Conflict update: March 15 2017

SECOND VERSE, SAME AS THE FIRST

Well, that was fast. Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban 2.0, which is totally not about religion, you guys, just got blocked by a federal judge in Hawaii for being, you know, pretty much about religion. In his ruling, District Judge Derek Watson in particular rejected one of the administration’s favorite arguments as to why their Muslim ban couldn’t possibly be a Muslim ban:

While the administration maintains the latest order is not a ban on Muslims, since it removes reference to religion and targets only a fraction of the world’s Muslim population, Watson questioned that argument, potentially setting the stage for other ongoing legal challenges even as he puts a nationwide halt on the implementation. It is undisputed, the judge said, that the six countries are overwhelmingly Muslim by population.

“The illogic of the Government’s contentions is palpable,” he wrote. “The notion that one can demonstrate animus toward any group of people only by targeting all of them at once is fundamentally flawed.”

Well sure, when you put it that way, but have you considered that SCARY TERRORISTS BAD BOGEYMAN EVIL ATTACK DANGER AFRAID?

I thought not.

Watson cited Trump’s own statements about the ban, and those of his closest advisers, as proof that it was intended to target Muslims, which adds a hilarious cherry on top of this very nice sundae. There’s obviously much more to come on this, and the fact that it happened just a short time ago, plus my obvious lack of being anything resembling a lawyer, are working against me right now. Stay tuned, is what I’m saying.

NETHERLANDS

I was going to lead with this until the ban ban–er, the banning of the ban, uh, the ban banning, whatever you get the point–happened. As it turns out, the Dutch people are not as susceptible to xenophobic white populism as voters in a certain global superpower I could name:

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberal party is set to win the most seats in the Netherlands’ elections, maintaining its status as the country’s largest political party for the third consecutive election, according to exit polls published by Dutch broadcaster NOS.

Dutch voters took to the polls on Wednesday in overwhelming numbers — the turnout was projected to be above 80%, the highest in 30 years — to back a mix of pro-EU, liberal and progressive parties over the far-right, anti-EU and anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders — known as the “Dutch Trump”.

Wilders, who had become the subject of intense international media attention in the weeks running up to the election, appeared to win a humbling 13% of the vote and 19 seats, an increase on the previous election but below the party’s 2010 tally.

This is quite a result, because it suggests that Geert Wilders brought a whole bunch of new voters to the polls–to vote against him. I guess you could call it reverse populism.

So instead of Wilders’ reactionary far-right Party for Freedom governing the Netherlands, the regular far-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, led by current Prime Minister Mark Rutte, will continue governing it. As always though it will have to do so in coalition, and the secondary result of this vote, apart from Wilders’ surprising and frankly a little embarrassing performance, is that it’s going to be quite a task just forming a new coalition. Rutte’s party appears to have lost about ten seats in the next parliament, but more to the point his previous coalition partner, the center-left Labor Party, paid for its collaborative good nature by losing somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 seats. So instead of two parties, the next coalition will be a multi-party affair, with Rutte having to accommodate the right-wing Christian Democrats, the liberal D66 party, probably Labor again, and maybe the day’s apparent big winner…the Greens. Led by the Dutch Justin Trudeau, Jesse Klaver, GreenLeft appears to have quadrupled its seats in the next parliament, from four to 16. Now that’s populism.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: March 8 2017

WIKILEAKS

I haven’t been able to read much more about the Vault 7 CIA hacking data dump today, and at any rate I readily admit that cybersecurity is out of my purview, but I think Herb Lin makes a good point here in arguing that from the CIA’s perspective, the damage wrought by this leak–at least based on what’s been made available so far–is probably limited. The big revelation concerns these CIA exploits of the operating systems for mobile devices, smart TV’s, etc., and the vulnerabilities in those systems would likely have been discovered and patched eventually–unless Apple, Samsung, et al are incompetent and/or leaving known vulnerabilities unpatched for some reason.

IRAQ

At least 26 people were killed today when two apparent suicide bombers struck a wedding party in a village outside of Tikrit.

Inside Mosul, Iraqi forces holding on to the city’s main government building complex appear to have withstood yesterday’s ISIS counterattack and consolidated their gains. Iraqi and American commanders are talking in terms that suggest the battle is already over, with coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian, for example, saying yesterday that “the Iraqi security forces are moving very rapidly right now. The enemy is not able to stop their advances.” This seems to be a fair assessment. While there is hard fighting ahead and there will be periodic setbacks like yesterday’s counterattack, west Mosul is fully surrounded and there’s little ISIS can do over the long haul to prevent the Iraqi-coalition forces from grinding down their defenses. Indeed, this has been the case since the Mosul operation began, which explains why Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reportedly hightailed it out of Mosul before the action started.

Musings on Iraq’s Patrick Wing continues to follow the twists and turns of Ninewa province’s post-ISIS political future:

A parliamentary (MP) told New Sabah that the Arab parties were opposed to former Governor Atheel Nujafi and current Vice President Osama Nujafi’s plans to make the province a federal region. The MP went on to say that the Nujafis were working with the Kurds to fragment Ninewa. These arguments will only increase as more time passes as there are a plethora of forces vying to control Ninewa ranging from the Nujafis to Kurdish President Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to Prime Minister Haidar Abadi to the standing provincial government to Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to Turkey itself to the various minority groups that reside there.

SYRIA

Syrian_Civil_War_map

Syria as of March 7; note the government’s (red) advance south of al-Bab (Wikimedia | Ermanarich)

If you’re looking to handicap the next round of Geneva peace talks, now scheduled for March 23, consider that the Syrian government and/or its Russian allies apparently still can’t manage to stick to a ceasefire for a full 24 hours: Continue reading

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

Over the weekend, ISIS finally completed its capture of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s (if it can even still be said to be part of Iraq) Anbar Province. You may recall that a few weeks ago, Martin Dempsey argued that Ramadi wasn’t as important as, say, the oil refinery at Baiji, and in a sense I agreed (and still agree) with him. Specifically, the fall of Ramadi isn’t all that important, because Ramadi has effectively been in ISIS’s hands for months now. I’ve been seeing a lot of anxious references to ISIS being only about 100 miles outside of Baghdad “now,” as though Ramadi brought them closer to the Iraqi capital, but in fact ISIS has been far closer than 100 miles outside of Baghdad since last February, when it got control of Fallujah (well within 50 miles of Baghdad’s outskirts). Ramadi matters because it’s a major city, because ISIS fighters were once again able to seize weapons and supplies from retreating Iraqi forces, and because ISIS can now consolidate its control in Anbar and project violence out from there, but they’ve already been doing that anyway. Ramadi also matters psychologically, because its loss completely blunts any momentum that Iraqi forces might have had coming out of the recapture of Tikrit and gives ISIS a new high-profile victory to use in recruiting.

Ramadi also matters because, as Iraq analyst Joel Wing writes, its loss is causing Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to panic, to abandon his plans for the Anbar campaign and to attempt to liberate Ramadi with the same kind of strategy that was used in recapturing Tikrit. And that’s terrible news. Despite the positives that should have come out of the Tikrit campaign, it can be said now that everything that happened there apart from dislodging ISIS was a disaster. Continue reading

One step back

Ramadi, capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province, finally appears to be falling to ISIS:

IS “now occupies the government centre in Ramadi and has also raised its flag over the police HQ for Anbar”, a police major told the AFP news agency.

The militant group itself issued a statement confirming it had taken control of the complex and said it had killed an unspecified number of pro-government fighters.

Fifty police officers are known to have been taken prisoner in the assault, but reports that they have been summarily executed are unconfirmed.

Ramadi has been an island of government control in ISIS-dominated Anbar for some time now, so it’s not surprising that this finally happened. But still, this loss plus the hard fighting at Baiji have blunted any momentum that could have been gained from the Iraqi army/Iraqi militia capture of Tikrit in early April. Journalist Jill Carroll argues that “the Shiites are blowing it in Iraq,” and regular readers of this blog will probably recognize her argument:

One of the key ways needed to undercut support in Iraq for the Islamic State (IS), and any follow-on organizations if IS collapses is to address Sunni disenfranchisement and alienation by the Shiite-dominated government and security forces. Sunnis must be convinced and strongly supported by Baghdad to turn against IS. It would be a Herculean task, and was from 2003-2011 for the U.S. government. It is now a near impossibility.

The Iranian-backed Shiite militias have demonstrated they are the true power brokers in Iraq and they are not looking to heal the country. They are an unstable array of groups bent on punishing Sunnis. They certainly have no plans to cede a shred of power to them. This amounts to a recipe for sectarian bloodletting.

On Wednesday Shiite pilgrims on a march heavily guarded by Iraqi security forces to the Baghdad shrine of a key 7th century Shiite imam to mark his death, erupted in violence while passing through the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah just across the river from the Shiite shrine. News reports said several houses were set ablaze, along with the building housing the Sunni Waqf in Iraq, which maintains and manages funds to administer Sunni mosques.

Forget the violence and looting that characterized the aftermath of the Tikrit offensive; if Shiʿa mobs are now marching through Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad and attacking the Sunnis living there with impunity, things in Iraq really have gone around the bend. Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi got his job after Nouri al-Maliki’s blatantly anti-Sunni agenda helped birth Iraq’s current catastrophic situation; if he can’t or won’t do any better than this in terms of protecting Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, then they might as well have left Maliki in charge.

Winning a battle at the cost of the war

The good news in Iraq is that the Iraqi army, with outside assistance, was finally able to dislodge ISIS from the city of Tikrit last week in what is easily the paramilitary group’s worst defeat since its major Iraqi offensive began early last year. It’s almost always better to win a battle than to lose one; I think even Pyrrhus of Epirus would have agreed that he preferred to win the Battle of Asculum than to lose it, even though it cost his army dearly. This is especially true when fighting an enemy as steeped in the aura of inevitability as the pretend caliphate, where a big defeat can really put a dent in their propaganda. The mass graves that have been found inside Tikrit over the past couple of days, which may contain as many as 1700 bodies of Iraqi soldiers slaughtered by ISIS fighters, speaks to the importance of defeating ISIS there as an end all unto itself.

The bad news is that, like for Pyrrhus at Asculum, the way the Iraqis won Tikrit may have lasting negative implications for its effort to win both the war against ISIS and the struggle to reunify Iraq once ISIS is out of the picture. Everything about the operation to retake Tikrit was handled poorly: the initial plans for the campaign, the wild shift in tactics in the middle of the campaign, and the post-campaign management of the city. Most of the problem comes down to one inconvenient fact: the Iraqi military probably isn’t capable of beating ISIS on its own yet, without considerable support from paramilitary militias and US air power. Baghdad imagined that it would be able to liberate Tikrit by relying on those militias, along with Iranian assistance, to bolster their own troops, and they wound up with an embarrassingly stalled advance and mounting casualties. In a bit of a panic, Baghdad turned to the US and asked for airstrikes against ISIS positions in Tikrit, which the US was apparently willing to supply under one condition: that the militias and Iranian advisers be sidelined. The militias then made Iraqi PM Haidar al-Abadi’s decision for him, voluntarily pulling themselves out of the fight to protest his decision to ask the Americans for aid.

The militia boycott didn’t last, after Najaf’s influential Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani urged their leaders to rejoin the fight but to stop acting independently of the army and ultimately Abadi. The city was liberated, which has to be a little embarrassing for the militias and the Iranians since it only fell after US air power got involved. Still, the fact remains that the Iraqis wouldn’t have even been in the fight if it hadn’t been for the militias, particularly the more powerful Shiʿa groups, which puts them and their Iranian backers (despite Sistani’s admonitions that they should get with the national program) in a position of influence over Baghdad. And that’s a real problem, as the aftermath of Tikrit’s liberation clearly showed. Continue reading

Today in “things that happened faster than expected”

Regular readers will recall that I’m skeptical that the current Iraqi campaign to drive ISIS back is sustainable, but I’ll confess that I didn’t expect things to bog down so quickly. The offensive to retake Tikrit has “stalled”:

The Iraqi offensive on the city, supported by the Shia-majority Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), had initial success, with a number of towns on the city’s outskirts captured quickly and PMU spokesman, Karim al-Nuri, declaring the city would be liberated in “no more than 72 hours” earlier this month.

Yet, the assault on the hometown of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has taken longer than expected, now entering its fourth week. Iraq’s defence minister today claimed that the army has slowed down its operation to prevent potential casualties which could occur if they rushed the assault on the explosive-laden city centre.

Now, I don’t want to say that Iraq’s defense minister is playing fast and loose with the truth here, but it’s unlikely that the US would have started providing aerial surveillance of Tikrit if the problem were simply that ISIS had left a bunch of booby-traps all over the place. It’s even less likely that, if explosives were the real problem, Baghdad would now be talking to the US about adding airstrikes to that surveillance. No, I’d imagine the real problem is as it appears in this McClatchey report: heavy resistance from ISIS and disagreements between the Iraqi army and the Shiʿa militias who have been supporting it over how to proceed. The militias would like a bloody frontal assault that may involve lots of potential war crimes against Sunni civilians, while the army and the government back in Baghdad would prefer something a little less bloody and a whole lot less war crimey.

The Americans would likely be happy to oblige the Iraqi Army (EDIT: and as it turns out, actually began obliging them today), so long as it forces those Iranian-supported Shiʿa militias to stand down and stops accepting direct aid from the IRGC’s Quds Force. That possibility has caused the leader of one of the largest Shiʿa militias to publicly criticize “‘weaklings’ in the Iraqi army” for even considering the idea of dumping Iranian support in exchange for American support. This all really bodes well for the eventual campaign to retake Mosul, which ISIS is bound to defend even more strenuously than it’s been defending Tikrit.

Iraq (and Iran) are screwing up the fight against ISIS

A couple of weeks ago some enterprising “US official” declared that plans were in place for an Iraqi force to attempt to push ISIS out of Mosul in “April or May.” This seemed like a pretty odd way to go about your business in a time of war. For one thing, no sooner had the announcement been made than everybody who was supposedly involved in this operation immediately began to distance themselves from it and argue that it was premature to talk about any offensive against ISIS’s biggest prize to date. For another thing, you don’t generally, you know, announce your war plans in public like that. I’ll admit, pie-eyed optimist that I am, I briefly thought that there might have been some real strategery going on, that the public announcement of the planned offensive was made in order to signal to forces inside Mosul who might be ready to ditch ISIS that help was on the way. HAHAHA, optimism is for suckers; the Pentagon walked back all that Mosul offensive talk a week later. It was just a screw up.

It was not, however, as fatal a screw up as what is currently being perpetrated by the Iraqi army, and its Iranian “advisers,” in Tikrit. At present the Iraqi army, supplemented by a whole bunch of Shiʿa militias, is trying to drive ISIS out of the town of Al-Dour, just south of Tikrit, with an eye toward attacking Tikrit itself in short order. On paper, retaking Tikrit would be the biggest Iraqi victory since ISIS’s major advance last year, and hapless as the Iraqi army still might be, they’ve got a decent chance of success here. But the way they’re going about it is all but certain to turn short-term success into long-term failure. Continue reading