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.
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.
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:
However, acknowledging these issues should not blind the reader to the clear problem with Gutman’s work: namely, the author’s biases for the Syrian opposition and Turkey that have been evident for years. As such, he uncritically relays dubious testimony that a serious and fair-minded journalist would have subjected to appropriate scrutiny. This fault becomes most apparent in Gutman’s claim that the YPG and the Islamic State (IS) “have often worked in tandem against moderate rebel groups,” which I will focus on in particular here. Elaborating on this claim, Gutman asserts that “again and again, in towns where the YPG lacked the manpower or weapons to dislodge the rebels, IS forces arrived unexpectedly with their corps of suicide bombers, seized the territory and later handed it over to the YPG without a fight.”
Gutman attempts to support this narrative with cases such as Tel Hamis and Husseiniya in Hasakah province. What he completely omits is that on numerous occasions in 2013 and January 2014, rebel groups worked with what was then called the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) against the YPG. For example, Ahrar al-Sham, ISIS and other rebel militias worked together to expel the YPG from the important northern border town of Tel Abyad in August 2013, only for ISIS to take over the area in January 2014. It is rather strange that Gutman cites Tel Hamis and Husseiniya in a bid to support his narrative, since video evidence that explicitly mentions ISIS-Ahrar al-Sham coordination against the “PKK dogs” in Husseiniya can be found from early January 2014. The coordination eventually fell apart later that month as ISIS proceeded to subjugate all other rebel groups in Hasakah province amid wider infighting with rebel forces across northern and eastern Syria. As for the notion that Tel Hamis was yielded to the YPG without a fight, that claim can only be described as a travesty of the truth. The YPG lost numerous fighters in the extended campaigns to take Tel Hamis, with abundant ‘martyrdom’ commemorations to be found on social media.
Gutman has now responded, (understandably) taking issue with Tamimi’s claim that he’s been obviously biased toward Turkey and the Syrian opposition and arguing in particular that Tamimi is mischaracterizing events in Tel Hamis. He also emphasizes the parts of his original piece that I think are pretty hard to dispute, e.g. that huge numbers of Arabs and Kurds have been driven out of, or voluntarily fled, areas in northern Syria as they came under YPG control.
Reuters had a worthwhile piece on Friday about the tentative first steps in rebuilding Aleppo. Most of the city’s wealthy elite fled for safer parts of the country and are probably not planning to return until the war is over, if then. The government isn’t in much position to start rebuilding either, so it’s left to returning residents to do whatever they can to try to at least make the place livable again.
Say what you will–he’s at least partly right:
The leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group says the world will benefit from having an “idiot” in the White House.
Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech Sunday that his group is much stronger than when it was created in the early 1980s and should not be concerned about threats from the West.
Referring to U.S. President Donald Trump, Nasrallah said “we are very optimistic that when an idiot settles in the White House and boasts about his idiocy, this is the beginning of relief for the oppressed around the world.”
Iraqi forces continue to prepare to advance into western Mosul, but they’re being held up in part because the security situation in the eastern side of the city is still very tenuous. Over the weekend a series of incidents perpetrated by ISIS in eastern Mosul left as many as 15 people dead, and it could have been much worse. On the plus side, a US coalition airstrike near Mosul sometime last week apparently killed Rachid Kassim, a French ISIS fighter who probably helped plan and carry out the 2015 Paris terrorist attack. He will not be missed.
On Saturday, Baghdad was the scene of new demonstrations by supporters of Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, this time against the country’s electoral commission. The demonstrations were brutally suppressed by Iraqi police, to the tune of four dead protesters, and partly because of that tensions in the city remain high and there have been scattered outbreaks of violence. Normally in any clash with Sadr I would say that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is at a disadvantage, but the successes of the Mosul operation may have bought him a little credibility with his base. And speaking of Abadi, so far he appears to be making the wise decision to stay out of renewed tensions between Iran and the Trump administration.
Buzzfeed’s Borzou Daragahi wrote yesterday on the slow process of rebuilding the major cities in Anbar province now that they’ve been liberated from ISIS. Resentment toward the Iraqi government runs high, both for its army abandoning the province in 2014 and for the slow pace of the rebuild. On the other hand, the process of rooting out alleged ISIS collaborators has been fraught with tensions and can be easily abused. Compounding the problem is the fact that, while ISIS has been driven out of cities like Ramadi and Fallujah, it’s still present in the countryside around the province.
Donald Trump has taken what seems to be his eighth, or possibly seventeenth, different position on Israeli settlements, and this time he says they are an impediment to peace. This is a bit of a shift from his position shortly after the election, when he said, you know, exactly the opposite. Trump’s Israel policy has shifted so far in just the past three weeks I’m surprised his whole foreign policy team doesn’t have whiplash–now he’s calling on the Israeli government to be “reasonable” and says he’s reconsidering his previously unambiguous pledge to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.
On the other hand, lest you think Trump was suddenly becoming a friend to the Palestinians, he had his UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, block the appointment of former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as the UN’s new envoy to Libya, on the grounds that…he’s Palestinian.
Welcoming CIA Director Mike Pompeo to Saudi Arabia yesterday, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed b. Nayef said that US-Saudi relations are “historic and strategic.” Yes, very strategic:
And the Washington Times reported on Wednesday that the administration is set to approve an arms transfer to Saudi Arabia that the Obama administration denied to them on human rights grounds.
The shipment contains hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weapons guidance systems that would allow Saudi Arabia to convert dumb bombs into precision missiles.
Targeted bombing is normally safer for civilians than indiscriminate bombing. In fact, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during his confirmation hearing that the U.S. should provide Saudi Arabia with “better targeting intelligence” and “better targeting capability” in order to minimize “collateral damage.”
But the Obama administration, despite its reluctance to offend the Saudis, halted the guidance-systems sales after concluding that the Saudi-led coalition was targeting civilians deliberately.
We’re going to strategize as many Yemeni people to death as possible–starting, perhaps, with Hudaydah, the Red Sea port city that appears to be the Saudis’ next big target.
Meanwhile, Saudi helicopters are firing on Yemeni soldiers in Aden, because those Yemeni soldiers are occasionally refusing to take orders from their president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Everything in Yemen is looking up, is the takeaway here.
On Friday, President Erdoan gave his final approval to the national referendum, which will likely now be scheduled for late April, on constitutional changes that will (if they pass) make the office of the president considerably more powerful.
If Hassan Rouhani is reelected in May, he may have Donald Trump to thank for it. Reuters reported on Friday that Iranian hardliners seem to be handing the election to Rouhani out of a sense that national unity in the face of a hostile enemy in Washington is the best course of action for Iran. The hardline side has failed to put forward a serious challenger to Rouhani, but I think it’s best to take a wait and see approach here. At any rate, hardliners undoubtedly feel that Trump’s rhetoric will strengthen their position in Iranian politics regardless of who holds the presidency.
The Afghan Defense Ministry said on Friday that it would be happy to see more US troops deployed to the country to help fight ISIS and the Taliban. And, look, I’m sure they would be, but I’m not entirely convinced the Afghan people would be so happy with it:
Afghan officials and local residents said Sunday that 22 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed during a joint operation carried out by U.S. and Afghan forces last week in the southern Helmand province.
The presidential envoy for security in Helmand, Jabar Qahraman, said the raid against Taliban insurgents in the Sangin district killed 13 people from one family and nine from another.
“We are saddened to hear the news of civilians being killed,” he said. “When the Taliban use civilians as their shield against security forces, such incidents occur.”
Blaming the Taliban for these civilian deaths is about as satisfying as when the Israeli government does the same thing with Hamas in Gaza–they probably have a point, but people are still going to blame the side that actually did the killing. This war against the Taliban is as much about winning the public’s support as it is about military wins and losses, and this kind of thing doesn’t help.
At least seven people were killed in a Taliban-claimed suicide bombing in Lashkar Gah yesterday.
Turkmenistan voters took to the polls on Sunday to elect their president, and, shockingly, totalitarian dictator Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who had students fill out ballots on his behalf before the election and never allowed state media to cover his eight opponents’ campaigns–which wouldn’t have mattered, since they all spent most of the campaign praising him anyway–is expected to win reelection. Talk about a Cinderella story.
Seven people–four militants, two Indian soldiers, and one civilian–were reportedly killed in a gun battle on Sunday in a southern Kashmiri village.
North Korea says it successfully tested a nuclear-capable, medium-to-long-range ballistic missile on Sunday. I sometimes wonder about the veracity of these tests, because in a successful test the missile hits the ocean…which is also where you’d expect it to go if the test were unsuccessful. I suppose if they really screwed up the missile might hit Japan. But this one does seem to have gone as planned. President Trump, for a change, appears to be taking this new missile test in stride. For now, at least.
Speaking of rapid and significant Trump about-faces, how about this one?
U.S. President Donald Trump changed tack and agreed to honor the “one China” policy during a phone call with China’s leader Xi Jinping, a major diplomatic boost for Beijing which brooks no criticism of its claim to self-ruled Taiwan.
Trump angered Beijing in December by talking to the president of Taiwan and saying the United States did not have to stick to the policy, under which Washington acknowledges the Chinese position that there is only one China and Taiwan is part of it.
A White House statement said Trump and Chinese President Xi had a lengthy phone conversation on Thursday night, Washington time.
“President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our ‘one China’ policy,” the statement said.
One day we’re going to look back and realize that the real “cuckservative” was Donald Trump all along.
Though ISIS has been driven out of its base in Sirte, it is still active in Libya. Reuters reported on Friday that “hundreds” of ISIS fighters have set up on the outskirts of Tripoli and are attacking power and water infrastructure.
Eight soldiers were reportedly killed on Friday in a Boko Haram ambush in northeastern Nigeria.
Central African Republic
UN airstrikes on Sunday killed Joseph Zonduko, the commander of the Muslim militant group called the Popular Front for the Renaissance of Central African Republic, after he and his fighters began advancing toward the town of Bambari.
Say, how’s the reunification process going?
The leader of the breakaway Turkish Cypriots on ethnically divided Cyprus on Saturday criticized a new law making the annual commemoration of a 1950 plebiscite in support of union with Greece mandatory in Greek Cypriot schools.
Mustafa Akinci called the move a “serious blow” to ongoing peace talks aimed at reunifying the island.
He’s got a point. The 1950 plebiscite was, in technical terms, political horse shit, in that only Greek Cypriots were allowed to vote and, go figure, upwards of 96 percent of them voted in favor of union with Greece. Plus, the London-Zürich Agreements that provided the basis for Cypriot independence in 1960 expressly forbid Cyprus forming a union with any other country, so commemorating that 1950 vote is a pretty underhanded move.
Here’s something you don’t see every day:
After an unexploded World War II-era bomb was discovered buried next to a gas station in Thessaloniki, authorities in Greece’s second-largest city had to figure out how to get it out of there.
They determined that tens of thousands of people would have to be removed from their homes as well.
By Sunday morning, all could breathe a sigh of relief.
After an evacuation of more than 70,000 people — one of Greece’s largest-ever peacetime evacuations — Greek officials have confirmed that the 500-pound weapon has been deactivated by specialists. Reuters reports the bomb was removed from its resting place and taken to a military shooting range, where it will be destroyed.
People should pay more attention to history, because apparently it’s still a threat to kill us.
And on that same note:
Austrian authorities are investigating reports of a man appearing in public in Adolf Hitler’s birthplace as the Nazi dictator’s double, including the distinctive mustache, haircut and clothing.
OK, seriously, what the fuck is going on lately?
If the Romanian government of PM Sorin Grindeanu thought that rescinding their anti-anti-corruption decree and sacking (ex-)Justice Minister Florin Iordache was going to appease protesters, they apparently miscalculated. A crowd of 60,000 protesters gathered in Bucharest on Sunday to demand the entire government’s resignation. Imagine how many people might have come out if the temperatures weren’t below freezing.
The Paris suburb of Bobigny has been the scene of protests and violence for several days now, and it was again Sunday as an estimated 2000 people took to the streets over the case of an unidentified 22 year old man who says he was sexually assaulted by police.
An estimated 20,000 people protested on Sunday in Mexico City against Donald Trump. The border wall was the major complaint, but protesters’ grievances ranged from his planned deportations and possible interventions into Mexico and even his rhetoric about women and minorities.
Tennis Über Alles
This must have been a fun experience:
The USTA has apologized to Germany for performing the antiquated first verse of that country’s national anthem—the “Deutschland, Deutschland Über Alles” one, last used by the Nazis—before yesterday’s Fed Cup match between German Andrea Petkovic and American Alison Riske.
The “Deutschlandlied” (“Song of Germany”) was written in two parts. The music was written by Joseph Haydn in the 1790s and the words were written by August Heinrich Hoffmann in the 1840s. Back in the 1840s there was no “Germany,” but a growing number of people began to think that there should be one, and in writing the line “Deutschland, Deutschland Über Alles” Hoffmann was imploring the various German state princes to put aside their petty needs and think of the greater German cause. Fast forwarding a century or so, after World War II, as you might imagine, “Deutschland Über Alles” wasn’t exactly a phrase anybody wanted to hear any more, but West Germany decided to use the “Deutschlandlied” as its anthem anyway. In order to avoid the uncomfortable Master Race overtones, the West German government decided to use the third verse, and only the third verse, of Hoffmann’s lyrics. Singing the first verse might make you a big hit at your local alt-right convention, or possibly in the Trump White House, but it will generally be frowned upon in just about every other setting, like a tennis match. So nice job, USTA!
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