It finally looks like a major principlist candidate might challenge Hassan Rouhahi in May’s presidential election. Ebrahim Raisi was appointed last year to run Astan Quds Razavi, the charitable foundation that manages the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad, and that makes him one of the most important religious figures in Iran. Only 56 (that’s practically 26 in the context of hardline Iranian political figures), he’s been mentioned as a possible successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Supreme Leader, but suddenly there’s some momentum behind him as a presidential candidate. Raisi says he’ll only run if he’s the consensus choice among Iranian conservatives, which is a tall order but, for someone of his stature, isn’t out of the question. Raisi isn’t Qasem Soleimani, but he would be a difficult challenge for Rouhani.
Iranian and Turkish diplomats are continuing to trade barbs over Syria and regional policy. Meanwhile, Khamenei is throwing red meat at Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu by encouraging another Intifada in occupied Palestine. I have no doubt he’s doing it to provoke exactly the reaction that Trump and Netanyahu will give him.
Iraqi forces are staging for their big push to capture Mosul airport and the nearby Ghazlani military base. Yesterday they captured the village of Albu Saif, which sits on a hilltop overlooking the airport, and that’s become their staging area. Iraqi commanders don’t seem to be expecting much ISIS resistance at the airport–because it’s not near any civilian areas, coalition and Iraqi air forces have been striking it at will, so the thinking is they will have worn its defenses down. Once the airport is in Iraqi hands the next step will be to repair it as quickly as possible so that it can be used to provide close air support for the rest of the operation.
Joel Wing has been tracking the Iraqi government’s statements about the west Mosul phase pretty regularly at Musings on Iraq. During the lull after east Mosul was fully liberated, Iraqi commanders and politicians have been telling anybody who would listen that ISIS was spent, broken, that it wouldn’t be able to put up a serious fight in west Mosul. Now that the west Mosul operation has started, of course, the tune is changing.
Reuters reported today that the CIA suspended its program to supply, pay, and arm rebels in northwestern Syria last month, when they began fighting among themselves. Apparently the risk that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham might seize American weaponry in battle was deemed too great to allow the program to continue, though the Agency didn’t seem to worry too much about the risk that rebels would simply, you know, give those weapons to JFS back when everybody was playing for the same team.
The UN expects this week’s peace talks in Geneva to focus on a “political transition process” rather than on “political transition.” These are completely different topics because the UN desperately needs them to be. Apparently the addition of the word “process” is supposed to make it seem less like the UN is trying to usher Bashar al-Assad out of power and more like everybody in Geneva will all be just neutrally shooting the shit about civics, or something.
The Syrian Democratic Forces reportedly made a major incursion into Deir Ezzor province today, driving ISIS out of a dozen villages there. I wouldn’t expect the SDF to move to relieve besieged Deir Ezzor itself–their focus is still on encircling Raqqa. Speaking of the SDF, or more specifically its Kurdish YPG component, the saga of Roy Gutman’s investigation into the YPG continues at The Nation. Today they published a criticism of his reporting from human rights activist Meredith Tax, along with Gutman’s response. Tax’s critique isn’t especially strong, but Gutman’s work still suffers from its sourcing, which for many of its more provocative claims is largely the Syrian government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, both of which have major axes to grind with the YPG.
If we can go by statements made by Turkish officials, over 550,000 new refugees have crossed into Turkey in just the past five months. That’s a staggering figure that may be costing the Turkish government more than half a billion dollars each month. Which is all to say that you can kind of see why they invaded northern Syria a few months back.
The predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has applied to the European Court of Human Rights to hear a case regarding the arrest of its leaders by Turkish authorities in November. Chief among HDP’s arguments is that the ongoing imprisonment of its leaders constitutes an effort by the Turkish government to suppress opposition to April’s referendum on changing the Turkish constitution to increase President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s powers. And, indeed, HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş isn’t going to be given a court hearing until almost two weeks after the referendum, even though he will have been in custody for five months by that point.
Jordanian King Abdullah and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi met in Cairo today and, afterward, issued a joint statement reaffirming their support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine issue. Or, in other words, they announced that they’re not swapping land with anybody, thank you very much.
Speaking of Syrian refugees, Jordan is dealing with the challenge of accounting for hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have left destitution in refugee camps along the Syrian border and are now living in Jordan undocumented. They’re understandably reluctant to come forward because they’ll likely be deported back into Syria. The Jordanian government could solve much of this problem by allowing refugees to work legally in the vicinity of the camps, but so far it’s been unwilling to take that step.
The Egyptian government is reaching out to Hamas, offering to relax restrictions on trade and movement across the border between Egypt and Gaza in return for Hamas’s help dealing with militants in Sinai. Sisi’s government has been mostly hostile toward Hamas since it came to power, since Hamas, as a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, was very friendly with the Morsi government that Sisi overthrew. While Gazans could certainly use the boost in food and supplies coming over a less restrictive Egyptian border, I want to note Sisi’s impeccable logic here. In order to try to tamp down a Sinai insurgency that was massively exacerbated by Sisi’s decision to overthrow and then brutally suppress Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, an insurgency that could probably still be weakened if he were to stop suppressing Egypt’s MB, Sisi is now making concessions to Gaza’s Muslim Brotherhood branch.
President Ilham Aliyev appointed a new vice president today, and after what must have been a grueling search process his pick was…his wife, Mehriban! Congratulations? She’s now in line to succeed Ilham if for some reason he ever
is defeated in a free and fair election decides to step down. Now I know what you’re thinking–you’re worried that people might have a problem with a president making his wife his vice-president, but don’t worry! Aliyev preemptively arrested just about anybody who might have had a problem with this appointment! Whew, I was worried there for a second!
At least six people were killed today in a suicide bombing targeting a court building in the northern district of Charsadda. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar claimed responsibility.
Reuters is reporting that the Myanmar government is investigating the suspicious deaths of two Rohingya while in police custody in October. That may not seem like that big a deal, but it’s the first evidence that Naypyidaw is prepared to maybe, possibly, acknowledge any misconduct by its security forces with respect to the Rohingya.
From the “This Is Exactly What We Need Right Now” file, Saudi King Salman (or, well, somebody in the Saudi palace) is planning a visit to Indonesia for the king and his 1500 person entourage in March. This will be the first time a Saudi ruler has visited Indonesia in almost 50 years. Jakarta is hoping the visit will herald the onset of billions of dollars in Saudi investment. The arrival of the Wahhabi king and his massive Wahhabi retinue will come just a month before the runoff in the Jakarta governor’s race, in which the Muslim candidate is now feverishly trying to deny that he’s been pandering to Islamists in an effort to knock off the Christian incumbent. I’m sure that won’t prove to be a volatile combo.
South China Sea
China is predictably having a bit of a tantrum over the presence of the USS Carl Vinson carrier group in the South China Sea. The rhetoric coming from Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as well as the fact that this patrol comes a scant month into Donald Trump’s presidency, and of course the fact that Steve Bannon thinks we ought to go to war with China, suggests that this administration is going to be more…let’s say proactive, about asserting navigation rights in the SCS than the Obama administration was. And on that subject, Pentagon officials are telling Reuters that they believe China has started putting surface-to-air missile batteries on the disputed Spratly Islands.
The investigation into the murder of Kim Jong-nam continues to escalate. Now Malaysian authorities say they’ve identified two new suspects in the case–and one of them works at the North Korean embassy. Yikes.
The UN says that the 2015 conviction of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi on war crimes charges was illegitimate and wants him handed over to the International Criminal Court. Gaddafi, who was sentenced to death by firing squad in that trial, is being held in the western Libyan city of Zintan, outside the control of either of the two factions vying for control of the country, so he’s presumably not going anywhere anytime soon.
A curfew has been put into effect in the southern part of Kaduna state, in the center of the country, after a new round of ethnic violence killed 14 people on Monday.
The government and teachers unions reached a deal to end a strike that led to protests in which five people were killed yesterday, but unfortunately two more people were killed today after the deal was announced.
President Salva Kiir has promised that aid organizations trying to reach people stricken by famine in South Sudan will have “unimpeded access.” We’ll see.
A wave of anti-immigrant violence targeting Nigerians has hit Pretoria in recent days, after similar violence struck a suburb of Johannesburg a few weeks ago. This has prompted the Nigerian government to appeal to South Africa and the African Union to take measures to protect its nationals living in South Africa.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said today that Turkey must reserve the right to intervene to defend Turkish Cypriots, which, of course, is the kind of thing that makes reunification less likely.
The secretary general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Lamberto Zannier, says the Ukraine ceasefire “doesn’t look too good.” It doesn’t seem like there’s been much new fighting over the last day or so, but progress on moving heavy weapons off the front lines has been slow or non-existent, which suggests the ceasefire isn’t going to stick. Kiev is calling for new sanctions to punish Moscow for its decision to begin honoring unofficial travel documents issued by the separatist “governments” in the Donbas. Meanwhile, pro-Russia Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Artemenko, the one with the shady possibly connections to Donald Trump, is apparently headed to the US to push his peace deal, the one Russia has already called “absurd” and that the Ukrainian government doesn’t even seem willing to acknowledge.
Maybe Donald Trump’s bizarre pronouncements are better understood as prophecy than as news:
Just two days after President Trump provoked widespread consternation by seeming to imply, incorrectly, that immigrants had perpetrated a recent spate of violence in Sweden, riots broke out in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood in the northern suburbs of the country’s capital, Stockholm.
The neighborhood, Rinkeby, was the scene of riots in 2010 and 2013, too. And in most ways, what happened Monday night was reminiscent of those earlier bouts of anger. Swedish police apparently made an arrest on drug charges at about 8 p.m. near the Rinkeby station. For reasons not yet disclosed by the police, word of the arrest prompted youths to gather.
Over four hours, the crowd burned about half a dozen cars, vandalized several shopfronts and threw rocks at police. Police spokesman Lars Bystrom confirmed to Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter newspaper that an officer fired shots at a rioter but missed. A photographer for the newspaper was attacked and beaten by more than a dozen men and his camera was stolen.
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