Conflict update: April 19 2017

Hey! So, instead of finishing this and posting it at 11:58 like I usually do, tonight I’m going to try, you know, not doing that, and hopefully being asleep at 11:58 instead. I’d like to make that the new normal with these posts going forward, but we’ll see.

SYRIA

At The Nation, James Carden asks whether we, and the media in particular, have rushed to judgment in in blaming Bashar al-Assad for the April 4 chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun. This is a difficult discussion to have in an environment that rewards the confident take over nuance almost every time, but I think Carden makes a compelling case that there has been a rush to judgment, while at the same time I also believe that the preponderance of evidence supports the conclusion that Assad did it. The thing is that “preponderance of evidence” isn’t that high a standard, especially in a situation where there isn’t all that much hard evidence–at this point I think we can fairly confidently say that sarin or something very much like it was used in Khan Shaykhun, but most of the rest of the story is still up in the air to one degree or another. And “preponderance of evidence” certainly seems like too low a standard when we’re talking about justifying military action, though certainly the US has historically trudged off to war over even less.

At some point, though, proponents of alternate theories about Khan Shaykhun are going to have to produce some evidence of their own, something more than “I’m hearing from sources” or “this satellite image looks like something else to me.” Because even if they’re right, and Assad wasn’t responsible for this attack, it doesn’t mean much if they can’t at least sway public opinion in their direction. And if international investigations start to determine that Assad did it, that’s going to become much harder to do. It’s one thing to question the veracity of anything that comes out of the Trump administration, but if, say, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons investigation comes back with a finding that Assad was responsible, then that’s harder to simply dismiss out of hand.

On the other hand, the OPCW investigation hasn’t come back yet, and if your argument is that America should have at least waited for that before commencing air strikes, well, I think you’re probably right. There’s also a strong case to be made that our media should be giving more–or at least some–attention to credible people who are questioning the “Assad Did It” narrative. And there’s also some merit to what Peter Ford, former UK ambassador to Syria, said hereContinue reading

Conflict update: April 18 2017

AMERICA TO THE RESCUE

If you’re worried about the state of human rights around the world, I’ve got great news–this afternoon, America was on it:

The Trump administration is seeking to highlight its commitment to human rights around the world, and so its envoy to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, is presiding over what it calls the first “thematic debate” on human rights in the Security Council on Tuesday afternoon.

“Council members are encouraged to express their views on the nexus between human rights and international peace and security,” reads a memo circulated to the members this month. Rights abuses, the memo says, can often be the first signs of a full-on conflict erupting.

This was, of course, not the first time human rights have been discussed to no effect at the UN Security Council, but it probably is the council’s first “thematic debate,” whatever the fuck that means. Human rights groups were skeptical–for some reason, they seemed to think that a UN Security Council meeting on human rights, presided over by a country that bombs mosques, bombs apartment buildings, bombed civilians even on this very day, and allies with countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, wouldn’t amount to shit. Well, the joke’s on them, because as it turns out…they were, uh, pretty much right on the money.

UNITED KINGDOM

Britain is having a new election in June! What fun! Yes, I know, they just had an election two years ago, and Prime Minister Theresa May has said multiple times that she wouldn’t call snap elections before Britain had exited the European Union, but since when are we dinging politicians for lying? If early polling is to be believed, we’re not doing it this time either. May has a major political opening staring her in the face–serious Brexit negotiations won’t start until later this year, and she and her Conservative Party have huge polling leads over Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour Party–and she’s going to take advantage of it to increase her parliamentary cushion for the Brexit process. This is a smart, calculated move–so calculated that her opposition might even want to make an issue out of how bloody cynical the whole thing is.

Technically, May does not have the power to call for early elections–prime ministers used to have virtually unlimited authority in that regard, but parliament voted to restrict it in 2010 in order to keep precisely this kind of purely political vote from being called. If just a third of the House of Commons rejects her plans, she’ll have to resort to legislative trickery by having her own party vote against her government in a vote of no confidence. But it’s probably not going to come to that, as both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have said they’ll vote to approve the early election. It’s not clear why they’re going along with this, but I suppose if either party really knew what it was doing then the Conservatives wouldn’t be on the verge of pummeling them both in a couple of months.

The actual risk for May is that, if British voters are really feeling buyer’s remorse over the Brexit referendum, they could opt to hand May a parliament that’s much less amenable to her plans for a so-called “hard Brexit” (apologies if there are any impressionable children reading this smut).  Continue reading

Conflict update: February 27 2017

FOREVER WAR

President Trump would like to increase the Pentagon’s budget by $54 billion next year, an amount that, if you’re keeping score at home, is all by itself equal to roughly 4/5 of Russia’s entire military budget. This would boost America’s capacity to shovel huge piles of money at defense contractors fight MOAR WARS, and pay for it by cutting pretty much everything else, including the stuff we do to try to avoid fighting wars.

EARTH

The Great Barrier Reef is still dying, so consider this your semi-regular reminder that none of the rest of this will matter if we don’t figure out a way to stop rendering our planet uninhabitable.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces secured the western end of the southernmost bridge connecting the two halves of the city across the Tigris River on Monday. They’re now pushing into the heart of ISIS-controlled western Mosul, where they’re increasingly running into challenges related to the estimated 750,000 civilians still there. Thousands of civilians have tried to leave the city amid the fighting, but at this point they’re an impediment for the Iraqi military whether they stay or go. Securing the bridge will, once it’s been repaired, in theory allow the Iraqis to resupply their front line forces more directly via eastern Mosul.

There continues to be mostly confusion surrounding the eventual fate of Tal Afar. Pronouncements coming out of the Popular Mobilization Units suggest that the PMU are preparing to take the city, but the Ninewah provincial government says that Iraqi regulars will be the ones to handle that phase of the operation. Baghdad originally floated the idea that the PMU would take Tal Afar but backed down when that plan raised Turkish ire. At this point it seems clear that Baghdad would prefer to have its professional military liberate Tal Afar, but it can’t spare any manpower from Mosul to do the job. The PMU are sitting out in the western desert surrounding Tal Afar and could probably liberate the city, but Turkey would undoubtedly respond negatively to that scenario (and, to be fair, there are concerns over how the PMU will treat Sunni Turkmen in Tal Afar who may have collaborated with ISIS back in 2014).

SYRIA

Continue reading

Conflict update: February 23 2017

LIKE NO OTHER

I think somebody needs to brief Dumbo again:

“I am the first one that would like to see … nobody have nukes, but we’re never going to fall behind any country even if it’s a friendly country, we’re never going to fall behind on nuclear power.

“It would be wonderful, a dream would be that no country would have nukes, but if countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack,” Trump said.

Russia has 7,300 warheads and the United States, 6,970, according to the Ploughshares Fund, an anti-nuclear group.

“The history of the Cold War shows us that no one comes out ‘on the top of the pack’ of an arms race and nuclear brinkmanship,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the independent Arms Control Association non-profit group.

“Russia and the United States have far more weapons than is necessary to deter nuclear attack by the other or by another nuclear-armed country,’ he said.

IRAQ

Continue reading

Conflict update: February 21 2017

Iran

ebrahim_raisi_in_9th_day_rally_01

Ebrahim Raisi (Wikimedia | Meghdad Madadi)

It finally looks like a major principlist candidate might challenge Hassan Rouhahi in May’s presidential election. Ebrahim Raisi was appointed last year to run Astan Quds Razavi, the charitable foundation that manages the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad, and that makes him one of the most important religious figures in Iran. Only 56 (that’s practically 26 in the context of hardline Iranian political figures), he’s been mentioned as a possible successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Supreme Leader, but suddenly there’s some momentum behind him as a presidential candidate. Raisi says he’ll only run if he’s the consensus choice among Iranian conservatives, which is a tall order but, for someone of his stature, isn’t out of the question. Raisi isn’t Qasem Soleimani, but he would be a difficult challenge for Rouhani.

Iranian and Turkish diplomats are continuing to trade barbs over Syria and regional policy. Meanwhile, Khamenei is throwing red meat at Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu by encouraging another Intifada in occupied Palestine. I have no doubt he’s doing it to provoke exactly the reaction that Trump and Netanyahu will give him.

Iraq

battle_of_mosul_2016-2017

The Battle of Mosul, through earlier today (Wikimedia | Kami888)

Iraqi forces are staging for their big push to capture Mosul airport and the nearby Ghazlani military base. Yesterday they captured the village of Albu Saif, which sits on a hilltop overlooking the airport, and that’s become their staging area. Iraqi commanders don’t seem to be expecting much ISIS resistance at the airport–because it’s not near any civilian areas, coalition and Iraqi air forces have been striking it at will, so the thinking is they will have worn its defenses down. Once the airport is in Iraqi hands the next step will be to repair it as quickly as possible so that it can be used to provide close air support for the rest of the operation.

Joel Wing has been tracking the Iraqi government’s statements about the west Mosul phase pretty regularly at Musings on Iraq. During the lull after east Mosul was fully liberated, Iraqi commanders and politicians have been telling anybody who would listen that ISIS was spent, broken, that it wouldn’t be able to put up a serious fight in west Mosul. Now that the west Mosul operation has started, of course, the tune is changing.

Syria

Reuters reported today that the CIA suspended its program to supply, pay, and arm rebels in northwestern Syria last month, when they began fighting among themselves. Apparently the risk that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham might seize American weaponry in battle was deemed too great to allow the program to continue, though the Agency didn’t seem to worry too much about the risk that rebels would simply, you know, give those weapons to JFS back when everybody was playing for the same team.

The UN expects this week’s peace talks in Geneva to focus on a “political transition process” rather than on “political transition.” These are completely different topics because the UN desperately needs them to be. Apparently the addition of the word “process” is supposed to make it seem less like the UN is trying to usher Bashar al-Assad out of power and more like everybody in Geneva will all be just neutrally shooting the shit about civics, or something.

The Syrian Democratic Forces reportedly made a major incursion into Deir Ezzor province today, driving ISIS out of a dozen villages there. I wouldn’t expect the SDF to move to relieve besieged Deir Ezzor itself–their focus is still on encircling Raqqa. Speaking of the SDF, or more specifically its Kurdish YPG component, the saga of Roy Gutman’s investigation into the YPG continues at The Nation. Today they published a criticism of his reporting from human rights activist Meredith Tax, along with Gutman’s response. Tax’s critique isn’t especially strong, but Gutman’s work still suffers from its sourcing, which for many of its more provocative claims is largely the Syrian government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, both of which have major axes to grind with the YPG.

Turkey

If we can go by statements made by Turkish officials, over 550,000 new refugees have crossed into Turkey in just the past five months. That’s a staggering figure that may be costing the Turkish government more than half a billion dollars each month. Which is all to say that you can kind of see why they invaded northern Syria a few months back.

The predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has applied to the European Court of Human Rights to hear a case regarding the arrest of its leaders by Turkish authorities in November. Chief among HDP’s arguments is that the ongoing imprisonment of its leaders constitutes an effort by the Turkish government to suppress opposition to April’s referendum on changing the Turkish constitution to increase President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s powers. And, indeed, HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş isn’t going to be given a court hearing until almost two weeks after the referendum, even though he will have been in custody for five months by that point.

Jordan

Jordanian King Abdullah and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi met in Cairo today and, afterward, issued a joint statement reaffirming their support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine issue. Or, in other words, they announced that they’re not swapping land with anybody, thank you very much.

Speaking of Syrian refugees, Jordan is dealing with the challenge of accounting for hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have left destitution in refugee camps along the Syrian border and are now living in Jordan undocumented. They’re understandably reluctant to come forward because they’ll likely be deported back into Syria. The Jordanian government could solve much of this problem by allowing refugees to work legally in the vicinity of the camps, but so far it’s been unwilling to take that step.

Egypt

The Egyptian government is reaching out to Hamas, offering to relax restrictions on trade and movement across the border between Egypt and Gaza in return for Hamas’s help dealing with militants in Sinai. Sisi’s government has been mostly hostile toward Hamas since it came to power, since Hamas, as a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, was very friendly with the Morsi government that Sisi overthrew. While Gazans could certainly use the boost in food and supplies coming over a less restrictive Egyptian border, I want to note Sisi’s impeccable logic here. In order to try to tamp down a Sinai insurgency that was massively exacerbated by Sisi’s decision to overthrow and then brutally suppress Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, an insurgency that could probably still be weakened if he were to stop suppressing Egypt’s MB, Sisi is now making concessions to Gaza’s Muslim Brotherhood branch.

Azerbaijan

President Ilham Aliyev appointed a new vice president today, and after what must have been a grueling search process his pick was…his wife, Mehriban! Congratulations? She’s now in line to succeed Ilham if for some reason he ever is defeated in a free and fair election decides to step down. Now I know what you’re thinking–you’re worried that people might have a problem with a president making his wife his vice-president, but don’t worry! Aliyev preemptively arrested just about anybody who might have had a problem with this appointment! Whew, I was worried there for a second!

Pakistan

At least six people were killed today in a suicide bombing targeting a court building in the northern district of Charsadda. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar claimed responsibility.

Myanmar

Reuters is reporting that the Myanmar government is investigating the suspicious deaths of two Rohingya while in police custody in October. That may not seem like that big a deal, but it’s the first evidence that Naypyidaw is prepared to maybe, possibly, acknowledge any misconduct by its security forces with respect to the Rohingya.

Indonesia

From the “This Is Exactly What We Need Right Now” file, Saudi King Salman (or, well, somebody in the Saudi palace) is planning a visit to Indonesia for the king and his 1500 person entourage in March. This will be the first time a Saudi ruler has visited Indonesia in almost 50 years. Jakarta is hoping the visit will herald the onset of billions of dollars in Saudi investment. The arrival of the Wahhabi king and his massive Wahhabi retinue will come just a month before the runoff in the Jakarta governor’s race, in which the Muslim candidate is now feverishly trying to deny that he’s been pandering to Islamists in an effort to knock off the Christian incumbent. I’m sure that won’t prove to be a volatile combo.

South China Sea

China is predictably having a bit of a tantrum over the presence of the USS Carl Vinson carrier group in the South China Sea. The rhetoric coming from Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as well as the fact that this patrol comes a scant month into Donald Trump’s presidency, and of course the fact that Steve Bannon thinks we ought to go to war with China, suggests that this administration is going to be more…let’s say proactive, about asserting navigation rights in the SCS than the Obama administration was. And on that subject, Pentagon officials are telling Reuters that they believe China has started putting surface-to-air missile batteries on the disputed Spratly Islands.

Malaysia

The investigation into the murder of Kim Jong-nam continues to escalate. Now Malaysian authorities say they’ve identified two new suspects in the case–and one of them works at the North Korean embassy. Yikes.

Libya

The UN says that the 2015 conviction of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi on war crimes charges was illegitimate and wants him handed over to the International Criminal Court. Gaddafi, who was sentenced to death by firing squad in that trial, is being held in the western Libyan city of Zintan, outside the control of either of the two factions vying for control of the country, so he’s presumably not going anywhere anytime soon.

Nigeria

A curfew has been put into effect in the southern part of Kaduna state, in the center of the country, after a new round of ethnic violence killed 14 people on Monday.

Guinea

The government and teachers unions reached a deal to end a strike that led to protests in which five people were killed yesterday, but unfortunately two more people were killed today after the deal was announced.

South Sudan

President Salva Kiir has promised that aid organizations trying to reach people stricken by famine in South Sudan will have “unimpeded access.” We’ll see.

South Africa

A wave of anti-immigrant violence targeting Nigerians has hit Pretoria in recent days, after similar violence struck a suburb of Johannesburg a few weeks ago. This has prompted the Nigerian government to appeal to South Africa and the African Union to take measures to protect its nationals living in South Africa.

Cyprus

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said today that Turkey must reserve the right to intervene to defend Turkish Cypriots, which, of course, is the kind of thing that makes reunification less likely.

Ukraine

The secretary general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Lamberto Zannier, says the Ukraine ceasefire “doesn’t look too good.” It doesn’t seem like there’s been much new fighting over the last day or so, but progress on moving heavy weapons off the front lines has been slow or non-existent, which suggests the ceasefire isn’t going to stick. Kiev is calling for new sanctions to punish Moscow for its decision to begin honoring unofficial travel documents issued by the separatist “governments” in the Donbas. Meanwhile, pro-Russia Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Artemenko, the one with the shady possibly connections to Donald Trump, is apparently headed to the US to push his peace deal, the one Russia has already called “absurd” and that the Ukrainian government doesn’t even seem willing to acknowledge.

Sweden

Maybe Donald Trump’s bizarre pronouncements are better understood as prophecy than as news:

Just two days after President Trump provoked widespread consternation by seeming to imply, incorrectly, that immigrants had perpetrated a recent spate of violence in Sweden, riots broke out in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood in the northern suburbs of the country’s capital, Stockholm.

The neighborhood, Rinkeby, was the scene of riots in 2010 and 2013, too. And in most ways, what happened Monday night was reminiscent of those earlier bouts of anger. Swedish police apparently made an arrest on drug charges at about 8 p.m. near the Rinkeby station. For reasons not yet disclosed by the police, word of the arrest prompted youths to gather.

Over four hours, the crowd burned about half a dozen cars, vandalized several shopfronts and threw rocks at police. Police spokesman Lars Bystrom confirmed to Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter newspaper that an officer fired shots at a rioter but missed. A photographer for the newspaper was attacked and beaten by more than a dozen men and his camera was stolen.

Hi, how’s it going? Thanks for reading; attwiw wouldn’t exist without you! If you enjoyed this or any other posts here, please share widely and help build our audience. You can like this site on Facebook or follow me on Twitter as well. Most critically, if you’re a regular reader I hope you’ll read this and consider helping this place to stay alive.

Conflict update: February 15 2017

Meet the New Boss(‘s Adviser)

In a rare flash of lucidity, Donald Trump has reportedly offered his now-vacant National Security Advisor position to Vice Admiral Robert Harward, instead of, say, Steve Bannon, or John Bolton, or Chucky, the doll from those horror movies. It’s hard to evaluate Harward for two reasons: one, most military brass tend to keep their personal views pretty close to the chest (the ones who don’t, like Michael Flynn, get a lot of attention in part because they really are the exception), and two, pretty much anybody was going to look good compared to Flynn. One thing we do know is that Harward and Defense Secretary James Mattis get along quite well with one another, where Mattis and Flynn did not, so that could be good or bad depending on your preference for intra-administration feuds.

As far as I know Harward hasn’t actually accepted the job yet, and he may not accept it if Trump refuses to allow him to clear Flynn’s people out of the National Security Council. In particular, Flynn’s deputy, KT McFarland, was apparently told by Trump that she could stay in her job, but it’s hard to imagine why Harward, or anybody else for that matter, would want to keep this person on in such an important job.

Israel-Palestine

It got somewhat underplayed because the Flynn scandal is still sucking up most of the national security oxygen, but Donald Trump erased at least 15 years of US policy in one fell swoop earlier today:

Speaking at a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to scuttle long-standing U.S. support for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians.

If “Bibi” and the Israelis and the Palestinians are all happy, “I am looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like… I can live with either one,” Trump said.

Putting aside a lot of justifiable concern from the Palestinian Authority at this sea-change in American policy (though, who knows, Trump could do a complete 180 by tomorrow), the two-state solution is well and truly dead and has been for some time now. Indeed, during the press conference Netanyahu made it quite clear that his vision of the future in Israel-Palestine by definition excludes the possibility of a separate Palestinian state. But there’s also no one-state solution that “both parties like.” There’s the one-state solution that means apartheid or worse for the Palestinians, which they obviously won’t like, and there’s the one-state solution that means Israel will no longer be a majority Jewish state, which “Bibi” obviously won’t like.  I’d ask whether Trump understands this, but I don’t know that the question is relevant.

In return for Trump’s indulgence, which included only the mildest of rebukes toward his ethnic cleansing policies in the occupied West Bank, Netanyahu made sure to praise Trump, whose chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is an anti-Semite, as a great friend of the Jews. If the two of them had started literally scratching each others’ backs right there in front of the press they couldn’t have been any more blatant about what they were doing. Netanyahu also asked Trump to bless Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, something that will go over real well if it’s coupled with a move to put a large number of new US soldiers on the ground in Syria (see below).

Syria

Continue reading

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