Conflict update: April 19 2017

Hey! So, instead of finishing this and posting it at 11:58 like I usually do, tonight I’m going to try, you know, not doing that, and hopefully being asleep at 11:58 instead. I’d like to make that the new normal with these posts going forward, but we’ll see.

SYRIA

At The Nation, James Carden asks whether we, and the media in particular, have rushed to judgment in in blaming Bashar al-Assad for the April 4 chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun. This is a difficult discussion to have in an environment that rewards the confident take over nuance almost every time, but I think Carden makes a compelling case that there has been a rush to judgment, while at the same time I also believe that the preponderance of evidence supports the conclusion that Assad did it. The thing is that “preponderance of evidence” isn’t that high a standard, especially in a situation where there isn’t all that much hard evidence–at this point I think we can fairly confidently say that sarin or something very much like it was used in Khan Shaykhun, but most of the rest of the story is still up in the air to one degree or another. And “preponderance of evidence” certainly seems like too low a standard when we’re talking about justifying military action, though certainly the US has historically trudged off to war over even less.

At some point, though, proponents of alternate theories about Khan Shaykhun are going to have to produce some evidence of their own, something more than “I’m hearing from sources” or “this satellite image looks like something else to me.” Because even if they’re right, and Assad wasn’t responsible for this attack, it doesn’t mean much if they can’t at least sway public opinion in their direction. And if international investigations start to determine that Assad did it, that’s going to become much harder to do. It’s one thing to question the veracity of anything that comes out of the Trump administration, but if, say, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons investigation comes back with a finding that Assad was responsible, then that’s harder to simply dismiss out of hand.

On the other hand, the OPCW investigation hasn’t come back yet, and if your argument is that America should have at least waited for that before commencing air strikes, well, I think you’re probably right. There’s also a strong case to be made that our media should be giving more–or at least some–attention to credible people who are questioning the “Assad Did It” narrative. And there’s also some merit to what Peter Ford, former UK ambassador to Syria, said hereContinue reading

Conflict update: April 3 2017

BREAKING: NOTHING MUCH HAPPENED

One of the reasons I don’t post these earlier in the day is because HUGE BREAKING NEWS MUST CREDIT GUY WHO HELPED SELL IRAQ WAR stories are often later shown to be no big deal. To wit:

Maybe I’m wrong, but it sure does seem like intrepid reporter Eli Lake has now been played twice by Republicans trying to substantiate their party leader’s claim that the Obama administration spied on him and his transition team. At some point you have to start assuming that Lake is willingly along for the ride, don’t you?

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RUSSIA

An explosion tore through the St. Petersburg metro today, killing at least 11 people and injuring more than 50 at the last count. Details are still light, but it appears the bomb went off between metro stations, so it’s not clear whether it was placed there or was put on a train. Russian authorities later said that police found and disarmed a second bomb placed at another location in the metro. ISIS has already reportedly claimed responsibility and said the bomb was in retaliation for Russia’s activities in Syria, but there are plenty of other possible candidates, from Chechen militants (who certainly overlap with ISIS) to Ukrainian sympathizers to anti-government extremists, and Moscow seems to be investigating all possibilities. It’s likely not a coincidence that Putin was in St. Petersburg today to meet with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, though he certainly wasn’t targeted.

WAR ON WOMEN

Donald Trump “cherishes” women, just ask him. Of course, if those women happen to rely on the UN Family Planning Agency for their reproductive health needs, then they’re shit out of luck because the Trump administration just yanked all the US funding for that agency (which was $75 million last year). The administration claims that the UNFPA participates in China’s forced abortion and sterilization programs, but the State Department’s own statement on the funding cut as much as admits that they’re lying about that claim in order to give themselves a justification for the cut. Still, you have to admire the strong display of concern for the rights of Chinese women from an administration that’s going to have Chinese President Xi Jinping over to President Trump’s extravagant Florida vacation resort later this week. That’ll show him.

Trump is only doing what every Republican administration since the 1980s has done with respect to the UNFPA, so I don’t mean to single him out except insofar as he is the current president. But feel free to mention this the next time your Hashtag Never Trump Republican buddy or your moderate Democratic presidential nominee tries to tell you that Donald Trump is somehow different from the rest of the Republican Party and not entirely a product of that party.

EGYPT

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Conflict update: March 9 2017

UNITED STATES

It’s very early to draw conclusions, particularly considering the current circumstances in Iraq, but it’s starting to look like when Donald Trump said he was going to “bomb the shit out of them,” that was another thing that people were right to take literally. And, apparently, “them” in that phrase meant, well, pretty much everybody:

The U.S. has dramatically ramped up the campaign against AQAP in Yemen in 2017, with deadly results. New America estimates that approximately 16 civilians have been killed in U.S. strikes in Yemen so far this year. All but one of these strikes was launched after Trump took office. The last time a yearly figure was that high was in 2013.

This year has seen a significant increase in the number of both airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition and civilian casualties, according to the tracking site Airwars, but this trend began before Trump took office as fighting to retake the ISIS-held cities of Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq, intensified. In January, the site recorded 264 confirmed or fairly credible civilian casualties compared to 139 in December. In January, likely civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes outnumbered those from Russian airstrikes for the first time. In February there, were 110 deaths, and March has already seen 89.

The Guardian has a report today on the sordid recent history of US counter-terrorism training operations across Africa, and here we need to lay the blame at President Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. In one country after another–Kenya, Nigeria, South Sudan, American funding and training is going to governments whose militaries are regularly accused of crimes against humanity. Meanwhile, the incidence of terrorism on the continent has skyrocketed since 2009, in spite of all that aid–or maybe because of it. You see, to the extent that US training has helped these militaries do a more effective job of killing and otherwise mistreating people, it may be that we’re helping to create more recruits for the Boko Harams, al-Shababs, and al-Qaeda affiliates of the world.

SYRIA

The most volatile spot in Syria remains the area between al-Bab and Manbij, where Turkish forces and their rebel proxies are trying to get at the YPG but are instead running into the Syrian army, which Turkey doesn’t want to fight but which its proxies do very much want to fight. Syrian state media reported today that Turkish forces shelled the Syrian army outside of Manbij, killing an unspecified number of Syrian soldiers.

Per the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, today seems to have been a particularly bad day to be a civilian in eastern Syria. In al-Mayadin, a town outside of the besieged city of Deir Ezzor, airstrikes–probably Russian–killed at least seven civilians. Suspected American airstrikes, meanwhile, killed at least 20 civilians in the village of Matab, outside of Raqqa. Speaking of Raqqa, American officials say they’re starting to see signs that ISIS leadership is fleeing that city in advance of the expected operation to liberate it, which is a pretty good sign that they don’t plan on Raqqa being their last stand.

At the Middle East Institute, analysts Ibrahim al-Assil and Basel al-Junaidy look at the fallout from the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham/Ahrar al-Sham split in Idlib. Some of Ahrar al-Sham’s most extreme elements left the group to join JFS’s new Tahrir al-Sham coalition, leaving Ahrar al-Sham militarily weaker–but there may be a political silver lining here for a group that has long been thought too extreme to receive overt foreign assistance: Continue reading

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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Conflict update: December 12

Syria

Aleppo is, for all practical purposes, back in the Syrian government’s hands:

Syrian state media said President Bashar al-Assad’s forces had captured 98% of the eastern areas of Aleppo that have been largely rebel-held since 2012. The rebels and the opposition monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime forces were in control of 90%.

Rebels were pushed Monday from several more neighborhoods after days of intense ground combat with regime forces backed by Russian airstrikes and militias comprising thousands of Shiite Muslim foreign fighters.

Opposition officials estimated that more than 100,000 civilians remained in the besieged rebel-controlled areas of the city, huddled in homes and basements or seeking shelter. Tens of thousands have recently fled the area.

Other civilians were trying to flee the bombardment by running across dangerous front lines to regime-controlled areas. Residents still in rebel areas said they have received reports of arrests, army conscription and killings of some of those who have fled.

The air and artillery bombardment that accompanied this final push was reportedly the most intense of the whole Aleppo operation. In the end, all the yakking about ceasefires and evacuation plans and corridors and safe passage deals and whatever else John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov like to chat about over IM amounted to absolutely nothing. Aleppo is Assad’s again, its eastern half largely in ruins, the carnage will probably take days or weeks to fully process (and even then it may never be accurately estimated), and the war goes on, though it may be entering a new phase. If you support Assad you’re happy, if you support the rebels you’re angry, and if your biggest concern is how many people had to be sacrificed so that Assad could pretend to have his country back and the rebels could pretend to make a noble fight to the death…well, I’m not convinced anybody like that actually exists. It’s war, you have to pick a team.

Meanwhile, in one of the many parts of Syria about which Assad couldn’t give a shit, there are reports of chemical weapons being used in Palmyra, but it’s unclear which side might have used them. Both the Syrian army and ISIS are known to have some chemical weapons capabilities, and the situation is so fluid that it’s very difficult for any outside observers to really get a handle on what’s going on. Also, at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, diplomats discussed the importance of getting humanitarian aid to Syria ASAP and lambasted Russia for refusing to do a deal over Aleppo and for focusing so much on propping up Assad that it allowed ISIS the space for a resurgence. This, as they say, is honestly so important. If Russia doesn’t clean its act up, then these same diplomats are very likely to meet again at some point and talk some more about how frustrated they all are. Nobody wants that.

The Turkish army has started dropping leaflets on ISIS-held al-Bab warning civilians to take shelter, suggesting that their assault on the city is imminent. Ankara says that after al-Bab is taken, Operation Euphrates Shield will target Manbij next, meaning it will lay off ISIS in favor of attacking the Kurds.

The War on Terror

Airwars, a London-based group tracking the coalition war against ISIS, released a new report today criticizing the coalition for drastically undercounting the number of civilian deaths caused by its airstrikes and a lack of transparency in how the coalition investigates civilian casualties. While the US acknowledges 173 civilian deaths (no, really, Washington expects people to believe that), Airwars says the number is over 1500.

Iraq

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Conflict update: December 10

Turkey

At around 11 PM tonight local time, two bombs hit downtown Istanbul, killing at least 29 people and injuring another 166. First, a car bomb exploded outside the Beşiktaş Vodafone Arena. Shortly after that, a suicide bomber detonated a smaller explosion a short distance away. Suspicion, as it always does in these cases, will fall on either ISIS or some Kurdish group, TAK and/or the PKK. Most of the dead were Turkish police officers, and if the bombing was intended to target police that could suggest a Kurdish angle. On the other hand, there was a football (soccer for us rubes) match played at the stadium earlier this evening that had reportedly let out just before the bomb(s?) went off. If the intention was to target the crowd leaving the stadium, then that strongly suggests ISIS. At this point the feeling in Turkey seems to be that the bombing did target the police and that TAK was probably behind it, though it’s very early to be making any judgments. Whether it was ISIS or Kurds, the bombing may be a response to Operation Euphrates Shield, the Turkish invasion of northern Syria that has alternately targeted ISIS and the Kurdish YPG.

Iraq

Federal police and interior ministry forces are being deployed to eastern Mosul to help bolster the Iraqi special forces already leading the assault there. This comes after that major ISIS counterattack on the al-Salim Hospital on Wednesday pushed Iraqi forces back substantially.

Meanwhile, Iraqi security agencies are already beginning to divert resources to intelligence gathering in order to prepare for the shift that’s going to accompany ISIS’s defeat in Mosul, when the group largely stops being a military threat and becomes instead mostly a terrorist threat. The shift revolves around building up surveillance capabilities and securing the Syrian border–and might even involve Iraqi participation in the eventual assault on Raqqa. You’ll note in that piece that Iraqi commanders say they wanted a slower advance on Mosul, to allow more time for airstrikes to degrade ISIS and take out as many of its leaders as possible, but they were overruled by Baghdad. Consequently the highest-ranking ISIS leaders in the city, a group that may have included Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, were allowed to flee and are now in the wind.

With plans to assault Tal Afar completely up in the air thanks to a lack of manpower, Turkey and the Iraqi Turkmen Front are suggesting that a force of Iraqi Turkmen, presumably with Turkish assistance, should be put together to attack the city, and frankly Baghdad may not have a choice even though it would very much like Turkey to mind its own damn business.

Turkey, which had a busy day bombing other countries (see below), says its airstrikes killed 19 PKK militants in northern Iraq.

Syria

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US forces kill Some Guy, key ISIS leader (plus: Arabic 101 for big media)

US Special Forces conducted a raid against an ISIS target in Syria overnight that reportedly killed an ISIS bigshot:

US special forces soldiers have killed a senior leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group during a raid carried out in eastern Syria, the US secretary of defence said.

Pentagon chief Ash Carter said in a statement on Saturday that the raid in al-Amr had killed Abu Sayyaf when he “engaged US forces”.

Al Jazeera’s Omar al-Saleh, reporting from the Bekaa valley in neighbouring Lebanon, said two US helicopters had taken part in the operation at an oil field east of the city of Deir Az Zor.

“Activists from the area say at least six people from ISIL were killed, including at least two of Arab nationalities; a Saudi and an Iraqi,” Saleh said.

“We believe the operation may have taken place overnight or early Saturday.”

The US put the number of ISIL deaths at about a dozen, and said no US soldiers were killed during the incident.

Abu Sayyaf, we’re told, “was involved in planning ISIL’s military operations and had helped direct its oil, gas, and financial operations,” and, hey, that sounds good. I’m a little skeptical when I hear that we’ve killed some guy who was a senior leader (with what seems like an incredibly broad portfolio, from energy to finance to military operations) of our biggest enemy yet nobody seems to have heard of him before today, but I’m reflexively skeptical like that. Certainly there’s no particular reason why US authorities would let me or anybody else in on the names of all of ISIS’s top commanders. Anyway a half dozen or so dead ISIS fighters versus no US dead (and, hopefully, no civilian dead) is on balance probably a good thing, particularly when the raid also apparently freed a Yazidi girl whom Abu Sayyaf and his wife had been keeping as a slave.

There’s little to go on here to assess what kind of damage this Abu Sayyaf’s death might do to ISIS overall, first because of the aforementioned skepticism but also because we were told months ago that airstrikes had crippled ISIS’s oil revenue, plus the oil business just ain’t what she used to be these days. Also, it’s possible that Abu Sayyaf and/or his wife had or have intel on the location of American hostages being held by ISIS, which would obviously be important. But this raid also could, in theory, reflect some policy change in Washington about using special forces to go in and capture/kill suspected ISIS commanders instead of trying to kill them via airstrike. Maybe Abu Sayyaf was thought to be a particularly ripe target for capture and interrogation (hell, maybe Abu Sayyaf wasn’t the intended target; how can we know at this point?), or maybe this is how things are going to be done from now on.

I’d actually like to digress and offer a bit of a public service announcement to our major US media. Continue reading