Conflict update: April 29-30 2017


The Trump administration’s commitment to human rights is so vast, so resolute, that its UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley, strong-armed the UN Security Council into holding a special session on the topic just a couple of weeks ago. How is America championing human rights today? Let’s check:

When President Trump called President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines on Saturday, the American leader’s national security aides saw it as part of a routine diplomatic outreach to Southeast Asian leaders. Mr. Trump, characteristically, had his own ideas.

During their “very friendly conversation,” the administration said in a late-night statement, Mr. Trump invited Mr. Duterte, an authoritarian leader accused of ordering extrajudicial killings of drug suspects in the Philippines, to visit him at the White House.

Now, administration officials are bracing for an avalanche of criticism from human rights groups. Two senior officials said they expected the State Department and the National Security Council, both of which were caught off guard by the invitation, to raise objections internally.

So far, so good. Internet, show me more:

U.S. President Donald Trump spoke to the leaders of Thailand and Singapore on Sunday in separate phone calls about the security situation in the Asia-Pacific region at a time of rising tensions with North Korea and invited both to visit Washington, the White House said.

Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former general, heads a military-dominated government that took power in a 2014 coup. His government had strained relations with Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

You can probably already imagine what the human rights situation is like in Thailand and Singapore, right? Now, the administration is already defending itself on the Duterte invitation by saying it needs to shore up relations with countries in eastern Asia because otherwise North Korea is going to conquer the world, or something, and I assume it will offer the same justification for meeting with the repressive authoritarian leaders of Thailand and Singapore. They’re using the same argument to explain why Trump is suddenly in love with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. But, you know, you can shore up your ties to problematic-but-necessary dictators with a phone call, maybe a visit from Mr. Kushner’s intern. You don’t need to fête them at the White House and boost their stature both at home and abroad. And let’s be honest–it wasn’t North Korea that made Trump kiss Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s ass a few weeks ago. In that case we had to treat Sisi to a state visit because we’re worried about Islamic terrorism, a problem that Sisi has shown no ability to combat and every ability to exacerbate through his unchecked repression of any sort of political opposition.

The bottom line is, Donald Trump gets along well with dictators. He wishes he were one himself. Hell, his people are working at making him one. These are his people.

Regular readers will presumably know what I think of America’s long-stated “commitment” to human rights. But to put it in internet terms, when American politicians start talking about America’s commitment to human rights, here’s me:


America has never treated human rights as much more than a convenient excuse to criticize countries we don’t like, while we turn blind eye after blind eye toward human rights abuses committed by countries we do like, including our own. This hypocrisy has been damaging to US foreign policy interests, if for not other reason than that when we look the other way as another one of our allies brutalizes people, it often comes back to bite us in the ass later on (hello, Saddam Hussein). But hypocrisy isn’t an either-or thing, it’s a continuum. And if we were pretty hypocritical on human rights before Donald Trump took office, we’re now overwhelmingly, absurdly, laughably so.


Speaking of human rights, the Pentagon released a new report on civilian casualties in the war against ISIS, and hot damn is it good news:

At least 352 civilians have been killed in US-led strikes against Islamic Statetargets in Iraq and Syria since the operation began in 2014, the US military said on Sunday.

The military tally is far below those of other outside groups. Monitoring group Airwars, for example, estimates that 3,164 civilians have been killed by coalition air strikes. Reports from Mosul, Iraq, last month detailed one strike in which at least 150 civilians were killed.

Those other reports are being done by subversives, hippies, Marxists, people who don’t understand that the proper way to assess casualties in these sorts of strikes is, among other things, to assume that the people you kill are terrorists unless somebody can prove conclusively that they’re not.

What I don’t understand is, if you’re going to insult everyone by lowballing your death toll by a factor of ten, why stop there? Why not say America has never killed any civilians? Hell, say that we’ve designed weapons powerful enough to bring already dead civilians back to life. If you’re going to do propaganda, fuck it, do some propaganda.


The Syrian Democratic Forces said on Sunday that they’d made significant progress in capturing Tabqa from ISIS and now controlled most of the town except for a section in the north next to the Tabqa dam. Both the town and the dam are key preliminary targets that have to be taken before the SDF could begin an attack on Raqqa. While this is going on, of course, Turkey has been pounding positions held by the Kurdish YPG militia, the SDF’s main component group, in northeastern Syria, and says it will keep doing so. Part of the rationale here is, of course, to render the YPG unfit to operate as an American proxy, forcing Washington to sign on with whatever (likely hare-brained) plan Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has devised to put Turkish forces in a position to lead the attack on Raqqa instead of the SDF. Geographically there’s no way Erdoğan can get his forces to Raqqa at this point without going to full-on war with either the Syrian Army or the YPG, and in order to hopefully forestall the latter option, American forces have now deployed alongside the YPG near the Syria-Turkey border.

Elsewhere, on Saturday Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia “is ready to cooperate with the United States on settling the Syrian crisis.” Oh for sure, man. Now we can finally fix everything.


The Iraqi army’s chief of staff, Lt. General Othman al-Ghanmi, says that Mosul should be liberated “in a maximum of three weeks.” At this point I do kind of expect ISIS’s defenses in the Old City to collapse very quickly once they do collapse, so in that sense Ghanmi may be on to something. But while Iraqi Federal Police forces did make some small advances in the Old City yesterday, I wouldn’t bet on ISIS going to pieces in the next three weeks–it might, I just wouldn’t bet on it. What Ghanmi is telling Iraqis is that the city will be liberated before Ramadan begins, which is a bit too convenient an end point to take his assessment very seriously.

An American soldier was killed by an IED outside of Mosul on Saturday. Also on Saturday, Turkey launched yet another round of airstrikes against the PKK in northern Iraq, reportedly killing 14 of the Kurdish militia’s fighters.

When Mosul finally does fall, the likely next target for the Iraqis will be the town/city of Hawija, just west of Kirkuk. ISIS’s presence there was acutely felt during the early part of the Mosul campaign, when the group launched a major assault on Kirkuk via Hawija. It’s also been a base for ISIS attacks on nearby Tikrit. In hindsight it might have made more sense to liberate Hawija before Mosul because doing so would’ve closed off ISIS’s back door to launch counterattacks on Iraqi territory, but Kurdish and Iraqi leaders failed to reach an agreement on how to take the city, and it was believed that liberating Mosul first would then make it easier to go back and pick up Hawija. It’s likely that planners weren’t anticipating the Mosul operation taking this long.


It was quite a weekend for Turkish democracy. Not only were nearly 4000 more people purged from government jobs, and 45 more civil society groups shut down, for insufficient fealty to Erdoğan or whatever, but if you’re in Turkey you’re no longer allowed to access Wikipedia now for some reason. Freedom, my friends, drink it in. Also, Turkish TV stations are no longer allowed to broadcast dating shows, which…well, that actually might be OK.


Two more days, two more US drone strike in Yemen. On Saturday a strike in Yemen’s Shabwa province reportedly killed three members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, while a Sunday strike in Marib province reportedly killed five AQAP members.


It may mean nothing, but there’s a growing consensus among Iran analysts that conservative presidential challenger Ebrahim Raisi flubbed his big debut on the political stage by appearing too passive during Friday’s televised presidential debate. Raisi seems to have stuck to his canned talking points about alleviating poverty while leaving it to Tehran mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf to attack President Hassan Rouhani directly. This may have been a deliberate decision or it may have reflected Raisi’s uncertainty in the debate format, but, as I wrote on Friday, instead of making him seem “above the fray” it may instead have elevated Ghalibaf, who already has much better name recognition, to the position of Rouhani’s “real” opponent. Which could complicate any potential arrangement the two men might have for Ghalibaf to step aside before election day. It’s always possible Raisi might step aside to pave the way for Ghalibaf, but that would be quite a letdown for the up-and-coming Raisi. And Ghalibaf is less of a wild-card–and therefore, in my opinion, less of a threat to unseat Rouhani–than Raisi. At any rate, the debate’s real winner seems to have been Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, whose attacks on Ghalibaf were some of the most pointed of the whole debate. Jahangiri is expected to withdraw before election day so as not to cause Rouhani any problems.

The campaign appears to be crystallizing around two issues: Rouhani’s economic record, obviously, but also the question of whether, and how much, Iran really needs to open itself up to the outside world. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has criticized his president for making nice with the West and waiting for foreign investors to prop up the Iranian economy, and Raisi has followed suit. Perhaps in an effort to give Rouhani a boost, and worried that harsh rhetoric from the Trump administration is helping Iranian hardliners, the European Union is, in advance of the election, trying to find very public ways to show that it’s interested in doing business in Iran.

Saeed Karimian, the head of an Iranian satellite TV company who was convicted in absentia in an Iranian court last year on charges of crimes against the Iranian state (satellite TV is illegal in Iran even though many Iranians use it), was murdered in Istanbul on Saturday. Turkish police say the crime may have been motivated by “a financial dispute,” but it’s certainly possible that Iran was involved somehow.


On Saturday, ISIS reportedly killed senior Afghan Taliban figure Maulvi Daud outside of Peshawar, Pakistan. ISIS and the Taliban regularly clash in Afghanistan but it’s been exceedingly rare for that to spillover into Pakistan despite the fact that the Taliban has a substantial presence in that country and ISIS has carried out operations in Pakistan in the past.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar made his big return to public life on Saturday with an address in which he called on the Afghan government and the Taliban to resolve the country’s civil war peacefully. That’s quite a sentiment coming from Hekmatyar, who’s been one of Afghanistan’s most violent, most disruptive warlords for decades at the head of his Hezb-i-Islami paramilitary organization/political party. He’s now on the way to Kabul, where his presence will do who-knows-what for the already unstable Afghan government and its currently floundering war against the Taliban.


On Saturday, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif sacked two high-profile national security officials, foreign policy adviser Syed Tariq Fatemi and Information Ministry official Rao Tehseen Ali Khan, in an effort to appease Pakistan’s military. The slow-boiling crisis between Sharif and his military stems from an incident in October:

The controversy began last fall, when Dawn, considered the country’s leading English daily newspaper, published a front-page news article detailing an unprecedented confrontation between civilian and military leaders during a high-level meeting at the prime minister’s house.

Cyril Almeida, a well-known journalist there, wrote that the civilian leaders had chided the head of the intelligence agency for failing to act against militants in the country.

The news story sparked a furor among powerful generals, who, throughout the country’s history, have never been held accountable for their actions. The military called the leak of the meeting a breach of national security and urged strong, punitive action against those responsible for feeding the newspaper.

The military responded quickly, saying that it “rejected” Sharif’s move–presumably in that it didn’t go far enough. The Pakistani military is and long has been a political force, and with Sharif in serious ethics hot water right now stemming from Panama Papers leaks about his family’s finances, this is a volatile situation that could develop into something much more serious.


In addition to scoring a sweet invite to the White House, Rodrigo Duterte got another political gift when the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit came and went in Manila last week with nary a word about the thousands of people who have been killed absent due process during Duterte’s literal war on drugs and drug users.


Speaking of the ASEAN summit, the nations attending also elected not to take a hardline position about Chinese activity in the South China Sea, deciding not to repeat last year’s summit report’s mentions of Chinese “militarization” and “land reclamation.” In this they’re mostly following Duterte’s lead, as the Philippine president has been trying to improve relations with Beijing.


The USS Carl Vinson and its carrier strike group conducted exercises with the South Korean navy on Saturday and Sunday, as Pyongyang made blustery threats about sinking everybody involved. So maybe things are getting back to normal.


Apparently Donald Trump isn’t going to make South Korea pay for THAAD after all. Which is weird because it’s really unlike this president to just spew random words out of his mouth hole that his advisers later have to reinterpret.


Tunisian security forces carried out a raid on Sunday in which two men apparently planning some kind of terrorist attack were killed–one blew up a suicide belt he was wearing, and the other was killed by the Tunisians. The men are suspected of ties to either ISIS or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (or both?) and of planning some kind of attack during Ramadan.


The Malian parliament voted on Saturday to extend a state of emergency that has been in place since November 2015, and then, as if to punctuate the decision, on Sunday French forces killed 20 Islamist fighters in the area along the border between Mali and Burkina Faso.

If you’re interested in the story of how so much of Timbuktu’s rich historical heritage was preserved after Islamist forces captured the city in 2012, The Guardian has published an interesting piece on the residents who smuggled much of the city’s vast collection of manuscripts out of the city and away from danger.


Russian authorities arrested dozens of anti-Vladimir Putin protesters on Saturday in several cities across the country. The protests, organized by Putin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s banned “Open Russia” movement, called on Putin not to stand for yet another election in 2018. The protests themselves don’t seem to have been all that large.


Prime Minister Viktor Orbán seems to be bowing to EU pressure to back off his controversial effort to shut down Central European University. He told leaders of the European People’s Party, a coalition of right-wing parties in the EU parliament that had considered suspending Orbán’s Fidesz Party, that he will work with EU leaders to address concerns about protecting academic freedom.


Emmanuel Macron remains the decided front-runner in the May 7 French presidential run-off, but his candidacy is taking on the same sort of “hold your nose and vote against the other candidate” feel that you might remember from another fairly recent Western presidential race. Hopefully the results will be different this time. Meanwhile, there seems like a very real chance that, if Marine Le Pen isn’t able to defy the polls and win the presidency, her National Front party could break apart over internal tensions between its merely xenophobic wing (Marine Le Pen’s base) and its xenophobic/homophobic/antisemitic wing (which still adores her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, and really likes Jean-Marie’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen). The latter faction gritted its teeth to support Marine Le Pen despite the fact that she’s repudiated some of its Vichy-esque party dogma (the overt antisemitism, for example), but if she can’t deliver the presidency they’re going to wonder why they bothered.


A series of polls has shown Theresa May’s Tories losing a bit of their lead over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party ahead of the June 8 snap election, but their lead was already so big to begin with that even diminished it’s still double digits in even the narrowest polls. Labour’s forthcoming ass kicking is being framed by our not-at-all-in-the-bag-for-plutocracy American press, in this case by the billionaire Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post, as a warning to lefties here in the United States that the right path for the Democratic Party to regain power is–say it with me now–to move to the right. Same as it ever was:

“Labour is the party of the industrial proletariat — that was its original function. But Britain doesn’t have an industrial proletariat anymore,” Baxter said of a party that traces its roots to 1900 and the workers’ rights movements of factory-saturated northern England. “So there’s a big question as to what the Labour Party is for.”

I agree that it’s going to be tough for so-called workers parties, like Labour and the Democrats, who have gleefully enabled the gutting of workers’ rights and organized labor for the past half-century, to tack in a more labor-friendly direction after they’ve spent decades helping to make sure that labor is no longer a serious political force. Short of building a time-machine I’m not sure how to rectify that. My argument would be that, just for shits and giggles, maybe we could try supporting policies that help the 99% at the expense of the 1% just because they’re the right policies. Just a thought.

Anyway, the snap election is really about Brexit, and there was some news on that front this weekend as the EU-27 (everybody except Britain) met in Brussels to agree on a negotiating position. They agreed on a pretty tough one, as it turns out, that will insist London begin to settle issues related to the rights of EU nationals in the UK, pay the UK’s estimated 60 billion euro “divorce cost” (the UK’s share of EU commitments that were made when it was still a member), and sort out the Ireland-Northern Ireland border issue before talks can begin on a trade arrangement between the UK and the remaining EU. The EU is talking about a “phased approach” to talks, meaning that trade negotiations to begin if enough progress is being made on the core Brexit issues–EU hardliners had wanted to hold off on trade talks until those issues were completely settled, so this is a bit softer than that–and that there could be a transitional period beyond March 2019 where the UK might keep some elements of EU membership–as long as it also upheld responsibilities with respect to things like freedom of movement.

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