Better late than never, I guess

It’s only taken five years, but the rest of the world seems to have had an epiphany about Syria:

As the bombs continue to fall on Aleppo, a new reality is descending on Syria: the long-held belief that the conflict there will only end with a political solution might not hold true.

Russia now says the conflict is simply too complex to expect a peaceful settlement. The British have concluded that efforts to bring another ceasefire to Syria have failed.

Russia’s insights have been particularly helpful in this process:

And just a week after a ceasefire that it helped negotiate came to a fiery end with the bombing of a UN aid convoy, Russia’s UN envoy seemed to shut the door to future negotiations, at least in the short term.

“In Syria hundreds of armed groups are being armed, the territory of the country is being bombed indiscriminately and bringing a peace is almost an impossible task now,” Vitaly Churkin, Russian ambassador to the UN, told the Security Council.

It’s true, Syrian territory is being bombed, a lot. And very indiscriminately to boot. Unfortunately, judging by Ambassador Churkin’s use of the passive voice, I can only conclude that we have yet to figure out who’s doing the indiscriminate bombing. Somebody should get on that!

Considering we’re now halfway in to year six of the Syrian conflict and on its central issue–the future of Bashar al-Assad and the rest of his government–literally no progress has been made since the fighting began, I would venture to say that we may be on to something here. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why everybody has clung to the idea of a political settlement this long. The alternatives are too horrific to easily contemplate: either a long and difficult intervention and occupation that could easily make things worse, or a military solution, as in total victory by either side. In the latter case the death toll could be astronomical; tens of thousands of civilians are already dead and millions displaced, and the result has been the current stalemate. Imagine how much more destruction will have to accompany a military end to the war. Then imagine what kind of violence could be in store after the fighting stops, in the form of reprisal attacks, pogroms, etc. That’s the road Syria is on, and nobody seems to be able to find an exit ramp.

To give the international community its due, it’s tried, I guess. But there are only so many Syrian peace talks you can have without any Syrians involved, so many ceasefires you can negotiate without a single combatant actually signing on to them, before even the dimmest among us figure out that you can’t negotiate peace on behalf of two sides that are committed to war. Until that commitment changes, there’s not much to be done unless you want to occupy the country, and that’s certainly no sure path to peace either. Maybe the commitment will change if Assad takes all of Aleppo, though there’s no telling how many people will have to die in airstrikes, artillery barrages, and for lack of clean water and medical care in the meantime. Maybe the commitment will change as the US presidential race sorts itself out, and if so…well, good luck with that.

Or maybe nothing is going to change that commitment, in which case you’re back to either occupying the country or, well, containing the spillover and letting the chips fall where they may. That’s a shitty choice, but at this point I don’t see many other options.


Who’s left to run against Rouhani?


I feel you, bro

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose hypothetical “political comeback” has been one of the more interesting stories in the run up to next year’s Iranian presidential election, had a whole lot of cold water dumped on his plans today:

Ayatollah Khamenei made the statement about Mr. Ahmadinejad during a lecture for seminary students at his office. He was responding to rumors, circulating in Tehran for weeks, that he had barred Mr. Ahmadinejad from participating in the coming election.

“Someone, a man, came to me,” he said, presumably of Mr. Ahmadinejad, in the typically elliptical style of Shiite clerics. “I told him not to take part in that certain issue, both for his own and the country’s good.”

“I did not tell him not to participate,” the supreme leader continued. “I said I do not find it advisable that you participate.”

If that sounds a little wishy-washy, it’s only because, technically, Khamenei can only advise candidates about running, he’s not allowed to block them from doing so. But in Iran, the “advice” of the Supreme Leader is generally the last word on a subject. Ahmadinejad could still run, obviously, but he’d be publicly flouting Khamenei’s wishes, which would definitely hurt him with voters, and the Guardian Council, which can bar candidates from running, seems likely to disqualify him, something they were considering before Khamenei piped up.

This is a bit of a surprise from Khamenei, who hasn’t exactly been current president Hassan Rouhani’s biggest fan of late, but it’s not that surprising–Ahmadinejad’s second term was marked by a very public spat between him and Khamenei over political appointments and, generally, over the powers of the president vis-à-vis the Supreme Leader. Rouhani, though he hasn’t always seen eye-to-eye with Khamenei and has criticized some of the more restrictive elements of the Iranian regime, hasn’t tried to openly challenge Khamenei’s authority the way Ahmadinejad did (his criticisms have been carefully worded to avoid directly going after Khamenei). Plus, it’s entirely possible that Khamenei values the stability that would come from yet another two-term presidency (no Iranian president since Khamenei himself was elected in 1981 has failed to be reelected) over having a more like-minded person in that office.

Rouhani is the obvious beneficiary of the Supreme Leader’s “advice.” Continue reading

DEBATE 2016: Time, channels, and more

Many people are wondering what time the debate is tonight. In fact, people regularly come up to me and say, “Derek, you’re obviously very intelligent, so intelligent, and handsome! Can you tell us what time the debate is tonight, because the losers in the mainstream media”–and they’re just the worst, aren’t they? vile, wretched human beings. I saw some of these people the other day and it’s just–they’re so unfair, so unfair you wouldn’t believe it. People tell me all the time, they say “Derek, it’s unfair how much smarter and more handsome you are than anybody else blogging today, but what about these media people?” Folks, we’re gonna look in to them so much, you’ll be so sick of us looking into them. We’re gonna have to lift these laws about being unfair to me, lift them bigly and maybe tuck in their corners, to stop these people from making a mockery–you know what’s a mockery? Hillary Clinton’s email! You know what I mean? She’s laughing at all of it–you, me, us, radical Islamic terrorism–Anthony Weiner, why can’t that guy keep it in his pants? what a disgusting guy he is, just the worst of the worst–but you can’t trust any of that because Hillary lies all the time, just like Lyin Ted Cruz! No, look, seriously, he endorsed Mr. Trump the other day, and it’s great, it’s really great, I’ve always had a lot of respect for Ted and his dad, who I don’t even know if he actually shot JFK, alright? He just had breakfast with crazy Lee Harvey Oswald! And Ted, no, it’s OK, Ted was mad about that, but it’s OK because he endorsed Mr. Trump and I’ve always thought he was a great guy. Great guy. But the people still keep asking me about the debate–what time, where can I watch it–hey, look, anywhere but cable news, those guys are just disgusting, don’t waste your time–and so forth. And I can promise you we’re looking into this, and a lot of other things too, when this is all over you’re gonna beg me to stop looking into all these things. Believe me, you’re gonna know what time the debate is so well that you’ll wish you never asked what time the debate is.

Thanks, and God bless.



Today in European history: the Crusade of Nicopolis (1396)

and that's the way it was

In addition to The Crusades, all those big European military expeditions to the Middle East (and one time to Greece!) in the 11th-13th centuries, Christendom’s crusading fervor was also expressed in a number of smaller “crusades” that continued until the 15th century. Some of these smaller expeditions, like the “Alexandrian Crusade” of 1365, consisted of campaigns in the Middle East; others, like the Albigensian Crusade in the early 13th century and the Northern Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries, targeted Christian “heretics” or the remaining pagan populations in Europe (these, in contrast to Crusades directed against Muslims, tended to go pretty well for the Crusaders). The Crusade of Nicopolis (which is often called the “Battle of Nicopolis” since it only took the one battle for the Crusade to completely collapse), in 1396, targeted Muslims, but Muslims on European soil. It went about as well as most other Crusades against…

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A bad end to a bad week

I know it’s Friday night so I’m shouting into the void, but I spent last week and much of this week covering the aborted–well, that’s not totally fair; “aborted” suggests that it had a shot of actually coming to fruition at some point–ceasefire in Syria, and now that it’s all over but the literal shouting we should note the cherry on top of the shit sundae:

Repeated airstrikes that obliterated buildings and engulfed neighborhoods in flames killed about 100 people in Aleppo, the divided northern Syrian city that has epitomized the horrors of the war, turning the brief cease-fire of last week and hopes for humanitarian relief into faint memories. The bombings knocked out running water to an estimated two million people, the United Nations said.

“It is the worst day that we’ve had for a very long time,” said James Le Mesurier, the head of Mayday Rescue, which trains Syrian rescue workers. “They are calling it Dresden-esque.”

My words won’t do it justice, so here’s some video from France 24:

Assad, freed from the burden of having to pretend to support a ceasefire that was clearly all Moscow’s idea, seems intent now on finishing the fight in Aleppo without even a minimal regard for civilian casualties. Which, if he continues like this, is a policy that could very well force a confrontation between the US and Russia, assuming the humanitarian situation becomes horrific enough to pull Washington into taking action. Today’s strikes damaged, among many other things, eastern Aleppo’s water pumping station, and that comes on the heels of a strike on Wednesday that killed four Aleppan health care workers, the latest in what certainly seems like an intentional Russian and Syrian campaign to deprive every Syrian living outside of Bashar al-Assad’s protection (the similarities between autocratic governments and the mafia are sometimes quite stark) of access to medical care.

Deliberate strikes against hospitals and water supplies (and aid convoys, while we’re on the subject) are war crimes, but when you’re desperate to stay in power and don’t care how many people you have to kill to make that happen they’re very effective, because they are multipliers. Blowing up a water pumping station doesn’t just kill people at the station, it potentially kills many more people for lack of clean water. Killing a doctor or destroying a hospital doesn’t just kill that doctor or that hospital staff, it kills everybody who might have needed their care to survive.

This isn’t an argument in favor of the rebels, who have long since hitched their wagons to al-Qaeda’s horses (in spirit even when not in practice) and thereby disqualified themselves from ever governing Syria, or their political leaders who, from their comfortable expatriate hotel rooms in Cairo and Istanbul, allowed that to happen. It’s also not an argument in favor of the United States and its cynical decision to do just enough to prolong the war when it could have done more (I know, but how much worse could it have gotten?) or, hey, not gotten involved at all. It’s not really an argument at all. The question of whether the concept of “humanitarian intervention” has any actual meaning is something I wrestle with, and I still don’t have a good answer in large part because the historical record around so-called “humanitarian interventions” is pretty gruesome. So I’m not advocating for anything. This is just a reflection on the state of things in Syria as we approach the possibility that many of the ~250,000 people trapped (well, most of them are trapped, anyway) in eastern Aleppo today might not be alive very much longer.


Afghan warlord in from the cold, again


Gulbuddin Hekmatyar circa 2013

In a twist 20 years in the making, former Afghan prime minister and long-time war criminal Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hizb-i Islami militia, just cut a deal with an Afghan government that previously wanted him dead:

The Afghan government signed a draft peace deal on Thursday with a small insurgent faction led by a warlord who has been designated a “global terrorist” by the United States.

The faction, Hezb-i-Islami, whose name means Islamic Party, agreed to cease hostilities in exchange for government recognition of the group and support for the removal of United Nations and American sanctions against its contentious leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, according to the draft agreement.

Of all the warlords who have helped destabilize Afghanistan over the past few decades, Hekmatyar is perhaps the most…well, let’s go with “opportunistic.” Continue reading

That’s not going to go over well

India and Pakistan in December:

India’s prime minister made a surprise stop Friday in Pakistan to meet his counterpart in a richly symbolic gesture likely to add momentum to a tentative reconciliation process between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif embraced India’s Narendra Modi at the airport in the eastern city of Lahore. They walked from the plane holding hands and smiling broadly. The visit, the first by an Indian prime minister in more than a decade, coincided with Mr. Sharif’s birthday.

“This was a goodwill visit, in which it was decided that both countries will have to examine each other’s concerns, to understand each other’s issues, and open up ways to peace,” said Aizaz Chaudhry, Pakistan’s foreign secretary.

Pakistan this week:

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said on Wednesday that the terms set by India for the Indo-Pak dialogue were “unacceptable” to Pakistan and warned the international community that the world would ignore the dangers of rising tensions in South Asia at its own peril.

Speaking to the annual United Nations General Assembly, Mr Sharif said Pakistan could not ignore India’s “unprecedented” arms build-up and would “take whatever measures are necessary to maintain credible deterrence.”

India, slightly later this week:

On rare days does a speech that is not made by the Prime Minister makes headlines. Today is one such day. This morning, newspapers across the country carried the speech of Eenam Gambhir, the First Secretary in the Permanent Mission of India to the UN, on their front pages.

In sharp remarks, Gambhir exercised India’s Right of Reply during the General Debate of the 71st session UN General Assembly on Wednesday.

Describing the Pakistan PM’s speech as “a long tirade”, Gambhir attacked Pakistan on the topic of sponsorship of terrorism. The words used were less diplomatic, but definitely no less impactful.

“The land of Taxila, one of the greatest learning centres of ancient times, is now host to the Ivy League of terrorism. It attracts aspirants and apprentices from all over the world. The effects of its toxic curriculum are felt across the globe,” she said during her speech.

Needless to say, when you’re talking about two countries that share a long border, lots of historical bad blood, and a commitment to increasing their nuclear stockpiles, you’d prefer to see stories like the one from December over the ones that have been coming out of the UNGA this week. Let’s just say it’s unlikely that Modi will be helping Sharif celebrate his birthday this year. Continue reading