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 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.


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.


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.


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Conflict update: February 1 2017


If the Trump administration accomplishes nothing else in its (hopefully only) four years in office, provoking a war with Iran seems to be at the top of its bucket list. How else do you explain the National Security Advisor taking the podium at a White House press briefing and doing this:

“Recent Iranian actions, including a provocative ballistic missile launch and an attack against a Saudi naval vessel conducted by Iran-supported Houthi militants, underscore … Iran’s destabilizing behavior across the Middle East,” Trump’s national security adviser, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, told journalists at a White House press briefing Feb. 1.

Criticizing the Obama administration for failing “to respond adequately to Tehran’s malign actions,” Flynn said Iran was now feeling emboldened.

“As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice,” Flynn warned.

Iran’s ballistic missile tests are genuinely provocative, there’s no question about that. But Trump’s foreign policy team isn’t satisfied just complaining about Tehran’s missile tests. So they want to make Iran responsible for an attack by Yemeni rebels, whose involvement with Iran is marginal, on a Saudi naval vessel, at a time when the Saudis are bombing Yemen to rubble. There’s no evidence that the Houthi boat attack on Monday had anything to do with Iran, but the administration knows it can assert one without any serious chance of blowback. Trump officials insist that they aren’t conflating Yemen and the missile tests with the nuclear deal, which they say the administration is committed to upholding, but that’s a ruse. The plan, in all likelihood, is to recreate the same sanctions infrastructure that existed before the nuclear deal was reached, simply under non-nuclear pretenses. Maybe Iran will decide to walk away from the JCPOA at that point, which will give Trump a casus belli, but even if they don’t the punitive US sanctions will all be back in place.


The Syrian army appears to be trying to get into al-Bab before Turkey and its rebel proxies can take the city, which sets up the possibility that the Syrian and Turkish armies are going to start shooting at one another once they’re both done shooting at ISIS. It’s unlikely that the Syrians would go on the offensive against Turkey, but their aim is probably to swoop in and gain control of al-Bab before Turkey can, which would then put the Turks in the position of either abandoning their goal or attacking the Syrians.

Washington is once again trying to put together an Arab army capable of capturing Raqqa from ISIS. A 3000 man unit called the Syrian Elite Forces, commanded by Ahmad Jarba, seems to be at the core of this new attempt. Previous efforts at finding somebody, anybody, other than the YPG capable of undertaking this mission have fizzled out, and even though there is an Arab contingent within the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, it’s not enough on its own to take the city. The Trump administration has begun delivering armored vehicles to the SDF, which represents an escalation in American aid to the group.

Preparations are being made, rhetorically at least, for the next round of peace talks in Geneva on February 20. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said today that talks need to focus on a transitional government, but he was understandably non-committal about what role Bashar al-Assad would play in that transition, and there, as it has for nearly six years now, lies the rub. Diplomatically, the rebels are singling out Iran as their primary antagonist apart from Assad, undoubtedly thinking–as Ankara and now Washington are also apparently thinking–that with enough enticement/pressure, Russia could be made to distance itself from the Iranians, which would then leave Assad more vulnerable.


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Conflict update: January 18 2017


It’s the final countdown…

Marking another milestone for a changing planet, scientists reported on Wednesday that the Earth reached its highest temperature on record in 2016, trouncing a record set only a year earlier, which beat one set in 2014. It is the first time in the modern era of global warming data that temperatures have blown past the previous record three years in a row.

The findings come two days before the inauguration of an American president who has called global warming a Chinese plot and vowed to roll back his predecessor’s efforts to cut emissions of heat-trapping gases.

In reality, the Earth is heating up, a point long beyond serious scientific dispute, but one becoming more evident as the records keep falling. Temperatures are heading toward levels that many experts believe will pose a profound threat to both the natural world and to human civilization.

At this point I’ll be happy if I live long enough to dunk James Inhofe’s head in the waters of downtown Washington.


Talib Shaghati, commander of Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism Services, which have been spearheading the Mosul offensive, reported today that his CTS units have recaptured all the areas of eastern Mosul for which they were responsible, which likely means that operations against ISIS on that side of the city have reached the mop-up stage. Iraqi forces now control the eastern entrances to all five bridges spanning the Tigris, and are reportedly bringing in pontoon bridges that will be used in the eventual attack on the western side (where air and artillery strikes have already begun). Before that attack begins there is likely to be a pause in the offensive, to allow Iraqi forces time to refit and to make sure they’ve eliminated the last remnants of ISIS from eastern Mosul.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has apparently ordered the Nineveh Guard, the predominantly Sunni volunteer force that was created in the wake of the 2014 ISIS offensive, to integrate with the Popular Mobilization Units, the predominantly Shiʿa force that was created in the wake of the 2014 ISIS offensive. From a national unification standpoint this is a necessary move, but practically there are big obvious questions about how well these explicitly sectarian forces will be able to coexist. Complicating things is the fact that a former Nineveh Guard leader, Atheel al-Nujaifi, is wanted for arrest by Baghdad for allegedly conducting his own foreign policy with Turkey. Nujaifi is holed up in Iraqi Kurdistan, and while clemency would seem to be necessary to get the guard to participate in this new combined force, clemency may also be tough for the PMU fighters to accept.

As Mosul’s fall becomes more inevitable and ISIS begins to shift from a territory-holding insurgency to a pure terrorist organization, it is working overtime to strike targets in Iraq’s Shiʿa south. It has carried out a series of attacks and attempted attacks against southern Iraqi targets since November, and in recent weeks the city of Najaf has been its prime target. Najaf, the burial place of Ali b. Abi Talib, is considered the third holiest city for Shiʿa Muslims after Mecca and Medina and is the spiritual center for Iraqi Shiʿa. Two new Popular Mobilization Units are being formed to patrol the desert outside Najaf in an effort to protect the city.


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It’s raining ceasefires

We’re now two days into the Syrian ceasefire, and despite a few reports of violations, overall the deal seems to be holding together. However, the ceasefire wasn’t the goal so much as the means to achieve the goal, which is the alleviation of Syrian suffering. And in that regard there already appear to be some problems:

Residents of eastern Aleppo are reported to be in desperate need of fuel, flour, wheat, baby formula and medicines.

Two convoys of lorries carrying aid crossed into Syria about 40km (25 miles) west of Aleppo on Tuesday but were not allowed to go much further, Reuters reports.

One issue holding back aid deliveries is that al-Qaeda affiliates operate in the area, which may mean the main route into Aleppo is not yet safe, the BBC’s James Longman in Beirut says.

Lorries carrying Russian aid, however, have reached government-held areas of Homs province.

Aid reaching beleaguered government-held areas but not beleaguered rebel-held areas? This is not going to do much to alleviate the copious reservations many observers have about Bashar al-Assad’s willingness to actually go along with the ceasefire agreement. But then, to be fair, there’s no indication that the rebels plan on abiding by the agreement either. Such is the problem when the U.S. and Russia get together and cut a deal that mostly imposes upon other actors who had no input into the process. I talked about this at LobeLog yesterday:

As others have noted, perhaps the most jarring aspect of this attempted ceasefire is that it was negotiated entirely between Moscow and Washington, yet most of its terms apply to other parties. The United States will continue its anti-IS and anti-JFS air campaign virtually unchanged. Although Russia may have to be more circumspect about targeting JFS and not other rebel forces, the onus appears to be on the rebels to get out of the way of any strikes meant for JFS. Russia is expected to force Assad to abide by the agreement, while the U.S. is expected to bring its allied rebel forces along. But neither Assad nor the rebel leadership has yet expressed unqualified support for the deal.

It’s not clear what happens if either, or both, Russia and the U.S. fail to cajole their allies into compliance, for the agreement lacks any explicit enforcement mechanism should either Assad or the rebels violate the term. During a public appearance on Monday in which he made Eid prayers at a mosque in the recently captured Damascene suburb of Daraya, Assad told reporters that “the Syrian state is determined to recover every area from the terrorists.” He reportedly made no mention of the ceasefire. Assad’s remarks are similar to ones he made in February amid negotiations on a similar nationwide ceasefire. That ceasefire ultimately broke down.

If humanitarian aid doesn’t start reaching people in eastern Aleppo very soon, you’ll know that this ceasefire won’t last much longer than a few days. If it does start reaching eastern Aleppo in the next day or so, then…well, I give the ceasefire about a month. I particularly can’t foresee the rebels divesting themselves of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham such that they won’t be affected when Russian airstrikes hit JFS positions. There’s no upside for the rebels to separate from JFS, in part because the US hasn’t provided one. That challenge by itself is enough to sink, eventually, this attempt at a settlement. Please prove me wrong, everybody.

The Syrian ceasefire deal came at the conclusion of weeks of “will they, won’t they” diplomacy between John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, so it wasn’t entirely unexpected even if its successful conclusion was still a little surprising. On the other hand, yesterday something happened that was kind of unexpected: Continue reading

What is it with Putin and the Olympics?


If there were a shirtless dressage event, I bet he’d be a shoo-in

Just in case you’d lost track of the conflict in Ukraine amid all the other conflicts around the world, things are starting to get tense again around Crimea. Russia is claiming that it foiled a Ukrainian plot to infiltrate Crimea and carry out terrorist attacks against Crimean infrastructure over the weekend. A couple of Russian soldiers were reportedly killed in some kind of Ukraine-Crimea border clash, but what that clash entailed or even whether it really occurred is unknown. Kiev is denying the terrorism accusation (and, as far as I can tell, that any kind of border clash actually happened) and Washington is backing their denial. While you can’t necessarily trust the denial, you also can’t really trust the accusation–remember what I said about supposedly foiled terror attacks, plus this is Russia we’re talking about. The way these things usually work is that the accuser needs to provide evidence to support the accusation before you start worrying about whether or not the denial holds water. So far, Russia hasn’t done that. It’s also noteworthy that even some Russian media, and Russia isn’t exactly the paragon of free press, are questioning whether this attempted infiltration actually happened.

What the Russians have done is that they’ve begun escalating their military presence in and around Crimea. It just sent advanced air-defense missiles to the peninsula, although that was already scheduled to happen before this latest ruckus. But yesterday Moscow announced that it would hold “war games” in the Black Sea, and those were not already scheduled. Then today, Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev floated the possibility that Moscow could break diplomatic ties with Kiev, which would be a serious escalation. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has naturally put Ukraine’s forces on high alert both near Crimea and around the breakaway eastern region of Donbas, accusing Russia of increasing its military footprint in the area to something approaching 40,000 men. The US and EU, naturally, are trying to call for deescalation, but both Ukraine and Russia, naturally, are going to do what they want without much regard for Washington’s concerns, or Brussels’.

This sort of thing starting to look like a pattern with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Continue reading

Model citizen, zero discipline

People who lived through the 1980s will understand the title:

The big story for the past couple of days has been the massive leak of the so-called “Panama Papers,” a trove of records exposing sketchy financial dealings by people who have more money and political stroke than you or me. You can find any number of explainers out there on the internets that go into more detail, but the focus is on a Panama-based law firm, Mossack Fonseca, that specializes in helping clients establish offshore shell corporations in a variety of tax havens around the world. Shell corporations (the term just signifies corporations that have no assets of their own and exist to facilitate business deals), which wealthy individuals and other corporations establish for any number of reasons ranging from the perfectly justifiable to the completely, dangerously illegal (and let’s not forget the hypothetically meritorious), have a bad rap, mostly because everybody associates them with tax evasion, corruption, and fraud. This is because, well, they often are associated with tax evasion, corruption, and fraud.

There were 11.5 million documents in the entire leak, so it’s going to take a good, long time for reporters to go through them and we can expect the fallout to reverberate for months, if not years, to come. One high-profile politician has already suffered the consequences, however–Iceland’s prime minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, resigned today after it turned out that he (well, technically his wife) owned a nifty little company in the British Virgin Islands that owned bonds issued by three of Iceland’s biggest banks. This meant that Gunnlaugsson, at a time when he was supposed to be “getting tough” on the foreign creditors of Iceland’s struggling banks, was himself (er, I mean, his wife was) one of those foreign creditors. Gunnlaugsson, already unpopular, had to resign in order for his governing coalition to have any shot at remaining in power.

The big story so far isn’t Gunnlaugsson, though–it’s Vladimir Putin. Continue reading