Security forces driven off by large crowd, small explosion
The UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) continues to prevent chemical inspectors from entering Douma for their investigation, citing safety concerns. They have offered no timetable for when the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspectors will be allowed in.
The OPCW inspectors did not visit Monday, and there were a lot of allegations exchanged as to why. Though British officials blamed Russia for the delay, it is now clear that the UNDSS is driving the scheduling.
The UNDSS team visited two sites in Douma, but fled both times. In the first case, they claimed there was a large crowd there, and they were concerned about safety. At the second site there was a report of an explosion nearby, and claimed to have come under small arms fire by some unknown faction. No UN workers were injured, though one Syrian was said to have sustained light injuries working in a security capacity.
The OPCW inspectors are supposed to look into an alleged chemical weapons attack earlier this month. There is no public proof that the strike took place, and a mounting amount of doubt that it didn’t, driven by inquiries from Robert Fisk. Residents within Douma have also expressed doubts about the strike.
OAN investigators weren’t able to confirm any evidence of a chemical weapons attack on Douma. To the extent that investigations are happening, they suggest there was no chemical strike.
Clearly, Douma was attacked by Syrian forces on that day, and the day prior. Those strikes, however, were insisted by the Syrian government to be purely conventional strikes. There is little to suggest anything else, beyond claims from the White Helmets, and Western nations claiming to have secret proof.
Syria and Russia have both denied from the start that the attack took place, and they have believed the OPCW visit would reveal the truth. Russia in particular was pushing for an investigation to take place before any rash action against Syria. Ultimately, US-led attacks on Syria happened Friday night.
Now it’s still not clear if the OPCW will ever be allowed in, with the Russian UN Ambassador expressing annoyance at new Security Council attempts to determine responsibility for the attack. Ambassador Nebenzia noted this was “futile” since the US, Britain, and France already attacked Syria in the first place.
The security pretext is pretty flimsy though. Despite all the UNDSS security concerns, media groups seem to have no problem getting into Douma safely. One of the most egregious examples is a CNN reporter in Douma, handling and even sniffing supposed evidence.
This only adds to questions. Can CNN really infiltrate Douma and “investigate” in such a haphazard way while the OPCW can’t even get on site? Moreover, would a CNN reporter really sniff garments she believed were covered in chemical weapons on air?
The US seems to have been anticipating the OPCW probe not going their way, and is already accusing Syria and Russia of plotting to tamper with the site. There’s no evidence of tampering of any kind. The US suggestion was based on the fact that Russian military police visited the site. The visit, however, was done days ago, and Russia said it was meant to deter the West from attacking Douma and destroying evidence.
Russia also wanted inspectors into the site from day one, which is not true of the United States or its allies. A Russian proposal for such an investigation was voted down at the UN Security Council, and the US-led coalition attacked multiple sites in Syria before the investigation could discredit them.
Since the US, Britain, and France already attacked Syria, they have little reason to want the OPCW visit to be successful. They clearly weren’t interested in getting the facts before the strike, and facts that don’t support their narrative could be very embarrassing.
Indeed, there is growing speculation that this UNDSS effort to block the inspectors is a relatively transparent effort to prevent the investigation happening now.
With the last of the ISIS-held territory in Iraq recaptured, Iraqi officials are cheerfully proclaiming the war is over. Pentagon’s commanders, who recognize that this is the third “end of the Iraq war” in just 15 years, are trying to spin it as a new phase in the continuing war.
It makes sense for them to present it this way, US operations aren’t changing substantially. The troops are staying, which is unsurprising as the Pentagon was insisting from the start of this most recent buildup that the deployment was to be more or less permanent.
So US officials want the public to view this more as the next phase of Iraq. Pentagon officials are upbeat that they are going into the next phase, since ISIS did get mostly defeated, albeit at the cost of badly damaging or outright destroying multiple Sunni cities. As a practical matter, there isn’t much reason for confidence. Everything that derailed the previous US strategies in Iraq will still be a problem, only more so.
As with the brief “shock and awe” period giving way to a much less specific open-ended campaign, the defeat of ISIS will give way to a new round of mission creep, as officials come up with new goals for the war to justify its continuation. Another stability-centric set of missions for a Pentagon that’s been struggling mightily with that wherever they intervene.
A top priority is going to be re-training and building up the Iraqi military, of course. The US has already given Iraq an entire military’s worth of gear before, much of which was looted and lost in the ISIS fighting. High casualties among the best-trained fighters mean in many ways the US is starting from square one again, especially on gear, and Iraq’s economic woes mean they’re in an even worse position to pay for anything the US wants them to have.
Beyond that, Pentagon officials have made a stated goal of ensuring that ISIS doesn’t reemerge, and that some other faction doesn’t emerge to replace them. This is the most open-ended goal, obviously, as it could conceivably take forever. It’s also the least realistic goal, as a cursory look at the last 15 years shows.
The 2003 US invasion turned Iraq’s Sunni Arabs into a large but virtually powerless minority. This made them fertile recruiting ground for al-Qaeda in Iraq, and later for its successor movement, ISIS. Violent crackdowns by the Shi’ite-dominated government have come and gone, and have often bolstered recruitment for insurgencies.
This is a problem that the US couldn’t solve in the post-2003 invasion. Fighting with al-Qaeda and other insurgents continued until the US failed to get a Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) and withdrew. Ironically, the withdrawal briefly meant a reduction in al-Qaeda’s influence, though a new round of crackdowns by Iraq’s government meant this was short-lived.
In 2018, there is no reason to expect better, and a lot of reasons to expect worse. The war in Afghanistan shows the US hasn’t gotten any better at handling insurgencies. The impulse is still to escalate, which didn’t work before, and further exacerbates the unrest.
Iraq’s Sunni Arabs are every bit as disenfranchised as they were a decade ago, with the added problem that most of their cities are now in ruins, and a lot of them are still displaced. This reconstruction is both something Iraq can’t afford, and which is probably a relatively low priority for them, as many Shi’ite officials view the Sunnis as ISIS collaborators.
That’s beyond a problem with the US strategy in Iraq, it’s also the reason Iraq’s status quo is so unstable. Still, it leaves the US with an unsolvable problem, and Pentagon policy is that they are committed to rolling this boulder uphill. But is it a forever war?
Not necessarily, and ironically this phase of war may end the same way the first post-Saddam phase did, lack of cooperation from the Iraqi government. Iraq’s parliament, noting repeated celebrations of the defeat of ISIS, passed a bill formally asking Prime Minister Abadi to offer specifics on how much longer foreign troops are going to be in Iraq.
While Prime Minister Abadi seems willing to tolerate the US presence being open-ended, parliament is unlikely to accept “forever” as a valid answer to how long. That sets the stage for another confrontation between the US and Iraqi governments over another SOFA at some point in the future. As in the past, with ISIS largely defeated and an open-ended US presence no guarantee that another insurgency won’t crop up in the future, Iraq has little reason to accept a permanent SOFA. Mistrust of foreign meddling because of pretty much everything that’s happened in the last 15 years, moreover, gives them ample reason to deny such SOFA, and insist on another one with a clear timetable.
That might mean that for the second time this decade, Iraq will have extricated the United States military from the quagmire that is being stuck in Iraq. We Americans might start being a bit grateful of this happens, because Lord knows the Pentagon would never figure out to just leave on their own without being shown the door.
State Department official Brian Hook told reporters today that, despite “constructive” talks with European nations on the Iran agreement, the US is scrambling to make “contingency plans” in case the talks fail, and the nuclear deal gets blown up by President Trump.
There’s every reason to think such preparation is necessary. President Trump set an ultimatum for Europe to agree to vast changes to the P5+1 nuclear deal, or he would withdraw the US. European officials are trying to placate the US, but also recognize that Russia, China, and most importantly Iran aren’t going along with the idea.
The demanded “fixes” included making limits on Iran’s civilian program permanent, tying Europe’s sanctions relief to America’s own perspective of the deal, compelling Iran to offer additional access above and beyond what UN inspectors even want, and treating Iran’s conventional missile systems as part of their “nuclear” program for the purposes of sanctions.
None of these were very realistic, and that’s likely the point. President Trump campaigned in 2016 on killing the Iran deal, and has only extended it so far very begrudgingly. May 12 is seen as the end, because no matter how much the EU and everyone else gives, they can’t possibly offer everything, and that means it won’t be enough.
Kim says no reason to keep nukes if military threat ends
In comments that could potentially have significant ramifications on trying to convince the US to join talks with North Korea, South Korean delegation envoys say they were told by Kim Jong-un that North Korea is willing to discuss scrapping their nuclear arsenal.
The White House has long suggested scrapping the nuclear program and missile development as a precondition for talks, and clearly that’s not going to happen, but North Korea seems very willing to discuss the subject within the talks, and would disarm if given the right deal.
South Korea’s statement quoted Kim as making it clear North Korea “would have no reason to keep nuclear weapons if the military threat to the North was eliminated.” North Korean officials have made comments to this effect in the past, but telling it to the South Korean delegation shows its a clear message intended to be sent to the US as an inducement to talk.
This makes sense, as North Korea has always presented its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent to an American attack. Getting a trustworthy guarantee that the US isn’t going to attack them in the future is clearly a big deal for North Korea, but is it attainable?
That’s less clear, with President Trump and other administration officials saying there is “possible progress,” but also downplaying the chances of an actual deal, suggesting they don’t believe North Korea would deliver on such a proposal.
One unnamed administration official seemed to take the position that this wouldn’t be enough for talks, saying denuclearization of North Korea in “non-negotiable,” suggesting it remains a precondition.
If President Trump’s disavowal of talks marked a big change, the Taliban’s position is even moreso, as top Taliban officials have long spurned the idea of talks without US withdrawal as a precondition, and have repeatedly denied that the talks that have happened amount to peace talks.
In both cases, the position changes may be reflective of the situation on the ground. The Afghan War is going very poorly for the US, and some officials may believe they’d be going into talks from a very weak position now. Likewise, the Taliban may feel they would be going into the talks from a position of real strength.
Of course, it’s also possible the Taliban are just taking this position to embarrass the US, and position them as the ones who are, 16+ years into the war, unreasonable and unwilling to negotiate. One might even imagine this as the US having tricked the Taliban into backing talks through reverse psychology, except that all indications are that the administration is indeed averse to diplomacy here, as with other regions where warfare remains an alternative option.
Save the Children has struggled with its presence in central Asia in recent years, with the CIA having run a phony vaccination program under the organization’s name to mass collect DNA samples within Pakistan.
This both fueled a lot of threats against Save the Children, but ultimately to Pakistan expelling them, amid growing fears that their operations were all just CIA tricks. Hostility toward the group among Islamist factions, it seems, is alive and well.
Apparently believing it will bolster his pro-police image, the Trump Administration has announced that it is reversing President Obama’s 2015 restrictions on the provision of certain U.S. military equipment to local American police forces.
Announcing the move on Monday to the Fraternal Order of Police convention in Nashville, Attorney General Jeff Sessions accused the former president of putting “superficial concerns above public safety” and cheered Trump’s decision, telling police that allowing cops to have military gear will send a message that “we will not allow criminal activity, violence, and lawlessness to become the new normal.”
Far from superficial, the concerns surrounding local police forces being given weapons of war had longstanding and serious implications for American society. This was true particularly after the Global War on Terror fueled an increase in military spending that left even more surplus military goods to be doled out to the police.
Providing local police with bayonets and amphibious tanks has concerned civil rights groups since the program began back in 1997. This is primarily because to the extent police were ever asked to justify these acquisitions at all, they tended to present them as riot control gear to contend with civil unrest. With America in a state of constant warfare since 2001, this was not some idle excuse, but rather reflective of a broad change in mentality.
A warplane from an unidentified air force has attacked the eastern Syrian village of Doblan, along the Euphrates River, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human rights, who said that cluster bomblets were dropped on the area, killing at least 30 civilians and injuring dozens more.
Doblan is just southeast of the city of Mayadin, which was just attacked yesterday by US forces, killing a large number of civilians destroying an ISIS-held prison. It is unclear, however, if the Doblan attack is a continuation of the US strikes, or some other nation’s involvement.
US-led coalition officials would not comment on the Doblan attack one way or the other, but when asked by other media outlets, they insisted they’d attacked Mayadin with meticulous planning to avoid killing civilians, though they have so far not acknowledged that it was even a prison.
Cluster bombs are a particular problem when used in populated areas, because many of the bomblets don’t detonate immediately, and can remain active on the ground long after the attack, causing additional civilian casualties. Both the US and Russia have refused to sign the global cluster bomb ban.
Tensions are seemingly always rising between the US and Russia these days, but the latest incident appears to be far more serious, as Russia has released a video showing a US F-16 intercepting the plane of Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu over the Baltic Sea, sparking a tense encounter with a Russian Su-27 fighter jet.
Shoigu’s plane was reportedly carrying the defense minister and a number of reporters to a conference in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, between Poland and Lithuania. The plane was reportedly escorted by a pair of Su-27s, and the F-16 fighters were scrambled, claiming the plane with the DM on board was not identified and they were trying to make a “visual” identification.
When one of the fighters started getting too close to Shoigu’s plane, a Su-27 flew in between the two and tilted its wings, apparently to underscore that it was armed with anti-aircraft weapons, at which time the F-16 flew off.
Shamanov insisted it should’ve been readily apparent when the F-16 arrived that a civilian plane with an escort of multiple Su-27s was carrying “protected persons,” and that approaching the plane would be considered unacceptable.
Ultimately, Shoigu’s plane was unharmed, and arrived safely in Kaliningrad. The plane returned home to the Russian mainland escorted by a much larger retinue, this time including a number of Su-34 fighter-bombers, among the most advanced warplanes in the Russian fleet. They apparently went unchallenged.
The US has been increasingly attacking pro-government forces in eastern Syria, but this is the first time that they’ve shot down a manned Syrian aircraft, and the fact that it happened within Syrian airspace is likely to dramatically add to the tensions between the two sides.
The Pentagon argued that because they are allied with the Kurds they were free to attack the Syrian plane under the concept of “collective self-defense,” and added that they “will not hesitate” to take further military action to defend the Kurds, or other partnered forces, from future threats.
Indeed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is noting that the soaring death toll from US airstrikes has now surpassed the civilian toll of the Assad government’s own airstrikes, which the US and other Western nations have condemned as indiscriminate and irresponsible.
Oftentimes, US officials have been so outraged at Syria’s “indiscriminate” air strikes that they’ve demanded regime change, and has railed at Russia and Iran for tolerating their tactics in bombing civilian targets. Obviously, the US never sees the same problem with its own massive killings.
That’s probably because officially, they don’t even recognize the overwhelming majority of the civilian deaths they cause, as the Pentagon’s official death toll for the air war in Iraq and Syria omits virtually all major incidents, and tends to be at most 10% of the toll reported by NGOs.
Publicly US strategy in the Afghan War has been based around the conceit that the conflict is in a “stalemate,” despite mounting losses by the Afghan government. Advisers have offered a classified assessment on the conflict recently, however, conceding that the Ghani government’s survival is at risk, and that the war is being “slowly” lost.
Their solution, as with everyone else, is even bigger escalation, with reports from those familiar with the plan saying that the US needs “more than 50,000” ground troops in Afghanistan to ensure Ghani’s survival, with an eye toward eventually defeating the Taliban.
That’s a big escalation, and a much bigger one than has been suggested in previous reports, which initially presented the proposed escalation as 3,000 to 5,000, and most recently made it a choice between 3,000 or keeping troop levels flat. The Pentagon is evasive about troop levels in recent months, but around 8,400 troops are believed to presently be in Afghanistan.
So 50,000 would be a massive escalation, resembling the one President Obama tried when he took office, and for mostly the same reason, that they think it might conceivably turn a long struggling war around. That it didn’t lead to victory last time appears to be totally ignored in the latest assessment.
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