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: January 19 2017

The Gambia

Private Citizen Yahya Jammeh, whose presidency still exists only in his own imagination, began his day by finding out that his vice president, Isatou Njie Saidy, had quit. He spent his day hearing about the inauguration of new Gambian President Adama Barrow in the Gambian embassy in Senegal (which is Gambian soil, technically) and learning that the UN Security Council had unanimously adopted a resolution of support for Barrow and for West African efforts to end this crisis–albeit by peaceful means if possible. He ended his day with word that units of the Senegalese army had crossed the border, with Nigerian troops potentially on their way.

The West African forces, organized by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have halted their advance to allow for another attempt to peacefully mediate Jammeh’s ouster, but say they’ll resume tomorrow (come to think of it, it already is tomorrow there) if Jammeh refuses to go. At this point it’s unlikely they’ll even allow Jammeh to remain in the country, since he would obviously be a source of unrest, but it is likely he’ll be given safe passage somewhere if he agrees to go voluntarily.

Iraq

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Mosul as of yesterday (Wikimedia | Kami888)

As you can see from the map, only a few areas in the northern part of east Mosul are still in ISIS’s hands, so the liberation of that half of the city is really in its last stages. Several areas, including the Presidential Palace, were liberated yesterday.

Iraqi commanders are sounding optimistic that their assault on western Mosul will actually be easier than the effort to liberate eastern Mosul has been, because they claim that most of ISIS’s top commanders in the city have been killed in the fighting in the eastern side. There are several reasons to believe otherwise: western Mosul is denser, which makes it harder to move military equipment around and easier for ISIS to interdict that movement; there are more civilians in western Mosul, which will hinder air support and artillery; and there may be more ISIS fighters in western Mosul, particularly when you factor in fighters who have fled from the east. But if it’s true that ISIS is now bereft of its senior leadership within the city, then it may be harder for them to make a coordinated defense in the west.

Reuters had two reports on the ongoing campaign. In one, it looked at the role embedded US advisers are playing, which the Iraqis say has been invaluable. US forces are helping to call in air strikes and make tactical adjustments during the battle, but their biggest contribution to the war effort seems to be the way they’ve managed to get disparate Iraqi units to communicate with one another every night, to assess that day’s fighting and coordinate plans for the next day. The second report looked at the continuing environmental impact of the oil wells that ISIS set on fire in Qayyara in August, before retreating from the area. Iraqis have been able to extinguish some of the fires, but many more are still burning, choking the area with thick smoke, and a related oil spill is now threatening to get into the Tigris River.

Syria

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Conflict update: December 26 2016

Israel

The fallout from Friday’s UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s illegal annexation of occupied Palestinian territory continued all weekend. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government began by summoning the ambassadors of the 12 security council members who voted in favor of the resolution and with which Israel has relations (Venezuela and Malaysia also voted yes but don’t have relations with Israel), plus the US, which abstained but didn’t exercise its veto. It recalled its ambassadors from Senegal and New Zealand, cancelled planned state visits from the Senegalese foreign minister and the Ukrainian prime minister, and announced that it was ceasing foreign aid to Senegal. You may note here that Israel seems to be heaping a lot of abuse on Senegal, but not so much on more powerful members of the council. Funny how that works. Today the Israelis announced that they were going to “suspend all working ties” with the 12 countries that voted “yes” and have diplomatic ties with Israel. What are “working ties,” you ask? Beats me. I’m not even sure Netanyahu knows. It sounds like a response and it’s ambiguous enough to mean anything, so there you have it. All in all, you might say we’ve seen a three-plus day-long Israeli tantrum.

True to form, rather than engage the substance of the resolution–it’s not even clear how he could engage with the substance without demonstrating that he’s been lying about his commitment to a two-state solution all the time–Netanyahu has tried to cast Friday’s vote as an international conspiracy against Israel (and, really, all Jews), masterminded by the Obama administration. And there’s something deeply revealing in that framing.

The resolution was about Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, period. It certainly wasn’t about Jews, and it wasn’t about Israel…unless, of course, you believe that the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem are both part of Israel. But international consensus, US policy, and stated Israeli policy since 1967 has been that these territories are not part of Israel–the entire concept of a “two-state solution” relies on the idea that the occupied territories are not part of Israel. Successive Israeli governments have pretended, with deceasing credibility, that they are firmly committed to a two-state peace. Netanyahu keeps insisting on it. But you can’t reconcile the settlements with a two-state peace, which is why any criticism of settlements is immediately conflated with an attack on Israel itself.

What’s happening now, amid Israel’s collective rage over a UN resolution that, at the risk of beating a dead horse, had no practical effect on anything, is that the curtain is being pulled back, the lie is being exposed. Anybody who believed, or pretended to believe for political reasons, that the Israeli government ever had any intention of giving up occupied territory in exchange for peace with the Palestinians must now reckon with proof that the Israeli government’s actual position is that the occupied territories are, were, and will remain part of Israel. Anybody who’s actually watched the settlement process and its slow-moving ethnic cleansing of the West Bank since the 1970s could have told you this, but it was easier for most people, and certainly most governments, to believe the pleasant lie that a negotiated two-state peace was possible. It’s suddenly become much harder to pretend that Israeli lip-service about trading land for peace has been anything more than a stalling tactic, a way to buy more time to build more settlements (with many more on the way) and drive more Palestinians off of more West Bank land.

And now that those cards are finally out on the table for everybody to see, it’s time for the rest of the world to decide how to deal with them. No more pleasant lies.

Iraq

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A Real Festivus Miracle

There’s nothing like being pleasantly surprised for the holidays:

The U.N. Security Council will vote on Friday on a resolution demanding an end to Israeli settlements, defying pressure from U.S. President-elect Donald Trump as well as Israel and several U.S. senators who urged Washington to use its veto.

The United States is likely to abstain on the resolution, which was abruptly withdrawn by council member Egypt on Thursday but later presented by four other members. This would be a relatively rare step by Washington, which usually shields Israel from such action.

A U.S. abstention would be seen as a parting shot by U.S. President Barack Obama who has had an acrimonious relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and who has made settlements a major target of peace efforts that have proven ultimately futile.

Assuming the US really does abstain, well, damn. That’s a huge, if fleeting, change in US policy and a nice parting gift–one I will admit I didn’t see coming–from Obama to Netanyahu. I assume Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won’t mind, since Egypt’s fingerprints are now mostly off of its resolution, but I do wonder how his people will vote if they believe a US veto is not forthcoming.

It’s important to understand that in the big scheme of things a resolution like this means nothing. Israel will continue annexing the West Bank and cleansing it of any Palestinian presence, and there’s nothing that anybody can or will really do to stop it. Certainly the Trump administration, which–Defense Secretary-designate Mattis excepted–if anything looks like it might be more extreme on settlements than Israel’s own radical right-wing government, isn’t going to do anything to push Israel to slow settlement construction down or roll it back.

However, international pressure can work, sometimes, and Israel is sensitive to international pressure. At the very least, Benjamin Netanyahu seems to be taking this whole thing as a personal insult, and frankly it couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy. And a resolution like this could also give the Palestinians some support when contesting settlements in other forums, like the International Criminal Court. The ICC is also effectively toothless, but the more institutions that condemn the settlements, the more incentive there is for governments, particularly in Europe, to begin considering the issue when making policy with respect to Israel. So this resolution (again, assuming it actually passes) would be only a small step in the right direction, but it would be a step.

UPDATE: And the resolution passes with the US abstaining. This is one of the few times where my pessimism about US foreign policy has proven to be misplaced.

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Sisi lets Obama off the hook

As it turns out, President Obama isn’t even going to get a chance to cave to Benjamin Netanyahu one last time before he departs the White House, because that UN Security Council resolution on halting Israel’s annexation/ethnic cleansing of the West Bank isn’t coming to a vote today after all. Why? Because Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi decided to do the caving for everybody:

Egypt postponed a U.N. Security Council vote on Thursday on a resolution it proposed demanding an end to Israeli settlement building, diplomats said, after Israel’s prime minister and U.S. president-elect Donald Trump urged Washington to veto it.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told Egypt’s U.N. mission to postpone the vote, which would have forced U.S. President Barack Obama to decide whether to shield Israel with a veto or, by abstaining, to register criticism of the building on occupied land that the Palestinians want for a state, diplomats said.

In a sign that they feared Obama might abandon the United States’ long-standing diplomatic protection for Israel at the United Nations, Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the White House to veto the draft resolution.

Sisi put off the vote after a request from Israel, two sources familiar with the matter told Reuters. Egypt was the first Arab state to make peace with Israel.

So now we all know what happened. Sisi’s government drafted the resolution, with Palestinian input, in order to boost Egypt’s standing in the Arab world. Egypt’s standing in the Arab world has taken quite a tumble from the days of Nasser, and Sisi has overseen its transition from the, or at least a, leading Arab state to partially owned subsidiary of Saudi Arabia, Inc. And now that even that Saudi aid, for which he sold Egypt’s international standing, has stopped flowing, Sisi wants to do a course correction. Bringing up a pro-Palestinian resolution in the Security Council, one sure to be vetoed by the Americans, was a nice, low cost way to claw back a little of Cairo’s former credibility.

Only then it started to look like maybe the US wouldn’t veto the resolution. Sisi didn’t actually want the resolution to pass, as now seems clear, because then it might damage his chummy relationship with Netanyahu, so he was counting on that US veto. Then he could trumpet the failed resolution, and his own leadership on the Palestinian issue, to the Arab world, while not doing anything tangible that might piss Netanyahu off. When the veto started to look wobbly, he had little choice but to pull the resolution, because while greater prestige in the Arab world would be nice for Cairo, maintaining good relations with Israel is more essential to its foreign policy status quo.

So Israel gets what it wants, Donald Trump gets what he wants, Barack Obama (let’s be honest) gets what he wants, and Egypt loses a bit but keeps what it needs. The only real losers in this little drama, as always, are the Palestinians. So it shall ever be.

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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 Middle Eastern history: Sabra and Shatila (1982)

Of all the atrocities that attended Lebanon’s 15 year civil war from 1975-1990, and of all the atrocities that have been blamed on the Israeli Defense Forces, or on American meddling in Middle Eastern affairs, over the past several decades, what happened in the Sabra neighborhood of west Beirut and the neighboring Shatila refugee camp between September 16 and September 18, 1982 (I arbitrarily decided to post this today), stands out among the very worst. We’ve already talked about the June 6 start of the so-called Lebanon War, the 1982-1985 phase of the civil war that saw Israel invade southern Lebanon. That incursion was undertaken ostensibly over the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to the UK by the Abu Nidal organization and the killing of an IDF soldier in southern Lebanon, but in reality it had already been dreamed up by Israeli defense minister (and later prime minister) Ariel Sharon, who was simply waiting for a justification to begin the operation.

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Sharon, in 1982, talking with Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger (Wikimedia)

The IDF and its Lebanese Christian allies, called either the Kataeb Party in Arabic or the Phalanges Party in French (both kataib and phalanges mean “phalanxes,” as in the military unit), quickly surrounded and besieged the Palestinian-controlled areas of western Beirut. A deal was reached on August 21 that allowed the Palestinian fighters to evacuate under international supervision and provided for the protection of civilians living in both the Beirut neighborhood and the refugee camp. This seemed to be going fairly smoothly–by September 1 the PLO had pulled most of its fighters not only out of western Beirut, but out of Lebanon altogether–but then something very unexpected caused the situation to quickly take a turn for the much worse.

Fair warning, it’s going to get very unpleasant below the fold.

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