Maybe everybody’s on their best behavior because of the Olympics, but it seems like the planet is a little quieter than usual today, so as a result we can get away with cramming everything into a single update.
This has been quite a week in Syria to say the least. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that 229 people have been killed in Ghouta so far. In a single week. Turkey restarted its air campaign over Afrin on Thursday night after a pause that was probably instigated by Russia following the shooting down of one of its planes over Idlib last weekend. So that’s exciting. And now there are reports that ISIS fighters have moved into Idlib province and are clashing with rebel factions there. They appear to have come from an ISIS pocket in the Hama-Aleppo-Idlib border area, where they’d seemingly been surrounded by government forces. The Syrian Observatory says the Syrian government allowed them fighters to escape the pocket and slip into Idlib, though obviously that’s very unconfirmed.
Finally, an apology for letting this gem slip by me last week:
The U.S. has no evidence to confirm reports from aid groups and others that the Syrian government has used the deadly chemical sarin on its citizens, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday.
“We have other reports from the battlefield from people who claim it’s been used,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon. “We do not have evidence of it.”
He said he was not rebutting the reports.
Yeah, no shit. Particularly since you all launched missile strikes against a Syrian airbase apparently on the strength of those reports in connection with the Khan Shaykhun incident. Folks, I haven’t written about Khan Shaykhun in some time other than in connection with international chemical weapons investigations. Truth is, I haven’t really thought much about it because the whole affair came and went without really having much impact on the course of the Syrian war. I remain, as I was after it happened, mostly on the “Assad did it” side without being completely convinced. I think the best way to describe it is that I’m more skeptical of all the alternative scenarios I’ve seen than I am of the one that says the Syrians deliberately dropped sarin on that town.
But I wouldn’t have bombed Shayrat air base, or anything else for that matter, on the strength of “eh, I guess what these guys are saying sounds more plausible than anything else.” You would like to think that the US government is being run by people whose standards for taking military action are at least as rigorous as those of a WordPress blogger. I know the last
15 50 ??? years have taught us otherwise, but it’s still troubling to see it in print.
Human Rights Watch says that Kurdish police carried out a mass execution of ISIS prisoners northwest of Mosul in late August or early September of last year. Regardless of the merits of the victims, this is a war crime.
The Lebanese government has reached agreement with three oil and gas firms to begin developing its offshore gas deposits. Which is swell, except insofar as at least one of those deposits sits in waters that are also claimed by Israel.
Donald Trump wants the Israelis to know that they’re going to have to make “significant compromises” for a peace deal with the Palestinians. For example, while the Palestinians are going to have to compromise by letting Israel have Jerusalem, the Israelis are going to have to compromise by letting the Palestinians let them have Jerusalem. You can see that it’s going to be hard to get them to make these tough choices, but the Kushner Accords can’t succeed any other way.
The Egyptian military launched a new operation on Friday aimed at ISIS in Sinai and other violent extremist groups in the Nile Delta and western desert. This is by no means a theatrical move connected to Egypt’s upcoming sham presidential election and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s desire that some people actually turn out to vote for him in said election.
Three cricket players were killed in two separate bomb attacks on cricket matches in Nangarhar province on Friday. Nangarhar has an active ISIS presence to go with its active Taliban presence, so it’s not clear who was behind this attack.
Meanwhile, Russia says that Washington has ignored its offer to broker Afghan peace talks. After the bang-up job they’ve done brokering Syrian peace talks, I can’t believe the US didn’t jump at their offer.
Two US drone strikes on Thursday killed a total of 11 militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including possibly a senior Pakistani Taliban commander. The Afghan strike, in Paktia province, killed four militants though it’s not clear whose militants they were–both the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani Network have a presence there. The Pakistani strike, in North Waziristan, killed seven people, one of whom may have been Khalid Mehsud AKA the TTP leader known as Sajna.
Philippine forces reportedly killed three members of the Maute Group on Friday in a battle in a town just outside of Marawi.
Two bombs tore through a mosque in Benghazi on Friday, killing at least two people. The devices were apparently detonated remotely. So far it’s not clear who was behind the attack or whom they were trying to kill. They may not have been targeting anybody in particular, but similar previous bombings in Benghazi have at least appeared to be intended for people in or aligned with Khalifa Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army.
African National Congress boss and presumed South African president in-waiting Cyril Ramaphosa, and people around him, keep talking as though it’s just a matter of days before President Jacob Zuma resigns and hands the reigns over to Ramaphosa. And yet days go by and Zuma still hasn’t gone anywhere. The longer this goes on, the more inept Ramaphosa begins to look, and not coincidentally the less likely it actually gets that Zuma is going to step aside before his term ends.
Joshua Kucera looks at the Eurasian Union, which was supposed to be Vladimir Putin’s answer to the European Union except inasmuch as it’s completely fizzled out. Or has it?
The Eurasian Union did seem to have style, even swagger, in its early days. In the run-up to its launch, Russian President Vladimir Putin called it “epoch-making,” imbuing it with the grand, anti-Western ideology of Eurasianism. Hillary Clinton, then the U.S. Secretary of State, helped feed that narrative by describing the Eurasian Union as a cover for Russian efforts to “re-Sovietize the region.”
But so far, it hasn’t lived up to that billing. No more states want to join its five members — Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as Russia. There’s even a faint sense of embarrassment in Moscow over the whole project. And the West is now more concerned about Russia’s cyber-meddling and continuing war on Ukraine. Meanwhile, China’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road”program, which covers much of the Eurasian Union’s territory, seems to be advancing decisively.
Yet in the meantime the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), as it is formally known, has become a fact of life. At least 1,000 people work at its Moscow headquarters, engaged in workaday bureaucratic tasks like coordinating financial markets and standardizing pharmaceutical regulations across the five member states. It has cut red tape for Kyrgyz labor migrants in Moscow and spawned an ersatz banana export industry in Belarus. But its economic impact has been negligible, analysts say. And Putin rarely mentions the EEU these days. So rarely, in fact, that I thought he had quietly abandoned his grand geopolitical ambitions for the organization.
SPOILER ALERT: he apparently has not.
The Grand Coalition is already hitting roadblocks and it hasn’t even technically been formed yet. On Friday, Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz agreed not to serve as foreign minister in the still-hypothetical new government. Schulz had made his intention to take the post known when the SPD-conservative coalition deal was announced, but he’s taken significant pushback on that decision from within his own party. Since Schulz needs his party to approve the coalition deal before it can become final, he’s got no choice but to acquiesce to these demands.
Brexit talks are still going really well, in case you were wondering:
The UK’s Brexit secretary, David Davis, has engaged in a war of words with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, over the latter’s claims that unacceptable British demands had thrown into doubt an agreement on a transition period.
Speaking in Brussels after the latest round of talks, Barnier told reporters he had been left mystified by the positions taken by Downing Street in recent days. “To be quite frank, if these disagreements persist, the transition is not a given,” Barnier said.
The UK and the EU have agreed in principle that there should be a 21 month transition period between Brexit in March 2019 and the date when the new EU-UK relationship, whatever that might be, kicks in completely. During that period of time, the EU expects the UK to follow EU rules in return for continued access to the EU single market and customs union (plus the right to negotiate trade agreements on its own during that time), but it would lose its decision-making powers in the bloc. The EU likewise apparently anticipates being able to sanction the UK if London violates any EU rules. The UK, on the other hand, expects to be able to violate EU rules at will with no penalty, and has already said for example that it will not treat EU nationals who enter the UK during the transition the same as it treats EU nationals who are already in the UK.
Anyway, the upshot is that we may be back on the road toward a hard Brexit, but on the plus side it’s not as though the UK economy is growing increasingly dependent on the rest of Europe the closer it gets to Brexit. That would be really unfortunate.
FARC, the rebel group-turned political party, says it’s suspending the campaigns of its candidates in March’s parliamentary election and May’s presidential election out of concerns for their safety. The candidates have apparently been the subject of death threats and protests at campaign events, and FARC leaders say they want “security guarantees” from the Colombian government. Allowing FARC to transition to a political party was one of the key elements of the peace deal the group made with the Venezuelan government last year, so these latest developments could actually threaten that agreement.
The Venezuelan refugee crisis has gotten bad enough that both Colombia and Brazil are deploying additional security to their borders to try to head off would-be refugees. The Brazilian government also says it’s planning to relocate refugees from the Venezuelan border to other parts of the country because of the strain they’ve put on social services. The good news is that when the Trump administration sanctions Venezuelan oil sales and snuffs out the last bit of economic vitality Venezuela has, that definitely shouldn’t make the refugee situation even worse.
The refugees are part of the reason why Colombia says it’s trying to put together a $60 billion bailout package for Venezuela–provided Nicolás Maduro steps down, of course.
Apparently Making America Great Again doesn’t involve reading your intelligence briefings:
For much of the past year, President Trump has declined to participate in a practice followed by the past seven of his predecessors: He rarely if ever reads the President’s Daily Brief, a document that lays out the most pressing information collected by U.S. intelligence agencies from hot spots around the world.
Trump has opted to rely on an oral briefing of select intelligence issues in the Oval Office rather than getting the full written document delivered to review separately each day, according to three people familiar with his briefings.
Reading the traditionally dense intelligence book is not Trump’s preferred “style of learning,” according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
The problem with that last sentence is that it implies that Trump does have a “preferred style of learning.” I think over a year into his presidency we can safely say that “learning” really isn’t his thing.
Finally, I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this because it’s really outside this blog’s purview, but Respected Marine Troop or not John Kelly is a piece of shit:
Friends and associates noted that with Mr. Kelly’s lack of experience in Washington politics, he may not have been attuned at first to how the domestic abuse allegations against Mr. Porter would be perceived.
Yes, my goodness, how could John Kelly, Unfrozen Caveman Marine General, have known how this strange, modern world of Washington DC would react to the news that a White House aide was a serial domestic abuser? How could he possibly have known that people would respond negatively to stories about a man who battered both of his ex-wives?
John Kelly tried to shield Rob Porter because that’s who John Kelly is. We’ve learned a lot about who John Kelly is over the past several months, actually–we’ve learned that he’s a bigot, we’ve learned that he’s a liar, and now we’ve learned that he’s a guy who doesn’t necessarily see “beats women” as a major character defect. Anybody who thought he would help professionalize this White House full of scumbags apparently didn’t realize that he’s as big a scumbag as any of them.
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