Arming rebels; what could go wrong?

Let’s go for a Syria trifecta…

One of the few things that’s more popular among the DC establishment than sending US soldiers off to fight wars is sending US weaponry off to folks who will use them to fight wars on our behalf. There’s just a small problem with shipping arms to friendly people all over the world, which is that it frequently backfires:

ISIS is using American military hardware in Iraq now because that country’s government wasn’t able to build a strong, cohesive military in the decade between Saddam’s ouster and ISIS’s Mosul offensive. There are hundreds of millions of dollars in US weapons that have been lost in Afghanistan and now belong to the Taliban, partly because the US military apparently can’t keep track of its stuff but also partly because that country’s government has been an utter catastrophe virtually since the day the Taliban were run out of Kabul. Ditto in Yemen. And, ah, Libya, Syria, and Somalia as well.

Still, the lure of arming moderate Syrian rebels is strong, and surely we’re due for some good luck in that department, right? Well, actually…

The Pentagon has said that a group of US-trained Syrian fighters has handed over ammunition and equipment to al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the country, purportedly in exchange for safe passage.

The acknowledgement contrasted with earlier denials by the US defence department of reports that some fighters had either defected or handed over gear.

“Unfortunately, we learned late today that the NSF (New Syrian Forces) unit now says it did, in fact, provide six pickup trucks and a portion of their ammunition to a suspected al-Nusra Front [group],” Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said on Friday.

Colonel Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for Central Command, which is overseeing efforts against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), said the fighters had handed over the gear in exchange for safe passage in the Nusra operating area.

Later reports clarified that the rebel commander who turned the ammo and equipment over to Nusra was not part of the US training program, but that about 30 of his fighters were, and they brought the supplies back to their militia when they re-entered Syria from Turkey. Nusra apparently let him know that he could either hand over the goods, or else Nusra would attack and take them. Or, hell, maybe the rebels just gave that stuff to Nusra because Nusra is part of the big anti-Assad team, and concocted a story about how Nusra demanded it from them to cover their tracks with Washington. Either way, the end result is the same.

At least this time it was only a few trucks and some ammunition. Imagine if these guys had been given advanced firearms or anti-tank weapons. I don’t want to harsh anybody’s buzz, but maybe arming these rebels, even after they’ve graduated from Moderate Rebel A&M, isn’t such a great idea. At the very least, maybe we should wait until there are a few more graduates from the program, enough that they can afford to refuse Nusra’s demands, before we send in the weapons.

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Burning a little political capital

Last week when I was considering all the motivations that Vladimir Putin might have to entangle himself in the Syrian quagmire, I considered that he might be doing it for domestic political reasons. Well, about that…

The Levada poll said that 69 percent either firmly oppose or probably oppose deploying troops to help the Syrian leadership, while 67 percent back Russian “political and diplomatic support” for Assad’s government.

It said that 43 percent support providing Damascus with weapons and military consultation — as Moscow has been doing throughout a more than four-year conflict that has killed some 250,000 people — while 41 percent oppose it.

So yeah, I was wrong. I figured Russian public opinion on Syrian escalation wouldn’t sour unless Russian soldiers started getting killed, but it turns out that public opinion on this issue is already sour.

There are a couple of things at play. First, “sending in troops,” if that phrase was really in the survey language, could mean different things to different people, and it’s possible that the 69% number might come down a little if “only airstrikes” was specified. But it probably wouldn’t come down by much, given that only 43% even support arming and advising the Syrians, which is a step short of airstrikes. Second, this shows that the Russian public’s appetite for foreign military adventures clearly stops at Russia’s near abroad. They’re OK (at least for now) with Russian intervention in Ukraine, but Syria doesn’t have the same appeal. Distance is surely part of the distinction there, but don’t discount bad memories of the last time a “Russian” (Soviet in this case) government got itself tied up in a mostly Muslim country.

These obviously aren’t favorable numbers for Putin, who depends on his (carefully engineered) popularity to keep Russia’s oligarchs from tossing him out of office (say, the Russian political system is more like ours than we know!), so he’ll need to tread carefully. This same poll finds that 39% of respondents (a plurality) don’t favor either side in Syria, so they’re not likely to support an operation that sacrifices Russian soldiers and resources to prop up Assad. Maybe fortunately for Putin, a third of the respondents said that they don’t care enough about Syria to pay attention to what’s happening there, but that number will undoubtedly go up along with this operation’s price tag (or if something happens to a Russian soldier or pilot).

"Is no problem. If public gets mad, I take another one of these babies and everything is OK."

“Is no problem. If public gets mad, I take another one of these babies and everything is OK.”

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Russia strikes Syria, maybe (?) reveals its plans

Russia moved very quickly today to begin carrying out airstrikes inside Syria. First, Vladimir Putin got authorization from his parliament for the use of force in Syria:

Earlier on Wednesday, Russia’s upper house of parliament granted President Vladimir Putin authorisation to deploy the country’s air force to Syria, according to the head of presidential administration.

Sergey Ivanov said that the Federation Council backed Putin’s request for approval unanimously.

“The operation’s military goal is exclusively air support of the Syrian armed forces in their fight against ISIL,” he said.

…which means that Russia’s Syrian intervention has more legislative authorization than America’s does, but I digress.

Then the strikes commenced, and here’s where things turn interesting/worrisome. While Russia claims that all of its strikes targeted ISIS, nobody outside of Russia seems to think they hit ISIS at all:

Washington quickly criticized the airstrikes, which the Pentagon said apparently hit areas where Islamic State militants — ostensibly the intended targets — probably were not present. But U.S. officials said Moscow’s moves would not change a U.S.-led air campaign targeting Islamic State strongholds in Syria.

Not good. But the situation in Syria is so fluid that the Pentagon’s assessment could be in error. Is there a more detailed analysis out there?

So this is where it gets muddy. Continue reading

How to get your liberal heart broken, Pope Francis edition

It turns out that Pope Francis had a personal audience with Kim Davis, better known as Mike Huckabee’s campaign mascot the nutty county clerk lady in Kentucky what refuses to sign off on same sex marriages despite the Supreme Court making those marriages just as legal as opposite marriage. Davis said that “just knowing the pope is on track with what we’re doing, and agreeing, you know, kind of validates everything,” which is nice for her. A lot of liberals were skeptical of this story when Davis’s attorney first started talking about it, which was understandable since Davis’s lawyer is the same guy who said that tens of thousands of Peruvians were praying for his client for some reason (a claim that shockingly turned out to be false), but now that the Vatican has confirmed the meeting that skepticism seems to be turning to anger at the Pope.

Look, fellow lefties, I know you all got stars in your eyes when Pope Francis started spending more time talking about climate change than about the horrible things that can happen when two consenting adult men or women freely choose to enter into a committed, loving relationship with each other. Hey, I kind of like the guy too. But he’s still the Pope. Of the Catholic Church. He may personally care about poverty or climate change to a greater degree than his recent predecessors, but dehumanizing gay people is probably part of the entrance exam to get into the seminary, to say nothing of rising to the rank of bishop or cardinal. You certainly don’t get to be Pope without ticking off that box. Francis may not be easily categorized as either “left” or “right” when it comes to cultural issues, as Elizabeth Bruenig suggests, but he’s still been pretty clear when it comes to opposing gay marriage, and supporting the right of “conscientious objection.”* That he met with the new American poster child for both of those things shouldn’t be that big a surprise.

* I think the right to conscientiously object is important too, but I question whether what Davis is doing qualifies. If you’re a conscientious objector to a war, you’re freed from personally having to perform (usually compulsory) military service (or perhaps service in a particular military action, though selective objection isn’t always recognized). You go away and the army brings in somebody else who’s willing to do the job. For one thing, this doesn’t really fit Davis’s case because she isn’t being compelled to serve as county clerk; she’s free to quit at any time and spare her precious conscience. Moreover, Davis actually wants to object to same-sex marriage personally but also to prevent couples from being legally married in general. This is akin to a conscientious objector lying down in the middle of the runway to keep the jets from taking off, or parking a tank where it keeps all the other tanks from getting out onto the battlefield. It might be noble, depending on your point of view, but it’s not legal and I doubt, in the military example, that anybody would recognize it as an exercise of that person’s rights.

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Kunduz is your periodic reminder that Afghanistan is still A Thing

The important city of Kunduz, in Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban yesterday, the culmination of a lengthy Taliban offensive in Kunduz Province that stretches all the way back to the spring but that had seemed to be petering out over the summer in the face of a government counter-offensive (one that now appears to have been more hype than substance). The Taliban’s interest in Kunduz goes back much longer than that, seeing as how it was the Taliban’s last stronghold in northern Afghanistan before it was taken from them by the Northern Alliance on November 26, 2001. If the Taliban were going to regain a foothold in the north, it was going to be at Kunduz, and they’ve never really stopped trying to retake the city.

CNN helpfully put together a piece called “Why the Taliban takeover of Kunduz is a big deal,” but let me save you the trouble: the Taliban takeover of Kunduz is a big deal because it’s the freaking Taliban taking over an entire major Afghan freaking city in the year two thousand and freaking fifteen. It shows that the Afghan army still isn’t ready for prime time at a time when the 10,000 American service personnel remaining there were looking for the exit, and it’s a major crisis for an Afghan government that isn’t exactly on firm footing yet. And, yes, CNN does point out that such a big Taliban victory may put an end to talk of defections and splintering following the confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death and the succession of Akhtar Mansur in July. Though given how opaque the inner workings of the Taliban’s upper echelons are, I don’t think that’s a given.

The Afghan military quickly reacted to the defeat and was fighting, under US air cover, to retake the city for much of the day today. It’s pretty critical that the Taliban not be allowed to consolidate control over the city and begin to set up operations there, but at the same time is there any reason to think that the same military that gave the city up to the Taliban can suddenly retake it from them in the space of a couple of days? The reports coming out of Afghanistan said that the government counter-attack was bogged down under heavy Taliban fire, while the Taliban were continuing to advance on the city’s airport, where its remaining defenders were holed up after fleeing the city center yesterday. Even if the Afghan army is able to retake the city in short order, the fact that they lost it in the first place, and won’t retake it without considerable US air support, is pretty freaking troubling.

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Not what you’d like to hear

“Gunfire and explosions” are probably the two last things you’d want to hear on the streets of a city that just survived an attempted coup, but that’s what people are hearing in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou. It appears as though the effort to persuade Burkina Faso’s presidential guard to disarm has shifted from talking to fighting:

Witnesses reported gunfire and explosions in Burkina Faso’s capital late Tuesday afternoon as the army pressed soldiers who were behind a recent failed coup to disarm.

The fighting began a few hours after army troops surrounded the camp of the presidential guard, the RSP, in Ouagadougou.

Even the leader of the failed coup, RSP (Régiment de la Sécurité Présidentielle) commander Gilbert Diendéré, has gone on the radio calling for the RSP (which has legally been disbanded) to disarm, but VOA reports that they’re refusing to give up their weapons until they receive “guarantees of safety for themselves and their families.”

The state of Burkina Faso’s military is not really my specialty, but if you’re wondering what the deal is with this RSP unit, as far as I know it was basically former President Blaise Compaoré’s private militia/security force, and was instrumental in his rise to power in the 1980s (ostensibly as his “bodyguard” but in reality torturing and killing his opponents), after which it gained its official name and role. Compaoré kept the RSP separate from the regular army (so that it wouldn’t go along with any attempted army coups) and treated it as an elite military unit — the best weapons and training, and better pay than the regular army. It’s considerably smaller than the main army (and much smaller than Burkina Faso’s total security forces, which includes police), but as it’s better armed and better trained than those other units it could put up quite a fight.

I’m not sure whether the RSP has gotten any systematic training from the US, but it’s likely that at least some portion of its officer corps has. A few years before he quit his previous job as Deputy Commander of the RSP to take his current job as the country’s interim Prime Minister, Lt. Col. Isaac Zida received counter-terrorism training in the US and attended a US-sponsored intelligence course in Botswana. It’s highly unlikely that he was the only officer in the RSP to receive such training, particularly given that Burkina Faso shares a long border with Mali (where several Al-Qaeda offshoots, like MUJWA and Ansar Dine, operate) and is one country west of Nigeria (where of course Boko Haram is still very active).

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And another one is about to bite the dust

Rand “No, Not As In ‘Ayn Rand'” Paul is polling at a whopping 2.4 percent in the Republican primary, behind such other noteworthy People Who Will Never Be President as Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie. Next week he plans to “turn his attention” to raising money…for his Senate reelection campaign. And today we found out that one of the three (!) super PACs that was behind Senator Paul’s presidential run has decided to hang ’em up:

Ed Crane, who leads PurplePAC, told Politico Tuesday that he won’t raise money until the campaign changes course.

Crane, a co-founder of the libertarian think tank Cato Institute, told the site: “I wasn’t going to raise money to spend on a futile crusade. … I don’t see the point in it right now.”

So if you’re in an office pool or something, this seems like a safe time to put some money on Senator Paul being the next one to drop out of the GOP field. I can’t say I’m a Rand Paul supporter, but he was definitely less interested in blowing up the rest of the world than his competitors, so if he does drop out soon he’ll be missed in that respect.

Well, if all else fails at least he still has the monorail thing to fall back on

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