Conflict update: March 14 2017


According to Foreign Policy, nominal Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a letter recently to a group of nonprofits warning that the Trump administration is prepared to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council unless “considerable reform” is undertaken in that body. Tillerson’s letter highlighted the presence on the UNHRC of such human rights luminaries as Saudi Arabia and China (and, uh, the United States, while we’re at it), but that’s all smokescreen. By “reform,” what the Trump administration–and, indeed, much of the US foreign policy community–means is “lay off Israel.”

While I take a backseat to nobody in my loathing of Israel’s human rights record, which deserves all the criticism it gets, these folks do have a point about the UNHRC–or, rather, they have part of a point. Something like half of the resolutions issued by the UNHRC since it was formed in 2006, and nearly a third of its special sessions over that time, have had to do with Israel. As shitty as Israel’s human rights record is, that’s disproportionate. Of course, the Trump/Republican solution to this problem is, essentially, that the UNHRC should cease to exist, or at least be less active with regards to Israel. My solution would be for the UNHRC to be at least as active on Israel as it is now, but also be way more active when it comes to, well, everybody else (no government in the world actually cares about human rights, is the real problem here).

But while the Trump administration’s instinct is to withdraw from any international body that doesn’t toe the line, denying them that all-important TRUMP Brand stamp of approval or whatever, if their aim is to steer the UNHRC in a different direction then quitting is exactly the wrong way to do so. The Obama administration, being thoroughly a creature of the Washington foreign policy establishment despite its occasional tepid criticisms of that establishment, also objected to the HRC’s overemphasis on Israel, so it joined the council (the Bush administration refused to be part of it) and, lo and behold, was able to use America’s international heft to push the council to focus attention on Syria, Iran, and nonstate actors like ISIS. If the Trump administration follows through on its threat to withdraw from the council, then it will be giving up its ability to influence what the council does.

I’m torn in cases like this between my instinct, which is that the administration doesn’t think through the ramifications of these kinds of decisions and/or doesn’t really give a shit about them, and my skepticism, which tells me that they must surely realize what they’re doing and are acting purposefully to try to wreck as many international institutions as they can. Of course there’s no reason it couldn’t be both–no presidential administration is a monolith.


This comes as no surprise to anybody who’s followed his career and that of many of the other members of the Trump cabinet, but Defense Secretary James Mattis is probably the most forward-thinking member of the administration on the subject of climate change. ProPublica has published excerpts from the written testimony submitted as part of Mattis’s confirmation hearing that bear this out:

Here are two of the climate questions from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, with Mattis’ replies:

Shaheen: “I understand that while you were commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command you signed off on a document called the Joint Operating Environment, which listed climate change as one of the security threats the military will face in the next quarter-century. Do you believe climate change is a security threat?”

Mattis: “Climate change can be a driver of instability and the Department of Defense must pay attention to potential adverse impacts generated by this phenomenon.”

Shaheen: “General Mattis, how should the military prepare to address this threat?”

Mattis: “As I noted above, climate change is a challenge that requires a broader, whole-of government response. If confirmed, I will ensure that the Department of Defense plays its appropriate role within such a response by addressing national security aspects.”

In a reply to another question, Mattis said:

“I agree that the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation. I will ensure that the department continues to be prepared to conduct operations today and in the future, and that we are prepared to address the effects of a changing climate on our threat assessments, resources, and readiness.”

Imagine the conversation between Mattis and Scott Pruitt after the Fifth Fleet base at Bahrain becomes unusable due to rising sea levels. Awk-ward!


Say, remember how everybody wondered if President Trump would let new National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster hire his own people and eliminate some of Michael Flynn’s gang of loons? About that:

On Friday, McMaster told the NSC’s senior director for intelligence programs, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, that he would be moved to another position in the organization.

The conversation followed weeks of pressure from career officials at the CIA who had expressed reservations about the 30-year-old intelligence operative, and pushed for his ouster.

But Cohen-Watnick appealed McMaster’s decision to two influential allies with whom he had forged a relationship while working on Trump’s transition team — White House advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. They brought the matter to Trump on Sunday, and the president agreed that Cohen-Watnick should remain as the NSC’s intelligence director, according to two people with knowledge of the episode.

Enjoy your time on the job, General McMaster. Sounds like it’ll be a fun and rewarding time for you.


Iraqi and American commanders around Mosul believe, according to the AP, that all senior- and mid-level ISIS “officers” have pretty much fled Mosul, either before the Iraqi offensive even began or amid the crowds of civilians who have been trying to escape the fighting. This includes would-be caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who probably skedaddled before the fighting started. They probably made their way to the Syria-Iraq border region where ISIS really had its (re-)birth, maybe even going so far as Raqqa. That seems pointless though, fleeing Mosul just to go to the next place on the Iraqi-coalition hit list, so it’s probably more likely that they’ve congregated somewhere in the deserts outside of any major city. From…wherever they wind up, they’ll transform the group from a pretend state to a regular old terrorist organization, and ISIS’s final eradication will depend–as it always did–on the resolution to Syria’s civil war and Iraq’s perennial political crisis.

Iraqi federal police say that today they killed Abu Abdul Rahman al-Ansary, the commander of ISIS forces in Mosul’s Old City. Iraqi Rapid Response forces were still fighting to secure the western end of the Iron Bridge, but ISIS snipers slowed their advance to a crawl. On the plus side, the weather must be improving, because the Iraqis began using artillery again and there was even at least one reported airstrike on an ISIS position in the city.


Some good news:

Aid convoys reached four besieged towns in Syria on Tuesday, delivering food and medical supplies to 60,000 people for the first time since November, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and United Nations said.

“We are entering #Madaya, #Zabadani, #Foaa & #Kafrya with @SYRedCrescent & @UN delivering much-needed food & medical items,” the ICRC said in a tweet.

And now, some…more good news:

Water has reached a pumping station inside Aleppo and will “soon” go out to residential districts in the city, Syrian state media said on Tuesday.

Aleppo’s main water supply has been cut off for nearly two months, and residents have largely relied on ground wells or water bought from private vendors.

The Syrian army last week captured the al-Khafsa area east of Aleppo, where treatment and pumping plants provide the city with water. The army and allied forces have made rapid gains against Islamic State in the Aleppo countryside, in a sweeping advance that has brought them to the bank of the Euphrates river.

What the hell?

OK, now the bad news. At least one person was killed today in a terrorist bombing of a bus in the city of Homs. The UN released a report accusing the Syrian government of deliberately bombing Damascus’s water supply in December and then inventing a story about rebels contaminating the water, and of carrying out at least five chlorine gas attacks in Idlib and the Damascus suburbs since last summer. Peace talks today in Astana went nowhere, with the rebels refusing to attend and accusing Russia of failing to act in good faith as a guarantor of the ceasefire, and the Syrian government refusing to speak to the Turkish delegation and accusing Turkey of failing to act in good faith as a guarantor of the ceasefire. Sounds like fun!

Today’s aid convoys notwithstanding, a group called Physicians for Human Rights issued a report today slamming the Assad government for failing to allow needed humanitarian aid to reach people in besieged areas. Another report published today in Lancet found that at least 814 health care workers have been killed in Syria since 2011. The report’s authors called this the “weaponization of health care,” in which health care personnel and facilities are deliberately targeted as a war tactic.


Like sands through the hourglass…today President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decided to give the Nazis a break and instead invoked a more recent crime against humanity to continue his verbal assault on the Netherlands:

Erdogan told an audience in Ankara today, “We know the Netherlands and the Dutch from the Srebrenica massacre. We know how rotten their character is from their massacre of 8,000 Bosnians there.” He was referring to the alleged complicity of Dutch United Nations peacekeepers with Serb militia in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, where 8,000 Muslim Bosnian men and boys were murdered by Bosnian Serbs at the height of the civil war in 1995.

For those who don’t know this story: Dutch forces who, under UN auspices, were supposed to be protecting Srebrenica from the Bosnian Serbs, undoubtedly allowed the Serbs to take the city in July 1995 and thus commit the war crimes that followed. However, in their defense, they were outnumbered and outgunned by the Bosnian Serb forces that took the city, so resisting probably wouldn’t have made much difference. Moreover, Dutch requests for air support, which might have made a difference, were reportedly denied by the UN command, possibly because of a deal they’d cut with Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladić. But the Dutch forces did nothing to protect the Bosniaks who were slaughtered at Srebrenica, and by “nothing” I mean they even kicked Bosniak civilians fleeing the violence out of their base. So you can see why Erdoğan, who seems congenitally incapable of anything approaching tact or subtlety, went there.

Anyway, the point is that this spat isn’t going away, particularly not as long as it serves Erdoğan’s political needs.


Washington DC was bursting at the seams with class and good taste today:

President Donald Trump met with Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House on Tuesday for a discussion likely to touch on economic relations and efforts to stop the war in Syria.

Trump, who took office in January, and Prince Mohammed, who is also the kingdom’s defense minister, kicked off their talks in the Oval Office, where they posed for a picture in front of journalists and did not take questions.

The two classy, really important, just the best people, they spent their time talking about how many Yemeni funerals you have to bomb before you can claim a free sub the Saudi economy, which is the strongest, best, most vibrant economy that Saudi Arabia has ever had, and would be the best economy anywhere, everybody says this, except for Donald Trump’s American economy! It’s amazing, folks! Seriously though they probably talked about Yemen, but mostly about ways that the Saudis might invest in the US, seeing as how they’re looking for new ways to make money that don’t involve oil.


Ali Larijani (top) listens to Hassan Rouhani presenting his 2017 budget to parliament, from December (Wikimedia | Erfan Kouchari)

Hassan Rouhani got a pretty significant electoral boost yesterday when Majles Speaker Ali Larijani endorsed (in so many words) his reelection. This isn’t a huge surprise–Larijani and Rouhani have been more or less aligned for some time now–but as somebody who still has credibility on the conservative side of Iranian politics, Larijani’s support will carry weight. Interestingly, Larijani was asked about Ebrahim Raisi’s possible candidacy, suggesting that Raisi might still enter the race even though he’s been a consistent no-show at conservative election-related events.


Moscow is about to conclude an agreement to absorb the South Ossetian military into the Russian armed forces. This is, in essence, the annexation of South Ossetia, which all but four nations still recognize as part of Georgia, without going through the legal formality the Russians went through with respect to Crimea.


Attackers murdered a Bangladeshi Sufi leader, Farhad Hossain Chowdhury, and his maid in the country’s northern district of Dinajpur. Obviously this warrants an investigation, but the fact that one of the victims was a prominent Sufi suggests radical Salafi-jihadi involvement.


“Dozens” of Myanmar soldiers were reportedly killed in clashes with Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army separatists along the country’s border with China last week.


Beijing’s hand-picked Panchen Lama over the weekend delivered a speech in which he accused Tibetan Buddhist monks of “swindling” believers, when what they should be doing, obviously, is, uh, contributing to the rejuvenation of China. Just like Buddha would have wanted, I guess! The Chinese government continues to hope that its Panchen Lama will win over the Tibetan people, and that everybody will stop talking about the other Panchen Lama who was disappeared by Beijing back when he was a little kid. Meanwhile, it says it’s demolishing a major Buddhist center in Larung Gar to, um, rebuild it! Yes, that’s the ticket!

Elsewhere, China appears to be working on new, and probably military-related, construction on the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The Paracels, like the Spratlys to the south, are claimed by multiple countries, in this case China, Vietnam, and Taiwan (which, of course, is also claimed by China).


Washington has decided to deploy Grey Eagle drones (basically the Army’s version of the Predator) to South Korea. They’ll likely be used to monitor North Korean activity, but arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis says that the drones will likely fuel North Korean fears that the US and South Korea are planning an assassination strike to take out Kim Jong-un. He argues for making it explicit that the drones will not be armed, but to be honest I wonder whether Pyongyang would believe that kind of assurance.

Meanwhile, Rex Tillerson reportedly plans to “press” China on North Korea this week during his first big Asian tour. I have no idea what that means, but I expect it won’t amount to anything.


For those still following the strange Park Geun-hye story even though she’s been removed from office, South Korean prosecutors are now planning to question her in the corruption case–for which she’s now eligible to be prosecuted–that led to her impeachment.


Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army has reportedly recaptured the oil facilities at al-Sidra and Ras Lanuf from the Benghazi Defense Brigades. The LNA has pushed the BDB several kilometers west along the Libyan coast to the town of Ben Jawad. It’s not clear if Haftar intends to keep moving west or quit while he’s ahead.

Following up on yesterday’s Reuters story about possible Russian special forces assets in western Egypt that were deployed to assist Haftar, Moscow today flatly denied that it has special forces stationed in Egypt. On the other hand, Agila Saleh, the speaker of the House of Representatives, the parliament that sits in Tobruk, told Russian media today that his government has asked for and been promised Russian training and logistical assistance in its war effort. You don’t suppose Moscow could be lying, do you?


Boko Haram released a new video today purporting to show the execution of three Nigerian “spies.” Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, doesn’t appear in the video, and of course it’s still unclear what’s actually going on within Boko Haram. You may remember several months ago when ISIS appeared to appoint a new leader for the group, over Shekau’s head. That guy, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, has since been arrested by Nigerian authorities, and while there were some signs that the group was about to split apart after Abu Musab al-Barnawi’s appointment, there’s been no sign of that since his arrest. I assume that means Shekau is back in unquestioned charge–and, frankly, both ISIS and Boko Haram are under too much pressure these days to get wrapped up in a leadership struggle.

Speaking of Boko Haram splinter groups, though, Khalid al-Barnawi, the (former?) leader of Ansaru, which broke from Boko Haram in 2012 over Shekau’s penchant for killing other Muslims and declared allegiance to al-Qaeda, was arraigned today on several terrorism-related charges, along with six other Ansaru fighters. Khalid al-Barnawi was arrested last April.


The Somali Pirates are back, apparently. An oil tanker, along with its eight Sri Lankan crew members, was nabbed by pirates en route from Djibouti to Mogadishu yesterday. Perhaps not coincidentally, NATO ended its anti-piracy mission in Somali waters in December.


Reuters is suggesting that the dark horse winner of tomorrow’s (well, today’s if you’re there) Dutch election could be Sybrand Buma’s Christian Democratic Appeal party, which has been steadily rising in the polls. The CDA is almost a lock to serve in the next governing coalition, but polling would suggest that its chances of coming in first, which would presumably make Buma the country’s new prime minister, are still fairly low.


François Fillon is now formally being investigated for embezzlement, yet somehow he’s still running for president. Politics: They’re Bullshit Everywhere.


Irish politicians are starting to salivate over the possibility that Dublin could be the landing spot for a whole bunch of banks that suddenly have to open up new headquarters once their London offices are no longer sufficient to give them access to the European market. And Dublin isn’t the only possibility on this front. This is one of the main reasons why I think the British view that Brussels is going to shower them with concessions to try to keep the UK close to the European fold post-Brexit is probably sadly mistaken. There’s a lot of money potentially to be made by a few big European cities if the UK isn’t given some sort of sweetheart association deal.

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