-planning rather than a reaction.
Ultimately, Erdogan is playing for internal politics. He needs the support of the nationalist elements in Turkey to win the critical 2019 presidential election, which will give him new powers passed in the 2016 referendum.
Losing the election would mean his political opponent has those powers, and would likely resurrect serious corruption charges against him. While those charges may be forgotten in Turkey for now, they are kept alive in US courts.
This explains Erdogan’s increasing anti-US rhetoric. He is counting on the Syrian operation to increase his bargaining chips in a potential showdown with the US administration.
Turkey has made an extremely risky move, which could escalate the conflict in Syria. Over the past three decades, it has launched countless operations across the Iraqi and Syrian borders. Not only has Turkey failed to prevent developments favouring a pathway towards Kurdish independence, it has made matters worse for itself. This time may be no different.
It was the meeting we’ve all been waiting for. US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on Friday during the G20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany.
The key question was whether Trump or Putin would emerge as the stronger leader, with most backing Putin’s ability to manipulate and control the exchange. Trump’s lack of diplomatic or political experience, and his unwillingness to prepare for the encounter, inspired very little confidence that he would walk away with any serious concessions from Putin.
The meeting was scheduled to take half-an-hour. In fact it lasted more than two hours, and an indication the two leaders found a significant amount to talk about. The only other people present were US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and two interpreters. The little we know of what was actually discussed has come from statements Lavrov and Tillerson gave to the press following the meeting.
Russian interference in the US election
Tillerson said Trump pressed Putin over Russian interference in the 2016 election, but seemed to accept his denial that Russia did any such thing.
President Putin denied such involvement, as I think he has in the past.
Tillerson said the White House was not “dismissing the issue” but wanted to focus on “how do we secure a commitment” that there will not be interference in the future.
The big question going in to the meeting was whether or not Trump would raise the accusation with Putin. While he clearly did, the ease with which he appears to have accepted Putin’s protestations of innocence, and his reassurance that it won’t happen again, is remarkable.
According to journalists’ reports on Twitter, Lavrov had a slightly different spin on Trump’s reaction to the issue. He said:
In light of Trump’s remarks in Poland the day before, when he called into doubt the reliability of US intelligence on the issue, this has further undermined the credibility of the US intelligence community. That Trump did this during a face-to-face meeting with Putin can only deepen the mistrust between the CIA and FBI have for the White House, and further damage morale.
It can also be read as a clear victory for Putin, who came away from the meeting without having to seriously address charges that Russia systematically engaged in what is a gross violation of the democratic integrity and sovereignty of another country.
There was a clear opportunity for Trump to use the meeting to pressure Putin over his continuing support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
While any significant agreements over how to resolve one of the most complex conflicts in the region were highly unlikely, the two leaders did agree to support a ceasefire in an area of southwestern Syria. There were no other details, and Tillerson himself admitted that ceasefires in Syria have tended to fall apart very quickly.
While Russia and the US have a shared interest in fighting Islamic State in Syria, they disagree over the almost every other aspect of the conflict, particularly the future of Assad and the role of Iran.
Trump has recently ratcheted up to anti-Iranian rhetoric and it seems the Russian relationship with Iran could become a significant point of conflict between the US and Russia in the future.
No transcript of the meeting is available so it’s impossible to know exactly what was discussed here. But if Putin was not pressed on these points, it is certainly a missed opportunity.
While both Lavrov and Tillerson highlighted the shared interests the two countries have, neither Ukraine nor the ongoing nuclear crisis in North Korea could be counted among them.
North Korea’s testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile guaranteed that it would be high on the list of issues that would be discussed. Russia has contradicted the consensus among the other G20 leaders over the missile’s range, and blocked a resolution by the UN Security Council calling for “significant measures” in response to the test.
So, what do we make of this highly anticipated meeting?
With very little detail about what was actually discussed, and with the narrative firmly controlled by Lavrov, Trump would seem to have gained very little while conceding much.
Putin has come away with an implicit agreement to move on from the question of election meddling, without promising more than “dialgue” on Ukraine, no agreement on how to deal with North Korea, and no real movement on the horrific human tragedy in Syria.
Along with Tillerson’s affirmation that the two leaders shared “a clear positive chemistry”, it’s hard not to recall George W. Bush’s claim to have seen into Putin’s soul, and conclude that Putin has once again expertly played a US president.
Multiple parallel actions are ongoing with the aim of achieving truth and justice for the 298 passengers and crew of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. The flight was shot down over Ukraine on July 17, 2014.
An investigative team, led by the Dutch aviation authority and endorsed by the Australian government, concluded that the aircraft was shot down by a BUK missile. More than 100 individuals were identified in the 2016 report as linked to the incident. The investigation is ongoing.
This week, focus has turned to an action lodged in the European Court of Human Rights by lawyer Jerry Skinner on behalf of 33 relatives of MH17 victims. Skinner claims that the application has reached the stage of “ready for judicial determination”.
As reported last year, each applicant is seeking A$10 million in compensation from Russia. The claim is that Russia is responsible for violating the right to life of those killed due to its alleged supply of the missile that was launched from Ukraine, bringing down the aircraft.
However, the case lodged by Skinner is not yet listed in the court’s database. It is unclear how far the application has progressed but it certainly faces a range of major obstacles. The status of “ready for judicial determination” does not appear to be an official stage of proceedings in the court.
The European Court of Human Rights
The European Court of Human Rights was established in 1959 and sits in Strasbourg. It has jurisdiction to hear complaints from individuals and countries, alleging violations by countries that are party to the European Convention on Human Rights.
The court has delivered more than 10,000 judgments, which are formally binding on the countries subject to them. It receives more than 50,000 applications each year.
The application from Ayler and others is not the first to be lodged in the court in relation to Flight MH17. The case of Ioppa v Ukraine was lodged with the court in 2016.
The four applicants in that case are family members of three of the passengers killed on board Flight MH17. They have complained against Ukraine, rather than Russia. Specifically, they argue Ukraine violated their relatives’ right to life by failing to close the airspace above the military conflict zone that was active in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
The applicants allege that Ukrainian authorities intentionally failed to close the airspace despite their knowledge of the dangers posed to civilians travelling over Ukraine in passenger aircraft.
The application is currently noted as a “communicated case”, meaning it is awaiting judgment. The court has asked the applicants to identify what they have done to exhaust any available domestic legal remedies before applying to the court – particularly any legal avenues available in Ukraine.
The court has not yet published a preliminary finding on the admissibility of the case. This is the necessary first step before notice will be given to Ukraine to respond to the application. The case is certainly a long way from any potential judgment by a chamber of the court.
The Council of Europe
The European Court of Human Rights is not a creature of the European Union, but rather of the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe is a human rights organisation of 47 members, 28 of which are also EU members. All Council of Europe members have signed the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Council of Europe seeks to promote goals central to the international human rights framework, including freedom of expression and of the press, minority rights, and the abolition of the death penalty.
As a Council of Europe member, Ukraine is subject to judgement by the European Court of Human Rights. The applicants in Ioppa v Ukraine are all nationals of Germany, another member. Other Council of Europe members central to the MH17 situation are the Netherlands – because the flight originated at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport – and Russia.
Should the European Court of Human Rights find Ukraine liable for a breach of the convention, Ukraine will be bound by that judgment. The committee of ministers of the Council of Europe monitor the execution of judgments by countries subject to them, including compliance with any orders to pay damages to complainants.
However, the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe both lack enforcement capacity within the domestic jurisdiction of members, and would rely on diplomatic pressure to compel compliance with a judgment. Such pressure may be more or less effective depending on the status, power and political stance of a given member.
Prospects of success
Skinner has called on Australia to support the Ayler application. Bishop has responded that such litigation is a private matter for the families involved and those they are taking action against.
Bishop’s position is that Australia’s role is to support the ongoing investigation into the causes of the incident and then to pursue a justice mechanism with other countries.
It is important to note that Australia has no standing to join any action before the European Court of Human Rights, as it is not a member of the Council of Europe. However, Skinner argues Australia could exert diplomatic and political pressure to support the action.
Unfortunately for the families engaged in the European Court of Human Rights applications, litigation before that court appears to be a very indirect and unreliable route to gain compensation for the loss of their loved ones.
In the case against Ukraine, beyond the as-yet-uncrossed jurisdictional barriers, it may be necessary to prove that Ukrainian authorities knew of a direct threat to those on board MH17. This is a much more difficult standard to prove than a general awareness of threat to any civilian aircraft.
In action against Russia, setting aside the considerable jurisdictional issues and matters of proof, there is a major added barrier to satisfaction for the applicants. Russia has passed a law permitting it to overrule the decisions of international courts.
The Russian Constitutional Court subsequently ruled that Russia is permitted to overrule international judicial decisions where these would conflict with the Russian Constitution.
Russia disputes the preliminary findings of the ongoing MH17 investigation and rejects suggestions of its responsibility for the atrocity. This suggests that Russia would not accept responsibility for any finding of human rights violations by the European Court of Human Rights.
Beyond the human rights context, yet another action has been launched in the International Court of Justice. In that application, Ukraine asks the International Court of Justice to find Russia responsible for the MH17 disaster and order reparations.
From an international law perspective, the stakes of such an action are higher for Russia than human rights litigation launched by victims’ families. However, Russia’s response is likely to be the same. While the International Court of Justice has progressed the case beyond the initial stage, a finding against Russia may well be disputed and any orders ignored.