Conflict update: March 22 2017

I’m going to be out this evening, so please enjoy (?) this shortened and probably too-early roundup of the day’s worst news.

UNITED KINGDOM

Westminster Bridge

Westminster Bridge under better circumstances (Wikimedia | Martin Dunst)

This is still very much a developing story, but at least four people, including the attacker, have been killed in London in what seems to have been an attempted attack on the House of Commons. A man drove his vehicle into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge this afternoon (timeline), killing two people, before killing a police officer outside parliament with a knife. He was then shot and killed by police. More than 20 other people were injured in the incident, some seriously. Authorities are understandably treating this as a terrorist incident until proven otherwise, but at this point I haven’t yet seen any information about the attacker. I’ll have more on this, but probably not until tomorrow.

NORTH KOREA

This morning’s missile test does indeed appear to have been a failure. The missile reportedly exploded “seconds” after launch, which raises the possibility that a US cyber attack could have been the cause (apparently the US has been working on disrupting these tests immediately after launch). It’s not clear what kind of missile was being tested.

ИСТОРИЯ О ПОЛЬСКОМ МАНАФОРТЕ

So, which Donald Trump associate is having his uncomfortable connections to Vladimir Putin uncovered today? Why it’s none other than Paul Manafort, who briefly served as Trump’s campaign chairman back when the idea of “President Trump” was still just a gleam in Robby Mook’s eye. According to the AP, in 2006 Manafort landed himself a sweet gig working for a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, in which he was supposed to “influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government.” This revelation could be personally very bad for Manafort, who apparently neglected to register as a foreign agent with the DOJ as one is supposed to do when representing foreign interests in the US. It could also be damaging to Trump inasmuch as Manafort and the Trump administration have been insisting that he never did any work for the Russian government–which could still be technically true, mind you, but maybe only technically.

Manafort insists that everything he did for Deripaska was totally above board and didn’t involve any lobbying for Russian government interests. It was so above board, in fact, that Manafort didn’t conduct this particular bit of business under the banner of his regular consulting company, Davis Manafort, but instead under another company he established in 1992 that didn’t have any kind of public profile. As one does with reputable work.

SO THAT’S WHO WE SHOULD BLAME

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(Middle East) Conflict update: March 20-21, 2017

Because there’s so much to cover, after I missed yesterday, I’ve broken today’s update into two parts. This one will cover just the “Greater” Middle Eastern stuff (including North Africa and Central Asia, in other words), and the other will cover everything else.

IRAQ

Stop me if you’ve already heard this: Iraqi forces are “a few hundred meters” away from the Nuri Mosque in Mosul’s Old City, but ISIS resistance, especially via sniper fire, is slowing their advance to a crawl. In addition to the snipers, the Iraqis say ISIS is holding civilian hostages inside the mosque, so care is being taken to try to get them out alive. Civilian casualties in this phase of the operation have already been quite high–3500 or more by one Iraqi estimate–so this is prudent. In addition to the deaths, an estimated 180,000 Iraqis have already fled western Mosul, a number that would exceed the number who fled eastern Mosul during the entire campaign to liberate that half of the city–and western Mosul is still anywhere from 40 percent to around two-thirds (depending on whether you include the airport and surrounding areas in the total) under ISIS control. The number of displaced is greatly exceeding the combined Iraqi-UN capacity to accommodate them, and some people are even returning to the city despite the fighting. The Iraqi government has apparently decided not to send refugees to Iraqi Kurdistan even though there is reportedly capacity there, likely for petty political reasons.

Meanwhile, an ISIS car bombing in Baghdad yesterday killed at least 21 people. It was the latest in a wave of attacks that have been taking place across the country as ISIS fighters have been able to sneak out of Mosul. It’s believed that ISIS fighters have been reforming in areas of Salahuddin province that would be difficult for the government to get at under normal conditions but impossible given that all its resources are focused on Mosul. From there they’ve been able to strike at targets in Salahuddin and Diyala provinces, and of course Baghdad remains their main target. ISIS is also using its base in the town of Hawija, west of Kirkuk, from where it staged a serious attack on Kirkuk in October. The Iraqi government opted to make a beeline for Mosul instead of capturing smaller ISIS strongholds like Hawija first, and it very much remains to be seen whether or not that was the right choice.

The Washington Post reported today on the Yazidis of the Sinjar region, who are now dying and fleeing from fighting between Kurdish factions a mere 2 and a half years after ISIS tried to exterminate their community. The Yazidis welcomed forces aligned with Turkey’s PKK into Sinjar after forces aligned with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government fled the area in advance of the 2014 ISIS invasion, but with ISIS now gone the KRG is trying to kick the rival PKK out of the area, sometimes violently. Baghdad is apparently happy to have the PKK in Sinjar because it provides some counter to the KRG and to Turkey’s presence in northern Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was in Washington on Monday, where he said he got enthusiastic support from Trump for combating ISIS via both military and economic means, and where Trump, hilariously, unveiled yet another in his apparently infinite number of contradictory opinions about the Iraq War.

SYRIA

Syrian state media has reported for two days now that Syrian government and allied forces have rebuffed a Tahrir al-Sham/Faylaq al-Rahman (FSA) assault on Damascus, so that’s why it’s kind of surprising that the rebels are still assaulting Damascus. Not that I’m suggesting anything about Syrian state media, I’m sure they’re all committed to accurate reporting. But the thing is, while the rebels almost certainly can’t actually threaten Damascus, and they probably can’t even achieve their immediate aim of defending the remaining rebel enclaves in the Damascus suburbs, what they’re doing is sending a message. By attacking the city and hanging in there, they’re demonstrating that Bashar al-Assad’s position isn’t nearly as strong as he’d like you to believe. Which isn’t surprising; Assad was losing the war before Russia intervened, and his underlying problem–a lack of military manpower–hasn’t gone away so much as it’s been heavily papered over.

This Damascus operation is also going to do nothing but raise Tahrir al-Sham’s (AKA al-Qaeda’s) profile among the rebel factions, which is good for them but probably not good for anybody else. Now they’ve undertaken a new offensive, this one involving a couple of suicide bombings targeting Syrian government positions just outside of the city of Hama. With peace talks scheduled for Geneva starting Thursday, this is a double-edged sword for the rebels, who find themselves overall in better shape on the ground, but more dependent than ever on the one rebel faction that nearly everybody agrees is worse than Assad.

On Monday, the YPG announced that it had reached an agreement with Russia such that Russia would be able to build a new base in northwestern Syria (also called Afrin) in return for Russian training for YPG fighters. Moscow quickly quashed this talk and said that it was actually opening a “reconciliation center” in Afrin. Either way, the presence of Russian soldiers maybe training the YPG in Afrin is going to make Turkey mad while also possibly preventing its cross-border attacks on the YPG there. The YPG apparently has big plans, with a spokesman telling Reuters that it wants to grow from its current ~60,000 man army to something north of 100,000 (it’s not clear how it plans to achieve this increase, but it may start paying its soldiers more money and it’s also been accused of forced conscription). At the same time, Turkey reportedly brought together a group of some 50 Syrian Arab tribes in Şanlıurfa last week to discuss forming an all-Arab army (under Turkish auspices, of course) that would somehow materialize to take on the Raqqa operation and defeat the YPG in northeastern Syria. Turkey has been trying to form something like this for more than a year, at least, to no effect.

TURKEY

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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: March 14 2017

DONALD TRUMP AND THE HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL

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.

“MAD DOG” “REASONABLE CLIMATE CHANGE THINKER” MATTIS

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Conflict update: March 13 2017

TURKEY

A few hours ago Ankara turned its diplomatic dispute with the Netherlands up to 11 by barring the Dutch ambassador from returning to Turkey and announcing that it was suspending diplomatic relations with Amsterdam. The Turkish government further said that it was closing its airspace to Dutch diplomats and that it would pursue action at the European Court of Human Rights over the treatment of its cabinet minister, and Turkish nationals who demonstrated over that treatment, in Rotterdam over the weekend. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan then accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of “supporting terrorists,” without getting more specific but probably meaning the PKK, after Merkel had expressed support for Dutch actions over the weekend.

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern reiterated that his country would also not be amenable to hosting an AKP campaign rally, so expect him to be Erdoğan’s Nazi of the Day tomorrow. And I think it’s important to understand that while it might seem like Erdoğan is about two days away from his head literally exploding, in reality I don’t think this could be working out any better for him. Erdoğan’s political appeal has long centered on the idea that he was the only person who could protect Turkey from its enemies, whether domestic (Gülenists, the PKK, the Deep State) or foreign (America, Europe, Russia, Israel, international banking wink wink). In the middle of a close race on a referendum to decide whether or not to give him dictator-esque levels of power within the Turkish state, what better rallying call could Erdoğan want than a full-on diplomatic war with Europe? And since Erdoğan has systematically eliminated any sort of dissenting or even objective media, there’s nobody inside Turkey to challenge his “everybody vs. Turkey” narrative between now and the referendum.

The European Union is even feeding into this narrative by “warning” Ankara that the passage of the referendum could endanger Turkey’s chances of ever becoming an EU member. Erdoğan doesn’t even really want EU membership, but he’ll gladly take the EU warning, spin it as a provocation against the Turkish people, and turn it into a political advantage for himself.

NETHERLANDS

The flip side of this coin is that the events of this weekend have also been a big boost for fascist cesspool Geert Wilders and his Party for (White People’s) Freedom:

With two days to go until the Dutch vote in a pivotal parliamentary election, pollster Maurice De Hond found that the spat between the Netherlands and Turkey, and Saturday’s night of rioting by ethnic Turks in Rotterdam, had benefited the two parties that have been most skeptical on immigration.

The poll showed Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s pro-business VVD party on track to win 27 seats in the 150-seat parliament with 18 percent of the vote, three more than in the pollster’s last survey, published on Sunday but taken before the weekend.

Geert Wilders’s anti-Muslim Freedom Party was in second place with 16 percent, or up two seats to 24.

Wilders is trying to make more hay by demanding the expulsion of the Turkish ambassador. Now that Ankara has drawn first blood on that front Wilders may be able to get a lot of mileage out of this argument in the run up to Wednesday’s election, unless Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte does expel the ambassador (which would then invite continued escalation with Turkey).

Wilders is unlikely to be the next prime minister of the Netherlands, and he’s a longshot even to have a role in the country’s next government. No party is going to win an outright majority on Wednesday, and Wilders is so toxic that there’s almost no chance he and his party will be asked to join a coalition. But as Foreign Policy’s James Traub writes, Wilders has owned this campaign and has brought his loathsome xenophobia right smack into the mainstream of Dutch politics. The “center-right” is likely to maintain its hold on the government, but it’s had to incorporate a bit of Wilders’ white nationalism in order to do so.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: March 11-12 2017

TURKEY

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.

SYRIA

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: March 10 2017

ETHICS, HOW DO THEY WORK

As it so happens, while Michael Flynn was advising candidate Donald Trump on foreign policy, he was also being paid to act as an agent of the Turkish government–except, oops, he apparently forgot to mention that to anybody until earlier this week. Flynn even wrote pro-Turkey op-eds without disclosing that he was being paid to do it, which for anybody else would be a huge scandal but which is at best the 80th worst thing Flynn has done in just the past six months. To make this even more hilarious, Flynn apparently didn’t even fulfill the terms of his contract, which called for him to “investigate” Fethullah Gülen and produce a short film based on his investigation.

To make things considerably less hilarious, Donald Trump thought this guy was the right pick to be his top national security adviser, and Trump still has almost four years left in his term.

REX TILLERSON: THE FORGOTTEN MAN

tillerson_sworn_in

I was going to make a joke about the last time Tillerson saw his boss, but instead, can we talk about what President Trump could possibly be looking at here? Seriously, they’re swearing in his Secretary of State and he’s doing…what, exactly?

Astonishing:

I guess Secretary Kushner must have handled the visit himself.

Seriously, you’re Rex Tillerson. You used to run ExxonMobil. You’ve got more money than you could possibly spend in a hundred lifetimes. How much longer are you going to allow yourself to be humiliated?

FAMINE

Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, told the Security Council today that the UN is facing its worst crisis since its founding. He was talking about the acute simultaneous risk of famine/mass starvation in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria. An estimated 20 million people in parts of those four countries are at risk of starving to death. Children growing up in those areas are looking at lifelong challenges posed by severe malnutrition, and that’s assuming they actually survive. In all four countries these famines are to some degree man-made, though in Somalia in particular a severe drought is also part of the problem (though of course we can argue about the extent to which severe weather is now man-made as well).

CHEAP OIL BACK AGAIN?

This…probably isn’t good: Continue reading