Conflict update: March 17 2017


First the new story: that Israeli missile alert that sounded in the Jordan valley yesterday evening wasn’t caused by any rockets coming from Gaza. Instead, it was caused by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles, fired at a squadron of Israeli planes that were returning from a bombing run in Syrian airspace. The Israeli planes reportedly struck a convoy of weapons intended for Hezbollah. None of the Syrian missiles hit the Israeli planes, but at least one was apparently intercepted by an Israeli Arrow missile defense, uh, missile (there has to be a better way to describe that).

The big story remains the bombing of a mosque in the Syrian town of al-Jinah during evening prayers yesterday. The Pentagon has acknowledged that this was an American airstrike, but insists that it did not strike the mosque, but a nearby building where a high-level al-Qaeda meeting was being held. That’s their story, but it doesn’t seem to be holding up very well:

According to the US military, it launched strikes on a large building just 50 feet from a small mosque in the village of al-Jinah. Al-Qaeda regularly used this building to hold high-level meetings, the Pentagon said. And after watching the site for some time, the US military bombed the building around 7 p.m. local time Thursday, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Friday. The strikes included a 500-pound bomb and at least six AGM-114 Hellfire missiles fired from drones, a US defense official told BuzzFeed News.

The US military said it purposely avoided the small mosque. But some on the ground suggested the building hit was a new, larger mosque, where as many as 300 worshippers had gathered for evening prayer. Local residents put the death toll as high as 62 and said others could be buried alive in the wreckage. Some videos that appeared online showed rescue workers pulling children out of the rubble.

“We are still assessing the results of the strike, but believe that dozens of core al Qaeda terrorists were killed,” Davis said in a statement afterwards.

Davis said the military was “not aware of any credible allegation” of civilian casualties despite the emerging accounts from Syrian watch groups. But US officials said they were still investigating the allegations. The US military also has yet to determine how many were killed and whether any were high-value al-Qaeda operatives.

“Not aware of any credible allegation”? Really?

The Pentagon released this photo that it says proves it didn’t strike a mosque:

It says the mosque, which it identifies as the small building on the left, is clearly intact, which, fair enough. But here’s the thing: locals are saying that was the old mosque. The new mosque was the two-building compound on the right, one building of which has been blown to smithereens in that photo. How can you be sure the locals aren’t lying? Well, you can’t, but one point in their favor is that the Pentagon itself says, according to one of its drones, nobody came out of the small building for at least 30 minutes after the strike. If the small building were still the mosque, full of people at evening prayer, you would think maybe one or two of them might have come outside to see what happened after the building next door was fucking blown up. But maybe that’s just me.

In other Syria news, YPG commander Sipan Hemo told Reuters that the Raqqa operation will begin next month. Say, remember when Donald Trump got real Mad on account of people announced the Mosul offensive before it began? His face got even oranger and he blubbered something about the element of surprise, like we’re fighting the Napoleonic Wars or some shit. I wonder if he’ll be mad about this.


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Conflict update: March 2-5 2017


There’s long been this narrative on the right that America spends vast sums of money helping feed and clothe the poor around the world while our own people/military/deficit starve/wastes away/balloons. This is, of course, a giant pile of bullshit, maybe the most bullshit of all the bullshit stories the right has fed the American people in my lifetime. The ubiquity of this narrative, and the inability/unwillingness of politicians on the center-left to counter it, leads to nonsense like this:

A large majority of the public overestimates the share of the federal budget that is spent on foreign aid. Just 3 percent of Americans correctly state that 1 percent or less of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid, and nearly half (47 percent) believe that share is greater than 20 percent. On average, Americans say spending on foreign aid makes up 31 percent of the federal budget.

The Republicans who have invested heavily in selling this narrative to the American people, of course, know they’re shoveling bullshit. Or at least they did. The Republican Party that used to peddle lies to their marks has now been replaced by a Republican Party made up of the marks themselves, and we just elected one of them president. So this is unsurprising:

The White House budget director confirmed Saturday that the Trump administration will propose “fairly dramatic reductions” in the U.S. foreign aid budget later this month.

Reuters and other news outlets reported earlier this week that the administration plans to propose to Congress cuts in the budgets for the U.S. State Department and Agency for International Development by about one third.

“We are going to propose to reduce foreign aid and we are going to propose to spend that money here,” White House Office of Management Budget director Mick Mulvaney told Fox News on Saturday, adding the proposed cuts would include “fairly dramatic reductions in foreign aid.”

Mulvaney said the cuts in foreign aid would help the administration fund a proposed $54 billion expansion of the U.S. military budget.

“The overriding message is fairly straightforward: less money spent overseas means more money spent here,” said Mulvaney, a former South Carolina Representative.

That’s nice. Except we’re not spending that money “here.” We’re “drastically” cutting the pittance we already spend on trying to make life a little less shitty in poorer countries and repurposing the “savings” toward the shit we use to fucking bomb those same countries because that’s how America gets its kicks. The fact that cuts in foreign aid will probably make America less secure, thus requiring still more military spending, is a feature, not a bug.

Trump’s budget is likely DOA in Congress, thankfully. But as a window into how these people view the world it’s…well, I was going to say “troubling,” but that would suggest that it’s not entirely in keeping with everything else about Donald Trump.

Anyway, that was the big Trump news this weekend, I’m sure there wasn’t anything else.


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Conflict update: February 22 2017


Yesterday Reuters reported that a week before Mike Pence spoke at the Munich Security Conference and assured all those in attendance that Donald Trump is totally in to Europe and, like, when he keeps giving Europeans swirlies in the White House bathroom that’s just because he doesn’t want them to know that he like-likes them, Steve Bannon met with the German ambassador to the US and told him that, actually, Trump (i.e., Bannon) really, genuinely hates the European Union. Which, I mean, of course he does. Mike Pence and James Mattis and Rex Tillerson can make as many apology trips to Europe as they want, but Trump/Bannon see the EU as the enemy of the right-wing white nationalist xenophobia that is their core ideology. Former Obama Deputy National Security Advisor Colin Kahl offered his take on Twitter last night:


The UN Food and Agriculture Organization issued a report today that says, among other things, that “planetary boundaries may well be surpassed, if current trends continue,” or, in other words, if the human population keeps growing at its current rate and we don’t figure out how to live more sustainably, humanity will no longer be able to feed itself by the middle of the century. In some ways we already can’t feed ourselves, as the UN also made clear today when it announced that it needs $4.4 billion by the end of March in order to stave off mass starvation in parts of Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen. But those are man-made shortages caused by war. What the FAO is saying is that we may be pushing the planet’s capacity to feed us to its natural limit.

On the plus side, if humanity lasts long enough to master interstellar travel, maybe our descendants will have the chance to thoroughly trash a few of these planets the way we got to trash Earth. Fingers crossed!



Yemen as of February 12: red = government, green = rebel, white = al-Qaeda (Wikimedia | Ali Zifan)

I missed this over the weekend (shame on me), but Huffington Post’s Jessica Schulberg and Ryan Grim reported on a possible policy change within the Trump administration that may have contributed to the Saudi-Hadi coalition’s recent moves against Yemen’s Red Sea ports of Mokha and Hudaydah. The Obama administration, to the extent that it had any willingness or ability to shape the Saudi mission in Yemen, kept insisting that their forces should leave the country’s Red Sea ports (particularly Hudaydah) alone, since they were the main conduit by which humanitarian aid was being brought into the country. But aid is now being diverted to Aden, on the Gulf of Aden, instead, and Hudaydah looks like it’s going to be the coalition’s next major target. Aden is a smaller port than Hudaydah and doesn’t allow easy access to the parts of Yemen where starvation is an imminent threat (the parts regularly being bombed by the Saudis, coincidentally), so if it has to become the new main port for humanitarian aid, a lot of people are going to suffer the consequences.

Schulberg and Grim don’t prove that the Trump administration has given the Saudis the green light to go after Hudaydah, but the fact that the Saudis suddenly started attacking Yemen’s Red Sea ports after Trump took office is conspicuous. Also conspicuous is the role that UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba, whose nation is part of the Saudi-led coalition, is playing with respect to the Trump administration. He’s described as a “mentor” to Trump’s son in-law, Jared Kushner, who parlayed his father in-law’s election experience running a minor right-wing newspaper into a gig as what’s been referred to as the “shadow Secretary of State” in the Trump White House.

There’s an argument to be made that giving the Saudis the OK to attack Hudaydah is actually the merciful thing to do because it could bring the war to a quicker end. But while it might well bring the war to a quicker end, the consensus of the humanitarian types who were interviewed by Schulberg and Grim seems to be that it’s not worth the tradeoff in lost aid. The war might end faster, but the amount of starvation caused by the loss of Hudaydah could be so immediate and so acute that even more people will die as a result.


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The Saudi-Iran feud gets more ridiculous

I hope you’ll forgive the light posting the past couple of days. I’m back at it, but “back at it” has meant writing for LobeLog instead of here. For example, as you know, the annual Hajj took place over the weekend. This year, contrary to most years, there weren’t any Iranians making the pilgrimage (at least not officially), because Iran opted to boycott the Hajj as part of its long-running and incredibly destructive (though not to either of the principals) spat with Saudi Arabia. Specifically, the Iranians are upset about the terrible stampede that took place during last year’s Hajj, in which somewhere in the neighborhood of 2400 pilgrims were killed, many of them Iranian (the Saudis will only allow that about 700 pilgrims were killed, but nobody believes them).


Abdulaziz b. Abdullah Al al-Shaykh, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia

On the eve of the Hajj, Iranian officials started sniping at the Saudis over last year’s disaster, in particular pushing the idea that management of the Hajj should be taken out of the Saudis’ hands and internationalized. In response, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia declared that, well, he declared that Iranians aren’t Muslim (later, the Saudis engaged in what I have to admit was a pretty clever bit of trolling by making Persian-language TV broadcasts from the Hajj, to let would-be Iranian pilgrims know what they were missing). At LobeLog I picked up from there, and managed by the mufti’s own standards to determine that there actually are no Muslims:

The theological implications of the mufti’s pronouncement are enormous and, presumably, escaped him. If Iranian Shi‘a cannot be Muslim because they descend from Zoroastrians, then by the same token Iranian Sunnis (descended from the same Zoroastrians), Turks (largely descended from shamanists), Indians and Pakistanis (Hindus), Pashtun (Buddhists), and, indeed, Arabs (polytheists, Jews, and Christians) don’t qualify as “Muslims” either. It’s also worth noting the commonalities between the mufti’s declaration, a classic example of takfir (the principle by which certain Muslim groups claim the right to declare that self-professed Muslims are actually unbelievers), and the ideology that animates the Islamic State, which is takfiri to its core.

Indonesia, the country with more Muslims than any other country on the planet, used to be predominantly Hindu and Buddhist, so you can rule Indonesians out of the faith as well. This takfir business can take you to some strange places.


Hajj greetings

I hope you’ll forgive me for indulging in some real time off this week, it’s been very nice. I’ll start getting back into the swing of things next week, but I wanted to send out best wishes for an auspicious and safe Hajj to those who are making the pilgrimage, which began today. Hajj Mubarak!

Iran calls off Hajj for its citizens

I’d been following this story about the contentious Saudi-Iran Hajj negotiations but neglected to post anything about the climax, so my apologies. After Iran walked away from the talks on Friday and giving the Saudis until Sunday to make additional concessions, Iranian state TV reported on Sunday that Tehran has officially banned its would-be pilgrims from attending this year’s Hajj:

In a sign of further tension between regional rivals, Iran will not allow its citizens to travel to Saudi Arabia for the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in September, Iran’s state television reported on Sunday.

The decision, which means that tens of thousands of Iranians cannot make their spiritual journey to the main pilgrimage site of Islam, came after several failed rounds of talks between officials of both countries and on the heels of accusations that Saudi Arabia has started a cyberwar against Iran.

Iran’s culture minister, Ali Jannati, told state television that “no pilgrims would be sent to the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina, because of obstacles created by Saudi officials.”

In a statement, Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage organization condemned Saudi Arabia for what it said was a lack of cooperation. “Too much time has been lost, and it is now too late to organize the pilgrimage,” the organization said, according to the semiofficial Mehr news agency.

The Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah accused a visiting Iranian delegation of refusing to sign an agreement resolving issues. “They will be responsible in front of Allah Almighty and its people for the inability of the Iranian citizens to perform hajj for this year,” the ministry said in a statement published by the official Saudi Press Agency.

I hadn’t heard anything about this cyberwar that’s apparently broken out between the two countries, but sure enough, a number of government and media websites in both countries have been attacked over the past several days, most likely (per the available evidence) by hackers on either side. So add that to the growing list of Saudi-Iranian grievances.

Whatever the Hajj ban says about regional tensions, it comes as a pretty big blow to Iranians who were planning on making the pilgrimage this year and I don’t think that should be discounted. Most Muslims are able to make Hajj, a requirement of their faith, only once or twice during their lifetimes, so not being able to go this year could be devastating for some people. I suppose it’s possible that some could try to obtain a Hajj visa from a third country, but they’re liable to face repercussions once they return home.


Crisis of faith averted?

There are signs–tentative signs–that Iran and Saudi Arabia are going to settle their beef enough for Iranian pilgrims to make this year’s Hajj after all:

Saudi Arabia said talks on Wednesday with visiting Iranian delegates on arrangements for hajj pilgrims from the Islamic republic have been “positive”.

Earlier this month, Tehran said “arrangements have not been put together” for Iranians to make this year’s pilgrimage to Mecca at the end of the summer, accusing its regional rival of “sabotage”.

But Saudi hajj ministry undersecretary Hussein Sharif said the kingdom and its leadership “welcome pilgrims from all around the world”.

The two sides discussed “arrangements, as well as organisation and services” for pilgrims, he told reporters after a session of talks with the delegation from Tehran.

He said an agreement had been reached following the arrival of the delegation Tuesday to “use electronic visas which could be printed out” by Iranian pilgrims, as Saudi diplomatic missions remain shut in Iran.

A final agreement would be signed at the end of the ongoing talks, he said.

The big practical sticking point in this dispute is that the Saudis shuttered all their diplomatic missions inside Iran after a totally-spontaneous-and-not-at-all-organized-paramilitary mob torched the Saudi embassy in Tehran after the Saudis executed the legitimate-threat-to-the-state-and-not-at-all-a-sacrifice-to-Riyadh’s-destructive-vendetta-against-Iran, Shiʿa preacher Nimr al-Nimr, in January. No diplomatic offices means no way to provide Hajj visas to would-be Iranian pilgrims, and no Hajj visas means no going on the Hajj. Riyadh had said that any Iranian pilgrims could feel free to travel to a third country to apply for their Hajj visas, but that clear diplomatic insult didn’t sit well with Tehran, and so there was (and still is, let’s be clear) a risk that the Iranian government would ban Iranians from making the Hajj this year.

There is also a (less critical, it seems to me) dispute over how Iranian pilgrims should get to Saudi Arabia–the Saudis have been refusing to let IranAir handle any pilgrimage flights, the Iranians have been fighting to let IranAir keep at least some of its Hajj traffic. And of course the horrific stampede death of 464 Iranians (out of well-over 2000 pilgrims killed overall) on last year’s pilgrimage looms over things as well. But of course the real issue is that Tehran and Riyadh are on the outs in general, and that can’t help but spill over into the particulars of the pilgrimage, as it often has throughout history. It would be absurd to suggest that a successful negotiation over Hajj details could lead to deeper diplomatic engagement between the two countries (and to be clear, these negotiations haven’t been successful yet). But on the other hand, it’s better than nothing.


Saudi Arabia and Iran have failed to reach a deal on arrangements for Iranians to attend this year’s Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, with officials from both countries trading accusations on who was to blame for the impasse.

Saudi officials accused their Iranian counterparts of walking out of talks early on Friday, despite what they said were offers for “solutions” to the Iranian demands.

A statement from Saudi’s pilgrimage ministry said the Iranian government “will be responsible in front of Allah Almighty and its people for inability of the Iranian citizens to perform Hajj for this year”.

Iran’s Press TV is reporting that Tehran has given the Saudis until Sunday to “‘show its serious determination’ in making this year’s Hajj pilgrimage possible for Iranians.” Iran’s chief objection appears to be that they don’t believe the Saudis with whom they were talking (from the Hajj and Umrah Ministry, it seems) aren’t actually empowered to make a final deal, so it’s possible that this is just a matter of talking to the people who are empowered to make a deal. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.