Conflict update: March 22 2017

I’m going to be out this evening, so please enjoy (?) this shortened and probably too-early roundup of the day’s worst news.


Westminster Bridge
Westminster Bridge under better circumstances (Wikimedia | Martin Dunst)

This is still very much a developing story, but at least four people, including the attacker, have been killed in London in what seems to have been an attempted attack on the House of Commons. A man drove his vehicle into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge this afternoon (timeline), killing two people, before killing a police officer outside parliament with a knife. He was then shot and killed by police. More than 20 other people were injured in the incident, some seriously. Authorities are understandably treating this as a terrorist incident until proven otherwise, but at this point I haven’t yet seen any information about the attacker. I’ll have more on this, but probably not until tomorrow.


This morning’s missile test does indeed appear to have been a failure. The missile reportedly exploded “seconds” after launch, which raises the possibility that a US cyber attack could have been the cause (apparently the US has been working on disrupting these tests immediately after launch). It’s not clear what kind of missile was being tested.


So, which Donald Trump associate is having his uncomfortable connections to Vladimir Putin uncovered today? Why it’s none other than Paul Manafort, who briefly served as Trump’s campaign chairman back when the idea of “President Trump” was still just a gleam in Robby Mook’s eye. According to the AP, in 2006 Manafort landed himself a sweet gig working for a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, in which he was supposed to “influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government.” This revelation could be personally very bad for Manafort, who apparently neglected to register as a foreign agent with the DOJ as one is supposed to do when representing foreign interests in the US. It could also be damaging to Trump inasmuch as Manafort and the Trump administration have been insisting that he never did any work for the Russian government–which could still be technically true, mind you, but maybe only technically.

Manafort insists that everything he did for Deripaska was totally above board and didn’t involve any lobbying for Russian government interests. It was so above board, in fact, that Manafort didn’t conduct this particular bit of business under the banner of his regular consulting company, Davis Manafort, but instead under another company he established in 1992 that didn’t have any kind of public profile. As one does with reputable work.


Donald Trump’s nominal Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was talked into taking a job he didn’t want (and man, does it show) by his wife:

“I was going to go to the ranch to be with my grandkids,” he added in the interview, as he returned to the US from Beijing.

Mr Tillerson said he had never met Donald Trump before his election in November.

When he was invited for a conversation with the then president-elect, he thought they would talk “about the world” given his experiences at the oil company, he added.

“When he asked me at the end of that conversation to be secretary of state, I was stunned.”

Mr Tillerson then gave the news to his wife, Renda St Clair, who said: “I told you God’s not through with you.”

He added: “My wife convinced me. She was right. I’m supposed to do this.”

God might not be through with him, but so far most indications are that Donald Trump is.


The Trump administration is hosting representatives of some 68 nations today in the first meeting of the anti-ISIS coalition since Trump took office. They’re expected primarily to discuss rebuilding Mosul, dealing with ISIS’s continued presence in Libya, and the eventual Raqqa operation.

They’re also presumably talking about Tillerson’s idea to establish safe-zones in parts of Syria and Iraq that have been retaken from ISIS in order to allow refugees to return to their home countries. Which is reasonable, considering that the administration seems to have offered no actual details as to how these zones would be set up, who would be responsible for protecting them, etc. There’s no possible way to know if this could be workable without knowing how Washington expects it to work. Moreover, it’s very likely that such a plan would violate international refugee law–law to which the US is party–by effectively forcing refugees to return to a war zone.


While the fighting remains mostly frozen in Mosul’s Old City, aid convoys for parts of the city that have already been liberated are being organized by Iraq’s predominantly Shiʿa Popular Mobilization Units. They’re making no secret of this fact, either, even though there are concerns that the Sunni residents of Mosul may view assistance from the PMUs with suspicion. Which, to be honest, doesn’t seem like that big a concern to me–most people struggling to stay alive in the middle of a war zone probably aren’t going to turn down food, medicine, and blankets because they have issues with the provider. In fact, the prominent PMU branding might turn out to be a good thing if it can improve, even a little, Iraq’s inter-sectarian relations.


Syrian activists say that a coalition airstrike hit a school west of Raqqa today, killing at least 33 people who had fled to the school while trying to escape fighting around the ISIS-held city. The Pentagon initially denied that civilians had been hit, but now says it’s “investigating” the situation. Bear in mind that these are the same people who last week denied bombing a mosque that they pretty clearly bombed, so I wouldn’t expect much in the way of transparency. What is becoming clearer with each one of these strikes is that when candidate Donald Trump said we should “bomb the shit out of them,” by “them” he meant pretty much anybody–ISIS, al-Qaeda, rebels, civilians, refugees, men, women, children, whoever.

US forces reportedly airlifted troops from the Syrian Democratic Forces to the area around the Tabqa Dam today, the first such operation conducted by the US and SDF. Fighting around the dam has been fairly heavy, but the bigger story here would seem to be the growing coordination between the Americans and the SDF. Well, that and this report from the activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, saying that coalition airstrikes on the nearby town of Tabqa killed at least 27 people today. Bomb the shit out of “them.”

I haven’t seen anything really new on the surprise rebel offensive in Damascus today other than that fighting is ongoing, but the other surprise rebel offensive outside the city of Hama seems to be gaining ground. Fighters, mostly from al-Qaeda’s Tahrir al-Sham front group, have reportedly advanced to within “kilometers” of the city. Rebel commanders say they’re planning to open other fronts as well, which if they can sustain them would be the best way to stretch Bashar al-Assad’s overextended forces to their breaking point. Of course, if things really start to turn on Assad, you can expect that Russia will ratchet up its air campaign again…which may be what Tahrir al-Sham is after.

Forcing Russia to give up its would-be role as peacemaker and resume simply being Assad’s muscle would go a long way toward fully discrediting all those recent Russia-Turkey efforts at establishing a ceasefire and getting peace talks back on track. And that would feed right into Tahrir al-Sham’s narrative while simultaneously discrediting rival Ahrar al-Sham’s narrative. Those two groups fell out in Idlib over Ahrar al-Sham’s decision to support Turkey’s efforts in northern Syria and its diplomatic efforts with respect to Russia, and if Ahrar al-Sham’s efforts in this regard wind up being discredited, then you can expect some movement of fighters away from them and toward Tahrir al-Sham, increasing al-Qaeda’s ownership over what’s left of the rebellion.


President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said today that if European nations continue to block Turkey’s ministers from campaigning in their countries, “no European in any part of the world can walk safely on the streets.” And, look, I get that Erdoğan needs to look tough for his base, but what the fuck is he talking about? There’s bluster, and then there’s what appears to be a threat to start harming random Europeans all over the world.


After yet another incident involving a near-confrontation between Iranian and American naval vessels, the US Navy accused Tehran of violating international waterways and risking an armed clash between the two countries. When people ask me about the chances of a US-Iran war during Trump’s hopefully single term in the White House, the Persian Gulf naval scenario is the one I usually bring up because it’s the easiest scenario to envision something going wrong and escalating out of control. Neither the Pentagon nor the Revolutionary Guard Corps is looking to start a war, but they’re also not going to back off, and there’s no Washington-Tehran diplomatic channel to facilitate deescalation the way there was when Barack Obama was in office.


China is denying reports that it plans to build an “environmental monitoring station” on the Scarborough Shoal, control of which is disputed between Beijing and the Philippines.


At least three people were killed today when five Boko Haram suicide bombers attacked a refugee camp outside of Maiduguri.

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