MENA conflict update, October 28

I haven’t done one of these in a couple of days because there wasn’t much happening to warrant it and I didn’t want to just get into a pointless daily routine. Nobody needs that. Still, here are some updates:


Rebel forces led by, that’s right, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham launched an assault against the western side of Aleppo in an effort to break the Syrian government’s siege of eastern Aleppo. As with nearly everything else that happens in Syria, there have been conflicting reports about the attack’s success, with rebel sources claiming that they’ve captured a few areas in western Aleppo and government sources saying that the attack has been “thwarted.” Who knows, right? But it’s interesting that there have been reports that the Russian Defense Ministry asked for permission to resume bombing Aleppo in response to the attack and that Russian President Vladimir Putin denied that permission. This suggests that the attack was pretty substantial but not substantial enough for Putin to abandon his “you’ve just proved my point” tactic of appearing reasonable in order to make Washington look bad for its inevitable failure to separate extremist groups from the rest of the Aleppo rebels. Adding ammunition to Putin’s frequent charges about rebel extremism is the fact that today’s attack appears to have coincided with an ISIS attack on the Syrian army east of Aleppo. Needless to say, the Syrian government is charging that the rebels are now colluding with ISIS.

The biggest story of the past few days before this counterattack was launched was the bombing, likely by airstrike, of a school in the town of Haas in rebel-controlled Idlib province that killed almost 40 people, most of them children. It may be the deadliest attack on a school since the civil war began, and that’s saying something. As Idlib is rebel country the candidates for carrying out this attack are precisely two: Russia and Syria. The Russians quickly insisted that they had nothing to do with it, and for a while it looked like they were throwing Bashar al-Assad under the bus a little bit, but they’re now also denying Syrian involvement. They’ve even claimed to have evidence that the attack wasn’t an airstrike, which I guess is supposed to mean the rebels did it even though, hey, the Syrian army also has artillery and hasn’t shown any real interest in not killing children for the past five years. The rebels appear to have responded by shelling a school in government-held western Aleppo, which killed 6 children, and you know what? Fuck everybody.

As I was writing this piece, I saw this:

Russia failed to win re-election to the United Nations Human Rights Council on Friday, beaten out by Hungary and Croatia, following lobbying by rights groups against Moscow’s candidacy because of its military support for the Syrian government.

In a secret ballot by the 193-member U.N. General Assembly, Hungary received 144 votes, followed by Croatia with 114 votes and Russia with 112 votes. Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Moscow had faced good competition.

“It was a very close vote,” Churkin told reporters. “Croatia, Hungary – they are fortunate because of their size they are not as exposed to the winds of international diplomacy; Russia is quite exposed.”

“We have been there a number of years, I’m sure next time we’re going to get in,” he said.

Replacing Russia on the “Human Rights Council” with these guys is not as big an improvement as you’d hope to see. But we always hear how much Moscow wants to be considered a great power and to have international prestige and, well, this is the opposite of international prestige. Is it enough to get Russia to rethink its Syria policy? No. But it is a slap in the face.

On to Raqqa, and then elsewhere, after the break.

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A sense of proportionality


Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and Saudi King Salman

Earlier today the Yemeni rebels (I’ve decided to stop always calling them “Houthis,” because they’re not all Houthis) launched a ballistic missile into Saudi Arabia. The missile was intercepted and destroyed by the Saudis before it reached its target, and the Saudis then counterattacked against the site from which the missile was launched.

Ho-hum, right? Well, the target, according to the Saudis, was Mecca. Not so ho-hum. The rebels, however, insist that they were firing at King Abdulaziz International Airport, in the northern part of Jeddah. Now, Mecca and Jeddah are very close to one another, and depending on the point of origin it is possible that a missile fired from inside Yemen would have to pass very close to Mecca in order to reach the airport. The Saudis say that they intercepted the missile 65 km outside of Mecca, and at that distance it should be possible to determine with more specificity what the missile’s target was. On the other hand, if you believe they only unintentionally massacred a Yemeni funeral a couple of weeks ago, then you must figure that the Saudis aren’t particularly skilled in matters related to targeting.

But OK, let’s assume the rebels fired on Mecca. That would be very bad, probably a war crime. Even striking the airport in Jeddah would be unconscionable, as it is a civilian facility and civilians would be the ones dying in a successful strike. But there’s no reason to target Mecca except to kill civilians and damage a beloved religious site in order to embarrass the Saudis, who after all are supposed to be the custodians of Mecca. Now, this wouldn’t have been the first, or even the most destructive, time that Mecca has been attacked since the advent of Islam back in the 7th century. Nevertheless, a decision to strike the city would be indefensible.

But you know what else is indefensible?

Apart from the thousands of Yemenis killed directly by Saudi airstrikes, millions are at risk of starvation. A few days ago, more than a year and a half after they imposed a blockade on Yemen that has contributed mightily to this humanitarian catastrophe, the Saudis asked the world not to believe its lying eyes and denied having ever imposed a blockade at all. The Saudis are only “controlling” traffic into and out of Yemen, and “control” is different from “blockade,” you see. For example, there’s only one ‘o’ in “blockade,” and two in “control.”

However, and this is an important point, there is not a single ‘o’ in “what a bunch of fucking bullshit.”

I’m not excusing a missile attack on (maybe) Mecca. I’m not telling you not to be mad about that. But I am saying that a single failed missile attack on a city, any city, isn’t equivalent to the deliberate starvation of millions of human beings, of hundreds of thousands of children. Those two things aren’t even in the same ballpark. Bear that in mind when you see Saudi mouthpieces in Washington and elsewhere talk about the horrible attempted attack on Mecca. Put a picture of Saida Ahmad Baghili in your mind and ask yourself who’s committing the greater atrocity.



This is definitely one of those days where the words don’t want to come out, so instead of fighting it I’m going to take a bit of a break. Thanks for your support!

Biting the hand that feeds you

I mentioned in passing yesterday that relations between Saudi Arabia and Egypt are a little strained lately, so I thought I should explain that a bit. Basically, it’s all about Syria, but it’s also a throwback to a simpler time in the history of the modern Middle East. The Saudis are, as ever, intent on seeing that Bashar al-Assad not continue on as Syria’s dictator. I’m sure you already know this. They don’t really seem to care what form Assad’s removal takes or what rebel group succeeds him, so long as he’s gone. Now, you might expect that Egypt, which is not only the other Sunni Arab powerhouse in the region but is at this point heavily dependent upon Riyadh’s checkbook to keep the lights on, would similarly want to see Assad and his Alawite, Iranian-dependent regime expunged from Syria. Right?

Well, here’s the thing: Assad and Egyptian ruler Abdel Fattah el-Sisi may not practice the same kind of Islam, but they are both dictators and they have both been dealing with opposition from Islamists, from the political (Muslim Brotherhood) to the violent (ISIS, al-Qaeda, and so on). So they’ve got a lot in common. Specifically, the forces fighting Assad are the same forces that would like to toss Sisi out on his ass, and Sisi would really prefer not to see that happen. So he’s not quite so invested in seeing Assad go as his Saudi patrons. Egypt’s official position on Syria is that there should be a political transition, presumably involving Assad, that excludes Islamists of all stripes. Ideally, from Cairo’s perspective, the end of that transition would see Assad sent off into exile, but you get the sense that they’d be OK with Assad remaining in power so long as it kept the Islamists out of power.

Like I said, this hearkens back to a time, in the mid-20th century, when sectarianism took a back seat to more prosaic political concerns in inter-Arab affairs. This was a time when, for example, the Saudis intervened on behalf of the Shiʿa rulers of North Yemen against the Egyptian-backed Yemen Arab Republic, because Riyadh was more interested in supporting monarchies against republicanism than it was in who was practicing which branch of Islam.

This rather stark difference in views came to a head a couple of weeks ago, over two different Syria resolutions in the UN Security Council. One, written by France, called for an end to the air campaign over Aleppo and was presumably fine by Riyadh. The other, though, was written by Russia and called for an international effort to separate the “bad rebels” from the “good rebels,” something that undoubtedly wasn’t fine by Riyadh. Egypt voted in favor of both resolutions because, well, both resolutions were compatible with Cairo’s Syria policy. This prompted the Saudi ambassador to the UN, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, to wistfully note that “it was painful to see that the Senegal and Malaysia positions were closer to the Arab consensus on Syria (when) compared to that of an Arab representative.”


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Dear Blob: the world isn’t static

Even though I know it exists, I’m still regularly baffled by the assumption, which appears to be common in DC foreign policy circles, that the rest of the world is this static, unchanging thing that can be affected by American actions but never reacts to them. The best current example of this assumption is the argument for broadening American intervention in Syria to include attacking Bashar al-Assad’s military assets. The immediate objection to this idea is that Russia will forcefully object and probably counter-escalate, and given the intermingling of Russian and Syrian forces, American strikes against Assad might actually kill Russian personnel. This potentially risks escalating the Syrian conflict into a US-Russian shooting war. Maybe you think that’s a risk worth taking, and, hey, I think there’s a compelling argument to be made there even if I don’t find it entirely convincing. But Bomb Bashar proponents, to the extent they address that objection at all, do so in ways that range from the Rube Goldbergian:

Given that Russia would be unlikely in such a scenario to freely share the locations of all of its deployed military personnel, a mechanism would also be put into place through which Russia’s military headquarters in the Latakia-based Hmeymim Airbase would be pre-informed several hours in advance of any U.S. cruise missile strike. The plan to issue warnings to Russia would be made explicitly public to prevent Russia from moving its forces or even civilians or prisoners to an intended target in a cynical attempt to deter a strike. The United States would also make clear that once a warning had been issued, the planned stand-off strike would take place. That any such strikes would be targeting non-critical regime military infrastructure away from populated areas or otherwise sensitive areas would also minimize the necessity for Russia to take what would be an extraordinarily bold move in counter-escalating.

“The United States would communicate, via its Pacific sonar network and a select group of Mongolian horse archers, that in the event of a planned stand-off strike against a Syrian facility, if the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs stamps his left foot three times in quick succession, Russian personnel should be prepared to run 50 meters precisely to the south-southwest of their current position, but if the Chairman claps his hands seven times while circling a large fish tank, Russian personnel should dig a hole and shelter in place. Unless it has been pre-determined that it is Opposite Day, in which case…”

To the outright wishful thinking (you can almost see Lister literally waving his hands here): Continue reading

MENA conflict update, October 25


A day after informing the world that there would be no more humanitarian ceasefires in Aleppo unless the US somehow made al-Qaeda surrender, today the Russians let everybody know that their aircraft haven’t come within six miles of the city in a week and that they plan to continue this hold on airstrikes indefinitely. This freeze went largely ignored amid Russian and Syrian artillery bombardments of eastern Aleppo, which use ordinance that explodes just as well as something dropped from the air, but, ah, credit where credit is due, I guess. This seems less like an act of mercy on the Russians’ part and more like the kind of thing you’d do when shifting from bombarding a place to trying to conquer that place on the ground. All airstrikes are imperfect, and Russia and Syria aren’t exactly packing the latest in smart bomb technology, so if they’re sending ground forces in it’s more or less incumbent upon them to also ease off on the bombing runs. The Russians also said that, while another ceasefire is out of the question, corridors for people to evacuate the city could still be opened up if there’s a demand for it.

On the other major active front in Syria, Turkey and its rebel proxies are approaching the ISIS-held city of al-Bab, which is maybe 25 miles northeast of Aleppo, shown here:


(Google Maps)

The fight for al-Bab may be Turkey’s first real military test since it invaded Syria in August. Rao Komar at War on the Rocks compares it to the Syrian Democratic Forces’ operation to capture Manbij from ISIS, which took months, and he notes that the SDF was a heck of a lot better organized and more battle hardened than the rebels fighting with Turkey. On the other hand, the SDF didn’t have Turkish armor and air support, so I tend to think this operation will be easier than the capture of Manbij. That doesn’t mean it will be easy, though.

Also elsewhere in Syria, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is talking as though the operation to capture Raqqa is going to begin soon, as in “before Mosul falls” soon:

“Yes, there will be overlap (in the Mosul and Raqqa campaigns) and that’s part of our plan and we are prepared for that,” Carter said after a gathering of 13 countries in the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State.

That’s…interesting, considering that there are a lot of details about a Raqqa operation that are still up in the air, little questions like “what force is actually going to capture the city?” Recent reporting has suggested that there’s been some debate within the Obama administration about whether to push ahead with a Raqqa operation now or put more time into planning it. It sounds like the debate may be over.

Finally, elsewhere but not in Syria, Spain, of all places, is…well, read for yourselves:

Spain is facing international anger as it apparently prepares to refuel a flotilla of Russian warships due to step up strikes against the beleaguered city of Aleppo.

Politicians and military figures condemned the support from a Nato member, while the head of the alliance indicated Madrid should rethink the pit stop.

Warships from an eight-strong group led by the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov will take on fuel and supplies from the Spanish port of Ceuta after passing through the Straits of Gibraltar on Wednesday morning, Spanish papers reported.

The EU is in the middle of a messy internal debate over maybe sanctioning Russia over Syria, but with the Brexiting UK leading the push for more sanctions many of the rest of the EU states don’t seem inclined to go along. Spain regularly refuels Russian ships and makes some decent cash for their trouble, and they’re not about to let a little thing like more dead Syrians get in the way of that.

Mosul, Yemen, and Libya after the break.

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“President Aoun” is looking more likely

Lebanon took another step toward getting a new president over the weekend. After initially appearing oddly non-committal about his candidacy, Hezbollah–via its leader, Hassan Nasrallah–announced on Sunday that its members of parliament would vote for Michel Aoun in a presidential election that is likely to take place next Monday. Hezbollah and Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement are allies in the March 8 parliamentary coalition, and there was never any real question that Hezbollah would support him. Nasrallah’s endorsement should carry considerable sway among the other parties in the bloc, which is good news for Aoun because at last glance he was still trying to shore up his support with those guys. Now, with Aoun already having banked the endorsement of Saad al-Hariri, of the rival March 14 coalition, it seems clear that, while he may not be a lock to become Lebanon’s next president, Aoun is the likeliest candidate the country has had since Michel Suleiman’s term ended two years ago.

As expected, the deal Hariri cut to endorse Aoun includes the condition that Aoun appoint Hariri as Lebanon’s new Prime Minister, a condition that Hezbollah is also going along with despite the fact that they and the Hariris don’t exactly get along. Hariri, who has seen his own political fortunes declining as his Saudi patrons have pulled away from both him and Lebanon more broadly, clearly saw this move as a way to thrust himself back into the political spotlight and hopefully give himself time to reestablish his power within the March 14 coalition. Aoun, being Hezbollah’s guy, is also Iran’s guy–Iranian officials have expressed their preference for Aoun’s election–and it appears that’s the basis on which the opposition to Aoun’s candidacy will attack him.

That opposition has two ways to prevent Aoun from becoming the next president. One, obviously, involves getting more votes against him than for him, but that seems unlikely. The other is to convince enough legislators to stay home to ensure that there is no 2/3 parliamentary quorum, thereby invalidating any vote. That possibility is more likely–it’s the tool by which every other attempt to elect a new president over the past two years has been defeated. But with gridlock fatigue surely running high, and with Aoun having bagged these two major endorsements, the odds are probably in favor of him being elected next week. Stay tuned.