If the Trump administration accomplishes nothing else in its (hopefully only) four years in office, provoking a war with Iran seems to be at the top of its bucket list. How else do you explain the National Security Advisor taking the podium at a White House press briefing and doing this:
“Recent Iranian actions, including a provocative ballistic missile launch and an attack against a Saudi naval vessel conducted by Iran-supported Houthi militants, underscore … Iran’s destabilizing behavior across the Middle East,” Trump’s national security adviser, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, told journalists at a White House press briefing Feb. 1.
Criticizing the Obama administration for failing “to respond adequately to Tehran’s malign actions,” Flynn said Iran was now feeling emboldened.
“As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice,” Flynn warned.
Iran’s ballistic missile tests are genuinely provocative, there’s no question about that. But Trump’s foreign policy team isn’t satisfied just complaining about Tehran’s missile tests. So they want to make Iran responsible for an attack by Yemeni rebels, whose involvement with Iran is marginal, on a Saudi naval vessel, at a time when the Saudis are bombing Yemen to rubble. There’s no evidence that the Houthi boat attack on Monday had anything to do with Iran, but the administration knows it can assert one without any serious chance of blowback. Trump officials insist that they aren’t conflating Yemen and the missile tests with the nuclear deal, which they say the administration is committed to upholding, but that’s a ruse. The plan, in all likelihood, is to recreate the same sanctions infrastructure that existed before the nuclear deal was reached, simply under non-nuclear pretenses. Maybe Iran will decide to walk away from the JCPOA at that point, which will give Trump a casus belli, but even if they don’t the punitive US sanctions will all be back in place.
The Syrian army appears to be trying to get into al-Bab before Turkey and its rebel proxies can take the city, which sets up the possibility that the Syrian and Turkish armies are going to start shooting at one another once they’re both done shooting at ISIS. It’s unlikely that the Syrians would go on the offensive against Turkey, but their aim is probably to swoop in and gain control of al-Bab before Turkey can, which would then put the Turks in the position of either abandoning their goal or attacking the Syrians.
Washington is once again trying to put together an Arab army capable of capturing Raqqa from ISIS. A 3000 man unit called the Syrian Elite Forces, commanded by Ahmad Jarba, seems to be at the core of this new attempt. Previous efforts at finding somebody, anybody, other than the YPG capable of undertaking this mission have fizzled out, and even though there is an Arab contingent within the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, it’s not enough on its own to take the city. The Trump administration has begun delivering armored vehicles to the SDF, which represents an escalation in American aid to the group.
Preparations are being made, rhetorically at least, for the next round of peace talks in Geneva on February 20. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said today that talks need to focus on a transitional government, but he was understandably non-committal about what role Bashar al-Assad would play in that transition, and there, as it has for nearly six years now, lies the rub. Diplomatically, the rebels are singling out Iran as their primary antagonist apart from Assad, undoubtedly thinking–as Ankara and now Washington are also apparently thinking–that with enough enticement/pressure, Russia could be made to distance itself from the Iranians, which would then leave Assad more vulnerable.
In an effort to delay the eventual Iraqi attack on western Mosul, ISIS has been striking the eastern side of the city with artillery and even drones–28 people were killed yesterday in such strikes. Compounding the problem, residents are complaining that people “in uniform,” which suggests Iraqi soldiers and/or police, are robbing them. On the other hand, Mosul’s auto mechanics are doing really well because people’s cars keep getting blown up. The Popular Mobilization Units’ 15th Force claims that it has been put on duty securing Mosul University–which, if true, violates the Iraqi plan to keep the PMU out of the city. Of course, just because the 15th Force says it’s patrolling the campus doesn’t mean that it actually is.
Human Rights Watch’s Letta Taylor writes for Foreign Policy that the Kurdistan Regional Government is detaining and torturing teenage boys suspected of involvement with ISIS:
Ali is among more than 180 Iraqi boys, most of them Sunni Arabs who had lived in Islamic State-held areas, whom Asayish is detaining as alleged Islamic State members in two KRG juvenile detention centers. A fellow Human Rights Watch researcher and I interviewed 19 of these boys, some as young as 11 years old, in December at a detention center in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where most are being held.
We entered the detention center expecting to speak with the boys about life under the world’s most notorious armed group. But we quickly discovered that these children were victimized twice — first by the Islamic State, which they said was constantly trying to enlist them as fighters, and then by members of Asayish.
All but two of the boys with whom we spoke told us that Asayish agents had tortured or beaten them into confessing before bringing them to the detention center in Erbil. Many said they had not been able to see or speak with family members for weeks or months after their capture, if at all. This was sometimes because Asayish would not let them, and at other times because they did not know how to reach them. None appeared to have had a lawyer during interrogation by Asayish, and as best they and we could determine, none had been formally charged.
The Israeli government has finally evacuated the too-illegal-even-for-them Amona settlement in the West Bank. Settlers there protested the evacuation, but they will likely be able to console themselves by receiving homes among the thousands of brand new settlement homes the Israeli government plans on illegally building in the coming months.
The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released a report today saying that the Afghan government only controls about 60 percent of the country, down from roughly 75 percent two years ago. Speaking of which, fighting continues in Helmand province, with American airstrikes hitting Taliban fighters who are using tunnels to attack Afghan police around Sangin.
The Filipino Justice Minister, Vitaliano Aguirre II, says that summarily executing drug users can’t be a crime against humanity because drug users aren’t human:
On Wednesday, a top Duterte ally, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, responded to the accusation of possible crimes against humanity not by denying police behavior but by questioning the humanity of the estimated 7,000 people shot dead since Duterte took power. “How can that be when your war is only against drug lords, drug addicts, drug pushers? You consider them humanity? No. I believe not,” he said. (For what it’s worth, he’s said it before.)
He seems nice.
Bangladesh has a plan for resettling Rohingya refugees who have poured across the border on account of the fact that the Myanmar government is trying to genocide them. There’s just one teeny problem: it wants to settle them on an island in the Bay of Bengal that gets fully inundated at high tide. There’s some vague talk of building embankments in order to make the island suitable for human habitat, but the bottom line is that Bangladesh wants Myanmar to take these refugees back. But since official Myanmar government policy defines the Rohingya as undocumented migrants from Bangladesh, as far as Naypyidaw is concerned those refugees are back, right where they belong.
Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has decided to abandon his plan to run for president because
he wasn’t going to win he’s angry at the “character assassination” he claims he’s faced from the South Korean media. Human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in is considered the prohibitive favorite now that Ban has stepped aside.
Here’s a pretty stark commentary on where this conflict is heading. On the one hand, the head of Libya’s Government of National Accord, Fayez Serraj, told reporters in Brussels today that NATO could have access to Libyan waters to patrol for human traffickers, provided that NATO help upgrade the Libyan navy. On the other hand, Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, the GNA’s rival for power, has started airlifting wounded soldiers to Russia for medical treatment. Dueling foreign interventions are just what Libya needs at this point.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg publicly asked the Russian government to do something to help deescalate the recent outbreak of new fighting around Avdiivka. In addition to the death toll, the violence over the past several days has left thousands of people without basic needs, like water, electricity, and heat, in the middle of a Ukrainian winter. Kiev claimed today that one of its military cargo planes was shot at by small-arms fire from a Russian offshore gas rig, which seems like a bit of a reach.
In more consequential news, the morning papers in Germany are saying that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko plans to hold a referendum on Ukraine joining NATO. Ukraine’s westward drift was the main reason Vladimir Putin got himself so involved in Ukrainian affairs two years ago, but it seems that his involvement has caused public support for NATO membership in Ukraine to skyrocket. Whether NATO will be interested in Ukraine is another matter, particularly given that NATO’s strongest member is looking to strengthen its ties with Moscow. The alliance doesn’t want to invite confrontation with Russia, and admitting Ukraine, especially while the Donbas conflict is still raging and Crimea’s status is still an open question, would definitely invite such a confrontation.
Turkish military aircraft reportedly made 138 violations of Greek airspace today, probably over a Greek court’s decision last week to block the extradition of eight Turkish soldiers suspected of involvement in July’s attempted coup. Ankara is also unhappy over Greek plans to develop a number of small islands in the eastern Aegean.
The next full-on summit on Cypriot reunification will take place sometime in early March, and in the meantime Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders plan to meet weekly to try to further their dialogue. The main issue at the March conference will be security, which is the biggest sticking point in the talks–specifically, Greece and Greek Cypriots are unwilling to accept a continued Turkish military presence on the island after reunification, but Turkish Cypriots are insisting upon it.
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