Conflict update: April 4 2017


According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 58 people (one estimate puts the toll over 100) were killed today in what certainly seems to have been a chemical weapons attack on the town of the town of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib province. Doctors treating the victims described people suffocating, vomiting, foaming at the mouth–all symptoms consistent with some kind of chemical agent. The strikes also reportedly targeted the town’s Syrian Civil Defense office, and, later on, a clinic where some of the victims of the initial attack had been taken for treatment.

khan shaykhun
Khan Shaykhun (Google Maps)

There’s been an immediate consensus among Western governments and media outlets that the Syrian government deliberately used chemical weapons again, and the UN Security Council is scheduled to meet tomorrow to discuss the incident. And that’s most likely what happened. But some pro-government media outlets have been reporting that what actually happened was that government airstrikes hit a rebel weapons depot that contained chemical weapons, and that the explosions distributed the gas into the air and thus on to the victims. In the interest of being completely fair, this scenario is not entirely outside the realm of possibility–al-Qaeda, at least, probably does have some chemical weapons taken from government caches, including sarin (which, based especially on the “foaming at the mouth” description, seems like it may have been the gas in question here), and al-Qaeda–or whatever it’s calling itself this week–is active in Idlib and, as far as I know, specifically in the area around Khan Shaykhun. But if you were going to presume a cause here, then intentional government use is certainly the more likely one.

President Trump is, unsurprisingly, blaming Barack Obama for this apparent CW attack, reasoning that Obama should have taken Assad out after the Ghouta chemical weapons attack in 2013. This is an…interesting link for Trump to push, because…wait for it:

Also too, the administration isn’t actually going to do anything about this attack, despite the pressure they’re getting from Congress, because there’s nothing for them to do. They can’t attack Assad because he’s under Russian protection. They can’t start sending heavy weapons to the Free Syrian Army without seriously risking those weapons becoming al-Qaeda property. They can’t ram a sternly worded resolution through the UN Security Council, because Russia will veto it. They probably can’t even order Assad to destroy all his chemical weapons but for reals this time, because Assad’s probably not going to admit to having any chemical weapons anymore despite this new evidence to the contrary. One small thing Trump could do is to stop periodically kissing Assad’s ass in public, but he’s likely too undisciplined/addled to even manage that.

Elsewhere, Reuters reported today on the risks people are taking to try to escape Raqqa before the expected US-coordinated assault comes. ISIS is trying to keep people in the city to act as human shields, so escaping is a dicey proposition.


The death toll in yesterday’s St. Petersburg metro bombing now stands at 14 according to Russia’s health ministry. And authorities now believe that this was a suicide bombing carried out by Akbarzhon Jalilov, a 22 year old Russian citizen of Kyrgyz descent. The identification of the bomber must come as some small relief for Ilyas Nikitin, a cab driver who had been publicly fingered as the possible bomber by Russian authorities, based on security camera images. But it’s got to be troubling for Moscow, which now has to wonder if others among its very large and often quite marginalized Central Asian migrant population may have been or may become radicalized and follow in Jalilov’s path. So far there’s nothing connecting Jalilov directly to ISIS or any other international terrorist group, nor is there any evidence he spent time in, e.g., Syria, which if he had would at least help narrow Russia’s concerns to people who may be returning from that war. There have been a lot of Central Asians who have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq who were allegedly radicalized and recruited in Russia, though, so in general it appears that there is something going on within that population.

Another potential ramification of this attack has to do with Russia’s Syria policy, which Russians might want to blame for inviting this attack and potentially others like it. On the other hand, Vladimir Putin is likely to deploy some variation of the “we have to fight them there so we’re not fighting them here” argument to say that the terrorism problem in Russia would actually be substantially worse if he hadn’t intervened in Syria, and that may well work for him, at least in the short term.


I feel like I’m days behind on the latest Trump scandals, but at the very least I can try to round them up for you:

  • On the Sebastian Gorka front, last week LobeLog published a new look into his past associations with the Hungarian far right and antisemitism, and then yesterday The Forward reported on a 2007 video that shows Gorka explicitly endorsing the Hungarian Guard, a far right antisemitic paramilitary organization. I don’t know what Gorka’s deal is except that he’s much less a terrorism “expert” than he is an anti-Islam ideologue, but he seems to have some incredibly unsavory political ties in Hungary.
  • Republicans are still in High Crazy over the idea that Susan Rice spied on Donald Trump. Zach Beauchamp does a good job of explaining why this is a bullshit story, and Marcy Wheeler explains why Rice may very well be entirely irrelevant to it.
  • A Russian spy ring allegedly tried to recruit former Trump adviser Carter Page in 2013 and determined that he was an “idiot.” Well, they weren’t wrong, but I tend to agree with Wheeler that (right now, at least) there’s less to this story than meets the eye. Does the fact that he was approached by Russian spies in 2013 mean that, as the Steele dossier suggests, Page was colluding with Russian agents during the campaign? Maybe, but for now this just seems to be some alluring innuendo.
  • Erik Prince, the founder and former CEO of Blackwater and at least an unofficial adviser to the Trump transition, apparently had a secret meeting in the Seychelles in early January with an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prince allegedly wanted to explore how the incoming administration could make it worth Putin’s while to abandon his alliance of convenience with Iran–something I imagine would be possible, but would cost Washington enormously and would be impossible in the current political climate in DC. The meeting was allegedly brokered by officials in the UAE, who would also love to see Moscow cut Tehran loose, but assuming this whole story is true it clearly never went anywhere. There are a lot of problems with this story–it’s all anonymously sourced, this mysterious Russian is never actually identified–but separating Russia and Iran is pretty much the key to Trump’s foreign policy making any sense, so it’s easy to believe this one. And, I might add, there’s nothing that necessarily indicates that Prince did anything wrong here. Still, given the circumstances in which we find ourselves, any Trump-Russia allegation, especially one involving a character like Erik Prince, is going to be big news.


The situation in Mosul remains largely static, though Iraqi federal police have reportedly started trying to open up corridors for civilians to get out of the Old City. The fewer civilians who remain in the Old City, the freer hand the Iraqis will have to use air power and heavy weaponry in the fighting there. The United Nations said today that some 300,000 people have been displaced by the Mosul operation thus far.

One big drama in Iraq at the moment involves a flag in Kirkuk. Specifically, the Kurdish Regional Government’s flag, which it’s decided to start flying alongside the Iraqi flag in a supremely unsubtle attempt to demonstrate their national aspirations to control Kirkuk once the ISIS war is over. This has managed to anger pretty much everybody other than the Kurds: the Iraqi parliament, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, even Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who otherwise gets along well with KRG leadership. Kirkuk has a substantial Turkmen population, and it won’t do for Erdoğan to be seen as abandoning them to Kurdish rule while he’s courting nationalist votes.


Eight people were killed in clashes between Turkish soldiers and the PKK in southeastern Turkey today–three Turkish soldiers and five Kurdish fighters.


The Saudi-led coalition fighting to put Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi back in power in Sanaa is preparing to launch its inevitable assault on Yemen’s main port, Hudaydah, despite repeated warnings from the UN and aid agencies that doing so will likely expose millions more Yemenis to an even more critical hunger crisis. Two forces are preparing to advance on the port from the north and south, and Saudi airstrikes against the city will surely be stepped up.


King Abdullah will be at the White House tomorrow to meet with President Trump. Unlike the presumably wider-ranging meeting Trump had yesterday with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, this meeting will likely focus on two things: the ISIS threat, particularly as it pertains to Jordan’s border with Syria, and Israel-Palestine. Abdullah will likely try to sell Trump on the Arab League plan to dangle diplomatic recognition of Israel in return for a Palestinian state. This is a deal that’s been lingering since 2002 and, you know, Israel hasn’t really jumped at it so far.


Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheikh Khaled b. Ahmed Al Khalifa, said today that Donald Trump understands the Middle East, and the Iranian threat, better than Barack Obama did. I’m sure his comments had nothing to do with the fact that Trump just green-lit the sale of a bunch of F-16’s to Bahrain.


A new sanctions bill floating around the Senate, co-sponsored by Bob Corker and Robert Menendez, that may have been (and may still be) a serious threat to the Iranian nuclear deal…has been put on hold. Corker cited concerns about how the bill was being received in Europe, and about the effect it could have on Iran’s upcoming presidential election, as reasons for sidelining it, temporarily.

Speaking of the upcoming election, Iranian authorities have been arresting journalists and reform activists at an alarming rate even by Iranian standards. This is almost certainly an effort to keep these people quiet during the campaign, but it also may be an attempt to bait Hassan Rouhani, who these people are supporting, into doing something that could discredit him before the election.


India has rejected an offer from US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley for the US to act as mediator between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. India’s argument has always been that negotiations over Kashmir can’t begin until Pakistan does something to rein in violent separatist movements there, movements that India insists are Pakistani controlled (and, well, they have a point). Ergo, they insist that any international involvement in the issue must take the form of pressuring Pakistan to, in technical diplomatic parlance, cut the shit.


Not that long ago, the South Korean military announced that North Korea launched what US Pacific Command later identified as a medium-range ballistic missile into the sea off its east coast. Undoubtedly this was meant as a preamble to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Mar-a-Lago later this week.


Al-Shabab reportedly seized control of the town of El Bur today after Ethiopian forces under the African Union’s AMISOM peacekeeping command, who had been stationed in the city since they took it from al-Shabab in 2014, left. It’s not clear why they left, but the town was apparently abandoned so there may have been little point to staying there.


Calls are growing for President Jacob Zuma’s resignation, after his big cabinet shakeup last week caused the country to lose its credit rating and much of its currency’s value. Today the Congress of South African Trade Unions, a major partner of the African National Congress, demanded that Zuma step down, and several ANC elders are making similar statements or even arguing for Zuma’s recall.


Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders have agreed to resume reunification talks on April 11, according to the UN. Coincidentally or not, this leaves virtually no time for the talks to get anywhere before Turkey’s constitutional referendum on April 16, so if you were thinking that the recent Turkish Cypriot decision to walk away from the talks in a huff was just a way to delay them so that Erdoğan wouldn’t have to make any concessions before that vote, you may still be on to something.


Aleksandar Vučić’s election as president on Sunday has motivated hundreds of people to demonstrate in Belgrade over the past two days against his new powers. Technically, Vučić will be much less powerful in his new office, since the Serbian presidency is quite weak. But since he thoroughly dominates his Serbian Progressive Party, he will undoubtedly maintain or even expand his control over the state by appointing a suitably compliant puppet to the PM job to replace him. There are real concerns over Vučić’s latent authoritarianism and possible illiberal tendencies that don’t seem to be going away.


Around 10,000 people marched in Budapest today to show support for Central European University, a school founded by George Soros. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán wants to shut the school down, because right-wing authoritarians the world over have collectively decided that Soros is The Devil instead of being just another asshole plutocrat who happens to be a little less right-wing in his political orientation.


Well at least this idiotic story seems to be ove–OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE SERIOUSLY

A Spanish navy patrol ship entered Gibraltar’s territorial waters without permission on Tuesday, the government of the British outpost on the southern tip of Spain said.


Protesters opposed to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro clashed with police today after the police shut down an opposition rally in Caracas. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that pepper spray and tear gas made an appearance. A pro-Maduro rally apparently took place in Caracas at around the same time, so it sounds like things are really going well there right now.


Well, actually, that’s a little #FakeNews for you right there. If freedom is marching anywhere, it’s to the bar to get drunk:

Freedom House’s Nations in Transit 2017 Report covers 29 countries, stretching from Central Eastern Europe to Central Asia. For the first time since 1995, the number of so-called consolidated authoritarian regimes outweighs the number of consolidated democracies. The former are your classic repressed societies in which dictators rule with an iron fist, quashing dissent without regard for civil rights, while the latter are the most democratic regimes. (More about the methodology can be found here).

Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are all consolidated authoritarian regimes, according to this year’s report. This is the first time Kyrgyzstan has been considered such since 2011, the year it held competitive parliamentary elections (it moved out of the category the following year). This means, of the countries in the report that were once in the Soviet Union, only Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine don’t carry the worst-kind-of-regime status.That isn’t to say those four all had top marks. For example, Armenia, like Kyrgyzstan, switched from a presidential to a parliamentary system in 2016, a move that will “make political change harder to achieve,” according to the report.

But it isn’t only a post-Soviet problem. Since 2007, eleven EU members or candidates have seen their democracy scores decrease.



Islamic State said on Tuesday the United States was drowning and “being run by an idiot”.

In the first official remarks by the group referring to President Donald Trump since he took office, spokesman Abi al-Hassan al-Muhajer said:

“America you have drowned and there is no savior, and you have become prey for the soldiers of the caliphate in every part of the earth, you are bankrupt and the signs of your demise are evident to every eye.”

“… There is no more evidence than the fact that you are being run by an idiot who does not know what Syria or Iraq or Islam is,” he said in a recording released on Tuesday on messaging network Telegram.

Oh, Donald Trump is an idiot, is he? Well, it’s…uh, he’s not…well, you’re only…um…can somebody help me out here?

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