Conflict update: March 18-19 2017

BOILING IT DOWN

c4jt321

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 14 2017

DONALD TRUMP AND THE HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL

According to Foreign Policy, nominal Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a letter recently to a group of nonprofits warning that the Trump administration is prepared to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council unless “considerable reform” is undertaken in that body. Tillerson’s letter highlighted the presence on the UNHRC of such human rights luminaries as Saudi Arabia and China (and, uh, the United States, while we’re at it), but that’s all smokescreen. By “reform,” what the Trump administration–and, indeed, much of the US foreign policy community–means is “lay off Israel.”

While I take a backseat to nobody in my loathing of Israel’s human rights record, which deserves all the criticism it gets, these folks do have a point about the UNHRC–or, rather, they have part of a point. Something like half of the resolutions issued by the UNHRC since it was formed in 2006, and nearly a third of its special sessions over that time, have had to do with Israel. As shitty as Israel’s human rights record is, that’s disproportionate. Of course, the Trump/Republican solution to this problem is, essentially, that the UNHRC should cease to exist, or at least be less active with regards to Israel. My solution would be for the UNHRC to be at least as active on Israel as it is now, but also be way more active when it comes to, well, everybody else (no government in the world actually cares about human rights, is the real problem here).

But while the Trump administration’s instinct is to withdraw from any international body that doesn’t toe the line, denying them that all-important TRUMP Brand stamp of approval or whatever, if their aim is to steer the UNHRC in a different direction then quitting is exactly the wrong way to do so. The Obama administration, being thoroughly a creature of the Washington foreign policy establishment despite its occasional tepid criticisms of that establishment, also objected to the HRC’s overemphasis on Israel, so it joined the council (the Bush administration refused to be part of it) and, lo and behold, was able to use America’s international heft to push the council to focus attention on Syria, Iran, and nonstate actors like ISIS. If the Trump administration follows through on its threat to withdraw from the council, then it will be giving up its ability to influence what the council does.

I’m torn in cases like this between my instinct, which is that the administration doesn’t think through the ramifications of these kinds of decisions and/or doesn’t really give a shit about them, and my skepticism, which tells me that they must surely realize what they’re doing and are acting purposefully to try to wreck as many international institutions as they can. Of course there’s no reason it couldn’t be both–no presidential administration is a monolith.

“MAD DOG” “REASONABLE CLIMATE CHANGE THINKER” MATTIS

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Conflict update: February 27 2017

FOREVER WAR

President Trump would like to increase the Pentagon’s budget by $54 billion next year, an amount that, if you’re keeping score at home, is all by itself equal to roughly 4/5 of Russia’s entire military budget. This would boost America’s capacity to shovel huge piles of money at defense contractors fight MOAR WARS, and pay for it by cutting pretty much everything else, including the stuff we do to try to avoid fighting wars.

EARTH

The Great Barrier Reef is still dying, so consider this your semi-regular reminder that none of the rest of this will matter if we don’t figure out a way to stop rendering our planet uninhabitable.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces secured the western end of the southernmost bridge connecting the two halves of the city across the Tigris River on Monday. They’re now pushing into the heart of ISIS-controlled western Mosul, where they’re increasingly running into challenges related to the estimated 750,000 civilians still there. Thousands of civilians have tried to leave the city amid the fighting, but at this point they’re an impediment for the Iraqi military whether they stay or go. Securing the bridge will, once it’s been repaired, in theory allow the Iraqis to resupply their front line forces more directly via eastern Mosul.

There continues to be mostly confusion surrounding the eventual fate of Tal Afar. Pronouncements coming out of the Popular Mobilization Units suggest that the PMU are preparing to take the city, but the Ninewah provincial government says that Iraqi regulars will be the ones to handle that phase of the operation. Baghdad originally floated the idea that the PMU would take Tal Afar but backed down when that plan raised Turkish ire. At this point it seems clear that Baghdad would prefer to have its professional military liberate Tal Afar, but it can’t spare any manpower from Mosul to do the job. The PMU are sitting out in the western desert surrounding Tal Afar and could probably liberate the city, but Turkey would undoubtedly respond negatively to that scenario (and, to be fair, there are concerns over how the PMU will treat Sunni Turkmen in Tal Afar who may have collaborated with ISIS back in 2014).

SYRIA

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Conflict update: February 22 2017

TRUMPLAND

Yesterday Reuters reported that a week before Mike Pence spoke at the Munich Security Conference and assured all those in attendance that Donald Trump is totally in to Europe and, like, when he keeps giving Europeans swirlies in the White House bathroom that’s just because he doesn’t want them to know that he like-likes them, Steve Bannon met with the German ambassador to the US and told him that, actually, Trump (i.e., Bannon) really, genuinely hates the European Union. Which, I mean, of course he does. Mike Pence and James Mattis and Rex Tillerson can make as many apology trips to Europe as they want, but Trump/Bannon see the EU as the enemy of the right-wing white nationalist xenophobia that is their core ideology. Former Obama Deputy National Security Advisor Colin Kahl offered his take on Twitter last night:

WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE, PART ??? of ???

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization issued a report today that says, among other things, that “planetary boundaries may well be surpassed, if current trends continue,” or, in other words, if the human population keeps growing at its current rate and we don’t figure out how to live more sustainably, humanity will no longer be able to feed itself by the middle of the century. In some ways we already can’t feed ourselves, as the UN also made clear today when it announced that it needs $4.4 billion by the end of March in order to stave off mass starvation in parts of Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen. But those are man-made shortages caused by war. What the FAO is saying is that we may be pushing the planet’s capacity to feed us to its natural limit.

On the plus side, if humanity lasts long enough to master interstellar travel, maybe our descendants will have the chance to thoroughly trash a few of these planets the way we got to trash Earth. Fingers crossed!

YEMEN

yemeni_civil_war

Yemen as of February 12: red = government, green = rebel, white = al-Qaeda (Wikimedia | Ali Zifan)

I missed this over the weekend (shame on me), but Huffington Post’s Jessica Schulberg and Ryan Grim reported on a possible policy change within the Trump administration that may have contributed to the Saudi-Hadi coalition’s recent moves against Yemen’s Red Sea ports of Mokha and Hudaydah. The Obama administration, to the extent that it had any willingness or ability to shape the Saudi mission in Yemen, kept insisting that their forces should leave the country’s Red Sea ports (particularly Hudaydah) alone, since they were the main conduit by which humanitarian aid was being brought into the country. But aid is now being diverted to Aden, on the Gulf of Aden, instead, and Hudaydah looks like it’s going to be the coalition’s next major target. Aden is a smaller port than Hudaydah and doesn’t allow easy access to the parts of Yemen where starvation is an imminent threat (the parts regularly being bombed by the Saudis, coincidentally), so if it has to become the new main port for humanitarian aid, a lot of people are going to suffer the consequences.

Schulberg and Grim don’t prove that the Trump administration has given the Saudis the green light to go after Hudaydah, but the fact that the Saudis suddenly started attacking Yemen’s Red Sea ports after Trump took office is conspicuous. Also conspicuous is the role that UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba, whose nation is part of the Saudi-led coalition, is playing with respect to the Trump administration. He’s described as a “mentor” to Trump’s son in-law, Jared Kushner, who parlayed his father in-law’s election experience running a minor right-wing newspaper into a gig as what’s been referred to as the “shadow Secretary of State” in the Trump White House.

There’s an argument to be made that giving the Saudis the OK to attack Hudaydah is actually the merciful thing to do because it could bring the war to a quicker end. But while it might well bring the war to a quicker end, the consensus of the humanitarian types who were interviewed by Schulberg and Grim seems to be that it’s not worth the tradeoff in lost aid. The war might end faster, but the amount of starvation caused by the loss of Hudaydah could be so immediate and so acute that even more people will die as a result.

SYRIA

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Conflict update: February 18-19 2017

Trumplandia

Say, this seems nice:

On any given weekend, you might catch President Trump’s son-in-law and top Mideast dealmaker, Jared Kushner, by the beachside soft-serve ice cream machine, or his reclusive chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, on the dining patio. If you are lucky, the president himself could stop by your table for a quick chat. But you will have to pay $200,000 for the privilege — and the few available spots are going fast.

Virtually overnight, Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s members-only Palm Beach, Fla., club, has been transformed into the part-time capital of American government, a so-called winter White House where Mr. Trump has entertained a foreign head of state, health care industry executives and other presidential guests.

But Mr. Trump’s gatherings at Mar-a-Lago — he arrived there on Friday afternoon, his third weekend visit in a row — have also created an arena for potential political influence rarely seen in American history: a kind of Washington steakhouse on steroids, situated in a sunny playground of the rich and powerful, where members and their guests enjoy a level of access that could elude even the best-connected of lobbyists.

I’m not going to pretend that the wealthy and powerful never had special access to the levers of power in DC before this, but as with so many things about Trump, he seems to have taken the grossest parts of American politics and made them grosser.

On Saturday, Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the Munich Security Conference and tried to assure the attendees that the Trump administration’s commitment to NATO is “unwavering.” Reuters, at least, suggested that he was received tepidly at best, though the NATO bit got him some applause.

Paul Pillar wrote a typically insightful piece a few days ago about the utter confusion surrounding Trump’s Israel-Palestine policy, and what it says about Trump’s foreign policy more generally.

We’re Still All Gonna Die

Because it’s the one part of the government that Donald Trump and Paul Ryan can’t be seen to contradict or gut, the one part of the government that will definitely be allowed to continue research into climate change and its impacts is the Pentagon. Trump’s Defense Secretary James Mattis, ironically for this cabinet, was actually pretty forward thinking on renewable fuels and the national security implications of climate change when he was a flag officer.

The War on Terror (Old School Edition)

Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind radical Muslim cleric whose involvement in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and subsequent terror plots in the United States earned him a life sentence in federal prison, completed his sentence when he died on Saturday morning. He was 78 and, really, won’t be missed.

Seriously, fuck that guy.

Iraq

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Conflict update: February 14 2017

Why are you reading this today? Valentine’s Day is supposed to be a happy day–or a depressing day, but for reasons that have nothing to do with the shitty state of the world. Well, you’re here and my wife and I couldn’t find a sitter this evening, so I guess we might as well get into it.

Flynngate

Well, Michael Flynn is no longer protecting the nation from the grave threat posed by the terrifying Islamo-Socialist-Cuban-Iranian-North Korean-Chinese-Bolivian-Syrian-Nicaraguan-Venezuelan-Fascist-Terrorist alliance dedicated to America’s destruction, and–what? Oh for fuck’s sake, don’t tell me you still haven’t read his book! HOW DO YOU EXPECT TO PROTECT YOUR FAMILY WHEN YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW YOUR ENEMY? Get your head in the game, people.

Anyway, Flynn is out on account of he decided to do some wheeling and dealing with Moscow before his boss took office, then he lied to Donald Trump and Mike Pence about it. Except he didn’t really lie to either one of them, because they both knew what he’d done and, in Trump’s case, most likely told him to do it. Questions abound, not just about what Trump knew and when he knew it (which, let’s be honest, are open questions on pretty much any issue), but about what happens to the administration now. The first order of business is obviously finding a replacement, and the early frontrunner seems to be Vice Admiral Robert Harward, a former deputy commander of Central Command. Harward apparently lives on the West Coast, however, and his willingness to uproot his family to serve as sailing master on the USS Shipwreck is in question. David Petraeus is also clearly in the mix and would be hilarious given this administration’s love-hate relationship with state secrets.

Confusion also abounds as to the status of the rest of the National Security Council, and there have been directly contradictory reports about top figures like Deputy NatSec Advisor KT McFarland. There’s the question of whether there will be a congressional investigation into the circumstances surrounding Flynn’s removal–Republicans are pretty much all over the map on this point, and meanwhile members of the Intelligence Committees say they haven’t heard much of anything about Flynn from the White House. It’s not clear what impact this will have on Trump’s foreign policy, which has been in constant flux from the day he announced his candidacy through today. Flynn was definitely one of the loudest voices in the “make nice with Russia” camp (hence his large fan club in Moscow), but he wasn’t the only one. It’s tempting to think that the departure of the batshit nuts Flynn will stabilize Trump’s foreign policy, but this seems to ignore the fact that the most unstable part of Trump’s foreign policy is Trump himself.

Last but certainly not least there’s the question of what this means for Trump’s administration in general. We’re a week away from the one-month mark and already the most powerful national security voice in the White House has resigned in some disgrace, and it’s possible that an investigation into the reasons for his resignation will tie the administration up in knots for some time to come. I admit I’m partial to this prediction because I badly want it to come true, but with that in mind I still recommend Brian Beutler’s piece in The New Republic from earlier today.

Who Cares, We’re All Gonna Die

Ultimately, though, who gives a shit about Michael Flynn? We’ve got much bigger fish to fry: Continue reading

Conflict update: January 18 2017

NOTHING MATTERS LOL

It’s the final countdown…

Marking another milestone for a changing planet, scientists reported on Wednesday that the Earth reached its highest temperature on record in 2016, trouncing a record set only a year earlier, which beat one set in 2014. It is the first time in the modern era of global warming data that temperatures have blown past the previous record three years in a row.

The findings come two days before the inauguration of an American president who has called global warming a Chinese plot and vowed to roll back his predecessor’s efforts to cut emissions of heat-trapping gases.

In reality, the Earth is heating up, a point long beyond serious scientific dispute, but one becoming more evident as the records keep falling. Temperatures are heading toward levels that many experts believe will pose a profound threat to both the natural world and to human civilization.

At this point I’ll be happy if I live long enough to dunk James Inhofe’s head in the waters of downtown Washington.

Iraq

Talib Shaghati, commander of Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism Services, which have been spearheading the Mosul offensive, reported today that his CTS units have recaptured all the areas of eastern Mosul for which they were responsible, which likely means that operations against ISIS on that side of the city have reached the mop-up stage. Iraqi forces now control the eastern entrances to all five bridges spanning the Tigris, and are reportedly bringing in pontoon bridges that will be used in the eventual attack on the western side (where air and artillery strikes have already begun). Before that attack begins there is likely to be a pause in the offensive, to allow Iraqi forces time to refit and to make sure they’ve eliminated the last remnants of ISIS from eastern Mosul.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has apparently ordered the Nineveh Guard, the predominantly Sunni volunteer force that was created in the wake of the 2014 ISIS offensive, to integrate with the Popular Mobilization Units, the predominantly Shiʿa force that was created in the wake of the 2014 ISIS offensive. From a national unification standpoint this is a necessary move, but practically there are big obvious questions about how well these explicitly sectarian forces will be able to coexist. Complicating things is the fact that a former Nineveh Guard leader, Atheel al-Nujaifi, is wanted for arrest by Baghdad for allegedly conducting his own foreign policy with Turkey. Nujaifi is holed up in Iraqi Kurdistan, and while clemency would seem to be necessary to get the guard to participate in this new combined force, clemency may also be tough for the PMU fighters to accept.

As Mosul’s fall becomes more inevitable and ISIS begins to shift from a territory-holding insurgency to a pure terrorist organization, it is working overtime to strike targets in Iraq’s Shiʿa south. It has carried out a series of attacks and attempted attacks against southern Iraqi targets since November, and in recent weeks the city of Najaf has been its prime target. Najaf, the burial place of Ali b. Abi Talib, is considered the third holiest city for Shiʿa Muslims after Mecca and Medina and is the spiritual center for Iraqi Shiʿa. Two new Popular Mobilization Units are being formed to patrol the desert outside Najaf in an effort to protect the city.

Syria

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