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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
December 16, 2015

Publication: Putin in Syria
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia Detains 27 Turkish Ships; Turkey Detains 8 Russian Ships in Trade War Following Downing of Russian Fighter

Turkey and Russia have been engaged in a war of detaining each others' ships in the wake of the deterioration of relations and boycotts since Turkey's downing of a Russian fighter plane that strayed into its air space briefly near the Syrian border. reports that Turkey has detained 27 Russian tanks and freighters, and Russia has held 8 Turkish ships. To date, two Russian ships, the Pyotr Streltsov and the York, have still not been allowed to leave Turkish ports.

According to the site which monitors the Black Sea memorandum on cooperation in shipping, Russia's Sarocherkass, under a Cambodian flag, was detained November 27 soon after the downing of the flight for 3 days for "technical reasons."

Then in the following days in November and December, four Turkish ships -- the Meira, Adaladi, Halil Sachin and Mert Deval were help at Russia's port of Novorossiysk on various claims of missing lifeboats, broken fire-extinguishing systems or defects in the navigation system and onboard recorders.

Turkey then retaliated by detaining another Russian ship on each following day of December, also citing fire safety or other infractions. In each case, the ship would be kept for inspection 2-3 days and then let go.

The Russian consulate in Ankara as well as in Istanbul and Trabzon did not confirm the information of the holding of Russia's ship, and RIA Novosti quoted the Russian press attache in Ankara as saying there were no notices from Turkey about any infractions of ship-owners.

But this may be due to the fact that the "arrests" were not made forcibly but are detentions with a request to fix technical problems. Port officials would routinely check ships anyway in port,  Mikhail Voytenko, a shipping expert told

Each day a ship is help up in port, it can lose $7,000 to $8,000 in damages, and after enough reports of infractions, a ship can lose its right to sail in EU waters, he said. He said Russia had been first to use the technique of picking on infractions to hold up ships after the plan was shot down.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
A Diplomatic Breakthrough, Or More Wishful Thinking?

US Secretary of State has been in Moscow since Monday, and today there's a lot of news concerning diplomatic solutions to the Syrian crisis.

Perhaps most importantly of all, John Kerry told reporters that removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not the priority in US strategic thinking, a statement that the Associated Press is calling an apparent turnaround by the Obama administration:

"The United States and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change," Kerry told reporters in the Russian capital after meeting President Vladimir Putin. A major international conference on Syria would take place later this week in New York, Kerry announced.

Kerry reiterated the U.S. position that Assad, accused by the West of massive human rights violations and chemical weapons attacks, won't be able to steer Syria out of more than four years of conflict.

But after a day of discussions with Assad's key international backer, Kerry said the focus now is "not on our differences about what can or cannot be done immediately about Assad." Rather, it is on facilitating a peace process in which "Syrians will be making decisions for the future of Syria."

Assad can stay, for now: Kerry accepts Russian stance

MOSCOW (AP) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday accepted Russia's long-standing demand that President Bashar Assad's future be determined by his own people, as Washington and Moscow edged toward putting aside years of disagreement over how to end Syria's civil war.

View full page →
Dec 17, 2015 01:14 (GMT)

ABC news notes that Kerry went even further by saying that Russia and the United States have the same goals in Syria:

“Despite the different positions of our countries, we have shown that Russia and the United States are moving in the same direction,” Kerry said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was also upbeat, calling the talks “substantive.”

Kerry appears to have found "common ground" with Moscow on Ukraine as well. Again, ABC reports:

“We do not seek to isolate Russia,” Kerry said and appeared to downplay the significance of economic sanctions imposed by Washington over Moscow’s seizure of Crimea, saying they “were to register our disapproval of what had happened," but adding that they would remain in place until Russia fulfills a peace agreement with Ukraine. He emphasized though that “the United States stands ready to work with Russia.”

John Kerry is known for his gaffes, but was this statement a mistake?

Meanwhile both the United states and Russia have agreed to seek a UN Security Council resolution to cut off funding for ISIS by freezing its assets, imposing new embargoes, and targeting ISIS's ability to sell oil. Wall Street Journal reports:

The resolution will seek to bind U.N. member nations to take more assertive steps to cut off the funding of Islamic State, including its smuggling of oil, and to stanch the supply of fighters and materials going to the terrorist group in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and other countries where it operates.

“It is important that the international community implement these measures to further disrupt the funding of terrorists,” [ U.S. Secretary of Treasury Jacob Lew] said in an interview ahead of the U.N. meeting. “The sources of the Islamic State’s funds are evolving."

The resolution, more broadly, will compel countries to more aggressively share intelligence on terrorist threats and to develop common standards to better track terrorist financing.

The problem? Russia has recently accused Turkey of assisting ISIS in smuggling oil, a claim which both Turkey and the US emphatically and categorically deny.

As we stated yesterday, many former members of the Obama administration - and John Kerry himself, have criticized  the current diplomatic approach, and many pointed to the belief that, contrary to today's statements by John Kerry, Russia's goals in Syria are in fact very different than America's goals, with the protection of the Assad regime being the principal aim of the Russian government, and the attack on ISIS being the key goal of the US-led coalition:

Furthermore, as John Kerry was meeting with his Russian counterpart yesterday in Moscow, Russia was conducting massive airstrikes, primarily against civilians, and almost-exclusively in areas where ISIS does not operate:

When discussing Russia's role in Syria it's always important to remember its relationship with Iran. Russia has provided Iran diplomatic cover at the UN, just as it has done for the Assad regime. Russia also positioned itself as the chief negotiator between the international community and the Iranian regime, securing a deal on Iran's nuclear program.

Yet just yesterday, US Ambassador Samantha Power, the permanent representative to the UN, slammed Iran's violations of its various agreements, and the UN Security Council's "troubling tendency to look the other way when these measures have been willfully violated in recent months."

Her statement continues:

This past October, Iran launched a ballistic missile that was obviously capable of delivering a nuclear weapon. Security Council resolution 1929, still in force, prohibits this kind of launch. After reviewing this incident, the UN's own independent Panel of Experts also concluded definitively that it was a violation of this resolution. Yet instead of an effective, timely response, the Security Council has dithered. We intend to keep working with Council members so as to acknowledge and respond appropriately to this serious incident.

And there have been other violations. Just last week the international affairs advisor to Iran's Supreme Leader acknowledged, said outright, that General Qasem Soleimani, who is subject to a UN Security Council travel ban, visited Russia. This advisor called such travel "absolutely normal." That’s a direct quote. Also, in late September, a shipment of arms from Iran was intercepted off the coast of Oman – this shipment was a violation of Resolution 1747.

We don’t see how Council members can cast doubt on these violations. In many cases, Iranian officials have boasted publicly about taking prohibited actions, leaving them no plausible deniability. No desire on their part for deniability. After the October launch, Iran’s Defense Minister even declared, “We don’t ask permission from anyone” as he went on to describe the ballistic missile’s technical capabilities.

This Council cannot allow Iran to feel that it can violate our resolutions with impunity. Some Council members may not like those resolutions, but they are our resolutions.

Furthermore, we reject the notion that those countries that raise these violations in the Security Council – countries like the United States - are somehow responsible for destabilizing the JCPOA [ Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action].  Implementing Council resolutions is the sine qua non of a credible, enforceable nuclear deal and to suggest otherwise is to miss the point of the JCPOA – and the point of the UN Security Council. A sense of impunity for violators will not help this deal.

The Council members who raise violations of our resolutions, who seek action from this Council in response to violations of our resolutions are not the destabilizers. We are not the rule breakers. Iran is when it violates Council resolutions. It’s not allowed under the resolutions and they’re admitting it.

The "council members" in question are Russia, and often China.

In her statement she also mentions Qasem Soleimani's reported travels to Moscow. Soleimani is the leader of Iran's al Quds force, the arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that is running combat operations in Syria. Al Quds is also implicated in attacks in Iraq which have resulted in the deaths of US soldiers.

If Russia is meeting with Soleimani (a claim Russia denies), who was recently rumored to have been injured in Syria by rebels which the US has helped arm, then how can Kerry's statement that Russia and the US are moving in the same direction possibly be true?

-- James Miller