Conflict update: March 18-19 2017



If you’re one of those folks who are convinced that climate change is a Chinese hoax or whatever, I’ve got great news: it snowed in the US last week. Problem solved, am I right? Anyway, for the rest of us, things are not so hot. Or, rather, they’re extremely hot, and that’s the problem:

February 2017 was the planet’s second warmest February since record keeping began in 1880, said NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) on Friday; NASA also rated February 2017 as the second warmest February on record. The only warmer February was just last year, in 2016. Remarkably, February 2017 ranked as the fourth warmest month (expressed as the departure of temperature from average) of any month in the global historical record in the NASA database, and was the seventh warmest month in NOAA’s database—despite coming just one month after the end of a 5-month long La Niña event, which acted to cool the globe slightly. The extreme warmth of January 2017 (tenth warmest month of any month in NASA’s database) and February 2017 (fourth warmest) gives 2017 a shot at becoming Earth’s fourth consecutive warmest year on record, if a moderate or stronger El Niño event were to develop by summer, as some models are predicting.

Arctic sea ice extent during February 2017 was the lowest in the 39-year satellite record, beating the record set in February 2016, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). The record low ice extent was due, in large part, to very warm air temperatures in the Arctic—temperatures at the 925 mb level (approximately 2,500 feet above sea level) were 2 – 5 degrees Celsius (4 – 9 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over the Arctic Ocean during February.

Sea ice has been exceptionally scant on the other end of the globe. Antarctic sea ice extent dropped below the lowest values recorded in any month in the satellite record by mid-February. They continued to sag until reaching a new record-low extent in early March.

NOAA also said a few days ago that this December-January-February period was the second hottest on record. But really, how about that snowstorm?


For some reason (I’ll get to this in a second), Saturday’s big international story involved a French national named Ziyed Ben Belgacem, who reportedly shot and wounded a French police officer in Paris, then went to Orly Airport and tried to wrestle a gun away from an on-duty French soldier before being shot and killed by two other soldiers. This was an attempted terror attack–Belgacem was already known to French authorities and the incident was very reminiscent of that shooting at the Louvre in early February. On top of that, his reported actions at the airport make his motives pretty plain.

Look, I don’t do this that often, or really often enough, but on Friday 42 people (at least) were gunned down by an Apache helicopter while they were trying to flee Yemen on a boat to Somalia. They were fleeing to Somalia, which is one of the most dangerous places on Earth on a normal day and is currently mired in a catastrophic drought/famine, because an American-enabled Saudi military campaign is currently destroying whatever capacity Yemen once had to support human life. They were refugees, and they were massacred, probably by one of America’s closest allies using an American-made, American-sold military vehicle.

Without minimizing what might have happened had Belgacem’s attempted attack gone differently, shouldn’t my cable TV have devoted a hell of a lot more airtime to what happened in Yemen than it did to what really didn’t happen in Paris? I’ve tried to charitably explain why terror attacks in Europe get more coverage in US media than terror attacks in the Middle East, but there is no charitable explanation for the discrepancy I saw yesterday.


I promise we’re not in reruns, but Iraqi forces are continuing their slow advance toward–all together now–the Nuri Mosque in Mosul’s Old City. The mosque, best known as the place from which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate in 2014, has been the focus of a nearly week-long effort hampered by bad weather and very stiff ISIS resistance. A coalition airstrike against an ISIS “command center” on Sunday reportedly killed six leaders of the remaining ISIS forces in west Mosul. ISIS has put up such a strong resistance around the mosque that it opens up the possibility that, when the mosque finally is taken, ISIS’s defense of the rest of the city could collapse quickly. I wouldn’t say that’s likely to happen, but the big problem with using car bombs as your main defensive tactic is that there are only so many cars, so many bombs, and so many potential bombers to go around.

There has been some progress around the mosque. Yesterday, the Iraqis declared the liberation of the city’s Kur and Tawafa neighborhoods, which they say will allow them to open up a better corridor for civilians looking to flee the fighting. Mosul’s civilian population has been a huge challenge, one the Iraqis partly brought upon themselves by telling civilians to stay put (to be fair ISIS also tried to prevent people from leaving the city). The concern before the offensive was that there wasn’t enough capacity to handle the number of people who might be displaced if they chose to leave, but after slowing down efforts to liberate the city–not to mention dying–they’re now leaving anyway. The UN is trying to build new IDP camps outside Mosul and the Iraqi government may begin sending them to Baghdad.


The first buses full of rebels and their families began leaving the al-Waer district of Homs on Saturday. That district was the last active pocket of Homs under rebel control, but a deal reached last week under Russian auspices gave the rebels safe passage to other rebel-held parts of the country (i.e., Idlib). These local relocation deals, which have become ubiquitous in this conflict and amount to forced evacuations, would be considered serious war crimes in other contexts, but in Syria they’re regarded as better than the likely alternatives (airstrikes or starvation). Rebel fighters and their families get to stay alive, civilians in the area get to stay alive, and in return Bashar al-Assad gets to consolidate his control over most of Syria’s population centers and, therefore, gets to strengthen his hold on power in peace talks.

Sunday saw heavy fighting in Damascus, of all places, when rebel forces were able to tunnel their way into what had been relatively stable, government-controlled parts of the city. Ahrar al-Sham and Tahrir al-Sham both say they participated in the attack, which is a little unusual since the remnants of Ahrar al-Sham have been more or less at war with the al-Qaeda/Jabhat Fatah al-Sham-controlled Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib for weeks now (many of Ahrar al-Sham’s more extreme fighters defected to Tahrir al-Sham during the conflict). Either the groups have decided to let bygones be bygones, or there’s more than one “Ahrar al-Sham” running around Syria these days. The government claims that it repelled the rebel attack, but I suspect it may take a day or two to assess the fallout.


How are things between Ankara and Europe? Well, on Friday President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told Turks living in Europe to have more children, which is what European fascists are always insisting that Muslim immigrantss are going to do in order to scare white people. On Saturday, he campaigned for his referendum at the site where Ottoman forces fought back an Allied offensive during World War I’s Gallipoli campaign (though I seem to recall the Ottomans and the Germans being allies during that war…), so there was no heavy anti-Europe symbolism there or anything. Also on Saturday, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said in an interview that “today Turkey is definitely further away from becoming a member of the European Union than ever before,” which is a bit misleading in that Turkey, despite a lot of EU promises to the contrary, has never really been close to becoming a member. Also on Saturday, an estimated 30,000 Kurdish PKK supporters demonstrated in Frankfurt against Erdoğan and the referendum, prompting Ankara to wonder why its pro-referendum rallies in Germany keep getting cancelled while this demonstration was allowed to proceed–and, hey, they might actually have a point in this case.

Then on Sunday, here’s some fun stuff, the head of Germany’s BND spy agency, Bruno Kahl, said that Ankara “has not succeeded” in convincing German intelligence that Fethullah Gülen was actually behind last summer’s coup attempt. And, look, you can get away with saying a lot of shit to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (actually you can’t), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is slow to anger (actually he seems to be constantly enraged), but come on. Turkey may so far have produced almost no evidence to support the accusation that Gülen masterminded that coup attempt, but…I’m sorry, what were we talking about again? Anyway, Turkey lashed out, accusing the German government of supporting the Gülen Terrorist Organization, which sounds bad until you consider that the “Gülen Terrorist Organization” isn’t a thing whose existence has ever been independently verified.

Meanwhile, within Turkey, representatives of the “no” side in the upcoming referendum are complaining that the deck is completely stacked against their side in the campaign. Well sure, if you’re just going to focus on the fact that Erdoğan controls virtually every Turkish media outlet including social media, “no” campaign rallies are consistently blocked or interfered with (cutting electricity to the site of the rally seems to be a favorite tactic), and Erdoğan will throw really outspoken political opponents in jail if he feels like it, then of course it’s going to look unfair. But, uh…shit, I forgot what we were talking about again.


Benjamin Netanyahu and his finance minister, Kulanu Party boss Moshe Kahlon, are embroiled in a bit of a spat over the creation of a new public broadcasting authority. The details of their actually quarrel are less interesting than the quarrel itself, because, Netanyahu’s governing coalition being what it is, a single defection could be enough to cause it to collapse. In fact, there are some Israeli political observers who say Netanyahu is looking for an excuse to call snap elections, which could give him an excuse not to participate in any Donald Trump-led attempts at peace talks with the Palestinians and, probably more importantly, seriously interfere with the Israeli Justice Department’s ongoing corruption investigation into Netanyahu himself.


Thousands of people crowded Beirut today to protest against proposed tax increases. Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s budget, potentially the first Lebanese budget in 12 years, includes several budget and tax increases, and it’s the latter that caused protesters today to throw empty water bottles at Hariri as he tried to address them. The Lebanese people are more than a little exhausted with a government that hasn’t even been able to manage trash pickup over the past couple of years, and it doesn’t seem like they’re prepared to give the Hariri-President Michel Aoun national unity government much of a honeymoon period.


After (most likely) shooting up that boat full of refugees on Friday, Saudi Arabia had the stones to call for Hudaydah, the port from which the boat left Yemen, to be taken from the Yemeni rebels and placed under UN control. Don’t get me wrong, putting Hudaydah in the UN’s hands could be a good thing inasmuch as it would allow humanitarian aid to continue flowing through the port. It would also, according to the Saudis, prevent the port from being used for “human trafficking,” even though it’s not at all clear that the boat they (probably) fired upon was actually being used for “human trafficking” and, even if it were, that doesn’t give the Saudi (probably) military the right to just strafe the fucking thing from a helicopter. I just think it takes a supreme level of ballsiness to commit (probably) a war crime and then use the commission of that war crime to call for something that would help your war effort.


The Guardian published an investigative piece over the weekend on the treatment of migrant laborers in Qatar for the World Cup:

In the village of Langroya, 10 minutes away from Nawanshahr, Arvinder Kumar, 25, is one of scores of young men eager to go to Qatar. He now earns £50 a month as a plumber and has been offered work by a recruitment agency promising him more than £350 a month. In return, it is demanding £500 commission.

Kumar is well aware of the pitfalls. His cousin Jaswinder recently returned after two years in Qatar. A qualified electrician, his contract said he would be paid £400 a month but he received just over half that. He stayed because he had a loan to pay off and because his salary was still six times more than what he earned in India.

Langroya and other villages across Punjab, a state that provides some of the largest numbers of migrant workers to the Gulf region, are awash with similar stories of workers being exploited by agents at home and employers in Qatar and its neighbouring countries.

“We all know that we are going to be cheated. First in India and then when we go abroad, so it doesn’t matter what the law states because it won’t make any difference. I don’t know anything about the World Cup or football, I just know that there is work in Qatar,” said Kumar. “But we are promised one thing and then get something completely different. Ultimately, it’s just a question of fate and luck.”

These laborers get told they’ll make many times in Qatar what they could’ve made back home, but in order to get to Qatar they’re then forced to bribe the local recruiter, the local recruiter’s boss, and the national recruiting office in order to get “picked.” Then they arrive in Qatar and are told that they’ve got to work off the cost of their plane ticket and their room and board (the conditions of which are basically inhuman for bottom-of-the-rung manual laborers), so in fact they’ll make, say, half of what they were told they’d be making. And despite Qatari promises to improve workers’ rights and conditions, they’re still left with little recourse but to keep working.


It was an active weekend in the war against the Taliban. The Afghan army killed 13 Taliban fighters in an operation in Zabul province, and US drone strikes in Paktika and Paktia provinces killed at least 12 Taliban fighters, including a couple of senior figures. On the other hand, a Taliban suicide bomber killed six Afghan police officers in Kandahar, and an Afghan soldier opened fire on US troops on a base in Helmand province, wounding three before he was killed.


Last week’s report on the Rohingya by former UN boss Kofi Annan’s Rakhine Advisory Commission, which among other things recommended that the government begin offering citizenship to the Rohingya people, has predictably generated outrage among Myanmar’s right-wing Buddhists. Hundreds protested on Sunday in Sittwe, the state capital of Rakhine, against the citizenship idea.


State media claimed on Sunday that Pyongyang had conducted a missile test of “historical significance” the day before, but it’s very possible that this was bluster intended to interfere with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s weekend visit to Beijing. South Korea says the test showed “meaningful” improvement in engine technology, but nothing more specific than that.

Analysis of satellite imagery may provide more information about what, exactly, Saturday’s test entailed–possibly it involved a smaller rocket meant to serve as the second state of a multistage device like an intercontinental ballistic missile–but analysts are already saying that it looks like the test used liquid rather than solid fuel. Solid fuel is preferable to liquid on something like an ICBM because a solid fueled device can be stored fully fueled and launched quickly, whereas using liquid fuel would require fueling the missile before firing it, which could be detected and thus allow for a preemptive strike. Pyongyang has already reportedly tested at least one solid fuel missile, but it has yet to put everything together (multistage design, solid fuel, etc.) in a single ICBM package.


Although they’ve changed hands quite a bit over the past couple of weeks, Libya’s National Oil Corporation, based in Tripoli, says it has no reason to expect that its access to al-Sidra or Ras Lanuf will be cut off. The NOC had already cut a deal with Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army for access to the oil facilities before the Benghazi Defense Forces briefly took those facilities earlier this month. The BDB then tried to hand the facilities over to the Government of National Accord before Haftar’s forces took them back. No matter which side, the GNA or Haftar, wound up controlling the facilities, the NOC shouldn’t have had any problem maintaining access. The real problem for Libya’s oil industry is the fighting itself.

Speaking of Benghazi, the LNA says that it has seized control of an Islamist-held neighborhood in the southwestern part of the city. Islamist holdouts still control a couple of pockets within Benghazi, but the LNA has been slowly eliminating those pockets of resistance one by one.


After a lengthy absence from the public eye, never an encouraging sign from an 80 year old dictator, Abdelaziz Bouteflika appeared by video on Algerian state TV on Sunday, doing…well, pretty much nothing, by the description in that Reuters piece. The image of Bouteflika literally sitting at a table and listening to somebody talk to him isn’t really going to do much to quash rumors that he’s been more or less the real-life Bernie from Weekend at Bernie’s since his 2013 stroke.


Three Boko Haram suicide bombers killed at least four people in Maiduguri on Saturday night.


Amid the noisy polling ahead of September’s general election, an election on March 26 in the state of Saarland could be an early test of the potential for a Social Democrat-Green-Linke Party alliance to drag German politics to the left. The leftist Linke (which formed in part from the remnants of the East German Socialist Union Party) and the Social Democrats have been hostile to one another for years, but polling suggests–and these state elections may start to bear out–that if they’re able to join forces, particularly if the Greens are also included, they could win a majority in parliament in September. Other polling, however, shows that a plurality of Germans would prefer the Social Democrats, if they come in first place in the September election, form a coalition with the center-right Christian Democrats rather than with the two far left parties.

Germany’s defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, today was forced to deny, and I can’t believe it’s come to this, Donald Trump’s charges that Berlin “owes” money to NATO:

Trump, who was spending the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago property in Florida, said on Twitter on Saturday – a day after meeting the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in Washington – that Germany “owes vast sums of money to Nato & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!”

There is, obviously, no payment mechanism involved in NATO. Germany needs to meet its mandatory NATO requirement to spend two percent of its GDP on defense, but it doesn’t owe back payments to the alliance, and certainly not to Washington, for past failures to hit that target. Donald Trump is an idiot, but then we already knew that and yet here we all are responding to his latest dumb shit like it actually warrants a serious response.


The almost 60 year old Basque separatist group (and US-designated terrorist group) ETA may be about to disband as soon as next month. The group called a more or less permanent end to its violent campaign for a Basque homeland in 2011 but has been holding out on totally disbanding in the hopes it could cut a deal with Spain and/or France with respect to ETA members who are wanted or have already been convicted for crimes committed during the group’s heyday (the 1980s in particular).


Theresa May’s refusal to offer any assurance beyond vague verbal promises about what post-Brexit Britain will do to protect EU nationals currently in the UK is already causing problems. EU nationals who have been working as nurses in the UK’s National Health Service are leaving the NHS in droves because they fear, probably with good reason, that they’ll be hung out to dry by the Tories if push comes to shove during negotiations with the EU. The NHS was already facing a nursing shortage, but the problem is now much bigger than it was, and is probably going to continue to get bigger as more EU nationals get out of Britain before they’re potentially kicked out.

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