Conflict update: April 24 2017

SYRIA

Bashar al-Assad’s next big target in Syria is retaking Idlib province, into which he and Moscow have cleverly funneled most of the northern rebel forces and a disturbing number of displaced civilians. The Century Foundation’s Sam Heller makes a reasonable suggestion as to what role the West should play when the Idlib fight begins in earnest:

Some have recently argued the United States and its allies should backstop Idlib’s rebels more or less indefinitely, both to defend civilians from the Assad regime and to maintain some non-extremist alternative. These proposals are untenable — unmoored from strategic logic and disconnected from the reality of Idlib’s rebellion, which is by now dominated by jihadists. The West should not sustain a jihadist-led section of the Syrian rebellion in perpetuity, to no obvious end and against a backdrop of ongoing, senseless civilian death. Instead, America and its Western allies ought to be ensuring that, when armed conflagration engulfs the northwest, civilians can get to safety.

As he’s killing civilians in Idlib, Assad will argue that they’re not really civilians–Idlib is controlled by jihadists, he’ll say, and these people are willingly living under their control. Ergo, they are irredeemable. But there are families who are in Idlib simply because that’s their home. There are other families who have migrated to Idlib to escape airstrikes elsewhere, to escape forced government conscription, or because that’s where Assad’s buses took them when they were forcibly evicted from places like Aleppo and Homs. The problem, as Heller points out, is that protecting their lives means giving them a way out of Idlib. And that means Western countries may have to pay Turkey to accept more refugees, or pay the Kurds controlling northwestern Syria to let more displaced Arabs into their enclave. We might have to do something to help real Syrians, whose desperation we find so compelling when we’re lobbing missiles in its general direction but whose actual well-being has never been a real consideration for us.

The US Treasury Department today slapped sanctions on 271 employees of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center, who the US government says are intimately involved in Assad’s chemical weapons program.

IRAQ

An overnight ISIS ambush of a convoy in western Anbar province, near the town of Rutbah, killed ten off duty Iraqi soldiers. Rutbah, you may recall, was briefly seized and held by ISIS back in October.

There’s nothing particularly new to report from Mosul as far as I can tell. But there has been a rhetorical back-and-forth over the past few days between leaders of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that bears watching. In an interview with Al Jazeera last week, Erdoğan referred to the PMUs (using their Arabic name, al-Hashd al-Shaabi) as “a terrorist organization” and an agent of Iranian “expansion.” Over the weekend, a PMU spokesperson demanded to know “Who has given Erdogan the right to intervene in Iraq’s internal affairs?” and argued that Iran’s policy toward Iraq has been “transparent” in that Tehran has been trying to help Iraq fight off ISIS–this is a not-so-veiled allusion to the fact that Erdoğan and his government were believed to have at least tacitly colluded with ISIS back in, for example, 2014.

TURKEY

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Conflict update: April 21 2017

Hopefully a short one tonight. I’m getting a bit of a late start and actually don’t think there’s much to report for a change.

SYRIA

The first phase of that major four-town evacuation (Fuʿah, Kefraya, Zabadani, and Madaya) has concluded successfully with an additional agreement for the Syrian government to release hundreds of detainees. The whole deal was thrown into chaos last weekend over a terrorist attack on buses evacuating people from Fuʿah and Kefraya, but it seems to have resumed pursuant to another agreement reached between its two international backers, Qatar and Iran, over some Qataris who were being held captive in Iraq (more on that in a moment). I’m not entirely clear on the relationship between these two deals, but it seems like the Syrian deal would have stalled had this Iraqi arrangement not come together.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Russia’s Sputnik news agency today that Jordan is preparing an invasion of southern Syria in coordination with the US. The Jordanians have forcefully denied that they have any such plan.

IRAQ

That Iraqi deal involved the release of 26 Qatari hunters, including members of the Qatari royal family, who had been kidnapped in southern Iraq by, uh, somebody in December 2015. Who exactly kidnapped them has never been clear, but it now seems that at least we can say that Iran was able to negotiate on their behalf.

There’s still little new to report from Mosul. Iraqi counter-terrorism forces are continuing to advance into the center of western Mosul, west of the Old City area where most of ISIS’s defenses have been located, and in the Old City itself things have remained static for weeks apart from one Iraqi police advance along the western edge of the neighborhood on April 16.

TURKEY

Turkish opposition leaders have gone to court to appeal the election board’s decision to accept improperly unstamped ballots during Sunday’s referendum. This is unlikely to have any effect. They’ll first try to adjudicate the case in Turkish courts, which have largely had their independence stripped by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and then they may take the case to the European Court on Human Rights, whose rulings Erdoğan will almost certainly feel free to just ignore. The opposition even seem resigned to this, with an HDP spokesman suggesting the appeal is more to have it on the record for historical purposes than anything else.

EGYPT

Credit where credit is due, President Trump seems to have successfully negotiated the release of US citizen Aya Hijazi from Egypt, where she’d been detained without trial for three years. She returned to the US this morning. Hijazi and her husband had been running a non-profit caring for homeless children in Egypt when she was arrested on charges of child trafficking that were never substantiated or brought to trial. The case against her was dropped after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited DC earlier this month and Trump fawned over him, so it seems pretty clear that all that ass-kissing helped get Hijazi out of jail. Like I said, credit where credit is due.

AFGHANISTAN

A Taliban attack on a military base in Balkh province today killed more than 50 Afghan soldiers. Suicide bombers apparently breached the gate and gunmen entered the base, killing soldiers who were, among other things, eating lunch and at midday prayer.

PAKISTAN

Opposition lawmakers are demanding that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif step down while an investigation is ongoing into his family’s finances and potential corruption. Pakistan’s top court ordered the investigation yesterday but opted not to remove Sharif from office.

 

AUSTRALIA

Vice President Mike Pence has taken his stern face to Australia for the weekend, where he’ll be expected to smooth over any lingering bad feelings from Trump’s first phone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. He arrives at a time when the Australian government is being slammed by human rights groups for the inhumane conditions at its offshore migrant detention centers on the islands of Manus and Nauru, and, well, he and Turnbull should have a lot to talk about.

Meanwhile, Australian scientists say that analysis of ocean currents and drift patterns strongly suggests that missing flight MH370–remember that?–probably crashed into the Indian Ocean in an area north of where everybody was looking before the search was suspended last year. Now they just need a government or two willing to spend more money on a new search, so…good luck with that.

SOMALIA

The Kenyan military says it killed 52 al-Shabab militants in a Friday morning attack on one of their camps in Somalia’s southern Lower Juba province.

CENTRAL AFRICA

Although it announced that it was pulling out of the operation to destroy Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army last month, the Trump administration has apparently decided to continue America’s involvement in the operation after all. Uganda announced that it was pulling out of the operation earlier this week, and that seems to have caused a change of heart in Washington.

RUSSIA

Say, this seems like great news:

American and Canadian fighter planes scrambled to intercept two Russian TU-95 “Bear” bombers Thursday night, marking the fourth consecutive night of Russian probes near the Alaskan coast, U.S. defense officials said Friday.

At no point did the Russian aircraft cross into American or Canadian airspace, but the incursions into the Air Identification Zones — which extend beyond the territorial waters of the U.S. and Canada — represent a sharp increase in activity in the area, which has seen no Russian activity at all since 2015. The flights may also herald the return of Moscow’s 60-year-old nuclear capable bomber to the international stage, after the entire fleet was grounded in 2015 after a rash of accidents.

Frankly, I don’t understand why Putin would want to provoke a conflict here when the Trump administration, despite its newfound anti-Russia ethos, seems pretty intent on destroying America without any outside help.

FRANCE

French police are investigating reports that Champs-Élysées shooter Karim Cheurfi may have had at least one accomplice. There seems to be some confusion related to ISIS’s unusually rapid claim of responsibility for the attack, which they attributed to an “Abu Yusif al-Belgiki.” That’s an obvious pseudonym (Abu Yusif the Belgian), but was it Cheurfi’s pseudonym? He wasn’t Belgian, so that’s at least a little weird. The oddness of the name and the fact that, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, ISIS claimed this attack very quickly, leaves open the possibility that ISIS thought this attack was actually some other attack that it’s got in the cards. That’s unlikely, but there are still some things about this case that aren’t quite adding up.

Sunday is of course election day, and with polling still a mess it’s not clear how things are going to turn out. Five Thirty Eight’s Harry Enten says that, going by the polls, any two of the top four candidates could wind up in the May 7 runoff. Now consider the uncertainty caused by this terror attack–the historical evidence as to what kind of impact attacks like this have on elections is mixed, but they often do have some impact. Donald Trump is unsurprisingly supporting fellow reactionary xenophobe Marine Le Pen, but given how monumentally unpopular Trump is in France, that might not help. Even if Le Pen does make it into the second round of voting, polling has consistently put her so far behind each of the other leading candidates that it’s very difficult to imagine she’d be able to pull out a victory. Still, on the principle that anything could happen, it would be better if she finished out of the top two on Sunday.

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Conflict update: April 18 2017

AMERICA TO THE RESCUE

If you’re worried about the state of human rights around the world, I’ve got great news–this afternoon, America was on it:

The Trump administration is seeking to highlight its commitment to human rights around the world, and so its envoy to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, is presiding over what it calls the first “thematic debate” on human rights in the Security Council on Tuesday afternoon.

“Council members are encouraged to express their views on the nexus between human rights and international peace and security,” reads a memo circulated to the members this month. Rights abuses, the memo says, can often be the first signs of a full-on conflict erupting.

This was, of course, not the first time human rights have been discussed to no effect at the UN Security Council, but it probably is the council’s first “thematic debate,” whatever the fuck that means. Human rights groups were skeptical–for some reason, they seemed to think that a UN Security Council meeting on human rights, presided over by a country that bombs mosques, bombs apartment buildings, bombed civilians even on this very day, and allies with countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, wouldn’t amount to shit. Well, the joke’s on them, because as it turns out…they were, uh, pretty much right on the money.

UNITED KINGDOM

Britain is having a new election in June! What fun! Yes, I know, they just had an election two years ago, and Prime Minister Theresa May has said multiple times that she wouldn’t call snap elections before Britain had exited the European Union, but since when are we dinging politicians for lying? If early polling is to be believed, we’re not doing it this time either. May has a major political opening staring her in the face–serious Brexit negotiations won’t start until later this year, and she and her Conservative Party have huge polling leads over Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour Party–and she’s going to take advantage of it to increase her parliamentary cushion for the Brexit process. This is a smart, calculated move–so calculated that her opposition might even want to make an issue out of how bloody cynical the whole thing is.

Technically, May does not have the power to call for early elections–prime ministers used to have virtually unlimited authority in that regard, but parliament voted to restrict it in 2010 in order to keep precisely this kind of purely political vote from being called. If just a third of the House of Commons rejects her plans, she’ll have to resort to legislative trickery by having her own party vote against her government in a vote of no confidence. But it’s probably not going to come to that, as both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have said they’ll vote to approve the early election. It’s not clear why they’re going along with this, but I suppose if either party really knew what it was doing then the Conservatives wouldn’t be on the verge of pummeling them both in a couple of months.

The actual risk for May is that, if British voters are really feeling buyer’s remorse over the Brexit referendum, they could opt to hand May a parliament that’s much less amenable to her plans for a so-called “hard Brexit” (apologies if there are any impressionable children reading this smut).  Continue 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 update: April 3 2017

BREAKING: NOTHING MUCH HAPPENED

One of the reasons I don’t post these earlier in the day is because HUGE BREAKING NEWS MUST CREDIT GUY WHO HELPED SELL IRAQ WAR stories are often later shown to be no big deal. To wit:

Maybe I’m wrong, but it sure does seem like intrepid reporter Eli Lake has now been played twice by Republicans trying to substantiate their party leader’s claim that the Obama administration spied on him and his transition team. At some point you have to start assuming that Lake is willingly along for the ride, don’t you?

original

RUSSIA

An explosion tore through the St. Petersburg metro today, killing at least 11 people and injuring more than 50 at the last count. Details are still light, but it appears the bomb went off between metro stations, so it’s not clear whether it was placed there or was put on a train. Russian authorities later said that police found and disarmed a second bomb placed at another location in the metro. ISIS has already reportedly claimed responsibility and said the bomb was in retaliation for Russia’s activities in Syria, but there are plenty of other possible candidates, from Chechen militants (who certainly overlap with ISIS) to Ukrainian sympathizers to anti-government extremists, and Moscow seems to be investigating all possibilities. It’s likely not a coincidence that Putin was in St. Petersburg today to meet with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, though he certainly wasn’t targeted.

WAR ON WOMEN

Donald Trump “cherishes” women, just ask him. Of course, if those women happen to rely on the UN Family Planning Agency for their reproductive health needs, then they’re shit out of luck because the Trump administration just yanked all the US funding for that agency (which was $75 million last year). The administration claims that the UNFPA participates in China’s forced abortion and sterilization programs, but the State Department’s own statement on the funding cut as much as admits that they’re lying about that claim in order to give themselves a justification for the cut. Still, you have to admire the strong display of concern for the rights of Chinese women from an administration that’s going to have Chinese President Xi Jinping over to President Trump’s extravagant Florida vacation resort later this week. That’ll show him.

Trump is only doing what every Republican administration since the 1980s has done with respect to the UNFPA, so I don’t mean to single him out except insofar as he is the current president. But feel free to mention this the next time your Hashtag Never Trump Republican buddy or your moderate Democratic presidential nominee tries to tell you that Donald Trump is somehow different from the rest of the Republican Party and not entirely a product of that party.

EGYPT

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Conflict update: April 1-2 2017

EGYPT

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is in Washington right now, preparing for his big meeting tomorrow with fellow authoritarian personality Donald Trump. Because I did a TV spot for Alhurra about this earlier today and it’s therefore fresh in my brain, here are a few things they might get to talking about tomorrow. These are in no particular order, but the items toward the top of the list are likelier to be addressed than the items toward the bottom.

  1. The bilateral US-Egypt relationship. The Obama administration didn’t have a great relationship with Sisi–they never, for example, brought him to the White House. Something about his penchant for massacring protesters and throwing tens of thousands of political opponents in prison rubbed them the wrong way, I guess. Such things are unlikely to infringe on the Trump-Sisi relationship, which is already much better than the Obama-Sisi relationship ever was (Sisi was the first world leader, for example, to call Trump to congratulate him after the election). Trump cares about stability, or at least the appearance of stability, and Sisi offers that, and they have several things in common, like narcissistic personality disorder their faux right-wing populism and their militancy when it comes to any kind of Islamist movement (even the quietist ones).
  2. Sisi’s public image. In a sense this isn’t even an agenda item. The White House invitation alone was enough to give Sisi something to crow about. He may want to be careful, though, about appearing too chummy and/or deferential to Trump, who isn’t even popular here let alone in Egypt.
  3. Egypt’s foreign aid. Sisi will want to make sure that US aid to Egypt isn’t going to get cut amid the Trump administration’s push to cut all foreign aid, and he’ll probably be successful in that regard. He also would very much like the Trump administration to drop the human rights restrictions currently in place with respect to Egyptian aid. Right now, in order to deliver that aid the administration has to either certify to Congress that Egypt is making improvement in its human rights performance, or request a national security waiver to allow the aid to be delivered anyway. Sisi doesn’t like having to depend on the waiver and takes it as an insult, which he should because fuck him, so he’ll probably see if Trump can help get rid of the whole issue. As much as Trump might like to help him out, though, removing those restrictions altogether is something Congress would have to do, and I don’t think there’s enough support in Congress to make that happen.
  4. Counter-terrorism. I expect they’ll talk about ways that the US could increase its support for Egypt’s counter-terrorism activities in Sinai and elsewhere, while never once broaching the fact that Sisi’s violently repressive authoritarianism is probably the biggest cause of extremist violence in Egypt today. Sisi will probably push Trump to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, something I’ve noted would be a really bad idea and an idea that Trump’s advisers thankfully seem to have tabled for now.
  5. Israel-Palestine. From the US perspective, you can’t talk about Sinai without talking about the potential for ISIS’s affiliate there to establish a foothold in Gaza. From Sisi’s perspective, he would like to present a pro-Palestinian message to Trump that keeps the administration from taking drastic pro-Israel actions like moving the US embassy to Jerusalem or withdrawing support for the two-state fiction solution. Trump is also hosting King Abdullah of Jordan and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas this week and they’re probably going to want to hammer him on this over and over again.
  6. Syria. Trump and Sisi are both Assad-curious, but Sisi has been constrained by his Saudi ties not to get too close to Assad, and Trump…well, who knows, really. There’s actual bat shit that’s less batshit than this guy. But they’ll inevitably talk about ways to bring Syria toward a political settlement, for all the good that will do them.
  7. Libya. Egypt shares a very long border with Libya, and so instability there is inevitably a problem for Cairo. Sisi has an affinity for Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar (they’re practically clones) and I suspect he’ll lobby Trump to switch Washington’s support to Haftar. But Haftar is so deep in bed with Russia now that for Trump to support him openly would mean aligning US and Russian foreign policy at a time when, in case you haven’t noticed, Trump needs to distance himself from Moscow.
  8. Yemen. Similarly, I suspect Trump will play messenger for Riyadh and try to get Sisi to get more deeply involved in the Saudi campaign to exterminate Yemen reinstall Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi in Sanaa. Egypt is technically part of that coalition but hasn’t contributed heavily to it because, you know, it doesn’t really serve any Egyptian interests. This has been one of the causes of the recent discord in the Saudi-Egyptian relationship. I have doubts that Trump will be an effective salesman here.
  9. Iran. Building out of the Yemen coalition is this Saudi idea for creating a pan-Sunni army that will ostensibly go after extremists but in reality is meant to contain Iran. Egypt is supposed to be part of this project as well, but given its tepid involvement in Yemen and the fact that Sisi has tried to cultivate friendly relations with Tehran, it’s reasonable to conclude that Cairo probably doesn’t want to really be involved in this either.
  10. Human rights in Egypt. HA HA HA I’m just screwing with you. Despite White House talk to the contrary (they say they’ll discuss it in a “discreet” way, LOL), I doubt they’ll bring this up except maybe as a morbid joke. The two possible exceptions may be the case of imprisoned Egyptian-American Aya Hijazi and the protection of Egypt’s Coptic Christian community.

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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