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.


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: March 9 2017


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.


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: February 28 2017


Today’s big story happened not in Syria, nor in Geneva, but in New York, where Russia and China both vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have sanctioned Damascus over its military’s use, per a UN investigation, of chemical weapons on at least three separate occasions in 2014 and 2015. I don’t want to spend much time dwelling on China’s veto, which for the most part I think is transactional for them (Russia owes them a favor, and they haven’t alienated the likely short-term winner of the Syrian civil war), but the Russian angle here does bear some discussion.

First off, from a purely institutional standpoint the Russian/Chinese position here is untenable. The UN investigated and found that the Syrian military used chemical weapons, which, under the terms of a treaty that Syria signed in 2013, means that they broke international law. It’s perfectly reasonable for the Security Council to impose some penalty for that violation. Now, perhaps the UN investigation was flawed in some way. Russia has dismissed it as flawed. But if I’m convicted of, say, shoplifting, I don’t just get to say “eh, the jury doesn’t know what it’s talking about” and go free. Maybe you think the UN is biased against Bashar al-Assad, which I can certainly understand given the several times it’s done absolutely nothing to him in any way. If you think the UN should be a factor in international affairs, then there’s no reason to veto these sanctions. If, on the other hand, you think the UN should be rendered totally useless, as Russia clearly does–and, if we want to rewind to, oh, 2003, the United States does as well–then by all means veto this resolution.

Second, this marks the first tangible point of disagreement between Russia and the US (which supported the sanctions effort) over Syria. But thanks to the Trump administration’s thorough dysfunctionality in developing a coherent Syria policy, we can’t be sure that this represents a disagreement between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. At this point, who knows how much latitude UN Ambassador Nikki Haley has. I’m not suggesting Haley contradicted administration policy in backing these sanctions, but I am saying it’s possible that the administration didn’t really have a policy on these sanctions until she made it.

Third, this veto highlights the difficulty facing Russia, which want to be Assad’s protector and a neutral peacemaker simultaneously, when those are more or less contradictory positions. Moscow can argue that imposing sanctions on Syria right now would be bad for the peace talks, but a) there’s no absolute reason why that has to be so, and b) vetoing the sanctions is turning out to be pretty bad for the peace talks as well. There’s no reason why, say, the Security Council couldn’t have suspended the implementation of these sanctions while talks are ongoing, which might have actually helped give the talks some extra import. If Russia’s main concern were really the sanctity of the negotiations, it could’ve suggested something like that. But its main concern is still clearly covering for Assad, which means it can’t also be the country that brings everybody together to find a political settlement to the war.

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Conflict update: February 7 2017

OK, so…this could get long. Sorry. That’s what happens when I’m away for a few days.


I almost feel like I should start each of these with a quick roundup of the miscellaneous ways Donald Trump is fucking up around the world. For example:

  • When President Trump makes a formal state visit to the UK later this year, there’s a good chance he will be denied the honor of speaking to parliament. House of Commons Speaker John Bercow says that he will block any Trump address to the body, something about Trump’s “racism” and “sexism,” which…well, he’s got a point there. Bercow can’t entirely block Trump from speaking to parliament, because the speaker of the House of Lords also gets a say, but his unendorsement (?) should carry a pretty heavy implication.
  • Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “thanked” Trump, in a speech he delivered on Tuesday, for “showing the reality of American human rights” through his immigration ban. Which…well, he’s got a point there.
  • ISIS is also undoubtedly very happy about President Trump and his immigration ban. Anything that makes Muslims feel unwelcome in the United States, or pits America against Islam generally speaking, is good for ISIS, and this immigration order, coupled with Trump’s rhetoric, certainly does both. Which, and if I can I may write more about this tomorrow, is probably the Trump administration’s point. I think Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn welcome a War On Islam and will happily feed into ISIS propaganda because that will ultimately help fuel their propaganda.

Trump’s War on Islam

The New York Times is reporting that the Trump administration is considering two new foreign terrorist designations, and they’re both massive escalations of Trump’s War on Islam: the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Designation the Muslim Brotherhood as an FTO would allow the Trump administration to shut down large numbers of Islamic charities and mosques all over the United States, because so many Islamic organizations have ties to some variant of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is not a monolithic organization and most of its branches behave as peaceful political entities. Yes, it is an Islamist organization, and its historical record on violence is checkered, but for the most part since the 1970s it has been a political Islamist organization, and as such it has been an important outlet for conservative Muslims to find their political voice without resorting to violence. Designating it a terrorist organization would materially aid more extremist organizations, including ISIS and al-Qaeda (which, again, is probably part of Trump’s goal), and would greatly complicate relations with allies like Turkey (the Justice and Development Party is closely aligned with several Brotherhood chapters) and Qatar.

Designating the IRGC as an FTO could fundamentally undermine the Iran nuclear deal without technically touching it, which again is probably Trump’s goal. Anyone, American or otherwise, found to have dealings with an organization related to any FTO can be subject to civil and criminal penalties in the US. The IRGC has its tentacles woven throughout the Iranian economy, such that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for any foreign investor trying to do business in Iran to avoid dealing with the IRGC entirely. So any investors/businesses that value being able to operate in the US are going to have a hard time investing in Iran, which drastically cuts into the benefits Iran gets from sanctions relief.


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Conflict update: January 6 2017


Here’s one terrifying side-effect of the Mosul campaign that, to be honest, I hadn’t really thought much about:

With the launch of the second phase of the Mosul operations Dec. 29, tens of bodies of killed Islamic State (IS) fighters were strewn across the streets in the neighborhoods of al-Salam, al-Intisar, al-Wihda, Palestine and al-Quds in eastern Mosul, as was the case in neighborhoods that were previously liberated.

Residents do not want to bury the bodies for fear of them carrying explosives or being infected with diseases, or for fear of being affiliated with the dead fighters.

The streets of the liberated areas are filled with bodies, some of which are now mere skeletons from dogs feeding off them. The bloated bodies of other fighters have been covered by residents with pieces of cloth. Dead animals that lost their lives in the fighting also lie in the streets.

The smell of death fills the air in eastern Mosul, forcing passers-by to cover their noses while running errands in the markets.

Sounds lovely, really.

At least the smell is hovering over an offensive that looks to be making significant progress again. For the first time in the operation, Iraqi forces today were able to enter the city from the north. That may not seem like much, but it’s a pretty big milestone. The northern front was one of three planned fronts in the east Mosul operation, but it, along with the southern front, had gone nowhere until today, leaving the eastern front to take the brunt of ISIS’s concentrated resistance. If things are moving again in the north, combined with a renewed push from the east and a new push from the southeast, then ISIS is going to be forced to defend on three fronts, and that bodes very well for the Iraqis in the rest of the east Mosul phase of the fighting. Iraqi counter-terrorism forces even felt confident enough to attempt a night raid last night, which seems to have gone well.

PBS Newshour did a major piece a couple of days ago on the disappearance of men and boys from refugee camps around Mosul. In an effort to ensure that no ISIS fighters are escaping by joining the displaced, Iraqi forces are picking up male refugees for investigation. This seems…almost reasonable, actually, except that there seems to be virtually no transparency to the process, to the families of these people are forced to surmise what’s happened and hope that they get to see their loved ones again. And with the number of people fleeing Mosul, the Iraqi justice system is taking weeks to investigate each case, and with the lack of transparency about detainees’ whereabouts comes a similar lack of transparency about the investigative process. Nobody knows what kind of evidence is being considered and who is considering it. There are many men and boys who remained in Mosul without signing on to fight for ISIS, and many others who were forced to join ISIS and who may have done little or nothing to tangibly contribute to the group’s war effort, so it’s fundamentally important, not to mention just, that they all get a fair hearing and due process.


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Conflict update: January 3 2017

Happy New Year, everybody! I had some grand vision of leaping right back into blogging today, but some car trouble (a false alarm, luckily) and a little “I need a vacation from my vacation” syndrome combined to stifle most of those plans. It is a new year though, so I assume that all the bad stuff from last year hit the reset button while I was away and we’re back to a clean slate.


Oh, shit. As you might expect, since it’s been a few days, this could get long.


Big story, already covered elsewhere.


Miraculously, against long odds, the Syrian ceasefire negotiated by Russia and Turkey has held and appears to be leading to a renewed push toward a negotiated peace to end the Syrian civil war. There are just two small technical glitches to overcome: one, the fighting has never actually stopped, and two, because the fighting has never actually stopped the Syrian rebels announced today that they’re suspending their involvement in peace talks. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

There was, believe it or not, a small window where it actually looked like this truce might work. The UN Security Council adopted a resolution in support on Saturday and fighting did seem to decrease, except for clashes in Idlib and Hama, places where groups not party to the ceasefire–JFS, in particular–are prominent. But then the fighting just kept escalating, particularly over the springs in the Wadi Barada region outside Damascus. Wadi Barada supplies a significant portion of the capital’s water supply, and as you know that supply has been cut lately, due to rebel sabotage or government bombing or both, and Bashar al-Assad’s forces have been besieging the area in an effort to starve the rebels out and secure the water. They claim JFS is active in Wadi Barada and therefore it’s not covered by the ceasefire, but the rebels clearly disagree, which is why several rebel groups announced today that they will no longer participate in the proposed Kazakhstan-based peace talks unless and until the government decides to fully implement the ceasefire.

I’m not planning on holding my breath.

Playing out on the sidelines of the rapidly collapsing ceasefire and accompanying peace talks is the tug of war between Iran and Turkey over Russia that I wrote about a few days ago. The Turks and Iranians have absolutely nothing in common in Syria apart from their chummy relationship with Moscow, and consequently somebody is going to have to come away the loser if their triumvirate is going to survive. So far that’s been Turkey, which has abandoned its direct pursuit of Assad’s ouster, but you can see the Turks trying to cultivate ties between Moscow and the Syrian rebel groups with which it has sway. There, too, though, Ankara has a pretty weak hand, since it doesn’t have much sway over the strongest (and most extreme) rebel factions–JFS, Ahrar al-Sham, the Zenki Movement–so it can’t really deliver what Moscow wants, which is an end to the rebellion in exchange for a political settlement. Iran is in the stronger position but it’s also clearly keeping an eye on the budding Turkish-Russian bromance to make sure its interests are protected.


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Nothing is coming up Nigeria

Earlier today a car bomb killed eight or nine people near the northeastern Nigerian town of Gubio, in that country’s Borno state. On the plus side, it appears that the carnage was confined to the bombers themselves, who were apparently attempting to strike a military checkpoint when their bomb went off. On the minus side, this is something like the fifth such attack in Borno over the past three weeks. On Saturday, for example, at least nine more people were killed in suicide bombings near Maiduguri, Borno’s capital and largest city, and at least eight were killed in another bombing in Maiduguri on October 12. It’s a virtual certainty that these are all Boko Haram attacks–Borno, and especially Maiduguri, is the group’s home base, if it can be said to have a home base. These bombings, along with a series of other recent attacks, make it clear that despite the efforts of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and the other countries the area (Niger, Chad, and Cameroon), Boko Haram is still quite active.

Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that Boko Harams are still quite active. Back in August, you may recall, ISIS decreed that Boko Haram, its affiliate, had a new commander, Abu Musab al-Barnawi. This undoubtedly came as unwelcome news to Boko Haram’s incumbent leader, Abubakar Shekau (who was rumored to be dead but, as it turns out, is still alive and kicking), and, sure enough, the two factions of the formerly unified organization are now openly fighting one another. In the long run, this kind of splintering can go either way–maybe both factions are irreversibly weakened, or maybe both manage to stabilize themselves, or maybe one faction crushes the other and things go on basically as before. But in the short run, these events are often very bad news for the people effected by the violence. Between factional infighting and the new competition between the factions for support and recruits, violence often goes up after a split. That seems to be what’s happened in Nigeria.

One bit of welcome news came a couple of weeks ago, when a group of 21 of the abducted Chibok schoolgirls were released by their Boko Haram captors after negotiations with Buhari’s government. Talks on the release of more of the girls are reportedly ongoing. Because of their high profile in national and international media, the Chibok girls will thankfully be spared the horrific treatment to which Nigerian authorities have allegedly subjected women and girls who have been displaced by Boko Haram’s violence:

Government officials and other authorities in Nigeria have raped and sexually exploited women and girls displaced by the conflict with Boko Haram. The government is not doing enough to protect displaced women and girls and ensure that they have access to basic rights and services or to sanction the abusers, who include camp leaders, vigilante groups, policemen, and soldiers.

In late July, 2016, Human Rights Watch documented sexual abuse, including rape and exploitation, of 43 women and girls living in seven internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital. The victims had been displaced from several Borno towns and villages, including Abadam, Bama, Baga, Damasak, Dikwa, Gamboru Ngala, Gwoza, Kukawa, and Walassa. In some cases, the victims had arrived in the under-served Maiduguri camps, where their movement is severely restricted after spending months in military screening camps.

This is an abomination, and it’s the kind of thing that leads you to wonder whether Buhari’s government is just fundamentally rotten. It can’t stop Boko Haram, it can’t take care of Boko Haram’s victims, it can’t take care of the families of Boko Haram’s victims, it can’t solve the crisis in the Niger Delta, it can’t turn around Nigeria’s struggling economy, and it’s gridlocked on ways to bring in desperately needed funds. And while it’s beset by all these problems, Buhari has inexplicably decided to create a new one by persecuting Nigeria’s Shia population. Actually, scratch that–maybe it’s not so inexplicable.


Muhammadu Buhari (Wikimedia | Erfan Kouchari)

The only good thing here is that at least Washington hasn’t been propping up a government whose own people are raping internal refugees by providing it with lots of military ai–oh, ah, I see. Never mind.

In the face of its myriad struggles, Buhari’s government is naturally doing everything it can to stifle speech, using its cyber crimes law to go after journalists who deviate from the official narrative. It’s all about having priorities, you know? It’s not clear whether the gag on dissenting views applies to Buhari’s wife, Aisha, who actually said a few weeks ago that she wasn’t sure she would vote for her husband when he stands for reelection in 2019. Buhari took this in stride, telling reporters that his wife needed to shut up and get back in the kitchen. No, really. They both seem nice.

Although Boko Haram has lost the large chunk of territory it once controlled in northeastern Nigeria, the group and its effects aren’t going away. The frequent attacks are one reminder of the group’s continued existence, but the other is potentially far worse. In September the International Rescue Committee said that the years of warfare against Boko Haram have now left as many as five million people at risk of famine. The situation is most acute in Borno, but the rest of northeastern Nigeria is in deep trouble as well. Obviously international assistance is desperately needed, but what is even more desperately needed is a government that shows some glimmer of an ability to fix…well, anything. Buhari is in office for at least another two and a half years, give or take, and unless something changes, those could be two and a half very rough years for Nigeria.