Russia draws up tit-for-tat US visa bans: report

Russia has drawn up a list of U.S. officials to be barred from entering the country in response to U.S. visa restrictions imposed on Russian officials over the death of a lawyer, a newspaper reported on Wednesday.

If the report by the business daily Kommersant is confirmed, the decision will be the latest of several signs in the past few weeks that the “reset” aimed at improving U.S.-Russian relations under U.S. President Barack Obama is under threat.

“In the case of the United States we will simply put a cross next to the names of those who are not wanted. When a person applies for a visa at a Russian consulate he will be rejected,” a Foreign Ministry source told Kommersant.

Reuters could not immediately reach the Foreign Ministry for comment but Interfax news agency quoted a ministry source as saying Russia was still working on its response.

“There could be lists of Americans barred from entering Russia, but the issue is still being worked on,” the source told Interfax.

The U.S. State Department said last month it had placed visa restrictions on Russian officials accused of involvement in the death of hedge fund lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian prison as he awaited trial on tax evasion and fraud charges in 2009.

The Kremlin’s human rights council said the 37-year-old lawyer, who represented Hermitage Capital equity fund, was possibly beaten to death. His colleagues say the charges were fabricated by police investigators he had accused of cheating the state through fraudulent tax returns.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said last month the U.S. visa restrictions were unjustified and that it would respond with “adequate measures”, but gave no details.

Reuters

Moscow to NATO: Do not extend missile shield

Russia cautioned the U.S. and its NATO allies Aug. 8 against plans to extend an anti-missile shield into northern European seas.

On a visit to Norway, Russia’s ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin deplored the lack of any firm guarantees from the alliance that American ships fitted with anti-missile technology would not be deployed in northern waters.

“The very fact of deploying U.S. military missile defense infrastructure in the Northern seas is a real provocation with regard to the process of nuclear disarmament”, said Rogozin at a press conference.

“Why is no one giving guarantees that a U.S. fleet equipped with Aegis interceptor systems won’t be deployed in the Northern seas?” he said.

“I’m sure that if there were no such plans in reality, then I would have been given a very definite negative answer. I didn’t get any firm answer to this question,” he said, adding that Russia had repeatedly asked the U.S. for answers.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed at a NATO summit in November to explore the possibility of cooperating on a system to protect Europe’s population from the threat of ballistic missiles from countries such as Iran.

Fearing that the system would undermine its nuclear deterrent, Moscow has since been demanding a legally binding guarantee that the missile shield would not be aimed at Russia.

Rogozin also called on Norway’s foreign affairs minister, Jonas Gahr Stoere, to oppose the plan.

“The countries that are going to join in participating in these plans are going to share the responsibility like the initiators of that project,” he said, warning Europe “not to hide behind the back of the United States.”

Despite the lack of consensus, NATO adopted a plan to forge ahead with the shield in June.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who is overseeing continuing talks between NATO defense ministers and Russia, said he was optimistic that a deal on guarantees could be reached in time for the next NATO summit hosted by the United States in May 2012.

The missile shield project will not be completed before 2018, NATO officials estimate.

AFP

British parliamentarians warn EU against Turkish membership

The flags of the European Union, Turkey and Germany are pictured before the arrival of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to deliver a speech at the ISS arena in Dusseldorf, Germany on Feb.27, 2011. Photo: Reuters

A panel of UK lawmakers said it’s concerned about risks to the European Union from organized crime and illegal immigration if Turkey joins because of inadequate security along the country’s borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Turkey must demonstrate “clearly and objectively” that it’s met stringent criteria set by the EU for the management of its frontiers before it can join, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee said in a report released in London on Monday. The study by the committee raises “real concerns” about extending the EU’s border as far as Iran, Iraq and Syria in the event of Turkey’s membership.

“Current migration of Turkish nationals to the EU has declined to below 50,000 a year, but population trends and the gap in living standards could make easier migration within the EU an attractive option for Turkish citizens,” says the report.

“Given the UK’s experience after the 2004 enlargement, when many thousands more migrants arrived than expected, the committee is cautious about allowing Turkish citizens full freedom of movement and supports the government’s commitment to applying ‘effective transitional controls as a matter of course’ for all new member states,” says the report.

Turkey’s bid to join the EU has stalled, with the country having completed negotiations in only one of 35 policy areas. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy oppose Turkish membership, while UK Prime Minister David Cameron vowed on a trip to Ankara last year to be the “strongest possible advocate” for Turkish accession.

The lawmakers suggested amending EU legislation to allow more effective collaboration between EU and Turkish border agencies and to boost cooperation on law enforcement issues. The British parliamentarians’ report also drew attention to Turkey’s role as a “key nexus point” for the transit of illegal immigrants to the EU by criminal groups — which it said reached “crisis levels” at the end of 2010.

The study quoted Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, stating that Turkish criminal groups are “significantly involved in various forms of organized criminality,” including the trafficking of heroin, cocaine and synthetic drugs into Europe as well as firearms trafficking, money laundering and copyright offences.

However, the report concluded that the risks posed by organized crime were “considerably outweighed” by the benefits of accession, given that Turkey would have to meet higher standards of crime fighting and international cooperation if it attained membership.

TZ 

Turkey Defense Minister May Up Prominence of Navy

Turkish naval commando teams (SAT) during demonstrations on a national holiday.

Turkey’s naval programs are expected to gain prominence after the appointment of a maritime expert as the country’s new defense minister, procurement officials said.

There may also be a reshuffle of personnel at the procurement office, excluding the top official, Murad Bayar, as well as a flurry of new procurement rules. But they said the government’s doctrinal approach in favor of national/indigenous programs would progress on the same line regardless of a change at the Cabinet level.

The mildly Islamist government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month appointed Ismet Yilmaz as new defense minister after his party’s third consecutive election victory June 12. Yilmaz replaced Vecdi Gonul, defense minister since 2002.

“The new minister may introduce some new procurement rules and order a personnel reshuffle, but the top bureaucracy will remain intact, and so will the government policy to go local as much as possible in procurement programs,” a senior government official familiar with defense procurement said.

Yilmaz, born in 1961, graduated from the Maritime Academy in 1982 and from Istanbul University’s Law Faculty in 1987. He holds master’sdegrees in maritime and law from Swedish and Turkish universities, and a doctorate in private law from Marmara University in Istanbul.

Yilmaz worked for public and private sectors for 20 years as engineer and lawyer. In 2002, he became the undersecretary for the government’s Maritime Undersectariat. In government service, he also worked as deputy board director for the national telecom company, and as caretaker transport minister before the 2007 parliamentary elections. In November 2007, Yilmaz was appointed as undersecretary for the culture ministry.

DefenseNews

Israel’s Lieberman to flotilla: give up your plans

Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman

Israel’s foreign minister urged would-be participants of the pro-Palestinian flotilla to give up their plans and deliver their aid to UN supervised ports for distribution.

Avigdor Lieberman spoke to reporters Thursday after meeting with Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger, on issues that both men said included the flotilla as well as efforts by Palestinian leaders to gain UN recognition of a Palestinian state.

Spindelegger said that Austria had not yet made up its mind on UN recognition, adding that he preferred a joint EU approach to the issue

Between 300 and 400 international activists aboard 10 ships had been due to sail this week to Gaza to try and break the naval blockade Israel imposed after Hamas militants overran the Palestinian territory in 2007. But their departure has been beset by delays that the activists blame in part on Israel.

Last year, an Israeli raid on a similar flotilla killed nine activists on a Turkish vessel with each side blaming the other for the violence. On Thursday, Lieberman refused to be drawn on what means the Jewish state would apply this time to prevent a breach of the blockade.

Instead, he said Israel wanted organizers to bring their aid to ports “where there are UN authorities” who will the distribute the supplies.

Lieberman also said Iran is using the smoke screen of Mideast unrest to advance both its missile and nuclear programs.

Zaman/AP

Pakistan stops US from using air base for drone attacks

A woman supporter of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf or Movement of Justice, takes part in a rally against the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistani tribal areas, Saturday, April 23, 2011 in Peshawar, Pakistan. Pakistan stopped NATO supplies from traveling to Afghanistan on Saturday as thousands of protesters rallied on the main road leading to the border, demanding that U.S. Washington stop firing missiles against militants sheltering inside the country. (AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad)

Pakistan told the United States to leave a remote desert air base reportedly used as a hub for covert CIA drone attacks, Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar was quoted by state media as saying on Wednesday.

His remarks are the latest indication of Pakistan attempting to limit US military role in the country since a clandestine American military raid killed Osama bin Laden on May 2. Islamabad also detained a CIA contractor wanted for murder in January.

“We have told them (US officials) to leave the air base,” national news agency APP quoted Mukhtar as telling a group of journalists in his office.

Images said to be of US Predator drones at Shamsi base have been published by Google Earth in the past. The air strip is 900 kilometres (560 miles) southwest of the capital Islamabad in Baluchistan province.

CNN reported in April that US military personnel had left the base, said to be a key site for American drone attacks, in the fallout over public killings by a CIA contractor in Lahore and his subsequent detention.

Reports said operations at the base, which Washington has not publicly acknowledged, were conducted with tacit Pakistani military consent.

“No U.S. flights are taking place from Shamsi any longer. If there have to be flights from the base, it will only be Pakistani flights,” Mukhtar told a UK newspaper.

Neither does the United States officially confirm Predator drone attacks, but its military and the CIA operating in occupied Afghanistan are the only forces in the region that deploy the armed, unmanned aircraft.

Agencies

Fighter Jet Engines ‘Stolen from Israeli Base’

Israel’s military police on June 13 opened an inquiry into the theft of airplane parts, a spokeswoman said without confirming press reports that eight fighter jet engines had been stolen.

“The military police have opened an inquiry into the matter,” she told AFP without giving further detail or confirming reports of the theft from Tel Nof airbase near Tel Aviv.

Air force officials quoted in the Maariv newspaper said the stolen parts were eight engines from F-15 and F-16 fighter jets which were taken from Tel Nof air base.

They said it was not immediately clear when the theft took place but said the parts were no longer in use and had most likely been stolen for their value as scrap metal, the paper said.

Investigators quoted by the paper said each engine weighed “several tons” and could only have been taken away on large trucks, prompting speculation that the thieves had help from inside the base.

Military officials quoted by Israel HaYom newspaper described the theft as “very serious.”

AFP

Russia, Kyrgyzstan in Talks Over Training Base

A ground staff member directs a C-130 Hercules at Manas Air Base near Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek, February 13, 2009. Reuters photo

Russia is in talks with Kyrgyzstan to expand its military presence in the volatile central Asian nation by setting up a training center in the south, the Kyrgyz foreign minister told AFP.

“We are discussing the possibility of creating a training base in the south of Kyrgyzstan,” Ruslan Kazakbayev told AFP in an interview conducted June 24.

The training base was part of ongoing discussions to conclude an agreement under which “all of Russia’s existing military installations on our territory will be merged into one,” he said.

Russia already operates one base in Kyrgyzstan, the Kant airbase outside the capital Bishkek, as well as several other installations such as a seismic station providing data for strategic missile forces.

Moscow had been in talks about opening a second military base in Kyrgyzstan with the country’s previous administration led by Kurmanbek Bakiyev before he was ousted in a violent uprising last year.

Both the United States and Russia jostle for military influence in a region gaining in strategic importance owing to its proximity to Afghanistan.

Washington also operates a military base in Kyrgyzstan, making it the only country in the world to house both Russian and U.S. bases.

Russia lobbied for the closure of the U.S. base but Bishkek eventually agreed to keep it open after Washington more than tripled the rent paid to use Manas. Kazakbayev said the Kyrgyz government and Washington were in similar talks.

“We are also working with the U.S. government in this direction,” he said without being more specific. “I would like to stress that a decision on these issues will be made in a transparent manner and will take into account our country’s national interests.”

Under the current agreement with Washington, the Manas base, a pivotal transit hub for troops and supplies for the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, will be stationed in Kyrgyzstan until 2014.

Bloody riots rocked the country last June, becoming the worst inter-ethnic clashes to hit Kyrgyzstan since the collapse of the Soviet Union and taking place two months after violent protests deposed Bakiyev.

AFP

Turkey’s options in handling the Syrian crisis

by Hasan Karaahmet

As Syria’s Assad regime continues to struggle in containing the widespread uprisings and demonstrations for a more democratic, progressive political system throughout the country, neighboring Turkey is facing an increasingly difficult humanitarian crisis just north of the long border.

Last Thursday, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mr. Ahmet Davutoglu spoke with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem, about the changing security environment in Syria and implications for Turkey. Movement of Syrian troops north near the Turkish border in an attempt to control the outflow of Syrian refugees into Turkey was among the critical subjects the two ministers discussed. It is no secret now that the situation at the border and increasing numbers of Syrian refugees in Turkey, now approaching some 20,000, is creating tensions between the two countries.

Thus far, Turkey’s AKP government has followed a bi-polar political strategy in handling the Syrian crisis. It publicly criticized Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while quietly advising the same regime on how to contain and eliminate the opposition using tangible, progressive reforms. On the other hand, Turkey also hosted open platforms for Syrian opposition leaders on Turkish soil, in order to provide guidance and discuss their strategies in toppling the Assad regime and achieving a higher political presence in Syria.

Currently, Turkey seems to have three options in peacefully diffusing the threatening situation beyond its southern border and stopping the inflow of Syrian refugees.

  • (1) The first option Turkey is suggesting to Syria involves removal of Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad, who leads the Syrian Republican Guard and is primarily responsible for killing and mistreatment of a great number of Syrian opposition members. Turkish authorities have wisely avoided condemning Bashar al-Assad and kept their focus on Maher instead. According to a June 18th report by Al Arabiya, an emissary of Turkish Prime Minister Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to Syria to ask Bashar to fire his brother. This suggestion requires Maher to be exiled to Turkey or another suitable country where he would be monitored and kept away from militancy and interfering with Syrian internal politics. Turkey points out that such a move would portray Bashar as a truly progressive, reformist leader who is willing to exile his brother for the greater good of Syria.

Some western analysts generally unfamiliar with the region point out that this option undermines the role of Maher in keeping different factions of the Syrian Armed Forces together and suggest that exiling Maher may push Syria into an explosive infighting and eventually even partitioning. I, however, disagree with this observation as I believe it is the Assad family as a whole and its surrogates within the Syrian state that provide the said unifying function. Power of the al-Assad clan is currently personified in Bashar al-Assad, and any decision he makes, even as radical as firing his brother, will be readily digestible by the forces in Syria that determine the political and economic dynamics in that country. So long as the Alawites’ traditional hold of economic power in Syria’s western coastal cities is not damaged, their support of Bashar and the al-Assad family in general will remain strong.

That said, we should not forget that the former Syrian President, Bashar’s father Hazef al-Assad did successfully exile his younger brother Rifaat al-Assad, also a military man, after a coup attempt, a move that demonstrated the reach of his power and strengthened his regime for years to come. I believe the same may as well be the case for his sons.

  • (2) The second option Turkey is working on for Syria is similar to the Lebanese political model, where a confessional system based on a 1932 census is in effect that just about equally divides power among Lebanon’s Christian and Muslim factions. Proposal for Syria would similarly allocate the power, and hence resources, somewhat equally among the country’s majority Sunni Arabs, Turkmens and Kurds, and minority Alawites, Christians and Druze. This new system would create strong checks and balances that would prevent either side from dominating the economy or monopolizing the politics of Syria.

Turkey is ready to provide all the assistance needed for accomplishing this. If completed successfully, it would score an important point for Turkey in the country’s ambitious mission to become a prestigious leader and a secular democracy model for the Islamic world.

  • (3) The third option proposes the legalization of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (MB). At the moment, membership in the group is not only outlawed in Syria, but also punishable by death. Turkey says legalization of the Syrian MB and turning the group into a legitimate political party would limit its militancy and draw the movement closer to a more peaceful, political struggle. This would, in effect, dramatically defuse the Syrian crisis.

Al-Assad is however seems to be currently against the idea as it bears the potential for eventually growing in power via unification of the majority Sunni base turning into electoral votes and undermining the established power of Al-Assad’s Baath party and the economic monopoly of Syria’s Alawites.

It will be interesting to see the events unfold and watch Turkey make its moves before the crisis grows into an even bigger refugee crisis, and with the movements of even more Syrian military units into the border region, starts posing a national security danger for Turkey.

TR Defence

Azerbaijan Warns Armenia with Show of Force

Showing Azerbaijan's increasing military capabilities, S-300 air defence missiles was part of an Azeri army parade held in Baku.

Azerbaijan paraded thousands of soldiers and hundreds of military vehicles through its capital June 26 in a show of force two days after talks failed to resolve a bitter territorial dispute with Armenia.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who has overseen massive increases in defense spending, warned in his speech that he was ready to take back the disputed Nagorny Karabakh region, which was seized from Azerbaijan in the 1990s by Armenian separatist forces backed by Yerevan.

“The war is not over yet,” Aliyev said at the showpiece parade in the center of Baku, vowing to end what he called the “occupation” of Karabakh.

“The territorial integrity of Azerbaijan must be restored and the territory will be restored,” he said.

Six thousand troops marched in the parade, accompanied by tanks, armored cars and rocket launchers, as fighter planes and combat helicopters roared overhead and warships lined up in the nearby Caspian Sea bay.

In his speech, Aliyev also spoke approvingly about the increases in defense spending financed by the energy-rich state’s huge revenues from oil and gas exports.

“Azerbaijan has fulfilled the task that I set, which was that Azerbaijan’s military expenditure must exceed the entire state budget of Armenia,” he said, noting that defense spending reached $3.3 billion (2.3 billion euros) this year.

“Military expenditure occupies first place in the state budget of Azerbaijan and that is understandable. It will be like this as long as our lands are not liberated,” he said.

Military hardware manufactured in Azerbaijan, including unmanned drones, was on show for the first time to highlight the country’s expanding defense industry.

The “Armed Forces Day” parade in Baku was the third in the country’s post-Soviet history and also marked this year’s 20th anniversary of independence.

It was shown live on state television in a broadcast preceded by a series of patriotic songs accompanied by images of troops in action and President Aliyev wearing camouflage fatigues.

The parade was held after the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia failed to agree despite strong international pressure to a “basic principles” roadmap document that would have been a significant step towards a Karabakh peace deal.

A joint statement issued after the summit in Russia on June 24 merely noted “the reaching of mutual understanding on a number of questions, whose resolution helps create conditions to approve the basic principles”.

The two enemies traded accusations after the summit, with Armenia saying that Azerbaijan had torpedoed the talks by wanting a dozen changes to the document and Baku saying that Yerevan was seeking to mislead the world.

The outcome was a major disappointment after hopes had been raised of a long-awaited breakthrough in the talks, which were presided over by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in the city of Kazan.

U.S. President Barack Obama had also telephoned his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts before the summit to urge them to agree the “basic principles” document.

Seventeen years after the Karabakh ceasefire, the opposing sides still often exchange deadly fire across the frontline and Baku has repeatedly threatened to use force if negotiations don’t yield results.

Fears have been raised of a return to war that could prove even bloodier than the 1990s conflict and potentially threaten pipelines taking Caspian Sea oil and gas from Azerbaijan to Europe.

The interim “basic principles” agreement would see an Armenian withdrawal from areas around Karabakh that were also seized during the post-Soviet war.

It also envisages international security guarantees and a vote on the final status of the territory at some point in the future.

But even if the document is eventually agreed by both sides, huge obstacles remain to a final peace deal.

Armenia insists that Karabakh will never again be ruled by Baku, while Azerbaijan insists that the region must remain part of its sovereign territory.

AFP