Conflict update: April 27 2017

SYRIA

The cause of the explosion that happened at Damascus International Airport this morning has (more or less) been revealed:

An Israeli minister has appeared to confirm that Israel struck a Hezbollah arms supply hub in Syria on Thursday close to the airport in Damascus where weapons from Tehran are regularly sent by commercial and military cargo planes.

Israel’s intelligence minister, Yisrael Katz, strongly suggested that Israel – which has launched a number of raids against Hezbollah in Syria but usually stops short of claiming them – was behind the military action.

“I can confirm that the incident in Syria completely conforms to Israel’s policy, [which is] to act so as to prevent the smuggling of advanced weapons from Syriato Hezbollah in Lebanon by Iran,” he told Army Radio.

“When we receive intelligence that points to the intention to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah, we will act. This incident conforms completely to that policy.”

The Israeli strike doesn’t seem to have caused any casualties–at least, none have been reported as far as I have seen. In response, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accused Israel of “aiding terrorists” or something, as you’ll do, and his military may have launched some kind of drone in Israel’s direction–at any rate, an Israeli Patriot missile battery shot something down later in the day. I assume Assad would prefer the Israelis get with the program and start helping him bomb Syrian hospitals–you know, something constructive.

Meanwhile, at the UN Security Council, US Ambassador Nikki Haley called for members to “pressure” Russia to make Assad bring the civil war to an end, and accused Moscow of “allow[ing the Syrian government] to keep humanitarian aid from the people that need it.” She’s not wrong, and it’s trite to point out when the US government is being flagrantly hypocritical, but call me when somebody from the Trump administration gives the “keeping humanitarian aid from the people that need it” talk to Saudi Arabia over Yemen. Then I’ll know they’re actually serious about humanitarian aid and the people who need it, and aren’t just trying to score points.

IRAQ

Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units, having withdrawn from the Tal Afar area to move west and close off ISIS escape routes into Syria, are positively sweeping through the border area. They’ve reportedly captured at least a dozen villages near the border, including Hatra, and are continuing their work. Part of the reason they’re able to move so quickly is that this operation is a bit like closing the barn door after the horses have already escaped and gotten three states away–ISIS fighters who are in Mosul now are there by choice and would have a difficult time getting out even if they made the attempt, and ISIS isn’t in much of a position to send help from Syria into Iraq. Still, this is at least something for the PMUs to do, since Baghdad (and Turkey too) won’t let them enter Mosul or Tal Afar.

Concerns that the screening process for people (adult men, in particular) leaving Mosul is sweeping up innocent civilians amid the search for ISIS fighters are well-founded but might be a bit overblown. As Patrick Wing points out, Human Rights Watch says that about 1200 people have been arrested at the Hamam al-Alil checkpoint, which is only 0.4% (Wing’s math is wrong) of the estimated 300,000 people who have gone through that checkpoint. That’s a pretty small number, and its gets smaller when you consider that only 700 of the 1200 have then been sent on to trial.

Freelance journalist Sam Kimball writes for Foreign Policy about the impact of American airstrikes on the people of Mosul and, go figure, it’s not a very pretty pictureContinue reading

Conflict update: April 25 2017

SYRIA

This morning, Turkish aircraft struck Kurdish targets in Iraq’s Sinjar region and around the town of Derika (also known as Dayrik and al-Malikiyah) in northeastern Syria. The Syrian YPG militia says that 20 of its fighters were killed in the strikes, while Turkey claims that it killed 70 “militants” across both targets.

The Iraqi strike is a little more straightforward and I’ll mention that when we get to Iraq, but as far as Syria is concerned there’s no sense pretending that this is anything other than a Turkish attempt to undermine the fight against ISIS. Ankara claims that it struck a “terror hub,” whatever that means, in order to prevent weapons and other materiel from getting to the Kurdish PKK militant group in Turkey. But judging by the unambiguously hostile reception the strikes got from Washington it seems pretty clear that Turkey didn’t explore any other avenues for potentially interrupting the movement of arms or whatever from northeastern Syria to the PKK. They just skipped ahead to the airstrikes. I’m not saying that if Ankara had asked the US to intervene in whatever it claims the YPG/PKK were doing in northeastern Syria, that it would have worked out in Turkey’s favor. But going that route would have been worth the effort, assuming Turkey’s motives were really to interdict aid to the PKK. If talking doesn’t work you can always try airstrikes after that.

The YPG, as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, is of course America’s number one proxy in Syria and the centerpiece of plans to attack ISIS in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. Turkey opposes those plans because it makes no distinction between the YPG and the PKK (there is a distinction, but it’s blurry to say the least) and doesn’t want to see the Syrian Kurds expanding their territory and potentially establishing an autonomous statelet in northern Syria. Turkey had proposed an alternative plan where by its forces in conjunction with elements of the Free Syrian Army would march on Raqqa from al-Bab and take the city without involving the Kurds, but the Turkish-FSA army didn’t do much to distinguish itself in al-Bab and, anyway, its path to Raqqa was closed off when the Syrian army drove ISIS out of the area south of al-Bab. At this point it’s likely that Turkey’s only recourse to stop the YPG from participating in the Raqqa operation is to start bombing the hell out of YPG positions further north, and that’s probably why it never asked for American help with this supposed PKK weapons problem. If Ankara had gone to the Americans and asked for help in preventing YPG weapons from allegedly being moved into Turkey, and the US had managed to convince the YPG to knock it off, then Turkey would’ve lost its excuse to bomb the YPG.

This is not going to be great for the US-Turkey relationship, and it’s going to get worse if the US decides to agree to YPG requests for a US-imposed no-fly zone over YPG-controlled territory. If the YPG wants to play hardball over this they kind of have the US over a barrel, because they could pull their forces out of the SDF, out of the Raqqa offensive, and Washington would be up the proverbial creek without a paddle. Factor in the possibility that the next one of these Turkish airstrikes might just kill a US servicemember or two, by accident presumably, and you’ve got a very combustible situation developing here.

Elsewhere in Syria, pro-government (i.e., Syrian or Russian) airstrikes killed at least 12 people and reportedly damaged a hospital in Idlib province today, at least 11 and perhaps more civilians were killed by US airstrikes in and around Tabqa, and the Syrian army is pouring resources into an effort to drive rebel forces out of Aleppo’s northern and western outskirts.

IRAQ

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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 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 (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

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Conflict (i.e., Syria) update: April 6 2017

SYRIA

Welp. I wrote a fair amount of stuff about the Khan Shaykhun incident this afternoon, some of which I’m going to leave in below even though it might not make complete sense anymore after this evening’s developments (I’ve tried to rewrite it but if anything seems incongruous then understand that it’s because I originally wrote it earlier in the day). If you’ve been in a sensory deprivation tank all evening, here’s what happened:

The United States carried out a missile attack in Syria on Thursday night in response to the Syrian government’s chemical weapons attack this week that killed more than 80 civilians, American officials said.

Dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired at an air base in Syria, military officials said. They said the strike occurred at about 8:45 p.m. Eastern Time, that the target was the Shayrat airfield and that the strike had hit planes, fuel, spare parts and the runway.

According to one military official, 50 Tomahawks were launched from two Navy warships.

The actual missile count is unknown, at least one account I’ve seen puts the number around 70. MSNBC is saying 59. Marked in the map below is the town of Shayrat (via Google Maps), just east of the air base:

shayrat

Shayrat is a fairly, though not critically, important air base for Bashar al-Assad, and it’s the one from which the airstrikes on Tuesday were launched. It’s also been used by Iranian/Iranian-aligned forces in the area, so that’s another potential wrinkle here. It’s too early for a damage assessment, but disabling this base will impact the Syrian air force’s ability to make strikes in the Homs/Hama area, though it will not be a massive hindrance to Assad’s air campaign against rebels/civilians/whomever. Really, depending on what the damage assessment says, this strike may really not have been much of anything.

If this is where it ends, then it’s a fairly contained response to Tuesday’s incident (the administration was reportedly considering much more substantial options). There haven’t even been any reports of casualties that I’ve seen, which if it holds up would be fairly remarkable though there are certainly a lot of targets on an air base that wouldn’t normally have many or any people nearby. The problem is that we have no idea if this is where it will actually end. Rex Tillerson spent much of the day talking about forming a coalition to remove Assad from power, which is obviously a much different mission. It’s quite possible that there were Russian personnel at Shayrat–US officials say they warned Russia before the attack, but who knows how much lead time they were given or if they were able to get their people (assuming they had people there) off the base before it was hit. If there are Russian casualties here then that’s a very different situation as well (if there aren’t, then Russia probably has very little recourse to respond to this).

Here’s something else to consider: a week ago Donald Trump and his administration were essentially saying that Assad wasn’t their problem, they didn’t like him but they could live with him, etc. Now we may be leading a new charge to oust him, all because of one airstrike that was horrifying but, let’s be honest, no more horrifying than most anything else that’s gone on in the Syrian civil war and not as deadly as the strike we made in Mosul on March 17. It’s very possible that Donald Trump completely flipped his Syria policy a full 180 degrees because he watched some disturbing video on television. Whatever you believe the merits of this strike to be, it has to be worrying that we’re now led by a man whose policies are subject to wildly inconsistent swings based on his immediate emotional response to events. What happens if Trump wakes up tomorrow and doesn’t feel like he got justice? What happens if Assad now says “hey, fuck you pal,” and launches another chemical strike? What happens if Trump’s newfound passion for Syrian babies, the same ones he’s tried twice to ban from coming to the United States, now begins to extend to all the ones being killed by Assad’s–and Russia’s–conventional weapons? Or the ones who are being starved to death–by Assad, by the rebels, and by ISIS? What happens if Assad threatens an American aircraft conducting an anti-ISIS operation? Some of these scenarios are admittedly unlikely, but in general can you be sure that a president this mercurial will be satisfied with this one strike?

Something that should additionally be concerning is that there is very little about the last half-century in American foreign policy that should reassure anybody that this country is capable of carrying out a single action, in a place in which we are already heavily engaged, without further escalating and expanding our activities. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya should all be cautionary tales right now.

It’s possible, of course, that this strike was negotiated in advance in some backroom between Washington and Moscow, a way to make Trump look good without doing much damage to Syrian and/or Russian interests. You may see speculation to that effect on your TV or social media this evening, tomorrow, or beyond (I have, anyway). Remember that this kind of talk is speculation.

Earlier this evening the UN Security Council debated a resolution over Tuesday’s incident, but a vote was cancelled after “heated” debate between the US and Russian delegations. During the debate the Russians reportedly “warned” the US against military action. The vote cancellation may have been the final straw in the Trump administration’s determination to act unilaterally tonight.

Finally, there are already questions about the legality of these strikes. Lawfare’s John Bellinger has an early look at this issue. There’s no UN resolution to give this attack the cover of international law and there’s been no Congressional authorization to use force against the Syrian government, so it seems like the Trump administration will be relying on some elastic interpretations of the president’s war powers and international law. Expect to hear the term “vital national security interest” a lot.

OK, below is the stuff I wrote earlier today along with the rest of today’s roundup. Feel free to read or not. That’s always true, of course, but I realize particularly tonight that everything else has kind of been washed out.

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Conflict update: April 5 2017

SYRIA

I’ve already written most of what I had to write about Syria today, but there are a couple of additional updates. Well, one, really. President Trump spoke in public, which seems inadvisable but I guess you make do with the president you have, and anyway after we spent last week (and, off and on, many weeks before that) talking about how Bashar al-Assad is actually not so bad and, look, we’re not joining his fan club or anything but he seems like somebody we could live with, we’re probably going to war with him. Of course we’re not, because today’s policy is subject to change depending on how much sleep the president gets and whatever they talk about on “Fox & Friends” tomorrow morning, but for now that may be where we’re at. Speaking of which, did you hear Susan Rice probably committed a crime? I think they said so on InfoWars or whatever.

Also, for what it’s worth, that Steve Bannon news from earlier today? Laura Rozen, who’s as good a national security reporter as there is in my opinion, says it may have happened because Bannon was one of the louder pro-Assad voices on the NSC.

IRAQ

Not much to report from Mosul today, but the city of Tikrit was rocked by a significant ISIS attack overnight, involving suicide bombers and at least ten militants disguised as police officers. Over 30 people were killed in the engagement.

TURKEY

The House Foreign Affairs Committee inexplicably decided to hold a hearing today at which members took turns criticizing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and offering their hopes that his desired constitutional changes would be defeated in the April 16 referendum. I can only assume Erdoğan is going to incorporate their remarks into his stump speech ASAP.

YEMEN

The United Nations made a last ditch effort to convince the warring parties here to steer clear of Hudaydah and its port for humanitarian reasons. It won’t work. Hudaydah is on the Saudi hit list and it’s not coming off until they’ve taken it and (probably) its actual port facilities are mostly destroyed.

JORDAN

Though his White House visit was completely overshadowed by the Syrian news, Jordan’s King Abdullah did take the opportunity to blow smoke up President Trump’s ass on Israel-Palestine, the better to try to sell him on the Arab League’s deader-than-disco peace deal.

IRAN

Tehran mayor and erstwhile presidential hopeful Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf has reportedly withdrawn from consideration for the upcoming election, possibly in anger that the principlist Popular Front of Revolutionary Forces (JAMNA) coalition hasn’t lined up behind his candidacy (which, since he lost in 2013 to Hassan Rouhani by a pretty sizable margin, isn’t really that surprising). There are rumors that Ghalibaf has cut a deal with Mashhad shrine head Ebrahim Raisi to serve as Raisi’s vice president should the occasion arise–but Raisi himself hasn’t even decided if he’s running, and he seems put out by JAMNA’s unwillingness to coalesce behind him.

PAKISTAN

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