Conflict update: February 27 2017

FOREVER WAR

President Trump would like to increase the Pentagon’s budget by $54 billion next year, an amount that, if you’re keeping score at home, is all by itself equal to roughly 4/5 of Russia’s entire military budget. This would boost America’s capacity to shovel huge piles of money at defense contractors fight MOAR WARS, and pay for it by cutting pretty much everything else, including the stuff we do to try to avoid fighting wars.

EARTH

The Great Barrier Reef is still dying, so consider this your semi-regular reminder that none of the rest of this will matter if we don’t figure out a way to stop rendering our planet uninhabitable.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces secured the western end of the southernmost bridge connecting the two halves of the city across the Tigris River on Monday. They’re now pushing into the heart of ISIS-controlled western Mosul, where they’re increasingly running into challenges related to the estimated 750,000 civilians still there. Thousands of civilians have tried to leave the city amid the fighting, but at this point they’re an impediment for the Iraqi military whether they stay or go. Securing the bridge will, once it’s been repaired, in theory allow the Iraqis to resupply their front line forces more directly via eastern Mosul.

There continues to be mostly confusion surrounding the eventual fate of Tal Afar. Pronouncements coming out of the Popular Mobilization Units suggest that the PMU are preparing to take the city, but the Ninewah provincial government says that Iraqi regulars will be the ones to handle that phase of the operation. Baghdad originally floated the idea that the PMU would take Tal Afar but backed down when that plan raised Turkish ire. At this point it seems clear that Baghdad would prefer to have its professional military liberate Tal Afar, but it can’t spare any manpower from Mosul to do the job. The PMU are sitting out in the western desert surrounding Tal Afar and could probably liberate the city, but Turkey would undoubtedly respond negatively to that scenario (and, to be fair, there are concerns over how the PMU will treat Sunni Turkmen in Tal Afar who may have collaborated with ISIS back in 2014).

SYRIA

A US drone strike in northwestern Syria on Sunday apparently killed Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, global al-Qaeda’s second in-command behind leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Deaths like this are always hard to verify, but Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, al-Qaeda’s double super-secret affiliate in Syria, has acknowledged his death, and that’s usually a sign that the figure in question is actually dead. Insert your “al-Qaeda #2” jokes here, obviously, but Masri was a pretty important guy in the organization, had been there from its very beginnings in Afghanistan, and his death probably further isolates the already pretty isolated Zawahiri. One might wonder why Masri was in Syria, and why Jabhat Fatah al-Sham was in a position to confirm his death, when JFS ISN’T WITH AL-QAEDA ANYMORE DON’T YOU REMEMBER THE BIG ANNOUNCEMENT JESUS DO WE HAVE TO PUT IT ON A BILLBOARD FOR YOU PEOPLE? But I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation.

The Syrian army continued to capture territory south of al-Bab, which now threatens to put Turkey in a clever and probably quite intentional bind. Their capture of the village of Fikha al-Sagira has opened a corridor between government-held territory in the north and central part of the Syria and Kurdish-held territory in the northeast. Not only does this open the possibility for trade and other exchanges between the Assad government and its sometime-allies in the YPG, but it may mean that if Turkey and its Free Syrian Army proxies want to march toward Raqqa, they’ll have to cross territory controlled either by the YPG or Damascus to get there. Ankara would like to avoid a fight with the Syrian army because of Russia (though it’s already come close to having one anyway), and while it would eventually welcome a fight with the YPG it would prefer not to have it in a way that really screws up Washington’s plans for Raqqa.

In Geneva, meanwhile, peace talks are going so well that UN envoy Steffan de Mistura is now treating the parties like children:

Like a headmaster addressing rowdy pupils, the United Nations envoy for Syria began peace talks in Geneva last week by telling the warring parties to behave and show respect.

But five days into the latest attempt to end the Syrian conflict, there are scant signs that Staffan de Mistura’s strictures are making much difference.

“Respect my directions regarding the confidentiality of meetings, documentations, conversations and communications,” says the first point of a working paper handed out by the 70-year-old diplomat, designed to keep things civilized and secret.

Point two declares: “Respect the others who are present in these proceedings. No one has the right to question the legitimacy of others.”

We’re at the point now where if everybody makes it through the latest round of talks without anybody deliberately spitting on anybody else, the UN should declare victory and move on. Rebel negotiators are trying to appeal to Moscow’s desire to be a Great Power to get Russia to approach the conflict more neutrally, but meanwhile the UN Security Council is planning a vote to slap sanctions on Bashar al-Assad’s government over its alleged use of chemical weapons, and that will probably be vetoed by the Russians.

TURKEY

Iraqi Kurdistan leader Massoud Barzani has reportedly been leaning on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to release the dozens of Kurdish politicians his government has detained on the charge of Being Elected While Kurdish over the past several months. Barzani is obviously no friend of the PKK and its allied political party, the HDP, and his good relations with Ankara have paid dividends for the KRG in recent years. But Barzani also governs a lot of people who don’t appreciate seeing other Kurds being repressed by the Turkish government, so he at least has to be seen trying to get Erdoğan to ease off. Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s relationship with Barzani allows him to appeal to conservative Kurds within Turkey who might otherwise recoil from him over his treatment of the left-wing HDP leadership. Turkey’s Kurdish voters are not a monolith, but Erdoğan has sometimes paid an electoral price for pushing things too far with the PKK and causing right-leaning Kurds to vote for the HDP, even though ideologically they are more a fit for Erdoğan’s AKP. Needing every possible vote he can get in Turkey’s upcoming constitutional referendum, Erdoğan has to try to court those conservative Kurds.

Meanwhile, on Monday Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Numan Kurtulmuş, told reporters that Ankara has intelligence to the effect that Fethullah Gülen, the preacher/charter school operator whom Ankara wants extradited in relation to last summer’s attempted coup, is preparing to flee the US for Canada. And, you know, can you blame him? Have you seen the guy we just elected president?

Kurtulmuş also had some harsh words for the government of Austria, whose foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, who told an Austrian newspaper that Erdoğan would not be welcome in Austria to campaign for his referendum among Austria’s sizable Turkish expat population. It’s just nice to see everybody getting along like this.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A rocket fired from Gaza landed in an unpopulated part of Israel on Monday, so the IDF responded with airstrikes on the city that wounded at least four people.

SAUDI ARABIA

King Salman is heading to Indonesia, where the real conflict is finding somebody to carry your luggage, am I right folks?

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul Aziz is heading to Indonesia this week for a nine-day visit. It will be the first time in 46 years that a Saudi king has visited the world’s largest Muslim nation, and it comes at a time of heightened attention on the economic links between the two nations.

But Salman has come prepared. According to reports in the Indonesian press, the Saudi royal is expected to bring 459 metric tons (506 U.S. tons) of cargo with him on his trip — including two Mercedes-Benz S600 limousines and two electric elevators.

Adji Gunawan of the airfreight company PT Jasa Angkasa Semesta (JAS) told the Antara news agency that his company was appointed to handle the cargo, which has already arrived in the country. Adji said his company was employing a total of 572 workers to deal with the Saudi king’s luggage.

I remember the last time I traveled overseas, many years ago. It was to Spain, and I’m afraid it wasn’t anything quite so dramatic as this. I could only afford to bring a scant 124 metric tons of shit with me on that trip, and frankly the disillusionment over that trip–and not, as my trolls and haters are fond of saying, because I’m “dead-ass broke”–is why I haven’t traveled overseas since.

Brookings’ Bruce Reidel looks at the rationale behind Salman’s Asian Tour:

An unspoken goal of such a lengthy trip is to demonstrate the king’s vitality and resilience. Salman turned 81 on December 31. Rumors about his health are endemic, especially about his mental acuity.  A vigorous agenda will test him, so the court has included lengthy stops along the trip to provide plenty of time for rest. The Indonesian leg is 12 days, for example, and includes a stop in Bali.

Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei are important Muslim countries. All are potential allies in Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with its arch nemesis Iran. The Saudis have courted them to join its Islamic military alliance, which is directed against, Tehran although its official purpose is to fight terrorism.

China and Japan are crucial markets for Saudi oil. Again, Iran is a competitor for market share now that sanctions are gone. We can expect a host of new agreements will be announced at each stop in the month.

Riyadh is also reaching out to Baghdad, with Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir having visited a couple of days ago. It appears that instead of clicking their heels together and chanting “THERE’S NO ONE LIKE SADDAM” over and over again in the hope that he’d come back from the dead and take over Iraq again, the Saudis have finally decided to try engaging with the Abadi government in the hopes of lessening its dependence on Tehran.

YEMEN

Joost Hiltermann and April Longley Alley from the International Crisis Group have written an important piece for Foreign Policy on how badly the Saudis have screwed themselves in Yemen, framed as a warning to the Trump administration not to follow Riyadh down the rabbit hole. Amid the war crimes and rampant humanitarian catastrophes of this war, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Riyadh has actually made the Houthi movement more militant and given it a stronger base within Yemen–instead of representing the country’s Zaydi community, now the Houthis, like Hezbollah in Lebanon with respect to Israel, can say they’re defending the whole country against foreign (Saudi) aggression. They’ve done this because they convinced themselves that the Houthis were a close Iranian proxy, when the truth is that the Iranians haven’t ever seen the Houthis as much more than a stick they can use to poke Riyadh in the face every once in a while. The Trump administration seems to have settled on Yemen as the place to Show Iran We Mean Business, which is both stupid, in that Iran doesn’t really care that much about Yemen, and self-defeating, in that the continuation of the Yemeni Civil War is actually bad for American national interests.

Also, this is good to hear:

EGYPT

Here’s a pretty solid rundown from the AP of all the recent activity of ISIS’s Sinai branch, which seems to actually be gaining ground and in some areas is effectively acting as the government–and a particularly shitty government at that.

AZERBAIJAN

Fighting over the weekend between the Azerbaijani military and Armenian separatists in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave killed five Azerbaijani soldiers, whose remains weren’t recovered until today. Each side accused the other of starting the fighting, and, well, this doesn’t exactly make me rethink this post.

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban said today that a US drone strike in Kunduz on Sunday killed one of their senior leaders in northern Afghanistan, Mullah Abdul Salam.

KYRGYZSTAN

Just a day before Vladimir Putin is supposed to stop by, a Kyrgyz court tossed opposition leader Omurbek Tekebayev in jail for two months, pending his trial on corruption charges. Tekebayev is accused of taking a bribe from a Russian businessman in 2010, a charge he denies and that may be related to his plans to stand for president in November. Current President Almazbek Atambayev is constitutionally prohibited from seeking another term, but odds are he’s planning to make what’s known as the “Full Putin,” by shifting authority to the office of Prime Minister and then hopping over to that office when his presidential term ends.

The thing about the Full Putin, though, is you need a reliable toady (technically known as a “Medvedev”) to become your puppet president or else you wind up with a big fat civic crisis on your hands. Tekebayev would likely not be Atambayev’s Medvedev, so he has to be taken out of the picture. Which is not to say that he didn’t also take that bribe.

CHINA

Xinjiang’s provincial government staged yet another massive police demonstration on Monday, with 10,000 security officers taking to the streets of the provincial capital Urumqi in a show of force meant for Uyghur separatists in the province. This is the fourth one of these this year. The government also unveiled a “rapid response” force that can be quickly airlifted anywhere to deal with outbreaks of violence, and dispatched 1500 more police officers to the province’s main trouble spots.

LIBYA

Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of Libya’s Government of National Accord, is reportedly heading to Moscow in the next few days to try to appeal to the Russians to help mediate between his government and eastern Libyan warlord/Russian client Khalifa Haftar.

ALGERIA

ISIS has claimed responsibility for yesterday’s mostly thwarted attempt to bomb a police station in the eastern Algerian city of Constantine.

SOUTH SUDAN/SUDAN

The heady mix of famine and civil war in South Sudan is so untenable that the UN says over 30,000 people have fled into Sudan in just the first two months of the year. UN officials had expected maybe 60,000 South Sudanese refugees to cross the border into Sudan in all of 2017, so clearly that figure is going to be far too optimistic. To put this into some perspective, it’s almost certain that, of those 30,000, any who were of voting age in 2011 voted to get the hell out of Sudan. Now they’re forced to actively flee back in.

SOMALIA

A car bomb struck an army checkpoint outside Mogadishu on Monday, at last count wounding four soldiers. Al-Shabab, which has threatened to step up its attacks in honor of Somalia’s new president, is the likely culprit though as yet they haven’t claimed responsibility.

UKRAINE

Ukrainian rebels say they’re going to start seizing Ukrainian-owned companies on rebel-held territory beginning midnight Wednesday, unless Kiev takes action to lift an ad-hoc rail blockade on coal shipments out of eastern Ukraine. This is kind of a strange case because even the Ukrainian government doesn’t want to block those coal shipments, which are vital to heavy industry in the rest of the country. But a paramilitary collection of veterans and assorted politicians has been blocking rail traffic for the past month, cutting one of the only remaining sources of income for people in eastern Ukraine.

FRANCE

Centrist/neo-liberal presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, whose most redeeming quality is that he may be the only person who can keep Marine Le Pen from becoming the next President of France, is actually gaining on Le Pen in polls of the first round of voting scheduled for April 23. Polls have consistently shown Le Pen “winning” the first round and then getting creamed in the runoff. If Macron can somehow catch her then the real thing to watch is whether another candidate can slip past Le Pen and knock her out of the runoff altogether.

AUSTRIA

When he wasn’t telling Recep Tayyip Erdoğan not to come around looking to do any campaigning over the next couple of months, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz spent the day arguing that the EU should set up refugee camps in Libya and/or Tunisia to keep asylum seekers from getting their refugee cooties all over pristine Austrian soil. Look, I know what you’re going to say, this guy wants to force migrants to stay in a fucking war zone or potentially destabilize Tunisia because comparatively phenomenally wealthy Europe doesn’t want to be bothered with them, but I can assure you that this is the face of a man who cares deeply about African refugees:

sebastian_kurz_3442

Well, maybe not (Wikimedia | Harald Bischoff)

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