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Trump, WikiLeaks and Russia

When a Fox News reporter asked Donald Trump about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange back in 2010, just after Assange had released a huge cache of secret US diplomatic cables, the reality TV star had no doubts: “I think it’s disgraceful, I think there should be like the death penalty or something.”

Circumstances change, however, and smart people with big brains know when it’s time to switch sides. It was WikilLeaks, once again, that revealed the hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee that did such damage to Hillary Clinton’s campaign last summer. But Trump now readily accepts Assange’s word that he didn’t get those emails from the Russians.

Trump has been having a problem with the main US intelligence agencies, which unanimously insist that the Russians did indeed hack the DNC’s emails, and that they passed them to WikiLeaks (through an intermediary) in order to damage Clinton’s presidential election campaign. “Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” as the joint intelligence report put it.

So Trump was very happy to be able to reply (in a tweet, of course) that “Assange… said Russians did not give him the info!” After all, what motive could Assange have for lying about it?

Well, there is the fact that Assange has been living in one room in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for the past four years, in order to avoid being extradited to the United States on espionage charges that could get him up to 45 years in prison. Donald Trump is the one person who could make all that trouble go away, once he becomes the president, so doing him a favour now might be a wise move on Assange’s part.

Assange would not even have to lie outright, because the Russians would obviously never give him the emails directly. There would have to be one or more persons in between, because WikiLeaks is not in the business of taking leaks from governments. Assange might have strong suspicions about who originally hacked the DNC, but he did not necessarily go all out to confirm them.

Moreover, as Trump points out, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are the same organisations that cooked up the evidence for Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” so that President George W. Bush could invade Iraq.

Nevertheless, the US intelligence agencies are probably right to blame their Russian counterparts for the hacks that caused the Clinton campaign such problems. President Vladimir Putin has been quite open about preferring Trump to Clinton, and the leaks definitely gave a boost to Trump’s election campaign in late July and August.

On the other hand, that happened so long before the actual vote in November that it’s impossible to say if it had any effect on the outcome.

The event that probably did give Trump his very narrow margin of victory (100,000 votes spread between three key swing states) was FBI director James Comey’s bizarre decision to declare that Hillary Clinton was facing another investigation only eleven days before the vote.

It’s all might-have-beens, and the only reason it has become controversial is Trump’s extremely thin skin. He is questioning the intelligence services’ conclusions about Russian interference because he believes (wrongly) that they undermine the validity of his election victory. But his strong sympathy for the Russian position, though driven by perceived personal interests, is a refreshing break from the usual Washington paranoia.

He said it himself (in another tweet): “Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only stupid people or fools would think that it is bad. We have enough problems around the world without yet another one.”

This is a perfectly reasonable statement. Trump’s views on China give cause for alarm, but his desire for a reconciliation with Russia makes more sense than the reflex hostility that both Hillary Clinton and the US intelligence services bring to the relationship. Vladimir Putin is a player, and sometimes he plays rough, but his recent meddling in the American election is far less than the massive US interference in Russian elections in the 1990s.

In seeking a rapprochement with Moscow, Trump should not make the mistake of accepting Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Changing borders by force (even if most of the local population approves of it) has been banned by international law for more than half a century, and we should not start making exceptions to that rule now.

But while the United States never accepted the old Soviet Union’s illegal annexation of the Baltic states in 1940, it did not let that stand in the way of improving the US-Soviet relationship as the Cold War drew to an end.

There is much that the United States and Russia could usefully cooperate on now, starting with putting an end to the war in Syria. On this issue, at least, Trump is right and Obama, Clinton and the spooks are wrong.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“Assange…them”; and “The event…vote”)

The Reunification of Syria

So far the end-game in Syria has played out in an entirely predictable way. All of Aleppo is back in the Syrian government’s hands, that decisive victory for President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers has been followed by a ceasefire, and the Russians are now organising a peace conference in Astana, Kazakhstan for later this month.

The one surprise is that Turkey, long the rebels’ most important supporter, will be co-chairing the conference. This means that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made a deal of some sort with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, for Astana is clearly going to be a Russian show. (The United States has not been invited, and Saudi Arabia probably won’t be asked to attend either.)

So what kind of deal has Erdogan made with Putin? The details may well have been fudged, for Turkey has not yet renounced its long-standing insistence that Assad must step down as the Syrian leader. But it’s pretty easy to figure out most of what is going to be on the table in Astana (assuming the ceasefire holds until then).

Assad has won the war, thanks largely to Russian and Iranian intervention, and the Syrian rebels are doomed. There is no point in their fighting on, because ALL their outside supporters are peeling away. Turkey is now cooperating with Russia, in three weeks Donald Trump will be US president and also cooperating with Moscow, and Saudi Arabia is hopelessly over-committed to its futile war in Yemen.

Even little Qatar, once one of the main paymasters of the Syrian rebellion, has now lost interest: it recently signed an $11.5 billion deal for a 19.5% stake in Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil producer. The rebels are completely on their own, and their only options are surrender or dying in the last ditch.

Syria’s rebels are almost all Islamists of one sort or another by now, but the less extreme ones will probably be offered an amnesty at Astana in return for signing a peace deal – which may contain some vague language about an election that MIGHT replace Assad at some point in the indefinite future. That’s as much as will be on offer, because Assad does not intend to quit and Moscow will not force him to.

The extreme Islamists – Islamic State, which controls much of eastern Syria and western Iraq, and the former Nusra Front, which controls much of north-western Syria – have not been invited to Astana, nor would they accept an invitation if it was issued.

The ex-Nusra Front (now renamed the Front for the Conquest of the Levant to disguise its membership in al-Qaeda) was refreshingly frank in condemning the ceasefire and the peace talks: “We did not negotiate a ceasefire with anyone. The solution is to topple the regime through military action,” it said. A political solution would be “a waste of blood and revolution.”

But a military victory over Assad is no longer possible, so these groups are destined to lose on the battlefield and revert to mere terrorism. In terms of what a post-civil war Syria will look like, the great unanswered question is: what happens to the Syrian Kurds?

They are only one-tenth of the Syrian population, but they now control almost all the Kurdish-majority areas across northern Syria. As America’s only ally on the ground in Syria, they have played a major role in driving back Islamic State. They are not Islamists, they are not terrorists, and they have avoided any military confrontation with Turkey despite President Erdogan’s war on his country’s own Kurdish minority.

Yet Erdogan publicly identifies the Syrian Kurds as Turkey’s enemy, and they have not (or at least not yet) been invited to the Astana peace conference. Was Erdogan’s price for switching sides a free hand in destroying Rojava, the proto-state created by the Syrian Kurds? Very probably, yes.

Assad would be content for that to happen, provided Turkey handed over the corpse afterwards. Putin doesn’t care one way or the other, and it’s most unlikely that Trump does either. The Turkish army will have its hands full fighting the Syrian Kurds, but it has the numbers and the firepower to prevail in the end.

So even if the current ceasefire holds, and even if the peace conference at Astana goes exactly according to Moscow’s plan, there is still some fighting to be done in Syria. Assad’s army, with Russian and Iranian support, will have to suppress both Islamic State and the former Nusra Front, and the Turks will have to subjugate the Syrian Kurds.

This will take time, but with no more weapons and money flowing in from outside (since Turkey has turned off the taps) it will probably happen in the end. Which means that Assad will probably one day rule once again over a united Syria.

That is a deeply discouraging prospect, but it is probably the least bad option that remains.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 12. (“The ex-Nusra…revolution”; and “Assad…end”)

Rethinking the Russian Revolution

“We have imagined how things would have been at that time if there was an internet and people were using social media,” said Mikhail Zygar, the creator of the biggest-ever interactive historical website. It’s called “1917: Free History”, and it’s a quietly subversive attempt to make Russians think about how they ended up where they are now.

Zygar is one of Russian’s best journalists. He was the editor-in-chief of Dozhd (Rain), the only independent TV news channel in the country, until he resigned – or more likely was force to resign – last year. But he’s back with an extraordinary project: to relive the events leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 as if the people involved, from statesmen to private citizens, had been posting daily on social media.

More than one hundred journalists, historians and web professionals worked for a year, trawling through letters, diaries and archives to come up with authentic material written by people who were living the history one day at a time.

The characters include all the big figures from the Tsar and Rasputin to Lenin and Trotsky, but also artists, writers, soldiers, workers and housewives. And they were all following current events closely, because it was the middle of the First World War.

There are 1,500 characters, each posting Facebook-style updates on their activities and impressions, their hopes and fears, all drawn from what they actually wrote at the time. You can “like” specific characters and follow them on a regular basis. You can even ask them questions and send them messages. (Tsar Nicolas II has already received several warnings that he and his family will be killed by the Bolsheviks.)

“1917: Free History” has no obvious political stance. It offers no conclusions, and the comments of the various characters come without any interpretation. The public justification for this massive undertaking is simply that next year is the centenary of the Bolshevik (Communist) Revolution, the biggest turning point in modern Russian history. And yet…

And yet Mikhail Zygar is a very political man, a liberal who has consistently resisted the lies and manipulations of the Putin regime. So what is he really up to? What would Zygar like people to conclude after their fifteen-month journey through Russia’s hundred-year-ago history?

All he will say is that “Everything that happened to us in the 20th century and is happening now is a consequence of the events of 1917.” That includes not only of the crimes and tragedies of the Soviet era but also what “is happening now.” And now is not a good time in Russia either.

Russians are not enthusiastic readers of history, but any intelligent Russian who follows “1917” through to the end will know that while the first (democratic) revolution in March 1917 was probably inevitable, given the Tsar’s gross mismanagement of the Russian war effort, the second revolution was not inevitable at all. It was a fluke, a “Black Swan”, a highly improbable event that happened anyway.

The October Revolution that brought the Communists to power was not really a revolution. It was a coup d’etat, led by a small goup of ruthless Bolsheviks with the support of some troops in the capital.

When the election that had already been scheduled took place two weeks later, the Bolsheviks won only 175 out of 715 seats in the parliament – but that didn’t matter by then, because the Bolsheviks immediately dissolved the parliament and ruled by decree. And the point of bringing up this old history is not to prove that the Communists were bad; it is to show that they were not inevitable.

Most Russians are fatalistic about their history. They believe that it’s all their own fault, because they are the kind of people they are. If you believe that, then you believe that seventy years of Communist dictatorship were inevitable, that the civil war, the famines and the great purges were inevitable, that tyranny, corruption and poverty are inevitable – and that Putin or somebody like him is inevitable now.

But none of that is true. Change just one little detail in the run-up to the October Revolution – for example, what if the Germans had not shipped Lenin to Russia in the hope that he would seize power and take Russia out of the war? – and the improbable Communist seizure of power becomes impossible.

Once you have realised that the Communist coup was just bad luck and not Russia’s inevitable fate, all the subsequent bad history ceases to be inevitable too. The country just turned down the wrong road in 1917, but another turn could put it on the right road.

Is that the message Zygar is trying to get across? I suspect it is, although he is far too intelligent to believe it will have any immediate effect. It’s just a drop in the bucket – but it’s a pretty big drop, and eventually the bucket may overflow.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paras. 5 and 11. (“There…Bolsheviks”; and “When…inevitable”)

After Aleppo: A Kind of Peace?

Eastern Aleppo, the rebel-held half of what was once Syria’s biggest city, is falling. Once the resistance there collapses, things may move very fast in Syria, and the biggest question will be: do the outside powers that have intervened in the war accept Bashar al-Assad’s victory, or do they keep the war going?

Even one year ago, it seemed completely unrealistic to talk about an Assad victory. The Syrian government’s army was decimated, demoralised and on the verge of collapse: every time the rebels attacked, it retreated.

There was even a serious possibility that Islamic State and the Nusra Front, the extreme Islamist groups that dominated the rebel forces, would sweep to victory in all of Syria. But then, just fourteen months ago, the Russian air force was sent in to save Assad’s army from defeat.

It did more than that. It enabled the Syrian army, with help on the ground from Shia militias recruited from Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq and mostly trained and commanded by Iranian officers, to go onto the offensive. Assad’s forces took back the historic city of Palmyra. They eliminated the last rebel-held foothold in the city of Homs. And last summer they began to cut eastern Aleppo’s remaining links with the outside world.

In July government forces took control of the Castello Road, ending the flow of food and supplies for eastern Aleppo’s ten thousand rebel fighters and its claimed civilian population of 250,000 people. (The real total of civilians left in the east of the city, once home to around a million people, is almost certainly a small fraction of that number.)

A rebel counter-offensive in August briefly opened a new corridor into eastern Aleppo, but government troops retook the lost territory and resumed the siege in September.

For almost two months now almost nothing has moved into or out of the besieged half of the city, and both food and ammunition are running short inside. So the resistance is starting to collapse.

The Hanano district fell on Saturday, and Jabal Badro fell on Sunday. The capture of Sakhour on Monday has cut the rebel-held part of Aleppo in two, and the remaining bits north of the cut will quickly be pinched out by the Syrian government’s troops.

The southeastern part of the city may stay in rebel hands a while longer, but military collapses of this sort are infectious. It is now likely that Bashar al-Assad will control all of Aleppo before the end of the year, and possibly much sooner.

At that point he would control all of Syria’s major cities, at least three-quarters of the population that has not fled abroad, and all of the country’s surviving industry. He would be in a position to offer an amnesty to all the rebels except the extreme Islamists of Islamic State and the Nusra Front, and a lot of the less fanatical Syrian rebels would be tempted to accept it.

For the many foreign powers that are involved in the Syrian civil war, it would then come down to a straight choice: Assad’s cruel but conventional regime or the Islamist crazies.

Even Turkey and Saudi Arabia, however much their leaders may loathe Assad, could not openly put their armies at the service of the Islamists. (They used to send them arms and money, but even that has stopped now.) And for a newly installed President Donald Trump, it would become a lot simpler to “make a deal” with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to finish the job of crushing Islamic State and the Nusra Front together.

Would the Russians and the Americans then hand over all the recaptured territory to Assad’s regime? Many people in Washington would rather hang onto it temporarily in order to blackmail Syria’s ruling Baath Party into replacing Assad with somebody a bit less tainted, but a deal between Putin and Trump would certainly preclude that sort of games-playing.

How could Trump reconcile such a deal with Russia with his declared intention to cancel the agreement the United States signed last March to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions? Iran is Russia’s closest ally in the Middle East, and if Trump broke that agreement he would be reopening a US military confrontation with Iran.

Since this question may not even have crossed Mr Trump’s mind yet, it would be pointless for us to speculate on which way he might jump three months from now.

It’s equally pointless to wonder what kind of deal the Syrian Kurds will end up with. Turkey will want to ensure that they have no autonomous government of their own and are thoroughly subjugated by Assad’s regime. The United States, on the other hand, owes them a debt of honour for carrying the main burden of fighting Islamic State on the ground – but the Kurds are used to being betrayed.

All we can say with some confidence at the moment is that it looks like Assad has won his six-year war to stay in power.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 16. (“In July…September”; and “It’s…betrayed”)