Erdoğan’s plan may finally be coming together

You’ve probably noticed that Turkey has been flexing its regional muscles a bit lately. They’ve invaded Syria and are currently pounding America’s Kurdish proxies north of Aleppo–which may seem confusing if you’re still under the assumption that Turkey and the US share anything more than a very nominal NATO alliance. They’ve also effectively invaded northern Iraq under the guise that they were invited, and are currently lobbying to be included in the Mosul offensive–though it remains to be seen if President Tayyip Erdoğan’s “you’re not fit to clean my toilets” charm offensive will win Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi over.

We’re seeing this assertive regional policy for a number of reasons (containing the PYD/YPG in northern Syria, asserting Turkey’s long-held view that Mosul is part of its near abroad, a bit of typical international dick-measuring, etc.), but the main reason is that Erdoğan believes an assertive regional policy will help him increase his support back home, and thereby help him finally push through a constitutional amendment to increase the formal powers of the office he holds, the Turkish presidency. This cause, though it’s faced setbacks in the past and has kind of been pushed under the radar a bit, is the driving force behind pretty much everything Erdoğan does. It’s his ultimate goal.

And it looks like he’s closer than ever to finally achieving it. Al-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman reported a couple of days ago that Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is planning to hold a referendum in April on constitutional changes that would transform Turkey’s government from a parliamentary system with a relatively weak president to a presidential system on steroids, in which most of the power rests with the executive–or, in other words, with Erdoğan. I say “presidential system on steroids” because while, for example, the US operates under a presidential system, what Erdoğan has in mind is something far more like Russia, where the president has virtually total authority over every part of the government.

AKP has been reluctant to push for a referendum in parliament because even with its current 317 seats, it’s still short of the number of votes it would need to either institute changes outright (367 seats) or call for a referendum (330 seats). But, as Zaman reports, help may be on the way: Continue reading

Today in Middle Eastern history: the “People’s Crusade” gets depopulated (1096)

and that's the way it was

In all the wonderful absurdity of the overall Crusades project, the fact that the First Crusade wasn’t actually the first Crusade barely registers. But the truth is that there was a Crusade before the First Crusade; it just doesn’t get a number because there weren’t any big-shot Christian nobles on the trip. And, OK, it also wasn’t officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church, but the reason it wasn’t officially sanctioned is that there weren’t any big-shot nobles involved.

The “People’s Crusade” was the brainchild of one either very holy or very opportunistic (although I guess “both” is certainly possible) man named Peter of Amiens, better known to posterity as Peter the Hermit. He sort of bursts on to the historical stage in 1095, after Pope Urban II issued his Crusading summons at the Council of Clermont. Peter, who appears to have been a priest in the northern French town of…

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African countries have started ditching the ICC

Burundi officially divested itself of the International Criminal Court earlier this week, raising fears that other nations might follow suit. Well, sure enough, today this happened:

South Africa became on Friday the second African country to announce that it planned to leave the International Criminal Court, a decision that campaigners for international justice say could lead to a devastating exodus from the embattled institution.

The move came three days after after Burundi’s president signed a decree making his country the first to withdraw from the court, which had planned to investigate political violence that followed the president’s decision last year to pursue a third term.

“There is a real chance that there will now be large-scale African withdrawals,” said David L. Bosco, an associate professor of international studies at Indiana University who has written a book on the court. “The Burundi decision was easy to dismiss as a government seeking to avoid direct scrutiny; South Africa’s is much more significant. The African Union has been a forum for anti-I.C.C. sentiment, and countries like Kenya and Uganda may now seek to capitalize on the momentum.”

Back in April, the ICC announced that it would open an investigation into the violence that accompanied Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to seek an constitutionally questionable third term as Burundi’s president (he won that third term, of course, last July). So, yes, Burundi’s decision to leave the court does seem a bit self-serving. But South Africa, you’ll recall, basically told the ICC to go pound sand last June, when the court called upon South African authorities to arrest Sudanese President and “alleged” war criminal Omar al-Bashir during the African Union summit in Johannesburg–a South African court ruled that Bashir should be detained, but only after he’d already been allowed to leave the country. And there’s no open or potential case at the ICC involving South Africa.

Instead, South Africa is simply part of a growing chorus of African nations who feel like they were sold a bill of goods back when they signed on to the ICC in the early 2000s. Apparently they assumed that the “international” part of “International Criminal Court” actually meant “international,” when in reality it actually means “African.” Since 2002 the ICC has opened ten official investigations in nine countries–all of them African. It has opened preliminary investigations into several non-African nations, including Afghanistan, Ukraine, South Korea, Iraq, Palestine, and Colombia, but none have yet gotten past that preliminary stage. The reasons for this can be justified, to a point, but it doesn’t look good. And when the United States, which pulled itself out of the ICC, goes around criticizing other countries for pulling out of the ICC, well you can just imagine what kind of reaction that gets.

South Africa is unlikely to be the last African country to pull out of the ICC, and in fact it’s a little surprising that they were the second to do so. Uganda has seemed like a lock to withdraw for a while now, and Kenya is high on the list as well. Leaders in both of those countries, like Nkurunziza, are ICC targets, so there’s some self-serving impulse involved there. A full-on African exodus from the ICC would raise serious questions about its ability to continue functioning, given that it’s been unable to bring an official case on any other continent, and given that it’s likely that other at-risk nations will simply follow the Africans’ lead and also withdraw from the court. Cases can still be opened in non-ICC member states, but that requires a referral from the UN Security Council. Anything at the UNSC can, of course, be blocked by any of the five veto-holding members, which is why it’s huge news when the UNSC actually accomplishes something. So the future of the ICC seems cloudy to say the least.


Aleppo/Mosul Update, October 21


The biggest development in Mosul today didn’t happen in Mosul. ISIS fighters managed to launch a substantial attack on the Kurdish-controlled (since 2014, anyway) city of Kirkuk that has killed at least 18 people and appears to be ongoing. The attack on Kirkuk was staged from Hawija, an ISIS-controlled city south of Mosul, and seems clearly intended to pull Kurdish forces away from Mosul in order to defend what is undoubtedly a more important city from their perspective.

The Iraqis seem to think that operations around Mosul are proceeding more quickly than expected, which could be a sign that they’re going too fast and need to slow down and consolidate gains. Unless the Kirkuk situation resolves itself soon, they may not have a choice but to slow down in order to deal with it. It wouldn’t do to lose Kirkuk in the process of trying to regain Mosul, and frankly the fact that ISIS was able to launch an attack of this apparent scope from Hawija brings into question whether the Mosul operation should have been started before clearing up that area.

Elsewhere, there are reports that ISIS has begun killing civilians and destroying buildings inside Mosul, which should serve as a reminder of the impending-but-probably-unavoidable humanitarian disaster that the advance on Mosul is about to create. US Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that Ankara and Baghdad have reached an agreement “in principle” that would allow Turkish forces currently based near Bashiqa to participate in the Mosul operation. What this sounds like is that Turkey and Iraq agreed to agree that Turkey can be involved, without doing much to sort out how it can be involved. So expect that this is going to be a recurring problem moving forward. Also, while we’re mentioning the US, it should be noted that a soldier who was killed yesterday by an IED became the first American combat casualty of the Mosul offensive, which is odd considering that America officially doesn’t have any combat forces in Iraq, but I digress.


It appears that Russia has decided to extend its dawn-to-dusk ceasefires over Aleppo for a third day. The UN is intimating that Russia has agreed to extend the ceasefire for two days, but the Russians seem to be holding on to the possibility of resuming strikes if they feel threatened in some way. Either way it looks like around-the-clock bombing will resume early next week. Russia is apparently “concerned” that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham fighters in Aleppo are refusing to leave the city via the humanitarian escape corridors. There are reports, meanwhile, that rebels inside the city are preventing medical evacuations unless humanitarian aid is delivered to the city, and I’m starting to think that some of the rebels may not be the nicest people.

The UN Human Rights Council has adopted a resolution calling for a complete end to the bombing of Aleppo, after hearing a speech in which the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Jordanian Prince Zeid b. Raʿad al-Hussein, referred to the city as a “slaughterhouse” and called for a war crimes investigation.

In other Aleppo-related news, Turkey has been bombing Kurdish YPG forces in northern Aleppo province for a number of days now, killing hundreds of them. The US is apparently concerned enough about these attacks to “look into it,” but expect the administration to argue that the YPG Kurds Turkey is striking now aren’t the same YPG Kurds the US has been working with to the east. This is a purely semantic distinction that simply helps the US balance working with the YPG in Raqqa while maintaining some semblance of a relationship with Ankara. The site of most of the attacks, Maarat Umm Hawsh, is quite a ways west of the Euphrates River, and Turkey has been fairly clear that it will attack any YPG units it finds west of the Euphrates, so these clashes aren’t exactly unexpected.


Where in the World Is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?

So I’m seeing an increasing amount of chatter on the Twitter that none other than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself has been trapped in Mosul and is perhaps not long for this world. And while I agree that this would be a hilarious rebuttal to Donald Trump’s barely coherent debate rant about how come we don’t sneak attack Mosul or whatever, all the good ISIS guys have already fled the city because we told them the attack was coming, I think the only appropriate time to say that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was in Mosul will be when he’s either dead or in custody–and even then you should get a second opinion.


“I am definitely maybe in Mosul”

As far as I can tell, most of the chatter stems from one report by a Kurdish commander to Reuters earlier this week, a report that Reuters didn’t think credible enough to get more than a very short mention in a story about the looming humanitarian crisis caused by the operation:

On Tuesday attacking forces entered another phase, Zebari said. “It won’t be a spectacular attack on Mosul itself. It will be very cautious. It is a high-risk operation for everybody.”

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and explosives expert Fawzi Ali Nouimeh were both in the city, according to what Zebari described as “solid” intelligence reports.

As the kids say, “big, if true.” But based on the amount of attention Reuters didn’t lavish upon that tantalizing tidbit of information, you have to conclude that they didn’t really think it was true. Or at least that they had no way of corroborating it. Then there’s this Voice of America report, which adds a second source to the one Reuters had but still seems pretty uncorroborated to me. There are also reports that Baghdadi was in Mosul but has either fled or is about to flee. And, hey, maybe.

There are even reports that Baghdadi and his guards have had to fend off some kind of recent coup attempt against the “caliph,” but these seem to be coming out of the less reputable corners of the internet, and they may be conflating Baghdadi’s supposed presence in Mosul with this report, again from Reuters, about what seems to have been some genuine attempted shenanigans last week: Continue reading

Is Michel Aoun your next President of Lebanon?


Michel Aoun (Wikimedia | Imadmhj)

As you may know, Lebanon has been functioning without a president for over two years now. If this seems odd, well, it is, but more in a “why” sense than a “how” sense. The “how” is actually fairly simple; the Lebanese president is elected by parliament, and the Lebanese parliament requires a 2/3 quorum in order to do that. In the parliament’s 46 (yes, that’s right) attempts to elect a new president since former president Michel Suleiman’s term ended in May 2014, it has failed to achieve a 2/3 quorum each time. This is not, as you’re maybe thinking now, because Lebanese legislators forgot how to get to the capital–although it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if they sometimes got lost amid Beirut’s occasionally large piles of uncollected trash–but rather because Lebanese politics is especially fractured these days.

The fault lines aren’t very surprising–there’s some Saudi and Iranian-fueled Sunni/Shiʿa stuff happening here, but the real exacerbating factor is the war in Syria. Under the terms of the 1989 Taif Agreement, which formed part of the basis for the final settlement of the Lebanese Civil War, Lebanon’s president must be a Maronite Christian, and the Maronite community has been caught up in the same divisiveness that has seized the rest of Lebanese society and has had a hard time even coalescing internally around a single candidate for the office. Consequently, there’s been no consensus on a new president, and each time a parliament session is called to consider a candidate, enough legislators simply opt to stay home to invalidate the proceedings.

However–and I know we’ve all had our hopes raised on this before–there’s a real chance that the vacant presidency is about to be filled. Continue reading

Mosul and Aleppo update, 10/20

Since the situations in both Mosul and Aleppo are developing rapidly and I don’t feel like trying to come up with pithy titles for each frequent update, let’s just go with something bland and basic, OK?

After a day of rest, either to consolidate gains or because the Kurds and the Iraqi army were already mad at each other, the Mosul operation seems to have picked up again:

Iraqi-led forces engaged Thursday in the most intense fighting yet in the battle to liberate the city of Mosul from two years of brutal ISIS rule, on day four of an offensive that’s been met with fierce resistance from ISIS fighters.

But with the clashes have come sweeping gains — the coalition has now recaptured at least 100 square kilometers of territory, a CNN analysis of the battlefield shows.

Iraqi Maj. Gen. Maan al-Saadi said 200 ISIS fighters were killed as Iraqi forces took the Christian town of Bartella from ISIS militants, the latest territorial win for a coalition of around 100,000 people quickly closing in on Mosul.

I’m sure people are interested in seeing maps, but things are moving so fast it’s hard to get a good snapshot. Still, this isn’t bad:

Whatever concerns about the Iraqi army’s role in the operation seem also to have been allayed, as Iraqi Special Forces took part in the operation for the first time in seizing the village of Bartella, only ~8 miles east of Mosul. Those forces then joined with the Kurds in a push toward Bashiqa, a short distance to the north. The approach to Bashiqa will, of course, bring these forces into contact with the fighters being trained near Bashiqa by Turkey, and their Turkish trainers. Given the rhetoric bouncing between Ankara and Baghdad over the presence of those Turkish forces in Iraq, it’s very unclear how this encounter is going to go.


Bartella’s proximity to Mosul (Google Maps)

In Aleppo, the promised “humanitarian ceasefire” does seem to have been implemented, and Russia even announced a 24 hour extension, ostensibly to allow more time for evacuating sick and wounded people. However, this is a humanitarian pause only insofar as people are being allowed to leave the city and go either into government-held territory or to rebel-held Idlib–it will not, at least at this point, be accompanied by any aid convoys in to eastern Aleppo. Some people do seem to be availing themselves of the chance to get out of the city, but many more seem to be defiantly staying put (or, possibly, are being held there by the rebels–I’ve seen reports on Twitter saying that rebels have been shelling the corridors that were opened for people to leave).

I argued yesterday that there’s a slim chance this ceasefire could be a good thing if it allows time for efforts to disentangle extremists in the city from everybody else. But it seems far more likely that the aim here is to create the conditions under which Russia and Syria can say “hey, you had your chance” before they resume slaughtering however many people remain in Aleppo once the corridors are closed up again. If the aim is to identify and isolate the hardcore extremists among the ranks of the rebel fighters then it’s going to take a long-term, internationally-monitored cessation of hostilities to do it. A ~30 hour, unilaterally imposed ceasefire won’t come close to cutting it, but it could be a bit of a fig leaf for Moscow and Damascus to put on before the intense bombing resumes again.