Conflict update, November 6

Oh, hi there. Been a while, huh? Sorry. Sometimes you just need a break, or a decent night’s sleep, or in my case both. Here are the latest updates from all the various places in the greater MENA region where people are currently killing each other, or thinking about killing each other:


The big news today was that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is largely a front group for the Kurdish YPG with some Arab forces thrown in the mix for cover, announced that, under US (and apparently French) air cover, it has begun an “operation” to capture ISIS’s “capital,” Raqqa. You may recall from previous episodes that the whole notion of starting a Raqqa offensive in the near future was, all due respect to US Defense Secretary Ash Carter, a bit dubious, seeing as how nobody has been able to decide who should actually lead the offensive.

The SDF announcement clears up the question of who and instead substitutes a whole lot of questions about how. How, for example, is a predominantly Kurdish army going to liberate Raqqa without creating tension with Raqqa’s largely Arab population? How are the YPG forces going to be convinced to keep up an attack on Raqqa, even when it inevitably gets bogged down, when diverting manpower to Raqqa leaves its core northern Syrian territories vulnerable to attack from, say, Syrian government forces, or–purely hypothetically–by Turkish-controlled Syrian rebels? And speaking of which, how is the SDF going to be able to assault Raqqa when the Turkish government seems hell bent on preventing that from happening? To the last point, the US is apparently conducting some furious diplomacy with Ankara to try to get everybody on the same page. Good luck with that.

In Aleppo, the story continues to mostly be the rebel operations targeting the government-held western part of the city and the collateral damage they’re causing. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which if anything has been pro-rebel throughout the war, says that 74 civilians, including 25 children, have been killed over eight days of rebel artillery attacks. If that seems like a drop in the bucket compared to the number of civilians Bashar al-Assad and his Russian handlers have killed, well, as I’ve said several times since this offensive began, imagine if the rebels had access to helicopters and bombers. I’m not sure you can give the rebels points for a “restraint” forced upon them by circumstance. Meanwhile, eastern Aleppo is preparing for a resumption of full-scale Russian and Syrian airstrikes, after Friday’s deadline for people to evacuate the rebel-held part of the city came and went. Airstrikes have resumed against targets around Aleppo, and presumably they’re going to resume in Aleppo eventually.

Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Afghanistan, Libya, and Somalia next.


After Iraqi forces reported yesterday that they were approaching Mosul Airport, progress seemed to slow down today in the face of stepped up ISIS resistance employing car bombs and other tactics. ISIS fighters appear to have erected barriers to block Iraqi vehicles, for example leveling some buildings in the city in order to use the rubble as an obstacle. ISIS is also making use of what appears to be an extensive network of tunnels it has dug under Mosul in order to facilitate the movement of its fighters and its ability to attack and retreat quickly. The tunnels have enabled ISIS fighters to move easily back into parts of the city that Iraqi forces believe they’ve already secured, which as you might imagine is very effective in terms of slowing the Iraqis’ progress. ISIS’s defense of the city was perhaps goosed by an audio statement issued last week from none other than “Caliph” Ibrahim himself, who called on fighters inside the city, and ISIS cells all over the world, to keep on keeping on. It had been months since anybody had heard from the pretend caliph, and, well, I guess he’s still alive, so…good for him?

As Iraqi forces have advanced toward Mosul, they’ve been encountering mass graves, evidence of the atrocities that ISIS committed throughout the area before its plucky band of serial killers were pushed back into the city. There will undoubtedly be more discoveries like these inside Mosul, and they will make the best argument for why, despite the humanitarian suffering that this offensive has already caused and will continue to cause, ISIS could not have been allowed to hold Mosul indefinitely. I know it’s cliche to talk about the worst people in the world, but these are literally the worst people in the world, and every day that any of them hold the power of life and death over other human beings is one day too many. I don’t say that to condone any American actions in Iraq or Syria, but rather to say that, in my opinion, the Iraqis themselves are right to try to save the people still alive in Mosul.

Meanwhile, the Popular Mobilization Units reportedly liberated six villages south of Mosul (link is in Arabic) on their way to Tal Afar. As this part of the operation is the one most likely to spark a war with Turkey, it’s worth keeping an eye on. Elsewhere, ISIS bombings in Samarra, outside Tikrit, and in Baghdad killed at least 30 people on Sunday. And Kurdish officials in Kirkuk are denying charges that they have forced displaced Arabs to leave the city after the days long ISIS attack there a couple of weeks ago. Per the Kurds, there were some scattered movements to kick displaced Arabs out in the wake of the attacks, but the regional government stepped in and put a stop to it. Still, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that those Arabs need to get back to their now-liberated homes, even in cases where those homes are still mostly lying in ruins.


I’m working on a larger piece about Ankara’s decision to start arresting high-profile Kurdish lawmakers, but meanwhile there have been a couple of small-scale attacks in Turkey over the past few days. On Friday, perhaps in response to those arrests, a car bomb went off near a police station in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakır, killing at least nine people and injuring more than 100 others. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, which seems a little contrary to their recent pattern in Turkey (ISIS attacks there of late have tended to target Istanbul, particularly heavy tourist parts of Istanbul). Ankara has been blaming the PKK for the attack regardless of ISIS’s claim, and today the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) claimed responsibility for the attack. The TAK, depending on who you ask, either splintered off from the PKK or serves as the PKK’s cover for when it carries out particularly violent attacks (guess which of these possibilities the Turkish government supports). Given the nature of the target TAK, not ISIS, seems the more likely culprit.

On Saturday, another bomb in the southeastern district of Şırnak killed two children and injured four other people. So far there’s been no claim of responsibility and, again, it looks likely that the PKK and/or TAK were responsible. If the Kurds are looking for a way to legitimize Ankara’s decision to start arresting Kurdish political leaders, these two attacks–assuming they were Kurdish attacks–are just the way to do it.


Three American Special Forces soldiers were killed on Friday in a shooting at the al-Jafr military base south of Amman, where they were stationed on a training mission. There’s an investigation into the event, obviously, but at this point it seems more likely that it was caused by a miscommunication as the convoy the Americans were in entered the base than that it was some sort of purposeful attack.


Yesterday US forces in Afghanistan admitted culpability in a strike in Kunduz on Thursday that killed 30 Afghan civilians, four Afghan soldiers, and two US soldiers in addition to a number of Taliban fighters. Earlier this month the Taliban nearly captured Kunduz for the second time in the past two years, and there’s still a chance that the Taliban may try to take it again. People there are justifiably angry that their government can’t seem to protect them, and errant US airstrikes that kill dozens of civilians aren’t going to help improve the mood.


There’s not much new to say about the operating to push ISIS out of Sirte, which in itself is worth noting if only insofar as it provides a likely model for how the Mosul and Raqqa operations are going to go. After making quick progress early in the offensive that raised hopes of a fast victory, Libyan forces have been bogged down by heavy ISIS resistance and asymmetrical urban tactics. The slow progress is necessary to limit casualties both among the attacking forces and among the civilians who are still living in Sirte and are only gradually being freed from ISIS’s control. The Libyans were approaching the center of Sirte back in early July, and here we are in early November and the fighting is still going on with no end in sight. If you’re expecting Mosul to be over soon, keep this in mind.


Unfortunately I don’t cover Somalia much around here apart from the occasional mention of Al-Shabaab, but the country is still only slowly coming out of the civil war that has consumed it on and off since the mid-1980s, and today we got a reminder of how precarious its stability still is. Under the terms of its 2012 constitution, Somalia exists as a federal republic made up of six autonomous states (though one of these, Somaliland in northwestern Somalia, has claimed independence). This system is supposed to ease tensions by allowing the disparate parts of the country to have fairly wide latitude to govern themselves, and in theory that might be a good idea. In practice, though, when two of the autonomous states claim the same town, there’s no superseding national authority that can really stop those states from going to war with one another. So it’s troubling to see that forces belonging to two states, Puntland and Galmudug, have started clashing with each other over the town of Galkayo despite a ceasefire that was put in place there last week. The risk of something like this tipping the whole country back into open civil war is pretty high.



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