Conflict update: March 23 2017

UNITED KINGDOM

The man who killed four people yesterday, when he plowed into dozens of people on London’s Westminster Bridge before stabbing a police officer and attempting to get into parliament, has been identified as 52 year old British citizen Khalid Masood. He was apparently known to British security services, who interviewed him several years ago in connection with a “violent extremism” investigation, but was not on anybody’s radar in recent years for reasons that British authorities are going to have to investigate. He’d also apparently spent time in jail in the past on, among other things, “assault” charges, and one wonders if any of those were of the domestic variety.

Masood was reportedly radicalized by ISIS, which has predictably claimed credit for his attack despite the fact that it almost certainly had nothing directly to do with it.

BELGIUM

A French citizen of North African descent was arrested today in Antwerp on suspicion that he was attempting to drive his car into a crowd of people. Ultra-low tech “weapons” like vehicles and knives have become the lone wolf weapon of choice in Europe, as yesterday’s Westminster attack illustrates, and this is roughly the one year anniversary of the Brussels Airport attack, so the timing is auspicious.

SURE, WHATEVER

The Trump administration’s Director of World War II Reenactments, Sebastian Gorka, had A Thought about the terror attack in London yesterday:

A Trump administration official seized on the Westminster terror attack to justify the president’s blocked travel ban, which targets refugees and immigrants from six Muslim-majority countries, despite confirmation that the attacker was neither an immigrant nor a refugee.

Sebastian Gorka, a national security aide to the president and a former editor for the far-right news site Breitbart, told Fox News’s conservative talk show host Sean Hannity on Wednesday evening that the attack in Westminster, that left three people and the attacker dead, “should be a surprise to nobody”.

“The war is real and that’s why executive orders like President Trump’s travel moratorium are so important,” Gorka said.

The word “like” is doing a hell of a lot of work in that last bit there, because the actual Trump travel ban, had it been implemented in the UK, would have done nothing at all to prevent Masood’s attack, since Masood was a UK citizen. Of course that doesn’t matter–Gorka is just capitalizing on a tragedy to drum up support for his boss’s next attempt to block Muslims from coming into the US. He’s not interested in facts or accuracy, or even really basic human decency.

IRAQ

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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 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: March 8 2017

WIKILEAKS

I haven’t been able to read much more about the Vault 7 CIA hacking data dump today, and at any rate I readily admit that cybersecurity is out of my purview, but I think Herb Lin makes a good point here in arguing that from the CIA’s perspective, the damage wrought by this leak–at least based on what’s been made available so far–is probably limited. The big revelation concerns these CIA exploits of the operating systems for mobile devices, smart TV’s, etc., and the vulnerabilities in those systems would likely have been discovered and patched eventually–unless Apple, Samsung, et al are incompetent and/or leaving known vulnerabilities unpatched for some reason.

IRAQ

At least 26 people were killed today when two apparent suicide bombers struck a wedding party in a village outside of Tikrit.

Inside Mosul, Iraqi forces holding on to the city’s main government building complex appear to have withstood yesterday’s ISIS counterattack and consolidated their gains. Iraqi and American commanders are talking in terms that suggest the battle is already over, with coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian, for example, saying yesterday that “the Iraqi security forces are moving very rapidly right now. The enemy is not able to stop their advances.” This seems to be a fair assessment. While there is hard fighting ahead and there will be periodic setbacks like yesterday’s counterattack, west Mosul is fully surrounded and there’s little ISIS can do over the long haul to prevent the Iraqi-coalition forces from grinding down their defenses. Indeed, this has been the case since the Mosul operation began, which explains why Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reportedly hightailed it out of Mosul before the action started.

Musings on Iraq’s Patrick Wing continues to follow the twists and turns of Ninewa province’s post-ISIS political future:

A parliamentary (MP) told New Sabah that the Arab parties were opposed to former Governor Atheel Nujafi and current Vice President Osama Nujafi’s plans to make the province a federal region. The MP went on to say that the Nujafis were working with the Kurds to fragment Ninewa. These arguments will only increase as more time passes as there are a plethora of forces vying to control Ninewa ranging from the Nujafis to Kurdish President Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to Prime Minister Haidar Abadi to the standing provincial government to Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to Turkey itself to the various minority groups that reside there.

SYRIA

Syrian_Civil_War_map

Syria as of March 7; note the government’s (red) advance south of al-Bab (Wikimedia | Ermanarich)

If you’re looking to handicap the next round of Geneva peace talks, now scheduled for March 23, consider that the Syrian government and/or its Russian allies apparently still can’t manage to stick to a ceasefire for a full 24 hours: Continue reading

Conflict update: February 27 2017

FOREVER WAR

President Trump would like to increase the Pentagon’s budget by $54 billion next year, an amount that, if you’re keeping score at home, is all by itself equal to roughly 4/5 of Russia’s entire military budget. This would boost America’s capacity to shovel huge piles of money at defense contractors fight MOAR WARS, and pay for it by cutting pretty much everything else, including the stuff we do to try to avoid fighting wars.

EARTH

The Great Barrier Reef is still dying, so consider this your semi-regular reminder that none of the rest of this will matter if we don’t figure out a way to stop rendering our planet uninhabitable.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces secured the western end of the southernmost bridge connecting the two halves of the city across the Tigris River on Monday. They’re now pushing into the heart of ISIS-controlled western Mosul, where they’re increasingly running into challenges related to the estimated 750,000 civilians still there. Thousands of civilians have tried to leave the city amid the fighting, but at this point they’re an impediment for the Iraqi military whether they stay or go. Securing the bridge will, once it’s been repaired, in theory allow the Iraqis to resupply their front line forces more directly via eastern Mosul.

There continues to be mostly confusion surrounding the eventual fate of Tal Afar. Pronouncements coming out of the Popular Mobilization Units suggest that the PMU are preparing to take the city, but the Ninewah provincial government says that Iraqi regulars will be the ones to handle that phase of the operation. Baghdad originally floated the idea that the PMU would take Tal Afar but backed down when that plan raised Turkish ire. At this point it seems clear that Baghdad would prefer to have its professional military liberate Tal Afar, but it can’t spare any manpower from Mosul to do the job. The PMU are sitting out in the western desert surrounding Tal Afar and could probably liberate the city, but Turkey would undoubtedly respond negatively to that scenario (and, to be fair, there are concerns over how the PMU will treat Sunni Turkmen in Tal Afar who may have collaborated with ISIS back in 2014).

SYRIA

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Conflict update: February 15 2017

Meet the New Boss(‘s Adviser)

In a rare flash of lucidity, Donald Trump has reportedly offered his now-vacant National Security Advisor position to Vice Admiral Robert Harward, instead of, say, Steve Bannon, or John Bolton, or Chucky, the doll from those horror movies. It’s hard to evaluate Harward for two reasons: one, most military brass tend to keep their personal views pretty close to the chest (the ones who don’t, like Michael Flynn, get a lot of attention in part because they really are the exception), and two, pretty much anybody was going to look good compared to Flynn. One thing we do know is that Harward and Defense Secretary James Mattis get along quite well with one another, where Mattis and Flynn did not, so that could be good or bad depending on your preference for intra-administration feuds.

As far as I know Harward hasn’t actually accepted the job yet, and he may not accept it if Trump refuses to allow him to clear Flynn’s people out of the National Security Council. In particular, Flynn’s deputy, KT McFarland, was apparently told by Trump that she could stay in her job, but it’s hard to imagine why Harward, or anybody else for that matter, would want to keep this person on in such an important job.

Israel-Palestine

It got somewhat underplayed because the Flynn scandal is still sucking up most of the national security oxygen, but Donald Trump erased at least 15 years of US policy in one fell swoop earlier today:

Speaking at a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to scuttle long-standing U.S. support for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians.

If “Bibi” and the Israelis and the Palestinians are all happy, “I am looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like… I can live with either one,” Trump said.

Putting aside a lot of justifiable concern from the Palestinian Authority at this sea-change in American policy (though, who knows, Trump could do a complete 180 by tomorrow), the two-state solution is well and truly dead and has been for some time now. Indeed, during the press conference Netanyahu made it quite clear that his vision of the future in Israel-Palestine by definition excludes the possibility of a separate Palestinian state. But there’s also no one-state solution that “both parties like.” There’s the one-state solution that means apartheid or worse for the Palestinians, which they obviously won’t like, and there’s the one-state solution that means Israel will no longer be a majority Jewish state, which “Bibi” obviously won’t like.  I’d ask whether Trump understands this, but I don’t know that the question is relevant.

In return for Trump’s indulgence, which included only the mildest of rebukes toward his ethnic cleansing policies in the occupied West Bank, Netanyahu made sure to praise Trump, whose chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is an anti-Semite, as a great friend of the Jews. If the two of them had started literally scratching each others’ backs right there in front of the press they couldn’t have been any more blatant about what they were doing. Netanyahu also asked Trump to bless Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, something that will go over real well if it’s coupled with a move to put a large number of new US soldiers on the ground in Syria (see below).

Syria

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Conflict update: February 13 2017

Michael Flynn

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syria

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