Conflict (i.e., Syria) update: April 6 2017

SYRIA

Welp. I wrote a fair amount of stuff about the Khan Shaykhun incident this afternoon, some of which I’m going to leave in below even though it might not make complete sense anymore after this evening’s developments (I’ve tried to rewrite it but if anything seems incongruous then understand that it’s because I originally wrote it earlier in the day). If you’ve been in a sensory deprivation tank all evening, here’s what happened:

The United States carried out a missile attack in Syria on Thursday night in response to the Syrian government’s chemical weapons attack this week that killed more than 80 civilians, American officials said.

Dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired at an air base in Syria, military officials said. They said the strike occurred at about 8:45 p.m. Eastern Time, that the target was the Shayrat airfield and that the strike had hit planes, fuel, spare parts and the runway.

According to one military official, 50 Tomahawks were launched from two Navy warships.

The actual missile count is unknown, at least one account I’ve seen puts the number around 70. MSNBC is saying 59. Marked in the map below is the town of Shayrat (via Google Maps), just east of the air base:

shayrat

Shayrat is a fairly, though not critically, important air base for Bashar al-Assad, and it’s the one from which the airstrikes on Tuesday were launched. It’s also been used by Iranian/Iranian-aligned forces in the area, so that’s another potential wrinkle here. It’s too early for a damage assessment, but disabling this base will impact the Syrian air force’s ability to make strikes in the Homs/Hama area, though it will not be a massive hindrance to Assad’s air campaign against rebels/civilians/whomever. Really, depending on what the damage assessment says, this strike may really not have been much of anything.

If this is where it ends, then it’s a fairly contained response to Tuesday’s incident (the administration was reportedly considering much more substantial options). There haven’t even been any reports of casualties that I’ve seen, which if it holds up would be fairly remarkable though there are certainly a lot of targets on an air base that wouldn’t normally have many or any people nearby. The problem is that we have no idea if this is where it will actually end. Rex Tillerson spent much of the day talking about forming a coalition to remove Assad from power, which is obviously a much different mission. It’s quite possible that there were Russian personnel at Shayrat–US officials say they warned Russia before the attack, but who knows how much lead time they were given or if they were able to get their people (assuming they had people there) off the base before it was hit. If there are Russian casualties here then that’s a very different situation as well (if there aren’t, then Russia probably has very little recourse to respond to this).

Here’s something else to consider: a week ago Donald Trump and his administration were essentially saying that Assad wasn’t their problem, they didn’t like him but they could live with him, etc. Now we may be leading a new charge to oust him, all because of one airstrike that was horrifying but, let’s be honest, no more horrifying than most anything else that’s gone on in the Syrian civil war and not as deadly as the strike we made in Mosul on March 17. It’s very possible that Donald Trump completely flipped his Syria policy a full 180 degrees because he watched some disturbing video on television. Whatever you believe the merits of this strike to be, it has to be worrying that we’re now led by a man whose policies are subject to wildly inconsistent swings based on his immediate emotional response to events. What happens if Trump wakes up tomorrow and doesn’t feel like he got justice? What happens if Assad now says “hey, fuck you pal,” and launches another chemical strike? What happens if Trump’s newfound passion for Syrian babies, the same ones he’s tried twice to ban from coming to the United States, now begins to extend to all the ones being killed by Assad’s–and Russia’s–conventional weapons? Or the ones who are being starved to death–by Assad, by the rebels, and by ISIS? What happens if Assad threatens an American aircraft conducting an anti-ISIS operation? Some of these scenarios are admittedly unlikely, but in general can you be sure that a president this mercurial will be satisfied with this one strike?

Something that should additionally be concerning is that there is very little about the last half-century in American foreign policy that should reassure anybody that this country is capable of carrying out a single action, in a place in which we are already heavily engaged, without further escalating and expanding our activities. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya should all be cautionary tales right now.

It’s possible, of course, that this strike was negotiated in advance in some backroom between Washington and Moscow, a way to make Trump look good without doing much damage to Syrian and/or Russian interests. You may see speculation to that effect on your TV or social media this evening, tomorrow, or beyond (I have, anyway). Remember that this kind of talk is speculation.

Earlier this evening the UN Security Council debated a resolution over Tuesday’s incident, but a vote was cancelled after “heated” debate between the US and Russian delegations. During the debate the Russians reportedly “warned” the US against military action. The vote cancellation may have been the final straw in the Trump administration’s determination to act unilaterally tonight.

Finally, there are already questions about the legality of these strikes. Lawfare’s John Bellinger has an early look at this issue. There’s no UN resolution to give this attack the cover of international law and there’s been no Congressional authorization to use force against the Syrian government, so it seems like the Trump administration will be relying on some elastic interpretations of the president’s war powers and international law. Expect to hear the term “vital national security interest” a lot.

OK, below is the stuff I wrote earlier today along with the rest of today’s roundup. Feel free to read or not. That’s always true, of course, but I realize particularly tonight that everything else has kind of been washed out.

The Turkish health ministry said today that autopsies conducted on three of the victims of Tuesday’s chemical weapons incident in Khan Shaykhun indicate that they were killed by exposure to sarin gas. This isn’t unexpected by any means, but determining the gas is the first step in trying to figure out what really happened. Damascus is rejecting any investigation that doesn’t happen inside Syria and under the Syrian government’s conditions, including stipulations that the probe must be multinational and “non-political,” which in this case I think means “it’s not allowed to blame us.”

The Syrian government’s two biggest allies, Iran and Russia, were muted earlier in the day. Tehran, which has a long and ugly history with chemical weapons from Saddam Hussein’s use of them during the Iran-Iraq War, issued a general condemnation of “any use of chemical weapons” before urging against a rush to judgment. Moscow, while still pushing the problematic counter-narrative that the gas was released when conventional airstrikes hit a rebel weapons stockpile that contained sarin canisters, said today–via an AP interview with Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, said that it doesn’t control Bashar al-Assad’s actions and that its support for Assad is not “unconditional.”

Peskov probably isn’t lying when he says that, either. Time for a little bit of game theory.

Russia has things it wants out of Syria. It wants to protect the military bases it had before the war and the ones it’s been given by Damascus since it intervened on Assad’s behalf. It wants a client in the Middle East. It wants a customer for its military products. It wants to kill Chechens and/or Central Asians fighting in Syria who could someday pose a terrorist threat to Russia. It wants to be a Big Boy major world power. Helping Assad, keeping Assad in power, has been and still is the most direct path to getting everything it wants. But it’s not that hard to envision some kind of replacement government agreeing to meet Russia’s needs that could prove acceptable to Moscow if Assad really becomes a liability (like, hypothetically, if Assad were to embarrass Moscow by flouting a 2013 chemical weapons agreement that the Russians were very proud of having brokered). In fact, I think they’d be happy to see the war end with Assad in some kind of transitional role, solidify their various deals with Damascus, and then have Assad go on his merry way after an election or what have you. They don’t really need Assad per se. They’re not like Iran, which needs things out of Syria that it’s more difficult to imagine a non-Assad government providing (direct, unimpeded access to Lebanon via Syria, for example).

OK, game theory over, man, game theory over.

IRAQ

There continues to be precious little movement along the Iraqi-ISIS front in Mosul’s Old City, and the Iraqi counter-terrorism unit’s attempt to surround the Old City to the west and north seems to have slowed down a bit as well. However, the Iraqis dropped leaflets on the city yesterday warning civilians to shelter in place, which could mean that a renewed push is going to happen in the coming days. ISIS was able to shoot down an Iraqi helicopter that crashed in the eastern side of the city today, killing both pilots. And several Iraqi media reports of airstrikes (it’s not clear who conducted them) in Mosul and the village of Badush to its northwest yesterday said that, altogether, something like 65 civilians were killed.

Joel Wing has much more, including a bit on dueling Iraqi reports about the whereabouts of ISIS boss Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi:

There is still wide speculation about the fate of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Fuad Hussein the chief of staff to Kurdish President Massoud Barzani claimed Baghdadi escaped Mosul in February 2017. Allegedly 300 fighters and 17 car bombs were used to clear a route out of the city for him. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi seemed to discredit the story by saying that Baghdadi had fled Mosul a long time ago. The Islamic State likely wrote off Mosul a while ago, and it was widely apparent when the government was going to launch its assault upon the city. There was therefore no good reason for Baghdadi to stay. IS is looking to rebuild not fade away and go down as martyrs.

The Middle East Institute has published a new article outlining three of the big issues the Iraqis are going to have to tackle once Mosul has been liberated. Decentralization is something many of the country’s religious and ethnic minorities are after, but it is opposed by a large faction within the majority Arab Shiʿa political bloc. The presence of foreign military units, specifically Turkish soldiers in the north and PKK fighters in Sinjar, is going to be an ongoing problem, but Turkey isn’t withdrawing its forces anytime soon and the PKK is in Sinjar largely by Yazidi invitation. Finally, of course, there are going to be disputes with the Kurdistan Regional Government, both over its desire for independence or at least considerable autonomy and over the ownership of disputed territories, like the areas the KRG has taken from ISIS and, especially, the city of Kirkuk.

TURKEY

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is positively reveling in his anti-Europe, pro-referendum campaign, and new polling suggests that it’s working like a charm:

Pollster Gezici, whose research has tended to overestimate opposition support, put the “yes” vote ahead for the first time on 53.3 percent in a survey conducted in early April. Last month, its founder Murat Gezici put “no” ahead on 51.1 percent.

It said Erdogan had benefited from strong nationalist sentiment following last July’s failed coup.

“Nationalism has risen in Turkey since July 15 and the opposition remain weak in creating a narrative to consolidate society in this respect,” Gezici said in a statement.

To be fair, the opposition aren’t allowed to hold large rallies, get any TV time, or cultivate so much as a single supportive newspaper columnist, and it’s kind of hard to create any kind of narrative under those conditions.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

One Israeli soldier was killed and another injured today when a Palestinian man drove his car into a crowd of people at a bus stop in the Orfa Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

Israel’s increasingly reactionary right-wing politics are drawing criticism even from former senior figures in its national security establishment:

Two former heads of Israel’s powerful domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet, have made an impassioned and powerful intervention ahead of events to mark the 50th anniversary of the country’s occupation of the Palestinian territories in June.

One of the pair warned that the country’s political system was sunk in the process of “incremental tyranny”.

Ami Ayalon and Carmi Gillon were speaking ahead of a public meeting at a Jerusalem gallery which is threatened with closure for hosting a meeting organised by the military whistleblowing group Breaking the Silence, one of the main targets of the rightwing government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Israeli foreign ministry says it’s “studying” a statement from Moscow that recognizes both the Israeli (western) and Palestinian (eastern) claims on Jerusalem. This is probably completely irrelevant, but who knows.

IRAN

Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency is reporting that Mashhad shrine head Ebrahim Raisi has, after a long will-he-won’t-he period, opted to challenge Hassan Rouhani in the upcoming presidential election. If this report is true (we won’t know for sure until next week) then it means trouble for Rouhani, as Raisi is a serious candidate who could well pose a genuine threat to Rouhani’s reelection. There’s been talk that Raisi was being groomed to succeed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei when the time comes. If that’s true then it wouldn’t do to have him lose an election to Rouhani, so you might expect the principlist establishment from Khamenei on down to back Raisi heavily. Rouhani’s allies have already been criticizing the Iranian security establishment for arresting reformist activists and journalists in the run up to the election.

The Hungarian government said today that it’s going to collaborate with Tehran on the construction of a small nuclear reactor for research and educational purposes. The new reactor should comply with all the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

AFGHANISTAN

The Afghan government, clearly unsure of Donald Trump’s commitment to the war against the Taliban, is prepared to hit him where he lives: his wallet. Kabul is ready to float the prospect of major concessions to American mining interests to develop part of the country’s estimated one-to-three trillion dollars worth of mineral wealth. Afghanistan is home to deposits of lithium (like the batteries, yes), copper, gold, gems, and other rare earth metals that are just sitting there waiting for some massive corporation to come in and gouge them out of the earth at massive environmental cost. Of course, you can’t really mine anything in a war zone, so if Trump wants those mining deals he’s going to have to pony up with the military aid. That mineral wealth could be game changing for Afghanistan, of course…provided the extraction is done with care toward the environment, a careful eye toward corruption, and maximum concern for the needs of the Afghan people, HAHAHA like that’s actually going to happen.

THAILAND

Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn signed a new constitution today that should see the country’s military junta give away, somewhat, to a new elected civilian government as soon as next year. The model here appears to be something like Myanmar, where the junta steps back to allow a civilian government to run the country, but with significant space in the political sphere still reserved for the military.

PHILIPPINES

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered his military forces to occupy islands in the Spratlys that are claimed by Manila. This seems like a pretty radical reversal of policy for Duterte, who’s been cozying up to China but now is taking an action that seems very likely to offend Beijing.

NORTH KOREA

The European Union today announced that it was expanding nuclear and missile-related sanctions against Pyongyang.

TAIWAN

I’m cheating here, because while this piece from military analysts Colin Carroll and Rebecca Friedman Lissner is about Taiwan, it’s really about what Taiwan can learn from Iran about how to set up an asymmetric defense against attack from a much larger enemy. In that sense, it’s illustrative for the next time you hear somebody talk about going to war with Iran:

Iran employs fast attack craft swarms armed with torpedoes and anti-ship missiles to deter U.S. naval access to the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, in conjunction with cheap armed unmanned aerial systems that can overwhelm an attacker’s air defenses. Iran has also focused on improving its naval mine capability and its speed of employment. Iranian coastal defense cruise missiles are now mobile, have expanded range and accuracy, and have improved target identification which makes them more lethal and harder to find and eliminate. Iranian short range ballistic missiles are easily camouflaged and can accurately strike U.S. forces staging at ports and airfields in partner countries, preventing a scenario similar to the 2002 to 2003 force build-up prior to the invasion of Iraq. Iran’s investment in Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile systems complements its asymmetric strategy with relatively inexpensive yet effective fifth generation capabilities.

Iran’s entire deterrent strategy seeks to create an ambiguous situation — one in which U.S. planners and policymakers doubt that use of military force would be successful. This strategy has forced the United States and its allies to reconsider its formerly-taken-for-granted access to the Arabian Gulf in the event of a conflict with Iran and expend resources designing counter-capabilities. Thus far, as a deterrent to conventional military attack — especially from the sea or air — the Iranian strategy has been remarkably effective.

AUSTRALIA

Australian Foreign Minister Dan Tehan warned today that “terrorists” (I assume ISIS) may try to carry out an attack in Turkey against Anzac Day commemorations at Gallipoli on April 25. Anzac Day commemorates all Australian and New Zealander combat casualties, but it began in 1916 specifically as a memorial for the Australians and New Zealanders killed during World War I’s Gallipoli campaign, hence the ceremony in Turkey.

LIBYA

The Libyan coast guard killed four suspected people smugglers today in a gun battle off the coast of western Libya.

THE GAMBIA

Here’s a little bit of nice news: The Gambia held its first parliamentary election since ex-dictator Yahya Jammeh was given his walking papers in January. Turnout was low but the election reportedly went smoothly and, you know, baby steps.

SOMALIA

19 people were killed today near the village of Golweyn, south of Mogadishu, when their bus ran over a landmine. Al-Shabab is being blamed, though it’s not clear from what I’ve seen whether this was something they planted recently or had been there for a while.

Somalia’s president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, declared today that he’s taking the fight to al-Shabab. He replaced top military and security commanders, offered pardons, educations, and jobs for al-Shabab fighters who leave the group over the next 60 days, and said that his forces will take the lead in the fight against the al-Qaeda-linked group, presumably a reference both to the African Union’s AMISOM intervention force and to recent American steps to escalate its air campaign against al-Shabab.

RUSSIA

Russian authorities said today that they’ve arrested eight people in connection with Monday’s terrorist bombing on the St. Petersburg metro. Yesterday it was reported that they’d arrested six people in St. Petersburg suspected of being ISIS recruiters, but that there was no evidence any of them were tied to Monday’s bombing. These appear to be eight other arrests of people all suspected of directly aiding bomber Akbarzhon Jalilov. Six of the arrests were made in St. Petersburg and the other two in Moscow.

FRANCE/SPAIN

ETA, the Basque separatist/terrorist group, reiterated its pledge to disband this Saturday in an open letter , but made sure to leave a sliver of a doubt in place by warning that “enemies of peace” could still interfere.

EVERYBODY HATES STEVE

Let me tell you the sad story about a man named Steve. Steve was a gentle guy, a humble guy, a news* reporter of a sort, who only wanted to tell people the truth, to make government work for the little guy, and to secure the existence of white people and a future for white children. Is that so wrong?

Steve decided if he was ever going to get anything done he had to get out of the news* racket and start making some news of his own, and so he got into politics. And wouldn’t you know, Steve helped get a dangerously unhinged buffoon his good friend Donny elected president. Nice, right? Except now everybody seems to hate Steve for some reason. Nominal President Donny hates Steve for taking all the good headlines and screwing up so much. De facto President Jared hates Steve because he thinks Steve is fucking nuts, and to be fair, Steve is pretty fucking nuts. National Security Advisor H.R. hates Steve because Steve shouldn’t be on the National Security Council. And so now Steve isn’t on the National Security Council anymore. Man, Steve doesn’t have many friends, I guess.

Take your pick of the above explanations (clearly Bannon and Kushner don’t get along, to which I propose some sort of pit-fighting match to work it out), any of them make more sense as an explanation for Bannon’s dismissal from the NSC than yesterday’s extraordinarily lame “having accomplished all my goals, I thought it was the right time to step aside” bullshit. The interesting part of this story is that Bannon apparently threatened to resign over his demotion and…well, it doesn’t seem like anybody in the White House was all that interested in talking him out of it. Instead, he’s reportedly been talked into remaining in the White House by Republican mega-donor Rebekah Mercer. I have to admit I don’t keep track of all these billionaire Republican supervillains very well. I know the Kochs because who doesn’t at this point, and I know Sheldon Adelson because he wants to nuke Iran and would probably be in favor of nuking the Palestinians if he could figure out how to keep the fallout from blowing over Israel. The Mercers though, specifically Rebekah and her father Robert, are new to me. But their names and fingerprints seem to be all over the Republican Party these days.

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Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

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