Conflict update: March 25-26 2017

THIS CAN’T BE REAL, CAN IT

My capacity to believe that the current President of the United States will do insanely offensive, ridiculous shit is pretty vast, but I have to say I’m having a hard time believing this actually happened:

Angela Merkel will reportedly ignore Donald Trump’s attempts to extricate £300bn from Germany for what he deems to be owed contributions to Nato.

The US President is said to have had an “invoice” printed out outlining the sum estimated by his aides as covering Germany’s unpaid contributions for defence. 

Said to be presented during private talks in Washington, the move has been met with criticism from German and Nato officials.

The Sunday Times, which is paywalled, apparently broke this story, and they’re a Murdoch-owned paper, but I honestly can’t speak to their reliability apart from that. If it was literally anybody other than Donald Trump I’d say there’s absolutely no way it could be true, but it is Trump and so while I doubt it, I can’t really be that confident about my doubts.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces officially say they’ve paused the Mosul operation (though it’s worth noting that the BBC at least hadn’t seen any signs of a pause as of a few hours ago) over the apparent coalition strike that seems to have killed hundreds (at least 200 at this point and that number is likely to go up) of people in the city’s Jadida neighborhood. The US has confirmed that a coalition airstrike did hit that neighborhood on March 17, but there’s been a significant PR effort to try to find a way to pin these civilian casualties entirely on ISIS, either by claiming that the civilians were being held in place as human shields (possible but hard to prove) or that the airstrike hit an ISIS vehicle bomb (either intended for another target or set up as a booby trap) that was then directly responsible for the damage (farfetched but should be verifiable if true). The Iraqis have even floated the possibility that, while there were airstrikes in the neighborhood, the apartment buildings were brought down intentionally by ISIS. The simplest explanation at this point is that the buildings that were hit were being used by ISIS snipers and the Iraqis called in airstrikes against them without realizing that there were still civilians inside.

The airstrike raises serious questions about the feasibility of the Mosul operation given the civilian risk, and it also contributes to serious questions about whether the Trump administration has decided not to give a shit about civilian casualties (a contention that survivor reports are beginning to support), but I’m not convinced that the strike alone is the reason for this pause in operations. Let’s be fair here; the Iraqi advance in Mosul has been “paused,” albeit unwittingly, for several days now, going back to before this strike took place–or, at least, before it had become major news. The Iraqis need to rethink their overall approach to finishing the Mosul operation, and something tells me they’ve latched to the Jadidah strike as an excuse to do something they were going to have to do anyway.

SYRIA

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Conflict update: March 20-21 2017

Because there’s so much to cover tonight, you’re getting two updates. This one covers everything but the Greater Middle East, the other covers nothing but the Greater Middle East. Enjoy…?

COMING SOON TO A SECURITY THEATER NEAR YOU

Effective as of yesterday, people trying to fly into the US from airports in Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia will not be allowed to bring any electronic device larger than a mobile phone into the cabin with them. Because Reasons:

On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security released a statement on the new policy, stating the “2015 airliner downing in Egypt, the 2016 attempted airliner downing in Somalia, and the 2016 armed attacks against airports in Brussels and Istanbul” as examples of why increased security was needed.

“Evaluated intelligence indicates that terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation and are aggressively pursuing innovative methods to undertake their attacks, to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items. Based on this information, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly and Transportation Security Administrator Acting Administrator Huban Gowadia have determined it is necessary to enhance security procedures for passengers at certain last point of departure airports to the United States,” the statement said.

Of those four cited attacks (two of which didn’t even take place on airplanes) only the Somali incident would have been inhibited by this ban, and since investigators believe in the Somali case that a laptop-encased bomb was rigged to explode on a timer, it’s not clear what sticking that same laptop in the luggage compartment would have accomplished–and, in fact, putting a bunch of lithium-ion batteries in the luggage compartment could have disastrous consequences. It’s certainly no secret that electronic devices are a risk, that’s why you get your carry-ons screened at security. But if security at the ten airports cited in this order is lax, then doesn’t the same concern apply to checked luggage? And why has a measure like this become necessary now, when we’ve known that electronics were a risk for years and there have been exactly zero attacks against US-bound passenger flights originating at any of these airports?

I’ve actually seen it suggested that explosives are less a concern than the possibility of someone hacking into the plane’s flight controls, but if that were really a possibility then why would you allow any electronic devices on any plane originating at any airport?

Britain has now implemented a similar ban though from a smaller list of airports, and Canada is reportedly considering one as well, because security theater is remarkably appealing. Aside from making it just a little bit more unpleasant to fly to the US from the Middle East and North Africa, which may be the entire point, I’m not really sure what this accomplishes.

NO MESSAGE HERE

I’m sure this was all just an unfortunate coincidence:

An African trade summit organized by the University of Southern California ended up with zero Africans as they were all denied visas to enter the United States just days before the summit despite applying months ahead of time, in what organizers called an act of “discrimination against African nations.”

“Usually we get 40 percent that get rejected but the others come,” Mary Flowers, chair of the African Global Economic and Development Summit, told Voice of America in an interview Friday.

“This year it was 100 percent. Every delegation. And it was sad to see, because these people were so disheartened.”

If we’re going to adopt Deputy Leader Bannon’s philosophy that nobody from a majority non-white nation should be allowed to enter the United States, then let’s just say that officially. Get it on the record so people can know what they’re dealing with. Sure, the administration will lose in court, again, but they seem happy to keep trying new ways to achieve this goal even as the courts keep telling them “no.”

TILLERSON TRACKER

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See, Tillerson already met with this German dude that one time! What the hell more do you people want?

BREAKING BREAKING BREAKING IN UNPRECEDENTED INSULT, SECRETARY OF STATE MAY SNUB NATO SUMMIT TO MEET WITH CHINESE PRESIDE–you know what, folks? I’m not entirely sure about this one. Continue reading

(Middle East) Conflict update: March 20-21, 2017

Because there’s so much to cover, after I missed yesterday, I’ve broken today’s update into two parts. This one will cover just the “Greater” Middle Eastern stuff (including North Africa and Central Asia, in other words), and the other will cover everything else.

IRAQ

Stop me if you’ve already heard this: Iraqi forces are “a few hundred meters” away from the Nuri Mosque in Mosul’s Old City, but ISIS resistance, especially via sniper fire, is slowing their advance to a crawl. In addition to the snipers, the Iraqis say ISIS is holding civilian hostages inside the mosque, so care is being taken to try to get them out alive. Civilian casualties in this phase of the operation have already been quite high–3500 or more by one Iraqi estimate–so this is prudent. In addition to the deaths, an estimated 180,000 Iraqis have already fled western Mosul, a number that would exceed the number who fled eastern Mosul during the entire campaign to liberate that half of the city–and western Mosul is still anywhere from 40 percent to around two-thirds (depending on whether you include the airport and surrounding areas in the total) under ISIS control. The number of displaced is greatly exceeding the combined Iraqi-UN capacity to accommodate them, and some people are even returning to the city despite the fighting. The Iraqi government has apparently decided not to send refugees to Iraqi Kurdistan even though there is reportedly capacity there, likely for petty political reasons.

Meanwhile, an ISIS car bombing in Baghdad yesterday killed at least 21 people. It was the latest in a wave of attacks that have been taking place across the country as ISIS fighters have been able to sneak out of Mosul. It’s believed that ISIS fighters have been reforming in areas of Salahuddin province that would be difficult for the government to get at under normal conditions but impossible given that all its resources are focused on Mosul. From there they’ve been able to strike at targets in Salahuddin and Diyala provinces, and of course Baghdad remains their main target. ISIS is also using its base in the town of Hawija, west of Kirkuk, from where it staged a serious attack on Kirkuk in October. The Iraqi government opted to make a beeline for Mosul instead of capturing smaller ISIS strongholds like Hawija first, and it very much remains to be seen whether or not that was the right choice.

The Washington Post reported today on the Yazidis of the Sinjar region, who are now dying and fleeing from fighting between Kurdish factions a mere 2 and a half years after ISIS tried to exterminate their community. The Yazidis welcomed forces aligned with Turkey’s PKK into Sinjar after forces aligned with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government fled the area in advance of the 2014 ISIS invasion, but with ISIS now gone the KRG is trying to kick the rival PKK out of the area, sometimes violently. Baghdad is apparently happy to have the PKK in Sinjar because it provides some counter to the KRG and to Turkey’s presence in northern Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was in Washington on Monday, where he said he got enthusiastic support from Trump for combating ISIS via both military and economic means, and where Trump, hilariously, unveiled yet another in his apparently infinite number of contradictory opinions about the Iraq War.

SYRIA

Syrian state media has reported for two days now that Syrian government and allied forces have rebuffed a Tahrir al-Sham/Faylaq al-Rahman (FSA) assault on Damascus, so that’s why it’s kind of surprising that the rebels are still assaulting Damascus. Not that I’m suggesting anything about Syrian state media, I’m sure they’re all committed to accurate reporting. But the thing is, while the rebels almost certainly can’t actually threaten Damascus, and they probably can’t even achieve their immediate aim of defending the remaining rebel enclaves in the Damascus suburbs, what they’re doing is sending a message. By attacking the city and hanging in there, they’re demonstrating that Bashar al-Assad’s position isn’t nearly as strong as he’d like you to believe. Which isn’t surprising; Assad was losing the war before Russia intervened, and his underlying problem–a lack of military manpower–hasn’t gone away so much as it’s been heavily papered over.

This Damascus operation is also going to do nothing but raise Tahrir al-Sham’s (AKA al-Qaeda’s) profile among the rebel factions, which is good for them but probably not good for anybody else. Now they’ve undertaken a new offensive, this one involving a couple of suicide bombings targeting Syrian government positions just outside of the city of Hama. With peace talks scheduled for Geneva starting Thursday, this is a double-edged sword for the rebels, who find themselves overall in better shape on the ground, but more dependent than ever on the one rebel faction that nearly everybody agrees is worse than Assad.

On Monday, the YPG announced that it had reached an agreement with Russia such that Russia would be able to build a new base in northwestern Syria (also called Afrin) in return for Russian training for YPG fighters. Moscow quickly quashed this talk and said that it was actually opening a “reconciliation center” in Afrin. Either way, the presence of Russian soldiers maybe training the YPG in Afrin is going to make Turkey mad while also possibly preventing its cross-border attacks on the YPG there. The YPG apparently has big plans, with a spokesman telling Reuters that it wants to grow from its current ~60,000 man army to something north of 100,000 (it’s not clear how it plans to achieve this increase, but it may start paying its soldiers more money and it’s also been accused of forced conscription). At the same time, Turkey reportedly brought together a group of some 50 Syrian Arab tribes in Şanlıurfa last week to discuss forming an all-Arab army (under Turkish auspices, of course) that would somehow materialize to take on the Raqqa operation and defeat the YPG in northeastern Syria. Turkey has been trying to form something like this for more than a year, at least, to no effect.

TURKEY

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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

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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 13 2017

TURKEY

A few hours ago Ankara turned its diplomatic dispute with the Netherlands up to 11 by barring the Dutch ambassador from returning to Turkey and announcing that it was suspending diplomatic relations with Amsterdam. The Turkish government further said that it was closing its airspace to Dutch diplomats and that it would pursue action at the European Court of Human Rights over the treatment of its cabinet minister, and Turkish nationals who demonstrated over that treatment, in Rotterdam over the weekend. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan then accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of “supporting terrorists,” without getting more specific but probably meaning the PKK, after Merkel had expressed support for Dutch actions over the weekend.

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern reiterated that his country would also not be amenable to hosting an AKP campaign rally, so expect him to be Erdoğan’s Nazi of the Day tomorrow. And I think it’s important to understand that while it might seem like Erdoğan is about two days away from his head literally exploding, in reality I don’t think this could be working out any better for him. Erdoğan’s political appeal has long centered on the idea that he was the only person who could protect Turkey from its enemies, whether domestic (Gülenists, the PKK, the Deep State) or foreign (America, Europe, Russia, Israel, international banking wink wink). In the middle of a close race on a referendum to decide whether or not to give him dictator-esque levels of power within the Turkish state, what better rallying call could Erdoğan want than a full-on diplomatic war with Europe? And since Erdoğan has systematically eliminated any sort of dissenting or even objective media, there’s nobody inside Turkey to challenge his “everybody vs. Turkey” narrative between now and the referendum.

The European Union is even feeding into this narrative by “warning” Ankara that the passage of the referendum could endanger Turkey’s chances of ever becoming an EU member. Erdoğan doesn’t even really want EU membership, but he’ll gladly take the EU warning, spin it as a provocation against the Turkish people, and turn it into a political advantage for himself.

NETHERLANDS

The flip side of this coin is that the events of this weekend have also been a big boost for fascist cesspool Geert Wilders and his Party for (White People’s) Freedom:

With two days to go until the Dutch vote in a pivotal parliamentary election, pollster Maurice De Hond found that the spat between the Netherlands and Turkey, and Saturday’s night of rioting by ethnic Turks in Rotterdam, had benefited the two parties that have been most skeptical on immigration.

The poll showed Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s pro-business VVD party on track to win 27 seats in the 150-seat parliament with 18 percent of the vote, three more than in the pollster’s last survey, published on Sunday but taken before the weekend.

Geert Wilders’s anti-Muslim Freedom Party was in second place with 16 percent, or up two seats to 24.

Wilders is trying to make more hay by demanding the expulsion of the Turkish ambassador. Now that Ankara has drawn first blood on that front Wilders may be able to get a lot of mileage out of this argument in the run up to Wednesday’s election, unless Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte does expel the ambassador (which would then invite continued escalation with Turkey).

Wilders is unlikely to be the next prime minister of the Netherlands, and he’s a longshot even to have a role in the country’s next government. No party is going to win an outright majority on Wednesday, and Wilders is so toxic that there’s almost no chance he and his party will be asked to join a coalition. But as Foreign Policy’s James Traub writes, Wilders has owned this campaign and has brought his loathsome xenophobia right smack into the mainstream of Dutch politics. The “center-right” is likely to maintain its hold on the government, but it’s had to incorporate a bit of Wilders’ white nationalism in order to do so.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: March 11-12 2017

TURKEY

So let’s start with the good news: Turkey and the Netherlands haven’t declared war on each other. Yet. As far as I know. But the good news pretty much ends there. On Saturday, Dutch authorities took the fairly provocative step–look, I give Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a lot of shit around here, but I don’t think you can fairly describe what happened here as routine diplomacy–of actually preventing a plane carrying Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu from landing in Rotterdam as planned, and then detained Turkey’s family affairs minister, Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, to prevent her from addressing the same referendum campaign rally that Çavuşoğlu was supposed to attend. Kaya was eventually deported to Germany.

I get that anti-immigrant fervor is high in the Netherlands right now and that the country is about to have an election this week that will turn largely on that issue. I also get why the government of any European country would be uneasy about hosting Turkish political rallies in general, but particularly in favor of a referendum whose purpose is basically to strip Turkish democracy for spare parts. But you don’t get to deny landing rights to a plane carrying a diplomat from an ostensible ally, and you certainly don’t get to just go around detaining and deporting government ministers from ostensible allies when they haven’t actually done anything illegal. The mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, said that Kaya and the Turkish consulate had lied to him about the purpose of her visit, but that still doesn’t excuse the treatment it seems she received.

Ankara did its usual thing, with Erdoğan calling the Dutch government “Nazis” and threatening unspecified retribution, like the Janissaries are going to be riding through downtown Amsterdam by the end of the week or something. Whatever Ankara does to punish the Netherlands won’t be much because it can’t be much. The biggest club in Erdoğan’s bag with respect to Europe is turning Syrian refugees loose in the Balkans, and that won’t affect the Netherlands very much, if at all. Some, including Çavuşoğlu, have mentioned possible sanctions, but that’s an arms race Turkey may not be able to win–if they push too far, there’s a small but not that small chance that the European Union could reexamine Turkey’s EU accession agreements in ways that would substantially hurt Turkish nationals living in other European countries. The Turkish government has called on “international organizations” to sanction Amsterdam for its actions, but that seems unlikely. The only blowback so far has been against Turkey–the government of Denmark announced that a visit scheduled for next weekend by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım will now be postponed.

SYRIA

On Saturday, two suicide attacks struck the Bab al-Saghir area of Damascus, killing somewhere between 40 (the government estimate) and 74 (according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights) people. Bab al-Saghir (“the small gate”) is, as its name suggests, one of the seven gates in the wall of Damascus’s “old city,” and the area is home to a cemetery that includes shrines to a number of prominent figures in Shiʿism (children of imams, that sort of thing). That was, presumably, the target. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (“Committee for the Liberation of Syria”), the alliance of extremist groups led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, claimed credit for the bombing and said it was intended to send a message to Tehran about its involvement in Syria.

Bashar al-Assad did an interview with Chinese TV this weekend in which he gushed about the close ties between Damascus and Beijing and dangled the huge carrot of a big Chinese role in rebuilding Syria after the war is over. The interview comes just after China joined Russia in vetoing a UN Security Council measure that would have sanctioned Assad’s government for its probable use of chemical weapons during the civil war, and when China appears to be getting more involved in the war on Assad’s side, partly because Assad has always had decent relations with Beijing but also because the Chinese government is concerned about Uyghurs who have left Xinjiang to fight with Syrian jihadi forces. In the same interview, Assad said he’s “hopeful” about the Trump administration but characterized new US forces being deployed to eastern Syria as an “invasion.”

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