Conflict update: December 3



Syria updated through November 28: red = government, green = rebels, white = JFS, gray = ISIS, yellow = Kurds (Wikimedia | Ermanarich)

About half of formerly rebel-held eastern Aleppo is in Syrian government hands after the army announced yesterday that it had seized the Tariq al-Bab neighborhood. Moscow is saying that it’s ready to talk about a withdrawal of the remaining rebel forces from the city, which frankly may be the best possible outcome at this point. The rebels have reportedly countered that they’re prepared to let civilians leave the city (which I guess means they’re not going to open fire on civilian corridors anymore) but that they’re staying to the bitter end (this disagreement has apparently caused those secret talks between the rebels and Russia in Turkey to break down). This of course means they’ll take the city itself with them, which is why it would be a hell of a lot better for everybody, including the rebels themselves, if they just agreed to evacuate. Obviously they have no reason to believe that Assad and Russia will honor any promises about safe passage, but then again they’re all going to definitely be killed as things stand now.

Congress, meanwhile, authorized the provision of MANPADS anti-aircraft weapons to vetted Syrian rebels yesterday. This could be a big boost for the rebels, who could use the weapons to target Syrian helicopters if not high-flying Syrian and Russian jets…and it could also be a big boost for international terrorism, if any of the weapons were to somehow wind up being sent outside of Syria. It may be moot, however, because there’s a pretty good chance that President Trump is going to wash his hands of the Syrian rebellion altogether. It depends on whether he listens to most of his advisors, who are anti-Iran and therefore anti-Assad, or to Vladimir Putin, with whom he claims to want to improve relations.

Two Turkish soldiers have been abducted by ISIS fighters a short distance outside of al-Bab and have reportedly been transferred, along with their Turkmen translator, to Raqqa. This kidnapping points to the degree to which Turkish soldiers accompanying their rebel proxies are now under genuine threat in northern Syria, and it bears watching to see if the Turkish government begins to feel some heat over this domestically.


Continue reading

We are so screwed

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on September 11, 2001:

CBS News has learned that barely five hours after American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was telling his aides to come up with plans for striking Iraq — even though there was no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the attacks.

That’s according to notes taken by aides who were with Rumsfeld in the National Military Command Center on Sept. 11 – notes that show exactly where the road toward war with Iraq began, reports CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin.

New National Security Advisor-designate Michael Flynn shortly after September 11, 2012:

Days after Islamist militants stormed the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn reached a conclusion that stunned some of his subordinates at the Defense Intelligence Agency: Iran had a role in the attack, he told them.

Now, he added, it was their job to prove it — and, by implication, to show that the White House was wrong about what had led to the attack.

In Rumsfeld’s case, his assertion was never proven, but he got the war he wanted anyway and half the planet is still grappling with the consequences. In Flynn’s case, his assertion was never proven, and the war is TBD. I know we’re living in a post-fact world, but it should be terrifying to pretty much everybody that the people setting national security policy for Donald Trump practice the same “here’s my conclusion, now go find facts to support it” method that Bush 43’s team used to such great effect.

That whole profile on Flynn is frankly frightening, but I thought this bit deserved particular highlighting.


Trump around the world

He’s still more than a month and a half away from officially becoming our president, but Donald Trump is already making quite an impression among leaders around the world. We already know that he and Vladimir Putin get along well, and it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that a number of other authoritarian bros seem happy to see his election. However, not everybody is so pleased with the president-elect:

The one certainty about the strange, seemingly-fawning conversation between Donald Trump and Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif, was that it would create fury within India.

US State Department officials may have grumbled about the President-elect conducting “congratulations conversations” with leaders such as Japan’s Shinzō Abe in the absence of US diplomats, which is the usual process.

And figures such as former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer may have huffed and puffed about the impropriety, or otherwise, of a foreign country releasing the transcript of such conversations.

What happened during Trump’s call with Sharif? Well, let the Pakistani government explain:

Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif called President-elect USA Donald Trump and felicitated him on his victory. President Trump said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif you have a very good reputation. You are a terrific guy. You are doing amazing work which is visible in every way. I am looking forward to see you soon. As I am talking to you Prime Minister, I feel I am talking to a person I have known for long. Your country is amazing with tremendous opportunities. Pakistanis are one of the most intelligent people. I am ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems. It will be an honor and I will personally do it. Feel free to call me any time even before 20th January that is before I assume my office.

On being invited to visit Pakistan by the Prime Minister, Mr. Trump said that he would love to come to a fantastic country, fantastic place of fantastic people. Please convey to the Pakistani people that they are amazing and all Pakistanis I have known are exceptional people, said Mr. Donald Trump.

Now, you know, maybe Sharif’s office is being a little loose with the readout here, but if they are, they sure did capture Trump’s voice. But for Trump, who had a big Hindu fan club during the election, to slobber all over Sharif like this is not only an affront to his fans but also a pretty serious international issue. Pakistan and India are having some problems these days, as you may have heard, and so it’s no surprise that India didn’t react too well to the reports about Trump’s chat with Sharif: Continue reading

Surprise election results: West African edition

Recently the Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” blog published a piece discussing the findings of a 36 nation African survey that asked people for their views on the importance of democracy and the degree to which their own countries were democratically governed. The report found that, while fewer people view democracy positively than did in similar surveys in 2011 and 2013, democracy is still the most preferred form of government among Africans, and in general there still seems to be a continent-wide desire for more democracy. At a time when some scholars are arguing about a “democracy recession” around the world, these are encouraging findings.

In that vein, then, the surprising results of yesterday’s presidential election in The Gambia have to be considered a rare 2016 victory for democracy. Incumbent President Yahya Jammeh, who first came to power in a 1994 military coup and once said he would rule for a “billion years,” God-willing…lost. I guess God wasn’t in to that billion years idea. In an even greater victory for democracy, Jammeh–not without some reported encouragement from the commander of his state guards–actually conceded the election and vowed to step aside peacefully for his successor.

Jammeh’s human rights record, as you might expect from somebody who seized office by force and then stayed there for 22 years, was terrible. He’s governed the country unilaterally. He’s disappeared, arrested, tortured, and murdered critics and political opponents, jailed journalists, and abused LGBTI Gambians. He’s arrested people on charges of witchcraft and has promoted his own “herbal cures” for things like infertility and AIDS. He led The Gambia out of the International Criminal Court not out of principle, but because he’s a likely target of an ICC investigation. He seemed to lay the groundwork for stealing this election when he predicted he would win in a “landslide” and then promptly cut off the country’s internet and blocked all international calls. He lost anyway, and Gambians are understandably celebrating his defeat.

The new Gambian president is Adama Barrow, whose story is remarkable in its own right. The owner of a real estate agency, Barrow spent the early 00s working as a security guard in a London retail store while studying to get his real estate license. He’s promised to restore freedom of expression, establish a more independent judiciary, and even put the country back into the ICC, which has to make him popular at The Hague. When he assumes office in January he will have some immediate chances to show he means to keep these promises by releasing political prisoners and undoing some of Jammeh’s most repressive policies.


Just when you thought it was safe to plan that Libyan vacation

ISIS is reportedly down to its “last stand” in the Libyan city of Sirte, left controlling only about “two blocks,” which at the rate that operation is going could mean another three months of fighting. Still, it’s good news.

Here, on the other hand, is something that is not good news:

Rival armed factions battled for a second day on Friday in the worst outbreak of fighting in the Libyan capital Tripoli for more than a year.

Black smoke rose into the sky and explosions reverberated around the Abu Salim and Hadba districts, and a witness said a major road nearby had been blocked off with shipping containers.

Gunfire echoed across several other neighborhoods, only dying down towards the evening.

There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of clarity about who is fighting whom other than the vague talk of “rival militias.” That could mean anything. One possibility is that militias supporting the internationally recognized Government of National Accord are clashing with militias favorable to the mostly unrecognized “Government of National Salvation,” a rival claimant that seemed to have backed off when the GNA came to town but has since reemerged as a potential threat. Another possibility is that the GNS has nothing to do with this fighting, and that instead of threatening the GNA these militias are merely demonstrating to Libya and the rest of the world that the GNA can’t even control its own capital city, let alone the rest of the country. Either way it doesn’t do much to boost the GNA’s prestige, which was already waning due to the fact that very little in Libya has actually improved since the GNA was formed.

The GNA is (was?) the best bet for a unified Libya that wasn’t ruled by a military strongman, since their international recognition allowed them to approach Khalifa Haftar and the Tobruk government on something of an equal footing. If it collapses then there’s a strong chance you’ll see more or less universal international acclaim for Haftar to just take the country over while maintaining some fig leaf semblance of democracy, akin to what Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has done in neighboring Egypt. That will mean that the 2011 intervention to oust Muammar Gaddafi will have come full circle by installing another military dictator to replace him. And by “full circle” I mean he’ll even come complete with the potential to cause a brand new humanitarian crisis in Benghazi.


Conflict update: December 1


I wasn’t planning on doing one of these tonight, and this one may not be as comprehensive as these usually are, but I feel compelled to say something about the amazing, ongoing cucking of Tayyip Erdoğan at Vladimir Putin’s hands. Amberin Zaman has been covering this for Al-Monitor, and it’s really something else. Two days ago, Erdoğan spoke at something called the Inter-Parliamentary Jerusalem Platform Symposium (surely it sounds better in Turkish), and at some point during his remarks this happened:

At first it was to clear Turkey’s border of the Islamic State (IS). Then it was to roll back the Syrian Kurdish militants of the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Today brought a brand-new explanation for why Turkish troops entered northern Syria in August to team up with opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels: “Why did we enter? We do not covet Syrian soil,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in Istanbul at the Inter-Parliamentary Jerusalem Platform Symposium. “We entered there to end the rule of tyrant [Bashar] al-Assad. [We didn’t enter] for any other reason.”

This is quite a statement, considering that Erdoğan and other Turkish leaders have really stopped talking about toppling Assad and instead have emphasized that their decision to invade Syria is, as Zaman says, about fighting ISIS and/or confounding Kurdish ambitions. Turkey’s official position, that Assad must go, hasn’t changed, but it’s just been heavily de-emphasized. Or at least it had been until Erdoğan said this. But yesterday Erdoğan talked to Putin by phone, and lo and behold we got to witness a true Festivus miracle: Continue reading

If you read only two things today…

I’m fighting off a bug and have a sick child home from school, so unless something moves me greatly I think the blog will be quiet for the rest of the day. But if you’re looking for something to read I’ve got a couple of suggestions. First, Atrios’s righteous anger is pretty good:

Monday morning quarterbacking – figuring out went wrong, with hindsight – is a certainly fair to engage in, but it isn’t necessarily an indictment of the people involved. Hindsight makes everything clearer, or so it seems at least.

But a bunch of people assumed the responsibility of protecting the nation from Donald Trump. This wasn’t a game, a sportsball contest, this, you know, mattered. And they lost. Jeebus help us all because of it. Most of them aren’t going to see their family members be deported or die of pregnancy complications. With great responsibility comes great responsibility. They took on a job, and they fucked it up. They lost the election to Donald Fucking Trump.

As for all of the absolutely horrible non-campaign surrogates, I suppose it depends on what they thought their job was. That’s the problem with the modern cable news and twitter campaign. I used to think Dems needed to close the hack gap, but that assumed our hacks would be any good. They weren’t.

Not very constructive, I know, but still necessary. But here is something more constructive, from New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz, on the ways Bernie Sanders (who wasn’t the best messenger, as Levitz acknowledges and I concur) is right about where the Democratic Party needs to go:

Without question, the non-economic dimensions of disadvantage in the United States — which women, LGBT, and nonwhite voters are acutely aware of as a function of their identities — must be addressed by any political party that considers itself progressive. And identity-based social movements like Black Lives Matter helped the Democratic Party better earn that label in 2016, by forcing both its presidential candidates to adopt platforms more representative of their voters’ interests.

But racial justice and gender equality cannot be achieved without confronting economic inequality — not when people of color and women are overrepresented among the financially disadvantaged. And it’s difficult to see how the Democratic Party will ever take aggressive action to combat inequality, unless its downscale wing becomes both larger and more class conscious.

This is really a thoughtful piece and well worth a read.