Conflict update, December 16, 2016

South China Sea

Here’s today’s story that’s most likely to eventually end in our deaths:

The Pentagon on Friday demanded the return of an underwater drone that was seized by China as an American crew was moving in to retrieve it. The episode threatens to increase tensions in a region already fraught with great-power rivalries.

A Chinese warship had been shadowing the Bowditch, a United States naval vessel, in the international waters of the South China Sea when the Chinese launched a small boat and snatched the unmanned underwater vehicle, the Pentagon said.

Ignoring radio demands from the Americans to return the drone, the Chinese ship sailed off.

The episode set off one of the tensest standoffs between Beijing and Washington in 15 years and occurred a day after the Chinese signaled that they had installed weapons along a string of disputed islands in the South China Sea.

There’s been some attempt to connect this act to President-elect Trump’s fiddling around with the One China Policy, but the truth is something like this probably would’ve happened anyway. And as long as China insists on claiming international waters as its own, these sorts of things will keep happening.

Syria

I’m going to be honest with you here; it’s been an extraordinarily long day and I haven’t really spent much of it following the news. Which is particularly problematic in this case because even if I had closely followed the news I’m not sure I could figure out what the hell is going on in Aleppo. What I do know is that the evacuations have stopped, completely. Why? Well, there’s the rub. Syrian state news claims that some rebels attempted to evacuate with weapons and gear in tow, which unsurprisingly didn’t go over well, but the bigger issue seems to be that rebels in Idlib are blocking the simultaneous evacuation of Fua and Kefraya, two predominantly Shi’a villages there that have been besieged by rebels for months now. The Syrian government, and more to the point Iran, are unwilling to allow the evacuation of Aleppo to continue without a quid pro quo in Fua and Kefraya. And while it’s not right to hold the people of Aleppo hostage to some other aim, the people trapped in those villages should absolutely be allowed to get the hell out of there.

With Aleppo well in hand, evacuation or not, Damascus and Moscow have a very stark choice to make: focus their immediate efforts on driving ISIS back out of Palmyra, or begin an operation to capture Idlib province. Which way they go will say a lot about their aims. Palmyra is the more critical problem, but attacking it would also mean prioritizing the fight against ISIS over the fight against the rebels, something Bashar al-Assad has never shown any inclination toward doing. However, as if intending to allow Assad to have his cake and eat to too, the US started bombing ISIS near Palmyra today, and it’s entirely possible that Assad may opt to go for Idlib confident that the US will inadvertently cover for him in Palmyra.

In Damascus, meanwhile, a nine year old girl blew herself up in a police station in the Midan neighborhood. Welcome to the next phase of the war.

Vladimir Putin and Tayyip Erdoğan are reportedly trying to organize a new round of Syrian peace talks in Kazakhstan, only without the United States, the United Nations, or any of the Persian Gulf states. The object would not be to replace the main peace talks in Geneva so much as to supplement them, or so the principals are saying, with an eye toward addressing both Moscow’s and Ankara’s key concerns (maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity and cutting the Kurds off at the knees, respectively).

Burkina Faso

An “Islamist militant” attack on a Burkinan army base near the country’s long border with Mali killed 12 soldiers. It’s not clear who was responsible, but given the location al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and/or one of its many franchisees seems like a safe bet.

Poland

Huge public protests against the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) are threatening to turn in to a genuine governing crisis. Just a short time ago police broke up a blockade of the parliament building, as Law and Justice’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski was hustled out of the building to escape the crowds. The right-wing nationalist PiS has been wearing out its welcome for a while now, as it cut down constitutional protections meant to guard against abuse of power, and the latest offense was an attempt earlier this week to bar media access to parliament. That drew enough protesters out that PiS legislators decided to meet outside the parliament building to pass their new budget, which may not have been exactly legal. That, in turn, drew out even more protesters, and that’s where things stand now, maybe on the brink of something quite major.

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