Conflict update: March 27 2017


At LobeLog, I look at the recent increase in US-caused civilian casualties in the Middle East, and the presumption, still denied by Washington in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, that President Trump has told the Pentagon to stop worrying about civilian casualties and just blow the shit out of them, as it were. I conclude with the short version of why, aside from the obvious loss of life, carelessly killing civilians is bad for the US:

The eventual defeat of IS and al-Qaeda requires not simply beating them on a battlefield or driving them out of a city. It requires undermining and discrediting their ideology. These groups, and their eventual successors, can survive indefinitely if the United States and its allies take actions that fuel Muslim resentment toward the West. In any war, some civilian casualties are unfortunately inevitable. But if the Trump administration has truly decided to “take the gloves off” in the war on terror, then it may find that it’s punching the wrong people.

Of course, this analysis only holds if you assume that the Trump administration is actually trying to secure America and minimize the threat posed by extremist jihadi groups. If, however, their real goal is to have their Clash of Civilizations war with Islam, then they may be doing exactly what they need to be doing. Civilian casualties in that scenario are very much a feature rather than a but. I assume the former is still true for most of the people working in this White House and this Pentagon, but I have to admit I don’t really have any reason to assume it.


Jon Wolfsthal and Laura S. H. Holgate of the Carnegie Endowment worry that Donald Trump’s planned cuts to the State Department budget will consequently mean cuts to US funding for the International Atomic Energy Agency. In writing about this possibility, they manage to be correct and also pretty misguided at the same time:

Regardless of what you may have heard about the United Nations or the IAEA itself, the agency may be the greatest national security bargain the United States has. As the old cliché goes, if we didn’t have it, we have to invent it. Washington provides a significant percentage of the IAEA’s annual budget and, on top of that, additional resources known as voluntary contributions. This money ensures that the IAEA can handle its current responsibilities by having the tools, people, skills, and resources needed to do its job — which is, to put it bluntly, to help keep us and other countries safe and enable all to benefit from the peaceful benefits of nuclear technology.

So in plain English, what does that mean? IAEA inspectors are on the ground in Iran monitoring that Tehran fully complies with its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It helps monitor nuclear materials in over 50 countries to deter diversion and to certify that none have been syphoned off for illicit weapon programs. It helps ensure the safety of nuclear facilities all over the world. It’s increasingly on the front lines of preventing terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons. Oh, and it’s also part of the fight against the Zika virus and other deadly insect-borne diseases (they nuke male insects so they can’t breed, poor guys).

Cutting IAEA funding is objectively a terrible idea. But if you’re opposed to the JCPOA and want a good excuse to screw around with its terms or abrogate it outright, then defunding the agency that’s supposed to be monitoring the agreement is a pretty good place to start. If the IAEA no longer has the resources to monitor Iran, then, gosh, I guess we’ll have to make the deal more onerous for the Iranians to ease the IAEA’s burden. And if the Iranians aren’t willing to accept a reasonable escalation of the deal’s terms, well, that’s on them, isn’t it?

Wolfsthal and Holgate start, like I did, by assuming that Donald Trump and his administration are actually interested in national security, and maybe that’s their mistake. If what these guys really want is to get back on the path to war with Iran, then the likelihood that slashing IAEA funding will help them do that is a feature, not a bug.


Joel Wing describes the scrambling the Iraqis are doing to try to obfuscate what happened in Mosul’s Jadidah neighborhood on March 17, when a coalition airstrike took down several apartment buildings and killed at least 240 people:

It’s gotten to the point that the Iraqi forces (ISF) are actively spreading disinformation about the Jadida air strike incident in west Mosul. The Joint Operations Command issued a statement saying on March 17 a unit from the Golden Division called in a Coalition air strike to take care of an Islamic State car bomb. After clearing the area they found that the Islamic State had herded civilians inside a booby-trapped house packed with explosives and detonated it. There were no signs of damage coming from the air in the building. A large car bomb also detonated next to the house. In total 61 bodies were taken out of the rubble. The problem with this story is that this took place in Resala, not Jadida. Since news of this incident came out the ISF has been denying that it happened. This is part of the government’s propaganda campaign where no casualties are reported. When deadly events like this do happen the authorities seek to discredit it, but it just shows that Baghdad is not a reliable source in these matters.

In Jadida itself more information is coming out about the tragedy that happened there. Basma Baseem the head of Mosul’s local council aired a video of the damage done. The security forces then banned her from entering west Mosul. The civil defense chief general Mohammed Mahmoud confirmed that it was an air strike that caused the destruction. Some residents and have said that they saw what they thought was a car or a truck bomb next to the houses. The Iraqi forces have also mentioned that a vehicle bomb caused most of the casualties not aircraft. There is no crater in the road that such a device would leave behind however. People on the ground in the area have mentioned that before. Iraqi officers continued to say that talk of heavy casualties in the incident were an exaggeration. Again it was the ISF that was obfuscating the situation, as a provincial health official told Reuters that 160 people who had been dug out of the debris were officially buried so far. Yesterday local authorities said a total of 240 people had died in the buildings. Finally, the Iraqi forces have continued to try to keep journalists out of the area to report on what happened. Despite these restrictions and ISF denials the international press at least is providing plenty of details. That’s not so apparent inside Iraq where most of the press reporting is dominated by government releases.

Even Iraqi reports that they were “pausing” operations in Mosul’s Old City appear to have been exaggerated, but at least here you could plausibly argue that they were exaggerated to try to confuse ISIS. Interior ministry forces are still pushing in to parts of the Old City, but it now appears that the army’s elite counter-terrorist “Golden Division” is moving around to attack the Old City from the north. Opening a second front may be enough to stretch ISIS’s defenses past their breaking point.


A Spanish court has ordered an investigation into the allegations of a Spanish national who say her brother was tortured to death by Syrian authorities in 2013. This will mark the first investigation into anyone in the Syrian government since the civil war began in 2011 and could in theory lead into an International Criminal Court case, but it would require a UN Security Council referral (Spain isn’t an ICC member state) that would almost certainly be vetoed by Russia. In other war crimes news, the forced evacuation of the remaining rebels still in Homs resumed today. The scheduled weekend evacuation (they’re conducting the evacuation in weekly shifts) was delayed by fighting around Hama, which blocked the road from Homs to Idlib.

In eastern Syria, the US continued to insist that it sees no threat that the Tabqa Dam could fail (which would flood Raqqa and probably even cause problems as far downriver as Deir Ezzor), even as the Syrian Democratic Forces paused their attack on the dam for several hours today in order to allow engineers to check its stability. The SDF also completed its capture of the nearby Tabqa airbase, which will surely be used as a staging area for the eventual attack on Raqqa. Meanwhile, Salih Muslim, the co-chair of the Kurdish PYD–the political arm of the YPG, which makes up the core of the SDF, PDQ, ASAP, FUBAR–says that Raqqa, once it’s liberated, “will” join the PYD’s planned federal autonomous region along with Kurdish-held parts of Syria to the north. This is interesting, inasmuch as I suspect that both Damascus and Ankara will have a lot to say about it.


At least 11 people were killed when al-Qaeda fighters attacked a military compound in the southern Yemeni province of Lahij on Monday.


European absentee voting has now begun on the referendum to change Turkey’s government from a parliamentary system to the unchecked iron rule of Sultan Recep I a presidential system, but it’s really anybody’s guess how the vote is going to play out. While any public opinion polls from Turkey should be taken with enough salt to season your French Freedom fries for the next year, yet another poll released today shows that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s precious referendum may well be defeated on April 16. Erdoğan is apparently still struggling with soft support among his AKP base, while roughly half of the nationalist MHP’s voters say they’re going to vote “no” even though their party leadership is campaigning on the “yes” side. However, some recent polls showing that the referendum will be defeated also seem to be showing that the race is tightening up, which is good news for Erdoğan if accurate. And, you know, it’s still hard to imagine “yes” losing when the “no” side isn’t really being allowed to run a campaign:

The most striking example in this regard is perhaps the “no” campaign of former Interior Minister Meral Aksener, whose appeal to nationalist and conservative voters makes her a serious threat in government eyes. Aksener’s public events face regular disruptions through a variety of means, ranging from power cuts at campaign venues to rally bans and physical attacks.

Another example is the abolition of a provision in electoral laws that stipulated penalties for private TV networks and stations that fail to provide balanced and objective coverage of competing campaigns. The government scrapped the provision in February through a legislative decree, a tool made available by the state of emergency in effect since the July 15 coup attempt, flouting the constitution, which says that amendments to electoral laws can take effect only a year after adopted. The loss of this provision means that the voice of the opposition is now completely absent from the scores of pro-government channels.


Friday’s murder of Mazen Faqha, a senior figure in the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades (AKA Hamas’s armed wing), has Gaza on edge. Faqha was gunned down by men who Hamas says, at least publicly, were probably Israeli operatives, raising the possibility that the group will attempt some kind of retaliatory action against Israel. So far the Israeli government isn’t denying that it was involved, which presumably means it was although there’d be no reason to believe a denial even if they’d offered one. Hamas’s political leadership is to some degree caught between two bad choices: retaliate and bring on the inevitable Israeli counter-retaliation, or do nothing and risk a break with its military wing at a time when ISIS has been trying to make inroads into Gaza at Hamas’s expense.


For at least (by my count) the second time in the past ~two months, the Israeli government has issued a travel warning advising its citizens to get out of the Sinai immediately. This warning comes only a couple of weeks before Passover, which is a prime vacation season for Israeli travelers, who make up a substantial portion of the Sinai tourist trade.


Afghanistan’s Defense Minister Abdullah Habibi, Interior Minister Taj Mohammad Jahid, and chief spy Masson Stanekzai all managed to survive parliamentary votes of no confidence today, which is…good, for them? I guess? It means Afghanistan will be able to continue losing the war against the Taliban with the same dudes who’ve brought them this far. Never change horses mid-clusterfuck, is my motto. By the by, Habibi seems like a fine choice as the country’s top military leader:

Habibi, in particular, faced widespread ridicule for his alleged tendency to fall asleep at inappropriate moments, with pictures circulating on social media showing him sitting in a variety of meetings, with eyes closed and head leaned forward.

“If we put the minister in a sack and sent him to another country and opened the sack there, he wouldn’t have any idea how he got there,” deputy speaker Humayoun Humayoun told parliament this month.

In his address to parliament on Monday, Habibi denied falling asleep in meetings, saying he sometimes avoided looking up so as not to accidentally stare into the eyes of any women present.

This seems like a bullshit lie, and it very well may be, but whether he falls asleep in meetings or is askeert that if he looks into a lady’s eyes she’ll suck out his soul, does it really matter? I try very hard to be culturally sensitive in this space, but is either of those things something that would instill you with confidence about this man’s ability to win a war?


The New York Times has a report on Saudi plans to buy part of invest in the Maldives:

But Mr. Ahmed and others here are bracing for a life change they fear could be catastrophic, after the Maldivian president’s announcement in January that leaders of Saudi Arabia were planning a $10 billion investment in the group of islands where Mr. Ahmed lives, known as Faafu Atoll.

Most alarming to the residents were reports that the government was breaking with a longstanding policy of leasing the islands that are home to some of the world’s premier resorts and selling the atoll outright to the Saudis. The inhabitants fear they might be moved off the islands.

Both the Saudis and the Maldivian government deny that the atoll is being sold to Riyadh, but Maldivian law as of 2015 allows parts of the country to be sold off, and why the fuck would the Saudis be shoveling $10 billion into the Maldives for unless it meant they’d have substantial control (a sale in all but name) over some part of the island chain? They’re reportedly looking to build a resort on the atoll, but these are also strategically significant locations in the Indian Ocean for a country trying to encircle Iran even as it complains to anybody who will listen that Iran is unfairly trying to encircle it. The deal may be faltering due to all the negative publicity–King Salman canceled the Maldivian leg of his recent Asia tour, citing a “flu epidemic” but in reality probably trying to avoid potential protesters.


Sri Lanka’s former defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, says that Western-backed investigations into possible war crimes committed during that country’s 1983-2009 civil war would only divide the nation and hinder efforts toward reconciliation. Rajapaksa forgot to mention the fact that he’s suspected of having committed war crimes himself during the final phase of the war, a period when tens of thousands of Tamils were killed by the government. Which, yeah, I guess if I’d committed war crimes I would also prefer that nobody investigated them.


It doesn’t break any new ground, but if you’re interested in a helpful summary of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s foreign policy to date, this Washington Post piece seems pretty decent as far as I can tell.


Park Geun-hye has gone from “President of South Korea” to “possibly about to be arrested” in just a couple of weeks. South Korean authorities issued a warrant for Park’s arrest on Monday on the same corruption charges that saw her run out of office earlier this month. It will take a few days for a court to rule on the warrant, but it’s possible Park could be in custody by the end of the week.


With North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs developing rapidly, there are growing calls within Japan for the development of a credible first-strike capability. The Japanese military has been purely defensive since World War II by law, but Japanese lawmakers have chafed at that restriction in the past and the escalating crisis with North Korea could be the justification for revamping that part of the Japanese constitution.


The Kenyan military said today that its forces had raided two al-Shabab bases in the southern Somali region of Jubaland, killing 31 militants and seizing arms and equipment.


The UN is having Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders over for dinner on April 2 to see if they can’t be convinced to resume reunification talks. The Turks walked away from the table over a new Greek law allowing public schools to commemorate a 1950 referendum on unification with Greece, which was needlessly provocative but probably not worth quitting the talks over. The real reason the Turks abandoned the talks may be that their patrons in Ankara are hesitant to allow any concessions that could cost them nationalist votes in the constitutional referendum.


Speaking of Greek-Turkish relations, this seems like it might not be great:

“The Greek armed forces are ready to answer any provocation,” Panos Kammenos declared at a military parade marking the 196th anniversary of Greece’s war of liberation against Ottoman Turkish rule. “We are ready because that is how we defend peace.”

Kammenos was speaking in reference to Turkey and his remarks should be understood in the context of Turkey’s overall, largely performative, current beef with the EU. But Greece has a special history with Turkey apart from the rest of the EU, and there are tensions in that relationship that go all the way back to World War I:

Mindful of the nationalist vote that he will need to win the referendum, Erdoğan has questioned the validity of the Lausanne treaty delineating the two countries’ borders after the catastrophic defeat by Turkish forces of the invading Greek army in 1922.

The Turkish nationalist opposition leader, Devlet Bahçeli, has gone even further, claiming that several Greek islands are under occupation and reacting furiously when Kammenos visited the far-flung isle of Oinousses.

“Someone must explain to this spoiled brat not to try our patience,” he railed. “If they [the Greeks] want to fall into the sea again, if they want to be hunted down, they are welcome, the Turkish army is ready. Someone must explain to the Greek government what happened in 1922. If there is no one to explain it to them, we can come like a bullet across the Aegean and teach them history all over again.”

Yeah, this is not helpful. Somebody please get these children a set of green army men they can use to work out their pent-up aggression.


Alexei Navalny (Wikimedia)

Opposition leader (and right-wing nationalist, just in case you were thinking about getting your hopes up) Alexei Navalny was sentenced to 15 days in prison today for organizing large anti-corruption protests that took place in 99 Russian cities on Sunday. Hundreds of protesters were arrested for marching over reports, published by Navalny, that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has been using his position to accumulate vast personal wealth. Medvedev is a big target, of course, but he’s really a proxy for Vladimir Putin, who’s allegedly maybe the richest man in the world and who, if that’s true, didn’t exactly accumulate that wealth through above-board means. Putin is more popular than Medvedev, though, so focusing on the latter for now is probably tactically smart on Navalny’s part. Navalny’s an interesting case as the one Russian opposition figure who hasn’t been completely suppressed and/or murdered by Putin, but while he hasn’t been totally suppressed it’s still been quite difficult for him to get his message out.


NATO is about to get a little bigger, as the US Senate approved Montenegro’s accession to the alliance today by a 97-2 vote. I’m sure they’re looking forward to their first bizarre Donald Trump harangue. In February Montenegro accused Moscow of attempting to assassinate its former prime minister and screw around with its 2016 election, which might have created a little cognitive dissonance for some Republican senators were any of them actually capable of feeling such a thing.


Authorities investigating Khalid Masood, the man who killed four people while attempting to attack the House of Commons last week, say that he was “clearly interested in jihad” but had no direct ties to ISIS or al-Qaeda that they’ve been able to find thus far. Masood may have sent encrypted messages to somebody before carrying out his attack, but that still seems to be speculation at this point.

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