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: February 7 2017

OK, so…this could get long. Sorry. That’s what happens when I’m away for a few days.

#ThanksTrump

I almost feel like I should start each of these with a quick roundup of the miscellaneous ways Donald Trump is fucking up around the world. For example:

  • When President Trump makes a formal state visit to the UK later this year, there’s a good chance he will be denied the honor of speaking to parliament. House of Commons Speaker John Bercow says that he will block any Trump address to the body, something about Trump’s “racism” and “sexism,” which…well, he’s got a point there. Bercow can’t entirely block Trump from speaking to parliament, because the speaker of the House of Lords also gets a say, but his unendorsement (?) should carry a pretty heavy implication.
  • Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “thanked” Trump, in a speech he delivered on Tuesday, for “showing the reality of American human rights” through his immigration ban. Which…well, he’s got a point there.
  • ISIS is also undoubtedly very happy about President Trump and his immigration ban. Anything that makes Muslims feel unwelcome in the United States, or pits America against Islam generally speaking, is good for ISIS, and this immigration order, coupled with Trump’s rhetoric, certainly does both. Which, and if I can I may write more about this tomorrow, is probably the Trump administration’s point. I think Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn welcome a War On Islam and will happily feed into ISIS propaganda because that will ultimately help fuel their propaganda.

Trump’s War on Islam

The New York Times is reporting that the Trump administration is considering two new foreign terrorist designations, and they’re both massive escalations of Trump’s War on Islam: the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Designation the Muslim Brotherhood as an FTO would allow the Trump administration to shut down large numbers of Islamic charities and mosques all over the United States, because so many Islamic organizations have ties to some variant of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is not a monolithic organization and most of its branches behave as peaceful political entities. Yes, it is an Islamist organization, and its historical record on violence is checkered, but for the most part since the 1970s it has been a political Islamist organization, and as such it has been an important outlet for conservative Muslims to find their political voice without resorting to violence. Designating it a terrorist organization would materially aid more extremist organizations, including ISIS and al-Qaeda (which, again, is probably part of Trump’s goal), and would greatly complicate relations with allies like Turkey (the Justice and Development Party is closely aligned with several Brotherhood chapters) and Qatar.

Designating the IRGC as an FTO could fundamentally undermine the Iran nuclear deal without technically touching it, which again is probably Trump’s goal. Anyone, American or otherwise, found to have dealings with an organization related to any FTO can be subject to civil and criminal penalties in the US. The IRGC has its tentacles woven throughout the Iranian economy, such that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for any foreign investor trying to do business in Iran to avoid dealing with the IRGC entirely. So any investors/businesses that value being able to operate in the US are going to have a hard time investing in Iran, which drastically cuts into the benefits Iran gets from sanctions relief.

Iraq

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Conflict update: December 20 2016

Germany

The death toll from yesterday’s truck attack in Berlin is now up to 12, and ISIS has claimed responsibility. Their statement used language that the terror group typically uses to describe “inspired”/”lone wolf” attacks for which it later claims credit. To make matters worse, the man who was arrested last night on the belief that he was the driver of the truck…apparently wasn’t the driver of the truck:

The day began with what seemed to be a breakthrough, as the authorities announced that they were interrogating a 23-year-old Pakistani asylum seeker, arrested the previous night, who arrived in Germany last December. Yet within hours, doubts arose that he was the perpetrator, and by evening the federal prosecutor said the man had been released because there was no evidence linking him to the crime. An examination of the cab of the truck turned up no sign that he had been in it, the prosecutor said.

Consequently, the search for the attacker is still–or, I guess, back–on. And considering that ISIS has spent most of the year calling for lone actors to undertake attacks in Germany, this is pretty troubling. And given the possibility that the attacker came from among the refugees that her government has allowed in to Germany, it should come as no great surprise that right-wing nationalists are targeting Angela Merkel for blame here.

Turkey

An attack on a bus in Kayseri that killed 13 Turkish soldiers on Saturday has been claimed by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK).

Right, Kayseri. I probably should have mentioned that yesterday, but it kind of got washed out by Andrey Karlov’s assassination in Ankara. On that subject, it seems that the Turkish government is very invested in portraying the assassin, Mevlut Mert Altıntaş, as a Gülenist. Without discounting the possibility that Altıntaş was a Gülenist (Ankara has released some information about him that is highly suggestive of Gülenist ties, assuming any of it is true), they could have a few reasons for pursuing this line. One, it deflects attention from Turkey’s failure to protect the Russian ambassador, which is a huge failure. Two, it lets Ankara point the finger at the United States, since Gülen is living here, which is presumably just fine with Russia as well. Three, it deflects attention from the possibility that Altıntaş was not a Gülenist but rather an Islamist, which would be problematic for Tayyip Erdoğan since some of his best friends are Islamists. The words Altıntaş spoke after the killing, all caught on camera, are suggestive of Islamist leanings, but the explanation for this in Turkey seems to be that Altıntaş was a Gülenist pretending to be an Islamist in order to embarrass Erdoğan. Yeah, I know.

As I noted yesterday, the Gülen movement has opposed Erdoğan’s efforts to rid Syria of Bashar al-Assad, so a Gülenist would be unlikely to shout slogans about Aleppo to justify carrying out an assassination. Unless, of course, he was doing some kind of 12th dimensional false flag thing.

Also, the US embassy in Ankara closed today after a man reportedly fired a shotgun into the air outside the building.

Syria

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Conflict update, December 8

Syria

aleppo

The situation in Aleppo as of December 4–green areas under rebel control, red under government control, those dull yellow areas are the current frontlines (Wikimedia | Kami888)

According to Russia, the Syrian army has halted offensive actions in Aleppo and is focusing on evacuating civilians. Which may come as news to the rebels, who continue to report that the fighting is ongoing. The army has captured Aleppo’s Old City and rejected a rebel call for a five day ceasefire to allow evacuations. It’s not clear whether this halt, assuming it’s real, is related to those ongoing talks between the Russians and Americans on plans to try to get the rebels out of Aleppo instead of the civilians, but so far there’s been no indication of a breakthrough there. The government expects Aleppo’s fall to lead to a “domino effect” that will bury the rest of the rebellion, but the likelihood that the rebels will just surrender rather than transition into something more like a guerrilla resistance seems slim.

After going several days without any strikes, the Turkish air force struck a number of ISIS targets around al-Bab yesterday, killing a reported 23 fighters.

There are signs that Egypt may be considering sending forces to Syria to aid Assad, though so far Cairo is denying it. Sisi, as a Sunni and someone who relies to a significant extent on financial aid from some of Assad’s biggest foes (the Gulf monarchies), seems like a candidate to send aid to the rebels if anything. But Sisi also recognizes the value of helping out a fellow military dictator against Islamist rebels, given his own circumstances, and he and Assad seem to have a rapport. The fact that Riyadh hasn’t been making with the regular aid lately probably has Sisi feeling a little salty as well. Still, take this with a grain of salt; if anything, this may simply be Sisi’s way of getting King Salman’s attention.

Iraq

A couple of days ago Iraqi forces announced that they’d made huge, sudden gains in Aleppo, moving close to the Tigris river and seizing al-Salam Hospital. Unfortunately, the Iraqis appear to have gotten too greedy, and yesterday a failure to consolidate their gains turned the hospital into an ISIS trap:

A few hours later, as the sun set Tuesday evening, the trap was sprung. First came the suicide car bombs, and then the hospital was surrounded by hundreds of militants firing bursts of heavy machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

“We thought we were going to die, all we could think about was saving our lives,” Pvt. Mithad Abdulzahra of the Iraqi army’s 9th Division said later, as he recovered in a hospital bed in the nearby city of Irbil from gunshots that shattered his right arm. The IS fighters eventually fought their way inside the al-Salam hospital. Of the 100 or so Iraqi soldiers trapped there, nearly all were killed or wounded, he said.

Survivors were eventually able to retreat, but such is the problem with an operation that is taking longer than the politicians would like it to take. There’s pressure to advance too quickly, which is when things can go very wrong.

The speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Salim al-Jabouri, is calling for an investigation into Iraqi airstrikes on the western town of al-Qaim yesterday that reportedly killed civilians. How many civilians were killed is a matter of some dispute. The government says it had credible intelligence that the houses it targeted were full of ISIS fighters.

To the west, the Popular Mobilization Units are struggling to maintain control over the road from Mosul to Tal Afar, and are being left to twist in the wind a bit as an Iraqi government force is assembled to enter Tal Afar itself. The PMU can’t attack Tal Afar without risking a Turkish response. Speaking of the western front, Reuters reported yesterday that the Iraqi government’s initial plan for the Mosul operation was to leave the west open so that civilians could flee Mosul and any ISIS fighters who were less than committed to the cause might have an escape corridor to Syria. The goal, after all, was to take back Mosul, not kill all the ISIS fighters there, so leaving them a way out could potentially have been pretty smart.

Well, as it turns out, Iran, Russia, and France objected–Iran and Russia to the idea that these fighters would be allowed to flee into Syria, and France to the idea that fighters could escape Mosul and eventually make their way to, say, France, to commit terror attacks. So the plan was changed to have the PMU close off the western route, and consequently hundreds of thousands of civilians are stuck inside the city and ISIS is committed to fighting to the death because they can’t really do anything else. On the plus side, I guess, the encirclement of the city has opened up new economic opportunities for people willing to smuggle civilians (the ones who can afford to pay, anyway) out of the city. Hilariously (in a morbid way), the smugglers may very well be ISIS fighters. The True Believers of ISIS literally never miss an opportunity to make some cash.

War on Terror

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China’s bad day in international court

The Chinese government, as you know, claims almost the entire South China Sea as its territorial waters. This claim is disputed by, well, everybody else, since it doesn’t follow any of the generally accepted rules about territorial vs. international waters, unless you think China should be allowed to create new islands in the sea and then claim the waters around those islands. And allowing countries to create their own new land in order to claim new territorial waters doesn’t seem like a principle that would be good for maritime law or international stability.

Well, the Philippines decided to take China to court–specifically, to an international tribunal at The Hague–over China’s claims, and the ruling came down yesterday decidedly not in China’s favor:

In its most significant finding, the tribunal rejected China’s argument that it enjoys historic rights over most of the South China Sea. That could give the governments of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam more leverage in their own maritime disputes with Beijing.

The tribunal also said that China had violated international law by causing “irreparable harm” to the marine environment, endangering Philippine ships and interfering with Philippine fishing and oil exploration.

“It’s an overwhelming victory. We won on every significant point,” said the Philippines’ chief counsel in the case, Paul S. Reichler.

The tribunal rejected Chinese claims on every major point and even preempted some claims that China hasn’t yet made but has threatened to make. The point about environmental harm was particularly welcome, given that most of the attention on China’s island-building program has focused on its geopolitical implications, but the process of creating man-made islands is incredibly destructive to the surrounding environment. It was, it seems, a thorough legal ass kicking.

south_china_sea_claims_map

The dueling territorial claims in the South China Sea. China’s, in red, was the issue in yesterday’s ruling. (Wikimedia)

So what happens now? The tribunal’s ruling is binding under international law, but like so much of international law, it’s also unenforceable. The Chinese government has already said it simply won’t accept the ruling, and there’s not much anybody can really do about that short of military escalation (a route that nobody seems prepared to take, for obvious reasons). The other nations around the sea have been trying to reach some kind of accord with China, but there are actually fears that the decision was so lopsided that it will deter Beijing from participating in negotiations. China values its claims over the sea both for the waterway’s strategic importance as well as for the considerable energy deposits that are believed to sit underneath it. The ruling may add fuel to the fire (mostly by making Beijing angrier and more obstinate) in what might be the biggest East Asian maritime dispute, between China and Japan, which is in fact over drilling rights around the Senkaku Islands.

TIP JAR

How does something like this get published?

Suki Kim is an investigative journalist who has done some incredible reporting out of and about North Korea, some of the best/only real reporting anybody outside of North Korea has ever read. She actually spent six months living in North Korea ostensibly teaching English to the sons of the regime’s elite, but in reality taking notes (which she had to hide from everybody she encountered) for a book that she published in 2014. She’s spoken to defectors who fled the country. I wouldn’t presume to know a twentieth of what she knows about North Korea. On the other hand, I’m not sure she’s got a great grasp of basic war and peace type stuff. In The New Republic (on sale cheap, per issue or you could buy the whole thing if you like) today, Kim makes, to borrow a phrase, a very serious, thoughtful argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care: Continue reading

On Hiroshima

Today is, of course, the 70th anniversary of the annihilation of Hiroshima, the first use of an atomic weapon in war. That single bomb killed tens of thousands of people immediately, and many more from radiation-related effects over the following weeks. Its effects haunt survivors to this day, in the form of elevated cancer risks.

The debate over the bombings is still unsettled a full seven decades later. Those who say America was right to use atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki argue that Japan wouldn’t have surrendered otherwise, and that their refusal to surrender would have ultimately demanded an even deadlier ground invasion of Japan. Opponents counter that Japan would have eventually surrendered anyway even without an invasion (a position held by several top ranking US military officers at the time, including the two commanders of the Pacific War, Douglas MacArthur and Chester Nimitz), that Hiroshima and Nagasaki couldn’t possibly have been considered legitimate military targets, and that at the very least the second bombing of Nagasaki was totally unnecessary. Others, who aren’t necessarily supporters of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, argue that American firebombings of cities like Dresden and Tokyo were just as lethal and destructive to civilians and civilian infrastructure as the atomic bombs, and that it makes no sense to condemn the latter while chalking the former up to the normal routine of war.

These days I find myself agreeing with the view that both the atomic bombings and the firebombings were unjustifiable. Continue reading