Conflict update, April 26 2017

SYRIA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IRAQ

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

City of the Sun God

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

Conflict update: April 19 2017

Hey! So, instead of finishing this and posting it at 11:58 like I usually do, tonight I’m going to try, you know, not doing that, and hopefully being asleep at 11:58 instead. I’d like to make that the new normal with these posts going forward, but we’ll see.

SYRIA

At The Nation, James Carden asks whether we, and the media in particular, have rushed to judgment in in blaming Bashar al-Assad for the April 4 chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun. This is a difficult discussion to have in an environment that rewards the confident take over nuance almost every time, but I think Carden makes a compelling case that there has been a rush to judgment, while at the same time I also believe that the preponderance of evidence supports the conclusion that Assad did it. The thing is that “preponderance of evidence” isn’t that high a standard, especially in a situation where there isn’t all that much hard evidence–at this point I think we can fairly confidently say that sarin or something very much like it was used in Khan Shaykhun, but most of the rest of the story is still up in the air to one degree or another. And “preponderance of evidence” certainly seems like too low a standard when we’re talking about justifying military action, though certainly the US has historically trudged off to war over even less.

At some point, though, proponents of alternate theories about Khan Shaykhun are going to have to produce some evidence of their own, something more than “I’m hearing from sources” or “this satellite image looks like something else to me.” Because even if they’re right, and Assad wasn’t responsible for this attack, it doesn’t mean much if they can’t at least sway public opinion in their direction. And if international investigations start to determine that Assad did it, that’s going to become much harder to do. It’s one thing to question the veracity of anything that comes out of the Trump administration, but if, say, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons investigation comes back with a finding that Assad was responsible, then that’s harder to simply dismiss out of hand.

On the other hand, the OPCW investigation hasn’t come back yet, and if your argument is that America should have at least waited for that before commencing air strikes, well, I think you’re probably right. There’s also a strong case to be made that our media should be giving more–or at least some–attention to credible people who are questioning the “Assad Did It” narrative. And there’s also some merit to what Peter Ford, former UK ambassador to Syria, said hereContinue reading

Conflict update: April 3 2017

BREAKING: NOTHING MUCH HAPPENED

One of the reasons I don’t post these earlier in the day is because HUGE BREAKING NEWS MUST CREDIT GUY WHO HELPED SELL IRAQ WAR stories are often later shown to be no big deal. To wit:

Maybe I’m wrong, but it sure does seem like intrepid reporter Eli Lake has now been played twice by Republicans trying to substantiate their party leader’s claim that the Obama administration spied on him and his transition team. At some point you have to start assuming that Lake is willingly along for the ride, don’t you?

original

RUSSIA

An explosion tore through the St. Petersburg metro today, killing at least 11 people and injuring more than 50 at the last count. Details are still light, but it appears the bomb went off between metro stations, so it’s not clear whether it was placed there or was put on a train. Russian authorities later said that police found and disarmed a second bomb placed at another location in the metro. ISIS has already reportedly claimed responsibility and said the bomb was in retaliation for Russia’s activities in Syria, but there are plenty of other possible candidates, from Chechen militants (who certainly overlap with ISIS) to Ukrainian sympathizers to anti-government extremists, and Moscow seems to be investigating all possibilities. It’s likely not a coincidence that Putin was in St. Petersburg today to meet with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, though he certainly wasn’t targeted.

WAR ON WOMEN

Donald Trump “cherishes” women, just ask him. Of course, if those women happen to rely on the UN Family Planning Agency for their reproductive health needs, then they’re shit out of luck because the Trump administration just yanked all the US funding for that agency (which was $75 million last year). The administration claims that the UNFPA participates in China’s forced abortion and sterilization programs, but the State Department’s own statement on the funding cut as much as admits that they’re lying about that claim in order to give themselves a justification for the cut. Still, you have to admire the strong display of concern for the rights of Chinese women from an administration that’s going to have Chinese President Xi Jinping over to President Trump’s extravagant Florida vacation resort later this week. That’ll show him.

Trump is only doing what every Republican administration since the 1980s has done with respect to the UNFPA, so I don’t mean to single him out except insofar as he is the current president. But feel free to mention this the next time your Hashtag Never Trump Republican buddy or your moderate Democratic presidential nominee tries to tell you that Donald Trump is somehow different from the rest of the Republican Party and not entirely a product of that party.

EGYPT

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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: March 28 2017

BREXIT

Theresa May will formally trigger Britain’s exit from the European Union on Wednesday. That will begin the two-year negotiation over the terms of that exit, meaning that the UK will be out of the EU as of March 29, 2019. The European parliament is reportedly preparing a resolution in response to the trigger that will stipulate that Britain is welcome to call the whole thing off at any time over the next two years, but obviously that seems like wishful thinking. Reports out of London say that May’s government is rethinking its blustery rhetoric about crashing out of the EU without some kind of trade deal, recognizing the fact that doing so would be pretty hard on the British economy. Implicit in that kind of talk has always been the threat that the British government might turn the UK into a giant tax haven for EU companies, but, uh, tax havens kind of suck, a lot, and it’s unlikely the British people would be willing to endure the long-term social and political ramifications of something like that.

Brussels is now reportedly prepared to reject any Brexit deal that doesn’t protect the rights of EU citizens who, for some reason, might choose to move to the UK over the next two years. London is likely to insist that, while it will protect the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, it will only do so for EU citizens who were already in the country when Brexit was triggered. This could be a major sticking point in the upcoming talks.

Meanwhile, the Scottish parliament voted today in favor of holding a second independence referendum sometime before Britain leaves the EU…and Westminster immediately told them to go to hell. It should be a wonderful next couple of years.

CLIMATE

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again and again–we’re all gonna die, man:

Donald Trump launched an all-out assault on Barack Obama’s climate change legacy on Tuesday with a sweeping executive order that undermines America’s commitment to the Paris agreement.

Watched by coalminers at a ceremony at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, the president signed an order to trigger a review of the clean power plan, Obama’s flagship policy to curb carbon emissions, and rescind a moratorium on the sale of coalmining leases on federal lands.

Trump’s order won’t accomplish its stated goal, reviving the U.S. coal industry, which is well and truly dead. But it does signal that America no longer gives a shit about the environment, which will have domino effects all over the world. The Trump administration is unlikely to back out of the Paris Climate Agreement, itself an inadequate attempt to solve the climate problem, but it will seek to redefine its responsibilities under that agreement, which ultimately may not be much better.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: March 27 2017

A FEATURE, NOT A BUG: PART I

At LobeLog, I look at the recent increase in US-caused civilian casualties in the Middle East, and the presumption, still denied by Washington in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, that President Trump has told the Pentagon to stop worrying about civilian casualties and just blow the shit out of them, as it were. I conclude with the short version of why, aside from the obvious loss of life, carelessly killing civilians is bad for the US:

The eventual defeat of IS and al-Qaeda requires not simply beating them on a battlefield or driving them out of a city. It requires undermining and discrediting their ideology. These groups, and their eventual successors, can survive indefinitely if the United States and its allies take actions that fuel Muslim resentment toward the West. In any war, some civilian casualties are unfortunately inevitable. But if the Trump administration has truly decided to “take the gloves off” in the war on terror, then it may find that it’s punching the wrong people.

Of course, this analysis only holds if you assume that the Trump administration is actually trying to secure America and minimize the threat posed by extremist jihadi groups. If, however, their real goal is to have their Clash of Civilizations war with Islam, then they may be doing exactly what they need to be doing. Civilian casualties in that scenario are very much a feature rather than a but. I assume the former is still true for most of the people working in this White House and this Pentagon, but I have to admit I don’t really have any reason to assume it.

A FEATURE, NOT A BUG: PART II

Jon Wolfsthal and Laura S. H. Holgate of the Carnegie Endowment worry that Donald Trump’s planned cuts to the State Department budget will consequently mean cuts to US funding for the International Atomic Energy Agency. In writing about this possibility, they manage to be correct and also pretty misguided at the same time:

Regardless of what you may have heard about the United Nations or the IAEA itself, the agency may be the greatest national security bargain the United States has. As the old cliché goes, if we didn’t have it, we have to invent it. Washington provides a significant percentage of the IAEA’s annual budget and, on top of that, additional resources known as voluntary contributions. This money ensures that the IAEA can handle its current responsibilities by having the tools, people, skills, and resources needed to do its job — which is, to put it bluntly, to help keep us and other countries safe and enable all to benefit from the peaceful benefits of nuclear technology.

So in plain English, what does that mean? IAEA inspectors are on the ground in Iran monitoring that Tehran fully complies with its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It helps monitor nuclear materials in over 50 countries to deter diversion and to certify that none have been syphoned off for illicit weapon programs. It helps ensure the safety of nuclear facilities all over the world. It’s increasingly on the front lines of preventing terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons. Oh, and it’s also part of the fight against the Zika virus and other deadly insect-borne diseases (they nuke male insects so they can’t breed, poor guys).

Cutting IAEA funding is objectively a terrible idea. But if you’re opposed to the JCPOA and want a good excuse to screw around with its terms or abrogate it outright, then defunding the agency that’s supposed to be monitoring the agreement is a pretty good place to start. If the IAEA no longer has the resources to monitor Iran, then, gosh, I guess we’ll have to make the deal more onerous for the Iranians to ease the IAEA’s burden. And if the Iranians aren’t willing to accept a reasonable escalation of the deal’s terms, well, that’s on them, isn’t it?

Wolfsthal and Holgate start, like I did, by assuming that Donald Trump and his administration are actually interested in national security, and maybe that’s their mistake. If what these guys really want is to get back on the path to war with Iran, then the likelihood that slashing IAEA funding will help them do that is a feature, not a bug.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: March 25-26 2017

THIS CAN’T BE REAL, CAN IT

My capacity to believe that the current President of the United States will do insanely offensive, ridiculous shit is pretty vast, but I have to say I’m having a hard time believing this actually happened:

Angela Merkel will reportedly ignore Donald Trump’s attempts to extricate £300bn from Germany for what he deems to be owed contributions to Nato.

The US President is said to have had an “invoice” printed out outlining the sum estimated by his aides as covering Germany’s unpaid contributions for defence. 

Said to be presented during private talks in Washington, the move has been met with criticism from German and Nato officials.

The Sunday Times, which is paywalled, apparently broke this story, and they’re a Murdoch-owned paper, but I honestly can’t speak to their reliability apart from that. If it was literally anybody other than Donald Trump I’d say there’s absolutely no way it could be true, but it is Trump and so while I doubt it, I can’t really be that confident about my doubts.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces officially say they’ve paused the Mosul operation (though it’s worth noting that the BBC at least hadn’t seen any signs of a pause as of a few hours ago) over the apparent coalition strike that seems to have killed hundreds (at least 200 at this point and that number is likely to go up) of people in the city’s Jadida neighborhood. The US has confirmed that a coalition airstrike did hit that neighborhood on March 17, but there’s been a significant PR effort to try to find a way to pin these civilian casualties entirely on ISIS, either by claiming that the civilians were being held in place as human shields (possible but hard to prove) or that the airstrike hit an ISIS vehicle bomb (either intended for another target or set up as a booby trap) that was then directly responsible for the damage (farfetched but should be verifiable if true). The Iraqis have even floated the possibility that, while there were airstrikes in the neighborhood, the apartment buildings were brought down intentionally by ISIS. The simplest explanation at this point is that the buildings that were hit were being used by ISIS snipers and the Iraqis called in airstrikes against them without realizing that there were still civilians inside.

The airstrike raises serious questions about the feasibility of the Mosul operation given the civilian risk, and it also contributes to serious questions about whether the Trump administration has decided not to give a shit about civilian casualties (a contention that survivor reports are beginning to support), but I’m not convinced that the strike alone is the reason for this pause in operations. Let’s be fair here; the Iraqi advance in Mosul has been “paused,” albeit unwittingly, for several days now, going back to before this strike took place–or, at least, before it had become major news. The Iraqis need to rethink their overall approach to finishing the Mosul operation, and something tells me they’ve latched to the Jadidah strike as an excuse to do something they were going to have to do anyway.

SYRIA

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