Conflict update: March 28 2017

BREXIT

Theresa May will formally trigger Britain’s exit from the European Union on Wednesday. That will begin the two-year negotiation over the terms of that exit, meaning that the UK will be out of the EU as of March 29, 2019. The European parliament is reportedly preparing a resolution in response to the trigger that will stipulate that Britain is welcome to call the whole thing off at any time over the next two years, but obviously that seems like wishful thinking. Reports out of London say that May’s government is rethinking its blustery rhetoric about crashing out of the EU without some kind of trade deal, recognizing the fact that doing so would be pretty hard on the British economy. Implicit in that kind of talk has always been the threat that the British government might turn the UK into a giant tax haven for EU companies, but, uh, tax havens kind of suck, a lot, and it’s unlikely the British people would be willing to endure the long-term social and political ramifications of something like that.

Brussels is now reportedly prepared to reject any Brexit deal that doesn’t protect the rights of EU citizens who, for some reason, might choose to move to the UK over the next two years. London is likely to insist that, while it will protect the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, it will only do so for EU citizens who were already in the country when Brexit was triggered. This could be a major sticking point in the upcoming talks.

Meanwhile, the Scottish parliament voted today in favor of holding a second independence referendum sometime before Britain leaves the EU…and Westminster immediately told them to go to hell. It should be a wonderful next couple of years.

CLIMATE

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again and again–we’re all gonna die, man:

Donald Trump launched an all-out assault on Barack Obama’s climate change legacy on Tuesday with a sweeping executive order that undermines America’s commitment to the Paris agreement.

Watched by coalminers at a ceremony at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, the president signed an order to trigger a review of the clean power plan, Obama’s flagship policy to curb carbon emissions, and rescind a moratorium on the sale of coalmining leases on federal lands.

Trump’s order won’t accomplish its stated goal, reviving the U.S. coal industry, which is well and truly dead. But it does signal that America no longer gives a shit about the environment, which will have domino effects all over the world. The Trump administration is unlikely to back out of the Paris Climate Agreement, itself an inadequate attempt to solve the climate problem, but it will seek to redefine its responsibilities under that agreement, which ultimately may not be much better.

IRAQ

Joel Wing has put together a side-by-side map comparison of Mosul’s Old City on March 19 and again on March 27 (you’ll have to go there to see it, I’m not swiping it) that shows the extent to which nothing has really happened in west Mosul over the past several days. The Iraqis control about as much of the Old City today as they did more than a week ago, but the one development is that Iraqi counter-terrorism forces have been fighting their way around this part of the city to the west. If their progress continues, within another few days they may be in a position to enter the Old City from the north, which would obviously force ISIS to defend on two fronts. Using multiple fronts was key to Iraqi success in eastern Mosul and it may prove key here as well.

The US has magnanimously allowed as to how it “probably had a role” in the airstrike in Mosul’s Jadidah neighborhood on March 17, which probably killed over 200 civilians. The Pentagon is trying to assess and/or push the theory that ISIS fighters were holding those civilians as human shields and/or that they’d somehow rigged several buildings in the neighborhood to collapse, which would make the deaths at least partly ISIS’s fault. There may be something to either or both theory but absent conclusive evidence this sounds a bit like the American military is grasping for straws. They’re also insisting that nothing has changed about their rules of engagement, that the only reason for the higher rate of civilian casualties caused by coalition forces since Donald Trump took office is the intensive nature of the fighting in western Mosul. Either way it would behoove the coalition to stop fucking killing civilians, another 43 of whom were reportedly killed in airstrikes on Monday. Oops.

Amnesty International, for what it’s worth, isn’t buying the idea that US forces are still doing everything they can to protect civilian lives:

“Evidence gathered on the ground in East Mosul points to an alarming pattern of US-led coalition airstrikes which have destroyed whole houses with entire families inside. The high civilian toll suggests that coalition forces leading the offensive in Mosul have failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law,” said Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International, who carried out field investigations in Mosul.

“The fact that Iraqi authorities repeatedly advised civilians to remain at home instead of fleeing the area, indicates that coalition forces should have known that these strikes were likely to result in a significant numbers of civilian casualties. Disproportionate attacks and indiscriminate attacks violate international humanitarian law and can constitute war crimes.

“The Iraqi government and the US-led coalition, must immediately launch an independent and impartial investigation into the appalling civilian death toll resulting from the Mosul operation.”

SYRIA

Now on to Syria, where there’s actually some positive news on the civilian front…maybe?

A deal has been reached to allow the evacuation of four besieged areas in Syria, reports say.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says residents of Foah and Kefraya, two government-held villages in the north-west, will be bussed out.

This will be in return for safe passage for people in two rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, Madaya and Zabadani.

About 60,000 people live in the four besieged areas. The deal was brokered by Iran and Qatar.

At least one previous deal to evacuate Fuʿah and Kafraya fell apart when rebels began setting fire to the buses that were supposed to be used to ferry people out of the villages, so believe this when you see it. But if it holds then this is very good for those 60,000 people. While we’re tallying up civilian casualties, though, we should note the 40,000 civilians who have reportedly been displaced by the latest rebel advance just outside of the city of Hama.

Here’s more good news: that American airstrike on the school near Raqqa that killed 33 refugees the other day? Those weren’t refugees, they were ISIS Bad Guys. Well, that’s the Pentagon’s story, anyway, and why shouldn’t we believe them? These are, after all, the same people who keep insisting that their airstrikes pose no structural threat to the Tabqa Dam even though pretty much everybody else in Syria, including American allies, seems to think they do.

YEMEN

The UN is making plans to use other Yemeni ports and/or overland convoys to deliver humanitarian aid in the event that Saudi Arabia decides to humanely attack the country’s main port, Hudaydah. Hudaydah is really the only Yemeni port capable of handling the volume of traffic necessary to deliver this aid, but it’s already been pretty mangled by Saudi airstrikes. The overland convoys might help, but in addition to the usual challenges of overland travel they’re going to be obvious targets for, say, al-Qaeda.

KASHMIR

Protests in the southern Kashmiri town of Chadoora turned violent today when police killed at least three protesters. Well, actually things had already turned violent–the protests began in response to an Indian army operation in the town that killed one Kashmiri separatist leader.

MYANMAR

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, formerly known as Harakah al-Yaqin, issued its first public statement today in which it denied participating in terrorism and having any ties to international terrorist organizations (i.e., ISIS or al-Qaeda). The group says it formed to “defend, salvage, and protect the Rohingya community in Arakan with our best capacities as we have the legitimate right under international law to defend ourselves in line with the principle of self-defense.”

NORTH KOREA

Hey, this sounds like it will be fun:

Satellite imagery of North Korea’s main nuclear test site taken over the weekend indicates that Pyongyang could be in the final stages of preparations for a sixth nuclear test, a U.S. think tank reported on Tuesday.

Washington-based 38 North, a website that monitors North Korea, said the images from Saturday showed the continued presence of vehicles and trailers at the Punggye-ri test site and signs that communications cables may have been laid to a test tunnel.

Nothing like a new nuclear test to really take the edge off the whole Trump-Pyongyang relationship, am I right?

NIGER

At his Sahel Blog, Alex Thurston is watching an unfolding scandal over the Nigerien Finance Minister, who back in 2011 (when he was chief of staff to President Mahamadou Issoufou) may have engaged in some financial shenanigans surrounding the sale of uranium to a French firm:

Here is some of the backstory: In 2011, Hassoumi Massaoudou, then-chief of staff to Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou, authorized “a bank transfer…for $320 million from an account belonging to state miner Sopamin to an account controlled by an offshore company called Optima Energy.”

Currently, Massaoudou is Niger’s current finance minister. At a press conference in February, he argued that “his involvement in a series of transactions involving the uranium rights, ending in its sale by Sopamin to French state-owned nuclear company Areva, ultimately earned the state a profit.” You can listen to the press conference here (French), where Massaoudou says that at Areva’s suggestion he engaged in “trading” to make a profit for Niger “for free.” He also says that the gains were deposited in the treasury and spent on expenses, “notably vehicles for the presidential guard.”

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

The Catholic bishops who negotiated the New Year’s deal between DRC President Joseph Kabila and his political opposition announced today that they were withdrawing as mediators in the ongoing talks about actually implementing that deal. Under the deal, Kabila agreed to hold elections this year in return for being allowed to remain in office one year past the end of his term. Unsurprisingly, now that he’s still in office and December’s protests have tapered off, Kabila doesn’t seem all that interested in holding those elections after all. However, the bishops’ announcement kicked off a sizable protest in Kinshasa, which may serve as a reminder to Kabila that, while people aren’t regularly taking to the streets about it at the moment, most of them still very, very much want him gone at the end of the year.

The bodies of two UN investigators who were kidnapped in the DRC two weeks ago turned up today. The pair had been sent by the UN to investigate reports of government abuses in the Kasai region, but they were likely murdered by the Kasai rebel group Kamwina Nsapu.

RUSSIA

One of the more interesting wrinkles of this past weekend’s protests across Russia may have been their demographics:

The weekend anticorruption protests that roiled Moscow and nearly 100 Russian towns clearly rattled the Kremlin, unprepared for their size and seeming spontaneity. But perhaps the biggest surprise, even to protest leaders themselves, was the youthfulness of the crowds.

A previously apathetic generation of people in their teens and 20s, most of them knowing nothing but 17 years of rule by Vladimir V. Putin, was the most striking face of the demonstrations, the biggest in years.

It’s easy to forget in these days of 80+ percent approval ratings, but Russians took to the streets in big numbers in 2011-2013 in part to oppose to Putin’s return to the presidency in March 2012. Since then Putin has done a pretty masterful job of manipulating public opinion through demonizing the West and capitalizing on unrest in Georgia and Ukraine (overall Putin actually lost ground in Ukraine, but his forceful response and the annexation of Crimea were major domestic political wins)–he’s even leveraged Syria to make himself out to be a Major Global Player for the folks back home–but the shine is eventually going to come off of all this foreign adventurism, and when it does…what does Putin have left? Cheap oil? Government deficits? Inflation? Crony capitalism? Corruption? It wouldn’t be a huge shock to see some of the spirit of those ~2012 protests revived, and if Russian youth join in as well, then Putin might not be so politically unassailable anymore.

The NATO-Russia Council will meet on Thursday for only the fourth time since the mess in Ukraine began in 2014. They’re expected to discuss Ukraine, military deployments, and the situation in Afghanistan. Today, however, in the run up to that meeting, state media reported that the Russian defense ministry considers American naval patrols in the Black Sea to be a threat to Russian national security. And, you know, you can imagine that if Russian vessels patrolled the Gulf of Mexico, we might feel the same way about that.

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