World update, August 29 2017

I’m going to be out this evening so you’ll have to make do with a compressed afternoon news update today.



Iraqi forces are clearing out Tal Afar while also pressing their advance against the remaining ISIS forces in the nearby town of Ayadiyah. It’s still too early to say what kind of resistance they’re going to face or how long this phase of the campaign might take. In Tal Afar itself, the concern now shifts to the return of its former residents. The Popular Mobilization Units may attempt to block Sunni Turkmens from returning to the city, and if they do it may be enough to finally get Turkey to make good on its threats to intervene.

Elsewhere, residents of Kirkuk province voted on Tuesday in favor of participating in the Iraqi Kurdistan referendum scheduled for September 25. It’s still not clear that the referendum is actually going to happen, but the final disposition of Kirkuk is likely to be one of the biggest potential conflict points should the Kurds opt for independence. Both the Iraqi and Turkish governments oppose Kurdish independence but they extra oppose the idea of Kirkuk winding up in a hypothetical Kurdish state.


US forces reportedly exchanged fire with Syrian rebels backed by Turkey in Manbij on Tuesday. This is potentially a very combustible situation but there seem to have been no casualties and for now, at least, the only result has been an American protest with Ankara.


After three people were killed over the weekend in clashes between the Houthis and supporters of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, the rebel (sort-of) allies appear to have agreed to tone down the tensions between them.


Some 600 ISIS fighters have now been evacuated from the Lebanon-Syria border to eastern Syria, under the terms of the deal ISIS reached with the Lebanese army over the weekend. And the Iraqi government is not happy about it:

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said his government has sought an explanation from Syria.

“Honestly speaking, we are unhappy and consider it incorrect,” al-Abadi told reporters. “Transferring terrorists from Qalamoun (along the Lebanese-Syrian border) to the Iraqi-Syrian border is worrying and an insult to the (Iraqi) people.”

“There must be no chance for Daesh to breath,” he added, referring to IS by its Arabic acronym.

Judging by social media, there are a lot of people in Lebanon who aren’t pleased with this arrangement either, but Beirut insists that the evacuation was the only way it could get ISIS to release the remains of the eight Lebanese soldiers ISIS captured in 2014 and later killed.


Remember this story if we see another flareup in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the coming days:

Two right-wing members of the Israeli parliament have entered the al-Aqsa Mosque compound after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lifted a two-year ban prohibiting legislators from visiting the site.

Accompanied by heavily-armed police, Yehuda Glick, of Netanyahu’s Likud party, and Shuli Mualem-Rafaeli, of the Jewish Home, went to the site early on Tuesday as part of a one-day trial period.

Well, actually you should remember two stories, because the reopening of al-Aqsa to hard right Israeli politicians is compounded by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration on Monday that his government will never evacuate West Bank settlements. Netanyahu has said this same thing many times before so it’s not exactly breaking news, but it’s helpful to know he still feels the same way even after talking to Master Negotiating Genius Jared Kushner. There is no two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict without a settlement rollback because there’s no feasible Palestinian state to be formed on whatever scraps of territory the Israelis deign to leave to the West Bank Palestinians. So all your Good Liberal handwringing over leftist talk of a one-state solution has to reckon with the reality that the two-state solution is nothing more than a figment of the liberal imagination at this point. The question now is what the one state will look like.


Iranian officials are insisting that their military bases are off-limits under the terms of the Iran nuclear deal, in response to pressure from the Trump administration for the International Atomic Energy Agency to push for access to those sites. International agreements almost always include some ambiguous detail over which the parties will later disagree, and for the JCPOA ongoing access to Iranian military sites is one of those details. My understanding is that the Iranians are wrong in declaring their military facilities off-limits, full-stop. But the IAEA needs to request that access, and it needs to have a reason to make such a request–a real reason, not “Donald Trump told us to do it.” They don’t have a reason at this point, so in that sense the Iranians may be justified in saying that they would refuse access.

The actual details of this budding incident don’t really matter, since this is just one attempt by the Trump administration to manufacture an excuse for abrogating the deal. They don’t really care what the specific justification is, which is why the White House is telling intelligence agencies to scour their information for anything. This is along the lines of the “plan” John Bolton is floating to wreck the deal, which as Zeeshan Aleem notes is very much in line with Bolton’s previous efforts to magically create a justification to invade Iraq. And didn’t that work out well.



At least five people were killed on Tuesday in a Taliban suicide bombing at a bank in Kabul. Late Monday, an airstrike probably by the Afghan air force killed at least 13 civilians in Herat province. The target was a Taliban facility and Afghan officials said that some 18 Taliban fighters were also killed and that they were investigating the reports of civilian casualties.


At the Monkey Cage, Asfandyar Mir and Paul Staniland look at Pakistan’s complicated relationship with various regional extremist groups. Here’s the key point from the perspective of the Trump administration’s new effort to leverage Islamabad into changing its approach to the Taliban:

4) U.S. pressure is unlikely to change the situation. In the face of new U.S. threats, Pakistan is likely to offer minor concessions, such as launching token crackdowns and perhaps handing over individuals the military does not view as allies. This was a pattern in past responses to U.S. demands for army action against groups in Pakistan.

Analysts who advocate getting tough on Pakistan argue that the problem has been insufficient coercive pressure from the U.S. government. But U.S. pull in Pakistan has real limits, even though Pakistan certainly relies on U.S. military hardware and economic aid. On the margin, targeted sanctions and reductions in aid would hurt. But they would not impose a debilitating strain that outweighs the benefits Pakistan’s security elite sees from its influence over neighboring Afghanistan.

A multilateral approach, especially against key nodes in the Pakistani security establishment, would perhaps be painful. But the Chinese, who quickly moved to support Pakistan after Trump’s speech, would certainly veto any U.N. sanctions against Pakistan. Pakistan-China cooperation provides Pakistan valuable, though not guaranteed, insurance against U.S. sanctions. The Chinese have stepped up their aid to Pakistan, while the United States has gradually reduced it.


The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda writes that India seems to have “won” its dispute with China in Doklam, at least in the near-term, in that they have apparently stopped China from continuing with its planned road construction efforts in the disputed region. China may be reluctant to revisit that plan and risk another confrontation. But the Doklam issue isn’t going away, and China has other ways of strengthening its hold over the area:

While India, as of August 28, does seem to have come out on top tactically, previous episodes of Chinese behavior in territorial disputes, including the 2012 episode with the Philippines at Scarborough Shoal, do highlight the potential for quick defection from agreements in Beijing. Even if China does not attempt to extend the turning point of its road near Doka La, it has other options available to improve its position in any future contingency at Doklam without altering the status quo in ways that would trigger Indian retaliation.

For instance, China always has the option of fortifying PLA positions at or north of the Sinche-La ridgeline, in undisputed territory or even well in the Chumbi Valley. Another option is that the PLA chooses to fortify existing positions along its road, but east of Torsa Nala. The Torsa Nala river appears to have served as a de facto separating line between the area of the Dolam bowl where the Bhutanese and Indian armies exercise control and carry out patrols. By bolstering its position east and north of Torsa Nala, the PLA could “salami-slice” its way to a more advantageous position in the area anyway.


Panda notes that Bhutan played a very careful balancing game during the standoff, by tacitly accepting Indian aid (the actual border dispute was between China and Bhutan, not China and India) while not publicly welcoming it, which allowed China to cast it as a reckless, unilateral Indian intervention. But the crisis has caused some in Bhutan to wonder if the tiny, ultra-vulnerable country wouldn’t be better off reducing its dependent ties to India and maybe opening up a bit toward China. Doing so would likely provoke an angry reaction from India, which has a lot of economic pressure points by which it could force Bhutan to knock it off.


Using satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch says it can identify over 100 kilometers of land in Myanmar’s Rakhine state that have been destroyed by fires most likely set by Myanmar soldiers. Rakhine is in the midst of yet another state crackdown on the Rohingya, having responded to an attack by Rohingya insurgents late last week with a series of reprisals that have left at least 100 people dead since Friday.


Much is being made today of the fact that Donald Trump told the crowd at his big rally last week in Arizona that Kim Jong-un “is starting to respect us,” only for Kim to conduct two more missile tests in the past few days. So yeah, that doesn’t seem very respectful. But I think the bigger ramification of Tuesday morning’s provocative missile test that overflew part of Japan could well be on Japanese politics. I’m not sure you can overstate how jarring it must have been for millions of Japanese citizens to receive warnings of a North Korean missile heading in their direction, or to hear air raid sirens going off in their cities. People seem to have taken the incident in stride, but I wonder if Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s efforts to amend the Japanese constitution to remove its pacifist restrictions on the Japanese military might not gain a little more steam in the wake of this test.



Though Kenya’s Supreme Court has ordered it to give defeated (?) presidential candidate Raila Odinga’s people access to servers and devices used in the August 8 election, the opposition says that Kenya’s electoral commission is refusing to comply with that order. The commission says this is merely a temporary technical problem, but the court may have to weigh in again on this issue, especially as it hopes to rule on Odinga’s overall challenge to the election results by the end of the week.



ISIS has claimed responsibility for an attack on Monday in which two men with knives killed one police officer and wounded another in the Dagestani town of Kaspiysk. A third officer killed both attackers.


I don’t mean to keep tracking French President Tengri Emmanuel Macron’s ongoing slide in the polls, but it’s just too much fun to stop now. Harris Interactive now says a majority of French voters don’t trust Macron’s leadership, a first for him in that particular poll.

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