MENA conflict update, October 25


A day after informing the world that there would be no more humanitarian ceasefires in Aleppo unless the US somehow made al-Qaeda surrender, today the Russians let everybody know that their aircraft haven’t come within six miles of the city in a week and that they plan to continue this hold on airstrikes indefinitely. This freeze went largely ignored amid Russian and Syrian artillery bombardments of eastern Aleppo, which use ordinance that explodes just as well as something dropped from the air, but, ah, credit where credit is due, I guess. This seems less like an act of mercy on the Russians’ part and more like the kind of thing you’d do when shifting from bombarding a place to trying to conquer that place on the ground. All airstrikes are imperfect, and Russia and Syria aren’t exactly packing the latest in smart bomb technology, so if they’re sending ground forces in it’s more or less incumbent upon them to also ease off on the bombing runs. The Russians also said that, while another ceasefire is out of the question, corridors for people to evacuate the city could still be opened up if there’s a demand for it.

On the other major active front in Syria, Turkey and its rebel proxies are approaching the ISIS-held city of al-Bab, which is maybe 25 miles northeast of Aleppo, shown here:

(Google Maps)

The fight for al-Bab may be Turkey’s first real military test since it invaded Syria in August. Rao Komar at War on the Rocks compares it to the Syrian Democratic Forces’ operation to capture Manbij from ISIS, which took months, and he notes that the SDF was a heck of a lot better organized and more battle hardened than the rebels fighting with Turkey. On the other hand, the SDF didn’t have Turkish armor and air support, so I tend to think this operation will be easier than the capture of Manbij. That doesn’t mean it will be easy, though.

Also elsewhere in Syria, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is talking as though the operation to capture Raqqa is going to begin soon, as in “before Mosul falls” soon:

“Yes, there will be overlap (in the Mosul and Raqqa campaigns) and that’s part of our plan and we are prepared for that,” Carter said after a gathering of 13 countries in the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State.

That’s…interesting, considering that there are a lot of details about a Raqqa operation that are still up in the air, little questions like “what force is actually going to capture the city?” Recent reporting has suggested that there’s been some debate within the Obama administration about whether to push ahead with a Raqqa operation now or put more time into planning it. It sounds like the debate may be over.

Finally, elsewhere but not in Syria, Spain, of all places, is…well, read for yourselves:

Spain is facing international anger as it apparently prepares to refuel a flotilla of Russian warships due to step up strikes against the beleaguered city of Aleppo.

Politicians and military figures condemned the support from a Nato member, while the head of the alliance indicated Madrid should rethink the pit stop.

Warships from an eight-strong group led by the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov will take on fuel and supplies from the Spanish port of Ceuta after passing through the Straits of Gibraltar on Wednesday morning, Spanish papers reported.

The EU is in the middle of a messy internal debate over maybe sanctioning Russia over Syria, but with the Brexiting UK leading the push for more sanctions many of the rest of the EU states don’t seem inclined to go along. Spain regularly refuels Russian ships and makes some decent cash for their trouble, and they’re not about to let a little thing like more dead Syrians get in the way of that.

Mosul, Yemen, and Libya after the break.


The fresh news out of Mosul today involves some brand new ISIS atrocities:

Islamic State has seized and killed dozens of people in areas around Mosul that it still controls in an apparent bid to quell opposition and instil fear as opposition forces march on the group’s last Iraqi stronghold.

The United Nations, Kurdish forces and occupants of Isis-held areas all said they had evidence of fresh atrocities from the group. Isis has embraced a rule by terror since its militants took control of swaths of Iraq and Syria, committing and publicising massacres, attempted genocide of religious minorities and dissidents, widespread sexual enslavement, torture and child abuse.

The latest killings seem mostly targeted at former members of the security forces who Isis suspects might rise up against it, suspected resistance fighters or civilians who resist orders.

The group had allowed some members of the police to “repent” of their former allegiance and hand in their weapons when it took control, but its commanders are now said to be on high alert for plots.

ISIS is throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the Iraqis to try to blunt the Mosul offensive, but so far nothing they’ve tried has amounted to much more than an inconvenience. Things are going badly enough that the group’s leaders are trying to rationalize loss after loss for an organization whose slogan is “Remaining and Expanding.” As with any group of fanatics, they rationalize their losses the same way they rationalize their victories–they’re all part of The Plan:

The answer is surprisingly simple: The Islamic State’s mouthpieces preach that this is a period of “trial” (ibtila). It is not that God has ceased to favor the Islamic State, for that is of course inconceivable. Rather, divine favor comes with ups and downs. It is God’s practice to subject His creation to trials and tests, as He subjected the prophets and the early Muslims before our time.

As a result, this misfortune is nothing to cry over. On the contrary, as the above article puts it, “we should … rejoice in God’s choice ….to extend the period of preparation, tribulation, and difficulty.”

As that piece notes, this is a fairly recent shift in ISIS’s propaganda, as the group’s losses became so great it was no longer possible to pretend they weren’t happening. But it is a return to the group’s roots; prior to 2012, when it was just the Islamic State of Iraq and it was hanging on by a thread, the group’s slogan was simply “Remaining.” That seems to be what they’re going back to now.

In terms of ISIS’s various diversionary attacks, an attempted assault on Sinjar yesterday seems to have been repelled by Kurdish forces. Fighting continued in Rutbah, but the Iraqi government insists that it has regained control of the city. Similarly, Kirkuk seems to be free or nearly free of any lingering ISIS presence, though now a new problem has arisen:

More than a thousand Sunni Arabs displaced from battlefields across Iraq have fled the northern city of Kirkuk in recent days, after they were threatened with expulsion by Kurdish authorities in the city, relief workers said Tuesday.

The threat against the displaced Sunnis, which included the demolition of informal housing where they were sheltering, was an apparent reaction to a brazen attack on Kirkuk last week by dozens of Islamic State militants that killed at least 80 people — a plot that the authorities said benefited from collaborators inside the city.

The flight of the displaced Iraqis heightened fears, however, of a possible backlash against Sunni Arabs during a government offensive to recapture the northern city of Mosul. The city has been occupied by the Islamic State, a Sunni extremist group, for more than two years, and there are concerns that Sunnis in Mosul and surrounding areas could face retribution for their perceived sympathy for the militants.

This is exactly the kind of thing that, if it’s not stopped now, will linger, preventing Iraq from ever functioning as a nation, long after ISIS is no more. It is also another reminder of the humanitarian cost that this operation entails.

Also, hey, speaking of budding conflicts that could cause huge region-wide problems once ISIS is out of the picture, Turkey and Iraq are still pretty freaking angry with one another.


The UN envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, wrapped up a three day visit to Sanaa and reportedly presented the Houthis and their Ali Abdullah Saleh-affiliated allies with a peace plan:

According to the Houthi-affiliated politician, the peace plan also includes transferring the powers of the internationally-recognized president to a new prime minister and a vice president, in addition to the formation of a national unity government, while easing out Houthis from cities under their control. The deal also suggests the formation of a team of international observers to supervise the militias’ withdrawal. It proposes a one to two-year-transitional period paving the way for presidential elections.

The politician spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

It is not clear whether Hadi’s government would approve the proposed plan.

Yeah, no shit. Seems like you might need to work on Hadi a bit, considering it sounds like this deal would leave him in place as a figurehead only.

By the way, if you’re interested in Yemen, you might want to check out the interview Chapo Trap House just did with journalist Jeremy Scahill, who knows more about recent US operations there than anybody outside of the Pentagon and/or intelligence community.


I wasn’t going to stick Libya in here, but then I saw that the Libya Herald is reporting this:

Saudi Arabia is expected to take a major role in trying to solve the Libyan crisis, inviting key players from all sides of the divide to a meeting aimed at ending it. Riyadh is still undecided, though, on the location of the meeting, a prominent source in Riyadh very close to the Saudi authorities has told the Libya Herald.

Five days ago, following talks in Washington with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, US Secretary of State John Kerry said there had been discussions on “a multinational group meeting of the main stakeholders somewhere in the next 10 to 12 days”. The aim was “to take certain key steps that could actually strengthen the ability of government to be able to serve the people of Libya”.

Both the Americans and the Saudis had also agreed on the need for a united fight in Libya against the so-called Islamic State.

According to the Saudi source, Riyadh now feels it has to become fully involved.

I haven’t seen this story picked up by anybody else, but the Herald is OK as far as I know. It is based on an anonymous source, so bear that in mind.

The big thing the Saudis would bring to the table with respect to Libya is their undisputed mastery over the GCC–well, over everybody in the GCC apart from Oman, which is irrelevant to what’s happening in Libya. The Haftar faction, based in Tobruk, has been getting aid and even air support from the United Arab Emirates (and Egypt), while the Government of National Salvation, the seemingly defunct outfit that just started making trouble for the Government of National Accord in Tripoli about a week and a half ago, has been aided by Qatar (and Turkey). The Saudis can tell Qatar and the UAE to knock it off and, chances are, they will, plus they may be able to coerce Turkey and Egypt (though Saudi-Egypt relations are a little frayed these days) into similarly knocking it off. Getting the UAE and Egypt to stop supporting Tobruk would be particularly helpful in terms of coaxing everybody to the table for negotiations.


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