Saturday, September 23, 2017

33.4 - And the wars drag on: Afghanistan, Syrian, Iraq, and Yemen

And the wars drag on: Afghanistan, Syrian, Iraq, and Yemen

Updated And we should be ready take any Good News we can find, because the world at large doesn't appear to be offering much of it.

On September 18, Secretary of War James Mattis announced that more than 3000 additional US troops are being sent to Afghanistan. He had already said two weeks ago that more would be going, but he hadn't said how many. This will bring the total US deployment in Afghanistan to at least 14,000.

This comes in the wake of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's statement on August 22 that "this entire effort was intended to put pressure on the Taliban, to have the Taliban understand that you will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you."

Which if it means anything at all, it means a literally unending war stretching unknown years into the future of military stalemate. And so what had been Bush's War and became Obama's War is now undeniably TheRump's War. And nothing changes except the length of the list of the dead.

And speaking of wars, oh yeah, there's still one in Syria, isn't there?

Deir Ezzor is the largest city in the eastern reaches of Syria. It sits on the southern (or western) shore of the Euphrates River, a river which serves as a convenient demarcation line between what is informally considered southern (and western) Syria on the one side and northern (and eastern) Syria on the other. The city had been under siege from Daesh - that is, ISIS, but I prefer the insulting name Daesh - but while the siege has been broken on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by Iranian forces backed by Russian air cover, fighting around the area, still a Daesh stronghold, continues.

And continues on more than one front: US forces and allied militias are also closing in on Daesh from the other side - the eastern side - of the Euphrates River, bringing into uncomfortably close proximity Russian and Russian-backed forces on the one hand and US and the US-backed SDF, or Syrian Democratic Forces, a militia made up mostly of Kurdish fighters, on the other.

So we shouldn't be surprised at competing claims of being attacked. On September 16, the SDF said its positions had been attacked by Syrian or Russian aircraft, injuring six. There were US troops present at the time; none were hurt.

On September 18, the SDF said that any further attempts to advance on the eastern Euphrates would be met with retaliation.

On September 21, Russia claimed that its forces had twice come under mortar attacks from the SDF and threatened that further attacks "will be immediately suppressed with all military means."

And of course, the Russians deny any involvement in the September 16 attacks and the SDF denies that any mortar attacks have been launched.

This had lead to a highly-unusual face-to-face meeting between high-ranking Russian and American military officers to try to keep this from getting completely out of control - but the tensions will remain and very likely increase.

That's because for one thing, political credit for defeating ISIS in the area is at stake. But the underlying and even more important issue is the one of ultimate influence and control in eastern and northern Syria, with Assad wanting it all back under his direct noxious control and the Syrian Kurds unwilling to give up the relative autonomy they have gained as a result of the civil war, as indicated by the fact that they are holding elections as part of a plan to set up a federal system in Syria.

So bluntly, it's hard to see how direct US-Russian conflict can be avoided forever, unless the two were to agree to let Assad and the Kurds fight it out on their own for control of eastern and northern Syria - which of course isn't really a solution for anyone except the Russian and American soldiers who would not die.

And which probably wouldn't be possible anyway because Turkey is sending troops into Idlib, supposedly as part of a "de-escalation" agreement for Syria but is really about suppressing Kurdish forces, who Turkey regards as "terrorists" amid fears that any autonomy for Syrian Kurds would increase calls for Turkish Kurds to have the same rights.

So let's see, Afghanistan, Syria, and um - oh yeah, Iraq. Even as our traditional national amnesia mixes with our short attention span, there is still fighting in Iraq:

US and "coalition" airstrikes continue in Iraq, including one along the Syria-Iraq border in western al-Anbar province on September 18 that according to the journalistic monitoring group Airwars killed at least six civilians and wounded up to two dozen more.

Meanwhile the Iraqi military says it is beginning an offensive to retake Hawija, one of two remaining  ISIS bastions in the country.

And as it loses ground, ISIS turns more to suicide attacks, including one on September 15 that killed more than 80 people in an attack on a restaurant frequented by Shia Muslim pilgrims in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.

Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq is planning on a September 25 non-binding referendum on independence, a move which has gotten opposition from multiple fronts, each for their own reasons: The central government just doesn't like the idea of independence - to be fair, central governments never do - but also because any such state would be in possession of some of what are now Iraq's oil fields; Iran and Turkey, each because they fear it could promote ideas of autonomy or even independence among their own Kurdish populations; the US, for fear it would hurt Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's re-election chances; and even UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who says it will "distract" from the battle against ISIS.

It is to the point where Turkey, Iran, and Iraq - who could hardly be considered mutual friends - have jointly agreed to consider unspecified "countermeasures" against Kurdish northern Iraq over the referendum.

The upshot is that on September 18 Iraq's Supreme Court ordered the suspension of all preparations for the referendum "until it examines the complaints it has received over this plebiscite being unconstitutional."

Which leaves Massoud Barzani, president of the KRG, in what one analyst called a "very delicate position" politically because if he's going to back down on this referendum, he needs to get something in return. The question is what that could be beyond vague assurances of the sort that the US, for one, has given the Kurds for years about how we really really do support greater Kurdish autonomy - someday, just not now. I don't think that would be good enough.

One last quick reminder on the "Yes, there are still wars" front:

On September 12 Human Rights Watch charged the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen with war crimes, with airstrikes on civilian targets carried out deliberately or recklessly in violation of international law. The group called on the UN to immediately return the coalition to its annual "list of shame" for violations against children in armed conflict.

And as I pointed out in July, the US is directly complicit in these war crimes, which Saudi Arabia would be unable to carry out without US assistance.

And so to slightly paraphrase what folksinger Mick Softley said of Vietnam in 1964, "and the wars drag on."

Updated with the the news that the Kurdish referendum took place as scheduled on September 25 in defiance of the Iraqi Supreme Court and the international pressure. Despite some earlier claims that holding the referendum was controversial even among the Kurds, turnout was estimated at 76% with (at that time) an hour of voting still to go. Turkey is now threatening to block the export of oil from northern Iraq (the pipeline passes through Turkey) and the Iraqi army has started "major maneuvers" with the Turkish army at the border, suggesting the possibility of a coordinated retaliation against the Kurds.

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