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

What’s the use

The UN Security Council met today in special session today to discuss yesterday’s chemical weapons incident in the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun, the death toll from which is now up to at least 72. Nothing came of it, because the UN Security Council is set up, pretty much by design, to do nothing on any matter of controversy.

First of all, here’s what the media is reporting about what happened in Syria yesterday. I almost said “here’s what we know about what happened,” but then we don’t actually know what happened, we only really know what the press is reporting to us.

  • First of all, questions about cause aside, all the evidence collected from the scene that I’ve read about is consistent with the idea that the victims were exposed to a nerve agent. That includes the way the gas behaved (chlorine gas, for example, dissipates much more quickly than this stuff did) and the symptoms observed by medical personnel. Sarin seems to be the likeliest possibility, but it certainly could have been something else, or sarin in combination with something else.
  • Second, we know that somebody affiliated with the Syrian government and possessing an air force in Syria, either the government itself or Russia, bombed Khan Shaykhun yesterday. Nobody denies this. Hell, they reportedly did it again today.

That’s the stuff that seems fairly certain. Now we get into the question of causation, which is of course being disputed.  Continue reading

Conflict update: March 30-31 2017

Skipping yesterday was probably a bad idea. There’s plenty here for a two-parter, so as I’ve done before I’m going to put all the Middle Eastern stuff in a separate post.

320 MILLION FOOLS AND OUR MONEY

The F-35 is the most expensive weapon (well, it’s intended to be a weapon, anyway) ever manufactured, with an estimated total cost upwards of $1.5 trillion over the next half-century. For that expense, much of which has already been paid–and could have been put toward healthcare, schools, aid to the poorest of the poor, repairing infrastructure, improving cyber defenses, or any of countless other things that are more important than the F-35–what we’ve purchased is an aircraft that is supposed to do a lot of different things and in reality is terrible at almost all of them:

The F-35 still has a long way to go before it will be ready for combat. That was the parting message of Michael Gilmore, the now-retired Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, in his last annual report.

The Joint Strike Fighter Program has already consumed more than $100 billion and nearly 25 years. Just to finish the basic development phase will require at least an extra $1 billion and two more years. Even with this massive investment of time and money, Gilmore told Congress, the Pentagon and the public, “the operational suitability of all variants continues to be less than desired by the Services.”

Gilmore detailed a range of remaining and sometimes worsening problems with the program, including hundreds of critical performance deficiencies and maintenance problems. He also raised serious questions about whether the Air Force’s F-35A can succeed in either air-to-air or air-to-ground missions, whether the Marine Corps’ F-35B can conduct even rudimentary close air support, and whether the Navy’s F-35C is suitable to operate from aircraft carriers.

He found, in fact, that “if used in combat, the F-35 aircraft will need support to locate and avoid modern threat ground radars, acquire targets, and engage formations of enemy fighter aircraft due to unresolved performance deficiencies and limited weapons carriage availability.”

On the plus side, it doesn’t suffocate its pilots anymore. Probably.

The F-35, to me, is the sign that we Americans are never going to actually stand up and take action to put our government back in its place. This is a weapon whose value would be questionable if it worked, but it doesn’t even work, at all, and yet we’re shoveling hundreds of billions of dollars at Lockheed-Martin to keep making it. Why? Because Lockheed-Martin knows what levers to pull in Washington. This is money literally being stolen from the vast majority of us and handed to a defense contractor in exchange for something that doesn’t work and most likely never will work because its very design is flawed. If $1.5 trillion flushed down the toilet–while our government tells people who can’t afford health insurance and children who don’t get enough to eat to go fuck themselves–isn’t enough to enrage us, then nothing ever will be.

FLYNN’S IMMUNITY

Michael Flynn, who may be nibbling on a block of Gouda right now for all I know, says he’s ready to rat out Donald Trump testify about Russiaghazigate to Congress but he wants immunity from prosecution beforehand. This suggests that he knows he did something illegal, and the reason I say that is because in 2016 one Michael Flynn told me that anybody who gets immunity probably committed a crime. Unfortunately for Flynn, he’s apparently been shopping this immunity deal around–to the FBI, for example–and so far nobody wants to take him up on it, including (at this point) the Senate. That suggests, and I’m sorry to be Debbie Downer for the Trump-to-Leavenworth folks, that Flynn isn’t really offering anything that investigators want badly enough to forego the chance to prosecute him.

GOOD FOR THE GOOSE

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Conflict update: February 28 2017

SYRIA

Today’s big story happened not in Syria, nor in Geneva, but in New York, where Russia and China both vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have sanctioned Damascus over its military’s use, per a UN investigation, of chemical weapons on at least three separate occasions in 2014 and 2015. I don’t want to spend much time dwelling on China’s veto, which for the most part I think is transactional for them (Russia owes them a favor, and they haven’t alienated the likely short-term winner of the Syrian civil war), but the Russian angle here does bear some discussion.

First off, from a purely institutional standpoint the Russian/Chinese position here is untenable. The UN investigated and found that the Syrian military used chemical weapons, which, under the terms of a treaty that Syria signed in 2013, means that they broke international law. It’s perfectly reasonable for the Security Council to impose some penalty for that violation. Now, perhaps the UN investigation was flawed in some way. Russia has dismissed it as flawed. But if I’m convicted of, say, shoplifting, I don’t just get to say “eh, the jury doesn’t know what it’s talking about” and go free. Maybe you think the UN is biased against Bashar al-Assad, which I can certainly understand given the several times it’s done absolutely nothing to him in any way. If you think the UN should be a factor in international affairs, then there’s no reason to veto these sanctions. If, on the other hand, you think the UN should be rendered totally useless, as Russia clearly does–and, if we want to rewind to, oh, 2003, the United States does as well–then by all means veto this resolution.

Second, this marks the first tangible point of disagreement between Russia and the US (which supported the sanctions effort) over Syria. But thanks to the Trump administration’s thorough dysfunctionality in developing a coherent Syria policy, we can’t be sure that this represents a disagreement between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. At this point, who knows how much latitude UN Ambassador Nikki Haley has. I’m not suggesting Haley contradicted administration policy in backing these sanctions, but I am saying it’s possible that the administration didn’t really have a policy on these sanctions until she made it.

Third, this veto highlights the difficulty facing Russia, which want to be Assad’s protector and a neutral peacemaker simultaneously, when those are more or less contradictory positions. Moscow can argue that imposing sanctions on Syria right now would be bad for the peace talks, but a) there’s no absolute reason why that has to be so, and b) vetoing the sanctions is turning out to be pretty bad for the peace talks as well. There’s no reason why, say, the Security Council couldn’t have suspended the implementation of these sanctions while talks are ongoing, which might have actually helped give the talks some extra import. If Russia’s main concern were really the sanctity of the negotiations, it could’ve suggested something like that. But its main concern is still clearly covering for Assad, which means it can’t also be the country that brings everybody together to find a political settlement to the war.

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Conflict update: January 12 2017

Syria

Something fairly significant appears to be happening at the Mezzah military airport, west of Damascus. A short time ago (Friday morning local time) reports began coming out via Twitter, and then via the news services, that the airport had been hit by an Israeli airstrike, but now the story, per the Syrian government, seems to be that it was an Israeli rocket attack. It’s not clear why the Israelis attacked the airport–heck, at this early point it’s not entirely clear that it was the Israelis, although that seems to be the case–and there also haven’t yet been any casualty reports. Israel opposes Assad because of Assad’s support for Hezbollah, and the Mezzah base has been used by Assad’s forces to launch attacks against rebels in the Damascus suburbs, so the motive may be that simple. But it’s also possible that the IDF had information about a weapons transfer to Hezbollah–in the past the IDF has justified strikes in Syria by claiming it was preventing Iranian weapons shipments to Hezbollah.

The UN’s Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, told reporters in Geneva today that the Russian-Turkish ceasefire is “largely holding,” which I guess is true if you ignore all the places–Wadi Barada, Douma, Idlib–where it’s clearly not holding. Or we could ask the rebels if they think it’s holding. Earlier today a suicide attack killed eight people in the Damascus neighborhood of Kafr Susa, which is known to be near several Syrian military and intelligence buildings, and that doesn’t seem very ceasefire-y to me.

Still, it seems like peace talks in Kazakhstan are going to proceed whether or not anybody from Syria actually attends, if only so that Moscow and Ankara can save face. But those talks are starting to get some pushback. French President François Hollande said in a speech today that, while these Kazakhstan talks are nice, the real negotiations– you know, the ones that haven’t accomplished anything at all–have to resume in Geneva ASAP. Meanwhile, Russia continues to pare down its forces in Syria, in this case rotating out six bombers but partially replacing them with four ground-attack aircraft.

Finally, the US announced new sanctions today against 18 Syrian government officials accused of participation in chemical weapons attacks during the course of the war, based on a report issued by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in October. A draft resolution has been circulating at the UN Security Council that would bar helicopter sales to Syria over the report, but Russia would surely veto that and Britain and France have also, somewhat surprisingly, been pushing back against it, so this is the alternative. Syrian activists are presenting evidence of alleged Russian and Iranian war crimes to the UN, but any move to punish either country over those allegations will be quashed by the same Russian veto that hangs over the chemical weapons resolution. The activists are calling for a special tribunal that would bypass the Security Council, but the chances of something like that being formed are very remote.

Iraq

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Conflict update: November 30

Syria

The liberation/massacre of eastern Aleppo continues, but the UN is on it:

The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting Wednesday on the dire humanitarian situation in the Syrian city of Aleppo, which a UN official described as a “descent into hell.”

“For the sake of humanity, we call on, we plead with the parties and those with influence to do everything in their power to protect civilians and enable access to the besieged part of eastern Aleppo before it becomes one giant graveyard,” UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien told council members during the meeting.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called for the meeting a day earlier. He told Reuters that Syria’s brutal civil war, which has raged for almost six years, would not be resolved with one of the “biggest massacres on a civilian population since World War Two.”

“This (Security Council) meeting would have to find a way to deal with the humanitarian situation and see how we can get aid in. We have to find a way,” Ayrault said.

Wait, you may be thinking, if it were possible for the UN Security Council to “find a way” to alleviate the humanitarian disaster in Aleppo, surely it would have done so by now, right? And, really, you wouldn’t be wrong to think that. This institution, designed with the intention of solving conflicts peacefully and without massive bloodshed, is entirely dysfunctional, since literally any resolution of substance that it considers is at least even money to earn a veto from one of the five permanent members.

Stephen O’Brien, the UN Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs, has been able to conclude that “the rules of war — sacrosanct notions borne out of generations of costly and painful lessons and set more than 150 year ago in the First Geneva Convention — have been systematically disregarded in Syria.” This is honestly so important, because it gives us a chance to talk about “the rules of war.” I write about “international law” and the “rules” or “laws” of war around here a fair bit, mostly because it’s helpful shorthand to explain that somebody is doing something terrible. But these are not actual, substantive laws, and it’s more than a little cynical for the UN to wring its hands as though they were. Adherence to actual law is not voluntary, but international law, particularly around matters of war, is entirely voluntary. Nobody throws you in jail if you use chemical weapons, as Saddam Hussein demonstrated in the 1980s, or if you drop cluster bombs on civilian population centers, as the Israeli government demonstrates every time it mows the lawn in Gaza or southern Lebanon. Sure, you might face sanctions or even some kind of military response if you do those things, but only if you’re on the outs with the wrong people (i.e., the United States). Otherwise, nobody, least of all the United Nations, is prepared to enforce any of these things it casually labels “laws” and “rules.”

Yemen

Speaking of unpunished violations of international law, here’s what’s happening in Yemen:

The family of Osama Hassan faced a wrenching choice as his tiny body wasted away. Should they use the little money they had, in a time of war, to take the 2-year-old to a hospital? Or should they buy food to feed their other children?

His family chose food.

Outside their hut, Ahmed Sadek grimly observed his frail grandson, who was lying on a wooden cot and staring blankly at the gray sky. His hair was sparse, his teeth decayed, his arms sticklike. He could no longer walk on his spindly legs.

With every raspy breath, Osama’s ribs protruded through his dry skin.

“There’s nothing we can do for him,” Sadek said. “I know he’s going to die.”

Osama’s family lives in the Yemeni countryside and has probably escaped most of the heavy fighting because of that. Instead they’re being consigned to starve to death because the civil war has wrecked any semblance of normal order throughout the country.

South Sudan

Speaking of the UN Security Council being completely useless, consider the case of South Sudan: Continue reading

Ukraine on the brink of heavy fighting again

The sides in the Ukraine/Donbas civil war look about ready to resume serious violence again after clashes earlier this week between government troops and fighters for the “Donetsk People’s Republic” in the town of Marinka, on Donetsk’s western outskirts, killed somewhere in the neighborhood of 21 people. Shockingly, Kiev and Western governments have blamed the separatists and Russia for starting the fighting, while the separatists and Moscow have blamed Ukraine. There are reports of thousands of Russian troops already in Donbas, but then there are always reports of thousands of Russian troops already in Donbas, and since they all originate with Kiev, it’s hard to know just how accurate the information is. Russia of course denies sending any troops into Ukraine, but says that some Russian “volunteers” may have crossed the border, which if true raises interesting questions about discipline in the Russian army, if its soldiers can just “volunteer” to go fight someplace else if they feel like it.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is telling his parliament that a “full-scale Russian invasion” is possible if full-scale fighting resumes, and that’s possible, but it’s also very much in Poroshenko’s interests to paint a worst-case scenario for his international audience. Meanwhile, Western and Russian ambassadors to the UN are having a very dignified time shouting “NUH-UH, YOU STARTED IT” at each other in the Security Council.