Conflict update: April 20 2017


Details are still sketchy, but a gunman earlier this evening shot and killed a police officer on the Champs-Élysées in Paris before being shot and killed in turn by other police officers. There was a search for accomplices immediately after the shooting, but it seems at this point like the shooter was acting alone. French authorities are treating this as a terrorist attack, and ISIS has reportedly already claimed credit for the attack. The attacker used a pseudonym but he’s been identified as Karim Cheurfi, a 39 year old French national who has a previous conviction for shooting at police officers and was–obviously–known to authorities.

ISIS’s claim of responsibility was lightning fast, as these things go, which suggests they may have known of the attack before it happened–though it doesn’t necessarily suggest they had any role in planning it and, indeed, it doesn’t seem to have required much planning. It may also be that ISIS is aiming to use this attack to meddle with the French presidential election taking place this weekend, and if that’s the case then it’s pretty clear who they’d like to see win: reactionary nationalist/fascist Marine Le Pen. As the most anti-Islam voice in the race, Le Pen obviously stands to benefit from any last-minute voting decisions made out of fear stemming from this attack. And we know that ISIS likes it when Western countries elect right-wing, anti-Islam demagogues.

As it stood before the shooting, polling had Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron heading to the runoff, but conservative François Fillon had moved back into third place on his own. A switch of just a few points–hardly an impossibility given the number of voters who still say they’re undecided and/or not sure they’re going to vote–could put the “tough on crime”-style candidates, Fillon and Le Pen, in the runoff with Macron on the outside looking in. And in that case, with Le Pen running against the badly damaged and scandal-ridden Fillon in the second round, anything could happen.


This was going to be my first story before the Paris shooting happened. Iran’s Press TV has the list of candidates who have been permitted by the Guardian Council to stand in the country’s May 19 presidential election. They are:

  • Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani
  • Religious leader Ebrahim Raisi
  • Tehran Mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf
  • Current First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri
  • Moderate politician Mostafa Hashemitaba
  • Conservative (?) politician Mostafa Mir-Salim

Notably not on that list, of course, is former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His former vice president, Hamid Baghaei, was also disqualified. He hasn’t had time to do any squawking about this yet, but I have my doubts he’s going to take it lying down. Although I have to give his surrogates credit for how brazenly they’re already trying to spin this result as something Ahmadinejad really wanted all along

Ali Akbar Javanfekr, a close ally of Ahmadinejad, downplayed the two candidates’ exclusion, saying on social media that Ahmadinejad and Baghaei had only registered out of “national, religious and revolutionary duty.”

“Thank god, the Guardian Council removed the duty from their shoulders,” he wrote.

That is some first class bullshit, folks. Watch and learn.

Just as an aside: I know we scoff at the Guardian Council for rejecting candidates on ideological grounds (I do it too!), but in practice its function–determining which candidates and which views are acceptable for public debate–isn’t all that different from what our Republican and Democratic Parties do. The Guardian Council is more arbitrary about it, though, and to be fair that is an important difference.

There are a number of informal quirks about Iranian presidential campaigns that will be on display here. For example, both Rouhani and his VP, Jahangiri, are now running for president, even though they’re close political allies. Jahangiri registered so that he could be on the ballot in the event Rouhani had been disqualified, and he’ll probably stay in the race through the debates so that he can defend Rouhani from attacks from the other candidates. He’ll likely withdraw after the debates so as not to siphon votes away from Rouhani. Hashemitaba may plan on doing the same thing. Mir-Salim may likewise be there to help Raisi…or Ghalibaf.

The big immediate question, it seems to me, is what Ghalibaf is doing. He had talked about not even registering to run, so as to allow Raisi to be the undisputed conservative candidate, but then at the last minute he did register. Ghalibaf wants to be president so bad he can taste it–he finished second to Rouhani in 2013 but undoubtedly sees Rouhani’s vulnerability this time around. Will he devote his candidacy to helping Raisi, the clerical favorite? Will he drop out at some point to allow Raisi to be the lone conservative choice? Or will he go for broke and potentially split the conservative vote? Do we have time for a little game theory?

Ghalibaf is young enough (55, which is practically like being in your 20s as far as Iranian politics are concerned) that I guess he could be enticed by the prospect of serving as Raisi’s VP–except that no Iranian VP, since the office was created in 1989, has actually gone on to be elected president. So Ghalibaf wouldn’t exactly be doing himself any favors by taking that office. On the other hand, if Raisi were to win and name Ghalibaf his VP, and Raisi were to, say, succeed Supreme Leader (and 77 year old cancer patient) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at some point in the next four or eight years, Ghalibaf would then be elevated to the presidency. The Iranian constitution requires a new presidential election within a couple of months of the incumbent’s incapacitation (or promotion, I suppose, as the case may be), so Ghalibaf would have to stand for election almost right away, but he’d be doing so as the incumbent.

In non-political news, Iranian and Chinese firms are about to sign a contract to redevelop Iran’s Arak nuclear reactor. Arak was one of the main issues in negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal because, as a heavy-water reactor, its operation threatened to produce enough plutonium byproduct to allow Iran potentially to pursue the so-called “plutonium pathway” (as opposed to the “uranium pathway”) to a nuclear weapon. The reactor, which officially at least is intended to produce medical isotopes, will be redesigned so that it does not produce usable plutonium waste.


Iraqi authorities say their counter-terrorism “Golden Division” has secured the Thawra neighborhood in the central part of western Mosul, to the west of the Old City where Iraqi police are still pinned down fighting ISIS. So, progress. The Iraqis also seem to be making some wild claims about progress in the Old City itself, saying that federal police have taken as much as 30 or even 40 percent of that area from ISIS, when there’s nothing to actually indicate that’s true. Iraqi sources have consistently overestimated their progress throughout the Mosul operation, so this is nothing new even if it does seem just a bit more disconnected from reality than those past exaggerations.


The French government says that within a matter of days it will provide “proof” that Bashar al-Assad’s government was responsible for the Khan Shaykhun chemical weapons attack on April 4. These kinds of pronouncements tend to underwhelm, but we’ll see.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s Syria envoy, is scheduled to meet with Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, in Geneva on Monday. The noteworthy thing here, I guess, is that there’s no plan for an American representative to be involved. It’s certainly unlikely that these two will actually accomplish something apart from some fresh Russian diplomatic puffery.


Turkey analyst (the country, not the meat) Nick Danforth writes in Foreign Policy that the US-Turkey relationship would actually be better if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would just admit that he’s no longer into the whole democracy thing. Then instead of feeling compelled to criticize him from time to time over his authoritarian suppression of the democracy he claims to be running, Washington can unreservedly embrace Erdoğan as a friendly dictator a la Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and all our absolute monarch pals in the Persian Gulf. While this makes a certain Swiftian sense, Erdoğan can’t possibly do something like this both for political reasons and because there’s a pretty good chance it would cost Turkey its NATO membership. NATO’s governance requirements are suitably vague so that even a pretend democracy can still be in the club…but you have to at least pretend.


Human Rights Watch issued a report today accusing Yemeni rebels of indiscriminate use of land mines, which have killed or injured nearly 1000 Yemenis since 2015 and in some places have prevented displaced Yemenis from returning home. While this is certainly not the worst thing anybody’s done in Yemen over the past two years, a war crime is a war crime (mines, though unfortunately not illegal under international law, are banned by Yemeni law).


In response to recent Israeli military activities suggesting that the IDF is preparing for another invasion of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah’s media office took reporters on a tour of the Israel-Lebanon border area today. The message to the Israelis–we’re ready for you–wasn’t exactly subtle, though they also wanted to make it clear to the media that while they’re ready for an Israeli attack, they are not planning to start a war. That’s also not exactly a secret–Hezbollah has committed enough assets to helping Assad in Syria that I’m sure it would prefer not to have to defend southern Lebanon from the IDF right at the moment.


Pakistan’s Supreme Court did not remove Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from office today over corruption charges, but it did order an investigation into the offshore/shell companies that last year’s “Panama Papers” leak revealed his family controls. All things considered this is a decent result for Sharif, but the investigation means that this story isn’t over yet and Sharif isn’t in the clear.


There was a bit of an uptick in violence yesterday and overnight in southern Thailand, related to a long-running (since 2004) but generally low level Muslim insurgency there. The Barisan Revolusi Nasional, one of the largest insurgent groups, offered peace talks to the government earlier this month and had its offer rejected, so these attacks are seen as a way to prod the government toward talks. The attacks don’t seem to have been intended to produce a large body count, and in fact the only two fatalities yesterday were insurgents who were killed when a bomb they were transporting exploded.


Hey, you know how the White House said it was sending an carrier group to Korean waters, but, like, it didn’t actually do that? And the carrier group actually wasn’t anywhere near the Korean peninsula even though the Trump administration said it was? We all got a real kick out of that, didn’t we? Well, if we found it funny, you can imagine how hilarious people in South Korea thought it was:

When news broke less than two weeks ago that the Trump administration was sending the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson to the Korean Peninsula, many South Koreans feared a war with North Korea. Others cheered for Washington, calling the deployment a powerful symbol of its commitment to deterring the North.

On Wednesday, after it was revealed that the carrier strike group was actually thousands of miles away and had been heading in the opposite direction, toward the Indian Ocean, South Koreans felt bewildered, cheated and manipulated by the United States, their country’s most important ally.

“Trump’s lie over the Carl Vinson,” read a headline on the website of the newspaper JoongAng Ilbo on Wednesday. “Xi Jinping and Putin must have had a good jeer over this one.”

“Like North Korea, which is often accused of displaying fake missiles during military parades, is the United States, too, now employing ‘bluffing’ as its North Korea policy?” the article asked.

HA HA HA, April Fools, South Korea! Hope you enjoyed the gag! Also, apparently President Trump described the Korean peninsula as having once been “part of China” in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, and as it turns out Koreans can get pretty upset when you rewrite their history like that! Go figure!

So if you’re keeping score, the Trump administration has not only failed to do anything about North Korea despite all its bluster, it may actually be worsening US-South Korea relations. Quite an achievement.


Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni was in Washington today to meet with President Trump. One of the issues on their agenda was undoubtedly Libya–Italy has been running point for the European Union in efforts to negotiate an end to the Libyan civil war and a solution to the human trafficking crisis that war has created. Libya hasn’t been on Donald Trump’s radar as far as anybody has been able to tell, though White House adviser and professional Megamind Cosplayer Sebastian Gorka has been keen to get in there and really fuck the place up. Would Gentiloni be able to convince Trump to take on a larger role in trying to end the war? Well, about that:

“I do not see a role in Libya. I think the United States has right now enough roles. We’re in a role everywhere. So I do not see that,” Trump said during a joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.

“I do see a role in getting rid of ISIS, we’re very effective in that regard … I see that as a primary role and that’s what we’re going to do, whether it’s in Iraq, or Libya or anywhere else,” Trump said, using an acronym commonly used to refer to the Islamic State.

Hey, Libya, we’re probably not going to use any leverage to, say, bring Russian client Khalifa Haftar to the negotiating table, but we’ve got a BIG-ASS BOMB with your name on it. Just say the word! Or don’t, and maybe we’ll use it anyway!


If you’re interested in the political wheelings and dealings happening in Morocco, about which I confess to knowing only the bare bones, you might want to check out the two-part (so far) series that Adel Abdel Ghafar and Anna Jacobs have written for Brookings’s Markaz blog. In March, they wrote about King Mohammed VI’s efforts to manage Morocco’s transition to some type of constitutional monarchy in response to changes that were demanded by protesters during the 2011 “Arab Spring” movement. That’s meant trying to find an accord with an elected parliament and government led by an Islamist party, the Party of Justice and Development (PJD). As you may have heard, in mid-March the king sacked PJD leader and then-Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane over Benkirane’s inability to form a government in the months since the country’s most recent election, in October. He replaced Benkirane with another PJD leader, Saadeddine Othmani, who quickly pieced together a governing coalition.

Part of Benkirane’s inability to form a government stemmed from his unwillingness to include a large number of smaller parties in the coalition, including Mohammed’s favorite party, the National Rally of Independents Party (RNI). As Ghafar and Jacobs tell it, the demand to include those smaller parties was being made by the king himself, though not directly. Mohammed’s goal was to water down the PJD’s authority in its own government–a sign that Mohammed isn’t going to be a passive constitutional monarch but still plans on being directly involved in Moroccan politics. And by canning Benkirane and getting Othmani do to what he wanted, Mohammed hasn’t just watered down the PJD’s power, he’s more or less co-opted it as an opposition party while empowering the loyalist RNI. This leaves an opening, Ghafar and Jacobs suggest, for a new opposition to emerge either out of the left and/or from among more radical Islamists.

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