Conflict update: April 28 2017


This is kind of late-breaking so I don’t have much detail, but North Korea tested a ballistic missile of some kind early Saturday morning (local time). The test appears to have failed, but failure is just another step toward success, or something. This is definitely a new provocative step by Pyongyang, but as provocations go, it’s probably less crazy-making than, say, another nuclear test.

Earlier today, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pressed for some non-specific action (presumably sanctions-related, if you look at the rest of his remarks) against North Korea at a ministerial meeting of the UN Security Council, while China argued that it shouldn’t be up to them alone to rein the North Koreans in. Which is fair, but on the other hand we live in a world where China has vastly more ability to leverage Pyongyang than any other country.

Before we leave North Korea for tonight, I think Zack Beauchamp’s summary of the Trump administration’s last 48 hours on this issue is worth reading:

On Wednesday, nearly the entire Senate took a bus trip to the White House to be briefed on North Korea policy. In the briefing, top Trump officials told senators that they were planning to use economic sanctions and diplomatic outreach to allies to bring North Korea to heel. But they were apparently incapable of being more specific than that, infuriating many of the senators who attended. One anonymous Democrat described the reaction to Trump’s comments at the briefing as “80 sets of invisible eyes rolling.”

On Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told NPR that the US was open to direct negotiations with North Korea — reversing the “no negotiations” stance that he himself had taken a month ago. Then on Friday came Trump’s ominous Reuters interview, which also included a new demand that South Korea pay for the THAAD missile defense system — “the most incredible equipment you’ve ever seen” — that the US was currently installing there.

And then, late on Friday, North Korea conducted a ballistic missile test. It’s not yet clear how the Trump team will respond.

No, it’s certainly not.


I feel like I did you a disservice yesterday because I was tired and the update was pushing 4000 words and I just didn’t have any more WHAT THE FUCKs in me, but I think we need to revisit part of President Trump’s big Reuters interview from yesterday. Specifically, the part about South Korea

U.S. President Donald Trump told Reuters on Thursday he will either renegotiate or terminate what he called a “horrible” free trade deal with South Korea and said Seoul should pay for a U.S. anti-missile system that he priced at $1 billion.

In an interview with Reuters, Trump called the five-year-old trade pact with South Korea “unacceptable” and said it would be targeted for renegotiation after his administration completes a revamp of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico.

He blamed the U.S.-Korean trade deal, known as KORUS, on his 2016 Democratic presidential election opponent, Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of state promoted the final version of the trade pact before its approval by Congress in 2011.

“It is unacceptable, it is a horrible deal made by Hillary,” the Republican Trump said. “It’s a horrible deal, and we are going to renegotiate that deal or terminate it.”

Asked when he would announce his intention to renegotiate the deal, Trump said: “Very soon. I’m announcing it now.”

Trump’s comments crashed the South Korean stock market and forced this close American ally to angrily reject any notion that it would pay Washington a billion dollars for the privilege of possibly being its test case for trying to shoot down North Korean nukes. Which is what’s so unbelievably, galactically stupid about this. The Trump administration has decided that North Korea is the Threat Of Our Times and that Donald Trump is going to be the president who Does Something about it. And at a moment when tensions with North Korea are as high as they’ve been maybe since the Korean War, mostly because Donald Trump has made them high, what does Trump do? He angers South Korea. Apparently without running it by anybody first. Moreover, he angers South Korea at a time when the country is gearing up for a presidential election in which the favorite, Moon Jae-in, is known to be skeptical of the US-South Korean relationship to begin with.

Why does Donald Trump decide to insult South Korea at a time when he’s also ratcheting up tensions with North Korea? Who the fuck knows? Even Trump probably doesn’t know, and he’s the guy who did it and also the man dictating American foreign policy.

What a time to be alive. Well, for as long as we get to actually be alive.


The Syrian Democratic Forces’ campaign to oust ISIS from Raqqa has, in case you haven’t been keeping score at home, gotten bogged down of late in Tabqa. This makes sense. ISIS had a pretty firm hold on Tabqa–the airfield, town, and dam–and so it’s taking the SDF, with American help, some time to dislodge them. Of course, it doesn’t help speed things along when Turkey, America’s close NATO ally that definitely also too wants to defeat ISIS in Syria for sure, is busy attacking Kurdish YPG positions to the north. The YPG are still the backbone of the SDF’s forces, so hitting them means hitting the SDF. To that end, I guess, the American forces are now deploying along the Turkey-Syria border in areas controlled by the Kurds. They’re ostensibly there to “monitor” the situation on the border, but in reality they’re probably there because Washington believes Turkey won’t attack the YPG if there’s a chance it might kill Americans in the process.

Syria and Iraq are increasingly collaborating directly on an anti-ISIS air campaign, with Iraqi jets having struck ISIS targets in Syria in February and Syrian jets having struck ISIS targets along the Iraq-Syria border earlier this month. These strikes are coordinated, and there’s a possibility that the Iraqi air force will participate if the Syrian army attempts to move east to break ISIS’s siege of Deir Ezzor. While the Iraqi government is obviously free to ally and collaborate with whomever it likes, their decision to work closely with Bashar al-Assad’s government points to the problems that the US has navigating Middle Eastern politics and trying to stick to an overall policy that makes sense. We’re supporting Iraq and opposed to Assad, but Iraq and Assad are allies against the same enemy, which also happens to be America’s enemy. Good times.


ISIS claimed responsibility for a car bombing in central Baghdad Friday evening that killed at least four Iraqi police officers.

As for Mosul, well, here’s how that’s shaking out.

The Iraqi army says there are only four more neighborhoods in western Mosul that remain to be liberated from ISIS. That’s good.

One of those neighborhoods is still Mosul’s Old City, where ISIS has been holding out for more than a month. That’s bad.

Iraqi federal police are only 300 meters away from the Nuri Mosque in the Old City, a very important symbolic site for ISIS as it’s where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate in 2014. That’s good.

“300 meters away from the Nuri Mosque” is pretty much where the federal police were a month ago.

that's bad


The GAO says that the over $1.5 trillion F-35 program is going to cost at least $1.7 billion more most recent estimates have determined. What does this have to do with Yemen, you ask? Well, nothing really, except inasmuch as the United Nations says it still needs at least a billion dollars to keep millions of Yemenis from starving to death. America doesn’t have money to spend on keeping people alive, but when it comes to throwing money at defense contractors to build aircraft that comprehensively suck, then buddy, you better believe we’ve got the cash for that.

In what would be a real blow to my general state of cynicism, Saudi Arabia may actually be serious about finding a diplomatic settlement for Hudaydah that would see arms shipments through the city’s port curtailed without destroying said port. The Saudis want the UN to take over operations at the port from the Yemeni rebels, which would allow international monitors to block weapons coming in while still allowing humanitarian aid through. The rebels would have to agree to this, of course, but it seems that they’ve been receptive to the idea so far. Of course, the Saudis could still just be going through the motions here, checking off the “we tried” box before they go ahead and attack the port after all, but for now this might actually be good news. If an agreement is reached, it could be a confidence-building measure for talks on ending the civil war altogether, which would be even better news. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.


I have a new piece at LobeLog, an interview with Turkey expert Gönül Tol of the Middle East Institute. We cover the recent referendum, what it means for Turkish politics, and Turkish foreign policy moving forward. We talk, for example, about the narrow margin of victory for the “yes” side and whether that will cause Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP followers to rethink their increasingly harsh rhetoric and authoritarian tendencies:

LL: Earlier you mentioned the margin of victory, which was very slim. Erdogan was clearly looking for a bigger victory that would serve as a mandate for his agenda and show broad public support for changing the constitution, but he didn’t get it. He’s now confronted by the reality that in a campaign in which he stacked the deck quite a bit in his favor, he still failed to convince almost half the country. Do you think the narrow margin of victory could, as some writers are suggesting, cause Erdogan to moderate his rhetoric and policies to some degree?

Tol: I do, and we’ve already seen that. If you look at the pro-government media and pro-government circles, there is a soul-searching going on. I’ve never heard this kind of self-criticism in AKP circles, especially from pro-government media. We’re seeing articles asking “what went wrong? What was the mistake that we made?” Very prominent, conservative, pro-AKP writers are saying that the “yes” campaign alienated people to the point that it lost Istanbul. The 49 percent who voted “no” can’t just be CHP and HDP voters—there must be a bloc of AKP voters in that group, which means that AKP alienated its own base, it alienated educated, urban AKP supporters. Why has this happened? Their answer is the very polarizing rhetoric coming from AKP officials.

Turkey’s potential membership in the European Union, a carrot that the EU has been dangling at Ankara for over 50 years with probably no intention of ever actually letting Turkey join the club, now looks completely kaput. There’s so much bad blood building up between the increasingly nationalist Erdoğan and the far right nationalist movements that are more and more influential in European politics, and now that Erdoğan is going to get the powerful presidency he’s been after there are serious concerns about Turkish democracy. So it’s not surprising that Brussels is trying to reevaluate its relationship with Turkey. France and Germany are pushing for the EU not to formally reject Turkey’s EU bid–instead, they both seem like they would prefer to offer Ankara some kind of deep partnership agreement that falls short of membership, and then formally reject its bid.


In a stirring display of unity and purpose, every member of the United States Senate signed a letter, released today, demanding an end to the dehumanization and oppression of the Palestinian people HA HA HA HA HA oh my God of course they didn’t do that. They signed a letter demanding that the UN stop picking on Israel. They expressed enthusiasm for the UN’s recent efforts to suppress, at America’s behest, a report that accurately described the apartheid conditions that exist in the West Bank as “apartheid,” so that’s nice.


The Egyptian parliament has given President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi authority to appoint judges, because “separation of powers” is for suckers, man.


Most of the fireworks in Iran’s first presidential debate were brought by conservative Tehran Mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf, who slammed President Hassan Rouhani for failing to create jobs and then promised to boost aid to the poor if elected. Ghalibaf was challenged by Rouhani’s Vice President and debate caddy, Eshaq Jahangiri, who wondered where Ghalibaf was when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was basically lighting piles of money on fire with his incompetence and grifting.

During the three hour (!) debate, conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi seems to have stayed out of the fray, focusing on his plans (well, vague promises anyway) to increase subsidies to the poor. I’m still not sure where this leaves Raisi and Ghalibaf, whose interplay is going to determine whether the conservative vote coalesces or is split. Ghalibaf sure seems to have taken the role of attack dog away from Raisi, which could indicate that he’s just in the race to help Raisi and will drop out before the election. On the other hand, if he’s seen as the only candidate directly challenging Rouhani in these debates, that stature combined with his much greater name recognition could convince him to stay in the race alongside Raisi. Ghalibaf’s presence on the final ballot would give Raisi a built-in excuse for losing, if it looks like things are headed in that direction anyway.


Those two American soldiers who were killed fighting ISIS in Nangarhar on Wednesday may, as it turns out, not have been killed by ISIS. The Pentagon is investigating whether they were killed by friendly fire from either other Americans or from accompanying Afghan forces.

Pardoned war criminal Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is scheduled to make his first public appearance in about 20 years when he gives an address to the nation on Saturday. This is obviously the first stage of what promises to be a long process of either integrating Hekmatyar and his followers into the Afghan state or failing to do that and instead creating even more chaos.


Thousands of protesters rallied in Islamabad today to demand that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif step down while an investigation is ongoing into allegations of corruption against his family related to the Panama Papers leak.


One of the interesting wrinkles that’s come out of the Trump administration’s hair on fire approach to North Korea has been that Donald Trump–the man who spent the better part of two years campaigning on the message that China is a bad actor what manipulates its currency and takes advantage of America in trade deals, the man who, after winning the election, set off a diplomatic firestorm by taking a call from the president of Taiwan–now appears to have adopted Chinese President Xi Jinping as his BFF. On the one hand, it probably can’t be bad that the countries with the two largest economies on the planet are getting along. On the other hand, there are a whole lot of countries in Asia who oriented their foreign policy toward America as a bulwark against Chinese aggression, and those countries are now wondering what the hell they’re supposed to do next. And it is genuinely troubling that Trump not only likes Xi, but appears to be taking Xi’s policy counsel. You want presidents to get along with other world leaders, and certainly to discuss issues with other world leaders, but it’s not a great sign when a president seems to be taking cues from other world leaders.

The US government, whose job now is basically to convince people not to pay attention to the man running it, is suggesting that the administration is just laying off of China right now because North Korea is such a pressing concern. But Trump genuinely seems to like Xi, and it’s Trump, so who knows where this is heading. He’s even said that he would not do another phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen without “speaking to [Xi] first.” Which, as dumb as it was for him to take Tsai’s call in the first place, is just a very strange way of putting that. I always knew that chocolate cake could do amazing things, but man, this is a whole new level.


The UN Security Council approved a resolution this evening expressing support for Secretary-General António Guterres’s new effort to find a solution to the Western Sahara dispute between Morocco and the Polisario Front. Big deal. What is news though is that Polisario pulled its forces out of Guerguerat, where they’d been engaged in a standoff with Moroccan forces until the Moroccans pulled out in February. Polisario’s decision not to leave Guerguerat in turn was seen as a provocation, so this is a positive step.


Yesterday, Boko Haram fighters probably from Abubakar Shekau’s faction of the group attacked a military base in northeast Nigeria’s Sambisa Forest, in a clash that reportedly left 15 militants dead. Today, a suicide bomber believed to have been affiliated with Abu Musab al-Barnawi’s faction attacked a military convoy in northeastern Nigeria, killing five soldiers.


The AP has an interesting piece on the trial and conviction of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré by a special tribunal in Senegal. Habré, an American and French client, was ousted by rebels in 1990 and convicted by the tribunal last year for crimes including rape and the murder of 40,000 people while he ruled Chad. His conviction and life sentence was upheld on appeal yesterday. As AP reporter Carley Petesch writes, there’s hope that Habré’s conviction could blaze a path for other past African dictators to be held accountable for their crimes:

Habre’s is the first conviction of a former head of state by an African court for crimes against humanity. His trial was also the first in which courts of one country prosecuted the former ruler of another for alleged human rights crimes. The Extraordinary African Chambers was created by the African Union and Senegal to try Habre for crimes committed during his presidency from 1982-1990.

The decision is a vindication for Chadians but also lays a path to justice for victims in other countries.

“This is the kind of thing that gives hope to people. That people can look at what Habre’s victims did, how they never gave up, how they fought for justice, how they brought their tormenter to court and think that they can do that as well,” said Reed Brody, an American international rights lawyer and member of the International Commission of Jurists who has worked with Habre’s victims since 1999. “It definitely goes beyond Africa.”


A UN peacekeeper from Romania has been “suspended” (apparently not “arrested” though) because he may have fathered a child with an underage girl. He’s the fifth UN peacekeeper charged with sexual exploitation so far in 2017, in what is really becoming a big problem for the UN.


Moscow wants Interpol to arrest former Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk for allegedly killing Russian soldiers in Chechnya in the 1990s. That’s…interesting. Yatsenyuk says he’s never been to Chechnya, but the Russians claim he fought with separatists there in 1994 and 1995.


Ethnic tensions remain high in Macedonia today after a nationalist mob stormed parliament yesterday to prevent it from electing an ethnic Albanian as speaker. Moscow is blaming the EU and America for Macedonia’s political violence, on the grounds that they brokered the resignation of the country’s last functioning government in January 2016. Of course, that government had ceased to be functioning for about a year before that and its resignation was seen at the time as the only way to end the dysfunction, but details, details.

I gave this story short shrift yesterday, again because there was so much to cover, but while the current eruption of nationalist sentiment is undoubtedly tied to Macedonia’s overall political dysfunction, the tension between majority Macedonians and the country’s large Albanian minority runs deep and includes a 2001 Albanian “insurgency” that ran for nine months and was really more like a low-level civil war.


Montenegro’s parliament ratified the country’s accession to NATO today by a unanimous vote…that was only unanimous because pro-Russia legislators boycotted. Which doesn’t bode well for the country’s political health, it seems to me.


New National Front leader Jean-François Jalkh is now the new ex-National Front leader. He stepped down today because, folks, the National Front has no patience for leaders who have engaged in Holocaust denial…well, not any more, anyway. The new new National Front leader is Steeve Briois, and we all look forward to hearing whatever horrifying views he has in the days and weeks to come.


The head of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, Patrick Gomes, has some unkind things to say about Britain’s post-Brexit plans:

The head of the African, Caribbean and Pacific group of nations has ruled out a free trade deal with the UK until at least six years after Brexit and taken a sideswipe at the idea of a new British trade empire.

The ACP chief, Dr Patrick Gomes, condemned “reactionary” Whitehall talk of a second era of British colonialism – dubbed “Empire 2.0” – and poured scorn on the government’s trade strategy.

A six-year delay to any post-Brexit deal would be a bitter setback to the government, which had hoped to use the 2018 Commonwealth summit in London as a springboard for closer trade ties with Anglophone states such as South Africa, Nigeria and Jamaica.

I can’t fathom why he’d be concerned about something called “Empire 2.0.” That sounds neat to me.


As the Venezuelan government formally notified the Organization of American States of its intention to withdraw from that body, protests against Nicolás Maduro’s government continued:

On Friday, hundreds marched to a military prison outside Caracas to demand the release of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and other jailed activists they consider political prisoners.

The march was part of an intensifying campaign by the opposition to force Maduro from office. More than 1,300 people have been arrested in almost four weeks of street clashes.

Marchers wound through side streets on the way to the prison, shouting “Maduro out!” and waving Venezuelan flags. Light armored vehicles and national guardsmen blocked access to the Ramo Verde military prison where Lopez is serving a nearly 14-year sentence for inciting violence during a previous round of anti-government unrest in 2014. With access blocked, the march ended 2.5 miles from the prison.


A general nationwide strike to protest planned cuts in government services and reports of political corruption turned violent today:

Demonstrators in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo blocked key roads with barricades of burning tires. Riot police used teargas and percussion grenades to try to disperse the crowds and open the routes.

Domestic media said it was the biggest general strike in decades, with protests reported in 26 states and strikes by teachers, bus drivers, healthcare providers, oil industry workers and public servants.

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