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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Conflict update: March 17 2017

SYRIA

First the new story: that Israeli missile alert that sounded in the Jordan valley yesterday evening wasn’t caused by any rockets coming from Gaza. Instead, it was caused by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles, fired at a squadron of Israeli planes that were returning from a bombing run in Syrian airspace. The Israeli planes reportedly struck a convoy of weapons intended for Hezbollah. None of the Syrian missiles hit the Israeli planes, but at least one was apparently intercepted by an Israeli Arrow missile defense, uh, missile (there has to be a better way to describe that).

The big story remains the bombing of a mosque in the Syrian town of al-Jinah during evening prayers yesterday. The Pentagon has acknowledged that this was an American airstrike, but insists that it did not strike the mosque, but a nearby building where a high-level al-Qaeda meeting was being held. That’s their story, but it doesn’t seem to be holding up very well:

According to the US military, it launched strikes on a large building just 50 feet from a small mosque in the village of al-Jinah. Al-Qaeda regularly used this building to hold high-level meetings, the Pentagon said. And after watching the site for some time, the US military bombed the building around 7 p.m. local time Thursday, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Friday. The strikes included a 500-pound bomb and at least six AGM-114 Hellfire missiles fired from drones, a US defense official told BuzzFeed News.

The US military said it purposely avoided the small mosque. But some on the ground suggested the building hit was a new, larger mosque, where as many as 300 worshippers had gathered for evening prayer. Local residents put the death toll as high as 62 and said others could be buried alive in the wreckage. Some videos that appeared online showed rescue workers pulling children out of the rubble.

“We are still assessing the results of the strike, but believe that dozens of core al Qaeda terrorists were killed,” Davis said in a statement afterwards.

Davis said the military was “not aware of any credible allegation” of civilian casualties despite the emerging accounts from Syrian watch groups. But US officials said they were still investigating the allegations. The US military also has yet to determine how many were killed and whether any were high-value al-Qaeda operatives.

“Not aware of any credible allegation”? Really?

The Pentagon released this photo that it says proves it didn’t strike a mosque:

It says the mosque, which it identifies as the small building on the left, is clearly intact, which, fair enough. But here’s the thing: locals are saying that was the old mosque. The new mosque was the two-building compound on the right, one building of which has been blown to smithereens in that photo. How can you be sure the locals aren’t lying? Well, you can’t, but one point in their favor is that the Pentagon itself says, according to one of its drones, nobody came out of the small building for at least 30 minutes after the strike. If the small building were still the mosque, full of people at evening prayer, you would think maybe one or two of them might have come outside to see what happened after the building next door was fucking blown up. But maybe that’s just me.

In other Syria news, YPG commander Sipan Hemo told Reuters that the Raqqa operation will begin next month. Say, remember when Donald Trump got real Mad on account of people announced the Mosul offensive before it began? His face got even oranger and he blubbered something about the element of surprise, like we’re fighting the Napoleonic Wars or some shit. I wonder if he’ll be mad about this.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: March 11-12 2017

TURKEY

So let’s start with the good news: Turkey and the Netherlands haven’t declared war on each other. Yet. As far as I know. But the good news pretty much ends there. On Saturday, Dutch authorities took the fairly provocative step–look, I give Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a lot of shit around here, but I don’t think you can fairly describe what happened here as routine diplomacy–of actually preventing a plane carrying Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu from landing in Rotterdam as planned, and then detained Turkey’s family affairs minister, Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, to prevent her from addressing the same referendum campaign rally that Çavuşoğlu was supposed to attend. Kaya was eventually deported to Germany.

I get that anti-immigrant fervor is high in the Netherlands right now and that the country is about to have an election this week that will turn largely on that issue. I also get why the government of any European country would be uneasy about hosting Turkish political rallies in general, but particularly in favor of a referendum whose purpose is basically to strip Turkish democracy for spare parts. But you don’t get to deny landing rights to a plane carrying a diplomat from an ostensible ally, and you certainly don’t get to just go around detaining and deporting government ministers from ostensible allies when they haven’t actually done anything illegal. The mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, said that Kaya and the Turkish consulate had lied to him about the purpose of her visit, but that still doesn’t excuse the treatment it seems she received.

Ankara did its usual thing, with Erdoğan calling the Dutch government “Nazis” and threatening unspecified retribution, like the Janissaries are going to be riding through downtown Amsterdam by the end of the week or something. Whatever Ankara does to punish the Netherlands won’t be much because it can’t be much. The biggest club in Erdoğan’s bag with respect to Europe is turning Syrian refugees loose in the Balkans, and that won’t affect the Netherlands very much, if at all. Some, including Çavuşoğlu, have mentioned possible sanctions, but that’s an arms race Turkey may not be able to win–if they push too far, there’s a small but not that small chance that the European Union could reexamine Turkey’s EU accession agreements in ways that would substantially hurt Turkish nationals living in other European countries. The Turkish government has called on “international organizations” to sanction Amsterdam for its actions, but that seems unlikely. The only blowback so far has been against Turkey–the government of Denmark announced that a visit scheduled for next weekend by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım will now be postponed.

SYRIA

On Saturday, two suicide attacks struck the Bab al-Saghir area of Damascus, killing somewhere between 40 (the government estimate) and 74 (according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights) people. Bab al-Saghir (“the small gate”) is, as its name suggests, one of the seven gates in the wall of Damascus’s “old city,” and the area is home to a cemetery that includes shrines to a number of prominent figures in Shiʿism (children of imams, that sort of thing). That was, presumably, the target. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (“Committee for the Liberation of Syria”), the alliance of extremist groups led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, claimed credit for the bombing and said it was intended to send a message to Tehran about its involvement in Syria.

Bashar al-Assad did an interview with Chinese TV this weekend in which he gushed about the close ties between Damascus and Beijing and dangled the huge carrot of a big Chinese role in rebuilding Syria after the war is over. The interview comes just after China joined Russia in vetoing a UN Security Council measure that would have sanctioned Assad’s government for its probable use of chemical weapons during the civil war, and when China appears to be getting more involved in the war on Assad’s side, partly because Assad has always had decent relations with Beijing but also because the Chinese government is concerned about Uyghurs who have left Xinjiang to fight with Syrian jihadi forces. In the same interview, Assad said he’s “hopeful” about the Trump administration but characterized new US forces being deployed to eastern Syria as an “invasion.”

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Conflict update: March 2-5 2017

GOVERNMENT OF THE MARKS

There’s long been this narrative on the right that America spends vast sums of money helping feed and clothe the poor around the world while our own people/military/deficit starve/wastes away/balloons. This is, of course, a giant pile of bullshit, maybe the most bullshit of all the bullshit stories the right has fed the American people in my lifetime. The ubiquity of this narrative, and the inability/unwillingness of politicians on the center-left to counter it, leads to nonsense like this:

A large majority of the public overestimates the share of the federal budget that is spent on foreign aid. Just 3 percent of Americans correctly state that 1 percent or less of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid, and nearly half (47 percent) believe that share is greater than 20 percent. On average, Americans say spending on foreign aid makes up 31 percent of the federal budget.

The Republicans who have invested heavily in selling this narrative to the American people, of course, know they’re shoveling bullshit. Or at least they did. The Republican Party that used to peddle lies to their marks has now been replaced by a Republican Party made up of the marks themselves, and we just elected one of them president. So this is unsurprising:

The White House budget director confirmed Saturday that the Trump administration will propose “fairly dramatic reductions” in the U.S. foreign aid budget later this month.

Reuters and other news outlets reported earlier this week that the administration plans to propose to Congress cuts in the budgets for the U.S. State Department and Agency for International Development by about one third.

“We are going to propose to reduce foreign aid and we are going to propose to spend that money here,” White House Office of Management Budget director Mick Mulvaney told Fox News on Saturday, adding the proposed cuts would include “fairly dramatic reductions in foreign aid.”

Mulvaney said the cuts in foreign aid would help the administration fund a proposed $54 billion expansion of the U.S. military budget.

“The overriding message is fairly straightforward: less money spent overseas means more money spent here,” said Mulvaney, a former South Carolina Representative.

That’s nice. Except we’re not spending that money “here.” We’re “drastically” cutting the pittance we already spend on trying to make life a little less shitty in poorer countries and repurposing the “savings” toward the shit we use to fucking bomb those same countries because that’s how America gets its kicks. The fact that cuts in foreign aid will probably make America less secure, thus requiring more military spending, is a feature, not a bug.

Trump’s budget is likely DOA in Congress, thankfully. But as a window into how these people view the world it’s…well, I was going to say “troubling,” but that would suggest that it’s not entirely in keeping with everything else about Donald Trump.

Anyway, that was the big Trump news this weekend, I’m sure there wasn’t anything else.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: February 27 2017

FOREVER WAR

President Trump would like to increase the Pentagon’s budget by $54 billion next year, an amount that, if you’re keeping score at home, is all by itself equal to roughly 4/5 of Russia’s entire military budget. This would boost America’s capacity to shovel huge piles of money at defense contractors fight MOAR WARS, and pay for it by cutting pretty much everything else, including the stuff we do to try to avoid fighting wars.

EARTH

The Great Barrier Reef is still dying, so consider this your semi-regular reminder that none of the rest of this will matter if we don’t figure out a way to stop rendering our planet uninhabitable.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces secured the western end of the southernmost bridge connecting the two halves of the city across the Tigris River on Monday. They’re now pushing into the heart of ISIS-controlled western Mosul, where they’re increasingly running into challenges related to the estimated 750,000 civilians still there. Thousands of civilians have tried to leave the city amid the fighting, but at this point they’re an impediment for the Iraqi military whether they stay or go. Securing the bridge will, once it’s been repaired, in theory allow the Iraqis to resupply their front line forces more directly via eastern Mosul.

There continues to be mostly confusion surrounding the eventual fate of Tal Afar. Pronouncements coming out of the Popular Mobilization Units suggest that the PMU are preparing to take the city, but the Ninewah provincial government says that Iraqi regulars will be the ones to handle that phase of the operation. Baghdad originally floated the idea that the PMU would take Tal Afar but backed down when that plan raised Turkish ire. At this point it seems clear that Baghdad would prefer to have its professional military liberate Tal Afar, but it can’t spare any manpower from Mosul to do the job. The PMU are sitting out in the western desert surrounding Tal Afar and could probably liberate the city, but Turkey would undoubtedly respond negatively to that scenario (and, to be fair, there are concerns over how the PMU will treat Sunni Turkmen in Tal Afar who may have collaborated with ISIS back in 2014).

SYRIA

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Conflict update: February 22 2017

TRUMPLAND

Yesterday Reuters reported that a week before Mike Pence spoke at the Munich Security Conference and assured all those in attendance that Donald Trump is totally in to Europe and, like, when he keeps giving Europeans swirlies in the White House bathroom that’s just because he doesn’t want them to know that he like-likes them, Steve Bannon met with the German ambassador to the US and told him that, actually, Trump (i.e., Bannon) really, genuinely hates the European Union. Which, I mean, of course he does. Mike Pence and James Mattis and Rex Tillerson can make as many apology trips to Europe as they want, but Trump/Bannon see the EU as the enemy of the right-wing white nationalist xenophobia that is their core ideology. Former Obama Deputy National Security Advisor Colin Kahl offered his take on Twitter last night:

WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE, PART ??? of ???

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization issued a report today that says, among other things, that “planetary boundaries may well be surpassed, if current trends continue,” or, in other words, if the human population keeps growing at its current rate and we don’t figure out how to live more sustainably, humanity will no longer be able to feed itself by the middle of the century. In some ways we already can’t feed ourselves, as the UN also made clear today when it announced that it needs $4.4 billion by the end of March in order to stave off mass starvation in parts of Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen. But those are man-made shortages caused by war. What the FAO is saying is that we may be pushing the planet’s capacity to feed us to its natural limit.

On the plus side, if humanity lasts long enough to master interstellar travel, maybe our descendants will have the chance to thoroughly trash a few of these planets the way we got to trash Earth. Fingers crossed!

YEMEN

yemeni_civil_war

Yemen as of February 12: red = government, green = rebel, white = al-Qaeda (Wikimedia | Ali Zifan)

I missed this over the weekend (shame on me), but Huffington Post’s Jessica Schulberg and Ryan Grim reported on a possible policy change within the Trump administration that may have contributed to the Saudi-Hadi coalition’s recent moves against Yemen’s Red Sea ports of Mokha and Hudaydah. The Obama administration, to the extent that it had any willingness or ability to shape the Saudi mission in Yemen, kept insisting that their forces should leave the country’s Red Sea ports (particularly Hudaydah) alone, since they were the main conduit by which humanitarian aid was being brought into the country. But aid is now being diverted to Aden, on the Gulf of Aden, instead, and Hudaydah looks like it’s going to be the coalition’s next major target. Aden is a smaller port than Hudaydah and doesn’t allow easy access to the parts of Yemen where starvation is an imminent threat (the parts regularly being bombed by the Saudis, coincidentally), so if it has to become the new main port for humanitarian aid, a lot of people are going to suffer the consequences.

Schulberg and Grim don’t prove that the Trump administration has given the Saudis the green light to go after Hudaydah, but the fact that the Saudis suddenly started attacking Yemen’s Red Sea ports after Trump took office is conspicuous. Also conspicuous is the role that UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba, whose nation is part of the Saudi-led coalition, is playing with respect to the Trump administration. He’s described as a “mentor” to Trump’s son in-law, Jared Kushner, who parlayed his father in-law’s election experience running a minor right-wing newspaper into a gig as what’s been referred to as the “shadow Secretary of State” in the Trump White House.

There’s an argument to be made that giving the Saudis the OK to attack Hudaydah is actually the merciful thing to do because it could bring the war to a quicker end. But while it might well bring the war to a quicker end, the consensus of the humanitarian types who were interviewed by Schulberg and Grim seems to be that it’s not worth the tradeoff in lost aid. The war might end faster, but the amount of starvation caused by the loss of Hudaydah could be so immediate and so acute that even more people will die as a result.

SYRIA

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