Conflict update: April 22-23 2017

FRANCE

You may have heard that there was a little presidential election in France today. Well, after a lot of uncertainty and polling and analysis and more polling and oh man that one dude is coming on, what does that mean, this is so unpredictable…it looks like Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen will be facing off head-to-head in the runoff on May 7 (it looks like Macron will finish slightly ahead of her in the first round voting, but that doesn’t really matter). Just like the polls have shown pretty consistently since late January. That this outcome isn’t surprising is itself so surprising that I don’t really have much else to say about it. From a historical perspective this is a milestone vote in that it’s the first time that neither of the country’s major parties (the Republicans and the Socialists) will be represented in the runoff.

If you, like me, would really rather not see France follow America down the reactionary xenophobe path, then it’s obviously distressing to even see Le Pen advance to the second round. The fact that she’s gotten that far gives her movement something to build upon moving forward. But you should take solace in this handy Wikipedia graph of the polling for an until-now hypothetical Macron-Le Pen runoff:

opinion_polling_for_the_french_presidential_election2c_2017_macrone28093le_pen

Even if these polls are off–and the first round results suggest that the polling in this race has actually been pretty on point–they’d have to be monumentally off to make a Le Pen victory a possibility. Macron may be a centrist neoliberal squish but, unfortunately, he’s now easily the better option in this race.

IRAQ

ISIS fighters on Sunday attacked an Iraqi federal police base in the town of Hamam al-Alil, just south of Mosul, and killed at least three police officers. Iraqi police have been using that base as a staging area for their operations in west Mosul, which are as they have been for weeks still bogged down in the Old City. The stalemate there is as you might expect wreaking havoc on civilians–Iraqis who have managed to get out of the Old city describe eating boiled wheat grains and flour mixed with water because there’s simply nothing else left.

Though fighting in the Old City continues to be static Iraq’s counter-terrorism forces are continuing to advance through the center of west Mosul. But as Joel Wing writes, the civilian costs are continuing to mount:

There were more civilian casualties reported in Mosul. A car bomb went off in Zuhur in liberated east Mosul leaving 4 dead and 14 wounded. This was the first successful vehicle bomb in the east since February, and highlighted the fact that IS still has active cells in that half of the city. Air strikes in three pars of west Mosul left 17 fatalities and 30 injured. The Iraqi and Coalition forces have said they want to protect civilians, but the increase use of airpower and artillery along with the layout of east Mosul, and the use of human shields have all contributed to rising civilian deaths. That was the basis for a story by the Los Angeles Times that noted a huge spike in reported civilian casualties in the last few months based on data collected by Airwars.

ISIS, meanwhile, is reportedly executing Mosul residents who refuse to fight for the insurgent group, as well as residents who refuse to assist it in other ways.

SYRIA

An Israeli missile attack on a Syrian National Defense Forces (the umbrella agency for pro-government volunteer militias all over the country) in Quneitra province (near the occupied Golan Heights) killed three Syrian fighters on Sunday. The Israelis struck targets in Quneitra a couple of times this weekend in response to Syrian mortar fire hitting the Israeli-controlled parts of Golan late last week. Also over the weekend, pro-government forces with Russian help captured the town of Halfaya, north of Hama city, and at this point they’ve taken back all the territory the rebels were able to capture in Hama province a few weeks ago and are now advancing into areas that the rebels have held for several months at least.

The brief rebel success in Hama, it seems to me, points to the major problem Bashar al-Assad faces as the Syrian civil war settles into its new, post-Aleppo normal, which is that his army, depleted as it is from ~6 years of fighting, can’t be everywhere. The rebels can make temporary gains all over the place–they can’t hold them in the face of pro-Assad ground forces and Russian air power, but so what? The rebels aren’t trying to govern Syria–Assad is. The rebels aren’t trying to conquer Syria–Assad is. Now that the rebellion has really become a guerrilla affair (just ask Ayman al-Zawahiri, who apparently missed the sound of his own voice and decided to make a new audio recording advising Syria fighters to embrace guerrilla tactics), the rebels can settle in for a long haul while Assad has to try to win decisively. And if Assad’s army is in as ragged a shape as it appears to be from the outside, he’s going to have a hard time winning decisively.

I know people don’t like to hear this, but the study of civil wars since World War II says that they last, on average, about 10 years, and that the more factions are involved in the fighting, the longer they last. Which means Syria, with approximately 8.5 billion factions running around depending on the day, may very well not even be close to an end. Assad has been on a roll since Russia decided to get directly involved in the war, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be able to win anytime soon.

Meanwhile, there were reports today of heavy fighting between ISIS and the Syrian Democratic Forces near Tabqa, and on Saturday between ISIS and, well, ISIS, in the town of Tabqa, as factions there argued over whether or not to surrender to the SDF. Tabqa, along with its dam and nearby airfield, has to be safely in SDF hands before they’ll be able to begin their assault on Raqqa. Raqqa remains the top US/SDF target in Syria, even though the Pentagon is saying that ISIS has moved most of its government functions to nearby Deir Ezzor.

YEMEN

A US drone strike in Shabwa province on Sunday reportedly killed three al-Qaeda fighters. Which doesn’t seem like that big a story, I have to admit. The truth is, there have been a lot of stories like this in recent days that I’ve ignored because, well, three AQAP assholes get blown up in a truck, who cares. But there have been a lot of stories like this. And the reason is that the one thing Donald Trump really seems to be embracing in his gig as President of the United States is that it gives him virtually unlimited privileges to bomb Yemen. He bombed it 70 times last month, as you may have heard. I don’t think this month’s number will be that high, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we’ve carried out a Yemen bombing per day this month, on average.

And for what? Three AQAP assholes getting blown up in a truck? The more explosives you drop on a place, the more times you risk something going horribly wrong–ask the survivors of that mosque we blew up in Syria last month about what “horribly wrong” means. While we’re busy tempting fate like this, we continue to enable Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen–an intervention that has killed thousands, is starving millions, and has had the effect of dramatically strengthening the same AQAP we’re trying to destroy, three-assholes-and-a-truck at a time.

LEBANON

The Lebanese army says it killed a local ISIS leader and arrested ten ISIS fighters in an operation in Arsal on Saturday.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

While Gaza struggles to get by on six hours of electricity per day, the Israeli government is circling a deal with Cyprus, Greece, and Italy to support the construction of a pipeline that will send natural gas from Israel’s massive Leviathan offshore gas field (as well as from Cyprus’s offshore Aphrodite field) to Europe. Some people are apparently upset about this, arguing that it will “finance the Israeli occupation” and citing the multiple times the Israeli navy has attacked Palestinian fishermen who happen to stray into the waters above Israel’s two large offshore gas deposits. But, look, this gas ain’t gonna burn itself, you know what I mean? Who gives a shit about human rights, there’s a shitload of money to be made here!

On April 16, Palestinian leader and Israeli convict Marwan Barghouti wrote an op-ed for the New York Times explaining why he along with more than a thousand other Palestinians in Israeli prisons have undertaken a hunger strike to protest their treatment. Israeli media and the Israeli government did a masterful job of making the story about Barghouti’s criminal record rather than about the substance of his argument, and here’s James Zogby explaining why that’s so hard to swallow:

As one of the co-founders of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, I have long been acquainted with Israel’s “justice system.” Since most Palestinians have been convicted based on confessions obtained under duress, international human rights organizations have condemned Israel’s violations of international law and the lack of due process afforded to prisoners. Over 80% of all arrested Palestinians have been refused the right to legal counsel until after they have been subjected to prolonged and often abusive interrogation. In his article, Barghouti describes these abuses that he and other prisoners have been forced to endure, noting that the equivalent of 40% of Palestine’s male population have been jailed by Israel.

The Israeli government’s response to the article and to the strike, itself, have been revealingly characteristic of their modus operandi.

Because the Times initially described Barghouti as a member of the Palestinian Parliament and a leader, Israel launched a campaign forcing the editors to change their description to note that Barghouti had been convicted of murder and membership in a terrorist organization.

What Israel did not mention was the fact that Barghouti’s arrest, trial, and conviction were denounced by the Swiss-based Inter-Parliamentary Union as being “a violation of international law” and having “failed to meet fair-trial standards.” The IPU concluded that “Barghouti’s guilt has not been established.”

IRAN

Conservative Iranian presidential candidate Mostafa Mir-Salim lit into President Hassan Rouhani today, claiming that the nuclear agreement Rouhani negotiated didn’t result in sanctions against Iran being lifted. This is demonstrably untrue, but it’s an easy claim to make when Iran’s unemployment rate is still high and the economic gains realized by the lifting of those sanctions haven’t (yet?) filtered down to middle and working class Iranians. This is the kind of attack Rouhani is going to get for the duration of the campaign, and refuting it is going to require him, at least somewhat, to ask Iranian voters to believe him over their lying eyes. That’s never an easy thing to do.

AFGHANISTAN

The death toll from Friday’s Taliban attack on an Afghan military base near the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, in Balkh province, has skyrocketed to at least 140 (that’s the official count so far–the Taliban are talking about 500 or more deaths). That takes the incident from the realm of “particularly deadly Taliban attack” to “worst Taliban attack since the war began in 2001,” which is quite a milestone here in 2017. People are calling for resignations, specifically of senior officers and civilian military bosses, though, to be fair, there were plenty of people in Afghanistan who were already calling for those things before this happened.

What makes this attack particularly troubling is not just the high casualty rate, not just the apparent ease with which the Taliban were able to get into a major Afghan military base, but the fact that the attack took place so close to the third-largest city in the country. The Taliban’s true strength has remained in rural areas–if they’re now able to carry out attacks on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif, then that’s a pretty bad sign for the overall war effort.

NORTH KOREA

It was really a banner weekend for Pyongyang. At various points, the North Korean government: threatened to sink the USS Carl Vinson, threatened to nuke Australia, and arrested a US citizen as he tried to leave the country. Of these, the most serious is obviously the detention of Kim Sang-duk, a professor who becomes the third American known to be in North Korean custody. I say that because the first two things are obviously bluster whereas Kim is a real person who’s now really been arrested for, well, who knows what. Now factor in the possibility that Pyongyang will finally attempt its long-awaited nuclear test, and/or a new missile test, on Tuesday to mark the anniversary of the creation of its military, and we’re in for another fun week of World War III speculation.

SOMALIA

On Sunday, a roadside bomb in Puntland, courtesy of al-Shabab, killed six Somali soldiers and wounded another eight.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

BBC reporter Catherine Byaruhanga was somehow able to the DRC’s Kasai region to report on the Kamwina Nsapu rebellion that has killed hundreds of people since last August. The rebellion started when tribal leader Kamwina Nsapu was denied recognition by the Congolese government, but after he was killed by government forces the movement bearing his name seems to have become a catch-all for local grievances against Kinshasa:

The Kamuina Nsapu militia now has many factions all fighting for different reasons, but with the authorities their common target.

In Kananga, the biggest town in the region, we heard echoes of Paul’s testimony from different people.

One man, who did not want to be named, recalled an army raid:

“When the shooting began, my children ran and hid in a neighbour’s house.

“But the government soldiers got into that house – three people were killed and one of my children was injured.”

Another Kananga resident accused the armed forces of extortion:

“Soldiers are coming into neighbourhoods and harassing people for money. If you don’t have money, they threaten to kill you.”

“They are stealing mobile phones and money. People are scared and that’s why they are running away.”

UKRAINE

One American was killed and two other people were injured on Sunday when the vehicle they were in struck a mine in eastern Ukraine. The American was a paramedic working for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The incident has inspired calls, including from Washington, for Ukrainian separatists to allow the OSCE to conduct an investigation into exactly what happened.

UNITED KINGDOM

With France’s political future looking a bit less uncertain, we should probably look at early polling for the UK’s June snap elections, where there’s…really not much uncertainty at all. Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party is practically lapping the field in two polls released this weekend, taking 48 percent in one poll and 50 (!) percent in another.

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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 20 2017

FRANCE

Details are still sketchy, but a gunman earlier this evening shot and killed a police officer on the Champs-Élysées in Paris before being shot and killed in turn by other police officers. There was a search for accomplices immediately after the shooting, but it seems at this point like the shooter was acting alone. French authorities are treating this as a terrorist attack, and ISIS has reportedly already claimed credit for the attack. The attacker used a pseudonym but he’s been identified as Karim Cheurfi, a 39 year old French national who has a previous conviction for shooting at police officers and was–obviously–known to authorities.

ISIS’s claim of responsibility was lightning fast, as these things go, which suggests they may have known of the attack before it happened–though it doesn’t necessarily suggest they had any role in planning it and, indeed, it doesn’t seem to have required much planning. It may also be that ISIS is aiming to use this attack to meddle with the French presidential election taking place this weekend, and if that’s the case then it’s pretty clear who they’d like to see win: reactionary nationalist/fascist Marine Le Pen. As the most anti-Islam voice in the race, Le Pen obviously stands to benefit from any last-minute voting decisions made out of fear stemming from this attack. And we know that ISIS likes it when Western countries elect right-wing, anti-Islam demagogues.

As it stood before the shooting, polling had Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron heading to the runoff, but conservative François Fillon had moved back into third place on his own. A switch of just a few points–hardly an impossibility given the number of voters who still say they’re undecided and/or not sure they’re going to vote–could put the “tough on crime”-style candidates, Fillon and Le Pen, in the runoff with Macron on the outside looking in. And in that case, with Le Pen running against the badly damaged and scandal-ridden Fillon in the second round, anything could happen.

IRAN

This was going to be my first story before the Paris shooting happened. Iran’s Press TV has the list of candidates who have been permitted by the Guardian Council to stand in the country’s May 19 presidential election. They are:

  • Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani
  • Religious leader Ebrahim Raisi
  • Tehran Mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf
  • Current First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri
  • Moderate politician Mostafa Hashemitaba
  • Conservative (?) politician Mostafa Mir-Salim
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Via PressTV.com

Notably not on that list, of course, is former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His former vice president, Hamid Baghaei, was also disqualified. He hasn’t had time to do any squawking about this yet, but I have my doubts he’s going to take it lying down. Although I have to give his surrogates credit for how brazenly they’re already trying to spin this result as something Ahmadinejad really wanted all alongContinue reading

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 10-14 2017

First off all, apologies for not doing one of these earlier this week. I had intended to crank something out on Wednesday but, well, when Wednesday rolled around I didn’t want to anymore.

Second, Easter and Passover greetings to my Christian and Jewish readers. This is one of the rare years when the Orthodox and Catholic Easter dates align with one another, so I don’t have to specify which Christians for a change. I’ll probably be back to regular programming on Monday, so I wanted to get an Easter message out just in case I don’t have the opportunity again before Sunday.

OK, so, strap in. I’ll try to make this as short as possible. Forgive me if some smaller stories fall through the cracks.

THE TRUMP DOCTRINE

If you assume that Rex Tillerson is actually able to speak on his boss’s behalf, then it’s possible that a “Trump Doctrine” is beginning to take shape:

Days after President Trump bombed Syria in response to a chemical attack that killed children, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said on Monday that the United States would punish those “who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.”

Hey, that’s interesting. So does that mean we’re going to punish the Saudis for committing crimes against the innocents in Yemen? No? Well, how about punishing Abdel Fattah el-Sisi the next time he disappears some political opponents or massacres a bunch of protesters? Not that either, huh? OK, well surely we’ll want to protect innocents in Bahrain from their–oh, I see. Are we at least planning to punish Bashar al-Assad for the myriad crimes he’s committed against innocents that haven’t involved nerve gas? Hah, not even that, cool.

Hey, what about those ~270 or so innocents we bombed in Mosul about a month ago? Or the ~50 or so we bombed at evening prayer in al-Jinah around that same time? Are we going to punish ourselves for those crimes?

No, don’t answer, I already know. This is quite a doctrine we’re developing. We’ll punish those who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world (offer may not be valid in your area).

SYRIA

Continue reading

Conflict (i.e., Syria) update: April 7 2017

Most of this post, for reasons that I assume are clear, is going to deal with the ongoing fallout from last night’s/this morning’s US missile strike on Syria’s Shayrat air base. I’ll have a handful of updates from other parts of the world tacked on at the end. There’s a lot to cover so I’ll try to take it in chunks.

WHAT DID THE STRIKE ACCOMPLISH?

It seems contradictory to say that this strike was both a potentially dangerous escalation and relatively insignificant–I’ve been giving myself cognitive dissonance all day trying to keep both of these thoughts in my head. But it’s true once you separate strategy from tactics. Strategically, this is a clear 180 shift in the administration’s Syria policy from where we were literally at the start of this week–with regime change openly being discounted as an American aim–to where we are now–with “Assad Must Go” practically being spray painted on a billboard outside the White House. It’s a big deal, and if there’s more to come then it will be an even bigger deal.

Tactically though, this strike accomplished…what, exactly? One-off airstrikes don’t achieve much as a rule, and in fact they can have the effect of extending and intensifying conflicts like the Syrian civil war. Russian and Syrian TV footage purporting to show the damage caused at Shayrat by this particular strike shows…not much damage, to be honest. Obviously these sources would have a clear interest in downplaying the results of the strike, but I think the fact that Assad’s air force was able to use the base less than one full day after the strike shows how little damage must have been done. And even if the Shayrat air base had been completely wiped out, somehow rendered irreparable, it would have made Assad’s air campaign a bit more difficult, but not much more than that. It’s been hard to get a clear casualty figure–Syrian media says 16 were killed, most of them civilians in the villages surrounding the base, but it might be wise to wait for some confirmation before accepting Syrian state media’s figures in this case.

From a tangible perspective then, if this is it it’s not much. So what about the intangible? Did Donald Trump “make his point” and “send a message” to Assad about the use of chemical weapons? Maybe. I guess we won’t know unless and until Assad tries to use sarin again, right? Let’s assume he did though; so what? International norms on chemical weapons are important, sure, but the “message” Assad is likely to receive is “go back to killing people with conventional weapons,” which, the numbers don’t lie, he’s been doing with frightening aplomb (he’s already resumed bombing Khan Shaykhun, in case you were wondering). And to be honest, this strike was so limited that there’s a possibility Assad says “this is it? seriously?” and figures he’ll be able to get away with using sarin again at some point.

IS THIS IT?

What happens now? Is the United States now in the Syria regime change business? Rex Tillerson pretty much said no. Nikki Haley says maybe. Donald Trump says…check with me after tomorrow morning’s “Fox & Friends,” probably. The fact that nobody, including people within the administration, seems to know is…well, I’ll get to that, but it’s not good. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that this is supposed to be it, which seems right now to be the case. Is that even possible? Even if the Trump administration wants to go back to the way things were five days ago, when America’s only consideration in Syria was the fight against ISIS, can it? Doesn’t the US now, as Robert Hunter puts it, “own Syria,” or at least a part of it? Having just bombed one of Assad’s bases in part to chase that “American credibility” hit every administration craves, is Trump going to sit back now while Assad, with Russian and Iranian support, resumes winning the war? The prospect is not a cheery one.

On the other hand, if the administration has no plan to follow this strike up with…something (not necessarily military), then what was the point? Natsec types are thrilled that we made some missiles blow up, but these are people who still, despite evidence to the contrary, believe that public displays of America’s massive, throbbing…military might are good in and of themselves, no further accomplishment needed. They should all be thoroughly discredited by now, but this is America, so of course they’re not.

“What happens now” also applies to, and will be dictated by, what Russia does next. I don’t mean in terms of the broader US-Russia relationship, or the dreams of a grand US-Russia reset, which were already falling apart before this strike. I’m talking about how Russia is going to respond in Syria. They don’t have cause to respond that harshly–Washington warned Moscow in time to get its people off the base (so much for Trump’s patented surprise attack, I guess), so they suffered no direct losses. Nor do the Russians have much moral ground on which to stand here, considering it was under Russian auspices that Assad insisted he’d destroyed all his chemical weapons as of 2015, and meanwhile there were Russians working at the fucking air base from which Tuesday’s sarin strike was launched. And, look, there’s no chance Russia is going to start a war with the United States over Shayrat air base in Syria. The arguments against American intervention against Assad never assumed that Russia would start World War III over Bashar al-Assad. Rather, they reflected concerns that when you put great powers in close proximity working at cross purposes, historically shit happens and things can spiral out of control.

But there are things Russia can do in Syria to make life harder on the United States that don’t approach going to war. In fact, they already did one today, shutting down the back channel that US and Russian forces were using to keep their aircraft from getting too close or making moves that could be perceived as threatening. This is not good. By itself this could be enough to seriously curtail America’s ability to conduct airstrikes against ISIS in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces operation to (eventually) take Raqqa. On the other hand, that’s all Russia has done. There have been some angry Russian statements and denouncements at the UN, but that’s perfunctory. We’ll obviously see if there’s any more to come, but for now that’s a pretty muted response, and you may even see the deconfliction channel reopened after a couple of days.

THE “WHY” DOESN’T MATTER

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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.

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