Conflict update: November 21


If you’ve been keeping up with Joel Wing’s neighborhood-by-neighborhood accounting of the Mosul fighting, you’ll likely notice that the Iraqis have been declaring a bunch of neighborhoods “liberated” for the second or third time since they entered the city. This, as much as anything else, should tell you how quickly the operation is progressing, which is to say “not very.”

The fastest-moving spot right now seems to be the western theater, where the Popular Mobilization Units appear to be close to cutting the main road from Tal Afar to Mosul. While it’s still conceivable that traffic could move to and from Mosul through the desert, cutting the highway effectively cuts off Mosul. The PMUs next stop is, of course, Tal Afar itself, which is the outcome nobody other than the PMUs themselves really wanted to see. The PMU forces, the vast majority of whom are Shiʿa and, shall we say, proudly so, undoubtedly remember the many sectarian atrocities that have occurred in Tal Afar since the US invasion, most recently in 2014, when ISIS moved in and much of the city’s Sunni population joined them to evict the Shiʿa. They could be out for retribution, but even if they aren’t, Turkey has already said it will intervene if the PMU enter Tal Afar and/or threaten the Sunni Turkmen there. Supposedly Baghdad has assured Ankara that the PMUs will not enter Tal Afar, but it’s not clear anybody has told the PMUs that.


The government’s eastern Aleppo operation is proceeding apace and sounds about as nightmarish as you’d expect:

“At least 36 people were killed in Monday’s bombing,” rescue worker Ibrahim Abu Leith told Al Jazeera. “These are the most violent attacks we’ve seen in five years.”

The recapture of the rebel-held east, which fell from government control in 2012, would be the government’s most significant victory since the conflict began more than five years ago.

The international community appeared unlikely to halt the government’s advance, despite expressing outrage over rising civilian deaths and the targeting of hospitals and rescue-worker facilities in the east.

Geert Cappelaere, regional director for the UN’s children’s agency, said more than 100,000 children were trapped. “Children should not be dying in hospitals because of bombs, and they should not be dying in schools.”

Food and medical care have largely run out and there’s no international help coming. If anything, the incoming Trump administration is likely to be even less amenable to the Syrian rebels than the Obama administration has, and is far less likely to pay even lip service to protecting human rights.

IHS Conflict Monitor is out with a new report that claims ISIS has used chemical weapons at least 52 times in Iraq and Syria (it’s not entirely clear if they’ve been manufacturing the stuff or relying on captured military stockpiles). Their impact has so far been relatively contained, since ISIS isn’t exactly packing the latest advances in chemical weapons systems, but they will likely be used in the defense of both Mosul and Raqqa if and when push comes to shove. There’s also the ever-looming possibility that they could be deployed in a terrorist attack against a civilian target.


Remember that 48 hour ceasefire? The one nobody bothered to uphold? It’s over now, and it’s not clear if or when there might be another. Each side accuses the other of failing to abide by the terms, lather, rinse, repeat.


Most of the international attention on Libya focuses on the north, along the Mediterranean coast, where the big cities are and where most of the inter-governmental fighting, as well as the fighting against ISIS, has taken place. But over the past several days a series of clashes near the southern city of Sabha have killed at least 20 people and injured dozens more. Well, I’m sure everybody involved was justifi-

According to residents and local reports, the latest bout of violence erupted after a monkey that belonged to a shopkeeper from the Gaddadfa tribe attacked a group of schoolgirls passing by.

The monkey pulled off a girl’s headscarf and reportedly bit and scratched her, leading men from the Awlad Suleiman tribe to retaliate by killing three Gaddadfa people – as well as the monkey.

“There was an escalation on the second and third days with the use of tanks, mortars, and other heavy weapons,” a resident told Reuters on condition of anonymity because of the denigrating security situation.

“There are still sporadic clashes and life is completely shut down in the areas where there has been fighting.”

OK then. Nobody’s perfect, but I hope nobody could accuse me of being culturally insensitive on the regular because I try very hard not to be. But for fuck’s sake. Did anybody at least get the girl some medical attention, or did they just skip right to lobbing mortar shells at each other?

In other southern Libya-related news, authorities have apparently arrested the wife of the infamous al-Qaeda/al-Mourabitoun commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar after she had traveled north to the coastal city of Derna in order to give birth. She reportedly told the Libyans that Belmokhtar is alive in southern Libya, which puts those reports from the other day about an airstrike in Sabha targeting Abdulrahman Belhaj Hesnawi, one of Belmokhtar’s associates, in an interesting light. In the north, at least three children were killed in Benghazi earlier today in a car bombing, the latest violence in the ongoing fight between extremists and the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar.


While Arbaʿeen went surprisingly peacefully in Iraq this year, Shiʿa worshipers in Kabul were targeted by an ISIS suicide bomber today, in an attack that killed at least 30 people (a number that I suspect will go up). Shiʿa, for whom life in Afghanistan is always precarious, are under increasing threat of late as ISIS-Khorasan seems to be strengthening.


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