Conflict update: April 18 2017


If you’re worried about the state of human rights around the world, I’ve got great news–this afternoon, America was on it:

The Trump administration is seeking to highlight its commitment to human rights around the world, and so its envoy to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, is presiding over what it calls the first “thematic debate” on human rights in the Security Council on Tuesday afternoon.

“Council members are encouraged to express their views on the nexus between human rights and international peace and security,” reads a memo circulated to the members this month. Rights abuses, the memo says, can often be the first signs of a full-on conflict erupting.

This was, of course, not the first time human rights have been discussed to no effect at the UN Security Council, but it probably is the council’s first “thematic debate,” whatever the fuck that means. Human rights groups were skeptical–for some reason, they seemed to think that a UN Security Council meeting on human rights, presided over by a country that bombs mosques, bombs apartment buildings, bombed civilians even on this very day, and allies with countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, wouldn’t amount to shit. Well, the joke’s on them, because as it turns out…they were, uh, pretty much right on the money.


Britain is having a new election in June! What fun! Yes, I know, they just had an election two years ago, and Prime Minister Theresa May has said multiple times that she wouldn’t call snap elections before Britain had exited the European Union, but since when are we dinging politicians for lying? If early polling is to be believed, we’re not doing it this time either. May has a major political opening staring her in the face–serious Brexit negotiations won’t start until later this year, and she and her Conservative Party have huge polling leads over Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour Party–and she’s going to take advantage of it to increase her parliamentary cushion for the Brexit process. This is a smart, calculated move–so calculated that her opposition might even want to make an issue out of how bloody cynical the whole thing is.

Technically, May does not have the power to call for early elections–prime ministers used to have virtually unlimited authority in that regard, but parliament voted to restrict it in 2010 in order to keep precisely this kind of purely political vote from being called. If just a third of the House of Commons rejects her plans, she’ll have to resort to legislative trickery by having her own party vote against her government in a vote of no confidence. But it’s probably not going to come to that, as both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have said they’ll vote to approve the early election. It’s not clear why they’re going along with this, but I suppose if either party really knew what it was doing then the Conservatives wouldn’t be on the verge of pummeling them both in a couple of months.

The actual risk for May is that, if British voters are really feeling buyer’s remorse over the Brexit referendum, they could opt to hand May a parliament that’s much less amenable to her plans for a so-called “hard Brexit” (apologies if there are any impressionable children reading this smut). There’s almost no chance for an outcome that would halt or reverse Brexit, but theoretically this vote could make May’s negotiations with Brussels harder rather than easier. But this is unlikely, both because of what the polls say and because, if May’s Tories are the pro-Brexit party, there isn’t really an anti-Brexit one. Labour certainly isn’t taking that position, and the Liberal Democrats are less a political party than a kid loitering on the edge of the political playing field hoping to get picked to be part of the governing team. Plus, there’s heavy speculation that the Lib Dems are going to be “helped” by Tony Blair, so if you know any Iraqi children living in the UK, please make sure they’re safe as Blair–who is still amazingly not on trial at The Hague–reenters public life.


I said I would have a piece at LobeLog today on the Iranian election, and actually I’ve got two for you. There’s mine, on early public opinion polling that shows that Hassan Rouhani is far from a lock to be re-election:

The biggest concern for Rouhani is easily public views on the Iranian economy. An overwhelming majority (91 percent) of respondents describe their own economic situation as mediocre at best, with 37 percent saying “I get by,” 28 percent saying “I hardly get by,” and 26 percent saying “It is very difficult to get by.” Only 11 percent say that the Iranian economy has improved during Rouhani’s four years as president, with 35 percent saying it has deteriorated and 51 percent saying it hasn’t changed. And 64 percent describe the current state of the Iranian economy as either somewhat (35 percent) or very (29 percent) bad, while a slim majority (52 percent) say that it’s still getting worse.

Rouhani himself gets poor marks for his handling of the economy—55 percent of respondents say that he’s been either somewhat (29 percent) or very (26 percent) unsuccessful in addressing Iran’s economic challenges. When it comes to the nuclear deal, the crowning achievement of Rouhani’s first term, nearly three quarters of respondents (72 percent) say that ordinary Iranians have not seen their economic situation improve as a result of the agreement and the reduction of international sanctions.

But there’s also this overview of the race from the eminent Iran expert Farideh Farhi, in which she gets into some of the unique tactical considerations that attend every Iranian presidential campaign:

Raisi insists that he is running as an independent candidate. To improve his chances of winning, his supporters will also coyly hint that he is really the candidate of Iran’s Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But his candidacy was pushed forth through a process initiated by an alliance of conservative organizations called the Popular Front for the Islamic Revolution Forces (PFIRF). He ended up on the top of the PFIRF’s list of five candidates, another three of which have also registered. Presumably the PFIRF hopes that one or two of these candidates will be qualified, giving them sufficient collective firepower to direct at Rouhani’s record during the short campaign period and presidential debates (the format for and number of which have yet to be decided). Once the debates are over, the backup candidates will likely withdraw in favor of Raisi. The kink in this plan is that at least one of the candidates—Tehran mayor and former presidential candidate Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf—may not withdraw in Raisi’s favor. His own presidential ambitions are well known and may keep him in the race. Based on his debate performance, he may also end up being considered a better Rouhani challenger.

Meanwhile, the reformist-centrist alliance that has solidly lined up behind Rouhani decided at the last minute to field candidates that would neutralize the PFIRF’s tactical moves. Immediately after Qalibaf’s registration, Rouhani’s first vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, also registered. He will have the task of defending Rouhani’s record in the debates and has openly stated that he will withdraw in Rouhani’s favor.


The situation in western Mosul remains pretty static, with Iraqi federal police grinding away in southern part of the Old City while Iraqi counter-terrorism forces continue to outflank that part of the city to push north. At this point it seems like the counter-terrorism forces may just keep pushing north rather than looping around and coming into the Old City from the north. The UN is warning that the Old City fight looks like it could be the “worst humanitarian catastrophe” of the entire anti-ISIS war, with an estimated 400,000 people still trapped there under ISIS’s control. On that score, there was some good news today in that the Iraqis have built a new pontoon bridge across the Tigris that will allow civilians who manage to get away from ISIS to make their way into eastern Mosul. The Iraqis’ other pontoon bridges had been rendered unusable due to heavy flooding on the Tigris.


Hey, here’s something to think about as you’re cheering America’s strangely erotic missile strikes on Syrian air bases:

If Syrian government forces are weakened, IS fighters could more easily move into heavily populated cities and towns, said Columb Strack, a senior Middle East analyst at IHS Jane’s.

“The Syrian government is essentially the anvil to the U.S.-led coalition’s hammer,” Strack said.

Weakened Syrian government forces could give the militants additional footholds at a time when their grip on territory elsewhere in Syria and Iraq is being rolled back, Strack explained.

There’s been justifiable criticism of Bashar al-Assad’s strategic decision not to heavily engage ISIS, in part so as to allow it to become the face of the rebellion. But “anvil” is probably the right way to look at Assad’s contribution to the anti-ISIS fight. The anvil doesn’t really do anything other than keep the thing you’re hammering from moving. We’ve already seen that when Assad retreats, ISIS often moves in. This is not a reason to work with Assad or even to view him as anything other than the wretched war criminal he is, but it is yet another reminder that what’s happening in Syria is more complicated than your narrative.


Turkey’s opposition Republican People’s Party formally appealed Sunday’s referendum result, citing in particular the election board’s last-minute decision to accept untold numbers of improperly unstamped ballots. Additionally, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe filed its election monitoring report, and they don’t seem to have been impressed, something about “fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process” having been “curtailed.” Undaunted, President Trump called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan today to congratulate him on his big, uh, win.

On the plus side, Erdoğan responded to getting what he’s been after for three years by finally easing up on the repressive political environment he’s created HA HA HA HA oh my God of course he didn’t do that. His party is going to extend Turkey’s state of emergency for another three months, at the end of which, by my back of the envelope calculations, roughly half the country will probably be in jail.


Gaza’s ongoing power shortage is now threatening to shut down its main hospital, meaning people who rely on that facility having power (that piece mentions dialysis patients in particular) are going to find themselves in a life-threatening situation in a matter of days. The culprit here is the Palestinian Authority, which is refusing to provide subsidized fuel to Gaza because, according to the PA, Hamas officials have taken advantage of the subsidy to enrich themselves. This is all part of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s overall effort to cut Gaza off and squeeze Hamas, an effort that also includes his decision to stop paying PA employees in Gaza in the hopes that the resulting economic hardship will land in Hamas’s collective lap.

These political machinations are fascinating and I’m sure they’re honestly so important, but the Gazans whose dialysis machines are about to stop working probably don’t want to die because Mahmoud Abbas is mad at Hamas.


Reuters has published a lengthy investigative piece (based largely on Bahraini dossiers, so grains of salt and all) on a Shiʿa cleric named Murtada al-Sanadi who has been designated a terrorist by the US. Sanadi is alleged to be the leader of a group called the Ashtar Brigades, which is responsible for carrying out terrorist attacks against Bahrain’s Sunni government. He lives in exile in Iran, and Bahraini authorities say that he’s been receiving assistance from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. They further allege that Ashtar is connected to the banned opposition Wafa Party.

The idea that Iran has been fomenting armed Shiʿa insurrection in Bahrain is not especially far-fetched, though the degree of Iranian involvement is unclear even in this report. But it’s important to keep in mind that the ruling Khalifa family could take most of the stuffing out of that insurrection if it simply stopped repressing the country’s Shiʿa majority.


ISIS gunmen attacked a police checkpoint near the St. Catherine’s monastery in Sinai today, killing at least one officer. The proximity to the 6th century Christian site is noteworthy in that ISIS has clearly made Egypt’s Coptic Christian community a prime target.


Voters in Jakarta are voting today (Wednesday) to choose their next governor, in what has sneakily become maybe the ugliest current political contest in the world. The incumbent, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, is both ethnic Chinese and Christian, which makes him a rarity in Indonesian politics on two counts. His opponent, Muslim Anies Baswedan, has exploited religious tensions, particularly around the ongoing criminal blasphemy case against Basuki, for political gain, and the campaign has laid bare the tensions in Indonesia’s Islamic community between hardline Islamists and those who support Indonesia’s tradition of religious tolerance.

The Intercept’s Allan Nairn is reporting that underlying this race is a slow-moving coup movement against Indonesia President Joko Widodo (with whom Basuki is aligned politically), involving Islamists backed by some of the country’s wealthiest tycoons, including at least one with close ties to the Trump family.


The Trump administration is still rattling sabers over North Korea, with Defense Secretary James Mattis calling this weekend’s failed missile test a “reckless act of provocation” and Vice President Mike Pence warning that “the shield stands guard and the sword stands ready,” because when it comes to the possibility of war, these dweebs all think they’re the main character in their own Homeric epic.

I think it’s important for everybody observing this administration’s fist-shaking, and its lame attempts to make every one of its haphazard, catch-as-catch-can foreign policy decisions out to be part of some master plan to bring Kim Jong-un to heel, to take a deep breath. We’re not on the brink of war with North Korea. Even if Pyongyang does conduct another nuclear test, it would be an astonishing act of recklessness for the Trump administration to respond with a preemptive military strike. If you want to be worried about something, worry about the fact that your president doesn’t seem to actually know who’s running North Korea, and that his White House apparently doesn’t know where all of America’s aircraft carriers are at any given time. Those things are scary enough.


The recently-formed al-Qaeda affiliate Nusrat al-Islam attacked an army base in northern Mali today. French and Malian forces say they killed at least 12 of the attackers, while four Malian soldiers were reportedly killed.


Zambian opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema was charged with treason in court today. He was arrested last week on the heinous crime of, um, obstructing President Edgar Lungu’s motorcade. No, really. But it appears as though he’s been charged with something a bit more substantive, though whether it has any basis in reality is obviously an open question.

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