Conflict update: April 15-17 2017

Happy Easter again to everyone who celebrated, and Pesach Sameach to those observing Passover, which ends tomorrow. And if any Egyptians happen to be reading this, happy Sham el-Nisim.


The weekend’s biggest story was, as expected, Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan I’s formal coronation. By a slim margin, also as expected, Turkish voters on Sunday approved a referendum to amend Turkey’s constitution and change the country’s political system from a parliamentary one to a presidential one. The changes will be phased in over the next two years, but when the process is complete full executive authority will be concentrated in the office of president rather than split between the presidency and the prime minister’s office (with the PM, which is disappearing under the new system, actually the more powerful of the two positions). Erdoğan, who could now serve as president through 2029 under these changes, and will presumably try to change the constitution again in a decade if he wants to stay in office beyond that, will have vast new powers to control Turkey’s state bureaucracy, judiciary, military, and legislature.

Juan Cole writes at length about something I brought up on Friday, which is that many of these changes, on their face, are not particularly anti-democratic or authoritarian. On paper, when these changes are fully implemented Turkey’s government won’t look that much different from France’s, for example, or America’s–both of which have their own problems, don’t get me wrong, but neither of which could be called a dictatorship at least at the moment. The problem with Turkish democracy is, as it’s been at least since the Gezi Park protests in 2013, Erdoğan. Especially since last summer’s failed coup gave him an excuse to institute a permanent state of emergency, Erdoğan has been able to purge his political rivals, imprison his political opposition, stifle independent media, and rule Turkey as a one-man show for several years now under the current system, so all this change will do is make it easier for him to keep on keeping on.

Do these changes take Turkey back toward something resembling the Ottoman Empire? Stephen Cook says yes, but even he acknowledges that this is only really going to be the case when the president and parliament both come from the same party. The potential for an opposition parliament to check the president is there. The problem is that it’s impossible to see how an opposition parliament can ever be elected when Erdoğan has thoroughly stifled the Turkish press, has stocked the judiciary with his political appointees, has purged Turkish academia of anyone who dares to criticize him, and won’t let opposition parties mount anything approaching an actual political campaign (and likes to throw their leaders in jail just for good measure). And he didn’t need these amendments to do that. Does this result make Erdoğan a dictator? I would say no, but only because he pretty much already was one.

Also, while we’re mourning the demise of Turkish democracy, I think it’s important to bear in mind that it has always–and here I’m not just referring to the Erdoğan Era, but to the entire history of republican Turkey–had an authoritarian edge to it. You can go all the way back to the days of Atatürk and right through the decades during which another military coup seemed always to be just around the bend, and you’d be hard pressed to find a time when there wasn’t tension between the will of the Turkish people and the will of the few actors at the top of the Turkish political system.

So what happens now, as in right now, before 2019? A lot of the immediate aftermath is going to be dictated by the fact that this vote was so close. Erdoğan wanted to win this vote big, in part because it’s seen as contrary to political norms in any democratic system to make sweeping constitutional changes on the basis of a narrow simple majority vote, and in part so he could show the world just how popular and important he really is. Instead, he barely eked out a win against an opposition that wasn’t allowed to campaign in an environment where voters weren’t allowed to hear any contrary views from their media. He won, but if it’s possible to win and still be embarrassed, then that’s what happened to Erdoğan here. The narrow margin brings two elements into play, one of which could mean more instability and the other more stability:

  1. There is no escaping the fact that Turkish society is heavily divided, in large part along urban/rural lines. “No” won in nearly every major city in Turkey, and the contrast between Turkey’s coastal population centers (and the Kurdish southeast) and the rest of the country is striking (and, yes, should be familiar to Americans, as that tweet says). Protests have already started in Istanbul and may catch on elsewhere, and it’s difficult to imagine Erdoğan handling that well.
  2. On the other hand, there’s a chance that this result will break Erdoğan out of the self-aggrandizing trance he’s been in for the past several years and open his eyes to the fact that roughly half the country didn’t love him enough to give him the new powers he wanted so desperately. He may–and I stress may, because it’s also possible that he’ll get even more reactionary and paranoid over this result–now see the need to moderate, to temper his, uh, temper, to pull back on the authoritarian throttle. This may be a long shot, but it’s at least possible, which you wouldn’t have been able to say had he won a landslide victory or if he’d lost (in which case he probably would’ve just ramped up the repression and tried again in a year or so).

More ominously though, the close result brings into play the elephant in the room: election fraud. And, unfortunately, there’s a pretty good case to be made that some serious funny business went on here. Late in the day on Sunday, Turkey’s election board ruled that millions of ballots without an official seal could still be accepted as legitimate votes. That’s irregular, to say the least, and it’s given opposition leaders a reason to demand that the results be invalidated altogether. European election monitors are also questioning the validity of the vote because of the board’s decision, because of other observed voting irregularities, and because of the lopsided nature of the whole campaign–Erdoğan, predictably, is responding by telling Europe to go f itself, a decision that will carry its own ramifications. The election board won’t release the final results for nearly two weeks, while it considers opposition claims, but it’s hard to imagine them overturning the result over these unsealed ballots when they made the decision to accept those ballots in the first place. And when Erdoğan owns pretty much every lever of power in Turkey, where can the opposition realistically take an electoral challenge and have any hope that they’ll be successful?


At least 126 people were killed on Saturday when a suicide bomber outside the city of Aleppo struck a convoy of buses carrying evacuees from the besieged Idlib towns of Fuʿa and Kefraya. Over 60–I’ve seen reports as high as 80–children were among the dead, and this seems to have been deliberate, as witnesses report that someone in the car began passing out bags of potato chips to lure the children in close before detonating the bomb. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, which is understandable since no group, even ISIS, would really want something like this on its record. The purpose here was to wreck the population exchange agreement that rebels and the Syrian government reached in late-March and that began going into effect on Friday, which was to see starving Shiʿa civilians evacuated from rebel-besieged Fuʿa and Kefraya and starving Sunni civilians from the government-besieged towns of Madaya and Zabadani, near Damascus. And on that score, Mission Accomplished–the deal is kaput at this point.

Anytime anything happens in Syria everybody is a suspect, but I think we can rule a couple of actors out. If it’s true that this deal was negotiated primarily between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham on the one hand and Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the other, then I think we can probably rule out a false flag attack by Hezbollah or the IRGC. Would Tahrir al-Sham wreck its own deal just for a shot at killing a hundred or so Shiʿa civilians? It’s not out of the question, nor is it out of the question that maybe some elements within HTS supported this deal while others didn’t. ISIS could have pulled something like this off, as could some other rebel faction not part of HTS. And, yes, it’s possible that the Assad government did it in order to wreck a deal it doesn’t seem to have played a large part in negotiating. But that’s a serious reach, given that Assad’s number one patron, Iran, helped broker the agreement.

Let’s put aside, for a moment, the sheer disgusting inhumanity of an attack on people who were already suffering horribly from the effects of the rebel siege, an attack in which starving children were deliberately lured into the blast radius of the bomb with the promise of a little food. When we do that, the most astonishing thing about this incident is the absolutely deafening silence from a whole lot of people in the West (including a number of people in high political offices in major Western nations) who were beside themselves when Bashar al-Assad’s air force killed slightly fewer people in that April 4 sarin attack on Khan Shaykhun. I’ll be the first one to say that we absolutely must not turn Syria into the Atrocity Olympics, but if your righteous outrage over that war crime cannot or does not extend to this one, then, well, you might want to ask yourself why that is.

Elsewhere in Syria, government forces have spent the past several days recovering recently lost territory in Hama province and trying to dislodge rebels from areas around Damascus. Both are necessary steps toward an eventual assault on Idlib–Hama because it’s on the way, and Damascus because Assad needs to secure his own backyard before he can commit his fairly meager army to a new major offensive. Also, the evacuation of the formerly rebel-held Waer section of Homs is continuing. And Asma al-Assad might lose her British citizenship, because London wants to Do Something.

UPDATE: This crossed my feed late, after I’d already hit “post,” in fact, but’s Samuel Oakford reports that several analyses have now determined that the March 16 US airstrike in al-Jinah, Syria, did clearly strike a mosque and not, as the Pentagon continues to insist, an al-Qaeda meeting place across the street from a mosque. US officials apparently identified one building in the target area as a mosque and then wrongly and carelessly–perhaps criminally so–assumed that the building they were targeting couldn’t also be a mosque. The strike occurred between sunset and night prayers, when many worshipers would have been in the mosque, having stayed to eat between the two prayer times. Worse, it appears to have been a double-tap strike in which people fleeing the initial missile blast were then targeted by a second missile. That probably seems like a brilliant idea when you think you’re bombing the Legion of Doom al-Qaeda Command, but when you’ve bombing a bunch of regular people who were just waiting for night prayer to start then guess what? You’ve committed a pretty grotesque war crime!


The weekend brought the start of a new push by Iraqi Interior Ministry forces to make gains in Mosul’s Old City. Rather than employing some slick new tactic or waiting for other Iraqi forces to open up a second front for ISIS to defend, it seems the federal police are going to try to grind the fight out house-by-house, which likely means their casualty rates will be high. The immediate target is, as it was weeks ago when the offensive was paused, the Nuri Mosque where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate back in 2014. The Iraqis have been reporting progress by the counter-terrorist “Golden Division” west of the Old City, but as Joel Wing notes, those reports aren’t aligning with either the city’s geography or previous reports of that unit’s movements. There have been reports of ISIS using some kind of chemical weapon against Iraqi forces over the past couple of days, but it’s not clear what chemical it is. And Iraqi VP Ayad Allawi says he knows of recent ISIS efforts to reach out to al-Qaeda about forming an alliance, but it’s not clear how or why Allawi would know this or what such a thing would even look like in Iraq, where the rise of ISIS presumably cannibalized whatever al-Qaeda presence there had been.

If you’re in to heavy military analysis, you may be interested in this report from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center on the ways in which ISIS changed its previous tactics, the ones that failed at Fallujah and Ramadi, in advance of their defense of Mosul. The upshot is that instead of positioning its heaviest defenses on the outskirts of the city to try to break the Iraqi attackers quickly, which left ISIS unable to mount much of a defense once those perimeter defenses were breached, in Mosul–as recent weeks have made readily apparent–the group marshaled most of its forces in the interior of the city and waited for the Iraqis to come to them. They also opted to forego their previous deployment of large mine/IED fields, which can be easily handled with a little time and careful maneuvering, in favor of using mobile strike teams that can hit the Iraqis with sniper/mortar/machine gun fire and quickly fall back to a new position.

The United Nations says that 493,000 Iraqis have now been displaced by the Mosul offensive, a staggering number that is somehow still lower than the number of civilians estimated to remain in ISIS-held parts of western Mosul. The presence of those civilians continues to be a serious concern both in terms of the potential for casualties and the restrictions it places on Iraqi forces fighting to liberate the city. Compounding the situation, recent flooding on the Tigris has rendered pontoon bridges into eastern Mosul impassable, depriving civilians in western Mosul of a way out and Iraqi forces there of a way to get supplies in. On the plus side, schools are reopening in eastern Mosul, and girls–imagine that–are attending, something they were not allowed to do when ISIS controlled the city.


The Pentagon is getting pushback on its plan to support a Saudi-UAE operation to attack Yemen’s main port at Hudaydah, because apparently some wimps at the State Department and humanitarian aid groups have a problem with military actions that could cause millions of people to starve to death. Fucking hippies.

The US military, AKA the people who told you we’d be greeted as liberators, believe that the Saudi-UAE coalition, which has been fighting intensely in Yemen for over two years and has pretty much jack shit to show for it other than a a few funeral party massacres and whole lot of dead Yemenis, will be able to take Hudaydah in four-to-six weeks with a minimal disruption to the humanitarian aid that flows through that port. Translated into reality, that means a months-long operation involving a heavy use of airpower that will essentially destroy the port, which will then require months more to be rebuilt so that it can resume handling cargo traffic. In the meantime countless Yemenis will probably starve to death for lack of aid, which is the only way millions of them get enough food to survive. But it’s OK, because the only dead Arabs the US actually cares about now are the ones whose deaths make Ivanka Trump sad, and that apparently doesn’t include Yemenis.


Speaking of entirely needless human suffering that Washington could probably alleviate if it weren’t for the fact that it won’t make it onto Ivanka’s TV:

The Gaza Strip’s only functioning power plant has shut down after running out of fuel, leaving two million people in the Hamas-governed Palestinian territory with only six hours of electricity a day.

Samir Metir, head of Gaza’s electricity provider, told AFP news agency that all the plant’s fuel, purchased with funding from Qatar and Turkey, had been used up.

He said it was not clear when the territory would receive another shipment, owing to a “dispute” between the electricity authority in Gaza and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank.

The PA has imposed a hefty energy tax on Gaza because of its problems with Hamas, but meanwhile the people of Gaza are being shafted for their leaders’ inability to come to some kind of political accord.


I should have a piece for LobeLog tomorrow about new polling on the state of the Iranian presidential race, so I don’t want to write too much here (spoiler: it doesn’t look great for Hassan Rouhani’s reelection effort, which helps explain why he’s talking tougher about the West lately). One thing I will note is that the Iranian judiciary sent a pretty clear signal that the Guardian Council is going to disqualify both Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his protege/former VP, Hamid Baghaei, when it announced today that lawsuits against both men, for “administrative violations” allegedly committed while in office, are still pending. I can’t imagine that Ahmadinejad is going to take that quietly, so it will be interesting to see if he pulls some kind of political stunt in response.


Count former Afghan President Hamid Karzai among those who were not impressed by America’s BIG-ASS BOMB–he’s called the use of the MOAB in Nangarhar last week an “atrocity,” and has even hinted that his successor, Ashraf Ghani, committed treason by allowing it to be used on Afghan soil. Of course, if Karzai hadn’t been an utter failure as president then it’s possible the US wouldn’t even be in Afghanistan anymore, but I digress. Meanwhile, US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster visited Afghanistan over the weekend to talk with Ghani and other Afghan leaders, and his remarks on Sunday seemed to suggest that the Trump administration plans to lean harder on Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban. That would be an interesting and, potentially, welcome development.


Pakistani authorities have arrested 22 people in connection with the murder of a college student accused of blasphemy in the city of Mardan on Thursday.


There has been a major new outbreak of violence in Kashmir after video surfaced of Indian soldiers tying a Kashmiri man to the front of their vehicle on April 9 and driving around like that. On Saturday, a 17 year old student was reportedly killed by Indian forces in an area of Srinagar, further inflaming the situation, and clashes between college students and police have left scores of students injured.


Over 100 people are feared dead in Colombo, killed in a massive landslide caused by the inevitable decay of our diseased society collapse of a large landfill on the outskirts of the city. Back in March, over 80 people were killed in a similar trash landslide in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, which means this is starting to look like something of a pattern. So when I say that the deaths of dozens of people due to the collapse of a massive pile of garbage is symbolic of the environmental and social rot that threatens to bury us all beneath its fetid refuse, I’m joking–but only somewhat.


Well, we’re all still here, and more to the point the city of Seoul is still there (I mean, I haven’t checked but I assume I would’ve heard something), so I guess war with North Korea didn’t break out over the weekend. Celebrations of Kim Il-sung’s birthday on Saturday were kind of pro forma, actually, with no big new nuclear test like people were predicting, though they may have showed off some solid fuel missiles in the big holiday military parade, it’s not clear. Pyongyang did, it seems, attempt another missile test this weekend–which at this point is virtually as worrisome as a nuclear test would have been–but it doesn’t seem to have been an ICBM test and at any rate the missile exploded shortly after launch. That’s another test failure that will add fuel to the theory that the US has been conducting a cyber-sabotage campaign against North Korea’s missile testing systems.

Where is this all going? Relations between North Korea and the US are as tense as they’ve been in recent memory, with the Trump administration clearly feeling its oats after bombing Shayrat air base and dropping that BIG-ASS BOMB in Afghanistan. It clearly feels like it’s “sent a message” to North Korea and is probably going to get frustrated when it realizes the message wasn’t received. If I were living in South Korea, I would absolutely be worried about the possibility of pre-emptive airstrikes from a US president who seems neither to know nor care what such a thing might mean for Seoul (Tokyo too, but Seoul is in particular danger). China now appears to be the voice of reason in this situation, but Beijing also has to own up to the fact that its policy of constructive engagement with Pyongyang has failed just as thoroughly as Washington’s policy of treating Pyongyang like a mouthy teenager, and they don’t seem willing to do that. I don’t think we’re going to see a resumption of the Korean War (or worse), but right now I’m not sure any of the three major players–North Korea, China, and the US–is willing to take steps to deescalate the situation.


DRC authorities have returned the body of tribal leader Kamwina Nsapu to his tribe. Nsapu was killed by DRC police last August, and his death led to the creation of the loosely organized Kamwina Nsapu militia. Nsapu had already begun an insurrection against the government in the month before he was killed, but the militia bearing his name has escalated the violence, primarily in Kasai-Central province but also in the neighboring provinces of Kasai, Kasai-Oriental, and Lomami. The return of his body, and promises of government recognition for his successor, are seen as potential steps toward ending the insurrection.

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