World update: September 30-October 1 2017


Let’s talk about nationalism for a minute. Nationalism sucks. It’s tribalistic, inherently discriminatory, often violent, exclusionary, and antithetical to values like liberty, egalitarianism, peace, and harmony. Nationalist parties are among the most loathsome political parties in the world: the National Front in France, Britain’s UKIP and the Tory right, Alternative for Germany, Turkey’s MTP, Hungary’s Fidesz, the Republican Party in the US, etc. The Baath Party was Arab nationalist, and I think most of us can agree that Baathism sucked. Nationalist movements are usually condemnable things that cloak themselves in nice-sounding ideals like self-determination for what is otherwise a naked appeal to base human sentiments for political reasons.

Nationalism is also, unfortunately, a thing that exists, and that has existed throughout human history. This is the point where somebody will chime in with the comment that nationalism didn’t exist as a concept until the 18th century, but call it what you want–nationalism, tribalism, bigotry–the idea has been around from the very beginning. And so while it’s more than fair to condemn the idea underpinning the movement for Catalan independence, it would be a mistake to imagine that it’s an idea that doesn’t have deep roots for many Catalonians. It would be an even bigger mistake to imagine that it’s an idea that can be beaten out of the Catalan people with riot gear and billy clubs.

Nationalism cuts many ways, really, and if it’s nationalism spurring the Catalan independence movement then it’s also nationalism that motivated the Spanish government and its police to respond to that movement’s decision to hold a peaceful referendum vote on Sunday with this:

and this:

The Catalan government says that at least 844 people were injured by what can only be called rampant police brutality throughout the region on Sunday. The police were charged by Madrid with preventing the independence referendum from being carried out, and most likely they’ve succeeded in doing that. Yes, the Catalan independence movement declared victory, but it was going to do that anyway. What the violence helped to do was to depress turnout, because who the hell would risk getting their skull caved in to vote no? The 90 percent landslide independence victory is thus invalidated by the ~42 percent turnout, with the assumption that most of the people who stayed home would have voted against secession in other circumstances.

But in delegitimizing the referendum through unchecked police violence, the Spanish government also delegitimized the idea of a united Spain. Or, rather, they legitimized the rationale for Catalan independence. Who would want to remain in a country that punishes political expression with brute violence? It’s fine for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to characterize the referendum as “an attack on the rule of law,” and he’s probably right, but what “rule of law” countenances police beating and stomping on people engaged in non-violent political expression? How does Rajoy make the case for Spain after this? How can he possibly imagine that he and his government and his country can just move forward now?

The European Union then took the opportunity to delegitimize itself by refusing to condemn the brutality. So there are no winner here, only various degrees of losers. Catalonia didn’t and won’t get its independence–at least not peacefully–but Spain was broken today nonetheless, and it’s not clear when or how it can be put back together.



In non-Kurdistan news for a change, the Iraqis began their assault on Hawijah proper on Friday. The Hawijah operation has been conducted in two phases, the first targeting the nearby town of Shirqat, which was liberated a little over a week ago. There’s little reason to expect that Hawijah will be any harder to take than Shirqat was, which is to say not hard at all.

In Kurdistan, not much has happened since the region’s airspace was closed off to international flights on Friday. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reiterated on Saturday that the Kurds will suffer for holding their independence referendum last week, “opening a wound in the region,” in his words. He then accused Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, of fomenting the Kurds’ independence bid, because why not? Ankara now says its dealings with Iraq will all run through Baghdad instead of Erbil, but we’ll see if they actually hold to that.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, meanwhile, tweeted on Saturday that his government “will not allow any attack” on the Kurds, which his spokespeople later clarified meant from either a foreign or domestic attacker. This is a nice sounding thing that’s probably meant to discourage any Popular Mobilization militias from going vigilante on the Kurds, but it doesn’t mean a whole lot when the Iraqi military is conducting joint exercises with Iran on the Kurdistan border.


Hezbollah and the Syrian army extended their control over a wider segment of the Jordanian border southeast of Damascus on Saturday, though it’s not clear exactly what territory they gained or from which rebel faction they took it.

Elsewhere, though, things are not going so well for Damascus. Improbably, ISIS has continued to sustain its broad counterattack along the M20 highway that runs between Damascus and Deir Ezzor. What looked like a one-off raid that was foiled when the Syrians retook the town of Shola has turned into a serious offensive, with reports circulating now that ISIS has captured the town of Qaratayn, which also sits along that highway. If ISIS can keep this going it’s going to force the Syrian army to bring reinforcements to the area, which will either weaken their offensive in Deir Ezzor province or bleed resources from central Syria at a time when new violence in the Idlib-Hama area seems likely to break out. Speaking of which, at least 28 civilians were killed in Syrian-Russian airstrikes in Idlib overnight between Friday and Saturday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.


Yemeni rebels say they shot down an American surveillance drone over Sanaa on Sunday. If true, it wouldn’t be the first US drone they’ve shot down over the course of the war, and of course we know the US has been providing targeting data to the Saudis. But this would be evidence that the US is proactively surveilling potential targets for the Saudis in Sanaa, targets whose military value could be very questionable that far away from the front lines.


Erdoğan told his parliament on Sunday that Turkey doesn’t “need” European Union membership anymore, but that he would not be the one to withdraw from accession talks. Erdoğan’s commitment to EU accession as anything more than a political tool has always been questionable, but it is a great political tool for him so you can understand why he’s reluctant to abandon it.


For those of you who are fans of collective punishment, I highly recommend this Al Jazeera piece on what happens to the families of Palestinians who attack Israeli soldiers:

Hassan Ankush leaned on his cane as he limped through the charred rubble of the home he lived in for four decades in the village of Deir Abu Mashaal.

“Killing my son was not enough for the Israelis,” he told Al Jazeera. “They had to come and destroy my home, too.”

Like other Palestinian families whose relatives committed attacks or alleged attacks against Israelis, Ankush is not accused of any wrongdoing. He is among the latest victims of Israel’s widely condemned policy of punishing families of Palestinian assailants by demolishing their homes.

According to Israeli rights group B’Tselem, thousands of Palestinians have been displaced by home demolitions. The Israeli government claims the goal is deterrence, but B’Tselem spokesman Amit Gilutz describes it as a form of “collective punishment” and a blatant violation of international law.


The Hasm Movement claimed responsibility for an explosion on Sunday at Myanmar’s embassy in Cairo. Nobody was hurt in the blast, which was initially treated as a gas leak, but which Hasm says was intended to send a message about Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya.



At least 10 Afghan police officers were killed and another nine wounded in an “erroneous” airstrike in Helmand province on Sunday. It’s not clear who conducted the strike.


Nawaz Sharif has returned to Pakistan from a brief self-imposed exile in Britain, and he now says he plans to lead his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party into elections in 2018. Sharif of course could still land in prison depending on how, or whether, the corruption case that forced him out as prime minister proceeds. He’s also got a struggle on his hands to keep the PML-N, which is as much a family enterprise as a political party, together–his brother Shahbaz, in particular, is angry at having been passed over in terms of succeeding Nawaz as PM.


President Donald Trump spent a significant part of his Sunday subtweeting his own State Department, because everything is fine and normal. After Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Saturday that the US has “lines of communication” with North Korea, Trump took to Twitter, where it seems increasingly possible that he will one day start a genuine war, to say this:

That’s exciting, isn’t it? I’m not sure if its the overt threat of war, again, or the fact that this is how Trump communicates with his own secretary of state, but either way I know I’m very intrigued. Trump also tweeted this:

This is a fascinating take, because 25 years ago Kim Jong-un was eight years old and I’m fairly certain no American presidents were being nice to him then. He’s only been in power for a little over six years–not that I’d expect Donald Trump to know that, I mean he’s only the President of the United States.



The Monkey Cage helps unpack recent tensions in Togo:

Tens of thousands of Togolese citizens flooded the streets of Togo in recent weeks to protest the rule of President Faure Gnassingbé. At least four people have died in clashes with security forces, with dozens more injured.

Faure (as he’s known in the West African country) has ruled Togo since 2005, installed by the military after his father’s death in office. Together, Faure and his father, Eyadéma Gnassingbé, have ruled Togo for 50 years.

Many Togolese citizens have had enough. But are Faure’s days numbered? Research by Erica Frantz and Andrea Kendall-Taylor suggests that autocrats are increasingly leaving power via popular protest. Among their findings: “The percentage of autocrats ousted amid revolt has tripled from 4 percent to 12 percent since the end of the Cold War.”

Will Faure be the next to go? Yes — this is likely. But not right away.


In the day’s other violent clashes over a separatist movement, at least eight people were killed by Cameroonian soldiers across the country’s English-speaking region on Sunday amid protests calling for independence. Sunday was the anniversary of the former British Cameroons’ independence from Britain and unification with the former French Cameroons into the modern nation of Cameroon. English-speaking Cameroonians today believe that they’ve been discriminated against in the predominantly French-speaking country, hence the movement to declare independence. Demonstrations scheduled to mark the anniversary were outlawed by the government, but happened anyway and were met with a violent response from Cameroonian security forces, at least some of whom apparently fired live ammunition at demonstrators for some reason.

Many of the sentiments I expressed with respect to Spain can be applied here, though Cameroon was already broken long before today, going all the way back to its days as a German colony and a divided post-World War I mandate. If it’s hard to see how Cameroon can ever come together again, it’s equally hard to see whether it was ever really together in the first place.



Among the voices urging Angela Merkel to lurch right to undercut the nationalist Alternative for Germany party–which, if you’re going to beat the fascists by becoming fascists, what’s the point?–are the leaders of her Christian Democratic Union party in states of the former East Germany. AfD did particularly well in the states of Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt, both in the eastern part of the country, where economic stagnation has alienated and apparently radicalized many conservative voters.


Two women were stabbed to death on Sunday at the main train station in Marseille, in what appears to have been a terrorist attack. Witnesses say the attacker appeared to be of North African descent and shouted Islamic slogans during the attack. ISIS later claimed credit.



The Colombian government and ELN rebels began a ceasefire on Sunday that should run through January 9 and can be extended if all goes well. Talks are ongoing in Ecuador to permanently end ELN’s rebellion, which would be the next milestone–after the FARC peace deal–in ending the country’s 53 year long civil war.


A 30 year old Somali refugee was arrested Sunday and charged with attempted murder for what was apparently a terrorist attack on Saturday evening in Edmonton. The attacker hit a police officer with his car, then got out of the vehicle and stabbed the officer several times with a knife before getting back in the car and leading police on a car chase during which he struck four pedestrians. Police reportedly found an ISIS flag in the car when they arrested the suspect.


Donald Trump also spent a significant part of his day continuing his Twitter spat with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz:

I have no idea why, this is just who he is. The situation on the island continues to be dire, with more than half of its people still without access to clean water. Containers full of supplies continue to languish in port for lack of a distribution network, and Trump still refuses to fully mobilize his $700 billion military, the only government entity Republicans will fund at a level needed to cope with situations like this, to go in and solve the problem. I hear helicopters are real helpful for distributing supplies to inaccessible places. If only Trump knew somebody with access to a bunch of helicopters.

While it may be trite to compare this administration’s neglect of Puerto Rico with the Bush administration’s neglect of New Orleans after Katrina, Russel Honore, the retired general who led the Katrina relief effort, is doing just that.

On the plus side, Trump did dedicate a golf trophy to the Puerto Rican people:

So they’ve got that going for them. Which is nice.

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