Conflict update, April 26 2017

SYRIA

UPDATE: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting that there’s been an explosion and fire at Damascus International Airport. No cause has been suggested.

As promised, the French government has produced proof that Bashar al-Assad’s government was behind the April 4 chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun–and as expected, it’s somewhat less than meets the eye. French intelligence has studied the sarin used in Khan Shaykhun and determined that it contains the same chemical “signature” as sarin used in at least one previous Syrian gas attack, a 2013 incident in Saraqeb. This is also the same “signature” that French sources say is indicative of sarin produced in Syrian government laboratories.

This is not, in and of itself, “proof” in the way the French government was selling it several days ago. That this sarin was produced by the Syrian government doesn’t mean it wasn’t captured by forces opposed to the Syrian government at some point over the past six years. And, hell, the latest story out of Damascus and Moscow is that the whole attack was faked in some kind of grand global conspiracy. But it is more evidence to add to the increasingly compelling case that Assad’s forces were behind the Khan Shaykhun attack, That case has also been strengthened by the nature of the attack itself and by first-hand reports from the town right after the bombing that have discredited at least one of Damascus’s alternative explanations about what happened. It’s also evidence–though again, not “proof”–that Assad violated the terms of the 2013 Russian-US agreement on destroying Syria’s chemical weapons.

Russia complained today that the American missile strike on Syria’s Shayrat airbase on April 6 “threatened” Russian personnel. Which, I mean, OK? It’s unfortunate that they were threatened, but it would be nice if the Russians applied the same consideration to Syrian civilians that they apparently expect Washington to apply to their personnel:

For the first three months of 2017, the US-led Coalition was likely responsible for a greater number of civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria than Russia’s campaign in support of the Assad regime. That grim metric reflected both a reduction in the number of Russian strikes, and a stepped up and deadlier Coalition campaign around Mosul and Raqqa. However, new analysis by Airwars researchers indicates Russian strikes are once more on the increase, allegedly killing hundreds of additional civilians.

Alleged Russian civilian casualty incidents nearly doubled between February and March, rising from 60 to 114 events. Already in April at least 120 events have been tracked. Due to a backlog of cases it will be some time before Airwars researchers can more fully vet these allegations, though such event tracking has previously proved a helpful guide to the tempo of Russian actions.

Four Turkish military outposts along the Syrian border came under artillery fire on Wednesday, presumably courtesy of the YPG, while Turkish forces shelled part of Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria. The YPG attacks were likely retaliation for Turkey’s strikes on the YPG in northeastern Syria yesterday, which are now being criticized by Russia along with pretty much everybody else.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir visited Moscow today to make the case that the civil war can’t end without Assad’s removal from power. He also reportedly argued for expanding the Astana peace talks channel (the next round of talks there is scheduled for next month) to include other outside actors apart from Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Meanwhile, Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz visited Washington to press the Trump administration to take a hard line against any “permanent Iranian presence” in Syria–which is something you might think would be up to the Syrian people to decide, but HA HA HA come on. Anyway, I wonder if Jubeir and Katz compared notes before and/or after their respective trips.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces reported today that they’ve retaken the ancient Parthian (it was probably built before the Parthian period but that was its heyday) city of Hatra, a UNESCO World Heritage site that used to look like this:

City of the Sun God

…but is now feared mostly destroyed, courtesy of ISIS and incidents like this: 

The theft of Iraq’s cultural heritage is not the worst crime ISIS has committed in Iraq, but it is one of ISIS’s many crimes.

Reuters has two reports today on the challenges that face the effort to rebuild Mosul and, really, to try to put Iraq together once ISIS has been defeated. Business owners in eastern Mosul have begun reconstruction work on their own in that half of the city. Baghdad, which should be leading the reconstruction effort, can’t do anything while its resources are devoted to the fight in western Mosul, and probably won’t be able to do much after western Mosul has been liberated, because it simply doesn’t have the money. Meanwhile, in the west, men who are fleeing the city, fleeing ISIS, often with their families, are being rounded up on suspicion of working with or for ISIS. Iraqi authorities are supposed to be checking every male escaping the city against a database of known ISIS operatives, but men are being detained if their names are similar to names in the database, if they come from an area where ISIS is known to have operated, and even if they’re sporting a beard (it doesn’t occur to some people to shave before fleeing a war zone, I guess). Undoubtedly there are some in Mosul who collaborated to some extent with ISIS, but how the Iraqi government goes about investigating that is going to have implications for Iraqi society moving forward.

There are many other complications for the Mosul rebuilding effort, as Joel Wing writes. It’s quite possible–likely even–that there are still ISIS sleeper cells in eastern Mosul, for example. Baghdad lacks the money not just for reconstruction, but to pay government employees like teachers and police officers and to get basic utilities back in working condition. The lack of police officers has led to rampant looting and petty crime, and ISIS shells eastern Mosul whenever it gets the chance, adding to the chaos. And, of course, there’s the ubiquitous corruption that helped enable ISIS to conquer a third of Iraq in the first place.

And the problem of putting Iraq back together (or putting it together for the first time, maybe) isn’t confined to Mosul. In Samarra, the city’s predominantly Sunni population is worried about the presence of Shiʿa Popular Mobilization Units and apparently fears–reasonably or not–that Shiʿa authorities are encouraging more Shiʿites to move into the city to dispossess Sunni residents. Some of this kind of thing is outrageous–people should be free to live wherever the hell they want, and there’s no secret cabal of Shiʿa leaders meeting somewhere, plotting to destroy the 85 percent of Muslims who are Sunni–but Iraqi Sunnis went through a very quick and very sweeping transition from minority rule to just plain minority, so their sensitivity to perceived encroachment is somewhat understandable. But if these communities can’t find a way to live together in a pluralistic Iraq, then Iraq is going to be right back in the shit before you know it.

YEMEN

The Yemeni government has proposed that the United Nations monitor the port city of Hudaydah to ensure that no weapons come through the port bound for the rebels. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been planning an operation to capture the port, but the UN has expressed serious concerns in that Hudaydah is the only port in the country that can accommodate the massive shipments of humanitarian aid necessary to keep millions of Yemenis from starving to death, and any attack on the port is likely to result in a lengthy battle and considerable destruction. The UN hasn’t responded to the proposal–if it refuses to accept the responsibility then that will give the Saudis and Emiratis a way to justify their eventual attack (“hey, we offered you an alternative and you couldn’t be bothered”), which is probably where they’re hoping this all leads.

TURKEY

Turkey’s opposition, questioning the objectivity of Turkish courts that are all stacked with judges appointed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is taking its case for annulling the results of the April 16 constitutional referendum to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out. Like most super-national institutions, the ECHR basically has as much power as member states allow it to have and/or are willing to enforce. The court may very well rule in favor of the opposition–a number of pan-European institutions have already lodged objections to the conduct of the referendum, and it was a bullshit campaign in which the opposition wasn’t allowed to actually campaign–but what happens then? Erdoğan is highly unlikely to junk his signature political achievement because a European court says so, and while that could impact Turkey’s decades-long (and completely farcical at this point) European Union application process, Erdoğan has a powerful hole card in that, if the EU really pisses him off, he can always start ferrying Syrian refugees across the Bosphorus and on into Bulgaria and Greece.

Burak Kadercan of the Naval War College looks at some of the ways Erdoğan may be painting himself into a political corner. I think he makes some very good points here–purging thousands of people from the armed forces can’t help but weaken your military, the break with the Gülenists did deprive AKP of a valuable human resource tool (purging the party of any potential rivals to Erdoğan hasn’t helped either), and the refugee and Kurdish problems are very real ones. But Kadercan argues that Erdoğan’s reaction to barely winning the referendum is going to be to do what he’s been doing (arrest political opponents, suppress the media, etc.) only more of it. He very well may, don’t get me wrong. There is a possibility, though, that Erdoğan will react to this near-failure by coming to the realization that he has to tone it down if Turkey is ever going to find some stability again.

Speaking of Gülenists hiding in every crawl space, Erdoğan today purged his police force of some 9000 suspected Gülenists and arrested 1000 people suspected of having been actively working to recruit police officers to the Gülen movement.

ISRAEL

Benjamin Netanyahu’s former defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, says he plans to challenge his former boss in Israel’s next parliamentary elections at the head of a new political party. He accused Netanyahu of undermining democracy and of “generating hatred for short-term political benefits.” Well, he’s got a point there.

SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi authorities accused Yemeni Houthis of attempting to blow up an Aramco oil terminal today using a remote controlled boat full of explosives. The Saudi navy intercepted and disabled the boat before it could reach its presumed target.

The Saudis have reportedly been dealing with a months-long series of cyberattacks that McAfee says is worse than a similar 2012 wave of attacks. The 2012 attacks were circumstantially linked to Iran, and while these current attacks haven’t been tied to any country in particular, Iran wouldn’t be a bad place to start if you were putting together a list of suspects.

IRAN

For some reason this is being treated as BREAKING NEWS DEVELOPING STORY OMG FLASHING RED SIREN, but I guess a couple of days ago a US destroyer in the Persian Gulf fired a “warning flare” at an Iranian naval vessel that approached it aggressively. The flare is unusual, but Iranian and US vessels interacting with one another in a hostile manner is something that happens pretty regularly. When the shots stop being warning shots, then it’ll be big news.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters today that they should “not pay much attention to Trump’s words” about the Iran nuclear deal.” You know, maybe it’s the patriot in me, but I call bullshit on Mr. Zarif’s remarks. Just because Donald Trump talked tough on the campaign and has since tucked his tail between his legs on Chinese currency manipulation withdrawing from NATO moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem making Mexico pay for the border wall the nuclear deal, um, he…I’m sorry, what were we talking about again?

Iranian media reported today that unidentified “terrorists” ambushed a patrol of Iranian border guards near the Iran-Pakistan border, killing ten of them. The Sunni/Salafi/Balochi nationalist group Jaish ul-Adl has claimed responsibility.

UZBEKISTAN

Reuters is reporting that the triumvirate that has ruled Uzbekistan since Ismail Karimov’s death last year has shed a member. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has been running the country in concert with Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov and intelligence chief Rustam Inoyatov, has managed to take Azimov out of the picture by personally taking over Azimov’s signature issue, economic reform. This also explains why Azimov hasn’t been promoted to prime minister, Mirziyoyev’s previous gig.

TAJIKISTAN

The Tajik government has begun insisting that media outlets refer to President Emomali Rahmon only by his full, official title. Which seems fine, until you learn that his full, official title is “The Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation, President of the Republic of Tajikistan, His Excellency Emomali Rahmon.” Uh, cool. This takes, no shit, 15 full seconds to completely scroll across somebody’s TV.

AFGHANISTAN

ISIS and the Taliban are reportedly beating the hell out of each other in Afghanistan’s Jawzjan province, after ISIS reportedly attacked its rival there yesterday. At least 90 fighters have been killed on both sides.

PAKISTAN

Liaquat Ali, AKA Ehsanullah Ehsan, the former spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban and later the breakaway faction Jamaat ul-Ahrar who surrendered to Pakistani authorities last week, has told his interrogators on video that both Indian and Afghan intelligence services gave material aid to the Pakistani Taliban while he was a member. The Afghan government has denied the claim while there hasn’t been a comment from India yet. And, you know, Pakistan may well have coerced Ehsan to say this, but it doesn’t exactly stretch the bounds of credulity to think that maybe the Pakistani Taliban has been getting help from two regional governments that don’t like Pakistan very much. And, of course, for Pakistan to get really worked up about this would be a touch hypocritical, given the aid their intelligence services have been providing to the Afghan Taliban for the better part of three decades.

Here’s my crazy idea: what if everybody–Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, everybody–stopped helping any organization with the word “Taliban” in its name? That seems like a simple enough rule to follow, doesn’t it?

KASHMIR

Three Indian soldiers and two Kashmiri separatists were reportedly killed in fighting early Thursday, when separatists attacked a military camp near the line of control dividing Jammu and Kashmir between India and Pakistan.

NORTH KOREA

So, first, you should read the excellent Joshua Pollack at Arms Control Wonk, as he discusses the legitimate reasons to be concerned about North Korean nukes and the illegitimate ones. Here’s one of his illegitimate reasons:

Second, and related to the first, is the insinuation that North Korea is so crazy, so dangerous, so unpredictable, that it wouldn’t be like having a mutual deterrence situation with Russia or China. Therefore, we must do something about it.

This must sound awfully familiar to anyone who has studied the history of the Chinese nuclear program. There was a fairly serious debate in Washington about whether to try to bomb it out of existence before China’s first nuclear test. After all, lots of people then thought that Mao was crazy. Before the first nuclear test certainly would have been the relevant time to try such a thing. Needless to say, we didn’t do so, and we have survived.

What’s more, there’s a much better case to be made that Mao was “crazy” than any of the Kims were. The Great Leap Forward. The Cultural Revolution. Now that’s insanity. North Korea’s rhetoric may be colorful, but it’s nothing remotely like Mao’s infamous appeal to Khrushchev to start a nuclear war with the United States—on Chinese soil.

All rhetoric aside, the North Koreans show a pretty good understanding of what nuclear weapons are about. At the time of the first inter-Korean summit in 2000, the late Kim Jong Il told visiting members of the South Korean press that it was ridiculous to think North Korea could beat America by shooting missiles at it. Now that the nukes are out in the open, his son Kim Jong Un talks about brinkmanship. That may be appalling, but it makes him no crazier than John Foster Dulles.

Got that? Now here’s the head of US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, testifying at a Congressional hearing today:

Adm Harry Harris, the commander of US Pacific Command (Pacom), sounded dire notes before a congressional panel on Wednesday, testifying that he did not have confidence that North Korea would refrain from “something precipitous” should it succeed in miniaturizing a nuclear weapon to mount on a ballistic missile.

Needless to say, Admiral Harris didn’t really explain why he thinks Kim Jong-un, who shows no inclination toward suicide, would choose to commit suicide just for the chance to lob an ICBM at the United States. Kim wants the capability of striking the US with a nuclear weapon in order to deter Washington from upholding its defense commitments to South Korea in the event that the two Koreas go to war with each other again. He’s trying to force America to stay out of a war, not start one with it. Harris did say that he thinks the United States could carry out a preemptive strike on North Korea that would “affect North Korea’s military calculus,” which is a fancy way of saying we could bomb North Korea without Pyongyang destroying Seoul in response. That seems to me like a pretty big gamble to make with somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 million lives.

CHINA

I’ll probably have more to say about this as it approaches, but Beijing is hosting leaders from at least 28 countries in mid-May for the “Belt and Road Forum,” a conference meant to unveil more of President Xi Jinping’s “New Silk Road” initiative. The New Silk Road vision has been in place for some time now, but it has now unambiguously become China’s attempt to take advantage of the Trump administration’s grab bag of America First, Chaos Second foreign policy bullshit to establish China as a or even the world leader on issues like trade, development, even the environment. It definitely bears watching.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

The UN’S MONUSCO peacekeeping mission says that at least 20 people have been killed in the central DRC town of Mungamba. They say the deaths were caused by ethnic clashes between the Lulua-Luba and Chokwe-Pende peoples, exacerbated by the ongoing Kamwina Nsapu insurrection that is embroiling the Kasai region.

RUSSIA

There are questions as to the reliability of the “Imam Shamil Battalion’s” claim of responsibility in the April 3 St. Petersburg Metro bombing, and not just because the group seems to have been unknown until it made this claim. Specifically, the claim itself was advanced through channels that normally deal with al-Qaeda operations in Africa and has not been disseminated via “main” al-Qaeda channels. Moreover, the claim doesn’t appear to have been made until April 18, and al-Qaeda tends to take credit for its attacks much quicker than that. In related news, Russian authorities reportedly arrested 12 people in Kaliningrad today suspected of involvement with Islamic extremist groups.

A new poll says that 45 percent of Russians would like to see Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev resign, which I guess means that reformist gadfly Alexei Navalny’s attacks against Medvedev’s considerable accumulated personal wealth have had an effect. It’s possible that Vladimir Putin might ask Medvedev to go if he becomes too big a liability, but that probably depends on whether and to what extent Medvedev knows where the bodies are buried (literally, as the case may be). On the other hand, if Medvedev doesn’t want to be one of those bodies, he’d probably be wise to do as Putin asks.

UKRAINE

Three Ukrainian soldiers and one separatist fighter have reportedly been killed in eastern Ukraine over the past couple of days, an unwelcome sign that the fighting there may be flaring up again.

FRANCE

Emmanuel Macron’s biggest enemy as France’s May 7 presidential run-off approaches is probably voter apathy. His polling lead over Marine Le Pen is so wide that even if the polls are off (and it should be noted that those same polls called the first round pretty accurately), he should be comfortably ahead. But, of course, if Macron doesn’t motivate people to actually go out and vote for him, then the polls will be proven wrong in the end. And unfortunately, Macron’s bland neoliberalism, no matter how much he tries to dress it up as edgy outsider populism, is exactly the kind of platform that inspires people to say “who gives a shit” and refuse to break up their World War II Victory Day holiday weekend to vote for him.

One potential problem for Macron seems to be solving itself. Since Macron is not a member of any French political party, he’s thought likely to struggle in terms of getting any traction in parliament, at least until June’s legislative elections and probably even after that. But already there appears to be a faction of Republicans led by former President Nicolas Sarkozy who are amenable to working with Macron in parliament, with a Sarkozy ally perhaps serving as Macron’s Prime Minister.

UNITED KINGDOM

Polling shows that the Scottish independence movement, renewed by Brexit and Scotland’s large majority vote against leaving the EU, might be barking up the wrong tree. In particular, there appears to be a sizable chunk of people who voted for independence in the last Scottish independence referendum (about a third of those voters) who also voted for Britain to leave the EU. This probably isn’t that surprising–nationalism is nationalism, after all–but it does complicate the thinking about another independence referendum.

VENEZUELA

Nicolás Maduro’s government announced today that it is withdrawing from the Organization of American States. This is in response to an OAS meeting of foreign ministers that was announced earlier on Wednesday, which Maduro had strongly opposed. There had been talk of kicking Venezuela out of the OAS anyway, on the pretext that Maduro is acting as a dictator and OAS membership is only open to democracies, but Maduro beat them to the punch.

The death toll in clashes between pro- and anti-government protesters and Venezuelan security forces has now risen to 29.

NAFTA

In an apparent attempt to make a big splash around the 100 day mark of his presidency, a milestone that he thinks is both very meaningful and total bullshit, Donald Trump has asked his advisers for a plan to pull the US out of NAFTA. Now, you may not have any great love for NAFTA, I wouldn’t blame you for that. I don’t have any either. But you can’t just pull up stakes and tear these sorts of things up overnight. The economic impact on all three member countries’ economies alone would make this an extremely bad idea. If you want to extricate the US from NAFTA, then you negotiate an exit or, better yet, you renegotiate NAFTA to fix its many problems. Trump may be looking to renegotiate and using the threat of a US withdrawal to maximize his leverage, but I wouldn’t count on it.

UPDATE: Trump, in a phone call with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nietzsche and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, apparently did agree to renegotiate NAFTA rather than just pulling out of it. Was that his intention all along, or did somebody talk him down from the ledge? The fun thing about the Trump presidency is, we have no idea!

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Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

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