Conflict update: April 22-23 2017

FRANCE

You may have heard that there was a little presidential election in France today. Well, after a lot of uncertainty and polling and analysis and more polling and oh man that one dude is coming on, what does that mean, this is so unpredictable…it looks like Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen will be facing off head-to-head in the runoff on May 7 (it looks like Macron will finish slightly ahead of her in the first round voting, but that doesn’t really matter). Just like the polls have shown pretty consistently since late January. That this outcome isn’t surprising is itself so surprising that I don’t really have much else to say about it. From a historical perspective this is a milestone vote in that it’s the first time that neither of the country’s major parties (the Republicans and the Socialists) will be represented in the runoff.

If you, like me, would really rather not see France follow America down the reactionary xenophobe path, then it’s obviously distressing to even see Le Pen advance to the second round. The fact that she’s gotten that far gives her movement something to build upon moving forward. But you should take solace in this handy Wikipedia graph of the polling for an until-now hypothetical Macron-Le Pen runoff:

opinion_polling_for_the_french_presidential_election2c_2017_macrone28093le_pen

Even if these polls are off–and the first round results suggest that the polling in this race has actually been pretty on point–they’d have to be monumentally off to make a Le Pen victory a possibility. Macron may be a centrist neoliberal squish but, unfortunately, he’s now easily the better option in this race.

IRAQ

ISIS fighters on Sunday attacked an Iraqi federal police base in the town of Hamam al-Alil, just south of Mosul, and killed at least three police officers. Iraqi police have been using that base as a staging area for their operations in west Mosul, which are as they have been for weeks still bogged down in the Old City. The stalemate there is as you might expect wreaking havoc on civilians–Iraqis who have managed to get out of the Old city describe eating boiled wheat grains and flour mixed with water because there’s simply nothing else left.

Though fighting in the Old City continues to be static Iraq’s counter-terrorism forces are continuing to advance through the center of west Mosul. But as Joel Wing writes, the civilian costs are continuing to mount:

There were more civilian casualties reported in Mosul. A car bomb went off in Zuhur in liberated east Mosul leaving 4 dead and 14 wounded. This was the first successful vehicle bomb in the east since February, and highlighted the fact that IS still has active cells in that half of the city. Air strikes in three pars of west Mosul left 17 fatalities and 30 injured. The Iraqi and Coalition forces have said they want to protect civilians, but the increase use of airpower and artillery along with the layout of east Mosul, and the use of human shields have all contributed to rising civilian deaths. That was the basis for a story by the Los Angeles Times that noted a huge spike in reported civilian casualties in the last few months based on data collected by Airwars.

ISIS, meanwhile, is reportedly executing Mosul residents who refuse to fight for the insurgent group, as well as residents who refuse to assist it in other ways.

SYRIA

An Israeli missile attack on a Syrian National Defense Forces (the umbrella agency for pro-government volunteer militias all over the country) in Quneitra province (near the occupied Golan Heights) killed three Syrian fighters on Sunday. The Israelis struck targets in Quneitra a couple of times this weekend in response to Syrian mortar fire hitting the Israeli-controlled parts of Golan late last week. Also over the weekend, pro-government forces with Russian help captured the town of Halfaya, north of Hama city, and at this point they’ve taken back all the territory the rebels were able to capture in Hama province a few weeks ago and are now advancing into areas that the rebels have held for several months at least.

The brief rebel success in Hama, it seems to me, points to the major problem Bashar al-Assad faces as the Syrian civil war settles into its new, post-Aleppo normal, which is that his army, depleted as it is from ~6 years of fighting, can’t be everywhere. The rebels can make temporary gains all over the place–they can’t hold them in the face of pro-Assad ground forces and Russian air power, but so what? The rebels aren’t trying to govern Syria–Assad is. The rebels aren’t trying to conquer Syria–Assad is. Now that the rebellion has really become a guerrilla affair (just ask Ayman al-Zawahiri, who apparently missed the sound of his own voice and decided to make a new audio recording advising Syria fighters to embrace guerrilla tactics), the rebels can settle in for a long haul while Assad has to try to win decisively. And if Assad’s army is in as ragged a shape as it appears to be from the outside, he’s going to have a hard time winning decisively.

I know people don’t like to hear this, but the study of civil wars since World War II says that they last, on average, about 10 years, and that the more factions are involved in the fighting, the longer they last. Which means Syria, with approximately 8.5 billion factions running around depending on the day, may very well not even be close to an end. Assad has been on a roll since Russia decided to get directly involved in the war, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be able to win anytime soon.

Meanwhile, there were reports today of heavy fighting between ISIS and the Syrian Democratic Forces near Tabqa, and on Saturday between ISIS and, well, ISIS, in the town of Tabqa, as factions there argued over whether or not to surrender to the SDF. Tabqa, along with its dam and nearby airfield, has to be safely in SDF hands before they’ll be able to begin their assault on Raqqa. Raqqa remains the top US/SDF target in Syria, even though the Pentagon is saying that ISIS has moved most of its government functions to nearby Deir Ezzor.

YEMEN

A US drone strike in Shabwa province on Sunday reportedly killed three al-Qaeda fighters. Which doesn’t seem like that big a story, I have to admit. The truth is, there have been a lot of stories like this in recent days that I’ve ignored because, well, three AQAP assholes get blown up in a truck, who cares. But there have been a lot of stories like this. And the reason is that the one thing Donald Trump really seems to be embracing in his gig as President of the United States is that it gives him virtually unlimited privileges to bomb Yemen. He bombed it 70 times last month, as you may have heard. I don’t think this month’s number will be that high, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we’ve carried out a Yemen bombing per day this month, on average.

And for what? Three AQAP assholes getting blown up in a truck? The more explosives you drop on a place, the more times you risk something going horribly wrong–ask the survivors of that mosque we blew up in Syria last month about what “horribly wrong” means. While we’re busy tempting fate like this, we continue to enable Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen–an intervention that has killed thousands, is starving millions, and has had the effect of dramatically strengthening the same AQAP we’re trying to destroy, three-assholes-and-a-truck at a time.

LEBANON

The Lebanese army says it killed a local ISIS leader and arrested ten ISIS fighters in an operation in Arsal on Saturday.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

While Gaza struggles to get by on six hours of electricity per day, the Israeli government is circling a deal with Cyprus, Greece, and Italy to support the construction of a pipeline that will send natural gas from Israel’s massive Leviathan offshore gas field (as well as from Cyprus’s offshore Aphrodite field) to Europe. Some people are apparently upset about this, arguing that it will “finance the Israeli occupation” and citing the multiple times the Israeli navy has attacked Palestinian fishermen who happen to stray into the waters above Israel’s two large offshore gas deposits. But, look, this gas ain’t gonna burn itself, you know what I mean? Who gives a shit about human rights, there’s a shitload of money to be made here!

On April 16, Palestinian leader and Israeli convict Marwan Barghouti wrote an op-ed for the New York Times explaining why he along with more than a thousand other Palestinians in Israeli prisons have undertaken a hunger strike to protest their treatment. Israeli media and the Israeli government did a masterful job of making the story about Barghouti’s criminal record rather than about the substance of his argument, and here’s James Zogby explaining why that’s so hard to swallow:

As one of the co-founders of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, I have long been acquainted with Israel’s “justice system.” Since most Palestinians have been convicted based on confessions obtained under duress, international human rights organizations have condemned Israel’s violations of international law and the lack of due process afforded to prisoners. Over 80% of all arrested Palestinians have been refused the right to legal counsel until after they have been subjected to prolonged and often abusive interrogation. In his article, Barghouti describes these abuses that he and other prisoners have been forced to endure, noting that the equivalent of 40% of Palestine’s male population have been jailed by Israel.

The Israeli government’s response to the article and to the strike, itself, have been revealingly characteristic of their modus operandi.

Because the Times initially described Barghouti as a member of the Palestinian Parliament and a leader, Israel launched a campaign forcing the editors to change their description to note that Barghouti had been convicted of murder and membership in a terrorist organization.

What Israel did not mention was the fact that Barghouti’s arrest, trial, and conviction were denounced by the Swiss-based Inter-Parliamentary Union as being “a violation of international law” and having “failed to meet fair-trial standards.” The IPU concluded that “Barghouti’s guilt has not been established.”

IRAN

Conservative Iranian presidential candidate Mostafa Mir-Salim lit into President Hassan Rouhani today, claiming that the nuclear agreement Rouhani negotiated didn’t result in sanctions against Iran being lifted. This is demonstrably untrue, but it’s an easy claim to make when Iran’s unemployment rate is still high and the economic gains realized by the lifting of those sanctions haven’t (yet?) filtered down to middle and working class Iranians. This is the kind of attack Rouhani is going to get for the duration of the campaign, and refuting it is going to require him, at least somewhat, to ask Iranian voters to believe him over their lying eyes. That’s never an easy thing to do.

AFGHANISTAN

The death toll from Friday’s Taliban attack on an Afghan military base near the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, in Balkh province, has skyrocketed to at least 140 (that’s the official count so far–the Taliban are talking about 500 or more deaths). That takes the incident from the realm of “particularly deadly Taliban attack” to “worst Taliban attack since the war began in 2001,” which is quite a milestone here in 2017. People are calling for resignations, specifically of senior officers and civilian military bosses, though, to be fair, there were plenty of people in Afghanistan who were already calling for those things before this happened.

What makes this attack particularly troubling is not just the high casualty rate, not just the apparent ease with which the Taliban were able to get into a major Afghan military base, but the fact that the attack took place so close to the third-largest city in the country. The Taliban’s true strength has remained in rural areas–if they’re now able to carry out attacks on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif, then that’s a pretty bad sign for the overall war effort.

NORTH KOREA

It was really a banner weekend for Pyongyang. At various points, the North Korean government: threatened to sink the USS Carl Vinson, threatened to nuke Australia, and arrested a US citizen as he tried to leave the country. Of these, the most serious is obviously the detention of Kim Sang-duk, a professor who becomes the third American known to be in North Korean custody. I say that because the first two things are obviously bluster whereas Kim is a real person who’s now really been arrested for, well, who knows what. Now factor in the possibility that Pyongyang will finally attempt its long-awaited nuclear test, and/or a new missile test, on Tuesday to mark the anniversary of the creation of its military, and we’re in for another fun week of World War III speculation.

SOMALIA

On Sunday, a roadside bomb in Puntland, courtesy of al-Shabab, killed six Somali soldiers and wounded another eight.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

BBC reporter Catherine Byaruhanga was somehow able to the DRC’s Kasai region to report on the Kamwina Nsapu rebellion that has killed hundreds of people since last August. The rebellion started when tribal leader Kamwina Nsapu was denied recognition by the Congolese government, but after he was killed by government forces the movement bearing his name seems to have become a catch-all for local grievances against Kinshasa:

The Kamuina Nsapu militia now has many factions all fighting for different reasons, but with the authorities their common target.

In Kananga, the biggest town in the region, we heard echoes of Paul’s testimony from different people.

One man, who did not want to be named, recalled an army raid:

“When the shooting began, my children ran and hid in a neighbour’s house.

“But the government soldiers got into that house – three people were killed and one of my children was injured.”

Another Kananga resident accused the armed forces of extortion:

“Soldiers are coming into neighbourhoods and harassing people for money. If you don’t have money, they threaten to kill you.”

“They are stealing mobile phones and money. People are scared and that’s why they are running away.”

UKRAINE

One American was killed and two other people were injured on Sunday when the vehicle they were in struck a mine in eastern Ukraine. The American was a paramedic working for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The incident has inspired calls, including from Washington, for Ukrainian separatists to allow the OSCE to conduct an investigation into exactly what happened.

UNITED KINGDOM

With France’s political future looking a bit less uncertain, we should probably look at early polling for the UK’s June snap elections, where there’s…really not much uncertainty at all. Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party is practically lapping the field in two polls released this weekend, taking 48 percent in one poll and 50 (!) percent in another.

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Conflict update: April 15-17 2017

Happy Easter again to everyone who celebrated, and Pesach Sameach to those observing Passover, which ends tomorrow. And if any Egyptians happen to be reading this, happy Sham el-Nisim.

TURKEY

The weekend’s biggest story was, as expected, Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan I’s formal coronation. By a slim margin, also as expected, Turkish voters on Sunday approved a referendum to amend Turkey’s constitution and change the country’s political system from a parliamentary one to a presidential one. The changes will be phased in over the next two years, but when the process is complete full executive authority will be concentrated in the office of president rather than split between the presidency and the prime minister’s office (with the PM, which is disappearing under the new system, actually the more powerful of the two positions). Erdoğan, who could now serve as president through 2029 under these changes, and will presumably try to change the constitution again in a decade if he wants to stay in office beyond that, will have vast new powers to control Turkey’s state bureaucracy, judiciary, military, and legislature.

Juan Cole writes at length about something I brought up on Friday, which is that many of these changes, on their face, are not particularly anti-democratic or authoritarian. On paper, when these changes are fully implemented Turkey’s government won’t look that much different from France’s, for example, or America’s–both of which have their own problems, don’t get me wrong, but neither of which could be called a dictatorship at least at the moment. The problem with Turkish democracy is, as it’s been at least since the Gezi Park protests in 2013, Erdoğan. Especially since last summer’s failed coup gave him an excuse to institute a permanent state of emergency, Erdoğan has been able to purge his political rivals, imprison his political opposition, stifle independent media, and rule Turkey as a one-man show for several years now under the current system, so all this change will do is make it easier for him to keep on keeping on.

Do these changes take Turkey back toward something resembling the Ottoman Empire? Stephen Cook says yes, but even he acknowledges that this is only really going to be the case when the president and parliament both come from the same party. The potential for an opposition parliament to check the president is there. The problem is that it’s impossible to see how an opposition parliament can ever be elected when Erdoğan has thoroughly stifled the Turkish press, has stocked the judiciary with his political appointees, has purged Turkish academia of anyone who dares to criticize him, and won’t let opposition parties mount anything approaching an actual political campaign (and likes to throw their leaders in jail just for good measure). And he didn’t need these amendments to do that. Does this result make Erdoğan a dictator? I would say no, but only because he pretty much already was one.

Also, while we’re mourning the demise of Turkish democracy, I think it’s important to bear in mind that it has always–and here I’m not just referring to the Erdoğan Era, but to the entire history of republican Turkey–had an authoritarian edge to it. You can go all the way back to the days of Atatürk and right through the decades during which another military coup seemed always to be just around the bend, and you’d be hard pressed to find a time when there wasn’t tension between the will of the Turkish people and the will of the few actors at the top of the Turkish political system.

So what happens now, as in right now, before 2019? Continue reading