Conflict update: March 25-26 2017

THIS CAN’T BE REAL, CAN IT

My capacity to believe that the current President of the United States will do insanely offensive, ridiculous shit is pretty vast, but I have to say I’m having a hard time believing this actually happened:

Angela Merkel will reportedly ignore Donald Trump’s attempts to extricate £300bn from Germany for what he deems to be owed contributions to Nato.

The US President is said to have had an “invoice” printed out outlining the sum estimated by his aides as covering Germany’s unpaid contributions for defence. 

Said to be presented during private talks in Washington, the move has been met with criticism from German and Nato officials.

The Sunday Times, which is paywalled, apparently broke this story, and they’re a Murdoch-owned paper, but I honestly can’t speak to their reliability apart from that. If it was literally anybody other than Donald Trump I’d say there’s absolutely no way it could be true, but it is Trump and so while I doubt it, I can’t really be that confident about my doubts.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces officially say they’ve paused the Mosul operation (though it’s worth noting that the BBC at least hadn’t seen any signs of a pause as of a few hours ago) over the apparent coalition strike that seems to have killed hundreds (at least 200 at this point and that number is likely to go up) of people in the city’s Jadida neighborhood. The US has confirmed that a coalition airstrike did hit that neighborhood on March 17, but there’s been a significant PR effort to try to find a way to pin these civilian casualties entirely on ISIS, either by claiming that the civilians were being held in place as human shields (possible but hard to prove) or that the airstrike hit an ISIS vehicle bomb (either intended for another target or set up as a booby trap) that was then directly responsible for the damage (farfetched but should be verifiable if true). The Iraqis have even floated the possibility that, while there were airstrikes in the neighborhood, the apartment buildings were brought down intentionally by ISIS. The simplest explanation at this point is that the buildings that were hit were being used by ISIS snipers and the Iraqis called in airstrikes against them without realizing that there were still civilians inside.

The airstrike raises serious questions about the feasibility of the Mosul operation given the civilian risk, and it also contributes to serious questions about whether the Trump administration has decided not to give a shit about civilian casualties (a contention that survivor reports are beginning to support), but I’m not convinced that the strike alone is the reason for this pause in operations. Let’s be fair here; the Iraqi advance in Mosul has been “paused,” albeit unwittingly, for several days now, going back to before this strike took place–or, at least, before it had become major news. The Iraqis need to rethink their overall approach to finishing the Mosul operation, and something tells me they’ve latched to the Jadidah strike as an excuse to do something they were going to have to do anyway.

SYRIA

Speaking at the peace talks in Geneva yesterday, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura called on all parties to the Syrian civil war to work to salvage the “ceasefire.” What ceasefire, you ask? Well, apparently he means this ceasefire:

Airstrikes hit a women’s prison and a clinic in rebel-held parts of Syria on Saturday, killing and wounding scores of people amid clashes on multiple fronts between government forces and insurgent groups in some of the country’s worst violence in weeks, opposition activists said.

The airstrikes, of which some activists said included Russian air raids, concentrated on the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib, the central province of Hama and suburbs of the capital Damascus that have come under attack by insurgent groups over the past week.

One of the airstrikes hit a main street in the Damascus suburb of Hamouriyeh killing at least 16 people and wounded more than 50, activists said. The airstrikes caused wide destruction in the area.

Yes, this must be the ceasefire:

Syria’s army and its allies retook a village near Hama on Saturday, a Syrian military source said, as the government tries to turn back a major insurgent offensive, but bitter fighting continued, a war monitor said.

President Bashar al-Assad and his allies, Russia, Iran and Shi’ite militias from nearby countries, are seeking to staunch the biggest rebel assault in months which began this week in the capital Damascus and the Hama countryside.

Insurgents have made big advances towards Hama, taking about a dozen towns and villages and moving to within a few kilometers of the city and its military airbase, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said.

That’s quite a ceasefire. One interesting development did happen in Geneva today, when a rebel negotiator said that the Syrian opposition is “fed up” with extremist groups like Tahrir al-Sham but have had no choice but to work alongside them. This is not surprising particularly, but it’s a little surprising to hear an opposition spokesman say it so plainly. Of course, the extent to which anybody in Geneva actually speaks for the rebel fighters in Syria at this point is very, very debatable.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are engaged in a full-scale operation against three targets around the town of Tabqa, west of Raqqa–the town itself, the nearby dam on the Euphrates, and a similarly nearby military airport. The SDF says that most of the airport is now in their hands, but fighting continues over the rest. Meanwhile, though, it was reported today that ISIS ordered the evacuation of Raqqa (!) due to concerns that US airstrikes were about to collapse the dam, which would send a pretty massive flood wave rocketing down the Euphrates. There are lots of reasons to doubt this report, which the US has denied, ranging from “ISIS might be planning to blow the dam itself and pin it on the US” to “ISIS just wants to create a panic in Raqqa so it can try to sneak its fighters out of the city,” but the possibility of the dam’s failure is something the UN was talking about last month, so it’s not totally out of the question.

The SDF has also reportedly captured, or is close to capturing, the town of Karama, the last major ISIS-controlled town to the east of Raqqa.

YEMEN

The Trump administration is reportedly weighing increased support for the Saudi war effort in Yemen, I guess because somebody told Trump that the Iraq War was absolutely the dumbest fucking thing the US ever did in the Middle East and Trump took it as a challenge. The administration sees a deeper intervention, which will further immiserate millions of Yemenis, further empower al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and further embolden the most disruptive regime in the Middle East (and no, I’m not talking about the Iranians), as the best way to counter Iran, which as far as anybody can tell has never approached Yemen as anything more than a neat way to drive the Saudis absolutely batshit crazy while expending minimal effort and resources. Sounds like a fantastic idea.

With more US help, I’m sure that the Saudis will be marching through downtown Sanaa any day now, where they’ll be greeted as liberators by the very same people who spent today marching through the streets of the capital to protest the two-year anniversary of the start of the Saudi air campaign.

TURKEY

We’re well into the “spite” phase of the Turkey-EU spat. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said on Sunday that Turkey is blowing its chances of ever getting into the EU, as though Germany is ever going to allow Turkey into the EU. For his part, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Saturday that he may hold another referendum after the one on making him sultan changing Turkey’s constitution, this time on whether or not Turkey should join the EU, as though Erdoğan has any intention of actually ever trying to join the EU.

Ankara also summoned the Swiss ambassador after a rally against next month’s referendum was allowed to proceed in Bern. Turkey is clearly still stinging from having its “yes” rallies cancelled in Germany and the Netherlands, but Switzerland is a whole other country so you can’t exactly accuse it of hypocrisy. Apparently, however, there was a poster seen at the rally that called for Erdoğan‘s assassination, and, well, I can kind of see why he might have a problem with that.

EGYPT

Two separate attacks by Sinai militants–one roadside bomb and one sniper shooting–killed four Egyptian police officers on Saturday.

IRAN

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will be in Moscow on Monday to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The visit comes at a time when Tehran has a few concerns about Russia’s intentions in Syria and whether or not Moscow might sell the Iranians out in exchange for closer ties with the US, with Israel, and/or with Turkey. Rouhani might also be looking for some kind of economic win that will help him in his reelection effort.

Iran announced on Sunday that it was levying sanctions against a number of American companies, a purely symbolic (nobody gives a shit about Iranian sanctions) measure intended to respond to Washington’s decision on Friday to slap sanctions on a handful of firms caught working with Iran and/or North Korea on things like missile technology.

AFGHANISTAN

Paul Pillar considers the futility of America’s ongoing War in Afghanistan and even entertains the possibility that Russia, contrary to its denials and common sense, might be helping the Taliban:

Russians noticed what the United States was doing, and they remember it today.  And maybe roles are reversing and the bleeding is coming full circle.  U.S. General Curtis Scaparrotti, who is the top NATO commander in Europe, told a Congressional committee this week that Russia appears to be increasing its role in Afghanistan and may be providing material support to the Taliban.  The situation is unclear; a spokesman for the Russian foreign ministry strongly denied the accusation, and a careful tally of other relevant Russian interests would not argue in favor of aiding the Taliban.  Nonetheless, it would not be surprising if Moscow—with irony and with what many Russians probably would consider just deserts—took a page from the U.S. playbook of the 1980s.  The underlying idea would be that Afghanistan has become for America today what it was for the USSR back then.

The deal that Kabul reached with warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar last year that was supposed to bring him back into the peaceful political realm now looks like it might fall apart. Hekmatyar is demanding that his former fighters be released from prison, that his followers be given land grants, that he be allowed to maintain his own personal security in Kabul, and other things that have the government balking, and the fact is that Ashraf Ghani’s decision to cut a deal with a man like Hekmatyar, basically an organized crime boss with an army, wasn’t all that popular to begin with. And, of course, the real purpose behind offering Hekmatyar a deal, which was to show the Taliban that they too could come in out of the cold, has been a gigantic bust so far.

PAKISTAN

The Pakistani government has decided to begin building a fence along its border with Afghanistan, focusing initially on areas near the uncontrolled Federally Administered Tribal Areas, in order to cut down on groups staging attacks in Pakistan from Afghan territory. This is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it may lead to a diplomatic showdown with Afghanistan, which does not recognize and never has recognized, as a matter of policy, the ill-conceived Durand Line, which bisects the traditional Pashtun homeland, as the actual border between the two countries. Second, Pakistan’s overall complaint about its porous border with Afghanistan continues to be a shocking display of balls from the country that spent a decade or more basically harboring the Taliban after they’d been forced to leave Afghanistan following the 2001 US invasion.

MOROCCO

Five months after holding elections, Morocco finally has a government again. New Prime Minister Saad Eddine El Othmani reached a deal with five other parties to form a governing coalition. Former PM Abdelilah Benkirane, who was sacked by King Mohammed VI for his failure to form a government, had apparently been resistant to the idea of such a large number of parties in his coalition.

MALI

Mali’s two main Tuareg rebel groups announced over the weekend that they would not be participating in peace talks scheduled for this week, citing the fact that they were not included in its planning.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

Kamuina Nsapu rebels ambushed and then reportedly beheaded (!) 40 DRC police officers on Friday before making off with their weapons and vehicles. The Kamuina Nsapu are a local rebel movement driven by crippling poverty and government neglect of the Kasai region in the southern DRC. Their rebellion began last year and has been spreading, particularly in the wake of President Joseph Kabila’s decision to cling to power in Kinshasa despite his term being up. Several local conflicts around the country gained steam because of the crisis over Kabila’s status, but this one has picked up more than most.

BELARUS

Alexander Lukashenko is the President of Belarus.

Alexander Lukashenko (Wikimedia | Serge Serebro)

Protests against President Alexander Lukashenko’s government escalated this weekend, as upwards of 400 people were arrested following mass protests in Minsk and the most serious security crackdown yet seen since the protests began several weeks ago. What had seemed like a serious but probably ephemeral series of demonstrations may now be turning into the most serious threat to Lukashenko’s rule since he took power in 1994. To reiterate, these protests began in opposition to a government plan to tax people who have been unemployed for at least six months, because somebody in the Belarusian government decided that this would be a great way to motivate the “parasites” to get a job. Surprisingly, that measure didn’t go down so well in a country that’s been in a recession for the past couple of years.

attwiw has so far been unable to confirm reports that Lukashenko was invited to speak at the next Republican House Caucus meeting.

RUSSIA

Hundreds of protesters, including prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny, were arrested in Moscow on Sunday while protesting against Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and corruption in general. Navalny has published allegations that Medvedev has amassed massive personal wealth far out of bounds given his public position, charges that echo rumors about the even more massive fortune Vladimir Putin has amassed.

UKRAINE

Ukrainian authorities say the man who gunned down Russian opposition figure Denis Voronenkov on Thursday, who subsequently died of his own wounds at the hospital, is a Russian operative.

BULGARIA

Exit polls in today’s Bulgarian parliamentary elections show that former Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, who resigned earlier this year in advance of these snap elections, has probably won the right to be prime minister again. His European Development of Bulgaria party reportedly won about 32 percent of the vote to come in first place. This is good news for the European Union, as Borisov was opposed mainly by the pro-Russia/anti-EU Socialist Party. It’s not clear how easy it will be for Borisov to form a new governing coalition, though, so this may not be over yet.

UNITED KINGDOM

Saturday saw…hey, more protests! This time in London, where thousands of people marked the EU’s 60th anniversary by protesting against Brexit, for all the good that will do them.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin is so far refusing to participate in a new Northern Ireland unity government following the March 2 elections, a move that risks ending Northern Ireland self rule and bringing back direct parliamentary control.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO EU

The BBC has a photo essay showing a few of the many pro- and anti-EU demonstrations that took place all over the continent this weekend to commemorate the body’s 60th anniversary.

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2 thoughts on “Conflict update: March 25-26 2017

  1. Pingback: Conflict update: March 30-31 2017 | and that's the way it was

  2. Pingback: Conflict update: April 20 2017 | and that's the way it was

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