Conflict update: March 10 2017


As it so happens, while Michael Flynn was advising candidate Donald Trump on foreign policy, he was also being paid to act as an agent of the Turkish government–except, oops, he apparently forgot to mention that to anybody until earlier this week. Flynn even wrote pro-Turkey op-eds without disclosing that he was being paid to do it, which for anybody else would be a huge scandal but which is at best the 80th worst thing Flynn has done in just the past six months. To make this even more hilarious, Flynn apparently didn’t even fulfill the terms of his contract, which called for him to “investigate” Fethullah Gülen and produce a short film based on his investigation.

To make things considerably less hilarious, Donald Trump thought this guy was the right pick to be his top national security adviser, and Trump still has almost four years left in his term.


I was going to make a joke about the last time Tillerson saw his boss, but instead, can we talk about what President Trump could possibly be looking at here? Seriously, they’re swearing in his Secretary of State and he’s doing…what, exactly?

I guess Secretary Kushner must have handled the visit himself.

Seriously, you’re Rex Tillerson. You used to run ExxonMobil. You’ve got more money than you could possibly spend in a hundred lifetimes. How much longer are you going to allow yourself to be humiliated?


Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, told the Security Council today that the UN is facing its worst crisis since its founding. He was talking about the acute simultaneous risk of famine/mass starvation in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria. An estimated 20 million people in parts of those four countries are at risk of starving to death. Children growing up in those areas are looking at lifelong challenges posed by severe malnutrition, and that’s assuming they actually survive. In all four countries these famines are to some degree man-made, though in Somalia in particular a severe drought is also part of the problem (though of course we can argue about the extent to which severe weather is now man-made as well).


This…probably isn’t good:

The American oil benchmark price has swooned by 9 percent since Tuesday, falling below $50 a barrel for the first time since the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries decided to cut production in November to support the market.

The immediate impetus for the drop in prices was a report by the Energy Department that United States oil stockpiles had bulged by 8.2 million barrels over the past week.

Concerns about the glut grew after Harold Hamm, chief executive of Continental Resources, a major oil producer, said publicly that domestic production was growing so fast it could “kill” the market.

It’s probably not that bad, either, since if prices fall too far below $50 they’ll price a lot of domestic US production out of the market, which will then bring prices back up. The current fighting around Libya’s main oil terminals will also keep prices higher than they would be otherwise.


While there have been scattered Iraqi gains along the west bank of the Tigris and to the northwest of Mosul, on the whole they have been stationary for the last couple of days, trying to hold on to the main government building complex that they took earlier in the week in the face of heavy ISIS counterattacks. Iraqi forces currently occupy the complex but don’t control the area around it. Meanwhile, the civilian casualty estimates for this phase of the operation are fairly staggering:

The airstrike-monitoring group Airwars said hundreds of civilians were killed in strikes in Mosul during the first week of March. The Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights said at least 700 civilians have been killed in fighting for the city’s western side, though numbers are hard to track in Islamic State-held neighborhoods. The militants also regularly fire artillery and rockets onto civilian neighborhoods, and medics said they had received 12 victims injured by what they suspected to be a blistering chemical agent. (On Friday, Iraq’s U.N. ambassador said there was “no evidence” of chemical weapons use in Mosul.)

The higher civilian casualty rate is to be expected given how much more heavily populated this side of Mosul is, but those numbers are still troubling. As to the chemical weapons claim, Baghdad says it can’t find any evidence, apart from the dozen or so people who have been treated for suspected exposure to a blister agent, to show that ISIS has used any chemical weapons in Mosul.

Underneath Mosul, meanwhile, Iraqi authorities have found a network of tunnels dug by ISIS, not to facilitate the movement of its fighters around the city, but to excavate a previously undiscovered Assyrian palace underneath Mosul’s Mosque of Jonah. While ISIS has made a big show of blowing up major archeological ruins in places like Nimrud and Palmyra, it has, with considerably less fanfare, exploited the black market antiquities trade to great profit. Clearly that’s what they were doing in this case. So in case you were wondering if ISIS’s senior leadership believes its own bullshit, the answer appears to be “no.”

The Middle East Institute’s Omer Kassim takes a look at the political rivalry between Nouri al-Maliki and Muqtada al-Sadr that is currently dominating Iraqi politics. Provincial elections are scheduled to be held in September, and those will offer an early preview of next year’s parliamentary elections, in which Maliki is hoping to put together a coalition that can help him regain his old job as prime minister. There are rumors that Sadr is trying to form an opposition coalition including another former PM, Ayad Allawi, and current PM Haider al-Abadi, even though Abadi and Maliki are nominally members of the same party.


After Syrian state media reported yesterday that Turkish forces in northern Syria had shelled a Syrian army position, Damascus today asked the UN to make Ankara withdraw “its invasion forces” back to Turkey. Seemingly unperturbed, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow today, where they promised to preserve their “Syrian ceasefire” and “very successful” joint peace talks. That there really is no ceasefire and the peace talks haven’t even been regular successful let alone very successful is irrelevant when two such fragile egos global titans get together to blow smoke up each others’ asses talk about important, world-altering things.


At least two sailors were killed today when a Yemeni coast guard ship struck what is believed to be a rebel-laid mine in the Red Sea. There are reports that a Saudi-led coalition airstrike on a market in Hudaydah killed at least a dozen civilians later in the day, but I haven’t seen anything more detailed yet.


The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which as you know is part of the American-Iranian-Israeli-Armenian-Syrian-European-Gülenist-Kurdish-international banker cabal whose sole aim is to destroy Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, released a report today on the situation in southeast Turkey, and, say, they didn’t have very nice things to say about Ankara’s policy of, uh, obliterating the place:

In its report, the UN said that human rights violations, including killings, disappearances and torture, were documented mostly during “unannounced, open-ended, 24-hour curfews” put into force by the Turkish authorities.

The human rights office is “particularly alarmed about the results of satellite imagery analysis, which indicate an enormous scale of destruction of the housing stock by heavy weaponry”, the report said.

The UNOHCHR report also criticized the PKK for its role in the conflict.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu says he’s heading to the Netherlands on Saturday to speak at a pro-referendum rally for that country’s Turkish expat community, despite the fact that the Dutch government has urged him not to do so. This would register as little more than a diplomatic spat if it weren’t for the fact that the Netherlands is holding an election next week in which frothing bigot Geert Wilders and his Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging in Nederland party Partij voor de Vrijheid may win (though even if they “win” a plurality they may not be part of the government). A dispute with a Muslim government in the days before the vote is probably going to help the Islamophobe Wilders on election day.


A roadside bomb in the town of el-Arish exploded today, killing at least two Egyptian security officers. The officers apparently came upon two men planting the device and were able to kill one of them in the ensuing skirmish. Yesterday, ISIS militants reportedly killed a senior Egyptian officer in el-Arish using a remote controlled device.


There are many reasons why Saudi King Salman is on a tour of Asia at the moment. Riyadh wants to throw its economic weight around the Muslim nations of the Indian Ocean region while it still has some. The Saudis also want to encourage investment by some larger Asian nations (Indonesia, Japan, China, etc.) in their “Vision 2030” plan to divest their economy of its overwhelming dependence on fossil fuels. They want to firm up an anti-Iran diplomatic coalition. Some nice man in Malaysia offered to tell Salman about the rabbits. It’s all a rich tapestry. Anyway, the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor has an excellent breakdown of perhaps the least-noticed leg of Salman’s trip: his visit to the Maldives:

But one arena for Saudi expansion is perhaps surprising: the Maldives, which Salman will visit on the way back to Riyadh. The nation made of Indian Ocean islands may have a tiny population — about 400,000 people — but it is a vast ocean state, spanning some 1,000 kilometers across some of the world’s most significant shipping routes. Controversy is swirling there about a reported Saudi plan to invest billions of dollars in Faafu atoll, which comprises 26 islands.

The Maldivian government, led by President Abdulla Yameen, has argued that the deal would lead to infrastructure investment and new housing in a country imperiled by rising sea levels. Critics insist the government is essentially handing a chunk of the country to foreign buyers in order to line its own pockets.

The Maldives is struggling with Yameen’s repressive dictatorship and the fact that a considerable number of Maldivians have left to fight with jihadi groups in Syria. Mohamed Nasheed, the former (elected) Maldivian president who was ousted in a coup in 2012, blames the Saudis and their main export after fossil fuels–Wahhabism–for stoking jihadi fervor among young Maldivian men.


This is Nice:

Afghans who worked for the American military and government are being told that they cannot apply for special visas to the United States, even though Afghanistan is not among the countries listed in President Trump’s new travel ban, according to advocates for Afghan refugees.

As of Thursday, Afghans seeking to apply for what are known as Special Immigrant Visas were being told by the American Embassy in Kabul, the capital, that applications would no longer be accepted, according to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire.

The Special Immigrant Visa program was created to help Afghans who have decided to aid American forces (as interpreters, for example) and who thus are at risk of, you know, being killed by the Taliban. If it has indeed been shut down, then that should definitely help send the message Steve Bannon wants to send to all Muslims, around the world: don’t help America, don’t cooperate with America, because America is your enemy.

Consider this your periodic reminder that the message Steve Bannon wants to send to Muslims is exactly the same as the message that groups like ISIS and the Taliban want to send to Muslims.


Thai police ended their three week siege of the Dhammakaya Buddhist temple today, having failed to locate the temple’s former abbot, Phra Dhammachayo. The military government says that Phra Dhammachayo is wanted on money laundering charges, but it’s equally likely that it wants to detain the former abbot because he’s been an outspoken supporter of the country’s previous civilian government.


Anybody who thought Park Geun-hye’s impeachment would calm the political situation in South Korea should consider themselves disabused of that notion. Pro-Park protests broke out almost immediately after the constitutional court upheld her removal from office this morning, with at least two people dying during the tumult and at least two others being critically injured. Anti-Park protesters, meanwhile, aren’t satisfied with her removal from office and are calling for her arrest. The potential for these two groups to turn violent with each other is high.

Park’s impeachment came at a time of tremendous upheaval in Asian politics, between Donald Trump’s election in the US, political intrigue in China, and North Korea doing…North Korea things, but more of them and more frequently. If, as expected, she’s succeeded by Moon Jae-in, then it may still be a while before a new status quo emerges. Moon favors engagement with the north and may revisit Park’s decision to install a US THAAD missile defense system on South Korean soil. In fact, there’s some reason to believe that the US sped up the first shipment of THAAD components to South Korea (it arrived on Monday) in order to present Moon with a fait accompli on that front.


Well, this is interesting:

A force of several dozen armed private security contractors from Russia operated until last month in a part of Libya that is under the control of regional leader Khalifa Haftar, the head of the firm that hired the contractors told Reuters.

It is the clearest signal to date that Moscow is prepared to back up its public diplomatic support for Haftar — even at the risk of alarming Western governments already irked at Russia’s intervention in Syria to prop up President Bashar al-Assad.

Haftar is opposed to a U.N.-backed government which Western states see as the best chance of restoring stability in Libya. But some Russian policy-makers see the Libyan as a strongman who can end the six years of anarchy that followed the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi.

The presence of the military contractors was, according to the head of the firm, a commercial arrangement. It is unlikely though to have been possible without Moscow’s approval, according to people who work in the industry in Russia.

The owner of RSB Group, the firm in question, says the contractors were in Libya to clear mines from an “industrial facility” near Benghazi and that they didn’t take part in combat, and that they were armed with weapons obtained in Libya to avoid international restrictions on importing weapons into the country. But even if all of that is true, the likelihood is that these contractors were hired by Haftar with no input from the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord, which puts Moscow squarely outside the international consensus on Libya. And, you know, there’s no particular reason to believe that these guys were only in Libya to clear mines just because some Russian plutocrat says they were. If they were actually there to act as combat advisers to Haftar’s forces, then Russia’s mission in Libya starts to look a lot like its mission in Syria.


Francisco Caetano Madeira, the head of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), is calling for a troop surge to help consolidate military gains made against al-Shabab. AMISOM is due to withdraw its forces from Somalia starting in 2018, and it’s likely that Somalia won’t have its own army ready to pick up the slack by then.

Al Jazeera has published a photo essay on the impact of severe drought on pastoral families in Somalia’s Puntland region. Herders are being forced to move hundreds of miles in search of anyplace where there’s been a little rain, which often means leaving wives, children, and the elderly behind in makeshift camps where conditions are mostly wretched.


I probably should’ve been following this story more closely, but earlier today EU member states reelected Polish politician Donald Tusk to another term as President of the European Council. Good for him, I guess. But the interesting thing here is that the loudest voice–only voice, really–opposing Tusk’s reelection came from his own country, Poland. Tusk doesn’t get along with Poland’s governing right-wing nationalist Law and Justice Party, which sees his continuation as “President of Europe” as contrary to its own insular, Euroskeptic interests. Unfortunately for the Poles, they really stood alone in opposing Tusk. Even the equally right-wing Euroskeptic Hungarian government, with which Poland is often aligned in the EU, voted to give Tusk another term.


A new poll for April’s presidential election shows neoliberal shill Emmanuel Macron running even with racism buffoon Marine Le Pen in the first round and then beating her handily in the runoff. Good thing polling in similar contests has been so reliable of late.


Don’t look now, but Brexit could begin for reals as soon as Tuesday. Depending on how the House of Commons handles its vote on the amended Brexit authorization bill that passed the House of Lords this week, Theresa May could have authorization to invoke Article 50 by Monday night. If the Commons opts to send the measure back to the House of Lords (i.e., if it doesn’t accept the amendments) then things will drag out a bit longer.

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