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

secretary_tillerson_greets_german_foreign_minister_gabriel_before_their_meeting_in_washington_283263186542629

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

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: February 24 2017

THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION: A LAND OF CONTRADICTIONS TOTAL BULLSHIT

Say, this is interesting:

Analysts at the Homeland Security Department’s intelligence arm found insufficient evidence that citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries included in President Donald Trump’s travel ban pose a terror threat to the United States.

A draft document obtained by The Associated Press concludes that citizenship is an “unlikely indicator” of terrorism threats to the United States and that few people from the countries Trump listed in his travel ban have carried out attacks or been involved in terrorism-related activities in the U.S. since Syria’s civil war started in 2011.

Why, it’s almost as though the travel ban wasn’t actually about protecting America, but was instead an attempt to advance some other bullshit agenda!

And speaking of bullshit, remember how all during the campaign Donald Trump was Very Angry about the way Barack Obama was combating ISIS? And remember how Donald Trump said he had a Secret Plan To Defeat ISIS that later was revealed to be “Ask The Generals How To Defeat ISIS,” on account of how Donald Trump is an idiot? But Donald Trump assured us that the Plan the Generals gave him would be Way Better than whatever Obama had been doing? Yeah, about that:

For months on the campaign trail, Donald Trump accused the Obama administration of failing to aggressively fight ISIS, falsely claiming at one point that his predecessor as US president founded the jihadi group and vowing to “bomb the shit” out of it.

But as his national security team wraps up a monthlong rethink of the ISIS war, President Trump’s strategy is beginning to look a lot like the Obama strategy he once disparaged.

The Pentagon’s plan — due to be delivered to Trump on Monday — still involves a US-led airstrike campaign to shape the battlefield, as well as a dependence on local troops to fight the terror group with support of the US military, which will guide airstrikes, provide intelligence, and back local commanders, current and former defense officials told BuzzFeed News.

The one major change appears to be a recommendation to deploy 1000 additional US soldiers to Syria to embed with the…well, with whatever force eventually winds up taking Raqqa. They would play the same role that embedded US personnel are playing in Mosul, with the added complication that the Iraqi government invited those Americans into the country, while Bashar al-Assad presumably will not extend the same sort of welcome to American personnel in Syria.

IRAQ Continue reading

Conflict update: February 16 2017

Like Sands Through the Hourglass

The longer this day wore on with no word that Robert Harward had accepted Donald Trump’s once-in-a-lifetime offer to witness a four year-long tire fire firsthand, the more it began to seem like Harward might pass. And, sure enough, a couple of hours ago word broke that Harward had, in fact, said no. Unsurprisingly, chief among Harward’s reasons for turning the National Security Advisor gig down was that Trump refused to allow him to restaff the National Security Council. In particular, Trump insisted that Deputy National Security Advisor KT McFarland stay in her job, and Harward…well, look, McFarland shouldn’t be in that job in the first place, but it would be unrealistic to demand that any new National Security Advisor to keep his or her predecessor’s deputy, especially under these circumstances. Denied the authority to hire his own people, Harward made the right choice, if I do say so myself, to steer clear of this administration.

So now the search continues. David Petraeus’s name will undoubtedly be at the top of the list, but I have to wonder if even Petraeus, who is probably a little desperate to land a high-profile job like this after his whole “I gave classified information to my girlfriend” incident, is going to be willing to take the job if he’s not going to be allowed to hire his own people. The interim National Security Advisor, Keith Kellogg, may get a long look now, simply because he’s presumably OK working with the collection of loons and Fox News ideologues that Flynn put on the NSC.

Meanwhile, Trump gave what was surely one of the most surreal press conferences in American history today. In what was supposed to be the introduction of his second Labor Secretary nominee (it turns out that nominating absolutely horrible human beings to your cabinet can on rare occasions bite you in the ass), Trump rambled on for over an hour about every petty grievance he’s ever had as far back as what seemed like middle school. I won’t recap it–and really can’t, because even though I watched the whole thing it sticks in my memory as one indiscernible mass of bullshit–but I will note that on the subject of the now-departed General Ripper Flynn (and believe me, I’m terrified that I’m about to write these next four words), Matt Yglesias is right: it’s not clear why Trump fired Flynn, and it’s not clear that Trump knows why he fired him.

This is becoming a masterclass in how to throw gasoline on a brushfire. And I’m sure I’m missing some 12th dimensional game theory reason why his failure to put the Flynn scandal to bed is all part of Trump’s secret plan to do some terrible thing, but I can’t shake the feeling that Donald Trump is really just a fucking dolt.

Europe

Intentionally or not, between its apparent intention to deliberately break up the European Union, its hints at isolationism or at least retrenchment, its…whatever it’s doing with Russia, and its insistence that European NATO members start to pick up more of the freight for the alliance’s operations, the Trump administration has sent Europe into a bit of a tizzy. Those European NATO members are talking about making joint weapons purchases and setting up a joint special operations command, and taking a more “active” role in the world, in part to demonstrate to Washington that they’re serious about picking up more slack within the alliance but also, you have to figure, because they’re no longer so sure Washington can be relied upon. NATO is also planning to boost its naval presence in the Black Sea, a direct counter to Russian activity there. Other voices are saying that European nations should resist US demands to boost defense spending and are arguing that European spending on humanitarian missions and development is a form of defense spending in that it helps stabilize trouble spots around the world.

There are deeper issues at play in the Trump demand that European NATO members start spending more on defense. The NATO treaty obligates members to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense, but very few of them actually make that target. The United States spends over 3.5 percent of its GDP on defense, a percentage Trump wants to increase, but he also–and this isn’t unreasonable–wants other NATO members to pull their own weight. The thing is, though, a lot of them never will, and if they don’t…well, probably nothing is going to happen to them. Moreover, even if every other country in the alliance raised defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, it wouldn’t have all that great an impact on the alliance’s funding because most of the countries in question have relatively small GDPs. Sure, Germany has a huge economy, but that’s one country. The US will always provide the bulk of NATO’s collective defense spending because it’s by far the largest economy in the alliance. Right now it provide 70 percent of NATO’s overall defense spending–maybe that could be brought down to 65 percent or so, but probably not much lower unless the US is prepared to drastically reduce its own defense spending–and we will never drastically reduce our own defense spending. Would that it were so, but it ain’t happening.

And, you know, there are some valid reasons why it’s probably OK that the US dominates NATO defense spending like this. I disagree with a lot of this Vox piece because I don’t agree that it’s simply a given that America benefits from having a huge military with bases all over the world. But it is true that, historically, when European nations start ratcheting up their individual defense spending, extremely bad shit happens. If the price of avoiding World War III is letting Germany and France spend 1.5 percent of GDP on defense instead of 2 percent…well, maybe that’s OK.

Syria

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Conflict Update: February 3 2017

This is likely the last one of these for at least a couple of days, for a couple of different reasons that I’ll explain in a post tomorrow.

Trumptopia

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Yes, this is really the cover of Der Spiegel (via)

I feel like the frenzy of alternately draconian and idiotic foreign policymaking that has marked the first three (almost) weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency is overwhelming. So far he’s sacrificed refugee rights and freedom of movement to satiate his terrified, xenophobic base, he’s overseen a botched raid in Yemen that killed several civilians including at least one American child, he’s delivered at least two and possibly three contradictory messages on Israeli settlements, he’s undone whatever progress had been made in US-Iranian relations since the nuclear deal was reached, he’s set US-Chinese relations back, he’s vaguely threatened to invade Mexico, he’s hung up on the prime minister of Australia, he’s insulted the EU, and all to what end? Here, let me turn this over to Stephen Walt:

Meanwhile, what has been the impact of these brilliant strategic moves? For starters, foreign leaders who like the United States are learning that being nice to Trump can hurt them at home (and earns them no favors in Washington anyway). Our adversaries — from the Islamic State to Beijing to Iran — have been handed powerful new arguments with which to embarrass, delegitimize, and undermine America’s image and reputation. And perhaps most remarkable of all, a president elected by the smallest percentage of the popular vote in history has seen his approval ratings continue to fall, even as an unlikely opposing coalition of opponents begins to form against him. If you’re still among his supporters, this cannot be an encouraging sign.

France

A French soldier today shot and seriously wounded a man who tried to carry out some kind of knife attack at the Louvre. The attacker, an Egyptian national, apparently charged at a group of soldiers, while carrying two machetes and shouting “God is Great,” and took one of the soldiers to the ground before that soldier shot him. France remains under a state of emergency that has active duty soldiers helping to patrol major cities, and it’s clear that the outcome in this case could have been significantly worse had the attacker not encountered them first.

Iraq

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BREAKING: EgyptAir flight en route from Paris to Cairo disappears from radar

The flight, an Airbus 320 carrying 59 passengers and 10 crew, is now about an hour several hours overdue. Obviously too early to even hazard a guess as to what happened or is happening to it. I’ll update as new information comes in, though it’s almost 11:30 here so sleep is going to interrupt me at some point.

UPDATE: More from EgyptAir on Twitter:

37,000 feet is cruising altitude, so there’s no evidence that the plane had climbed or descended to avoid weather, and there’s no severe weather in the area where the flight disappeared. It’s also improbable, though not impossible, that an aircraft would suddenly suffer some kind of mechanical failure at cruising altitude.

If the flight was 10 miles inside Egyptian airspace, then (per a CNN aviation expert) the pilots should have checked in with Egyptian air traffic control. If they did, then that gives investigators something to work with. If they didn’t…well, that’s suggestive as well.

UPDATE 2: EgyptAir says 56 passengers:

UPDATE 3: There appears to be no question now that the plane crashed:

and there’s now been a potential sighting of debris:

Egyptian authorities are now talking about terrorism as the cause, which they weren’t prepared to do a few hours ago:

If things are headed down that road, expect to see a lot of attention paid (I’ve already seen it mentioned on TV a couple of times) to reports from last December that dozens of workers at French airports had their security passes revoked due to concerns about their ties to “radical Islamism.” The flight originated at Charles de Gaulle Airport, which was one of the airports named in that security operation.

UPDATE 4: Per my unfortunate cable news addiction, EgyptAir is confirming that wreckage from the plane has been found, and US intelligence sources are saying there are “strong indications” (probably captured via satellite) of an explosion around the place where (and time when) the plane went off radar.

UPDATE 5: Those earlier reports of wreckage being sighted appear to have been wrong:

UPDATE 6: Reports that US intelligence had found “indications” of an explosion in the area where the plane disappeared have been walked back.

Missing the signs

Vox’s Jennifer Williams wrote an excellent and very brave piece for Lawfare yesterday called “We Were Wrong About ISIS.” As the title suggests, she does something very rare in the field of People Who Write About Stuff for a Living: she admits to getting something, specifically ISIS’s shift from state-building to foreign terrorism, wrong:

Many terrorism analysts, myself included, have argued that the Islamic State poses only a limited terrorism threat to the United States homeland, and to the West in general, because the group has primarily focused on its caliphate-building project in Iraq and Syria and, unlike its rival al Qaeda, has little interest in attacking the West. Even though ISIS propagandists frequently called on “every Muslim in every place” to “fight in his land wherever that may be,” this call to arms was almost always offered as a secondary option. The first and best option was to travel to the lands of the Islamic State to fight there. Since the Islamic State had been around in various incarnations for over a decade and had not prioritized attacking the West, the track record seemed clear.

Some analysts also argued, and many more of us agreed, that the potential terrorism threat from the thousands of foreign fighters emigrating from Western countries — including hundreds from France — who have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State was not as serious as some suggested. This was in part because it seemed the Islamic State was more interested in using these Western foreign fighters as suicide bombers in Iraq and Syria than in taking the time to train them and send them back to the West. There is an opportunity cost with every martyr, after all.

Sure, we acknowledged, terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe were almost certainly going to occur, but they would most likely be small-scale, amateurish, low-casualty attacks of the kind carried out by untrained — and often unhinged — lone wolves. Big, complex, high-level terrorism spectaculars like 9/11 or the London subway bombings were likely beyond their reach.

Then the Paris attacks happened.

I don’t know if I’m a terrorism analyst, or even how one gets that title. I started out as a freelancer writing about Ukraine and the Iran negotiations. But I write often enough about this stuff that I’d like to add myself to the “we” in the title of Williams’s piece, because I certainly didn’t see anything like Paris coming.

As Williams writes, in the aftermath of the Paris attacks we all need to reevaluate our assessments of what ISIS is and has been about. Were the analysts who said it was, at least for the foreseeable future, only a regional, Middle Eastern threat right all along (obviously not, we now know)? Were they wrong all along? Or were they right before but missed a shift in ISIS’s orientation? My thinking is that it’s the last of these. Continue reading