Conflict update: May 6-7 2017

Friends, now that Western Civilization has been made safe for fiscally prudent centrist capitalism again, I think I’m going to take a bit of an irregular schedule this week barring something really extraordinary happening. I have several reasons for this: one, I have another project I need to try to finish; two, in general I could use a little break; and three, the hard drive on my computer is on its last legs and consequently doing anything on it is a real slog. We’ll resume later in the week. Thanks for reading!


Well folks, after a long, hard-fought campaign full of nasty invective and tremendous peril for the future of Europe, we can finally call it: onion soup is officially the best French food, beating out cassoulet and chocolate souffle. Bon appétit.

I kid, and the reason I feel comfortable doing that is because centrist schlub Emmanuel Macron has apparently pummeled the Friendly Face of Fascism, Marine Le Pen, to become France’s next president. Projected results in today’s runoff show Macron taking around 65 percent of the vote to Le Pen’s 35 percent, which I would say is pretty conclusive. While Macron always had a large polling lead in a head to head match-up and the last minute hack of his campaign fizzled out due to a combination of French electoral law and the fact that there wasn’t much “there” there. In fact, Macron’s margin is actually a bit higher than the polls were showing, which suggests that the leak may even have backfired and pushed some fence-sitters and/or apathetic non-voters into his camp (Le Pen’s poor showing in Wednesday’s debate presumably didn’t help either).

France is now free to implement Macron’s pro-EU, pro-business centrist agenda, so…uh, congratulations to Marine Le Pen for her victory in the 2022 French presidential election. Well, not necessarily. There’s some hand-wringing about Le Pen’s performance here as though it necessarily presages the growth of the French nationalistic right, but I’m not sure that’s a foregone conclusion. Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, made it to the runoff in 2002, and while the circumstances were different (the first-round vote was split among 16 candidates that year), I remember some similar worries about him that never came to pass–though granted, he was a much less appealing candidate, what with the overt racism and antisemitism. This may be the National Front’s high-water mark, at least for a while. And, by the way, the party may not even survive this defeat–Jean-Marie has been out there publicly berating his daughter at every turn (to be fair, she did expel him from the party in 2015), and there’s a real chance that party diehards are going to side with him now that she’s lost, especially if she’s serious about leading a “deep transformation” of the party.

Still, despite Macron’s technical outsider status, he’s not exactly promising a huge break with the basic socially liberal, fiscally conservative agenda that every other Western country has been following for the past few decades. And unless he, and the rest of his centrist peers in Britain, America, and elsewhere, figure out how to make that agenda start paying off for the 99 percent, as it were, you can expect that the right-wing populism Le Pen espouses will be sticking around in some form. Hell, Macron’s immediate challenge is going to be making sure he can get anything done at all; there’s a parliamentary election in June and his party is going to have a heck of a challenge ahead of it, considering that it’s brand new and starting from scratch. Macron should be able to piece together a friendly-enough coalition, but there’s no guarantee of that.


The safe zones are officially in place for the next six months, and fighting has reportedly “eased”…but it hasn’t stopped entirely, as the Syrian army’s progress in northern Hama province makes clear. This is normal inasmuch as it’s going to take some time to actually figure out what the new normal in Syria will be with these “safe zones” in place. It’s also normal inasmuch as it’s still not clear what, exactly, the Syrian government agreed to do under the terms of the “safe zones” deal. Bashar al-Assad’s government says it reserves the right to attack terrorists wherever it finds then, and it defines “terrorists” as “anybody who isn’t loyal to us,” so that leaves a pretty big gray area that’s going to have to be clarified at some point.

On the plus side, wounded fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra Jabhat Fatah al-Sham NAMBLA Hayat Tahrir al-Sham are being evacuated from Yarmouk to Idlib under the second phase of the mutual evacuation deal that Assad and the rebels began implementing last month. While the safety of wounded al-Qaeda fighters is not really something that keeps me awake at night, on balance the prospects for negotiating an end to the war are probably improved if this deal carries through to its conclusion, so this is a good thing.

In an announcement that’s sure to make everybody happy, the YPG says it wants to carve out a territory extending across the whole of northern and eastern Syria all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. Which means that after they capture Raqqa (already we’re talking about something that’s going to enrage a whole bunch of people), and then capturing Deir Ezzor (uhhhh), the Kurds want to march west, connecting their Rojava and Afrin states (Jesus) and then cutting southwest, capturing the city of Idlib (my God) and continuing on to the sea (holy shit). Seen to its actual conclusion, this would piss off just about everyone: ISIS, Turkey, Syria, the Syrian rebels, Iran, Russia, and probably even the US, which likes the YPG but doesn’t like like it, you know? So, good luck with that.


Fighting has continued along the new northwestern front that the Iraqis opened up in Mosul, but ISIS has put up a fight in the city’s Musherfa neighborhood. The Iraqis say that the neighborhood has been liberated, but they tend to get ahead of themselves when they make these kinds of announcements and so it’s not surprising that more neutral accounts have the fighting there still ongoing. Elsewhere, at least two people (apart from the attackers) were killed overnight when ISIS suicide bombers–disguised as peshmerga fighters–attacked a Kurdish military base near Kirkuk where US military advisers are stationed.

Joel Wing has rounded up a number of recent pieces on the effort to rebuild in eastern Mosul, and he also notes the new wrinkle facing people trying to flee western Mosul: flooding on the Tigris River. This has forced the Iraqis to dismantle their pontoon bridge connecting the two sides of the city, and has left civilians near the river with no choice but to try to sail out of danger on the swollen river.


Let’s check-in on life in the Middle East’s Only Democracy™, where Arabs are treated wonderfully and there’s definitely no apartheid-type stuff happening, no way:

Israeli ministers have approved the wording of a new law that would downgrade Arabic as an official language and which states that the right to self-determination in Israel “is unique to the Jewish people”, despite the country’s sizeable non-Jewish minority.

The go-ahead for the nation state bill by the ministerial committee for legislation means it will now move forward to a vote by the country’s parliament. The bill has to pass several stages in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, for it to become law and could also be challenged in the courts.

Critics say the law is discriminatory and could undermine Israel’s balance of being both a Jewish and democratic state by harming the rights of minorities.

That last bit may be a feature rather than a bug, as far as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is concerned.

Hamas has, as had been expected, elected Ismail Haniya as its new leader, replacing term-limited former boss Khaled Meshaal. Haniya is the group’s former boss in Gaza (Meshaal lives in Qatar) and, given his reputation for (relative) moderation, is probably the driving force behind last week’s attempt to “soften” the organization’s position on Israel. His first order of business may be to find some accord with Egypt that will get Cairo to open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza for more than a couple of days in the wrong direction. Thousands of Palestinians in Gaza are waiting to get out of there to seek proper medical treatment, but Egypt’s decision to keep the crossing closed to traffic coming out of Gaza has prevented them from leaving.


ISIS gunmen shot and killed a Christian man on Saturday in the northern Sinai city of el-Arish. The terrorist group has recently made a priority of attacking Christians in order to destabilize Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government (and, of course, because they’re Christian).


Hassan Rouhani’s struggle to win reelection is going to be a lot harder if this kind of thing starts happening more frequently:

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani faced furious protests from coal miners and their families on Sunday when he visited the site of an accident that claimed dozens of lives, two weeks ahead of an election.

Local news agencies showed people stamping Rouhani‘s car and beating the windows in northern Golestan province as it tried to make its way through an angry crowd at the mine site, where at least 26 people were killed by an explosion on Wednesday.

At least nine more miners were trapped inside, but officials say there is little chance they survived.

The miners are understandably angry that their working conditions are unsafe (that coal mine explosion actually killed 42 miners at last count) and that they aren’t getting paid regularly. With Rouhani facing two conservative candidates who are bashing him for his failure to boost the economy in a way that benefits Iranian workers and Iran’s poor, his cause won’t be helped by the image of miners protesting against him.


Let’s start with the bad news: as of Saturday morning the Taliban have taken over the Qala-e-Zal district in Kunduz province. Casualties there are likely to be fairly high but I haven’t seen any estimates–which makes sense for a remote area that just fell out of government hands.

For a change, though, there’s also good Afghanistan news: Abdul Hasib, the head of ISIS-Khorasan, was apparently killed on April 27 in fighting with US and Afghan forces. His death was reported and confirmed today.


The Afghan and Pakistani militaries have been clashing for a couple of days now near the Chaman border crossing between the two countries, and they’re now clashing over the death toll from that fighting. Pakistan says it has killed 50 Afghan soldiers to only two Pakistani deaths, while the Afghans insist that only two of their soldiers have been killed. The fighting started late last week when Afghan forces opened fire on a Pakistani census team that they claim crossed the border into Afghanistan.


Islamist groups may have scored a victory in the recent election for Jakarta governor, in which Muslim candidate Anies Baswedan defeated Christian incumbent Basuki Purnama, but the heightened visibility they gained during the campaign seems to have terrified both the Indonesia government and moderate Indonesian Muslims. That’s led to something of a backlash against Islamist organizations since the election–their leaders have been detained, they’ve been barred from opening new chapters on occasion, and there are calls for a general ban on groups advocating for the return of a caliphate.


The Chinese government is taking new steps to control online search portals and news sources, obviously a lousy development if you’re Chinese and/or a fan of free press and free speech. On the other hand, if you’re a member of Jared Kushner’s family, then you probably don’t give a shit, because you’re too busy selling visas (maybe based in part on your family’s ties to the White House) to wealthy Chinese investors. In fact, you’re actually barring reporters from attending your sales pitches in China, I’m sure because they’re so ethically above-board that you know those reporters could better spend their time elsewhere.


Pyongyang has detained a fourth American working at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology on charges of committing hostile acts against North Korea. This may just be me, but if you’re an American citizen working at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, this might be a good time to try to find a low-key way to get out of North Korea.


Tuesday will see an election in South Korea to replace the recently impeached and removed Park Geun-hye. Given those circumstances, and the fact that tensions between North Korea and the US are running high, this could be a particularly consequential election, and as the Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage blog explains, polling strongly indicates that progressive candidate Moon Jae-in will emerge victorious. He should benefit from high expected turnout among younger voters, but polling has also shown that a large number of voters aren’t totally committed to their choice yet, so the outcome is still at least a bit in doubt. Moon’s appeal rests on his leftish economic agenda as well as his arms-length approach to the US, which some fear is rushing into a war with North Korea in which it will be South Koreans that do most of the dying. I suspect Moon also benefits from having stood against Park in the 2012 election–her scandal and impeachment may have some voters wishing they’d gone for Moon back then.


Early Sunday, the Nigerian government announced that it had swapped a group of Boko Haram prisoners for the release of 82 of the girls that group abducted from the village of Chibok back in 2014. How’s that for some unambiguously good news? Of the 276 girls who were originally taken, some 113 remain unaccounted for, and it’s feared at least some of those may have been used by Boko Haram as suicide bombers.

One of the many lovely side-effects of the Boko Haram insurgency is that Nigeria, particularly northeastern Nigeria, remains one of the few places on Earth where polio is still relatively common. Boko Haram treats vaccines the way it treats pretty much every other aspect of modern society, as an anti-Islam western innovation, and so people living under the group’s control are both barred from obtaining vaccines and subject to a steady stream of its anti-vaccine propaganda. The Nigerian government is treating its efforts to vaccinate people in northeastern Nigeria as both a public health issue and a component of its fight against Boko Haram and its ideology.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who is PERFECTLY FINE SHUT UP WHY DO YOU KEEP TALKING ABOUT THIS, is heading back to London for “tests.” Buhari already spent several weeks in London earlier this year for unspecified medical treatment, and while the country seemed to do fine without him, there’s always the possibility that the president’s absence will cause instability.


Speaking of Boko Haram, nine Chadian soldiers were killed on Friday when members of the militant group attacked a military camp along the Chad-Nigeria border. I feel like it’s important to occasionally remind ourselves that “Boko Haram” isn’t all one thing anymore, and hasn’t been since it splintered into two factions last year–one, led by long-time boss Abubakar Shekau, that claims allegiance to ISIS and the other, led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi (son of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf), who was named by ISIS to replace Shekau in August because Shekau was deemed too violent against Muslims. I have no information either way, but if I had to guess I would say Barnawi’s faction, which operates around the Lake Chad area, was behind this attack. Shekau’s group operates further south, in the Sambisa forest near Maiduguri.

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