Conflict update: May 3 2017


Rex Tillerson gave a talk at the State Department today and I think he might have said the quiet parts loud:

“I think it is really important that all of us understand the difference between policy and values,” the secretary of state, a former oil executive, said as part of what he described as an “overarching view” on Trump’s “America first” mantra.

“Our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated – those are our values. Those are not our policies.

“In some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals,” Tillerson said. “If we condition too heavily that others just adopt this value we have come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance on our national security interests our economic interests.”

The speech was, shall we say, not well-received among State Department veterans. Savvy observers will note that America has really never let its values get in the way of its goals, but there are serious reasons why you don’t say that publicly. If we think that our values are good values and that it would be in America’s long-term interest for other nations to adopt those values, then even paying them lip-service can be useful (no matter how often people like me will rail about our hypocrisy).


To follow up on the late-breaking report from yesterday about an explosion in Kabul, we now know that it was a suicide attack on a NATO convoy, responsibility for which has been claimed by ISIS. Eight civilians were killed and 28 people wounded, including three NATO soldiers. Some of the wounded were wounded critically, so the death toll could conceivably rise.

The ongoing saga of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has him scheduled to finally return to Kabul this week to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Afghan politics are unstable as it is, so there are obviously huge questions about how the rehabilitation of a notoriously violent warlord like Hekmatyar and his Hezb-i-Islami party/militia is going to shake things up in the capital.


A new poll of Arabs aged 18-24 by Dubai-based pollster ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller finds that 83 percent of them disapprove of Donald Trump and 64 percent feel “concern, anger or fear” about his presidency. By comparison, only 52 percent disapproved of Barack Obama (who wasn’t exactly reticent about bombing Arab countries) and 77 percent disapproved of George W. Bush (who, you know, Iraq). The survey was conducted across 16 Arab countries: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the UAE, and Yemen (not Syria, for obvious reasons). The threat of terrorism/ISIS and unemployment are cited as the biggest problems facing the Middle East, there is a huge regional disparity between people who say the Middle East is generally on the right track (large majorities in the Gulf states but nowhere else) and people who say it’s headed in the wrong direction (large majorities in the Levant and Yemen), and Russia is now seen by more young Arabs as a regional ally than the US is.

Something on the order of sixty percent of the global Arab population is under the age of 30, so these findings have important implications for the future. Similarly, I should also mention another recent survey, conducted in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Palestine by Promundo and UN Women, that found some pretty retrograde gender equity attitudes among men in those countries. No big surprise there, I guess. The somewhat surprising thing, though, is that the results suggest that younger men aren’t really any less conservative on these issues than older generations (younger women, by contrast, do appear to be more liberal than older generations). I should note here that there’s some evidence that younger millennials in the US are exhibiting more traditionalist views on gender roles than older millennials or even my dreaded Generation X’ers, so this may reflect a more global trend.

From a pure “powder keg” standpoint I think the most troubling finding from the Promundo survey is that between 20 and 50 percent of the men surveyed said they were “ashamed to face their families” due to their work and/or money situation. Poverty in the abstract is associated with radicalization, but it’s probably not the poverty itself that causes this, otherwise you’d likely see fewer engineers signing up for al-Qaeda and more subsistence farmers. Instead it seems to be feelings associated with economic deprivation, like injustice, unfairness, humiliation, and disconnectedness, that then directly correlate with radicalization. Among the more powerful of those emotions are shame and feelings of emasculation, which recruiters for ISIS and the like play upon to great effect. If a fifth or more of young men in places like Egypt and Morocco are ashamed of their financial circumstances, that’s a very, very dangerous thing. A more liberal attitude toward gender equity and gender roles might actually help alleviate this tension by taking away the societal pressure these men are feeling, but the fact that they’re feeling that pressure probably makes them less receptive to the message. Clearly there’s still much work to be done on gender attitudes, and not just in the Arab world.


Another round of ceasefire talks kicked off today in Kazakhstan amid reports that Russia, the US, Turkey, Iran, and Syria are circling an agreement to implement several “safe zones” in different parts of Syria (one in Idlib, one in Homs, one in Eastern Ghouta, and one somewhere in the south). The zones would allow for the return of refugees and the delivery of humanitarian aid…and would also herd civilians into a few clearly defined places, which would make it easier for Russia and Bashar al-Assad to use their air power against rebel forces without incurring so much international outrage over civilian casualties. Maybe that’s why the rebels aren’t participating (so far) in this round of talks. They would prefer a general ceasefire for obvious reasons, but this proposal would presumably limit any ceasefire to the specific safe zone areas. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met in Sochi today and this was reportedly the main item on their agenda–they seem to be in agreement about it.

Speaking of Erdoğan, one of his advisers suggested today that Turkey might fire on American forces embedded among the YPG in northern Syria. Accidentally, of course.

A car bomb went off today close to the offices of the “Syrian interim government” in the rebel-held town of Azaz, near the Turkish border. At least five people were killed (that number is probably low) and there’s been no claim of responsibility.


A new Associated Press interview with survivors of the March 17 US-led coalition airstrike on Mosul’s Jadidah neighborhood, which the highest estimates say killed more than 240 civilians, are contradicting various American and Iraqi stories about what took place that day. Musings on Iraq puts this in more context, but the upshot of this interview is that the survivors say ISIS did not force them into the building that was struck, there were no ISIS snipers perched on the roof (the building wasn’t tall enough for that to have made any sense), and the building wasn’t lined with explosives in some kind of ISIS booby trap for the coalition.

Baghdad is starting to send people to liberated eastern Mosul to try to begin an estimate of the costs to rebuild Mosul once ISIS is out of the city. Their preliminary verdict? It will take five years and “billions” of dollars to put Mosul back together, which is money that the Iraqi government likely just doesn’t have. Meanwhile, Iraqis stuck in displacement camps are hanging out shingles and taking up odd jobs in an effort to make enough money to scrape by until they’re able to return home.


One of the issues lurking under the surface of the current Yemeni civil war is that, when it’s over, there’s a pretty good chance it will be followed up by a second civil war as southern Yemen attempts to secede and reestablish itself as a separate nation (and then maybe more wars after that if southern Yemen cracks apart). But that regional factionalism already seems to be coming to the fore. Emirati officers who are supposed to be training and advising the Yemeni army (the one aligned with Yemen’s recognized government) say that they’ve been stymied in their efforts to push a sustained ground offensive north of Taiz in part because southerners refuse to risk their lives fighting in the north. Even among southerners, the Emiratis have had a hard time getting soldiers from Aden to fight alongside soldiers from the eastern Hadhramaut region.

Interestingly, the Emiratis are complaining about this at the same time that Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s Yemeni government is complaining that Emirati leaders have been patronizing secessionist southern politicians and encouraging military units to operate autonomously. It’s not clear why the UAE would do that, at least not right now when it compromises their own war efforts, but the situation is apparently serious enough that Saudi King Salman has gotten involved as a mediator.


During today’s big Putin-Erdoğan Sochi get-together, Putin told reporters that Russia-Turkey relations are back to normal after that 2015 incident in which Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft in Syria. Of course, “back to normal” for Russia and Turkey could still mean a fair amount of tension (historically their relationship has never been that great), especially considering that they’re still fundamentally far apart on Syria. Meanwhile, in contrast, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is basically imploring the rest of the European Union not to turn its back on Turkey altogether.


President Trump and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met today at the White House to discuss the fine quality of Trump-brand steaks the prospects of an Israel-Palestine peace deal, of course. Here’s video proof:

If I were Abbas, frankly, I would’ve wanted to know why I don’t rate a visit to Mar-a-Lago, but whatever.

Abbas made a point of emphasizing that he is only interested in a two-state solution to the conflict, which normally goes without saying but not when you’re dealing with President “eh, one state, five states, whatever it takes” Trump. Trump seemed unfazed by this, likely because he didn’t understand it. And while a two-state solution is impossible under current conditions (current West Bank settlements alone make a Palestinian state untenable), there is also no one-state solution to this situation that both the Israelis and Palestinians could accept, now and for the foreseeable future. Abbas can now go home and tell the Palestinian people that he spoke truth to power, but he’s so thoroughly unpopular there that it won’t really matter.

Trump can go back to…well, whatever he was doing before, secure in his new belief that, you know, this intractable diplomatic problem that has been a festering sore on the Middle East for over a century now is really not going to be that hard to solve. All it took was a fake real estate mogul/reality TV star/scam artist to bring his total ignorance to bear on the issue.

In the West Bank, meanwhile, thousands of Palestinians rallied today in Ramallah in support of 1500 Palestinians being held as Israeli prisoners who are engaged in a hunger strike over the conditions in which they’re being held.


Hassan Rouhani received the endorsement of former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami yesterday, via Khatami’s website because Iranian state media is barred from even mentioning the former president’s name. Khatami is heavily suppressed in Iran these days and so his constituency isn’t that large, but his seal of approval could help Rouhani among reform-minded voters who might be unhappy with the dearth of any significant reforms (particularly with respect to civil liberties) during Rouhani’s first term. Khatami also endorsed Rouhani in 2013, so this isn’t that surprising, but with fellow ex-president and Rouhani-endorser Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani having passed away in January, Khatami’s is the most credentialed endorsement Rouhani will get. It should also put to bed any manufactured speculation that Rouhani’s vice president and fellow candidate, reformist Eshaq Jahangiri, might actually challenge Rouhani and stay in the race through election day.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry criticized comments by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed b. Salman yesterday in which he said Riyadh can’t deal with Iran diplomatically due to its extremism and efforts to take over the Middle East. Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi said that “these comments are proof that Saudi Arabia supports terrorism and seeks confrontational and destructive policies in the region and toward Iran.” He says that like it’s a bad thing.


The Trump administration is said to be preparing new sanctions against North Korea that could be implemented in response to a new provocation from Pyongyang (a nuclear test, for example). These sanctions will likely take the form of the “secondary” sanctions that the Obama administration used to apparently significant effect against Iran, where in addition to levying sanctions against North Korean entities, the US will penalize entities in other countries that do business in and with North Korea. Which means Chinese firms, but may also mean Russian ones as well.

China has been, at least by outward appearances, trying to reduce contacts with Pyongyang to get it to throttle back on its nuclear and missile programs. Beijing has even been taking criticism from North Korean state media, though some of that may be for show. But while this is going on, there are signs that Pyongyang’s commercial contacts with Russia may be increasing. Historically, North Korea has tried to maintain good relations with both Beijing and Moscow so that if support from one drops they can turn to the other, but for some time now it’s mostly been Beijing supporting the Kim family. For Russia, though, this is a chance to cultivate another client state at America’s expense, so it wouldn’t be that surprising to see ties between North Korea and Russia expand. Whether that translates into Russian interference–at, say, the UN Security Council–is unclear.


This has been anticipated for a while now, but Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe announced today that he plans to amend the Japanese constitution by 2020 in order to remove post-World War II restrictions on Japan’s right to have a real military. Currently Japan has an almost 250,000-person military, but because of the constitution it has to go by the name “Japan Self-Defense Forces” and is permitted only to function in national defense. This raises challenges for a country that would, for example, like to participate in UN peacekeeping operations, or maybe be more proactive in its military dealings with North Korea. Changing the constitution to make it legal for Japan to have a real military like any other country would eliminate those challenges.


Some of the goodwill that was generated by that meeting between GNA leader Fayez al-Sarraj and LNA commander Khalifa Haftar in Abu Dhabi appears to have dissipated when the two sides tried, but failed, to negotiate the wording of a joint statement about their meeting. On the plus side, the separate statements they issued were pretty similar–both talked about ending the fighting around Sebha in southern Libya, increasing dialogue between their sides toward political reconciliation, and unifying their respective armed forces to target “extremists.” But it certainly would’ve been a better sign for future progress had they been able to speak jointly.


Algeria goes to the polls for legislative elections tomorrow (well, later today if you’re in Algeria), and the only real question seems to be how many voters actually turn out. Voter interest in Algerian elections is usually quite low–the national assembly does very little so it doesn’t much matter who controls it–but even the major opposition parties (an Islamist party and a Berber nationalist party), who often boycott these things because they’ve got no chance of winning, are encouraging people to vote this time around. The reason is that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika probably isn’t going to live much longer, and the country’s major parties are jostling for position in the New Algeria–which, let’s be honest, probably won’t look that different from the Old Algeria, given how much the military still controls the country. But everybody wants to boost their representation in the assembly because they think it will put them in stronger position moving forward.


Millions of Nigerians, many displaced or formerly displaced, are living in absolute squalor in northeastern Nigeria as the country struggles to contain the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency and deal with its aftermath in places from which the terrorist group has been largely been driven out. The United Nations estimates that three million are at risk of starvation, and many who are living either in displaced persons camps or have returned “home” and are living amid ruins, forced to remain in place by the Nigerian army, are at high risk of disease due to unsanitary living conditions–with access to proper medical care, as you might expect, almost nonexistent.


Somalia’s public works and reconstruction minister, Abbas Abdullahi Sheikh Siraji, was killed today in Mogadishu by bodyguards for the country’s auditor general, Nur Farah. Somali police believe that Abbas’s bodyguards opened fire on Farah’s car believing that it was a threat to their protected, who was then shot amid the crossfire. I guess it’s a sign that al-Shabab is doing its job when everyone’s so terrified that government ministers are getting gunned down by the bodyguards for other government ministers.


Bulgaria appears to have a new government, as presumptive Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s center-right GERB party, which won a plurality in the March election, has formalized its coalition with the far-right nationalist United Patriots coalition. Including nationalists in the government is new territory for Bulgaria, but the pro-EU GERB, as the senior partner in the coalition, is expected to keep them somewhat in check.


Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen held their final debate today before Sunday’s runoff election, and…look, I don’t want to suggest that the uninspiring centrist Macron is really in danger of blowing this to the unhinged xenophobic populist Le Pen, but here’s how a French-speaking New York Times reporter who live-tweeted the debate put it at one point:

Jesus Christ.

Overall, the two candidates seemed as interested in personally insulting one another as they were in talking about policy, which could help Macron as it’s Le Pen who needs to demonstrate that she actually knows what she’s talking about on the rare occasions when she’s not being racist.

Assuming Macron can get out of his own way and actually win the election, he got some good news today when a new public opinion poll showed his new France Is Already Great Because France Is Good En Marche! party is on track to win a substantial plurality in June’s parliamentary election. If there was some question about Macron’s potential legislative support, this poll, plus last week’s comments from former President Nicolas Sarkozy suggesting his supporters within the Republican Party would be open to working with Macron, should ease those concerns.


Speculate away:

There’s a pretty good chance this emergency meeting has to do with either Queen Elizabeth or Prince Philip, and, well, either way it’s probably not happy news.

Theresa May has decided to lean into reports about her awkward meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker last week, embracing the concern she seems to be causing in Brussels to appeal to the anti-EU British right. To that end, she’s now suggesting that shadowy “figures” in the EU are trying to meddle in the June snap elections to defeat the Tories or at least weaken them. Hey, this shit worked for Erdoğan on his referendum, and it regularly works for reactionary politicians all over Europe, so why not?


At least one person was reportedly killed today during clashes between anti-government protesters and police in Caracas. The protesters are opposed to President Nicolás Maduro’s plan to rewrite the country’s constitution, which Maduro’s opponents are categorizing as a scheme to avoid elections. Maduro is accusing the US of fomenting the protests, and as if to validate his conspiracy theorizing, a group of US senators, led by Democrat Ben Cardin and Republican Marco Rubio, today introduced legislation to provide humanitarian aid to Venezuela while sanctioning Venezuelan individuals implicated in corruption or trying to “undermine democracy.”

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.

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 )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter 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.