Conflict update: May 2 2017


UPDATE/BREAKING: Right after I hit post on this, as often happens, I saw this Reuters report that a “large explosion” had reportedly occurred in central Kabul, near the American embassy. Al Jazeera is reporting that it was a suicide attack and that there are “several” casualties.

Earlier, a suspected Taliban attack in Faryab province late on Monday reportedly killed five Afghan police officers. Eight militants were also reportedly killed when Afghan security forces counterattacked and drove them back.


The leaders of Libya’s two main warring factions–Government of National Accord head Fayez al-Sarraj and Libyan National Army commander Khalifa Haftar–actually spoke with one another, face-to-face, in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday. There was no official communication after the session, but both sides characterized the discussion as “positive.” A pro-Haftar Libyan TV station reported that they agreed to scrap parts of the 2011 UN peace deal (the one that led to the GNA’s formation) that would give the GNA immediate control over a united Libyan military, and instead will try to negotiate a power sharing arrangement, with elections to be held in early March.

Nothing may come of this, but there’s a better chance for a political settlement in Libya today than there was yesterday.


So much for the possibility of a negotiated UN takeover of Hudaydah, I guess. Maybe I was right to be cynical after all:

Saudi fighter jets dropped leaflets over Houthi-controlled Hodeida in recent days warning its hundreds of thousands of residents of an impending offensive, according to the United Nations and aid agencies. Yemen imports 90 percent of its food, and Hodeida’s already-damaged port is the entry point for the vast majority of it. A two-year-long civil war has destroyed Yemen’s economy, and more than 7 million people rely on humanitarian aid for survival.

Members of Congress are busily writing sternly-worded letters to the Trump administration demanding that it not aid what now seems like an imminent attack, and insisting that any direct US participation in such an operation would require Congressional approval. But, you know, why expect this White House, or any White House, to start respecting Congressional war powers now?

To recap: the hope here is that a major assault on Hudaydah will force the Yemeni rebels to capitulate enough to reach a political settlement to the civil war that’s imperiled millions of Yemenis. The problem is that the assault on Hudaydah is likely to take so long, and be so destructive, that international food and aid shipments will be interrupted for months and many of those millions of Yemenis will die before it can be completed and the Hudaydah port rebuilt.


The situation in Mosul appears to be pretty static, with Iraqi federal police holding the line in the Old City while other Iraqi units continue to liberate the rest of western Mosul. There were two attacks outside of Mosul today, though: in one, the deputy manager of Iraq’s North Gas Company, Mohammed Younis, was murdered by a gunman in Kirkkuk, and in the other, ten Iraqi soldiers were killed when they were attacked by ISIS fighters in Anbar province.


ISIS also today struck a camp for displaced persons in Rajm al-Salibi, an area near the Iraqi border that’s controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces. At least 38 people, 23 of whom were civilians, were killed in the attack. In a bit of good news, a convoy of humanitarian aid reached the city of Douma, just west of Damascus, which is controlled by rebels and besieged by government-aligned forces. Meanwhile, though, rebel infighting in Ghouta (where the dominant rebel faction, Jaysh al-Islam, reportedly opened fire over the weekend at protesters demanding an end to said infighting) has left hundreds of thousands more civilians cut off from aid.

Outside of Syria it was a big day for people who are not Syrian and probably shouldn’t have anything to do with Syria to talk to each other about how to deal with Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin talked with German Chancellor Angela Merkel (that seems not to have gone very well) and US President Donald Trump (they agreed to “push for a ceasefire”–that’ll get the job done!–discussed the idea of creating “safe zones” in Syria, made plans to  meet face to face at the G20 summit in July, and Trump agreed to send Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones to the next round of Russia’s Syrian peace talks in Astana, which are starting tomorrow). And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan talked…well, he talked about possibly talking with both Putin and Trump about–what else–their countries’ respective relationships with the Kurds.


Erdoğan is visiting Washington to meet with Trump on May 16, and it seems like Ankara may have to do a fair amount of diplomacy between now and then to try to smooth things over after its April 25 airstrikes against YPG targets in northern Syria. The Turks reportedly gave US forces less than an hour’s notice before the strikes and they wouldn’t tell the US exactly where the strikes were going to occur, which might be good for operational security but left the Americans pretty spooked and very pissed off. That led to what observers have characterized as a “horrible” phone call between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in which Tillerson made it quite clear just how pissed the US was.

Erdoğan, who wasted no time rejoining his Justice and Development Party now that the April 16 referendum results have allowed Turkey’s president to be a member of a party, said today that Turkey will say “goodbye” to Europe unless the European Union moves forward on the country’s membership process. It’s not clear how Turkey plans on saying “goodbye” to the EU, which is collectively its largest trade partner and will be even after Britain leaves it, but as far as Turkey becoming an EU member is concerned, the feeling in Brussels is very mutual:

Turkey under President Tayyip Erdogan has turned its back on joining the European Union, at least for now, the bloc’s top official dealing with Ankara said, offering economic cooperation instead if both sides can restore friendly ties.

After years of stalemate on Turkey’s bid to join the world’s biggest trading bloc, EU governments say the process is dead, citing Erdogan’s crackdown on dissidents, his ‘Nazi’ jibes at Germany and a referendum giving him sweeping new powers that a rights group says lack checks and balances.

This is incredibly disingenuous because it assumes that Europe has ever been acting in good faith with respect to Turkey’s possible membership, and to be frank there’s very little evidence to say that it has. But I think it’s fair to say that recent events would have quashed even a genuine move toward admitting Turkey to the club.


The Lebanese parliament is scheduled to meet again on May 15, at which time it is quite likely the body will vote to extend its term for another year. This is not great, considering that the current parliament’s term was supposed to have expired in 2013 but has already been extended multiple times. Lebanese electoral law requires a period of 90 days from when elections are called to when they’re held, so at this point even if elections were called they couldn’t be held before the most recent parliamentary extension runs out in mid-June.

President Michel Aoun wants to avoid another extension, somehow, but he’s also trying to push a change to the country’s electoral laws that would benefit his Maronite Christian bloc, and, well, they already don’t have enough time to hold an election without the complication of a major debate on how that election should be conducted. If parliament fails to agree on an extension, Aoun could call for new elections when its term expires; if it does agree on an extension, his options are fairly limited in terms of trying to block it, but he probably will have a majority of the Lebanese people, tired of not being allowed to vote on a new legislature, on his side


Mahmoud Abbas is set to meet with President Trump tomorrow in Washington, and, realistically, it’s probably not going to go well. Abbas has near-zero credibility back home, very little remains of his former standing as a democratically-elected leader (his name last appeared on a ballot 12 years ago, his age has every member of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority jockeying for position, and he’s meeting with a president who is pro-Israel to a degree unusual even among American presidents. Abbas’s best hope is that Trump has one of his patented “I don’t know anything so let me just parrot the last thing somebody told me” moments and goes all-in on the Arab Peace Initiative. It’s unlikely that Trump will make any moves toward a more Palestinian-centric view of the Israel-Palestine situation, though, if only because his base really doesn’t want that.


Eight suspected ISIS fighters were killed today in a battle with members of the Tarabeen tribe in the Sinai. ISIS has been attacking tribes in the area a fair amount lately, and so it’s starting to get some blowback from them in addition to the usual counter-ISIS operations from the Egyptian government.


In a long interview that aired on Saudi TV on Tuesday, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad b. Salman explained that he sees no possibility for dialogue between the Saudi kingdom and Iran:

“How do you have a dialogue with a regime built on an extremist ideology … that they must control the land of Muslims and spread their Wahhabi Twelver Jaafari sect in the Muslim world,” Mohammed said in the interview with MBC television, which was also broadcast on Saudi state television.

I hope you don’t mind that I added a few links to his quote for clarity. I also apologize for that one error in transcription, I don’t know what happened there. I was unable to remove it for some reason so I just crossed it out. Anyway, his point is amplified when you consider the way that Tehran ruthlessly executes anyone espousing an alternative to their extremism.

MbS also defended the Saudi intervention in Yemen and said that Riyadh could end the war in a matter of days with an invasion, but that such an act would cost thousands of lives on both sides. This explains why they’ve stuck to their air war, which is only costing thousands of lives on one side.


An important clerical association in Qom called the “Society of Professors” (Jam’eh Modarresin) has endorsed Ebrahim Raisi for president. This is pretty unsurprising, considering that Raisi is himself a prominent cleric, and it solidifies Raisi as the establishment conservative choice over Tehran Mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf (whose intentions are still unclear).

Nonetheless, Harvard’s Mahsa Rouhi argues at Al-Monitor that Rouhani remains the favorite to win reelection in part because the Iranian establishment, which doesn’t control the outcomes of presidential elections but does try to steer them, likes the stability that comes from presidents serving two full terms in office. This is something I’ve mentioned before, but Raisi’s entry into the race has me wondering if the powers that be really want a second term for this president. Otherwise why put an up and coming establishment figure like Raisi through the embarrassment of a losing presidential race? Rouhi argues that Raisi was put into the race, alongside Ghalibaf, to drive voter turnout, since Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei values high turnout numbers as validation that the Iranian political system is working. Raisi’s real goal may be simply to boost his fairly low name recognition in advance of a second bite at the apple in 2021–although that seems like a comedown for a guy who’s been talked about as a potential successor for Khamenei. What happens if Khamenei doesn’t make it to 2021? Can Raisi be a serious contender for Supreme Leader when he just lost a presidential election to Rouhani?


Uzbek Interior Minister Abdusalom Azizov says that his government is regularly finding radicalized militants among returning Uzbek migrants, most frequently among those returning from Russia and Turkey. He suggested that Uzbek authorities might begin using social media to draw attention to suspected Uzbek radicals who are still living abroad.



The Pakistani army repelled a Pakistani Taliban attack on two checkpoints in South Waziristan on Tuesday. The militants reportedly crossed into Pakistan from Afghanistan before attacking the outposts.


There were some sparks today during a press conference involving European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Myanmar Foreign Minister/de facto head of state and government Aung San Suu Kyi, over–what else–the Rohingya. Mogherini said she welcomes a March UN decision to send a fact-finding mission to Myanmar to investigate crimes against the Rohingya community. Suu Kyi, rapidly sliding into “Henry Kissinger” territory on the list of shittiest Nobel laureates, said her government is “disassociating ourselves from the [UN] resolution because we don’t think the resolution is in keeping with what is actually happening on the ground.”

“What is actually happening on the ground” is probably ethnic cleansing, just to be clear.


Satellite analysis from the website 38North suggests that activity has once again picked up at North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility. 38North has been saying for a few weeks now that the site looks like it’s prepared to conduct a nuclear test at any time, which coincidentally is the threat Pyongyang just made today in response to reports that the US THAAD missile defense system that was deployed to South Korea has come on line. But the new satellite images don’t necessarily mean a test is imminent (in fact, the activity could actually be people standing down from a formerly imminent test), and concluding anything from them is particularly challenging because North Korea knows the site is being watched and often has people engage in activity just to confuse analysts.


Somalia isn’t the only place seeing a surge in piracy–the group Oceans Beyond Piracy reported today that attacks in West African waters, particularly off the Nigerian coast, doubled in 2016. The main tactic appears to be kidnapping crews for ransom rather than trying to seize cargo.


Eight Malian soldiers were killed today after being ambushed in the central part of the country, presumably by Islamist militants. No group has claimed responsibility, but the recently formed al-Qaeda supergroup, Nusrat al-Islam, is the biggest player in the Malian jihadi scene.


Ailing President Muhammadu Buhari, who spent several weeks in the UK earlier this year receiving treatment for an undisclosed medical condition, is being urged to take additional medical leave after an apparent deterioration in his condition. Because of Nigeria’s tenuous stability under the best of circumstances, Buhari’s health has to be closely watched even though it could be argued that the country functioned better when he was in the UK.


Human Rights Watch says that at least 45 civilians have been killed over the last three months in clashes between rival armed factions in the central part of the country. A Muslim group calling itself 3R (Return, Reclamation, and Rehabilitation) has also been carrying out a months-long campaign of violence in the country’s northwest.


The piece is far too long and in-depth to summarize properly, but if you’re interested in big trends across Africa I recommend this deep New York Times dive into China’s increasing presence–for better and worse–in resource-rich but economically downtrodden places like Namibia:

China’s gravitational pull can be felt today in every nook of the globe. Few countries feel the tug more strongly than Namibia, a wind-swept nation with a population of 2.4 million — barely a tenth the size of Beijing’s — some 8,000 miles away from the Chinese capital. The desert where the Husab mine has materialized in recent years used to be known only for the presence of Welwitschia mirabilis, the short, droopy national plant that grows just two leaves — and can live for more than 1,000 years. Now, in little more than 1,000 days, China’s reach has spread far beyond the uranium mine.

Just north of Swakopmund, a Chinese telemetry station sprouts from the desert floor, its radar dishes pointing skyward to track satellites and space missions. Twenty-five miles south, in Walvis Bay, a state-owned Chinese company is building an artificial peninsula the size of 40 baseball fields as part of a vast port expansion. Other Chinese projects nearby include new highways, a shopping mall, a granite factory and a $400 million fuel depot. Chinese trade flows through the port: shipping containers filled with cement, clothing and machinery coming in; tiles, minerals and — in some cases — illegal timber and endangered wildlife heading out to China. The activity is so frenzied that rumors of a proposed naval base in Walvis Bay, though vehemently denied by Chinese officials, do not strike locals as implausible.


Anti-corruption gadfly and Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny says he’s lost 80 percent of the sight in his right eye (though he may improve with treatment) after having had chemicals thrown in his face last week by an assailant in Moscow. Navalny was attacked by a member of a nationalist organization who threw what was believed to be zelyonka, a green antiseptic, in his face (which was the second time Navalny has been attacked in that manner this year). But he apparently suffered a chemical burn to his eye, which suggests that there was something else in the solution that the attacker threw at him.


The main topic of Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Angela Merkel today was the situation in Ukraine. Both affirmed their commitment to implementing the February 2015 Minsk Agreement, which may be a fine agreement but, you know, it’s been over two years now. Putin, naturally, deflected blame for the ongoing (albeit generally low-level) conflict in eastern Ukraine onto Kiev, while Merkel, naturally, stressed that Putin should use his influence over the Ukrainian rebels (which Putin, naturally, claims he doesn’t have), to bring them in line with the agreement.


The Greek government reached a deal with creditors today that will allow it to avoid a July default, at the cost of yet another round of austerity that will further suppress the Greek economy, preventing it from paying down its massive debt–and so the cycle will continue into perpetuity. The deal, which you’ll be happy to know sacrifices greedy pensioners in order to appease destitute bankers, should be approved by the Greek parliament in a couple of weeks. You’ll also be happy to know that there is still no, none, zero plan to get the Greek economy, which has shrunk by 27 percent since the 2007-2008 global financial crash, out of this insane austerity cycle.


Marine Le Pen was caught plagiarizing a speech by former right-wing opponent François Fillon yesterday, a flub her aides have tried to spin as an “homage” to Fillon. Because, of course, why wouldn’t you want to pay tribute to a candidate who thoroughly disgraced himself and his party by losing in the first round to a fascist amid a litany of embarrassing personal scandals. Here’s a comparison of her speech and Fillon’s, which should get the point across even if you don’t speak a word of French:

Fillion, in case you’re wondering, has urged his supporters to vote for Emmanuel Macron in the May 7 runoff. The same cannot be said for leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has urged his supporters not to vote for Le Pen but has not asked them to vote for Macron. New polling suggests that nearly two-thirds of his supporters may not vote for Macron, choosing instead to stay home or submit a blank ballot.


Buzzfeed has a pretty good summary of the issues that came out of last week’s now notorious meeting between Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that caused Juncker to determine that May was basically out to lunch regarding what Brexit is really going to mean. For example:

May is understood to have suggested that a possible model for Brexit is the current protocol that enabled Britain as an EU member to opt out from home affairs measures and then opt back into the ones it likes.

This suggestion will have set alarm bells ringing because such an approach would amount in effect to cherry-picking and a sectoral deal to maintain the preferred benefits of membership – the EU27 have repeatedly stressed these are all red lines, and enshrined the respective points in Saturday’s guidelines.

For the 27, the Brexit process is first and foremost a divorce: How the UK will depart the EU and intends to untangle itself from the single market, as well as how any transition period will work and be regulated, will all need to be clear before diving into the substance of a trade negotiation.

If May’s goal in meeting with Juncker was to strategically stake out her opening negotiating position, then she seems to have done that at the cost of drawing the EU-27 closer together around a hardline approach to the talks. Mission accomplished?

Hi, how’s it going? Thanks for reading; attwiw wouldn’t exist without you! If you enjoyed this or any other posts here, please share widely and help build our audience. You can like this site on Facebook or follow me on Twitter as well. Most critically, if you’re a regular reader I hope you’ll read this and consider helping this place to stay alive.

3 thoughts on “Conflict update: May 2 2017

  1. Okay, this is the first time in months of lurking that I’ve seen you get something just plain wrong. No fault of yours — Balkan politics can be weird, and Balkan politicians love nothing better than lying about their motives to confuse international observers.

    “Macedonian nationalists are enraged at the possibility of Albanian parties serving in the government” — no, they’re not. Albanian parties have been part of every Macedonian government since the Ohrid Agreement in 2002. There are two Albanian parties and (simplification) they swap in and out of government. There’s never been a Macedonian government in the last 15 years that didn’t include one of them.

    Also, the people who are enraged aren’t really “Macedonian nationalists”. They’re supporters and clients of VMRO, the former ruling party. The key figure here is VMRO’s leader, former Prime Minister Gruevski. Gruevski has ruled Macedonia for over a decade, and he’s been spectacularly corrupt and autocratic. He’s followed much the same playbook as Erdogan in Turkey and Orban in Hungary, gaining pretty much complete control over police, courts and major media outlets, and packing the Presidency, Supreme Court and other key government posts with his own long-term or permanent appointees. Oh, and he’s also eliminated or marginalized most rivals within VMRO, so that VMRO is now almost synonymous with Orban and vice versa.

    So far, so familiar. However: Macedonia is smaller, crazier, and harder to control than big well-established countries like Hungary or Turkey, and also much more vulnerable to finger-wagging and quiet blackmail from the EU and other international players. So what with one thing and another, Gruevski overplayed his hand, and failed to win a majority at the last election. So now he’s faced with the prospect of a government formed by the opposition — a government whose first order of business would be to prosecute and imprison him. (There is a superabundance of evidence of all sorts of crimes, financial and otherwise. Gruevski was always kind of sloppy that way, and he got really cocky in the last few years.) So now he’s playing the “nationalist” card, and also resorting to straight-up violence, including an assault on the Parliament by the aforementioned “enraged nationalists” — really paramilitary thugs in the employ of VMRO. (Not to go all Godwin’s here, but calling these guys “brownshirts” is actually pretty accurate. Well, except that the original brownshirts probably included a lot of true believers, whereas most of VMRO’s street fighters are just in it for a paycheck, a little respect, and lulz. Anyway.)

    “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.” — No no no. Ivanov is Gruevski’s creature, through and through. His mandate is not to “keep the Albanians in check”. Again, Albanians have been part of government nonstop for fifteen years. They’re in check just fine. Ivanov’s mandate is to ***keep the opposition from forming a government***. Gruevski and Ivanov are playing the Albanian card because many Macedonians are easily terrified by Albanians. But Zaev could say, “Oh okay the Albanians have all agreed to be fitted with electroshock collars” and Ivanov would reply that because of the deep religious feelings of Macedonians he couldn’t possibly allow the opposition to form a government, until, I don’t know, Zaev makes a pilgrimage to Mount Athos carrying a lit candle barefoot. Or something. Because this isn’t a negotiation! It’s a simple refusal to hand over power, full stop. Ivanov and Gruevski are hoping to wear down the opposition, both domestic and foreign, until Gruevski and VMRO are allowed to form a minority government. Failing that, stalemate and chaos are still better for them than being tossed in jail.

    The Greek veto on EU and NATO membership was definitely a contributing factor to screwing up Macedonia’s politics, back when. But in retrospect, it’s looking more and more like Greece just gave Gruevski the excuse he’d been waiting for to let his autocratic freak flag fly. Greece could recognize Macedonia’s name and end the dispute tomorrow, and Gruevski would still be clinging to power by every means possible, fair or foul.

    Doug M.

    1. Doug, I don’t know you or your background, but I appreciate your perspective because it’s not one that’s being reflected in the reporting on this and I certainly don’t pretend to know anything about Macedonia apart from what I read in the news. It would be great if you could offer some background reading on this stuff, I think people might appreciate that.

      1. There’s not a lot of reporting on Macedonia — it’s small, complicated, and strategically unimportant. It’ll probably stay pretty obscure until / unless stuff starts blowing up.

        Gruevski, BTW, started as a “Western-oriented reformer” back in the early 2000s, just like Orban.

        Doug M.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.