Conflict update: April 8-9 2017

First a note to readers: I’m probably going to take a few days off from writing about current events, unless something major happens while I’m away. Everybody needs a break here and there and I sense I’m approaching that point right now. Plus it’s my daughter’s spring break week so she’ll be home from school, and that just makes it a good time to take a little vacation. I should be back to regular posting by next Sunday evening, though I’m not ruling out writing one or two of these during this next week if the motivation hits.

EGYPT

At least 47 people were killed today in bombings targeting Coptic Christian Palm Sunday services in the cities of Alexandria and Tanta (north of Cairo). ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, which reflect two shifts it’s made recently in its tactics in Egypt: first, it’s expanded its war against the Egyptian state beyond Sinai, and second, it’s now making a conscious decision to target the Copts.

They’ve decided to target Christians first because this is just something ISIS does, ideologically, but probably also because this is hitting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi where he lives. You know how Sisi is every DC Republican’s favorite Muslim, especially President Trump’s, despite the fact that he’s run up a substantial body count during his time in power? Partly that’s because Sisi has spoken out against violent Islamic extremism, but it’s also because, when he took power from Egypt’s elected Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, Sisi cast himself in part as the protector of Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who had felt like they were at risk under Mohammed Morsi’s government. Demonstrating that Sisi isn’t protecting–or can’t protect–the Copts undermines part of his overall legitimacy. It also forces him to take actions that could lead to more repression and thus make life easier for ISIS in Egypt, and in that vein Sisi declared a three month state of emergency following the bombings.

SYRIA

OK, first of all let’s run through some news not related to last week’s US missile strike, because amazingly the war has continued despite the fact that America Did Something: 

  • On Saturday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 15 people, including four children, were killed in a humanitarian US-led coalition airstrike in the village of Hanida, just west of Raqqa.
  • Also on Saturday, a second humanitarian coalition airstrike hit a boat on the Euphrates River in Raqqa province, killing a woman and her six children and probably more besides (there were around 40 people on the boat).
  • Airstrikes, presumably Syrian and therefore not humanitarian, killed at least 18 people in the town of Urum al-Joz, in Idlib province, again on Saturday.
  • A bus in the town of Hassia, south of Homs, was bombed on Saturday, resulting in the death of one woman and injuries to 25 other people.
  • ISIS launched two suicide attacks against US-supported Syrian rebel groups near the Iraqi and Jordanian borders on Sunday morning, resulting in the deaths of at least eight ISIS fighters and four rebels. Free Syrian Army rebels have been expanding into territory abandoned by ISIS in southern Syria of late and this strike was probably meant to show them that ISIS hasn’t completely disappeared. They also targeted a base near the Tanf border crossing with Iraq that the US is planning to expand in order to use it in upcoming anti-ISIS operations.

OK, now for the ongoing fallout from last week’s humanitarian missile strike on the Shayrat air base. Many things continue to be utterly unclear about what, if anything, this strike accomplished or what, if anything, it means for America’s Syria policy.

The US Navy says that the strike destroyed Syria’s “means” of carrying out chemical weapons attacks, and I can’t begin to explain that in plain language. We’re told the strike deliberately avoided suspected sarin gas stockpiles at Shayrat, and know that Syria was already flying sorties out of the base less than a day later, so unless this strike blew up Syria’s only copy of the instructions for loading chemical weapons onto an airplane, I have no idea how the navy’s assessment can be true. And assuming this strike did “destroy” Syria’s ability to carrying out chemical weapons attacks, can that ability be reconstituted? Can their remaining sarin supply be used via a different delivery method? The Pentagon doesn’t seem inclined to explain any of this.

About a week and a half after she said Bashar al-Assad was no longer a priority for the United States, Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the UN, now says “we don’t see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there,” after a single incident that was awful but, frankly, Assad has done worse. OK, fine, official US policy has always been that Assad Must Go even though we haven’t been willing to do very much to make that happen and thereby risk greatly widening the war. But we just dropped missiles on one of Assad’s air bases in an attack that seems to have accomplished nothing in terms of affecting Assad’s ability to wage war or his thinking about how to wage this war, so now what? Back to the way things were on Monday, before the Khan Shaykhun attack? Does the Trump administration have any thoughts as to what comes next? It certainly doesn’t seem like it does. The takeaway from all the Sunday talk shows seems to be that America’s Syria policy is “Assad Must Go, but We’re Not Going to Do Very Much to Make It Happen”…which is the same policy we’ve had since 2011.

Russia and Iran, meanwhile, are strongly asserting their support for Assad. In terms of what this means apart from rhetoric, it’s not clear. Iran will probably follow Russia’s lead because its ability to escalate things on its own is limited by its relative lack of military strength. And so far Russia hasn’t done very much apart from closing down its deconfliction channel with the US. Moscow has moved another cruise missile-carrying frigate to the Mediterranean coast off Syria, which I suppose counts as a show of force but is a pretty muted one. The Russians are probably waiting to see if this strike was a one-off or the start of a larger shift in US policy; if the latter, then they have ways of responding without directly targeting the US and potentially turning 2017 Khan Shaykhun into 1914 Sarajevo. For example, they could start attacking the Syrian Democratic Forces, with which they, and sometimes Assad, have pretty good relations but who are not important to Russian policy in Syria. Targeting the SDF would wreck America’s plans for Raqqa and force Washington to take measures to protect its proxies, maybe by putting more US troops in eastern Syria, a move that carries military and political consequences. Is the SDF important enough to Washington to get the US to, say, shoot down a Russian airplane? Doubtful.

Assad has lost–if he ever had it–the support of Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who’s now called on the Syrian boss to step down. And Moscow will have to deal with the fact that British Foreign Minister Gary Busey Boris Johnson no longer wants to visit, a blow from which I’m sure they’ll need some time to recover. Russia responded to Johnson’s snub by questioning the “need” for “dialogue with London,” saying that the UK “does not have its own position on the majority of present-day issues, nor does it have real influence on the course of international affairs.” Oh yeah, Russia? Well, uh, the Jerk Store called…

As to the question of why Assad used sarin in Khan Shaykhun last week, something I’m still grappling with though, as I wrote on Friday, I’m not sure it matters anymore, Hassan Hassan makes what I think is an interesting argument here:

And what if the US was to respond, as it did? Such a scenario counterintuitively serves a fundamental purpose for the regime, which goes to the heart of specific fears by Damascus and Tehran. Such fears arise from a stated plan by the Trump administration, to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran as a way to roll back Iranian influence in the region.

A US escalation against the regime will, instead, widen the distance between Moscow and Washington. “I don’t rule out the possibility that this was a message from the regime to Russia itself,” the former regime insider said. “They are worried that the Russian policy in Syria does not serve their interests and want to show to the Russians they can be spoilers.”

This is a risk for Assad, because there’s always a chance he could push things to the point where Moscow decides he’s too great a liability and/or embarrassment (that may be what the Trump administration is hoping will happen). But as theories go this isn’t a bad one. I’ll note also that, if Damascus was hoping for a US strike to bring Russia strongly back on side, well, they seem to have gotten their wish. Which means that people who are applauding this strike as America finally Doing Something about Bashar al-Assad–a group of people that, if you check Twitter, for example, includes Hassan–are applauding something that actually may have done what Assad wanted it to do.

In that piece, by the way, Hassan also argues that the strike might spur Turkey and the Gulf states, thrilled by the prospect of a new American commitment to regime change, to go back to supporting the rebels full-bore, which they’d kind of gotten away from doing. It’s worth noting, again, that this is exactly the kind of thing that, absent a plan that the Trump administration doesn’t seem to have, academic research says can extend civil wars rather than helping bring them to an end.

(BONUS UPDATE) KHAN SHAYKHOUN: MY UNIFIED THEORY

I posted this and then got to thinking that, especially since I’m hoping to take at least a couple of days off, I should probably get out there my theory about what happened in Khan Shaykhun last Tuesday and why it happened. Some of this is based on things I’ve read, some is my own speculation.

First of all, while literally anything is possible and very little in this life is certain, it is nearly certain that the Russian explanation as to how Khan Shaykhun’s people were exposed to sarin (a conventional Syrian bombing hit a rebel warehouse containing sarin stockpiles) is a lie. The fact that there are a number of witnesses to the attack that all describe it in similar ways isn’t great proof of anything, but the fact that there’s been no witness describing the attack the way the Russian MOD did is telling. The Russians also claimed that the attack in question happened hours after the first reports of the gassing started to appear online. But the most compelling argument is that it’s simply not possible, chemically, to release a cloud of sarin, particularly not binary sarin (which is what the Syrian government had/has and therefore almost certainly what the rebels would have had), by blowing it up. One of the components of binary sarin is alcohol, and alcohol, you know, incinerates pretty easily using methods that are much less energetic than dropping a bomb on it. I’m no chemist, but I would assume that blowing up a stockpile of this stuff might leave a toxic bomb site, but I haven’t seen anybody with expertise in this kind of thing suggest that it would actually disburse the gas in a way that would produce the effects seen in Khan Shaykhun.

Let’s skip all the other improbable (though I concede not totally impossible) alternatives and assume Assad’s air force carried out a chemical weapons strike using sarin gas with orders from Assad himself. Why would he do such a thing? Assad is winning the war and almost had the United States completely off his back–why do something he knows from experience will generate a big international outcry? Because, while he might be winning the war, Assad is only winning because of the advantage of his and Russia’s air power combined with the support he gets on the ground from Hezbollah and Iranian proxies. His own army has been falling apart for at least a couple of years (this is part of the reason why Russia stepped in in 2015) and is probably down to a relatively small number of combat-ready troops. Assad’s forces just had a pitched battle with rebels north of Hama (not far from Khan Shaykhun, really) in which the rebels had the upper hand until air power turned the tide. Likewise in the Damascus suburbs. ISIS was back in Palmyra not long ago in part because Assad lacked the manpower to attack eastern Aleppo and defend his own territory at the same time. He’s being well propped up, but Assad himself is not in a particularly strong position.

Since Aleppo fell, everybody has known that the next target for Assad is Idlib province, which has been a rebel stronghold since early 2015. He’s been happy to let the rebels have Idlib until now because other targets were more important, but Idlib sits right smack in between the provinces of Latakia, the Alawite home ground, and Aleppo, so you better believe Assad wants it back–he claims to want the whole country back, of course, but even if he would really be amenable to a partition I can’t imagine he wouldn’t want Idlib to part of his territory. He’s worried, though, or he should be, that he lacks the manpower to take Idlib without a prolonged air campaign, and even then who knows, and meanwhile he may genuinely be worried that the longer the war goes on, the more the Free Syrian Army, Turkey, and even the Trump administration might be able to get in Vladimir Putin’s ear and convince him to change Russia’s Syria strategy to de-emphasize Assad’s continued rule.

Chemical weapons are not great battlefield weapons, generally speaking. Against a modern army equipped with advanced NBC gear they’re particularly not great (nor are they very useful against guerrilla-type forces that can scatter quickly), but in general there’s not much you can do with CW on a battlefield that you can’t do with conventional weapons with less hassle. But they’re excellent weapons for terrifying a civilian populace. Assad may have seen his remaining sarin as a force multiplier–not when used directly against rebel soldiers, but when used against Idlib civilians, who in their ensuing terror might start fleeing from the possibility of more CW use, creating a massive displacement/refugee flow that would seriously hamper rebel plans to defend the province.

OK, but why risk the international outcry? Here’s where all this talk about Assad “testing” the international community comes into play. Assad wants to use his sarin to terrify the civilians in Idlib and get them moving, but instead of gassing a major population center in Idlib he strikes this small town. Why? I suspect because the international outcry caused by ~100 gassed civilians is substantially lower than the outcry that would be caused by thousands of them. So the test is, how big will the reaction be to a small use of sarin, and then that informs a decision on whether to gas a larger civilian population center. At the same time, you don’t necessarily need to gas a large population center to terrify civilians into doing what you want, and that’s another argument for starting relatively small. Also, here we get into Hassan Hassan’s argument (see above) that this was a win-win for Assad, in that if there had been no international response he could proceed with impunity, but it there was an international response it would most likely force Russia to snap back into line firmly behind him. Moscow may have had a hard time continuing to back him if he’d gassed thousands of people instead of a bit over one hundred.

OK, that’s my theory. I think I covered everything I’ve been piecing together in my head.

IRAQ

I have been neglecting Iraq somewhat, given all the activity in Syria and the relative inactivity as Iraqi forces retool for a second crack at liberating western Mosul. Joel Wing has not, and if you’re not already reading his blog then you need to start doing that.

The death toll from the Jadida strike is approaching 300. Iraqi civil defense authorities say they’ve so far pulled 278 bodies from the rubble, and there are undoubtedly more bodies still buried. To be clear, these aren’t necessarily all civilian casualties, since it’s likely there were some ISIS fighters there whose activities drew the airstrike. Iraqi military authorities are at this point just straight-up lying about this whole affair, saying that only 61 bodies have been recovered and that there’s no evidence of an airstrike at the site. Even the Americans aren’t trying this hard to cover up what happened.

Meanwhile, Baghdad is increasingly finding itself caught between Iran, the country with which it has a natural affinity and an extremely long border, and the US, the country currently helping it defeat ISIS. The anti-Iran US foreign policy establishment, newly emboldened by the Shayrat airstrike, are pushing hard for escalating hostilities with Tehran, and so the Trump administration is leaning on the Iraqi government to disengage and distance itself from Iran. The Saudis are in on this effort as well, appealing to Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi (who admittedly wouldn’t mind reducing Iranian influence over, say, the Popular Mobilization Units) to turn on their fellow Shiʿa and side with their fellow Arabs. This sounds like it will end well.

TURKEY

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems, at least to outward appearances, to be cruising toward April 16th’s referendum on expanding his presidential authority. He’s campaigning now on the need to win by a margin big enough to “send a message” to any of the infinite number of enemies Erdoğan has tried to convince Turkish voters that they have all over the world. As I’ve said repeatedly, the quality of polling in Turkey is pretty ragged, but the momentum in recent polls seems clearly to be in Erdoğan’s favor.

In this interview with Al-Monitor, Cemil Bayık, one of the senior-most leaders in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), says that if the referendum passes it will lead to more instability, and calls for international mediation for the Kurdish conflict.

IRAN

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivered a speech on Sunday in which he criticized the US airstrike on Syria and criticized the Gulf Arab states for cheerleading for it. I note this only to say that if Rouhani’s rhetoric starts to seem more anti-American and anti-Saudi in the next couple of weeks, it might be because influential hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi made it official today that he was following his “religious duty” to challenge Rouhani in next month’s presidential election. Assuming that Rouhani is cleared to stand for reelection by the Guardian Council, which will be determined over the next couple of weeks and is not as sure a thing as you might think, he’ll have a tough fight against Raisi, who is supposedly highly regarded within the Iranian religious establishment.

On the other hand, Raisi may have to worry about splitting the principlist vote with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s former vice president, Hamid Baghaei, who is also running. Baghaei, probably a stalking horse for his boss (who was “advised” not to run himself by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), would be a longshot to win but a safe bet to bleed some support away from Raisi–if he’s allowed to run. An unspecified criminal charge on his record gives the Guardian Council a pretty easy excuse to boot him from the race.

AFGHANISTAN

With the war against the Taliban and now ISIS still raging (a US special forces soldier was killed Saturday in a battle with ISIS in Nangarhar province), and Afghan forces losing ground against both enemies, it’s pretty clear that efforts to reform and remake the Afghan military have failed. Corruption in the officer corps remains a huge problem, the government in Kabul is hanging together by a thread, and training has been hampered by the fact that, where the Taliban used to largely take the winter off and resume campaigning in the spring, they’ve stopped doing that, so the Afghans are no longer able to take advantage of a seasonal lull in the fighting to train and resupply. The US keeps dumping money onto the Afghan military that could be used to, say, provide food and clean water to people who don’t have enough of either, or to vaccinate children against preventable disease, or, I don’t know, set on fire and used for heat. Any of those things would be most cost effective than what we’re currently doing.

Many of the same problems hamstringing the Afghan military–lousy officers, corruption, questionable willingness to fight among the rank-and-file–have plagued and continue to plague the Iraqi military. There, the decision was made to start relatively small, with an intensive focus on reforming Iraq’s special operations forces so that they could work with the US to quell the country’s various insurgencies. After a pretty rocky first decade or so, the result is that today the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service, and specifically its “Golden Division” unit, appears to be a very capable fighting unit that has performed quite well–when it hasn’t been overworked and/or left entire on its own–in Mosul. Unfortunately, the same approach that has wound up working in Iraq, where Iraqi forces have been focused on liberating one city from ISIS at a time, probably isn’t going to work in Afghanistan, where the government is on the defense against the Taliban and ISIS all over the country. Afghanistan needs a whole military makeover, and it needs it about 15 years ago.

PAKISTAN

Pakistani police say they killed ten Jamaat ul-Ahrar militants on Saturday in a gun battle on the outskirts of Lahore.

KASHMIR

At least six people were killed by Indian security forces in various clashes on Sunday when crowds of people attacked at least a dozen polling places to try to disrupt a by-election for a parliamentary seat in the city of Srinagar. Kashmiri separatists were calling for an election boycott.

NORTH KOREA

Early on Sunday the US Navy deployed a carrier strike group led by the USS Carl Vinson to the “western Pacific” in order, apparently, to boost US readiness to Do Something about North Korea. On Face the Nation this morning, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping discussed North Korea at length during last week’s meeting at Mar-a-Lago, and that Xi “clearly understands, and I think agrees, that the situation has intensified and has reached a certain level of threat that action has to be taken.” Assuming that’s true, then what that “action” might be is unclear, but the administration clearly isn’t interesting in talking with Pyongyang unless the North Korean government halts its missile testing program, and the deployment of the carrier group sends its own message.

ALGERIA

Algeria’s three week-long parliamentary campaign (can you imagine, three weeks of political bullshit instead of a never-ending stream of it?) kicked off today in advance of the May 4 election day, and…it’s not clear anybody actually cared. Algerians seem to be tired of superfluous single-party politics and observers are predicting record low voter turnout this time around.

SOMALIA

An al-Shabab car bomb that targeted a caravan carrying several senior Somali military officials from a military base in Mogadishu today killed at least 15 people and probably more than that–the damage was apparently too extensive to get a true count. The target seems to have been General Ahmed Mohamed Jimale, the newly appointed commander of the Somali military, but Jimale survived the attack.

Meanwhile, another incident of piracy has been reported off the Somali coast. This time the target was a Tuvalu-flagged cargo vessel.

SERBIA

 

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Aleksandar Vučić and Vladimir Putin (Wikimedia)

US Navy Admiral, commander of US naval forces in Europe and Africa as well as head of NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command, says she’s hopeful that relations between Serbia and Kosovo will be able to improve now that Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić has been elected President on April 2. Vučić campaigned on the promise of continuing Serbia’s accession process into the EU (though while also maintaining good relations with Russia), which depends on Serbia settling its beef with Kosovo, the independent country that Belgrade still regards as a renegade province. Admiral Howard may be on to something, but at the moment she might want to check out the fairly substantial protest movement that has formed within Serbia since Vučić’s election. The protesters accuse Vučić of being an autocrat and his Serbian Progressive Party of being corrupt and having rigged the election.

NORWAY

Early Sunday morning Norwegian police safely detonated an improvised explosive device that had been discovered in Oslo on Saturday night. They’ve reportedly detained a suspect, a 17 year old Russian citizen who has been in Norway since 2010 and applied for asylum, but I haven’t seen any more reporting about his motives or any other details about the situation.

SWEDEN

Swedish authorities have arrested a 39 year old Uzbek national believed to have been the driver in Friday’s vehicular terrorist attack in Stockholm. He was apparently known to authorities but had not recently been considered a potential threat.

CLEANING HOUSE

K.T. McFarland, the Deputy National Security Advisor who has no business being anywhere near the National Security Council, let alone running its influential Deputies Committee, is “stepping down” to take a gig as US Ambassador to Singapore. Presumably this is National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s doing, as he continues to reshape the NSC since taking over for General Ripper Michael Flynn. She’ll probably be replaced by Dina Powell, the current Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategy.

WHO CARES

Hey, you know how we’re all gonna die in a planet-wide apocalypse because we were too stupid to stop burning coal and oil when we had the chance? Yeah, that’s still happening:

Back-to-back severe bleaching events have affected two-thirds of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, new aerial surveys have found.

The findings have caused alarm among scientists, who say the proximity of the 2016 and 2017 bleaching events is unprecedented for the reef, and will give damaged coral little chance to recover.

Scientists with the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for CoralReef Studies last week completed aerial surveys of the world’s largest living structure, scoring bleaching at 800 individual coral reefs across 8,000km.

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Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

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