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: March 14 2017


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.


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Valentine’s Day is for lovers

In addition to being Valentine’s Day, February 14 is also the anniversary of the arrival of Saudi King Abdul Aziz b. Saud aboard the heavy cruiser USS Quincy in 1945, there to meet with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR was returning from the Yalta Conference–technically he was sailing home from Malta, having flown from there to Yalta–and he took the opportunity offered by his presence in the middle of the Mediterranean to host a few Middle Eastern, Africa, and European leaders. Ibn Saud was one of his guests. It was the first time Ibn Saud, the first Saudi king, had met an American president.


Ibn Saud and FDR aboard the Quincy (Wikimedia)

During Ibn Saud’s visit, the two leaders discussed several topics. FDR was keen to get Saudi support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, and needless to say he came up snake eyes on that roll. Ultimately, they came to terms on what’s sometimes called as the Quincy Agreement, in which FDR pledged American military support for the Saudis (this was still very early in the Saudi oil boom, so the Saudis were keenly interested in being adopted by a Great Power patron) in return for secure American access to Saudi oil and Saudi political support for the US in the Middle East. Apart from the occasional hiccup (the 1973 OPEC embargo being the main one), US-Saudi relations have been strong ever since, and the American people (not to mention Yemenis, Syrians, Saudi Shiʿites, Bahrainis, Afghans, etc.) have been paying the price. Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Conflict update: February 12 2017

We’re in the middle of a windstorm and I keep losing power, so I’m going to have to call it a night with a lot of stuff still left to cover. I’ll be back tomorrow though. The storm blew through and I decided to stay up late to cram everything in here. You’re welcome, or I’m sorry, depending on your perspective.

Michael Flynn

I may have something more to say about this story later this week, especially if something else breaks, but let’s at least note that Donald Trump’s favorite and most unhinged general could be out of a job soon. On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn spent the month or so before Donald Trump’s inauguration talking with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about potentially easing or lifting US sanctions against Russian individuals and/or institutions. This is…well, I realize that nobody has ever been convicted under the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from conducting their own foreign policy, and Flynn won’t be the first. But this is a pretty blatant violation. It’s one thing for personnel in an incoming administration to take meetings with personnel of other governments in order to exchange pleasantries, get to know one another, and even discuss some major areas of policy. It’s something else for the personnel of an incoming administration to directly undermine the foreign policy of the current, albeit lame duck, administration.

Not that anybody in the Trump administration would care, but this report makes a liar out of Flynn and Vice President Mike Pence, who both denied that any such conversations took place. And of course the administration should be hyper-sensitive to any new stories suggesting an inappropriate relationship between it and Russia. It is possible, then, that Flynn could be jettisoned in some kind of face-saving maneuver. Even before this story broke there were rumblings about Flynn losing influence in Trump’s inner circle, and now that it has broken the White House seems pointedly unwilling to rush to his defense. Trump’s CIA just reportedly refused to issue a security clearance to one of Flynn’s National Security Council appointees, which seems like kind of a bad sign too. Other than Trump, I’m not sure what kind of support network Flynn has within the administration–Defense Secretary James Mattis reportedly isn’t a fan, and apparently neither is new CIA Director Mike Pompeo. So it could just be a matter of convincing Trump that Flynn has really brought shame upon the administration (and, well, he does stand out even among this collection of thieves, sociopaths, and grifters) to usher him out the door.


The Syrian rebel High Negotiation Committee has chosen a delegation to attend the next round of UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva on February 20. Interestingly, the HNC, which is based in Saudi Arabia, has opted to include representatives from two other Syrian exile groups–one based in Cairo and the other in Moscow–in its delegation. It does not, of course, plan to include any representatives from the two insurgent groups doing most of the actual fighting against the Syrian government (Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham), which as usual leads one to wonder how useful these talks can possibly be.

In the fight against ISIS, Turkish forces and their rebel clients have apparently entered the city of al-Bab. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan says that after they take al-Bab, his forces will continue right on to Raqqa–which, of course, isn’t going to sit well with anybody. It’s not going to sit well with the Syrian army, which is advancing on al-Bab from the south and nearly engaged in a full-on battle with those Turkish forces last week only to be talked down by Moscow. Next time Russia may not be able to play mediator. It’s also not going to sit well with the Kurdish YPG, which is expected, per the British government, to have isolated Raqqa by sometime this spring. Turkey’s interest in taking Raqqa is much less about defeating ISIS than about making sure the YPG doesn’t take it.

Speaking of the Kurds, since I highlighted Roy Gutman’s anti-YPG piece last week, I want also to highlight Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi’s response. Tamimi has some of the same issues I had with Gutman’s piece, specifically that he relies on potentially biased sourcing and draws inflammatory conclusions without much evidence to support them, but he goes into more detail and has some things to say about Gutman’s work more generally: Continue reading

Why quit now?


My fellow Americans, while we were all gasping and laughing at Donald Trump and the Republican Party today–and I’m not knocking anybody, I spent most of the day doing it too–here’s what our government was doing:

More than 140 people were killed and more than 525 wounded when airstrikes hit a funeral ceremony in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, a senior UN official has said, as Houthi rebels blamed the attack on the Saudi-led coalition.

The dead and wounded include senior military and security officials from the ranks of the Shia Houthi rebels fighting the internationally recognised government of president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi as well as their allies, loyalists of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In the aftermath of the strike on Saturday, hundreds of body parts were found strewn in and outside the hall. Rescuers collected them in sacks. “The place has been turned into a lake of blood,” said one rescuer, Murad Tawfiq.

The death toll may be higher than 140–CNN is reporting 155, but as far as I can tell they’re the only ones and anyway even that may be too low when the counting is done–so let’s say 140 for now. And, yeah, I know this was a Saudi airstrike (apparently a double/triple tap strike, or, to put it another way, a “war crime”) conducted by Saudi aircraft as part of a Saudi military operation. But we’ve long since blown past the point where the systematic annihilation of Yemen could be blamed on anybody but the Obama administration and the fine folks in Congress.

In a move that would be hilarious if we were watching it all happen in a dark fictional comedy film, the administration is reportedly “reviewing” its support for the Saudi operation in Yemen after today’s atrocity, and my question is: so what? After enabling the Saudis to kill thousands of Yemenis, to leave millions more at risk of starving to death, and to commit rampant war crimes in the process, all the while knowing that it could have stopped this operation at pretty much any time, why would the administration decide that this attack is a bridge too far? Don’t get me wrong; I hope they do decide to pull their support for this ongoing crime against humanity. But I’m not holding my breath. Protecting Yemeni civilians is clearly far down on the Obama administration’s list of priorities, well behind “make nice with Riyadh so they’ll keep buying our weapons and in the hope that maybe, someday, they might actually do more to stabilize the world than they do to destabilize it.”


Phantom shift

Virtually since the Iran nuclear talks began, it’s been an article of faith among right-wing deal opponents that the United States is about to shift its Middle Eastern loyalties away from the Saudis and toward the Iranians. This would be Bad, we’re told, because it would strengthen a malign regional actor whose muscular foreign interventionism and support for shady organizations contributes to destabilizing the Middle East and increasing terrorist threats to America, i.e., Saudi Arabia Iran. I mean Iran. Obviously I’m not talking about Saudi Arabia. They’re Good. Duh.

Anyway, the whole “American shift” story is salient again this week, what with the Iranians and Saudis escalating their feud. Neocon stalwarts Josh Rogin and Eli Lake coughed up another iteration of this tale on Monday, and I tried to help ease their fears today at LobeLog:

As I noted on Twitter after reading their piece, it’s remarkable that Rogin and Lake devoted roughly 1,100 words to a supposed shift in American Middle East policy away from Saudi Arabia and toward Iran, yet not a single one of those words was “Yemen.” I point this out because America’s continued and consistently baffling support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting the (at least nominally) Iran-backed Houthi rebels in that country is the exception that just about disproves Rogin and Lake’s rule all by itself.

While the nuclear deal may have laid some groundwork for American-Iranian relations to improve over the long run, there is no evidence of a shift taking place right now. You’ll be unsurprised to find that this lament is really just an excuse to bemoan the nuclear deal all over again. And while an improvement in US-Iranian relations might come at Saudi expense (though there’s no reason it has to), the Yemen operation shows that Washington is still prepared to back the Saudis even when the Saudis are doing things that run directly, 180-degrees counter to American interests. Does that really seem like a shift in policy?

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Holding our allies accountable

In the weeks since the terror attacks in Paris, a fair amount of digital ink has been spilled on the question of America’s Gulf allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, and the role those nations have played in fueling and/or combating (but mostly fueling) ISIS. This discussion hasn’t been limited to media thinkpieces, either; the Pentagon has reportedly been asking for more help from both European and Gulf allies to fight ISIS. While European nations have been very receptive to that kind of call since Paris, it’s been difficult if not impossible to get anywhere with the Gulf states, who are actually drawing down the already meager forces they had contributing to the anti-ISIS campaign in Syria.

Vox’s Jennifer Williams had one of the best summaries of this problem that I’ve seen. While she acknowledges that the kingdom has made strides in countering jihadi terrorism in some respects–restricting donations to radical jihadi organizations by wealthy Saudis, pushing counter-narratives in Saudi media, and devoting resources toward “rehabilitating” ex-jihadi fighters, Williams really drives home the point that the Saudis have been a net contributor to the ISIS cause. Her piece looks at three ways that Saudi Arabia intersects with the fight against ISIS: ideologically, militarily, and politically. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

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