Conflict update: May 5 2017


France’s runoff election is this Sunday, and active campaigning ended today, so there shouldn’t be any more major developme–

With mere minutes to go before the end of active campaigning in France’s presidential election on Friday evening, front-runner Emmanuel Macron’s campaign released a statement saying it had been the victim of a “massive” computer hack intended to sow doubt among the French electorate ahead of Sunday’s vote.

Approximately nine gigabytes of data including emails, contracts, and accounting documents were posted onto the document sharing site Pastebin late Friday. The Macron campaign statement confirmed that some of the documents were authentic, but said that fake campaign documents had been included in the dump as well to “sow doubt and disinformation.” The operation was “obviously a democratic destabilization,” the statement said.

Ha! Well, hey, um…this sure looks familiar! Gosh, how interesting! Suspicion obviously falls on–all together now–Russia, and there’s certainly been plenty of circumstantial evidence and speculation about Marine Le Pen’s ties to Moscow that you can’t discount that suspicion. The similarities to the Clinton/Podesta leak in last year’s US presidential campaign are also too glaring to overlook. The beauty of this leak is that, with campaigning closed as of the end of the day on Friday, anything that gets discovered in this dump (people are just starting to sift through it) can be made public while Macron and his campaign are legally prevented from responding to it. In that light, French authorities are cautioning media outlets not to publish anything they find before Sunday (particularly in the event that whatever it is turns out to be forged), but legally (and practically) there’s really nothing they can do to prevent it.

The stakes in this race haven’t really been given that much attention because Macron’s polling lead has remained so large, but they couldn’t be higher. If Le Pen wins, as the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor writes, that’s probably the end of the European Union. She will do whatever she can as president to get France out of the EU, and it’s highly unlikely the EU could survive that. Before this leak, her chances of winning were pretty low, both because of the polling lead and because of her unimpressive performance in Wednesday’s debate (Macron didn’t set anybody’s hair on fire either, but he probably didn’t have to), but now, who knows?

Looking longer term, is this what every election in a Western democracy is going to be like from now on? Is the threat of some massive dump of embarrassing private documents going to be hanging over every one of these things? Because I have to say, once was too much.


Yesterday, the same day that his party’s House caucus fulfilled his campaign promise to demonstrably worsen the state of health care in the United States, Donald Trump went out of his way, during a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, to praise Australia for its “better healthcare.” Australia, as you likely know, uses a variation of a single-payer system, similar to Canada and France, two other countries that spend vastly less on healthcare than America does while obtaining vastly better outcomes. Single payer is doctrinally anathema to the Republican Party because it benefits somebody other than the plutocrat class, and so Trump’s comment was greeted with some shock by everyone who heard it. Again, keep in mind that House Republicans had literally the same day voted on a healthcare bill that would take the US further from single-payer and closer to a pre-Obamacare (or in some respects further back than that) dystopia.

In an effort to once again cover for the president’s stream-of-consciousness manner of public speaking and maintain the pretense that House Republicans had done something Nice for the American people by voting to gut their healthcare, Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders earlier today said that, in praising Australia’s healthcare system, “the president was complimenting a foreign leader on the operations of their healthcare system and…it didn’t mean anything more than that.” Which is lame, but kind of works…except that the president then tweeted this:

Trump is right in that pretty much everybody in the industrialized world has a better health care system than the United States (American Exceptionalism FTW), but he clearly doesn’t get that they’re better because they’re more, not less, intrusive, and that what happened yesterday is going to worsen the US healthcare system, not improve it. For Congressional Republicans, that’s fine–their health care “reform” is just a smokescreen for a massive upper class tax cut, so the actual health outcomes don’t matter. But they might want to take the president’s phone away from him for a few days. And while healthcare is not really this blog’s beat, it is always exciting to see new evidence to support the theory that this president is completely ignorant when it comes to pretty much every aspect of public policy.


The Russian-Turkish-Iranian “safe zones” plan has now gone into effect as of midnight Syrian time. There is ample historical evidence to support the theory that it won’t do much to change anything, bolstered by the fact that, even though the plan is now active, nobody seems to have a clear and consistent notion of what it entails. There are now four designated safe zones in western Syria where, in theory, there should be no conflict between Syrian government and rebel forces or their various allies and patrons. But the government and Russians both apparently still reserve the right to attack “terrorists,” which they’ve consistently defined as “whoever we want to bomb,” and to strike within the safe zones if there is “military activity” (it’s always great to see precise terminology being used in deals like this) going on within them. There’s also a deep disagreement between Russia and the US about what the deal means for the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, with Moscow saying that its activity must now be confined to eastern Syria and the US rejecting that interpretation. And, of course, most of the rebels have already rejected this deal, so you can’t expect they’ll do anything to help grease its implementation.

By the by, there was fighting in or at least near one of the safe zones, in northwestern Hama (which is close to if not inside the Idlib zone) only a few hours after the deal went into effect. That’s actually to be expected–even if this plan really does work out, it’s going to take weeks to iron out the kinks–so I don’t think anybody should draw any conclusions just yet.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has launched an investigation into the April 4 chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun that aims to determine conclusively who was behind the attack. Their investigation may take a while (their first report, due next week, is only going to establish whether or not chemical weapons were used, which seems like it’s already been established but sure) and may go nowhere, but it is the OPCW’s job to find answers in these cases.

When he meets with President Trump on May 16, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will likely be told that the US has decided, once and for all, to proceed with an attack on Raqqa spearheaded by the Syrian Democratic Forces and therefore by the Kurdish YPG. Erdoğan, of course, opposes this plan because he opposes anything that empowers the YPG, which his government (not unreasonably) sees as simply an extension of the Turkish PKK, with which it is (somewhat unreasonably) still at war. This has been a fait accompli for months now, but the US has been unwilling to simply pull the trigger because it knows Erdoğan will be pissed and has wanted to minimize blowback. It was thought that the best time to break the news would be after Erdoğan won (or lost) Turkey’s April 16 constitutional referendum, but it’s become clear since the referendum that there’s never going to be a “best” time.


The New York Times has the insider scoop on the Iraqi decision to open a new front in western Mosul in an effort to break the stalemate there and finish liberating the city:

Tensions among Iraq’s disparate forces came to the fore in a closed-door meeting that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi convened in mid-April in Hamam al-Alil, a town nestled on the Tigris River about 15 miles southeast of Mosul. Outfitted in the black uniform of the Counterterrorism Service, Mr. Abadi warned his commanders that prolonging the battle for the city would only play into the hands of the Islamic State and signaled that it was time to pick up the pace.

But that was followed by sharp debate among frustrated Iraqi commanders about which of their units have been making the greatest sacrifice and who should shoulder the burden of the next stage of the battle.

Lt. Gen. Raed Shaker Jawdat, the commander of the Federal Police, which have suffered many casualties as they advanced from the south along the Tigris, complained that his force was fighting hard but that the Iraqi Army had yet to push into the city, filled with snipers and car bombs.

But Lt. Gen. Abdul-Amir Rasheed Yar Allah, the head of the operations center in Nineveh Province, who is overseeing the Mosul battle, pointed the finger at the Federal Police, complaining that their once audacious assault was no longer gaining ground.

Baghdad’s inability to get all its disparate forces on the same page has been a recurring problem for this Mosul operation, and in this case it resulted in the army’s 9th Armored Division basically sitting there unused for weeks after liberating the northwestern Badush suburb alongside the al-Abbas PMU militia. The Iraqis are fortunate in that ISIS can’t go anywhere and doesn’t have the capacity to do anything but defend, because that’s allowed Baghdad and its commanders (and, let’s face it, its US advisers) to get away with making some serious tactical mistakes and still recover from them eventually. Better weather is also helping to speed things up because it allows for more close air support and US aerial reconnaissance. The northern advance from the 9th Division and the Interior Ministry’s Rapid Response Forces should take pressure off of the counterterrorism and federal police units that have been doing the bulk of the work in western Mosul so far.

ISIS is claiming that an airstrike (coalition or Iraqi, it’s not clear) on an unused school on Thursday killed 68 civilians who were sheltering there, but the Iraqi army claims that ISIS was using the facility to manufacture bombs. ISIS’s credibility is obviously non-existent, but the Iraqis have also played loose with the truth on multiple occasions (the most prominent example being the Jadidah bombing), and it’s worth noting that both stories could be true, particularly if ISIS forced those civilians to “shelter” there as human shields.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is trying to downplay recent reports that he’s negotiating with the Pentagon on establishing a long-term US troop presence in the country after ISIS has been suppressed. He’s emphasizing that there will be no US “combat troops” involved in the deployment, a distinction so meaningless that Abadi can honestly claim that there are no US “combat troops” in Iraq right now, even though there are obviously US troops in Iraq serving in combat areas. But the hairsplitting insulates Abadi politically and allows the Americans to be there without getting the Iraqi parliament involved.


The Washington Post had an interesting piece yesterday on tensions developing within Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party over the April 16 referendum and the narrow margin of the “yes” victory:

The president’s resolute loyalists ultimately propelled him to a nationwide victory in the referendum, as they have time and again in votes since 2002, defiantly rejecting criticism that the changes doomed Turkey to one-man rule. But the narrow win and the defeat of the measure in places such as Uskudar, as well as in Turkey’s three largest cities, has also prompted an unusual degree of  introspection among some supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) — and even a hint of dissent.

In interviews with supporters of the party in Uskudar and elsewhere, there was an acknowledgment that voters had delivered the AKP a message, although its meaning was disputed. Erdogan’s most hardcore advocates brushed off the losses in big cities, insisting that the slim margin was due to campaign blunders or the obdurate views of opposition party voters.

Others, though, conceded that the vote had aggravated unsustainable societal divisions in Turkey. And in more damning, albeit guarded, critiques, the party was accused of arrogance and the government of being fixated on its purge of enemies, which for some had gone too far.

It seems clear that AKP lost supporters over the referendum campaign and that some of its party elders, like former President Abdullah Gül, are uncomfortable with the direction Erdoğan has taken. On the other hand, Erdoğan still inspires fanatical loyalty among some, like the 40 year old woman in Uskudar who has reported eight (!) of her family members (!!) to authorities on suspicion that they were Gülenists.


The (unnamed) leader of ISIS in Egypt has warned Muslims to “stay away” from government facilities and, ominously, from “Christian gatherings,” another sign that the group’s recent decision to target Egypt’s Coptic community wasn’t just a passing fancy.

French investigators looking into the May 2016 crash of Egypt Air Flight 804 en route from Paris to Cairo have determined that there is no explosive trace on the bodies of the 12 French nationals killed in the crash. This would seem to argue against the possibility of a bomb having brought the plane down and contradicts some previous findings by Egyptian investigators.


Hot damn:

Washington is working to push through contracts for tens of billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, some new, others in the pipeline, ahead of U.S. President Donald Trump’s trip to the kingdom this month, people familiar with the talks told Reuters this week.

The package reportedly includes a THAAD missile defense system, combat vehicles, new naval vessels, and plenty of bombs so that desperate Yemeni civilians can continue to receive their recommended daily allowance of getting blown the hell up. Oh, and check this out folks:

Shares of both Raytheon and Lockheed closed up 0.9 percent. Both stocks hit session highs following the Reuters report.

Finally, a break for the damn defense contractors, after all they’ve done for us.


Iran held its second televised presidential debate today, and the big takeaway seems to be that, despite trashing Hassan Rouhani’s pet project, the Iran nuclear deal, his hardline challengers all promised to maintain the deal if elected. Rouhani’s two main challengers, conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf, both accused Rouhani, partly because of his push to conclude the deal and gain relief from international sanctions, of favoring foreign investors over Iranian businesses, but this is a bit of a double-edged sword for the conservatives.

The main financial risk from an influx of foreign investment into Iran isn’t to mom and pop Iranian businesses, it’s to the vast business empire controlled by top regime figures and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In that vein, Rouhani used the debate to make an unusual and fairly scathing criticism of the IRGC, accusing it of trying to upend the nuclear deal through provocative actions like ballistic missile tests. If Rouhani can turn some part of the economic debate into an argument about the IRGC’s takeover of the Iranian economy, he might be able to stifle some of Raisi’s and (especially) Ghalibaf’s populist appeals and box them in as tools of the elites attempting to buy votes with empty promises about increased welfare spending–the latter part of which, at least, is true. In the debate, Rouhani tried to lump Raisi in particular in with “Wahhabis, Zionists and hardline Americans” who all opposed the deal and have been hoping President Trump will tear it up. That could be a pretty effective argument for him.


Gulbuddin Hekmatyar held a rally for his supporters at a stadium in Kabul today, where he repeated the same messages he’s been hammering at since making his return to public life earlier this week: the government needs to tell the Americans to get lost, make peace with the Taliban, and clean its own house, not necessarily in that order.

Hekmatyar’s criticisms of the government sting the hardest, in part because he’s not wrong even if he’s a problematic messenger. The current power-sharing arrangement between President Ashraf Ghani and “Chief Executive” Abdullah Abdullah is a ridiculous compromise, does have no basis in the Afghan constitution, and is dysfunctional. Hekmatyar’s main focus is presumably on Abdullah, the “Chief Executive,” because his job was completely invented as a concession to get Abdullah to end his protest of the results of the 2014 presidential election. But he may be a bigger threat to Ghani, because both men have their main base within Afghanistan’s Pashtun community, while Abdullah, who is half-Tajik, has his main base of support in that community, and would likely also be able to draw on support from the country’s Hazara and Uzbek minorities if he got into a real showdown with Hekmatyar.


Pakistani authorities say that at least nine people were killed today in Balochistan province when they were fired upon by Afghan forces across the border as they were trying to conduct a census. Afghan authorities countered that the Pakistani personnel were on the Afghan side of the two countries’ often poorly defined border.


The Indian army has begun a “major” search operation in Kashmir, looking for militants who have engaged in several attacks on India forces over the past couple of weeks.


Shortly after Donald Trump won November’s election, the Dalai Lama expressed an interest in meeting with him. The Dalai Lama meets a lot of important, I suppose, so this wasn’t that unusual even if it was Donald Trump. But also, Trump said enough hostile things about China during the campaign that it might have piqued the Dalai Lama’s interest. However, with Trump now swept up in a whirlwind bromance with Chinese President Xi Jinping, his potential support for Tibetan autonomy is looking dim, and apparently the Dalai Lama isn’t so interested in meeting with him after all. Sad!


Pyongyang today accused the CIA and South Korean intelligence of conducting “a vicious plot to hurt the supreme leadership of the DPRK” involving “bomb terrorism” and the use of “biochemical substances including radioactive substance and nano poisonous substance.” The North Koreans say the two intelligence services recruited a North Korean man named “Kim”–really glad they were able to narrow that down for us–to carry out this nefarious plot. You know, there’s really no reason to believe any of this story, except insofar as this is the same agency that tried to assassinate Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar…and, shit, now I’m convincing myself that it’s probably true. Let’s move on, quickly.


As to the rest of Trump’s press availability with Australian PM Turnbull, I’m embedding the White House video below. These two famously had a very uncomfortable phone conversation shortly after Trump took office, and, well, watch the video. Have you ever seen two people trying harder to pretend that they don’t dislike each other?


Here’s an interesting piece on the political machinations of Tunisia’s Islamist/Muslim Brotherhood Ennahda Party. Formed in 1981 but finally able to participate in the political process in the wake of Tunisia’s Arab Spring revolution, Ennahda won a plurality in the country’s 2011 election and formed the new government. But it then voluntarily removed itself from power during a political crisis in 2013, and in doing so avoided the fate that befell its fellow Muslim Brotherhood party in Egypt. It came in second in the 2014 election and entered a governing coalition led by the first place finisher, the establishment Nidaa Tounes party, albeit with representation far below what the second-place finisher might have expected to get.

Ennahda’s leadership has been heavily criticized for choosing to play a quietist role, working within the political establishment instead of agitating for change in the opposition. They’re being criticized right now for going along with a proposed law that would give amnesty to some former Ben Ali regime figures who have been convicted on corruption charges. But they argue that they’re doing it for the good of the country, and they do make some fair points:

But appeasing the base is not Ennahda’s main concern. The stakes for Tunisia’s transition, leaders claim, are too high to prioritize short-term populism over savvy long-termism. Ennahda’s political integration and responsible stewardship, they say, are necessary for the transition’s survival. And, by showing young people prone to violent extremism that political space exists for democratic Islamism, Tunisia offers important dividends for regional security.

Ennahda leaders portray self-preservation as brave and sacrificial. Political bureau member Said Ferjani said that Ennahda has guarded Tunisia’s fledgling democracy against populist threats. “We’ve sacrificed a lot. We’re prepared to sacrifice more.” Influential Ennahda leader Nourredine Bhiri agreed, saying: “Maybe we have to sacrifice votes. But we’ll be prisoners of the past if we don’t move forward.”

If Ennahda had been more assertive in 2013, Tunisia might well look like Egypt today, but instead it remains the closest thing to an Arab Spring success story that you can find. From one perspective that does look like a noble sacrifice. From another perspective, though, it looks like Ennahda leaders are selling Tunisian democracy and rule of law down the river in an effort to stay out of jail and in the government. Self-preservation and self-aggrandizement aren’t quite so noble.


The results of Algeria’s parliamentary election are in, and the clear winner is “fuck off.” Turnout, which was expected to be higher than usual due to the lack of party boycotts and a sincere effort by all the major parties to encourage people to vote, was a whopping 38 percent, about five points lower than it was in the 2012 legislative election. Can you really blame them? No matter how many people would have voted, and no matter how they’d voted, Algerian politics aren’t changing, and neither is the country’s massive ~30 percent youth unemployment rate.

Under these conditions the results are almost superfluous, but the governing National Liberation Front lost a quarter of its seats from 2012, but remained in the majority because its coalition partner, the Rally for National Democracy, won 29 more seats than it had the last time out.


A US Navy SEAL was killed on Thursday in a combat operation against al-Shabab just west of Mogadishu, making him the first American soldier to be killed in Somalia since 1993. He was reportedly operating in an advisory capacity with the Somali army when the action took place. Two other American soldiers were wounded in the same engagement but are being treated.


Not only did Romania’s constitutional court uphold a law yesterday barring people with criminal convictions from serving in the cabinet, but a Romanian senate committee withdrew amendments to a bill on prison pardons that would have pardoned people convicted of taking bribes and peddling influence. The amendments actually passed the committee on Wednesday and quickly drew about a thousand people out into the streets of Bucharest to protest (not bad on short notice, really), and apparently the Senate got the message. So I guess the Romanian government will have to try some other tactic in its ongoing crusade to decriminalize corruption.


Building on that story we talked about yesterday, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said today that he’s decided not to resign and instead will dismiss his finance minister and political rival, billionaire Andrej Babiš, from the cabinet. Sobotka insists that Babiš should be out of the government since he’s being investigated for financial improprieties, but Babiš says Sobotka’s efforts to get him out of the cabinet are purely political, and since Babiš has a better relationship with Czech President Miloš Zeman than does Sobotka, Sobotka resigning in order to dissolve the cabinet isn’t an option–Zeman has said that he would treat Sobotka’s resignation as a personal matter and would not dissolve the entire cabinet. Now Zeman will have to decide whether or not to acquiesce in Babiš’s dismissal, and if he doesn’t there could be a serious legal and constitutional crisis that follows. If he does, then presumably Babiš will pull his party out of the governing coalition and the country will need to call elections earlier than their scheduled October date.


Another anti-government protester was shot in the head and killed by Venezuelan police on Thursday, putting the death toll at 37 after a month’s worth of dueling pro- and anti-Nicolás Maduro demonstrations. The political situation underlying the protests seems frozen, with Maduro’s call for a constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution meeting almost total resistance from his political opposition. In contrast, that opposition is calling for moving up the scheduled 2018 presidential election, since Maduro’s popularity probably can’t get much lower than it is now.

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