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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Syria: December 23, 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 Says Taliban's Interests 'Coincide' With Its Own, Even As Moscow Supplies Arms to Afghan Government

Russia has announced it is prepared to cooperate with the Taliban in Afghanistan for the sake of fighting ISIS -- still known as ISIL in Russia -- reports.

Zamir Kabulov, President Vladimir Putin's special representative for Afghanistan, said in an interview with Interfax (translation by The Interpreter):

"The interests of the Taliban even without stimulation objectively coincide with ours," said the diplomat, recalling that earlier he had already spoken of the presence in Moscow of channels of communication with the Taliban to exchange information.
The news of Russia's secret channel to the Taliban had been broken by The Daily Beast on October 26.

The Taliban are not as lonely as they once were. The pariahs who protected Osama bin Laden and quickly collapsed when the U.S. counter-attacked after September 11, 2001, have been developing contacts with neighboring states and even with Russia, driven out of Afghanistan in 1989.

There’s nothing simple about this picture, and, interestingly, it appears partly tied to Russian efforts to oppose the spread in Afghanistan of groups pledging allegiance to the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. That same concern has helped to forge links between the Taliban and their longtime enemies in Iran.

And the Russian connection is emerging, ironically, at the same time that Afghanistan’s Uzbek warlord and vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, has openly warmed to his onetime allies in Russia and tried to strengthen ties to the former Soviet states on Afghan frontier.

Dostum visited Moscow and Grozny this month and launched an offensive just last week in provinces near the Turkmenistan border. Dostum lumped the Taliban together with Daesh, a common Arabic acronym for the Islamic state, on his enemies list.
At that time, Kabulov, who serves in the Second Department for Asia at the Russian Foreign Ministry, responded to the Daily Beast report, reported

"We have channels with the Talibans, when we want to convey something to them, but what the Daily Beast has in mind, I don't know...There is a channel of communication."
The Beast said it had learned from "a former Afghan Taliban governor and member of the group's military committee" who did not want to be cited by name that “the American global attitude and the threat from ISIS makes for a convergence of Taliban and Russian interests, and we could not rule out further cooperation, depending on the emerging scenario in the Middle East.” 

The contacts were made in Tajikistan, a Central Asian country bordering Afghanistan where Russia has a base and border troops and considerable influence -- a sizable part of the GDP of this poorest of Central Asian countries comes from labor migrants' remittances from Russia.

Moscow's contacts with the Taliban were apparently first established in mid-2013 to obtain the return of a Russian pilot captured after he made an emergency landing in an area near Kabul under Taliban influence. Then in May, the Taliban was supplied with weapons from Tajikistan in exchange for releasing 4 Tajik border guards they had captured while they were cutting wood across the river that marks the border.

There were other signs of contact, said the Beast:

At a peace conference in Qatar last summer, according to Qustad Qari Bu-Rahman, who attended on behalf of Hizb Islami Afghanistan (the Hikmatyar group), “A Russian who spoke perfect Pashto was there as an observer. He was called on demand of the Taliban, so there’s no doubt about the Taliban and Moscow having contact.”
In October, the Wall Street Journal also reported that the Afghan government had asked Russia to supply artillery, firearms and Mi-35 combat helicopters -- after the US and its allies withdraw a large number of troops from the area and reduced financial aid. That put Moscow and its neighbors in the position of "playing a double game or at least keeping their options open," said the Beast.

At 16:32 Moscow time, Interfax published the news that Russia had agreed to supply weapons to Afghanistan; the admission of the "coincidence of interests" between Russia and the Taliban over ISIS then followed a minute later at 16:32.

Kabulov said: 

"We're prepared to send weapons there [to Afghanistan] but we will do this carefully and mainly on a commercial basis."
Was the Foreign Ministry now pushed into admitting the relationship to the Taliban by the The Daily Beast's report? It seems unlikely given that the article was published two months ago, and other indications of the connections have appeared. It's more likely Russia wants to place pressure on the US and its allies in Afghanistan as it increasingly asserts itself in Central Asia and the Middle East.

In October, the US decided to extend troop presence in Afghanistan through 2016, and to reduce the current force of 9,800 to 5,500 in 2017. This week six US service people were killed in a suicide bomb attack in Bagram as they were patrolling jointly with the Afghan army. Two other US military and 1 contractor were wounded.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Amnesty International 'Unmasks' Russian Claims That It's Not Killing Civilians In Syria

Amnesty International has written a scathing rebuke of Russia's claims that it is not killing civilians in Syria. According to the report, not only have civilians been killed by Russian airstrikes in large numbers, but Russia appears to have deliberately targeted residential neighborhoods and even medical facilities where military targets were absent. Furthermore, Russia is also using cluster munitions and unguided bombs in areas where civilians live with blatant disregard for human life.

Amnesty reports:

The report focuses on six attacks in Homs, Idleb and Aleppo between September and November 2015 which killed at least 200 civilians and around a dozen fighters. The briefing includes evidence suggesting that Russian authorities may have lied to cover up civilian damage to a mosque from one air strike and a field hospital in another. It also documents evidence suggesting Russia’s use of internationally banned cluster munitions and of unguided bombs in populated residential areas.

“Some Russian air strikes appear to have directly attacked civilians or civilian objects by striking residential areas with no evident military target and even medical facilities, resulting in deaths and injuries to civilians. Such attacks may amount to war crimes,” said Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.

“It is crucial that suspected violations are independently and impartially investigated.”

The Russian authorities have claimed that their armed forces are only striking “terrorist” targets. After some attacks, they have responded to reports of civilian deaths, by denying they killed civilians; after others, they have simply stayed silent.

Amnesty International interviewed eyewitnesses and survivors of attacks as well as examining video evidence and images showing the aftermath of attacks, aided by analysis by weapons experts. The attacks were identified as suspected Russian air strikes by cross-referencing details of each attack with statements from the Russian Ministry of Defence announcing “terrorist” targets struck, or from details about the nature of the attack in witness testimony.

The organization’s research into these strikes indicate that there were no military targets or fighters in the immediate vicinity of the areas that were struck. This suggests that the attacks may have violated international humanitarian law and may, in some circumstances, constitute war crimes.

We will be analyzing the full Amnesty report later today, but it matches claims made by multiple international NGOs, Western governments, independent think tanks, eyewitness testimony received from Syria by The Interpreter, and our own assessment of videos posted by both Syrians on the ground and the Russian Ministry of Defence.

Russia, of course, is denying these new claims through its government spokespersons and also through state-controlled propaganda outlets like RT and Sputnik:

Sputnik reports:

The Amnesty International report on civilian deaths caused by Russian airstrikes in Syria consists of "fakes and cliches", the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said Wednesday.
"We have studied the report — again, there was nothing precise and new published there. The same cliches and fakes that we have often disproved earlier. The report if full of such expressions as "presumably Russian airstrikes", "possible international law violations" and so on. Sheer assumptions without any proof."


Russian aircraft in Syria do not use cluster munitions and such weapons are not stored at the Hmeymim airbase, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said.

"As for cluster munitions allegations. The Russian aviation are not using them."

The ministry cast doubts on the authenticity of the airphotos used by the human rights watchdog and called on Amnesty International to name the sources of the information it had used in the report.

Claims that Russia is using cluster munitions in Syria are not new. In fact, Human Rights Watch, which has been cataloging weapons used in the Syrian conflict since the outbreak of fighting more than four years ago, documented Russia's use of new, advanced cluster munitions in October, either by dropping them with their own planes or by supplying the powerful, and indiscriminate weapons to the Assad regime. Al Jazeera reports:

The New York-based group said that photographs it obtained showed that the cluster munitions were dropped on Kafr Halab, a village southwest of Syria's second city of Aleppo, on October 4.


A video posted on October 7 by activists that was reportedly taken in the town of Kafr Zeita, northwest of Hama, shows smoke trails of ground-fired rockets launched from the direction of Jabal Zayn al-Abidin and multiple subsequent explosions of submunitions in the town.

Photographs and a video posted online by local activists in October, with title text that says they were taken at Masaran village in Idlib, shows at least one unexploded AO-2.5RT submunition and the remnants of an RBK-500 canister, which can contain up to 108 submunitions.

Reuters published a photograph taken in Masaran that shows a first responder handling unexploded AO-2.5RT submunitions that local activists told the news agency were used in an attack by the Russian air force on October 7.

A report just published three days ago by Human Rights Watch (HRW) contains even more details:

The military offensive that the Russian and Syrian government forces opened against armed groups opposed to the government on September 30, 2015, has included extensive use of cluster munitions – inherently indiscriminate and internationally banned weapons.

The use violates United Nations resolution 2139 of February 22, 2014, which demanded that all parties involved in Syria end “indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas,” Human Rights Watch said. It also contradicts a statement issued by the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates on November 9, 2015, in which it insisted that the Syrian Arab Armed Forces do not and will not use indiscriminate weapons.

“Syria’s promises on indiscriminate weapons ring hollow when cluster munitions keep hitting civilians in many parts of the country,” said Ole Solvang, deputy emergencies director. “The UN Security Council should get serious about its commitment to protect Syria’s civilians by publicly demanding that all sides stop the use of cluster munitions.”

Human Rights Watch documented that cluster munitions were used on at least 20 occasions since Syria and Russia began their joint offensive on September 30. Human Rights Watch collected detailed information about attacks in nine locations that have killed at least 35 civilians, including five women and 17 children, and injured dozens. Two attacks hit camps for the displaced. For the other attacks, Human Rights Watch obtained visual confirmation of the cluster munition used and a second source confirmed the attack. The cluster munitions used in Syria recently that Human Rights Watch was able to confirm were manufactured in the former Soviet Union or Russia.

If the Syrian government and the Russian government are both denying using cluster munitions, and the Russian government has complained that the US is not bombing these locations (Russia says ISIS, which the US is bombing, is located in many locations in western Syria where there is in fact no ISIS presence) then who is dropping Russian-made cluster bombs on the Syrian people?

It's also interesting that the Russian government has called on Amnesty International to publish its sources, since much of this war is documented by civilians who have been hunted by the Assad regime for simply posting videos such as these online.

-- James Miller