Conflict update: April 24 2017

SYRIA

Bashar al-Assad’s next big target in Syria is retaking Idlib province, into which he and Moscow have cleverly funneled most of the northern rebel forces and a disturbing number of displaced civilians. The Century Foundation’s Sam Heller makes a reasonable suggestion as to what role the West should play when the Idlib fight begins in earnest:

Some have recently argued the United States and its allies should backstop Idlib’s rebels more or less indefinitely, both to defend civilians from the Assad regime and to maintain some non-extremist alternative. These proposals are untenable — unmoored from strategic logic and disconnected from the reality of Idlib’s rebellion, which is by now dominated by jihadists. The West should not sustain a jihadist-led section of the Syrian rebellion in perpetuity, to no obvious end and against a backdrop of ongoing, senseless civilian death. Instead, America and its Western allies ought to be ensuring that, when armed conflagration engulfs the northwest, civilians can get to safety.

As he’s killing civilians in Idlib, Assad will argue that they’re not really civilians–Idlib is controlled by jihadists, he’ll say, and these people are willingly living under their control. Ergo, they are irredeemable. But there are families who are in Idlib simply because that’s their home. There are other families who have migrated to Idlib to escape airstrikes elsewhere, to escape forced government conscription, or because that’s where Assad’s buses took them when they were forcibly evicted from places like Aleppo and Homs. The problem, as Heller points out, is that protecting their lives means giving them a way out of Idlib. And that means Western countries may have to pay Turkey to accept more refugees, or pay the Kurds controlling northwestern Syria to let more displaced Arabs into their enclave. We might have to do something to help real Syrians, whose desperation we find so compelling when we’re lobbing missiles in its general direction but whose actual well-being has never been a real consideration for us.

The US Treasury Department today slapped sanctions on 271 employees of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center, who the US government says are intimately involved in Assad’s chemical weapons program.

IRAQ

An overnight ISIS ambush of a convoy in western Anbar province, near the town of Rutbah, killed ten off duty Iraqi soldiers. Rutbah, you may recall, was briefly seized and held by ISIS back in October.

There’s nothing particularly new to report from Mosul as far as I can tell. But there has been a rhetorical back-and-forth over the past few days between leaders of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that bears watching. In an interview with Al Jazeera last week, Erdoğan referred to the PMUs (using their Arabic name, al-Hashd al-Shaabi) as “a terrorist organization” and an agent of Iranian “expansion.” Over the weekend, a PMU spokesperson demanded to know “Who has given Erdogan the right to intervene in Iraq’s internal affairs?” and argued that Iran’s policy toward Iraq has been “transparent” in that Tehran has been trying to help Iraq fight off ISIS–this is a not-so-veiled allusion to the fact that Erdoğan and his government were believed to have at least tacitly colluded with ISIS back in, for example, 2014.

TURKEY

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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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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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Conflict update: February 8 2017

#ThanksTrump

Of the many unconscionable things Donald Trump has done in the not-even-three-weeks since he became president, this would be among the most unconscionable:

The leaked draft of a presidential memorandum Donald Trump is expected to sign within days suspends a 2010 rule that discouraged American companies from funding conflict and human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo through their purchase of  “conflict minerals.”

The memo, distributed inside the administration on Friday afternoon and obtained by The Intercept, directs the Securities and Exchange Commission to temporarily waive the requirements of the Conflict Mineral Rule, a provision of the Dodd Frank Act, for two years — which the rule explicitly allows the president to do for national security purposes. The memorandum also directs the State Department and Treasury Department to find an alternative plan to “address such problems in the DRC and adjoining countries.”

Trump apparently came to the conclusion that it would be better if American companies were allowed buy scarce minerals from Congolese warlords on the cheap after meeting with Intel CEO Brian Krzanich. This may shock you, but Krzanich’s company stands to gain mightily from this change in American policy. Child soldiers? Human rights violations? Constant war in the Congo? That’s Intel InsideTM, baby!

Also? Donald Trump is going to start getting rent payments from the Pentagon, which wants to establish a permanent security presence in Trump Tower and is prepared to pay for it. Welcome to the kleptocracy.

Somalia

Somalia has a new president: Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, AKA Farmajo.

farmaajohd12

Hello, President Mohamed! (Wikimedia | Deeqosonna Warsame)

Farmajo (his nickname, apparently, because he likes cheese) is a former prime minister (and former employee of the New York State Department of Transportation) and dual US-Somali citizen (I guess he should check with the Trump administration about that) who defeated incumbent (now ex-)President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in the second round of parliamentary voting. Mohamud was accused of trying to buy votes, and Farmajo became the anti-corruption candidate. Ironically, then, the candidate seen as the most popular and least corrupt won an election that wasn’t decided by popular vote and was seen as highly susceptible to corruption. The new president now faces the task of cleaning up one of the most corrupt countries on the planet, fending off al-Shabab, and maybe, just maybe trying to bring all of Somalia’s self-declared independent/autonomous regions back together. That seems like a pretty tall order, but Farmajo is probably the only candidate who had any shot at accomplishing it, and he won.

Surprisingly the day seems to have passed in (relative) peace. Attackers, possible al-Shabab but it’s not clear, attempted to storm a hotel in the city of Bosasso, in the Puntland region of the country, but they were driven off after killing four guards (two attackers were also killed), and there doesn’t seem to be an obvious connection to the presidential election.

Syria

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Conflict Update: January 23 2017

Iraq

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Iraq has fully retaken eastern Mosul from ISIS. It seems like somebody has made this same announcement every day for the past week, and that’s because somebody has made this same announcement every day for the past week. But you’re dealing with different somebodies who have different ways of defining success. By one metric capturing Mosul University and the east entrances to all five bridges over the Tigris was the important milestone, because everything else is just mopping up. By another metric having Iraqi forces in control of each of eastern Mosul’s neighborhoods was the time to declare victory even if there were still pockets of ISIS fighters in some of those neighborhoods that had to be cleared out. By yet another metric it won’t be victory until all the fighting is over. Which definition you use might depend on your role in the operation–the commander of the coalition air support might have a different idea than the head of Iraq’s counter-terrorism forces.

Anyway, the Iraqi government declared victory in eastern Mosul today. The Iraqi army also declared victory…and then quickly undeclared it. You know when you’ll know for sure that eastern Mosul is fully liberated? When the Iraqis start attacking western Mosul.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi opened an investigation into human rights abuses allegedly committed by Iraqi forces in and around Mosul. This move came after a video was posted online that purportedly shows Iraqi soldiers summarily executing three captive ISIS fighters, which is obviously a no-no even for people who used to work for ISIS, but will probably spend more effort looking into reports of abuses against civilians. Hopefully the investigation will be conducted thoroughly and transparently, because that’s the kind of thing that can help bring the country together once the Mosul operation is finished. Speaking of bringing the country together, Al Jazeera just published the latest in what has been a string of stories across multiple outlets about the return of Iraqi Christians to towns like Qaraqosh that were largely abandoned when ISIS rolled through back in 2014. These places are utterly devastated and will need a lot of time and resources to be rebuilt.

There are reports that US Special Forces recently conducted a raid near the town of al-Baʿaj, west of Mosul. Rumors have put Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in that area, but if he was the target of the raid nobody is saying so. One wonders how much leeway US forces are going to continue to have to operate in Iraq if their new commander in chief and his minions don’t stop shooting their mouths off about taking Iraq’s oil. One also wonders how well the rest of the Mosul operation will go if the Iraqi government suddenly begins to feel like it has to treat US personnel as potential threats.

Syria

The first day of peace talks at Astana are over (actually day two should be underway by now, or about to get underway), and if you had “nothing” in your “what will day one of the Astana talks accomplish” office pool, be sure to collect your winnings. Things apparently got off to a pretty rocky start: Continue reading