Conflict update: March 15 2017

SECOND VERSE, SAME AS THE FIRST

Well, that was fast. Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban 2.0, which is totally not about religion, you guys, just got blocked by a federal judge in Hawaii for being, you know, pretty much about religion. In his ruling, District Judge Derek Watson in particular rejected one of the administration’s favorite arguments as to why their Muslim ban couldn’t possibly be a Muslim ban:

While the administration maintains the latest order is not a ban on Muslims, since it removes reference to religion and targets only a fraction of the world’s Muslim population, Watson questioned that argument, potentially setting the stage for other ongoing legal challenges even as he puts a nationwide halt on the implementation. It is undisputed, the judge said, that the six countries are overwhelmingly Muslim by population.

“The illogic of the Government’s contentions is palpable,” he wrote. “The notion that one can demonstrate animus toward any group of people only by targeting all of them at once is fundamentally flawed.”

Well sure, when you put it that way, but have you considered that SCARY TERRORISTS BAD BOGEYMAN EVIL ATTACK DANGER AFRAID?

I thought not.

Watson cited Trump’s own statements about the ban, and those of his closest advisers, as proof that it was intended to target Muslims, which adds a hilarious cherry on top of this very nice sundae. There’s obviously much more to come on this, and the fact that it happened just a short time ago, plus my obvious lack of being anything resembling a lawyer, are working against me right now. Stay tuned, is what I’m saying.

NETHERLANDS

I was going to lead with this until the ban ban–er, the banning of the ban, uh, the ban banning, whatever you get the point–happened. As it turns out, the Dutch people are not as susceptible to xenophobic white populism as voters in a certain global superpower I could name:

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberal party is set to win the most seats in the Netherlands’ elections, maintaining its status as the country’s largest political party for the third consecutive election, according to exit polls published by Dutch broadcaster NOS.

Dutch voters took to the polls on Wednesday in overwhelming numbers — the turnout was projected to be above 80%, the highest in 30 years — to back a mix of pro-EU, liberal and progressive parties over the far-right, anti-EU and anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders — known as the “Dutch Trump”.

Wilders, who had become the subject of intense international media attention in the weeks running up to the election, appeared to win a humbling 13% of the vote and 19 seats, an increase on the previous election but below the party’s 2010 tally.

This is quite a result, because it suggests that Geert Wilders brought a whole bunch of new voters to the polls–to vote against him. I guess you could call it reverse populism.

So instead of Wilders’ reactionary far-right Party for Freedom governing the Netherlands, the regular far-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, led by current Prime Minister Mark Rutte, will continue governing it. As always though it will have to do so in coalition, and the secondary result of this vote, apart from Wilders’ surprising and frankly a little embarrassing performance, is that it’s going to be quite a task just forming a new coalition. Rutte’s party appears to have lost about ten seats in the next parliament, but more to the point his previous coalition partner, the center-left Labor Party, paid for its collaborative good nature by losing somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 seats. So instead of two parties, the next coalition will be a multi-party affair, with Rutte having to accommodate the right-wing Christian Democrats, the liberal D66 party, probably Labor again, and maybe the day’s apparent big winner…the Greens. Led by the Dutch Justin Trudeau, Jesse Klaver, GreenLeft appears to have quadrupled its seats in the next parliament, from four to 16. Now that’s populism.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: February 27 2017

FOREVER WAR

President Trump would like to increase the Pentagon’s budget by $54 billion next year, an amount that, if you’re keeping score at home, is all by itself equal to roughly 4/5 of Russia’s entire military budget. This would boost America’s capacity to shovel huge piles of money at defense contractors fight MOAR WARS, and pay for it by cutting pretty much everything else, including the stuff we do to try to avoid fighting wars.

EARTH

The Great Barrier Reef is still dying, so consider this your semi-regular reminder that none of the rest of this will matter if we don’t figure out a way to stop rendering our planet uninhabitable.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces secured the western end of the southernmost bridge connecting the two halves of the city across the Tigris River on Monday. They’re now pushing into the heart of ISIS-controlled western Mosul, where they’re increasingly running into challenges related to the estimated 750,000 civilians still there. Thousands of civilians have tried to leave the city amid the fighting, but at this point they’re an impediment for the Iraqi military whether they stay or go. Securing the bridge will, once it’s been repaired, in theory allow the Iraqis to resupply their front line forces more directly via eastern Mosul.

There continues to be mostly confusion surrounding the eventual fate of Tal Afar. Pronouncements coming out of the Popular Mobilization Units suggest that the PMU are preparing to take the city, but the Ninewah provincial government says that Iraqi regulars will be the ones to handle that phase of the operation. Baghdad originally floated the idea that the PMU would take Tal Afar but backed down when that plan raised Turkish ire. At this point it seems clear that Baghdad would prefer to have its professional military liberate Tal Afar, but it can’t spare any manpower from Mosul to do the job. The PMU are sitting out in the western desert surrounding Tal Afar and could probably liberate the city, but Turkey would undoubtedly respond negatively to that scenario (and, to be fair, there are concerns over how the PMU will treat Sunni Turkmen in Tal Afar who may have collaborated with ISIS back in 2014).

SYRIA

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Conflict update: January 24 2017

Syria

With everybody’s eyes on the peace conference in Kazakhstan, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has made a big move to consolidate its control of the rebellion in Idlib:

Heavy fighting erupted in northwestern Syria on Tuesday between a powerful jihadist organization and more moderate rebel groups, threatening to further weaken the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad in its biggest territorial stronghold.

Rebel groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) banner, some of which attended peace talks in Kazakhstan, accused the jihadist group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham of launching a surprise attack on their positions.

Fateh al-Sham, previously known as the Nusra Front, issued a statement which said it had been forced to act preemptively to “thwart conspiracies” being hatched against it. The group accused rebels attending the Kazakhstan talks of conspiring against it, but did not refer to Tuesday’s fighting directly.

JFS’s statement also accused the rebels who were participating in Astana of trying to “divert the course of the revolution towards reconciliation” with Bashar al-Assad.

On Sunday, Hassan Hassan wrote a piece in which he talked about the possibility that Ahrar al-Sham “will soon rip itself into pieces.” The reason is that Ahrar al-Sham has been trying to serve as the bridge between JFS and the Free Syrian Army–refusing, for example, to go along with any effort to isolate JFS–at a time when it’s becoming impossible to maintain that bridge. JFS has begun targeting rebel militias for elimination, and there are signs that it’s even starting to pick Ahrar al-Sham apart by encouraging its more extremist fighters to defect. Now there are some elements of Ahrar al-Sham that are reportedly trying to intercede to stop JFS but other elements that are reportedly helping JFS, which suggests that the group really is starting to rip itself into pieces.

Speaking of the Astana talks, they seem to have ended about as I thought they would, with Russia, Turkey, and Iran declaring a very esoteric victory, pledging their commitment to upholding the ceasefire, and closing up shop. The rebels attending the talks refused to sign on to the Russia-Turkey-Iran pledge and instead complained about Iran’s admittedly conflicting roles as Assad’s biggest supporter and as one of the supposedly neutral brokers in the talks (Damascus made similar and also well-founded complaints about Turkey). There were no direct talks between the Syrian government and the rebels, which seems like kind of a bad sign.

Iraq

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Welcome to 2017: Get your war on

If it seems like we have a lot of wars going on all over the world right now, well, that’s because we do–e.g., Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Kashmir…shall I continue? I’m not here to talk about any of those. Instead, this is a look at a handful of places that could flare into brand new wars (or at least new phases of very old wars) in 2017. This is admittedly an inexact designation. For example, the conflict that may be most at risk of escalating into full-fledged war began escalating last year, so if it does escalate into a war we’ll probably say it began in 2016. I’m talking about the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, the autonomous, majority Armenian enclave that claims to be part of Armenia but is, as far as the rest of the world (save Armenia itself) is concerned, part of Azerbaijan.

Karabakh’s history goes all the way back to ancient Armenia and, the southern Caucasus being the tumultuous place they are, if we tried to recount all the different political entities that have controlled it at one time or another we’d be here for another 10,000 words. Suffice to say that it’s long been majority Armenian, so the people there were decidedly unhappy when the extraordinarily short-lived (it lasted about three months) Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic broke up into Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia in 1918, and Karabakh wound up in Azerbaijan. Armenia and Azerbaijan then warred (1918-1920) over their borders, including the status of Karabakh. British occupation at the end of WWI affirmed Azerbaijan’s control over the province, but the people of Karabakh kept fighting Azerbaijani control and asserting their desire to unify with Armenia.

Then the Soviets swept through the southern Caucasus and the whole conflict kind of got stuck in place. Continue reading

Today in World War I: the Battle of Sarikamish ends (1915)

and that's the way it was

The Battle of Sarikamish was an overwhelming Russian victory whose outcome put the Ottomans on the defensive in World War I’s Caucasus theater of operations right up until the 1917 October Revolution took Russia out of the war altogether. Its military impact was fairly substantial–World War I might have been much different if the Ottomans had been able to make a sustained offensive into Russia via the Caucasus–but the Ottomans ultimately gained back the territory they’d lost as a result of this battle. Sarikamish’s greatest impact was felt off the battlefield, by the Armenian people. The Armenian Genocide was a long time coming and had multiple causes. But Sarikamish was one of the most immediate ones, owing to one man’s desperate need to dodge the blame for his failures on the battlefield.

The state of Europe and the Caucasus in January 1915; note Sarikamish there on the right (via mental_floss

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Welcome to 2017: heading to the polls

Last January I remember a bunch of troubling things happening shortly after the new year, like a new round of fighting in Kashmir, a new North Korean nuclear test, and another episode in the Iran-Saudi conflict, and, hey, I guess in hindsight we should have had some idea it was going to be a shittier-than-usual year. My point is that writing about those things became sort of a “welcome to 2016” series even though when the year began I hadn’t intended to write anything like that. But now I figure it’s a tradition, and even though we’ve managed to get through the first four days of the year without any potentially world-altering crises cropping up–and yes, I get that it’s early–I’m going to try it again this year. This time, again barring any major crises, I’ll look at a few things that I think might play out over the course of the year that maybe don’t have the potential to kill us all–unless one of them does kill us all, in which case, well, nobody will be around to remember I just wrote that. I’ll scatter these around here and there over the rest of the month.

For today I’d like to talk about something fairly mundane–politics, and primarily elections. Elections happen all the time, even in countries where they don’t mean much (by which I mean places like, say, Syria or Uzbekistan, but feel free to insert your American election joke here), and only very rarely do the results of any particular election wind up truly threatening mankind (feel free to insert your 2016 joke here). But there are a few elections coming up this year that may be of some importance, and there’s also a developing non-electoral political story that bears watching. To wit: Continue reading

Conflict update: December 29 2016

and that’s the way it was is hitting the road for a few days and, if it’s all the same to you fine readers, I’d kind of like to turn the blog more or less off and take a real break. That means we won’t be back to regular posting until January 3. Happy New Year and see you in 2017!

What? Oh, right, one more round of mostly shitty news before I go.

World War III

The long-mehwaited American response to Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election was unveiled today:

The targets of the sanctions include Moscow’s top intelligence services, the Federal Security Service and the Main Intelligence Directorate, as well as three companies and a handful of individuals. Among the individuals are top officials from the Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU.

The State Department expelled 35 Russian operatives from the Russian embassy in Washington and the Russian consulate in San Francisco on Thursday. The officials and their families were given 72 hours to leave the U.S.

The State Department also notified Russia that as of Friday Moscow would be denied access to two Russian government-owned compounds—one in Maryland and one in New York.

This is…about what you’d have expected, it seem to me. There’s been took much noise about this story for the Obama administration not to have done something, even though as far as I can tell (or at least as far as anybody outside the intelligence community has been allowed to know) the evidence behind this accusation against Moscow is still pretty circumstantial. And this is definitely something. These are tangible actions that will hurt Russia a little and embarrass it more, and they’ll be tough for Donald Trump to undo without raising eyebrows. What they’re not is anything that could honestly be categorized as an escalation, if you’re operating from the assumption that Russia has indeed screwed with America’s electoral process.

Moscow will now respond as it can (at least 35 US diplomatic personnel in Russia will certainly be expelled within the next few days, for example), and that will be about it. President Obama said today’s actions aren’t the end of the US response, but realistically this is about it at least as far as a public response. Obama also ordered the release of information on Russian cyber-activity that could help US individuals and businesses take stronger security precautions, and if you ask me that’s the most impactful part of today’s actions. Assuming anybody actually bothers taking those precautions.

Speaking of responses, let’s see what President-elect Trump had to say about all of this yesterday:

President-elect Donald Trump is less than enthusiastic about some senators’ suggestion that Russia ― and perhaps even Vladimir Putin himself ― should be sanctioned for interfering in the U.S. elections, telling reporters Wednesday that it’s time people move on.

For Trump, the real culprit isn’t the Russian president or his hackers. It’s computers and technology.

“I think we ought to get on with our lives,” Trump said Wednesday, according to the pool report. He was at his Mar-a-Lago resort, standing next to boxing promoter Don King. “I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what is going on. We have speed, we have a lot of other things, but I’m not sure we have the kind the security we need. But I have not spoken with the senators and I will certainly will be over a period of time.”

Ah, I-uh, that’s very, ahhhh, he’s got a…well I think what he means is, see, there are computers, and they have speed, and a lot of other…things…and…the senators, also too. Hail to the Chief!

War on Terror

So this is potentially interesting: Continue reading