Conflict update: February 13 2017

Michael Flynn

I had more to say about this story, but it all just got rendered obsolete:

Earlier this evening Flynn pulled out of a scheduled speech at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual meeting at the last minute, and that was after Politico reported this morning that Donald Trump’s son in-law, the constantly-failing-upward Jared Kushner, was vetting possible successors, so there was some writing on the wall here. General Keith Kellogg, the NSC Chief of Staff, assumes Flynn’s role as National Security Advisor on an interim basis, but it’s likely Trump will look elsewhere for a permanent successor. This brings a lot of potentially off-the-wall names into the mix, from Rudy Giuliani to David Petraeus to John Bolton–basically anybody who was on Trump’s State shortlist but wound up being discarded could be recycled as a potential replacement for Flynn. Petraeus in particular seems to be in the mix, though reportedly the lead candidate is former CENTCOM Deputy Commander Vice Admiral Robert Harward. But at least we can rest assured that none of them, even Bolton, could be more unhinged than Flynn was. As unhinged? Sure. But more? Unlikely.

To me, easily the most troubling news to come out of the Flynn saga came courtesy of the Washington Post earlier today:

The acting attorney general informed the Trump White House late last month that she believed Michael Flynn had misled senior administration officials about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and warned that the national security adviser was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail, current and former U.S. officials said.

The message, delivered by Sally Q. Yates and a senior career national security official to the White House counsel, was prompted by concerns that ­Flynn, when asked about his calls and texts with the Russian diplomat, had told Vice ­President-elect Mike Pence and others that he had not discussed the Obama administration sanctions on Russia for its interference in the 2016 election, the officials said. It is unclear what the White House counsel, Donald McGahn, did with the information.

Trump fired Yates on January 30. That’s a very problematic coincidence.


Rebels are fighting among themselves in Idlib again, but this time the belligerents are a little different. Instead of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, or its new Tahrir al-Sham coalition, fighting Ahrar al-Sham, this time the fight is between Tahrir al-Sham and a group that had until recently been aligned with JFS, Jund al-Aqsa. Jund al-Aqsa formed as a subgroup within Jabhat al-Nusra back in 2014, then at some point aligned itself with ISIS instead. Last October, in the midst of losing a fight with Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa declared itself part of Nusra again, though of course Nusra had rebranded as JFS by that point. JFS may have been planning to dissolve Jund al-Aqsa altogether, which may not have gone over too well with Jund al-Aqsa’s leadership, but whether that was the cause or not, late last month JFS issued a statement declaring its friendship ended with Mudasir Jund al-Aqsa, and now there are reports of fighting between the two groups.

Syrian government officials told state TV today that they’re “continuously ready” to talk prisoner swaps with the rebels. This is not news, but it is somewhat significant in that Damascus appears to be floating the idea of a prisoner swap to generate momentum for the Geneva peace talks next week. Along those same lines, government and rebel representatives have now been invited to this week’s Russia-Turkey-Iran meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan (the rebels don’t seem inclined to accept the invitation), which suggests that there’s some desire on the part of those outside powers to use the Astana talks as a springboard to Geneva. On the flip side, a new Human Rights Watch report, issued today, is not exactly going to help grease the skids for a big breakthrough in Geneva. HRW accuses the government of using chlorine gas on at least eight occasions during its final push into eastern Aleppo in late November-early December.

At The Nation, Roy Gutman has posted the second part of his highly critical report on the YPG and its tactics in northern Syria. In this part, Gutman accuses the YPG of forcibly recruiting fighters and suppressing journalists in the territories it controls. He also criticizes the US for effectively sending YPG fighters on suicide missions against ISIS without adequate support. Meanwhile, Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi has posted a response to Gutman’s response to his criticism of the first part of Gutman’s report, and, well, as with most arguments by this point things have kind of deteriorated. But I will say that Tamimi makes a pretty compelling case about Gutman’s anti-PKK bias, particularly with respect to this 2012 piece Gutman wrote based on the alleged debriefing of an alleged PKK defector. This bit in particular is really bizarre:

R.S. portrayed the PKK as anti-Islamic. Performing daily prayers, fasting and reading the Quran are among the offenses that could land a recruit in prison, he told Turkish authorities. Instead, fighters were told that the religion of Kurds is Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s most ancient religions, and they should worship fire. There are said to be fewer than 200,000 Zoroastrians today, mostly in Iran and India.

No actual Zoroastrian would direct another Zoroastrian to “worship fire.” The description of Zoroastrians as “fire worshipers” is a slander against the Zoroastrian faith. Now, maybe this defector, who, if he was indeed forced to practice Zoroastrianism, presumably didn’t appreciate it, interpreted the faith as “fire worship,” but it says something that a seasoned Middle East reporter like Gutman would just let that slur pass on into his report without offering some context to his readers. I’m not sure exactly what it says, but one thing it might say is that Gutman was happy to leave the slur in because it makes the PKK sound crazy.


Big, if true: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may be dead. On Saturday, the Iraqi air force bombed a house in western Iraq where senior ISIS leadership was believed to be meeting. Baghdadi is believed to have been there, but the Iraqi government has not included his name on a list of 13 confirmed kills in the strike. So, probably he’s not dead. But he could die at any time! Him and, you know, all the rest of us.

The Iraqi military says its assets are all in place to begin the attack on western Mosul, but it’s ISIS that still seems to be on the offensive right now, attacking Iraqi forces to the west and south of Mosul and continuing to try to carry out asymmetrical attacks in the eastern side of the city.

Still, a lot of attention is understandably starting to be directed at post-Mosul Iraq, and the challenges it will have to overcome. For example, Iraq’s Turkmen community, riven by sectarianism and effectively split in two by ISIS, is going to have some hard times ahead if it wants to knit itself together into a viable political bloc. Food security, already a challenge in Iraq under the best of circumstances, is going to be a major problem now that large parts of the country’s best farmland have been damaged by war and left to go fallow. Baghdad’s inter-Shiʿa politics are once again fracturing, with Muqtada al-Sadr on one side, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on the other, and current PM Haider al-Abadi caught in the middle. And then there’s the United States, which doesn’t look like all that great an ally these days thanks to the attempted immigration ban, and whose support may now actually be a political detriment for Abadi.


Benjamin Netanyahu is heading to Washington for his first meeting with President Trump on Wednesday, and I think it’s safe to say there’s more uncertainty right now in the US-Israel relationship than there was even during the height of the Obama-Netanyahu personal beef. Part of that is Trump’s fault, for waffling on his plan to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and taking every position possible on Israeli settlements. But part of it also has to do with Netanyahu, who is both emboldened by Trump and boxed in by the fact that his ultra-right wing government is also really feeling its oats with Trump in office. Here’s an example of what I mean:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sidestepped a question on whether he still supports the creation of a Palestinian state as he left for the United States on Monday on his first visit since President Donald Trump took office.

Netanyahu has never publicly abandoned his conditional backing for Palestinian statehood, which he first stated in 2009, but Palestinians say that commitment has been rendered worthless by Israeli settlement building on occupied land.

Hours before Netanyahu’s departure for Washington, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told Army Radio that “all members of the security cabinet, and foremost the prime minister, oppose a Palestinian state”. The forum convened on Sunday ahead of Wednesday’s White House meeting between Netanyahu and Trump.

On the Tel Aviv airport tarmac, Netanyahu was asked if he still stood behind the so-called two-state solution. “Come with me, you’ll hear very clear answers,” he told reporters accompanying him on the flight.

Now, there’s no evidence apart from some empty past rhetoric to suggest that Netanyahu wants to do anything with the Palestinians apart from ethnically cleansing them from the West Bank. But he’s being backed into admitting that by his cabinet, which sees Trump’s election as the end of the need to pretend to care about a two-state peace deal and which is still fragile enough that a single party’s defection, if Netanyahu doesn’t toe the hard-right line, could bring the government down. And Netanyahu would really rather not pull back the curtain, because while Trump might not care, there are a lot of other important international actors who still need to hold on to that two-state fiction, and they’ll be pretty pissed if Netanyahu finally crushes it.

Today in You’re Not Helping, Hamas named Yehiya Sinwar as its new leader in Gaza, replacing Ismail Haniyeh, who seems poised to succeed Khaled Mashal as the group’s overall leader. Sinwar is extreme even within the context of Hamas senior leadership and was one of the founders of the group’s armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Basically he’s the kind of guy you promote if you want Netanyahu’s constant complaint that Israel has “no partner for peace” to actually have some substance to it.


This doesn’t have anything to do with conflict, but I don’t really care. A new effort is underway using state-of-the-art radar to search for a hidden side chamber in King Tut’s tomb. There are theories that the side chamber, if it exists, could be the tomb of Queen Nefertiti, who was one of the wives of Tutankhamun’s father, Akhenaten, but the more important consideration is that the chamber–again assuming there is one–has probably been untouched by tomb robbers, so the find could really be amazing.


Shockingly, totalitarian dictator Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov won reelection with 98 percent of the vote. Ah, democracy.


A suicide bomber struck a protest over prescription drug laws (I’m assuming it was a target of opportunity) in the city of Lahore today, killing 13 people and wounding more than 80. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a Pakistani Taliban and/or ISIS-aligned group previously responsible for major attacks in Lahore and Quetta, claimed responsibility.

Human Rights Watch claims that Pakistani authorities are abusing Afghan refugees in an effort to force them to return home. Pakistan has been hosting about 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees, but over 1/5 of them returned to Afghanistan over the second half of 2016. As far as I know, Pakistan is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention on Refugees, which means its obligations toward those refugees under international law (which is really voluntary to begin with) are not clear. But forcing refugees to return to a conflict zone–which Afghanistan undeniably is–is obviously counter to international refugee law (and basic human decency) in general.

North Korea

The international community is going through the usual round of condemnations following yesterday’s test of a nuclear-capable ballistic missile by North Korea. The US, Japan, South Korea, the UN, and even Russia and China all got their objections on the record today. I am also formally condemning the test, which should have roughly the same practical impact as all these other condemnations.

What we know about the missile in question is that it’s a modification of North Korea’s submarine-launched missiles designed to be fired on land, that its range probably makes it a threat to Japan, and that it uses solid fuel, which means it can be launched quickly.

We also learned something about the Trump administration during the North Korean test. Namely, we learned that if you can afford the cost for a weekend getaway at Donald Trump’s still-not-divested Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, you too could become part of his impromptu National Security Council if some international crisis should occur. So that seems like a nice vacation idea.


I’ve been following this story for several days now and I still don’t know if it’s relevant to this blog, but it’s a really strange story. Chinese-Canadian billionaire Xiao Jianhua has been missing since January 27, when he was reportedly taken from the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong, put into his car, and driven…well, that’s the question. A statement was issued in Xiao‘s name several days ago saying that he’s seeking unspecified medical treatment overseas (though he’s only about 45 years old), but in all likelihood he was abducted by Chinese authorities (who aren’t supposed to operate in Hong Kong) and taken to the mainland. His employees are now being prevented from leaving China and it looks like his corporate empire is going to be shattered by the Chinese government. Xiao’s crimes are probably that he knows too much about the financial dealings of China’s political leadership and/or that his company controls so much wealth that he could pose a genuine threat to the Chinese economy.


Give new UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres some credit: he’s not backing down from his selection of former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as his envoy to Libya, even though Washington has put the kibosh on it:

“It is a loss for the Libyan peace process and for the Libyan people that I am not able to appoint him,” Guterres said at a summit in Dubai.

“I do not think there is any valid reason to avoid someone who is very competent to do a job that is extremely important,” he said, adding that ending the Libyan conflict was in “everybody’s interest.”

It’s not 100 percent clear that the US objection has ended Fayyad’s chances of taking the Libyan envoy job, but obviously it hasn’t helped them.


Amnesty International is accusing Tunisian security forces of committing a variety of human rights violations–torture being foremost among them–in their effort to weed out potential extremists. The government acknowledges that some abuses have taken place but insists that these have been isolated instances and not evidence of official policy.


Fighting over the weekend between ethnic Fulanis and ethnic Bambaras in central Mali killed at least 13 people. The head of a Fulani rights group claims the death toll was more like 45 and that clashes continued today.

South Sudan

The UN refugee agency says that the number of people who have fled the civil war in South Sudan has now crossed the 1.5 million mark.


Three activists from Cameroon’s English-speaking community are now on trial and facing the death penalty for their role in protests over the French-speaking majority’s (alleged) mistreatment of their community. The trial itself threatens to exacerbate tensions between the two communities and increase the severity of the English-speaking protest movement.


We may not have Angela Merkel to kick around much longer. Germany’s center-left coalition is now outpolling Merkel’s center-right coalition, which–if the polls are accurate and their lead holds–means if they can all agree to cooperate with each other they could form the next German government after elections in September.


Well, this is good news I guess:

Austrian police say they have detained a man described by local media as “Hitler’s double” for possible violations of laws against glorifying the Nazi era.

Witnesses who have seen the unidentified 25-year-old say he sports a Hitler mustache, combs his hair in the style of the Fuehrer and wearing “a suit reminiscent of Hitler”.

Police spokesman David Furtner that the suspect, who calls himself Harald Hitler, was arrested on Monday night after being seen repeatedly in front of the house where Hitler was born in the town of Braunau am Inn, on Austria’s border with Germany. The lookalike had recently moved to the town, Mr Furtner told BBC.

At least it wasn’t, you know, actually Hitler.


The Romanian parliament has now approved a national referendum on enacting new anti-corruption reforms, in what I’m going to call the “Please Stop Protesting Us Act of 2017.” One or two small hurdles remain, like what the referendum will actually say and when it will actually be held. You know, minor details.


The Washington Post published a report today on the Ukrainian government’s ongoing tolerance for Right Sector, a fascist paramilitary group whose forces have fought side-by-side with Ukrainian soldiers in the Ukrainian civil war. In its desperation for any force to help it counter Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas, Kiev is allying itself with a group that discredits the Ukrainian government internationally and that may well turn on Kiev once the fighting in the east subsides.

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