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Kremlin relishes US pullback from Syria, turmoil in Ukraine

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MOSCOW (AP) — From Syria to Ukraine, new fault lines and tensions are offering the Kremlin fresh opportunities to expand its clout and advance its interests.

The U.S. military withdrawal from northern Syria before a Turkish offensive leaves Russia as the ultimate power broker, allowing it to help negotiate a potential agreement between Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Kurds who were abandoned by Washington.

And in Ukraine, where the new president saw his image dented by a U.S. impeachment inquiry, Russia may use the volatility to push for a deal that would secure its leverage over its western neighbor.

The Turkish offensive in northern Syria followed President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the area, cold shouldering the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, the key U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State group.

Washington’s abrupt decision to ditch the Kurds contrasted sharply with Moscow’s unwavering support for its ally Assad, which helped his government reclaim the bulk of the country’s territory in a devastating civil war.

Along with military power, Russian President Vladimir Putin has relied on diplomacy to achieve his goals in Syria, reaching out to regional powers — from Iran to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey.

NATO member Turkey has become a particularly important partner for Russia. Even though the two countries have backed opposite sides in the Syrian conflict, they have pooled efforts to negotiate a de-escalation zone in the Syrian province of Idlib and co-sponsor talks on forming a committee that would draft a new Syrian constitution.

The Russia-Turkey rapprochement came as Ankara’s relations with Washington grew increasingly chilly and were further strained over Turkey’s recent purchase of Russian air defense missiles.

Turkey’s offensive in Syria, which has drawn harsh criticism from the U.S. and European Union, may now push Moscow and Ankara even closer.

“Russia wants to benefit from that operation, and one of the gains could be the strengthening of ties with Turkey,” said Kirill Semenov of the Russian International Affairs Council. “The harsh response from Washington, the EU reaction, the threat of sanctions against Turkey all play into Moscow’s hands by making Moscow and Ankara even closer.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Putin just before unleashing air strikes and an artillery barrage on Kurdish-controlled areas in Syria. Ankara charges that the Kurdish fighters in Syria are allied with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has led an insurgency against Turkey for 35 years.

While Russia has noted the need to respect Syria’s territorial integrity, it also has emphasized Turkey’s right to ensure its security — a benevolent stance contrasting with the harsh Western criticism of the Turkish offensive.

Russia has long urged the U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters in Syria to come back to Damascus’ fold, an offer they may need to take more seriously now.

“We heard that both Syrian officials and representatives of Kurdish organizations expressed interest in Russia using its good relations with all parties to the process in arranging such talks,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters on Thursday. “We will see what we can do.”

Lavrov also pointed at another Moscow goal — brokering a dialogue between Turkey and Assad’s government, something Ankara has strongly rejected in the past.

“It would be good for Russia to bring Ankara and Damascus to the table and have Ankara acknowledge the legitimacy of the regime in Damascus, if not Assad himself,” Semenov said.

In another power game, Russia hopes to see major gains in its long-running effort to retain leverage over its neighbor Ukraine, a former Soviet republic looking to align itself with the West. In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and threw its support behind a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine following the ouster of Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly leader, moves that triggered bruising Western sanctions.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who was elected by a landslide in April, has vowed to end the fighting, which has killed more than 13,000. Early this month, Ukraine, Russia and the rebels signed a tentative agreement to hold local elections in the east, a deal Zelenskiy insists conforms to a 2015 peace accord that was brokered by France and Germany.

The agreement, however, has been criticized by some in Ukraine as “capitulation” to Moscow. On Monday, far-right and nationalist groups are staging a major rally in Kyiv to protest Zelenskiy’s peace plan.

The Ukrainian president has been drawn into the political furor in the United States, where Democrats in Congress are conducting an impeachment inquiry triggered by his telephone conversation with Trump. In the July 25 call, Trump pushed him to open a corruption investigation into Democratic rival Joe Biden and his son. In the days before the call, Trump ordered a freeze on hundreds of millions of dollars in badly needed U.S. military aid. After a congressional uproar, the aid was released in September.

Zelenskiy has denied being pressured by Trump, but this past week he encouraged U.S. and Ukrainian prosecutors to discuss investigating a gas company linked to Biden’s son, although no one has produced evidence of criminal wrongdoing by either Biden.

The White House’s publication of a rough transcript of the call was embarrassing for the 41-year-old Ukrainian president because it showed him eager to please Trump and dismissive of European partners whose support he needs to end the conflict in the east. While Zelenskiy sought to play it down, it could help Russia by eroding support for Ukraine in Germany and France.

“France and Germany have grown tired of Ukraine and are too busy with their own problems, and their only goal is to close the issue of the war in the east by any means,” said Vadim Karasev, head of the Institute of Global Strategies, an independent Kyiv-based think tank. “If Russia offers a compromise, Berlin and Paris will heave a sigh of relief. By publicly kicking (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel and (French President Emmanuel) Macron, Zelenskiy untied their hands and there is no more talk about their ‘friendly support.’”

In June, France helped Russia’s delegation restore its credentials at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, five years after it was stripped of voting rights following the annexation of Crimea. Macron has also spoken about the prospect of Russia’s eventual return to the Group of Seven, from which it was purged after annexing Crimea.

“Russia is the main beneficiary of that situation,” Karasev said. “Putin no longer has to prove that Ukraine is dangerous and toxic — Ukrainian and U.S. politicians have done the job for him. The Kremlin now just needs to wait until the Ukrainian apple falls into its lap, as the U.S., Germany and France all have got their share of toxic Ukrainian gifts and got poisoned.”

---

Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Konstantin Manenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

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The Original War on Terror

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Eric Laursen is an independent journalist and activist; his latest book is The Duty to Stand Aside: Nineteen Eighty-Fourand the Wartime Quarrel of George Orwell and Alex Comfort(AK Press, 2018).

Nunzio Pernicone and Fraser M. Ottanelli, Assassins against the Old Order: Italian Anarchist Violence in Fin de Siècle Europe (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2018), 219 pgs)

After an anarchist and former steel worker named Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley in September 1901, McKinley's successor, Theodore Roosevelt, in his first message to Congress, offered his own characterization of “the anarchist.” It ought to sound familiar to us today.

“For the anarchist himself, whether he preaches or practices his doctrines, we need not have one particle more concern than for any ordinary murderer. He is not the victim of social or political injustice. There are no wrongs to remedy in his case.”

Roosevelt’s message echoes in the denunciations of Islamic terrorism that have filled the last several decades; it amounts to a denial that any larger context is needed to explain an act of political violence. “No man or body of men preaching anarchistic doctrines,” Roosevelt declared, “should be allowed at large any more than if preaching the murder of some specified private individual. Anarchistic speeches, writings, and meetings are essentially seditious and treasonable.”

Any speech that could be labeled anarchist, even if its content was peaceful, was therefore an incitement to violence and a crime. Further, it could be used to justify giving government greater powers and resources to surveille, interdict, and punish any political competitor. As “enemies of the State” have continued to appear over the last century-plus, the State has continued to accumulate new powers and capabilities: to emerge stronger from every attempt to challenge its authority. 

The assassination of McKinley, and Roosevelt’s thunderous response, came at the tail end of the spasm of politically motivated killings, or attentats, that’s covered in Assassins against the Old Order (University of Illinois Press), an excellent new study by Nunzio Pernicone and Fraser M. Ottanelli. Pernicone, the great historian of Italian and Italian-American anarchism, died in 2013; Ottanelli, the author of several works on Italian migration and the U.S. Left, completed his work. Their book attempts to restore the larger political context to late-19th century anarchist violence, much of it perpetrated by Italians, by surveying the history and then focusing on six sensational cases. Along the way, they tell an engrossing if tragic story of human suffering, oppression, rage, and revenge.

Their conclusion turns the table on Roosevelt’s: “Anarchist violence was essentially retaliatory violence precipitated by government repression.” In fact, they show, the origins of anarchist violence weren’t even in anarchism itself, but in the tactical doctrines of the Risorgimento, the nationalist struggle for Italian unification that, ironically, had earlier captured the imagination of liberals in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere.

“Propaganda of the deed,” the notion that individual acts of violence, including the assassination of tyrants and reactionary politicians was necessary to spark a revolutionary outbreak, was articulated by Carlo Pisacane, a companion of Mazzini, the father of the Risorgimento; Pisacane died trying to launch an insurrection in the Kingdom of Naples in 1857. His landing in the kingdom was celebrated in a poem by Luigi Mercantini that was translated into English by Longfellow; the date of his abortive rising is marked every year by a three-day festival in the Campanian town of Sapri.

Pisacane's death was the end point of a period when Italian nationalists carried out a string of attentats, including the stabbing of one of Pope Pius IX's ministers (1848), the fatal stabbing of Duke Carlo III of Parma (1854), and an attempt on the life of King Fernandino II of Naples (1856).  

How did assassination then enter the toolkit of Italian anarchists? In the decades following Italian unification in 1870, “anarchism appealed to Mazzinian democrats disillusioned with the outcome of the Risorgimento, who increasingly conceived of their struggle in terms of social revolution,” Pernicone and Ottanelli write. If the attentat could serve the cause of national liberation, it could serve the new social struggle as well. Italian anarchists “established a direct linkage that was never broken between anarchism and the legacy of violence embedded in the revolutionary traditions of the Risorgimento.”

The early decades of Italian unification are often portrayed as a period of gradual political liberalization and economic expansion, but Pernicone and Ottanelli set the record straight. These years were punctuated by severe depressions, with relief for big landowners but no social safety net to alleviate the suffering in the countryside or the cities; worker unrest and uprisings; and government by a tightly restricted political class desperate to dampen the popularity of the socialist and anarchist movements.

Italy, in other words, was a highly combustible place that gave leftists plenty of reason to lash out and very little opportunity to express themselves in a mainstream-permissible manner. Assassinations were far from the only way that impoverished people, rural and urban, expressed their unhappiness. From their point of view, the most important events of the period were an attempted general strike in Rome in 1891 (“as a precautionary measure, the police deported 8,000 unemployed workers back to their hometowns”) and a series of rebellions that extended from Tuscany into Sicily; the unrest in the latter ended only when the government declared a state of siege and sent 40,000 troops to occupy the island.

But as in Mazzini’s time, political killings appealed to people, many of whom were marginal to the anarchist movement itself, as a way to focus the outrage of the masses on the figures at the top of the social, economic, and political order and thereby encourage wider uprisings.

Six of these sensational acts form the core of Pernicone and Ottanelli’s story:

  • The attempted assassination of Italian Prime Minister Francesco Crispi by a 25-year-old unemployed carpenter, Paolo Lega (1894);
  • The fatal stabbing of French President Sadi Carnot eight days later by Sante Geronimo Caserio, a baker and anarchist propagandist;
  • The attempted killing of Italy’s King Umberto I by Pietro Acciarito, an unemployed blacksmith, in 1897;
  • The assassination of Spanish Prime Minister Antonio Cánovas the same year by Michele Angiolillo, an ex-officer cadet and the only one of the group who wasn’t working-class in origin; 
  • The assassination of Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1898 by Luigi Lucheni, a desperately poor laborer, ex-soldier, and ex-manservant; and finally,
  • The murder of King Umberto in 1900 by Gaetano Bresci, a weaver who had become an anarchist while living in Paterson, New Jersey before returning to Italy.

“Anarchists were but an expression of a long-established tradition of tyrannicide in Italian history,” Pernicone and Ottanelli conclude, tapping into a popular image of the giustiziere: one who kills a despot for the common good. Almost by definition, a giustiziere is a lone actor who performs the deed out of a sense of duty. The authors stress that none of the six cases “conform to the contemporary definitions of terrorism, with its emphasis on the slaughter of innocents.”

But that didn’t stop the authorities from attempting over and over, in the trials of the assassins, to prove that each one was part of a larger plot. In particular, they were determined to implicate Errico Malatesta, Italy’s most famous anarchist, who in fact had always stressed insurrection over assassination as the path to a new society. The vendetta against Malatesta reached a bizarre height in 1901, when the Interior Ministry suspected that he had formed a plot with ex-Queen Maria Sofia of Naples, known for her implacable hatred of the House of Savoy, to liberate Bresci and possibly assassinate the new king, Vittorio Emanuele III.

The authorities were utterly ruthless in their efforts to indict the entire anarchist movement of these crimes, despite the fact that Italian anarchism was beginning a long decline and the mainstream Socialists were gathering strength; Pernicone and Ottanelli suggest that the government knew this and that its real objective was to discredit the Socialists and justify a crackdown on opposition politicians and press. The preferred instrument was domicilio coatto: imprisonment or exile to one of a string of squalid islands off the coast; anarchists got so used to the latter treatment that they came to refer to these penal colonies, mordantly, as the “health islands.”

To get them there, or to the scaffold, the government wouldgo to any length. In Caserio’s trial, the French judge tried again and again to get him to admit he was “the agent of an anarchist plot.” Each time, the defendant replied, “No, I am alone.” 

Prosecutors hatched a ruse to convince Acciarito that he had a son living with the prisoner’s mother and that his refusal to cooperate, implicating other anarchists in the attempted murder of Umberto, was condemning them to poverty. When the truth came out, Acciarito dramatically denounced the prosecutors in court, provoking outrage in the press. He was nevertheless sentenced to solitary confinement, after which he was consigned to an asylum for the criminally insane until his death almost 40 years later.

Bresci’s assassination of Umberto was of course the greatest of the attentats; in its effort to prove a plot originating in the U.S., the Italian government pressured Washington, now presided over by that avowed enemy of anarchism, Theodore Roosevelt, to launch a massive investigation that eventually involved the Secret Service, the Justice Department, the Post Office, and the U.S. Marshals Service. “Not a trace of a plot [was] discovered by federal agents,” Pernicone and Ottanelli note. Bresci was confined to a fortress prison on the island of Elba, where he was found hanged in his cell, likely in a staged suicide.

From the beginning, there were two facets to governments’ response to anarchist violence. On one hand, as embodied in Roosevelt’s speech, they wanted the public to regard political assassinations as not political at all, but the acts of depraved, bestial individuals; on the other, they asked the courts to tie the murderers together in a vast political conspiracy. These two approaches were not really consistent with one another, but they served the purpose of demonizing anarchists both as individuals and as a movement. 

One prominent figure, the historian Guglielmo Ferrero, argued for something different. Why not establish “an effective police force to keep tabs on extremists and [extend] greater political liberty to the anarchists, which would encourage them to channel their ideas and frustrations into nonviolent avenues of expression”? But there was as much chance of the government adopting such policies “as of Mt. Etna ceasing its eruptions,” the authors conclude.

The end of the comparatively short period of anarchist attentats coincideed with the rise of the parliamentary Socialists and an organized labor movement in Italy, and probably had more to do with these developments than with the government’s brutal crackdown. But it forms part of the dynamic noted at the beginning of this review, and that continues to this day: the exploitation of acts of political violence to strengthen the hand of the State. The brutal San Stefano prison, where Bresci may have been murdered, has its analogy in Guantanamo; Italy’s string of island penal colonies in the CIA’s global chain of hidden prison and torture facilities; and the repressive “exceptional laws” that the Crispi government passed in the wake of the attempt on the prime minister’s life in the passage of the Homeland Security Act following the 9/11 attacks in the U.S.

As in that earlier period, proving that the perpetrators are part of a larger conspiracy beyond sharing a common ideology, has mostly proven difficult. Once again, the State has the option of addressing the root causes of political violence, or lashing back with new methods of repression. Again, it has chosen the latter.

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Poland's ruling nationalists set to win election: exit poll

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WARSAW, Poland (Reuters) - Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party was on course to retain its ruling majority after a parliamentary election on Sunday, winning 43.6% of votes, an exit poll showed.

The poll by Ipsos gave 27.4% of the vote to the centrist Civic Coalition, an umbrella group that includes the Civic Platform formerly led by European Union Council President Donald Tusk. A leftist bloc garnered 11.9% of votes in the poll.

“We have victory,” PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski told party members.

A win by PiS, a euroskeptic group with a leftist economic agenda, would likely stoke concern in the European Union about Poland’s commitment to the rule of law and its willingness to protect ethnic minorities and the gay community.

Opposition parties and Poland’s EU partners say PiS has undermined the independence of the judiciary and used public media to promote its agenda.

The party has cast the election as a choice between a society rooted in traditional Catholic values and a liberal order that promotes a chosen few and undermines family life.

PiS has drawn support from poorer Poles who feel they have missed out on prosperity since the collapse of communism in 1989. The party has mixed nationalist rhetoric with a vast welfare program financed by an economic boom.

The Electoral Committee will start publishing partial results on Monday.

Reporting by Warsaw bureau; Writing by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Edmund Blair

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