World update: October 27 2017



I’m lumping these two together today because both Iraqi and Syrian forces are pushing ISIS back to a region that straddles the border, and ISIS appears to be consolidating in two towns–al-Bukamal on the Syrian side, and Qaʾim on the Iraqi side. Both the Syrian army and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are after al-Bukamal, but the Syrian army would seem to have better position and will likely get there first. The US-led coalition says–publicly, at least–that it will be up to the SDF and conditions on the ground whether they actually attempt their own assault on the town and risk a confrontation with the army.

In Iraq, Baghdad and Erbil have agreed on a 24 hour ceasefire to allow Iraqi government forces to assume control over border crossings that are within Iraqi Kurdistan. Assuming that goes well, it’s hard to see what else the two sides have left over which to fight, and it seems (at least to me, and I know I’m beating a dead horse here) like it would be in Baghdad’s best interest to give it a rest and focus on western Anbar.


Abu al-Abbas, one of several Yemenis designated as terrorists by the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center earlier this week, has been accused of aiding al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS in Yemen. But this has come as kind of a surprise to fighters in his “Abu al-Abbas Battalions,” who say they’ve been getting Saudi money and weapons, and have been working closely with Saudi forces to target Houthi rebels. Go figure. The Saudis’ real problem with Abu al-Abbas could be that he’s reportedly starting to act like he’s in charge of the city of Taiz, which is creating problems within the Saudi-led coalition. But either these AQAP/ISIS charges are bogus or the Saudis have some explaining to do about why they’ve been working with this guy despite his ties to those two groups.


Hamas’s internal security chief, Tawfiq Abu Naim, was injured in an explosion in Gaza on Friday. Hamas is calling it a “failed assassination attempt” but hasn’t blamed anybody for it. Israel would obviously be high on the list of potential suspects, but the point is that with Palestinian unity on the table any incident like this has higher-than-usual stakes attached to it.


Egyptian interior ministry forces killed 13 militants–no mention of affiliation–on Friday in a battle in the country’s New Valley province along the border with Libya.


One Bahraini police officer was killed on Friday when militants attacked a police bus outside of Manama.


The Saudis gave citizenship to a robot earlier this week. No word on whether it will be treated any better than Riyadh’s female citizens, its Shiʿa citizens, or its 10 million migrant workers, but chances are pretty good that it will be.



Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov opened his new Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course last week and promptly hit a beautiful hole-in-one. Don’t believe me? Take a gander:

There’s no footage of the ball going in the hole after he hits that lame duck mighty drive, but look, would everybody be clapping and kissing the ultra-dictatorial Berdymukhamedov’s ass like that if the ball hadn’t gone in the hole? I think we all know the answer to that.


A commuter train was hit by a bomb outside of Quetta on Friday, injuring at least six people. Fortunately that seems to have been the extent of the carnage. Baloch separatists are likely to blame but as always in Pakistan there’s no shortage of suspects.

Washington wants Pakistan to “demonstrate good faith” by moving quickly to end its support for terrorist groups like the Afghan Taliban/Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba. When questioned about supporting these groups Islamabad always points to its war against domestic terrorists like the Pakistani Taliban and its splinter groups, but of course that’s not really relevant to the problem of Pakistan’s support for terrorist groups that target Afghanistan and India. It’s also not particularly relevant to the problem of the general increase in Islamic extremism in Pakistan, where the hardline political party Tehrik-e-Labaik is making significant electoral gains while its supporters chant nifty slogans like “death to blasphemers.” There has been a spate of violent crimes committed recently against alleged “blasphemers” by angry mobs of fundamentalists.


The Myanmar government says it will allow the United Nations World Food Program to resume distributing food aid to Rohingya in Rakhine state. That aid has been suspended for the past two months as the Myanmar military has been carrying out its ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya.



Mali’s al-Qaeda branch says that 11 captured Malian soldiers were killed in a French raid earlier this week. France is denying the claim.


Sahel specialist Andrew Lebovich takes on the question of why American forces are in Niger in the first place. His answer, to the extent he or anybody else has one, is one you’re likely to find unsatisfying, because ultimately the reason the US is in Niger is because the Nigerien government was willing to let the US build drone facilities there. That doesn’t explain why the US is in West Africa at all, though.

West African jihadi activity is, as Lebovich describes, characterized by a number of groups–Boko Haram, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Nusrat al-Islam, ISIS in the Greater Sahel, etc.–that assert relationships with ISIS and al-Qaeda internationally, but that are very much products of (and threats to) their local and regional environs. America could help the countries of the Sahel to combat these groups, but to do so it would need to understand the local and regional circumstances that created and sustain them. Instead we treat West Africa as just another front of the same war we’re fighting in Syria and Iraq, and so far that’s done nothing but make the situation worse.


Uhuru Kenyatta won Thursday’s presidential election with 98 percent of the vote, so you know it was definitely a legitimate vote. The vote was supposed to be run yet again in four Kenyan counties on Saturday, due to difficulties encountered in those places on Thursday, but that’s been postponed due to widespread unrest and I can’t imagine why people would be upset. Thursday’s turnout is still being compiled but it looks like it will come in at a little over a third of Kenyan voters, down from nearly 80 percent the first time around in August. Again, there’s no way Kenyatta can claim a legitimate victory out of this. What happens now depends on Raila Odinga and the movement he says he plans to lead topple Kenyatta’s government.


Burundi has officially become the first country to withdraw from the International Criminal Court, citing its (alleged, to be fair) bias against African nations. None of the ICC’s open investigations into Pierre Nkurunziza’s government–which, let’s be honest, are the real reasons why this is happening–will be affected, but it will now be virtually impossible for the court to exact any punishment as a result.


The situation with respect to holding a presidential in the DRC has reached what seems to me to be a sort of Kafka-esque place where the international community–on Friday represented by Nikki Haley–is threatening DRC President Joseph Kabila with the loss of things he doesn’t need in an effort to force him to hold a vote that he clearly doesn’t want to hold. Haley says that the vote, which Kabila’s election commission swears simply can’t be held any earlier than 2019, has to be held next year or else he’ll lose international support. But Kabila has already lost most of his international support, and anyway he can’t run for reelection again both statutorily and because he’s loathed by most people in the DRC. What good is “international support” to a guy once he’s out of office?

Meanwhile, the international community has not funded the election, but donors apparently are ready to fund it once there’s some clarity about if and when it’s going to be held. And around and around we go.


Angolan President João Lourenço, who was handpicked for his post by his predecessor, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, has quickly taken steps to get out from under dos Santos’s shadow:

Dos Santos, 75, handpicked Lourenço, 63, to succeed him when he stepped down last month after 38 years in power, prompting critics to suggest the little-known newcomer would be a puppet of the dominant dos Santos family.


But analysts, diplomats and politicians have been surprised by the speed at which Lourenço has tried to take on some of the entrenched vested interests that control sub-Saharan Africa’s third largest economy and second biggest oil exporter.


Heavyweights from the previous administration, such as Vice President Manuel Vicente and Minister of State Manuel “Kopelipa” Hélder Vieira Dias Jr, have found themselves out of a job.

Lourenço has even sidelined Isabel dos Santos’s (Jose’s daughter) role at Sonangol, the national oil company, and while Jose Eduardo dos Santos still runs their MPLA party, it seems he’s losing his other levers of power fairly quickly.



Ukraine’s unchecked endemic corruption problem is drawing people out in protest again, and there are some similarities with the Euromaidan movement that toppled Viktor Yanukovych in 2014:

Despite drawing far smaller crowds, the organizers have mimicked the earlier, iconic protests on Independence Square. The field kitchens doling out buckwheat stew and tents warmed by wooden stoves, emblems of the earlier rallies, today embody the accusation of unfulfilled promises.


All this has unnerved the government. Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Yuri Lutsenko, has even warned of a looming coup organized, he said, by a former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, a one-time ally of Mr. Poroshenko who is now a main backer of the tent camp.


The Catalan parliament declared independence, got its first international recognition from The Gambia–maybe, and then was forcibly dissolved by the Spanish government, all in one day. What a day! Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy also shut down the region’s executive offices and its police force, and has called new elections for Catalonia on December 21. Former (I guess?) Catalan President Carles Puigdemont may be facing sedition charges as a result of the independence declaration, but how deep the criminal aspect of this situation goes will say a lot about whether Rajoy wants to defuse the situation or throw red meat at the many angry constituencies throughout the rest of Spain. At this point Rajoy has only called a new election, one that could very well result in the election of a Catalan government that is anti-secession. If he pushes forward with a more draconian response–curfews, martial law, mass arrests, etc.–then things could escalate quite seriously.



Tired of the undying adulation of his own countrymen, Emmanuel Macron decided to go make some new friends in French Guiana:

Clashes erupted between protesters and police in French Guiana on Thursday night during a visit by French President Emmanuel Macron.


Petrol bombs were thrown and police responded with tear gas in the French overseas territory’s main city Cayenne, amid anger over social deprivation.


The territory in South America has 23% unemployment – more than double the rate of mainland France.

Sounds like about the reception you’d expect. At least nobody peed on Macron’s fireplace this time.


Reuters says that, in the wake of the Iran decertification, European leaders are excited to see terrified about what Donald Trump might do next:

Diplomats have sketched scenarios they fear could plunge transatlantic relations into crisis: a trade war, military conflict over North Korea, or the collapse of a Cold War-era arms treaty. They wonder if their post-war alliance can survive if any of them come true.

Typical European bullshit. There is absolutely no reason to think that Trump won’t do all of these, and more. What’s with this “or” stuff? Anyway the Europeans are starting to think their relationships with the US won’t survive even a single four year Trump term–and hell, seeing as how it already feels like he’s been in office for about five full terms now, that seems like a reasonable thought. But the problem extends to European publics, who are generally less inclined than their leaders to give Washington the benefit of the doubt and who stand to be put at serious risk if Trump decides, say, to scrap a major arms treaty with Russia.

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