Conflict update: April 27 2017


The cause of the explosion that happened at Damascus International Airport this morning has (more or less) been revealed:

An Israeli minister has appeared to confirm that Israel struck a Hezbollah arms supply hub in Syria on Thursday close to the airport in Damascus where weapons from Tehran are regularly sent by commercial and military cargo planes.

Israel’s intelligence minister, Yisrael Katz, strongly suggested that Israel – which has launched a number of raids against Hezbollah in Syria but usually stops short of claiming them – was behind the military action.

“I can confirm that the incident in Syria completely conforms to Israel’s policy, [which is] to act so as to prevent the smuggling of advanced weapons from Syriato Hezbollah in Lebanon by Iran,” he told Army Radio.

“When we receive intelligence that points to the intention to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah, we will act. This incident conforms completely to that policy.”

The Israeli strike doesn’t seem to have caused any casualties–at least, none have been reported as far as I have seen. In response, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accused Israel of “aiding terrorists” or something, as you’ll do, and his military may have launched some kind of drone in Israel’s direction–at any rate, an Israeli Patriot missile battery shot something down later in the day. I assume Assad would prefer the Israelis get with the program and start helping him bomb Syrian hospitals–you know, something constructive.

Meanwhile, at the UN Security Council, US Ambassador Nikki Haley called for members to “pressure” Russia to make Assad bring the civil war to an end, and accused Moscow of “allow[ing the Syrian government] to keep humanitarian aid from the people that need it.” She’s not wrong, and it’s trite to point out when the US government is being flagrantly hypocritical, but call me when somebody from the Trump administration gives the “keeping humanitarian aid from the people that need it” talk to Saudi Arabia over Yemen. Then I’ll know they’re actually serious about humanitarian aid and the people who need it, and aren’t just trying to score points.


Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units, having withdrawn from the Tal Afar area to move west and close off ISIS escape routes into Syria, are positively sweeping through the border area. They’ve reportedly captured at least a dozen villages near the border, including Hatra, and are continuing their work. Part of the reason they’re able to move so quickly is that this operation is a bit like closing the barn door after the horses have already escaped and gotten three states away–ISIS fighters who are in Mosul now are there by choice and would have a difficult time getting out even if they made the attempt, and ISIS isn’t in much of a position to send help from Syria into Iraq. Still, this is at least something for the PMUs to do, since Baghdad (and Turkey too) won’t let them enter Mosul or Tal Afar.

Concerns that the screening process for people (adult men, in particular) leaving Mosul is sweeping up innocent civilians amid the search for ISIS fighters are well-founded but might be a bit overblown. As Patrick Wing points out, Human Rights Watch says that about 1200 people have been arrested at the Hamam al-Alil checkpoint, which is only 0.4% (Wing’s math is wrong) of the estimated 300,000 people who have gone through that checkpoint. That’s a pretty small number, and its gets smaller when you consider that only 700 of the 1200 have then been sent on to trial.

Freelance journalist Sam Kimball writes for Foreign Policy about the impact of American airstrikes on the people of Mosul and, go figure, it’s not a very pretty picture

“If they stopped the airstrikes, that would be better,” said Ghania Hassan, a resident of the al-Jadida neighborhood. “The coalition has destroyed us.”

Hassan has good reason to hate the coalition airstrikes. On March 2, Islamic State militants barged into her home at 5 a.m. and took her and others to another home, where she was packed in with what she believes were well over 100 others in the basement. This may have been an attempt to use the civilians as human shields.

In the basement, Hassan and the group listened to Islamic State fighters firing machine guns nearby. She said that the owner of the house, a man named Abu Imad Ayad, knew his home might be struck by airplanes because of the Islamic State fighters firing all around it, and that he and his son climbed to the roof and tried to signal to the air force not to fire on them.

But at 11 a.m., a missile screeched in and the house crumbled on top of her.

She said God is the only reason she survived.

“They went up to the roof and were saying, ‘Don’t shoot.’ Then the house fell, and both died,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone.

The massive casualties caused by the Jadidah airstrike on March 17 got a lot of attention, but we really don’t know how many civilians the coalition air campaign has killed because the coalition is–I’m sure not deliberately, of course–doing a lousy job of keeping track of and reporting civilian incidents. They’re also not paying out compensation to the families of the victims as they should be.


The anti-Iran pathology that dominates the Trump administration’s foreign policy thinking has, as you may know, led it to consider increasing American support for Saudi operations in Yemen whose main objective seems to be the starvation of millions of Yemeni people. What you may not know is that the administration’s deep apparent respect for Wahhabi-Salafism has enabled it to leverage the United Arab Emirates to share intelligence on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Now, sure, AQAP wouldn’t be anywhere near as powerful as it is today had the Saudis not decided to destroy Yemen piecemeal two years ago. And, sure, the US would probably have a better handle on AQAP if it hadn’t spent the years between 9/11 and today hitching its wagon to two thoroughly repressive and deeply unpopular Yemeni dictators, but still, wow.

And if you’re still hung up on the [deep sigh] BLAH BLAH STARVING YEMENI CHILDREN YADDA YADDA, consider this: Saudi Arabia is sending donkey-loads of food all over Yemen. Yes, that’s right: if you happen to be a Yemeni person whose family is currently starving because the Saudis have blockaded your country and pulverized it from the air to induce a man-made famine, just be patient and Eeyore will be by presently with some food–I don’t know, a bag of popcorn or something, I’m not a waiter. Donkeys are also carrying oxygen canisters to Yemeni hospitals, so they should get there just shortly after your respirator fails. Saudi aid coordinator Abdullah al-Rabeeah says that “if you look at what we do as a humanitarian agency, I think it’s way beyond any damage that is caused by any attacks,” which, I mean, 10,000 people have already been killed in this war and you guys have been responsible for most of those deaths, so…


In what is quite possibly the least surprising news of 2017, Turkey’s High Electoral Board has certified President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s victory in the country’s April 16 constitutional referendum. In a campaign in which he controlled virtually all forms of media, jailed his main opponents, and used a state of emergency to keep what was left of the opposition from holding any campaign events, Erdoğan eked out a narrow win with 51.4 percent of the vote. He must be so proud.


We may be giving them a blank check to wipe out the population of Yemen, but President Bottom Line is after the Saudis to pay up:

In an interview with Reuters, Trump confirmed his administration was in talks about possible visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel in the second half of May. He is due to make his first trip abroad as president for a May 25 NATO summit in Brussels and could add other stops.

“Frankly, Saudi Arabia has not treated us fairly, because we are losing a tremendous amount of money in defending Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Trump’s criticism of Riyadh, the world’s top oil exporter, was a return to his 2016 election campaign rhetoric when he accused the kingdom of not pulling its weight in paying for the U.S. security umbrella.

“Nobody’s going to mess with Saudi Arabia because we’re watching them,” Trump told a campaign rally in Wisconsin a year ago. “They’re not paying us a fair price. We’re losing our shirt.”

This is funny because you can practically see Trump’s frantic aides making the “cut it out” gesture with their hands while these words are coming out of his mouth.


Having already stopped shipping fuel to Gaza in order to keep its one power plant operating, the Palestinian Authority announced today that it will no longer pay Israel for the portion of Gaza’s electricity that it has been supplying. This leaves Gaza, which needs 400 megawatts of power per day to avoid rolling blackouts, with naught but the 25 megawatts per day it gets from Egypt. I have no idea if the Egyptians have the capacity to increase that number, but given Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s feelings about Hamas I doubt he will, and even if he did there’s no way they could even approach getting Gaza back to where it was before the Palestinian Authority started cutting it off (when it was only getting about half the power it needed per day).

The PA is trying to squeeze Hamas with every bit of leverage it has, in order to force Hamas leadership to allow a PA-Hamas (but mostly PA) unity government to take control of the Gaza Strip. PA boss Mahmoud Abbas believes taking control of Gaza away from Hamas will help strengthen him in advance of Donald Trump’s eventual attempt to reopen Israel-Palestine peace talks.


NIAC’s Reza Marashi looks at how Ebrahim Raisi’s campaign is taking shape. In part, Raisi seems to be following Saeed Jalili’s example from 2013, when Jalili basically ran on the message “Ayatollah Khamenei wants me to win.” Jalili finished with just over 11 percent of the vote, so clearly this is not a winning formula. So Raisi is also cribbing from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s economic populist message, and the mixture makes for a new wrinkle in Iranian politics. Marashi:

It’s too early to know if this gamble will work, and it could produce a variety of outcomes — enlarge Raisi’s voting bloc, destroy his support among Khamenei-centric voters, mobilize voters to cast anti-Raisi ballots for Rouhani, or a combination of the latter two scenarios. If Raisi is the only hard-liner left in the race on election day, it’s less likely that his association with Ahmadinejad’s cohort will damage his depiction as the supreme leader’s preferred candidate.

Of course, all this analysis is moot if Khamenei really does want Raisi to win and is willing to manipulate the results to make it happen. But there’s no evidence he’s prepared to do that, and in fact a really heavy-handed manipulation of the vote would be unprecedented in the Islamic Republic’s (still admittedly brief) history.


Here’s the good news: the UN says that civilian casualties are down four percent this year over this same period last year. Now the bad news: last year was the deadliest year in the Afghan War yet, so a four percent decrease isn’t that great, and that decrease can probably be explained by civilians having already fled high conflict areas rather than by an actual decrease in fighting.

One of the places where fighting is still going on is Nangarhar province, where the US dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” on ISIS on April 13. In fact, the fight against ISIS is ongoing at the very site where the bombing took place, because, contrary to what I guess were Washington’s expectations, ISIS didn’t surrender and take up cross-stitching just because they saw our BIG-ASS BOMB in action. Two US service members were killed fighting ISIS in Nangarhar just yesterday, in fact. But at least the explosion was real cool.

Politically, the slow-moving train wreck that is the Afghan government on a good day appears to be on the verge of speeding up. With a criminal case pending against Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum for kidnapping, torturing, and raping a political rival, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is facing unrest among Dostum’s predominantly Uzbek supporters. Meanwhile, Kabul is eagerly awaiting the arrival of mercurial former Taliban enemy-turned-ally-turned enemy, and general all around bad human being, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is finally, reportedly, coming in after cutting his peace deal with the Afghan government. I’m sure his arrival in the capital won’t be at all disruptive. Oh, and the Taliban just announced the start of their Spring offensive, though since they didn’t really take the winter off this year that doesn’t mean as much as it normally does. Anyway, it’s really no wonder that the Pentagon has decided that no (politically feasible) number of American troops can stabilize this place.


“Several” Pakistani Taliban fighters were killed in North Waziristan today in what was most likely an American drone strike.


The Myanmar government has proposed resettling Rohingya who have been displaced by violence perpetrated by the government and Buddhist extremist groups into, uh, “camp-like villages.” Not actual camps, mind you–the government has promised to close its camps for displaced Rohingya down. These will be villages…where the Rohingya will all live together in one place, separated from the rest of the country, maybe not able to come and go freely. Sounds like a great place for a vulnerable ethnic minority that has been subjected to conditions that experts in international law have termed genocidal. And yet, apparently for some reason the UN isn’t down with this plan. Weird.


Several Mongolian TV stations went dark for an hour yesterday evening to protest government suppression of the press and a law being considered in the legislature that would make it easier to levy substantial fines against media outlets over nebulous “defamation” charges. I mention this only because, you know, we should probably be taking notes.


If it feels like the United States is on a slow roll to a completely avoidable and thoroughly unnecessary war with North Korea, well…maybe we are:

“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely,” Trump told Reuters in an Oval Office interview ahead of his 100th day in office on Saturday.

Nonetheless, Trump said he wanted to peacefully resolve a crisis that has bedeviled multiple U.S. presidents, a path that he and his administration are emphasizing by preparing a variety of new economic sanctions while not taking the military option off the table.

“We’d love to solve things diplomatically but it’s very difficult,” he said.

Donald Trump’s ego insists on regular praise from all corners, and while he may be dumb he’s not so dumb that he didn’t notice how his missile strike on Syria sent our media into a swoon. Meanwhile, on the other side Pyongyang seems hell-bent on pushing America’s buttons despite the fact that the current occupant of the White House may not be quite as level-headed about that kind of thing as his predecessors. So when Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of US Pacific Command, won’t rule out an invasion of North Korea when given the chance by Senator Lindsey Graham (who actually wanted him to rule it out), well, maybe it’s getting to be time to actually start worrying about this.

New US sanctions on North Korea seem like a given at this point, but it’s not clear how much more the North Korean economy can be isolated from the rest of the world. The US can declare North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism and implement punitive sanctions against firms found to be doing business with North Korea, but, I mean, how many firms are doing business with North Korea as it is? Trump, meanwhile, keeps talking tough about North Korea in private, but with seemingly no indication that he’s got any plan for getting tough that doesn’t involve military strikes.

On the other hand, all this talk about military strikes does seem to be shaking China into putting more economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea. The problem is that it’s going to take time for China to ratchet up that pressure and more time for it to presumably influence Pyongyang’s behavior. Is Trump prepared to wait for that to happen?



President Trump is also apparently ready to scrap the US-South Korea trade deal and wants Seoul to pay the US for stationing a THAAD missile defense battery on its soil. I seriously want to read the full transcript of the interview Trump gave Reuters today, because it sounds like it was completely fucking bananas.


European Union officials are apparently quite dissatisfied that the Libyan government, such as it is, “has no clear plan to help prevent more migrants reaching Europe’s shores this summer.” Well, you know, they are kind of trying to manage a civil war, guys, but I can certainly see why you’d be unhappy that they haven’t dropped everything to help you all keep the riff-raff out.


President Muhammadu Buhari’s spokesman is assuring Nigerians that they don’t need to worry about Buhari’s health even though he’s been a bit hard to find in public since returning to the country in March after an extended medical leave in the UK. And, you know, I’m not sure anybody was that concerned, considering how well the country ran in Buhari’s absence, under Vice President Yemi Osinbajo…except insofar as Buhari is Muslim and Osinbajo is Christian, and there is a bit of a back and forth between Nigeria’s Muslim north and its Christian south over the presidency.


The number of Ethiopians at risk of starvation when the year started was estimated to be around 5.6 million people. That number now stands at 7.7 million according to the UN, which is appealing for $900 million in aid to feed Ethiopians devastated by severe drought.


A Russian spy ship, the Liman was sunk today in the Black Sea after it collided with a freighter. All the crew were safely evacuated, but sadly the vessel’s precious stores of kompromat were lost to the sea. They will be missed.

Maybe it’s because almost half the country now wants Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to take a hike, but the Kremlin seems to be taking its political opposition very seriously all of a sudden. It announced today that a protest scheduled for Saturday is illegal, potentially opening up all manner of repressive responses. It also blacklisted the protest organizer, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s “Open Russia” organization, which effectively makes it illegal for the London-based group to operate in Russia.

The Russian government has also found its plans to build new power plants in Crimea stymied by Western sanctions, which have prevented it from obtaining the turbines necessary to build the plants. Perhaps Putin can take it up when he meets with Donald Trump in May, an event that is happening and also is definitely not happening.


A French court today refused to extradite former Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj to Serbia, where he’s wanted on war crimes charges. Haradinaj returned to Kosovo later in the day. He has previously been cleared of war crimes charges by the UN, and argued in court that he would not be able to receive a fair trial in Serbia.


Protesters stormed the Macedonian parliament this evening after the voted an ethnic Albanian, Talat Xhaferi, as speaker. Macedonian politics are a mess–the country hasn’t had a functioning government in over a year and really more like two years–and this kind of ultra-nationalism is both cause and effect of that. The coalition that could be forming a government right now, coming out of elections in December, is stifled because it includes Albanian parties.


Viktor Orbán’s fixation on closing George Soros’s Central European University, on account of George Soros is The Bogeyman, has now been criticized by the European Union along with the United States. Orbán’s parliament recently passed a law that requires the university to open an American campus or be shut down, which has led to days of protests in Budapest. Orbán attacked Soros personally yesterday in a speech before the European Parliament in Brussels, while the European Commission went through a laundry list of complaints against Orbán’s far-right government, including this university law, moves against nongovernmental organizations, a new asylum law, and Orbán’s incessant criticism of the EU itself.


When Marine Le Pen took over the leadership of France’s National Front party from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, it was heralded as a new era for the troubled NF, which has always had some populist appeal but had never been able to escape from Jean-Marie Le Pen’s quirks, like his habit of occasionally denying that the Holocaust happened. Marine Le Pen was the new face of the NF, a kinder and, notably, less antisemitic face. Well, now that Marine Le Pen has taken the party to new heights, getting herself into the run-off in a French presidential election, she’s got to step away from party leadership to focus on her plans for governing all of France. Her successor as National Front leader is Jean-François Jalkh, her long-time deputy and a jolly fellow who, apparently, occasionally questions whether or not the Holocaust really happened. The more things change, I guess.


Negotiators for the EU-27 (everybody except Britain) met in Luxembourg today to solidify their Brexit negotiating stance ahead of a meeting of European leaders this weekend. Or, if you’re Theresa May, this is how you describe that:

This is stupid for many reasons. One, what did she expect they were going to do? And two, it doesn’t take all 27 members to quash whatever sweetheart deal May still apparently thinks Brussels is going to offer her. In fact, it may only take one, although it’s not clear how the EU is actually going to manage this process if and when it has internal disagreements.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told her parliament today that British politicians need to drop their remaining “illusions” that the UK is going to retain the good parts of EU membership when it leaves the union. British leaders have been coyly suggesting that they could negotiate a new trade relationship with the EU at the same time that they’re negotiating their exit, but Merkel seemed to make it very clear that trade talks can only begin after the exit negotiations have concluded. Meanwhile, the EU-27 are reportedly considering the adoption of a provision that says Northern Ireland would immediately be admitted to the EU if it were to leave the UK and unify with the rest of Ireland. That’s sure to go over well in London, though polling shows that a comfortable majority in Northern Ireland do not want to leave the UK.


President Trump says that he agreed not to trigger an American exit from NAFTA while speaking by phone with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, and…you know, I’m just going to treat this like a giant bluff that actually worked. The alternative–that Trump decided pretty much on a lark to pull out of NAFTA but then got talked out of it by the leaders of two foreign countries–is too frightening to contemplate.

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2 thoughts on “Conflict update: April 27 2017

  1. Theresa May’s apparent surprise that the European Union is acting as a Union isn’t as stupid as it seems. She needs to create a them vs us narrative to generate support in the election. She is peddling the myth that if she has a significant election win then that somehow changes negotiating dynamics. Somehow.

    It’s purely for domestic consumption. It’s also working very well as a tactic.

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