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: March 1 2017

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S GENERALS

Donald Trump is reportedly planning to substantially hand control over military operations to his defense secretary, recently retired General James Mattis:

The Daily Beast’s Kim Dozier writes that Trump “wants to operate more like the CEO he was in the private sector in such matters, and delegate even more power to Mattis, which may mean rewriting one of President Barack Obama’s classified Presidential Policy Directives on potentially lethal operations in countries where the U.S. is not officially involved in combat.”

Military officers already have authority to greenlight certain military operations, but sensitive missions like the Yemen raid, conducted in a country where the United States is not formally engaged in combat operations, have typically required a sign-off from the White House. Trump has also previously said that he would give Mattis the power to “override” him on the question of whether to use torture on terror suspects. (The president still thinks it’s a good idea, but the defense secretary opposes it.)

As Keating notes, for any other president this would be a little terrifying. But we’re talking about Donald Trump, and the less he actually makes decisions in this government the better off we all are. This is glaringly true in the case of torture.

One area where Trump apparently won’t let his generals overrule him is when it comes to the Magic Words That Will Defeat Terrorism:

President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, advised him in a closed-door meeting last week to stop using a phrase that was a frequent refrain during the campaign: “radical Islamic terrorism.”

But the phrase will be in the president’s speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, according to a senior White House aide—even though McMaster reviewed drafts and his staff pressed the president’s chief speechwriter and senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, not to use it.

McMaster, who actually has some experience in, you know, anything at all related to national security, is being overruled by Trump’s political advisers, who have no such experience but want to make it very clear to Muslims that America is their enemy. And guess what? Message received.

SYRIA

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Conflict update: February 25-26 2017

THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

New Trump National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster has only been on the job a few days, but I wonder if he shouldn’t already be looking for the exits:

President Trump’s newly appointed national security adviser has told his staff that Muslims who commit terrorist acts are perverting their religion, rejecting a key ideological view of other senior Trump advisers and signaling a potentially more moderate approach to the Islamic world.

The adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, told the staff of the National Security Council on Thursday, in his first “all hands” staff meeting, that the label “radical Islamic terrorism” was not helpful because terrorists are “un-Islamic,” according to people who were in the meeting.

This is nice, and certainly not in keeping with the administration’s “Clash of Civilizations” view of Islam, but the NYT’s optimism notwithstanding, it doesn’t signal any change in the administration. McMaster, per the NYT’s reporting, has less influence than ultra-Islam haters Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller (both of whom have “walk-in privileges” for the Oval Office, while McMaster does not), so if they don’t like what McMaster is saying, they’ll just make sure Trump never hears it. So then the question becomes how long McMaster will stay in an advisory job in which he has no real influence.

SHIʿISM

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Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (Wikimedia)

Al-Monitor’s Ali Mamouri has written an interesting piece on the role that inter-Shiʿa political disputes in Iraq have highlighted the theological gap between Iraqi Twelvers, based in Najaf, and Iranian Twelvers, based in Qom. Iraqi clerics, following the example of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, stick to a much more quietist tradition that says religious figures should steer mostly clear of worldly politics, while Iranian clerics, following the teachings of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, have a…well, substantially different view of the proper relationship between religion and politics. In the middle is Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement, which is undeniably political, so not really aligned with Najaf, but is at odds with Qom over Sadr’s harsh criticism of the Iraqi government, which Iran supports. Sistani turns 87 this year, and he’s such a domineering presence within Iraq’s Shiʿa religious community that his death will undoubtedly have a major impact on the Najaf-Qom-Sadr relationship.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: February 24 2017

THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION: A LAND OF CONTRADICTIONS TOTAL BULLSHIT

Say, this is interesting:

Analysts at the Homeland Security Department’s intelligence arm found insufficient evidence that citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries included in President Donald Trump’s travel ban pose a terror threat to the United States.

A draft document obtained by The Associated Press concludes that citizenship is an “unlikely indicator” of terrorism threats to the United States and that few people from the countries Trump listed in his travel ban have carried out attacks or been involved in terrorism-related activities in the U.S. since Syria’s civil war started in 2011.

Why, it’s almost as though the travel ban wasn’t actually about protecting America, but was instead an attempt to advance some other bullshit agenda!

And speaking of bullshit, remember how all during the campaign Donald Trump was Very Angry about the way Barack Obama was combating ISIS? And remember how Donald Trump said he had a Secret Plan To Defeat ISIS that later was revealed to be “Ask The Generals How To Defeat ISIS,” on account of how Donald Trump is an idiot? But Donald Trump assured us that the Plan the Generals gave him would be Way Better than whatever Obama had been doing? Yeah, about that:

For months on the campaign trail, Donald Trump accused the Obama administration of failing to aggressively fight ISIS, falsely claiming at one point that his predecessor as US president founded the jihadi group and vowing to “bomb the shit” out of it.

But as his national security team wraps up a monthlong rethink of the ISIS war, President Trump’s strategy is beginning to look a lot like the Obama strategy he once disparaged.

The Pentagon’s plan — due to be delivered to Trump on Monday — still involves a US-led airstrike campaign to shape the battlefield, as well as a dependence on local troops to fight the terror group with support of the US military, which will guide airstrikes, provide intelligence, and back local commanders, current and former defense officials told BuzzFeed News.

The one major change appears to be a recommendation to deploy 1000 additional US soldiers to Syria to embed with the…well, with whatever force eventually winds up taking Raqqa. They would play the same role that embedded US personnel are playing in Mosul, with the added complication that the Iraqi government invited those Americans into the country, while Bashar al-Assad presumably will not extend the same sort of welcome to American personnel in Syria.

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Conflict update: January 16 2017

Iraq

battle_of_mosul_2016-2017

Mosul’s condition, current through earlier today (Wikimedia | Kami888)

With Mosul University in government hands, ISIS’s ability to defend eastern Mosul seems to be collapsing pretty quickly. One of the big changes in the recent course of the battle, in addition to a drastic decline in the number of ISIS suicide attacks, has been that Iraqi forces are no longer having to go back and clean up previously liberated areas two, three, four times. This is undoubtedly reflective of ISIS’s overall collapse, but it probably also reflects the decision to reinforce the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service with regular army and federal police forces that can better hold and secure territory that the CTS has liberated. Mosul airport now seems to be taking fire from Iraqi forces in the south, in advance of an expected move there. If Iraqi forces are able to advance from the south it will force ISIS defenders in western Mosul to defend on at least two fronts.

Two problems continue to plague residents of the city. One, which we’ve covered before, is that civilians are dying and being badly injured in the fighting. Obviously you expect civilian casualties in a battle like this, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that ISIS is directly targeting civilians as it retreats, which is why the rate of civilian casualties in Mosul has been higher than that for a “typical” urban battle. Conversely, Iraqi forces have probably been more careful about civilian casualties than might have been expected, given the way the liberations of Ramadi and Fallujah went, which is part of the reason why the offensive has gone a bit slower than many expected. The second problem involves what to do with all the dead, civilian and otherwise. Giving the dead a proper burial in a war zone is pretty challenging, as you might imagine, and plus many of the casualties are ISIS fighters whom nobody is particularly interested in properly burying. Lots of makeshift graves are going to have to be dug up and attended when the fighting is over.

Syria

In the latest turn of the will they/won’t they/what difference does it make saga of the Syrian rebels’ possible attendance at the January 23 Astana peace talks, it seems they will be attending, or at least they’ll be represented by Jaysh al-Islam leader Mohammad Alloush. Well, some of them will be: Continue reading

Most Americans oppose scrapping the Iran nuclear deal

Here’s something interesting. Earlier today, the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation (PPC) released the findings of a poll showing that almost two-thirds of Americans oppose the idea of withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) and attempting to renegotiate its terms. Overall, 63.7% of respondents prefer to “continue with the deal as long as Iran complies with the terms,” while only 34.4% would rather “withdraw from the current deal and seek to negotiate a new deal.”

President-elect (ffffuuuuuu) Trump, of course, campaigned heavily on the idea that the JCPOA was a bad deal—“the worst deal ever negotiated,” in his words—that should be renegotiated at a minimum, if not scrapped altogether. If the poll is right, then most Americans disagree with his assessment, though (as you might expect) the partisan split in the poll was high—58.1% of Republicans support renegotiating the deal, while 85.6% of Democrats and 58.6% of independents want to leave it in place. The primary driver of the “keep it in place” side seems to be a pretty firm–and I would argue correct–feeling that Iran would be unwilling to negotiate a new deal or renegotiate the JCPOA’s terms if the US were to walk away from the deal as it exists now. Nearly 70% of respondents believed it “unlikely” that Iran would be amenable to new talks, including substantial majorities among people of all three party affiliations. Interestingly, a little under 58% of respondents think it’s likely that the other nations that were party to the deal would agree to abandon it if the US did, which I think is seriously misguided but maybe that’s just me.

It remains to be seen whether Trump will be susceptible to public opinion on this issue, particular when his top foreign policy adviser, National Security Advisor-designate Michael Flynn, is stridently anti-Iran. Still, as Jim Lobe notes, Trump’s FP team isn’t uniformly anti-JCPOA:

Although generally quite hawkish toward Iran, top appointments to his administration so far have been divided on the JCPOA. Trump’s national security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn (ret.), is strongly opposed to it, while his nominee for secretary of state, Gen. James Mattis (ret.), believes the deal is flawed but worth sustaining. A U.S. withdrawal or reimposition of sanctions, he warned last spring, would prove largely ineffective or even counter-productive because the other parties in the P5+1 (Britain, France, Russia, and China plus Germany) were highly unlikely to go along.

Congress is another consideration here, of course; there are enough hawks in both houses to support at least some piecemeal challenges to the JCPOA–they may not vote to back out of the deal, but they could, for example, vote to block any more economic aid or business deals going to Iran, or to reimpose former nuclear-related sanctions under some alternate justification, and it’s hard to know how Trump would respond to something like that. These poll results suggest that Congress should also tread carefully here.

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Conflict update: December 23 2016

Barring some kind of major happening I’m out for the next couple of days. Merry Christmas to those who are celebrating it and Happy Hanukkah to those who are celebrating it. To those who are celebrating both, stop hoarding all the presents.

Now, one last dose of (mostly) bad news for you all.

Israel-Palestine

I don’t want to make much more out of today’s surprise UN vote than I’ve already made, but I do want to stress that, for any practical purpose, this Security Council resolution changes virtually nothing. Nobody’s going to impose sanctions on Israel now, though Israel is imposing its own sanctions on other countries. Nobody is going to suddenly start blocking settlement construction. Israel will continue annexing the West Bank. When you hear somebody tell you this is going to hurt the peace process, remember that Israel strangled the “peace process” to death years and years ago. When they tell you that the only way there can be peace is for Israel and the Palestinians to talk to each other, understand that there’s literally nothing about this resolution that prevents or impedes that in any way. These things are propaganda. Right-wing Israeli politicians warn of grave threats to the peace process every time somebody coughs the wrong way in the UN General Assembly, but there’s been no greater enemy of an actual peace process, going back at least to Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, than the Israeli right.

The only thing that really happened today is that the Israeli government got embarrassed, rightly, and a whole bunch of assholes, both in Israel and here in America, got real mad about it. Oh well.

Syria

Aleppo finally got a break from war yeah right, Aleppo is still being shelled by rebels on its outskirts, who are still being targeted by government airstrikes. And in Damascus, the government says it had to cut the water supply after rebels poured diesel into a spring that supplies the city.

At the risk of repeating myself, the biggest thing to watch now in Syria seems to me to be the tug of war between Iran and Turkey over who can be Moscow’s best pal. The prize is control over the peace process and Syria’s transition out of full-scale war (some level of violence is likely to continue indefinitely). Turkey, which is still getting along with Russia despite the tension caused by the Karlov assassination, would like to sway Moscow toward developing a relationship with Turkey’s rebel proxies, which might lead to Russia pushing for a transition that maybe isn’t entirely what Bashar al-Assad has in mind. Iran would prefer, more or less, to just leave Assad as is; he’s not their ideal client but he’s the best they’re going to do. Iran is operating from the stronger position here because their interests have been in alignment with Russia for some time now while Turkey’s have not, but even so, and with all due respect to Juan Cole who definitely knows his shit, I think talk of a “Russo-Iranian Middle East” might be a little premature.

In al-Bab, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says Turkish airstrikes killed 88 civilians over the past day.

Iraq

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