Ukraine’s “Creeping Offensive”; Houthi Missile Attack; Trump Threatens Iran, Sends USS Cole; Oil Goes Up
Ukraine’s “creeping offensive” brought flare ups on front lines. Houthi missile hit Saudi frigate off the coast of Yemen. Saudis claimed suicide boats, like the AQ attack on USS Cole. Trump blamed Iran, sent Cole to Aden. And more in our global news roundup…
Venezuela: Maduro Empowers His Vice President
_ Venezuelan Pres. Maduro just granted “wide-ranging powers” to his vice president, Tareck El Aissami, whom he appointed last month. The last time a president has given such powers to a vice president was “when late leader Hugo Chavez removed himself from the public eye for treatment during the last round of his fight with cancer.”
US: New Deputy CIA Director Ran a Black Site
_ The new CIA director, Mike Pompeo, just appointed Gina Haspel as his deputy director. Haspel was directly involved in the CIA torture program and ran “Cat’s Eye,” a “black site” in Thailand. She also “played a vital role in the destruction of interrogation videotapes.” This could be an attempt by the Trump administration to appease a hostile CIA and to signal that he, like Obama, will protect them. Columnist Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News holds the view that Obama’s “massive failure to hold anyone accountable for that era of abuse set the stage for this fiasco.”
US: Trump Puts Iran on Notice, Blames Iran for Houthi Attack on Saudi Ship
_ National Security Advisor Michael Flynn took the podium during the White House press briefing on Feb. 1 and put Iran “on notice” after they did a ballistic missile test this week. Flynn also mentioned the Houthi attack on Saudi and Emirati ships as Iran’s responsibility. (More below on Houthi missile attack on Saudi frigate)
_ The next day, White House press secretary Sean Spicer threatened Iran again, and still blamed Iran for the attack on the ship, and also claimed , mistakenly, (transcript ) that it was “our” ship. A reporter clarified that it was a “Saudi vessel” and Spicer thanked him and agreed.
MR. SPICER: So I think General Flynn was really clear yesterday that Iran has violated the Joint Resolution, that Iran’s additional hostile actions that it took against our Navy vessel are ones that we are very clear are not going to sit by and take.
I think that we will have further updates for you on those additional actions, but clearly we wanted to make sure that Iran understood that they are on notice, this is not going un-responded to. […]
Q Thank you very much, Sean.
Q It was a Saudi vessel.
MR. SPICER: Thank you. Yes.
Q They thought it was an American, but it’s a Saudi vessel.
MR. SPICER: Right, that’s right. John. [Emphasis added]
US: Trouble With Iran Raises Oil Prices
_ Tom DiChristopher of CNBC said that an “oil market black swan” could be emerging as the White House puts Iran on notice, due to fears that Trump might “hobble Iran’s efforts to revive its oil and gas industry, spark conflicts along oil supply routes and ultimately drive crude prices higher.” Barclay had earlier enumerated things that might trigger 2017 market black swan events and escalating US/Iran rhetoric was one of them. The “market is uncertain how far the Trump administration is willing to go.”
US: Mattis Travels to Asia
_ Newly sworn in Sec. Defense James Mattis is traveling to the Republic of Korea and Japan on his first trip, Feb. 1-4.
US: Bad Hombres
_ Trump threatened to send US troops into Mexico if they don’t stop the “bad hombres down there” does more to control them. AP retrieved this information from a transcript excerpt of a phone call between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
“You have a bunch of bad hombres down there. You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it.”
US: Trump Angry About Incoming Refugees from Australia
_ Trump’s conversation with the Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was reportedly hostile, due to the fact that he has to honor an agreement made by Pres. Obama to accept refugees from an Australian detention center, according to the Washington Post.
Libya: Unity Government PM Trades Access For Upgraded Navy
_ The prime minister of the UN-appointed government in Libya, Fayez Serraj, wants NATO to upgrade his navy in exchange for access to coastal waters. The UN-appointed “unity” government (GNA) has little power. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said NATO could help establish a ministry of defense and “support the efforts of the European Union to strengthen the Libyan coast guard and navy.” The EU wants to “move its anti-smuggling mission Operation Sophia into Libyan waters to help prevent migrants reaching Europe.”
Ukraine: “Creeping Offensive” and Fighting Flares Up on Front Lines
_ International Red Cross (ICRC) Ukraine reports that it is -18C in Avdiivka (Avdeevka), a city on the frontlines of the battle between the Ukraine military and the autonomous region rebels in Donetsk (Donetsk People’s Republic, DPR). ICRC reports that the residents have no water, electricity or heat and they are working to provide assistance. Fighting broke out again over the weekend, and “residential areas and vital infrastructures” have been damaged. 13 deaths among fighters and civilians were reported as of Tuesday, Jan. 31. The government-appointed administration is considering evacuating the town of roughly 20,000.
_ It is not yet clear who initiated the conflict and both sides are making accusations. AFP characterizes the fighting as “an unexpected assault on Sunday from insurgents seeking to wrest back territory controlled by Kiev during the nearly three-year war.” The Kremlin spokesman said they have “reliable information” that “renegade units of pro-Kiev fighters — and not the army itself” did the initial attacks. Russian media RT said that Ukraine paramilitary units, supported by the Ukraine military, fired artillery across the disengagement line and into DPR territory and the DPR rebels retaliated.
_ Pro-Kiev government media and US media has been reporting about a “creeping offensive” where more and more troops and “military assets” were moved into zones designated as neutral”gray zones.” US-government media surprisingly admits that this is a violation of the Minsk agreement and that it has “sparked bloody clashes with their enemy.”
_ The Organization for Security and Cooperation and Europe (OSCE) is responsible for monitoring the shaky February, 2015 ceasefire, says there is little they can do but to report violations. The EU expressed “concern” and told them all to stop fighting. The UN Security Council planned a closed door meeting and the Minsk agreement contact groups planned to meet on Feb. 1.
_ Stephen Cohen believes that the Kiev government had the strongest motive to escalate the fighting in Eastern Ukraine in order to convince the new US government to support their military efforts against the DPR and LPR and to attempt to sabotage detente between the US and Russia.
_ Irish journalist in Russia. Bryan MacDonald, gives an update on the changes in the political situation in Ukraine due to the Trump election. “Petro Poroshenko’s team made it abundantly clear they were waiting for Hillary Clinton to walk into the White House and bankroll them for the next four years.” Poroshenko’s team now “feels cornered because it has probably lost its main sponsor in Washington.” MacDonald said the rebels and Russia have nothing to gain, but Poroshenko may have started the latest offensive to distract Germany and the EU from his lack of progress on corruption, as ever, “playing the victim.”
_ Also, Ukraine’s defense minister blew the whole cover story by admitting to the “creeping offensive” by saying: “metre by metre, step by step, whenever possible, our boys have been advancing.” This was “something so dimwitted that it requires an apology to dimwits,” in MacDonald’s view. Poroshenko is in an impossible situation. The now nationalized battalions of neo-Nazi ultra-nationalist militias that he and his backers cultivated to seize control of Ukraine will not allow him to take the required actions to comply with the Minsk agreement either.
_ Russian defense minister Lavrov said: “Even the biased German press acknowledged that Poroshenko was behind it.” Russian president Putin weighed in by saying: “The Ukrainian leadership today needs money, and the best way to extort money is [to do that] from the European Union, from certain countries in Europe, from the United States and international institutions, presenting itself as a victim of aggression.” Putin also said (begins at 22:00 mark) Ukraine oligarchs backed Hillary Clinton. He made these comments during a press conference with the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban who anti-imperialists believe is next in line for a Western-backed, Soros-backed “color revolution” overthrow.
Ukraine: Meet the New UN Ambassador, Just Like Old UN Ambassador
“The United States stands with the people of Ukraine who have suffered for nearly three years under Russian occupation and military intervention […] Until Russia and the separatists it supports respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, this crisis will continue [… The US] continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea […] Crimea is a part of Ukraine. Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.”
Russia: Trump-Putin Phone Call
_ During the first phone call between US Pres. Trump and Russian Pres. Putin (White House readout, Kremlin readout), they discussed “‘partnership’ on a wide range of international issues, including wars in the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran’s nuclear programme, the Korean peninsula and the simmering war in Ukraine.” The Russian readout of the call noted that the US-Russian cooperation would be “on a constructive, equitable and mutually beneficial basis.” The White House readout noted that: “The positive call was a significant start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia that is in need of repair.”
_ The Ukraine government calls it “barbarism” (a term that was popular with former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power and other Obama administration officials) and blames Russia, and some US media suspect the flare up is related to the Trump-Putin phone call A Newsweek opinion piece headline accuses the new president, in office for less than 2 weeks, of “fiddling” while Putin escalates. The pro-Kiev government factions fear that Trump will “appease Putin.”
UK: PM Denounces Trump’s Travel Ban
_ British Prime Minister Theresa May said that Trump’s travel ban is “divisive and wrong […] we wouldn’t do it.” The leader of the French far-right Front National party, Marine Le Pen, defended Trump’s new ban and said: “I think that most of the reactions are in bad faith.” 13 lawsuits have been filed against the Trump executive order.
Syria: Hillary’s Defense Secretary at Security Conference in Israel
_ Michele Flournoy, CEO of the Center for American Security think tank and Hillary Clinton’s defense minister pick, who rolled out aggressive war plans for Syria last fall, spoke at a security conference in Israel and is still working to get those war plans implemented, in the name of concern that Trump will not consider Israel’s interests. (Video)
_ At the same conference, Flournoy said the Trump administration is likely to be tough on Iran and will probably keep the Iran deal but “add cooperation with Israel and others in the region to push back harder on Iran’s destabilizing activity and support for terrorism.” (Video)
Yemen: Houthi Missile Attack on Saudi Frigate
_ The defense minister in Sanaa said: “We attacked a Saudi navy ship which shells our towns and people. This is not ‘terrorism’. It’s self-defence,” according to Haykal Bafana, a lawyer in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition said their frigate was attacked by “three suicide boats belonging to the Houthi militias,” and coalition spokesman Major General Ahmed Assiri told AFP that “this means that there is today close collaboration between Al-Qaeda and the militia (rebels)”.
_ But Haykal Batana said there has never been a Houthi suicide attack, by land or by sea. The Houthis in Yemen “fight hard and are good at it (and seem to like fighting too), but they prefer to survive to savour the victory.” A video of the attack shows what appears to be militants behind the sights of a missile launcher that they then fire at the Saudi ship in the distance. Houthi media claimed it was a guided missile. The Saudi-led coalition said it would affect the “flow of humanitarian assistance to the port for Yemeni citizens.” The Saudis have been blockading Yemen for nearly 2 years. More than half the population suffers from malnutrition.
_ Saudi fighter jets are reportedly bombing the Yemen port Al Hudaydah where humanitarian aid is received.
Yemen: New Sanctions on Iran; USS Cole Arrives in Aden
_ And on Friday, the Trump administration announced new sanctions on Iran, and the USS Cole guided missile destroyer returned to the Gulf of Aden “to protect waterways from Houthi militia aligned with Iran.” The USS Cole was attacked by al Qaeda while in the Gulf of Aden in October, 2000. This makes the Saudi coalition “alternative fact” claim that their frigate was hit by small, suicide attack boats, and that Houthis are allied with al Qaeda, even more significant.
_ 163,000 people have fled Mosul since the offensive began in mid-October, according to the International Organization for Migration’s Iraq Mission. Patrick Cockburn says that ISIS has every reason to fight to the end in Mosul, the place where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate. The Iraqi forces, backed by the US and an international coalition, have just begun preparations to move into Western Mosul, which is far larger, older, poorer, more heavily populated, more concentrated, and where there are many more civilians likely to support ISIS. The cost of food and supplies has skyrocketed, and a local newsletter cites a woman saying that the siege is now “starting for real.”
MidEast: Muslim Brotherhood
_ During his confirmation hearing, new Sec. State Tillerson compared the Muslim Brotherhood to al Qaeda. A bill to designate Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization was tabled by Sen. Ted Cruz and Mario Diaz-Balart and has been submitted to the State Department “which will decide on whether or not to designate the group”. The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) told Al Jazeera that the legislation could lead to a “witch hunt”.
_ The New York Times (NYT) reported that anonymous “administration officials” said another action designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization is now “under discussion at the White House.” NYT believes that the people driving it are Stephen Bannon, Michael Flynn, and Frank Gaffney.
_ Benjamin Wittes at Lawfare notes that this idea has “been kicking around a long time and is part of a larger enthusiasm, which Trump certainly shares, for a kind of civilizational battle against ‘radical Islam.'” He cites scholars arguments against the idea explaining how blacklisting the Muslim Brotherhood would create problems with “critical allies” like Turkey, and would likely undermine its own purpose. “Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Russia, and Syria” currently designate Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. But Wittes believes it would also be illegal under current US material support law.
_ Abdullah Al-Arian, a professor at Georgetown School of Foreign Service in Qatar, said the Trump administration has empowered extremist figures who want to blur the lines “between militant groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State […] and more mainline Islamic movements”. He explains the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, forged during 1930s colonial era, and said one of the key problems is that it’s hard to define who/what “Muslim Brotherhood” is now, because it is both a formal organization “with a robust curriculum of Islamic instruction,” and a “movement in society,” and it has developed and fractured over the years in different countries.
Yemen: Navy SEAL Raid; Saudi-UAE Proxy War
_ Yemeni experts on social media discussed their opinion that the JSOC raid on the AQAP compound in Yemen is a sign that a proxy war between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Saudis is escalating. A pro-Hadi Yemeni general, Gen. MohsenKosroof, said that the target of the US military raid, Abdulrauf Al-Dhahab, was a pro-Hadi leader of Bayda Popular Resistance, calling into question whether the Saudis and Hadi (Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi), the Saudi-backed, internationally recognized president of Yemen) are allied with and working with al Qaeda.
_ The New York Times questions some of the details about the Navy SEAL raid: “Questions Cloud U.S. Raid on Qaeda Branch in Yemen.”
China: Saber Rattling
_ Trump’s advisor, Stephen Bannon, stirred things up by making a comment about inevitable war with China in the next 5-10 years: “Steve Bannon: ‘we’re going to war in the South China Sea … no doubt‘”
_ A Chinese army officer made comments about the inevitablity of US-China war, and the subject became the topic of many headlines and news articles as people try to predict the nature of Trump’s foreign policy.
PODCASTS, INTERVIEWS, BOOKS & VIDEOS
_ Stephen Cohen on the John Batchelor show in their weekly talk (Jan. 31 podcast), discussed the Trump-Putin phone call as the symbolic beginning of detente with Russia, and “the history of detente,” — Eisenhower, Nixon/Kissinger, and the “grand detente” between Reagan and Gorbachev.
Cohen: “What we have learned from those episodes, among other things, is that detente is always fiercely opposed, in Washington, in Moscow, in Europe, and in other capitals that have a stake in it. And the opponents are not above sabotaging it.”
“Many people believe that, against Eisenhower’s wishes, Dulles, the head of the CIA, sent those U2 spy planes over Russia where they got shot down. We had a movie about it lately. What was it called ‘Bridge of Spies?’ That ended the Eisenhower and Krushchev were supposed to meet after Camp David in Paris to solidify their detente and Krushchev was so crippled, he couldn’t go because he felt Eisenhower had betrayed him, and Eisenhower felt Dulles had betrayed him.”
_ A review of the 2016 book by Michael Flynn and Michael Ledeen, Field of Flight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam, by Jessica Mathews at New York Review of Books: “What Trump is Throwing Out the Window.”
ANALYSIS & OPINION
_ Patrick Cockburn at London Review of Books: “Who supplies the news?
Patrick Cockburn on misreporting in Syria and Iraq.” Rebel-held and ISIS-held areas of Syria are incredibly high risk for journalists. Information coming out of those areas is largely al Qaeda and ISIS approved.
“All wars always produce phony atrocity stories – along with real atrocities. But in the Syrian case fabricated news and one-sided reporting have taken over the news agenda to a degree probably not seen since the First World War. […] Western news organisations have almost entirely outsourced their coverage to the rebel side.”
_ In the same article, Cockburn also does an incredibly well written comparison between the battles and effects on civilians in East Aleppo and Mosul, and how differently they have been reported. He notes that while Western media was reporting prolifically and dubiously on the humanitarian tragedy in East Aleppo, they diverted attention from an “even greater tragedy that was taking shape three hundred miles to the east in northern Iraq.” With regard to East Aleppo, after the government regained control of the area, Western media “shamefully” and “completely lost interest in the story and in whether the horrors they had been reporting actually took place.”
_ Former MI6 and British/EU diplomat, Alastair Crooke at ConsortiumNews: “Deep State vs. Donald Trump.”
_ CJ Hopkins at CounterPunch: “The Resistance and Its Double.”
_ In a Guardian column, the founding editor of democratic socialist Jacobin magazine, Bhaskar Sunkara, warns that “The Resistance,” led by establishment Democrats, who are part of the problem, is a losing proposition: “The anti-Trump resistance will fail if we don’t ditch establishment Democrats.”
“The Tea Party movement couldn’t have emerged with Bob Dole and George W Bush among their leaders. We can’t build our anti-Trump resistance, settled with generations of unpopular Democratic party leaders either. […] Sanders left and its allies are the only force in the US that have the ideas that can win an immediate majority in this country: a class-based movement for jobs and justice. That vision must triumph over not just Trump, but the Democratic leadership.”
_ William Astore at lobelog: “Weapons, Warriors, and Fear as the New Order in America.” In the 90’s, when Astore was in the Air Force, he and his fellow Americans were not talking about the “Weapons and Warriors R Us” America that we have become since the fall of the USSR, they were talking about the “peace dividend.” “Bullyboy Trump” is a symptom, not a cause.