Conflict update: March 29 2017

I started working on this way earlier than usual because I’ve heard that it’s actually good to sleep a couple of nights each week. Whether I finish any earlier than usual is an open question, but if Donald Trump tweets “More like Justin Tru-BLOW, sorry if this offends” later tonight and you don’t see it mentioned here, I’ve gone to bed.


US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley (Wikimedia)

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley gave a big policy address to the Council on Foreign Relations today, and it was certainly…interesting:

The American envoy to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, described the United States on Wednesday as the “moral conscience” of the world, and she dismissed the United Nations Human Rights Council as “so corrupt” without offering evidence.

Ms. Haley said the United States would never close its doors to foreigners who flee persecution, even as she defended the Trump administration’s travel ban, which closed the door to refugees from six war-torn, mainly Muslim nations.

She insisted that American taxpayers should get value for the money they contribute to the United Nations. She said nothing about whether the United States would help head off a potential humanitarian disaster from famine that the United Nations has warned is looming over 20 million people abroad.

Kudos to the New York Times

She used her address to deliver a pointed attack on the United Nations Human Rights Council, the main international body meant to promote and defend human rights.

“I mean, the Human Rights Council is so corrupt,” she said, adding that it includes “bad actors” who use it to protect themselves.

Several countries with poor human rights records, including China and Saudi Arabia, have indeed won seats on the council. But the United States has itself used its seat to forcefully defend its allies, including Saudi Arabia, which has been accused of abuses in the war in Yemen.

Haley has the burden of trying to explain the foreign policy of an administration that really doesn’t have a coherent foreign policy, but you’d hope she’d be able to articulate her alternative facts with a little more sophistication than this.


Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr and ranking member Mark Warner announced the big grand opening of their committee’s look into charges of Russian influence in the 2016 campaign by trolling the hell out of rightfully embattled House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes. The Senate committee is already circling two potential witnesses: former National Security Advisor and “pepperoni” “pizza” enthusiast Jack T. Ripper Michael Flynn, and Living Avatar of the Peter Principle Jared Kushner.


Iraqi federal police and rapid response forces say they’re “closing in” on Nuri Mosque even though it seems like they haven’t closed very much over the past couple of weeks. The real action is still to the west of the Old City, where Iraqi counter-terrorism units are pushing north in an effort to surround the Old City and attack it from two sides. The Iraqis reportedly were able to destroy a car bomb factory in Tal Afar via airstrike, but there’s still no way the Iraqis are going to be able to move on Tal Afar on the ground while they’re mired in west Mosul like this. Elsewhere, a suicide bomber killed at least 17 people in southern Baghdad today.

Now that the US has grudgingly admitted that its coalition airstrikes probably caused those mass casualties in Mosul’s Jadidah neighborhood on March 17 (credible reports still put the eventual death toll at 240 or more), American commanders are warning that more civilian casualties are coming. It’s impossible to fight in an environment like west Mosul without incurring some collateral casualties, and nobody’s suggesting–yet–that the offensive be stopped and ISIS left in control of ~a quarter of the city. But the Pentagon still insists that its rules of engagement haven’t changed despite ample evidence–presidential directives, changes in tactics to give forward spotters more freedom to call in strikes, reports from Iraqi soldiers on the ground, the plan fact that the pace of strikes and civilian casualties has significantly increased in 2017–to the contrary.


Syrian opposition and Russian negotiators in Geneva reportedly agreed today that the Syrian ceasefire needs to be “shored up.” In similar news, Sheldon Adelson and I agreed today that I should be making $10 million a year minimum, and then when I asked him if he was going to pay me he told me to “go [perform a sex act on my]self.”

As far as the fighting is concerned, the Syrian army announced that it captured the village of Deir Hafer, which had been serving as ISIS’s headquarters in Aleppo province. Terrorists blew up a passenger bus in Homs, killing five people. And engineers made emergency repairs to the definitely-not-in-desperate-need-of-emergency-repairs-just-ask-the-Pentagon Tabqa Dam, which was so not in desperate need of emergency repairs that the US and the Syrian Democratic Forces stopped attacking it in order to allow the engineers to do their work. The repair effort was interrupted by ISIS shelling, but eventually resumed.

Also, Turkey today did to “Operation Euphrates Shield” what the United States has been doing around the world for the past 60 years to varying degrees of success: it declared victory and got the fuck out:

Turkey has officially ended the “Euphrates Shield” military operation it launched in Syria last August, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on Wednesday, but suggested there might be more cross-border campaigns to come.

Turkey sent troops, tanks and warplanes to support Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels, push ISIL fighters away from its border and stop the advance of Kurdish militia fighters.

“Operation Euphrates Shield has been successful and is finished. Any operation following this one will have a different name,” Yildirim said in an interview with broadcaster NTV.

Yes, congratulations on successfully…doing whatever it is you invaded Syria to do, nobody has actually been able to figure it out (Get completely bogged down in al-Bab? Complain a lot about the Kurds?). Ankara, of course, didn’t have much choice in the matter, since recent movements around the al-Bab/Manbij area had left it with nowhere to go that wouldn’t have involved a battle with the Syrian army. And a battle with the Syrian army would have been bad news for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s fragile bromance with Vladimir Putin.

During her CFR speech today, Nikki Haley said today that Bashar al-Assad is a “big hindrance in trying to move forward” toward ending Syria’s civil war. And, you know, duh. But, and maybe this is just me, it seems like it’s about time for the Trump administration to get together and, you know, at least come up with one coherent sense of what’s happening in Syria. So far, the only Syrian player this administration has unambiguously supported without contradicting itself (as far as I know) has been the YPG, and even that’s been tempered by futile efforts to appease Turkey. Syria is complicated, I get that, and nobody expects you guys to solve it in two months or whatever it’s been. But you probably ought to at least have a general, consistent sense of the nature of the conflict, and the various actors involved, by now. When your UN ambassador talks about Syria, for example, it shouldn’t seem like she’s working for a different administration than the one Donald Trump is supposed to be running.


An executive with Turkey’s state-owned Halbank was arrested in New York earlier this week and charged with evading US sanctions on Iran. It just so happens that this dude, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, is known to be pals with Erdoğan, so his arrest could be a pretty awkward development for Turkey’s president just as he’s trying to close the electoral deal over his constitutional referendum. It also promises to become a whole new complication in the already-fraying US-Turkey relationship.


A US drone strike in Yemen’s Abyan province on Tuesday reportedly killed four al-Qaeda operatives.


Saudi police raided a farm in the eastern village of al-Awamiyah today, killing two Shiʿa terrorists (that’s what the Saudis called them). They say they seized weapons and bomb-making materials in the raid.


Congress is considering a new measure from Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) to impose terrorism sanctions on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps without actually designating the IRGC as a terrorist group. It’s unclear what the point of this is, since the IRGC is already under US sanctions over its missile program and its human rights record, so there’s not really much more pain that can be inflicted on them. I suppose it’s intended to Send A Message, but the message is blunted by the fact that they’re stopping short of a terrorist designation. Which would be a bad idea for many reasons, not least of which that the foreign terrorist organization designation was never envisioned to be applied to a state institution. Designating the IRGC would probably strengthen its political position within Iran while accomplishing little of actual value. Corker might be hoping to get Iran to abandon the nuclear deal, but he can’t just come out and say that.


The Afghan defense ministry says that over 300 people, including several high-ranking officers, have been arrested as part of a wide-ranging effort to root out corruption in the Afghan military.


Malaysian authorities detained and then boarded a North Korean coal-carrying vessel from entering Panang Port today. Reuters has a thorough write-up on this, but really that’s all that seems to have happened. Malaysia and North Korea obviously aren’t getting along these days, but in addition to that countries like Malaysia are supposed to be on the lookout for any North Korean attempts to circumvent sanctions.


The Government of National Accord has shut down the country’s oil ministry in what appears to be an effort to undermine Libya’s National Oil Corporation. This is a huge mistake:

Ambassadors from the five countries with permanent seats on the UN security council issued a rare joint statement on Saturday siding with [NOC boss Mustafa] Sanalla and warning all sides to show retraint, stressing that “the petroleum infrastructure, production and export revenues belong to all the Libyan people and must remain under the stewardship of the NOC”. The ambassadors regard the retention of an apolitical functioning national body responsible for administering Libya’s vast oil revenues as critical to preventing the breakup of the country.

The statement was unusual since it did not assert that the GNA was the sole legitimate government in Libya. The GNA has had the support of western powers for more than a year, but its power base has never extended widely, even within Tripoli.

The GNA might think it has international support, but that support will evaporate in a millisecond if the international community believes that the GNA is threatening Libyan oil exports. And since international support is pretty much all the GNA has going for it at the moment, its leaders would be well advised to leave the oil alone.


The Cameroonian government has had internet access cut off to its two largest English-speaking regions since mid-January. The shutdown was implemented following last year’s protests by teachers and lawyers in the country’s predominantly English-speaking areas over the central government’s policy of appointing French-speaking judges and new French-speaking teachers in those areas despite the linguistic (and legal, apparently) problems that creates.

Short-term internet blackouts have become sort of a staple of the repressive regime, for obvious reasons, but this seems to be something a bit different. While a dictatorship might turn off the internet to prevent people reporting on the use of violence against protesters or something like that, in this case the French-speaking government seems to be trying to stifle and impoverish its English-speaking community in a more long-term sense.


Nikki Haley really did give a bang-up speech to the CFR today. In addition to what you’ve already read, she also accused the UN’s peacekeeping force in the DRC of supporting Joseph Kabila’s authoritarian government. Is this possible? Sure. Did Haley have any evidence of it? Why would you even ask such a thing? Her actual argument was masterful in its insipidness:

“The U.N. peacekeeping mission is mandated to partner with the government,” Haley told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “In other words, the U.N. is aiding a government that is inflicting predatory behavior against its own people. We should have the decency and common sense to end this.”

All UN peacekeeping forces have to “partner” with the government of the nation in which they operate, because otherwise they wouldn’t be “peacekeeping forces,” they’d be “invading armies.” Nikki Haley is a Republican whose only qualification for her current position is that, as governor of South Carolina, she signed the nation’s first anti-BDS bill into law, so she might not know the difference between invading and peacekeeping, but there definitely is one.


In her speech to parliament announcing that she’d triggered Britain’s exit from the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May took a tone that seems in marked contrast to all the rosy talk the pro-Brexit side used to make its case to British voters last year:

“We understand that there will be consequences for the UK of leaving the EU. We know that we will lose influence over the rules that affect the European economy. We know that UK companies that trade with the EU will have to align with rules agreed by institutions of which we are no longer a part, just as we do in other overseas markets. We accept that,” she said.

May said her government accepted repeated warnings from European leaders that Britain could not “cherrypick” during EU negotiations – and that was why it would not remain a full member of the single market.

What? The EU isn’t going to crawl over broken glass to accept whatever deal London deigns to offer, thereby setting a precedent for every other country to leave the union and demand the same treatment? You don’t say.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is still pushing for a new independence referendum, but new polling might make her slow the process down a bit. A survey conducted by the research firm ScotCen found that, while most Scots don’t want to leave the EU, they also aren’t particularly keen on rejoining the union independently, mostly due to–you guessed it–immigration issues.

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