Conflict update: March 17 2017


First the new story: that Israeli missile alert that sounded in the Jordan valley yesterday evening wasn’t caused by any rockets coming from Gaza. Instead, it was caused by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles, fired at a squadron of Israeli planes that were returning from a bombing run in Syrian airspace. The Israeli planes reportedly struck a convoy of weapons intended for Hezbollah. None of the Syrian missiles hit the Israeli planes, but at least one was apparently intercepted by an Israeli Arrow missile defense, uh, missile (there has to be a better way to describe that).

The big story remains the bombing of a mosque in the Syrian town of al-Jinah during evening prayers yesterday. The Pentagon has acknowledged that this was an American airstrike, but insists that it did not strike the mosque, but a nearby building where a high-level al-Qaeda meeting was being held. That’s their story, but it doesn’t seem to be holding up very well:

According to the US military, it launched strikes on a large building just 50 feet from a small mosque in the village of al-Jinah. Al-Qaeda regularly used this building to hold high-level meetings, the Pentagon said. And after watching the site for some time, the US military bombed the building around 7 p.m. local time Thursday, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Friday. The strikes included a 500-pound bomb and at least six AGM-114 Hellfire missiles fired from drones, a US defense official told BuzzFeed News.

The US military said it purposely avoided the small mosque. But some on the ground suggested the building hit was a new, larger mosque, where as many as 300 worshippers had gathered for evening prayer. Local residents put the death toll as high as 62 and said others could be buried alive in the wreckage. Some videos that appeared online showed rescue workers pulling children out of the rubble.

“We are still assessing the results of the strike, but believe that dozens of core al Qaeda terrorists were killed,” Davis said in a statement afterwards.

Davis said the military was “not aware of any credible allegation” of civilian casualties despite the emerging accounts from Syrian watch groups. But US officials said they were still investigating the allegations. The US military also has yet to determine how many were killed and whether any were high-value al-Qaeda operatives.

“Not aware of any credible allegation”? Really?

The Pentagon released this photo that it says proves it didn’t strike a mosque:

It says the mosque, which it identifies as the small building on the left, is clearly intact, which, fair enough. But here’s the thing: locals are saying that was the old mosque. The new mosque was the two-building compound on the right, one building of which has been blown to smithereens in that photo. How can you be sure the locals aren’t lying? Well, you can’t, but one point in their favor is that the Pentagon itself says, according to one of its drones, nobody came out of the small building for at least 30 minutes after the strike. If the small building were still the mosque, full of people at evening prayer, you would think maybe one or two of them might have come outside to see what happened after the building next door was fucking blown up. But maybe that’s just me.

In other Syria news, YPG commander Sipan Hemo told Reuters that the Raqqa operation will begin next month. Say, remember when Donald Trump got real Mad on account of people announced the Mosul offensive before it began? His face got even oranger and he blubbered something about the element of surprise, like we’re fighting the Napoleonic Wars or some shit. I wonder if he’ll be mad about this.


Mosul as of today; astute readers will note that most of the Iraqi progress since the last map has been made on the western outskirts of the city (Wikimedia | Kami888)

There’s really not much to report here. As Joel Wing writes, the Iraqis are making progress at such a slow rate that they’ve started referring to the liberation of specific streets or buildings rather than neighborhoods. The main target for the moment remains the symbolically important Nuri Mosque, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his pretend caliphate in 2014.


If it weren’t for the al-Jinah mosque bombing, today’s worst story would probably be this:

On Friday, an Apache military helicopter reportedly opened fire on a boat packed with over 140 Somali migrants off the coast of Yemen.

Forty-two people were killed in the attack, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). All 42 were reportedly carrying official U.N. refugee papers. Eighty survivors were rescued from the water after the attack and taken to a detention center in Hodieda, Yemen, the International Organization for Migration’s Laurent De Boeck told AP. He added the IOM is liaising with hospitals to ensure the survivors get the care they need.

The boat, filled with refugees attempting to flee war-torn Yemen including women and children, had made it about 30 miles offshore when a helicopter swooped in and opened fire. A local coast guard official from the Houthi-rebel controlled coast of Yemen told Reuters an Apache helicopter attacked the boat, though it remains unclear who is responsible for the attack.

While it remains technically unclear who attacked the boat, the only actor in Yemen that has Apache helicopters at the ready, and that has clearly demonstrated it has no qualms about shooting first and asking questions never, is Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are denying that they were involved, but until some new evidence comes to light they are the obvious prime suspect.

Come to think of it, though, this story is pretty awful as well:

At least 34 civilians and military personnel were killed in a Houthi attack on a mosque during Friday prayers inside a military base in Yemen’s Marib province, local officials said.

Houthi militias fired two missiles at the mosque located inside the military camp of Kofal in the west of Marib, officials said.

The attack was carried out with Katyusha-type rockets, said a military official in Marib.

Houthi news agency Saba said the militia had carried out the attack.

Here’s an idea: stick the Houthis, President Hadi, the Saudis, ex-President Saleh, and everybody else involved in this war on a deserted island somewhere in the Indian Ocean, and hand Yemen over to the families of the civilians and refugees who were killed today for absolutely no reason that can be understood by normal-brained human beings.


The United Nations made a concerted effort to demonstrate its own total uselessness, as Secretary-General António Guterres asked the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia to remove from its website its own report describing the Israeli occupation as “apartheid.” To her everlasting credit, ESCWA’s now-former head, Rima Khalaf, responded to Guterres’s astonishing demand by resigning very publicly:

“I do not find it surprising that such member states [Israel and the United States, who complained about the report], who now have governments with little regard for international norms and values of human rights, will resort to intimidation when they find it hard to defend their unlawful policies and practices,” Khalaf, of Jordan, wrote to Guterres.

“It is only normal for criminals to pressure and attack those who advocate the cause of their victims,” Khalaf wrote in the resignation letter, seen by Reuters, adding that she stands by the ESCWA report.

The UN tried to claim that it had ordered the report scrubbed because of some technical problems with how it was published, but nobody can possibly believe that to be true. It should come as a surprise to nobody that the UN has decided to respond to charges that it’s disproportionately hard on Israel by neutering itself on Israel instead of by being harder on everybody else.


Saudi Arabia’s official news agency reported today that Saudi officials have reached an agreement with Iranian officials to allow Iranians to participate in this year’s Hajj. Iranian news agencies had previously reported that Iranian pilgrims would be allowed to attend the Hajj, but getting confirmation from the Saudi side means the deal is definitely complete.


Tehran appears to be challenging a US interpretation of the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. According to Washington, the JCPOA requires Iran to ship any heavy water (water but with two deuterium molecules rather than regular hydrogen, used as the cooling medium in so-called heavy water reactors, which pose a plutonium risk) it produces in excess of 130 metric tons out of the country. Iran insists that the agreement only requires it to sell the excess, but that it doesn’t have to ship that excess out of the country while waiting for a buyer. Iran has already shipped one batch of heavy water to Oman while waiting to sell it, but this time it seems intent on picking a fight.


The Taliban attempted an assault on an Afghani army base in Khost province today, but the assault seems to have been beaten back with only one Afghan soldier killed by the Taliban’s opening car bomb.


Jamaat ul-Ahrar claimed credit for an attack on a Pakistani military base along the Afghan border today that killed at least eight people. The attack appears to have been launched from the Afghan side of the border.


Before he had to cut his South Korea visit short due to “fatigue,” always a great sign in a Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson made sure to reiterate, once again, that the Trump administration is considering a military escalation with North Korea:

“I think it’s important to recognize that the political and diplomatic efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to the point of denuclearization have failed,” Tillerson said.

“Certainly we do not want for things to get to a military conflict. But obviously if North Korea takes actions that threaten the South Korean forces or our own forces then that would be met with an appropriate response,” adding, “If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe that requires action, that option is on the table.”

Tillerson isn’t really breaking new ground in North Korea policy except inasmuch as his rhetoric is maybe a little less tempered than past administrations have been. The real trick would be to herd a currently leaderless South Korea, Japan, and China into some kind of unified front against Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, but none of those three countries get along very well, and so the challenge might be a bit much for a secretary of state who needs one out of every three days off lest he get wiped out by the strain of it all.


King Mohammed VI has named a new prime minister, former foreign minister Saad Eddine el-Othmani. Othmani will now be tasked with forming the country’s first government since elections were held five months ago.


I’ve avoided talking about Turkey so far by design, but unfortunately I can’t make this an entirely Turkey-free update. Bulgarian authorities are trying to prevent the Turkish government from interfering in snap elections they’re holding on March 26. Apparently an unnamed Turkish minister has been trying to campaign among Bulgarian expats living in Turkey on behalf of DOST, a Bulgarian party that represents a part of Bulgaria’s Turkish minority. The government has summoned the Turkish ambassador, recalled its own ambassador from Turkey, and, if things really get bad, it may look to bar Bulgarian nationals from returning from Turkey in order to vote in the election.


Donald Trump and Angela Merkel met at the White House today. It went really, really well:

The German chancellor had thanked Trump for “the warm and gracious hospitality” but there was an awkward moment in the Oval Office before the press conference when the two leaders sat for photographers, who shouted a request for them to shake hands.

Merkel turned to Trump and asked: “Do you want to have a handshake?” The president ignored her and kept looking straight ahead, his hands clasped together. Merkel looked at the photographers with a half-smile, half-grimace.

Many have said that it was the friendliest, the most productive, the best meeting between a US President and a German whatever-she-is since Konrad Adenauer kneed JFK in the balls in 1962.


On the plus side, whatever damage was done to the US-Germany relationship today pales in comparison with the damage the Trump administration has done to the US-UK relationship over the past couple of days. Yesterday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer parroted a claim by Fox News whacko Andrew Napolitano to the effect that GCHQ–the British version of the NSA–had participated in the totally real and not completely made up Obama administration wiretapping of Trump Tower. This is a claim that not even Fox News is standing behind, by the way, but if it’s on TV then that’s good enough for this White House. GCHQ, which does enough heinous shit as it is without being tagged with this National Enquirer-level nonsense, was pissed off, and, according to British media, got an apology from the Trump administration this morning. But wait! Not so fast!

Donald Trump refused to back down on Friday in the face of British outrage at White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s decision to repeat an unsubstantiated claim that British intelligence had spied on the president.

Asked about the claim during a joint press conference with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, Trump said Spicer had only been quoting “a talented lawyer” who had been speaking on Fox News. “We said nothing,” argued Trump. “All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television.”

The US president added: “You shouldn’t be talking to me, you should be talking to Fox.”

FUN FACT: there’s a sign on Donald Trump’s desk in the Oval Office that reads “The Buck Stops Literally Anywhere Else.”

Anyway the apology is apparently out and we may have to fight the War of 1812 all over again. Only this time when the British burn the White House, Interim First Lady Ivanka Trump will have to save her father’s gold-plated toilet or whatever instead of the portrait of George Washington.

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