Conflict update: April 5 2017


I’ve already written most of what I had to write about Syria today, but there are a couple of additional updates. Well, one, really. President Trump spoke in public, which seems inadvisable but I guess you make do with the president you have, and anyway after we spent last week (and, off and on, many weeks before that) talking about how Bashar al-Assad is actually not so bad and, look, we’re not joining his fan club or anything but he seems like somebody we could live with, we’re probably going to war with him. Of course we’re not, because today’s policy is subject to change depending on how much sleep the president gets and whatever they talk about on “Fox & Friends” tomorrow morning, but for now that may be where we’re at. Speaking of which, did you hear Susan Rice probably committed a crime? I think they said so on InfoWars or whatever.

Also, for what it’s worth, that Steve Bannon news from earlier today? Laura Rozen, who’s as good a national security reporter as there is in my opinion, says it may have happened because Bannon was one of the louder pro-Assad voices on the NSC.


Not much to report from Mosul today, but the city of Tikrit was rocked by a significant ISIS attack overnight, involving suicide bombers and at least ten militants disguised as police officers. Over 30 people were killed in the engagement.


The House Foreign Affairs Committee inexplicably decided to hold a hearing today at which members took turns criticizing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and offering their hopes that his desired constitutional changes would be defeated in the April 16 referendum. I can only assume Erdoğan is going to incorporate their remarks into his stump speech ASAP.


The United Nations made a last ditch effort to convince the warring parties here to steer clear of Hudaydah and its port for humanitarian reasons. It won’t work. Hudaydah is on the Saudi hit list and it’s not coming off until they’ve taken it and (probably) its actual port facilities are mostly destroyed.


Though his White House visit was completely overshadowed by the Syrian news, Jordan’s King Abdullah did take the opportunity to blow smoke up President Trump’s ass on Israel-Palestine, the better to try to sell him on the Arab League’s deader-than-disco peace deal.


Tehran mayor and erstwhile presidential hopeful Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf has reportedly withdrawn from consideration for the upcoming election, possibly in anger that the principlist Popular Front of Revolutionary Forces (JAMNA) coalition hasn’t lined up behind his candidacy (which, since he lost in 2013 to Hassan Rouhani by a pretty sizable margin, isn’t really that surprising). There are rumors that Ghalibaf has cut a deal with Mashhad shrine head Ebrahim Raisi to serve as Raisi’s vice president should the occasion arise–but Raisi himself hasn’t even decided if he’s running, and he seems put out by JAMNA’s unwillingness to coalesce behind him.


Six people were killed in Lahore today when a government census team was targeted in a suicide bombing that was later claimed by the Pakistani Taliban.


Aung San Suu Kyi’s “Why the Hell Did this Person Get a Nobel Peace Prize” Tour is continuing apace:

Aung San Suu Kyi has denied there is ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar, despite widespread reports of abuses.

In an exclusive interview with the BBC, the Nobel peace prize winner acknowledged problems in Rakhine state, where most Rohingya people live.

But she said ethnic cleansing was “too strong” a term to use.

Instead, Myanmar’s de-facto leader said the country would welcome any returning Rohingya with open arms.

“I don’t think there is ethnic cleansing going on. I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening,” she told the BBC’s special correspondent Fergal Keane.

Ms Suu Kyi added: “I think there is a lot of hostility there – it is Muslims killing Muslims as well, if they think they are co-operating with the authorities.

“It is not just a matter of ethnic cleansing as you put it – it is a matter of people on different sides of the divide, and this divide we are trying to close up.”

Look, man, it takes two to genocide–the genocider and the genocidee, you know? And why isn’t anybody talking about Rohingya-on-Rohingya crime, hmmmm? But at least the Rohingya who fled Myanmar rather than be killed by the government and/or roving mobs of Buddhist nationalists are welcomed to return, presumably so the government and/or mobs can get a second crack at them.


The Philippine government and Communist Party of the Philippines rebels have now reached a ceasefire and prisoner exchange deal to go along with their recent agreement to reopen peace talks. That should make things go a bit more smoothly. Interestingly, a new poll finds that President Rodrigo Duterte’s trustworthiness and approval ratings have dipped a bit, though both still remain over 75 percent.


Xi Jinping (Wikimedia)

Donald Trump’s big two-day Mar-a-Lago meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping begins tomorrow, and while there will be other things on the agenda (the South China Sea, perhaps?), you can presumably expect two issues to dominate the agenda: trade and North Korea, not necessarily in that order. Here’s Slate’s Josh Keating:

On the first, experts are predicting that Xi will come bearing enticements in the form of promises to invest in U.S. manufacturing. In this, he may be taking a cue from archrival Shinzo Abe of Japan, who reportedly asked Japanese companies to come up with “tweetable” investment plans he could deliver to Trump during his own Mar-a-Lago visit in February. Given Trump’s transactional style, it’s not hard to imagine him touting a pledge or two to build factories in the U.S. as evidence that his tough talk on China is getting results.

On North Korea, the stakes were underlined this week by a new ballistic missile test by the Kim Jong Un’s government, fired into the East China Sea. The timing was probably deliberate. Trump has said he holds China responsible for deterring North Korea’s program and made some comments this week that many interpreted as a warning that the U.S. would use military force if the tests continued. Here, too, China may promise to build on its existing sanctions, without fundamentally changing its policies or compromising on its core interest: keeping North Korea as a buffer against U.S. military power.


Xi might also want to talk about this:

Taiwan has announced plans for eight new submarines, a senior Taiwanese navy official confirmed on Wednesday.

The new vessels will be Taiwanese-made, unlike its current fleet of four, which were bought from overseas decades ago.


Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army has begun its offensive against the Misratan Third Force near the central Libyan city of Sabha with a combined air and ground assault on Tamanhent air base outside the city. More context on this here.

On the positive side, Libyan authorities today released 35 Eritreans and Nigerians who had been enslaved by ISIS in Sirte and had been detained following that city’s liberation.


At his excellent Sahel Blog, Alex Thurston has a very interesting piece on Iyad Ag Ghali, the Tuareg leader of Ansar Dine and now Jamaʿat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimeen, and questions about the extent of his professed Salafism:

Call me crazy, but even though al-Qaida is supposedly the quintessential “Salafi-jihadi” group, I think that a lot of people in the al-Qaida fold, even fairly prominent leaders, don’t really care about Salafi theology. That is, they’re either unaware or uninterested in the kinds of purity tests that doctrinaire Salafis, and theologically-minded jihadis, put to other Muslims.

A good example of one al-Qaida leader’s disinterest in Salafism appears in an interview (Arabic, .pdf, p. 4) that Malian national Iyad Ag Ghali recently gave to an al-Qaida publication. Just last month, Ag Ghali publicly and formally became head of a new jihadist formation in the Sahara, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims). The new group is formally part of al-Qaida and the al-Qaida affiliate al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In the interview, Ag Ghali nonchalantly discusses two issues that would give doctrinaire Salafis considerable pause: his career as a nationalist rebel leader in the 1990s (which involved negotiations with the Malian government), and his long relationship with the global Muslim missionary organization Jama’at al-Tabligh.


Dogs–we don’t deserve them:

A dog is being credited with saving lives by intervening to stop a suicide bomber who was attempted to enter a wedding party near Maiduguri, Nigeria.

Army radio says that the dog grappled with the teen girl bomber until the explosives went off, killing them both, as NPR’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.

“Most Belbelo villagers were reportedly at the wedding when the dog pounced on the would-be suicide bomber, who was reportedly hovering on the outskirts of the ceremony on Sunday morning,” Ofeibea adds.


Over the past two days, hundreds of refugees have crossed from South Sudan into Uganda, telling stories about a government massacre of civilians in the border town of Pajok on Monday. The government insists that its operation in Pajok was meant to root out militants, but, well, you tell me how well that story holds up in the face of eyewitness reports:

Two refugees spoke of the SPLA troops overrunning Pajok’s hospital and killing a medical worker.

Omal Koloro, 52, a businessman, said the medic was a doctor called Aloka who had tried to prevent SPLA soldiers from entering the compound. Four others at the hospital were also killed, Koloro said.

In another incident, he said children were targeted as they ran across a bridge at the first outbreak of gunfire. “Two were run over and two they just shot,” he said.


Seven people were killed in a car bombing in Mogadishu today, the latest in al-Shabab’s recent escalation of terror attacks in the Somali capital.


President Joseph Kabila addressed parliament today for the first time since he cut a deal to stay in office over New Year’s weekend. He threatened to appoint a prime minister within 48 hours if the DRC opposition can’t agree on one (one of the terms of the New Year’s deal was a PM drawn from the opposition), promised to quell the Kamwina Nsapu uprising in the Kasai region, and assured everybody that he would definitely be arranging an election this year to choose his successor, but, you know, um, he couldn’t get into any specifics like when that election might be held, and–oh, wow, would you look at the time, it’s really getting late so let’s just move on.


Despite getting a lot of pressure to dump him, the African National Congress’s National Working Committee today threw its support behind President Jacob Zuma. So he seems safe, at least for now.


Russian authorities in St. Petersburg have arrested six people, all from Central Asia, on charges that they’ve been recruiting for ISIS. So far, at least, there’s apparently no evidence connecting any of them to Akbarzhon Jalilov, the man suspected of bombing the St. Petersburg metro on Monday. And if these guys were recruiting people to go off and fight in Syria and Iraq, they may well have had nothing to do with Jalilov.


Emmanuel Macron’s lead over Marine Le Pen in polling of a potential runoff in the upcoming French presidential election (the first round will be held on April 23) remains large but is shrinking a bit, so I suppose now would be a good time to thank the French Republican Party for nominating a candidate so thoroughly drenched in scandal that he can’t even knock the fascist out of the runoff. Great job guys, really.


Basque leaders are calling on the Basque separatist/terror group ETA to follow through on its promise to disarm and disband as of April 8. Neither the Spanish nor the French governments say they’re prepared to offer ETA anything in return for disbanding, which could be a sticking point.


Finally a day without any more nonsense from this ridiculous ARE YOU KIDDING ME RIGHT NOW WHAT THE SHIT:

Gibraltar on Wednesday accused Spain of causing long traffic jams by tightening border controls, saying it was “clearly a response” to rising political tensions over the British territory.

As Gibraltar emerges as a sore point in Britain’s exit negotiations with the European Union, deputy chief minister Joseph Garcia complained of traffic tie-ups on Wednesday on the border with Spain.

“The latest action of Spain is obviously and clearly a response to the latest political climate,” Garcia told broadcaster GBC. “It is what they’ve always done but certainly it is totally and absolutely unacceptable.”


Beaten (or was he?) presidential challenger Guillermo Lasso says he plans to challenge Sunday’s vote counts at almost 2000 of the country’s roughly 40,000 polling places.

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