Conflict update: February 17 2017

Somalia The United States of America

This is Donald Trump’s America, and people are prepared to go to great lengths to get the hell out of it:

A man from Somalia who risked the freezing temperatures of Manitoba as he crossed into Canada was discovered out in the cold by a CBC journalist.

The chance encounter took place around 4:30 a.m. Saturday as Nick Purdon was driving along the U.S.-Canada border, on assignment to watch for possible asylum seekers, while the temperature dipped to –17 C.

He spotted the man crouched near a snowbank along the side of the road near Emerson, Man., in an area where several other Somali asylum-seekers have made the trek out of the U.S. since U.S. President Donald Trump took office in late January.

“I have a problem. America is [the] problem now,” said the man, adding that he had been walking for 21 hours and was “not feeling well.”

I would encourage you to go to the link and watch the video. Then I would urge you to read Robin Wright on how the rest of the world is adjusting to the new America:

Trump’s baffling foreign policy is a central focus of the annual Munich Security Conference this weekend. Top officials from almost fifty countries—including Mattis and Vice-President Mike Pence—are attending the three-day event, which is the premier global forum on security policy. The preparatory report—written by an international team as the official “conversation starter”—uses stark language about the new American President. “The worries are that Trump will embark on a foreign policy based on superficial quick wins, zero-sum games, and mostly bilateral transactions—and that he may ignore the value of international order building, steady alliances, and strategic thinking,” it says. “Or, maybe worse, that he sees foreign and security policy as a game to be used whenever he needs distractions for domestic political purposes.” The report, “Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?” adds candidly, “What is uncertain is how Trump’s core beliefs will translate into policy (and whether policies will be coherent).”

Also, here’s something fun:

Germans are more concerned about U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies than they are about Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to a poll.

The survey published Friday suggests that Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is seeking a fourth term in Germany’s Sept. 24 election, has to take account of an anti-Trump mood among voters even as she seeks to maintain security and trade ties with the U.S. Merkel may elaborate on her stance when she addresses an international security conference in Munich on Saturday along with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.

Trump is viewed with concern by 78 percent of respondents in Germany, an increase from 62 percent in January, according to the FG Wahlen poll for ZDF television. Fifty-eight percent take a similar view of Putin’s policies, while 40 percent expressed no major concern about the Russian president.


Next week’s peace talks in Geneva may well cover elements of a political transition (the mechanics of elections, for example), but they will probably not address the elephant that has always been in the room at these talks: what happens to Bashar al-Assad. You can’t blame the UN for wanting to focus on easier issues before getting to the real impasses, but by the same token, there can’t be a negotiated end to the war without some agreement about Assad’s future.

Al-Monitor has a deep look at the formation of Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham, the new jihadi alliance formed by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and several other forces (including some breakaway elements of Ahrar al-Sham) in opposition to Ahrar al-Sham, which has been absorbing a lot of smaller forces as the overall rebellion in Idlib splinters into two camps. JFS spearheaded Tahrir al-Sham’s formation in order to strengthen its position in the face of increasing pressure from Turkey (and, further behind the scenes, Russia) to “moderate” so as to be allowed to participate in negotiations on ending the war. Tahrir al-Sham is probably looking for opportunities to go after Syrian government forces in order to drive recruitment and paint a contrast with Ahrar al-Sham’s relative passivity (which Tahrir al-Sham’s propaganda will portray as “appeasement” or “collusion” with Assad).

The Turkish military says it’s “close” to taking control of al-Bab, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says about 90 percent of the city is still in ISIS’s hands, and oh by the way, Turkish forces are indiscriminately killing civilians in their effort to capture it. The SOHR says Turkish strikes have killed at least 45 civilians in just the past two days. Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is touring the Gulf states and appears to be telling them a somewhat different story on Syria than the one he tells the US or the other one he tells Russia and Iran:

In his recent Gulf tour of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and in violation of the spirit of the Astana process jointly promoted with Russia and Iran, Erdogan expanded its targets in Syria. According to the Turkish president, Operation Euphrates Shield will continue after ousting the Islamic State (IS) from al-Bab. The new objectives will be Manbij and Raqqa in a three-phased operation. First will be setting up a “terror-free safe zone,” which must also be covered by a no-fly zone. Second, Arabs and Turkmens will be settled in the safe zone. Finally, a national army will be established through a “train and equip” program.

There is also an enticing economic dimension to this extravagant project. After turning an area of 1,930 square miles into a safe zone, Turkey will build new housing for refugees.

The idea that Turkey is going to stick around in northern Syria so as to build refugee housing, let alone to train and equip a whole new Arab-Turkmen army, appears to be something Erdoğan only feels comfortable sharing with the Gulf Arabs.

The Pentagon claims that ISIS bureaucrats and other non-combat support types are beginning to sneak out of Raqqa before it can be fully surrounded by the Syrian Democratic Forces.


There have been more scattered ISIS attacks in east Mosul and in the area around Tal Afar, as Iraqi forces continue to hold their position and wait for the assault on western Mosul to begin. Residents in the west are reporting that ISIS is preparing for the eventual attack by digging a tunnel network to allow its forces to move around undetected and by setting up sniper positions in taller buildings. The compactness of west Mosul’s streets means that ISIS won’t be able to use car bombs to the extent it did in  east Mosul, but it will be easier for suicide bombers to approach Iraqi positions on foot.

Writing for Al Jazeera, analyst Zaid al-Ali says that the Mosul operation has “upended” conventional wisdom about Iraqi society, for example the idea that the citizens of Mosul by and large welcomed ISIS’s conquest in 2014 and the idea that predominantly Shiʿa Iraqi military forces wouldn’t be willing to fight and die to liberate predominantly Sunni parts of the country. But as Ali also writes, the story of Mosul isn’t fully written yet.Yesterday Human Rights Watch reported on alleged abuses committed by the Popular Mobilization Units against townspeople in the areas around Mosul, which is the kind of thing that could inflame the kind of sectarian tensions that the overall Mosul operation seems to have avoided. And Al-Monitor has an interview with Atheel al-Nujaifi, the Sunni ex-governor of Ninewah province who, if he’s not arrested (Baghdad has issued a warrant for his arrest on charges that he invited Turkish forces into Iraq in 2015), expects to make a political comeback after Mosul is liberated. Nujaifi is a deeply polarizing figure whose attempt to regain his position atop Ninewah’s political structure won’t help further the cause of national unity.


A car bomb exploded today in the southeastern town of Viranşehir, killing a small child and wounding 17 other people. There’s been no claim of responsibility; Viranşehir is Kurdish country, which could suggest the PKK and/or TAK, but the purely civilian target is confounding. Most Kurdish attacks target Turkish security forces. It’s possible the bomb was meant for another target and detonated accidentally.


Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah spent this past week insulting Donald Trump and making threats against vulnerable targets in Israel in part to deter the US and Israel from taking any provocative action in Lebanon. This strikes me as potentially counterproductive, at least in Trump’s case, but we’ll see.


Benjamin Netanyahu has tragically been forced to give up one of his gigs. Seeing as how he’s under a police investigation for trying to cut a backroom deal with an Israeli news corporation for favorable news coverage, Netanyahu has opted to step down as Communications Minister. That seems like a sound idea.


A roadside bomb killed at least five Egyptian soldiers in northern Sinai earlier today.


Donald Trump is proving to be a uniter…in Iran, where major political figures seem to be coalescing in the face of all the hostile rhetoric coming out of Washington. Unfortunately, they’re coalescing on hardline terms. At the moment, for example, Hassan Rouhani appears to be taking some heat for his initial, fairly muted response to Trump’s provocation (e.g., the travel ban), which could add to his mounting electoral woes.


An ISIS attack on a military facility in Nangarhar province resulted in 17 Afghan soldiers and 21 ISIS fighters being killed.


After a particularly violent week, culminating in yesterday’s horrific bombing of a Sufi shrine in southern Pakistan, Pakistani security forces say they killed 100 “terrorists” in a series of operations around the country. It’s not clear whether those killed were affiliated with ISIS (which was behind yesterday’s attack), the Pakistan Taliban, or Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (which has variously had links to both)–likely it was some combination of all three.

North Korea

Malaysia has now arrested four people (one of whom reportedly told police that she thought she was participating in a hidden camera comedy show) in connection with the murder of Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, earlier this week. Malaysian authorities have, over Pyongyang’s objections, gone ahead with an autopsy whose results the North Korean government has already said it will reject.

Meanwhile, China is hoping to pull together another round of six party (North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and the US) talks over North Korea’s nuclear program. I wonder if they might want to wait until this whole assassination business sorts itself out.


The Pentagon is apparently very pleased with the haul of new intel generated in the aftermath of a US strike last month that killed some 80 ISIS fighters in southern Libya. Libyan and UK forces followed up after the airstrikes and were able to seize documents and take prisoners who were later interrogated.


Two Islamist militants of unknown provenance were killed in clashes with Tunisian forces near the Algerian border today.


Algerian forces reportedly killed 14 “extremists”–ISIS, AQIM, it’s not clear which–in a raid on a base east of Algiers.


With Muhammadu Buhari in Britain either dying or being treated for some undisclosed illness, Nigeria is actually being run these days by Vice President/Acting President Yemi Osinbajo. Buhari gets some props for effectively managing his departure, but not so many for keeping Nigerians mostly in the dark about whatever is afflicting him. But on the plus side, Osinbajo seems to be trying, at least, to address the economic deprivation and consequent tensions in the Niger Delta region.

A wave of seven Boko Haram suicide bombers attempted to strike targets in Maiduguri this morning. The attacks appear to have largely failed, as only 11 people died in total, including the seven bombers.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

The Bosnian government may try to appeal a 2007 International Court of Justice ruling that Serbia was not directly responsible for the genocidal acts of Bosnian Serbs during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. Bosnian Serbs are going to try to block the attempted appeal, and Serbia itself will obviously contest it as well if it goes forward.


That same poll I mentioned up top had some interesting results with respect to September’s German elections:

If Germans could elect the chancellor directly, 49 percent would choose [Martin] Schulz and 38 percent would pick [Angela] Merkel, according to the poll. That compares with 44 percent for the chancellor and 40 percent for her challenger in January. The Feb. 14-16 poll of 1,231 people has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Schultz’s Social Democrats are still running four points behind Merkel’s Christian Democrats, so this head-to-head stuff is a bit pointless. But another recent poll showed Merkel slightly ahead in the head-to-head matchup, so at the risk of repeating myself I think the main takeaway here is that there’s a lot of noise in German polling at the moment but it all suggests a close race in September.

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