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.


Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi may believe that the Mosul battle is entering its “final stages,” and while he’s not wrong (the eventual outcome is mostly a foregone conclusion), he is minimizing the fighting that remains to be done. Iraqi forces finally secured the Iron Bridge today, but it took them three days to achieve that objective. They’re now advancing on the Nuri Mosque, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed his pretend caliphate back in the day, but the fighting there has been intense as well. Abadi has to put the best possible spin on the operation because Politics, but he also needs to be careful not to set expectations too high.

Elsewhere, a car bombing in Tikrit killed at least eight people and wounded more than 50 others.


Today was the sixth anniversary of the protests that began the Syrian civil war, and the day was commemorated with a preview of where the war is probably heading:

At least 31 people have been killed and dozens more wounded after two suicide bomb attacks in Damascus, state media reported, the second double bombing in the Syrian capital in five days.

The first suicide bomber targeted the Palace of Justice, the main courthouse in central Damascus near the Old City. The justice minister, Najem al-Ahmad, told reporters the initial death toll was 31, mostly civilians.

The second suicide blast struck a restaurant in the al-Rabweh area, to the west of the first attack, causing several casualties, state media reported.

State news agency SANA cited the Damascus police as saying that there were 102 injured in the courthouse attack and 28 injured in the restaurant.

The Syrian government is winning the conventional war against its rebels, but the terrorist phase of the war is really just getting started.

The good news is that the latest round of Russia-Turkey-Iran peace talks in Astana has brought the war closer than ever to a negotiated end accomplished absolutely nothing. Oh, wait, that’s not good at all. Syrian rebel negotiators, who said they weren’t going to attend the talks to protest Russia’s refusal/inability to maintain its ceasefire, then said they were going to show up Wednesday evening, wound up not showing up after all. Russia, Turkey, and Iran agreed to another round of Astana talks in May, which hopefully will go a little better than this one did.

Researchers with the Commission for International Justice and Accountability claim that they’ve smuggled hundreds of thousands of pages of military and security documents out of Syria that could help flesh out a war crimes case against Bashar al-Assad and other members of his government. Maybe they’ll include today’s suspected Russian airstrike in Idlib that reportedly killed at least nine people, including children.


Today in You Can’t Make This Shit Up:

Turkey’s ongoing spat with the Netherlands is fast descending into the absurd. Members of Turkey’s Association of Red Meat Producers loaded 40 Dutch Holstein cows onto a truck and sent them packing to Holland to protest Dutch authorities’ refusal to allow Turkish officials to campaign on Dutch soil for the constitutional referendum that would further empower Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Bulent Tunc, the association’s president, told the mass circulation Hurriyet, “We sent a symbolic number of animals. If they [the Dutch] do not accept them, we will slaughter them and give away [the meat].”

We seem to already be at the “Jerk Store” phase of the Turkey-Netherlands spat, and it really didn’t take that long to get there. Amsterdam obviously had bigger fish to fry today, but as long as it serves his political needs you can expect Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to keep this up. However, he might want to tone it down a bit. Berlin informed Ankara today that it was reserving the right to prevent Turkish nationals in Germany from voting in April’s referendum if Turkish politicians continue to do things like accusing the current German government of being Nazis, which violates German law on defaming the state. If Erdoğan wants Turkish nationals living in Europe to be able to vote, he might have to moderate his rhetoric a bit, which is something he’s seemed increasingly unable to do.

Two Turkish soldiers were killed today in southeastern Turkey when a mine, presumably PKK in origin, blew up during a minesweeping operation. There’s been no indication whether the mine was deliberately detonated by whomever planted it or if it was set off incidental to the minesweeping activity.


Hey, here’s another one of those unfair UN reports singling out Israel:

Palestinian citizens of Israel are described as “subjected to oppression on the basis of not being Jewish”, it said.

Palestinians in East Jerusalem similarly experience “discrimination in access to education, healthcare, employment, residency and building rights”, as well as “expulsions and home demolitions”.

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are governed by “military law” alongside Jewish settlers “governed by Israeli civil law”, the report said.

Palestinian refugees and exiles are “prohibited from returning to their homes in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory” on the basis that they “constitute a ‘demographic threat’ and that their return would alter the demographic character of Israel”.

As well as urging governments to back BDS, the report recommends that the UN and its member states should “revive the Special Committee against Apartheid, and the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid (1976-1991)”, which would then “report authoritatively on Israeli practices and policies relating to the crime of apartheid”.

It’s like you can’t even force the people living in the territory you illegally occupy to live under apartheid conditions without some egghead complaining about it! What a bunch of bullshit!


Donald Trump and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad b. Salman are expected to have their most extensive round of talks tomorrow in Washington. So far their talks seem to have revolved around mutual graft investment opportunities for both countries, but Juan Cole has put together a list of the genuine disputes between Riyadh and Washington that they’ll likely at least touch on tomorrow. He expects they’ll agree to disagree on Syria, with Trump refusing to back stronger action against Assad, but that Trump will tell Muhammad that he’s got no problem ratcheting up the violence in Yemen.

A Saudi soldier was killed yesterday in the city of Qatif, in eastern Saudi Arabia. Qatif is a center of the country’s Shiʿa resistance, and this attack may have been perpetrated by Shiʿites–even if it wasn’t, it may be used as justification for a new round of anti-Shiʿa crackdowns by Riyadh.


Azerbaijani President Ilkham Aliyev says that he wants to reopen talks with Armenian separatists in his country’s breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region. That would certainly help reduce the possibility of a war breaking out there, but it seems like both sides are going to have to stop sniping at each other before talks can resume, and so far it’s not clear that either side is prepared to do that.


Afghan authorities have reportedly arrested 24 people in connection with last week’s attack on a military hospital in Kabul. The feeling apparently is that the gunmen (ISIS claimed responsibility) who carried out the attack must have had some help from the inside.


Malaysian authorities say that they’ve positively identified the body of Kim Jong-nam, murdered in the Kuala Lumpur airport last month, from a family-supplied DNA sample. Among Pyongyang’s various attempts to deflect blame over Kim’s murder has been the claim that the man who was killed wasn’t actually Kim at all. Yes, sure, somebody decided to murder some rando with VX just for shits and giggles. Why not?

The Trump administration is still saying that Jared Kushner’s Intern Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is going to “pressure” China to take a harder line toward North Korea during his Asia trip this week, without any indication of what that “pressure” could actually be. Previous administrations have tried to offer China the carrot of reduced US antimissile systems in South Korea if North Korea’s nuclear/missile programs were halted, but that clearly hasn’t worked. The US could impose sanctions on banks that have dealings with North Korea, theoretically threatening Chinese banks with loss of access to the US market, but analysts say that North Korea’s banking ties to China are pretty strictly handled by small banks that don’t do any business in the US market.


Militia forces allied with the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord have forcibly taken control of a compound in Tripoli that had previously belonged to the National Salvation Government/General National Congress. The NSG, headed by would-be Prime Minister Khalifa al-Ghawil, is the third of Libya’s two claimants to national governance, if you catch my meaning. It has little presence outside of Tripoli, but it’s been able to make life for the GNA there fairly difficult.


King Mohammed VI has sacked his prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, after he’d spent five months trying and failing to put together a new coalition government following last year’s elections. Another member of the Justice and Development Party will be given a crack at succeeding where Benkirane failed.


Two Boko Haram attacks struck the Maiduguri area today. In the first, four female suicide bombers struck a home in a residential part of Maiduguri itself, killing two other people and injuring 16. In the second, attackers entered the town of Magumeri, about 30 miles outside Maiduguri, and reportedly began “firing indiscriminately” and burning down buildings.


Speaking of Boko Haram, Cameroonian authorities say that a multi-national force has freed some 5000 people who’d been taken captive by the group, and destroyed its main base along the Cameroon-Nigeria border.


According to the Ethiopian government, some 1000 “gunmen” from South Sudan have been rampaging through the country since Sunday, killing at least 28 people and kidnapping dozens of children. Ethiopian forces are pursuing them. Western Ethiopia has taken in tens of thousands of South Sudanese refugees during that country’s ongoing civil war, destabilizing the region. Raids like this happen periodically.


Don’t expect the recent seizure of an oil tanker by Somali pirates to be a one-off thing. The AP spoke to people living in coastal Somali fishing villages who say that large foreign fishing operations are once again preventing Somali fishermen from earning a living. For most young men in those villages, career choices are limited to “fishing” and “piracy,” and if foreign ships are going to illegally fish–and often overfish–in Somali waters (there are even reports of foreign ships attacking small Somali fishing boats), then any kind of economic security in fishing kind of goes out the window. This is especially perverse in that Somalia is in the midst of a massive famine, and the fish that are being extracted from Somali waters by those foreign outfits could be feeding starving Somalis.


Things are escalating again, but this time economically rather than on the battlefield:

Ukrainian authorities on Wednesday halted all cargo traffic with rebel-held territory in the east of the country, formalizing an existing rail blockade by Ukrainian activists that has fueled the worst political crisis in nearly a year.

In a standoff that is hurting the economies of both sides, separatists have seized control of strategic Ukraine-registered industries in their territory in response to the rail blockade, which has cut off coal and steel shipments since late January.

This isn’t just about the separatists seizing control of Ukrainian-owned companies, though. As the Reuters story notes, Kiev was basically allowing the rail blockade to continue without state sanction, which undermined the government’s authority, because breaking the blockade up would have been deeply unpopular. Formalizing the blockade brings it under state auspices, which means–in theory–Kiev can now end the blockade if it gets something in return. The risk, I suppose, is that the more you create separation between the Donbas and the rest of Ukraine, the more you might be laying the groundwork for full-on secession down the road.

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