Conflict update: April 24 2017


Bashar al-Assad’s next big target in Syria is retaking Idlib province, into which he and Moscow have cleverly funneled most of the northern rebel forces and a disturbing number of displaced civilians. The Century Foundation’s Sam Heller makes a reasonable suggestion as to what role the West should play when the Idlib fight begins in earnest:

Some have recently argued the United States and its allies should backstop Idlib’s rebels more or less indefinitely, both to defend civilians from the Assad regime and to maintain some non-extremist alternative. These proposals are untenable — unmoored from strategic logic and disconnected from the reality of Idlib’s rebellion, which is by now dominated by jihadists. The West should not sustain a jihadist-led section of the Syrian rebellion in perpetuity, to no obvious end and against a backdrop of ongoing, senseless civilian death. Instead, America and its Western allies ought to be ensuring that, when armed conflagration engulfs the northwest, civilians can get to safety.

As he’s killing civilians in Idlib, Assad will argue that they’re not really civilians–Idlib is controlled by jihadists, he’ll say, and these people are willingly living under their control. Ergo, they are irredeemable. But there are families who are in Idlib simply because that’s their home. There are other families who have migrated to Idlib to escape airstrikes elsewhere, to escape forced government conscription, or because that’s where Assad’s buses took them when they were forcibly evicted from places like Aleppo and Homs. The problem, as Heller points out, is that protecting their lives means giving them a way out of Idlib. And that means Western countries may have to pay Turkey to accept more refugees, or pay the Kurds controlling northwestern Syria to let more displaced Arabs into their enclave. We might have to do something to help real Syrians, whose desperation we find so compelling when we’re lobbing missiles in its general direction but whose actual well-being has never been a real consideration for us.

The US Treasury Department today slapped sanctions on 271 employees of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center, who the US government says are intimately involved in Assad’s chemical weapons program.


An overnight ISIS ambush of a convoy in western Anbar province, near the town of Rutbah, killed ten off duty Iraqi soldiers. Rutbah, you may recall, was briefly seized and held by ISIS back in October.

There’s nothing particularly new to report from Mosul as far as I can tell. But there has been a rhetorical back-and-forth over the past few days between leaders of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that bears watching. In an interview with Al Jazeera last week, Erdoğan referred to the PMUs (using their Arabic name, al-Hashd al-Shaabi) as “a terrorist organization” and an agent of Iranian “expansion.” Over the weekend, a PMU spokesperson demanded to know “Who has given Erdogan the right to intervene in Iraq’s internal affairs?” and argued that Iran’s policy toward Iraq has been “transparent” in that Tehran has been trying to help Iraq fight off ISIS–this is a not-so-veiled allusion to the fact that Erdoğan and his government were believed to have at least tacitly colluded with ISIS back in, for example, 2014.


Speaking of Erdoğan, he’s going to apply to rejoin his Justice and Development Party as soon as the results of Turkey’s April 16 referendum vote have been certified. Erdoğan had previously been forced to quit AKP when he became president, as Turkish presidents were, pre-referendum, prohibited from belonging to a political party. At last, Turkey’s long national nightmare (?) will be over, I guess.

European Union leaders seem desperate, now that Erdoğan has won his referendum, to try to rebuild relations with Ankara while stopping short of advancing Turkey’s application for EU membership. I see no sign that Erdoğan has any interest in Turkey joining the EU, but he will happily use past promises of EU membership, as well as all those Syrian refugees he’s hosting who might otherwise be in Europe already, as leverage in his future dealings with Brussels.


This is just perfect:

The top United Nations humanitarian official called on Monday for Gulf countries to help avert mass starvation in Yemen, where two years of war have left millions at risk of famine.

Stephen O’Brien, U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator, spoke in an interview a day ahead of a major conference where the U.N. is seeking $2.1 billion for Yemen this year.

The world body has received only 15 percent toward that appeal, none of it from regional countries, U.N. records show.

The Saudis and Emiratis are happy to bomb the crap out of Yemen, but actually feeding Yemenis? Get the fuck out of here with that kind of talk.


After getting some decent economic news for a change, King Salman* reversed a September decision to slash public sector salaries by 20 percent and cut back substantially on benefits for government employees as well. Today he issued a decree restoring “all allowances, financial benefits, and bonuses” to those workers. While the positive economic news undoubtedly helped, Salman’s decree was presumably motivated by recent calls for public demonstrations in the kingdom’s major cities. Riyadh has always been quick to throw money at any sign of public discontent in the hopes of bribing it to go away.

* I always feel like I should throw in an asterisk when I talk about Salman “doing” something, because it’s not clear he’s actually capable of doing anything and yet there’s no direct evidence that he’s being handled either


Despite brief signs here and there that Egypt’s flagging tourism industry was making a comeback, the numbers from last year were pretty dismal, with only about five million people visiting the country compared to around 15 million per year Before All This Shit Started (i.e., 2011 or so). So Egypt’s tourism ministry is working overtime to try to convince potential tourists, especially in relatively untapped markets like Latin America and East Asia, that traveling to Egypt is perfectly safe, despite what you may have thought what with planes and churches being blown up and the active insurgency in Sinai and the civil war in next-door Libya and…uh, maybe I should stop writing here.


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he may cancel a planned meeting with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel this week if Gabriel has the temerity to go through with his plans to meet with members of the human rights group “Breaking the Silence” tomorrow. “Breaking the Silence” collects stories from Israeli veterans about the occupation, and Netanyahu has been gunning for them for some time now.

ABOVE: Apparently needs his own Bibi-Sitter to change his clearly full diaper

Frankly I think it’s refreshing to see these brief moments when the veneer of pluralism and respect for civil rights rubs off and you get to see the nasty little thin-skinned right-wing authoritarian underneath. There are so many of these illiberal democrats running around these days–Erdoğan, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán, Donald Trump–that it’s easy to forget that Netanyahu was one of the first of this bunch.


In the wake of last week’s devastating Taliban assault on a military base near Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghan army chief of staff Qadam Shah Shahim and Defense Minister Abdullah Habibi both resigned today. Neither comes as a surprise, but Habibi in particular was on thin ice even before that Taliban attack, having only barely survived a parliamentary vote of no confidence back in March. As if to punctuate the whole affair, the Taliban are suspected of having been behind an attack on a US base in eastern Afghanistan today, but there have been no indications as to casualties. The strike was presumably timed to coincide with US Defense Secretary James Mattis’s arrival in country. Luckily, the fine folks at the Pentagon have found a reason for the Taliban’s success that has nothing to do with American mismanagement of the war or the Afghan government being thoroughly steeped in corruption, brutality, and incompetence: it’s all Russia’s fault. As are most things.


An attack by Maoist rebels in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh today killed 24 Indian soldiers who were reportedly there to guard road workers. India’s Maoist rebellion has been going on since the 1960s, but this is one of the worst incidents in that conflict in recent years.


US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping shared a phone conversation today in which Xi told Donnie that he heard from Terry in study hall that Sally was talking about Donnie yesterday and she said she likes him but isn’t sure if she like likes him you know? that centered, unsurprisingly, on North Korea. Xi is continuing to urge restraint on everybody’s part, and Trump is responding by saying things like “North Korea is a big world problem” and summoning all 100 members of the US Senate to the White House for a North Korea briefing. The House reportedly wants a similar briefing, but it’s possible Trump might make them all shell out for a weekend at Mar-a-Lago if they want to get in on the decision-making.


There was actually maybe possibly a bit of a breakthrough in negotiations to end the Libyan civil war that was reported late last night (after I’d put the blog to bed). Talks in Rome between representatives of Libya’s House of Representatives (the parliament that meets in Tobruk) and its State Council (an advisory body established along with the Government of National Accord mostly as a concession to members of Libya’s previous legislature, the General National Congress) resulted in what looks like an agreement to try to agree more often in the future. That doesn’t sound like much–it isn’t much–but it might be the start of a process that ends with the House of Representatives finally recognizing the GNA and everybody living happily ever after.

Or it might be nothing. In case Syria hasn’t made it abundantly clear, negotiating an end to a civil war like this is like hitting the PowerBall. There are any number of places where the momentum this agreement generates–assuming it generates any–can be quashed. And even if this agreement leads all the way to a deal between the GNA and the House of Representatives, there’s little reason to believe, for example, that Khalifa Hafter, the most belligerent actor in the country and a general who pays only nominal allegiance to the civilian House of Representatives, will actually abide by it.


The Sudanese government today directly accused South Sudanese President Salva Kiir of meeting with and supporting Sudanese rebel groups that operate along the Sudan-South Sudan border. It would be silly to argue that there aren’t any links between Kiir’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), the umbrella group for Sudan’s rebels, since they both formed out of the same group that split up when South Sudan got its independence. Heck, for that matter they also share an origin with Riek Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Opposition (SPLM-IO), currently rebelling against Kiir’s government in South Sudan. But while the Sudanese government often asserts active links between the SPLM and the SPLM-N, it only very rarely accuses Kiir of direct involvement.


The commander of US Africa Command, General Thomas Waldhauser, says that the recent resurgence in Somali piracy can be traced, in large measure, to food insecurity brought on by a drought and famine currently rocking the country. This would seem to suggest a potential remedy to the problem, but it doesn’t look like anybody is prepared to increase food aid to the country and, with al-Shabab still mucking around, it’s not clear that more aid would even do that much good.


Russian foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said today that, gosh, Moscow has really looked into it and, gee, they just can’t find any evidence that gay men are being targeted in a massive pogrom in Chechnya. Of course the Russian government, which is borderline theocratic itself and has abused the LGBTQ community for its own political ends in the past, definitely is concerned about reports of gay men being killed by mobs in Chechnya, which is run by Vladimir Putin’s good pal Ramzan Kadyrov. Naturally they’re committed to getting to the bottom of these reports. They just, doggone it, can’t find any evidence of it happening. Shucks.


Protests both for and against Nicolás Maduro’s government are continuing and the related death toll keeps inching up. A pro-government demonstrator was killed yesterday and an anti-government protester was killed today, bringing the total to 22 people who have been killed since unrest began last month.

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