Vladimir Putin took the world by surprise with his March 14 announcement that he is ordering the Russian military to withdraw most of its forces from Syria—just as the new round of peace talks is opening in Geneva. Russia has deployed more than 50 jets and helicopters to its air base at Khmeimim (also rendered Hemeimeem) in coastal Latakia governorate, and they have since September flown near-daily combat sorties. Russia boasts that thanks to its air support, the Damascus regime has extended its control to 400 towns and villages over an area of 10,000 square kilometers. Moscow also emphasized that it will keep its base at Khmeimim, as well as another at the port of Tartus, just down the coast. (See map.) (AP, RT)
The High Negotiations Committee (HNC), comprised of Syrian opposition groups, stated March 11 that they will attend peace discussions with the Damascus government facilitated by the UN that will begin next week. The HNC seeks a transitional government with full executive powers, and no role for President Bashar al-Assad or his associates. These peace negotiations will likely discuss possible federal division of Syria. Last month the UN Security Council last month approved the Syria ceasefire plan, which has been successful so far. These peace talks will follow the first round of negotiations that failed in early February during a Russian-backed government offensive.
The notion that Syria's Rojava Kurds are collaborating with Russia—and, by extension, the genocidal Bashar Assad regime—is fast gaining currency. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond was the latest to make the charge, telling Parliament: "What we have seen over the last weeks is very disturbing evidence of coordination between Syrian Kurdish forces, the Syrian regime and the Russian air force which are making us distinctly uneasy about the Kurds' role in all of this." (The Telegraph, Feb. 20) The regime is openly boasting of an alliance with the Kurds' Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military arm, the People's Protection Units (YPG). Speaking of recent YPG advances against Islamist factions, Bouthaina Shaaban, the regime's top propagandist, said: "The YPG Kurdish units, the armed group of PYD, are cooperating with the Syrian army and Russian air forces to clear northern Syria of terrorism." (Middle East Observer, Feb. 20) The regime UN ambassador Bashar Jaafari said: "So the victory, achieved by the Syrian Kurds and the Syrian army in northern parts of Syria is a joint victory for all Syrians." These comments were of course avidly reported in the Turkish press. (Anadolu Agency, Yeni Safak, Feb. 17)
A group of self-styled "militiamen" made headlines over the weekend when they took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters building in eastern Oregon's Harney Basin. They are evidently led by Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher known for his 2014 standoff with the federal government (over unpaid grazing fees to the Bureau of Land Management). They say they are acting on behalf of Dwight and Steven Hammond, father and son of a local ranching family, who were sentenced to five years in prison for setting a fire on BLM land after the Ninth Circuit upheld the mandatory minimum for arson on federal lands. By various accounts, the fire was ostensibly set to clear invasive plants, or as a "backfire" (or "controlled burn") to keep a brush-fire from spreading to their property. But the Justice Department press release on the sentencing portrays a reckless act intentionally designed as a provocation to the feds. In any case, the Hammonds don't seem too enthusiastic about the action taken on their behalf. The right-wing militant Idaho 3 Percent was instrumental in the take-over, according to an early account on Central Oregon's KTVZ.
Ahead of next month's planned meeting between Syrian opposition groups and the government of Bashar al-Assad, Voice of America writes: "But already, there is a sense that the talks, advocated by the United States, are doomed to fail." Among those quoted is former CIA director James Woolsey, who told VOA: "I haven't seen any indication that the US has a coherent plan for dealing with failed states." Also quoted is Lahur Talabani, intelligence chief for Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government, who said: "There is no Syria or Iraq. With the arrival of [ISIS] in the region, they removed the borders that were put in place."