Conflict update: February 24 2017


Say, this is interesting:

Analysts at the Homeland Security Department’s intelligence arm found insufficient evidence that citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries included in President Donald Trump’s travel ban pose a terror threat to the United States.

A draft document obtained by The Associated Press concludes that citizenship is an “unlikely indicator” of terrorism threats to the United States and that few people from the countries Trump listed in his travel ban have carried out attacks or been involved in terrorism-related activities in the U.S. since Syria’s civil war started in 2011.

Why, it’s almost as though the travel ban wasn’t actually about protecting America, but was instead an attempt to advance some other bullshit agenda!

And speaking of bullshit, remember how all during the campaign Donald Trump was Very Angry about the way Barack Obama was combating ISIS? And remember how Donald Trump said he had a Secret Plan To Defeat ISIS that later was revealed to be “Ask The Generals How To Defeat ISIS,” on account of how Donald Trump is an idiot? But Donald Trump assured us that the Plan the Generals gave him would be Way Better than whatever Obama had been doing? Yeah, about that:

For months on the campaign trail, Donald Trump accused the Obama administration of failing to aggressively fight ISIS, falsely claiming at one point that his predecessor as US president founded the jihadi group and vowing to “bomb the shit” out of it.

But as his national security team wraps up a monthlong rethink of the ISIS war, President Trump’s strategy is beginning to look a lot like the Obama strategy he once disparaged.

The Pentagon’s plan — due to be delivered to Trump on Monday — still involves a US-led airstrike campaign to shape the battlefield, as well as a dependence on local troops to fight the terror group with support of the US military, which will guide airstrikes, provide intelligence, and back local commanders, current and former defense officials told BuzzFeed News.

The one major change appears to be a recommendation to deploy 1000 additional US soldiers to Syria to embed with the…well, with whatever force eventually winds up taking Raqqa. They would play the same role that embedded US personnel are playing in Mosul, with the added complication that the Iraqi government invited those Americans into the country, while Bashar al-Assad presumably will not extend the same sort of welcome to American personnel in Syria.


This map was updated on February 21, but it was clearly updated according to Iraqi news reports, because it has Ghazlani and the airport in government hands when that wasn’t actually true until yesterday/today (Wikimedia | Kami888)

Iraqi forces said Friday that they’ve completed the liberation of the Mosul airport and the nearby Ghazlani military base, and have advanced to within one kilometer of the Dawasa neighborhood, which houses many of the city’s main government buildings. The Iraqis will likely be working as quickly as possible to restore the airport so that it can be used for close air support operations connected to the rest of the offensive. Some units currently operating west of the city are planning to move north to open up a third front and force ISIS to stretch its defenses even thinner.

There were no reports of violence in east Mosul today as far as I know, but it’s worth pointing out that the Iraqi government has asked Iraqi media to tone down its coverage of ISIS attacks in the eastern part of the city so as not to discourage the war effort. Just bear in mind that there may be attacks happening that aren’t being covered.

The AP reported that the Pentagon has changed the rules of engagement for embedded American personnel in Mosul. Rather than having to call targets in to a joint command center, from which the order for artillery or airstrikes would then emanate, officers in the field are now calling strikes in directly. It’s a more efficient system but it also requires US personnel to be closer to the actual fighting than they were in eastern Mosul.


UN envoy Steffan de Mistura is apparently working overtime to try to make some progress in Geneva, and…uh, nobody’s walked out yet, and they’re over a full day into the talks, so that’s something. The rebels want direct talks with the Syrian government about “political transition,” which means getting rid of Assad, but the Syrian government doesn’t even seem inclined to sit in the same room with rebel negotiators, let alone to talk about what would basically amount to declaring surrender in a war it’s winning. Western diplomats seem to think that Russia is the key to getting Assad to step aside, and are dangling the carrot that they’ll help pay for rebuilding post-war Syria if Russia convinces Assad to shove off, instead of leaving it all up to Moscow. But here’s my question: supposing you could convince Russia to tell Assad to get out…and Assad says, more or less, “screw you.” What do we imagine Russia is going to do at that point? Render a year and a half’s worth of blood and treasure pointless by ousting Assad themselves and putting their interests in Syria in limbo? That seems unlikely. And that’s assuming you could get Russia to go this route, which they’ve shown no inclination to do.

Iraqi aircraft struck ISIS targets in Syria for the first time today. The strikes, which took place in the eastern Syrian town of Bukamal and were coordinated with Syrian, Russian, and Iranian officials (possibly based on intel provided by the US), were in response to evidence that recent ISIS terror attacks in Baghdad had been planned in and launched from Syria.

Two ISIS suicide bombings in the vicinity of just-liberated al-Bab killed more than 60 people today, many of them civilians crowded around a Free Syrian Army checkpoint while waiting for permission to return to the city. Meanwhile, civilians in ISIS-besieged Deir Ezzor–the ones who haven’t already risked being captured or killed trying to flee–are struggling to get by without basic necessities and are increasingly worried that the city will be overrun by ISIS. Pressured pretty much everywhere else, ISIS has focused on Deir Ezzor as a place where it might be able to claw something back and even establish a new base, since Assad and the Iranians really don’t give a rat’s ass about defending the city and certainly won’t divert resources there from their campaigns against rebel forces around Damascus and Aleppo.

Paul Pillar is suggesting that maybe instead of rushing to Do Something about Raqqa and potentially adding even more instability to Syria, it would be better for Washington to take a long-term view, recognize that it doesn’t really matter for American national security whether Raqqa goes tomorrow or a year from now, and take the time to determine the best course of action. There’s almost no chance Trump will follow that kind of advice.


Hundreds, if not thousands, of Jordanians across the country protested new sales taxes today, demanding the current government’s resignation. The Jordanian government is trying to raise revenue to close its budget deficit and comply with the terms of its IMF loans, but clearly people aren’t happy at being forced to pay higher consumption taxes at a time when unemployment is high and the economy is stagnant.


The Turkish government has arrested so many people in connection with last summer’s attempted coup that it now needs to move nonviolent offenders to “open prisons” to make room in more secure facilities. The overcrowding may also be why Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems so hell-bent on reinstituting the death penalty, which in addition to allowing him to off his political enemies would also probably put the final nail in the coffin as far as Turkey ever joining the European Union. It seems like a better solution to, uh, killing people would be to maybe not arrest ~57,000 people every time Fethullah Gülen scratches his ass, but I don’t expect Erdoğan would agree.

Al-Monitor’s Fehim Taştekin suggests that the recent increase in tensions between Turkey and Iran isn’t just about Syria, but has also been engineered by Ankara to gain favor, and hopefully economic goodies, from the Arab Gulf states.


People in the US deep state–er, I mean the defense and intelligence communities, because the idea that America has a deep state is LOL and WTF–are trying very hard to talk President Trump down from his comprehensively bad idea to list the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization:

It likely would complicate the U.S. fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, defense and other officials said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity. Shi’ite militias backed by Iran and advised by IRGC fighters are battling Sunni jihadist groups there, putting them on the same side as American forces.

It could encourage Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria to curtail action against Islamic State and possibly even sponsor actions against U.S.-backed or American forces in Iraq, one official said. The Revolutionary Guards answer to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Naming Iran’s most influential military force a terrorist group also could further inflame proxy conflicts elsewhere, including in Yemen, that the United States and its regional allies say Iran is fueling, the officials said. Iran denies those allegations.

“That move could potentially backfire” in Iran’s domestic politics, too, said one of the officials. “The Iranians are a major source of trouble … but those kind of moves would only help the hardliners” in Iran and undercut more moderate leaders such as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

In addition, said another of the officials, adding the IRGC to the terrorist list would cause friction with U.S. European allies, who in the wake of the 2015 nuclear agreement are trying to rebuild business ties to Iran, which often means contact with the Revolutionary Guard and the companies it controls.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has finally reclassified unrecoverable Iranian uranium as unrecoverable, and lo and behold where Iran was previously pushing against the nuclear deal’s cap on enriched uranium now it’s sitting on about half of that limit. Iran is obliged under the deal to downblend nuclear waste so that its levels of U-235 (the reactive isotope) approximate those of natural uranium. As such, that material doesn’t count against its enriched uranium limit.


A suicide bomber, likely al-Qaeda, struck a military base in the southern Yemeni city of Zinjibar today, killing at least eight soldiers.


Hundreds of Coptic Christians are leaving the Sinai for other parts of Egypt in the face of threats from ISIS-Sinai to attack Christian targets.

Although it seems clear that the Egypt-Saudi relationship is frayed, I don’t want to overstate things. The two countries are moving forward on a $1.5 billion Saudi development plan in the Sinai, with the hope (at least on Egypt’s end) that the increased economic activity will dry up ISIS’s support.


The explosion that killed ten people in Lahore yesterday, which was initially thought maybe to have been an accident before explosive residue was supposedly found at the scene and it was reported as a bombing, now looks once again like it was an accident caused by a gas leak.


The Cambodian government says it needs $400 million in international aid to fund the removal of the last of the mines that have littered the country since the 1970s.


For the past couple of weeks, Thai authorities have been repeatedly raiding and otherwise targeting a Dhammakaya Buddhist monastery just north of Bangkok, whose head monk is ostensibly wanted on money laundering charges but may be wanted by Thailand’s current military junta because he’s been an outspoken supporter of the former civilian government. Today, some of the same Myanmar Buddhists who are the most enthusiastic supporters of exterminating the Rohingya staged a protest against the Thai government’s persecution of their co-religionists. I can’t confirm reports that many of them collapsed mid-protest due to a failure to process the cognitive dissonance.


The Wall Street Journal reported (I’m linking to the unpaywalled Reuters report about their report) a short time ago that “back-channel” talks planned for March 1-2 in New York between a North Korean envoy and former US officials have now been called off because the Trump administration refused to issue a visa to the envoy.


Fighting between rival militias in Tripoli has continued through a second day with no real end yet in sight. The General National Congress’s “Salvation Government,” the third of Libya’s two governments (I know, that doesn’t make any sense, but what does?) says it’s preparing to step in and put an end to the violence, but we’ll see.


Reuters has published a lengthy investigative piece into how Gambian President-turned-exile Yahya Jammeh made a shitload of money running what was supposed to be a charity:

Funds from a dollar bank account in the name of the Jammeh Foundation for Peace, a charity founded by Gambia’s former president Yahya Jammeh, flowed to Jammeh himself, not to foundation projects, according to bank records and interviews with a former charity official and a former presidential staff member.

In 2012 and 2013, over $8 million was paid into the account at Gambia’s Trust Bank. Over half of the money was withdrawn in cash, Reuters has found.

The “Jammeh Foundation for Peace,” huh? I think I heard about that place once before:


The Estonian government, keen to make sure that what happened to Ukraine doesn’t happen to it, is taking steps to make it easier for ~25% of its residents who are ethnic Russians to obtain Estonian citizenship, and to improve economic conditions in the predominantly Russian eastern part of the country. This, frankly, seems like a much better way to short-circuit any Russian designs on eastern Estonia than stationing more NATO units there, plus it’s also a good thing to do for the people of eastern Estonia, but what do I know?


At the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, writes of growing discord between the Kremlin and Russia’s regional governments. Moscow is attempting to increase the share of taxes those regional governments must remit to the federal government in order to help reduce Moscow’s budget deficit. But the regions are struggling with reductions in federal subsidies and with paying for a lot of unfunded campaign promises Vladimir Putin made in 2012.

Meanwhile, Russian politicians with close ties to Putin’s government are saying that Donald Trump’s verbal diarrhea about putting America’s nuclear arsenal “at the top of the pack” could lead to a brand new arms race. Well, Republicans always talk about how America was so much better in the 1950s or whatever.


Reeling from the news that President Trump’s Very Substantial Friend Jim won’t visit Paris anymore, French authorities have reportedly decided to shut the whole city down and relocate their government to Mar-a-Lago, just like America’s government.

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