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.


Per the Iraqi government, which may be playing to a domestic audience a bit, Iraqi Special Forces are “hours” away from entering the city from the east. This is likely ahead of where the operation was supposed to be at this point, and frankly–as deadly as they were–the fact that there haven’t been more attempted counter-offensives like the ISIS attacks on Kirkuk and Rutbah suggests that the fake caliphate’s position in Iraq is weaker even than you might have expected. Still, expect that the fight to actually take Mosul will take much longer than the fight to get to Mosul. ISIS knows how to engage in irregular urban warfare, they know how to use asymmetric tactics like suicide bombers, booby traps, snipers, and (especially in this case) human shields, and they don’t really have very many places to fall back toward anymore, like they did when they fled Ramadi and Fallujah.

This is usually where I offer some reminder of the humanitarian cost that this operation has entailed and will entail, but it’s also important to consider the flip side of that coin: that people in and around Mosul are no longer going to have to suffer daily from living under the control of ISIS:

“We are proud of the Iraqi army because they saved us,” said Abu Ali, 52, from Bazwaya, a town about 10 miles east of central Mosul that government troops retook Monday from the Islamic State. “We are not afraid of them (government troops). We are afraid of the Islamic State.”

If you’re wondering how Iraq can possibly patch itself together when ISIS finally ceases to own any of its territory, that quote there is a powerful statement. If the liberation of Mosul is done carefully, competently, and cooperatively it can serve as a catalyst for unifying the country. That’s obviously going to require a willingness among all the major players–Sunni tribes, the PMU, the KRG, Shiʿa civilians, Turkmen, Assyrian Christians, Iran, Turkey, the US, and the Iraqi government–to work with each other to build a united nation that respects its communal interests. But if Sunnis around Mosul are actually greeting the Iraqi army as liberators (sorry), then that’s a start.



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