Friday, May 08, 2015

Tehran swaps 'death to America' billboards for Picasso and Matisse - Guardian

Tehran’s billboards are usually a place for commercials about the latest gadgets, household items and cheese-flavoured crisps. They also display portraits of martyrs from the eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s, quotes from religious figures and the now less frequent “death to America” posters.
But, overnight, the Iranian capital has had a facelift. In a project which the city’s mayor hopes will encourage people to visit museums, the billboard ads have been replaced with artworks by renowned local and foreign artists. For 10 days, images by the likes of Pablo Picasso, RenĂ© Magritte and Henri Matisse are turning the capital into a giant urban art gallery....

-bth: would this be a sign that the situation has changed for the better in Iran?

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Russian warships force Lithuania to halt Baltic power cable construction

Russia raises Stalin's ghost amid nostalgia for past glories - AFP

"Stalin's rehabilitation is being steadily implemented," Nikita Petrov, a historian at Memorial, Russia's most prominent rights organisation, told AFP.
He said officials, who are nostalgic for the superpower status of the USSR, have consciously been promoting Stalin as a tough leader who led the Soviet Union to victory in WWII and presided over the country's industrialisation.
Those sentiments are now shared by many everyday Russians.
According to a study by the respected Levada Centre pollster, 45 percent of respondents said in March that sacrifices sustained by people under Stalin were justified by the country's "great goals", up from 27 percent in October 2008.
On top of that, the number of those who viewed Stalin negatively fell to 20 percent from 43 percent in April 2001, the pollster said....

-bth: I think the problem for Putin with Stalin is that once he climbs up that ladder it is difficult to climb back down.

Russian Bank Lending Drops 60 Percent as Crisis Paralyses System - The Moscoe Times

The number of loans issued in Russia in the first quarter of this year fell by 58 percent compared to the same period in 2014, as the devaluation of the ruble, Western sanctions and sky-high interest rates hit the banking system, a report showed Tuesday.
The tide is now slowly beginning to turn as the economy recovers from the perfect storm that hit Russian banks in December, when the Central Bank hiked its key interest rate to 17 percent to halt a precipitous fall in the value of the Russian currency, the United Credit Bureau (UCB) said in a statement....

-bth: even if the situation is now improving, the economic dislocation of such a decrease must be severe to the average Russian. It is a ridiculous situation created by Putin.  As is usual normal Russians and Ukrainians suffer.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Recent events that suggest Syria's Assad will be driven into a small rump state

This may be the beginning of the end of the Assad regime or perhaps the entrapment of it along the coast.

US training Syrian rebels in Turkey and arming them with anti-tank weapons

?ANKARA, Turkey – US soldiers and weapons landed in Turkey Friday for a joint mission to train and equip moderate opposition forces in the Syrian war.
The 123 US soldiers are in two teams, with 83 deploying at the US Incirlik air base in southern Turkey and the rest going to the Hirfanli military training center in central Kirshr province, Turkish media reports said.
A special US team has been tasked at Incirlik to manage the weapons supplies, while the training will take place at Hirfanli, the Hurriyet Daily reported.
It quoted sources saying that the recruits are expected to be transferred to the southern province of Hatay, where they will train in the use of arms, including anti-tank weapons, infantry rifles and machine guns, before traveling to Syria to join fight against the Islamic State (ISIS)...."

New operation between Nusra and Hezbollah but this time with anti-tank ammunition

“Mujahideen training on all types of weapons in training camps,” read the caption. “They are almost ready to free their villages.”
The announcement comes as Hezbollah is reportedly mobilizing its fighters for a much-anticipated offensive against Islamist militants, namely ISIS and the Nusra Front, entrenched in Syria’s Qalamoun region.
Elements of ISIS, the Nusra Front and other Syrian rebel groups have been fighting each other and against forces allied to the Syrian government in the Qalamoun mountain range over the past two years....

So it looks like fresh supplies of ammunition and anti-tank weapons plus strategic seizure of high ground near road ways by the rebels has led to major success against Syria's armor.

Assad troops short basic ammunition

— In three years of fighting, rebel commanders had never seen anything like the video that went up on the Internet last week. There was Brig. Gen. Suhail al Hassan, one of President Bashar al Assad’s favorite commanders, pleading with the Syrian defense minister for urgent help.
“Sir,” he began, speaking into his cell phone. “The fighters in al Ziara have retreated. There are 800 fighters. They are all around me and they want to go back. They only need ammunition. Please provide the ammunition,” he said. “Am I not right, men?”
The dozens of regime troops crowding around him shouted their agreement. “We are all ready to sacrifice our blood and our souls for you, Bashar,” they chanted.
The videos of Hassan begging for help – there are two versions of the scene that have been seen 82,000 times – are being viewed with delight and satisfaction among opponents of the Assad regime. “I know him. He was rattled. He’d lost his composure” said Col. Jemiel Radoon, a U.S.-backed moderate rebel commander.
With good reason. Government forces appear on the verge of being ousted from their last redoubt in northern Syria, and the forces under Radoon’s command had just blocked their escape route...

Iran's questionable money supply to Assad

While I suspect that number is high and pulled out of thin air , here is what the article says, "...

Experts and Syrian officials revealed why exactly Iran, which is financially saddled by international sanctions, continues to spend fortunes and deploy thousands of troops to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, even as the fight turns against him.
A detailed report in Christian Science Monitor revealed that the UN's Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura disclosed to a private meeting in Washington DC recently that Iran funnels no less than $35 billion annually to its Syrian ally, according to a source who was present at the meeting.
Despite the massive aid, Assad this past month has suffered major losses, putting him on the brink of losing the bloody civil war that has stretched over four years and cost over 220,000 lives, and leading Syria's Defense Minister General Fahd al-Freij to head for a visit to Iran on Tuesday.
Explaining why Iran is willing to invest such massive resources even while staggering under sanctions, Hezbollah expert and director at the Washington-based Middle East Institute Randa Slim told the paper how Iran's larger regional aspirations fuel the move.
"Iran has always considered Syria its gateway to the Arab region. I don’t think that assessment has changed," said Slim.
The paper described how Iran continues to prop up Assad even as he loses his grip of the country because its strategic interests are not dependent on Assad's absolute control over all of Syria.
Rather, Iran only needs access to the corridor between Damascus and Tartous on the Mediterranean coast which passes along the Lebanese border - via that corridor, it can continue smuggling weapons to its Shi'ite terror proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon and maintain its regional power.... "

I would suggest that one possibility is that Iran has simply run out of spare cash to fund both its efforts in Lebanon, Iran, Yemen and Syria.  It may be as simple as that.   Also the Russians are cash short and it looks like they have focused their surplus material to the Russian inspired rebellion in the Ukraine which is infinitely more strategic to the mother land.

Reports of Iranian Failure to Adequately Support Assad with Money and Ammunition

"... There have been video footage and photos showing regime forces retreating en masse across hilly terrain in the wake of the rebels’ advance, while a short piece of video footage shows Syria’s most prominent army officer, Col. Suheil al-Hasan, just prior to the pullout from Jisr al-Shughur.
Still photographs of Hasan on the front lines in several parts of Syria have circulated on many occasions during the war, but this is the first known example of him on video.
Hasan, known widely by his nickname the “tiger,” appears agitated and, after leading a few chants of support of Assad, makes a desperate plea for ammunition from Gen. Fahd Freij, the defense minister.
“This first meaningful public appearance by Hasan, thanks to this leaked video, is a very negative one for him in terms of his image, and of the authorities,” said a Syrian observer of the conflict, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely.
Freij is now in Tehran on a visit to shore up assistance from Assad’s chief ally, and regime supporters have steadily expressed anger over what they see as Iran’s failure to adequately support the Assad regime in its battle against insurgents....

Reports of Retreat to a Rump State and transfer of Syrian Financial Reserves

This article in the Beirut Daily Star on 1 May is particularly informative.

"... There have been multiple reports, mostly unconfirmed, that the authorities have been busy transferring the contents of state banks, museums and other government facilities to Tartous or Latakia, with the latter widely expected to be declared a provisional capital in the event of a regime retreat from areas such as Aleppo in the north, Deraa in the south, or even Damascus.
The observer told The Daily Star that preparations are also underway for some type of change in Swaida, the Druze-majority province.
“The state bank was completely emptied out earlier this week and some movable items from the museum were also taken away, in armored cars,” the source said....  The dollar exchange rate has soared above 300 SP, and pro-regime social media are busy reporting any sign of financial support, from the governments of Iran to Venezuela.....

Of last note, the Syrian government has lost access to Turkey.  It has also lost access to land trade routes through Jordan.  Their people largely struggled through the winter burning fire wood and and the government and its industry is desperate for hard foreign currency. Perhaps Assad is just going broke and the Iranians and Russians have decided to cut their losses.

The Scarce And Shrinking Syrian T-72 Fleet - The Strategy Page

In Syria, the T-72 tank remains the most commonly encountered armored vehicles on both sides of the current Civil War. A captured T-72 is considered as a sort of treasure by the Islamist rebels and is often put to work against the army. There are enough rebels with military experience so that it does not take long to find a few former soldiers who served in T-72s. Around 300 T-72s are still believed to be in regular use mainly with the Syrian Army Republican Guard and the Syrian Arab Army’s elite 4th Armored Division. ...

This article is worth reading in full and puts the Syrian tank count at about 300.