(Middle East) Conflict update: March 20-21, 2017

Because there’s so much to cover, after I missed yesterday, I’ve broken today’s update into two parts. This one will cover just the “Greater” Middle Eastern stuff (including North Africa and Central Asia, in other words), and the other will cover everything else.

IRAQ

Stop me if you’ve already heard this: Iraqi forces are “a few hundred meters” away from the Nuri Mosque in Mosul’s Old City, but ISIS resistance, especially via sniper fire, is slowing their advance to a crawl. In addition to the snipers, the Iraqis say ISIS is holding civilian hostages inside the mosque, so care is being taken to try to get them out alive. Civilian casualties in this phase of the operation have already been quite high–3500 or more by one Iraqi estimate–so this is prudent. In addition to the deaths, an estimated 180,000 Iraqis have already fled western Mosul, a number that would exceed the number who fled eastern Mosul during the entire campaign to liberate that half of the city–and western Mosul is still anywhere from 40 percent to around two-thirds (depending on whether you include the airport and surrounding areas in the total) under ISIS control. The number of displaced is greatly exceeding the combined Iraqi-UN capacity to accommodate them, and some people are even returning to the city despite the fighting. The Iraqi government has apparently decided not to send refugees to Iraqi Kurdistan even though there is reportedly capacity there, likely for petty political reasons.

Meanwhile, an ISIS car bombing in Baghdad yesterday killed at least 21 people. It was the latest in a wave of attacks that have been taking place across the country as ISIS fighters have been able to sneak out of Mosul. It’s believed that ISIS fighters have been reforming in areas of Salahuddin province that would be difficult for the government to get at under normal conditions but impossible given that all its resources are focused on Mosul. From there they’ve been able to strike at targets in Salahuddin and Diyala provinces, and of course Baghdad remains their main target. ISIS is also using its base in the town of Hawija, west of Kirkuk, from where it staged a serious attack on Kirkuk in October. The Iraqi government opted to make a beeline for Mosul instead of capturing smaller ISIS strongholds like Hawija first, and it very much remains to be seen whether or not that was the right choice.

The Washington Post reported today on the Yazidis of the Sinjar region, who are now dying and fleeing from fighting between Kurdish factions a mere 2 and a half years after ISIS tried to exterminate their community. The Yazidis welcomed forces aligned with Turkey’s PKK into Sinjar after forces aligned with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government fled the area in advance of the 2014 ISIS invasion, but with ISIS now gone the KRG is trying to kick the rival PKK out of the area, sometimes violently. Baghdad is apparently happy to have the PKK in Sinjar because it provides some counter to the KRG and to Turkey’s presence in northern Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was in Washington on Monday, where he said he got enthusiastic support from Trump for combating ISIS via both military and economic means, and where Trump, hilariously, unveiled yet another in his apparently infinite number of contradictory opinions about the Iraq War.

SYRIA

Syrian state media has reported for two days now that Syrian government and allied forces have rebuffed a Tahrir al-Sham/Faylaq al-Rahman (FSA) assault on Damascus, so that’s why it’s kind of surprising that the rebels are still assaulting Damascus. Not that I’m suggesting anything about Syrian state media, I’m sure they’re all committed to accurate reporting. But the thing is, while the rebels almost certainly can’t actually threaten Damascus, and they probably can’t even achieve their immediate aim of defending the remaining rebel enclaves in the Damascus suburbs, what they’re doing is sending a message. By attacking the city and hanging in there, they’re demonstrating that Bashar al-Assad’s position isn’t nearly as strong as he’d like you to believe. Which isn’t surprising; Assad was losing the war before Russia intervened, and his underlying problem–a lack of military manpower–hasn’t gone away so much as it’s been heavily papered over.

This Damascus operation is also going to do nothing but raise Tahrir al-Sham’s (AKA al-Qaeda’s) profile among the rebel factions, which is good for them but probably not good for anybody else. Now they’ve undertaken a new offensive, this one involving a couple of suicide bombings targeting Syrian government positions just outside of the city of Hama. With peace talks scheduled for Geneva starting Thursday, this is a double-edged sword for the rebels, who find themselves overall in better shape on the ground, but more dependent than ever on the one rebel faction that nearly everybody agrees is worse than Assad.

On Monday, the YPG announced that it had reached an agreement with Russia such that Russia would be able to build a new base in northwestern Syria (also called Afrin) in return for Russian training for YPG fighters. Moscow quickly quashed this talk and said that it was actually opening a “reconciliation center” in Afrin. Either way, the presence of Russian soldiers maybe training the YPG in Afrin is going to make Turkey mad while also possibly preventing its cross-border attacks on the YPG there. The YPG apparently has big plans, with a spokesman telling Reuters that it wants to grow from its current ~60,000 man army to something north of 100,000 (it’s not clear how it plans to achieve this increase, but it may start paying its soldiers more money and it’s also been accused of forced conscription). At the same time, Turkey reportedly brought together a group of some 50 Syrian Arab tribes in Şanlıurfa last week to discuss forming an all-Arab army (under Turkish auspices, of course) that would somehow materialize to take on the Raqqa operation and defeat the YPG in northeastern Syria. Turkey has been trying to form something like this for more than a year, at least, to no effect.

TURKEY

Continue reading

Conflict update: March 16 2017

SYRIA

jannah

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

gorka1-620x350

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.

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: 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 9 2017

UNITED STATES

It’s very early to draw conclusions, particularly considering the current circumstances in Iraq, but it’s starting to look like when Donald Trump said he was going to “bomb the shit out of them,” that was another thing that people were right to take literally. And, apparently, “them” in that phrase meant, well, pretty much everybody:

The U.S. has dramatically ramped up the campaign against AQAP in Yemen in 2017, with deadly results. New America estimates that approximately 16 civilians have been killed in U.S. strikes in Yemen so far this year. All but one of these strikes was launched after Trump took office. The last time a yearly figure was that high was in 2013.

This year has seen a significant increase in the number of both airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition and civilian casualties, according to the tracking site Airwars, but this trend began before Trump took office as fighting to retake the ISIS-held cities of Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq, intensified. In January, the site recorded 264 confirmed or fairly credible civilian casualties compared to 139 in December. In January, likely civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes outnumbered those from Russian airstrikes for the first time. In February there, were 110 deaths, and March has already seen 89.

The Guardian has a report today on the sordid recent history of US counter-terrorism training operations across Africa, and here we need to lay the blame at President Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. In one country after another–Kenya, Nigeria, South Sudan, American funding and training is going to governments whose militaries are regularly accused of crimes against humanity. Meanwhile, the incidence of terrorism on the continent has skyrocketed since 2009, in spite of all that aid–or maybe because of it. You see, to the extent that US training has helped these militaries do a more effective job of killing and otherwise mistreating people, it may be that we’re helping to create more recruits for the Boko Harams, al-Shababs, and al-Qaeda affiliates of the world.

SYRIA

The most volatile spot in Syria remains the area between al-Bab and Manbij, where Turkish forces and their rebel proxies are trying to get at the YPG but are instead running into the Syrian army, which Turkey doesn’t want to fight but which its proxies do very much want to fight. Syrian state media reported today that Turkish forces shelled the Syrian army outside of Manbij, killing an unspecified number of Syrian soldiers.

Per the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, today seems to have been a particularly bad day to be a civilian in eastern Syria. In al-Mayadin, a town outside of the besieged city of Deir Ezzor, airstrikes–probably Russian–killed at least seven civilians. Suspected American airstrikes, meanwhile, killed at least 20 civilians in the village of Matab, outside of Raqqa. Speaking of Raqqa, American officials say they’re starting to see signs that ISIS leadership is fleeing that city in advance of the expected operation to liberate it, which is a pretty good sign that they don’t plan on Raqqa being their last stand.

At the Middle East Institute, analysts Ibrahim al-Assil and Basel al-Junaidy look at the fallout from the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham/Ahrar al-Sham split in Idlib. Some of Ahrar al-Sham’s most extreme elements left the group to join JFS’s new Tahrir al-Sham coalition, leaving Ahrar al-Sham militarily weaker–but there may be a political silver lining here for a group that has long been thought too extreme to receive overt foreign assistance: Continue reading

Conflict update: March 7 2017

WIKILEAKS

WikiLeaks, the organization whose involvement in the Edward Snowden affair, the Chelsea Manning affair, and last summer’s DNC/Podesta hack launched the careers of a thousand self-declared national security experts, has released a whole new batch of classified information, this time from the CIA:

The new documents appear to be from the CIA’s 200-strong Center for Cyber Intelligence and show in detail how the agency’s digital specialists engage in hacking. Monday’s leak of about 9,000 secret files, which WikiLeaks said was only the first tranche of documents it had obtained, were all relatively recent, running from 2013 to 2016.

The revelations in the documents include:

  • CIA hackers targeted smartphones and computers.
  • The Center for Cyber Intelligence, based at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, has a second covert base in the US consulate in Frankfurt which covers Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
  • A programme called Weeping Angel describes how to attack a Samsung F8000 TV set so that it appears to be off but can still be used for monitoring.

Boy am I glad we bought an LG. Well, maybe I should wait for the next tranche of documents to hit before I say that. Weeping Angel seems problematic, but to me the most troubling revelation is that the US intelligence community has been compiling zero day exploits in mobile device operating systems and then sharing those exploits with foreign intelligence services.

As was the case with the Snowden leaks, I expect the fallout from this leak to reverberate for months (particularly if this is only the first batch of documents) and to impact everything from intelligence gathering to America’s relationships with its allies. It’ll be a huge diplomatic test for an administration that has shown almost zero capacity for diplomacy thus far and a president who goes to DEFCON 2 when somebody contradicts him on “Morning Joe” and really hasn’t faced an actual crisis–at least, not one that wasn’t of his own making–yet.

MUSLIM BAN TAKE TWO

Offered without comment, because it would only be superfluous, here’s Slate’s Joshua Keating: Continue reading

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

Continue reading

Conflict update: February 28 2017

SYRIA

Today’s big story happened not in Syria, nor in Geneva, but in New York, where Russia and China both vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have sanctioned Damascus over its military’s use, per a UN investigation, of chemical weapons on at least three separate occasions in 2014 and 2015. I don’t want to spend much time dwelling on China’s veto, which for the most part I think is transactional for them (Russia owes them a favor, and they haven’t alienated the likely short-term winner of the Syrian civil war), but the Russian angle here does bear some discussion.

First off, from a purely institutional standpoint the Russian/Chinese position here is untenable. The UN investigated and found that the Syrian military used chemical weapons, which, under the terms of a treaty that Syria signed in 2013, means that they broke international law. It’s perfectly reasonable for the Security Council to impose some penalty for that violation. Now, perhaps the UN investigation was flawed in some way. Russia has dismissed it as flawed. But if I’m convicted of, say, shoplifting, I don’t just get to say “eh, the jury doesn’t know what it’s talking about” and go free. Maybe you think the UN is biased against Bashar al-Assad, which I can certainly understand given the several times it’s done absolutely nothing to him in any way. If you think the UN should be a factor in international affairs, then there’s no reason to veto these sanctions. If, on the other hand, you think the UN should be rendered totally useless, as Russia clearly does–and, if we want to rewind to, oh, 2003, the United States does as well–then by all means veto this resolution.

Second, this marks the first tangible point of disagreement between Russia and the US (which supported the sanctions effort) over Syria. But thanks to the Trump administration’s thorough dysfunctionality in developing a coherent Syria policy, we can’t be sure that this represents a disagreement between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. At this point, who knows how much latitude UN Ambassador Nikki Haley has. I’m not suggesting Haley contradicted administration policy in backing these sanctions, but I am saying it’s possible that the administration didn’t really have a policy on these sanctions until she made it.

Third, this veto highlights the difficulty facing Russia, which want to be Assad’s protector and a neutral peacemaker simultaneously, when those are more or less contradictory positions. Moscow can argue that imposing sanctions on Syria right now would be bad for the peace talks, but a) there’s no absolute reason why that has to be so, and b) vetoing the sanctions is turning out to be pretty bad for the peace talks as well. There’s no reason why, say, the Security Council couldn’t have suspended the implementation of these sanctions while talks are ongoing, which might have actually helped give the talks some extra import. If Russia’s main concern were really the sanctity of the negotiations, it could’ve suggested something like that. But its main concern is still clearly covering for Assad, which means it can’t also be the country that brings everybody together to find a political settlement to the war.

Continue reading