Conflict update: April 10-14 2017

First off all, apologies for not doing one of these earlier this week. I had intended to crank something out on Wednesday but, well, when Wednesday rolled around I didn’t want to anymore.

Second, Easter and Passover greetings to my Christian and Jewish readers. This is one of the rare years when the Orthodox and Catholic Easter dates align with one another, so I don’t have to specify which Christians for a change. I’ll probably be back to regular programming on Monday, so I wanted to get an Easter message out just in case I don’t have the opportunity again before Sunday.

OK, so, strap in. I’ll try to make this as short as possible. Forgive me if some smaller stories fall through the cracks.

THE TRUMP DOCTRINE

If you assume that Rex Tillerson is actually able to speak on his boss’s behalf, then it’s possible that a “Trump Doctrine” is beginning to take shape:

Days after President Trump bombed Syria in response to a chemical attack that killed children, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said on Monday that the United States would punish those “who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.”

Hey, that’s interesting. So does that mean we’re going to punish the Saudis for committing crimes against the innocents in Yemen? No? Well, how about punishing Abdel Fattah el-Sisi the next time he disappears some political opponents or massacres a bunch of protesters? Not that either, huh? OK, well surely we’ll want to protect innocents in Bahrain from their–oh, I see. Are we at least planning to punish Bashar al-Assad for the myriad crimes he’s committed against innocents that haven’t involved nerve gas? Hah, not even that, cool.

Hey, what about those ~270 or so innocents we bombed in Mosul about a month ago? Or the ~50 or so we bombed at evening prayer in al-Jinah around that same time? Are we going to punish ourselves for those crimes?

No, don’t answer, I already know. This is quite a doctrine we’re developing. We’ll punish those who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world (offer may not be valid in your area).

SYRIA

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(Middle East) Conflict update: March 20-21, 2017

Because there’s so much to cover, after I missed yesterday, I’ve broken today’s update into two parts. This one will cover just the “Greater” Middle Eastern stuff (including North Africa and Central Asia, in other words), and the other will cover everything else.

IRAQ

Stop me if you’ve already heard this: Iraqi forces are “a few hundred meters” away from the Nuri Mosque in Mosul’s Old City, but ISIS resistance, especially via sniper fire, is slowing their advance to a crawl. In addition to the snipers, the Iraqis say ISIS is holding civilian hostages inside the mosque, so care is being taken to try to get them out alive. Civilian casualties in this phase of the operation have already been quite high–3500 or more by one Iraqi estimate–so this is prudent. In addition to the deaths, an estimated 180,000 Iraqis have already fled western Mosul, a number that would exceed the number who fled eastern Mosul during the entire campaign to liberate that half of the city–and western Mosul is still anywhere from 40 percent to around two-thirds (depending on whether you include the airport and surrounding areas in the total) under ISIS control. The number of displaced is greatly exceeding the combined Iraqi-UN capacity to accommodate them, and some people are even returning to the city despite the fighting. The Iraqi government has apparently decided not to send refugees to Iraqi Kurdistan even though there is reportedly capacity there, likely for petty political reasons.

Meanwhile, an ISIS car bombing in Baghdad yesterday killed at least 21 people. It was the latest in a wave of attacks that have been taking place across the country as ISIS fighters have been able to sneak out of Mosul. It’s believed that ISIS fighters have been reforming in areas of Salahuddin province that would be difficult for the government to get at under normal conditions but impossible given that all its resources are focused on Mosul. From there they’ve been able to strike at targets in Salahuddin and Diyala provinces, and of course Baghdad remains their main target. ISIS is also using its base in the town of Hawija, west of Kirkuk, from where it staged a serious attack on Kirkuk in October. The Iraqi government opted to make a beeline for Mosul instead of capturing smaller ISIS strongholds like Hawija first, and it very much remains to be seen whether or not that was the right choice.

The Washington Post reported today on the Yazidis of the Sinjar region, who are now dying and fleeing from fighting between Kurdish factions a mere 2 and a half years after ISIS tried to exterminate their community. The Yazidis welcomed forces aligned with Turkey’s PKK into Sinjar after forces aligned with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government fled the area in advance of the 2014 ISIS invasion, but with ISIS now gone the KRG is trying to kick the rival PKK out of the area, sometimes violently. Baghdad is apparently happy to have the PKK in Sinjar because it provides some counter to the KRG and to Turkey’s presence in northern Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was in Washington on Monday, where he said he got enthusiastic support from Trump for combating ISIS via both military and economic means, and where Trump, hilariously, unveiled yet another in his apparently infinite number of contradictory opinions about the Iraq War.

SYRIA

Syrian state media has reported for two days now that Syrian government and allied forces have rebuffed a Tahrir al-Sham/Faylaq al-Rahman (FSA) assault on Damascus, so that’s why it’s kind of surprising that the rebels are still assaulting Damascus. Not that I’m suggesting anything about Syrian state media, I’m sure they’re all committed to accurate reporting. But the thing is, while the rebels almost certainly can’t actually threaten Damascus, and they probably can’t even achieve their immediate aim of defending the remaining rebel enclaves in the Damascus suburbs, what they’re doing is sending a message. By attacking the city and hanging in there, they’re demonstrating that Bashar al-Assad’s position isn’t nearly as strong as he’d like you to believe. Which isn’t surprising; Assad was losing the war before Russia intervened, and his underlying problem–a lack of military manpower–hasn’t gone away so much as it’s been heavily papered over.

This Damascus operation is also going to do nothing but raise Tahrir al-Sham’s (AKA al-Qaeda’s) profile among the rebel factions, which is good for them but probably not good for anybody else. Now they’ve undertaken a new offensive, this one involving a couple of suicide bombings targeting Syrian government positions just outside of the city of Hama. With peace talks scheduled for Geneva starting Thursday, this is a double-edged sword for the rebels, who find themselves overall in better shape on the ground, but more dependent than ever on the one rebel faction that nearly everybody agrees is worse than Assad.

On Monday, the YPG announced that it had reached an agreement with Russia such that Russia would be able to build a new base in northwestern Syria (also called Afrin) in return for Russian training for YPG fighters. Moscow quickly quashed this talk and said that it was actually opening a “reconciliation center” in Afrin. Either way, the presence of Russian soldiers maybe training the YPG in Afrin is going to make Turkey mad while also possibly preventing its cross-border attacks on the YPG there. The YPG apparently has big plans, with a spokesman telling Reuters that it wants to grow from its current ~60,000 man army to something north of 100,000 (it’s not clear how it plans to achieve this increase, but it may start paying its soldiers more money and it’s also been accused of forced conscription). At the same time, Turkey reportedly brought together a group of some 50 Syrian Arab tribes in Şanlıurfa last week to discuss forming an all-Arab army (under Turkish auspices, of course) that would somehow materialize to take on the Raqqa operation and defeat the YPG in northeastern Syria. Turkey has been trying to form something like this for more than a year, at least, to no effect.

TURKEY

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Conflict update: March 7 2017

WIKILEAKS

WikiLeaks, the organization whose involvement in the Edward Snowden affair, the Chelsea Manning affair, and last summer’s DNC/Podesta hack launched the careers of a thousand self-declared national security experts, has released a whole new batch of classified information, this time from the CIA:

The new documents appear to be from the CIA’s 200-strong Center for Cyber Intelligence and show in detail how the agency’s digital specialists engage in hacking. Monday’s leak of about 9,000 secret files, which WikiLeaks said was only the first tranche of documents it had obtained, were all relatively recent, running from 2013 to 2016.

The revelations in the documents include:

  • CIA hackers targeted smartphones and computers.
  • The Center for Cyber Intelligence, based at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, has a second covert base in the US consulate in Frankfurt which covers Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
  • A programme called Weeping Angel describes how to attack a Samsung F8000 TV set so that it appears to be off but can still be used for monitoring.

Boy am I glad we bought an LG. Well, maybe I should wait for the next tranche of documents to hit before I say that. Weeping Angel seems problematic, but to me the most troubling revelation is that the US intelligence community has been compiling zero day exploits in mobile device operating systems and then sharing those exploits with foreign intelligence services.

As was the case with the Snowden leaks, I expect the fallout from this leak to reverberate for months (particularly if this is only the first batch of documents) and to impact everything from intelligence gathering to America’s relationships with its allies. It’ll be a huge diplomatic test for an administration that has shown almost zero capacity for diplomacy thus far and a president who goes to DEFCON 2 when somebody contradicts him on “Morning Joe” and really hasn’t faced an actual crisis–at least, not one that wasn’t of his own making–yet.

MUSLIM BAN TAKE TWO

Offered without comment, because it would only be superfluous, here’s Slate’s Joshua Keating: Continue reading

Conflict update: February 20 2017

McMaster Gets the Gig

h-r-_mcmaster_arcic_2014

H. R. McMaster (Wikipedia)

Donald Trump has a new national security adviser, and it’s not a name that was on many candidate lists: Lt. General H. R. McMaster. I’ll confess that keeping track of general officers in the US military is not exactly a pastime of mine, so I don’t know much about McMaster. John McCain likes him, which is a bad sign, but he’s also written critically of the military’s failure to challenge the civilian policymakers who got us into Vietnam and of the Bush administration’s approach to the Iraq invasion, so that might be good. He’s very well-regarded in the “counter-insurgency” school within the military, which sometimes strikes me as a bit of a cult, but he does have considerable experience in CENTCOM and particularly in northern Iraq. That experience, at least per Thomas Ricks, seems to have been OK–in particular, the notion that “every time you disrespect an Iraqi, you’re working for the enemy” is something the military and its current commander in-chief would do well to internalize.

Most importantly, McMaster isn’t Michael Flynn and isn’t a conspiracy addled, war-mongering maniac like Michael Flynn. It’s not clear whether he’ll be stuck with Flynn’s collection of like-minded maniacs on the National Security Council. Robert Harward, you’ll recall, refused the job rather than accept that he wouldn’t have control over his own personnel (and thus, he probably surmised, he wouldn’t have much real influence over national security policy either). Maybe McMaster insisted on bringing in his own people and Trump gave in, or maybe, as an active duty officer, McMaster felt more obligated to take the job despite the constraints than the retired Harward did. But still, at least he’s not Flynn, or someone equally disturbing like John Bolto–I’m sorry, what was that?

HA HA HA HA HA WE’RE SO FUCKED

Iraq

The main combat operations today seemed to center on the southern part of Mosul, where Mosul airport is located. Iraqi forces have made the airport one of their immediate priorities, with the hope that, after some repairs, it will be usable for combat support missions for the rest of the offensive. The latest update from Reuters says that Iraqi forces have reached the “vicinity” of the airport, but I’m not sure what “vicinity” means.

Joel Wing has a rundown of the three initial prongs of the west Mosul operation: Continue reading

Today in West African history: the Green March begins (1975)

It’s hard to believe that the Spanish Empire only officially ceased to exist in 1975. I mean, when you think of the Spanish Empire, or at least when I think of it, I think of vast swathes of the Americas that were Spanish colonial domains until the successful independence movements of the early 19th century, with a couple of territories (Cuba, the Philippines) remaining under Spanish control until the Spanish-American War. But Spain held a few territories in Africa well into the 20th century, and none later than the area known today as Western Sahara. The region didn’t come under formal Spanish control until the late 19th century, so it’s not like Western Sahara was Spain’s longest-held colony or anything. But it was Spain’s last colony.

Western Sahara in context

Even while it was part of the Spanish Empire, Western Sahara was claimed by both Morocco to the north and Mauritanian to the east and south. Historically, Morocco probably has the better claim, in that there have been several northwest African political entities over the past few centuries that have been based in areas in modern Morocco and have ruled, at least nominally, parts of modern Western Sahara. Also, Morocco’s ruling Alaouite Dynasty can claim some traditional allegiances among the Berber tribes in the area. But, you know, boundaries in the Sahara are not sharply defined (look at all those straight lines!), either geographically or in human terms (the region’s nomadic Berber tribes never really bothered establishing strict borders), so who can really say?

Well, I suppose you could try asking the people who actually live there. It’s a novel idea, I realize, but bear with me. The Sahrawi people, as they’re known, were already starting to resist continued Spanish rule, and in 1973 a militant group called the POLISARIO Front (short for Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y o de Oro — Saguía el Hamra and Río de Oro were the two component territories of Western Sahara under Spanish rule) was formed to force Spain out. There were very few active POLISARIO fighters at any given time, but they had a lot of public support and they were able to control big chunks of mostly desert territory that Spain didn’t have a lot of interest in holding anyway. After a couple of years of this, Spain seems to have decided that hanging on to Western Sahara just wasn’t worth it, and they began to negotiate with POLISARIO about a withdrawal and handover of power.

Enter Morocco, which wanted Spain out of Western Sahara, but on its terms and not in favor of an independent Western Sahara nation. Continue reading