Conflict update: April 3 2017


One of the reasons I don’t post these earlier in the day is because HUGE BREAKING NEWS MUST CREDIT GUY WHO HELPED SELL IRAQ WAR stories are often later shown to be no big deal. To wit:

Maybe I’m wrong, but it sure does seem like intrepid reporter Eli Lake has now been played twice by Republicans trying to substantiate their party leader’s claim that the Obama administration spied on him and his transition team. At some point you have to start assuming that Lake is willingly along for the ride, don’t you?



An explosion tore through the St. Petersburg metro today, killing at least 11 people and injuring more than 50 at the last count. Details are still light, but it appears the bomb went off between metro stations, so it’s not clear whether it was placed there or was put on a train. Russian authorities later said that police found and disarmed a second bomb placed at another location in the metro. ISIS has already reportedly claimed responsibility and said the bomb was in retaliation for Russia’s activities in Syria, but there are plenty of other possible candidates, from Chechen militants (who certainly overlap with ISIS) to Ukrainian sympathizers to anti-government extremists, and Moscow seems to be investigating all possibilities. It’s likely not a coincidence that Putin was in St. Petersburg today to meet with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, though he certainly wasn’t targeted.


Donald Trump “cherishes” women, just ask him. Of course, if those women happen to rely on the UN Family Planning Agency for their reproductive health needs, then they’re shit out of luck because the Trump administration just yanked all the US funding for that agency (which was $75 million last year). The administration claims that the UNFPA participates in China’s forced abortion and sterilization programs, but the State Department’s own statement on the funding cut as much as admits that they’re lying about that claim in order to give themselves a justification for the cut. Still, you have to admire the strong display of concern for the rights of Chinese women from an administration that’s going to have Chinese President Xi Jinping over to President Trump’s extravagant Florida vacation resort later this week. That’ll show him.

Trump is only doing what every Republican administration since the 1980s has done with respect to the UNFPA, so I don’t mean to single him out except insofar as he is the current president. But feel free to mention this the next time your Hashtag Never Trump Republican buddy or your moderate Democratic presidential nominee tries to tell you that Donald Trump is somehow different from the rest of the Republican Party and not entirely a product of that party.


Donald Trump and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had their big meeting today, and, well, I’ve seen Hallmark cards less sappy than this:

“We agree on so many things,” Trump, relaxed and smiling, said at a brief photo session with Sisi on April 3. “I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President al-Sisi. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt.”

Sisi returned the admiration, praising Trump’s strength and determination to fight terrorism, and expressing confidence in Trump’s ability to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that has eluded the last half dozen of Trump’s predecessors.

“I have had a deep appreciation and admiration for your unique personality, especially as you are standing very strong in the counterterrorism field,” Sisi, speaking through a translator, said. “You will find Egypt and myself always beside you in bringing about an effective strategy in the counterterrorism effort.”

Referring to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Sisi continued: “You will find me supporting you very strongly and very earnestly in finding a solution to the problem of the century, and I am quite confident that you will be able to bring a solution to this issue.”

“We will,” Trump agreed. “We will do that together.”

Sheesh, get a room. The only things they seem to have acknowledged talking about were how great they both are, Israel-Palestine, and generic counter-terrorism efforts. Sisi may have pushed for more aid to Egypt, but he’s going to be lucky to keep it at current levels given the administration’s preference for slashing all foreign aid and the fact that Sisi’s reputation in Congress is decidedly less glowing than it is in the White House.


The Iraqi people rejoiced today, as their true liberating hero arrived from America in the person of Foreign Policy and Counter-Terrorism Guru Jared Kushner.

Hey everybody, it’s Lawrence of Duh-rabia (Wikimedia | Lori Berkowitz)

Yes, the man best known for getting a lot of money from his dad before his dad went to prison, and then marrying Donald Trump’s daughter, is apparently going to fix Iraq now to go with his impressively long list of other major accomplishments, like

What a list, am I right? Anyway, Kushner accompanied JCS Chair General Joseph Dunford to Iraq ostensibly so that he could provide an “unfiltered” account of the war to his father in-law, but in reality because Dunford has figured out, maybe a little quicker than most in DC, that getting to Kushner is the key to getting to the president. Which is good. It’s very, very good. Really, it’s great. (Jared, email me!)

In Mosul, ISIS has been taking advantage of more bad weather, and perhaps some newfound reluctance on the part of the US-led coalition to just bomb the hell out of whatever they see, to try to claw back some territory from the Iraqis. Their efforts have mostly failed–their temporary seizure of Rajim al-Hadid was subsequently reversed.

Reuters reported today on the growth of Iraqi militias–Shia yes, but also Sunni, and the article doesn’t mention the formation of militias among smaller communities like the Yazidis or the various paramilitary groups represented among Iraqi Kurds. In a country whose central government and army showed themselves completely incapable of defending the country in 2014, this phenomenon is understandable, and a lot of these groups also have histories that go back to the immediate post-invasion period when they were fighting the US occupation. But it’s not at all clear what Baghdad should do with these forces after ISIS has been defeated. Turn them into local guard or police units? Try to incorporate them into the army? Try to disband them? There are problems with all of those ideas.

Reuters also did a piece on Hassan al-Yasiri, who is supposed to be Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s corruption czar but resigned last June after only a year on the job. He’s still on the job, months after resigning, because he offered to stay on until a replacement could be found and, apparently, nobody else wants the gig either. Yasiri has found thousands of possible cases of corruption and authorities have investigated only 15 percent of them, hence his decision to quit. But being the guy in charge of rooting out corruption in Iraq sounds like a surefire way to piss a lot of powerful people off, hence the lack of a willing and able replacement.


A suspected Russian airstrike hit a hospital in the city of Maarat al-Numan, in Idlib province, on Sunday evening. This comes after an MSF hospital outside of Hama was hit last week reportedly by helicopter, suggesting Syrian government involvement. So apparently we’re back to the days of blowing up hospitals. Government airstrikes on rebel-held Damascus suburbs reportedly killed at least 16 people today, as Bashar al-Assad’s forces stepped up their efforts to counter recent rebel gains both near Damascus and around Hama. And an anonymous Free Syrian Army “commander” told Al Jazeera that a new joint “moderate rebel” military command is being set up in Idlib with US, Turkish, European, and Gulf backing. The new command will include units that joined up with Ahrar al-Sham during the recent Idlib conflict between that group and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, which now seems to be going mostly by the name Tahrir al-Sham to reflect the coalition it formed with other extremist groups.

The new alliance could be Turkey’s bid to stay relevant in Syria, as it’s not really clear what Ankara plans to do now that it’s ended (not that it had much choice) Operation Euphrates Shield. Turkey will probably keep its forces in northern Syria if for no other reason than that doing so helps keep the two Kurdish-controlled cantons there from linking up with each other, and as a result the territory Turkey controls may become the new landing spot for rebels in Idlib when the Russians and Assad really begin their offensive there. If the Idlib rebels are going to be coming under Turkey’s umbrella eventually, why not start organizing them now.

Today brought another reminder that we’re six-plus years into the Syrian civil war and still nobody can agree on What To Do With Bashar. EU foreign policy boss Federica Mogherini and EU foreign ministers have made it clear that they think Assad Must Go, but Russia obviously disagrees, and America’s UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley, has had a different take on Assad each day for at least the past week. Everybody seems to agree that The Syrian People Should Decide, but nobody’s articulated a plan for letting that happen or even a vision of what that would look like, and ironically the Syrian people seem to be the only folks who aren’t being asked what should happen next. It’s next to impossible to do that right now, obviously, but it’s still jarring to see all these people who aren’t Syrians, aren’t from Syria, and have nothing to do with Syria trying to sort out Syria’s future without any input from any Syrians. All while talking about how important it is that the Syrians decide their own future.


Good idea by the Trump administration to start selling F-16s to Bahrain again; these guys are really making great progress on civil liberties:

Bahrain’s king on Monday approved a constitutional amendment granting military courts the right to try civilians.

Military courts in Bahrain were previously limited to trying members of the armed forces or other branches of the security services and could only try civilians under a state of emergency.

Under the new amendment, the courts have the power to try any civilian accused of threatening the security of the state.

Hey, taking civil liberties away is a kind of progress.


A Saudi double-tap airstrike killed at least eight people in western Yemen’s Sarawah district today. Here’s your periodic reminder that double-tap strikes, which involve hitting a target, then waiting for first responders to arrive on the scene and then striking them as well, are war crimes, full stop. They kill medical personnel who are supposed to be protected, and they put civilian lives at greater risk moving forward. The Pentagon announced that it’s carried out 20 more airstrikes in Yemen (targeting al-Qaeda) over the past week, and if you’re keeping score at home:


If you’re interested in the inscrutable Omani succession process, which is really known only to a few but is speculated about by many, I recommend this Foreign Policy report:

The name of the next ruler of Oman is written on a piece of paper in a sealed envelope kept in the royal palace in the capital of Muscat. It sounds like a bizarre Arab variation of an American television game show, but it isn’t. There is also a second envelope, held in a different royal palace in the southern city of Salalah. Apparently, it contains the same name, in case the first envelope cannot be found when the ruling incumbent, the ailing 76-year-old Sultan Qaboos bin Said, dies.

At this point, the question of how succession in this Arab Gulf sultanate will unfold becomes more than a little uncertain. The most common version is that each envelope contains two names, the first and second choices of Sultan Qaboos on who should replace him. But another version suggests that the Muscat envelope contains one name and the Salalah envelope contains another. According to the generally accepted wisdom, when Qaboos dies — and he has been suffering from colon cancer since at least 2014 — a council made up of his relatives will meet to choose his successor. Only if they can’t agree on a choice after three days do the envelopes come into play. Wags suggest that members of the ruling family will be so concerned about the post-mortem legitimacy bestowed by the late sultan that they will ask to see the envelopes before making their selection.

I have to say, if Qaboos left two envelopes with two different names on them, that is pretty badass. Talk about leaving a giant “fuck you” to the people whose poverty and repression supported your life of great ease. The favorite candidate at the moment is probably Asad b. Tariq, a cousin of Qaboos who was just named deputy prime minister for international relations and was Qaboos’s representative at last week’s Arab League summit in Jordan.


Four Afghan intelligence officers were reportedly killed on Monday in a Taliban attack in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province.


Pakistani authorities have finally given the green light to General Raheel Sharif to command the Islamic Military Alliance, Saudi Arabia’s proposed pan-Islamic army to combat terrorism. There’s been a lot of consternation in Pakistan about this–not because of Sharif, who’s seen as a national hero for his work fighting the Pakistani Taliban, but because this “pan-Islamic army to combat terrorism” looks much more like a “pan-Sunni army to combat Iran.” Pakistan, which has a sizable Shiʿa minority and tries very hard to maintain cordial relations with Iran, has no interest in providing the front man for a Saudi-led provocation directed at Tehran. But there’s some hope that Sharif will be able to steer the alliance in a less provocative direction.


Philippine soldiers engaged in what must have been a fairly fierce battle with Abu Sayyaf militants in Talipao on Sunday night, in an effort to free several Vietnamese nationals who had been kidnapped by the ISIS-linked group. Ten militants were killed and apparently there’s no word on the hostages, which seems like it might not be good.


Here’s a two-part primer on how the Trump administration handles foreign policy, both parts drawn from the same AP piece on North Korea.

Part I:

TRUMP: According to the Financial Times report, when pressed on whether the U.S. really could resolve the North Korean denuclearization problem without China, he said, “Totally.”

“I don’t have to say any more. Totally.”

Part II:

AND P.S., FROM YOUR U.N. AMBASSADOR: Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, also had some tough talk over the weekend — but it conflicted with the president’s.

She said on ABC’s “This Week” that China needs “to show us how concerned they are … They need to put pressure on North Korea. The only country that can stop North Korea is China, and they know that.

It’s going to be a full four years of this, of Trump shooting his mouth off and being directly contradicted by his aides. Sometimes they’ll acknowledge or try to finesse the contradiction, but I imagine as this becomes more routine they’ll just start letting it be.


The BBC looks at recent jihadi activity in Burkina Faso under the umbrella of a fairly new organization (presumably another local al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb branch) calling itself Ansarul Islam:

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed it carried out the attacks of January 2016 which killed 30 people in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou.

Although AQIM did not say it was behind the killing of the 12 soldiers in December last year, officials believe the group was.

However, a new movement, Ansarul Islam or Defenders of Islam, has recently emerged as the umbrella for all Islamist operations in northern Burkina Faso.

It is led by a radical imam named by officials as Ibrahim Malam Dicko.

Ansarul Islam claimed responsibility for attacks on two police stations in the northern Soum province on 27 February.

Dicko is a radical preacher originally from Burkina Faso’s northern city of Djibo.

He is said to have fought in Mali in the ranks of the Mujao Islamist movement before he founded his group.

After a short spell in a Malian jail following his arrest by foreign forces in 2013, Dicko returned home and started Ansarul Islam.


Somali pirates have reportedly seized an Indian commercial vessel, the second vessel that’s been taken in roughly the past month after years of inactivity.


Say, remember when Nikki Haley said that the UN should cut its peacekeeping force in the DRC because, according to her, it’s been supporting Joseph Kabila’s repressive and dubiously legitimate government? Apparently there’s actual academic research proving that she’s wrong. Not that she’d let that stop her, of course.


I am no economist and my personal wealth attests to my abilities in finance, but I’m assuming it’s a pretty bad thing that Standard & Poors downgraded South Africa’s credit rating to “junk” today and the South African rand spent the day tumbling in currency markets. President Jacob Zuma fired his finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, last week and appointed one of his cronies to take the job, and, well, I guess financial markets thought pretty highly of Gordhan because here we are.


As I noted above, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko were in St. Petersburg today when the bombing took place, and their meeting seems to have put a thaw in their relationship. Putin apparently agreed to refinance Belarus’s debt, to resume oil shipments to Belarus, and to give the country a discount on Russian gas for the next two years, while Lukashenko agreed to make good on about $720 million in overdue payments to Russia and, probably, agreed to shut up about Crimea.


With Sunday’s electoral victory in hand, former Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić now assumes the presidency, and the question is which Aleksandar Vučić he’s going to be moving forward. Is he going to keep being the born again progressive whose political career really took off with his conversion? Or are we going to see a return to the right-wing Slobodan Milošević disciple he used to be? Though he insists he’s a thoroughly changed man, Vučić has displayed some lingering authoritarian tendencies in his dealings with the press and political opposition, so we’ll see.



Spain’s Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said on Monday that he was a little surprised by the tone coming out of Britain over Gibraltar and called for calm.

“The Spanish government is a little surprised by the tone of comments coming out of Britain, a country known for its composure,” Dastis said during a conference in Madrid.


“Mr Tusk, who has been given to using the analogies of the divorce and divorce petition, is behaving like a cuckolded husband who is taking it out on the children,” Gibraltar’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo, told Reuters in an interview.

“This is clear Spanish bullying.”

If this actually escalates to war I’m going to feel really bad about laughing at these putzes, but for now I think I’ll keep laughing.


The Organization of American States today called last week’s now-reversed Venezuelan Supreme Court ruling, the one that stripped the country’s elected legislature of its powers, “incompatible with democratic practice.” It’s been an open question whether the OAS might try to declare that Nicolás Maduro’s government is no longer democratic and boot Venezuela out of the organization, just saying.


Leftist Lenín Moreno does appear to have been the winner in yesterday’s Ecuadorean election to succeed Rafael Correa as the country’s president. Moreno will now try to preserve Correa’s policies while putting a kinder face on Ecuadorean diplomacy than Correa did. He’ll have to do it, at least for the time being, while facing down an electoral challenge from Guillermo Lasso, the right-wing businessman who apparently lost yesterday but is alleging fraud. Lasso doesn’t seem to have much to go on other than the results of three exit polls that showed him winning, the reliability of which may be questionable. And he’s got no discernible international support for challenging the results, which can be a major factor in situations like this.


The lower house of Paraguay’s congress is suspending a vote on a measure that would allow President Horacio Cartes to run for a second term, in an effort to calm public unrest. Cartes says that he wants to have a political dialogue on reducing tensions before the vote is taken, and opposition legislators want the country’s Supreme Court to rule on the legality of allowing Cartes to run again.

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