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 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.

Continue reading

Middle East conflict update: March 30-31 2017

If you’re looking for bad news from the rest of the world, you’ll find it here.

IRAQ

Battle_of_Mosul_(2016–2017)

Mosul through March 30 (Wikimedia | Kami888)

The main progress in Mosul continues to be to the west of the Old City, where Iraqi counter-terrorism forces are pushing north in an effort to eventually surround the Old City and attack it from two sides. War Is Boring posted an eyewitness account from a reporter who was embedded with Iraqi federal policy, whose job right now is to hold ISIS’s attention while the counter-terrorism units complete their maneuver around the Old City. Unsurprisingly, it’s fear of even greater civilian casualties that has the Iraqis treading cautiously–an excessively violent campaign threatens to upend any hope of desperately-needed national reconciliation after Mosul has been liberated. As it is, as this first-hand Foreign Policy piece shows, the campaign has been plenty violent anyway. Speaking of, the Pentagon and the Iraqi military are strongly pushing the argument that ISIS has been sneaking civilians into buildings and then trying to bait the US-led coalition, unaware that there are civilians inside, to strike those buildings. This is what they’re saying happened in the case of the Jadidah bombing on March 17.

Niqash published a piece a couple of days ago about the civilian death toll in Mosul and why it’s been so high. Part of the reason is obviously because Mosul is a very large city whose civilians were told by Iraqi authorities (who were worried about coping with large numbers of displaced people, which they’re having to do anyway) to shelter in place rather than try to flee the fighting. But another factor is that here, unlike in previous urban campaigns like Ramadi and Fallujah, the Iraqis haven’t given ISIS a way out of the city. A surrounded enemy can be expected to resist harder than one that has a way to escape when the odds are not in its favor, and in this case ISIS’s continued resistance has added to the civilian body count. It seems quite likely that the Iraqis could have left ISIS an escape route and then killed all or most of the fighters who escaped later, in some much less populated area.

SYRIA

Another round of Geneva peace talks is in the books, and, folks, I think we really made some progress this time around:

Opposition negotiator Nasr al-Hariri said the “terrorist regime” of President Bashar al-Assad had refused to discuss political transition during the talks and said Assad was a war criminal who must step down in the name of peace.

“They are solely discussing their empty rhetoric about countering terrorism,” Hariri told reporters, vowing there could be “no peace without justice.”

“War crimes and crimes against humanity must not be an option for negotiations. From now, venues must be found for transitional justice to ensure holding the perpetrators accountable,” he said.

Hariri said he was looking for a negotiating partner who put the interests of the Syrian people first, while his opposite number, the government’s chief negotiator, Bashar al Ja’afari, said he only wanted to negotiate with someone “patriotic”.

Ja’afari mocked the opposition delegation as “adolescents” who thought they were appearing on a television talent show such as “Arab Idol” or “The Voice”, and were under the illusion that government would simply hand over the keys to the country.

“In fact they are tools, they are mercenaries in the hands of their lords, their operators, and it seems they have not received instructions from them, except instructions to continue supporting terrorism and to create havoc in these rounds.”

Oh, wait, my bad, that’s what the Syrians themselves said after the talks ended. Jeez, those are some lame insults. Anyway, here’s what UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said: Continue reading

Conflict update: February 21 2017

Iran

ebrahim_raisi_in_9th_day_rally_01

Ebrahim Raisi (Wikimedia | Meghdad Madadi)

It finally looks like a major principlist candidate might challenge Hassan Rouhahi in May’s presidential election. Ebrahim Raisi was appointed last year to run Astan Quds Razavi, the charitable foundation that manages the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad, and that makes him one of the most important religious figures in Iran. Only 56 (that’s practically 26 in the context of hardline Iranian political figures), he’s been mentioned as a possible successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Supreme Leader, but suddenly there’s some momentum behind him as a presidential candidate. Raisi says he’ll only run if he’s the consensus choice among Iranian conservatives, which is a tall order but, for someone of his stature, isn’t out of the question. Raisi isn’t Qasem Soleimani, but he would be a difficult challenge for Rouhani.

Iranian and Turkish diplomats are continuing to trade barbs over Syria and regional policy. Meanwhile, Khamenei is throwing red meat at Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu by encouraging another Intifada in occupied Palestine. I have no doubt he’s doing it to provoke exactly the reaction that Trump and Netanyahu will give him.

Iraq

battle_of_mosul_2016-2017

The Battle of Mosul, through earlier today (Wikimedia | Kami888)

Iraqi forces are staging for their big push to capture Mosul airport and the nearby Ghazlani military base. Yesterday they captured the village of Albu Saif, which sits on a hilltop overlooking the airport, and that’s become their staging area. Iraqi commanders don’t seem to be expecting much ISIS resistance at the airport–because it’s not near any civilian areas, coalition and Iraqi air forces have been striking it at will, so the thinking is they will have worn its defenses down. Once the airport is in Iraqi hands the next step will be to repair it as quickly as possible so that it can be used to provide close air support for the rest of the operation.

Joel Wing has been tracking the Iraqi government’s statements about the west Mosul phase pretty regularly at Musings on Iraq. During the lull after east Mosul was fully liberated, Iraqi commanders and politicians have been telling anybody who would listen that ISIS was spent, broken, that it wouldn’t be able to put up a serious fight in west Mosul. Now that the west Mosul operation has started, of course, the tune is changing.

Syria

Reuters reported today that the CIA suspended its program to supply, pay, and arm rebels in northwestern Syria last month, when they began fighting among themselves. Apparently the risk that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham might seize American weaponry in battle was deemed too great to allow the program to continue, though the Agency didn’t seem to worry too much about the risk that rebels would simply, you know, give those weapons to JFS back when everybody was playing for the same team.

The UN expects this week’s peace talks in Geneva to focus on a “political transition process” rather than on “political transition.” These are completely different topics because the UN desperately needs them to be. Apparently the addition of the word “process” is supposed to make it seem less like the UN is trying to usher Bashar al-Assad out of power and more like everybody in Geneva will all be just neutrally shooting the shit about civics, or something.

The Syrian Democratic Forces reportedly made a major incursion into Deir Ezzor province today, driving ISIS out of a dozen villages there. I wouldn’t expect the SDF to move to relieve besieged Deir Ezzor itself–their focus is still on encircling Raqqa. Speaking of the SDF, or more specifically its Kurdish YPG component, the saga of Roy Gutman’s investigation into the YPG continues at The Nation. Today they published a criticism of his reporting from human rights activist Meredith Tax, along with Gutman’s response. Tax’s critique isn’t especially strong, but Gutman’s work still suffers from its sourcing, which for many of its more provocative claims is largely the Syrian government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, both of which have major axes to grind with the YPG.

Turkey

If we can go by statements made by Turkish officials, over 550,000 new refugees have crossed into Turkey in just the past five months. That’s a staggering figure that may be costing the Turkish government more than half a billion dollars each month. Which is all to say that you can kind of see why they invaded northern Syria a few months back.

The predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has applied to the European Court of Human Rights to hear a case regarding the arrest of its leaders by Turkish authorities in November. Chief among HDP’s arguments is that the ongoing imprisonment of its leaders constitutes an effort by the Turkish government to suppress opposition to April’s referendum on changing the Turkish constitution to increase President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s powers. And, indeed, HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş isn’t going to be given a court hearing until almost two weeks after the referendum, even though he will have been in custody for five months by that point.

Jordan

Jordanian King Abdullah and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi met in Cairo today and, afterward, issued a joint statement reaffirming their support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine issue. Or, in other words, they announced that they’re not swapping land with anybody, thank you very much.

Speaking of Syrian refugees, Jordan is dealing with the challenge of accounting for hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have left destitution in refugee camps along the Syrian border and are now living in Jordan undocumented. They’re understandably reluctant to come forward because they’ll likely be deported back into Syria. The Jordanian government could solve much of this problem by allowing refugees to work legally in the vicinity of the camps, but so far it’s been unwilling to take that step.

Egypt

The Egyptian government is reaching out to Hamas, offering to relax restrictions on trade and movement across the border between Egypt and Gaza in return for Hamas’s help dealing with militants in Sinai. Sisi’s government has been mostly hostile toward Hamas since it came to power, since Hamas, as a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, was very friendly with the Morsi government that Sisi overthrew. While Gazans could certainly use the boost in food and supplies coming over a less restrictive Egyptian border, I want to note Sisi’s impeccable logic here. In order to try to tamp down a Sinai insurgency that was massively exacerbated by Sisi’s decision to overthrow and then brutally suppress Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, an insurgency that could probably still be weakened if he were to stop suppressing Egypt’s MB, Sisi is now making concessions to Gaza’s Muslim Brotherhood branch.

Azerbaijan

President Ilham Aliyev appointed a new vice president today, and after what must have been a grueling search process his pick was…his wife, Mehriban! Congratulations? She’s now in line to succeed Ilham if for some reason he ever is defeated in a free and fair election decides to step down. Now I know what you’re thinking–you’re worried that people might have a problem with a president making his wife his vice-president, but don’t worry! Aliyev preemptively arrested just about anybody who might have had a problem with this appointment! Whew, I was worried there for a second!

Pakistan

At least six people were killed today in a suicide bombing targeting a court building in the northern district of Charsadda. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar claimed responsibility.

Myanmar

Reuters is reporting that the Myanmar government is investigating the suspicious deaths of two Rohingya while in police custody in October. That may not seem like that big a deal, but it’s the first evidence that Naypyidaw is prepared to maybe, possibly, acknowledge any misconduct by its security forces with respect to the Rohingya.

Indonesia

From the “This Is Exactly What We Need Right Now” file, Saudi King Salman (or, well, somebody in the Saudi palace) is planning a visit to Indonesia for the king and his 1500 person entourage in March. This will be the first time a Saudi ruler has visited Indonesia in almost 50 years. Jakarta is hoping the visit will herald the onset of billions of dollars in Saudi investment. The arrival of the Wahhabi king and his massive Wahhabi retinue will come just a month before the runoff in the Jakarta governor’s race, in which the Muslim candidate is now feverishly trying to deny that he’s been pandering to Islamists in an effort to knock off the Christian incumbent. I’m sure that won’t prove to be a volatile combo.

South China Sea

China is predictably having a bit of a tantrum over the presence of the USS Carl Vinson carrier group in the South China Sea. The rhetoric coming from Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as well as the fact that this patrol comes a scant month into Donald Trump’s presidency, and of course the fact that Steve Bannon thinks we ought to go to war with China, suggests that this administration is going to be more…let’s say proactive, about asserting navigation rights in the SCS than the Obama administration was. And on that subject, Pentagon officials are telling Reuters that they believe China has started putting surface-to-air missile batteries on the disputed Spratly Islands.

Malaysia

The investigation into the murder of Kim Jong-nam continues to escalate. Now Malaysian authorities say they’ve identified two new suspects in the case–and one of them works at the North Korean embassy. Yikes.

Libya

The UN says that the 2015 conviction of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi on war crimes charges was illegitimate and wants him handed over to the International Criminal Court. Gaddafi, who was sentenced to death by firing squad in that trial, is being held in the western Libyan city of Zintan, outside the control of either of the two factions vying for control of the country, so he’s presumably not going anywhere anytime soon.

Nigeria

A curfew has been put into effect in the southern part of Kaduna state, in the center of the country, after a new round of ethnic violence killed 14 people on Monday.

Guinea

The government and teachers unions reached a deal to end a strike that led to protests in which five people were killed yesterday, but unfortunately two more people were killed today after the deal was announced.

South Sudan

President Salva Kiir has promised that aid organizations trying to reach people stricken by famine in South Sudan will have “unimpeded access.” We’ll see.

South Africa

A wave of anti-immigrant violence targeting Nigerians has hit Pretoria in recent days, after similar violence struck a suburb of Johannesburg a few weeks ago. This has prompted the Nigerian government to appeal to South Africa and the African Union to take measures to protect its nationals living in South Africa.

Cyprus

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said today that Turkey must reserve the right to intervene to defend Turkish Cypriots, which, of course, is the kind of thing that makes reunification less likely.

Ukraine

The secretary general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Lamberto Zannier, says the Ukraine ceasefire “doesn’t look too good.” It doesn’t seem like there’s been much new fighting over the last day or so, but progress on moving heavy weapons off the front lines has been slow or non-existent, which suggests the ceasefire isn’t going to stick. Kiev is calling for new sanctions to punish Moscow for its decision to begin honoring unofficial travel documents issued by the separatist “governments” in the Donbas. Meanwhile, pro-Russia Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Artemenko, the one with the shady possibly connections to Donald Trump, is apparently headed to the US to push his peace deal, the one Russia has already called “absurd” and that the Ukrainian government doesn’t even seem willing to acknowledge.

Sweden

Maybe Donald Trump’s bizarre pronouncements are better understood as prophecy than as news:

Just two days after President Trump provoked widespread consternation by seeming to imply, incorrectly, that immigrants had perpetrated a recent spate of violence in Sweden, riots broke out in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood in the northern suburbs of the country’s capital, Stockholm.

The neighborhood, Rinkeby, was the scene of riots in 2010 and 2013, too. And in most ways, what happened Monday night was reminiscent of those earlier bouts of anger. Swedish police apparently made an arrest on drug charges at about 8 p.m. near the Rinkeby station. For reasons not yet disclosed by the police, word of the arrest prompted youths to gather.

Over four hours, the crowd burned about half a dozen cars, vandalized several shopfronts and threw rocks at police. Police spokesman Lars Bystrom confirmed to Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter newspaper that an officer fired shots at a rioter but missed. A photographer for the newspaper was attacked and beaten by more than a dozen men and his camera was stolen.

Hi, how’s it going? Thanks for reading; attwiw wouldn’t exist without you! If you enjoyed this or any other posts here, please share widely and help build our audience. You can like this site on Facebook or follow me on Twitter as well. Most critically, if you’re a regular reader I hope you’ll read this and consider helping this place to stay alive.