Conflict update: March 16 2017

SYRIA

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

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

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

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

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

THAT’S SO GORKA

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

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

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

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

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

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

IRAQ

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

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

TURKEY

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

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

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

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

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

EGYPT

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

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

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

SAUDI ARABIA

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

IRAN

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

KASHMIR

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

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

MYANMAR

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

PHILIPPINES

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

NORTH KOREA

This sounds promising:

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

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

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

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

SOMALIA

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

UKRAINE

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

GREECE

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

BALKANS

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

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Today in European history: the Battle of Varna (1444)

and that's the way it was

Of all the 15th century Ottoman battles in the Balkans (or Rumelia, as the Ottomans called their European possessions) prior to the conquest of Constantinople, the most important was probably the Battle of Varna in 1444, particularly if you pair its effects with those of the (second) Battle of Kosovo in 1448. Varna broke a major Hungarian-Polish alliance that had been formed to counter the Ottoman threat, so major in fact that it had been given the Crusader imprimatur (the “Crusade of Varna,” also known as “the Long Campaign”) by Pope Eugenius IV (d. 1447). The Ottoman victory here, combined with Kosovo, suppressed the Hungarian threat long enough to give the Ottomans time to focus on Constantinople, the big prize.

John Hunyadi’s campaigns, including Varna (I know, it’s in Hungarian, but you get the idea)

The Crusade of Varna, or the Long Campaign if you prefer, was a…

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Today in European history: the Second Battle of Kosovo (1448) ends

and that's the way it was

As in the case of the two battles of Mohács, when you’re talking about the “Battle of Kosovo” it’s important to be specific. As far as I know, there have been at least five “Battles of Kosovo” fought over the years, not including the Kosovo Operation in World War II and the 1998-1999 Kosovo War. Of those five battles, the Ottomans were major belligerents in three and contributed troops to a fourth.

When most people talk about “the Battle of Kosovo,” they’re talking about the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, in which two otherwise feuding Serbian principalities, along with the Kingdom of Bosnia, fought an Ottoman army under Sultan Murad I. That battle, a tactical draw but strategic Ottoman victory (both armies were decimated, but the Ottomans could afford the loss while the Serbians couldn’t) that cost the lives of both commanders (Murad and the Serbian Prince Lazar)…

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Today in European history: the Battle of Mohács (1526)

and that's the way it was

First of all, let’s not confuse this battle with the 1687 Battle of Mohács, which we’ve previously mentioned. Aside from the fact that the two battles are ~160 years apart, they also led to two completely different outcomes. That Battle of Mohács was a decisive Ottoman defeat that caused Hungary to come under the control of the Habsburgs, cost the life (thanks to a subsequent Janissary mutiny) of the Grand Vizier at the time, and ultimately resulted in the deposition of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV. This Battle of Mohács was a decisive Ottoman victory that brought a big chunk of Hungary under Ottoman control for the next 160 years, ended the royal line of the Jagiellonian dynasty that ruled Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia, and ultimately brought those kingdoms into the Habsburg orbit (at least nominally, since Croatia and much of Hungary were under Ottoman control). Basically, Mohács saw…

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Today in European history: the Battle of Mohács (1687)

and that's the way it was

The other notable Middle East-related anniversary today involves another European victory over the Muslims, this one over the increasingly vulnerable Ottomans in 1687 at Mohács, which today is located in southern Hungary. The was part of the Great Turkish War, which ran 1683-1699 and pitted the “Holy League” (the Habsburg Empire, Russia, Poland-Lithuania, Venice, Hungary, Croatia, and some scattered Greek and Cossack forces) against the Ottomans. The war really kicked off with the Ottomans’ 1683 attempt to besiege Vienna, and when that siege failed the Ottomans spent most of the rest of the war losing territory to the various European powers. Ultimately the war would end with the 1699 Treaty of Karlowitz, which was really the first time the Ottomans were forced to conclude a peace treaty entirely on European terms and which thus marks a real turning point in the Ottoman-European rivalry. It also set up the…

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Today in European history: the Battle of Saint Gotthard (1664)

We’ve talked here in the past about the 1683 Siege of Vienna, where the Ottoman Empire saw its high water mark, and the subsequent 1699 Treaty of Karlowitz, the first treaty the Ottomans ever signed with other European powers that was concluded on their terms rather than on the Ottomans’ terms. If you look carefully enough at the 1664 Battle of Saint Gotthard, the final clash of the 1663-1664 Ottoman-Austrian War, you can see some of the seeds of those coming Ottoman defeats. Saint Gotthard itself was, in fact, an Ottoman defeat, but it came tacked on to the end of a war the Ottomans had already won (though not in the way or to the degree they’d intended to win it), and it led to a peace treaty that continued, albeit not for very much longer, the Ottoman streak of concluding only favorable treaties with their European rivals.

That 1663-64 war was born out of an Ottoman desire to resume the empire’s inexorable expansion west, to Vienna and beyond into central Europe. It began, innocuously enough, with a wayward Ottoman vassal, Prince George II Rákóczi of Transylvania (d. 1660), who decided to up and invade Poland in 1657 without consulting with the Sublime Porte (the Ottomans used this euphemism to refer to the royal court, per the practice of issuing edicts via the palace’s main gate or, in this case, “sublime porte”–I don’t think I’ve ever used it before here, but, in my defense, it’s a pretty goofy euphemism). The Ottomans, ruled by Sultan Mehmed IV (d. 1693, though he was deposed in 1687) and his Grand Vizier, Köprülü Fazıl Ahmed Pasha (d. 1676), at first simply ordered Rákóczi deposed, but when that didn’t take they opted to invade Transylvania to teach their vassals the cost of going to war without permission. And so in 1660 they invaded Transylvania, killed Rákóczi, and ultimately annexed the territory to the empire instead of leaving it as a semi-autonomous vassal.

Map - Ottomans in 16th & 17th Centuries

Although this map doesn’t really have much to do with the war or the battle we’re talking about here, it at least helps to put these places in a geographic context

Before the Porte decided to annex Transylvania, though, they replaced Rákóczi with their own candidate for the throne, but the Transylvanian nobles rejected him and elected John Kemény (d. 1662) instead. It was at this point that the Ottomans returned, intent on annexation, and Kemény high-tailed it out of there and over to the court of Austrian Archduke, King of Hungary, and Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I (d. 1705). Leopold was dismayed at the idea of Transylvanian being absorbed into the Ottoman Empire and so he agreed to back Kemény’s bid to reacquire his throne. He sent one of his top generals, Raimondo Montecuccoli (d. 1680), to Transylvania, but he didn’t send him with very much in the way of actual forces, so Montecuccoli couldn’t really do much but inconvenience the Ottomans and watch as they completed the conquest of Transylvania. However, this intervention was deemed by the Ottomans, who were looking for an excuse to start a new war with the Habsburgs anyway, as a cassus belli, and everybody started preparing for war.

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Today in European history: the Siege of Belgrade ends (1456)

Mehmed II earned the epithet Fatih or “the Conqueror” when he captured Constantinople in 1453, and it’s lucky for him that he did, really. If he didn’t already have a slick nickname by the time of his failed effort to capture Belgrade, I can imagine he might have been saddled with a much less flattering one instead. Well, at least behind his back, anyway.

After Constantinople fell, Mehmed’s gaze naturally kept moving west (he was particularly keen on reuniting the “two Romes” by capturing the actual Rome), and the next major target on the road to central Europe was Hungary. The regular reader and/or fan of late medieval European history will note that 15th century Hungary was a genuine military heavyweight, capable of slugging it out with the Ottomans or, really, just about anybody. They owed their military success to two factors: their early adoption of firearms and field artillery (and of innovative tactics employing those weapons like the “wagon fortress”), and the presence of their great general, John Hunyadi (d. 1456 but that’s not a spoiler), the warlord of Transylvania. Hunyadi had laid a few significant defeats on the Ottomans in the early 1440s, and though the Ottomans had achieved a measure of revenge by defeating Hunyadi at the Battle of Varna in 1444 and the (Second) Battle of Kosovo in 1448, he was still around and his army was still a pretty tough nut to crack.

The road through Hungary began at Belgrade. Continue reading