World update: November 13 2017

It’s going to be a busy couple of days here at attwiw HQ, so you’re going to have to make due with an abbreviated roundup today and possibly nothing tomorrow though I’ll see what I can do.



At least 47 civilians have reportedly been killed in an airstrike on the town of Atareb in western Aleppo province. It’s unclear if the strike was carried out by the Syrian air force or by Russia.

The BBC has learned of a secret deal hatched in mid-October between ISIS fighters in Raqqa and local residents/the Syrian Democratic Forces to allow and even enable ISIS’s retreat from the city. American and British officials knew of the deal but say they had nothing to do with it and were powerless to stop it. That may be true, and as an isolated event there’s nothing particularly surprising about the SDF negotiating an end to the fighting in Raqqa and allowing ISIS to leave in order to avoid more casualties. But apart from the dangers the ~250 fighters who left the city now pose elsewhere in the region and the rest of the world, consider that the US very publicly condemned the Syrian government and Hezbollah when they reached essentially the same deal with ISIS fighters in Arsal, Lebanon. There’s a proverb about a goose and a gander that I think applies pretty well here.

In lieu, I guess, of Russia’s scuttled Syrian people’s congress, Saudi Arabia is going to host an “expanded” Syrian rebel conference next week. It’s not clear what “expanded” means in terms of attendance but the goal is to get the various opposition factions on the same page heading into the next round of peace talks in Geneva.


Their decision to close off all access to Yemen having accomplished nothing except immiserating the Yemeni people a little more, the Saudis now say they’re going to reopen Yemen’s sea and airports and will try to work with the UN to secure ports like Hodeida that are still controlled by the rebels, so that humanitarian aid can enter through them without the risk of weapons coming in as well.


Lebanese President Michel Aoun says he “welcomes” Saad al-Hariri’s plan to return to Lebanon and says he is open to the former (?) prime minister withdrawing his resignation, as Hariri seemed to suggest in his interview with Lebanon’s Future TV on Sunday.


If you’re noticing a pattern here, you’re not seeing things. The Saudis are clearly coming to a sudden realization that they’ve badly overreached in the past week and are trying to pull back on the throttle. Allowing Hariri (who they control if not physically then financially–the remains of his Saudi Oger fortune are still tied up in Saudi Arabia even if the company itself is now defunct) to suggest that he might not resign after all was a huge thing. Reopening Yemen’s ports is likewise a major admission that they fucked up closing them down in the first place.

Is anybody seriously going to continue arguing that Iran is a more destabilizing force in the Middle East than these guys?


Yesterday’s major earthquake on the Iran-Iraq border has killed at least 450 Iranians and injured and/or displaced thousands more. Most of the victims were in border towns and villages whose houses just aren’t built to withstand that kind of tremor. The death toll will likely continue to rise as recovery workers dig through the rubble.

Iran is still abiding by the nuclear deal, in case anybody still cares.



A Taliban attack in Farah province killed eight Afghan police officers early Monday morning.


Pyongyang’s UN mission says that America’s drastically increased naval presence around the Korean peninsula–and not his own country’s nuclear weapons program–is a threat to world peace. The US has positioned three carrier groups around Korea, which I grant you is a provocative amount of firepower. But I’m not sure the country that just tested a probably-hydrogen bomb gets to talk about anybody else doing something threatening.


A new study from the Small Arms Survey finds that United Nations peacekeepers have lost “thousands” of weapons (including machine guns, mortars, and grenade launchers) and “millions of rounds” of ammunition in sub-Saharan Africa since 1993. Most of the weapons have been lost in places that are known for their instability, which raises the question of causality (whether lost UN weapons are fueling instability or the weapons are being lost in those places because unstable countries are naturally where one finds peacekeepers). Weapons lost in a military engagement are only a part of the problem–more common is the scenario whereby peacekeepers hand over their weapons to avoid a fight and the scenario where weapons stockpiles simply aren’t properly managed.


This weekend’s evacuation of a group of refugees from Libya into Niger for processing is part of a larger European-African project to find legal means for at least some of those refugees to reach Europe without going the dangerous human trafficking route. This is…actually good, I think? Though there’s obviously no way to truly eradicate Libya’s human trafficking business without stabilizing Libya.


At the Monkey Cage, George Mason’s Agnieszka Paczynska explains the challenges facing Liberia’s next president–whomever that might be. Most of them, as you might expect, are the economy, stupid, both growing it and distributing the wealth more equitably, but there’s also the end of the UN peacekeeping mission looming next year.


There’s reason to worry that ISIS’s Somalia outfit, which is suddenly doing pretty well for itself in Puntland, could become stronger in the coming months if fighters fleeing Syria and Iraq are able to get there. Libya was once seen as the destination of choice for ISIS if/when things collapsed in the Syria-Iraq core, but after the loss of Sirte that’s probably no longer the case. Somalia could be the new hotness in ISIS fallback positions.

As ISIS grows stronger and maybe tries to expand outside of Puntland it will come into conflict with al-Shabab, which is also experiencing something of a resurgence. Africa Is a Country’s Ahmed Ibrahim says the Somali government’s focus on responding to al-Shabab militarily is creating the conditions for the group to get stronger:

Predictably, the knee-jerk reaction to the October 14 bombing has been to call for an all-out war against al-Shabaab. The President of Somalia, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmaajo), went on a tour of regional countries to solicit military support. It appears that a military intensification of the conflict is in the offing.


A more sober and informed analysis, however, underlines what should be an obvious point; there is a limit to what military force can accomplish against al-Shabaab.


The head of the Zimbabwean army, General Constantino Chiwenga, issued a very public warning on Monday that the army might not continue sitting on his hands as the ruling ZANU-PF party continues its internal purge. Without mentioning President Robert Mugabe by name–which is smart because I’ve heard if you say Mugabe’s name three times in quick succession he appears and tries to drain your life force–it would seem Chiwenga is talking about Mugabe’s decision to oust his former VP, Emmerson Mnangagwa, in favor of Grace Mugabe.



Monday’s resignation of Brazil’s cities minister, Bruno Araujo, is a sign that the Brazilian Social Democratic Party may be preparing to pull out of Michel Temer’s governing coalition. Most PSDB legislators voted last month to send one of Temer’s myriad corruption cases to trial, so this relationship clearly is on the rocks, but frankly it’s surprising that it’s taken so long to get to this point. I probably have a higher approval rating in Brazil than Temer does. It’s unclear why any other Brazilian party would want to remain lashed to his sinking ship.


Venezuelan officials met with some of the country’s international creditors on Monday in an attempt to stave off default, but it doesn’t appear that anything came of the meeting. The Maduro government wants to restructure and refinance its debt, but American sanctions are making that nearly impossible. While investors were likely expecting the government to articulate a way around those sanctions on Monday, nothing like that seems to have been forthcoming.


Brookings’ Daniel Bynam thinks the United States has become a “bad wingman” for its allies because we’re not doing enough to protect those zany folks from hurting themselves:

The United States has long tried to aid and reassure its allies, helping them defend themselves and achieve their goals. America also brought its friends together, helping turn historic enemies like Germany and France or Japan and Korea into allies in their own right. The American track record is hardly perfect—as the Kurds, South Vietnamese, and others can attest. Yet such abandonment is the exception, not the rule, and the United States emerged as the leader of the free world in large part because its allies trusted it to do the right thing (if only, in a remark often attributed to Winston Churchill, after exhausting all the other alternatives). Whether it was to keep the Russians out of Europe during the Cold War, liberate Kuwait from Iraqi aggression, or build a robust global trading order, it was America that assembled coalitions, provided military muscle, and was there in the dark hours when our friends needed us most.


In short, America was our allies’ wingman: We protected and guided our friends, and we helped them form relationships with others.


A good wingman doesn’t abandon friends. A good wingman doesn’t let friends embarrass themselves or engage in destructive behavior that a friend will regret the next day. And importantly, a good wingman doesn’t let a friend go home with the wrong partner. Under Trump, the United States is failing in all these roles, and the world is suffering as a result.

He actually cites America’s involvement in Yemen here, despite the fact that it was the Obama administration that made the decision to enable that catastrophe. But this is of a piece with all those “America is getting dragged into war” pieces that seek to absolve the United States of responsibility for the choices it makes.

The Saudis have lost the plot, definitely, but is there anything materially different about the Saudi approach to Iran and the American one? We’re pushing the same agenda, the same talking points, and we’re doing our best to undermine a successful international arms control agreement in the process. What if the problem isn’t that America hasn’t done enough to take the matches away from the Saudis but is instead that America is pouring lighter fluid on the fire? We’re not failing to be the Saudis’ “sober helper,” a term Bynam uses toward the end of his piece–we’re our own very drunken threat to global stability. We need to confront that.

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