Conflict update, October 31

This is a very Halloween-shortened edition; I wouldn’t have even bothered except that there are a couple of developments worth noting.


The Syrian government is saying that 84 people have been killed in three days since the rebels began attacking western Aleppo. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which may have some sympathies toward the rebels but definitely has none for the government, puts the figure at 48, 17 of them children. There aren’t any major new developments to talk about here, but you’ll note that I frequently mention the Syrian government’s civilian body count, and I’d be doing myself and you readers a disservice if I didn’t do the same thing for the other side. And while I know the death tolls on either side aren’t comparable in raw figures, imagine if the rebels had the ability to fly over civilian neighborhoods in western Aleppo and shove barrel bombs down on to the people below. Do you think they would hesitate to do so? I don’t.

It seems to me that there comes a point in any war, even a war that had some noble roots (in this case peaceful protesters against a totalitarian regime being brutally massacred by said regime), where there’s too much blood and death and suffering for either side to claim the high ground. Both Assad and the rebels (and their foreign backers, let’s not leave them out) claim to be fighting for Syria, but they appear to be willing to kill, starve, and displace Syrians indiscriminately to achieve…what? What does victory look like at this point? Assad or some other dictator (for everybody’s sake hopefully not somebody like Abu Mohammad al-Julani) pretending to rule over an utterly hollowed-out husk of a nation that might never again really be at peace? This war to determine Syria’s future has already determined Syria’s future: it’s going to be miserable, no matter who “wins.”

Hopefully better news from Mosul, next. Continue reading

Ethiopia’s domino effect

Early this month, something horrific happened at an Oromo Irreechaa celebration/impromptu political protest in the central Ethiopian town of Bishoftu. The Ethiopian government says its police fired warning shots into the air in response to “troublemakers” in the 2 million-plus crowd attending the festival, and those shots triggered a stampede that killed more than 50 people. Others claim that the police fired straight into the crowd and killed well over 100 people and maybe as many as 300. As you try to decide which account to believe, it bears mention that the Ethiopian government has a long-established track record of vastly undercounting the death toll in situations like this. Regardless, the result of the Bishoftu event was a resumption of the widespread Oromian protests that have recurred in Ethiopia since last year, resulting in the declaration of a state of emergency a few days later.

The Oromian struggle for the protection of their basic human and civil rights has been going on for years, but it took the announcement that the government was appropriating traditional Oromian land for its planned expansion of Addis Ababa for the protests to strengthen and the situation to turn violent (the Amhara people, with similar grievances as the Oromo, have also started protesting against the government). That this has all come at a time when the country is facing its worst drought in a half century only increases the chances that the situation will spiral out of control. In the wake of what’s being called the “Irreechaa Massacre,” the Oromo situation may have escalated from protest movement to full-blown civil war, and while that obviously impacts Ethiopia first and foremost, it’s already also having ripple effects in northeastern Africa.

Take, for example, Somalia. Ethiopia has been a contributor to AMISOM, the African Union Mission in Somalia, since 2014, and had troops deployed in Somalia to counter al-Shabaab for several years before that. But with protests heating up back home and troops needed to quell them, Ethiopia has had to withdraw from many of the parts of Somalia that its troops were occupying, and unsurprisingly al-Shabaab has been taking advantage: Continue reading

Say hello to President Aoun


Hello, President Aoun!

As…expected, I guess, though it wouldn’t have been a total shock had something gone awry, Michel Aoun was elected the new President of Lebanon today, ending a more than 2 year vacancy in that position. Aoun is a former army chief of staff who, despite having fought against Syria and its allies during the Lebanese civil war, later made common cause with Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian factions in Lebanese politics, and his election was made possible through Hezbollah’s support and that of Saad al-Hariri, the Sunni politician who is aligned with anti-Syrian parties but will nevertheless now serve as Lebanon’s new Prime Minister. In the Lebanese system, the PM (who by law must be a Sunni) is actually the more powerful figure, but the president (who by law must be a Maronite Christian) appoints the PM in consultation with parliament. Still, it will be interesting to see how these two manage to work together, and how Hariri manages to work with a parliament that is still almost evenly split between pro- and anti-Syrian coalitions (the pros have a slight plurality).

There is an opportunity for a Hariri-Aoun partnership to take advantage of the attention Syria is getting (and of the effect that cheap oil is having on the Saudi and Iranian foreign aid budgets) to put Lebanese politics, which historically have been dominated by outside powers, on a more independent footing, which would be good for Lebanon. But that effort would face a lot of resistance from Lebanese factions that are themselves very involved in what’s happening in Syria. At any rate, the first order of business in this new, and maybe very brief, era of good feelings has to be finding a permanent solution to Lebanon’s recurring trash crisis, right?




Conflict update: October 30


Rebel forces assaulting western Aleppo to try to break the government siege of eastern Aleppo are giving Bashar al-Assad a run for his money in the human carnage department. Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, said today that “scores of civilians” have been killed by rebel artillery and suicide bombers since the western Aleppo assault began on Friday. Activists put the number at 40, 16 of them children. Imagine what these guys could do with a few helicopters and some barrel bombs. Syrian state media accused the rebels of firing chlorine gas shells at government troops in western Aleppo, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that some government fighters had died of asphyxiation, which suggests, though doesn’t confirm, the use of chlorine. Russia, meanwhile, has reportedly sent three submarines to join the carrier group it currently has steaming toward the eastern Mediterranean. These subs, armed with cruise missiles, could participate in some kind of all-out bombardment of eastern Aleppo, which is what most observers seem to think is going to happen once that Russian battle group gets into position.


More Popular Mobilization Unit forces have reportedly joined the PMU advance west of Mosul toward the city of Tal Afar. I appeared on Alhurra earlier today to talk about Mosul, and whenever I do TV I have to think through stuff so I don’t embarrass myself on air (any more than I do anyway), so here’s what I think about the decision to send the PMU toward Tal Afar.

The PMU were going to participate in the Mosul operation whether Baghdad, the KRG, or the US wanted them to or not. So the question becomes, do you want these (rightly or not) controversial militias participating in the operation as part of a plan, in a way that directs their energies productively and minimizes the risk that they’ll destabilize the already unstable coalition fighting to liberate Mosul? Or do you want them to just march on up to Mosul and do whatever the hell they want? I think the former is obviously the better choice. So, then, what should they do? Well, look at the map around Mosul: Continue reading

Today in history: a lot of stuff

So many things happened on October 30 that relate to this blog’s usual material that it would be impossible to pick just one to talk about. Last year I wrote about three of them, but instead of reblogging all three I thought I’d just list them all here in chronological order.

Antioch surrenders to the Arabs (637): This one was fairly anti-climactic, since the Byzantines had already retreated into Anatolia by this point and the caliphal armies faced little resistance. Still, Antioch was one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire–hell, in the whole world–before it fell, and then it quickly deteriorated into a small frontier outpost before a brief revival during the Crusader era, so its surrender warrants some kind of commemoration.

The Eighth Crusade ends (1270): One of the greatest of the Crusader catastrophes, and that’s saying something. The famed Louis IX of France, AKA St. Louis (shown below in a 16th century painting by El Greco), tried to redeem his failures during the Seventh Crusade by capturing Tunis, and in the process got a big chunk of his army, including himself, killed by disease in the hot North African weather.


El Greco’s portrait of Louis IX (Wikimedia)

The Battle of Río Salado (1340): This is the last time a North African principality tried to cross into the Iberian Peninsula and reestablish Muslim rule there. A combined Marinid and Granadan army was defeated by a combined Castilian and Portuguese army, and the Reconquista continued apace.

The Armistice of Mudros (1918): The Ottomans I think sometimes get a bad rap for losing World War I, because, hey, if you only go by the final result it was a pretty total Ottoman defeat. But the fact of the matter is that Ottoman forces generally acquitted themselves well for most of the war, especially in Europe and the Caucasus, and right up until the bitter end there was reason to believe that the empire, or at least a shrunken version of it, would survive, with the loss of its Arab territories somewhat cushioned by gains made against the Russians following the events of 1917. But when Bulgaria was forced to surrender in September 1918, and the Ottomans learned that Germany was on the verge of doing the same, it quickly became clear that the path was wide open for a massive Allied army to march on Istanbul, and the Ottomans realized that they couldn’t withstand that.

The Ottoman surrender, known as the Armistice of Mudros, was signed on October 30, 1918 on board a British ship in Moudros harbor on the Island of Lemnos. The Ottomans surrendered all their garrisons outside Anatolia, disbanded their army, gave up whatever territory they’d captured at Russian expense, and gave the Allies the right to occupy Ottoman territory basically at will. The Allies occupied Istanbul and began partitioning the empire, a process that only ended when the Turkish War of Independence both deposed the last Ottoman sultan-caliph and ensured that Anatolia would remain united and form the core of a new Turkish republic.


Conflict update, October 29


It took a few days, but the predominantly-Shiʿa Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) have now joined the Mosul offensive. With regular Iraqi forces pushing toward Mosul from the south and Kurdish Peshmerga advancing from the east and north, the PMU are being deployed to the west to capture surrounding towns and fully encircle the city. Their goal, for now, is Tal Afar, a city that’s not terribly close to Mosul (~50 km by the most generous measures) but that does sit on the main east-west artery that one might take if, say, one were trying to get desperately needed weapons to one’s psychopathic brethren in Syria, hypothetically speaking.


Tal Afar (as usual, thanks to Google Maps)

The plan is to have the PMU cut off these western escape routes and then stay put while the Iraqi army makes the actual assault on Mosul. Given the history, both real and perceived, of the way the PMU have been interacting with Sunni locals in liberated places like Tikrit and Fallujah, keeping them away from Mosul itself makes sense. Unfortunately it’s another potential flashpoint with Turkey, the uninvited guest that nevertheless insists it will be participating in the liberation of Mosul, don’t worry you can thank them later. The Turks are concerned about giving the Iranian-backed militias that make up part of the PMU any role in the operation at all, and they’re particularly concerned about the fact that the PMU will be going into Tal Afar, whose population is primarily Iraqi Turkmen (ethnic Turks living in Iraq). Ankara has decided that it is the protector of both Syrian and Iraqi Turkmen, mostly because it’s convenient for Ankara’s foreign policy aims, so this is another place where this whole convoluted offensive could fall apart.

Ankara is also apparently considering an attack on Sinjar, because I guess the Yazidis there haven’t suffered enough. Turkey claims that the region is becoming a PKK base. It was one thing when Tayyip Erdoğan’s “neo-Ottomanism” was mostly limited to expressions of Turkish soft power, but now that he really does seem to think that he’s an emperor I have to say it’s pretty problematic.


Moscow may be resisting the urge to resume airstrikes on eastern Aleppo in response to the new rebel offensive in western Aleppo, but it does seem to be giving air cover to the Syrian army’s efforts to defeat that offensive:

Syrian government forces launched a counteroffensive Saturday under the cover of airstrikes in an attempt to regain control of areas they had lost to insurgents the day before in the northern city of Aleppo, activists and state media said.

Meanwhile, insurgents launched a fresh offensive on the city, a day after embarking on a broad ground attack aimed at breaking a weeks-long government siege on the eastern rebel-held neighborhoods of Syria’s largest city.

The insurgents were able to capture much of the western neighborhood of Assad where much of Saturday’s fighting was concentrated, according to the Syrian army and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Observatory said the new offensive by Syrian troops and their allies went under the cover of Russian and Syrian airstrikes but government forces did not succeed in regaining control of areas they lost. The group said the fighting and airstrikes are mostly on Aleppo’s western and southern edges.

The rebels also reportedly launched an attack on the Zahraa neighborhood, but the fighting there seems to have been inconclusive.

Continue reading

It’s a bad time to be a separatist leader in Ukraine

Notwithstanding whatever arrangements European leaders are concocting in their occasional summit meetings, the conflict in eastern Ukraine is still very much alive, albeit frozen. Literally, come to think of it, given the approach of another Ukrainian winter. Separatists in the Donbas are tired after three years of war, but they’re entrenched, and they’re still getting Russian support, and they don’t seem inclined to make any concessions to Kiev. Kiev, meanwhile, won’t move on promises to decentralize authority or allow elections in the east until some concessions are made, in particular until the separatists relinquish control over their sections of the Ukraine-Russia border to the government. The separatists don’t trust Kiev to keep its word, and so they have no interest in conceding the border. Like I said, it’s frozen.

But something did happen a couple of weeks ago to one of the best-known separatist leaders. Well, at least he used to be one of the best-known separatist leaders:

Arsen Pavlov, the commander, who went by the nom de guerre Motorola after the brand of walkie-talkie he preferred, was blown up as he rode the elevator in his apartment building on Sunday in Donetsk, the larger of the rebels’ two urban strongholds in eastern Ukraine, Russian news accounts said.

Each side blames the other for the killing: Ukrainian officials said Russian special forces had been purging the charismatic but unpredictable early leaders of the rebel movement, while the separatists said Ukrainian assassins were operating behind their lines.

The leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, threatened retaliatory attacks in other parts of Ukraine, but those haven’t materialized yet. But here’s the really interesting bit: Pavlov isn’t the first rebel leader to die under similar circumstances. In fact there has been a string of these kinds of incidents:

Pavlov is the latest separatist commander, and among the most prominent, to die in mysterious circumstances since the conflict first erupted. As the war in eastern Ukraine drags on, with the death toll at around 10,000 and no real end in sight, leaders of the areas known as the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) have been meeting their demise in apparently safe surroundings, far from the dangers of the battlefield.

Last month, the former prime minister of the LNR, Gennady Tsyplakov, purportedly “committed suicide” in detention after separatist authorities rounded up dozens of regime figures who were perceived to present an internal threat and accused them of plotting a coup. LNR officials claimed that he had hanged himself in his cell because he was so consumed with guilt over “the gravity of his crime.”

Just days earlier, a separatist field commander, Yevgeny Zhilin, was gunned down in a Moscow restaurant. Last December, Pavel Dremov, a Cossack battalion commander, was assassinated by car bomb just hours after celebrating his own wedding. Earlier that year, Aleksey Mozgovoy, the founder of the Ghost Brigade, a pro-Russian militant battalion in the LNR, was killed in a roadside ambush of mines and machine guns in a stretch of land he regarded as his private fiefdom. Alexander Bednov, a commander known as “Batman,” was killed during an attack on his convoy on Jan. 1, 2015. And these are just the most notable figures; analysts say there have been at least a dozen more such deaths.

Occam’s Razor would say the culprits are the Ukrainian government and/or any of those right-wing militias whose existence they’re always trying to hide. Indeed, a video has surfaced of four guys identifying themselves as Ukrainian neo-Nazis and claiming to have killed Pavlov, though as you might imagine there are some doubts as to its authenticity. But these killings, or at least some of them, could also easily be the result of intra-rebellion rivalries (Pavlov was apparently a big player in the Donbas scrap metal business who could have been killed by a competitor), and it’s also entirely possible that the Russians are behind them. Indeed, the sophistication with which some of these hits have been carried out suggests Russian, more than Ukrainian and far more than rebel, involvement.

But why, you ask? Well, the theory goes that, partly because the conflict is now mostly frozen, Russia is trying to class up the Donbas so that it can ease itself out of direct involvement. Ideally, they’d like to establish Donbas autonomy as a foregone conclusion in international talks, put the onus on Ukraine to make it happen, and then withdraw with their mission mostly accomplished and begin arguing for a lifting of international sanctions. But the international community is going to be reluctant to push for eastern Ukrainian rights so long as the separatists are led by people who are suspected of committing war crimes over the past couple of years. Pavlov happens to have been suspected of committing war crimes, and the fact that he had a high profile but, reportedly, not a big base of support within the separatist community, made him an ideal candidate to get knocked off. It may also be that Russia wants to get rid of rebel leaders who might balk at whatever peace deal Russia finally negotiates with Ukraine/France/Germany/whomever, though there’s no indication that Pavlov specifically would have been a risk to try something like this.

Regardless of the culprit, it seems likely that attacks on separatist leaders are going to continue, and while the leaders who are being killed might have threatened to escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the fact that they’re being violently taken out also threatens to escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The longer Kiev and the rebels both refuse to budge, the better the chances become that this war will come unfrozen.