Conflict update: March 2-5 2017


There’s long been this narrative on the right that America spends vast sums of money helping feed and clothe the poor around the world while our own people/military/deficit starve/wastes away/balloons. This is, of course, a giant pile of bullshit, maybe the most bullshit of all the bullshit stories the right has fed the American people in my lifetime. The ubiquity of this narrative, and the inability/unwillingness of politicians on the center-left to counter it, leads to nonsense like this:

A large majority of the public overestimates the share of the federal budget that is spent on foreign aid. Just 3 percent of Americans correctly state that 1 percent or less of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid, and nearly half (47 percent) believe that share is greater than 20 percent. On average, Americans say spending on foreign aid makes up 31 percent of the federal budget.

The Republicans who have invested heavily in selling this narrative to the American people, of course, know they’re shoveling bullshit. Or at least they did. The Republican Party that used to peddle lies to their marks has now been replaced by a Republican Party made up of the marks themselves, and we just elected one of them president. So this is unsurprising:

The White House budget director confirmed Saturday that the Trump administration will propose “fairly dramatic reductions” in the U.S. foreign aid budget later this month.

Reuters and other news outlets reported earlier this week that the administration plans to propose to Congress cuts in the budgets for the U.S. State Department and Agency for International Development by about one third.

“We are going to propose to reduce foreign aid and we are going to propose to spend that money here,” White House Office of Management Budget director Mick Mulvaney told Fox News on Saturday, adding the proposed cuts would include “fairly dramatic reductions in foreign aid.”

Mulvaney said the cuts in foreign aid would help the administration fund a proposed $54 billion expansion of the U.S. military budget.

“The overriding message is fairly straightforward: less money spent overseas means more money spent here,” said Mulvaney, a former South Carolina Representative.

That’s nice. Except we’re not spending that money “here.” We’re “drastically” cutting the pittance we already spend on trying to make life a little less shitty in poorer countries and repurposing the “savings” toward the shit we use to fucking bomb those same countries because that’s how America gets its kicks. The fact that cuts in foreign aid will probably make America less secure, thus requiring still more military spending, is a feature, not a bug.

Trump’s budget is likely DOA in Congress, thankfully. But as a window into how these people view the world it’s…well, I was going to say “troubling,” but that would suggest that it’s not entirely in keeping with everything else about Donald Trump.

Anyway, that was the big Trump news this weekend, I’m sure there wasn’t anything else.


Iraqi forces are pushing deeper into west Mosul, but the going has definitely slowed as they’ve approached the old city and the government buildings located there, and ISIS resistance has intensified. Rough weather on Saturday slowed Iraqi and coalition forces down and led to a fierce ISIS counterattack, the momentum from which seems to have carried over to Sunday, when Iraqi forces had to destroy no fewer than six ISIS car bombs targeting their advancing soldiers. Several people in Mosul have now been treated for exposure to some kind of chemical weapon–probably chlorine gas–believed to have been fired by ISIS artillery. Chlorine is a chemical weapon, but it’s fairly easy to obtain because it’s a “dual-use” product and doesn’t have the same restrictions on its sale as a pure weapon like sarin or VX.

As Iraqi units get deeper into west Mosul, the problem of displacement increases. International monitors say that over 40,000 people have fled the city in the past week. The UN is sticking to its predictions that hundreds of thousands of people will eventually be displaced in this operation, but we’ll see. I suppose a lot of that has to do with how much of a fight ISIS puts up. If they resist to the bitter end, the displacement will likely be worse, but if at some point their resistance collapses then naturally the numbers should be lower. A big concern moving forward will be the possibility of ISIS fighters attempting to flee the city among crowds of displaced persons.

Elsewhere, the Tal Afar situation remains unsettled. Baghdad has said that it will move Iraqi army and police units into place to liberate the city, but it’s not clear that it has any army or police units to spare so things continue to be in limbo. Kurdish forces seized and shut down an oil facility in Kirkuk on Thursday, ostensibly because of reports about ISIS explosives on the premises but in reality in order to pressure Baghdad to build an oil refinery in the city, something Iraqi Kurds have been demanding for some time now. In Baghdad, meanwhile, the political situation remains unsettled, with Muqtada al-Sadr and Nouri al-Maliki vying for power within the Shiʿa community and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi struggling to chart a middle course. Sadr has called for several actions, like dissolving the Popular Mobilization Units, that are quite popular with Sunnis and would definitely erode Maliki’s power base, but that are not particularly popular among Iraqi Shiʿa.


Syria updated through March 3; red = government, green = rebels, white = al-Qaeda/JFS, gray = ISIS, yellow = YPG (Wikimedia | Ermanarich)
The latest Geneva peace talks ended on Friday, and in a major surprise, nothing actually happened but everybody claimed it was a great success:

Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy for Syria, announced on Friday the conclusion of the intra-Syrian talks in the Swiss city having secured a finalised agenda for another round.

He said he would invite the government and opposition negotiators to Geneva for a fifth set of discussions later in March.

“We have a clear agenda in front of us,” de Mistura told reporters. “The train is ready, it is in the station … it is warming up its engine … it just needs an accelerator and the accelerator is in the hands of those in this round.”

De Mistura held back-to-back meetings on Friday, first meeting with two minor opposition groups – the Moscow and Cairo platforms – and later speaking with the Syrian government delegation and the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the central opposition umbrella group.

“It is now clear to everyone [that] we are here to implement Security Council resolution 2254, and that is beyond dispute,” de Mistura said.

Congratulations on the talks where everybody agreed to talk some more at a yet-to-be-determined time. The Syrian government says it wants to negotiate with a “unified” opposition that isn’t beholden to the agendas of any other nations…except for the one opposition group that’s beholden to Russia, they seem to be OK with that one.

A Syrian air force pilot whose plane crashed in Turkey on Saturday (he ejected) says that he was “shot down.” OK, well, it’s a war zone, whatever…except, uh, who shot him down? Turkey isn’t in that business anymore, supposedly. The rebels aren’t supposed to have anything capable of shooting down a MiG-23. He was shot down over Idlib which is rebel-held territory. This is one of those stories that probably is nothing but shouldn’t be immediately tossed down the memory hole, either.

The fatal four-way in northern Syria between Turkey, ISIS, the YPG/SDF, and the Syrian government has reportedly displaced an estimated 66,000 people over the past couple of months, most of them from the al-Bab area. Many of the displaced headed toward Syrian Democratic Forces-controlled areas around Manbij, which may have been a mistake. Turkey and its Free Syrian Army proxies have been advancing toward several villages on the outskirts of Manbij, and in response the SDF surrendered control over those areas to the Syrian government. This is a pretty ingenious move as far as I can see. Turkey, which is loathe to pick a fight with Damascus right now because it will create problems with Moscow, may soon find its forces unable to move anywhere without picking a fight with Damascus, if the SDF keeps allowing the Syrian army to push further east.

Speaking of the Syrian army, it retook Palmyra from ISIS late last week. It’s not clear how much more ISIS was able to wreck the city’s archeological sites this time around, but they do seem to have done some additional damage. As for the eventual assault on Raqqa, it looks like the Trump administration may be about to put considerably more American soldiers in Syria to work with the SDF/YPG. Washington is continuing to “negotiate” with Ankara over the Kurds’ involvement in the Raqqa operation, but right now it sure seems like they’re just trying to pacify Ankara and that they’ve settled on the SDF being the primary force involved in the operation. Putting more Americans on the ground would create situation like the one in Mosul, where US forces are stationed near the front lines to call in air strikes and provide direct support to the front line units. Of course, the big difference here is that American forces were welcomed into Iraq by the Iraqi government, whereas it’s hard to imagine Bashar al-Assad extending the same welcome to US forces in Syria.


For some reason, Turkish opposition parties are complaining that they’re not being given a fair shake in the run up to April’s constitutional referendum. Sure, I mean, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government controls virtually all Turkish media and one of its favorite hobbies is imprisoning its political opposition. Sure, Turkey is under an indefinite state of emergency that basically gives Erdoğan free rein to do what he likes and arrest whomever he wants. And OK, Erdoğan has been going around suggesting that people who plan on voting “no” on the referendum are basically ISIS terrorists. But, you know, uh, it’s not like Erdoğan is bribing voters to get them to vote “yes.” What’s that? Oh, it is actually like that? Well, that’s, um, I don’t, uhhhhhh

Erdoğan has now created a brand new diplomatic incident with Germany over the referendum. After Berlin, citing security concerns, canceled two campaign rallies that Erdoğan acolytes were supposed to hold in Germany last week (Germany has a large Turkish expat population, and they’re allowed to vote on the referendum), Erdoğan sensibly responded by accusing the current German government of being Nazis. No, really:

A defiant Erdogan said he could travel to Germany himself to rally support for the constitutional changes to grant him greater power.

“Germany, you have no relation whatsoever to democracy and you should know that your current actions are no different to those of the Nazi period,” Erdogan said at a rally in Istanbul.

“If I want to come to Germany, I will, and if you don’t let me in through your doors, if you don’t let me speak, then I will make the world rise to its feet,” he told a separate event.

This has gone over about as well as you might expect, which is to say really not well at all. The German public overwhelmingly wants Angela Merkel to take a harder line toward Ankara, and politicians in other EU states are now talking about an EU-wide ban on Turkish campaign rallies.

On Friday, Reuters reported on Turkish efforts, which may be too little, too late but it’s hard to say that for sure, to control its border with Syria via walls, drones, and minefields, which JESUS CHRIST, MINEFIELDS?


The US really stepped up its air campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula late last week. On Thursday, the US conducted 20 early morning strikes against AQAP targets, and on Friday it carried out at least five more, specifically targeting a senior AQAP commander named Saad Atef. Today, two different AQAP attacks on military checkpoints killed at least 11 Yemeni soldiers.


Bahraini authorities say they’ve arrested 25 members of a terrorist group that was trained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran. This wouldn’t be out of the question but it’s best to take these kinds of reports with a grain of salt.


Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been acquitted on charges that he was responsible for the deaths of over 900 protesters during the 2011 Arab Spring protests that eventually forced his ouster. I assume all 900 died of natural causes. Anyway, by law Mubarak should be a free man–well, as free as an ill 88 year old can be, I guess–but it’s not clear whether the Sisi government will actually release him.


So this happened:

Hashtag I’m on Twitter. Most Iranians are banned from using Twitter because of the protests that surrounded Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection in 2009, an irony that I am positive is lost on Ahmadinejad.

Iranian authorities say that they’ve made “relative progress” in talks with the Saudis over Iranian participation in this year’s Hajj. Who knows what that means.


The Kazakh parliament has passed several constitutional amendments to curtail the powers of the president and devolve them to the cabinet and parliament. The measures, which have been pushed by current (but aging) president Nursultan Nazarbayev, should become law soon.


Afghan forces managed to recapture the Tala wa Barfak district in Baghlan province from the Taliban on Friday. The Taliban had captured the district earlier last week. On Friday evening, 8 civilians were killed in Farah province by what authorities say was a roadside bomb but witnesses claim was an airstrike.

There’s been some relatively heavy fighting in Kunduz province over the past couple of days. A Taliban attack on a security post near the city of Kunduz killed at least 6 Afghan security officers, after airstrikes in a different part of Kunduz province on Saturday killed an estimated 18 Taliban fighters.


On the same day when a US drone strike killed two Taliban-allied militants and four other militants were killed in a clash with Pakistani forces, the Pakistani government announced a far-reaching plan for reforming the way it deals with its often chaotic Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The centerpiece of the plan is the FATA’s incorporation into the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which would actually bring the people living in the FATA under Pakistani law for the first time in the country’s history. They would have, in theory, equal rights and equal access to Pakistani social services and its legal system as any other Pakistani citizen.

Before we get too excited here, though, consider the degree to which Pashtuns who have fled the FATA for other parts of Pakistan are currently treated as second-class citizens and/or suspected terrorists. Giving those Pashtun equality under the law is a necessary step, but it’s not going to reverse the FATA’s isolation from Pakistani society all by itself.

The Pakistani army says that five of its soldiers were killed on Monday when militants crossing from Afghanistan attacked three military posts in the FATA. It also says that at least 10 militants were killed.


An overnight counter-insurgency raid by Indian forces in southern Kashmir resulted in the deaths of two Kashmiri separatists and one Indian security officer, which then resulted in protests throughout the province.


The UN issued a new report on Friday criticizing the Sri Lankan government for its slow progress in addressing war crimes charges stemming from that country’s 1983-2009 civil war.


Al Jazeera reports on a Malaysian plan to build a massive new port smack dab in the middle of the traditional homeland of Malaysia’s indigenous Mah Meri people. The government generally doesn’t recognize indigenous claims on the land, despite pressure from both domestic and international human rights groups.


Human Rights Watch is arguing that President Rodrigo Duterte may be committing crimes against humanity by inciting vigilante violence against drug dealers and users, which could in theory lead to Duterte facing charges before the International Criminal Court (Manila is an ICC member).


Lots of stuff happening here and, as usual, all of it a little odd. First and most recently, this very evening (eastern US time) Pyongyang launched four missiles from a site near its border with China, all of which splashed into the ocean between the Korean Peninsula and Japan. This was likely in response to US-South Korean military exercises. It was briefly believed that one of these missiles was the long-awaited North Korean ICBM, but that no longer appears to have been the case. Analysts are suggesting that, in addition to the usual temper tantrum over the US-South Korean exercises, this launch may have been intended to send a message to China over its recent decision to ban North Korean coal imports. The missiles traveled far enough to have theoretically threatened several large Chinese cities.

Meanwhile, Malaysia today expelled North Korea’s ambassador, Kang Chol, over the Kim Jong-nam murder. The Malaysian government had demanded a formal apology for North Korean criticisms of its investigation into the Kim murder, but didn’t get one, so it booted Kang in response.

A new UN report shows that, despite international embargoes against its arms industry, North Korea is still supplying weapons and military training to several African nations, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola. Somewhat hilariously, DRC soldiers armed with North Korean weapons were in one case detailed to a UN peacekeeping operation in Central African Republic, meaning that UN peacekeepers were using weapons banned by the UN.


There’s been quite a bit of fighting over the past couple of days around two of Libya’s largest Mediterranean oil terminals, al-Sidra and Ras Lanuf. Both had been property of Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army faction, but on Friday they were captured by forces affiliated with the Islamist Benghazi Defense Brigades. Haftar’s air force then began striking BDB positions in the area on Saturday and again on Sunday, in advance of what will certainly be an attempt by the LNA to retake those terminals.

You’ll notice that the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord isn’t really involved in the above situation. On Thursday, Reuters reported on the situation in Tripoli, where the GNA is struggling to assert its authority against the challenges posed by its internal divisions and the supporters of ex-General National Congress leader Khalifa Ghwell. Small wonder that the GNA isn’t a factor in al-Sidra and Ras Lanuf when it still doesn’t even fully control its own supposed capital city. On Thursday, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov told GNA leader Fayez al-Sarraj that Moscow wants to act as a mediator between Haftar and the GNA, so that’s…something, I guess?

The main beneficiary of the chaos in Libya continues to be human traffickers, people who con refugees out of whatever money they have with the promise of safe passage to Europe, then stick them on some unseaworthy piece of floating junk. If they’re lucky, they’ll survive long enough to be picked up by European authorities and sent back to the war zone they were trying to flee.


Mali’s three largest jihadi groups are merging. Ansar Dine, the Tuareg extremist group based in northern Mali, will merge with the Massina Brigades, a Fulani group based in central Mali, and al-Mourabitoun, an offshoot of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb founded by Algerian bad boy (seriously, he’s horrible) Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The combined group will be aligned with al-Qaeda (which makes sense given that they’re all AQIM offshoots) and will be led by Ansar Dine boss Iyad Ag-Ghali. The new group is reportedly calling itself Jamaʿat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen, or “The Association for the Support of Islam and Muslims.”


Kenyan forces reportedly killed 57 al-Shabab fighters in southern Somalia on Wednesday, though al-Shabab denied it had suffered any casualties in the engagement.

The Somali government announced today that over 110 people had died of hunger in just the previous 48 hours. Much of Somalia is suffering from a severe drought.


The DRC’s opposition parties appear to have coalesced behind Felix Tshisekedi, the son of recently deceased opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi. The unity of the DRC political opposition is going to be critical in its ability to keep President Joseph Kabila to his pledge to hold elections this year.


The country’s two feuding political coalitions agreed to extend a ceasefire that was due to expire on Friday for another two months, through May 4.


A Ukrainian suit against Russia filed with the UN’s International Court of Justice in January is going to be heard starting on Monday. Kiev wants the ICJ to order Russia to stop supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. Of course, the ICJ has no way to enforce its rulings, so this is pretty much an exercise in Proving Your Point that won’t have any practical effect even if Kiev does win the case.


Moscow is denying charges leveled last week by opposition politician Aleksei Navalny that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has used his position to accumulate massive personal wealth.


Fascist presidential candidate Marine Le Pen continues to decline in the polls, but not enough to fall out of the runoff. Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron may actually overtake her to “win” the first round of the election, but any chance of keeping her out of the runoff is being wrecked by scandal-wrecked conservative candidate François Fillon’s decision to keep running despite the fact that his public image is in tatters and he’s got virtually no chance of winning the election. There are growing calls for Fillon to be replaced as the conservative nominee by former prime minister Alain Juppé, but that seems like a longshot.


Theresa May’s main argument against Scottish independence is…well, it’s a doozy:

Theresa May has warned that independence would “wrench Scotland out of its biggest market” as she vowed that all four nations of the UK will leave the European Union as “one United Kingdom”.

Opening the Scottish Conservative conference in Glasgow on Friday morning, the prime minister accused the Scottish government of “stoking up endless constitutional grievance” at the expense of governing the country.

In related news, the concept of irony was last seen walking slowly into the English Channel. If you see it, please contact authorities.

Last week’s snap elections in Northern Ireland left the Democratic Unionist Party and its Protestant coalition with its smallest majority since, well, ever, and left the DUP and the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party facing three weeks of undoubtedly intense talks over forming a unity government. If those talks fail, direct control of Northern Ireland will revert to London. The election result was undoubtedly affected by Brexit, which threatens to hit Northern Ireland, and its current open border with the rest of the island, harder than any other part of the UK. Between Brexit concerns and the declining Protestant demographic majority, the possibility of Northern Ireland leaving the UK and joining the rest of Ireland isn’t nearly as remote as it seemed 10-20 years ago.

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4 thoughts on “Conflict update: March 2-5 2017

  1. “Sadr has called for several actions, like dissolving the Popular Mobilization Units, that are quite popular with Sunnis and would definitely erode Maliki’s power base, but that are not particularly popular among Iraqi Shiʿa.”

    Is that a type? I thought the PMU’s were mostly made up of Iraqi Shi’a. I also seem to remember a lot of reticence to let them participate in Mosul for fear of pissing off the Sunni population there.

    1. Same here.. its probably a good thing that we got tripped up, it shows we actually parse this stuff and not just skim!

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