Conflict update: March 14 2017


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.


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Today in Caucasian history: the Battle of Didgori (1121)

The Georgian King David IV (d. 1125) wasn’t given the epithet “The Builder,” or perhaps “The Rebuilder,” because he could put together a mean castle or fix a crack in your home’s foundation. He’s regarded as the restorer of the Georgian nation after its subjugation by the Seljuk Turks in the late 11th century and is regarded as perhaps the greatest ruler in Georgian history, in addition to being a saint in the Georgian Orthodox Church. It seems like he was a pretty impressive guy. The Battle of Didgori is where David IV really began to cement his legacy as David the Builder, because it was here that his outnumbered army, with a little assistance from the Crusaders and a lot of assistance from technology, trounced the Seljuks and effectively won Georgia’s independence.


A fresco of David the Builder from the Gelati Monastery in Georgia (Wikimedia)

The Seljuk migration from Central Asia hit the Middle East, Anatolia, and the Caucasus suddenly and with tremendous force, and fundamentally altered the landscape in those regions. The Battle of Manzikert (1071) alone is one of the most consequential events in world history, because it finally pierced the Byzantine Empire’s defenses around Anatolia and led to Anatolia’s Turkicization, to a steep Byzantine decline, and (as a result) to the Crusades. The Seljuks overran the Caucasus as well as Anatolia, and in 1083 the Georgian King George II was forced to reduce his kingdom to the status of a Seljuk vassal. Prior to that (in the 1060s), the Seljuks, following a long line of foreign conquerors, sacked and occupied Tbilisi, the historic capital of eastern Georgia going back to late antiquity.

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Today in Caucasian history: the Battle of Bagrevand (775)

DISCLAIMER: I’m sorry if the title of this post gives anybody the wrong idea–I don’t mean “Caucasian history” in the “why don’t they have a White History Month” sense. I mean literally the history of the Caucasus region. I don’t know how else to describe it.

When Arab armies moved out of Arabia in the 630s and utterly wrecked the Roman-Persian balance of power that had defined western Asia for centuries, you could make a strong case that nobody, apart from the Romans and the Persians, felt it more acutely than the Armenians. The Kingdom of Armenia had long been a buffer between the two great powers, with dynasties ruling as Roman or Persian (first Parthian, and later Sasanian) clients, and coming and going often at the whim of one of the two empires. This changed in the fourth century, when the Romans and Sasanians partitioned the ancient kingdom into two parts: so-called Lesser Armenia, which became a Roman province, and Persian Armenia, which held nominal independence for a time before becoming a Sasanian domain in the early fifth century. The events described here primarily affected Persian Armenia; Lesser Armenia, along the southern coast of the Black Sea, remained in Roman hands until it was taken by the Seljuq Turks in the late 11th century.


The Caucasus (Persian Armenia, Iberia, Lazica, and Albania) just prior to the Arab conquest (Wikimedia |

Having suffered through the push-and-pull Roman-Persian relationship for the better part of a millennium, the Armenians now had to face a new upheaval with the destruction of the Sasanian Empire and the arrival of conquering Arab armies in the Caucasus as early as the late 630s, not even a decade after Muhammad’s death. In the early 650s, a leading Armenian noble named Theodoros Ṛštuni (Theodore Rshtuni if you like) cut a deal to submit Armenia to Arab rule in exchange for a prisoner release and Armenian autonomy. Fighting continued, though, and eventually pulled in the Romans (even though the Romans and Armenians were at odds over religious disputes about the nature of Christ). But by the 660s, the Arabs (now the Umayyad Caliphate) were fully in control of Armenia, which doesn’t seem to have been that onerous given that it included a fair amount of local autonomy and no imposition of Islam on the Armenians (conversion was never a high priority for the Umayyads anyway).

This was the best deal the Armenians were going to get, but the imposition of Arab rule grated on them anyway–especially on the nakharar, the heads of the leading Armenian noble families. They’d done pretty well for themselves as Roman and/or Persian clients, but the Arabs were apparently much less interested in cultivating their loyalty–they had less reason to be, in the absence of any other power capable of challenging Arab control over the area. Several revolts cropped up here and there over the decades to come, but internal rivalries among the nakharar (perhaps exacerbated by the decline in imperial attention) kept most of them from becoming serious threats to the Arabs. One major revolt did break out in 703, when the Arabs reorganized their Caucasian holdings into the province of Arminya and took more direct control, but it was defeated in 705 and the nobles who had led it were all executed.

A much larger revolt finally broke out in 774. Continue reading

Ukraine’s newest citizen used to be President of Georgia

Ukraine’s Odessa Oblast, home to, yes, that’s right, Odessa, Ukraine’s third-largest city and most important seaport now that Crimea is in Russian hands, is a region of great concern to Kiev. As you can imagine, it’s of great strategic value both to Kiev and to those who might be looking to establish a separate Russian protectorate in “Novorossiya,” the once-historical but now entirely theoretical construct in the south of Ukraine, extending from Donbas in the east to the Romanian border in the west, or to those who might even be thinking about annexing the whole thing into their own country, not to accuse you personally, President Putin.

"Is OK; I have FSB maybe take look at this later"

“Is OK; I have FSB maybe take look at this later”

It’s also got a sizable Russian minority, and the city of Odessa was vitally important both to the Russian empire (which conquered the area and founded the city in 1789) and to the Communist Revolution (the 1905 Battleship Potemkin Uprising, which later became an important symbol for the Bolsheviks, happened in Odessa), so you can see why it might make big target for Putin’s revanchist expansionism protection, I mean, of course I mean protection, President Putin, if you’re still reading this. Odessa has already seen some violence in this crisis, particularly an event about a year ago when dozens of pro-Russia protesters burned to death, possibly after being trapped inside a building by a pro-Ukraine mob that then lit the building on fire.

So it’s with that in mind that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko appointed a new governor for the oblast over the weekend: Mikheil Saakashvili. If that name sounds familiary, perhaps you remember back in 2008, when he tried and mostly failed to resist another of Russia’s annexation humanitarian outreach, obviously, is what I mean to say, plans, in South Ossetia.

Which is in Georgia.

Because Mikheil Saakashvili used to be President of Georgia.

Yep, that's him, as President of Georgia, with President Bush

That’s Saakashvili, as President of Georgia, with President Bush (via)

So yeah, that’s a little weird, right? Poroshenko even granted Saakashvili Ukrainian citizenship, which meant he had to renounce his Georgian citizenship, which is OK because he was probably never going back there anyway, seeing as how he’d likely be arrested (the charges may be total bullshit, I don’t know, but they do exist) if he did. Saakashvili certainly has administrative experience, and he was at one time lauded for improving Georgia’s human rights and corruption problems, before he was term limited out of office. But let’s not fool ourselves; this is Poroshenko trying to jab his thumb in Putin’s eye just a little bit and to put a staunch Putin opponent in charge of a critically important province that is at risk of falling out of Kiev’s orbit. It doesn’t, however, suggest that Poroshenko cares very much about reassuring Odessa’s Russian population or about building an inclusive Ukraine, does it?

However Saakashvili performs on the job, a former head of state taking a governorship in a completely different state is certainly something you don’t see every day. Herodotus wrote that the Lydian King Croesus (d. sometime after 547 BCE) became an adviser to the Persian Emperor Cyrus after the latter had defeated him and taken his crown away, but that’s not the same thing and may be all legend anyway. This seems pretty unique to me.

We’re being governed by children

In this case, John Boehner. Speaker of the House isn’t exactly a diplomacy-heavy job, I’ll grant you, but come on:

I’m not sure which is worse: the notion that House Speaker John Boehner says ridiculous things to get votes or that the Ohio Republican actually believes his own rhetoric.Take yesterday, for example. As Jay Bookman noted, Boehner was in Iowa and made these comments to a group of voters:

“Five years ago, the president of the United States went to Europe and he went to the Middle East on what I’ll call his ‘apology tour’ – apologizing for America being strong, apologizing for America leading.

“And the manifestation of that apology tour is what we see in the chaos going on around the world today. I talk to world leaders every week. They want America to lead. They’re begging America to lead. Because when America leads and America’s strong, the world is a safer place.

“When you look at this chaos that’s going on, does anybody think that Vladimir Putin would have gone into Crimea had George W. Bush been president of the United States? No! Even Putin is smart enough to know that Bush would have punched him in the nose in about 10 seconds.”

The apology tour bit is one of those zombie lies that you can’t even get particularly worked up about anymore, but even the president who committed the worst foreign policy blunder in American history probably wouldn’t have been dumb enough to punch the President of Russia in the nose, literally or figuratively, over Crimea. Actually, there’s no “probably” about it, since Russia actually did invade another country and de facto annex part of its territory while Bush was still in office, and in response America…did virtually nothing about it.

I wouldn’t worry about any diplomatic fallout from Boehner’s absurd comments. After all, even Putin is smart enough to know that John Boehner is a clown.

"Unlike Vladimir Putin, I used to sweep floors in my family's bar and OH GOD I CAN'T" *weeps uncontrollably*

“Unlike Vladimir Putin, I used to sweep floors in my family’s bar and OH GOD I CAN’T” *weeps uncontrollably*

Potential agreement on Arak clears one obstacle to an Iran nuclear deal, up at Lobe Log

There seems to have been a breakthrough in the Iran talks, at least according to Iranian media (which, grain of salt and all), around the issue of the heavy-water IR-40 reactor at Arak, which was one of the disputes at the heart of the talks. The upshot is that Iran is willing to run the reactor on enriched uranium rather than natural uranium, and to run it at lower temperatures than its planned 40 megawatts, and the P5+1 have agreed to these terms. This compromise, if accurate, mirrors a proposal recently put forward in the journal Arms Control Today by a group of Princeton scientists, and it will substantially reduce the amount of plutonium produced by the reactor (alleviating much of the P5+1’s concern about Arak) while leaving the reactor at least as useful for the production of medical isotopes (its stated purpose, according to the Iranians). I’ve got a new piece up at Lobe Log that goes into that and also tries to explain what heavy-water reactors are and why, in general, they are a proliferation concern, even though there’s no evidence that IR-40, specifically, was one.

Reactors that are intended to be used for research (for example, to produce medical isotopes) rather than for power generation, often need to use uranium enriched to 20% U-235 or more, which in addition to being costly to produce is also itself a proliferation concern. PHWRs, again because D20 is such an efficient moderator, are an alternative in such applications. Iran insists that IR-40 is intended only to replace its aging Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes for cancer patients, but the P5+1 has expressed concern about its potential use in developing a weapon. The Joint Plan of Action that was signed in Geneva in November 2014 stipulated that Iran would take no steps toward bringing Arak online for its duration.

For all the P5+1’s supposed concern about Arak, it must be noted that, as Gareth Porter has pointed out, Iran has made no move to build the kind of reprocessing facility that would be needed to convert IR-40’s plutonium waste into weapons fuel. While it could build such a facility in the future, that would take considerable time and would not be easily concealed from IAEA inspectors, so Arak is not an imminent threat from a proliferation standpoint.

The most interesting aspect of this story to me has nothing to do with the nuclear talks but is about the city of Arak itself. Continue reading