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Thursday, September 14


Thursday, September 14

Vladimir Putin shakes the hand of a Russian and Belorussian soldiers engaged in Zapad exercises


Russia begins large scale military exercise in Belarus

Vladimir Putin shakes the hand of a Russian and Belorussian soldiers engaged in Zapad exercises

Russian and Belarusian soldiers will march in unison today, as their countries commence the quadrennial Zapad—Russian for West—military exercise. According to the Kremlin, some 12,700 Russian and Belarusian troops will participate in the land, sea and air drills to last until September 20; other observers contend that more than 100,000 soldiers will be involved.

Even though the Kremlin maintains that the exercise is purely defensive, Baltic and Eastern European states have reason to be concerned: the 2013 version of the drills is widely regarded as a training exercise for the annexation of Crimea the following year.

While NATO’s increased presence in the Baltic and the threat of more severe sanctions means Russia is unlikely to attempt to seize further territory from Ukraine or from neighbouring NATO members, the West will be watching cautiously.

According to the Kremlin, a key component of the exercise is repelling separatists in Western Belarus, who are supported by fictitious countries; however, since Russia is doing just that in Eastern Ukraine, the drill’s intention may not be so defensive after all. What’s more, the exercises will likely be used to covertly increase Moscow’s military presence in both Belarus and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.


Idlib ceasefire back on the table as Astana talks resume

Head of Syrian President al-Assad delegation al-Jaafari attends news conference following Syria peace talks in Astana
Photo: Reuters/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov

Elements of the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime will meet in Kazakhstan’s capital today. The meeting- the sixth of its kind to take place in Astana- aims to hammer out a fourth de-escalation zone in the northern Idlib province.

Where the UN-sponsored peace process has failed to achieve broader peace across Syria, the Astana talks have been successful in negotiating a number of short-term localised ceasefires.

The suspension of ground and air operations in these areas has allowed for the return of internally and regionally displaced refugees, as well as an increase in the flow of humanitarian aid.

With over one million civilians and the dominant presence of former al-Qaeda affiliates Hayat Tahrir al Sham, Idlib has been characterised as the most complex zone. Securing a ceasefire in this area would allow government forces to shift their focus to combatting Tahrir al Sham and securing key humanitarian supply routes out of Turkey.

As with previous talks, expect broad agreement on the boundaries of the Idlib de-escalation zone, but contention over the use of Iranian and Russian troops for ceasefire enforcement.

Delve deeper: Syrian peace: emergent settlement or talking in circles?


Qatari opposition figure holds controversial London conference

Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim al Thani
Photo: Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters

Today, critics of the Qatari government will attend a conference- organised by Qatari exile Khalid al-Hail- in London.

The conference seeks to highlight the “true facts” of Qatar’s support for political Islam, the contribution of its foreign policy to regional instability, its poor record on human rights and the use of the Al-Jazeera news outlet as a tool of the state.

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An ardent opponent of the emirate, al-Hail previously attempted to unify domestic and international opposition under the banner of the Qatari Youth Rescue Movement in 2010. Al-Hail’s connections with anti-Qatar Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, overt promotion of the conference within Saudi Arabia and lack of transparency on funding for the event have all worked to undermine the credibility of the conference as a source of unbiased discussion.

Khalid al-Hail’s personal political motives, dubious connections to regional actors and lack of transparency has turned the event into a sideshow of the Gulf crisis; expect the conference to contribute little towards a resolution.

Delve deeper: Qatar’s Islamist ties targeted by Saudi-led demands


Venezuela talks resume, Iraqi Kurds defiant on independence vote

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro
Photo: Getty

After a five-month hiatus, peace talks between the Venezuelan government and some opposition members resume today in the Dominican Republic. While the opposition coalition says it is sending a delegation to meet with government representatives, it claims this “does not represent the start of a formal dialogue”. Venezuela has been wracked by more than three years of economic and political crisis that saw millions protest against socialist President Nicholas Maduro earlier this year. Over the past 18 months, Mr Maduro has used talks with the opposition to provide a false sense of progress before backing away from pledges. Regional elections, which will be held on October 15, to elect state governors and lawmakers will likely bring further unrest.

When it reconvenes today, Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional parliament is expected to insist on holding an independence referendum on September 25.  Iraq’s central government in Baghdad voted to “take all steps to protect to unity of Iraq” on Tuesday, a move aimed to stymie the vote. The planned referendum is non-binding, but will rally independence-minded Iraqi Kurds. The autonomous regions’ three neighbours, Iran, Syria and Turkey, all oppose the independence movement amid fears it may provoke similar demands among Kurds living within their borders.


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