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Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units, having withdrawn from the Tal Afar area to move west and close off ISIS escape routes into Syria, are positively sweeping through the border area.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

Today in European history: the Battle of Mohi (1241)

Having already talked about the Battle of Legnica a couple of days ago, I suppose we should mention the larger of the Mongols’ two major April 1241 battles, the Battle of Mohi (also referred to as the Battle of the Sajó River) on April 11 (it technically may have begun on April 10, but close enough). If you’ve already read the story of Legnica then you know that this was a Mongol victory, one that you could argue, for a brief time at least, meant that the Mongols had conquered Hungary. But their “conquest,” such as it was, lasted less than a year before their forces withdrew east and Hungarian King Béla IV (d. 1270) was able to regain and begin to rebuild his kingdom.

The Mongols invaded Hungary ostensibly in pursuit of the Cumans, a people that had once co-controlled, along with the Kipchaks, a khanate in the Eurasian steppe north of the Black and Caspian seas and stretching into Central Asia as we think of “Central Asia” today. The Cuman-Kipchak Confederation, as it’s often known today, lasted for a bit over three centuries from the 10th-13th centuries. They caused grief for the Byzantine Empire, Kievan Rus’, various Persian-speaking kingdoms that began to develop in Central Asia as the Abbasid caliphate weakened, etc. We’ve actually encountered a byproduct of the Cuman-Kipchak Confederation in the form of the Mamluk sultanate that took over Egypt and Syria in the middle of the 13th century. The slave soldiers who were imported to Egypt under dynasties that went back to the 10th century and eventually took power for themselves came (at this point–later Mamluks came from the north Caucasus), from the Kipchak steppe and were sold into slavery by merchants operating in the Cuman-Kipchak Confederation.

Anyway, we don’t need to go into much detail about the Confederation because by this point it was pretty well kaput, destroyed by the Mongol expansion. The Cumans themselves fled west, where they joined an anti-Mongol confederation in the early 1220s but were bribed to abandon it by the Mongols, who then promptly attacked them anyway after they’d dispatched the rest of the confederation. The Cumans then joined up with the Rus’ to face the Mongols at Kalka in 1223, where it’s said that their innovative tactical decision to flee before the battle really started was instrumental to the decisive Mongolian victory. They basically kept on fleeing into Hungary, and the Mongols saw the Hungarians’ decision to shelter them as a cause–or, maybe, a convenient justification–to invade.

Map - Mongol Invasions of Europe

You’ll see Mohi on the left side of this map amid all the red lines

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Today in European history: the Battle of Legnica (1241)

The double-envelopment, or pincer movement, is such a tried and true military tactic that the guy who literally wrote the book on war, Sun Tzu, discussed it in his book on war. It involves, as the name suggests, outflanking an enemy on both sides in order to encircle it completely. Sun Tzu actually argued against employing this tactic, because if carried through to completion it leaves the enemy no opportunity to retreat, and he believed that an enemy with its back against the wall like that would fight harder than one whose fighters saw a chance to get the hell out of Dodge. That’s not bad reasoning, but with all due respect to Sun Tzu the historical evidence suggests that he may have gotten this one wrong. There are problems involved in attempting a pincer movement, including complexity and the vulnerability of your army’s center, which has to engage the enemy and hold out while the flanks do all their outflanking maneuvers, but in major engagements in which it’s been successfully implemented–Hannibal at Cannae in 216 BCE, the Seljuks at Manzikert in 1071, Daniel Morgan at Cowpens in 1781–the army using the pincer has won decisively, generally with heavy casualties on the other side (the Romans lost well over 50,000 men at Cannae, which was a massive number for a battle in the ancient world).

It’s likely that no army has ever made more use of the pincer movement than the Mongolian army, or I guess the several Mongolian armies because there were always several of them out campaigning at any one time. They used a variant of the pincer movement that (Sun Tzu would approve) generally didn’t envelope the enemy from the rear and thus left them a way out if they could get back the way they’d come. They also, usually, didn’t anchor the fighting with the center of their line while their flanks maneuvered around the enemy position. Instead, the Mongol forces, primarily made up of highly maneuverable mounted archers, would “retreat” at the center in order to get the enemy army, or at least part of it, to chase them and basically envelop itself. This is an incredibly difficult tactic to pull off, because a feigned retreat–which has to look like a retreat to pull off the deception, so it can’t look like an orderly movement–can turn very easily into a real retreat if you’re not careful. But the Mongols were experts at it.

876421879_orig

This helpful visual representation of a feigned retreat comes from here, where you can see representations of a couple of other favorite Mongol tactics as well

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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: 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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Conflict update: March 7 2017

WIKILEAKS

WikiLeaks, the organization whose involvement in the Edward Snowden affair, the Chelsea Manning affair, and last summer’s DNC/Podesta hack launched the careers of a thousand self-declared national security experts, has released a whole new batch of classified information, this time from the CIA:

The new documents appear to be from the CIA’s 200-strong Center for Cyber Intelligence and show in detail how the agency’s digital specialists engage in hacking. Monday’s leak of about 9,000 secret files, which WikiLeaks said was only the first tranche of documents it had obtained, were all relatively recent, running from 2013 to 2016.

The revelations in the documents include:

  • CIA hackers targeted smartphones and computers.
  • The Center for Cyber Intelligence, based at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, has a second covert base in the US consulate in Frankfurt which covers Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
  • A programme called Weeping Angel describes how to attack a Samsung F8000 TV set so that it appears to be off but can still be used for monitoring.

Boy am I glad we bought an LG. Well, maybe I should wait for the next tranche of documents to hit before I say that. Weeping Angel seems problematic, but to me the most troubling revelation is that the US intelligence community has been compiling zero day exploits in mobile device operating systems and then sharing those exploits with foreign intelligence services.

As was the case with the Snowden leaks, I expect the fallout from this leak to reverberate for months (particularly if this is only the first batch of documents) and to impact everything from intelligence gathering to America’s relationships with its allies. It’ll be a huge diplomatic test for an administration that has shown almost zero capacity for diplomacy thus far and a president who goes to DEFCON 2 when somebody contradicts him on “Morning Joe” and really hasn’t faced an actual crisis–at least, not one that wasn’t of his own making–yet.

MUSLIM BAN TAKE TWO

Offered without comment, because it would only be superfluous, here’s Slate’s Joshua Keating: Continue reading

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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