Conflict update: April 10-14 2017

First off all, apologies for not doing one of these earlier this week. I had intended to crank something out on Wednesday but, well, when Wednesday rolled around I didn’t want to anymore.

Second, Easter and Passover greetings to my Christian and Jewish readers. This is one of the rare years when the Orthodox and Catholic Easter dates align with one another, so I don’t have to specify which Christians for a change. I’ll probably be back to regular programming on Monday, so I wanted to get an Easter message out just in case I don’t have the opportunity again before Sunday.

OK, so, strap in. I’ll try to make this as short as possible. Forgive me if some smaller stories fall through the cracks.

THE TRUMP DOCTRINE

If you assume that Rex Tillerson is actually able to speak on his boss’s behalf, then it’s possible that a “Trump Doctrine” is beginning to take shape:

Days after President Trump bombed Syria in response to a chemical attack that killed children, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said on Monday that the United States would punish those “who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.”

Hey, that’s interesting. So does that mean we’re going to punish the Saudis for committing crimes against the innocents in Yemen? No? Well, how about punishing Abdel Fattah el-Sisi the next time he disappears some political opponents or massacres a bunch of protesters? Not that either, huh? OK, well surely we’ll want to protect innocents in Bahrain from their–oh, I see. Are we at least planning to punish Bashar al-Assad for the myriad crimes he’s committed against innocents that haven’t involved nerve gas? Hah, not even that, cool.

Hey, what about those ~270 or so innocents we bombed in Mosul about a month ago? Or the ~50 or so we bombed at evening prayer in al-Jinah around that same time? Are we going to punish ourselves for those crimes?

No, don’t answer, I already know. This is quite a doctrine we’re developing. We’ll punish those who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world (offer may not be valid in your area).

SYRIA

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Conflict update: April 3 2017

BREAKING: NOTHING MUCH HAPPENED

One of the reasons I don’t post these earlier in the day is because HUGE BREAKING NEWS MUST CREDIT GUY WHO HELPED SELL IRAQ WAR stories are often later shown to be no big deal. To wit:

Maybe I’m wrong, but it sure does seem like intrepid reporter Eli Lake has now been played twice by Republicans trying to substantiate their party leader’s claim that the Obama administration spied on him and his transition team. At some point you have to start assuming that Lake is willingly along for the ride, don’t you?

original

RUSSIA

An explosion tore through the St. Petersburg metro today, killing at least 11 people and injuring more than 50 at the last count. Details are still light, but it appears the bomb went off between metro stations, so it’s not clear whether it was placed there or was put on a train. Russian authorities later said that police found and disarmed a second bomb placed at another location in the metro. ISIS has already reportedly claimed responsibility and said the bomb was in retaliation for Russia’s activities in Syria, but there are plenty of other possible candidates, from Chechen militants (who certainly overlap with ISIS) to Ukrainian sympathizers to anti-government extremists, and Moscow seems to be investigating all possibilities. It’s likely not a coincidence that Putin was in St. Petersburg today to meet with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, though he certainly wasn’t targeted.

WAR ON WOMEN

Donald Trump “cherishes” women, just ask him. Of course, if those women happen to rely on the UN Family Planning Agency for their reproductive health needs, then they’re shit out of luck because the Trump administration just yanked all the US funding for that agency (which was $75 million last year). The administration claims that the UNFPA participates in China’s forced abortion and sterilization programs, but the State Department’s own statement on the funding cut as much as admits that they’re lying about that claim in order to give themselves a justification for the cut. Still, you have to admire the strong display of concern for the rights of Chinese women from an administration that’s going to have Chinese President Xi Jinping over to President Trump’s extravagant Florida vacation resort later this week. That’ll show him.

Trump is only doing what every Republican administration since the 1980s has done with respect to the UNFPA, so I don’t mean to single him out except insofar as he is the current president. But feel free to mention this the next time your Hashtag Never Trump Republican buddy or your moderate Democratic presidential nominee tries to tell you that Donald Trump is somehow different from the rest of the Republican Party and not entirely a product of that party.

EGYPT

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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: December 29 2016

and that’s the way it was is hitting the road for a few days and, if it’s all the same to you fine readers, I’d kind of like to turn the blog more or less off and take a real break. That means we won’t be back to regular posting until January 3. Happy New Year and see you in 2017!

What? Oh, right, one more round of mostly shitty news before I go.

World War III

The long-mehwaited American response to Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election was unveiled today:

The targets of the sanctions include Moscow’s top intelligence services, the Federal Security Service and the Main Intelligence Directorate, as well as three companies and a handful of individuals. Among the individuals are top officials from the Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU.

The State Department expelled 35 Russian operatives from the Russian embassy in Washington and the Russian consulate in San Francisco on Thursday. The officials and their families were given 72 hours to leave the U.S.

The State Department also notified Russia that as of Friday Moscow would be denied access to two Russian government-owned compounds—one in Maryland and one in New York.

This is…about what you’d have expected, it seem to me. There’s been took much noise about this story for the Obama administration not to have done something, even though as far as I can tell (or at least as far as anybody outside the intelligence community has been allowed to know) the evidence behind this accusation against Moscow is still pretty circumstantial. And this is definitely something. These are tangible actions that will hurt Russia a little and embarrass it more, and they’ll be tough for Donald Trump to undo without raising eyebrows. What they’re not is anything that could honestly be categorized as an escalation, if you’re operating from the assumption that Russia has indeed screwed with America’s electoral process.

Moscow will now respond as it can (at least 35 US diplomatic personnel in Russia will certainly be expelled within the next few days, for example), and that will be about it. President Obama said today’s actions aren’t the end of the US response, but realistically this is about it at least as far as a public response. Obama also ordered the release of information on Russian cyber-activity that could help US individuals and businesses take stronger security precautions, and if you ask me that’s the most impactful part of today’s actions. Assuming anybody actually bothers taking those precautions.

Speaking of responses, let’s see what President-elect Trump had to say about all of this yesterday:

President-elect Donald Trump is less than enthusiastic about some senators’ suggestion that Russia ― and perhaps even Vladimir Putin himself ― should be sanctioned for interfering in the U.S. elections, telling reporters Wednesday that it’s time people move on.

For Trump, the real culprit isn’t the Russian president or his hackers. It’s computers and technology.

“I think we ought to get on with our lives,” Trump said Wednesday, according to the pool report. He was at his Mar-a-Lago resort, standing next to boxing promoter Don King. “I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what is going on. We have speed, we have a lot of other things, but I’m not sure we have the kind the security we need. But I have not spoken with the senators and I will certainly will be over a period of time.”

Ah, I-uh, that’s very, ahhhh, he’s got a…well I think what he means is, see, there are computers, and they have speed, and a lot of other…things…and…the senators, also too. Hail to the Chief!

War on Terror

So this is potentially interesting: Continue reading

US and GCC (or whoever shows up) prepare to put on a happy face at Camp David

On Saturday I went on Alhurra’s “30 Minutes” to talk about this week’s upcoming US-Gulf Cooperation Council summit at Camp David, along with Dr. Anwar Ishqi from Saudi Arabia’s Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies. If you have a strong desire to watch a fat guy being dubbed in Arabic (assuming you don’t speak Arabic, you can actually hear me pretty well underneath the interpreter), here’s the video:

Aside from the somewhat historic nature of the summit (despite having had good relations with all the GCC member states for decades now, this is the first “summit” involving all six of them plus the US), I am basically in agreement with the thrust of this Barbara Slavin piece that suggests that everybody is likely to come away from Camp David disappointed, because the two sides are simply in different strategic places right now. On the biggest issue of regional concern, the difference is clear: where the US wants to cut a nuclear deal with Iran in order to limit the possibility that Tehran could try to build a nuclear weapon someday, the GCC is far more worried about the threat from a non-nuclear Iran that agrees to a nuclear deal and finds itself released from most of the international sanctions that have been crippling its economy. Oh, the Gulf states don’t want to see a nuclear weapon in Iran’s hands any more than the Americans, but the real worry for them is that a post-deal Iran will immediately become a potent economic competitor and will be able to throw its weight around the Arab world more easily than it already does.

These two positions couldn’t be further apart — the US wants a deal that meets its proliferation concerns, while the GCC would prefer no deal at all — and so it appears that the GCC’s solution to this chasm is that it will acquiesce to the nuclear talks in return for a written defense treaty with the US that obligates the Americans to come to GCC members’ assistance in case of threat, an arrangement not unlike Article 5 of the NATO treaty. The US has long informally promised to defend its Gulf allies from outside aggression, and of course even did so on one very high-profile occasion, but it seems like maybe the GCC isn’t happy with “informal” anymore, not at a time when relations between the US and Iran appear to be thawing just a little.

If a strong, Article 5-like treaty is what the GCC wants, it is exceedingly likely to be disappointed, because the US almost certainly will not agree to something that binding. Why, you ask? Continue reading

Trouble on the horizon

Regular readers will know that I have kind of a soft spot for Oman, so despite my, let’s say, general bad attitude when it comes to absolutist monarchies, it makes me sorry to read things like this:

The prolonged absence of Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, who has not returned since travelling overseas for medical tests six months ago for suspected cancer, has stirred fears over stability in his Gulf country.

The 74-year-old absolute ruler is not only sultan, but also prime minister, as well as holding the foreign affairs, finance, defence and interior portfolios.

But without children, or even brothers, he has no direct heir, and his absence is raising questions over who will succeed him.

Oman was for quite a while a pretty stable country, and in my admittedly limited experience there it was hard to find anyone who would say a bad word about Qaboos. But that was years ago. Oman experienced its own Arab Spring protests in 2011-2012, with protesters angry at low salaries, high unemployment, and government corruption, and Qaboos’s response really failed to satisfy their demands. The country has a very young population that doesn’t remember what things were like before Qaboos overthrew his father, that sees (correctly) that Qaboos has failed to fully modernize the country, and that is probably on the verge of another protest movement given how hard Oman is being hit by low oil prices.

Sultan Qaboos (via)

Sultan Qaboos (via)

Now Qaboos is probably dying of cancer in Germany, and since he has no sons the succession is up for grabs to some extent. It’s likely that one of his cousins will wind up on the throne, but the royal family has to either decide on one of them or turn to Qaboos’s choice, which he’s apparently left in an unopened letter for some reason. The best thing for the country would be to transition to some kind of parliamentary monarchy and give people a real voice in their government, but this being the Gulf, that’s probably not too likely. Oman just isn’t wealthy enough to buy off dissent the way some of the other Gulf countries have been able to do, though, so the country may be heading towards a problem.

Whatever’s happening in the Gulf is probably about Iran, my piece for @ipsnews and @LobeLog

I feel like I was immersed in Crimea (because of this) and the Iran nuclear talks (that’s forthcoming, hopefully) all last week, but there was a fairly major diplomatic spat that also took place involving my old home away from home, Qatar. My piece on this story was picked up by the Inter Press Service, so please go read it there. A longer version of the same story should be available at Lobe Log tomorrow morning, so I’ll drop in a link to that one when it’s up (UPDATE: here it is). The version that will be posted at Lobe Log starts like this:

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain all recalled their ambassadors from Qatar on Wednesday, citing Qatar’s support for organizations and individuals that threaten “the security and stability of the Gulf states”:

The statement said they had withdrawn their envoys “to protect their security” because Qatar failed to fulfill vows “to refrain from supporting organizations or individuals who threaten the security and stability of the gulf states, through direct security work or through political influence,” and also “to refrain from supporting hostile media.”

This came right on the heels of a U.A.E. court sentencing Qatari doctor Mahmoud al-Jaidah to seven years in prison on Monday, for the crime of aiding a banned opposition group called al-Islah, which the U.A.E. government alleges has operational ties to the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Islah insists that any connection it has with the Brotherhood is purely ideological). As Emile Nakhleh writes, he decision by the three Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members to recall their ambassadors from a fourth member state illustrates quite clearly that the first “C” in “GCC”–“cooperation”–means virtually nothing at this point, if it ever did mean anything. This was a coordinated move, led by the Saudis, to punish Qatar for supporting Muslim Brotherhood interests around the Middle East (and also for assuming a more prominent role in pan-Arab politics), but beyond that it reflects the Saudis’ deep and ongoing concern about an Iranian resurgence in the Gulf. From the Saudi perspective the Qataris have been punching above their proper weight, and making nice with the wrong people.