Conflict update: November 30


The liberation/massacre of eastern Aleppo continues, but the UN is on it:

The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting Wednesday on the dire humanitarian situation in the Syrian city of Aleppo, which a UN official described as a “descent into hell.”

“For the sake of humanity, we call on, we plead with the parties and those with influence to do everything in their power to protect civilians and enable access to the besieged part of eastern Aleppo before it becomes one giant graveyard,” UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien told council members during the meeting.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called for the meeting a day earlier. He told Reuters that Syria’s brutal civil war, which has raged for almost six years, would not be resolved with one of the “biggest massacres on a civilian population since World War Two.”

“This (Security Council) meeting would have to find a way to deal with the humanitarian situation and see how we can get aid in. We have to find a way,” Ayrault said.

Wait, you may be thinking, if it were possible for the UN Security Council to “find a way” to alleviate the humanitarian disaster in Aleppo, surely it would have done so by now, right? And, really, you wouldn’t be wrong to think that. This institution, designed with the intention of solving conflicts peacefully and without massive bloodshed, is entirely dysfunctional, since literally any resolution of substance that it considers is at least even money to earn a veto from one of the five permanent members.

Stephen O’Brien, the UN Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs, has been able to conclude that “the rules of war — sacrosanct notions borne out of generations of costly and painful lessons and set more than 150 year ago in the First Geneva Convention — have been systematically disregarded in Syria.” This is honestly so important, because it gives us a chance to talk about “the rules of war.” I write about “international law” and the “rules” or “laws” of war around here a fair bit, mostly because it’s helpful shorthand to explain that somebody is doing something terrible. But these are not actual, substantive laws, and it’s more than a little cynical for the UN to wring its hands as though they were. Adherence to actual law is not voluntary, but international law, particularly around matters of war, is entirely voluntary. Nobody throws you in jail if you use chemical weapons, as Saddam Hussein demonstrated in the 1980s, or if you drop cluster bombs on civilian population centers, as the Israeli government demonstrates every time it mows the lawn in Gaza or southern Lebanon. Sure, you might face sanctions or even some kind of military response if you do those things, but only if you’re on the outs with the wrong people (i.e., the United States). Otherwise, nobody, least of all the United Nations, is prepared to enforce any of these things it casually labels “laws” and “rules.”


Speaking of unpunished violations of international law, here’s what’s happening in Yemen:

The family of Osama Hassan faced a wrenching choice as his tiny body wasted away. Should they use the little money they had, in a time of war, to take the 2-year-old to a hospital? Or should they buy food to feed their other children?

His family chose food.

Outside their hut, Ahmed Sadek grimly observed his frail grandson, who was lying on a wooden cot and staring blankly at the gray sky. His hair was sparse, his teeth decayed, his arms sticklike. He could no longer walk on his spindly legs.

With every raspy breath, Osama’s ribs protruded through his dry skin.

“There’s nothing we can do for him,” Sadek said. “I know he’s going to die.”

Osama’s family lives in the Yemeni countryside and has probably escaped most of the heavy fighting because of that. Instead they’re being consigned to starve to death because the civil war has wrecked any semblance of normal order throughout the country.

South Sudan

Speaking of the UN Security Council being completely useless, consider the case of South Sudan: Continue reading

Aung San Suu Kyi’s “unavoidable reconciliation”

Here’s Myanmar’s de facto leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, speaking to people whom she wants to convince to invest in her country:

“We do not want our country to be unstable. But we’ve had a long history of disunity within our nation,” Suu Kyi said, addressing senior business representatives at the International Enterprise Singapore Global Conversations roundtable event. “So national reconciliation is unavoidably important for us. It’s not a matter of choice. It’s unavoidable.”

“We have to achieve peace and national reconciliation that our country may be able to progress, and that those who wish to invest in our country may find the right amount of confidence,” she said.

Here’s what’s been happening lately in the country Aung San Suu Kyi leads: Continue reading

Today in European history: the Battle of Sinop (1853)

and that's the way it was

Apart from the Charge of the Light Brigade (the actual charge, but also the poem), the Crimean War (1853-1856) is perhaps best known (at least by some of us) as the first “modern” war, in that it was during the Crimean War when later military staples like rail, telegraphs, trenches, and rifled firearms and artillery first got tested on a major battlefield. Oh, and it also led to the development of modern professional nursing, triage, and anesthetics, but who’s counting? The 1853 Battle of Sinop is perhaps most noteworthy for the way it helped pioneer another development in military technology, although it’s also important in that it was the war’s first major battle, and Russia’s victory in this battle paved the way for it to eventually lose the war.

A Russian stamp commemorating the Battle of Sinop, issued in 2003 (Wikimedia)

The Battle of Sinop, named for…

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Conflict update: November 29



Map of the Yemeni Civil War, current as of November 25; green areas in rebel hands, red in government hands, white in al-Qaeda hands (Wikimedia | Ali Zifan)

As our focus was limited yesterday, we missed a few developments in places other than Aleppo. For example, Yemeni rebels decided to go nuts and form themselves a brand new government:

The announcement of the new government, reported by the Houthi-run state television and Saba news agency, said it was formed from “all walks of the political spectrum who are anti-aggression.”

The reference was a swipe at the coalition led by Saudi Arabia that supports Yemen’s president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was driven into Saudi exile in 2014 after the Houthis routed him from Sana, the capital. The Houthis control a large portion of Yemen including Sana.

This is a purely symbolic moves that means little in practice and presents no real obstacle to renewed peace talks…except insofar as it ostensibly hurt Hadi’s feelings and so now he and the Saudis will need time to process their emotional pain or whatever. It was stupid, in that it gains the rebels nothing but a cheap PR win, but the way Hadi and Riyadh are going to purposefully overreact to it, and the way their overreaction will be treated completely credulously by Washington, is what’s really stupid.

It’s been one of the more bizarre and least talked about aspects of Yemen’s civil war that, despite the devastation it’s caused, refugees from the Horn of Africa have continued crossing into Yemen anyway. Over 100,000 Ethiopians and Somalis are estimated to have entered Yemen over the past year, mostly intending to continue on to the wealthier Gulf countries and all (?) of them, presumably, fairly misinformed about what’s happening in Yemen these days. Needless to say, things have not gone well for them upon arrival, and reports of forced labor, abuse, and worse have been collected by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.


With remaining ISIS fighters reportedly contained within a one square km area of downtown Sirte, it seems like finally the operation to eliminate ISIS’s presence there is drawing to a close. But ISIS likely isn’t leaving Libya, particularly not when the underlying problem, the conflict between Libya’s two (or three, depending on the day) competing governments, is nowhere near a resolution. Speaking of which, Muammar Gaddafi wanna-be Khalifa Haftar has apparently had a nice set of meetings in Moscow this week as he seeks more international support for his claim to power. That seems promising.


The humanitarian crisis inherent in the Mosul offensive is beginning to reach a critical mass. Fighting has cut the water supply to an estimated 650,000 civilians still inside the city, putting a new squeeze on people who were already struggling in the absence of adequate food and medical care. And those are the civilians who haven’t been killed in the crossfire. Meanwhile, deprived of heavy air cover precisely because of the presence of all those civilians, Iraqi ground forces are struggling to advance and secure territory. Iraqi forces who have entered the city from the east are being battered in part because advances from the north and south have stalled out, and it seems like it may be time to regroup and change tactics.

Iranian authorities are apparently growing concerned that Iranian Kurds with the Kurdistan Freedom Party and the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan are fighting alongside Iraqi Kurds outside of Mosul. They’ve reportedly warned the Kurdistan Regional Government that Tehran will hold the KRG responsible if these Iranian Kurds decide to head back across the border and make trouble in Iran.

Meanwhile, ISIS has begun retaliating for Mosul by launching terrorist attacks in some of the places it used to control, particularly Tikrit and Fallujah.


It should come as a surprise to pretty much nobody that the assault on Aleppo has been timed to take advantage of the post-election period in the US and to ensure that the city is in Bashar al-Assad’s hands by the time Donald Trump takes office in January. This would put Assad in the strongest possible position heading into any new attempt at peace talks (Moscow may be keen to give Trump something on this front to try to get things with his administration off on a favorable foot). There was heavy fighting around the remaining rebel enclave in southeastern Aleppo today but no reports of substantial government advances. At least 16,000 people are known to have fled eastern Aleppo for western Aleppo or Kurdish-held parts of the city, and according to Russia another 80,000 have been provided humanitarian assistance. Nobody even seems to be hazarding a guess as to the death toll at this point.

The loss of Aleppo won’t end the rebellion, but it will largely confine the rebellion to Syria’s rural periphery. Absent a negotiated settlement (and even then, since any settlement will undoubtedly exclude groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham), the rebellion could morph into a guerrilla-type movement based in the countryside, carrying out periodic raids against Syrian urban centers, and under that sort of framework the fighting could continue virtually indefinitely.

Speaking of refugees, people fleeing the fighting around Raqqa and Deir Ezzor are telling stories of having to walk through the desert to get to camps in Kurdish-controlled areas near the Iraqi border, and of the rough conditions they’ve had to survive within those camps. They’re also describing the conditions they fled, with one woman calling Raqqa “a ghost town.”

Say, remember that “Syrian air strike” that killed those Turkish soldiers a few days ago? Funny story: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that it was an ISIS suicide bombing, not a Syrian airstrike, and not only are American sources backing that version of events, but apparently ISIS actually claimed responsibility for the attack. Now, I am in no position to judge whether somebody could honestly mistake a suicide bombing for an airstrike, but it sure seems like that would be hard to do, and that maybe Turkey decided to recast an ISIS suicide bombing as a Syrian airstrike in service of Ankara’s broader goals in Syria. Maybe. On the other hand, there are also reports that an Iranian drone was spotted above al-Bab right around the time when whatever killed those Turkish soldiers happened. So maybe it was an airstrike–just not a “Syrian” airstrike.


Taliban fighters killed four Afghan policemen in Zabul yesterday, while Afghan forces reportedly killed at least 30 ISIS fighters in Nangarhar between Sunday and Monday.

South Asia

Seven Indian soldiers were killed earlier today when “heavily armed militants” attacked an Indian army base in Nagrota, Jammu, the majority-Hindu southwestern part of India’s Jammu and Kashmir state. Three militants were killed, and three others were killed in fighting near Ramgarh, on the border with Pakistan. Obviously this will increase tensions between India and Pakistan, but it’s too soon to say how much.


Charles Mumbere, the Harrisburg PA nurse’s aide turned king of Rwenzururu, has now been charged with murder by the Ugandan government for his role in fighting between Ugandan authorities and his own royal guard over the weekend. There are conflicting reports as to casualties, but the largest figure I’ve seen says that 126 people were killed altogether, between the initial battle and the firefight that accompanied Mumbere’s arrest.

The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog has a useful primer on the roots of this conflict for those of us, like me, who had never heard of Rwenzururu before a couple of days ago. The Rwenzururu Kingdom was recognized by the Ugandan government in 2009 as a concession to the Bakonzo people, who were unhappy living under the Tooro Kingdom (these “kingdoms” are mostly ceremonial government gifts to large tribes or traditional ethnic groups), but apparently that just opened up a whole can of nationalist worms:

On the one hand, minority tribes in the region — the Bamba and the Basongora — now claimed separate kingdoms of their own: the Rwenzururu kingdom was regarded as a representation of the majority Bakonzo, rather than all ethnic groups of the region. Other tribes therefore sought to establish their own kingdoms. On the other hand, the Bakonzo saw these other kingdoms as a deliberate strategy of the government to limit the influence of the Rwenzururu kingdom. All actions of the government were therefore perceived as an intentional divide-and-rule plan to weaken their power. This led to major tensions.

In June 2014, President Museveni yielded to the demands of the region’s second-largest group, and granted recognition to the Bamba kingdom in Bundibugyo district. Weeks later, Bakonzo youth staged attacks in various localities, triggering reprisal killings and counter-operations by security forces. The government arrested hundreds of suspected attackers, mainly Bakonzo youth and a handful of Rwenzururu kingdom officials, and charged them before military tribunals — but eventually let them go.

A Bakonzo separatist movement, which already existed and wasn’t really pacified at all by the creation of the Rwenzururu kingdom, picked up new steam when the Bamba kingdom was formed, and things snowballed from there. Mumbere has consistently rejected calls for secession among the Bakonzo, but nevertheless the government is now going to try him over the suspicion that he and/or his guards had fallen in with separatists.


Somalia’s presidential election, which was supposed to happen last month, then was supposed to happen this month, is now going to happen at some unknown future date. The Somali president is supposed to be elected by parliament, but there have been allegations of shenanigans in the various regional parliamentary elections that are presumably part of the reason for the delay. Meanwhile, 10 people have been killed in the town of Harardhere after townspeople resisted al-Shabaab’s demand that they pay the group a tax.


Giving Tuesday links

Admittedly 8 PM is not the best time to be getting to this, but since the day isn’t over I’m still technically in the clear. Last year I posted a few Giving Tuesday suggestions and so I thought I might do that again this year except without all the heavy verbiage that came along with last year’s post.

First off here’s a link to all the charity posts I’ve done here in the past, which include many causes and/or charities that could still use your money.

Then there’s GiveWell, my favorite of the so-called “meta-charities,” places that use your donations to research charitable organizations and then encourage donations to the ones they rate most highly. Places like this generate a multiplier effect, meaning that every dollar you give to them can generate more than a dollar (sometimes considerably more) for the charities they promote. Other meta-charities include Innovations for Poverty Action, The Life You Can Save, and the Institute of Fundraising.

GiveDirectly is a charity that doesn’t have the name recognition of some of the old standbys like the Red Cross, but they give cash transfers directly to the poor in Kenya and Uganda. Giving people cash, amazingly enough, may be a more effective poverty-alleviation strategy than piecemeal service provision (the research on this isn’t 100% clear, though, so if you feel better donating to a service provider by all means do that). However, since GiveDirectly is served by GiveWell, if you’re thinking of donating here it might make more sense to donate to GiveWell (that multiplier effect and all).

Then there are the, as I say, old standbys, who operate in conflict zones and in the wake of natural disasters, and are working with people displaced by conflicts in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, and elsewhere. Here are some of those (I’m trying to stick to places that have four star Charity Navigator ratings):

Last, and very much least by comparison, you could also contribute to keeping this website alive. I appreciate everyone who’s dropped a little money in the PayPal jar or made a monthly commitment through Patreon (both available via the front page), but I won’t lie, more would be very welcome, especially around this time of the year. If you value the writing here and have a little extra to spare, please consider supporting this place. Thank you!

We had a good run

…well, we had a run, anyway.

Humanity’s mission for the next four years is clear: try to survive all of Donald Trump’s other policies so that we can eventually be killed by his climate policy. Which may not take very long, considering how bad things have already gotten:

An ice sheet in West Antarctica is breaking from the inside out.

The significant new findings published yesterday in Geophysical Research Letters show that the ocean is melting the interior of the Pine Island Glacier, which is about the size of Texas. The crack seems to be accelerating, said Ian Howat, associate professor of earth sciences at Ohio State University and the study’s lead author. The findings are the first confirmation of something glaciologists have long suspected was happening, he said.

“It’s showing a new weakness in the ice shelf, and it’s showing the weakness may be extending far up the glacier,” he said. “That’s the alarming thing from our standpoint.”

Higher ocean temperatures are causing the ice to shrink at an accelerating rate, and it’s eroding the ice fringing the continent. That, in turn, opens the ice sheet to further contact with warmer ocean water and increases the amount of ice running into the ocean, the researchers found.

“More importantly, it gives us a mechanism for even faster retreat in the future. Before, we used to have a slow retreat at the edges of the ice shelf,” Howat said. “The ocean had to nibble away at it on the edges. This allows the ice shelf to break apart way further inland from the inside out.”

Trump, who famously says climate change is a “Chinese hoax” (which you can call a lie provided you think Donald Trump is smart enough to actually know it’s not true), wants to dismantle climate regulations, big league. The head of his environmental transition team is Myron Ebell, a guy so far behind the science on environmental issues that he rejects the idea that pesticides might be a health risk. Environmental groups will do what they can to oppose Trump’s efforts, and factors outside Trump’s control may also help blunt Trump’s desire to wreck the planet, but even if they miraculously kept him at par with what the Obama administration did, the fact of the matter is, as Ryan Cooper writes, we need to be doing far more than we’re already doing on climate change–even staying put over the next four or eight years will be plenty bad: Continue reading

Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Hama (903)

and that's the way it was

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a fairly small, radical–apocalyptic, even–and highly militarized Islamic sect carves out a chunk of territory, including a sizable piece of Syria, in which to establish its own very wealthy political entity that could be described as revisionist, expansionist, and even irredentist. They specialize in hit-and-run attacks on their neighbors that maximize civilian casualties, attacks that would certainly meet most definitions of the term “terrorism.” Their targets are intended to shock ordinary people and to drive home the message of their esoteric interpretation of Islam–to that end, they deliberately seek to damage and destroy physical symbols of cultural and religious significance. The people unfortunate enough to find themselves captured by or otherwise living under the rule of these fanatics often find themselves enslaved. Recognized by almost none of its neighbors and opposed by nearly all of them, the emirate ruled by these fanatics…

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