Conflict update: April 25 2017

SYRIA

This morning, Turkish aircraft struck Kurdish targets in Iraq’s Sinjar region and around the town of Derika (also known as Dayrik and al-Malikiyah) in northeastern Syria. The Syrian YPG militia says that 20 of its fighters were killed in the strikes, while Turkey claims that it killed 70 “militants” across both targets.

The Iraqi strike is a little more straightforward and I’ll mention that when we get to Iraq, but as far as Syria is concerned there’s no sense pretending that this is anything other than a Turkish attempt to undermine the fight against ISIS. Ankara claims that it struck a “terror hub,” whatever that means, in order to prevent weapons and other materiel from getting to the Kurdish PKK militant group in Turkey. But judging by the unambiguously hostile reception the strikes got from Washington it seems pretty clear that Turkey didn’t explore any other avenues for potentially interrupting the movement of arms or whatever from northeastern Syria to the PKK. They just skipped ahead to the airstrikes. I’m not saying that if Ankara had asked the US to intervene in whatever it claims the YPG/PKK were doing in northeastern Syria, that it would have worked out in Turkey’s favor. But going that route would have been worth the effort, assuming Turkey’s motives were really to interdict aid to the PKK. If talking doesn’t work you can always try airstrikes after that.

The YPG, as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, is of course America’s number one proxy in Syria and the centerpiece of plans to attack ISIS in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. Turkey opposes those plans because it makes no distinction between the YPG and the PKK (there is a distinction, but it’s blurry to say the least) and doesn’t want to see the Syrian Kurds expanding their territory and potentially establishing an autonomous statelet in northern Syria. Turkey had proposed an alternative plan where by its forces in conjunction with elements of the Free Syrian Army would march on Raqqa from al-Bab and take the city without involving the Kurds, but the Turkish-FSA army didn’t do much to distinguish itself in al-Bab and, anyway, its path to Raqqa was closed off when the Syrian army drove ISIS out of the area south of al-Bab. At this point it’s likely that Turkey’s only recourse to stop the YPG from participating in the Raqqa operation is to start bombing the hell out of YPG positions further north, and that’s probably why it never asked for American help with this supposed PKK weapons problem. If Ankara had gone to the Americans and asked for help in preventing YPG weapons from allegedly being moved into Turkey, and the US had managed to convince the YPG to knock it off, then Turkey would’ve lost its excuse to bomb the YPG.

This is not going to be great for the US-Turkey relationship, and it’s going to get worse if the US decides to agree to YPG requests for a US-imposed no-fly zone over YPG-controlled territory. If the YPG wants to play hardball over this they kind of have the US over a barrel, because they could pull their forces out of the SDF, out of the Raqqa offensive, and Washington would be up the proverbial creek without a paddle. Factor in the possibility that the next one of these Turkish airstrikes might just kill a US servicemember or two, by accident presumably, and you’ve got a very combustible situation developing here.

Elsewhere in Syria, pro-government (i.e., Syrian or Russian) airstrikes killed at least 12 people and reportedly damaged a hospital in Idlib province today, at least 11 and perhaps more civilians were killed by US airstrikes in and around Tabqa, and the Syrian army is pouring resources into an effort to drive rebel forces out of Aleppo’s northern and western outskirts.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: April 24 2017

SYRIA

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

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

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

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

IRAQ

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

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

TURKEY

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Conflict update: April 19 2017

Hey! So, instead of finishing this and posting it at 11:58 like I usually do, tonight I’m going to try, you know, not doing that, and hopefully being asleep at 11:58 instead. I’d like to make that the new normal with these posts going forward, but we’ll see.

SYRIA

At The Nation, James Carden asks whether we, and the media in particular, have rushed to judgment in in blaming Bashar al-Assad for the April 4 chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun. This is a difficult discussion to have in an environment that rewards the confident take over nuance almost every time, but I think Carden makes a compelling case that there has been a rush to judgment, while at the same time I also believe that the preponderance of evidence supports the conclusion that Assad did it. The thing is that “preponderance of evidence” isn’t that high a standard, especially in a situation where there isn’t all that much hard evidence–at this point I think we can fairly confidently say that sarin or something very much like it was used in Khan Shaykhun, but most of the rest of the story is still up in the air to one degree or another. And “preponderance of evidence” certainly seems like too low a standard when we’re talking about justifying military action, though certainly the US has historically trudged off to war over even less.

At some point, though, proponents of alternate theories about Khan Shaykhun are going to have to produce some evidence of their own, something more than “I’m hearing from sources” or “this satellite image looks like something else to me.” Because even if they’re right, and Assad wasn’t responsible for this attack, it doesn’t mean much if they can’t at least sway public opinion in their direction. And if international investigations start to determine that Assad did it, that’s going to become much harder to do. It’s one thing to question the veracity of anything that comes out of the Trump administration, but if, say, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons investigation comes back with a finding that Assad was responsible, then that’s harder to simply dismiss out of hand.

On the other hand, the OPCW investigation hasn’t come back yet, and if your argument is that America should have at least waited for that before commencing air strikes, well, I think you’re probably right. There’s also a strong case to be made that our media should be giving more–or at least some–attention to credible people who are questioning the “Assad Did It” narrative. And there’s also some merit to what Peter Ford, former UK ambassador to Syria, said hereContinue reading

Conflict update: February 2 2017

Iran

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.

Syria

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.

Iraq

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Conflict update: January 30 2017

Iraq

Purely by coincidence, my absence from regular blogging coincided with the planned lull in the Mosul operation. With eastern Mosul having been liberated just before I checked out, the Iraqis have been laying the groundwork for the eventual assault on the western half of the city. Iraq forces have been actively liberating villages north of Mosul, shelling ISIS fighters building defensive works on the west bank of the Tigris, and moving units into place to prepare to cross the river.

Increasingly it appears that the paramilitary and predominantly Shiʿa Popular Mobilization Units will have a much larger role to play in anti-ISIS operations moving forward, which violates a number of the principles Baghdad laid out (and in some cases guaranteed to third parties) before the Mosul operation began. To wit:

  • The PMU is probably going to be given the responsibility of liberating Tal Afar from ISIS. You may recall that the role of the PMU was a concern from the beginning of the offensive, and when it was announced that the units would concentrate on the area west of Mosul, Turkey raised objections to the idea that those forces might enter Tal Afar, where it’s feared that they could carry out reprisal attacks against Sunni Turkmens who are suspected of having collaborated with ISIS back in 2014.
  • It also appears that some PMU forces are going to participate in the west Mosul offensive, though the extent of their involvement, and whether they’ll be allowed to enter the city, isn’t clear. Before the offensive the idea that the PMU might enter Mosul was seen as a non-starter, both because their presence might alienate Mosul’s civilians and because, again, Turkey would take issue.

The reason for the apparent change in plans is sheer manpower. It’s been a few months now and the regular Iraqi army force that was supposed to liberate Tal Afar just hasn’t materialized. In Mosul, meanwhile, there aren’t even enough Iraqi police forces to fully secure the eastern side of the city as it is, and that’s before they start being diverted to the western side of the city. Unless Baghdad wants to take a few months off to rebuild its forces, the PMU are going to have to play a larger role because they still have the numbers. Additionally, it would seem that the people in east Mosul were so happy to be freed from ISIS control that fears about how the PMU might be received could be overblown. On the other hand, these moves–if they materialize–will generate a response from Turkey.

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Atheel al-Nujaifi (Wikimedia | Bernd Schwabe)

Speaking of Turkey, one of the political sideshows accompanying the liberation of Mosul has been the status of Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Ninewah province from 2009 through 2015. Baghdad has had an arrest warrant out for Nujaifi since last October, accusing him, during his time as governor, of facilitating the entry and basing of Turkish forces on Iraqi soil, but Nujaifi is under the protection of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil and is thus untouchable. Since the Mosul operation began, Nujaifi and his Hashd al-Watani militia have been working with Iraqi forces north of Mosul, and when the eastern side of the city was liberated he apparently entered it like a conquering hero. His many political enemies, who helped push that October arrest warrant, are pushing for him to be arrested now that he’s left the sanctuary of Erbil. Nujaifi has political sway with Iraqi Kurds, Turkey, and Sunni Arabs in Ninewah, plus his own small army, so he does have a lot of support. He seems to think he can stage a political comeback by making Ninewah’s autonomy from Baghdad his main cause, but his presence in Mosul is potentially destabilizing–though not as potentially destabilizing as his arrest would be.

In Nice news, the Iraqi government is undertaking multiple projects to study and protect the country’s rich archeological record. ISIS unfortunately sold off or destroyed whatever it could in the places it conquered, but it’s very important from both national and financial perspectives that Baghdad protects what remains.

Syria

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Conflict update: January 7 2017

Ivory Coast

I’m going to level with you and say that I wasn’t going to write one of these tonight, but for the fact that something pretty big seems to have flared up in a country that doesn’t get much American attention under any circumstances and that has been more or less pretty quiet for a few years now. Beginning yesterday, Ivorian soldiers in the city of Bouaké began mutinying over low pay and poor living/working conditions, and by the middle of the day today their revolt had spread to cities across the country, including the Ivory Coast’s largest city, Abidjan. There were multiple reports of soldiers seizing control of cities, erecting barricades, and firing weapons, but if there have been any casualty reports I’m not aware of them.

Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara announced later in the day that he’d reached an agreement with the mutineers to get them to return to their bases, but at some point, and I’m not clear on this but I think it happened after the deal was announced, soldiers surrounded a residence in Bouaké where the country’s defense minister, Alain-Richard Donwahi, was staying, having flown to the city earlier in the day to try to talk to the mutineer leaders. It seems they were unhappy about the agreement, which apparently doesn’t address all their concerns, or maybe they were angry that, while announcing the deal, Ouattara also spent some time chastising the soldiers for their actions. That siege has reportedly now been lifted and the people who were in the house, including Donwahi, have been allowed to go.

I won’t pretend to understand Ivorian politics in the slightest, but Ouattara came to occupy his office after his forces won a civil war in 2011. Well, characterizing it that way is unfair to Ouattara, who was the internationally recognized winner of the 2010 Ivorian presidential election–the civil war was fought because incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, who is currently on trial before the International Criminal Court, refused to concede. So he didn’t just seize power by force, he was elected first. But the army as it currently exists is apparently patched together from forces that fought each other during the 2002-2011 period when Ivory Coast was under almost constant internal tension between the northern and southern (and, if you must, Muslim and Christian) segments of the country (the 2011 war was the last manifestation–so far–of that tension). It’s hard to say (well, at least for me it is) whether, or how much, lingering tensions within the army or between the army and Ouattara’s government may have played a role in this uprising, and whether or not this mutiny might be the harbinger of a new round of troubles.

The Gambia

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Conflict update: December 11

Egypt

A major bomb (12 kg of TNT) hit St. Mark’s Cathedral (see the photo above) in Cairo this morning, killing at least 25 people, wounding at least 49, and from the photos I’ve seen absolutely pulverizing the interior of the church. No group has claimed responsibility yet as far as I can tell, but ISIS is perpetually a suspect, along with violent Muslim Brotherhood offshoots like the Hasm Movement. Hundreds of people gathered outside the church later in the day to protest against Islamist groups and the Egyptian government, which they blame for failing to keep Egyptian Copts safe. The Coptic community was already souring on President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, with the general sentiment being that Sisi has talked a big game about protecting the Copts from the Muslim Brotherhood and extremists, but hasn’t actually done much to back up his words.

Turkey

The Kurdish group TAK has claimed responsibility for last night’s bombing in Istanbul that has killed at least 38 people by the latest count, 30 of them police officers. Every TAK attack carries with it a debate on the nature of the TAK–Ankara’s position, and it’s not alone in holding this view, is that the TAK is more or less a front that the PKK uses for cover when it wants to carry out a particularly violent attack, while others, including TAK and the PKK themselves, say that TAK is a breakaway group with no direct links to PKK.

Iraq

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