Why are you reading this today? Valentine’s Day is supposed to be a happy day–or a depressing day, but for reasons that have nothing to do with the shitty state of the world. Well, you’re here and my wife and I couldn’t find a sitter this evening, so I guess we might as well get into it.
Well, Michael Flynn is no longer protecting the nation from the grave threat posed by the terrifying Islamo-Socialist-Cuban-Iranian-North Korean-Chinese-Bolivian-Syrian-Nicaraguan-Venezuelan-Fascist-Terrorist alliance dedicated to America’s destruction, and–what? Oh for fuck’s sake, don’t tell me you still haven’t read his book! HOW DO YOU EXPECT TO PROTECT YOUR FAMILY WHEN YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW YOUR ENEMY? Get your head in the game, people.
Anyway, Flynn is out on account of he decided to do some wheeling and dealing with Moscow before his boss took office, then he lied to Donald Trump and Mike Pence about it. Except he didn’t really lie to either one of them, because they both knew what he’d done and, in Trump’s case, most likely told him to do it. Questions abound, not just about what Trump knew and when he knew it (which, let’s be honest, are open questions on pretty much any issue), but about what happens to the administration now. The first order of business is obviously finding a replacement, and the early frontrunner seems to be Vice Admiral Robert Harward, a former deputy commander of Central Command. Harward apparently lives on the West Coast, however, and his willingness to uproot his family to serve as sailing master on the USS Shipwreck is in question. David Petraeus is also clearly in the mix and would be hilarious given this administration’s love-hate relationship with state secrets.
Confusion also abounds as to the status of the rest of the National Security Council, and there have been directly contradictory reports about top figures like Deputy NatSec Advisor KT McFarland. There’s the question of whether there will be a congressional investigation into the circumstances surrounding Flynn’s removal–Republicans are pretty much all over the map on this point, and meanwhile members of the Intelligence Committees say they haven’t heard much of anything about Flynn from the White House. It’s not clear what impact this will have on Trump’s foreign policy, which has been in constant flux from the day he announced his candidacy through today. Flynn was definitely one of the loudest voices in the “make nice with Russia” camp (hence his large fan club in Moscow), but he wasn’t the only one. It’s tempting to think that the departure of the batshit nuts Flynn will stabilize Trump’s foreign policy, but this seems to ignore the fact that the most unstable part of Trump’s foreign policy is Trump himself.
Last but certainly not least there’s the question of what this means for Trump’s administration in general. We’re a week away from the one-month mark and already the most powerful national security voice in the White House has resigned in some disgrace, and it’s possible that an investigation into the reasons for his resignation will tie the administration up in knots for some time to come. I admit I’m partial to this prediction because I badly want it to come true, but with that in mind I still recommend Brian Beutler’s piece in The New Republic from earlier today.
Who Cares, We’re All Gonna Die
Ultimately, though, who gives a shit about Michael Flynn? We’ve got much bigger fish to fry:
The Arctic and Antarctic are seeing an accelerated collapse of both sea and land ice.
When you add in Trump’s aggressive agenda to undo both domestic and global climate action, we are facing the worst-case scenario for climate change — and one new study finds that the worst case is “societal collapse.”
The current concern is another one of those feedback loops that threaten to jack warming into another gear and really outpace our ability to mitigate the damage. In this case, the arctic ice cap is melting faster and faster, and the faster that nice, reflective ice is replaced by heat-absorbing water, the faster global temperatures will rise, which means more melting, and higher temperatures, until eventually you’ll be able to own oceanfront property in Denver. This is serious enough that a group of scientists are floating a ~$500 billion idea to refreeze the Arctic, which sounds pretty farfetched to me but what do I know? It’s clear that if we haven’t already reached it (SPOILER: we have), we’re on the cusp of the point where even eliminating our fossil fuel use won’t be enough to stop the freight train that’s about to run us all down, so expect to see some pretty radical geo-engineering ideas being floated in the next few years.
Amid all the chaos surrounding the Trump administration it’s easy to forget that America has been doing shitty things all around the world for a long time now. Foreign Policy’s Samuel Oakford is here to remind us, though, with an investigation into the US military’s use of depleted uranium in several November 2015 strikes against ISIS in eastern Syria:
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) spokesman Maj. Josh Jacques told Airwars and Foreign Policy that 5,265 armor-piercing 30 mm rounds containing depleted uranium (DU) were shot from Air Force A-10 fixed-wing aircraft on Nov. 16 and Nov. 22, 2015, destroying about 350 vehicles* in the country’s eastern desert.
The use of DU ammunition should probably be categorized as a war crime, but studies on its effects haven’t reached the point where scientists are willing to talk about them with certainty. Still, DU is pretty widely regarded as a hazard to civilian populations through some combination of its latent radioactivity and its heavy metal toxicity. I won’t post the photographs here, but Google “Fallujah birth defects” and you’ll learn about the likely DU-caused epidemic of health problems that the Iraqi people have been dealing with since 2003. The Obama administration said that it would not use DU in Syria, so the fact that it did on at least one occasion suggests that it may have on other occasions. What’s not clear is whether it was used near any Syrian population centers where it could really pose a hazard to civilians, but regardless it’s likely that some Syrian civilians will have come in proximity to spent DU shells.
Fighting is hottest in three areas around Syria: Idlib, where Tahrir al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa are still fighting one another; Daraa, where rebels launched an offensive over the weekend and were hit hard by Russian airstrikes today; and al-Bab, where…well, that’s suddenly an interesting question. Earlier today the word out of Ankara was that al-Bab was all but in Turkish hands, but a few hours ago reports began to emerge suggesting that a huge ISIS counter-offensive had largely driven Turkish forces out of the city. I would caution that Al-Masdar is a pro-government media outlet, and the Syrian government would love to see Turkey pushed out of al-Bab so that its forces could take the city instead, but my experience has been that while Al-Masdar certainly colors its coverage, it generally doesn’t just make shit up. So the situation might not be as dire for Turkish forces as they’re reporting, but I would say it’s pretty likely that ISIS has been able to recover at least some of the territory the Turks had taken away from it over the past day or so.
Congress is working on a package of sanctions targeting governments and individuals that have been assisting Bashar al-Assad’s government, and given that they’ll fall heavily on Russian targets it’s going to be interesting to see what the Trump administration does at a time when it wants to improve relations with Moscow but also needs to avoid looking like it’s in the bag for Vladimir Putin. Politics aside, it would be nice if Congress waited until next week’s peace talks in Geneva before it took any provocative action. The absolute most important thing for the Syrian people (tens of thousands of whom, let’s remember, are literally starving to death right now) is to just end the goddamn war, so it would behoove Congress not to do anything to undermine those talks.
Elsewhere, there are rumblings in high places in Turkish politics about the February 9 Russian airstrike that killed four Turkish soldiers in northern Syria. There’s no evidence that Russia targeted those soldiers deliberately, but Moscow did pointedly note that it was operating on targeting intel provided by Turkey, which put the blame on Turkey for killing its own troops and seems to have been poorly received in Ankara. The Turkish government denied that it was responsible for the Russian strike, and some right-wing politicians are insisting that Russia apologize both for the strike and, while they’re at it, for not supporting Turkey against the PKK/PYD Kurds. They probably shouldn’t hold their collective breath.
Peace talks that were supposed to start in Kazakhstan on Wednesday have been delayed until Thursday.
This is starting to sound like a broken record, but Iraqi forces continue to make preparations for the eventual attack on west Mosul while continuing to struggle with the problem of ISIS attacks on the still-insecure eastern side of the city and in the Tal Afar area. Part of ISIS’s goal in Tal Afar may be to provoke a response from the Popular Mobilization Units that then draws Turkey into the conflict and leaves the whole Mosul operation in chaos, but so far at least the PMU haven’t taken the bait. Their main goal obviously is to disrupt Iraqi staging and further delay the west Mosul phase of the fighting.
Of interest today is this Washington Post report about ISIS’s plans to shift its center of gravity to the virtual world once it finally loses its territorial base in Iraq and Syria:
That plan is described in a new report on the Islamic State’s evolving media strategy as its physical territory shrinks. The study, published by King’s College London, warns that it is premature to imagine a “post-Islamic State world at this time.”
“The organization has used propaganda to cultivate digital strategic depth,” the study concludes, using a term that traditionally applies to a mountainous region or other terrain that a nation can retreat to and defend. “Due to this effort, the caliphate idea will exist long beyond its proto-state.”
As part of this strategy, the Islamic State’s media wing has already begun to repurpose videos, images and messages from its massive collection for new propaganda releases that depict the Islamist state it sought to establish as an idyllic realm destined to be restored.
“If compelled to, the group’s true believers will simply retreat into the virtual world, where they will use the vast archive of propaganda assembled by the group over these past few years to keep themselves buoyant with nostalgia,” the report said.
It’s obviously going to be hard to take ISIS offline–if it were easy, it would already have been done. But even if ISIS were totally eradicated its ideology would still exist, and people looking to do violence would still seek it out to justify their urges (this is a theme I’ve tried to push over and over again around here). So it’s unsurprising that ISIS is making these kinds of plans, and to be honest I’m not sure how much it really matters. At least in the virtual fake-caliphate they won’t be able to sell captive women into slavery.
United Arab Emirates
The UAE unveiled its “Mars 2117 Project” today, a plan to, as you’ve probably already guessed, put human beings on Mars by 2117. It wasn’t mentioned, but hopefully they and the Saudis will be done bombing Yemen by then.
Authorities in southern Turkey say they’ve arrested a French national (who is ethnically Turkish) suspected of helping plan the New Year’s Reina nightclub attack in Istanbul.
Just in time for the national referendum on whether or not to imbue him with vast new powers, Tayyip Erdoğan is being given a sympathetic biopic treatment in Turkish cinema. The film Reis (“The Chief”), chronicles Erdoğan’s life as a champion of Islam against Turkish secularism, or something like that. It sounds perfectly sycophantic:
Another dramatic scene is set in the year 1961. Turkey is under the rule of a secularist military junta that has overthrown the democratically elected Democrat Party government. The young boy who bravely recited the Arabic call to prayer is now a pious Islamist with a “cause.” A truck full of soldiers heads into his modest neighborhood, where they break down his door and arrest him as he is praying. For added drama, the man’s aged parents try to stop the soldiers and save their son. They are viciously thrown to the ground, in a scene reminiscent of Nazis in Holocaust films.
Meanwhile, a young boy in the neighborhood has been watching all this with sadness, but also with a certain wiseness, knowing that these dark days will pass. At that point, Erdogan’s voice is heard reciting a line from a famous poem: “Don’t leave this nation without a hero, my God.” That boy is the young Erdogan, the very hero that “this nation” — Turkey’s religious conservatives — has been waiting for for a century. That, apparently, is the message of “The Chief.”
Sorry, you’ll have to give me a second; my gag reflex just kicked into overdrive.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is visiting Oman and Kuwait, the two Arab Gulf states that are still on somewhat decent terms with Tehran, on Wednesday. Rouhani’s people are clearly pushing this trip as an opportunity to open dialogue between the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Iran.
Although President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri are still basking in the glow of the national unity moment that got both of them their current jobs, the underlying divisions that have made Lebanese politics so dysfunctional (chief among them Hezbollah) are still clearly there:
Lebanon’s Prime Minister called Hezbollah’s arms illegitimate on Tuesday after its President said the group’s military wing was vital to its security, spelling out the country’s political divisions more clearly than at any time since they took office.
A staunch Hezbollah ally, Michel Aoun became president in October in a power-sharing deal that saw Saad al-Hariri, Lebanon’s leading Sunni Muslim politician, appointed premier in a unity cabinet including nearly all Lebanon’s main parties.
I’ve given up parsing the Trump administration’s near-daily repositionings on Israel-Palestine, but for the record today’s position seems to have been “we’re going to work hard for peace but not actually take any position as to what that peace should look like.” And, hey, I guess that would be logically coherent if there were any evidence that the Israelis and Palestinians, left to their own devices, had any chance of reaching a mutual agreement on a framework for peace. Since no such evidence exists, let’s assume that Trump’s position is, as it has been for weeks now, basically just word salad.
Saudi state media is reporting that seven Saudi border guards have been killed in clashes with Yemeni rebels over the past week.
Seven people were killed in a series of clashes in Kashmir today. Three Pakistani soldiers were reportedly killed by Indian forces earlier in the day, and then three Indian soldiers and one Kashmiri separatist were killed in a separate gun battle later on.
Two bomb disposal officers were killed Tuesday while trying to defuse a roadside bomb in Quetta. No word as to whose bomb it was.
Indonesia’s Muslim community is struggling with rising extremism and its effect on the country’s traditionally pluralistic, moderate version of the faith. The trigger has been the Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is simultaneously running for reelection and standing trial for alleged blasphemy. An radical Islamist group called the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) is pushing Basuki’s prosecution via public demonstrations, and the strength of their movement has come as something of a shock to the country’s largest Islamic group, the moderate Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). NU has been slow to respond to the rise of Saudi (naturally)-funded Salafism in Indonesia, and its response has been uneven at best, hampered by an increasingly conservative strain within NU itself.
Reuters has a brutal report on Rohingya girls fleeing persecution in Myanmar only to wind up being nabbed by human traffickers and sold as child brides to Rohingya men who are already in Malaysia. At this point I suppose it would be untoward to point out that Barack Obama’s State Department deliberately fudged Malaysia’s human trafficking record so that the country could be included in negotiations over the now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Kim Jong-nam, Kim John-un’s “estranged” half-brother, was killed in Malaysia on Monday, likely poisoned by two women who were presumably North Korean agents. The prevailing theory seems to be that they sprayed him with some kind of poison. The two Kims definitely didn’t like each other, and Kim Jong-nam has been publicly critical of his half-brother on several occasions, but it’s not clear why Kim Jong-un had him murdered now–though it certainly could be related to recent reports that the North Korean regime is struggling to maintain itself.
You know, the more I think about this the more insane it seems to me that this somehow isn’t the biggest international news story of the day. But frankly, on this day it’s lucky to crack the top five.
Three men killed at least five people in a knife attack in southern Xinjiang province on Tuesday evening, according to Chinese authorities. I haven’t seen any identification of the attackers, but presumably they were Uyghur militants.
So Khalifa Haftar and Fayez Serraj (the head of the Government of National Accord) were supposed to meet in Cairo today, and then they, uh, didn’t. Haftar apparently demanded that the GNA’s presidential council be changed, and that it surrender control of Libya’s armed forces, as preconditions to talks when, to be fair, those seem more like outcomes than preconditions.
At LobeLog, Giorgio Cafiero and Daniel Wagner look at where Libya might be headed with Donald Trump in the White House. The authoritarian-minded Trump is likely going to have fewer issues than the Obama administration had with Haftar running Libya as a semi-authoritarian a la Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, and with Haftar looking like he’s also got Russia’s support, the GNA may soon find itself in a pretty weak position internationally. Its best hope is that NATO, and specifically Italy and Turkey–both of which have big issues with Haftar–will be able to sway Trump toward the GNA’s position.
Conflict with militants in the Niger Delta reportedly cost Nigeria $100 billion in oil revenue last year, which you’d think would be a powerful argument to Abuja to start treating the people in the Delta decently and thereby undercut the militants’ message. But what do I know?
The “government” of the breakaway region of Somaliland is requesting that it receive an exemption from Donald Trump’s Somalia visa ban because, you guessed it, they consider themselves an independent state. Unfortunately, almost nobody else agrees, including the United States, and it would be very difficult to carve out an exemption for a self-declared state like this. In theory, I guess, this could work–Somaliland has considerably less of a terrorism problem than (the rest of) Somalia. But in practice it’s hard to see how this could be well-managed, especially by a US government that hasn’t shown itself to be especially competent in its three weeks in office.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Four people were killed in Kinshasa today when Congolese forces attempted a raid on a home used by the separatist group Bundu dia Kongo. The raid was apparently meant to target BDK leader Ne Muanda Nsemi, but he was not killed and doesn’t seem to have been taken into custody. BDK supports independence for the Kongo people and a return to their traditional cultural and religious practices, and it has had frequent run-ins with the DRC government since December, apparently over resentment that it hasn’t been given any role in President Joseph Kabila’s cabinet.
The UN is reporting that DRC soldiers killed 101 members, including women, of the Kamwina Nsapu movement in the central part of the country between February 9 and February 13. Kamwina Nsapu was a tribal chief who was killed by DRC forces last August, leading to a full-on uprising among his followers.
Here’s a Valentine’s laugher for you:
“President Trump has made it very clear that he expects the Russian government to de-escalate violence in the Ukraine and return Crimea,” Spicer said at a daily news briefing. “At the same time, he fully expects to and wants to get along with Russia.”
Similarly, I expect to eat nothing but Five Guys’ bacon cheeseburgers for the next month and, at the same time, I fully expect to lose 15 pounds. Seems doable.
Say, I wonder how the Flynn scandal is playing in Europe:
Flynn’s resignation Monday night immediately sent European officials into a frenzy of attempting to determine what the change of the president’s top national security adviser would mean as the Atlantic alliance has already been struggling with understanding how the new president will approach a litany of complex European situations from the expansion of NATO to the war against ISIS to concerns about an expansionist Russia.
“I was hoping you could tell me what the fuck is going on over there,” said one European Union intelligence official who, like the other officials contacted, declined to speak about such a diplomatically sensitive situation on the record.
“There’s no guide for handling this sort of situation, happening with such an important and powerful ally,” the official said. “If anything, it’s a wake-up call to European leaders that counting on America isn’t currently a smart policy. Of course this is exactly what Putin wants — to destabilize the Atlantic alliance — but I have to counsel my policymakers the best I can, and right now it’s ‘Prepare to handle some crises without US support.’”
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