Conflict update: January 9 2017

Apologies; normally I like to keep things more active around here, but I’m working on a big piece for LobeLog and it’s taking a while to get through it. It’s a long Q&A with a couple of respected foreign policy analysts about the Obama foreign policy legacy. And while you might think that sounds easy, you just type up what they said and you’re done, you haven’t ever seen me try to transcribe anything. It’s pretty brutal. So it’ll probably be another day or so before I send that one off to my editor and, in the meantime, as it was today, it might be a little slow on the blog.


You’ve probably already heard the BREAKING NEWS OMG OMG OMG that an American vessel in the Persian Gulf fired warning shots at a number of small Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “fast attack” craft earlier today. This kind of thing happens periodically. Iran claims waters in the Gulf that are beyond internationally recognized boundaries, much as China does in the South China Sea. The US ignores those claims just as it does in the SCS, because the US considers itself the defender of free maritime lanes all around the world. Occasionally, Iranian boats buzz US ships menacingly in the way that my 15 pound Schnoodle barks at the much larger dog who lives next door, separated from her by a very sturdy chain-link fence. It makes them feel good about themselves but almost never amounts to anything serious. That may change in 11 days, when we inaugurate a president who has vowed to destroy Iranian boats in the Gulf if their crews do so much as flip the bird at American sailors. That would, of course, be insane, but “sane” hopped a flight to Aruba sometime in 2015 and I don’t think it’s ever coming back.

In other Iranian news, parliament voted today to increase military spending to five percent of the Iranian budget and to continue a long-range missile program that is virtually guaranteed to cause conflict with the Trump administration. Iran’s ballistic missile program is often conflated with the nuclear deal, because ballistic missiles are usually conflated with nuclear weapons (medium and long-range ballistic missiles are kind of silly weapons unless they’re carrying a major payload). In fact the program violates, or may violate, other UN sanctions on Iran, but it is not literally at odds with the nuclear deal (even though, as the UN and other JCPOA parties have argued, it may be “inconsistent” with the “spirit” of the deal).

Iran is also still processing yesterday’s passing of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. One aspect of his death that I didn’t really note yesterday is that Rafsajani’s death is the first loss of a truly titanic figure in the founding of the Islamic Republic–the only other Iranian on par with Rafsanjani in that regard would be Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and he’s certainly got more years behind him than in front of him. The two of them were the leaders of the revolutionary generation, the group that did the work of overthrowing the shah in 1979 and seeing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his vilayet-i faqih system installed as Iran’s new political reality. Khomeini was the idol of that generation but he wasn’t of that generation, so his death in 1989 didn’t mark the passing of an era the way Rafsanjani’s does, and Khamenei’s will. It’s one of the great political ironies in the Middle East that countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia have huge populations of young people but are still ruled by cadres of people who were elderly a decade ago, and who/what rises to replace them is going to determine a lot about the future of the region.


Iraqi special forces moving from the east advanced on Mosul University today, in the northeastern part of the city. The university is an important target in that it occupies a tactically useful position overlooking the eastern bank of the Tigris, and capturing it will help those special forces link up with Iraqi army units advancing slowly from the north. The semicircle surrounding ISIS’s remaining positions in east Mosul is steadily tightening.

Elsewhere, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli told a Turkish TV station today that Ankara has the “right” to take military action in Iraq against terror threats against Turkey that originate there. One wonders if Ankara would concede Baghdad the right to take military action in Turkey if the situation were reversed. Anyway, Canikli did allow that, if the “threat” (you may be thinking he means ISIS, but I guarantee you he means the PKK) were removed, Turkey would no longer have any reason to, you know, base its forces on Iraqi soil without Iraqi permission. So that’s nice.


Fighting is still going on over Damascus’s water supply in Wadi Barada, and it still threatens to flush the Russian-Turkish ceasefire/peace talk arrangement down the drain. Bashar al-Assad told French media today that he’s willing to negotiate on “everything” in those talks, including his own political future, but he also said that his army plans on reconquering “every inch” of Syrian land, and those two positions seem like they might be in conflict. At the very least, he may not have anybody to negotiate with unless the situation in Wadi Barada gets resolved.

Speaking of every inch of Syrian land, a rare US special forces raid in Deir Ezzor provicne yesterday killed at least 25 ISIS fighters and resulted in the capture of several others. The city of Deir Ezzor is the only major bit of eastern Syria still in government hands, but it’s been under siege by ISIS since May 2015.


In a bit of a blast from the past, Turkish police tear gassed a crowd of protesters in Ankara today who were registering their disapproval with President Tayyip Erdoğan’s plans to crown himself Sultan Recep I change Turkey’s political system in order to accrue more power to his presidential office.


Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is warning the incoming Trump administration not to move America’s Israel embassy to Jerusalem, as he and his designated ambassador to Israel have promised they will do. He’s also sent letters to Russia, China, and the EU asking their leaders to try to prevent Trump from making the move, which he says, probably correctly, will do real harm to the peace process (such as it is).


A suicide attacker exploded a truck bomb at a police post outside the northern Sinai city of el-Arish, killing 10 people and wounding another 22.


The Pakistani military has reportedly tested a submarine-launched missile that it says gives it a “credible second-strike capability,” just in case you were worried about the state of Mutually Assured Destruction on the Indian subcontinent.

Jammu and Kashmir

Say, about that second-strike capability…Kashmiri militants reportedly killed three Indian construction workers in an attack on their camp in Akhnoor, in the Jammu part of Jammu and Kashmir state.


Chinese police say they killed three (alleged) Uyghur terrorists in a shootout in western Xinjiang on Sunday. Additionally, in a speech today the governor of Xinjiang, Shohrat Zakir, promised to tighten border security in his province to prevent people from leaving to fight for Islamist movements abroad and to prevent those who have already left from coming back.


Last week General Gatot Nurmantyo, commander of the Indonesian military, unilaterally suspended military cooperation with Australia after some Indonesian officer was offended by Australian training materials he found at a military base in Perth. That suspension was quickly walked back, and now Gatot is reportedly being “reined in” by Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who has reason to see Gatot as a political threat as well as a generally loose cannon.


The UN says that more than 22,000 Rohingya have fled a military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state just in the past week, and 65,000 have fled since the crackdown started back in October, in the wake of a probably Rohingya-perpetrated attack on Myanmar police in the region.


One of the side effects of the Rohingya genocide, as if the genocide itself weren’t bad enough, is that relations between Myanmar and Malaysia are falling apart. The Myanmar government stopped allowing its workers to go to Malaysia in December over Malaysian government criticism of the Rohingya issue. Last week, five Myanmar workers were hacked to death outside Kuala Lumpur, and Myanmar’s government has issued a warning to its citizens already in Malaysia. This is presumably only going to make relations between the two countries worse.


Manila is circling a deal with Russia that would allow the two countries to observe and possibly participate in each others’ military exercises. It says this deal will have no impact on its mutual defense treaty with the US, but who knows. This is Rodrigo Duterte’s world, and the rest of us are just living in it and also trying to dodge the bullets he keeps firing at us for some reason.


The Italian government announced today that it will reopen its embassy in Tripoli, a shot of international support for the very embattled Government of National Accord. It will be the first Western nation to reopen its embassy in Libya since they all bugged out at various points during the country’s ongoing civil war.


Talks on forming a coalition government, which have gotten nowhere in three months since the country’s parliamentary elections in October, broke down completely today, as Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane decided to end negotiations with two potential coalition partners.

The Gambia

Gambian authorities shuttered another radio station today, the fourth one to become a casualty of President Yahya Jammeh’s plans to stay in office despite having lost his reelection bid last month. The country’s communications minister, Sheriff Bojang, announced that he was quitting the government in protest over Jammeh’s actions, and the Economic Community of West African State (ECOWAS) announced that it was sending three West African leaders–Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Senegal’s Macky Sall–to The Gambia on Wednesday to try yet again to talk Jammeh down.


Five Boko Haram suicide bombers attempted to enter Maiduguri today but wound up detonating their explosives outside the city, killing themselves and three other people.

Ivory Coast

Ivorian Prime Minister Daniel Kablan Duncan resigned and dissolved his government today, in an act that was actually unrelated to the army mutiny that gripped the country over the weekend. Ivorian governments always dissolve after elections, and the country just had an election last month, so this was an expected development. In things that are directly related to the mutiny, though, President Alassane Ouattara fired the heads of his army, police, and national guard. Stay tuned.

Republic of the Congo

On December 26, Republic of the Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso traveled to Miami, where he was allegedly supposed to meet with President-elect Donald Trump and, in doing so, become the first African leader to meet the incoming president. Only it doesn’t actually seem like the meeting happened, and Nguesso’s people went to hilarious lengths to try to pretend that it did:

Sassou Nguesso publicized the meeting widely. Thierry Moungalla, his Communications Minister, announced it on Twitter on December 26, along with a memo signed by Firmin Ayessa, Sassou Nguesso’s longtime aide. The meeting was announced on Sassou Nguesso’s official website; in Les Dépêches de Brazzaville, his propaganda newspaper; and on Télé-Congo, the state-run television station, which even published a doctored photograph of Trump and Sassou Nguesso embracing, with the latter standing slightly taller. Trump’s necktie ultimately belied the photograph’s origins. It was taken after a meeting between Trump and Mitt Romney, with Sassou Nguesso now in Romney’s stead.

News of the meeting – which would have been Trump’s first with an African head of state since his election – went viral on social media. Apparently embarrassed, Trump’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, denied it had ever been scheduled. Details of the meeting remain hazy. It is unclear who issued Sassou Nguesso’s invitation, what was to be discussed, and in what context the meeting would occur. What is clear, however, is that the meeting was to occur at the charity dinner in Palm Beach, Florida, and possibly at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.

Nguesso would like to have some assurances from Trump that the United States won’t be meddling in his efforts to violently quash his political opponents, or seek to prosecute him for basically looting his country for the past 20 years, and he’d apparently also like to make amends with incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after having had a bit of a rough time with him when Tillerson was at ExxonMobil.


The UN’s special envoy for Cyprus, Espen Barth Eide, said today that this week’s talks in Geneva are the “moment of truth” for reunifying the island nation. Although the stars are aligned for Cypriot unification in a way that they haven’t been since 1974, there’s still a lot of ground to be covered in order to reach a successful outcome. One thing to watch is Turkey’s willingness to be flexible about its military presence on the island and its role as the “protector” of Turkish Cypriots. Although Erdoğan would love to make a deal from the standpoint of freeing up Cyprus’s offshore gas deposits, he’s also got to be careful not to alienate hardline Turkish nationalist voters in advance of the April referendum on expanding his presidential powers. And hardline Turkish nationalists tend to support a large Turkish role in protecting the Turkish Cypriot community, which may be a tough sell in these negotiations.


In other reunification-type news, Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Féin bigwig who’s been serving as Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland’s unity government since 2007, resigned today in protest over First Minister Arlene Foster’s refusal to resign in her own right. Foster is embroiled in a scandal over her handling of a renewable energy deal, and McGuinness has been on her to step down over it but she has refused. Now she may not have a choice, because if Sinn Féin pulls out of the government there will almost certainly have to be new elections.

This turmoil comes at a very bad time for the UK, which is already about to have some real problems when it finds itself unable to maintain the current open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland post-Brexit. The idea that such an arrangement could be preserved when the UK leaves the EU is just one of many fictions that London has been peddling about whatever exit deal it plans to negotiate, and I suspect they’re in for a very rude awakening.


Washington sanctioned three Russian state investigators and two other Russian officials over unnamed “human rights abuses” today. Two of the men sanctioned are considered the leading suspects in the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy turned Vladimir Putin critic.


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

German government officials on Monday said they were carefully examining an unprecedented proliferation of fake news items amid intelligence agency reports of Russian efforts to influence the country’s parliamentary election in September.

The BfV domestic intelligence agency also confirmed that a December cyber attack against the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) used the same tools seen in a 2015 hack of the German parliament that was attributed to the APT28 Russian hacking group.

Russia denies being involved in any cyber warfare targeting Western governments and institutions.

Government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Germany would use all possible means to investigate the spread of fake news on the Internet, adding the best response was greater transparency.

“We are dealing with a phenomenon of a dimension that we have not seen before,” Seibert told a regular government news briefing.

In this light, that fake news story about a mob of Muslim refugees burning down a German church on New Year’s Eve (none of that happened) takes on a new and much more troubling overtone.

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