Conflict update: April 19 2017

Hey! So, instead of finishing this and posting it at 11:58 like I usually do, tonight I’m going to try, you know, not doing that, and hopefully being asleep at 11:58 instead. I’d like to make that the new normal with these posts going forward, but we’ll see.

SYRIA

At The Nation, James Carden asks whether we, and the media in particular, have rushed to judgment in in blaming Bashar al-Assad for the April 4 chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun. This is a difficult discussion to have in an environment that rewards the confident take over nuance almost every time, but I think Carden makes a compelling case that there has been a rush to judgment, while at the same time I also believe that the preponderance of evidence supports the conclusion that Assad did it. The thing is that “preponderance of evidence” isn’t that high a standard, especially in a situation where there isn’t all that much hard evidence–at this point I think we can fairly confidently say that sarin or something very much like it was used in Khan Shaykhun, but most of the rest of the story is still up in the air to one degree or another. And “preponderance of evidence” certainly seems like too low a standard when we’re talking about justifying military action, though certainly the US has historically trudged off to war over even less.

At some point, though, proponents of alternate theories about Khan Shaykhun are going to have to produce some evidence of their own, something more than “I’m hearing from sources” or “this satellite image looks like something else to me.” Because even if they’re right, and Assad wasn’t responsible for this attack, it doesn’t mean much if they can’t at least sway public opinion in their direction. And if international investigations start to determine that Assad did it, that’s going to become much harder to do. It’s one thing to question the veracity of anything that comes out of the Trump administration, but if, say, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons investigation comes back with a finding that Assad was responsible, then that’s harder to simply dismiss out of hand.

On the other hand, the OPCW investigation hasn’t come back yet, and if your argument is that America should have at least waited for that before commencing air strikes, well, I think you’re probably right. There’s also a strong case to be made that our media should be giving more–or at least some–attention to credible people who are questioning the “Assad Did It” narrative. And there’s also some merit to what Peter Ford, former UK ambassador to Syria, said hereContinue reading

Conflict update: February 22 2017

TRUMPLAND

Yesterday Reuters reported that a week before Mike Pence spoke at the Munich Security Conference and assured all those in attendance that Donald Trump is totally in to Europe and, like, when he keeps giving Europeans swirlies in the White House bathroom that’s just because he doesn’t want them to know that he like-likes them, Steve Bannon met with the German ambassador to the US and told him that, actually, Trump (i.e., Bannon) really, genuinely hates the European Union. Which, I mean, of course he does. Mike Pence and James Mattis and Rex Tillerson can make as many apology trips to Europe as they want, but Trump/Bannon see the EU as the enemy of the right-wing white nationalist xenophobia that is their core ideology. Former Obama Deputy National Security Advisor Colin Kahl offered his take on Twitter last night:

WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE, PART ??? of ???

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization issued a report today that says, among other things, that “planetary boundaries may well be surpassed, if current trends continue,” or, in other words, if the human population keeps growing at its current rate and we don’t figure out how to live more sustainably, humanity will no longer be able to feed itself by the middle of the century. In some ways we already can’t feed ourselves, as the UN also made clear today when it announced that it needs $4.4 billion by the end of March in order to stave off mass starvation in parts of Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen. But those are man-made shortages caused by war. What the FAO is saying is that we may be pushing the planet’s capacity to feed us to its natural limit.

On the plus side, if humanity lasts long enough to master interstellar travel, maybe our descendants will have the chance to thoroughly trash a few of these planets the way we got to trash Earth. Fingers crossed!

YEMEN

yemeni_civil_war

Yemen as of February 12: red = government, green = rebel, white = al-Qaeda (Wikimedia | Ali Zifan)

I missed this over the weekend (shame on me), but Huffington Post’s Jessica Schulberg and Ryan Grim reported on a possible policy change within the Trump administration that may have contributed to the Saudi-Hadi coalition’s recent moves against Yemen’s Red Sea ports of Mokha and Hudaydah. The Obama administration, to the extent that it had any willingness or ability to shape the Saudi mission in Yemen, kept insisting that their forces should leave the country’s Red Sea ports (particularly Hudaydah) alone, since they were the main conduit by which humanitarian aid was being brought into the country. But aid is now being diverted to Aden, on the Gulf of Aden, instead, and Hudaydah looks like it’s going to be the coalition’s next major target. Aden is a smaller port than Hudaydah and doesn’t allow easy access to the parts of Yemen where starvation is an imminent threat (the parts regularly being bombed by the Saudis, coincidentally), so if it has to become the new main port for humanitarian aid, a lot of people are going to suffer the consequences.

Schulberg and Grim don’t prove that the Trump administration has given the Saudis the green light to go after Hudaydah, but the fact that the Saudis suddenly started attacking Yemen’s Red Sea ports after Trump took office is conspicuous. Also conspicuous is the role that UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba, whose nation is part of the Saudi-led coalition, is playing with respect to the Trump administration. He’s described as a “mentor” to Trump’s son in-law, Jared Kushner, who parlayed his father in-law’s election experience running a minor right-wing newspaper into a gig as what’s been referred to as the “shadow Secretary of State” in the Trump White House.

There’s an argument to be made that giving the Saudis the OK to attack Hudaydah is actually the merciful thing to do because it could bring the war to a quicker end. But while it might well bring the war to a quicker end, the consensus of the humanitarian types who were interviewed by Schulberg and Grim seems to be that it’s not worth the tradeoff in lost aid. The war might end faster, but the amount of starvation caused by the loss of Hudaydah could be so immediate and so acute that even more people will die as a result.

SYRIA

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Today in European history: the Albanian Revolt of 1912 ends

and that's the way it was

(Reminder: I’m on a break this week)

Today is not Albanian Independence Day; that’s November 28, 1912, when Albania formally declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire as part of the First Balkan War. But the outcome of the ~8 month long 1912 Albanian Revolt, which ended on September 4, 1912, with the Ottomans acceding to almost all of the the rebels’ demands, was the immediate cause of that First Balkan War and, thus, I suppose, of Albanian independence.

Nationalism came to the Albanians of the Ottoman Empire later than it did to other Ottoman subject peoples like the Greeks, Bulgarians, and Serbians, in part because the element of religion was removed from the equation. Albanians (an I’m including Kosovars here) were one of the two Balkan populations, along with the Bosniaks, who converted to Islam in large numbers during the Ottoman period and stuck with it into the present day…

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Today in European history: the Albanian Revolt of 1912 ends

(Reminder: I’m on a break this week)

Today is not Albanian Independence Day; that’s November 28, 1912, when Albania formally declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire as part of the First Balkan War. But the outcome of the ~8 month long 1912 Albanian Revolt, which ended on September 4, 1912, with the Ottomans acceding to almost all of the the rebels’ demands, was the immediate cause of that First Balkan War and, thus, I suppose, of Albanian independence.

Nationalism came to the Albanians of the Ottoman Empire later than it did to other Ottoman subject peoples like the Greeks, Bulgarians, and Serbians, in part because the element of religion was removed from the equation. Albanians (an I’m including Kosovars here) were one of the two Balkan populations, along with the Bosniaks, who converted to Islam in large numbers during the Ottoman period and stuck with it into the present day, though there were also substantial conversions that took place in Macedonia (where a third of the population is Muslim today) and parts of Bulgaria and Greece. This is actually kind of a misleading equivalence, since the Bosniaks represent a minority of Muslim converts within the larger South Slavic population, while a genuine majority of Albanians (who are not Slavic) converted. Interestingly, the conversion process came later to Albania than to other parts of the Balkans, so it was still peaking in the 19th century when other populations in the region had long since stopped converting (if they ever did in any significant numbers) and started agitating for national autonomy and independence.

I don’t know why the Albanians and the Bosniaks (and local populations in those other areas) converted in significant numbers. Or maybe I understand why they converted (prolonged exposure to Islam as the dominant faith in society, successful proselytizing over time, erosion of faith in Christianity over time, a desire to improve socio-economic status) but don’t understand why other Balkan peoples didn’t. The Ottomans never forced conversions on their Christian populations (except those boys who were conscripted into slavery for the court) and generally allowed the Orthodox Church in particular to have pretty wide latitude in its conduct. Still, the early Arab conquerors of the Middle East didn’t force their subjects (apart from those who were deemed to be outright pagans) to convert (admittedly, Islam wasn’t as fully formed then as it was by the time the Ottomans came into being), but that didn’t stop the vast majority of those populations from converting to Islam within a few generations.

This is not to say that Albanians were model Ottoman subjects; they revolted several times in the early 1800s over resistance to Ottoman centralizing reforms and the imposition of new taxes. But the whole nationalism phenomenon kind of missed the Albanians until the 1870s, when an Albanian national consciousness did finally begin to take hold. Continue reading