Conflict update: April 27 2017

SYRIA

The cause of the explosion that happened at Damascus International Airport this morning has (more or less) been revealed:

An Israeli minister has appeared to confirm that Israel struck a Hezbollah arms supply hub in Syria on Thursday close to the airport in Damascus where weapons from Tehran are regularly sent by commercial and military cargo planes.

Israel’s intelligence minister, Yisrael Katz, strongly suggested that Israel – which has launched a number of raids against Hezbollah in Syria but usually stops short of claiming them – was behind the military action.

“I can confirm that the incident in Syria completely conforms to Israel’s policy, [which is] to act so as to prevent the smuggling of advanced weapons from Syriato Hezbollah in Lebanon by Iran,” he told Army Radio.

“When we receive intelligence that points to the intention to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah, we will act. This incident conforms completely to that policy.”

The Israeli strike doesn’t seem to have caused any casualties–at least, none have been reported as far as I have seen. In response, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accused Israel of “aiding terrorists” or something, as you’ll do, and his military may have launched some kind of drone in Israel’s direction–at any rate, an Israeli Patriot missile battery shot something down later in the day. I assume Assad would prefer the Israelis get with the program and start helping him bomb Syrian hospitals–you know, something constructive.

Meanwhile, at the UN Security Council, US Ambassador Nikki Haley called for members to “pressure” Russia to make Assad bring the civil war to an end, and accused Moscow of “allow[ing the Syrian government] to keep humanitarian aid from the people that need it.” She’s not wrong, and it’s trite to point out when the US government is being flagrantly hypocritical, but call me when somebody from the Trump administration gives the “keeping humanitarian aid from the people that need it” talk to Saudi Arabia over Yemen. Then I’ll know they’re actually serious about humanitarian aid and the people who need it, and aren’t just trying to score points.

IRAQ

Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units, having withdrawn from the Tal Afar area to move west and close off ISIS escape routes into Syria, are positively sweeping through the border area. They’ve reportedly captured at least a dozen villages near the border, including Hatra, and are continuing their work. Part of the reason they’re able to move so quickly is that this operation is a bit like closing the barn door after the horses have already escaped and gotten three states away–ISIS fighters who are in Mosul now are there by choice and would have a difficult time getting out even if they made the attempt, and ISIS isn’t in much of a position to send help from Syria into Iraq. Still, this is at least something for the PMUs to do, since Baghdad (and Turkey too) won’t let them enter Mosul or Tal Afar.

Concerns that the screening process for people (adult men, in particular) leaving Mosul is sweeping up innocent civilians amid the search for ISIS fighters are well-founded but might be a bit overblown. As Patrick Wing points out, Human Rights Watch says that about 1200 people have been arrested at the Hamam al-Alil checkpoint, which is only 0.4% (Wing’s math is wrong) of the estimated 300,000 people who have gone through that checkpoint. That’s a pretty small number, and its gets smaller when you consider that only 700 of the 1200 have then been sent on to trial.

Freelance journalist Sam Kimball writes for Foreign Policy about the impact of American airstrikes on the people of Mosul and, go figure, it’s not a very pretty pictureContinue 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 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 8-9 2017

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

EGYPT

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

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

SYRIA

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

Conflict (i.e., Syria) update: April 7 2017

Most of this post, for reasons that I assume are clear, is going to deal with the ongoing fallout from last night’s/this morning’s US missile strike on Syria’s Shayrat air base. I’ll have a handful of updates from other parts of the world tacked on at the end. There’s a lot to cover so I’ll try to take it in chunks.

WHAT DID THE STRIKE ACCOMPLISH?

It seems contradictory to say that this strike was both a potentially dangerous escalation and relatively insignificant–I’ve been giving myself cognitive dissonance all day trying to keep both of these thoughts in my head. But it’s true once you separate strategy from tactics. Strategically, this is a clear 180 shift in the administration’s Syria policy from where we were literally at the start of this week–with regime change openly being discounted as an American aim–to where we are now–with “Assad Must Go” practically being spray painted on a billboard outside the White House. It’s a big deal, and if there’s more to come then it will be an even bigger deal.

Tactically though, this strike accomplished…what, exactly? One-off airstrikes don’t achieve much as a rule, and in fact they can have the effect of extending and intensifying conflicts like the Syrian civil war. Russian and Syrian TV footage purporting to show the damage caused at Shayrat by this particular strike shows…not much damage, to be honest. Obviously these sources would have a clear interest in downplaying the results of the strike, but I think the fact that Assad’s air force was able to use the base less than one full day after the strike shows how little damage must have been done. And even if the Shayrat air base had been completely wiped out, somehow rendered irreparable, it would have made Assad’s air campaign a bit more difficult, but not much more than that. It’s been hard to get a clear casualty figure–Syrian media says 16 were killed, most of them civilians in the villages surrounding the base, but it might be wise to wait for some confirmation before accepting Syrian state media’s figures in this case.

From a tangible perspective then, if this is it it’s not much. So what about the intangible? Did Donald Trump “make his point” and “send a message” to Assad about the use of chemical weapons? Maybe. I guess we won’t know unless and until Assad tries to use sarin again, right? Let’s assume he did though; so what? International norms on chemical weapons are important, sure, but the “message” Assad is likely to receive is “go back to killing people with conventional weapons,” which, the numbers don’t lie, he’s been doing with frightening aplomb (he’s already resumed bombing Khan Shaykhun, in case you were wondering). And to be honest, this strike was so limited that there’s a possibility Assad says “this is it? seriously?” and figures he’ll be able to get away with using sarin again at some point.

IS THIS IT?

What happens now? Is the United States now in the Syria regime change business? Rex Tillerson pretty much said no. Nikki Haley says maybe. Donald Trump says…check with me after tomorrow morning’s “Fox & Friends,” probably. The fact that nobody, including people within the administration, seems to know is…well, I’ll get to that, but it’s not good. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that this is supposed to be it, which seems right now to be the case. Is that even possible? Even if the Trump administration wants to go back to the way things were five days ago, when America’s only consideration in Syria was the fight against ISIS, can it? Doesn’t the US now, as Robert Hunter puts it, “own Syria,” or at least a part of it? Having just bombed one of Assad’s bases in part to chase that “American credibility” hit every administration craves, is Trump going to sit back now while Assad, with Russian and Iranian support, resumes winning the war? The prospect is not a cheery one.

On the other hand, if the administration has no plan to follow this strike up with…something (not necessarily military), then what was the point? Natsec types are thrilled that we made some missiles blow up, but these are people who still, despite evidence to the contrary, believe that public displays of America’s massive, throbbing…military might are good in and of themselves, no further accomplishment needed. They should all be thoroughly discredited by now, but this is America, so of course they’re not.

“What happens now” also applies to, and will be dictated by, what Russia does next. I don’t mean in terms of the broader US-Russia relationship, or the dreams of a grand US-Russia reset, which were already falling apart before this strike. I’m talking about how Russia is going to respond in Syria. They don’t have cause to respond that harshly–Washington warned Moscow in time to get its people off the base (so much for Trump’s patented surprise attack, I guess), so they suffered no direct losses. Nor do the Russians have much moral ground on which to stand here, considering it was under Russian auspices that Assad insisted he’d destroyed all his chemical weapons as of 2015, and meanwhile there were Russians working at the fucking air base from which Tuesday’s sarin strike was launched. And, look, there’s no chance Russia is going to start a war with the United States over Shayrat air base in Syria. The arguments against American intervention against Assad never assumed that Russia would start World War III over Bashar al-Assad. Rather, they reflected concerns that when you put great powers in close proximity working at cross purposes, historically shit happens and things can spiral out of control.

But there are things Russia can do in Syria to make life harder on the United States that don’t approach going to war. In fact, they already did one today, shutting down the back channel that US and Russian forces were using to keep their aircraft from getting too close or making moves that could be perceived as threatening. This is not good. By itself this could be enough to seriously curtail America’s ability to conduct airstrikes against ISIS in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces operation to (eventually) take Raqqa. On the other hand, that’s all Russia has done. There have been some angry Russian statements and denouncements at the UN, but that’s perfunctory. We’ll obviously see if there’s any more to come, but for now that’s a pretty muted response, and you may even see the deconfliction channel reopened after a couple of days.

THE “WHY” DOESN’T MATTER

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Conflict update: April 4 2017

SYRIA

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 58 people (one estimate puts the toll over 100) were killed today in what certainly seems to have been a chemical weapons attack on the town of the town of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib province. Doctors treating the victims described people suffocating, vomiting, foaming at the mouth–all symptoms consistent with some kind of chemical agent. The strikes also reportedly targeted the town’s Syrian Civil Defense office, and, later on, a clinic where some of the victims of the initial attack had been taken for treatment.

khan shaykhun

Khan Shaykhun (Google Maps)

There’s been an immediate consensus among Western governments and media outlets that the Syrian government deliberately used chemical weapons again, and the UN Security Council is scheduled to meet tomorrow to discuss the incident. And that’s most likely what happened. But some pro-government media outlets have been reporting that what actually happened was that government airstrikes hit a rebel weapons depot that contained chemical weapons, and that the explosions distributed the gas into the air and thus on to the victims. In the interest of being completely fair, this scenario is not entirely outside the realm of possibility–al-Qaeda, at least, probably does have some chemical weapons taken from government caches, including sarin (which, based especially on the “foaming at the mouth” description, seems like it may have been the gas in question here), and al-Qaeda–or whatever it’s calling itself this week–is active in Idlib and, as far as I know, specifically in the area around Khan Shaykhun. But if you were going to presume a cause here, then intentional government use is certainly the more likely one.

President Trump is, unsurprisingly, blaming Barack Obama for this apparent CW attack, reasoning that Obama should have taken Assad out after the Ghouta chemical weapons attack in 2013. This is an…interesting link for Trump to push, because…wait for it:

Also too, the administration isn’t actually going to do anything about this attack, despite the pressure they’re getting from Congress, because there’s nothing for them to do. They can’t attack Assad because he’s under Russian protection. They can’t start sending heavy weapons to the Free Syrian Army without seriously risking those weapons becoming al-Qaeda property. They can’t ram a sternly worded resolution through the UN Security Council, because Russia will veto it. They probably can’t even order Assad to destroy all his chemical weapons but for reals this time, because Assad’s probably not going to admit to having any chemical weapons anymore despite this new evidence to the contrary. One small thing Trump could do is to stop periodically kissing Assad’s ass in public, but he’s likely too undisciplined/addled to even manage that.

Elsewhere, Reuters reported today on the risks people are taking to try to escape Raqqa before the expected US-coordinated assault comes. ISIS is trying to keep people in the city to act as human shields, so escaping is a dicey proposition.

RUSSIA

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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?

original

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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