Conflict update, November 11

Here’s a big update on events in the greater MENA region to punish you and/or make up for the fact that I’ve gone a little dark around here since Donald Trump was elected.


Iraqi federal police, are in the process of entering Mosul from the south. This will put them in position to advance on the city’s airport and opens a second front within the city (Iraqi Special Forces have already entered Mosul from the east). The Iraqis are also in position to liberate the site of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, whose ruins have already been demolished by ISIS amid its campaign to pawn off any artifacts it could and then destroy whatever remains. Fighting in the city has already been a slog to say the least, with Iraqi commanders saying that this is the “most complex” fighting they’ve seen from ISIS yet. Between the usual challenges of street-to-street urban warfare, ISIS’s effective use of force multiplying tactics like suicide bombing, and the vast number of civilians who are still in Mosul and thus directly in harm’s way, the Iraqis have been struggling to make significant headway. As expected, taking and securing the city is going to be vastly more challenging that getting in to the city was.

Although the advance into the city has slowed in the face of this stronger ISIS resistance, talk is already turning to what will happen to Mosul after ISIS is gone. Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi reportedly favors appointing a Mosul citizen to serve as military governor of all of Nineveh province until provincial elections can be held. This person, whoever it may be, would be unconnected to any of the forces engaged in the Mosul operation–the Iraqi army, the Iraqi police, the PMU, the Kurds, the Turks, etc.–and thus would hopefully be acceptable to everybody. The teensy hangup is that it’s not clear Abadi has the legal prerogative to make such an appointment. It’s going to be impossible to settle Mosul’s hash in a way that doesn’t upset somebody, so this is another one of those things to keep in mind as the offensive progresses.

The Iraqi federal police, the same force currently entering southern Mosul, have been accused by Amnesty International of torturing and executing six people in villages to the south of of the city. The Iraqi government is obviously denying the charges, but it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see some Iraqi units taking liberties with people suspected of being in, or having collaborated with, ISIS. Human Rights Watch is alleging that more than 30 men suspected of being with ISIS have “disappeared” after reaching humanitarian checkpoints outside of Mosul manned by Iraqi and Kurdish forces. Again, it would not be surprising to see things like this happening. But these sorts of abuses, if they’re actually taking place, will be corrosive to any effort to cobble together an Iraqi nation once ISIS has been defeated. On the flip side, Buzzfeed’s Mike Giglio reported this week on the steps Iraqi commanders on the ground are trying to take to protect civilians from coalition airstrikes, which is the kind of thing that, aside from saving lives, will pay political dividends later on.

Kurdish forces have now fully liberated Bashiqa, a town they had surrounded and claimed to have “controlled” a couple of weeks ago. Clearly “control” meant that they “surrounded,” but not “pacified.” This is noteworthy in that it’s probably the Peshmerga’s last major operation in the campaign, as the Kurdish troops are not supposed to enter Mosul itself.


Eastern Aleppo is officially starving, according to the United Nations, which says the last rations have been handed out to the people there. The UN is talking to Damascus and Moscow about a plan to evacuate medical patients from the city and send in basic humanitarian aid, and the UN’s humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland is saying, publicly, that he’s sure their plan will be approved, because “the consequences of no help and no supplies will be so catastrophic I cannot even see that scenario.” For once I’m going to give somebody at the UN the benefit of the doubt and assume that there’s no conceivable way that Mr. Egeland is this blissfully naive, and that he’s saying this to try to pressure Syria and Russia into doing the right thing. Good luck with that. It’s far more likely that the Russians will start carpet bombing eastern Aleppo again than it is that they will allow food aid into the city.

The big development in Syria is that Barack Obama has ordered that the gloves should come off…when it comes to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham:

President Obama has ordered the Pentagon to find and kill the leaders of an al-Qaeda-linked group in Syria that the administration had largely ignored until now and that has been at the vanguard of the fight against the Syrian government, U.S. officials said.

The decision to deploy more drones and intelligence assets against the militant group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra reflects Obama’s concern that it is turning parts of Syria into a new base of operations for al-Qaeda on Europe’s southern doorstep, the officials said.

The move underlines the extent to which Obama has come to prioritize the counter­terrorism mission in Syria over efforts to pressure President Bashar al-Assad to step aside, as al-Nusra is among the most effective forces­­ battling the Syrian government.

Yeah, so, at this point in the war there’s really no way to spin this as anything other than the US coming to Assad’s aid. There may have been a time when it was possible to strike Jabhat al-Nusra without seriously eroding the overall capacity of the rebel armies, but that time is gone. Seriously targeting JFS will mean crippling the rebellion, particularly its already-slowed attack on western Aleppo that was intended to alleviate the pressure on eastern Aleppo. I’m not saying that this is the wrong move–this is al-Qaeda we’re talking about–and it’s even possible that Obama ordered this move in anticipation of what President-elect Trump is likely, in collaboration with his Russian pals (?), to do in Syria. In theory, I guess, it could be argued that targeting JFS leadership allows the group’s fighters, who may not be True Believers, to rethink their choice and go off and fight with some US Government Approved “moderate” force instead. But, realistically, it’s going to be silly for Washington to pretend that the US is still in the “Assad must go” business from now on.

Along those same lines, the Obama administration has reportedly decided to drop an effort to force the Assad government to rid itself of its stockpiles of chlorine gas, which can be used in weapons but, because it has valid civilian uses, is not usually considered a “chemical weapon” for the purposes of international WMD law. It is instead backing a UN resolution written by Spain that simply “condemns” the use of chemical weapons in Syria, since a toothless condemnation is far more likely to avoid a Russian veto than a resolution that actually tried to do something about the issue. The Spanish resolution is supported by new findings from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which says that both the Assad government and ISIS have been employing chemical weapons against their enemies (ISIS’s gas of choice seems to be mustard agent, either manufactured or pilfered from captured stockpiles). Russia says that it has evidence that Syrian rebels have used chlorine and white phosphorus in Aleppo, and is assembling that evidence for the OPCW to review.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that a coalition airstrike on Wednesday killed 20 civilians in the village of al-Heisha, just north of Raqqa. Nevertheless, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are continuing their advance on the city, capturing villages on the way, with one new wrinkle: it’s possible that the Arab part of the attacking army, which may (depending on whose version of the operation you’re following) have been the part that was actually supposed to enter Raqqa while the predominantly Kurdish SDF surrounded and secured the city, may have just quit the operation:

The Syrian Arab component of forces attacking Raqqa have withdrawn from operations, declaring Kurdish forces had broken an agreement to allow them to lead the charge into the Islamic State (IS) group-held city.

In a statement released only days after the “Euphrate’s Wrath” offensive began, Liwa Thuaar Raqqa (Raqqa revolutionary brigade) said it would no longer fight alongside the Kurdish YPG militia.

The brigade accused the US of trying to “sideline” its men in favour of the Kurdish forces, placing pressure on the YPG’s backers in Washington who had pledged to let Arab forces take the lead in the operations.

Liwa Thuaar’s political office leader, Mahmoud Hadi, said: “The brigade refused to participate in the operation because the YPG did not keep to what we had agreed – that the battle be led by the brigade and that the fighters all come from Raqqa itself.”

This is not good. It’s not good in terms of taking and holding Raqqa, whose population is mostly Arab, and it’s also not good if you’re hoping to keep Turkey happy. Ankara seems to have resigned itself to the idea that the SDF will surround Raqqa, but it still has real problems with the idea of the SDF entering Raqqa. But what happens if the SDF is literally the last army standing?


Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the UN envoy for Yemen, made another attempt at selling his peace plan this week only to once again get told to take a hike by Yemen President (sort of) Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Hadi insists that the plan, which calls for Hadi to largely be stripped of his actual authority, would “reward” the Houthis for overthrowing him, ignoring the fact that, by sidelining Hadi, the plan would also be rewarding pretty much everybody else in Yemen. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen war’s real winners so far, have publicly said that they plan to target forces affiliated with the United Arab Emirates. The UAE has been all in on the Saudi-led intervention to restore Hadi, but where the Saudis have singularly focused on the Houthis, the UAE earlier this year put together a unit, the “Security Belt,” whose task is to go after AQAP in southern Yemen. While it’s hard to feel bad for AQAP as it’s been struggling with this challenge, it’s also worth noting that creating new paramilitary armies that are accountable only to a foreign power, and not to, you know, any Yemeni authority, is a really awful idea that seems destined to cause more problems than it solves.

On Friday, after I’d already written all that stuff in the last paragraph (sometimes it takes a couple of days to churn these things out), a Houthi news agency reported that Houthi fighters had captured “several villages” in southwestern Saudi Arabia. As in, on the other side of the Yemen-Saudi border. The Saudis denied the report, but if it is true it potentially represents a significant escalation in what was already a pretty escalated conflict. It’s possible Riyadh might be more amenable to talking if the Houthis are actually threatening Saudi territor–hahahahaha who am I kidding, they’ll just bomb Sanaa even more than they already are.


The operation to drive ISIS out of Sirte is still going, and may be going for some time to come. It’s estimated that only about 100 ISIS fighters are left in the city, but they have been able to dole out significant casualties against attacking Libyan militias, who are understandably reluctant to proceed quickly and incur more casualties. More US airstrikes might help, but they’d also destroy the city and kill a lot of civilians, and realistically when you’re talking about that small a number of militants, holed up inside a city, it’s hard to know whether more airstrikes would matter. The US seems to be having an easier time tracking and killing fighters who attempt to leave the city, which is itself important as it prevents those fighters from being able to (further) destabilize Libya later on.

With the Trump presidency looming, things are looking up for Khalifa Haftar’s eastern faction in the wider Libyan civil war. Republicans habitually have no problem with Middle Eastern military dictators, a bill that Haftar certainly fits, and Trump in particular seems like the kind of guy who doesn’t worry too much about what friendly strongmen get up to in terms of suppressing dissent and the like. Although there is some sketchy evidence to suggest that the Obama administration isn’t all that opposed to Haftar itself, Washington has been trying to bring Libya together under the auspices of the UN-backed Government of National Accord. Trump is likely to abandon that policy, assuming he even knows that the GNA exists, and that would give Haftar a more or less green light to make a bid to take over the country.


Yesterday a Taliban car bomb struck the German consulate in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, killing four people and injuring more than 100.

Just within the past few minutes, the AP has reported that some sort of explosion, likely a Taliban attack of some kind, has hit Bagram airbase, the largest US base in Afghanistan. No word on casualties yet other than that there are some.


It’s easy to forget that there’s still a conflict going on in Sinai between Egyptian forces and ISIS’s Wilayat Sinai, but militants have killed two senior Egyptian officers in targeted attacks in north Sinai over the past three weeks. In Cairo, meanwhile, the commander of Egypt’s 9th Armored Division, which is deployed in Sinai, was killed in a drive by shooting (similar to one of the north Sinai killings) on October 22. A group called Lewaa El-Thawra claimed responsibility for the attack, which might be helpful…if anybody knew who the hell Lewaa El-Thawra was. The target and the nature of the killing suggest a link to the Sinai insurgency, but Lewaa El-Thawra’s propaganda references Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s overthrow of Egypt’s elected Muslim Brotherhood government as one of their grievances, whereas it’s almost unheard of for Sinai militants to bring that up. It’s possible that this group is some offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, radicalized to violence after the MB was outlawed and driven underground by Sisi.



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