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 (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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Conflict update: April 3 2017

BREAKING: NOTHING MUCH HAPPENED

One of the reasons I don’t post these earlier in the day is because HUGE BREAKING NEWS MUST CREDIT GUY WHO HELPED SELL IRAQ WAR stories are often later shown to be no big deal. To wit:

Maybe I’m wrong, but it sure does seem like intrepid reporter Eli Lake has now been played twice by Republicans trying to substantiate their party leader’s claim that the Obama administration spied on him and his transition team. At some point you have to start assuming that Lake is willingly along for the ride, don’t you?

original

RUSSIA

An explosion tore through the St. Petersburg metro today, killing at least 11 people and injuring more than 50 at the last count. Details are still light, but it appears the bomb went off between metro stations, so it’s not clear whether it was placed there or was put on a train. Russian authorities later said that police found and disarmed a second bomb placed at another location in the metro. ISIS has already reportedly claimed responsibility and said the bomb was in retaliation for Russia’s activities in Syria, but there are plenty of other possible candidates, from Chechen militants (who certainly overlap with ISIS) to Ukrainian sympathizers to anti-government extremists, and Moscow seems to be investigating all possibilities. It’s likely not a coincidence that Putin was in St. Petersburg today to meet with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, though he certainly wasn’t targeted.

WAR ON WOMEN

Donald Trump “cherishes” women, just ask him. Of course, if those women happen to rely on the UN Family Planning Agency for their reproductive health needs, then they’re shit out of luck because the Trump administration just yanked all the US funding for that agency (which was $75 million last year). The administration claims that the UNFPA participates in China’s forced abortion and sterilization programs, but the State Department’s own statement on the funding cut as much as admits that they’re lying about that claim in order to give themselves a justification for the cut. Still, you have to admire the strong display of concern for the rights of Chinese women from an administration that’s going to have Chinese President Xi Jinping over to President Trump’s extravagant Florida vacation resort later this week. That’ll show him.

Trump is only doing what every Republican administration since the 1980s has done with respect to the UNFPA, so I don’t mean to single him out except insofar as he is the current president. But feel free to mention this the next time your Hashtag Never Trump Republican buddy or your moderate Democratic presidential nominee tries to tell you that Donald Trump is somehow different from the rest of the Republican Party and not entirely a product of that party.

EGYPT

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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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Conflict update: March 27 2017

A FEATURE, NOT A BUG: PART I

At LobeLog, I look at the recent increase in US-caused civilian casualties in the Middle East, and the presumption, still denied by Washington in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, that President Trump has told the Pentagon to stop worrying about civilian casualties and just blow the shit out of them, as it were. I conclude with the short version of why, aside from the obvious loss of life, carelessly killing civilians is bad for the US:

The eventual defeat of IS and al-Qaeda requires not simply beating them on a battlefield or driving them out of a city. It requires undermining and discrediting their ideology. These groups, and their eventual successors, can survive indefinitely if the United States and its allies take actions that fuel Muslim resentment toward the West. In any war, some civilian casualties are unfortunately inevitable. But if the Trump administration has truly decided to “take the gloves off” in the war on terror, then it may find that it’s punching the wrong people.

Of course, this analysis only holds if you assume that the Trump administration is actually trying to secure America and minimize the threat posed by extremist jihadi groups. If, however, their real goal is to have their Clash of Civilizations war with Islam, then they may be doing exactly what they need to be doing. Civilian casualties in that scenario are very much a feature rather than a but. I assume the former is still true for most of the people working in this White House and this Pentagon, but I have to admit I don’t really have any reason to assume it.

A FEATURE, NOT A BUG: PART II

Jon Wolfsthal and Laura S. H. Holgate of the Carnegie Endowment worry that Donald Trump’s planned cuts to the State Department budget will consequently mean cuts to US funding for the International Atomic Energy Agency. In writing about this possibility, they manage to be correct and also pretty misguided at the same time:

Regardless of what you may have heard about the United Nations or the IAEA itself, the agency may be the greatest national security bargain the United States has. As the old cliché goes, if we didn’t have it, we have to invent it. Washington provides a significant percentage of the IAEA’s annual budget and, on top of that, additional resources known as voluntary contributions. This money ensures that the IAEA can handle its current responsibilities by having the tools, people, skills, and resources needed to do its job — which is, to put it bluntly, to help keep us and other countries safe and enable all to benefit from the peaceful benefits of nuclear technology.

So in plain English, what does that mean? IAEA inspectors are on the ground in Iran monitoring that Tehran fully complies with its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It helps monitor nuclear materials in over 50 countries to deter diversion and to certify that none have been syphoned off for illicit weapon programs. It helps ensure the safety of nuclear facilities all over the world. It’s increasingly on the front lines of preventing terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons. Oh, and it’s also part of the fight against the Zika virus and other deadly insect-borne diseases (they nuke male insects so they can’t breed, poor guys).

Cutting IAEA funding is objectively a terrible idea. But if you’re opposed to the JCPOA and want a good excuse to screw around with its terms or abrogate it outright, then defunding the agency that’s supposed to be monitoring the agreement is a pretty good place to start. If the IAEA no longer has the resources to monitor Iran, then, gosh, I guess we’ll have to make the deal more onerous for the Iranians to ease the IAEA’s burden. And if the Iranians aren’t willing to accept a reasonable escalation of the deal’s terms, well, that’s on them, isn’t it?

Wolfsthal and Holgate start, like I did, by assuming that Donald Trump and his administration are actually interested in national security, and maybe that’s their mistake. If what these guys really want is to get back on the path to war with Iran, then the likelihood that slashing IAEA funding will help them do that is a feature, not a bug.

IRAQ

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