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 (i.e., Syria) update: April 6 2017

SYRIA

Welp. I wrote a fair amount of stuff about the Khan Shaykhun incident this afternoon, some of which I’m going to leave in below even though it might not make complete sense anymore after this evening’s developments (I’ve tried to rewrite it but if anything seems incongruous then understand that it’s because I originally wrote it earlier in the day). If you’ve been in a sensory deprivation tank all evening, here’s what happened:

The United States carried out a missile attack in Syria on Thursday night in response to the Syrian government’s chemical weapons attack this week that killed more than 80 civilians, American officials said.

Dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired at an air base in Syria, military officials said. They said the strike occurred at about 8:45 p.m. Eastern Time, that the target was the Shayrat airfield and that the strike had hit planes, fuel, spare parts and the runway.

According to one military official, 50 Tomahawks were launched from two Navy warships.

The actual missile count is unknown, at least one account I’ve seen puts the number around 70. MSNBC is saying 59. Marked in the map below is the town of Shayrat (via Google Maps), just east of the air base:

shayrat

Shayrat is a fairly, though not critically, important air base for Bashar al-Assad, and it’s the one from which the airstrikes on Tuesday were launched. It’s also been used by Iranian/Iranian-aligned forces in the area, so that’s another potential wrinkle here. It’s too early for a damage assessment, but disabling this base will impact the Syrian air force’s ability to make strikes in the Homs/Hama area, though it will not be a massive hindrance to Assad’s air campaign against rebels/civilians/whomever. Really, depending on what the damage assessment says, this strike may really not have been much of anything.

If this is where it ends, then it’s a fairly contained response to Tuesday’s incident (the administration was reportedly considering much more substantial options). There haven’t even been any reports of casualties that I’ve seen, which if it holds up would be fairly remarkable though there are certainly a lot of targets on an air base that wouldn’t normally have many or any people nearby. The problem is that we have no idea if this is where it will actually end. Rex Tillerson spent much of the day talking about forming a coalition to remove Assad from power, which is obviously a much different mission. It’s quite possible that there were Russian personnel at Shayrat–US officials say they warned Russia before the attack, but who knows how much lead time they were given or if they were able to get their people (assuming they had people there) off the base before it was hit. If there are Russian casualties here then that’s a very different situation as well (if there aren’t, then Russia probably has very little recourse to respond to this).

Here’s something else to consider: a week ago Donald Trump and his administration were essentially saying that Assad wasn’t their problem, they didn’t like him but they could live with him, etc. Now we may be leading a new charge to oust him, all because of one airstrike that was horrifying but, let’s be honest, no more horrifying than most anything else that’s gone on in the Syrian civil war and not as deadly as the strike we made in Mosul on March 17. It’s very possible that Donald Trump completely flipped his Syria policy a full 180 degrees because he watched some disturbing video on television. Whatever you believe the merits of this strike to be, it has to be worrying that we’re now led by a man whose policies are subject to wildly inconsistent swings based on his immediate emotional response to events. What happens if Trump wakes up tomorrow and doesn’t feel like he got justice? What happens if Assad now says “hey, fuck you pal,” and launches another chemical strike? What happens if Trump’s newfound passion for Syrian babies, the same ones he’s tried twice to ban from coming to the United States, now begins to extend to all the ones being killed by Assad’s–and Russia’s–conventional weapons? Or the ones who are being starved to death–by Assad, by the rebels, and by ISIS? What happens if Assad threatens an American aircraft conducting an anti-ISIS operation? Some of these scenarios are admittedly unlikely, but in general can you be sure that a president this mercurial will be satisfied with this one strike?

Something that should additionally be concerning is that there is very little about the last half-century in American foreign policy that should reassure anybody that this country is capable of carrying out a single action, in a place in which we are already heavily engaged, without further escalating and expanding our activities. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya should all be cautionary tales right now.

It’s possible, of course, that this strike was negotiated in advance in some backroom between Washington and Moscow, a way to make Trump look good without doing much damage to Syrian and/or Russian interests. You may see speculation to that effect on your TV or social media this evening, tomorrow, or beyond (I have, anyway). Remember that this kind of talk is speculation.

Earlier this evening the UN Security Council debated a resolution over Tuesday’s incident, but a vote was cancelled after “heated” debate between the US and Russian delegations. During the debate the Russians reportedly “warned” the US against military action. The vote cancellation may have been the final straw in the Trump administration’s determination to act unilaterally tonight.

Finally, there are already questions about the legality of these strikes. Lawfare’s John Bellinger has an early look at this issue. There’s no UN resolution to give this attack the cover of international law and there’s been no Congressional authorization to use force against the Syrian government, so it seems like the Trump administration will be relying on some elastic interpretations of the president’s war powers and international law. Expect to hear the term “vital national security interest” a lot.

OK, below is the stuff I wrote earlier today along with the rest of today’s roundup. Feel free to read or not. That’s always true, of course, but I realize particularly tonight that everything else has kind of been washed out.

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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 18-19 2017

BOILING IT DOWN

c4jt321

If you’re one of those folks who are convinced that climate change is a Chinese hoax or whatever, I’ve got great news: it snowed in the US last week. Problem solved, am I right? Anyway, for the rest of us, things are not so hot. Or, rather, they’re extremely hot, and that’s the problem:

February 2017 was the planet’s second warmest February since record keeping began in 1880, said NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) on Friday; NASA also rated February 2017 as the second warmest February on record. The only warmer February was just last year, in 2016. Remarkably, February 2017 ranked as the fourth warmest month (expressed as the departure of temperature from average) of any month in the global historical record in the NASA database, and was the seventh warmest month in NOAA’s database—despite coming just one month after the end of a 5-month long La Niña event, which acted to cool the globe slightly. The extreme warmth of January 2017 (tenth warmest month of any month in NASA’s database) and February 2017 (fourth warmest) gives 2017 a shot at becoming Earth’s fourth consecutive warmest year on record, if a moderate or stronger El Niño event were to develop by summer, as some models are predicting.

Arctic sea ice extent during February 2017 was the lowest in the 39-year satellite record, beating the record set in February 2016, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). The record low ice extent was due, in large part, to very warm air temperatures in the Arctic—temperatures at the 925 mb level (approximately 2,500 feet above sea level) were 2 – 5 degrees Celsius (4 – 9 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over the Arctic Ocean during February.

Sea ice has been exceptionally scant on the other end of the globe. Antarctic sea ice extent dropped below the lowest values recorded in any month in the satellite record by mid-February. They continued to sag until reaching a new record-low extent in early March.

NOAA also said a few days ago that this December-January-February period was the second hottest on record. But really, how about that snowstorm?

FRANCE

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