Conflict update: March 20-21 2017

Because there’s so much to cover tonight, you’re getting two updates. This one covers everything but the Greater Middle East, the other covers nothing but the Greater Middle East. Enjoy…?


Effective as of yesterday, people trying to fly into the US from airports in Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia will not be allowed to bring any electronic device larger than a mobile phone into the cabin with them. Because Reasons:

On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security released a statement on the new policy, stating the “2015 airliner downing in Egypt, the 2016 attempted airliner downing in Somalia, and the 2016 armed attacks against airports in Brussels and Istanbul” as examples of why increased security was needed.

“Evaluated intelligence indicates that terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation and are aggressively pursuing innovative methods to undertake their attacks, to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items. Based on this information, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly and Transportation Security Administrator Acting Administrator Huban Gowadia have determined it is necessary to enhance security procedures for passengers at certain last point of departure airports to the United States,” the statement said.

Of those four cited attacks (two of which didn’t even take place on airplanes) only the Somali incident would have been inhibited by this ban, and since investigators believe in the Somali case that a laptop-encased bomb was rigged to explode on a timer, it’s not clear what sticking that same laptop in the luggage compartment would have accomplished–and, in fact, putting a bunch of lithium-ion batteries in the luggage compartment could have disastrous consequences. It’s certainly no secret that electronic devices are a risk, that’s why you get your carry-ons screened at security. But if security at the ten airports cited in this order is lax, then doesn’t the same concern apply to checked luggage? And why has a measure like this become necessary now, when we’ve known that electronics were a risk for years and there have been exactly zero attacks against US-bound passenger flights originating at any of these airports?

I’ve actually seen it suggested that explosives are less a concern than the possibility of someone hacking into the plane’s flight controls, but if that were really a possibility then why would you allow any electronic devices on any plane originating at any airport?

Britain has now implemented a similar ban though from a smaller list of airports, and Canada is reportedly considering one as well, because security theater is remarkably appealing. Aside from making it just a little bit more unpleasant to fly to the US from the Middle East and North Africa, which may be the entire point, I’m not really sure what this accomplishes.


I’m sure this was all just an unfortunate coincidence:

An African trade summit organized by the University of Southern California ended up with zero Africans as they were all denied visas to enter the United States just days before the summit despite applying months ahead of time, in what organizers called an act of “discrimination against African nations.”

“Usually we get 40 percent that get rejected but the others come,” Mary Flowers, chair of the African Global Economic and Development Summit, told Voice of America in an interview Friday.

“This year it was 100 percent. Every delegation. And it was sad to see, because these people were so disheartened.”

If we’re going to adopt Deputy Leader Bannon’s philosophy that nobody from a majority non-white nation should be allowed to enter the United States, then let’s just say that officially. Get it on the record so people can know what they’re dealing with. Sure, the administration will lose in court, again, but they seem happy to keep trying new ways to achieve this goal even as the courts keep telling them “no.”


See, Tillerson already met with this German dude that one time! What the hell more do you people want?

BREAKING BREAKING BREAKING IN UNPRECEDENTED INSULT, SECRETARY OF STATE MAY SNUB NATO SUMMIT TO MEET WITH CHINESE PRESIDE–you know what, folks? I’m not entirely sure about this one. Apparently Rex Tillerson is skipping (maybe) a NATO summit in Brussels on April 5-6 and is instead meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and going to Russia. We’re supposed to be scandalized by the administration’s abandonment of its allies or some such thing and, while this definitely isn’t ideal, on the list of troubling stuff this administration has done, I’m not sure this rates even an honorable mention.

Every story I’ve seen written about this has conflated Tillerson skipping the NATO meeting and his planned trip to Moscow, but he’s going to Moscow on April 12, so really the two things are independent of one another. Tillerson is skipping the NATO summit in order to be in Florida when his boss meets with President Xi on April 6-7. Normally maybe this merits a raised eyebrow. Right now, though, North Korea is quickly blowing through the last remaining technological hurdles before it will possess a nuclear-armed ICBM capability, and President Trump has already defined that as a red line. Given China’s huge importance to all things North Korea, there’s certainly a case to be made for having Tillerson at the meeting with Xi.

Of course, there’s also a strong case to be made for Tillerson going to the NATO ministerial summit. These summits are important in terms of setting the alliance’s agenda for the next year, and this summit, involving this administration, is particularly important inasmuch as the rest of NATO is still worried that Donald Trump isn’t committed to the alliance in any meaningful way–mostly because he keeps suggesting that he isn’t. For Tillerson to skip this summit sends a really powerful message from the US to the rest of NATO, one that could best be visually represented by a giant middle finger aimed from one side of the Atlantic toward the other. And maybe that’s the intention, or maybe this was just a screwup in scheduling and a failure to understand the importance of the summit. Maybe it reflects a thoughtful decision to prioritize China and North Korea over NATO, or maybe Tillerson decided to go to the meeting with Xi because it might be the last time he actually sees Trump this year. Who knows?

As to his other planned activity, Tillerson visiting Russia is the kind of thing a Secretary of State is supposed to do. That this Secretary of State and this administration have what appears to be a troubling relationship with Vladimir Putin and his inner circle is not enough of a reason for the American and Russian governments to stop communicating with one another. So I really can’t get worked up about that.


Narendra Modi appointed a new governor for India’s most populous state over the weekend, and his pick for the job will…actually not be that surprising, if you know anything about Modi:

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday appointed Yogi Adityanath, a five-term member of India’s parliament who’s been called the “hate spewing ‘yogi,’” as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Uttar Pradesh is home to 220 million people — one-fifth of whom are Muslim. Three years ago, communal violence in Uttar Pradesh killed more than 60 people.

In recent years, Adityanath has faced criminal charges of attempted murder, defiling a place of worship, and inciting riots in Uttar Pradesh — the state he has now been tasked with running.

Modi, of course, knows a little something about communal violence, having presided over the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which nearly 800 Muslims and over 250 Hindus were killed, as then-Chief Minister of Gujarat. His new Uttar Pradesh governor is fond of vomiting out delightful bon mots like “if one Hindu girl marries a Muslim man, then we will take 100 Muslim girls in return,” so he seems like a real winner all around.


Speaking of bon mots, here’s President Rodrigo Duterte and his silver tongue on Monday:

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has berated the European parliament for passing a resolution condemning his plans to revive the death penalty for drug convicts.

“I’ll talk in English,” he said, speaking to Filipino expatriates on a two-day state visit to Myanmar. “Do not impose your culture or your belief in what would be a government in this planet. Do not impose on other countries, especially us.

“Why don’t you mind your own business? Why do you have to fuck with us, goddamn it?”

One wonders why Duterte is bothering to try to reinstate the death penalty when he could just go back to riding his motorcycle around the country murdering suspected drug users himself, like back in the good old days. Anyway, I don’t know why people want to fuck with him when all he’s trying to do is satisfy his deep-seated need to kill again. Seems reasonable to me.


The Trump administration is reportedly considering a range of Iran-like “secondary sanctions” against firms that do business with North Korea. What additional sanctions are supposed to do to a country that is already almost completely cut off from the rest of the world is unclear, but these measures would necessarily target Chinese firms since they’re the only ones who regularly interact with North Korea. In particular they’d be directed at Chinese banks that do business in North Korea, but it’s not clear that those banks are actually in turn vulnerable to international sanctions. Pyongyang, as it does, responded that it doesn’t care about new sanctions and won’t be deterred from developing a nuclear first-strike capability. And they may have just test-fired a few new missiles this morning, perhaps to punctuate their response. There’s a strong possibility the test failed, but it’s probably too soon to say that for sure.


Abubakar Shekau may be planning on creating his own caliphate across the Sahel, but the real fighting in Nigeria over the past couple of days didn’t involve Boko Haram. Gunmen, probably Fulani herdsmen, attacked the farming community of Zaki Biyam in Benue state on Monday, killing at least 17 people. Herdsmen and farmers in central Nigeria have been feuding since…well, who knows, really. There are farmers and herdsmen feuding with one another in the Book of Genesis, for shit’s sake. But Fulani-Benue tensions have been running especially hot for over a year now.


The first wave of a new 4000 person UN protection force should be deploying to South Sudan in the next few weeks, presumably whether the South Sudanese government likes it or not. They’ll apparently be assuming the duties of trying to protect displaced civilians, freeing the 12,000 person peacekeeping force already in the country to try to, you know, keep the peace.


A car bomb targeting a security checkpoint near the presidential compound in Mogadishu today killed at least five people. Al-Shabab claimed responsibility, in case you were unclear about that for some reason.


Thousands of people are protesting in Belarus over an unpopular new employment tax measure. Or, as President Alexander Lukashenko puts it, “Western funds under the direction of Western security services” are causing problems inside his otherwise perfectly stable country. Maybe it’s a little from column A and a little from column B.


NATO is deploying a battalion to Poland in April, which by June will be joined by other battalions in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia to form the Super Friends a ~4000 person force meant to deter any Russian plans for aggression in Eastern Europe.


So it looks like this is going to be a new regular thing:

Greek police intercepted eight suspect packages at a postal sorting center in Athens on Monday, after the dispatch of booby-trapped deliveries to the International Monetary Fund in Paris and the German Finance Ministry.

Authorities were on the lookout after the two packages laced with gunpowder slipped through checks last week. A Greek urban guerrilla group that sent letter bombs to foreign embassies in Athens and European leaders in 2010 is thought to be behind the attacks.

The group calling itself “Conspiracy of Fire Cells,” which apparently used to be into arson but has since switched to bombs, claimed responsibility for the German bomb but is presumably also responsible for all of the others since they all appear to share the same MO.


Bulgarian nationalists are apparently trying to block the roads from Turkey into Bulgaria in an effort to prevent Bulgarian nationals living in Turkey from crossing the border to vote in Sunday’s parliamentary election. Their fear is that the expats will support the pro-Turkey DOST party, which may be getting support from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party.


Lawyers for Bosnian Serb war criminal ex-commander Ratko Mladić are asking that their client be provisionally released on account of he needs medical treatment lest he suffer a stroke while in captivity. The heart bleeds, really. Seems like he could get treatment while remaining in detention pending his utterly justified conviction.


Ziyed Ben Belgacem, the man who attempted to carry out some kind of attack at Paris’s Orly Airport on Saturday, was apparently drunk and high when he was killed by French soldiers. This suggests that maybe, despite the fact that he reportedly shouted “I am here to die for Allah” when he attempted to grab one soldier’s weapon, he may not have been the lone wolf terrorist he was initially assumed to be.


Theresa May is planning to trigger Article 50 and begin the Brexit negotiation process on March 29, and already the knives are coming out. May says she’s “committed” to getting a free-trade deal with the EU, but she must surely realize that it’s not entirely up to her whether such a deal is reached, and the Europeans have some incentive not to simply roll over and acquiesce to London’s wishes. In that vein, the pro-Brexit crowd has started talking up the benefits of not reaching a trade deal and simply reverting to a standard WTO-based trade relationship between the UK and EU. Which, sure, if the EU is really out for blood, no deal is better than a bad deal, but this is a hilarious retreat from the “we can have everything we want, the EU will be desperate to make a deal with us” bullshit that the Brexiters sold to British voters before last year’s referendum.

There’s been a lot of digital ink spilled about the possibility of a new Scottish independence push after Brexit, and about what the Ireland-Northern Ireland border will look like when the UK leaves the EU, but considerably less attention has been paid to what will happen in Gibraltar, which is why I’d recommend checking out this AP report:

Gibraltar, which is barely twice the size of Central Park and home to 32,000 people, has thrived economically under Britain’s rule and open trade with Spain. Its low corporate taxes, business-friendly regulation and links to the EU market since 1973 have attracted investment. Tourists can often be seen taking selfies with the Barbary macaques, the only free-roaming monkeys in Europe, that live on the promontory known as The Rock. They can pay with pounds or euros.

With the prospect of losing easy access to Spain and the wider EU market, Gibraltar’s government says the territory is rebranding itself as a gateway for the U.K. and new markets in northern Africa just across the strait.

“It’s unfortunate. We don’t want to turn our backs to Europe, but those are the cards that we have been dealt and we have to play this hand the best as possible,” Fabian Picardo, the chief minister of Gibraltar, told The Associated Press.

It doesn’t matter that 96 percent of Gibraltarians voted to remain in the EU in last year’s referendum. Since then, pleas for a special deal that would allow Gibraltar to retain access to the EU single market and keep borders open have been blocked by Spain, which wants joint sovereignty of the territory.

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