It’s been a bit of a long day so I’m going to try to keep things brief and contained to one post tonight.
Reuters is reporting that over 300 Russian mercenaries were killed or injured in last week’s US airstrike in Deir Ezzor. Around 100 of them were killed. This is the highest estimate so far and isn’t at all unrealistic if there was a full deployment of contractors with the militia that the US bombed.
The hot question in Israel these days is, of course, the likelihood of Benjamin Netanyahu staying out of prison:
In a trio of new polls, Israelis have declared what they think of the bribery case against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the answer is roughly the same as what they think of Mr. Netanyahu himself: About half think he should step aside. His right-wing supporters overwhelmingly think he should stay.
Mr. Netanyahu’s Israel is as polarized as it has been in generations, and under his lengthy tenure, the national conversation has become steadily more toxic. Now, as the prime minister awaits a possible criminal indictment, his efforts to cling to power could pose even greater strains on a society that already seems at risk of tearing itself apart.
Israeli politics is going to be a fun ride while this mess gets sorted out. Nothing Netanyahu does now can be assessed outside of the context of his legal situation, and he seems prepared to do as much long-term damage to the Israeli political system as he has to in order to keep himself out of trouble. Netanyahu has made himself the center of Israeli politics in a way that perhaps no other figure in Israeli history has done, and in a way that is highly detrimental to democracy. If he’s going down, he could pull a lot of the country down with him.
Meanwhile, the US Senate is balking over the White House’s plan to cut aid to the Palestinians because–and this is apparently really true–it doesn’t hurt the Palestinians enough. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker, who apparently won’t settle for anything less than being allowed to kick sick Palestinian kids in the face, is mad because the White House–the Donald Trump White House–only wants to cut Palestinian aid temporarily and with exceptions for things like vaccinations. And water treatment. Yeah, we should let Palestinian kids get polio while drinking toilet water. That’ll show them for…um, whatever it is they did. I’m sure they know what it was. It should be noted that the measures the Senate is considering may be too harsh even for the Israelis, which is saying something.
Egyptian officials say their forces have killed 53 militants since launching a broad offensive late last week against violent extremist groups. Most of those killed have been in Sinai. These figures have not been independently verified.
It comes too late for you Wahhabi romantics out there, but Sheikh Ahmad al-Ghamdi, a prominent Saudi religious figure, says that Valentine’s Day is A-OK as far as Islam is concerned. Classifying it as a worldly holiday like Mother’s Day, Ghamdi says it “does not contradict Islamic teachings.”
With the rial plummeting in value, the Iranian government is going after unlicensed currency traders:
The Kazakh government is cracking down on Salafis and other Islamic fundamentalists, and by “cracking down” I mean they’re considering measures that would ban covering the face in public for women and long beards for men. Though apparently men who just like the way they look with a beard don’t need to worry because authorities will somehow know that they’re not Salafis and will treat them accordingly. The government is also considering toughening rules around traveling abroad for religious education.
The Pakistani military says that cross border fire from Indian soldiers on Thursday killed a school van driver in the village of Battal in Pakistani Kashmir. India insists its forces didn’t fire at anybody.
Nepal has a new prime minister, everybody. Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli of the Nepalese Communist Party (Unified Marxist-Leninist)
was sworn in on Thursday. It’s Oli’s second turn as PM (he held the post from late 2015 through the summer of 2016) and comes after his coalition won December’s parliamentary election.
The Trump administration is apparently no longer considering the “bloody nose” option of a quick strike against North Korea to let Pyongyang know we mean business or whatever. Sometimes known as the “let’s risk maybe killing like 20 million people in Seoul for shits and giggles” plan, its fall from consideration was seemingly confirmed by Susan Thornton, the administration’s nominee for Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Thursday. Now the White House is trying to insist it’s never considered striking North Korea, because these guys can’t help but push every one of their lies past the point of believability.
Australian Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby
Jones Joyce apparently had an affair with a member of his staff, who is now pregnant with his child. As a result, it is now against the law verboten in Australia for ministers of parliament to have sex with their employees. Probably a good policy, since it not only takes a hard line against potentially coercive situations but it also means those ministers can’t stick their spouses on the government payroll.
Egypt is spearheading an effort to unify the Libyan army under a single command that is reportedly “almost complete.” The effort would bring the Libyan National Army, Misratan militias, and other scattered armed forces around the country into one organization, but lingering questions remain. Who would command it? LNA boss Khalifa Haftar would be in line to serve as its chief of staff, but the identity of the civilian head of the new military is up for debate. Of course, another huge question is whether Haftar would feel obliged to actually listen to any civilian boss.
In a surprise move, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned on Thursday. Ethiopia is slowly being ripped apart by ethnic resentment, as the country’s two largest groups, the Oromo and the Amhara, chafe against the continued monopolization of power by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and those tribal elites whom the TPLF has been able to co-opt. Hailemariam’s government has been releasing political prisoners–some 6000 so far this year–in an effort to ease tensions, but if anything protests are growing, not diminishing. His resignation is an attempt to give the protesters a win in the hopes they’ll back off a bit. He may also have been frustrated by hardliners within his governing coalition who have slowed down his efforts to placate the protesters. Hailemariam had been PM since 2012 and will serve in an interim capacity until he’s replaced.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
DRC officials say that a group of their soldiers fought a border skirmish with Rwandan forces earlier this week and several of them were killed. Rwandan officials aren’t denying that the clash took place but say it happened on Rwandan territory, which the Congolese officials say it happened just inside the DRC border.
Cyril Ramaphosa is the new president of South Africa. He was elected by parliament on Thursday to replace the scandal-plagued Jacob Zuma, who resigned on Wednesday rather than face and undoubtedly lose a no-confidence vote. The news of the changeover seems to have been generally well-received by South Africans, but many who have soured on the African National Congress in general aren’t sure Ramaphosa can really clean up the party. The new president’s relatively recent history as an oligarch with labor blood on his hands should also be reason for concern.
SPD leaders may not have as hard a sell as previously believed to get their rank-and-file members behind another governing coalition with Angela Merkel and her conservatives. A new poll finds that 66 percent of party members support the coalition with only 30 percent preferring new elections. Maybe Merkel’s decision to hand the Finance Ministry to the Social Democrats has paid off. Or maybe SPD members realize that their party would probably lose even more votes in a snap election. Overall, a slim plurality of Germans (49 percent) want Merkel to serve another full term as chancellor, compared with 44 percent who want her out of there.
Colombian officials believe their ELN problem may actually be a Venezuela problem. Venezuelan refugees may be participating in ELN activities, and the Colombians claim there’s evidence that the ELN has been planning and launching attacks in Colombia from Venezuela.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro says he “will attend” the Summit of the Americas meeting in Peru in April despite the fact that he’s been barred from attending. How does one crash an international summit that’s being held in another country? Stay tuned, I guess.
The fourth US circuit court of appeals ruled on Thursday that the latest (third? fourth? 12th?) version of Donald Trump’s travel ban is unconstitutional. Specifically, that it is “unconstitutionally tainted with animus toward Islam.” You don’t say. None of this matters until the Supreme Court hears a case on the ban in April and Neil Gorsuch and Sam Alito concoct some completely bullshit justification so that the court’s five Republicans can uphold it.
Finally, a new report from the Nuclear Threat Initiative argues that America’s plan to modernize its Europe-based B61 nuclear bomb stockpiles is a waste of billions of dollars to upgrade weapons that have no strategic value and are a tempting target for thieves and would-be terrorists:
The US is to spend billions of dollars upgrading 150 nuclear bombs positioned in Europe, although the weapons may be useless as a deterrent and a potentially catastrophic security liability, according to a new report by arms experts.
A third of the B61 bombs in Europe under joint US and Nato control are thought to be kept at Incirlik base in Turkey, 70 miles from the Syrian border, which has been the subject of serious concerns.
The threat to the base posed by Islamic State militants was considered serious enough in March 2016 to evacuate the families of military officers.
During a coup attempt four months later, Turkish authorities locked down the base and cut its electricity. The Turkish commanding officer at Incirlik was arrested for his alleged role in the plot.
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