Conflict update: January 31 2017

After yesterday’s marathon catch-up session, I’m going to try to keep this one relatively short.

Ukraine

Fighting in and around the town of Avdiivka, in the northern part of Donetsk, has reached a level serious enough to move the UN Security Council to express its collective “grave concern.” At least eight people were reportedly killed there today, and while total casualty figures are sketchy, it seems that upwards of 20 people, and maybe even more–Ukrainian soldiers, separatists, and civilians alive–have been killed since Sunday. Each side is naturally accusing the other of initiating the new round of violence, but frankly both have reasons to escalate right now, to try to stake out their positions before the new US administration firms up its Ukraine policy. The State Department has also expressed concern over the fighting, but otherwise the Trump administration hasn’t said anything. Make of that what you will.

Syria

Not very much to say today. The next round of talks in Geneva, which was supposed to begin on February 8 but was then postponed, has now been rescheduled for February 20. The hope is that the extra time will allow the ceasefire to take deeper root and give the rebels time to organize their delegation. The heaviest fighting today seems to have taken place in eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, where the government claims its forces have made significant gains against rebel fighters in the past several hours.

In good news, the UN World Food Programme has been able to resume air drops of food and other basic supplies into the besieged eastern city of Deir Ezzor, even though heavy fighting continues to rage there between government and ISIS forces. Apparently they’ve found a new drop zone that is safe from the fighting.

Rumors persist that Bashar al-Assad recently suffered a “mini-stroke” and was treated in Beirut. Those same rumors say his condition is not life-threatening but that he may have some impaired movement on his left side. Obviously there’s not enough to go on here to say that these reports are genuine, but there’s also no particular reason to go by the Syrian government’s denials either.

Iraq

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Fake News and the March to War

Fake news and war have been partners in (literal) crime several times in American history–Remember the Maine, the Gulf of Tonkin, the mushroom cloud smoking gun, etc.–so it’s deeply traditional for a mostly fake news outlet like Fox to commemorate the rise of our first Fake News President by bringing us another entry in war-mongering Yellow Journalism. In this case, a Houthi naval attack on a Saudi frigate in the Red Sea yesterday was apparently MEANT FOR A US WARSHIP BREAKING FLASHING RED LIGHT EXCLAMATION POINTS. Yes, the Houthis were actually trying to blow up a US vessel but mistakenly hit a Saudi one instead, somehow.

How do we know this attack was MEANT FOR A US WARSHIP OMINOUS FLASHING PREPARE FOR WAR TEXT? Because one of the Houthis shouted “DEATH TO AMERICA” while carrying out the attack. He did this while reciting the Houthi slogan…which includes the phrase “DEATH TO AMERICA.” So in reality this means nothing, but because you can’t get the war you want unless you’re prepared to invent some justifications along the way, the Republican Party’s favorite fake news outlet took this ridiculous Pentagon invention and happily published it.

Rather than do a line-by-line debunking here, I annotated the Fox report at Genius. I know it’s shouting into the void, but annotating it helped me stop being mad, and these days that’s about all you can hope to accomplish.

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Welcome to 2017: getting on with it

It’s the last day of January and I swore I wasn’t going to keep writing these “new year” pieces past the end of the month. The thing is, between family situations, deadlines, and–to be completely honest–a low grade case of burnout, I just haven’t been as prolific as I thought I would be. So to sum up the new year, and in what I readily admit is a cheat, here are a few things to watch for the next 11 months.

Russia

If you believe that Russia rigged last fall’s election to put Donald Trump in office, then you already know that Moscow is expecting big things in the coming year. If, like me, you’re a skeptic who is inclined to think that something fishy went down but would like to see more evidence, then…well, you should still probably know that Moscow is expecting big things, because their optimism isn’t just about the new president. But expectations have a way of leading to disappointment, and at the moment Russia is staring a pretty big one right in the face.

There’s been little that Vladimir Putin has wanted more than to return Russia to the Great Power table in world affairs, and–whatever else you may think about it–his decision to intervene in Syria has done just that. It’s Russia–not the US, or the UN, or the EU–that is calling the diplomatic shots with respect to the Syrian civil war now. It’s the one scheduling peace talks, deciding who gets to attend, and writing draft constitutions for a post-war Syrian state. This is a far cry from where Moscow was as recently as 2014, when it was eating the back of the international community’s collective hand over its actions in Ukraine, to say nothing of where it was 20 years ago (i.e., in full, shock doctrine-induced collapse). So you have to hand it to Putin–in addition to securing Russian interests in Syria, the main reason for the intervention, he now owns an entire regional war. The downside for him is that, well, he now owns an entire regional war, and his attempts at ending said war in a way that involves negotiations and not more human carnage aren’t looking so hot at the moment, what with no new Astana talks planned and the next scheduled round of talks in Geneva having been postponed. If Putin wants to be seen as a major power-broker, he’s going to have to find a path toward settling the war that he chose to adopt. But so far, settling the war in Syria has been much easier said than done.

Now, if there is anything that Vladimir Putin wants more than Russia’s return to Great Power stature, it’s a fix for Russia’s ailing economy. He’s undoubtedly looking to Trump to end US sanctions against Russian oligarchs and corporations, but I think he’s savvy enough to realize that Trump can’t do that immediately and will need to be seen getting something from Moscow in return. In the meantime, though, Putin scored a pretty substantial win last year when he reached a deal with OPEC to cut oil production in an effort to raise prices. That should help…unless prices get high enough to reactivate the American fracking industry in a major way. But in the meantime it should provide some benefit to the Russian economy as the sanctions issue unwinds itself.

How the sanctions issue unwinds itself will have a big impact on another situation related to Russia, which is the disposition of Ukraine. It’s entirely possible that Putin will, at some point this year, drop most/all of his direct support for the Ukrainian rebels and push for some kind of peaceful but destabilizing deal between the rebels and Kiev. Fighting has actually started heating up in eastern Ukraine over the past couple of days, but that could be isolated or it could be that one or the other side is trying to strengthen its position in advance of potential settlement talks. Putin’s objectives in Ukraine–red meat for his base and instability in Kiev–have been met, and if he wants to give Trump a “win” to cement their ties, this wouldn’t be a bad one. At the same time, though, even if the conflict in Donbas is settled there’s still the fairly giant, but largely ignored, matter of Crimea to discuss. Russia isn’t going to give it up, but neither is Kiev likely to drop its claim on the peninsula, and the international community is going to have to take this head-on at some point because, well, the annexation was a pretty substantial blow to ~70 years of post-war international consensus on wars of conquest.

Russian provocation in the Baltics in 2017 also bears watching. As in eastern Ukraine I think Putin might be inclined to take it easy here, for now, as a concession to Trump, but he’s likely to expect that Trump will downsize Washington’s NATO commitment to the Baltic states.

China

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Conflict update: January 30 2017

Iraq

Purely by coincidence, my absence from regular blogging coincided with the planned lull in the Mosul operation. With eastern Mosul having been liberated just before I checked out, the Iraqis have been laying the groundwork for the eventual assault on the western half of the city. Iraq forces have been actively liberating villages north of Mosul, shelling ISIS fighters building defensive works on the west bank of the Tigris, and moving units into place to prepare to cross the river.

Increasingly it appears that the paramilitary and predominantly Shiʿa Popular Mobilization Units will have a much larger role to play in anti-ISIS operations moving forward, which violates a number of the principles Baghdad laid out (and in some cases guaranteed to third parties) before the Mosul operation began. To wit:

  • The PMU is probably going to be given the responsibility of liberating Tal Afar from ISIS. You may recall that the role of the PMU was a concern from the beginning of the offensive, and when it was announced that the units would concentrate on the area west of Mosul, Turkey raised objections to the idea that those forces might enter Tal Afar, where it’s feared that they could carry out reprisal attacks against Sunni Turkmens who are suspected of having collaborated with ISIS back in 2014.
  • It also appears that some PMU forces are going to participate in the west Mosul offensive, though the extent of their involvement, and whether they’ll be allowed to enter the city, isn’t clear. Before the offensive the idea that the PMU might enter Mosul was seen as a non-starter, both because their presence might alienate Mosul’s civilians and because, again, Turkey would take issue.

The reason for the apparent change in plans is sheer manpower. It’s been a few months now and the regular Iraqi army force that was supposed to liberate Tal Afar just hasn’t materialized. In Mosul, meanwhile, there aren’t even enough Iraqi police forces to fully secure the eastern side of the city as it is, and that’s before they start being diverted to the western side of the city. Unless Baghdad wants to take a few months off to rebuild its forces, the PMU are going to have to play a larger role because they still have the numbers. Additionally, it would seem that the people in east Mosul were so happy to be freed from ISIS control that fears about how the PMU might be received could be overblown. On the other hand, these moves–if they materialize–will generate a response from Turkey.

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Atheel al-Nujaifi (Wikimedia | Bernd Schwabe)

Speaking of Turkey, one of the political sideshows accompanying the liberation of Mosul has been the status of Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Ninewah province from 2009 through 2015. Baghdad has had an arrest warrant out for Nujaifi since last October, accusing him, during his time as governor, of facilitating the entry and basing of Turkish forces on Iraqi soil, but Nujaifi is under the protection of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil and is thus untouchable. Since the Mosul operation began, Nujaifi and his Hashd al-Watani militia have been working with Iraqi forces north of Mosul, and when the eastern side of the city was liberated he apparently entered it like a conquering hero. His many political enemies, who helped push that October arrest warrant, are pushing for him to be arrested now that he’s left the sanctuary of Erbil. Nujaifi has political sway with Iraqi Kurds, Turkey, and Sunni Arabs in Ninewah, plus his own small army, so he does have a lot of support. He seems to think he can stage a political comeback by making Ninewah’s autonomy from Baghdad his main cause, but his presence in Mosul is potentially destabilizing–though not as potentially destabilizing as his arrest would be.

In Nice news, the Iraqi government is undertaking multiple projects to study and protect the country’s rich archeological record. ISIS unfortunately sold off or destroyed whatever it could in the places it conquered, but it’s very important from both national and financial perspectives that Baghdad protects what remains.

Syria

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Irredeemable

It’s challenging for me to write about things like Donald Trump’s immigration executive order, which has by now gone through so many clarifications and legal challenges that it’s hard to say exactly what it is beyond red meat to his terrified white nationalist base. My instinct is to talk about policy on the merits–in terms of its likely effects, chances of success, that sort of thing–in addition to or sometimes (I have to work on this) instead of talking about its moral ramifications. And the problem with policies like this immigration ban is that to talk about them on the merits is in some sense to legitimize them as rational and even defensibly moral policy choices. George Bush’s torture–er, enhanced interrogation, sorry–program presented a similar choice. Should opponents talk about the fact that torture doesn’t work, or does even allowing that such a discussion could take place cede too much moral ground?

So let’s be clear: there is no moral justification for this policy. Continue reading

Today in South Asian history: the Battle of Talikota (1565)

We are still on a break until early next week, but today is the anniversary of the 1565 Battle of Talikota, which severely weakened–though it did not destroy–the formerly very powerful Vijayanagara Empire of southern India, and allowed the Muslim Deccan Sultanates to expand their territory southward. Although the Hindu Vijayanagara lost the battle, it could be argued that Talikota helped shape the modern state of India, because it brought to an end a period in which Hindu southern India and Muslim-ruled (though still majority Hindu) northern India were developing more or less on separate tracks. Had Talikota not been fought, or had Vijayanagara won a defensive victory, it’s not clear, for example, that the Hindu Maratha Empire would have eventually formed in the Deccan and conquered so much of northern India.

Anyway at the risk of repeating myself I’m not able to do much writing at the moment, and so I would have let this pass had I not found a decent piece on Talikota’s background published by The Diplomat back in 2015 (people love round number anniversaries). It does a good job explaining what the Vijayanagara Empire was, why it was important in Indian history, and why it’s defeat here was also important in Indian history.

The one thing that bugs me about that piece is that it spends even less time on the actual battle than I usually do. Vijayanagara didn’t just lose because their commander, Rama Raya, was captured and killed during the course of the battle. It lost because, despite a slim edge in manpower, its army was structurally inferior to the Deccan army in several ways. For one thing, the Deccan force had a large edge in cavalry–Vijayanagara still relied on war elephants, which were a lot less impressive as a weapon in 1565 that they’d been in, say, 565. Deccan archers used powerful crossbows against relatively weak bamboo bows on the Vijayanagara side, and in terms of battlefield artillery the Deccan force vastly outclassed Vijayanagara. And if those structural advantages weren’t enough, the Deccan sultans also bribed two divisions of Muslim soldiers in the Vijayanagara army to switch sides in the midst of the battle.

The Vijayanagara Empire at its largest extent (Wikimedia)

The Vijayanagara Empire survived until 1646, but it spent much of its last ~80 years being picked at by the Deccan Sultanates–eventually it was conquered by two of them. The city of Vijayanagara itself was so thoroughly sacked after Talikota that it really never recovered.

Hi, how’s it going? Thanks for reading; attwiw wouldn’t exist without you! If you enjoyed this or any other posts here, please share widely and help build our audience. You can like this site on Facebook or follow me on Twitter as well. Most critically, if you’re a regular reader I hope you’ll read this and consider helping this place to stay alive.

Out for the weekend

Status

Things will be going all or at least mostly quiet around here until at least Monday due to family matters (in this case, a memorial service). I was thinking I would get one more day of blogging in today before closing up shop for the weekend, but there’s just too much stuff that needs to be done in preparation for me to be writing today. Thanks for your patience and support.