Conflict update: March 24 2017

TRUMP UPDATE

Donald Trump had a not so very great day on the health care reform front, but he does seem to finally be circling around a potential deputy for Rex Tillerson at the State Department–or, in other words, a deputy for Jared Kushner’s deputy:

John J. Sullivan, a prominent Republican lawyer who served in the administration of President George W. Bush, is expected to be nominated to serve as the State Department’s No. 2 officer, according to a senior White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of an official announcement.

Sullivan doesn’t seem to have been on anybody’s radar, which is probably because he has no discernible foreign policy experience and conventional wisdom said that Tillerson, who also has no foreign policy experience apart from cutting deals to drill for oil in other countries, would want his deputy to have some direct experience at State. Then again, given that Trump would like to strip the whole State Department and sell it for parts, I suppose it doesn’t really matter who works there.

There’s a new revelation in the Michael Flynn case today:

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that retired Gen. Michael Flynn, former National Security Advisor and head of a consulting firm that filed as a foreign agent representing the Turkish government, discussed removing controversial cleric Fethullah Gulen back to Turkey without going through the U.S. extradition process.

At a Sept. 2016 meeting in New York, Flynn reportedly met with top Turkish ministers as they discussed ways to move Gulen back to Turkey, according to ex-Central Intelligence Agency Director James Woolsey, and others who were at the meeting. According to Woolsey, the participants in the meeting talked of ways to spirit Gulen out of his Poconos Mountains retreat without going through the U.S. extraditions process.

The eventual fate of Fethullah Gülen doesn’t exactly weigh heavy upon my soul, but if Flynn was being paid by the Turkish government to use his authority/influence to finagle Gülen out of the country without due process then the guy needs to be arrested. Enough of this scandal shit, we’re now in the realm of actual criminal conspiracy.

IS OUR BLOB LEARNING?

Apparently not:

The only good reason to have a meeting is to deliberate and decide on a shared objective. From that business angle, the March 22 meeting in Washington of the Global Coalition to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) did not serve any purpose. The US message to its allies was clear: let us alone deal a military blow to ISIL, you deal with the day after.

“Blow the place up and then forget it exists” is an American strategy that has worked to perfection in Afghanistan, Afghanistan again, Iraq, uh, Iraq again, Afghanistan at least one other time, and now Libya, so why wouldn’t you want to use it again in Syria and, oh hey, Iraq again?

SYRIA

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(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

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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

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Conflict update: March 13 2017

TURKEY

A few hours ago Ankara turned its diplomatic dispute with the Netherlands up to 11 by barring the Dutch ambassador from returning to Turkey and announcing that it was suspending diplomatic relations with Amsterdam. The Turkish government further said that it was closing its airspace to Dutch diplomats and that it would pursue action at the European Court of Human Rights over the treatment of its cabinet minister, and Turkish nationals who demonstrated over that treatment, in Rotterdam over the weekend. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan then accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of “supporting terrorists,” without getting more specific but probably meaning the PKK, after Merkel had expressed support for Dutch actions over the weekend.

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern reiterated that his country would also not be amenable to hosting an AKP campaign rally, so expect him to be Erdoğan’s Nazi of the Day tomorrow. And I think it’s important to understand that while it might seem like Erdoğan is about two days away from his head literally exploding, in reality I don’t think this could be working out any better for him. Erdoğan’s political appeal has long centered on the idea that he was the only person who could protect Turkey from its enemies, whether domestic (Gülenists, the PKK, the Deep State) or foreign (America, Europe, Russia, Israel, international banking wink wink). In the middle of a close race on a referendum to decide whether or not to give him dictator-esque levels of power within the Turkish state, what better rallying call could Erdoğan want than a full-on diplomatic war with Europe? And since Erdoğan has systematically eliminated any sort of dissenting or even objective media, there’s nobody inside Turkey to challenge his “everybody vs. Turkey” narrative between now and the referendum.

The European Union is even feeding into this narrative by “warning” Ankara that the passage of the referendum could endanger Turkey’s chances of ever becoming an EU member. Erdoğan doesn’t even really want EU membership, but he’ll gladly take the EU warning, spin it as a provocation against the Turkish people, and turn it into a political advantage for himself.

NETHERLANDS

The flip side of this coin is that the events of this weekend have also been a big boost for fascist cesspool Geert Wilders and his Party for (White People’s) Freedom:

With two days to go until the Dutch vote in a pivotal parliamentary election, pollster Maurice De Hond found that the spat between the Netherlands and Turkey, and Saturday’s night of rioting by ethnic Turks in Rotterdam, had benefited the two parties that have been most skeptical on immigration.

The poll showed Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s pro-business VVD party on track to win 27 seats in the 150-seat parliament with 18 percent of the vote, three more than in the pollster’s last survey, published on Sunday but taken before the weekend.

Geert Wilders’s anti-Muslim Freedom Party was in second place with 16 percent, or up two seats to 24.

Wilders is trying to make more hay by demanding the expulsion of the Turkish ambassador. Now that Ankara has drawn first blood on that front Wilders may be able to get a lot of mileage out of this argument in the run up to Wednesday’s election, unless Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte does expel the ambassador (which would then invite continued escalation with Turkey).

Wilders is unlikely to be the next prime minister of the Netherlands, and he’s a longshot even to have a role in the country’s next government. No party is going to win an outright majority on Wednesday, and Wilders is so toxic that there’s almost no chance he and his party will be asked to join a coalition. But as Foreign Policy’s James Traub writes, Wilders has owned this campaign and has brought his loathsome xenophobia right smack into the mainstream of Dutch politics. The “center-right” is likely to maintain its hold on the government, but it’s had to incorporate a bit of Wilders’ white nationalism in order to do so.

IRAQ

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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 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

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Conflict update: February 18-19 2017

Trumplandia

Say, this seems nice:

On any given weekend, you might catch President Trump’s son-in-law and top Mideast dealmaker, Jared Kushner, by the beachside soft-serve ice cream machine, or his reclusive chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, on the dining patio. If you are lucky, the president himself could stop by your table for a quick chat. But you will have to pay $200,000 for the privilege — and the few available spots are going fast.

Virtually overnight, Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s members-only Palm Beach, Fla., club, has been transformed into the part-time capital of American government, a so-called winter White House where Mr. Trump has entertained a foreign head of state, health care industry executives and other presidential guests.

But Mr. Trump’s gatherings at Mar-a-Lago — he arrived there on Friday afternoon, his third weekend visit in a row — have also created an arena for potential political influence rarely seen in American history: a kind of Washington steakhouse on steroids, situated in a sunny playground of the rich and powerful, where members and their guests enjoy a level of access that could elude even the best-connected of lobbyists.

I’m not going to pretend that the wealthy and powerful never had special access to the levers of power in DC before this, but as with so many things about Trump, he seems to have taken the grossest parts of American politics and made them grosser.

On Saturday, Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the Munich Security Conference and tried to assure the attendees that the Trump administration’s commitment to NATO is “unwavering.” Reuters, at least, suggested that he was received tepidly at best, though the NATO bit got him some applause.

Paul Pillar wrote a typically insightful piece a few days ago about the utter confusion surrounding Trump’s Israel-Palestine policy, and what it says about Trump’s foreign policy more generally.

We’re Still All Gonna Die

Because it’s the one part of the government that Donald Trump and Paul Ryan can’t be seen to contradict or gut, the one part of the government that will definitely be allowed to continue research into climate change and its impacts is the Pentagon. Trump’s Defense Secretary James Mattis, ironically for this cabinet, was actually pretty forward thinking on renewable fuels and the national security implications of climate change when he was a flag officer.

The War on Terror (Old School Edition)

Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind radical Muslim cleric whose involvement in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and subsequent terror plots in the United States earned him a life sentence in federal prison, completed his sentence when he died on Saturday morning. He was 78 and, really, won’t be missed.

Seriously, fuck that guy.

Iraq

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