Conflict update: April 25 2017

SYRIA

This morning, Turkish aircraft struck Kurdish targets in Iraq’s Sinjar region and around the town of Derika (also known as Dayrik and al-Malikiyah) in northeastern Syria. The Syrian YPG militia says that 20 of its fighters were killed in the strikes, while Turkey claims that it killed 70 “militants” across both targets.

The Iraqi strike is a little more straightforward and I’ll mention that when we get to Iraq, but as far as Syria is concerned there’s no sense pretending that this is anything other than a Turkish attempt to undermine the fight against ISIS. Ankara claims that it struck a “terror hub,” whatever that means, in order to prevent weapons and other materiel from getting to the Kurdish PKK militant group in Turkey. But judging by the unambiguously hostile reception the strikes got from Washington it seems pretty clear that Turkey didn’t explore any other avenues for potentially interrupting the movement of arms or whatever from northeastern Syria to the PKK. They just skipped ahead to the airstrikes. I’m not saying that if Ankara had asked the US to intervene in whatever it claims the YPG/PKK were doing in northeastern Syria, that it would have worked out in Turkey’s favor. But going that route would have been worth the effort, assuming Turkey’s motives were really to interdict aid to the PKK. If talking doesn’t work you can always try airstrikes after that.

The YPG, as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, is of course America’s number one proxy in Syria and the centerpiece of plans to attack ISIS in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. Turkey opposes those plans because it makes no distinction between the YPG and the PKK (there is a distinction, but it’s blurry to say the least) and doesn’t want to see the Syrian Kurds expanding their territory and potentially establishing an autonomous statelet in northern Syria. Turkey had proposed an alternative plan where by its forces in conjunction with elements of the Free Syrian Army would march on Raqqa from al-Bab and take the city without involving the Kurds, but the Turkish-FSA army didn’t do much to distinguish itself in al-Bab and, anyway, its path to Raqqa was closed off when the Syrian army drove ISIS out of the area south of al-Bab. At this point it’s likely that Turkey’s only recourse to stop the YPG from participating in the Raqqa operation is to start bombing the hell out of YPG positions further north, and that’s probably why it never asked for American help with this supposed PKK weapons problem. If Ankara had gone to the Americans and asked for help in preventing YPG weapons from allegedly being moved into Turkey, and the US had managed to convince the YPG to knock it off, then Turkey would’ve lost its excuse to bomb the YPG.

This is not going to be great for the US-Turkey relationship, and it’s going to get worse if the US decides to agree to YPG requests for a US-imposed no-fly zone over YPG-controlled territory. If the YPG wants to play hardball over this they kind of have the US over a barrel, because they could pull their forces out of the SDF, out of the Raqqa offensive, and Washington would be up the proverbial creek without a paddle. Factor in the possibility that the next one of these Turkish airstrikes might just kill a US servicemember or two, by accident presumably, and you’ve got a very combustible situation developing here.

Elsewhere in Syria, pro-government (i.e., Syrian or Russian) airstrikes killed at least 12 people and reportedly damaged a hospital in Idlib province today, at least 11 and perhaps more civilians were killed by US airstrikes in and around Tabqa, and the Syrian army is pouring resources into an effort to drive rebel forces out of Aleppo’s northern and western outskirts.

IRAQ

Continue reading

Conflict update: April 15-17 2017

Happy Easter again to everyone who celebrated, and Pesach Sameach to those observing Passover, which ends tomorrow. And if any Egyptians happen to be reading this, happy Sham el-Nisim.

TURKEY

The weekend’s biggest story was, as expected, Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan I’s formal coronation. By a slim margin, also as expected, Turkish voters on Sunday approved a referendum to amend Turkey’s constitution and change the country’s political system from a parliamentary one to a presidential one. The changes will be phased in over the next two years, but when the process is complete full executive authority will be concentrated in the office of president rather than split between the presidency and the prime minister’s office (with the PM, which is disappearing under the new system, actually the more powerful of the two positions). Erdoğan, who could now serve as president through 2029 under these changes, and will presumably try to change the constitution again in a decade if he wants to stay in office beyond that, will have vast new powers to control Turkey’s state bureaucracy, judiciary, military, and legislature.

Juan Cole writes at length about something I brought up on Friday, which is that many of these changes, on their face, are not particularly anti-democratic or authoritarian. On paper, when these changes are fully implemented Turkey’s government won’t look that much different from France’s, for example, or America’s–both of which have their own problems, don’t get me wrong, but neither of which could be called a dictatorship at least at the moment. The problem with Turkish democracy is, as it’s been at least since the Gezi Park protests in 2013, Erdoğan. Especially since last summer’s failed coup gave him an excuse to institute a permanent state of emergency, Erdoğan has been able to purge his political rivals, imprison his political opposition, stifle independent media, and rule Turkey as a one-man show for several years now under the current system, so all this change will do is make it easier for him to keep on keeping on.

Do these changes take Turkey back toward something resembling the Ottoman Empire? Stephen Cook says yes, but even he acknowledges that this is only really going to be the case when the president and parliament both come from the same party. The potential for an opposition parliament to check the president is there. The problem is that it’s impossible to see how an opposition parliament can ever be elected when Erdoğan has thoroughly stifled the Turkish press, has stocked the judiciary with his political appointees, has purged Turkish academia of anyone who dares to criticize him, and won’t let opposition parties mount anything approaching an actual political campaign (and likes to throw their leaders in jail just for good measure). And he didn’t need these amendments to do that. Does this result make Erdoğan a dictator? I would say no, but only because he pretty much already was one.

Also, while we’re mourning the demise of Turkish democracy, I think it’s important to bear in mind that it has always–and here I’m not just referring to the Erdoğan Era, but to the entire history of republican Turkey–had an authoritarian edge to it. You can go all the way back to the days of Atatürk and right through the decades during which another military coup seemed always to be just around the bend, and you’d be hard pressed to find a time when there wasn’t tension between the will of the Turkish people and the will of the few actors at the top of the Turkish political system.

So what happens now, as in right now, before 2019? Continue reading

Middle East conflict update: March 30-31 2017

If you’re looking for bad news from the rest of the world, you’ll find it here.

IRAQ

Battle_of_Mosul_(2016–2017)

Mosul through March 30 (Wikimedia | Kami888)

The main progress in Mosul continues to be to the west of the Old City, where Iraqi counter-terrorism forces are pushing north in an effort to eventually surround the Old City and attack it from two sides. War Is Boring posted an eyewitness account from a reporter who was embedded with Iraqi federal policy, whose job right now is to hold ISIS’s attention while the counter-terrorism units complete their maneuver around the Old City. Unsurprisingly, it’s fear of even greater civilian casualties that has the Iraqis treading cautiously–an excessively violent campaign threatens to upend any hope of desperately-needed national reconciliation after Mosul has been liberated. As it is, as this first-hand Foreign Policy piece shows, the campaign has been plenty violent anyway. Speaking of, the Pentagon and the Iraqi military are strongly pushing the argument that ISIS has been sneaking civilians into buildings and then trying to bait the US-led coalition, unaware that there are civilians inside, to strike those buildings. This is what they’re saying happened in the case of the Jadidah bombing on March 17.

Niqash published a piece a couple of days ago about the civilian death toll in Mosul and why it’s been so high. Part of the reason is obviously because Mosul is a very large city whose civilians were told by Iraqi authorities (who were worried about coping with large numbers of displaced people, which they’re having to do anyway) to shelter in place rather than try to flee the fighting. But another factor is that here, unlike in previous urban campaigns like Ramadi and Fallujah, the Iraqis haven’t given ISIS a way out of the city. A surrounded enemy can be expected to resist harder than one that has a way to escape when the odds are not in its favor, and in this case ISIS’s continued resistance has added to the civilian body count. It seems quite likely that the Iraqis could have left ISIS an escape route and then killed all or most of the fighters who escaped later, in some much less populated area.

SYRIA

Another round of Geneva peace talks is in the books, and, folks, I think we really made some progress this time around:

Opposition negotiator Nasr al-Hariri said the “terrorist regime” of President Bashar al-Assad had refused to discuss political transition during the talks and said Assad was a war criminal who must step down in the name of peace.

“They are solely discussing their empty rhetoric about countering terrorism,” Hariri told reporters, vowing there could be “no peace without justice.”

“War crimes and crimes against humanity must not be an option for negotiations. From now, venues must be found for transitional justice to ensure holding the perpetrators accountable,” he said.

Hariri said he was looking for a negotiating partner who put the interests of the Syrian people first, while his opposite number, the government’s chief negotiator, Bashar al Ja’afari, said he only wanted to negotiate with someone “patriotic”.

Ja’afari mocked the opposition delegation as “adolescents” who thought they were appearing on a television talent show such as “Arab Idol” or “The Voice”, and were under the illusion that government would simply hand over the keys to the country.

“In fact they are tools, they are mercenaries in the hands of their lords, their operators, and it seems they have not received instructions from them, except instructions to continue supporting terrorism and to create havoc in these rounds.”

Oh, wait, my bad, that’s what the Syrians themselves said after the talks ended. Jeez, those are some lame insults. Anyway, here’s what UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said: Continue reading

Conflict update: March 28 2017

BREXIT

Theresa May will formally trigger Britain’s exit from the European Union on Wednesday. That will begin the two-year negotiation over the terms of that exit, meaning that the UK will be out of the EU as of March 29, 2019. The European parliament is reportedly preparing a resolution in response to the trigger that will stipulate that Britain is welcome to call the whole thing off at any time over the next two years, but obviously that seems like wishful thinking. Reports out of London say that May’s government is rethinking its blustery rhetoric about crashing out of the EU without some kind of trade deal, recognizing the fact that doing so would be pretty hard on the British economy. Implicit in that kind of talk has always been the threat that the British government might turn the UK into a giant tax haven for EU companies, but, uh, tax havens kind of suck, a lot, and it’s unlikely the British people would be willing to endure the long-term social and political ramifications of something like that.

Brussels is now reportedly prepared to reject any Brexit deal that doesn’t protect the rights of EU citizens who, for some reason, might choose to move to the UK over the next two years. London is likely to insist that, while it will protect the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, it will only do so for EU citizens who were already in the country when Brexit was triggered. This could be a major sticking point in the upcoming talks.

Meanwhile, the Scottish parliament voted today in favor of holding a second independence referendum sometime before Britain leaves the EU…and Westminster immediately told them to go to hell. It should be a wonderful next couple of years.

CLIMATE

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again and again–we’re all gonna die, man:

Donald Trump launched an all-out assault on Barack Obama’s climate change legacy on Tuesday with a sweeping executive order that undermines America’s commitment to the Paris agreement.

Watched by coalminers at a ceremony at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, the president signed an order to trigger a review of the clean power plan, Obama’s flagship policy to curb carbon emissions, and rescind a moratorium on the sale of coalmining leases on federal lands.

Trump’s order won’t accomplish its stated goal, reviving the U.S. coal industry, which is well and truly dead. But it does signal that America no longer gives a shit about the environment, which will have domino effects all over the world. The Trump administration is unlikely to back out of the Paris Climate Agreement, itself an inadequate attempt to solve the climate problem, but it will seek to redefine its responsibilities under that agreement, which ultimately may not be much better.

IRAQ

Continue reading

Conflict update: March 14 2017

DONALD TRUMP AND THE HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL

According to Foreign Policy, nominal Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a letter recently to a group of nonprofits warning that the Trump administration is prepared to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council unless “considerable reform” is undertaken in that body. Tillerson’s letter highlighted the presence on the UNHRC of such human rights luminaries as Saudi Arabia and China (and, uh, the United States, while we’re at it), but that’s all smokescreen. By “reform,” what the Trump administration–and, indeed, much of the US foreign policy community–means is “lay off Israel.”

While I take a backseat to nobody in my loathing of Israel’s human rights record, which deserves all the criticism it gets, these folks do have a point about the UNHRC–or, rather, they have part of a point. Something like half of the resolutions issued by the UNHRC since it was formed in 2006, and nearly a third of its special sessions over that time, have had to do with Israel. As shitty as Israel’s human rights record is, that’s disproportionate. Of course, the Trump/Republican solution to this problem is, essentially, that the UNHRC should cease to exist, or at least be less active with regards to Israel. My solution would be for the UNHRC to be at least as active on Israel as it is now, but also be way more active when it comes to, well, everybody else (no government in the world actually cares about human rights, is the real problem here).

But while the Trump administration’s instinct is to withdraw from any international body that doesn’t toe the line, denying them that all-important TRUMP Brand stamp of approval or whatever, if their aim is to steer the UNHRC in a different direction then quitting is exactly the wrong way to do so. The Obama administration, being thoroughly a creature of the Washington foreign policy establishment despite its occasional tepid criticisms of that establishment, also objected to the HRC’s overemphasis on Israel, so it joined the council (the Bush administration refused to be part of it) and, lo and behold, was able to use America’s international heft to push the council to focus attention on Syria, Iran, and nonstate actors like ISIS. If the Trump administration follows through on its threat to withdraw from the council, then it will be giving up its ability to influence what the council does.

I’m torn in cases like this between my instinct, which is that the administration doesn’t think through the ramifications of these kinds of decisions and/or doesn’t really give a shit about them, and my skepticism, which tells me that they must surely realize what they’re doing and are acting purposefully to try to wreck as many international institutions as they can. Of course there’s no reason it couldn’t be both–no presidential administration is a monolith.

“MAD DOG” “REASONABLE CLIMATE CHANGE THINKER” MATTIS

Continue reading

Conflict update: March 10 2017

ETHICS, HOW DO THEY WORK

As it so happens, while Michael Flynn was advising candidate Donald Trump on foreign policy, he was also being paid to act as an agent of the Turkish government–except, oops, he apparently forgot to mention that to anybody until earlier this week. Flynn even wrote pro-Turkey op-eds without disclosing that he was being paid to do it, which for anybody else would be a huge scandal but which is at best the 80th worst thing Flynn has done in just the past six months. To make this even more hilarious, Flynn apparently didn’t even fulfill the terms of his contract, which called for him to “investigate” Fethullah Gülen and produce a short film based on his investigation.

To make things considerably less hilarious, Donald Trump thought this guy was the right pick to be his top national security adviser, and Trump still has almost four years left in his term.

REX TILLERSON: THE FORGOTTEN MAN

tillerson_sworn_in

I was going to make a joke about the last time Tillerson saw his boss, but instead, can we talk about what President Trump could possibly be looking at here? Seriously, they’re swearing in his Secretary of State and he’s doing…what, exactly?

Astonishing:

I guess Secretary Kushner must have handled the visit himself.

Seriously, you’re Rex Tillerson. You used to run ExxonMobil. You’ve got more money than you could possibly spend in a hundred lifetimes. How much longer are you going to allow yourself to be humiliated?

FAMINE

Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, told the Security Council today that the UN is facing its worst crisis since its founding. He was talking about the acute simultaneous risk of famine/mass starvation in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria. An estimated 20 million people in parts of those four countries are at risk of starving to death. Children growing up in those areas are looking at lifelong challenges posed by severe malnutrition, and that’s assuming they actually survive. In all four countries these famines are to some degree man-made, though in Somalia in particular a severe drought is also part of the problem (though of course we can argue about the extent to which severe weather is now man-made as well).

CHEAP OIL BACK AGAIN?

This…probably isn’t good: Continue reading

Conflict update: March 6 2017

DO OVER

Donald Trump launched the world premiere of Muslim Ban, Episode 2: Attack of the Clods today, and, well, it hasn’t been struck down by a court yet so I guess that’s something.

trump_flicker_face_yess

Damn, Jar Jar Binks looks like shit

The revised travel ban removes Iraq from the list of proscribed nations altogether, so at least one country in which we currently have soldiers engaged in active combat will no longer have to feel like Trump just kicked it in its collective nuts. It also explicitly exempts travelers who already have valid visas, so there won’t be people stranded at the airport under this version of the ban. It’s less punitive with respect to Syrian refugees than the last ban was, as well–where the last ban suspended all refugee resettlement for 120 days but permanently suspended Syrian refugee resettlement, now Syrians will simply face the same 120 day ban as everybody else. The overall number of refugees the US accepts in a single year will be cut from “LOL, you can’t be serious” to “holy shit, is this a fucking joke,” though, so Syrian refugees–all refugees, really–still mostly won’t be allowed in.

Additionally, the new ban removes preferences for refugees who are “religious minorities” (i.e., Christians) in order to support its new claim that the ban is “not motivated by animus toward any religion.” That’s bullshit, of course, but because our legal system thrives on bullshit it may be enough to allow this ban to survive the inevitable court challenges. Instead of an overt religious ban, the new order requires federal agencies to compile special lists of crimes perpetrated by immigrants, making selection bias official federal policy. I’m sure that will be fine.

IRAQ

After a weekend in which most Iraqi offensive operations were shut down due to bad weather that affected visibility and the ability to use air power, things picked back up today. Iraqi forces were able to take the western end of the second of Mosul’s five bridges, which put them in position to partially encircle the main government complex in Mosul’s old city and which, once the bridge is repaired, give the Iraqis another way to bring soldiers and materiel in from east Mosul directly to the front lines. The Iraqis were able to take several other neighborhoods, though the focus right now remains on the old city and the government buildings there.

Iraqi federal police have taken a page out of ISIS’s playbook and are weaponizing store-bought quadcopter drones with makeshift bombs. I am, and maybe you are as well, conditioned to get the chills when somebody talks about weaponized drones because of the US drone program and its total disregard for small niceties like due process, civilian casualties, and national sovereignty. But in a situation like this–i.e., an active war zone–they may not be so bad. I have to say this made some sense to me:

Bellingcat analyst Nick Waters, who has been following the use of drones by Islamic State closely, told Motherboard that the drones actually have the capability to be more ethical than a normal weapon system.

“You get to see exactly what you’re shooting at, they’re surprisingly accurate (likely reducing civilian casualties) and when you only have one or two bombs you want to make sure you hit the target first time,” he told Motherboard via Twitter direct message.

“They’re better than firing a bunch of 107mm rockets into an area and hoping you hit something with ‘ISIS’ written on it,” Waters added.

Better still would be not introducing explosives into a situation where you aren’t 100 percent sure you’re only going to kill ISIS fighters, but that standard will never get used. Given the choice between weaponized drones and an artillery barrage, I can see how the drone really might be the more ethical choice.

UPDATE: Just before I hit “post,” Reuters reported that Iraqi special forces have taken the main government building in west Mosul after an early Tuesday morning (damn time zones) assault.

SYRIA

Continue reading