Conflict update: February 18-19 2017


Say, this seems nice:

On any given weekend, you might catch President Trump’s son-in-law and top Mideast dealmaker, Jared Kushner, by the beachside soft-serve ice cream machine, or his reclusive chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, on the dining patio. If you are lucky, the president himself could stop by your table for a quick chat. But you will have to pay $200,000 for the privilege — and the few available spots are going fast.

Virtually overnight, Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s members-only Palm Beach, Fla., club, has been transformed into the part-time capital of American government, a so-called winter White House where Mr. Trump has entertained a foreign head of state, health care industry executives and other presidential guests.

But Mr. Trump’s gatherings at Mar-a-Lago — he arrived there on Friday afternoon, his third weekend visit in a row — have also created an arena for potential political influence rarely seen in American history: a kind of Washington steakhouse on steroids, situated in a sunny playground of the rich and powerful, where members and their guests enjoy a level of access that could elude even the best-connected of lobbyists.

I’m not going to pretend that the wealthy and powerful never had special access to the levers of power in DC before this, but as with so many things about Trump, he seems to have taken the grossest parts of American politics and made them grosser.

On Saturday, Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the Munich Security Conference and tried to assure the attendees that the Trump administration’s commitment to NATO is “unwavering.” Reuters, at least, suggested that he was received tepidly at best, though the NATO bit got him some applause.

Paul Pillar wrote a typically insightful piece a few days ago about the utter confusion surrounding Trump’s Israel-Palestine policy, and what it says about Trump’s foreign policy more generally.

We’re Still All Gonna Die

Because it’s the one part of the government that Donald Trump and Paul Ryan can’t be seen to contradict or gut, the one part of the government that will definitely be allowed to continue research into climate change and its impacts is the Pentagon. Trump’s Defense Secretary James Mattis, ironically for this cabinet, was actually pretty forward thinking on renewable fuels and the national security implications of climate change when he was a flag officer.

The War on Terror (Old School Edition)

Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind radical Muslim cleric whose involvement in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and subsequent terror plots in the United States earned him a life sentence in federal prison, completed his sentence when he died on Saturday morning. He was 78 and, really, won’t be missed.

Seriously, fuck that guy.


Mosul as of January 25–yes, I know it’s February 19, but consider this a starting point, since we’ll probably be looking at this map a lot over the next little while (Wikimedia | Kami888)
On Saturday, Iraqi planes dropped leaflets on the western side of Mosul warning residents that the Iraqi offensive to liberate that half of the city was “imminent.” Which, at this point, frankly, I’ll believe it when I see–oh, what’s that? They actually started the offensive today? Oh, well, never mind then. The first objective appears to be securing the Mosul airport, which lies just south of the city, and which ISIS has reportedly done its best to destroy or at least render unusable to military aircraft. Iraqi forces actually began capturing villages near the airport over the past couple of days.

The UN has been issuing dire warnings about the possibility of a siege and mass exodus from west Mosul, saying that hundreds of thousands of people could be displaced by the fighting. As they issued similar warnings about east Mosul and the displacement was relatively minor, this becomes a bit of a “boy who cried wolf” situation. It’s obviously a good idea to be prepared for the worst, so hopefully the fact that east Mosul didn’t cause as big a humanitarian crisis as was feared won’t lead to complacency about west Mosul. As far as the idea of a “siege” is concerned, well, that’s already happening, and the only way to bring it to an end is for Iraqi forces to take the city.

Two suicide bombings in east Mosul killed at least five people on Sunday, highlighting the challenge of securing that side of the city while attacking the western side.

Iraq discovered it has another 10 billion barrels worth of proven oil reserves. Good for them, I guess? Iraq could certainly use the revenue, but the planet really doesn’t need us burning another 10 billion barrels of oil.


With preliminary peace talks beginning tomorrow in Geneva, I will simply note that its hard to find anybody talking about Geneva lately. The UN’s new goal for this round of talks seems to be “momentum,” which is perfect in that it’s totally meaningless and completely subjective.

Part of the reason nobody is talking about Geneva is probably that they’re too busy watching the war flare up again. This weekend’s hot spot was the Qaboun suburb of Damascus, where as many as 16 people were killed as rebels and the government exchanged artillery fire.

Then there’s the al-Bab/Raqqa mess, or rather the impending al-Bab/Manbij/Raqqa mess. On the plus side, the Syrian Democratic Forces are close to cutting the main road connecting Raqqa to the ISIS-controlled parts of Deir Ezzor to the east. On the minus side, Turkey is still agitating against the SDF’s Kurdish/YPG forces participating in an assault on Raqqa. They’re pitching alternative Raqqa scenarios to Washington and complaining that US arms are being passed from the SDF’s Arab forces to the YPG.

The most feasible of Turkey’s alternatives would require the YPG to allow Turkish and Turkish proxy forces to have safe passage through miles of YPG-controlled territory, which seems unlikely, particularly when Turkey keeps threatening to attack YPG-controlled Manbij in addition to Raqqa. At War Is Boring, journalist Paul Iddon suggests that a Turkish move on Manbij could go south pretty quickly. Turkey would likely get no American support, for one thing, but also Russia may give the Syrian army and its allies a green light to attack al-Bab. And on top of that, if its performance against ISIS in al-Bab is any indication, there’s some reason to doubt that Turkey and its FSA clients could actually succeed in taking Manbij.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told the Munich Security Conference today that the use of chemical weapons in Syria “cannot be condoned”…and then forgot, I guess, to mention the Assad government’s multiple uses of chemical weapons. He did make sure to note that it was bad when ISIS and al-Qaeda use chemical weapons, and fair enough on that. The Assad bit must have slipped his mind, or maybe he lost his notes or something.


President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is urging Turkish companies to hire more people in order to improve Erdoğan’s chances of passing a referendum that will give him vast new powers the Turkish economy. This tactic of using the presidential office to leverage companies into hiring people, just because it will be good for Erdoğan politically the economy, is certainly an interesting spin on job creation that isn’t at all troubling from any sort of historical perspective. Traditionally how this works is that the Turkish government takes measures to help improve demand, which then encourages Turkish businesses to hire more people to meet that demand. But, you know, I guess there’s more than one way to skin your political opponents a cat.

That car-bombing in Viranşehir on Friday seems increasingly likely to have been a Kurdish operation. It wasn’t clear in initial reports, but the housing compound that was targeted is apparently home to a number of judges and prosecutors, which makes it the kind of target the PKK and/or TAK usually pick. Turkish authorities, who tend to cast a wide net when investigating attacks like this, have already picked up 26 people in connection with the bombing.

Pence and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım spoke in Munich today about how to improve US-Turkey relations–or in other words, about whether or not the Trump administration is prepared to engineer Fethullah Gülen’s extradition to Turkey.


Congress is considering new sanctions against Iran over its missile testing, the latest sign that Washington intends to recreate its previous sanctions regime on non-nuclear grounds. In Munich, Zarif said that “Iran is unmoved by threats,” but Israel, the Saudis, and Republicans in Congress are positively tingling over whatever anti-Iran steps the Trump administration will be willing to take that the Obama administration was not.


The rhetoric between Israel and Lebanon continues to get more hostile. On Saturday, reacting to a provocative letter sent by Israel’s UN ambassador, Danny Danon, to Secretary-General António Guterres regarding Hezbollah, President Michel Aoun warned that (per Ynet) “any Israeli attempt to violate Lebanon’s sovereignty would be met with the ‘appropriate response.'” Aoun also criticized the Israelis for failing to meet their requirements under the terms of the deal that ended the 2006 Lebanon War.


According to Haaretz, last February Benjamin Netanyahu met with King Abdullah of Jordan, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and US Secretary of State John Kerry at a secret summit in Egypt, where Netanyahu was presented with a regional peace deal that would have included Arab recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and new peace talks with the Palestinians. Netanyahu countered with a proposal for a region-wide peace summit, but did take the offer back to his people. Concerned that the deal would cause his far right governing coalition to collapse, Netanyahu then briefly attempted to pitch a national unity government to Labour Party leader Isaac Herzog. When those negotiations went nowhere, Netanyahu instead brought right-wing maniac Avigdor Lieberman back into his coalition and the peace deal was squashed.


On Sunday, ISIS released a video allegedly showing the bomber who blew up a Coptic church in Cairo in December, in which the bomber promised that “we will very soon liberate Cairo.” The group has also taken to using the name “Islamic State in Egypt” rather than “Islamic State in Sinai,” which makes this video part of a broader rollout for ISIS’s expansion into the Egyptian core.

Saudi Arabia

Months after Pakistan General Raheel Sharif quit his post as chief of the Pakistan military in order to, supposedly, assume command of Saudi Arabia’s still largely hypothetical multi-nation counter-terrorism alliance, he still hasn’t been given the job. There may be some misgivings within Pakistan about the “counter-terror” part of the counter-terrorism alliance. Some may see the counter-terrorism bit as a pretext for creating what in actuality would be a Saudi-run region-wide anti-Shiʿa military strike force. Of course, this is an absurd notion because [incoherent mumbling]. Pakistan is majority Sunni but has a large enough Shiʿa minority to cause serious trouble if Sharif takes this job and it does wind up being the Anti-Iran League or whatever.

United Arab Emirates

Mattis arrived in the UAE on Saturday to begin his first visit to the Middle East. There was no further information on the trip, but I think it’s wonderful that Mattis seems to have spent all his time since he was confirmed overseas, telling allies that they need not look at the man behind the curtain.


During his trek to the UAE, Mattis told reporters that he’s collecting information and his thoughts toward a recommendation to President Trump about whether or not to increase the number of American troops in Afghanistan. Mattis said that while the Taliban has taken territory from the Afghan government, it has suffered heavy losses in the process and hasn’t achieved its “tactical objectives.” Given that one of its “tactical objectives” is surely to take territory from the Afghan government, I’m not quite sure how Mattis’s logic works there.


The Pakistani government closed a couple of major border crossings with Afghanistan in the wake of that terrorist bombing at the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in Sehwan, the latest in a string of attacks on Pakistan’s many Sufi shrines. Pakistan accuses the Afghan government of harboring anti-Pakistani terrorist groups on its soil, which is absolutely amazing given that a) Kabul doesn’t really control much of the southern part of Afghanistan and b) a big part of the reason why Kabul doesn’t control much of southern Afghanistan is because Pakistan has allowed the Afghan Taliban to freely base itself on Pakistani soil for the past 15 years. Hundreds of trucks carrying goods, many of them perishable, from Afghanistan to Pakistan have since been stuck at the border.


Two Myanmar security officers were wounded in fighting with militants along the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Whether or not these “militants” were Rohingya, this is the kind of incident that the government likes to use to justify cracking down on that community.


As many as 50,000 people gathered in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday to rally in support of a parliamentary bill that would empower the country’s Islamic courts to issue harsher sentences. While the implications of this measure would only tangentially impact non-Muslims, who only occasional wind up involved in the Islamic judicial system, the fact that it has so much government and popular support is problematic in a country that is about 40 percent non-Muslim.

South China Sea

The US has sent a carrier group led by the USS Carl Vinson for a “routine” patrol in the disputed South China Sea. The Pentagon makes these shows of force periodically in order to demonstrate that it considers the SCS to be an international waterway and that it doesn’t recognize China’s very disputable claim to the entire area.

North Korea

Yesterday China announced that it was suspending all coal imports from North Korea through the end of 2017. Beijing turned back a coal shipment from North Korea a few days ago, but there was no indication at the time that it was part of a larger policy shift. For those among us who have wondered when China might finally take steps to punish North Korea for its continued nuclear and missile development, well, this is punishment. China has already restricted trade between the two countries bit by bit in recent years, but the Chinese coal trade is among North Korea’s most important export sectors, so this really hurts. Now, it should be noted that China announced it was suspending coal imports last April, in order to comply with UN sanctions, and then, instead, starting importing more North Korean coal than before via a humanitarian loophole. They might not stick to the ban this time around, either.

It’s unclear whether China’s decision has anything to do with the recent murder of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia. I’m not sure why China would care, frankly, but the timing is suggestive. Anyway, that’s a segue to note that the Malaysian government is looking for four additional suspects in the murder who appear to have fled the country. It’s also recalled its ambassador to North Korea and has summoned North Korea’s ambassador to Malaysia over remarks the North Korean ambassador made to the press suggesting that the Malaysian government was trying to conceal something about the murder.


The leader of the Government of National Accord, Fayez al-Serraj, told Reuters on Sunday that he hopes Russia can be a conduit between the GNA and Khalifa Haftar, the military warlord whose Libyan National Army controls most of eastern Libya. Russia of course has been developing its ties with Haftar, and the GNA at the moment is struggling to control Tripoli, let alone the rest of the country. So you can view this attempt to butter Moscow up in that light.

The Gambia

Adama Barrow was ceremonially inaugurated as the new Gambian president on Saturday. In his inaugural address, Barrow promised to fix the weak Gambian economy, rebuild the country’s judiciary, institute free public K-12 education, and give everybody a pony. In all seriousness, he’s got a lot of work to do but hopefully he’ll be up to the challenge.


Al-Shabab welcomed new Somalian President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed to office over the weekend with two gifts: a video message denouncing him as “evil-minded” and “an apostate,” and (most likely–they haven’t taken credit for it as yet) a car bombing in a crowded market in Mogadishu on Sunday that killed at least 39 people. Meanwhile, US Ambassador to Somalia Stephen Schwartz welcomed Mohamed to office with a “Make Somalia Great Again” cap, because the United States genuinely sucks. I guess it’s possible that Schwartz, who was appointed to his current gig by Barack Obama, was trying to make a joke, but considering that Somalia was one of the countries included in Donald Trump’s travel ban, it was a pretty shitty joke.


You really can’t make this shit up:

Louis J. Marinelli is a man on a quixotic mission: to help California secede from the United States and become an independent country.

Surprisingly, this quest has been going relatively well of late. Marinelli’s group, Yes California, is attempting to collect 585,000 signatures necessary to place a secessionist question on the 2018 ballot. Buoyed by California’s already tense relationship with President Trump, the campaign has received a large amount of press coverage and support over the past few months.

But for the 30-year-old Yes California president, there remains one annoying problem: People keep asking him why he lives in Russia.

Not only does he live in Russia (a circumstance for which he does have a reasonable explanation), but the group backing him has apparently taken money from the Russian government. Consider this submitted without comment.

One of the major topics in Munich over the weekend was the relationship between Russia and the West. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he hopes to see the development of a “post-West” “democratic” world order predicated in part on “pragmatic” US-Russia relations. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she hopes for cooperation with Russia, while Mike Pence promised that the Trump administration will hold Russia “accountable,” whatever that means.


On the sidelines of that Munich Security Conference I keep mentioning, on Saturday Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine agreed to try really super hard to finally get heavy weapons off of the front lines in eastern Ukraine and implement (re-implement?) a ceasefire there. Is there any reason to expect this to work? Not especially. For one thing, it would require a commitment from Moscow not to take any provocative new steps…and they’ve already taken a provocative new step:

President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian authorities on Saturday to temporarily recognise civil registration documents issued in separatist-held areas of eastern Ukraine, a decision strongly criticized by Ukraine’s president.

The decision will enable people from the conflict-hit region to travel, work or study in Russia.

According to Putin’s order, published on the Kremlin website, Russia will temporarily recognize identity documents, diplomas, birth and marriage certificates and vehicle registration plates issued in the eastern Ukraine regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The legislation will be in place until a “political settlement of the situation” in these regions based on the Minsk peace accords, the Kremlin said.

Here’s the thing: if Moscow wanted to speed up the end of the Ukrainian civil war, it would make sense to actually go in the opposite direction, restricting border access until a political settlement has been reached. If separatists in eastern Ukraine are permitted to cross the border with Russia at will despite not having any way to obtain official travel documents from Kiev, then how does that incentivize those separatists to make peace? Even the Trump administration seems to get this.


The AP has an in-depth look at the sudden deterioration of the Russia-Belarus relationship, which seems in significant measure to be due to personal animosity between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (who, by the by, is currently dealing with some domestic political issues). Putin seems to be sick of Lukashenko’s habit of occasionally looking to the West in order to scare Moscow and wring concessions out of the Russian government. Lukashenko has also famously declined to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and has similarly refused to back Russian intervention in Georgia, likely out of a concern that Moscow could do the same sort of thing to Belarus someday. Russia has been selling Belarus oil at below-market prices for years now, and Putin likely feels as though he’s not getting any bang for his bucks.


British government sources are now accusing Moscow of perpetrating the attempted assassination of former Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Đukanović last October, according to the Telegraph. Russia denies the charges, and the Montenegrin prosecutor in charge of the case has only allowed that “Russian nationalists” were behind the plot.


Little can be confirmed about the horrible terrorist attack that must have struck Sweden on Friday, since Donald Trump mentioned it in a speech on Saturday and he’s certainly not the kind of guy who would make a thing like that up. We can only hope that the courageous Swedish people will be able to rebuild their shattered society.


An estimated 160,000 people took to the streets of Barcelona on Saturday to–get this–urge the Spanish government to take in more refugees. Good on them.


A police officer was killed and 30 other people wounded when a bomb exploded in Bogota amid a protest against bullfighting. It’s not clear at this point whether the attack was connected to the protest or whether the protesters and cops simply presented a target of opportunity. On the one hand, Colombia is going through a lot of negotiations over ending its decades-long civil war with the FARC and ELN rebel groups, and there’s a possibility that holdouts from either of those groups could be looking to strike a blow for the cause and just saw the gathering of people–and especially police–for this protest as a soft target. On the other hand, bullfighting is an extremely hot button issue in Colombia that raises a lot of passion on both sides.

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