Conflict update: March 1 2017


Donald Trump is reportedly planning to substantially hand control over military operations to his defense secretary, recently retired General James Mattis:

The Daily Beast’s Kim Dozier writes that Trump “wants to operate more like the CEO he was in the private sector in such matters, and delegate even more power to Mattis, which may mean rewriting one of President Barack Obama’s classified Presidential Policy Directives on potentially lethal operations in countries where the U.S. is not officially involved in combat.”

Military officers already have authority to greenlight certain military operations, but sensitive missions like the Yemen raid, conducted in a country where the United States is not formally engaged in combat operations, have typically required a sign-off from the White House. Trump has also previously said that he would give Mattis the power to “override” him on the question of whether to use torture on terror suspects. (The president still thinks it’s a good idea, but the defense secretary opposes it.)

As Keating notes, for any other president this would be a little terrifying. But we’re talking about Donald Trump, and the less he actually makes decisions in this government the better off we all are. This is glaringly true in the case of torture.

One area where Trump apparently won’t let his generals overrule him is when it comes to the Magic Words That Will Defeat Terrorism:

President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, advised him in a closed-door meeting last week to stop using a phrase that was a frequent refrain during the campaign: “radical Islamic terrorism.”

But the phrase will be in the president’s speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, according to a senior White House aide—even though McMaster reviewed drafts and his staff pressed the president’s chief speechwriter and senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, not to use it.

McMaster, who actually has some experience in, you know, anything at all related to national security, is being overruled by Trump’s political advisers, who have no such experience but want to make it very clear to Muslims that America is their enemy. And guess what? Message received.


Wonder of wonders, Wednesday’s session of peace talks in Geneva had both rebel and government negotiators crowing about “progress.” What happened? Well, apparently, they decided to do something crazy and talk about something other than future plans for more talks. According to the rebels, during these unexpectedly substantive talks the Russians leaned on the Syrian government to begin to talk about the issue of a “political transition,” which in rebel parlance means Bashar al-Assad’s eventual removal from office. The government, meanwhile, says that its negotiators had productive talks with UN envoy Steffan de Mistura over making “terrorism,” the word the Syrian government uses to describe the overall rebellion, a central issue in these talks. Progress is good, positive feelings are good, but these reports are so vague (and it’s worth noting that neither side corroborated the other’s version of events) that I don’t think you can draw any conclusions yet.

Speaking of future peace talks, another round of the Astana track has been scheduled for March 14. Russia, Turkey, Iran and the rebels will attend, but it’s not clear if Damascus will have a representative there.

It was not a great day to be in the Syrian Democratic Forces. On the same day when the US coalition commander in Syria and Iraq said that the Kurdish YPG, the main faction within the SDF, would be participating in the eventual assault on Raqqa, and called on Turkey not to do anything to detract from that operation, the SDF was attacked by, well, almost everybody. They were hit by Russian and Syrian airstrikes near al-Bab in what appears to have been a mistake, and lost a number of villages around Manbij to Turkish forces and their Free Syrian Army proxies in what was very much not a mistake. Elsewhere, the Syrian army is in the process of recapturing Palmyra from ISIS. Hopefully it will take this time, though its too late for most of the ancient city’s large ruins.

The UN issued a report on war crimes in Aleppo today that criticized both sides for abuses but leveled harsher condemnations at the Assad government. The report argues that the Syrian government deliberately targeted that aid convoy its air force bombed in September, and reiterated charges that Damascus has been using chemical weapons.


Mosul updated as of today (Wikimedia | Kami888)

The map there really tells today’s story. An Iraqi armored division, working with elements of the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units, cut the main road leading out of Mosul to the west, fully encircling the remainder of ISIS-held west Mosul. The army also announced that it has units preparing to enter Mosul from the northwest, and that its 15th Division has been tasked with liberating Tal Afar. The Tal Afar operation has been awaiting that decision for some time now.

An estimated 26,000 people have fled Mosul over the past ten days, which certainly presents a logistical challenge but is far short of the mass migration scenarios the UN was hyping before this phase of the offensive began.


Funny story: since last summer’s attempted coup, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government has arrested and/or fired so many academics that it can’t really staff its universities anymore. Of course, the purge was necessary, seeing as how so many of these academics had been occasionally critical of Erdoğan key cogs in the international banking-Gülenist-leftist-American-European-secularist-Iranian-Kurdish-Armenian-Israeli conspiracy to destroy the Turkish state.

While Turkish academics pretty much have to teach that two plus two equals five if Erdoğan says it does and they would like to keep their jobs, free speech is not dead in Turkey. Last month, in fact, a Turkish court ruled that, as long as you’re the President of Turkey and your name is “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan,” you are free to slander and defame pretty much anybody you want without fear of repercussion.


Erdoğan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reportedly met on the sidelines of an economic conference in Pakistan and tried to ratchet down tensions between their countries. Rouhani later affirmed that Iran wants to secure Syria’s “territorial integrity,” a big issue for Turkey that’s code for preventing the possibility of an autonomous Kurdish polity emerging in northern Syria.

In what is probably a campaign tactic to discredit Rouhani, Iranian hardliners have lately been floating a story that Rouhani’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has been exchanging correspondence with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Iran’s Foreign Ministry has categorically denied the accusation and says that it hasn’t had any contact with the Trump administration–though, if you believe what American media has been reporting, neither has Tillerson.

Yukiya Amano, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is set to brief members of the Trump administration about the Iran nuclear deal tomorrow. Unfortunately it looks like he’ll be briefing Tillerson, who, again, is pretty much the invisible man in this administration so far.


Two Taliban attacks, involving both suicide bombers and gunmen, on Afghan security facilities in Kabul today killed at least 16 people.

Reuters reported in depth today on the growth of ISIS’s “Khorasan Province,” which covers Afghanistan and Pakistan. The group still doesn’t have much of a foothold in Pakistan beyond sympathizers (maybe including Jamaat-ul-Ahrar), but it’s presence in Afghanistan has grown and is growing, which poses new challenges in terms of the US mission there.


ISIS released a new video on Monday in which it made its first serious threat to target China. This is something that’s been looming on the horizon for a while now. China doesn’t have an antagonistic role in the Middle East, but it does have a very large and alienated Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang that is absolutely ripe for ISIS recruitment and whose plight is exactly the kind of thing ISIS uses to justify its actions.


The first real evidence of material Russian support for Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar has emerged, in the form of photos that appear to show a Russian MiG-23 in the possession of Haftar’s air force. Haftar appears to have a couple of MiG-23s in service, so this may not be the only aircraft Moscow has sent him.


Sudanese president/dictator/indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir filled the newly-reinstated (it had been abolished in 1989) position of Sudanese prime minister today by appointing his first vice president, Bakri Hassan Saleh, to this office. Saleh will now serve as PM and FVP, and is clearly the 73 year-old Bashir’s chosen heir apparent. The problem is that Saleh is in his late 60s, so it’s not like he’s a sure thing to outlive Bashir.


Making good on threats to seize Ukrainian business offices in their territory unless Kiev took action to lift an ad hoc blockade on rail shipments, Donbas rebels took over the Donetsk offices of Ukraine’s largest telecom firm and cut much of eastern Ukraine off from the national wired telephone grid.


Lt. General Ben Hodges, head of the US Army’s European command, told reporters in Lithuania today that he believes Russia should open its Zapad 2017 military exercises, scheduled to take place this fall, to international observers. There’s about as much chance of this happening as there is of Vladimir Putin giving me half of the $200 billion he’s supposedly got squirreled away, but Hodges argued that the transparency would help alleviate concerns among Russia’s neighbors, particularly the Baltic states, as to Russia’s intentions in Eastern Europe.


It’s rare that the House of Lords makes a big splash in British politics, but it appears to have made one today. The upper house of parliament voted to block Prime Minister Theresa May from beginning Brexit talks with the EU until her government shows how it plans to protect the rights of EU citizens already living in the UK. May had wanted to wait to announce those protections until it had negotiated its deal with the EU, because she doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the rights of EU citizens living in the UK says her negotiating position with the EU will be stronger if she waits.

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