Conflict update: February 16 2017

Like Sands Through the Hourglass

The longer this day wore on with no word that Robert Harward had accepted Donald Trump’s once-in-a-lifetime offer to witness a four year-long tire fire firsthand, the more it began to seem like Harward might pass. And, sure enough, a couple of hours ago word broke that Harward had, in fact, said no. Unsurprisingly, chief among Harward’s reasons for turning the National Security Advisor gig down was that Trump refused to allow him to restaff the National Security Council. In particular, Trump insisted that Deputy National Security Advisor KT McFarland stay in her job, and Harward…well, look, McFarland shouldn’t be in that job in the first place, but it would be unrealistic to demand that any new National Security Advisor to keep his or her predecessor’s deputy, especially under these circumstances. Denied the authority to hire his own people, Harward made the right choice, if I do say so myself, to steer clear of this administration.

So now the search continues. David Petraeus’s name will undoubtedly be at the top of the list, but I have to wonder if even Petraeus, who is probably a little desperate to land a high-profile job like this after his whole “I gave classified information to my girlfriend” incident, is going to be willing to take the job if he’s not going to be allowed to hire his own people. The interim National Security Advisor, Keith Kellogg, may get a long look now, simply because he’s presumably OK working with the collection of loons and Fox News ideologues that Flynn put on the NSC.

Meanwhile, Trump gave what was surely one of the most surreal press conferences in American history today. In what was supposed to be the introduction of his second Labor Secretary nominee (it turns out that nominating absolutely horrible human beings to your cabinet can on rare occasions bite you in the ass), Trump rambled on for over an hour about every petty grievance he’s ever had as far back as what seemed like middle school. I won’t recap it–and really can’t, because even though I watched the whole thing it sticks in my memory as one indiscernible mass of bullshit–but I will note that on the subject of the now-departed General Ripper Flynn (and believe me, I’m terrified that I’m about to write these next four words), Matt Yglesias is right: it’s not clear why Trump fired Flynn, and it’s not clear that Trump knows why he fired him.

This is becoming a masterclass in how to throw gasoline on a brushfire. And I’m sure I’m missing some 12th dimensional game theory reason why his failure to put the Flynn scandal to bed is all part of Trump’s secret plan to do some terrible thing, but I can’t shake the feeling that Donald Trump is really just a fucking dolt.


Intentionally or not, between its apparent intention to deliberately break up the European Union, its hints at isolationism or at least retrenchment, its…whatever it’s doing with Russia, and its insistence that European NATO members start to pick up more of the freight for the alliance’s operations, the Trump administration has sent Europe into a bit of a tizzy. Those European NATO members are talking about making joint weapons purchases and setting up a joint special operations command, and taking a more “active” role in the world, in part to demonstrate to Washington that they’re serious about picking up more slack within the alliance but also, you have to figure, because they’re no longer so sure Washington can be relied upon. NATO is also planning to boost its naval presence in the Black Sea, a direct counter to Russian activity there. Other voices are saying that European nations should resist US demands to boost defense spending and are arguing that European spending on humanitarian missions and development is a form of defense spending in that it helps stabilize trouble spots around the world.

There are deeper issues at play in the Trump demand that European NATO members start spending more on defense. The NATO treaty obligates members to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense, but very few of them actually make that target. The United States spends over 3.5 percent of its GDP on defense, a percentage Trump wants to increase, but he also–and this isn’t unreasonable–wants other NATO members to pull their own weight. The thing is, though, a lot of them never will, and if they don’t…well, probably nothing is going to happen to them. Moreover, even if every other country in the alliance raised defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, it wouldn’t have all that great an impact on the alliance’s funding because most of the countries in question have relatively small GDPs. Sure, Germany has a huge economy, but that’s one country. The US will always provide the bulk of NATO’s collective defense spending because it’s by far the largest economy in the alliance. Right now it provide 70 percent of NATO’s overall defense spending–maybe that could be brought down to 65 percent or so, but probably not much lower unless the US is prepared to drastically reduce its own defense spending–and we will never drastically reduce our own defense spending. Would that it were so, but it ain’t happening.

And, you know, there are some valid reasons why it’s probably OK that the US dominates NATO defense spending like this. I disagree with a lot of this Vox piece because I don’t agree that it’s simply a given that America benefits from having a huge military with bases all over the world. But it is true that, historically, when European nations start ratcheting up their individual defense spending, extremely bad shit happens. If the price of avoiding World War III is letting Germany and France spend 1.5 percent of GDP on defense instead of 2 percent…well, maybe that’s OK.


Today’s Syrian peace talks in Astana seem to have gone…not well. Usually even broken down peace conferences end with some kind of joint statement about we all recognize the need for blah blah and have agreed to blah at a future blah to blah blah blah. This session didn’t even result in one of those. Instead, the Syrian government criticized the rebels for showing up a day after the talks were actually supposed to happen, and criticized Turkey for trying to act as rebel patron and neutral peacemaker. The rebels, in turn, accused the government and Iran of constantly breaking the supposed ceasefire and Russia of failing to do anything about it. It seems Russia in particular was keen to get past the ceasefire and talk about a political settlement to the civil war, but as it turns out it’s hard to start talking about ending a war when you can’t even maintain a pause in the fighting. All told this doesn’t seem to have been a successful lead in to next week’s UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, which will begin with preliminary meetings on the 20th and kick into high gear on the 23rd.

Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık told reporters in Brussels today that the Trump administration is not as committed as the Obama administration was to relying on the Kurdish YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces to take Raqqa. He also said that Turkey’s priority after it captures al-Bab will be to work with Washington to force the Kurds to evacuate the city of Manbij.


ISIS appears to be taking advantage of the lull in the Mosul offensive to resume regular terror strikes in Baghdad. At least 51 people were killed and 60 wounded in an ISIS car bombing in Baghdad’s Bayaa neighborhood. Four other attacks around Baghdad reportedly killed eight more people.

The security situation in east Mosul has deteriorated to enough of a degree that the UN has decided to halt its aid operations there. This is a temporary pause (operations will reportedly resume on Sunday), but it’s entirely due to the fact that Iraqi forces are now massed for an assault on the western side of the city that keeps not happening, and there simply aren’t enough trained police forces to effectively secure the eastern side of the city. But lest you think those lucky duckies in western Mosul are living it up, here’s how things are going in the half of the city still under ISIS control:

“We’re already only eating once a day,” said Umm Sameer.

“The shelves are almost bare in the shops and when you do find something it’s too expensive, like a kilo of onions which now costs 15,000 dinars (around $12),” she said.

Umm Sameer said 30 eggs fetched around $50 and sugar was impossible to find, a shortage that affects all households in a country where tea is consumed in large quantities and with abundant sugar.

“(IS) members are raiding people’s houses more often, looking for mobiles. If you have one, you face execution,” said Abu Mohammed, who lives in the Al-Shafaa neighbourhood.

He said some residents who had secretly kept a mobile phone since 2014 had recently destroyed their device.

None of the residents contacted by AFP by phone would give their full names out of fear.

Water and electricity are intermittent at best and some Mosul residents have told of how they are resorting to burning their own furniture to stay warm in a city where temperatures have regularly dipped below zero in recent weeks.

A man from the Tammuz 17 neighbourhood who gave his name as Abu Zeid said he was even burning old clothes because gas and kerosene were also hard to come by.


Ankara is cracking down on its Russian-speaking Muslim population–or, in other words, people from the Caucasus and Central Asia–after a string of terror attacks perpetrated by individuals from those regions. Detentions and surveillance targeting those immigrant communities are up.


Although his UN Ambassador hilariously attempted to put the cat back in the bag today, the world has reacted pretty decisively to Donald Trump’s abandonment of the two-state peace process yesterday. European diplomats made it clear that they still support the two-state solution. The Palestinian Authority, craftily, is now trying to get Trump to meet with Mahmoud Abbas, because they can see Trump has no idea what the issues are and gives a lot of weight to the last person he talks to about any given topic. The Israeli government is, of course, thrilled, not so much because of what Trump said–there are permutations of a single-state peace that would be anathema to the Israeli right–as the way he said it. Whatever the administration’s official position is on the one-state/two-state question, Trump made it very clear that he, personally, doesn’t give a shit about the whole issue. And that’s what Benjamin Netanyahu and company want above all–an American president who just keeps the checks coming and shuts the fuck up about everything else.

David Friedman, Trump’s pick to be his ambassador to Israel and a man with a very colorful rhetorical history, began his confirmation hearing today. Here’s how that went:

It was just the first way in which Friedman’s words came back to haunt him. He apologized to New Mexico Senator Tom Udall for referring to J Street, a liberal Jewish group, as “worse than the Kapos,” or Jews who aided the Nazis. He apologized to New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen for offending one of her constituents whose uncle survived the Holocaust with his writings, including when he said liberal Jews “suffer a cognitive disconnect in identifying good and evil,” offering to call the constituent personally. He got into a discussion with Senator Cory Booker about the difference between apology and atonement after agreeing that Tim Kaine wasn’t an Israel basher and that former President Obama wasn’t an actual anti-Semite.

“There is no excuse for my words,” he said towards the beginning of the hearing. “If you want me to rationalize it or justify it, I cannot. I deeply regret them.”

Give him credit; he wants this job and he knows groveling is his best chance at getting it. But don’t think for a second that he’s actually regretful.


Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened to launch rockets at the Israeli nuclear facility in Dimona. Nasrallah had previously made a similar threat against an ammonia storage tank near Haifa that has since been emptied. His comments today naturally drew a counter-threat from the Israelis that they would target “all of Lebanon” should Hezbollah attack Dimona.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi authorities claim that they broke up no fewer than four ISIS cells in the country today, one each in Mecca, Medina, Riyadh, and the Qassim region in the central part of the country. Eighteen men were arrested and cash and weapons were seized.


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

At least eight women and a child were killed in an overnight air raid on a funeral reception near the Yemeni capital Sanaa, medics said.

At least 10 more women were reported wounded in the raid on Thursday, which hit the women’s reception area at a funeral in Arhab district, 40km north of Sanaa.

Medics dispatched to the incident identified the bombing site as the residence of Mohammed Al Nakii in the village of Shiraa.

Houthi rebels, who control the capital, accused a Saudi-backed coalition of carrying out the attack.

A coalition spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

I’m not sure how much comment is needed, since it’s not like there’s an abundance of actors conducting airstrikes on Sanaa at the moment. The Saudis seem determined to win the Yemeni civil war one bombed funeral at a time.


A roadside bomb in Paktika province, likely set by the Taliban, killed 12 people.


Sehwan (Google Maps)

A suicide attack (later claimed by ISIS) on the shrine of Sufi figure Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, in the town of Sehwan, killed at least 72 people. Shahbaz (d. ~1275) is one of the most significant figures in the rich South Asian Sufi tradition, one of a number of Muslim and Hindu holy men whose appeal crossed the gap between the two faiths. His shrine was naturally a ripe target for ISIS, which despises Sufism as a matter of doctrine.


The government of Xinjiang province held an “anti-terrorism rally,” though it sounds more like it was a military show of force, in the city of Hotan today. Police and paramilitaries marched through the city to “show strength and intimidate” according to the Xinjiang Daily newspaper.


The Government of National Accord has sent a request to NATO to train and develop its military and intelligence capabilities. NATO may well respond favorably to their request since several of its European members (in particular Italy) have been very supportive of the GNA. But this is beginning to have the look of a NATO-Russia proxy situation, with Moscow increasingly taking Khalifa Haftar’s side in the Libyan Civil War.


Al-Shabab killed two people earlier today when it launched a mortar strike on Somalia’s presidential palace during new President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s inauguration ceremony.

Central African Republic

Human Rights Watch reported today on a December 12 incident in the town of Bakala, in which rebels from the Union for Peace in Central African Republic (no, really, that’s their name) killed 32 civilians. The UPC was part of the Muslim Seleka rebel movement, but it is now more or less at war with its former ally, the Popular Front for the Renaissance of Central African Republic (FPRC), who have now aligned themselves with Christian anti-balaka forces against the UPC. It was within the context of the UPC-FPRC fighting that this particular atrocity took place.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Aaaaaaaand here we go:

The Democratic Republic of Congo will not be able to afford an agreed presidential election this year, the government says.

Budget Minister Pierre Kangudia said the cost of organising the poll, which was said to be $1.8bn (£1.5bn), was too expensive.

Last year the government and the opposition agreed that new elections would be held by the end of 2017.

President Joseph Kabila’s final mandate ran out in November 2016.

Mr Kabila’s opponents have accused him of repeatedly delaying the poll in order to remain in power.

What? Where would they ever get a crazy idea like that, just because he keeps refusing to hold elections?

Expect this story to carry through to 2018, or until somebody forces Kabila to step down, whichever comes first.


There was a flurry of comments out of Moscow today having to do with its relationship with the US, presumably because a) the Flynn scandal continues to roil Washington and Russia is tied up in it, b) Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had his first meeting as Secretary of State with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in Bonn, and c) yesterday Defense Secretary James Mattis talked publicly about the need for Washington to improve relations with Russia “from a position of strength.” That last comment in particular seems to have rankled the Russians, as Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu criticized Mattis (who seems right now to be freelancing when it comes to Russia policy) directly. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov lamented to reporters that “we’re losing time in terms of solving global problems” by not working harder to get Washington and Moscow on the same page.

The problem is that, whatever Trump’s inclinations in this regard might be, he really can’t make a move toward Russia right now for political reasons. That’s why Mattis is free to take a dim view of cooperation with Russia, and why Tillerson took what seems to have been a hard line on Ukraine during his meeting with Lavrov. It’s also why Lavrov insisted to reporters in Bonn that Russia “[does] not interfere in the domestic matters of other countries.” Oh for sure man.


Protesters and police clashed again in the Bobigny suburb of Paris, as the fallout from a police brutality case there continues to play out in the streets.


Reunification talks seem to have broken down, as Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akıncı has walked away from the table over legislation requiring Cypriot schools to “commemorate” the 1950 plebiscite on unification with Greece. Now, while I think Akıncı’s anger over this legislation was justified to a point (the 1950 plebiscite put Cyprus on the path to division, and commemorating it is a pretty clear slap in the face to Turkish Cypriots), it also doesn’t seem possible that a fairly minor symbolic move by the Cypriot government could be insulting enough to scuttle the substantial progress that has been made in these negotiations. I suspect this is a negotiating ploy, and Akıncı himself has said he wants to resume talking but he’ll need some unspecified something from the Greek Cypriot side for that to happen.


Scandal-plagued (his brother and one of his sons were just detained on fraud charges) President Jimmy Morales is rejecting rumors that he’s about to be ousted in a coup. I really know nothing about Guatemalan politics, but I do know that if you have to deny rumors that you’re about to be the victim of a coup, chances are fairly good that you’re about to be the victim of a coup.

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