Conflict update: April 24 2017

SYRIA

Bashar al-Assad’s next big target in Syria is retaking Idlib province, into which he and Moscow have cleverly funneled most of the northern rebel forces and a disturbing number of displaced civilians. The Century Foundation’s Sam Heller makes a reasonable suggestion as to what role the West should play when the Idlib fight begins in earnest:

Some have recently argued the United States and its allies should backstop Idlib’s rebels more or less indefinitely, both to defend civilians from the Assad regime and to maintain some non-extremist alternative. These proposals are untenable — unmoored from strategic logic and disconnected from the reality of Idlib’s rebellion, which is by now dominated by jihadists. The West should not sustain a jihadist-led section of the Syrian rebellion in perpetuity, to no obvious end and against a backdrop of ongoing, senseless civilian death. Instead, America and its Western allies ought to be ensuring that, when armed conflagration engulfs the northwest, civilians can get to safety.

As he’s killing civilians in Idlib, Assad will argue that they’re not really civilians–Idlib is controlled by jihadists, he’ll say, and these people are willingly living under their control. Ergo, they are irredeemable. But there are families who are in Idlib simply because that’s their home. There are other families who have migrated to Idlib to escape airstrikes elsewhere, to escape forced government conscription, or because that’s where Assad’s buses took them when they were forcibly evicted from places like Aleppo and Homs. The problem, as Heller points out, is that protecting their lives means giving them a way out of Idlib. And that means Western countries may have to pay Turkey to accept more refugees, or pay the Kurds controlling northwestern Syria to let more displaced Arabs into their enclave. We might have to do something to help real Syrians, whose desperation we find so compelling when we’re lobbing missiles in its general direction but whose actual well-being has never been a real consideration for us.

The US Treasury Department today slapped sanctions on 271 employees of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center, who the US government says are intimately involved in Assad’s chemical weapons program.

IRAQ

An overnight ISIS ambush of a convoy in western Anbar province, near the town of Rutbah, killed ten off duty Iraqi soldiers. Rutbah, you may recall, was briefly seized and held by ISIS back in October.

There’s nothing particularly new to report from Mosul as far as I can tell. But there has been a rhetorical back-and-forth over the past few days between leaders of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that bears watching. In an interview with Al Jazeera last week, Erdoğan referred to the PMUs (using their Arabic name, al-Hashd al-Shaabi) as “a terrorist organization” and an agent of Iranian “expansion.” Over the weekend, a PMU spokesperson demanded to know “Who has given Erdogan the right to intervene in Iraq’s internal affairs?” and argued that Iran’s policy toward Iraq has been “transparent” in that Tehran has been trying to help Iraq fight off ISIS–this is a not-so-veiled allusion to the fact that Erdoğan and his government were believed to have at least tacitly colluded with ISIS back in, for example, 2014.

TURKEY

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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.

SYRIA

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: April 4 2017

SYRIA

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 58 people (one estimate puts the toll over 100) were killed today in what certainly seems to have been a chemical weapons attack on the town of the town of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib province. Doctors treating the victims described people suffocating, vomiting, foaming at the mouth–all symptoms consistent with some kind of chemical agent. The strikes also reportedly targeted the town’s Syrian Civil Defense office, and, later on, a clinic where some of the victims of the initial attack had been taken for treatment.

khan shaykhun

Khan Shaykhun (Google Maps)

There’s been an immediate consensus among Western governments and media outlets that the Syrian government deliberately used chemical weapons again, and the UN Security Council is scheduled to meet tomorrow to discuss the incident. And that’s most likely what happened. But some pro-government media outlets have been reporting that what actually happened was that government airstrikes hit a rebel weapons depot that contained chemical weapons, and that the explosions distributed the gas into the air and thus on to the victims. In the interest of being completely fair, this scenario is not entirely outside the realm of possibility–al-Qaeda, at least, probably does have some chemical weapons taken from government caches, including sarin (which, based especially on the “foaming at the mouth” description, seems like it may have been the gas in question here), and al-Qaeda–or whatever it’s calling itself this week–is active in Idlib and, as far as I know, specifically in the area around Khan Shaykhun. But if you were going to presume a cause here, then intentional government use is certainly the more likely one.

President Trump is, unsurprisingly, blaming Barack Obama for this apparent CW attack, reasoning that Obama should have taken Assad out after the Ghouta chemical weapons attack in 2013. This is an…interesting link for Trump to push, because…wait for it:

Also too, the administration isn’t actually going to do anything about this attack, despite the pressure they’re getting from Congress, because there’s nothing for them to do. They can’t attack Assad because he’s under Russian protection. They can’t start sending heavy weapons to the Free Syrian Army without seriously risking those weapons becoming al-Qaeda property. They can’t ram a sternly worded resolution through the UN Security Council, because Russia will veto it. They probably can’t even order Assad to destroy all his chemical weapons but for reals this time, because Assad’s probably not going to admit to having any chemical weapons anymore despite this new evidence to the contrary. One small thing Trump could do is to stop periodically kissing Assad’s ass in public, but he’s likely too undisciplined/addled to even manage that.

Elsewhere, Reuters reported today on the risks people are taking to try to escape Raqqa before the expected US-coordinated assault comes. ISIS is trying to keep people in the city to act as human shields, so escaping is a dicey proposition.

RUSSIA

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Conflict update: April 1-2 2017

EGYPT

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is in Washington right now, preparing for his big meeting tomorrow with fellow authoritarian personality Donald Trump. Because I did a TV spot for Alhurra about this earlier today and it’s therefore fresh in my brain, here are a few things they might get to talking about tomorrow. These are in no particular order, but the items toward the top of the list are likelier to be addressed than the items toward the bottom.

  1. The bilateral US-Egypt relationship. The Obama administration didn’t have a great relationship with Sisi–they never, for example, brought him to the White House. Something about his penchant for massacring protesters and throwing tens of thousands of political opponents in prison rubbed them the wrong way, I guess. Such things are unlikely to infringe on the Trump-Sisi relationship, which is already much better than the Obama-Sisi relationship ever was (Sisi was the first world leader, for example, to call Trump to congratulate him after the election). Trump cares about stability, or at least the appearance of stability, and Sisi offers that, and they have several things in common, like narcissistic personality disorder their faux right-wing populism and their militancy when it comes to any kind of Islamist movement (even the quietist ones).
  2. Sisi’s public image. In a sense this isn’t even an agenda item. The White House invitation alone was enough to give Sisi something to crow about. He may want to be careful, though, about appearing too chummy and/or deferential to Trump, who isn’t even popular here let alone in Egypt.
  3. Egypt’s foreign aid. Sisi will want to make sure that US aid to Egypt isn’t going to get cut amid the Trump administration’s push to cut all foreign aid, and he’ll probably be successful in that regard. He also would very much like the Trump administration to drop the human rights restrictions currently in place with respect to Egyptian aid. Right now, in order to deliver that aid the administration has to either certify to Congress that Egypt is making improvement in its human rights performance, or request a national security waiver to allow the aid to be delivered anyway. Sisi doesn’t like having to depend on the waiver and takes it as an insult, which he should because fuck him, so he’ll probably see if Trump can help get rid of the whole issue. As much as Trump might like to help him out, though, removing those restrictions altogether is something Congress would have to do, and I don’t think there’s enough support in Congress to make that happen.
  4. Counter-terrorism. I expect they’ll talk about ways that the US could increase its support for Egypt’s counter-terrorism activities in Sinai and elsewhere, while never once broaching the fact that Sisi’s violently repressive authoritarianism is probably the biggest cause of extremist violence in Egypt today. Sisi will probably push Trump to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, something I’ve noted would be a really bad idea and an idea that Trump’s advisers thankfully seem to have tabled for now.
  5. Israel-Palestine. From the US perspective, you can’t talk about Sinai without talking about the potential for ISIS’s affiliate there to establish a foothold in Gaza. From Sisi’s perspective, he would like to present a pro-Palestinian message to Trump that keeps the administration from taking drastic pro-Israel actions like moving the US embassy to Jerusalem or withdrawing support for the two-state fiction solution. Trump is also hosting King Abdullah of Jordan and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas this week and they’re probably going to want to hammer him on this over and over again.
  6. Syria. Trump and Sisi are both Assad-curious, but Sisi has been constrained by his Saudi ties not to get too close to Assad, and Trump…well, who knows, really. There’s actual bat shit that’s less batshit than this guy. But they’ll inevitably talk about ways to bring Syria toward a political settlement, for all the good that will do them.
  7. Libya. Egypt shares a very long border with Libya, and so instability there is inevitably a problem for Cairo. Sisi has an affinity for Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar (they’re practically clones) and I suspect he’ll lobby Trump to switch Washington’s support to Haftar. But Haftar is so deep in bed with Russia now that for Trump to support him openly would mean aligning US and Russian foreign policy at a time when, in case you haven’t noticed, Trump needs to distance himself from Moscow.
  8. Yemen. Similarly, I suspect Trump will play messenger for Riyadh and try to get Sisi to get more deeply involved in the Saudi campaign to exterminate Yemen reinstall Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi in Sanaa. Egypt is technically part of that coalition but hasn’t contributed heavily to it because, you know, it doesn’t really serve any Egyptian interests. This has been one of the causes of the recent discord in the Saudi-Egyptian relationship. I have doubts that Trump will be an effective salesman here.
  9. Iran. Building out of the Yemen coalition is this Saudi idea for creating a pan-Sunni army that will ostensibly go after extremists but in reality is meant to contain Iran. Egypt is supposed to be part of this project as well, but given its tepid involvement in Yemen and the fact that Sisi has tried to cultivate friendly relations with Tehran, it’s reasonable to conclude that Cairo probably doesn’t want to really be involved in this either.
  10. Human rights in Egypt. HA HA HA I’m just screwing with you. Despite White House talk to the contrary (they say they’ll discuss it in a “discreet” way, LOL), I doubt they’ll bring this up except maybe as a morbid joke. The two possible exceptions may be the case of imprisoned Egyptian-American Aya Hijazi and the protection of Egypt’s Coptic Christian community.

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Conflict update: March 30-31 2017

Skipping yesterday was probably a bad idea. There’s plenty here for a two-parter, so as I’ve done before I’m going to put all the Middle Eastern stuff in a separate post.

320 MILLION FOOLS AND OUR MONEY

The F-35 is the most expensive weapon (well, it’s intended to be a weapon, anyway) ever manufactured, with an estimated total cost upwards of $1.5 trillion over the next half-century. For that expense, much of which has already been paid–and could have been put toward healthcare, schools, aid to the poorest of the poor, repairing infrastructure, improving cyber defenses, or any of countless other things that are more important than the F-35–what we’ve purchased is an aircraft that is supposed to do a lot of different things and in reality is terrible at almost all of them:

The F-35 still has a long way to go before it will be ready for combat. That was the parting message of Michael Gilmore, the now-retired Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, in his last annual report.

The Joint Strike Fighter Program has already consumed more than $100 billion and nearly 25 years. Just to finish the basic development phase will require at least an extra $1 billion and two more years. Even with this massive investment of time and money, Gilmore told Congress, the Pentagon and the public, “the operational suitability of all variants continues to be less than desired by the Services.”

Gilmore detailed a range of remaining and sometimes worsening problems with the program, including hundreds of critical performance deficiencies and maintenance problems. He also raised serious questions about whether the Air Force’s F-35A can succeed in either air-to-air or air-to-ground missions, whether the Marine Corps’ F-35B can conduct even rudimentary close air support, and whether the Navy’s F-35C is suitable to operate from aircraft carriers.

He found, in fact, that “if used in combat, the F-35 aircraft will need support to locate and avoid modern threat ground radars, acquire targets, and engage formations of enemy fighter aircraft due to unresolved performance deficiencies and limited weapons carriage availability.”

On the plus side, it doesn’t suffocate its pilots anymore. Probably.

The F-35, to me, is the sign that we Americans are never going to actually stand up and take action to put our government back in its place. This is a weapon whose value would be questionable if it worked, but it doesn’t even work, at all, and yet we’re shoveling hundreds of billions of dollars at Lockheed-Martin to keep making it. Why? Because Lockheed-Martin knows what levers to pull in Washington. This is money literally being stolen from the vast majority of us and handed to a defense contractor in exchange for something that doesn’t work and most likely never will work because its very design is flawed. If $1.5 trillion flushed down the toilet–while our government tells people who can’t afford health insurance and children who don’t get enough to eat to go fuck themselves–isn’t enough to enrage us, then nothing ever will be.

FLYNN’S IMMUNITY

Michael Flynn, who may be nibbling on a block of Gouda right now for all I know, says he’s ready to rat out Donald Trump testify about Russiaghazigate to Congress but he wants immunity from prosecution beforehand. This suggests that he knows he did something illegal, and the reason I say that is because in 2016 one Michael Flynn told me that anybody who gets immunity probably committed a crime. Unfortunately for Flynn, he’s apparently been shopping this immunity deal around–to the FBI, for example–and so far nobody wants to take him up on it, including (at this point) the Senate. That suggests, and I’m sorry to be Debbie Downer for the Trump-to-Leavenworth folks, that Flynn isn’t really offering anything that investigators want badly enough to forego the chance to prosecute him.

GOOD FOR THE GOOSE

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Coming soon to a tree stump or water stain near you…

…it’s the Hugo Chavez apparition!

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said an image of his political idol and predecessor, the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, had appeared miraculously in the wall of an underground construction site.

Since his death from cancer earlier this year, Chavez has taken on mythical proportions for supporters, and Mr Maduro has spoken of seeing his former mentor’s spirit several times, including in the shape of a bird.

In the latest incident, Mr Maduro said Chavez’s face briefly appeared to workers building a subway line in Caracas in the middle of the night.

“My hair stands on end just telling you about it,” Mr Maduro said on state TV late, showing a photo of a white-plaster wall with marks that appear like eyes and a nose.

This seems perfectly normal to me.

Oh yeah, that's him for sure. Same flaky nose, same, um, cracked and peeling eyes?

Oh yeah, that’s him for sure. Same flaky nose, same, um, cracked and peeling eyes?