Conflict update: March 17 2017

SYRIA

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.

IRAQ

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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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Conflict update: November 27

Syria

aleppo

Situation in Aleppo as of Nov 26; red areas  in government hands, green in rebel hands, yellow in Kurdish hands, and gray in ISIS’s hands (Wikimedia | Kami888)

By all current outward appearances the Syrian army is well on its way to capturing eastern Aleppo. It reportedly controls at least two neighborhoods at this point and has entered several others. Syrian forces appear to be trying to drive through the center of the city to split the rebel-held areas in two. On what I guess you could say is the plus side, as many as 10,000 civilians have escaped the fighting as the rebels have been forced to pull back–Damascus says 1500 have fled the city, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims the number is 4000, with another 6000 having fled to the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood (see map above), a part of the city controlled by Kurdish fighters. On the decidedly minus side, there are still tens of thousands of civilians who haven’t fled the fighting, who may be unable to flee the fighting, and who may very well be killed in the fighting.

Iraq

ISIS has made a public show of banning all intoxicants in the areas it controls, in line with its strict adherence to what it claims is True Islam. This even extends to lowly nicotine. It’s been reported that ISIS has beheaded smokers, for example, and the group has released images of their fighters burning piles of cigarettes. But like many other things about ISIS, this posture has mostly been a bullshit cover for its money-making ventures. Reports from people who have fled Mosul say that, far from cracking down on the cigarette smuggling operations that inevitably cropped up when ISIS “banned” tobacco products, the group has made money by extorting the smugglers. This isn’t all that different from ISIS’s policy toward artifacts; it claims to destroy them out of a religious proscription of idol worship, but in reality it only destroys what it can’t smuggle on to the antiquities black market. Again, profit-taking hidden under a layer of ultra-religious bullshit.

As the Mosul operation continues slowly but surely (the Iraqis may switch gears and tell civilians inside the city to get out if they can, which would allow the Iraqis to stop pulling their punches against ISIS), a political fight has cropped up in Baghdad over the government’s decision to bestow legal status on the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Sunni Arab legislators boycotted the vote and say they plan to challenge the law in court, concerned in particular that the law has the mostly Shiʿa PMU reporting directly to the Iraqi Prime Minister, who must by law (and likely would by popular will anyway) be Shiʿa. In the hands of a PM who was inclined to be sectarian about things, the fact that he now would have tens of thousands of mostly Shiʿa fighters under his direct authority could be problematic. On the other hand, if the alternative was to have the PMU revert back to their pre-ISIS status as paramilitary militias responsible to no one but their own commanders, then I have to say this seems like the better option. Meanwhile, two new mass graves have been found, containing what is believed to be the bodies of Yazidis massacred by ISIS.

Libya

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MENA conflict update, October 25

Syria

A day after informing the world that there would be no more humanitarian ceasefires in Aleppo unless the US somehow made al-Qaeda surrender, today the Russians let everybody know that their aircraft haven’t come within six miles of the city in a week and that they plan to continue this hold on airstrikes indefinitely. This freeze went largely ignored amid Russian and Syrian artillery bombardments of eastern Aleppo, which use ordinance that explodes just as well as something dropped from the air, but, ah, credit where credit is due, I guess. This seems less like an act of mercy on the Russians’ part and more like the kind of thing you’d do when shifting from bombarding a place to trying to conquer that place on the ground. All airstrikes are imperfect, and Russia and Syria aren’t exactly packing the latest in smart bomb technology, so if they’re sending ground forces in it’s more or less incumbent upon them to also ease off on the bombing runs. The Russians also said that, while another ceasefire is out of the question, corridors for people to evacuate the city could still be opened up if there’s a demand for it.

On the other major active front in Syria, Turkey and its rebel proxies are approaching the ISIS-held city of al-Bab, which is maybe 25 miles northeast of Aleppo, shown here:

albab

(Google Maps)

The fight for al-Bab may be Turkey’s first real military test since it invaded Syria in August. Rao Komar at War on the Rocks compares it to the Syrian Democratic Forces’ operation to capture Manbij from ISIS, which took months, and he notes that the SDF was a heck of a lot better organized and more battle hardened than the rebels fighting with Turkey. On the other hand, the SDF didn’t have Turkish armor and air support, so I tend to think this operation will be easier than the capture of Manbij. That doesn’t mean it will be easy, though.

Also elsewhere in Syria, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is talking as though the operation to capture Raqqa is going to begin soon, as in “before Mosul falls” soon:

“Yes, there will be overlap (in the Mosul and Raqqa campaigns) and that’s part of our plan and we are prepared for that,” Carter said after a gathering of 13 countries in the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State.

That’s…interesting, considering that there are a lot of details about a Raqqa operation that are still up in the air, little questions like “what force is actually going to capture the city?” Recent reporting has suggested that there’s been some debate within the Obama administration about whether to push ahead with a Raqqa operation now or put more time into planning it. It sounds like the debate may be over.

Finally, elsewhere but not in Syria, Spain, of all places, is…well, read for yourselves:

Spain is facing international anger as it apparently prepares to refuel a flotilla of Russian warships due to step up strikes against the beleaguered city of Aleppo.

Politicians and military figures condemned the support from a Nato member, while the head of the alliance indicated Madrid should rethink the pit stop.

Warships from an eight-strong group led by the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov will take on fuel and supplies from the Spanish port of Ceuta after passing through the Straits of Gibraltar on Wednesday morning, Spanish papers reported.

The EU is in the middle of a messy internal debate over maybe sanctioning Russia over Syria, but with the Brexiting UK leading the push for more sanctions many of the rest of the EU states don’t seem inclined to go along. Spain regularly refuels Russian ships and makes some decent cash for their trouble, and they’re not about to let a little thing like more dead Syrians get in the way of that.

Mosul, Yemen, and Libya after the break.

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The United States is showing…restraint?

yemeni_civil_war

The situation in Yemen as of October 13: rebel areas in green, government areas in red, al-Qaeda areas in white (Wikimedia | Ali Zifan)

It’s now been a few days since US cruise missiles destroyed three Yemeni radar installations controlled by the Houthis and their pro-Saleh allies in retaliation for two attempted missile strikes against a US destroyer in the Red Sea. Well, yesterday the other shoe dropped:

The UN special envoy for Yemen has announced the plan for a ceasefire starting on Wednesday night.

Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed has received assurances from all Yemeni parties for a ceasefire to begin at 23:59 Yemen time on Wednesday, for an initial period of 72 hours, subject to renewal, a statement released on Monday said.

The country’s foreign minister has said in an official tweet that the president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has agreed to the 72-hour ceasefire. “The president agreed to a 72 hrs ceasefire to be extended if the other party adheres to it, activates the DCC and lifts the siege of Taiz,” Abdel-Malek al-Mekhlafi said. The DCC is the military commission responsible for overseeing ceasefires.

See, this is just the kind of unrestrained military aggression that the United States…wait, what? A ceasefire? That the actual fighting parties are going to obey, at least in theory? That’s wild, man. Damn.

Seriously though, this is what should have happened after the Saudis launched their inexplicable War on Funerals 10 days ago. In the aftermath of a strike so far beyond the pale that even Riyadh paid lip service to the idea of investigating what went wrong, it was time to leverage Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition to which he answers supporting him into a ceasefire and a resumption of talks. And, in fact, there were signs that the US was doing precisely that. Then somebody fired missiles at the USS Mason and it looked like all bets might be off. But, somewhat surprisingly, they apparently weren’t.

After the Mason was fired upon the usual suspects moved very quickly, as Yemen expert James Spencer writes, to try to pin the incident on Iran. There is, as you might suspect, not much reason to believe them: Continue reading

In for a penny

Before I head out for the weekend, I thought I’d leave you with the news that America has launched its glorious campaign to help destroy Yemen:

The U.S. military launched cruise missile strikes on Thursday to knock out three coastal radar sites in areas of Yemen controlled by Iran-aligned Houthi forces, retaliating after failed missile attacks this week on a U.S. Navy destroyer, U.S. officials said.

The strikes, authorized by President Barack Obama, represent Washington’s first direct military action against suspected Houthi-controlled targets in Yemen’s conflict.

Still, the Pentagon appeared to stress the limited nature of the strikes, aimed at radar that enabled the launch of at least three missiles against the U.S. Navy ship USS Mason on Sunday and Wednesday.

“These limited self-defense strikes were conducted to protect our personnel, our ships and our freedom of navigation,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said.

Whew. Lucky for the Yemeni people, then, that American military operations never experience mission creep and that American ordinance is engineered to lovingly caress the cheeks of any civilians it hits.

You may have noticed that quote says the Mason was fired upon on Sunday and Wednesday, and well, yeah. Even though I reiterate my view that it makes very little sense for the Houthis or their allies in the Yemeni military to rope the US into this war directly, it seems pretty clear after this second attack that’s what they’ve done. Fool me once and all. Even the argument that the rebels accidentally fired on the Mason (or, in other words, they didn’t know they were shooting at an American vessel) starts to seem a bit unbelievable when it happens a second time.

Destroying the coastal radar should make firing any more missiles at ships in the Red Sea area pointless. It’s possible, though I’m totally speculating here, that the rebels would pick a fight with the US in the hopes that the US would then crowd the Saudis out of the “bombing Yemen” business. They’d hope that Washington might be willing to talk, whereas it may seem like the Saudis are only prepared to start negotiations once everybody in rebel-held Yemen is dead. But that seems too clever, and the more likely explanation is that firing on the Mason was just a mistake.

Anyway, instead of cutting back its support for the Saudi bombing campaign, the US has now joined in. Progress!

TIP JAR

Aaaaaaaand here we go

If you’d been disappointed that the US has only been supporting the destruction of Yemen and not directly participating in it, thanks to yesterday’s events it looks like you’re about to get some good news:

The Pentagon is contemplating retaliatory action after missiles were fired at the USS Mason from rebel-held territory inside Yemen on Sunday.

Defense Department spokesperson Capt. Jeff Davis told CBS News an investigation into who exactly fired the missiles is underway.

“We’re going to find out who did it and take action accordingly,” Davis said. “Anybody who puts U.S. Navy ships at risk does so at their own peril.”

What Captain Davis means is that “we’re going to find out who did it and take action accordingly” if we find out it was the Houthis or maybe al-Qaeda who did it. If this missile launch somehow gets traced back to the Saudis or the pro-Hadi faction of the Yemeni military, you can be sure no action will be taken.

And, hey, it’s likely the Houthis and/or their pro-Saleh military partners launched these missiles. A couple of weeks ago they bragged about striking an Emirati vessel in the same general vicinity with what appears to have been a truck-mounted anti-ship missile used by the Yemeni military, and that may have been the same kind of missile that was fired at the USS Mason. So there’s no argument that the Houthis were capable of this missile launch. But it’s still unclear as to why they would fire on an American vessel, assuming they knew it was an American vessel. It would be nice if we could get an answer to that question before the retaliatory airstrikes commence, but don’t be shocked if the Pentagon opts to shoot first and ask questions never.

So a war that the US could have ended at any time by simply learning how to say “no” to Riyadh looks like it might instead end with the US helping to pound the Houthis into surrender. This would pave the way for the full reinstatement of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi–who to be fair is Yemen’s legitimately elected president, as his 100% landslide victory over no opponent proved conclusively in 2012. With Hadi back in power as a result of a total military victory, and with the United States fully back in his pocket, you can figure that whatever pogrom he decides to launch against the Zaydi Shiʿa in Yemen’s northern highlands and/or separatists in southern Yemen will go off without so much as a peep from Washington. And obviously there will be no reckoning for Saudi war crimes. But hey, at least the war will be over. Maybe. It’s also possible that the US could start bombing and change nothing on the ground apart from upping the amount of suffering this war is causing. What a time to be alive.

TIP JAR