Conflict update: March 24 2017


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.


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?


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Conflict update: March 14 2017


According to Foreign Policy, nominal Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a letter recently to a group of nonprofits warning that the Trump administration is prepared to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council unless “considerable reform” is undertaken in that body. Tillerson’s letter highlighted the presence on the UNHRC of such human rights luminaries as Saudi Arabia and China (and, uh, the United States, while we’re at it), but that’s all smokescreen. By “reform,” what the Trump administration–and, indeed, much of the US foreign policy community–means is “lay off Israel.”

While I take a backseat to nobody in my loathing of Israel’s human rights record, which deserves all the criticism it gets, these folks do have a point about the UNHRC–or, rather, they have part of a point. Something like half of the resolutions issued by the UNHRC since it was formed in 2006, and nearly a third of its special sessions over that time, have had to do with Israel. As shitty as Israel’s human rights record is, that’s disproportionate. Of course, the Trump/Republican solution to this problem is, essentially, that the UNHRC should cease to exist, or at least be less active with regards to Israel. My solution would be for the UNHRC to be at least as active on Israel as it is now, but also be way more active when it comes to, well, everybody else (no government in the world actually cares about human rights, is the real problem here).

But while the Trump administration’s instinct is to withdraw from any international body that doesn’t toe the line, denying them that all-important TRUMP Brand stamp of approval or whatever, if their aim is to steer the UNHRC in a different direction then quitting is exactly the wrong way to do so. The Obama administration, being thoroughly a creature of the Washington foreign policy establishment despite its occasional tepid criticisms of that establishment, also objected to the HRC’s overemphasis on Israel, so it joined the council (the Bush administration refused to be part of it) and, lo and behold, was able to use America’s international heft to push the council to focus attention on Syria, Iran, and nonstate actors like ISIS. If the Trump administration follows through on its threat to withdraw from the council, then it will be giving up its ability to influence what the council does.

I’m torn in cases like this between my instinct, which is that the administration doesn’t think through the ramifications of these kinds of decisions and/or doesn’t really give a shit about them, and my skepticism, which tells me that they must surely realize what they’re doing and are acting purposefully to try to wreck as many international institutions as they can. Of course there’s no reason it couldn’t be both–no presidential administration is a monolith.


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Conflict update: February 20 2017

McMaster Gets the Gig


H. R. McMaster (Wikipedia)

Donald Trump has a new national security adviser, and it’s not a name that was on many candidate lists: Lt. General H. R. McMaster. I’ll confess that keeping track of general officers in the US military is not exactly a pastime of mine, so I don’t know much about McMaster. John McCain likes him, which is a bad sign, but he’s also written critically of the military’s failure to challenge the civilian policymakers who got us into Vietnam and of the Bush administration’s approach to the Iraq invasion, so that might be good. He’s very well-regarded in the “counter-insurgency” school within the military, which sometimes strikes me as a bit of a cult, but he does have considerable experience in CENTCOM and particularly in northern Iraq. That experience, at least per Thomas Ricks, seems to have been OK–in particular, the notion that “every time you disrespect an Iraqi, you’re working for the enemy” is something the military and its current commander in-chief would do well to internalize.

Most importantly, McMaster isn’t Michael Flynn and isn’t a conspiracy addled, war-mongering maniac like Michael Flynn. It’s not clear whether he’ll be stuck with Flynn’s collection of like-minded maniacs on the National Security Council. Robert Harward, you’ll recall, refused the job rather than accept that he wouldn’t have control over his own personnel (and thus, he probably surmised, he wouldn’t have much real influence over national security policy either). Maybe McMaster insisted on bringing in his own people and Trump gave in, or maybe, as an active duty officer, McMaster felt more obligated to take the job despite the constraints than the retired Harward did. But still, at least he’s not Flynn, or someone equally disturbing like John Bolto–I’m sorry, what was that?



The main combat operations today seemed to center on the southern part of Mosul, where Mosul airport is located. Iraqi forces have made the airport one of their immediate priorities, with the hope that, after some repairs, it will be usable for combat support missions for the rest of the offensive. The latest update from Reuters says that Iraqi forces have reached the “vicinity” of the airport, but I’m not sure what “vicinity” means.

Joel Wing has a rundown of the three initial prongs of the west Mosul operation: Continue reading

Conflict update: February 1 2017


If the Trump administration accomplishes nothing else in its (hopefully only) four years in office, provoking a war with Iran seems to be at the top of its bucket list. How else do you explain the National Security Advisor taking the podium at a White House press briefing and doing this:

“Recent Iranian actions, including a provocative ballistic missile launch and an attack against a Saudi naval vessel conducted by Iran-supported Houthi militants, underscore … Iran’s destabilizing behavior across the Middle East,” Trump’s national security adviser, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, told journalists at a White House press briefing Feb. 1.

Criticizing the Obama administration for failing “to respond adequately to Tehran’s malign actions,” Flynn said Iran was now feeling emboldened.

“As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice,” Flynn warned.

Iran’s ballistic missile tests are genuinely provocative, there’s no question about that. But Trump’s foreign policy team isn’t satisfied just complaining about Tehran’s missile tests. So they want to make Iran responsible for an attack by Yemeni rebels, whose involvement with Iran is marginal, on a Saudi naval vessel, at a time when the Saudis are bombing Yemen to rubble. There’s no evidence that the Houthi boat attack on Monday had anything to do with Iran, but the administration knows it can assert one without any serious chance of blowback. Trump officials insist that they aren’t conflating Yemen and the missile tests with the nuclear deal, which they say the administration is committed to upholding, but that’s a ruse. The plan, in all likelihood, is to recreate the same sanctions infrastructure that existed before the nuclear deal was reached, simply under non-nuclear pretenses. Maybe Iran will decide to walk away from the JCPOA at that point, which will give Trump a casus belli, but even if they don’t the punitive US sanctions will all be back in place.


The Syrian army appears to be trying to get into al-Bab before Turkey and its rebel proxies can take the city, which sets up the possibility that the Syrian and Turkish armies are going to start shooting at one another once they’re both done shooting at ISIS. It’s unlikely that the Syrians would go on the offensive against Turkey, but their aim is probably to swoop in and gain control of al-Bab before Turkey can, which would then put the Turks in the position of either abandoning their goal or attacking the Syrians.

Washington is once again trying to put together an Arab army capable of capturing Raqqa from ISIS. A 3000 man unit called the Syrian Elite Forces, commanded by Ahmad Jarba, seems to be at the core of this new attempt. Previous efforts at finding somebody, anybody, other than the YPG capable of undertaking this mission have fizzled out, and even though there is an Arab contingent within the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, it’s not enough on its own to take the city. The Trump administration has begun delivering armored vehicles to the SDF, which represents an escalation in American aid to the group.

Preparations are being made, rhetorically at least, for the next round of peace talks in Geneva on February 20. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said today that talks need to focus on a transitional government, but he was understandably non-committal about what role Bashar al-Assad would play in that transition, and there, as it has for nearly six years now, lies the rub. Diplomatically, the rebels are singling out Iran as their primary antagonist apart from Assad, undoubtedly thinking–as Ankara and now Washington are also apparently thinking–that with enough enticement/pressure, Russia could be made to distance itself from the Iranians, which would then leave Assad more vulnerable.


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Conflict update: January 13 2017 (UPDATED)

OK, so, it’s been a long day and I’m getting started on this very late, so no time to dilly dally. Of course, if I don’t finish this by midnight I’ll just post it and then keep adding stuff to it after midnight, per my usual routine.

Oh, you didn’t know I did that? I’m revealing trade secrets.


This was not a super day for refugee rights. First, I think on Wednesday I badly undersold the plight currently facing migrants who are trapped in the Balkans because no European country will take them in. These people are in a desperate situation:

Thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are enduring “appalling” conditions in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, and have been left camped in temperatures that have dropped well below freezing, aid groups have said.

Serbia is currently hosting an estimated 7,200 refugees, according to the UNHCR. Although the majority are being sheltered in government-run camps, aid workers estimate that around 2,000 are still on the streets or sheltering in an abandoned warehouse behind the main bus station in Belgrade.

The International Rescue Committee estimates “several hundred” of those trapped are children. One of those is 17-year-old Ajmal. The teenager has been living in Belgrade for a month after making the tough journey from Afghanistan.

“At the moment it is very difficult here, my life is very hard here,” Ajmal (not his real name) told BuzzFeed News over the phone from Serbia. “It is very cold, I have so many problems with different things: the food, the clothing, everything.”

Ajmal continued: “I sleep where I can. I am just homeless here. I don’t have a home or a tent to sleep here, it is very difficult. We are making fire every night but I can’t keep myself warm.”

The teenager attempted the border from Turkey three times. He’s desperate to move on, and to continue studying to be a doctor or an engineer to “help my country and all people.” Ajmal was forced to flee Afghanistan after his school near Kabul was targeted by insurgents. “I didn’t want to leave but I couldn’t learn,” he said. “If I go back, they will kill me.”

It is utterly appalling that Western society can allow this to happen and not even blink. We’re constantly told that American foreign policy has failed because we’re not bombing enough parts of the world at the moment, or not bombing them frequently enough. Bullshit. This is the failure.

Second, the EU is continuing to try, and fail, to cut a deal with the Libyan government (I’m using that term very loosely) to prevent more migrants from crossing the Mediterranean. This is because the EU would prefer that these people be stuck in Libya, a country in chaos, torn apart by a civil war that the EU helped cause, than that they sully the pristine shores of Europe with their gross refugee cooties. The irony here is that even if the EU could get a deal for the Libyan government to help it screw these migrants over, it wouldn’t mean anything because the government that the Europeans have helped to install in Libya doesn’t even control Tripoli, let alone the rest of the country.

Third, the Obama administration officially ended the “wet foot/dry foot” policy, which said that Cuban refugees trying to flee the island would be turned back if they were intercepted in the water but given asylum if they made it to American land. Now anybody attempting to get to the US from Cuba will be treated like anybody trying to get to the US from anywhere else–i.e., not well. Whatever you may think of America’s Cuba policy, which has been impossibly fucked up for decades and is only now starting to unfuck itself, this is a decision that makes it harder for Cuban refugees to find refuge.

Finally, in Myanmar–oh yes, you knew this was coming–4000 Myanmar civilians have been blocked by Chinese authorities from taking refuge in China after attempting to flee fighting between the government and separatist rebels in the northern state of Kachin. An estimated 23,000 people have been displaced in Kachin since fighting broke out a few weeks ago. Also, and here’s the part you knew was coming, representatives from Bangladesh and Myanmar have begun negotiations on how best to continue eradicating the Rohingya. Should the 65,000 Rohingya who have fled Myanmar in the past three months stay in ramshackle camps in Bangladesh, the country that doesn’t want them? Or should they be sent back to ramshackle villages in Myanmar, the country that’s actively trying to slaughter them? Choices, choices.


The biggest news here is something that is still developing, which is Russia’s decision to invite the United States–Donald Trump’s United States–to its January 23 Syrian peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. Moscow is refusing to confirm this, but it seems pretty clear that an invitation has been made, and the reason I note that it was made to Donald Trump’s America is because it wasn’t made through regular diplomatic channels: Continue reading

Conflict update: January 10 2017

The Ritz-Carlton Moscow

It’s possible I’ll be able to formulate some thoughts about this as soon as I’m done laughing about it, but for now let me just say one thing. While I have absolutely no problem believing that the Russian government has dirt, possibly serious dirt, on our president-elect, the story that Buzzfeed ran this evening (no link, this is a fucking family blog goddammit) is just too hysterical, and too unsubstantiated, to give much credence without a lot of supporting evidence. That said, I think the folks at Lawfare, who are not given to hair-on-fire conspiracies, have the right idea in that these allegations are not proven (and given that probably shouldn’t have been reported), but they are serious and should be taken seriously.


The UN says that more than 135,000 people have fled Mosul since the Iraqi offensive to retake the city began in October, and hundreds/thousands of others have had to be evacuated to hospitals because they’ve been wounded in the fighting. Still, Iraqi forces continue to make steady progress toward liberating the eastern side of the city.

On the downside, whatever deal the Turkish and Iraqi governments appeared to have been circling over the presence of Turkish troops in Bashiqa doesn’t seem to have taken, because there was Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi today, saying that Iraqi-Turkish relations can’t “move forward” until Turkey withdraws its soldiers from Iraqi territory, and Turkey still doesn’t seem inclined to take that step.


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Conflict update: January 6 2017


Here’s one terrifying side-effect of the Mosul campaign that, to be honest, I hadn’t really thought much about:

With the launch of the second phase of the Mosul operations Dec. 29, tens of bodies of killed Islamic State (IS) fighters were strewn across the streets in the neighborhoods of al-Salam, al-Intisar, al-Wihda, Palestine and al-Quds in eastern Mosul, as was the case in neighborhoods that were previously liberated.

Residents do not want to bury the bodies for fear of them carrying explosives or being infected with diseases, or for fear of being affiliated with the dead fighters.

The streets of the liberated areas are filled with bodies, some of which are now mere skeletons from dogs feeding off them. The bloated bodies of other fighters have been covered by residents with pieces of cloth. Dead animals that lost their lives in the fighting also lie in the streets.

The smell of death fills the air in eastern Mosul, forcing passers-by to cover their noses while running errands in the markets.

Sounds lovely, really.

At least the smell is hovering over an offensive that looks to be making significant progress again. For the first time in the operation, Iraqi forces today were able to enter the city from the north. That may not seem like much, but it’s a pretty big milestone. The northern front was one of three planned fronts in the east Mosul operation, but it, along with the southern front, had gone nowhere until today, leaving the eastern front to take the brunt of ISIS’s concentrated resistance. If things are moving again in the north, combined with a renewed push from the east and a new push from the southeast, then ISIS is going to be forced to defend on three fronts, and that bodes very well for the Iraqis in the rest of the east Mosul phase of the fighting. Iraqi counter-terrorism forces even felt confident enough to attempt a night raid last night, which seems to have gone well.

PBS Newshour did a major piece a couple of days ago on the disappearance of men and boys from refugee camps around Mosul. In an effort to ensure that no ISIS fighters are escaping by joining the displaced, Iraqi forces are picking up male refugees for investigation. This seems…almost reasonable, actually, except that there seems to be virtually no transparency to the process, to the families of these people are forced to surmise what’s happened and hope that they get to see their loved ones again. And with the number of people fleeing Mosul, the Iraqi justice system is taking weeks to investigate each case, and with the lack of transparency about detainees’ whereabouts comes a similar lack of transparency about the investigative process. Nobody knows what kind of evidence is being considered and who is considering it. There are many men and boys who remained in Mosul without signing on to fight for ISIS, and many others who were forced to join ISIS and who may have done little or nothing to tangibly contribute to the group’s war effort, so it’s fundamentally important, not to mention just, that they all get a fair hearing and due process.


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