Conflict update: April 18 2017


If you’re worried about the state of human rights around the world, I’ve got great news–this afternoon, America was on it:

The Trump administration is seeking to highlight its commitment to human rights around the world, and so its envoy to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, is presiding over what it calls the first “thematic debate” on human rights in the Security Council on Tuesday afternoon.

“Council members are encouraged to express their views on the nexus between human rights and international peace and security,” reads a memo circulated to the members this month. Rights abuses, the memo says, can often be the first signs of a full-on conflict erupting.

This was, of course, not the first time human rights have been discussed to no effect at the UN Security Council, but it probably is the council’s first “thematic debate,” whatever the fuck that means. Human rights groups were skeptical–for some reason, they seemed to think that a UN Security Council meeting on human rights, presided over by a country that bombs mosques, bombs apartment buildings, bombed civilians even on this very day, and allies with countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, wouldn’t amount to shit. Well, the joke’s on them, because as it turns out…they were, uh, pretty much right on the money.


Britain is having a new election in June! What fun! Yes, I know, they just had an election two years ago, and Prime Minister Theresa May has said multiple times that she wouldn’t call snap elections before Britain had exited the European Union, but since when are we dinging politicians for lying? If early polling is to be believed, we’re not doing it this time either. May has a major political opening staring her in the face–serious Brexit negotiations won’t start until later this year, and she and her Conservative Party have huge polling leads over Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour Party–and she’s going to take advantage of it to increase her parliamentary cushion for the Brexit process. This is a smart, calculated move–so calculated that her opposition might even want to make an issue out of how bloody cynical the whole thing is.

Technically, May does not have the power to call for early elections–prime ministers used to have virtually unlimited authority in that regard, but parliament voted to restrict it in 2010 in order to keep precisely this kind of purely political vote from being called. If just a third of the House of Commons rejects her plans, she’ll have to resort to legislative trickery by having her own party vote against her government in a vote of no confidence. But it’s probably not going to come to that, as both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have said they’ll vote to approve the early election. It’s not clear why they’re going along with this, but I suppose if either party really knew what it was doing then the Conservatives wouldn’t be on the verge of pummeling them both in a couple of months.

The actual risk for May is that, if British voters are really feeling buyer’s remorse over the Brexit referendum, they could opt to hand May a parliament that’s much less amenable to her plans for a so-called “hard Brexit” (apologies if there are any impressionable children reading this smut).  Continue reading

Conflict update: March 11-12 2017


So let’s start with the good news: Turkey and the Netherlands haven’t declared war on each other. Yet. As far as I know. But the good news pretty much ends there. On Saturday, Dutch authorities took the fairly provocative step–look, I give Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a lot of shit around here, but I don’t think you can fairly describe what happened here as routine diplomacy–of actually preventing a plane carrying Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu from landing in Rotterdam as planned, and then detained Turkey’s family affairs minister, Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, to prevent her from addressing the same referendum campaign rally that Çavuşoğlu was supposed to attend. Kaya was eventually deported to Germany.

I get that anti-immigrant fervor is high in the Netherlands right now and that the country is about to have an election this week that will turn largely on that issue. I also get why the government of any European country would be uneasy about hosting Turkish political rallies in general, but particularly in favor of a referendum whose purpose is basically to strip Turkish democracy for spare parts. But you don’t get to deny landing rights to a plane carrying a diplomat from an ostensible ally, and you certainly don’t get to just go around detaining and deporting government ministers from ostensible allies when they haven’t actually done anything illegal. The mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, said that Kaya and the Turkish consulate had lied to him about the purpose of her visit, but that still doesn’t excuse the treatment it seems she received.

Ankara did its usual thing, with Erdoğan calling the Dutch government “Nazis” and threatening unspecified retribution, like the Janissaries are going to be riding through downtown Amsterdam by the end of the week or something. Whatever Ankara does to punish the Netherlands won’t be much because it can’t be much. The biggest club in Erdoğan’s bag with respect to Europe is turning Syrian refugees loose in the Balkans, and that won’t affect the Netherlands very much, if at all. Some, including Çavuşoğlu, have mentioned possible sanctions, but that’s an arms race Turkey may not be able to win–if they push too far, there’s a small but not that small chance that the European Union could reexamine Turkey’s EU accession agreements in ways that would substantially hurt Turkish nationals living in other European countries. The Turkish government has called on “international organizations” to sanction Amsterdam for its actions, but that seems unlikely. The only blowback so far has been against Turkey–the government of Denmark announced that a visit scheduled for next weekend by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım will now be postponed.


On Saturday, two suicide attacks struck the Bab al-Saghir area of Damascus, killing somewhere between 40 (the government estimate) and 74 (according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights) people. Bab al-Saghir (“the small gate”) is, as its name suggests, one of the seven gates in the wall of Damascus’s “old city,” and the area is home to a cemetery that includes shrines to a number of prominent figures in Shiʿism (children of imams, that sort of thing). That was, presumably, the target. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (“Committee for the Liberation of Syria”), the alliance of extremist groups led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, claimed credit for the bombing and said it was intended to send a message to Tehran about its involvement in Syria.

Bashar al-Assad did an interview with Chinese TV this weekend in which he gushed about the close ties between Damascus and Beijing and dangled the huge carrot of a big Chinese role in rebuilding Syria after the war is over. The interview comes just after China joined Russia in vetoing a UN Security Council measure that would have sanctioned Assad’s government for its probable use of chemical weapons during the civil war, and when China appears to be getting more involved in the war on Assad’s side, partly because Assad has always had decent relations with Beijing but also because the Chinese government is concerned about Uyghurs who have left Xinjiang to fight with Syrian jihadi forces. In the same interview, Assad said he’s “hopeful” about the Trump administration but characterized new US forces being deployed to eastern Syria as an “invasion.”

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Conflict update: January 17 2017


Easily the single worst thing that happened today was the Nigerian air force’s mistaken bombing of a government-run displaced persons camp in Rann, in the northeastern part of the country. Pilots were apparently looking for a Boko Haram force reportedly amassing in the area, and instead wound up bombing a camp full of people who have been horribly victimized by Boko Haram. There’s an extraordinarily cruel joke in there somewhere, or maybe the whole episode is the joke, I don’t know. The New York Times, citing Doctors Without Borders, says at least 52 people were killed and another 200 injured, but earlier casualty estimates (citing government sources) were far higher than that, and with the likelihood that some of the injured will die overnight before they can be evacuated to proper medical facilities (Rann is hard to reach under the best of circumstances), the figure of 52 dead is undoubtedly too low.


Iraqi forces continue to sweep through eastern Mosul, and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said this evening (Iraqi time, obviously) that some unspecified operation had begun in western Mosul. He may have been talking about the southern shelling of the Mosul Airport, which is on the western side of the Tigris and may be the first Iraqi target on that side of the river. ISIS fighters fleeing to western Mosul are reportedly blowing up buildings and bridges in their wake, and, more troublingly, trying to drag civilians across the river with them to serve as human shields.

I recommend this piece from Al Monitor about Iraqi Christians and their return to towns and homes in Ninewah province that have been devastated in the fighting. Many Iraqi Christians may never return, such has been the degree of destruction. The plight of Iraqi Christians may not seem as desperate as that of, e.g., the Yazidis, who are so few in number that they were genuinely almost driven out of existence when ISIS attacked Sinjar, but at an individual and family level Iraqi Christians have suffered as terribly as anybody else at ISIS’s hands.

In Baghdad, a car bomb detonated in a predominantly Shiʿa neighborhood, killing at least seven people.


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Conflict update: January 12 2017


Something fairly significant appears to be happening at the Mezzah military airport, west of Damascus. A short time ago (Friday morning local time) reports began coming out via Twitter, and then via the news services, that the airport had been hit by an Israeli airstrike, but now the story, per the Syrian government, seems to be that it was an Israeli rocket attack. It’s not clear why the Israelis attacked the airport–heck, at this early point it’s not entirely clear that it was the Israelis, although that seems to be the case–and there also haven’t yet been any casualty reports. Israel opposes Assad because of Assad’s support for Hezbollah, and the Mezzah base has been used by Assad’s forces to launch attacks against rebels in the Damascus suburbs, so the motive may be that simple. But it’s also possible that the IDF had information about a weapons transfer to Hezbollah–in the past the IDF has justified strikes in Syria by claiming it was preventing Iranian weapons shipments to Hezbollah.

The UN’s Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, told reporters in Geneva today that the Russian-Turkish ceasefire is “largely holding,” which I guess is true if you ignore all the places–Wadi Barada, Douma, Idlib–where it’s clearly not holding. Or we could ask the rebels if they think it’s holding. Earlier today a suicide attack killed eight people in the Damascus neighborhood of Kafr Susa, which is known to be near several Syrian military and intelligence buildings, and that doesn’t seem very ceasefire-y to me.

Still, it seems like peace talks in Kazakhstan are going to proceed whether or not anybody from Syria actually attends, if only so that Moscow and Ankara can save face. But those talks are starting to get some pushback. French President François Hollande said in a speech today that, while these Kazakhstan talks are nice, the real negotiations– you know, the ones that haven’t accomplished anything at all–have to resume in Geneva ASAP. Meanwhile, Russia continues to pare down its forces in Syria, in this case rotating out six bombers but partially replacing them with four ground-attack aircraft.

Finally, the US announced new sanctions today against 18 Syrian government officials accused of participation in chemical weapons attacks during the course of the war, based on a report issued by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in October. A draft resolution has been circulating at the UN Security Council that would bar helicopter sales to Syria over the report, but Russia would surely veto that and Britain and France have also, somewhat surprisingly, been pushing back against it, so this is the alternative. Syrian activists are presenting evidence of alleged Russian and Iranian war crimes to the UN, but any move to punish either country over those allegations will be quashed by the same Russian veto that hangs over the chemical weapons resolution. The activists are calling for a special tribunal that would bypass the Security Council, but the chances of something like that being formed are very remote.


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Abbas and Fatah keep on keeping on

Shortly after the year 2016 went live, I wrote about how one of the growing fears related to the Middle East was that the Palestinian Authority might fall apart. This is not because anybody has any great love for the Palestinian Authority–seriously, does anybody?–but because of the potential for chaos that could follow the PA’s collapse. And seeing as how the PA’s stability probably hangs on the continued existence of its 81 year old president, Mahmoud Abbas, it’s understandable why people, even in the Israeli government, are concerned.

The normal way a body like the PA would try to prepare for its aging leader’s inevitable passing would be by establishing some kind of succession plan, even if it’s only an informal one. And yet, Abbas’s dominant Fatah party just held its seventh congress, after not having held a conference for seven years, and…didn’t really shore anything up: Continue reading

Today in words and their meanings

Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a video on YouTube. A video that may shock, anger, and possibly horrify you. Here it is, and please don’t say I didn’t warn you:

Oh wait, no, that was a campaign ad from last February. Still, horrifying.

This was last week’s video:

Netanyahu’s attempt to conflate “opposition to illegal Israeli settlements” with “ethnic cleansing,” a lie that crops up periodically among settlement defenders, is one of the more outrageous attempts at propaganda you’re likely to see. Now, look, maybe given the chance Palestinians in the West Bank would forcibly expel Jews living in a new Palestinian state, though they’ve said they would not do that. But the actual issue at hand is Palestinian opposition to Israeli settlements, which isn’t even close to the same thing. The United States has no problem with Canadian citizens living in its borders, provided they follow the applicable immigration laws to do so, but I bet we’d have a huge problem if Canada asserted political control over swathes of U.S. territory on the grounds that they were now “Canadian settlements.”

The analogy isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough. The issue isn’t Jewish settlers living in the West Bank, it’s Jewish settlers living in the West Bank but doing so in physically separate settlements under Israeli governance. These settlements are illegal under international law, and the fact is that they are indeed a huge obstacle to a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, in large part because they are explicitly arranged to gobble up the most valuable West Bank land and to effectively prevent the establishment of a sustainable Palestinian state. It’s certainly true that “no one would seriously claim that the nearly two million Arabs living inside Israel – that they’re an obstacle to peace” (though Netanyahu does use them to fear monger when it’s politically convenient), because, well, those two million Arabs are living within Israel under Israeli laws and the control of the Israeli government. There’s no comparison between them and Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

If Netanyahu wants to test his ethnic cleansing claims, there’s a simple way to do it: put the settlements and settlers under Palestinian authority and see what happens. Of course, you’d have to get the settlers to stay in place once the hand over was complete, and, realistically, they almost certainly wouldn’t: Continue reading

Welcome to 2016: are generators pretty inexpensive these days?

(fifth and hopefully last in a series; see parts one, two, three, and four)

Today’s 2016 crisis isn’t as acute as yesterdays crises, and it’s a bit of a long-shot, but it’s potentially pretty big: if you’re a fan of the Palestinian Authority, you may need to start preparing yourself for a future in which it no longer exists. Don’t take it from me; take it from the guy who’s done more than just about anybody else to hasten the PA’s collapse:

Israel must prepare for the possibility that the Palestinian Authority will collapse, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a meeting of the diplomatic-security cabinet Monday.

“We must prevent the Palestinian Authority from collapsing if possible, but at the same time, we must prepare in case it happens,” he said, according to two senior officials briefed on the meeting.

Or, if you prefer, take it from John Kerry, a month ago:

Secretary of State John F. Kerry warned Israel on Saturday against allowing — or even promoting, as some have urged — the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, saying that it would leave the Israelis with unbearable financial and strategic costs and undermine the security of the Jewish state now and in the future.

In a strongly worded speech at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum, Kerry asked whether Israelis were “ready to accept the heightened risk [of] chaos, lawlessness and desperation” that would result. Not only would Israel have to take over the provision of all basic services and welfare for the population, Kerry said, but the end of the current modicum of Palestinian self-rule also would cut off international assistance to the West Bank.

Or the IDF, from the month before that:

The IDF has recommended the government take a series of steps to strengthen the Palestinian Authority and its security forces, which the defense establishment perceives as a moderating influence, as a way to help prevent further deterioration of the security situation in the West Bank and Israel.

Recommendations included enabling PA security forces to acquire more firearms and armored vehicles and releasing Palestinian prisoners with light security offenses.

Additional suggestions include increasing the number of Israeli work visas for West Bank Palestinians, to bolster the Palestinian economy and to moderate the ongoing terrorism against Israelis.

According to assessments, the IDF has been concerned about the potential future disintegration of the PA for the last two months, a scenario that could occur if violence spikes and spreads anarchy across the West Bank.

The PA has been in constant danger of collapsing for a while now (and every new outbreak of West Bank violence only makes its position more precarious), but there is a real turning point that’s looming ever larger on the horizon: the day when PA President Mahmoud Abbas finally departs this mortal world. Continue reading