Conflict update: February 2 2017


Reuters is reporting that the Trump administration will impose new sanctions on several Iranian entities, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Whatever their rhetoric about the nuclear deal, it’s clear that Trump’s people have come into office looking for an excuse to take an action like this, to quickly get back to the days when confrontation was the defining feature of the US-Iran relationship. The Iranians gave them an excuse when they tested a new ballistic missile over the weekend, and so here we are. I should have more to say on this move, and the overall policy toward Iran and the nuclear deal that it heralds, at LobeLog, possibly tomorrow.


The Syrian army continues to advance on al-Bab, and sources in the military say they are ready to fight Turkish forces and their allied Free Syrian Army rebels once they get there, if necessary. Government forces also made some headway against ISIS today west of Palmyra and around the al-Seen airbase, north of Damascus. Speaking of al-Bab, the Turkish military says its airstrikes have killed 51 ISIS fighters in the city over the past day or so.

The big Syria-related story today is that the Trump administration has apparently, per the Washington Post, decided to scrap the Obama administration’s SDF/YPG-centric plan for taking Raqqa from ISIS. Trump’s national security people are saying that the plan had huge holes in it, particularly around the issue of appeasing Turkey (which manifestly opposes the idea of the YPG entering Raqqa). I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt that whatever plan the Obama administration left its successor had some deep problems–if Obama’s people had been able to figure out a good way to attack Raqqa, they would’ve implemented it–but by the same token, if Trump is looking for a quick, big victory against ISIS, it’s hard to imagine how he gets one without relying heavily on the YPG. There’s simply no other force in the Raqqa area–no vetted Arab army, no Turkish forces, no Syrian army forces–that can hope to take ISIS on without a whole lot of support and a whole lot of time to prepare.


Inside Mosul the situation remains mostly in stasis. Iraqi forces appear anxious to begin attacking the western side of the city, but they don’t seem to have the manpower to secure the eastern side as it is, let alone with substantial numbers of personnel diverted into a new offensive. It’s hard to know which way Baghdad will go on this–the Iraqi government would obviously love to begin liberating western Mosul, but it will want to be careful not to cause any major setbacks in the east in the process.

Outside of Mosul the Popular Mobilization Units west of the city seem to have begun an operation to clear ISIS off of the main road connecting Tal Afar and Sinjar.

The New Yorker’s Luke Mogelson has done some excellent first-hand reporting based on his time embedded with an elite Iraqi police unit comprised largely of Mosul natives. Well worth a read in my opinion.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel visiting Ankara today and cautioned Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan about preserving the freedom of opinion and protecting the right of political opposition. I wonder how that went over…

Turkish authorities ordered the detention of 177 police officers, the state-run Anadolu agency said on Thursday, widening a crackdown against people accused of links to a failed coup in July.

The suspects, from 25 provinces, were being sought on suspicion of using ByLock, an encrypted smartphone messaging app, the agency said, citing the Ankara prosecutor’s office.

The government has accused the network of cleric Fethullah Gulen of orchestrating the coup, and says it made use of ByLock in the attempt.

To be fair, Erdoğan isn’t jailing these people for their opinions, he’s jailing them because they used the Bad App. Totally reasonable when you look at it that way.


Something fishy (or “phishy,” get it? please kill me) is happening to human rights activists in Egypt:

The campaign, which the reports call Nile Phish, coincides with an unprecedented crackdown on civil society in Egypt over the past few years, with non-governmental organizations and their staff being subjected to interrogations, arrests, travel bans, asset freezes, forced closures and a long-running trial over accusations of receiving foreign funding to destabilize the country.

The targets of the phishing attacks include seven of Egypt’s most prominent human rights groups (including EIPR), all of which are also defendants in the foreign funding case. The groups include Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, and Nazra for Feminist Studies. The campaign also targeted a small number of individuals, including lawyers, journalists and political activists, EIPR and Citizen Lab stated.

The nature and complexity of the attacks, which occurred over the past few months, suggest the campaign is being directly coordinated by an Egyptian intelligence agency, EIPR researchers say. Although the investigation turned up no conclusive proof that the government was behind the campaign, EIPR says a combination of the sophisticated timing of the attacks, the choice of NGOs targeted, prior evidence of electronic surveillance by the state, and the wider context of the crackdown on civil society strongly point to involvement by one of the country’s intelligence agencies.

The phishing attacks appear to be so well-coordinated with specific acts of government crackdown against these groups that it’s almost impossible to conclude that the Egyptian government isn’t involved in some way. It’s all of a piece with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s general effort to turn Egypt into a full-on police state.


I haven’t been doing a very good job of posting updated maps of anything apart from Mosul, but this one is updated through January 22 (Wikimedia | Ali Zifan)

According to Yemeni military officials, somebody’s warships have been spending the last five days firing on al-Qaeda positions in the southern part of the country. They say the US is doing it, but the Pentagon denies it and says it’s “unaware” of anybody firing anything in that area.

Meanwhile, US Central Command has grudgingly allowed that some civilians were “likely” killed in Sunday’s commando raid in Bayda that, for those of us who aren’t in the US military, definitely killed at least 10 civilians and one Navy SEAL in addition to around 14 AQAP fighters. Behind the scenes, military officials have told Reuters that the Trump administration botched the operation by failing to do enough intelligence gathering and contingency planning. The commandos were apparently given little by way of surveillance of their target, and lost the element of surprise for reasons that remain unclear, but had to proceed with the same plan anyway. While I have no doubt that the Trump team didn’t help things–even the most competent administration would have a hard time putting together a military op in its first couple of weeks on the job, and this is clearly not a competent administration–this seems like some “cover your ass” talk from military planners who themselves should have seen and fixed the problems with the operation.


You can’t make this stuff up. After weeks, predating his inauguration, of talk suggesting that the Trump administration would drop even the pretense of caring about Israeli settlements–talk that has spurred the Israeli government to announce thousands of new West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements in the scant two weeks since Trump took office, today we get this:

“While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal,” the White House said in a statement.

The bottom line is that this is the kind of foreign policy you get from a president who doesn’t fucking know anything about the world outside his Manhattan penthouse and fancy Florida resort, and doesn’t seem like he’ll ever be bothered to learn. I’d be willing to bet that by tomorrow the White House will walk this back and contradict its position on settlements for the second (third?) time. They don’t give a shit, because their boss doesn’t give a shit.

North Korea

The South Korean government has learned that North Korea’s (ex-)minister of state security, Kim Won-hong, was fired from his post last month due to charges of corruption and human rights abuses. Man, what do you have to do to get fired for human rights abuses in North Korea? Well, probably nothing, actually, since Kim Jong-un would just charge you with whatever he felt like charging you with. But this is another sign of trouble inside the North Korean regime.


Hey, so, if you’re sitting on a pot of money and planning to do, say, a grand trip around the world in the next ten years or so, you might want to get that out of the way now. It turns out that the newest member of Donald Trump’s National Security Council principals committee is thinking we’re going to be whipping up a little war with China at some point in the next decade:

The United States and China will fight a war within the next 10 years over islands in the South China Sea, and “there’s no doubt about that”. At the same time, the US will be in another “major” war in the Middle East.

Those are the views – nine months ago at least – of one of the most powerful men in Donald Trump’s administration, Steve Bannon, the former head of far-right news website Breitbart who is now chief strategist at the White House.

In the first weeks of Trump’s presidency, Bannon has emerged as a central figure. He was appointed to the “principals committee” of the National Security Council in a highly unusual move and was influential in the recent travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, overruling Department of Homeland Security officials who felt the order did not apply to green card holders.

This would just be something to roll your eyes at and move on if your president hadn’t just given this deranged white supremacist a crucial role in shaping US foreign and national security policy.


It’s been a real banner couple of days for the Trump foreign policy agenda, all things considered. In addition to flailing around on settlements and maybe threatening to invade Mexico (see below), Trump apparently also spent 25 minutes of a planned 60 minute phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull complaining about a refugee swap deal that Turnbull had negotiated with Barack Obama, and then hung up on the guy. Now, the refugee deal Trump was criticizing is pretty shitty, insofar as it allows Australia to continue operating some of the most inhumane refugee facilities in the industrialized world, but Trump doesn’t care about that and, anyway, when you’re the President of the United States you need to be able, temperamentally-speaking, to have a phone call with the PM of Australia without fucking hanging up on him.


Nine soldiers from Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army were killed today conducting mop-up operations in the recently captured Ganfouda district of Benghazi.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

The most prominent leader of the opposition to DRC President Joseph Kabila, Etienne Tshisekedi, died on Wednesday at the age of 84. Today hundreds of mourners gathered near his house in Kinshasa and were promptly teargassed by Kabila’s security forces. Tshisekedi‘s death removes a towering figure from the opposition at a time when they will be trying to enforce Kabila’s adherence to a deal they reached around the new year to end a potentially serious political impasse. That deal allows Kabila to remain in office for the rest of 2017 (he cancelled the elections that were supposed to be held last year on account of the fact that severe athlete’s foot would probably poll higher in the DRC right now than he would), provided he forms a power-sharing government with the opposition and agrees to hold an election–in which he will not run–this year.

Kabila agreed to that deal when it seemed like his position was precarious, but there’s no reason, apart from the opposition’s steadfastness and the anger of the Congolese people, why he can’t simply back out of it when the time comes later this year. That’s why the loss of a figure of Tshisekedi‘s stature, someone who could keep the political opposition united and bring public pressure to bear on Kabila if necessary, is particularly worrisome right at this particular moment.


Continued fighting around Avdiivka killed six more people today, three of them civilians. Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Kiev of provoking the latest round of fighting in an effort to try to box the Trump administration in on sanctions, while the usual suspects in Washington urged Trump to step up US military aid to the Ukrainian government.


It seemed this morning like the Trump administration was relaxing US sanctions against Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), a view that both Trump opponents in the US and official Russian news outlets were propagating. But later in the day leveler heads began to report that the changes the Treasury Department made to the FSB sanctions today were technical fixes only.


According to the Belarusian government, Moscow is taking steps to reimpose border controls between Belarus and Russia. This is interesting inasmuch as Belarus and Russia are supposed to be in an economic union, the Eurasian Customs Union, but their relationship has been fraying since Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko disparaged the annexation of Crimea a couple of years ago. Lukashenko has been drifting west in his politics as a result, and Moscow seems intent on punishing him for it.

United Kingdom

The Scottish Parliament plans to hold its own vote on Brexit on Tuesday. Practically the vote will be meaningless, but symbolically it could be the first step toward a renewed, Brexit-fueled push for Scottish independence.


A growing number of people in the French Republican party are trying to persuade their party’s presidential candidate, former Prime Minister François Fillon–who was once considered the prohibitive favorite to win the election upcoming in late April/early May–to remove himself from the race so that the party can field a candidate whose popularity isn’t currently in free-fall. Fillon’s candidacy is being imperiled by reports that, during three different periods since 1988, Fillon has employed his wife in a “job” as his assistant, where her duties amounted to little more than collecting a government paycheck (to the tune of about $900,000 total). The most recent polling has Fillon, a right-wing asshole, slipping out of the top two positions in the first round of voting, meaning he wouldn’t even make it to the runoff. Instead, the top two candidates now appear to be neoliberal asshole Emmanuel Macron and racist/fascist asshole Marine Le Pen. The Republicans would like to get back into the runoff, and in fairness it would be great if they could find a replacement candidate who could knock Le Pen back out of the top two, where she is uncomfortably close to winning the whole shebang.


So like I said, in addition to setting back US-Australian relations, it appears President Trump maybe sort of threatened to invade Mexico unless President Enrique Peña Nieto does something about the “bad hombres” (I wish I were making this up) there:

“You have a bunch of bad hombres down there,” Trump told Pena Nieto, according to the excerpt given to AP. “You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it.”

Peña Nieto’s office says there was nothing threatening in Trump’s comments, and who really knows (the AP only had a partial transcript of the call), but Peña Nieto would kind of have to say that, wouldn’t he?

On the plus side, Trump is apparently bringing all of Latin America together in opposition to him, so in that sense he really is a uniter.

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