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Turkey's misguided Yemen move

Fehim Taştekin
As soon as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lent support to the Saudi-led military operation against the Houthis in Yemen, some in Turkey were quick to jump on a puzzling argument that Yemen still belonged to the Ottomans. This, however, was hardly a surprise, for we are already familiar with the “New Ottoman” mindset, which imagines that people are looking to Turkey in each and every corner of the Muslim world.
Erdogan saluted that mindset in an interview with the France 24 TV channel. “We support Saudi Arabia's intervention. Turkey may consider providing logistical support based on the evolution of the situation,” he said. Taking an open stance against Iran, Erdogan said that “Iran and the terrorist groups must withdraw” from Yemen. “Iran is trying to chase Daesh from the region only to take its place,” he charged, using the Arabic term for the Islamic State (IS) and implying that Iran should withdraw from Syria and Iraq as well.
Confrontation building up with Iran
By dragging Turkey into a sectarian war as a backup to King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman’s drive for a “Sunni camp” in the region, Erdogan steps into a sharp confrontation with Iran, unprecedented even in the era of Turkey’s secularist-Kemalist governments.
In this Saudi-led coalition, no one has been as explicit as Erdogan in voicing the hostile sentiments against Iran. The Saudi king seems to be leading the actual war, and Erdogan the war of words. It is an attitude aimed at strengthening bonds with Gulf states at the expense of burning the bridges with Iran, the country with which Turkey has had its most stable relationship. 
Iran was quick to react, sending out messages that Erdogan, scheduled to visit Tehran in April, was unwelcome. The head of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, slammed Turkey’s policies in Iraq and Syria, while his deputy Mansour Haghighatpour was even harsher, saying “Erdogan’s visit to Tehran will be of no use. It should be postponed.”
Turkish-Iranian ties have seen diplomats being proclaimed persona non grata, but it never came to the point of tampering with high-level visits.
No lesson learned from Yemen Song
While many saw Erdogan’s verbal offensive as superfluous, the Turkish media’s psychological war apparatus spoke of Ottoman sacrifices for Yemen and the country’s strategic value. The notion of Yemen belonging to the Ottomans lives on in the historical memory of conservatives and nationalists in Turkey. Yet, the Saudis are not waging a war on behalf of Turkey, and associating this war with the Ottomans is truly mind-blowing. Journalist Murat Bardak, for instance, wrote, “The Houthi rebellion is the continuation of the struggle that had inspired the Yemen Song [popular Turkish folk tune].”
The Zaydis, to which the Houthis belong, revolted many times against Ottoman rule in Yemen, which lasted about four centuries. Those who look at today’s developments from the said historical perspective ignore Yemen’s own internal dynamics and processes. Yemen may have left a bitter taste for Turks in history, but the Ottomans, too, left bitter memories for Yemenis. The Yemen Song is a requiem for the Ottoman soldiers who never came back from Yemen. Yet, Yemen was not only a destination of no return for soldiers, but also a land of exile for erring pashas. The Ottoman governors there were not only the builders of today’s historical monuments, but also Yemen’s ruthless guardians.
Professor Ihsan Sureyya Sirma, a historian close to the government, recounted in a recent interview how the Zaydi Imam Yahya, opposed to the British in the post-Ottoman era, offered his allegiance to the young Turkish republic, a gesture that was rejected. Those who interpret this episode as evidence that “Yemen still belongs to the Ottomans” conveniently turn a blind eye to the other side the historian presents.
One striking story goes like this: A newly appointed Ottoman governor in Sanaa calls his aide and orders “a few heads.” His Armenian doctor reacts, “Pasha, are you ordering coffee or what!” Yet, several people are killed randomly in the streets and their heads brought to the governor, who says, “Now hang those on a rope at the balcony. Let the Yemenis see what disobedience means.”
In another key point, Sirma underlines that the last Ottoman campaign in Yemen in the 19th century was driven by the cash-strapped palace’s desire to replenish its coffers as Yemen was rich of spices, coffee and salt.
"Hot money"
If the current Houthi rebellion is just the second curtain in an ongoing play, as some Turkish media claim, then is Turkey’s reaction the reflection of an Ottomanist impulse? Frankly speaking, neither the Houthis “are seeking to revive the Zaydi imamate,” as the state-run Anatolia news agency says in the background lines of all its Yemen stories, nor is Erdogan’s maneuver directly related to Yemen. The question here is: Why does Turkey feel the urge to take sides in Yemen, though no one really awaits the Turks there and, contrary to the Turkish proverb, “a cup of coffee” has not fostered “40 years of friendship”?
Two major factors could explain Turkey’s stand:
  • The psychological aspect: Erdogan, who blames Iran for the failure of his plans in Syria and Iraq, approaches the issue in anger and frustration. The remarks he made March 27 reflect his conundrum vis-a-vis Iran. “Iran is virtually trying to dominate the region. They are working to that effect. Could this be allowed? This has begun to annoy many countries — us as well as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. This is not really tolerable. … It [Iran] has to withdraw any forces or whatever it has in Yemen as well as Syria and Iraq,” he said.
  • Practical aspect: Erdogan is drawn to the “Sunni camp” also by the Gulf’s “hot money.” Score-settling with Iran is something he cannot resist, but there is another question to be asked here: With the Turkish economy sounding alarm and the June elections looming, what is the extent of Turkey’s need for Gulf money? How much impact do the Gulf’s “hot money” or short-term investments have on Turkish policy in Yemen and other regional issues?
Al-Monitor posed the question to academic Sabahattin Sen from Istanbul’s Maltepe University. He said: “The Istanbul Industry Chamber’s data on the 500 largest companies show that the companies’ debt-equity ratio has climbed to 132.4%, its highest level in a decade. In developed countries, this ratio stands at around 70%. Companies spent 19 billion Turkish lira of their 36.5 billion Turkish lira profits for financing. The economy has seen serious financial fluctuations since the second half of 2013. The debt stock of the 500 largest companies has increased, climbing to 238 billion Turkish lira in 2013, up 25% from 190 billion Turkish lira in 2012. In 2015, the private sector’s total debt stock reached about $280 billion, which poses a grave risk to the economy given the recent adverse developments in foreign exchange rates. Turkey’s external financing need has reached $220 billion, but with the Fed expected to hike interest rates, the global financing taps are being turned off for emerging economies such as Turkey. In this environment, the Saudi and Gulf capital is becoming more and more important in meeting [Turkey’s] external financing need and maintaining fiscal stability.”
Hoping for Brotherhood reconciliation and Syria intervention
Another academic, Fulya Atacan from Istanbul’s Yildiz Technical University who specializes on Egypt, told Al-Monitor that the Arab uprisings, which Saudi Arabia has scrambled to contain from the very outset, have increased the fragility of the kingdom’s own system and the kingdom is now trying to shift the process ideologically, to a sectarian basis. According to Atacan, Erdogan’s outburst on the Yemeni crisis could be explained with the following motives:
  • Erdogan hopes that the Saudi king will change the kingdom’s policy vis-a-vis the Muslim Brotherhood.
  • He expects economic favors from the Gulf states.
  • By joining the camp that the United States is trying to create via Saudi Arabia, he is trying to make up for the troubled relations, if not the lack of relations, between the United States and the Justice and Development Party. The phone call between Erdogan and US President Barack Obama on March 26 after a long break was no coincidence.
  • In the wake of those efforts, Erdogan could again argue for an intervention in Syria.
“Tragically, joining this camp will make Erdogan one of the leaders containing the very Arab uprisings he had supported from the outset,” Atacan said.
By joining the anti-Houthi camp, driven by anger for Iran and financial expectations from the Gulf states, Erdogan crosses paths with Israel and Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Yemen, but does not seem to mind it.
I’ll leave the floor here to Mazlumder, the human rights group run by Turkey’s Islamists. In a March 25 statement, the association condemned the Houthi campaign as an “Iranian-backed coup” before slamming also the Saudi-led military operation in Yemen. “The attack on Yemen is likely to trigger indiscriminate violence on the basis of sectarian hatred across the Muslim world, especially in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, while not even mentioning the Tiran and Senafir islands at the entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba, which they lost to Israel in the 1967 war, have embarked on a massacre to discipline and disable Yemen so that the Bab al-Mandeb Strait remains a safe outlet for Israel to the Indian Ocean. This is nothing but a proxy war on behalf of Israel,” it said.

Saudi woman sentenced to 70 lashes for allegedly insulting man on WhatsApp

A Saudi Arabian court has sentenced a woman to 70 lashes after she allegedly insulted a man on the messaging service WhatsApp.
The 32-year-old, who has not been named, admitted to insulting the man but also refuted the verdict, according to reports inGulfNews.com and other local media.
The nature of their argument was unclear but she was found guilty of tarnishing the reputation of the complainant through the application, reported the Okaz newspaper who also said she was fined around £3,600 for the offense.
In a separate case, another Saudi judge allowed a man to divorce his wife after she told him that she prayed “to be patient enough to put up” with him in a WhatsApp message, the Al-Hayatnewspaper reported.
The husband is said to have claimed that the message was “inappropriate.”
They are not the first to fall foul of the Saudi Anti-Cyber Crime Law, as in July last year two women in the city of Jeddah were sentenced to 10-days in jail and 20 lashes for insulting each other on WhatsApp.
A judge issued the verdict after reading the messages exchanged between the the women who were reportedly cousins.

Bashar al-Assad Says ISIS & Saudi Arabia Follow The Same Ideology: "Medieval" Sunni Wahhabism

 60 Minutes' Charlie Rose met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damsacus this weekend. Assad explained that from where he is standing, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS and al-Qaeda are all aligned against him under the flag of the same radical Sunni Wahhabist ideology, while Russia and Iran defend the status quo. This uncut video is provided via unidentified Syrian sources. Beginning around 5:30 of this video. CHARLIE ROSE, 60 MINUTES: You have often spoken about the danger of a wider war in the Middle East. Can you talk about the parties involved? And characterize how you see them. Let me begin with Saudi Arabia. SYRIAN PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD:: Saudi Arabia is an anarchic autocracy. A medieval system that's based on the Wahhabi dark ideology. Actually, say it's a marriage between the Wahhabi and the political system for 200 years now. That's how we look at it.

CHARLIE ROSE: And what is their connection to ISIS?

BASHAR AL-ASSAD: The same ideology. The same background.

CHARLIE ROSE: So ISIS and Saudi Arabia are one and the same?

BASHAR AL-ASSAD: The same ideology. Yes.

CHARLIE ROSE: Same ideology.

BASHAR AL-ASSAD: It's Wahhabi ideology. They base their ideology is based on the books of the Wahhabi from Saudi Arabia.

CHARLIE ROSE: So you believe that all Wahhabis have the same ideology as ISIS--

BASHAR AL-ASSAD: Exactly. Definitely. And that's by ISIS, by al Qaeda, by al Nusra. It's not something we discovered or something we try to promote. It's very I mean their books-- they use the same books to indoctrinate the people. The Wahhabi books.

Assad's northern neighbor Turkey refuses to destroy ISIS, despite being heavily armed by NATO. Instead, Assad says, President Erdogan "thinks that he is becoming the sultan of the new era" while the Muslim Brotherhood arms ISIS under his nose.

CHARLIE ROSE: What about Turkey?

BASHAR AL-ASSAD: Turkey-- let's say it's about Erdogan. His Muslim Brotherhood fanatics.


BASHAR AL-ASSAD: It doesn't mean that he is a member. But he's a fanatic.

CHARLIE ROSE: President Erdogan is--

BASHAR AL-ASSAD: Is a Muslim Brotherhood fanatic. And he's somebody who's suffering from political megalomania. And that he thinks that he is becoming the sultan of the new era of the 21st century.

CHARLIE ROSE: You think he could stop the border if he wanted to?

BASHAR AL-ASSAD: Yeah, of course. Definitely. He doesn't only ignore the terrorists from coming to Syria. He support them, logistically and militarily. Directly. On daily basis.

Much of Assad's support now comes from Iran and Russia, who he says are doing nothing more than trying to preserve the status quo -- prevent the Saudis from dominating the entire world oil market.

CHARLIE ROSE: Tell us what the Russians want. They are a strong ally of you.


CHARLIE ROSE: What do they want?

BASHAR AL-ASSAD: Definitely they want to have balance in the world. It's not only about Syria.

And small country. It's not about having a huge interest in Syria, they could have it anywhere else.

So, it's about the future of the world. They want to be a great power that-- have-- their own say in the future of this world.

CHARLIE ROSE: And what do they want for Syria?

BASHAR AL-ASSAD: Stability. They want--

CHARLIE ROSE: Stability.

BASHAR AL-ASSAD: --stability, and political solution.

CHARLIE ROSE: And what does Iran want?

BASHAR AL-ASSAD: The same. The same. Syria, and Iran, and Russia, see eye-to-eye regarding these conflicts.

CHARLIE ROSE: And what is your obligation to both of them?

BASHAR AL-ASSAD: What do you mean obligation?

CHARLIE ROSE: What is your-- what do you owe them?

BASHAR AL-ASSAD: Yeah, I know. But, they didn't ask me for anything. Nothing at all. That's why what I said-- they don't do that for Syria. They do it for the region, and for the world. 'Cause stability is very important for them.


Don't cheer Saudi Arabia's foolhardy war in Yemen

By  Kevin B. Sullivan

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia won bipartisan support and praisefrom Washington last week for its recent push to repel the advances of Iranian-backed rebels in the crisis-prone country of Yemen. Riyadh, along with a coterie of Sunni Muslim governments, launched airstrikes against a Houthi rebel movement that has pushed Yemen to the brink of full-blown civil war since seizing the capital city of Sana'a in September.

"We will do whatever it takes in order to protect the legitimate government of Yemen from falling," said Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi ambassador to the United States, during a press conference held in Washington last week.
Although some in the West have lauded the Saudis for taking such decisive action, a closer examination of this coalition of the willing reveals some not-so-coincidentally similar regimes. That list includes Egyptian military dictator-cum-president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, as well as unlikely champions of governmental legitimacy like Sudan, Pakistan, and Qatar.
And if Saudi Arabia's newfound faith in tranquility and continuity strikes you as odd or dubious, you probably aren't alone. Who, after all, could forget the last time the Saudi monarchy was called upon to defend local stability, when, in 2011, its national guard, joined by hired mercenaries from Pakistan, rolled into Bahrain to help the country's ruling Khalifa monarchy crush a mostly peaceful protest movement?
Indeed, Saudi insistence on the sanctity of global order and stability might surprise more than a few, seeing as its fingerprints can be found on decades of uprisings, insurgencies, and acts of terrorism. The monarchy's reliance on a radical class of Wahhabi clerics to ensure its hold on power has resulted in chaos all across the globe, and the kingdom has spent billions of dollars to push its rigid — and often violent — interpretation of Islam to every corner of the world, from West Africa to the far reaches ofnorthwest China.
The embers of Saudi indifference toward global stability aren't difficult to spot, and though Riyadh may attempt to frame its most recent incursion as a kind of noblesse oblige, it is quickly beginning to look like another front in the kingdom's brewing cold war with Shiite Iran.
Loath to tolerate yet another Tehran-friendly government along its border, the Saudis have cobbled together an alliance of like-minded governments to help it wage what has become a turf war for power and influence in the Middle East. Its battlefields include the civil war in Syria, the highly sectarian campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq, and now Yemen.
But couching every complex Mideast crisis as the latest round in a regional tug-of-war is not only simplistic and self-serving, it's self-fulfilling. If, for instance, Houthi rebels are led to believe that their only true ally in the region is Iran, then Iran it shall be. The Houthis — a tribal people based in Yemen's north who adhere to a brand of Shiism that at times more closely resembles Sunni Islam — have received Iranian support, but how much, and to what extent, has been the subject of much conjecture and exaggeration. Moreover, if it truly were Iran's intention to conquer or control large swaths of Yemen, then the sectarian complexion of the Saudi-led alliance now bombing Yemen risks making that a fait accompli.
The Saudis have reportedly destroyed Houthi weapons stockpiles, but to truly quell the uprising will likely require ground troops; a fraught proposition for the well-endowed, but mostly untested, Saudi military. And there is little evidence, even with the assistance of Egyptian ground forces, that its efforts will pay off.
“The Kingdom lacks the military capacity to intervene decisively in Yemen, and if it tries by sending in large numbers of ground troops, the most likely outcome would be a debilitating stalemate that will drain Saudi military resources, financial reserves, and political will," argues Kenneth Pollack, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
But Saudi Arabia has been meddling in Yemeni affairs for decades now, often using its oil wealth to buy off rival tribes and warring factions. What plagues this incredibly poor country is largely local and inherently tribal, but none of that has stopped many in American media and government from painting the crisis in absurdly broad strokes.
Riyadh does have a few legitimate concerns regarding Iranian aggression. The war in Iraq created a giant geographic headache for the Saudis, putting an Iranian-backed Shiite government right on its doorstep. The alleged 2011 plot by Iran's shadowy Quds Force to assassinate Saudi Ambassador al-Jubeir is just one reminder that this would-be cold war points to very real, lingering animosities between the two governments.
Which is all the more reason for Washington to deescalate the situation and push for negotiations between Yemen's warring parties. Stoking sectarian tensions may suit the needs of some of the truly worst elements in the Middle East — from ISIS to Iran's Revolutionary Guard — but it should not be the policy of the United States government.


Analysis: Ground military intervention in Yemen likely tough task

By Marwa Yahya
While airstrikes intensified in Yemen, the possibility of a ground offensive in Yemen has grown significantly as Egypt and Saudi Arabia are considering the move.
Egypt declares its readiness to send troops into the embattled country "if necessary," while Saudi has positioned its tanks on its joint border with Yemen.
According to observers, any ground incursion will be difficult and could pose major challenges for the coalition which was formed against Iranian-backed Houthis militants and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saudi Arabia, supported by regional nine Sunni Muslim allies, launched an air campaign on last Thursday to support Abdel Rabbu Mansour Hadi's legitimacy after the Houthis forced his withdrawal in a coup last month from the capital to Aden.
"If the coalition takes the fight to the ground in Yemen, the consequences could be severe," said military expert Zakeria Hussein.
Houthis are battle-hardened guerrilla fighters and could cross into Saudi Arabia, Hussein told Xinhua.
He ruled out the possibility that the Arab officials will take serious move for ground incursion in Yemen.
Geographically, Yemen is rough terrain, with high mountains, caves and traps, which is ultimately difficult for any troops to penetrate.
Hussein, also former chairman of Military Naser Academy, added that "ground operation in Yemen is extremely difficult given the bitter experience of the Egyptian army in 1960s in Yemen."
Egypt's military intervention in Yemen in the 1960s was disastrous, contributing to Egypt's defeat in the 1967 Six Day War against Israel, and ending with the partition of the country after the Egyptian military failed to defeat the Zaidi imamate of which the Houthis are the successors.
The expert, who was among the Egyptian military line in Yemen in the 1960s, reiterated that the navy and air strikes so far made prospected results, and will continue to achieve its goals.
He expected the Saudi-led military operation "won't take long time," noting that former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh thought to halt war with the Sunnis allies by announcing some concessions.
He added that Abdullah's remarks mean "the airstrikes brought its fruits," especially that the Arab alliance forces announced controlling the Yemeni airspace and eventually blocking any access of support from Iran, leaving sea supply of the Houthis as the only option for Shiite affiliated forces.
"Egypt has declared its political and military support, as well as its participation with the coalition with aerial and naval Egyptian forces, as well as ground forces if necessary, in light of Egypt's historic and unshakeable responsibility towards Arab and Gulf national security," Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri told a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Sharm El-Sheikh on Thursday.
But the Houthis' leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi declared that Yemen would be the "graveyard of invader" if the coalition launched a ground invasion and called for an end to what he declared as "illegal, unprovoked aggression."
The Gulf states have intervened on the ground in recent years, with Saudi troops moving in to quell the uprising in Bahrain in 2011 in support of the Sunnis khlifa monarchy, which rules over a Shiite majority.
But a ground intervention in Yemen "would pose major challenges, pitting the coalition against an insurgent movement baked by Iran with important redoubts in the country's north," the military expert said.
He added the Arab coalition made preparation for more than six months with Gulf military maneuvers for that purpose, stressing the coalition forces have accurate information of Yemen which made its intensive airstrikes effective. "The airstrikes are enough for the current time."
Ahmad Ban, researcher with Cairo-based Nile Center for Strategic Studies, agreed with the military expert as saying that "the military intervention in Yemen is hard to be developed into ground incursion, for the latter's very expensive costs."
"Yemen is swamp of hazards and traps, and Arab coalition wouldn't accept entering long war in its unfriendly geography," Ban said.
Saudi, the biggest influential Sunnis country, wanted to "deliver a deterrence message for Iran to stop its expanding ambitions and minimize its influence in Yemen," Ban said, adding that "the kingdom won't allow Iranian influence in the region."
The alliance forces war is only sought pressure on Houthis to push them for political settlement.
However, Ban added that if Houthis insisted on fighting, Saudi might support a Yemeni group, like the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, with arms without involving in direct war.
Meanwhile, professor Ahmad Mahran, chief of Cairo Center for Political Studies, said the Decisive Storm operation is a temporarily exceptional reaction and will continue for only few days.
He explained that some western courtiers have concerns over an Arab joint forces or coalition, and they will press hard for ending the joint military operation in Yemen very soon.
There are international interests that oppose ongoing war in Yemen, Mahran said, adding that "Houthis fighters are small group with no identity and will seek dialogue and withdrawal."

China - True major power needs mature mentality

Major power mentality used to be long embedded in China's traditional culture. In ancient Chinese history, China had long seen itself as the center of the world and referred to surrounding countries as "less civilized" or as barbarians. The ancient tributary system around China in East Asia, with substantial quantities of pilgrims coming to our capital, proved to be a significant symbol of a prosperous time in our history. 

Today, Chinese society needs to rediscover our major power mentality from being burdened by our tragic history. But it doesn't mean we will go back to the arrogance of imperial China, but instead that we need to build a mind-set that matches our status of being a rising power. To do so, the biggest obstacle is to overcome the victim mentality that arose from our past suffering, and the confusion of the huge contrast between ancient glory and modern humiliation.

China's current rise has been rapid. It is not easy to adjust our mentality to catch up with it. For example, China used to be the world's largest recipient of foreign aid. Today, our national strength is enhanced, but disparities in development exist and we cannot ignore the poverty in some provinces and regions. Thus, the government must keep a low profile when it comes to  foreign aid, which is supposed to be trumpeted, since the public opinion always grumbles about it.

Meanwhile, our people are quite sensitive to the frictions with other nations, and always hope the government will win without any loss. It has greatly restricted the flexibility of the country's diplomacy. On many occasions, Chinese society is unnecessarily provoked by smaller countries. 

As a country that is now at the core of the international arena, we must also become stronger spiritually. 

As of Tuesday, 44 economies had submitted applications for founding member status in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). It has largely surpassed the initial scale of the Asian Development Bank, which is led by the US and Japan. This success has pushed China toward becoming a "real major power." However, the more countries and regions join, the harder it will be for us to achieve a consensus in the future. 

But we don't need to dwell on it too much. The establishment of the AIIB is already a big achievement for China. 

Yet the greater the good deed is, the more trouble it will attract. The more a country does, the more it will be criticized. 

China will inevitably shoulder increasing responsibilities in international affairs. It doesn't mean it will be at our expense. China should not focus on trivial matters in the years to come, such as foreign aid, but should concentrate more on the big picture of win-win cooperation with the rest of the world.

No external forces today can defeat major powers like the US and China. We are our own rivals. Therefore, pursuing a mainstream mind-set as well as an outlook that matches our responsibilities as a major power is an uphill battle that we must win.

Was Stalin's Terror Justified? Poll Shows More Russians Think It Was

Nearly half of all Russians think the sacrifices made under dictator Josef Stalin were justified by the Soviet Union's rapid economic progress during his rule, a poll published Tuesday showed, reflecting a boost in Stalin's popularity in recent years.
Forty-five percent of those questioned by independent pollster the Levada Center said they definitely or to some degree thought that the sacrifices made by the Soviet people under Stalin's rule were justified in light of the country's rapid development. Two years ago, that figure stood at only 25 percent, according to the report.
The pollster also found that while a large number of respondents (46 percent) thought Stalin's death put an end to mass repression and terror, that figure was higher (56 percent) two years ago. During that same period, the number of Russians who saw Stalin's death as a great loss grew from 18 percent to 24 percent.
In a summary of its findings, the Levada Center said its latest poll indicated a growing shift in public perceptions of Stalin since the turn of the 21st century.
"If the prevailing attitude toward [Stalin] was negative at the start of the millennium, now a large proportion of respondents (39 percent) now evaluate him positively," the Levada Center said. While 25 percent said they viewed the Soviet leader negatively, a further 30 percent identified their feelings as neutral, the pollster added.
A Levada Center analyst said the findings were the result of the policies of the current government.
“[Stalin is being rehabilitated because] the current Russian authorities and [President Vladimir] Putin in particular seek the legitimization and justification of their actions by resorting to the past. It gives them a certain endorsement,” Alexei Levinson, head of the Levada Center's social and cultural studies department, told The Moscow Times on Tuesday.
“There are two consequences of that: On the one hand, the state might triumph in the further consolidation of its power. On the other hand, we are engaging in a conflict with the rest of the world and our regime will not last long under such pressure,” he said.
The head of Memorial, an NGO whose activities include campaigning for the rehabilitation of victims of Stalin's repression, expressed concern over the poll's findings.
“It is a very alarming sign. It is telling not only in terms of attitudes to Stalin but in terms of the relationship between the individual and the state. Stalin is perceived as a symbol of a powerful and mighty nation, and the fact that he and all his policies were anti-human remains a secondary consideration,” Arseny Roginsky was quoted as saying by Interfax on Tuesday.
Roginsky called for prioritizing human rights and interests over the state, warning that the alternative would not bring any positive outcome for Russia.
A new survey released Monday showed that the image of Stalin is improving among Russians. Nearly a quarter of respondents considered his death the loss of a great leader and teacher for Russia. More than a third feel kindly towards him.
The survey was conducted by the Levada Center between March 20-23 among 1,600 respondents from 46 Russian regions.

The center's findings come after Communist Party members earlier this month called for streets to be renamed and monuments to be erected to Stalin throughout Russia ahead of celebrations in May marking 70 years since the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, the Kommersant newspaper reported.
Asked by the Levada Center how they felt about the initiative, 39 percent of Russians said they would back plans for erecting a monument to Stalin, who was supreme commander in chief of the Soviet army during World War II.
Russian industry grew rapidly under Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union from 1924 to 1953. But in the West the Georgian-born leader is mostly known for overseeing a reign of terror in which millions of people were murdered or forced to work in labor camps.
The Levada Center poll was conducted between March 20 and 23 among 1,600 respondents in 46 different Russian regions. The margin of error did not exceed 3.4 percent.

Nuclear deal with Iran ‘reached on all key aspects’ – Lavrov

Iran and six major world powers have managed to reach a preliminary agreement on ‘all the key aspects’ of a deal over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program, Russia’s FM has announced, adding that the sides have begun drafting the text.
“A draft document could be approved by the sided on Tuesday night,” a diplomatic source close to negotiations told journalists, not specifying whether it would be a joint statement or a draft resolution.
Two Western diplomatic sources told Reuters earlier that Iran had been given the deadline of dawn on Wednesday to accept a political agreement, but a senior US official later denied these claims.
Earlier, the Russian Foreign Minister said talks had a high chance of producing a deal.
"Iran does not want a nuclear deal just for the sake of having a deal, and a final deal should guarantee the Iranian nation's nuclear rights," senior nuclear negotiator Hamid Baidinejad told reporters. "We will continue the talks until we reach an agreement over disputed issues."
A top US official has also acknowledged that tough talks with Iran went past the midnight deadline into Wednesday.
"We will of course keep working if we are continuing to make progress, including into tomorrow, if it's useful to do so. At this time, no decisions have been made about our travel schedule," the official said as cited by AFP.
French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius has also said talks have been progressing, but has not ruled out that the P5+1 group may negotiate through the night.
"We are moving forward, but it's complicated, it's long, difficult and I fear that we will spend the night (negotiating)," Fabius told reporters.
The German delegation source also said it was “too early to think about stopping the clock.”
“But that may be necessary,” Reuters quoted him as saying.
This has to be decided now,” a Western diplomatic source told Reuters, adding that “it can't carry on for six more days.”
"The mood is back and forth, a difficult struggle for a realistic solution that is acceptable to both sides," a German delegation source said. "It remains an open question whether we will succeed."
Even though negotiations may have to go later than expected, the overall mood in Lausanne is positive.
Earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said there were “quite promising prospects” of reaching the deal, but he stressed, “there is never 100 percent certainty.”
“We have an opportunity to realize our chances if no party to the negotiations tries to raise the stakes at the last moment to get something extra instead of keeping a balance of interests,” Lavrov stressed during a joint media conference with his Vanuatu counterpart Sato Kilman.
Lavrov interrupted his participation in the talks in in Switzerland's Lausanne on Monday for a meeting with a delegation from Vanuatu, a small Pacific nation recently devastated by a cyclone.
Later on Tuesday Lavrov returned to the negotiations, which are in a make-or-break last day phase.
The Russian minister added that once a compromise is reached, the UN Security Council should dismantle the sanctions it imposed against Iran over its nuclear program. As for the unilateral sanctions imposed by the US and its allies, “we do not recognize them in any situation, whether it is Iran or any other country,” Lavrov noted.
Some diplomats say an agreement may be signed during a later meeting in Geneva.
“We are working meticulously to produce a document. If all goes well, the signing ceremony may take place in Geneva rather than Lausanne,” a diplomatic source in the Iranian delegation told TASS, describing the round of negotiations as a “daunting marathon.”
Jamal Abdi of the National Iranian-American Council told RT that he’s “pretty confident we’re going to see a deal” at the end of the current talks.
“I don’t think the parties have got this far in order to see a collapse. I think that this is a moment for potential brinkmanship, attempts to get the best possible deal, the last mile of the race,” he said.
Abdi believes that the signing of the deal may also lead to an improvement in relations between Iran and the US, which currently have no diplomatic ties.
“If we can fix the nuclear issue we might begin to turn the page and shift the paradigm, and see increased, positive opportunities for diplomacy between the US and Iran, and other states in the region,”he stressed.
Iran and the P5+1 group, which includes five permanent members of the UNSC plus Germany, have gathered in Lausanne to hammer out a framework deal, which would settle a decade-old controversy over Iran's nuclear development. Tehran was accused of pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons program by some countries, but insists that it only wants to use nuclear energy for civilian use.
The deal would put restrictions on Iranian nuclear activities, which would prevent it from rushing towards nuclear capability while allowing it to develop a civilian nuclear industry.
The negotiations are opposed by some of Iran's regional rivals, most notably US allies - Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel vigorously obstructed the negotiations, claiming that they would result in a “bad deal.”

White House ready to extend Iran deadline

President Obama honors Ted Kennedy at institute opening

Former Blackwater gets rich as Afghan drug production hits record high

By Spencer Ackerman
'Opium poppy cultivation is up in Afghanistan despite the infamous mercenary firm formerly known as Blackwater being paid $569m by the Pentagon to stop it.'
In a war full of failures, the US counternarcotics mission in Afghanistan stands out: opiate production has climbed steadily over recent years to reach record-high levels last year.

Yet there is a clear winner in the anti-drug effort – not the Afghan people, but the infamous mercenary company formerly known as Blackwater.
Statistics released on Tuesday reveal that the rebranded private security firm,known since 2011 as Academi, reaped over half a billion dollars from the futile Defense Department push to eradicate Afghan narcotics, some 32% of the $1.8bn in contracting money the Pentagon has devoted to the job since 2002.
The company is by far the biggest beneficiary of counternarcotics largesse in Afghanistan. Its closest competition, the defense giant Northrop Grumman, claimed $250m.
According to the US inspector general for Afghanistan “reconstruction”, the $569m Academi got from US taxpayers paid for “training, equipment, and logistical support” to Afghan forces conducting counternarcotics, such as “the Afghan National Interdiction Unit, the Ministry of Interior, and the Afghan Border Police”.
Far from eradicating the deep-rooted opiate trade, US counternarcotics efforts have proven useless, according to a series of recent official inquiries. Other aspects of the billions that the US has poured into Afghanistan over the last 13 years of war have even contributed to the opium boom.
In December, the United Nations reported a 60% growth in Afghan land used for opium poppy cultivation since 2011, up to 209,000 hectares. The estimated $3bn value of Afghan heroin and morphine represents some 15% of Afghan GDP.
“Given the growth in opium poppy cultivation, it must be assumed that the Taliban’s income from the illegal trade in narcotics has remained an important factor in generating assets for the group,” the United Nations reported.
That same month, the US inspector general for Afghanistan warned that the opium trade would surely rise as international aid money flees the country with the winding down of the war. Yet the inspector general also noted that US reconstruction projects, particularly those devoted to “improved irrigation, roads, and agricultural assistance” were probably leading to the explosion in opium cultivation.
“[A]ffordable deep-well technology turned 200,000 hectares of desert in southwestern Afghanistan into arable land over the past decade,” the inspector general found, concluding that “much of this newly arable land is dedicated to opium cultivation”.
Academi and its former Blackwater incarnation have an infamous history in Afghanistan. It once set up shell companies to disguise its business practices, according to a Senate report, so that its contracts would be unimpeded by company employees’ killings of Iraqi and Afghan civilians.
Blackwater’s founder, Erik Prince, sold the company – then renamed “Xe” – in 2010. Under new ownership, the firm occasionally gestures toward emphasizing its original business training military and police personnel, but it has never quite divested itself of its security contracting business.
In 2010, Blackwater was one of a group of firms selected by the State Department for its $10bn contract to protect its diplomats worldwide, precisely the mission Blackwater performed when its agents opened fire on Iraqi civilians at Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007 and turned the company into the ugly face of private security. The following year, the firm’s newly installed CEO pledged, “We’re not backing away from security services.”
A spokesman for Academi’s parent company, the Constellis Group, said that the current firm had separated itself from its Blackwater ancestry. 
“When the ownership of Constellis Group purchased our Moyock, N.C. training facility in 2010, Blackwater as the world knew it ceased to exist,” said spokesman Tom McCuin.
“Since then, the new ownership, through a completely new management team, have worked diligently to establish a reputation for competence and accountability. I realize that for many skeptics, we have a long way to go toward winning their trust, and that for some, nothing we do will ever change their view. I can only reiterate how committed we are to delivering what we promise.”

Afghanistan - Give Ghani a Chance

By Jonah Blank

Last week, Presidents Ashraf Ghani and Barack Obama stood side by side, and pledged that, this time, things would be different. Afghanistan and the United States have been locked in an awkward embrace for nearly 15 years, but now that clinch is supposed to get a lot less uncomfortable. With a bit more time, patience, and (of course) money, a harmonious relationship is close at hand.
The public had heard it all before: The same talking points could have been used during any visit by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai (and, quite possibly, some of them were). The earlier promises were often transparently false, and were recognized as such by observers at the time. Today, however, some of the naysayers have turned guardedly optimistic. I know, because I’m one of them.
After years of broken promises, there is reason to believe that these will be kept and that the pronouncements about a better U.S.–Afghan future deserve the benefit of the doubt.
Like most current or (as in my case) former U.S. officials who have handled Afghanistan issues since 2001, I have seen both Karzai and Ghani in action. Although both leaders entered office with similarly high expectations, the two men are not even remotely similar. Whatever mistakes Ghani might make (and every leader is bound to make some), they won’t be Karzai’s errors. That alone is cause for optimism.
As leader of the interim administration put in place following the Taliban’s ouster, and long after his 2004 election as president under Afghanistan’s new constitution, Karzai was commonly viewed as a valiant champion waging an under-resourced battle. With his reassuringly British-accented English and clad in his iconic cape and cap, he seemed like a real-life character whose movie version could only be played by Sean Connery. To many U.S. and Afghan observers, he was a lonely voice of unity and democratic values, bravely trying to keep his nation from being torn apart by rival warlords, resurgent Taliban, and terrorist groups ranging from al Qaeda to the Haqqani network to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Give Karzai more support, conventional wisdom had it—more money, more troops, more of anything and everything— because he’s the best shot Afghanistan has.
The subsequent policy failures in Afghanistan weren’t wholly, or even primarily, attributable to Karzai. There is plenty of blame to go around, and much of it lies in Washington (and Islamabad) rather than Kabul. But by 2009, when he ran for a second term in an election plagued by fraud, a critical mass of observers in Afghanistan and the United States had come to regard Karzai as a part of the problem. He was seen as enabling his three brothers to rack up a record of abuses including drug-trafficking, torture, and industrial-scale graft. He routinely appointed governors, ministers, and other key officials on the basis of personal loyalty rather than competence. He took no action as his cronies (most notably, his brother Mahmoud) looted nearly $935 million from the Kabul Bank—and actively thwarted international efforts to recover the funds and prosecute the offenders.
Throughout this period, U.S. government officials would put a shine on the rotten apple as they tried to pressure Karzai to change. “Despite recent events,” they may have said to themselves, “he finally gets it.” But he never did. His antagonistic public statements— including hyperbolic rhetorical attacks on NATO troops andreported threats to join the Taliban—further poisoned the well of international support. More importantly, his decision-making became increasingly erratic, his promises increasingly unreliable. By the end of his presidency, Karzai was reduced to nothing more than a potential spoiler: A leader with few committed followers and a non-partner for the international community. Many Afghans felt that his faults had been obvious from the very beginning and wondered why Washington took so long to notice.
This is the baseline for any argument that the future will be different from the past. One year ago, it was unclear whether Karzai would seek to retain his office in violation of the constitution, or perhaps reign as de facto ruler with a handpicked front-man as puppet president. It’s hard to imagine Afghanistan making any sort of progress, or retaining the support of the United States and other key donors, with Karzai still in charge. A prime selling point for both Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah is that both men are not Hamid Karzai.
Perhaps the most noteworthy way in which Ghani is not Karzai is his
willingness—his eagerness—to accept highly restrictive conditions on foreign aid. One of the most significant parts of the Obama–Ghani joint statement was the announcement that up to $800 million in economic assistance will be “tied to Afghan achievements of specific development results and implementation of key policy reforms.” Nations receiving aid typically push hard for a no-strings-attached approach, but according to Afghan and U.S. sources, Ghani welcomed the restrictions, probably for two reasons.
First, as a longtime World Bank official trained to demand concrete results as the condition for more money, he knows that assistance de-linked from performance is merely charity. And charity, although good for the soul, is not a firm foundation for national finance. Afghanistan’s operating budget is $7.6 billion per year, of which about 65 percent comes from Washington and other international donors. No accountability, Ghani knows, would soon mean no donors—and no donors would mean no way of keeping the government running.
Second, the biggest challenge for both Ghani and Abdullah lies in bringing the unruly members of their own fractious coalitions under control. Both men are personally committed to good governance, and Ghani made it the centerpiece of his presidential campaign: “Corruption is clearly the cancer that eats through our societies,” he said during last week’s visit to the United States. But his commitment runs directly counter to the interests of Afghan power-brokers on whom he and Abdullah rely. The success of the new regime, in other words, depends on institutionalizing an ethos that is almost exactly opposite the one adopted during the Karzai era. Now, as he struggles to change that, he will have the donors as his heavy. Governor X, he will be able to say, if you want that $20 million irrigation project in your province, you will need to fire A, B, and C corrupt officials, and set up a transparent accounting system that meets the standards set by these donors. 
The battle in Afghanistan has now gone on so long that service is a multi-generational affair. A kindergartner who waved to his deploying father when U.S. troops first entered Afghanistan would now be old enough to fight there himself—and at least a few parents and kids have served together in the same units. But the type of war that U.S. forces are now entering has changed drastically from the one that their elder relatives may have fought. The battle is now a contest by Afghans, for Afghans, between Afghans.
This is the last year of combat operations, and U.S. troops have been drawn down to about one-tenth of their peak strength: Last week, Obama agreed to keep the total strength of U.S. troops at 9,800 until the end of the year, rather than ramping them down by half as originally planned. But less than four years ago, the number was 101,000. By contrast, the Afghan National Security Forces now stand 352,000 strong, despite retention problems, and last week the United States promised to keep funding them at this level through 2017, to the tune of about $4 billion per year. That’s a tiny fraction of the $198 billion spent by U.S. taxpayers on U.S. and allied military operations in 2012 and 2013.
All this doesn’t mean that the remaining American troops face no danger, or that there won’t be further U.S. casualties: There is no such thing as a “safe” war-zone. And for Afghan soldiers, the past year was exceptionally bloody, and the future promises more of the same. But the dynamic of the previous decade was unhealthy for all parties: A war fought by a foreign power, without the control, direction, or robust participation of the nation on whose behalf it is purportedly being waged, has little chance of popular support or success. Afghans finally have ownership of their struggle—and the responsibility that goes with it. U.S. troops (and the taxpayers who fund them) finally have a mission that is far more modest, realistic, and manageable.
The future’s so bright you gotta wear shades? Hardly. In Afghanistan, optimism is always relative. Ghani and Abdullah face formidable challenges, and their success is far from guaranteed. When U.S. interests are out of sync with Afghan priorities, Ghani will opt for domestic goals (as he should). But where Karzai (at least in his later years) saw himself as the champion of Afghanistan in opposition to the United States, Ghani—a life-long technocrat who has lived in America about as many years as he has in Afghanistan—sees himself as championing Afghanistan’s interests in concert with Washington. He demonstrated this in a moving tribute at the Pentagon to the nearly one million Americans who served in Afghanistan, the 20,000 who were wounded there, and the 2,215 who never made it home alive.
It’s hard to imagine Karzai offering such a gesture of heartfelt thanks, or treating international aid as an investment rather than a bribe, or voluntarily asking his defeated rival to join him in a government of national unity. That, in a nutshell, is why observers should be willing to set cynicism aside and indulge in a rare moment of hope.