It’s another hectic day at HQ so I’m going to try to be briefer and earlier than usual again.
Syrian and Russian attention in Daraa province has focused on the Yarmouk Basin, where an ISIS affiliate called Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Walid has been ensconced since 2014. ISIS and its subdivisions aren’t covered under any ceasefire arrangement pertaining to Daraa. In retaliation for Syrian and Russian airstrikes ISIS on Wednesday attacked the town of Hait, killing at least five people. On Tuesday an ISIS suicide bomber carried out an attack in Zeizoun against what seems to have been a rebel group that had already agreed to surrender, killing at least 14 people. ISIS’s own media claims that the target was the Syrian army and that the bomber killed 35 people.
The Israeli government says its forces shot down a drone that entered Israeli airspace from Syria on Wednesday. The incident came just before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Netanyahu wants Putin to break his alliance with Iran and force Tehran to withdraw its forces from Syria. He promised that Israel is not trying to topple Bashar al-Assad, though left things a little ambiguous as to whether Israel might try to do so if Russia doesn’t act against Iran.
Later in the day, Syrian state media reported that the country’s air defenses had intercepted Israeli missiles fired at the Syrian army in Quneitra province. Quneitra abuts the Golan and consequently Syrian military operations there are going to draw a lot of Israeli attention.
The Israelis, along with the Saudis and Emiratis, have been trying to get Putin to break with Iran for years now. All three countries are currently trying to convince Donald Trump to cut a deal with Putin whereby Putin would end the war in Syria and back Iran off in return for an end to US sanctions against Russia over Ukraine. Apart from basically recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which would threaten to open up lots of exciting new vistas in international affairs, there’s very little evidence that Putin would be amenable to even trying to push Iran out of Syria and zero evidence that he could actually pull it off. The latter informs the former–if Putin feels there’s any chance that he could lose a struggle for influence in Syria to Iran and thereby be made to look like a punk, he’s not going to have much interest in sticking his neck out like that.
The starvation of the Yemeni people is a deliberate aim of the Saudi-led war effort there, but even though you’d think that sort of thing would be illegal under international law it’s probably not:
Human-rights groups question the legality of the Hodeidah offensive, as well as the Saudi-led blockade and aerial bombing campaign, on the grounds that they have created widespread hunger. The Geneva Conventions prohibit the destruction of “objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.” Alex de Waal, the author of the book “Mass Starvation,” which analyzes recent man-made famines, argued that economic war is being waged in Yemen. “The focus on food supplies over all and humanitarian action is actually missing the bigger point,” de Waal told me. “It’s an economic war with famine as a consequence.”
Under international law, waging economic warfare is more of a gray area than the use of overt siege-and-starvation tactics. Stopping activities that are essential for people to feed themselves, such as closing off businesses and work opportunities, is not explicitly covered. “That is a weakness in the law,” said de Waal, who is also the executive director of the World Peace Foundation. “The coalition air strikes are not killing civilians in large numbers but they might be destroying the market and that kills many, many more people.”
The Saudis (and the US, which is enabling all of this) can argue that they’re trying to degrade the Houthis’ ability to wage war and, oops, millions of people are starving as an unintended consequence. You can’t make an omelette, etc. It’s bullshit, but it’s probably good enough to serve as cover for what they’re doing.
Egyptian security forces killed at least 11 suspected ISIS militants in a clash in northern Sinai on Wednesday. There’s no word on any casualties among the Egyptian forces.
Another day, another attack in Jalalabad. This time attackers bombed and stormed a government education office in the city and killed at least 11 people in the process. So far nobody has taken credit for the attack but it comes amid a general rise in ISIS activity in Nangarhar province that stretches back to the Taliban’s Eid ceasefire last month.
As expected, a meeting of religious scholars organized by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Riyadh has concluded that the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan should end and has called for the group to engage in peace talks with the Afghan government. The Taliban continue to reject negotiations with Kabul in favor of direct talks with the US.
The anti-Taliban and predominantly Pashtun Awami National Party said on Wednesday that it will not be intimidated by Pakistani Taliban attacks. An ANP rally in Peshawar was attacked on Tuesday evening and 20 people were killed.
All 12 Thai kids and their football coach have been rescued from the cave in which they’d been trapped for 17 days. In case you needed some good news.
Chinese President Xi Jinping told representatives from 20 Arab states at the China-Arab States forum in Beijing on Tuesday that the Chinese government is prepared to offer them $20 billion in loans for economic development projects. It’s the “loans” part that should raise some eyebrows. The terms of China’s loan packages are proving to be incredibly onerous and involve major national assets as collateral. The thing is, China is pretty much the only game in town in terms of financing development projects, now that the US has decided we’d rather cut taxes on billionaires and pay for more cool missiles and shit and now that Europe has committed to austerity-ing itself into oblivion. So poorer countries don’t really have much choice in terms of financing these days.
Three weeks after seizing control of all of Libya’s main oil ports, Khalifa Haftar has returned control of them to the National Oil Corporation in return for…nothing? Haftar was holding on to the ports in an effort to force the governor of Libya’s central bank, Saddek Elkaber, from his post, but the US apparently leaned on him to give the ports back and, well, he has. This move also comes at a time when the international community is strongly considering a plan to hold parliamentary elections only this year and to postpone any presidential election until next year. Western leaders in particular have been really flogging the idea of holding a full general election this year, but the country is still too divided for that.
The G5 Sahel Joint Force is changing commanders. After an attack late last month by Nusrat al-Islam against the force’s headquarters in central Mali, its Malian leader Didier Dacko is losing his job, apparently at French insistence, and the force’s whole structure may be shifting as well:
According to multiple sources, Dacko will be replaced by a yet-to-be-named officer from Mauritania, while Dacko’s Burkinabé deputy will be replaced by an officer from Chad. One prominent French blogger concludes, “One thing seems certain. The French army prefers to count on the much more seasoned armies of Chad and Mauritania than on their Malian partner.”
Not to put too fine a point on Ethiopia’s reasons for wanting to finally make peace with Eritrea, but port access seems to be a big part of the equation. The Ethiopian government says it’s eager to rebuild roads connecting landlocked Ethiopia to Eritrea’s main ports. The agreement the two countries have struck calls for Ethiopia to invest in Eritrean port development, so this should benefit Eritrea as well.
One endearing result of the two countries’ rapprochement, which included the reestablishment of telephone connections, is that people in both countries are now calling total strangers in the other country just for the hell of it. This will probably start verging on harassment in a couple of weeks but for now it just seems nice.
I’m certainly not unsympathetic to arguments about NATO’s many downsides or its continued utility in a post-Cold War world, but this is just stupid. Trump is absolutely convinced that NATO has membership dues and that other member states haven’t been meeting theirs and are now somehow in arrears to the United States. Then he conflates that with US trade deficits, which he still doesn’t understand from an economic perspective.
Trump’s demand that all member states start paying two percent of their GDP on defense immediately is likely to antagonize a few into refusing to meet that target even though, frankly, other NATO members should be spending more on national defense (and the United States should be spending much, much less). Trump actually ended the day demanding that member states all spend four percent of GDP on defense, a target the US, as insanely militaristic as it is, doesn’t even hit (we come in annually in the 3.5 percent neighborhood). And the summit isn’t over yet!
The main thrust of the NATO summit, when everybody wasn’t gawking over Trump’s latest outburst, was reminding everybody that Russia Is Bad. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu gave a newspaper interview on Wednesday in which he countered that it’s Russia that should feel threatened by NATO:
“I have long wanted to give American colleagues a globe so they can look at it and explain why the declared ‘enemies of America,’ are located in the Middle East and the Far East and all their military bases and forces are snuggled up to Russian borders,” Sergei Shoigu was quoted as saying in the interview with Italian newspaper Il Giornale.
Shoigu appeared to be referring to the U.S. missile defense shield, which Washington says is intended to protect against attacks by Iran. Elements of that system are located in eastern Europe, near Russia’s western borders.
He said that NATO expanded eastwards to Russian borders in spite of promises given to Soviet leaders during German unification.
The debate over whether NATO expansion broke promises that NATO leaders made to Mikhail Gorbachev when the Soviet Union was collapsing will never, ever be resolved, and ultimately NATO didn’t really have the right to make promises on, say, Poland’s behalf anyway. The issue could have been resolved by bringing Russia into the alliance, but both NATO and Russian leaders have kept that from happening.
REPUBLIC OF NORTH (?) MACEDONIA
On the plus side the Macedonians did get the NATO invitation they were expecting. So that’s nice for them, I guess. I’m not sure I’d be so keen on joining the alliance just now but I get why it’s important to them.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš’s cabinet won its confidence vote on Wednesday and so the Czech Republic has an actual (albeit minority) government again.
The big spat of the day was between Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and has to do partly with the Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline that will eventually run under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany. The pipeline is a serious concern for Eastern European countries–the easier it is for Russia to get its gas directly to customers in Germany and Western Europe rather than going through pipelines that run through Eastern Europe, the easier it is for Russia to cut off gas supplies to any Eastern European countries that displeases it (though to some extent Russia would be cutting off its nose to spite its face in that scenario). So there’s a legitimate complaint to be made about how much energy business Germany does with Russia.
But Trump’s complaint ran deeper than that. He’s arguing that Germany is basically captive to Russia because it buys so much of its fuel from Russia. Which is an astonishing thing to say coming from a man who owes his presidency in part to explicit Russian interference and who has repeatedly expressed an interest in reducing US-Russia tensions. It’s not Angela Merkel who’s going to be jetting off to Helsinki after this NATO summit to debrief with Vladimir Putin, you know. Merkel sharply responded to Trump’s accusation and then the two of them had a seemingly cordial private meeting on the sidelines of the summit. But that tweet up there came after the Merkel meeting, so either it didn’t go as well as it seemed to outside observers or Trump is the kind of alpha male who can’t deliver a tough message to someone in person and instead has to run to Twitter after the fact to complain. You decide.
The Greek government says it’s expelling two Russian diplomats accused of helping to organize anti-government protests over Athens’ recently completed agreement with the Macedonian government over the former Yugoslav republic’s name. The Russian government says it will respond in kind. Greece and Russia generally get along well with one another, but Moscow would prefer not to see Macedonia join NATO and the European Union, and sinking the naming agreement is one possible way to block those things from happening.
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