Conflict update: February 22 2017


Yesterday Reuters reported that a week before Mike Pence spoke at the Munich Security Conference and assured all those in attendance that Donald Trump is totally in to Europe and, like, when he keeps giving Europeans swirlies in the White House bathroom that’s just because he doesn’t want them to know that he like-likes them, Steve Bannon met with the German ambassador to the US and told him that, actually, Trump (i.e., Bannon) really, genuinely hates the European Union. Which, I mean, of course he does. Mike Pence and James Mattis and Rex Tillerson can make as many apology trips to Europe as they want, but Trump/Bannon see the EU as the enemy of the right-wing white nationalist xenophobia that is their core ideology. Former Obama Deputy National Security Advisor Colin Kahl offered his take on Twitter last night:


The UN Food and Agriculture Organization issued a report today that says, among other things, that “planetary boundaries may well be surpassed, if current trends continue,” or, in other words, if the human population keeps growing at its current rate and we don’t figure out how to live more sustainably, humanity will no longer be able to feed itself by the middle of the century. In some ways we already can’t feed ourselves, as the UN also made clear today when it announced that it needs $4.4 billion by the end of March in order to stave off mass starvation in parts of Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen. But those are man-made shortages caused by war. What the FAO is saying is that we may be pushing the planet’s capacity to feed us to its natural limit.

On the plus side, if humanity lasts long enough to master interstellar travel, maybe our descendants will have the chance to thoroughly trash a few of these planets the way we got to trash Earth. Fingers crossed!


Yemen as of February 12: red = government, green = rebel, white = al-Qaeda (Wikimedia | Ali Zifan)

I missed this over the weekend (shame on me), but Huffington Post’s Jessica Schulberg and Ryan Grim reported on a possible policy change within the Trump administration that may have contributed to the Saudi-Hadi coalition’s recent moves against Yemen’s Red Sea ports of Mokha and Hudaydah. The Obama administration, to the extent that it had any willingness or ability to shape the Saudi mission in Yemen, kept insisting that their forces should leave the country’s Red Sea ports (particularly Hudaydah) alone, since they were the main conduit by which humanitarian aid was being brought into the country. But aid is now being diverted to Aden, on the Gulf of Aden, instead, and Hudaydah looks like it’s going to be the coalition’s next major target. Aden is a smaller port than Hudaydah and doesn’t allow easy access to the parts of Yemen where starvation is an imminent threat (the parts regularly being bombed by the Saudis, coincidentally), so if it has to become the new main port for humanitarian aid, a lot of people are going to suffer the consequences.

Schulberg and Grim don’t prove that the Trump administration has given the Saudis the green light to go after Hudaydah, but the fact that the Saudis suddenly started attacking Yemen’s Red Sea ports after Trump took office is conspicuous. Also conspicuous is the role that UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba, whose nation is part of the Saudi-led coalition, is playing with respect to the Trump administration. He’s described as a “mentor” to Trump’s son in-law, Jared Kushner, who parlayed his father in-law’s election experience running a minor right-wing newspaper into a gig as what’s been referred to as the “shadow Secretary of State” in the Trump White House.

There’s an argument to be made that giving the Saudis the OK to attack Hudaydah is actually the merciful thing to do because it could bring the war to a quicker end. But while it might well bring the war to a quicker end, the consensus of the humanitarian types who were interviewed by Schulberg and Grim seems to be that it’s not worth the tradeoff in lost aid. The war might end faster, but the amount of starvation caused by the loss of Hudaydah could be so immediate and so acute that even more people will die as a result.


The UN’s envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, says he is “not expecting a breakthrough” at this week’s talks in Geneva, and, well, no shit. The current “ceasefire” is a joke, rebels are fighting each other, the Kurds still don’t have a seat at the table, and the burgeoning row between Turkey and Iran is peaking just as the talks are preparing to begin. Oh, and while I’m here I might as well give the dead horse a kick or two: there’s still been no serious movement among any of the parties to these talks on the Assad question.

As for Raqqa, the deadline that President Trump gave the Pentagon for developing a plan to, among other things, speed up the capture of ISIS’s capital is approaching, and it’s not all that clear what their plan is going to look like. The Trump administration is reportedly intrigued by aspects of Turkey’s plan to attack Raqqa with a combination of Turkish, Arab rebel, and American forces, but that would probably require putting more American troops in the field. But that would require the US breaking with the Kurdish YPG and assuming that Turkey, whose military still hasn’t been able to finish the job in al-Bab, is going to be up for shouldering a considerable part of the load in Raqqa, which will be a bigger operation farther from the Turkish border than the al-Bab operation. Turkey’s plans also generally include some kind of “safe zone” for displaced Syrians, both to encourage the Syrian refugees in Turkey to return to Syria and to confound YPG plans to control northern Syria. The problem there, of course, is that Russia doesn’t want safe zones and will use Damascus’s opposition to them as an excuse to block any such proposal.


As Joel Wing reports, Iraqi propaganda over the past couple of days seems to have clearly outpaced reality. Where the Iraqi government was claiming that it had secured the village of Albu Saif on Monday and was staging for its big assault on Mosul airport yesterday, it seems in actuality that the fighting in Albu Saif was still going on for most of the day yesterday and the fight to take the airport is ongoing. Iraqi media also appear to be downplaying the level of violence in eastern Mosul, where ISIS strikes continue to kill a handful of people every day, and downplaying the role that embedded Western military advisers are playing in the front-line fighting.

The Popular Mobilization Units continue to capture villages to the west of Mosul in an effort to encircle ISIS fighters left inside the city. They’ve dealt with a number of ISIS counterattacks from Tal Afar in recent days, but because those counterattacks generally happen in open terrain away from civilians, they’re easy targets for Iraqi and coalition airstrikes.

Outside of Mosul, the picture is not so rosy. Endemic Iraqi corruption is allowing captured ISIS fighters to escape justice, and the continued struggles of Iraq’s Sunni Arab population–many of whom are trying to survive amid the rubble of liberated cities like Ramadi–threatens to open up space for ISIS and al-Qaeda to operate under the radar.


Amnesty International says that Turkey was one of the worst countries on the planet in terms of human rights abuses in 2016. Progress!


I mentioned yesterday that a major conservative challenger might finally be emerging for Hassan Rouhani, in the person of Mashhad shrine custodian Ebrahim Raisi. But Raisi says he’ll only run if he’s the consensus choice across all of Iran’s conservative bloc, and, well, here comes former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to potentially crimp Raisi’s plans. Ahmadinejad, who is legally allowed to run for a third term but has been “encouraged” by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to, you know, not do that, has found what he seems to think is a way around the Supreme Leader’s discouragement: having his former vice president, Hamid Baghaei, run as his stalking horse. Lest you think Ahmadinejad is an idiot, the feeling is that he’s probably putting Baghaei forward with the deliberate intention of splitting the conservative vote, because Ahmadinejad is apparently very angry at his fellow conservatives for, I guess, not clapping loudly enough during his presidency. Baghaei’s candidacy stands a decent chance of being disqualified by the Guardian Council, either over his 2015 arrest for…well, it’s not clear what, exactly, or just because Khamenei wants him to be disqualified (the Guardian Council can pretty much do as it pleases when it comes to disqualifying candidates–hell, there’s even a small chance they could disqualify Rouhani, the incumbent).

General Mohammad Pakpour, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ ground forces, says Iran is prepared to administer a “strong slap in the face” to the United States in the event of an outbreak of hostilities between the two countries. I’m sure the Trump administration won’t take that message badly. In more productive and less blustery news, Tehran has sent negotiators to Riyadh for talks on allowing Iranians to participate in this year’s Hajj, after they were forced to miss the pilgrimage last year.


I gather that there are people who read this blog who are curious about what’s happening in Jordan, and frankly you’ve probably noticed that Jordan doesn’t get all that much news coverage–frankly, because things there are comparatively quiet compared to their neighbors. So I was very happy to see this piece by Brookings fellow Beverley Milton-Edwards on their Markaz blog today, talking about the country’s challenges. There’s growing unhappiness among Jordanians over a weak economy and their government’s response to it, and a constant sense of unease about the possibility of Syria’s war spilling across the border to a much greater degree than it has so far. King Abdullah’s standard  response to public unrest, canning whoever happens to be prime minister at the time, seems to be less and less effective at appeasing his subjects each time he does it.


“Thousands” of people flooded the Egyptian town of al-Gamaliyah to pay their respects to Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind cleric and convicted terrorist leader who died over the weekend in a US federal prison, and violent extremist organizations across the Islamic World sent messages commemorating his passing. Of particular note was the condolence message sent by al-Qaeda:

Al Qaeda issued a statement after his death, referring to Abdel-Rahman’s instructions to seek vengeance from those who killed him, referring to the U.S. authorities whom he accused of neglect and abuse during his incarceration.

“This is the instruction of the sheikh in your hands, work hard to fulfill it and don’t let the Americans enjoy safety and security. Kill them, keep a watch on them and plant the fear in their hearts. Seek vengeance for your sheikh.”

Like I said the other day: fuck this guy.

Militants in Sinai killed two Coptic Christians earlier today, and appear to have made attacking Christians one of their top priorities.


A motorcycle bomb killed three people in eastern Afghanistan’s Paktika province today. There’s been no claim of responsibility but Afghan authorities are blaming the Taliban.


The Pakistani government announced today that it’s preparing to send paramilitary forces after violent Islamic extremist groups in Punjab like Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, which has been particularly active over the past couple of weeks. This is a step the Pakistanis have taken against violent groups in other parts of the country to some success. Nawaz Sharif’s government has tried to walk a fine line between dealing with terrorist groups and antagonizing the political Islamists who are a big part of Sharif’s base, but it seems the recent spate of violence has pushed Sharif to be more proactive.


A separatist ambush early Thursday morning killed three Indian soldiers and a civilian woman in Kashmir.


Thailand’s army says that it’s reached an agreement with Mara Pattani, an umbrella group representing Muslim separatists in the southern part of the country, to establish “safe zones” amid the conflict area. Unfortunately, Mara Pattani doesn’t represent the one separatist group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional, that analysts say has been doing most of the fighting of late, so it’s not clear that this agreement will have much practical effect.


North Korea’s full national breakdown has now reached its final form, as it officially blames Malaysia for the murder of Kim Jong-nam. I don’t really have anything to add here, but I will say that it’s fascinating to watch the DPRK government at work.


Egypt is trying to act as a mediator in its neighbor Libya’s civil war, but its idea of impartiality looks more like it’s trying to play both sides. While Cairo expresses its support for the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli, it’s been directly arming and aiding Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which controls the eastern part of the country. That’s a pragmatic national security decision for Egypt, since the stronger Haftar is the less likely that militants will be able to cross the border into western Egypt, but it renders Egypt’s verbal support for the GNA pretty hollow, and the aid makes Haftar less inclined to seek a deal with Tripoli.


A Boko Haram suicide bomber killed at least one person today in Wouro Dole village, along Cameroon’s border with Nigeria.


A South African court ruled today that the government’s plan to withdraw from the International Criminal Court is unconstitutional because it didn’t go through parliament. Justice Minister Michael Masutha said that the government still intends to pull out of the ICC and that it would give the whole thing another try, possibly this time by putting it to a vote. While the ICC may not be particularly popular in South Africa, it seems the greater concern for South Africans is President Jacob Zuma’s penchant for acting unilaterally and exceeding his legal authority.


Turkish Cypriot leaders are refusing to resume reunification talks until parliament overrides its vote to commemorate the country’s 1950 Greek unification referendum in its public schools. At this point the substantial progress the two sides had made earlier this year is threatening to go up in a puff of smoke over something so irrelevant it’s beyond belief, and it’s not even clear who to blame: the parliament for passing such a pointless but symbolically painful measure, or Turkish Cypriots for overreacting to it.


Three right-wing nationalist/proto-fascist Ukrainian political parties staged a demonstration in Kiev today against the current Ukrainian government. They’re unhappy that the government hasn’t declared war on Russia, basically.


Albania’s right-wing Democratic Party is boycotting parliament, demanding a “technocratic government” be appointed to replace the current Socialist government that, so it claims, has been cheating to win elections. The boycott will likely prevent parliament from seating a quorum, at a time when the Albanian government is trying to pass a package of judicial reforms that are a precondition of its consideration for EU membership.


Speaking of proto-fascists, Marine Le Pen remains uncomfortably close to winning the French presidency. Polling shows her extending her lead in the first round of voting, and even though that same polling shows her being creamed by Emanuel Macron and being comfortably beaten by damaged conservative candidate François Fillon, I think we’ve all seen enough shitty polling over the past year or so to understand that it would be far, far better if she never got past the first round.


President Trump is sending Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly to Mexico to talk through his administration’s immigration policy with the Mexican government and ease tensions. It sounds like they’ve got their work cut out for them.

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