Conflict update: March 8 2017


I haven’t been able to read much more about the Vault 7 CIA hacking data dump today, and at any rate I readily admit that cybersecurity is out of my purview, but I think Herb Lin makes a good point here in arguing that from the CIA’s perspective, the damage wrought by this leak–at least based on what’s been made available so far–is probably limited. The big revelation concerns these CIA exploits of the operating systems for mobile devices, smart TV’s, etc., and the vulnerabilities in those systems would likely have been discovered and patched eventually–unless Apple, Samsung, et al are incompetent and/or leaving known vulnerabilities unpatched for some reason.


At least 26 people were killed today when two apparent suicide bombers struck a wedding party in a village outside of Tikrit.

Inside Mosul, Iraqi forces holding on to the city’s main government building complex appear to have withstood yesterday’s ISIS counterattack and consolidated their gains. Iraqi and American commanders are talking in terms that suggest the battle is already over, with coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian, for example, saying yesterday that “the Iraqi security forces are moving very rapidly right now. The enemy is not able to stop their advances.” This seems to be a fair assessment. While there is hard fighting ahead and there will be periodic setbacks like yesterday’s counterattack, west Mosul is fully surrounded and there’s little ISIS can do over the long haul to prevent the Iraqi-coalition forces from grinding down their defenses. Indeed, this has been the case since the Mosul operation began, which explains why Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reportedly hightailed it out of Mosul before the action started.

Musings on Iraq’s Patrick Wing continues to follow the twists and turns of Ninewa province’s post-ISIS political future:

A parliamentary (MP) told New Sabah that the Arab parties were opposed to former Governor Atheel Nujafi and current Vice President Osama Nujafi’s plans to make the province a federal region. The MP went on to say that the Nujafis were working with the Kurds to fragment Ninewa. These arguments will only increase as more time passes as there are a plethora of forces vying to control Ninewa ranging from the Nujafis to Kurdish President Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to Prime Minister Haidar Abadi to the standing provincial government to Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to Turkey itself to the various minority groups that reside there.


Syria as of March 7; note the government’s (red) advance south of al-Bab (Wikimedia | Ermanarich)

If you’re looking to handicap the next round of Geneva peace talks, now scheduled for March 23, consider that the Syrian government and/or its Russian allies apparently still can’t manage to stick to a ceasefire for a full 24 hours:

Warplanes bombed rebel-held towns east of Damascus on Wednesday, striking residential areas where Russia had declared a ceasefire less than 24 hours earlier and leaving dozens injured, according to residents, rebels and a monitoring group.

Air raids and artillery hit three towns in Eastern Ghouta, part of Syria’s Damascus province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. A ceasefire had been agreed in the area until March 20, Russia’s Defence Ministry said on Tuesday.

The Syrian air force struck at jihadists linked to a former al Qaeda offshoot in Irbeen, a city north-east of Damascus in Eastern Ghouta, and in al Qaboun, closer to the center of the capital, according to a media unit of Hezbollah, a Damascus ally. There was no immediate comment from the Syrian military.

At least 30 air raids hit the region on Wednesday, along with dozens of artillery rounds and ground-to-ground missiles fired from government-held areas, a rebel and a resident said.

A genuine ceasefire–not a paper ceasefire that Russia, Turkey, and Iran pretend exists but that isn’t actually enforced anywhere in Syria–is a basic prerequisite to getting anything done in negotiations. Damascus will undoubtedly argue that it’s only striking jihadists who remain outside the scope of the ceasefire agreement, but this has been the “get out of jail free” card for the Syrian government throughout this shambolic ceasefire process–there’s no separation between jihadi rebel elements and the rest of the rebellion. You can and probably should blame the illusory “moderate” rebels for not fully disengaging from groups who, if nothing else, would be worse for Syria than a continuation of Bashar al-Assad’s one-failson man reign–sorry, al-Qaeda is just worse, period–but the fact remains that if Assad is serious about negotiations he needs to actually abide by the ceasefire his patron keeps insisting is genuine. And Russia, well, actually adhering to its own ceasefire would literally be the least Moscow could do to demonstrate that it wants to take its self-appointed peacemaker role seriously. Unless and until that happens, these peace talks are just feel-good UN bullshit.

UN Ambassador Nikki Haley told reporters in New York today that it’s important to “get Iran and their proxies out” of Syria. I’m stunned nobody’s eyes rolled out of their heads. Yes, let’s get Iran out of Syria. And Russia, and Turkey, and Qatar, Hezbollah, France, Britain…oh, and the United States too, while we’re at it. Imagine if everybody had just stayed the fuck out of Syria from the start of this civil war. But unfortunately for Ambassador Haley and her boss, the United States doesn’t have a deed to Syria and it has no basis for determining who is and isn’t allowed to be there.

Of course, the US isn’t going to get out of Syria. In fact…

Marines from an amphibious task force have left their ships in the Middle East and deployed to Syria, establishing an outpost from which they can fire artillery guns in support of the fight to take back the city of Raqqa from the Islamic State, defense officials said.

The deployment marks a new escalation in the U.S. war in Syria, and puts more conventional U.S. troops in the battle. Several hundred Special Operations troops have advised local forces there for months, but the Pentagon has mostly shied away from using conventional forces in Syria. The new mission comes as the Trump administration weighs a plan to take back Raqqa, the so-called capital of the Islamic State, that also includes more Special Operations troops and attack helicopters.

Washington is also mulling over the idea of deploying 1000 US soldiers to Kuwait to serve as a “reserve” force in the Syria-Iraq anti-ISIS operation. I guess the days of “no boots on the ground” are officially over, not that there was ever a point where we actually had no boots on the ground.


The Qatari government seems to be taking a roundabout way to restore Doha’s influence in Middle Eastern affairs, via heavy investments in Russia. The Qatari Investment Authority now has about $2.5 billion invested in Russia, and even for (alleged) multi-billionaire Vladimir Putin, that’s not chump change. Doha, which has essentially backed a series of losers all over the Arab world–the Muslim Brotherhood, Syrian jihadists, Libya’s General National Congress–likely sees improved relations with Russia as a way to gain relevance despite the fact that, on policy, the Russians and Qataris are pretty much on opposite sides all over the region.


Egyptians struggling in poverty have taken to the streets of some of the country’s largest cities to protest government cuts to bread subsidies. The cuts are part of a broader package of “reforms,” including a devaluation of the Egyptian pound and cuts to fuel subsidies, designed to help Cairo qualify for an IMF loan. However–and I know this will come as a shock given how IMF-mandated austerity usually works–the pain from all these measures has fallen disproportionately on people living at the bottom of the economic ladder.


A group of ISIS (at least that’s who claimed credit) gunmen disguised themselves as doctors today before attacking a military hospital in Kabul, where they killed at least 30 people. They were able to enter the facility after a suicide bomber destroyed the main gate. Afghan commandos were eventually able to kill all the attackers but only after an extended gunfight.


It’s beginning to look like the UN Human Rights Council is not going to subject Myanmar to a full investigation into the Rohingya genocide, even though everybody outside of Myanmar agrees that there is a genocide–or something very near genocide–happening there. The European Union apparently wants to give Myanmar’s government more time to investigate itself, because that definitely seems like the way to get to the bottom of things.


This is good, this is normal:

China has granted preliminary approval for 38 new Trump trademarks, paving the way for Donald Trump and his family to potentially develop a host of branded businesses from hotels to insurance to bodyguard and escort services, public documents show.

Trump’s lawyers in China applied for the marks in April 2016, as Trump railed against China at campaign rallies, accusing it of currency manipulation and stealing US jobs. Critics maintain that Trump’s swelling portfolio of China trademarks raises serious conflict of interest questions.

China’s Trademark Office published the provisional approvals on 27 February and Monday.

I mean, who the hell even knows what “emoluments” are, am I right? Is that even a real word? Nothing to see here.


Assuming this is accurate, here’s rare bit of good news:

The risk of genocide in South Sudan has “considerably diminished” though much fighting there continues, the United Nations secretary-general said Wednesday.

Antonio Guterres made the comment in response to a reporter’s question about a new U.N. report saying warning signs for genocide are in place in South Sudan. The report by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights into South Sudan describes deliberate starvation and bombardment of civilians, as well as the use of hate speech by top officials including President Salva Kiir.

“We still have many incidents taking place, many fighting taking place … but the risks of genocide have considerably diminished,” Guterres said.

The thing is, though, Guterres doesn’t seem to have explained exactly what’s changed in South Sudan that would cause him to say the genocide threat has diminished, just that it has diminished and the UN knows what it’s doing, just trust him. I’m not sure how inspiring that really is.



The Azure Window (Wikimedia | Felix König)

Some unfortunate environmental news: the Azure Window, or as it’s better known “that cool-looking thing from that movie about Ancient Greece/Ancient Rome/some fantasy medieval world,” collapsed into the Mediterranean Sea today. A heavy rainstorm churned up the sea below the formation, which has been slowly eroding anyway.


Russia has reportedly deployed a new cruise missile that may violate the terms of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. It’s also apparently thinking about permanently deploying short-range ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad, or at least the German government thinks that it’s thinking about doing that. Luckily Jon Huntsman is here to save the day, as Donald Trump’s likely ambassador to Russia. Huntsman is, of course, highly qualified for such a posting on account of he was a governor of, uh, Utah. And of course he was Barack Obama’s ambassador to China, a post for which he was also very highly qualified due to Reasons–though, in that case, at least he spoke Mandarin. Does he also speak Russian? That’s unfortunately not clear.

Also probably joining the Trump team is Richard Grenell, as US Ambassador to NATO. Grenell is a hawk on…well, pretty much everything, come to think of it, but on Russia in particular, which makes his nomination the latest addition to Donald Trump’s thoroughly incoherent Russa policy.


I know I already gave you your daily bit of good news above, but here’s something else that might actually be good:

Roman Nasirov, a government official, was sentenced Tuesday to 60 days of pretrial detention for his involvement in a case of fraud and embezzlement of roughly $100 million. He will be granted house arrest only if he posts bail of $3.7 million, in which case he must wear an electronic monitoring bracelet. He spent Sunday night hiding out in the courthouse, which was surrounded by anti-corruption protesters.

Nasirov, who heads the politically important fiscal service, is the highest-ranking government official to face the real prospect of jail time over corruption charges — a symbolic victory for a system of government characterized by corruption and influenced by oligarchs.

His case comes amid rising public disillusionment over the extent to which reform is possible in Ukraine. It will be a make-or-break test for the National Anti-corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), the fledgling independent agency created after the Maidan revolution to investigate major corruption cases free from political interference. The outcome will also say a great deal about Ukraine’s progress in fighting corruption and developing a stronger legal system more broadly.

For Dmytro Shymkiv, the deputy head of the presidential administration in Ukraine, the Nasirov case is an encouraging sign in what has been a three year effort to clean up the country’s dirty political system and a welcome indicator that change is indeed taking root — albeit at a slower pace than desired.

I know nothing at all about this case apart from what I read in this article, but any step Ukraine can take to root out endemic corruption is a step worth taking.


Kosovo is apparently planning to turn its “security forces” into an “army” through a series of changes that includes doubling the force’s size (more like tripling if you include plans for a reserve force) and authorizing the purchase of heavy weapons systems. Serbia, which still regards Kosovo as a breakaway province rather than an independent nation, opposes this change on the grounds that it sounds a lot like the kind of thing an independent nation would do. Which, OK, who cares, right? Well, NATO, for one. NATO has troops stationed in Kosovo and looks dimly at anything that might risk militarizing the region and/or raising new tensions with Serbia. Minority Serb legislators in the Kosovo parliament may try to block this plan by boycotting the vote, but Pristina seems pretty committed to finding a way to make this happen.

Both Kosovo and Serbia want for some reason to gain European Union membership, but the EU won’t allow either in as long as tensions remain high.


I know we never talk sports around here, and certainly I’m not much of a soccer (football, whatever) fan, but this is a pretty incredible story:

Barcelona came into this, the second leg of their Round of 16 tie against Paris Saint-Germain, with an almost certainly insurmountable 4-0 deficit, a hole no one has ever climbed out of in the history of the Champions League.

If Barça managed something really crazy and scored four times while also not conceding a single one on the other end, it would’ve only been enough to get the game into extra time. If PSG scored once, the tie would go from practically 100-percent over to seriously 100-percent over, as Barça would need to score at least six to win.

PSG did score their one goal. Barça scored six.

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