Conflict update: April 15-17 2017

Happy Easter again to everyone who celebrated, and Pesach Sameach to those observing Passover, which ends tomorrow. And if any Egyptians happen to be reading this, happy Sham el-Nisim.

TURKEY

The weekend’s biggest story was, as expected, Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan I’s formal coronation. By a slim margin, also as expected, Turkish voters on Sunday approved a referendum to amend Turkey’s constitution and change the country’s political system from a parliamentary one to a presidential one. The changes will be phased in over the next two years, but when the process is complete full executive authority will be concentrated in the office of president rather than split between the presidency and the prime minister’s office (with the PM, which is disappearing under the new system, actually the more powerful of the two positions). Erdoğan, who could now serve as president through 2029 under these changes, and will presumably try to change the constitution again in a decade if he wants to stay in office beyond that, will have vast new powers to control Turkey’s state bureaucracy, judiciary, military, and legislature.

Juan Cole writes at length about something I brought up on Friday, which is that many of these changes, on their face, are not particularly anti-democratic or authoritarian. On paper, when these changes are fully implemented Turkey’s government won’t look that much different from France’s, for example, or America’s–both of which have their own problems, don’t get me wrong, but neither of which could be called a dictatorship at least at the moment. The problem with Turkish democracy is, as it’s been at least since the Gezi Park protests in 2013, Erdoğan. Especially since last summer’s failed coup gave him an excuse to institute a permanent state of emergency, Erdoğan has been able to purge his political rivals, imprison his political opposition, stifle independent media, and rule Turkey as a one-man show for several years now under the current system, so all this change will do is make it easier for him to keep on keeping on.

Do these changes take Turkey back toward something resembling the Ottoman Empire? Stephen Cook says yes, but even he acknowledges that this is only really going to be the case when the president and parliament both come from the same party. The potential for an opposition parliament to check the president is there. The problem is that it’s impossible to see how an opposition parliament can ever be elected when Erdoğan has thoroughly stifled the Turkish press, has stocked the judiciary with his political appointees, has purged Turkish academia of anyone who dares to criticize him, and won’t let opposition parties mount anything approaching an actual political campaign (and likes to throw their leaders in jail just for good measure). And he didn’t need these amendments to do that. Does this result make Erdoğan a dictator? I would say no, but only because he pretty much already was one.

Also, while we’re mourning the demise of Turkish democracy, I think it’s important to bear in mind that it has always–and here I’m not just referring to the Erdoğan Era, but to the entire history of republican Turkey–had an authoritarian edge to it. You can go all the way back to the days of Atatürk and right through the decades during which another military coup seemed always to be just around the bend, and you’d be hard pressed to find a time when there wasn’t tension between the will of the Turkish people and the will of the few actors at the top of the Turkish political system.

So what happens now, as in right now, before 2019? Continue reading

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: February 16 2017

Like Sands Through the Hourglass

The longer this day wore on with no word that Robert Harward had accepted Donald Trump’s once-in-a-lifetime offer to witness a four year-long tire fire firsthand, the more it began to seem like Harward might pass. And, sure enough, a couple of hours ago word broke that Harward had, in fact, said no. Unsurprisingly, chief among Harward’s reasons for turning the National Security Advisor gig down was that Trump refused to allow him to restaff the National Security Council. In particular, Trump insisted that Deputy National Security Advisor KT McFarland stay in her job, and Harward…well, look, McFarland shouldn’t be in that job in the first place, but it would be unrealistic to demand that any new National Security Advisor to keep his or her predecessor’s deputy, especially under these circumstances. Denied the authority to hire his own people, Harward made the right choice, if I do say so myself, to steer clear of this administration.

So now the search continues. David Petraeus’s name will undoubtedly be at the top of the list, but I have to wonder if even Petraeus, who is probably a little desperate to land a high-profile job like this after his whole “I gave classified information to my girlfriend” incident, is going to be willing to take the job if he’s not going to be allowed to hire his own people. The interim National Security Advisor, Keith Kellogg, may get a long look now, simply because he’s presumably OK working with the collection of loons and Fox News ideologues that Flynn put on the NSC.

Meanwhile, Trump gave what was surely one of the most surreal press conferences in American history today. In what was supposed to be the introduction of his second Labor Secretary nominee (it turns out that nominating absolutely horrible human beings to your cabinet can on rare occasions bite you in the ass), Trump rambled on for over an hour about every petty grievance he’s ever had as far back as what seemed like middle school. I won’t recap it–and really can’t, because even though I watched the whole thing it sticks in my memory as one indiscernible mass of bullshit–but I will note that on the subject of the now-departed General Ripper Flynn (and believe me, I’m terrified that I’m about to write these next four words), Matt Yglesias is right: it’s not clear why Trump fired Flynn, and it’s not clear that Trump knows why he fired him.

This is becoming a masterclass in how to throw gasoline on a brushfire. And I’m sure I’m missing some 12th dimensional game theory reason why his failure to put the Flynn scandal to bed is all part of Trump’s secret plan to do some terrible thing, but I can’t shake the feeling that Donald Trump is really just a fucking dolt.

Europe

Intentionally or not, between its apparent intention to deliberately break up the European Union, its hints at isolationism or at least retrenchment, its…whatever it’s doing with Russia, and its insistence that European NATO members start to pick up more of the freight for the alliance’s operations, the Trump administration has sent Europe into a bit of a tizzy. Those European NATO members are talking about making joint weapons purchases and setting up a joint special operations command, and taking a more “active” role in the world, in part to demonstrate to Washington that they’re serious about picking up more slack within the alliance but also, you have to figure, because they’re no longer so sure Washington can be relied upon. NATO is also planning to boost its naval presence in the Black Sea, a direct counter to Russian activity there. Other voices are saying that European nations should resist US demands to boost defense spending and are arguing that European spending on humanitarian missions and development is a form of defense spending in that it helps stabilize trouble spots around the world.

There are deeper issues at play in the Trump demand that European NATO members start spending more on defense. The NATO treaty obligates members to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense, but very few of them actually make that target. The United States spends over 3.5 percent of its GDP on defense, a percentage Trump wants to increase, but he also–and this isn’t unreasonable–wants other NATO members to pull their own weight. The thing is, though, a lot of them never will, and if they don’t…well, probably nothing is going to happen to them. Moreover, even if every other country in the alliance raised defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, it wouldn’t have all that great an impact on the alliance’s funding because most of the countries in question have relatively small GDPs. Sure, Germany has a huge economy, but that’s one country. The US will always provide the bulk of NATO’s collective defense spending because it’s by far the largest economy in the alliance. Right now it provide 70 percent of NATO’s overall defense spending–maybe that could be brought down to 65 percent or so, but probably not much lower unless the US is prepared to drastically reduce its own defense spending–and we will never drastically reduce our own defense spending. Would that it were so, but it ain’t happening.

And, you know, there are some valid reasons why it’s probably OK that the US dominates NATO defense spending like this. I disagree with a lot of this Vox piece because I don’t agree that it’s simply a given that America benefits from having a huge military with bases all over the world. But it is true that, historically, when European nations start ratcheting up their individual defense spending, extremely bad shit happens. If the price of avoiding World War III is letting Germany and France spend 1.5 percent of GDP on defense instead of 2 percent…well, maybe that’s OK.

Syria

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Conflict update: February 15 2017

Meet the New Boss(‘s Adviser)

In a rare flash of lucidity, Donald Trump has reportedly offered his now-vacant National Security Advisor position to Vice Admiral Robert Harward, instead of, say, Steve Bannon, or John Bolton, or Chucky, the doll from those horror movies. It’s hard to evaluate Harward for two reasons: one, most military brass tend to keep their personal views pretty close to the chest (the ones who don’t, like Michael Flynn, get a lot of attention in part because they really are the exception), and two, pretty much anybody was going to look good compared to Flynn. One thing we do know is that Harward and Defense Secretary James Mattis get along quite well with one another, where Mattis and Flynn did not, so that could be good or bad depending on your preference for intra-administration feuds.

As far as I know Harward hasn’t actually accepted the job yet, and he may not accept it if Trump refuses to allow him to clear Flynn’s people out of the National Security Council. In particular, Flynn’s deputy, KT McFarland, was apparently told by Trump that she could stay in her job, but it’s hard to imagine why Harward, or anybody else for that matter, would want to keep this person on in such an important job.

Israel-Palestine

It got somewhat underplayed because the Flynn scandal is still sucking up most of the national security oxygen, but Donald Trump erased at least 15 years of US policy in one fell swoop earlier today:

Speaking at a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to scuttle long-standing U.S. support for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians.

If “Bibi” and the Israelis and the Palestinians are all happy, “I am looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like… I can live with either one,” Trump said.

Putting aside a lot of justifiable concern from the Palestinian Authority at this sea-change in American policy (though, who knows, Trump could do a complete 180 by tomorrow), the two-state solution is well and truly dead and has been for some time now. Indeed, during the press conference Netanyahu made it quite clear that his vision of the future in Israel-Palestine by definition excludes the possibility of a separate Palestinian state. But there’s also no one-state solution that “both parties like.” There’s the one-state solution that means apartheid or worse for the Palestinians, which they obviously won’t like, and there’s the one-state solution that means Israel will no longer be a majority Jewish state, which “Bibi” obviously won’t like.  I’d ask whether Trump understands this, but I don’t know that the question is relevant.

In return for Trump’s indulgence, which included only the mildest of rebukes toward his ethnic cleansing policies in the occupied West Bank, Netanyahu made sure to praise Trump, whose chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is an anti-Semite, as a great friend of the Jews. If the two of them had started literally scratching each others’ backs right there in front of the press they couldn’t have been any more blatant about what they were doing. Netanyahu also asked Trump to bless Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, something that will go over real well if it’s coupled with a move to put a large number of new US soldiers on the ground in Syria (see below).

Syria

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Conflict update: February 14 2017

Why are you reading this today? Valentine’s Day is supposed to be a happy day–or a depressing day, but for reasons that have nothing to do with the shitty state of the world. Well, you’re here and my wife and I couldn’t find a sitter this evening, so I guess we might as well get into it.

Flynngate

Well, Michael Flynn is no longer protecting the nation from the grave threat posed by the terrifying Islamo-Socialist-Cuban-Iranian-North Korean-Chinese-Bolivian-Syrian-Nicaraguan-Venezuelan-Fascist-Terrorist alliance dedicated to America’s destruction, and–what? Oh for fuck’s sake, don’t tell me you still haven’t read his book! HOW DO YOU EXPECT TO PROTECT YOUR FAMILY WHEN YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW YOUR ENEMY? Get your head in the game, people.

Anyway, Flynn is out on account of he decided to do some wheeling and dealing with Moscow before his boss took office, then he lied to Donald Trump and Mike Pence about it. Except he didn’t really lie to either one of them, because they both knew what he’d done and, in Trump’s case, most likely told him to do it. Questions abound, not just about what Trump knew and when he knew it (which, let’s be honest, are open questions on pretty much any issue), but about what happens to the administration now. The first order of business is obviously finding a replacement, and the early frontrunner seems to be Vice Admiral Robert Harward, a former deputy commander of Central Command. Harward apparently lives on the West Coast, however, and his willingness to uproot his family to serve as sailing master on the USS Shipwreck is in question. David Petraeus is also clearly in the mix and would be hilarious given this administration’s love-hate relationship with state secrets.

Confusion also abounds as to the status of the rest of the National Security Council, and there have been directly contradictory reports about top figures like Deputy NatSec Advisor KT McFarland. There’s the question of whether there will be a congressional investigation into the circumstances surrounding Flynn’s removal–Republicans are pretty much all over the map on this point, and meanwhile members of the Intelligence Committees say they haven’t heard much of anything about Flynn from the White House. It’s not clear what impact this will have on Trump’s foreign policy, which has been in constant flux from the day he announced his candidacy through today. Flynn was definitely one of the loudest voices in the “make nice with Russia” camp (hence his large fan club in Moscow), but he wasn’t the only one. It’s tempting to think that the departure of the batshit nuts Flynn will stabilize Trump’s foreign policy, but this seems to ignore the fact that the most unstable part of Trump’s foreign policy is Trump himself.

Last but certainly not least there’s the question of what this means for Trump’s administration in general. We’re a week away from the one-month mark and already the most powerful national security voice in the White House has resigned in some disgrace, and it’s possible that an investigation into the reasons for his resignation will tie the administration up in knots for some time to come. I admit I’m partial to this prediction because I badly want it to come true, but with that in mind I still recommend Brian Beutler’s piece in The New Republic from earlier today.

Who Cares, We’re All Gonna Die

Ultimately, though, who gives a shit about Michael Flynn? We’ve got much bigger fish to fry: Continue reading

Conflict update: January 31 2017

After yesterday’s marathon catch-up session, I’m going to try to keep this one relatively short.

Ukraine

Fighting in and around the town of Avdiivka, in the northern part of Donetsk, has reached a level serious enough to move the UN Security Council to express its collective “grave concern.” At least eight people were reportedly killed there today, and while total casualty figures are sketchy, it seems that upwards of 20 people, and maybe even more–Ukrainian soldiers, separatists, and civilians alive–have been killed since Sunday. Each side is naturally accusing the other of initiating the new round of violence, but frankly both have reasons to escalate right now, to try to stake out their positions before the new US administration firms up its Ukraine policy. The State Department has also expressed concern over the fighting, but otherwise the Trump administration hasn’t said anything. Make of that what you will.

Syria

Not very much to say today. The next round of talks in Geneva, which was supposed to begin on February 8 but was then postponed, has now been rescheduled for February 20. The hope is that the extra time will allow the ceasefire to take deeper root and give the rebels time to organize their delegation. The heaviest fighting today seems to have taken place in eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, where the government claims its forces have made significant gains against rebel fighters in the past several hours.

In good news, the UN World Food Programme has been able to resume air drops of food and other basic supplies into the besieged eastern city of Deir Ezzor, even though heavy fighting continues to rage there between government and ISIS forces. Apparently they’ve found a new drop zone that is safe from the fighting.

Rumors persist that Bashar al-Assad recently suffered a “mini-stroke” and was treated in Beirut. Those same rumors say his condition is not life-threatening but that he may have some impaired movement on his left side. Obviously there’s not enough to go on here to say that these reports are genuine, but there’s also no particular reason to go by the Syrian government’s denials either.

Iraq

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Conflict update: January 30 2017

Iraq

Purely by coincidence, my absence from regular blogging coincided with the planned lull in the Mosul operation. With eastern Mosul having been liberated just before I checked out, the Iraqis have been laying the groundwork for the eventual assault on the western half of the city. Iraq forces have been actively liberating villages north of Mosul, shelling ISIS fighters building defensive works on the west bank of the Tigris, and moving units into place to prepare to cross the river.

Increasingly it appears that the paramilitary and predominantly Shiʿa Popular Mobilization Units will have a much larger role to play in anti-ISIS operations moving forward, which violates a number of the principles Baghdad laid out (and in some cases guaranteed to third parties) before the Mosul operation began. To wit:

  • The PMU is probably going to be given the responsibility of liberating Tal Afar from ISIS. You may recall that the role of the PMU was a concern from the beginning of the offensive, and when it was announced that the units would concentrate on the area west of Mosul, Turkey raised objections to the idea that those forces might enter Tal Afar, where it’s feared that they could carry out reprisal attacks against Sunni Turkmens who are suspected of having collaborated with ISIS back in 2014.
  • It also appears that some PMU forces are going to participate in the west Mosul offensive, though the extent of their involvement, and whether they’ll be allowed to enter the city, isn’t clear. Before the offensive the idea that the PMU might enter Mosul was seen as a non-starter, both because their presence might alienate Mosul’s civilians and because, again, Turkey would take issue.

The reason for the apparent change in plans is sheer manpower. It’s been a few months now and the regular Iraqi army force that was supposed to liberate Tal Afar just hasn’t materialized. In Mosul, meanwhile, there aren’t even enough Iraqi police forces to fully secure the eastern side of the city as it is, and that’s before they start being diverted to the western side of the city. Unless Baghdad wants to take a few months off to rebuild its forces, the PMU are going to have to play a larger role because they still have the numbers. Additionally, it would seem that the people in east Mosul were so happy to be freed from ISIS control that fears about how the PMU might be received could be overblown. On the other hand, these moves–if they materialize–will generate a response from Turkey.

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Atheel al-Nujaifi (Wikimedia | Bernd Schwabe)

Speaking of Turkey, one of the political sideshows accompanying the liberation of Mosul has been the status of Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Ninewah province from 2009 through 2015. Baghdad has had an arrest warrant out for Nujaifi since last October, accusing him, during his time as governor, of facilitating the entry and basing of Turkish forces on Iraqi soil, but Nujaifi is under the protection of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil and is thus untouchable. Since the Mosul operation began, Nujaifi and his Hashd al-Watani militia have been working with Iraqi forces north of Mosul, and when the eastern side of the city was liberated he apparently entered it like a conquering hero. His many political enemies, who helped push that October arrest warrant, are pushing for him to be arrested now that he’s left the sanctuary of Erbil. Nujaifi has political sway with Iraqi Kurds, Turkey, and Sunni Arabs in Ninewah, plus his own small army, so he does have a lot of support. He seems to think he can stage a political comeback by making Ninewah’s autonomy from Baghdad his main cause, but his presence in Mosul is potentially destabilizing–though not as potentially destabilizing as his arrest would be.

In Nice news, the Iraqi government is undertaking multiple projects to study and protect the country’s rich archeological record. ISIS unfortunately sold off or destroyed whatever it could in the places it conquered, but it’s very important from both national and financial perspectives that Baghdad protects what remains.

Syria

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