Conflict update, November 19


Here today:

A Saudi Arabia-led coalition supporting Yemen’s government against Houthi rebels has declared a 48-hour ceasefire that began on Saturday, according to local media.

“It has been decided to begin a 48-hour ceasefire from 12:00 noon in Yemen’s timing (09:00 GMT) on Saturday,” a coalition statement carried by Saudi Arabia’s official SPA news agency said, adding that the truce could be renewed if Houthi fighters and their allies abided by it and allowed aid into besieged cities.

The coalition move came after a request for a ceasefire by Yemen’s President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, himself based in Riyadh, to Saudi King Salman, the statement said.

Gone…well, later today:

The ceasefire declared by the Saudi-led military coalition trying to restore a Saudi-backed government raised hopes of an end to a 20-month conflict that has drawn in regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia and left Yemen on the verge of famine.

It appeared largely to be holding on Saturday but was strained by gun battles in the key western city of Taiz, and by air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition reported by residents in villages east of the capital Sanaa.

A Saudi general accused the Houthis, the Shi’ite militia that controls Sanaa, of launching a ballistic missile, in violation of the ceasefire.

The Soviet-era Tochka missile was fired into the eastern desert province of Marib, Brigadier General Ahmed al-Assiri told Saudi-owned al-Hadath TV.

“Perhaps on the second day of the truce we will witness a sense of responsibility, otherwise the situation will be dealt with proportionately,” Assiri said.

Even Syria hasn’t seen as many immediately aborted ceasefires as Yemen has, which may reflect the Saudis’ relative sensitivity to international criticism as compared to Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. There’s little reason to expect this one to hold up, though admittedly, violations on the first day of a ceasefire can be forgiven as something akin to opening night jitters. But by day two somebody needs to actually show some willingness to cease firing, or else the whole thing is an exercise in futility.


Iraqi advances within Mosul continue to be hard fought in the face of substantial ISIS resistance. The UN is already saying that civilian casualties in eastern Mosul are stretching available medical capacity to the brink, which doesn’t bode well for the days and weeks to come. One reason for this may be the unguided bombs that Iraqi forces have been filmed dropping on villages around Mosul from helicopter. It’s not clear whether there were civilians in the area when these weapons were being used, and it’s not clear that the Iraqis are using the same kinds of munitions over populated areas, but if they are then that’s a very bad decision. “Smart” bombs kill plenty of unintended victims as it is, but when you drop “dumb” bombs on civilians you can’t even pretend that their deaths were unintended.

Although there was some concern that Kurdish and Iraqi authorities were on a direct path to a confrontation over the final status of the villages that the Peshmerga have liberated around Mosul, it seems that Kurdish President Massoud Barzani is saying that his comments about keeping those villages were “mistranslated.” Which is not to say that the Kurdistan Regional Government won’t try to hang on to those villages long-term, just that for now they’re planning to abide by their agreement to leave the area when the fighting is over. And speaking of potential flash points, some Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU) leaders are beginning to talk about the PMUs heading over the border into Syria, to fight ISIS there, once Mosul is liberated. It would have been one thing for the PMUs to do something like this back when they were informal paramilitary militias–and, in fact, there are Iraqi fighters in Syria fighting on Assad’s behalf–but the PMUs have been deputized and are now quasi-official entities, a kind of Iraqi national guard in some sense. For them to cross the border into Syria would put Baghdad in an incredibly difficult position, so as you might imagine the government is working to nip this idea in the bud.


Dozens more people were reportedly killed in eastern Aleppo today, as it appears the bombings will continue until morale improves everybody is dead, probably. Once again the main target seems to be the city’s hospitals, which have reportedly all been knocked out of commission, again. It’s possible that some medical facilities will be rebuilt or constructed, makeshift-fashion, someplace else, but this is surely as critical a situation as eastern Aleppo has yet faced.


Libyan forces are once again believed to be close to taking down the last bit of ISIS resistance in Sirte–though, to be fair, we’ve been hearing that periodically for a while now. But what’s been playing out in Sirte is clearly the same dynamic the Iraqis are encountering in Mosul, if on a smaller scale. ISIS’ fighters know how to engage in urban warfare, know how to use techniques like suicide bombing, tunnels, and booby traps to overcome disadvantages in numbers, and are still quite formidable in dense urban areas, where air power can’t be used as effectively as it can in an open field.


There was an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday about the ongoing challenges the Taliban present:

U.S.-trained Afghan commandos and U.S. Special Forces are bearing the brunt of efforts to prevent the Taliban from seizing major cities such as Kunduz. They face an increasingly dangerous foe that is threatening to overrun a substantial part of the country.

As many as six of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces are in danger of falling to the militants, according to Afghan and coalition officials. At least three provinces—Kunduz, Helmand and Farah—would probably have been lost already had it not been for the deployment of U.S. Special Forces to their capitals to support Afghan commandos with additional firepower and airstrikes, coalition officials say.

As a result, the U.S. is expected to face an unappealing choice: either escalate its involvement in the Afghan conflict—by sending in more troops or increasing the tempo of airstrikes and Special Forces operations—or risk allowing the Taliban to capture several Afghan provinces next year.

I don’t pretend to know what Donald Trump is going to do about Afghanistan, but even if Clinton had won it would have been time to reassess how much longer the United States can continue to prop up a country that doesn’t seem any closer to being able to stand on its own than it did eight years ago. Regular Afghan army and police forces seem unwilling to commit to fighting the Taliban, and Kabul is still struggling to establish control over the country at large. The WSJ piece concludes by describing a failed US-Afghan raid against the Taliban in Kunduz on November 3, quoting an Afghan commando who “wondered what the point of the raid had been if they lacked a broader plan to defeat the Taliban insurgency. ‘There’s no aim,’ he said. ‘We are dying for nothing. It hurts.'” The failure here is undoubtedly America’s, but it’s also undoubtedly Kabul’s as well.


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