World update: February 27 2018

I’ve once again shrunk things down to a single post tonight, and I’m calling it a night a little early (it’s about 9:30 east coast time). If anything comes up later you can maybe check back here or stay tuned for tomorrow.



Syria as of this week–note the ring of Turkish-FSA controlled territory around Afrin (Wikimedia | Emreculha)

This may come as a shock, but you know that Russian plan for daily five hour humanitarian ceasefires in Eastern Ghouta? Otherwise known as the literal least anybody could do to help the people trapped there? Well, it’s already not working. Fighting resumed shortly after Tuesday’s pause was supposed to have begun.

A new United Nations report says that there’s evidence that North Korea has been helping Syria with its chemical weapons program. Sure, I guess. Could be. The thing is, people make this same accusation about Iran and missiles/nuclear weapons all the time, and it’s probably not true.

Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Democratic Party-leaning Center for a New American Security, characterizes the current US strategy in Syria relies on “pendulum theory,” which isn’t great news if the pendulum doesn’t eventually swing back:

Heras told ThinkProgress that the Trump administration is banking on the “pendulum theory,” or the shifting momentum between Assad and his allies and the opposition. As the pendulum swinging away from Assad, said Heras, the United States could possibly come to an agreement with the Russians, who would be looking to cut a deal.


“They argue that President Putin can’t afford — financially, and in terms of the wear-and-tear on Russian planes — and doesn’t have enough men to deal with a surge in the fighting,” he said. Likewise, the Trump administration calculus holds that the Iranian-backed Shia militia in Syria is “actually a paper tiger” and that Assad’s military forces are limited and exhausted.


But what if the pendulum theory is wrong?


“If the pendulum doesn’t swing away from Assad, all it does is continue to entrench the United States in Syria without an exit strategy. It continues to put pressure on the humanitarian condition of millions of Syrians, and it doesn’t move Assad away from his throne in Damascus,” said Heras.

Be that as it may, at least the United States has a legal justification to be in Syria. Sort of. Somehow, the Pentagon says that the principle of Iraqi self-defense gives its forces the right to be in Syria, even though it’s a bit of a stretch for the United States to invoke self-defense on behalf of another country. It’s also a stretch because, with ISIS pretty thoroughly whipped, nothing happening in Syria really impacts on Iraqi security anymore and yet the US plans to leave soldiers in Syria indefinitely.


Reuters is reporting that Saudi airstrikes killed at least five Yemeni civilians near Saada on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, stymied at the UN Security Council by Russia, the Trump administration got France, Germany, and the UK to join it in “condemning” Iranian involvement in Yemen on Tuesday. This is even less meaningful than the Security Council resolution would have been, and that’s saying something.


As quickly as they arrested former PYD leader Saleh Muslim on Monday, the Czech government released him on Tuesday after a court found no reason to continue holding him. Muslim has agreed to stay in the European Union while a Turkish extradition case is pending. Ankara accepted this decision with its usual grace, with Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ accusing the Czech government of supporting terrorism.


Jordan and Turkey, who share a mutual suspicion of the Saudis and (now) of the US as well, are working on tightening their relationship:

Jordan and Turkey are bolstering ties in a bid to unify positions toward regional challenges where the two countries share mutual interests, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Syrian crisis. King Abdullah II hosted Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Gen. Hulusi Akar, the commander of the Turkish Armed Forces, on separate visits to Amman over the course of two days, Feb. 19 and 20, respectively.


At LobeLog, Mitchell Plitnick sees no chance for a serious change in Israel’s approach to the Palestinians even if Benjamin Netanyahu is forced to leave office due to his corruption scandals:

The main battleground to replace Netanyahu is going to be within the Likud party. There, Gilad Erdan, Yuli Edelstein, Israel Katz, and Gideon Sa’ar are poised to battle for the top spot, and thus the favorite position to become the next prime minister. Sa’ar is probably the most moderate, but it is a distinction without a difference in terms of the occupation and foreign policy. Yair Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid party, and Avi Gabbay, leader of Labor, have both expressed support for a “peace process.” But that support has been so vague—and placed beside statements from both that clearly show their hostility toward both Palestinians and, at least in Gabbay’s case, Israel’s own Palestinian citizens—there is little hope for real change from this corner, even in the unlikely event that either of them could cobble together a government they could lead.

Plitnick argues that any possibility of change is going to come not from Israeli leaders but from Israelis themselves, when they finally confront the fact that Israeli values cannot be reconciled with the occupation. I can’t say that I share his optimism.


The Egyptian military says that three of its soldiers were killed on Tuesday in fighting against militants in Sinai. At least 11 militants were also killed.



With its founder, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, now barred from serving as party leader, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party has picked a new boss: his brother, Shahbaz. The PML-N also named Nawaz Sharif “leader for life,” which is an unofficial title but could still rankle the Pakistani legal system. Shahbaz Sharif, currently chief minister for Punjab, could once again be in line to serve as PM if the PML-N does well enough in July’s election.

As Pakistan’s relations with the US continue to deteriorate its relations with Russia seem to be improving. The Russians see Pakistan as an important ally in confronting ISIS in South Asia and in terms of containing the US presence in Afghanistan. Still, analysts expect Islamabad to try to salvage some kind of relationship with Washington rather than turning entirely to Moscow (and Beijing).


The US is suspending a small amount (a bit over $8 million) of aid to Cambodia over concerns that the country is sliding into autocracy. The final straw may have been Monday’s Cambodian senate election, in which the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party claims to have won 58 of the body’s 62 seats. Of course, the Cambodian government’s decision to ban the country’s largest opposition party might have had something to do with that outcome.


Donald Trump is hinting that he’d be open to talks with North Korea–the only problem is that he’s running out of people who could do the talking:

But Mr. Trump’s hint that talks might be possible came just hours before word emerged of a potential complication to any peace efforts: the looming departure of Joseph Y. Yun, one of the State Department’s most knowledgeable and experienced diplomats on North Korea. Mr. Yun abruptly announced his plan to retire by the end of the week, a departure that could undermine any chances of talks taking place, much less progress being made on curbing North Korea’s nuclear programs.


Mr. Yun, the top American envoy on North Korea, helped negotiate the release of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who was imprisoned by North Korea and died days after returning home in a coma last year. He has been a strong advocate for a diplomaticrather than military — resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis.

Yun hasn’t said why he’s leaving, but you can probably think of a few possible reasons. There’s still no reason to expect talks when the two countries can’t agree on what they should be talking about–North Korea only wants to negotiate with the US as a fellow nuclear power, while the US only wants to talk North Korea into giving up its nukes. Not much room for common ground there.



The Nigerian government says its forces carried out a series of raids near the Cameroonian border on Monday that killed at least 35 Boko Haram fighters and freed some 1100 people the group was holding captive. Given their recent track record it’s probably best to take these claims with a grain of salt, but freeing anybody from captivity with Boko Haram is a positive thing.


The US says it carried out an airstrike in Somalia’s Middle Juba province on Monday that killed two al-Shabab fighters.


Uganda’s ruling National Resistance Movement party is trying to arrange it so that Yoweri Museveni can remain in office until 2035. Well, he’ll be over 90 in 2035, so maybe that’s more aspirational than a solid plan. At some point this year the country will likely hold a referendum on extending presidential terms from five to seven years. The Ugandan parliament has already removed the constitution’s age limit (formerly 75) and has instituted a two-term limit for presidents–but only starting in 2021.


At Africa Is a Country, Jacquelin Kataneksza looks at the state of the Zimbabwean opposition following the death of Morgan Tsvangirai:

In the collective memory of Zimbabweans everywhere, Tsvangirai will be the brave face of opposition, an unlikely yet tenacious adversary to Mugabe. That Tsvangirai was an icon is indisputable. He will forever be enshrined in the public’s consciousness. Tributes keep pouring in, from close friends and colleagues to politicians around Africa and the world. Even Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who at one point was accused of coordinating state-sanctioned intimidation during the contested 2008 presidential elections in which Tsvangirai opposed Mugabe, noted: “When we write the history of this country, we cannot leave out the participation and role that the former prime minister played in the effort to entrench democratic values in this country.”


But while we should honor him, it is equally important to assess his legacies especially given the current environment of political uncertainty in the run-up to the elections.



Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev says he’s offered the Greek government four options for settling the two countries’ dispute over the use of the name “Macedonia.” Assuming Athens likes any of them, one of these will probably be the new name of the current (all together now) Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia:

“The suggestions are: Republic of North Macedonia, Republic of Upper Macedonia, Republic of Vardar Macedonia and Republic of Macedonia (Skopje),” Zaev said following a western Balkans summit in London.


Asked whether he thought Greece would be happy with one of the options he said: “Yes … They have more preferred options and some not so preferred options.”


Because Brexit wasn’t already complicated enough, the governments of both Wales and Scotland now say they will soon be taking up bills to ensure that devolved powers that currently rest with Brussels will come back to the UK’s regional governments rather than landing in London. Regional UK governments are supposed to have control over agricultural and fishing policy, but due to European Union rules in those areas that control is now with the EU government in Brussels. After Brexit these powers are technically supposed to revert to London rather than going back to the regions. Without some agreement on future power-sharing the UK parliament can’t take up its own Brexit bill, and so the debates over these bills is going to delay the whole Brexit process.



Nicolás Maduro might have an opponent in April’s presidential election after all. Former Lara state governor and disaffected Chavista Henri Falcón looks like he might be preparing to throw his hat into the ring. He might well lose, because as a Chavista who opposes Maduro he doesn’t really have a natural constituency, but with the rest of the opposition boycotting the election it’s probably good to have at least one other name on the ballot just in case. And here’s the thing: he could actually win. There’s already apparently been at least one poll that shows Falcón beating Maduro, which definitely isn’t conclusive but suggests this could be a close race.


Jared Kushner, who already couldn’t qualify for a permanent security clearance, has now had his top secret clearance downgraded to secret. No word on whether this will impact his ability to play soldier dress up in the future.

Why did Kushner get his clearance downgraded? Well it probably had something to do with the fact that he’s an ethically compromised and dangerously overleveraged dullard–and everybody knows it:

Officials in at least four countries have privately discussed ways they can manipulate Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter.


Among those nations discussing ways to influence Kushner to their advantage were the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico, the current and former officials said.

What bothers me here is not the suggestion that Kushner is a walking, breathing security risk, but rather the absurd notion that only four countries have figured that out.

Anyway, in a normal administration this would be the end of Jared Kushner’s employment and probably his political career. In the Trump royal court, it’s not even the end of his access to top secret information. If there’s anything he desperately wants to read, he can just ask his equally compromised father in-law–who as president has the prerogative to share classified material pretty much as he likes–to let him take a gander.

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