Conflict update: April 10-14 2017

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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Conflict update: February 23 2017


I think somebody needs to brief Dumbo again:

“I am the first one that would like to see … nobody have nukes, but we’re never going to fall behind any country even if it’s a friendly country, we’re never going to fall behind on nuclear power.

“It would be wonderful, a dream would be that no country would have nukes, but if countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack,” Trump said.

Russia has 7,300 warheads and the United States, 6,970, according to the Ploughshares Fund, an anti-nuclear group.

“The history of the Cold War shows us that no one comes out ‘on the top of the pack’ of an arms race and nuclear brinkmanship,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the independent Arms Control Association non-profit group.

“Russia and the United States have far more weapons than is necessary to deter nuclear attack by the other or by another nuclear-armed country,’ he said.


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Conflict update: February 22 2017


Yesterday Reuters reported that a week before Mike Pence spoke at the Munich Security Conference and assured all those in attendance that Donald Trump is totally in to Europe and, like, when he keeps giving Europeans swirlies in the White House bathroom that’s just because he doesn’t want them to know that he like-likes them, Steve Bannon met with the German ambassador to the US and told him that, actually, Trump (i.e., Bannon) really, genuinely hates the European Union. Which, I mean, of course he does. Mike Pence and James Mattis and Rex Tillerson can make as many apology trips to Europe as they want, but Trump/Bannon see the EU as the enemy of the right-wing white nationalist xenophobia that is their core ideology. Former Obama Deputy National Security Advisor Colin Kahl offered his take on Twitter last night:


The UN Food and Agriculture Organization issued a report today that says, among other things, that “planetary boundaries may well be surpassed, if current trends continue,” or, in other words, if the human population keeps growing at its current rate and we don’t figure out how to live more sustainably, humanity will no longer be able to feed itself by the middle of the century. In some ways we already can’t feed ourselves, as the UN also made clear today when it announced that it needs $4.4 billion by the end of March in order to stave off mass starvation in parts of Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen. But those are man-made shortages caused by war. What the FAO is saying is that we may be pushing the planet’s capacity to feed us to its natural limit.

On the plus side, if humanity lasts long enough to master interstellar travel, maybe our descendants will have the chance to thoroughly trash a few of these planets the way we got to trash Earth. Fingers crossed!



Yemen as of February 12: red = government, green = rebel, white = al-Qaeda (Wikimedia | Ali Zifan)

I missed this over the weekend (shame on me), but Huffington Post’s Jessica Schulberg and Ryan Grim reported on a possible policy change within the Trump administration that may have contributed to the Saudi-Hadi coalition’s recent moves against Yemen’s Red Sea ports of Mokha and Hudaydah. The Obama administration, to the extent that it had any willingness or ability to shape the Saudi mission in Yemen, kept insisting that their forces should leave the country’s Red Sea ports (particularly Hudaydah) alone, since they were the main conduit by which humanitarian aid was being brought into the country. But aid is now being diverted to Aden, on the Gulf of Aden, instead, and Hudaydah looks like it’s going to be the coalition’s next major target. Aden is a smaller port than Hudaydah and doesn’t allow easy access to the parts of Yemen where starvation is an imminent threat (the parts regularly being bombed by the Saudis, coincidentally), so if it has to become the new main port for humanitarian aid, a lot of people are going to suffer the consequences.

Schulberg and Grim don’t prove that the Trump administration has given the Saudis the green light to go after Hudaydah, but the fact that the Saudis suddenly started attacking Yemen’s Red Sea ports after Trump took office is conspicuous. Also conspicuous is the role that UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba, whose nation is part of the Saudi-led coalition, is playing with respect to the Trump administration. He’s described as a “mentor” to Trump’s son in-law, Jared Kushner, who parlayed his father in-law’s election experience running a minor right-wing newspaper into a gig as what’s been referred to as the “shadow Secretary of State” in the Trump White House.

There’s an argument to be made that giving the Saudis the OK to attack Hudaydah is actually the merciful thing to do because it could bring the war to a quicker end. But while it might well bring the war to a quicker end, the consensus of the humanitarian types who were interviewed by Schulberg and Grim seems to be that it’s not worth the tradeoff in lost aid. The war might end faster, but the amount of starvation caused by the loss of Hudaydah could be so immediate and so acute that even more people will die as a result.


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Conflict update: February 12 2017

We’re in the middle of a windstorm and I keep losing power, so I’m going to have to call it a night with a lot of stuff still left to cover. I’ll be back tomorrow though. The storm blew through and I decided to stay up late to cram everything in here. You’re welcome, or I’m sorry, depending on your perspective.

Michael Flynn

I may have something more to say about this story later this week, especially if something else breaks, but let’s at least note that Donald Trump’s favorite and most unhinged general could be out of a job soon. On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn spent the month or so before Donald Trump’s inauguration talking with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about potentially easing or lifting US sanctions against Russian individuals and/or institutions. This is…well, I realize that nobody has ever been convicted under the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from conducting their own foreign policy, and Flynn won’t be the first. But this is a pretty blatant violation. It’s one thing for personnel in an incoming administration to take meetings with personnel of other governments in order to exchange pleasantries, get to know one another, and even discuss some major areas of policy. It’s something else for the personnel of an incoming administration to directly undermine the foreign policy of the current, albeit lame duck, administration.

Not that anybody in the Trump administration would care, but this report makes a liar out of Flynn and Vice President Mike Pence, who both denied that any such conversations took place. And of course the administration should be hyper-sensitive to any new stories suggesting an inappropriate relationship between it and Russia. It is possible, then, that Flynn could be jettisoned in some kind of face-saving maneuver. Even before this story broke there were rumblings about Flynn losing influence in Trump’s inner circle, and now that it has broken the White House seems pointedly unwilling to rush to his defense. Trump’s CIA just reportedly refused to issue a security clearance to one of Flynn’s National Security Council appointees, which seems like kind of a bad sign too. Other than Trump, I’m not sure what kind of support network Flynn has within the administration–Defense Secretary James Mattis reportedly isn’t a fan, and apparently neither is new CIA Director Mike Pompeo. So it could just be a matter of convincing Trump that Flynn has really brought shame upon the administration (and, well, he does stand out even among this collection of thieves, sociopaths, and grifters) to usher him out the door.


The Syrian rebel High Negotiation Committee has chosen a delegation to attend the next round of UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva on February 20. Interestingly, the HNC, which is based in Saudi Arabia, has opted to include representatives from two other Syrian exile groups–one based in Cairo and the other in Moscow–in its delegation. It does not, of course, plan to include any representatives from the two insurgent groups doing most of the actual fighting against the Syrian government (Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham), which as usual leads one to wonder how useful these talks can possibly be.

In the fight against ISIS, Turkish forces and their rebel clients have apparently entered the city of al-Bab. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan says that after they take al-Bab, his forces will continue right on to Raqqa–which, of course, isn’t going to sit well with anybody. It’s not going to sit well with the Syrian army, which is advancing on al-Bab from the south and nearly engaged in a full-on battle with those Turkish forces last week only to be talked down by Moscow. Next time Russia may not be able to play mediator. It’s also not going to sit well with the Kurdish YPG, which is expected, per the British government, to have isolated Raqqa by sometime this spring. Turkey’s interest in taking Raqqa is much less about defeating ISIS than about making sure the YPG doesn’t take it.

Speaking of the Kurds, since I highlighted Roy Gutman’s anti-YPG piece last week, I want also to highlight Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi’s response. Tamimi has some of the same issues I had with Gutman’s piece, specifically that he relies on potentially biased sourcing and draws inflammatory conclusions without much evidence to support them, but he goes into more detail and has some things to say about Gutman’s work more generally: Continue reading

Conflict update: February 2 2017


Reuters is reporting that the Trump administration will impose new sanctions on several Iranian entities, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Whatever their rhetoric about the nuclear deal, it’s clear that Trump’s people have come into office looking for an excuse to take an action like this, to quickly get back to the days when confrontation was the defining feature of the US-Iran relationship. The Iranians gave them an excuse when they tested a new ballistic missile over the weekend, and so here we are. I should have more to say on this move, and the overall policy toward Iran and the nuclear deal that it heralds, at LobeLog, possibly tomorrow.


The Syrian army continues to advance on al-Bab, and sources in the military say they are ready to fight Turkish forces and their allied Free Syrian Army rebels once they get there, if necessary. Government forces also made some headway against ISIS today west of Palmyra and around the al-Seen airbase, north of Damascus. Speaking of al-Bab, the Turkish military says its airstrikes have killed 51 ISIS fighters in the city over the past day or so.

The big Syria-related story today is that the Trump administration has apparently, per the Washington Post, decided to scrap the Obama administration’s SDF/YPG-centric plan for taking Raqqa from ISIS. Trump’s national security people are saying that the plan had huge holes in it, particularly around the issue of appeasing Turkey (which manifestly opposes the idea of the YPG entering Raqqa). I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt that whatever plan the Obama administration left its successor had some deep problems–if Obama’s people had been able to figure out a good way to attack Raqqa, they would’ve implemented it–but by the same token, if Trump is looking for a quick, big victory against ISIS, it’s hard to imagine how he gets one without relying heavily on the YPG. There’s simply no other force in the Raqqa area–no vetted Arab army, no Turkish forces, no Syrian army forces–that can hope to take ISIS on without a whole lot of support and a whole lot of time to prepare.


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Welcome to 2017: getting on with it

It’s the last day of January and I swore I wasn’t going to keep writing these “new year” pieces past the end of the month. The thing is, between family situations, deadlines, and–to be completely honest–a low grade case of burnout, I just haven’t been as prolific as I thought I would be. So to sum up the new year, and in what I readily admit is a cheat, here are a few things to watch for the next 11 months.


If you believe that Russia rigged last fall’s election to put Donald Trump in office, then you already know that Moscow is expecting big things in the coming year. If, like me, you’re a skeptic who is inclined to think that something fishy went down but would like to see more evidence, then…well, you should still probably know that Moscow is expecting big things, because their optimism isn’t just about the new president. But expectations have a way of leading to disappointment, and at the moment Russia is staring a pretty big one right in the face.

There’s been little that Vladimir Putin has wanted more than to return Russia to the Great Power table in world affairs, and–whatever else you may think about it–his decision to intervene in Syria has done just that. It’s Russia–not the US, or the UN, or the EU–that is calling the diplomatic shots with respect to the Syrian civil war now. It’s the one scheduling peace talks, deciding who gets to attend, and writing draft constitutions for a post-war Syrian state. This is a far cry from where Moscow was as recently as 2014, when it was eating the back of the international community’s collective hand over its actions in Ukraine, to say nothing of where it was 20 years ago (i.e., in full, shock doctrine-induced collapse). So you have to hand it to Putin–in addition to securing Russian interests in Syria, the main reason for the intervention, he now owns an entire regional war. The downside for him is that, well, he now owns an entire regional war, and his attempts at ending said war in a way that involves negotiations and not more human carnage aren’t looking so hot at the moment, what with no new Astana talks planned and the next scheduled round of talks in Geneva having been postponed. If Putin wants to be seen as a major power-broker, he’s going to have to find a path toward settling the war that he chose to adopt. But so far, settling the war in Syria has been much easier said than done.

Now, if there is anything that Vladimir Putin wants more than Russia’s return to Great Power stature, it’s a fix for Russia’s ailing economy. He’s undoubtedly looking to Trump to end US sanctions against Russian oligarchs and corporations, but I think he’s savvy enough to realize that Trump can’t do that immediately and will need to be seen getting something from Moscow in return. In the meantime, though, Putin scored a pretty substantial win last year when he reached a deal with OPEC to cut oil production in an effort to raise prices. That should help…unless prices get high enough to reactivate the American fracking industry in a major way. But in the meantime it should provide some benefit to the Russian economy as the sanctions issue unwinds itself.

How the sanctions issue unwinds itself will have a big impact on another situation related to Russia, which is the disposition of Ukraine. It’s entirely possible that Putin will, at some point this year, drop most/all of his direct support for the Ukrainian rebels and push for some kind of peaceful but destabilizing deal between the rebels and Kiev. Fighting has actually started heating up in eastern Ukraine over the past couple of days, but that could be isolated or it could be that one or the other side is trying to strengthen its position in advance of potential settlement talks. Putin’s objectives in Ukraine–red meat for his base and instability in Kiev–have been met, and if he wants to give Trump a “win” to cement their ties, this wouldn’t be a bad one. At the same time, though, even if the conflict in Donbas is settled there’s still the fairly giant, but largely ignored, matter of Crimea to discuss. Russia isn’t going to give it up, but neither is Kiev likely to drop its claim on the peninsula, and the international community is going to have to take this head-on at some point because, well, the annexation was a pretty substantial blow to ~70 years of post-war international consensus on wars of conquest.

Russian provocation in the Baltics in 2017 also bears watching. As in eastern Ukraine I think Putin might be inclined to take it easy here, for now, as a concession to Trump, but he’s likely to expect that Trump will downsize Washington’s NATO commitment to the Baltic states.


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Conflict Update: January 23 2017


Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Iraq has fully retaken eastern Mosul from ISIS. It seems like somebody has made this same announcement every day for the past week, and that’s because somebody has made this same announcement every day for the past week. But you’re dealing with different somebodies who have different ways of defining success. By one metric capturing Mosul University and the east entrances to all five bridges over the Tigris was the important milestone, because everything else is just mopping up. By another metric having Iraqi forces in control of each of eastern Mosul’s neighborhoods was the time to declare victory even if there were still pockets of ISIS fighters in some of those neighborhoods that had to be cleared out. By yet another metric it won’t be victory until all the fighting is over. Which definition you use might depend on your role in the operation–the commander of the coalition air support might have a different idea than the head of Iraq’s counter-terrorism forces.

Anyway, the Iraqi government declared victory in eastern Mosul today. The Iraqi army also declared victory…and then quickly undeclared it. You know when you’ll know for sure that eastern Mosul is fully liberated? When the Iraqis start attacking western Mosul.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi opened an investigation into human rights abuses allegedly committed by Iraqi forces in and around Mosul. This move came after a video was posted online that purportedly shows Iraqi soldiers summarily executing three captive ISIS fighters, which is obviously a no-no even for people who used to work for ISIS, but will probably spend more effort looking into reports of abuses against civilians. Hopefully the investigation will be conducted thoroughly and transparently, because that’s the kind of thing that can help bring the country together once the Mosul operation is finished. Speaking of bringing the country together, Al Jazeera just published the latest in what has been a string of stories across multiple outlets about the return of Iraqi Christians to towns like Qaraqosh that were largely abandoned when ISIS rolled through back in 2014. These places are utterly devastated and will need a lot of time and resources to be rebuilt.

There are reports that US Special Forces recently conducted a raid near the town of al-Baʿaj, west of Mosul. Rumors have put Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in that area, but if he was the target of the raid nobody is saying so. One wonders how much leeway US forces are going to continue to have to operate in Iraq if their new commander in chief and his minions don’t stop shooting their mouths off about taking Iraq’s oil. One also wonders how well the rest of the Mosul operation will go if the Iraqi government suddenly begins to feel like it has to treat US personnel as potential threats.


The first day of peace talks at Astana are over (actually day two should be underway by now, or about to get underway), and if you had “nothing” in your “what will day one of the Astana talks accomplish” office pool, be sure to collect your winnings. Things apparently got off to a pretty rocky start: Continue reading