Tonight’s updates didn’t really fit into any of my usual groupings, but they were too long for one post, so I mashed them together as best I could.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, with US help, announced late Saturday that they’ve begun the “decisive battle” to wipe out the last remnants of ISIS’s “caliphate” in eastern Syria. ISIS still controls a small piece of territory around two villages in Deir Ezzor province, small enough that it can still defend it fairly energetically even with only about 400-600 fighters left, and it’s been able to mine the area thoroughly. So even though it is a small piece of land the fight to take it could take days or even weeks. There are still civilians believed to be inside the enclave, so that could slow things down as well. The SDF said on Sunday that its forces had gained ground, but also, according to the BBC, that they’re meeting “fierce resistance” from ISIS. Meanwhile, the US military says it’s on track to withdraw its forces from eastern Syria within “weeks,” in keeping with the SDF’s operational timetable.
The Israeli government says it will begin withholding customs duty funds from the Palestinian Authority whenever the PA gives money to the families of suspected Palestinian militants. The move comes in response to the murder last week of an Israeli teenager, even though at this point it’s only suspected that her alleged Palestinian killer had a nationalistic motive and the Palestinian Authority says it hasn’t made any plans to give money to the alleged murderer’s family.
The PA pays out benefits to the families of Palestinians who are killed or arrested by Israeli authorities if it considers them to have been fighting against the occupation. This has long been an issue for Israeli officials, who accuse the PA of incentivizing terrorism. It can’t be that people are driven to violence by the occupation, the deprivation, and the dehumanization, you see, it must be the PA’s money that’s causing it.
The largest European Union countries–Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain–are leading an effort to keep Saudi Arabia off of the EU’s financial crimes blacklist. EU officials have tentatively added the Saudis to a list of countries engaged in money laundering and/or terrorist financing, based on the Financial Action Task Force’s findings, but the countries in question all have strong, uh, incentives to stay on the kingdom’s good side. If Brussels does put Saudi Arabia on the list despite the internal lobbying, member states could still vote to remove it.
There are conflicting reports about a weekend US airstrike in Helmand province, but all of them end with several dead Afghan civilians. At least ten people were killed according to local residents in the province’s Sangin district, but a provincial legislator has variously cited figures of 14 or 21 killed. Taliban fighters reportedly fired on Afghan and US forces in the district and the subsequent airstrikes hit buildings next door to the one in which the Taliban allegedly were. Afghan officials say that some 25 Taliban fighters were killed in the clash.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered to let the Taliban open up a political office anywhere in Afghanistan on Sunday, presumably in an effort to finally make himself relevant to ongoing Taliban-US peace talks. The Taliban turned him down and accused him of trying to wreck those talks. The Taliban wants international recognition for its Doha political office and still refuses to acknowledge Ghani or his government’s legitimacy.
Indian forces killed five Kashmiri rebels on Sunday in a clash in the region’s Kulgam area. The battle, as these engagements often do, set off a round of anti-India protests in the vicinity, as hundreds of people came out to show solidarity with the rebels and interfere with the Indian operation. There were 10 injuries among the protesters, thanks to Indian shotguns and tear gas, but no reported deaths.
Amnesty International is reporting that the Myanmar army has been shelling entire villages in Rakhine state in response to a renewed uprising by the Buddhist Arakan Army. I guess the upside here is that it shows the Myanmar military is willing to kill civilians of all stripes, not just Rohingya.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn quickly sought to put an end on Saturday to his sister’s plans to run for prime minister. Princess Ubolratana Mahidol had been announced as the PM candidate of the Thai Raksa Chart party on Friday, but the king declared that a royal running for office was unconstitutional under Thai law. Thai elections officials will on Monday consider the legality of the princess’s candidacy, as well as possibly banning the party from March’s election–Thailand’s first since the 2014 military coup–or even dissolving it.
The Turkish government on Saturday took China to task for its treatment of its predominantly Muslim Uyghur minority:
“The systematic assimilation policy of Chinese authorities towards Uighur Turks is a great embarrassment for humanity,” Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said in a statement.
Aksoy also said Turkey had learned of the “tragic” death in custody on Saturday of Uighur poet and musician Abdurehim Heyit.
“We’ve learned with great sorrow that dignified poet Abdurehim Heyit, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for his compositions, died in the second year of his imprisonment,” he said.
“This tragic incident has further strengthened the Turkish public’s reaction to the serious human rights violations in Xinjiang region.”
Turkey becomes only the second Muslim government to speak out about the Uyghurs, after Malaysia (the Pakistanis have made similar criticisms but walked them back earlier this year). In some ways Ankara’s silence has been more egregious than that of other predominantly Muslim countries, given Turkey’s pretensions to leadership within the worldwide Turkic community. But the vast majority of governments in the Islamic world have prioritized keeping good relations with Beijing over the Uyghurs. Turkey’s decision to finally go public could spur some other Muslim countries to follow suit, particularly in Central Asia where the issue of Chinese oppression in Xinjiang is of particular concern with the citizens of the various Central Asian republics.
Washington and Seoul signed a new agreement on the basing of US forces in South Korea on Sunday. The deal raises South Korea’s financial contribution to the US mission there to around $925 million per year, but only covers 2019 (the previous arrangement was a five year deal). That was apparently at the impetus of the Trump administration, which means it’s going to come back demanding a higher South Korean payment for 2020.
The so-called Libyan National Army continued its offensive in southern Libya over the weekend with airstrikes near the El Feel oil field. The strikes were apparently intended to send a message to a local militia commander allied with the internationally recognized Libyan government in Tripoli. On Sunday, the LNA forced a civilian plane that had taken off from El Feel to land in the nearby city of Sabha because the aircraft apparently took off “without permission.” Why the plane needed Khalifa Haftar’s permission to take off is a bit of a mystery. The LNA let the flight continue on to Tripoli after inspecting it.
Although Haftar’s latest offensive sure seems like the act of a warlord trying to conquer the country, journalist Alessandra Bocchi says that for the most part the main regional political entities in southern Libya are welcoming the LNA’s arrival:
The three main tribes in Libya’s southern Fezzan region largely support Gen. Khalifa Hifter’s military takeover. Despite little media coverage, his Libyan National Army (LNA) has come to an agreement with most of the main tribal authorities in Libya’s southern capital city, Sabha, and other areas in the southeast. The military operation has restored some security in a part of the country where human, fuel and drug trafficking has run rampant since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in 2011.
Libya’s three main southern tribes are Awlad Suleiman, Tebu and Tuareg. They have all released official statements declaring support for Hifter’s army, though some members have raised concerns for the LNA’s reputation of brutal military force over the territories it controls. Awlad Suleiman released a statement through its municipal council, rather than directly through its tribal spokespersons, to avoid disputes with the rival Tripoli government it receives support from.
Despite the complexity of Libya’s war, the key southern region — which has been lawless for almost a decade — has now seen a return to the rule of law with Hifter’s military advances in the south.
As expected, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika will stand for reelection to a
posthumous fifth term in office in April’s election. Bouteflika made his candidacy official on Sunday, or rather state media made it official on his behalf. His FLN party had already nominated him as its candidate. Bouteflika apparently wants (or more accurately the people running the country while Bouteflika’s mortal remains sit in a wheelchair want) to amend the constitution in this upcoming term. Most likely he wants/they want to create a vice-presidency in order to prepare a successor for whenever the Algerian military and FLN finally decide to stop doing this weird Weekend At Bernie’s thing.
US Africa Command says it carried out another airstrike in southern Somalia on Friday, killing at least eight al-Shabab fighters. Yet again there were no civilian casualties as far as we’re allowed to know.
The Chadian army says it detained some 250 Union of Forces of Resistance rebel fighters after their convoy, crossing into Chad from southern Libya, was repeatedly bombed by French aircraft earlier this week. The UFR fighters were reportedly pushed back into Chad by the LNA’s offensive in southern Libya.