Conflict update: April 1-2 2017


Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is in Washington right now, preparing for his big meeting tomorrow with fellow authoritarian personality Donald Trump. Because I did a TV spot for Alhurra about this earlier today and it’s therefore fresh in my brain, here are a few things they might get to talking about tomorrow. These are in no particular order, but the items toward the top of the list are likelier to be addressed than the items toward the bottom.

  1. The bilateral US-Egypt relationship. The Obama administration didn’t have a great relationship with Sisi–they never, for example, brought him to the White House. Something about his penchant for massacring protesters and throwing tens of thousands of political opponents in prison rubbed them the wrong way, I guess. Such things are unlikely to infringe on the Trump-Sisi relationship, which is already much better than the Obama-Sisi relationship ever was (Sisi was the first world leader, for example, to call Trump to congratulate him after the election). Trump cares about stability, or at least the appearance of stability, and Sisi offers that, and they have several things in common, like narcissistic personality disorder their faux right-wing populism and their militancy when it comes to any kind of Islamist movement (even the quietist ones).
  2. Sisi’s public image. In a sense this isn’t even an agenda item. The White House invitation alone was enough to give Sisi something to crow about. He may want to be careful, though, about appearing too chummy and/or deferential to Trump, who isn’t even popular here let alone in Egypt.
  3. Egypt’s foreign aid. Sisi will want to make sure that US aid to Egypt isn’t going to get cut amid the Trump administration’s push to cut all foreign aid, and he’ll probably be successful in that regard. He also would very much like the Trump administration to drop the human rights restrictions currently in place with respect to Egyptian aid. Right now, in order to deliver that aid the administration has to either certify to Congress that Egypt is making improvement in its human rights performance, or request a national security waiver to allow the aid to be delivered anyway. Sisi doesn’t like having to depend on the waiver and takes it as an insult, which he should because fuck him, so he’ll probably see if Trump can help get rid of the whole issue. As much as Trump might like to help him out, though, removing those restrictions altogether is something Congress would have to do, and I don’t think there’s enough support in Congress to make that happen.
  4. Counter-terrorism. I expect they’ll talk about ways that the US could increase its support for Egypt’s counter-terrorism activities in Sinai and elsewhere, while never once broaching the fact that Sisi’s violently repressive authoritarianism is probably the biggest cause of extremist violence in Egypt today. Sisi will probably push Trump to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, something I’ve noted would be a really bad idea and an idea that Trump’s advisers thankfully seem to have tabled for now.
  5. Israel-Palestine. From the US perspective, you can’t talk about Sinai without talking about the potential for ISIS’s affiliate there to establish a foothold in Gaza. From Sisi’s perspective, he would like to present a pro-Palestinian message to Trump that keeps the administration from taking drastic pro-Israel actions like moving the US embassy to Jerusalem or withdrawing support for the two-state fiction solution. Trump is also hosting King Abdullah of Jordan and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas this week and they’re probably going to want to hammer him on this over and over again.
  6. Syria. Trump and Sisi are both Assad-curious, but Sisi has been constrained by his Saudi ties not to get too close to Assad, and Trump…well, who knows, really. There’s actual bat shit that’s less batshit than this guy. But they’ll inevitably talk about ways to bring Syria toward a political settlement, for all the good that will do them.
  7. Libya. Egypt shares a very long border with Libya, and so instability there is inevitably a problem for Cairo. Sisi has an affinity for Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar (they’re practically clones) and I suspect he’ll lobby Trump to switch Washington’s support to Haftar. But Haftar is so deep in bed with Russia now that for Trump to support him openly would mean aligning US and Russian foreign policy at a time when, in case you haven’t noticed, Trump needs to distance himself from Moscow.
  8. Yemen. Similarly, I suspect Trump will play messenger for Riyadh and try to get Sisi to get more deeply involved in the Saudi campaign to exterminate Yemen reinstall Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi in Sanaa. Egypt is technically part of that coalition but hasn’t contributed heavily to it because, you know, it doesn’t really serve any Egyptian interests. This has been one of the causes of the recent discord in the Saudi-Egyptian relationship. I have doubts that Trump will be an effective salesman here.
  9. Iran. Building out of the Yemen coalition is this Saudi idea for creating a pan-Sunni army that will ostensibly go after extremists but in reality is meant to contain Iran. Egypt is supposed to be part of this project as well, but given its tepid involvement in Yemen and the fact that Sisi has tried to cultivate friendly relations with Tehran, it’s reasonable to conclude that Cairo probably doesn’t want to really be involved in this either.
  10. Human rights in Egypt. HA HA HA I’m just screwing with you. Despite White House talk to the contrary (they say they’ll discuss it in a “discreet” way, LOL), I doubt they’ll bring this up except maybe as a morbid joke. The two possible exceptions may be the case of imprisoned Egyptian-American Aya Hijazi and the protection of Egypt’s Coptic Christian community.

Egypt’s Court of Urgent Matters today overturned a January ruling by the country’s High Administrative Court that blocked the sale handover of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. This case is another reason why Saudi-Egyptian relations haven’t been so hot lately, and the ruling allows Sisi to maybe consider going ahead with the deal after all. But the island handover was unpopular with Egyptians, and with people already agitated these days over cuts to government subsidies, Sisi may not feel like now is the best time to reopen that wound.

Elsewhere (it was a big weekend for Egypt news), the Egyptian judiciary is steamed over a draft law in parliament that would give Sisi more power to select the country’s top judges. The fairly newly declared insurgent group Louwaa el-Thawra claimed responsibility for a Saturday bombing in the Nile Delta city of Tanta that wounded at least 16 people, most of them Egyptian police officers. And Egyptian authorities announced on Sunday that an airstrike last month killed a leader of Egypt’s Sinai ISIS affiliate named Salem Salmy al-Hamadeen, AKA Abu Anas al-Ansari.


Altogether now: Iraqi forces made scant progress in Mosul’s Old City while the Iraqi army’s elite counter-terrorism forces advanced west of the Old City in an attempt to encircle it and attack it from the north. That’s the story and we’re sticking to it. Except, well, this was kind of new. That story is in Arabic, but it says that ISIS was able to regain control over parts of west Mosul’s Rajm al-Hadid neighborhood, their first serious clawback of territory since the Mosul operation began.

A lot of things continue to be in flux around Mosul aside from the actual fighting in the west, from efforts to secure eastern Mosul to the ongoing need for more capacity to handle displaced persons and, even more seriously, people wounded in the fighting. Joel Wing has more on all of these issues.

Outside of Mosul, Iraqi airstrikes on Saturday may have killed as many as 200 ISIS fighters near Baaj, a town in northwestern Iraq near the Syrian border. Iraqi intelligence also says that it believes another airstrike on Saturday, this one near al-Qaʾim in Anbar province, killed Ayad al-Jumaili, ISIS’s second in-command.

Finally, this is an oldie, but it’s one you may want to keep in mind when the Pentagon issues one of its immediate denials that its airstrikes have hit, say, a mosque in northern Syria:

The US-led Coalition has conceded that a supposed ‘ISIS headquarters’ it targeted at Mosul in September 2015 was in fact a family home, noting in its latest civilian casualty release that “four civilians were unintentionally killed and two civilians were unintentionally injured in the building.”

Four members of the Rezzo family died when Coalition aircraft bombed their suburban Mosul villa on the night of September 20th-21st 2015. Despite a record 558 days between the incident and the Coalition’s public admission of error on April 1st, officials had known of possible civilian deaths within hours of the attack.

Five hundred fifty-eight days is a long time for people to forget something happened. In these cases it behooves the Pentagon to insist that it struck a legitimate target, and to keep on insisting it, until everybody loses interest.


While Russian jets struck rebel outposts precariously close to the Turkish border, most of the weekend fighting seems to have happened around the Tabqa Dam. US and Syrian Democratic forces were able to repel an ISIS counterattack on Sunday amid continued concerns about the dam’s viability. Meanwhile, the UN’s deputy commissioner for refugees, Kelly T. Clements, called upon the GCC states (well, apart from Kuwait) to give more money toward caring for Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.


Today in “up is down“:

President Tayyip Erdogan described himself as a “guardian of peace” on Saturday as he called on Kurds in conflict-torn southeast Turkey to vote ‘yes’ in a referendum in two weeks time on reforms that would grant him sweeping new powers.

Since the collapse of a two-year-old ceasefire in July 2015, the mainly Kurdish southeast has been rocked by some of the most intense fighting in three decades of conflict between Kurdish militants and Turkish security forces.

Considering the possibility that Erdoğan will escalate the conflict with the PKK if he loses next month’s referendum, maybe he meant that he’s a “guardian of peace” in the same sense that Al Capone was a guardian of all the places that paid him protection money.


The Israeli government activated the last component of its missile defense network over the weekend, announcing that its “David’s Sling” medium range interceptor is now online.


The Washington Post published a long report yesterday making the case that Iran is increasing its support for the militant Shiʿa opposition in Bahrain. While I have no doubt that Iran has been supporting Shiʿa groups inside Bahrain and don’t have any problem believing that they may have stepped up that activity as its relationship with Saudi Arabia has deteriorated in recent years, I find it awfully curious that we’re now finding lots of evidence of weapons “forensically linked to Iran” in Bahrain now that there’s an administration in the White House that employs an awful lot of people who we know would love an excuse to go to war with Iran. The Post story quoted two people affiliated with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, an organization that exists in large part to drive anti-Iran sentiment in DC, so I guess my point is, take this with a grain or two of salt.


The AP’s Nasser Karimi reports that Donald Trump is front and center in Iranian politics these days:

Iran’s hard-liners are hoping they can benefit from the rise of Donald Trump in upcoming elections, arguing that their own country needs a tougher leader to stand up to an American president whose administration has put the Islamic Republic “on notice.”

They say it’s time for a “revolutionary diplomacy” to confront the U.S. after four years of a more conciliatory policy under moderate incumbent President Hassan Rouhani.

Hard-liners feel energized by the Trump administration’s repeated criticism of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal. The agreement found little support among the group, who feel Iran gave too much away in exchange for too little in the way of sanctions relief.

The U.S. president’s tough talk on Iran plays into hard-liners’ hands too, reinforcing anti-American sentiments they can use to rally their base.

Hardliners have often struggled to unite behind a single candidate in Iran’s presidential contests, but this time around many conservative groups joined up in the Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces. They still seem to be struggling to agree on a candidate, although there’s still about three weeks before the actual candidate list will be announced.

On the plus side, Iranian authorities did release Robin Reza Shahini on bail on Sunday, so that’s something. Shahini is an Iranian-American who was arrested on charges of “collaborating with a hostile government” last summer and was convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison. He was probably given bail for health reasons, as he recently underwent a hunger strike in prison. It’s not clear if he’ll be allowed to leave the country while on bail.


The Republican Party of Armenia looks like it won big in Sunday’s election. The party of President Serzh Sarksyan has nearly 54 percent of the vote in preliminary results. Now the question is whether Sarksyan, who is term-limited and can’t stand for reelection next year, will switch over to parliament and the newly-empowered role of prime minister or simply retire from office and direct things from behind the scenes.


The Philippine government and the Communist Party of the Philippines have restarted peace talks, but interestingly they appear to have opted not to negotiate a ceasefire before doing so. This seems like a bad way to engender good will, but what do I know?


In advance of his April 6-7 meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, President Trump told the Financial Times that he’s prepared to “solve North Korea” unilaterally if China won’t help him do it. There’s really only one way to read that, and it’s not pleasant.


Between 20 and 30 people were arrested in Moscow on Sunday in a much smaller followup to last weekend’s anti-corruption protests.

At the same time, police in Chechnya have reportedly been forcibly rounding up anyone suspected of being gay, to the tune of 100 arrests and possibly three deaths. Chechnya is run by Vladimir Putin-pal Ramzan Kadyrov, whose spokesperson denied the reports of an anti-gay pogrom on the grounds that…well, here’s the quote:

Alvi Karimov, spokesperson for Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, described the report as “absolute lies and disinformation”, basing his denial on the claim that there were no gay people in Chechnya. “You cannot detain and persecute people who simply do not exist in the republic,” he told Interfax news agency.

“If there were such people in Chechnya, the law-enforcement organs wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.”

A spokesman for the region’s interior ministry told the Russian newspaper RBC that the report was “an April fool’s joke”.

I feel pretty confident saying that there are, in fact, gay people in Chechnya, so that denial may be the real April fool’s joke, except that it’s not funny.


Serbia has a new president, as Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić appears to have won well over 50 percent of the vote in today’s election, thereby obviating the need for a runoff. Vučić is pro-European Union, which seems to be one of the key elements in every European election these days.


The big news today was that the UK and Spain are going to war over Gibraltar. What, what? Well, so it turns out that the EU may take a hard line on Gibraltar being included in any trade deal the UK strikes with Brussels after Brexit, per Spain’s demand that it be given final approval over Gibraltar’s status. I’m not even sure how that could possibly work, but it all goes back to the 1702-1715 War of the Spanish Succession, at the end of which Spain ceded control of Gibraltar to the UK, and ever since which Spain has been trying to get control of Gibraltar back. Whatever, who cares, it’s a negotiating tactic, right? Except enter Michael Howard, who led Britain’s Conservative Party for about ten minutes (OK, two years) in the early 2000s and apparently couldn’t unseat then-PM Tony Blair in part because of his penchant for saying stupid things. Like this:

“Thirty-five years ago this week, another woman prime minister sent a taskforce halfway across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country, and I’m absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar,” Howard told Sophy Ridge on Sunday on Sky News.

Howard is a former Tory leader, so he’s not just some crank (well, he is, but he’s a crank with a pedigree), and now instead of talking about trade deals and protections for EU and UK nationals living abroad, there are people who are actually contemplating the idea of a UK-Spain war kicking off in 2019. The Telegraph, apparently worried that too many people were taking it seriously as a newspaper, actually went so far as to interview military “experts” on the subject, who basically used the opportunity to lobby for a larger naval budget. This is why we can’t have nice things.


Venezuela’s Supreme Court rescinded its ruling stripping the National Assembly of its legislative powers on Saturday after a massive public outcry. President Nicolás Maduro, who had called on the court to rethink its ruling even though he was its biggest beneficiary, still seems to have come out ahead for the week–the court left in place another part of its ruling that granted Maduro considerable new authority to negotiate deals for the state oil company, PDVSA, without legislative oversight.


Leftist former Vice President Lenín Moreno has apparently been elected Ecuador’s new president in today’s runoff election by a narrow margin. This is notable for many reasons, but since Ecuador isn’t exactly our usual area of coverage here, let’s focus on two: first, Moreno’s opponent, Guillermo Lasso, is already alleging fraud and planning to call for a recount. Second, Moreno’s election likely means that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will be able to maintain his asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy in London–Lasso had promised to evict him from the embassy had he been elected.


An opposition activist was killed on Saturday when police stormed Liberal party headquarters. The death is likely to spur renewed protests against the legislature’s move to allow President Horacio Cartes to run for an otherwise-unconstitutional second term next year. The Paraguayan Chamber of Deputies was supposed to vote on the measure on Saturday but bagged it due to the protesters setting fire to the congress building in Asunción. They could try again as soon as Tuesday.

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