Conflict update: April 10-14 2017

First off all, apologies for not doing one of these earlier this week. I had intended to crank something out on Wednesday but, well, when Wednesday rolled around I didn’t want to anymore.

Second, Easter and Passover greetings to my Christian and Jewish readers. This is one of the rare years when the Orthodox and Catholic Easter dates align with one another, so I don’t have to specify which Christians for a change. I’ll probably be back to regular programming on Monday, so I wanted to get an Easter message out just in case I don’t have the opportunity again before Sunday.

OK, so, strap in. I’ll try to make this as short as possible. Forgive me if some smaller stories fall through the cracks.


If you assume that Rex Tillerson is actually able to speak on his boss’s behalf, then it’s possible that a “Trump Doctrine” is beginning to take shape:

Days after President Trump bombed Syria in response to a chemical attack that killed children, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said on Monday that the United States would punish those “who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.”

Hey, that’s interesting. So does that mean we’re going to punish the Saudis for committing crimes against the innocents in Yemen? No? Well, how about punishing Abdel Fattah el-Sisi the next time he disappears some political opponents or massacres a bunch of protesters? Not that either, huh? OK, well surely we’ll want to protect innocents in Bahrain from their–oh, I see. Are we at least planning to punish Bashar al-Assad for the myriad crimes he’s committed against innocents that haven’t involved nerve gas? Hah, not even that, cool.

Hey, what about those ~270 or so innocents we bombed in Mosul about a month ago? Or the ~50 or so we bombed at evening prayer in al-Jinah around that same time? Are we going to punish ourselves for those crimes?

No, don’t answer, I already know. This is quite a doctrine we’re developing. We’ll punish those who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world (offer may not be valid in your area).


The bloviating about the April 4 Khan Shaykhun chemical weapons attack continues. The UK and French foreign ministers, for example, are puffing out their chests with pride at the American airstrike on Shayrat air base on April 6-7, as one normally does about events in which one has played no role whatsoever. They’re taking a hard line and threatening more (American) strikes if Bashar al-Assad doesn’t stop screwing around. On the other hand, Assad and Moscow continue to insist that, evidence to the contrary, Assad wasn’t responsible for the chemical weapons attack. They’re now suggesting that the whole incident was staged–not staged as in it was a “false flag” situation, but staged like it was total fiction–by al-Qaeda in order to provoke a US response. Vladimir Putin has gone so far as to suggest that he has evidence that they plan to stage more fake chemical attacks in the future, a charge that sounds suspiciously like an effort to pre-clear Assad for the next time he decides to gas a village.

To be fair, this is a stronger argument for Assad and Putin than the “accidental strike on a rebel sarin depot” story was, because there are actual scientific reasons why that story is hard to believe whereas this story simply requires some suspension of disbelief. But the strength of their counter-argument is somewhat lessened when they’re now on their second or third alternative theory for the April 4 attack. At some point it just seems like you’re grasping for straws. It’s particularly hard to square these denials with reports that Syrian and Russian planes are hitting rebel-held areas in Idlib and Homs with incendiary payloads like phosphorus and possibly thermite. That these things aren’t considered chemical weapons is effectively a meaningless technicality. I’ll note also that the Syrians have continued to use barrel bombs, which may not kill civilians in as ugly a way as sarin, but ultimately dead is dead.

Behind the scenes, Laura Rozen reports that Moscow is “furious” with Assad over the incident, which makes the Russians look impotent and has torpedoed efforts to engage with the Trump administration, though they continue to run cover for Damascus at the United Nations. Iranian officials have also been pretty subdued in their response, condemning the attack itself while refusing to attribute blame for it. Iran’s history as a target of chemical weapons explains this. Donald Trump insists that “we’re not going into Syria,” which must come as a huge surprise to the 500 or so US soldiers who are already there.

In some Syrian news that actually matters for actual Syrians, thousands of civilians are finally being evacuated from the besieged towns of Fouaa and Kefraya, in Idlib, and Madaya and Zabadani, near Damascus. Rebels have been besieging the former, and government forces the latter, off and on for at least a couple of years at this point, and residents have been dying for lack of food and medicines.


ISIS may now control “less than seven percent of Iraq,” according to the Iraqi military, but one place it still definitely controls is Mosul’s Old City. As it was when last we spoke, so it may ever be still is. Progress is being made on two fronts: the “Golden Division” (Iraq’s counter-terrorism force) is still progressing to the west of the Old City, possibly looking to encircle the neighborhood and attack it from the north (though that plan may be changing), while a combination of Iraqi regulars and the Popular Mobilization Units is advancing on the city from the northwest, and will likely enter the city from that direction eventually. Iraqi interior ministry forces seem to be focusing on helping civilians evacuate the Old City for now, possibly with an eye toward a more vigorous/destructive use of air power and heavy weapons once the risk to civilians can be minimized.

The heaviest toll of the fighting is of course borne by those civilians. The death toll is overwhelming local morgues, hundreds of thousands of people remain displaced, the physical damage in western Mosul is extreme, and children are starving to death for lack of aid. And things may get worse before they get better, as reports from inside the city suggest that ISIS fighters are wearing suicide vests constantly, ready to kill themselves and anyone around them if and when Iraqi forces finally break their defenses. One senior ISIS cleric, Abdullah al-Badrani, was reportedly killed in an airstrike on Thursday. Also on the positive side, civilians are returning to towns around Mosul, like the predominantly Christian Qaraqosh, and, well, the Mosul zoo’s lion and bear have been rescued.


Sunday is referendum day, and polling, to the extent that polling in Turkey–or anywhere, really–can be trusted, suggests that “yes” is going to eke out a victory. Given Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s history of overperforming in elections, I would suggest that if there’s an error in the polling, it’s at least as likely that it’s in underestimating the “yes” margin of victory as it is in giving “yes” the win at all. And given the overwhelming systematic disadvantage that the “no” campaign has had to overcome–imagine your side being equated with ISIS and having virtually no way to respond in mass media–a “yes” victory seems like a fair bet.

So, briefly, what does a “yes” vote mean? It means, bottom line, empowering Erdoğan, and therein lies the problem. A lot of the specific constitutional changes this referendum would make–presidents allowed to belong to a political party, presidents appointing their cabinets–are things that Americans, for example, would see as perfectly normal. And it’s very understandable why voters in Turkey, a country that has been frequently plagued by dysfunctional coalition governments and has a history of military intervention to overrule the will of the electorate, would see a strong, directly elected executive as a way to overcome those things. The rub comes when you consider putting these powers in the hands of a man like Erdoğan, who has never demonstrated the slightest respect for democratic norms apart from the simple act of holding elections. A person who shuts down unfriendly media outlets, who jails political opponents, who prosecutes wars when he thinks it’ll help him at the polls, who purges even his own party of anyone who might challenge his supremacy, is not a person in whom serious political authority should be invested. Turning the rest of the Turkish state into little more than a rubber stamp for Erdoğan’s wishes is a dangerous plan for protecting Turkish democracy.


At LobeLog, Mitchell Piltnick discusses Israel’s new settlement policy and the absurdity of the idea that it somehow “constrains” settlement-building:

The most notable aspect of Netanyahu’s announcement is what is not there: any mention of settlement blocs. For many years, since the exchange of letters in 2004 between US President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, there has been a tacit understanding between Washington and Jerusalem (though pointedly, not involving the Palestinian Authority) that Israel could, without controversy, continue to build up its so-called settlement blocs. Just how many blocs there are and which groups of settlements qualify as blocs has not always been clear, but the basic principle has been there.

In more recent years, voices in both the US and Israel like those of Dennis Ross, Elliott Abrams, and Isaac Herzog, among others, have called for a formal US agreement on the expansion of the blocs that differentiates between them and other settlements. This will only impede progress, as I’ve explained in the past. But now, Netanyahu has, under the guise of a policy of “restraint,” moved past even that scant limitation.


If you’ve ever wondered about the intersection between climate change and, uh, Oman, well wonder no longer:

Peter Kelemen, a 61-year-old geochemist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, has been exploring Oman’s hills for nearly three decades. “You can walk down these beautiful canyons and basically descend 20 kilometers (12 miles) into the earth’s interior,” he said.

The sultanate boasts the largest exposed sections of the Earth’s mantle, thrust up by plate tectonics millions of years ago. The mantle contains peridotite, a rock that reacts with the carbon in air and water to form marble and limestone.

“Every single magnesium atom in these rocks has made friends with the carbon dioxide to form solid limestone, magnesium carbonate, plus quartz,” he said as he patted a rust-colored boulder in the Wadi Mansah valley.


Well, the candidates are in (literally hundreds of them), and the big news is that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will seek a second term in off–wait, I’m sorry, you wanted to talk about something else?

Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad surprised everyone April 12 by registering to run in the May 19 presidential election, a move that could be interpreted as directly defying Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had publicly “advised” him last autumn not to run in the race.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is like those prickly things that stick to your clothes when you’re outside and then never come off. We’ll always be stuck with him. But I don’t think he’s really planning to run in this election, though he certainly will run if he’s allowed.

Ahmadinejad isn’t exactly close with Khamenei, and technically Khamenei can’t force him not to run, but with Khamenei having taken the extraordinary step of publicly telling Ahmadinejad not to run, even the Iranian George W. Bush has to be savvy enough to see his path to return to the presidency is pretty well closed off. However, Ahmadinejad’s former VP, Hamid Baghaei, is also running, and Ahmadinejad would by all appearances very much like to see him win. But Baghaei has a criminal record and looks like a pretty safe bet to be disqualified from running by the Guardian Council, which does have the power to do that kind of thing. Ahmadinejad’s move here smacks of a dare to the Guardian Council to disqualify both men, under the assumption that the council will probably choose to only reject one–likely Ahmadinejad, but you never know.

Ahmadinejad’s surprise announcement does nothing to alter the fact that Rouhani’s main challenger will be cleric Ebrahim Raisi, and the reason isn’t so much because of Raisi himself (though he’s certainly the most credible principlist candidate) but because of the lengths to which the Iranian religious establishment may go to see the Raisi is successful. This is a guy whose name has been bandied about as Khamenei’s successor, and it would be a huge mark against him if he were to lose this election to Rouhani. It’s hard to believe Raisi would risk this run if he didn’t have good reason to think that, in Iran’s, uh, “managed” democratic system, he’s got the inside track. On the other hand, the presence of Ahmadinejad, or Baghaei, on the ballot, along with potentially other principlists who aren’t interested in clearing the field for Raisi, could split the conservative vote just enough to save Rouhani–assuming, of course, that the election is conducted fairly.


On Thursday, the United States dropped a BIG-ASS BOMB on Afghanistan. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve dropped a lot of big bombs on Afghanistan since the War in Afghanistan began roughly 432 over 15 years ago, but we’ve never used our BIG-ASS BOMB there–indeed, we’ve never used our BIG-ASS BOMB in combat before, anywhere. This BIG-ASS BOMB was dropped on an ISIS tunnel complex in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, and reportedly at least 36 90 ISIS militants were FUCKING ANNIHILATED by our BIG-ASS BOMB. ISIS’s tunnel networks are a huge problem, and not just in Afghanistan–they’ve got an extensive tunnel network in Mosul, for example, which has been a big factor in their ability to defend that city so effectively against impossible odds. However, the tactical purpose of dropping the BIG-ASS BOMB may have been less to destroy a tunnel network than to show everybody how RIPPED and MASSIVE we are; previously, the Pentagon had suggested that it developed the BIG-ASS BOMB mostly for psychological purposes.

Some have questioned the righteousness of dropping the BIG-ASS BOMB in Afghanistan. They’ve argued that the BIG-ASS BOMB is not cost effective, that its military utility is debatable, that its risk to civilians is too great for it to ever be a viable option (we should note that no civilian casualties have been reported in this case). They’ve argued that using the BIG-ASS BOMB puts the lie to the US military’s claims that it tries to minimize civilians casualties, since there’s really no way to be that discerning about your target when dropping a bomb that’s this massive. What you need to understand is that these people are all giant pussies. What the fuck is the point of having a BIG-ASS BOMB if you never use it? The important thing is that now ISIS knows that we have a BIG-ASS BOMB, and Donald Trump got to use the BIG-ASS BOMB and prove that he is a BOSS who DOES NOT TAKE ANY SHIT, and also that all of the people WHO DESERVE A RIGHTEOUS AMERICAN BIG-ASS BOMBING will know that we are FUCKING COMING FOR THEM, BRO.

This is American foreign policy in the age of unchecked Republican governance. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran continue to build ties with the Taliban, which the DC national security establishment naturally assumes is a direct challenge to American supremacy but is in reality a recognition that the US, for all of its BIG-ASS BOMBS, has fucked Afghanistan up so badly that the Taliban are now no longer the worst actors in the country. For Tehran in particular, but Moscow as well, supporting the Taliban as a bulwark against ISIS is entirely rational policy under the circumstances.


Aung San Suu Kyi’s deplorable failure to do anything about the Rohingya genocide is getting to be pretty well-documented. But The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan argues that she’s still being given the benefit of the doubt, and that underneath her “failure” to act is a deliberate anti-Muslim agenda:

The standard Western media narrative is to accuse The Lady, as she is known by her admirers, of silence and of a grotesque failure to speak out against these human rights abuses. In an editorial last May, the New York Times denounced Suu Kyi’s “cowardly stance on the Rohingya.”

Yet hers is not merely a crime of omission, a refusal to denounce or condemn. Hers are much worse crimes of commission. She took a deliberate decision to try and discredit the Rohingya victims of rape. She went out of her way to accuse human rights groups and foreign journalists of exaggerations and fabrications. She demanded that the U.S. government stop using the name “Rohingya” — thereby perpetuating the pernicious myth that the Muslims of Rakhine are “Bengali” interlopers (rather than a Burmese community with a centuries-long presence inside Myanmar.) She also appointed a former army general to investigate the recent attacks on the Rohingya and he produced a report in January that, not surprisingly, whitewashed the well-documented crimes of his former colleagues in the Burmese military.

Silence, therefore, is the least of her sins. Silence also suggests a studied neutrality. Yet there is nothing neutral about Aung San Suu Kyi’s stance. She has picked her side and it is the side of Buddhist nationalism and crude Islamophobia.


So, hey, are we actually going to make it out of the weekend without going to war with North Korea? Saturday is Kim Il-sung’s birthday, a national holiday in North Korea what with Kim (the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un) being the country’s founder and all. Pyongyang sometimes likes to pepper its national holidays with momentous events, and there are signs that they’re preparing to conduct another nuclear test. NBC reported on Thursday that the Trump administration was considering a preemptive strike along the lines of the Shayrat missile strike if Pyongyang looks likely to conduct another test, but the Trump administration denied that. There’s no reason to believe the denial, of course, but a missile strike on North Korea at this juncture seems especially reckless even for this administration. For one thing, what are they going to target? For another, what’s the plan to stop North Korea from raining artillery down on Seoul, a city of 10 million people that’s so close to North Korea there’s virtually no way to prevent massive civilian casualties there if Pyongyang decides to open fire?

For yet another thing, striking North Korea now would probably kill any effort to to bring Chinese pressure to bear on Pyongyang, something they appear to be trying to do at the moment. Beijing has been trying to play mediator, but it’s not clear they’ve been having much luck with either the Americans or the North Koreans. Luckily, President Trump recently got an important briefing on the China-North Korean relationship…from Chinese President Xi Jinping. Uh, doesn’t the White House have anybody on payroll who could’ve clued the president in, or are we going to rely on leaders of other countries to conduct all of the president’s foreign international affairs briefings moving forward?


The situation in Libya is deteriorating, owing in part to the failure of the international community to coalesce behind one of the country’s three main warring factions. While the Government of National Accord and Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army have largely avoided any direct conflict, the new fighting around Sabha between forces aligned with both of those factions has opened the door to a potential escalation back into a full-on shooting war between Tripoli and Tobruk. Additionally, African refugees are reportedly being sold in Libyan slave markets by human traffickers who have been able to exploit the country’s ongoing state of anarchy to set up operations. Fortunately, low-rent Flash Gordon villain Sebastian Gorka has a plan to save the day by partitioning the country into three parts, an idea that one wag called “bloody brilliant, Gorka out” and that another termed “clueless.” It seems likely that the Trump administration, given its high tolerance for authoritarians, will eventually see value in supporting Haftar regardless of what it means for the future of Libya as a non-dictatorial state.


UN boss António Guterres says he wants to open talks on Western Sahara, a call that was met with cautious optimism by both the Moroccan government and the Polisario group that seeks Sahrawi independence.


The US is sending more troops to Somalia as part of a training mission with Somali security forces. We’re at war in so many countries that we’ve actually gone into reruns.


Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia have asked the European Commission to launch an investigation to complaints that food manufacturers are deliberately selling lower quality versions of their products in Eastern European markets. This is not a joke–actual studies have suggested that it’s a real phenomenon:

While rumors that inferior food is shipped to the East have swirled for years, only in 2011 did the Slovak Association of Consumers conduct a comparison of a basket of products purchased in Austria with the same products bought in Slovakia.

In all but one case, the products in the East were inferior, the group concluded.

This led Olga Sehnalova, a Czech member of the European Parliament, to take up the cause. She conducted a test with her own basket of products and found half were inferior.

I don’t want to make more of this than it is, but it seems to me that if you’re concerned about the rise of reactionary anti-Europe governments in Eastern Europe, it would behoove you to make sure that your food producers aren’t dumping their garbage in Eastern European countries. I have to figure that, for middle class Eastern Europeans, being sold, for example, second-rate lunchmeat, while consumers in Germany and France get higher quality products under the same labels, would have the effect of increasing resentment toward Europe’s wealthier nations.


Rex Tillerson’s big visit to Russia on Wednesday ended with an agreement to form a working group on improving US-Russia ties and disagreement on Syria. At least the working group will keep some people busy for a little while. On the genuine plus side, he does seem to have gotten Moscow to return to participating in deconfliction processes with Washington in Syria.


France’s presidential election is a scant nine days away, and the biggest story by far is the huge number of voters who say they’re either planning to stay home or that they haven’t decided how they’re going to vote. It’s no exaggeration to say that this vote is still very much up in the air. The big news in recent days has been a polling surge for far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who in some polls has now moved into third place ahead of Republican candidate François Fillon. If he keeps surging the way he has over the last ten days, Mélenchon could conceivably put himself into the runoff, hopefully at right-wing loon Marine Le Pen’s expense. He’s still got a pretty steep climb ahead of him, but all those undecided voters mean that no outcome can be ruled out at this point.


A British Parliamentary committee has concluded that foreign governments, including possibly Russia, may have been involved in taking down a voter registration website in advance of the Brexit referendum.

Is this a thing we’re all going to be doing now? Election doesn’t go the way we wanted, so it must be Russia’s fault? The website reportedly crashed due to high traffic the day before the referendum, which the committee can’t rule out having been caused by a DDOS attack.

High traffic.

On a voter registration website.

The day before a hugely important vote.

Yep, must be the FSB.


Since I already mentioned environmental issues above, here’s another way America is doing its part to further fuck the planet up:

But what is undeniable is that the 654 miles of walls and fences already on the US-Mexico border have made a mess out of the environment there. They’ve cut off, isolated, and reduced populations of some of the rarest and most amazing animals in North America, like the jaguar and ocelot (also known as the dwarf jaguar). They’ve led to the creation of miles of roads through pristine wilderness areas. They’ve even exacerbated flooding, becoming dams when rivers have overflowed.

And while we don’t yet know exactly what path Trump’s new wall would take, DHS has been eyeing unfenced areas in a Texas wildlife refuge that conservationists consider some of the most ecologically valuable areas on the border — home to armadillos and bobcats. If a wall were to slice through these ecosystems, it could cause irreversible damage to plants and animals already under serious threat.

America, fuck yeah!

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