That big emergency meeting that the Queen made her staff attend at Buckingham Palace this morning, the one that sent your social media feeds into a tizzy? It was to announce that Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, her husband of almost 70 (!) years…is retiring from public life this fall. Which, I mean, the guy is 95, so, yeah. Frankly if I were him I would’ve told everybody to leave me the hell alone at least ten years ago.
THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD(S)
The White House announced the itinerary for Donald Trump’s first presidential trip to someplace that isn’t either a golf course or Mar-a-Lago (which is itself a golf course, fair enough). Toward the end of this month, Trump will head to Brussels to attend a NATO meeting, to Sicily for a G7 summit, and to the Vatican, Israel, and Saudi Arabia for shits and (sanctified) giggles. In Saudi Arabia, his first stop, he plans to “convene leaders from the Islamic world” to talk about matters of great regional import–or, in other words, Iran. Whatever, presidents do this kind of thing, it’s fine. What I actually want to note here is how blatantly obvious it is that the “senior White House official, who did not wish to be named” quoted in this Guardian story is actually Trump himself:
Saudi Arabia was chosen because its status as the custodian of the two holy mosques – in Mecca and Medina – makes it fitting to convene leaders from the Islamic world, the official said. “Over the last 10 years I would not say we’ve made our relations as a country with the Islamic world better. On the contrary, the amazing enthusiasm I see from all the conversations with leaders of the Islamic world about the potential to work with President Trump: they all use words like ‘historic opportunity’, ‘reset’, ‘we felt abandoned’.
“I do think there’s a big opportunity. What I do see from the leadership now is a real desire to try. I think we share a lot of the same objectives and we’ll see if we can work together to achieve them.”
I’m sure presidents have given quotes on background to reporters many, many times over the years, but either they were bright enough to at least try not to sound like themselves, or the media was more willing to massage the quotes in order to maintain the illusion. Trump, who we know used to do this kind of thing back when he was just a regular TV personality and grifter, might as well just go on the record with this stuff.
The verdict is in, and lots of people are in love with the new Syrian safe zones plan. Russia, Turkey, and Iran love it enough to sign their names to it, and the Syrian government is at least pretending to love it. The UN loves it, too. Unfortunately, the rebels don’t love it–in fact, they don’t love it so much that they briefly rejoined the peace talks in Astana today pretty much just so they could then storm out of the talks when the safe zones deal was announced. And while I’m actually sympathetic to the safe zones plan–anything that offers the possibility of reducing civilian casualties has to be given consideration in my view–I can kind of see where the rebels are coming from, since this whole safe zones thing is basically an attempt to let Russia and the Syrian government off the hook for any kind of nationwide ceasefire.
The idea is that fighting would be drastically reduced–specifically how much isn’t clear, but it would undoubtedly involve a cessation of airstrikes at a minimum–in the four designated safe zones, but pretty much only in those four zones. Everywhere else, in theory, will be a free-fire zone once more, which is quite a comedown from the broad ceasefire that was supposed to have been put in place in December, the one nobody seemed to ever really bother honoring. The rebels are framing their objection to the safe zones as a more general objection to Iran, a belligerent in this war, playing the role of peacemaker, but that’s a transparently flimsy objection given that fellow belligerent (just on the rebel side rather than the government side) Turkey is also trying to play that role, and the rebels won’t make the same complaint about Russia even though Russia has been just as much a pro-Assad belligerent as Iran has. The real objection, it seems to me, is that if this deal goes through and civilians are herded into these safe zones, the Russian-Syrian air campaign against rebels remaining outside the safe zones is going to kick back into high gear in a very big way.
Since December, Moscow has reportedly been deploying some 800-1000 (so far) Chechen and Ingush special forces troops to Syria, in what is believed to be its first major commitment of ground forces to the war (apart, of course, from support personnel necessary to maintain its air campaign). This is a pretty significant new commitment from the Russians at a time when, officially, they’re supposed to be reducing their footprint in Syria–but because they’re Caucasian Muslims, Russia’s Russian majority population probably won’t get worked up if and when they take casualties. Plus, they may have a somewhat easier time getting along with local populations than ethnic Russian forces would.
The Iraqis’ new northwestern front in Mosul, led by the army’s 9th Division and the Interior Ministry’s Rapid Response Forces, has opened up in a big way. This new front has been developing for a few days now, but the Iraqis attacked three neighborhoods in the city’s northwest today and are looking to move east to the Tigris and take the northernmost of the five bridges that connect Mosul’s two halves. The plan now seems to be for the other Iraqi forces, including the counter-terrorism “Golden Division,” to liberate the rest of the city while federal police maintain their stalemate with ISIS in the Old City. Once the Old City is isolated and surrounded, the Iraqis will likely try to enter it from multiple sides to overwhelm ISIS’s defenses.
The US military is working on a new Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government that would allow some number of American troops to remain in Iraq after the Mosul operation has ended and ISIS has been driven out of Iraq (or at least its cities). There’s concern that elite Iraqi military units will need some time to recover from the losses they’ve taken in Mosul, and an American presence would then serve as a theoretical bulwark against an ISIS resurgence, and–and this is apparently the big selling point for President Trump–against an increase in Iranian influence in the country.
A car bomb killed at least four people today at the Rukban refugee camp in northeastern Jordan. There are a number of unfriendly factions at Rukban so this could have been some kind of internal dispute, but ISIS is probably a likelier suspect.
Turkey is quietly getting enmeshed in yet another dispute with yet another European government, in this case with Greece over a Greek court’s decision to deny Turkish extradition requests for eight Turkish soldiers who fled into Greece after last summer’s attempted coup failed. Greece and Turkey, despite being NATO allies, don’t get along and to be honest haven’t gotten along since Greece stopped being part of the Ottoman Empire a little less than 200 years ago, and so Ankara (home to a government that doesn’t itself believe in the concept of an independent judiciary and so probably assumes that nobody else does either) claims this denial is a purely political snub. They may have a point. But the Greek government has countered that its courts won’t extradite these men to a country where they’re at risk of being, among other things, tortured–and, well, they have a point too.
Thousands of pro-secession protesters took to the streets of Aden today to demonstrate against President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s decision last week to fire Aden’s governor, Aydaroos al-Zubaidi, along with a cabinet minister named Hani b. Brek. Both were caught up in the simmering feud between Hadi and the UAE, which is supporting Hadi against the Yemeni rebels but also seems to be supporting secessionist leaders and fighters at the same time. The Emiratis may have ulterior motives here, but on the other hand they may simply have no other choice–they’re supposed to be building and training Hadi’s army, and if they reject anybody with southern secessionist leanings then the pool of potential recruits is going to be much reduced.
A new report by Ben Emmerson, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, accuses the Saudi government of manipulating anti-terrorism laws to suppress free speech, imprison political opponents, and strip prisoners of their human rights, and of failing to conduct obligatory investigations into reports of civilian casualties in Yemen.
At a time when reform-minded voters seem to have cooled on President Hassan Rouhani and may even be wishing that his vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, was in the presidential race for real and not just to carry Rouhani’s water, the incumbent, having already gotten former President Mohammad Khatami’s seal of approval, is about to get a couple more major endorsements. The leaders of the 2009 Green Movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, plan to publicly endorse Rouhani before the May 19 election even though they’ll have to circumvent their house arrests to do it. This should help Rouhani among voters who believe he could have done more to improve the condition of civil rights in Iran and who might otherwise consider not voting.
Speaking of domestic reforms, a new movement is being formed to try to increase national dialogue between reformists and hardliners, spearheaded in part by parliament speaker Ali Larijani. Larijani is one of the most interesting figures in Iranian politics in my outsider opinion, as somebody who has good relations with Rouhani (he hasn’t endorsed Rouhani and probably won’t, but legislators close to him have and the signal is pretty clear) but is still considered not just a member but a leader of the conservative/principlist camp. He may be the figure best positioned to pick up the mantle of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, as somebody who bridged the conservative-reformist divide, and he might even be better positioned than Rafsanjani was since he hasn’t alienated the conservatives the way Rafsanjani did in 2009.
Get ready for more American troops in Afghanistan:
The U.S. military said on Thursday it will offer recommendations on the war in Afghanistan to President Donald Trump within the next week, amid expectations of a request for thousands of more troops to break a stalemate with Taliban insurgents.
Theresa Whelan, acting assistant secretary of defense for special operations, low-intensity conflict, testified to the Senate that the Pentagon was completing its review of potential adjustments to U.S. war plans.
“I expect that these proposals will go to the President within the next week and the intent is to do just that, to move beyond the stalemate,” Whelan said.
It has been three months since Army General John Nicholson, who leads U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, said he needed “a few thousand” additional forces, some potentially drawn from U.S. allies.
Just a few thousand more troops! The next six months will be key! Afghanistan is turning a corner! Feel free to copy those sentences now because we’ll probably still be using them in 2117.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar arrived in Kabul today and portrayed himself as a potential mediator between the Afghan government and his “brothers” in the Taliban. To be clear, there is no indication that Hekmatyar can broker anything with the Taliban, but this is apparently how he sold himself to the Afghan government so that he could return to public life with impunity–or, if you prefer, without fear of being carted off to a well-deserved trial. Hekmatyar also called on the current and admittedly dysfunctional Afghan government to be dissolved and the constitution to be redrawn, both of which seem like long shots at the present time.
At Foreign Policy, Afghan journalist Ruchi Kumar has a profile on the governor of Balkh province, Atta Mohammad Noor, who’s served autonomously in that capacity for 12 years but looks like he’s about to make a move into national politics:
Noor has already started to challenge his closest, and most powerful, backer in Kabul, Abdullah Abdullah, who was appointed chief executive of the National Unity Government in a power-sharing deal with his rival, President Ashraf Ghani, in 2014 after a tumultuous and disputed presidential election. Suddenly, Abdullah’s pictures have disappeared from Balkh’s political billboards, the ubiquitous hoardings that hang on every highway and alleyway across Afghanistan, mapping out the local political alliances. In Balkh, Abdullah’s archrival Ghani has replaced him on billboards all across the center of Mazar-e-Sharif, the regional capital, and even in the offices of Abdullah and Noor’s own Jamiat-e-Islami party, which once viciously criticized Ghani in the 2014 elections.
The northern leader is now aiming for the very top of power in Afghanistan. In a country marked by unceasing war, his military skills and personal heroism are popular selling points. But his move away from Balkh might also leave the north, already susceptible to attacks from a newly emboldened Taliban and a creeping Islamic State-led insurgency, freshly vulnerable. Balkh doesn’t want him to leave — and Kabul may not really want him to arrive.
Noor seems to be trying to cultivate a relationship with Ghani that cuts Abdullah out of the loop, presumably with an eye toward a position of major importance in Ghani’s government–assuming the incumbent is reelected in 2019.
The website 38North.org is reporting that satellite imagery shows activity a Pyongyang’s Sinpo South shipyard consistent with preparations for another missile test. It’s always hard to know with satellite images, though, and there could be something else going on like routine maintenance–or North Korea could be deliberately trying to confuse analysts, since they know they’re being watched. Meanwhile, the US House of Representatives today–when it wasn’t gutting health care to finance a massive tax break for billionaires–voted 419-1 in favor of tightening sanctions against North Korea.
Algeria has voted! Well, part of Algeria has voted, though probably not that big a part, but we’ll see when official results are announced tomorrow. The ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) and its coalition partner are expected to win because they always do, but if turnout is high there’s a chance that the Islamist and/or Berber opposition might make a surprise showing.
Somebody attacked a UN operating base in the northern town of Leer that was repelled by Ghanaian peacekeepers today. There were no casualties but the UN is understandably angry and the evidence so far suggests that it was government forces who carried out the attack. The government is currently carrying out an offensive in the northern part of the country that the UN says is putting as many as 50,000 civilians in imminent danger.
The Ethiopian government is reportedly denying the UN access to the main sites where massive Oromian protests took place last year and hundreds of people were killed, many of them–if not all of them–by government security forces. I guess for some reason they don’t want anybody conducting any kind of investigation at those sites. Weird.
The Romanian constitutional court today upheld a 2001 law preventing anyone convicted of a crime from serving as a cabinet minister. This would still be weird, but it wouldn’t be quite so big a deal if it weren’t for the fact that the ruling bars the leader of the governing Social Democratic Party, Liviu Dragnea, from serving as prime minister. Dragnea was convicted of vote rigging last year and is under investigation on other corruption charges (this is while the Social Democrats have been trying to decriminalize low-level corruption crimes), and, hey, I don’t know the circumstances, but maybe he shouldn’t be prime minister in that case.
New polling suggests that far right Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party have lost a considerable amount of support amid public (and European Union) backlash against his crusade to shutter George Soros’s Central European University. Fidesz is still the country’s most popular party, but its approval fell from 37 percent in January to 31 percent, the percentage of people who want it to continue in the majority fell to 37 percent from 48 percent, and Orbán’s approval rating is down to 40 percent.
REPUBLIC OF MACEDONIA
The BBC has a new in-depth explainer on the political crisis in Macedonia that jibes in some areas with something a commenter wrote here a couple of days ago. The country’s Social Democrats, who came in second (barely) in December’s parliamentary election, are trying to form a government in coalition with a couple of minority Albanian parties, but they’re being stymied primarily by former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE party. VMRO finished first (barely) in December’s election, but Gruevski wasn’t able to put a coalition together, where Social Democratic leader Zoran Zaev has been. Gruevski had been PM since 2006, but resigned in January 2016 under the terms of the EU-brokered Pržino Agreement, which ended months of political unrest involving a wiretapping scandal and a whole bunch of public protest. He’s apparently not interested in serving in the political opposition, though, because he’s doing everything he can to block Zaev’s coalition from actually taking office:
The Social Democrats, then in opposition, gained a parliamentary majority by going into coalition with parties favoured by the country’s sizeable ethnic-Albanian minority.
And yet they have not been able to form a government – because Macedonia’s other main party has blocked them.
VMRO-DPMNE may sound like a winning hand at Scrabble. But for more than a decade they were Macedonia’s party of government, led by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. And they are proving extremely reluctant to give up power.
Supported by their ally, President Gjorge Ivanov, they have frustrated the Social Democrats’ attempts to obtain an official mandate. Mr Ivanov has flatly refused to give his approval, while VMRO MPs staged filibusters. This has gone on for almost five months.
Ivanov is using the presence of the Albanian parties as an excuse not to approve Zaev’s government, and VMRO is using it as a way to whip up some disruptive nationalist fervor, but if you’re not a Macedonian political novice like me then you’ll know that these Albanian parties have served in coalition with VMRO in the past, so Ivanov’s objection is a smokescreen.
While we’re on the subject of arcane European political dealings, here’s a piece from Reuters on Czech Finance Minister Andrej Babiš, who also happens to be the Czech Republic’s second-wealthiest citizen, so he’s got that going for him. Babiš leads a centrist party called ANO that is doing quite well in public opinion polls, even better than the Social Democratic Party of current Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, and while his politics aren’t fully formed he seems to be your standard plutocrat-libertarian type–low taxes on the Makers, want to run the country like a business, no strong social politics of any kind, etc.
Babiš is also, however, being investigated for potential past financial shenanigans (he denies the charges, of course), and ostensibly because of this, but maybe also or really because of his popularity, Sobotka wants him out of the cabinet. He wants Babiš out of the cabinet so badly, in fact, that he’s prepared to resign (even though its term ends in six months anyway–the election is scheduled for October) to make it happen. Czech President Miloš Zeman would then select a new prime minister and cabinet, probably led by another senior figure in the Social Democratic Party. The problem, from Sobotka’s perspective, is that Zeman (who doesn’t really care for Sobotka) has already said that Babiš (who gets along pretty well with Zeman) should keep his job as Finance Minister in a new cabinet, which would render Sobotka’s decision to resign pointless. So now it looks like he’s not going to resign, but meanwhile his feud with Babiš may be morphing into a feud with Zeman, which is potentially much more disruptive for Czech politics.
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