Conflict update: March 20-21 2017

Because there’s so much to cover tonight, you’re getting two updates. This one covers everything but the Greater Middle East, the other covers nothing but the Greater Middle East. Enjoy…?

COMING SOON TO A SECURITY THEATER NEAR YOU

Effective as of yesterday, people trying to fly into the US from airports in Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia will not be allowed to bring any electronic device larger than a mobile phone into the cabin with them. Because Reasons:

On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security released a statement on the new policy, stating the “2015 airliner downing in Egypt, the 2016 attempted airliner downing in Somalia, and the 2016 armed attacks against airports in Brussels and Istanbul” as examples of why increased security was needed.

“Evaluated intelligence indicates that terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation and are aggressively pursuing innovative methods to undertake their attacks, to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items. Based on this information, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly and Transportation Security Administrator Acting Administrator Huban Gowadia have determined it is necessary to enhance security procedures for passengers at certain last point of departure airports to the United States,” the statement said.

Of those four cited attacks (two of which didn’t even take place on airplanes) only the Somali incident would have been inhibited by this ban, and since investigators believe in the Somali case that a laptop-encased bomb was rigged to explode on a timer, it’s not clear what sticking that same laptop in the luggage compartment would have accomplished–and, in fact, putting a bunch of lithium-ion batteries in the luggage compartment could have disastrous consequences. It’s certainly no secret that electronic devices are a risk, that’s why you get your carry-ons screened at security. But if security at the ten airports cited in this order is lax, then doesn’t the same concern apply to checked luggage? And why has a measure like this become necessary now, when we’ve known that electronics were a risk for years and there have been exactly zero attacks against US-bound passenger flights originating at any of these airports?

I’ve actually seen it suggested that explosives are less a concern than the possibility of someone hacking into the plane’s flight controls, but if that were really a possibility then why would you allow any electronic devices on any plane originating at any airport?

Britain has now implemented a similar ban though from a smaller list of airports, and Canada is reportedly considering one as well, because security theater is remarkably appealing. Aside from making it just a little bit more unpleasant to fly to the US from the Middle East and North Africa, which may be the entire point, I’m not really sure what this accomplishes.

NO MESSAGE HERE

I’m sure this was all just an unfortunate coincidence:

An African trade summit organized by the University of Southern California ended up with zero Africans as they were all denied visas to enter the United States just days before the summit despite applying months ahead of time, in what organizers called an act of “discrimination against African nations.”

“Usually we get 40 percent that get rejected but the others come,” Mary Flowers, chair of the African Global Economic and Development Summit, told Voice of America in an interview Friday.

“This year it was 100 percent. Every delegation. And it was sad to see, because these people were so disheartened.”

If we’re going to adopt Deputy Leader Bannon’s philosophy that nobody from a majority non-white nation should be allowed to enter the United States, then let’s just say that officially. Get it on the record so people can know what they’re dealing with. Sure, the administration will lose in court, again, but they seem happy to keep trying new ways to achieve this goal even as the courts keep telling them “no.”

TILLERSON TRACKER

secretary_tillerson_greets_german_foreign_minister_gabriel_before_their_meeting_in_washington_283263186542629

See, Tillerson already met with this German dude that one time! What the hell more do you people want?

BREAKING BREAKING BREAKING IN UNPRECEDENTED INSULT, SECRETARY OF STATE MAY SNUB NATO SUMMIT TO MEET WITH CHINESE PRESIDE–you know what, folks? I’m not entirely sure about this one. Continue reading

Conflict update: March 17 2017

SYRIA

First the new story: that Israeli missile alert that sounded in the Jordan valley yesterday evening wasn’t caused by any rockets coming from Gaza. Instead, it was caused by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles, fired at a squadron of Israeli planes that were returning from a bombing run in Syrian airspace. The Israeli planes reportedly struck a convoy of weapons intended for Hezbollah. None of the Syrian missiles hit the Israeli planes, but at least one was apparently intercepted by an Israeli Arrow missile defense, uh, missile (there has to be a better way to describe that).

The big story remains the bombing of a mosque in the Syrian town of al-Jinah during evening prayers yesterday. The Pentagon has acknowledged that this was an American airstrike, but insists that it did not strike the mosque, but a nearby building where a high-level al-Qaeda meeting was being held. That’s their story, but it doesn’t seem to be holding up very well:

According to the US military, it launched strikes on a large building just 50 feet from a small mosque in the village of al-Jinah. Al-Qaeda regularly used this building to hold high-level meetings, the Pentagon said. And after watching the site for some time, the US military bombed the building around 7 p.m. local time Thursday, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Friday. The strikes included a 500-pound bomb and at least six AGM-114 Hellfire missiles fired from drones, a US defense official told BuzzFeed News.

The US military said it purposely avoided the small mosque. But some on the ground suggested the building hit was a new, larger mosque, where as many as 300 worshippers had gathered for evening prayer. Local residents put the death toll as high as 62 and said others could be buried alive in the wreckage. Some videos that appeared online showed rescue workers pulling children out of the rubble.

“We are still assessing the results of the strike, but believe that dozens of core al Qaeda terrorists were killed,” Davis said in a statement afterwards.

Davis said the military was “not aware of any credible allegation” of civilian casualties despite the emerging accounts from Syrian watch groups. But US officials said they were still investigating the allegations. The US military also has yet to determine how many were killed and whether any were high-value al-Qaeda operatives.

“Not aware of any credible allegation”? Really?

The Pentagon released this photo that it says proves it didn’t strike a mosque:

It says the mosque, which it identifies as the small building on the left, is clearly intact, which, fair enough. But here’s the thing: locals are saying that was the old mosque. The new mosque was the two-building compound on the right, one building of which has been blown to smithereens in that photo. How can you be sure the locals aren’t lying? Well, you can’t, but one point in their favor is that the Pentagon itself says, according to one of its drones, nobody came out of the small building for at least 30 minutes after the strike. If the small building were still the mosque, full of people at evening prayer, you would think maybe one or two of them might have come outside to see what happened after the building next door was fucking blown up. But maybe that’s just me.

In other Syria news, YPG commander Sipan Hemo told Reuters that the Raqqa operation will begin next month. Say, remember when Donald Trump got real Mad on account of people announced the Mosul offensive before it began? His face got even oranger and he blubbered something about the element of surprise, like we’re fighting the Napoleonic Wars or some shit. I wonder if he’ll be mad about this.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: March 14 2017

DONALD TRUMP AND THE HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL

According to Foreign Policy, nominal Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a letter recently to a group of nonprofits warning that the Trump administration is prepared to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council unless “considerable reform” is undertaken in that body. Tillerson’s letter highlighted the presence on the UNHRC of such human rights luminaries as Saudi Arabia and China (and, uh, the United States, while we’re at it), but that’s all smokescreen. By “reform,” what the Trump administration–and, indeed, much of the US foreign policy community–means is “lay off Israel.”

While I take a backseat to nobody in my loathing of Israel’s human rights record, which deserves all the criticism it gets, these folks do have a point about the UNHRC–or, rather, they have part of a point. Something like half of the resolutions issued by the UNHRC since it was formed in 2006, and nearly a third of its special sessions over that time, have had to do with Israel. As shitty as Israel’s human rights record is, that’s disproportionate. Of course, the Trump/Republican solution to this problem is, essentially, that the UNHRC should cease to exist, or at least be less active with regards to Israel. My solution would be for the UNHRC to be at least as active on Israel as it is now, but also be way more active when it comes to, well, everybody else (no government in the world actually cares about human rights, is the real problem here).

But while the Trump administration’s instinct is to withdraw from any international body that doesn’t toe the line, denying them that all-important TRUMP Brand stamp of approval or whatever, if their aim is to steer the UNHRC in a different direction then quitting is exactly the wrong way to do so. The Obama administration, being thoroughly a creature of the Washington foreign policy establishment despite its occasional tepid criticisms of that establishment, also objected to the HRC’s overemphasis on Israel, so it joined the council (the Bush administration refused to be part of it) and, lo and behold, was able to use America’s international heft to push the council to focus attention on Syria, Iran, and nonstate actors like ISIS. If the Trump administration follows through on its threat to withdraw from the council, then it will be giving up its ability to influence what the council does.

I’m torn in cases like this between my instinct, which is that the administration doesn’t think through the ramifications of these kinds of decisions and/or doesn’t really give a shit about them, and my skepticism, which tells me that they must surely realize what they’re doing and are acting purposefully to try to wreck as many international institutions as they can. Of course there’s no reason it couldn’t be both–no presidential administration is a monolith.

“MAD DOG” “REASONABLE CLIMATE CHANGE THINKER” MATTIS

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Conflict update: March 13 2017

TURKEY

A few hours ago Ankara turned its diplomatic dispute with the Netherlands up to 11 by barring the Dutch ambassador from returning to Turkey and announcing that it was suspending diplomatic relations with Amsterdam. The Turkish government further said that it was closing its airspace to Dutch diplomats and that it would pursue action at the European Court of Human Rights over the treatment of its cabinet minister, and Turkish nationals who demonstrated over that treatment, in Rotterdam over the weekend. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan then accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of “supporting terrorists,” without getting more specific but probably meaning the PKK, after Merkel had expressed support for Dutch actions over the weekend.

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern reiterated that his country would also not be amenable to hosting an AKP campaign rally, so expect him to be Erdoğan’s Nazi of the Day tomorrow. And I think it’s important to understand that while it might seem like Erdoğan is about two days away from his head literally exploding, in reality I don’t think this could be working out any better for him. Erdoğan’s political appeal has long centered on the idea that he was the only person who could protect Turkey from its enemies, whether domestic (Gülenists, the PKK, the Deep State) or foreign (America, Europe, Russia, Israel, international banking wink wink). In the middle of a close race on a referendum to decide whether or not to give him dictator-esque levels of power within the Turkish state, what better rallying call could Erdoğan want than a full-on diplomatic war with Europe? And since Erdoğan has systematically eliminated any sort of dissenting or even objective media, there’s nobody inside Turkey to challenge his “everybody vs. Turkey” narrative between now and the referendum.

The European Union is even feeding into this narrative by “warning” Ankara that the passage of the referendum could endanger Turkey’s chances of ever becoming an EU member. Erdoğan doesn’t even really want EU membership, but he’ll gladly take the EU warning, spin it as a provocation against the Turkish people, and turn it into a political advantage for himself.

NETHERLANDS

The flip side of this coin is that the events of this weekend have also been a big boost for fascist cesspool Geert Wilders and his Party for (White People’s) Freedom:

With two days to go until the Dutch vote in a pivotal parliamentary election, pollster Maurice De Hond found that the spat between the Netherlands and Turkey, and Saturday’s night of rioting by ethnic Turks in Rotterdam, had benefited the two parties that have been most skeptical on immigration.

The poll showed Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s pro-business VVD party on track to win 27 seats in the 150-seat parliament with 18 percent of the vote, three more than in the pollster’s last survey, published on Sunday but taken before the weekend.

Geert Wilders’s anti-Muslim Freedom Party was in second place with 16 percent, or up two seats to 24.

Wilders is trying to make more hay by demanding the expulsion of the Turkish ambassador. Now that Ankara has drawn first blood on that front Wilders may be able to get a lot of mileage out of this argument in the run up to Wednesday’s election, unless Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte does expel the ambassador (which would then invite continued escalation with Turkey).

Wilders is unlikely to be the next prime minister of the Netherlands, and he’s a longshot even to have a role in the country’s next government. No party is going to win an outright majority on Wednesday, and Wilders is so toxic that there’s almost no chance he and his party will be asked to join a coalition. But as Foreign Policy’s James Traub writes, Wilders has owned this campaign and has brought his loathsome xenophobia right smack into the mainstream of Dutch politics. The “center-right” is likely to maintain its hold on the government, but it’s had to incorporate a bit of Wilders’ white nationalism in order to do so.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: March 11-12 2017

TURKEY

So let’s start with the good news: Turkey and the Netherlands haven’t declared war on each other. Yet. As far as I know. But the good news pretty much ends there. On Saturday, Dutch authorities took the fairly provocative step–look, I give Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a lot of shit around here, but I don’t think you can fairly describe what happened here as routine diplomacy–of actually preventing a plane carrying Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu from landing in Rotterdam as planned, and then detained Turkey’s family affairs minister, Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, to prevent her from addressing the same referendum campaign rally that Çavuşoğlu was supposed to attend. Kaya was eventually deported to Germany.

I get that anti-immigrant fervor is high in the Netherlands right now and that the country is about to have an election this week that will turn largely on that issue. I also get why the government of any European country would be uneasy about hosting Turkish political rallies in general, but particularly in favor of a referendum whose purpose is basically to strip Turkish democracy for spare parts. But you don’t get to deny landing rights to a plane carrying a diplomat from an ostensible ally, and you certainly don’t get to just go around detaining and deporting government ministers from ostensible allies when they haven’t actually done anything illegal. The mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, said that Kaya and the Turkish consulate had lied to him about the purpose of her visit, but that still doesn’t excuse the treatment it seems she received.

Ankara did its usual thing, with Erdoğan calling the Dutch government “Nazis” and threatening unspecified retribution, like the Janissaries are going to be riding through downtown Amsterdam by the end of the week or something. Whatever Ankara does to punish the Netherlands won’t be much because it can’t be much. The biggest club in Erdoğan’s bag with respect to Europe is turning Syrian refugees loose in the Balkans, and that won’t affect the Netherlands very much, if at all. Some, including Çavuşoğlu, have mentioned possible sanctions, but that’s an arms race Turkey may not be able to win–if they push too far, there’s a small but not that small chance that the European Union could reexamine Turkey’s EU accession agreements in ways that would substantially hurt Turkish nationals living in other European countries. The Turkish government has called on “international organizations” to sanction Amsterdam for its actions, but that seems unlikely. The only blowback so far has been against Turkey–the government of Denmark announced that a visit scheduled for next weekend by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım will now be postponed.

SYRIA

On Saturday, two suicide attacks struck the Bab al-Saghir area of Damascus, killing somewhere between 40 (the government estimate) and 74 (according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights) people. Bab al-Saghir (“the small gate”) is, as its name suggests, one of the seven gates in the wall of Damascus’s “old city,” and the area is home to a cemetery that includes shrines to a number of prominent figures in Shiʿism (children of imams, that sort of thing). That was, presumably, the target. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (“Committee for the Liberation of Syria”), the alliance of extremist groups led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, claimed credit for the bombing and said it was intended to send a message to Tehran about its involvement in Syria.

Bashar al-Assad did an interview with Chinese TV this weekend in which he gushed about the close ties between Damascus and Beijing and dangled the huge carrot of a big Chinese role in rebuilding Syria after the war is over. The interview comes just after China joined Russia in vetoing a UN Security Council measure that would have sanctioned Assad’s government for its probable use of chemical weapons during the civil war, and when China appears to be getting more involved in the war on Assad’s side, partly because Assad has always had decent relations with Beijing but also because the Chinese government is concerned about Uyghurs who have left Xinjiang to fight with Syrian jihadi forces. In the same interview, Assad said he’s “hopeful” about the Trump administration but characterized new US forces being deployed to eastern Syria as an “invasion.”

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Conflict update: March 10 2017

ETHICS, HOW DO THEY WORK

As it so happens, while Michael Flynn was advising candidate Donald Trump on foreign policy, he was also being paid to act as an agent of the Turkish government–except, oops, he apparently forgot to mention that to anybody until earlier this week. Flynn even wrote pro-Turkey op-eds without disclosing that he was being paid to do it, which for anybody else would be a huge scandal but which is at best the 80th worst thing Flynn has done in just the past six months. To make this even more hilarious, Flynn apparently didn’t even fulfill the terms of his contract, which called for him to “investigate” Fethullah Gülen and produce a short film based on his investigation.

To make things considerably less hilarious, Donald Trump thought this guy was the right pick to be his top national security adviser, and Trump still has almost four years left in his term.

REX TILLERSON: THE FORGOTTEN MAN

tillerson_sworn_in

I was going to make a joke about the last time Tillerson saw his boss, but instead, can we talk about what President Trump could possibly be looking at here? Seriously, they’re swearing in his Secretary of State and he’s doing…what, exactly?

Astonishing:

I guess Secretary Kushner must have handled the visit himself.

Seriously, you’re Rex Tillerson. You used to run ExxonMobil. You’ve got more money than you could possibly spend in a hundred lifetimes. How much longer are you going to allow yourself to be humiliated?

FAMINE

Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, told the Security Council today that the UN is facing its worst crisis since its founding. He was talking about the acute simultaneous risk of famine/mass starvation in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria. An estimated 20 million people in parts of those four countries are at risk of starving to death. Children growing up in those areas are looking at lifelong challenges posed by severe malnutrition, and that’s assuming they actually survive. In all four countries these famines are to some degree man-made, though in Somalia in particular a severe drought is also part of the problem (though of course we can argue about the extent to which severe weather is now man-made as well).

CHEAP OIL BACK AGAIN?

This…probably isn’t good: Continue reading

Conflict update: March 9 2017

UNITED STATES

It’s very early to draw conclusions, particularly considering the current circumstances in Iraq, but it’s starting to look like when Donald Trump said he was going to “bomb the shit out of them,” that was another thing that people were right to take literally. And, apparently, “them” in that phrase meant, well, pretty much everybody:

The U.S. has dramatically ramped up the campaign against AQAP in Yemen in 2017, with deadly results. New America estimates that approximately 16 civilians have been killed in U.S. strikes in Yemen so far this year. All but one of these strikes was launched after Trump took office. The last time a yearly figure was that high was in 2013.

This year has seen a significant increase in the number of both airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition and civilian casualties, according to the tracking site Airwars, but this trend began before Trump took office as fighting to retake the ISIS-held cities of Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq, intensified. In January, the site recorded 264 confirmed or fairly credible civilian casualties compared to 139 in December. In January, likely civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes outnumbered those from Russian airstrikes for the first time. In February there, were 110 deaths, and March has already seen 89.

The Guardian has a report today on the sordid recent history of US counter-terrorism training operations across Africa, and here we need to lay the blame at President Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. In one country after another–Kenya, Nigeria, South Sudan, American funding and training is going to governments whose militaries are regularly accused of crimes against humanity. Meanwhile, the incidence of terrorism on the continent has skyrocketed since 2009, in spite of all that aid–or maybe because of it. You see, to the extent that US training has helped these militaries do a more effective job of killing and otherwise mistreating people, it may be that we’re helping to create more recruits for the Boko Harams, al-Shababs, and al-Qaeda affiliates of the world.

SYRIA

The most volatile spot in Syria remains the area between al-Bab and Manbij, where Turkish forces and their rebel proxies are trying to get at the YPG but are instead running into the Syrian army, which Turkey doesn’t want to fight but which its proxies do very much want to fight. Syrian state media reported today that Turkish forces shelled the Syrian army outside of Manbij, killing an unspecified number of Syrian soldiers.

Per the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, today seems to have been a particularly bad day to be a civilian in eastern Syria. In al-Mayadin, a town outside of the besieged city of Deir Ezzor, airstrikes–probably Russian–killed at least seven civilians. Suspected American airstrikes, meanwhile, killed at least 20 civilians in the village of Matab, outside of Raqqa. Speaking of Raqqa, American officials say they’re starting to see signs that ISIS leadership is fleeing that city in advance of the expected operation to liberate it, which is a pretty good sign that they don’t plan on Raqqa being their last stand.

At the Middle East Institute, analysts Ibrahim al-Assil and Basel al-Junaidy look at the fallout from the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham/Ahrar al-Sham split in Idlib. Some of Ahrar al-Sham’s most extreme elements left the group to join JFS’s new Tahrir al-Sham coalition, leaving Ahrar al-Sham militarily weaker–but there may be a political silver lining here for a group that has long been thought too extreme to receive overt foreign assistance: Continue reading