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: March 14 2017

DONALD TRUMP AND THE HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL

According to Foreign Policy, nominal Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a letter recently to a group of nonprofits warning that the Trump administration is prepared to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council unless “considerable reform” is undertaken in that body. Tillerson’s letter highlighted the presence on the UNHRC of such human rights luminaries as Saudi Arabia and China (and, uh, the United States, while we’re at it), but that’s all smokescreen. By “reform,” what the Trump administration–and, indeed, much of the US foreign policy community–means is “lay off Israel.”

While I take a backseat to nobody in my loathing of Israel’s human rights record, which deserves all the criticism it gets, these folks do have a point about the UNHRC–or, rather, they have part of a point. Something like half of the resolutions issued by the UNHRC since it was formed in 2006, and nearly a third of its special sessions over that time, have had to do with Israel. As shitty as Israel’s human rights record is, that’s disproportionate. Of course, the Trump/Republican solution to this problem is, essentially, that the UNHRC should cease to exist, or at least be less active with regards to Israel. My solution would be for the UNHRC to be at least as active on Israel as it is now, but also be way more active when it comes to, well, everybody else (no government in the world actually cares about human rights, is the real problem here).

But while the Trump administration’s instinct is to withdraw from any international body that doesn’t toe the line, denying them that all-important TRUMP Brand stamp of approval or whatever, if their aim is to steer the UNHRC in a different direction then quitting is exactly the wrong way to do so. The Obama administration, being thoroughly a creature of the Washington foreign policy establishment despite its occasional tepid criticisms of that establishment, also objected to the HRC’s overemphasis on Israel, so it joined the council (the Bush administration refused to be part of it) and, lo and behold, was able to use America’s international heft to push the council to focus attention on Syria, Iran, and nonstate actors like ISIS. If the Trump administration follows through on its threat to withdraw from the council, then it will be giving up its ability to influence what the council does.

I’m torn in cases like this between my instinct, which is that the administration doesn’t think through the ramifications of these kinds of decisions and/or doesn’t really give a shit about them, and my skepticism, which tells me that they must surely realize what they’re doing and are acting purposefully to try to wreck as many international institutions as they can. Of course there’s no reason it couldn’t be both–no presidential administration is a monolith.

“MAD DOG” “REASONABLE CLIMATE CHANGE THINKER” MATTIS

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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: February 21 2017

Iran

ebrahim_raisi_in_9th_day_rally_01

Ebrahim Raisi (Wikimedia | Meghdad Madadi)

It finally looks like a major principalist candidate might challenge Hassan Rouhahi in May’s presidential election. Ebrahim Raisi was appointed last year to run Astan Quds Razavi, the charitable foundation that manages the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad, and that makes him one of the most important religious figures in Iran. Only 56 (that’s practically 26 in the context of hardline Iranian political figures), he’s been mentioned as a possible successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Supreme Leader, but suddenly there’s some momentum behind him as a presidential candidate. Raisi says he’ll only run if he’s the consensus choice among Iranian conservatives, which is a tall order but, for someone of his stature, isn’t out of the question. Raisi isn’t Qasem Soleimani, but he would be a difficult challenge for Rouhani.

Iranian and Turkish diplomats are continuing to trade barbs over Syria and regional policy. Meanwhile, Khamenei is throwing red meat at Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu by encouraging another Intifada in occupied Palestine. I have no doubt he’s doing it to provoke exactly the reaction that Trump and Netanyahu will give him.

Iraq

battle_of_mosul_2016-2017

The Battle of Mosul, through earlier today (Wikimedia | Kami888)

Iraqi forces are staging for their big push to capture Mosul airport and the nearby Ghazlani military base. Yesterday they captured the village of Albu Saif, which sits on a hilltop overlooking the airport, and that’s become their staging area. Iraqi commanders don’t seem to be expecting much ISIS resistance at the airport–because it’s not near any civilian areas, coalition and Iraqi air forces have been striking it at will, so the thinking is they will have worn its defenses down. Once the airport is in Iraqi hands the next step will be to repair it as quickly as possible so that it can be used to provide close air support for the rest of the operation.

Joel Wing has been tracking the Iraqi government’s statements about the west Mosul phase pretty regularly at Musings on Iraq. During the lull after east Mosul was fully liberated, Iraqi commanders and politicians have been telling anybody who would listen that ISIS was spent, broken, that it wouldn’t be able to put up a serious fight in west Mosul. Now that the west Mosul operation has started, of course, the tune is changing.

Syria

Reuters reported today that the CIA suspended its program to supply, pay, and arm rebels in northwestern Syria last month, when they began fighting among themselves. Apparently the risk that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham might seize American weaponry in battle was deemed too great to allow the program to continue, though the Agency didn’t seem to worry too much about the risk that rebels would simply, you know, give those weapons to JFS back when everybody was playing for the same team.

The UN expects this week’s peace talks in Geneva to focus on a “political transition process” rather than on “political transition.” These are completely different topics because the UN desperately needs them to be. Apparently the addition of the word “process” is supposed to make it seem less like the UN is trying to usher Bashar al-Assad out of power and more like everybody in Geneva will all be just neutrally shooting the shit about civics, or something.

The Syrian Democratic Forces reportedly made a major incursion into Deir Ezzor province today, driving ISIS out of a dozen villages there. I wouldn’t expect the SDF to move to relieve besieged Deir Ezzor itself–their focus is still on encircling Raqqa. Speaking of the SDF, or more specifically its Kurdish YPG component, the saga of Roy Gutman’s investigation into the YPG continues at The Nation. Today they published a criticism of his reporting from human rights activist Meredith Tax, along with Gutman’s response. Tax’s critique isn’t especially strong, but Gutman’s work still suffers from its sourcing, which for many of its more provocative claims is largely the Syrian government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, both of which have major axes to grind with the YPG.

Turkey

If we can go by statements made by Turkish officials, over 550,000 new refugees have crossed into Turkey in just the past five months. That’s a staggering figure that may be costing the Turkish government more than half a billion dollars each month. Which is all to say that you can kind of see why they invaded northern Syria a few months back.

The predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has applied to the European Court of Human Rights to hear a case regarding the arrest of its leaders by Turkish authorities in November. Chief among HDP’s arguments is that the ongoing imprisonment of its leaders constitutes an effort by the Turkish government to suppress opposition to April’s referendum on changing the Turkish constitution to increase President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s powers. And, indeed, HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş isn’t going to be given a court hearing until almost two weeks after the referendum, even though he will have been in custody for five months by that point.

Jordan

Jordanian King Abdullah and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi met in Cairo today and, afterward, issued a joint statement reaffirming their support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine issue. Or, in other words, they announced that they’re not swapping land with anybody, thank you very much.

Speaking of Syrian refugees, Jordan is dealing with the challenge of accounting for hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have left destitution in refugee camps along the Syrian border and are now living in Jordan undocumented. They’re understandably reluctant to come forward because they’ll likely be deported back into Syria. The Jordanian government could solve much of this problem by allowing refugees to work legally in the vicinity of the camps, but so far it’s been unwilling to take that step.

Egypt

The Egyptian government is reaching out to Hamas, offering to relax restrictions on trade and movement across the border between Egypt and Gaza in return for Hamas’s help dealing with militants in Sinai. Sisi’s government has been mostly hostile toward Hamas since it came to power, since Hamas, as a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, was very friendly with the Morsi government that Sisi overthrew. While Gazans could certainly use the boost in food and supplies coming over a less restrictive Egyptian border, I want to note Sisi’s impeccable logic here. In order to try to tamp down a Sinai insurgency that was massively exacerbated by Sisi’s decision to overthrow and then brutally suppress Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, an insurgency that could probably still be weakened if he were to stop suppressing Egypt’s MB, Sisi is now making concessions to Gaza’s Muslim Brotherhood branch.

Azerbaijan

President Ilham Aliyev appointed a new vice president today, and after what must have been a grueling search process his pick was…his wife, Mehriban! Congratulations? She’s now in line to succeed Ilham if for some reason he ever is defeated in a free and fair election decides to step down. Now I know what you’re thinking–you’re worried that people might have a problem with a president making his wife his vice-president, but don’t worry! Aliyev preemptively arrested just about anybody who might have had a problem with this appointment! Whew, I was worried there for a second!

Pakistan

At least six people were killed today in a suicide bombing targeting a court building in the northern district of Charsadda. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar claimed responsibility.

Myanmar

Reuters is reporting that the Myanmar government is investigating the suspicious deaths of two Rohingya while in police custody in October. That may not seem like that big a deal, but it’s the first evidence that Naypyidaw is prepared to maybe, possibly, acknowledge any misconduct by its security forces with respect to the Rohingya.

Indonesia

From the “This Is Exactly What We Need Right Now” file, Saudi King Salman (or, well, somebody in the Saudi palace) is planning a visit to Indonesia for the king and his 1500 person entourage in March. This will be the first time a Saudi ruler has visited Indonesia in almost 50 years. Jakarta is hoping the visit will herald the onset of billions of dollars in Saudi investment. The arrival of the Wahhabi king and his massive Wahhabi retinue will come just a month before the runoff in the Jakarta governor’s race, in which the Muslim candidate is now feverishly trying to deny that he’s been pandering to Islamists in an effort to knock off the Christian incumbent. I’m sure that won’t prove to be a volatile combo.

South China Sea

China is predictably having a bit of a tantrum over the presence of the USS Carl Vinson carrier group in the South China Sea. The rhetoric coming from Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as well as the fact that this patrol comes a scant month into Donald Trump’s presidency, and of course the fact that Steve Bannon thinks we ought to go to war with China, suggests that this administration is going to be more…let’s say proactive, about asserting navigation rights in the SCS than the Obama administration was. And on that subject, Pentagon officials are telling Reuters that they believe China has started putting surface-to-air missile batteries on the disputed Spratly Islands.

Malaysia

The investigation into the murder of Kim Jong-nam continues to escalate. Now Malaysian authorities say they’ve identified two new suspects in the case–and one of them works at the North Korean embassy. Yikes.

Libya

The UN says that the 2015 conviction of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi on war crimes charges was illegitimate and wants him handed over to the International Criminal Court. Gaddafi, who was sentenced to death by firing squad in that trial, is being held in the western Libyan city of Zintan, outside the control of either of the two factions vying for control of the country, so he’s presumably not going anywhere anytime soon.

Nigeria

A curfew has been put into effect in the southern part of Kaduna state, in the center of the country, after a new round of ethnic violence killed 14 people on Monday.

Guinea

The government and teachers unions reached a deal to end a strike that led to protests in which five people were killed yesterday, but unfortunately two more people were killed today after the deal was announced.

South Sudan

President Salva Kiir has promised that aid organizations trying to reach people stricken by famine in South Sudan will have “unimpeded access.” We’ll see.

South Africa

A wave of anti-immigrant violence targeting Nigerians has hit Pretoria in recent days, after similar violence struck a suburb of Johannesburg a few weeks ago. This has prompted the Nigerian government to appeal to South Africa and the African Union to take measures to protect its nationals living in South Africa.

Cyprus

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said today that Turkey must reserve the right to intervene to defend Turkish Cypriots, which, of course, is the kind of thing that makes reunification less likely.

Ukraine

The secretary general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Lamberto Zannier, says the Ukraine ceasefire “doesn’t look too good.” It doesn’t seem like there’s been much new fighting over the last day or so, but progress on moving heavy weapons off the front lines has been slow or non-existent, which suggests the ceasefire isn’t going to stick. Kiev is calling for new sanctions to punish Moscow for its decision to begin honoring unofficial travel documents issued by the separatist “governments” in the Donbas. Meanwhile, pro-Russia Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Artemenko, the one with the shady possibly connections to Donald Trump, is apparently headed to the US to push his peace deal, the one Russia has already called “absurd” and that the Ukrainian government doesn’t even seem willing to acknowledge.

Sweden

Maybe Donald Trump’s bizarre pronouncements are better understood as prophecy than as news:

Just two days after President Trump provoked widespread consternation by seeming to imply, incorrectly, that immigrants had perpetrated a recent spate of violence in Sweden, riots broke out in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood in the northern suburbs of the country’s capital, Stockholm.

The neighborhood, Rinkeby, was the scene of riots in 2010 and 2013, too. And in most ways, what happened Monday night was reminiscent of those earlier bouts of anger. Swedish police apparently made an arrest on drug charges at about 8 p.m. near the Rinkeby station. For reasons not yet disclosed by the police, word of the arrest prompted youths to gather.

Over four hours, the crowd burned about half a dozen cars, vandalized several shopfronts and threw rocks at police. Police spokesman Lars Bystrom confirmed to Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter newspaper that an officer fired shots at a rioter but missed. A photographer for the newspaper was attacked and beaten by more than a dozen men and his camera was stolen.

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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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