Conflict update: March 23 2017

UNITED KINGDOM

The man who killed four people yesterday, when he plowed into dozens of people on London’s Westminster Bridge before stabbing a police officer and attempting to get into parliament, has been identified as 52 year old British citizen Khalid Masood. He was apparently known to British security services, who interviewed him several years ago in connection with a “violent extremism” investigation, but was not on anybody’s radar in recent years for reasons that British authorities are going to have to investigate. He’d also apparently spent time in jail in the past on, among other things, “assault” charges, and one wonders if any of those were of the domestic variety.

Masood was reportedly radicalized by ISIS, which has predictably claimed credit for his attack despite the fact that it almost certainly had nothing directly to do with it.

BELGIUM

A French citizen of North African descent was arrested today in Antwerp on suspicion that he was attempting to drive his car into a crowd of people. Ultra-low tech “weapons” like vehicles and knives have become the lone wolf weapon of choice in Europe, as yesterday’s Westminster attack illustrates, and this is roughly the one year anniversary of the Brussels Airport attack, so the timing is auspicious.

SURE, WHATEVER

The Trump administration’s Director of World War II Reenactments, Sebastian Gorka, had A Thought about the terror attack in London yesterday:

A Trump administration official seized on the Westminster terror attack to justify the president’s blocked travel ban, which targets refugees and immigrants from six Muslim-majority countries, despite confirmation that the attacker was neither an immigrant nor a refugee.

Sebastian Gorka, a national security aide to the president and a former editor for the far-right news site Breitbart, told Fox News’s conservative talk show host Sean Hannity on Wednesday evening that the attack in Westminster, that left three people and the attacker dead, “should be a surprise to nobody”.

“The war is real and that’s why executive orders like President Trump’s travel moratorium are so important,” Gorka said.

The word “like” is doing a hell of a lot of work in that last bit there, because the actual Trump travel ban, had it been implemented in the UK, would have done nothing at all to prevent Masood’s attack, since Masood was a UK citizen. Of course that doesn’t matter–Gorka is just capitalizing on a tragedy to drum up support for his boss’s next attempt to block Muslims from coming into the US. He’s not interested in facts or accuracy, or even really basic human decency.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: March 20-21 2017

Because there’s so much to cover tonight, you’re getting two updates. This one covers everything but the Greater Middle East, the other covers nothing but the Greater Middle East. Enjoy…?

COMING SOON TO A SECURITY THEATER NEAR YOU

Effective as of yesterday, people trying to fly into the US from airports in Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia will not be allowed to bring any electronic device larger than a mobile phone into the cabin with them. Because Reasons:

On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security released a statement on the new policy, stating the “2015 airliner downing in Egypt, the 2016 attempted airliner downing in Somalia, and the 2016 armed attacks against airports in Brussels and Istanbul” as examples of why increased security was needed.

“Evaluated intelligence indicates that terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation and are aggressively pursuing innovative methods to undertake their attacks, to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items. Based on this information, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly and Transportation Security Administrator Acting Administrator Huban Gowadia have determined it is necessary to enhance security procedures for passengers at certain last point of departure airports to the United States,” the statement said.

Of those four cited attacks (two of which didn’t even take place on airplanes) only the Somali incident would have been inhibited by this ban, and since investigators believe in the Somali case that a laptop-encased bomb was rigged to explode on a timer, it’s not clear what sticking that same laptop in the luggage compartment would have accomplished–and, in fact, putting a bunch of lithium-ion batteries in the luggage compartment could have disastrous consequences. It’s certainly no secret that electronic devices are a risk, that’s why you get your carry-ons screened at security. But if security at the ten airports cited in this order is lax, then doesn’t the same concern apply to checked luggage? And why has a measure like this become necessary now, when we’ve known that electronics were a risk for years and there have been exactly zero attacks against US-bound passenger flights originating at any of these airports?

I’ve actually seen it suggested that explosives are less a concern than the possibility of someone hacking into the plane’s flight controls, but if that were really a possibility then why would you allow any electronic devices on any plane originating at any airport?

Britain has now implemented a similar ban though from a smaller list of airports, and Canada is reportedly considering one as well, because security theater is remarkably appealing. Aside from making it just a little bit more unpleasant to fly to the US from the Middle East and North Africa, which may be the entire point, I’m not really sure what this accomplishes.

NO MESSAGE HERE

I’m sure this was all just an unfortunate coincidence:

An African trade summit organized by the University of Southern California ended up with zero Africans as they were all denied visas to enter the United States just days before the summit despite applying months ahead of time, in what organizers called an act of “discrimination against African nations.”

“Usually we get 40 percent that get rejected but the others come,” Mary Flowers, chair of the African Global Economic and Development Summit, told Voice of America in an interview Friday.

“This year it was 100 percent. Every delegation. And it was sad to see, because these people were so disheartened.”

If we’re going to adopt Deputy Leader Bannon’s philosophy that nobody from a majority non-white nation should be allowed to enter the United States, then let’s just say that officially. Get it on the record so people can know what they’re dealing with. Sure, the administration will lose in court, again, but they seem happy to keep trying new ways to achieve this goal even as the courts keep telling them “no.”

TILLERSON TRACKER

secretary_tillerson_greets_german_foreign_minister_gabriel_before_their_meeting_in_washington_283263186542629

See, Tillerson already met with this German dude that one time! What the hell more do you people want?

BREAKING BREAKING BREAKING IN UNPRECEDENTED INSULT, SECRETARY OF STATE MAY SNUB NATO SUMMIT TO MEET WITH CHINESE PRESIDE–you know what, folks? I’m not entirely sure about this one. Continue reading

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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Today in European History: the Russians capture Plevna (1877)

and that's the way it was

If you think the state of Russo-Turkish relations is bad these days…well, actually it’s kind of good lately. But historically that hasn’t always been the case. Consider that the Russian Empire, one of the precursors of modern Russia, and the Ottoman Empire, the precursor of modern Turkey, fought a whopping 12 wars against one another between the second half of the 16th century and World War I (which, of course, brought about the end of both empires). The Russians, who were on the ascendance for most of this period, won most of these wars, while the Ottomans, who were not so ascendant, needed help from Britain and France to win their biggest victory against the Russians, in the Crimean War.

By 1877, both empires were in pretty steep decline. What was on the rise was Balkan nationalism. All those Christian and/or European provinces and peoples that had been part…

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Today in European history: the Crusade of Nicopolis (1396)

and that's the way it was

In addition to The Crusades, all those big European military expeditions to the Middle East (and one time to Greece!) in the 11th-13th centuries, Christendom’s crusading fervor was also expressed in a number of smaller “crusades” that continued until the 15th century. Some of these smaller expeditions, like the “Alexandrian Crusade” of 1365, consisted of campaigns in the Middle East; others, like the Albigensian Crusade in the early 13th century and the Northern Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries, targeted Christian “heretics” or the remaining pagan populations in Europe (these, in contrast to Crusades directed against Muslims, tended to go pretty well for the Crusaders). The Crusade of Nicopolis (which is often called the “Battle of Nicopolis” since it only took the one battle for the Crusade to completely collapse), in 1396, targeted Muslims, but Muslims on European soil. It went about as well as most other Crusades against…

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Today in European History: the Russians capture Plevna (1877)

If you think the state of Russo-Turkish relations is bad these days…well, actually it’s kind of good lately. But historically that hasn’t always been the case. Consider that the Russian Empire, one of the precursors of modern Russia, and the Ottoman Empire, the precursor of modern Turkey, fought a whopping 12 wars against one another between the second half of the 16th century and World War I (which, of course, brought about the end of both empires). The Russians, who were on the ascendance for most of this period, won most of these wars, while the Ottomans, who were not so ascendant, needed help from Britain and France to win their biggest victory against the Russians, in the Crimean War.

By 1877, both empires were in pretty steep decline. What was on the rise was Balkan nationalism. All those Christian and/or European provinces and peoples that had been part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, and who were already more than fed up with the protected/second-class status of Christians living within the empire, started, in the early 19th century, to absorb some funny ideas about national identity and self-determination from the rest of Europe. Those ideas were reinforced when the 1821-1832 Greek War of Independence ended with, well, Greek independence. Serbians, Bulgarians, Albanians, Armenians, and many others figured, hey, if the Greeks could be independent, why can’t we? Many of these peoples were (are, really; they haven’t gone anywhere) Slavic, and Russia, always interested in challenging Austria-Hungary for influence in the Balkans and acutely interested in avenging its defeat in the Crimean War, was eager to help them win their freedom from the Turks.

Map - Balkans 1878-1912

The state of the Balkans, 1878-1912; you can see Plevna (Pleven) in central Bulgaria

The outbreak of two separate uprisings in the mid-1870s (in Herzegovina and Bulgaria) and one Ottoman war (with Serbia) provided Russia with the justification it needed to start its own war with the Ottomans. See, Sultan Abdülhamid II (d. 1918) just plain ran out of soldiers to fight each of these conflicts, and he was reduced to employing irregular militias in Bulgaria. Those militias committed a series of brutal atrocities, massacring somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 Bulgarians and generating outrage around the world. Meanwhile, when the war turned against Serbia, it appealed to the European powers for relief. Britain and France, already offended by events in Bulgaria, were further alienated from the Ottomans when Istanbul refused to abide by the terms they offered in order to settle the conflict with Serbia.

Russian Emperor Alexander II (d. 1881) saw his opening. Continue reading

Today in European history: the Battle of Varna (1444)

Of all the 15th century Ottoman battles in the Balkans (or Rumelia, as the Ottomans called their European possessions) prior to the conquest of Constantinople, the most important was probably the Battle of Varna in 1444, particularly if you pair its effects with those of the (second) Battle of Kosovo in 1448. Varna broke a major Hungarian-Polish alliance that had been formed to counter the Ottoman threat, so major in fact that it had been given the Crusader imprimatur (the “Crusade of Varna,” also known as “the Long Campaign”) by Pope Eugenius IV (d. 1447). The Ottoman victory here, combined with Kosovo, suppressed the Hungarian threat long enough to give the Ottomans time to focus on Constantinople, the big prize.

John Hunyadi’s campaigns, including Varna (I know, it’s in Hungarian, but you get the idea)

The Crusade of Varna, or the Long Campaign if you prefer, was a showcase for a military leader we’ve encountered already: Hungarian general John Hunyadi (d. 1456). Hungary and the Ottomans reached a peace treaty in the 1420s that left the rump Serbian state as a buffer between them, but in the 1430s the Ottomans, under Sultan Murad II (d. 1451), swallowed up Serbia as far north as Belgrade (which at the time was actually–briefly–Hungarian property), before they had to refocus their attention on fighting the Karamanids, their biggest Anatolian enemy.

The Hungarians underwent a succession crisis when Sigismund, who had been King of Hungary for 50 years, died in 1437, and his successor and son in-law, Albert (who was technically the first Habsburg ruler of Hungary, although the Habsburgs subsequently lost Hungary in 1457 and didn’t get it back until 1526), died in 1439 without an heir (his son, the future Ladislaus V–d. 1457–was born a few months after he died). Into this breach stepped Władysław III of Poland (d. 1444, FORESHADOWING), who, with the support of most of Hungary’s nobles and with John Hunyadi’s help, was crowned Vladislaus I of Hungary in 1440 (the infant Ladislaus V was crowned the same year and the throne was disputed until Varna, um, cleared things up). For his good work, Hunyadi was made commander of Hungarian forces in the south, and he and Vladislaus, along with Đurađ Branković, the Despot of Serbia (or whatever remained of it), resolved to take up Eugenius’s call for Crusade.

Murad initially had real problems responding to the Crusade. Continue reading