Conflict update: March 24 2017


Donald Trump had a not so very great day on the health care reform front, but he does seem to finally be circling around a potential deputy for Rex Tillerson at the State Department–or, in other words, a deputy for Jared Kushner’s deputy:

John J. Sullivan, a prominent Republican lawyer who served in the administration of President George W. Bush, is expected to be nominated to serve as the State Department’s No. 2 officer, according to a senior White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of an official announcement.

Sullivan doesn’t seem to have been on anybody’s radar, which is probably because he has no discernible foreign policy experience and conventional wisdom said that Tillerson, who also has no foreign policy experience apart from cutting deals to drill for oil in other countries, would want his deputy to have some direct experience at State. Then again, given that Trump would like to strip the whole State Department and sell it for parts, I suppose it doesn’t really matter who works there.

There’s a new revelation in the Michael Flynn case today:

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that retired Gen. Michael Flynn, former National Security Advisor and head of a consulting firm that filed as a foreign agent representing the Turkish government, discussed removing controversial cleric Fethullah Gulen back to Turkey without going through the U.S. extradition process.

At a Sept. 2016 meeting in New York, Flynn reportedly met with top Turkish ministers as they discussed ways to move Gulen back to Turkey, according to ex-Central Intelligence Agency Director James Woolsey, and others who were at the meeting. According to Woolsey, the participants in the meeting talked of ways to spirit Gulen out of his Poconos Mountains retreat without going through the U.S. extraditions process.

The eventual fate of Fethullah Gülen doesn’t exactly weigh heavy upon my soul, but if Flynn was being paid by the Turkish government to use his authority/influence to finagle Gülen out of the country without due process then the guy needs to be arrested. Enough of this scandal shit, we’re now in the realm of actual criminal conspiracy.


Apparently not:

The only good reason to have a meeting is to deliberate and decide on a shared objective. From that business angle, the March 22 meeting in Washington of the Global Coalition to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) did not serve any purpose. The US message to its allies was clear: let us alone deal a military blow to ISIL, you deal with the day after.

“Blow the place up and then forget it exists” is an American strategy that has worked to perfection in Afghanistan, Afghanistan again, Iraq, uh, Iraq again, Afghanistan at least one other time, and now Libya, so why wouldn’t you want to use it again in Syria and, oh hey, Iraq again?


Peace talks, I guess, got going again in Geneva today, and I can report that they’re going really, really well so far:

Syria’s chief negotiator at U.N. peace talks in Geneva on Friday delivered a 40 minute polemic attacking the political and armed opposition and their foreign backers, labeling them all “terrorists”.

OK, well, that’s just one side, I’m sure the other side was more concil–

Nasr al-Hariri, the Syrian opposition’s chief negotiator in the talks, accused the government of not being committed to peace.

“I would like to remind you that since the beginning of the last round of talks, last month in Geneva, at least 11 schools have been targeted, in addition to at least 11 medical centres, including hospitals and makeshift clinics, and five markets by the Assad regime’s air force and the countries that are supporting the regime.”

Well, things in Geneva might be tense, but I’m sure they’re finding some equilibrium in Syr–

Russian warplanes are taking part in air strikes against insurgents to help repel a major attack on Syrian government-held areas near the city of Hama, a Syrian military source said on Friday.

State media later on Friday reported that the army had recaptured all the positions it lost earlier in the week in a rebel assault in the north of the Jobar district of Damascus.

Rebel groups spearheaded by jihadist insurgents launched the attack on Tuesday and have captured at least 11 villages and towns, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based organization that reports on the war.

It marks the biggest attack by rebels in months. While President Bashar al-Assad still holds the military upper hand in the war, the rebel gains have shown the challenge facing the Syrian army and allied militia as they fight on numerous fronts.

Hah, well, um…better luck tomorrow?

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said today that the operation to liberate Raqqa “will begin in the coming days.” That could mean just about anything, really, but there are signs that things around Raqqa are picking up. Syrian Democratic Forces units have reportedly reached Tabqa Dam, one of ISIS’s main bases in Syria and a key target that needs to be taken before Raqqa can be assaulted. The US has reportedly started training a “police force” that can supplement the SDF and occupy the city after it’s been liberated. This force will presumably be mostly Arab, although as Washington has been struggling to find Arab proxies to undertake the actual assault on the city I don’t know where they found the people to serve in this police force. And Damascus is telling anybody who will listen that a US operation on Syrian soil will be “illegitimate” and that the Syrian government and Russia are the only actors truly interested in fighting ISIS.


Iraqi forces in west Mosul have begun acknowledging the obvious, which is that their progress has come to a halt and they’re going to need to regroup and rejigger their tactics for the rest of the offensive. The Iraqis may opt to open a northern front, which seemed to have been part of the original plan for taking west Mosul but kind of fell by the wayside as things advanced. That would allow them potentially to sweep through the rest of west Mosul and leave the Old City, where ISIS has obviously focused its defensive efforts, to the end of the campaign.

The United Nations is now estimating that the death toll in that coalition airstrike from late last week will be well over 200 civilians when all is said and done. Iraqi authorities had offered an estimate in the mid-100s, but it seems pretty clear they were undercounting. ISIS has been using civilians as human shields, going to far as to order its snipers to fire on civilians attempting to leave the city.

Life in east Mosul is starting to improve despite the city’s almost total lack of utilities and its destroyed infrastructure. People are returning to the city and getting work doing some of the enormous amount of manual labor that will be required to finally rebuild the place. But there remains virtually no plan for post-ISIS reconciliation for Mosul, Ninewah province, or Iraq as a whole. Efforts in this regard right now are focused on intervening in local disputes before they escalate, but nobody seems to be thinking about how to deal with the problems that made ISIS possible in the first place–Sunni feelings of disenfranchisement, government corruption, the degree to which Iraqi governance should be decentralized, etc. In fact, Baghdad doesn’t even seem to be capable of managing the various forces it has in and around Mosul right now, as military and police units are frequently at odds and Shiʿa militias, which were supposed to stay out of the city, are beginning to establish a presence in its eastern side.

The political situation in Baghdad isn’t always in the news these days, what with Mosul taking up most of the coverage, but it’s still tense. Muqtada al-Sadr led another demonstration today against corruption (or at least his definition of corruption), and he threatened to boycott upcoming provincial elections unless the electoral committee is purged. Sadr, himself Shiʿa, continues to speak against the use of Shiʿa militias in northern Iraq, saying that the Iraqi army alone should be holding territory as it’s taken from ISIS. Sadr is as you know locked in a heated political rivalry with former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose political support is deeply enmeshed in the Shiʿa militia system.


A British parliamentary investigation has concluded that followers of Fethullah Gülen did participate in last summer’s attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. However, it found no evidence to suggest that Gülen himself, or his organization, were behind the coup, as Ankara has been insisting.

I’ve got a new piece at LobeLog on the interplay between the upcoming constitutional referendum and Erdoğan‘s various recent fights with various European governments.


Big, if true:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Friday she was concerned about Israel’s building in settlements in the occupied West Bank, which she said was undermining progress toward a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.

She’s not the New Leader of the Free World for nothing, folks. Nothing gets past this lady.

Speaking of the settlements, who could have seen this coming:

Israel has not taken any steps to halt illegal settlement building on occupied Palestinian territory as demanded by the Security Council, the United Nations said on Friday,

In his first report to the council on the implementation of a resolution it adopted in December, UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov said on Friday that Israel had instead authorised “a high rate” of settlement expansions in violation of international law.

“The resolution calls on Israel to take steps ‘to cease all settlements activities in the occupied Palestinian territory including east Jerusalem.’ No such steps have been taken during the reporting period,” he said.

What? Everybody? Oh, OK.


The UN Human Rights Council decided to renew the mandate for its special rapporteur on Iran, which predictably drew a pointed response from Tehran. If having a UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran is embarrassing to the Iranian government, one way to deal with that might be to, I don’t know, start respecting basic human rights. But I’m sure complaining to nobody in particular will help too.

Hassan Khomeini (Wikimedia | Siamak Ebrahimi)



The UN says an average of 100 civilians are dying each month in Yemen, most due to the Saudi-led coalition and its efforts to save the Yemeni people from life’s many burdens, like the burden of not being constantly at risk of dying in an airstrike and the burden of having enough food to eat. The new Saudi policy of strafing random refugee boats in the Red Sea is sure to get that number up to something more respectable.


Moscow today angrily denied a claim by NATO Supreme Commander Curtis Scaparrotti that Russia has been providing aid to the Taliban. The Russians claim that any contact they have with the Taliban is aimed at trying to convince them to negotiate with the Afghan government and to make common cause against ISIS. I almost included Scaparrotti’s claim in yesterday’s update, but frankly if you actually look at what he said there’s nothing to it–no evidence, not even any actual clarity about what kind of support Russia is supposedly giving to the Taliban–so I decided it wasn’t worth mentioning. Had I known it was going to cause a minor international incident (which, in hindsight, seems pretty obvious) I guess I might have thought differently.


ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing today at a police checkpoint outside the Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka. There’s been no official word as to casualties.


The UN Human Rights Council decided today to send a team to Myanmar to investigate the Rohingya situation. This decision falls short of the full commission of inquiry many activists wanted, but it was enough to raise an official objection from the Myanmar government, which wants the freedom to slaughter the Rohingya at will conduct its own investigation.


The UNHRC also decided today to begin fully documenting alleged North Korean human rights abuses with an eye toward eventually prosecuting members of the North Korean government for crimes against humanity.


The commander of US Africa Command, General Thomas Waldhauser, told reporters today that there is an “undeniable” link between Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar and Russia:

When asked about the presences of Russian troops in Libya, Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, the top U.S. military commander overseeing troops in Africa, said “there are Russians on the ground in the area,” adding that Russia’s attempts to influence Libya were concerning.

“They are on the ground, they are trying to influence the action, we watch what they do with great concern and you know in addition to the military side of this, we’ve seen some recent activity in business ventures,” Waldhauser said.


At the same press conference, Waldhauser also said he’d like the Trump administration to give him more leeway than the Obama administration had in terms of carrying out military strikes against al-Shabab in Somalia, and, hey, what could go wrong, really? He then talked about US efforts to track down Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and put an end to his Lord’s Resistance Army militia, which are now in what feels like their 372nd year. He seemed to suggest that the LRA was nearing its end.


Burkinabe authorities say their military killed a leader of the Ansarul Islam terrorist group near the country’s border with Mali today. Ansaul Islam is a branch of Mali’s Ansar Dine organization, the Tuareg al-Qaeda affiliate that recently merged with al-Mourabitoun and the Massina Brigades.


Six Russian soldiers were reportedly killed today in repelling an attack by ISIS’s North Cacuasus affiliate on a military base in Chechnya.


Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe say that both Ukrainian government and separatist forces are inching closer to each other along the front lines of their mostly frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine. This is a very bad idea for obvious reasons, as the closer the two forces come into each other’s proximity the more likely they are to start shooting at each other again.


As you may know, Belarus is currently being roiled by the largest protests the country has seen in many years, over a measure that levies taxes on the unemployed for reasons that really make no sense except in a punitive right-wing morality horseshit sense. One thing that’s distinguished these protests is that Belarusian president/dictator Alexander Lukashenko has responded with a mix of repression and indulgence (he actually suspended the unemployment tax, pending a review of the policy, earlier this month) instead of the full-bore repression he usually brings to bear on any semblance of vocal political opposition. Lukashenko’s response to these protests can probably be explained by his recent muted outreach to the West, itself seemingly a product of his concerns about Russia’s annexation of Crimea. While Lukashenko has long been a close Vladimir Putin ally and is still well within Moscow’s orbit, he’s been more open to the West since Crimea and the fact that he hasn’t yet cracked down on these protests is probably a sign that he wants to continue developing that relationship.


The man arrested in Antwerp yesterday on suspicion of driving his car toward a crowd of people has been charged with attempted terrorism.


The New York Times has much more on Westminster attacker Khalid Masood. The investigation into Tuesday’s attack is ongoing–while Masood acted alone, authorities are trying to determine how he was radicalized and whether he had any support before the incident.

Conservative peer and former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine has an…interesting take on Brexit:

In an interview with The House magazine, he said: “We’ve now abandoned the opportunity to influence Europe, the council of ministers will meet and we won’t be there. Our ability to speak for the Commonwealth within Europe has come to an end. The Americans will shift their focus of interest to Germany.

“And if I can put it to you, for someone like myself, it was in 1933, the year of my birth, that Hitler was democratically elected in Germany. He unleashed the most horrendous war. This country played a unique role in securing his defeat.

“So Germany lost the war. We’ve just handed them the opportunity to win the peace. I find that quite unacceptable.”

Let me put it this way: when people from UKIP are able to justifiably wonder if you’ve “lost your marbles” (that’s a real quote), you’ve probably gone well off the rails. If we’re still worried about who’s “winning the peace” of a war that ended over 70 years ago, well, maybe Brexit isn’t the biggest problem we need to be dealing with.


I saved this for the end because I figured only my real die hards actually ever make it to the end of one of these, and that’s who I want to talk to right now. Anyway, today is my birthday. I’m not saying that to troll for birthday wishes or to ask for contributions to the site (although if you’re so inclined…), but I do want to ask you if you could do something for me and for attwiw: help me grow this place’s readership. Share the blog with anybody you think would be interested. Share posts on social media. If you know anybody who’s looking for a foreign affairs writer, someplace where I can reach a new audience, send them my way. I know not everybody has the ability to chip in financially to keeping the site going, but the way to bring in new supporters is to first bring in new readers, and I can very much use your help in that effort. Thanks!

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