Conflict update: April 20 2017


Details are still sketchy, but a gunman earlier this evening shot and killed a police officer on the Champs-Élysées in Paris before being shot and killed in turn by other police officers. There was a search for accomplices immediately after the shooting, but it seems at this point like the shooter was acting alone. French authorities are treating this as a terrorist attack, and ISIS has reportedly already claimed credit for the attack. The attacker used a pseudonym but he’s been identified as Karim Cheurfi, a 39 year old French national who has a previous conviction for shooting at police officers and was–obviously–known to authorities.

ISIS’s claim of responsibility was lightning fast, as these things go, which suggests they may have known of the attack before it happened–though it doesn’t necessarily suggest they had any role in planning it and, indeed, it doesn’t seem to have required much planning. It may also be that ISIS is aiming to use this attack to meddle with the French presidential election taking place this weekend, and if that’s the case then it’s pretty clear who they’d like to see win: reactionary nationalist/fascist Marine Le Pen. As the most anti-Islam voice in the race, Le Pen obviously stands to benefit from any last-minute voting decisions made out of fear stemming from this attack. And we know that ISIS likes it when Western countries elect right-wing, anti-Islam demagogues.

As it stood before the shooting, polling had Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron heading to the runoff, but conservative François Fillon had moved back into third place on his own. A switch of just a few points–hardly an impossibility given the number of voters who still say they’re undecided and/or not sure they’re going to vote–could put the “tough on crime”-style candidates, Fillon and Le Pen, in the runoff with Macron on the outside looking in. And in that case, with Le Pen running against the badly damaged and scandal-ridden Fillon in the second round, anything could happen.


This was going to be my first story before the Paris shooting happened. Iran’s Press TV has the list of candidates who have been permitted by the Guardian Council to stand in the country’s May 19 presidential election. They are:

  • Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani
  • Religious leader Ebrahim Raisi
  • Tehran Mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf
  • Current First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri
  • Moderate politician Mostafa Hashemitaba
  • Conservative (?) politician Mostafa Mir-Salim


Notably not on that list, of course, is former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His former vice president, Hamid Baghaei, was also disqualified. He hasn’t had time to do any squawking about this yet, but I have my doubts he’s going to take it lying down. Although I have to give his surrogates credit for how brazenly they’re already trying to spin this result as something Ahmadinejad really wanted all alongContinue reading

(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.


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.


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.


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Conflict update: January 9 2017

Apologies; normally I like to keep things more active around here, but I’m working on a big piece for LobeLog and it’s taking a while to get through it. It’s a long Q&A with a couple of respected foreign policy analysts about the Obama foreign policy legacy. And while you might think that sounds easy, you just type up what they said and you’re done, you haven’t ever seen me try to transcribe anything. It’s pretty brutal. So it’ll probably be another day or so before I send that one off to my editor and, in the meantime, as it was today, it might be a little slow on the blog.


You’ve probably already heard the BREAKING NEWS OMG OMG OMG that an American vessel in the Persian Gulf fired warning shots at a number of small Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “fast attack” craft earlier today. This kind of thing happens periodically. Iran claims waters in the Gulf that are beyond internationally recognized boundaries, much as China does in the South China Sea. The US ignores those claims just as it does in the SCS, because the US considers itself the defender of free maritime lanes all around the world. Occasionally, Iranian boats buzz US ships menacingly in the way that my 15 pound Schnoodle barks at the much larger dog who lives next door, separated from her by a very sturdy chain-link fence. It makes them feel good about themselves but almost never amounts to anything serious. That may change in 11 days, when we inaugurate a president who has vowed to destroy Iranian boats in the Gulf if their crews do so much as flip the bird at American sailors. That would, of course, be insane, but “sane” hopped a flight to Aruba sometime in 2015 and I don’t think it’s ever coming back.

In other Iranian news, parliament voted today to increase military spending to five percent of the Iranian budget and to continue a long-range missile program that is virtually guaranteed to cause conflict with the Trump administration. Iran’s ballistic missile program is often conflated with the nuclear deal, because ballistic missiles are usually conflated with nuclear weapons (medium and long-range ballistic missiles are kind of silly weapons unless they’re carrying a major payload). In fact the program violates, or may violate, other UN sanctions on Iran, but it is not literally at odds with the nuclear deal (even though, as the UN and other JCPOA parties have argued, it may be “inconsistent” with the “spirit” of the deal).

Iran is also still processing yesterday’s passing of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. One aspect of his death that I didn’t really note yesterday is that Rafsajani’s death is the first loss of a truly titanic figure in the founding of the Islamic Republic–the only other Iranian on par with Rafsanjani in that regard would be Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and he’s certainly got more years behind him than in front of him. The two of them were the leaders of the revolutionary generation, the group that did the work of overthrowing the shah in 1979 and seeing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his vilayet-i faqih system installed as Iran’s new political reality. Khomeini was the idol of that generation but he wasn’t of that generation, so his death in 1989 didn’t mark the passing of an era the way Rafsanjani’s does, and Khamenei’s will. It’s one of the great political ironies in the Middle East that countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia have huge populations of young people but are still ruled by cadres of people who were elderly a decade ago, and who/what rises to replace them is going to determine a lot about the future of the region.


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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.


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.


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.


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Politics was a little nuts today

Lots of political news worth mentioning today.

First, Austria’s second attempt at a presidential runoff produced a victory for left-wing ex-Green candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, with somewhere around 53% of the vote, and a defeat for far right-wing populist Norbert Hofer. The margin was considerably wider than Van der Bellen’s very slim initial runoff victory over Hofer, in May, which was overturned on technicalities thus forcing today’s do-over. The election, as with pretty much all elections in Europe these days, was largely a referendum on right-wing nationalism, and in this case right-wing nationalism lost. It wasn’t really a referendum on Austria’s membership in the EU, like you might be thinking (I know I was), since Hofer hadn’t really campaigned on leaving the EU–though he had campaigned on curbing immigration, and Brussels is probably happy to see Van der Bellen emerge victorious. If Hofer had won he would’ve been the first “far-right” leader of a “Western European” (a category that doesn’t really have anything to do with geography) country since World War II. Coming in the wake of Trump’s election here, Austria’s results suggest that maybe there isn’t an inevitable wave of right wing xenophobic populism that’s about to wash over the whole of the West.

In Italy, though, it seems like Brussels may have suffered a bit of a setback. Continue reading

Today in European history: the Martyrs of Otranto (1480)

and that's the way it was

When Mehmed the Conqueror earned his nickname by conquering Constantinople in 1453, he also took another title: Caesar (Kaysar-i Rum, in Persian). Although today we think of 1453 as the end of the Roman Empire (and, to be fair, later Ottomans certainly thought of it that way as well), at the time Mehmed very much identified as simply the new Roman Emperor. The Ottomans were always happy to add a new royal title, in part because they had a hard time making the ideological case for their own reign. They clearly weren’t caliphs, and even later when they assumed that title it’s not at all clear that anybody really bought it. They couldn’t trace their descent from Genghis Khan or Timur, the two great conquerors of the age. They didn’t have a spiritual claim to power like the Safavids would later assume. And until they captured Constantinople they…

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World War I reading: the Senussi Campaign

Since I’m on semi-break, and continuing the tradition of sending you to Michael Collins Dunn’s blog when there’s not much going on around here, this would be a good time to catch you up on his most recent World War I series, on the Senussi Campaign, which began in late 1915. After Italy jumped into the war on the side of the Allies, the Ottomans convinced the head of Libya’s Senussi religious order, Ahmad Sharif al-Sanusi (“Senussi” was the poor Anglicization of his name), to raise a revolt against Libya’s Italian colonizers (Italy had taken Libya from the Ottomans in the 1911-1912 Italo-Ottoman War, so that was fresh in the Ottomans’ minds). Sanusi’s rebellion was supposed to occupy Italy and threaten British Egypt.

Dunn’s recounting of the early stages of the campaign is in four parts, starting here:

In August of 1915, British submarines seeking shelter on the Libyan coast came under fire, and in November the crews of two torpedoed ships, HMS Tara and HM Transport Moorina landed on the Libyan coast and were taken prisoner by the Senussi. The British protested but did not immediately confront them.

The Egyptian-Libyan border had not been formally delineated at the time of the Italo-Turkish War in 1911, though it was generally considered that Sollum was in Egypt. The borders in the interior were undemarcated, and the Senussi had may adherents in the Siwa Oasis, which would become a base of operations.

Some 5000 Senussi fighters with Turkish and German arms were concentrated at Siwa.

On November 6, 1915 two Egyptian coast guard ships were attacked in Sollum harbor by the German submarine U-35, and one was sunk. On November 17 and 18, Senoussi raids struck at Sollum and at Sidi Barrani to the east, and by November 21 the Senussi regular forces had crossed into Egypt.

Part 2 covers the immediate British response, part 3 looks at the first battles of the campaign, and part 4 covers the Christmas Day battle at Wadi Majid. I’m sure he’ll have more at some point, since the campaign continued through 1917.


Map of the Western Egyptian/Eastern Libyan desert, where the campaign was fought (Wikimedia)