A United Nations official named Sajjad Malik, who has been involved with trying to get relief convoys into Eastern Ghouta this week, has apparently confirmed, at least to some extent, Russian claims that rebels are trying to prevent civilians from leaving via the “humanitarian corridor” Russia says it’s opening up during the enclave’s daily five hour ceasefires. The rebels are, per Malik, positioning snipers to block the corridor, and have killed at least two people trying to flee the area.
There were reports of rebel fighters doing similar things along the “humanitarian corridor” that Russia and the Syrian government opened up in eastern Aleppo back in 2016, so if true this wouldn’t be unprecedented. However, Malik also told the New York Times that he’s not sure how many people would try to leave even if the rebels weren’t making it dangerous to do so. He says that residents are worried about their homes being ransacked if they leave and, more importantly, about what awaits them outside of Eastern Ghouta. In the past, these evacuation offers from Russia and the government have come with the promise of relocation to rebel-held parts of the country. Now, there are no more rebel-held parts of the country that are free from their own fighting, so the idea of relocating has lost whatever appeal it once had.
Estimates of the civilian dead in Eastern Ghouta since mid-February range from close to 900 to over 1000, and many more could die for lack of food and medical supplies. Another aid convoy entered Douma on Friday and was able to deliver its food supplies despite the fighting. The convoy was also able to negotiate an agreement with Jaysh al-Islam, one of the largest rebel factions in Eastern Ghouta, to evacuate its prisoners–most of whom are extremists from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham–out of the area.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Friday that his forces have surrounded Afrin city and are beginning to advance toward its outskirts. He then reiterated a pledge to attack Manbij, where there are US soldiers stationed.
As part of their effort to appease Donald Trump and salvage the Iran nuclear deal, the European is considering levying sanctions against Hezbollah. The EU already sanctions Hezbollah’s armed wing over its role in Syria, but Trump wants sanctions extended to the entire organization. The problem is that Hezbollah is a political party, with a presence in the Lebanese government. And granted, there’s no clear line dividing Hezbollah the political party from Hezbollah the paramilitary force, but sanctioning the whole organization could cut the EU off from the Lebanese government altogether.
In spite of its alleged concerns about the conduct of the Saudi war in Yemen, the UK reached a deal on Friday in principle to sell the kingdom 48 brand new advanced Typhoon fighters. So that’s exciting. Way to go everybody!
Al-Monitor is reporting that, according to Iranian sources, the Treasury Department has begun issuing licenses for US manufacturers to sell passenger planes to Iran. At least they seem to have issued them to Canadian firm Bombardier, which specializes in business and regional aircraft. Several firms (Boeing, Airbus, etc.) are waiting to sell new aircraft to Iran, which has a desperate need to replace the antiquated planes in its civilian fleet, but they have to get clearance from Washington to do so as long as 10 percent or more of any aircraft being sold was manufactured in the US. That clearance has been slow in coming, even though restrictions on aircraft sales were supposed to be lifted as part of the Iran nuclear deal. At the very least, if this is true then those other firms can now insist on getting their licenses approved just as Bombardier did.
A car bomb killed three security personnel in the town of Ajdabiya, in northeastern Libya, on Friday. Ajdabiya is under the control of Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, and early indications suggest the attack was carried out by ISIS, which apparently remains a potent force in the country despite having lost its territorial cohesion when it lost the city of Sirte back in 2016.
Kenya’s previously deeply opposed President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga held a surprise face-to-face meeting on Friday in Nairobi and came out of it calling each other “brother” and promising to bring the country together:
“We have come to a common understanding, an understanding that this country of Kenya is greater than any one individual, and that for this country to come together leaders must come together,” Kenyatta said.
Odinga, who spoke first, expressed similar sentiments. “Throughout our independence history, we have had doubts on how we have conducted our affairs in the face of a growing divide along ethnic, religious and political lines. Regrettably, we have responded to our challenges by mostly running away from them.
“The time has come for us to confront and resolve our differences.”
So…cool? I guess? They offered no specific plan for healing Kenya’s long-standing divides, and its hard to imagine them just suddenly becoming buds after Odinga has spent the past seven months insisting that Kenyatta stole last year’s presidential election from him. But with Rex Tillerson scheduled to visit Kenya in the next few days and emphasizing that the US wants Kenyatta and Odinga to work together to ease tensions, this sudden rapprochement seems like a peculiar coincidence.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
The DRC may be on track to hold an election in December, but opposition leaders are worried about the technology they’ll be using to vote. The government says its new electronic voting machines will cut costs, speed up the vote count, and prevent fraud. But so far sample machines have broken down in two separate demonstrations, raising the possibility that they’re lemons–worse, that they’re lemons on purpose, since a widespread failure of the machines would “force” President Joseph Kabila to (reluctantly I’m sure) postpone the election yet again. Kabila is supposed to already be out of office, and there are concerns that he’s extending his stay until he can organize a referendum to remove the DRC’s two-term presidential limit. The decision not to use simple paper ballots could cost the DRC international funding for the election–the US has, for example, threatened to cut its support.
Serbian journalist Aleks Eror says that the European Union is abandoning its commitments to democratic reform in the Balkans by supporting “stabilizing” authoritarian leaders like Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić:
In an interview with Radio Free Europe in October 2017, the president of the European Federation of Journalists, Mogens Blicher Bjerregard, singled out Serbia as the nation with the worst violations of media freedom in the Balkans. Yet EU officials such as Johannes Hahn, the European commissioner for European neighborhood policy and enlargement, have been more than happy to look the other way as Vucic tramples on the “European values” that they purportedly hold so dear. Austria’s new chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, once gushingly described him as “an anchor of stability,” while German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently told Vucic that “we are impressed by how successful Serbia is on its way to reform.” Their silence regarding his antidemocratic behavior is deafening.
As long as Serbia remains outside the European Union, Brussels is able to dissociate itself from Vucic’s antics. Unlike Viktor Orban’s illiberal democracy in Hungary, Serbia’s soft autocracy isn’t a stain on the European brand. Vucic may be a poor representative for the European project, but he is a reliable enabler who allows Brussels to move closer to its geostrategic goals in the Balkans.
Germany’s new Grand Coalition hasn’t even started governing yet and many of its cracks are already apparent. Conservatives are wary of placing too high a priority on the Social Democratic Party’s policy goals, and the coalition deal doesn’t really lay out a firm path forward on how intra-coalition differences might be resolved.
The Five Star Movement has begun preparing economic proposals to share with prospective coalition partners in order to form Italy’s next government. As the largest single party in Italy following Sunday’s election, they have a reasonable claim to the right to form that government, but they’ll need to quickly demonstrate that they can attract partners to get past the claim of the League-led center-right coalition, which did in total get more votes than Five Star.
Spain’s Supreme Court says it will not authorize the release of Jordi Sànchez so that he might attend the Catalan parliament session on Monday and possibly/likely assume the post of Catalan president. Sànchez, in jail over his role in last year’s Catalan independence referendum, is the only candidate for the office.
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