Conflict update: April 25 2017


This morning, Turkish aircraft struck Kurdish targets in Iraq’s Sinjar region and around the town of Derika (also known as Dayrik and al-Malikiyah) in northeastern Syria. The Syrian YPG militia says that 20 of its fighters were killed in the strikes, while Turkey claims that it killed 70 “militants” across both targets.

The Iraqi strike is a little more straightforward and I’ll mention that when we get to Iraq, but as far as Syria is concerned there’s no sense pretending that this is anything other than a Turkish attempt to undermine the fight against ISIS. Ankara claims that it struck a “terror hub,” whatever that means, in order to prevent weapons and other materiel from getting to the Kurdish PKK militant group in Turkey. But judging by the unambiguously hostile reception the strikes got from Washington it seems pretty clear that Turkey didn’t explore any other avenues for potentially interrupting the movement of arms or whatever from northeastern Syria to the PKK. They just skipped ahead to the airstrikes. I’m not saying that if Ankara had asked the US to intervene in whatever it claims the YPG/PKK were doing in northeastern Syria, that it would have worked out in Turkey’s favor. But going that route would have been worth the effort, assuming Turkey’s motives were really to interdict aid to the PKK. If talking doesn’t work you can always try airstrikes after that.

The YPG, as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, is of course America’s number one proxy in Syria and the centerpiece of plans to attack ISIS in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. Turkey opposes those plans because it makes no distinction between the YPG and the PKK (there is a distinction, but it’s blurry to say the least) and doesn’t want to see the Syrian Kurds expanding their territory and potentially establishing an autonomous statelet in northern Syria. Turkey had proposed an alternative plan where by its forces in conjunction with elements of the Free Syrian Army would march on Raqqa from al-Bab and take the city without involving the Kurds, but the Turkish-FSA army didn’t do much to distinguish itself in al-Bab and, anyway, its path to Raqqa was closed off when the Syrian army drove ISIS out of the area south of al-Bab. At this point it’s likely that Turkey’s only recourse to stop the YPG from participating in the Raqqa operation is to start bombing the hell out of YPG positions further north, and that’s probably why it never asked for American help with this supposed PKK weapons problem. If Ankara had gone to the Americans and asked for help in preventing YPG weapons from allegedly being moved into Turkey, and the US had managed to convince the YPG to knock it off, then Turkey would’ve lost its excuse to bomb the YPG.

This is not going to be great for the US-Turkey relationship, and it’s going to get worse if the US decides to agree to YPG requests for a US-imposed no-fly zone over YPG-controlled territory. If the YPG wants to play hardball over this they kind of have the US over a barrel, because they could pull their forces out of the SDF, out of the Raqqa offensive, and Washington would be up the proverbial creek without a paddle. Factor in the possibility that the next one of these Turkish airstrikes might just kill a US servicemember or two, by accident presumably, and you’ve got a very combustible situation developing here.

Elsewhere in Syria, pro-government (i.e., Syrian or Russian) airstrikes killed at least 12 people and reportedly damaged a hospital in Idlib province today, at least 11 and perhaps more civilians were killed by US airstrikes in and around Tabqa, and the Syrian army is pouring resources into an effort to drive rebel forces out of Aleppo’s northern and western outskirts.


As I said above, Turkey’s strike on Sinjar is less fraught with implications than its strike in northeastern Syria. Sinjar is becoming a PKK base much like the Qandil region along the Iran-Iraq border, and Turkey is determined to Do Something about that. It’s that simple. Ankara might want to take a little more care with its next batch of airstrikes, though, because this one apparently killed five Peshmerga fighters from the Kurdistan Regional Government, which is a Turkish ally.

Iraqi forces say they’ve “fully liberated” al-Tanek, the largest neighborhood in western Mosul. It’s important to bear in mind that the Iraqis have repeatedly announced that neighborhoods were liberated only for fighting in those places to continue, either because ISIS has been able to reinfiltrate the area or because the Iraqis were premature in declaring the place liberated. Still, this is a reflection that the Iraqis have been making steady progress since they opted to stop focusing all their efforts on capturing Mosul’s Old City (where the situation remains pretty static, with Iraqi forces saying they are exercising caution in order to minimize civilian casualties).

The paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units are reportedly withdrawing from the area around Tal Afar and moving west to interdict ISIS movements over the Iraq-Syria border. As part of the Mosul operation, the PMUs were tasked with cutting off ISIS escape routes to the west and encircling Tal Afar, but they have been prohibited from entering that city for fear of reprisal attacks against Sunni Turkmens suspected of having worked with ISIS in 2014, and also because Turkey has threatened to intervene to protect those Turkmens from the PMU forces, if necessary. With the Mosul fight having gone on longer than it seems Baghdad expected–and the PMUs having accomplished their objectives in what I strongly suspect was far less time than Baghdad hoped it would take–those forces have basically been hanging around outside Tal Afar doing nothing for a few months now.


The UN held a conference in Geneva today to ask member states to contribute the $2.1 billion it says it needs to deliver food assistance to the millions of Yemenis in imminent danger of starving to death, and it got…about half of what it was looking for. The high point of this travesty isn’t, as you might think, that the United States could find $2.1 billion just by checking the couch cushions at the Pentagon (or ordering 10-20 fewer F-35s, which don’t work anyway). No, the high point is that the Saudi government pledged all of $150 million toward the cause, which I believe we’ve managed to capture on tape:

The Saudis, whose airstrikes and blockade are the main reasons why millions of Yemenis are starving in the first place, offered the equivalent of petty cash to help alleviate the vast human suffering they’ve caused. How gracious of them.


Turkey’s Council of State court has, predictably, rejected the opposition Republican People’s Party request to appeal the results of the April 16 referendum. Seriously, nobody expected they would do otherwise, even the CHP itself, which has referred to its appeals more in a “let’s get this on the record” way than with any expectation that they might be successful. Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told Reuters today that Turkey is still “committed” to membership talks with the EU, but that Ankara is prepared to abandon those talks if European Islamophobia keeps rising and if European leaders don’t start treating him with more respect. I believe, in fact, that we also have video of that interview:

In all seriousness, Erdoğan has a point here–Europe has been jerking Turkey around on EU accession for more than 50 years. But I don’t think he’s got any interest in actually joining the EU–in fact, he prefers that Turkey’s membership application never goes anywhere, because then he can keep complaining about it and getting Turkish voters to nod along. At any rate, the chances of Turkey getting into the EU post-referendum, with various European institutions accusing Erdoğan of rigging the vote one way or another, are probably as low as they’ve ever been, not that they’ve ever been particularly high.

In the Reuters interview, Erdoğan also casually suggested yet again that he might let the Syrian refugees currently in Turkey move along into Europe, and reiterated his view that Bashar al-Assad has to go.


Israeli Prime Minister Boss Baby Benjamin Netanyahu did go ahead and cancel his scheduled meeting with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel today, after Gabriel opted to go ahead and meet with Israeli human rights organization Breaking the Silence over Netanyahu’s objections. Netanyahu then reportedly tried to call Gabriel to clear the air, and Gabriel hilariously didn’t take his call. His spokesperson said of Gabriel’s meeting with Breaking the Silence, “imagine if foreign diplomats visiting the United States or Britain met with NGOs that call American or British soldiers war criminals. Leaders of those countries would surely not accept this.” On the other hand, imagine if Israeli soldiers stopped committing war crimes. That would be pretty wild, wouldn’t it?


An ISIS suicide bomber attacked a checkpoint near the Sinai town of Rafah today, killing four people.

Interestingly, the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs heard from three think tank types today during a hearing on US aid to Egypt, and all three suggested that maybe the US would be better off telling Pharaoh President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to get bent. They testified that the notion that the US-Egypt relationship is important for US policy in the MENA region is based on anachronistic Cold War assumptions about Egypt’s regional influence (of which it has far, far less today). They further suggested that heaping American largesse upon a dictator who brutalizes his own people on the regular might, and I know this sounds crazy but bear with me, actually make the problem of violent extremism worse and make a mockery out of all that lip service Washington pays to the issue of human rights. Of course, since Sisi is now Donald Trump’s bro, his aid package is presumably safe.


Iran’s presidential campaign has barely gotten started and already the wild promises are flying. Tehran Mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf has promised, if elected, to create five million new jobs per year and increase wages 2.5 times (!) over what they are now. Both of those promises are ridiculous. Fulfilling the latter pledge would require growing the Iranian economy faster than probably any country’s economy has ever grown since people started keeping track of such things, so, uh, good luck with that. Ghalibaf’s fellow conservative, Ebrahim Raisi, is promising he’ll create 1.5 million new jobs per year, which isn’t quite as outrageous as what Ghalibaf is promising to do but is still pretty optimistic. Considering these guys have no plans for increasing foreign investment after they alienate the rest of the world with their hardline foreign policies, it’s hard to see how either can do what they’re promising to do.


New York University’s Barrett Rubin argues at War on the Rocks that the US needs to fundamentally rethink what it’s doing in Afghanistan:

It is time to recognize that the United States might be able to maintain an open-ended military presence in Afghanistan or stabilize the country, but not both. A permanent military presence will always motivate one or more neighbors to pressure the United States to leave by supporting insurgents — and forestalling stabilization. Currently, Pakistan, Iran and Russia — which together control access to all usable routes to landlocked Afghanistan — are trying to exert such pressure.* Precipitous withdrawal without a settlement, of course, could lead to even more violence.

Such a settlement would be as much with Afghanistan’s neighbors as the Taliban, but U.S. strategic thinking about the region is caught in a time warp. Washington still conceives of the region as a theater of the war on terror, and forms bilateral policies toward Afghanistan and its neighbors on that basis. The economic growth of China and India, however, has changed the stakes in the region. Both the apparently permanent U.S. military presence and the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State have changed the region’s perception of the Taliban.


Jamaat-ul-Ahrar claimed responsibility for a roadside bomb in Pakistan’s northern Khurram province that struck a bus and killed 14 people early this morning.


The US sent the guided missile submarine USS Michigan to join the USS Carl Vinson’s strike group near the Korean peninsula today, while Pyongyang conducted a live-fire artillery test to mark the anniversary of the founding of the North Korean military. That artillery test, while less provocative than a nuclear test or a missile test, is arguably more relevant to the current state of affairs, as it’s North Korea’s artillery that is its ultimate deterrent. Strike all its nukes before they launch, or shoot them all down in the air with your fancy missile defense system, and Pyongyang still has more than enough firepower to cause unthinkable destruction in densely-populated South Korea.


The Chinese navy has apparently just launched its first domestically-built aircraft carrier. So they’ve got that going for them, which is nice. It’s China’s second carrier overall–its first, the Liaoning, was purchased from Ukraine in 1998 in one of the nuttier stories you’ll ever read. The short version is that the ship was built by the Soviet Union but was abandoned about 2/3 complete when the USSR collapsed. Ukraine sold its rusting hull to a Chinese businessman in 1998 ostensibly to be converted into a floating casino, but in reality the businessman was running an operation to obtain the hull for the Chinese navy. I’d get into the long version, but you’re already tired of reading this post by now, so maybe another time.


Yes, I know I usually break these updates up by country and “Africa” is not a country, but I don’t know how else to categorize this:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson invited the chairperson of the African Union to Washington for a meeting, then backed out on him at the last minute, infuriating African diplomats, several sources tell Foreign Policy.

Tillerson invited African Union (AU) Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki to Washington the week of April 17, after Faki ended meetings at the United Nations in New York. Several sources close to the matter say Faki scheduled his trip to Washington on April 19 and 20 while waiting for the details to be sorted out. But then Tillerson’s office went radio silent for several days, and left the head of the 55-nation bloc in the lurch and fuming, the sources said.

Tillerson’s team eventually got back to Faki’s entourage as he was about to depart New York and offered a meeting with lower-level State Department officials, but Faki cancelled his Washington visit entirely.

I’m just spit-balling here, but it might be time for Secretary Tillerson to ask his supervisor, Mr. Kushner, if he’s ever going to be allowed to, you know, hire a fucking staff. The error here isn’t really that serious, but it was also completely unforced, brought on by sheer myopic stupidity.


The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is threatening to slap sanctions on leading individuals in Guinea-Bissau if that country’s feuding political factions fail to, in technical terms, get their shit together. President Jose Mario Vaz dismissed the government of former Prime Minister Domingos Simoes Pereira in August 2015, and their ongoing spat has basically ground politics in the country to a halt. The two sides reached an agreement on how to move forward last year, but then Vaz picked a PM who was unacceptable to the opposition and things bogged down again.


The US is trying once again to get the UN Security Council to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan, but with Russia and China both opposed–I would assume more out of strict opposition to the Security Council imposing sanctions and embargoes than out of some specific interest in South Sudan–there’s no way this will actually happen. US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley laid blame for the ongoing civil war and attendant humanitarian catastrophe squarely at President Salva Kiir’s feet, so I guess he won’t be getting invited to Mar-a-Lago anytime soon.


A group with al-Qaeda ties calling itself the “Imam Shamil Battalion” has claimed responsibility for the April 3 bombing in the St. Petersburg metro. Imam Shamil, if you’re wondering, was an Avar who was one of the main leaders of the anti-Russian forces during the 1817-1864 Caucasian War.


The Luhansk People’s Republic, or whatever the hell it’s calling itself, is now getting its electricity from Mother Russia instead of from the Ukrainian power grid. Kiev cut the LPR off today, citing the region’s $97 million unpaid electric bill, and Moscow was only too happy to step in for, uh, “humanitarian” reasons, and to needle Kiev about “rejecting territory.”


The new Bulgarian government is starting to take shape, coming out of the country’s March 26 parliamentary elections, and for the first time it appears the country’s far-right is going to be included in the governing coalition. The center-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party won 95 seats, and to get to the minimum 121 needed for a majority it’s planning to bring on the ultra-nationalist United Patriots (UP) coalition, which won 27 seats. GERB will obviously be the senior partner and moderate the UP’s more extreme positions (GERB is pro-EU, for example), but since even a partial UP defection would be enough to cause the government to fall, GERB will have to accommodate the nationalists somehow. In other words, Bulgaria is likely to become a worse place for migrants over the next few years. And the tide of European nationalist parties is apparently still rolling in.


The EU is about to endorse its initial Brexit negotiating position, and Brussels seems ready to take a pretty hard line with London. The document calls for automatic UK residency for any EU citizens who move to Britain pre-Brexit and stay for at least five years, offers no guarantees that British banks will have access to the EU market, and demands that the UK fulfill any outstanding financial obligations to the EU, including commitments made on agreements that will run past Britain’s departure from the union. Obviously this is the opening play in a long negotiation, and it remains to be seen which, if any, of these things will be EU red lines.


Say, how’s Donald Trump’s border wall proposal faring these days in Mexico?

Mexican foreign minister Luis Videgaray tore into the idea of building a border, calling it “unfriendly, “a hostile act” and “unlikely to fulfill the objectives” of stopping the flow of migrants and illegal merchandise into the United States.

Appearing before the international relations commission in the lower house of Congress, Videgaray unleashed uncharacteristically tough talk on Donald Trump’s demand that Mexico pay for building a border, telling lawmakers that Mexico would not put a peso towards the construction costs. He also called plans for fencing off the frontier “an absolute waste of money” and said Mexico would pursue legal measures if its borders were infringed upon by the wall.

“The wall is not part of any bilateral discussion nor should it be,” Videgaray said. “Under no scenario will we contribute economically to an action of this kind.”

So he’s saying there’s a chance, then?

Trump has been, as you may know, talking like he was prepared to shut the government down this week unless Democrats agreed to fund the border wall for which he still insists Mexico will pay. He’s now chickened out on that tough talk.

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