Conflict update: April 19 2017

Hey! So, instead of finishing this and posting it at 11:58 like I usually do, tonight I’m going to try, you know, not doing that, and hopefully being asleep at 11:58 instead. I’d like to make that the new normal with these posts going forward, but we’ll see.


At The Nation, James Carden asks whether we, and the media in particular, have rushed to judgment in in blaming Bashar al-Assad for the April 4 chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun. This is a difficult discussion to have in an environment that rewards the confident take over nuance almost every time, but I think Carden makes a compelling case that there has been a rush to judgment, while at the same time I also believe that the preponderance of evidence supports the conclusion that Assad did it. The thing is that “preponderance of evidence” isn’t that high a standard, especially in a situation where there isn’t all that much hard evidence–at this point I think we can fairly confidently say that sarin or something very much like it was used in Khan Shaykhun, but most of the rest of the story is still up in the air to one degree or another. And “preponderance of evidence” certainly seems like too low a standard when we’re talking about justifying military action, though certainly the US has historically trudged off to war over even less.

At some point, though, proponents of alternate theories about Khan Shaykhun are going to have to produce some evidence of their own, something more than “I’m hearing from sources” or “this satellite image looks like something else to me.” Because even if they’re right, and Assad wasn’t responsible for this attack, it doesn’t mean much if they can’t at least sway public opinion in their direction. And if international investigations start to determine that Assad did it, that’s going to become much harder to do. It’s one thing to question the veracity of anything that comes out of the Trump administration, but if, say, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons investigation comes back with a finding that Assad was responsible, then that’s harder to simply dismiss out of hand.

On the other hand, the OPCW investigation hasn’t come back yet, and if your argument is that America should have at least waited for that before commencing air strikes, well, I think you’re probably right. There’s also a strong case to be made that our media should be giving more–or at least some–attention to credible people who are questioning the “Assad Did It” narrative. And there’s also some merit to what Peter Ford, former UK ambassador to Syria, said here

But perhaps the enthusiasm that greeted Trump’s air strikes was misplaced. Ambassador Ford warns that “Trump has just given the jihadis a thousand reasons to stage fake flag operations, seeing how successful and how easy it is with a gullible media to provoke the West into intemperate reactions.”

In actual Syria news, the evacuations of Fuʿah, Kefraya, Zabadani, and Madaya have commenced again after being halted by that terrorist attack over the weekend. Hundreds of rebels and their families have reportedly been evacuated from Madaya and Zabadani to Idlib, while thousands of Shiʿa residents of Fuʿah and Kefraya have been evacuated to Aleppo. As I’ve said many times now: forced evacuations are very bad, but thousands of people starving to death is worse, and that’s what was happening in these towns before this evacuation deal was negotiated.


There was little change in the fighting in Iraq over the past day, as there’s been little change for several weeks now. The lack of progress is, unsurprisingly, causing some complaints about Iraqi tactics from outside the Iraqi military, and specifically from elements of the Popular Mobilization Units.

To recap: the predominantly Shiʿa PMU have been used to clear the roads west of Mosul of ISIS presence and to help surround the city, but Baghdad has refused to use them to attack Mosul itself, out of concerns about how the city’s Sunni residents might receive them (likely overblown), concerns about how the PMU fighters might treat Mosul’s Sunni residents (probably overblown), and concerns about how Turkey would react to the PMUs entering Mosul (probably not overblown). The fact that the fighting has bogged down has given PMU commanders an opportunity to say “told you so” and insist that if they’d been allowed to participate in the liberation of the city, the fighting would already be over. It’s not at all clear how the PMUs would have performed any better against ISIS’s Old City defenses–I guess the extra manpower would have helped, but the main problem has been trying to dislodge ISIS from a densely populated urban area where heavier use of airstrikes and heavy weapons would probably kill more civilians than fighters. That would still be true even if the PMUs were in the city participating in the fight.

Reuters reported today on the gruesome but increasingly regular sight of dead bodies washing up from the Tigris downriver from Mosul. Iraqi security forces say that the dead are all people who were executed by ISIS, but there is good reason to suspect that at least some of them are people suspected of having collaborated with ISIS, who were killed extra-judicially either by Iraqi security or individual vigilantes.


Let the backlash to the backlash begin. Turkey’s election board unsurprisingly rejected, by a 10-1 vote, opposition calls to annul Sunday’s referendum results on the basis of alleged voting irregularities. It’s hard to get traction when you appeal the ruling party’s election win to a body beholden to that same ruling party. And 38 people were reportedly arrested by Turkish authorities early this morning on charges that they’d participated in protests against Sunday’s result, which is I guess a crime now in free and democratic Turkey. They’ll join the roughly 45,000 people who have been arrested by the Turkish government for political opposition since last summer’s attempted coup.

If you look at it on the bright side, once Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has imprisoned the roughly half of the country that doesn’t particularly like him, I bet he’ll act a lot less dictatorial toward the other half.


The Trump administration today certified that the Iran deal that Trump and his people all hate so much is, uh, actually working. Or to put it another way, here’s how Jared Kushner’s intern Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the certification announcement:

This letter certifies that the conditions of Section 135(d)(6) of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (AEA), as amended, including as amended by the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (Public Law 114-17), enacted May 22, 2015, are met as of April 18, 2017.

Notwithstanding, Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror through many platforms and methods. President Donald J. Trump has directed a National Security Council-led interagency review of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that will evaluate whether suspension of sanctions related to Iran pursuant to the JCPOA is vital to the national security interests of the United States. When the interagency review is completed, the administration looks forward to working with Congress on this issue.

“Yeah, OK, Iran is doing what it said it would do, but we’re gonna look for a reason to break the agreement anyway.” Or, more to the point, they’re going to look for a reason to provoke Iran into breaking the agreement. An agreement that, to reiterate, even the uniformly anti-Iran Trump administration says that Iran is upholding.

In campaign news, presidential contender Ebrahim Raisi yesterday wrote letters to President Hassan Rouhani and Ali Askari, the head of Iranian state TV. In the letters, Raisi, displaying the kind of sharp wit that nobody would’ve expected out of a stuffy cleric, accused Askari of being biased toward Rouhani because state TV airs his speeches. No, really. Meanwhile, on this plane of existence, Iranian state TV is one of the most conservative institutions in the country and is routinely harsh to the point of unfairness on the (comparatively) moderate Rouhani. On the other hand, the state broadcaster has been tripping over itself to cover Raisi whenever he can be found leading prayers (presumably in Mashhad). Painting oneself as the victim of powerful enemies, even to the point of absurdity, is a tried and true Iranian political tactic, and Raisi may be doing that here and/or he may be setting up an excuse in case he loses the election/the clerical establishment isn’t able to cheat enough on his behalf.


While former President Hamid Karzai didn’t appreciate America dropping its BIG-ASS BOMB on his country, apparently Afghan leaders in Nangarhar province thought quite highly of the decision:

“The attack was successful, and we all are happy, since there were no civilian casualties,” Zabiullah Zmarai, secretary of the provincial council in Nangarhar, told Foreign Policy. The official added that tribal areas from the neighboring districts of Shinwari, Charigam, and Kot had reached out to him to praise the MOAB. “Daesh [the Arabic term for the Islamic State] was a huge threat to the people in Nangarhar. They are relieved they were finished off with one bomb.”

Finished off with one bomb! Who wouldn’t be happy about that? Only, uh, wait a minute:

U.S. troops are still battling suspected Islamic State fighters near the site where a massive bomb was dropped in eastern Afghanistan last week, a U.S. military official said on Wednesday.

After arriving at the site the day after the strike, U.S. troops fighting alongside Afghan forces have since left, but continue to conduct operations in the broader area, said U.S. military spokesman Captain William Salvin.

“Access has been restricted but that’s because it’s a combat zone,” he told Reuters. “We are in contact with the enemy.”

OK, so one BIG-ASS BOMB didn’t kill all the Bad Guys, whatever. At least there were no civilian casualt–oh, that’s still not confirmed? I see. Let’s move on. Did you know that Afghan authorities say they killed 14 Taliban fighters in an overnight battle in Baghlan province? That’s good, let’s end this section on that note.


There is a possibility that, in the coming days or maybe weeks, the Pakistani Supreme Court could toss Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from office over corruption charges stemming from last spring’s “Panama Papers” leak. Sharif’s children are named in the leak as owning offshore holding companies that have been used to buy overseas property. Sharif insists that he acquired his wealth the old fashioned way, by systematically exploiting the poor and workers to accumulate vast sums of money at the expense of the basic human needs of the exploited–you know, earning it–but the court naturally launched an investigation.


As I think was probably expected, Muslim challenger Anies Baswedan defeated incumbent Jakarta governor, and prominent Christian accused of blasphemy against the Quran, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, in yesterday’s gubernatorial election. Basuki’s chances of reelection were damaged by the blasphemy charge against him and were ultimately rendered nil when the race became characterized as “Muslim vs. Christian” in a region that was about 85 percent Muslim at last count.

As the Intercept reported yesterday, the coalition that formed against Basuki is gearing up to challenge Indonesian President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”), Basuki’s former boss and close ally, in 2019. This group includes a range of actors from hardline Islamists to business tycoons who had close ties to the regime of former dictator Suharto. They’ll presumably align behind Prabowo Subianto, a former army general and current businessman who lost narrowly to Jokowi in 2014.


President Rodrigo Duterte today said that he might order what would amount to a full-scale military invasion of one of the Philippines’ own islands, Jolo, in order to hopefully defeat the ISIS-linked terror group Abu Sayyaf once and for all. Which he might do, I guess, but Duterte, like Donald Trump, tends to say a lot of shit without really thinking it through first, and then walk it back later on. He also asked civilians on Bohol to kill any of six Abu Sayyaf fugitives believed to be hiding on that island. Oh, and any drug addicts they see, too, obviously.

Speaking of state-sanctioned extrajudicial murder, polling indicates that the Philippine public is beginning to lose some of its zeal for Duterte’s campaign to murder drug addicts without due process–85 percent were down with vigilante serial killing in December, but only 70 percent feel that way now. This is just a thought, but maybe they’re troubled by reports that Philippine police officers have been getting paid bonuses for every drug addict they kill.


According to 38 North, satellite imagery indicates that activity at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site, where for several weeks it’s looked like Pyongyang was gearing up for another nuclear test, has slowed down in the past couple of days. There’s no way to know what that means, of course–they could be ready for a test any time now and people are being given some time off, they may have decided to hold off on conducting a test for now, or it could all just be a giant head fake.

At the New York Times, Max Fisher lays out a pretty thorough overview of the overarching challenge North Korea poses, which is the lack of policy options. Sanctions are a dead end–North Korea is already as impoverished and cut off from the world as it’s going to get, and the Kim family is still in control and its weapons programs are still progressing. Yes, China could suddenly cut North Korean off completely and inflict considerable pain on Pyongyang, but for a variety of reasons–fear of instability on its border, affinity for North Korea, concerns about South Korean and therefore US encroachment on the Korean peninsula–it is highly unlikely to take that kind of step. Diplomacy is out because what North Korea would demand in return for throttling back on its constant threats to nuke everybody is simply too much to give for that small a gain. And Pyongyang’s military doctrine means that any military action would immediately go nuclear, and that means some very bad things will happen to heavily populated places like Seoul and, probably, Tokyo. North Korea would lose that war, there’s no doubt about that, but it can do incredible damage very quickly.

At Foreign Policy, meanwhile, arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis take the theory that the US is hacking North Korea’s missile tests out back and throttles it but good:

Correlation is not causation, of course, and a simple review of North Korea’s missile launches suggests that if the United States is hacking North Korean missiles, it is doing a crap job of it.

Since 2014, about three-quarters of Pyongyang’s launches have succeeded. My colleague Shea Cotton keeps a database of every North Korean missile launch. Of the 66 missiles that North Korea launched during 2014 and after, 51 have succeeded. If hacking is playing any role, it is defeating a trivial number of missiles. A .230 average isn’t enough to keep you in the major leagues. And it’s a lousy batting average against nuclear-armed missiles.

Lewis argues, and I know this might seem out there but keep an open mind, that the reason some North Korean missile tests fail is because designing and building new missiles is really freaking hard, and the initial tests of almost any new system have a pretty high likelihood of failure. Donald Trump is probably not bringing these missiles down via his iPhone or whatever.


The Nigerian army is beginning a planned month-long operation to quell an outbreak of ethno-religious violence in the central part of the country. Tensions between Fulani herdsmen in north-central Nigeria and the settled farming communities around them has led to a cycle of killings and reprisals that has been exacerbated by the fact that the Fulani are predominantly Muslim while those settled farming peoples are predominantly Christian. Meanwhile, President Muhammadu Buhari is now investigating his own foreign spy service after around $43 million was found in a Lagos apartment connected to Nigerian spy boss Ayo Oke. People within the Nigerian intelligence community say that the money was for covert, uh, operations, conducted…someplace far away. Yes, that’ll do.

ABOVE: Possibly a Nigerian intelligence operative


United Nations investigators have discovered 17 mass graves in the central DRC. There’s a very strong likelihood that these graves are connected to an alleged DRC army massacre of tribespeople carried out in the country’s Kasai region last month, part of the ongoing Kamwina Nsapu insurrection.


I’m not going to suddenly devote myself to convoluted fever dream-esque scenarios about Russian agents infiltrating every aspect of American life and politics, but on the other hand reports like this do start to suggest a pattern:

A Russian government think tank controlled by Vladimir Putin developed a plan to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump and undermine voters’ faith in the American electoral system, three current and four former U.S. officials told Reuters.

They described two confidential documents from the think tank as providing the framework and rationale for what U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded was an intensive effort by Russia to interfere with the Nov. 8 election. U.S. intelligence officials acquired the documents, which were prepared by the Moscow-based Russian Institute for Strategic Studies [], after the election.

The institute is run by retired senior Russian foreign intelligence officials appointed by Putin’s office.

I don’t think there’s any real doubt that Russia wanted to interfere in this election, though getting Trump elected must have seemed like a massive long shot even to them, but the question is how you parse the degree to which they were able to influence the outcome. This Reuters report suffers from reliance on anonymous sources and speculation, but it’s still important to note.

The Russian think tank plan covered the coordinated use of Russian government media outlets and social media accounts to push an anti-Clinton narrative, which I think it’s fair to say they did without diving too far down the tin foil rabbit hole (which is not to suggest that there’s nothing down the rabbit hole–there are too many nefarious things surrounding the Russian government, like the fact that so many of its critics die violent deaths, to dismiss anything out of hand). Nor, really, is there anything especially beyond the pale here–the report doesn’t cover the alleged Russian cyber effort against the DNC and Clinton campaign, and it doesn’t say anything about any links between the Trump campaign and anybody at the Kremlin. State media outlets are a tool of foreign policy and influence for just about every country that has the scope to have those sorts of outlets, including the United States. But, assuming this report is accurate, it does show that there was active Kremlin interest in the 2016 election, if nothing else.


President Petro Poroshenko is lobbying the Trump administration pretty hard to leave Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia in place, saying at London’s Chatham House today (a bit hyperbolically, but that’s understandable) that Western support for Kiev is the only thing keeping “Russian tanks” from moving “much deeper in Europe.” Yeah, I mean, I don’t think we’re on the brink of World War III breaking out in Europe, but I can understand why Poroshenko desperately wants those sanctions to remain in place and, at this point, I don’t think there’s much chance they’ll be going away anytime soon.


Say, the Albanian parliament is supposed to be picking that country’s next president, why don’t we check in and see how that’s goi–

The Albanian Parliament has failed to elect the country’s new president after no candidates were nominated for the first round of voting.

The governing left-wing coalition declined to put forward a candidate for the post on Wednesday as an expression of good faith for Parliament’s center-right opposition.

The opposition has boycotted Parliament since February. It wants a caretaker Cabinet to take the country to a June 18 parliamentary election, alleging the current government will manipulate the vote.

OK, we’ll check back again another time.


As expected, the House of Commons today nearly unanimously approved Prime Minister Theresa May’s request to hold snap elections in June. This is, of course, the first time May will lead the Conservatives into an election, and she’s expected to do quite well for herself and pick up a decent number of seats to strengthen her governing majority. However, Nate Silver at 538 cautions that polling in the UK is historically bad enough that the Tories’ large lead in them shouldn’t be taken as a lock that they’ll win a landslide victory in June. On the other hand, if the polling is that bad I suppose it’s possible that it’s actually underestimating Tory support, isn’t it? In fact, the phenomenon of polling underestimating support for the Conservatives, the so-called “Shy Tory Factor,” is apparently so common that it has its own Wikipedia page.


Two people were killed in Caracas today when a reported “tens of thousands” of anti-government protesters attempted to take to the streets only to be met by Venezuelan police and pro-government paramilitaries. The Venezuelan Supreme Court’s short-lived attempt to seize legislative powers from the elected assembly a few weeks ago seems to have galvanized public opposition to Nicolás Maduro’s government.


Hey, I’ve got some good news: if any of the things you just read troubled you, if you’re worried about something bad happening in the world, you can put your fears to rest knowing that we’re all probably going to die pretty soon anyway:

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that last month set an unusual and unexpected new record for global warming.

No month before March 2017 had ever exceeded the “normal” temperature (the 1981–2010 average) by a full 1.8°F (1.0°C) — “in the absence of an El Niño episode in the tropical Pacific Ocean.”

Why does this matter?

An El Niño is “characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific.” El Niños generally lead to global temperature records, as the short-term El Niño warming adds to the underlying long-term global warming trend (see top chart).

So when a month sees record high global temperatures in the absence of an El Niño, that is a sign the underlying global warming trend is stronger than ever.

Sweet dreams!

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