Conflict update: May 1 2017


A potentially significant development on this front took place today:

Hamas has unveiled a new political programme softening its stance on Israel by accepting the idea of a Palestinian state in territories occupied by Israel in the six-day war of 1967.

The new document states that the Islamist movement it is not seeking war with the Jewish people – but only with Zionism that drives the occupation of Palestine.

The new document also insists that Hamas is a not a revolutionary force which seeks to intervene in other countries – a commitment that is likely to be welcomed by other states such as Egypt.

The policy platform was announced by the head of the movement’s political bureau, Khaled Meshal, at a press conference in Doha. “Hamas advocates the liberation of all of Palestine but is ready to support the state on 1967 borders without recognising Israel or ceding any rights,” he said.

This isn’t going to be enough for Israel–Benjamin Netanyahu, who needs Hamas and needs the conflict so he can keep scaring the Israeli electorate, has already said that “Hamas is attempting to fool the world, but it will not succeed.” Nothing short of Hamas formally recognizing Israel–as a precondition for talks, rather than, say, the outcome of them–will do, and even if they did that Netanyahu would probably be able to find a reason to reject it.

This is a practical, though obviously not formal, recognition that Israel does exist and will continue to exist, and it’s also Hamas’s back-door withdrawal from the Muslim Brotherhood (which is by definition a revolutionary organization), which is a message presumably aimed at the Saudis and definitely aimed at Egypt. This decision to moderate, at least on paper, comes at a time when the governance of Palestine is in flux, with Mahmoud Abbas only getting older and the succession within Fatah and the Palestinian authority unclear. It also comes at a time when the Trump administration is leaving everybody, including probably itself, wondering how it plans to approach the Israel-Palestine issue. Hamas leadership is clearly jockeying for a bigger role in Palestinian governance and a seat at the table for any peace talks. I have my doubts they’ll get either, which makes these concessions essentially meaningless.

While we’re on the subject, I recommend Mitchell Piltnick’s latest piece at LobeLog, on the imbalance in the Israel-Palestine relationship and what Westerners keep misunderstanding about it

This is one of the biggest, most fundamental disconnects in the Western approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians are not struggling for peace; they are struggling for freedom. That struggle may be against second-class citizenship for Palestinian citizens of Israel, the expansion of settlements and land confiscation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, or the strangling siege in Gaza. But in all cases, it comes down to a struggle for freedom and a future where today’s Palestinians and future generations can forge their own future outside the yoke of Israel.

This goes beyond the obvious hypocrisy Netanyahu displays on a regular basis. His occasional statements of support for two states are empty, as he makes clear when he routinely accompanies them with qualifiers such as the need for Israel to maintain control over the Jordan Valley.

Indeed, many Palestinians hear Israeli desires for peace as nothing more than a preference for Palestinians to acquiesce in their own oppression. That view may ring false for many Israelis, but when Israel issues extraordinary demands on the Palestinians, it’s an unavoidable interpretation.

One such demand is that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Not only is this unheard of in the annals of diplomacy, it is also a demand not being made of anyone but the Palestinians—the one group of people for whom it has the meaning of justifying their own dispossession and suffering for the past 69 years. Israel makes this demand simply to obstruct any progress toward resolving the conflict.


Human Rights Watch has accused the Syrian government of using banned nerve agents on at least three other occasions over the past six months apart from the April 4 Khan Shaykhun incident–on December 11, December 12, and March 30, all in Hama province. The group also says that bomb “remnants” found at Khan Shaykhun “appear consistent with the characteristics [of] a Soviet-made air-dropped chemical bomb specifically designed to deliver sarin.”

Fighting in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta between rebel factions, specifically between Jaysh al-Islam and Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Fatah al-Sham, formerly Nusra), has killed at least 87 fighters and eight civilians according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Jaysh al-Islam is the rebel powerhouse in Ghouta and it’s reportedly trying to evict any fighters with Nusra/al-Qaeda links from the area.

In the anti-ISIS fight, the Syrian Democratic Forces said today that they’ve taken the old quarter of Tabqa and that only three neighborhoods in the town are still in ISIS’s possession.

Finally, in today’s edition of “we’re being led by sociopaths, here’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross:

Speaking at the Milken Institute Global Conference on Monday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross recalled the scene at Mar-a-Lago on April 6, when the summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping was interrupted by the strike on Syria.

“Just as dessert was being served, the president explained to Mr. Xi he had something he wanted to tell him, which was the launching of 59 missiles into Syria,” Ross said. “It was in lieu of after-dinner entertainment.”

As the crowd laughed, Ross added: “The thing was, it didn’t cost the president anything to have that entertainment.”

Ah, what fun! The missiles, dropping on the Arabs! How entertaining!


Mosul through April 28 (Wikimedia | Kami888)

The Iraqis may be starting a new phase in the Mosul operation. The counter-terrorism “Golden Division” has advanced far enough north that it’s now linked up with the Ninth Division and the Popular Mobilization Units’ al-Abbas Division in the northwestern suburb of Badush, and all three units may begin attacking remaining ISIS-controlled neighborhoods from the west, in an effort to isolate and encircle the still-holding-out Old City. The PMUs in general have been kept out of Mosul for fear their presence there would not be well-received, and it’s possible that the al-Abbas Division will still be kept in Badush and not be allowed to enter the city. However, this division is something of a special case among the PMUs in that it is directly controlled by the Iraqi Ministry of Defense whereas other PMU factions operate more autonomously. Consequently, the al-Abbas Division has been armed–heavily–by Baghdad and allowed to participate in operations almost as another regular military unit. And given Iraqi manpower issues it would not be surprising if Baghdad bent its rules about the PMUs to allow this particular unit to participate in the fighting in Mosul.


Well, this is certainly an inconvenient truth:

The leader of al-Qaida branch in Yemen said that his militants have often fought alongside Yemeni government factions — remarks that could embarrass the U.S.-backed coalition fighting the impoverished Arab country’s Shiite rebels.

Qasim al-Rimi leads the group known as Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, considered by Washington to be the most dangerous offshoot of the global terror network. He succeeded Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike nearly two years ago.

On the U.S. most-wanted list with a $5 million reward for his capture, al-Rimi has been a top target of U.S. airstrikes, which have soared in the past four months in southern Yemen. He spoke on Sunday to AQAP’s media arm al-Malahem from an undisclosed location in Yemen.

“We fight along all Muslims in Yemen, together with different Islamic groups,” he said, adding that his followers have teamed up with an array of factions — including the ultraconservative Salafis, “the Muslim Brotherhood and also our brothers among the sons of (Sunni) tribes” — against Yemen’s Shiite rebels known as Houthis.

I think it’s Nice that we’re all getting along here, but, uh, if the US is supplying intel and logistical support for the Saudi Air Force, and the Saudi Air Force is providing air support for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, I’m pretty sure that transitively this puts us on al-Qaeda’s side in Yemen. Which wouldn’t be the first time or place the US has found itself working “alongside” al-Qaeda–I’m sure just by happenstance–but it’s still not a good look.


Gunmen killed three Egyptian police officers in Cairo Monday evening, in what was probably a terrorist incident. Every attack like this in Cairo is worrisome because ISIS (assuming they’re behind it) has still had trouble extending its Egyptian operations out of Sinai aside from a few major attacks.


More fighting between ISIS and the Taliban, this time in Nangarhar province, killed three civilians along with 21 Taliban and seven ISIS fighters.

Meanwhile, a new report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction says that January and February of this year saw 807 Afghan security forces killed, a figure SIGAR termed “shocking,” especially since it came during winter, when the Taliban technically take a break from fighting. If they killed ~800 Afghan forces while they were on a break, one wonders what the casualty figures are going to look like now that their annual spring offensive has begun.


The Pakistani government is denying an Indian claim that its border forces killed two Indian soldiers on Monday near the Line of Control in Kashmir and then mutilated their bodies (!).


Rodrigo Duterte says he might not even visit Donald Trump at the White House, because he’s so busy, which is a load of bullshit so massive I’m surprised it didn’t sink a couple of Philippine islands. But here’s the problem with debasing your country by inviting a guy like Duterte in for a visit: now he gets elevated by the invitation (and the actual visit), plus he gets to elevate himself by pretending like he’s going to bigfoot the President of the United States.


This New York Times piece on the developing North Korean economy is really interesting. Apart from the US foreign policy dimension, my understanding of North Korea is pretty minimal, so I’m in no position to say how accurate it is, but the piece says that, according to analysts and defectors, the North Korean economy is growing at rates that, while not outstanding in an objective sense, are actually pretty remarkable given the heavy international restrictions that are in place against Pyongyang over its, well, everything. This is attributable to market reforms implemented by Kim Jong-un to try to improve the country’s economy, which resemble China’s early turn toward state-managed capitalism. This is good news for Kim…to a point. The problem is that the market economy may be growing beyond the government’s ability to control it–people are dealing in things like Western and South Korean entertainment and smartphones, things that Pyongyang would probably prefer they didn’t have.

Hey, you know how Donald Trump sometimes does that thing where random words spew out of his mouth hole that his staffers then later have to walk almost all the way back while somehow maintaining the illusion that their boss actually knows what he’s saying from one minute to the next? Something like that happened again today. In this case there’s a real danger that the president’s mouth-spew will embolden Kim Jong-un and make him believe that his nuclear program is winning him respect around the world, which is a new wrinkle in this whole affair.


Algeria is holding parliamentary elections this week at a time when the health and vitality of 80 year old dictator Abdelaziz Bouteflika is very much in question. Since the military really still runs Algeria (Bouteflika has had some real authority but it’s never been total, and if he’s really been non compos mentis since his 2013 stroke then he presumably has no real authority anymore), public interest in political theater is understandably low, and turnout is expected to be poor. As Brookings’ Bruce Reidel notes, this is a country that has been marginalized for a surprisingly long time given its historic import in the modern Arab world, but it’s not clear what, if anything, can or might shake the country out of its stagnation. The other concern is a resurgence of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has spent the past couple of years strengthening itself outside of Algeria by rebuilding ties with former splinter groups in West Africa.


Uganda and the US have pulled their support for the operation to capture Joseph Kony and destroy his Lord’s Resistance Army, which means that operation is effectively over. The LRA, greatly reduced and factionalized since its heyday, is mostly active in the Central African Republic now, and since CAR doesn’t really have much of an army of its own, it will be unable to continue any serious anti-LRA operations. Kony himself is believed to be holed up somewhere along the Sudan-South Sudan border and is not directly leading the LRA, such as it is, anymore.


The State Department is calling on Macedonian leaders to allow the formation of a new government even if the governing coalition includes some ethnic Albanian parties, which seems like good advice seeing as how the country hasn’t had a stable government since the last one became embroiled in scandal in 2015. But Macedonian nationalists are enraged at the possibility of Albanian parties serving in the government, and President Gjorge Ivanov wants assurances from Social Democrat Party leader Zoran Zaev that he’ll keep the Albanians in check before he gives Zaev the authority to form a government.

If the US really wanted to be helpful to Macedonia, it could try talking to the government of Greece. Greece’s objection to Macedonia’s name, which the country shares with a Greek region (Alexander the Great’s home), has, and I wish I were joking, been a big part of the reason why Macedonia hasn’t been able to apply for NATO and EU membership. Say what you will about those institutions, but frustration at being unable to join either is probably contributing to the anger simmering under the surface of Macedonian politics.


In an effort to, I guess, appeal to wavering Marine Le Pen voters (?), Emmanuel Macron has been threatening to pull France out of the European Union unless the EU makes some reforms–what reforms, you ask? I don’t know, and I’m not sure if Macron knows either or if he’s just saying things he thinks people will like to hear. He’s coined the term “Frexit” to describe this, which to my mind completely disqualifies him from being President of France or even being seen in polite company again, and makes it imperative that the country re-run the first round of the election.


This Guardian report of a dinner meeting last Wednesday between British Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is, in technical foreign policy terms, bonkers:

However, the detailed accounts of the dinner, along with comments made by Juncker at a summit in Brussels on Saturday where the EU agreed its negotiating guidelines, do suggest that the two sides are dangerously divided on key issues such as Britain’s divorce bill and the future rights of EU citizens.

May is said to have told Juncker the UK did not legally owe a penny to the EU under existing treaties over the dinner. She is also said to have told him the issue of citizens’ rights could be settled in the opening few weeks of formal negotiations, which are due to start in June after the UK general election.

May also reportedly suggested EU citizens would in future receive only the same rights in relation to living and working in the UK as anyone else who was not a British citizen.

Juncker responded that such a scenario would be problematic, because EU citizens currently enjoy additional rights. “I think you are underestimating this, Theresa,” he is reported as saying.

May denies that the meeting was this ragged, but it is a fact that the day after the meeting took place, German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered her Brexit “illusions” speech before the German parliament, and Juncker was reportedly in touch with Merkel about his meeting with May. If this is really May’s approach to the talks and not a negotiating posture, I suspect she really is going to be in for some rough talks with Brussels.


In an effort to stem anti-government protests (which continued today alongside pro-government rallies), Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro boosted the country’s minimum wage by 60 percent and has decreed that a citizen’s assembly will be convened to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution. The latter move in particular seems like a Hail Mary (the football play, not the prayer, although I guess that works too), particularly since it’s not clear how he wants to change the constitution. He may be looking for another way to sideline the opposition-controlled national assembly, but it was his attempt to do just that in late March, via the country’s supreme court, that started this latest round of protests.

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