Trump presidency (& bombing) begins. US-led coalition coordinating with Russia or not? Syrian rebel infighting, Astana peace talks, and more in our war news round up…
Syria: Russian Military Claims Coordination With US Coalition, Pentagon Denies
_ On Monday, AP reported: “BREAKING: Russian Defense Ministry says its warplanes have flown first combat mission in Syria with U.S.-led coalition aircraft.” The Russians said the US-led coalition provided them with targeting information for a joint airstrike on ISIS and flew missions with Turkey.
_ Anti-ISIS coalition spokesman, US Col. John Dorrian said the Russian statement was “rubbish.” A Pentagon spokesman “Maj. Adrian J. Rankine-Galloway, said the U.S. military is not providing targeting information to the Russians or coordinating air operations with them,” according to Stars & Stripes.
_ The new White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, told reporters: “I think if there’s a way that we can combat ISIS with any country, whether it’s Russia or anyone else, and we have a shared national interest in that, sure, we’ll take it.” He said Pres. Trump will visit the Pentagon on Friday.
Syria: Peace Talks in Astana
_ The Syrian government is negotiating with some Syrian opposition groups who attended the conference, using UN envoy Steffan de Mistura as a mediator, Turkey and Iran involved, and with Russia as the power broker. The US did not attend the talks, but “sent its ambassador to Kazakhstan indicating that it does not oppose” the talks. The Ahrar al-Sham rebel group rejected the talks and did not attend. The 15 rebel groups who did attend “have one main foreign backer – Turkey.”
_ The groups were in separate rooms after initial face-to-face meetings with the Syrian government (for the first time since the war began) which resulted in angry exchanges and threats to leave. The talks concluded on Tuesday with an agreement to put a ceasefire monitoring mechanism in place, signed by Russia, Iran, and Turkey. That’s not much progress, but as Patrick Cockburn wrote, it was the likely outcome, reinforcing a shaky Dec. 29 ceasefire that has only been partially effective.
_ Syrian Kurds (YPG), who were not included in the Astana talks, say they will not abide by any agreement reached there. The 2 million Kurds are a strong force in Syria, where the population has shrunk to 16 million and it is unknown how many Syrian refugees will return to their homes.
_ An analyst on Russia’s Middle East policy believes that Russia’s rhetoric is changing, taking the position of an objective mediator. Russia was angry with Iran and Syria for referring to the opposition at the talks as “terrorists,” and slammed Syria for violating the ceasefire.
_ German foreign minister Steinmeier said that a “long-term solution to the Syrian conflict should be discussed at the Geneva talks… A political solution to the Syrian crisis, in my opinion, can only be found at the Geneva talks.”
_ At Davos, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek said: “The facts on the ground have changed dramatically, and so Turkey can no longer insist on, you know, a settlement without Assad, and it’s not, you know, realistic.” Turkey later said that Simsek’s words had been misinterpreted, so there is still a mixed message from Turkey on Assad and Syria but their actions speak louder than their words.
Syria: Al Qaeda v. Ahrar al-Sham, Opposition Infighting
_ Al Nusra (aka al Qaeda, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, JFS) forces are clashing with Ahrar al-Sham forces in Idlib. Nusra reportedly took over Ahrar’s headquarters in Idlib. They launched offensives on towns in Idlib and Aleppo provinces.
_ Ahrar al-Sham is one of the largest, most powerful jihadi rebel organizations. They were, until now, allied with Nusra. For the past few months, Ahrar has been fracturing, and some factions within Ahrar left to join Nusra, while others became independent because of the alliance with Nusra. Nusra is not covered by the ceasefire and will continue to be targeted by both US and Russian airstrikes. Groups who are not joined with Nusra can join the ceasefire. A key sticking point in the agreements between the US and Russia in Geneva was the requirement for rebel groups to separate from al Nusra in order to be included in any deal.
_ On Monday, al Nusra “disowned” the pro-ISIS jihadi group, Jund al-Aqsa, “due to the infighting with Ahrar al-Sham.” War correspondent Elijah Magnier interprets this as an indication that they “will be unleashed against Ahrar,” whose position is weakening in northern Syria.
_ On Tuesday, Magnier was surprised by a harsh statement by Ahrar al-Sham against al Nusra, that they will stand between Nusra and other groups. Nusra is “far more powerful than any individual group,” but cannot defeat them if the rebel groups are united.
Iraq: Eastern Mosul Not Quite Under Control of Iraqi Forces Yet; 160K IDPs
_ Iraqi officials announced on Jan. 23 that the left bank or eastern Mosul (about 1/4 of the city) was completely under their control. But the Iraqi army later retracted that claim of victory, and said that they don’t have full control yet. ISIS has been expelling civilians and establishing positions along the Tigris River so as to prevent the Iraqi Army from crossing into western Mosul.
_ Iraqi forces are trying to prepare bridges for an offensive on western Mosul. Western Mosul is more heavily populated and defended by ISIS, and most of the bridges have been destroyed as a defensive measure.
_ On Sunday Jan. 23, there were reports that ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was injured in an airstrike in Al-Ba’aj in northern Iraq. These reports have not yet been confirmed.
_ Journalist Hala Jaber, currently working with refugees from Mosul for the International Organization for Migration’s Iraq Mission (IOM Iraq) said on Jan. 17 that in the last 4 days, an additional 16,248 Iraqis became internal displaced persons (IDPS), raising the total to 160,836 IDPs since the Mosul military operations began.
Syria: ISIS Assault on Deir Ezzor
_ A brutal ISIS offensive on Deir Ezzor continued last week and the Syrian army at the airport remained cut off from the civilians they protect. Journalist Leith Abou Fadel reported that the Russians were able to do an airdrop at the airport on Thursday, and there were reports of more supplies delivered on Monday.
_ 3 different journalists, from 3 different Western countries (UK, Australia, and Germany) blame the US-led anti-ISIS coalition for the current crisis in Deir Ezzor. Though the situation is similar to Aleppo in recent months, there is almost no reporting on Deir Ezzor from Western media or activists, which Gareth Porter pointed out in an interview.
_ The Syrian and Russian air forces have been heavily bombarding ISIS positions in eastern Palmyra and Deir Ezzor, to allow the Syrian Army in Deir Ezzor to launch a counter-offensive to try to regain ground lost during the past week.
Syria: Joint Turkish-Russian Strikes on Al-Bab
_ Russian military (Jan. 18): “Today, Russian and Turkish air forces are carrying out their first joint air operation against the Islamic State in the suburbs of Al Bab.” Turkey has complained that the U.S. has refused to provide support.
_ “Turkish soldiers are suffering heavy losses in a battle against Isis for the town of al-Bab,” and videos have shown ISIS destroying tanks and armor.
Israel: Hezbollah Units
_ From Haaretz: “Eyeing Northern Front, Israeli Army Sets Up ‘Hezbollah Units‘”. “Israeli training bases now have tunnels to simulate combat situation in Gaza, while ‘red forces’ will be armed to look and act like Lebanese terror group, in order to train troops to fight Hezbollah.”
Middle East: Final Statements From Obama Admin Officials
_ Sec. Defense Ash Carter said, in an exit interview with AP, that conducting the Middle East wars with US troops and sending thousands more troops won’t save Iraq or Syria, but we shouldn’t be shy about using more authority and resources against ISIS. Carter said: “I asked President Obama for more. I would encourage Jim Mattis, if he sees opportunities to accelerate, to ask for more.”
_ In a Politico Magazine interview in December, Pres. Obama’s foreign policy spokesman and advisor, Ben Rhodes, said that the Syrian opposition often “would argue that we should work with al-Nusra, who we know is Al Qaeda.” He said if Nusra then used US-supplied weapons against the US, that’s “something you never recover from, right?” So Rhodes contends that the US did not back Nusra in Syria.
Gambia: Neighboring Armies Invade to Force Transition of Power
_ Sengalese and Nigerian troops have entered Gambia. On the night before the invasion, a military official from Senegal said their forces were at the Gambian border and would “enter at midnight if Gambian president refuses to leave power,” according to Sky News.
_ The “West African regional force had been launched to remove him but paused to allow for negotiations mediated by Guinean President Alpha Conde and President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania.” According to Reuters, Yahya Jammeh used that time to negotiate immunity from prosecution, a cargo plane loaded “with luxury goods,” and a luxurious exile in Equatorial Guinea.
_ The West African forces then entered the capital city, Banjul and seized the presidential palace. There were celebrations in the streets for the end of his “brutal 22-year rule” which resulted in thousands of refugees fleeing to Europe every year. But there was also anger about the lack of accountability and his “soft landing.”
Libya: Bombing Raid Outside Sirte
_ Stealth B-2 bombers and drones were used to bomb ISIS camps outside of Sirte, Libya, just before Pres. Obama’s left office (Wednesday night, Jan. 18). The AFRICOM command had announced “an end to attacks on the ISIS-held town of Sirte” less than a month ago. According to Kevin Baron, the B-2s “dropped over 100 GBU-38 500-lb bombs,” and “precision strikes” from Predator hellfire missiles. Baron believes this was a show of force to other big players in the region.
U.S.: Obama Broadens Access to Surveillance Data
_ Obama Expands Surveillance Powers on His Way Out: Days before he left office, former Pres. Obama changed the rules on the infamous Executive Order 12333 “to make it easier for the nation’s intelligence agencies to share unfiltered information about innocent people.” The NSA can now easily share “raw streams of communications it intercepts directly” with 16 other agencies, including the FBI, DEA, and Homeland Security. In the past, NSA screened and filtered the data before sharing it.
_ As The Intercept puts it, Obama Opened “NSA’s Vast Trove of Warrantless Data to Entire Intelligence Community, Just in Time for Trump.” With EO 12333, “the NSA taps phone and internet backbones throughout the world, records the phone calls of entire countries, vacuums up traffic from Google and Yahoo’s data centers overseas, and more.”
U.S.: CIA Puts CREST Data Base Online
_ On Tuesday, the CIA put 12 million declassified documents online from the CREST data base, dated from the 1940s through the 1990s. In 1995 Bill Clinton made these documents public (if 25 years old and of “historical value”) but the CIA refused to make them accessible via the internet and instead made them accessible only from the National Archives building. The CIA’s information director said they have been working on getting the documents online for a “very long time” and he wanted to get it done before he retired.
U.S. SAM Missiles at North Dakota Protest Site
_ North Dakota National Guard deployed an Avenger surface-to-air missile launchers (military weapons) at the Dakota Access Pipeline construction and protest site and are being used, according to a National Guard spokesman, “in the observation role to protect private property and public safety.” He said the missile launcher isn’t loaded and was deployed there on the pipeline drill pad because it has night-vision capabilities and a “heated crew compartment.”
— War Is Boring (@warisboring) January 17, 2017
El Chapo in the U.S.
_ Cartel boss El Chapo was put on a plane in Mexico and extradited to the US on the evening of Jan. 19.
U.S. Congresswoman Goes to Syria
_ Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat and an Iraq war veteran, went on a fact finding trip to Syria. Initially it was reported that she had left Syria but later (on Jan. 18) Politico reported that she was still in Syria and would not provide more detail about the trip for security reasons. Gabbard got an approval from the House Ethics Committee but it taking all kinds of heat for the trip anyway, and congressional aides are “shocked” because she didn’t get permission from party leaders.
US Military Under Trump
_ The US military under new Pres. Trump didn’t skip a beat. Mad Dog Mattis bombed ISIS 31 times on his first full day at the Pentagon. The majority of the strikes were in Syria — strikes on ISIS artillery and forces near Al-Bab and Raqqa, and oil wells near Deir Ezzor. Some ISIS units in Iraq were also targeted in Rutbah, Beiji, Kisik, Tal Afar, and Mosul. Mattis had referred to Obama’s ISIS strategy as being full of “half measures.” Trump wants an anti-ISIS plan from his generals within 30 days.
_ Trump also carried out his first drone strikes over the weekend, reportedly killing 2 suspected members of al Qaeda. The US-supported Saudi coalition also continued bombing in Yemen, including an airstrike on a school outside the capital of Sanaa which killed at least 2 civilians.
Calls Between Flynn and Russian Ambassador Amounted to Nothing
_ 3 days after the inauguration, the Washington Post reported that the “FBI reviewed Flynn’s calls with Russian ambassador but found nothing illicit.” Flynn’s calls and texts with the Russian ambassador in December “were picked up as part of routine electronic surveillance of Russian officials and agents in the United States,” according to an anonymous US official, and were mainly condolences for the death of the Russian ambassador in Turkey, the plan crash in Sochi, and preliminary arrangements for a future call between Pres. Trump and Pres. Putin.
_ One week before the inauguration, as the battle between Trump and Pres. Obama’s intelligence agencies raged, David Ignatius, the mouthpiece of the intelligence agencies, wielded Shakespearean quotes from Hamlet in the same Washington Post. Ignatius used references about things “rotten in the state of Denmark,” suggested that Flynn “cultivates close Russian contacts,” may have interfered with Pres. Obama’s late December sanctions on Russia with his calls to the Russian ambassador, and may have violated the Logan Act. The newer article on the topic dispelled those allegations.
_ Former CIA director John Brennan and his deputy director resigned as Donald Trump was sworn in. Trump visited and gave a controversial speech at CIA headquarters the next day. John Brennan scolded him for it from the sidelines. So to some extent, their battle continues. Listen to this week’s podcast, Around the Empire, where Shadowproof’s Dan Wright and Joanne Leon speak with former CIA officer John Kiriakou about that battle, and about Kiriakou’s belief that the US no longer needs a CIA.
Female Army Ranger
_ A woman went through the “selection course for the exclusive Army 75th Ranger Regiment” and succeeded. She will be the “first female special operator in the military sometime in the spring,” according to a spokesman from the unit. Three women have graduated from Army Ranger School, and two failed the selection course in October.
_ The addition of the new female soldier to the Army 75th Ranger Regiment will make it more difficult for a Trump administration “to close opportunities for combat and elite special operations positions now opened to servicewomen,” which is still a controversial issue. Gen. James Mattis, the new defense secretary, has “previously had expressed some reticence about women in all combat roles.”
Royal Navy Fired Unarmed Trident Nuclear Missile at Florida by Mistake
_ During a test last summer, a UK submarine conducting tests off the coast of Florida fired an unarmed nuclear Trident missile which then malfunctioned and turned toward the US, according to the Sunday Times. The Guardian reports demands by Labour and SNP leaders for Theresa May to “come clean” about the incident that she allegedly covered up.
Switzerland: Biden’s Dire Speech at Davos
_ At Davos, Vice President Joe Biden gave a speech warning that “the progressive democratic world order is at risk of collapse.”
Kosovo: Risk of War
_ Recent incidents show that Kosovo, “Europe’s forgotten conflict zone,” could heat up again. Adam Garrie, at the Duran, says he hopes that the US “will not add fuel to the flames as it did in 1999,” given the new president’s stated distaste for intervention.
ANALYSIS & OPINION
_ Former CIA officer, John Kiriaku, says: “I Have Come to the Conclusion the Country Does Not Need a CIA.”
_ Ron Paul cautions about Trump’s inconsistent foreign policy.