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

(Middle East) Conflict update: March 20-21, 2017

Because there’s so much to cover, after I missed yesterday, I’ve broken today’s update into two parts. This one will cover just the “Greater” Middle Eastern stuff (including North Africa and Central Asia, in other words), and the other will cover everything else.

IRAQ

Stop me if you’ve already heard this: Iraqi forces are “a few hundred meters” away from the Nuri Mosque in Mosul’s Old City, but ISIS resistance, especially via sniper fire, is slowing their advance to a crawl. In addition to the snipers, the Iraqis say ISIS is holding civilian hostages inside the mosque, so care is being taken to try to get them out alive. Civilian casualties in this phase of the operation have already been quite high–3500 or more by one Iraqi estimate–so this is prudent. In addition to the deaths, an estimated 180,000 Iraqis have already fled western Mosul, a number that would exceed the number who fled eastern Mosul during the entire campaign to liberate that half of the city–and western Mosul is still anywhere from 40 percent to around two-thirds (depending on whether you include the airport and surrounding areas in the total) under ISIS control. The number of displaced is greatly exceeding the combined Iraqi-UN capacity to accommodate them, and some people are even returning to the city despite the fighting. The Iraqi government has apparently decided not to send refugees to Iraqi Kurdistan even though there is reportedly capacity there, likely for petty political reasons.

Meanwhile, an ISIS car bombing in Baghdad yesterday killed at least 21 people. It was the latest in a wave of attacks that have been taking place across the country as ISIS fighters have been able to sneak out of Mosul. It’s believed that ISIS fighters have been reforming in areas of Salahuddin province that would be difficult for the government to get at under normal conditions but impossible given that all its resources are focused on Mosul. From there they’ve been able to strike at targets in Salahuddin and Diyala provinces, and of course Baghdad remains their main target. ISIS is also using its base in the town of Hawija, west of Kirkuk, from where it staged a serious attack on Kirkuk in October. The Iraqi government opted to make a beeline for Mosul instead of capturing smaller ISIS strongholds like Hawija first, and it very much remains to be seen whether or not that was the right choice.

The Washington Post reported today on the Yazidis of the Sinjar region, who are now dying and fleeing from fighting between Kurdish factions a mere 2 and a half years after ISIS tried to exterminate their community. The Yazidis welcomed forces aligned with Turkey’s PKK into Sinjar after forces aligned with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government fled the area in advance of the 2014 ISIS invasion, but with ISIS now gone the KRG is trying to kick the rival PKK out of the area, sometimes violently. Baghdad is apparently happy to have the PKK in Sinjar because it provides some counter to the KRG and to Turkey’s presence in northern Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was in Washington on Monday, where he said he got enthusiastic support from Trump for combating ISIS via both military and economic means, and where Trump, hilariously, unveiled yet another in his apparently infinite number of contradictory opinions about the Iraq War.

SYRIA

Syrian state media has reported for two days now that Syrian government and allied forces have rebuffed a Tahrir al-Sham/Faylaq al-Rahman (FSA) assault on Damascus, so that’s why it’s kind of surprising that the rebels are still assaulting Damascus. Not that I’m suggesting anything about Syrian state media, I’m sure they’re all committed to accurate reporting. But the thing is, while the rebels almost certainly can’t actually threaten Damascus, and they probably can’t even achieve their immediate aim of defending the remaining rebel enclaves in the Damascus suburbs, what they’re doing is sending a message. By attacking the city and hanging in there, they’re demonstrating that Bashar al-Assad’s position isn’t nearly as strong as he’d like you to believe. Which isn’t surprising; Assad was losing the war before Russia intervened, and his underlying problem–a lack of military manpower–hasn’t gone away so much as it’s been heavily papered over.

This Damascus operation is also going to do nothing but raise Tahrir al-Sham’s (AKA al-Qaeda’s) profile among the rebel factions, which is good for them but probably not good for anybody else. Now they’ve undertaken a new offensive, this one involving a couple of suicide bombings targeting Syrian government positions just outside of the city of Hama. With peace talks scheduled for Geneva starting Thursday, this is a double-edged sword for the rebels, who find themselves overall in better shape on the ground, but more dependent than ever on the one rebel faction that nearly everybody agrees is worse than Assad.

On Monday, the YPG announced that it had reached an agreement with Russia such that Russia would be able to build a new base in northwestern Syria (also called Afrin) in return for Russian training for YPG fighters. Moscow quickly quashed this talk and said that it was actually opening a “reconciliation center” in Afrin. Either way, the presence of Russian soldiers maybe training the YPG in Afrin is going to make Turkey mad while also possibly preventing its cross-border attacks on the YPG there. The YPG apparently has big plans, with a spokesman telling Reuters that it wants to grow from its current ~60,000 man army to something north of 100,000 (it’s not clear how it plans to achieve this increase, but it may start paying its soldiers more money and it’s also been accused of forced conscription). At the same time, Turkey reportedly brought together a group of some 50 Syrian Arab tribes in Şanlıurfa last week to discuss forming an all-Arab army (under Turkish auspices, of course) that would somehow materialize to take on the Raqqa operation and defeat the YPG in northeastern Syria. Turkey has been trying to form something like this for more than a year, at least, to no effect.

TURKEY

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Conflict update: February 17 2017

Somalia The United States of America

This is Donald Trump’s America, and people are prepared to go to great lengths to get the hell out of it:

A man from Somalia who risked the freezing temperatures of Manitoba as he crossed into Canada was discovered out in the cold by a CBC journalist.

The chance encounter took place around 4:30 a.m. Saturday as Nick Purdon was driving along the U.S.-Canada border, on assignment to watch for possible asylum seekers, while the temperature dipped to –17 C.

He spotted the man crouched near a snowbank along the side of the road near Emerson, Man., in an area where several other Somali asylum-seekers have made the trek out of the U.S. since U.S. President Donald Trump took office in late January.

“I have a problem. America is [the] problem now,” said the man, adding that he had been walking for 21 hours and was “not feeling well.”

I would encourage you to go to the link and watch the video. Then I would urge you to read Robin Wright on how the rest of the world is adjusting to the new America:

Trump’s baffling foreign policy is a central focus of the annual Munich Security Conference this weekend. Top officials from almost fifty countries—including Mattis and Vice-President Mike Pence—are attending the three-day event, which is the premier global forum on security policy. The preparatory report—written by an international team as the official “conversation starter”—uses stark language about the new American President. “The worries are that Trump will embark on a foreign policy based on superficial quick wins, zero-sum games, and mostly bilateral transactions—and that he may ignore the value of international order building, steady alliances, and strategic thinking,” it says. “Or, maybe worse, that he sees foreign and security policy as a game to be used whenever he needs distractions for domestic political purposes.” The report, “Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?” adds candidly, “What is uncertain is how Trump’s core beliefs will translate into policy (and whether policies will be coherent).”

Also, here’s something fun:

Germans are more concerned about U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies than they are about Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to a poll.

The survey published Friday suggests that Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is seeking a fourth term in Germany’s Sept. 24 election, has to take account of an anti-Trump mood among voters even as she seeks to maintain security and trade ties with the U.S. Merkel may elaborate on her stance when she addresses an international security conference in Munich on Saturday along with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.

Trump is viewed with concern by 78 percent of respondents in Germany, an increase from 62 percent in January, according to the FG Wahlen poll for ZDF television. Fifty-eight percent take a similar view of Putin’s policies, while 40 percent expressed no major concern about the Russian president.

Syria

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Conflict update: February 16 2017

Like Sands Through the Hourglass

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

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

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

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

Europe

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

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

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

Syria

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Conflict update: February 14 2017

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

Flynngate

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

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

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

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

Who Cares, We’re All Gonna Die

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

Conflict update: 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, January 8 2017

Iraq

Iraqi counter-terrorism forces in east Mosul say they’ve reached the eastern bank of the Tigris River. Some Iraqi politicians are claiming that as much as 88 percent of the eastern half of the city has been liberated, which is probably a substantial exaggeration, but it’s impossible to dispute that the offensive has made significant progress since it restarted a couple of weeks ago.

Two suicide bombs struck Baghdad today, killing at least 16 people (I’ve seen other reports putting that number at 20 or higher) and wounding nearly 40 more. ISIS claimed responsibility for both.

Faced with the possibility that former Prime Minister and current Vice President Nouri al-Maliki may try to attempt a political comeback (this seems odd to say about a sitting VP, but Iraq’s vice presidencies are mostly powerless patronage jobs), people all over southern Iraq have been staging demonstrations urging him, more or less, to kindly crawl into a hole and stay there. Maliki, because he’s the kind of dick who draws huge crowds to protest against the very idea that he might get back into serious politics, is attributing the protests to a “rise in gang and outlaw militia activities.” Like I said, dick. Regardless, it appears his political career might–might–be over, mercifully for the Iraqi people.

Syria

Until the eventual battle for Idlib begins in earnest, the post-Aleppo center of the civil war seems to have shifted to Damascus, and particularly to the Wadi Barada, from where Damascus gets much of its water. Although on Saturday it looked like the situation in Wadi Barada might be headed toward a ceasefire and deal to repair damaged and/or sabotaged water infrastructure, today the Syrian government carried out airstrikes on the area in earnest. The continued fighting is putting the entire Russia-Turkey negotiated ceasefire in jeopardy–rebels have already suspended their participation in planned peace talks in Kazakhstan pending the government honoring the ceasefire, and now it seems they may declare the ceasefire null altogether. Additionally a car bomb, claimed by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, struck the government-held town of Saʿsaʿ, southwest of Damascus, killing five people per the latest count.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights says that of 178 documented violations of the ceasefire so far, 174 of them have been perpetrated by the government and its allies. This sounds like a pretty subjective count, and considering that most of these violations have probably taken place in Wadi Barada, with Damascus’s supply of drinking water hanging in the balance, it’s not hard to see why the government has been pushing the envelope. But it’s also not hard to see why the rebels have had enough. The government would probably argue, as it has been, that JFS has been operating in Wadi Barada and therefore the area is not covered by the ceasefire. The rebels have denied this, but whether JFS is there or not is almost irrelevant. This ceasefire, as every one before it, has the (fatal?) flaw that it tries to distinguish between rebels forces that are only distinguishable on paper. These groups are protected, those groups aren’t, but their forces are so interspersed that striking the one necessarily means striking the other, and if you want to strike a group that is protected in some particular area you only need to say that forces from an unprotected group are also in that area, because nobody can really tell whether they are or not. It’s untenable.

Al-Monitor’s Week in Review post this week has a nice summary of the back and forth between Turkey and Iran, via Russia, over their competing interests in Syria. At this point it seems like Turkey has agreed to give up its support for extremist militias like Ahrar al-Sham (and tacit support for the even more extreme JFS), while Iran has decided to table its concerns over Turkey’s activities in northern Syria, and for now they’re managing to co-exist on that basis. But the potential for an unraveling is very much there.

Israel

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