Conflict update: March 27 2017

A FEATURE, NOT A BUG: PART I

At LobeLog, I look at the recent increase in US-caused civilian casualties in the Middle East, and the presumption, still denied by Washington in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, that President Trump has told the Pentagon to stop worrying about civilian casualties and just blow the shit out of them, as it were. I conclude with the short version of why, aside from the obvious loss of life, carelessly killing civilians is bad for the US:

The eventual defeat of IS and al-Qaeda requires not simply beating them on a battlefield or driving them out of a city. It requires undermining and discrediting their ideology. These groups, and their eventual successors, can survive indefinitely if the United States and its allies take actions that fuel Muslim resentment toward the West. In any war, some civilian casualties are unfortunately inevitable. But if the Trump administration has truly decided to “take the gloves off” in the war on terror, then it may find that it’s punching the wrong people.

Of course, this analysis only holds if you assume that the Trump administration is actually trying to secure America and minimize the threat posed by extremist jihadi groups. If, however, their real goal is to have their Clash of Civilizations war with Islam, then they may be doing exactly what they need to be doing. Civilian casualties in that scenario are very much a feature rather than a but. I assume the former is still true for most of the people working in this White House and this Pentagon, but I have to admit I don’t really have any reason to assume it.

A FEATURE, NOT A BUG: PART II

Jon Wolfsthal and Laura S. H. Holgate of the Carnegie Endowment worry that Donald Trump’s planned cuts to the State Department budget will consequently mean cuts to US funding for the International Atomic Energy Agency. In writing about this possibility, they manage to be correct and also pretty misguided at the same time:

Regardless of what you may have heard about the United Nations or the IAEA itself, the agency may be the greatest national security bargain the United States has. As the old cliché goes, if we didn’t have it, we have to invent it. Washington provides a significant percentage of the IAEA’s annual budget and, on top of that, additional resources known as voluntary contributions. This money ensures that the IAEA can handle its current responsibilities by having the tools, people, skills, and resources needed to do its job — which is, to put it bluntly, to help keep us and other countries safe and enable all to benefit from the peaceful benefits of nuclear technology.

So in plain English, what does that mean? IAEA inspectors are on the ground in Iran monitoring that Tehran fully complies with its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It helps monitor nuclear materials in over 50 countries to deter diversion and to certify that none have been syphoned off for illicit weapon programs. It helps ensure the safety of nuclear facilities all over the world. It’s increasingly on the front lines of preventing terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons. Oh, and it’s also part of the fight against the Zika virus and other deadly insect-borne diseases (they nuke male insects so they can’t breed, poor guys).

Cutting IAEA funding is objectively a terrible idea. But if you’re opposed to the JCPOA and want a good excuse to screw around with its terms or abrogate it outright, then defunding the agency that’s supposed to be monitoring the agreement is a pretty good place to start. If the IAEA no longer has the resources to monitor Iran, then, gosh, I guess we’ll have to make the deal more onerous for the Iranians to ease the IAEA’s burden. And if the Iranians aren’t willing to accept a reasonable escalation of the deal’s terms, well, that’s on them, isn’t it?

Wolfsthal and Holgate start, like I did, by assuming that Donald Trump and his administration are actually interested in national security, and maybe that’s their mistake. If what these guys really want is to get back on the path to war with Iran, then the likelihood that slashing IAEA funding will help them do that is a feature, not a bug.

IRAQ

Continue reading

Conflict update: March 20-21 2017

Because there’s so much to cover tonight, you’re getting two updates. This one covers everything but the Greater Middle East, the other covers nothing but the Greater Middle East. Enjoy…?

COMING SOON TO A SECURITY THEATER NEAR YOU

Effective as of yesterday, people trying to fly into the US from airports in Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia will not be allowed to bring any electronic device larger than a mobile phone into the cabin with them. Because Reasons:

On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security released a statement on the new policy, stating the “2015 airliner downing in Egypt, the 2016 attempted airliner downing in Somalia, and the 2016 armed attacks against airports in Brussels and Istanbul” as examples of why increased security was needed.

“Evaluated intelligence indicates that terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation and are aggressively pursuing innovative methods to undertake their attacks, to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items. Based on this information, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly and Transportation Security Administrator Acting Administrator Huban Gowadia have determined it is necessary to enhance security procedures for passengers at certain last point of departure airports to the United States,” the statement said.

Of those four cited attacks (two of which didn’t even take place on airplanes) only the Somali incident would have been inhibited by this ban, and since investigators believe in the Somali case that a laptop-encased bomb was rigged to explode on a timer, it’s not clear what sticking that same laptop in the luggage compartment would have accomplished–and, in fact, putting a bunch of lithium-ion batteries in the luggage compartment could have disastrous consequences. It’s certainly no secret that electronic devices are a risk, that’s why you get your carry-ons screened at security. But if security at the ten airports cited in this order is lax, then doesn’t the same concern apply to checked luggage? And why has a measure like this become necessary now, when we’ve known that electronics were a risk for years and there have been exactly zero attacks against US-bound passenger flights originating at any of these airports?

I’ve actually seen it suggested that explosives are less a concern than the possibility of someone hacking into the plane’s flight controls, but if that were really a possibility then why would you allow any electronic devices on any plane originating at any airport?

Britain has now implemented a similar ban though from a smaller list of airports, and Canada is reportedly considering one as well, because security theater is remarkably appealing. Aside from making it just a little bit more unpleasant to fly to the US from the Middle East and North Africa, which may be the entire point, I’m not really sure what this accomplishes.

NO MESSAGE HERE

I’m sure this was all just an unfortunate coincidence:

An African trade summit organized by the University of Southern California ended up with zero Africans as they were all denied visas to enter the United States just days before the summit despite applying months ahead of time, in what organizers called an act of “discrimination against African nations.”

“Usually we get 40 percent that get rejected but the others come,” Mary Flowers, chair of the African Global Economic and Development Summit, told Voice of America in an interview Friday.

“This year it was 100 percent. Every delegation. And it was sad to see, because these people were so disheartened.”

If we’re going to adopt Deputy Leader Bannon’s philosophy that nobody from a majority non-white nation should be allowed to enter the United States, then let’s just say that officially. Get it on the record so people can know what they’re dealing with. Sure, the administration will lose in court, again, but they seem happy to keep trying new ways to achieve this goal even as the courts keep telling them “no.”

TILLERSON TRACKER

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See, Tillerson already met with this German dude that one time! What the hell more do you people want?

BREAKING BREAKING BREAKING IN UNPRECEDENTED INSULT, SECRETARY OF STATE MAY SNUB NATO SUMMIT TO MEET WITH CHINESE PRESIDE–you know what, folks? I’m not entirely sure about this one. Continue reading

Conflict update: March 16 2017

SYRIA

jannah

The town of al-Jinah, just west of Aleppo (Google Maps)

“Dozens” (somewhere north of 50, but a final count probably won’t be available until at least tomorrow) of people were killed this evening when an airstrike hit a mosque in the town of al-Jinah, in western Aleppo province, at evening prayer. Upwards of 300 people may have been in the mosque when it was struck, so the death toll could be much higher than has already been reported. It’s still an open question who conducted the strike, but there’s a pretty good chance it was the US, as the Pentagon has already acknowledged carrying out an airstrike in the “vicinity” according to reporter Samuel Oakford:

A photo of missile debris reportedly taken from the scene supports this conclusion:

Oakford says that those US officials told him that the airstrike targeted an “al-Qaeda meeting place” near the mosque, but this is one of those cases where your intent doesn’t really matter. Bombing a place of worship is a war crime. There’s not much gray area there. If people are literally shooting at you from inside the building you might be able to justify something like this, but other than that it’s illegal, full stop.

If this does turn out to have been a US strike it would be, at best, Donald Trump’s second war crime in his two months on the job, after the botched special forces raid in Yemen that killed several Yemeni civilians. Its also reflective of the Trump administration’s overall plan to get more deeply involved in Syria, just not on the Assad-rebels front. The Pentagon is preparing to send 1000 more US troops to support the Syrian Democratic Forces in their eventual attack on Raqqa, as well as to serve as a deterrent against Turkey attacking the SDF. This strike would indicate a stepped-up campaign against al-Qaeda in Syria as well.

THAT’S SO GORKA

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Breitbart News editor turned key Trump national security adviser Sebastian Gorka (seen above, wearing his, uh, uniform) is being forced to deny that he’s a member of a Hungarian organization with ties to the Nazis. Several weeks ago, LobeLog’s Eli Clifton noticed that Gorka sometimes likes to wear a medal, which you can see in the photo above, from the Vitezi Rend. According to the State Department, and World War II/Hungarian historians, the Vitezi Rend organization, which was established after World War I to honor war veterans (well, non-Jewish war veterans), collaborated with the Nazis.

Gorka claimed that his father was “awarded” the medal for his time as a political prisoner in Communist Hungary in the 1950s, and that he (Sebastian) sometimes wears the medial to commemorate his father’s sacrifice, but that story doesn’t really check out. For one thing, only a Vitezi Rend member could get the medal, and for another, for Sebastian to wear it now means that he’s a member of the group himself. The Forward then dug into the Gorka story and reported on his ties to far-right antisemitic groups in Hungary, which prompted the Anti-Defamation League, last month, to demand that Gorka “disavow” those ties.

Then today happened. The Forward, building on their previous reporting, got leaders within Vitezi Rend to “confirm” that Gorka is an active member of their organization. This has prompted a number of human rights and Jewish groups to call for his resignation or firing, including the Anne Frank Center. What’s more, if Gorka really is a member of Vitezi Rend, his immigration status could be in question, according to the Forward:

Gorka’s membership in the organization — if these Vitézi Rend leaders are correct, and if Gorka did not disclose this when he entered the United States as an immigrant — could have implications for his immigration status. The State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual specifies that members of the Vitézi Rend “are presumed to be inadmissible” to the country under the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Gorka — who Vitézi Rend leaders say took a lifelong oath of loyalty to their group — did not respond to multiple emails sent to his work and personal accounts, asking whether he is a member of the Vitézi Rend and, if so, whether he disclosed this on his immigration application and on his application to be naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 2012. The White House also did not respond to a request for comment.

The fact is that we don’t know whether Gorka disclosed his membership in Vitezi Rend to immigration authorities, but if he did it would be a simple thing to say so and put a big chunk of this story to bed. That he hasn’t done that is…suggestive. And the irony of a national security adviser in this administration playing fast and loose with the immigration process is nothing short of mind-boggling.

IRAQ

A combination of bad weather and stiff ISIS resistance continues to hamper Iraqi advances in western Mosul, but the operation is progressing slowly. Iraqi forces moved closer to the Nuri Mosque in Mosul’s Old City today, and made small gains in other parts of the city as well. While the fighting was going on the AP reported that US and Iraqi commanders seemed to have very different conceptions of how the operation is going, with the Americans estimating that about a third of western Mosul has been liberated and the Iraqis putting the figure at 60 percent. The simple explanation here is that the Iraqis are citing a figure that includes the Mosul airport and Ghazlani military base, places that aren’t really in the city proper but have nonetheless been included in the overall west Mosul offensive. The Americans are talking about the city itself. No scandal, just the Iraqis naturally putting the best possible spin on their progress to date.

Nineqah province’s Yazidi, Turkmen, and Assyrian Christian minorities are looking ahead to post-ISIS Iraq and pushing for an autonomous region for their groups, and other minorities who wish to join the effort. The region would be similar to the Kurdistan Regional Government, though none of these groups appear to have the KRG’s ultimate goal of independence in mind.

TURKEY

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is heading to Turkey on March 30 to try to mend fences with Ankara, but he may want to prime himself for a chilly reception. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems hell bent on doing as much damage to Turkey’s relations with western countries as necessary to win nationalist support in the April 16th referendum, and to that end he’s once again threatening to abrogate the refugee deal he reached with the European Union last year. This is something Erdoğan seemingly two or three times a day at this point, but he never actually follows through on his threats. Much like his repeated promises to unleash economic hell on the Netherlands, on this Erdoğan’s bark is worse than his bite. He knows that Turkey needs Europe economically as much as Europe needs Turkey to act as a migrant bottleneck.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A short time ago a rocket or rockets appear to have struck near Israeli settlements in the Jordan valley. Militants in Gaza often fire rockets into Israeli territory, but it’s not yet clear what happened in this case as far as I can tell.

Benjamin Netanyahu promised again today that he will build a brand new illegal West Bank settlement to replace the illegal Amona settlement that his government tore down last month. Bibi is nothing but generous with other people’s land.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett said today that the Israeli military should send Lebanon “back to the Middle Ages” if and when another Israel-Lebanon war breaks out. Justifying his comments on the basis that Hezbollah is “embedded” in Lebanon’s security apparatus, Bennett said that Lebanon’s “infrastructure, airport, power stations, traffic junctions, Lebanese Army bases…should all be legitimate targets.” I wonder what kind of schools this guy runs.

EGYPT

Writing for the Carnegie Endowment, Maged Mandour looks at the civilian toll Egypt’s Sinai operations have taken:

In addition, the number of casualties during counterterrorism operations far exceeds the estimated number of Wilayat Sinai fighters. Since the start of the large counterterrorism “Operation Martyr’s Right” in September 2015, the Egyptian military has reported that 2,529 militants were killed and 2,481 others arrested as of December 2016. However, foreign intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Israel Defense Forces, estimated in mid-2016 that the size of Wilayat Sinai ranges from several hundred to a thousand militants, far below the numbers of reported killings. This disconnect can be explained by faulty intelligence or by inflating of the number of militants killed to include civilian deaths among militant deaths. The Egyptian government has a history of attacking civilians mistaken for militants. Local sources in Sinai back up the existence of such incidents, including an invented attack on a police station in Sheikh Zuweid that was used to justify the deaths of civilians in September 2013.

The counterinsurgency operation has increasingly been undifferentiated in its targeting of the local population. On January 13, five local youth were assassinated who were accused of being part of an attack on a police checkpoint that claimed the lives of eight policemen. In response, the local Bedouin tribes around the city of al-Arish launched a limited civil disobedience campaign to placate the public, refusing to pay water and electricity bills on February 11. The families claimed that at the time of the attack on the checkpoint, the five youth were already being held by state security forces, specifically the national security agency. This is not the first time that Egyptian security forces have been accused of executing defendants already in custody at the time of their alleged crimes, the most notable example of which is the case of Arab Sharkas. Six men were executed after being accused of killing soldiers during a Wilayat Sinai raid on the village of Arab Sharkas in March 2014, even though there was strong evidence that they were under arrest at the time the raid was committed.

SAUDI ARABIA

King Salman’s visit to China has paid off to the tune of $65 billion in new economic deals between the two nations. The countries reportedly agreed to deepen their ties on fossil fuel and renewable energy, with China possibly purchasing a stake in state-run Saudi oil giant Aramco before it goes public. Riyadh desperately needs new investment to boost its stagnating economy at a time when oil prices are low and look to remain relatively low for the foreseeable future. Salman also said he hopes China will increase its political and diplomatic engagement in the Middle East, but Chinese President Xi Jinping sounded noncommittal on that front.

IRAN

The deputy speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Motahhari, is demanding that Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi explain a recent spate of arrests of prominent reform activists in the lead up to May’s presidential election. Motahhari is furthermore threatening to begin impeachment proceedings against Alavi if he refuses to explain the situation to parliament. Alavi, as intelligence minister, answers to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not to President Hassan Rouhani nor, for that matter, to parliament, so if Motahhari were to attempt to follow through on this threat it could precipitate a significant government crisis.

KASHMIR

The Indian government seems to be moving quickly to approve and start work on six hydropower projects in Kashmir. Nice, renewable energy, am I right? Well, hold up a second. While there’s a lot of money to be made in these projects, they all happen to involve tributaries of the Indus River whose waters eventually flow into Pakistan. So in addition to generating electricity, these six dams, once built, could conceivably allow the Indian government to, I don’t know, artificially cause a famine in Pakistan by depriving it of enough water for irrigation. A water war involving two nuclear-armed states sounds like it might not be the best thing for the environment (or, really, anything else), but maybe that’s just me.

I’m no civil engineer or whatever, but it’s likely that these projects could be undertaken in such a way as to alleviate Pakistani concerns over water flow through the Indus valley. It’s also likely that the Indian government is going to use these dams as leverage to try to get Pakistan to do more to tamp down Kashmiri separatists.

MYANMAR

A commission set up by Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and led by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, charged with investigating the plight of the Rohingya community, said today that the Myanmar government must allow some 120,000 Rohingya to leave the decrepit internal refugee camps where they’ve been forced to live for the past five years. Annan’s commission further called upon the government to ensure that those Rohingya are guaranteed security and a way to make a living at the sites to which they return once they’ve left the camps.

PHILIPPINES

A Filipino legislator has filed impeachment charges against President Rodrigo Duterte. There’s about as much chance of this going anywhere as there is of me being appointed the next FBI Director, but hey, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.

NORTH KOREA

This sounds promising:

The Trump administration made a clear break Thursday with diplomatic efforts to talk North Korea out of a nuclear confrontation, bringing the United States and its Asian allies closer to a military response than at any point in more than a decade.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that 20 years of trying to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program had failed and that he was visiting Asia “to exchange views on a new approach.”

Soon after Tillerson’s remarks, in a sign of mounting tensions, the North Korean Embassy held an extraordinary news conference in Beijing to blame the potential for nuclear war on the United States while vowing that its homegrown nuclear testing program will continue in self-defense.

We’re fast approaching the point where the only way to keep Donald Trump’s promise that North Korean will never develop an ICBM will be to strike the country’s missile facilities, which is a scenario that probably won’t end well. Absent diplomacy, it’s hard to see where else this situation can go.

SOMALIA

Somali pirates released the oil tanker they’d hijacked a couple of days ago, along with the crew, after a long day that included a gun battle with Somali naval forces and negotiations with tribal elders on shore. They reportedly agreed to release the ship without being paid a ransom after they’d learned that it had been hired by Somali businessmen.

UKRAINE

Kiev imposed sanctions on a number of Russian-owned banks today, preventing their Ukrainian branches from moving money out of the country.

GREECE

A Greek group calling itself “Conspiracy of Fire Cellsclaimed responsibility for sending a letter bomb to German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble on Wednesday, thereby also implicating themselves in a letter bombing at the International Monetary Fund’s Paris headquarters today. The German bomb was intercepted, but the Paris bomb did injure the person who opened it. That bomb was apparently sent from Greece, hence suspicion falling on this “Fire Cells” group.

BALKANS

Johannes Hahn, the European Union official in charge of bringing new countries into the bloc, spoke to the prime ministers of Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Serbia in Sarajevo today. His message? Settle your various internal and external beefs so that you can join the EU. The problem with that message? Between Brexit and the rise of anti-expansion right-wing governments in EU states like Poland and Hungary, there’s little reason for any of the six Balkan states to believe they’re ever going to join the EU no matter what they do. The carrot only works if the horse knows it’s eventually going to get to eat the damn thing.

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Conflict update: March 1 2017

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S GENERALS

Donald Trump is reportedly planning to substantially hand control over military operations to his defense secretary, recently retired General James Mattis:

The Daily Beast’s Kim Dozier writes that Trump “wants to operate more like the CEO he was in the private sector in such matters, and delegate even more power to Mattis, which may mean rewriting one of President Barack Obama’s classified Presidential Policy Directives on potentially lethal operations in countries where the U.S. is not officially involved in combat.”

Military officers already have authority to greenlight certain military operations, but sensitive missions like the Yemen raid, conducted in a country where the United States is not formally engaged in combat operations, have typically required a sign-off from the White House. Trump has also previously said that he would give Mattis the power to “override” him on the question of whether to use torture on terror suspects. (The president still thinks it’s a good idea, but the defense secretary opposes it.)

As Keating notes, for any other president this would be a little terrifying. But we’re talking about Donald Trump, and the less he actually makes decisions in this government the better off we all are. This is glaringly true in the case of torture.

One area where Trump apparently won’t let his generals overrule him is when it comes to the Magic Words That Will Defeat Terrorism:

President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, advised him in a closed-door meeting last week to stop using a phrase that was a frequent refrain during the campaign: “radical Islamic terrorism.”

But the phrase will be in the president’s speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, according to a senior White House aide—even though McMaster reviewed drafts and his staff pressed the president’s chief speechwriter and senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, not to use it.

McMaster, who actually has some experience in, you know, anything at all related to national security, is being overruled by Trump’s political advisers, who have no such experience but want to make it very clear to Muslims that America is their enemy. And guess what? Message received.

SYRIA

Continue reading

Conflict update: February 12 2017

We’re in the middle of a windstorm and I keep losing power, so I’m going to have to call it a night with a lot of stuff still left to cover. I’ll be back tomorrow though. The storm blew through and I decided to stay up late to cram everything in here. You’re welcome, or I’m sorry, depending on your perspective.

Michael Flynn

I may have something more to say about this story later this week, especially if something else breaks, but let’s at least note that Donald Trump’s favorite and most unhinged general could be out of a job soon. On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn spent the month or so before Donald Trump’s inauguration talking with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about potentially easing or lifting US sanctions against Russian individuals and/or institutions. This is…well, I realize that nobody has ever been convicted under the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from conducting their own foreign policy, and Flynn won’t be the first. But this is a pretty blatant violation. It’s one thing for personnel in an incoming administration to take meetings with personnel of other governments in order to exchange pleasantries, get to know one another, and even discuss some major areas of policy. It’s something else for the personnel of an incoming administration to directly undermine the foreign policy of the current, albeit lame duck, administration.

Not that anybody in the Trump administration would care, but this report makes a liar out of Flynn and Vice President Mike Pence, who both denied that any such conversations took place. And of course the administration should be hyper-sensitive to any new stories suggesting an inappropriate relationship between it and Russia. It is possible, then, that Flynn could be jettisoned in some kind of face-saving maneuver. Even before this story broke there were rumblings about Flynn losing influence in Trump’s inner circle, and now that it has broken the White House seems pointedly unwilling to rush to his defense. Trump’s CIA just reportedly refused to issue a security clearance to one of Flynn’s National Security Council appointees, which seems like kind of a bad sign too. Other than Trump, I’m not sure what kind of support network Flynn has within the administration–Defense Secretary James Mattis reportedly isn’t a fan, and apparently neither is new CIA Director Mike Pompeo. So it could just be a matter of convincing Trump that Flynn has really brought shame upon the administration (and, well, he does stand out even among this collection of thieves, sociopaths, and grifters) to usher him out the door.

Syria

The Syrian rebel High Negotiation Committee has chosen a delegation to attend the next round of UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva on February 20. Interestingly, the HNC, which is based in Saudi Arabia, has opted to include representatives from two other Syrian exile groups–one based in Cairo and the other in Moscow–in its delegation. It does not, of course, plan to include any representatives from the two insurgent groups doing most of the actual fighting against the Syrian government (Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham), which as usual leads one to wonder how useful these talks can possibly be.

In the fight against ISIS, Turkish forces and their rebel clients have apparently entered the city of al-Bab. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan says that after they take al-Bab, his forces will continue right on to Raqqa–which, of course, isn’t going to sit well with anybody. It’s not going to sit well with the Syrian army, which is advancing on al-Bab from the south and nearly engaged in a full-on battle with those Turkish forces last week only to be talked down by Moscow. Next time Russia may not be able to play mediator. It’s also not going to sit well with the Kurdish YPG, which is expected, per the British government, to have isolated Raqqa by sometime this spring. Turkey’s interest in taking Raqqa is much less about defeating ISIS than about making sure the YPG doesn’t take it.

Speaking of the Kurds, since I highlighted Roy Gutman’s anti-YPG piece last week, I want also to highlight Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi’s response. Tamimi has some of the same issues I had with Gutman’s piece, specifically that he relies on potentially biased sourcing and draws inflammatory conclusions without much evidence to support them, but he goes into more detail and has some things to say about Gutman’s work more generally: Continue reading

Conflict update: February 9 2017

Just by way of an update, there’s a pretty good chance this place will be quiet tomorrow. I’m traveling again and, well, I might just feel like crashing afterwards. That’s also why this is posting a few hours earlier than I usually post these updates.

#ThanksTrump

As the Trump administration decides how to proceed now that its Muslim immigration ban looks truly kaput, it’s also preparing to begin the mass deportations called for in its other big immigration EO (the one about the “wall”). The Intercept has some excellent reporting on what’s about to happen and the ramifications that it will entail.

In a phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump reportedly referred to the 2010 New START nuclear arms control treaty as a “bad deal” for the US and refused Putin’s offer to extend it. OK, I mean, Trump is entitled to his opinion, but I have to say I’d feel better about this if sources who were involved in the call didn’t later report that, after Putin brought New START up, Trump had to “ask his aides in an aside what the treaty was.” Or, also, if Trump hadn’t made it abundantly clear during the 2016 campaign that he had no idea what New START was or what it did, despite his firm conviction that it was a terrible deal.

Eight countries–the Netherlands, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, Finland, and Cape Verde–have signed on to a joint effort to counter the Trump administration’s “gag rule” that prevents US-funded NGOs from providing women around the world with information on abortion.

Ted Malloch, the favorite to be named US Ambassador to the European Union, apparently doesn’t like the EU very much, which suggests he’ll do really well in that job, assuming he gets it. After all, former UN Ambassador John Bolton hated the UN, and he…oh, right. In Malloch’s case, one wonders how long Brussels is going to tolerate the Trump administration’s increasingly obvious desire to break the EU up.

Israel-Palestine

Benjamin Netanyahu’s government seems acutely aware that the recent passage of a bill legalizing the annexation of private Palestinian land by Israeli settlers is problematic, to say the least. That’s why they’ve drawn up some helpful talking points for settlement defenders, chock full of grade A bullshit about how the law was the only “fair” solution to the problem of these poor, benighted Israeli families, whose only crime was the literal theft of land belonging to somebody else (the dehumanization of actual Palestinians being a cornerstone of this particular bill). Defenders are also supposed to stress that the legal Palestinian owners of the land will be “fairly compensated,” which kind of elides the fact that many of them don’t want to be “compensated” at all, they just want their land. Here’s the interesting bit, though:

Israeli journalist and commentator Yossi Melman, who revealed the list Thursday in a column for Israeli newspaper Maariv, noted some peculiarities with the arguments, however.

For starters, he wrote, there is no mention of Netanyahu’s support for the law. Initially, the prime minister opposed the legislation, because he understood there would be immediate global criticism. Failing to mention Netanyahu, Melman said, “reinforces the assessment” that the prime minister and some of his ministers voted in favor of the law out of fear of upsetting right-wing voters.

The memo also suggests the government is “pinning its hopes on the Supreme Court to save Israel from the international isolation that the law is liable to cause.” The arguments allow diplomats to tell Israel’s critics not to get too frantic about the law because it will be knocked down in the court.

There is considerable evidence suggesting that Netanyahu wants the court to save him, not the least of which is that he was against the annexation bill before he was for it.

A Palestinian attacker wounded six Israelis in a market in the central Israeli town of Petah Tikva today. In Gaza, an Israeli (presumably, though they seem to be denying it) airstrike on part of the city’s tunnel network reportedly killed two civilians, and the al-Mezan Center for Human Rights is sounding alarm bells about the possibility of a new large-scale Israeli military offensive in Gaza.

Syria

The AP is beginning to wonder how there can be a ceasefire in Syria when fighting has continued mostly unabated in Idlib, Homs, Hama, areas around Damascus, al-Bab, Palmyra, areas around Raqqa, Deir Ezzor…well, you get the idea. It’s a good question, but I can assure you that there’s a perfectly understandable answer, which is that [trails off incoherently].

Turkish forces and their Free Syrian Army proxies reportedly continue to push in to al-Bab. I’ve seen scattered reports of minor fighting between the Turkish/FSA army and Syrian government/allied forces moving toward al-Bab from the south, but for the most part it seems that whatever Russia-brokered accommodation the two sides have reached is holding. Speaking of which, three Turkish soldiers were reportedly killed earlier today in an “accidental” Russian airstrike, which I suppose counts as “friendly fire” now because this war has gone through the looking glass about a dozen times since it began.

Hashem al-Shaykh, a leader of the new Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham rebel coalition, says that his organization is going to step up its attacks on Syrian government forces. Tahrir al-Sham was formed in the midst of the intra-rebel fighting that gripped Idlib a couple of weeks back, and includes Jabhat Fatah al-Sham as well as the forces that opted to take its side rather than merge with the remaining elements of Ahrar al-Sham. This announcement could be an attempt to signal that it’s going to try to move past its conflict with Ahrar al-Sham and get back to fighting the government.

Iraq

I want to reiterate that, in addition to these posts, you should be reading Joel Wing’s daily Mosul updates. He goes into considerably more detail than I’m able to do and draws on Iraqi Arabic media, which I could probably do if you were willing to get my February 9 update sometime in April. Today’s update covers what’s happening in Mosul so thoroughly that I’m just going to quote him:

A commander from the Golden Division told the press that IS had no presence in east Mosul, and yet sleeper cells continue to be found along with infiltrations and continuous shelling and drone strikes. General Saadi Maan stated that the insurgents were no longer in liberated sections of Mosul. He did acknowledge that there were infiltrators. Five IS fighters were killed trying to sneak into the Rashidiya neighborhood in the northern tip of the city. In nearby Darkazlia searches led to a firefight with 16 IS being killed, and 17 arrested including 2 suicide bombers. Several more insurgents were discovered trying to cross the Tigris into east Mosul and were wiped out. Drone attacks, mortar fire, and rockets on eleven neighborhoods left 45 dead and 21 wounded. There are gun battles with militants almost every day now in east Mosul. The government has warned about sleeper cells and IS fighters who disappeared into the general population. The Iraqi forces (ISF) are attempting to root them out with raids and searches throughout the city. At the same time, IS is shelling and launching drone strikes causing more and more casualties. This is leading to continued displacement from Mosul.

IS’s main activity in west Mosul was maintaining control. It burned ten people on charges of helping the Iraqi forces. It raided the New Mosul neighborhood looking for phones, and when they found them people were shot. Another five civilians were executed for trying to flee across the Tigris River. Their bodies were strung up to scare others.

The Iraqi ministry says that it’s extinguished all but five of the 25 oil well fires that ISIS set when it fled Qayyara in advance of the Iraqi offensive. The environmental damage caused by those fires will take substantially longer to dissipate.

Iran

The Washington Post is reporting that “senior defense and intelligence officials” are trying to talk the Trump administration down from its plan to designate the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization. They’re concerned, as you might imagine, with the myriad consequences related to an action that would be akin to some other country declaring the entire US Marine Corps a terrorist force. The State Department’s FTO status was never supposed to be used this way and has never been applied to a state actor.

Egypt

Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s government, the one with which the Trump administration seems so enamored, raided and shut down the offices of the Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence in Cairo today. Ostensibly the center is under investigation for accepting illegal foreign funds. Practically, it was shut down because it works to counter the Sisi government’s often brutal and systematic human rights abuses.

Yemen

Military analyst James Spencer has an interesting analysis at LobeLog of that (alleged) Yemeni rebel suicide attack on a Saudi frigate on January 30. I say (alleged) because, while it’s clear that an attack occurred and it’s pretty likely that the rebels were behind it, Spencer makes a pretty compelling argument that it was a missile attack, not a suicide attack. We know the Yemeni rebels have used anti-ship missiles before, and the video of the attack suggests, at least to Spencer, that the explosion happened too far above the water line to have been caused by a bomber on a boat. He believes the Saudis manufactured the tale about a suicide bomber to cover for the fact that they weren’t employing standard anti-missile defenses despite sailing in waters known to be vulnerable to rebel anti-ship missiles.

Afghanistan

General John Nicholson, the US commander in Afghanistan, told Congress today that he needs “a few thousand” more troops to properly carry out his mission to train, advise, and assist the Afghan military. He suggested that NATO allies could provide some of those troops, but I’m not sure he made a convincing case that a few thousand more Western troops will be enough to change the course of a war that has clearly turned in the Taliban’s favor. The Russian Foreign Ministry, always trying to be helpful, said today that Moscow is ready to cooperate with NATO in Afghanistan.

India-Pakistan

Today the Pakistani government accused India of building a “nuclear city” where it will manufacture nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and of organizing terrorist attacks in Pakistan. India, as you might guess, denies these accusations.

Myanmar

A Malaysian ship loaded with aid intended for the Rohingya arrived in Yangon today, where it was welcomed by a crowd of Buddhist protesters carrying signs reading “NO ROHINGYA.” Because there are no Rohingya. Don’t believe your lying eyes. Anyway, the burden is now on the Myanmar government to deliver the aid.

Philippines

The New People’s Army engaged in a number of small attacks today while criticizing President Rodrigo Duterte for ending his government’s peace talks with the Communist rebel group.

China

This is fine, everything is fine, nothing to worry about:

A U.S. Navy P-3 plane and a Chinese military aircraft came close to each other over the South China Sea in an incident the Navy believes was inadvertent, a U.S. official told Reuters on Thursday.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the aircraft came within 1,000 feet (305 meters) of each other on Wednesday in the vicinity of the Scarborough Shoal, between the Philippines and the Chinese mainland.

Libya

The so-called Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar attacked an air base near the central Libyan city of Jufra. Jufra is controlled by Misratan militias that are opposed to Haftar and the GNA and (at least nominally) aligned with the Government of National Accord. Speaking of which, the General National Congress appears to be forming some kind of armed guard force in Tripoli that could be used to “secure” (i.e., kick the GNA out of) government facilities.

The Gambia

The new Gambian government announced today that it will reverse Yahya Jammeh’s plan to withdraw from the International Criminal Court. This is an interesting development insofar as, only a few days ago, the African Union passed a non-binding resolution calling on all its member states to withdraw from the ICC. But it is potentially good news for the ICC, obviously.

Nigeria

Read this piece on life in the Niger Delta. Just read it.

Greece

Hey, Brexit, don’t get too comfortable. The original, uh, rexit (?) hasn’t gone anywhere. That’s right, I’m talking Grexit, baby. The short version is that Greece’s economy is still in the shit, and with the new state of the world being what it is (including that new American president who really seems to want to break the EU up), Germany’s hard line on austerity seems likely to only get harder. Of course, one of the other thing’s that’s changed since last time we visited with Grexit is that the refugee situation has gotten worse. Tossing Greece from the EU will make it substantially more difficult for the EU to cope with a problem it’s already not really coping with as it is.

Romania

As expected, Romanian Justice Minister (well, ex-Justice Minister) Florin Iordache resigned today over his role in the recent anti-anti-corruption decree that has caused so much public outcry. Almost as predictably, the government Iordache just left is trying to play the xenophobia card, defending itself by arguing that there are foreigners among the crowds of protesters. Sorin Grindeanu’s Social Democratic Party is center-left on economics but apparently has a strong if a bit incongruous nationalist streak that is now on ugly display.

Meanwhile, the Russian government said today that it considers Romania a “clear threat,” which is really just what the Romanian people need right now.

Russia

Russia’s RIA news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Meshkov today saying that recent NATO deployments in Eastern Europe are seen by Moscow as a “threat.”

An analysis by the State Department’s top economist finds that targeted US sanctions have worked as intended, hurting the oligarchs surrounding Russian President Vladimir Putin while mostly leaving the rest of the Russian economy (which is weak nonetheless because of cheap oil) untouched. What the Trump administration will do with these findings, and the sanctions, is unclear.

Radio Free Europe and Voice of America are launching a new Russian language news outlet, Current Time, that looks like it will basically be the opposite of RT America.

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Conflict update: February 1 2017

Iran

If the Trump administration accomplishes nothing else in its (hopefully only) four years in office, provoking a war with Iran seems to be at the top of its bucket list. How else do you explain the National Security Advisor taking the podium at a White House press briefing and doing this:

“Recent Iranian actions, including a provocative ballistic missile launch and an attack against a Saudi naval vessel conducted by Iran-supported Houthi militants, underscore … Iran’s destabilizing behavior across the Middle East,” Trump’s national security adviser, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, told journalists at a White House press briefing Feb. 1.

Criticizing the Obama administration for failing “to respond adequately to Tehran’s malign actions,” Flynn said Iran was now feeling emboldened.

“As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice,” Flynn warned.

Iran’s ballistic missile tests are genuinely provocative, there’s no question about that. But Trump’s foreign policy team isn’t satisfied just complaining about Tehran’s missile tests. So they want to make Iran responsible for an attack by Yemeni rebels, whose involvement with Iran is marginal, on a Saudi naval vessel, at a time when the Saudis are bombing Yemen to rubble. There’s no evidence that the Houthi boat attack on Monday had anything to do with Iran, but the administration knows it can assert one without any serious chance of blowback. Trump officials insist that they aren’t conflating Yemen and the missile tests with the nuclear deal, which they say the administration is committed to upholding, but that’s a ruse. The plan, in all likelihood, is to recreate the same sanctions infrastructure that existed before the nuclear deal was reached, simply under non-nuclear pretenses. Maybe Iran will decide to walk away from the JCPOA at that point, which will give Trump a casus belli, but even if they don’t the punitive US sanctions will all be back in place.

Syria

The Syrian army appears to be trying to get into al-Bab before Turkey and its rebel proxies can take the city, which sets up the possibility that the Syrian and Turkish armies are going to start shooting at one another once they’re both done shooting at ISIS. It’s unlikely that the Syrians would go on the offensive against Turkey, but their aim is probably to swoop in and gain control of al-Bab before Turkey can, which would then put the Turks in the position of either abandoning their goal or attacking the Syrians.

Washington is once again trying to put together an Arab army capable of capturing Raqqa from ISIS. A 3000 man unit called the Syrian Elite Forces, commanded by Ahmad Jarba, seems to be at the core of this new attempt. Previous efforts at finding somebody, anybody, other than the YPG capable of undertaking this mission have fizzled out, and even though there is an Arab contingent within the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, it’s not enough on its own to take the city. The Trump administration has begun delivering armored vehicles to the SDF, which represents an escalation in American aid to the group.

Preparations are being made, rhetorically at least, for the next round of peace talks in Geneva on February 20. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said today that talks need to focus on a transitional government, but he was understandably non-committal about what role Bashar al-Assad would play in that transition, and there, as it has for nearly six years now, lies the rub. Diplomatically, the rebels are singling out Iran as their primary antagonist apart from Assad, undoubtedly thinking–as Ankara and now Washington are also apparently thinking–that with enough enticement/pressure, Russia could be made to distance itself from the Iranians, which would then leave Assad more vulnerable.

Iraq

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