Conflict update: January 17 2017


Easily the single worst thing that happened today was the Nigerian air force’s mistaken bombing of a government-run displaced persons camp in Rann, in the northeastern part of the country. Pilots were apparently looking for a Boko Haram force reportedly amassing in the area, and instead wound up bombing a camp full of people who have been horribly victimized by Boko Haram. There’s an extraordinarily cruel joke in there somewhere, or maybe the whole episode is the joke, I don’t know. The New York Times, citing Doctors Without Borders, says at least 52 people were killed and another 200 injured, but earlier casualty estimates (citing government sources) were far higher than that, and with the likelihood that some of the injured will die overnight before they can be evacuated to proper medical facilities (Rann is hard to reach under the best of circumstances), the figure of 52 dead is undoubtedly too low.


Iraqi forces continue to sweep through eastern Mosul, and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said this evening (Iraqi time, obviously) that some unspecified operation had begun in western Mosul. He may have been talking about the southern shelling of the Mosul Airport, which is on the western side of the Tigris and may be the first Iraqi target on that side of the river. ISIS fighters fleeing to western Mosul are reportedly blowing up buildings and bridges in their wake, and, more troublingly, trying to drag civilians across the river with them to serve as human shields.

I recommend this piece from Al Monitor about Iraqi Christians and their return to towns and homes in Ninewah province that have been devastated in the fighting. Many Iraqi Christians may never return, such has been the degree of destruction. The plight of Iraqi Christians may not seem as desperate as that of, e.g., the Yazidis, who are so few in number that they were genuinely almost driven out of existence when ISIS attacked Sinjar, but at an individual and family level Iraqi Christians have suffered as terribly as anybody else at ISIS’s hands.

In Baghdad, a car bomb detonated in a predominantly Shiʿa neighborhood, killing at least seven people.


Continue reading

Today in World War I: the Battle of Sarikamish ends (1915)

and that's the way it was

The Battle of Sarikamish was an overwhelming Russian victory whose outcome put the Ottomans on the defensive in World War I’s Caucasus theater of operations right up until the 1917 October Revolution took Russia out of the war altogether. Its military impact was fairly substantial–World War I might have been much different if the Ottomans had been able to make a sustained offensive into Russia via the Caucasus–but the Ottomans ultimately gained back the territory they’d lost as a result of this battle. Sarikamish’s greatest impact was felt off the battlefield, by the Armenian people. The Armenian Genocide was a long time coming and had multiple causes. But Sarikamish was one of the most immediate ones, owing to one man’s desperate need to dodge the blame for his failures on the battlefield.

The state of Europe and the Caucasus in January 1915; note Sarikamish there on the right (via mental_floss

View original post 1,135 more words

Conflict update: January 16 2017



Mosul’s condition, current through earlier today (Wikimedia | Kami888)

With Mosul University in government hands, ISIS’s ability to defend eastern Mosul seems to be collapsing pretty quickly. One of the big changes in the recent course of the battle, in addition to a drastic decline in the number of ISIS suicide attacks, has been that Iraqi forces are no longer having to go back and clean up previously liberated areas two, three, four times. This is undoubtedly reflective of ISIS’s overall collapse, but it probably also reflects the decision to reinforce the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service with regular army and federal police forces that can better hold and secure territory that the CTS has liberated. Mosul airport now seems to be taking fire from Iraqi forces in the south, in advance of an expected move there. If Iraqi forces are able to advance from the south it will force ISIS defenders in western Mosul to defend on at least two fronts.

Two problems continue to plague residents of the city. One, which we’ve covered before, is that civilians are dying and being badly injured in the fighting. Obviously you expect civilian casualties in a battle like this, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that ISIS is directly targeting civilians as it retreats, which is why the rate of civilian casualties in Mosul has been higher than that for a “typical” urban battle. Conversely, Iraqi forces have probably been more careful about civilian casualties than might have been expected, given the way the liberations of Ramadi and Fallujah went, which is part of the reason why the offensive has gone a bit slower than many expected. The second problem involves what to do with all the dead, civilian and otherwise. Giving the dead a proper burial in a war zone is pretty challenging, as you might imagine, and plus many of the casualties are ISIS fighters whom nobody is particularly interested in properly burying. Lots of makeshift graves are going to have to be dug up and attended when the fighting is over.


In the latest turn of the will they/won’t they/what difference does it make saga of the Syrian rebels’ possible attendance at the January 23 Astana peace talks, it seems they will be attending, or at least they’ll be represented by Jaysh al-Islam leader Mohammad Alloush. Well, some of them will be: Continue reading

Conflict update: January 15 2017

Yeah, I know I originally put the wrong date on yesterday’s post. Don’t @ me.


Donald Trump has told the London Times that he wants to do a deal with Russia to trade sanctions relief for Russia’s agreement to cut nuclear weapons “very substantially.” This might actually be good news, but let’s hold off a bit seeing as how it’s Donald Trump saying this. For one thing, while I remain unconvinced, it is entirely possible that Trump has been compromised by Russia. If you start from that premise, and assume that what Trump really wants to do is lift the sanctions, then in order to maintain a fig leaf of justification he’ll need something from Russia. A vague and hard to verify “agreement” to reduce nuclear stockpiles might be just the ticket.

For another thing, since he started running for president Donald Trump has articulated so many contradictory positions on nuclear weapons (and everything else) that it’s impossible to know what he actually means and what’s just spewing out of his mouth while his brain is on cruise control. In the same interview, Trump also criticized Russia’s intervention in Syria, which is new for him but ultimately superficial and probably intended to create some rhetorical daylight between him and Moscow without creating any actual daylight.

The other big item in Trump’s Times interview was his continued criticism of NATO and the EU. He called NATO “obsolete,” again, argued that Brexit would be great for Britain, and criticized the EU as an instrument of German domination. The thing is that Trump isn’t entirely wrong here. NATO is in serious need of reform. I think Brexit is going to suck for Britain, but that’s mostly because the people in charge of it are some of the worst human beings in the UK, not because leaving the EU is necessarily a bad idea for any single country. And, well, the EU is dominated by Berlin. But these institutions are important for reasons that go beyond how they’re functioning day-to-day; the EU (and NATO to a lesser extent) is there because the early 20th century proved pretty conclusively that when European countries don’t have some kind of super-national body holding them together, they start tearing each other apart and dragging the rest of the planet along with them. They both need to be reformed, but doing away with either entirely would be unnecessarily risky. Donald Trump is openly undermining these two bodies, and he’s doing it in ways that, call it coincidence, align pretty well with Russian interests.


Continued fighting in Wadi Barada has upended a deal that had been reached to allow the Syrian government in to the area to restore Damascus’s water supply. This puts millions of people in Damascus in a pretty serious situation, seeing as how they’ve been without access to their main water source since shortly before Christmas. Additionally, the fighting is killing people directly–for example, government shelling hit a makeshift shelter in the village of Deir Qanoun today, killing at least seven, and by some accounts 12, civilians.

Meanwhile, in “to the victors go the spoils” news, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported on Sunday that Moscow plans to begin upgrading both its Syrian air base, in Latakia, and its Syrian naval base, in Tartus.


Iraqi forces at Mosul University spent the day largely in mop-up mode, securing the campus after taking it from ISIS yesterday. As it is wont to do when it withdraws from an area, ISIS left a considerable number of booby traps in its wake, so the process of thoroughly rendering the campus safe may take a little time. The entire southeastern part of the city has now been deemed liberated. Things are bad enough from ISIS’s perspective that the group has reportedly begun fighting internally–ten fighters were reportedly killed on Saturday in a dispute between a group who retreated to western Mosul and another group in western Mosul who accused the first group of cowardice.


Continue reading

Conflict update: January 14 2017


Iraqi commanders are saying that their forces have seized control of Mosul University from ISIS, a major step toward the full liberation of eastern Mosul. ISIS had been using the university as a base of operations, so now that’s denied to them, and the campus sits in a tactically significant position overlooking a big chunk of the eastern bank of the Tigris. The university operation went a little faster than I would have guessed, in part because the campus is devoid of civilians, which allowed the Iraqis and their coalition air cover to go a little more all-out than they’ve been doing when fighting in more populated areas of the city. That’s also meant that the burden on field hospitals on the outskirts of the city has been lessened over the past couple of days.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari has been working on something that could do more for Iraqi security than anything short of liberating Mosul: stabilizing relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Baghdad offered Jaafari as a mediator to the Iranians last year after Riyadh broke off diplomatic ties between the two countries, and he’s apparently been carrying messages between the two governments. His efforts may have helped secure a minor breakthrough earlier this week, when the Iranians and Saudis agreed to discuss arrangements for Iranian pilgrims on this year’s Hajj.

????? ???????? ??????????? ????????? ????? ???????? ?? ?????? ???? ?????

Ibrahim al-Jaafari (R) sitting next to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a memorial service for former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani earlier this week (Wikimedia)


The Syrian High Negotiations Committee announced today that it supports the peace talks scheduled to happen in Astana, Kazakhstan, starting on January 23. They said this despite the fact that new fighting in Idlib and near Damascus continued to put the lie to the notion that the country is under a ceasefire leading up to the talks, and also despite the fact that you’d be hard pressed to find five people currently in Syria who give two shits what the High Negotiations Committee has to say about pretty much anything. The HNC is supposed to be the main political body underlying the rebellion, but the main groups doing most of the rebel fighting at this point are forces–Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, etc.–that have nothing to do with the HNC. Their endorsement of these talks means very little in any practical sense.

Speaking of the Astana talks, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu confirmed today that the United States has been invited to participate after all.

To the east, ISIS has launched a major attack on the city of Deir Ezzor, which drew a response from the Syrian air force. Deir Ezzor is the only city in eastern Syria still under government control, but it’s been besieged by ISIS off and on for a couple of years now. It’s likely that fighters who fled Mosul are part of the renewed ISIS offensive here.


Continue reading

Today in South Asian history: the Third Battle of Panipat (1761)

As the title says, the battle we’re talking about today was the third, and final (so far, at least), major battle fought near the northern Indian city of Panipat, which you can see marked on this handy Google map I just made:


Hi, Panipat!

Usually when a place is the site of three major battles, particularly when those battles take place over the (relatively) compressed period of about 250 years, the reason is, as real estate agents say, location, location, location. Panipat, located more or less along the most direct route from the Khyber Pass (historically the best/most popular route through the Hindu Kush mountains) through the Punjab and on to Delhi, is definitely situated in the kind of place where armies might frequently be found on the march.

This Third Battle of Panipat can be distinguished from the previous two because it’s the first one not to involve the Mughal Empire. In case you’re wondering, the First Battle of Panipat (1526), in which Babur’s forces defeated the army of the Lodi dynasty of Delhi, was a crucial event in the formation of the Mughal Empire. The Second Battle of Panipat (1556) was a crucial event in the restoration of the Mughal Empire and the final defeat of the Pashtun Suri dynasty. The Mughals, it should be noted were still around in 1761, but they very much weren’t what they used to be. After decisively losing the Mughal-Maratha Wars in the late 17th century and early 18th century, they’d begun ceding vast swaths of their empire to the Hindu Marathas, who were moving north from the Deccan Plateau. After Nader Shah’s Afsharid army sacked Delhi in 1739 and carted off most of the Mughals’ moveable wealth, they were out of both money and (increasingly) territory. By the 1760s, the Mughals controlled Delhi and…well, not very much else, and they really only continued to control Delhi because the Marathas allowed it.

Today’s Battle of Panipat marks what could be considered a high water mark of the Maratha Confederacy (or the Maratha Empire if you prefer), but it also marks something close to the high water mark of the Durrani Empire of Afghanistan. So we should probably say something about both of them. Continue reading

Conflict update: January 13 2017 (UPDATED)

OK, so, it’s been a long day and I’m getting started on this very late, so no time to dilly dally. Of course, if I don’t finish this by midnight I’ll just post it and then keep adding stuff to it after midnight, per my usual routine.

Oh, you didn’t know I did that? I’m revealing trade secrets.


This was not a super day for refugee rights. First, I think on Wednesday I badly undersold the plight currently facing migrants who are trapped in the Balkans because no European country will take them in. These people are in a desperate situation:

Thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are enduring “appalling” conditions in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, and have been left camped in temperatures that have dropped well below freezing, aid groups have said.

Serbia is currently hosting an estimated 7,200 refugees, according to the UNHCR. Although the majority are being sheltered in government-run camps, aid workers estimate that around 2,000 are still on the streets or sheltering in an abandoned warehouse behind the main bus station in Belgrade.

The International Rescue Committee estimates “several hundred” of those trapped are children. One of those is 17-year-old Ajmal. The teenager has been living in Belgrade for a month after making the tough journey from Afghanistan.

“At the moment it is very difficult here, my life is very hard here,” Ajmal (not his real name) told BuzzFeed News over the phone from Serbia. “It is very cold, I have so many problems with different things: the food, the clothing, everything.”

Ajmal continued: “I sleep where I can. I am just homeless here. I don’t have a home or a tent to sleep here, it is very difficult. We are making fire every night but I can’t keep myself warm.”

The teenager attempted the border from Turkey three times. He’s desperate to move on, and to continue studying to be a doctor or an engineer to “help my country and all people.” Ajmal was forced to flee Afghanistan after his school near Kabul was targeted by insurgents. “I didn’t want to leave but I couldn’t learn,” he said. “If I go back, they will kill me.”

It is utterly appalling that Western society can allow this to happen and not even blink. We’re constantly told that American foreign policy has failed because we’re not bombing enough parts of the world at the moment, or not bombing them frequently enough. Bullshit. This is the failure.

Second, the EU is continuing to try, and fail, to cut a deal with the Libyan government (I’m using that term very loosely) to prevent more migrants from crossing the Mediterranean. This is because the EU would prefer that these people be stuck in Libya, a country in chaos, torn apart by a civil war that the EU helped cause, than that they sully the pristine shores of Europe with their gross refugee cooties. The irony here is that even if the EU could get a deal for the Libyan government to help it screw these migrants over, it wouldn’t mean anything because the government that the Europeans have helped to install in Libya doesn’t even control Tripoli, let alone the rest of the country.

Third, the Obama administration officially ended the “wet foot/dry foot” policy, which said that Cuban refugees trying to flee the island would be turned back if they were intercepted in the water but given asylum if they made it to American land. Now anybody attempting to get to the US from Cuba will be treated like anybody trying to get to the US from anywhere else–i.e., not well. Whatever you may think of America’s Cuba policy, which has been impossibly fucked up for decades and is only now starting to unfuck itself, this is a decision that makes it harder for Cuban refugees to find refuge.

Finally, in Myanmar–oh yes, you knew this was coming–4000 Myanmar civilians have been blocked by Chinese authorities from taking refuge in China after attempting to flee fighting between the government and separatist rebels in the northern state of Kachin. An estimated 23,000 people have been displaced in Kachin since fighting broke out a few weeks ago. Also, and here’s the part you knew was coming, representatives from Bangladesh and Myanmar have begun negotiations on how best to continue eradicating the Rohingya. Should the 65,000 Rohingya who have fled Myanmar in the past three months stay in ramshackle camps in Bangladesh, the country that doesn’t want them? Or should they be sent back to ramshackle villages in Myanmar, the country that’s actively trying to slaughter them? Choices, choices.


The biggest news here is something that is still developing, which is Russia’s decision to invite the United States–Donald Trump’s United States–to its January 23 Syrian peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. Moscow is refusing to confirm this, but it seems pretty clear that an invitation has been made, and the reason I note that it was made to Donald Trump’s America is because it wasn’t made through regular diplomatic channels: Continue reading