A first round of EU sanctions against Russia, unveiled yesterday, has been roundly mocked by Russian officials as weak and meaningless. Hawks among the EU foreign ministers are inclined to agree, and are pushing for an immediate and dramatic escalation of sanctions.
That’s not going to be an easy sell, as the EU can’t impose anything that’s not unanimous, and with Russian trade ties vital to many nations, they are none too eager to make the sanctions war any more biting than it already is.
Austria is leading the opponents, arguing that sanctions are taking the EU and Russia further away from negotiations, and other east and central European nations that depend on Russia for natural gas see tit-for-tat sanctions as something that’s going to hurt them a lot worse than Russia.
Even the nations pushing the sanctions, like Germany and Britain, have important economic ties with Russia, and while Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister David Cameron both insist they’re willing to take the hit to stick it to Russia, there’s likely a limit to how much they can absorb politically.
The sanctions war is already getting underway, as Russian officials are already pushing to scrap a major military helicopter deal worth $1.7 billion with France, on the grounds that the sanctions may not make France a reliable source of such supplies.
At least 56 people were killed today, mostly militants in Anbar and other provinces. Another 18 people were wounded. However, gruesome images and video, allegedly taken by soldiers in Anbar province, suggest that the death tolls could be much higher than is being reported. Soldiers are also reporting high rates of desertion among troops.
At least 51 people were killed and 78 more were wounded in attacks and clashes across Iraq. Once again, the greater Baghdad area was the scene of multiple bombings, while Anbar province continued to suffer clashes between militants and security forces.
Syria’s shipments of the chemicals go through Latakia, deep in rebel territory, and getting trucks to the port has been a difficult proposition, with rebels repeatedly targeting the chemical arsenal on its way abroad.
The OPCW says that “good progress” has been made and Syria has submitted a plan to have the rest of their chemicals shipped out by April 27. The initial goal was to finish disincorporation by the end of June, though it remains to be seen if that can be accomplished.
The ouster of rebels from their last stronghold along the Lebanon border, Yabroud, has not ended the fighting the region, as Syrian military forces continue to battle rebel factions that are in the process of withdrawing, and chased many to an area along the border itself.
Syrian military shelling even spanned the border, hitting the village of Wadi Khaled, where many rebels and refugees had fled, and wounding at least 25according to reports.
Syrian state media reported 11 rebels killed in an ambush, and the military has closed the bordercrossings into Lebanon, likely an attempt to keep rebels from escaping disguised as refugees and keep rebels inside Lebanon from sneaking back in.
Border crossings have been an ongoing problem in the civil war for the Syrian government, as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have all been used by the rebels as weapons smuggling routes, routes for new fighters to enter, and even at times as bases of operations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is on a geopolitical roll these days, despite US and EU sanctions against some of his closest associates. On Monday he recognized Crimea in the wake of its referendum on secession from the Ukraine, despite Western warnings not to do so, and despite severe questions about the accuracy of the statistics put out by Crimea’s rump authorities concerning the alleged turnout and supposed overwhelming vote in favor of seceding.
Less noticed was the advance on Sunday of Hizbullah fighters and Syrian troops into Yabroud, the last territory that had been held by rebel forces on the Lebanon border. The rebels in that part of Syria have now been cut off from supply lines in Lebanon, a major victory for the regime. From Yabroud, fighters had been able to infiltrate Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, but that tactic has now been forestalled. Increasingly also in control of Homs, the Syrian army appears to be gradually extending its control north toward Hama and then Aleppo. There is no early prospect of victory by the regime, which is stretched thin, but it has inflicted a series of heavy blows on rebel forces in the past 8 months. Some of the comeback of the Bashar al-Assad regime, which seemed doomed only a year ago, derives from money and weapons supplied by Putin.
In the current Sunni-Shiite struggles in the east of the Arab world, Putin has in essence made Russia a patron of the Shiites just as it is a patron of the Eastern Orthodox Christians.
The fall of Yabroud led many of the rebels based there to flee to the Sunni town of Arsal over the border in Lebanon, which is surrounded by Shiites in the Bikaa valley. The last of the rebels standing in Yabroud had been the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which has been kicked out of al-Qaeda for being too violent toward other extremist Sunnis. In fact, rivalry between the two and consequent lack of coordination is being blamed by some of the fighters on their loss to Hizbullah at Yabroud.
Lebanon is finding it increasingly difficult to avoid being swept up in the Syria war. At the same time, some sections of its political class are growing closer to Russia via their Iran connection. Iran on the 12th of March held a triumphant congress of the “Friends of Syria,” attended by parliamentary delegations from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Russia, Algeria, Venezuela and Cuba. The Lebanese delegation was from the March 8 coalition of Hizbullah and its Christian allies. Sunni Lebanese of the “March 14 coalition” criticized these parliamentarians for violating the general pledge of “self-restraint,” taken by Lebanese political forces in a bid to keep the tensions over Syria from plunging their country once again into civil war.
In practical terms, this means that all personnel for Syria’s embassy and its consulates in Houston, TX and Troy, MI will be forced to leave the country. The administration said it was “unacceptable” for officials appointed by the Assad government to provide consular services to Syrians inside the US.
US Special Envoy to Syria Daniel Rubenstein insisted that the US will continue “diplomatic relations” with Syria, but is primarily focused on assisting rebels looking to impose regime change.
Pro-rebel Syrian-Americans had been complaining that officials from the embassy, as well as from the office at the United Nations, had been giving pro-Assad speeches around the US, which prompted the travel limits, and apparently now the outright expulsions, ensuring that no Syrian officials will be able to criticize the al-Qaeda dominated rebellion inside US territory.
Four Israeli soldiers were wounded, one gravely so, today in the Shebaa Farms area along the Israel-Syria-Lebanon border when their patrol jeep ran over a roadside bomb.
The attack was carried out by gunmen from an unknown faction, who managed to get “hundreds of meters” into Israeli-occupied territory. They planted two IEDs and fired on the jeep after the explosion.
Israel responded by firing artillery shells against a Syrian Army base in the south, though why they hit the Syrian military is totally unclear and it is ridiculous to imagine Syria’s military took time out of their civil war to plant a couple bombs in the Shebaa Farms.
Israeli officials say they suspect Hezbollah, who promised retaliation after recent Israeli attacks on Lebanon. They said the same thing after a bomb attack on the Lebanon border last week as well, however, and it turned out to be al-Qaeda in Iraq’s doing.