Conflict update: April 21 2017

Hopefully a short one tonight. I’m getting a bit of a late start and actually don’t think there’s much to report for a change.


The first phase of that major four-town evacuation (Fuʿah, Kefraya, Zabadani, and Madaya) has concluded successfully with an additional agreement for the Syrian government to release hundreds of detainees. The whole deal was thrown into chaos last weekend over a terrorist attack on buses evacuating people from Fuʿah and Kefraya, but it seems to have resumed pursuant to another agreement reached between its two international backers, Qatar and Iran, over some Qataris who were being held captive in Iraq (more on that in a moment). I’m not entirely clear on the relationship between these two deals, but it seems like the Syrian deal would have stalled had this Iraqi arrangement not come together.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Russia’s Sputnik news agency today that Jordan is preparing an invasion of southern Syria in coordination with the US. The Jordanians have forcefully denied that they have any such plan.


That Iraqi deal involved the release of 26 Qatari hunters, including members of the Qatari royal family, who had been kidnapped in southern Iraq by, uh, somebody in December 2015. Who exactly kidnapped them has never been clear, but it now seems that at least we can say that Iran was able to negotiate on their behalf.

There’s still little new to report from Mosul. Iraqi counter-terrorism forces are continuing to advance into the center of western Mosul, west of the Old City area where most of ISIS’s defenses have been located, and in the Old City itself things have remained static for weeks apart from one Iraqi police advance along the western edge of the neighborhood on April 16.


Turkish opposition leaders have gone to court to appeal the election board’s decision to accept improperly unstamped ballots during Sunday’s referendum. This is unlikely to have any effect. They’ll first try to adjudicate the case in Turkish courts, which have largely had their independence stripped by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and then they may take the case to the European Court on Human Rights, whose rulings Erdoğan will almost certainly feel free to just ignore. The opposition even seem resigned to this, with an HDP spokesman suggesting the appeal is more to have it on the record for historical purposes than anything else.


Credit where credit is due, President Trump seems to have successfully negotiated the release of US citizen Aya Hijazi from Egypt, where she’d been detained without trial for three years. She returned to the US this morning. Hijazi and her husband had been running a non-profit caring for homeless children in Egypt when she was arrested on charges of child trafficking that were never substantiated or brought to trial. The case against her was dropped after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited DC earlier this month and Trump fawned over him, so it seems pretty clear that all that ass-kissing helped get Hijazi out of jail. Like I said, credit where credit is due.


A Taliban attack on a military base in Balkh province today killed more than 50 Afghan soldiers. Suicide bombers apparently breached the gate and gunmen entered the base, killing soldiers who were, among other things, eating lunch and at midday prayer.


Opposition lawmakers are demanding that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif step down while an investigation is ongoing into his family’s finances and potential corruption. Pakistan’s top court ordered the investigation yesterday but opted not to remove Sharif from office.



Vice President Mike Pence has taken his stern face to Australia for the weekend, where he’ll be expected to smooth over any lingering bad feelings from Trump’s first phone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. He arrives at a time when the Australian government is being slammed by human rights groups for the inhumane conditions at its offshore migrant detention centers on the islands of Manus and Nauru, and, well, he and Turnbull should have a lot to talk about.

Meanwhile, Australian scientists say that analysis of ocean currents and drift patterns strongly suggests that missing flight MH370–remember that?–probably crashed into the Indian Ocean in an area north of where everybody was looking before the search was suspended last year. Now they just need a government or two willing to spend more money on a new search, so…good luck with that.


The Kenyan military says it killed 52 al-Shabab militants in a Friday morning attack on one of their camps in Somalia’s southern Lower Juba province.


Although it announced that it was pulling out of the operation to destroy Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army last month, the Trump administration has apparently decided to continue America’s involvement in the operation after all. Uganda announced that it was pulling out of the operation earlier this week, and that seems to have caused a change of heart in Washington.


Say, this seems like great news:

American and Canadian fighter planes scrambled to intercept two Russian TU-95 “Bear” bombers Thursday night, marking the fourth consecutive night of Russian probes near the Alaskan coast, U.S. defense officials said Friday.

At no point did the Russian aircraft cross into American or Canadian airspace, but the incursions into the Air Identification Zones — which extend beyond the territorial waters of the U.S. and Canada — represent a sharp increase in activity in the area, which has seen no Russian activity at all since 2015. The flights may also herald the return of Moscow’s 60-year-old nuclear capable bomber to the international stage, after the entire fleet was grounded in 2015 after a rash of accidents.

Frankly, I don’t understand why Putin would want to provoke a conflict here when the Trump administration, despite its newfound anti-Russia ethos, seems pretty intent on destroying America without any outside help.


French police are investigating reports that Champs-Élysées shooter Karim Cheurfi may have had at least one accomplice. There seems to be some confusion related to ISIS’s unusually rapid claim of responsibility for the attack, which they attributed to an “Abu Yusif al-Belgiki.” That’s an obvious pseudonym (Abu Yusif the Belgian), but was it Cheurfi’s pseudonym? He wasn’t Belgian, so that’s at least a little weird. The oddness of the name and the fact that, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, ISIS claimed this attack very quickly, leaves open the possibility that ISIS thought this attack was actually some other attack that it’s got in the cards. That’s unlikely, but there are still some things about this case that aren’t quite adding up.

Sunday is of course election day, and with polling still a mess it’s not clear how things are going to turn out. Five Thirty Eight’s Harry Enten says that, going by the polls, any two of the top four candidates could wind up in the May 7 runoff. Now consider the uncertainty caused by this terror attack–the historical evidence as to what kind of impact attacks like this have on elections is mixed, but they often do have some impact. Donald Trump is unsurprisingly supporting fellow reactionary xenophobe Marine Le Pen, but given how monumentally unpopular Trump is in France, that might not help. Even if Le Pen does make it into the second round of voting, polling has consistently put her so far behind each of the other leading candidates that it’s very difficult to imagine she’d be able to pull out a victory. Still, on the principle that anything could happen, it would be better if she finished out of the top two on Sunday.

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Conflict update: April 20 2017


Details are still sketchy, but a gunman earlier this evening shot and killed a police officer on the Champs-Élysées in Paris before being shot and killed in turn by other police officers. There was a search for accomplices immediately after the shooting, but it seems at this point like the shooter was acting alone. French authorities are treating this as a terrorist attack, and ISIS has reportedly already claimed credit for the attack. The attacker used a pseudonym but he’s been identified as Karim Cheurfi, a 39 year old French national who has a previous conviction for shooting at police officers and was–obviously–known to authorities.

ISIS’s claim of responsibility was lightning fast, as these things go, which suggests they may have known of the attack before it happened–though it doesn’t necessarily suggest they had any role in planning it and, indeed, it doesn’t seem to have required much planning. It may also be that ISIS is aiming to use this attack to meddle with the French presidential election taking place this weekend, and if that’s the case then it’s pretty clear who they’d like to see win: reactionary nationalist/fascist Marine Le Pen. As the most anti-Islam voice in the race, Le Pen obviously stands to benefit from any last-minute voting decisions made out of fear stemming from this attack. And we know that ISIS likes it when Western countries elect right-wing, anti-Islam demagogues.

As it stood before the shooting, polling had Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron heading to the runoff, but conservative François Fillon had moved back into third place on his own. A switch of just a few points–hardly an impossibility given the number of voters who still say they’re undecided and/or not sure they’re going to vote–could put the “tough on crime”-style candidates, Fillon and Le Pen, in the runoff with Macron on the outside looking in. And in that case, with Le Pen running against the badly damaged and scandal-ridden Fillon in the second round, anything could happen.


This was going to be my first story before the Paris shooting happened. Iran’s Press TV has the list of candidates who have been permitted by the Guardian Council to stand in the country’s May 19 presidential election. They are:

  • Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani
  • Religious leader Ebrahim Raisi
  • Tehran Mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf
  • Current First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri
  • Moderate politician Mostafa Hashemitaba
  • Conservative (?) politician Mostafa Mir-Salim


Notably not on that list, of course, is former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His former vice president, Hamid Baghaei, was also disqualified. He hasn’t had time to do any squawking about this yet, but I have my doubts he’s going to take it lying down. Although I have to give his surrogates credit for how brazenly they’re already trying to spin this result as something Ahmadinejad really wanted all alongContinue reading

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: January 11 2017

On the plus side, I finally finished that interview I was transcribing and sent it to my editor. On the minus side, that plus a checkup at the doctor occupied most of my day. I’ll try to get back in some regular order tomorrow.


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Syrian government announced earlier today that it had reached an agreement with rebels in Wadi Barada on letting the government take control of the area so that it could repair and restore the water supply to Damascus. Great news! Until later, when rebels denied the whole thing. Interestingly though, reports from the area do suggest that people are leaving, for some reason.

Peace talks, the ones that have been put in jeopardy in part because of the Wadi Barada fighting, are scheduled to begin January 23 in Astana, Kazakhstan. Turkey, Russia, and Iran will be there, but nobody seems to know who else will be there. Damascus will likely send representatives, but they may not participate in any direct talks with rebel representatives–it’s not even clear that the rebels will send any representatives at this point. Turkey is refusing to consider any Kurdish participation, and in fact is a little miffed that Washington even brought it up. Ankara is hoping that a recent Washington Post report on the Kurdish dominance of the Syrian Democratic Forces has made it clear that the Obama administration is bullshitting everybody when it talks about arming/aiding “only the Arab elements” in the SDF, or at least clear enough that the Trump administration might rethink supporting the SDF altogether.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s operation to take al-Bab from ISIS, despite new promises of stepped-up American involvement, increasingly looks to be going nowhere fast. The Turkish military has had to pour troops into Syria to the point that Turkish soldiers now outnumber Syrian rebel proxies, and the fear at this point is that Ankara, to use the old saw about the Roman Empire, will “make a desert and call it peace.” There are a whole bunch of civilians living in al-Bab who would prefer that the Turks not utterly destroy their city in the process of “liberating” it.



Mosul as of yesterday (Wikimedia | Kami888)

Lieutenant General Talib Shaghati, commander of Iraqi special forces, told the AP yesterday, with caveats, that he thinks Mosul can be liberated within three months. That’s an optimistic take compared to where things were a couple of weeks ago, but it’s backed up by the rapid Iraqi advance through east Mosul since the operation there resumed. Army and elite counter-terror forces are continuing to encircle and prepare to besiege Mosul University, and ISIS has begun bombing bridges over the Tigris itself. Up to this point the bridges have been targeted by coalition airstrikes to prevent ISIS from moving reinforcements from the western side of the city over to the east–now, ISIS is trying to further destroy the bridges so that Iraqi forces can’t rebuild them to use for their eventual operations in the west.

Even though it was mostly destroyed by ISIS some time ago, a bridge over the Khosr River, a Tigris tributary, has become an escape route for Iraqis fleeing west Mosul for government lines in the east. It’s estimated that there could be upwards of 750,000 civilians still in the western side of the city, which means that already overtaxed humanitarian resources are going to be absolutely buried when the offensive moves into that part of the city.


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Conflict update: January 5 2017

World War III

Building on an earlier post, this seems problematic:

Senior officials in the Russian government celebrated Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton as a geopolitical win for Moscow, according to U.S. officials who said that American intelligence agencies intercepted communications in the aftermath of the election in which Russian officials congratulated themselves on the outcome.

The ebullient reaction among high-ranking Russian officials — including some who U.S. officials believe had knowledge of the country’s cyber campaign to interfere in the U.S. election — contributed to the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Moscow’s efforts were aimed at least in part at helping Trump win the White House.

That top Russian officials were happy to see Trump elected doesn’t really prove much of anything, but the fact that this stuff is being leaked to the press suggests that the intelligence community may already be retaliating against Trump. Buckle up.


Benjamin Netanyahu, who may soon need to fall back on his old training as a babysitter if he wants to make ends meet, was questioned again by Israeli fraud police at his home today–this time for five hours. And I thought Monday’s three hour interrogation seemed long. Netanyahu continues to insist that it’s all much ado about nothing, because apparently Israeli police are inclined to spend eight hours questioning the most powerful guy in Israel just for shits and giggles.

In other Israel news, two people have been arrested for threatening violence against the military judges who recently convicted IDF soldier Elor Azaria of manslaughter. Azaria, if you’re unfamiliar with the case, summarily executed an already-incapacitated Palestinian attacker in Hebron in March, then admitted doing so before backing off of that admission at trial and trying to argue, simultaneously, that the man he killed was still a threat and also already dead from his other wounds. Clearly it’s the judges who are the problem here. Azaria’s case has become a cause for right-wing Israeli politicians, including Netanyahu, who would like to see him pardoned mostly because it would be politically popular (Netanyahu, who took a very negative view of Azaria’s actions when they were first reported, has been particularly craven with respect to this case). The power to issue pardons lies with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who may actually be sane enough to understand that you can’t pardon a guy just because he “only” executed a Palestinian, but we’ll see.


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That’s not going to go over well

India and Pakistan in December:

India’s prime minister made a surprise stop Friday in Pakistan to meet his counterpart in a richly symbolic gesture likely to add momentum to a tentative reconciliation process between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif embraced India’s Narendra Modi at the airport in the eastern city of Lahore. They walked from the plane holding hands and smiling broadly. The visit, the first by an Indian prime minister in more than a decade, coincided with Mr. Sharif’s birthday.

“This was a goodwill visit, in which it was decided that both countries will have to examine each other’s concerns, to understand each other’s issues, and open up ways to peace,” said Aizaz Chaudhry, Pakistan’s foreign secretary.

Pakistan this week:

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said on Wednesday that the terms set by India for the Indo-Pak dialogue were “unacceptable” to Pakistan and warned the international community that the world would ignore the dangers of rising tensions in South Asia at its own peril.

Speaking to the annual United Nations General Assembly, Mr Sharif said Pakistan could not ignore India’s “unprecedented” arms build-up and would “take whatever measures are necessary to maintain credible deterrence.”

India, slightly later this week:

On rare days does a speech that is not made by the Prime Minister makes headlines. Today is one such day. This morning, newspapers across the country carried the speech of Eenam Gambhir, the First Secretary in the Permanent Mission of India to the UN, on their front pages.

In sharp remarks, Gambhir exercised India’s Right of Reply during the General Debate of the 71st session UN General Assembly on Wednesday.

Describing the Pakistan PM’s speech as “a long tirade”, Gambhir attacked Pakistan on the topic of sponsorship of terrorism. The words used were less diplomatic, but definitely no less impactful.

“The land of Taxila, one of the greatest learning centres of ancient times, is now host to the Ivy League of terrorism. It attracts aspirants and apprentices from all over the world. The effects of its toxic curriculum are felt across the globe,” she said during her speech.

Needless to say, when you’re talking about two countries that share a long border, lots of historical bad blood, and a commitment to increasing their nuclear stockpiles, you’d prefer to see stories like the one from December over the ones that have been coming out of the UNGA this week. Let’s just say it’s unlikely that Modi will be helping Sharif celebrate his birthday this year. Continue reading

Another country heard from

One very interesting sidelight to the tragic death-by-drone (well, alleged death, there’s never a 100% certainty in these kinds of cases) of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour over the weekend involves Pakistan. Mansour was killed in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, see, and along with Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar that makes three pretty serious enemies of the US and the Afghan government who all just coincidentally happened to be making themselves at home on Pakistani soil when they finally met their maker. Baluchistan has long been welcoming to the Taliban–the group’s governing council is called the Quetta Shura because it meets in the city of Quetta, which is in Baluchistan–but this is the first time anybody can seem to find that a US drone strike took place there, rather than in Afghanistan or in the largely uncontrolled Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) of Pakistan. Pakistani authorities have sort of turned a blind eye to US drone strikes in the FATA because many of the groups operating there are as much a problem for Islamabad as for anybody else, but they’ve always refused permission for the US to expand its targets into Baluchistan. Which explains why the US only informed Islamabad of the Mansour strike after it had been carried out.

Washington is defending its decision to bomb a Pakistani city without Pakistan’s permission (which, let’s be honest, is an act of war by almost any definition of the term) by arguing that Mansour was in the process of planning strikes against American targets in Kabul–so, self-defense. Islamabad has complained of the violation of its sovereignty, but notably it hasn’t complained very much, because at the end of the day the Pakistanis would like to maintain good relations with the US even if it means accommodating a drone strike every now and then. But the message to the Pakistanis seems pretty clear–the US is tired of Islamabad and its intelligence services harboring terrorist groups bent on attacking Americans and destabilizing Afghanistan. The Afghan government similarly seems to have reached its limit on that score. Mansour was a Pakistani client through and through (and if you want more intrigue, his suspiciously undamaged alleged passport was found at the scene of the strike supposedly bearing a recent visa from Iran, which may indicate that he’d recently been to Iran, perhaps to coordinate on fighting ISIS in Afghanistan), though it’s speculated that his unwillingness (or inability) to advance the ball on peace talks had put him on the outs with his Pakistani handlers. There’s enough uncertainty in this regard to support at least the theory that Pakistan, despite its public complaints and Washington’s insistence that it acted without informing Islamabad first, may actually have known about and privately gone along with the strike.

Does the Mansour strike auger more US strikes against Taliban targets in other parts of Pakistan outside the FATA? I guess it’s possible, although I doubt Washington wants to embarrass Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif much more than it already has, at least for now. But the strike probably does put Sharif on notice to stop allowing Pakistan to be used as a safe haven by the Afghan Taliban, or else more drone strikes like this one will be forthcoming.