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 17 2017

SYRIA

First the new story: that Israeli missile alert that sounded in the Jordan valley yesterday evening wasn’t caused by any rockets coming from Gaza. Instead, it was caused by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles, fired at a squadron of Israeli planes that were returning from a bombing run in Syrian airspace. The Israeli planes reportedly struck a convoy of weapons intended for Hezbollah. None of the Syrian missiles hit the Israeli planes, but at least one was apparently intercepted by an Israeli Arrow missile defense, uh, missile (there has to be a better way to describe that).

The big story remains the bombing of a mosque in the Syrian town of al-Jinah during evening prayers yesterday. The Pentagon has acknowledged that this was an American airstrike, but insists that it did not strike the mosque, but a nearby building where a high-level al-Qaeda meeting was being held. That’s their story, but it doesn’t seem to be holding up very well:

According to the US military, it launched strikes on a large building just 50 feet from a small mosque in the village of al-Jinah. Al-Qaeda regularly used this building to hold high-level meetings, the Pentagon said. And after watching the site for some time, the US military bombed the building around 7 p.m. local time Thursday, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Friday. The strikes included a 500-pound bomb and at least six AGM-114 Hellfire missiles fired from drones, a US defense official told BuzzFeed News.

The US military said it purposely avoided the small mosque. But some on the ground suggested the building hit was a new, larger mosque, where as many as 300 worshippers had gathered for evening prayer. Local residents put the death toll as high as 62 and said others could be buried alive in the wreckage. Some videos that appeared online showed rescue workers pulling children out of the rubble.

“We are still assessing the results of the strike, but believe that dozens of core al Qaeda terrorists were killed,” Davis said in a statement afterwards.

Davis said the military was “not aware of any credible allegation” of civilian casualties despite the emerging accounts from Syrian watch groups. But US officials said they were still investigating the allegations. The US military also has yet to determine how many were killed and whether any were high-value al-Qaeda operatives.

“Not aware of any credible allegation”? Really?

The Pentagon released this photo that it says proves it didn’t strike a mosque:

It says the mosque, which it identifies as the small building on the left, is clearly intact, which, fair enough. But here’s the thing: locals are saying that was the old mosque. The new mosque was the two-building compound on the right, one building of which has been blown to smithereens in that photo. How can you be sure the locals aren’t lying? Well, you can’t, but one point in their favor is that the Pentagon itself says, according to one of its drones, nobody came out of the small building for at least 30 minutes after the strike. If the small building were still the mosque, full of people at evening prayer, you would think maybe one or two of them might have come outside to see what happened after the building next door was fucking blown up. But maybe that’s just me.

In other Syria news, YPG commander Sipan Hemo told Reuters that the Raqqa operation will begin next month. Say, remember when Donald Trump got real Mad on account of people announced the Mosul offensive before it began? His face got even oranger and he blubbered something about the element of surprise, like we’re fighting the Napoleonic Wars or some shit. I wonder if he’ll be mad about this.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: March 1 2017

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S GENERALS

Donald Trump is reportedly planning to substantially hand control over military operations to his defense secretary, recently retired General James Mattis:

The Daily Beast’s Kim Dozier writes that Trump “wants to operate more like the CEO he was in the private sector in such matters, and delegate even more power to Mattis, which may mean rewriting one of President Barack Obama’s classified Presidential Policy Directives on potentially lethal operations in countries where the U.S. is not officially involved in combat.”

Military officers already have authority to greenlight certain military operations, but sensitive missions like the Yemen raid, conducted in a country where the United States is not formally engaged in combat operations, have typically required a sign-off from the White House. Trump has also previously said that he would give Mattis the power to “override” him on the question of whether to use torture on terror suspects. (The president still thinks it’s a good idea, but the defense secretary opposes it.)

As Keating notes, for any other president this would be a little terrifying. But we’re talking about Donald Trump, and the less he actually makes decisions in this government the better off we all are. This is glaringly true in the case of torture.

One area where Trump apparently won’t let his generals overrule him is when it comes to the Magic Words That Will Defeat Terrorism:

President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, advised him in a closed-door meeting last week to stop using a phrase that was a frequent refrain during the campaign: “radical Islamic terrorism.”

But the phrase will be in the president’s speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, according to a senior White House aide—even though McMaster reviewed drafts and his staff pressed the president’s chief speechwriter and senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, not to use it.

McMaster, who actually has some experience in, you know, anything at all related to national security, is being overruled by Trump’s political advisers, who have no such experience but want to make it very clear to Muslims that America is their enemy. And guess what? Message received.

SYRIA

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Conflict update: February 12 2017

We’re in the middle of a windstorm and I keep losing power, so I’m going to have to call it a night with a lot of stuff still left to cover. I’ll be back tomorrow though. The storm blew through and I decided to stay up late to cram everything in here. You’re welcome, or I’m sorry, depending on your perspective.

Michael Flynn

I may have something more to say about this story later this week, especially if something else breaks, but let’s at least note that Donald Trump’s favorite and most unhinged general could be out of a job soon. On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn spent the month or so before Donald Trump’s inauguration talking with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about potentially easing or lifting US sanctions against Russian individuals and/or institutions. This is…well, I realize that nobody has ever been convicted under the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from conducting their own foreign policy, and Flynn won’t be the first. But this is a pretty blatant violation. It’s one thing for personnel in an incoming administration to take meetings with personnel of other governments in order to exchange pleasantries, get to know one another, and even discuss some major areas of policy. It’s something else for the personnel of an incoming administration to directly undermine the foreign policy of the current, albeit lame duck, administration.

Not that anybody in the Trump administration would care, but this report makes a liar out of Flynn and Vice President Mike Pence, who both denied that any such conversations took place. And of course the administration should be hyper-sensitive to any new stories suggesting an inappropriate relationship between it and Russia. It is possible, then, that Flynn could be jettisoned in some kind of face-saving maneuver. Even before this story broke there were rumblings about Flynn losing influence in Trump’s inner circle, and now that it has broken the White House seems pointedly unwilling to rush to his defense. Trump’s CIA just reportedly refused to issue a security clearance to one of Flynn’s National Security Council appointees, which seems like kind of a bad sign too. Other than Trump, I’m not sure what kind of support network Flynn has within the administration–Defense Secretary James Mattis reportedly isn’t a fan, and apparently neither is new CIA Director Mike Pompeo. So it could just be a matter of convincing Trump that Flynn has really brought shame upon the administration (and, well, he does stand out even among this collection of thieves, sociopaths, and grifters) to usher him out the door.

Syria

The Syrian rebel High Negotiation Committee has chosen a delegation to attend the next round of UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva on February 20. Interestingly, the HNC, which is based in Saudi Arabia, has opted to include representatives from two other Syrian exile groups–one based in Cairo and the other in Moscow–in its delegation. It does not, of course, plan to include any representatives from the two insurgent groups doing most of the actual fighting against the Syrian government (Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham), which as usual leads one to wonder how useful these talks can possibly be.

In the fight against ISIS, Turkish forces and their rebel clients have apparently entered the city of al-Bab. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan says that after they take al-Bab, his forces will continue right on to Raqqa–which, of course, isn’t going to sit well with anybody. It’s not going to sit well with the Syrian army, which is advancing on al-Bab from the south and nearly engaged in a full-on battle with those Turkish forces last week only to be talked down by Moscow. Next time Russia may not be able to play mediator. It’s also not going to sit well with the Kurdish YPG, which is expected, per the British government, to have isolated Raqqa by sometime this spring. Turkey’s interest in taking Raqqa is much less about defeating ISIS than about making sure the YPG doesn’t take it.

Speaking of the Kurds, since I highlighted Roy Gutman’s anti-YPG piece last week, I want also to highlight Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi’s response. Tamimi has some of the same issues I had with Gutman’s piece, specifically that he relies on potentially biased sourcing and draws inflammatory conclusions without much evidence to support them, but he goes into more detail and has some things to say about Gutman’s work more generally: Continue reading

Conflict update: February 9 2017

Just by way of an update, there’s a pretty good chance this place will be quiet tomorrow. I’m traveling again and, well, I might just feel like crashing afterwards. That’s also why this is posting a few hours earlier than I usually post these updates.

#ThanksTrump

As the Trump administration decides how to proceed now that its Muslim immigration ban looks truly kaput, it’s also preparing to begin the mass deportations called for in its other big immigration EO (the one about the “wall”). The Intercept has some excellent reporting on what’s about to happen and the ramifications that it will entail.

In a phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump reportedly referred to the 2010 New START nuclear arms control treaty as a “bad deal” for the US and refused Putin’s offer to extend it. OK, I mean, Trump is entitled to his opinion, but I have to say I’d feel better about this if sources who were involved in the call didn’t later report that, after Putin brought New START up, Trump had to “ask his aides in an aside what the treaty was.” Or, also, if Trump hadn’t made it abundantly clear during the 2016 campaign that he had no idea what New START was or what it did, despite his firm conviction that it was a terrible deal.

Eight countries–the Netherlands, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, Finland, and Cape Verde–have signed on to a joint effort to counter the Trump administration’s “gag rule” that prevents US-funded NGOs from providing women around the world with information on abortion.

Ted Malloch, the favorite to be named US Ambassador to the European Union, apparently doesn’t like the EU very much, which suggests he’ll do really well in that job, assuming he gets it. After all, former UN Ambassador John Bolton hated the UN, and he…oh, right. In Malloch’s case, one wonders how long Brussels is going to tolerate the Trump administration’s increasingly obvious desire to break the EU up.

Israel-Palestine

Benjamin Netanyahu’s government seems acutely aware that the recent passage of a bill legalizing the annexation of private Palestinian land by Israeli settlers is problematic, to say the least. That’s why they’ve drawn up some helpful talking points for settlement defenders, chock full of grade A bullshit about how the law was the only “fair” solution to the problem of these poor, benighted Israeli families, whose only crime was the literal theft of land belonging to somebody else (the dehumanization of actual Palestinians being a cornerstone of this particular bill). Defenders are also supposed to stress that the legal Palestinian owners of the land will be “fairly compensated,” which kind of elides the fact that many of them don’t want to be “compensated” at all, they just want their land. Here’s the interesting bit, though:

Israeli journalist and commentator Yossi Melman, who revealed the list Thursday in a column for Israeli newspaper Maariv, noted some peculiarities with the arguments, however.

For starters, he wrote, there is no mention of Netanyahu’s support for the law. Initially, the prime minister opposed the legislation, because he understood there would be immediate global criticism. Failing to mention Netanyahu, Melman said, “reinforces the assessment” that the prime minister and some of his ministers voted in favor of the law out of fear of upsetting right-wing voters.

The memo also suggests the government is “pinning its hopes on the Supreme Court to save Israel from the international isolation that the law is liable to cause.” The arguments allow diplomats to tell Israel’s critics not to get too frantic about the law because it will be knocked down in the court.

There is considerable evidence suggesting that Netanyahu wants the court to save him, not the least of which is that he was against the annexation bill before he was for it.

A Palestinian attacker wounded six Israelis in a market in the central Israeli town of Petah Tikva today. In Gaza, an Israeli (presumably, though they seem to be denying it) airstrike on part of the city’s tunnel network reportedly killed two civilians, and the al-Mezan Center for Human Rights is sounding alarm bells about the possibility of a new large-scale Israeli military offensive in Gaza.

Syria

The AP is beginning to wonder how there can be a ceasefire in Syria when fighting has continued mostly unabated in Idlib, Homs, Hama, areas around Damascus, al-Bab, Palmyra, areas around Raqqa, Deir Ezzor…well, you get the idea. It’s a good question, but I can assure you that there’s a perfectly understandable answer, which is that [trails off incoherently].

Turkish forces and their Free Syrian Army proxies reportedly continue to push in to al-Bab. I’ve seen scattered reports of minor fighting between the Turkish/FSA army and Syrian government/allied forces moving toward al-Bab from the south, but for the most part it seems that whatever Russia-brokered accommodation the two sides have reached is holding. Speaking of which, three Turkish soldiers were reportedly killed earlier today in an “accidental” Russian airstrike, which I suppose counts as “friendly fire” now because this war has gone through the looking glass about a dozen times since it began.

Hashem al-Shaykh, a leader of the new Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham rebel coalition, says that his organization is going to step up its attacks on Syrian government forces. Tahrir al-Sham was formed in the midst of the intra-rebel fighting that gripped Idlib a couple of weeks back, and includes Jabhat Fatah al-Sham as well as the forces that opted to take its side rather than merge with the remaining elements of Ahrar al-Sham. This announcement could be an attempt to signal that it’s going to try to move past its conflict with Ahrar al-Sham and get back to fighting the government.

Iraq

I want to reiterate that, in addition to these posts, you should be reading Joel Wing’s daily Mosul updates. He goes into considerably more detail than I’m able to do and draws on Iraqi Arabic media, which I could probably do if you were willing to get my February 9 update sometime in April. Today’s update covers what’s happening in Mosul so thoroughly that I’m just going to quote him:

A commander from the Golden Division told the press that IS had no presence in east Mosul, and yet sleeper cells continue to be found along with infiltrations and continuous shelling and drone strikes. General Saadi Maan stated that the insurgents were no longer in liberated sections of Mosul. He did acknowledge that there were infiltrators. Five IS fighters were killed trying to sneak into the Rashidiya neighborhood in the northern tip of the city. In nearby Darkazlia searches led to a firefight with 16 IS being killed, and 17 arrested including 2 suicide bombers. Several more insurgents were discovered trying to cross the Tigris into east Mosul and were wiped out. Drone attacks, mortar fire, and rockets on eleven neighborhoods left 45 dead and 21 wounded. There are gun battles with militants almost every day now in east Mosul. The government has warned about sleeper cells and IS fighters who disappeared into the general population. The Iraqi forces (ISF) are attempting to root them out with raids and searches throughout the city. At the same time, IS is shelling and launching drone strikes causing more and more casualties. This is leading to continued displacement from Mosul.

IS’s main activity in west Mosul was maintaining control. It burned ten people on charges of helping the Iraqi forces. It raided the New Mosul neighborhood looking for phones, and when they found them people were shot. Another five civilians were executed for trying to flee across the Tigris River. Their bodies were strung up to scare others.

The Iraqi ministry says that it’s extinguished all but five of the 25 oil well fires that ISIS set when it fled Qayyara in advance of the Iraqi offensive. The environmental damage caused by those fires will take substantially longer to dissipate.

Iran

The Washington Post is reporting that “senior defense and intelligence officials” are trying to talk the Trump administration down from its plan to designate the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization. They’re concerned, as you might imagine, with the myriad consequences related to an action that would be akin to some other country declaring the entire US Marine Corps a terrorist force. The State Department’s FTO status was never supposed to be used this way and has never been applied to a state actor.

Egypt

Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s government, the one with which the Trump administration seems so enamored, raided and shut down the offices of the Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence in Cairo today. Ostensibly the center is under investigation for accepting illegal foreign funds. Practically, it was shut down because it works to counter the Sisi government’s often brutal and systematic human rights abuses.

Yemen

Military analyst James Spencer has an interesting analysis at LobeLog of that (alleged) Yemeni rebel suicide attack on a Saudi frigate on January 30. I say (alleged) because, while it’s clear that an attack occurred and it’s pretty likely that the rebels were behind it, Spencer makes a pretty compelling argument that it was a missile attack, not a suicide attack. We know the Yemeni rebels have used anti-ship missiles before, and the video of the attack suggests, at least to Spencer, that the explosion happened too far above the water line to have been caused by a bomber on a boat. He believes the Saudis manufactured the tale about a suicide bomber to cover for the fact that they weren’t employing standard anti-missile defenses despite sailing in waters known to be vulnerable to rebel anti-ship missiles.

Afghanistan

General John Nicholson, the US commander in Afghanistan, told Congress today that he needs “a few thousand” more troops to properly carry out his mission to train, advise, and assist the Afghan military. He suggested that NATO allies could provide some of those troops, but I’m not sure he made a convincing case that a few thousand more Western troops will be enough to change the course of a war that has clearly turned in the Taliban’s favor. The Russian Foreign Ministry, always trying to be helpful, said today that Moscow is ready to cooperate with NATO in Afghanistan.

India-Pakistan

Today the Pakistani government accused India of building a “nuclear city” where it will manufacture nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and of organizing terrorist attacks in Pakistan. India, as you might guess, denies these accusations.

Myanmar

A Malaysian ship loaded with aid intended for the Rohingya arrived in Yangon today, where it was welcomed by a crowd of Buddhist protesters carrying signs reading “NO ROHINGYA.” Because there are no Rohingya. Don’t believe your lying eyes. Anyway, the burden is now on the Myanmar government to deliver the aid.

Philippines

The New People’s Army engaged in a number of small attacks today while criticizing President Rodrigo Duterte for ending his government’s peace talks with the Communist rebel group.

China

This is fine, everything is fine, nothing to worry about:

A U.S. Navy P-3 plane and a Chinese military aircraft came close to each other over the South China Sea in an incident the Navy believes was inadvertent, a U.S. official told Reuters on Thursday.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the aircraft came within 1,000 feet (305 meters) of each other on Wednesday in the vicinity of the Scarborough Shoal, between the Philippines and the Chinese mainland.

Libya

The so-called Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar attacked an air base near the central Libyan city of Jufra. Jufra is controlled by Misratan militias that are opposed to Haftar and the GNA and (at least nominally) aligned with the Government of National Accord. Speaking of which, the General National Congress appears to be forming some kind of armed guard force in Tripoli that could be used to “secure” (i.e., kick the GNA out of) government facilities.

The Gambia

The new Gambian government announced today that it will reverse Yahya Jammeh’s plan to withdraw from the International Criminal Court. This is an interesting development insofar as, only a few days ago, the African Union passed a non-binding resolution calling on all its member states to withdraw from the ICC. But it is potentially good news for the ICC, obviously.

Nigeria

Read this piece on life in the Niger Delta. Just read it.

Greece

Hey, Brexit, don’t get too comfortable. The original, uh, rexit (?) hasn’t gone anywhere. That’s right, I’m talking Grexit, baby. The short version is that Greece’s economy is still in the shit, and with the new state of the world being what it is (including that new American president who really seems to want to break the EU up), Germany’s hard line on austerity seems likely to only get harder. Of course, one of the other thing’s that’s changed since last time we visited with Grexit is that the refugee situation has gotten worse. Tossing Greece from the EU will make it substantially more difficult for the EU to cope with a problem it’s already not really coping with as it is.

Romania

As expected, Romanian Justice Minister (well, ex-Justice Minister) Florin Iordache resigned today over his role in the recent anti-anti-corruption decree that has caused so much public outcry. Almost as predictably, the government Iordache just left is trying to play the xenophobia card, defending itself by arguing that there are foreigners among the crowds of protesters. Sorin Grindeanu’s Social Democratic Party is center-left on economics but apparently has a strong if a bit incongruous nationalist streak that is now on ugly display.

Meanwhile, the Russian government said today that it considers Romania a “clear threat,” which is really just what the Romanian people need right now.

Russia

Russia’s RIA news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Meshkov today saying that recent NATO deployments in Eastern Europe are seen by Moscow as a “threat.”

An analysis by the State Department’s top economist finds that targeted US sanctions have worked as intended, hurting the oligarchs surrounding Russian President Vladimir Putin while mostly leaving the rest of the Russian economy (which is weak nonetheless because of cheap oil) untouched. What the Trump administration will do with these findings, and the sanctions, is unclear.

Radio Free Europe and Voice of America are launching a new Russian language news outlet, Current Time, that looks like it will basically be the opposite of RT America.

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Conflict update: February 1 2017

Iran

If the Trump administration accomplishes nothing else in its (hopefully only) four years in office, provoking a war with Iran seems to be at the top of its bucket list. How else do you explain the National Security Advisor taking the podium at a White House press briefing and doing this:

“Recent Iranian actions, including a provocative ballistic missile launch and an attack against a Saudi naval vessel conducted by Iran-supported Houthi militants, underscore … Iran’s destabilizing behavior across the Middle East,” Trump’s national security adviser, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, told journalists at a White House press briefing Feb. 1.

Criticizing the Obama administration for failing “to respond adequately to Tehran’s malign actions,” Flynn said Iran was now feeling emboldened.

“As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice,” Flynn warned.

Iran’s ballistic missile tests are genuinely provocative, there’s no question about that. But Trump’s foreign policy team isn’t satisfied just complaining about Tehran’s missile tests. So they want to make Iran responsible for an attack by Yemeni rebels, whose involvement with Iran is marginal, on a Saudi naval vessel, at a time when the Saudis are bombing Yemen to rubble. There’s no evidence that the Houthi boat attack on Monday had anything to do with Iran, but the administration knows it can assert one without any serious chance of blowback. Trump officials insist that they aren’t conflating Yemen and the missile tests with the nuclear deal, which they say the administration is committed to upholding, but that’s a ruse. The plan, in all likelihood, is to recreate the same sanctions infrastructure that existed before the nuclear deal was reached, simply under non-nuclear pretenses. Maybe Iran will decide to walk away from the JCPOA at that point, which will give Trump a casus belli, but even if they don’t the punitive US sanctions will all be back in place.

Syria

The Syrian army appears to be trying to get into al-Bab before Turkey and its rebel proxies can take the city, which sets up the possibility that the Syrian and Turkish armies are going to start shooting at one another once they’re both done shooting at ISIS. It’s unlikely that the Syrians would go on the offensive against Turkey, but their aim is probably to swoop in and gain control of al-Bab before Turkey can, which would then put the Turks in the position of either abandoning their goal or attacking the Syrians.

Washington is once again trying to put together an Arab army capable of capturing Raqqa from ISIS. A 3000 man unit called the Syrian Elite Forces, commanded by Ahmad Jarba, seems to be at the core of this new attempt. Previous efforts at finding somebody, anybody, other than the YPG capable of undertaking this mission have fizzled out, and even though there is an Arab contingent within the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, it’s not enough on its own to take the city. The Trump administration has begun delivering armored vehicles to the SDF, which represents an escalation in American aid to the group.

Preparations are being made, rhetorically at least, for the next round of peace talks in Geneva on February 20. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said today that talks need to focus on a transitional government, but he was understandably non-committal about what role Bashar al-Assad would play in that transition, and there, as it has for nearly six years now, lies the rub. Diplomatically, the rebels are singling out Iran as their primary antagonist apart from Assad, undoubtedly thinking–as Ankara and now Washington are also apparently thinking–that with enough enticement/pressure, Russia could be made to distance itself from the Iranians, which would then leave Assad more vulnerable.

Iraq

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