World update: February 15-16 2020

Stories from Iraq, Pakistan, South Sudan, and more

Apologies for the email that went out earlier. That was a technical error, by which I mean a human error, by which I mean my error. Additionally, today’s update will be brief and early, both because it’s a slow holiday weekend and because I have a commitment this evening.

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

February 14, 1876: Alexander Graham Bell files a patent application for the telephone on the same day when Elisha Gray filed a patent caveat for a similar technology. The US Patent Office later informed Gray of the conflict and he withdrew his caveat, which was less an application than a notification of an intent to file an application and therefore wasn’t as far along as Bell’s claim. Gray later won a court decision finding that the information in his caveat was leaked to Bell and some of it appeared in his application, but regardless Bell became known as the inventor of telephone and Gray, well, didn’t.

February 14, 1943: The World War II Battle of Sidi Bouzid begins.

February 14, 1945: Franklin Delano Roosevelt hosts Saudi King Abdulaziz ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy in the Mediterranean. Roosevelt was sailing home from the Yalta Conference and took the occasion to hold several face-to-face meetings with several regional leaders. This one was the first meeting ever between a Saudi royal and a US president. The agreement they concluded (which offered US military protection to the Saudis in return for US access to Saudi oil) created the basic contours of a US-Saudi alliance that has survived (albeit with some rough patches) to the present day.

Ibn Saud meeting Roosevelt on the USS Quincy (Wikimedia Commons)

February 15, 1942: The World War II Battle of Singapore ends with the Japanese conquest of the British colony. Virtually the entire 85,000-man British force defending Singapore was lost—5000 killed or wounded and the remaining 80,000 captured. It was one of the largest surrenders in British military history and interestingly was not celebrated by Japan’s Nazi allies. Although it was an obvious success for the Axis, Adolf Hitler reportedly saw the Japanese victory as a defeat for the white race and ordered Joachim von Ribbentrop not to issue congratulations to Japan.

February 15, 1989: Soviet forces complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan. Commemorated today in Afghanistan as “Liberation Day.”

February 16, 1804: A small US naval crew enters Tripoli harbor and destroys the grounded USS Philadelphia.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

The Syrian military has reportedly taken control of “most” of the parts of Aleppo province that had remained in rebel hands (that is, the parts that aren’t under Turkish control). Having already seized control of the key M5 highway to Aleppo city, all that’s really left for the government to do in Aleppo province is mop-up work. Syrian rebels seem to be gearing up for a major counterattack in neighboring Idlib province, even as Russia and Turkey continue talks on restoring a ceasefire in northwestern Syria. As always you can follow the course of the conflict on the usually reliable Syria live map.

Meanwhile, a car bomb in the Turkish-controlled town of Tel Abyad in northeastern Syria killed at least two people on Sunday. Turkish officials are blaming the Kurdish YPG militia for the attack though so far there’s been no claim of responsibility.

YEMEN

Saudi authorities sort of confirmed Friday’s claim from the Houthis that they shot down a Saudi Tornado warplane over Yemen’s al-Jawf province, in that they have acknowledged that one of their planes did go down over that area. The Saudis haven’t offered any reason for the crash, so they’re not confirming the whole Houthi story. They did, however, conduct multiple airstrikes on al-Jawf on Saturday, which could be a kind of confirmation. At least 31 civilians were killed in those bombings. Nevertheless, the Saudis claim their back channel peace talks with the Houthis are continuing, and indeed the United Nations announced Sunday that the combatants in Yemen have agreed to what it’s calling a “large-scale” prisoner exchange that would represent a significant diplomatic breakthrough. The two sides are still finalizing their prisoner lists, however, so this isn’t a done deal yet.

IRAQ

Somebody fired multiple rockets into Baghdad’s Green Zone early Sunday morning, targeting the headquarters of the foreign military coalition in Iraq and possibly the US embassy. There were no casualties and I haven’t seen any claims of significant damage. No group has claimed responsibility, but a few hours earlier a paramilitary group did declare its plans to drive US forces out of Iraq:

The attacks came hours after the Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (the Movement of the Nobles of the Party of God), led by Akram al-Kaabi, had announced a “countdown” to the expulsion of US troops from Iraq. I reported that in early January, “The movement’s official spokesman, Nasr Al-Shammari, warned American soldiers in Iraq, saying: “Do not close your eyes, for the revenge of the martyr Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis is inevitably coming at the hands of the Iraqis, until the last American soldier is expelled.” In February of 2019, the US had designated the al-Nujaba’ a terrorist organization. On Sunday January 5, the Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdulmahdi asked parliament to vote to expel US troops from Iraq, and the country’s legislature did so vote by a majority. This vote was not, as US officials keep saying, ‘advisory.’”

The main umbrella group for Iraqi militias, the Popular Mobilization Forces, has decided to give Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Allawi a chance to negotiate a US withdrawal. But the PMF isn’t a monolith, clearly. Though if Allawi can’t negotiate a US withdrawal, more PMF factions may decide to join Kaabi’s group in taking matters into their own hands. And if that happens, the United States looks increasingly ready to retaliate against Baghdad by cutting off its access to the dollar and thereby shutting down the Iraqi oil industry.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli aircraft struck targets in Gaza overnight after somebody fired two rockets out of the Palestinian enclave. There have been no reports of casualties. Israeli officials have also announced that they’re suspending a plan to ease the Israeli embargo on Gaza. The Israelis were preparing to expand the legal fishing zone for Gazan residents as well as to issue additional permits for Gazans to enter Israel on business and a relaxation on the importation of building supplies.

QATAR

The Qatari government says that its back channel talks with Saudi Arabia on ending their intra-Gulf dispute broke off last month. That’s a confirmation of reports earlier in the week suggesting that those negotiations had faltered.

IRAN

Likewise, the Saudis apparently aren’t talking with Iran. Both countries’ foreign ministers attended the Munich Security Conference this weekend, but not only did they go out of their way to avoid one another, they weren’t shy about declaring it. Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, the Omani Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs, told reporters he’s not optimistic about any breakthroughs here at least through the US election in November, suggesting that the Trump administration is encouraging the Saudis to remain aloof.

ASIA

PAKISTAN

The Diplomat’s Umair Jamal suggests that the United States may be helping Pakistan out with its militants in return for Pakistani help in negotiating a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban:

Over the last week, several senior members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have been killed in Afghanistan. However, it’s not only the Pakistani Taliban that has suffered heavy losses. A senior member of the Baloch Republican Army (BRA), a militant organization known for targeting Pakistan’s interests, was also killed in Iran a few days ago.

The deaths of the Pakistani Taliban and BRA members comes at a time when the United States and the Afghan Taliban are on the cusp of signing a peace agreement in Afghanistan.

The deaths of several anti-Pakistan militant leaders in Afghanistan and Iran are reflective of several previous such developments where Pakistan’s push to assist Washington in Afghanistan was rewarded with an action against groups that Pakistan considers an enemy. If this is the case, then we may see a wider and targeted campaign against the TTP in Afghanistan in the coming weeks and months.

One of these cases involves the killing of Pakistani Taliban leader Khalid Haqqani, who was reportedly gunned down along with one of the TTP’s military commanders in Kabul earlier this month. The Pakistani Taliban claims that US forces were involved in that incident, though Pakistani intelligence operatives may also have played a role.

One of the Pakistani government’s main issues with Kabul is that the Pakistani Taliban and Baluch separatists are able to operate from Afghan territory either because Afghan security forces can’t stop them or because the Afghan government doesn’t want to stop them. Denying Afghan sanctuary to those groups could motivate Pakistan to reduce its support for the Afghan Taliban as it tries to leverage concessions out of the US and the Afghan government.

CHINA

The BNO News Wuhan coronavirus tracker has tallied 69,289 cases of the virus around the world and 1670 fatalities. One person died of the virus in Taiwan over the weekend, the fifth death outside of mainland China (this includes one death in Hong Kong). The number of new cases per day appears to be declining, though the World Health Organization says it’s not prepared to make any determinations as to the outbreak’s future course just yet.

AFRICA

NIGERIA

At least 30 people were killed Friday evening when an “armed gang” attacked the villages of Dankar and Tsauwa in northwestern Nigeria. It’s unclear who was responsible, but northwestern Nigeria is increasingly plagued by simple banditry and indeed the attackers reportedly stole livestock and other food items.

SOUTH SUDAN

South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar rejected on Sunday a decision by President Salva Kiir to reduce the number of states in the country from 32 to 10 plus three administrative areas in an effort to unfreeze their stalled peace talks. One of the main rebel demands has been to reduce the number of states back to the 10 that existed when South Sudan gained its independence in 2011, before Kiir opted to subdivide them into first 28 and then 32 states in what the rebels have argued was an attempt to consolidate his own power. But it’s the addition of those three special “administrative areas”—one in the state of Ruweng, another in the Pibor region in eastern South Sudan, and a third in the border region of Abyei (which South Sudan still shares with Sudan)—that prompted Machar’s rejection. Of those, Ruweng is the most valuable, as contains substantial oil resources, and so while Machar didn’t go into specifics it seems reasonable to conclude that Kiir’s plan here is the one to which the rebel leader is most opposed.

SOMALIA

Unknown gunmen killed Somali journalist Abdiwali Ali Hassan in a suburb of Mogadishu on Sunday. Details at this point are obviously still sketchy.

EUROPE

REPUBLIC OF NORTH MACEDONIA

The North Macedonian parliament on Sunday voted to dissolve and set a snap election for April 12. The vote had previously been scheduled for November so it’s not like they’re shifting things around in a major way, but something like this has been in the cards since ex-Prime Minister Zoran Zaev resigned just after the new year in the wake of the European Union’s decision not to open membership talks with his government. North Macedonia has been run by an interim cabinet since then.

Zaev had staked his premiership on a pro-EU policy, and pushed through an unpopular addition of the word “North” to the country’s name in order to settle a dispute with Greece that was preventing Skopje from applying for EU membership. His political position was therefore badly undercut by the failure to start the accession process last fall. The election will basically serve as a referendum on Zaev’s approach, and he’ll be hoping voters return him to office with a mandate to keep pursuing EU membership. North Macedonia’s NATO accession should be a done deal by then (only Spain has yet to ratify it and that’s because Madrid’s political situation is a mess, not because of anything to do with North Macedonia) and Zaev is hoping the excitement over that development will give him a boost.

AMERICAS

UNITED STATES

Finally, The Intercept’s Nick Turse reports on just how little effort the Pentagon puts in to assessing the civilian casualties its operations cause:

It was the midpoint of a 10-month battle to dislodge the Islamic State from the Iraqi city of Mosul. Two ISIS snipers were holed up in a “defensive fighting position built into the second story of the structure” in the al-Resala district of Mosul’s al-Jadidah neighborhood. Iraqi troops were taking casualties and asked their American allies for help. “At 0824 on 17 March, 2017, in accordance with the applicable rules of engagement and the law of armed conflict, a coalition U.S. aircraft delivered a single GBU-38 precision guided munition against two ISIS snipers,” U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Matthew Isler said in the wake of the strike.

Everything was done by the book. The target was an enemy stronghold and the strike seemed precise and flawless — except that it wasn’t. Col. Mohammad Shumari, an Iraqi official working in the area, later told CNN that 141 bodies had been removed from the attack site after the American smart bomb detonated explosives stored by ISIS inside the building. The dead included between 137 and 140 civilians, including women and children, according to Isler.

After the attack, a U.S. team conducted two inspections of the strike location. While such site visits might seem an obvious prerequisite for any legitimate investigation into civilian casualties, they’re surprisingly rare.

Most U.S. investigations of alleged civilian casualty incidents never include even one such visit, according to a new analysis of 228 official U.S. military investigations conducted in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria between 2002 and 2015. The military conducted site inspections in only 16 percent of the casualty investigations reviewed for the study by researchers from the Center for Civilians in Conflict, or CIVIC, and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, or HRI.