Conflict update: March 15 2017


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.


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.


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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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The things we (might) do for our kids

Deputy Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad b. Salman (left) and Crown Prince Muhammad b. Nayef (right) (via)

I don’t like to traffic in conspiracies or thinly-sourced material, although I admit this isn’t something I spend a lot of time thinking about so I’ve probably trafficked in them on a few occasions around here. But as I spend an unfortunate amount of time on Twitter (hey, my #brand isn’t going to build itself, you know), I inevitably encounter conspiracy and speculation on a disturbingly regular basis. And when one particular theory starts cropping up over and over gain, and it has to do with the stuff I usually write about, AND it actually kind of makes some sense, I figure it’s worth at least a mention on the blog here.

In this case, I’m talking about a piece written last Wednesday by Ali Al Ahmed, head of the DC-based Institute for Gulf Affairs. To say the least, it’s a bit of a pot-stirrer:

Saudi King Salman Al-Saud plans to abdicate his throne and install his son Mohammed as king, multiple highly-placed sources told the Institute for Gulf Affairs.

Mohamed bin Salman is the current deputy crown prince, second in-line to the throne, and defense minister.

King Salman, 80, has been making the rounds visiting his brothers seeking support for the move that will also remove the current crown prince and American favorite, the hardline Mohammed bin Naif from his positions as the crown prince and the minister of interior.

According to sources familiar with the proceedings, Salman told his brothers that the stability of the Saudi monarchy requires a change of the succession from lateral or diagonal lines to a vertical order under which the king hands power to his most eligible son.

Given how potentially big this story is and the fact that it rests on anonymous “multiple highly-placed sources,” I want to say that, as far as I know, Ali Al Ahmed is a credible analyst and reporter. He’s the guy who discovered the video of WSJ reporter Daniel Pearl’s execution online in 2002, for example, and he regularly gets booked on network news programs and writes for major media outlets. Obviously none of that is definitive proof of his credibility, and even credible analysts get fed bad info, but there’s nothing in his background that immediately screams “discredited” to me.

On the other hand, Al Ahmed is an admitted Saudi critic, so he’s got some skin in the game that may affect his objectivity. Plus, the story includes this bizarre line about Muhammad b. Nayef that strays very close to tin foil hat territory: Continue reading

Saudi Arabia forms international coalition to combat atheism and ladies who drive cars

Good news, everybody! Terrorism is over! Yes, it had a good run, but like all passing fads, it finally overstayed its welcome and now people are actively hating on it. I guess it might come back as kitsch in a couple of decades, but for now, this is clearly the end of the line:

A new Saudi-led Islamic alliance to fight terrorism will share information and train, equip and provide forces if necessary for the fight against Islamic State militants, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on Tuesday.

Saudi Arabia announced earlier on Tuesday the formation of a 34-nation Islamic military coalition to combat terrorism, a move welcomed by the United States which has been urging a greater regional involvement in the campaign against the militants who control swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.

“Nothing is off the table,” al-Jubeir said when asked whether the initiative could include troops on the ground.

You know, I’d say this was a little like leaving the fox to guard the hen house, but there’s a fox that lives in our neighborhood and it seems nice, so I’d rather not drag it through the mud like that. But anyway, with these guys undoubtedly focused like a laser on ISIS, there shouldn’t be any prob–

In a rare press conference on Tuesday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s 30-year-old deputy crown prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman said the new coalition aimed to “coordinate” efforts to fight terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan.

“There will be international coordination with major powers and international organizations … In terms of operations in Syria and Iraq, we can’t undertake these operations without coordinating with legitimacy in this place and the international community,” bin Salman said, without elaborating.

He offered few concrete indications of how the new coalition’s military efforts might proceed.

Asked if the new alliance would focus only on Islamic State, bin Salman said it would confront “any terrorist organization that appears in front of us“.

Oh, cool, so it’s whomever you guys want to hit then, eh? If this anti-terror alliance gets off the ground and you all decide, say, to put troops into Syria, whom are they going to attack? ISIS? Or the guy whom former Saudi intelligence chief Turki b. Faisal describes as the “biggest terrorist” in that country, Bashar al-Assad? You know, the guy who’s backed by the country that current Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir says is “the biggest sponsor of terrorism in the world,” Iran?

There’s a good chance that this alliance initiative is King Salman’s idea (or at least an idea being carried out in his name) to give Muhammad, his son and the kingdom’s Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince, a splashy new line item for his resume. Continue reading

Princes behaving badly

The House of Saud isn’t just beset by princes getting busted for drug possession in foreign airports; there’s also apparently at least one Saudi prince talking out of school about King Salman, according to The Guardian’s Hugh Miles:

A senior Saudi prince has launched an unprecedented call for change in the country’s leadership, as it faces its biggest challenge in years in the form of war, plummeting oil prices and criticism of its management of Mecca, scene of last week’s hajj tragedy.

The prince, one of the grandsons of the state’s founder, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, has told the Guardian that there is disquiet among the royal family – and among the wider public – at the leadership of King Salman, who acceded the throne in January.

The prince, who is not named for security reasons, wrote two letters earlier this month calling for the king to be removed.

The anonymous prince told Miles that Salman isn’t really running the country; decisions are instead being made by Salman’s son, Muhammad, the Deputy Crown Prince and thus number 2 in the line of succession. This wouldn’t be entirely out of left field; Salman is a couple of months away from turning 80, and there were rumors that he was suffering from some kind of dementia, or had possibly had a stroke, even before he became king, though the Saudi government of course denies that. If this is true, it doesn’t bode well for Crown Prince Muhammad b. Nayef, the guy standing between Muhammad b. Salman and the throne once King Salman is no longer with us. It seems that recent events, from the early, ineffective stage of the kingdom’s Yemen intervention (which was Muhammad b. Salman’s operation) to the two disasters that attended this year’s Hajj (the death toll from the Mina stampede is up to 2223, by the way), have led to some grumbling by the princes that things in Riyadh are not being well-managed. Continue reading

Saudi-watching in the wake of the nuclear deal

Saudi Arabia is one of the countries that risks losing ground as the fallout from the Iran deal settles, as more Iranian oil hits the market and as Iran gets more money to put toward the two countries’ regional rivalry. Plus, let’s not forget, Saudi King Salman has been on the job for only about 6 months at this point. So it’s worth keeping an eye on stuff like the meeting that King Salman just had today with Hamas’s political leader, Khaled Meshal, in Mecca, particularly insofar as this meeting is fraught with implications for the region’s currently very very confused politics:

Analysts with close ties to the Saudi royal family said the meeting appeared to reflect King Salman’s determination to rally as much of the Arab world as possible against Iran, the kingdom’s chief rival, at a time when the Saudis fear that Iran will emerge empowered by its deal with Western powers to lift economic sanctions in exchange for limits on its nuclear program.

The meeting was held in Mecca and included Khaled Meshal, Hamas’s political leader who lives in Qatar. It was a startling reversal from the approach of the previous king, Abdullah, who had led a campaign to roll back or eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates around the region. Hamas is both an offshoot of the Brotherhood and a client of Iran.

That NYT piece does a pretty good job of explaining how complicated this whole relationship is, but the short version is this: Hamas formed out of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is an international Sunni organization, but became an Iranian dependent anyway. However, when the Syrian civil war broke out, Hamas backed its Sunni/Brotherhood compatriots in the rebellion against the Iran-allied Assad regime, which seriously damaged its relations with Iran, though they have since patched things up somewhat. Under former King Abdullah, the Saudis went so far as to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, because although the Saudis and the Brotherhood share a broadly Islamist ideology, the Brotherhood opposes monarchies, and the Saudis, well, don’t, clearly. Hamas and the Saudis were already not close because of the Iran thing, but they fell out even further over the Brotherhood thing.

Salman, however, has drastically shifted the Kingdom’s regional stance, making common cause against Iran with just about every Sunni willing to go along with him and his vast amounts of “f you” money. Continue reading

An ancillary benefit

Josh Keating suggests another motivation behind today’s big Saudi royal news, one I didn’t consider in my rambling 1 AM diatribe on the subject:

Still, this is change in a place where there is often none. In addition to injecting some young blood into the kingdom’s creaky gerontocracy, the moves were likely also made with an eye on Washington. In another major shake-up, Salman replaced Saud bin Faisal, the world’s longest-serving foreign minister, in his post since 1975, with U.S. ambassador Adel al-Jubeir, 53 and a non-royal. Jubeir and Bin Nayef are both well-known to U.S. officials. With relations between the two countries strained by the Arab Spring, the Obama administration’s diplomatic opening to Iran, and U.S. officials’ very public doubts about the Yemen campaign,  Salman may have wanted to elevate figures who can keep the Americans happy.

He may be on to something here. Muhammad b. Nayef has been Saudi Interior Minister since 2012, and in that role he’s probably the kingdom’s top counter-terror man. From 1999-2012 he was Assistant Interior Minister for Security Affairs, another gig where counter-terrorism was obviously a big part of the portfolio. He’s survived four assassination attempts, at least one perpetrated by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and apparently was responsible for alerting US officials to the 2010 AQAP attempt to blow up a couple cargo planes over the US. So he’s got a lot of credibility when it comes to dealing with Sunni extremists, and if the US is starting to wonder whether the Saudis can be a real partner in the fight against Al-Qaeda and ISIS, making it clear that Muhammad b. Nayef is next in line for the throne could be one way to ease Washington’s mind. Adel al-Jubeir is also likely to be on friendlier terms with Washington than the man he’s replacing, Saud al-Faisal, who has overseen the recent deterioration in the US-KSA relationship.

Muhammad b. Salman, on the other hand, is more of an unknown quantity. He’s been in charge of the air campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, whose most notable achievement so far has been its big name change, and that won’t necessarily endear him to DC given that the US has been only lukewarm in its support for that effort. But his appointment (leaving aside the main factor, which is that he’s King Salman’s son) does show that Saudi leadership is preparing to continue its current muscular regional foreign policy, which could either be reassuring to DC (on counter-terrorism grounds) or a little bit of a veiled threat (on Iran deal grounds) depending on how you look at it.