In the first air-strikes on Syria under the Joseph Biden administration, US warplanes on Feb. 26 struck positions of Iran-backed militia forces at Imam Ali airbase outside al-Bukamal, Deir ez-Zor province, near the Iraqi border in the country's desert east. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the strikes "destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups," including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada. It was also a Tehran-backed paramilitary formation that claimed responsibility for last week's missile attack on al-Harir airbase outside Erbil, in northern Iraq, which is used by US forces. Biden's strikes are clearly retaliation for that attack—which was itself undertaken to avenge the killing of Qassem Soleimani and an allied militia commander in the US drone strike on the Baghdad airport a year earlier. Reports put the number killed in the new strikes at 17, presumably all militia fighters. Imam Ali airbase is overseen by Iran's Revolutionary Guards, whose commanders are also said to be among the slain. (France24, CNN, Middle East Eye, EA Worldview, Al Jazeera, Israel Hayom)
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a memo Feb. 18 with "temporary guidelines for...enforcement and removal operations" by Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), giving ICE agents discretion on enforcement actions and essentially overturning the "100-day pause on certain removals" instated by President Biden's executive order of Jan. 20, his first day on office. Naureen Shah, senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), responded to the move in a statement: "The memo is a disappointing step backward from the Biden administration's earlier commitments to fully break from the harmful deportation policies of both the Trump and Obama presidencies. While the Biden administration rightly acknowledges that immigrants are our family members, our coworkers, and our neighbors, for now it has chosen to continue giving ICE officers significant discretion to conduct operations that harm our communities and tear families apart."
Erik Prince, former CEO of the notorious private military company Blackwater, violated the UN arms embargo on Libya with a clandestine pipeline to a rebel warlord, according to a confidential report to the Security Council obtained by the New York Times. The report found that in 2019 Prince deployed a force of foreign mercenaries and weapons to renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar, who has been fighting to depose the UN-recognized Libyan government. The $80 million operation, dubbed "Project Opus," included a shipment of aircraft from South Africa. It also included plans to form a hit squad to hunt down and kill Libyan commanders opposed to Haftar. The accusation exposes Prince to possible UN sanctions, including a travel ban. Prince did not cooperate with the UN investigation, and his lawyer declined to comment to the Times. (Al Jazeera, Daily Sabah)
President Joe Biden's pledge to rebuild the Iran nuclear deal is already deteriorating into a deadlock—a testament to the effectiveness of the Trump-era intrigues that sabotaged the agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). On Feb. 7, Biden and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei each traded "You Go First" statements. Biden was asked on Face the Nation, "Will the US lift sanctions first in order to get Iran back to the negotiating table?" He replied, "No." He was then asked, "They have to stop enriching uranium first?" Biden nodded. On that same day, Khamenei told military commanders and staff: "If they want Iran to return to its JCPOA commitments, the US should remove all sanctions in action. After they have done this, we will check if the sanctions have truly been removed. Once this is done, we will resume our JCPOA commitments." (EA Worldview)
Ecuador is heading to a run-off presidential race in April after leftist candidate Andrés Arauz of the Union of Hope (UNES) coalition won a first-round victory Feb. 7, following years of economic austerity made more painful by the pandemic. However, in a surprise development, his rival leftist Yaku Pérez Guartambel of the indigenous-based Pachakutik party emerged neck-to-neck with conservative banker Guillermo Lasso of the right-wing Creating Opportunities (CREO) party. The vote is still too close to call which challenger Arauz will face in the April run-off. (The Guardian, Al Jazeera, CNN, El Comercio, LexLatin)
On Jan. 22, two days after President Biden's inauguration, a large convoy of US military vehicles reportedly entered northern Syria from across the Iraqi border. The convoy, consisting of some 40 trucks and armored vehicles accompanied by helicopters, was reported by Syrian state news agency SANA, citing sources on the ground. (i24News, Israel) The putative sighting has raised speculation that Biden is reversing the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria, which had been ordered by Trump in October 2019.
Former Bolivian president Evo Morales, back in his country from exile in Argentina after October's elections returned his Movement to Socialism (MAS) to power, warned Dec. 27 of the ongoing danger of a new coup d'etat and asked his followers to debate how to best defend new President Luis Arce and the "process of change." The comments came at a meeting in Chapare region of the MAS and affiliated Six Federations of the Tropic of Cochabamba, the campesino alliance that Morales once led. Recalling his own ouster in November 2019, Morales said: "The issue of the coup is still compelling; it is an ideological, programmatic struggle; it is a cultural, social, communal and, of course, an electoral struggle." Invoking divided loyalties in the military, he added: "I am also convinced that in the Armed Forces there are not only those who respect and admire the MAS, but there are also anti-imperialist soldiers." However, he added that "they are not many," and others have "submitted to the North American empire." (Prensa Latina, Prensa Latina)
India's Hindustan Times reported Dec. 25 that Afghanistan has busted a conclave of 10 Chinese espionage agents that was supposedly "operating a terror cell" in Kabul. Citing unnamed diplomats and security officials, the account claims Beijing has been trying to persuade the government of President Ashraf Ghani to hush up the case. The spies, said to be working for China's Ministry of State Security, were reportedly arrested by Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS) on Dec. 10. At least two were said to be in contact with the Haqqani Network, now the inner core of the Taliban insurgency. Arms, ammunition and a quantity of ketamine were seized in the raids. One of the detained, identified as Li Yangyang, was said to have been gathering information about the activities of Uighur militants in Kunar and Badakhshan provinces. The latter province includes Afghanistan's eastern "panhandle" that extends to the border with China's Xinjiang region, and has been named before as a stronghold of Uighur militancy. Again citing unnamed sources, the account states: "One view within the Afghan security establishment is that the detainees were creating a fake East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) module in Afghanistan to entrap ETIM operatives in Afghanistan." ETIM is the supposed Uighur network blamed by Chinese authorities for sporadic armed attacks within the People's Republic over the past generation, although there is skepticism that it actually exists in any organized sense.