Conflict update: April 21 2017

Hopefully a short one tonight. I’m getting a bit of a late start and actually don’t think there’s much to report for a change.

SYRIA

The first phase of that major four-town evacuation (Fuʿah, Kefraya, Zabadani, and Madaya) has concluded successfully with an additional agreement for the Syrian government to release hundreds of detainees. The whole deal was thrown into chaos last weekend over a terrorist attack on buses evacuating people from Fuʿah and Kefraya, but it seems to have resumed pursuant to another agreement reached between its two international backers, Qatar and Iran, over some Qataris who were being held captive in Iraq (more on that in a moment). I’m not entirely clear on the relationship between these two deals, but it seems like the Syrian deal would have stalled had this Iraqi arrangement not come together.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Russia’s Sputnik news agency today that Jordan is preparing an invasion of southern Syria in coordination with the US. The Jordanians have forcefully denied that they have any such plan.

IRAQ

That Iraqi deal involved the release of 26 Qatari hunters, including members of the Qatari royal family, who had been kidnapped in southern Iraq by, uh, somebody in December 2015. Who exactly kidnapped them has never been clear, but it now seems that at least we can say that Iran was able to negotiate on their behalf.

There’s still little new to report from Mosul. Iraqi counter-terrorism forces are continuing to advance into the center of western Mosul, west of the Old City area where most of ISIS’s defenses have been located, and in the Old City itself things have remained static for weeks apart from one Iraqi police advance along the western edge of the neighborhood on April 16.

TURKEY

Turkish opposition leaders have gone to court to appeal the election board’s decision to accept improperly unstamped ballots during Sunday’s referendum. This is unlikely to have any effect. They’ll first try to adjudicate the case in Turkish courts, which have largely had their independence stripped by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and then they may take the case to the European Court on Human Rights, whose rulings Erdoğan will almost certainly feel free to just ignore. The opposition even seem resigned to this, with an HDP spokesman suggesting the appeal is more to have it on the record for historical purposes than anything else.

EGYPT

Credit where credit is due, President Trump seems to have successfully negotiated the release of US citizen Aya Hijazi from Egypt, where she’d been detained without trial for three years. She returned to the US this morning. Hijazi and her husband had been running a non-profit caring for homeless children in Egypt when she was arrested on charges of child trafficking that were never substantiated or brought to trial. The case against her was dropped after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited DC earlier this month and Trump fawned over him, so it seems pretty clear that all that ass-kissing helped get Hijazi out of jail. Like I said, credit where credit is due.

AFGHANISTAN

A Taliban attack on a military base in Balkh province today killed more than 50 Afghan soldiers. Suicide bombers apparently breached the gate and gunmen entered the base, killing soldiers who were, among other things, eating lunch and at midday prayer.

PAKISTAN

Opposition lawmakers are demanding that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif step down while an investigation is ongoing into his family’s finances and potential corruption. Pakistan’s top court ordered the investigation yesterday but opted not to remove Sharif from office.

 

AUSTRALIA

Vice President Mike Pence has taken his stern face to Australia for the weekend, where he’ll be expected to smooth over any lingering bad feelings from Trump’s first phone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. He arrives at a time when the Australian government is being slammed by human rights groups for the inhumane conditions at its offshore migrant detention centers on the islands of Manus and Nauru, and, well, he and Turnbull should have a lot to talk about.

Meanwhile, Australian scientists say that analysis of ocean currents and drift patterns strongly suggests that missing flight MH370–remember that?–probably crashed into the Indian Ocean in an area north of where everybody was looking before the search was suspended last year. Now they just need a government or two willing to spend more money on a new search, so…good luck with that.

SOMALIA

The Kenyan military says it killed 52 al-Shabab militants in a Friday morning attack on one of their camps in Somalia’s southern Lower Juba province.

CENTRAL AFRICA

Although it announced that it was pulling out of the operation to destroy Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army last month, the Trump administration has apparently decided to continue America’s involvement in the operation after all. Uganda announced that it was pulling out of the operation earlier this week, and that seems to have caused a change of heart in Washington.

RUSSIA

Say, this seems like great news:

American and Canadian fighter planes scrambled to intercept two Russian TU-95 “Bear” bombers Thursday night, marking the fourth consecutive night of Russian probes near the Alaskan coast, U.S. defense officials said Friday.

At no point did the Russian aircraft cross into American or Canadian airspace, but the incursions into the Air Identification Zones — which extend beyond the territorial waters of the U.S. and Canada — represent a sharp increase in activity in the area, which has seen no Russian activity at all since 2015. The flights may also herald the return of Moscow’s 60-year-old nuclear capable bomber to the international stage, after the entire fleet was grounded in 2015 after a rash of accidents.

Frankly, I don’t understand why Putin would want to provoke a conflict here when the Trump administration, despite its newfound anti-Russia ethos, seems pretty intent on destroying America without any outside help.

FRANCE

French police are investigating reports that Champs-Élysées shooter Karim Cheurfi may have had at least one accomplice. There seems to be some confusion related to ISIS’s unusually rapid claim of responsibility for the attack, which they attributed to an “Abu Yusif al-Belgiki.” That’s an obvious pseudonym (Abu Yusif the Belgian), but was it Cheurfi’s pseudonym? He wasn’t Belgian, so that’s at least a little weird. The oddness of the name and the fact that, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, ISIS claimed this attack very quickly, leaves open the possibility that ISIS thought this attack was actually some other attack that it’s got in the cards. That’s unlikely, but there are still some things about this case that aren’t quite adding up.

Sunday is of course election day, and with polling still a mess it’s not clear how things are going to turn out. Five Thirty Eight’s Harry Enten says that, going by the polls, any two of the top four candidates could wind up in the May 7 runoff. Now consider the uncertainty caused by this terror attack–the historical evidence as to what kind of impact attacks like this have on elections is mixed, but they often do have some impact. Donald Trump is unsurprisingly supporting fellow reactionary xenophobe Marine Le Pen, but given how monumentally unpopular Trump is in France, that might not help. Even if Le Pen does make it into the second round of voting, polling has consistently put her so far behind each of the other leading candidates that it’s very difficult to imagine she’d be able to pull out a victory. Still, on the principle that anything could happen, it would be better if she finished out of the top two on Sunday.

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Conflict update: April 20 2017

FRANCE

Details are still sketchy, but a gunman earlier this evening shot and killed a police officer on the Champs-Élysées in Paris before being shot and killed in turn by other police officers. There was a search for accomplices immediately after the shooting, but it seems at this point like the shooter was acting alone. French authorities are treating this as a terrorist attack, and ISIS has reportedly already claimed credit for the attack. The attacker used a pseudonym but he’s been identified as Karim Cheurfi, a 39 year old French national who has a previous conviction for shooting at police officers and was–obviously–known to authorities.

ISIS’s claim of responsibility was lightning fast, as these things go, which suggests they may have known of the attack before it happened–though it doesn’t necessarily suggest they had any role in planning it and, indeed, it doesn’t seem to have required much planning. It may also be that ISIS is aiming to use this attack to meddle with the French presidential election taking place this weekend, and if that’s the case then it’s pretty clear who they’d like to see win: reactionary nationalist/fascist Marine Le Pen. As the most anti-Islam voice in the race, Le Pen obviously stands to benefit from any last-minute voting decisions made out of fear stemming from this attack. And we know that ISIS likes it when Western countries elect right-wing, anti-Islam demagogues.

As it stood before the shooting, polling had Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron heading to the runoff, but conservative François Fillon had moved back into third place on his own. A switch of just a few points–hardly an impossibility given the number of voters who still say they’re undecided and/or not sure they’re going to vote–could put the “tough on crime”-style candidates, Fillon and Le Pen, in the runoff with Macron on the outside looking in. And in that case, with Le Pen running against the badly damaged and scandal-ridden Fillon in the second round, anything could happen.

IRAN

This was going to be my first story before the Paris shooting happened. Iran’s Press TV has the list of candidates who have been permitted by the Guardian Council to stand in the country’s May 19 presidential election. They are:

  • Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani
  • Religious leader Ebrahim Raisi
  • Tehran Mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf
  • Current First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri
  • Moderate politician Mostafa Hashemitaba
  • Conservative (?) politician Mostafa Mir-Salim
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Via PressTV.com

Notably not on that list, of course, is former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His former vice president, Hamid Baghaei, was also disqualified. He hasn’t had time to do any squawking about this yet, but I have my doubts he’s going to take it lying down. Although I have to give his surrogates credit for how brazenly they’re already trying to spin this result as something Ahmadinejad really wanted all alongContinue reading

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

Continue reading

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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