World update: September 21 2017

Shanah Tovah to anyone celebrating Rosh Hashanah. I’m going to have to condense things again today, and possibly tomorrow as well–I’m trying to make some headway on a couple of paid pieces but it’s been hard to find the time to work on them. Hopefully I’ll get at least one of them written and get back to some balance here soon.



Hassan Hassan argues in a new piece that talk of an ISIS-al-Qaeda merger is off base, particularly when it involves the supposed leadership of Hamza bin Laden. Hamza, he writes, doesn’t have much going for him apart from his name:

Furthermore, senior jihadis in Syria have dismissed Hamza’s leadership prospects. One notable cleric, who used to operate under Jabhat al-Nusra and who until recently remained in contact with senior al-Qaeda figures in Syria, said it would be “very hard” for Hamza to fill his father’s shoes. “The bin Laden spark is gone. Nobody in the jihadi world considers Hamza as anything — not an authority, not an inspiring figure, and certainly not someone who is capable of fulfilling his father’s dream. He doesn’t have the recognition his father had.” Hamza’s messages have barely registered in jihadi and Islamist spheres, and his latest on Syria sounded like a high school writing assignment. The content seemed outdated and out of touch: Hamza spoke about migration to Syria to support the mujahideen, when even Jabhat al-Nusra, now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, has made no such request in recent years. His remarks would fit in the context of the open border and financial flow before 2014.

Rather than positioning itself for a merger with ISIS, al-Qaeda’s latest communiques seem to position it as the alternative, to siphon off disaffected ISIS fighters and appeal to potential recruits who don’t want to join the crew that’s losing so badly in Syria and Iraq. Al-Qaeda is citing former al-Qaeda in Iraq boss Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in their rhetoric, but they and ISIS remain fundamentally opposed on the issue of how best to achieve their objectives.


In case you missed yesterday’s update, the Iraqis announced early Thursday that they were beginning operations in Hawijah and the nearby town of Shirqat. These actions were supposed to take place simultaneously with the Iraqi offensive in western Anbar, but it was thought that tensions with the Kurds were going to delay Hawijah indefinitely. Apparently, though, they’ve patched things up well enough to go ahead with the operation. There still appear to be some logistical details to work out with respect to Hawijah, but the Iraqis can get on the same page while also taking some preliminary actions like leaflet drops, initial airstrikes, and capturing villages around the city.

The UN Security Council approved a measure on Thursday designating UN investigators to work with the Iraqis to collect evidence for an international war crimes case against ISIS. You’ll note that nobody is investigating allegations of war crimes against Iraqi and/or anti-ISIS coalition forces.

Turkey, Iran, and Iraq are preparing to work together to counter the results of next week’s independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, adding to the potential for escalation.


Speaking of Kurds heading to the polls, Syrian Kurds are holding an election on Friday in the first stage of a three part process to install an autonomous government in northern Syria. Friday’s vote will elect leaders for around 3700 communes in Syrian Kurdistan, and will be followed in November by elections for local councils, then in January by legislative elections. The idea is that the Kurds could head into the post-civil war planning and reconstruction period with a government already in place and their autonomy established as a fait accompli.

US and Russian generals held face-to-face meetings this week on deconflicting the situation in Deir Ezzor province, where the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are battling ISIS on the eastern side of the Euphrates River while the Syrian army and its allies fight on the western side. But it doesn’t seem to have been a very friendly chat, since the Russians are promising to strike the SDF, again, should the SDF fire on its forces.

The Russians are blaming “US spies” for organizing this week’s large rebel advance north of the city of Hama. Though Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and its allies seem to have gained some ground initially, they’ve now been largely pushed back by the Syrian army and its air support.


Stunningly, Hassan Rouhani does not seem inclined to renegotiate the JCPOA just because Donald Trump hates it/hates Barack Obama.



Five Afghan police officers were killed late Wednesday when the Taliban attacked their checkpoint in Zabul province.

An embarrassing memo leaked from President Ashraf Ghani’s office seems to show a deliberate effort to consolidate authority within the country’s Pashtun community while maintaining a veneer of inclusivity by appointing token Hazara, Uzbeks, and Tajiks to symbolic positions. Ghani is rapidly losing popularity among all three Afghan minorities and this memo is likely to cause him to lose even more.


Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi tells the New York Times that his army has cleared the Taliban out of its strongholds on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan. Just like that, I guess. Color me skeptical.


Pakistani authorities say that Indian soldiers firing across the line of control killed four civilians in the village of Charwa on Thursday. Meanwhile, Indian authorities say that Kashmiri separatists killed three civilians in a grenade attack on an official motorcade in the village of Tral, on the Indian side of the line.


Journalist Siddharthya Roy offers an interesting look at the 50 year history of India’s Naxalite/Maoist insurgency. No excerpts for space reasons but it’s well worth your time.


Thousands of people turned out in Manila on Thursday to protest against what they characterize as President Rodrigo Duterte’s “dictatorship.” Duterte remains broadly very popular, but as his war on drugs continues to lead to the murder of teenagers and as Marawi continues to fester, and as he continues to act more and more like an authoritarian, it’s not surprising that some people are turning on him.


Donald Trump imposed some major new sanctions on North Korea on Thursday. The new measures are of the “secondary” variety, which means they’ll be imposed on entities doing business with North Korea and bar those entities from doing business in or with the United States. These are the same kinds of sanctions that were imposed against Iran during Barack Obama’s first term, which are credited by some observers with forcing the Iranians to negotiate over their nuclear program. Trump also said in announcing the new sanctions that China’s central bank has ordered its subsidiary banks to stop doing business with North Korea, but it’s probably best to take a wait and see approach to that. Even assuming the administration is reporting this accurately, China has often announced measures like this in the past and then developed ways to work around them in practice.



Leaders from northern Mali’s two main rival Tuareg groups signed a ceasefire deal on Wednesday, which should go a long way toward stabilizing that part of the country if it holds.


Three of Somalia’s autonomous regions–Puntland, Galmudug, and Hirshabelle–have opted to back Saudi Arabia, et al, in their feud with Qatar. But Somalia’s central government has been trying to remain neutral to avoid, among other things, alienating either the Saudis or Turkey. So on Thursday Mogadishu issued a terse reminder to those regional governments that it’s responsible for Somalia’s foreign policy, not them.


Kenya’s electoral commission has pushed back the date of the country’s planned presidential election do-over from October 17 to October 26, saying it needs more time to fully comply with the requirements of the full Supreme Court ruling that was released yesterday.


Ugandan police on Thursday tear gassed protesters who had gathered in Kampala to demonstrate against a law that would allow Yoweri Museveni to run for what archeologists believe would be his 926th term as Ugandan president in 2021. Since Museveni will be over the age of 1100 75 in 2021, he’ll be ineligible to hold another sham election run again under the country’s current constitution. Lawmakers plan to take up a measure to amend the constitution probably next week, though there had been a chance it could be introduced today and that’s why the protesters turned out.



Petro Poroshenko and Donald Trump met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Thursday and came out talking about a “shared vision” for defense issues. It’s not clear if that vision includes the US providing lethal arms to Kiev, but I suppose we’ll find out soon enough if it does.


Marine Le Pen’s National Front party is breaking up, with her deputy, Florian Philippot, quitting over Le Pen’s squishiness on the euro and her efforts to systematically marginalize him within the party. This could actually be good for Le Pen in the long-run because it frees her up to minimize the party’s Euroskepticism and focus instead on its racism, which is more palatable to a larger swath of the French right.


Catalan President Carles Puigdemont says he’s pushing ahead with the region’s October 1 independence referendum despite a significant escalation in Madrid’s efforts to prevent that vote from happening.


If you’re wondering why Brexit is so complicated, here’s part of the reason: there were more than 110 million border crossings between Ireland and Northern Ireland last year. That’s 110 million border crossings that were easily handled when both countries were in the EU that will now have to be managed somehow with Britain out of the EU. Logistically that’s a nightmare, but the history of Northern Ireland tells us that if the parties get this wrong it could easily lead to some very dangerous places.



The Trump administration is apparently still considering an oil embargo on Venezuela. This is smart policy because, while it wouldn’t do anything to oust Nicolás Maduro and would probably actually strengthen his position domestically, it would massively penalize the already-suffering Venezuelan people.


Nicaragua says it will sign on to the Paris climate agreement, which would leave only the US and, ah, Syria outside the accord. Nicaragua, which is working toward a 90 percent renewable energy goal by 2020, has stayed out of the deal because it doesn’t go far enough, but I would imagine they got tired of being mentioned alongside Bashar al-Assad and Donald Trump.


Finally, here’s Jeffrey Lewis on the Pentagon’s development of “low yield” nuclear weapons, something Donald Trump apparently sees as a priority:

But still, low-yield nuclear weapons are a silly idea regardless of who wants to build them. It is not clear to me that the United States needs either the LRSO or a warhead with low-yield options. But we should make a distinction between these two problems — the folly of low-yield nuclear weapons and the folly of Donald Trump commanding any nuclear weapons at all, regardless of yield.

Proposals for low-yield nuclear weapons have been around for decades essentially because nuclear weapons designers think they are cool. They are a solution in search of a problem. At the moment, the trendy problem is Russia, but if President Vladimir Putin dropped stone dead tomorrow, there would be a new justification for these things. While I am sure that the Russian nuclear laboratories also want to design mini-nukes for the same reason that our laboratories do, I am not convinced by the logic offered by Kendall or Bender’s anonymous source. Where does this idea that Russia is going to engage in a limited nuclear use — which is often called “escalate to de-escalate” — come from? Not the Russians. Olga Oliker, who I think is doing the best work on Russian nuclear doctrine these days, is pretty skeptical of such talk. “They do not track with what I know of Russian nuclear strategy,” she writes, “nor with how Russians talk about it, for the most part.”

I am no expert in Russian nuclear strategy, but I did live in Washington, D.C., for more than a decade. I know a convenient rationalization when I see one. It’s a kind of “Russian nuclear policy” that actually seems a lot more like an American fantasy about Russian nuclear policy. It’s the nuclear doctrinal equivalent of Penthouse Forum. “Dear Pentagon Forum: I never thought this would happen to me, but last night, in our war-game, I noticed the Russian player kept moving his bombers closer to mine…”

People are worried about Trump’s interest in a low yield nuke because they fear it will make him more likely to use nuclear weapons, but what people don’t like to talk about is that the Obama administration also developed these weapons, and as Lewis notes there’s almost no scenario in which low-yield nukes would be warranted wherein their use won’t inexorably lead to using high-yield nukes and destroying mankind. Maybe that’s still reason to worry, given that it’s Donald Trump with his finger on the button.

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