Conflict update: February 28 2017


Today’s big story happened not in Syria, nor in Geneva, but in New York, where Russia and China both vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have sanctioned Damascus over its military’s use, per a UN investigation, of chemical weapons on at least three separate occasions in 2014 and 2015. I don’t want to spend much time dwelling on China’s veto, which for the most part I think is transactional for them (Russia owes them a favor, and they haven’t alienated the likely short-term winner of the Syrian civil war), but the Russian angle here does bear some discussion.

First off, from a purely institutional standpoint the Russian/Chinese position here is untenable. The UN investigated and found that the Syrian military used chemical weapons, which, under the terms of a treaty that Syria signed in 2013, means that they broke international law. It’s perfectly reasonable for the Security Council to impose some penalty for that violation. Now, perhaps the UN investigation was flawed in some way. Russia has dismissed it as flawed. But if I’m convicted of, say, shoplifting, I don’t just get to say “eh, the jury doesn’t know what it’s talking about” and go free. Maybe you think the UN is biased against Bashar al-Assad, which I can certainly understand given the several times it’s done absolutely nothing to him in any way. If you think the UN should be a factor in international affairs, then there’s no reason to veto these sanctions. If, on the other hand, you think the UN should be rendered totally useless, as Russia clearly does–and, if we want to rewind to, oh, 2003, the United States does as well–then by all means veto this resolution.

Second, this marks the first tangible point of disagreement between Russia and the US (which supported the sanctions effort) over Syria. But thanks to the Trump administration’s thorough dysfunctionality in developing a coherent Syria policy, we can’t be sure that this represents a disagreement between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. At this point, who knows how much latitude UN Ambassador Nikki Haley has. I’m not suggesting Haley contradicted administration policy in backing these sanctions, but I am saying it’s possible that the administration didn’t really have a policy on these sanctions until she made it.

Third, this veto highlights the difficulty facing Russia, which want to be Assad’s protector and a neutral peacemaker simultaneously, when those are more or less contradictory positions. Moscow can argue that imposing sanctions on Syria right now would be bad for the peace talks, but a) there’s no absolute reason why that has to be so, and b) vetoing the sanctions is turning out to be pretty bad for the peace talks as well. There’s no reason why, say, the Security Council couldn’t have suspended the implementation of these sanctions while talks are ongoing, which might have actually helped give the talks some extra import. If Russia’s main concern were really the sanctity of the negotiations, it could’ve suggested something like that. But its main concern is still clearly covering for Assad, which means it can’t also be the country that brings everybody together to find a political settlement to the war.

Russia could be one of the countries that brings everybody together, but it needs a partner with equal weight that has credibility on the anti-Assad side of the conflict. Turkey probably isn’t it because Ankara isn’t on that level geopolitically. But it’s clearly also not going to be the United States–to the extent that Washington still has any sway with the rebels, and it probably doesn’t have very much, the Trump administration seems to be making a conscious effort to be as close to invisible in Geneva as possible. Moscow also needs to be sure about its leverage over Assad before it really tries to play dealmaker. What happens if Russia orchestrates a deal that ends in UN-run elections and Assad refuses to accept it? It would be exceedingly difficult for Moscow to suddenly turn on Assad now, after expending so much blood and treasure defending him. We often talk about Russia’s leverage over Assad, but less so about Assad’s very real leverage over Russia.

In Syria, most of the action of late is in the al-Bab/Manbij/Raqqa area, where Turkey may find itself fighting a two-front war if it’s not careful. Presented with no remaining way to get from al-Bab to a place where it could attack ISIS in Raqqa, Ankara seems to have opted to attack the Kurds instead, specifically in Manbij. This is entirely unsurprising–Turkey invaded Syria because of the Kurds, not because of ISIS. But it’s also entirely unsurprising that Turkey’s Free Syrian Army proxies sound like they’re looking for a fight with the Syrian army, too. The FSA didn’t form to fight the Kurds, or even to fight ISIS. These guys all rebelled against Assad, and they still ultimately see him as the main enemy.


Iraqi forces continue to advance toward Mosul’s “government district,” where most of the city’s provincial and federal government buildings are located. They’ve progressed far enough that the southern and southwestern fronts sound like they’ll be merging soon, and on the eastern side repairs have already begun on the “Fourth Bridge,” the southernmost bridge connecting the two sides of the city over the Tigris River.

The fight for western Mosul has shaped up to be a grinding affair, just as the battle for eastern Mosul was, with ISIS making effective use of car bombs and its makeshift, grenade-carrying drones. This seems unremarkable except insofar as there were a lot of Iraqi authorities who made a lot of comments during the lull before the west Mosul phase began about how ISIS had been broken in east Mosul and wouldn’t put up much of a fight. The core of ISIS’s resistance in western Mosul seems to be the group’s foreign fighters, who, plain and simple, don’t have anywhere else to go. These guys can’t slip out of Mosul and blend in with the Iraqi population until they’re able to get wherever they’re going. Most of them probably don’t speak Arabic well or at all–many of them probably aren’t Arab. If they surrender they’re looking at spending a long time in prison, at best, and they’re probably among the more zealous ISIS fighters since they had to jump through a lot of hoops to get to Iraq. So they’re inclined to fight to the bitter end.

As Joel Wing notes, reports of ISIS attacks in eastern Mosul have almost disappeared since the west Mosul phase began, but given that such attacks are still being attempted, the lack of coverage probably reflects an Iraqi media decision to stop reporting on them.


No sooner did KRG President Massoud Barzani leave Turkey–where, among other things, he lobbied President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to free the dozens of Kurdish politicians his government has imprisoned over the past several months–than Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş denied that Barzani had raised that issue at all. He did this even though Barzani has been publicly open about his desire that Ankara should release those Kurdish leaders. Overall Barzani’s visit seems to have been a minor catastrophe for Erdoğan. Barzani was supposed to help Erdoğan appeal to conservative Kurdish voters in the upcoming constitutional referendum, but instead he’s centered the issue of Erdoğan’s government jailing its political opposition, and the fact that Erdoğan met with him at all has angered Turkish nationalists who are supposed to be part of Erdoğan’s new far-right base.

Speaking of the referendum, the best chance the “no” side has to win the vote remains the weakness of the Turkish economy. Accordingly, Ankara is working overtime to try to prop the economy up, even inviting long-term problems if it helps fill the short-term gap.


You don’t hear very much about the possibility that Iran’s Guardian Council might disqualify Hassan Rouhani from running for reelection, but it is a possibility and, though it is remote, I don’t think it’s getting enough attention. If the Guardian Council were to take such a step it could lead to a repeat of the massive 2009 Green Movement protests–Rouhani’s popularity has waned somewhat, but he’s still popular enough that such an obviously political move by the Guardian Council could easily provoke genuine popular outrage. The possibility of a backlash is probably one of the things keeping the Guardian Council from taking that step, but you get the sense that some of the council’s really hardline members would risk the backlash to remove Rouhani from office.


Israel’s Comptroller, Joseph Shapira, issued a report today that heavily criticized Benjamin Netanyahu for failing to properly brief his security cabinet about Hamas’s tunnel network prior to the 2014 Gaza War. Shapira’s report also criticized the IDF for failing to come up with a plan to destroy the tunnel network prior to the start of the conflict.


The UN is urging all parties to the Yemeni civil war to open the country’s ports, especially the Red Sea port of Hudaydah, to relief shipments. Millions of Yemenis have been left dependent on food aid to stay alive, and are at serious risk of starvation if those ports remain inaccessible for an extended period of time.

Amnesty International reported today that the Houthis are recruiting fighters as young as 15 years old, either via their religious classes in school or from areas where the schools have been destroyed and the situation is desperate enough that they can pay families to enlist their sons.


Taliban fighters attacked a police checkpoint in Lashkar Gah on Tuesday, killing at least 11 Afghan police officers.


If you’re interested in learning more about the modern history of the Central Asian republics, this piece by scholar Alexander Morrison is well worth your time. He punctures the conventional wisdom that the borders of the republics were intentionally drawn by Josef Stalin to cut across nationalities and leave the republics inherently unstable, arguing instead that those borders were not imposed from Moscow, as the traditional story suggests:

This was not a top-down process driven by the Central Party organization in Moscow. In the 1920s, the Soviet regime in Central Asia was fragile, and badly in need of local allies. As Adrienne Edgar has shown for Turkmenistan, Paul Bergne for Tajikistan, Ali Igmen for Kyrgyzstan, Adeeb Khalid for Uzbekistan and Dina Amanzholova and Tomohiko Uyama for Kazakhstan, the new national units grew out of an often uneasy political alliance between local nationalist intellectuals and the Soviet state – most importantly the so-called Jadids in Uzbekistan and the Alash Orda in Kazakhstan.

Local communist organizations, which had significant numbers of local cadres, played a key role in negotiating the new national boundaries with Moscow and with each other. Unlike in Africa – where at the 1884 Berlin Congress, European colonial powers really did just draw lines on the map, or in the Middle East, where the Sykes-Picot agreement paid little or no attention to local political desires – the borders that emerged in Central Asia were not drawn at random, even if at times they often seem to defy geographical logic. They were a product of late-Tsarist and early-Soviet census data, ethnographic and orientalist scholarship, and also in part of the process of raionirovanie – identifying supposedly rational and viable economic units, and ensuring that each new state met minimum criteria for becoming a full-blown Soviet Socialist Republic: these included a population of at least a million, and a capital city connected by rail.


The Myanmar military deigned to speak publicly about its treatment of the Rohingya, and unsurprisingly argued that it’s done nothing wrong and is simply conducting routine counterinsurgency operations.


What if a president called in sick…and nobody cared?

President Muhammadu Buhari has been in London for six weeks on medical leave, raising questions over his capacity to govern Africa’s largest economy.

In his absence, diplomats and business leaders say the presidency has acted with an energy rarely seen in the two years since Buhari, 74, was elected.

Civil servants say they are handling heftier workloads, while investors are praising a new, long-needed foreign exchange policy. Meanwhile, diplomats say [Vice President Yemi] Osinbajo’s inner circle is gaining influence inside the presidency.

To be sure, Osinbajo has made clear his loyalty lies with Buhari, a retired general who has struggled to define a clear strategy to deal with Nigeria’s slide into recession and stands accused by opponents of inaction.

But the 59-year-old lawyer is getting work done. He has relaxed visa rules to lure foreign investors — a plan drawn up by Buhari but which like others got stuck in his chief of staff’s office, according to diplomats.

Osinbajo has support, for now at least, in the country’s predominantly Muslim north, because he’s Buhari’s vice president, and in the country’s predominantly Christian south, because he’s not Buhari. He’s floating needed economic reforms that Buhari has been blocking. He’s running the country better than Buhari had been. Sure, this is a honeymoon, and if Buhari doesn’t come back from London or spends many more weeks/months there, Osinbajo’s support will start to fray. But still, this is a pretty interesting development.

The New York Times published an important investigative piece today looking at war crimes allegations against the Nigerian military, in the context of its campaign against Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria.


The Malian government continues to work with former Tuareg rebels in the northern part of the country to try to stitch Mali back together and implement their 2015 peace deal. Joint government/Tuareg military units are now patrolling northern Mali, hunting Islamic extremists and demonstrating national unity to the people there.

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