How to craft a narrative

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There’s no Soviet Union anymore, but the principle is the same (from oldenburger.us, via hyperallergenic.com)

If you’ve ever wondered how to go about creating a narrative to drive public perception about a story, I’m here to help. I’d like to start, if I may, with a couple of examples.

Back in January, NATO began major troop movements as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, a mission begun in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which in itself was a response–an overly aggressive and disruptive response–to a Western-supported overthrow of the elected president of Ukraine. Somewhere on the order of 4000 NATO troops have been deployed to Poland and the three Baltic states–each of which borders some part of Russia (Kaliningrad counts, dammit). Here’s how the deputy commander of US European Command, Lt. General Timothy Ray, described this deployment when it began:

Lt Gen Tim Ray, deputy commander of US European Command, said: “Let me be very clear, this is one part of our efforts to deter Russian aggression, ensure territorial integrity of our allies and maintain a Europe that is whole, free, prosperous and at peace.”

Putting thousands of NATO troops on Russia’s border is part of our efforts to deter Russian aggression. Or, if you prefer, it’s a “demonstration [of] solidarity,” according to the US Embassy in Poland:

NATO’s eFP is a clear demonstration solidarity and determination to defend Allied territory against possible aggression.  The deployment is defensive, proportionate, and conforms to the Article V commitment of the treaty to prevent conflict, protect our Allies, and preserve peace throughout the region.

Just this week, the US deployed a couple of F-35s to the Baltic nation of Estonia, again right on Russia’s border. Why? Two words–commitment and unity:

Two of the U.S. Air Force’s newest and most advanced jets landed in the Baltic state of Estonia for the first time on Tuesday, a symbolic gesture meant to reinforce the United States’ commitment to the defence of NATO allies that border Russia.

The visit of the F-35 stealth fighters, which flew from Britain and spent several hours in Estonia, is part of broader U.S. jet pilot training across Europe as the NATO alliance seeks to deter Moscow from any possible incursion in the Baltics.

Russia denies having any such intention.

“This is a very clear message,” Estonia’s Defence Minister Margus Tsahkna told Reuters. “The United States is taking the show of unity very seriously,” he said of the jets that are designed to avoid detection by conventional radar.

All of this is fine, really. Poland and the Baltic states all joined NATO voluntarily and have welcomed these deployments. Russia might have some concerns about a potentially hostile military force primarily made of up US, Canadian, and Western European soldiers being deployed in countries it borders, but we know those concerns are unfounded and irrelevant–this NATO deployment is defensive in nature, and anyway it’s none of Russia’s business how NATO and its member states work out troop deployments, even when they’re happening in Russia’s near abroad.

Now, here’s a story I just came across this morningContinue reading

Conflict update, April 26 2017

SYRIA

UPDATE: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting that there’s been an explosion and fire at Damascus International Airport. No cause has been suggested.

As promised, the French government has produced proof that Bashar al-Assad’s government was behind the April 4 chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun–and as expected, it’s somewhat less than meets the eye. French intelligence has studied the sarin used in Khan Shaykhun and determined that it contains the same chemical “signature” as sarin used in at least one previous Syrian gas attack, a 2013 incident in Saraqeb. This is also the same “signature” that French sources say is indicative of sarin produced in Syrian government laboratories.

This is not, in and of itself, “proof” in the way the French government was selling it several days ago. That this sarin was produced by the Syrian government doesn’t mean it wasn’t captured by forces opposed to the Syrian government at some point over the past six years. And, hell, the latest story out of Damascus and Moscow is that the whole attack was faked in some kind of grand global conspiracy. But it is more evidence to add to the increasingly compelling case that Assad’s forces were behind the Khan Shaykhun attack, That case has also been strengthened by the nature of the attack itself and by first-hand reports from the town right after the bombing that have discredited at least one of Damascus’s alternative explanations about what happened. It’s also evidence–though again, not “proof”–that Assad violated the terms of the 2013 Russian-US agreement on destroying Syria’s chemical weapons.

Russia complained today that the American missile strike on Syria’s Shayrat airbase on April 6 “threatened” Russian personnel. Which, I mean, OK? It’s unfortunate that they were threatened, but it would be nice if the Russians applied the same consideration to Syrian civilians that they apparently expect Washington to apply to their personnel:

For the first three months of 2017, the US-led Coalition was likely responsible for a greater number of civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria than Russia’s campaign in support of the Assad regime. That grim metric reflected both a reduction in the number of Russian strikes, and a stepped up and deadlier Coalition campaign around Mosul and Raqqa. However, new analysis by Airwars researchers indicates Russian strikes are once more on the increase, allegedly killing hundreds of additional civilians.

Alleged Russian civilian casualty incidents nearly doubled between February and March, rising from 60 to 114 events. Already in April at least 120 events have been tracked. Due to a backlog of cases it will be some time before Airwars researchers can more fully vet these allegations, though such event tracking has previously proved a helpful guide to the tempo of Russian actions.

Four Turkish military outposts along the Syrian border came under artillery fire on Wednesday, presumably courtesy of the YPG, while Turkish forces shelled part of Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria. The YPG attacks were likely retaliation for Turkey’s strikes on the YPG in northeastern Syria yesterday, which are now being criticized by Russia along with pretty much everybody else.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir visited Moscow today to make the case that the civil war can’t end without Assad’s removal from power. He also reportedly argued for expanding the Astana peace talks channel (the next round of talks there is scheduled for next month) to include other outside actors apart from Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Meanwhile, Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz visited Washington to press the Trump administration to take a hard line against any “permanent Iranian presence” in Syria–which is something you might think would be up to the Syrian people to decide, but HA HA HA come on. Anyway, I wonder if Jubeir and Katz compared notes before and/or after their respective trips.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces reported today that they’ve retaken the ancient Parthian (it was probably built before the Parthian period but that was its heyday) city of Hatra, a UNESCO World Heritage site that used to look like this:

City of the Sun God

…but is now feared mostly destroyed, courtesy of ISIS and incidents like this:  Continue reading

Conflict update: April 24 2017

SYRIA

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

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

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

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

IRAQ

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

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

TURKEY

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Conflict update: April 21 2017

Hopefully a short one tonight. I’m getting a bit of a late start and actually don’t think there’s much to report for a change.

SYRIA

The first phase of that major four-town evacuation (Fuʿah, Kefraya, Zabadani, and Madaya) has concluded successfully with an additional agreement for the Syrian government to release hundreds of detainees. The whole deal was thrown into chaos last weekend over a terrorist attack on buses evacuating people from Fuʿah and Kefraya, but it seems to have resumed pursuant to another agreement reached between its two international backers, Qatar and Iran, over some Qataris who were being held captive in Iraq (more on that in a moment). I’m not entirely clear on the relationship between these two deals, but it seems like the Syrian deal would have stalled had this Iraqi arrangement not come together.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Russia’s Sputnik news agency today that Jordan is preparing an invasion of southern Syria in coordination with the US. The Jordanians have forcefully denied that they have any such plan.

IRAQ

That Iraqi deal involved the release of 26 Qatari hunters, including members of the Qatari royal family, who had been kidnapped in southern Iraq by, uh, somebody in December 2015. Who exactly kidnapped them has never been clear, but it now seems that at least we can say that Iran was able to negotiate on their behalf.

There’s still little new to report from Mosul. Iraqi counter-terrorism forces are continuing to advance into the center of western Mosul, west of the Old City area where most of ISIS’s defenses have been located, and in the Old City itself things have remained static for weeks apart from one Iraqi police advance along the western edge of the neighborhood on April 16.

TURKEY

Turkish opposition leaders have gone to court to appeal the election board’s decision to accept improperly unstamped ballots during Sunday’s referendum. This is unlikely to have any effect. They’ll first try to adjudicate the case in Turkish courts, which have largely had their independence stripped by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and then they may take the case to the European Court on Human Rights, whose rulings Erdoğan will almost certainly feel free to just ignore. The opposition even seem resigned to this, with an HDP spokesman suggesting the appeal is more to have it on the record for historical purposes than anything else.

EGYPT

Credit where credit is due, President Trump seems to have successfully negotiated the release of US citizen Aya Hijazi from Egypt, where she’d been detained without trial for three years. She returned to the US this morning. Hijazi and her husband had been running a non-profit caring for homeless children in Egypt when she was arrested on charges of child trafficking that were never substantiated or brought to trial. The case against her was dropped after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited DC earlier this month and Trump fawned over him, so it seems pretty clear that all that ass-kissing helped get Hijazi out of jail. Like I said, credit where credit is due.

AFGHANISTAN

A Taliban attack on a military base in Balkh province today killed more than 50 Afghan soldiers. Suicide bombers apparently breached the gate and gunmen entered the base, killing soldiers who were, among other things, eating lunch and at midday prayer.

PAKISTAN

Opposition lawmakers are demanding that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif step down while an investigation is ongoing into his family’s finances and potential corruption. Pakistan’s top court ordered the investigation yesterday but opted not to remove Sharif from office.

 

AUSTRALIA

Vice President Mike Pence has taken his stern face to Australia for the weekend, where he’ll be expected to smooth over any lingering bad feelings from Trump’s first phone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. He arrives at a time when the Australian government is being slammed by human rights groups for the inhumane conditions at its offshore migrant detention centers on the islands of Manus and Nauru, and, well, he and Turnbull should have a lot to talk about.

Meanwhile, Australian scientists say that analysis of ocean currents and drift patterns strongly suggests that missing flight MH370–remember that?–probably crashed into the Indian Ocean in an area north of where everybody was looking before the search was suspended last year. Now they just need a government or two willing to spend more money on a new search, so…good luck with that.

SOMALIA

The Kenyan military says it killed 52 al-Shabab militants in a Friday morning attack on one of their camps in Somalia’s southern Lower Juba province.

CENTRAL AFRICA

Although it announced that it was pulling out of the operation to destroy Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army last month, the Trump administration has apparently decided to continue America’s involvement in the operation after all. Uganda announced that it was pulling out of the operation earlier this week, and that seems to have caused a change of heart in Washington.

RUSSIA

Say, this seems like great news:

American and Canadian fighter planes scrambled to intercept two Russian TU-95 “Bear” bombers Thursday night, marking the fourth consecutive night of Russian probes near the Alaskan coast, U.S. defense officials said Friday.

At no point did the Russian aircraft cross into American or Canadian airspace, but the incursions into the Air Identification Zones — which extend beyond the territorial waters of the U.S. and Canada — represent a sharp increase in activity in the area, which has seen no Russian activity at all since 2015. The flights may also herald the return of Moscow’s 60-year-old nuclear capable bomber to the international stage, after the entire fleet was grounded in 2015 after a rash of accidents.

Frankly, I don’t understand why Putin would want to provoke a conflict here when the Trump administration, despite its newfound anti-Russia ethos, seems pretty intent on destroying America without any outside help.

FRANCE

French police are investigating reports that Champs-Élysées shooter Karim Cheurfi may have had at least one accomplice. There seems to be some confusion related to ISIS’s unusually rapid claim of responsibility for the attack, which they attributed to an “Abu Yusif al-Belgiki.” That’s an obvious pseudonym (Abu Yusif the Belgian), but was it Cheurfi’s pseudonym? He wasn’t Belgian, so that’s at least a little weird. The oddness of the name and the fact that, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, ISIS claimed this attack very quickly, leaves open the possibility that ISIS thought this attack was actually some other attack that it’s got in the cards. That’s unlikely, but there are still some things about this case that aren’t quite adding up.

Sunday is of course election day, and with polling still a mess it’s not clear how things are going to turn out. Five Thirty Eight’s Harry Enten says that, going by the polls, any two of the top four candidates could wind up in the May 7 runoff. Now consider the uncertainty caused by this terror attack–the historical evidence as to what kind of impact attacks like this have on elections is mixed, but they often do have some impact. Donald Trump is unsurprisingly supporting fellow reactionary xenophobe Marine Le Pen, but given how monumentally unpopular Trump is in France, that might not help. Even if Le Pen does make it into the second round of voting, polling has consistently put her so far behind each of the other leading candidates that it’s very difficult to imagine she’d be able to pull out a victory. Still, on the principle that anything could happen, it would be better if she finished out of the top two on Sunday.

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Conflict update: April 20 2017

FRANCE

Details are still sketchy, but a gunman earlier this evening shot and killed a police officer on the Champs-Élysées in Paris before being shot and killed in turn by other police officers. There was a search for accomplices immediately after the shooting, but it seems at this point like the shooter was acting alone. French authorities are treating this as a terrorist attack, and ISIS has reportedly already claimed credit for the attack. The attacker used a pseudonym but he’s been identified as Karim Cheurfi, a 39 year old French national who has a previous conviction for shooting at police officers and was–obviously–known to authorities.

ISIS’s claim of responsibility was lightning fast, as these things go, which suggests they may have known of the attack before it happened–though it doesn’t necessarily suggest they had any role in planning it and, indeed, it doesn’t seem to have required much planning. It may also be that ISIS is aiming to use this attack to meddle with the French presidential election taking place this weekend, and if that’s the case then it’s pretty clear who they’d like to see win: reactionary nationalist/fascist Marine Le Pen. As the most anti-Islam voice in the race, Le Pen obviously stands to benefit from any last-minute voting decisions made out of fear stemming from this attack. And we know that ISIS likes it when Western countries elect right-wing, anti-Islam demagogues.

As it stood before the shooting, polling had Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron heading to the runoff, but conservative François Fillon had moved back into third place on his own. A switch of just a few points–hardly an impossibility given the number of voters who still say they’re undecided and/or not sure they’re going to vote–could put the “tough on crime”-style candidates, Fillon and Le Pen, in the runoff with Macron on the outside looking in. And in that case, with Le Pen running against the badly damaged and scandal-ridden Fillon in the second round, anything could happen.

IRAN

This was going to be my first story before the Paris shooting happened. Iran’s Press TV has the list of candidates who have been permitted by the Guardian Council to stand in the country’s May 19 presidential election. They are:

  • Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani
  • Religious leader Ebrahim Raisi
  • Tehran Mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf
  • Current First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri
  • Moderate politician Mostafa Hashemitaba
  • Conservative (?) politician Mostafa Mir-Salim
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Via PressTV.com

Notably not on that list, of course, is former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His former vice president, Hamid Baghaei, was also disqualified. He hasn’t had time to do any squawking about this yet, but I have my doubts he’s going to take it lying down. Although I have to give his surrogates credit for how brazenly they’re already trying to spin this result as something Ahmadinejad really wanted all alongContinue reading

Conflict update: April 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: April 10-14 2017

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

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

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

THE TRUMP DOCTRINE

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

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

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

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

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

SYRIA

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