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:  Continue reading

Conflict update: April 25 2017

SYRIA

This morning, Turkish aircraft struck Kurdish targets in Iraq’s Sinjar region and around the town of Derika (also known as Dayrik and al-Malikiyah) in northeastern Syria. The Syrian YPG militia says that 20 of its fighters were killed in the strikes, while Turkey claims that it killed 70 “militants” across both targets.

The Iraqi strike is a little more straightforward and I’ll mention that when we get to Iraq, but as far as Syria is concerned there’s no sense pretending that this is anything other than a Turkish attempt to undermine the fight against ISIS. Ankara claims that it struck a “terror hub,” whatever that means, in order to prevent weapons and other materiel from getting to the Kurdish PKK militant group in Turkey. But judging by the unambiguously hostile reception the strikes got from Washington it seems pretty clear that Turkey didn’t explore any other avenues for potentially interrupting the movement of arms or whatever from northeastern Syria to the PKK. They just skipped ahead to the airstrikes. I’m not saying that if Ankara had asked the US to intervene in whatever it claims the YPG/PKK were doing in northeastern Syria, that it would have worked out in Turkey’s favor. But going that route would have been worth the effort, assuming Turkey’s motives were really to interdict aid to the PKK. If talking doesn’t work you can always try airstrikes after that.

The YPG, as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, is of course America’s number one proxy in Syria and the centerpiece of plans to attack ISIS in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. Turkey opposes those plans because it makes no distinction between the YPG and the PKK (there is a distinction, but it’s blurry to say the least) and doesn’t want to see the Syrian Kurds expanding their territory and potentially establishing an autonomous statelet in northern Syria. Turkey had proposed an alternative plan where by its forces in conjunction with elements of the Free Syrian Army would march on Raqqa from al-Bab and take the city without involving the Kurds, but the Turkish-FSA army didn’t do much to distinguish itself in al-Bab and, anyway, its path to Raqqa was closed off when the Syrian army drove ISIS out of the area south of al-Bab. At this point it’s likely that Turkey’s only recourse to stop the YPG from participating in the Raqqa operation is to start bombing the hell out of YPG positions further north, and that’s probably why it never asked for American help with this supposed PKK weapons problem. If Ankara had gone to the Americans and asked for help in preventing YPG weapons from allegedly being moved into Turkey, and the US had managed to convince the YPG to knock it off, then Turkey would’ve lost its excuse to bomb the YPG.

This is not going to be great for the US-Turkey relationship, and it’s going to get worse if the US decides to agree to YPG requests for a US-imposed no-fly zone over YPG-controlled territory. If the YPG wants to play hardball over this they kind of have the US over a barrel, because they could pull their forces out of the SDF, out of the Raqqa offensive, and Washington would be up the proverbial creek without a paddle. Factor in the possibility that the next one of these Turkish airstrikes might just kill a US servicemember or two, by accident presumably, and you’ve got a very combustible situation developing here.

Elsewhere in Syria, pro-government (i.e., Syrian or Russian) airstrikes killed at least 12 people and reportedly damaged a hospital in Idlib province today, at least 11 and perhaps more civilians were killed by US airstrikes in and around Tabqa, and the Syrian army is pouring resources into an effort to drive rebel forces out of Aleppo’s northern and western outskirts.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: April 18 2017

AMERICA TO THE RESCUE

If you’re worried about the state of human rights around the world, I’ve got great news–this afternoon, America was on it:

The Trump administration is seeking to highlight its commitment to human rights around the world, and so its envoy to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, is presiding over what it calls the first “thematic debate” on human rights in the Security Council on Tuesday afternoon.

“Council members are encouraged to express their views on the nexus between human rights and international peace and security,” reads a memo circulated to the members this month. Rights abuses, the memo says, can often be the first signs of a full-on conflict erupting.

This was, of course, not the first time human rights have been discussed to no effect at the UN Security Council, but it probably is the council’s first “thematic debate,” whatever the fuck that means. Human rights groups were skeptical–for some reason, they seemed to think that a UN Security Council meeting on human rights, presided over by a country that bombs mosques, bombs apartment buildings, bombed civilians even on this very day, and allies with countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, wouldn’t amount to shit. Well, the joke’s on them, because as it turns out…they were, uh, pretty much right on the money.

UNITED KINGDOM

Britain is having a new election in June! What fun! Yes, I know, they just had an election two years ago, and Prime Minister Theresa May has said multiple times that she wouldn’t call snap elections before Britain had exited the European Union, but since when are we dinging politicians for lying? If early polling is to be believed, we’re not doing it this time either. May has a major political opening staring her in the face–serious Brexit negotiations won’t start until later this year, and she and her Conservative Party have huge polling leads over Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour Party–and she’s going to take advantage of it to increase her parliamentary cushion for the Brexit process. This is a smart, calculated move–so calculated that her opposition might even want to make an issue out of how bloody cynical the whole thing is.

Technically, May does not have the power to call for early elections–prime ministers used to have virtually unlimited authority in that regard, but parliament voted to restrict it in 2010 in order to keep precisely this kind of purely political vote from being called. If just a third of the House of Commons rejects her plans, she’ll have to resort to legislative trickery by having her own party vote against her government in a vote of no confidence. But it’s probably not going to come to that, as both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have said they’ll vote to approve the early election. It’s not clear why they’re going along with this, but I suppose if either party really knew what it was doing then the Conservatives wouldn’t be on the verge of pummeling them both in a couple of months.

The actual risk for May is that, if British voters are really feeling buyer’s remorse over the Brexit referendum, they could opt to hand May a parliament that’s much less amenable to her plans for a so-called “hard Brexit” (apologies if there are any impressionable children reading this smut).  Continue reading

Conflict update: April 5 2017

SYRIA

I’ve already written most of what I had to write about Syria today, but there are a couple of additional updates. Well, one, really. President Trump spoke in public, which seems inadvisable but I guess you make do with the president you have, and anyway after we spent last week (and, off and on, many weeks before that) talking about how Bashar al-Assad is actually not so bad and, look, we’re not joining his fan club or anything but he seems like somebody we could live with, we’re probably going to war with him. Of course we’re not, because today’s policy is subject to change depending on how much sleep the president gets and whatever they talk about on “Fox & Friends” tomorrow morning, but for now that may be where we’re at. Speaking of which, did you hear Susan Rice probably committed a crime? I think they said so on InfoWars or whatever.

Also, for what it’s worth, that Steve Bannon news from earlier today? Laura Rozen, who’s as good a national security reporter as there is in my opinion, says it may have happened because Bannon was one of the louder pro-Assad voices on the NSC.

IRAQ

Not much to report from Mosul today, but the city of Tikrit was rocked by a significant ISIS attack overnight, involving suicide bombers and at least ten militants disguised as police officers. Over 30 people were killed in the engagement.

TURKEY

The House Foreign Affairs Committee inexplicably decided to hold a hearing today at which members took turns criticizing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and offering their hopes that his desired constitutional changes would be defeated in the April 16 referendum. I can only assume Erdoğan is going to incorporate their remarks into his stump speech ASAP.

YEMEN

The United Nations made a last ditch effort to convince the warring parties here to steer clear of Hudaydah and its port for humanitarian reasons. It won’t work. Hudaydah is on the Saudi hit list and it’s not coming off until they’ve taken it and (probably) its actual port facilities are mostly destroyed.

JORDAN

Though his White House visit was completely overshadowed by the Syrian news, Jordan’s King Abdullah did take the opportunity to blow smoke up President Trump’s ass on Israel-Palestine, the better to try to sell him on the Arab League’s deader-than-disco peace deal.

IRAN

Tehran mayor and erstwhile presidential hopeful Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf has reportedly withdrawn from consideration for the upcoming election, possibly in anger that the principlist Popular Front of Revolutionary Forces (JAMNA) coalition hasn’t lined up behind his candidacy (which, since he lost in 2013 to Hassan Rouhani by a pretty sizable margin, isn’t really that surprising). There are rumors that Ghalibaf has cut a deal with Mashhad shrine head Ebrahim Raisi to serve as Raisi’s vice president should the occasion arise–but Raisi himself hasn’t even decided if he’s running, and he seems put out by JAMNA’s unwillingness to coalesce behind him.

PAKISTAN

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Conflict update: March 24 2017

TRUMP UPDATE

Donald Trump had a not so very great day on the health care reform front, but he does seem to finally be circling around a potential deputy for Rex Tillerson at the State Department–or, in other words, a deputy for Jared Kushner’s deputy:

John J. Sullivan, a prominent Republican lawyer who served in the administration of President George W. Bush, is expected to be nominated to serve as the State Department’s No. 2 officer, according to a senior White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of an official announcement.

Sullivan doesn’t seem to have been on anybody’s radar, which is probably because he has no discernible foreign policy experience and conventional wisdom said that Tillerson, who also has no foreign policy experience apart from cutting deals to drill for oil in other countries, would want his deputy to have some direct experience at State. Then again, given that Trump would like to strip the whole State Department and sell it for parts, I suppose it doesn’t really matter who works there.

There’s a new revelation in the Michael Flynn case today:

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that retired Gen. Michael Flynn, former National Security Advisor and head of a consulting firm that filed as a foreign agent representing the Turkish government, discussed removing controversial cleric Fethullah Gulen back to Turkey without going through the U.S. extradition process.

At a Sept. 2016 meeting in New York, Flynn reportedly met with top Turkish ministers as they discussed ways to move Gulen back to Turkey, according to ex-Central Intelligence Agency Director James Woolsey, and others who were at the meeting. According to Woolsey, the participants in the meeting talked of ways to spirit Gulen out of his Poconos Mountains retreat without going through the U.S. extraditions process.

The eventual fate of Fethullah Gülen doesn’t exactly weigh heavy upon my soul, but if Flynn was being paid by the Turkish government to use his authority/influence to finagle Gülen out of the country without due process then the guy needs to be arrested. Enough of this scandal shit, we’re now in the realm of actual criminal conspiracy.

IS OUR BLOB LEARNING?

Apparently not:

The only good reason to have a meeting is to deliberate and decide on a shared objective. From that business angle, the March 22 meeting in Washington of the Global Coalition to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) did not serve any purpose. The US message to its allies was clear: let us alone deal a military blow to ISIL, you deal with the day after.

“Blow the place up and then forget it exists” is an American strategy that has worked to perfection in Afghanistan, Afghanistan again, Iraq, uh, Iraq again, Afghanistan at least one other time, and now Libya, so why wouldn’t you want to use it again in Syria and, oh hey, Iraq again?

SYRIA

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Conflict update: March 22 2017

I’m going to be out this evening, so please enjoy (?) this shortened and probably too-early roundup of the day’s worst news.

UNITED KINGDOM

Westminster Bridge

Westminster Bridge under better circumstances (Wikimedia | Martin Dunst)

This is still very much a developing story, but at least four people, including the attacker, have been killed in London in what seems to have been an attempted attack on the House of Commons. A man drove his vehicle into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge this afternoon (timeline), killing two people, before killing a police officer outside parliament with a knife. He was then shot and killed by police. More than 20 other people were injured in the incident, some seriously. Authorities are understandably treating this as a terrorist incident until proven otherwise, but at this point I haven’t yet seen any information about the attacker. I’ll have more on this, but probably not until tomorrow.

NORTH KOREA

This morning’s missile test does indeed appear to have been a failure. The missile reportedly exploded “seconds” after launch, which raises the possibility that a US cyber attack could have been the cause (apparently the US has been working on disrupting these tests immediately after launch). It’s not clear what kind of missile was being tested.

ИСТОРИЯ О ПОЛЬСКОМ МАНАФОРТЕ

So, which Donald Trump associate is having his uncomfortable connections to Vladimir Putin uncovered today? Why it’s none other than Paul Manafort, who briefly served as Trump’s campaign chairman back when the idea of “President Trump” was still just a gleam in Robby Mook’s eye. According to the AP, in 2006 Manafort landed himself a sweet gig working for a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, in which he was supposed to “influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government.” This revelation could be personally very bad for Manafort, who apparently neglected to register as a foreign agent with the DOJ as one is supposed to do when representing foreign interests in the US. It could also be damaging to Trump inasmuch as Manafort and the Trump administration have been insisting that he never did any work for the Russian government–which could still be technically true, mind you, but maybe only technically.

Manafort insists that everything he did for Deripaska was totally above board and didn’t involve any lobbying for Russian government interests. It was so above board, in fact, that Manafort didn’t conduct this particular bit of business under the banner of his regular consulting company, Davis Manafort, but instead under another company he established in 1992 that didn’t have any kind of public profile. As one does with reputable work.

SO THAT’S WHO WE SHOULD BLAME

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(Middle East) Conflict update: March 20-21, 2017

Because there’s so much to cover, after I missed yesterday, I’ve broken today’s update into two parts. This one will cover just the “Greater” Middle Eastern stuff (including North Africa and Central Asia, in other words), and the other will cover everything else.

IRAQ

Stop me if you’ve already heard this: Iraqi forces are “a few hundred meters” away from the Nuri Mosque in Mosul’s Old City, but ISIS resistance, especially via sniper fire, is slowing their advance to a crawl. In addition to the snipers, the Iraqis say ISIS is holding civilian hostages inside the mosque, so care is being taken to try to get them out alive. Civilian casualties in this phase of the operation have already been quite high–3500 or more by one Iraqi estimate–so this is prudent. In addition to the deaths, an estimated 180,000 Iraqis have already fled western Mosul, a number that would exceed the number who fled eastern Mosul during the entire campaign to liberate that half of the city–and western Mosul is still anywhere from 40 percent to around two-thirds (depending on whether you include the airport and surrounding areas in the total) under ISIS control. The number of displaced is greatly exceeding the combined Iraqi-UN capacity to accommodate them, and some people are even returning to the city despite the fighting. The Iraqi government has apparently decided not to send refugees to Iraqi Kurdistan even though there is reportedly capacity there, likely for petty political reasons.

Meanwhile, an ISIS car bombing in Baghdad yesterday killed at least 21 people. It was the latest in a wave of attacks that have been taking place across the country as ISIS fighters have been able to sneak out of Mosul. It’s believed that ISIS fighters have been reforming in areas of Salahuddin province that would be difficult for the government to get at under normal conditions but impossible given that all its resources are focused on Mosul. From there they’ve been able to strike at targets in Salahuddin and Diyala provinces, and of course Baghdad remains their main target. ISIS is also using its base in the town of Hawija, west of Kirkuk, from where it staged a serious attack on Kirkuk in October. The Iraqi government opted to make a beeline for Mosul instead of capturing smaller ISIS strongholds like Hawija first, and it very much remains to be seen whether or not that was the right choice.

The Washington Post reported today on the Yazidis of the Sinjar region, who are now dying and fleeing from fighting between Kurdish factions a mere 2 and a half years after ISIS tried to exterminate their community. The Yazidis welcomed forces aligned with Turkey’s PKK into Sinjar after forces aligned with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government fled the area in advance of the 2014 ISIS invasion, but with ISIS now gone the KRG is trying to kick the rival PKK out of the area, sometimes violently. Baghdad is apparently happy to have the PKK in Sinjar because it provides some counter to the KRG and to Turkey’s presence in northern Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was in Washington on Monday, where he said he got enthusiastic support from Trump for combating ISIS via both military and economic means, and where Trump, hilariously, unveiled yet another in his apparently infinite number of contradictory opinions about the Iraq War.

SYRIA

Syrian state media has reported for two days now that Syrian government and allied forces have rebuffed a Tahrir al-Sham/Faylaq al-Rahman (FSA) assault on Damascus, so that’s why it’s kind of surprising that the rebels are still assaulting Damascus. Not that I’m suggesting anything about Syrian state media, I’m sure they’re all committed to accurate reporting. But the thing is, while the rebels almost certainly can’t actually threaten Damascus, and they probably can’t even achieve their immediate aim of defending the remaining rebel enclaves in the Damascus suburbs, what they’re doing is sending a message. By attacking the city and hanging in there, they’re demonstrating that Bashar al-Assad’s position isn’t nearly as strong as he’d like you to believe. Which isn’t surprising; Assad was losing the war before Russia intervened, and his underlying problem–a lack of military manpower–hasn’t gone away so much as it’s been heavily papered over.

This Damascus operation is also going to do nothing but raise Tahrir al-Sham’s (AKA al-Qaeda’s) profile among the rebel factions, which is good for them but probably not good for anybody else. Now they’ve undertaken a new offensive, this one involving a couple of suicide bombings targeting Syrian government positions just outside of the city of Hama. With peace talks scheduled for Geneva starting Thursday, this is a double-edged sword for the rebels, who find themselves overall in better shape on the ground, but more dependent than ever on the one rebel faction that nearly everybody agrees is worse than Assad.

On Monday, the YPG announced that it had reached an agreement with Russia such that Russia would be able to build a new base in northwestern Syria (also called Afrin) in return for Russian training for YPG fighters. Moscow quickly quashed this talk and said that it was actually opening a “reconciliation center” in Afrin. Either way, the presence of Russian soldiers maybe training the YPG in Afrin is going to make Turkey mad while also possibly preventing its cross-border attacks on the YPG there. The YPG apparently has big plans, with a spokesman telling Reuters that it wants to grow from its current ~60,000 man army to something north of 100,000 (it’s not clear how it plans to achieve this increase, but it may start paying its soldiers more money and it’s also been accused of forced conscription). At the same time, Turkey reportedly brought together a group of some 50 Syrian Arab tribes in Şanlıurfa last week to discuss forming an all-Arab army (under Turkish auspices, of course) that would somehow materialize to take on the Raqqa operation and defeat the YPG in northeastern Syria. Turkey has been trying to form something like this for more than a year, at least, to no effect.

TURKEY

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