Conflict update: March 23 2017


The man who killed four people yesterday, when he plowed into dozens of people on London’s Westminster Bridge before stabbing a police officer and attempting to get into parliament, has been identified as 52 year old British citizen Khalid Masood. He was apparently known to British security services, who interviewed him several years ago in connection with a “violent extremism” investigation, but was not on anybody’s radar in recent years for reasons that British authorities are going to have to investigate. He’d also apparently spent time in jail in the past on, among other things, “assault” charges, and one wonders if any of those were of the domestic variety.

Masood was reportedly radicalized by ISIS, which has predictably claimed credit for his attack despite the fact that it almost certainly had nothing directly to do with it.


A French citizen of North African descent was arrested today in Antwerp on suspicion that he was attempting to drive his car into a crowd of people. Ultra-low tech “weapons” like vehicles and knives have become the lone wolf weapon of choice in Europe, as yesterday’s Westminster attack illustrates, and this is roughly the one year anniversary of the Brussels Airport attack, so the timing is auspicious.


The Trump administration’s Director of World War II Reenactments, Sebastian Gorka, had A Thought about the terror attack in London yesterday:

A Trump administration official seized on the Westminster terror attack to justify the president’s blocked travel ban, which targets refugees and immigrants from six Muslim-majority countries, despite confirmation that the attacker was neither an immigrant nor a refugee.

Sebastian Gorka, a national security aide to the president and a former editor for the far-right news site Breitbart, told Fox News’s conservative talk show host Sean Hannity on Wednesday evening that the attack in Westminster, that left three people and the attacker dead, “should be a surprise to nobody”.

“The war is real and that’s why executive orders like President Trump’s travel moratorium are so important,” Gorka said.

The word “like” is doing a hell of a lot of work in that last bit there, because the actual Trump travel ban, had it been implemented in the UK, would have done nothing at all to prevent Masood’s attack, since Masood was a UK citizen. Of course that doesn’t matter–Gorka is just capitalizing on a tragedy to drum up support for his boss’s next attempt to block Muslims from coming into the US. He’s not interested in facts or accuracy, or even really basic human decency.


Iraqi rescuers have reportedly recovered forty bodies and counting from the wreckage of several buildings in west Mosul’s Jadida district that were destroyed in a US coalition airstrike last week. It’s thought that the airstrike might have hit a would-be ISIS truck bomb, causing the devastation. It’s impossible to know how many people were killed in the strike, but Iraqi authorities believe it will be well over 100 when they’re all finally counted. Civilian displacement and casualties both continue to overwhelm available facilities, though the return of some families to east Mosul has helped open space for more refugees from the western side.


Peace talks resumed in Geneva today, but there’s been such an escalation in active combat within Syria that the idea of holding peace talks right now would be funny if it weren’t so sad. For example:

  • The Tahrir al-Sham-led offensive north of Hama continues to make slow progress toward the city
  • Fighting continues to rage on the outskirts of Damascus, with the UN saying that some 300,000 people have now had their access to vital humanitarian aid cut off
  • The Syrian army and its allies have reportedly besieged Deir Hafir, the last ISIS-held town in Aleppo province
  • The Syrian air force has ratcheted up its campaign against rebel-held territory in Idlib province, a lovely new development for people who really only just evacuated Aleppo and now find themselves back under assault
  • After being airlifted into the area by the US earlier this week, the Syrian Democratic Forces are imminently expecting to begin a full-scale assault on the town of Tabqa and its related dam

This doesn’t seem like a conflict that’s ready for negotiations.

Turkey has begun training a police force, the aptly albeit uninterestingly named “Free Syrian Police,” that are being deployed in areas of northern Syria already captured by Turkey and its rebel proxies. The police force will secure those areas and allow the rebel army to resume…something. It’s still not clear where Turkey and its pals can actually go at this point without causing more problems than they likely want to cause.


President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says he plans to “review” Turkey’s relationship with the European Union following next month’s constitutional referendum. This is a puffed-up way of threatening, for what must be the hundredth time at least, to tear up the Turkey-EU migrant deal that was struck last year, this time in light of Europe’s many perceived slights to Turkey and to Erdoğan personally, not that he would recognize a difference between those two things. This threat will likely go about as far as all the previous ones did, which is to say nowhere. But it’s good politics, and that’s all Erdoğan really cares about right now.

Ankara is reportedly trying to get the US and UK to take Turkish Airlines, and Atatürk Airport, off of its cabin electronics ban list. I’d probably have more to say about this if the ban made any fucking sense to me in the first place, but it doesn’t, so…good luck, I guess?

One Turkish soldier was reportedly killed today in fighting with the PKK in Hakkari province.


Here’s a decent explainer on the protests that have been hitting Beirut over the past couple of weeks. At its core is public frustration over having to shoulder higher taxes in order to pay for a public sector salary increase in a country that is among the most corrupt in the world:

For example, a January report by local Lebanese network, MTV, found that a company owned by former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a close associate of the current prime minister, has a favorable contract to manage Beirut airport’s Duty Free, which resulted in reduced revenue for the government, and higher profits for Siniora’s company. Lebanese media has frequently been on the heels of corruption at the top level, with no political faction escaping the spotlight. In 2015, Executive Magazine was sued by Gebran Bassil, Lebanon’s current foreign minister and then-energy and water minister, after it questioned the whereabouts of $33 million made through a sale of seismic surveys along Lebanon’s coast. Corruption charges have also been adopted as a political weapon to discredit opponents. Current President Michel Aoun, and father-in-law to Bassil, did just that in 2012 when he accused the finance ministry, then under the control of a political rival, of losing $5 billion in donations.

The public feeling seems to be that, if government salaries need to be increased, then maybe that increase should be paid for with some of the money their political leaders keep stealing out of the treasury, rather than with new taxes.


Talks between US and Israeli officials in Washington wrapped up this evening pretty much how they usually do, with the Americans expressing concern over Israel’s settlement policy and the Israelis telling the US to go fuck itself:

But the most closely watched part of talks between the Trump administration and the Israeli government concerned settlement activity. In two sentences, the statement laid out positions that made it clear that issue was unresolved.

“The United States delegation reiterated President Trump’s concerns regarding settlement activity in the context of moving towards a peace agreement,” it said. “The Israeli delegation made clear that Israel’s intent going forward is to adopt a policy regarding settlement activity that takes those concerns into consideration.”

“We’ll take your concerns into consideration” is as close to “go fuck yourselves” as diplomatic bullshit allows. What’s interesting to me is that, after a flurry of post-election activity that suggested this would be the most indifferent-to-Israeli-abuses presidential administration in US history, the US-Israel relationship seems to have settled into a rut, albeit one that could only be temporary, that isn’t all that different from the usual US-Israel relationship. There’s been no real movement from the Trump administration on recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, for example, and Washington’s message on settlements has gone from “go nuts” to “we have concerns,” which is pretty much where every past US administration has been. Sure, there was that whole “one state, two state, red state, blue state” incident during Trump’s February press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu, but that’s simply explained as Trump being an imbecile, which he undeniably is.

Even today’s Senate confirmation of new US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Trump’s former lawyer, known contributor to Israeli settlement charities, and somebody who sounded after the election like he was ready to relocate the US embassy to the Temple Mount, hasn’t really caused a stir. Maybe that’s because Friedman’s issues have been overshadowed by the administration’s myriad other scandals, but still I’m almost ready to concede that I was wrong to assume that this administration would make a radical break with past Israel-Palestine policy. So far, at least.


Two roadside bombs killed ten Egyptian soldiers during an operation against militants in Sinai today. Some 15 militants were reportedly killed.


This map of Afghanistan is only current through December, but if you look closely you can see Sangin and its proximity to Kandahar (Wikimedia | Ali Zifan)

The Taliban scored a pretty big victory today, capturing Sangin district in Helmand province. Sangin has the distinction of seeing more British, and US Marine, deaths in combat than any other district in Afghanistan, and it has been a prime Taliban target for several years now. Not only is it a major opium-producing center, but its location puts the Taliban in position to make a move against the important city of Kandahar, which in addition to being the second largest city in Afghanistan was also the Taliban’s effective capital back when they controlled the country. It’s a city the Taliban would very, very much like to have back.


Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang said on Friday that China is not militarizing the islands it claims in the South China Sea, all evidence to the contrary. He insisted that military emplacements in the area are merely for defending “freedom of navigation,” which ironically is the thing that Beijing mostly wants to deny to everybody else in that particular body of water. Meanwhile, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gave a speech on Thursday that criticized the US for being both too hostile and not hostile enough toward China in the SCS. The details don’t have to make sense, seeing as how Duterte is mostly just performing to win Chinese favor.


A Spanish migrant aid organization says it has found two capsized boats in the Mediterranean that may have been carrying 200 or more migrants from Libya. The volume of people trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe on unsafe, overcrowded boats this year has so far outstripped 2016’s pace.

In the Balkans, Bosnian and Croatian authorities say they’ve broken up a human trafficking ring that was smuggling refugees from Bosnia, which has a visa-free travel agreement with Turkey, into Croatia.


The Atlantic Council’s Karim Mezran and Mattia Toaldo of the European Council on Foreign Relations want the West to Save Libya. I know, I know, we tried that already and we broke Libya instead. But at least none of their suggestions involve heavy explosive ordinance:

First, Libya needs a de-conflicting mechanism to avoid escalation. If the U.N. envoy cannot do it, someone else in the West should. What better opportunity for Britain to show its continued relevance after Brexit than this? Or why not the French foreign minister, who could beef up his legacy just weeks before leaving office? This should only be a temporary replacement for a fully functioning U.N. mission capable of working on reconciliation, local cease-fires, and monitoring human rights violations. Both a temporary negotiator and the U.N. could work on a number of confidence-building measures, such as establishing permanent channels of communication, liberating prisoners, reopening roads, and sharing humanitarian aid.

Second, the country needs what economist Hala Bugaighis calls a “Libyan Economic Agreement” on how to peacefully share its oil wealth. Libya sits on Africa’s biggest hydrocarbon reserves: In the run-up to the 2011 war, it produced 1.6 million barrels per day and accumulated more than $100 billion in reserves — a considerable amount for a population of 6 million. Much of the fighting in the last few years has revolved around oil installations or smuggling hubs. Negotiating a new social contract may take some time, but in the meantime, two measures would represent a good start: The government in Tripoli should strengthen financial support for all of Libya’s municipalities, including areas controlled by Haftar, and oil installations should be placed under the control of the independent National Oil Corporation in Tripoli, with attempts to establish parallel economic institutions punished by international sanctions.

The problem with these suggestions is that they can’t work unless the Libyans themselves participate, and if the Libyans themselves were interested in achieving these things then they wouldn’t need the West’s benevolent assistance. Mezran and Toaldo suggest that the US should pressure all parties to the civil war to bend them toward reconciliation, which, first of all, I’m not sure that will get the job done, and second of all, have you guys seen the current American government? If more than five of Donald Trump’s political appointees can find Libya on a map without any hints, it would be a minor miracle.


A clash near the southern Somali port city of Barawa today killed either 17 (according to al-Shabab) or two (according to the Somali military) Somali soldiers.


UN Secretary-General António Guterres accused South Sudanese President Salva Kiir of lacking “any meaningful concern” for the millions of South Sudanese citizens who are in need of humanitarian aid due to a combination of famine and the country’s three-plus year long civil war. The dire situation in South Sudan has had spillover effects throughout the surrounding region, but perhaps nowhere more than in Uganda. The Ugandan government says that it’s reached a “breaking point,” with over 800,000 South Sudanese refugees already in the country and around 3000 more arriving every day.


NATO has agreed to try to reschedule its April 5-6 ministerial meeting in order to accommodate US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Tillerson had announced plans to skip that meeting so that he could be present when Chinese President Xi Jinping comes to visit Donald Trump on April 6-7, but it seems now he might be able to make both meetings. I’m sure he’s thrilled.

Montenegro’s accession to NATO will be put to a vote in the US Senate next week. The Trump administration has been urging Senate approval.


Former Russian MP Denis Voronenkov, a Vladimir Putin ally-turned-critic who relocated to Ukraine last year (Putin was reportedly about to have him arrested on corruption charges) and was subsequently given Ukrainian citizenship, was murdered today in Kiev. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko blasted Moscow, saying that Voronenkov’s murder was “state-sanctioned terrorism,” and while I don’t think we should jump to conclusions, dying under violent and/or mysterious circumstances is something that Vladimir Putin’s political enemies tend to do with remarkable frequency.

A Ukrainian arms depot near Kharkiv, which has been used to supply soldiers on the front lines of the frozen conflict with separatists in Donbas, exploded today, causing the evacuation of some 20,000 people in the vicinity. It’s not clear if the explosion was an accident or deliberately caused, possibly via drone.


Human rights and free press organizations are calling on Minsk to release the dozens of writers and journalists it has detained over the past several weeks, related to public protests over new tax measures.


Sunday’s Bulgarian election looks set to turn, as so many other European elections are turning, on xenophobic nationalism, with the issue of Turkish migrants looming particularly large. The hard right nationalist United Front party looks like it may wind up in the position of coalition-maker, and the country’s other major parties, left and right, have adopted harsher stances toward immigrants during the campaign. The pressure the campaign has put on Bulgaria’s Turkish community has raised the possibility of a dispute with Ankara, which I suppose you could just add to the list of Turkey’s disputes with various European countries.

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