Conflict update: February 15 2017

Meet the New Boss(‘s Adviser)

In a rare flash of lucidity, Donald Trump has reportedly offered his now-vacant National Security Advisor position to Vice Admiral Robert Harward, instead of, say, Steve Bannon, or John Bolton, or Chucky, the doll from those horror movies. It’s hard to evaluate Harward for two reasons: one, most military brass tend to keep their personal views pretty close to the chest (the ones who don’t, like Michael Flynn, get a lot of attention in part because they really are the exception), and two, pretty much anybody was going to look good compared to Flynn. One thing we do know is that Harward and Defense Secretary James Mattis get along quite well with one another, where Mattis and Flynn did not, so that could be good or bad depending on your preference for intra-administration feuds.

As far as I know Harward hasn’t actually accepted the job yet, and he may not accept it if Trump refuses to allow him to clear Flynn’s people out of the National Security Council. In particular, Flynn’s deputy, KT McFarland, was apparently told by Trump that she could stay in her job, but it’s hard to imagine why Harward, or anybody else for that matter, would want to keep this person on in such an important job.


It got somewhat underplayed because the Flynn scandal is still sucking up most of the national security oxygen, but Donald Trump erased at least 15 years of US policy in one fell swoop earlier today:

Speaking at a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to scuttle long-standing U.S. support for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians.

If “Bibi” and the Israelis and the Palestinians are all happy, “I am looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like… I can live with either one,” Trump said.

Putting aside a lot of justifiable concern from the Palestinian Authority at this sea-change in American policy (though, who knows, Trump could do a complete 180 by tomorrow), the two-state solution is well and truly dead and has been for some time now. Indeed, during the press conference Netanyahu made it quite clear that his vision of the future in Israel-Palestine by definition excludes the possibility of a separate Palestinian state. But there’s also no one-state solution that “both parties like.” There’s the one-state solution that means apartheid or worse for the Palestinians, which they obviously won’t like, and there’s the one-state solution that means Israel will no longer be a majority Jewish state, which “Bibi” obviously won’t like.  I’d ask whether Trump understands this, but I don’t know that the question is relevant.

In return for Trump’s indulgence, which included only the mildest of rebukes toward his ethnic cleansing policies in the occupied West Bank, Netanyahu made sure to praise Trump, whose chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is an anti-Semite, as a great friend of the Jews. If the two of them had started literally scratching each others’ backs right there in front of the press they couldn’t have been any more blatant about what they were doing. Netanyahu also asked Trump to bless Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, something that will go over real well if it’s coupled with a move to put a large number of new US soldiers on the ground in Syria (see below).


Syrian rebel negotiators say they’re planning to go to Geneva next week with the same message they’ve had throughout the Syrian civil war: Bashar al-Assad cannot be a part of a political transition. Which means don’t expect this next round of talks to go any better than any of the previous rounds have gone. If Assad wasn’t willing to accept exile two years ago, when he was obviously losing the war, why on Earth would he accept it now that he’s obviously winning the war?

While ISIS has stepped up its defense of al-Bab, there’s no reason to think that it will be able to sustain a defense of the city against Turkish and allied rebel forces indefinitely. Much like what happened in eastern Mosul, it’s likely that all the attackers need to do is absorb the initial flurry of ISIS activity and then they’ll be able to take the city fairly quickly. The one thing that might complicate efforts to take al-Bab would be if Turkey were to decide to do something bonkers, like attacking the YPG in Manbij before securing al-Bab, or going around al-Bab to make a move on Raqqa. Fortunately, Ankara appears to be…thinking about doing one of those things. Oh boy.

Say, speaking of Raqqa, the Pentagon is reportedly considering a plan to put “conventional ground forces” in Syria to “speed up” the fight against ISIS. This seems like a fantastic idea that could in no way backfire or lead to massive amounts of mission creep. Meanwhile, the YPG says that it fully expects its Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) army will be the main American proxy when it comes time to launch an assault on the ISIS “capital,” and it also says it’s prepared to go to war with Turkey should the Turks decide to horn in on Raqqa or just go for broke and attack the YPG. Also, while we’re talking about the YPG, I have been remiss in not sharing with you this extensive Rolling Stone piece on Americans who have gone to Rojava to fight with the Kurds.

A combination of ISIS sabotage and heavy precipitation is threatening to cause the failure of the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River. If the dam does indeed fail it could have fairly disastrous impacts for people in Raqqa and even for people in Deir Ezzor, though that’s much further downstream. The effects would presumably be akin to the failure of the Mosul Dam in Iraq, though the urban centers at risk from that potential disaster–Mosul and Baghdad–are substantially larger than the ones at risk if Tabqa fails.


Tens of thousands of Iraqis have returned home to eastern Mosul over the past several weeks, but they’ve returned to a city in rubble, without electricity, without reliable water, ruled at times unlawfully by random Iraqi military units, and under daily threat of attack from ISIS. Obviously not an ideal situation. Things will undoubtedly improve once western Mosul is liberated, though the violence will likely worsen for a short time after the western Mosul offensive begins–which could happen as soon as the weather starts cooperating. US Army Colonel Patrick Work, one of the highest ranking US officers embedded with active Iraqi combat units in Mosul, says he expects a fierce battle over the western half of the city.

At least nine people were killed today in an ISIS truck bombing in the predominantly Shiʿa Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad.


As Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Oman and Kuwait today–a trip that included a surprise sighting of the thought-to-be-quite-ill Omani Sultan Qaboos–he was being rebuked by his boss, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, back home:

Iran’s president must do more to improve the economy, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday in a rare public criticism from the supreme leader three months before Hassan Rouhani runs for re-election.

Unemployment, recession and inflation – issues that could win or lose an election – all remain major problems in the final month’s of Rouhani’s first four-year term, Khamenei said in a speech, according to the state broadcaster’s website.

Khamenei’s comments could be taken as a wink to hardliners about running a strong candidate against Rouhani in the presidential election in May, but even for Iran’s managed and only semi-democratic system it’s getting pretty late in the game for the opposition to coalesce around somebody, and the number of high-profile figures who have put themselves forward as candidates is precisely zero. Khamenei also rebuffed calls from reformist former President Mohammad Khatami about emphasizing “national reconciliation” in response to the Trump administration’s bellicosity. Khamenei said there’s no need for “reconciliation” because “the people are already united.” Sure, OK, let’s go with that.

At LobeLog, military analyst James Spencer argues that the best way to moderate Iran’s politics, and its regional activities, is not belligerence, but rather a combination of economic engagement and better treatment of minority populations around the Middle East. In particular I think he’s on to something about the importance of encouraging states around the region to treat their minority populations better. Not only is that, you know, the moral and ethical thing to do, but it also shuts down one of the ways Tehran creates foreign policy levers. If Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are worried that their Shiʿa populations are potential Iranian fifth columns, for example, then the best way to counter that isn’t to cut diplomatic ties with Iran, it’s to stop fucking brutalizing those Shiʿa and thereby encouraging them to look to Iran for support.

United Arab Emirates

Juma Mohammed Abdullah al-Kaabi, the UAE’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, died today of injuries he received in a still-unclaimed terrorist bombing in Kandahar in January.


Gunmen, most likely Taliban, abducted 52 mostly Uzbek farmers in Jowzjan province today, for reasons that as yet aren’t entirely clear.


The Pakistani Taliban and its offshoot, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, were responsible for two attacks in the northern part of the country today. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar suicide bombers killed three policemen and two civilians in Mohmand Agency, north of the city of Peshawar, and then later in the day a Taliban suicide bomber attacked a van full of judges in Peshawar itself. The bomber and the driver of the van were killed and several of the judges were injured.


The race for governor of Jakarta, which has exposed some fairly ugly religious divisions in Indonesian society, looks like it’s headed for a runoff, where incumbent (and Christian) governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is probably going to lose to challenger Anies Baswedan even though basuki came out slightly ahead in the first round of voting today. I’m sure the second round of voting won’t exacerbate the problems the first round laid bare.


The Myanmar government says it has ended its “military operations” in Rakhine, “military operations” being code for its most recent active effort to kill off and/or chase away the Rohingya. They’re likely hoping that international attention will blow over so that they can resume their ethnic cleansing without a lot of fuss.

Malaysia/North Korean

Malaysian authorities have arrested two women in connection with Monday’s spy novel-esque murder of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother and political enemy of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, at the Kuala Lumpur airport. There was a report earlier today that the bodies of both of the murderers had been found by Malaysian police, but that appears to have been Hashtag Fake News, because at least one of the two women who have been detained was clearly caught on airport security footage. My confusion as to why Kim Jong-nam would suddenly be targeted now seems to have been misplaced–apparently Kim Jong-un has had a standing kill order out against his half-brother since 2011.


Representatives of the Government of National Accord and Khalifa Haftar’s budding military dictatorship have agreed to accept an Egyptian roadmap to national reconciliation. The plan calls for the creation of a committee (I know, I know) made up of representatives of both the Tripoli and Tobruk-based governments to negotiate the details of reunification, leading to elections early next year. Haftar and the head of the GNA, Fayez Serraj, were supposed to, but didn’t, meet yesterday in Cairo as you know, but the fact that they couldn’t manage to be in the same room with each other does not, at this point, seem to have severely impacted the peace effort.


Pierre Nkurunziza’s government will not be participating in peace talks with its political opposition in Tanzania tomorrow as had been planned. The government insists that it is being unfairly persecuted by the UN and objects to its presence at the talks, and I guess plans to go back to impartially killing its political opponents, who clearly suffer under no persecution whatsoever.

South Sudan

Thousands of people are crossing into Uganda from the South Sudanese state of Central Equatoria, fleeing the escalating fighting between the South Sudanese army and rebels led by former Vice President Riek Machar. Refugees are saying that men wearing Sudan People’s Liberation Army uniforms, which suggests government troops but not conclusively so, are attacking groups of people as they make their way to the border.

Congo Region

Countries all over the Congo Region are understandably freaking out a little bit over Donald Trump’s reported plan to relax restrictions on the importation of “conflict minerals.” The reason those restrictions were put there in the first place is because the illicit trade in minerals controlled by various armed gangs throughout the region contributed to the violent chaos of the 90s and 00s that killed and displaced millions upon millions of people. Not that it matters to Trump and his pals at Intel, of course.

European Union

US-EU relations really feel like they’re approaching their nadir and we’re not even a month in to Trump’s presidency:

The European Union is preparing an early summit with China in April or May in Brussels to promote free trade and international cooperation in the face of a more protectionist and inward-looking Washington, three EU officials said.

China and the EU hold a summit every year, usually in July, and a date has yet to be fixed formally for 2017. One of the officials said Beijing had requested it to take place as early as possible. China’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment.

The EU believes China wants to use the summit to press home President Xi Jinping’s vigorous defense of open trade and global ties at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, in response to the new U.S. President Donald Trump.

“With an early summit, China wants to send a message to the United States that it has friends in Europe,” said one official, who helps formulate EU policy.

The EU, on the other hand, wants to solicit China’s vocal support for international institutions such as the United Nations, which Trump chided and Russia bypassed in securing a ceasefire in Syria through direct talks with Iran and Turkey.

“With this drive by some countries to undermine or weaken international institutions, we would want to see China supporting and believing in the United Nations, the World Trade Organization,” a second EU official said.


New polling shows Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats slightly ahead of their main center-left rival, Martin Schultz’s Social Democratic Party. While there’s bound to be a lot of statistical noise, especially when we’re still ~7 months away from the election, I think the main message is that this is going to be a fairly tight race barring some new development between now and September.


Surprisingly, the Russian government hasn’t taken kindly to the suggestion that Donald Trump expects it to return Crimea to Ukraine. “The theme of returning Crimea will not be discussed” were Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s exact (well, in translation) words when asked about the Trump administration’s Crimea remark, made by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer yesterday.

Meanwhile, there appears to be some bipartisan support in Congress for a measure that would require Congressional review before the Trump administration could lift any current sanctions against Russian interests.

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