Conflict update: April 19 2017

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

SYRIA

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

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

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

Conflict update: 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.

Iran

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.

Iraq

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