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)
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)
The United Nations' top disarmament official on Feb. 3 stressed the urgent need to identify those who have used chemical weapons in Syria, and hold them accountable for their deeds. "Without such an action, we are allowing the use of chemical weapons to take place with impunity," Izumi Nakamitsu, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, told the Security Council in a virtual briefing. "It is imperative that this Council shows leadership in demonstrating that impunity in the use of these weapons will not be tolerated," she added. Nakamitsu was briefing Council members on implementation of Resolution 2118, in which unanimous agreement was reached in 2013 to condemn "in the strongest terms" any use of chemical weapons in Syria. The Resolution also expressed "strong conviction" that those responsible for use of chemical weapons in Syria must be held accountable.
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)
Top Chinese technology firms have registered patents for tools apparently designed to detect, track and monitor Uighurs, according to research by the Pennsylvania-based video surveillance watchdog group IPVM. A 2018 patent filed by Shenzhen-based tech giant Huawei with the State Intellectual Property Office (since reorganized as the China National Intellectual Property Administration, CNIPA) lists attributes by which an individual may be targeted, including "race (Han, Uighur)." This comes a month after IPVM released details of a document issued by Huawei and its Beijing-based corporate partner Megvii, "Huawei Video Cloud Solution and Megvii Dynamic Face Recognition Interoperability Test Report," which boasted of a "Uighur alarm" among the "basic functions of Megvii's facial recognition system."
The popular vlogger and comedian Katie Halper, whose journalistic take-downs of the Democratic Party establishment have certainly been deftly exploited (at least) by the Kremlin propaganda machine, wears the accusation that she is a "useful idiot" for Russia as a badge of pride—"Useful Idiots" is actually the (presumably sarcastic) name of the podcast she co-hosts with the equally problematic Matt Taibbi. We've always wondered, in an academic way, if such figures really are useful idiots, or something more sinister—knowing propagandists for Vladimir Putin's deeply reactionary global ambitions. The debate has suddenly exploded onto the left-wing vlogosphere.
Progressives in the United States show little awareness of the disinformation specially targeting them. Denialism about Russian interference in the US elections, and the horrific realities of Russia's client state in Syria, is now translating into denialism about how dangerous the Trump presidency is. Syria solidarity activists have long been aware of the flood of pro-Assad disinformation on social media. Research from the University of Washington corroborated what activists have observed—it documented four times as many disinformation tweets about the Syrian White Helmets volunteer first-responder group in 2017 compared to factual tweets. In 2016, we saw the same pro-Assad sites and writers post memes and articles that trashed Hillary Clinton, equated Clinton and Trump, or even portrayed Clinton as the worse choice. They dominated "Leftbook" social media and helped depress the progressive vote. Ten million fewer Democrats voted in 2016 than 2012—a decisive factor in Trump's win. We are seeing a replay now. Biden and Harris are denounced far more than Trump on some "left" sites, while Trump's incipient fascism is downplayed.
On a visit to Baghdad this week, Gen. Frank McKenzie, chief of the Pentagon's Central Command, announced that US forces in Iraq will be reduced in the coming weeks from some 5,200 troops to about 3,000. McKenzie later told reporters that troop levels in Afghanistan will drop from the current 8,600 to 4,500. All of this is to happen by "late October," he said. How convenient. (AP, Politico) This all smells more of politics that strategy. There are still more than 10,000 ISIS fighters remaining across Iraq and Syria, according to a UN estimate from August. So, as Defense One comments, "any 'mission accomplished' moment remains elusive to clear-eyed observers of ISIS and the Middle East."