Conflict update: April 10-14 2017

First off all, apologies for not doing one of these earlier this week. I had intended to crank something out on Wednesday but, well, when Wednesday rolled around I didn’t want to anymore.

Second, Easter and Passover greetings to my Christian and Jewish readers. This is one of the rare years when the Orthodox and Catholic Easter dates align with one another, so I don’t have to specify which Christians for a change. I’ll probably be back to regular programming on Monday, so I wanted to get an Easter message out just in case I don’t have the opportunity again before Sunday.

OK, so, strap in. I’ll try to make this as short as possible. Forgive me if some smaller stories fall through the cracks.


If you assume that Rex Tillerson is actually able to speak on his boss’s behalf, then it’s possible that a “Trump Doctrine” is beginning to take shape:

Days after President Trump bombed Syria in response to a chemical attack that killed children, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said on Monday that the United States would punish those “who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.”

Hey, that’s interesting. So does that mean we’re going to punish the Saudis for committing crimes against the innocents in Yemen? No? Well, how about punishing Abdel Fattah el-Sisi the next time he disappears some political opponents or massacres a bunch of protesters? Not that either, huh? OK, well surely we’ll want to protect innocents in Bahrain from their–oh, I see. Are we at least planning to punish Bashar al-Assad for the myriad crimes he’s committed against innocents that haven’t involved nerve gas? Hah, not even that, cool.

Hey, what about those ~270 or so innocents we bombed in Mosul about a month ago? Or the ~50 or so we bombed at evening prayer in al-Jinah around that same time? Are we going to punish ourselves for those crimes?

No, don’t answer, I already know. This is quite a doctrine we’re developing. We’ll punish those who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world (offer may not be valid in your area).


Continue reading

All the news that’s fit to make you sick



Hey, I warned you in the headline

If it’s seemed like things have been a little sparse around here this week, it’s because, at the cost of a little sleep and a lot of sanity, I’ve been heavily covering the Trump transition for LobeLog. I haven’t been posting links to those stories here because I wanted to wait until I had reached a pause, at least, in the process, and the chaos surrounding the transition dragged on all week. But here’s a whole slew of things to read at LobeLog, going back to last week–some by me, some by other people–that will enlighten and inform you about our imminent descent into madness.

My first reaction to Trump’s election was that the Iran deal, which has kind of been a focus of mine, was in serious trouble. I struck probably a maximally pessimistic tone, so if you prefer a more optimistic one, check out this one from Iran expert Esfandyar Batmanghelidj. Either way, handling the Iran deal is going to be one of Trump’s biggest diplomatic tests. Yesterday I covered a report issued by the National Iranian American Council arguing that Trump should expand on the deal rather than tearing it up, but frankly I think if it survives his administration at all we should consider ourselves lucky.

My second reaction to Trump’s election was to note all the loud cheering coming from Israel, where, for example right-wing Education Minister Naftali Bennett cried that “the era of a Palestinian state is over.” That must have been a pretty short era, because I totally missed it.

Then this week I got into the transition proper. On Tuesday I wrote about the early front-runners for Secretary of State, Rudy Giuliani and John Bolton:, and on Wednesday I wrote about the many, many names under consideration for Secretary of Defense, a list that at the time was headlined by Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, the genteel old timey southern white supremacist who has since opted to become Trump’s Attorney General. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton may be at the head of the line now. Or not.

Yesterday I went in a slightly different direction and wrote about the collection of frightening characters Trump seems to be accumulating around him on national security: Continue reading

Title Copied


ISIS’s remaining Syria-Iraq holdings (in gray) as of October 17 (Wikimedia | BlueHypercane761)

Unfortunately today kind of got away from me. I had a medical checkup in the morning but then I was asked on short notice to do an interview for a Libyan TV program on location in downtown DC, and it turns out that shooting on location is a lot harder than doing it in a studio. I had a fine time doing it, no complaints, but that’s the reason why the action around here has been nil today. Anyway, if you could, please, spare a thought for the real victim of my long day out of the house: my dog, who was stuck in her pen the whole time I was gone.

Anyway, in lieu of any new writing here, please enjoy my recap of ISIS’s recent travails, from Dabiq to Mosul, at LobeLog: Continue reading

Fun while it lasted?

There’s a strong possibility that the Syrian ceasefire, which would have passed the magic one week trial period as of tomorrow, is now defunct. At least it’s defunct according to the Syrian military, which resumed barrel bombing Aleppo yesterday and outright said the ceasefire is over today. But as this was a US-Russia agreement negotiated without any Syrian input, it seems only fair that it should be either the US or Russia who gets to formally declare it over, and neither seems to have done so just yet.

Now, in any practical sense, it seems like the ceasefire was doomed from the moment it was signed. But it’s possible that the two principals are hoping to revive their deal on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York this week.

At LobeLog today, I cover the ceasefire’s many failures (it’s an impressive list for a one-week ceasefire, but none greater than the fact that Assad continued to block any humanitarian aid from reaching eastern Aleppo), including the US airstrike that seems to have been the final straw:

A ceasefire that went into effect throughout Syria on September 12 may now be on the verge of collapse. On Saturday, a U.S. airstrike near the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor struck Syrian government forces, reportedly killing 62 soldiers, injuring 100 more, and allowing Islamic State (ISIS or IS) forces to make territorial gains (those gains have since apparently been reversed). This marked the first time since the Syrian civil war began in 2011 that U.S. forces had struck the Syrian army, though Washington has long called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s removal from office. A press release issued by U.S. Central Command said that “coalition forces” had intended to strike at IS, not the Syrian army, and that “the coalition airstrike was halted immediately when coalition officials were informed by Russian officials that it was possible the personnel and vehicles targeted were part of the Syrian military.”

Washington expressed regret for what it termed an “unintentional loss of life of Syrian forces” and said that it would “consider” making condolence payments to the families of those who were caught in the strike. But that sentiment seems to have done little to appease Assad’s government or his Russian patrons. Syria’s state-run SAMA TV station commented that “these attacks confirmed that the U.S. clearly supports the terrorism of Daesh,” using IS’s Arabic acronym, while Moscow called for an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council on Saturday evening.

All the recent talk about US-Russian cooperation in Syria basically has gone down the drain unless the ceasefire can be revived. It’s believed that Moscow really wants some level of military collaboration with Washington if only because they see it as validating their activity in Syria, so maybe they’ll really try to repair the situation this week.


More sectarian fun

At LobeLog, Georgetown’s Shireen Hunter took a deeper dive into the Saudi Grand Mufti’s declaration that Iranians are not Muslim. Of course, there’s no deep theology behind the mufti’s pronouncement; it’s simple anti-Shiʿa bigotry:

This belief is neither new nor limited to the Saudis or the Wahhabis. However, as far as I can recall, no significant Muslim religious leader had openly called them non-Muslims, although some secular leaders had done so before. For example, during the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein regularly referred to the Iranians as Majus, and even worse, as insects that should be sprayed with pesticides. Indeed, he did just that by using chemical weapons against them.

This widely held Arab belief that Iranians are not real Muslims is based on the premise that they never fully converted to Islam. Instead, they developed Shiʿism, which is allegedly nothing more than their old religion with a thin guise of Islam. Moreover, Arabs believe that the Iranians did so in order to subvert and undermine their true and pure Islam. In a Cairo bookshop near Al-Azhar several years ago, I saw a book for sale entitled Shia Conspiracy Against Islam. Since then, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others, along with religious figures such as the Egypt-born resident of Qatar Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, have sponsored many more books on Shiʿism’s threat to Islam and Iran’s plans to convert Sunnis to Shiʿism.

Of course, as Hunter points out and you readers already know, the idea that Iranians “developed Shiʿism” is entirely ahistorical. The leaders around whom the early Shiʿa community rallied were as Arab as the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, and in fact were descended from Muhammad himself. The Battle of Karbala, the inflection point for the initial break between Sunni and Shiʿa, took place in 680, when the conquest of Iran was far too new and far too incomplete for Iranians to do anything so bold as to develop their own strain of a religion that was still taking shape at the time. In fact, you have to go all the way to 1501, when the Safavid dynasty took over Iran and began, ah, “strongly encouraging” the Iranian populace to convert en masse to Twelver Shiʿism, to find the point at which Iran stopped being mostly Sunni–even the Safavid family itself began as a family of Sunni-minded Sufis before converting to Shiʿism in the mid-15th century. Yes, there were historical affinities between Shiʿism and Iranian resistance movements, and a lot of Shiʿa dynasties came to rule parts of Iran as a result, but Iranian culture permeated the entire caliphate irrespective of sect and, again, the majority of Iranians were Sunni until the Safavids came along.

The accusation that devious Shiʿa villains are plotting to turn your nice Sunni kids gay Shiʿa has deep roots in every authoritarian Sunni regime going back to the caliphate–it’s the kind of narrative that oppressors keep telling everybody to justify their oppression. (To be fair, the Iranian argument that the Saudis are not fit custodians of Mecca and Medina–and therefore of the Hajj–is also a rehash of a historical slur against whichever political entity happened to control the Hejaz at any given point in time.) When Iran converted, and then again after 1979, tales of Shiʿa plotting were grafted on to the traditional Arab-Iranian rivalry and the two narratives began to feed on one another. But as Sanam Anderlini notes, there’s no upside to Iran picking a fight on sectarian grounds–nor is there much evidence that they have: Continue reading

It’s raining ceasefires

We’re now two days into the Syrian ceasefire, and despite a few reports of violations, overall the deal seems to be holding together. However, the ceasefire wasn’t the goal so much as the means to achieve the goal, which is the alleviation of Syrian suffering. And in that regard there already appear to be some problems:

Residents of eastern Aleppo are reported to be in desperate need of fuel, flour, wheat, baby formula and medicines.

Two convoys of lorries carrying aid crossed into Syria about 40km (25 miles) west of Aleppo on Tuesday but were not allowed to go much further, Reuters reports.

One issue holding back aid deliveries is that al-Qaeda affiliates operate in the area, which may mean the main route into Aleppo is not yet safe, the BBC’s James Longman in Beirut says.

Lorries carrying Russian aid, however, have reached government-held areas of Homs province.

Aid reaching beleaguered government-held areas but not beleaguered rebel-held areas? This is not going to do much to alleviate the copious reservations many observers have about Bashar al-Assad’s willingness to actually go along with the ceasefire agreement. But then, to be fair, there’s no indication that the rebels plan on abiding by the agreement either. Such is the problem when the U.S. and Russia get together and cut a deal that mostly imposes upon other actors who had no input into the process. I talked about this at LobeLog yesterday:

As others have noted, perhaps the most jarring aspect of this attempted ceasefire is that it was negotiated entirely between Moscow and Washington, yet most of its terms apply to other parties. The United States will continue its anti-IS and anti-JFS air campaign virtually unchanged. Although Russia may have to be more circumspect about targeting JFS and not other rebel forces, the onus appears to be on the rebels to get out of the way of any strikes meant for JFS. Russia is expected to force Assad to abide by the agreement, while the U.S. is expected to bring its allied rebel forces along. But neither Assad nor the rebel leadership has yet expressed unqualified support for the deal.

It’s not clear what happens if either, or both, Russia and the U.S. fail to cajole their allies into compliance, for the agreement lacks any explicit enforcement mechanism should either Assad or the rebels violate the term. During a public appearance on Monday in which he made Eid prayers at a mosque in the recently captured Damascene suburb of Daraya, Assad told reporters that “the Syrian state is determined to recover every area from the terrorists.” He reportedly made no mention of the ceasefire. Assad’s remarks are similar to ones he made in February amid negotiations on a similar nationwide ceasefire. That ceasefire ultimately broke down.

If humanitarian aid doesn’t start reaching people in eastern Aleppo very soon, you’ll know that this ceasefire won’t last much longer than a few days. If it does start reaching eastern Aleppo in the next day or so, then…well, I give the ceasefire about a month. I particularly can’t foresee the rebels divesting themselves of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham such that they won’t be affected when Russian airstrikes hit JFS positions. There’s no upside for the rebels to separate from JFS, in part because the US hasn’t provided one. That challenge by itself is enough to sink, eventually, this attempt at a settlement. Please prove me wrong, everybody.

The Syrian ceasefire deal came at the conclusion of weeks of “will they, won’t they” diplomacy between John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, so it wasn’t entirely unexpected even if its successful conclusion was still a little surprising. On the other hand, yesterday something happened that was kind of unexpected: Continue reading

Treating the symptom while the disease festers

My latest at LobeLog is an extended interview with former State Department official Wayne White, talking about the big failure of the war against ISIS. Although ISIS itself is being driven back on almost every front, the underlying condition that facilitated its rise, the disenfranchisement felt by large numbers of Sunni Arabs in both Syria and Iraq, still remains with little hope of improvement:

LobeLog: Talk about why it’s important, even as IS is losing ground, that Sunni Arab resentment be addressed, and whether it can/will be addressed if and when IS is defeated.

Wayne White: Sunni Arab grievances against both the non-Sunni-dominated Syrian and Iraqi regimes, left unaddressed, will lead—whether under Syrian regime, Syrian Kurdish, Iraqi Kurdish, or Iraqi regime occupation—to further outbreaks of violence. Provocations in Syria relate to prolonged subordination to an Alawite-dominated regime and now likely occupation by a regime angered by years of bloody Sunni Arab resistance. Brutal Syrian treatment of real or suspected rebels or dissidents is well-documented. Likewise in Iraq: Shi‘a, who comprise not only the bulk of the Iraqi Army, but also of the notoriously abusive Shi‘a militias that are once again on the front lines, will likely mistreat Sunni Arabs under occupation. Atrocities will occur.

Moreover, in Syria especially, largely Sunni Arab cities and towns have been devastated in the fighting—repeatedly fought over and bombed indiscriminately. In Iraqi cities already badly damaged by fighting during the Sunni Arab insurgency of 2003-2009, as well as the ongoing aerial bombardment by the anti-IS coalition (especially given the Obama administration’s decision in April to relax the rules of engagement relating to air strikes), final re-conquest will mean, as in Syria, yet more destruction. In both Iraq and Syria, then, large infusions of funds and resources from Damascus and Baghdad would be needed to restore even a modicum of normalcy, but neither the two governments nor the Iraqi Kurds have such resources and are notoriously corrupt. So, judging from the past in Iraq particularly, Sunni Arabs can expect precious little assistance. This will breed deep resentment, unrest, and the emergence of at least some terrorism in one form or another.

Without sufficient context, the media has been characterizing anti-Shi‘a and anti-government terrorist bombings in Baghdad as the doings of IS. In fact, such terrorism is merely a seamless continuation of identical al-Qaeda in Iraq terrorism ongoing since 2003-2004. In terms of intensity, the volume of such attacks was worse during Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s abuses against Sunni Arabs in the pre-IS era. This form of murky retaliatory terrorism could emerge once again from an undercurrent of Sunni Arab anger.

Complicating this state of affairs, Iraq’s Sunni-dominated Anbar province is currently embroiled in its own political crisis as the dominant Iraqi Islamic Party is challenged by the Sunni Endowment, the agency responsible for managing Sunni places of worship, among other things. This political dysfunction within Iraq’s Sunni community is going to make it harder for that community to work peacefully to secure Sunni rights and privileges in Baghdad.