Conflict update: January 15 2017

Yeah, I know I originally put the wrong date on yesterday’s post. Don’t @ me.


Donald Trump has told the London Times that he wants to do a deal with Russia to trade sanctions relief for Russia’s agreement to cut nuclear weapons “very substantially.” This might actually be good news, but let’s hold off a bit seeing as how it’s Donald Trump saying this. For one thing, while I remain unconvinced, it is entirely possible that Trump has been compromised by Russia. If you start from that premise, and assume that what Trump really wants to do is lift the sanctions, then in order to maintain a fig leaf of justification he’ll need something from Russia. A vague and hard to verify “agreement” to reduce nuclear stockpiles might be just the ticket.

For another thing, since he started running for president Donald Trump has articulated so many contradictory positions on nuclear weapons (and everything else) that it’s impossible to know what he actually means and what’s just spewing out of his mouth while his brain is on cruise control. In the same interview, Trump also criticized Russia’s intervention in Syria, which is new for him but ultimately superficial and probably intended to create some rhetorical daylight between him and Moscow without creating any actual daylight.

The other big item in Trump’s Times interview was his continued criticism of NATO and the EU. He called NATO “obsolete,” again, argued that Brexit would be great for Britain, and criticized the EU as an instrument of German domination. The thing is that Trump isn’t entirely wrong here. NATO is in serious need of reform. I think Brexit is going to suck for Britain, but that’s mostly because the people in charge of it are some of the worst human beings in the UK, not because leaving the EU is necessarily a bad idea for any single country. And, well, the EU is dominated by Berlin. But these institutions are important for reasons that go beyond how they’re functioning day-to-day; the EU (and NATO to a lesser extent) is there because the early 20th century proved pretty conclusively that when European countries don’t have some kind of super-national body holding them together, they start tearing each other apart and dragging the rest of the planet along with them. They both need to be reformed, but doing away with either entirely would be unnecessarily risky. Donald Trump is openly undermining these two bodies, and he’s doing it in ways that, call it coincidence, align pretty well with Russian interests.


Continued fighting in Wadi Barada has upended a deal that had been reached to allow the Syrian government in to the area to restore Damascus’s water supply. This puts millions of people in Damascus in a pretty serious situation, seeing as how they’ve been without access to their main water source since shortly before Christmas. Additionally, the fighting is killing people directly–for example, government shelling hit a makeshift shelter in the village of Deir Qanoun today, killing at least seven, and by some accounts 12, civilians.

Meanwhile, in “to the victors go the spoils” news, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported on Sunday that Moscow plans to begin upgrading both its Syrian air base, in Latakia, and its Syrian naval base, in Tartus.


Iraqi forces at Mosul University spent the day largely in mop-up mode, securing the campus after taking it from ISIS yesterday. As it is wont to do when it withdraws from an area, ISIS left a considerable number of booby traps in its wake, so the process of thoroughly rendering the campus safe may take a little time. The entire southeastern part of the city has now been deemed liberated. Things are bad enough from ISIS’s perspective that the group has reportedly begun fighting internally–ten fighters were reportedly killed on Saturday in a dispute between a group who retreated to western Mosul and another group in western Mosul who accused the first group of cowardice.


Today’s multi-nation Paris summit on the Mideast Peace Process accomplished pretty much what you would have expected, which is to say nothing of any substance. Instead, the attendees delivered messages, because if there’s anything that the Palestinians need its more international message deliveries. First, they told both the Israelis and the Palestinians that they should avoid taking “unilateral steps” that could harm negotiations over a two-state solution. The usual response to the idea that something might harm negotiations over a two-state solution is “what negotiations?” because, I mean, you’d have to be willfully blind, or a diplomat (but I repeat myself) to imagine that there are any negotiations to be harmed.

Second, the diplomats tried, though not explicitly, to warn the incoming Trump administration away from drastically changing US policy toward Israel, from one of tacit acquiescence to its West Bank annexation to one of outright cheerleading. The great fear is that Trump plans to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, which would mean acknowledging Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The Palestinians will inevitably react badly to this and it may lead to the long-prophesied Third Intifada. But realistically there’s very little that international pressure is going to do to talk Trump off of moving the embassy if that’s what he wants (or, more to the point, if it’s what the people who are in his ear on this issue want). And even if he somehow is talked off of moving the embassy, at best he’s going to be even more indifferent than the usual American president to increased Israeli settlement activity.

Benjamin Netanyahu is already openly talking about how a new day is about to dawn, and you can assume he doesn’t mean a new day of Israeli-Palestinian comity. His government is already planning to conduct all of its business, with respect to the Palestinians, directly with Trump, cutting the rest of the international community out of the discussion entirely. So this whole exercise was purely for show, particularly when you learn that outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry obsequiously called Netanyahu before the conference to let him know that America would make sure whatever happened at Paris wasn’t too harsh on Israel.


The Bahraini government announced today that it has, in fact, carried out the execution of those three Shiʿa men who were convicted–activists say railroaded–of carrying out a bombing in 2014. This seems likely to spur more protests.


Six people were killed by a roadside bomb in the eastern province of Nangarhar. Usually it’s safe to blame the Taliban for these kinds of attacks, but in eastern Afghanistan especially there’s also the possibility that it was ISIS-Khorasan.


Yanghee Lee, UN special rapporteur for Human Rights, is in Myanmar and is supposed to be assessing the country’s human rights performance, with obvious particular emphasis on the Rohingya. The Myanmar government, of course, insists that its human rights performance is impeccable and the Rohingya are fine. However, I am no expert, but this seems like kind of a dead giveaway:

UN special rapporteur on human rights Yanghee Lee has been denied access to some areas in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State, with the government citing “security concerns” for its decision.

Al Jazeera also learned on Sunday that Lee was only allowed to speak to individuals who were pre-approved by the government while she visited Muslim Rohingya villages in the area.

Here’s some helpful advice to any governments that want to claim that they are not currently committing a genocide: if the UN would like to verify that you’re not currently committing a genocide, you should probably just let them. Otherwise it might look like you have something to hide.

The Gambia

Where in the world is Adama Barrow? Well he ain’t in The Gambia, despite the fact that he’s supposed to be inaugurated its new president on Thursday. He’d have to be pretty dumb to be in any place where Yahya Jammeh’s security forces could get to him. No, Barrow is in Senegal, the country picked to lead the hypothetical West African intervention force that could hypothetically invade The Gambia to hypothetically force Jammeh to hypothetically leave office in the hypothetical event that he doesn’t do so on his own volition. All of these things are likely to become very un-hypothetical by the end of this week.

South Sudan

Buzzfeed published an interesting piece today on the role that “fake news”–i.e., conspiracy-mongering via social media–has played in escalating the violence in South Sudan. It compares the role social media has played here, in exaggerating and distorting news, in inventing news stories whole cloth, and in whipping up ethnic resentments, to the role that Radio Mille Collines played in the 1994 Rwanda genocide. I highly recommend reading it.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

DRC authorities are saying that fighters from the March 23 Movement (M23), which declared a ceasefire with the government in 2013, have crossed back into the DRC from Uganda in force. M23 is a Tutsi militia that formed in 2012 over grievances that go all the way back to the Rwandan genocide and its spillover into the DRC/Zaire. It opposes Joseph Kabila and it seems possible that its fighters have reentered the DRC because of the political turmoil surrounding Kabila’s future.


Reunification talks are set to begin again on Wednesday, first with a round of technical talks over security details and then with another high-level diplomatic meeting–maybe even higher than the foreign minister level. The issue of the role that Greece and Turkey should play with respect to a united Cyprus still looks like the biggest sticking point.

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