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

Continue reading

Conflict update: April 22-23 2017

FRANCE

You may have heard that there was a little presidential election in France today. Well, after a lot of uncertainty and polling and analysis and more polling and oh man that one dude is coming on, what does that mean, this is so unpredictable…it looks like Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen will be facing off head-to-head in the runoff on May 7 (it looks like Macron will finish slightly ahead of her in the first round voting, but that doesn’t really matter). Just like the polls have shown pretty consistently since late January. That this outcome isn’t surprising is itself so surprising that I don’t really have much else to say about it. From a historical perspective this is a milestone vote in that it’s the first time that neither of the country’s major parties (the Republicans and the Socialists) will be represented in the runoff.

If you, like me, would really rather not see France follow America down the reactionary xenophobe path, then it’s obviously distressing to even see Le Pen advance to the second round. The fact that she’s gotten that far gives her movement something to build upon moving forward. But you should take solace in this handy Wikipedia graph of the polling for an until-now hypothetical Macron-Le Pen runoff:

opinion_polling_for_the_french_presidential_election2c_2017_macrone28093le_pen

Even if these polls are off–and the first round results suggest that the polling in this race has actually been pretty on point–they’d have to be monumentally off to make a Le Pen victory a possibility. Macron may be a centrist neoliberal squish but, unfortunately, he’s now easily the better option in this race.

IRAQ

ISIS fighters on Sunday attacked an Iraqi federal police base in the town of Hamam al-Alil, just south of Mosul, and killed at least three police officers. Iraqi police have been using that base as a staging area for their operations in west Mosul, which are as they have been for weeks still bogged down in the Old City. The stalemate there is as you might expect wreaking havoc on civilians–Iraqis who have managed to get out of the Old city describe eating boiled wheat grains and flour mixed with water because there’s simply nothing else left.

Though fighting in the Old City continues to be static Iraq’s counter-terrorism forces are continuing to advance through the center of west Mosul. But as Joel Wing writes, the civilian costs are continuing to mount:

There were more civilian casualties reported in Mosul. A car bomb went off in Zuhur in liberated east Mosul leaving 4 dead and 14 wounded. This was the first successful vehicle bomb in the east since February, and highlighted the fact that IS still has active cells in that half of the city. Air strikes in three pars of west Mosul left 17 fatalities and 30 injured. The Iraqi and Coalition forces have said they want to protect civilians, but the increase use of airpower and artillery along with the layout of east Mosul, and the use of human shields have all contributed to rising civilian deaths. That was the basis for a story by the Los Angeles Times that noted a huge spike in reported civilian casualties in the last few months based on data collected by Airwars.

ISIS, meanwhile, is reportedly executing Mosul residents who refuse to fight for the insurgent group, as well as residents who refuse to assist it in other ways.

SYRIA

An Israeli missile attack on a Syrian National Defense Forces (the umbrella agency for pro-government volunteer militias all over the country) in Quneitra province (near the occupied Golan Heights) killed three Syrian fighters on Sunday. The Israelis struck targets in Quneitra a couple of times this weekend in response to Syrian mortar fire hitting the Israeli-controlled parts of Golan late last week. Also over the weekend, pro-government forces with Russian help captured the town of Halfaya, north of Hama city, and at this point they’ve taken back all the territory the rebels were able to capture in Hama province a few weeks ago and are now advancing into areas that the rebels have held for several months at least.

The brief rebel success in Hama, it seems to me, points to the major problem Bashar al-Assad faces as the Syrian civil war settles into its new, post-Aleppo normal, which is that his army, depleted as it is from ~6 years of fighting, can’t be everywhere. The rebels can make temporary gains all over the place–they can’t hold them in the face of pro-Assad ground forces and Russian air power, but so what? The rebels aren’t trying to govern Syria–Assad is. The rebels aren’t trying to conquer Syria–Assad is. Now that the rebellion has really become a guerrilla affair (just ask Ayman al-Zawahiri, who apparently missed the sound of his own voice and decided to make a new audio recording advising Syria fighters to embrace guerrilla tactics), the rebels can settle in for a long haul while Assad has to try to win decisively. And if Assad’s army is in as ragged a shape as it appears to be from the outside, he’s going to have a hard time winning decisively.

I know people don’t like to hear this, but the study of civil wars since World War II says that they last, on average, about 10 years, and that the more factions are involved in the fighting, the longer they last. Which means Syria, with approximately 8.5 billion factions running around depending on the day, may very well not even be close to an end. Assad has been on a roll since Russia decided to get directly involved in the war, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be able to win anytime soon.

Meanwhile, there were reports today of heavy fighting between ISIS and the Syrian Democratic Forces near Tabqa, and on Saturday between ISIS and, well, ISIS, in the town of Tabqa, as factions there argued over whether or not to surrender to the SDF. Tabqa, along with its dam and nearby airfield, has to be safely in SDF hands before they’ll be able to begin their assault on Raqqa. Raqqa remains the top US/SDF target in Syria, even though the Pentagon is saying that ISIS has moved most of its government functions to nearby Deir Ezzor.

YEMEN

A US drone strike in Shabwa province on Sunday reportedly killed three al-Qaeda fighters. Which doesn’t seem like that big a story, I have to admit. The truth is, there have been a lot of stories like this in recent days that I’ve ignored because, well, three AQAP assholes get blown up in a truck, who cares. But there have been a lot of stories like this. And the reason is that the one thing Donald Trump really seems to be embracing in his gig as President of the United States is that it gives him virtually unlimited privileges to bomb Yemen. He bombed it 70 times last month, as you may have heard. I don’t think this month’s number will be that high, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we’ve carried out a Yemen bombing per day this month, on average.

And for what? Three AQAP assholes getting blown up in a truck? The more explosives you drop on a place, the more times you risk something going horribly wrong–ask the survivors of that mosque we blew up in Syria last month about what “horribly wrong” means. While we’re busy tempting fate like this, we continue to enable Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen–an intervention that has killed thousands, is starving millions, and has had the effect of dramatically strengthening the same AQAP we’re trying to destroy, three-assholes-and-a-truck at a time.

LEBANON

The Lebanese army says it killed a local ISIS leader and arrested ten ISIS fighters in an operation in Arsal on Saturday.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

While Gaza struggles to get by on six hours of electricity per day, the Israeli government is circling a deal with Cyprus, Greece, and Italy to support the construction of a pipeline that will send natural gas from Israel’s massive Leviathan offshore gas field (as well as from Cyprus’s offshore Aphrodite field) to Europe. Some people are apparently upset about this, arguing that it will “finance the Israeli occupation” and citing the multiple times the Israeli navy has attacked Palestinian fishermen who happen to stray into the waters above Israel’s two large offshore gas deposits. But, look, this gas ain’t gonna burn itself, you know what I mean? Who gives a shit about human rights, there’s a shitload of money to be made here!

On April 16, Palestinian leader and Israeli convict Marwan Barghouti wrote an op-ed for the New York Times explaining why he along with more than a thousand other Palestinians in Israeli prisons have undertaken a hunger strike to protest their treatment. Israeli media and the Israeli government did a masterful job of making the story about Barghouti’s criminal record rather than about the substance of his argument, and here’s James Zogby explaining why that’s so hard to swallow:

As one of the co-founders of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, I have long been acquainted with Israel’s “justice system.” Since most Palestinians have been convicted based on confessions obtained under duress, international human rights organizations have condemned Israel’s violations of international law and the lack of due process afforded to prisoners. Over 80% of all arrested Palestinians have been refused the right to legal counsel until after they have been subjected to prolonged and often abusive interrogation. In his article, Barghouti describes these abuses that he and other prisoners have been forced to endure, noting that the equivalent of 40% of Palestine’s male population have been jailed by Israel.

The Israeli government’s response to the article and to the strike, itself, have been revealingly characteristic of their modus operandi.

Because the Times initially described Barghouti as a member of the Palestinian Parliament and a leader, Israel launched a campaign forcing the editors to change their description to note that Barghouti had been convicted of murder and membership in a terrorist organization.

What Israel did not mention was the fact that Barghouti’s arrest, trial, and conviction were denounced by the Swiss-based Inter-Parliamentary Union as being “a violation of international law” and having “failed to meet fair-trial standards.” The IPU concluded that “Barghouti’s guilt has not been established.”

IRAN

Conservative Iranian presidential candidate Mostafa Mir-Salim lit into President Hassan Rouhani today, claiming that the nuclear agreement Rouhani negotiated didn’t result in sanctions against Iran being lifted. This is demonstrably untrue, but it’s an easy claim to make when Iran’s unemployment rate is still high and the economic gains realized by the lifting of those sanctions haven’t (yet?) filtered down to middle and working class Iranians. This is the kind of attack Rouhani is going to get for the duration of the campaign, and refuting it is going to require him, at least somewhat, to ask Iranian voters to believe him over their lying eyes. That’s never an easy thing to do.

AFGHANISTAN

The death toll from Friday’s Taliban attack on an Afghan military base near the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, in Balkh province, has skyrocketed to at least 140 (that’s the official count so far–the Taliban are talking about 500 or more deaths). That takes the incident from the realm of “particularly deadly Taliban attack” to “worst Taliban attack since the war began in 2001,” which is quite a milestone here in 2017. People are calling for resignations, specifically of senior officers and civilian military bosses, though, to be fair, there were plenty of people in Afghanistan who were already calling for those things before this happened.

What makes this attack particularly troubling is not just the high casualty rate, not just the apparent ease with which the Taliban were able to get into a major Afghan military base, but the fact that the attack took place so close to the third-largest city in the country. The Taliban’s true strength has remained in rural areas–if they’re now able to carry out attacks on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif, then that’s a pretty bad sign for the overall war effort.

NORTH KOREA

It was really a banner weekend for Pyongyang. At various points, the North Korean government: threatened to sink the USS Carl Vinson, threatened to nuke Australia, and arrested a US citizen as he tried to leave the country. Of these, the most serious is obviously the detention of Kim Sang-duk, a professor who becomes the third American known to be in North Korean custody. I say that because the first two things are obviously bluster whereas Kim is a real person who’s now really been arrested for, well, who knows what. Now factor in the possibility that Pyongyang will finally attempt its long-awaited nuclear test, and/or a new missile test, on Tuesday to mark the anniversary of the creation of its military, and we’re in for another fun week of World War III speculation.

SOMALIA

On Sunday, a roadside bomb in Puntland, courtesy of al-Shabab, killed six Somali soldiers and wounded another eight.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

BBC reporter Catherine Byaruhanga was somehow able to the DRC’s Kasai region to report on the Kamwina Nsapu rebellion that has killed hundreds of people since last August. The rebellion started when tribal leader Kamwina Nsapu was denied recognition by the Congolese government, but after he was killed by government forces the movement bearing his name seems to have become a catch-all for local grievances against Kinshasa:

The Kamuina Nsapu militia now has many factions all fighting for different reasons, but with the authorities their common target.

In Kananga, the biggest town in the region, we heard echoes of Paul’s testimony from different people.

One man, who did not want to be named, recalled an army raid:

“When the shooting began, my children ran and hid in a neighbour’s house.

“But the government soldiers got into that house – three people were killed and one of my children was injured.”

Another Kananga resident accused the armed forces of extortion:

“Soldiers are coming into neighbourhoods and harassing people for money. If you don’t have money, they threaten to kill you.”

“They are stealing mobile phones and money. People are scared and that’s why they are running away.”

UKRAINE

One American was killed and two other people were injured on Sunday when the vehicle they were in struck a mine in eastern Ukraine. The American was a paramedic working for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The incident has inspired calls, including from Washington, for Ukrainian separatists to allow the OSCE to conduct an investigation into exactly what happened.

UNITED KINGDOM

With France’s political future looking a bit less uncertain, we should probably look at early polling for the UK’s June snap elections, where there’s…really not much uncertainty at all. Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party is practically lapping the field in two polls released this weekend, taking 48 percent in one poll and 50 (!) percent in another.

Hi, how’s it going? Thanks for reading; attwiw wouldn’t exist without you! If you enjoyed this or any other posts here, please share widely and help build our audience. You can like this site on Facebook or follow me on Twitter as well. Most critically, if you’re a regular reader I hope you’ll read this and consider helping this place to stay alive.

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
d3a69f68-d223-4af4-8e78-e0c215a455db

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 18 2017

AMERICA TO THE RESCUE

If you’re worried about the state of human rights around the world, I’ve got great news–this afternoon, America was on it:

The Trump administration is seeking to highlight its commitment to human rights around the world, and so its envoy to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, is presiding over what it calls the first “thematic debate” on human rights in the Security Council on Tuesday afternoon.

“Council members are encouraged to express their views on the nexus between human rights and international peace and security,” reads a memo circulated to the members this month. Rights abuses, the memo says, can often be the first signs of a full-on conflict erupting.

This was, of course, not the first time human rights have been discussed to no effect at the UN Security Council, but it probably is the council’s first “thematic debate,” whatever the fuck that means. Human rights groups were skeptical–for some reason, they seemed to think that a UN Security Council meeting on human rights, presided over by a country that bombs mosques, bombs apartment buildings, bombed civilians even on this very day, and allies with countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, wouldn’t amount to shit. Well, the joke’s on them, because as it turns out…they were, uh, pretty much right on the money.

UNITED KINGDOM

Britain is having a new election in June! What fun! Yes, I know, they just had an election two years ago, and Prime Minister Theresa May has said multiple times that she wouldn’t call snap elections before Britain had exited the European Union, but since when are we dinging politicians for lying? If early polling is to be believed, we’re not doing it this time either. May has a major political opening staring her in the face–serious Brexit negotiations won’t start until later this year, and she and her Conservative Party have huge polling leads over Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour Party–and she’s going to take advantage of it to increase her parliamentary cushion for the Brexit process. This is a smart, calculated move–so calculated that her opposition might even want to make an issue out of how bloody cynical the whole thing is.

Technically, May does not have the power to call for early elections–prime ministers used to have virtually unlimited authority in that regard, but parliament voted to restrict it in 2010 in order to keep precisely this kind of purely political vote from being called. If just a third of the House of Commons rejects her plans, she’ll have to resort to legislative trickery by having her own party vote against her government in a vote of no confidence. But it’s probably not going to come to that, as both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have said they’ll vote to approve the early election. It’s not clear why they’re going along with this, but I suppose if either party really knew what it was doing then the Conservatives wouldn’t be on the verge of pummeling them both in a couple of months.

The actual risk for May is that, if British voters are really feeling buyer’s remorse over the Brexit referendum, they could opt to hand May a parliament that’s much less amenable to her plans for a so-called “hard Brexit” (apologies if there are any impressionable children reading this smut).  Continue reading

Conflict update: April 15-17 2017

Happy Easter again to everyone who celebrated, and Pesach Sameach to those observing Passover, which ends tomorrow. And if any Egyptians happen to be reading this, happy Sham el-Nisim.

TURKEY

The weekend’s biggest story was, as expected, Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan I’s formal coronation. By a slim margin, also as expected, Turkish voters on Sunday approved a referendum to amend Turkey’s constitution and change the country’s political system from a parliamentary one to a presidential one. The changes will be phased in over the next two years, but when the process is complete full executive authority will be concentrated in the office of president rather than split between the presidency and the prime minister’s office (with the PM, which is disappearing under the new system, actually the more powerful of the two positions). Erdoğan, who could now serve as president through 2029 under these changes, and will presumably try to change the constitution again in a decade if he wants to stay in office beyond that, will have vast new powers to control Turkey’s state bureaucracy, judiciary, military, and legislature.

Juan Cole writes at length about something I brought up on Friday, which is that many of these changes, on their face, are not particularly anti-democratic or authoritarian. On paper, when these changes are fully implemented Turkey’s government won’t look that much different from France’s, for example, or America’s–both of which have their own problems, don’t get me wrong, but neither of which could be called a dictatorship at least at the moment. The problem with Turkish democracy is, as it’s been at least since the Gezi Park protests in 2013, Erdoğan. Especially since last summer’s failed coup gave him an excuse to institute a permanent state of emergency, Erdoğan has been able to purge his political rivals, imprison his political opposition, stifle independent media, and rule Turkey as a one-man show for several years now under the current system, so all this change will do is make it easier for him to keep on keeping on.

Do these changes take Turkey back toward something resembling the Ottoman Empire? Stephen Cook says yes, but even he acknowledges that this is only really going to be the case when the president and parliament both come from the same party. The potential for an opposition parliament to check the president is there. The problem is that it’s impossible to see how an opposition parliament can ever be elected when Erdoğan has thoroughly stifled the Turkish press, has stocked the judiciary with his political appointees, has purged Turkish academia of anyone who dares to criticize him, and won’t let opposition parties mount anything approaching an actual political campaign (and likes to throw their leaders in jail just for good measure). And he didn’t need these amendments to do that. Does this result make Erdoğan a dictator? I would say no, but only because he pretty much already was one.

Also, while we’re mourning the demise of Turkish democracy, I think it’s important to bear in mind that it has always–and here I’m not just referring to the Erdoğan Era, but to the entire history of republican Turkey–had an authoritarian edge to it. You can go all the way back to the days of Atatürk and right through the decades during which another military coup seemed always to be just around the bend, and you’d be hard pressed to find a time when there wasn’t tension between the will of the Turkish people and the will of the few actors at the top of the Turkish political system.

So what happens now, as in right now, before 2019? Continue 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

Continue reading

Conflict (i.e., Syria) update: April 7 2017

Most of this post, for reasons that I assume are clear, is going to deal with the ongoing fallout from last night’s/this morning’s US missile strike on Syria’s Shayrat air base. I’ll have a handful of updates from other parts of the world tacked on at the end. There’s a lot to cover so I’ll try to take it in chunks.

WHAT DID THE STRIKE ACCOMPLISH?

It seems contradictory to say that this strike was both a potentially dangerous escalation and relatively insignificant–I’ve been giving myself cognitive dissonance all day trying to keep both of these thoughts in my head. But it’s true once you separate strategy from tactics. Strategically, this is a clear 180 shift in the administration’s Syria policy from where we were literally at the start of this week–with regime change openly being discounted as an American aim–to where we are now–with “Assad Must Go” practically being spray painted on a billboard outside the White House. It’s a big deal, and if there’s more to come then it will be an even bigger deal.

Tactically though, this strike accomplished…what, exactly? One-off airstrikes don’t achieve much as a rule, and in fact they can have the effect of extending and intensifying conflicts like the Syrian civil war. Russian and Syrian TV footage purporting to show the damage caused at Shayrat by this particular strike shows…not much damage, to be honest. Obviously these sources would have a clear interest in downplaying the results of the strike, but I think the fact that Assad’s air force was able to use the base less than one full day after the strike shows how little damage must have been done. And even if the Shayrat air base had been completely wiped out, somehow rendered irreparable, it would have made Assad’s air campaign a bit more difficult, but not much more than that. It’s been hard to get a clear casualty figure–Syrian media says 16 were killed, most of them civilians in the villages surrounding the base, but it might be wise to wait for some confirmation before accepting Syrian state media’s figures in this case.

From a tangible perspective then, if this is it it’s not much. So what about the intangible? Did Donald Trump “make his point” and “send a message” to Assad about the use of chemical weapons? Maybe. I guess we won’t know unless and until Assad tries to use sarin again, right? Let’s assume he did though; so what? International norms on chemical weapons are important, sure, but the “message” Assad is likely to receive is “go back to killing people with conventional weapons,” which, the numbers don’t lie, he’s been doing with frightening aplomb (he’s already resumed bombing Khan Shaykhun, in case you were wondering). And to be honest, this strike was so limited that there’s a possibility Assad says “this is it? seriously?” and figures he’ll be able to get away with using sarin again at some point.

IS THIS IT?

What happens now? Is the United States now in the Syria regime change business? Rex Tillerson pretty much said no. Nikki Haley says maybe. Donald Trump says…check with me after tomorrow morning’s “Fox & Friends,” probably. The fact that nobody, including people within the administration, seems to know is…well, I’ll get to that, but it’s not good. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that this is supposed to be it, which seems right now to be the case. Is that even possible? Even if the Trump administration wants to go back to the way things were five days ago, when America’s only consideration in Syria was the fight against ISIS, can it? Doesn’t the US now, as Robert Hunter puts it, “own Syria,” or at least a part of it? Having just bombed one of Assad’s bases in part to chase that “American credibility” hit every administration craves, is Trump going to sit back now while Assad, with Russian and Iranian support, resumes winning the war? The prospect is not a cheery one.

On the other hand, if the administration has no plan to follow this strike up with…something (not necessarily military), then what was the point? Natsec types are thrilled that we made some missiles blow up, but these are people who still, despite evidence to the contrary, believe that public displays of America’s massive, throbbing…military might are good in and of themselves, no further accomplishment needed. They should all be thoroughly discredited by now, but this is America, so of course they’re not.

“What happens now” also applies to, and will be dictated by, what Russia does next. I don’t mean in terms of the broader US-Russia relationship, or the dreams of a grand US-Russia reset, which were already falling apart before this strike. I’m talking about how Russia is going to respond in Syria. They don’t have cause to respond that harshly–Washington warned Moscow in time to get its people off the base (so much for Trump’s patented surprise attack, I guess), so they suffered no direct losses. Nor do the Russians have much moral ground on which to stand here, considering it was under Russian auspices that Assad insisted he’d destroyed all his chemical weapons as of 2015, and meanwhile there were Russians working at the fucking air base from which Tuesday’s sarin strike was launched. And, look, there’s no chance Russia is going to start a war with the United States over Shayrat air base in Syria. The arguments against American intervention against Assad never assumed that Russia would start World War III over Bashar al-Assad. Rather, they reflected concerns that when you put great powers in close proximity working at cross purposes, historically shit happens and things can spiral out of control.

But there are things Russia can do in Syria to make life harder on the United States that don’t approach going to war. In fact, they already did one today, shutting down the back channel that US and Russian forces were using to keep their aircraft from getting too close or making moves that could be perceived as threatening. This is not good. By itself this could be enough to seriously curtail America’s ability to conduct airstrikes against ISIS in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces operation to (eventually) take Raqqa. On the other hand, that’s all Russia has done. There have been some angry Russian statements and denouncements at the UN, but that’s perfunctory. We’ll obviously see if there’s any more to come, but for now that’s a pretty muted response, and you may even see the deconfliction channel reopened after a couple of days.

THE “WHY” DOESN’T MATTER

Continue reading