Kind of a crazy day here at attwiw HQ, so this is going to be truncated and it will go out much earlier than usual.
According to Russian sources Eastern Ghouta is now entirely in Syrian control. As to the expected US et al response to Saturday’s alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, the timeline is starting to look a little less imminent. US Defense Secretary James Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that the Trump administration is “looking for the actual evidence” of what happened on Saturday, which it’s not going to get until at least this coming Saturday:
#BREAKING OPCW chemical weapons watchdog says fact-finding team will start work in Syria on Saturday
— AFP news agency (@AFP) April 12, 2018
Mattis also reiterated that the administration does not want to involve itself in the war between Bashar al-Assad and the rebels. Which suggests a very limited response, assuming there is a response. Right now the betting line seems to be a package of strikes intended to specifically eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles. This is likely an impossibility–chlorine is so easily obtained and so ubiquitous that it’s almost unimaginable that the US even knows where all of Syria’s supply is. The US could instead target Assad’s delivery systems–planes, helicopters, artillery–but that almost by definition would mean getting involved in the civil war, the thing Mattis says they don’t want to do. It’s a much bigger mission that would carry substantially greater risks in terms of a response from Syrian air defenses and the possibility of escalation with Russia.
Mattis’s boss, Donald Trump, says he expects to make a decision on a response “fairly soon,” but this is also a guy who said he’d have a decision within 48 hours around 96 hours ago. Sometimes, if you haven’t noticed this yet, Trump just kind of says stuff without really meaning it. French President Emmanuel Macron says he has “proof” that Assad did drop chemical weapons on Douma on Saturday, but he hasn’t bothered to tell anybody what that proof is and it’s not clear what it possibly could be. Anyway, France is unlikely to act unilaterally before the US does.
On the other hand, Kuwait Airlines has cancelled its flights to Beirut, which could just be an abundance of caution or could reflect that they know something the rest of us don’t. Meanwhile, the Russians have ratcheted down their rhetoric considerably and are now talking about the importance of keeping open deconfliction channels with the US. They seem to be limiting their talk of retaliation to a scenario wherein Russian personnel are caught in a US airstrike, suggesting they would not respond to strikes that were careful only to threaten Syrians.
At least 10 people were killed on Thursday when bombs went off at a funeral for three Sunni tribal fighters in Shirqat. Obviously ISIS is the primary suspect though nobody has claimed responsibility.
Two more Palestinian protesters were gunned down by Israeli forces in Gaza on Thursday, bringing to 34 the number of protesters who have been killed since protests began on March 30.
The European Union on Thursday extended its package of human rights-related sanctions against Iran for another year, through April 2019. However, it’s becoming clear that the EU does not agree internally on levying new sanctions against Iran to try to appease Donald Trump and preserve the Iran nuclear deal. Any new EU sanctions will require unanimous consent from its members, and at this point that seems like a long shot, though an anonymous European diplomat did tell reporters on Thursday that there’s been “good progress” in negotiating an arrangement that might satisfy Trump’s needs.
Unsurprisingly, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which observed Azerbaijan’s presidential election on Wednesday, says there were some problems with the vote:
The OSCE said Wednesday’s vote had taken place “within a restrictive political environment and under laws that curtail fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections.”
Viorel Riceard Badea, head of the delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said: “We have to consider that, in a political environment where democratic principles are compromised and the rule of law is not observed, fair and free elections are not possible.”
An overnight Taliban attack in against a government facility in Ghazni province, which I briefly added to last night’s update when reports started coming out, looks like it was far more serious than the early reports suggested. At least 15 people were killed in the attack (not including Taliban fighters, as many as 45 of whom may also have been killed in the fighting), including the governor of the Khuja Omari district where the attack took place. Ghazni province is increasingly Taliban country, but they don’t seem to have captured Khuja Omari’s district center in this attack.
Already dealing with cuts in US aid due to its role in Afghanistan, Pakistan may see tens of millions of dollars in further aid cuts this year over its human trafficking record. The State Department releases a human trafficking report every June, and if it classifies Pakistan as a “Tier Three” country (it’s currently in “Tier Two”), the result would be automatic aid cuts as well as the imposition of sanctions that would impact Pakistan’s ability to receive funds from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Doing so would naturally raise some questions about whether the reclassification was legitimate or done to pressure Islamabad on Afghanistan and counterterrorism. The human trafficking report is not supposed to be used in that manner.
The Khmer National Liberation Front has threatened to carry out a bombing in Phnom Penh to coincide with the Cambodian New Year celebration, which runs from Thursday through Monday. The threat is serious enough that the US embassy in Cambodia has issued a security alert.
Donald Trump wants back in the TPP. I hate to reduce my commentary to “LOL, what a dumbass,” but in this case, LOL, what a dumbass. Since Trump is president of the United States he’ll no doubt be welcomed back into the TPP with open arms, but it’s unclear how he’s going to be able to spin this to keep himself from looking like an idiot for rejoining an agreement he once called “an attack on America’s business” when nothing about it seems to have changed in the interim.
At least five people were killed on Thursday when a bomb exploded in a crowded football stadium in the city of Barawe. Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the blast.
Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders are due to meet on Monday in an effort to see if last year’s failed peace talks could be restarted. Don’t get your hopes up, but at least they’re talking.
Here’s something that seems super cool and good:
A Hungarian magazine published Thursday more than 200 names of people it claims are likely part a group that Prime Minister Viktor Orban calls “mercenaries” paid by U.S.-Hungarian billionaire philanthropist George Soros to topple the government.
Those on the list in weekly publication Figyelo include members of rights organizations such as Amnesty International, anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, refugee advocates, investigative journalists and faculty and officials from the Soros-founded, Budapest-based Central European University.
Some of those named are deceased.
Other may now wind up deceased because of this list. As we all know, one hallmark of any free society is for the propaganda outlets of the ruling party to regularly publish lists of alleged enemies of the state, especially when they’re allegedly connected with nefarious international
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš considers the idea of forming a coalition with the Czech Communist Party and small parties on the right-wing fringe to be a “last resort” and will not do it without the approval of his ANO party. Sadly for Babiš, the fringe parties seem to be the only ones willing to even entertain the idea of entering a coalition with him at this point. Babiš, who is eclectic and populist in his politics but is not anti-Europe, has issues with both the communists, who want the Czech Republic to quit NATO, and the righties, who want it to quit the EU.
A Greek fighter jet crashed on Thursday after carrying out a mission to intercept Turkish aircraft that had crossed into Greek airspace. The pilot was killed. It’s likely the crash had nothing directly to do with the Turkish intercept mission, but given the escalating tension between Turkey and Greece over border issues it’s worth keeping track of these sorts of incidents.
Emmanuel Macron says it’s Austerity or Bust even though a whole lot of French folks don’t seem to like him very much anymore. I know it’s hard to believe that people could get angry at a guy who raises taxes on pensions and slashes away at employment protections and public spending while dramatically cutting France’s wealth and capital gains taxes, but here we are.
Finally, Mike Pompeo’s Secretary of State confirmation hearing began on Thursday. Best of luck to him. While we’re here, it might be worth noting Pompeo’s close association with some of the most disgusting elements of the Islamophobia industry on the US right wing fringe:
In 2014 and 2015, Pompeo spearheaded legislation to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization. That might not seem so outlandish a proposition in 2018: The Islamist party is outlawed in countries such as Egypt and reviled by the monarchies of the Arab Gulf.
But the campaign for this designation in the United States has no support from a wide spectrum of mainstream counterterrorism analysts. It is deeply connected to the efforts of a fringe set of hate groups that see American Muslims as a fifth column bent on subverting the state. One of those organizations, ACT for America, awarded Pompeo its highest honor, the National Security Eagle Award, in 2016. The Anti-Defamation League describes ACT for America as the “largest anti-Muslim group” in the country, one that “stokes irrational fear of Muslims” and “propagates” a “hateful conspiracy theory” of Muslims secretly working to impose sharia law on Americans.
Pompeo also frequently appeared on radio shows with Frank Gaffney, another leading Islamophobe who spuriously accused various Democrats of clandestine ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. During one 2015 episode featuring Pompeo, Gaffney went on a rant about President Barack Obama, suggesting he had an “affinity” for Islamist militants.
Pompeo agreed. “Frank, every place you stare at the president’s policies and statements, you see what you just described,” he said.
A buddy of Frank Gaffney. What an inspired choice to serve as America’s number one representative to the world.
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