Conflict update: March 7 2017


WikiLeaks, the organization whose involvement in the Edward Snowden affair, the Chelsea Manning affair, and last summer’s DNC/Podesta hack launched the careers of a thousand self-declared national security experts, has released a whole new batch of classified information, this time from the CIA:

The new documents appear to be from the CIA’s 200-strong Center for Cyber Intelligence and show in detail how the agency’s digital specialists engage in hacking. Monday’s leak of about 9,000 secret files, which WikiLeaks said was only the first tranche of documents it had obtained, were all relatively recent, running from 2013 to 2016.

The revelations in the documents include:

  • CIA hackers targeted smartphones and computers.
  • The Center for Cyber Intelligence, based at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, has a second covert base in the US consulate in Frankfurt which covers Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
  • A programme called Weeping Angel describes how to attack a Samsung F8000 TV set so that it appears to be off but can still be used for monitoring.

Boy am I glad we bought an LG. Well, maybe I should wait for the next tranche of documents to hit before I say that. Weeping Angel seems problematic, but to me the most troubling revelation is that the US intelligence community has been compiling zero day exploits in mobile device operating systems and then sharing those exploits with foreign intelligence services.

As was the case with the Snowden leaks, I expect the fallout from this leak to reverberate for months (particularly if this is only the first batch of documents) and to impact everything from intelligence gathering to America’s relationships with its allies. It’ll be a huge diplomatic test for an administration that has shown almost zero capacity for diplomacy thus far and a president who goes to DEFCON 2 when somebody contradicts him on “Morning Joe” and really hasn’t faced an actual crisis–at least, not one that wasn’t of his own making–yet.


Offered without comment, because it would only be superfluous, here’s Slate’s Joshua Keating:

To be fair, Toner, a career foreign service officer who served as deputy spokesperson under Barack Obama, was in the difficult position of trying to make an arbitrary policy sound deliberate. The reasons why these countries were selected is pretty obvious: Iran, Syria, and Sudan, are on the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list—an outdated and highly politicized category that still included Cuba until 2015. Legislation passed in 2015 following the San Bernardino attack put restrictions on visa-free travel from citizens of those three countries plus Iraq. (Never mind that neither of the San Bernardino attackers came from any of those countries.) The Department of Homeland Security extended the visa waiver restrictions to Libya, Somalia, and Yemen in 2016.

Unable to simply ban all Muslim travelers, as Trump said he would do during the campaign, the administration instead just drew up a list of countries based on existing restrictions. As an added bonus, these countries—unlike, say, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan—don’t have much leverage or influence in Washington. Iraq does have some leverage, thanks to the fight against ISIS, so it got itself taken off.

Trying to find a logical explanation for why barring citizens from these particular six countries will keep America safe won’t accomplish much, beyond forcing spokespeople like Toner into some pretty uncomfortable contortions.


Mosul through March 5 (Wikimedia | Kami888)

Iraqi forces advancing from the south finally broke into Mosul’s central administrative district today, taking among other things the city’s central bank, which had served more or less as ISIS’s Iraqi treasury. However, the offensive is still struggling to fully uncork itself. ISIS resistance is expected to be stiffer north of the administrative area, where the urban terrain works more in its favor. Also, as you’ll notice from that map up there, what was supposed to be a two or three pronged offensive has really only been a one pronged offensive so far, as the southern front is the only one where the Iraqis have made any substantial progress. Iraqi troops and PMU fighters to the west were able to cut the road from Mosul to Tal Afar, but those Iraqi forces haven’t been able to actually advance into the city.

To make matters worse, Iraqi police repeated one of the biggest Iraqi tactical mistakes from the eastern Mosul phase of the operation, overextending themselves in their rush to capture the administrative district early this morning and leaving themselves vulnerable to a major ISIS counterattack. The AP reported on what happened:

From the roof of an abandoned school acting as a forward base on the edge of Mosul’s Tayran neighborhood, Maj. Gen. Ali Alami said the Nineveh governorate complex burning on the horizon behind him was liberated and fully cleared.

He traced his troops’ advances on a tablet showing a satellite map of Mosul — boasting of their quick progress — but the markers showed that the soldiers has just pushed up the two main roads leading to the complex and hadn’t cleared the dozens of tightly packed homes on either side.

Lt. Gen. Abdul-Amir Rasheed Yar Allah, who commands army operations in Nineveh province, praised the Federal Police as heroes and Brett McGurk, the special envoy for the U.S.-led anti-IS coalition hailed the advance in a statement posted to Twitter.

But by 11:00 a.m. clashes inside the compound had intensified and commanders behind the front were getting frantic radio calls for help. Three bulldozers had broken down trying to remove roadblocks, hundreds of troops were trapped and they needed reinforcements.

As I say, practically this exact same scenario played out in eastern Mosul in December, when Iraqi forces raced to capture the Salam hospital in the city’s Wahda neighborhood and then were forced to retreat because they’d failed to secure their advance and weren’t able to handle the ISIS counterattack. As far as I can tell at this point, the Iraqis haven’t been forced to fall back, but those troops may still be trapped.

Tensions are running high in Sinjar, but ISIS has nothing to do with it. Rather, the tension is between Kurdish forces aligned with the PKK and its related Syrian organization, the PYD (which is the YPG’s political arm) and Kurdish forces aligned with Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and his allied Syrian Kurdish group, the Kurdish National Council. Many Yazidis in Sinjar believe–not without reason–that Barzani’s peshmerga fighters, upon whom they were relying for protection, simply abandoned them when ISIS advanced on the town in 2014. They’ve welcomed fighters affiliated with the PKK and PYD into the area as protection against ISIS coming back, but as the PKK and Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) are opposed to one another, this has naturally caused some problems. Fanning the flames of those problems has been Turkey, which has good relations with Barzani but, as you presumably already know, is at war with the PKK and the PYD. Ankara has been leaning on Barzani to get the PKK/PYD out of Sinjar, where Barzani might be inclined to leave well enough alone absent their insistence.


The Syrian army, under Russian air cover, has managed to run ISIS off from the main water pumping station supplying Aleppo, which is obviously good news for people in Aleppo.

Reuters reported today on the plight of the nearly one million displaced Syrians who are stuck in northern Idlib province, unable to return home because of the war and unable to cross the border into Turkey because, well, they’ll probably get shot by Turkish soldiers. Most were displaced by the fighting in Aleppo, but some have been displaced by Turkey’s invasion, and for all of them the situation has only gotten worse as rebel factions in Idlib have started fighting each other in addition to/instead of fighting the Syrian government.


Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford met in Antalya, Turkey, today with General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian general staff, General Hulusi Akar, chief of Turkey’s general staff. The goal was to somehow get all three countries on the same page as far as Syria is concerned. Which, uh, good luck with that. Ankara, for example, is still working with Ahrar al-Sham, which Moscow considers a terrorist group and about which Washington has strong reservations given its extremist ideology and al-Qaeda links. Meanwhile, the US is all but committed to making the Kurdish YPG and its Syrian Democratic Forces the centerpiece of the operation to liberate Raqqa, which seems to be fine with Russia but is anathema to Turkey. American forces are now visibly patrolling SDF-controlled Manbij to deter Turkey, a close US ally, from attacking the city. Then, of course, there’s the Assad question, on which nobody agrees, not to mention whatever US-Russia relations are (it’s hard to tell from one day to the next). All three countries managed to work together in al-Bab to one degree or another, but that was easy. Nothing else in Syria is going to be that easy.

Ankara announced today that it was shutting down the Turkish operations of Mercy Corps, a US-based charity that provides aid to Syrian refugees. No reason was given for the decision, so it’s not clear if Turkey did this because it’s Mad about Raqqa or in order to pressure Washington to seriously revisit the “Syrian safe zones” idea that the Trump administration floated a few weeks ago. Either way, at least the refugees will probably suffer a little bit more now.

Meanwhile, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s sensible decision to call the German government “Nazis” because they cancelled a couple of his party’s planned campaign rallies last week is paying dividends. The Dutch government is suggesting that it has no interest in allowing any Turkish political rallies on its soil, and the Austrian government is pushing an EU-wide ban on such events plus threatening to put a ban on Turkish politicians traveling to Austria except on official business. Erdoğan has never been as keen on ingratiating himself with Europe as his predecessors were, but he’s now effectively shredding Turkey’s relationship with the entire EU in his pursuit of unchecked presidential authority. Seems reasonable.


Egypt’s tourism ministry is reporting that, if 2017 continues the way the first two months have gone, the number of tourists visiting the country could approach levels not seen since before the 2011 protest movement that ousted ex-President Hosni Mubarak. The big boost is likely due to Cairo’s decision in November to devalue the Egyptian pound, which has made a holiday in Egypt considerably more affordable for foreign visitors, but the country has also tried to take steps to secure its airports in the wake of that 2015 Russian airliner bombing in Sinai. Any boost in tourism is good for the Egyptian economy, which depends heavily on that sector.


In a move that should further quiet any lingering speculation about his reelection plans, Hassan Rouhani has set up a campaign headquarters and has started hiring key campaign staff. The question now is whether reformists will nominate any candidates, whose main role would be to run interference for Rouhani in public debates and then withdraw from the race and endorse him at the last minute. Principlists are understandably attacking Rouhani on the economy, while the president, realizing that the Iranian economy is what it is and won’t change much between now and the election, is instead focusing on improving civil rights.


Pakistan temporarily reopened its two main border crossings with Afghanistan today in order to allow Afghans who had entered Pakistan legally, but had since been stranded there, to return home. Pakistani authorities closed the border in mid-February in response to a string of terrorist attacks that they insisted were carried out by groups crossing into Pakistan from Afghanistan.


The Myanmar government today urged Kokang rebels in the northeastern part of the country to agree to a ceasefire and attend peace talks later this month. The Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army is one of the three main ethnic rebel forces that hasn’t reached a ceasefire deal with the government, and it has formed an alliance with the other two groups, the Rakhine Arakan Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army. China, which takes a protective view of the ethnically Han Kokang and a dim view of fighting along its borders, has also called for an immediate ceasefire in Myanmar’s Shan province.


The Malaysian government says that it prevented a terrorist plot to attack Saudi King Salman during his visit to that country late last month. Malaysian authorities reportedly arrested seven suspected attackers–four Yemeni, two Malaysian, and one Indonesian–and says the Yemenis, allegedly Houthis, had organized the plot.


Despite attempted US assurances that the deployment of an American THAAD missile defense system in South Korea poses no threat to China, it doesn’t seem Beijing is buying it. China’s official Xinhua news agency said today that the THAAD deployment could spark “an arms race in the region,” as countries develop missiles that can defeat the system, and warned that China could break off relations with South Korea over the move. However, Xinhua also leveled criticism at North Korea, whose nuclear and missile programs are the justification for the THAAD deployment.

China has obvious concerns about US anti-missile/radar systems being placed so close to Chinese territory, but at the same time it does seem to be coming to the realization that its North Korean policy is part of the reason things have gotten to this point. So now it’s floating a compromise wherein North Korea suspends its nuclear activity in return for a suspension of joint US-South Korean military drills.


With fears mounting the the Libyan National Army-Benghazi Defense Brigades fight over oil terminals at al-Sidra and Ras Lanuf could be the first phase of a whole new chapter in Libya’s civil war, the country’s Other Government–the parliament in Tobruk that answers to supposedly controls Khalifa Haftar and his LNA–voted to withdraw from the UN peace process. Now, the Tobruk parliament had already basically told the UN and its preferred Government of National Accord to piss off by refusing to formally recognize the GNA, but this is definitely an escalation in the Tripoli-Tobruk rivalry.

Meanwhile, Libya’s human trafficking gangs, apparently dissatisfied with their current policy of taking migrants’ money and then trying to drown them in the Mediterranean Sea, have taken to fighting among themselves so they can kill the migrants while they’re still on shore. Hey, building unseaworthy vessels still costs time and money, you know? It’s more efficient to take the money and kill the migrants before you get on the water.


The Middle East Institute’s Michael Collins Dunn wonders about the health of Algerian president/dictator Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who no-showed his 80th birthday on March 3 and has been mostly non compos mentis since suffering a stroke in 2013. Bouteflika has run Algeria since 1999, and as always with long-serving autocrats, his eventual death is likely to be a chaotic event for Algeria. That would be worrisome in any circumstance, but for a country that is still at considerable risk of degenerating back into civil war, with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb waiting for any chance to reassert itself on its home turf, it’s particularly worrisome with respect to Algeria.


The UN envoy for Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, resigned today after more than eight years of trying, and failing, to get the Moroccan government and the Western Sahara Polisario Front rebels to agree on, well, pretty much anything.


One of my go-to websites, Africa Is A Country, has a typically good piece today about the 1904-1908 Namibian Genocide and the ongoing struggle by the peoples who suffered to extract some compensation from Germany:

Like the Nama, the Herero lost everything during the colonial genocide in German South-West Africa (1904-1908) which cost the lives of 80% of the Herero and half the Nama, a total of about 75,000 people. Their land was dispossessed and sold to European settlers, whose descendants often still live on these farms today, growing up as the Namibian progeny of people who legally bought the land from German authorities – although it was not theirs to sell. It is this continued injustice that makes the current negotiations for apologies and reparations between Germany and Namibia so complicated. The economic marginalization of the Herero and Nama is a direct result of the genocide, fortified by decades of apartheid. But how to right these wrongs? Will financial compensation help the Herero and Nama descendants of victims of the genocide to regain their economic independence? Or is the economic inequality in the country rooted too deeply?


After I hit “post,” Reuters reported that the South African government has formally revoked its plan to withdraw from the International Criminal Court. Last month, the country’s High Court ruled that the withdrawal was unconstitutional because it hadn’t been put to a parliamentary vote, so Pretoria didn’t really have much choice in the matter. The government intends to continue pursuing an ICC withdrawal, citing concerns that the court unfairly targets Africans, so this is probably a pure formality.


Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades today accused Turkish Cypriot leaders of deliberately slow-rolling reunification talks in an effort to avoid impacting the Turkish constitutional referendum. Erdoğan, who needs all the hardline Turkish nationalist support he can get if he’s going to win this vote, can’t be seen to budge an inch on Turkey’s post-unification role as “protector” of Turkish Cypriots, but unless he does budge reunification is DOA. So I think Anastasiades is probably on to something here.


Russia today accused Kiev of taking it to the UN’s International Court of Justice, ostensibly over its support for eastern Ukrainian separatists, in an effort to “litigate” Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Which, you know, shouldn’t somebody litigate it? The whole “annexing parts of other countries” thing kind of went out of style around 70 years ago. Anyway Russia’s point seems to be that, if this is Kiev’s “real” reason for going to the ICJ then the case should be thrown out, because the annexation is outside the ICJ’s purview.


LobeLog’s Hannah Gais looks at Donald Trump’s Russia policy so far. Despite campaign rhetoric about improving relations between Washington and Moscow, the Trump administration has been paralyzed–partly by scandal, partly by the inertia of institutionalized American foreign policy–and the result has been mostly incoherence:

Yet as disturbing as Trump and his administration’s rhetoric and alleged collusion with the Russian government have been, there have been no obvious compromised policies. At best, the policy proposals coming out of the White House have been muddled. At worst, they’ve been incoherent and contradictory.

The Russians, it seems, are well aware. Dmitry Peskov—Putin’s spokesman, who, according to the unverified Steele dossier, was reportedly the Russian “handler” for the Trump campaign—noted that the Kremlin was waiting with “patience…for some kind of actions” as they had “heard different statements from President Trump.” Others, especially in the Russian media, have been less diplomatic.


There’s been so much noise in German polls, with Angela Merkel’s rightish Christian Democrats up in one and Martin Schulz’s leftish Social Democrats up in another, that I’ve given up trying to draw any conclusions about the state of the race (elections are in September). So with that, here’s a new poll that puts the Social Democrats up by a point.


François Fillon’s ongoing war with karma is continuing, with a new allegation surfacing that he received an interest-free 50,000 Euro loan from a French businessman in 2013. As you’ll do, am I right folks?

Tune in next week, when we’ll probably learn that Fillon has been running a diamond mine in the Congo using child slaves.


Theresa May wants a clean, unamended parliamentary authorization to invoke Article 50 and begin the Brexit process, but the House of Lords isn’t cooperating with her. After already voting to require May’s government to release its plan to protect EU nationals in the UK before triggering Article 50, which May doesn’t want to do because she doesn’t give a shit about EU nationals in the UK says it will weaken her negotiating position with Brussels, the upper house of Parliament voted today to require May to put the terms of the Brexit deal she eventually negotiates with Brussels to a parliamentary vote. The House of Commons will now probably defeat both of these amendments from the House of Lords, at which point the Brexit authorization will go back to the House of Lords, which will have to decide whether to accept the clean authorization May wants or insist on its amendments and drag the process out even further.

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