Conflict update: March 18-19 2017

BOILING IT DOWN

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If you’re one of those folks who are convinced that climate change is a Chinese hoax or whatever, I’ve got great news: it snowed in the US last week. Problem solved, am I right? Anyway, for the rest of us, things are not so hot. Or, rather, they’re extremely hot, and that’s the problem:

February 2017 was the planet’s second warmest February since record keeping began in 1880, said NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) on Friday; NASA also rated February 2017 as the second warmest February on record. The only warmer February was just last year, in 2016. Remarkably, February 2017 ranked as the fourth warmest month (expressed as the departure of temperature from average) of any month in the global historical record in the NASA database, and was the seventh warmest month in NOAA’s database—despite coming just one month after the end of a 5-month long La Niña event, which acted to cool the globe slightly. The extreme warmth of January 2017 (tenth warmest month of any month in NASA’s database) and February 2017 (fourth warmest) gives 2017 a shot at becoming Earth’s fourth consecutive warmest year on record, if a moderate or stronger El Niño event were to develop by summer, as some models are predicting.

Arctic sea ice extent during February 2017 was the lowest in the 39-year satellite record, beating the record set in February 2016, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). The record low ice extent was due, in large part, to very warm air temperatures in the Arctic—temperatures at the 925 mb level (approximately 2,500 feet above sea level) were 2 – 5 degrees Celsius (4 – 9 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over the Arctic Ocean during February.

Sea ice has been exceptionally scant on the other end of the globe. Antarctic sea ice extent dropped below the lowest values recorded in any month in the satellite record by mid-February. They continued to sag until reaching a new record-low extent in early March.

NOAA also said a few days ago that this December-January-February period was the second hottest on record. But really, how about that snowstorm?

FRANCE

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Conflict update: March 16 2017

SYRIA

jannah

The town of al-Jinah, just west of Aleppo (Google Maps)

“Dozens” (somewhere north of 50, but a final count probably won’t be available until at least tomorrow) of people were killed this evening when an airstrike hit a mosque in the town of al-Jinah, in western Aleppo province, at evening prayer. Upwards of 300 people may have been in the mosque when it was struck, so the death toll could be much higher than has already been reported. It’s still an open question who conducted the strike, but there’s a pretty good chance it was the US, as the Pentagon has already acknowledged carrying out an airstrike in the “vicinity” according to reporter Samuel Oakford:

A photo of missile debris reportedly taken from the scene supports this conclusion:

Oakford says that those US officials told him that the airstrike targeted an “al-Qaeda meeting place” near the mosque, but this is one of those cases where your intent doesn’t really matter. Bombing a place of worship is a war crime. There’s not much gray area there. If people are literally shooting at you from inside the building you might be able to justify something like this, but other than that it’s illegal, full stop.

If this does turn out to have been a US strike it would be, at best, Donald Trump’s second war crime in his two months on the job, after the botched special forces raid in Yemen that killed several Yemeni civilians. Its also reflective of the Trump administration’s overall plan to get more deeply involved in Syria, just not on the Assad-rebels front. The Pentagon is preparing to send 1000 more US troops to support the Syrian Democratic Forces in their eventual attack on Raqqa, as well as to serve as a deterrent against Turkey attacking the SDF. This strike would indicate a stepped-up campaign against al-Qaeda in Syria as well.

THAT’S SO GORKA

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Breitbart News editor turned key Trump national security adviser Sebastian Gorka (seen above, wearing his, uh, uniform) is being forced to deny that he’s a member of a Hungarian organization with ties to the Nazis. Several weeks ago, LobeLog’s Eli Clifton noticed that Gorka sometimes likes to wear a medal, which you can see in the photo above, from the Vitezi Rend. According to the State Department, and World War II/Hungarian historians, the Vitezi Rend organization, which was established after World War I to honor war veterans (well, non-Jewish war veterans), collaborated with the Nazis.

Gorka claimed that his father was “awarded” the medal for his time as a political prisoner in Communist Hungary in the 1950s, and that he (Sebastian) sometimes wears the medial to commemorate his father’s sacrifice, but that story doesn’t really check out. For one thing, only a Vitezi Rend member could get the medal, and for another, for Sebastian to wear it now means that he’s a member of the group himself. The Forward then dug into the Gorka story and reported on his ties to far-right antisemitic groups in Hungary, which prompted the Anti-Defamation League, last month, to demand that Gorka “disavow” those ties.

Then today happened. The Forward, building on their previous reporting, got leaders within Vitezi Rend to “confirm” that Gorka is an active member of their organization. This has prompted a number of human rights and Jewish groups to call for his resignation or firing, including the Anne Frank Center. What’s more, if Gorka really is a member of Vitezi Rend, his immigration status could be in question, according to the Forward:

Gorka’s membership in the organization — if these Vitézi Rend leaders are correct, and if Gorka did not disclose this when he entered the United States as an immigrant — could have implications for his immigration status. The State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual specifies that members of the Vitézi Rend “are presumed to be inadmissible” to the country under the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Gorka — who Vitézi Rend leaders say took a lifelong oath of loyalty to their group — did not respond to multiple emails sent to his work and personal accounts, asking whether he is a member of the Vitézi Rend and, if so, whether he disclosed this on his immigration application and on his application to be naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 2012. The White House also did not respond to a request for comment.

The fact is that we don’t know whether Gorka disclosed his membership in Vitezi Rend to immigration authorities, but if he did it would be a simple thing to say so and put a big chunk of this story to bed. That he hasn’t done that is…suggestive. And the irony of a national security adviser in this administration playing fast and loose with the immigration process is nothing short of mind-boggling.

IRAQ

A combination of bad weather and stiff ISIS resistance continues to hamper Iraqi advances in western Mosul, but the operation is progressing slowly. Iraqi forces moved closer to the Nuri Mosque in Mosul’s Old City today, and made small gains in other parts of the city as well. While the fighting was going on the AP reported that US and Iraqi commanders seemed to have very different conceptions of how the operation is going, with the Americans estimating that about a third of western Mosul has been liberated and the Iraqis putting the figure at 60 percent. The simple explanation here is that the Iraqis are citing a figure that includes the Mosul airport and Ghazlani military base, places that aren’t really in the city proper but have nonetheless been included in the overall west Mosul offensive. The Americans are talking about the city itself. No scandal, just the Iraqis naturally putting the best possible spin on their progress to date.

Nineqah province’s Yazidi, Turkmen, and Assyrian Christian minorities are looking ahead to post-ISIS Iraq and pushing for an autonomous region for their groups, and other minorities who wish to join the effort. The region would be similar to the Kurdistan Regional Government, though none of these groups appear to have the KRG’s ultimate goal of independence in mind.

TURKEY

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is heading to Turkey on March 30 to try to mend fences with Ankara, but he may want to prime himself for a chilly reception. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems hell bent on doing as much damage to Turkey’s relations with western countries as necessary to win nationalist support in the April 16th referendum, and to that end he’s once again threatening to abrogate the refugee deal he reached with the European Union last year. This is something Erdoğan seemingly two or three times a day at this point, but he never actually follows through on his threats. Much like his repeated promises to unleash economic hell on the Netherlands, on this Erdoğan’s bark is worse than his bite. He knows that Turkey needs Europe economically as much as Europe needs Turkey to act as a migrant bottleneck.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A short time ago a rocket or rockets appear to have struck near Israeli settlements in the Jordan valley. Militants in Gaza often fire rockets into Israeli territory, but it’s not yet clear what happened in this case as far as I can tell.

Benjamin Netanyahu promised again today that he will build a brand new illegal West Bank settlement to replace the illegal Amona settlement that his government tore down last month. Bibi is nothing but generous with other people’s land.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett said today that the Israeli military should send Lebanon “back to the Middle Ages” if and when another Israel-Lebanon war breaks out. Justifying his comments on the basis that Hezbollah is “embedded” in Lebanon’s security apparatus, Bennett said that Lebanon’s “infrastructure, airport, power stations, traffic junctions, Lebanese Army bases…should all be legitimate targets.” I wonder what kind of schools this guy runs.

EGYPT

Writing for the Carnegie Endowment, Maged Mandour looks at the civilian toll Egypt’s Sinai operations have taken:

In addition, the number of casualties during counterterrorism operations far exceeds the estimated number of Wilayat Sinai fighters. Since the start of the large counterterrorism “Operation Martyr’s Right” in September 2015, the Egyptian military has reported that 2,529 militants were killed and 2,481 others arrested as of December 2016. However, foreign intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Israel Defense Forces, estimated in mid-2016 that the size of Wilayat Sinai ranges from several hundred to a thousand militants, far below the numbers of reported killings. This disconnect can be explained by faulty intelligence or by inflating of the number of militants killed to include civilian deaths among militant deaths. The Egyptian government has a history of attacking civilians mistaken for militants. Local sources in Sinai back up the existence of such incidents, including an invented attack on a police station in Sheikh Zuweid that was used to justify the deaths of civilians in September 2013.

The counterinsurgency operation has increasingly been undifferentiated in its targeting of the local population. On January 13, five local youth were assassinated who were accused of being part of an attack on a police checkpoint that claimed the lives of eight policemen. In response, the local Bedouin tribes around the city of al-Arish launched a limited civil disobedience campaign to placate the public, refusing to pay water and electricity bills on February 11. The families claimed that at the time of the attack on the checkpoint, the five youth were already being held by state security forces, specifically the national security agency. This is not the first time that Egyptian security forces have been accused of executing defendants already in custody at the time of their alleged crimes, the most notable example of which is the case of Arab Sharkas. Six men were executed after being accused of killing soldiers during a Wilayat Sinai raid on the village of Arab Sharkas in March 2014, even though there was strong evidence that they were under arrest at the time the raid was committed.

SAUDI ARABIA

King Salman’s visit to China has paid off to the tune of $65 billion in new economic deals between the two nations. The countries reportedly agreed to deepen their ties on fossil fuel and renewable energy, with China possibly purchasing a stake in state-run Saudi oil giant Aramco before it goes public. Riyadh desperately needs new investment to boost its stagnating economy at a time when oil prices are low and look to remain relatively low for the foreseeable future. Salman also said he hopes China will increase its political and diplomatic engagement in the Middle East, but Chinese President Xi Jinping sounded noncommittal on that front.

IRAN

The deputy speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Motahhari, is demanding that Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi explain a recent spate of arrests of prominent reform activists in the lead up to May’s presidential election. Motahhari is furthermore threatening to begin impeachment proceedings against Alavi if he refuses to explain the situation to parliament. Alavi, as intelligence minister, answers to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not to President Hassan Rouhani nor, for that matter, to parliament, so if Motahhari were to attempt to follow through on this threat it could precipitate a significant government crisis.

KASHMIR

The Indian government seems to be moving quickly to approve and start work on six hydropower projects in Kashmir. Nice, renewable energy, am I right? Well, hold up a second. While there’s a lot of money to be made in these projects, they all happen to involve tributaries of the Indus River whose waters eventually flow into Pakistan. So in addition to generating electricity, these six dams, once built, could conceivably allow the Indian government to, I don’t know, artificially cause a famine in Pakistan by depriving it of enough water for irrigation. A water war involving two nuclear-armed states sounds like it might not be the best thing for the environment (or, really, anything else), but maybe that’s just me.

I’m no civil engineer or whatever, but it’s likely that these projects could be undertaken in such a way as to alleviate Pakistani concerns over water flow through the Indus valley. It’s also likely that the Indian government is going to use these dams as leverage to try to get Pakistan to do more to tamp down Kashmiri separatists.

MYANMAR

A commission set up by Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and led by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, charged with investigating the plight of the Rohingya community, said today that the Myanmar government must allow some 120,000 Rohingya to leave the decrepit internal refugee camps where they’ve been forced to live for the past five years. Annan’s commission further called upon the government to ensure that those Rohingya are guaranteed security and a way to make a living at the sites to which they return once they’ve left the camps.

PHILIPPINES

A Filipino legislator has filed impeachment charges against President Rodrigo Duterte. There’s about as much chance of this going anywhere as there is of me being appointed the next FBI Director, but hey, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.

NORTH KOREA

This sounds promising:

The Trump administration made a clear break Thursday with diplomatic efforts to talk North Korea out of a nuclear confrontation, bringing the United States and its Asian allies closer to a military response than at any point in more than a decade.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that 20 years of trying to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program had failed and that he was visiting Asia “to exchange views on a new approach.”

Soon after Tillerson’s remarks, in a sign of mounting tensions, the North Korean Embassy held an extraordinary news conference in Beijing to blame the potential for nuclear war on the United States while vowing that its homegrown nuclear testing program will continue in self-defense.

We’re fast approaching the point where the only way to keep Donald Trump’s promise that North Korean will never develop an ICBM will be to strike the country’s missile facilities, which is a scenario that probably won’t end well. Absent diplomacy, it’s hard to see where else this situation can go.

SOMALIA

Somali pirates released the oil tanker they’d hijacked a couple of days ago, along with the crew, after a long day that included a gun battle with Somali naval forces and negotiations with tribal elders on shore. They reportedly agreed to release the ship without being paid a ransom after they’d learned that it had been hired by Somali businessmen.

UKRAINE

Kiev imposed sanctions on a number of Russian-owned banks today, preventing their Ukrainian branches from moving money out of the country.

GREECE

A Greek group calling itself “Conspiracy of Fire Cellsclaimed responsibility for sending a letter bomb to German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble on Wednesday, thereby also implicating themselves in a letter bombing at the International Monetary Fund’s Paris headquarters today. The German bomb was intercepted, but the Paris bomb did injure the person who opened it. That bomb was apparently sent from Greece, hence suspicion falling on this “Fire Cells” group.

BALKANS

Johannes Hahn, the European Union official in charge of bringing new countries into the bloc, spoke to the prime ministers of Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Serbia in Sarajevo today. His message? Settle your various internal and external beefs so that you can join the EU. The problem with that message? Between Brexit and the rise of anti-expansion right-wing governments in EU states like Poland and Hungary, there’s little reason for any of the six Balkan states to believe they’re ever going to join the EU no matter what they do. The carrot only works if the horse knows it’s eventually going to get to eat the damn thing.

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Conflict update: March 6 2017

DO OVER

Donald Trump launched the world premiere of Muslim Ban, Episode 2: Attack of the Clods today, and, well, it hasn’t been struck down by a court yet so I guess that’s something.

trump_flicker_face_yess

Damn, Jar Jar Binks looks like shit

The revised travel ban removes Iraq from the list of proscribed nations altogether, so at least one country in which we currently have soldiers engaged in active combat will no longer have to feel like Trump just kicked it in its collective nuts. It also explicitly exempts travelers who already have valid visas, so there won’t be people stranded at the airport under this version of the ban. It’s less punitive with respect to Syrian refugees than the last ban was, as well–where the last ban suspended all refugee resettlement for 120 days but permanently suspended Syrian refugee resettlement, now Syrians will simply face the same 120 day ban as everybody else. The overall number of refugees the US accepts in a single year will be cut from “LOL, you can’t be serious” to “holy shit, is this a fucking joke,” though, so Syrian refugees–all refugees, really–still mostly won’t be allowed in.

Additionally, the new ban removes preferences for refugees who are “religious minorities” (i.e., Christians) in order to support its new claim that the ban is “not motivated by animus toward any religion.” That’s bullshit, of course, but because our legal system thrives on bullshit it may be enough to allow this ban to survive the inevitable court challenges. Instead of an overt religious ban, the new order requires federal agencies to compile special lists of crimes perpetrated by immigrants, making selection bias official federal policy. I’m sure that will be fine.

IRAQ

After a weekend in which most Iraqi offensive operations were shut down due to bad weather that affected visibility and the ability to use air power, things picked back up today. Iraqi forces were able to take the western end of the second of Mosul’s five bridges, which put them in position to partially encircle the main government complex in Mosul’s old city and which, once the bridge is repaired, give the Iraqis another way to bring soldiers and materiel in from east Mosul directly to the front lines. The Iraqis were able to take several other neighborhoods, though the focus right now remains on the old city and the government buildings there.

Iraqi federal police have taken a page out of ISIS’s playbook and are weaponizing store-bought quadcopter drones with makeshift bombs. I am, and maybe you are as well, conditioned to get the chills when somebody talks about weaponized drones because of the US drone program and its total disregard for small niceties like due process, civilian casualties, and national sovereignty. But in a situation like this–i.e., an active war zone–they may not be so bad. I have to say this made some sense to me:

Bellingcat analyst Nick Waters, who has been following the use of drones by Islamic State closely, told Motherboard that the drones actually have the capability to be more ethical than a normal weapon system.

“You get to see exactly what you’re shooting at, they’re surprisingly accurate (likely reducing civilian casualties) and when you only have one or two bombs you want to make sure you hit the target first time,” he told Motherboard via Twitter direct message.

“They’re better than firing a bunch of 107mm rockets into an area and hoping you hit something with ‘ISIS’ written on it,” Waters added.

Better still would be not introducing explosives into a situation where you aren’t 100 percent sure you’re only going to kill ISIS fighters, but that standard will never get used. Given the choice between weaponized drones and an artillery barrage, I can see how the drone really might be the more ethical choice.

UPDATE: Just before I hit “post,” Reuters reported that Iraqi special forces have taken the main government building in west Mosul after an early Tuesday morning (damn time zones) assault.

SYRIA

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Conflict update: February 28 2017

SYRIA

Today’s big story happened not in Syria, nor in Geneva, but in New York, where Russia and China both vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have sanctioned Damascus over its military’s use, per a UN investigation, of chemical weapons on at least three separate occasions in 2014 and 2015. I don’t want to spend much time dwelling on China’s veto, which for the most part I think is transactional for them (Russia owes them a favor, and they haven’t alienated the likely short-term winner of the Syrian civil war), but the Russian angle here does bear some discussion.

First off, from a purely institutional standpoint the Russian/Chinese position here is untenable. The UN investigated and found that the Syrian military used chemical weapons, which, under the terms of a treaty that Syria signed in 2013, means that they broke international law. It’s perfectly reasonable for the Security Council to impose some penalty for that violation. Now, perhaps the UN investigation was flawed in some way. Russia has dismissed it as flawed. But if I’m convicted of, say, shoplifting, I don’t just get to say “eh, the jury doesn’t know what it’s talking about” and go free. Maybe you think the UN is biased against Bashar al-Assad, which I can certainly understand given the several times it’s done absolutely nothing to him in any way. If you think the UN should be a factor in international affairs, then there’s no reason to veto these sanctions. If, on the other hand, you think the UN should be rendered totally useless, as Russia clearly does–and, if we want to rewind to, oh, 2003, the United States does as well–then by all means veto this resolution.

Second, this marks the first tangible point of disagreement between Russia and the US (which supported the sanctions effort) over Syria. But thanks to the Trump administration’s thorough dysfunctionality in developing a coherent Syria policy, we can’t be sure that this represents a disagreement between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. At this point, who knows how much latitude UN Ambassador Nikki Haley has. I’m not suggesting Haley contradicted administration policy in backing these sanctions, but I am saying it’s possible that the administration didn’t really have a policy on these sanctions until she made it.

Third, this veto highlights the difficulty facing Russia, which want to be Assad’s protector and a neutral peacemaker simultaneously, when those are more or less contradictory positions. Moscow can argue that imposing sanctions on Syria right now would be bad for the peace talks, but a) there’s no absolute reason why that has to be so, and b) vetoing the sanctions is turning out to be pretty bad for the peace talks as well. There’s no reason why, say, the Security Council couldn’t have suspended the implementation of these sanctions while talks are ongoing, which might have actually helped give the talks some extra import. If Russia’s main concern were really the sanctity of the negotiations, it could’ve suggested something like that. But its main concern is still clearly covering for Assad, which means it can’t also be the country that brings everybody together to find a political settlement to the war.

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Conflict update: February 17 2017

Somalia The United States of America

This is Donald Trump’s America, and people are prepared to go to great lengths to get the hell out of it:

A man from Somalia who risked the freezing temperatures of Manitoba as he crossed into Canada was discovered out in the cold by a CBC journalist.

The chance encounter took place around 4:30 a.m. Saturday as Nick Purdon was driving along the U.S.-Canada border, on assignment to watch for possible asylum seekers, while the temperature dipped to –17 C.

He spotted the man crouched near a snowbank along the side of the road near Emerson, Man., in an area where several other Somali asylum-seekers have made the trek out of the U.S. since U.S. President Donald Trump took office in late January.

“I have a problem. America is [the] problem now,” said the man, adding that he had been walking for 21 hours and was “not feeling well.”

I would encourage you to go to the link and watch the video. Then I would urge you to read Robin Wright on how the rest of the world is adjusting to the new America:

Trump’s baffling foreign policy is a central focus of the annual Munich Security Conference this weekend. Top officials from almost fifty countries—including Mattis and Vice-President Mike Pence—are attending the three-day event, which is the premier global forum on security policy. The preparatory report—written by an international team as the official “conversation starter”—uses stark language about the new American President. “The worries are that Trump will embark on a foreign policy based on superficial quick wins, zero-sum games, and mostly bilateral transactions—and that he may ignore the value of international order building, steady alliances, and strategic thinking,” it says. “Or, maybe worse, that he sees foreign and security policy as a game to be used whenever he needs distractions for domestic political purposes.” The report, “Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?” adds candidly, “What is uncertain is how Trump’s core beliefs will translate into policy (and whether policies will be coherent).”

Also, here’s something fun:

Germans are more concerned about U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies than they are about Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to a poll.

The survey published Friday suggests that Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is seeking a fourth term in Germany’s Sept. 24 election, has to take account of an anti-Trump mood among voters even as she seeks to maintain security and trade ties with the U.S. Merkel may elaborate on her stance when she addresses an international security conference in Munich on Saturday along with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.

Trump is viewed with concern by 78 percent of respondents in Germany, an increase from 62 percent in January, according to the FG Wahlen poll for ZDF television. Fifty-eight percent take a similar view of Putin’s policies, while 40 percent expressed no major concern about the Russian president.

Syria

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Conflict update: February 15 2017

Meet the New Boss(‘s Adviser)

In a rare flash of lucidity, Donald Trump has reportedly offered his now-vacant National Security Advisor position to Vice Admiral Robert Harward, instead of, say, Steve Bannon, or John Bolton, or Chucky, the doll from those horror movies. It’s hard to evaluate Harward for two reasons: one, most military brass tend to keep their personal views pretty close to the chest (the ones who don’t, like Michael Flynn, get a lot of attention in part because they really are the exception), and two, pretty much anybody was going to look good compared to Flynn. One thing we do know is that Harward and Defense Secretary James Mattis get along quite well with one another, where Mattis and Flynn did not, so that could be good or bad depending on your preference for intra-administration feuds.

As far as I know Harward hasn’t actually accepted the job yet, and he may not accept it if Trump refuses to allow him to clear Flynn’s people out of the National Security Council. In particular, Flynn’s deputy, KT McFarland, was apparently told by Trump that she could stay in her job, but it’s hard to imagine why Harward, or anybody else for that matter, would want to keep this person on in such an important job.

Israel-Palestine

It got somewhat underplayed because the Flynn scandal is still sucking up most of the national security oxygen, but Donald Trump erased at least 15 years of US policy in one fell swoop earlier today:

Speaking at a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to scuttle long-standing U.S. support for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians.

If “Bibi” and the Israelis and the Palestinians are all happy, “I am looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like… I can live with either one,” Trump said.

Putting aside a lot of justifiable concern from the Palestinian Authority at this sea-change in American policy (though, who knows, Trump could do a complete 180 by tomorrow), the two-state solution is well and truly dead and has been for some time now. Indeed, during the press conference Netanyahu made it quite clear that his vision of the future in Israel-Palestine by definition excludes the possibility of a separate Palestinian state. But there’s also no one-state solution that “both parties like.” There’s the one-state solution that means apartheid or worse for the Palestinians, which they obviously won’t like, and there’s the one-state solution that means Israel will no longer be a majority Jewish state, which “Bibi” obviously won’t like.  I’d ask whether Trump understands this, but I don’t know that the question is relevant.

In return for Trump’s indulgence, which included only the mildest of rebukes toward his ethnic cleansing policies in the occupied West Bank, Netanyahu made sure to praise Trump, whose chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is an anti-Semite, as a great friend of the Jews. If the two of them had started literally scratching each others’ backs right there in front of the press they couldn’t have been any more blatant about what they were doing. Netanyahu also asked Trump to bless Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, something that will go over real well if it’s coupled with a move to put a large number of new US soldiers on the ground in Syria (see below).

Syria

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Conflict update: February 9 2017

Just by way of an update, there’s a pretty good chance this place will be quiet tomorrow. I’m traveling again and, well, I might just feel like crashing afterwards. That’s also why this is posting a few hours earlier than I usually post these updates.

#ThanksTrump

As the Trump administration decides how to proceed now that its Muslim immigration ban looks truly kaput, it’s also preparing to begin the mass deportations called for in its other big immigration EO (the one about the “wall”). The Intercept has some excellent reporting on what’s about to happen and the ramifications that it will entail.

In a phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump reportedly referred to the 2010 New START nuclear arms control treaty as a “bad deal” for the US and refused Putin’s offer to extend it. OK, I mean, Trump is entitled to his opinion, but I have to say I’d feel better about this if sources who were involved in the call didn’t later report that, after Putin brought New START up, Trump had to “ask his aides in an aside what the treaty was.” Or, also, if Trump hadn’t made it abundantly clear during the 2016 campaign that he had no idea what New START was or what it did, despite his firm conviction that it was a terrible deal.

Eight countries–the Netherlands, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, Finland, and Cape Verde–have signed on to a joint effort to counter the Trump administration’s “gag rule” that prevents US-funded NGOs from providing women around the world with information on abortion.

Ted Malloch, the favorite to be named US Ambassador to the European Union, apparently doesn’t like the EU very much, which suggests he’ll do really well in that job, assuming he gets it. After all, former UN Ambassador John Bolton hated the UN, and he…oh, right. In Malloch’s case, one wonders how long Brussels is going to tolerate the Trump administration’s increasingly obvious desire to break the EU up.

Israel-Palestine

Benjamin Netanyahu’s government seems acutely aware that the recent passage of a bill legalizing the annexation of private Palestinian land by Israeli settlers is problematic, to say the least. That’s why they’ve drawn up some helpful talking points for settlement defenders, chock full of grade A bullshit about how the law was the only “fair” solution to the problem of these poor, benighted Israeli families, whose only crime was the literal theft of land belonging to somebody else (the dehumanization of actual Palestinians being a cornerstone of this particular bill). Defenders are also supposed to stress that the legal Palestinian owners of the land will be “fairly compensated,” which kind of elides the fact that many of them don’t want to be “compensated” at all, they just want their land. Here’s the interesting bit, though:

Israeli journalist and commentator Yossi Melman, who revealed the list Thursday in a column for Israeli newspaper Maariv, noted some peculiarities with the arguments, however.

For starters, he wrote, there is no mention of Netanyahu’s support for the law. Initially, the prime minister opposed the legislation, because he understood there would be immediate global criticism. Failing to mention Netanyahu, Melman said, “reinforces the assessment” that the prime minister and some of his ministers voted in favor of the law out of fear of upsetting right-wing voters.

The memo also suggests the government is “pinning its hopes on the Supreme Court to save Israel from the international isolation that the law is liable to cause.” The arguments allow diplomats to tell Israel’s critics not to get too frantic about the law because it will be knocked down in the court.

There is considerable evidence suggesting that Netanyahu wants the court to save him, not the least of which is that he was against the annexation bill before he was for it.

A Palestinian attacker wounded six Israelis in a market in the central Israeli town of Petah Tikva today. In Gaza, an Israeli (presumably, though they seem to be denying it) airstrike on part of the city’s tunnel network reportedly killed two civilians, and the al-Mezan Center for Human Rights is sounding alarm bells about the possibility of a new large-scale Israeli military offensive in Gaza.

Syria

The AP is beginning to wonder how there can be a ceasefire in Syria when fighting has continued mostly unabated in Idlib, Homs, Hama, areas around Damascus, al-Bab, Palmyra, areas around Raqqa, Deir Ezzor…well, you get the idea. It’s a good question, but I can assure you that there’s a perfectly understandable answer, which is that [trails off incoherently].

Turkish forces and their Free Syrian Army proxies reportedly continue to push in to al-Bab. I’ve seen scattered reports of minor fighting between the Turkish/FSA army and Syrian government/allied forces moving toward al-Bab from the south, but for the most part it seems that whatever Russia-brokered accommodation the two sides have reached is holding. Speaking of which, three Turkish soldiers were reportedly killed earlier today in an “accidental” Russian airstrike, which I suppose counts as “friendly fire” now because this war has gone through the looking glass about a dozen times since it began.

Hashem al-Shaykh, a leader of the new Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham rebel coalition, says that his organization is going to step up its attacks on Syrian government forces. Tahrir al-Sham was formed in the midst of the intra-rebel fighting that gripped Idlib a couple of weeks back, and includes Jabhat Fatah al-Sham as well as the forces that opted to take its side rather than merge with the remaining elements of Ahrar al-Sham. This announcement could be an attempt to signal that it’s going to try to move past its conflict with Ahrar al-Sham and get back to fighting the government.

Iraq

I want to reiterate that, in addition to these posts, you should be reading Joel Wing’s daily Mosul updates. He goes into considerably more detail than I’m able to do and draws on Iraqi Arabic media, which I could probably do if you were willing to get my February 9 update sometime in April. Today’s update covers what’s happening in Mosul so thoroughly that I’m just going to quote him:

A commander from the Golden Division told the press that IS had no presence in east Mosul, and yet sleeper cells continue to be found along with infiltrations and continuous shelling and drone strikes. General Saadi Maan stated that the insurgents were no longer in liberated sections of Mosul. He did acknowledge that there were infiltrators. Five IS fighters were killed trying to sneak into the Rashidiya neighborhood in the northern tip of the city. In nearby Darkazlia searches led to a firefight with 16 IS being killed, and 17 arrested including 2 suicide bombers. Several more insurgents were discovered trying to cross the Tigris into east Mosul and were wiped out. Drone attacks, mortar fire, and rockets on eleven neighborhoods left 45 dead and 21 wounded. There are gun battles with militants almost every day now in east Mosul. The government has warned about sleeper cells and IS fighters who disappeared into the general population. The Iraqi forces (ISF) are attempting to root them out with raids and searches throughout the city. At the same time, IS is shelling and launching drone strikes causing more and more casualties. This is leading to continued displacement from Mosul.

IS’s main activity in west Mosul was maintaining control. It burned ten people on charges of helping the Iraqi forces. It raided the New Mosul neighborhood looking for phones, and when they found them people were shot. Another five civilians were executed for trying to flee across the Tigris River. Their bodies were strung up to scare others.

The Iraqi ministry says that it’s extinguished all but five of the 25 oil well fires that ISIS set when it fled Qayyara in advance of the Iraqi offensive. The environmental damage caused by those fires will take substantially longer to dissipate.

Iran

The Washington Post is reporting that “senior defense and intelligence officials” are trying to talk the Trump administration down from its plan to designate the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization. They’re concerned, as you might imagine, with the myriad consequences related to an action that would be akin to some other country declaring the entire US Marine Corps a terrorist force. The State Department’s FTO status was never supposed to be used this way and has never been applied to a state actor.

Egypt

Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s government, the one with which the Trump administration seems so enamored, raided and shut down the offices of the Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence in Cairo today. Ostensibly the center is under investigation for accepting illegal foreign funds. Practically, it was shut down because it works to counter the Sisi government’s often brutal and systematic human rights abuses.

Yemen

Military analyst James Spencer has an interesting analysis at LobeLog of that (alleged) Yemeni rebel suicide attack on a Saudi frigate on January 30. I say (alleged) because, while it’s clear that an attack occurred and it’s pretty likely that the rebels were behind it, Spencer makes a pretty compelling argument that it was a missile attack, not a suicide attack. We know the Yemeni rebels have used anti-ship missiles before, and the video of the attack suggests, at least to Spencer, that the explosion happened too far above the water line to have been caused by a bomber on a boat. He believes the Saudis manufactured the tale about a suicide bomber to cover for the fact that they weren’t employing standard anti-missile defenses despite sailing in waters known to be vulnerable to rebel anti-ship missiles.

Afghanistan

General John Nicholson, the US commander in Afghanistan, told Congress today that he needs “a few thousand” more troops to properly carry out his mission to train, advise, and assist the Afghan military. He suggested that NATO allies could provide some of those troops, but I’m not sure he made a convincing case that a few thousand more Western troops will be enough to change the course of a war that has clearly turned in the Taliban’s favor. The Russian Foreign Ministry, always trying to be helpful, said today that Moscow is ready to cooperate with NATO in Afghanistan.

India-Pakistan

Today the Pakistani government accused India of building a “nuclear city” where it will manufacture nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and of organizing terrorist attacks in Pakistan. India, as you might guess, denies these accusations.

Myanmar

A Malaysian ship loaded with aid intended for the Rohingya arrived in Yangon today, where it was welcomed by a crowd of Buddhist protesters carrying signs reading “NO ROHINGYA.” Because there are no Rohingya. Don’t believe your lying eyes. Anyway, the burden is now on the Myanmar government to deliver the aid.

Philippines

The New People’s Army engaged in a number of small attacks today while criticizing President Rodrigo Duterte for ending his government’s peace talks with the Communist rebel group.

China

This is fine, everything is fine, nothing to worry about:

A U.S. Navy P-3 plane and a Chinese military aircraft came close to each other over the South China Sea in an incident the Navy believes was inadvertent, a U.S. official told Reuters on Thursday.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the aircraft came within 1,000 feet (305 meters) of each other on Wednesday in the vicinity of the Scarborough Shoal, between the Philippines and the Chinese mainland.

Libya

The so-called Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar attacked an air base near the central Libyan city of Jufra. Jufra is controlled by Misratan militias that are opposed to Haftar and the GNA and (at least nominally) aligned with the Government of National Accord. Speaking of which, the General National Congress appears to be forming some kind of armed guard force in Tripoli that could be used to “secure” (i.e., kick the GNA out of) government facilities.

The Gambia

The new Gambian government announced today that it will reverse Yahya Jammeh’s plan to withdraw from the International Criminal Court. This is an interesting development insofar as, only a few days ago, the African Union passed a non-binding resolution calling on all its member states to withdraw from the ICC. But it is potentially good news for the ICC, obviously.

Nigeria

Read this piece on life in the Niger Delta. Just read it.

Greece

Hey, Brexit, don’t get too comfortable. The original, uh, rexit (?) hasn’t gone anywhere. That’s right, I’m talking Grexit, baby. The short version is that Greece’s economy is still in the shit, and with the new state of the world being what it is (including that new American president who really seems to want to break the EU up), Germany’s hard line on austerity seems likely to only get harder. Of course, one of the other thing’s that’s changed since last time we visited with Grexit is that the refugee situation has gotten worse. Tossing Greece from the EU will make it substantially more difficult for the EU to cope with a problem it’s already not really coping with as it is.

Romania

As expected, Romanian Justice Minister (well, ex-Justice Minister) Florin Iordache resigned today over his role in the recent anti-anti-corruption decree that has caused so much public outcry. Almost as predictably, the government Iordache just left is trying to play the xenophobia card, defending itself by arguing that there are foreigners among the crowds of protesters. Sorin Grindeanu’s Social Democratic Party is center-left on economics but apparently has a strong if a bit incongruous nationalist streak that is now on ugly display.

Meanwhile, the Russian government said today that it considers Romania a “clear threat,” which is really just what the Romanian people need right now.

Russia

Russia’s RIA news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Meshkov today saying that recent NATO deployments in Eastern Europe are seen by Moscow as a “threat.”

An analysis by the State Department’s top economist finds that targeted US sanctions have worked as intended, hurting the oligarchs surrounding Russian President Vladimir Putin while mostly leaving the rest of the Russian economy (which is weak nonetheless because of cheap oil) untouched. What the Trump administration will do with these findings, and the sanctions, is unclear.

Radio Free Europe and Voice of America are launching a new Russian language news outlet, Current Time, that looks like it will basically be the opposite of RT America.

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