Conflict update: March 22 2017

I’m going to be out this evening, so please enjoy (?) this shortened and probably too-early roundup of the day’s worst news.

UNITED KINGDOM

Westminster Bridge

Westminster Bridge under better circumstances (Wikimedia | Martin Dunst)

This is still very much a developing story, but at least four people, including the attacker, have been killed in London in what seems to have been an attempted attack on the House of Commons. A man drove his vehicle into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge this afternoon (timeline), killing two people, before killing a police officer outside parliament with a knife. He was then shot and killed by police. More than 20 other people were injured in the incident, some seriously. Authorities are understandably treating this as a terrorist incident until proven otherwise, but at this point I haven’t yet seen any information about the attacker. I’ll have more on this, but probably not until tomorrow.

NORTH KOREA

This morning’s missile test does indeed appear to have been a failure. The missile reportedly exploded “seconds” after launch, which raises the possibility that a US cyber attack could have been the cause (apparently the US has been working on disrupting these tests immediately after launch). It’s not clear what kind of missile was being tested.

ИСТОРИЯ О ПОЛЬСКОМ МАНАФОРТЕ

So, which Donald Trump associate is having his uncomfortable connections to Vladimir Putin uncovered today? Why it’s none other than Paul Manafort, who briefly served as Trump’s campaign chairman back when the idea of “President Trump” was still just a gleam in Robby Mook’s eye. According to the AP, in 2006 Manafort landed himself a sweet gig working for a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, in which he was supposed to “influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government.” This revelation could be personally very bad for Manafort, who apparently neglected to register as a foreign agent with the DOJ as one is supposed to do when representing foreign interests in the US. It could also be damaging to Trump inasmuch as Manafort and the Trump administration have been insisting that he never did any work for the Russian government–which could still be technically true, mind you, but maybe only technically.

Manafort insists that everything he did for Deripaska was totally above board and didn’t involve any lobbying for Russian government interests. It was so above board, in fact, that Manafort didn’t conduct this particular bit of business under the banner of his regular consulting company, Davis Manafort, but instead under another company he established in 1992 that didn’t have any kind of public profile. As one does with reputable work.

SO THAT’S WHO WE SHOULD BLAME

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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 15 2017

SECOND VERSE, SAME AS THE FIRST

Well, that was fast. Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban 2.0, which is totally not about religion, you guys, just got blocked by a federal judge in Hawaii for being, you know, pretty much about religion. In his ruling, District Judge Derek Watson in particular rejected one of the administration’s favorite arguments as to why their Muslim ban couldn’t possibly be a Muslim ban:

While the administration maintains the latest order is not a ban on Muslims, since it removes reference to religion and targets only a fraction of the world’s Muslim population, Watson questioned that argument, potentially setting the stage for other ongoing legal challenges even as he puts a nationwide halt on the implementation. It is undisputed, the judge said, that the six countries are overwhelmingly Muslim by population.

“The illogic of the Government’s contentions is palpable,” he wrote. “The notion that one can demonstrate animus toward any group of people only by targeting all of them at once is fundamentally flawed.”

Well sure, when you put it that way, but have you considered that SCARY TERRORISTS BAD BOGEYMAN EVIL ATTACK DANGER AFRAID?

I thought not.

Watson cited Trump’s own statements about the ban, and those of his closest advisers, as proof that it was intended to target Muslims, which adds a hilarious cherry on top of this very nice sundae. There’s obviously much more to come on this, and the fact that it happened just a short time ago, plus my obvious lack of being anything resembling a lawyer, are working against me right now. Stay tuned, is what I’m saying.

NETHERLANDS

I was going to lead with this until the ban ban–er, the banning of the ban, uh, the ban banning, whatever you get the point–happened. As it turns out, the Dutch people are not as susceptible to xenophobic white populism as voters in a certain global superpower I could name:

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberal party is set to win the most seats in the Netherlands’ elections, maintaining its status as the country’s largest political party for the third consecutive election, according to exit polls published by Dutch broadcaster NOS.

Dutch voters took to the polls on Wednesday in overwhelming numbers — the turnout was projected to be above 80%, the highest in 30 years — to back a mix of pro-EU, liberal and progressive parties over the far-right, anti-EU and anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders — known as the “Dutch Trump”.

Wilders, who had become the subject of intense international media attention in the weeks running up to the election, appeared to win a humbling 13% of the vote and 19 seats, an increase on the previous election but below the party’s 2010 tally.

This is quite a result, because it suggests that Geert Wilders brought a whole bunch of new voters to the polls–to vote against him. I guess you could call it reverse populism.

So instead of Wilders’ reactionary far-right Party for Freedom governing the Netherlands, the regular far-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, led by current Prime Minister Mark Rutte, will continue governing it. As always though it will have to do so in coalition, and the secondary result of this vote, apart from Wilders’ surprising and frankly a little embarrassing performance, is that it’s going to be quite a task just forming a new coalition. Rutte’s party appears to have lost about ten seats in the next parliament, but more to the point his previous coalition partner, the center-left Labor Party, paid for its collaborative good nature by losing somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 seats. So instead of two parties, the next coalition will be a multi-party affair, with Rutte having to accommodate the right-wing Christian Democrats, the liberal D66 party, probably Labor again, and maybe the day’s apparent big winner…the Greens. Led by the Dutch Justin Trudeau, Jesse Klaver, GreenLeft appears to have quadrupled its seats in the next parliament, from four to 16. Now that’s populism.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: February 7 2017

OK, so…this could get long. Sorry. That’s what happens when I’m away for a few days.

#ThanksTrump

I almost feel like I should start each of these with a quick roundup of the miscellaneous ways Donald Trump is fucking up around the world. For example:

  • When President Trump makes a formal state visit to the UK later this year, there’s a good chance he will be denied the honor of speaking to parliament. House of Commons Speaker John Bercow says that he will block any Trump address to the body, something about Trump’s “racism” and “sexism,” which…well, he’s got a point there. Bercow can’t entirely block Trump from speaking to parliament, because the speaker of the House of Lords also gets a say, but his unendorsement (?) should carry a pretty heavy implication.
  • Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “thanked” Trump, in a speech he delivered on Tuesday, for “showing the reality of American human rights” through his immigration ban. Which…well, he’s got a point there.
  • ISIS is also undoubtedly very happy about President Trump and his immigration ban. Anything that makes Muslims feel unwelcome in the United States, or pits America against Islam generally speaking, is good for ISIS, and this immigration order, coupled with Trump’s rhetoric, certainly does both. Which, and if I can I may write more about this tomorrow, is probably the Trump administration’s point. I think Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn welcome a War On Islam and will happily feed into ISIS propaganda because that will ultimately help fuel their propaganda.

Trump’s War on Islam

The New York Times is reporting that the Trump administration is considering two new foreign terrorist designations, and they’re both massive escalations of Trump’s War on Islam: the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Designation the Muslim Brotherhood as an FTO would allow the Trump administration to shut down large numbers of Islamic charities and mosques all over the United States, because so many Islamic organizations have ties to some variant of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is not a monolithic organization and most of its branches behave as peaceful political entities. Yes, it is an Islamist organization, and its historical record on violence is checkered, but for the most part since the 1970s it has been a political Islamist organization, and as such it has been an important outlet for conservative Muslims to find their political voice without resorting to violence. Designating it a terrorist organization would materially aid more extremist organizations, including ISIS and al-Qaeda (which, again, is probably part of Trump’s goal), and would greatly complicate relations with allies like Turkey (the Justice and Development Party is closely aligned with several Brotherhood chapters) and Qatar.

Designating the IRGC as an FTO could fundamentally undermine the Iran nuclear deal without technically touching it, which again is probably Trump’s goal. Anyone, American or otherwise, found to have dealings with an organization related to any FTO can be subject to civil and criminal penalties in the US. The IRGC has its tentacles woven throughout the Iranian economy, such that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for any foreign investor trying to do business in Iran to avoid dealing with the IRGC entirely. So any investors/businesses that value being able to operate in the US are going to have a hard time investing in Iran, which drastically cuts into the benefits Iran gets from sanctions relief.

Iraq

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Conflict update: January 16 2017

Iraq

battle_of_mosul_2016-2017

Mosul’s condition, current through earlier today (Wikimedia | Kami888)

With Mosul University in government hands, ISIS’s ability to defend eastern Mosul seems to be collapsing pretty quickly. One of the big changes in the recent course of the battle, in addition to a drastic decline in the number of ISIS suicide attacks, has been that Iraqi forces are no longer having to go back and clean up previously liberated areas two, three, four times. This is undoubtedly reflective of ISIS’s overall collapse, but it probably also reflects the decision to reinforce the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service with regular army and federal police forces that can better hold and secure territory that the CTS has liberated. Mosul airport now seems to be taking fire from Iraqi forces in the south, in advance of an expected move there. If Iraqi forces are able to advance from the south it will force ISIS defenders in western Mosul to defend on at least two fronts.

Two problems continue to plague residents of the city. One, which we’ve covered before, is that civilians are dying and being badly injured in the fighting. Obviously you expect civilian casualties in a battle like this, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that ISIS is directly targeting civilians as it retreats, which is why the rate of civilian casualties in Mosul has been higher than that for a “typical” urban battle. Conversely, Iraqi forces have probably been more careful about civilian casualties than might have been expected, given the way the liberations of Ramadi and Fallujah went, which is part of the reason why the offensive has gone a bit slower than many expected. The second problem involves what to do with all the dead, civilian and otherwise. Giving the dead a proper burial in a war zone is pretty challenging, as you might imagine, and plus many of the casualties are ISIS fighters whom nobody is particularly interested in properly burying. Lots of makeshift graves are going to have to be dug up and attended when the fighting is over.

Syria

In the latest turn of the will they/won’t they/what difference does it make saga of the Syrian rebels’ possible attendance at the January 23 Astana peace talks, it seems they will be attending, or at least they’ll be represented by Jaysh al-Islam leader Mohammad Alloush. Well, some of them will be: Continue reading

Conflict update: January 9 2017

Apologies; normally I like to keep things more active around here, but I’m working on a big piece for LobeLog and it’s taking a while to get through it. It’s a long Q&A with a couple of respected foreign policy analysts about the Obama foreign policy legacy. And while you might think that sounds easy, you just type up what they said and you’re done, you haven’t ever seen me try to transcribe anything. It’s pretty brutal. So it’ll probably be another day or so before I send that one off to my editor and, in the meantime, as it was today, it might be a little slow on the blog.

Iran

You’ve probably already heard the BREAKING NEWS OMG OMG OMG that an American vessel in the Persian Gulf fired warning shots at a number of small Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “fast attack” craft earlier today. This kind of thing happens periodically. Iran claims waters in the Gulf that are beyond internationally recognized boundaries, much as China does in the South China Sea. The US ignores those claims just as it does in the SCS, because the US considers itself the defender of free maritime lanes all around the world. Occasionally, Iranian boats buzz US ships menacingly in the way that my 15 pound Schnoodle barks at the much larger dog who lives next door, separated from her by a very sturdy chain-link fence. It makes them feel good about themselves but almost never amounts to anything serious. That may change in 11 days, when we inaugurate a president who has vowed to destroy Iranian boats in the Gulf if their crews do so much as flip the bird at American sailors. That would, of course, be insane, but “sane” hopped a flight to Aruba sometime in 2015 and I don’t think it’s ever coming back.

In other Iranian news, parliament voted today to increase military spending to five percent of the Iranian budget and to continue a long-range missile program that is virtually guaranteed to cause conflict with the Trump administration. Iran’s ballistic missile program is often conflated with the nuclear deal, because ballistic missiles are usually conflated with nuclear weapons (medium and long-range ballistic missiles are kind of silly weapons unless they’re carrying a major payload). In fact the program violates, or may violate, other UN sanctions on Iran, but it is not literally at odds with the nuclear deal (even though, as the UN and other JCPOA parties have argued, it may be “inconsistent” with the “spirit” of the deal).

Iran is also still processing yesterday’s passing of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. One aspect of his death that I didn’t really note yesterday is that Rafsajani’s death is the first loss of a truly titanic figure in the founding of the Islamic Republic–the only other Iranian on par with Rafsanjani in that regard would be Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and he’s certainly got more years behind him than in front of him. The two of them were the leaders of the revolutionary generation, the group that did the work of overthrowing the shah in 1979 and seeing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his vilayet-i faqih system installed as Iran’s new political reality. Khomeini was the idol of that generation but he wasn’t of that generation, so his death in 1989 didn’t mark the passing of an era the way Rafsanjani’s does, and Khamenei’s will. It’s one of the great political ironies in the Middle East that countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia have huge populations of young people but are still ruled by cadres of people who were elderly a decade ago, and who/what rises to replace them is going to determine a lot about the future of the region.

Iraq

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Conflict update, January 8 2017

Iraq

Iraqi counter-terrorism forces in east Mosul say they’ve reached the eastern bank of the Tigris River. Some Iraqi politicians are claiming that as much as 88 percent of the eastern half of the city has been liberated, which is probably a substantial exaggeration, but it’s impossible to dispute that the offensive has made significant progress since it restarted a couple of weeks ago.

Two suicide bombs struck Baghdad today, killing at least 16 people (I’ve seen other reports putting that number at 20 or higher) and wounding nearly 40 more. ISIS claimed responsibility for both.

Faced with the possibility that former Prime Minister and current Vice President Nouri al-Maliki may try to attempt a political comeback (this seems odd to say about a sitting VP, but Iraq’s vice presidencies are mostly powerless patronage jobs), people all over southern Iraq have been staging demonstrations urging him, more or less, to kindly crawl into a hole and stay there. Maliki, because he’s the kind of dick who draws huge crowds to protest against the very idea that he might get back into serious politics, is attributing the protests to a “rise in gang and outlaw militia activities.” Like I said, dick. Regardless, it appears his political career might–might–be over, mercifully for the Iraqi people.

Syria

Until the eventual battle for Idlib begins in earnest, the post-Aleppo center of the civil war seems to have shifted to Damascus, and particularly to the Wadi Barada, from where Damascus gets much of its water. Although on Saturday it looked like the situation in Wadi Barada might be headed toward a ceasefire and deal to repair damaged and/or sabotaged water infrastructure, today the Syrian government carried out airstrikes on the area in earnest. The continued fighting is putting the entire Russia-Turkey negotiated ceasefire in jeopardy–rebels have already suspended their participation in planned peace talks in Kazakhstan pending the government honoring the ceasefire, and now it seems they may declare the ceasefire null altogether. Additionally a car bomb, claimed by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, struck the government-held town of Saʿsaʿ, southwest of Damascus, killing five people per the latest count.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights says that of 178 documented violations of the ceasefire so far, 174 of them have been perpetrated by the government and its allies. This sounds like a pretty subjective count, and considering that most of these violations have probably taken place in Wadi Barada, with Damascus’s supply of drinking water hanging in the balance, it’s not hard to see why the government has been pushing the envelope. But it’s also not hard to see why the rebels have had enough. The government would probably argue, as it has been, that JFS has been operating in Wadi Barada and therefore the area is not covered by the ceasefire. The rebels have denied this, but whether JFS is there or not is almost irrelevant. This ceasefire, as every one before it, has the (fatal?) flaw that it tries to distinguish between rebels forces that are only distinguishable on paper. These groups are protected, those groups aren’t, but their forces are so interspersed that striking the one necessarily means striking the other, and if you want to strike a group that is protected in some particular area you only need to say that forces from an unprotected group are also in that area, because nobody can really tell whether they are or not. It’s untenable.

Al-Monitor’s Week in Review post this week has a nice summary of the back and forth between Turkey and Iran, via Russia, over their competing interests in Syria. At this point it seems like Turkey has agreed to give up its support for extremist militias like Ahrar al-Sham (and tacit support for the even more extreme JFS), while Iran has decided to table its concerns over Turkey’s activities in northern Syria, and for now they’re managing to co-exist on that basis. But the potential for an unraveling is very much there.

Israel

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