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: February 27 2017


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.


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.


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).


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Conflict update: January 24 2017


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.


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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

Conflict update: November 27



Situation in Aleppo as of Nov 26; red areas  in government hands, green in rebel hands, yellow in Kurdish hands, and gray in ISIS’s hands (Wikimedia | Kami888)

By all current outward appearances the Syrian army is well on its way to capturing eastern Aleppo. It reportedly controls at least two neighborhoods at this point and has entered several others. Syrian forces appear to be trying to drive through the center of the city to split the rebel-held areas in two. On what I guess you could say is the plus side, as many as 10,000 civilians have escaped the fighting as the rebels have been forced to pull back–Damascus says 1500 have fled the city, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims the number is 4000, with another 6000 having fled to the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood (see map above), a part of the city controlled by Kurdish fighters. On the decidedly minus side, there are still tens of thousands of civilians who haven’t fled the fighting, who may be unable to flee the fighting, and who may very well be killed in the fighting.


ISIS has made a public show of banning all intoxicants in the areas it controls, in line with its strict adherence to what it claims is True Islam. This even extends to lowly nicotine. It’s been reported that ISIS has beheaded smokers, for example, and the group has released images of their fighters burning piles of cigarettes. But like many other things about ISIS, this posture has mostly been a bullshit cover for its money-making ventures. Reports from people who have fled Mosul say that, far from cracking down on the cigarette smuggling operations that inevitably cropped up when ISIS “banned” tobacco products, the group has made money by extorting the smugglers. This isn’t all that different from ISIS’s policy toward artifacts; it claims to destroy them out of a religious proscription of idol worship, but in reality it only destroys what it can’t smuggle on to the antiquities black market. Again, profit-taking hidden under a layer of ultra-religious bullshit.

As the Mosul operation continues slowly but surely (the Iraqis may switch gears and tell civilians inside the city to get out if they can, which would allow the Iraqis to stop pulling their punches against ISIS), a political fight has cropped up in Baghdad over the government’s decision to bestow legal status on the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Sunni Arab legislators boycotted the vote and say they plan to challenge the law in court, concerned in particular that the law has the mostly Shiʿa PMU reporting directly to the Iraqi Prime Minister, who must by law (and likely would by popular will anyway) be Shiʿa. In the hands of a PM who was inclined to be sectarian about things, the fact that he now would have tens of thousands of mostly Shiʿa fighters under his direct authority could be problematic. On the other hand, if the alternative was to have the PMU revert back to their pre-ISIS status as paramilitary militias responsible to no one but their own commanders, then I have to say this seems like the better option. Meanwhile, two new mass graves have been found, containing what is believed to be the bodies of Yazidis massacred by ISIS.


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This weekend’s other Turkic national elections

This wasn’t only a good weekend for Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party in Turkey; Azerbaijan’s ruling New Azerbaijan Party also won big in that country’s parliamentary elections yesterday, taking a majority of the seats in the parliament. New Azerbaijan (Yeni Azərbaycan Partiyası in Azeri, a close-ish linguistic relative of Turkish) is the party of President Ilham Aliyev, who has ruled the country since 2003 on a staunchly pro-“Ilham Gonna Get Ilham’s” platform:

The President of Azerbaijan has been compared to a mafia crime boss in US diplomatic cables, and is referred to as a dictator by many analysts.  What is clear is that the Aliyev family has been systematically grabbing shares of the most profitable businesses in the country. This year, investigative reports by OCCRP and Radio Free Europe revealed for the first time well-documented evidence that his family has secret ownership stakes in the country’s largest businesses including bank, construction companies, gold mines and phone companies. They also secretly amassed property abroad in places like the Czech Republic.

Ilham Aliyev, from his own Twitter account, where you can go congratulate him on his party’s election win and/or on how successfully he’s been tossing reporters in prison for doing their jobs

While Erdoğan’s victory, or at least the size of it, came as a surprise to many people who pay attention to Turkey (me included), nobody should be surprised that New Azerbaijan won handily. That’s what happens when your country’s main opposition parties decide to boycott the election, mostly because state TV is in the habit of giving the ruling party free airtime while charging every other party for comparable services. Azerbaijan under Aliyev is a human rights black hole, routinely jailing opposition figures, journalists, and pretty much anybody else who gets under Aliyev’s skin. Even international election observers, from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has never certified a single one of Azerbaijan’s elections since it became independent in 1991 as “free and fair,” decided to boycott this vote after Aliyev’s government refused to allow them to bring in enough observers to actually do their job. This makes this insistence by state media outlet Trend News Agency kind of darkly funny in its own way: Continue reading