(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 15 2017

SECOND VERSE, SAME AS THE FIRST

Well, that was fast. Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban 2.0, which is totally not about religion, you guys, just got blocked by a federal judge in Hawaii for being, you know, pretty much about religion. In his ruling, District Judge Derek Watson in particular rejected one of the administration’s favorite arguments as to why their Muslim ban couldn’t possibly be a Muslim ban:

While the administration maintains the latest order is not a ban on Muslims, since it removes reference to religion and targets only a fraction of the world’s Muslim population, Watson questioned that argument, potentially setting the stage for other ongoing legal challenges even as he puts a nationwide halt on the implementation. It is undisputed, the judge said, that the six countries are overwhelmingly Muslim by population.

“The illogic of the Government’s contentions is palpable,” he wrote. “The notion that one can demonstrate animus toward any group of people only by targeting all of them at once is fundamentally flawed.”

Well sure, when you put it that way, but have you considered that SCARY TERRORISTS BAD BOGEYMAN EVIL ATTACK DANGER AFRAID?

I thought not.

Watson cited Trump’s own statements about the ban, and those of his closest advisers, as proof that it was intended to target Muslims, which adds a hilarious cherry on top of this very nice sundae. There’s obviously much more to come on this, and the fact that it happened just a short time ago, plus my obvious lack of being anything resembling a lawyer, are working against me right now. Stay tuned, is what I’m saying.

NETHERLANDS

I was going to lead with this until the ban ban–er, the banning of the ban, uh, the ban banning, whatever you get the point–happened. As it turns out, the Dutch people are not as susceptible to xenophobic white populism as voters in a certain global superpower I could name:

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberal party is set to win the most seats in the Netherlands’ elections, maintaining its status as the country’s largest political party for the third consecutive election, according to exit polls published by Dutch broadcaster NOS.

Dutch voters took to the polls on Wednesday in overwhelming numbers — the turnout was projected to be above 80%, the highest in 30 years — to back a mix of pro-EU, liberal and progressive parties over the far-right, anti-EU and anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders — known as the “Dutch Trump”.

Wilders, who had become the subject of intense international media attention in the weeks running up to the election, appeared to win a humbling 13% of the vote and 19 seats, an increase on the previous election but below the party’s 2010 tally.

This is quite a result, because it suggests that Geert Wilders brought a whole bunch of new voters to the polls–to vote against him. I guess you could call it reverse populism.

So instead of Wilders’ reactionary far-right Party for Freedom governing the Netherlands, the regular far-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, led by current Prime Minister Mark Rutte, will continue governing it. As always though it will have to do so in coalition, and the secondary result of this vote, apart from Wilders’ surprising and frankly a little embarrassing performance, is that it’s going to be quite a task just forming a new coalition. Rutte’s party appears to have lost about ten seats in the next parliament, but more to the point his previous coalition partner, the center-left Labor Party, paid for its collaborative good nature by losing somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 seats. So instead of two parties, the next coalition will be a multi-party affair, with Rutte having to accommodate the right-wing Christian Democrats, the liberal D66 party, probably Labor again, and maybe the day’s apparent big winner…the Greens. Led by the Dutch Justin Trudeau, Jesse Klaver, GreenLeft appears to have quadrupled its seats in the next parliament, from four to 16. Now that’s populism.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: March 11-12 2017

TURKEY

So let’s start with the good news: Turkey and the Netherlands haven’t declared war on each other. Yet. As far as I know. But the good news pretty much ends there. On Saturday, Dutch authorities took the fairly provocative step–look, I give Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a lot of shit around here, but I don’t think you can fairly describe what happened here as routine diplomacy–of actually preventing a plane carrying Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu from landing in Rotterdam as planned, and then detained Turkey’s family affairs minister, Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, to prevent her from addressing the same referendum campaign rally that Çavuşoğlu was supposed to attend. Kaya was eventually deported to Germany.

I get that anti-immigrant fervor is high in the Netherlands right now and that the country is about to have an election this week that will turn largely on that issue. I also get why the government of any European country would be uneasy about hosting Turkish political rallies in general, but particularly in favor of a referendum whose purpose is basically to strip Turkish democracy for spare parts. But you don’t get to deny landing rights to a plane carrying a diplomat from an ostensible ally, and you certainly don’t get to just go around detaining and deporting government ministers from ostensible allies when they haven’t actually done anything illegal. The mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, said that Kaya and the Turkish consulate had lied to him about the purpose of her visit, but that still doesn’t excuse the treatment it seems she received.

Ankara did its usual thing, with Erdoğan calling the Dutch government “Nazis” and threatening unspecified retribution, like the Janissaries are going to be riding through downtown Amsterdam by the end of the week or something. Whatever Ankara does to punish the Netherlands won’t be much because it can’t be much. The biggest club in Erdoğan’s bag with respect to Europe is turning Syrian refugees loose in the Balkans, and that won’t affect the Netherlands very much, if at all. Some, including Çavuşoğlu, have mentioned possible sanctions, but that’s an arms race Turkey may not be able to win–if they push too far, there’s a small but not that small chance that the European Union could reexamine Turkey’s EU accession agreements in ways that would substantially hurt Turkish nationals living in other European countries. The Turkish government has called on “international organizations” to sanction Amsterdam for its actions, but that seems unlikely. The only blowback so far has been against Turkey–the government of Denmark announced that a visit scheduled for next weekend by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım will now be postponed.

SYRIA

On Saturday, two suicide attacks struck the Bab al-Saghir area of Damascus, killing somewhere between 40 (the government estimate) and 74 (according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights) people. Bab al-Saghir (“the small gate”) is, as its name suggests, one of the seven gates in the wall of Damascus’s “old city,” and the area is home to a cemetery that includes shrines to a number of prominent figures in Shiʿism (children of imams, that sort of thing). That was, presumably, the target. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (“Committee for the Liberation of Syria”), the alliance of extremist groups led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, claimed credit for the bombing and said it was intended to send a message to Tehran about its involvement in Syria.

Bashar al-Assad did an interview with Chinese TV this weekend in which he gushed about the close ties between Damascus and Beijing and dangled the huge carrot of a big Chinese role in rebuilding Syria after the war is over. The interview comes just after China joined Russia in vetoing a UN Security Council measure that would have sanctioned Assad’s government for its probable use of chemical weapons during the civil war, and when China appears to be getting more involved in the war on Assad’s side, partly because Assad has always had decent relations with Beijing but also because the Chinese government is concerned about Uyghurs who have left Xinjiang to fight with Syrian jihadi forces. In the same interview, Assad said he’s “hopeful” about the Trump administration but characterized new US forces being deployed to eastern Syria as an “invasion.”

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Conflict update: March 10 2017

ETHICS, HOW DO THEY WORK

As it so happens, while Michael Flynn was advising candidate Donald Trump on foreign policy, he was also being paid to act as an agent of the Turkish government–except, oops, he apparently forgot to mention that to anybody until earlier this week. Flynn even wrote pro-Turkey op-eds without disclosing that he was being paid to do it, which for anybody else would be a huge scandal but which is at best the 80th worst thing Flynn has done in just the past six months. To make this even more hilarious, Flynn apparently didn’t even fulfill the terms of his contract, which called for him to “investigate” Fethullah Gülen and produce a short film based on his investigation.

To make things considerably less hilarious, Donald Trump thought this guy was the right pick to be his top national security adviser, and Trump still has almost four years left in his term.

REX TILLERSON: THE FORGOTTEN MAN

tillerson_sworn_in

I was going to make a joke about the last time Tillerson saw his boss, but instead, can we talk about what President Trump could possibly be looking at here? Seriously, they’re swearing in his Secretary of State and he’s doing…what, exactly?

Astonishing:

I guess Secretary Kushner must have handled the visit himself.

Seriously, you’re Rex Tillerson. You used to run ExxonMobil. You’ve got more money than you could possibly spend in a hundred lifetimes. How much longer are you going to allow yourself to be humiliated?

FAMINE

Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, told the Security Council today that the UN is facing its worst crisis since its founding. He was talking about the acute simultaneous risk of famine/mass starvation in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria. An estimated 20 million people in parts of those four countries are at risk of starving to death. Children growing up in those areas are looking at lifelong challenges posed by severe malnutrition, and that’s assuming they actually survive. In all four countries these famines are to some degree man-made, though in Somalia in particular a severe drought is also part of the problem (though of course we can argue about the extent to which severe weather is now man-made as well).

CHEAP OIL BACK AGAIN?

This…probably isn’t good: Continue reading

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 7 2017

WIKILEAKS

WikiLeaks, the organization whose involvement in the Edward Snowden affair, the Chelsea Manning affair, and last summer’s DNC/Podesta hack launched the careers of a thousand self-declared national security experts, has released a whole new batch of classified information, this time from the CIA:

The new documents appear to be from the CIA’s 200-strong Center for Cyber Intelligence and show in detail how the agency’s digital specialists engage in hacking. Monday’s leak of about 9,000 secret files, which WikiLeaks said was only the first tranche of documents it had obtained, were all relatively recent, running from 2013 to 2016.

The revelations in the documents include:

  • CIA hackers targeted smartphones and computers.
  • The Center for Cyber Intelligence, based at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, has a second covert base in the US consulate in Frankfurt which covers Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
  • A programme called Weeping Angel describes how to attack a Samsung F8000 TV set so that it appears to be off but can still be used for monitoring.

Boy am I glad we bought an LG. Well, maybe I should wait for the next tranche of documents to hit before I say that. Weeping Angel seems problematic, but to me the most troubling revelation is that the US intelligence community has been compiling zero day exploits in mobile device operating systems and then sharing those exploits with foreign intelligence services.

As was the case with the Snowden leaks, I expect the fallout from this leak to reverberate for months (particularly if this is only the first batch of documents) and to impact everything from intelligence gathering to America’s relationships with its allies. It’ll be a huge diplomatic test for an administration that has shown almost zero capacity for diplomacy thus far and a president who goes to DEFCON 2 when somebody contradicts him on “Morning Joe” and really hasn’t faced an actual crisis–at least, not one that wasn’t of his own making–yet.

MUSLIM BAN TAKE TWO

Offered without comment, because it would only be superfluous, here’s Slate’s Joshua Keating: Continue reading

Conflict update: March 6 2017

DO OVER

Donald Trump launched the world premiere of Muslim Ban, Episode 2: Attack of the Clods today, and, well, it hasn’t been struck down by a court yet so I guess that’s something.

trump_flicker_face_yess

Damn, Jar Jar Binks looks like shit

The revised travel ban removes Iraq from the list of proscribed nations altogether, so at least one country in which we currently have soldiers engaged in active combat will no longer have to feel like Trump just kicked it in its collective nuts. It also explicitly exempts travelers who already have valid visas, so there won’t be people stranded at the airport under this version of the ban. It’s less punitive with respect to Syrian refugees than the last ban was, as well–where the last ban suspended all refugee resettlement for 120 days but permanently suspended Syrian refugee resettlement, now Syrians will simply face the same 120 day ban as everybody else. The overall number of refugees the US accepts in a single year will be cut from “LOL, you can’t be serious” to “holy shit, is this a fucking joke,” though, so Syrian refugees–all refugees, really–still mostly won’t be allowed in.

Additionally, the new ban removes preferences for refugees who are “religious minorities” (i.e., Christians) in order to support its new claim that the ban is “not motivated by animus toward any religion.” That’s bullshit, of course, but because our legal system thrives on bullshit it may be enough to allow this ban to survive the inevitable court challenges. Instead of an overt religious ban, the new order requires federal agencies to compile special lists of crimes perpetrated by immigrants, making selection bias official federal policy. I’m sure that will be fine.

IRAQ

After a weekend in which most Iraqi offensive operations were shut down due to bad weather that affected visibility and the ability to use air power, things picked back up today. Iraqi forces were able to take the western end of the second of Mosul’s five bridges, which put them in position to partially encircle the main government complex in Mosul’s old city and which, once the bridge is repaired, give the Iraqis another way to bring soldiers and materiel in from east Mosul directly to the front lines. The Iraqis were able to take several other neighborhoods, though the focus right now remains on the old city and the government buildings there.

Iraqi federal police have taken a page out of ISIS’s playbook and are weaponizing store-bought quadcopter drones with makeshift bombs. I am, and maybe you are as well, conditioned to get the chills when somebody talks about weaponized drones because of the US drone program and its total disregard for small niceties like due process, civilian casualties, and national sovereignty. But in a situation like this–i.e., an active war zone–they may not be so bad. I have to say this made some sense to me:

Bellingcat analyst Nick Waters, who has been following the use of drones by Islamic State closely, told Motherboard that the drones actually have the capability to be more ethical than a normal weapon system.

“You get to see exactly what you’re shooting at, they’re surprisingly accurate (likely reducing civilian casualties) and when you only have one or two bombs you want to make sure you hit the target first time,” he told Motherboard via Twitter direct message.

“They’re better than firing a bunch of 107mm rockets into an area and hoping you hit something with ‘ISIS’ written on it,” Waters added.

Better still would be not introducing explosives into a situation where you aren’t 100 percent sure you’re only going to kill ISIS fighters, but that standard will never get used. Given the choice between weaponized drones and an artillery barrage, I can see how the drone really might be the more ethical choice.

UPDATE: Just before I hit “post,” Reuters reported that Iraqi special forces have taken the main government building in west Mosul after an early Tuesday morning (damn time zones) assault.

SYRIA

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