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 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 13 2017

Michael Flynn

I had more to say about this story, but it all just got rendered obsolete:

Earlier this evening Flynn pulled out of a scheduled speech at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual meeting at the last minute, and that was after Politico reported this morning that Donald Trump’s son in-law, the constantly-failing-upward Jared Kushner, was vetting possible successors, so there was some writing on the wall here. General Keith Kellogg, the NSC Chief of Staff, assumes Flynn’s role as National Security Advisor on an interim basis, but it’s likely Trump will look elsewhere for a permanent successor. This brings a lot of potentially off-the-wall names into the mix, from Rudy Giuliani to David Petraeus to John Bolton–basically anybody who was on Trump’s State shortlist but wound up being discarded could be recycled as a potential replacement for Flynn. Petraeus in particular seems to be in the mix, though reportedly the lead candidate is former CENTCOM Deputy Commander Vice Admiral Robert Harward. But at least we can rest assured that none of them, even Bolton, could be more unhinged than Flynn was. As unhinged? Sure. But more? Unlikely.

To me, easily the most troubling news to come out of the Flynn saga came courtesy of the Washington Post earlier today:

The acting attorney general informed the Trump White House late last month that she believed Michael Flynn had misled senior administration officials about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and warned that the national security adviser was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail, current and former U.S. officials said.

The message, delivered by Sally Q. Yates and a senior career national security official to the White House counsel, was prompted by concerns that ­Flynn, when asked about his calls and texts with the Russian diplomat, had told Vice ­President-elect Mike Pence and others that he had not discussed the Obama administration sanctions on Russia for its interference in the 2016 election, the officials said. It is unclear what the White House counsel, Donald McGahn, did with the information.

Trump fired Yates on January 30. That’s a very problematic coincidence.

Syria

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Conflict update: January 5 2017

World War III

Building on an earlier post, this seems problematic:

Senior officials in the Russian government celebrated Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton as a geopolitical win for Moscow, according to U.S. officials who said that American intelligence agencies intercepted communications in the aftermath of the election in which Russian officials congratulated themselves on the outcome.

The ebullient reaction among high-ranking Russian officials — including some who U.S. officials believe had knowledge of the country’s cyber campaign to interfere in the U.S. election — contributed to the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Moscow’s efforts were aimed at least in part at helping Trump win the White House.

That top Russian officials were happy to see Trump elected doesn’t really prove much of anything, but the fact that this stuff is being leaked to the press suggests that the intelligence community may already be retaliating against Trump. Buckle up.

Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu, who may soon need to fall back on his old training as a babysitter if he wants to make ends meet, was questioned again by Israeli fraud police at his home today–this time for five hours. And I thought Monday’s three hour interrogation seemed long. Netanyahu continues to insist that it’s all much ado about nothing, because apparently Israeli police are inclined to spend eight hours questioning the most powerful guy in Israel just for shits and giggles.

In other Israel news, two people have been arrested for threatening violence against the military judges who recently convicted IDF soldier Elor Azaria of manslaughter. Azaria, if you’re unfamiliar with the case, summarily executed an already-incapacitated Palestinian attacker in Hebron in March, then admitted doing so before backing off of that admission at trial and trying to argue, simultaneously, that the man he killed was still a threat and also already dead from his other wounds. Clearly it’s the judges who are the problem here. Azaria’s case has become a cause for right-wing Israeli politicians, including Netanyahu, who would like to see him pardoned mostly because it would be politically popular (Netanyahu, who took a very negative view of Azaria’s actions when they were first reported, has been particularly craven with respect to this case). The power to issue pardons lies with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who may actually be sane enough to understand that you can’t pardon a guy just because he “only” executed a Palestinian, but we’ll see.

Syria

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Welcome to 2017: heading to the polls

Last January I remember a bunch of troubling things happening shortly after the new year, like a new round of fighting in Kashmir, a new North Korean nuclear test, and another episode in the Iran-Saudi conflict, and, hey, I guess in hindsight we should have had some idea it was going to be a shittier-than-usual year. My point is that writing about those things became sort of a “welcome to 2016” series even though when the year began I hadn’t intended to write anything like that. But now I figure it’s a tradition, and even though we’ve managed to get through the first four days of the year without any potentially world-altering crises cropping up–and yes, I get that it’s early–I’m going to try it again this year. This time, again barring any major crises, I’ll look at a few things that I think might play out over the course of the year that maybe don’t have the potential to kill us all–unless one of them does kill us all, in which case, well, nobody will be around to remember I just wrote that. I’ll scatter these around here and there over the rest of the month.

For today I’d like to talk about something fairly mundane–politics, and primarily elections. Elections happen all the time, even in countries where they don’t mean much (by which I mean places like, say, Syria or Uzbekistan, but feel free to insert your American election joke here), and only very rarely do the results of any particular election wind up truly threatening mankind (feel free to insert your 2016 joke here). But there are a few elections coming up this year that may be of some importance, and there’s also a developing non-electoral political story that bears watching. To wit: Continue reading