Conflict update: April 27 2017

SYRIA

The cause of the explosion that happened at Damascus International Airport this morning has (more or less) been revealed:

An Israeli minister has appeared to confirm that Israel struck a Hezbollah arms supply hub in Syria on Thursday close to the airport in Damascus where weapons from Tehran are regularly sent by commercial and military cargo planes.

Israel’s intelligence minister, Yisrael Katz, strongly suggested that Israel – which has launched a number of raids against Hezbollah in Syria but usually stops short of claiming them – was behind the military action.

“I can confirm that the incident in Syria completely conforms to Israel’s policy, [which is] to act so as to prevent the smuggling of advanced weapons from Syriato Hezbollah in Lebanon by Iran,” he told Army Radio.

“When we receive intelligence that points to the intention to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah, we will act. This incident conforms completely to that policy.”

The Israeli strike doesn’t seem to have caused any casualties–at least, none have been reported as far as I have seen. In response, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accused Israel of “aiding terrorists” or something, as you’ll do, and his military may have launched some kind of drone in Israel’s direction–at any rate, an Israeli Patriot missile battery shot something down later in the day. I assume Assad would prefer the Israelis get with the program and start helping him bomb Syrian hospitals–you know, something constructive.

Meanwhile, at the UN Security Council, US Ambassador Nikki Haley called for members to “pressure” Russia to make Assad bring the civil war to an end, and accused Moscow of “allow[ing the Syrian government] to keep humanitarian aid from the people that need it.” She’s not wrong, and it’s trite to point out when the US government is being flagrantly hypocritical, but call me when somebody from the Trump administration gives the “keeping humanitarian aid from the people that need it” talk to Saudi Arabia over Yemen. Then I’ll know they’re actually serious about humanitarian aid and the people who need it, and aren’t just trying to score points.

IRAQ

Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units, having withdrawn from the Tal Afar area to move west and close off ISIS escape routes into Syria, are positively sweeping through the border area. They’ve reportedly captured at least a dozen villages near the border, including Hatra, and are continuing their work. Part of the reason they’re able to move so quickly is that this operation is a bit like closing the barn door after the horses have already escaped and gotten three states away–ISIS fighters who are in Mosul now are there by choice and would have a difficult time getting out even if they made the attempt, and ISIS isn’t in much of a position to send help from Syria into Iraq. Still, this is at least something for the PMUs to do, since Baghdad (and Turkey too) won’t let them enter Mosul or Tal Afar.

Concerns that the screening process for people (adult men, in particular) leaving Mosul is sweeping up innocent civilians amid the search for ISIS fighters are well-founded but might be a bit overblown. As Patrick Wing points out, Human Rights Watch says that about 1200 people have been arrested at the Hamam al-Alil checkpoint, which is only 0.4% (Wing’s math is wrong) of the estimated 300,000 people who have gone through that checkpoint. That’s a pretty small number, and its gets smaller when you consider that only 700 of the 1200 have then been sent on to trial.

Freelance journalist Sam Kimball writes for Foreign Policy about the impact of American airstrikes on the people of Mosul and, go figure, it’s not a very pretty pictureContinue reading

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 20 2017

FRANCE

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.

IRAN

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
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Via PressTV.com

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 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.

THE TRUMP DOCTRINE

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).

SYRIA

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Conflict update: April 8-9 2017

First a note to readers: I’m probably going to take a few days off from writing about current events, unless something major happens while I’m away. Everybody needs a break here and there and I sense I’m approaching that point right now. Plus it’s my daughter’s spring break week so she’ll be home from school, and that just makes it a good time to take a little vacation. I should be back to regular posting by next Sunday evening, though I’m not ruling out writing one or two of these during this next week if the motivation hits.

EGYPT

At least 47 people were killed today in bombings targeting Coptic Christian Palm Sunday services in the cities of Alexandria and Tanta (north of Cairo). ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, which reflect two shifts it’s made recently in its tactics in Egypt: first, it’s expanded its war against the Egyptian state beyond Sinai, and second, it’s now making a conscious decision to target the Copts.

They’ve decided to target Christians first because this is just something ISIS does, ideologically, but probably also because this is hitting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi where he lives. You know how Sisi is every DC Republican’s favorite Muslim, especially President Trump’s, despite the fact that he’s run up a substantial body count during his time in power? Partly that’s because Sisi has spoken out against violent Islamic extremism, but it’s also because, when he took power from Egypt’s elected Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, Sisi cast himself in part as the protector of Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who had felt like they were at risk under Mohammed Morsi’s government. Demonstrating that Sisi isn’t protecting–or can’t protect–the Copts undermines part of his overall legitimacy. It also forces him to take actions that could lead to more repression and thus make life easier for ISIS in Egypt, and in that vein Sisi declared a three month state of emergency following the bombings.

SYRIA

OK, first of all let’s run through some news not related to last week’s US missile strike, because amazingly the war has continued despite the fact that America Did Something:  Continue reading

Conflict (i.e., Syria) update: April 6 2017

SYRIA

Welp. I wrote a fair amount of stuff about the Khan Shaykhun incident this afternoon, some of which I’m going to leave in below even though it might not make complete sense anymore after this evening’s developments (I’ve tried to rewrite it but if anything seems incongruous then understand that it’s because I originally wrote it earlier in the day). If you’ve been in a sensory deprivation tank all evening, here’s what happened:

The United States carried out a missile attack in Syria on Thursday night in response to the Syrian government’s chemical weapons attack this week that killed more than 80 civilians, American officials said.

Dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired at an air base in Syria, military officials said. They said the strike occurred at about 8:45 p.m. Eastern Time, that the target was the Shayrat airfield and that the strike had hit planes, fuel, spare parts and the runway.

According to one military official, 50 Tomahawks were launched from two Navy warships.

The actual missile count is unknown, at least one account I’ve seen puts the number around 70. MSNBC is saying 59. Marked in the map below is the town of Shayrat (via Google Maps), just east of the air base:

shayrat

Shayrat is a fairly, though not critically, important air base for Bashar al-Assad, and it’s the one from which the airstrikes on Tuesday were launched. It’s also been used by Iranian/Iranian-aligned forces in the area, so that’s another potential wrinkle here. It’s too early for a damage assessment, but disabling this base will impact the Syrian air force’s ability to make strikes in the Homs/Hama area, though it will not be a massive hindrance to Assad’s air campaign against rebels/civilians/whomever. Really, depending on what the damage assessment says, this strike may really not have been much of anything.

If this is where it ends, then it’s a fairly contained response to Tuesday’s incident (the administration was reportedly considering much more substantial options). There haven’t even been any reports of casualties that I’ve seen, which if it holds up would be fairly remarkable though there are certainly a lot of targets on an air base that wouldn’t normally have many or any people nearby. The problem is that we have no idea if this is where it will actually end. Rex Tillerson spent much of the day talking about forming a coalition to remove Assad from power, which is obviously a much different mission. It’s quite possible that there were Russian personnel at Shayrat–US officials say they warned Russia before the attack, but who knows how much lead time they were given or if they were able to get their people (assuming they had people there) off the base before it was hit. If there are Russian casualties here then that’s a very different situation as well (if there aren’t, then Russia probably has very little recourse to respond to this).

Here’s something else to consider: a week ago Donald Trump and his administration were essentially saying that Assad wasn’t their problem, they didn’t like him but they could live with him, etc. Now we may be leading a new charge to oust him, all because of one airstrike that was horrifying but, let’s be honest, no more horrifying than most anything else that’s gone on in the Syrian civil war and not as deadly as the strike we made in Mosul on March 17. It’s very possible that Donald Trump completely flipped his Syria policy a full 180 degrees because he watched some disturbing video on television. Whatever you believe the merits of this strike to be, it has to be worrying that we’re now led by a man whose policies are subject to wildly inconsistent swings based on his immediate emotional response to events. What happens if Trump wakes up tomorrow and doesn’t feel like he got justice? What happens if Assad now says “hey, fuck you pal,” and launches another chemical strike? What happens if Trump’s newfound passion for Syrian babies, the same ones he’s tried twice to ban from coming to the United States, now begins to extend to all the ones being killed by Assad’s–and Russia’s–conventional weapons? Or the ones who are being starved to death–by Assad, by the rebels, and by ISIS? What happens if Assad threatens an American aircraft conducting an anti-ISIS operation? Some of these scenarios are admittedly unlikely, but in general can you be sure that a president this mercurial will be satisfied with this one strike?

Something that should additionally be concerning is that there is very little about the last half-century in American foreign policy that should reassure anybody that this country is capable of carrying out a single action, in a place in which we are already heavily engaged, without further escalating and expanding our activities. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya should all be cautionary tales right now.

It’s possible, of course, that this strike was negotiated in advance in some backroom between Washington and Moscow, a way to make Trump look good without doing much damage to Syrian and/or Russian interests. You may see speculation to that effect on your TV or social media this evening, tomorrow, or beyond (I have, anyway). Remember that this kind of talk is speculation.

Earlier this evening the UN Security Council debated a resolution over Tuesday’s incident, but a vote was cancelled after “heated” debate between the US and Russian delegations. During the debate the Russians reportedly “warned” the US against military action. The vote cancellation may have been the final straw in the Trump administration’s determination to act unilaterally tonight.

Finally, there are already questions about the legality of these strikes. Lawfare’s John Bellinger has an early look at this issue. There’s no UN resolution to give this attack the cover of international law and there’s been no Congressional authorization to use force against the Syrian government, so it seems like the Trump administration will be relying on some elastic interpretations of the president’s war powers and international law. Expect to hear the term “vital national security interest” a lot.

OK, below is the stuff I wrote earlier today along with the rest of today’s roundup. Feel free to read or not. That’s always true, of course, but I realize particularly tonight that everything else has kind of been washed out.

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Conflict update: April 5 2017

SYRIA

I’ve already written most of what I had to write about Syria today, but there are a couple of additional updates. Well, one, really. President Trump spoke in public, which seems inadvisable but I guess you make do with the president you have, and anyway after we spent last week (and, off and on, many weeks before that) talking about how Bashar al-Assad is actually not so bad and, look, we’re not joining his fan club or anything but he seems like somebody we could live with, we’re probably going to war with him. Of course we’re not, because today’s policy is subject to change depending on how much sleep the president gets and whatever they talk about on “Fox & Friends” tomorrow morning, but for now that may be where we’re at. Speaking of which, did you hear Susan Rice probably committed a crime? I think they said so on InfoWars or whatever.

Also, for what it’s worth, that Steve Bannon news from earlier today? Laura Rozen, who’s as good a national security reporter as there is in my opinion, says it may have happened because Bannon was one of the louder pro-Assad voices on the NSC.

IRAQ

Not much to report from Mosul today, but the city of Tikrit was rocked by a significant ISIS attack overnight, involving suicide bombers and at least ten militants disguised as police officers. Over 30 people were killed in the engagement.

TURKEY

The House Foreign Affairs Committee inexplicably decided to hold a hearing today at which members took turns criticizing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and offering their hopes that his desired constitutional changes would be defeated in the April 16 referendum. I can only assume Erdoğan is going to incorporate their remarks into his stump speech ASAP.

YEMEN

The United Nations made a last ditch effort to convince the warring parties here to steer clear of Hudaydah and its port for humanitarian reasons. It won’t work. Hudaydah is on the Saudi hit list and it’s not coming off until they’ve taken it and (probably) its actual port facilities are mostly destroyed.

JORDAN

Though his White House visit was completely overshadowed by the Syrian news, Jordan’s King Abdullah did take the opportunity to blow smoke up President Trump’s ass on Israel-Palestine, the better to try to sell him on the Arab League’s deader-than-disco peace deal.

IRAN

Tehran mayor and erstwhile presidential hopeful Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf has reportedly withdrawn from consideration for the upcoming election, possibly in anger that the principlist Popular Front of Revolutionary Forces (JAMNA) coalition hasn’t lined up behind his candidacy (which, since he lost in 2013 to Hassan Rouhani by a pretty sizable margin, isn’t really that surprising). There are rumors that Ghalibaf has cut a deal with Mashhad shrine head Ebrahim Raisi to serve as Raisi’s vice president should the occasion arise–but Raisi himself hasn’t even decided if he’s running, and he seems put out by JAMNA’s unwillingness to coalesce behind him.

PAKISTAN

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