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 24 2017


Say, this is interesting:

Analysts at the Homeland Security Department’s intelligence arm found insufficient evidence that citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries included in President Donald Trump’s travel ban pose a terror threat to the United States.

A draft document obtained by The Associated Press concludes that citizenship is an “unlikely indicator” of terrorism threats to the United States and that few people from the countries Trump listed in his travel ban have carried out attacks or been involved in terrorism-related activities in the U.S. since Syria’s civil war started in 2011.

Why, it’s almost as though the travel ban wasn’t actually about protecting America, but was instead an attempt to advance some other bullshit agenda!

And speaking of bullshit, remember how all during the campaign Donald Trump was Very Angry about the way Barack Obama was combating ISIS? And remember how Donald Trump said he had a Secret Plan To Defeat ISIS that later was revealed to be “Ask The Generals How To Defeat ISIS,” on account of how Donald Trump is an idiot? But Donald Trump assured us that the Plan the Generals gave him would be Way Better than whatever Obama had been doing? Yeah, about that:

For months on the campaign trail, Donald Trump accused the Obama administration of failing to aggressively fight ISIS, falsely claiming at one point that his predecessor as US president founded the jihadi group and vowing to “bomb the shit” out of it.

But as his national security team wraps up a monthlong rethink of the ISIS war, President Trump’s strategy is beginning to look a lot like the Obama strategy he once disparaged.

The Pentagon’s plan — due to be delivered to Trump on Monday — still involves a US-led airstrike campaign to shape the battlefield, as well as a dependence on local troops to fight the terror group with support of the US military, which will guide airstrikes, provide intelligence, and back local commanders, current and former defense officials told BuzzFeed News.

The one major change appears to be a recommendation to deploy 1000 additional US soldiers to Syria to embed with the…well, with whatever force eventually winds up taking Raqqa. They would play the same role that embedded US personnel are playing in Mosul, with the added complication that the Iraqi government invited those Americans into the country, while Bashar al-Assad presumably will not extend the same sort of welcome to American personnel in Syria.

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Today in American history: the burning of the USS Philadelphia (1804)

Stephen Decatur (d. 1820) is one of the US Navy’s first famous figures, right up alongside Revolutionary War captain John Paul Jones, and among the first famous American military figures in g…

Source: Today in American history: the burning of the USS Philadelphia (1804)

Conflict Update: January 22 2017

So our guests left a short time ago, whereas I thought they were staying another day for some reason. Leaving on Sunday makes a lot more sense, now that I think about it, but anyway that leaves me free to do a little Bad News Digest tonight.



Mosul as of Friday (Wikimedia | Kami888)

OK, the news isn’t all bad. Eastern Mosul is (probably) totally liberated. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared it liberated in the middle of last week, but that was technically premature. But it seems fair to say at this point that very little beyond some mop-up work remains for Iraqi forces in the eastern side of the city. What will likely happen now is a pause to allow time to resupply and reinforce Iraqi units and to do as much softening up of ISIS’s defenses in western Mosul as possible via air and artillery. ISIS has already begun preparing its defenses, blowing up a large hotel on the western bank of the Tigris on Friday to prevent the Iraqis from using it as a headquarters.

Western Mosul is more densely packed than eastern Mosul, which limits the amount of air and artillery that can be used without causing excessive death/destruction. There’s a strong argument to be made that this will make liberation western Mosul a harder and longer process than liberating eastern Mosul was, but there are a couple of things working in the Iraqis’ favor. For one thing, ISIS expended a lot of manpower in its futile defense of eastern Mosul and seems to have lost another decent share of its manpower in the fighters who made a dash for the relative safety of Syria. Iraqi forces claim that a large number of ISIS’s commanders in Mosul were killed in the fighting in the east, for example. The other thing the Iraqis have going for them is that they appear to have worked out most of the kinks in terms of coordinating a large-scale offensive among many different units while retaking eastern Mosul. It’s unlikely that the Iraqis will get bogged down in logistical problems again the way they did a few weeks ago, because they seem to have learned from their earlier mistakes.

Donald Trump is already winning friends all over the world, but he’s especially ingratiated himself to the people of Iraq by saying in a speech at the CIA on Saturday that “maybe we’ll have another chance” to take Iraq’s oil–whatever the hell that even means. A lot of Iraqis who are currently on America’s side in the war against ISIS are ready to start fighting America if we come back looking to loot their oil. Iraq of course relies heavily on its oil exports and is already struggling to make ends meet thanks to low oil prices, so they’re liable to be particularly sensitive to any suggestion that their oil might be taken away to repay the United States for destroying their country. This is particularly true at a time when Baghdad is staring at a massive rebuilding effort in Mosul.


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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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Just when you thought it was safe to plan that Libyan vacation

ISIS is reportedly down to its “last stand” in the Libyan city of Sirte, left controlling only about “two blocks,” which at the rate that operation is going could mean another three months of fighting. Still, it’s good news.

Here, on the other hand, is something that is not good news:

Rival armed factions battled for a second day on Friday in the worst outbreak of fighting in the Libyan capital Tripoli for more than a year.

Black smoke rose into the sky and explosions reverberated around the Abu Salim and Hadba districts, and a witness said a major road nearby had been blocked off with shipping containers.

Gunfire echoed across several other neighborhoods, only dying down towards the evening.

There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of clarity about who is fighting whom other than the vague talk of “rival militias.” That could mean anything. One possibility is that militias supporting the internationally recognized Government of National Accord are clashing with militias favorable to the mostly unrecognized “Government of National Salvation,” a rival claimant that seemed to have backed off when the GNA came to town but has since reemerged as a potential threat. Another possibility is that the GNS has nothing to do with this fighting, and that instead of threatening the GNA these militias are merely demonstrating to Libya and the rest of the world that the GNA can’t even control its own capital city, let alone the rest of the country. Either way it doesn’t do much to boost the GNA’s prestige, which was already waning due to the fact that very little in Libya has actually improved since the GNA was formed.

The GNA is (was?) the best bet for a unified Libya that wasn’t ruled by a military strongman, since their international recognition allowed them to approach Khalifa Haftar and the Tobruk government on something of an equal footing. If it collapses then there’s a strong chance you’ll see more or less universal international acclaim for Haftar to just take the country over while maintaining some fig leaf semblance of democracy, akin to what Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has done in neighboring Egypt. That will mean that the 2011 intervention to oust Muammar Gaddafi will have come full circle by installing another military dictator to replace him. And by “full circle” I mean he’ll even come complete with the potential to cause a brand new humanitarian crisis in Benghazi.


Three’s a crowd

Speaking of Libya, it looks like a country that desperately needs to subtract a national government has added one instead:

But late on Friday the head of the former Tripoli-based Government of National Salvation, Khalifa Ghweil, proclaimed its reinstatement from the offices of a key consultative body of the GNA.

His announcement added to the confusion surrounding the political situation in the oil-rich country, which is riven by power struggles and under the control of various militias who often switch allegiances.

The capital appeared calm on Saturday with no sign of any unusual military presence, including around the Council of State whose offices were stormed on Friday.

The last yours truly heard of Khalifa Ghweil, he was attempting to take back an announcement that his government was disbanding in favor of the UN-approved Government of National Accord. But his government had lost most of its supporting militias to the GNA and Ghweil seems to have had no choice but to go dark. But now?


So far there have only been sporadic reports of violence in Tripoli, but things could get much worse very fast. This could be a real test for the GNA, which mostly sauntered in to Tripoli and assumed control there without ever really dealing with the rival government it was displacing. For a while that rival government seemed to have disappeared, but now it’s clear that it never went anywhere.

I’m not sure why Ghweil came back now, but maybe he’d finally had enough of watching Khalifa Haftar establish his own virtual dictatorship in eastern Libya without earning so much as a slap on the wrist from the international community for defying the GNA. Haftar, you may recall, seized control of four of Libya’s largest oil ports last month, but the oil is mostly flowing again and there are signs of a warming between Haftar and the GNA. To wit: Fayez al-Sarraj, the leading figure in the GNA and the man who would be serving as Libya’s interim prime minister if the GNA were officially running the country–it can’t do so unless/until the parliament in Tobruk, which is effectively controlled by Haftar by whatever means necessary, votes to approve it–said after the oil port seizure that Haftar would be “represented” in a new Libyan government.

The UN’s envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, has gone farther than that, saying that Haftar should be put in command of a unified Libya’s unified armed forces. This might be very acceptable to Haftar, but talk about playing with fire. For one thing, Haftar would surely use this post to try to run the country, just as he’s used his position as the commander of the Tobruk parliament’s army to run the Tobruk parliament. For another thing, is there any reason to think that the militias currently supporting the GNA would be willing to put themselves under Haftar’s command? If they were, then what the hell has all this fighting been about?