This is likely the last one of these for at least a couple of days, for a couple of different reasons that I’ll explain in a post tomorrow.
I feel like the frenzy of alternately draconian and idiotic foreign policymaking that has marked the first three (almost) weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency is overwhelming. So far he’s sacrificed refugee rights and freedom of movement to satiate his terrified, xenophobic base, he’s overseen a botched raid in Yemen that killed several civilians including at least one American child, he’s delivered at least two and possibly three contradictory messages on Israeli settlements, he’s undone whatever progress had been made in US-Iranian relations since the nuclear deal was reached, he’s set US-Chinese relations back, he’s vaguely threatened to invade Mexico, he’s hung up on the prime minister of Australia, he’s insulted the EU, and all to what end? Here, let me turn this over to Stephen Walt:
Meanwhile, what has been the impact of these brilliant strategic moves? For starters, foreign leaders who like the United States are learning that being nice to Trump can hurt them at home (and earns them no favors in Washington anyway). Our adversaries — from the Islamic State to Beijing to Iran — have been handed powerful new arguments with which to embarrass, delegitimize, and undermine America’s image and reputation. And perhaps most remarkable of all, a president elected by the smallest percentage of the popular vote in history has seen his approval ratings continue to fall, even as an unlikely opposing coalition of opponents begins to form against him. If you’re still among his supporters, this cannot be an encouraging sign.
A French soldier today shot and seriously wounded a man who tried to carry out some kind of knife attack at the Louvre. The attacker, an Egyptian national, apparently charged at a group of soldiers, while carrying two machetes and shouting “God is Great,” and took one of the soldiers to the ground before that soldier shot him. France remains under a state of emergency that has active duty soldiers helping to patrol major cities, and it’s clear that the outcome in this case could have been significantly worse had the attacker not encountered them first.
Iraqi forces have been dropping leaflets over western Mosul advising civilians what to do with the Iraqi attack on that side of the city begins and how to best protect themselves from the fighting. Aside from being a sign that the operation is preparing to move forward, the leaflets are also a reminder that the humanitarian dangers are only going to go up in the western half of the city. The UN is suggesting that as many as 250,000 people could be displaced in the upcoming fight.
In eastern Mosul, residents are already frustrated at the lack of government assistance to repair basic infrastructure and make the city at least livable. You could argue that they’re being unreasonable, but the fact is that people who have survived ISIS’s occupation of the city–by which I mean residents who didn’t welcome ISIS in, because there were some who did–are justifiably still angry that the Iraqi army dropped its gear and got the hell out of town back in 2014, completely routing in the face of about 800 ISIS fighters while barely even firing a shot. In their view, and I have to say it’s hard to argue with this, they wouldn’t be in this situation today, trying to survive in the bombed-out husk of their hometown, if Baghdad and its army hadn’t abandoned them in the first place.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has so far successfully managed to hold off calls from many Iraqi legislators to retaliate for Donald Trump’s ban on Iraqi travel to the US by imposing a similar ban on US travelers to Iraq. Now, realistically Abadi can’t afford to impose that kind of ban in the middle of the Mosul operation–he knows that and Trump’s foreign policy people undoubtedly know it too. But this is an example of how imposing that travel ban, the upside of which is virtually nonexistent, has thrown a reliable American ally (he’s been far less an Iranian proxy than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki) into political turmoil.
Two more voices weighed in on Donald Trump’s seat-of-his-pants proposal to implement safe zones in Syria for displaced persons. Lebanese President Michel Aoun is in favor, and you can certainly understand why–Lebanon is sheltering over a million Syrian refugees right now, in a country whose population is something a little bit north of six million. They can’t possibly manage that many refugees indefinitely, so any plan that offers the possibility of repatriating them is going to garner Beirut’s interest. Other people see things a bit differently:
“Let’s not waste time planning safe zones that will not be set up because they will not be safe for people to go back,” said Filippo Grandi, the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees.
“Let us concentrate on making peace so that everywhere becomes safe. That should be the investment,” he said.
I think you could theoretically set up safe zones and pursue a comprehensive peace, but Grandi is probably right that any zones created in Syria will never truly be “safe” until the war is over.
In Raqqa, the US anti-ISIS coalition carried out a number of airstrikes today that reportedly destroyed a significant chunk of ISIS’s oil infrastructure…and also cut the city’s main water supply, which ISIS has apparently since repaired. It’s not clear whether the strike on the water pipeline was accidental or deliberate–if deliberate, we’re into war crimes territory–but strategically this is a pretty big blunder, insofar as it put ISIS in the position of saving the city’s water supply. You’d like the residents of Raqqa to be ready to turn on the oppressive, occupying ISIS fighters once coalition forces finally attack the city, but this incident certainly complicates that narrative. Elsewhere, unclaimed airstrikes in Idlib reportedly killed 12 rebels affiliated with the extremist militia Jund al-Aqsa, and Turkish strikes against ISIS in al-Bab over the past 24 hours or so have reportedly killed 47 militants.
The AP’s Phil Issa has been able to do some reporting from long-besieged areas of the country, like Deir Ezzor, Madaya, Fuʿa, and Kefraya, where people are cutting apart their own homes for wood to burn and are dying of malnutrition and treatable diseases. It got somewhat lost amid the climax to the Aleppo battle and recent Russia-led diplomatic efforts, but the humanitarian situation in these places is critical even within the generally critical Syrian context, and could be easily addressed if any of the parties involved in this war evinced the slightest concern for civilian lives. I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t call your attention to this report from Syrian journalist Feras Karam, via MEMRI, suggesting that Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher, may have made a coup attempt against his brother a few days ago that was thwarted by Russia. Underlying this move, he claims, is tension between Russia and Iran, with the Iranians backing Maher because they feel Russia and Bashar are freezing them out. Karam is affiliated with the Syrian opposition, and–more importantly–he’s the only person reporting this as far as I am aware. Additionally, MEMRI is a very dubious source that has often been accused of selective coverage meant to push an agenda. So I think you can safely discount this story absent additional reporting. But if you recall, a couple of days ago I mentioned that there’s been some speculation about Bashar’s health (MEMRI also has more on that here if you’re so inclined), that he may have recently suffered a stroke or could even have a brain tumor. Those reports should also be taken with a huge grain of salt–however, there’s a bit of a “where there’s smoke” situation beginning to develop around the Assads.
My LobeLog piece about today’s sanctions announcement is here, and I get into what I suspect the administration’s real Iran strategy is:
Flynn’s press conference touched off a back-and-forth between Tehran and Washington, with a close advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dismissing Trump as “an inexperienced person” and Trump tweeting “Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile. Should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them!” The reports of new sanctions are but the latest escalation. Despite administration assurances to the contrary, they are undoubtedly meant to put Iran in a position where it can either adhere to the JCPOA’s restrictions on its nuclear program—in return for very little of the sanctions relief promised by the agreement—or take its own steps to begin unwinding the deal.
I wrote the piece last night, before the actual sanctions were made public, and I will admit that what they announced this morning was milder than I expected. Nonetheless, you’d have to be deaf and blind to miss the very clear signals from the Trump administration that it intends to be as confrontational toward Iran as possible and to escalate things right to the breaking point. They won’t go past that, because they need Iran to be the party that finally breaks the deal (should it come to that), but they are unquestionably committed to tearing down what the Obama and Rouhani governments have been trying to build up since 2013.
The new sanctions were primarily levied in response to Iran’s ballistic missile test last weekend. And while I’m not going to argue in favor of Iran’s ballistic missile program or try to argue that it isn’t provocative (sometimes intentionally so), I think what Mohammad Javad Zarif says here can’t be easily dismissed:
The eight years of war to which he refers is, of course, the Iran-Iraq War, during which the United States gave material support to Saddam Hussein’s government as it repeatedly gassed Iranian cities. So it does take some balls for any US administration to criticize Iran for developing its military capabilities.
After spending part of the day trying to parse the Trump administration’s latest statement on the settlement issue, the Israeli government seems to have decided–and, hell, they’re probably right–that when Washington said yesterday that “expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders” might be detrimental to the peace process, what it meant was “as long as you don’t take additional land, feel free to build as much as you want.” In one sense this is a restriction on Israeli settlement construction, and could complicate efforts to ethnically cleanse the rest of the West Bank, but in another sense it is a ringing endorsement of existing settlement blocs, which already take up enough land to make any Palestinian state in the West Bank untenable.
The Pentagon has deployed the USS Cole–yes, that USS Cole–to the Gulf of Aden in response to that Houthi attack on a Saudi frigate earlier this week. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is predictably using Sunday’s botched, civilian-killing US commando raid in Bayda to maximum PR effect:
President Trump is “foolish” and has ignited the “flame of jihad” with a raid in Yemen in which civilians were killed, al-Qaeda said Friday in its first official comments on the new U.S. administration.
That the raid came only days after Trump’s vow to eradicate Islamist terrorism in his inauguration speech makes it “clear for us that the threat was not directed to the Islamic militants only, but to all the Muslims, men, women and even children,” al-Qaeda’s al-Nafeer bulletin said, accusing the Trump administration of intentionally killing women and children.
Two separate attacks last night killed at least ten people. In Faryab province, a police officer–or somebody in a police uniform, anyway–shot and killed eight other police officers, then took their weapons and fled the scene. In Paktika province, another gunman killed a married couple.
There’s something very curious happening in Astana, and it doesn’t have to do with the Syrian peace talks. Some time back I mentioned that President Nursultan Nazarbayev had formed a “working group” to advise him on ways to devolve some part of his near-absolute power to other parts of the government (the judiciary, the legislature, and the executive bureaucracy), presumably upon his death (Nazarbayev is 76). Today it was reported that Nazarbayev reassigned Deputy Prime Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov as his new ambassador to Russia, a move that can’t be seen as anything other than a major demotion. Tasmagambetov has been talked about as a potential successor to Nazarbayev, but the most obvious interpretation of his reassignment is that he’s no longer in the succession picture.
Nazarbayev may be trying to engineer the succession of a relative (his daughter Dariga, for example), but if you take this move in conjunction with the steps he’s taken toward devolving power, then…well, I’m still not sure what to make of it. It’s possible that Nazarbayev believes that his chosen successor, whether it’s a relative or not, will have a smoother succession if the office of president isn’t quite so all powerful, or that he believes no one person could possibly replace him (that actually seems plausible).
A new UN report released today finds that Myanmar security forces have “very likely” committed crimes against humanity with respect to the Rohingya, including “gang rape and brutal killings of children as young as 8 months old, at times before the eyes of their own mothers”:
The report, which will raise pressure on the governing party of Nobel Peace Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi, is based on harrowing accounts from over 200 people among an estimated 66,000 Rohingya who have fled to neighboring Bangladesh since October, when Myanmar’s military began a crackdown following attacks on border posts.
The report said the violence against the Rohingya has been widespread and seemingly systematic, involving killings, enforced disappearances, torture, rape and other sexual violence, arbitrary detention, and deportation, “indicating the very likely commission of crimes against humanity.”
“Things like this have been happening throughout,” Ilona Alexander, a member of the U.N. investigating mission, said at a news conference. “But from what we have gathered, the (recent) level is unprecedented.”
The Malaysian government said today that it has dispatched a ship carrying humanitarian aid for the Rohingya, which will unload 500 tons of aid at Yangon before continuing on to Teknaf, Bangladesh, to deliver aid to Rohingya refugees in that country. It is very much an open question as to whether the Myanmar government will allow the vessel to dock at Yangon–it has already refused permission for it to dock at Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state where the Rohingya live–and then whether it will allow the supplies to be transported overland to the Rohingya. It has argued that any aid should be evenly split between Rakhine’s Rohingya and Buddhist communities, only one of which is currently being wiped out by its own government.
Hannibal Lecter Rodrigo Duterte announced today that his government was resuming its nearly 50 year war with the Communist Party of the Philippines. The conflict had been in a state of ceasefire since last August, but a few days ago the CPP announced that it would allow its end of the ceasefire to lapse because it claimed that the government hadn’t been keeping promises with respect to things like prisoner releases. Duterte countered that the CPP has been making ever more unreasonable demands on Manila.
Superintendent of his office building Mayor of Tripoli Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj is planning a trip to Moscow sometime this month, undoubtedly to try to slow down the geopolitical romance currently developing between the Russian government and Khalifa Haftar.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Yesterday I noted that the death of Congolese opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi could drastically weaken the opposition at a time when it needs to be holding President Joseph Kabila to his promise to leave office after this year. Today, in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, scholars go into more detail about who Tshisekedi was and why his death is so untimely for the DRC.
Earlier today, DRC police killed eight members of the religious/cultural group Bundu dia Kongo in the southwestern town of Kimpese. BDK, a separatist-ish group that wants to revive the historical Kongo kingdom (see above) and restore the region’s traditional culture and religion, has had run-ins with DRC authorities before, but the recent uptick in their activity is undoubtedly part of the overall rise in unrest in the DRC because of the political crisis surrounding Kabila.
At least nine more people, four of them civilians, were reportedly killed in fighting around Avdiivka today, putting the death toll since Sunday at a minimum of 34. Russia and Ukraine continued to trade blame for the latest fighting, but in a positive sign, Kiev and the separatists appear to have agreed to withdraw heavy weaponry from the front lines by Sunday.
Look, I don’t want to crush the guy’s dreams, but François Fillon, buddy, if you’re reading this, it’s time to drop out of the French presidential race. This is getting ridiculous now. Even if you are being targeted by your enemies, your public image may be unsalvageable. Take one for the team–Team Humanity, in this case–and clear a path for a new candidate who can hopefully keep Marine Le Pen out of the runoff.
Let me close tonight with a message from the heart.
Friends, I know that you, like me, were deeply troubled by the terrible massacre that occurred in Bowling Green, Kentucky in…oh, let’s say 2011 (?), and that has had such a…let’s go with profound impact on the community, on the survivors, and on the families of the victims. So many victims. The bad Iraqi hombres who carried out this horrific attack may never be captured–but not because they don’t exist, because they definitely do exist and this is definitely a real thing that really happened–and the pain unfortunately endures. If you can, I urge you to consider making a one-time or sustained monthly donation to help rebuild the community and the lives shattered by the events of…that day, in 2011 (?). Don’t worry about the URLs there, it’s a technical thing and I can assure you that your money will definitely get to the right place. Thank you for your generosity, and God bless.
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