MENA conflict update, October 28

I haven’t done one of these in a couple of days because there wasn’t much happening to warrant it and I didn’t want to just get into a pointless daily routine. Nobody needs that. Still, here are some updates:


Rebel forces led by, that’s right, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham launched an assault against the western side of Aleppo in an effort to break the Syrian government’s siege of eastern Aleppo. As with nearly everything else that happens in Syria, there have been conflicting reports about the attack’s success, with rebel sources claiming that they’ve captured a few areas in western Aleppo and government sources saying that the attack has been “thwarted.” Who knows, right? But it’s interesting that there have been reports that the Russian Defense Ministry asked for permission to resume bombing Aleppo in response to the attack and that Russian President Vladimir Putin denied that permission. This suggests that the attack was pretty substantial but not substantial enough for Putin to abandon his “you’ve just proved my point” tactic of appearing reasonable in order to make Washington look bad for its inevitable failure to separate extremist groups from the rest of the Aleppo rebels. Adding ammunition to Putin’s frequent charges about rebel extremism is the fact that today’s attack appears to have coincided with an ISIS attack on the Syrian army east of Aleppo. Needless to say, the Syrian government is charging that the rebels are now colluding with ISIS.

The biggest story of the past few days before this counterattack was launched was the bombing, likely by airstrike, of a school in the town of Haas in rebel-controlled Idlib province that killed almost 40 people, most of them children. It may be the deadliest attack on a school since the civil war began, and that’s saying something. As Idlib is rebel country the candidates for carrying out this attack are precisely two: Russia and Syria. The Russians quickly insisted that they had nothing to do with it, and for a while it looked like they were throwing Bashar al-Assad under the bus a little bit, but they’re now also denying Syrian involvement. They’ve even claimed to have evidence that the attack wasn’t an airstrike, which I guess is supposed to mean the rebels did it even though, hey, the Syrian army also has artillery and hasn’t shown any real interest in not killing children for the past five years. The rebels appear to have responded by shelling a school in government-held western Aleppo, which killed 6 children, and you know what? Fuck everybody.

As I was writing this piece, I saw this:

Russia failed to win re-election to the United Nations Human Rights Council on Friday, beaten out by Hungary and Croatia, following lobbying by rights groups against Moscow’s candidacy because of its military support for the Syrian government.

In a secret ballot by the 193-member U.N. General Assembly, Hungary received 144 votes, followed by Croatia with 114 votes and Russia with 112 votes. Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Moscow had faced good competition.

“It was a very close vote,” Churkin told reporters. “Croatia, Hungary – they are fortunate because of their size they are not as exposed to the winds of international diplomacy; Russia is quite exposed.”

“We have been there a number of years, I’m sure next time we’re going to get in,” he said.

Replacing Russia on the “Human Rights Council” with these guys is not as big an improvement as you’d hope to see. But we always hear how much Moscow wants to be considered a great power and to have international prestige and, well, this is the opposite of international prestige. Is it enough to get Russia to rethink its Syria policy? No. But it is a slap in the face.

On to Raqqa, and then elsewhere, after the break.

The United States is still proceeding as though an operation to liberate Raqqa is imminent, though it is also still scrambling to figure out what force is actually going to do the liberating. Both Turkey and the Syrian High Negotiating Committee are adamantly opposed to Washington’s Plan A, which is to have the Syrian Democratic Forces do the fighting. The SDF, as you likely know, is composed largely of Kurdish YPG forces–in truth, the whole “SDF” business is an attempt to rebrand the YPG so that it can drive ISIS out of predominantly Arab parts of Syria without raising too many hackles. But Raqqa is a fair-sized (maybe 250,000 people before the war began) Arab city that is outside what is generally considered to be the Kurdish part of Syria, and so Turkey in particular is freaking out about the possibility of the YPG capturing Raqqa and then staying there and expanding their zone of control.

So, Ankara has proposed that its own proxy forces lead the fight to take Raqqa, and the US is currently trying to placate both the Turks and the SDF. But right now the idea of a Turkish-trained army that could take Raqqa is almost entirely hypothetical, as is the compromise US solution, which is to have the SDF surround and isolate Raqqa while a purely Arab force is recruited and trained to take the city itself. And if both the Turks and the SDF advance on Raqqa, they will undoubtedly begin fighting each other before either starts fighting ISIS. Today, Turkey declared that it will not participate in a Raqqa operation if the SDF is participating. And while they meant this as a threat, I think the US and SDF would be perfectly happy if they stayed out of it–except for the fact that the YPG is worried that, if it commits large numbers of its forces to Raqqa, it will leave itself vulnerable to Turkish attacks elsewhere. What a mess.


The advance on Mosul has slowed all the way to an official pause, but without any more information than that this seems like a pretty unsurprising development. ISIS resistance has gotten tougher the closer Iraqi forces have gotten to Mosul, and they now appear to be running into some traps left by ISIS forces who may have then fallen back into the city. But even though the resistance has gotten tougher, ISIS is still losing ground.

In case you needed another reminder of what’s about to happen when Iraqi forces actually get to Mosul, the UN offered one today:

Credible reports suggest that ISIL has been forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes in sub-districts around Mosul and has been forcibly relocating civilians inside the city itself since operations began on 17 October to restore Iraqi Government control over Mosul.

ISIL fighters are allegedly killing civilians who refuse to comply with ISIL’s instructions or who previously belonged to the Iraqi Security Forces, including 232 civilians who were reportedly shot to death last Wednesday.

At least 5,370 families were abducted by ISIL from Shura sub-district, another 160 families from al-Qayyarah sub-district, 150 families from Hamam al-Alil sub-district and 2,210 families from Nimrud sub-district of al-Hamdaniya district, reports indicate.

Forced out at gunpoint, or killed if they resist or try to flee, these people are reportedly being moved to strategic ISIL locations.

Information received indicates that 60,000 persons are currently residing in Hamam al-Alil, an ISIL stronghold with a previous population of 23,000.

To be clear, I’m not saying the Mosul operation shouldn’t be carried out, but it’s important to be cognizant of what it’s going to cost.


OK, Kashmir isn’t technically in the MENA region, but I thought I’d use this space to note that violence there hasn’t dissipated:

It happened again on Thursday night: Another village school was burned to the ground.

After the sun rose, families of the Kashmiri town of Habber gathered around the smoking remains of its middle school, which had recently reopened its doors in an attempt to re-establish some kind of normal routine after months of curfews and unrest.

Jameel Ahmad Parry, a laborer, sat on a boulder, with his arm around his daughter, a fifth grader, watching dense streaks of bluish smoke risk into the sky. He stroked her hand, as if to comfort her, but he looked frightened himself.

“Why burn down buildings where the children of poor people study?” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. Burning police stations might serve some purpose, but why burn schools?”

Authorities are blaming the school burnings on Kashmiri separatists, who are in turn suggesting that the burnings are a frame job intended to discredit the separatist movement. The schools are seen as symbols of the Indian government’s attempt to impose itself in Kashmir and to stifle the desire for self-determination, and during periods of unrest there is resistance to reopening schools insofar as that signals that things are getting back to normal. Still, burning the schools down, as opposed to, say, protesting their reopening, seems like a new and troubling escalation in violence.



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